Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stop Abusing Laxman and Dravid

I know it is time for all and sundry to throw brickbats and worse at our star batsmen after the double debacle, first a 4-0 whitewash in England and then a repeat 4-0 whitewash in Australia. The second one is even more shocking because betting syndicates as well as former Australian players had put money on India winning the series. The world of tweets, blogs and the net is awash with scorn and abuse for V.V. S Laxman and Rahul Dravid and muted scorn for Sachin Tendulkar. Dhoni, of course is suddenly transformed from an all conquering hero and India's best captain ever to a fool. And Virender Sehwag, he was always irresponsible and casual anyway, isn't it? The less said about the BCCI the better. But most of the abuse seems to be reserved for the golden trio of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. It seems they have become public enemies of India. This is a peculiar habit we Indians have, reflected in all it's glory in the Indian media: praise a bunch of sky highs when they do well and destroy them when they do badly.

Come on guys, by angrily abusing these batsmen, please do not forget the fact they are-along with Saurav Ganguly- arguably the four best batsmen to have ever played for India in recent memory. I am not talking about subjective judgements; my contention is based on facts and statistics. The worst of the lot is Ganguly who has a test average of about 43. He is followed by Laxman with an average of about 46; in fact, take out these two disastrous series and his batting average is close to 50. Dravid has an average of about 52 and Tendulkar has an average of about 55. All have played more than 100 test matches. If you think you cannot be world class and yet maintain such averages over such a long period of time, you must be either ignorant or hopelessly prejudiced or both. Of the players gone by before them, only Sunil Gavaskar has an average of over 50. Dilip Vengsakar too played more than 100 matches and averages about 42. We all very fondly remember G.R Vishwanath for his wrists stroke play and genius. He averages just about 42. Even the doughty and never say die fighter Moninder Amarnath averages about 42. And Ravi Shastri, who spouts such wisdom from the commentary box has an a erase of about 35. The only batsman who has done better than Ganguly is Azzharuddin who averages about 45 in 99 test matches. He couldn't play 100 test matches because he was sacked for alleged match fixing.

Today, you are abusing such great batsmen because of two failures in two away series. Let's go back to 1983 when India won the World Cup. Soon after that, an Indian test team comprising of the likes of Gavaskar, Amarnath, Shastri, Kapil and Vengsarkar was whitewashed 5-0 in a test series in India. Yes, in India. The West Indies team was followed by an England team that comfortably beat India. In fact, before India under Azzaruddin beat England 3-0 at home in 1993, a victory for the Indian team even in Indian soil and 'favourable' home conditions was a rare, rare thing.

And even as you are abusing, do look at Ricky Ponting. Before this series, he looked totally down and out, having failed to score a century in more than 2 years. For three years, he averaged well below 30. And yet the punter was backed by sensible Australians and how he has come roaring back. Okay, even if you think that the best years of our batsmen are over, at least say he and thank you for all the entertainment and joy you provided us over the years. And let's say it with grace. Surely Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar deserve at least that much, if not much more?


Friday, January 27, 2012

India's Possible Folly in Iran

Now that Saddam Hussein is long gone and Iraq has been 'gifted' a democracy(what a travesty of that word) by United States and it's allies, the next 'rogue' regime to be targeted is Iran. Just recently, following the for steps of the US, the 27 member European Union has announced that it will virtually enforce an embargo on purchase of oil from Iran beginning July 1. The ostensible reason is to pressurize Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program and turn it back. The real reason of course is regime change. Ever since citizens of Iran overthrew an American imposed dictator Reza Pahlvi in an Islamic Revolution in 1979, Uncle Sam has been an implacable foe of Iran. Do remember, when Iran fought a war with Iraq under Saddam in the 1980s, it was America and Saudi Arabia that helped Iraq with money as well as arms.

Now, America and its allies are applying relentless pressure on India to toe the sanctions line against Iran. On the face of it, that might look innocuous. India imports PIL worth about $ 12 billion a year from Iran. Back channel diplomacy seems to be promising to make up that shortfall through the good offices of key American ally Saudi Arabia. Of course, with a total annual oil bill well in excess of $ 100 billion, that shortfall doesn't look menacing. And then again, many in Delhi are still so much in love with the delusion called an Indo-American alliance to check China, that they would urge India to do anything keep Uncle Sam happy.

But India must not support this gang up against Iran. It is in India's long term strategic interest to refuse to toe the American, Israeli and Saudi line. Two things must motivate Indian policy makers when they think about Iran. The first is the all important need to secure future energy supplies. The second is to not needlessly give ammunition to Jihadists with their propaganda that India is against the Muslim community. On both these counts, the interests of America and India-contrary to what many think- are actually diverging instead of converging. It would be stupid of India to rely on an unreliable ally like America for its future energy security. It must learn a lesson or two from China. Look at what happened when America and its allies decided that some countries like Myanmar and Sudan had gone rogue. Besotted with both idealism and a naive belief in America, India avoided building bridges with the two countries. China went merrily ahead and is now in an unviable position of having massive supplies of energy and other natural resources. It is only now that India is trying to play catch up with China in Myanmar. Even in Central Asian countries, China has marched way ahead in securing future energy supplies even as Indian policy makers waffled, hemmed and hawed. Look at this way, India is today staring at an annual trade deficit of $ 200 billion caused mostly by oil. Targeting Iran will inevitably mean a big rise in oil prices and a big rise in the trade deficit. Is India- with just about $ 300 billion in foreign currency reserves and a falling Rupee in a position to afford such nonsense?

Now look at recent history to figure out what will happen even if India goes the American line. In 2005, when middle class India was basking in the glory of a historic nuclear deal with America, our policy wonks did something incredibly stupid. As a gesture of goodwill towards Uncle Sam and with the hope that America will support India when it comes to our own vital interests. India voted for IAEA sanctions against Iran in 2005. The result, a lot of deals being worked by business houses like the Tatas and Ambanis with Iran went up in smoke. And what did India get in return? American didn't even supply crucial information obtained from David Coleman Headley about the 26/11 Terror attacks. It made a few polite noises but Hafeez Sayid of LET continues to openly preach Jihad against India. Of course, the Americans smoked out Osama Bin Laden and blithely killed him by openly violating Pakistani sovereignty. India is still twiddling it's thumbs. But the real shocker for Imdia is the manner in which America is negotiating with the Taliban even as it prepares to exit Afghanistan. Uncle Sam is simply shrugging off protests from India that letting the Taliban sneak in through the back door will be disastrous.

And don't blame America. It is doing what it thinks is best for its own strategic interests; others be damned. China too is openly saying that it will continue its 'good relations' with the Iranian regime. Isn't it time we in India too woke up and smelled the coffee. You don't use tools like hope and goodwill and hope while pursuing national interests. Indira Gandhi had shown us long ago that you need nerves of steel, and a backbone.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It is Australia Day!

The news media is full of reports from Australia; and the stories have a link with India. Of course, the stories and the laments have to do with the abject manner in which the Indian cricket team has been surrendering to the Kangaroos. But come January 26 and we will probably forget our humiliation in Australia and celebrate Republic Day by mostly saying nice things about ourselves; our success as a democracy and our ability to bounce back from crisis after crisis. Thousands of children will probably railroaded towards India Gate to watch the pomp and prowess of the new India.

But some of us know that Australians will be doing the same thing on January 26. Just as Indians celebrate Jan 26 as the Republic Day, the folks down under celebrate Australia Day. A British ship " discovered" Australia on this day about 250 years ago. From those humble beginnings, Australia has emerged as one of the more exciting countries of the world. The moment you talk Australia, you talk about sports and athleticism. It is not just in cricket that Aussies ruled the world for so long. They excel in swimming, tennis, rugby and much more. Australians have not lost the irreverence that is a product of their legacy. In its early years as a colony of Britain, Australia was the place where criminals were packed off to. Virtually all white Australian can trace his or her ancestry back to some such poor should who was dispatched permanently from the mother country. No wonder, the Australians celebrate like mad when their cricket team demolishes England; and mourn when the reverse happens, as it has been happening recently.

There is something about the Australian spirit that you have to admire. My colleague Saibal recently wrote a blog for this web site where he talked about how Michael Clarke declared even though he was batting on 329 and could have taken a shot at Brian Lara's record of 400 runs in a test innings. Clarke was more interested in team success than personal glory. Many years ago, Mark Taylor who was captain of the team declared even though he was batting on about 333. He then said that he wanted Australia to win and didn't want to break the record held by Don Bradman for a highest test innings by an Australian. Saibal also wrote about how many Indians we're up in rage back in 2004 when stand in captain Rahul Dravid declared even though our God Sachin Tendulkar was playing on 194. The idea was- how dare Dravid deny Tendulkar his double century? That is indeed the difference between India and Australia. We seem to be happier applauding personal achievements and milestones even as we collectively fail while Australians pay more important to collective success rather than personal milestones. Ironically, even without chasing personal milestones, Australians seem to excel even at the personal level.

