Don’t laugh at this #NewIndia ‘gau-vernment’

Cow vigilantes are back in the news. Three cattle traders were beaten up in Kalkaji, in South Delhi, not too far from the Prime Minister’s residence at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. In the amazing #NewIndia, the question that seems to be moot to many is this – were they actually transporting cows or buffalos?”  

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out against “gau rakshaks” last year, he was careful enough to sympathise with only Dalit victims of such violence. Atrocities on Muslims, as is the norm, did not quite catch his attention. At that time, it was also quite evident that Modi had the Uttar Pradesh state elections in mind. Well, now that the BJP has registered a resounding win in the state, all bets are off. Chief vigilante, Yogi Adityanath, who also happens to be the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has started a reign of terror that seems to extend well into the National Capital Region, Delhi.

As Prime Minister, Modi may want to keep a handle on this kind of cow vigilantism in order to protect his ‘image’. But he cannot escape the responsibility of having laid down the template. Modi used the ‘cow protection’ dog whistle to great effect not just as when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister, but also relentlessly campaigned on the issue of “Pink Revolution”. His well-measured policy on Muslims – ignoring them after becoming Prime Minister (under the garb of ‘India first’, ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, etc) is just a follow-up act to demonising them when he was Chief Minister (for terrorism, population growth, etc). If Yogi Adityanath is now following in those footsteps, what can we expect from the Prime Minister?

When he spoke out last year, Modi also probably wanted to generate consensus on tricky reforms, such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Now that box too has been ticked with some creative Parliamentary manoeuvring. Modi can continue with his lofty talk about federalism, without worrying about the need to generate a consensus.

Meanwhile, the violence and the madness in the name of the cow will continue. Rajasthan already has a “cow cess”. A central minister wants to create ‘cow sanctuaries‘ for conservation (and tourism?). There is a talk of extending the unique identification database to include cows.

As a matter of fact, this has never been about the cow itself. All this cow-talk is merely a signalling device to the right-wing followers that the “other” can be harassed on any issue of their choosing. And the media has, well, been cowed into submission. So the vigilante criminals are now softly known as “gau rakshaks”, quite similar to the other set of criminals who are being mollycoddled as “anti-Romeo squads”.  Fair game I suppose, in an age where an independent media is supposed to be one that is funded by fat cat industrialists who are part of the government and positions itself firmly against anti-establishment forces.

Sanjaya Baru recently used the term ‘Developmental Hindutva‘ with reference to Prime Minister Modi and his party, and probably had a balancing act in mind. The message was that the RSS and its affiliate groups (a mix of social, cultural, vigilante, etc) could continue on their merry-gau-round as long as a semblance of development is delivered to the people. The rest of the work would be done by Photoshop experts working in the BJP IT cell sweatshops. This is the BJP model. And the electorate will keep falling for it until they find an alternative.

Can overhauling ‘teaching’ reform schools in Kenya?

Kenyan schools are not doing well. About a 120 of them were set alight in arson attacks last year alone which were largely blamed on fears arising from a government crackdown on cheating in national exams. Amid national schooling reforms, many pupils and parents continue to be unhappy about the changes. Where do the teachers figure within this period of heavy reform?

Both the best and worst performers in East Africa are in Kenya
Although school enrolment has gone up steadily, over a million children are still out of school. In terms of learning outcomes, Kenya performs relatively better than its neighbours, but results from internationally recognised competency test, Uwezo, shows that learning levels are poor, and have stagnated over time. For instance, in the 2014 Uwezo assessment, 39% of children aged 7-13 years passed a test that required them to demonstrate competence of Standard 2 level numeracy and literacy. This was not significantly different from the performance in previous years: 40% in 2011, 37% in 2012 and 41% in 2013. Looking at student learning levels, both the best and worst performing districts in East Africa are in Kenya. The extremities in quality within Kenyan education are huge. For instance, according to the same Uwezo data, “a child in the Central region is over seven times more likely to have attained a Standard 2 level of literacy and numeracy than a child in the North Eastern region”.

