Mar 092014

And, my column last week for the DNA – on the UPA retrospective 

Ever been to a theatre to watch a film that on paper sounded fabulous — great director, good casting, top-of-the-line banner, great promos? But when you get inside the theatre the film simply won’t get over.
Every moment drags; every dialogue in the film has the monotony of something you have heard before, and no matter what you do, you cannot escape from the highly intrusive soundtrack. Worst of all, you cannot get out of the movie hall.  Most of us have at least watched one such film, trapped inside the theatre for, what seems like, days, unable to get out, unable to move our eyes from the screen while asking the question “what  on earth were they thinking about, when they put this together”. And, when the end credits start rolling, you clap out of the sheer relief that the film is over, and you can get into the bright lights and fresh air outside, and scrub all memory of the movie from your subconscious. Think Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag or Kites. Know the feeling? It is pretty much the way that most felt while watching the last two years of UPA II — it just dragged on, and on, and on.

As the credits roll, this column takes a look at some of the characters and scenes from UPA II:

A for Anthony: The Minister for Defence. A man who confused inaction with integrity and took the old adage ‘if you don’t get out of bed and get on the road, you won’t get run over’ seriously. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee for the ceiling falling on your bed.

B for Bills: The trouble with leaving most of your key bills to the last minute of a five-year Parliament is that nothing is thought through, the sense of dissonance is high and like a bad film, certain elements are put in just to give a sense of faux completion.

C for CWG: The Commonwealth Games that really marked the begging of the end.

D for DMK: The key ally then, fence sitter now and the hands behind the 2G scam.

E for Elections: #Elections2014 and the UPA hoping for a sequel, ie. UPA III. But when a film is such a box office dud, will you really buy a ticket for the sequel?

F for Food Security: Nobody, with a conscience, will disagree with the concept of Food Security — the principle that no individual should go hungry, but as with all concepts, the devil is in the implementation. And, implementation in this particular case is fraught with internal opposition.

G is for Gandhi: The name that ruled the Congress for the best part of the last 45 years. And, it seems that the aura is finally waning, though Sonia Gandhi still has some of that aura. But for all his earnestness, it does not seem that Rahul Gandhi has that aura — the aura of wanting to handle power.

H is for High Command: See Gandhi above. All organisations need hierarchies, and a chain of command. But, if all power is concentrated in one set of hands , then currying favour rather than competence becomes the order of the day, leading to poor decision-making

I for Indian National Congress: The grand old party. It seriously needs to introspect and reinvent itself for the new millennium.

J for Janata: That is us, the people. The voters. Just get this over with seems to be the general sentiment all around.

K for Kaajneeti: That is on hoardings across the country, with voters looking at each other and asking “what is that”?

L for Leadership: Conspicuous by its absence through the five years, especially towards the end.

M for Mani Shankar Iyer: The architect of the Chai pe Charcha campaign. Enough said. M is also for Manmohan Singh, who didn’t say enough.

N for Narendra Modi: If politicians  in the Congress spent as much time in talking about what they did right, as they did about why Modi is wrong, they may have fared better in both  perception and the ballot box.

O for Ordinance: When bills aren’t passed, the route is ordinance. But, in Parliamentary democracy, bills are meant to be debated, deliberated on and passed. It is a good job that the last few bills were not passed via an ordinance, because…

…P for Pranab Mukherjee: He put his foot down and said ‘no’. A leading character in UPA I and in the first part of UPA II, his political skills would be sorely missed, even if his economic skills were not.
Q for Questions: That the people had, for which there were no answers. In fact, part of the UPA’s problem was the fact that it rarely spoke to the people or the press, and when it did it was either so stage-managed or so full of wordplay that it alienated.

R for Robert Vadra: The son-in-law. The man who could get away with everything, or so it seemed.

S for Sheila Dikshit: The Empress of Delhi, who is now the Governor of Kerala after losing her seat to Arvind Kejriwal.

T for Telangana: The disaster of the last five years. While smaller states are not a bad idea, pandering is.

U for UPA II: Coming to an end in a few months from now

V for Voter: That is us. Are you even registered?

W for Win: Winning seat by seat, state by state, to take the nation. From all accounts that is a tough one.

X for X: Marks the spot where we vote, and UPA II hopes that it is for their constituents.

Y for Gen Y: The first and second-time voter who cares less for the ‘isms’ of yesterday and more for how good their tomorrow will be.

Z for Zero Loss: Made famous by Kapil Sibal when confronted with allegations of misallocation of spectrum. If only humility was in action instead of hubris, this government may not have ended up in this state of being generally disliked.