That sums up my admiration for Australia as it celebrates Australia Day. But let me also point out two less charitable aspects of Australia on their founding day. The first is linked to the European push into new lands beginning the 15 th century. Like in other places, the natives or the aboriginals in this case were virtually massacred as the whites pursued new lands, pastures and opportunities. So an entire continent that is so much larger than India became home initially only to whites. Remember, India adds an Australia to its population every year!

The second aspect is the really deep flaw in Capitalism in practice; and the reason why advocates of free markets are being hypocritical when they advocate free trade and open markets. Capitalism means free movement of both capital and labour. Since the 20th century, we have a situation where the whites love free movement of capital but refuse to accept free movement of labour. Did God-of whichever religion- decree that vast lands like Australia have been reserved predominantly for whites? Why can't non whites- brown, black and otherwise have the freedom to go and work in places like Canada and Australia whenever they feel like it? That is the fundamental tenet of Capitalism isn't it?

Still, many congrats to the Aussies as they celebrate their day of 'founding'!


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mad, Mad American Politics

If you think that politics in India is crazy and that our system allows either the crooked or the unsuitable to win, you haven't been following American politics in all it's technicolor madness. Most of you are aware that the Republican Party out there is in the process of selecting a nominee who will take on Barrack Obama in presidential elections due this year in November. Till recently, it looked as Mitt Romney will easily win the nomination and perhaps even beat Obama who is quite unpopular because of the hard times that Americans are facing. But hard core and hard line Republicans detest Romney because his ideas are not as whacky and crazy as theirs. Like the one about climate change being a hoax, like the one about Charles Darwin being a charlatan and his theory of evolution of species a hoax, like the one about women who have been raped not being allowed to abort the baby and like the one about always lowering taxes for the rich because they create jobs and wealth. So in South Carolina, that has a lot of Republicans with such crazy ideas, they humiliated and gave a thumping victory to Newt Gingrich, who is more their type.

Now who is Newt Gingrich. Well he is the man who hated Bill Clinton so much he shut down the government in the mid 1990s because he thought Clinton was spending recklessly. Of course, he didn't bat an eyelid when fellow Republican George Bush spent money so recklessly between 2001 and 2008 that a federal surplus ended up as a record deficit. He is the man who virtually led the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton because Clinton allegedly slept with an intern called Monica Lewinsky in the White House and lied about it. Of course, even as Gingrich was trying to railroad Clinton out of office for the alleged crime of an extra marital affair, Gingrich himself was merrily cheating on his wife. That doesn't matter to the hard core Republicans who think it is ok to sin as long as you repent and stay committed to the cause. Gingrich is now a serious challenger to Romney and the wackos are excited!

Don't for a moment think that it is only Republicans who are capable of such duplicity. There is this guy called Elliot Spritzer who is a Harvard Law School graduate. As Attorney General of New York, he relentlessly went after people who he claimed "betrayed public trust". Elliot became the quintessential family man who symbolized integrity and fidelity. He prosecuted many Wall Street types and even broke up a prostitution ring that masqueraded as an escort service. Elliot was so successful that he ended up winning elections and became the Governor of New York in 2006. And then the penny dropped. It was discovered that Elliot himself was paying a prostitute to, what else, have sex with her. This upholder of public morals had to resign and seems to have disappeared from public view.

I have given the examples of Gingrich and Spritzer to show how hilarious American politics can be. Of course, the Indian public and media is far more considerate when it comes to the sexual prowess and preferences of its politicians. We mostly nudge and wink and then, in a manner of speaking, let the sleeping dogs lie! Unless it comes to a point where even we find it difficult to ignore. Like N.D Tiwari frolicking with three nubile nymphets in his official mansion at Hyderabad when he was Governor of Andhra Pradesh. And yes, Tiwari was more than 80 years old when his antics became public. Now you know why Indian politicians never retire!. Then again, there was a minister cum strongman called Amarmani Tripathi in Uttar Pradesh who got embroiled with Madhumita Shukla. Or, in recent times, the Jat leader cum former minister Mahipal Maderna who took a fancy to a lady called Bhanwri Devi.

Coming back to America, the problem is not just about politicians sleeping around. It is about the ideas they espouse the frightening number of cow belt Americans who believe in those ideas. Abortion, science, evolution and taxes, to name just a few. Let me give you a parallel of that scenario in India. What if Uma Bharti suddenly starts saying that sati is actually a good and honorable practice and remains electorally relevant and powerful? What if a fellow BJP traveller announces that the Manusmriti is as relevant as the Bible or the Qoran and remains electorally relevant and viable? What if Pratibha Patil publicly announces that astrology and planchette calls are as good as science as is reflected the President of India?

Thank God for small mercies!


Monday, January 23, 2012

So it is Jay Leno now...

Many Indians, living in gated neighbourhoods and nurturing illusions of being liberal and progressive, often rate the Late Show of Jay Leno as one of their favorites.

There is no doubt the guy has got a sense of humor that can be quite whacky at times. Now, he is rapidly emerging as the latest hate figure for Indian twits, or is it tweets?

Jay LenoIn a recent show, Leno has apparently shown visuals of the Golden Temple at Amritsar and suggested that it become the summer residence for Mitt Romney, the guy who could become the Republican candidate to challenge Barrack Obama in this year’s presidential elections in America.

The Golden Temple is the holy shrine for Sikhs across the world and all hell has predictably broken loose. Sikh organisations in America have reacted with outrage and demanded an apology from Leno. Even Indian authorities have jumped into the fray and criticised this Jay Leno stunt. Everyone is unanimous in saying that it is wrong, callous and unethical to hurt the sentiments of other communities and ethnic identities in such a manner. There is little doubt that Leno's antics are worse than being merely flippant and corny.

But do we have to start yelling again that every Tom, Dick and Harry is involved in a conspiracy to hurt Indian sentiments through racist or insensitive comments? Just a while ago, the BBC show called Top Gear was slammed because the hosts were accused of peddling racist and cultural stereotypes that portray India in a poor light. Indian authorities even demanded an apology from BBC which is apparently yet to come. One of the things that the hosts did as they drove around India was to carry a portable toilet in their cars. How shitty can their racism be, isn't it? Then again, there was that event that literally resurrected the career of Shilpa Shetty, thanks to some racist remarks passed by the late and unlamented Jane Goody in the British version of Big Boss.

And why stop at that. I think Mulsims are as much Indian as Sikhs are. So where is the harm in calling for the absence of Salmaan Rushdie from the Jaipur Lit Fest; at least that looks better than calling for his head. Then again, Arun Shourie got just deserts a few years ago as Buddhist supporters of Dr B.R Ambedkar threw shoes at him because Shourie had the temerity to disparage Ambedkar (it is a different matter that Shourie somehow finds ammunition to disparage Muslims, Christians and others, all except Hindus!). I have not finished. Many Christian organisations had demanded that the book Da Vinci Code and the film be banned from India.

Many, many years ago, Christians - who are as much Indians as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are - had successfully persuaded the authorities to ban The Last Temptation of Christ. You can be proud of one aspect of Indian secularism at least - all religions and communities have the equal right to be offended and demand that the State must do something. The State - being uniquely and indisputably secular - usually complies!

I have just two points to make here. The first is a request to fellow Indians to do what in Hindustani is called "apne ghireban main jhank ke dekho". It is our deep rooted mentality of being colonial slaves that makes us pay so much attention to what the West says. Look at how we behave like demented juveniles when the likes of Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey land up in India. I swear to God - all Indian Gods included - this is true. I drive up to a dhaba in my BMW even as some scruffy, smelly hippes who are obviously white arrive at the same time. Invariably, the waiter first goes to them for orders. And then why do we crib when the West is less respectful towards us? If Jay Leno had said something similar about Jews, his career would have been blown to smithereens.

The second point is even more important. Indian civilisation has always been considered unique because it has always encouraged space for all thoughts, all ideologies, all dogmas and all religions. Mutual respect and tolerance has been the cornerstone of our civilisation. Are we not losing it all because some stupid jerk somewhere says something derogatory about us?


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why do we make stupid laws?

There is a front page story in today's Times of India that talks about our policy and law makers doing a rethink on what has become notorious in India s Section 498(A). Under this law, a wife can file a dowry harassment case against her husband and ALL his relatives and once the FIR is registered, it becomes a non-bail able offense. Now, the powers that be are thinking loudly through carefully distributed stories in newspapers that a man who is accused of harassing his wife for dowry need not go to jail; he could pay a fine to atone for his sins. There is no doubt that activists who represent the so called fairer sex will be up in arms and claim that these new proposals to amend the dowry law are a throw back to feudal paternalism.

