Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sikh stereotypes

In South Asia the small minority communities have it difficult (always the danger of getting swallowed by the majority) and easy (they are lionized for some or other outstanding qualities). When we see the high social indicators of Jains, Sikhs, and Christians (but not the neo-Buddhists) then we subconsciously connect the good in the J/S/C philosophy and link it back to the indicators. Simply put, J/S/C good, H/M bad.

There is a good and bad part of this "boosting." The good part is that the value of being a minority, of increasing diversity is not (often) questioned. The bad part is that well, things are really not what they seem to be. The most egalitarian ideology fails the acid test of the caste system/biradiri. And the most useful test is to observe how behavior patterns change when the minority becomes a (local) majority.

The best (worst) example is the case of the North-East (Naga) Christians who have often led blockades of Manipur valley (mostly Hindus) including one mega-blockade which went on for 250 (+) days. It was part extortion and part black-mailing and full-scale terrorism. Sick people could not reach hospitals, children could not get to schools and the common people suffered terribly. Of course these incidents barely ever reach the national press let alone international press. 

"The life has reached its most difficult stage without food and essential commodities. There is acute shortage of fuel, which has affected students not being able to go to schools and colleges. Hospitals have run out of oxygen, there is shortage of medicines," it said.

Then there are the Sikhs, who in our opinion are the most outstanding people on earth. They have been horribly victimized in Partition I and again due to Mrs Gandhi's machinations in the 1970s culminating with the high crimes of 1984 (we tend not to over-use the word genocide).

Frankly speaking our (wrongly held) opinion of the Akali Dal was that it is a grass-roots organization run by a passionate and close-knit circle. But we had no idea that it is basically just one family which controls every switch on the switch-board. At this level it is akin to Shiv Sena, one organization we are a bit more familiar with. Stereotypes are still mostly true, but the Akali Dal is just another SAsian "family business."

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal runs the northern Indian state of Punjab from his office in the secretariat building. His son, a wealthy businessman, works next door as deputy chief minister. A few floors away, the deputy's two brothers-in-law run key ministerial offices. Together, the four men sit atop half of Punjab's governmental departments, including home affairs, justice, taxation and food supply.

Politics in Punjab, a relatively affluent, agrarian state of 28 million, is largely a family-run operation, which isn't uncommon in a country governed for decades by the Indian National Congress, the party of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

But frustration with family politics has surfaced in India's national elections, which end with the announcement of results Friday. Political analysts and voters say this frustration is an important reason why prime-minister candidate Narendra Modi—a critic of dynastic politics who said he gave up family life for public service—is the front-runner. He was leading in exit polls Monday. The father, grandmother and great-grandfather of his opponent, Rahul Gandhi, all served terms as prime minister in India's postcolonial era.

While the U.S. has its own dynastic family names—Kennedy, Bush and Clinton—none match the depth of India's family ties. A British historian in a 2011 study found that two-thirds of India's national parliamentarians under 40 were related to other politicians. And voters here have grown increasingly suspicious that such family networks use policy-making and executive authority to enrich themselves and their protégés.

In Punjab, a Wall Street Journal review of financial and government documents, as well as interviews, found Mr. Badal's relatives have benefited financially during his administration, with government decisions on transportation and electric power favorable to family enterprises. Badal family connections in regional TV news broadcasting, meanwhile, have had the effect of squelching voices critical of the arrangement, according to political opponents.

A spokesman for Mr. Badal, Harcharan Bains, said, "there is no unwritten convention or written law" in India that people in public life can't have business interests. The Badals say their business deals are kept at arm's length and deny any abuse of power. Voters support them, they say, because they improve the lives of constituents, expanding infrastructure and development, for example.

"This family system runs because of credibility," said deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, age 51. "Why do people want to buy a Mercedes car? Or a BMW car? Because they know the credibility of that car. You come out with a new car that nobody knows, nobody will buy it."

The Badal family hails from southern Punjab, where members have long been affluent landowners. Mr. Badal, the 86-year-old patriarch, is an energetic man with a long white beard who rose through the ranks of Shiromani Akali Dal, an influential regional party formed in 1920 to protect the interests of the Sikh community, who make up a majority of Punjab residents.

Mr. Badal served two brief stints as chief minister in the 1970s, and then a five-year term from 1997 to 2002, earning a reputation as an effective grass-roots politician. During visits, he would sit under a tree and ask villagers their problems, residents recalled, then press officials to respond.

