Monday, February 23, 2015

A tale of two "Nobel" Indians

Like all good middle class Bengali boys - I grew up to revere Amartya Sen as a post-Tagore era icon. That his first wife lives in the neighbourhood (a distant relative) and his older daughter a contemporary added to his aura. We were told - he would have won the Nobel long back had it not been for his left oriented economics (suggesting that the Nobel Committee had a clear right-wing free-market tilt). It would be dishonest not to admit - a slight surge of sub-national chauvinistic pride - when he ultimately won the prize and was later conferred the Bharat Ratna.
However, as one grew up some of that halo faded, hearing critique of friends, who were well-known economists in their own right and thought their "Amartya kaku" (uncle - as some of them were allowed to call him) hadn't made any significant contribution to the field in more than three decades and become a faux-philosopher rather than an economist. This was evident in some of his later writings - the most quoted book - title being The Argumentative Indian. One also chuckled at stories of how in his heydays he could have given the likes of Tharoor stiff competition in a certain department.
But that is not to diminish by any measure Amartya Sen's stature or achievements as one of the greatest scholars of modern India. As for his political views, I, for one, never had any issues about his criticisms of Modi, which as an independent thinking individual he was perfectly entitled to - though I felt, as an influential public intellectual, he could have avoided an overtly partisan anti-Modi campaign before the elections given his easy access to the media. But, again that was a matter of personal prerogative. It was clear that he had endeared himself to the ruling dispensation and his academic collaborator was one of the leading brains behind many of the welfare economics based schemes of the government. Therefore, it wasn't a surprise to see him chosen as the chancellor designate of the Nalanda University project. One thought it was lucrative sinecure of sorts - for it is difficult to imagine someone at his age having the energy or drive to discharge any executive responsibility - especially living outside the country for better part of the year.
But, it always struck me as odd - as to why, if creating an international centre of higher learning was indeed his mission - didn't he start closer home with his own alma mater Santiniketan? The Sen family (especially from his maternal side) had three generations of association with Tagore and, in fact, it was "Gurudev" (as Santiniketan inmates called Tagore) who had christened him "Amartya". What Tagore dreamt of as a "World University", was now going to seed with years of neglect and internecine politics. Sen still has a home in Santiniketan and spends considerable time there. What could, therefore, be a more appropriate institution for Amartya to turn-around and re-instate it in its rightful place in the global universe of liberal education.
The answer to my mind could be two a) He was apprehensive of getting mired in the centre-state cross-fire and b) Santiniketan did not have deep pockets.
While I am sure Sen didn't expect Nalanda to be bereft of politics. Though I can't vouch for the figures of Rs 2,200 crore corpus and US $85,000 per annum. of tax-free remuneration plus first class air-travel etc - Nalanda was not short of funds we all know. So, it may not be too far off the mark to conjecture - the latter was an important consideration for Sen to opt for Nalanda - unless, of course, he was guided by an overwhelming desire to leave behind his own grand legacy a la Tagore. But, if that was indeed the case - then, I am afraid, Sen has very little to show (except for an apology of a make-shift campus) in the six years that he has been at the helm. At 81 even if the government agreed to extend his tenure for a second term -  he would be better off passing on the reigns to a younger and more competent hand  who can take his dream to fruition.   
But, instead of choosing the route of a dignified and honourable exit - that he decided to attack the government with blazing guns - first by a strategically timed "open letter" leaked to the press followed by back-to-back TV interviews raises not just eyebrows but some serious doubts about his intentions. Many think it can't just be his deep rooted political prejudice towards the prime minister but suspect, an insecurity about a possible scrutiny into the affairs of Nalanda - which could taint his image at the end of what has undoubtedly been an illustrious life. 
He is called "Pachy" by friends and colleagues alike. He converted  the Tata Energy Research Institute to The Energy Research Institute - but that's another story. Whether he put India into the world climate change dialogue map or India put him there is also a matter of debate. For a while - the media was unsure about whether to call him a Nobel laureate but changed their mind when he got caught on the wrong foot, as it were, by making an unsubstantiated prediction on the Himalayan Glaciers melting by 2035.  He is also the author of a novel (Return to Almora) - which some felt could  have easily qualified for the "Bad Sex Prize". But, now he is in the news not for some fictional account but what seems like a sleazy reality show.
A few years back - I recall at their annual jamboree in Delhi's Hotel Ashok - the then very flamboyant environment minister paid him a backhanded compliment for making  climate change "sexy" - referring tongue in cheek, I thought, to many smart ladies in his team.
Though he may not quite be an Indian edition of Dominique Strauss Kahn (as some reports are making him out to be) - Pachy is not the first and probably won't be the last big name to be involved  in a sexual harassment case.  It is only natural and fair as the legal framework and organisations become supportive - more and more victims will find the courage to speak up on sexual harassment in the workplace even against the high and mighty.
I admire the courage of this young woman - who has gone and filed a police complaint which has in turn encouraged other victims to speak up. But, I think we still have some way to go in the media coverage of these cases. Some of the accounts I have read - whether of this case or other incidents in the recent past (like one involving a retired judge of the Supreme Court) even in very responsible dailies tend to border on the salacious.
For example one respectable mainline newspaper talks of office gossip at TERI about the "fifth floor girls" (referring to the floor in which Pachauri had his office). While "naming and shaming'' could well be a part of the retribution and may act as deterrent - making the allegations sensational doesn't serve any useful purpose and calls for far greater maturity and sensitivity - both towards the victim and the alleged offender (which includes the family members on either side). Abroad such reports (even in tabloids)  are much more factual confined to pertinent to details without embellishment.
But, to me the moral of both these is we should not deify our stars - because even "Nobel" Indians can have feet of clay.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ (click here to read)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Repackaging Lohia or Lenin won't get AAP far

