RIP Manohar Parikkar

I’VE never met Mr Manohar Parikkar. By all accounts — and there are plenty of accounts on the net (here is a particularly nuanced one), written by journalists and public figures who say they knew him well and counted him a friend — he was a decent human being and an able administrator. I wish him a safe passage to wherever we all go when we are done here, and I wish his family, and his friends, the strength to bear the loss.

I wish, too, that I could get these images out of my head. Images of a man in extremis, a man who knows the sand is rapidly running out in the hourglass, and who is yet forced to go through the motions of working, of leading a party and heading a government.

If, or rather when, my time comes, I wish I will be allowed to spend those last few grains of sand making peace with my life, smoothing out the little details those who remain behind will have to deal with, reaching out to those that matter to me to tell them the things I have long bottled up… I wish that my last few grains of sand are mine alone, to spend as I chose.

Mr Parikkar was never granted those last moments of grace. Ever since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer his party, desperate to hold on to a state government it had suborned its way into, propped him up as the functioning figurehead. It tells me two things: One, that there is a dearth of charismatic, popular leaders within the ranks. And two, that the party is willing to sacrifice everything — up to, and including, basic human decency — in its hunger for power. It is illuminating that even as his health was deteriorating and it became evident that the end was hours away, the BJP began scrambling to save its government.

I wish Mr Parikkar finds in the afterlife that peace he was not granted in his last few weeks on earth. RIP.

#CHOWKIDARChorHai. Rahul Gandhi appears to have gotten under the BJP’s skin with that poll slogan.

Weeks after he debuted it, the BJP finally came up with its response. Narendra Modi “launched” a #MainBhiChowkidar “movement”, and exhorted his followers to prefix “chowkidar” to their names. And face met palm, hard. I mean, the answer to being called a thief is to suggest that everyone should add ‘thief’ to their names? And I thought Aesop’s fable about the fox that lost its tail was just that: a fable.

In monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, Modi’s ministers, party members and those members of the public eager to “show their support” began prefixing their names with ‘Chowkidar‘ — and thus, for the first time in recorded history, we had an instance of rogues voluntarily adding their names and images to the gallery.

One of the first to jump on the bandwagon was Pankaja Gopinath Munde, BJP leader and Maharashtra’s Minister for Rural Development, Women and Child Welfare. She first hit the national headlines with the Rs 206 crore “chikki scam“, and wriggled out of it with the obligatory “clean chit” that has become one of the unstated perks of high office. More recently, the Supreme Court struck down Rs 6,300 crore worth of tenders issued by her ministry towards supplying Take Home Rations (THR) at daycare centres and anganwadis in Maharashtra. Worth noting is that the modus operandi is exactly similar to the one used in the chikki scam, only on a much larger scale (the trouble with these clean chits so liberally handed out is that the recipient develops a sense of infallibility, of immunity). Also worth noticing is another distressingly frequent occurrence under this dispensation: When the matter came up for hearing, the state government “misrepresented” facts — which is to say, it lied, and was caught out.

Another early adopter of the ‘chowkidar‘ prefix was Federal Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani — who, per a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, has been accused of fraud and favouritism in the allocation of the MP Local Area Development funds. Currently, the Gujarat High Court is hearing a PIL and has sought details from the state government about recovery of the funds. (Journalist and author Sujata Anandan in a piece this weekend emphatically underlined the hubristic nature of the motormouth minister’s career)

(In passing, the BJP’s biggest fear is beginning to materialise — stories of scams are beginning to pop up all over the place. Another recent instance relates to Puneet Gupta, son in law of former Chattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, who has now been charged in a Rs 50 crore scam pertaining to his tenure as superintendent of a state government hospital in Raipur. Meanwhile, a Special Investigation Team is probing the long-running scandal that is known as the PDS scam, and a report is expected before the end of polling for the 17th Lok Sabha. This is the problem with losing power — wrongdoings that get swept under the carpet when you control the levers of office get exhumed and aired once you are out of office. Also by way of aside this post, written when the BJP was yet to lose its crusading sheen, is a short list of scams under the ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga‘ regime. )

While the BJP’s scams continue to mount, the basic poll premise of the 2014 edition of the NDA and its leader — that it will end corruption in the country — is taking a beating on another front. If you recall that election campaign, the main thrust was that there was sufficient evidence to proceed against a whole Rolodex of Congress leaders and their relatives, and that within six months of assuming office the scamsters will find themselves behind bars.

