Friday, December 14, 2012

Outsourcing an election campaign: proxies, hired NGOs and snake oil salesmen!

The second most debated topic this chilly December is the Gujarat assembly election, (the first being the annual ritual about a demolition in Ayodhya twenty years ago) or rather its outcome and impact on national politics. The moot question is not whether Narendra Modi will win the election. Notwithstanding brave posturing by the Congress party and its proxies (in political parties, NGOs and the media) political pundits do not seem to entertain much hope for the party. The question that is endlessly debated is about the number of seats Narendra Modi will win and if he crosses a tipping point, will he move on to the national scene as a Prime Ministerial aspirant. The tipping point is set at 122+, 122* being the number of seats Narendra Modi’s party has in the present assembly. There are some feeble voices that bleat Narendra Modi may not even reach the tipping point but would end up with a simple majority in the 182-member assembly. But these are few and far between. A majority of analysts believes that he will (not would) cross the tipping point.

The putative tipping point for Narendra Modi is the TRP point for television channels. Therefore their endless debates centre on it. (See NarendraModi as Prime Minister in 2014 for a detailed analysis of his qualifications to lead the nation.) The anchors repeatedly ask various panellists about the possibility and implications of Narendra Modi being nominated as the Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP. They get stock answers in reply.

Can anyone imagine representatives of the ‘secular’ Congress party (which had disowned its most successful Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao purely based on vote bank calculations) ever saying yes? It would be in the Congress party’s interest if the BJP were to fail to form a government which, would give it a ‘TINA’ (there is no alternative) chance. Alternatively it would be in its interest if an unstable rag-tag formation formed a government. It can then support it from outside and destabilize it as and when it suited it. The Congress is past master in this game as Chandra Sekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral found out. Besides, a stint in the opposition would absolve it of all its sins. A strange feature of Indian democracy is that if a party sits out in the opposition even for a brief while the electorate forgets and forgives its gravest misdemeanours. Remember how Indira Gandhi was reinstated in 1980 after being thrown out in 1977. Could there be anything worse that anyone could do to democracy than what she did between 1975 and 1977?  

Can anyone imagine representatives of NGOs (to which the secular Congress party outsourced its hatchet jobs) saying yes? These NGOs have been carping at Narendra Modi accusing him of imaginary sins of omission and commission, for over ten years. It is their raison d’etre. Some of these were financed, certainly by the Congress. There are whispers that some religious fundamentalist groups in Saudi Arabia too fund some of them. One of the NGOs which has been doing a hatchet job for the Congress in legal battles has been asked to sit out this election; another took its place in the television studios.

Then there are Congress web-store operators. Sycophancy is their modus vivendi. Peddling Congress is their principal avocation. These snake oil salesmen often appear in TV debates. One wonders whether some of them pay their way into the debates, a la paid news! Their unctuousness in defending the most indefensible, has to be seen to be believed. Here is a case in point: Rahul Gandhi paradropped into Gujarat on the last day of campaigning for the first phase election. He addressed three meetings, all of ten minutes each. In one of them he elaborated on the sacrifices of long dead Motilal, his great-great-grandfather. In another he spoke about the economics of potato trade which instantly became the butt of dozens of jokes on Twitter (reason enough for Kapil Sibal to seek censorship of social media!). But for our snake oil salesman, Rahul unveiled his vision for the future of the nation!

Between the two hired assassins (the NGOs and the web-store operated by the snake oil salesmen) are the jokers in the pack, Kesubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and Swetha, wife of Narendra Modi’s bête noir and discredited police officer Sanjeev Bhatt. The 80+ year old Kesubhai, a veteran of the BJP and communal Sangh Parivar went into hibernation after he fell out with Narendra Modi some years back. Congress warmed him to life and propped up his GPP with the expectation that he would be able to cut into south Gujarat’s Leuva Patel vote bank. Jagruthi, wife of murdered former minister Haren Pandya has been fielded by Kesubhai’s GPP. Sanjeev Bhatt, the delinquent police officer against whom there were criminal charges has long been suspected to be a Congress mole in one of the NGOs fighting for it. Congress fielded his wife Swetha against Narendra Modi himself more to create media buzz than with any serious intention. Swetha agreed to be the sacrificial goat knowing full well that she would be eventually swept away in the dust storm raised by Narendra Modi’s chariot wheels.

