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Big-bang reforms and their arch-enemies

The Modi government has been criticised for keeping the purse strings tight despite the demands for higher expenditure — for which it should have been lauded.

Ravi Shanker Kapoor

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The grammar of public discourse has completely gone haywire. Nothing else explains the flak that the Narendra Modi government has been receiving for the fiscally prudent package that it has announced. It is being hauled over the coals for the move — of keeping the purse strings tight despite the demands for higher expenditure — for which it should have been lauded.

In the process, the real import, unprecedented reforms, has been downplayed. Opposition parties are angry that in the Rs 20-lakh crore economic package, government expenditure is not much. As if spending were a virtue. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma said that the package just “adds up to Rs 3.22 lakh crore… It is 1.6 per cent of the GDP. It is much less than the 2 per cent of the GDP and not 10 per cent as the Prime Minister had very forcefully committed and announced.” But can a government spend its way out of an economic crisis?

More expenditure means more strain on an already depleting exchequer, a higher fiscal deficit, a greater burden on the taxpayer, and higher government borrowings. As it is, the fiscal deficit has been projected above 5.5 per cent of the gross domestic product of GDP. Finance Minister Nirmal Sitharaman had made a provision of 3.5 per cent deficit during 2020-21. Further, the borrowings have already increased from the budgeted Rs 7.8 lakh crore to Rs 12 lakh crore for the current fiscal. Typically, higher borrowings crowd out private borrowers.

This adversely affects business, which also results in lower tax collection and thus higher fiscal deficit. The best way to break this vicious cycle is to restrain rather than augment the spending, which the government has done. The government has talked about an economic, not a fiscal, package. The most important parts of the package pertain to the bold reforms that have been enunciated in several tranches by the Finance Minister.

It is a well-known fact that little has been done in the farm sector since the opening up of the economy in 1991. Even at that time, agriculture was not touched. Consequently, it continued to be governed by the laws enacted during the dark ages of socialism. The Essential Commodities Act, for instance, came into being in 1955, when food shortages were rampant and the fears of famines were real. But since the remedies socialists offer are invariably worse than the maladies, the legislation made things worse.

By the 1960s, the menace of mass starvation became imminent. India suffered the humiliation of being a ‘ship-to-mouth’ nation, the American food-grains keeping it away from famines. In fact, our socialists left no stone unturned to starve India. Even as America was feeding us, our pinkish foreign office kept slamming it for its war in Vietnam. US President Lyndon Johnson was so exasperated that for a while he stopped the food shipments, leading to a huge crisis. He was requested to relent; the Indians were not saying anything different from what the UN Secretary-General and the Pope were saying, he was told.

Johnson retorted: “The Pope and the Secretary-General do not need our wheat.” While Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said nothing in public about the incident, she reportedly told her confidants, “If food imports stop, these ladies and gentlemen won’t suffer. Only the poor would starve.” While India escaped mass starvation, the EC Act and other socialist devices like Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) strangled the farmer. The government has promised to end the EC Act and enact a Central law to afford “adequate choices to (the) farmer to sell produce at attractive price.”

For decades, champions of economic reforms have been beseeching the powers that be for legislative changes to do away the EC Act and APMCs. The announcements to that effect, if carried out in letter and spirit, will spell a paradigm shift in agriculture. The government has also announced the participation of private enterprise in the coal and strategic sectors. The idea is to attract investment, promote growth, and boost employment generation. The intentions are good, so also are the announcements, but there are also dangers ahead, the biggest being the institutionalised statist mindset. Its recent manifestation is price cap on air travel.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has capped airfares for three months till 24 August. This comes at a time when airlines are bleeding; indeed, the entire tour and travel industry is gasping for breath. Quite apart from the financial losses the government is imposing on the aviation sector, it is also trying to micromanage airlines. “Tickets in this fare band are split into different buckets. We are putting a second rider. Forty per cent of the seats have to be sold at a fare that is lower than the midpoint of the maximum fare.