A Swati Chaturvedi piece for The Wire undercuts that premise. Briefly:

  • The PMO has not ordered any action against the list of defaulters submitted by then governor of the RBI Raghuram Rajan. And BJP members of the Parliamentary Committee have been absenting from meetings to ensure that there is no quorum, and hence the committee’s report will not be adopted, which in turn means that it won’t see the light of day. “Worse, after Rajan replied to the committee revealing the list as Joshi is finalising his report, BJP MPs in the committee have refused to attend recent meetings.
  • The much-hype 2G scam collapsed in court with all 17 accused being acquitted. Further, the government has been allowing the hearing of the appeal to drag on through an endless series of adjournments.
  • The government systematically ignored requests by the Serious Fraud Office to arrest Nirav Modi. British authorities have since said that requests sent to the Indian government for information that could help Britain arrest and deport Modi met with no response from New Delhi.

In other words, not only has Modi’s supposed USP, of running a scam-free government, collapsed over time, his intent to probe and punish alleged scamsters from the previous regime has also proved a non-starter — not exactly the sort of CV that could land you the ‘chowkidar‘ job in any decently run housing society, let alone that of the pradhan chowkidar of the country. And meanwhile, his government continues to launch punitive corruption probes against political opponents — until they join the BJP, at which point everything is forgiven and forgotten.

To return to the “main bhi chowkidar” story, that badly conceived ploy (which seems to have left the BJP’s allies cold) further shot itself in the foot when the BJP IT Cell decided to automate responses to those responding to Modi’s Main Bhi Chowkidar call out. The result — messages going out under the official handle thanking parody accounts of loan defaulters and scamsters, notably Nirav Modi, further compounded the confusion and provided the opposition (and social media) a gratuitous stick to beat the BJP with.

In the midst of all this “gotcha” gimmickry by the two sides, the tone-deaf nature of Modi’s latest brainwave was totally ignored. A few news stories illustrate the point I’m driving at:

  • In August 2018, 3,700 PhD holders, 50,000 graduates and 28,000 Post Graduates applied for 62 posts of messengers in the Uttar Pradesh police force, the minimum qualification for which is a pass in Class V.
  • In April of the same year, nearly 2 lakh candidates applied for 1,137 vacancies for constables in the Mumbai police force. Applicants for a post requiring a minimum Class 12 pass included 167 MBAs, 423 engineers, 543 Post Graduates, 28 BEd degree holders, 34 Masters in Computer Science, 159 MSc degree holders, three qualified lawyers, and 167 graduates in Business Administration, among others.
  • In January this year, over 59 lakh applications were received for the post of constable in the Railway Protection Force — where the total number of vacancies is 8619.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Also note that I have picked out only jobs relating to vacancies for security personnel of various types — chowkidars, in other words. (In my previous post, there is more on the unemployment situation, for those looking to dig deeper).

So just how insensitive, how tone deaf, do you have to be, given the prevailing employment solution, to come up with main bhi chowkidar as a meme when unemployment is, according to all available polling, one of the top three issues in the upcoming polls?

BACK in 1962 the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo-event” to refer to political theatre and the way stage-managed events are created to drive narratives. (An earlier, extended post on Boorstin’s book here). In that connection, consider:

A few manual scavengers were hand-picked; the event organisers ensured they were bathed and dressed in clean clothes so the PM could, on the sidelines of the Kumbh Mela, ritually wash their already clean feet.

That became the subject for much debate and discussion, at least some of it revolving around how the PM had struck a blow against the entrenched caste system. At a subsequent political event, a carefully planted question set up the PM to say that he did not do this for votes but because it is part of his sanskar. Mission accomplished: TV had some visuals to run with, talking heads had a non-issue to “debate” in prime time, and the PM and his party got oodles of free PR.

On the ground, the objects of Modi’s attentions were clearly unimpressed. A group of manual scavengers protested in Delhi a day later, and their leader asked: ““What is the point of washing feet when his government has failed to stop those feet from entering sewers? When it has failed to give even one paisa in compensation to those who have died in the sewers?”

