Friday, December 24, 2010


Each time a year or a decade draws to a close, hacks and pundits shamelessly use words like tumultuous, turbulent, momentous and what not. Events that would not even find a footnote in history become momentous occasions that would transform everything. For a relatively new democratic nation state like India, every decade since the 1950s has been a defining one. The 1950s saw Nehru disarmingly wrap India Inc. around his web of socialist ideals while Dr. Ambedkar fought a heroic battle against revisionists to reform the Hindu Civil Code. The 1960s saw the dismal humiliation of India by China, the last famine that India witnessed and the beginning of the destruction of the Congress monopoly. The 1970s saw India Inc. being smothered by crony socialism even as Indira Gandhi and Jaiprakash Narayan fought an epic battle that nobody won. The 1980s saw India Inc. get just a whiff of freedom from stifling controls and Indian cricket finally broke free of its British Imperial legacy even as the soul of the nation fought what then seemed like a losing war against secessionism and insurgency. The 1990s saw economic opportunities multiply even as multiple and multiplying sectarian and secessionist violence of the most brutal kind struck blow aft er blow against the very Idea of India.

How would you sum up and characterise the post Y2K decade? (Yes, do you now recall how hacks and pundits were hell bent on categorising Y2K as something more apocalyptic than the most terrible visions of Nostradamus? And yes, how many of you do actually remember the Y2K frenzy?)

Being a hack and also having no shame in proclaiming myself as a self proclaimed pundit (as most fellow Indians do!), I would say this decade going by saw three things: the rise and rise of brazen crony capitalism (replacing the crony socialism) of the 1970s and 1980s and the simultaneous rise and rise of a wave against pathetic governance masquerading as populism; ethnic assertiveness or plain simple goondaism. Both are waging an epic battle; the first to enable some elements of India Inc. to take India back to some kind of paternalistic and pseudo-democratic corporate feudalism and the second to take India back to plain simple feudalism. Or not. The battles are being waged in earnest and oft en viciously; but I doubt if even Bejan Daruwala, hustling his annual dose of narcissism for Rs.295 a shot, can actually say who will win the war.

Back in 2001, India Inc. and middle class India were shaken by the Ketan Parekh scam; almost 10 years aft er SEBI was formed to prevent such scams and the venerable UTI almost collapsed because it invested your and my money in exorbitantly overpriced equities prompted by God knows who. Of course, please don’t forget the Tehelka scam the same year. The subsequent years saw scam aft er scam – small and big; the first real telecom scam and the petroleum pump scam to name just two. Aft er 2004, when the aam aadmi UPA government under the unquestionably honest Dr. Manmohan Singh came to power, India witnessed a bizarre situation, where genuine pro poor schemes and plans marched in tandem with gargantuan scams. One of the biggest scams, though hardly talked about now, is the manner in which the government was enriching corporate India at the expense of poor farmers through that fancy thing called Special Economic Zone (SEZ). And nothing seems to have changed even as the decade comes to a close.

Just look at the intriguing change in pattern. By the early 1990s, criminals had figured out the true worth of the institutions of Indian democracy. So instead of helping politicians with muscle power, they (or their chosen nominees) decided to become politicians. The Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary and the Fourth Estate became mere pawns as many of them launched successful political careers. In this decade, may businessmen have decided that apart from (not instead of) financing politicians, why not become politicians or make politicians of nominees? Just look at the number of high profile and astoundingly rich barons of India Inc. (and their nominees) who have done so this decade and you will figure out what I am talking. India Inc. always knew how to manipulate the Indian judiciary, just as the criminals figured out by the 1970s and 1980s. So many criminals are now being replaced in Indian politics by businessmen and their nominees. We in India cheer the electoral losses of the criminals; do we realise how insidious and dangerous the rise of the businessman nominated politicians are?

As things stand today, there doesn’t appear much hope for Indian democracy. But I am optimistic. For the simple reason that many Indians are now increasingly winning the smaller-oft en-unknown-battles in this big war. Our sister publication The Sunday Indian, in its special year end issue, has one story that highlights how a Dalit called Bant Singh in Punjab fought and is winning his battle against the system despite his daughter being gang raped and him losing his limbs. Who could have imagined in the 1990s that someone like Manu Sharma would actually spend quality time behind bars for the murder of Jessica Lal? Who could have imagined in the 1990s that school children in Uttar Pradesh could actually file RTI applications and force the administration to ‘finally do something’? Who could have imagined that an honest sitting judge of a High Court would write blogs against his own Chief Justice, exposing the rot in the judicial system? I can add so many more ‘who could haves’ but am sure you are familiar with them.

My Editor in Chief is absolutely clear that India actually needs to change from a ‘demonocracy’ to a genuine democracy. The war looks unevenly poised. But I am optimistic that through the course of history, the meek has started getting at least something; though I don’t see her inheriting the earth.

For years and years, Business & Economy has been proud to present analytical and oft en contrarian stories to readers that other publications prefer to ignore. In this issue too, enjoy again some of the very best we offered you in 2010!


Friday, November 26, 2010


The chatterati and the pundits seem to be behaving as if the 2G scam marks the end of the Indian civilization. There is passionate agonizing over how the carpetbaggers of crony capitalism have looted more than Rs 1.7 lakh crore (almost $40 billion) of potential revenue due to the Indian exchequer. There are inevitable and familiar laments about how the money could have been used to build more schools, health care centres et al for poor Indians (the real scam being that enough schools and health care centers for the poor have not been built even 63 years aft er independence; 54 years of Nehruvian socialism; 39 years of Garibi Hatao and 20 years of economic reforms).

Forgive me for being cynical; but I think the poor of India would actually cheer and welcome 2G style scams because they have actually given something worthwhile to the poor. Look at it this way: till former Minister A. Raja started doling out telecom licenses like prasad in a crowded temple, a handful of telecom operators were making a killing and the really poor could not still afford the tariffs charged by them. Post the monumental 2G scam, telecom tariffs actually dropped to a paisa a second and even lower. More importantly, intense competition forced telecom operators – both old and new – to look beyond saturated urban markets. The fact is: most of the 300 odd million new subscribers since 2008 live in small towns and rural India. For them, the power of mobile connectivity at oft en Rs.100 a month is literally a dream come true. Also, do not forget how smart entrepreneurs have grabbed this exploding market by importing Chinese handsets. Most of these models are in sync with this new market: they offer long battery (upto 72 hours, even 72 days!) life to people for whom long and unending power cuts are an unending reality.

Ask these poor Indians about the moral, intellectual and existential issues raised by the 2G scam and they will laugh at you. And justifiably. For more than 60 years, they have helplessly witnessed false promise aft er promise and scam aft er scam without any material difference to their wretched lives. Now, scam or not, they have got something concrete and worthwhile. As far as they are concerned, the pundits can go on debating to kingdom come.

And don’t underestimate the poor or their ability to figure out what is good for them. The perpetually scam tainted MRNEGA is another example of a pro-poor scam. Everybody knows corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors are still brazenly using NREGA funds to line their pockets. And yet the poor in rural India consider the scheme to be a divine blessing. Their logic? Earlier, they used to get nothing; now they at least get something. Raving and ranting and railing against NREGA corruption is not going to change that.

The fact is: Indira Gandhi was dead right when she categorized corruption as a global phenomenon. You must be living in cuckoo land if you think there is no corruption in countries like Japan, USA, UK et al. The best a society can do is miniminize corruption; it can never be eliminated.

Most (I wish I could say all!) of us wish and pray for corruption and scams to come down drastically. Till we move closer towards that Utopia, I say let a thousand 2 G type scams-which actually benefit the masses instead of the classes-bloom!


