Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Massacre & Indian Intellectual Chicanery

Two demons barged into an editorial conference at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and gunned down ten innocent, unsuspecting human beings. While making their retreat they gunned down two security officials. It was a barbaric, act. It was a heinous crime against humanity. Two of their possible accomplices shot dead a policewoman; held a Jewish grocery store hostage and killed four innocent shoppers. The macabre acts were not done in the heat of passion. They were cold-blooded and premeditated. They cannot be justified no matter what the provocation was. They should be condemned in no uncertain terms. There should be no equivocation. There can be no alibis and no ifs and buts.

The international media has condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre in unequivocal terms. Any right thinking individual would do it. Any right thinking individual in the media or public life would do it, not just because those in public life or the media thrive on ‘freedom of expression’ but because it is the morally right thing to do.

In its editorial on January 7, The Guardian opined that the gruesome incident should be condemned without equivocation:

“Events in Paris today were beyond belief, indeed beyond words. The adjectives are simply not there to capture the horror unleashed by weapons of war in a civilian office. The hooded thugs trained their Kalashnikovs on free speech everywhere. If they are allowed to force a loss of nerve, conversation will become inhibited, and the liberty of thought itself will falter too. […] The targeting of a weekly editorial conference implies a ruthless concern to maximise the toll, pursued with chilling preparedness. […] All those who are appalled by these crimes must use the free speech which the killers sought to silence – and use it to condemn them, without equivocation.”

In its editorial, The Washington Post (January 7) lamented that:

“SEVERAL PUBLISHERS in Western countries have disgraced themselves in recent years with self-censorship to avoid being targeted by Islamic militants. […] Media in democratic nations must also consciously commit themselves to rejecting intimidation by Islamic extremists or any other movement that seeks to stifle free speech through violence. […] Such acts cannot be allowed to inspire more self-censorship – or restrict robust coverage and criticism of Islamic extremism.”

Post-revolution France is given to democratic freedoms (her motto is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) like the ancient Indian empires such as Magadha, Maurya, Gupta and the more recent Vijayanagara et al. Unlike contemporary India where secularism is a political tool France is a truly secular republic which in its original sense means that the church and government should remain aloof from each other.

Charlie Hebdo has not singled out Islam in its criticism. Indeed, in the past it ridiculed the Catholic Church and the Pope himself. The role of the Indian media in condemning the massacre is none too edifying. It could not whole-heartedly condemn the massacre, consumed as it is by dhimmitude and probably chastened by past experience:

The 1986 attack on Deccan Herald, Bangalore  is a case in point. The provocation was the English translation of a short story the paper published  the original of which was published a decade earlier in a Kerala newspaper. In the violence that followed sixteen people were killed

The Bangalore offices of the The New Indian Express came under religious fire over an article it published on the New Year Day of 2000. It was written by senior journalist T. J. S. George who merely referenced a seven-hundred year old work of the Italian poet/philosopher Dante. He had to go underground for several days to escape the wrath of lynch mobs. 

According to a 2002 article in India Today ‘[a]ll four English newspapers in Bangalore [Deccan Herald, The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Times Of India] have had their offices vandalized by Muslim mobs on the flimsiest of pretexts’ at one time or other.

The violent reactions might not have been spontaneous. They might have been instigated by the zeitgeist of competitive secular assertiveness. (Here the word ‘secular’ must be understood in its skewed Indian sense.)

There are other violent instances perpetrated in the name of Islam such as the 2007 attack on Bangladeshi writer Tasliman Nasreen in Hyderabad.

In another gruesome instance T. J. Joseph, a Malayalam professor at Newman College in Thodupuzha, Kerala had his hand cut off as punishment for blasphemy. According some reports the punishment was awarded by a Taliban type kangaroo court (Darul Khada). Intimidated by the barbarity of the attack, rather than defending its professor, the college dismissed him from service. Four years later, daunted by the financial difficulties faced by the family, the professor’s wife who was an eye-witness to the macabre incident committed suicide by hanging herself.

Sadly, none of the Indian intellectuals – a tribe which rushes to petition all and sundry on behalf of convicted criminals – condemned the Paris massacre. Congress politicians, Mani Sankar Aiyer and Digvijay Singh justified the horrific incidents by finding alibis for the killer demons.

The Indian media tried another tack to soften the blow by finding false moral equivalence with some real or imagined protests by the majority religion. Invariably the protests against M. F. Hussain’s paintings (some of which desecrated Hindu goddesses) and the recent movie PK (which ridiculed Hindu god-men) were cited. None of these incidents are even remotely comparable with the Paris massacre in scale or gruesomeness. They were protests by a section of people who were offended. Equating the two is bizarre. It amounts to intellectual and political chicanery. If right to offend as a facet of free speech is an acceptable democratic right, so should be the right to protest.

The Indian media would do well to heed Eric Wenkle (Washington Post, January 7) when he said that it is inadvisable to describe Charlie Hebdo as a ‘satirical magazine’ or a weekly ‘satirical newspaper’ as it would be distracting from the magnitude of the crime committed on its editors:

“The magazine famously deploys satire and art to convey it message. Yet the label, at least on this occasion, carries a distracting and diversionary impact, which is somehow to distinguish or distance the work of Charlie Hebdo form the work of a regular old magazine or newspaper. For the purpose of what happened today, however there is no distinction: These were journalists who died because of what they produced.”

