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Showing posts with label india. Show all posts
Showing posts with label india. Show all posts

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Satya Nadella ascension: misleading triumphalism

The elevation of India-born and schooled Satya Narayana Nadella to chief executive officer at Microsoft Inc, USA — the world’s most well-known IT corporation (annual revenue: $77.85 billion or Rs.484,149 crore) — has been widely reported in the media. All reports were anchored by a streak of pride proclaiming it as an Indian achievement. This puffing of the collective chest is one more indication that the media responds to such stimuli in an overwrought manner, used as they are to what Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul described as “a negative way of perceiving” events and trends.

Elaborating on his construct in India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), Naipaul wrote: “In an active, busy country, full of passion and controversy, it is not an easy thing to grasp, this negative way of perceiving. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of India’s intellectual second-rateness… (which) may be the most startling and depressing thing about the world’s second most populous country.”

Naipaul’s insightful observation is still valid in the second decade of the new millennium. After a decade of promising growth and unlocking of the nation’s unlimited potential, India’s “second-rateness” seems to have overwhelmed it. Everywhere one turns, the promise seems to be in terminal decline with the media typically blaming government. This is the essence of this “negative way of perceiving” — externalize the problem and bring in fascists or anarchists to save the day. Any option is preferable to deep thinking and introspection.

At the heart of the problems debilitating the nation and Indian society, is a dysfunctional education system. Indeed, it may not be too far off the mark to tag the Nadella ascension as a full-blown indictment of the Indian academy. The higher education system does produce world-class scientists, engineers, managers and doctors but the economy lacks the sophistication to absorb them. Consequently, these heavily-subsidised technical and professional academic institutions produce skilled manpower for more evolved global corporations.

But even as the brightest and best move on to script success stories elsewhere, Indian enterprises struggle to find the engineers, managers and doctors needed to meet the demands of a growing economy. To fill these demands, the education bureaucracy and freewheeling entrepreneurs have devised a system of selection defined by examinations and rote learning. 

The ones with the highest scores are usually recruited by global corporations; the remainder battle for survival or success in local enterprises and joint ventures which struggle to cope with the demand for marketing, supply chain, maintenance, logistics managers and the dead hand of socialism — regulation, labour laws, taxation, finance. This leaves little room for innovating new products, services, processes, and systems.

Nadella’s ascension nevertheless provides a welcome opportunity for assessment of an education system which has become a programme of elite selection rather than public empowerment and enlightenment. National pride is probably the last reaction it ought to evoke, given the fact that Nadella and a whole host of such immigrant success stories are scripted outside of India. In the end, Nadella’s achievement is an American success story, an endorsement of the American dream. It’s also a summary rejection of the Indian milieu in which conformism and mediocrity inevitably triumph over innovation and excellence.

It bears repetition that the elevation of Indian-origin executives to apex positions at Microsoft, Citibank, Pepsi and others is a grim indictment of India’s education system. It is vital not to be misled by triumphal media which adulates the success of Nadella, Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and others as feathers in the nation’s cap. True, these are men and women shaped by India’s higher education system. But they went away, knowing well that opportunities for intellectual growth and pursuit of knowledge lay outside the country.

Things did change as the reforms of 1991 struck root. Admittedly, there are more jobs, larger incomes, and more choice in the market for products, services, and business options. But simultaneously our cities, towns and villages are trapped in the chaos of traffic and pollution, and lack power, water supply and sanitation. Political conflicts have been exacerbated by acrimonious public debate fanned by ignorant and self-serving media. To watch the news on television, or read newspapers and periodicals is to confront doom-and-gloom scenarios purveyed by opinionated apparatchiks of the news business.

Meanwhile, the education system offers little to help young people struggling to understand the mismatch between economic growth and civic responsibility. It’s still mired in the bogs of bureaucracy and robber-baron capital. Yes, there’s been a substantial expansion in the number of universities, colleges and professional institutes. But the end product still remains rote graduates, ill-equipped to do more than pass examinations and unable to handle the demands of a growing economy and changing society.