Dec 232013

This column appeared in the DNA on the 28th of November

Over the last week, the media has been agog with allegations of sexual misconduct, and then rape, against Tarun Tejpal, the owner of Tehelka. The incident took place in Goa where Tejpal and one of his companies, Thinkworks, organised the annual jamboree Think. It was attended by international celebrities such as actor Robert de Niro, author Evgeny Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here: The folly of Technological Solutionism); former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov, crusading journalist John Pilger and others. It also saw a bevy of India’s who’s who   MP Jay Panda, Amitabh Bachchan, Gopal Srinivasan. The sessions were interesting and had great panellists. One of its opening sessions was called The Beast in Our Midst a panel discussion with rape survivors moderated by the editor of Tehelka, and co-owner of Thinkworks, Shoma Chaudhury. Incidentally, Chaudhury also moderated two other sessions that are of interest Naked Rage on Occupied Territory: Women and the Body as a Weapon and Beauty and the Beast the Problem of the Global Media. Amidst all this intellectualism and a desire to articulate the issues facing the modern world and their possible solutions, Tejpal tried to use his charm to get a young colleague to have sex with him. When charm didn’t work, he tried force.

Tejpal stands accused of rape.

In a case of rape there are usually no witnesses. There are mostly only two main testimonies one of the violator and the other of the violated. But, in this case, given the chain of mails that are now in public domain, the answer may be simpler. The world at large came to know of the story when an internal Tehelka email from Chaudhury managing editor who had appended Tejpal’s ‘apology’ to the mail was leaked to the media. In the mail Chaudhury described the attempted rape as an ‘untoward incident’ and Tejpal calling it a ‘bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident’.The woman journalist at the receiving end of these ‘untoward’ ‘unfortunate incidents’ had different words to describe her predicament:  “The editor-in- chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted me at Think on two occasions last week.” In another letter, from Tejpal to the young journalist, he writes: “I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me”.  ‘Attempting a sexual liaison’ when a woman is ‘clearly reluctant’ can only mean Force and Rape. These are words we shouldn’t hesitate to use in this context. Tejpal, however, thought otherwise, as he said in his anticipatory bail plea to the Delhi High Court “only light-hearted bantering which led to a moment of privacy between the two individuals”. It was a lot worse.

Tejpal is a powerful man with powerful friends and the public backlash has only begun. Shoma Chaudhury, a woman who has espoused women’s causes in the past, has suggested that the accuser is lying. And some other powerful men are casting aspersions on the woman in the guise of “fairness”. ‘Why did the woman get into the lift with him’ said one of the older men called in to defend Tejpal on a news channel. (He later retracted). Presumably, the same reason why anyone gets into a lift, to get to another floor. Another said something about two people kissing in a lift not being rape; a third asked why a lift, why not a private space. And, of course, there is Tejpal’s own bail application which states that this is a BJP plot to discredit him implying that the woman is a plant and, therefore, lying.

The vilification of the woman had begun. She must have asked for it, how could she have (gasp) got into a lift with a man. Never mind that the man in question was old enough to be her father; was her boss and had a duty to look out for her, protect her, nurture her talents and ensure she became a better professional;  never mind that he violated her trust, her body and then tried to brazen it out; that he  violated the faith of the readers and supporters who believed in Tehelka’s brand of fearless journalism.

There are those who will argue that sexual encounters in the workplace are unavoidable. While this may be the case with equals, the norms and the rules are quite different when it comes to people at different levels in the hierarchy, especially those in a direct reporting relationship.  The question is that when the ‘encounter’ is between a junior and a senior, how much of it is mutual attraction and how much of it is pressure. When an older charismatic achiever turns his (or her) attentions on a much younger person, seemingly mentoring, seemingly encouraging, and draws him/her into a sexual relationship, is it mutual consent or is it sexually predatory behaviour? At the risk of sounding dreadfully old-fashioned and terribly middle class, one would submit it is the latter.

And, finally, most women have faced some form of unwanted attention at least once in their professional and private lives. Most have learnt to bury the experience deep in their subconscious and move on with their lives. Others have given up their careers, often their passions, to escape from it. Yet others have not been believed. Maybe, this case is a wake-up call for women to fight back. Like the Nirbhaya case last year, this one is going to be a cause célèbre. The young woman in question has shown incredible courage in coming forward and making a case of it. It cannot be easy. The pressure on her must be phenomenal. It is also going to be the start of a series of claims of sexual harassment that companies across the board not just media have to deal with. The dam has broken, the flood will begin

Apr 042013

My Tehelka Column on the anti rape bill

And it comes to pass. The Anti-rape Bill aka the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 was passed this evening in Parliament by a voice vote. A total of 168 Members of Parliament (out of house strength of 545 MPs), who bothered to be present, voted to give India a law that is tough on rape and sexual assault. It replaces the Ordinance that was promulgated by the President earlier this year. Stalking and voyeurism are crimes, longer jail sentences for convicted rapists (20 years to natural life, and in the rarest of rare cases, death), there are longer sentences for acid attacks (10 years), the age of consent has been raised to 18; disrobing a woman (against her will) is now a criminal offence; and policemen will be charged if they refuse to file FIRs.  All in all, while there are many areas that still need to be addressed, this is a start. At least the Government and Parliament have recognised that women’s safety is a major issue and that there needs to be deterrence against sexual violence that has become increasingly commonplace.