Fixing the education system in Kenya is an onerous task. The Government of Kenya has time and time again, reiterated its commitment to improving the state of education, and has outlined its vision in the National Education Sector Plan 2013- 2018. Alongside, a host of national and international development agencies in Kenya have over the years, financed numerous programmes, targeting various components of the education sector. These efforts have yielded a wealth of evidence. One should consider such evidence, while attempting to answer the question – how can we improve the quality of schooling in Kenya?

A good teacher is a good solution
Instead of looking at angry pupils, why not start with overwhelmed teachers instead? Teachers in Kenyan schools face a wide range of constraints. Most importantly, they are often not adequately prepared to deliver the curriculum in the classroom, thus suffering from poor motivation. While the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) recently introduced a more rigorous teacher performance and appraisal system, it is important to think of teacher performance holistically. A workman can only be as good as his tools.

But teachers are constrained by the system they function within
Let’s take each one in turn. The system of pre-service training of teachers has faced significant scrutiny across the globe. Even where teacher training is of acceptable quality, there isn’t enough support for teachers to stay up-to-date with contemporary teaching and learning methods. Teachers are therefore often poorly equipped to handle children in the classroom, avoiding the use of conventional rote learning methods, and focusing equitably on those who may not be performing well. Research indicates that lower performing children are more likely to drop out of school, as they spend more time in the classroom without being able to comprehend what is being taught.

The other constraint – that of poor motivation – has several dimensions. An evident one is ‘pay’, and there have been recent efforts to meet teachers’ demands with the approval for a pay hike for teachers, which will cost the state exchequer an additional KSh 54 billion over the next 4 years beginning July 2017. One manifestation of poor teacher motivation is the observation by the UN’s Education Commission that nearly a half of primary schools teachers in Kenya did not attend classes. Further, teachers face significant challenges of poor infrastructure and insecurity in remote counties of Kenya. Moreover, teachers suffer from lack of professional development opportunities during their teaching careers.

The constraints described above translate into a poor learning experience for children in the classrooms in Kenyan schools. But there is now a strong body of evidence that can be tapped in designing interventions that are politically feasible, and have the potential to deliver concrete results.

Overhauling the classroom pedagogy
So how can teachers be supported better in delivering the curriculum more effectively? For instance, a study conducted in coastal region of Kenya tested the impact of additional support such as training, semi-scripted lesson plans, and weekly SMS-based support for teachers. They found that a combination of these inputs resulted in significant improvement in not only student learning outcomes, but also in student retention drop-out rates. This approach is quite similar to Tusome, a model adopted nationally by the Ministry of Education to improve early-grade reading and literacy in the country. Such support can be complemented by pedagogical interventions, such as separating students into groups by ability (determined through a simple initial test) so that teachers can ensure that low-performing students get the same attention as the high-performing ones. Testing regularly, and ensuring consistency in testing methods will be critical.

Enhancing teacher motivation
A teacher’s motivation and enthusiasm is critical, pay is only one element to their role. While experiments involving performance contracting appear promising for impact on learning outcomes, the political economy of the education sector makes this an unlikely sell in the short-term. In the meanwhile, tightening accountability systems within the education sector, by using a combination of compassionate monitoring arrangements, and career development opportunities for teachers appear to be feasible interventions. Technological applications that can capture and transmit data upwards can help enhance accountability in schools, and contribute towards the creation of a data-driven, responsive schooling system. Modernising the system should modernise the teacher’s outlook in their career. This should be accompanied by a strong emphasis on an in-service teacher development module, supporting them to continuously upgrade their skills to match the evolving requirements in a 21st-century classroom.