This article appeared in Education World magazine,  March 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Read The News…

A Review Essay: India Psychedelic

Disclosure: Sidharth Bhatia, the author of the book, India Psychedelic:  the Story of a Rocking Generation, is one phenomenal friend. His celebrated book is making waves. Many of the bands he’s written about and the circumstances of India in the 1960s and early 1970s, I have a personal experience of…because I grew up in Bombay. And as he says, many of us just wanted out from a hopeless situation. I was certainly one of them: Quit India in the early 1970s to make a life in the USA.

What Sid writes about and clearly declares is about a sliver of the population in the cities he includes. Nice thing he is not apologetic about it. He simply talks about the westernized lot, a segment that was and still continues to be dismissed as somehow not Indian, out of touch with the real India. Fact is they were in touch with the world, which people in the political and bureaucratic regime recognized only in 1991, when India was forced to open up for pecuniary reasons.

Sid’s book, above all, is a story of Bombay’s cosmopolitan culture. Only in that wonderful city you had access to the global mainstream, halting and stilted though it was. Globalization first happened in Bombay. As an example, I grew up in Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, going to a school founded by Maria Montessori, the Italian educationist, whose theories on child development were very influential the world over.

Growing up in Juhu and later in Byculla Bridge, I imbibed Western music. My early memory is of the Doris Day song, “How Much is the Doggie in the Window.” Beyond that, mercifully, there was Bill Haley and The Comets…I saw the film “Rock Around the Clock” at Shree Cinema in Mahim off of Cadell Road; then Elvis and Pat Boone and Cliff Richard. And Tony Brent, the old Byculla boy of Portofino fame.

But this is before Sid’s story, which really begins in 1962 after The Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do” in 1962. I remember going to a movie in Regal Cinema in 1964. The trailer was a short film called “The Beatles Come to Town.” The music seared my teenage soul. Soon after, I went to Rhythm House and asked if they had any Beatles…they didn’t. 
The bands that played in Bombay through the 1960s didn't really do the Fab Four…heard more of The Rolling Stones, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals. Doesn't surprise me…was hard to play The Beatles with their complicated chords and their incredible harmony. Tell the truth…from 1964 to 1967, I never heard a band play The Beatles.

A legendary group in Bombay that Sid mentions is Reaction. One of my drilled-in memories is a plate of “potato chips” (aka French fries) slathered with Dipy’s pumpkin ‘tomato’ sauce and a coke at Venice on any given afternoon...listening to them do The Rolling Stones. All, I may add, was a little more than rupee a piece for the four of us who shared the fries and had individual cokes. We thought we were the cool crew. In the event, as Sid’s book affirms, we were totally that…cool, except we couldn't afford shades.

There is a reference in Sid’s book also to Jimmy Dorabjee. In 1968, I went to Simla with my parents. Didn’t like to go anywhere with my parents except I had never been north and the town, I thought, was cool; it gave its name to the legendary “Beat Contest,” in which selected bands did their stuff and got prizes. Met Jimmy performing at Davico’s, Bob Dylanesque: with shades, denim jacket, a harmonica around his neck and playing Dylan on his guitar. “The Times,” he sang” “are a-changing.”

What I did not know until later was that Simla referred to the cigarette brand, not to the town. In fact, these contests, as Sid writes in his book, were held in Bombay’s Shanmukhananda Hall in the conservative neighborhood of Matunga. I was once part of the audience there and was reminded of it when in a small private university in America I attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert a few years later
In Ahmedabad, in the mid 1960s, there was surprisingly a huge rock scene. Good bands, great music, sad technology. In Baroda, years later, we formed an event management company…as engineering students…that brought the bands from Ahmedabad (surprise!) and made some good money from organizing the concerts. We were four of us…it was the late sixties…and we made more money each event than we got from home in three months.

