Sunday, August 25, 2013

Still caught between cliché and spasm

The Congress formula for Indian Muslims is rooted in colonial legacy: divide and rule. The BJP approach has been shaped by rage at partition: avoid and rule. All Muslims want from both claimants to national power is provide and rule; not because they are Muslims but because they are largely poor.
Poverty was the prevailing story when India became independent. It cut across other fault lines: there was a morbid equality of poverty. More than six decades of uneven growth later, we have the inequality of partial success.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP prescription is sustainable , but in the short run Congress gains from cynicism have been so spectacular that it has stopped thinking outside its established clichés . The BJP thinks in spasms, if it thinks at all.
Congress squeezed into space created by the psychological bounce of a traumatic history. After dramatic initial resistance to British colonialism, Muslim elites bought into separatism with a vengeance, particularly when they realized that the tactics of division could perpetuate their privileges within a slice of geography. Battered by defeat in the battle for Pakistan, Congress capitulated intellectually and tweaked the slogan, after 1947, from division to isolation. It concluded that the quickest route to the Muslim vote was through accommodation with the extreme rather than dialogue with the broad Muslim centre. In the 1940s partition became the fashionable ideology of the landed gentry and middle class in north India. When they left for Pakistan the vacancy was filled by suddenly empowered clerics who, unsurprisingly, stressed faith over economics.
This kept both clerics and community poor, but the atmospherics were rich in tokenism. A normal relationship with Muslim voters would have kept the balance of debate along jobs and revival. This bargain with the extreme suited Congress perfectly. There were not too many jobs on offer in the first phase of our development. The upper castes got the chunk of the initial bite; the second surge went to 'Backward Castes' who had mobilized under different banners but displayed common economic purpose. The Muslims got false promises and high drama, hyped with high-voltage simulation of a "Hindu backlash" . Such a backlash never came because it never existed. But fear was the electoral key: if Muslims could be driven into a polling booth on the basis of fear, why waste jobs on them?
In the absence of economic security, Muslims were fobbed off with security of faith. This was essentially meaningless, as it is the Constitution which guarantees religious freedom, not any political party. The narrative of violence was edited as required: Gujarat's riots continue their refrain, but Assam , where the violence drove hundreds of thousands of Muslims into near-permanent refugee camps, is excised from attention; and the horrors of Mumbai in 1993 erased from memory despite the fact that no action has been taken on the subsequent enquiry committee report.
BJP and Muslims lived on the same street, but walked on opposite pavements without a zebra crossing. They did not speak the same language. Attempts at conciliation, let alone reconciliation, were rare. The BJP had little to say, and Muslims did not want to hear that little. Even when the BJP's liberal icon Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to reach out when he contested from Lucknow, he was spurned. There is little point discussing whether Muslims will vote for the BJP if Narendra Modi is named its candidate for prime minister. Will they vote for BJP if he is not?
Every election registers some flicker of change on the barometer. In the Congress case, the chicken came before the egg and produced a farmful of votes. With the BJP, the egg must come before the chicken. This egg has to be fertilized in the mind. In this important therefore that the most significant statement of the campaign so far was Narendra Modi's remark that the only religion of a politician must be the Constitution of India. This may be only the opening line of a chapter yet to be written, but it is already a huge variant on conventional perception. The themes of that chapter must be employment, education and political equity, for they are the true antidote to any community's impoverisation.
Onions, like the Constitution of India, have no religion either . It is bizarre to believe that an impoverished people will continue to support, en masse, a catastrophic government that has taken food off their plate and looted the nation with a creativity that should win the highest awards. Over the last decade, particularly at the state level, Muslim voters have displayed sophisticated tactical finesse: note the Assembly results in UP, Bihar and Bengal. They want jobs, and a better life.
The most efficient form of economic growth comes when a country can maximise development across all its demographic segments. Everyone will not pull equally, but everyone must pull. Half of India is still underperforming. Raise its wealth and walk into high double digit growth. Economics is not complicated once the human being gets more attention than statistics. 


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Welcome to the Indian animal farm

 Who says no one listens to Dr Manmohan Singh? The animals do. Ever since the Prime Minister of India ordered Indians to release their animal instincts, the bears have started a carnival on Dalal Street.
Maybe the instructions of our first economist-PM got mislaid in translation. He surely wanted bulls to march across Mumbai, conquering every stock exchange in an exhilarating stampede. Instead, horrible little bears arose from long hibernation, and turned into a wrecking crew that has left the economy gasping and government choked. In the meantime, picking up on another variation of the animal theme, the Indian rupee has turned into a truant chimpanzee, sliding down with pathetic glee and jumping up with an occasional wheeze, but quite certain that its destination is downhill.
If the great Indian animal farm of 2013 seems out of control, it is because the keepers have lost the map as well as the plot.  The economy is only one casualty of self-generated mayhem. The political stability of India is equally a shambles.