More column centimetres and TV talk-time have been consumed in analysing the AAP victory in Delhi.  Probably, there will soon be a slew of book launches chronicling the rise of the common-man’s messiah Arvind Kejriwal.  Predictably – there is already talk of AAP spreading its wings to other parts of the country. Some feel – Mumbai is ripe for picking with a similar “urban revolution” and AAP should seriously target the BMC polls next year – while others think they will be better off prospecting in election bound Bihar and West Bengal.

Personally, I am sceptical of the national scalability of the AAP model   - especially under its present leadership and ideologues. It’s entirely possible, having surprised in Delhi they can always find the magic formula and pull off miracles in other parts of the country too.  However, with its roots in the IAC (India Against Corruption) Movement - AAP’s main plank so far has been anti-corruption (essentially at a petty level) and empowerment of the Aam Aadmi.  Whereas, BJP – under Modi has been playing the development and governance cards (the latter includes eliminating large-scale institutionalised corruption or scams as seen during the UPA regime). In my judgement, the 2 are somewhat different “positioning”, in political marketing terms, which may not hold equal appeal in all places and situations.

In an affluent city-state like Delhi – the concerns are more civic amenities, administration, law and order, petty corruption and cost of living. Development (“Vikas” as it were) though important is not an immediate crying need. People tired of the corrupt old political class wanted a breath of fresh-air. However, the same may not be the case in a state like West Bengal and Bihar – where people are desperately trying to cope with basic challenges of survival. There the crying need is economic development, employment and income generation opportunity - essentially call for a better future and standard of living. Issues like corruption – probably – come one step up on the Maslow hierarchy - when people are struggling to keep the body and soul together.

I found it telling,  in Delhi – the youth swung en-masse towards AAP. Come to think - this is the constituency that had overwhelmingly supported Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.  Throughout  his campaign – Modi was talking to the younger generation and even on the day of voting –  he tweeted urging  young voters to come out in large numbers. Vote they did – but not for his party. I would attribute this to the fact that – the younger generation in Delhi (whether they are locals or have come in from other parts of the country for education or employment) don’t have to worry about their next square meal. They are in Delhi because the city already offers them greater economic opportunity  than other places. Therefore, their concerns are different and of a higher order than their counterparts in Calcutta or Patna – when after completing school or college youngsters have to pack their bags for Delhi, Bombay , and Bangalore for higher education or in search of a job.

Bihar has already seen large-scale social re-engineering thanks to the Lohia-ites, though the jury is still out on whether Caste still prevails over development – in what is arguably the last remaining BIMARU state. But, in Bengal – the so called empowerment of the “proletariat” has no novelty factor.  People have seen a lot of it first under the Left Front and now under the Government of Ma, Mati and Manush. To them AAP will be yet another “peoples’ party” by a new name.  The ordinary Bengali is tired of slogans – they now wish to see delivery of real economic progress, industrialisation and employment – to secure the future of the next generation.

