And the winner is “None of the above” !!!

It is the 16th of May. The day of reckoning for not only the candidates who are in the poll fray but also for the pollsters who have been predicting swings, vote shares and election results. I wake up early, finish my morning chores also early and plonk in front of the idiot box which will soon have experts who will make nonsense out of sense and vice versa depending on how the results swing. After all, this election has been touted as one which will change the destiny of our country in many ways than one. At this time I didn’t realize the tinge of prescience embedded in this statement.

As is the wont, the first one hour indicates only leads and everyone except the one who leads dismisses them as very early trends. But I could sense some tectonic change waiting to happen. Much to my delight, the candidate whom I voted in my constituency was leading. And whom did I vote for??? This is a dilemma I always had when I went to the booth to vote. Whether to vote on the merits of the candidate in my constituency or vote for the party I want to see in power irrespective of the merits of the local candidate. More often than not I found that the party I want to vote has fielded a lousy candidate and the best candidate in my area belongs to the wrong party. But this time, actually 1st time for me I had the option to beat this dilemma by pressing the “None of the above” button and come out happy. And that’s what I did. And in my constituency None of the above is now clearly leading.

NOTA_295x200

Wait a minute. As counting progresses, in many constituencies across the country as the experts were getting flummoxed to explain (but still manage to justify that it was a clear wave not just against incumbency but also against the challenger and all other fringe players blah blah blah) None of the above was emerging as the winner by far. By evening as the Pan India results starting coming out it is clear that the Indian voter has once again spoken and spoken smartly. In the total 543 seats for the Lok Sabha no party or a Pre poll alliance emerges with a clear majority. Reason being, None of the above win in 220 seats out of the total 543. So BJP and the NDA get stumped for the 3rd time with just 120 and 156 seats respectively. The silver lining was the Congress. Silver lining – because it is exactly as per prediction. As one expected they end up at 90 with 77 seats going to the 3rd, 4th, Nth fronts.

By evening parties reconcile to the bizarre result and start mouthing the usual “respect the verdict of the people with all humility” line predictably. One could see that it was difficult for the Congress spokespersons to hide their glee as their archrival- the BJP has been downed once again. Anish Tiwari said “Is me Kattar Soch Nahi, Yuva josh hai. Holistically is Parinam Hume manzoor hai” The mood in the BJP camp is of utter disbelief and despondency. While they had planned their campaign meticulously, they had not bargained for such an outcome at all. The BJP parliamentary party meets quickly and resolves to respect the verdict and support None of the above if they wish to come together and form the Government. Emerging out of the meeting party patriarch Lal Krishna Gidvani (summoning all his histrionic skills to hide his elation) says,

“Hum Vinamrata se maan te hain is haar

Abki bar NOTA Sarkar

Jai Hind”!

In the meanwhile all the None of the above candidates meet and elect their senior None of the above as their parliamentary leader who will become the PM. They shortly meet the President and stake the claim for forming the Government with BJP providing outside support. The next day newspaper headlines, TV tickers and Web banners scream – “Historic verdict – And the winner is None of the above”!!!

It is now the 20th of May. The dust has settled in what was a historic election in the world. India now as None of the above as Prime Minister. And the members of the Cabinet read as

Home Minister: None of the above

Defence Minister: None of the above

External Affairs Minister: None of the above

,…

,…

Ranjay Garu Ex Media advisor to PM Nanmohan Singh is still doing the TV rounds to promote his book “The Incidental Prime Minister”. In one of the channels, the anchor asks him

Anchor: So what do you think of this unprecedented election outcome now that None of the above has become the PM of India

Ranjay Garu: What is so unprecedented about this? I thought for the past 10 years we had one None of the Above as PM!!!

India is now making rapid strides in the economy front with None of the above running the Government meticulously with his None of the above colleagues. None of the above are involved in any scams and corruption is a thing of the past. In world fora, the only thing is top of the lips of all leaders is

None of the above

None of the above

What is wrong with you, blabbering None of the above, None of the above in your sleep?? This is the problem if you watch so much election rubbish on TV!!! Wake up now.

 

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Na Tired,… Na Retired,…!!!