The Indian politicians who found alibis and the Indian media which drew false moral equivalence with past Hindu protests are – it appears – attempting to somehow diminish the diabolical nature of the massacre.

There would be no point in arguing that these were only ‘reactions brought about by provocations’ or in any way rationalizing the incident by trying to ‘put it in context’ as the politicians sought to do. As Padraig Reidy (The Telegraph, January 7) put it:

“Jihadists kill because that is what they do. It does not matter if you are a French cartoonist or a Yezidi child, or an aid worker or journalist: if you are not one of the chosen few, you are fair game. Provocation is merely an excuse used by bullies to justify their actions, while ensuring the world bows to their will.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is astrology science or superstition?

On the eve of the May 2014 general elections, several Telugu news channels conducted what they call ‘panel discussions’ on astrology. It would be a mistake to expect ‘panel discussions’ on television to be objective in which the two sides of the issues under discussion are debated and rational conclusions arrived at. There is nothing rational or scientific about the debates. The subjects are selected based on their topicality to arouse viewer interest and are subject to two limitations: the channel’s political worldview and political correctness of the subject. Commercial interests of course determine a channel’s political worldview. As for political correctness even the most intrepid champions of freedom of speech tread cautiously as they are wary of backlash. If they are sure there would be no backlash, they would go overboard flogging the issue. There is no need to state the converse.

In the discussions on astrology, a couple of ‘not-very-articulate’ astrologers were pitted against rabble rousing rationalists and asked to predict the outcome of the elections. Despite protestations that Jyothisha predictions should not be made without sufficient data they were made to predict electoral outcomes, only to be jeered at. The anchors saw to it that the odd articulate astrologer did not get enough air time. He was simply shouted down in cacophony. The overt objection of the rationalists to astrology is that it is unscientific. If the objections were really ‘scientific’, they should have objected to such disciplines as craniometry (measurement of the head), phrenology (measurement of the skull) and nasal indices as predictors of race not to speak of the wholly unscientific Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) - which was based not on historical or archaeological evidence but on comparative philology!

Their unstated, underlying objection could be that it is a Hindu discipline! The rationalists, with their pathological rather than logical hatred for everything Hindu forget that the original Jyothisha Vedänga concerned itself with astronomy, not astrology. The primary objective of this Vedic addendum (of the Rig and Yajur Vedas) was in the preparation of almanacs. The Indian almanac writers known as Siddhantis have been producing accurate almanacs for hundreds of years. The predictive discipline of astrology was a latter-day offshoot, just as psephology was an offshoot of political science which itself can hardly be described as science. The question that the faux rationalists should seriously introspect is why do they unquestioningly believe in psephology while they equally irrationally disbelieve in astrology.

What logical arguments do the rationalists offer in support of their contention that astrology is unscientific? Do they offer cogent reasoning and verifiable proofs? No, just an arrogant and unsubstantiated assertion that it is ‘impossible’! In the history of science, there are many examples which disprove the theory of ‘impossibility’ when subsequent discoveries upturned confident assertions. For example, in 1800, the English scientist John Dalton proposed that the atom was the smallest particle of elements and is indestructible.

Eysenck and Nias list several ‘impossibility’ theories which fell flat when subsequent discoveries disproved them.  (Eysenck, H. J., and and Nias, D.K.B., 1984. Astrology Science or Superstition? New York. Penguin Books). In 1933 Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford two of the world’s greatest physicists declared that the splitting of an atom could have no practical uses. Just twelve years later America dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many countries in the world today harness the energy released by the splitting of an atom for peaceful uses.

Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus, all dismissed the theory that oceanic tides were caused by the moon as ‘astrological nonsense’. Johannes Muller, a very reputed nineteenth century physiologist and the author of an authoritative monograph on the subject, declared that measuring the speed of a nervous impulse would never be possible. Only three years later Helmholtz had measured it quite accurately.

What is science and what are the criteria that should be satisfied for a discipline to be declared scientific? Eysenck and Nias suggest three methodologies. Sir Francis Bacon’s induction method involves collection of facts and a theory hypothesized based on them. The Vienna School of Logical positivism suggests that a theory is proposed which is then verified or disproved by research. Then there is Sir Karl Popper’s argument that no theory can be finally verified as, even after a theory is verified umpteen times, one more experiment might still disprove it. The catch in this proposition is that Popper believes that ‘a theory is scientific if it is open, not to being proved true (which it never can) but to being proved wrong’. The authors argue that none of these methodologies were ever applied to astrology before disqualifying it as science.

A generally accepted criterion for a scientific theory is that its results should be replicable, i.e. it should yield predictable results and that the same results should be obtained in repeated experiments. Let us consider the example of modern medicine to validate this theory. Medical magazines regularly publish clinical trial reports of medical, surgical, radiological or other procedures used in the treatment of diseases. The reports very rarely report 100% cure rates with several trials reporting as low as 60-70% successes. This means the results of curative procedures used in modern medicine are not always replicable. In spite of this anomaly, none disputes that modern medicine is a scientific discipline. ‘Statistical significance’ (rather than absolute conformity) is an accepted criterion for validation of results in ‘double blind cross over’ clinical trials used to study the efficacy of medicines. A majority of rationalists appear to be unaware of such nuances in scientific criteria.

