Monday, August 30, 2010

UDF prepares for seat sharing talks

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As the Left Democratic Front, traditionally the front-runner in local elections in Kerala, enters the arena weakened by the departure of several allies, hope runs high in the rival United Democratic Front.

Most LDF deserters have found refuge in the UDF. Now it has to cope with the problem of finding seats for the newcomers.

The UDF was in a bad shape at the time of the last elections in 2005. The Congress had been weakened by the exit of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran and his son and former State Congress President K Muraleedharan. The LDF’s prospects improved as the Communist Party of India-Marxist having struck a deal with Karunakaran’s Democratic Indira Congress.

Factionalism in the Congress is under check. Karunakaran is back in the party. Muraleedharan has not been readmitted but he has publicly pledged support to the UDF.

MP Veerendrakumar’s Janata Dal, which has been rechristened Socialist Janata, is now a constituent of the UDF. The Congress has appealed to all allies to part with some seats for it. The appeal has not invoked any response.

With the merger of the Kerala Congress faction led by PJ Joseph, which was with the LDF for two decades, the Kerala Congress (Mani) has become the second largest UDF constituent, pushing the Indian Union Muslim League to third place. It has made known that it expects a larger share than in the last elections by virtue of its growth. The Congress party has asked it to accommodate the Joseph group in its quota.

The Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi of KR Gowri Amma and the Communist Marxist Party of MV Raghavan are also seeking more seats than last time. Gowri Amma recently hinted that she would explore alternatives if her party’s claims are ignored.

While the JSS remains in the UDF, Gowri Amma has been staying away from its meetings in protest against the Congress party’s failure to act against its members who had worked against her and her party colleagues in the last Assembly elections.

Gowri Amma and Raghavan floated their parties after being expelled from the CPI-M. Some CPI-M leaders, including Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, have resumed personal contacts with Gowri Amma in the recent past. The CPI has said its doors are open to her.

There is little chance of Gowri Amma returning to the CPI-M or the CPI, or the JSS becoming a constituent of the LDF. However, the possibility of a tactical alliance between the CPI-M and the JSS cannot be ruled out. The CPI-M has entered into such alliances with UDF partners in the past.

The Indian National League, a breakaway group of the Indian Union Muslim League, which worked closely with the LDF for many years, has moved over to the UDF camp. The Congress has already decided on an electoral understanding with it.

The delimitation of constituencies has resulted in an increase in the number of wards in various local bodies. However, this is not enough to satisfy the demands of all allies.

The UDF has said it will begin talks on seat allocation for the elections to the local self-government institutions on September 1.

Last week Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy and State Congress President Ramesh Chennithala did some tough talk apparently to set the tone for the negotiations which will be held at lower levels. The party also fielded two other leaders, former Speaker Vakkom Purushothaman and PT Thomas, MP, to counter the demands of the JSS and the Kerala Congress (M) respectively.

In theory, the two fronts divide the seats in proportion to the strength of the constituent parties. But who knows for certain the strength of the parties?

The LDF had won its big majority in the State Assembly in 2006 with only 48.63 per cent of the votes polled. The UDF did not get even half as many seats as the LDF but it had secured 42.98 per cent of the votes. A swing of the pendulum enabled the UDF to bag 16 of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats last year.

The CPI-M’s share of the votes polled in the Assembly elections was 30.45 per cent and the Congress party’s 24.09 per cent. These figures indicate that the parties which lead the two fronts together command only about 55 per cent of the votes. Both stand in desperate need of allies to win elections.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Light fare in heavy Onam packs

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Today is Onam, the most important day in the Keralite’s calendar. Bloated newspapers heralded the arrival of festive season days in advance with two-in-one editions. Television channels whipped up interest with announcements of celebrity chats and other special programmes.

The two-in-one newspaper idea was conceived by Malayala Manorama, which is the most widely circulated Malayalam daily and pulls in the most advertisements, a decade ago. Mathrubhumi followed suit.

The day’s edition has to be printed in two sections because of the limited capacity of the press. The masthead appears in the same size in both the sections, making it difficult to decide which one is the main section.

The front pages of both sections of Manorama carry a note saying: “Two Manoramas today.” Mathrubhumi plays no such trick. It simply says, “In two sections today.”

Traditionally the newspapers also bring out special Onam editions in magazine format with literary content. Since the special edition attracts lots advertisements, the two large newspapers have been bringing it out in two volumes for some years. This year Manorama had to go in for three volumes.

Onam, the traditional harvest festival, has been the main shopping season for as long as one can remember. To begin with, it was the time when people bought new clothes. Today it is the time when people acquire all manner of goods.

