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11 May 2011

Against Or Allied To Corruption?

How Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Co took the unassuming people of this country for a ride

[Click on the headline to hear Shambhu Dutt Sharma speak]

The 5-8 April spectacle at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, was nothing but a corporate conspiracy of expending the energies of the Great Indian Huddle-and-Muddle Class, as mass mobilisation by Baba Ramdev and satyagraha by veteran Gandhian Shambhu Dutt Sharma was making them increasingly jittery. The unfolding of the events also suggests, at least in hindsight and going by the confessions of a drunk journalist, that the UPA Government was complicit in the act of trickery.
When the pressure was building up: Baba Ramdev addressing
a rally at Ramlila Maidan on 27 February 2011; the group went on to
submit a memorandum containing 10 demands to the President

To grab maximum eyeballs, the show was timed conveniently to fall between the end of the ICC World Cup tournament and the beginning of DLF-sponsored Indian Premier League. If the organisers had been driven by conviction, the India against Corruption (IaC) conveners would have dared to stage the programme in the middle of the World Cup. And a heavy attendance at New Delhi's designated spot for demonstrations despite the occasion's clash with a popular TV spectacle would have proved how concerned the assemblers actually were about the sorry state of the country.

The 93-year-old veteran Gandhian, Sharma — also the founder of Transparency International (India) — had been pressing for the same bill (Lokpal) and more for ages at the spot where IaC conducted its show later. His team, called the Gandhian Seva Brigade (GSB), had been on a relay hunger strike at Jantar Mantar for the last six months of 2010, pressing for the implementation of recommendations of the 1999 Law Commission report, which included confiscation of property of government functionaries found guilty of corrupt acts and proscription of candidates facing prolonged trials related to corruption from fighting elections [the last demand has incidentally found support from the last four Chief Election Commissioners as well]. When into their sixth month of peaceful demonstration, members of GSB came across those of IaC, and some information about the struggle were shared with the latter. This writer does not have information regarding the people IaC's members met in the period between that meeting and 30 January 2011.

On the Martyr's Day, IaC was supposed to arrive at Jantar Mantar to meet Sharma and seek his blessings for an anti-corruption drive. However, the rally they had called at Ramlila Maidan drew such a massive crowd that the whole lot couldn't possibly proceed to meet the Gandhian. Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and a few others made it nevertheless.

The mention of an incident that happened backstage that day is warranted here. Some enthusiastic youths had brought to the Ramlila ground posters of much-maligned Suresh Kalmadi and A Raja so that they could be blackened in a display of protest and bring indignation to the alleged masterminds behind the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and 2nd Generation telecom spectrum allocation (2G) scams respectively. The organisers protested. With the alibi that the posters were going to turn the movement political, they ordered their removal. A fellow activist who was witness to the cover-up wondered how serious these people were in fighting corruption. Also, a former Supreme Court advocate, who has long left his flourishing practice of law to devote all his time to social causes, refused to share dais with IaC conveners after he detected an agent of the Tata Group, sullied by the infamous Niira Radia tapes, in their midst.

Anyway, Anna Hazare's motley team, leaving other demonstrators behind, did meet Sharma that evening. They sat at his feet and requested him to handover the charge of his movement to them so that they could further the agenda on a bigger scale. Impressed by their zeal and a promise for a better support system for the protest, an unassuming Sharma obliged, only to find within a few days that the issue was derailed with a politically significant climbdown from the demand for the law to mere representation in the bill's drafting committee. The IaC, clearly firing shots from the shoulders of a noble but uneducated Anna Hazare, did not even feel it fit to take the conceiver of the movement — who happens to be a qualified lawyer as well as a veteran of both the 1942 Quit India Movement and Jayaprakash Narayan Movement — into confidence to decide whether it would be morally (or even practically) right to give the people's movement such a sudden, arbitrary and distracting direction.

