Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Election that Changed India

Book Review: Non-fiction/2014:The Election that Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai, Penguin/Viking, 372pp; Rs599 (Hardback)

Seasoned journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014:The Election that Changed India is compiled to give the perspective and remedial thoughts, how elections in India are now much more complex than the conventional tussle of ballets. However, it would be a hurried effort in reckoning that all the changes happened only through 2014 elections – earlier too, we saw how ‘born-to-preach’ troops of advertisers mislead the actual issues and slogans, especially since 2004 parliamentary elections.

Advertising is an old phenomenon in Indian politics, however the matter couldn’t be put on rest without admitting the increased effects lined up through real-time sell of ideas or dreams. This book’s heart of matter is placed to capture the unprecedented shift in poll campaign strategy and the devious role played by the Media& PR Network.

Indeed this time, the Congress Party lost the election before it entered the electoral fray and the Modi as ‘factor’ emerged there to establish a new identity, with an unimagined might in terms of numbers in Lok Sabha. Rest, all is history.

Sardesai’s book unleashes his personal experiences vis-à-vis the political developments in the country of over two decades. While doing this, he maintains the depth of political storyteller as well as of an election historian. Remarkably, the historians in India have given writing on elections amiss – somehow, the hacks roving inside the country have contradicted that trend on occasions.

In recent years, those lots of journalists have been strengthened with advent of electronic media. Nevertheless, a full-fledged book on the election and with the depth this book has, is quite rare to see in other works surfaced. Through the richness of anecdotes and balanced interpretation of truths, Sardesai’s maiden voyage of book-writing charts a territory so far not covered in his columns. This, as the narrative is candid, firm and timely.

The most interesting parts of the book recount the blunders done by the UPA regimes and how the desperations of people converged with their aspirations. Amidst those unrelenting movements, the Congress chosen to do what it was doing for a decade – no action or relaying less-pragmatic voices.

As other parties except the BJP was on the same page, the outcome of the elections was almost decided before the polls. However, the common masses of this nation did not know the extent of victory would be such miraculous. The book covers in details of ‘why& how’!

Sardesai’s early encounter with young Modi (then, Narendra Bhai for the journalists) in 1990’s and their first show on Tv after the 9/11 incident (Modi came as replacement from his party) – show how restless the later was to grow full-circle. Besides introspecting the hard realities of Gujarat Roits and how Modi cornered the existing state leadership right after taking charge as chief minister of Gujarat – the author has also not forgotten to count the sensibilities of the protagonist.

Even-though not consistently in sync with stating ‘beyond the obvious’ – Sardesai’s book never falls short on giving the readers, both information and insight about the resurgent India that has been a victim of lackluster governance and not so responsive polity.
-Atul K Thakur
Email: summertickets@gmail.com
(Published in INCLUSION)

Vinod Rai is not just an accountant

Book Review: Non-fiction/Not Just an Accountant: The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper by Vinod Rai, Rupa, 267pp; Rs500 (Hardback)

Vinod Rai is not just accountant – he is an impulsive writer too who writes diary to keep the conscience of the nation, as confirmed by him through the title of his truly sensational book. He has been a newsmaker even before publicly turning a diarist, unlike Anne Frank who could put forth her jottings only for invisible readers away from Nazi Concentration Camp.

Comparisons between the authors are like chalk and cheese, but one feature is strikingly common: both resisted the extreme tendencies of a ruling regime even though in different time, characteristics and conditions.

When the reader finishes Rai’s book, it is hard to miss the feeling that this account was written to contest former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s silence when the UPA-II government was limping from one scam to another. At peak of those free-wheeling scam days, Prime Minister Singh stated: “I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media. I feel somewhat sad, because I was the one who insisted that spectrum allocation should be transparent, it should be fair, it should be equitable. I was the one who insisted that coal blocks should be allocated on the basis of auctions. These facts are forgotten.”

The nagging question is, how kinder history would be to Manmohan Singh. Rai, who scrutinized the government’s performance in those scam years as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), obviously thinks that the then Prime Minister’s silence and apparent inability to prevent those scandals were a giveaway. By sharing the clue in glaring details, he probes why India’s thriving telecom business will be in mess after a shady allocation of spectrums right under the nose of Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The earlier press coverages on the whole mess and now this book give enough indications for Mr. Singh to come forward and reciprocate with his autobiography in no time, where he could make a stand clear about the lapses happened during his stint. After reading Rai’s book, one concludes that this is a good way for the former Prime Minister to redeem himself if he wants to get history’s judgment.

Rai examined the inappropriateness in the allocation in 2G telecom licenses and coal mines, both of which defrauded government money. This book documents all his findings, which show the then PM was not clueless of what was going around him. But he did little to stop the misuse of power, and no damage control was attempted. That was a scandal of its own. The scars of those scandals tainted not only his government, but himself, too.

Rai reminds that through a piece of his communication with PMO: “You (Manmohan Singh) engaged in a routine and 'distanced' handling of the entire allocation process, in spite of the fact that the then Communications Minister A Raja had indicated to you, in writing, the action he proposed to take. Insistence on the process being fair could have prevented the course of events during which canons of financial propriety were overlooked, unleashing what probably is the biggest scam in the history of Independent India.”