According to market watchers, 50 to 60 per cent of all consumer durables sales in Kerala take place during this season. Sales of expensive items like jewellery and automobiles also go up at this time. This year the makers of a well-known brand announced prizes worth more than Rs9.3 million in a bid to boost sales of their mobile handsets.

Manufacturers of consumer goods, automobiles and mobile handsets and jewellers resort to heavy advertising at this time. Although television probably has more clout than newspapers, the print media still gets the biggest share of the advertising pie.

A website devoted to media matters quoted spokesmen of Malayala Manorama and the Communist Party of India-Marxist daily Deshabhimani as saying they earn one-fifth of their annual advertisement revenue during the Onam season.

Manorama has been working hard for years to boost Onam advertisements. It began Onam brand building a decade ago. The success registered in the early years encouraged it to plan new activities to impress advertisers and advertising agencies.

This year, beginning July, in an innovative campaign, it staged Pulikali, the tiger dance which is associated with Onam celebrations, at the offices of big and small advertising agencies in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai. As the dancer performed to the accompaniment of drums, the newspaper’s marketing staff handed out to media planners pamphlets which said “The best way to reach Malayalees is through Manorama.”

The two Manoramas the subscribers received each day for a fortnight for the usual price and the three volumes of the special they got for Rs50 testify to the success of the paper’s efforts.

The media website’s reporter who spoke to marketing officials of Mathrubhumi and Deshabhimani said both were hoping to haul in twice as much as they did last year.

At the market place everybody is happy — producers and distributors because they have sold more, the media because they have earned more, and consumers because they have acquired new products.

However, not many consumers of the media — newspaper readers and television viewers — can share their same sense of exhilaration. For, the Onam fare which has come in heavy packages is rather light.

The newspaper can accommodate more advertisements by increasing the number of pages. But it cannot find enough new poets and writers to produce additional reading material to fill the extra pages.

Many editors fill the extra pages with material that can be generated with comparative ease like celebrity interviews and discussions. The superstars hogged much of the space in one Onam special. Another devoted 55 pages (inclusive of advertisements, of course) to a minor actor-politician and 23 more to a comedian.
Cartoonist EP Bunny, who lives outside the state, provided a rare insight into the local scene in an interview published by Madhyamam in its Onam special. “Although power has been decentarlised to the panchayat level, in daily life the Keralite has to go through a more hierarchical setup than before,” he said. “The people maintain their dignity playing snake and ladder everyday.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Discord mars goodwill season

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On the eve of the Onam festival, when people rejoice in memories of a just society characterised by equality and fraternity, Kerala is under a cloud of distrust generated and sustained by acts motivated by political and religious considerations.

A popular myth links Onam with annual homecoming by a benevolent ancient king, Mahabali, whom jealous gods had deposed. Ballads hail his reign as a time when all were equal and there was no falsehood or deceit.

Although the myth connects Onam tenuously with the Hindu religion, scholars are agreed that it is the traditional harvest festival of the region, and followers of all faiths join the celebrations enthusiastically, making it the most important goodwill season in the Keralite’s calendar. In recent years, the state government has developed it as the tourist season.

Onam, which falls next week, acquires added sanctity this year as it coincides with the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims, who form about 25 per cent of the population, constitute the state’s largest minority.

The people of the state have always prided themselves in the region’s long tradition of communal harmony. India’s oldest synagogue, church and mosque are all located in the state. They bear eloquent testimony to this hoary tradition.

Kerala, still under Buddhist-Jain influence, extended a warm welcome to Jews when they landed here centuries ago to escape persecution in Israel. The local Christian community believes St Thomas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, came here and preached the gospel. An Arab, Malik bin Deenar, reputedly built the Cheraman mosque at Kodungallur in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

In the early 1920s, violence erupted in Malabar in the course of the Khilafat movement launched by the Congress at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi. Although the event had communal overtones, scholars are of the opinion that it was primarily anti-British and anti-landlord in character. Thanks to the spirit of inclusiveness promoted by the social reform movements that had swept the region earlier, the trouble did not spread far.

The emergence of vote banks built around religious and caste identities promoted a degree of divisiveness after Independence. Sectarian groups gained political legitimacy as the Congress and Communist parties pampered them to win elections.

Communal sentiments grew in the 1990s in the wake of the Ayodhya temple controversy fanned by the Sangh Parivar. That was when Abdul Naser Mahdani appeared on the horizon. That was also when National Development Front, predecessor of the Popular Front of India, which is now under the scanner following a hand-chopping incident, took birth.

