“Special state” vs. India’s federal structure

On the day Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has got what he desperately wanted from UPA (being called the most backward state), let me reiterate what I wrote on March 18 when Nitish held a rally in Delhi demanding special status:

I have serious objection to changing the ground rules for special status. Special status gives the state near infinite resources from the Centre while allowing state government to abdicate all its responsibility towards mobilizing funds on its own. For any central assistance, an ordinary state gets 30% as grant, while 70% as loan. For a special state, 90% is in the form of central grant.

Gadgil committee in 1969 (http://www.mightylaws.in/985/concept-special-category-states-india) has clearly stated that such a status will only make sense if the state is tiny, hilly, and has international border. It is one thing to give special status to Tripura or Mizoram. It advances national integration by making these border areas feel inclusive in national development without draining national exchequer. It is a totally different ballgame to bring in Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, and later UP, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, MP, future Telangana, future Vidarbha in the name of backwardness. These are extremely populous, resourceful states that have absolutely no legitimate excuse to not stand on their own feet. If they cannot, their politicians and voting preferences are to be blamed.

Such unreasonable expansion of special status would reward sloppiness in state governance, drain central resources, and damages federal system, and weakens national integration. India will resemble two tumblers with hot milk (money) flowing from West+South to North+East.

Granting special status to Bihar would be a terrible precedent comparable only with the three other *irreversible* historical blunders: the perpetuity of quota system, the sheer impossibility of removal of the word “socialist” form the constitution preamble, and the non-adoption of the constitution-mandated Uniform Civil Code. These were also purely political decisions devoid of any thought for long term national interest. Demand for special status by a giant state such as Bihar is socialism at its worst done only for short-term political expediency scripted by Congress and Nitish.

I fail to see any national interest logic here. I only see political interest logic here.


Can ordinance sidestep Supreme Court and Parliament?

In times like these, people of India have to sit up and wonder if Congress party has given a go-by to parliamentary democracy, true to its 1975-77 style. Article 123 of the Constitution of India defines “ordinance” as a tool that the Executive can exercise only to take “immediate action” when Parliament is in recess. A reasonable interpretation would be when there’s a pressing need to serve public interest arising from disasters or national security or economic crisis. It’s certainly NOT a tool to bypass Parliament to enact Food Security Bill without debate to grab sole credit. It’s most certainly NOT a tool to overturn Supreme Court order just to save soon-to-be-convicted UPA MPs such as Rasheed Masood and Laloo Yadav.

Does Congress think it is ruling a nation of fools? Or does it not care what public thinks? How is India even a parliamentary democracy when Parliament is bypassed so blatantly to serve the ruling party’s interests? Can the abuse of a constitutional provision go any lower? Dr. BR Ambedkar would be sorry to see this day.

Some context to Congress’s backdoor push: Kapil Sibal tried to bring in the amendment to Representation of Peoples’ Act in the Monsoon session. However, BJP launched a protest in house leading to its stalling. It unraveled Congress’s game plan to save Laloo Yadav’s skin then. Today, we have the answer from the government.

BJP has rightly asked President Mukerjee to withhold signature until Parliament debates it. It has called the ordinance unconstitutional. However, not much of conviction is expected from the President as he owes his position to the generosity of Congress chief.


Reference: Article 123 of Indian Constitution (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1090693/)
“123. Power of President to promulgate Ordinances during recess of Parliament
(1) If at any time, except when both Houses of Parliament are in session, the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action, he may promulgate such Ordinance as the circumstances appear to him to require”

Paid media and sting operations

It was November 2007, just a month before the December 2007 assembly elections to Gujarat assembly. Contrary to “secular” media’s expectations and to their utter shock, Narendra Modi was going about the election campaign in a truly secular style. His government had efficiently delivered inclusive development on infrastructure, education, electricity, Sardar Sarovar dam, roads in remote tribal areas, and post-Bhuj earthquake relief work. Riot victims were being rehabilitated, and law was freed to take its own course without fear or favor. Narendra Modi made Gujarati Asmita and development his pole poll plank.
Tehelka magazine at that time was already infamous as a reliable parrot of Congress party. It had insinuated NDA’s Defence Minister George Fernandez, but after he came out in the clear of all charges, it failed to express even a hint of remorse. It now decided to launch another “bombshell” sting operation against a new target: Gujarat CM. Its reporters carried hidden cameras on the streets of Gujarat to record “clinching evidence of the involvement of CM in riots.”
Not surprisingly, everyone from national media to foreign media to Congress president in her subsequent “Maut ka Saudagar” remark lapped up Tehelka’s sting without asking basic questions about its authenticity. Why? Because such questions were an inconvenient detail, the answers to which could unravel a well-planned strategy of “secularists” to distract the Gujarati electorate from the issues of development that CM spoke of. Congress party knew very well their traditional vote-catchment areas: divide and rule, fear, insecurity, and victimhood politics.
The Supreme Court-monitored SIT submitted a closure report on Gujarat riots investigation in 2012. The report goes threadbare into nailing Tehelka’s allegations, and exposes the sting operation as fake and motivated.

