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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Time to fight the cancer, not join the lynch mob

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1921, India was in ferment. After prolonged drift, it had found its voice in a man variously described as 'Gandhi baba' and 'Gandhi maharaj'. He united the country in open revolt against an arrogant Raj. Lawyers abandoned their practice, students left their studies and babus resigned their secure jobs in response to his promise of "swaraj in one year." The moment was heady.

For one Indian, 1921 was however a time for reflection. From his rural arcadia, Rabindranath Tagore detected "a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…The sight that met my eye was, on the one hand, people immensely busy; on the other intensely afraid."

India 2010 is not the nation of 1921, not by a long stretch. Yet, there is something eerily reminiscent of the cocktail of headiness and suffocation Tagore experienced.

The concern may well stem from a personal proximity to the epicentre of the earthquake rocking politics, business and the media—all pillars of the Indian Establishment. For the past three months, the country has been shaken by a scam fever: the outcry over the Commonwealth Games, followed in quick succession by the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the Karnataka land scams and the 2G spectrum loot. Simultaneously, there were the infamous Niira Radia conversations which (to borrow a British MP's observation on WikiLeaks) have redefined "public interest" to mean "the public is interested."

If India was simply experiencing a turbulent bout of ethical cleansing, excitement would have been coupled with gleeful endorsement. For some time, citizens have agonised over India occupying the twilight zone between a banana republic and a mafia state. To that extent, all moves to stem the decline and purify the system need strong encouragement, even if enthusiasm is couched in understandable cynicism.

Tragically, apart from hitting some targets the scam season has inflicted serious collateral damage and vitiated the atmosphere. The Radia tapes may have provided immense voyeuristic pleasure to those unfamiliar with and, perhaps, even envious of the cosy smugness that defines an incestuous establishment and those on its periphery. But initial inquisitiveness has quickly given way to a vengeful iconoclasm based on the facile assumption that India's entire wealth-generation process is centred on cronyism and corruption.

It is understandable when Arundhati Roy deduces from the tapes that the "state has been corporatized" and that thanks to big money the institutions of "this so-called democracy", including the judiciary, are "being hollowed out." It is also predictable that voices of post-colonial condescension in the West should celebrate "The rotting of new India." What isn't clear is why India's middle class should throw its moral weight behind this carpet bombing exercise.

What the Radia tapes indicated was not a single-minded desire of corporates to subvert every institution but their gritty determination to overcome a difficult, if not hostile, business environment. The cronyism that underpinned the Government's 2G spectrum policy was not the creation of the FICCI and CII or, for that matter, one of the Ambani brothers. It stemmed from the enormous discretionary powers enjoyed by a minister and a departmental autonomy that flowed out of the compulsions of coalition politics. Indian entrepreneurs had two options: to either play the game by rules set by venal politicians or opt out.

Radia's conversations are indeed revealing. But far from revealing "how corporates manage everything in this country", as lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the Supreme Court, they illuminate the path India Inc had to negotiate to remain in business. They also reveal that apart from having to manage a minister unconcerned with India's larger growth story, businesses had to also cope with the no-holds-barred assaults of competitors.

Yes, there was subversion but there was a context to it. Gentlemanly capitalism had been elbowed out by a treacherous business environment centred on arbitrariness. Yesterday it was a telecom problem, today it is one of environmental blackmail and tomorrow it could be something altogether different.

Instead of fighting the cancer, a lynch mob has, however, set its sights on mocking the famous, destroying reputations and creating a mood viciously hostile to entrepreneurship—the force that has propelled India's growth story.

In 1921, Tagore feared that along with the courts and colleges, "reason and culture…must be closured" and India forced to genuflect before "some mantra, some unreasoned creed." Today, while trying to cleanse the system, we may well be throwing the baby out with the soiled bathwater.

It's time to pause and focus the pent-up anger in the right direction.

Sunday Times of India, December 5, 2010


No Mist said...

it serves the morally vile politicians and media to direct the anger to business/entrepreneur class as they are supposed to be rich and the classical socialsitic indian rhetoric always equates that to corruption.

however the feeling of helplessness is amplified due to the limpdick leadership provided by MMS and company. with the crown prince about to take charge, no hope in immediate future. remember kiran reddy's proclamation abt this effect just after meeting the queen and incidentally (comically too) just after bihar drubbing. kiran reddy was perhaps trying to take credit of the impending.

if news reports are to be believed, MMS has grown tired of being PM ... one cannot blame him, he is hardly fit for the job. the best person for the job pranab will never be given the chance as he is prone to take independent decisions - highly virulent disease as seen by the congress.

in some sense it is good if reign is handed over to rahul ... nothing exposes the stupidity of a stupid as giving him the responsibility of what he was boasting. it will add to the ferment but like churchill's inaction (or active action) at the time of bengal famine will deal the death blow to this regime ... i am very hopeful that the next regime will be much better and will justify all this lynching.

amen !

Anonymous said...

A voice of reason in this "hang all" environment.

Anonymous said...

"It's time to pause and focus the pent-up anger in the right direction". Sorry. The MSM has been on pause too long. It's time for action and zero tolerance. Nothing short would suffice. That's the only way to fight the cancer of embedded journalism and their apologists.

Anonymous said...

A very poor defence of indefeasible
from ur side.