Fostering localised solutions
While enhancing accountability mechanisms might be a top-down reform, it is critical to recognise that a pure command-and-control model no longer works for school education. Since the tremendous expansion in enrolment brought about by Universal/Free Primary Education drives, the schooling system in Kenya (and other sub-Saharan African countries) have struggled to deliver quality education at scale. Schools operating in far-flung areas face a set of challenges that are often unique to their context. But schools usually do not possess the autonomy, or the resources to find local contextual solutions. Therefore, empowering school administrations – teachers, students, and parents – to have greater autonomy through control over resources and functions at their level is another reform worth initiating. There are several possibilities here: starting from schools making decisions on the types of infrastructure they need, to teachers innovating pedagogical methods to be used in the classrooms.

There are no simple solutions to the problems with the education sector in Kenya. But we do have more than one entry point that would initiate reforms necessary to ready the sector to meet the needs of children in the twenty-first century. Working with teachers is one such area.

Defending Liberia’s right to experiment, and a few questions

Liberia continues to attract criticism for its Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot. Here is a recent news report  already pronouncing the verdict on the programme:

Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE) said in its report released last week Wednesday that the PPP is gradually but emphatically proving to be a failure and the education sector further weakening, presenting a vague future for a nation of impoverished and mostly illiterate citizens.

I have earlier written about how we must support Liberia in experimenting with this model of partnership schools. To recap, Liberia’s Ministry of Education acknowledged that “42 percent of primary age children remain out of school. And most of those who are enrolled are simply not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need” – commendably referring to the problems of both access and quality of education in the country. Conventional education systems have failed to deliver, and research from across the globe supports the view that just having higher paid, or qualified permanent civil service teachers do not yield results. In this context, PSL seeks to generate evidence, and provide decision-makers in Liberia with the tools to iterate reforms to their largely dysfunctional schooling system. Liberia’s education system is not working, and it needs to test out bold new ideas. I therefore fully defend the government’s right to experiment.

It is sometimes hard to disentangle the criticism of the concept of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) from that of specific providers. Much of the criticism of the PSL seems to be directly targeting the for-profit education company, Bridge International Academies (BIA). But BIA are only one of the eight service providers, running 24 out of the 93 schools (fewer than the originally intended 120) under the PSL.

It is no secret that BIA’s classroom cap (maximum 55 students) is denying students access to education by denying them access to the Bridge schools. These students unfortunately end up not enrolling in school at all—a situation that is counterproductive to government’s compulsory primary education policy. Some of those that are rejected end up in an overcrowded class in another nearby school that tries to accommodate them…

…Schools accommodating students who were denied access to BIA schools are overcrowded and face serious logistical challenges. In some instances, parents have hurriedly erected makeshift structures to accommodate students rejected by Bridge, but lack of teachers and other logistical challenges are still affecting the quality of education in these schools…

…COTAE also accused BIA of breaching the MOU with the government. “Some schools close before the stipulated time due to lack of or inconsistency of the feeding program for students. This breach has serious implications for the curriculum as all materials may not be covered. Students, mostly children, are expected to be in school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., but without food,” the report noted.

In recent months, critics, led prominently by Action Aid International, have sharpened their attacks. The Economist writes about the main concerns being voiced: one, that PSL operators have limited class sizes and are pushing out poor-performing students, and more broadly, will look to game the system to suit their methods; two, that operators are raising and spending philanthropic funds in these schools in addition to the government’s capitation (computed annually, per-child) grant of $50; and three, the business model operated by operators like BIA end up channelling a significant proportion of philanthropic funds raised such programmes on people and systems located outside the recipient country.

There are clearly two separate sets of issues here. One, the question of legality of practices followed in PSL schools. It is important to remember that as in any Public-Private-Partnership, the government needs to play an active oversight and regulatory role. It will not be up to the researchers (however independent they might be) to bring to light, cases of operational deficiencies, or even malfeasance. If BIA and other providers are indulging in practices that violate the commitments made by Government of Liberia to its citizens (and indeed, commitments made by the PSL providers to the GoL), those have to be addressed through the education system, and law enforcement. Admittedly, it is easy to sit outside and demand that a government, already suffering from capacity constraints, play an active role and stand up to powerful donors and donor-funded multinational corporates/NGOs when there are instances of wrongdoing.  But that’s where critics and activists should focus their efforts – in supporting the government to monitor better, and enforce standards.