We are ensuring that the fare does not go out of hand and at the same time, it is viable for airlines also. It is only for the period of scarcity,” Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Kharola was quoted by a business daily. Buckets, riders, midpoints, fares not going out of hand — so typical of dirigisme. The deep pink state is striking back, even as the Modi government is planning to weaken its influence. The author is Editor, www.indianarrative.com.

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Opinion

Blockchain technology will re-invent trust

With blockchain we can envision a blast to the primitive times and bring back transparency and mitigate the need for trusted third party intermediaries.

Shikha Mehra

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In this series, my goal is to question assumptions, examine perspectives, and challenge ideas. I am attempting to go back to the first principles of the concept of “trust” and what it has to do with the state of the global economy, the sense of well-being amongst the 80-90% of people that inhabit it and the promises of a distributed trust architecture.

According to Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, and Trevor Noren from 13D, the global economy can be said to pass through phases that are trend dominated. In the last 30 years the world economy has been dominated by an over extended phase of wealth consolidation and accumulation, characterised by extreme wealth, an increasing income inequality gap, widening trust deficit, the end of the L-T debt cycle, geopolitical tensions, globalisation and digitisation. Post global financial crisis (GFC) 2008, all of the above have been bringing us to an inflection point, triggering the onset of a gradual diffusion of power and distribution of wealth, aided by changing political, technical and cultural narratives. Changing technological paradigms will propel and give expression to the decentralisation of trust and power and as a result to the redistribution of wealth and value generated amongst the masses.

I found this definition of ‘trust’ to be quite simplistic and accurate. According to a paper titled ‘An integrative model of organizational trust’ by Mayer, Davis and Schoorman, trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other part. Why do we need to trust? Because when trust exists then transaction costs reduce and people are more willing and able to engage in mutually beneficial interactions.

Over the years, trust has been injected into societies via evolving, often overlapping ways; personal relationships and tribal norms governing P2P trust, or the state-sponsored sanctionbased machinery to enforce private contracts and property rights and finally intermediary based trust (TPT model) by aggregating both sides of the market, these entities are able to build marketplaces. For example, banks intermediating between depositors and borrowers or investment banks intermediating transactions in the capital markets, while e-commerce is fully dependent on the reputation of the intermediary to safely carry out transactions online. Think Amazon, Airbnb or Uber, through which strangers interact with each other in ways they never would otherwise. With blockchain technology we can envision a blast to the primitive times and bring back transparency and mitigate the need for trusted third party intermediaries i.e. blockchain will re-invent trust; hence, its reference to a no-trust technology and the emergence of distributed trust architectures.

Let me explain this phenomenon. The business of trust is so old and entrenched, that it is hardly noticed but it is huge. In ancient times important (social or economic) transactions were agreed in front of the community at large and in such a way transparency assured that none of the transacting parties defaulted on their obligations without repercussions, as its terms and conditions were witnessed by the entire crowd. Such transactions would become common knowledge in society. The trade of milk for grain or social contracts like marriages or other important traditional events like birth showers, death rituals, convocations gained legitimacy within the tribe, via common visibility and transparency. And this was important to ensure that all tribe members were aware of the transaction. These events were recorded in the memories of all the tribal members present and thus accounting was a matter of public knowledge and a coordinated activity.

As trade grew beyond local communities, and the ability of participants to directly rely on one another reduced, the transparency afforded by smaller and proximate societies was replaced by trusted record keepers managing databases i.e. in government, in layers of bureaucracy, in large corporations. It became physically and technologically impossible for every trade to be broadcasted across the population. Pseudo-transparent measures were introduced as substitutes, for example, advertisements in newspapers, public registration of private documents, Lists range from simple checklists to complex databases, but they all have one major drawback — they’re all centralised, the database managers hold the power!

They can inflate corporate accounts, delete titles from land registries or add names to party rolls. To keep a check, we have come to rely on all sorts of tools, from audits to supervisory boards. Together, the owners of centralised databases and those that govern them form one of the world’s biggest and least noticed industries, the trust business.

