Essays

Public Institutions in India: a cross-sectional view

Public institutions are the instruments through which modern states carry out their tasks of governance and development. Indian public institutions require close scrutiny, given that the Indian State is a paradox of, among other things, governance stability and political chaos, to both, good and bad effect. Public institutions in India especially merit much ink and thought for an administrator because of the implications that it holds for her, while she is a player in the game and creator of the same.

The study of public institutions has been carried out in two tangents – in drawing causations between institutions and certain outcomes that they produce, directly or indirectly. Public Institutions in India, on the other hand, is a study of public institutions themselves; on what affects the performance of different institutions rather than how the institutions affect broader aspects of the country’s life. The editors, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contend rightly, that a better grasp of how our public institutions function is imperative in order to appreciate India’s political economy.

Public institutions may be defined as a set of rules and norms that determine roles and which create and foster expectations from each other. When reading this book, though, it is important for a reader to remember the other definitions that enhance our understanding of institutions, ranging from the Marxist to the structuralist (the one ascribed to in this book). Ultimately, it is also to be borne in mind that institutions are but creations of people, and are liable to be preserved, or changed by them, with everyday and epic revolutions to that effect; and in this bottomline, lies the fact that the study of institutions is essential for administrators. To the end that it serves administrators, Public Institutions discusses the design, performance and adaptability of the key institutions of governance in India.

Public Institutions regards a wide range of institutions, from the Parliament, to the Reserve Bank of India, and to the Election Commission of India. The cross-sectional view of these institutions, though, is a tad bit dated today, given the many mutations that the institutions have gone through.

Nevertheless, the book will be enjoyable for the intellectually inclined. That said, it doesn’t conform to the recent trend of books being mediums of storytelling, even if non-fiction (Sapiens, for instance). If the book weren’t in the form of compendium of essays and it had a common thread pulling the reader along, it may have been a different sort of read, but would not necessarily have taken much out of the work. But then again, it may not have been easy to do it, given the vast difference in writing styles of the different writers and the assortment of topics.

As a reader primed to note biases in texts, some biases of the analysts, that even the best statisticians and researchers face, such as confirmation, hindsight, overconfidence bias, were sometimes too stark to skim over. For instance, the Pratap Bhanu Mehta essay concludes that the courts in India have predominantly intervened for the realisation of the duty of the State, as given by the Directive Principles of State Policy, as opposed to preserving and guaranteeing civil liberties. The examples stated to show the courts’ preference to intervene in the former and not latter have been selectively listed, in a classic case of confirmation bias. Mehta’s analysis does not pass the test for bias, given cases that contradict his view, like AK Gopalan versus State of Madras and B Muthamma versus Union of India. That said, the essay on the Judiciary is informative for the uninitiated and delves deep into the malaises and strengths of the institution.

The best part about these essays is that they deliver on their promise – they look at various institutions in depth, their interactions, as they aid or subvert each other, and their future prospects. An example would be the analysis of democratic durability and economic performance of the Indian political economy by Devesh Kapur. He states that despite the political instability that India has seen, she has remained a relatively very stable economy. He suggests, with numbers and graphs (indeed!), that it is perhaps the out of phase life cycle of institutions and political cycles that has reduced the covariance risk and has given more systemic stability to the State.

The writers also suggest ways forward for the institutions that they have analysed, some of which stand out for being forward looking and optimistic. In the essay on the police in India where the multiple linkages to the institution and its effects on society are analysed, it is also suggested that the institution needs to look within and at the society, with research at the core of policing.

The volume following this one is on Rethinking Public Institutions, in which the same institutions are analysed again, after over a decade, by other researchers. This time, with a reinvigorated zeal to suggest reform, with little and great revolutions within.

The purpose of the book, Public Institutions in India, is to appreciate efficiencies, comment on absurdities and highlight lacunae through a cross-sectional view of Indian public institutions. This, it does exceptionally well. The book is a must read for those interested in public policy and administration; preferably over a cup of piping hot tea or warm coffee. It is inevitable that this body of intellectually stimulating work will be discussed and debated in the halls of Indian public policy and administration, for it is one of a kind, and a good one at that.

4.5/5.

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Will the Adivasi dance?

‘Adivasi’ is how most tribes in India identify themselves, at least as far as names go. Adivasis or Tribes have long confused the Indian State and her non-tribal people. Indeed, the diversity among tribal groups is astounding. While the Nagas tribes were notorious for head hunting, and the Andaman Sentinel tribes are brutally protectionist about their territory, the Nagas are also a political compact of people who aspire to political autonomy from/within the state, and the Dhongria Khond people are one of the most notable nature conservationists.