The second set of issues that The Economist raised are related to the success/failure of the pilot, and its replicability. These are weighty criticisms, and are being addressed to varying degrees by the independent evaluation led by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). The researchers have set up a randomised control trial, where intervention schools were assigned randomly to the operators from a set of schools chosen for the evaluation. Critics however argue that the independent evaluation will not provide clear evidence on the PSL. See here and here for this debate that will be fought out in the months and years to come.

The question of additional philanthropic funds being pumped by the operators into PSL schools is a tricky one for the evaluation. Different operators, to their ability and intent, will bring in varying amounts and types of additional investments. These investments are helping them overcome the terms of their agreement with the government that stipulate that they cannot charge any school fees. This could make the programme entirely un-viable even if it comes out successful in the evaluation. Providers like BIA might argue that unit costs would fall with scale, but there are obviously no assurances that will happen. This will also be partially determined by the extent to which the government eventually wants to regulate private providers in the education sector. This is of course a secondary question – first, PSL has to deliver improvements in learning – but one that the government and donors should already be thinking about.

An era of darkness – the tail end

Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is making waves. One of the most befuddling legacies of when ‘Brexit from India’ happened in 1947 was the creation of Pakistan and East Pakistan,

BD
Source 

separated by about 2000 miles of Indian territory. One last destructive gambit to destabilise the sub-continent. And how wonderfully has that worked out! Pakistan will never forget 1971.

 

More from 1971:

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, leader of the Awami League, had just won a landslide election in Pakistan’s general elections of 1970, but was not allowed to form a government. He was forced into rounds of negotiations with Pakistan’s military leader, Yahya Khan, where the latter refused to cede any power. On 7th March 1971, in a fiery speech, Mujibur Rehman had declared:

“The struggle this time is for emancipation, the struggle this time is for liberation”

Further, from recently declassified CIA files contain this report on the developments in Pakistan, where Yahya Khan interestingly appears to not be in favour of a military solution, or did the Americans read him wrong…?

The President’s Daily Brief

18 March 1971

FOR THE PRESIDENT ONLY

PAKISTAN

After a second meeting with President Yahya in Dacca yesterday, Mujibur Rahman appeared discouraged but said he hopes discussions will continue. Another meeting is scheduled for today.

According to a report reaching the Consulate General in Karachi, Yahya does not believe Pakistan can be held together by force. He therefore intends to give in to most of Mujib’s demands and turn “the whole bloody business” over to him – meaning the National Assembly, which is to write a constitution. According to other reports, the main barrier to an agreement is Yahya’s insistence that martial law will continue until a constitution is written.

Meanwhile, the pro-Peking East Bengal Communist Party may already be trying to take the initiative away from Mujib and his moderate followers.

[Paragraph redacted]

…Because, Yahya Khan launched Operation Searchlight, days after this reported CIA cables to take control over an agitating population in then East Pakistan.

The attack termed “Operation Searchlight” by the military was launched after Awami League supremo Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence of Bangladesh in a message. He was subsequently arrested, flown to Pakistan and kept in jail. The exact number of casualty could not be known. But foreign journalists working in Dhaka at that time estimated the number to be between 7,000 and 35,000.

The purpose of the operation was to arrest or kill the distinguished Awami League leaders, student leaders and Bangali intellectuals in the main cities of the then East Pakistan including Dhaka, to disarm the Bangali members of military, para military and police forces and to capture armoury, radio station and telephone exchange.

From the report of Simon Dring published under the caption Dateline Dacca in the Daily Telegraph of March 29, it was revealed that 200 students of Iqbal Hall (now Shaheed Sergeant Zahurul Haq Hall), teachers and their family members numbering 12 in Dhaka University residential area had been killed on that night. In Old Dhaka, around 700 people were burnt to death.

