By Mitu Varma
28 February 2017
A recent book explores the systemic rot that holds India to ransom.
Most journalists reporting from the corridors of power in Southasia are often repositories of stories that never get told. Josy Joseph, award-winning investigative journalist and National Security Editor of the Hindu, treads a different path. He puts together his untold stories, linking them across the board, to present a graphic account of the systemic rot that holds a country like India to ransom. A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India is the result.
A bone-chilling account of the path traversed by the world’s largest democracy since adopting liberalisation and economic reforms in the 1990s, the book records exactly how and why crony capitalism and the mushrooming of a host of intermediaries denies any dividends or instruments of democracy to the vast majority of the country’s poor.
The narrative is unflinching and unfolds sometimes with the pace of a whodunit, but always retains a faithful journalistic eye. It names names and touches the highest echelons of power. But the canvas is vast and some areas are not adequately elaborated upon within the text. In fact, Joseph and publisher Harper Collins, have been sued for the unlikely sum of INR 1000 crore by airline magnate Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways for alleging links between gangster Dawood Ibrahim and the airline.
The book claims that in December 2001, Intelligence Bureau chief KP Singh and Joint Director Anjan Ghosh had written to the then joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs Sangita Gairola, saying that they had confirmed information of “intermittent contact” between Goyal and the underworld gangsters Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel to settle financial issues. The book tracks the business rivalry between Jet Airways and the now defunct East West Airlines, raising questions on the killing of the CEO of the latter, Thakiyuddin Abdul Wahid. Though the author quotes intelligence intercepts to suggest that the murder took place with the connivance of Dawood and one of Wahid’s business rivals, he does not pursue the leads to come to any definitive conclusions. At the book launch in New Delhi, Joseph said he has been threatened and served with legal notices through his two-decade journalistic career and now might face the latter for some revelations in the book, but firmly stands by every word he has written.
Recently, there have been three other books of note on crony capitalism –Sahara the Untold Story by Tamal Bandhopadhyay, Gas Wars, Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and the Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava. The first two authors are business journalists and the last is a former public relations chief of airline. The books uncover shadowy secrets and underhand dealings in the Sahara group, the Reliance group and the government-run Air India respectively. Joseph seeks to paint with a wider brush. From a tiny hovel in a small village in Bihar, Joseph traverses a wide landscape to finish in the homes of the high and mighty, in corporate boardrooms and in rarefied political decision-making chambers. Though he might not recount detailed evidence of all wrongdoings, he succeeds in connecting the dots to show how the ubiquitous presence of intermediaries as well as the insidious cronyism in the corridors of powers eats into the entrails of the country and overwhelmingly affects the poorest of the poor.
What distinguishes this book is its empathetic outlook that always keeps the most affected in its line of vision. It opens in the little hamlet of Hridayachak in Bihar, where a persistent Mohammed Anwer Hussain learns to negotiate what Joseph calls “India’s Kafkaesque government departments and the knack for identifying the right intermediaries everywhere.”
It takes ages for Anwer to bring a road to his village that joins it to a now-decrepit National Highway first built by Sher Shah Suri to connect Southasia in the 16th century – only to learn it would have been done much earlier if he had greased the right palms. This is also the reason why the quest for a hospital for the village remains unrealised. Health, nutrition, education, electrification, water, sanitation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India Campaign, are all scrutinized only to conclude that till the people of the village find the right intermediaries to approach the shadowy and faraway government, none of the intended benefits will ever reach them.
What then of India’s much-touted Panchayati Raj institutions for village self- governance? As Joseph demonstrates, it is the very intermediaries who form part of the Panchayati Raj institutions by virtue of being conduits to the government. The presence of major political parties tapers off at the district level, with the village posts being outsourced to people that a study, quoted by the author, calls the naya netas or new leaders. These are usually local semi-educated youth who have some experience in negotiating the government bureaucracy and other institutions. The author quotes India’s Comptroller and Auditor General Shashi Kant Sharma to describe them. “They get something to the poor, like welfare schemes and so have significant control over them. They bring votes to the political parties and also feed the political system at the ground level with money. They have an eye on a possible future political role,” he says.
The money they spend on getting elected then has to be recovered through taking cuts in government grants, granting contracts on payment of bribes and other corrupt practices that have become the norm. This is true, says Joseph, of even highly literate states like Kerala, where political parties are present right till the grassroots. This is because the pie is small, the takers many, and intermediaries are required to push some cases ahead of others. The book quotes one of the naya netas as saying, “We will be important as long as people are afraid of the government, officials and police.”
India, despite being such a large economy, lags behind Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal in tackling hunger. The Global Hunger Index for 2016 that measures undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality, places India at the 97th position in a list of 118 countries. And what will happen when these poorly nourished children, who are also robbed of a decent education and health facilities, grow up and try to join the workforce to seek a decent livelihood for themselves and their families? An overwhelming number of India’s people still reside in villages and, though Joseph points out that there are a lot of exceptions to the naya neta phenomenon, a large part of the population is likely to comprise of these children. Will they remain perpetual outsiders, suffering deprivation and feeling a justifiable anger, while languishing on the fringes of the purported economic boom?
That India’s ‘nemesis’ Pakistan lags even behind it in tackling hunger could point to the fact that resources are being diverted in a big way in both countries to procure armaments to feed their rivalry, instead of their hungry populations. Who benefits from this perpetual enmity? In India, Joseph takes the reader to the murky world of arms dealers, who are hand-in-glove with politicians and bureaucrats to procure armaments from global markets and siphon off millions of dollars as kickbacks. These appear to be the most high-flying of the intermediaries with offices and establishments across the globe.
