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29 November, 2010

The Radia Tapes: How did we get here? How do we get out of here?

B.R.P. Bhaskar

The Niira Radia tapes have exposed the rot in politics, business and the media. The decay in the realm of politics was well known to the public already, thanks to the skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard from time to time. No party, big or small, remains untouched by the canker of corruption, which has spread widely, fuelled as much by the private ambitions of politicians as by the rising cost of elections. The media has played a big part in exposing political corruption.

The decay in the realm of business was not equally well known as operations generally take place away from public gaze. Besides, there are well endowed outfits engaged in brand building, which covers business houses as much as their products. The media do not look closely at their doings big business because they are big advertisers too -- unless a major scam like the Mundhra deal of the 1950s or the Harshad Mehta affair of the 1990s compels them to take note of them.

The decay in the media has not come into public view because, even in the midst of seemingly intense competition, they respect one another’s privacy, aware that they are living in glass houses and should not throw stones. They generally shy away from open discussion on professional matters of direct interest to the public.

The existence of tapes of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia’s conversations with various persons, including media celebrities, recorded by an official agency during 2008-09, was known to many for months. As early as last May, a Delhi-based journalist, Girish Nikam, wrote in his website why the mainstream media were not interested in them. Some of the highest profiled media figures, newspaper owners and editors were Radia’s friends and she dictates the media policy of three of the richest corporations, he said. has friends in the media .

Some small publications did look at the tapes and as the 2G spectrum scandal was hotting up they put them in the public dominion. The political class responded along familiar lines: they issued ritualistic statements calculated to reinforce their respective positions on the 2G scam. Businessmen remained silent. So did the mainstream media. When the public reacted with anguish and anger in available space, like blogs and social networks, they untied their tongues just enough to ward off the charge of conspiracy of silence. In the guarded formal discussions on news channels, they studiously avoided inconvenient questions like how did we get here and how do we get out of here.

Predictably, long-time critics of the journalists and media institutions concerned seized the opportunity provided by the tapes to discredit them. Much of the uproar in the public domain was based on inadequate appreciation of the facts. Some went so far as to imagine the problem lay in the close relationship between politicians and media persons.

The press has been involved with politicians in the power game for a long time. It was in the 18th century that Burke reportedly pointed to the Reporters’ Gallery in the Commons and spoke of a “fourth estate, far more powerful than the other three”. It was around that time that Hickey started India’s first newspaper and took on the Governor General, apparently with the support of an incipient opposition within the emergent British Indian establishment. On the eve of Independence, there were two streams in the Indian press: one consisted of British-owned newspapers whose interests were largely identical to those of the colonial establishment and the other of newspapers which inclined towards the emergent nationalist establishment. As the colonial power pulled out and the state machinery it created became the instruments of Free India, the two streams merged to form an Indian media establishment. Soon it broke, once again creating two streams of vastly differing strength. There was a major stream whose interests were largely identical to those of the emergent Indian capitalist establishment. The minor stream mainly consisted of small and medium newspapers in various Indian languages. As the small and medium newspapers grew, their interests increasingly coincided with those of the main stream. In all the political contentions of the last six decades, both the streams played their part, sometimes with a degree of professional sophistication, but more often in a partisan manner. Against this background, it is ridiculous for any one to pretend to be scandalized by the Niira Radia tapes which provide telltale evidence of the ties between politics, business and journalism.

This is not to suggest that the tapes are of no great significance or that the public uproar they have provoked is unjustified. They are significant since they give us a keyhole view of the incestuous affairs of the power wielders. The strong reactions reverberating in the unregulated cyber world is quite justified as the tapes throw light on goings-on inimical to public interest. If A. Raja was planted in the Cabinet by shadowy king-makers to serve corporate interests and his handling of 2G spectrum allocation resulted in losses of billions of rupees, some of the conversations caught on the tape tantamount to evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the nation.

The tapes are also important as they reveal a qualitative change in the nature of the engagement between those involved in politics, business and journalism. This aspect deserves to be examined carefully to understand how we reached where we are and to be able to find ways to get out.

The nature of the relationship between the various players has been varied. The Dalmia Jains, owners of the Times of India group, had a troubled relationship with the political leadership and were hauled up for breach of the law more than once. One of them landed in jail and another was in risk of going to jail when the news of his death was announced. The Birlas, owners of the Hindustan Times group, had an easy relationship. When a Birla wanted to enter the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan the Congress made available to him the surplus votes of party legislators and he was resourceful enough to find from among the large number of Independent MLAs sufficient additional votes to win.