The recent behaviour of the UPA government has been utterly bizarre. Congress might lose the plot, as it has done before, but it has enough experience in its DNA to manage a Parliament session. The current session is an object lesson in suicide. As seasoned a politician as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath gives the impression of being either  a fool or a zombie; and since his track record proves that he is not silly, then he is under clear instructions to act like a robot.

Preparations for any session of Parliament rest on a basic principle: get your priorities right. The UPA’s declared priority was the Food Security Bill. They had even set a date for full rollout: 20 August, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday. The rest was actually quite simple. All that government had to ensure was that atmospherics were under control when the session opened, so that the bill could go through in the first week.  The Opposition was trapped. It could not say no, but was unwilling to say yes, for both fiscal and political reasons. It was the perfect environment for government to sail through, putting some ballast in its wings as it did so.
Instead, UPA, led by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her faithful lieutenant Digvijaya Singh, for reasons that elude the comprehension of common sense, decided to kick up a massive storm over Telangana. Inevitably, dust from this storm blinded the monsoon session. Telangana has been on the anvil for four years; would another four weeks have mattered? In fact, the Prime Minister could have made the announcement on the floor of the House after the passage of food security;  and if the rest of the session was washed out at the least this bill would have been home, high and dry.

Here is a little more to perplex you. Why did government suddenly abandon its opaque tactics of evasion and fudge over the missing coal scam files in the middle of the session? These “missing” files first came to public attention when last May CBI director Ranjit Sinha said publicly that he could not pursue investigations because he had not received them. We all know why. Government is in deep trouble over this colossal corruption. Its star industrialists in Parliament, like Naveen Jindal and Vijay Darda, are involved. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that files pertaining to these two are among those missing. It seems to be a case of theft compounded by abetment. A few more chunks of evasion would not have made absolution easier in the eyes of God, if God has time for Indian corruption anymore.

Moreover, in terms of purely Parliamentary tactics, if the Prime Minister was going to make a statement on the files, which was the Opposition’s demand, and which he was obliged to do as  minister in charge of coal mines at the relevant time, why did he not make this statement on the very first day? Why did he have to wait a week to promise to do so, and thereby erase one-fourth of the session from the agenda? This makes no sense. It is not the Opposition that has delayed the Food Security Bill, however much it may have wanted to, but the government. The reason? Inexplicable. The worst damage is done by incompetence, not evil intent.
All careers, they say, end in futility — but only if you do not know when to quit. Dr Singh will understand this analogy, since he likes America and American businessmen. The share price of Microsoft just went up 7% after its chief executive officer, Steve Ballmer, announced he was leaving. Ballmer was once a hero of Micrsoft, and an astonishing videotape shows him bouncing across the stage at a company gathering, making cowboy noises, in the days when he took the job as an untarnished superstar.

How much will the share price of India rise when the government of Dr Manmohan Singh quits?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reboot or rewind to 1963

Reboot or rewind to 1963

It is distressing to note that India, which gave mathematics the noble concept of zero, should have missed the chance to offer history a perfect numerical symmetry. If a dollar was worth one rupee in 1947, then 66 years later poetic justice suggests it should be worth 66 rupees instead of a tawdry variable between 61 or 62. A rupee a year is a lyrical measure of decline. A few rupees more, and the Indian economy could have become such a sing-along nursery rhyme. 

Satire is the thin wedge that separates fear from panic. Indian businessmen are not yet panic-stricken, but they are edging towards the zone of fear. As haemorrhaging international confidence in India weakens fund inflows, they know we cannot easily defend a rupee under siege. The statistics are chilling. Debt in the current fiscal is running at $172 billion. The Reserve Bank has foreign exchange for just seven months’ imports, which would have been manageable if the bleed was not moving from drip to gush. There is deep worry that vacuous governance and an unstable political environment will lead us to the door of the IMF in Washington, a large begging bowl in hand. Instead of answers, the UPA government is offering alibis, some of them so lame they seem struck with polio at birth. India has become the worst story in the BRIC club. 

A robust economy, which is what India had become, does not wither because it has been suddenly hit by lightning; it enters a coma, limb by limb. This UPA administration believed that it could buy time with illusion, or by passing the blame to external factors or home-grown socialists. Last year, it even tried to scapegoat former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee after he moved upstairs to the President’s palace, and P Chidambaram was given the finance portfolio. 

A sudden flurry of stories appeared— foreign correspondents seemed particularly gullible — suggesting that Chidambaram would, with a wizard’s touch, strengthen the rupee, slash the energy bill, reduce the deficit, pump up industrial production and tame inflation. Tell that to the onions in 2013. 