Beyond that, after I left Bombay reluctantly for Baroda, my girlfriend, now my wife, and I attended jam sessions in Havmor restaurants in Ahmedabad and in Baroda. New Year’s Eve I always went to Ahmedabad to the dance at the Rotary Club Hall where sometimes Scandal, sometimes the Xlents and most times Purple Flower sang.

Finally, for my friend Sid, who wrote this excellent book and made a thought-provoking presentation at the Oxford Book Store in Connaught Place, I want to agree the rock scene in the 1970s was ebullient but grim…peopled as it was by PLUs. My wife asked why there was no reference to Goans rockers in his book. Fact is, and she knows this, the Goans introduced rock music to Bollywood…and in the end made more money than the bands, plus gave us Hindi music to rock by.


Thursday, November 7, 2013


Bentley at the Red Light: Old Poverty, New Wealth

For the first time, the electorate faces a clear ideological choice. The Congress is the architect of liberalisation that unleashed the animal spirits of competition and innovation in the economy. The ensuing economic boom peaked in 2004; in the following decade, the economy grew at an average of 8% a year. This is evident as many sectors, including telecom, automobiles, pharmaceuticals and IT, became globally competitive.

Somewhere down the line, this growth story came up against some cruel facts: a large population afflicted by poverty and illiteracy, high malnutrition and abysmal public health. In stark contrast, world-class private schools, private hospitals, private estates, private planes, private roads and private banks blossomed.
There was always disparity, but never in your face. The pathetic picture of a car worth over a crore, waiting at a red light, besieged by begging children, is a new phenomenon. There have always been beggars, never Bentleys and Jaguars. Over the years, the rich became richer. This was not the outcome that Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, envisioned in 1991.

A year later, the BJP changed the debate with its sacking of the Babri Masjid. Suddenly, the debate was about Hindutva and the Ram temple. In the tumultuous decade that followed, the opened economy was hijacked by crony capitalists and middlemen. Mistaking this to be genuine reforms, the NDA government launched a highvoltage “India Shining” campaign. They even called an early election, hoping to cash in. In the event, a Congress-led coalition came to power in 2004 on an inclusive growth manifesto and was reelected in 2009.

Now, Narendra Modi, the new RSS mascot, has turned the BJP around to make it a US-style Republican party, stalling reforms in the legislature, promoting laissez faire and protectionist policies in the same breath, railing against government welfare spending, espousing a hardline but whimsical foreign policy. He speaks to an urban, upper-middle class audience and believes there are enough votes there to see him through.
Modi and his supporters believe he can form a government in 2014. It’s hard to believe, though, that his agenda of gated communities, luxury cars and conspicuous consumption will garner votes from the urban and rural poor, Dalits, tribals and Muslims who form the bulk of the young population. Meanwhile, the Congress has again arrayed itself in support of the excluded. More than his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who nudged the government into adopting a welfare-based legislative agenda, Rahul Gandhi is vocal about the skewed priorities.

The Indian business elite is up in arms against the Congress welfare agenda. They say India can’t afford it; they demand business-friendly policies that encourage growth, never mind the disparity. Senior ministers in the government are at pains to point out an inclusive agenda is not anti-growth and point to the national manufacturing policy that aims, in the next 10 years, to boost the share of manufacturing to 25% from 15% and, in the process, to create 100 million jobs.

In the face of heightened disparity, no political party can embrace trickledown economics and expect to form a government. Hence, the Congress lays emphasis on welfare along with its track record of growth. Modi’s noisy campaign, on the other hand, is based on disputable claims about growth and governance; the underlying message, however, is an unmistakable one of Hindu chauvinism.

