Editorial 1/Stock taking
Editorial 2/Law of the wild
Going glocal is no fun
Letters to the Editor

The Indian stock market has again demonstrated a tremendous amount of volatility during the last week or so. There were two proximate reasons for this volatility. First, Microsoft suffered a significant legal defeat when the appropriate United States court declared that it was guilty of monopolistic practices. Although Microsoft immediately declared its intentions to fight on in higher courts, US stock markets crashed. In this era of globalized and interlinked markets, the ripples spread to Dalal Street in less than 24 hours. Perhaps, more importantly, the Indian tax authorities issued notices to some foreign institutional investors that they were liable to taxation on their capital gains even if they were registered in Mauritius. The FIIs created a furore, and threatened to withdraw their investments in Indian shares. Since the FIIs are now the major players in Dalal Street, this threat was naturally sufficient to cause the Bombay sensitive index to come crashing down. Unfortunately, it was also sufficient for the finance minister to back down. It is palpably clear that the FIIs are exploiting the provisions of the India-Mauritius double tax treaty, and the Indian tax authorities may even have had the law on their side on this issue.

However, Mr Yashwant Sinha lost very little time in assuring FIIs coming through Mauritius that they would not be taxed all. Of course, the amount of tax revenue lost by the government due to this waiver is very small. Nevertheless, Mr Sinha’s actions raise several crucial issues. There is an obvious moral issue — the FIIs have been able to browbeat the government, whereas the domestic investors are often at the mercy of the tax authorities. The smaller the investor, the greater is the harassment. So, there is a gross violation of equity. But, perhaps far more important is the question whether the government should take any notice at all of how the Bombay sensex behaves. The philosophy of Mr Manmohan Singh is worth recalling. As finance minister at the height of the Harshad Mehta scandal, he stated that he did not lose any sleep over how the sensitive index behaved.

This is not the first time that share prices have plummeted in a couple of days or less, even when there was no change in the fundamentals of the economy. The truth of the matter is that the Indian stock markets are still very undeveloped, with the small retail investors holding on to infinitesimally small fractions of shares. Until a few years ago, institutions such as the Unit Trust of India could bring about stability in the markets through their sell-and-buy orders. But now the major players are a few private institutions, and they do not particularly care about the stability of the market. Since any small blip in their profits can cause them to take actions that cause share prices to go up or down, the sensex is no longer a barometer reflecting the health of the economy. That is why the government should ignore short term movements in share prices, even if these changes happen to be as large as they were in the last few days. Market capitalization, or the value of a company as perceived by the stock market, must in the long run depend on the level of profits earned by the company. The appropriate response of the Indian government must be the creation of an overall environment in which Indian companies can increase their profits.    

As the unwritten principles on which any human society is based begin to disintegrate, there are increasing instances of inhuman behaviour. The murder of a 17-year old young man by a violent crowd incited by watching — and apparently waiting — policemen at Faltabazar and the brutal beating up by local toughs of a woman who refused to calumniate her landlord are two of the most recent examples of a sick breakdown. In the first instance, the young man with his friends was fleeing from a pursuing police jeep for having crossed a red light. Reportedly, the policemen yelled out that these were robbers and people simply chased them, caught one and killed him in spite of his protestations. There can be no doubt after this that the people and their institutions exist in a perfectly symbiotic relationship. No one can be arrested for the killing, although this was murder in plain daylight, and the custodians of the law are at present busy accusing one another of incitement and subsequent inaction. The second instance is a sick parody of excessive vigilantism. A woman deserted by her husband was beaten up because she would not make an allegation that would allow the young men of the neighbourhood to blackmail the falsely accused. The head of the local club, which led this courageous enterprise, later said that the woman was beaten up a little because her “character” needed correction. It was quite within the normal scheme of things, because, he said, there was no sexual molestation. And the local police refused to register her complaint or make any arrests, because the criminals were armed and excited, and the police could not have handled them.

