Sunday, August 5, 2018


How a society treats its weaker and sicker members is a pretty good indicator of its development potential. An underdeveloped country that has a culture of support for social security can potentially quickly and equitably utilise aid and resources to improve quality of life, whereas countries that have a dominant culture of hostility towards weaker citizens and residents are likely to struggle with improvement of quality of life, even with external support. There’s a link between culturally-informed ‘emotional’ attributes (solidarity vs hostility) and socio-economic wellbeing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Corruption and the new oligarchy in India

Journalist James Crabtree’s new book, The Billionaire Raj, promises to be interesting.

His article in the Guardian is incisive. He writes about how economic growth in India has been characterised by the ballooning of the total number of (declared) billionaires and oligarchs, and, concurrently, the impoverishment of those at the lower rungs of the economy.

It also talks about the explosive potential of growing inequality.

However, if you ask people (particularly Indian expatriates) about what ails the Indian economy, people are likely to identify corruption as a bigger problem than inequality.

Anger about corruption runs deep in India. Corruption is rampant and endemic. Not a sector of the economy and state can be said to be free of corruption.

Indian expats are wont to wax lyrical about the sheer magnitude and inescapable tragedy of corruption in India. Let me not be an exception: Corruption suffuses the air and water in India; it infiltrates the very capillaries of life in India.

And people have been angry about it for a long time, even more so since 2010 and thereabouts, when a series of staggering exposes of scams, and the spectacular protests that these exposes precipitated, roiled the country.

But corruption and the existence of an oligarchy are closely inter-related. In spite of the enormous challenges that attend any investigation of the problem, Indian journalism has been particularly good at exposing the links between crony capitalism and corruption. Now, this book, written by a journalist, brings into sharper focus how crony capitalism, corruption and oligarchic economic growth really define India’s economic story.  

What does the existence of an oligarchy say about corruption in India? Well, everything. Most of the major scams that have rocked the country have been instances of corporate perfidy and state complicity in that perfidy.

Crabtree’s book, going by his essay, promises to present some insights into this very nexus and investigate how crony capitalism has led to the ballooning of both corporate and state corruption.

Fundamentally, though, he seems to focus on the ‘big picture’, which is that India is rapidly going down the Latin American path – development and middle-income status will bring about staggering inequality, and the country as a whole will remain pegged very low on the human development index.

This path is likely to lead to a situation where most of the wealth that is generated in the country will remain concentrated in the hands of the 0.001%. ‘Jobless growth’ will continue to be entrenched.

Also – and this is something that is relevant to expat readers – it will further exacerbate the current situation of economic ‘tickle out’. Oligarchs earning their wealth in India transfer large portions of it to overseas ‘safe havens’, leading to reduced ‘trickle down’ domestically.

While some may think that this is not concerning in and of itself (well, it actually is), the problem takes on a sinister hue when you throw corruption and global mobility into the mix.

By all accounts, most corrupt oligarchs – even the average rich politician – in India siphon off wealth overseas, whether through expenditures, investments or plain old Cayman Islands-style post-boxing.

If the issue of the state banks accumulating bad assets because of bad loans (including corruptly procured loans) to corporates is concerning, how much more concerning is the prospect of never recovering wealth that has been appropriated from public banks through structurally unsound means (Crabtree’s article provides the two prime examples of this, ones that have hogged the headlines in recent years). 

The fundamental reality is that most rich Indians spend and will continue to spend a fair chunk of their disposable wealth (of whatever hue this might be) overseas.

But, as I said, for oligarchs and the corruptly rich, the scales are quite out of whack.

Crabtree is right that Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to address the problem of ‘big picture’ corruption have not yielded the ‘big picture’ solutions that many Indians had hoped for and have been hoping for since the Jan Lokpal days.

And, while many oligarchs are out there in the limelight, corruptly rich politicians are well and truly safely ensconced in their fiefdoms.

Anyone who understands what the price of corruption in India is (in terms of lost human and infrastructure development), and perhaps has also had the misfortune of witnessing how corrupt Indian politicians spend overseas, will balk at the injustice of it. 

The oligarchic economic growth that the IMF and others like Crabtree are talking about is going to entrench the extractive element of India's economy.

Unfortunately, in India, the state tends to obsess about getting the small fish. Individual tax-payers, with modest incomes, will be hounded to hell and back, but politicians, oligarchs and even the average rich person with ‘connections’ will remain free to steal, swindle and bribe with impunity.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

What Eurovision can teach us about life

Eurovision can teach us a fair few things about life. These are things that we already know but Eurovision helps dramatise the lessons in an inimitably glorious way.

Style over substance

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Eurovision is more about pomp, glitz, glamour, pyrotechnics and performance than it is about music per se.

