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Archives for September 2009

Nandan Nilekani's new world

Soutik Biswas | 10:55 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009


Nandan NilekaniNandan Nilekani's new world is a musty government building in Delhi. Its quiet corridors are peopled by drowsy minions and its whitewashed rooms have file-laden desks, gaudy sofas and, if you are lucky, a thin swivel chair, the top of which is covered with a white towel. In anterooms, a retinue of men yawn, drink cups of tea, read newspapers, ferry photocopies from one place to another, take calls and yawn again. On their tables lie stacks of more dog-eared files; empty boxes of computers and printers lie heaped in a corner. Welcome to the government of India, Mr Nilekani.

The building housing India's Planning Commission - the name itself is a throwback to the days of the sleepy command economy - cannot be an easy place to work for a man who severed a near three-decade-long association with one of the world's top technology firms, Infosys, which he co-founded, to join the government of India. The dour trappings of public office must be a revelation for a man who, according to the Forbes rich men's list from last May, is worth $1.1bn.

Mr Nilekani helped run a $5bn company before his new job. As the head of the new Unique Identification Authority of India, which plans to crunch out identity numbers for more than a billion Indians, his budget for the first year is $26m. Then there is India's Kafkaesque bureaucracy and partisan politics to negotiate.

It is a daunting task, Mr Nilekani agrees, when I go to meet him in his austere new lair. His table has the regulation shiny pen stand and glass paperweights. The first day he joined work, he yanked the white towel off the top of his chair, as photographers clicked gleefully. He doesn't tell me whether it was a symbolic gesture or a spur of the moment reflex. Mr Nilekani says he has taken the job as a challenge, despite the fact that it is a tough one to be conducted under the unblinking gaze of an increasingly unforgiving public and media.

It is not easy to find out why he took the job: the unique identification number seems to have been his pet project for a long time. He gave it away on page 367 of his first book Imagining India, published last year. For the next eight pages, he waxes eloquent on his idea of a "single citizen ID".

Mr Nilekani talks about Indians grappling with multiple identities - one for a ration card, one for the passport, one for the tax payer and so on. A former election commissioner tells him that our database is in these disconnected silos. This also leads to, as Mr Nilekani says, "plenty of phantoms" or fake cards.

He believes a national smart ID could be transformational - even though only 2% of Indians subscribe, say, to the internet. It compels the state to improve the quality of services, gives citizens better access to welfare schemes, and creates deeper awareness of rights and entitlements. A national ID system, says Mr Nilekani, would plug leaks in the distribution system and make "redundant" our dependence on the "moral scruples of the bureaucrats".Indian fisherman with his local ID card

I don't quite know whether the brief Mr Nilekani has been given matches up to his ideal national ID card outlined in his book. For one, the number will be given to all residents of India; and not all citizens. So it will possibly not help in detecting illegal immigrants, and will play little role in securing the country. Also it will not be a "benefit-linked smart card", as he writes in his book, but just a number.

But the spring in his step and the shine in his eyes hint at a job Mr Nilekani is looking forward to. "It's a complex governance challenge," he tells me, as we settle down in his sparse room. He is excited by the technological challenge of creating the largest biometric database in the world. "Technology on this level has never been done before. There will be lots of hurdles, setbacks, glitches. As a project this is the biggest and most complex project I have ever undertaken."

Doesn't he miss his old company? Mr Nilekani doesn't blink. "I had a terrific 29-year stint at Infosys. It was an emotional and gut-wrenching move to come out of it," he says. But working in big government cannot be easy for somebody like him? "Government is really a big and enormous difference. It has its challenges. Nothing I have encountered till now is something I had not expected. I am in this project for five years." Mr Nilekani is an astute diplomat.

It will be interesting to see how Mr Nilekani re-educates himself in the ways and workings of the government and real India. He famously inspired Thomas Friedman to write his best-selling The World Is Flat by telling him that the "global playing field was being levelled by technology." The man formerly known as the Bill Gates of Bangalore will possibly now be surprised to find that the digital divide is the latest addition to India's deepening inequalities.

India's 'Twittering Minister'

Soutik Biswas | 12:41 UK time, Friday, 18 September 2009


Shashi TharoorTo tweet or not to tweet is the question that Mr Shashi Tharoor must be asking himself these days.

India's junior foreign minister is a former UN diplomat, a prolific writer, a political debutant and an inveterate Twitter-er. Some are already calling him, rather uncharitably, India's 'Twittering Minister', and skewering him for "wasting time" with his "frivolities" on the social networking site. His supporters - and there are over 160,000 people following him on Twitter - say that Mr Tharoor is not your average staid, fuddy-duddy Indian politician; and his thriving online social networking skills make him refreshingly different.