Both the Congress and the CPI-M vied for Mahdani’s favours but he eventually ended up as a pawn on the political chessboard. He spent more than nine years in a Tamil Nadu jail without bail or parole before being acquitted in a bomb blast case. As these lines are written, a police team from Karnataka is waiting to arrest him to face trial in a blast case in that state.

The murder of PK Mohammed Abdul Hassan Maulavi of Chekannur, whose reformist ideas infuriated orthodox elements, in 1993 and the communal riot that rocked the fishing hamlet of Marad in 2002 were rude reminders that fanaticism was on the rise. The warning signals evoked only a weak response.

The hand-chopping case shows how those who ought to act soberly are exacerbating the situation with short-sighted action.

In March, TJ Joseph, a college teacher in Thodupuzha, set a question paper in which students were asked to provide punctuation marks in a text, which was an imaginary dialogue between the Creator and a character named Muhammed. There was nothing in the text to suggest that the character was the Prophet (PBUH) but word spread that the teacher had denigrated the Prophet (PBUH). The college, the university, the government and the media implicitly endorsed the charge of denigration.

Religious leaders in Thodupuzha came together and brought communal sentiments under control quickly. However, elsewhere, some people were plotting revenge. On July 4 Joseph was waylaid near his home in Muvattupuzha while returning from church and his right hand chopped off. Six weeks later, he is back at home, the severed hand sewn up, but the social fabric remains torn.

The political parties have their eyes on the local self-government elections which are at hand and the Assembly elections which are not far away. The CPI-M, eager to live down the impact of its disastrous association with Mahdani in last year’s parliamentary elections, is taking a position close to that of the Bharatiya Janata Party on communally sensitive issues.

Organisations like the pro-CPI-M Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Indian Union Muslim League, the BJP and Jamaat-e-Islami have drawn up separate programmes to repair the damage to the social fabric. The partisan approach reflected in these efforts offers little room for hope.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The grand lottery loot

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Kerala now has the highest per capita income as well as expenditure in India. High-rise buildings and bustling shopping centres strewn all over the state are visible symbols of its prosperity

Official figures never reflected the state’s financial health fully and correctly. Academics were able to inject a measure of realism in statistics relating to income. However, there is no proper understanding of where the money goes.

After a long period of hand-to-mouth existence, the state’s fortunes turned as jobseekers started migrating in droves to the Gulf States in the wake of the oil boom of the 1970s. The savings they sent home boosted the state’s economy.

Since money flowing into banks from abroad did not figure in the government’s books, the state remained below the national average in income tables. Scholars at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, helped correct the picture by working Gulf remittances into the tables.

In the net state domestic product (NSDP) table Kerala is still at the ninth place among 22 states. In the per capita table, it ranks higher — at the sixth place. The NSDP includes income of non-profit institutions too. The Consumer Pyramid constructed by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which presents a realistic picture of family income, placed the state first with a per capita household income of Rs63,000 in 2009, way ahead of Delhi (Rs55,000) and Punjab (Rs42,000), the other big earners.

Gulf remittances, which were around Rs3 billion a year in the late 1970s, have now grown to about Rs300 billion a year. Banking statistics indicate that domestic savings add up to almost as high a figure as non-resident deposits.

How much of the money that flows in from outside and is generated locally goes into construction and conspicuous consumption? There is no ready answer to this question.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which conducted a survey a few years ago to find out how Kerala lives, estimated that each year the people of the state spent about Rs68 billion on marriages and Rs28 billion on medical treatment. The figures it rolled out leave a wide gap between income and expenditure.

There is no reliable estimate of consumer spending in the state. Each year the government conducts a Grand Kerala Shopping Festival with the active cooperation of commercial interests. It claims the festival is a great success but does not divulge any sales figures.

Jewellers are among the government’s major partners in the shopping festival. India, with a sales turnover of 900 tonnes, is the biggest consumer of gold in the world. Kerala, which accounts for less than four per cent of the country’s population, accounts for 25 per cent of the gold sales.

The huge turnover of the jewellers, unofficially estimated at hundreds of billions of rupees, is not reflected in the sales tax figures. Last year the government managed to push up sales tax revenue from Rs1.5 billion to Rs1.8 billion.

Kerala tops in per capita liquor consumption. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation, which has a monopoly over sale of Indian-made foreign liquor, reported a record turnover of Rs55.39 billion in 2009-10. This was 20% more than the previous year’s figure.

The biggest beneficiary of the spurt in liquor sales was the state government. The KSBC contributed Rs42.60 billion to the exchequer by way of sales tax, excise duties, licence fees and other levies last year.