Recall that the BJP had promised to end manual scavenging by 2016.

“Taking forward the Prime Minister’s policy for the upliftment of the poor and everyone’s development, the party has pledged to work towards ending manual scavenging by 2016,” BJP president Amit Shah said in a statement.

Party workers will go to far-flung villages to ensure that no poor and deprived family is forced to do manual scavenging, he said, noting that over 23 lakh families are still compelled to do so even after 68 years of Independence.

Three years after that deadline, in February 2019, there were still sufficient manual scavengers around for Modi to find a few for a photo/video opportunity. A week later — and one day after the PM attributed his act to his sanskartwo more manual scavengers died in course of their work. In Varanasi, the PM’s own constituency. And on that same day, the Delhi government inaugurated 200 sewer cleaning machines, which were handed over to 200 scavengers.

I’ll leave you for the day with this Bloomberg deep dive into the opaque nature of electoral funding — a must-read because this is going to ramify as the poll season kicks into high gear. And in this connection, an illuminative Twitter thread. And from the evergreen work of RK Laxman, this:

WTFJH: Links

#1. In a four-day span starting October 7, 69 children have died in BRD Hospital, Gorakhpur — the scene of the headline-making tragedy of last month. Adityanath’s political hubris is what immediately springs to mind but frankly, that is not where the focus should be. The hospital was a disaster zone a month ago. Sometimes things fall through the cracks; disasters happen. The question is, does no one learn? Surely, when you are confronted with tragedy on such a scale, your priority would be to work flat out to ensure against an encore? If it was caused by a systemic breakdown (bills not cleared in time, oxygen supplies therefore interrupted), that is easily fixed by streamlining processes and by prioritizing. If encephalitis is rampant and the existing staff are unable to check it, surely a sensitive, empathetic government would bring in experts from AIIMS and elsewhere to review existing procedures, train the doctors in a proper response? Surely that is what governance is all about — attending to the details?

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WTF just happened: Sept 24

Three days into this WTFJH series that I started as a means to find/reclaim my voice, and I find that the feedback alone has been worth it.

I’ve been getting mails suggesting what I should write about (and also what I should not); mails asking what prompted me to return to blogging at a time when the trend is to move away from the format, and – this is by far the majority – what have I to say, what am I prepared to disclose, about my own biases.

Taking these in order: first, why emails? This will work much better, for both of us, if the conversation surrounding my posts is appended to the posts themselves. I’ve not asked for sign-ins before you comment; I have placed no bar on your commenting anonymously, so there really is no reason to flood my mailbox rather than speak your piece right here. Or am I missing something?

Two: re the question of whether I will write about this or that. This is a work in progress and I am still trying to work out a system, a rhythm, that suits me. I don’t intend to write about every single thing that happens – I am an individual, not a news site, and I don’t have the resources for such blanket coverage. My focus for now (remember “work in progress”?) is to connect up the dots; to examine an issue that catches my eye and see if it is part of a larger pattern – in other words, to go beyond capturing the headlines du jour. (So yeah, you will find one incident highlighted and elaborated upon and other incidents, bearing at least a superficial similarity, ignored.) Continue reading

Drought, redux

To my surprise, an earlier post on the pointless symbolism of shifting the IPL out of Maharashtra resulted in emails (and messages) from several friends. The consensus was this: While they agree that shifting cricket out of a drought-hit state does not solve the problem, symbolic gestures are not to be sneered at either — they are, I am told, a way of increasing general awareness of a problem.

Okay, if you say so. Now consider a few recent instances of “raising awareness”:

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Two stories, one dangerous trend

A policeman is seen supposedly drunk. Someone shoots a video and uploads it. The Aam Aadmi Party, which has been arguing for control of the Delhi police, sees an opportunity and pushes the video hard. It goes viral. Police officials immediately suspend the supposedly errant cop.

It turns out the cop was suffering a stroke.

Elsewhere, a girl student goes to a national education center to do some research. She is stopped at the gates; the security guard declares her a traitor and says she comes from a den of anti-nationals, and refuses to let her in. She leaves in tears.

Spot the link between the two stories?




Trump, Modi and the “preference cascade”

If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.

That clip from a beautifully articulated Amit Varma piece on the “preference cascade” as it plays out in realpolitik.