Saturday, August 10, 2013


I have become a very big fan of two Americans in recent times. Simply because they hold established pundits in utter contempt. One of them is statistician and number cruncher Nate Silver who is chucking his ‘prestigious’ job with the venerable New York Times to join the ‘oh so downmarket’ ESPN. In 2012, President Barack Obama “lost” the first debate to Republican challenger Mitt Romney so badly that most pundits – and opinion polls – started predicting an Obama loss. So pervasive was this “Obama will lose” aura created by myths that many Obama fans became disconsolate. Nate Silverwho claims no expertise on political matters and issueswas perhaps the only one who kept insisting that Obama will win, and win convincingly. Most pundits laughed at his so called stupidity; many accused him of bias and prejudice. In the end, Obama won, and won convincingly. This is what Silver has to say about political pundits in America: “I would argue that MOST political pundits are completely useless; the outliers are the few who are worth reading. Plus the political pundits take themselves very seriously...”

I couldn’t help recalling these lines when I was forced (by a fractured hip bone) to watch hours of television where pundits were analysing latest opinion polls on the Indian political scene. The glittering cast of pundits adorning the TV channels was so formidable that it would be heresy to question their unquestionable wisdom. But Nate Silver kept coming back at me. And it dawned on me that MOST pundits were talking nonsense. The opinion polls indicate that the Congress is going to get battered in the coming elections because of rising prices, poor governance and corruption. You don’t need opinion polls to arrive at that conclusion; just talk to non-pundits in the form of attendants and nurses in hospitals, taxi drivers, maid servants, dhobis, street hawkers, newspaper vendors...and you can figure out. The opinion polls also seem to indicate that the BJP will not benefit and the elections will result in a fractured mandate and a hung Parliament. India’s best pundits then gave their expert opinions on issues ranging from caste to Muslim votes to either the unsuitability or improbability of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister.

Ever since this magazine was launched in 2005, there has not been a single electoral verdict in India that has delivered a fractured mandate. And of course, there has not been a single verdict that has not exposed the pundits as no better than astrologers and tarot card readers.

In 2011, venerable media outfits and even more venerable pundits – backed by opinion polls – kept saying that Jayalalithaa Jayaram and AIADMK will win the Tamil Nadu assembly elections but won’t find it easy because of the ‘formidable’ alliance between the DMK and the Congress and the populist schemes announced by them. In the event, Jayalalithaa simply decimated her opponents. Then there were quite a few morons who suggested in early 2012 that no one could form a government in Uttar Pradesh without the support of the Congress. As hysterical reporters marvelled at the crowds gathered to hear the crown prince Rahul Gandhi, opinion polls and pundits pontificated on a fractured mandate, a hung UP assembly and the possible reemergence of the Congress. The UP voter, like Nate Silver, was laughing all along. In Punjab, the pundits were discussing the cabinet formation by Congress leader Amarinder Singh hours before the results were announced. The venerable pundits were discussing how the revolt by Manpreet Badal, the nephew of Akali Dal leader and chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, who formed his own party would badly damage the ruling alliance of BJP and Akali Dal. When the results were announced, some pundits blamed the voters for their lack of wisdom; just as many pundits have branded the whole state of Gujarat as “communal” because the damned voters there keep voting for Narendra Modi!

I simply did not hear one simple thing: that the Indian voter is repeatedly delivering decisive mandates and it will be either the UPA or the NDA in 2014. I am sure pundits on TV channels will have fancy explanations when the electoral verdict of 2014 throws egg on their faces. Just in case you think my words, in the tradition of Digvijaya Singh, reveal that I am a product of an RSS conspiracy, please recall what our pundits were saying before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Almost everyone predicted that the Left parties and the “Third Front” would be the winners. Within hours of the results being announced, when the Congress and the UPA won a clear mandate, the same pundits started discussing how good a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi could be!

I was forced to watch another “Made for Pundits” carnival on television; this one about Amartya Sen versus Jagdish Bhagwati and the Kerala versus Gujarat models of development. Added to this was the debate about poverty – with some Congress leaders claiming you could eat a full meal for Rs.12 or even Rs.5. The pundits are very clear: it is a ‘global, neo-imperialist, corporate’ conspiracy to claim that poverty has declined in India. Then again, people like Modi who tout the Gujarat model of development are false messiahs and frauds because it is Kerala with its superior human development results that is the true road map for India. (You can add Bihar and the Nitish Kumar model to this now. And don’t forget the Bangladesh model because pundits make Indians like me ashamed by showing better human development results in Bangladesh!!!).