[As an aside it should be mentioned that one of the panelists representing the rationalists in the television debates mentioned earlier is a medical doctor, who could not have been unaware of such criteria. Therefore there is no rational explanation for his obdurate behavior in demanding absolute conformity as the scientific criterion.]

While Eysenck and Nias do not explicitly say that astrology is a scientific discipline, the do not dismiss it as superstition either. They argue that more data is needed to come to a definite conclusion and more research. They cite the work of Michel and Francoise Gaquelin to support their view. The Gaquelins were not astrologers but professional psychologists steeped in the ways of research. Their work in cosmobiology found a positive correlation between certain personality traits (which determine professional success) and planetary positions at the time of birth. Here is a brief account of the work of the Gaquelins that may be instructive:

*Eysenck and Nias describe them as ‘a rare combination, possessing both a detailed knowledge of astrology and a genuine scientific outlook based on a formal academic training.’

*The Gaquelins began their work by analyzing 576 members of the French Academy of Medicine, ‘who had achieved academic distinction by virtue of their research. They found that the doctors were all born when Mars or Saturn had just risen or just passed midheaven.

*In order to validate the theory, the Gaquelins tried to replicate their experiment with another group of 508 doctors with similar antecedents. The replication conformed with the original observation.

*Encouraged and intrigued by the results they extended the research to include other professionals in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy and reviewed 25,000 birth dates. When they contrasted 5,100 successful artists with 3,647 successful scientists they found quite interestingly that while the scientists were born when Saturn has just risen or was past midheaven, the artists tended to avoid being born under the planet.

*Similarly when they reviewed the birth charts of 3,438 military leaders, in 680 cases (against 590 sufficient for statistical significance) they found that Mars, considered the symbol of the god of war had risen or was past midheaven.

*In order to confirm the results the researchers studied control groups selected from the general population and concluded that the planetary positions as mentioned occurred only for the births of the famous and distinguished. The results seem to indicate that these planets are ‘related to destiny, success and good fortune’.

*A corollary to the observations already made was the predictability of certain character traits found in business leaders and successful sportspersons. It was found that those with birth times associated with Mars were seen to have greater determination and iron will.

*A study that reviewed the birth charts of 2,089 sportspersons, 1,409 actors and 3,647 scientists could predict personality factors like ‘extravert’, ‘introvert’, ‘unstable’ and ‘tough-minded’.

*The researchers made quite a few other interesting observations in their studies. It is not possible to include them all here for want of space. However one point deserves mention. Invariably the results the researches obtained conformed to naturally occurring births and not artificially induced ones. This means that human hand cannot design destiny. It has to be ordained by the Gods!

Eysenck and Nias conclude that “the time has come to state quite unequivocally that a new science is in process of being born.” 

It may be apt to remember what Bertrand Russel said on ‘the value of scepticism’: “when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain”?

Tailpiece: The union HRD minister has as much right to visit an astrologer as the ‘goddess of small things’ and other secularists for hobnobbing with ISI front men like Gulam Nabi Fai. The former is her personal affair and does not harm the nation whereas the latter is detrimental to national interests. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

BJP: Opportunity cost of pawning political ideology in J & K

It is entirely possible that by the time this appears on the web the BJP would have sealed an alliance either with the PDP or the NC in Jammu and Kashmir. There are indications that this time the party would like to make a serious bid for power in the state. There is nothing exceptionable in that. Political parties contest elections to come to power.

Some of the party’s supporters in the social media and opinion-piece writers in online portals would like it ‘not to let go’ of the opportunity. But every opportunity has a cost. In economic theory this is called the opportunity cost. If the party has achieved a majority or was able to form a government with a ‘near majority’, the opportunity cost would have been payable at the end of the term based on its performance in office during the intervening period, which in the case of Jammu and Kashmir is six years.

The opportunity cost that a political party pays for immediate gains can have far reaching consequences, not all of them economic and not just for the party. The polity of the state and the nation, as stake holders will pay a cost too. The cost could be in terms of stalled development, internal disturbances or external threats. The state of Jammu and Kashmir had paid costs on all these accounts in the last sixty seven years. This was in addition to the cost that was paid in advance, a cost that was not payable and not even demanded. The additional cost paid in advance was the referral to the United Nations and Article 370 which excluded the state from the national mainstream. There is no need to go into Jawaharlal Nehru’s reasons or motivations on why he paid the two additional costs that were not even demanded, but they, it turns out are not one-time costs.

Opportunity cost relates to the cost one has to pay not only for availing an opportunity but also for foregoing an opportunity. Unfortunately the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the nation paid opportunity costs twice more in 1965 and 1971 for foregoing opportunities.

The ‘pro-power’ BJP supporters argue that this time around the BJP has achieved a quite impressive tally of 25 seats in the 87 member assembly and more importantly the largest vote share. The inherent anomaly in the first-past-the-post electoral system made political parties win fewer seats with larger vote percentages in the past too. It has to do with the concentration of winning seats in a region of the state. It has happened this time too with the BJP winning more seats in the Jammu region and may be losing some seats in the Srinagar Valley with slender margins.