I like Jaswant Singh. I think he was arguably India’s best External Affairs minister in the post Nehruvian era. I cannot think of another politician in that time who could have handled the diplomatic fall out of the Pokhran tests during the Vajpayee regime better than him. When I recently read his book – ‘A Call to honour-In Service of Emergent India’ where he elucidates the complex negotiations he had with the US leading to the relaxing of sanctions much earlier than the world expected, my respect for him went up a few notches. So it was extremely sad to see the same Jaswant Singh last week waging a lonely battle of sorts with his party for not nominating him from the seat of his choice. When the party wanted him to retire gracefully, he wanted to retire after a last race!!! He was visibly tired. Even the vocal energy was missing. Those grandiose articulation skills which helped him stave off many a diplomatic challenge didn’t come of use in his own turf battle. Diplomacy they say is “an art of give and take” or rather “appearing to give and take”. Jaswant Singh nor the party leadership was in any mood for even appearing to give in. The result – Mr. Singh had to throw in the turban in the election ring as an independent and has been expelled from the party. While the curtain on his career is certainly down if he loses, I am not sure if the climax will be anything interesting even if he wins. With this episode, has he become a foot note a petulant one in that in the party’s history?? History will judge.

It’s not just Jaswant Singh. We have leaders across the spectrum of parties in India for whom a “graceful exit” is an alien concept. At an age of 87, one would expect a patriarch to provide abundant blessings, plentiful advice and be a fatherly figure. But, here we have Mr. Advani throwing fits about where he will contest for the next Loksabha elections. When his tenure ends he will be 92 – not an age one expects to have the energy to energize the nation of a burgeoning youthful population. Giving him illustrious company is the “Kalaignar” from South – Karunanidhi who at 90 is doing all what he can to prevent the “Rising Sun” from sinking. The visuals of an immobile leader being wheeled from meeting to meeting his mastery over Tamil language notwithstanding are hardly inspiring.

knidhi

Is it just politicians?? Nope. In sports too, we have enough examples of exits happening only when push comes to shove. It was my humble opinion that even God aka Sachin Tendulkar called his retirement a couple of years late. In the context of retirement, a very used cliché is – “One must exit when people ask why now and why not?” However if one surfs through history of legends, it is mostly of the “Why not” variety. Whether it was Kapil Dev or Saurav Ganguly. That’s why a Sunil Gavaskar who stepped down from captaincy after a World Championship win or retired from tests after one of his best knocks is still respected and that’s why a Rahul Dravid who decided to hang up at the 1st sight of self-doubt will be spoken with high regard.

This disease has plagued industrialists who run empires as well. I know of a group where the Chairman who in his late 80’s still tries to be active in running the business. He used to say that he will stop attending office the day his son (in late 50’s) starts acting responsibly which is when he attends office on time!!! And his son used to claim that he will be in office on time the day his dad has confidence in him and stops attending office!!!

Hence in this “I will not give up” atmosphere, one was pleasantly surprised to see Jairam Ramesh of the Congress declaring that in his party, leaders must retire at 70. It’s another matter that his party soon disowned his lofty comment as a personal lament.

Let me for the moment limit this issue of “No Voluntary Retirement” to the sphere of politics as that is of public importance. It can be safely concluded that but for extreme bad health nothing else stops politicians from trying to be politically active. Are physical strength and mental alacrity not critical in matters of governance? Jairam Ramesh also added “People unfortunately in India don’t know when to exit. That is why most mentors become tormentors”!!! Is this “not stepping down graciously” an “Indian” thing? For want of adequate information, I am unable to conclude. Is it time to amend laws to stipulate upper age for contesting in elections? Will the leaders who hang around themselves will ever come together to bring about this legislation?

Only time will tell. Till such time, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee a man with a liberal gift of the gab once said “Na Tired, Na Retired” will be the overarching theme for our netas. “Young nation with Very Old leadership” is what looks like is preordained for our country. But I think the time has come for a national debate on this.

“Hello!

 Is this Mr. Kejriwal speaking,…???”

 Cartoon credit: www.cartoonistsandeep.com 

Neutral Media???

Aam Admi Party’s most khas admi Arvind Kejriwal’s diatribe against media few days back brings back the neutrality of media in sharp focus once again. The last time it happened was when Radia tapes were leaked and hell cut loose only to be forgotten and forgiven in a few months. Stung by the open attack, most of the TV channels and newspapers picked up cudgels for media neutrality against Kejriwal. In fact the channels AAP subsequently named, (India TV, Timesnow,..) unleashed an all-out war against Kejriwal and AAP and came up with hour-long defences to shield themselves. In Timesnow’s case it was not defence but complete offence as Arnab Goswami’s (who else 😊) as is his wont ripped apart one hapless AAP chap that night in Newshour (where else 😊). The key question is – “Is Neutral Media an oxymoron???”  Before answering that question few associated ones pop up.

  • Is media neutral today?
  • Was media ever neutral??
  • Can media be neutral at all???