 In present times, what essentially is a basic peer-topeer (A-to-B) transaction assumes complexity as third-party intermediaries step in to provide the required trust. Consequently, transparency was replaced by trust. With blockchain, it becomes possible to reimagine the accounting, structuring for transactions so that reliance on trusted intermediaries is once again minimised, through “virtual witnessing,” digital signatures and mathematical guarantee of cryptography combined with power of economic incentives.

Essentially the transaction facilitating and aggregating intermediary is replaced by a distributed machine, co-maintained by unknown participants who are in it purely for the money. This enables the collaborative creation of a publicly available single source of truth to anyone/ everyone authorized to view such records/information and in some cases update the records The world has been in the midst of a trust deficit crisis and blockchain tech could address it; quoting from the Economist, “Blockchain the ultimate trust machine, biggest breakthrough in business record keeping since 1494 Italian invention of double entry bookkeeping.” There are many examples of a breakdown of trust in the world.

At the World Economic Forum, 2017 in Davos, David Edelman cited his annual trust barometer report titled an “Implosion of trust” indicating that trust in institutions has radically declined; 85% of those surveyed felt that institutions aren’t working towards their best interests, and governments are distrusted in 75% of the surveyed countries. Larry Fink, the CEO of the $6 trillion-plus asset management firm BlackRock, said, “We are seeing the paradox of high returns and high anxiety.” Low wage growth, dimming retirement prospects and other financial pressures are squeezing too many across the globe. A recent Oxfam report stated that 82 percent of all wealth created in 2017 went to the global top 1 percent. Top 8 wealthiest individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world. And the top 10 asset managers control 34% of all assets in the world.

Our growing mistrust in institutions and centralised power has been manifesting itself in the global political scene. The Brexit movement, the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns, recent populist victories in places like Italy, Mexico, Brazil, and France’s growing ‘Yellow Vests’ and Occupy Wall Street movement are all examples of people frustrated by static wage growth and a lack of faith in the centralized powers who promised to do something about it. Trump and his populist followers beat out dominant cultural narratives represented by the Republican establishment, the Democratic Party, the Clinton machine, Hollywood, academia, and mainstream media.

Existing trust architecture in the digital economy has led to the centralisation of the efficiencies unleashed by the Internet protocol in the hands of very few large tech companies acting as trusted third-party intermediaries in any online transaction. 90% of revenue generated from internet transactions goes to merely 9 companies. Peer-to-peer marketplace platforms like Amazon, AirBnB, Uber, Facebook, etc, rely on proprietary software for aggregating the contributions of users as a means to generate value within their own platforms. This shift marked the advent of a new generation of dematerialized or digital organizations that do not require physical offices, assets, or even employees. The problem with this model is that the value produced by the crowd is not equally redistributed among all those who have contributed to the value production; all of the profits are captured by the large intermediaries who operate the platform and enjoy entrenched power due to network effects.

Global governments have been slow to keep pace with regulating the digital realm amounting to windfall gains for the few large data aggregators who were able to form information cartels and do so with complete impunity. This has led to wealth accumulation; Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook now account for 17.5% of the S&P 500.

Blockchain, 5G, IoT, 3D and AI are all examples of tech narratives that will diffuse power and distribute wealth. With blockchain, software applications no longer need to be deployed on a centralised server. They can be run on a peer-to-peer network that is not controlled by any single party. In this way the move is not only towards dematerialised but also decentralised organisational structures with no director or CEO, or any sort of hierarchical structure, instead they are administered, collectively, by all individuals interacting via code on the blockchain.

Primarily, the benefit will accrue to users who would qualify both as contributors and shareholders of these decentralised network economies as the value produced within these platforms will be more equally shared among those who have contributed to the value creation. So as people go from merely gaining network participation value to network ownership value and start enjoying property rights in the decentralised Internet, the global economy will move from a wealth accumulation phase to a wealth diffusion phase.