Friday, October 29, 2010



Allow me to put things in perspective right away. Most of you are painfully aware of the following facts: about 1.5 million Indians die of malaria every year; more than 1.5 million Indians succumb to TB every year and more than 2 million young children are killed every year by diarrhoea and related stomach disorders. I have absolutely no doubt that all right-thinking Indians often feel ashamed by these appalling numbers and the heartbreaking human misery that is hidden behind the statistics. And yet, India is awash with activists and NGOs who keep trumpeting from every available rooftop that AIDS is a kind of Biblical scourge that is devouring India. So persistent, so loud and so powerful are the voices of these activists and NGOs that many Indians think AIDS is one of the biggest killer diseases to stalk India. But how many unfortunate Indians are actually killed by AIDS? Not even one for every Indian that dies of malaria, TB or diarrhoea. Common sense demands: then why ignore TB and malaria and create such a hoopla about AIDS?

You guessed it. It just so happens that a certain corporate baron and philanthropist called Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates have been donating hundreds of millions of dollars for tackling AIDS in Third World countries. Yes, they do donate equally well to address some other health issues too, but the very word of AIDS conjures up magic that opens doors to vast donations, funds and incredible opportunities to travel around the world and schmooze with assorted do-gooders. So it is AIDS that everyone talks about – including page 3 people. Try talking and arguing with these activists about why we should be paying more attention to malaria and TB. The best response you will get is a derisive snort while the more ideologically evolved activists will accuse you of being a reactionary, a Neanderthal, a feudal and worse. Forget the jargon, AIDS is sexy. Who cares about TB and malaria?

Don’t you think that just about sums up the state of activism in India?

Let me make a few points here. First: no one with common sense will deny that AIDS is a serious problem. Second, the unfortunate fact is that TB and malaria are bigger problems. Third, anyone who denies this has a serious problem of misplaced priorities. If you are a CEO running a company or even senior manager running a division, you will know that priorities are critical. That’s what students of basic economics are taught: priorities determine the balance between unlimited needs and limited resources. Th at is what a good politician learns very quickly: how to prioritise the numerous – and often conflicting – demands. Th at is how societies, nation states and civilisations have evolved: by learning to prioritise and then trying to balance the conflicting priorities.

There will always be a conflict between security and human rights. Both are very important for a young democracy like India. There will always be a conflict between industrialisation and environment. Both are very important for sustainable growth of the Indian economy. There will always be a conflict between infrastructure projects and the people whose lives the projects will disrupt. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between new technologies like GM in agriculture and the preservation of existing pool of seeds and know-how. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between globalisation and the threat it poses to local communities and livelihoods. The real challenge is to nurture both.

Nobody (no one at least in his/her right senses) has ever said that balancing these conflicting priorities is simple. It has always been an incredibly tough, complex and demanding challenge, and will always remain so. Well governed societies with dollops of common sense seek a balance between these conflicting priorities. A democracy with the rights to free speech and protest offers the best method of resolving these conflicts. As philosophers have always known: democracy is a terrible way of governing and managing societies, but humanity is yet to find a better way. Indeed, the world is full of ‘isms’ and no sensible person will claim that the ‘ism’ they profess to believe in is the only solution.

The problem with contemporary India is that activists not just blindly believe that their ‘ism’ is the best; they also want to ram it down the throat of all Indians. God knows what ‘ism’ the Goddess of Small Things Arundhati Roy believes in. The fact is: Indian democracy has given her the freedom to rave, rant, protest, write, excoriate, condemn and demonise anything that tickles her fancy in a manner that no other Third World country would allow (I wonder what would be her fate if Arundhati Roy spouted venom of the kind she spouts here in Saudi Arabia or China or any of the hitherto Marxist paradises that existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). I personally think she has every right to speak the way she speaks because we are indeed a democracy. In any case, she had publicly seceded from India back in 1998 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government went ahead with nuclear tests. The problem is not that. The problem is the utter contempt she has for the other point of view; the complete unwillingness to even consider that India confronts twin problems of internal security threats and human rights abuses. No wonder she was wallowing in ideological pleasure when she described the murderous Maoists as Gandhians with Guns even as they were planning to ambush and kill more than 75 CRPF personnel – most of them poor Indians whose cause she claims to espouse. So she travels from seminar to seminar, rally to rally, protest meet to protest meet condemning the Indian State and the security forces.

In her lexicon and world view: the only internal security threat that India faces is the Indian State. Now, what would happen if policy makers actually implemented her vision and embraced terrorists from Pakistan and her Gandhians with Guns as the real patriots of India? I suspect, she couldn’t care less. As the Activist Number One of India, her job is to denounce and condemn. And Roy – and hundreds of thousands of activists like her in India – have learnt the art of propaganda very well. I feel proud of India as a democracy when people like her rave, rant and shout. But I really start worrying about the future of India when persistent propaganda leads the government to start thinking of doing what she wants. Taken to the logical conclusion, the Roy solution is to dismantle the entire Indian armed forces, the paramilitary forces and the police.

The manner in which the ilk of Roy are chipping away at the foundations of the Indian State and society is so insidious that many people like you and me do not seem to recognise the terrifying consequences of the sustained hate propaganda they have launched. But I have little doubt that India will soon pay a price.

The more immediate impact of activists is on industrial projects. Week aft er week, we get to hear that pressure from activists has prompted the government to abandon an industrial or infrastructure project. The most immediate ones are the Vedanta and POSCO projects in Orissa. Let me not get into the details of the projects. Let me also clarify here that this magazine – and its sister publication The Sunday Indian – has often attracted the ire of corporate India in the form of legal notices and cases when we have highlighted their misdeeds – particularly when it comes to cheating poor citizens of their livelihoods while going for ambitious industrial projects. And yet, I do think that policy making in India is reaching a stage where we are happy to throw the baby away with the bath water. Th is is what the former collector of Kalahandi Pradeep Jena has to say about the now doomed Vedanta project: “When I was a district collector of Kalahandi, I have seen how people were happy and cheerful when it was declared that Vedanta Alumina Refinery Project proposal will be finalised at Lanjigarh. There was a welcoming atmosphere everywhere in the district since Kalahandi had not a single industry at that time. Public notion was that, overall development of the area and people can be achieved through industrialisation. But thereaft er, social activism gradually started against the project. Then gradually public opinion changed. I found it strange when I saw those, who once were welcoming the project, turning hostile towards industrialisation overnight. I don’t know why some people strategically want to keep away those primitive tribes from modern society and lifestyle?”

I mean, there is no doubt that Vedanta – and the off icials who allowed it to – violate rules and norms must be punished. But must the poor of Kalahandi be perpetually denied the benefi ts of industrial growth just because activists are convinced that they are better off in pristine poverty with a life expectancy of less than 45 years and infant mortality of more than 300 per thousand? I have been following the Posco controversy too where a committee appointed by Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh has declared that the Posco project violates tribal rights. Now, I have done my schooling in Orissa and fi nd it preposterous when the esteemed committee members say that tribals are being forcibly displaced by the Posco project. There never were tribals living traditionally in that area; the closest they lived was hundreds of kilometres away. Ask anyone in Orissa and she will tell you this is a fact. And yet, we – even in the media – have collectively swallowed this nonsense that the land needed for the Posco project is a traditional habitat of tribals!

That brings us to the darker side of activism which all of us know but feel too polite to publicly shout about. Says Rajesh Sharma, News Editor, Sandesh Daily, Ahmedabad, “The role of all these so called ‘activists’ is very clear. Most of them have a clear agenda to blackmail the industrialists. They raise the issue, protest heavily, hold rallies and dharnas and when the situation worsens as per their planning, they simply signal the other party for compromise. Not surprisingly, they ‘charge’ a heft y amount for setback. Th is kind of pre-planned and well intentional drive of protesting industrial projects is uprising. The time has come for authorities to take charge of the situation and give them a lesson.”

It is the proliferation of ideologically fanatical, India-hating and downright greedy activists that is giving a bad name to what was once considered a noble cause. I mean, look at someone like Aruna Roy. The lady gave up her job as an IAS officer and has been working with villagers in Rajasthan as an activist for close to four decades. Most people like you and me cannot even comprehend the dedication and commitment that Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy has displayed. But how many times have you heard her going out of her way seeking publicity and spouting venom against India?

