Josy Joseph. A feast of vultures: The hidden business of democracy in India. Harper Collins. 2016
At one level this is a cracker of a book. At another level, it is deeply problematic. So what makes A Feast of Vultures work?
Interest doesn’t flag as Josy Joseph takes one through a very flawed India, one that we are all familiar with but choose to close our eyes to. This is the India where there are still villages without access to basic services because people don’t have access to the right connections, even as a handful of people are able to get even illegitimate work done by just snapping their fingers.
This is not the account of an armchair journalist, pontificating on the basis of some desultory conversations on the rare occasions that he decides to move out of the confines of his office. It is hard reporting from the ground — whether it is in the interiors of rural India or of posh drawing rooms.
Joseph starts by taking the reader to Hridaychak village in Bihar where one man kept badgering everyone from district officials to the union minister’s office in Delhi to get a road sanctioned. From there, the book journeys through the world of naya netas who “get things done” in remote villages, the typists and stenographers of politicians who become centres for power, the arms dealers, the highly sophisticated lobbyists and powerful family members who influence policy and the cream of corporate India, which has no scruples in turning to underworld dons. Joseph pulls no punches and hides nothing, not even big names. Middlemen are a legitimate function in any economy, he points out, even as he shows how Indian middlemen operate in a shadowy world, unlike in other countries.
The best chapters are the ones that deal with how arms dealers and middlemen operate, the rise and fall of East West Airlines and the rivalry between it and Jet Airways, and how policy gets tweaked. Equally gripping is the account of how big guns in the steel industry over-rode opposition to build their empire. The book even rakes up the issue of Mukesh Ambani’s controversial residence, Antilla, having supposedly illegally acquired wakf property and his son’s involvement in a car accident that, Joseph alleges, was hushed up.
The chapter on the powerful secretaries of politicians is the weakest one. Just three men figure — R K Dhawan, Vincent George and the late M O Mathai. Two other names he mentions — O P Sharma and Ajay Singh (the man behind Spicejet) — were not secretaries who rose to prominence. Sharma was a hanger-on of Arun Jaitley, and Singh may have started out as part of a Delhi minister’s office but he was not a secretarial staffer.
What’s more, there is nothing about how these secretaries/stenographers wielded their influence and how they became power brokers, though he does talk about the unexplained riches they acquired. The only details we get are from Mathai’s book. This is a big miss.
Joseph writes that as he drove out of Dhawan’s Jor Bagh residence after a meeting, he thought about how he had come to own such a house. “It’s not something I asked him.” Such voluntary holding back is surprising for an author who levels charges against top industrialists being involved with underworld dons.
But the other chapters more than make up for this lack.
Why, then, is the book problematic? Because of the assumptions the author makes and the conclusions he draws. Running through the book is a sneery tone about India’s economic reforms. There is the usual bleeding heart pitting of tribals and the poor against economic activity and industry, lamentation about how education has become a business with seats in engineering colleges available for the asking, how the post-liberalisation entrepreneurs are more unscrupulous than the earlier businessmen and nostalgia for the pre-liberalisation era of landline connections and government schools.
But in the pre-liberalisation era, a telephone connection required years of waiting and bribes to be paid; education may have become a market but at least it is now more accessible than it was earlier; Thakiyuddin Abdul Wahid, the founder of East West Airlines who met a bloody end, may have been part of an over-aggressive, swashbuckling breed that emerged post-1991, but could he have stood a chance in the crony socialism of the pre-1991 era? Joseph says “many of the richest men and women made their fortunes after liberalisation” and mentions Dhirubhai Ambani in this context. But the Ambani patriarch was the symbol of all that was wrong with the pre-1991 period.
Joseph does concede at one point that the socialist economy has not been replaced by laissez-faire and that the government has not withdrawn from the marketplace or regulations. But he stops short of taking the logical next step and pointing out that it is imperative that it does and that the state must concentrate on its core function—providing basic infrastructure for the people. He will not concede that sometimes the market goes where the government does not, even though he cites the example of the bus service on the road that Anwar got built in Hridaychak. It is run by a private person; there is no subsidised public transport. He talks about land as being the most empowering asset that the poor can possess but refrains from pointing out that the right to property was revoked by a socialist-leaning government in the 1970s. This is just a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth.
Joseph also slips up in being an impartial chronicler of India in some very broad generalisations that only show up his biases. Talking about the sale of Hotel Corporation of India hotels, where the first National Democratic Alliance government was taken for a royal ride, he says: “That, in a nutshell, is how divestment has played out in India.” This is an absolutely appalling statement to make about one of the cleanest privatisation processes among emerging economies. It is also a monumentally inaccurate statement to make. Cases of privatisation that have been taken to court on grounds of corruption have come to nought.
There’s an even more bizarre statement: “Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi, sympathised with the Palestinian cause — the exception being Hindu zealots who staunchly supported the creation of a Jewish state.”
Read this book for the wonderful stories it has; but keep an eye out for the biases.
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