Book review: A Feast Of Vultures
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Josy Joseph’s A Feast Of Vultures is an important, if sobering read, meticulously researched and intelligently written. India is a rich nation of poor people, and the vultures that prey on the common person are the everyday fixers, the multimillion-dollar-deal middlemen, and the billion-siphoning crony capitalists. The book starts with India’s poorest and ends with the richest, leaving no doubt that the departure of the venal United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has made no difference to business as usual.
In an era when corporate-run newspapers hire city-slicking journalists and discourage journeying to the hinterland for reportage, Joseph’s humble provenance reminds him of who is hurt most by the vultures. So he begins his story with a 30-page prologue set in Hridaychak village in Bihar, which requires a road to get its children education and primary health—and this road requires a herculean mix of fixing and petitioning. The prologue, though overlong and testing of one’s patience, sets the context for the rest of the book, into which you can really sink your teeth.
Joseph judiciously mixes field reporting and investigative research: No wonder he is an award-winning journalist. He travels to an urban village outside Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh to meet “Mr Fix-it Down the Street”. Mr Fix-it is an unapologetic and vital cog in the food chain: He helps the poor get things done, and the influential get popular support. It is an eye-opening development in Indian democracy: that its grass roots no longer comprise party workers who are traditional go-betweens between constituents and the levers of power. It is these fixers who eventually get co-opted into political parties, like the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The chapter on defence middlemen contains interesting and unknown details. Such deals are necessarily high-sum and despite a decade of quiet during the 1990s, India became the world’s biggest arms importer following the 1999 Kargil war. A “clean” civil servant tells Joseph that corruption is so structurally entrenched, with so many vested interests, that an individual can do nothing. He can stop nothing. Though the Bofors gun scandal made us conscious of this topic, Joseph’s investigation is hair-raising. Despite a change of government, nothing has changed: “The name of an entrepreneur who is a member of Parliament was often heard in connection with major defence deals. His own conduct, including an aggressive embracing of military issues, further fuelled the suspicion that he was indeed the man who facilitated a major defence deal with a European firm that ran into tens of thousands of crores.” By Jupiter, I know of this man.
The book’s most interesting section is the three-chapter “The Very Private Private Sector”, which deals with the rise and fall of East West Airlines and the murder of its managing director, Thakiyudeen Wahid. In Joseph’s narrative, a business rival who had no educational, social or business background is the sinister hand behind East West’s woes. He also alleges that a member of previous ruling alliances helped the rival at more than one critical moment. And Joseph’s intelligence contacts say that despite the besmirching of East West as a front for underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, it is the rival that is suspect in the intelligence’s eyes. This narrative reads like a thriller and is alone worth the book’s price.
Joseph also looks at dynasties, at sons-in-law and at the fact that a quarter of our parliamentarians are businessmen. Even worse are the parliamentarian-lawyers seemingly unmindful of the concept of conflict of interest. One, for instance, is said to have given legal opinion to a corporate entity that was critical of the then government’s move to levy a higher royalty from it for extracting coal. When the coal scam came to light, this “did not find its way into the mainstream media”.
This book is a timely reminder that neither of our major political parties will give Hridaychak succour. Joseph sees a ray of hope in the tools that empower citizens to get at the truth and their rights—RTI and judicial vigilance. Still, we have a long way to go, though, as he points out, in the long run we’re dead.
My only quibble is with the clunky title and its confusing “of”. Vultures are predatory birds who feast upon the dead or dying, and though each of these 229 pages has a sledgehammer effect on one’s political optimism, it would be premature to declare democracy to be on life support. To see the vultures circling in our skies, this book is required reading for our times.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist and co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years.