The fact is, despite increased literacy and claims of Indians becoming more progressive, there are hundreds of thousands of women who are still harassed and tortured by their in laws and husbands for dowry. There is another fact: ever since this Section 498(A) came into force back in 1986, thousands of women have abused the provisions of this law to "harass" the husband and his family. The simple common sense thing to do would be to take note of both the facts and make a law that is sensible and fair. It says a lot about our society when it takes about 27 years and thousands of abuses before we even start acknowledging the fact that the law as it was drafted and passed was daft. The idea was great: the custom and practice of dowry is a curse and modern India must be ashamed of how even educated husbands and their families take dowry as a birthright and torture a woman who fails to satisfy their demands. The law, as we all now know, has proven to be stupid because women continue to be tortured for dowry even as innocent husbands and their families continue to be framed by scheming women.

Our problem is with our obsession to be doing the good and the politically correct thing when we deal with social and economic problems. We inevitably end up with stupid laws that don't help anybody. Let me give another example of how our zeal to do the good thing can create monster laws. The Parliament- if it gets to work- will soon start debating the Communal Violence Bill. Under this proposed law, Hindus will always be the guilty party if there is a riot. Under this law, any Muslim or Christian can accuse a Hindu-bigoted or not-of insulting minorities. Like in the case of 498(A), the "offense" will be non bailable. Now let's us examine facts again. There is no doubt that minorities are usually the victims of riots and persecution-just as women are victims of dowry harassment. So the intention is noble. But if it is passed, this law will be even more stupid and dangerous than the dowry law. The fact is there are Muslim dominated areas in India where other minorities are persecuted and worse. The recent events in Kashmir are a telling example. Then again, even a fool will not deny that you will find bigots amongst Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. What is to stop bigoted Muslims from filing false cases against Hindus-just as scheming women have been filing false cases against husbands? Like with the dowry law, we started out with the idea of doing the good thing, but end up destroying society. These stupid laws don't stop what they started out to do: they only create divisions and mistrust. I know of husbands who constantly worry about what might happen if the wifey files a 498(A). We will all know of Hindus who will wonder and be fearful of a bigoted-or with some agenda- Muslim, Christian or Sikh who might file a case against them if they said publicly that any Muslim who supports Hafeez Saeed of LET represents the intolerant and barbaric strain of Islam. Why not have a law that doesn't distinguish between religions, communities and genders?

The proposed Land Acquisition Bill and the Forest Rights Bill are two more examples of stupid laws. There is no doubt that many companies in cahoots with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats grab land from poor farmers. But will a law that makes every such deal illegal help? What about farmers who really want to sell out and move on? And of course the Forest Bill. Our do gooders think we all exploit tribals and forest dwellers. So the inevitable stupid law is to ban any other Indian from owning land in places inhabited by forest dwellers. What if forest dwellers want their children to move on towards a more rural or even urban life? And who will stop Benjamin transactions where our same law makers will acquire the same lands through subterfuge?

Are we going to be eternally condemned to live with stupid laws just because a few do gooders think that the road to hell is never paved with noble intentions?


Friday, January 20, 2012


Manmohan Singh is a relieved man. Tired of carrying the burden of a non-performing UPA, he is now delirious with joy because he has been finally given the green light to reshuffle his cabinet. [Incidentally, he didn't mind the fact that the green light came from the IPL Chairman Rajiv Shukla.] Poor Dr. Singh is disgusted with his UPA-2 cabinet that he would have jumped for joy even if the message had come from Kiran Bedi, or Mani Shankar Aiyer for that matter. After hurried consultations with Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar and K. Srikkanth (Sourav Ganguly was not called because Congressmen are a little wary of Bengalis at the moment because of the Mamata factor), the great communicator has announced the following new appointments:

- Sachin Tendulkar as Minister of Surface Transport: Why not? Like his 100th century, Indian highways take forever to be built. And by the time they are built, the Indian economy, like the Indian cricket team, would be ruined.

- Virat Kohli as Minister of External Affairs: A natural choice. Hawks have been for long demanding that India must assert forcefully that it is a big player on the global stage. By using that old Great Game strategy called 'The Middle Finger', this youthful leader has more than proven his credentials for the job.

- Ishant Sharma as Minister for Parliamentary Affairs: By repeatedly failing to either bowl out or curb the opposition, Sharma has demonstrated the true qualities needed for this portfolio. Besides, using unparliamentary language with David Warner who smacked him for sixes has added weight to his credentials.

- Virender Sehwag as Minister of Defence: By consistently flashing outside the off stump and giving catching practice to people on the off side, Sehwag has proven that suicidal offence is the best form of offence for India to deal with its enemies. After all, he used to lead an IPL team called Delhi Daredevils. Of course, he narrowly beat Rahul Dravid, who is busy creating his own unique version of the great Wall.

- Zaheer Khan as Minister for Minority Affairs: Since most parties contesting assembly elections are competing with each other on providing quotas for Muslims, this talented swing bowler could only find this pigeon hole to be placed in. Maybe his left arm can do what the Right can never dream of doing.

- MS Dhoni as Minister of HRD: Who better qualified to talk of leadership, modern day skills and 21st century fighting spirit even as your nation or team is basically illiterate (literally or cricket wise), ignorant (cricket wise) and idiotic (both wise). Of course, K. Srikkanth, N.Srinivasan and IPL will ensure he remains relevant like the Aaakash Tablet.

- Rohit Sharma as Minister of State for All Affairs: Like most Ministers of State, Sharma never got to do any work because the oldies won't just let go.

Once he finished finalising this new cabinet, Dr. Singh actually started doing cartwheels even as he ran towards 10, Janpath. Even the SPG commandos hired for his protection found it difficult to keep pace with him. Suddenly, he found Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri who were waiting for Rajiv Shukla who was waiting for Ahmed Patel who was waiting for... Dr Singh couldn't care less. He shouted joyfully for the whole nation to hear: Eurêka! Who better than Sharad Pawar to be the Prime Minister with this new cabinet!


Our Mai Baap Sarkar

Many newspapers carried an interesting photo on January 19, 2012. It showed the who is who of India Inc in a meeting with the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the new all powerful bureaucrat in the PMO Pulok Chatterjee and sundry other ministers and officials. India Inc was represented by Ratan Tata and his anointed successor Cyrus Mistry, Anil Ambani, brothers Sajjan and Naveen Jindal(who happens to be a Congress Lok Sabha MP), the chairman of Vedanta Anil Agarwal, Ashoka Hinduja of the Hinduja group, three new age barons from Andhra Pradesh G M Rao of the GMR group(his group runs the Delhi airport and is asking for a 800% plus hike in airport user charges), Sanjay Reddy of the GVK group and Madhusudan Rao of the Lancôme group. Some others present were Prashant Ruia of the Essar group and Gautama Adani of Adani Enterprises. Apart from Ratan Tata, I think all the other belong to the hallowed club of dollar billionaires. Collectively,nthe value of their equity holdings even at today's depressed stock market prices could finance the NREGA scheme for almost 10 years

You might be thinking the Union Budget is round the corner and these titans were pow wowing with the Prime Minister and other big wigs about the future of the Indian economy. You are wrong. This powerful group of businessmen had come as supplicants, or beggars if you choose to be politically incorrect. All of them have invested in, are in the process of investing in or have plans to invest in the power sector in India. Almost all have signed agreements to buy coal and gas at pre determined prices and sell electricity to utilities at pre determined prices. The problem is, they are not able to get their hands on either coal or gas from domestic suppliers. The fall of the Rupee against the dollar has made imported oil and gas terribly expensive. And of course, the Ministry of Environment and Forests simply swats away plans, projects and proposals to increase coal production in the country. These barons are now claiming that the power projects are becoming financially unviable. And it is no joke. They have already invested $ 40 to $ 50 billion in new power projects and are scheduled to invest another $ 50 billion plus over the next five years. And even a school student knows that these investments are crucial because India already faces intolerable power cuts. This winter, the power cuts have been so bad that residents of Srinagar have been forced to make pilgrimages to hospitals to charge their mobile phones since some hospitals were the only place with some electricity supply.

