BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for May 2010

Is Manmohan Singh an enigma?

Soutik Biswas | 10:50 UK time, Monday, 31 May 2010


Manmohan Singh at the press conferenceIs Manmohan Singh a riddle? A large section of India's media appears to think so. Mr Singh, who once described himself as an 'accidental politician' has been the country's prime minister for the past six years. Yet, the media seems to be still struggling to form a rounded opinion on the dour and unsmiling technocrat-turned politician. They all agree he is possibly the country's cleanest politician, and a reasonably capable administrator. Beyond that, they seem to find him a bit of an enigma.

So when Mr Singh made a rare appearance at a press conference last week, the papers and networks whinged loudly. One newspaper complained that the 90-minute, 55-question press conference was "neither heady or headline worthy." Mr Singh, the paper despaired, "is also not good at repartee. His straight answers don't make for exciting sound bites". Networks regretted that Mr Singh was incapable of serving up red hot headlines. "Why doesn't he at least be humorous, crack a few jokes?" an exasperated newsreader wondered.

The media still loves to describe Mr Singh as an "outsider" of sorts - this after he has spent decades with the Congress party - who treads warily and, almost always, acquiesces entirely to the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. In the Delhi diarchy, journalists say, Ms Gandhi wields real power.

Yet, at the press conference, Mr Singh deftly negotiated awkward posers about squabbling cabinet colleagues and a controversial minister who is fighting corruption charges. He unequivocally squashed rumours of a mid-term retirement to pave the way for heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, and of reported differences with Ms Gandhi. At the same time, he said he would welcome Rahul Gandhi if he accepted a cabinet berth.

Indians have traditionally loved performing politicians - high on rhetoric and oozing earthy charisma - and Mr Singh is anything but. Still, he continues to enjoy high approval ratings despite a mixed performance. Does it mean that Indians have begun tiring of rhetoric-spewing, populist leaders and actually begun preferring a quiet, understated leader who possibly demonstrates a serious intent to perform? Is it a changing India which the networks haven't been able to come to terms with? Why do they appear to be looking for a prime minister who is a combination of a stand up comedian and a peddler of rhetoric and also adept at making major policy announcements at press conferences?

Mr Singh, most analysts agree, isn't a particularly inspiring leader. There was enough evidence of this at the press conference. His anodyne reactions to questions about, say, the rising threat from Maoists ('it is not correct to say we have underestimated the problem'), rising inflation ('containing inflation is the topmost priority') or allowing prosecution of Indian soldiers accused of killing villagers in Kashmir ('I will look into it') did not impress many. At the same time, Mr Singh was fairly eloquent when it came to issues close to his heart - his efforts to revive the India-Pakistan peace process, for example.Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh

All this leads his critics to say he lacks conviction, and remains a bureaucrat at heart. His low key, understated mien doesn't find favour with many who believe that Mr Singh could open up a little more, and share his vision for India with more clarity. As analyst Siddharth Varadarajan says, "Political parties cannot serve as vehicles for enlightened decision making, for raising the level of society's consciousness, if their leaders are going to shy away from taking a stand."

But isn't that a problem with India's Grand Old Party, the Congress itself? A year into its second term with a firmer majority, the party, most believe, is unable to chart out a vision for India. The government is a reflection of the party. So it has shied away from big ticket economic reforms - pension, insurance, labour laws, banking and retail - and concentrated on ploughing billions of dollars into a jobs-for-work programme in the countryside. It has pushed quotas for women in the parliament and state assemblies and is believed to be ready with some much-needed judicial reforms. But there is little "vision and energy", as a perceptive analyst wrote.

The analyst has found that Mr Singh's government made 25 promises to the people to be met in the first 100 days of the government. (One of them was making 20km of roads a day, and nothing even close to that is happening.) Over a year later, he found, only four had been met. All over the world governments make promises which they don't keep. But expectations have never been higher in India. And Mr Singh, with his bipartisan, moderating influence on governance and politics, will not be happy to be found wanting.

Calcutta: 'The time is now!'

