Tuesday, April 27, 2010


The third edition of the IPL is just over. This year there was far more drama than what was seen in its previous two editions. And there was more of it off the field than on it as the slanging match between Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi played out, first in the social media site Twitter and then in the mass media making national headlines.
By the time Chennai Super King’s M S Dhoni lifted the trophy, both Tharoor and Modi had lost their respective jobs- Tharoor as a junior External Affairs Minister and Modi as the IPL Commissioner.
The ugly spat brings out hypocrisy all around. Modi alone is not culpable. Take the case of Tharoor first. His claims that he had nothing to do with the Kochi team except to give them ‘blessings’ turned out to be a lie after it came out in the open that his ‘close friend’ Sunanda Pushkar got sweat equity worth Rs 69 crore in the franchisee. How can one claim that he has nothing to do with an activity that fetches crores of rupees to his close friend? Quite rightly, even Tharoor’s own party didn’t buy that argument and he was asked to step down.
Now Lalit Modi is also out, though officially it’s being called suspension for now. Perhaps it’s all part of a strategy of graded response that will lead to his final ouster. Skeletons are coming out every day. Vital papers of franchisees are missing. Now BCCI claims some of the perceived team owners (read Shilpa Shetty) don’t even own shares of their franchisees. Modi is also accused of having conflict of interest among a host of charges including bungling in granting telecast rights.
Even while not holding a flag for Modi, one could ask a plethora of questions. Why were the BCCI mandarins sleeping over all this in the last three years? Doesn’t the clause of conflict of interest apply to BCCI Secretary N Srinivasan whose India Cements owns the Chennai Super Kings, the champions this year? How come they have given a clean chit to Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel without any probe?
One only hopes the investigations will not be a hogwash and a mere ploy to oust Modi.
Whatever the charges against Lalit Modi (Let’s assume his innocence till proven guilty), one cannot take away the credit from him (looking purely from the business point of view) for making IPL Indian television’s prime time soap. It’s not merely to do with the timing of the matches. That credit goes to Kerry Packer after he introduced ‘pyjama’ cricket in day-night ODIs decades back.
Modi changed the content of cricket, bringing in glamour and to some extent sleaze. And this made IPL beat the routine soaps in the TRP game. The post match IPL parties with ticket charges of Rs 40,000 were an instant hit so much so that even cheerleaders paled into insignificance. With all this, Modi expanded the cricketing audience, bringing in even those who hardly know the finer points of the game.
The strong speculation that many of the matches were fixed to keep the number of eyeballs intact is but natural. After all, match fixing no more makes news and is seen as a fallout of commercialisation of cricket over the years.
Cricket had become business as soon as live telecast brought in sponsors whose sole concern was getting the eyeballs. It applies more to a country like India where it’s a national obsession. Modi’s IPL has again changed the complexion of the game. It has made cricket a part of the business of entertainment. No wonder IPL matches competed with Bollywood blockbusters in multiplexes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