Glad that heat on establish media is not going away

Mind Without Fear said...

you know a slightly tangential comment from me regarding an unusual comparison between Gandhi and Rabindranath. The late anthropologist ( and ex VC of Vishwa Bharati) Surajit Chandra Sinha used to say - as quoted by Ramchandra Guha - that "while Gandhi wanted everyone to become a Sudra in the best sense of the word Sudra, Rabindranath wanted everyone to become a Brahman, also in the best sense of the world Brahman."

Subramaniam said...

Swapan, let’s take an example; you’ve been vehemently defending Mr. Modi for all these years. As you put, there has been a lynch mob against Modi for almost 8 years. I believe that effort has taken beatings in Modi’s hard earned reputation. Even after so many investigations what direct evidence do the media and the congress have against Modi?
If Modi can bear and defend conspiracy theories for almost 8 years, why can’t the journalists? Do you believe in having double standards for trialing journalists? I just don’t buy your argument that current controversy should end. This is just a tip of an ice berg. I think tapes confirm that political journalists, corporate lobbyists and political parties enjoyed juxtaposition for years. This is the first time general public have come to be known about the huddle.
With regard to Barkha argument that Open magazine and Outlook editors have failed to verify and corroborate facts before releasing the tapes is baseless. Let us remind ourselves, the world is becoming more transparent. I don’t believe rules set through code of ethics or policies will force media to process raw data before turning into information/knowledge. The recent episode of WikiLeaks is an example. If the media shy from talking about the tapes, general public is in liberty in making their own interpretations from the tapes.

Anonymous said...

There are short and long term measures to fight this cancer.
In the short term, the people want FIR's to be registered against the guilty in the scams. The alleged, however powerful, must be suspended from their jobs and made an example. Kill the cat to scare the monkey.
In the long term, the people need to put pressure to trigger reforms in the judiciary, in the investigation bodies and in the financial systems. These are not new demands, but ongoing ones.
The recent example shows well how the fourth-pillar is afflicted by the cancer. It knows when to remain silent and how to protect its own at the expense of the people and the nation.
In the face of collusion among the powerful and the absence of accountability among those who govern, it's the fear of lynch-mobs on the net that has kept the fight against the cancer alive. Do not mock or stop the proverbial lynch-mobs. Like it or not, they are here to stay, perhaps grow stronger with a growth in literacy and an increase in the network coverage in the country.

Anonymous said...

u twteeted against gadkari without facts..Media can't stop reporting paid news. I drove in Nagpur and whatever is reported is not true. I salute Gadkari for the kind of wedding he has done. Gadkaris daughter-in-law doesn't come from industralist or corrput politicians family....comes from simple bank employees family. No news roads were constructed. Compare the wedding with Lokmat guys wedding or Datta Meghe, Bhau Mulaks family wedding. I have seen them growing up. I salute Gadkari. He has my vote in future. Whatever the charter planes....they are from politicians/industralist who want to get there business taken care of in future. All these leaders arrange for receptions in Bombay/Delhi. Its a business as well as show off but thats not happening in case of Gadkari..u allowed media to use this against this what u claim to be ur pro-bjp image...that image has been cultivated so that peole like u can be invited to give a balanced image....ur actions like this unfair tweet speaks louder...why is this media not concerend about austerity violations by congress of tax payer money..

gadkaris money is his eaned money unlike media's congress.. and he was spending on his daughter's marriage for heaven sake...who is supprting vadhere and priyanka...will u write ablog and ask ur media friends to do that..they were hiding 176000 crore loot for heavens sake for months and woke up only when it could not be suppressed due to sc...

Anonymous said...

"News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising".- Lord Northcliffe

So, WHY did the ENTIRE mainstream media black out the 2G tapes story? The answer is a no-brainer.

Sorry, Mr Dasgupta, NOW that the facts are out in the Open (pun intended), we don't need apologists like you to help with their 'interpretation'. And please don't underestimate the reader's intelligence.

There is only one way to fight the cancer clinically. And that is by uprooting the 'cancerous cells' lock, stock and barrel, lest they overwhelm the entire journalistic fraternity.

The discerning reader will not be taken in by your vain sophistry to deflect and obfuscate the focus of the fight against the utter rot in the top echelons of the mainstream media.

Your compulsions in this regard are understandable though; as a freelancer, we realise you cannot afford to antagonise any of the mainstream publication/channel -- especially in these Radiaactive times. Surely, that doesn't entitle you to redefine the "public interest"?

satyam said...

great article....
i guess even years after the pm opened up indian economy a lot of stuff stays exactly as it was... the politicos have given us a sense that india is fast moving towards a truly liberalised BUSINESS- friendly economy while they maintain TOTAL and COMPLETE control of 3 of the most important, land and infrastructure...

Ravi said...

As long as that Guju-hating Barkha and that Modi-hating congressman Vir get a roasting, I as a Guju will derive the most pleasure. Mr Dasgupta please cut out the cant of trying to defend these hypocrites.Here in Vadodara and in the rest of Gujarat we are taking real pleasure in the whole Barkha/Virgate saga.Next should be that other Guju-hating vile hypocrite Rajdeep and his unbearably loud bibi, Sagorika.

Anonymous said...


You asked "What isn't clear is why India's middle class should throw its moral weight behind this carpet bombing exercise."

I suspect it is nothing but a reflection of the frustration and helplessness felt by middle class, well aware that it is irrelevant in the election process.

In all, an excellent article - it seems the big businesses only did what most small business owners and ordinary individuals do when faced with similar obstacles, albeit on a different scale.

- Pessimist