The sheep that didn't know where they were being herded:
Much of this crowd (photographed by the writer on 5 April 2011)
comprised RSS swayamsevaks and activists of Bharat Swabhiman
Any political observer worth his salt will tell you that a real revolutionary never speaks the language of compromise. A revolutionary does not make a demand with the consideration of whether or not it will be accepted by the authority. If finally you are leaving the fate of the bill at the mercy of Parliament, to what avail was this "Second Independence Movement"? [This nomenclature was yet another display of the city-bred middle class's ignorance of contemporary history, completely oblivious of the JP Movement of the 1970s]

Thereafter, the whole media was herded by an unseen force, as they united for the propaganda of a swelling population of demonstrators at Jantar Mantar. Clear falsehoods — like 15,000 people having congregated at Jantar Mantar, when the fact is that the said spot could by no stretch of imagination hold that many people — were propagated to create a false impression of groundswell. Obviously, since none of the declared organisers of IaC had that kind of money to buy the whole of the Indian electronic media (the print media, barring frivolous papers like The Times of India, were sceptical throughout), they must have had corporate backers. As a lifelong crusader against corruption Vineet Narain noted in the 27 May seminar organised by KN Govindacharya's Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan, "71 OB vans gathered at the spot even before the story could unfold and develop" was a good enough reason for raised eyebrows.

Outside Delhi, the television channel crews hurriedly huddled a few people at various spots and photographed them to purport the idea of 'popular' support for Hazare, even as the residents of those respective cities wondered where, if at all, the shows were going on!

In fact, The Indian Express wouldn't have bothered, had one of the well-meaning members of the otherwise fake uprising, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, not gone about the town maligning the Reliance Industries. Things were perfectly fine for the said newspaper till the time Sonia Gandhi and her acolytes alone were IaC's targets. But how could Mukesh Ambani have allowed the newspaper, which is virtually his show, to sit back and watch the proceedings as a mute spectator when it was his reputation at stake, quipped more than one senior journalist whom this writer met with to organise the aforementioned seminar. Ergo, Pratap Bhanu Mehta's intellectual reservations about the Jan Lokpal Bill was not enough; the image of the Bhushans needed to be tarnished in retaliation so that their allegations regarding the legatee of the 'polyester prince' lose steam. Of course, the father-son duo must explain why they should not be deemed hypocritical for being a part of a movement that, among other things, aims at curbing the political executive's discretionary powers when they have themselves enjoyed the fruits of such discretion by the Uttar Pradesh Government. But why should the rest of the country miss the wood for the trees?
End of farceGovernment negotiator
Kapil Sibal claiming an equal share
in 'victory of democracy'

In the meantime on the government front, a drama of reluctance was being staged, which was only in accordance with the play's script that had to wind up before the IPL so that Kapil Sibal's team could claim an equal share of grace by touting the government's 'sensitivity' and hailing the 'victory of democracy', and the assembly of part-time, bleeding heart patriots could go back home to watch pop cricket, and resume their jobs in the corporate sector (whose corruption does not bother them). The negotiators in the government panel like Law Minister Veerappa Moily and the communications minister knew very well that the likes of civil society representative Kejriwal stood no chance of winning any round of negotiation while encountering their legal brains when the drafting committee would get down to work, irrespective of the latter's bona fides. Out of the legal eagles in the 'civil society' panel — Shashi and Prashant Bhushan, and Santosh Hegde — the first has not been physically fit enough to stand gruelling sessions of bargaining. The second and third have already contributed to the cause by drafting the Jan Lokpal Bill, IaC's version of the proposed/demanded law; they have nothing more to add. Now, how are you going to deal with two of the sharpest legal brains of the country with the handicapped team of a former IRS officer and a former driver in the Indian Army? [No offence meant for any of the professions; it's just a question of educational qualification and professional competence]

Finally, let me also share what the government thinks it has done to the people. A senior journalist of Hindustan Times, known for his proximity to the Congress 'high command', accidentally or on purpose, stumbled upon the head of NGO 5th Pillar, after the latter had conducted a Delhi chapter of his public awareness programme at the India Habitat Centre in collaboration with TI. The journalist has similarly been in touch with the leaders of many other public movements in the country, those in particular who are Delhi-based. After a few drinks, this is what he came out with (overheard): "Revolution? What revolution? We have spent people's energy already. They think they have done their patriotic bit... They're not going to come out of their houses and offices before another 10 years."