The writer is the co-founder of MainChain Research & Consulting Pvt Ltd, a certified Bitcoin professional.

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Opinion

PM Modi’s vision: The universality of India

Joyeeta Basu

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At Ayodhya at the shilanyas ceremony of the Ram temple, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a remarkable speech. It was delivered from a religious platform and was steeped in religiosity, but transcended religion to enunciate a philosophy that is best described as the Indian way of life. At the core of this, according to the Prime Minister, is Lord Ram, a cultural and civilisational icon who cuts across all barriers including national boundaries. In the speech, the Prime Minister drew out the contours of what he described as “Ram Rajya”, which is however not something mythical and divorced from presentday realities. This vision of Ram Rajya is modern, forward looking and evolving with the times. Lord Ram is for movement, he is for modernization, the PM said and added that he was using the word “modern”—adhunik—consciously. He said, “Ram Mandir will become the modern symbol of our traditions” apart from being a symbol of our “saswat astha” (trust) and “rashtriya bhavna”, which can be roughly translated as nationalism or nation first—something the so-called left-liberal forces have been deriding, but is one of the core values of the Sangh Parivar. Significantly, unity found constant mention in the Prime Minister’s speech—this is a “project to unite the nation”; the aim is to unite “nar” with Narayan (man with God), and “bartaman” with “ateet” (present with the past), “swa” with “sanskar”. Mention was also made of the temple symbolising “unity in diversity”. At the level of governance, the aspiration is to reach an ideal state—“Ram Rajya”—by loving everyone equally, while taking special care of the poor. This is something the Prime Minister has been talking about ever since he has taken office, first in 2014 and then in 2019.

 So it’s natural that to reach a state of Ram Rajya in these modern times it’s essential to follow the path of “sabka saath sabka vikas”. Significantly, different groups such as Dalits, backward, tribals, all found a mention in his speech; as did Valmiki, Tulsidas, Kabir, Nanak and Gandhi, apart from Lord Buddha. So did a host of other people and countries, to show how the legend of Lord Ram captured imagination and influenced lives in different parts of the world. Moreover, atma vishwash (confidence) and atma nirbharta (self sufficiency) are also needed to achieve a state of Ram Rajya, just as wearing masks is necessary to maintain maryada at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has got the world in its grip. In other words, the values that Lord Ram stands for found a modern and topical interpretation in the PM’s speech. While talking of how the temple was a fruit of satya, astha, balidan (truth, trust and sacrifice) and a gift to a lawloving India, he did not forget to mention the economic benefits that the Ram temple would bring to Ayodhya. Significantly, not for once did the Prime Minister mention the word Hindu, Hinduism or even Sanatan Dharma in his speech, although the shilanyas itself was replete with religious rituals. On the whole, the Prime Minister spoke about his vision for a modern India, which is inclusive, sensitive to others’ needs, merciful, friendly, while also confident and self-assured— an India that does not feel the need to hide its religious moorings, not anymore. It is here that Modi’s “Indian way of life” is significantly different from Nehru’s “idea of India”. It is about India regaining its pride in its civilisation and culture, and being an example to the rest of the world, but with humility. And that is indeed the way forward for India as a nation.

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Opinion

Lord Ram all set to take Times Square by storm

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays the foundation stone of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya, the same will be witnessed by thousands of Indian-Americans at the Times Square in NYC.

Maneesh Pandeya

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Setting the Indian media abuzz and keeping the coronavirus off primetime debates with the upcoming Ayodhya revelry on Thursday, Lord Ram is ready to take New York City’s iconic Times Square by storm.

Indian-Americans and followers of India’s religious and spiritual offerings have been ecstatic. The giant billboards of Times Square are instant publicity for many brands worldwide. Perhaps for the first time, the billboards will showcase India’s religious heritage and belief on that scale of grandeur and historic glory when Lord Ram and 3D portraits of the grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya will be beamed across the Times Square on Thursday to celebrate the temple’s foundation laying ceremony.