The fact is: activism is now a sunrise sector where the opportunity to make tons of money and seek your 15 minutes of fame exists alongside the simple desire to help. No wonder the number of NGOs has grown from a little more than 1 lakh in the 1970s to more than 1.1 million currently. No wonder that foreign donations according to government have gone up during the same time from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than 4 billion dollars every year. No wonder that aid agencies like Oxfam lament that less than 500 NGOs in India actually follow ‘honest and transparent’ accounting practices.

I will provide one more example to conclude my argument. Everyone knows that Indian agriculture faces a crisis of stagnation and productivity, that the Indian farmer is in desperate need of help. But the largest number of NGOs and activists working in this sector are those who relentlessly oppose GM crops. They were so successful in city aft er city in portraying GM crops as an evil force during public hearings and debates that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh refused to allow them in India. Suffice to say that activists and vested interests in Europe spend millions of dollars opposing GM crops because it is primarily an American technological success. I am not saying GM crops off er a solution to India. But can we at least talk and debate about it please?

And what can India do about these India hating, development hating and ideologically fanatical activists and NGOs? If we remain a democracy, they have a right to be destructive. I am personally convinced a majority of Indians will sooner or later see through these gimmicks for what they are.


Friday, October 15, 2010


Water was shimmering almost all the way to the horizon. Th e gates of the Hirakud dam, more than 50 years aft er it was built, stood as sentinels guarding the Nehruvian legacy that dreamt of the ‘modern temples of India.' I am on a trip to Orissa to work on a story for the year end issue of our sister publication Th e Sunday Indian. I recall how we used to feel proud as children when the Hirakud dam was touted as the longest dam in the world; and along with Bhakra Nangal Dam, the Nehruvian thrust that would propel India towards becoming an industrialised and prosperous nation.

But, like so many other Nehruvian dreams and legacies, the Hirakud dam too is now becoming a mute testimony to the cruel joke that ‘development’ is playing on the common citizens of India. For decades, the irrigated fields near Hirakud dam produced record harvests and made the farmers of this area genuinely prosperous. Many of these farmers are migrants from Andhra Pradesh who have toiled hard for generations to leverage irrigation and water to build economic security – and even prosperity. Now, many of these farmers are committing suicide.

The reason is simple: this part of Orissa is witnessing rapid industrialisation and steel plants plus other industrial projects are mushrooming with amazing speed. They are all hungry for water, and lots of it. What better source than the Hirakud dam. Local farmers are already realising with dismay that ‘industry’ almost always gets preference over ‘agriculture’ when the state machinery is concerned. So these huge steel plants and other projects have started taking away water that for generations irrigated the fields of the farmers and generated golden harvests. Of course, they are protesting; but then the state is making its priorities very clear. It wants industry. One of the most ironical and cruel aspects of this is that the original ‘oustees’ of the Hirakud dam now face ‘displacement’ yet again because the state now wants the land they were forced to resettle in for ‘industry’.

This is not very different from the manner in which land has been snatched away from common citizens in the name of development. Virtually, all over India, places like Nandigram and Singur have become symbols of the tyrannical manner in which the State compels local people to hand over land for industrial projects and so-called SEZs without paying adequate compensation. Something similar is happening with water. Local farmers have depended on the water discharged by Hirakud dam for decades to irrigate their fields. Now that the same water will be diverted for industrial projects, who will compensate them for the loss of livelihood? Mark my words, this issue of the State forcibly diverting water for ‘industry’ is going to trigger violent protests.

In any case, the manner in which we manage water reflects how feudal and predatory our State still is. Bureaucrats and those with money have virtually unlimited access to water in their houses and use it extravagantly. People living in slums actually buy water everyday – oft en paying as much as Rs.20 per bucket. In Mumbai, officers of the Indian Navy get water supply for barely half an hour everyday. Th e powers that be have no such problem. So much for the egalitarian society Nehru dream about.


Friday, October 1, 2010


Rising powers have a habit of flexing muscles. They are also genetically programmed to keep pushing the envelope; to keep cajoling, threatening, posturing and browbeating neighbours and other global powers. Germany did that in the beginning of the late 19th century. Japan did that in the first half of the 20th century. Russia did that even before the end of the Second World War. The result was two World Wars and a Cold War. Now, it is the turn of China to enter the equation.

Will the rise of China eventually lead to conflict, violence, bloodshed, hatred, triumphal emotions and even a war? If you go by history, violence, bloodshed and war are very much on the cards. Notice how China behaved almost immediately after it surpassed Japan as the second largest economy of the world. It has ploughed into a war of words with Japan. Ostensibly, the dispute is related to conflicting sovereign rights of the two nations over East Asian waters. In reality, it is China flexing its now hefty muscles and generally telling the world that it is really a Big Boy now; not to be trifled with. It doesn’t help that Japan had once militarily occupied China; Chinese rulers don’t seem to mind stoking jingoistic fires, as the average Chinese citizen is reminded again and again of Japan’s role as a former Imperial power.

China is treating India even more disdainfully. It refuses to allow a serving army general to visit China only because he is posted in Jammu and Kashmir which, China now seems to think, is a disputed territory. It is refusing to give visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh, since it claims the state actually belongs to China. It deliberately provokes and humiliates India by stapling visas to the passports of visiting Kashmiris instead of stamping them. It tried every trick in the book to sabotage India’s entry into the formal club of nuclear powers. Having failed, it is publicly and loudly doing everything it can to help Pakistan with nuclear technology and reactors; in a deal that mirrors India’s nuclear deal with the United States.

This China has to be stopped before it goes too far; so far down the road that conflict and war become inevitable in Asia. And India is in a unique position to play the kind of balancing role that will prevent that kind of catastrophe. As of now, Japan and India are the only powers in Asia who can say no to China. Others like South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia too would love to do that; but they simply don’t have the heft to do so.

As the visit of US President Barack Obama draws near, India strategists must ponder over this new role India must play in Asia. The idea is not to oppose everything that China does. But it is to send an unmistakable message to the rulers in Beijing that that there is a limit to which they can proceed and not beyond that. How about persuading America, Japan and ASEAN nations to announce that Tibet is disputed territory? How about providing special incentives to investors from Taiwan?

The sooner China realizes that there will always be limits to its power, the more its rulers will think before crossing the line while playing Big Boy. Frankly, that would be good even for China.


Friday, September 17, 2010


The pink papers have been going ga ga over the spanking new Wholesale Price Index (WPI). First, the new index shows that the rate of inflation is 8.5% while the old index would have it at about 9.5%. Conjure and juggle numbers and voila, you have taken care of the aam aadmi! Second, the new index (admittedly) better reflects the changing structure of the Indian economy where citizens now consume a larger basket of products and services. More than 220 new product and service categories have been added to make the index more representative. That’s compelling logic no doubt.

But take a quick look at the kind of new product and service categories added and you will immediately realize how this government – thanks to a hopelessly ineffective opposition and a virtually supine and servile media – is getting away by fooling all the people almost all the time. Some of the new products that are part of this ‘more representative’ index are beer (a weight of 0.155), ice cream, mineral water (I am sure distressed farmers rush off to buy a bottle of Bisleri along with pesticides when they see suicide as the only option), blended liquor, gold (a weight of 0.364), computers, washing machines and refrigerators (a weight of 0.194). How many of the 500 odd million Indians who live in abject and degrading poverty drink beer & mineral water and go to swanky malls to buy computers and refrigerators?