It is about exuberance, mirth, irreverent satire, celebration and deep emotion. Happy and cheerful songs; saucy songs; lugubrious songs; bellicose screeches; plaintive cries of longing and loss – Eurovision gives us all genres and emotions. Some of the songs that are performed are absolutely amazing, and there can be little doubt that the singers performing them are virtuosos.

But, at Eurovision, performative virtuosity trumps musical virtuosity. Exceptions notwithstanding, performance is paramount. Eurovision is a riotous conflagration of colour and (this year especially) a pyromaniac’s wet dream.

Eurovision’s performative and aesthetic appeal is absolutely essential. Audiences and fans love its aesthetic sensibilities, and Eurovision wouldn’t be what it is without these sensibilities. However, in a competition, the aesthetics of performance and the music are bound to exist in tension.

In every competition, decision-making is influenced by a number of factors. In this year’s Eurovision, once again, we have examples of performance triumphing over music. The performances by Cyprus (‘Fuego’, Eleni Foureira) and Slovenia (‘Hvala, ne!’, Lea Sirk), both qualifying for the finals, were amazing performances but arguably did not feature great songs. The Swedish performance (‘Dance you off’, Benjamin Ingrosso) and Czech performance (‘Lie to me’, Mikolas Josef) were great and the songs had really catchy tunes but the two singers were definitely not among this year’s best live singers. (When it comes to Eurovision, every definitive statement is necessarily accompanied by an implied and sotto voce ‘in my opinion’.)

On the other hand, the Swiss (‘Stones’, Zibbz), Croatian (‘Crazy’, Franka), Montenegrin (‘Inje’, Vanja Radovanović) and Russian (‘I Won't Break’, Julia Samoylova) contestants were really amazing live singers, but they didn’t make the finals. This might have been because of generic factors or lack of mesmerising (enough) showmanship. Either way, you can see how these outcomes exist in tension with one another.

This year’s winner, the Israeli contestant (‘Toy’, Netta), combined quirky performance with quirky musicality.

Of course, all assessments are subjective, and perhaps it is the subjectivity of our collective responses that Eurovision can help us better understand. I found SBS’ reactions ticker very revealing. It was interesting (and, admittedly, frustrating) to see how frequently other viewers’ reactions varied from my own. Some reactions from viewers in Australia (for example, poor ratings for a song that was sung beautifully but did not have that Eurovision dance-worthiness or je ne sais quoi) can be baffling. But in that experience of momentary bafflement, you have an opportunity to reconcile with the seeming irreconcilability of other people’s subjective reactions. When Australians voted the Albanian (‘Mall’, Eugent Bushpepa) and Montenegrin songs down, I rolled my eyes and muttered “bloody ee-jits” at the telly. Then I made my peace with it.

Looks matter

Looks definitely matter. Culturally, we have always valorised beauty and prioritised appearance. Not that this needs any reinforcement, but Eurovision teaches us that looks do make an enormous difference. Not just beauty in the traditional sense (although, obviously, that matters as well) but looks and appearance, considered more broadly. Visual merchandising matters. Contestants have to carve an image, visibly identify with a particular iconic mould, and make this a part of their performance. At Eurovision, being beautiful in the traditional sense is perhaps less important than having unique visual merchandising. Eurovision has had many iconoclastic contestants (and winners). They’ve taken an unusual (or non-mainstream) image or look and made it appealing.

Political ideology matters

Of course political ideology matters. Music is not only about technique and rhythm. It is also about the message. The message is actually incredibly important. Songs can ‘speak to the heart’. This is intrinsic to how we engage with music.

Eurovision teaches us that messages, beliefs and images matter. If not, a Chinese broadcaster would not have censored the Irish (‘Together’, Ryan O'Shaughnessy) and Albanian performances, the first for featuring a gay theme and the latter because of the singer’s tattoos, and would not, in turn, have been subsequently banned from broadcasting the rest of Eurovision. Both the censorship and Eurovision’s response highlight the primacy of the message.

Also, many songs and singers (even if they are less technically brilliant than others) find themselves winning hearts and votes because of their message. They tap into a zeitgeist or they highlight something that is topical and politically significant (Ukraine’s winning 2016 performance, ‘1944’ by Jamala, comes to mind).

Moreover, the entire social, cultural and political rubric under which Eurovision operates has important ideological underpinnings. This cannot be overstated. What is a cultural event without its appeal to belief and ideology? Eurovision emblematises European respect, freedom, unity in diversity, etc., and songs that resonate with these themes are likely to do well.

On winning this year’s contest, Netta’s comment on diversity (thanking viewers for supporting diversity of performance) spoke to the importance of messaging for both contestants and the organisation.  