It is fairly easy to lament that violence has become a way of life. It is certainly not enough. These incidents expose a level of bloodthirstiness among ordinary people and everyday acquaintances that is immensely frightening. The inexplicable desire for violence is not something a society can live with very long. The police has long been criticized for its corruption, incompetence, and brutal bullying. These incidents show that policemen are not the least hesitant to exhibit openly any of these attributes — together with plain blue funk and a blatant enjoyment of the spectacle of a murder.    

Glocal is the new buzzword for the loveless mating of the local with the global. As the pressures on them to get integrated into the world market grow, most societies scurry to adjust themselves to the external forces that are changing the texture of politics, economy, culture and lifestyles everywhere. What they have to cope with is not a second or third shock but a whole series of upsets and the experience is often disorienting. The union of the global and the local is a mismatch in most cases and what it produces is a variety of hybrid social theories and practices.

The question what happens to a society as it goes glocal does not therefore permit of a straight answer. The response differs from case to case depending on the reach of the globalization process, the material and moral resources of the society concerned, the strength of its tradition, the degree of its political integration and its capacity for innovation and managing change without compromising its identity or integrity.

Some third world countries have become derelict because of their dismal failure to meet or even comprehend the challenges of glocalization. Many have barely managed a rate of economic growth just a notch above that of the increase in their population. Even the few which have reached new levels of prosperity have done little to empower their people.

Francisco Goya, the famous Spanish painter, once said that the sleep of reason produced monsters. The irony of the ongoing technological revolution, which holds in thrall the elite groups in most developing societies, is the way an excess of rationality, with dramatic advances in science, rising productivity levels and instant communication, is spawning a new breed of demons. Fundamentalist terrorism infecting many parts of the world is one of them. The process which has forced many third world societies to descend from poverty into destitution is another.

Many changes in the global scene have a mongrel look, carrying as they do imprints of disparate forces at work. No new or old left theory can explain, for instance, the paradox of China’s long-drawn-out affair with a market economy under the auspices of a communist party. Liberal thinkers in the West, who never tire of pointing to the close connection between a free enterprise economy and political democracy, are at a loss to account for the fact that all the east Asian tigers, held up as models of development for the rest of the third world, achieved their “miracle” under authoritarian regimes.

Contrary to the Marxist prognosis, what would make the capitalist system yield place to socialism in the end was the irresolvable contradiction between the means and relations of production in the advanced industrial countries. In fact what ails most affluent societies today is the continuing rise in productivity levels which, on the one hand, brings a crazy variety of goods in the market much in excess of effective demand and, on the other, greatly reduces the number of job opportunities. Thus ever higher levels of consumption in large segments of hi-tech societies go hand in hand with increasing unemployment. The result has been to make Keynesianism in these countries as dated as Marxism, forcing even social democratic governments to roll back the welfare state.

The new contradiction which has developed at the heart of affluent societies can, however, provide little comfort to the third world, large parts of which are in a much worse predicament. For, the problems of poor societies are extremely low, not high, levels of productivity, and chronic shortages of food, shelter and education and health facilities, not a glut of goods and services.

They also suffer because of a widening gulf between the elite and the mass of the people, a proliferation of group identities which finds expression in rising incidence of violence in public life and rapid decay of the institutions of both state and civil society.

Unfortunately, most third world analysts of the global scene, hidebound by defunct ideologies, have not been able to look at the new processes at work with greater penetration for lack of a perspective more appropriate to the post-Cold War, post-Fordist, post-Marxist and post-modernist era. The truth is that the dynamics of a capitalism, which has grown far more assertive after the collapse of all command economies, is based on fostering ever new needs that in turn demand a steady increase in spending on goods and services available in the market. In other words, the very survival of the new system depends on a continuously expanding market and spread of consumerism.

The passion with which the newly rich even in third world societies have taken to consumerist values is wholly in accord with this logic. If the swinging time some of them have is not unmixed with anxiety, it is because the reform process at home is still subject to periodical ups and downs, the infrastructure remains woefully inadequate, the spread of rot in the political culture continues unabated and the requisite cohesion in the ruling class to manage change with celerity is conspicuous by its absence even in the face of a rising tide of mass discontent.