Owners who used the clout of the newspapers to further their business interests generally dealt with political leaders directly. However, from time to time they also enlisted the services of editors or correspondents. N. J. Nanporia of the Times of India and B. G. Verghese of the Hindustan Times ran into trouble as they could not measure up to the owners’ non-professional expectations. Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express group had a complex and chequered relationship with politicians. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from Tamil Nadu on the Congress ticket in 1952. He provided free accommodation for the reception committee of the Avadi Congress which declared a socialist pattern of society as the party’s goal. In 1971, he went to the Lok Sabha again, this time from Madhya Pradesh as a Jana Sangh candidate. In the 1980s he allowed Ram Jethamalani to hang a name board at the Indian Express guest house in Bangalore so that he could claim to be a Karnataka resident and take advantage of Janata Dal Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s offer of a Rajya Sabha seat from that state. Some letters Goenka exchanged with political and business leaders, published posthumously, throw light on the way he used his influence to further his business interests and his friends’ political interests. Some aspects of Dhirubhai Ambani’s climb to the top got into print only because of his partisan interest in corporate rivalries Today he is remembered as a newspaper owner who stood up to the Emergency regime. Few even know that after Indira Gandhi’s comeback he had tried in vain to get into her good books. The long arm of the law reached up to him at one stage. While he was acquitted, the court found his son and co-accused Bhagwandas guilty and gave him a jail term, from which premature death saved him.

The first Press Commission, appointed in the 1950s, made certain proposals to protect the editor from under pressure from the owner but they could not be given effect to. It also made recommendations to provide a level playing field for big and small newspapers. A law enacted for the purpose was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. In the age of economic liberalization such measures are unthinkable. Newspaper managements now ignore laws nonchalantly. The law requires all newspapers to publish the names of individuals who own more than one per cent of the shares. Some give the names of only companies, not of individuals. A newspaper group brought out an Indian edition of a foreign daily flouting rules framed by the government.

Politics, business and the press interacted closely not only at the national level but also lower down, from Kashmir to Kerala. Political parties and ambitious politicians, instead of relying on established newspapers, started their own publications. Some bought newspapers which were on sale. More than 80 per cent of the newspapers now in the field began publication after Independence. They were all launched with political motives or business motives or both. Many newspaper owners found it easier to succeed on the political front than on the business front. However, it deserves to be noted that most of the parties that wield power in the states did not rise to the top by piggy-riding on newspapers. On the contrary, they grew overcoming the indifference – and, in some cases, even the open hostility -- of the newspapers that dominate the region. Dravidian politicians still recount how in the 1950s The Hindu had dismissed their legendary leader’s speech in these words “Mr. C. N. Annadurai also spoke”. If newspapers could decide the outcome of elections the Communist Party of India in Kerala and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh could not have come to power. The only known instance of a newspaper playing a decisive role in elections occurred in Andhra Pradesh, where Ramoji Rao, owner of Eenadu daily, helped N. T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party to come to power within a year of its formation.

Influential politicians are known to have helped journalists in various ways. Sometimes they helped them land plum jobs without even being asked. Khushwant Singh has publicly acknowledged Sanjay Gandhi’s role in his appointment as the Editor of the Hindustan Times. A chief minister had only to threaten to cut off a measly subscription of Rs 1500 a month to set the UNI’s general manager thinking about transferring \the news agency’s bureau chief in the state. At election time media persons could be seen hanging out at the houses of Congress leaders hoping for the party ticket to contest for Parliament or the State Assembly. However, the possibility of journalists trying to influence the choice of ministers at the Centre or in the states, at the behest of business interests, was unimaginable in those days. That possibility has been created by the developments of the past two decades.

Money now plays a bigger role in politics than at any time before. There are politicians like M. Karunanidhi who have been in the field for years and emerged as billionaires (he was simultaneously active in the cinema field too) and there are billionaires who have come in, knowing that their riches will stand them in good stead. Editors and lesser journalists now had more opportunities than before to trade their skills and influence for political or personal favours.