Sure, some might argue that the presence of 500 million poor Indians does not mean that we don’t need a ‘better’ and ‘bigger’ WPI. After all, the consuming classes too are Indian citizens. Fair enough. But how about an honest attempt to create a new consumer price index that reflects the consumption patterns of the really poor and of families hovering on the edges of poverty? Of course, we have consumer price indices of various kinds – for industrial workers and even for agricultural workers. But when was the last time you heard about this government spending time, money and energy on committees to upgrade those indices? The point is simple: for the really poor, more than 80% of income is spent on food. And with rampaging food inflation, you can well imagine their plight. Nobody talks about it anymore because the vocal middle class which also consumes the media has been virtually insulated against inflation because of a rapid rise in family incomes – both in the private and the government sector. And yet, imagine the hungama that is created when the price of LPG cylinders is raised by a relatively meager amount. Really, this is unparalleled hypocrisy for a society that claims to be democratic and a government that claims to think mainly of the aam aadmi.

Food-grains rotting while the poor are starving? This government ticks off the Supreme Court for interfering in policy matters. Vocal and politically powerful groups demand more reservations? Give it to them: most of them will not go to a college anyway. The poor dying of malaria and tuberculosis by the tens of thousands and their families going bankrupt due to medical expenses? Give more ‘subsidised’ land for corporate hospitals.

By the way, the new index also has an entry called ‘rose’. Wonder what Jawaharlal Nehru would have thought of that.


Friday, September 3, 2010


Just imagine the kind of mind-boggling multi-tasking he is doing. Here you have the Supreme Court of India that loudly and publicly berates him for allegedly trying to ‘spin’ the orders passed by the Court regarding food for starving Indians. Lest you think, this Supreme Court ‘flipper’ will flip him and make him move his focus away from spin, you are wrong. There are reports that it is actually ‘fast’ and ‘swing’ bowling that holds his attention. I am really guessing out here, but I have a feeling that Justice Kapadia is at the moment less important to him than Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif.

And why not? Sharad Pawar has been a politician, a minister, a Chief Minister and a Prime Minister in waiting for so long that a few barbs here and there, trying to prick his conscience about starving Indians will not really matter to him. After all, how can it matter when the ‘farmer’ politician knows that a 20% food inflation will starve people (who spend almost 80% of their income on food) and then blithely announces that the menace will soon be tamed… I am sure, it was easier Taming the Shrew… But for Sharad Pawar, this is his first stint as the President of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and scandals like the one so embarrassingly visible about Pakistani players is a challenge he is facing for the first time. After all, his name in posterity could go down as the honcho of ICC, who presided over the decline and fall of cricket because fans fi nally got tired of watching fixed matches. Surely you know that is different from poor farmers getting tired of ‘fixed’ distribution of food.

But jokes apart, and trying our best to forget the mess that the Commonwealth Games is making when it comes to the image of India (and please don’t smirk: I won’t be surprised if some of our new IPL stars from India eventually get enmeshed in this spot fixing scam), have we given serious thought to this extreme and ultimate form of crony socialism? I mean, Sharad Pawar might be the ultimate when it comes to multi-tasking; but how does he simultaneously deal with starving Indians and the swinging ways of Pakistani fast bowlers whose girl friends tend to kiss and yell? You can give as much spin as you want to this sorry tale; but surely Sharad Pawar must be spending some quality time everyday on the spot fixing scam? What about food security for Indians?

Call me nostalgic and a fool (and I am sure some guys made money even then). But I remember being proud of being an Indian during Asian Games '82. And I was prouder still when I heard tales as a young journalist about how Madhav Rao Scindia played a key role in ensuring South Asia got the Cricket World Cup in 1996. I know, South Asia is once again preparing for the next edition of the World Cup in 2011. And I know we will rave and rant about ‘white’ and ‘western’ media and people being prejudiced and racist when it comes to simple, God-fearing, innocent folks like you and me.

Like some Queen somewhere might have said when asked about spot fixing: “Out Damned Spot”.


Friday, August 20, 2010


The credibility of our politicians is so low that the media and the public at large are sniggering at the proposal to raise the salary of MPs to 50,000 per month. Thanks mainly to their own behaviour and the brazen corruption of some of their fellowmen, we often tend to forget or ignore the fact that those are MPs and MLAs who actually perform the most important tasks in the country. For the middle class chatterati which has a ‘radical’ solution for every problem that India faces, the solution would be doing away with MPs, and perhaps even elections. Frankly, the middle class chatterati has no interest in democracy. But India cannot afford such solutions.

Given the enormity of the task they perform, I think the MPs need to be paid far more than what they get now. Look at it this way: each MP is responsible for a shareholder base of about 20 million. The actual budget of each constituency runs into hundreds of crores every year. And while district collectors and district magistrates are merely transferred for incompetence or non-performance, an MP can – and oft en does – actually lose his job! To that extent, an MP actually deserves a monthly salary of 5 Lakh per month. There should be an additional travel and other allowance of 1 lakh per month. That sounds preposterously high? It is not. Paying them these ‘reasonable’ salaries will cost the tax payer less than 1000 crores a year.

But as pointed out and suggested by this magazine and many others umpteen number of times, the problem is not paying generous salaries to our MPs – they deserve that for sure. The problem is with the ‘perks’ that they enjoy. That really is costly and something no elected representative of any functional democracy can demand as a right. Yes, by all means pay 6 lakh every month to our honourable MPs. But then stop giving them free housing in VIP Delhi. Just as it happens in UK, USA, Denmark, Australia and most other democracies, ask our honourable MPs to find their own houses-rented or owned. This will lead to enormous savings for the society – apart from making the MPs more connected with the citizens of India.

Just imagine what can happen to the Indian economy if the logic is extended to all politicians and all bureaucrats in India. They are squatting on the most prime real estate assets available in the country. For example, pay a district collector (an IAS officer) a monthly salary of 1 lakh and ask her to find her own house. Surely the rent for even a wonderful house in a small town cannot exceed 20,000? Why let her stay in a massive bungalow with acres of lawns when that land can be better utilized commercially?

You know what the answer will be when politicians and bureaucrats are actually offered this option – huge tax free salaries but no perks. They will find every possible excuse and refuse. That is because our mindset has really not changed much since the British left. Our rulers (politicians and bureaucrats) are ‘public servants’ only in name. Deep down, they treat the ‘public’ as worse than servants. Long live Indian democracy!


Friday, August 6, 2010


The manner in which the chattering class is reacting to the massive corruption that is being unearthed in the run up to the Common ‘wealth’ Games can be described in two ways: it is either charmingly naïve or disarmingly sanctimonious. Either ways, we again hear clarion calls from all and sundry on the need to change the ‘system’. Since change should begin at the top, here is a new look Union Cabinet that Manmohan Singh can wave at the nation with a brief mention of some key ministers and ministries:

• Lalit Modi becomes the Union Finance Minister. I don’t know what will happen to India’s finances (Though I guess you can take a guess!). But one thing is for sure. Hundreds of millions of Indians will start watching the Lok Sabha TV channel because cheerleaders from South Africa with micro mini skirts will start dancing on the aisle of the Parliament.

• Suresh Kalmadi becomes the Union Minister of Mines. This will ensure that his team of officials, advisors, friends and partners will think that all of India is an open cast mine and start digging up everything, everywhere. The aam aadmi is anyway used to the mountains of dirt that will start flying all over.

• Vijay Mallya becomes the Union Foreign Minister. His fellow Karnataka citizen S.M. Krishna may have mucked it all up. But he will be different. The moment Shah Mahmood Qureshi-the Foreign Minister of Pakistan starts opening his ‘loud’ mouth, Mallya will unveil the latest Kingfisher calendar. That will lead not only to peace, but also a jaw dropping spectacle. Who knows, even the Taliban might decide that women in Afghanistan can go without veils.

• Arundhati Roy becomes the Union Home Minister. The first thing she will do is send Digvijay Singh on a Marco Polo like journey to discover the ‘root causes’. Then she will join the Gandhians with Guns in the jungles of Chattisgarh and draft a new internal security doctrine. The primary objective of the doctrine will be that at least 100 security personnel are killed every week in ambushes. Of course she won't be satisfied with that. She will have the Gandhians with Guns chop off the limbs of those who dare oppose her visions of a pastoral paradise. Since she has since long seceded from the Indian Republic, she won’t even have to take the oath of office.