Badal family fortunes turned up in the months after Mr. Badal's re-election to chief minister in 2007. The state cabinet, which he heads, overhauled Punjab's transportation policy, making it less expensive to operate luxury buses.

Air-conditioned buses had always been taxed at higher rates than ordinary buses. But a new transportation policy slashed levies on air-conditioned buses and set taxes—charged per kilometer—for a new category of luxury buses that was lower than the tax paid by ordinary buses.

A bus company owned by Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister, saw profits grow to more than 105 million rupees, or $1.7 million, in 2013 from 2.5 million rupees, or $41,000, in 2007, according to the company's financial statements. He said his company, Dabwali Transport, grew by acquiring other bus companies, and acknowledged the lower tax rate helped his business.

The transport minister at the time, Master Mohan Lal, told the Journal the change was made to improve services. Sukhbir Singh Badal, who wasn't in office when the change was made, said it was designed "so that even the common man can travel in luxury without paying high rates."

The number of air-conditioned buses has since grown, offering fares that are only slightly higher than ordinary buses, according to transport department officials. Fares of luxury buses are roughly twice the cost of ordinary buses.

Since the tax cut, the family's business has grown to dominate luxury-bus travel in Punjab, particularly in Bathinda, which has more than a million residents.

More than half the permits for luxury and air-conditioned buses granted to private operators by the regional transport authority statewide—and more than 90% of those in Bathinda—belong to two transportation companies owned by the family, according to government documents, and a third company, Taj Travels, which is owned by a man who is a director in hotel and real-estate companies also controlled by the family.

Sukhbir Singh Badal's declared assets have grown to more than 1 billion rupees, or about $16 million, from 130 million rupees, about $2.1 million, in 2004, according to documents filed to India's election commission. In 2009, his wife won a seat in the national Parliament.

Indian government guidelines require ministers to fully disclose business interests and step away from management after taking office. The guidelines also say ministers must divest themselves of all interests in businesses that supply goods or services to the government or rely on official permits or licenses. In states, chief ministers are charged with making sure the guidelines are met but, according to an official in the home ministry, the guidelines are rarely followed.

The elder Mr. Badal, in a written response to the Journal, said he doesn't take an active role in any family related business. If family businesses have grown, he wrote, "it is only a part of the success story of all Punjabis over the past 60 years." After another re-election in 2012, Mr. Badal's term goes to 2017.

In 2008, two months after Mr. Badal's 80th birthday, party delegates elected Sukhbir Singh Badal as party president to succeed his father. Mr. Badal said his son was promoted for helping return the party to power.

A year later, Mr. Badal appointed his son as deputy chief minister. Sukhbir Singh Badal, who has a master's degree in management from California State University, Los Angeles, had previously served in India's national Parliament. He was later voted into the state legislative assembly, a requirement for deputy chief minister.

Mr. Badal said "it was natural" to give his son the job because of support from voters and the party. Sukhbir Singh Badal said his father "wanted me to take over, to share his responsibilities." He also didn't want to abandon hundreds of thousands of party workers who feel more secure under the Badals' leadership, he said.

Mr. Badal's daughter, Parneet Kaur, has also prospered during her father's time as chief minister.

From 2009 to 2013, state-owned power enterprises awarded contracts valued at 3.9 billion rupees, about $64 million, to consortia that included a company majority-owned by Ms. Kaur, her husband and her mother-in-law, documents show. The contracts were first reported by the Tribune, a regional newspaper, and viewed by the Journal, which verified them with the Punjab State Power Corp.

Mr. Badal, Ms. Kaur's father, chairs the state's power department, and Ms. Kaur's husband, Adesh Partap Kairon, works as Mr. Badal's minister for food supply and information technology.

Sukhbir Singh Badal sought to revitalize Punjab's power sector through policy directives that resulted in bids for a government contract to install and upgrade electrical infrastructure. A 2.3 billion rupee deal, or about $38 million, was awarded a year ago to a team of three companies that included Shivalik Telecom Ltd., which manufactures and installs electrical infrastructure, and is owned by Ms. Kaur and her relatives.

Ms. Kaur's declared assets grew to $2.7 million in 2012 from less than $800,000 in 2007. Ms. Kaur and her husband didn't respond to requests to comment.