As the Prime Minister lays the foundation of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the same will be witnessed by thousands of Indian-Americans at the Times Square in NYC. While the coronavirus cannot take busloads of the Indian diaspora to Times Square, the majority of the 4 million-strong Indian American community will be seeing it live on TV, although thousands are believed to have confirmed their participation and are coming all the way from cities like Boston and Chicago, and from Ohio, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania, besides the NYC and New Jersey’s strong Indian-origin population standing as organizers and volunteers.

 “It’s a moment of a lifetime and a historic one for us Indian Americans and for the 1.8 billion Hindus worldwide,’’ says Jagdish Sewhani, a prominent diaspora leader and president of the American India Public Affairs Committee.

Sewhani is credited to be the man behind this ‘grand show of Indian culture and heritage’ and what many say “the growing influence of India’s stature on American soil”. “Interestingly it happened in a flash and with just a couple of calls among friends,’’Sewhani told The Daily Guardian. He added, “The moment we heard the news of PM Modi going to Ayodhya to lay the foundation of the Ram Temple, I called a couple of friends to ask if we can showcase the same to the world from the Times Square, and everyone sounded positive… time was a factor, but the band of relentless volunteers have worked day and night to make it happen.”

 Sewhani’s joy got a momentary disruption on Thursday when news about ‘cancellation of billboard display’, quoting the ad company, was flashed after some Islamic organisations reportedly protested the Hindu deity’s display on billboards. When contacted, Sewhani confirmed to TDG: “We’re going with the celebrations… this is fake news. We are only celebrating Ram Janmabhoomi pujan, nothing else.’’

It seems that Lord Ram will have to face some protests on foreign soil this time. Pakistan supporters have always protested big Indian events like Howdy Modi in Houston and the last UNGA meeting in September, but have been outnumbered by the strong Indian-American presence at both places. The Indian media seem puzzled about the actual outcome of this `unconfirmed news’, reportedly based on a website run by a fundamentalist group. When TDG questioned Sewhani again on Tuesday night, he reiterated the statement he made earlier saying, “Indian diaspora is now even stronger to make this show happen… we’re on with this and don’t believe fake news and rumors.’’

Another ‘showman’ of India in America, Dr Bharat Bharai, the Chicago based doctor, who had organised big events for PM Modi and the last pro-India demonstrations at the UNGA in NYC in September 2019, is euphoric and emotional. “The sacrifice and the struggle made for getting back the Ram Janmabhoomi of thousands of Hindus for the last 500 years have succeeded finally,’’ Dr Bharai, someone known to be very close to PM Modi in America’s Gujarati diaspora, told The Daily Guardian.

 Sewhani added, “Among the prominent billboards that are being leased for the occasion are the giant Nasdaq screen and the 17,000-sq-ft wrap-around LED display screen, considered among the largest continuous exterior displays in the world and the highestresolution exterior LED screen in Times Square.’’

 Sewhani credits PM Modi for the Ram Temple construction at Ayodhya. “Till six years ago, we never thought that this day would come soon, but due to Modi’s leadership, this day has come and we want to celebrate it in a befitting way.”

 Beginning from 8 am on 5 August till 10 pm, images of the words ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Hindi and English, Lord Ram’s portraits and videos, 3D portraits of the temple’s design and architecture as well as pictures of the laying of the foundation stone by PM Modi will be displayed across several billboards, which are among the most striking and popular features of Times Square. Members of the Indian community will also gather to do the lighting and distribute sweets, besides the showcase of Indian heritage – music and dance to enthral the masses, who will gather at the Times Square from across the world.

India will come alive about 8000 miles away in NYC, said Dr Sampat Shivangi, the National Mental Health advisor in President Donald Trump’s administration. Calling it a unique event in the history of two nations, as Dr Shivangi said: “One that is our motherland India and another, the adopted one, the US.” “A celebration of this degree for the resurrection of Ram Janmabhoomi at the Times Square is something every Hindu in America has been looking up to for years and this will be a moment to cherish for generations,’’ he said.