I then recalled the other American who can add me to his list of fans [Not that he will care!] – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of ‘Black Swan’ and the man who became famous because he was one of the rare ones who actually anticipated the great collapse of 2008. He has written another book called the ‘Anti-Fragile’ which you really must read if you have the time and the mental stamina; not to speak of having an open mind. In the book, Taleb systematically trashes the “pundits” of the world and their wisdom with actual evidence. And this is what he writes about globally respected New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman of the “World is Flat” fame and Joseph Stiglitz, one of the most revered pundits of our times and another Economics Nobel Prize Winner like Amartya Sen: “There is something more severe than the problem with Thomas Friedman, which can be generalised to someone causing action without being completely unaccountable for his words....had Stiglitz been a businessman with his own money on the line, he would have been blown up, terminated. Or had he been in nature, his genes would have been made extinct so people with such misunderstanding of probability would eventually disappear from our DNA”.

I really wish India encouraged “contrarian” voices like this! I do not have the expertise of the pundits when it comes to the poverty war being played out in the media. But I have grown up in Chattisgarh and Odisha and I have personally seen the decline of poverty in the places I have lived in and visited again and again. Alone who says poverty has not declined in the towns and villages that I know intimately, or that it has worsened, is a fraud. Anyone who has lived in these areas knows that it is the Congress who encouraged the plunder and exploitation of the natives. There is no serious analysis required here because the Congress has ruled most of India for most of its existence as an independent country. But I can claim no knowledge of India as a whole. Of course, there is one thing that strikes me when I (SMS your views with your name and topic to 0-9818101234) hear about the wonderful stories of development in Kerala, Bangladesh and Bihar. The most practical way to check human behaviour is to look at how they actually behave. So I keep thinking, if the Kerala model is so great, why do so many from that state keep looking for a better life elsewhere? And then I think, what would happen to Kerala if the nurses, electricians, carpenters, doctors, software engineers and many other professionals stopped sending money “back home”? Besides, if as pronounced by the father of all pundits Amartya Sen, if things are so hunky dory in Bangladesh, why do we so many citizens of that ‘humanly developed’ country want to cross over to India? Of course, Indian pundits say that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a conspiracy hatched by the RSS types! I interact with pundits like this and think: these are the same guys who kept praising Communism and the Soviet Union even as people from the blessed Communist countries displayed a stupid tendency to migrate to ‘Imperialistic’ domains. These are the same guys who became pundits specialising in environment, inclusive growth, secularism and....

Need I say more?


Saturday, July 6, 2013


And so the expected has happened. The Mother of all Mai-Baap sarkars in the world has passed an ordinance clearing the Food Security Bill. At the stroke of a pen, Sonia Gandhi will realize the dream expressed by the grand father-in-law Jawaharlal Nehru at the stroke of midnight in 1947. About 800 million grateful Indians will now marvel at her kind spirit as they get virtually free food from the government (Of course tens of thousands of bureaucrats, contractors and suppliers will soon demand that the Pope declare her a Saint for the untold manna from heaven that she is going to shower on them). After organizing the signature campaign and sending the petition to Rome via Federal Express, this smaller group will carry the Gita or Quran or Bible or the Guru Granth Sahib and flock to temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras with just a single prayer to their God. “Please guide these 800 million idiots to polling stations and tell them that salvation is guaranteed if they kiss the Hand that feeds them.” And what about the ungrateful who are carping at this once in a millennium gesture of largesse and noblesse oblige? What of their plaintive cries that this will bankrupt an already bankrupt government? What of their warnings that the poor will continue to starve and be malnourished like they have despite more than four decades of similar programs and welfare schemes. Off the record madam’s minions will smile and say they are playing something called Power Games, and not Hunger Games. Acolytes of the crown prince who have an MBA degree will invite applications from employees of the global Pizza chain that coined the slogan: Hungry Kya? Simultaneously, applications will be invited from employees of a species called NGOs (Neo Godly Organisations) who will holler and scream that Modi is culpable of genocide because he doesn’t support the Food Security Bill. Many pundits in TV studios will discuss how cops in Gujarat killed the Bill in a fake encounter. Of since the Bill has divine blessings, it was miraculously resurrected. To cap it all, Pawan Kumar Bansal will be reinstated as the Railway Minister to ensure that all those millions of tons of food grains are transported in the proper “bags”, the Railway Board will create a new post for a senior bureaucrat to oversee this ship of salvation that will be akin to Noah’s Ark. Interested parties will be encouraged to contact certain nephews. The term ‘Gravy Train’ will acquire a new meaning. And of course, the caged parrot will come in handy to fix some potentially ungrateful souls who have the capacity to lure away many of those 800 million souls who might otherwise kiss the Hand that feeds them.

