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Archives for November 2010

Indian media's credibility crisis

Soutik Biswas | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Indian news TV channels

"Indian journalists are fixers!" shouted a young lady in the audience during a play I attended in Mumbai last week. She even took the name of one of the country's leading news presenters to demonstrate her point. The play was about to begin, and one of the actors was engaging in casual banter with the audience. "Do you think news is unbiased in our country?" he asked.

Many in the audience guffawed, and the lady spoke up in outrage. At that moment it struck me how much the controversy over leaked phone conversations between some senior Indian journalists and a prominent lobbyist had enraged people. It is, clearly, the Indian media's biggest crisis of credibility.

To cut a long story short, transcripts of the leaked tapes, published in two magazines, reveal some journalists in conversation with a corporate lobbyist, who also owns a public relations company. Nothing wrong with that - journalists routinely speak to a range of people for information. In the leaked tapes, some of the reporters trade vicious gossip. Others "promise" to pass on sensitive political messages and information. Still others give the lobbyist tips on how to organise a scripted media interview with a business baron. The journalists have said in their defence that they have neither received any favours or relayed any information or fixed things as a result of these conversations.

People don't buy it entirely. A recent poll after the tapes were released showed that 86% of people felt let down by journalists. Also, 66% said that the media was protecting its own tribe by not reporting on the tapes adequately. Let's face it - the stock of journalists has hit a new low in India.

After last year's general elections, independent investigations revealed how "paid news" had become commonplace in many Indian papers and news channels - politicians were paying them to publish favourable stories. But the leaked tapes have cast a cloud over the credibility of some of the country's top journalists.

Whether the allegations of fixing and lobbying are true or not, we will possibly never know. But critics believe the tapes point to a bigger crisis in the media. The cosying up to politicians and businessmen is just one issue. Many point to an increasing lack of grace and dignity among many leading journalists, and the crass self-promotion that threatens to turn news into purely entertainment. My friend and editor Kai Friese says the mainstream media in India is "driven by compulsions of grand narcissism and greed".

Night after night, on India's news TV, top journalists, often fawning and self-righteous, conduct interviews and talk shows. It all sounds very noisy and rather contrived. They claim every other story as an exclusive, even when it isn't. Top film critics are paid off by producers to write glowing reviews - the Bollywood publicity machine has effectively muzzled most film criticism in India. Portions of an editor's letter to readers in a top magazine are plagiarised from a leading American online publication, then blamed on jet lag. Another big worry is how the public relations industry has subsumed a lot of journalism, mostly because journalists have been happy to play along.

Possibly, it had to happen in a country where institutions are weak and corruption is rife. It is an environment where the media can wield extraordinary power - and many a time this is used responsibly to expose and explore India's many ills. It is also an environment where journalists can lose their heads easily and suffer from delusions of grandeur because of easy access to politicians and businessmen. The fact that India remains an intensely hierarchical society also reflects the way journalists behave and interact with powerful politicians and businessmen - it is almost never a professional relationship between equals.

Most Indian media owners need a new covenant with their journalists. For too long and far too often, they have been seen to hire journalists to do their dirty work - negotiating with politicians, businessmen, public relations executives and lobbyists. It is an open secret that many editors and senior journalists are part-time reporters - and full-time fixers for their owners.

Critics say that many owners have emasculated editors so much that they have become faceless and supine, only too willing to roll over for the powers that be and facilitate deals. With some 60,000 newspapers and 500 news channels, India has one of the world's most vibrant and competitive media environments. It is now time to take a reality check and ask whether all is well with it.

The girl who identified Qasab

Soutik Biswas | 06:22 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010


Devika Rotawan

Anniversaries are remembrances of things past. But time has moved swiftly in Mumbai since the 26/11 attacks. On the city's looming billboards, the heroes and martyrs of 2008 have been replaced by the "villains" of 2010 - a former chief minister who quit over allegations of involvement in a housing "scam", a retired senior police officer who went to prison for molesting a young girl, a leading politician and a senior Commonwealth Games official who faces a corruption probe.

Anniversaries are also a time to find out how life has moved on for people affected by the tragedy. And whether their lives have changed - for better or for worse - after the cruel twist of fate.

So, on the eve of the second anniversary of 26/11, I go looking for Devika Rotawan, who was shot in the leg by Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, the only surviving gunman of the audacious attacks. She turned out to be a key witness and identified Qasab in the courts. (The gunman was sentenced to death by a special court earlier this year.) When I met her last November in her wretched one-room home in a bustling slum, the frail, smiling girl walked a slight limp, and told me she wanted to become a policewoman when she grew up. Her brother Jayesh lay sick in a corner with a debilitating bone disease, and her father Natwarlal, who had no work, worried about the future. The family had few possessions, and much of the compensation money - more than 200,000 rupees - had been spent on Jayesh's treatment.

