Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Khobragade episode vs India's honour

Khobragade’s episode shows that misplaced notions of pride guide Indian public sentiment.

Let’s step away from a the debate about who is right and wrong in this unexpected diplomatic tussle between India and the US over the treatment meted out to an Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

Mrs Khobragade has been indicted in the US for visa fraud and for making false statements about the compensation given to her housekeeper, who is also an Indian. The row  has strained the relations between the two countries. India has acted swiftly to withdraw a series of petty privileges enjoyed by the US diplomatic staff. It also expelled one of the US diplomats.

But look at this: the diplomat’s father went on record to thank Indians who ‘stood with me like rock’ and ludicrously said that his daughter is so popular now that political parties have approached both her and him to run in parliamentary elections, and he might consider!

Clearly, Mr Khobragade must know that his daughter has not done any heroic act. The fact of the matter is that she has been indicted on serious charges. She has merely been made a ‘hero’ by the Indian foreign ministry.
New Delhi’s retaliatory responses and stringent condemnation in the name of India’s honour is something that is can be easily sold to India’s not very well informed population. They see that the manner in which the diplomat was arrested is detestable, which is true, but miss the bigger picture. It also must be remembered that the complainant is one of us: an Indian. The ill treatment meted out to her (not proven) is something that many Indians systematically face everyday in some form or the other. Clearly,if they really understand the issue purely on humane terms, they would be able to relate more to Mrs Richards, the maid rather than the diplomat.
So, if political parties have approached the Khobragades, it’s a national shame and speaks volumes about the rickety nature of politics in this country.
 Strangely India is fighting on the ‘immunity’ issue, and hasn’t condemned the crime committed by the diplomat. The MEA as a powerful lobby, and given the nature of their jobs considers itself as a cut above the rest and is trying the save its own skin.
It is now an open secret that diplomats from all countries have been abusing their privileges. What is difficult to understand is why a maid is needed when posted in developed countries, when millions of ordinary Indians living abroad can do without one.
And, taking about national pride and honour, let’s not forget that the diplomat in question is married to a US citizen, her children- until this issue erupted -would have presumably been brought up like Americans rather than Indians. She has used her position to make her life comfortable for herself and her family. There is nothing wrong in it. But when her husband is an American why could she not pay the legal minimum wage to the maid? And, now when she is in trouble for offences committed against someone who is also an Indian, why should ordinary Indians show solidarity with her?
On the contrary, Mrs Khobragade has done irreparable damage to the reputation of Indians at large by her reckless and insensitive behaviour, and this could have serious repercussions  on a number of  issues related to foreign affairs where US support is needed. 


Friday, 10 January 2014

India's fight against corruption

A systematic reform of work culture is required to fight India’s tough battle against corruption

2014 seems to usher a new hope for Indian politics and governance. The debutant Aam Admi Party(AAP) that stormed into power in Delhi promising to wipe out corruption has jolted political equations in India. Its brilliant performance in Delhi polls and popularity elsewhere in the country makes it a force to reckon with. Its leader Arvind Kejriwal is already been compared with the India’s two other political stalwarts touted as future prime minsters: Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress led UPA and Narendra Modi of the BJP.

Let’s talk about the corruption issue that the AAP promises to tackle head on. It has set up an anti graft helpline that received 3904 calls on its first day of operation.  The helpline will offer ‘government advice’ to the callers to set up sting operations on corrupt officials. This is seen as an unprecedented step in India’s fight against corruption.

Will it work? First of all given the depth of corruption in India where everyone seems to be affected, the very presence and the publicity of the helpline will make a difference.  The results may be far more dramatic if a few officials are named and shamed for taking bribes, and are persecuted. What is really laudable is that it gives helpless citizens to resort to something immediately to redress their grievances against a corrupt official. The helpline will have pons and cons, but if handled properly it can at least be the beginning of a battle against a deeply rooted problem in India.

In India corruption is not just about paying bribes to get things done but it interlinked with deeply prejudiced social practices of class and caste.. The entrenched class based bureaucracy, which is a fall out of colonialism, emphasizes on safe guarding the status and power of those on the top. The culture of hierarchy is such that it not only needs to be preserved but must function in a manner so that it commands worship, respect and inflicts fear on ordinary citizens. In rural areas this is further reinforced by the caste system.   

The beacon lights on cars, the  need to address someone as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, personal subservience to superiors at work,  the indifference to others, the need to assert one’s identity to get things done, the power of might, abuse of domestic workers and people who are less privileged are some of the many visible cultural practices that directly or indirectly breeds and promotes corruption.

Such system of arrogance that essentially abuse human rights and dignity of others must be eliminated. Fortunately, there is a growing consensus that such things are wrong : the Supreme Court of India has banned the use of beacon lights, the AAP has vowed to bring in a culture of simplicity and transparency by shunning excess facilities that surrounds VIP. These again might look symbolic and small measures but again it’s at least a start of a big process to change the mindset of the people.

 The behaviour outlined above is propelled by greed and mad rush for wealth, something that has been a characteristic of all developing economies. But in the 21st century, the answer to solve many of these problems lies in technology. It is the only way in a country like India to leap frog the human barriers to get access to something. Technology brings in accountability and transparency.  Only a few years back, getting a passport in India was a nightmare, thanks to technology and the state –of – the- art passport offices, the process is much simpler and easier now.

At institutional level fighting corruption in India will require multiple approaches. It will require systematic reform of work culture. This must include providing better infrastructure at work places (look at India’s police stations, hospitals and government schools you don’t want there to be again!), it will require installing a very sense of professionalism and a reward system based on performance. Such reforms and measures of checks and balances are equally needed along side a mechanism for vigilance to win the battle against corruption in India.