Since India has gone completely batty and crazy, I think even I am entitled to sing a few loonie tunes. But mind you, the tunes might sound loony to you, but they actually provide a glimpse of the future that awaits India. You see, Madam Gandhi not only has the support of sycophants, fixers, hacks and assorted jholawalas, she has the “intellectual” support of a Nobel Prize winning economist cum philosopher. Yes, we are talking about that argumentative Indian Amartya Sen. When the Parliament was repeatedly disrupted by the coal and the railway scam in April, 2013, it looked as if the UPA government would not be able to pass the Food Security Bill. Amartya Sen jumped into the fray with a delicious display of outrage and basically slammed the opposition parties – mainly the BJP – for blocking such an important piece of legislation. He thundered: “The case for passing this Bill is overwhelming...I would prefer this Bill to no bill at all... Those busting parliamentary discussion should be held responsible for not solving the problem of hunger in the country...we need to ask: who will be held responsible for the deaths of millions of malnourished children in the country?” The obvious questions anyone with common sense would ask is: the Congress has ruled India for about 54 out of 65 years since independence in 1947. What has the party done to even minimize hunger, forget eliminating it? The second question is: the UPA under Madam Sonia had nine years to get a Bill like this passed by the Parliament. Why issue an ordinance when a Parliament session is just a few weeks away? The answer is obvious: political gains. And it is an enormous help if the Godfather of jholawallas lends a helping hand by slamming non-Congress parties. But more important than these political hunger games is the mindset of such Left leaning “liberals” who think that the reforms process has made life worse for India’s poor and hence more and more extravagant welfare schemes are required. This idea of India and this vision of India has dominated mainstream discourse for decades.

But there are people who offer an alternative vision. For instance, Jagdish Bhagwati whose ideology is completely at odds with that of Amartya Sen. In a speech delivered to the Indian Parliament in 2010, Bhagwati tore apart the Amartya Sen school of thought by saying: “But then, the naysayers, among them the socialists in the currently ruling Congress Party, have rejected the miracle produced by the (1991) reforms by suggesting darkly that the growth lacks a human face and that it is not inclusive, that the gains have accrued to the rich wile the poor have been immiserized, that inequality has increased and that India stands condemned before the world. Perhaps the most articulate critics are the “progressive” novelists of India, chief among them Pankaj Mishra whom the Op-Ed page editors of The New York Times regularly and almost exclusively incite to write about the Indian economy, a privilege they do not seem to extend symmetrically to American novelists to give us their profound thoughts on the US economy. While Mishra’s analysis is eloquent and captivating, (it) is really fiction masquerading as non-fiction. The fact is that several analyses have sown that enhanced growth rate has been food for reducing poverty while it has not increased inequality measured meaningfully and that large majorities of virtually all underprivileged groups polled say that their financial situation has not worsened and significant numbers say that it has improved”.

The whole of India is talking about the imminent face off and showdown between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In reality, Modi and Rahul are mere symbols who represent two divergent ideas of India. The two ideas have been best articulated by Amartya Sen and Jagdhish Bhagwati. As students, both were contemporaries at Cambridge University (Manmohan Singh was another contemporary) and Sen moved towards the Left while Bhagwati moved towards the right. It would indeed be a dream cum true for the two to have a public debate about their divergent visions of India’s future. Many economists and analysts have even demanded that the two engage in a verbal duel. Sadly, that has not happened, though Bhagwati seems very keen on it because he told The Economic Times in an interview: “Of course I have been against pro poor policies. From my first job in the Indian Planning Commission in the early 1960s, I have been working on how to reduce poverty. What I have objected to are the specific anti poverty policies that Professor Sen has backed, in one way or another. Those policies have demonstrated actually increased poverty! You must ask Professor Sen, and not me, why he will not engage in a debate with me, even though he has been invited by others. After all, he is the one who used the phrase argumentative Indian...”

