Friday, December 23, 2011


Since every pundit, self styled analyst, interloper, philosopher and hack uses the end of the year to inflict torture and trauma on readers with 'annual' lists, why should I be spared the exquisite pleasure of doing so? If you are sadomasochistic enough to read beyond this, I promise to minimize your trauma by not inflicting another list; or a forecast for 2012 (by the way, if you flaunt an iPad, do download the Economist App on 2012" it is free and makes for fascinating reading). I will merely remind you of some words and terms that dominated our headlines and penetrated deep into our moronic psyches in the year that is fleeting by. And I ask you to ask yourself this question: will these words and terms have any relevance beyond 2011, or 2012, or...?

The first word that comes to my mind is 'extradition'. No, I am not talking about the usually ham handed efforts of Indian authorities to bring some old associates of Dawood Ibrahim back to India so that they can be fed more Biryani. I am talking about the extradition case that Julian Assange is fighting in UK. Assange happens to be an Australian whose Wikileaks mission continues to embarrass governments and authorities. America is trying damn hard to ensure that he can't even access a bank ATM and Sweden wants him to be tried for rape. If Assange loses his battle in UK, the word extradition will acquire a whole new meaning. It will no longer be associated with bringing criminals to justice; extradition will become a tool to silence whistleblowers too. Of course, folks in the West can learn a thing or two from China and India on dealing with whistleblowers who become pests. In China, they are airbrushed from Google and Baidu; in India, whistleblowers are simply blown away

The other word and term that I am going to remind you of has an entirely Indian flavour this year. And it exposes hypocrisy and double standards in the Indian establishment and Indian media with delicious cruelty. I am talking about the term 'amicus curae', which apparently means friend of court (given the never ending delays in our judicial system, how anyone can be a friend of court is beyond my understanding). Amicus curae became a – to exaggerate a lot – household name when these friends of court helped the Supreme Court unearth the truth behind the horrific 2002 Gujarat riots. The secular – that is another delicious word that will never fade away from India – establishment pounced upon the words of amicus curae to make Narendra Modi a demon worthy of Hindu mythology. So far so good. But another amicus curae recently revealed that the Delhi Police had deliberately and maliciously and brutally targeted Baba Ramdev and his supporters when they were protesting against corruption and black money to please their 'political masters'. The media merely reported this and promptly forgot the story. The secular warriors who use amicus curae to demonise Narendra Modi went curiously silent. If that sounds Latin to you, then most words uttered by secular warriors sound Greek to me.

Now allow me to go global again and remind you of another word and term that truly stormed the world and took it by storm. I am talking about 'Arab Spring'. It all started when protesters threw out the old and oppressive regime in Tunisia and inspired fellow Arabs in Egypt to do the same to Hosni Mubarak. Before the world could say 'Mubarak ho' to the protesters, the Arab Spring spread like wildfire across the Arab world. Heavy duty columnists in Washington and London pompously declared that democracy and freedom were now embarking on an unstoppable march. Suddenly, the Western media that habitually branded Arabs as terrorists fell in love with this bunch of freedom loving people. Of course, the Arab Spring inevitably turned into a winter of disbelief and rage for the same western media when genuine elections actually resulted in people with an Islamic bent coming to power. Suddenly, the Western media was no longer so much in love with the Arab Spring. And of course, the Indian media, true to style, faithfully repeated what came out in Western media. You see, it is OK for presidential candidates in the US to invoke God and Christianity at the drop of a campaign contribution dollar; but is unforgivable for the children of Arab Spring to invoke their own God. Not quite done, old chap.