There are at least 300- odd Hindu temples in the US and nearly 50 of these are in the New York and New Jersey areas, which are closest to the Times Square. Pramod Bhagat, a New Jersey resident informed that coronavirus fears may compel people to maintain social distancing and not be present at the spot in bus loads, “but small family gathering of bhajans and kirtans are being organised in households to celebrate and be a part of this historic moment”.

 Dr Shivangi added, “I can assure you the glimpses of these events will leave lasting memories that are being eagerly awaited. These visuals will show to the world that Hinduism is well and alive and that it is a universal dharma (religion).”

While the thousands of Indian-Americans present at the Times Square will rejoice the moment, Dr Bharai said, “The Hindu Mandir Executive Conference (HMEC) of the US and Hindu Mandir Priests Conference (HMPC) and VHP of America are organising a virtual collective national prayer across America to celebrate the historic Ram Janmabhoomi poojan in Ayodhya. It’s a dream come true. The chanting will start in the US and Canada from 8 pm to 9 pm US EST on August 4.”

Dr Bharai, who himself had done kar seva in Ayodhya, added: “This is the third time in the last several decades that IndianAmericans have organised massive events at the iconic Time Square — the live telecast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at Madison Square Garden, Diwali and now Ram Janmabhoomi poojan.’’ He said the strong Indian diaspora, with mostly Hindus, are all for contributing to “the construction of the temple.”

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Opinion

All eyes on bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya

Priya Sahgal

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The foundation stone for the Ram Janambhoomi temple will be laid today at a gala ceremony that will be presided over by the Prime Minister himself. There had been concerns as to whether he would call it off or postpone it, especially in light of the pandemic and also the fact that his ace lieutenant is down with Covid-19, but PM Narendra Modi is going full steam ahead. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has also tweeted about the timing claiming that it was “ashubh mahurat” (inauspicious timing) that went against the norms of Sanatam Dharma. But on the auspiciousness of the timing, Dr Subramanian Swamy told NewsX that “there’s always good time for good deeds and a bad timing for bad deeds”. So there goes that argument and moreover, as Dr Swamy pointed out, the timing was not chosen by the PM but the priests. And so the “bhoomi pujan” will go on, giving PM Modi just the right backdrop to play the “Hindu Hriday Samrat”. If things go according to plan, the temple will also be the right backdrop for the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

While All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi has questioned the propriety of whether the PM would be violating his oath as a secular leader by going to attend the “bhoomi pujan” for the construction of the Ram Janambhoomi temple. According to Owaisi, this would be a violation of the PM’s “constitutional oath”. However, this argument finds few takers even amongst the Opposition. Interestingly, a number of Congress leaders from Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh to Manish Tewari have come out in support of the temple construction. As has Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who tweeted, saying, “With the message and grace of Lord Rama and Mother Sita, the Bhoomi pujan ceremony of the temple of Ramlala became an occasion for national unity, fraternity and cultural congregation.”

 This is interesting because the Congress is officially yet to make a comment on this. The matter did come up at a meeting of the party’s Rajya Sabha members recently when Deepender Hooda reminded everyone that the party had welcomed the Supreme Court verdict in favour of the temple construction. And by not joining hands with the likes of Owaisi the Congress is marking a shift in its narrative that is in keeping with Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping during the 2019 election campaign. More recently the Congress leadership also felicitated former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, a man they had hitherto castigated for allowing the Babri Masjid demolition to happen on his watch. Although the demolition was not brought up specifically, both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi paid tribute to his legacy at a meeting of the Telangana Congress leaders last fortnight.

Interestingly no Congress leader has been invited for the bhoomi pujan ceremony, However, it does seem that finally (perhaps), the party has read the writing on the wall and is making a gradual shift in its own ideology. Which is interesting because the Congress did play a role in the Ram temple movement — from the time when Rajiv Gandhi brought the epics to our small screens, and rekindled their impact on the masses. It was also Rajiv who got the locks of the Babri Masjid opened in 1986 and three years later allowed the shilanyas. This is a legacy the Congress should have capitalised on; instead, it has allowed the BJP to hijack the entire Ram temple movement post L.K. Advani’s rath yatra.