Will the Nobel winning philosopher rise to the bait and the occasion? We are all waiting with bated breath. But we know where Sen’s preferences lie when it comes to politics. When asked about dynasties in Indian politics, he said: “Would Rahul someday make a good Prime Minister? It is quite possible. I know him a certain amount. I once actually spent a day with him and I was very impressed...I think he is very talented. It was clear to me that he was committed to India’s development”.

Food for thought, isn’t it?!


Thursday, April 11, 2013


And so the noise, the trading of barbs, the hyperbole and the hysteria has begun. It is now certain that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi will play a key and decisive role in formulating the BJP strategy for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It is also certain that both his die hard supporters and his die hard opponents will raise decibel levels to a crescendo of cacophony, allegations, counter allegations and recriminations. For Modi fans, the man is a Messiah who will miraculously bring about good governance to the country. For those who are implacably opposed to Modi, the man is a fascist and a “Maut ka Saudagar” who is a clear and present danger to the very Idea of India. Logic, facts, common sense and even a semblance of sanity vanishes when these two groups are pitted against each other. His fierce opponents inhabit the world of academia, mainstream media and activism. For decades, these secular warriors have dominated the discourse on history, politics, society and what not in English media. Not all the secular warriors are open or even closet supporters of the Congress. But they do share a pathological dislike for Modi and are convinced it is their fundamental right to expose him. His fans mostly inhabit the world of Internet Hindus who revel in sniping at mainstream media icons and academic giants whenever they criticise Modi. For them, Modi is a saviour who will release India from the clutches of secular fundamentalists and an establishment that is beholden to the Gandhi family. For his supporters, the very idea of Modi becoming the Prime Minister is akin to salvation; for his opponents, it is as good as Apocalypse. This hysterical war of words will be played out on television screens, in newspaper and magazine pages and in the brave new world of the Internet. This hysteric positioning of ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ rhetoric has taken the absurd to absurd, and often laughable levels.

But almost everybody seems to be a missing a key point here. I can openly bet that a majority of Indian citizens and voters are yet to form a concrete opinion about Narendra Modi. Look at someone like me. When his supporters go on and on about Modi magic in terms of development and good governance, I wonder at the hype and also wonder why other chief ministers who have delivered governance are not anointed as messiahs. When his fans keep on and on about how he has won three consecutive assembly elections, I wonder why we forget that Naveen Patnaik and Shiela Dixit have done it before Modi. The converse also applies. When Modi baiters go on and on about the “genocide” in 2002 in Gujarat, I wonder why these secular warriors do not talk as passionately about the massacre of Muslims in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra when the Congress has ruled the States. As far as I am concerned: post-Independence India has witnessed two genocides: in Nellie, Assam in 1983 and in Delhi in 1984. In both the events, the Congress was implicitly or explicitly complicit. People like me are convinced that Modi can never escape moral responsibility for the Gujarat 2002 riots. But we are also convinced that the track record of the Congress is even more brutal and horrific when it comes to dealing with minorities. So when secular warriors keep harping only on Modi, people like me start wondering what their real agenda is. Take another example, when some people praise Modi for high growth rates and industrialisation of Gujarat, his sworn enemies dismiss the praise by saying Gujarat was always a developed state and Modi is getting undue attention. Perhaps they are right. And yet, when people die of swine flu in Gujarat, the same people descend like a pack of wolves and hold Modi personally responsible and culpable for those deaths. The fact of the matter is that both his fans and opponents are equally responsible for creating the larger than life image of Modi. Secular warriors gleefully do victory laps when the Wharton Business School and the University of Pennsylvania withdraw an invitation to Modi. Modi fans start swooning over his address to students of Sri Ram College of Commerce as if no Indian politician has ever given a more important speech.