• Mamata Bannerjee becomes the Union Civil Aviation Minister. I don’t know what you will do, but I will surely rediscover the joys and ecstasies of traveling by train.

• Lalu Prasad Yadav becomes the Union Surface Transport Minister. All Indian roads will start looking like Hema Malini’s cheeks. And there will be no question of any tongue in cheek.

• Prakash Karat becomes special envoy to America. Since many Americans are anyway convinced that Barack Obama is a closet Marxist, Karat will do wonders to Indo-American relations.

And of course, Manmohan Singh doffs his hat to the Union Agriculture & Food Minister Sharad Pawar for his scintillating performance and announces that he is stepping down, to be replaced by the Maratha strongman as the Prime Minister. I don’t know about you; but I have a sneaking feeling that Lalit Modi will be grateful.


Friday, July 23, 2010


You got it right. When it comes to the impossible task of dealing with Pakistan, a hack can always fall back upon a dictionary full of clichés and yet have room for some of the more tired ones. The one I have stumbled upon this time gives a slightly wicked twist to that old one about hoping for the best. When it comes to Pakistan, it is high time (another damn cliché!) that India hopes for the worse and is prepared for the worst. The real reason for this conclusion is based upon another old one: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. And yes, we in India are on the verge of repeating history in a manner that will only confuse, befuddle and eventually humiliate the nation.

Look at what happened recently in Islamabad when the former Chief Minister of Karnataka and former Governor of Maharashtra and current Foreign Minister S.M Krishna was holding ‘peace’ talks with his Pakistani counterpart S.M Qureshi. I still fail to understand how the word ‘peace’ is so badly misused and rammed into the agenda of talks between India and Pakistan. I mean, both you and I know that the real chances of peace (at least if you interpret the word honestly) between India and Pakistan are more remote than Rahul Gandhi joining the BJP – as long as the existing ruling establishment in Pakistan rules the roost (another damn cliché!). What happened in Islamabad was predictable, if you know your history. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan was least interested in ‘peace’; his agenda was to play to the gallery (oops, another one!) – a gallery that seats the ruling military establishment and its principal strategic ally, the group of Jehadi outfits whose declared aim is the destruction of India. Semantics about whether Qureshi broke diplomatic protocol and niceties and whether Krishna should have given a fitting reply are useless; the problem is, we persist with the vain hope that Pakistan might one day stop giving two hoots about niceties when it comes to India.

The second decade of the 21st century looks ominously similar to the last decade of the 20th century when the retreating Soviet Union left a vacuum in Afghanistan. It is a matter of time before American and NATO forces will do something similar in this decade. In both cases, the ruling military establishment of Pakistan had, and has, strong and credible reasons to be convinced that its policy of forging a strategic alliance with the Jehadis is paying spectacular dividends. Despite tall talk from America and feigned bluster from the generals in Islamabad, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan has never severed its ties with Jehadi groups even after 9/11.

And now, when the generals in Islamabad sense an opportunity to once again acquire strategic depth in Afghanistan a la the 1990s, it makes no sense for them to stop mollycoddling the Jehadis, particularly the ones that are most viciously disposed towards India. So please stop nursing silly notions of our neighbour actually dispensing justice and punishing those guilty of 26/11. In fact, they will be rewarded.

And brace for more terrible terror attacks as this decade progresses.


Thursday, June 10, 2010


Many years ago, the ‘legendary’ GE CEO Jack Welch proclaimed in virtually as many words that CEOs who spent money on corporate social responsibility were morons and deserved to be sacked because their primary function was to reward shareholders. Of course, when Jack Welch delivered this central tenet of capitalism and ‘free’ markets, America and the world were celebrating the triumph of capitalism over socialism and Francis Fukuyama had even announced the end of ideology.There were many in India who wildly cheered the triumph of capitalism as the magic wand that would solve India’s economic problems. They even hectored, bullied and ridiculed policy makers who did not want India to adopt what George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz have so brilliantly described as ‘financial capitalism’ and ‘free market fundamentalism’. That breed has of course gone relatively quiet after the 2008 meltdown.

Yet, the recent verdict in the Bhopal gas homicide (yes, I am deliberately using the word because Bhopal will always be a case of corporate homicide) has raised many fundamental questions about banally used terms like Capitalism, Free Markets and Profits. Most people – and very rightly so – have condemned the entire event as a travesty of justice. Thinking people have again raised red flags about the pathetic state of the justice delivery system in India. Politicians, as usual, have sputtered, fumed, raved and ranted on TV news channels.

If you are an optimist, you might be tempted to think that the uproar triggered by the Bhopal case might result in some legal reforms whereby companies and CEOs will actually be made to pay for corporate crimes that endanger and damage human beings and society (I personally think that Bhopal would have disappeared from TV screens by the time you read this). If you are an angst filled cynic like me, you might wonder if that Utopia will ever been seen. Look at what is happening in the fountainhead of Capitalism – America. More than 20 years ago, there was a disastrous oil spill and the culprit was the giant Exxon. I still remember – as a young journalist – reading wise columns in T e Economist arguing for better regulation of ‘Free Markets’ and ‘Capitalism’ as the way to avoid the similar tragedies in the future. (By then, the failure of Socialism to protect human lives from industrial disasters had been cruelly exposed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the erstwhile Soviet Union). More than 20 years later, it is another giant BP that is the culprit and another oil spill in America is causing monumental damage.

Cynical it may sound, but for someone like me with a very modest understanding of economics, it seems clear that the pursuit of profits (the sole reason of existence of companies in a capitalist system) will always cause human misery and deprivation. It also seems to me that the word ‘Free Market’ is a farce because a truly free market means all participants have access to information. You must be joking if you still think the underprivileged have access to information in a capitalist system wile making transactions.

I know; one cannot dismiss Capitalism and Free Markets completely as evil because they have actually lift ed hundreds of millions out of poverty. And yet, I wonder if free markets can ever swat away the stench of human misery.


Friday, May 28, 2010


I was scheduled to take IC 878 from Bhubaneswar to Delhi on May 26 after doing field work for a story on the controversial Vedanta University project in Orissa (Please do read the cover story in this issue). Of course, I became one of the thousands of ‘stranded’ passengers thanks to the “irresponsible” strike called by the trade unions of Air India. I managed to get a ticket on an Indigo flight and landed safely in Delhi. Today morning, I picked up the papers and read that Civil Aviation minister Praful Patel was telling journalists that “there has to be some accountability” even as he blasted unions of Air India for suddenly going on strike so soon after the Mangalore tragedy.

I couldn’t help laughing loudly at the words and also laughing at the hysterical sanctimony displayed by newspapers and TV channels branding Air India employees as anti-national ghouls and blackmailers. I really don’t think you and I can blame the employees and the unions for the strike or for thinking that they are not accountable. Hold your breath: I hold no brief for the unionised employees. Like you and others, I am also disgusted by these antics. But then, who made these employees so unaccountable in the first place? And is accountability a one way street for employees to follow while politicians and top bureaucrats wantonly flout norms? In case you forgot, one of the more interesting items of news that came out during the muck raking IPL scandal recently was how the daughter of Praful Patel had allegedly diverted Air India flights with paying passengers to suit either her fancy or that of Lalit Modi or God knows who. Did accountability fl y out of the window Mr. Patel? Were not paying passengers harassed by these abrupt and arbitrary changes in their flight schedules? And how many journalists and media outlets since then have you seen or heard chasing the story and finding out if the daughter of the Civil Aviation minister did those things?

Frankly, our system is so rotten that even journalists like me have become used to the fact that ministers and their kin have a birthright when it comes to doing anything they want to. At Bhubaneswar airport, I was chatting with some AI employees who were still on strike. Some of them offered me an interesting piece of information which I must share with you. Thanks to companies like Infosys setting up shop in Orissa, air traffic between Bangalore and Bhubaneswar has gone up manifold. Air India used to run a direct flight between Bangalore and Bhubaneswar. Suddenly, the direct flight service was stopped. Now, the real beneficiary is Kingfisher Red, which runs a direct flight. The employees tell me with a grin that this almost certainly happened when the de facto owner of Kingfisher Red was a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Aviation!!!