His political colleagues may not agree. It all began when Mr Tharoor got ticked off by the government for staying in a luxury hotel in Delhi as his official bungalow was not ready to move in. He promptly moved out and Twittered about how it didn't make much sense to him because he was paying for his hotel room, not the taxpayer. It was bad timing. The Congress government says it is on a major austerity drive in these pressing times, though many feel that it is mere tokenism - ministers may travel economy class and Rahul Gandhi may travel by train but they invariably do so with a retinue of sullen faced security men and fawning officials, which ends up inconveniencing other passengers.

Matters came to a head earlier this week, when Mr Tharoor, provoked by a follower on whether he would travel "cattle class" on his next trip to his constituency in Kerala, Twittered back: "Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!" He earned an immediate reprimand from his Congress party. "The party strong disapproves the statement of the minister," a spokeswoman said. "It is unacceptable, not respecting political or any other sensibilities." Delhi's chattering class debated whether the Twittering Minister was poking fun at economy class passengers by alluding to the "cattle class". And whether he was raising the hackles of the stuffy political class by calling them "holy cows".

Twittering back, Mr Tharoor has negotiated the "cattle class" slight uncomfortably, arguing that it was a "silly expression" not meant to disrespect economy travellers. Instead, he says, it was airline companies who "herded passengers in like cattle".

He also came up with a somewhat revisionist and semantic take on the phrase "holy cow". "Holy cows are NOT individuals but sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge. I wish the critic would look it up," he writes. "Now I realise that I shouldn't assume people will appreciate humour and I shouldn't give those who would wilfully distort your words an opportunity to do so."

As far as my limited knowledge goes, "holy cow" is mostly used as an exclamation, in American slang. In my part of the world, people use the phrase loosely as a mild pejorative.

It is time for scholars to now join the merry fray and decode Mr Tharoor's use of the phrase. And political pundits to find out whether the 'Twittering Minister' was taking a dig at the starchy party bosses while saying that humour doesn't always find many takers. Come to think of it, why not deploy a team of psychologists to ascertain if Mr Tharoor was being supercilious in wondering whether Indians, by and large, are a humourless people.

Should a member of the cabinet be using popular social networking tools to network with people? The jury is still out on this, but when I scan Mr Tharoor's tweets I find most of them to be harmless, constipated takes on cricket, traffic jams in Delhi, Patrick Swayze, Roger Federer and so on. They are unexceptional, unexciting and largely irrelevant - like most of stuff on social networking sites. He's also a frenetic Twitter-er: on Friday, a working day, he sent out 10 tweets in less than three hours.

No one should take away Mr Tharoor - or anybody's - right to use this social networking device to voice his or her opinions. But does Shashi Tharoor trivialise his office and work with his manic tweeting? Should he slow down and write his words more carefully before sending them out all over the world? Or should he tweet on regardless? What do YOU think?

PS: Mr Tharoor may have earned a bit of reprieve after his party admonished him and one of its leaders sought his resignation over his "cattle class" tweet. This evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his junior minister's remark "was a joke." I suspect most party members don't share Mr Singh's view.

'We are like this only'

Soutik Biswas | 05:04 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Work at a Commonwealth Games sporting venue in DelhiIn the early days of music television in India, one channel ran a zany Curry Western spoof. A rotund man in garish cowboy attire walks into a kitschy hick town bar, orders a whisky and a dosa, spews expletives and challenges a co-drinker to a fight after the unusual meal. As the spoof winds down, a punch line rolls up: 'We are like this only'.

I am reminded of the line when I read and hear about the mess over preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next year. Commonwealth officials are panicking over the slow pace of work and wondering aloud whether the games will take off. A smug Indian official in charge says there is nothing to worry about. All will be fine, he says, and the games will be among the finest ever. The subtext of his message: this is the Indian way of doing things, silly. The stadiums will be eventually built, and we will have a jolly good Games. We are like this only. And sab chalta hain (everything goes), another of our favourite alibis.

But this time the bluff may be called sooner. There is little doubt that India has approached its first major international sports event in nearly three decades with characteristic lack of planning. A report by the federal government's own auditing arm says work on 13 of the 19 sports venues is behind schedule. There aren't enough hotel rooms yet to house guests - another government estimate reckon that only 35% of the additional hotel rooms planned for the games will be completed in time. Commonwealth Games Federation chief Mike Fennell is skittish: he wants to meet the PM now for an assurance that the games will held in time. In an internal note, the Commonwealth Games Association of Canada says in desperation: "Verbal assurances [from Indian officials] are no longer sufficient." A telling comment comes from a foreign engineer who is working at an unfinished stadium site. "The people over here are very careless and the mentality is very lazy," he says. "If one person works, the other five want to just stand around him and watch. They all waste time."