Meanwhile, GSB has been maintaining a benign silence in the public on the issue despite lamenting the act of treachery in private circles. Some concerned citizens are of the view that, IaC's act of betrayal notwithstanding, Hazare's team cannot retreat now; for, a movement after being launched perforce becomes public property and ceases to be its leaders' intellectual property. Hazare, though a Gandhian, is no Gandhi. No Chauri Chaura can lead to a withdrawal of this age's Non-Cooperation Movement which is overdue. If for nothing else, to prove that allegations such as the one made in this article are false, IaC has to abandon its behind-the-scene allies and forward the baton of an impending people's revolution, just as the Congress could no longer afford to remain a mere interface between the British Empire and its Indian subjects, and keep acting as a safety valve that releases indigenous resentment off and on, a few years after it was established by AO Hume.

The original: Shambhu Dutt Sharma (second from left of
the frame) fasting at Jantar Mantar, where Team Anna
would hold their demonstrations much later, after having
usurped the issue from him
Till then, the Vineet Narains and Prashant Bhushans of the world must kiss and make up [the latter refused to share stage with the former on seeing his name in the list of speakers in the seminar by RSA]. My senior colleague Sudesh Verma's invite was turned down by Father Dominic Emmanuel to avoid some embarrassment he can best explain. On my seeking information about the latest development in negotiations between IaC and the government, Kiran Bedi struck me off her friends' list on Facebook. Constitution expert Subhash C Kashyap said he could attend our brainstorming session only if former CJI JS Verma agreed to come too, and Justice (retd) Verma said he'd rather avoid repeating his stand and that he was loath to studying the merits of demands made by a certain baba (reference to Baba Ramdev, whose 10 demands made to the government were studied by the posse of experts convened by the RSA on 27 May).

Dear patriots, to overthrow the Mafia that rules the country at present, the power of any one of you will not be enough. Forget your little differences and join hands for the legitimate rights of the people. Nitpickings can wait, freedom can't.


Sources of information: Gandhian Seva Brigade's members Shambhu Dutt Sharma and SK Agarwal, former CBI joint director BR Lall, constitution expert Subhash C Kashyap, former Supreme Court Bar Association secretary Ashok Arora, 5th Pillar national convener MG Devasahayam, Jago Party member Surya Prakash Loonker, activists of RSS and Bharat Swabhiman who had lent their support to Anna Hazare during his 5-8 April hunger strike, besides this writer's interaction with other people named in the article

23 March 2011

Was VSNL BJP's 2G?

Response to Purnima S Tripathi's article
[click on the headline for the Frontline feature]

From an editor's perspective, I see some loopholes in the writer's argument. First, it's a leftist viewpoint, which dictates that profit-making PSUs should not be divested. As per the point of view of an advocate of liberal market, however, government has no business being in the telecom trade; it must confine itself to social sectors. It further dictates that governments cannot sustain the vibrancy of a company in the long run, no matter how sound the fundamentals of the company are at the time of disinvestment.

Second, when the writer says, "Industry experts... pointed out that the company was doing well... ," one wonders who these "experts" are, as none is quoted to that effect in the article. Prabir Purkayastha, whose views are explained in the next paragraph, appears to be the only person on whose views the article is based. And he cannot be an expert, as he contradicts himself by saying on the one hand that "government should not be in the telecom business" and opining that "the NDA government... compromised the national interest" and also "showed scant business sense" on the other. The next quote is from Dipankar Mukherji, a leftist trade unionist.

To be fair to Purkayastha, it may be questioned whether he was actually interviewed by Tripathi or she merely copied contents from this 12 January 2009 article, and hashed it in such a manner that two separate statements by the 'expert' did not add up. Notably, unlike the lines of Mukherji, those of Purkayastha are not mentioned in quotes; hence the suspicion.

Third and this is a personal view it's difficult to believe Arun Shourie is corrupt or even corruptible. His personal life shows no evidence of his raking in the moolah from shady deals. And, as a professional, he has maintained across all the disinvestments he has presided over from Centaur Hotel to VSNL that he could only sell to such companies that appeared for the bids.

Fourth, if the Tatas had been a beneficiary of the NDA regime, Ratan Tata must be quite an oaf to have damned that dispensation recently for not letting his domestic airlines take off.