This was followed by a massive refugee influx into India, and India’s subsequent military operation to liberate Bangladesh, which concluded on December 16th, 1971.

Bangladesh later declared March 26th, 1971 as their independence day.  This was the day after Yahya Khan initiated Operation Searchlight – when the Bangladeshi forces started their military resistance.

Does the Gates’ Letter 2017 answer Warren Buffett’s questions?

Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on their work in global development, the challenges they face, and their goals for the future. These letters are a manifesto for their philanthropic work, most of which is channelled through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates structured their 2017 Annual Letter as a response to Warren Buffet’s (CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) letter to Melinda and Bill Gates, where he asked them to reflect on their work so far – on what had gone well, and what hadn’t; and to describe their goals for the future. He further said:

There are many who want to know where you’ve come from, where you’re heading and why. I also believe it’s important that people better understand why success in philanthropy is measured differently from success in business or government. Your letter might explain how the two of you measure yourselves and how you would like the final scorecard to read.

Buffet’s questions assume great significance given that in 2006, he pledged to donate 85% of his wealth to charity, and allotted a sum of about $31 billion to the Gates Foundation. These questions, from one of the most successful investor of our times, are essentially about how well his philanthropic investment in the Gates Foundation was doing. What had he helped them achieve?

In this column, I analyse Gates’ response, and examine whether they really answer Buffet’s questions. I came away with two main impressions: one, their answer as to what success looks like for the Gates Foundation (bulked up by Buffet’s sizeable contribution) is not convincing enough; and two, their response reveals a continuing faith in the role of technology, at the expense of behaviour, institutions, and politics.

The Gates letter focuses on global health, and they lay out a set of impressive numbers: globally, a consistent reduction in mortality rates amongst children under-five have led to 122 million children’s lives being saved since 1990. They talk about the vital role of vaccines, safe deliveries and better nutrition in making that number possible. A consistent theme here is the emphasis on cutting-edge research to develop technical fixes (vaccines, contraceptives, etc.), and helping poor people around the world improve access to these inputs (commodities).

In the 2016 letter, Melinda Gates wrote about women and unpaid domestic work – a complex socio-political issue that has no obvious technical fixes. She reflected on how women spend more time on unpaid domestic work than men do; and partly as a result, they make up a less than half of the organised labour force. That theme carries to this year’s letter as they write about the importance of empowering women by expanding economic opportunities, and their ability to make decisions, especially exercising their reproductive rights.

The 2017 letter also has plenty of the Gates’ trademark optimism that progress is inevitable, and they conclude with promises to continue working towards tackling the most pressing challenges in global health.

As I read the letter, I was conscious of the mega-complex of aid that the Gates have built, with powerful partnerships all around the world. And then, I wondered: with the global scale and scope of investments that the Gates Foundation makes, how would they really measure impact that is attributable to them? When asked to measure themselves, as Buffett did, the Gates talk pick issues closest to their heart, and report all progress made globally.

‘Attribution’ in this case is not quite how we understand it for discrete projects, or multi-input programmes, where a rigorous impact evaluation would suffice. But in order to properly answer Warren Buffet’s question, the Gates would have to demonstrate an improvement over the counterfactual: that they used the wealth bequeathed to their Foundation in ways that enabled a greater number of people to emerge from poverty than would have been in the normal course of events. This could be achieved by their role influencing global development policy, leveraging their resources to raise even greater funds dedicated to finding solutions to pressing development challenges, and their role in strengthening country governments to deliver essential services. On each of these three topics, the Gates fail to mention what their incremental contribution might be.

In answering Buffet’s questions as they did, the Gates may have been trying to answer another of Buffet’s questions, by explaining how success in philanthropy is measured differently from other sectors, where collaboration between different organisations (as opposed to competition) and contribution (as opposed to attribution) towards the achievement of a common goal, are valued. However, in the absence of a more critical reflection of their incremental contribution, they open themselves up to the familiar critique of aid that there is a tendency to overstate successes and not enough admission of failure.