The medium may or may not be the message. Yet, it is certainly the most efficient means of making consumerism replace all other ideologies. The other -ism that comes with it as a bonus is cynicism seen in the growing indifference of affluent societies as well as individuals to the suffering of their poor neighbours. It is hard otherwise to comprehend the increasing space the media devote to dissemination of news about new luxury goods and services even when millions of people have very often to go without basic amenities.

It is cynicism again which is at the root of the new trend in Western philosophy to dismiss as nonsensical all questions that fall outside the parameters of everyday speech and which have been of the utmost concern to all civilizations in the past. Its all too obtrusive presence can also be seen in the work of many post-modernist thinkers who incur much expense of spirit in ferreting out hidden contradictions in every philosophical or literary text they study and undermining the idea of a stable meaning.

In a globalization reader I happened to go through recently I was taken aback by a short piece by Serge Halami carrying the provocative heading: “When market journalism invades the world”. The writer goes straight to the question that seems to have been bugging him. He begins with the query: “What should we — journalists and intellectuals — do in a world where 338 billionaires have more assets than the combined income of nearly half of the planet’s population? And who dominates the political system which becomes the system?” The honest answer to his question is that the groups he addresses happen to be parts of the very system he is castigating.

Why should journalists and intellectuals have the arrogance to regard themselves as a class apart in a world where even art, music and philosophy are market driven? It was the market which made bowdlerized versions of existentialism into a saleable commodity in the early post-war period and turned Jean- Paul Sartre into a cult figure. It is again because of the yen for novelty promoted by the market that fashions in philosophical thought change as fast as those in clothes.

In the last five decades alone the vogue for existentialism first gave way to that for structuralism and then post-structuralism and modernity made room for post-modernity. Of late more brands of both New Left and New Right have been on sale than ever before.

The intellectuals are by no means immune to the virus of false consciousness. They are indeed in some ways more vulnerable than the common people who have no use for pure theory and judge an ideology by the practices of those who claim a monopoly on it. After all there were thousands of intellectuals who had no qualm in condoning Stalinist terror or buying the myth of the Cultural Revolution which claimed millions of lives. In democratic societies, many intellectuals have no hesitation in becoming a part of the establishment if given the chance.

When Bill Clinton asked Amartya Sen at a recent conference at White House what he would do with a billion dollars or two if given that money, the eminent economist gave the stock reply that he would invest it in education and healthcare. It would have been more to the point if he had gone on to say something about the increasing number of educated unemployed in the third world and ask the United States president what prevented his administration from making access not only to education but also to a decent livelihood a part of its rhetoric as well as action in support of human rights. Maybe he wanted to play safe and avoid the troubled ground where the local encounters the global, sometimes in the hope of a better future but more often in fear and trembling.    


Property claims

Sir — The pantheon of the sangh parivar is an ever expanding one. Look at the alacrity with which the once denounced M.K. Gandhi has been reclaimed — hook, line and sinker. And now it is the turn of Guru Gobind Singh (“Sikhs seethe at Sangh Guru Gobind mantra”, April 11). They all serve as clever decoys for the unsuspecting. If Gandhi was bait for a post-independence Indian society suffering from a Congress glut, Guru Gobind is targeted at the gullible Punjab countryside. However, the parivar in all its zest might be creating more problems than it can handle. To start with, emphasis on the guru’s call to unite and “protect the religion” might in the end excite the entire Sikh community into pushing the predatorial parivar out of Punjab. Moreover, in case the parivar fails to reclaim all Sikhs for they “are Hindus first”, there might be another upsurge of Hindu-Sikh antagonism in the state, possibly spiralling into militancy and a headache for the home ministry. Is K.S. Sudarshan awake?