The non-tribal people (non scheduled tribes (ST), that is) can attribute their knowledge about tribes mostly to films that depict a colonial viewpoint of tribal people, as brutish, terrible, and uncivilized. On the other hand, the State knows just how powerless these groups are, and in far too many cases, exploits them due to it. For instance, in P Sainath’s book, we saw a tribe was asked to move out of their land and were subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ four or five times in a single generation; for such is the authority that the state commands with eminent domain (right to acquire private land for public use).

In the spectrum of perspectives that one may have on tribal groups in India, there are two that have been made into books recently – one, in the form of short stories, speaking of the lives of some tribal people, and the other, a book on the history of a violent struggle waged by many tribes against the State. This is a review of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and Hello, Bastar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015, for his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories set in the mineral-rich Jharkhand. The book includes stories about a young man who migrates to Gujarat only to find that eating meat is subject to heavy social sanction, a young girl who is moving to West Bengal in search of work who has to sleep with a policeman at the price of two soggy bread pakoras, a Troupe-Master who is beaten up because he refuses to dance for the President of India, a prostitute who falls in love etc.

These stories are written with a sardonic tone of a man who seems to have seen it all; the raw human desire, the vulgar display of power, the chill of fear, the gnawing hunger for wealth, love, power, status. His stories are not meant to entertain as much as they are meant to help you introspect, such as when you read of a young woman being thrown into prostitution as a way of life, you wonder why there is no alternative for her. But his stories are also slightly over-dramatic in their style. It might just be my personal preference talking, when I say that too many of the women in the stories exclaim and over-react altogether too often,  making the narrative seem like it’s meant for a play rather than a poignant story book. The best part about this book, however, is the diversity of issues Hansda brings out, ranging from religion, tradition to persecution, patriarchy, and what not. They mostly feel like a collation of stories out of a newspaper, and hence must be read that way, with some piping hot chai or coffee in the garden. 2/5

Hello, Bastar, written by Rahul Pandita, on the other hand is a whole different ball game, while still being on the subject of tribes; but this time, it’s the tribes of Bastar, in Chattisgarh. The book steers away from the topic of tribes and traces the history and life of one of India’s biggest security threats. The essays (or stories?) in the book describe the beginning and acceleration of the “Maoist” movement, the crackdown on the movement in Andhra Pradesh, the infamous Salwa Judum, the capture of the (in)famous leaders of the movement etc. More importantly, while doing so, the book also allows us to pore over the motivations and simple ambitions of the armed men and women.

Rahul Pandita travels and lives with the “Maoists”, and provides us this chilling tale of their lives. The offhanded tone and the apparent normalcy of the movement makes the essays all the more disturbing. The repression of the state and the ideology of the Maoists is described in the book to give us a perspective other than that obtained in the mainstream media, and that’s reason enough to read it, in my opinion. What the media doesn’t always tell us, but which Pandita covers eloquently, is that the movement is a mixture of ideology, repression and revenge, unattended peoples, lacunae of the state, and army-fatigue clad Naxals who fill that void. While one might hear people say that there should be no sympathy for such “Naxal movements”, I don’t think not listening to them will solve this security threat either. Understanding what troubles them, their motivation, and their wishes, is an important part of our democracy. To that end, this book serves one well. 3.5/5

The Adivasi Will Not Dance may seem like a cute book on the lives of faraway people, and Hello, Bastar, may seem like a war-memoir. The beauty of both the books is that they have a subtext that is intensely human and pleading with us for attention. The exploitation and treatment of Adivasis, as if they’re meant to be in zoos, must give way for a decent and “good life” for them as well. An emerging economy like India cannot afford to continue to watch her Adivasi children die of malnutrition related ailments (death by starvation, some call it) or wither due to lack of education; and she cannot shell and persecute her people in the name of internal security, without incurring heavy damage to her democratic psyche. We, as a people who choose our politicians, have a moral duty to understand the Adivasi’s dreams, persuade the state to guarantee her the right to life with dignity, negotiate with her if she’s upset, and not wait long enough that she takes to army-fatigues and gunfire.

Between the epic and the everyday

The book, Theatres of Democracy, by Shiv Visvanathan, edited by Chandan Gowda, is an anthology of the best articles written by the giant among sociologists in India today. Shiv Visvanathan is a much sought after writer for Dailies and Magazines, commenting on sparrows, protest marches and what not. His penmanship is well known, what with his observations of the mundane and stellar evoking reaction from intellectuals, politicians, common citizens alike.