"We have never favored any company," said K.D. Chaudhri, chairman of the Punjab State Power Corp. The bids were judged on well-defined criteria, including technical expertise, and the contract awarded to the lowest bidder, he said. He didn't identify the companies in contention.

Mr. Bains, spokesman for Mr. Badal, the chief minister, said, "No law, or even established rules of propriety have been violated, nor has there been undue favor," in contracts awarded to Shivalik Telecom.

The Badals have also expanded their media interests. In 2006, they started a local TV company with a 24-hour news channel, PTC News, which has become one of the most popular in the state, according to residents.

Local journalists say they also believe the family has tried to squeeze out competition through close ties with Fastway Transmissions, which handles the technical work of transmitting programs.

Fastway and two other companies control about 85% of the market, according to the Competition Commission of India, a national government watchdog agency. All three companies are co-owned by a man with close ties to the Badal family.

Punjabi journalist Kanwar Sandhu said he and his backers decided to launch their own news channel, Day and Night News, in 2009. They hired Fastway and the two other companies to broadcast the channel. The program would be disrupted during the broadcast of news critical of the government, Mr. Sandhu said, with the sound sometimes overlaid with the audio track of cartoon shows.

Within seven months, Fastway and the two other companies terminated their contracts with Day and Night News, and the channel was taken off the air. Fastway said the disruptions were caused by technical problems, and the agreements severed for commercial reasons.

The company that owns Day and Night News complained to the competition commission, saying Fastway was establishing a monopoly and abusing its position. In its complaint, the company alleged Gurdeep Singh, who had ownership stakes in all three TV transmission firms, was "closely affiliated" with the ruling establishment of Punjab.

Mr. Singh has bought and sold buses from Badal-controlled transit companies, according to Mr. Singh and public records. He has also done work for the family's political party, according to two party members and two other people familiar with the matter.

A person with firsthand knowledge of the formation of Fastway in 2007 said Sukhbir Singh Badal helped set up the firm and asked Mr. Singh to run it. Mr. Singh said he knows Mr. Badal, but wasn't influenced by him or the Punjab government. Mr. Badal said he knows Mr. Singh, but denied any connection with Fastway.

A probe ordered by the competition commission found in 2012 that Fastway and the two other companies had snapped up a number of smaller companies and "eliminated free and fair competition" in Punjab, amassing more than four million subscribers, leaving its next biggest competitors no more than 10,000. The commission's investigation also found the disruptions of Day and Night News were frequent and deliberate. The body ordered Fastway and the two other companies to pay a fine of 80 million rupees. A lawyer for Fastway and the other two companies said he has filed an appeal.

The commission's report didn't address any alleged ties between Mr. Gurdeep and the Badals.

For the family, it is business as usual. Billboard images across the state show chief minister Parkash Singh Badal; his son, Sukhbir Singh Badal; and Sukhbir's brother-in-law, Bikram Singh Majithia. Official cards that entitle Punjabis to subsidized grain bear the photographs of the chief minister and his son-in-law, Adesh Partap Kairon, who is the minister of food supply. An oval cutout of Mr. Badal's face was added to the baskets of thousands of free bicycles given to female students.

At a recent rally in Amritsar, Gurudev Singh, 35 years old, said he was voting for the coalition run by the Badal family's party for a national Parliament seat in the current election. "I come from a family of shopkeepers," he said. "Their career is politics. It's a one-family rule, yes, but that's how politics works in India."


