Yesterday I watched a BBC World debate about women in the workplace. The discussants included the head of ICICI Bank, the head of PepsiCo, the head of Renault-Nissan and ... Suhel Seth. Seth also heads a firm, but it isn't one you are likely to have heard of. What was he doing there? Is he an expert on women's rights? Does his organisation employ lots of females? No, and no. He was there because he's become the go-to person whenever there is a spot vacant on any debate panel on any English news programme.
This is bewildering, because Seth has never said anything interesting on any of the dozens of subjects I've heard him hold forth about. It's like he has a handbook of clichés in front of him, and combines phrases from this book with references to whatever happens to be the discussion of the day. He makes points forcefully and articulately, but never with any hint of insight.
During a break in the Beeb's programme, I switched to CNBC India, where Deepak Parekh was being interviewed. Parekh is the polar opposite of Suhel Seth. He speaks on matters of which he has deep knowledge, and I always come away having learned something I didn't know before.
I accept this is an unfair comparison. There is room for generalist commentators in the media, and my own blog covers a very wide range of issues, political, cultural and even financial. I hope, though, that I bring a perspective to these subjects which readers might not agree with, but feel is well-informed and individual.
Suhel Seth revels in conventional wisdom, while his manner always suggests he's saying radical things. This, at least, is the impression I have from having watched him frequently on the Big Fight and similar programmes. Irritated by his contribution to the 'women in the workplace' debate, a subject about which I admit even the most penetrating thinker would be hard pressed to produce anything of interest, I sought out his writings (his role as cultural commentator extends to columns and a blog) wondering if they would correct my impression of him. Instead, they confirmed all my misgivings.
Here's the opening of his latest blog post on CNN-IBN's website, with notes from me after every sentence or two:
"On November 26, 2008, a billion people felt the helplessness and vulnerability of the kind we have never experienced ever."
A slight exaggeration here, maybe? And one that is in keeping with the exaggeration of the attack itself, because it played out on TV for an extended period.
"When 10 misguided young men held an entire nation to ransom and there was nothing the nation could do except live in disbelief and post that, in denial."
Wrong on three counts. First, the terrorists made no demands and therefore could not be said to have held the nation to ransom; second, the nation's administration reacted by sending in commandos; and third, there was never any hint of denial on the nation's part. In fact, when a minister appeared to downplay the seriousness of the assault, he was forced from office.
"There was an outpouring of anger and much dismay at the 'system': most of us raved and ranted and when our turn came, we left for salubrious climes instead of voting for the right person."
Odd that we were in denial, yet managed an outpouring of anger and dismay. A second conflation of 'we' who can leave for salubrious climes with the billion-strong population of India as a whole.
"The elections which were going to be manna from heaven threw up the same rogues, many of whom are back in the very offices they were shamed to give up in the aftermath of 26/11."
Straw man. Who ever said elections were 'manna from heaven'? Oh, I forgot, that's the phrase that presented itself on Seth's cliché handbook. In the Maharashtra election, which is what Seth alludes to, the choice was between an ineffectual centrist coalition and a right-wing chauvinist one that had proven itself equally ineffectual in the past. Not a great choice, but one which produced a result liberals welcomed.
"Almost twelve months later, we are still quite befuddled. By the David Headleys of the world and their impunity and at the lack of any co-ordinated intelligence gathering system that ideally should have been in place by now."
The David Headleys of the world have impunity? I thought the guy was under arrest and charged for plotting an attack on a Danish publication. We only heard of him because of well co-ordinated intelligence gathering.
"But then as in Shakespeare's words, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves and that is the real point."
Nobody has suggested the fault lies in our stars.
"We have sadly become a nation that is Teflon-coated because we genuinely believe this intangible 'system' is demonic and there is nothing we as common men and women can do."
'Teflon-coated' is used for people to whom no criticism sticks. Reagan, the Teflon president and so on. Not sure it applies to citizens harried by a demonic system.
"This is perhaps the best way of perpetrating the evil of the system."
Or even perpetuating it. You misread the handbook there, Mr. Seth.
The blog goes on in this fashion, but Seth's writing never gets so bad that it's good. For that, one can turn to M J Akbar's article on the same subject published in the Times yesterday.
I stopped reading Akbar's columns eons ago, following his questionable role in the St.Kitts affair. The case involved documents suggesting that V. P. Singh had amassed millions of dollars in an offshore account on the island of St.Kitts. Akbar wrote a series of articles assuming the authenticity of these documents long after every other respectable journalist had dismissed them as pathetic forgeries created by Congress politicians and their associates to tarnish V.P. Singh's image.
Akbar, at the time, was closely associated with the Congress, even becoming spokesman for the party for a period. Since then, as far as I have gathered from infrequent glances at his columns, he has turned against the party and can find nothing good to say about it. Here are excerpts from his analysis of the November attack and its consequences. I have refrained from annotating the text, so you can enjoy fully his wild mixing of metaphors:
We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.
It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature. If it’s warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well...
Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player...
The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.
The article is titled, Terror threat: We have lost the plot. M.J. Akbar lost the plot a long time ago.