In October 2016 news headlines spoke of an arms dealer alleging Varun Gandhi, a prominent ruling Bharatiya Janta Party Member of Parliament’s involvement in leaking information about defence matters, while being a member of the Defence Consultative Committee. In the same month nearly USD six million was allegedly given as commission to a prominent arms dealer for the purchase and customization of the Brazil-based Embraer Aircraft . Could this indicate greater transparency and alertness in tracking wrongdoing in arms deals? Or is it just another blip in the shadowy universe? What it certainly points to is that gone are the days of the 1980s, when a scandal over kickbacks paid for the procurement of Bofors Howitzer guns could topple a mighty government. No one bats an eyelid now as these headlines appear, are relegated to the back pages, and gradually disappear.
The rich haul for middlemen and intermediaries continues, whether it be the current right-wing ruling dispensation of the National Democratic Alliance or the earlier United Progressive Alliance government in India. Interestingly, Joseph told an interviewer from the English-daily DNA that the only difference he finds between the two governments is that the current one viciously targets him for his identity. “Obviously (the) government of that time also tried to discourage me from writing, that was part of the game. But there was no concerted effort to discredit me…Every time I write a story now, which is critical of the present government or the establishment, I see trolls on Twitter and FB abusing me for being a Christian, which my name obviously suggests. There are rape threats – some people think I am a woman – and murder threats…. It is an organized campaign and I can point out the handles being used that are trying to discredit me.”
Joseph also closely looks at the composition of Parliament and comes up with a startling figure. He quotes a 2010 study by the National Social Watch Coalition to say that out of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, 128 were businessmen with known or potential conflicts of interests with the parliamentary proceedings they participated in. From earlier Parliaments, he also lists a veritable who’s-who of businessmen and industrialists who either directly, or through their proxies, sat on committees that clearly coincided with their business interests. Most prominent among these was Vijay Mallya, who in 2003 was nominated to the Parliamentary Committee for Civil Aviation, Defence and Industry, despite the fact that he had just set up his own Kingfisher Airlines. Mallya is in the news today for fleeing the country on the diplomatic passport awarded to him as MP after defaulting on thousands of millions of rupees worth of bank loans. That Kingfisher Airlines itself has folded up, nixing the careers of vast numbers of employees, is par for the course in this setting. This is reflected in the book in the tragic suicide of Sushmita Chakravarti, the wife of an ex-employee who hadn’t been paid his wages in six months, even as Mallya busies himself preparing for his Formula One team’s participation in the South Korean Grand Prix.
Joseph also points out that in the UPA-led Lok Sabha dissolved before the 2014 elections, every single member below the age of 30 belonged to a family with powerful political connections, while the figure for those between the age of 31 and 40 stood at 65 per cent. Power, privilege and pelf are concentrated in the hands of a select oligarchy, which is then perpetrated through the parliamentarians pushing their interests in a bid to further feather their nests or make up for the millions of rupees spent in getting elected. Joseph points out that while only one member of India’s first Parliament had listed their profession as politics, at least one fourth of those in the current parliament have done so. “It must be lucrative,” he says in an ironic aside.
Lucrative also has been business for those who made their fortunes in the era of liberalisation – some through cultivating the right contacts, others through cheating and forgery, and still others though entangling with the underworld and even going on to commit murder. Every rule in the book is broken by some top-notch businesses on both the ground and air – whether it be in aviation or the mining industry. The only rule for them, says Joseph, is do not get caught. However he also understands the dilemma of businessmen in the current environment. “Even if a company wants to do business fair and square, politics won’t let them,” he says.
Fittingly then, the book that started out with a heart-rending scene in a hovel in the Mahadalit quarters in Hridayachak, where Udit Narayan Bansi and his extended family live in a tiny one-room hutment surrounded by stinking, stagnant drains, ends just outside the grand mansion of the richest man in the country – Mukesh Ambani. While Bansi had bribed officials for the post of a temporary contract teacher that he was entitled to under the affirmative action schemes for his caste, and had even managed to meet the Chief Minister to lodge a complaint for non-receipt of a housing loan under a government plan to provide financial assistance for the homeless, nothing accrues to him. “We live like rats,” he says, while despairingly pleading with the author for help.
On the other hand, Antilla, the grand residence of twenty-seven high-ceilinged floors in a space that could actually accommodate sixty, is an island of opulence that Joseph says, is built on land acquired cheaply via an underhand deal, putting paid to an orphanage that used to exist there. Joseph digs up the relevant records as also the chequered history of the powerful Ambani brothers and the Reliance group of companies.
It is to the author’s credit that despite discovering the deeply embedded layers of corruption, he still finds reason to hope. He finds it in the arraignment of some important politicians on corruption charges. He finds it in the anti-corruption movement of 2011 that brought so many people out on the streets. He finds it in the Right to Information Act and the activists who tirelessly work for justice for the cheated, the neglected and the marginalized. He also finds it in what he feels is an incipient youth movement starting from Jawaharlal Nehru University, spreading over student protests on the suicide of RohithVemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad. But the reader is led to wonder if this hope will ever materialize given that the very perpetrators of this system still remain firmly ensconced at its helm.
~ Mitu Varma is Director of Film Southasia, an independent media development consultant and journalist.