Kerala also tops in the consumption of tobacco. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, per capita monthly expenditure on tobacco products in the state was Rs.14.50 in the villages and Rs18.50 in the urban areas. The national average for both urban and rural areas was only Rs9.90.

The expenditure story will not be complete until we look at the loot by the lotteries.

Kerala pioneered the system of state lotteries. In 1967, the first year of operation, the state Lotteries department sold tickets worth Rs2 million and made a profit of Rs1.4 million. Over the past four decades, sales have risen to Rs4.84 billion and profit to Rs1.04 billion.

The state Lottery department has now been put in the shade by lotteries operated by private agencies under licences issued by the Sikkim state and the neighbouring country of Bhutan. They take away much more money than the state government.

Based on data relating to tickets printed and sold in the state by private lottery agencies, Mathrubhumi, a leading newspaper, reported last week that they are siphoning off about Rs157 billion from the state each year.

Apparently a large number of poor people in the state today pin their hopes for a better future not on the state government but on the governments of Sikkim and Bhutan whose agents have lured them with schemes that provide for several draws each day.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Controversy over judges’ remarks

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Talkative judges, testy politicians and sensational media can make a deadly combination. As the cacophony that reverberated through Kerala last weekend showed.

It all started with Justice S Siri Jagan castigating the government for failing to comply with a high court directive to act against illegal quarrying in the Malayattoor and Neeleswaram areas.

He had before him two writ petitions, including one filed by a citizens’ group named Grama Samrakshana Samithi, seeking action against those carrying on quarrying in land allotted by the government for agricultural purposes.

When the matter came up earlier the court had ordered cancellation of the patta (title) of land where quarrying was on. It also asked the government to recover from the land owners the cost of the granite that had been quarried and to ascertain whether the Mining and Geology department had quarrying licences unlawfully.

The government informed the court that the pattas had been cancelled but sought time to submit a report on the loss to the state and the role of Mining and Geology officials.

Giving expression to the court’s displeasure at the government’s tardy response to the court’s directive, the judge wondered whether it was working for the benefit of politicians and mafia gangs. In a pointed reference to the inaction of the police, he pointed out that the court could issue a directive to call in the army if the government was unable to maintain law and order.

Those were harsh words but, then, it is not unusual for judges to express displeasure in strong terms. The government was, however, upset as it had been subjected to such criticism often in recent times.

In a measured response to Justice Siri Jagan’s remarks, Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said judges should introspect on the propriety of such comments. His party colleague MV Jayarajan, who is already under the scanner for attacks on the courts, let loose another harangue.

In an unprecedented action, Advocate General Sudhakar Prasad called on Chief Justice J Chelameswar to convey to him the government’s displeasure over repeated adverse comments by judges.

The Supreme Court had recently expunged similar remarks made by two other judges of the Kerala high court.

While hearing bail applications of the accused in a case of attempted murder last year, Justice V Ramkumar had observed that law and order in the state was in a shambles and that many criminals came from the Home Minister’s constituency. On an appeal by the state government, the Supreme Court ruled last month that the comments were unnecessary, ill-timed and uncalled for.

Last week the Supreme Court removed from an order of Justice K Padmanabhan Nair an observation that the sandalwood mafia’s influence appeared to extend to the office of the Forest Minister.

The decision came on a petition by KP Viswanathan, Forest Minister in the then United Democratic Front government, who had resigned in the wake of the court’s stricture. The apex upheld his contention that the high court should not have made such an observation without hearing him.

While in the former case expunction came in just one year, in the other the process took more than five years. As Viswanathan has pointed out, had the decision come sooner he could have returned to the Cabinet.

Political parties generally take a narrow view of judges’ remarks which are incidental and not binding. The opposition sees them as a stick with which to beat the government.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which is crying hoarse over Justice Siri Jagan’s comments, had hailed Justice Padmanabhan Nair’s remarks against Viswanathan.

Such remarks by judges, referred to as obiter dicta, receive undue public attention in Kerala as the media, aware of their sensational worth, play them up. Many mainstream newspapers displayed Justice Siri Jagan’s comments under eight-column headlines at the top of the front page.

There is a case for introspection, as suggested by Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, but not by judges alone. The judges must certainly ask themselves whether the impact of obiter dicta was not diminishing as a result of overuse. The politicians must ask themselves whether they are not overreacting to them. Above all, the media must ask themselves whether they are serving the best interests of the society by dwelling too much on casual comments which have only ephemeral value. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 2, 2010.