This is not to make a case for the rise of the BJP in West Bengal – especially after Mamata Banerjee has one 2 important by-polls with a thumping majority – quashing rumours of dissension within her party and disenchantment of voters.  It has also shown the Muslims are still unwilling to align with BJP. To make a decisive shift – BJP has to break into the core vote-bank of Trinamool, which won’t be easy.  

But, for AAP - to gain a toe-hold in Bengal or Bihar, it will have to radically reinvent itself. Merely repackaging Lohia or Lenin won’t get them too far.

Article first published in Swarajya: Click here to read

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why the media cannot be blamed for BJP's Loss and AAP's Victory ?

Many are blaming the media for the BJP's poll-debacle in Delhi - and conversely crediting them for Arvind Kejriwal's spectacular resurrection. It's true that the media has been deeply polarised against Modi and were far from being non-partisan. Apart from ideological difference there has been a lot of personal animosity against the man - which most haven't tried to hide even with a handkerchief. It's a situation where it would be embarrassing for the most left of centre journalist to come out in open support of the Congress or its no-longer-oh-so-young leader. Kejriwal, however, with his image of the enigmatic underdog and messiah of the common man, provided a seductive counter option to back.
But having said that - I do feel the media's own contribution to the Delhi verdict has been largely exaggerated - though it is difficult to miss the gloating and vicarious joy writ large on many faces as if it was they rather than Kejriwal who slay the common "Enemy no 1".
To understand, one probably needs to step back a little to explain the nature of the beast that is today's media - in particular, 24/7 television.
At last count, there are nearly 400 news and current affairs channels in India and the list is still growing. It's another matter that news TV commands less than ten per cent of the total TV viewership in this country and even a smaller share of the TV ad-pie - most of which are gobbled up by the top ten, a unique programming format that rests primarily on talk shows inside the studio. Therefore, prime-time debates - when the rest of the world likes to watch hard news coverage - are not as much the product of our inherent "argumentative Indian" character but also a by-product of a "low-cost" business model.
Studio debates are easy and cheap to produce. It requires modest investment on sets. Most guests are happy to come for gratis - just the prospect of being seen on television is enticing enough. Political spokespersons in any case don't charge. Only some of the regular talking heads - would get a nominal appearance fee. This is much cheaper than sending camera crews and anchors on jaunts across the country or foreign destinations to make documentaries, which few watch in any case.
But, the point of this article is not to analyse the economics of news television in India (as that might lead to another - "bazaaru" - direction) - but to try and examine how it is shaping the national discourse.
Prior to news TV - the intelligentsia formed their political opinions from the edit pages of newspapers. This was even before editorialising of news on the front-page started. Radio (AIR news) had little or no "comment" time - except for some news-features like "Spotlight". Doordarshan in its pristine avatar had some staid discussions (not even debates) of the kind one sees today on Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV. While credit can't be denied to the pioneer of modern news television in India - Prannoy Roy - for popularising TV debates first through his Budget discussions and then election analyses - the real "game-changer" was the explosion of the vernacular channels. It was especially these "sansani" Hindi channels that, in my judgement also triggered the re-engineering of the English channels - making them more accessible (call it "Arnabisation" or plain "dumb down") and less elitist.
For a generation that had almost stopped reading newspapers other than Page 3 supplements - this audio-visual "infotainment'' rekindled interest in current affairs and politics cutting across age-groups and socio-economic strata. What media has definitely achieved , above all, is raising awareness and engagement at all levels - which lead to people making a much more informed choice. It may not be totally off the mark to say - this is reflected in the high voter turn-outs in recent elections as well the regular surprised that the electorate throw at politicians (including yesterday's watershed verdict).
No doubt, it created the cult of star anchors and a band of professional talking-heads - comprising largely moonlighting or superannuated journalists. A natural fall out of this are bloated egos in the exaggerated belief that they are shaping the political destiny of the country and can make or unmake careers of politicians. The reality isn't so linear - simply because the audience are not so naive. True, television creates a lot of "surround sound" - as it were - and also has a huge "media multiplier" effect - as both print and online media tend to follow the "real time" news breaks of television. But, those evening sparring matches on the small screen - if clinically analysed - compete on the entertainment quotient with the WWE "noora kushti" of yore or closer to home, the more recent, Comedy Nights with Kapil - taking the liberty of stretching the point by a few yards.
Having spent some time in the media industry, in my view, the intelligent citizen consumes information and alternative points of view from multiple sources but digests them at their own pace before forming their opinion. So if some "star" journalists brag (as an editor of one of India's largest newspaper once to his own peril said, "Mine is the second most important job in the country after the prime minister's") about shaping national policy, they are probably being less than serious and doing it only to impress a nubile trainee in the newsroom.
That is not to discount the influence of media - in building image or creating perceptions. But, the clever players use the media rather than letting the media use them. This where the talent of Kejriwal, Modi or the latter's friend "Barack" lies. They understand the power of the medium, or know how to ride a tiger. Of course, the media can help a bit by strategically editing "Krantikari" bits of an interview or let you down by panning the camera too close to reveal the letters adorning the pin-stripes on a suit. In the process, occasionally a Rajinikanth's Lingaa may bomb at the box-office and a Slumdog will walk away with the Oscars. But, that's all in the game.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ Click here to read

