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Mainstream, VOL LV No 6 New Delhi January 28, 2017

Indian Democracy: A Captivating Reality-check

Tuesday 31 January 2017



by Aejaz Ahmad Wani

A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India by Josy Joseph; Harper Collins, India; Hardcover; 2016; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 599.

A nineteenth century French novelist and playwright, Honoré de Balzac, writes: “Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” While this speaks of the reality in almost all modern democracies, one finds a textbook case in Indian democracy. If you know where laws can be played with, as the lawyers do; if you can make out how to generate [mis]information about anything, or where to shout and where to maintain silence, as the media magnates do; and if you know people who make rules, such as politicians, then you are one of the runners of such a system. But when all of them, politicians, media magnates, lawyers and the other intermediaries cooperate with each other, they, as a matter of fact, act as pawns of the king: the billionaires of our time.

Josy Joseph’s A Feast of Vultures is an eloquent ground demonstration and testimonial of the underlying structure of Indian democracy. In a remarkable investigative endeavour, Josy Joseph, a renowned award-winning investigative journalist, using his hard-find evidences, and his deeply rooted contacts, unfolds a chilling and frightening account of the de facto operators of Indian democracy—business houses, political figures, and other intermediaries, examines their interests, scandals, and hidden agendas. It maps the de facto working of Indian democracy; and presents a multi-layered narrative of the urban India that operates this democratic republic.

The post-colonial Indian democracy represents a matrix wherein economic interests of the rich are overarching and all-pervasive, wherein democracy and its institutions are structured and manipulated to the needs of the billionaires vis-à-vis politicians. While the big players run this ‘appropriation game’; the managers—lawyers, media magnates, politicians—act as its facilitators. Call them the middlemen, or intermediaries and what not. The fundamental truth is that you can get anything done in such a system; all you need is to find a right intermediary, a right situation and a right channel. Bribe is a lubricant, or blood, of the business, and blood of this body. This book review only discusses some crucial themes in the book, but passionately recommends the readers, the concerned citizens, to read it in the original.

According to Joseph, the unprecedented emergence and entrenchment of such a section of intermediaries, middlemen, or facilitators is attributable to the 1991 economic reforms. In all political deals, from sanctioning to the making of the roads, the rise and fall of business empires, the negotiation of multiple billion dollar business deals, the defence and military deals and what not, the role of intermediaries is pivotal. This book is a reporter’s inquiry, a journalistic investigation into the state of the nation, an unravelling of the role of such intermediaries. Joseph metaphorically sees this post-liberalised India as a feast of vultures; brings into limelight the grim realities that make up today’s India. He not only uncovers some of the shameful faces of Indian politics and economy, but also demolishes the popular patriotic myths around the ‘integrity’ of many former Army and defence officials and critically explores their inter-mediary role and participation in such a feast.

We have read numerous accounts of corruption in India and the multifarious ways it manifests in. This book is simply different in its depth and analysis. The general theme that Joseph seeks to underscore is this: that there is what he calls a ‘Middlemen Industry’, deeply rooted in the Indian political system, that takes care of everything—from grassroots to galaxies, from arranging your birth certificates, sanctioning of public works, and handling of multibillion dollar deals. Whereever you look, you will certainly find these middlemen operating in the system, bottom-up or top-down, everywhere. Call them the de facto ‘executing bodies’. What is salient about this ‘industry’ is that it is a massively flourishing one operating within the parameters of the law defying all laws of recession, and is all-pervasive in terms of its reach.

What is the specialty of these middlemen that makes them a significant class in and outside India? According to Joseph, they exhibit a unique skill: the knowledge of finding the right place, right person, and right time of bribery which per se requires a pervasive reach of the system, lock, stock and barrel. What role does bribery play in getting things done in India? The Indian system is marked by entrenched red-tapism, a creaky and squeaky mechanism which runs but only with the aid of bribery. Bribery plays a unique role of accelerating the processes in such a system; it eases the standard operating proce-dures, and makes it possible for the system to die its own death. Bribery serves as an executing lubricant that greases parts of the system. This is the sort of industry that runs successfully in modern-day India. It runs, in real terms, every-thing—from health, revenue, government schemes, and international contracts, almost everything.