And finally can anyone imagine representatives of the other avowedly secular, non-Congress parties (which have large stakes in Muslim votes) saying yes? (See SecularOpposition to Narendra Modi as P M for an analysis on the interests of possible alliance partners and their political compulsions.)

Even the BJP spokespersons are not very keen on answering the question, for obvious reasons. Firstly, there are many contenders within the party and nobody would like to be ruled out. Who wouldn’t like to have a stab at the nation’s top job? And who knows, in whose lap the coveted apple might eventually fall! Secondly at this stage of the game, nobody would like to tip his hand for fear of alienating possible allies.

Psephology is an inexact social science. Like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘black swan theory’, it tells us exactly why a political party performed as it did after the results are out. Sometimes, when a prediction is accurate or nearly so, the psephologist who got it right says, ‘I told you so’, looking suitably modest but with ill-concealed smugness. The received wisdom, tempered by a tinge of caution, after the huge 68% turnout in the first phase of the election was that ‘it gives Modi an advantage’. It is not yet time to stick one’s neck out and say he would sweep the election. The ‘I told you so’ moment will come on December 20!

* Newschannels conducting exit poll analyses have been showing 117 as BJP's (or to be more accurate Narendra Modi's) seat tally in the present assemby. But the party gained 5 seats in subsequent by-elections and hence its current tally is 122.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Does secularism mean Hindu subservience?

The two hot debating topics this December first week were the demolition of a disused building in Ayodhya twenty years ago and the current Gujarat election. The Ayodhya anniversary has by now become an annual ritual which (especially) the English language media religiously (pun intended) runs through, dusting its old footage or commissioning new quotes from old columnists. The debate such as it is, is like a restricted club whose membership is closed to outsiders. It is like the yarn about investigating a murder that occurred during an Italian card game in New York. The investigator asks the first guy, ‘who fired the shot?’ and he replies, ‘I dunno. I didn’t see it. I was sitting with my back to the door, you see.’ The second guy says the same thing and all others say the same thing. It was one card game in which everyone sat on the same side of the table!

As the debate could have only one side, any new columnists would have to conform by spewing old arguments of the old columnists, but if possible, in new a idiom. Or face ostracism from what is known as the mainstream media. Even the few columnists who have a contrary view would have to shroud their views in a lot of verbiage as to practically make them unintelligible or at least sound neutral. Or pass them as social science theories. Columnists with a Hindu moniker have to be doubly careful to pass the test of secularism. Others are not hampered by any such shibboleths. Thus, to be admitted to the club while a columnist with a name like a Misra or a Sarma would have to constantly invoke the dangers posed by the ‘Hindu right’ to the ‘secular fabric’ of the nation, a Manu Joseph could be brazen about his concept of secularism. Joseph first dismissed the notion that India is secular in his December 5 column in the International Herald Tribune (India Is Not A Secular Republic). To make matters clear even for the dimwitted, Joseph elaborated his concept of secularism in his column of the same day in New York Times (Secularism in Search of a Nation):
“…what it really meant, without spelling it out, was that Hindus, who make up the majority of the nation, would have to accommodate themselves to the ways of the other religions, even if this meant taking some cultural blows.”
In order to leave no one in doubt, as to what he meant by ‘taking cultural blows’, Joseph elaborates:
“So, Hindus would have to accept the slaughter of cows, which they consider sacred (some Indian states have banned cow slaughter); …”
For Joseph this was not enough.
“… the Muslim community’s perceived infatuation with Pakistan;”
Having demolished an oft repeated if clichéd ‘the idea of India’, shibboleth chanted by the secular intelligentsia, he comes to the nub:
“…the conversion of poor, low-caste Hindus to Christianity by evangelists; and the near impossibility of getting admitted to some prestigious schools and colleges run by Christian organizations because so many places are reserved for Christian students.”
The last bit about ‘the near impossibility of getting admitted to some prestigious schools and colleges’ is a placebo thrown in to mask his main demand that India be made a grazing ground for number-starved Churches in the west. There was a time when Christian run schools and colleges were in demand but there is no such mad scramble for them now as non-Christian (calling them Hindu might offend secular sensibilities!) institutions offer quality education comparable to or even better than them.

As Joseph was writing in an American newspaper read mainly in America would he consider tendering the same advice to the Americans? For instance, being a secular nation, America should have taken the cultural blow of ‘the World Trade Centre being brought down by a few misguided youth’ and not waged a war first on Afghanistan and then on Iraq. Or that America should really not bother about some of its jobs being Banglored. Or that twenty-first century America should really be not so conservative. If it were not so why would a Bobby Jindal or a Nicky Haley would have had to go to such great lengths to conceal their ethnic identities and fabricate new ones!  

