Review in Business Standard:

The more things change...

A lawyer's rant against politics, media, companies covers familiar ground but is no less useful for that

Vikram Johri / Dec 12, 2012.

This past Sunday, the front page of Bombay Times, the all-flash city supplement of The Times of India, carried a half-page advertisement for an upcoming television show. Savadhaan India: Mumbai Fights Back, a crime series that fictionalises real crimes, claims to rid society of the “evil hunger for riches”. Mumbai, the ad screams in over-the-top Hindi, “is not a city but an island of rampant greed and nefarious intent”.

Ranjeev Dubey, the author of the book under review, would agree. Managing partner at a law firm, Mr Dubey is plain tired of the way things are run in this country. He casts his gimlet eye on politicians, courts, the media, companies and the myriad stakeholders who connect the dots. What emerges is a familiar, though no less shocking, account of how everything in this country is up for grabs so long as you have the right connections.

Even though he is a lawyer, Mr Dubey’s politics nudges the left of centre. He begins the book by disparaging India’s new-age industrial development model that works, quite obviously in his view, by robbing Peter to pay Paul. “To argue that industry must have land cheap in order to be viable is to argue that some people must be starved to provide cheaper lipstick to others,” he says. Bitterly critical of the state’s policies against the Naxalites and Adivasis, Mr Dubey’s prescription – which rightly calls for greater inclusion – can occasionally dip into simplistic sound and fury.

On corporate fraud, he is on surer ground. He writes acerbically about the tinderbox of poor governance practices on which India’s corporate edifice is built: directors who are related to promoters; banks that double as gambling dens; and contracts that are not worth the paper on which they are printed. All of this is true and well-chronicled. The situation is grim, and not just in India. Isn’t parsing the ills of runaway capitalism the great water-cooler conversation of our times?

In his justified fury and silky articulacy, Mr Dubey tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The stock market – “there is no such thing as ‘market sentiment’,” he lets on – makes his gut wrench, and for good reason. Several scams, the one involving Sahara being the latest, attest to yawning gaps in the system. However, there are institutional mechanisms in place to tackle mendacity. Who can deny the exemplary work done by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) in protecting the rights of small investors? As India’s economy and capital markets grow, more chinks will be plugged and the system will become incrementally robust.

Mr Dubey is not one for such glass-half-full prognostications. With Bullshit Quotient, he has chosen an opportune time for release. With Arvind Kejriwal’s serial exposes and new scams a dime a dozen, the country is literally baying for blood. Whose blood, one might ask, and the issue becomes less clear. Mr Kejriwal attacked a number of senior politicians from across party lines before the launch of his political party. He grabbed prime news space for weeks. There was a frisson in the air — like something momentous was going to happen.

Plus ça change... A senior member of the ruling party was promoted within the government while the leader of the main opposition party continues to hold fast to his chair. The trouble with a high-voltage strategy is that while it can energise and rally people for a while, it rarely affects any lasting institutional change. Things are bad, yes, but mother earth might be a better place than rooftops from which to launch the fight.

When Mr Dubey moves away from business and politics to frame his ideas about India’s social fissures, his voice is leavened with a pleasing sense of irony. He savagely chronicles parties in Gurgaon where the air-kissing crowd finds nothing amiss in “drinking a $50 bottle of single malt and bitching about a maid who works 15-hour days to earn that much in our kitchens in a month”. Be content with others’ misery, since that’s niyati, but keep working the system for your benefit, for that’s karma.

Mr Dubey’s cynicism dovetails into charming self-deprecation towards the end. “When I look at myself, I am nothing but the collective historic experience of my ancestors. If I take this legacy out of the equation, I do not find any reason to believe that I deserve to be where I am,” he says. I seriously doubt it. Mr Dubey may have benefitted from his background, but on the strength of this book, his frustration with the system and his desire to reform it are entirely his own. May he remain angry!

Decoding India’s Corporate, Social and Legal Fineprint
Ranjeev Dubey
Hachette India
248 pages; Rs 350