The original leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi — will not be present in Ayodhya, though they have been invited. Given their age, Joshi and Advani will participate digitally. Another crusader for the cause — Dr Subramanian Swamy who played a crucial role in the legal battle ever since VHP leader Ashok Singhal asked him to take over the case in 2015 — is not invited. He told NewsX that he is not bitter at being left out, he did what he had to do and will visit Ayodhya when the temple is built. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, will be on stage along with PM Modi, as he sounds the bugle, with a clarion call for Jai Shri Ram.

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Opinion

What happened on Ellen Degeneres Show is essentially a game of power

Murtaza Ali Khan

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Ellen DeGeneres, noted American comedian, TV host, and writer, is widely regarded as an equality champion, humanitarian, and leader in the global fight for LGBTQ rights. She has been hosting the popular TV talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, since 2003. In 1997, DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her disclosure sparked a nationwide debate and the media coverage around it nearly destroyed her career. DeGeneres subsequently battled depression but ultimately came out strong. She married her longtime girlfriend Portia de Rossi in 2008.

In the year 2017, she added her name to the list of Hollywood celebrities who came out in support of the #MeToo movement. She famously said on her talk show, “This is not a male thing or a female thing. It is not a Hollywood thing or a political thing. This is a human thing. And it happens in the workplace, it happens in families, it happens all over the world, and we are all the same. We all want the same thing — we want respect and love and kindness. And if I could have those three things — and a new iPhone 10 — I would be complete.”

Fast-forward to the present and we find Ellen apologising to her staff over workplace “issues” following a Buzzfeed news story reported that several former employees on the show have complained of toxic work environment wherein they were constantly subjected to racism, fear, and intimidation. While some said that they were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals, others said that they experienced “racist comments and microagressions”. Soon an internal investigation was ordered by Warner Bros. in the matter. In a recent statement, Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres have stressed upon on their commitment to ensuring a workplace based on respect and inclusion.

However, shortly before Warner’s statement was released, a new Buzzfeed report emerged containing allegations of rampant sexual harassment and misconduct by top executive producers on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. While one former employee has accused head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman of asking for sexual favors, another revealed that “she saw Leman groping a production assistant in a car”. Several others have complained that executive producer Ed Glavin “touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable”. That Glavin “has a reputation for being handsy with women”.

Now, some of the former staffers have even accused Ellen DeGeneres of “turning a blind eye” to the situation. Ellen’s tagline on the show is “Be Kind”. Can there be a greater irony than this? What has transpired on The Ellen DeGeneres Show over the last few weeks is a stark reminder of the dark reality of showbiz. Most human rights movements are usually channeled through these popular platforms known for hosting the world’s most famous celebrities uninhibitedly talking about kindness, love, respect, and equality. But what goes around in the same workplaces behind the cameras is the exact opposite of what’s preached to the whole world. It’s all essentially a game of power where those at the top of the hierarchy of power exploit those at the bottom. Let’s try and examine this stark reality better through an Elia Kazan film which came out over six decades ago.

 It was back in the year 1957 that Elia Kazan made A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith in the iconic role of Lonesome Rhodes — a fast talking country who goes on to become a television sensation. Rhodes is sought after by advertisers and business magnates. In his own words, he is “not just an entertainer, but an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force”. As his fame and influence grow, he is even enlisted to improve the mass appeal of top politicians. But, in contrast to his friendly onscreen persona, he is privately an egomaniac who incessantly berates his staff. A Face in the Crowd is not just a film but a prophecy that’s more relevant today than ever. Many who have watched it would feel that Kazan predicted the rise of workplace toxicity several decades in advance. What happened to the ex-staffers on The Ellen DeGeneres Show is nothing but a natural extension. Fame and power corrupt one and all and Kazan’s classic presents a haunting take on how television serves as the perfect conduit for their propagation.