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A new Mukul ready to blossom or will it be nipped in the bud

Though the tremors within the Trinamool are nowhere close to the implosion that seems to be brewing in Congress,  the under-currents are palpable. In this context, the optics surrounding Mukul Roy’s deposition before the CBI yesterday is very significant.

A keen observer of West Bengal politics told me in Delhi the other day – if CBI does not detain Mukul after the interrogation ( as they did in the case of Madan Mitra and others before this) it will be a greater cause of worry for the party than if he were to be arrested.  Exactly something like that seems to have happened.

It is a matter of speculation – why Mukul spent so much time in Delhi since summons were issued to him by the CBI – now almost 3 weeks back.  It’s also noteworthy – CBI themselves didn’t press for the deadline of  January 21st it had originally set and allowed him to take his own sweet time to appear before them.  If CBI was concerned about his tampering with evidence or influencing  potential witnesses – they should not have allowed that extra time (and, also allow him to leave after the interrogations  yesterday). Mukul  himself  hasn’t denied rumours about him meeting the  BJP brass in Delhi and some BJP leaders have also acknowledged that approaches for meetings at the top level were indeed made.

But, changing sides or jumping the ship cannot be the game-plan of a master strategist and “Mr Cool” like Mukul  Roy. For him a more potent weapon would be a veiled threat for leading a revolt in the party. And, that’s exactly the card he seems to be playing. For, BJP too a split within Trinamool (and possible subsequent alliance with the splinter faction) might work far better than direct defections. In this context – one must also take note of BJP first announcing the impending cross-over of a large TMC contingent at Amit Shah’s January 20th rally in Burdawan and subsequently calling it off “for the time being”. It’s not difficult to guess – in case of a division – which way this lot is going to go.

Before and after yesterday’s CBI deposition Mukul’s messages were very clear and sharply defined. First, he was willing to cooperate with the investigation as he wants the “truth” to come out (contrary to the combative stand taken by the party). He himself has not done anything “anaitik” (improper or unethical – as distinct from “abaidha”or illegal).  The selective ‘leaks’ from CBI about what he has disclosed are also very significant.  In short, they can be interpreted as a “sneak preview” of  things that might  come later.  (“Kahaan Abhi Baaki Hain”..wait for the next episode). 

After he came out of the CBI Office (it seems he had indicated to his supporters while going in that he will not be kept beyond 4 PM and that’s exactly when he emerged) his supporters cheered him by name “Mukul Roy Zindabad” (not mentioning either Trinamool or the party supremo) and it seems they weren’t even carrying party flags.  Finally, came Mukul’s own statement – “had it not been for this day, I wouldn’t have realised how much the people of West Bengal love me”.  No ambiguity in what he wanted to say...”make no mistakes I have my own support base”.

Mukul Roy is regarded one of the shrewdest political brains and party organiser in Bengal of recent times – second only to, perhaps, the legendary CPIM State Politburo Secretary – the late Anil Biswas, to whom the Left owe much of their 30 years of reign.  While Trinamool’s rise have no doubt been due to Mamata’s crusading zeal and charisma – Mukul’s role in building the organisation from the grassroots is known to all. He has his key men placed in every district and ward, block and panchayat. He also controlled the party’s finances. It may not be an exaggeration to say he was to Mamata Banerjee what Amit Shah is to Modi.

Many question his allegedly dubious antecedents. But, the saying “There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future”  - holds true for Politicians as well.  Especially, if there is the Hooghly close by to have a holy dip and wash away your sins.

Is a new “Mukul” ready to blossom in West Bengal this spring or will it be nipped in the bud as it were – the coming weeks will tell.