This piece is being reproduced from the Article section on Invisionindia.com

The phenomenon of ‘paid news’ made quite a few ripples lately after reports that the media took recourse to it during the 2009 General Elections on a large scale. Favourable reports and flattering interviews carried a premium and the political parties and leaders readily obliged the media. It was only much later that the Election Commission, the Press Council of India and the Editors’ Guild took note of the malpractice and decided to work out measures to control it.
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan also came out against the paid news syndrome, just ahead of the release of his movie ‘Rann’ in which the actor essays the role of a media baron. May be what Bachchan said on the issue during a promotional tour for the movie was well timed to promote his latest flick, but the gist of what he said hits the nail on the head. “The media is a nation’s conscience. It’s also a business … That’s the war,” Bachchan said while calling it a malpractice. Earlier, Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla had expressed the Election Commission’s “increasing concern” about the paid news syndrome.
Indeed, the sacred split between editorial and advertisement is now being sewn together and if not checked in time, the syndrome could take away all credibility associated with the media, considered the fourth pillar in any democratic society. It’s for the owners and editors to strike the right balance between any media organisation’s business interests and its role as the conscience-keeper of the society at large.
The concept of ‘paid news’ is nothing new. More than two decades ago, the term ‘advertorial’ came into currency in media. As paid advertisements, advertorials masquerade as editorial making readers believe they are reading a news story. This raises the big ethical question whether any media organization should fall for it as a source of revenue and an overwhelming opinion is against it.
But it will not be an easy task to check this malpractice. First, it’s very difficult to prove that a particular report was published for a consideration. Second, elaborate guidelines need to be in place and more importantly the bodies that act as watchdogs of the media like the Press Council of India should have enough teeth to bite if anything goes amiss. As it stands today, the PCI cannot take any punitive measures and its powers are limited to passing strictures against erring media houses. Its writ needs to be given a legal sanctity for it to act like a deterrent against any malpractice. Suitable amendments may also be required in the Representation of the People Act.
Sale of editorial space can be a lucrative business, much more paying than even the Sunday classifieds. All stakeholders- the political parties, editors, the Press Council of India and the Election Commission – need to work together for a consensus to prevent media houses from becoming an extension of PR firms. The process of consultation is on and one only hopes something concrete comes out of it.
Triumph of the Trivial
The impact of the process of trivialization or what has come to be known as ‘masala news’ can be gauged from the fact that the likes of Rakhi Sawant feature on prime time news bulletins with an alarming regularity. Even promos of movies and television serials are packaged as news stories. Be it the goings-on in the ‘Big Boss’ house or Abhishek Bachchan’s TV show ‘Bingo’, all such inconsequential stories occupy prime time news space on news channels. About the vernacular channels, the less said the better. Some channels and publications routinely put out absurd stories which have no public consequence what so ever as part of their staple news bulletins.
Also there is a boring similarity in the pattern of coverage of news stories by TV channels as they imitate one another for TRPs. It has led to what is being called McDonaldization of news or McJournalism. The emphasis is on quantity and standardization which have replaced quality and variety. Like the fast food joints, the focus is on delivery time rather than catering to the taste of the palate.
Like the paid news syndrome, driving news content, too, is a dilemma for news organizations as it they find themselves torn between business interests and their role as conscience-keeper of the nation.
Entertainment does play an important role in society-building and can be used a vehicle to send message to the masses. There are a host of entertainment channels and publications to cover it all. But an overemphasis on this by news channels only dilutes their credibility. The challenge is to strike the right balance and that’s what will pay off in the long run.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The anniversary of 26/11 attacks is approaching. I can safely presume that TV channels have already made elaborate plans to commemorate the first anniversary of what has been termed as India’s 9/11. Going by the past coverage of such events, one can guess more or less accurately how the coverage will pan out across channels on 26th Nov--- reporters giving lives all through the day from the Taj Hotel, Nariman Point and CST station- the targets of the attack - with stories reliving the horror ( a recap of how the attack was carried out) among other things.

While my heart goes out to all the victims and their families for perhaps the worst terror strike on Indian soil, I have reservations about how the media approaches such events.

Let’s not forget that any terror strike is also an exercise in publicity. A hostage crisis or hijack is said to be successful from the point of view of its perpetrators if it lingers for at least 36 hours as morning and evening editions of newspapers across the globe come out twice during that period and the event gets the optimal publicity.

The Mumbai attacks were televised live for three days - a huge success for its plotters. An extensive coverage on its first anniversary, reliving the horror, will only add to that. It’s a different matter that as the family members of the victims pay homage to their loved ones, the media should analyse and highlight whether lessons were learnt and the present level of security in such places which can be potential targets.

During the coverage of such events, media perhaps unwittingly falls into the trap as it ends up publicising them in a manner that also furthers the sinister designs of those who planned and executed them.

The non-stop live coverage of the 26/11 with a blow by blow account by the TV reporters had come under attack by security experts. Many felt it only helped the terrorists and their masters across the borders in Pakistan prolong the crisis.