Fifth, with the Communications Ministry now under his belt, the part of the investigation ordered by Kapil Sibal which deals with the de-merger of surplus VSNL land in Dighi (Pune), Halishahar (Kolkata), Chhattarpur (Delhi), Greater Kailah (New Delhi) and Padianallur (Chennai), measuring 773.13 acres, does not make eminent sense. Just a stern message from the minister to his office should see its functionaries rush to him with all relevant files and explanations. The other part, probing into the NDA's manner of divesting the PSU in 2002, does hold water.

Let's begin with philosophy. The very premise on which disinvestments are based is questionable. If the free market principle calls for competition, it defies reason why the government should facilitate the private sector waiting to devour PSUs to kill the contest, and why, instead of building a company from scratch, it should get a readymade one served on a platter. Howsoever high the price the private player is made to pay for the deal, it can never match the long-term gains it snatches away from the exchequer.

VSNL Managing Director SK Gupta, Union Communications Minister Pramod Mahajan and Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata at a function held on 13 February 2002 to sign the shareholders' agreement for VSNL in Mumbai [Photo courtesy: Frontline]
Furthermore, while Shourie might be a man of high scruples, not even the staunchest BJP supporter would vouch for the bona fides of Pramod Mahajan, the then communications minister. I suspect he created such procedural hassles at his end in the Communications Ministry that Shourie, waiting in his office of the Divestment Ministry, was left with little choice but to keep postponing the intimation to the prospective bidders about the withdrawal of the contingent liability of Rs.1,402.80 crore on VSNL till only a day before the bid was opened. Within a day, the industry couldn't have thrown up better offers, and so the Tatas got away by paying a price just marginally higher (Rs 1,439 crore) than the contingent liability cost. Telecom beat journalists would speculate in 2002 that Mahajan was unhappy with Shourie who appeared to be 'favouring' the Tatas. No prizes for guessing whom Mahajan favoured; he might not have calculated that the delay caused by his ministry wouldn't benefit the company that he has often been accused of being a stooge of.

On his part, Shourie was lazy, if not dishonest, and his officers were incompetent. Nothing else explains the valuation of a total of more than 700 acres of prime land at Rs 151 crore when just the plot of Greater Kailash would cost nothing less than Rs 2 crore an acre in 2002 and Rs 16 crore per acre as of now! One of those bureaucrats eventually emerged as a dodgy character in l'affaire Niira Radia: Pradip Baijal, the then chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

And why is Shourie lazy, if nothing else? Because he made no effort to detach the surplus land before VSNL went to the Tatas. And now Ratan Tata's company has reason to create roadblocks in dissociating the land from itself as the group chairman indicated in his letter to Shourie, dated 27 February 2004: "... there is a specific proviso in these agreements that permits (the) Tatas to consider delivering value to the Government as also to the exiting shareholders at the time of disinvestment by virtue of paying an amount equivalent to 45% of the value of the land as determined by an appraiser defined in the Shareholder's Agreement." Is it too simplistic to conclude, therefore, that the Tatas are waiting for the de-merger to come unstuck so that the prime plots go to it at 45% of their real value?
Yesterday, Shourie defended his decision only to the extent of addressing the 'land grab' issue in response to the current Communication Minister Kapil Sibal's ordering a probe into the delay in de-merger of surplus land from VSNL (now Tata Communications). The former minister, cooling his heels at the margins of his party, the BJP, says, "There are such stringent clauses that the person who wins the bid on VSNL, we have provided, shall not have any right on the land at all." He has yet to clarify his stand on the charge that, overall, the deal was a sell-out.
As Shourie and Sibal spar over the 2002 deal, daring each other through media sound-bytes, the next move of the leftists will be interesting to note. Will they take a cue from the Frontline article to put the BJP in a spot, or will they find it politically unwise to spend a part of their anti-Congress energy in panning the right-of-centre party when it is Sonia Gandhi's party that they must take head-on in this season of Assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala?

Finally, if selling a PSU away at a throwaway price is a done thing, what wrong has A Raja done? As in the case of the 2G scam, where initial bidders sold the spectrum to their clients at a much higher rate, here too a prospective loss to the people can be calculated on the basis of the money the Tatas made by diverting funds from VSNL to Tata Teleservices.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.