Noted National Security analyst and Firstpost journalist Praveen Swami writes today on the dangers to journalism profession posed by such sting operations which can only be termed “yellow journalism.”


“Tehelka’s famous tapes on the Gujarat riots are a case in point: the testimonies it relied on had multiple errors of fact which passed unnoticed because the horrors they described made many sensible people suspend their analytic judgment. Babu ‘Bajrangi’ Patel, now potentially facing the death sentence for his role in the carnage, was alleged to have bragged that he’d slit the stomach of a pregnant mother and speared out the foetus. In fact, the transcripts of his testimony show, he actually only said he’d been accused of this in an FIR. It’s since been established by Supreme Court-monitored investigators that the incident itself was a fabrication (http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-04-14/india/28031729_1_riot-cases-r-k-raghavan-riot-victims).

There are several such instances in the Tehelka tapes. For example Madan Chawal claimed he was present when Congress politician Ehsan Jaffrey’s hands and legs were chopped off. The post-mortem, even then publicly available, didn’t bear out this claim.

None of this diminishes the horror of the killings—but it does cast reasonable doubt about the credibility of the testimony.

The fact Tehelka’s stories were so deeply compelling allowed them to walk past the problems involved in corroborating the testimony. It isn’t the job of reportage to be compelling, though. The media’s task is a relatively modest one: to tell the truth, as best it can. Telling the truth, of course, most often involves analysis and opinion—but not propaganda through words or images. In essence, journalism is about truth-telling, not making a point.”

He concludes with this important message to sensation-loving journalists:

“For years now, its been evident spectacle—as opposed to reason—that has had a growing influence on our public life. Part of the reason for this, that the media is getting ever-worse at its primary function, providing credible information. The media censors out parts of the truth out of concern it might inflame. It censors out other parts of the truth because it thinks they’re uninteresting to its audience. It censors out still other parts of the news because it has a diminishing pool of domain expertise.

We even seem unable to get the most basic facts right. “I would like to be sure when I open the morning newspaper”, Amartya Sen wrote, “that what I am reading—that A said B—is actually accurate. It is hard to have that assurance.””

What is Indian “paid media” all about?

A well-meaning friend recently asked me: “What is this phenomenon of “paid media” that you routinely carp about on Facebook?” It got me thinking, and keyboarding.

He has indeed asked a very pertinent question that many Indians ought to understand as we approach 2014. The key phrase in the post below is “enlightened citizenry.”