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The genius of the essays lay not in the essays themselves, but in the wholesome tapestry they make, of the world, and India in particular. Most of his essays mock at our realities, subtly, definitely, but without sting. For instance –

A stray dog running across the Republic Day parade seemed more symbolic of freedom than all the panoply of tanks and soldiers. (The Red For Ritual)

But, as a sociologist, he does not refrain from speaking the truth without dressing it up either. For instance –

Jayalalitha is the most Hobbesian figure in Indian politics, the sovereign as empress, the politician as a cult figure… As the cult of Jayalalitha engulfs Tamil Nadu, she exudes a power, contemptuous of citizenship. She reveals the way in which democracy as a cult becomes… dangerous. (The Cult of Jayalalitha)

..Political theory in India has lost its moorings and become utterly flat-footed vis-a-vis globalization… The real challenge before us is to invent a new lifeworld for politics to understand riots, disasters, droughts, waste, genocide and hospitality. (The Failure of Political Theory)

The essays are political, but unburdened by any need to be partisan. They border on the prophetic, but are bound by the limits set by the intellectual, researcher, and teacher.

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The range of subjects that the 91 essays touch is vast; individuals, political parties, public policy, our constitution, the federal system, dissent, nationalism, science, sports, media, are some of the stars that dot the galaxy of his essays, which provide one with an additional ray of light to capture the beauty and madness of contemporary times with.

But, the brilliance and wit are sometimes too short and too strong when he talks about the past, leaving the reader to fall back on false nostalgia, such as when he describes the Middle Class, currently abundantly corruptible. Surely he’s being overly romantic? Also, some of the essays did not look the reader in the eye, when they abandoned reasoned argument by subsiding instead under the weight of emotion (like when discussing Modi, who he has not forgotten or forgiven for whatever transpired in Gujarat, and whose ‘cult’ he finds inimical to democracy). Where did the academic go?

In a post-truth society, his academic and friendly voice is a salve to understand and analyze the dialectics of the world we live in. I had said in the beginning of the review that it’s not the essays themselves that make the book powerful, it is in the way they are bound together; for us to ultimately piece together the fact that we live in a mindless and ritualistic world that blossoms with life nevertheless.

Read it recklessly, as it may please you, leafing through the essays that you fancy. Or read it methodically, page to page, with a pencil to underline what fascinates and engages you. To a person who enjoys analyzing contemporary times with nuance, this book is a gift from a commentator par excellence.

3/5

Bhagat Singh, the atheist

This is a comment on the essay, Why I am an Atheist, originally written by Bhagat Singh in Gurmukhi. It was translated to Urdu/Persian script by Maqsood Sadiq, and from Urdu to English by Hasan. It can be read at marxists.org.

Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary socialist* in British India, was the man that Bose said was the symbol of the new awakening among the youth. He was a luminaire extraordinaire in the freedom struggle, and he was all of 24 years old when he gave his life to his muse, liberty.

In his book/essay, Why I am an Atheist, he argues that he’s not an atheist because he’s vain or proud, because he thinks he’s superior or equivalent to God, no. “I need no opiate to meet my end. I am a realistic man. I want to overpower this tendency in me with the help of Reason.” He believed and wrote, thus, that a mere belief in God must be tempered with reason or suffer criticism. Furthermore, he argues, as a Marxian, that religion is the opium of the masses, hope of the hopeless. He sees religion as a curse to the freedom struggle. He calls scriptures fairy tales and expresses irritation that they are considered sacred and factual. He concludes by saying that religion is a creation of the powerful, to continue to control and exploit a section of the society, for generations.

He was often told that as a proud and vain man, he will submit himself before the Almighty when his time comes to a close. Yet, in defiance of the naysayers and to once and for all argue against them, he wrote the essay while he was in jail, awaiting the noose (having been convicted and punished to death for the assassination of a British officer), for his country, with conviction that his life was well lived and with fervent desire to leave behind as much of the spirit of the struggle as he could.

He pours his anger and annoyance into the essay, bemused and simultaneously mad at the inexplicable acceptance and resignation of the Indian people in the face of exploitation, from other Indians and from the British. The urgency of his tone is palpable as he exhorts his countrymen to rise and claim what is rightfully theirs.

I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it. Not that they are keeping us under subjugation with the consent of God, but it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing? Is He getting a diseased pleasure out of it? A Nero! A Genghis Khan! Down with Him!

The essay is relevant today and will remain so forever. Criticise, question, analyse, he said. (Today, if you don’t agree quickly enough, you’re slaughtered by self styled ‘nationalists’.)

You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, Ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.

This is a read that may be best enjoyed by the unprejudiced mind, one that is curious about the thoughts of the men that created the ground for debate and discourse in our polity. Try not to look for a confrontation with his arguments, and try not to profusely agree with him, and you might come away with something worthwhile. Reason.

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. The 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