The aftermath of the meeting was even more revealing. Newspapers reported how the industrialists were elated at the response of the Prime Minister who apparently instructed Pulok Chatterjee to fix the problem in a hurry. Of course, a committee of secretaries will now meet every week to push for solutions. This hallowed group has been promised another pow wow by Dr Singh in 90 days to take stock of progress. Apparently, one of the solutions is that the Ministry of Environment will not stop a 25% hike in production from captive coal mines. Incidentally, India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world. And yet, coal output is so woefully inadequate that power and steel companies have to import tens of million tons of coal every year to keep their plants running. And of course, you and me have to spend massive sums every month on generators, inverters, 'private' power and other sources while the poor in the interiors of India are going back to the era of candles and lanterns.

This one meeting revealed how important the State still is in India and the kind of discretionary powers that it still wields over all of us. If the likes of Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani have to trudge to Delhi hat in hand, what chance do we have of being spared the indignities heaped every day on us by our Mai Baap Sarkar?


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shameless & Sham Secularism

A confession here. Sometime back, I had given the same headline to my editorial in our sister publication Business & Economy. I am stealing my own headline simply because I can't think of anything else that can be mor apt and more depressing. Yes, I am talking about the stealth announcement-an announcement without announcing anything-that Salmaan Rushdie will not be attending the Jaipur Literature festival (JLF). As reported in The Times of India, nobody is willing to say anything officially, but cops in Rajasthan have made it clear off the record that Rushdie will skip the meet. We don't know yet if he has done this voluntarily or the organisers were 'persuaded' by the authorities to 'persuade' him to back off. What we know through subtly dropped off the record hints is that the authorities were afraid that Rushdies presence might create a law and order problem and a 'security' threat because some Muslim organizations might stage a protest at the venue. This comes soon after the preeminent Muslim seminary based in Deoband announced that it would be happy if Salmaan Rushdie was barred by the authorities from entering India. The reason goes back about 23 years when India became the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses, the controversial book written by Rushdie that inflamed Muslim opinion across the world. Thanks to the book, the then de facto ruler of of Iran, Ayatollah Khoemeni pronounced a death sentence on Rushdie. Incidentally, Rushdie did attend the JLF in 2007. So why the brouhaha this time around? Why, because Uttar Pradesh is staring at a crucial assembly elections and political parties are desperately chasing the 'Muslim vote bank'. It says a lot both about the cynicism and stupidity of our political parties that they think Muslims will start voting based on the fact that Rushdie was prevented from attending a popular literary festival. It says a lot about the nature of shameless and sham secularism in India.

Every time I point this out, my 'secular' friends pounce on me and say that fundamentalism practiced by the Hindutva brigade is far more pernicious and dangerous. They promptly point out to the antics of outfits like Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene. I one recent instance, Sri Ram Sene goons themselves hoisted a flag of Pakistan in karnataka and then started violent demosntartions against it. Thankfully, we were spared a riot. But the fact is-despite a BJP government there, the police called the bluff of Sr Ram Sene and did it successfully. And surely we all know how Narendra Modi continues to be hounded for the post Godhra riots that savaged Gujarat in 2002. Every time Hindutva goons try something funny or fishy, there are hundreds and thousands of sane Indians who pounce on them. It is this robust mix of activism and media-and the innate common sense of most Indians-that has prevented rogue Hindustva outfits from emerging beyond their fringe existence.

But surely intolerance and prejudice if practised by some Muslims needs to be condemned equally loudly. In my Business & Economy editorial, I had pointed out how a pastor in Srinagar was hounded, arrested and harassed because he allegedly tried to convert some young Muslims to Christianity. Not a single word of protest emanated from our secular warriors when the so called Grand Mufti of Kashmir summoned the pastor for a de facto 'court' appearance.

For the love of my life, I cannot understand why or how our secular warriors can be so blind. Every time they let a fundamentalist Muslim outfit or group or a bunch of people get away with their openly fundamentalist views without a protest, it gives more ammunition to rogue Hindutva elements. This time again, rest assured you will hear from many such advocates how India panders to Muslims and how Hindus get shoddy treatment in their 'own country'

The only way you can ask Hindu fundamentalists to shut up is when you do the same to Muslim fundamentalists. Or Sikh fundamentalists. Or Christian fundamentalists. But then, that would be too much of a leap of faith for our secular warriors.


Monday, January 16, 2012

It is for Congress to win, or lose

The race for votes is well and truly on, and with the Indian cricket team facing decimation in Australia, it is politics that is grabbing all the eye balls. Media pundits have already declared that the assembly elections to 5 states are a kind of semi final before the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for 2014. The same pundits have also declared that these elections will be a decisive one for Rahul Gandhi. If the Congress does well, Rahul Gandhi would magically acquire the halo and aura of a Prime Minister in waiting. If the Congress performs poorly, the inheritor will have to rethink strategy in the run up to 2014. Of course, most of the attention is focused on Uttar Pradesh where Rahul Gandhi seems to have locked horns with Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. Nobody gives the BJP even a ghost of a chance; at least not sensible people.

In this relentless barrage of news and analysis, we seem to have forgotten a simple fact: these elections are for the Congress to win, or lose. Forget Manipur and Goa for the moment. The real battle is in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. In all these states, the Congress is challenging incumbents who have a lot to answer for. In all these states, history is against incumbents. If we were doing honest analysis, we should have already declared Congress the winner in Punjab and Uttarakhand. And a decisive force in Uttar Pradesh. The fact that we are not doing it reflects both our soft spot for Rahul Gandhi and the uncertainty within the Congress.

Look at it this way. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had humbled the Akali Dal-BJP combine in Punjab by winning 8 out of 13 seats. Since then, allegations of corruption against the incumbent chief minister and his family have become louder and stronger. Quite frankly, the state is for the taking as far as Congress is concerned. Just a repeat of the Lok Sabha results will ensure that it wins Punjab with a comfortable majority. Now take a look at Uttarakhand. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it decimated the BJP by winning all 5 seats on offer. Except a belated induction of a clean politician like B. K Khanduri, it has been downhill since then for the BJP with internal fighting among BJP leaders reaching suicidal levels. A simple repeat of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections would ensure that the Congress would sweep Uttarakhand as decisively as Nitish Kumar swept Bihar in the previous assembly election. Now let's come to Uttar Pradesh. There is little doubt that except her core Dalit vote bank, people in Uttar Pradesh are disappointed with the performance and track record of Mayawati. Their biggest disappointment is over law and order, a plank that she so successfully used in 2007 to storm back to power with a majority of her own. Then there is the undisputed appeal and charisma of Rahul Gandhi, apart from his relentless focus on the state. Most importantly, shrewd announcements and promises to provide a quota to Muslims should make a big difference. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it was already apparent that Muslim voters of Uttar Pradesh were ready to forgive the Congress for the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Finally, look at the results of the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. The Congress had astounded even itself by winning 22 seats and coming second in 7 more seats. It was actually the leader in more than 90 assembly constituencies and came second in about 30 more. A simple repeat of that performance should give the Congress about 120 seats in the assembly elections.

You might say that I am ignoring the Anna factor which could play a decisive role. But frankly, the Anna factor is just hype and a lot of bunkum. Corrupt candidates will get elected (I do agree with Anna Hazare's assessment that our electoral system is rotten). In any case, can any of the leading contenders in the fray- Congress, BJP, Akali Dal, BSP and SP- claim to be clean? And will voters assess who is less corrupt and then cast their votes? You know that is bunkum.

There is no rocket science involved in what I have stated; it is mostly common sense. Then why is all the analysis that I see so far still making it such a tough challenge for the Congress? Could it be that the inevitable dictated by common sense will happen and media pundits in March will suddenly start saying how the Congress has decisively won the semi final? Has Rahul Gandhi not won it already?


Friday, January 13, 2012

End the death on roads

It is the peculiar-and usually shameful nature of the Indian system that Supreme Court has to intervene and correct things that are terribly wrong and unforgivable. Two recall just three cases: by the 1990s, Delhi had become the most polluted city in the world. Nothing was being done to correct that even as bronchail illnesses among school children rose alarmingly. Enter Supreme Court with two verdicts. The first was to move all industrial units out of Delhi. The other was to order that all public transport vehicles must use CNG. It made a difference. Around the same time, the Supreme Court passed judgement on what is now famous as the Vishakha case. In this, the Court laid down clear guidelines to punish those who indulge in sexual harrassment at work places. You can't say that sexual harrassment has stopped as a result, just as you can't say that pollution has vanished. But thse have been historic interventions. A more recent one is the Supreme Court order to the CBI to 'actually' investigate the 2G scam. We are seeing the results.