Yours faithfully,
Malavika Singh, Calcutta

Jail birds

Sir — I fail to understand the hoopla surrounding Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad Yadav being chargesheeted by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Not much is being said about the CBI’s chargesheeting of L.K. Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi in the Babri Masjid demolition case. I am not saying two wrongs will make a right. But this is to stress the point that the crime committed by Advani and Joshi was far more heinous. It was not only directed against the secular fabric of the country, but it also cost lives and property.

Corruption charges against Rabri Devi cannot be justified on this pretext, nor is this intended. But we all know that corruption is deep-rooted in our society and not a single branch of administration is untouched by it. Sending one or two persons to jail will not yield the desired results unless the entire system is overhauled and all public dealings are made transparent.

Yours faithfully,
Shabbir Ahmed, Calcutta

Sir — Is the country so bereft of straightforward, honest politicians that the matter of law’s double standards cannot be taken up in Parliament? Look at the joke of putting Laloo Yadav in jail. He is permitted all creature comforts, including a cellular phone and the liberty to meet anybody and everybody he desires inside his prison cell.

Our leaders are misusing the idea of political immunity. There can be no checks now on their activities since all politicians are tarred with the same brush of nepotism and have little moral compunction left in them. Unfortunately, the media has not been too vociferous in denouncing the current breed. It is only once in a while that we have editorials against such practices.

Yours faithfully,
Biren S. Bader, Calcutta

Sir — The rejoicing over Rabri Devi’s reinstatement on the Bihar gaddi after all has proved shortlived for the Yadav couple. But the experience of such a stalemate, if this can at all be called so, must have become a habit by now. Rabri Devi took over the reins when Laloo Yadav was in judicial custody for the fodder scandal in July 1997.

If the CBI can present a foolproof case, the Congress will have to rethink its position in Bihar. Also, just in case the allegations are proved correct, Laloo Yadav might have his wife for company in jail. Should it be Misa taking over the reins in Bihar then?

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Old city, bright lights

Sir — Kudos to the chief municipal architect and town planner of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, S.M. Ghosh, for the proposal to confer heritage status to ancient shops and establishments, (“Heritage spotlight turns on old shops”, March 23). The corporation seems to have realized that heritage shops are no less a part of our cultural past than the heritage buildings and monuments.

These places are, for the Calcuttans, akin to pilgrimages, since eminent people often paid visits to these shops. In addition, these establishments had rare opportunities to serve renowned painters, musicians, hunters, whose presence in the city contributed to the rich legacy of the city. It is said that the Dharmatala market which was adjacent to these establishments, was destroyed on the initiative of the corporation to monopolize business of the then newly built Hogg market. The irony is that the CMC has itself come forward to retain the valuable identity of these very same buildings now. However, the corporation should be lauded for this.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Das Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The Left Front government should be applauded for its bizarrely imaginative plans for sprucing up of the city in the next 21 years to come (“Cleaner, greener, dolled-up city, 21 years on”, April 4). However, in doing this, the government is merely creating a mirage for the people. What is the use of planning ahead for the next 21 years, when the next two, three, or at best five years would have been more realistic? Or was this gesture aimed only at ensuring electoral support?

Before every assembly election, the roads are cleaned up, randomly beautified, a handful of schemes are announced, and a couple of foundation stones laid. Nothing is done once the elections are over.

Yours faithfully,
Suman Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority has been distributing land in and around the city at nominal rates to cooperative housing societies, which are formed mostly of people from middle or lower income groups.

As soon as the land is handed over to these societies, the members assume roles of promoters. They tie up with businessmen and sell these plots at exorbitant prices to outsiders, who are later incorporated into the society. In return, the original members get one free flat each in addition to a decent amount of cash. The secondary members have to pay not only the cost of their own flats, but also that of the original members’ flats, and the latter’ “fees”.

This is not what the cooperative act stands for, regarding all members as equal and hence, having to contribute equally for all expenses. It is time that the government wakes up to this situation and takes punitive action against those cooperatives who resort to such blatantly fraudulent means.

Yours faithfully,
Chiranjib Dutta, Calcutta
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