The change in the field of business is exemplified by Dhirubhai Ambani, who was well placed to take full advantage of the opportunities that globalization presented. All the top business houses had maintained large public relations outfits in Delhi since long with separate executives to liaise with media persons, bureaucrats, legislators and judges. Ambani, who had built the company with the widest base of shareholders, went on to set up the country’s largest publicity and public relations machinery. Liquor flowed so freely that in journalistic circles Dhirubhai’s PR man came to be known as darubhai. Ambani’s media advisors drew up a plan to establish a satellite-linked nationwide newspaper chain. For some reason, it was not put into effect. The Ambanis’ low-key entry into the media world was a disaster and they discovered that news management was a lot easier and cheaper than media management.

Samir Jain of the Times of India also made a discovery. He proclaimed that the newspaper was just another product to be sold in the market and that the managers who helped increase his profits by selling the newspaper and newspaper space were smarter people than the editors and other journalists who produced it. He rewrote the rules of newspaper competition and forced reluctant owners and editors to change the way they were functioning. Every bit of space in the newspaper, including the editorial column, became saleable. Today you may get the biggest news stories of the day wrapped up in an advertisement sheet. Newspapers are still growing but journalism was declining.

And then satellite television arrived. Even before the government, which had a monopoly over air waves, was ready to let private operations in, entrepreneurs brought satellite television into homes. There was an influx into the electronic media from other sectors as well. Television created media stars. They are not mere media persons. They are also entrepreneurs and media owners.

There was now a new India with new politics, new business, new bureaucracy and new media. Boundaries were crumbling, facilitating a convergence. A Marathi regional party could send a Bengali media person or a Keralite bureaucrat to Parliament. It was in this new India that Niira Radia incarnated as a catalyst promoting speedy interaction among its various constituents.

The people view the media not as just another estate of the realm but as one will act as a watchdog and blow the whistle when things go wrong in other fields. When media decays, it loses the ability to raise its voice against decay elsewhere. In the final analysis, in the absence of reliable a regulatory mechanism in any field, situations of the kind exposed by Radia’s taped conversations cannot be avoided. The regulatory mechanism set up for the print media has lost its relevance. The mechanism for self-regulation established by the electronic media is ineffective. The sooner an appropriate media regulatory mechanism is created the better.

This article, posted at CounterMedia ( November 28, 2010, is a revised and enlarged version of one originally written in Malayalam for Madhyamam daily. The newspaper had sought the views of several experienced media persons on issues arising from the Radia tapes.

Games politicians play

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The strengths and weaknesses of democracy are in evidence in the political developments that make headlines in the Indian media these days. The players in the political game do not appear to have a proper appreciation of either.

Last week a new government took office in Bihar, the country’s second most populous state and one of the most backward. The elections were marked by less violence and higher polling than before. The ruling Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition was returned to power with an increased majority in the State Assembly.

Political observers described the elections as a triumph of democracy. They gave credit to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had placed the state on the path of development, and the voters, who had apparently risen above caste loyalties.

The JD (U)-BHP combine, which had won 143 seats in the 243-member house with about 36 per cent of the votes in 2005, bagged 206 seats this time by raising its vote share by three percentage points. The rival Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janshakti Party alliance lost about nine percentage points and its strength in the house dropped from 64 to 25. The Congress, which had won nine seats last time with a vote share of 6.09 per cent, polled 8.38 per cent of the votes but got only four seats.

The representative character of the legislatures thrown up by the ‘first past the post’ system is open to question. However, the system often helps provide for stability. If the system of proportional representation was in force there would have been a hung Assembly in the state, leading to political uncertainty.

A negative feature which has come to light is that more than half the members of the new Assembly are persons with criminal background. Both the ruling parties and the opposition parties have a dismal record in this regard.

Rich men with criminal antecedents started entering the political arena when parties began to rely on money power and muscle to win elections. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in a petition filed by a non-governmental organisation, all candidates are now required to file affidavits declaring their assets and providing particulars of any criminal cases they are involved.

The Election Commission makes the contents of the affidavits public, but there is nothing to indicate that the revelations influence the voters’ choice.

At present, the democratic system faces a severe test at the national level with opposition parties obstructing the proceedings in the two houses of parliament with a view to forcing the government to concede their demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to go into the telecom scandal.

On November 1, the opening day of the winter session, the Rajya Sabha could not function but the Lok Sabha went through the question hour and transacted some legislative business. On the last 11 working days neither house could work.