Those at the rough end of inflation, the poor, are tired of excuses. They look at a nourishing monsoon and wonder why, as they head to the vegetable market, prices go up when there is drought, and rise further when there is rain. This is their translation of a government’s economic record. In 2005 a still buoyant Dr Manmohan Singh promised the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort that poverty and ignorance (the term he used was jehalat) would end in 10 years. His plaintive admission, in this year’s Independence speech, that there was still a long way to go, is bitter testament to a failed decade. 

The only culprit that the government can find is gold. Gold is the minor luxury that a confident economy purchases for its middle class. The cost of gold imports has become a problem only because the economy has imploded. 

Analogy comes easily in conversation. Those with a reasonable memory have begun to worry about a return to 1991, when we sent our national gold reserves to London as collateral for foreign exchange. If we are not careful we might be staring at 1963, when finance minister Morarji Desai imposed gold control to save foreign exchange. Desai, and a much-weakened prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could issue orders and change laws but they could not thwart the Indian’s appetite for gold, even when he was in a much more abstemious mood half a century ago. All that happened in the 1960s was that the consumer turned to smugglers. From this emerged underworld icons like Haji Mastan, Kareem Lala and their heir, Dawood Ibrahim. India has paid a heavy price, including the whiplash of terrorism. 

When a nation’s confidence is undermined, adversaries abroad pounce to take advantage, and uncertainty within encourages social tensions. In the 1960s we were tested by both China and Pakistan; today Pakistan ambushes an Indian army patrol, kills five jawans and passes a resolution in its parliament condemning Indian aggression. We will not, thank heaven, return to the sixties. India is much stronger now, and there is only so much harm that an indecisive government can inflict upon a nation’s ability. All governments in a democracy are temporary. 

Equally, the optimism that we had begun to take for granted, perhaps out of complacency, has been derailed. The challenge of 2014 is not going to be winning an election, but restoring the economy to health and vigour. A nation is only as strong as its economy. There is no magic wand as we enter our 67th year. There was no wand in 1991 either. We recovered because we needed the shock to come to our senses. It is time for a radical reboot once again.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The media menu of a last supper

The media menu of a last supper

“Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition — hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid.”
This is not from any book of quotations. But it does suggest that truth finds a better home in fiction than anthology. The author is Raymond Chandler, an authentic master of modern fiction who created the shabby and sharp private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe — and Chandler — lived amid the shadows that enveloped wealth and crime in mid-20th century Los Angeles; they knew that the difference was marginal and the price was high if you talked too much. Marlowe talked too much. He did something even more risky. He spoke the truth.

Newspapers in his time made the rich richer with their explosive mix of political influence and advertising monopoly. A British Prime Minister of the 1930s famously charged newspapers with enjoying the privilege of a harlot, exercising power without responsibility. But this was a self-serving taunt. Media barons can give Prime Ministers advice from a pillow, but it is Prime Ministers who let them into the bedroom. Be that as it may, money has always chased power through media, and every democracy has provided this incestuous opportunity.

Transition destabilises any industry, and this is happening with newspapers. At least some of the rich are becoming poorer, thanks to newspapers they own. The most dramatic illustration has been the sale of the Washington Post by the Graham family to Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon. This transfer does not suggest, as many have moaned, that news is going out of business; at worst, it could suggest that paper is going out of business. Bezos bought the Post with spare change in a forgotten trouser pocket, but he rose from denim to riches through the information trade. Newspapers will be reshaped, as they should be from time to time, but this does not change the fundamental need for an information carrier.

It is a car with two drivers. Owners step into journalist space through a conundrum called “publisher”. Editors comfort themselves with the romance of independence, and perhaps there is the occasional powerful personality who dominates a newsroom at the expense of the shareholder. But that is the exception. Editorial decisions are a shared enterprise. The Washington Post became an indelible chapter in media history when its series of reports, familiar to us as the Watergate exposé, brought down Richard Nixon just after he had won a landslide endorsement from the people. But the decision to run the investigation was made as much by Katherine Graham, the owner, as by Ben Bradlee, the editor.

Bezos is a wise chap. He has appointed Bob Woodward, one of the stars of Watergate, as managing editor. The key to media does not lie in ownership, but in credibility. Without credibility, a newspaper is just wrapping for fish and chips if not a rag for rubbish. Credibility makes journalists indispensable to publishers.
Are publishers indispensable to journalists? Yes. Journalists may be know-alls, but the one thing they do not know is how to run a business. The newspaper industry is also an industry. It is not an accident that owners of an old Indian media conglomerate like Times of India and a new one like Zee have a very healthy respect for profits. They understand what journalists should acknowledge, that a newspaper or television channel cannot stand up against any government without a healthy bottom line. They do not have to look over their shoulder if they want to break stories at the cost of a ruling family’s displeasure.