Devika's fleeting fame - The girl who identified Qasab - keeps the family running. Her home is still basic with the pale yellow whitewash peeling off the walls, the dirty mattress, a few possessions - plastic chairs, a trunk, utensils. A TV set and a DVD player are the shiny new additions - both gifted by a prominent local politician who feted her at a reception earlier this year. A photograph of her mother Sarika, who died in 2006, has also found a place on the walls crowded with 26/11 drawings and calendars. And yes, Devika, who turns 12 next month, has begun going to a school for the first time in her life.

It wasn't easy, says Natwarlal. "It took months of persuasion. The school wanted proof that she was a 26/11 victim. The principal said admitting her would be a security risk, and the school could become a terrorist target. Can you believe it?" The school relented, he says, after media and public pressure. Does she like her school? I ask. Devika, immersed in her homework in a prim grey-and-white uniform, says: "I love it. But some of my classmates keep teasing me. They call me Qasab. Others heckle me as the girl who identified Qasab." Fame and infamy can sometimes go hand in hand.

Natwarlal and Devika Rotawan

Natwarlal, who once sold dry fruits for a living, still has no work. He tells me that he is scared to go out much as he gets a lot of threatening calls because of his daughter. "I get them at all hours," he tells me. "They call from all over the country. They say they will cut me into pieces because my daughter testified against Qasab." I ask him why he hasn't reported this to the police. "I have been to the police station. They tell me 'You are a tiger. Nobody can do anything to you'." Then why don't you change your number? I ask. He looks incredulously at me. "How can I change my number? The whole world knows this number. Obama knows this number!"

Natwarlal looks calm and relaxed as he talks about the telephone calls. Is he exaggerating and making up these stories? Why? Is this the only way, he feels, he can extract more out of the government in his daughter's name? He grumbles that the authorities still haven't given him a home that they promised. He says he has received more than 100,000 rupees over the past year from politicians and organisations for his daughter's bravery, but most of it has gone in treating his sick son. The family appears to be living off Devika's feat.

It is time to leave. I turn to Devika and ask whether she is happy. She looks up from her books, flashes a disarming smile and says: "I am happy and I am unhappy. I am unhappy because Qasab hasn't been hung yet. I am happy because I look forward to becoming a crime branch police officer when I grow up." It sounds disconcertingly scripted. Soon, we are standing outside in the sticky Mumbai afternoon. "Tomorrow is going to be a busy day," says Natwarlal. "So many news channels are going to visit us. I have to be at home for the interviews."

India's 'season of scams'

Soutik Biswas | 17:39 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


A Raja

There should be zero tolerance for corruption, India's well-meaning law minister Veerapa Moily told a meeting of federal investigators last year. In a forceful pitch, the erudite Mr Moily invoked some 15 writers and leaders, including Plato, Gandhi, Lincoln and Gladstone, to drive home the point that endemic corruption destroys societies. "While we all know that the cancer of corruption has seeped into the blood stream of our polity, the million dollar question that stares us in the face is what can be done other than what we have been doing in the name of combating this evil all along," wondered Mr Moily with his characteristic flourish.

All of this week, many Indians, long inured to corruption, have been asking the same question. A familiar "season of scams" has returned in a depressing re-run: the "mother of all scams", as the media never tires of describing a new one, is to do with telecoms, involving a senior minister who has resigned. In a damning report, federal auditors have accused Andimuthu Raja of underselling mobile phone "spectrum" licenses worth billions of dollars. Mr Raja denies the allegation and was feted by his supporters on his return to his native city of Chennai. The auditors believe the actions of his department could have cost India some $40bn in lost revenues.

As India has liberalised its economy and modernised, corruption has apparently spread to every area of life. Politicians and sports officials forged papers, bought stuff at inflated prices and generally cooked the books, it is alleged, in the run-up to the recently concluded Commonwealth Games. Retired senior army officers and relatives of senior politicians are accused of helping themselves to apartments meant for war widows in Mumbai. A building in Delhi collapses - killing more than 60 people - because municipal officials and police apparently looked the other way as the builder kept adding illegal floors. Two top teams of India's showpiece private cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League, are expelled after they are accused of fudging their ownership and financial details. Political corruption is rife: in the current elections in Bihar, India's poorest and most backward state, more than a quarter of candidates from the main political parties, by their own admission, are millionaires.

Corruption in India is the main route to power and wealth. It possibly begins with the symbiotic relationship between the corruption of the poor and the corruption of the rich. One trades political power for money; the other trades money for political power. But in both cases, as an analyst says, "something public - a vote or an office or decision - is sold for private gain".