The government’s hope that Communications Minister A Raja’s exit will soften the opposition’s stand did not materialise. It does not know how it can push through pending financial and legislative business.

The scam is already under scrutiny at various levels. The Central Bureau of Investigation is looking into it. The Supreme Court is considering petitions seeking a directive to the CBI to prosecute Raja.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which throws light on irregularities which resulted in an estimated loss of more than Rs1,700 billion to the exchequer, is before the Lok Sabha. The public accounts committee (PAC) of the house has to scrutinise it.

Given the political leadership’s ability to influence the course of police investigation, the opposition is reluctant to leave things to the CBI, which is under the prime minister. But it is possible for the Supreme Court to immunise the CBI against pressure by itself taking over supervision of the investigation, as was done earlier in some sensitive cases.

Both PAC and JPC are all-party bodies. The opposition’s preference for the latter appears to be irrational for two reasons. One, while PAC is headed by an opposition member JPC is invariably headed by a ruling party member. Two, No previous JPC probe succeeded in bring culprits to book. Yet the opposition wants JPC since it offers scope for making political capital.

The cost of the games the politicians are playing is high. Media reports have pointed out that disruption of parliament results in a loss of millions of rupees. However, the worst part, however, is not the monetary loss. What is at stake is the future of the parliamentary system. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 29, 2010

22 November, 2010

Media run for cover

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The media hounds who were chasing India’s scam-stained politicians are running for cover. Leaked tapes contain material that links some media celebrities with a corporate lobbyist.

They had kept the nation on tenterhooks for days with reports on the 2G scam, the biggest in India’s history by virtue of the huge amount involved in suspect deals. Then the X-tapes came into the public domain. Two periodicals, Open and Outlook, put them on their websites and printed the transcripts.

The tapes contain telephone conversations Niira Radia had with politicians, businessmen and journalists during 2008-09. Radia runs a public relations firm whose clients include Mukesh Ambani, who, Forbes magazine has said, may soon be the world’s richest man, and the Tatas, the oldest of the corporate giants. Her mission at one point was to ensure that A. Raja, who recently resigned as Communications Minister, got that portfolio.

Burkha Dutt, Group Editor of NDTV and one of the best known faces on Indian TV, and Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times and a popular columnist, were among those whose assistance she sought. Going by the tapes, both were willing. A few other journalists also figure in the tapes.

“India, the republic, is now on sale,” Outlook wrote. “Participating in the auction is a group of powerful individuals, corporate houses, lobbyists, bureaucrats and journalists.”

Dutt and Sanghvi denied wrong-doing, the former through Twitter and the latter through his website. Both justified contacts with Radia as legitimate journalistic activity.

“Radia was a valid news source for DMK camp,” Dutt wrote. “She gave info on Karunanidhi, and sought my analysis on what Cong may do next. Valid journalism.”

Her tweets ended with these words: “…bizarre to think any government bases decisions on cabinet formation on what journos say!! End of discussion folks. see ya.”

Sanghvi wrote, “There is nothing at all in the tapes to suggest that I lobbied for Mr Raja.” He added, “While gathering news, journalists talk to a wide variety of sources from all walks of life, especially when a fast-moving story is unfolding. Out of a desire to elicit more information from these sources, we are generally polite. I received many calls from different sources during that period. In no case did I act on those requests as anybody in the government will know.”

Both sought to cast doubts on the tapes and the transcripts. So did Radia’s Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Pvt. Ltd, which said “some media properties” were levelling unsubstantiated, baseless and reckless allegations against it.

In solidarity with scam-hurt colleagues, mainstream media properties blacked out the contents of the tapes. One editor informed readers he received transcripts but did not act on them “because we couldn’t authenticate them.” He wrote under the headline, “Why we are quiet on the Open magazine story.” He may as well have written: “Why we are not quite open on the magazine story.”

Editors actually had time to verify the tapes, if they wanted to, since they had come into their possession months earlier. Girish Nikam, a New Delhi journalist, had mentioned them on his website last May. He also explained why the media shut their eyes to them. Niira Radia, he wrote, “has friends in the media, including some of the highest profiled media figures, apart from newspaper owners and editors.” He added, “The fact that she dictates the media policy of three of the richest corporates means none of the media houses can afford to take cudgels against her.”