Article first published in click here to read

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Deepika's Dips

A few days back I had tweeted in jest – is it ok to lust over someone who one has seen as a baby? The reference was to the young ‘Diva’ Deepika Padukone. As a toddler, she used to come regularly to my then boss’ apartment – neighbour of the Padukones in Bangalore - to play with their daughters.  After the “cleavage” controversy Deepika made news again by talking openly about her recent tryst with depression (click here to read article) .  This is the kind of new-age women – good looking, successful and sharp - who don’t hesitate to talk freely about her body, mind (and ‘soul’?) -  I like and, perhaps, given a chance may have fallen for :)

But, I won’t dwell here on how brave it was of Deepika to discuss problem of emotional dip with a journalist. Nor will I embark upon an analysis  of how or why actors (especially the women) are prone to psychological disorders  - as a lady columnist ( who started her career as an editor of a film-magazine)  did - sadly mixing up schizophrenia (of another talented and beautiful Bollywood actor of the 80s) with clinical depression.

At the outset, I must make the disclosure that I am neither a psychologist nor psychiatrist and, hence, not technically qualified to write on what is a subject for specialists.  Mine’s an entirely layman’s point of view – based on observations of people around me at work, family and social circles and, above all, myself.

What I found remarkable in Deepika’s case – apart from her own openness to recognise the problem and seek professional help – was the supportive role of her mother. According to Deepika’s own account – on one of her visits to Mumbai, her mother sensed something was amiss and on returning to Bangalore consulted a psychologist friend who flew down to assess her condition and put her on therapy.

Many of these psychological problems start early.  In today’s world conditions like ADD / ADHD are common-place.  Stress and anxiety sometimes manifest into other disorders like OCD. Timely intervention can save many a careers (and, in case, of acute depression even lives). Parents and teachers are best placed to identify it. But, they seldom do – either out of ignorance (very often) or shyness to accept that something could be wrong with their child or ward. Teachers are often afraid about hostile reactions from parents.  What are tackled are more obvious issues like Drugs and addictions – but that too not always in time.

Very often these are borderline disorders that don’t require any serious clinical intervention at all and can be solved by counselling and talk-therapy (like CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) .  But, the problem is the lack of such resources in our schools and colleges and the lack of accessibility to competent professionals, also the taboo associated with seeing psychologist or psychiatrist in our society. 

There have been occasions – when I have advised young relatives and colleagues to seek professional help for their children. Needless to say not all have taken to it kindly – others listen politely to give it a royal ignore – but few have done it to good effect. The problem always is to find a good doctor or counsellor. But, with some effort help is usually not far to seek.

But, what bothers me a lot more are cases I have seen during my now fairly long work career – where very talented individuals have been trapped and often lost their way both in personal and professional life due to psychological issues.  As people tend to live away from home, in unitary families and often alone (without traditional support-systems), maintain stressful and punishing work schedules psychological issues are on the rise.  While the more progressive organisations have been alive to “Occupational Health” – it seldom includes psychological health.  Few organisations would allow Medical Reimbursement for consulting medical health professionals or psychiatry related medicines (in most cases – employees will be reluctant to claim it too for fear of their condition getting known).  Attitude of HR and senior management towards psychological conditions is also viewed with suspicion.

Yet, it is surprising how many people don’t attain their full potential or operate far below par – due to psychological issues (either of themselves or close family members ) pulling them back. Depression – often called the ‘common cold of the mind’ – is of course rampant – but there are also cases of Bi-polar Disorders, Anxiety and Panic Attacks or problems associated with mid-career or mid-life crisis that can become career-limiting. This is where employers have a responsibility to step in and provide professional help of a "shrink"as it were - to use an American parlance.

I myself – candidly – could have benefited from therapy.  My own first exposure to psychology was from a catholic priest of my school – who himself in the throes of ‘mid-life crisis’ took a sabbatical and went to the US to pursue a course in psychology. He returned to realise – many of his fellow face similar psychological issues and need help. This led to his setting up a Psychological Institute within the “order” – which was originally intended for the priests but now has a flourishing general practice.

Though for some a look at Deepika can be the best therapy to get out of depression – often  it requires more serious intervention than that . Ultimately, things can only improve with awareness. And, for that lovely Deepika has done more than her bit.

Take a bow Deepika. 

The article was first published in the The Daily_O Click here to read