Month: October 2016

Tehelka: fearless journalism

This is a review of The Best of Tehelka, which is a compilation of some of the best works by Tehelka, between June 2000 and December 2001.

Tehelka was one of India’s best known investigative journals in 2000. Their most famous scoops were the match-fixing scandal in 2000 and the Operation West End. The match-fixing scandal revealed, from the horse’s mouth, how cricket matches were fixed. Operation west end exposed the corruption in defence procurement in India (which continues to this day).

I was too young and ignorant to know the impact of these scandals while they were being exposed. But today, I get them. In India, we’ve surpassed the size and filth of the scandals then, with the creative decadence of politicians and capitalists today. Nevertheless, the template for corruption and power play has remained more or less the same.

The scandals usually involved high profile people like cricketers, including those who are adored greatly even today (and who’d rather not be reminded of the scandal(s)), politicians, some of whom continue to wield considerable power even to this day, proving that Indian electorate has a short memory span, or is wanting in ethics. The scandals also ended with the sordid suppression of the whistle-blower.

Tehelka withstood the ire of the underbelly of Indian power as they battled slander for a whole year. They courted arrest. Needless to mention, David gave in against Goliath. They soon closed shop. But, after two years, Indian civil society rose up to the occasion, and decided to revive the magazine. Today, it survives, and continues to battle many court cases as highly influential politicians and parties would prefer it closed. Power fears fearlessness.

The book that I’m reviewing is a set of essays, poems, articles that were published on Tehelka. The most famous among them are the very articles that brought the scams out to the public.The essays, interviews and poems in the book are funny (‘I don’t know anyone who has met God’ by Khushwant Singh), shocking (False Notes, Charu Soni), controversial (The Elusive ‘Holy Cow’, DN Jha), and chilling (The Lagaan Team, Shoma Choudhury).

The style is different in each piece, and most are refreshing. Although I enjoyed most of the articles, they took some work – a little bit of wikipedia-research to understand context and figure out the ugliness or stupidity of the times, and the corresponding climaxes.

What I appreciated most about this compilation is the diversity.┬áThe compilation is also chaotic, which I thought was in keeping with the creativity of the magazine. What I didn’t like much was my own inability to fully understand some of these works. I’d have really appreciated if they had put in a sentence or two as post-script for the noobs like myself.

The most famous contributions by Tehelka left me feeling bad for us. For, I don’t know of a magazine today that is capable of such fearless journalism as Tehelka was. Tehelka’s sting operations set off a large set of ethical questions in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, that didn’t help infuse virtue into our polity or journalism.

I would recommend the book if you have been a news-junkie. I would recommend it if you like real life horror stories. I would also recommend it if you like bold satire.

This is not for the light hearted. It is for the seasoned scandal-weary Indian news-reader.

3/5

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The Indian Economy, in the 90s

This is a review of books by former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan, India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century and The Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects.

These books offer a great ring side view of the working of the Indian economy. They are, however, dated. To be fair, these are old books, published in the 90s. Nevertheless, they are still relevant to some extent.

For instance, in Problems and Prospects, Bimal Jalan speaks of corruption and how to deal with it, by differentiating the supply and demand for the same, supply being the side of the transaction where people are willing to bribe, and demand being the side where people want, demand, bribes. He puts forth a model to stop both sides of this transaction. His suggestions have, hearteningly, been implemented under the Prevention of Corruption Act, where the bribe taker is heavily penalized (although this has been pushed a tad bit too far by penalizing even lack of action which may result in indirect benefit to unrelated persons causing a loss to the exchequer; it penalizes complicity in corruption, which many believe is doing more harm than good, by making bureaucrats slow and averse to doing risky things, thus compounding the problems of red tapism). He also says that the whistle-blowers should be protected and incentivized for their courage. This seems to be a logical way of thinking about corruption.

Some observations by Jalan made me laugh, mirthlessly. Like, “Indian democracy is schizophrenic” by which he means that although we romanticize democracy (freedom liberty equality!), we’re deeply suspicious of how it works (everyone’s corrupt!). Hence our civil society is weak, parliamentary representatives are not motivated to work for the people and seek to gratify self-interests. General will is all but thrown out the window. But this is changing, as we have seen with “people’s movements” and a burgeoning civil society that increasingly dictates policy. This is a great shift in our democracy that people haven’t taken much notice of!

In his book, India’s Economic Policy, he talks about the weight of Public Sector Enterprises and the losses they incur to the exchequer, and recommends that the state shake them off. This has been a popular demand in India, and the recent governments have taken cognizance of it as they have initiated strategic sales of many of the state concerns.

India’s Economic Policy reads like a journal of the Indian Economy in the 90s, as we were bubbling with hope and trepidation after the giant LPG reforms of 1991.

Some of the issues that are still very relevant, that I picked up, are

  • Making the party whip less powerful – and making the Indian democracy a true representation of people’s interests, as opposed to being a minion of party interests.
  • Separating policy making from policy implementation (ie., the politician and bureaucrat should have more sharper differentiation of functions, and the latter should be allowed to tailor policy to suit the needs of the grassroots)
  • Decentralize, because overcentralization of schemes and programmes has made them inefficient.

The good news is that most of these reforms are in the pipeline, have been implemented already, or have been tried and discarded. I would still recommend it to someone who’s trying to understand the Indian economy from its roots and shoots. I’d rate Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects higher than India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, for its relevance today and the future.

Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects – 3/5

India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-first Century – 2/5

Bimal Jalan’s books are like a reading of the history of the Indian Economy, and the story of her evolution. They’re good. Easy reading, if you’re conversant with basic economics and have a rough understanding of issues related to the Indian economy. But to understand the economy as it is today, policy, problems, I’d suggest (highly recommend) reading the Indian Economic Surveys. The Economic Survey is cooler – with references to Bob Dylan music, dry and witty sarcasm, it is a giant authoritative perspective of the economy today.