While the English language newspapers, which had led the campaign against “paid news” in the Marathi press, steered clear of the Radia minefield, J. Gopikrishnan, a little known staffer of The Pioneer, pursued the story and played a role in the developments that resulted in Raja’s fall. His editor, Swapan Dasgupta, is an Opposition MP.

Breaking with the mainstream approach, G. Sampath of the Mumbai daily DNA wrote in his blog: “The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country than the talk shows in the various news channels and the breast-beating in all the newspapers.”

There is nothing in the tapes to indicate that the journalists sought any favours. However, their explanations raise some question. Do ace journalists rely on business lobbies for information on political developments? Do they hold out false promises to get information from dubious sources? Is under-the-table sale of newspaper space to politicians a more heinous crime than use of media clout to further corporate motives, which, as Outlook implies, amounts to sale of the republic? -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 22, 2010.

15 November, 2010

Saudi king responds to plea on behalf of jailed Sri Lankan woman

Saudi Arabia’s monarch has responded to the plea to save the life of Rizana Nafeek (picture on left), a Sri Lankan woman, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a child under her care, according to a message from the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Human rights organizations had appealed to the Saudi authorities on Rizana’s behalf.

The AHRC message reads as follows:

The Asian Human Rights Commission is happy to learn that His Royal Highness King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia has taken the initial steps towards a reprieve for Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan girl who is currently on the death row in Saudi Arabia convicted for strangling a baby in her care. Rizana, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, claims it was an accident in which the baby choked while being bottle-fed. The Supreme Court in Riyadh confirmed her death sentence in late October 2010.

The Sri Lankan External Affairs Ministry’s Consular Chief Somadasa Wijeysundera reported this Sunday, November 14, 2010, that King Abdullah has directed officials to meet with the parents of the deceased infant for whom Rizana worked. He stated that the King's actions come as a response to the plea from the Sri Lankan President Rajapakse to grant the girl clemency, emphasizing that discreet diplomatic efforts were underway to secure her release.

Wijeysundera further stated that several other diplomatic efforts have been stepped up both in Riyadh and internationally to gather support for Rizana's release. "Our envoys in several countries both in the West and elsewhere are working closely with those respective countries towards this end. The response is encouraging but the process is slow because it needs a lot of diplomatic patience and understanding," he said.

Saudi Arabia's law is based on Sharia, the Islamic Law, which holds certain restrictions. As the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia recently confirmed her death sentence, the options of judicial remedies have been exhausted. The decision can only be challenged if new evidence comes to light, if King Abdullah, who also serves as Prime Minister, grants her a pardon or the parents of the deceased infant withdraw their claim of murder or settle for blood money. The King's initiative to let officials meet with the family is therefore acknowledged as an important step in granting a reprieve to Rizana.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch among other human rights groups and civil society organizations have followed the case closely and worked intensively to put continuous pressure on the Saudi King and The Minister of Interior in Saudi Arabia to grant Rizana clemency as well as requesting
President Rajapakse to appeal to King Abdullah and request a diplomatic dialogue on the case.

While the eyes of the world currently are on King Abdullah and President Rajapakse, this should also be used to address the underlying causes to this disastrous situation and how the young girl from a rural, poor family ended up there in the first place. In Sri Lanka there is an urgent need to address the growing problem of illegal operations by the recruitment agencies to send workers overseas. As Sri Lanka's biggest source to foreign currency is remittance from workers overseas, the Sri Lankan government has been slow and reluctant to put pressure on the Saudi King before the international and national attention forced it to intervene. Addressing the problems of the workers overseas have therefore not been a priority before and something President Rajapakse would rather prefer to keep disguised.

In the case of Rizana it was after all the recruitment agency in Sri Lanka, who illegally altered her birthday to be able to employ her in Saudi Arabia. This resulted in Rizana holding a job as a baby caretaker; a job, which she was neither mature nor experienced enough to hold and thus led to the tragic death of a child. The current situation should be used genuinely for a call on the Sri Lankan government to take strong measures against the exploitation of underage labour and the implementation of protection for the country's migrant workers.

While the response by the Saudi King to intervene in Rizana's case is encouraging, it is crucial to maintain international as well as national pressure on the situation so that Rizana will be released.

Confronting corruption

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On becoming Chief Vigilance Commissioner in 1998, N Vittal said he set himself the modest goal of lifting India a few points up in Transparency International’s global corruption perception index. He left office in 2002 without achieving the target.