Wasting time and procrastination is a national pastime, so why blame India's poor, underpaid and overworked construction workers. The games are being planned by an organising committee along with two dozen committees - whose heads apparently hardly meet - stacked with bureaucrats, politicians, sports administrators, who are often politicians themselves, and so on. One person I know who was a member of the organising committee quit after he found out to his dismay that nothing was moving on his front in the year he was there. In one meeting called to shortlist some contractors for a job, he found a bureaucrat on the selection committee who had joined it a day before from some nondescript ministry. Friends who have been involved with international sporting events tell me it is not so much about completing work on the stadiums, but of ensuring that the "operationals" are in place - hotel room bookings for athletes, the state of preparedness for the media, transport hubs to take the media and guests to the stadia and back and stuff like that.Workers at a Commonwealth Games site in Delhi

Nothing much has moved along on these fronts, they say. The games village is being built on a controversial environmentally sensitive site - the banks of a dying river which skirts the capital. The less said about the infrastructure, the better. The games, according to its website, will leave behind "a city much more beautiful and charming than it currently is". It talks about how a colonial city centre has been "given a new façade and is experiencing a resurgence", and how the city's monuments are being "cleaned and revitalised".

I don't know how much truth there is in these claims. But I do know that if it rains during the event, Delhi's roads will overflow with water and sewage or cave in. If there is a gale, electricity lines will snap, trees will fall and block the roads, and roofs will fly. The organisers must have been delusional to award the games to a city with such utterly shambolic infrastructure. Also, since there will be no separate lanes for the venues-bound traffic, I see huge gridlocks, and traffic being stopped to let the games traffic pass. Slums are expected to fenced off with bamboo, and beggars are to be rounded up. The 12-day, 17-discipline sporting event is all set to become the biggest nightmare for Delhi's denizens.

It also could turn out be India's biggest shame. Already workers have died at the construction sites, and human rights groups are up in arms about how workers at venues are being underpaid and have flimsy security. I spotted a picture where women workers wore tatty rubber sandals at a site where the signage indicates they should be wearing boots. It's the same old story - apart from a few shining exceptions like the Delhi Metro- of brazen disregard for basic safety norms, woeful planning and exploitative contractors.

And we have revulsion for real change. We remember how an indoor stadium roof leaked in the monsoon rains and players quit wet tables when the world table tennis championship opened in Calcutta decades ago. We remember how we sat on drying paint at an upgraded cricket stadium and endured its stinking, overflowing rest rooms to watch an international game. We see our politicians taking over sports organisations and do to sport what they have done to politics in the country. We laugh it all away every time. We are like this only. Sab chalta hain. Why do we have no shame?

Why austerity is a joke in Indian politics

Soutik Biswas | 16:28 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Shashi TharoorIndia's Grand Old Party, the Congress, has asked two of its ministers to abandon a life in luxury. This happened after news washed up that foreign minister SM Krishna and his deputy Shashi Tharoor were living in two upscale hotels in Delhi because their official bungalows were not yet ready for them to move in. Both ministers say they are paying for the pricey hotel rooms from their own pockets.

But apparently embarrassed by the report, the party high command has ordered the two men to leave the hotels and move into more modest dwellings because their lifestyle "flew in the face of party's emphasis on austerity in public life." One of the two luxury loving ministers, Shashi Tharoor, is bristling with anger. "I would be ashamed if I was spending the people's money. But I'm not - I'm spending my own savings," he Twittered. Mr Tharoor, a former aide to ex-UN chief Kofi Annan, said he "needed a gym and some privacy" and the hotel gave him both.

But the newspaper that broke the story explained that it had a case against the two ministers staying temporarily in a luxury hotel even if they were paying. It wrote: "That two high-profile UPA ministers, one of cabinet rank, have been staying at five-star hotels for more than three months is not, this newspaper will maintain, a case for moral or legal rebuke. Anybody with the requisite means is within his rights to stay at a five-star hotel or build a palace unto himself. But External Affairs Minister SM Krishna at the ITC Maurya and his Minister of State Shashi Tharoor at the Taj sit against the stark backdrop of Congress exhortations on "austerity" and "sacrifice". Congress MPs are being asked to part with a fifth of their salary for drought relief (itself a meagre amount, but that's another matter) as their colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs are running up, presumably, bills that beggar those salaries manifold. Perhaps it's pertinent to ask who should be more embarrassed - the two ministers or the party itself?"

The problem with this argument is that we are taking Congress - or any party in India - exhortations to maintain austerity seriously. Indian politicians love to preach what they don't practice. The Congress - and most national parties - have a long history of pleading its members to practice austerity, but citizens have never seen any evidence of that in real life.