Modi hopes to ascend on many contradictory platforms: authoritarian capitalism, muscular nationalism as a subliminal plank against minorities. In voting the Congress back in 2004 and again in 2009, the electorate turned its back on the BJP’s growth hype. The question now is whether voters will buy Modi’s high-voltage pitch. The idea behind the multilayered campaign is to fudge his track record that is sullied by allegations of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

These charges have proved difficult to shake. Modi’s controversial role in the riots also attracted global concern. Major western countries instituted a diplomatic boycott; the US revoked his travel visa and is yet to restore it. Will the US presidential-style campaign help overcome the stain of 2002?

This article appeared in The Economic Times, November 5, 2013.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…

The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest

High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advocacy of interest or corporate bribery?

"...to secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on the power brokerages and influences peddlers in Delhi and other states."

Though the BJP's noisemakers may not appreciate it, through their hysterical outbursts against Wal-Mart, they may have unwittingly sponsored a major reform in pursuit of good governance. In its misbegotten campaign against the American firm, the BJP threatened to disrupt Parliament again, as it has done repeatedly for the past nine years. This prompted Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath to agree to a public inquiry into the company’s lobbying activities in India. Though a spectacularly ignorant BJP spokesman suggested that the minister’s assent to an inquiry proved their point, the truth is that the UPA’s quick response saved the day and it appears that much overdue legislation will now be enacted.

The BJP’s empty-vessel strategy to corner the government on lobbying by Wal-Mart boomeranged in Parliament because of Mr Nath’s finesse. Reports say the government will appoint a retired judge to conduct the inquiry. Most likely, the exercise will stretch out and will hold no more sensation value; the BJP will find some other dubious platform from which to rant against the UPA government. As such, the inquiry will join the long list of commissions that have provided not much more than sinecures for superannuated law officers.

On the other hand, the government could actually use the inquiry to clean up the murk that surrounds lobbying in India. To secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on power brokerages and influence peddlers in Delhi and in the various states.

A thoughtful judge at the helm of the inquiry might recommend the establishment of a Parliamentary registry that provides credentials to lobbyists, individual as well as firms. In accepting such credentials, lobbyists would be required to disclose their clients and fees received. The registry could go a step further and demand from various government ministries, departments and agencies periodic reports on any contacts they may have had with lobbyists.

Recommendations of this nature could bring much needed transparency to the conduct of public affairs; you won’t have a BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes or a DMK minister A Raja playing fast and loose with the allocation of telecom spectrum. A whole horde of middlemen, the kind you see at power lunches in The Taj or cocktail parties at The Oberoi, will stand exposed. The business of lobbying could become professional and cleansed of the stain of corruption.

Lobbying is a time-honored practice that dates at least as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta in 13th-century England, from whence sprang the right of association and the right to petition authority, the cornerstones of the lobbying profession.

Closer to home and to the age, lobbying has had many beneficial outcomes. These include campaigns for universal primary education, against sex trafficking, to lower taxes on toiletries and cosmetics, to amend laws governing the business of financial services, courier firms and cable operators, among others. They have been successful and have benefited the public interest as much as the interests of those who sponsored them.

This article appeared in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2012.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The splintered social contract

I wrote this piece in 2007. Thought I'd re-circulate it because to me it still seems relevant. I've edited it.

