Monday, June 26, 2017

Where are India's TV comedy shows?

We will, we will mock you

(Published on June 17, 2017 in Buiness Standard)

I’ve wondered for years why we don’t, in India, have a thriving equivalent of the American late night comedy shows, like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (a worthy replacement for the magnificent Jon Stewart), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher, or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. These people tear into the powers that be with a savagery that takes your breath away, but only because you’re laughing so hard. They serve takedown, send up, and unvarnished insult, on a bed of truth, garnished with profanity. They are whip-smart, merciless, and hilarious. And they do it all on mainstream television, protected by the First Amendment. Before the American news media stopped pandering to Trump, got its act together and renewed its commitment to the job, it was the comedy shows that held fast to the single most important function of journalism: to speak truth to power. They always have.

And they do it with a wit as entertaining as it is flaying. A good satirist will skip around poking you with a stick, then pull down your pants, slip a knife between your ribs, and skip away, leaving you filled with admiration and the desire to buy him or her a beer. How do American politicians respond? They appear on the shows. There’s no better way to earn public respect than to take an ego-walloping on the chin.

India is bursting at the seams with comedy gold. It’s so pervasive that, often, a straight-up news report is ridicule enough and needs no further comment. But there’s plenty of material waiting to be mined by a good satirical show. The Internet, bless its soul, performs the same function at individual peril. does scathing critique with the kind of damning before-and-after audiovisual clips that work so well to demonstrate contradictions and lies, and goes after not just politicians but media itself. 

But it would never find a slot on television. Mainstream media companies stay far, far away from anything but the gentlest poke in the ribs. Cyrus Broacha, who hosts The Week That Wasn’t, is the first to list all the things he can’t talk about. Acts like Aisi Taisi Democracy and All India Bakchod, as well as individual comedians, provide scathing takes, but they don’t enjoy the brand reach of television, and are perpetually in the crosshairs of offended sentiment.

I’m dying to see some aggressive, no-holds-barred comedy shows on Indian television, instead of the multiple tragedies unfolding every night in the name of news debates. I’d much rather watch Mr Modi submit to a chat with Varun Grover or Aditi Mittal. But our politicians’ egos are too fragile. They respond to mockery—and sometimes to regular news reports—by unleashing court cases, sackings, censorship, and financial penalties upon their tormentors. The enemy, today, is truth—truth that hurts electoral prospects, truth that debunks propaganda, and truth that adjusts projected image to reflect reality. And among truths, there is no greater enemy than irreverent truth.

Democracies deliberately place the seat of power in the white-hot light of public scrutiny, subject to relentless public opinion, feedback, and resistance. The idea is transparency, accountability, and responsiveness, not opacity, insulation, and stonewalling. Not all forms of power submit to critical review; autocracy and totalitarianism famously disapprove of it. But in a democracy, the powerful are raised up high not to be worshipped, but to be better examined and judged publicly. Yet, India treats power like a throne, not as an administration of peers, by peers, for peers.

People will never, and must never, stop sticking pins in overinflated egos. Everyone does it privately, many people do it publicly. Secure politicians appreciate satire, and the clever ones might even give it back in good humour. Average politicians ignore it. Only those baring their fangs and looking over their shoulders are provoked by mockery, and the more they are, the stupider, more insecure, and less legitimate they look. By the same token, media houses have to develop an irreverent backbone and be willing to sign up the funny talent. And the courts have to back freedom of expression and stop admitting frivolous cases.

The Indian internet and stand-up spaces will continue to serve the nation in their own ways. My dream is that one day India will have not just excellent mainstream television comedy shows, but also institutions modeled on the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, at which the press roasts the administration, and the Administration roasts the press right back.