India has been talking about cracking down on corruption since independence, when the first anti-corruption law came into being. In 1964, a landmark report on corruption by a former minister spoke of the "growth of corruption" and the need to arrest the "deterioration in the standards of public life". Six decades after independence India ranks 87 on Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, below Ghana and Rwanda.

The standards of public life have sunk - big business and politics enrich each other, and the judiciary and army is no longer free of taint. Many of India's politicians and civil servants and policemen are among the most corrupt in the world. Indians have wearily accepted graft as a fact of life - many of them believe that corrupt officials and policemen are the ones who perform most effectively as they work the system better. On a train journey many years ago, I heard a young fellow passenger loudly reassuring his friend's mother that her son's new appointment in a government office was good news because he would have abundant opportunities to "earn more than his wages". The old woman smiled wanly. When you live in a climate of corruption, it's easy to get corrupted.

Predictably, there is no dearth of institutions to check corruption in India. There's the federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), also tasked with bringing corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and policemen to book. There's the federal vigilance commission, headed by an independent ombudsman. Government ministries have vigilance officers scrutinising contracts. States have anti-corruption bureaus manned by police officers. A landmark right to information law promises much in making government accountable. Yet the cancer continues to spread, eating into the vitals of Indian life and polity.

Even when some of the wrongdoers are brought to book, nothing much happens. India has a sorry record in prosecuting people for corruption. There are more than 9,000 cases brought by the CBI pending in various courts. More than 2,000 of these cases have been pending for more than a decade. A large number involve public servants and their aides and associates who have been caught with their hands in the till. Justice delayed means the corrupt go scot-free. When it comes to convictions, things are grimmer - India has a conviction rate of about 42%, which must be one of the lowest in the world. The wheels of justice grind so slowly that most victims give up.

When institutions fail or are subverted by their political masters, the time comes to wage an old-fashioned war against graft. This war has to be fought by the people. Right now, it's only a section of the media and a clutch of brave freedom of information whistle-blowers who are fighting the battle. India - especially the acquiescent middle-class India of empty Facebook rage - has to begin believing that it doesn't have to live with corruption. Fumiko Nagano of the World Bank says transforming social norms is the key to fighting corruption. Indians have to change - and fight much harder - to get rid of the scourge.

Obama's 'grand' finale?

Soutik Biswas | 15:04 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010


Barack Obama addressing Indian parliament

A great finale. Well-crafted. Remarkable. Nice and positive. Workmanlike. Good oratory.

These were some of the early reactions from the foreign policy cognoscenti and lay analysts to President Obama's address to the Indian parliament. Others, still in a minority as the evening wore on, bemoaned that it was oratory without substance.

Even Mr Obama's sternest critics conceded there was something to praise in the speech. His invocation to India - where he even chose language from one of the poems of Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore - won a lot of brownie points. As analyst Zoya Hasan said: "It was a nice and positive appreciation of India. Indians looking for praise and flattery got that in dollops."

Others, like strategic affairs analyst Bharat Karnad, saw things differently. "The platitudes in the oratory were soaring. Mr Obama was supposed to be pressing the right buttons. But how hard did he want the buttons pushed?"

Good question. For when it came down to the bare essentials of the speech, the euphoria waned a bit.

Some felt Mr Obama's endorsement of a permanent seat for India in the UN did not sound very convincing. Others pointed out that the Republican opposition to Mr Obama was far more pro-Indian and may have gladly committed to India's place in the UN. As leading journalist MJ Akbar said: "His heart was not in [India's] membership. But it's an improvement from saying nothing."

Others like Sumit Ganguly, director of research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, defended Mr Obama's position, saying that it was "not possible for him to say anything more" because he "has to go home and build domestic consensus on the issue". In other words, there is no use being churlish and cribbing about the fact that he did not give a firmer commitment.

Most felt that Mr Obama "rapped India's knuckle" by saying that entry to the Security Council came with the essential caveats of responsibility, and the fact that all members have to abide by all resolutions, including on Iran and nuclear proliferation.

"They will be watching India's conduct as a non-permanent member over the next two years to see whether we are fulfilling those conditions. That is implicit in the speech. Obama is asking us to distance us from Iran. There are the beginnings of that in the speech," said a former Indian diplomat KC Singh.

Will India listen?

Many here say Mr Obama's criticism of "greedy and paranoid" Burma - a strategic friend of India - is misplaced. The US, they say, has a messy record of "nourishing military regimes", especially Pakistan.

It is difficult to see Mr Obama satisfying Indians fully on his stand on Pakistan. He clearly told the parliament that terror havens in Pakistan were unacceptable, echoing what Indian PM Manmohan Singh told reporters earlier in the day. Analysts say he mentioned Pakistan half a dozen times in the speech, but didn't come down hard enough on it for "encouraging state-sponsored terrorism against India".