Finally, there are three words that do not appear at all in this letter – ‘behaviour’, ‘politics’ and ‘institutions’ – that may impact the ‘final scorecard’ that Buffett refers to. The global health issues that the Gates talk about focus on the production and delivery of inputs to poor people. For instance, helping increase ‘usage’ is mentioned often in the discussion on contraceptives, but the need to study, and influence behaviour to expand adoption of these products is never mentioned. It is notable, for instance, that sanitation (a pressing public health problem that kills infants and causes stunting) that can only be fixed by a long-drawn process of behavioural change wasn’t mentioned in this letter.

On the other hand, the absence of ‘politics’ and ‘institutions’, despite of Bill Gates’ references to the ‘role of governments’ in last year’s letter, is quite unsurprising. A passing reference is made to the recent change of government in the US and the UK and the threat to foreign aid, but there is no mention of the fact that their wider politics (and resultant policies) potentially have far-reaching consequences, especially where radical politics has been systematically weakening institutions, both in rich and poor countries. Be it women’s reproductive rights, protection of refugees, migration laws, extractive industries, tax havens, or conflict zones around the world, they have the power to destabilise the current course of global development. These happen to be two stark examples, but they amply demonstrate the importance of geo-politics in determining progress in the developing world.

The 2017 Gates Letter leaves one with mixed feelings. It is fair to say that Warren Buffet’s questions go unanswered, as it remains unclear what the incremental benefits have yielded from his massive donation to the Gates Foundation. At the same time, not focusing harder on ‘behaviour’ indicates a puzzling neglect of the long hard slog certain social and development problems demand. Finally, ignoring ‘politics’ and the performance of ‘institutions’ could be a blind-spot that could undo a lot of the gradual progress made by low-income countries around the globe. That is a scary thought.

Where is the promised windfall from demonetisation?

The Economic Survey 2016/17 was striking not only for its literary references, but also for its circumspect nature. One of major the drivers of this circumspection (which is not a trait one associates with the Narendra Modi government) was the yet-to-be-ascertained impact of demonetisation. The Economic Survey was cautious in saying that it would take long for us to accurately calculate the gains and losses from demonetisation, but ventured to claim that it would result in at most, a 0.5 percentage point fall in the GDP growth rate.

Of all the benefits of demonetisation that the government has been at great pains to sell, the simplest one is a spike in direct tax collections in the form of both taxes and penalties (on black money declared). The second, is an assurance that banks that are now flush with deposits will significantly lower lending rates to spur consumption. Both these do find mention in the Finance Minister’s budget speech, along with a host of benefits that have repeatedly been promised to us — a war on black money, corruption, counterfeit currency and terror funding.

But the government failed to make good these promises in its own budget, and at the moment, we are forced to conclude that the promised gains from demonetisation have just not materialised. Total Tax Revenue of the government in 2016–17 increased by 17% over the previous year. Next year, the government anticipates a 12% increase. Similarly, income tax receipts in 2016–17 went up by 23% over the previous year, and is budgeted to increase by a further 25% next year.

Chief Economic Advisor the Government of India, Arvind Subramanian in an interview yesterday named service tax receipts as one of the four measures of the impact of demonetisation. He did also admit that because of the impending Goods and Services Tax regime, it would be hard to isolate the impact of demonetisation. Here too, the numbers suggest that the Finance Minister is not expecting a great deal of change. Service tax receipts, after having increased by 17% this year, are expected to go up by only 11% next year.