In TI’s 2010 index, India is ranked 87th among 178 nations. It was in the 88th place in 2005. Obviously, Vittal’s successors are not faring any better than him.

Three major corruption scandals involving men in high places are before the public now.

One relates to award of contracts in connection with the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi. As soon as the games concluded, the government relieved Suresh Kalmadi, a powerful politician who headed the organising committee, of his responsibilities and ordered investigation of the allegations.

Another scandal relates to the construction of a high-rise building in Mumbai to rehabilitate widows of army men killed in the Kargil war. High-ranking officials and relatives of influential politicians got the flats.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s name figured in media reports about the scandal. After he had discharged his responsibilities connected with President Obama’s visit, Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked him to step down and the Centre ordered an inquiry.

The third scandal relates to irregularities in 2G spectrum allocation, which, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, resulted in a loss of Rs1700 billion to the exchequer. In the eye of the storm is Union Telecommunications Minister A Raja, who belongs to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party of Tamil Nadu. The opposition has sought his resignation. His party claims he is innocent.

Men in high places who are accused of misdemeanour often go scot-free. Ironically, in the early years of Independence, the system was able to deal with corruption cases more effectively than today.

The Constitution was not in place yet when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru learnt that a member of parliament had taken money to ask questions in the house. He moved a resolution in the house to expel the member. A high court judge was removed in the same manner after investigation showed he was guilty of misconduct.

The opulence seen at the marriage of a top bureaucrat’s daughter raised suspicions in a junior minister’s mind and he ordered an investigation. The officer, who belonged to the British-instituted Indian Civil Service, ended up in jail for corruption.

Such expeditious action is now a thing of the past. Investigating agencies of the central and state governments have lately invited the charge of acting in the interests of their political masters.

In a rare case of conviction of a VIP, after proceedings that dragged on for 13 years, a Delhi court sentenced Sukh Ram, a former Telecommunications minister, in February 2009 to three years in jail and a fine of Rs200,000 for possessing assets disproportionate to his sources of income. His appeal is pending in the high court. The last word in the case is clearly a long way off.

The system is most ineffective in dealing with charges against members of the judiciary. Advocates refused to appear before three judges of the Bombay high court, alleging they were corrupt. All three completed their term without facing any action.

In 1993 V Ramaswami, a Supreme Court judge, was impeached for financial irregularities committed while serving as chief justice of a High Court. The Lok Sabha, voting on party lines, exonerated him. Impeachment proceedings against a Calcutta judge, who has been found guilty of misappropriation, will start soon. The case of a high court chief justice, accused of land grab, is currently under investigation.

While conviction of Central or state ministers on graft charges is rare, many have had to pay a political price. In the 1950s, Justice MC Chagla, who inquired into the allegation that the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation had shown undue favours to a businessman, ruled that the minister had ‘constructive responsibility’ for the actions of officials under him. Following this, TT Krishnamachari, who was Finance Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, resigned.

Since then the Congress party has got many of its leaders to step down from office and face inquiry. Other parties, instead of following this convention, have generally attempted to ride through corruption charges brazenly. That is what Raja and the DMK are trying to do. As the party, which heads the ruling coalition, the Congress cannot remain a passive onlooker. It has to confront the issue.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 15, 2010.

10 November, 2010

Korean civil society's second report on POSCO project

Korean civil society groups have published their official report on fact-finding research for the POSCO project launched by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Orissa government in 2005.

The fact-finding team composed of two lawyers and a human rights activist who are experts on monitoring of human rights violations of multinational companies conducted the second fact-finding research between August 28 and September 5, 2010, following the first one that had been carried out between April 26 and May 6, 2008.

In the report, the team explains that Korean civil society has been paying attention to the issue since the violence broke out between the villagers for the POSCO project and those who were against it, in November 2007. Since then, the Korean civil society groups have been monitoring the Orissa government's attitude and also made the constant queries and demands on POSCO in Korea. The English brief report can be found here and the Korean report is available here.

Through the two visits for fact-finding research, the Korean civil society has been observing that the villagers for the POSCO project are not fully satisfied with the amount and the manner of compensation and those who are against the POSCO project have been completely excluded, which implies that the Orissa government and POSCO do not respect and observe the principles of democratic procedure and participation in promoting development projects. The Orissa government as well as POSCO has rather been contravening the Forest Rights Act 2006, violating human rights and creating environmental destruction, the report says.