In January, when protestors took to the streets in Delhi to express their acute displeasure at the lack of basic safety for women, politicians of all hues and shades promised to do something. When the time came to do something – as basic as be present for a discussion and vote on this Bill – just under  a third of them turned up to debate and vote. Amongst those absent was the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

At times it is difficult to tell what is worse, Members of Parliament staying away from debate or those turning up to work. It is evident that unlike the first Parliament where there were towering giants, who exerted moral authority, this Parliament has political dwarves, who will not know morality if they tripped on it. Many justify the most absurd sexism by saying they represent the people’s biases. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, in a serious debate to curtail rape,  pondered on the proximity of the sexes in big cities. He observed the culture of hugging members of the opposite sex, “Hum Bihar ke logon mein, hummein, himmat nahi hoti hai kisi mahila se haath milane ke liye” (we from Bihar, including me, don’t have the courage to shake a woman’s  hand). Obviously, neither rape nor sexual assault involves the shaking of hands and there are enough people, in Bihar, who may not shake hands – but definitely rape. And Lalu Yadav was not the only one attacking modernity. Putting the onus of rape on what is termed ‘modernity’ is the easiest thing to do. Flog modernity, insist ‘our’ culture has no rape, and blame clothes, mobiles and other things as encouraging violence against women.

Sharad Yadav of  JD (U) (again from Bihar) had various issues with certain provisions of the Bill, especially those that dealt with stalking and voyeurism. According to him, all men stalk and that stalking is a part and parcel of the courtship process. His fear was that a strong anti-stalking law would be at odds with romancing. And, while Mr Yadav was describing as “natural’ the process of stalking, our esteemed Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was grinning from ear to ear in appreciation. Other Parliamentarians were guffawing their appreciation. It was like eavesdropping on boys’ hostel mess, where teenagers are cracking jokes about women and laughing about it. It makes one wonder, how the women in the House feel about this entirely sexist setup that they work in.

Women MP’s such as Meena Pal of JD (U) pointed out that ‘revealing’ women’s clothing is not the cause of rape, and women who are fully clothed are also subjected to rape. But, in a house dominated by dinosaurs dependent on vote banks, sensible voices get drowned out by the sheer silliness of grandstanding leaders. It is almost as though they are auditioning for Comedy Central, rather than debating in Parliament.

There is a problem in India. And that problem is in the way Indians see women. The best laws (and this is not the best law) are not going to help unless attitudes towards women start changing. That change begins at home, in how mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are treated. It begins outside in how you treat classmates, strangers, other women. That change begins by not blaming Honey Singh or Item Numbers, clothing or television for the attitudes towards women. It begins by admitting that there is a problem. And the problem is that Indians, especially Indian leaders,  make too many excuses for rapists. ‘She was raped because adults hug each other; she was raped because of the clothes she wore; she was raped because children as young as 14 are dancing to item numbers’ – these were part of the dialogue in Parliament today.  There was not one person who stood up to say ‘She was raped because she was a woman. And, the man thought it was ok to rape her’. This casualness with which men rape needs to be broken, and that can only happen if apologists for rapists stop making excuses for criminals.

Mar 082013

My edit piece for Lokmat Times, on Women’s Day

8th March. International Women’s Day.

It is a tradition that dates back almost a century earlier, when women were fighting for basic rights. Until then, even in the West, women were considered to be property of the men in their lives – first their father, then their husband. They neither had the right to vote, nor the right to own property, nor the right to divorce. When women worked, they tended to work longer hours for lesser pay than a man doing the same work. In 1908, women finally came out to protest against centuries of being considered chattel. 15,000 women took to the streets in New York to demand equality at the workplace, at home and as citizens.

The first ever International women’s day was celebrated on the 19th of March, 1911 – in Germany, Austria and other parts of the Prussian Empire – it was to commemorate the day of broken promises. Almost 60 years earlier, during the 1848 revolution in German speaking regions, King Frederick William IV, promised women equal citizenship rights, especially the right to vote. But nothing was done about them. At its core the International Women’s day stood for just one thing – Equality – in the eyes of the State, the law, at home, and at the workplace.

A century later, political demands have been met. Most states in the world have guaranteed political rights for women. Less than a century ago, armed police in the western world attacked women who demanded the right to vote. Today, apart from the Vatican City and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – no other country discriminates against women vis-à-vis voting rights. Equal Representation of women in politics has increased, and women have become increasingly more important as voters who exercise electoral decisions independent of men in their families.