Just yesterday, the Supreme Court added another feather to its list of historic interventions and judgements. A Bench upheld the three years prison term awarded to Alastair Pereira by the Mumbai High Court. In 2006, Pereira was drunk and driving a Toyota Corolla in the wee hours of the morning after a party when he mowed down a group of poor labourers who were sleeping on the pavement. Seven were killed. While upholding the verdict of the Mumbai High Court, the Supreme Court has categorically stated that even the 3 year prison term is very lenient. Hopefully, this will set a precedent, and spolit brats who think nothing of mowing down people after a night of drinks and fun will now know that they could face chin music in jail. If even a handful of such brats across India are sent behind bars for three years and their crimes and punishment well publicised, the message will go out loud and clear and many innocent lives could be spared as a result.

The number of fatalities in road accidents in India is truly shocking. Our apathy towards it is even more shocking. In 2011, about 1,50,000 people were killed in road accidents in India, the highest in the world. That wrks out to about 400 needless and avoidable deaths each day and about 17 deaths every hour. No civilised country or society in the world should be tolerating this. And, we Indians are blissfully apathetic to such shocking numbers. Nobody bothers about the 150,000 families that are devastated each year-much more than the total number of devastated families in more than 20 years of insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir. The number of vehicles in America is at least 10 times more than in India. And the number of miles travelled by an average vehicle in America is far, far higher than India. And yet, America has been reporting continuosly falling deaths from road accidents since the 1970s. Last year, less than 100 died on an average day in the USA because of road accidents. The figure for India was more than 410.

The fault lies not with the law but with us as citizens and human beings. We seem almost genetically unable to follow basic traffic rules. I have seen hundreds of instances where parents with kids in the car brazenly flout traffic rules, including jumping a red light and travelling on the wrong side of the road and telling their kids that it is OK.Obviously, the kid is going grow up as an Indian who has only contempt for traffic rules and traffic discipline. Virtually every journalist who breaks a traffic rule flashes his or her 'Press card' and tells the traffic cop to be left off.

I guess, in this case at least, the only language that we seem to understand is the language of the Danda. So here is wishing more Danda from the Supreme Court and good luck to Alastair Pereira who will start his three year jail term.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

India’s Curse: Bureaucracy

There is this little thing about Bihar that even Nitish Kumar will find difficult to change. You will find many ‘scholars’ from Bihar in the campus of JNU pursuing degrees in history, or economics or international relations. Many come from humble backgrounds. Almost all have a stock reply when you ask them what they are doing: preparing for Civil Services. Some lucky souls do manage to crack it. And then they are literally besieged by agents fronting for parents of to be brides from Bihar. In this marriage market, a dowry of even Rs 1 criore is possible if you have cracked the civil services exam.

This nugget neatly sums up the state of bureaucracy in India. And it is the reason why a Hong Kong based consultancy firm has rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. Indian bureaucrats get 9.21 out of 10 while their counterparts in Singapore get 2.25 out of 10. Even China, which faces its own version of a billion mutinies against corrupt officials, manages a score of 7.11 for its bureaucracy. If anyone were to ask me to name the single most important reason for India remaining a poor country despite more than 60 years of independence, I would not, like most followers of Team Anna, blame politicians for it. I would unhesitatingly point out India’s so called ‘steel frame’ as the key reason. Indian bureaucracy is a parasite; a leech that has been literally sucking the life force out of Indian society and economy.

Why are more than 300 million Indians still illiterate, totally incapable of reaping any benefits of globalization? Why are more than 40% of Indian children malnourished? Why is infant and maternal mortality in India one of the highest in the world? Why do more than 700 million Indians do not have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation? It is easy to caricature the greedy politician and blame him as Team Anna has been doing. The real culprits are Indian bureaucrats.

And this is one of the abiding paradoxes of India. Each year, close to 200,000 Indians sit for the Civil Service exams. It is one of the most competitive and toughest in the world only about 1000 make the grade. There is little doubt that they represent the brightest and best that India has to offer. And yet, once these often idealistic youngsters become bureaucrats, it is a matter of time before they actively participate in looting India; or keeping their counsel. Do remember, the civil servants in India occupy a unique position because only the President of India can fire them. And yet, they crawl if politicians ask them to bend. In any other country, can you imagine hordes of youngsters passing out of IITs and IIMs and then forsaking million Rupees salary packages to become a bureaucrat with a starting salary of just about Rs 35,000 a month? If someone says he or she is doing all this to ‘serve’ India, that statement is as hollow as the one made by a crooked politician who claims to serve India. The fact is: Indian bureaucrats are the real ‘power’ behind the throne. And unlike politicians who do have to face the electorate every now and then, Indian bureaucrats are completely and totally unaccountable.

They know it. And that is, despite numerous individual bureaucrats being sensitive and honest, the bureaucracy is cruel, thoughtless and obscenely corrupt . Travel to poor districts in states like Chattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Maharashtra (the Vidharba region) to name just a few and what do you find? District collectors usually are in a race to have their districts (fiefdoms is more like it) declared drought affected or a victim of some calamity or other. If that happens, relief funds pour in from state capitals as well as Delhi. No need to guess where most of that ‘emergency relief’ money goes. In 2004, the Time magazine declared the District Magistrate of Patna Gautam Goswami as an Asian Hero for his outstanding work in flood relief. Subsequent investigations found that he allegedly siphoned off about Rs 18 crores of funds sent for flood relief. And what about the star bureaucrat couple, the Joshis in Madhya Pradesh who had allegedly amassed more than Rs 200 crore in ill gotten wealth? There are literally hundreds of such instances and the worst case scenario for these bureaucrats is just some time in jail, a suspension and then interminable delays in their cases. As with the so called ‘higher bureaucracy’, so it is with bureaucrats at lower rungs.

Why have China’s bureaucrats got a much better rating than India’s when everybody knows they are as corrupt? Well, they have delivered 96% literacy and other human development indicators that Indians can only dream about.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Open Letter to Team Anna

Let me put this upfront. Unlike many hacks who claimed last year to be bosom pals of Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, I claim no such honour. I have probably met Kejriwal twice and I am sure he doesn’t remember those meetings. Much to my sorrow, I have never had the opportunity of meeting Kiran Bedi. My colleague at The Sunday Indian Anil Pandey does keep in touch with activists and I sort of vicariously keep in touch with the world of activism through him. So last April, when the Anna and the Lokpal wave first hit Delhi, I was as astounded as others. I did send an SMS to Kejriwal offering some unsolicited help. The Sunday Indian comes out in 14 languages and my offer to Team Anna was to use our pan Indian staff to translate their draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill into all Indian languages. We did that and even put it up on all our 14 language websites. That April, The Sunday Indian also came out with a special supplement on the Anna movement. In that supplement full of praise for Anna, his Team and his movement against corruption, mine was the lone dissenting write up.

I am glad I wrote that piece of contrarian dissent and grateful to my editor-in-chief Arindam Chaudhuri for letting the piece go. Today, as newspapers say that Team Anna will not campaign against any political party in the forthcoming assembly elections, I humbly urge Team Anna-particularly Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi-to do some soul searching. For there is little doubt in my mind that it is the acts and utterances of these two that have so badly damaged the Anna movement, almost to the point of derailing it. Much has been written about them and their deeds by so many pundits. I will point out just two support my belief that they damaged their own movement.

The first was the absolutely crazy decision to campaign against the Congress in the Hissar Lok Sabha bye elections. By campaigning against the Congress in Hissar, it looked as if Team Anna was in a way supporting the Chauthala family of Haryana, many of whom have been charge sheeted in courts for corruption. With this single act, Team Anna changed from being activists to political opportunists. Virtually everyone knew even before Team Anna jumped into the fray that the Congress would lose that election. So what were they trying to prove? Why didn’t they campaign against other corrupt and tainted candidates in many other bye elections that were held at that time? And why didn’t they campaign against someone called Mr Sreemalu, formerly of BJP, in Bellary when bye elections were held recently? Does any one have any doubts about the extent of the mining scam in Bellary? Or, as I argued, they knew the scam tainted candidate will win hands down anyway? Team Anna also showed no inclination to campaign against Y.S Jagan Mohan Reddy in bye elections. The value of his assets went up from many lakhs in 2004 to more than Rs 400 crores. Then again, everyone knew that Jagan Reddy will win hands down despite charges of corruption.

The second blunder was committed by Kiran Bedi. She has been most vocal and loudly contemptuous while lampooning politicians and their unethical behaviour. So it was bizarre to see her explanations when it was revealed that she used take money for business class fares, actually travel economy class and pocket the difference for her NGO. Kiran Bedi perhaps forgot the adage about Caesar’s wife. But then Indians are not stupid and most, like me, realized that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. If Bedi had gestured mea culpa and not tried to brazen it out, the image of Team Anna would not have taken such a hammering.

There is still time for Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi to salvage the Anna movement against corruption. But they need to understand two things: first, it doesn’t pay to be arrogant. And second, do not take middle class Indians for granted.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

111 years of global oil-blessing or curse?