But then I remember that we live in a country where television censors words like ‘bra’ and ‘beef’ (shame on you, Indian television, you slavish arm of the nanny state). So for now, the wealth of untapped comedy all around us is either an opportunity tragically wasted, or one that is going to be a very long while coming.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Zika virus and the unimportance of some people

All is not well with the government's response to public health

(Published on June 3, 2017 in Business Standard)

Of the Prime Minister’s many annoying acronyms, one stands out for being positively the most dishonest: EPI, or “Every Person is Important”. Phooey! Nobody who thinks Every Person is Important would compare people getting murdered to puppies getting run over. Plus, it’s the exact opposite of majoritarianism. Here’s an example of its dishonesty. 

In November 2016, a case of was detected in Gujarat. This is the virus that, when it rampaged through Brazil last year, was declared an international emergency, and almost derailed the Rio Olympics. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito — the same vector that will soon be bringing and to a nasty puddle near you — and has likely been hanging around India for decades, so, as the (WHO) has said, an eventual outbreak here is inevitable. It can also be transmitted sexually, remaining in semen for months. 

Symptoms, if you develop them, include fever, rashes, joint pain, and  They’re fairly mild, require no special treatment, and go away in a few days. But the is a huge health hazard because if you’re pregnant, there’s a good chance that your baby will be born with — a head smaller than normal, with an underdeveloped brain. The condition is associated with seizures, a shorter lifespan, poor brain and motor function, and dwarfism. 

Even unimportant people don’t want that for their kids. 

The can also trigger (GBS), which causes rapid-onset paralysis that can be fatal unless it’s treated. 

Sounds nasty, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that might motivate people to be more careful about wearing long sleeves and insect repellent, keep their environment clean, and screen themselves if they’re sexually active. It’s definitely the kind of thing that people, even unimportant people, have the right to know.

By January 2017, three cases were confirmed in Ahmedabad. Three is not an outbreak. But you can’t be complacent about serious disease; Singapore had a few isolated cases, and then an outbreak months later. So the Indian government swung into action, scanning for the virus, testing over 34,000 blood samples and over 12,000 mosquito samples (more since then). It got the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to increase disease surveillance. It mobilised health workers to identify vector breeding spots and disease. It monitored for  All good steps.

But guess what it didn’t do? It didn’t tell anyone that we were dealing with Zika. It didn’t tell state and local authorities. It didn’t tell the health workers. And it didn’t tell the public. It said it was investigating malaria and dengue, not a new and dangerous disease unfamiliar to the Indian public. The Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme disease maps did not mention Zika. The health ministry responded to a question in Parliament saying that one case had been confirmed (when in fact three had been), that the states had been advised, and that a travel advisory was out.

But Indians only found out about all this at the end of May, a full five months later, when the WHO posted its report on its website — having waited two months for the government’s replies to its questions.

Why the secrecy? How can an administration withhold a serious health hazard from the public, and the international community? How can it ignore disease control protocols? It hasn’t yet even finalised, according to the WHO report, information and communication materials for the public.

The silence wasn’t born of incompetence or oversight. Chief Secretary of Gujarat J N Singh said it was deliberate, to “avoid spreading panic”. To say that it was just saving Indians from their own chicken-headedness is contemptible government paternalism at best. But there’s a more grotesque and more likely explanation: According to The Hindu, the government hushed up Zika partly because the Vibrant Gujarat Summit was just days away. It wasn’t going to jeopardise millions of dollars just because of a few small-headed Indian babies birthed by a few dispensable Indian women. 

The government has refused, so far, to waste its valuable time holding a press conference on the subject so that we can better understand why it failed to disclose, to citizens, a health threat to citizens. Health Minister J P Nadda also refused to address Zika, and the odd five-month silence about it, in an interview published a few days ago about three years of the Narendra Modi-led government. At least this demonstrates the worth of another of the PM’s acronyms: ART, or “Accountability, Responsibility, Transparency”.