Soutik Biswas | 15:04 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010


Boys play in the water in an effort to cool off in the river Ganges in Calcutta, India, Friday, May 14, 2010Calcutta is a city of charming contradictions. The tram company and the Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation also run public bus services, a water treatment plant on the smelly outskirts is named after the city's tallest leader, and the Communist state government which has been struggling to attract industries is sponsoring a film festival on "development and discontent". A "political goon" in the city, according to local newspapers, is called Mandela.

It is a hideously hot and muggy summer, but the air is cleaner after decaying, smoke-belching vehicles were taken off its streets. Calcutta still hosts perhaps the world's noisiest traffic orchestra. Horns of varying sounds and pitches blare round the clock from its cars, buses and auto-rickshaws, creating a sound louder than The Who Live at Leeds.

One afternoon, I travel through the noisy traffic sweating profusely in a rattling Ambassador taxi. I go past hoardings advertising modern dance schools and a blood donation camp in the name of a departed, sun-hatted Communist leader. I pass a dull, whitewashed government building loudly promising "Fish For All" on its walls. I see the streets aflame with posters, flags and bunting hawking parties and candidates' for the city's municipal elections on Sunday. And then I spot an anonymous advert pasted on a wall which simply says, "The time is now!"

Indeed it is. Calcutta - and Bengal state - appears to be on the cusp of historic change. Most people I spoke to said that next year's state elections would see the eclipse of the Communist government, which has ruled uninterruptedly since 1977. The wildly popular and populist Trinamul Congress, a breakaway group from the Congress party, is expected to sweep into the citadels of power at the colonial and sleepy government headquarters of Writers' Building in central Calcutta. And the forthcoming municipal polls will give us some clues as to which way the winds are blowing.

To return to the city's contradictions - did you know that one of its proudest landmarks, the 67-year-old cantilever bridge that spans the Hooghly river is reportedly under threat... from saliva? More than 100,000 vehicles and millions of pedestrians use the bridge every day. Commuters walk on a deserted Howrah Bridge during a 12-hour general strike in Calcutta, India, Tuesday, April 27, 2010.

The latter seem to be the culprits. "[The] commuters' collective spit power has reduced the thickness of steel hoods protecting the [bridge's] pillars from six to three millimetres since 2007," a newspaper reports. The tobacco-laced spit, according to a "forensic sciences expert" interviewed by the paper, contains "slaked lime combined with catechu and tannin [that] form an organic compound that acts as a corrosive agent on a steel surface". The Howrah bridge must be the first in the world that is being chewed up by spit.

Caste census: Opening a Pandora's box?

Soutik Biswas | 17:17 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Lower caste Dalit women in IndiaSo is caste, the complex social order which assigned people a place in the social hierarchy based on their occupation, poised to make a comeback in the Indian census? The government is making noises that it will agree to a demand by a host of caste-based regional parties to include it in the census, 80 years after it was dropped; and the media is abuzz with reports that a formal announcement will be made soon.

It is still unclear how the government plans to go about the caste headcount. Affirmative action in areas like work and education is often used to help caste groups seen as disadvantaged. So how do you ensure that people don't lie about their caste so they can claim such benefits? As I wrote in a previous post, there is no way of knowing whether someone has lied about their caste by dropping a surname or committing fraud. Checking such claims may take years.

More importantly, the reintroduction of caste in the census is certain to trigger off a larger debate on whether it is necessary at all. Most people agree that caste is the most regressive feature of India's social system. It is repressive, reinforces hierarchy and breeds inequity.

Some analysts feel a proper count of members of the country's caste groups would help the government target affirmative action benefits better. They cite the substantial example of the lower caste group also known as Other Backward Castes - or OBCs in official language - who receive some of the most controversial benefits. In the absence of current data, official estimates suggest this group includes anywhere from 37%-52% of the population. For example, in southern Tamil Nadu state, more than half the population are OBCs, way over the federal government's cap that quotas should not exceed 50% of the population.Protests by a caste group in India demanding government benefits

Even the Supreme Court despaired that the government had not provided fresh data. Analysts say caste is an irrevocable, however abhorrent feature of Indian society. They believe it is here to stay, so we need to get real and be pragmatic about it - a caste census will merely give us some honest data on groups getting state benefits.