In all this gibberish, balderdash and nonsense, we seem to forget that there are Indians who neither love nor hate Modi. Yes, they are very aware of his steady rise as the most powerful leader of the BJP. Yes, they are also aware of the daily onslaught of charges and abuse that he faces from secular warriors. But believe me, no matter ho passionately you dream about for or against Modi rhetoric, most Indians have not yet made their minds. Lets us look at some facts first. Gujarat 2002 was neither the first nor the last riot that embarrassed and ashamed India. But there is one difference here: no other riot and its aftermath has been so persistently and relentlessly investigated by all manner of agencies and institutions including the Supreme Court of India. No other chief minister of India has been so persistently investigated either, no matter what spin doctors would have you believe. And by no means are all the investigations over. There is still a possibility that Modi might be found legally culpable. If that happens, he can only blame his own alleged acts of omission or commission. But aren’t we forgetting something here: surely law stipulates that a man is innocent till found guilty and convicted by a court of law? No matter what your ideological fervour or prejudice, surely it is a fact that no chief minister in India has faced one decade of scrutiny and investigation than this man.

The second indisputable fact is applicable to both his hysterical supporters and opponents. His supporters think it is a matter of time before he becomes the Prime Minister and saves India. His opponents think he will destroy India in the unlikely event that he becomes the Prime Minister. Come on guys: why don’t you leave it to the voters of India to decide? Both his opponents and supporters can expect nasty surprises from the Indian voter.

Till then, can you please pipe down this hysteria and get on with life?


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Playing the fiddle and crying wolf

Why has India failed to overhaul, modernise and transform its infrastructure sector? The answer is threefold – poor policy making, poor regulatory oversight, and extreme levels of crony capitalism!

THERE is such a torrent of information, news, PR stuff that passes as news, analysis, opinion and pseudo punditry that it becomes almost impossible to stitch together the seemingly diverse strands to weave a coherent picture. But once you just making a list of the seemingly unrelated events, you cannot escape looking at the big picture. And the big picture is a frightening one of the entirely unnecessary and destructive implosion of India’s ambitions to take its infrastructure at least above Third World levels. Just consider the following news reports or opinion pieces that you might have read in newspapers- more often white than pink-in recent times:

1. In the second half of 2012, it was reported that India actually lost about 60 million mobile connections. So instead of marching towards a subscriber base of one billion, India now has less than 900 million phone subscribers. The reason given is that mobile service providers are disconnecting ‘inactive’ numbers to boost bottomlines. Of course, you must have also read that MTS abruptly disconnected 1.8 million customers by shutting down its services in Mumbai claiming it was forced to do so because of Supreme Court orders.

2. Some time late last year and early this year, the infrastructure group GMR announced that it is withdrawing from a prestigious and crucial highway project that is supposed to link Kishannagar in Rajasthan with Ahmedabad. GMR officials stated that the group was withdrawing from the project because the National Highways Authority of India was taking too long to acquire land for the highway project. In contrast, NHAI officials complained that the group is withdrawing because it is facing a financial crisis and is using tardy land acquisition as an excuse. Another infrastructure group from the state of Andhra Pradesh, GVK also withdrew from similar highway projects.

3. Sometime in July 2012, the entire northern and eastern grids of India virtually collapsed resulting in massive power cuts and outages across vast swathes of India. Life literally came to a standstill as even trains stopped dead in the tracks. As is wont in India, there was a furious blame game with the Power Grid Corporation accusing some states of irresponsibly overdrawing power from the national grid. Around the same time, you must have read news reports or rumours that the Gandhi family had requested the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh to ensure uninterrupted power for Amethi and Rae Bareilly as loyal voters were up in arms against prolonged power cuts. Of course, you must be aware that soon after the collapse of the power grid that made India a laughing stock, the Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was ‘promoted’ to the post of Union Home Minister in a cabinet reshuffle.

4. Television news channels that telecast live a press conference addressed by Aam Aadmi Party stalwarts Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have been reportedly served defamation notices by Reliance Industries Ltd. During the press conference, Kejriwal and Bhushan had made a series of allegations against Reliance Industries related to the KG basin gas project and accused the central government of protecting the interests of Reliance Industries at the cost of national interest. Most of you would have either seen the press conference or read about it in newspapers. But the drama of the live telecast diverted our attention from a crucial fact: according to the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, gas output from this critical source is slated to decline from last year’s level of about 37 million standard cubic meters per day to about 27 mmsd in 2012-13 and even further to about 22 million mmsd by 2013- 14. A host of power and fertiliser plants dependent on gas from the KG basin are effectively crippled. Meanwhile, there is a running battle going on between the CAG and Reliance Industries over audit of the project, with no resolution in sight. You might recall that Sushil Kumar Shinde was given the Home portfolio after the power grid disaster. In this case, after persistent rumors that the then Petroleum Minister S. Jaipal Reddy was being tough on Reliance Industries Ltd, he was shifted as Minister of Science and Technology.