The ‘pro-power’ BJP supporters’ argument runs like this: ‘if in an alternative scenario the non-BJP parties, the NC and the PDP were to come together to form the government, it would be un-representative of the Jammu region. Therefore the BJP should seek to be part of the power-centre, no matter what the cost.’

There were many instances in the past when governments at the centre and states were formed by parties which had no representation in several states or regions. For example in 1977 when the Janata Party came to power at the centre the Congress won 41 out of 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh and 26 out of 28 in Karnataka. In a further twist when Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the lone Janata Party MP in Andhra Pradesh was elected President even that seat went to the Congress. Closer in time, the present BJP government is in power with its party unrepresented in Kerala, has just one MP in Tamil Nadu and two in Bengal.

The second argument that is advanced is that letting go the opportunity now might result in losing ground to the other party which could utilize the opportunity to consolidate its political position. There were quite a few instances in the past when parties with ‘near majority’ adopted short cut methods to come to power by what the mainstream media would like to call ‘cobbling’ majorities. As a result of this, unstable regimes came to power in the past in states like Goa, Jharkand and Manipur but seldom saw out their full term in office.

BJP’s earlier experiences in Goa, Jharkand and Karnataka were none too comforting. By compromising on its core values for aligning with the Janata Dal (S) it not only wasted years in Karnataka but lost so much ground politically that it might be some time before it can even look at power in the state again. The argument that spurred the BJP then was that it was the first time the party would come to power in the South. It is similar to the one put forth now that it would gain foothold in the Muslim majority state of J & K, another first for BJP. Just as the perception of an unholy alliance between Congress and RJD in Bihar benefited the BJP, JD (U) alliance in 2006, the perception of an unholy alliance between the BJP and JD (S), the wrangling for the Chief Minister’s post by rotation and the even un-holier ‘fabricated majority’ with which Yeddyurappa ruled the state benefited the Congress in 2013.

What ideological compromises will the BJP have to make for a stab at power in J & K? The better option is to align with the National Conference and independents in which case the BJP, being the larger partner, would get the Chief Minister’s post. According to a report in Eenaadu, the quid pro quo being worked out between the BJP and the NC is the post of a Governor for Farooq Abdullah and a berth in the union cabinet for Omar Abdhullah through the Rajya Sabha route. Farooq of course would love the sinecure with all its pomp and ceremony sans responsibility. But the Hindus of J & K have painful memories of his reign when as the Chief Minister he abdicated responsibility and left them to the tender mercies of foreign and home-grown terrorists like Ali Shah Jelani and Yasin Malik. The half-a-million Hindus exiled then are still out in the cold.

The second option is to align with the PDP in which case it will have to settle to play second fiddle, perhaps for the post of a Deputy Chief Minister. As a precondition the PDP is demanding that the BJP should unambiguously declare that it would give up its stand on Article 370 forever and rescind the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Agreeing to make Article 370 a permanent feature of the Constitution will foreclose any option a future central government may have of a rethink on it. This is similar to Jawaharlal Nehru’s folly of recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 1954. No Indian government can retract it.   

Any move to rescind the AFSPA is fraught with serious practical consequences. The state has been the victim of terrorism exported by an enemy which vowed to bleed India through a thousand cuts. The unfortunate aspect is the terror machine has local support too.

Lastly the political ideology of the PDP is worrisome. It is a soft-line version of the more militant hard-line Hurriyat Conference. By aligning with such a party would not the BJP provide some legitimacy to it?

Would it not be therefore advisable for the BJP to sit out in the opposition; let the contradictions of the NC, PDP alliance play out and make a bid for power in 2020? The alliance is not likely to last the full term except in the highly unlikely event of the two merging. In the meantime it can play the role of a constructive opposition and keep the ruling clique in check.


Friday, December 26, 2014

P. V. Narasimha Rao and the elusive ‘Bharat Ratna’!

One may not agree with Lord Birkenhead’s view that ‘India is a land of mobs’ (Turning Points in History), but it is a land of inconsistencies. However he might not have been far off the mark when he said that ‘more than any country in the world single individuals of outstanding personality have been able temporarily to impose their will upon its destiny. A prime minister might be ranked third in India's official order of precedence but a Sonia Gandhi took precedence over the Prime Minister for ten years of its recent history. Her son-in-law did not need any official order of precedence to be treated as a ‘more equal’ citizen at airports and for Chief Ministers to kowtow before him. 

In the official order of precedence, No. 5A was inserted to accommodate the Deputy Prime Minister (probably after Vallabhai Patel became the first Deputy Prime Minister in 1950) and No. 7A after the institution of the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Article 18 (1) prohibits the use of Bharat Ratna as a title and therefore it cannot be used to prefix names, despite its general misuse. Its recipients are known as laureates.

As an aside it might be mentioned that Article 18 (2) prohibits Indian citizens from receiving ‘any title from any foreign state’. This precluded Sunil Gavaskar from accepting a British Knighthood but it did not prevent Sonia Gandhi from accepting the Belgian title, Order of Leopold.