So the more things change, the more they remain the same. What about the long, expensive cavalcades carrying ministers and the red and blue beacon bearing cars carrying their minions with party flags painted illegally on their number plates muscling in and out of traffic? What about the glittering political receptions? What about the wasteful adverts with pictures of ministers and lawmakers announcing the opening of a railway station or a city flyover? What about the politicians with a bevy of hangers-on travelling business class? Why then the austere righteousness over two ministers who are paying for their own accommodation in posh hotels?Shanties in front of a palace in India

The bit about Congress MPs being asked to part with a fifth of their salary is a bit of a joke anyway. "There are two ways of making politics one's vocation," sociologist Max Weber once said. "Either one lives for politics or one lives off it". In India, politicians live off politics for the most part. Apparently, the Congress party is distressed with the "extravagant lifestyle of its ministers". Do Indians even take such sanctimonious piffle seriously in a patronage-driven democracy ravaged by brazen political corruption?

Nobility cloaked in hypocrisy is the bane of Indian society. Blame should not be placed at the politicians' door alone. In a depressingly hierarchical society where the past casts a long shadow over the present, ostentation is encouraged, accepted and practised with a vengeance by the rich and the middle class alike.

People vie with each other to host flashy and vulgar weddings and functions as beggars fight for their pickings outside, reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski's description of a reception that the Ethopian emperor Haile Selassie threw for visiting leaders that he attended. A sumptuous feast was on inside the venue. Outside, Kapuscinski writes, "in the thick of the night, a crowd of barefoot beggars stood huddled together. The dishwashers working in the building threw leftovers at them. I watched the crowd devour the scraps, bones and fish heads with laborious concentration." In rich and middle class India, scenes like these are tiresomely routine. Those who practice ostentation often condemn it the most. Doublespeak and hypocrisy is a national affliction; and talk is cheap. And people get the politicians they deserve.

The death of Mr Reddy

Soutik Biswas | 16:41 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009


A woman grieving in front of a poster of YSR Reddy YS Rajasekhara Reddy was a powerful and popular Indian politician. The fact that he grew to become an indispensable regional satrap in a dynastic party like Congress made his achievement more creditable. So when he died tragically in a helicopter crash in southern Andhra Pradesh state on Wednesday, an outpouring of grief was not unexpected. Party supporters wept profusely when his death was announced.

But soon the grief turned to mass hysteria - grown up men and women were crying a day after the death, there was a minor stampede at the funeral and the media published scanty, unconfirmed reports about people committing suicide or dying of shock on hearing the sad news. Mr Reddy's son and potential political heir even appeared on his own TV channel with an unusual appeal: ""Due to such acts [suicides] my father's soul will not rest in peace .. They [people] should not resort to such acts." In other words, the leader's son was begging his people to live.

Unquestionably, such mass hysteria is stoked by news television to a large extent. Why such frenzied public behaviour follows the death of some people is not difficult to ascertain. Supporters and fans regard these people as personal gods. When leaders and celebrities become larger than life, they evoke abject devotion in life and hysterical grief in death. Many of these leaders and celebrities even fashion themselves as modern gods - the late film star and Andhra Pradesh chief minister NT Rama Rao used to put on his godly regalia from his films and wave to his fans from his balcony when he was alive.

It is not the first time that such hysteria has been seen in India. When former filmstar MG Ramachandran died, at least two people immolated themselves and mass hysteria swept Tamil Nadu state. Such hysteria is not even a regional phenomenon as history shows. New York was choked by 100,000 mourners when Italian actor Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 and riot police had to be deployed to keep the crowd at bay. Dozens of women apparently committed suicide. When John F Kennedy was assassinated, some grief stricken Americans tried to take their lives and still others went into depression, a syndrome which even got a moniker.

Mass hysteria also has nothing to do with India's southern politics and politicians, as many in the country believe. A lot of southern politicians like the late MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao, among the dead, and Jayalalitha among the living, are larger than life having been film stars in their early lives. I believe very few northern politicians have matched the charisma of their southern counterparts - and none have been heroes or heroines to the masses.

Mr Reddy was certainly not in the same league. I sense a concerted effort at myth making here - there is still not a shred of evidence that any of the reported deaths of people in the state were caused by Mr Reddy's death and then there is the son's curious appeal. In these days of easy fame, Mr Reddy, in death, has become larger than life thanks to 'breaking news television'. "As each new medium of fame appears," wrote Leo Braudy in his treatise on fame, "the human image it conveys is intensified and the number of individuals celebrated expands". We see evidence of this every day.

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