It’s indeed debatable where the media should draw the line. But even in the race for TRPs, it’s important that sensible reporting takes precedence over any kind of reportage bordering on the sensational.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Many of my friends put a poser to me about the ‘lower than expected’ turnout of voters in Mumbai in the recent assembly polls in Maharashtra. Quite a few of them were shocked that on the crucial day of political choice, many members of the otherwise conscious 'civil society' went missing from the polling booths.

Mumbai is just a case in point. It’s true of all major cities. It has always been noticed that voter turnout is more in rural areas as compared to urban centres. But surely, it doesn’t reflect a lack of political consciousness.

In fact those in the urban areas are politically more vibrant. Reading newspapers, watching news channels and living room discussions on politics are all forms of political participation of a class that is seen as opinion-maker. There is hardly a living room in a city like Mumbai where politics of the day is not discussed or read about. Then there are the occasional rallies of the like seen after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. The question is why doesn’t it translate into attendance (more than what we see) in the polling booths?

Some would say these are double standards by members of the civil society. May be! But there is the other side of the argument too. To my mind, one main reason could be logistical. A substantial chunk of people in cities live in rented accommodation and move residences between elections. There names go missing from the electoral rolls or remain in the old colony that might be many kilometres away, a clear disincentive to vote. A large number of people also don’t bother to go the electoral office to get them registered again or get a new voter I-card with the changed address. Call it lethargy, but the process of getting a new voter I-card is indeed cumbersome for the busy professional.

It’s difficult to imagine somebody travelling from Boriveli to Vrar to cast his vote if he has changed residence since the last elections. In such cases, the temptation is to rather spend the polling day 'holiday' catching up with family and friends. The latest proposal to grant the poll holiday only to those who give proof of having cast their vote seems to be a good idea.

The next step is to think of ways to make the process of registration of name in the electoral list much more convenient for the busy professional or overworked daily wager. Also the cut-off date should be as close to the polling day as possible instead of what’s in vogue today.

The last stage in the evolution could be heralding in 'digital democracy' enabling people to vote from their PCs or laptops from the confines of their offices or living rooms. This would do away even with what many see as the hassle of standing in queue at the polling booth. The world is yet to see this as of now. But it can well be a workable idea in the land from where the world takes lessons in information technology.

Nandan Nilekani has been tasked with the unique national identification project. Perhaps, he can look beyond to make this a reality. That would be the real hallmark of the digital age that we boast of living in today.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Another round of elections are over- this time in three states- and we had the usual dose of analysis from experts after the results came out. Out of the three, focus was on Maharashtra, followed by Haryana and we heard the same old phrase of index of opposition unity, attributing the lack of it to Congress’ victory. Though it’s true, but I don’t subscribe to the application of the yardstick in the context of the party system in India.

Even for Haryana, at the risk of sounding like holding a flag for the Congress, I would still describe its performance as a victory over the political rivals in the state. Many of the experts across television news channels and in print compared the Congress’ performance in the Lok Sabha elections in the state with the showing in the assembly polls. The INLD which drew a blank in the parliamentary polls, bagged many more seats than projected in the assembly polls. Though the figures are true, I beg to differ in my analysis of the data. After all statistics can often be like a bikini that reveals everything but conceals the essentials.

In India, while analysing polls, we sometimes compare issues or data that shouldn't be compared. Take the case of Haryana first. In the Lok Sabha elections, it could be seen as a vote for/against the performance of the Manmohan Singh government. In the assembly elections, it was surely for/against the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government. That’s a big difference and is reflected in the results. So it may not be prudent to compare the two results- an outcome of voters applying two different yardsticks.

The snapping of ties between INLD and BJP was seen as the other reason for the Congress emerging as the single largest party in Haryana. It was described in terms of the index of opposition unity.

The same logic was applied to Maharashtra where Raj Thackeray’s MNS played the spoiler for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine as the Congress-NCP alliance came to power for the third time in a row. Raj Thackeray was even described as the ‘Man of the Match’ in the elections.

While it’s a fact that MNS was the party-pooper for Shiv Sena-BJP combine, I think an analysis of the poll results shouldn't overlook the multi-party system.