Others say such a census will open a Pandora's box and trigger off fresh demands for job quotas by other groups. They say it proves that India is not fighting what they call is a vicious cycle by which caste perpetuates itself. "Each caste regards itself as the equal of castes superior to it while simultaneously denying similar claims from those inferior to it," the guru of caste studies and eminent sociologist MN Srinivas has written. This is best mirrored in India's fractious caste politics.

So will caste ever wither away - with or without a caste census - from India's social landscape?

It is a fiendishly difficult question to answer. Caste is a state of mind with millions of Indians. It is alive and well in its politics, match-making advertisements and election manifestos. Couples marrying out of caste - and sometimes within the caste - still die in "honour killings". Victims of the caste system, as historian Irfan Habib said, turn into its votaries.

But with rapid urbanisation - more than half of Indians will be considered urban by 2050 - there is a real chance that caste will slowly stop fetching rich dividends. As people demand more economic development, politicians will find it difficult to tap into people's primordial identities like caste for votes in the way they are used to. Analysts say that the decline of a few caste-based regional parties in northern India could be early clues to caste's diminishing returns.

Dalit - formerly "untouchable" - writer Chandra Bhan Prasad believes that "globalisation, capitalism, consumerism, mechanisation, industrialisation and urbanisation" will make the caste order "obsolete". It is true that caste-neutral professions have proliferated in India. The lines have begun to blur - a University of Pennsylvania study in shopping malls in Delhi found 60% of sweepers were not Dalits, the lower caste usually associated with the job.

At the same time, as another Dalit writer Meena Kandasamy eloquently says: "The readiness to destroy caste requires us to destroy a part of ourselves... finally it will culminate in the end of imagined or assumed inferiorities and superiorities." It takes a "personal rebellion" to defy caste, she says. I suspect that the million such mutinies are maybe brewing already. Could India one day be truly meritocratic and caste-free, with thriving inter-caste marriages and no caste ghettos in towns and villages?

Mumbai verdict and the media bloodlust

Soutik Biswas | 12:35 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010


A mock hanging of Qasab in IndiaThe death penalty for Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, hopefully, brings to an end the media-driven bloodlust over how the only surviving gunman of the Mumbai attacks should be punished.

It all began with the networks saying that nothing less than a death sentence for Qasab would satisfy Indian people. To put things into perspective, more than 300 of India's 120,000 convicts face death sentences. The majority of these sentences, I believe, will be commuted to life at some stage. The last execution in India was held in 2004, the one before that in 1995. There is a rising tide of opinion against capital punishment, and there is another impediment: most states do not have hangmen to execute the sentences.

But if you watch the networks and listen to FM stations, an exception must be made of Qasab and he must be hanged quickly. There was abundant rough justice on offer. A radio jockey gleefully announced that Qasab should be tied to one of Delhi's notorious private buses and dragged around till he died. Another said his limbs should be chopped off. One viewer called in a network saying that Qasab should be hanged from a tree and stoned to death. Mock hangings were staged in cities. "Qasab is not just a terrorist," purred a TV reporter from the scrum outside the court this morning, "he is a serious terrorist and deserves serious treatment."

There is undoubtedly a reservoir of such populist opinion in many countries, particularly those with the death penalty. The question here is about how a responsible media should reflect and report all the views around the issue and steward the discussion.

But this provocative stance must mark a low point in news network coverage in India - critics believe they have played an exploitative, inflammatory role, feeding on and fanning jingoism simply to boost ratings.The media outside the Mumbai court during Qasab's conviction Across the border, the Dawn newspaper wrote that the Indian state "whips into line a weak-kneed media with populist slogans of pseudo-nationalist expediency."

Baying for Qasab's blood also neatly dovetails into the unabashed anti-Pakistan jingoism which some networks revel in. Do such networks shape and alter public opinion? Most people I speak to feel that networks have an exaggerated sense of importance. One editor recently said that TV channels may sway public sentiments temporarily, but were incapable of changing public opinion. So when they stage media inquisitions like in the case of Qasab, they do grave injustice to the vast mass of sane and considered public opinion, which they wilfully ignore. It makes India look like a nation of intolerant bigots.