5. Just recently, the Supreme Court of India pulled up the Central Bureau of Investigation for the tardy pace at which it was investigating the alleged coal block allocation scam. The CAG had opened a virtual can of worms in 2012 when it accused authorities of massive irregularities in allocations of coal blocks. There are many who seem to think that the alleged coal allocation scam is even bigger than the 2G scam, though media interest in the issue seems to have tapered off after an initial flurry of reports and speculations. But once again, allegations and counter allegations over the alleged coal bloc allocation scam had diverted our attention from a crucial and deeply distressing fact: according to a recent Reuters story, India imported more than 72 million tonne of coal in the period April-December 2012. That is an almost 50% jump compared to last year. The same Reuters story quotes analysts saying that coal imports during fiscal 2012-13 will be about 107 million tonne and climb further to 115 million tonne by 2013-14. That is because domestic coal production is simply failing to keep pace with growing demand. By the way, India has the third largest reserves of coal in the world and such massive imports are putting a further strain on India’s already serious trade and current account deficits.

6. Some of you might have read a surprise story in February 2012 which stated that Kingfisher Airlines surprised employees by paying one month salary to its employees. Employees of the airline claim that they have not received salaries since May 2012. Of course, we all know that Kingfisher Airlines is effectively grounded and shut down. There are reports that banks that have lent money to the airline are sure they can recover only a part of the amount even if the courts liquidate the airline. In many ways, the virtual demise of this high profile and once celebrated airline is symptomatic of how the once soaring civil aviation sector in the country is in danger of a crash landing. According to a study by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy based on data released by Airports Authority of India, passenger traffic will actually decline by 2.5% in 2012-13 as compared to the previous year. This is mainly because of a steep fall in domestic air traffic.

7. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, was featured in newspapers on February 25, 2013, for a strange reason. She was quoted as apparently saying those residents of Delhi who complain of high power tariffs should consume only what they can afford. When the distribution of power was privatised in Delhi in 2002, there was hope that private firms will ensure that the then figure if 55% T&D loss – an euphemism for theft – would be drastically reduced. That in turn would actually lead to lower tariffs for consumers in Delhi. Of course nothing of that sort has happened and power shortages as well as high tariffs have become a political hot potato for the Sheila Dixit government. But Delhi is only symptomatic of the entire country. According to the Central Electricity Authority, India is looking at a power deficit of more than 10% in the current year. Power cuts range from about one hour a week in states like Gujarat to about 30 hours a week in states like Tamil Nadu. Mind you, both are industrialised states. The less said about the so-called poor states, the better. The reason given by the authority is critical shortages of coal and gas – two things we have already mentioned above.

8. In 2012, Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma admitted to Parliament that only 154 out of 587 Special Economic Zones approved under a 2005 policy were operational. In contrast to the promise of creating millions of jobs and creating China style manufacturing jobs, the actual number of jobs created was just about 800,000. The minister stated that SEZs accounted for about a quarter of exports from India. What he didn’t add is that most of these export earnings came from software firms that had shifted base to SEZs to available tax exemptions. Even a child knows that even a fraction of the Chinese miracle has not been repeated by Indian SEZs, with most of them becoming speculative real estate deals.

9. Things were not looking so bad once upon a time. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, he implemented a cess on sale of petroleum products to exclusively finance the expansion and modernisation of India’s highways, including the prestigious Golden Quadrilateral project. He gave the responsibility to implementing the scheme to Major General B. C. Khanduri. Even critics of BJP and the then NDA government reluctantly admit that the highway modernisation project was one of the genuine success stories delivered by the Vajpayee government. Around the time the NDA lost power in 2004, India was adding about 18 kilometers of spanning new highways every day. Today, that figure has dropped to a measly 2 or 3 kilometers at best.