"Our evidence shows collusion between the government and terrorists. He doesn't say a word about that apart from the cliches," says Mr Akbar. But don't despair, said another analyst. "US's relationship with India is multi-faceted. With Pakistan it is only a transactional one."

Only time will tell whether the speech is an inflection point in the relationship between the two countries. It may not have been a game-changing, dramatic speech - that could be expecting too much from a president who is under siege at home - but it did point to certain maturing and consolidation of ties between two nations who were direly suspicious of each other even a couple of decades ago.

Obama in India: Don't expect fireworks

Soutik Biswas | 15:48 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010


Posters about President Obama's visit in India

Don't expect fireworks. That's the message being sent out on the eve of President's Obama's visit to India which, incidentally, coincides with Diwali, the noisy festival of lights and pyrotechnics.

India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao says nobody should expect "big bang outcomes" from the visit. Talking about game changers, nothing can quite beat the civil nuclear co-operation deal which President Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, sewed up with PM Manmohan Singh in 2008. It's a tough act to follow for President Obama.

But that doesn't mean the end of headline-grabbing engagement between the two countries. As strategic affairs analyst C Rajamohan says: "Even though the US and India don't have any new big ideas, big ideas are going to thrust themselves upon the US-India relationship."

So the visit may not turn out to be a damp squib as some have predicted.

For one, President Obama's trip - the fifth US presidential visit to India since Independence and the third in the past decade - means different things to different people.

Most analysts believe that much of it is about the economy. President Obama wants India to help create jobs back home, where the economy is wheezing and the unemployment rate is hovering in double digits.

Gunjan Bagla, a mechanical engineer from India who now advises American companies curious about investing in India, says the trip is about mining the "new Wild West", as he describes India's voracious appetite for goods and services despite its chaotic systems. "It is the lure of the market that is enticing American companies," Mr Bagla told me this week. "The time is ripe for the US to export more into India." Mr Obama plans to double US exports in five years and India is one of the world's largest markets. No wonder some 250 businessmen are travelling with him to India.

Will President Obama manage to stitch up a defence deal? American companies are bidding for a lucrative contract to sell 126 fighter planes to India. And then there's the widely reported $45bn that India plans to spend on military hardware. American companies must also be sniffing for opportunities there. Boeing, according to reports, is primed to sell C-17 military transport aircraft to India in what would be the largest US defence deal to date with India.

Bilateral trade is expected to reach $50bn by March next year - and is more or less in balance. India is America's 14th largest trading partner, up from 25th in 2003. American exports to India have doubled between 2005 and 2009. Trade in services has leapt to $22bn, a sevenfold increase in the past 10 years.

But major roadblocks remain in the way of fuller trade with a country where, rosy opinion polls say, Americans are loved more than in many other places in the world. (The fabled American Dream may have weakened for many folks in the US, but for the more than 100,000 Indians studying there, it is still a powerful magnet.) Key lucrative sectors like insurance and retail, for example, have been slow in opening up.

Will President Obama push India to open up insurance, retail and banking further? India has been making noises about leaning favourably on multi-brand retail and its potential to create jobs despite stiff opposition from the communists and sections of the governing Congress party who fear the eclipse of India's millions of mom-and-pop friendly neighbourhood stores.

Obama tee shirts being sold in India shop

According to one back-of-the-envelope estimate by the US-India Business Council, $10bn in bilateral deals during the president's visit could save or create up to 100,000 US jobs. That's a decent number of jobs, and would give the president something to crow about after this week's setback in the mid-term elections.

To others, President Obama's visit is more about an increased strategic partnership with India.

Will he make a major push to support India's hopes of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Unlikely, say most analysts.

Will he facilitate easier access to US technology? Indian media is awash with reports that the president is likely to lift some of the sanctions on technology, mostly concerning equipment with both civilian and military uses. If this happens, it would possibly be the closest thing to a "big bang" announcement.

Will the president make a commitment to a deeper engagement in India about fighting terrorism? India's interior secretary recently expressed his chagrin over the US not sharing enough information about David Headley, who is on trial for helping plan the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks in 2008. The president has already spoken about a review of intelligence sharing; it couldn't have come at a better time.

What about what many perceive as growing differences over security in the dangerously troubled South Asia region? India insists Pakistan is the problem. Washington says Pakistan is an integral part of the solution. In his sensational new book Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward quotes President Obama telling a meeting of aides: "We need to move aggressively on India-Pakistan issues in order to try to reduce tensions between the two countries." If this is true, India would want more clarity from the president - any mention of Kashmir, as the president surely knows, is sure to raise the hackles of India. There may be no fireworks in the offing, but who said President Obama's visit is any less interesting?

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