There is still a long way to go. Equality at the ballot box does not translate to equality or even equity in the job market, nor does it translate into a fair share of economic resources. The UN world survey on the Role of Women in Development published in 2009, casts a light on the dismal state of women in terms of access to land, housing, property and productive resources. They also tend to have a limited access to technologies and services that would ease their work load. It is this unequal access to resources, believes the United Nations that makes women more vulnerable. As the United Nations states “In some regions, women provide 70% of agricultural labour, produce more than 90% of the food, and yet are nowhere represented in budget deliberations”. It goes beyond access to resources; it also manifests itself in wage disparity. It is estimated that women earn almost 20% lower than men for the same work. Women also tend to work in the informal sector with no benefits.

It is estimated that if women are paid as much as men, ‘America’s GDP would be 9% higher; the euro-zone’s would be 13% higher, and Japan’s would be boosted by 16% (UNESCAP, 2007). So on the 102nd women’s day, maybe we all need to move beyond the lip service of advertisers, platitudes of politicians and challenge the status quo. One hopes it will not take 100 more years for real meaningful economic equality.

Mar 042013

My column in today’s DNA

Budget for women: They need real help not gender apartheid

In the last budget before the next General Elections, the Finance Minister Mr.P.Chidambaram could not rock any boats. Nor could he undertake the kind of massive spending cuts that were required to bring down the deficit. What he did do was to announce a plethora of schemes, aimed at women, the youth and the poor, which is hoped, will have an impetus on the economy and propel it into growth.

Some of these were good – such as including as CSR a company’s incubation of a project in an academic environment; some were ‘about time’ – such as index linking investment in Government bonds (so that the value of your investment does not get eroded with inflation) or a focus on skills development; some were business as usual – welfare spending that needs to be undertaken to stave off revolution. There weren’t too many shocks insofar as taxation was concerned –a 10% surcharge for a year on Tax for the richest 42,800 people who have declared earnings of over a crore a year, a 5% increase in surcharge for companies, and that was pretty much it. It was a budget designed with an eye on the polls. It wasn’t the Pranab Mukherjee kind of spend today, figure tomorrow budget. At the same time it was also not the kind of budget that took steps at either increasing the tax base or radical steps in terms of cutting spending. It was a budget that hoped that investments in key areas would pay off and the multiplier would kick in.

What was interesting about this budget has been its focus on women as a separate segment of the population, not just as part of the household, but as an individual with her own needs and requirements. There were two specific initiatives that looked at women as people who step out of the house and go out – to study, to work. The intentions behind both these have been to help make the situation of women in India better.  But would they?

The first initiative, which Mr.Chidambaram has tentatively named the Nirbhaya fund, and  has a 1000 crore allocation is aimed at keeping woman safe and secure. What could be possibly be wrong with this?  The primary role of the State is to provide security to all its citizens, including women. While one appreciates that something needs to be seen to be done, one cannot but help wonder, if a separate fund mandated by the budget is the solution. And questions arise – what happens when the fund runs out? Is this a readymade excuse for politicians, bureaucrats and police – ‘we could not do anything because we did not get funds allocated from the Nirbhaya fund’. Security has to be an integral part of the services provided by the State. You can increase the budget for security at large, with an emphasis on keeping women safe. But, is it prudent to have a fund exclusive aimed at “safety and security” of women?


(woman, rural Maharashtra)

The second initiative is India’s first Women’s Bank, with a 1000 crore capital, staffed predominantly by women for a mainly female clientele. The existing system despite having a number of women in command positions has not been very women friendly, even in urban areas. Go into villages, and you will see this compounded, many times over. Women don’t get loans because their husbands have defaulted. There is harassment, financial jargon, and general lack of service. Lack of literacy, and financial literacy keeps women from accessing credit. These issues exist and are very real. But, is the solution to get the existing banking system to treat women as a priority sector, incentivise the opening of women only branches, women only officers in existing branches to serve women entering the banking system for the first time – or is it dealing with women as ‘separate but equal’? A sort of gender apartheid. Also, there are other issues such as access to credit from the rest of the financial sector. Would women curtail their dreams based on the Women’s Bank financial capacity? There are those who believe that this sort of a bank will help women from traditional households to access credit. But so will a woman’s only branch of an existing bank. Many PSU Banks (SBI, Syndicate Bank, Indian Bank) already run women’s only branches.

Good Intentions are a great idea. And, it is reassuring to know that the Government is thinking of women and their welfare. But what is needed is real equity, real equality, and real inclusion. And these may not be possible if we instead of fixing what is wrong with the system, we create new spaces exclusively for women. Inclusion cannot happen through exclusion.