It’s natural for a human being to be nostalgic (i.e. “We had very credible journalists, our journalists were highly ethical etc”). Therefore, his natural instinct is to look at the current situation as worse than his supposed glorious past. Then, an enlightened friend must indeed call his bluff and show him the reality: the brighter side of the current day and the darker side of yesterday.
When it is the reverse i.e. when the current day situation is much worse than yesterday, but the citizen believes (typically misled to believe) otherwise, it becomes the duty of the enlightened friend to point that out too. It’s not out of hyperbole that a lot of Indians, especially those active on social media, have stopped trusting media. Rather, the apprehension of paid media has solid backing.
The root of the answer to your question lies in how media has evolved in India, particularly post-liberalization. In the Doordarshan and Akashvani days, which also coincided with one-party rule, there was only one point of view to be propagated: government’s and party’s. Anything inconvenient to this POV was either hidden or silenced. However, print journalists formed a credible fourth pillar of democracy out of commitment to ethics, free speech, and courage. Ramanath Goenka’s blank page on the day of imposition of Emergency, Arun Shourie’s and Chitra Subramaniam’s expose on Bofors scam, S Gurumurthy’s articles on Reliance’s hegemonic hold on government come to mind. The I&B ministry typically silenced such “abnormal” journalists by either coaxing the management to remove them from service or threats to suspend government advertising.
The last point is crucial. Government of India, by virtue of playing such a large role in the nation’s economy, is typically the largest advertiser for almost every media house accounting for 20-30% of revenue (you must have seen full page ads on RajivG’s birthday, a minute long Bharat Nirmal ads etc.). GOI also routinely uses other levers to control advertising funnel by the way of cozy relationships with private businesses who form the other chunk of advertisers. The rest of the revenue, typically a fraction of advertising, comes from readers but that isn’t considered profit because of delivery costs. Therefore, advertising revenue is rightly considered “pure profit.” For English language newspapers and TV channels, such advertising profit becomes critical because of relatively smaller audience compared to vernacular, minuscule price of newspapers due to touch competition, and high delivery costs (which is why you see a lot of ads and less news in papers like TOI. This is not rightwing hyperbole, you may verify yourself. :-)).
What liberalization has done is it has tilted scales for how critical profit is to the survival of a media house in the midst of cutthroat competition. Just as with education which was once a hallowed sector now becoming a vehicle for pure profit, new private media houses have mushroomed with a sole intention of profit. Most media houses these days aren’t just “news houses” but rather “conglomerates” offering a bouquet of channels in entertainment, sports, regional language channels, newspapers and a news channel. Each division is asked to bring in profits to the conglomerate, and the news division is pitted against the entertainment channel for “performance.” Any sub-par performance on fiscal front will invite layoffs of journalists and editors.
It is such a desperate situation that is made-to-order for unscrupulous parties such as Congress, especially when it heads the government. The various ministries pick winners and losers in the marketplace by adjusting their advertising budget “appropriately.” Any anti-government voice is pushed to the dustbin of history. Today, articles are “placed” strategically for the highest impact on voters for a price. A TV anchor is considered “bought” when she uses her primetime slot to pose leading and motivated questions to steer the interview towards their paymasters. You may have watched Nidhi Razdan’s interview with British MP Barry Gardiner or Karan Thapar supplying helpful answers to Kapil Sibal for his own softball questions on 2G scam. You must have also read TOI’s mudslinging on Modi’s Uttarakhand’s relief effort, and the subsequent apology buried in the inside pages. There was another gem on youtube in which Nidhi Razdan nudges a panelist to push Congress line off-camera (http://qr.ae/NAmWa) over which NDTV laid a copyright claim.
These are only the explicit examples where it’s easy to get caught. The real concern for someone who believes in free speech and an equal platform for a healthy competition of ideologies in a democracy is the often subtle nature of such biases: Indian media routinely minimizes or hides the sufferings of those who do not fall in line with government, exaggerates the voices sympathetic to it, and leads an unsuspecting viewer into the logic of “false equivalences” wherein one anti-government piece will be “balanced out” by an anti-opposition/pro-government piece either by exaggeration or by simply making up a story if none exists. All this is done to be in the good books of the ruling party. You may remember how the national media showed ex-Karnataka CM Yeddyurappa’s grab of Bangalore sites as equivalent to 2G/Coal scam completely forgetting that the former was a case of individual immorality while the latter was a gigantic loot of national resources that destabilizes Indian economy and affects future generations of Indians not even born today. If you’re a less discerning viewer, you’ll probably think “Oh, everyone is the same, all parties must be similar, all politicians must be corrupt.” Such a false equivalence leads to apathy among youth towards politics, and more dangerously, disproportionately benefits the worse of the two/three options that democracy offers (by elevating the worst one to the level of the better options). The false equivalence and youth apathy thereby kills political competition on ideas, and also meaning of democracy.
It’s important to remember how Indian media has evolved differently from Western. Even in US or UK, media houses routinely favor one party over the other but the reasons are grounded in ideology. Given the government’s limited role in a citizen’s life, and strong protection of free speech, its ability to influence the newspaper editorial board rests on the basis of appealing to its ideology and not to their pockets. In India, as a result of both ruling party and new media houses not rooted in any particular ideology (but only wedded to profits), one cannot even make a case of ideology guiding the unscrupulous ones. It’s therefore not a coincidence that Indian mainstream media has space only for the pro-government voices, and not one top player identifies itself with opposition’s ideology. For an observer of US or UK media, this revelation is indeed surprising.
I’m a free-market enthusiast, so I am not apologetic about profit-making. Rather, I think profit-making as the only sustainable way to build a business. But as I’ve shown above, profit and journalism forms a deadly corrosive combination that’s detrimental to the role of media envisioned in a democracy.
All hope is not lost however. There are still highly credible journalists such as Pratap Bhanu Mehra, Tavleen Singh, Pratap Simha (in Kannada) and others. Vernacular print media still remains more neutral in reporting, and therefore reflect people’s aspirations more accurately. The rise of social media has been the single most important trend to be reshaping the direction of Indian politics. People now have a way to vent out their viewpoint to a sizable audience without being filtered out by government. A social media item on the recent Muzzafarnagar riots is more likely to reflect the ground situation than what media shows. Social media is also routinely driving news items in mainstream media as journalists themselves are active on social media.
It’s not that media influencers have sat with folded hands as Twitter and Facebook exploded. For example, this is an excellent expose of how the narrative around Bodh Gaya blasts was deliberately shifted from a terror attack by planting motivated questions on Twitter (http://www.niticentral.com/2013/07/15/how-india%E2%80%99s-elite-manipulates-your-thoughts-104446.html). The difference is that journalists’ bluffs and biases are routinely called out by social media. I direct you to http://www.mediacrooks.com and http://www.newslaundry.com for a sampling of the same.
I, therefore, remain an eternal optimist.
P.S.: If this post has made you more curious about how really paid media works, this is a must-watch:

Movie Review of “Madras Cafe”

Loved Madras Cafe. Superb acting by John Abraham, and also the BBC correspondent. But was let down by the distortion of history. I came out of the movie thinking that the movie distorted history in favor of Rajiv Gandhi only to curry favor with Censor Board and I&B ministry to pass the film.

Time mag cover Aug 10 1987

One pet peeve for me was that it almost deifies Rajiv Gandhi as if he had no role to play in the violence against Tamils in 1989. It also shows Janata Party government under Chandra Shekhar deliberately turning a blind eye to RAW’s intelligence on Rajiv’s assassination plot as if they wanted him killed.

IPKF’s presence in Lanka is shown as inevitable, while completely discounting the atrocities that IPKF (supposedly peace keeping force) committed against Tamils. It says IPKF was sent to Lanka only to implement Rajiv’s strong belief in democracy and peace. It forgets to mention that it was Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi who systematically armed LTTE in the first place, only to clamor for peace once it went out of his control (not different from Sikh terrorism).

Quoting NYT’s review of the movie: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/02/bad-history-mars-indian-movie-on-rajiv-gandhis-assassination/

India, if you believed “Madras Cafe,” had little choice but to intervene in Jaffna. On the contrary, the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s participation, imposed by the peace accord signed by Mr. Gandhi, was a rash decision, whose consequences are still reverberating.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force’s participation in atrocities in the region is also outside the domain of Mr. Sircar’s story. It is widely believed that in the course of its pursuit of suspected Tamil militants the Indian Peace Keeping Force tortured prisoners with electric shock treatments and attacked Tamilian civilians arbitrarily. An Amnesty International report documents the tremendous impunity showed by India’s peacekeeping forces in Sri Lanka.”

Another twist in history is the supposed motive for LTTE to kill Rajiv. It claims that the opinion poll before 1991 elections showed Rajiv sweeping back to power, and therefore he would insist on peace in Lanka. LTTE didn’t want to give peace a chance, therefore they wanted to stop Rajiv from coming back.

The history is different. Congress under Rajiv still hadn’t recovered from the massive drubbing in 1989 elections. His popularity took another blow as Congress withdrew support from Chandra Shekhar government for flimsy, mostly selfish, reasons of phone tapping. Rajiv was still seen suspect in Bofors. Even Congress wasn’t sure of returning to power. As it happened, Congress performed very poorly in the first phase, while sweeping the later phases on sympathy factor.


“The Congress party did poorly in the pre-assassination constituencies and swept the post-assassination constituencies.”

No wonder the movie’s convenient depiction of inconvenient historical facts has seen protests erupt in Tamil Nadu. Overall, I liked the movie because it helped me rejig my own memory on the past articles I’ve read on the conflict.