These few lines are enough to establish a policy decision like spectrum licensing could not be made without having green signal from the country’s highest office, PMO – also that the role of PM should not be reduced to a passive by-stander. Therefore, even though Singh is still considered a man of high integrity, his tenure as India’s chief executive was feckless and tame. That is the damning impression Rai's book conveys.

K Natwar Singh’s One Life is not Enough,TSR Subramanian’s India at Turning Point,Bimal Jalan and P Balakrishnan’s(ed) Politics Trumps Economicsand Sanjay Baru’sThe Accidental Prime Minister are the prominent critiques of the UPA government. Now, Rai's book adds to the wealth of uncomfortable truths about the UPA's 10-year rule.

Making predicament more obstinate, the hibernation is prolonging inside the Congress Party. Its old or new school lieutenants are lost without causes – having been not known to live in opposition, they seem loosing their edge with pen and mind as well.

So, let’s hope more such unfriendly books about the yore days – and all those to be not answered from privileged heads of India’s oldest party, now marginalised below the ground. An accountant could be an effective multi-tasker, Rai has proved it. To know the capital trails, this book too would be in essential list!
-Atul K Thakur
Email: summertickets@gmail.com
(Published in INCLUSION)

India's Administrative System: An Unresponsive Frontier

Book Review, Politics Trumps Economics: The Interface of Economics and Politics in Contemporary India by Bimal Jalan and Pulapre Balakrishnan (edited), Rainlight/ Rupa, 2014; pp 211, Rs 500

It was felt and highlighted that the ‘policy paralysis’ and lack of reform impetus in macroeconomic policies led to the downward spiral in the business and mass sentiments, eventually led to an alarming level of deceleration in economic growth. The UPA-II regime was blamed for that, which was justified to an extent too, but somewhere there is a need is to see the real stumbling blocks.

Foremostly, it has to be admitted that India’s administrative system has become largely non-functional and unresponsive to the interest of the masses. The book under review precisely focuses on this crux of the problem through twelve essays from some of India’s leading policy practitioners. Moreover, the central mandate of the anthology exudes at patches and in full, the well-meaning vision of its editors.

Bimal Jalan in his different administrative capacities has seen the administrative structure of this country from close quarters, and Balakrishnan – with long affiliations with policy matters is equally capable to comment on what ails the delivery mechanism through the administrative routes and where the two other arms, ‘legislature’ and ‘judiciary’ are faltering.

As the purview of governance is no longer limited with the government alone, the essays in the book put forth a deserved emphasis on ‘corporate governance’ and infer that various practices in big business are in urgent need of correction too.

T.T Ram Mohan’s piece Corporate Governance: Issues and Challenges is one that gives topical insights on the theme. He writes, “A certaincynicism has crept into the debate on corporate governance. There is a sense that, as with corruption, it is something that people will keep talking about without anything substantive happening on the ground” – this captures the views of an average citizen vis-à-vis the interventions of the government. Seemingly, it is harrowing.

The “Overview” in the beginning of the book by Bimal Jalan brings to the fore his suggestions for ‘political reforms’, besides economic and administrative reforms – to reduce corruption, the power of small parties to destabilise multi-party coalitions and attractiveness of politics as a career for persons with questionable antecedents. Indeed, without a reformed culture of politics, it is naïve dreaming for the fruits of economic reforms and that too with equity.

Pulapre Balakrishnan’s Governing for an Inclusive Growth is about addressing the challenges of delivering social justice in India today and it rightly argues for governing policies towards that end.

The other essays by Meghnad Desai, Dipankar Gupta, Poonam Gupta, Ashima Goel, Samuel Paul, Ravi Kanbur, Sunil Mani, M. Govinda Rao and Deepak Mohanty – though with varied level of interpretations, fit enough to be catogarised into three broader sections of the book: politics, governance and policy.

Their focus is on the interface between politics and economics in India, which actually determines the path of progress for the country. This book should be of interest for anyone, who has enthusiasm for the policy matters and knowing about the fast changing form of politics, governance and economic processes in India.

The flurry of activities on the land is unprecedented and hence intriguing too, with keeping the challenges upfront for the policymakers and those who are getting governed to reach a consensus. Albeit that part is tough and probably difficult to come in terms with – this book certainly makes our understanding better on the whole issue.

The essays more than modestly also offer impressionable solutions to end the menace of corruption and for achieving inclusive growth – this comes while discussing among others, the pressing issues related to the coalition government, the rise of new politics (through civic activism), the growing inequality, alienation, the contradiction between identity politics and development.

There is so much happening in India on the policy front, and a single book can have only restricted overtures with those churnings. Given this backdrop, Politics Trumps Economics is a valuable addition to the policy studies and has comprehensive prescriptions for the general readers, who are equally in need of knowing their country’s ongoing tryst with destiny.
-Atul K Thakur
Email: summertickets@gmail.com
(Published in INCLUSION)