Before the pundits could get disenchanted with the Arab Spring, they had discovered yet another set of words that compelled them to pound furiously at their keyboards in a frenzy of excitement. I am reminding you of the term 'Occupy Wall Street' that continues to reverberate not just across the United States but also across the world. When a ragtag bunch of 'misfits' announced that they will 'Occupy Wall Street' to protest the brutality of the 1% against the 99%, most media pundits tittered and sniggered. And yet, within weeks, Occupy Wall Street became a symbol of an outraged majority no longer willing to tolerate the excesses and the tyranny of the minority. There were commentators who said that the movement was incoherent compared to the ideological zeal of the Tea Party and that it would wither away in no time. But when cops in America started hitting innocent protesters with pepper spray, the whole damn thing acquired a new meaning. Suddenly, the hollowness and the arrogance and the inhumanity of the American Capitalist system stood exposed. Suddenly, the average citizen realised that she has handed over her money, her liberty and even her livelihood to a bunch of crooks, charlatans and robbers in Wall Street. Suddenly, from becoming a lame duck, Barack Obama became a President who could win a second term. That is the power of Occupy Wall Street.

After taking you through a tour of Tahrir Square, London and Wall Street, I now bring you back home to the words that really reverberated across India. I am talking about 'Team Anna'. When the government first caved in to Team Anna in April this year, the Lokpal movement acquired a momentum of its own. And when the media wholesale adopted Anna and his often hysterical and abusive team members as their mascots who would save the nation and the democracy, Team Anna acquired a whole new meaning in August this year. Indians couldn't care less about Tahrir Square and or Wall Street. For them, it was all about Jantar Mantar, Tihar Jail and Ramlila Maidan. The drama is still unfoldng as Anna Hazare and his merry band infuse the word 'fast' with shades and hues of a saas-bahu serial that keeps going on and on. When the rulers stand nakedly arrogant in front of the ruled, interlopers and ideologues do become messiahs. As far as most of the Indian media is concerned, Anna is a messiah and they simply refuse to accept any other version. Of course, the absolute ham handedness with which the government has been handling Team Anna has helped it acquire a halo far beyond its shine. Middle class India is mesmerised by the words from Team Anna and seems to be convinced that a new Lokpal will magically eradicate corruption from Indian society. Middle class India is in for a rude reality check and shock.

As a last throw of dice, let's take you back to the beginnings of Western civilisation. Even Noam Chomsky would admit that Western civilisation was launched in Greece and then flowered in Italy under the Roman Empire. Greece and Eurozone became two words that the media simply could not ignore. The fountainhead of Western civilisation, Greece has gone bankrupt, perhaps awaiting another Socrates to start asking uncomfortable questions. And the land of Julius Caesar became a new land of bunga bunga parties where the new ruler Silvio Berloscuni boasted that he couldn't have sex with too many women in one night because he was pushing 75. Shame on you, makers of Viagra. Eurozone is a word that is not going to fade away soon. Nostradamus might say that Greece heralded the beginning of the West and that Greece now heralds the beginning of the end of the European dream.

Bemused Indians like you and me might ponder over these powerful words and the even more powerful events and end up asking: Why this Kolaveri Di?


Friday, December 9, 2011


Now that Maya, Mamta, Jaya and assorted other leaders and ideologues from both the Left and the Right have successfully derailed the attempt to allow FDI in retail, one can only marvel at why the UPA Cabinet so suddenly cleared the proposal in the first place. Delhi is a city teeming with cynics, and this time you have to bow down to their warped wisdom. According to them, the UPA gambit to let the dogs out over FDI in retail is a spectacular success. For almost two weeks, rather than cornering the government over corruption scams and the Lokpal Bill, the BJP and the Left have been exposed as parties who can do nothing else but oppose (That does give an entirely new twist to the term Opposition!). Just imagine, even our television anchors were not frothing at the mouth over yet another pearl from Anna Hazare about making hunger strikes a serial! To that extent, I salute the UPA for having the smarts to outsmart the opposition this time; it was long overdue anyway with the UPA scoring self goal after self goal over the last year or so. This move clearly indicates that the Chanakyas in the Congress may have been down and out, but they are bouncing back! More power to them.

