Monday, November 23, 2009

Suhel Seth and M J Akbar

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.


globalbabble said...

Oh my god! The MJ Akbar piece is hilarious. I can't believe he was the editor of a newspaper. I am glad I never read his book!

adrian mckinty said...


Gotta disagree with you, man, this IS so bad its good. Are you sure he's not doing a parody? It reads a bit like a send up of Narayan Godbole from A Passage to India.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, unless Suhel Seth is a performance artist who has stayed in character for the past decade, the passage I've quoted is no parody.

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed that most commentators love showing off their vocab ? Its like a kid saying - i used so many big words in the sentence the teacher has to give me full marks for my essay Makes the kid feel proud and important -never mind if the poor sod didnt understand a word of what he wrote ! s anand

Girish Shahane said...

Zizactly, I'm sorry, I can't carry that comment about Suhel Seth for reasons that must be obvious to you.

jay vasavada said...

buddy, i found u quite biased wth the so called 'neutral' government sponsered approach that u put absurd show of logic (aa la 'dhoti ko khich ke rumal kar diya') just to ridicule two poor pices that echoed a sentiments of nation. no wonder, u WAS editor, wrote a BIT of script...n ya, reveiewed films-that in fact suits u ! :D

Girish Shahane said...

Jay, 'scripted a bit' is quite different from 'wrote a bit of script', but having read your linguistically challenged response I'm not surprised you can't tell one from the other.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Suhel Seth's combination of cocksure-and-cliched applies to both his personality and opinion. I also don't understand why he has to shout, as if yelling somehow lends greater credibility to his argument.

But Seth is perhaps symptomatic of a laziness on the part of the Indian media to rely on the same handful of experts for any and every issue.

A handful of folks drawn from the worlds of advertising, academia, the corporate world, and the non-profit sector are asked to comment on every matter of importance, from education to national security, banking to communal tension, the Maoist uprising to India-US relations.

There are many very, very smart and qualified people working in many fields in India, but if you watched TV shows you would think just five people in all of India (along with the show hosts like Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt) were qualified to comment on these matters. I remember that in the pre-internet era, Alyque Padamsee was constantly asked to comment on the 'new Indian woman' and the like, because, if you please, he had conjured up the figure of Lalitaji from his brilliant advertising imagination (which, of course, makes him an expert on women's rights, gender roles in India, and the sociology of consumption of the Indian middle class).

The M. J. Akbar essay is delightful rubbish. I'm saving it to read again on a rainy day.

Thanks for the post. About time someone called these guys out. And
Your blog is always a pleasure to read.


Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Rohit!

Anonymous said...

I think you can even add the copycat " Mahesh Bhatt " whom the NDTV used to get in to voice his opinion on everything. This is a filmmaker who copied popular english films and even had the guts to say that he was indeed right in doing so.

Excellent blog by the way!!!


Unknown said...

Girish... Javed Akhtar saab ki ek nazm mein vo kehta hain "Jaanta Hoon Mein Tum Ko Zouq-E-Shaiyri Bhi Hai, Shaksiyat Sajanay Mein ek Yeh Mahiri Bhi Hai, Phir Bhi Harf Chuntay Ho Sirf Lafz Suntay Ho In Ke Darmiyaan Kya Hai, Tum Na Jaan Pao"

Ye shabdon ko pakde baithe rehane ki kala mein maahir mahanubhaav hain. Shabdon ke maani / unki apni duniya aur sandarbh, unki upyogita in sab gair-zaruri cheezon se kya lena. Aur prime-time mein awaaz aur shabdon ki jaadugari chahiye, matlab aur tathya ityadi ke liye waqt kahaan hota hai.... tab tak channel badal jata hai, dusare panelist ko bhi waqt dena hota... and so on.

Mujhe aapka effort bahaut achcha laga. Dhanyawaad.

Jai ho!

Kalyan said...

I agree wholeheartedly about Suhel. The only thing he is good at is working himself into a rage and screaming saying fairly conventional things without any insight. I think it is the rage and shouting that is supposed to help with TRPs and hence makes him the darling of various channels.

Anonymous said...

no wonder mj akbar was sacked as editor of a leading news paper

Gyanban said...

What can I do publicise your blog to CNNIBN and NDTV- they seem to be delirious having such Page 3 folks comment on topics which they are not even remotely connected to -

Picture this -

Pepsi co Cheif
Renault - Cheif
ICICI - Chief
Suhel Seth -social commentator ! I mean huh?

icecreamassassin said...

To be fair, Suhel Seth was born because our amateur news television industry willed him into being. Given the fact that most journalists were forced into the roles of anchors, the need of the hour was a role tailor-made for people like Seth.

Also, you can't deny that the medium in question traditionally adores people who can waffle on — up to a point. When an audience matures, people like Seth will be forced to give up their seats for those who command respect as experts in a particular field and, more importantly, as experts confident enough of airing their views in public.

A large number of Indians can rant, but prefer to do so in private. To rant in public is the task of a loudmouth. Suhel Seth is a loudmouth. When the rest of us agree to stand up and make sense, his failings will shout out. And on national television.

Girish Shahane said...

Good points, icecreamassassin, though the example of Fox News (most people would define the US as a mature TV market) does not inspire confidence.

MP said...

There aren't too many people I simply can't stand -- Suhel Seth is one of them! What gives him the right to comment -- with seeming authority -- on women, terrorism, the media (he was on CNN once talking about indian media), the government (at the IMC in Mumbai), art (yes, at the India Art Summit)...and many more topics??! When hes got a clue about none. We all have opinions on many matters but to get onto national TV and talk about it with such conviction as if he were a scholar in the particular field...he's only a lousy PR man!!
Thanks for that blog, Girish.

Blackfayth said...

G, this is third time I've read this post since you've put it up. Can't get enough of the 'Lean and Lissome Obama...' comment.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, MP; Blackfayth, 'lean and lissome' is my fave too.

DS said...

love this post, love the comments!

Anonymous said...

Man, that Suhel is such a headache, that i quickly switch channels if i see him in some discussion. The issue is not whether he is right or wrong, but just that he is very rude to other and i cant tolerate such crass behavior in people.

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT ! WOW ! How Honest !
Restores my faith in the sensibility of the country !
The nations sensibility has been hijacked by a few over articulate con stars like our dear Suhel and his buddy Arnab Goswami. In a country of millions of illiterate, semi literate and gullible people these conmen flourish spreading cynicism, paralyzing duly elected governments ... all in the name of democracy. Such people should be tried for treason and banished from public fora. Yet they will continue to flourish and flaunt unabatedly thanks to a coterie which runs the media in this country. Lets use blogs like yours and social media like FB to expose such people and awaken the right thinking people in this country to action.... Nevertheless... thanks for writing this piece !

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks a lot!