In September 1897, an eight-year-old girl in New York City, Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun. She wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus.
The letter drew a response from Francis Church, a lead editorial writer for the paper.
Church’s editorial, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, is widely regarded by students of journalism as perhaps the most famous edit ever written in America; it was the subject of a film starring Charles Bronson as Church.
Writing about the “skepticism of skeptical age”, Church reassured his interlocutor that Santa Claus did exist: “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy...”
As a graduate student specialising in editorial writing, I can remember virtually memorising Church’s words and hoping that some day mine would have such meaning. With Christmas upon us, the edit came to mind.
What happened to wide-eyed innocence? The question is relevant in India today, where cynicism and guile have hardened hearts all across the nation.
Humanism and compassion are stored on the highest, most inaccessible shelves of values.
Hard-bitten people have emerged as leaders in business, politics, education, entertainment and media. They hold sway over the national discourse.
Intent on getting ahead, they push and shove, scream and shout, lie and cheat. It’s about accumulation of power and wealth: the worst form of capitalism, without the moral anchor that the European Enlightenment provided in the West.
In 21st century India, while the economy booms, the social contract is splintered by divisive caste and communal agendas raised by power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing bureaucrats, not to mention hard-boiled industrialists.
Such Dickensian characters as the Artful Dodger, the scoundrel who dodges responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and Ebenezer Scrooge, the killjoy who has come to symbolise a lack of charity, are emulated; gentleness, guilelessness and similar values of what the editorial writer Church called “eternal light” are discounted, even scorned.
It is almost as if existence is a zero-sum game in which victory is never sweeter unless it’s at the cost of someone else.
This mindset has a deep and lasting influence on public affairs. The individual, corporate and political values that flow from such thinking eschew the larger cause, the public good, the common weal.
Conflict is the central theme and the media seem to wallow in it. Celebrities, bureaucrats, companies and political parties are featured like gladiators of ancient Rome, while bloodthirsty citizens watch from the coliseum stands.
In this sport, only these groups count: the players and the media..
Beyond that there is filth, disease, poverty and ignorance that provide compelling evidence of the failure of governance.
Given such lopsided public priorities, there are garish malls, office buildings and apartment houses rising from the middle of a rubble strewn landscape.
Everywhere there is confusion: badly designed roads, unmanageable traffic, overburdened public transport, ill-equipped public hospitals and stressed out citizens who contract the diseases of wealth such as coronary heart disease and diabetes without the requisite bank balances to pay for their treatment; never mind those poor people who die of easily treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.
As the twelwth year of the millennium recedes into history, it is clear that that a Las Vegas bonanza style seems to have overtaken the practice of public affairs.
Public policy must be rescued from the roulette tables and the slot machines of zero-sum thinking.
Winning and losing; all manner of one-upmanship and conflict, true, are  major drivers of history, to be sure.  Without a social contract, India is a victim of the Las Vegas approach that promotes short-term thinking when what is sorely needed is a long term vision to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; to give some hope to the mess of villages, towns and cities that are hellholes.
Let me hasten to add that I am not advocating a return to the days of central planning when deadly serious bureaucrats focused on the long term objective of peace on earth even as the neighbourhood fell apart.
This article appeared on DNA website on December 18, 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics

“For the last few weeks, the crowd puller on the streets of New Delhi’s official and diplomatic quarter has been Rajesh Khanna, a former film star in a country wild about movies and a Congress candidate for Parliament in nationwide elections that begin Monday,” Barbara Crossette wrote in The New York Times in May of 1991.

Mr. Khanna was pulled in to counter the star power of the “sobersided, meticulously articulate, scrupulously courtly” Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, she wrote, who was giving Rajiv Gandhi stiff competition.

“Mr. Khanna is equally renowned for once having been married to an Indian Marilyn Monroe called Dimple Kapadia. When she agreed to show up on the hustings for old times’ sake, the crowds were ecstatic,” she wrote.

Not all of them, though. 
Khushwant Singh, a columnist, author and former newspaper editor, says that the appearance on the Congress Party ticket of Mr. Khanna, whom he describes as “some kind of buffoon,” has made him decide to boycott the election, the first time he has done so since he began voting.
Rajiv Desai, who runs a public affairs consultancy in New Delhi and occasionally writes on politics and the evolution of political campaigning in India, thinks the celebrity candidate is a sign of political maturity.
In an interview, he said that the attraction to politics of public figures of any kind is a sign that the base of the candidate pool is widening and campaigns are becoming more sophisticated. In South Asia — certainly in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh — opposing parties have tended to regard each other as ideological if not mortal enemies, and have found it hard to work together after elections.
“These celebrity politicians don’t treat politics as deathly serious,” Mr. Desai said. “They can look at the other parties as rivals, not enemies.”
“In this election, although Congress is likely to get the largest number of seats, there is a chance that it may have to work in coalition with other parties. It will have to tread warily.
This article appeared on The New York Times on July 18, 2012.