The case of Khandadhar, which is mentioned in the report, is where the Orissa government and POSCO had applied for an iron ore mining license but was rejected by the high court in July 2010, clearly proving how the forest area and the tribes' lives have been destroyed by the development project.

The report also denounces the Orissa government's violent and partial attitude, pointing out the police firing and violence against protesting villagers which happened in May, as well as the the detention of the fact-finding team members in a police station for several hours, after their visit to anti-POSCO villages.

The Korean civil society groups, through the report, strongly recommend the below:

1. The Orissa government, promoting a development project without precise field research and discouraging the affected villagers' participation, should provide compensation and apology to the villagers who have been facing human rights violations and exclusion so far.

2. As apparent from the fact that the fact-finding team was taken to the police station and investigated immediately after visiting the anti-POSCO project villages on August 30, 2010, the police should stop the suppression and surveillance of the anti-POSCO project villagers, which violates their human rights.

3. The Orissa government should acknowledge that the POSCO project cannot succeed in its launch without the villagers' participation and agreement, and it is highly recommended to thoroughly reconsider the POSCO project.

4. Starting with the POSCO project, the Orissa government should respect and observe the principles that any development project should be initiated only with a transparent and democratic process that includes the villagers' participation.

5. The Ministry of Environment and Forests of India should immediately respect and fulfill the recommendations proposed by the Saxena Committee, the Meena Gupta Committee and the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), a key committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

6. The central government of India also should immediately conduct a thorough re-survey and re-examination of the whole POSCO project.

For English brief report,

For Korean report,

For more detail, please contact:

Na, Hyun phil
KHIS, Seoul Korea
Tel: +82 2 736 5808
Fax: +82 2 736 5810

Courtesy: Asian Human Rights Commission

08 November, 2010

Visit means trade

Gulf Today

Barack Obama’s visit to India is unlike any previous US presidential visit. From Dwight Eisenhower onwards, several presidents came to India. They all began the odyssey in the capital city of New Delhi with a visit to the Gandhi memorial.

President Obama, who arrived on Saturday on a three-day visit — his longest trip so far to any country — landed first not in New Delhi, but in Mumbai, the bustling commercial capital, which stopped in its tracks to facilitate his safe passage.

Ostensibly Mumbai was given the honour to demonstrate US solidarity with the victims of the multiple terror attack on the city on November 26, 2008. The president’s first stop was at the Taj hotel, where the terrorists who arrived by sea from Pakistan had mowed down many Indians and foreigners.

The choice of Mumbai as the starting point was appropriate for another reason too. For Obama, who was accompanied by the chief executive officers of more than 200 US corporations, came as CEO of USA Inc. and was looking for business which will help his country’s economy, which is yet to recover from the impact of the meltdown.

Thanks to the work done in advance behind the scenes by government and company officials of the two countries, within hours of arrival he was able to announce the conclusion of 20 deals under which Indian firms will buy American goods worth $10 billion. These deals will help create more than 50,000 jobs, he said. As the day wore on, the size of US business deals rose to $15 billion.

Obama noted that India and the US are the world’s largest democracies. Yet, he pointed out, India ranked only 12th among America’s trading partners and there was vast scope for improving the position. Evidently upgrading economic ties is a key element in his vision of Indo-US relationship, which, he said, was going to be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

Captains of Indian industry, who are looking for new opportunities in the US, were quite pleased with what Obama said. More Indo-US trade will mean more jobs in this country too, they reckoned.

However, some sections of the Indian establishment were sorely disappointed and they made no attempt to hide their feelings. Commentators on live television shows noted that while reiterating US commitment to fight the scourge of terrorism Obama made no mention of Pakistan, from where the Mumbai attackers had come. A spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party echoed the sentiments.

The Indian critics, who are obsessed with Pakistan, were not impressed by US analysts’ explanation that ordinarily visiting presidents to not refer to third countries in public statements.

All sections in India have generally viewed relations with the US in the context of politics, and attached little value to economic and strategic considerations.

From Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, most Indian prime ministers began their official tenure with visits to the US and optimistic calculations about improved relations with that country. But the post-war US administrations, caught in the logics of the cold war, looked upon India’s policy of non-alignment with suspicion if not outright hostility.