Is media neutral today? – Certainly not. How can it be? In the age of cut throat competition and proliferating options – it is struggle for existence and survival of the smartest. Being smart include being owned by corporates and barons who have deep pockets, being flexible in editorial content, packaging “News” with “Views” and taking a slant politically to reap the rewards. So it is not surprising that many of the media groups are owned by politicians or corporate bodies. They have not invested certainly for charity. If a channel or publication is owned partly or in full by a politician, can we expect neutral reporting on the wrong doings of his/her party? In the same lines if the channel is funded or owned by a corporate group with varied interests, can we expect the channel to report any scandal happening in that group?

Was media ever neutral? I don’t think so. Today when we say media, we mostly refer to the 24*7 TV news channels. But much before histrionics and hysteria took over our drawing rooms every evening, mainstream media was mainly newspapers. Even in the glorious print era of The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Malayala Manorama, The Indian Express,.. it was a known fact that the owners of most of these papers belonged to political parties and used their paper legitimately to pedal their parties’ cause. So, while you had news reports and events there were the editorial and Op-ed columns to proliferate opinions with a particular slant. This tradition if I may say so continues till today whereby newspapers give a particular angle as per their compulsions. This is more than evident in the Radia tapes.

Can media be neutral at all? I doubt. For reasons espoused earlier like rampant competition and lesser value system these days it is and will be increasingly difficult for a media house to stay neutral and survive. Many proclaim to be but it is difficult to fathom how they can be.

While it is a fact that media plays a major role in forming and influencing public opinion, it is for the same reason that it is manipulated. It is extremely difficult to pick up one anchor/journalist today who can be said with confidence that he/she is neutral and his/her opinion can be respected. So the only option as readers and viewers is to understand and realize that Neutrality and Media cannot go together and take what we read/see with a fistful of salt.

  • As responsible citizens it may not be very wise if we take decision on who to vote based on what is mentioned in the media. For example the same Bihar which till a year ago was the emerging state with all round development is back to being a “BIMAR” state (after Nitish broke off JDU’s ties with BJP). Similarly the same press which hailed Akhilesh Yadav as “THE” Yuva Neta when he won, is trashing him to the dumps. To me there was nothing spectacular about him then and nothing so worse now.
  • The concept of WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) may be popular in the context of “Text Editors”. But in the context of “Gen Next News Editors” it seems to be an obsolete idea. We saw that in the leaked Kejriwal-Punya Prasun Bajpai video (watch here) where even Kejriwal’s shenanigans were exposed.
  • As we also saw, there exists in India an “Opinion poll marketplace” – where one can order data and opinion poll results in the way we want and get it delivered at your place and someone will say OLX pe bech de 😁
  • As I mentioned in my earlier post (read here) for the same reasons of survival, a marketing plug is masqueraded as news item and slipped in. So at our own peril we can decide on buying that product believing what is written in that news item. Same is true for political stories.

Bordering cynicism, let me say this and close. In our great theatre of democracy our media provides 24*7 (mostly free) entertainment. So lets’ enjoy as the Arnabs and Rajdeeps battle it out with the Kejriwals, Lekhis and Tiwaris and “experts”. But form our opinions and cast our vote as per conscience and not based on what we read or see. Neutral umpires in Cricket became a reality long time back. But Neutral umpires in Media is still imaginary.

journalism

Cartoon of Satish Acharya from http://cartoonistsatish.blogspot.in

Indian Elections – Truly Sensational!!!

On a day when one has been busy following the results of what has been touted as “Semifinals” i.e. the elections in few states of India, one cannot but feel happy/proud at the way the whole election process works in India. Elections in India today, whether they are the state elections or the Lok Sabha elections happen in a very smooth manner, well almost. The Election Commission (EC) which is an independent constitutional authority is responsible for conducting elections in India under the frame work of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. From the time the elections are called till the results are announced after counting and governments are formed, the entire process rolls out like a well-oiled machinery.  There are very few parallels in India to the EC if you talk of “Sarkari” offices discharging their duties so efficiently.  However it was not the case for quite some time since Independence.

The way elections in India are held can be categorized into 2 eras – the BS and AS era just like the “Before Christ (BC)” and Anno Domini (AD)” era.  For the uninitiated, BS is “Before Seshan” and AS is “After Seshan”.  Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, popularly known as T.N.Seshan took over as the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in the year 1990 and elections in India since then have never been the same. He was in office till 1996 before he retired.  If today one views the office of the CEC and its incumbents with some reverence, it is certainly after 1990. In the time before 1990 which is the BS era, the office of the CEC was another sedate, sober one carrying out the job of conducting elections in the country in a very routine manner. Though the position was an independent one, till Seshan came in the CEC almost functioned as an office reporting to the Government of the day.  But the same office transformed itself since 1990 when Seshan took over and has become what we see as one of the most efficient departments of the Government of India. We hardly remember the names of the CECs before Seshan. On a day when Seshan must be watching the election results sipping hot filter Kaapi from I guess Chennai, it will be good to recall few of the landmark changes he brought into the election process:

  • Today, the moment elections are announced the political parties come under the purview of what is known as “Model Code of conduct”. As per this, among other things, the Government of the day cannot announce any luring sop or launch any program which can influence the voter once the elections are announced.  In addition to this significant point, there are other mandatory requirements as well. Mind you this Model Code of Conduct is not any law under the statute but an ingenious intervention by Seshan to make the elections free and fair.  Since then this Code of Conduct has been refined to include many other clauses as well and is today an established drill followed with discipline.
  • In the BS era, on a polling day with much less media coverage and almost no or low security – it was free for all leading to rigging, booth capturing, fraudulent voting and what have you.  It was common for voters to find their votes already cast when they go late in the day.  Today it is not as bad due to
    • the elections being conducted in a phased manner (and not in a single day as it used to be in the 80’s) so as to ensure sufficient police and security forces being made available across the state. When Seshan announced his plan of conducting elections in phases for the 1st time, it took everybody by surprise and there were many who questioned his wisdom evoking fears of keeping the ballot boxes safe,.. But he stuck to his guns and now, phased conduct of Lok Sabha elections and elections in larger states has become the norm and no EC even thinks of conducting elections in a single day. That he was in the Home Ministry earlier helped him to assess the logistical challenge for the troops movement. The model he came up for scheduling phased out elections is part of the EC’s Standard Operating Procedure.
    • The introduction of the Voter’s identity card:  One fine morning in Aug 1993, a maverick he is – Seshan announced that no more elections will be conducted in India without voter identity cards which have the photo and other details of the voters. It was an exercise of gargantuan proportion to issue a photo I-Card to all eligible voters and this call certainly put the Government in a quandary as to how the same could be implemented. Seshan thumped his foot down on this (as he always did) and got the Government to allocate funds in the budget and got this project underway. He relented only a bit in terms of time frame but ensured that the Government commits itself to this cause. I must add that for a complex country like India such a project needs a better project implementation rigour. Due to the very aggressive posturing of Seshan, the project got implemented though in a hap hazard manner (lot of mistakes in the cards, Duplication, Inadequate coverage of the entire population,…). Nevertheless the need for a Voter ID got in vogue in the country and still is.

    Indian Elections

    • Enforcement of spending limits by candidates: The existing limits for spending for candidates always appear to be some kind of a joke when you actually see the kind of money which gets spent oops “invested” in elections.  State funding of elections has been an idea which has been going the rounds but which needed legislation.  In the meantime, Seshan introduced the concept of having officers going around the length and breadth of the electorate and filming/recording activities the candidates carry out in the garb of electioneering.   With this initiative there have been very many instances where candidates have been disqualified post their victory under charges of unfair practices. Though money power is still omnipresent it is not as obvious as before.
    • Timing and scheduling of elections: It is an established fact that Mrs. Gandhi used IB (Intelligence Bureau) to gather ground intelligence about the way the political wind was blowing and dismissed elected governments under some pretext. She then got the then EC to time the elections suitably. Not so in the AS era. Now the EC decides on the timing and scheduling based on various factors some as per the constitutional provisions and others as per need to conduct free and fair elections (weather, school holidays, religious festivals, …,…)
    • Cancelling/Ordering Repoll in case of mal practices: Seshan was quick to make assessment of any reported mal practices which happened on the polling day or before and order re-poll in those constituencies. This became an effective barrier for such activities.

Now when he brought in all these changes did the Government of the day keep quiet? Well not at all. It did its bit to clip his wings by making the EC a multi member body with one Chief Election Commissioner and 2 Election Commissioners. (Earlier it had just one CEC). Fortunately this change didn’t affect the functioning of the EC and may be made it more robust.  Since Seshan, India has been fortunate to have some illustrious officers who served as CEC and continued the autonomous working style and authority of the EC. But to Seshan’s credit it must be said that we have not seen many substantive changes or game changing ideas since his departure. The EC has been by and large following the broad template Seshan had evolved for conducting free and fair polls in the country.

Seshan is reported to have famously said that men from Palghat were either great cooks or classical musicians or good bureaucrats. So as per him, that he was a good officer was because of where he hailed from. That was a very simplistic self-assessment of a man who was not known so much for his humility but certainly reputed for cleaning up Indian elections once for all.

seshan

 Postscript: If there is one area where the Chinese feel envious of India it is the fact that we choose our leaders through elections that too of the free and fair type which people like Seshan ensured over a period of time. Can China get an “Aam Admi Party“??? Truly senSeshanal isn’t it??? On that note, 3 cheers 🙂 🙂 🙂