Oil and oil fields were around since the 19th century. But it is was 111 years ago on this day that the modern oil industry as we recognize it today was born. An oil field in Texas started gushing 100,000 barrels of oil per day. History and humanity changed decisively after that-both for good and bad. Till that day in 1901, oil had limited uses. After that, it is the Black Gold that literally runs the world. Oil was the first industry in history to record revenues in excess of a trillion dollars, that is 1000 dollars. If all the oil and gas companies in the world were listed on stock exchanges, they would account for more than 80% of the top companies in the world. Even now, oil and gas companies dominate the Fortune listing of the largest companies in the world. Royal Dutch Shell, with revenues of more than $ 450 billion is the largest oil company in the world and vies with Wal Mart for the top slot. Even Indian Oil reports a revenue of more than $ 75 billion a year. The largest private sector behemoth in India, Reliance Industries became so big primarily because it focused on oil, gas and petrochemicals. Oil exporting nations earn more than $ 1 trillion a year in revenue.

Of course, we cannot now imagine a world without oil and gas. Along with coal, it is the cornerstone of the energy industry. We cannot comprehend of modern transportation, road, rail, ships and air, without oil. Fact is, modern societies and economies simply cannot run without oil. There is no doubt whatsoever that the oil industry is responsible for the vast improvements in the economic prosperity of nations and the quality of life of people. Schools, hospitals, homes, offices, shopping centers, malls, cinema halls, stadiums....nothing in the modern world can run without oil, and gas.

And yet, while oil has been a boon when it comes to living standards and quality of life of people, it has also been a curse, resulting in millions of deaths in what can termed as collateral damage. West Asia is so volatile and so violent primarily because it has been blessed-and cursed- with oil. The largest oil and gas producing nations of the world have had an uncanny tendency to adopt autocratic forms of government. Without oil, born again Christians from Texas would not have the money to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year trying to convert 'heathens' into Christianity and without oil, it is difficult to visualize Osama Bin Laden and his unique brand of Jihad.

Till the early 20th century, Saudi Arabia was a country nobody really gave a damn about, except the fact that it hosted the Muslim Holy sites of Mecca and Medina. But the discovery of massive reserves of oil in that desert changed everything. A local warlord, or prince Ibn Saud defeated all his rivals and emerged as the ruler of the land, also named Saudi Arabia aft him. The House of Saud continues to rule that nation. It is easily the most conservative Muslim nation on earth and makes a mockery of women as well as human rights. But for more than 8 decades, it has been a steadfast ally of Britain and America. You will often hear of American presidents preaching democracy and human rights to other countries of the world. But they never dare do that to Saudi Arabia. It is Saudi petro dollars that have largely financed the expansion of the militant and intolerant Wahabi version of Islam throughout the world. You can see the disastrous effects of that in our neighboring country Pakistan. Iraq was invaded and virtually destroyed in 2003 by the then American President not to spread democracy but secure oil and gas supplies for his country. Iran was emerging as a true democracy after the Second World War and was not amenable to America and its allies having a monopoly over its oil industry. The CIA organized a coup to install a friendly dictator. That eventually resulted in a Revolution in 1979 when hard line Shia clerics took over the nation. Now that Iraq has been subdued, it is Iran which is the target number for America and its allies.

And oh yes, just in case you did not know this. In the late 1930s, America imposed and oil embargo and blockade on Japan. The rapidly growing military industrial complex of Japan would have collapsed without oil supplies. We got Pearl Harbour.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Farce of Low Food Inflation

For the last few weeks, the media has been awash with reports of how food inflation has been steadily declining. In fact, by the end of 2011, food inflation actually turned negative for the first time in about six years- a record of sorts. Pundits started pontificating how low food inflation is very good news for ruling parties because food constitutes a large part part of the budget of a poor household. And it is the poor who vote more enthusiastically during elections. Besides, low food inflation means that the stubbornly high rate of high overall inflation might begin to come down.

Pardon me for 'deflating' such hype and hoopla revolving around inflation. But then facts are facts, and only pundits try to interpret facts to suit their theories or their ideologies. Unabashed hacks like me merely go by what the facts state. To start with, the negative food inflation that we have witnessed is as per the wholesale price index or WPI. Now, the WPI is computed by taking prices quoted in wholesale mandis across India. Wholesale prices in India often bear no relation to what you and I actually end up paying eventually. But grant the pundits their WPI fascination and see the facts. The primary cause for food inflation turning negative is a steep fall in the prices of potato, onion and some vegetables. Now, prices of these products anyway fall during winters; last year was an exception because mismanagement had led to a rise in onion prices. But even if you take the WPI, prices of milk, eggs, meat and poultry products and a host of other food items have actually gone up. The wholesale price of milk has actually gone up by 10%.

So now let us consider the real thing, which is what pundits call the consumer price index. This is based on the cash we actually dole out while buying stuff from retail outlets. Now, I do go out and regularly buy vegetables. And believe me, the price I have been paying the last few weeks for potato, onion and vegetables is not as low as the WPI would suggest. In fact, except onion, the prices of other vegetables are virtually the same as they were last January. But the price of every other imaginable food item that is consumed by a household has actually gone up. Poor families try very hard to increase the protein intake of their children through milk, eggs, meat and pulses. The prices of all these have gone up considerably. Forget poor families, even middle class ones are finding it difficult to handle the sustained rise in prices of articles of daily and regular use. And yes, families-except a few brave heart ones- don't really go to wholesale mandis to stock up for the week or the month. So telling the poor and the lower middle class Indians to start cheering and clapping because food inflation has turned negative is farcical, of not downright cruel.

The whole debate about inflation in India has been quite farcical actually. The fundamental problem in India is not inflation but the structural problems that cause it. I mean, you read reports about farmers are literally dumping potato crops because there is no one willing to pay even Rs One a kilo for it. Then how come you and me still end up paying almost Rs 10 for a kilo of potato? In most cases, the prices that we pay for vegetables and other stuff are at least five times what the farmer gets. So our economic structure ensures that the average farmer is condemned to poverty and often suicide while we keep paying higher and higher prices. The only way out of this is to create physical and information infrastructure that will actually link the rural producer with the urban consumer in a more effective way. I see no signs of that happening in a hurry.

And once the seasonal harvest of cauliflowers, brinjals, cabbage and potato is exhausted, rest assured food inflation even as defined by the WPI will be back with a vengeance. Not that it will make much of a difference to the poor family.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Arushi vs Nithari: Media's Class War

Just about one kilometer separates the two: one is a house numbered L-32 in Sector 25 of Noida, a suburb of Delhi. Sector 25 is inhabited mostly by middle and upper middle class residents. The other is a cluster of rooms and huts called Nithari. This slum is inhabited mostly by domestic help, rickshaw pullers and other discards of India Shining. In L-32, one teenage girl called Arushi Talwar and a domestic help named Hemraj were found murdered. The media coverage of this double murder-committed in May 2008-has been so frenzied, so sensational and so relentless that it is still front page headline in newspapers of Delhi. Virtually every newspaper printed in Delhi has a front page story today that says that the parents of Arushi will face trial for her murder. From the cluster of rooms and huts called Nithari, poor parents-of the type who work as domestic help in the homes of journalists-lost close to two dozen children ranging from age 6 to age 20. These kids were sexually abused, violated, killed, dismembered and even cannibalised in the house of a rich businessman. These crimes occurred over two years in 2005 and 2006. The sheer brutality and shocking perversion of the crimes did create a small media firestorm. But that is it. Nithari and its 20 odd namesless victims have been dumped into the dustbin of forgotten stories while the Arushi story still manages front page headlines.

What better example can you find of the deep rooted bias in Indian media? Both the Arushi and the Nithari crimes were brutal and chilling; the Nithari muders far more so by a distance. Both involved allegations of sex and sexual perversion. And yet, the Indian media focuses its harsh and voyeuristic lens only on the Arushi Talwar murder. In fact, I was ashamed of myself this morning after reading the front page headlines when I tried to recall the names of the Nithari victims. I have a reasonably good memory; at least others tell me so. And yet, the only victim's name I could recall was Payal; that too perhaps Payal is such a familiar name. Now that the parents of Arushi will stand trial, expect a media circus again and also expect comments on how powerful people like the Talwars get away. No one will talk of how the Central Bureau of Investigation gave a clean chit to Moninder Singh Kohli, the rich businessman in whose the Nithari kids were butchered and dismembered.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the reasons behind this discrepancy in media coverage. Arushi Talwar was 'People Like Us', middle and upper middle class. We journalists identify with such people. Nithari victims like Payal are poor Indians whom we journalists largely ignore, if not abuse and exploit. So one Arushi is worth more TV discussions and more columns and more headlines in newspapers than more than 20 kids who happened to be poor and living in slums.