Assessments cannot be fair

This goes back to my earlier point about the subjectivity of responses. When I say that assessments cannot be fair, I mean two things: one, that assessments (particularly of music and performance) simply cannot be objective, and, two, that extraneous (and hidden) factors (including, occasionally, political ideology) can affect the way people vote.

The random allocation of contestants to two semi-finals, as in many other competitions, can also contribute to the arbitrariness of the outcomes. You can have unbalanced pools, and some good contestants will miss out on getting into the finals in this way (true of 2018). However, this is simply about the luck of the draw, and, perhaps, by leaving things to chance, the process delivers something of a more equitable solution (than the alternative of devised allocations). All competitions that use this mechanism of arbitrary allocations teach us that assessments cannot be completely fair but are fair to the best possible extent.

There will always be a P5

There will always be the big or permanent five (in Eurovision, the P5 grouping includes France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom). While it would be easy to get mad at the organisers for replicating (and thus reinforcing) on the cultural plane broader structures of political and economic hegemony, perhaps we should give them credit for revealing the immutability of these structures. Let’s face it, there will always be a P5. Some hegemons will always have more sway than peripheral or less economically powerful players.

In 2018, I was delighted to see that the P5, who get direct entry into the finals, put in pretty good performances. This is not always so, and it can be a little annoying to have one of the P5 appear in the finals in spite of the fact that many other contestants were much better. However, pending a major rebellion, all must make their peace with the political status quo, and Eurovision is right to teach us so.

We must accept these truisms as immutable

I don’t meant to sound defeatist but we must accept these truisms as immutable. Eurovision teaches us that music, performance and, indeed, life itself can be exuberant, raucous, amazing and fun, but also chaotic, ridden with subjectivity, coincidence, chance, arbitrariness and hierarchy, and that we must reconcile ourselves to the immutability of this condition.

Trite as it may sound, Eurovision is a microcosm of life itself.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Corporate surveillance, Facebook's predicament, and the state's role

Some thoughts on the FB ‘scandal’. Privacy is such a fraught concept. If millions of people make their political opinions and preferences known on FB, is it really surprising that this data can be (and is) harnessed? If private corporations have created a business model that is based on the harnessing of user preferences, should politics be exempt? Is it OK for FB to use my data to show me ads for a movie, for example, but not for a politician?
User agreement is another interesting piece of the puzzle here. 

In this instance, they key contention is that Cambridge Analytica didn't even seek the consent of the people involved (friends of users of the relevant app could have had their data harvested). This is a clear example of a breach of privacy. 

But many people appear to be angry more broadly about the fact that their data was used for political purposes. Of course most people think that they have not explicitly consented to their data being used as part of a political PR campaign. But are they right? Have they or haven’t they consented (in some form or another)?
The fact that FB is having to really think hard about privacy right now is a good thing. Historically, we are at a point where, in terms of surveillance and privacy, great corporations have amassed great power. We need to articulate what their responsibilities are.
Private corporations are being held to account. That’s good.
But what about the state? If corporate surveillance is offensive, then surely state surveillance is even more offensive. But what are the checks on state surveillance? The state too has great powers, and we are yet to learn what its corresponding responsibilities are. Who is going to hold the state to account?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

American/Australian performers

Cultural differences between Australians and Americans can extend to and visibly play out in performance spaces. Australian audiences can expect performers to be ‘relaxed’, and to engage them in a jokey, jovial or even blasé manner. Australians might appreciate some self-deprecating humour and like artistes to not take themselves too seriously. They might giggle loudly during breaks in the music to provoke the performer on stage, for example - generally in a good natured way. Americans, on the other hand, can be much more earnest, serious, passionate and intense about their work and perhaps life in general. They might find the Aussie vibe slightly disconcerting. I’m not suggesting that Aussies are unserious. They are very focused and dedicated but appreciate good humour and a self-deprecating disposition, especially in performers and public figures. American performers tend to engage with audiences in a more earnest way. In general, for most of my life, I have also been an earnest and serious type (I get along extremely well with Americans and admire many of them greatly) but I am getting used to and can appreciate the Aussie self-deprecating approach.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The needle in the haystack - reporting brain injury

Media reporting of stories that involve injuries and trauma are always (necessarily) incomplete. Injuries can be incidental to the story or narrative that is being focalised, and, as such, may appear as a vestigial detail in a report. It is well-nigh impossible to capture the magnitude of the impact on each individual casualty. The word 'casualty' signals that disturbing (but unavoidable) semantic quality of being reducible to a statistic - a part of a tally. A report about a terrorist attack or a mass casualty incident will include some details of the trauma inflicted on a few victims or survivors, but these threadbare details are minuscule and inevitably inadequate markers of the 'reality' of the experience and impact. It is impossible to convey the magnitude of the experience of injury and trauma, and it is completely unrealistic to expect to understand what it was like for each individual person. However, that desire to know and sense of needing to know and understand the experience - of wanting the elusive description of trauma to be fully comprehensive and comprehensible - can be quite insistent. 

