Big Scams, Big Brother and Big Boss - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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Big Scams, Big Brother and Big Boss
Jan 4, 2011

In a year when institutions - the media, the defence forces, the bureaucracy and even, to a small extent, the judiciary - found their reputations dented, what was the one overarching idea that dominated our consciousness? Can that be summed up in a few words? The answer is yes. The big theme of 2010 was, well, Big. It was a year which saw Big scams, Big Brother and Big Boss. And each one of these reflects what we are becoming as a society and as a country.

Take the scams. Looking back, some of the scandals of yesteryears seem so paltry and so tiny in comparison. Bofors, which brought down a government (and indirectly resulted in the assassination of a prime minister) involved a total of Rs 64 crores. And that was to be allegedly distributed among many known and shadowy people. Even accounting for inflation and the value of the rupee, it still doesn't add up to much today.

Compare that with the Commonwealth Games scam. The final bill is still being calculated, but when you read that soap dispensers were bought for more than Rs 9300 each you can do a mental tally on the mark ups on everything from weight lifting equipment to construction contracts and work out the math.

The telecom spectrum scandal is much bigger. The Comptroller and Auditor General has given us a figure of Rs 1.77 lakh crore to chew over. It is an amount that is far beyond the comprehension of most people. Granted that this is the money the Indian government has lost notionally, it still indicates how big the stakes were. And given that every major industrialist house and telecom operator from abroad was chasing the licences, it is a fair bet that large sums of money were involved.

What it shows is that the post-liberalisation era has not ended corruption just because the licence raj has gone. Indeed, the opposite has happened and now that the vast Indian market has opened up, the competition has intensified and companies will do anything to get a foothold in it. Expect more big scams in the future.

The other notable development that suddenly came upon us is the intrusive ways of the government in the lives of citizens (and we are not talking of the Unique Identity). We are being asked to give more and more details about ourselves and surrender our privacy. Some of these things are merely irritants-telemarketers for example, who get hold of information about you. But telephone tapping is downright sinister. We might say it all turned out to be for the good, but the fact that the tax department asked for Niira Radia's phone to be tapped is frightening. The sheer volume of the recordings - 5,000 tapes - tells us how comprehensive this excercise was. What is to stop government departments from tapping the phones of ordinary citizens? Now the Intelligence agencies want Blackberry, Google and Skype to make it easier to eaves drop on chats and emails. Are we becoming paranoid? It appears so. One way or the other, we better get used to it-Big Brother is here to stay.

And what of Big Boss, the reality to show that panders to our basest and sleaziest voyeuristic instincts? What's so new, considering that it was in its fourth edition and the shock value is now gone? Not really. What we saw in 2010 was a new low, with the channel aiming for the lowest of the low common denominator, with its motley collection of a dacoit facing murder charges, a petty thief and sundry loudmouths whose task was to indulge in crude and obscene tactics so that viewership went up. The message is-we will do anything for TRPs and the channel obviously knew its audiences, because viewership levels soared.

At the end of the first decade of this new century, which is supposed to belong to India we see a country where corruption is rampant, where the government is out to keep an eye on its citizens and where the citizens themselves, instead of getting outraged at what is happening around them are content to watch junk television. As long as there is money to be made and entertainment to be had, why bother about anything else?

A tad too simplistic an assessment? Perhaps yes, but there is no denying that India is changing, and not always for the better. At one time the Big ideas were about nation building, today they are about nation stripping. With this on our minds, let us go forth into the next decade, when hopefully we will correct many of the wrongs that are assailing our nation. Happy New Year.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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