To summarise, it is obvious that EPI is total hooey and should be binned. I’d like to offer a usable replacement: USP. As in, this government’s USP is the Unimportance of Some People.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Three years of Modi have taken us back to the 1940s

And not in a good way

(Published on May 20, 2017 in Business Standard)

Flashback to 1950: After three years of care, consideration, erudition, eloquence, conflict, and consensus, the Constituent Assembly has hammered out a national document spelling out an inclusive, pluralistic vision of India. We celebrate this Constitution on January 26, 1950, our first Republic Day. The monster job of governing India takes shape slowly and painfully—through poverty, famine, rioting, war, and strangulating red tape, through losses, blunders, and heartbreak—but we are on our way. Fresh from the extraordinary traumas of colonialism, we have committed to life as a sovereign, democratic (and, later, secular) republic, pledged to justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Those days must have been both so heady and nervy—the exhilaration of freedom, the excitement of beginning to create something new of our own. 

Today, the euphoria and struggle of those first decades in which the bones of the Republic were forged, are forgotten. Parts of India remain shamefully backward and undeveloped, but much of it has entered the 21st century. My generation—midnight’s grandchildren—remembers booking long-distance phone calls that the operator might connect within a day or two—an hour or two if you booked the ‘lightning’ service; our children have never known a world without the internet and smartphones. The information and communications revolution changed the world, and India, beyond recognition. We still face numbing poverty, famine, rioting, war, and red tape, but we have also seen dizzying change.

We are empowered enough to know what we’re missing; ambitious about our own aspirations; brimming with creative energy; and out of patience with the corruption, self-interestedness, and inefficiency of the political class and bureaucracy. We came to the point where a long-suffering people, rightly fed up with political misdemeanour and negligence, wrongly voted in a man they hoped would free them from new chains of corruption and inefficiency, and change their fortunes.

Why wrongly? The Modi wave that swept the 2014 general elections expressed a groundswell of hope. It ignited a flare of excitement after years of cynical sameness. Maybe, thought many voters, he will finally free us to create, progress, improve. The problem is that those who elected this man overestimated his competence, and ignored—or liked—the fact that in his shadow we would let in a long serpent’s tail of entities, people, organisations, and ideas, that directly challenge the India that India signed up for. The Sangh Parivar is now also in power by proxy. 

Three years in, hopeful excitement stands taxidermised in wooden acronyms and hashtags—3Ts, #StandUpIndia, #StartUpIndia #Cashless #LessCash India—dry monuments to economic disappointment. But that’s the good part, the part that may yet turn around. The worse part is that much of the hope now stands turned to horror as we watch the fabric of our society, already so ragged, being deliberately cut to pieces by homegrown terrorists posing as nationalists or religious and cultural guardians, and by bigots mainstreaming bigotry into education. 

Over three years of the Modi government we have, like the proverbial frogs, congratulated ourselves on the balminess of our pond, failed to acknowledge the upward creeping temperature, and are now unable to admit that we are being boiled alive. We’ve been unable, or unwilling, to be vigilant about how the government and its proxies are changing the character of India. We have accepted public relations as fact, kept our heads down instead of risking our interests, and allowed militant chauvinism to define love of country. We have failed to safeguard our founding ideals, failed to aspire to the best version of ourselves. We have failed to defend our stake in a valuable idea.

And so now, three years later, we are back in a version of the 1940s, debating the idea of India, but not only in the assemblies of the people. We are being forced to debate it with knives and stones in the streets. We’re being forced to debate it in our kitchens and on our restaurant menus. We are having to debate it in our love lives and wardrobes and movie theatres. We are being forced to debate it in our universities, and in the arts and letters. We are being forced to challenge it in court.

Nationhood is always a work in progress, an endless accommodation between conflicting ideas, an endless tweaking in order to build. But three years into the Modi government, it’s the blueprint that is changing. Our founding ideals are up for grabs.

There are those who are grabbing them to trash them. It’s up to the rest of us to grab them back.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Aadhaar: My body, my rights

The bad news is, it’s not just about the Aadhaar-PAN linkage.