Thus Bharat Ratna, which officially, cannot be flaunted as a title, accords its recipients precedence over Ambassadors, Chief Ministers and Governors of states who are, in that order ranked at No. 8.

Indians generally rue the omission of Mahatma Gandhi from the Nobel roster but there have been several notable omissions from the list of Bharat Ratna laureates. One of them was Sathya Sai Baba who was passed over, presumably because he was a Hindu god-man. One can say without any exaggeration, that Sathya Sai Baba’s service to humanity was unparalleled anywhere in the world. He established world-class schools, colleges, universities and hospitals all of which provide free services to the poor. Thousands of devotees who flock to his ashram daily are provided free food.

Under the ‘Sri Sathya Sai Drinking Water Supply Projects’ he constructed a drinking water project at a cost of US$ 63 million to supply drinking water to 1.2 million people in 750 villages of the arid Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Similar projects supply drinking water to drought-prone villages in Mahabubanagar and Medak districts in Telangana, and Chennai. His super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bengaluru conducted 24,473 free cardiac surgeries between November 1991 and October 2014.   

The other notable exception is that of former Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao. In order to understand the magnitude of his contribution to national revival the circumstances that prevailed when he became Prime Minister should be viewed in perspective. In point of fact, the year 1991 marks the beginning of a new epoch in independent India’s history. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination brought to the nation’s helm a man who was preparing to quietly walking into the sunset. Narasimha Rao had been in politics since independence and served as Chief Minister, Union Home Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister.

The economic crisis that came to a head that year was looming large on the horizon for years, fuelled by bureaucratic sloth, economic profligacy and political myopia. The economy was floundering on account of a depreciating rupee, billowing external debt and the resultant balance of payments crisis. The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back was the dramatically rising oil prices caused by the 1990-91 Gulf War. In order to cope with the crisis, the Chandra Sekhar government had to first sell twenty tons of gold (on which India had a repurchase option for six months) to raise $400 million in May that year and the successor government had to pledge a further forty-seven tons in July to raise a further $200 million loan. It was a national shame for a culture that treats gold as goddess Lakshmi to part with family gold for daily necessities. Dr. Manmohan Singh who became the finance minister in the successor government did not have the heart to use words like ‘sell’ or ‘pledge’ when he informed the parliament about the transactions in November 1991. Instead he said ‘sent abroad’ and ‘export’!

Following the crisis, the Narasimha Rao government initiated a series of steps to redeem the economy. The steps were a radical departure from the pernicious ‘Nehruvian socialism’ and set the nation on a track of progress. Those who do not want to credit the progress to Narasimha Rao, ascribe the economic policy to Manmohan Singh’s genius. Yes, the policy framework could be designed only by an economist with vision but it required Narasimha Rao’s sagacity to give political cover for its implementation. Second he needed the boldness first to sell the reforms to his own party which considered any departure from Nehru’s policies a sacrilege and then to the nation. The validity of the argument could be seen when we notice Manmoahn Singh could not continue with his reform policy when he himself was the Prime Minister for ten years.

While Narasimha Rao’s economic policies are willy-nilly acknowledged there are two other areas of governance in which he left an indelible stamp on the history of the nation.

The first was defeating the Khalistani movement, which ‘had consumed 21,469 lives before it was comprehensively defeated in 1993’. The principal protagonists of the operation were K. P. S. Gill who as Counter-terrorism Chief of Punjab mercilessly and relentless executed it, Beant Singh, who as Chief Minister of Punjab and Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister gave him political cover. Citing Julio Rebeiro, former Director General of Police, Punjab, Gill has this to say of the genesis of the problem:

I regard Operation Bluestar and the November 1984 massacres as the “two most important victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’ … not won by the militants, but inflicted … upon the nation by its own government … These two events, in combination, gave a new lease of life to a movement which could easily have been contained in 1984 itself.” (Endgame in Punjab 1988-1993)

The political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide had both received the Bharat Ratna!

Gill elaborates why stern counter-terrorism measures were needed to eradicate the scourge:

The defeat of terrorism in Punjab, and I have said this before, was unambiguously the result of the counter-terrorist measures implemented in the state by the security forces. Moreover, the use of this coercive force was (and is) not just a necessary expedient, but a fundamental obligation and duty of constitutional government, and its neglect inflicts great and avoidable suffering on the innocent and law abiding. (Ibid.)

Lest anyone had any doubt about the political processes (pursued by the aforesaid political authors of Operation Bluestar and the 1984 Sikh genocide) having achieved the objective of annihilating terrorism in Punjab, Gill clarifies:

One of the dominant myths that these propagandists have tirelessly, and in some measure successfully, circulated is the idea that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not because, but in spite of the use of armed force against the militants. No evidence is ascribed to shore up this claim, but a variety of nebulous theories – essentially populist and politically correct slogans – are propounded regarding a ‘people’s victory’ or a ‘political solution’ that brought peace to the strife-torn province. (Ibid.)

Had the political master not had the vision to support the stern measures to put down terrorism with an iron hand we would have had another festering wound in the west in addition to the ones in the north and the east, the existence of which is undoubtedly owing to another Bharat Ratna! Who knows, had Narasimha Rao had another shot at power, he would have had some out of the box ideas to contain them!