Clearly there is something seriously wrong with the infrastructure sector on India. One top level industry analyst recently told me why he thought that the recent policy to allow FDI in the retail sector is more of a joke than a revolutionary step. He simply laughed at the idea that global chains like Wal-Mart will invest huge amounts and transform India agriculture as well as food processing industries. His logic: Wal-Mart is not going to invest money to build power plants that will allow cold storages to function. Nor will it invest dollars in building roads that will connect the rural hinterland to urban markets. He further said that one of the key reasons for the rate of GDP growth crashing from more than 9% a year to just about 5% a year now is because of India’s appalling and inexcusable failure to overhaul, modernise and transform the infrastructure sector. According to him, this failure is going to haunt India for many many more years to come. That is because infrastructure projects take years to come to fruition and even a dramatically charged up UPA regime cannot do much in the immediate future in terms of concrete results.

What actually went wrong? The answer, without beating about the bush, is threefold. The first is poor policy making. The second is poor regulatory oversight. And the third is extreme levels of crony capitalism. Look at how the UPA government adopted policies to allocate spectrum in telecom and coal blocs on the mining sector. The policies were inherently flawed and bound to generate controversy and confusion. The results are there for all to see. Something similar happened with a policy decision by the civil aviation ministry to allow airlines only with at least five years experience of domestic flying to launch global operations. Something worse is happening with the proposed Land Acquisition Bill that will make it a nightmare for investors to acquire land for any infrastructure project. There doesn’t seem to be any hope too of this government paying heed to common sense voices and adopt sensible and transparent policies. The second key reason for this unfolding nightmare is poor regulation. The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Authority is a classic case. One year, the body accuses the private power distribution firms of unethical behaviour and refuses to entertain their demands for a fare hike. The next year, it mysteriously allows an even bigger hike despite widespread protests. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has similarly failed to look either after the interests of the consumers or behave in a consistent and rational manner. We all know what has been happening and what is happening with the telecom regulator TRAI. Then again, it did appear as if the regulator for the petroleum industry the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons was sleeping even as gas production from the KG basin started falling alarmingly.

But poor policy making and poor regulation are mere manifestations. The real reason is crony capitalism. There have been so many allegations of scams during this regime that it is difficult to keep track of all of them. They seem to come out as regularly as pot boilers starring Akhsay Kumar. But there is one common strand in almost all the allegations of the scams. They are related to the infrastructure. Power, SEZ, telecom, highways, coal blocks, gas fields and civil aviation seem to to be sectors that have been the worst affected by scams. The sad thing is: there seems to be no end to this brazen practice of crony capitalism. The implosion of India’s infrastructure sector will continue.


Monday, February 4, 2013


Congress leaders were triumphant after results of the Gujarat assembly elections were announced. Senior leader P. Chidambaram said in virtually as many words that Congress had won because it had restricted Modi and BJP to barely 115 out of 182 seats. For Modi fans, the script was entirely different. His third successive election victory made him a strong contender to be the BJP candidate for Prime Minister. In Jaipur recently, nervous Congressmen heaved a sigh of relief and shed tears of joy when Rahul Baba finally agreed to lead the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Since then, we have seen an overdose of articles and columns comparing the two as potential prime ministers. If you go by excitable media reports, 2014 could well be an American Presidential style election where voters will have to choose between Modi Bhai and Rahul Baba.

But I most humbly disagree. If you look deep and hard, India has literally a wild variety of choices when it comes to who should be the Prime Minister. Come on, if Deve Gowda, the late I. K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh can become Prime Minister, surely almost anybody can. And I am not talking about the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Jayalalitha as strong contenders. In the true spirit of democracy, I cast my net wide and far and came up with a very rich catch of choices. Here is a not so comprehensive list of gifted, talented, visionary and messianic Indians who have superb qualifications to be the next Prime Minister of India:

Asaram Bapu: Who better than this fountain of Vedic Wisdom and champion of gender equality and female empowerment. I am not so sure about what his domestic and economic policy agenda would be. But I am absolutely convinced this great man will do a superb job of making all our borders safe and secure. You see, almost all his female devotees will be dispatched to our borders. Dancing to the tunes of devotional songs, they will all keep asking real and alleged enemies to treat them like sisters. The Pakistani soldiers will be so inspired that they will start beheading themselves. The Chinese would be so shell shocked that they would promptly give up all claims on Tibet. And there will commence a citizen movement in Bangladesh that will demand the return of all illegal migrants from India. Each cabinet meeting will be a Satsang where Asaram Babu will drop further pearls of wisdom.