A media house fails when it forgets that both credibility and cash flow are important. The list of Indian media companies who have forgotten this basic rule is long and growing. Behind very thin curtains, big names are crumbling. The cost of plaster being applied to disguise this collapse is the transfer of shares and control. We will not find out the full truth till the end arrives, suddenly, and not without a residual whiff of bitterness, as in the case of the Washington Post.

But media will survive, whether in America or India, even if owners do not. Information is not an aggregate of everything on the highway. It is a cull of that which is relevant. Of course, there are interests, as the cynic Raymond Chandler noted, with his usual caustic flourish. But even the super rich cannot hold on to these laser scalpels called newspapers if they do not understand that while their personal interests may occasionally dent the integrity of a product, they should never damage it.

A good newspaper proprietor feeds the goose that lays golden eggs. He does not put it on the menu of a last supper.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

After Pak priacy, an Indian conspiracy

After Pak priacy, an Indian conspiracy

There is no reason why defence minister A.K. Antony should apologise.
A jury is often asked to distinguish between a mistake and a crime. The first is unconscious, the second deliberate. A lapse may be condoned by apology. Crime demands punishment. Antony did not make a mistake when, on the floor of Parliament, he crafted a loophole through which the Pakistan army could escape responsibility after having killed, with the help of around twenty terrorists, five Indian soldiers. Antony consciously subverted the Indian army’s official account,  based on battlefield evidence, to help the killers. This is a political crime, all the more heinous for having been committed by a defence minister.

Antony must resign.

The Opposition has made the wrong demand in Parliament, and not for the first time either.

Antony was not alone; his statement was fashioned in the alibi room of the UPA government, drafted in collusion with the external affairs ministry and in collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office. That is how policy towards Pakistan is knitted.

Antony was the voice of an Indian government conspiracy to exonerate the piracy of the Pakistan army. The cost  will take time to count. First: five dead Indian soldiers, banished into the oblivion of hypocritical phrases which are this government’s version of a martyr’s farewell. Second: the morale of Indian troops on this vicious border, who must be wondering what the value of their lives is. Third: the humiliation of officers who reported what happened in a war zone. Fourth: the implications of a government policy that capitulates in the face of fire. The list can continue.

Questions will not go away merely because the UPA  government is struggling to hide behind a veil. Who are the bureaucrats and ministers involved in sabotage and deflection of  pinpoint accusation? The Indian army spokesman was unequivocal. He blamed the Border Action Team of the Pak frontier forces, working in conjunction with around 20 terrorists.  

Antony’s significant variation, in which Pak soldiers recognised as such by Indian troops at the time of ambush were turned into the more ambiguous “persons dressed in Pak army uniform”, was too clever by half. The simplest cross-examination destroys such artifice. If none of them were Pak soldiers, as Antony implies, why should only some of them be “dressed in Pak army uniform”? Why not all, or none?

In the absence of explanation one can only surmise that Antony, on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was trying to find wriggle room for his still-fresh Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif so that nothing vitiates their proposed dialogue in New York this September. Despite nearly a decade of earnest desire and one-way concessions, Dr Singh has not been able to achieve a summit meeting in Islamabad but that has not prevented him from engaging personally with Pakistan leaders wherever else in the world he can find them. If, in the process, the truth about blood must be watered, so be it.

The Pak army is not famous for asking Nawaz Sharif’s permission whenever it feels the moment is right to murder a few Indians: even if Delhi is undone by amnesia, surely Sharif remembers Kargil. But note the difference. Privately, Nawaz Sharif is probably certain that the Pak army denial is a load of rubbish. But he has supported this  denial in order to protect his army. Antony has subverted Indian forces to protect Pakistan.

Dr Singh, who continues to overflow with good intentions, should ask himself why precisely his search for peace with Pakistan has run aground repeatedly. The two civilian governments he has dealt with have been led by Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, men who genuinely wanted better relations with India. Sharif even put peace in his election manifesto, so he has the strength of popular endorsement.

The problem is not the Pakistani state. The blockade comes from a shadow superstate that has ideological claims over Pakistan, and seeks permanent war with India as its destiny. The state tried formal war till 1965, before it was totally trumped in 1971. Since then, parts of the state have worked in collusion with terrorists who spearhead the warrior philosophy. Some Pak leaders, elected or not, have played a double game. Others, and one includes Zardari and Sharif in this category, have been more sincere. But their good will has not been good enough to sustain even one legitimate step towards any form of settlement. The more relevant fact is that when a Sharif does make a gesture, he is publicly warned by a proclaimed engineer of terrorism like Hafiz Saeed to stop, or face consequences.

Powerful elements of the Pak armed forces take their salary from the state, but give their loyalty to the superstate. This alliance talks in gun-bursts, and laughs at appeasement. Since Antony cannot understand either their language or laughter, he should find another job.