Another bold step Narasimha Rao took was in the area of foreign affairs by establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Although India recognized Israel in September 1950 (a little over two years after its formation), it was not until February 1992 that full diplomatic relations were established. Considering the benefits a bilateral relationship with Israel could provide in the areas of agriculture, defence and counter-terrorism, this was inexplicable. The overt reason for India not establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel was that it would displease her Arab neighbours, but the unstated reason was to placate the Muslim vote bank in India. As by the time India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, the Narasimha Rao government was in office for just over eight months, the decision must be said to have been taken very quickly. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Will we return to ‘Hindu rate of growth’?

In a footnote in The Black Swan (2008), Nassem Nicholas Taleb wonders whether all it takes to effectively construct a nation is a flag, a few speeches and an anthem! What is a nation? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘nation’ as ‘a large group of people sharing the same culture, language or history, and inhabiting a particular state or area.’

The best way to create a new nation, independent India’s incipient leaders thought, was to destroy the existing structure, consisting of culture, language and history, much as we demolish an old building to construct a new one. With some help from our colonisers, they have been assiduously attempting to erase, deface and disown our national cultural ethos, not to speak of language and history, in order to artificially create, what the left-liberal crowd likes to call a composite culture. The leftist economist Raj Krishna’s coinage, ‘Hindu rate of growth’ is but a small part of the larger scheme of things aimed at demolishing the old structures.

The left-liberal pamphleteers constantly aver that ‘it was India’s fabulous wealth, which attracted the invaders.’ (It is as if causing genocide and plundering are some kind of noble pursuits sanctioned by the gods.) If India was so fabulously rich, how could one attribute the poor economic growth rate to Hindus, especially when others ruled India for over ten centuries? Speaking in multiple voices and obfuscating inconvenient facts that do not fit into their narratives are techniques, their ‘eminences’ perfected to a fine art.

William H. Avery, a former US diplomat and global business strategist points out that ‘India had been rich and powerful for most of Human history’. Avery’s book, India as the Next Global Power (2012, Amaryllis, New Delhi.) cites the British economic historian Angus Maddison (1926-2010) who painstakingly compiled statistics of world economic growth from the first century AD. Here are some interesting facts from Avery’s book:

“India’s recent centuries of poverty are an exception in its history of wealth. For most part of the past two millennia, India accounted for one quarter or more of world GDP. It was the single largest contributor to world GDP until around 1500, when it relinquished that position to China…” 

It may be superfluous to point out that seven centuries of benign Mohammedan rule must have taken its toll, for Avery points out:

“India’s share of world GDP, which was close to thirty percent for much of the first millennium, began a long term decline thereafter.”

As an interesting aside, narrating the reign of Akbar, he points out that India’s per capita GDP was a bit over half of England’s at the time. Yet the Mughal ruling class ‘enjoyed even a higher standard of living than European aristocracy.’ This was because of their ‘exploitation of the lower classes.’ We were taught that Akbar was a benign (and more importantly secular) emperor who ruled his subjects ‘as his own children’!

The downward slide of the Indian economy continued during the British rule until it reached its nadir by the twentieth century when it fell to below five percent of global GDP. Avery’s next observation is enlightening for the fan boys of ‘Nehruvian socialism’ and ‘Nehruvian legacy’:

“… [T]here was an uptick in India’s fortunes in the beginning of the late twentieth century. Its share of global wealth has continued to grow since then.”

This clearly means that Jawaharlal Nehru’s economic policies were not responsible for the ‘uptick’. In fact, his pernicious socialism sent the Indian economy spiralling down to the bottom. It was Nehru family’s bête noire P. V. Narasimha Rao, who ironically, brought about the positive change.

Conquerors often used psychological offensive as a ploy to tighten their hold on the vanquished. They ordered history writing to this effect. Avery documents how British historians laboured to create negative images of India. James Mill was one such who toiled for twelve years to produce his three-volume The History of British India (1817), without ever bothering to visit India. Here is what Avery says about Mill’s work:

“Mill must have sensed his audience’s hunger for negative judgements about India, and he did not disappoint. His general criticism of India (‘[it has] in reality made but a few steps in the progress to civilisation’) is supplemented with specific dismissals of Indian achievements in math and the sciences. He give no credence to the claim that Indian mathematicians invented the decimal system, and mocks the notion that Indian astronomers  (including Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta) once postulated the existence of gravity and a rotating earth. Of course, Mill would see no reason to believe that such ideas could have originated in India, as he had roundly dismissed native (Indian) scholars as having ‘a general disposition to deceit and perfidy’. ”

What makes the narrative more poignant from an Indian perspective is how it shaped Indian thought. Avery observes that

“[…] Many Indians themselves imbibed colonial biases.”

Although Mill aimed his work at his British audience, he largely succeeded in planting negative images of India in Indian minds. One of the reasons for this could possibly be, his work influenced Indians who flocked to England to pursue English education but came back with a Bohemian outlook and derision for all things Indian. Our left-liberal intellectuals (a double oxymoron) echo Mill’s derision to this day. They never bothered to enquire about the veracity of such accounts but imbibed them as gospel. So much for the vaunted ‘scientific temper’, which Nehru wanted to inculcate in Indian citizens.