Mumbai: A symbolic conviction

Soutik Biswas | 11:10 UK time, Monday, 3 May 2010


Ajmal Amir Qasab,What does the conviction of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab really mean? Nobody had expected the only surviving gunman of the audacious 2008 Mumbai attacks to go scot free. Intense public pressure and media scrutiny had ensured that the trial would not grind on indefinitely. Justice usually plods along at a snail's pace in India - the trial for the July 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai, to take one example, took 15 years to deliver a verdict.

At one level, the conviction is more symbolic than anything else. For most Indians who appear to have given up hope on its sluggish judicial system - this gives hope. For relatives of the victims, it may come as a closure of sorts to the Mumbai tragedy. One of the perpetrators of the most sensational attack on Indian soil has come before India's justice system - and has been convicted.

But I think the conviction means most to people like 11-year-old Devika Rotawan who was shot in the leg by Qasab at a railway station on that fateful night, but survived to tell the tale. Devika and her father, Natwarlal, and brother, Jayesh, were waiting to take a night train to Pune when the mayhem began.

Her spirit undiminished after 65 days in the hospital and half-a-dozen surgeries, the feeble, but sparky girl turned out to be a key witness and identified Qasab in the court.

"I told the judge," she had told me sitting in her one-room shanty home in a pale green frock, "I saw this man. He shot at me. I still have pain in my leg."

A carrom board, a few plastic chairs, a trunk, a cooking gas cylinder and a few utensils appeared to be the family's only obvious possessions. Some of the compensation money she had got from the government was being used to treat Jayesh, who was sick.

Devika told me how she was proud to be a main witness, how she had been wooed by news networks, and showed me a scrap book of press clippings about her. Her humour hadn't left her despite the pain. "You know what," she said, "Qasab has become very scrawny these days."Paramilitary soldier at Mumbai railway station

The conviction also means a lot to the policemen who intercepted and arrested Qasab at a checkpoint on the night of the attack. I met one of them, Inspector Sanjay Govilkar. He was hunched over his desk at a police station when I paid him a visit. The 42-year-old officer had written a book on lifestyle disorders with a picture of a weary looking Bollywood actor on the cover. The book "explained physical stress and tension suffered by people working in shift duties."

A bullet from Qasab's AK-47 had grazed Mr Govilkar as his colleague Tukaram Omble had fallen on the gunman and smothered him even as he was riddled with bullets. "I am not so intelligent," Mr Govilkar told me. "I thought if we catch him alive, we will get evidence. So we did not shoot."

Mr Govilkar attributed Qasab's arrest and his survival to the divine and to karma. "One of my astrologers told me after the incident that at the age of 40, there was a chance of my meeting a sudden death. But it didn't happen because of my good deeds," he said.

Not much has changed since Qasab was held by Mr Govilkar and a posse of brave Mumbai policemen. It is a humbling reminder of the times we live in that the conviction came after a weekend of alerts about an imminent terror attack on Delhi's crowded markets.

Relations between India and Pakistan - the gunmen were allegedly trained across the border, and the peace process ground to a halt after the attacks - remain frosty despite a couple of brief, formal recent meetings between the two sides. So the verdict, as security analyst Ajai Sahni says, is "of academic interest...It will have no impact on the trajectory of terrorism in the country. It will also not bring about great transformations in the security system."

So has India learnt the lessons of Mumbai and secured itself better? It is difficult to say.Mumbai attack file photo

The government has set up a National Investigation Agency to strengthen internal security. (14 cases have been assigned to the agency for investigation and prosecution, and charge sheets have been filed in two, says the interior ministry). Four federal commando hubs have been set up in different cities to "ensure quick and effective response to any possible terror attack." (Commandos had to be flown in from Delhi hours after the attacks in 2008.) The government says it is tightening coordination between different intelligence agencies hobbled by slow bureaucracy, and strengthening coastal security.

But the weakest link - the ill-equipped, ill-paid, ill-trained police force - remains as weak as ever. Securing a country of one billion people in crowded, poorly-planned cities is a daunting task anyway. So India remains vulnerable to terror attacks.

Unless you listen to Devika Rotawan, who told me, "I want to become a policewoman to protect my country and kill the terrorists. Why do they kill innocent people?"

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