At the end of Kazan’s film, one also gets to witness Rhodes’ great fall which is triggered by a resentful colleague who activates a live microphone over the end credits of his TV show that reveals Rhodes’ ugly reality as he contemptuously mocks his viewers calling them “stupid idiots” completely unaware that the microphone is still capturing the live sound. Consequently, his popularity as well as the show’s ratings plummet, and the advertisers cancel their sponsorships. The film ends with a character predicting that Rhodes’ career is not completely over. And while he may never again enjoy the same level of popularity and prestige, he will likely find further TV work after a reasonable cooling-off period. Now, Warner Bros. too will most likely fire the executive producers found guilty in their internal investigation. But, after a reasonable cooling-off period, they too would be back on TV in some capacity or the other. And, unfortunately, the ugly power game will continue to find its new victims.

Murtaza Ali Khan is a noted film critics and writer. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

Lord Ram is about inclusion

Joyeeta Basu

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The Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust should be commended for sending the first invitation to the Ram temple shilanyas ceremony by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iqbal Ansari, one of the main litigants in the Ayodhya case. It is a magnanimous gesture and a fitting tribute to what Lord Ram stands for—the Supreme Being, who is not just about Sanatan Dharma, but is above and beyond religion. He is an ideal that human beings aspire for. He is at the core of what is known as the Indic civilization, and is an intrinsic part of lives cutting across barriers of language, caste, creed and even international boundaries. It will be wrong to say, as the so-called left-liberal section claims, that Lord Ram is a North Indian phenomenon, with his influence not extending south of the Vindhyas, or even to the east in places like Bengal. This is ironic, considering several versions of the Ramayana have existed in different southern languages and the word “Ram” is among the most commonly used in South Indian names, including place names. As for Bengal, not too long ago, a Nobel Laureate had proudly claimed that Ram did not have any place in Bengali culture as this eastern part of the country worshipped the Mother Goddess. It was an uneducated claim, and coming from a Nobel Laureate, sad. After all, the biggest festival in the east, Durga Puja has its roots in the belief that it was started by Lord Ram in autumn, the reason why it coincides with Ram Navami celebrated in the rest of the country. In fact, almost all the languages of this country have had Ramayana handed down from generation to generation, sometimes as an oral tradition or as written in their respective tongues over the centuries. In fact, Ramayana is not just an epic, it is one of the finest examples of what is known as “racial memory” or “genetic memory”. What else will explain the spread of Lord Ram’s legend in South East Asia and beyond? Some of these countries are now Islamic but have proudly made the Prince/King of Ayodhya their own.

Even in Buddhist Sri Lanka, the isle of Ravan, whom Lord Ram vanquished, till date there is a much revered and visited Seetha Amman temple in Nuwara Eliya, where legend has it, Ravan had held Sita captive. All this is proof, if proof was needed that Lord Ram is about inclusion. He is a cultural and civilizational phenomenon. Hence, it is good that voices rising from the fringe of the majority community about barring the minority community from the shilanyas have been ignored. In fact, the temple trust has shown tremendous sagacity by inviting Iqbal Ansari, who too has risen to the occasion by saying “I believe it was Lord Ram’s wish that I receive the first invitation. I accept it.” The invite is a gesture of peace and amity to the minority community, aimed at ameliorating their hurt. It is hoped that laying the foundation stone of the Ram temple on Wednesday will be a major step towards upholding communal amity in the country as this single piece of stone will correct centuries of wrong done to the majority community, who were not allowed access to the birthplace of their most revered Lord—a discrimination unheard of in any other major world religion. Wednesday’s shilanyas marks the beginning of the end of the feeling of victimhood among the majority community, and will go a long way in removing a certain distrust that has crept into inter-community relations. It is also important to find a solution to the two other sites of Mathura and Kashi, as the trinity of Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi is at the centre of Sanatan Dharma and must be restored to their glory. This is needed to repair the breaches in India’s society.

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