With a plethora of parties, the nature of democratic choice in the Indian polity-both at the Centre and in states- is different from the bipolar democracy of the US and Britain. The attempt to apply the ‘index of opposition unity’ logic only takes one away from the political reality on the ground and amounts to analysing the results in context of a non-existent bipolar system.

In a multi-party system, the single largest party should be seen as a political victor unlike in a two-party model where one of them is bound to cross the half-way mark.

Perhaps that’s the reason why crossing the half-way mark is always described as ‘absolute majority’ in India’s multi-party context and rarely as ‘simple majority’ though going by the political dictionary, both mean the same.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


It has been nearly two months since I wrote on the BJP's existential dilemma (posted on Aug 18, '09) soon after Jaswant Singh's controversial book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah hit the stands. The party has since expelled the veteran leader. I had attributed the BJP's current state of decline to not only a succession battle among the second-rung leaders as they stare at the post Vajpayee-Advani era but its very ideological foundation of Hindutva. I had argued that any brand of exclusivist politics is bound to fail to garner a pan-Indian appeal as the country's political space and culture is inherently centrist in nature. It can tolerate a marginal deviation from the centre on either side but not beyond. Appealing to communal sentiments (be it religious or linguistic) can get some limited temporary electoral gains, but will never broaden any party's base.
Keeping this in mind, I had done my own tabletop projections for the Lok Sabha polls much before the first vote was cast and it was not a surprise that I was close to the final outcome.
A couple of weeks back, it was heartening to read an article by Lloyd Rudolf and Susanne Rudolf in The Economic and Political Weekly in reply to Zoya Hassan's review of their latest book- 'Explaining Indian Democracy'. Rudolf and Rudolf, whose 1987 book 'In Pursuit of Lakshmi' analysed the nature of the Indian state, have taken the thesis a bit forward in their latest book and concluded that Indian state is centrist in nature while explaining the BJP's conclusive defeat in the 2009 parliamentary polls. In fact, looking beyond politics, they argue that the Indian economy is also centrist in nature despite the heavy dose of liberalisation that has unfolded since 1991. The only difference is that from a command and control (Licence Raj) economy, we have moved to a regulated economy rather than going to the extreme of embracing 'free market' (free for all) like the US. This, perhaps, helped India remain substantially insulated from the trend of collapsing financial institutions and absorb the global meltdown better.
The decline of the Congress in the last two decades had much less to do with the apparent expansion of the BJP, but more to the rise of forces like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad. Together these parties managed to corner the support of the minorities, backward castes and Dalits, wiping off the Congress from UP and Bihar which account for a substantial chunk of parliamentary seats. Verdict 2009 witnessed signs of Congress revival in these two crucial states in the Hindi heartland. Rahul Gandhi's periodic visits to Dalit families in UP seems to be part of a long-term grand strategy of India's grand old party.
What applies to the BJP also applies to the Left. The sooner the comrades realise and move towards a 'New Left' philosophy (not going too far to the left of the centre), the better it will be for their political future. Interacting with a few comrades weeks after the announcement of the parliamentary results, I was surprised that most claimed that the people had committed a mistake instead of analysing where the Left parties faltered.
Like the BJP, the Left parties also seem to be in a denial mode. Both have failed to analyse the mindset of the rising middle class. This aspirational class, even at the lowest levels, is not bothered anymore about the Ram Temple or aggressive trade unionism. For a vast majority, trade unions have outlived their utility as the battle for minimum wages is long over and in the face of huge opportunities in the private sector and for self-employment.
In a few days, we will know the verdict of the people in three states of which the focus is on Maharashtra and Haryana. In Maharashtra, the Thackerays, particularly Raj Thackeray, pandered to the anachronistc regional sentiments (Marathi pride), perhaps forgetting that the migrants' votes tilted the scales against the Shiv Sena and in favour of the Congress-NCP combine in the last elections. This time, it could be worse with the Thackeray family split in the middle.
One more word about the nature of politics in Maharashtra. Unike elsewhere, political leaders at the local level in the state are far more powerful, courtesy the cooperative movement (sugar coopertives etc) that gives them a personal clout, reducing their dependence on the party. That explains why Maharashtra gets maximum number of rebels across parties as contestants. Local leaders don't shy away from defying the party when denied ticket. In a state where 145 is the magic number, more than 115 rebels this time are said to have the potential to have a bearing on the poll outcome in their constituencies.
In less than two weeks, we will know the verdict. It will be interesting to know what the people of the one of the high-growth states in the Indian Union have voted for.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Posting an old blog .... (January 28, 2009)