Let's all grow up guys and stop hectoring only the Air India employees just because they don’t have the power to hit back. Let's just celebrate India Shining and the good times and stop this sanctimony about accountability.


Friday, May 14, 2010


Two issues have engaged pundits in recent days. The first one relates to the Supreme Court verdict that seems to have gone against Anil Ambani. Apart from furious number crunching, the verdict has also triggered a spate of stories on the role of lobbyists used by India Inc. to win battles and wars in North Block, South Block and many other blocks that stand as sinister reminders of a feudal and oligarchic India that refuses to fade away. I am not joking, but I think I now know more about Nira Radia than Nusli Wadia! And honest to goodness, I know some ambitious young television journalists who seem to be confused about who is who between the two!!!

The second debating point was triggered by the stubbornly persistent footin- the-mouth disease of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who trashed Indian policy and Indian policymakers while visiting China. This has led to a spate of stories on the strange ability of Indian ministers to say things which embarrasses the UPA government. Oh yes, I got to read dozens of delicious ‘recall’ stories about how the tweet about flying cattle class was the beginning of the end for Shashi Tharoor.

All the sound, fury, punditry and polemics generated by the two controversies have missed – as usual – missed the central issues that need to be addressed: What should be the relationship between India Inc. and the government? And, what should be India’s strategic posture when it comes to China? The stark reality is that there is a very depressingly familiar lack of vision and a long term plan on both counts. And both India Inc. and policymakers are equally guilty of this short-sightedness.

Not one account of the ‘lobbying wars’ unleashed by the Ambani brothers seems to acknowledge and accept the fact that the corporate sector and the government work very closely together in the US, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Russia and China. That is a reality no amount of moral grandstanding by columnists will erase. You must be living in a fool’s paradise if you think Embraer, Lenovo, Huwaei, LG, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and numerous others have become global powerhouses solely on the basis of entrepreneurial genius and without any active as well as clandestine ‘State’ support. In India too, the corporate sector and the government have a cosy relationship. Like elsewhere, policymakers in India oft en take decisions that brazenly favour the corporate sector – many might say unjustifiably. The problem is, India Inc. and the government are happy with short term gains in the form of tax breaks, cheap land and other freebies. Ask yourself this one troubling question – with the tens of billions of dollars of market capitalisation, how is it that no Indian business house has managed to become a serious player in the telecom equipment business? Or in the IT server business? Or in the serious infrastructure business where Big Boys play day and night? That brings us to the vexing issue of China. It is the magazine The Economist, which informed us that China does not allow wind energy player Suzlon to sell turbines in China because it wants to encourage ‘local’ growth. How many media outlets in India have reported this fact? I rest my case.


Friday, April 30, 2010


I am sure many of you must have spent some time at the ‘still being created’ Delhi International Airport before taking a flight. It looks slick and is full of joints that sell burgers, beer, books and what not. It even has a spa. Of course, it is a different matter that a 'wee bit' of rain flooded the world class airport and that flights get routinely disrupted during winter because of fog. For a few burgers and other stuff , each one of us taking a domestic flight, is paying Rs.200 to GMR – the company that is behind modernisation of the Delhi airport – and each one of us, going out of India pays Rs.1,200 to GMR. Now hang on. You will find the media littered with reports and PR pieces about the great new Terminal 3 that is coming up. I am sure you will get more beers and burgers there. But rest assured, you will probably end up paying even more to GMR as user charges!

Busy as we are with the IPL scam and other matters of grave interest to the Indian citizen and consumer, hardly any hack is paying any attention to this organised loot that is happening. When GMR wanted to charge Rs.200 and Rs.1200 more from each outbound passenger, the logic it gave was that the project was becoming unviable without that money. The company also gave a commitment that it will submit details of costs and other estimates justifying the extra charges by September 2009. In the meanwhile, India got a spanking new regulator in the form of Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA). By March 2010, when GMR had forgotten or failed to file those numbers, AERA threatened that it will be compelled to withdraw the excess charge. Managers at GMR responded by saying that all details will be filed by April 6, 2010. I may be wrong, but I think no such report has been filed yet by GMR. Meanwhile, it is reported that GMR has made close to Rs.600 crore by selling usage rights to stores, franchises and builders.We now hear that the project cost has gone up from Rs.8,975 crore to Rs.12,700 crore!

So this is a double whammy for the consumer. First, you and I are fed with stories about how world class, how unique and how great the new airport will be. Then we are subtly told to be ready to pay substantially more as user charges to GMR when the new Terminal 3 becomes operational in July. GMR is a private risk-taking company whose principal job is to chase profits and take risks. In any other same situation, if the cost of the bid submitted by GMR went up by almost 50%, it would be punished by the markets as a failure of entrepreneurship and management. But this is India, where markets are subservient slaves of a system we all know as crony capitalism. And the newly formed AERA appears to be a toothless tiger, unable to stop this loot. But why single out GMR? Most Indian companies and entrepreneurs love the Indian system of capitalism, because it rewards them even when their estimates and decisions are plain wrong. And consumers like you and me can go to hell.

Just wait for July to see how a media campaign for even higher user charges will be unleashed.


Friday, April 16, 2010


Many of you might dismiss this as a plug; but believe me, this one comes straight from the heart. If you can spare some time, please read the cover story of T e Sunday Indian magazine that is available in the stands. You will read about a police constable Pratima Rout, one of the few who survived the Maoist massacre of Nayagarh (Orissa) in 2008. She was hospitalised with four serious bullet wounds. Forget adequate care, appreciation and compensation, Pratima realised that a senior cop of the IPS cadre actually stole some of the money allotted to her for treatment. The police department of Orissa now wants to recover the money from her. The same police department kept sending her notices demanding why the bullet riddled Pratima is not reporting for work. You will read about Mase, the widow of martyr Ganga Madkami, a policeman killed during a Maoist mine blast in Orissa in 2008. Mase and her eight year-old son Sunadhar, stay in a tribal village in the Malkangiri district – far away from the state capital Bhubaneswar. She is crestfallen and defeated by India’s bureaucracy; the illiterate widow has to go every month to Bhubaneswar and bribe a gang of ghouls (office babus) before she can lay hands on the pension due to her.

There is yet another case in which the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik personally intervened; or so the media reported. Sub-Inspector Ajit Bardhan was abducted and butchered by Maoists in July 2009. His retired father Jaykrishna Pradhan suffered a heart attack. The CM personally visited their house and issued categorical orders that the father and the widow (who incidentally went into labour on hearing of her husband’s death) be taken care of. Today, the retired father is doing the rounds of government offices because even the provident fund and family pension of his martyred son is yet to be released. There are numerous destroyed families of martyrs in Orissa – and everywhere else in India – who are going through more state-sponsored trauma.

Just forget all the hogwash about India Shining. How in God’s name can a nation and society even have the temerity to lay claim to greatness, when it so callously treats the families of those who laid down their lives to protect the nation and the society?

I could be biased because many of my close family members serve in the Armed Forces. But really, the shame is searing and scathing. I recall the summer of 1999 when India was fighting the Kargil war. My brother-in-law who belongs to The Rajputana Rifles, was sent with his unit to Kargil, leaving my sister and two young kids behind at Faizabad where he was posted. At the height of the war, I actually saw my sister being heckled by the railway reservation clerk at Faizabad who mocked at the fact that her husband had been sent to fight a war and she needed a train ticket that was her right as a citizen. I realised that day that the most destructive legacy the British had left behind was the bureaucracy.

Forget personal bias. Talk to anyone who knows these things and you will realise how the bureaucrats have systematically sidelined, humiliated and emasculated the Armed Forces. And then you read nonsense about India on the verge of becoming 'Great'? You must have a sick sense of humour...