When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics

Friday, July 6, 2012

‘I’ve maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct’

PM Manmohan Singh tells HT that never before have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency. Here’s the full text of his written replies to an HT questionnaire.

On economy: We will bring clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
On charges of corruption: ...Bills such as Whistleblowers Bill, Lokpal Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill etc, which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

On his legacy: I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live and work in ...We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.
Q1. How do you see the economic situation today and why have we come to this pass?

We are certainly passing through challenging times economically. This did not happen overnight. A lot of it was due to developments in the global economy. The developments in the Eurozone have been a major dampener of global economic sentiment, till the Eurozone leaders hammered out an agreement a few days ago. Europe is the most important destination for our exports and any turbulence there will certainly affect sentiment here. We then had the oil price rise. For a country which imports nearly 80% of its oil, this badly hurt our trade balance. In fact, a major portion of our trade deficit is accounted for by oil imports. There were domestic factors as well.

Q2. What are the top five challenges to the economy in the year ahead?

The India Growth Story is intact. We will continue to work, as we have been doing for 8 years, to keep the story going. Measures which I intend to focus on, in the short run, are:
  • Bring complete clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
  • Control the fiscal deficit through a series of measures which my officials are working on and on which we will build consensus in the government.
  • Revive the Mutual Fund and Insurance industries which have seen a downturn. Absence of investment avenues has pushed Indian savings into gold. We need to open new doors so that savings can be recycled into productive investments that create jobs and growth, not into gold.
  • Clear major investments in the pipeline awaiting FIPB approval. Investors should feel that we mean business. We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructous procedures and make India a more business friendly place.
  • Most importantly, we have given a major push to infrastructure, particularly through PPP. A lot of investment avenues are opening up in Railways, roads, ports and civil aviation. The doors are open for the world to strengthen our hands and contribute to these vital sectors which will give a further push to the economy.
Q3. How do you see coming elections in the states and the Centre affecting policies? How do you guard against populist measures, given the size of the deficit?

I am largely satisfied about the way we have progressed over the last 20 years. The fact that governments have changed many times in between but economic policies have continued means that the direction that has been set is seen to be the correct one by all parties. That is a source of satisfaction also.

However, there are a few issues that come quickly to mind when it comes to what else needs to happen. Firstly, we have yet to settle down to a stable institutional framework to manage an open economy. Our institutions are still evolving and it will take time till we see mature institutions in all sectors as we see them in advanced economies.

Secondly, the logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people.

Lastly, there is the issue of distribution. We have lifted millions out of poverty. But, I worry that the fruits of an open economy will be increasingly captured by fewer people. I worry that a large segment of our population will be left out of the benefits of economic growth. We need to correct that fast.

Q4. Foreign investors have been rattled by events such as the tax row with Vodafone. How do you intend to set their minds at rest?

The investor community had concerns on some tax matters. The finance ministry, over the last three months, has been issuing clarifications and working with the investor community to bring greater clarity on the matter. However, there has been a slowing down of capital flows which normally would have covered the current account deficit.

That does not mean things have turned very bad. Coca Cola has announced to invest $ 5 bn in India just a few days ago. IKEA plans to invest a billion dollars. The pessimism in the media and the markets is far more than reality. Consumer spend is holding up and this has not been affected by interest rates. The Chairman of GE captured the picture correctly when he said "the mood in the market is worse than the mood on the ground". I agree with that.

Q5. There is also a perception of drift, of policy paralysis. You have used the term “coalition compulsions” is this the main factor? How do you dispel the impression of drift? Do you intend to communicate more often with the nation?