The Indian media indulges in this kind of Class War on a daily basis; its prejudice, hypocrisy and double standards exposed every day in the manner in which covers stories. For example, journalists and columnists rave and rant about subsidised kerosene meant for the poor and how it encourages corruption, creates market distortions and what not. How many journalists and columnists write the same about the obscene subsidies given to LPG cylinders? Do you see huge front page stories when the price of Kerosene is raised? If the price of LPG or petrol-used primarily by the middle class and the rich-newspapersand TV channels go ballistic.

I could go on and on with such exmaples of Class War perpetrated by the Indian media. But then I know, Arushi will still grab the headlines while Payal will just be a name.


Friday, January 6, 2012

India's Amazing Auto-Rise

I still remember that moment, back in 1975 when my college lecturer father bought a Bajaj scooter. I think the price was about Rs 5,000. More interesting was how he broke the queue to take delivery of Hamara Bajaj. He had put in a request with a minister in the state government who happened to be an old student who liked father as a teacher. The minister's sifarish helped dad get early delivery. The normal process was: you pay the entire sale price in advance to Bajaj and wait for about three years for delivery (now you know why Bajaj Auto still has such huge cash reserves!). My elder brother clandestinely took the scooter for a spin and crashed it. Luckily, it was a minor one. The thing I remember is, my father, who has a post doctoral degree from Imperial College of London, was virtually bankrupted by that purchase and we couldn't even go for school picnics costing Rs 30 that year.

As all eyes are riveted on the grand spectacle of the 2012 version of the Auto Expo, I can't help marvel at how much India has changed since those days of innocence and hope against hope. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the changes in India's automobile industry truly reflect the mind boggling ways in which India has changed. More than IT, it is the auto industry that reflects the true manner in which the Indian economy has grown from being a third rate Third World beggar to something of substance. Back in the early 1980s when Maruti and then Hero Honda hit the roads, the total production of automobiles in India was barely a million units; cars accounting for just about 50,000 units. Today, despite the slowdown, car sales in India crossed the 1 million mark. Hero Honda did not exist back then. Today, rechristened as Hero Motor Corp, it produces more than 5 million motorcycles and scooters. Many of you are familiar with the statistics and I won't bore you with more of the same.

But some of you still remain skeptical, and sometimes even derisive about the progress made by the Indian economy and the middle class in the last three decades. You still say that automobiles are for the rich and only a small fraction of India can afford to buy them. True to some extent. But let me give you a handy piece of comparative data to let you assess how massively the middle class in India has grown since then. In the early 1980s, my elder brother became an pilot of the Indian Air Force. He needed about 9 months of his salary to buy a bike called Ind Suzuki, subsequently TVS Suzuki and now separately TVS and Suzuki. Today, a new pilot of the Indian Air Force needs a little more than one month's salary to buy a motorcycle. Back then, my elder brother couldn't even dream of buying a car. It would need more than three years worth of salary to buy a basic Maruti 800 without any frills. His juniors today need just about 6 months of salary to buy a Maruti Alto with an air-conditioner. You might say that Air Force pilots were always middle class. First, that is not true and second, let us take a salesperson in a show room. Back in the early 80s, a salesperson would need more than 4 years salary to buy a two wheeler. Today, she can buy one with just about six months worth of salary. That is how intimately the automobile industry is associated with the rise of the middle class in India. And I am not even talking of the financing options available today.

If you still think the auto industry is elitist, let me dispel your prejudice a bit further. When you walk into an auto showroom, you find a few salesmen, a few others selling insurance, some others selling a loan and many others selling accessories. None of these jobs are high paid ones, but they are jobs that did not exist earlier. The autos sold, the more the number of petrol pumps, service stations and garages. Again, low paid jobs but jobs that did not exist earlier. Think about the people selling helmets on main roads, about people selling trinkets on traffic lights and people selling old tyres and reconsider your opinion about the auto industry being elitist. Sure, the guy selling trinkets on a street light would be better off sitting in an office with a real 'job'. But he never had the opportunity to get an education, and now the auto industry, like telecom, travel, courier and retail at least offers him an escape from grinding poverty and starvation.

By all means condemn the fact that too many Indian are still poor. But at least also celebrate the fact that many Indians who could not even dream of owning a two wheeler back in the 1980s now actually own cars!


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Kallis is THE all time great

If you love cricket and happen to be an Indian, these are truly embarassing times.But of course, the moment Sachin Tendulkar scores his 100th international ton, we will forget the walloping and the misery of our test team and and console ourselves with the belief that India at least has the greatest modern era cricketer in the form of Tendulkar. Who knows, we might actually end up naming a road after him and if that were not enough, confer the Bharat Ratna on him. After the Anna meltdown, India badly needs a national hero to look up to. And who better than Tendulkar?

But, much Jack Kallisas I love India and love cricket, I have to argue that it is Jacques Kallis of South Africa and not Sachin Tendulkar who happens to be the greatest modern era cricketer, if not THE all time great. I have been trawling through cricket statistics for a while, and it is the sheer weight of numbers that forces me to admit-albeit reluctantly-that Kallis is a better and greater cricketer than Tendulkar. Kallis has played 36 tests less than Tendulkar and already has 12260 runs at an average of 57 with 41 centuries to his name. I have no doubt in my mind that Kallis would cross 15,000 runs and 50 centuries in test cricket if he plays 186 tests like Tendulkar. Mind you, Kallis is about 2 years younger than Tendulkar and arhuably more fit. Sure, cricket is as fickle as a damsel in distress and Kallis could well retire next week; but even you don't really think that is going to happen, is it?

Let me first admit a few things. At first, I seriously thought of considering the bowling greats like Glen Mcgrath, Shane Warne, Muthia Muralitharan and Anil Kumble when I was trawling through cricket data. But then, I succumbed to the bias we all have towards batting records and let those greats be. Personally though I would definitely rank Glen Mcgrath as an all time great; just for the fact that he is a fast bowler who has taken more than 600 wickets. Then again, I also thought of Graeme Smith, Inzamam ul Haq and Shivnarain Chanderpaul Mahela Jayawardane and Kumar Sangakkara, all of whom have scored prolifically in their own way. But eventually, I settled down for a choice between Sachin, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and of course Jacques Kallis.

There is little Sachin Tendulkarto choose between the five when it comes to batting. All have class stamped all over, all have averages in excess of 50, all have scored majestic centuries and runs away from home and all have won and saved matches for their teams.For example, Brian Lara retired after playing just 131 (the word 'just' is apt for these guys!) tests and yet scored almost 12,000 runs. You have got to ask: what if this virtuoso of grace and elegance had played 50 more tests? Then again, there is Ricky Ponting, who has silenced his critics with two consecutive half centuries and a vintage century. Not to mention the number of times his bat has won matches for Australia. Then again, there is the Wall Rahul Dravid who also happens to hold the world record for the number of test cathes; 210 to be precise. And finally Tendulkar, whose records you are all familiar with. More than 30,000 international runs and 99 centuries. And so many records that you tend to lose track.

Yet, Jacques kallis stands head and shoulders above these titans. He has not only scored 12,260 runs in test cricket, but also taken 270 wickets and pouched 174 cathes. If you add up tests and ODIs, Kallis has scored 10,000 or so runs less than Sachin. But Kallis has 533 wickets and 297 catches. Tendulkar has 201 wickets and 248 catches. Tendulkar has played 172 more international matches than Kallis. What would the report card for Kallis if he had played 179 more international matches?

I rest my case.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

13 Years of Euro: What Next?

Chest thumping can be a wonderful feeling. But chest thumping also reminds me of two tired cliches that were flogged in front of us during school days. The first one talks about pride coming before downfall. The second one tells us that the higher we go, the steeper we fall. Both cliches seem apt for another round of flogging today as battered and bruised citizens of Europe try to search for a reason to celebrate 13 years of their common currency Euro. It was on January 4, 1999, that this much vaunted rival to the American dollar made its debut in global financial markets. There was a lot of hope, a hell of lot of optimism and a cocky swagger in the West (I define West as Western Europe and North America) in 1999 about future prospects.

Back then, it appeared as if Asia was down and perhaps out for the count. The financial crisis of 1997 had ravaged virtually all the newly emerging star countries of Asia like South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Lectures, hectoring and free advice came the way of troubled Asian economies as fast as the dollars kept moving out. Think Tanks in Washington and London made sniggering remarks about how the Asian miracle was built on castles of sand. The World Bank and the IMF jumped in and flogged their mantra of fiscal austerity. The wisdom was: it was irresponsible leaders, reckless bankers and crooked businessmen of Asia who caused the massive financial crisis and destroyed almost a generation of dreams. Of course, the West was triumphant back then and the dog eat gog kind of Capitalism that was the ruling ideology in Washington and London became the ruling ideology of the world. Many sober analysts and thinkers warned of the dangers of such an overdose of free market fundamentalism. But who was listening?