But forget for a moment about statecraft and the art of manipulating expectations. The two weeks of debate over FDI in retail has revealed yet another facet of public debate in India: the ability of pundits to pontificate with astonishing levels of economic and policy illiteracy. I do not have the space to enumerate it all in this column. So please allow me to pick up a few random points here and there and enlighten you over the sheer stupidity of our so called pundits.

One of the major arguments in favour of FDI in retail goes as follows: If giants like Wal Mart and Tesco barge into India, there will be a revolution in storage, logistics and distribution. With their deep pockets and access to technology, these giants will invest in things like cold storages that could transform the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers. How? Well, more than 70% of the fruits and vegetables grown by Indian farmers is currently wasted because of lack of adequate cold storage facilities. Ergo, that will change since cold storages will ensure almost nothing is left to rot or go waste. Ergo, the incomes of farmers who grow fruits and vegetables will dramatically improve.

Can you be more deluded and idiotic than that? I remember an ambitious policy announced back in 1992 ( yes, 1992) to encourage the setting up of cold storages in rural areas. Almost 20 years down the road, nothing has come out of that policy initiative and more than 70% of fruits and vegetables continue to rot. The reason for that is as blindingly simple as sunlight: there are virtually no roads that can connect the farm to these proposed cold storages and more importantly, there is not enough power generated to keep the cold storages operational. Forget rural India, vast swathes of even Delhi and Mumbai go for hours at a stretch without electricity. There are millions of households who complain that even food stored in their refrigerators rots because power cuts are so prolonged that the batteries in inverters run out. So how do you envisage a giant network of cold storages across rural landscapes in India when there is simply no electricity? Or do you think that Wal Mart will also set up a 1,000 MW captive power plant to satisfy the delusions of FDI in retail enthusiasts in India? Without power sector reforms, these tall claims will remain humbug.

Look at this from another perspective and you will instantly realize the extent of economic illiteracy and ignorance that pervades public debate on this issue, like most other contentious issues. Suppose there is a miracle and vast cold storages spring up all over India so that wastage of fruits and vegetables is minimized. Suppose that then only 15% of vegetables and fruits go waste instead of more than 70%. What then? Any student of basic economics will know that this will lead to a massive increase in the supply of fruits and vegetables in India. That student of basic economics will also know that a massive increase in supply-without a corresponding increase in demand-will lead to a massive fall in prices. That is basic economics. What then happens to the lives and livelihoods of farmers who grow vegetables and fruits? FDI enthusiasts say that the Indian farmer-with the help of retail giants-will find other markets for his produce. But do you know that the Indian law prohibits a farmer in India from taking his produce across state boundaries and selling them wherever he thinks he will get a better price? How about anyone having the temerity tosuggest to policy makers that first allow the Indian farmer the freedom to sell within India?

Now let us take up the rant by opponents of FDI in retail that it will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of mom and pop stores in India. It has been so many years since retail chains like Big Bazaar, Reliance, Spencer and Easyday have been around. Have they made even a dent in the livelihoods of mom and pop stores. Giants like Wal Mart need to set up huge hyper markets to realize economies of scale; often in so called suburbs because of real estate costs. How many Indian families will pick up their cars, drive through tens of kilometers of jams, fight for non existent parking and then stock up for the month. Or do you think the lower middle class in India will carry huge shopping bags and take public transport to these hyper markets? Most Indian consumers simply do not have the incomes to do bulk shopping. Many are crucially dependent on the ‘credit’ offered by the local kirana that is settled every month or so. Do you really think Wal Mart will start home delivery of one litre of milk, one packet of bread and a pack of Maggi, and that too on credit?

Wake up guys. The entry of FDI in retail will not miraculously transform India into a more efficient and pulsating economy. Nor will it spell doom for India and Indians. The cruel fact is: without key reforms in infrastructure-both physical like power generation and social like universal education-the entry of retail giants will hardly make a difference to the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians who need to move from poverty to lower middle class. So please stop bull……ing and focus on the real issues.