I think it is a matter of perception. We worked under far greater constraints under UPA 1. However, there were a lot of things which had been done under the previous government which we had to undo. We had to bring a healing touch to the nation, make minorities feel secure and included, and give emphasis to the needs of the common man who had moved to the background in the Shining India of the NDA rule.

The biggest achievements of UPA 1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth. We did this with widespread support across the spectrum of parties supporting us.

But difficulties existed then as they do now. Parties are entitled to their differences then and now. There were differences on the US Nuclear deal and there are going to be some differences now also. I do not think that the political landscape is radically different now as compared to 3 years ago. What has changed is public expectation. Now that the immediate problems caused by the NDA government have receded into the background, other issues are coming to the fore. This is but natural. That is the way of democracy.

As for speed, look at the way we responded to the 2008 crisis. We rolled out a stimulus package which ensured that we came out of its effects rapidly. We are passing through a similarly challenging situation and I am confident, we will roll out measures to restore economic growth once again.

Q6. In your role as finance minister what do you see as the roadmap for key pending reforms such as pensions, insurance and banking reform, the goods and services tax and the direct taxes code?

Firstly, legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action.

More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that.

Q7. Can we expect some of the young ministers of state becoming cabinet ministers soon?

You have to wait for a while for that question to be answered.

Q8. When will you go to Pakistan? What are the ideal circumstances that would make such a visit possible?

I am looking forward to visiting Pakistan. No dates have been finalised for the visit. As you know there have to be suitable outcomes for such a visit.

Q9. How do you react to charges of corruption during your Prime Ministership?

Never before in the history of India have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency into the functioning government, make government accountable to the people for its actions and bring in measures to control corruption. The Right to Information is a landmark Act for which the Congress Party and its President will be remembered for generations. In fact, this single act has done far more to bring down corruption and bring in accountability than any other measure. It is the information flowing out as a result of this Act which is bringing a lot of corruption to light which would otherwise have been hidden.

We have introduced a Public Procurement Bill which brings in far greater transparency into government procurement and severe deterrents for wrongdoing. This would remove a major source of corruption.

A number of other bills are there such as the Whistleblowers Bill, the Lokpal Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, etc. which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party’s will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively.

My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.

Q10. What is that one thing that you would like to be remembered for?

I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live, work and lead a fulfiling life. In some ways, I contributed to this as a Finance Minister. As Prime Minister, I have had a larger remit. I have worked on the same lines but on a larger platform. We have tried to build a peaceful, harmonious, secure, friendly, prosperous India where every citizen can aspire for the best in life. We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.

This Interview appeared in Hindustan Times on July 08, 2012.
I've maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct'

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power, Not Principles

Anti-Congressism is the common plank of those motivated by short-term political gain.

Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have Hindutva rabble-rousers who held sway from 1998 to 2004. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the India-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat – which is difficult – or cause problems – which is easy – for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short term political gain. 

There are also 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Banerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamool Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic set-up of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalithaa and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive. 

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Anna has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about deja vu. 

The foolishness of the Anna band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement that they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, he said that India’s muchadmired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of depth on the national stage. 

Meanwhile, BJP leader L K Advani led a rath yatra against money in Swiss banks in a nonetoo-subtle bid to cash in on Anna’s storm in a teacup against corruption. Of classic RSS vintage, he believes no one remembers his other 1990 Ram temple effort which led to communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader. 

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else. 

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo. 

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the opposition put together a makeshift government that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. 

In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999. The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype. 

Since then, the Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’s approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue. Most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums. 

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the prime minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia is the real power. 

The truth is different: both Singh and Sonia are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The former pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth”. 

It’s ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate both leaders. Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and prime minister. Sonia, who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of prime minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government. 

The writer is a public affairs commentator.