(Published on May 6, 2017 in Business Standard)

‘Dear Govt.. Can i have my left hand back please.. Need to scratch my head.’ (sic)

This one tweet beautifully mocked two arguments made in the Supreme Court by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi. The AG said that a) citizens do not have an absolute right over their bodies, and therefore can be compelled to give their fingerprints and iris scans to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI); and and b) that you “cannot import conceptions of privacy” into India, because, he said, on a train in this country, people will tell you their life stories within five minutes.

The facileness of these statements is breathtaking, even from a government as super-nosy as this one.

A vigorous anti-Aadhaar campaign is being conducted by people driven by precisely those two ideas: Bodily integrity, and privacy. They represent a very large number of Indians who value their bodily integrity and autonomy, and privacy, very much indeed. We value it because we’re free adults—a fact that escapes the tiny-minded officials who constantly censor our books and movies, and tell us, among other things, whom to love and where, and what to eat and why.

The case in the Supreme Court will determine whether or not taxpayers must mandatorily link their Aadhaar numbers with their PAN cards in order to pay their taxes. Petitioners challenging the government’s order say it can’t be made mandatory since Aadhaar is a purely voluntary system, targeting subsidy beneficiaries. The arguments have been rivetingly live-tweeted for days. The Centre refused to allow arguments based on the idea of privacy, since the court is separately deciding whether Indians have a fundamental right to privacy. The petitioners therefore argued for informational self-determination and bodily integrity, saying that you cannot extend the doctrine of Eminent Domain to the body, nor coerce people into parting with their most personal, irreplaceable, unchangeable data.

The Aadhaar-PAN linkage is a matter of tax law. On most days I would rather stab myself repeatedly in the heart than think about tax law. But I am riveted, because it scares me to to death that we have to argue tax law in terms of our fundamental constitutional and bodily rights, and that we’ve gotten to this point so awfully fast. The question of linking Aadhaar with PAN numbers is only the tip of a very large conceptual iceberg. As the petitioners’ advocate Shyam Divan put it, “If we fail here, the impact it could have on civil liberties in the country could be huge.”

The impunity of the government, and its assumptions, are staggering. How dare a democratically-elected government treat its citizens with such contempt that it can argue that they have no right to privacy? How dare it treat its citizens’ bodies as commodities that can be sold to private companies? How dare it perpetrate such a colossal bait-and-switch, advertising a purely voluntary subsidy targeting mechanism, and delivering something that coerces people into letting it into all parts of their lives—and sneaking these coercive laws in on the back of the Finance Bill? How dare it brand honest critics of Aadhaar as anti-nationals with something to hide, even as it draws shrouds of opacity over political funding, and renders the Right to Information toothless?

It is my view, and that of many other Indians, that the central government is systematically eroding constitutional liberties and working to institutionalise the dreary, joyless, regimented, unequal societal order beloved of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is my view that everything it says and does springs from the assumptions of majoritarianism, and that it does not understand or like individual rights. It is my view that it has an uneasy relationship with choice and freedom, preferring structure and predictability. It is my view that it has an intrusive, micromanaging attitude that treats citizens like sheep to be supervised, herded, and monetised. 

But even if you take a less sinister view of things—the best view, in fact—the way that Aadhaar is being shoved into all the nooks and crannies of a citizen’s life suggests, as the petitioners’ advocate Arvind Datar put it, that the whole project “is like building a bridge and then looking for a river. It is hunting for problems to make itself relevant.”

Choice and consent are at the heart of self-determination and dignity. Many Indians recognising the coercive nature of Aadhaar are waking up to the full import, meaning, and emergent need of that famous feminist and human rights cry: My body, my rights. (Better late than never.) The government wants to remove choice and consent in the matter of the Aadhaar-PAN link. It may sound like a silly detail, but it will set the tone for many of our civil liberties.

They are currently in the hands of the court.