The decades after independence were frittered away by an elite that became physically free but remained an ideological slave to European thought processes. India began to experience severe poverty and shortages that she did not in centuries, in the decades after independence. The poverty and shortages were so severe that Indians began sentimentally recalling the ‘good times’ of the British rule. Everything from food grains to kerosene, cement, and steel were severely rationed. Many fast moving consumer goods were either not made or were of such poor quality, that Indians developed a craze for ‘foreign’ goods.

Telephones, electronic goods and motor vehicles were for only for the rich. There was a long period of waiting to obtain a telephone connection and motor vehicles were not available off-the-shelf even for those who could afford them.

So inefficient were the public sector undertakings (the prime component of Nehru’s mixed economy), that they made losses even in sectors in which they had a monopoly! India’s external debt mounted and mounted. Any external aid was used to service debts, which in plain English means paying interest on it.

Indian citizens might not have been aware of even the number of articles that comprise the Indian Constitution but they all read about US public law 480, P. L. 480 for short. It is the law under which the US supplies food grains to indigent nations against payment in their own currencies.

The reason for the sorry plight does not require rocket-science to decipher. It was so simple; any sophomore student in economics could have told the rulers that no one could distribute something that is not produced.

Hopefully the nation had learnt its lessons and there would be a return to sanity. Will we return to the true ‘Hindu rate of growth’?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Media & National Interest

N. B.: The two subjects broached in this article linked by a slim thread, should probably be posted separately as two articles.

In the normal course, one would have dismissed Vinod Mehta’s comments as the rants of a disgruntled hack. He is a self-confessed ‘pseudo-secular’ and a ‘chamcha’ of the Sonia-G family. Whether it was admirable self-deprecation or wily forestalling, the self-description fits him as a glove a hand.

During his years at Outlook, Mehta projected a carefully orchestrated image of himself as a bleeding-heart liberal, perhaps to lend credence to the magazine championing a specific political course. One suspects the political course the magazine charted could be as phoney as Mehta’s bleeding-heart liberalism. He loves his single malt (also perhaps, caviar to go with it) and he loves Swiss women, none of which come cheap. He opened his innings with a stint at Debonair, which was no Mainstream and did not exactly strive to put two square meals on the round plate of a hungry stomach. When Outlook debuted in 1995, India Today was eighteen. It was firmly entrenched as a national political magazine catering to the tastes of readers who believed in a market-driven economy. Rather than take on India Today in its niche, Outlook probably positioned itself at the opposite pole to fill the gap caused by the defunct Sunday of the Anand Bazaar Patrika group. In other words, it was purely a marketing strategy.

As an aside, the mention of Sunday brings to mind two unsavoury characters, both of which the magazine - if it had had a life – would like to erase from its history, even in death. One was Vir Sanghvi, a former editor who mortgaged his journalistic ethics to Niira Radia. To morph a phrase (rather than turn it), ‘you can’t buy Sangvi’s ethics; you can rent them’! The other is Mani Sankar Aiyar, who as a columnist, used to blacken its pages with foul bile and bilge, during the former’s tenure as editor. 

Whether left-liberalism (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is synonymous with anti-Hinduism is not known, but over the years Outlook became the stable for anti-Hindu, anti-RSS, anti-BJP and anti-Modi hacks. It has what may be termed as the ‘first ever anti-RSS, anti-BJP, anti-Modi editor of a national news magazine’ in Saba Naqvi!

What are the prime objectives of the media? Are they to inform, educate or entertain? The answer depends of course on what type of medium we are talking about. If it is the news media, it should inform, certainly; and after and only after that educate if it can and entertain if it must.

However, in democratic societies the news media has a more important role. It has a duty to its audience. And that is to highlight the failures – not sing paeans - of the ruling elites. It is in this role that it plays the role of an opposition, a devil’s advocate, a whistleblower, an ombudsman. It is for this role of the media as the voice of the people (VOXINDICA) that Edmund Burke hailed it as the fourth estate.

Media in India largely performed these roles during the struggle for freedom phase and for some years in the post independence period. Their output was occasionally coloured by their pet ideologies, as most of them were ideologically-driven. But media persons of the time pursued it as a noble profession, with a truthfulness of purpose.

The infamous emergency of 1975-77 was in a way, ‘an ordeal by fire’ for the Indian media. It separated the chaff from the grain. To repeat L. K. Advani’s pithy phrase, a majority of its members chose ‘to crawl when merely asked to bend’. On her return to power in 1980, Indira, the architect of the emergency used a different tactic to mould the media to suit her purposes. That time, made wiser by her emergency experience, instead of the proverbial stick, she used the proverbial carrot. The carrot was the advertisement revenue handed out by the Department of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) under the I & B Ministry.

Any media that is susceptible to either the proverbial stick or the proverbial carrot cannot be anything else but the proverbial mule!