Akbaruddin Owaisi: This mind blowing orator and contender for the Nobel Peace Prize will firmly have a simple domestic agenda. His first decision as Prime Minister will be to declare the birth anniversary of the last Nizam of Hyderabad as a national holiday. His second decision would be even more historic. He will decree that all police stations in India be shut down for 15 minutes once every week. That will enable the 25 crore Muslims of India to show the 100 crore Hindus of India who the real Boss is. Even as Hindus and Muslims indulge in a new national pastime and sport called This Week in Riots, the new age Nizam will go to London as a medical tourist. This will greatly improve relations between the former Imperial Power and the new Caliphate. Owaisi will also announce a weekly award worth Rs.100 million for a slogan writing contest where you will be encouraged to denigrate Hinduism. Hordes of media celebrities and secular activists and academicians will literally kill each other to become participants.

Poonam Pandey: This new Light of Asia will bring about revolutionary and unthinkable changes in India and perhaps even in the world at the drop of a strap. You see, every time Hafiz Saeed makes a menacing threat against India, this leader will make an even more menacing threat. She will threaten to “reveal all” to the world and expose the duplicity of the Pakistani state. Every time China says it must have Arunachal Pradesh, this icon will promise to “bare all” if China persists with its perfidy. And each time America disappoints India by not sentencing the likes of David Headley to death, she will summon an emergency cabinet meeting in the showers. The agenda, of course, would be to “expose it all” for the world to see. Poonam Pandey will also create history by leading the first ever all woman government. Sunny Leone would be our permanent representative to the United Nations. Sherlyn Chopra would be our Ambassador to the United States. Rakhi Sawant would be the Union Minister of Home and Mallika Sherawat would be the Union Minister for Health and Education. All of them will regularly tie Rakhi to Asaram Bapu. You know which Rakhi I am talking about.

N. Srinivasan: This visionary and selfless leader will take so many bold steps that the Indian economy will grow bigger than that of China within a decade. And his imprint would be stamped both across domestic and foreign policy frontiers. To begin with, he will organize something called the ICL – Indian Caste League. Upper caste and OBC chieftains and leaders of Khap Panchayats would be allowed to bid for teams. The floor price for the auction would be one billion American dollars. In each match, the man of the match would be the one who kills the most lower castes, Dalits and tribes within a stipulated time period. The winning team, of course, would be the one with the best kill record. Bihar, Haryana and Maharashtra would be the natural contenders to play host for the finals. There will be one other condition: all teams have to sign a bond that will make Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri the permanent commentators. Srinivasan will implement equally revolutionary policies in the foreign policy and defence sectors. He will organize an open auction of the Indian armed forces at a glittering event in Dubai. Indian companies will not be allowed to participate. Only multinationals, particularly those from China, will do so and the event would be telecast live on all channels of the Star Network. This franchise will be called IDL – India Defence League. There will be a third franchise called ISL – India Suicide League. In this, bidders will be encouraged to push more and more farmers to commit suicide. You must have guessed by now that Sharad Pawar would be the Chief Mentor of this franchise.

Rohit Shetty: Bollywood is the heartbeat of India and is capable of throwing up some sterling candidates for the post of Prime Minister. I can think of the duo of Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi who would make poetry recitation mandatory in cabinet meetings. I can think of Mahesh Bhatt who would offer valuable advice to Barack Obama even as he is shooting his next soft porn venture. But the vote actually goes to Rohit Shetty. When he is Prime Minister, he will release yet another sequel of Golmal every time India faces a crisis – either domestic or foreign.

Arnab Goswami: This is a simple and straightforward choice to vote for. This fearless leader has already declared war so many times on Pakistan, China, America and sundry others that wars would become history when he takes over. As a television anchor, he has bamboozled panelists and mesmerized Indians by repeating just one sentence tirelessly and endlessly: The nation demands an answer. When he becomes Prime Minister, he will change his daily chant which will become: I demand an answer from the nation.

I am sure fellow Indians have even better suggestions and choices. Please do email and SMS your valuable suggestions. India needs you.