In none of these collections, or projections, can one see a tangible increase in tax receipts as a result of demonetisation. An important caveat is that for the current year, the figures are based on the government’s Revised Estimates, which may well change by the time the Actual figures are recorded once data from the last two months are accounted for. But the surge that one expected from demonetisation is missing — especially when you consider that the difference in Total Tax Revenue between the Revised Estimates and the Budget Estimates for 2016–17 is only 4%. It does appear that on the revenue side, the government was lucky to receive an unexpected additional Rs. 23,167 crores of non-tax revenue in the form of dividends public sector enterprises.

It is not surprising then, that the Finance Minister has little to no room to give away post-demonetisation bonanzas. Neither are there any significant increase in allocations to welfare schemes, nor are there any big bang announcements that would help the government actually implement some of its high-decibel rhetoric. For instance, the allocation for Smart Cities of Rs. 9,000 crore is actually lower than the Revised Estimates of this year at Rs. 9,559 crore. The record allocation of Rs. 48,000 crores for MGNREGS is impressive only until you realise that the estimated expenditure this year is Rs. 47,499 crore. To take another example, the Start-up India Aspiration Fund, after having used Rs. 100 crore out of its allocation of Rs. 600 crore this year has disappeared from next year’s budget.

In many ways, today’s union budget was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s moment of truth. With a budget speech that had to shun rhetoric, Jaitley was forced to admit — in deeds, if not just through words — that several glamorous schemes announced by the government have struggled to match up to their rhetoric. In a way, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley may have presented his most honest budget so far. As they say, numbers don’t lie.

***

This column first appeared on Catch News

India’s threats to Amazon serve to only expose our own insecurities

India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj recently broke new ground. Amazon Canada was selling a doormat that was designed to look like India’s national flag. As soon as a Twitter user pointed this out to her, Sushma Swaraj responded with three tweets.

capture1
Screenshot from Twitter account: @SushmaSwaraj

With these three tweets, India’s EAM lived up to her reputation of being extremely pro-active on Twitter, responding to people online in real-time. Her critics have often pointed out how the Swaraj has been reduced to resolving personal queries and visa/passport issues. But what is not clear is if this was the Minister herself, or one of her staff members who handled regular affairs on Twitter, that had lost his/her cool. If it was indeed. Ms. Swaraj (and not someone’s newphew), it is reminiscent of her “Ek ke badle dus sar” avatar, when speaking on Pakistan’s killing Indian soldiers on the border. I wonder what prompts these unexplained bouts of violent rhetoric.

But the broader issue is that of political remit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vice like grip of foreign affairs – with the aid of the tall talking Ajit Doval – is there for all to see. Given that, the EAM has been reduced to running an online grievance and counseling cell. In any form of government, with a self-respecting minister, this is an unsustainable arrangement.

The other issue of course is that of the appropriate level of response to incidents such as this. Amazon is a marketplace and not a seller. At best, one can request, citing Indian laws, that they take down the offensive materials from their website. But that is hardly the main issue here.

Of utmost importance is the question of what this means for our global reputation and dignity. We have seen on several issues that successive Indian governments are extremely thin-skinned and resort to indignant outrage at perceived insults to the nation. India is a young country and perhaps, issues such as respecting national symbols are still very potent politically. But we have traditionally demonstrated a maturity beyond our years at the global stage, and that has been our calling card for a large part of India’s independent existence. This kind of boorishness therefore behoves neither the country, nor its people and if anything, only runs contrary to the image of an emerging power that we seek to project.

Several of the BJP’s perennially insecure supporters were joyful that Amazon had been told off. Any criticism of this was met with “you are used to 1200 years of slavery” kinds of nonsense. Our national pride, which should be vested in what our people achieve, is instead threatened by the unsuspecting actions of some who inadvertently misuse our national symbols. This is not how India will own the twenty first century.

What affects our national pride are other important issues: of how free and fair our society is; whether our justice system helps the poor; whether there is space for dissent; of how we treat the weak and vulnerable in our societies; of the political culture that our leaders seek to propagate; etc. If we strengthen these vitals, our external image wil improve automatically. And if we don’t, no amount of showmanship can help us.