Now the wheels have turned full circle again. It is leaders and businessmen from Asia that are offering free advice to the West on how to behave responsibly and sensibly. Since 2008, the West has been haunted and tormented by an economic recession that it had not witnessed since the Great depression of 1930s. The same set of policy makers in Washington and London who virtually abused Asian leaders for bailing out desperate banks in their countries happily bailed out American banks as well as Wall Street when push came to shove. The same story is being repeated in Europe as subdued and humbled leaders try to save the banking systems of Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain. All the lectures that free market fundamentalists gave to Asian leaders after 1997 about letting markets do their jobs seem to have vanished. Free market fundamentalism is still alive and kicking; but now as free for all fundamentalism.

Will Euro prove to have a short life span? Will it even complete 14 years on January 4, 2013? A few years ago, such questions would have sounded preposterous. No longer. If Europe fails to save the sinking ships of Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain and many more of the 27 member countries, the Euro is bound to die a painful death. With that, hopefully, will come an end of the kind of silly triumphalism that commentators and pundits from the West have been drowning other nations of the world with.

On January 4, 1999, it was Asia-and even Latin America in shambles and the West was looking forward to yet another century of global domination. Today, on January 4, 2012, it is the West which is in shambles and it is Asia that is dreaming of global domination by the end of this century. But there are two lessons for Asia and latin America on this anniversary of the sinking Euro: first, do not subscribe to any kind of fundamentalism-whether it is the free market type or the Marxist type. Just junk ideology and make common sense the ruling ideology. Second, avoid chest thumping!


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ambani's dream comes true

I almost wanted to laugh out aloud. I mean, you have to admire the perseverance of someone who wants to see his father's dream come true. Laugh because the media has got it so wrong, as usual. Reports say that RIL is involved in a convoluted deal that includes control of Network 18 and the Eenadu group. Reports also say that the original promoter of TV 18, Raghav Bahl and his associates will hold a controlling stake in the new entity. Just in case you forgot, TV 18, or the many nomenclatures that it is known under, also controls two very powerful business channels CNBC and CNBC Awaaz and the Eenadu group is one that nursed ambitions of replicating the models of both the Times of India Group and the Sun Network. So, now Mukesh Ambani will be a minority shareholder in a company controlled by Raghav Bahl.

Don't you think that is laughable? Can you imagine a scenario where Raghav Bahl tells Mukesh Ambanis that I am overriding you? It is inevitable for corporate houses to try and take control of media if they can. In our democracy and our kind of capitalism, we have allowed that. So I would laugh at people who will crib about Mukesh Ambani taking cont RIL of such a powerful media vehicle. Mukesh Ambani is only doing what the law allows him to do.

But why is Mukesh Ambani doing this? Since I don't respect virtually any journalist who covers business-most of them are either paid off, or ignorant. I address this to the ones who are young and ignorant. Way back in 1986, the Indian Express did a lot of stories that almost felled the emerging Ambani Empire. I was a young journalist then wondering why people are targeting a man who is actually trying to do something. And then when Dhirubhai Ambani suffered a stroke, many wrote epitaphs about his dream. That man recovered and vowed to ensure that the media doesn't target him again like that. Of course, Arun Shourie, the man who tried his best to make Dhirubhai a villain became his fan after the death of the great entrepreneur.

And then V.P Singh became the Prime Minister of India and it looked as if the Raja's wrath would descend. So Dhirubhai started a newspaper called Business and Political Observer to at least answer the questions that other hostile media houses were asking. By that time, the elder Ambani had already drawn up his vision for Reliance to be a conglomerate that goes back from polyester to crude oil and has. By that time, people like me in the media had become pests who could only irritate his vision....psst...there were also a lot of journalists who received thank you notes. The most important of that is the way Vinod Mehta and his paper wrote about the venerable Girilal Jain getting some Reliance shares. Reliance shares were so lovable back those days that even journalists couldn't help falling in love with them.

But like most media enterprises started by corporate houses, the paper launched by Ambani flopped and the big people involved with the project like R.K Mishra (now deceased), Tony Jesudasan and someone every journalist knows as Balu lived to tell many tales. Of course, R.K Mishra even did back channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan after Kargil.

For India, the wheel seems to have turned full circle. What Dhirubhai Ambani had dreamt back in the 1980s when people like Arun Shourie were hounding him has finally come true. I will laugh at people who will rave and rant about Mukesh Ambani and Reliance. I will them them: this is Indian democracy and take it. And I would raise a toast for the son.

Hats off Mukesh Ambani for achieving what your father had always dreamed of.

Psst...I know Raghav Bahl is smiling


What does China want?

Blow hot, blow cold is a cliche that has often be flogged to death while analysing the turbulent relations between India and China. Two reports in just one day sum up the dilemma that Indian policy makers face while dealing with a China that seems to alternate between being a pragmatic neighbour and an irascible bully.

The first one has been splashed all over Indian media: how an Indian diplomat suffering from diabetes was harrassed by both Chinese citizens and officials in an eastern town of China called Yiwu. The Indian diplomat S. Balachandran was trying to help out some Indians who were held captive there. Indian authorities have lodged a strong protest over the issue.

The second report is about how top Indian companies Dabur India Ltd. and ITC Ltd. are suffering because some firms in China are brazenly selling 'fake' products carrying the brand names of these companies.

Both seem minor events if you look at them from a long term perspective. Yet, if you start adding up such 'minor events' and their frequency, you really start wondering what exactly the intentions of China are. Just about a week or so ago, the official Chinese media reported how the plans by India to test launch the Agni-5 series of missiles could be a threat to China. These long range missiles will have the capacity to hit cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Around the same time, an analytical piece in official Chinese media talks about how the United States was implementing a strategy of using old allies like Japan and new allies like India to contain the rise of China. Just a few weeks before that, border talks between India and China were either cancelled or postponed because the dragon was furious at India allowing the Dalai Lama to speak at a public function.

Go back some more time and you had the Ambassador of China publicly abusing an Indian journalist at a function. Go back some more and you had China repeatedly refusing to issue visas to officials from Arunanchal Pradesh and stapling visas of Indians from Kashmir. Why, China was furious even when Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh paid a visit to Arunanchal Pradesh. And of course, the official Chinese media some time back had also warned India not to forget the lessons of 1962.

I could go on and on with a string of such 'minor events'. But that is not the point. The point is for India to figure out what China's real intentions are. No doubt, there is little or no possibility of a repeat of the 1962 border conflict or even a 'minor' military conflict to score some brownie points. No doubt, China does not count India as an implacable and hostile enemy; though there are many in India who would disagree with that assessment. No doubt, growing trade between the two countries - $ 60 billion a year and growing phenomenally - and a large number of business deals between the two seem to added a different and more positive dimension to Indo-Chinese relations. No doubt, there are some in Chinese policy making levels who tend to think that it is not in China's interest to be seen to harm India.

It is nice to be optimistic when it comes to China. But, it would be wiser to be realistic. The only language that the hardliners in China understand is power-military, economic and geo-strategic and the fear of credible retaliation. India must keep talking to China. But it should keep dropping a hint or two that it does hold some cards. And that it intends playing them if provoked beyond a point. Usually, that is enough to maintain peace with bullies.


Monday, January 2, 2012

How Rahul Gandhi Can Win Uttar Pradesh

The focus is clearly on the man who could be the next Prime Minister of India. Every meeting that Rahul Gandhi addresses, is covered with breathless anticipation. For many journalists who have been covering elections for ages, there seems to be a kind of rediscovery of the old magic of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty. And yet, the most optimistic experts seem to think that Rahul Gandhi will be a winner if the Congress manages to improve on its tally of about 22 seats that it won in the 2007 assembly elections.

But look at it another way. The Congress also won 22 seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. And it came second in another 7 seats or so. Now each parliamentary constituency encompasses four assembly seats on an average. Do some simple mathematics and you realise that the party to be led by Rahul Gandhi potentially won about 130 seats in the UP assembly. And that was at a time when the media was projecting Mayawati as the next Prime Minister. Clearly, there was a voter connect with Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.

So why are media experts not talking about the Congress winning more than 130 seats in the UP elections? More importantly, is the team that advises Rahul Gandhi not aware of this? Even more importantly, are they aware of the odds but apprehensive about the results?

My take is that if the man can ensure at least some Congress workers are present in polling booths during elections, he might be in for a pleasant surprise.

But where are the Congress workers?