To mark the one-year anniversary of the 20 January 2017 Bourke Street attack in Melbourne - in which the attacker drove a speeding car into a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, killing six and wounding thirty people - some media channels have told the stories of some of the victims and survivors, allowing the latter to reflect on their recollections of the day and the aftermath. One of the survivors, a thirty-something year-old man, was hit by the speeding car and thrown some meters, flying, into a taxi. He crashed headlong into the taxi and then collapsed onto the ground, badly hitting his head. He managed to crawl onto the kerb and into a building before blacking out. The report described that, upon regaining consciousness and emerging from his concussion in hospital, he was determined to be in a stable condition. The skeletal fractures that he'd suffered in the attack were attended to. The report summarised that, one year since this incident, this man had resumed normal life. He is now OK.  

It is hard to explain how inadequate this description is. Knowing full well that all such descriptions must of necessity be incomplete and inadequate, the gaps and fissures that mark the surface of this account render the words hollow. What does it mean to be normal again after this transformative experience of trauma that inflicted brain injury, with potentially long-lasting repercussions and lingering trauma that is imperceptible to others but ever-present for the survivor? The comforting and reassuring claim of a return to normalcy is belied by the original description. However, our desire for resolutions is an overpowering one, and we cannot, in the space of a few sentences, adequately reflect the unresolved and irresolvable nature of trauma. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The triumph of the symbolic

[A blog in progress...]

A realisation 

In India, the symbolic seems to have greater resonance than the material. By this I mean that the power and potency of symbolic markers, gestures, signage and 'acts', inter alia, is greater than that of material markers, conditions and 'acts'. This is not to suggest that material conditions can be ignored or that they are generally de-prioritised in relation to the symbolic. Certainly not - and it'd be remiss of me to downplay the importance of material conditions as well as the primacy of (what used to be called, with a modicum of dismissive-ness) 'materialism' (essentially commercialism) in contemporary Indian culture. But on a subterranean and more fundamental level, questions of a symbolic nature and significance resonate in a way that questions of a material nature do not. 

This is definitely not a contemporary phenomenon but a longstanding one. What does it mean exactly? Well, that is difficult to spell out explicitly. Put simply, for the most part, names, images, icons, representations, films, designations, signage, conspicuous demonstration of both symbolic (even abstract and magical) power (e.g., a temple) and material power (e.g., a home), symbolic markers of primordial belonging, symbolic markers of social and economic status, among various other symbolic entities - as well as issues relating to these - have a resonance and inspire a level of emotive investment that material questions and issues simply do not. 

The symbolic is certainly not a standalone category; it is undergirded by the material. However, in every visible manifestation of the palpable tension between the symbolic and the material, the symbolic tends to triumph. 

It is hard to describe this tension but it can be seen, for instance, in this visual: an impressive, utterly glorious temple - with a soaring steeple, and magnificent arches and sculpture, in the midst of a crumbling, dilapidated streetscape; the soaring genius of the sculptor juxtaposed against the failure of the engineer/urban bureaucrat. 

Indisputably, the construction of a temple is a patently material process -  involving more engineering than iconography. But the temple overall is a symbolic entity (in terms of its conception and the purpose it serves), and, as such, the material investment that goes into it assumes a symbolic valence. This investment can be juxtaposed with investment in less symbolically-charged material processes (such as the construction of a road, for example), and found to be far more significant - on every conceivable level. The manifest disjuncture between the gloriousness of the temple and poor state of the infrastructure surrounding it exemplifies the triumph of the symbolic.  

Art is more beautiful than infrastructure. The genius of the symbolic worker (an arguably contentious category that may include all those who produce works that draw on symbolic modes - such as words and images [both religious and secular] - the content creator, essentially; as well as those who invest in symbolic entities) is outstanding and distinguishable, whereas the genius of the material worker is shrouded in a dense fog. I am not sure whether this can be rephrased using a more agentic/agential frame - the genius of the symbolic worker flourishes while the genius of the material worker is stifled and constrained (because of economic and social conditions, etc.). 

Somehow, this tension between the symbolic and the material tends to reveal itself to you as a philosophical issue (chasm even) when you step back and deliberately adopt a more distant perspective. Otherwise, it is among those things that you take for granted. How does it affect everyday life? That is the difficult question.