Friday, April 2, 2010


Typically succumbing to hype and hyperbole, the media decreed that it was a “historic” verdict. I am talking about the death sentence given to five people in Haryana accused of brutally murdering a young girl and her husband for defying ‘tradition’ as decreed by caste chieftains. The man who organised the “khap” panchayat that delivered the death sentence on the couple has been sentenced for life. This is the first time that a court has given a death sentence to the accused in a crime like this. We all know that in large swathes of North India – particularly Haryana, Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh, such extra judicial executions of “lovers” have been a common occurrence, oft en with the cops looking the other way. In these parts of India, falling in love with someone of your “gotra” is clearly suicidal. Now, after this ‘historic’ verdict, pundits are proclaiming that the death sentence will act as a deterrent for the bigoted who think respect for ‘tradition’ and caste is more important than life and liberty.

Will it? I still recall a similar kind of media hype a few years ago when a court had convicted a Haryana based doctor of conducting “illegal” tests to determine the sex of a foetus and aborting it, because it happened to be that of a girl. That too was labeled a historic verdict and pundits had proclaimed that it would act as a deterrent for prejudiced parents and greedy doctors who routinely aborted pregnancies when the foetus turned out to be that of a girl child. To the best of my knowledge, prejudiced parents and greedy doctors – despite the historic verdict – persist with this social evil. In some parts of North India – Haryana again – things are so bad that strapping young lads have to share a bride ‘imported’ from West Bengal or Jharkhand because their parents finished off ‘local’ brides even before they were born.

This is a serious issue for all of us to ponder. What I have realised is that prosperity and even education do not seem to have an impact on the ‘mindsets’ that breed such social evils. A research study done a couple of years ago provided the shocking statistics that the sex ratio was the worst in South and West Delhi – the most prosperous and posh areas of the Indian capital. And of course, we all know that Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh are prosperous. You would think that access to higher education could change at least the people who get educated; that it might persuade them to forsake and renounce social evils. You would be mistaken. I have personally come across many Marx spouting “intellectuals” from parts of Eastern India who have passed through the portals and gates of the venerable Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and taken dowry without batting an eyelid. If an "intellectual” from JNU who becomes a civil servant, happily takes – and oft en demands – dowry, what do you expect from the illiterate villagers of Haryana?

Sure, law and legislation do not immediately help because it takes generations to change mindsets... But – if implemented effectively – they do make a difference. Look at that so-called land of liberty – America. Despite Barack Obama, racial prejudice & discrimination is an ugly reality out there. Imagine what would be the state of affairs if a law “empowering” blacks (known as the 'Civil Acts Right of 1964') had not been passed in 1964? And think about the status of blacks in America today, despite the law…


Friday, March 19, 2010


…against Manmohan Singh the politician. Everybody knows that bureaucrats – by definition, instinct, training and mindset – are incapable of leading revolutions. Forget revolution, the chances of bureaucrats initiating and nurturing even substantive change are about as high as Dr. Manmohan Singh personally contesting the next Lok Sabha elections against Sonia Gandhi. And in a dysfunctional democracy like India where bureaucrats are simply not accountable to absolutely anybody except their own old boys club, it would be folly to expect them to actually behave and perform like ‘public servants’. There have been notable and noble exceptions no doubt; but they have been exceptions. No matter how deeply fl awed they are, it is politicians who deliver change in a democracy – for better or for worse. And no matter how dysfunctional Indian democracy is, politicians have realised that they are indeed accountable to voters. So it is Jawaharlal Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar who first empowered a majority of Indian women by giving Hindu women property rights. It is Indira Gandhi who nationalised banks and abolished privy purses. It is the feisty George Fernandes who ‘threw’ Coke and IBM out of India. It is Rajiv Gandhi who preferred technocrats over bureaucrats to seed the revolution in India’s IT and telecom sectors. Sadly, it is Rajiv Gandhi who listened to terrible advice and made the Parliament deny alimony to Shah Bano. It is Madhav Rao Scindia who originally transformed Indian Railways. It is V. P. Singh who unleashed the Mandal genie. It is Atal Behari Vajpayee who took the nuclear leap of faith and unleashed a vision to modernize Indian roads and highways. It is Sonia Gandhi who compelled the government of the day to introduce historic policies like NREGS, RTI and now the Women’s Reservation Bill. And it is Kapil Sibal who seems determined to transform the rotten education system of India.

You may well wonder why I am stating the obvious and then following it up with a swathe of examples to stress the obvious. There is a reason. When Dr. Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister of India in 2004, discerning analysts had already figured out that there would be a titanic in house battle between Dr. Singh the quintessential bureaucrat and Manmohan Singh the reluctant politician. All those who genuinely wished India well, earnestly hoped that the reluctant politician would score over the hard core bureaucrat when matters really came to a head. Indeed, the manner in which he behaved like a ‘politician-statesman’ when it came to Indo-Pak ties and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, prompted many breathless pundits to proclaim that a canny and ruthless politician lurked behind the docile and oft en timorous façade.

But I think that ‘manufactured’ image itself is a façade. Many decisions and moves have convinced me that the bureaucrat usually scores over the politician. I will cite just some of them. Dr. Singh allowed bureaucrats to willfully humiliate the armed forces during the Sixth Pay Commission rip-off . He allowed massive Sixth Pay Commission pay hikes for bureaucrats without asking for even an iota of accountability. He did not publicly oppose the move by bureaucrats to remove ‘file notings’ from the purview of RTI. He seems to publicly support the argument of the judiciary to exempt top judges from RTI. And look at how his team introduced the deeply fl awed and anti-Indian Nuclear Liability Bill.

But then, I don’t blame Dr. Singh at all. I think we all expected too much from a retired bureaucrat!


Thursday, March 4, 2010

How this budget perpetuates feudalism and celebrates me diocrity

How is it that we almost always lose sight of the big picture? How is it that we use the word ‘vision’ as oft en as a bully uses threats and then singularly fail to walk the talk? How is it that we get away year after year by hoodwinking people? I don’t think the ruling class in India indulges in such philosophical concerns and doubts. No wonder, the Union Budget for 2010-11 is at best an exercise at maintaining mediocrity in vision and the big picture. At work, it tries very hard to perpetuate the feudal system of the country where those residing in ‘India’ are subjected to momentary bouts of titillation while those residing in ‘Bharat’ are condemned to an eternity of dependence and doles. If Pranabda were a bestselling author, the Budget can actually be seen as a set of two books. The first would be titled ‘How to Say No Even if You Can Say Yes’ and the other book (meant for poor Indians) would be titled ‘The Art of Living on Doles’

I am quite astonished at how so many pundits seem to be in a state of self inflicted denial when it comes to talking straight on the Budget and the repercussions it will have. So many of them seem unhappy and yet say in the same breath that the Finance Minister has done a great job of a difficult balancing act. Of course, the fearless and peerless captains of India Inc. as usual bow, scrape and crawl when they don’t even need to bend when it comes to evaluating the Budget proposals. Worse, the media seems full of accolades, once again confirming a known fact that the Indian media cares primarily for middle class, upper middle class and rich Indians while it cares two hoots for the 700 odd million citizens who dance on the peripheries of poverty. Just ask yourself this question: how would have TV channels, newspapers and magazines reacted if the Finance Minister announced that no Indian living in a ‘pucca’ house will get an LPG cylinder at Rs 300 and instead pay the actual cost which is in excess of Rs 450? And imagine how all hell would have broken loose if income tax exemption limits were not raised? Do remember, just about 2% to 3% of Indians pay income tax.

I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty and the gory details of this number crunching exercise. Let’s just look at the vision the Finance Minister unfolded and the set of 3 challenges he identified for the medium term. The first was to restore GDP growth rate to 9% a year and take it up to double digits. The second was to ensure that this double digit growth is more ‘inclusive’. And the third was to eliminate bottlenecks (leakages, corruption, loot – call it whatever you like) in delivery of goods and services by improving the quality of governance.

