February Issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 9 years ago

Asia’s third largest economy, a recession beater and an emblem of democracy in South Asia, India parades its moral and economic supremacy in the volatile subcontinent that witnesses frequent political turmoil.

November 2010, and Barack Obama, the president of supposedly the most powerful nation on earth, comes calling on India with the combined charm of his oratory and his graceful wife, Michelle. He shops for jobs to offset an election rebuke back home and goes back smiling, rewarding India with ample accolades for its democracy and intellectual wealth.

It was indeed what an Indian political analyst described as “the coming-of-age story of India,” emerging as an economic powerhouse with a phenomenal growth rate. The  Indian economy’s upward gradient is also the country’s bargaining chip with recession-hit USA vis-à-vis Pakistan, a key US ally against terrorism.

On the eve of this Republic Day on January 26, India’s President, Pratibha Singh Patil, in her national address projected growth to be 9% in 2011-2012.

But with all its achievements and ability to keep home-fires burning in the US, India’s economic arrival story is somewhat besmirched by viral corruption and its attendant malaises, often with violent manifestations.

Well, India’s story can well be the story of the Indian subcontinent, shaken to the core by graft. The nexus of power and pelf  may be as old as civilisation and prostitution, but Indian politicians are conformists personified when it comes to carrying forward that legacy — be it in issuing licences for mobile phone spectrums or building houses for war heroes or organising the Commonwealth Games.

After battling the opposition which had deadlocked the parliament during its entire winter session in December, demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the 2G mobile spectrum allocation scandal (estimated to be a graft worth $40 billion by issuing licences to rookie companies), January was another cruel month for the ruling Congress.

The centre-left party that juggles a coalition of many regional parties with myriad aspirations invited more bristling remarks from the country’s Supreme Court for shielding the black money offenders.

The government this time feigned its dilemma over disclosing the names of 26 Indians who have stashed away black money in Germany’s Liechtenstein Bank. The Swiss bank account details of Indians were also provided to WikiLeaks by private banker-turned-whistleblower Rudolf Elmer.

India’s Supreme Court reprimanded the government when it pleaded helplessness with an affidavit on revealing the names of the Indians with black money in Liechtenstein Bank in Germany, “owing to treaties with foreign countries.”

Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that though no reliable estimate of black money is available, the government is formulating a five-pronged strategy to bring back the money stashed in foreign banks and stop further outflow. Needless to say, his words had no takers.

According to a recent report by Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI), India lost a total of $213 billion in capital via “illicit financial flows” from 1948 through 2008.

“These illicit financial flows were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, criminal activities and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities,” states the report, which was written by India-born Dev Kar, a former senior economist at the International Monetary Fund. According to the GFI report, the present value of India’s total illicit financial flows is at least $462 billion.

While the Indian government hems and haws on tracking black money offenders, corruption spreads its tentacles deeper into every government department, sparing none.

Last week, I went to obtain a clearance letter from a district magistrate to register two publications I have started for myself.

The official came across as a very helpful person, taking me through a guided tour of filling the puzzling government forms. But when I was about to leave, he told me, point blank, in the presence of several others: “You have to pay 800 rupees, or else it can get delayed.”

Corruption spares none. The collective sufferings of Indians at the hands of corrupt officials and politicians make it the nation’s biggest unifying factor — more so than cricket.

India’s Assanges

India completed 61 years as a republic on January 26 with the usual pomp and glory in Delhi. But before the nation set eyes on TV sets to watch the annual display of the country’s rumbling military might, they got a taste of the country’s oil mafia. The nation woke up to a horrific headline — the burning down of an honest government official. His crime: an attempt to film oil pilferage in a western town. An additional district collector, the upright Yashwant Sonawane, was burnt alive in Manmad in Maharashtra state by the local oil mafia goons when he tried to check suspicious oil tankers on the road.

Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama. Photo: AFP

Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama. Photo: AFP

In the recent past, India’s whistle-blowers have been some of the worst victims, and many have paid with their lives. In January, there were more such attacks on the RTI (Right To Information) activists. One activist is now in hospital recovering from bullet wounds, after he was attacked twice in a week in Uttar Pradesh state.

India enacted the historic Right To Information Act in 2005, “to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens,” but the act is not exactly an armed cop who can protect RTI activists seeking information from the government and inviting violent backlashes.

If corruption is the biggest social leveler in India, its shadow is often dark and long, enough to consume lives of innocent and honest people.

The social disparity, corruption, human rights abuse and underdevelopment has cost India dearly now, with the homegrown Maoists presenting a bigger challenge to the nation than difficult neighbours. The Maoist rebels emerge from the jungles and ambush men in uniform, and even civilians, as they spray bullets, blast landmines and raid villages and police camps. India needs to clean up its act on the social front to avoid a precipice.

Bollywood 2011: Eves Take All

Growing up on an overdose of Bollywood movies, I remain emotion’s favourite child when it comes to cinema of the absurd. My heart still skips a beat or two with the roller coaster ride of the protagonists, their rags-to-riches journeys, the triumph of good over evil, the beauty over the beast.

Bollywood was, however, balanced by a generous dose of the art house works of Bengali maestros like Satyajit Ray and the mutinous genre of Mrinal Sen and his ilk. Cinema was clearly divided between two genres in India — the song and dance Bollywood Mainstream and the grime and dirt Art House. But it was not until I entered journalism and got an opportunity to cover the film festival in Kolkata, year after year, that the richness of world cinema impacted my palate.

Thankfully, the communist government that has ruled my home state West Bengal uniterruptedly since 1977, has a culture-loving chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Kolkata had been blessed with a state-sponsored international film festival. Although the annual film carnival is now losing prominence and sheen every year in direct proportion to the waning popularity of the Marxists, the benefit that a bourgeois like me reaped from the festival was enormous.

My fascination for Bollywood, however, never waned, thanks to its gorgeous women like Rekha and Parveen Babi.

Many complain about the stereotyped portrayal of women in Indian cinema and how they play second fiddle, often arm candies to the dominant males. The criticism is not unfounded.

However, two women actors in the mid-70s who defeated the Bollywood trends, both in art house and popular cinema, were Shabana Azmi and the late Smita Patil. Even when women were mere decorative pieces in Bollywood, after the rule of screen goddesses like Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman ended, these two actors were exceptions, with the media always pitting them against each other in the talent race till Smita Patil died in 1986.

In the recent past, women of substance are back in the race. And the most exciting woman on the block is not an actress, but an unassuming lady called Kiran Rao, wife of Aamir Khan, considered one of the most cerebral of the three powerful Khans of Indian cinema.

Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat is world cinema at its best, despite being made in Bollywood.

“Kiran Rao’s first film is an atmospheric mood piece,” writes NDTV film critic Anupama Chopra, whom I found miserly for awarding the film three points on a scale of one to five.

The story of four lives and an unforgiving  metro that cross and influence each other in a format that is refreshing to the Indian cinema-goers conquered me. This is a film of a different genre but the ride with the characters till the film’s emotional climax, with each one pulling the heart strings of the audiences, is enrapturing.

Pakistan as I know is sold on Bollywood of the absurd. But for discerning Pakistan cine-goers, Dhobi Ghat will be a new experience from an industry that churns out the most implausible flicks.

The year also opened with the success of a no-man’s zone film, No One Killed Jessica, based on the 1999 incident in New Delhi, when the son of a politician shot dead an upcoming model, Jessica Lall, who was bartending at a socialite’s night party. The petite Rani Mukerji makes a comeback in the role of a journalist, modelled after a hugely popular TV personality in India, while the graceful Vidya Balan sports a deglamourised, bespectacled look as she essays Jessica’s stoic crusading sister.

The box-office success of the moderately rated film that draws from the real life and the growing civil society movement in India, busted the Bollywood myth that no-hero films do not work.

Eves take it all in the Bollywood of 2011.