Ritual reiteration of the natural affinity between the largest democracies proved inadequate to forge close relations. Richard Nixon’s instant dislike of Indira Gandhi led to a deterioration in the relationship and she signed a 25-year friendship with the then Soviet Union to make sure that was a reliable ally close by as she helped Pakistan’s geographically separated eastern province to emerge as independent Bangladesh.

With the cold war a thing of the past, Bill Clinton and George Bush made attempts to improve relations with India. However, the complexities of the South Asian situation limited progress.

Obama has taken two significant steps which hold out the possibility of a break with the past. One is keeping Pakistan out of the itinerary of the current tour. Previously US presidents had combined visits to the two countries. The other is shifting of the focus from politics to economics.

Political issues cannot, of course, be wished away. Obama simply kept them aside to be taken up before winding up the visit in New Delhi.

The Obama approach is based on a realistic appraisal of the changes in the global scenario. He indicated as much when he called for breaking out of stereotypes and coming to terms with current realities. It remains to be seen whether India is ready to go along the new path. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 8, 2010.

01 November, 2010

Left on the decline

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Left-wing parties which wield power in three states in India are going downhill. The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which leads the pack, was routed in local self-government elections in Kerala last week. It had received a severe drubbing in the municipal elections in West Bengal in May.

The Left Front, headed by the CPI-M, has ruled West Bengal continuously for more than three decades, setting a record. The Left Democratic Front, also led by it, has been voted to office in Kerala in alternate elections for as long.

Coming after the heavy losses in last year’s parliamentary poll, the reverses in the local elections are a major setback for the CPI-M as it prepares for the Assembly elections, due next year, in the two states. The other Left parties count for little.

The CPI-M has established procedures for evaluation of its performance, identification of mistakes and initiation of remedial action. However, the time available to it to take corrective measures and avoid a third successive reverse is too short.

Lately, the corrective system has not been functioning well. The party’s state and central committees had conducted mandatory reviews after the Lok Sabha poll but no meaningful measures ensued.

When the country gained freedom in 1947, the Communist Party of India was committed to a policy of violent revolution but it participated in the elections. In the first national elections on adult franchise, held in 1952, it emerged as the largest opposition group in the Lok Sabha, winning more seats than the Socialist Party which polled more votes.

Five years later, the world sat up and took notice as the CPI formed the government in Kerala. That was the first time Communists had come to power through the ballot box anywhere. The government, sadly, was short-lived. The Centre dismissed it in 1959 as violent protests against land and educational reforms initiated by it swept the state.

Despite the rude experience, the CPI remained on the parliamentary path. When the party split in two in the wake of the rift in the international communist movement both the factions continued along the same course. Although communist influence in the country shrank, the CPI-M outpaced the parent body and emerged as the strongest political formation in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

In all these states the CPI-M is now facing a problem which other parties that are a part of the power structure have faced before. It is problem resulting from prolonged exposure to and involvement in power politics. As a party with an assured place in the ruling Establishment it tends to attract those seeking political power more than those wanting social and economic changes.

Party documents show that it is losing long-term cadres who are not interested in the loaves of office. The annual dropout rate has been above 10 per cent in Kerala for some year. It is one of several states where more than 40 per cent of the party members are comparative newcomers.

Elections are a costly process. In a five-year period, parties now face three separate elections — one to the Lok Sabha, another to the Assembly and the third to the local bodies. At one time the CPI-M could proudly say it relied entirely on small contributions from the poor. Material that surfaced in the recent past indicates that the Kerala party has benefited from the munificence of some businessmen with dubious backgrounds.

The absence of charismatic leaders like EMS Namboodiripad and Jyoti Basu, who had led the party in Kerala and West Bengal along the parliamentary path in the early years, is a major handicap for the CPI-M in facing today’s challenges. To make things worse, the central leadership is in the hands of persons with little grassroots level political experience.

Under former general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the CPI-M had carved out a place for itself in national politics by acting as a catalyst in the formation of non-Congress governments when elections threw up a hung parliament. His successor, Prakash Karat, helped in the formation of the last Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the party was able to influence its working to some extent.

Karat’s attempt to bring down the UPA government on the issue of the civilian nuclear agreement with the United States backfired. His effort to put together a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party alternative in advance of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections also failed. The party needs a win in the Assembly elections to retain its relevance at the national level.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 1, 2010.