Indira was largely able to succeed in her gambit because the older, ideologically fired media persons, who fought and lost, were passing from the scene. The new crop which replaced them was borne into a different milieu. Ironically, it was a milieu in transition, in which ‘Nehruvian socialism’ marketed by his daughter as a panacea for poverty was giving way to market-driven economy. The liberalised economy of the 1990s saw a proliferation of the media and billowing competition. The once noble profession became a business. Political interests and business houses jumped into the arena for the political clout, owning a media house gave them. The audience, to whom the media owed its first duty, was lost in the melee. The raison d’ etre of the media became singing paeans to the ruling elites. Editors of the national media no longer were ashamed to call themselves ‘chamchas’ nor were national media columnists to seek corporate lobbyists to dictate the content of their columns!

Be that as it may, whether he is a ‘pseudo-secular’ and a ‘chamcha’ or not, one has to agree with Mehta when he wrote in his Delhi Diary. Outlook. October 13, 2014:

Am I the only one who is a bit nauseated by the constant demand from the American side: “What can you do for us?” In all the discussions and debates with US policymakers and the media, only one question is being asked: “What does Modi bring to our table?” The list of requirements is formidable. They all revolve around India making life easier for US multinationals. As a result, on this visit our prime minister is always on the defensive­—he needs to “walk the talk”, “cut red tape”, “make environmental clearances instant”, “change the country’s laws to suit American companies”, “woo US corporate chiefs” etc. etc. Unfortunately, Modi has fallen into the trap. It would seem India is the supplicant. It seems India must go the extra mile for enticing Kentucky Fried Chicken to invest more. (Font colour changed for emphasis.)

One may not agree with Mehta’s ‘nausea’ (it could be because of an overdose of single malt the previous evening!) but one agrees with his substance. There are some important issues over which India and the US have conflicting interests.

CIVIL NUCLEAR LIABILITY ACT

The first is the Indian nuclear liability act that was enacted in the aftermath of signing the Indo-US nuclear deal. In simple terms, it is the amount of insurance that a US manufacturer is liable to pay in case of a nuclear disaster. The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act as it stood in 2011 (applicable in the US) offers a ‘no-fault’ indemnity to be paid by the suppliers of up to USD$12.5 billion. Any claims exceeding it are covered by the US government. In contrast, after a lot of vacillation and much persuasion by the then opposition, the BJP, the Manmohan Singh government enacted the Civil Nuclear Liability Act 2010 which limits the liability of a US manufacturer to a paltry US$81 million and the rest to be paid by the Indian government within the overall limit of Rs 5 billion (note the figure is in Rs not $!). Thus a US manufacturer’s liability in case of civilian nuclear disaster in India is a paltry 0.65% of a corresponding liability in the US. Aren’t Indian lives cheap? Besides, the Americans are not willing to transfer the technologies either for Uranium enrichment or disposal of spent fuel. May one ask why would the Narendra Modi government like to go ahead with the Indo-US Nuclear deal instead of scrapping it and negotiating it de novo as the BJP had promised then?

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

The second important issue is concerning intellectual property rights (IPRs) especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Even in this case the Americans have double standards. They expect the Indian government to protect dubious practices like the ‘doctrine of inherent anticipation’, the ‘doctrine of double patenting’ and the ‘patent misuse doctrine’ (see NovartisVs. The People of India for an explanation of the terms), which give the patentee the right to extend patents indefinitely. This means the patentee continues to enjoy exclusive marketing rights and exorbitant pricing, for ever.

The subject of IPRs is complex, so much so there are some in India who believe ‘compulsory licencing’ is a bad provision. They do not seem to realise that it was the result of a hard fought battle. The provision gives poor nations respite against predators who would not hesitate to patent Basmati rice, turmeric and even yoga!

The Indian pharmaceutical industry was dominated by the multinational companies till the nineteen eighties with a market share of between 70% and 80%. Today the status is reversed. The Drug Price Control Order (DPCO) of 1970 has given immense fillip to the Indian industry and was responsible for its phenomenal growth. There is a flip side to it too. It is this rampant growth that vitiated the healthcare system by introducing unhealthy promotional practices, some of them bizarre.

But the competition benefited the consumer. As an example take the case of amlodipine a drug used for high blood pressure and heart problems. The multinational which claims its invention, priced it at Rs 26/- per tablet when it was introduced in India. An Indian pharmaceutical company introduced the same at Rs 13/- per tablet immediately afterwards. Others joined the pricing war and the medicine, which millions of Indians need, is currently available at as low a price as Rs 0.65/-.

It is nobody’s case that the IPR regime should be dismantled. But one would like to know why the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) was divested of its powers to fix drug prices just before Narendra Modi’s departure to the US? Is it to propitiate the powerful US pharmaceuticals lobby?

The NPPA does not arbitrarily fix drug prices. It collects pricing data across the industry and only fixes the ‘mark-up’, which in layman’s terms means the margin after costs. Should it be an exorbitant 300% or a reasonable 30%? As an example, take the pricing of cetirizine, an allergy medication. A costing exercise done several years ago showed that its costs Rs 0.30/- per 10 mg tablet. Commercially available cetirizine tablets, marketed by companies with reasonably expected quality control measures, range in prices between Rs 1.50/- to Rs 3.75/- As this is not an ‘essential drug’ the NPPA too does not intervene in its pricing.