It is, however, arguable that academic litera-ture has adequately reflected on the endemic middlemen phenomenon in India. For instance, Fred Riggs, a doyen in the field of development administration and model formulation, argues that India represents a fused model wherein traditional and modern systems collate making enough scope for corruption, nepotism and favouritism. But Joseph’s book is not an academic reflection as such; it is an insightful and ground empirical account of various forms of the middle- men phenomenon that many a time goes untracked in academic researches. It even talks about various forms that have so far been unthinkable. In general, one can note two aspects or motifs of Joseph’s field-view of the ‘Middlemen Industry’ in India. First, it discusses various forms of the middlemen phenomenon in India. Second, it fills the academic lacuna in assessing the costs that these middlemen add to the already inefficient welfare programmes or generally on the system itself. For instance, in one case mentioned in the book, the Central Bureau of Investigation invested a whopping amount of Rs 256 crores in a case that involved an investigation of just Rs 65 crores.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is that it seeks to open up otherwise unknown arenas where middlemen play key roles—at local, national, and international levels respectively. Joseph traces the rise of some prominent middlemen or intermediaries, such as Rajendra Kumar Dhawan, a lifelong aide of many Congress leaders. He explains at length as to how he, with the modest background of a typist, transformed into a person with significant power and enormous economic assets and how he managed to play with the laws of the land. He also shows how the Congress leaders saved him from time to time. Similarly Joseph tells the saga of how Ajay Singh, an aide of Promod Mahajan, came to launch the low-cost airline Spice Jet and the political trickery involved in it. Many other cases are discussed in the book with significant revelations.

As mentioned earlier, this book also provides a very unconventional and uneasy glimpse of the grimmer side of former Army officers and defence officials. In a provocative and gripping account, Josy Joseph situates the role of many former Army officers and defence persons involved in this intermediary network making, in fact, made great fortunes out of this ‘middlemen industry’. Ample space in the book is attributed to the role of Army and defence persons in striking deals with the major arm suppliers and countries, as well as negotiating weaponry for the Armymen on duty.

Joseph not only sketches the trajectory of their activities, but quite relevantly strikes out some of the common attributes that characterise the people who constitute the ‘Middlemen Industry’. First of all, these men and women need not be qualified or educated, there is no bar on qualification; they can at best be dropouts, ordinary erstwhile employees, typists, and so on. Second, their assets proliferate just like wildfire. Third, they are loyalists; more often son-in-laws of prominent politicians, a live repository of secrets, seldom come out in the form of confession book accounts, often at the climax of their life.

In sum, Joseph’s A Feast of Vultures is a captivating but haunting reality-check of Indian democracy. If politics is a distributive activity, which it really is, then it is literally a ‘feast’, but certainly not for ‘vultures’. In making Indian democracy metaphorically a “feast” for a few powerful “vultures”, Joseph asks us to retrospect our political optimism and our unflinching faith in our democratic order. It tears up the representative curtain that hides the ‘vultures’ of Indian democracy, the hidden business of Indian democracy that the common people never come to know about.

However, it is arguable that political optimism is the last resort if the political institutions of representative democracies don’t work but one cannot rest political optimism in vacuum too. The modern representative demo-cracies provide us with a paradoxical choice between a misplaced political optimism and the working of a representative democratic order. All over the world we are witnessing the rise of ‘neo-aristocracies’ but this time hegemonic ones. It turns out that unless we reclaim the ‘political space’ that we have lost to the representative character of our democracies, we will have to continue grappling with our misplaced political optimism. Joseph’s brilliant work makes us revisit and rethink this political optimism.

The reviewer, who currently teaches Ethics and Politics (Post-Graduation course) at the School of Open Learning, University of Delhi, is the contributing author and coordinator of the forthcoming anthology Modern South Asian Thinkers being published by Sage.

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