  1. ' When we see the high social indicators of Jains, Sikhs, and Christians (but not the neo-Buddhists) then we subconsciously connect the good in the J/S/C philosophy and link it back to the indicators. Simply put, J/S/C good, H/M bad.'
    That's brilliant. I never thought of it like that. Of course, it isn't really true of us when we live in the sub-continent. Then we are far more cynical. We know that any lucrative pilgrimage spot or Shrine will be bitterly contested by different sects but also family lineages within a sect. Thus 'Babri masjid' was the center of contestation not just between Shias and Sunnis but also priestly lineages within each sect. Similarly not just various Hindu sects but lineages contested the right to get rich of the Hindu pilgrims. Later, of course, things get even weirder with L.K Advani (who is probably either an Arya Samaji, opposed to image worship, or else a Savarkar type atheist) suddenly laying claim to it for a political, not monetary, purpose.
    Now take any Jain place of worship. Not only do you have sectarian battles- Digambar vs Shvetambar, this type of Sthanakvasi with that other virtually identical Sthanakvasi- but also battles between this Acharya's brother's goons and that other Upadhyaya's nephew's goons. Non violence is all very well and good but mustn't get in the way of making money. Incidentally, I may mention, Post Mutiny- before Muslims were allowed back to Delhi- there was communal violence between Jains and Hindus- not on a big scale but that memory was preserved for three generations.
    What about Parsis- surely everyone loves the Parsis- especially the Tata sort? Alfred Marshall even said 'India needs a hundred Tatas' Saklatvala. disagreed. Why, he was one himself but was then squeezed out of the family business by his jealous cousin. He exposed again and again the seamy side of the Tatas- thus proving Alfred Marshall was right when he warned that many Indian industrialists weren't really doing anything entrepreneurial and were rent-seeking compradors (as we would put it) merely. I won't go into the nasty side of Parsi religious politics or indeed their actual politics when they were virtually a dominant caste in Bombay. But, the fact is, Indian people aren't surprised when they find the Parsis are no better than the rest of us.
    As for Sikhs- the Leftist view of their Politics has been presented by Paul Brass writing in the 1960's. He went too far- accusing the Jat Sikhs of being like Southern Plantation owners who wanted to have as many votes as they owned slaves. According to this view, a wrong one, Jats only ethnically cleansed Muslim service castes and replaced them by Mazhabis because they wanted to exploit them more thoroughly. Family domination (with contestation by nephews or Uncles or whatever) not just of Sikh shrines but also of reform movements like S.G.P.C is part of an all India pattern which we all recognize in our bones. Still, we may make silly speeches- but why exclude Hinduism or Islam from this type of hypocrisy? People will talk about the spiritual Hindu Guru who is either raping or looting everything or anything in his vicinity. Far from upholding Fraternal and Egalitarian values, the Bahreillvy Imam (who suddenly found supporters in the West because the Deobandis had been consigned to the same Hell as the Wahabbis) though extremely tolerant of every and any Hindu gangster/politician is also the greatest takfiri when it comes to his Uncle or nephews, or if not them, yet, then the descendants of the Uncles or Nephews of his ancestors.
    What of the Christians? That's the only Religion where SC/STs constitute a definite majority. But is any wealthy Church really controlled by this majority? Are you kidding me? As for the Uncles or Nephews of Father X or Sister Y, not only are their goons attacking the goons of Father Z, they start whacking each other the moment the founder of their fortune gets senile.

  2. I guess the point I'm really making here is that Religion in India, like Political Ideology, always has this dynastic/casteist dynamics even if the underlying Economic conditions (Marxist 'substructure') varies widely. Why? I guess it's because, as a People, we don't hate our parents enough. 'Beat your mother while still she is young' is a good slogan. Rose Macaulay has left a vivid account of the Late Victorian/Edwardian Upper Class Nursery (presided over by the Mary Poppins from Hell) where young children learn to stab or snitch upon each other. This makes for affable but lukewarm relations in adult life. People are allergic to their own families and so Civil Society gets a chance.

  3. South Indians had their own Sikhs at one point, the militant and egalitarian Shaivite breakoff Lingayat caste who since have become quite placid and industrious. The same is going is on with this offshoot Vaishnava sect called Sikhs
    Once they aided in the collapse of the Mughals(by siding with the British in 1857) they have in search of a role ,here serving the British, there fighting for independence. Here slaughtering Muslims in participation, there killing Hindus for Khalistan.
    They have become a mercenary (combination of Kshatriya and baniya) people like Telugus and Tamils had become in the 17th century onwards unable to project their greatness after their star stopped shining.
    It may take time but they will drift back to Hinduism only because there is no other choice.

  4. My dear YSV, the years have mellowed you. As a matter of fact some keshadari Sikhs claim a South Indian origin. Incidentally, they were the first Sikh entrepreneurs in the U.K. back in the Twenties.
    My own feeling, now we have Modi, is that Muslims- like you Niyogis- have great talent and must be allowed to take the top jobs. Glass ceilings are bad for Teams.

    YSV, you yourself join this. You are very bright. Samuelson effectively said that Econ is empty unless Social Processes are ergodic- i.e. not history/hysteresis laden.
    Modi, who did a 3 month course in U.S, understands this.
    God bless.