As the Indian Republic enters the 60th year, it’s perhaps time to take stock of what ails our polity. And the answer could well be- a crisis of consensus.
Nation-building is a continuous process and requires a consensus among those in power and those in waiting. But sadly, this has rarely been seen in India, preventing the country from realising its actual potential.
Opposition for the sake of opposition negates its very role in a vibrant democracy. It’s indeed an irony that within a modern political system that gives a level playing field to all, our leaders lack the maturity and look at national issues though the prism of partisan politics and electoral compulsions rather than judging them on merit.
Let’s take a couple of examples. Over several years, each terror strike has led to a raging debate on measures to tackle the menace. But instead of sitting together to put up a united front against terror, leaders have always indulged in political blame game.
The outcry of citizens against the entire political class after the Mumbai terror attacks, was perhaps long overdue. In that sense, many thought the Mumbai attacks and the protests thereafter could be an eye-opener for the political leaders.
But that was not to be! The all-party meet convened by the UPA government was given a miss by BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L K Advani and party president Rajnath Singh. This was surprising considering that the main opposition party had been demanding anti-terror laws, accusing the UPA of being soft on terror.
Finally, Parliament passed the bills setting up a National Investigation Agency and approving amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But soon political discord was visible at conference of the chief ministers on terror. As expected, differences cropped up with BJP-ruled states voicing reservations against NIA, saying it dilutes the federal character of the polity.
In short, a consensus on anti-terror measures still eludes us as a nation and it is unlikely that it can ever be achieved.
The next best example is perhaps the Indo-US nuclear deal. The debate on it had more to do with partisan politics rather than the merits or demerits of the deal.
Parties opposed to the deal – ironically from both extremes of the political spectrum (the BJP and Left) – found new ammunition when days before India finally secured the NSG waiver, the US media leaked some communication from the US Congress to the State Department. It said how the communication was kept under wraps to shield Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from political opposition back home.
Both the BJP and the Left parties latched on to it, accusing Manmohan Singh of lying to the nation and calling for a privilege motion against the prime minister in Parliament. It was the same story earlier before the draft of the nuclear deal was cleared by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The main bone of contention is the ‘testing’ clause and fuel supply guarantees and Singh was, time and again, blamed of lying in Parliament on the issue.
On his part, Singh had made it clear in Parliament that India retains the sovereign right to test. The fact that consequences will follow if India were to test including sanctions and perhaps the death of the deal are too obvious. Deal or no deal, the consequences for testing would be the same for India. After all New Delhi had been facing the technology denial regime since the first explosion in Pokhran in 1974.
A day after the NSG waiver, Brajesh Mishra, National Security Advisor in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, said as much, something diametrically opposed to the BJP’s stand.
If not anything else, the BJP should have taken half credit for the deal. The deal’s foundation was, in fact, laid during the Vajpayee regime when the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh held marathon talks with Strobe Talbott after the heat of Pokhran-II subsided. The BJP’s subsequent opposition to the deal stemmed more from its current political space that it occupies rather than any sound rationale.
As regards the Left parties, their opposition to the deal was perceived to be rooted in ideology-unable to see India as a strategic ally of the US- rather than the deal per se.
Whether the deal is good or bad for the country is debatable. But unfortunately, the political debate on it could not come out of the fold of party politics.
As India aspires to play an increasingly important role on the global stage, it’s imperative that parties shed their narrow political agenda and think in terms of a national agenda that cuts across party lines.
By retaining Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Barack Obama has shown the way that in the ultimate analysis party politics should be subservient to national interest. We need to emulate that model to take the country to the next level – the high table of global leadership.