By Karthik Venkatesh
Title: A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India
Author: Josy Joseph
Publisher: HarperCollins India, 2016
Josy Joseph’s A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India is a terrible book to read. Not because of how it is written, rather because of what it chooses to delve into, in-depth. It surveys certain important landscapes of the Indian state – the world of the middlemen, the burgeoning private sector and a world of people who live and operate at the very top of the greasy pole – the so-called ‘big league’.
The section on middlemen looks at all sorts – the small-timer who does things at the district level, the private secretaries (the typists of yore) who controlled access to the bigwigs – MO Mathai, RK Dhawan et al, the arms dealers and the lobbyists. Each of these various categories has it in them to ‘get things done’. It is a world of murky secrets, underhand deals and terrible compromises, at least some of which are detailed in the book. Compromises in the defence sector are chilling, to say the least. Political leaders who are happy to sound the clarion call of war are equally adept at compromising our national security for pecuniary benefit of the self. The immense power that these unaccountable men (they always seem to be men) command is mind-boggling and unsettling. Joseph paints very precise pen-portraits of these individuals and in doing so, does us aam aadmis a huge favour.
The section on the private sector angers one. Twenty-five years ago when Manmohan Singh presented his path-breaking budget in 1991, he spoke of reviving the economy’s ‘animal spirit’. The free market has indeed become a jungle now in Joseph’s telling. The doings of Naveen Jindal of Jindal Steel in Chattisgarh to lay his hands on its precious mineral resources and Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways to control the skies above us is to be read again and again. It is a telling lesson in the serious consequences of unbridled capitalism. A chapter on the murder of Thakiyuddin Wahid of the erstwhile East-West Airlines in 1995 is a peek into the early history of liberalization in India. Crony capitalism is pulling the rug from beneath our feet even as more and more of our young ones are joining the rat race to become well-heeled ‘company men’. Is that what we really want?
The big league section details the doings of Ambani and Mallya and also how some of the big-leaguers shamelessly play both sides of the fence. The BJP’s Arun Jaitley and the Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi are among those who are happy to appear in court for corporate interests in the day and castigate the governments of the day for selling out to corporate interests that same night as spokesmen of their parties. And then there are people like Anurag Thakur, who literally bent every rule in the book to captain Himachal Pradesh’s cricket team on his first-class debut and on the basis of that solitary undistinguished appearance muscled his way to the very top of cricket administration where he now sits pretty, the Lodha report notwithstanding.
One disturbing story is the one that paints the former Governor of Punjab (2005-10), Gen. S F Rodrigues in less-than-favourable light. That certainly is a bit of a shock. To think that a former Army Chief would engage in deals that compromise his stature is worrisome and also signals the extent of the rot.
But in the face of such overwhelming evidence of despair at the doings of the political, business and bureaucratic class and the denial of rights to the common man, in between the lines, lurk the stories of hope. Ordinary men and women who have sometimes taken brave decisions or sometimes merely done their job to the best of their ability and in doing so have exposed the bigwigs provide us sufficient grounds for hope. The security guards at former CBI Director’s Ranjit Sinha’s residence, who meticulously maintained a log of all his visitors and by doing so, exposed how he had compromised the telecom investigation had become, are some such. Then there are the unnamed officials who help Joseph investigate his stories. These are a few of our heroes.
Every Indian citizen should read this book. It would perhaps even be advisable to translate this book into various Indian languages to ensure that it reaches every one.
Karthik Venkatesh is originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took him to Punjab where he lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. He has written on aspects of Punjabi history in The Wire andThe Tribune and translated Punjabi poetry for Raiot Webzine and The Tribune. He has also published on Mahatma Phule, the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and other opinion pieces. He is now back in Bangalore and working as an editor with a publishing firm.
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