Left and Right against the Centre

This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

India at the limits

Command-and-control system failure


If you ever needed evidence that socialist ideology, political populism and the utter lack of governance holds India to ransom, all you have to do is to study the power crisis gripping India. For the past several weeks, the country has reeled from outages that last so long that they have become the norm; the few hours that power is available are the unusual occurrence. The gap between supply and demand is thought to be in excess of 15 percent on the average: ranging for zero in the case of Lutyens Delhi, home of the ruling class, to more than 50 percent in rural areas.

India’s power crisis bears examination because it highlights the sheer inability of the public sector edifice to meet the demands of a rapidly growing economy.

Let’s start at the source. The predominant fuel used in power generation is coal. The mining of the material is in the hands of a government monopoly, Coal India Limited, widely regarded as inept and corrupt. Faced with demands for increased production, the company actually told the coal ministry it is lowering its production target for 2011-12 by four million tons. Most analysts believe when March 2012 comes rolling around, the company will report a much bigger shortfall. In the first half of the year, ended September, Coal India fell short by 20 million tons.

Among other fuels, the government has been unable to secure assured supplies of natural gas or alternative fuels to mitigate the coal deficit.

Power generation is also largely a government monopoly run by similarly inept and corrupt public sector companies. Despite grandiose plans to increase power generation, the government achieved only 50 percent of its targets in the 20 years ending 2012. A Planning Commission official was quoted as saying that if the power ministry had succeeded in meeting its targets, the coal shortages would have been worse.

One of the key risks in the generation of power is environmental pollution. The agency in charge of ensuring that the risk is mitigated is the ministry of environment and forests, which in recent years has become a hotbed of populism. The ministry, in 2009, announced a ban on mining in forests and tribal areas. It also opposed hydroelectric projects in various parts of the country. Its views on nuclear power are also skeptical, led by fears of accidents.

Beyond that, because power supply is a concurrent subject, state governments are in charge of the distribution of power to citizens. Mostly, provincial governments supply electricity through state electricity boards (SEBs). Again, corrupt and inept, the utilities are bankrupt entities. A 2001 Planning Commission report on the working of these utilities says, “It may be noted that the information provided in the report is not always based on audited reports of the SEBs as the accounts of many SEBs are audited with a considerable time lag.”

In certain cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad, where the generation, transmission and distribution of power in the hands of private companies, the costs of power are higher but the supply is reliable. I have lived in both cities and thereafter in the US, so my first experience of a power cut was in Delhi. Things improved dramatically in the capital after 1998 when the Sheila Dikshit government privatized power distribution. Just the drastic reduction in the huge (nearly 50 percent) “transmission and distribution” losses (theft) made more power available.

India’s power conundrum provides a snapshot of the challenges policymakers faces as they try to cope with the demands of a new India. The Socialist command-and-control system simply does not work. As its hold diminished, businessmen and entrepreneurs showed that without the dead hand of government bearing down on the economy, they could work wonders.

But what the noted German social psychologist Erich Fromm called the  “freedom from” moment has passed; the “freedom to” moment of the modern economy calls for bold political leadership such as greater, crony-free privatization; it demands better-trained, more responsive and transparent government agencies.

Most of all, the burden has to be shared by citizens themselves. This is not an area of focus in public debate. It’s not just politicians and bureaucrats that are responsible for taking India forward; citizens cannot absolve themselves from the responsibility of the “freedom to” opportunity.

Here’s what I mean: on a recent flight, as the plane landed and the seat belt signs went off, I was buffeted by a rush from behind as some passengers dashed for the doorway, hoping to disembark first. There was absolutely no reason to do this because in the end we were all going in the same bus and we would arrive at the terminal at the same time.

My conclusion was that these men and women who sought to push their way up front were so focused on their personal agendas that they forgot their civic sense. If passengers disembark row by row, things get done in a much smoother and more pleasant way.

It’s the same for the traffic on the roads, though the consequences there are far more dangerous. This extends to paying taxes, avoiding bribes, evade building codes,  littering, urinating in public and all the “me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost” attitudes that make it so hard to be a citizen in India and make the public space into such a disagreeable environment.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, November 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011