For almost a week, I have scratched my head to find out a single substantive measure or policy initiative in the Budget that could actually help India confront and surmount even one of the three challenges listed by the Finance Minister. I have failed.

Let’s look at double digit growth rates of GDP. In the first place, virtually every economist who is honest to her profession and answerable to her conscience knows that the 9% plus rates of GDP growth rates achieved during 2005-08 were not because of wonderful policies launched by the government, but despite India being one of the most difficult places in the world to start and run a business. Part of the amazing growth story was the amazing ability of Indian entrepreneurs – both big and small – to seek opportunities and exploit them ruthlessly; part of it was the simple fact that the pace of technological change simply outpaced the ability of Indian bureaucracy to throttle opportunities (IT, ITES and telecom are the best examples of this); and part of this amazing growth story was a spillover effect of the bubble that was rampaging across the global economy till 2008. Do remember this when you talk the next time about India being insulated from the global economy – the annual GDP growth rate dropped a massive 3% in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown and is still 2% below the peak rate of 9.3% despite the ‘recovery’. Worse, the track record of the government in building physical infrastructure – so critical to reach the double digit growth rate in GDP – has been simply abysmal in the last 5 years or so. The worst performance is in the power sector, ports highway construction and mining. How many mega power projects have started supplying electricity to the national grid? Why are Indian steel companies being forced to import more than 40 million tons of coal when India is supposed to be sitting on the second or third largest reserves of coal in the world? Why are pundits not asking these uncomfortable questions?

The yawning gap between intention and deed is even starker when it comes to the second challenge – ensuring that the high GDP growth rates are more inclusive. Has the government done anything to ensure that the poor acquire the ‘skills’ and ‘capability’ to earn a livelihood and that their children are not denied the opportunities that children of shining ‘India’ so blithely take for granted? Go back to this Budget speech and try to recall anything on that front. Of course, the Finance Minister has generously increased allocations for social welfare programmes like NREGS and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. But even the most generous description of NREGS would admit that it is actually a dole. Since when have doles replaced genuine investments in social infrastructure the long term weapons to fight poverty?

A complete failure to even honestly face the third challenge – tackling corruption and unaccountability in the government – is the most disgraceful of all. In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had identified reforms in bureaucracy as one of the most important priorities of his government. You won’t find him talking much about that. What has he done instead? Both quite a few honest and hardworking – and many, many more venal, corrupt and inefficient government ‘servants’ – have been rewarded with a 50% pay hike through the Sixth Pay Commission and this Budget has doubly rewarded them generous income tax relief.

So please spare me the rubbish about this Budget being a ‘good’, ‘positive’ or ‘pragmatic’ one. It is no break from the past. In fact, it perpetuates the past by rewarding mediocrity and venality and it is steeped in double standards and cynicism. But of course, the Indian economy will grow at high rates despite all this!


Thursday, February 18, 2010


It is a marvel – and almost a miracle – that Jihadis took 14 months after 26/11 to strike again at a soft target; this time the German Bakery in Pune. And it can happen only in India! The week before the blast, even as the Jihadis were making their final preparations, virtually the whole of Maharashtra was obsessed with a Shah Rukh Khan movie! And in typically Indian fashion, there is a cacophony of voices arguing about the efficacy of any talks between India and Pakistan. That is expected in a democracy like India; there will always be a set of Indians who will think that love and brotherhood will ultimately defeat the hatred and mayhem unleashed by the Jihadis and there will always be a set of Indians who think that it is pointless to have any dialogue of any form with Pakistan.

I don’t think it really matters much whether India talks to Pakistan or not; at least when it comes to Jihadi attacks. Why, even a full fl edged all-out war against Pakistan will not stop the Jihadi attacks. The terror strikes will stop only if the Establishment in Pakistan stops defining its raison d etre in terms of permanent enmity with India. There is really nothing much India can do about that except hope for the best and be prepared for the worst. What is more worrisome is the manner in which India is dealing with its ‘strategic ally’ and partner United States. Ever since the nuclear deal was signed, there is this lingeringly naïve belief that America will always come out in support of India – both overtly and covertly – when it comes to tensions, disagreements and worse with China and Pakistan. This belief persists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are periodic bouts of ‘Et Tu Brutus’ agonising when India is given a wakeup call by America that pursues its own strategic interests; consequences for India be damned.

Just look at the scenario unfolding in the Af-Pak region. The ‘allies’ led by the armed forces of America have launched an all-out assault on the strongholds of Taliban. Uncle Sam is very worried that like in 2001, the Taliban fighters will melt away in Western Pakistan where they will find safe havens and the Jihadi version of steroids. It is very important for Pakistan not to allow that to happen. But why should Pakistan obey American dictates if there is nothing in the deal for it? Voila, let both terror and Kashmir be on the agenda of more talks between India and Pakistan. Voila, self important leaders and diplomats from the West start preaching to India about the importance of talking to Pakistan. And it is astonishing how many Indians are fooled, swayed and misled by this nonsense. I don’t know if talking to Pakistan will help India in any way or not. But I know for sure it will help America. I still recall 2003 when influential sections of India – both in the government and the media – were aggressively asking for India to send troops to Iraq to help the new ‘ally’ America. Thank God Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not allow that folly. Can Manmohan Singh draw some lessons?


Friday, February 5, 2010


...Asha Bhosle and Nana Patekar and Madhuri Dixit and Ritesh Deshmukh and Amol Palekar and Madhur Bhandarkar and Ashutosh Gowariker and Mohan Agashe and Sai Paranjpe and Rohini Hattangadi and dozens of other illustrious and not so illustrious people who have won hearts, minds, fans and big bucks in Bollywood. Just in case you failed to notice, all these personalities are Marathi Manoos. Some are legends who have already become immortal and most have enriched Bollywood with their incredible talent and performances. I am deliberately appealing to Ritesh Deshmukh instead of his father Vilasrao Deshmukh because neither you or I really expect politicians to stand up and be counted when it comes to defending the idea of India.

But I earnestly appeal to these theatre, film and music personalities to defend colleague Shah Rukh Khan. As things stand now, the movie My Name is Khan will probably not be screened in any theatre or multiplex in Maharashtra unless Shah Rukh Khan apologizes for a crime he has not committed. Just as Amitabh Bachchan was forced to apologize in the recent past when the screening of The Last Lear was disrupted in Mumbai. This madness is going too far and now threatens to destroy the very foundations of India where all citizens have equal rights to talk, work and pray. Shah Rukh Khan the individual or the superstar or the icon is not really the issue here. The issue is far bigger and demands artistes to finally decide that enough is enough.

I doubt if there ever was – or will be – a better singer than Lata Mangeshkar. But just imagine Lata tai: if this kind of parochialism had prevailed even in the past, would you have sung haunting melodies written by Sahir Ludhiyanvi and composed by Madan Mohan. Would you have captivated us with the delightful duets that you sang with Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar? And Madhuri Dixit, would you have delivered hits like Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun without co-stars Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan? I can cite such instances ad nauseam and it won’t make a damn difference unless Marathi artistes come out and support not Shah Rukh Khan, but his freedom to work and speak. Many of the personalities in the ‘appeal’ list are quite well read and will know that this demon will sooner or later devour even their freedom to work and speak.

I think they need to be inspired by the words and deeds of another icon, arguably one of the greatest Maharashtrians of modern times. Yes, I am talking about Sachin Tendulkar. More than his centuries and records, he really made India proud the day he rebuffed narrow-minded parochialism by publicly defending the idea of India. That one gesture made a world of difference. Imagine the difference it will make if legends like Lata Mangeshkar, Nana Patekar also step up and publicly defend the idea of India

I think the Shiv Sena and the MNS have every right to espouse the cause of Marathi Manoos. They have every right to publicly protest and criticize anything and anyone they think is infringing on the rights of Marathi Manoos. But do they have the right to stop other Indians from working and speaking? I would be happy if Lata mangeshkar and Nana Patekar answer that one.