After all this din, the Indian mainstream media would have redeemed a bit of its credibility if it expended a wee-bit of its energies in mourning a humanitarian disaster that is comparable only to the holocaust. None bothered (or dared) ask, ‘if the day on which a disused structure was destroyed is to be described a black day and commemorated every year, what about the day on which an estimated 450,000 Hindus were exiled in their own homeland?’ Why do lofty ideals like secularism and composite culture do not have the same connotation in India’s northern-most state? If December 6 is to be celebrated as a ‘black day’ every year why don’t we commemorate January 19 the day on which the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits commenced in 1989 and did not stop till virtually all of them were driven out? By not speaking about it if not against it are not our intelligentsia and media guilty of complicity?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Bankster

Book Review

Subramanian, Ravi. 2012. The Bankster. Rupa Publications. New Delhi. Pages: 358. Price: Rs 250/-

To an Indian, The Wall Street Journal’s commendation of the author, ‘Meet the John Grisham of banking’ might appear a bit patronizing, but it is nevertheless true. In The Bankster’ Ravi Subramanian turned out in every bit, an ‘edge of the seat thriller’ from as wry a subject as banking. For, what would you expect from a bank - its premises buzzing with customers rushing in and out cashing cheques or buying drafts?

Although nationalized banks in the pre-liberalisation, pre-competition era were walled-in by bureaucratic procedures and riven by trade unionism, many of them provided a cordial ambience. Regular customers were recognized and personalized service was the norm. After liberalisation many non-banking financial institutions in India barged into banking. A number of multinational banks too entered the market. The accent of the private players, both national and international is on aggressive marketing. But in spite of their glitzy interiors and automated procedures, somehow the personalized service that one experienced in the banks of an earlier era has been missing.  

Subramanian brought out in vivid detail the inner mechanisms of a multinational bank, including internal intrigues, coups and a bit of adultery. One would like to believe the last bit was included in the story only to embellish it and it is not really prevalent on a scale that would subvert the functioning, norms and ethics of the banking sector. The story revolves round a few central characters, Vikram, the head of retail banking, Tanuja the head of HR, Indrani, the president of the bank, Nikhil a branch manager, Harshita a conscientious Relationship Manager and Zinaida her unscrupulous counterpart of the Indian subsidiary of Greater Boston Global Bank known as GB2 within.

The author skillfully wove into the story some contemporary events. Recently a multinational bank has been in the news in the UK and the US for its role in money laundering. The same bank was involved in India in a legal battle for betraying the confidence of a client, who happens to be a popular actress. In the novel, an amoral Relationship Manager sold an unsuspecting customer a unit linked insurance product as a fixed deposit. The same Relationship Manager was also a major conduit in a money laundering operation. Her superiors ignored her malfeasance not only because she was producing results but also because she had no qualms about dangling her charms to seduce them.

In the real life case a Relationship Manager does the client in by investing her money in stocks over and over again to achieve his metrics and making profits for the bank. His indiscriminate and reckless investment of her funds in the stock market not only diminished her net worth because of his poor judgement in picking stocks, but when she actually did make a profit she had to pay a fortune as capital gains tax on short term gains.

By now everyone knows how some commercial interests in the west have been using greedy NGOs in India as Trojans to subvert power and irrigation projects in India. The agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu and the one against an irrigation project in Madhya Pradesh are cases in point.  

Apart from funneling funds for such subversive activities, some employees of the bank (in the novel) play a part in circulating counterfeit currency using the bank as a conduit. All these illegal activities make for a deadly cocktail for some of its players. There were murders and chases. Technology plays a major role in solving the crimes. The author was successful in keeping a veil over the identity of the villain till the very end. The book is a good read for a cosy weekend or a journey. The only complaint this reviewer has is about is its language. It is full of banking patois and cliché-ridden. 

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Congress’ Communism & Empress SoniaG’s Upkeep

Cho Ramaswamy's Tuglaq (the protagonist in the eponymous movie) says, ‘It is not possible to make the poor rich. Therefore make the rich poor and all will be equal!’ It is an unstated dictum of the communist proletariat. The communist elite (vlasti in Russian) had a different take on Marxist philosophy as George Orwell so vividly depicted in his Animal Farm. Irrespective of how they live, quite often the vlasti echo the proletarian edict, more to show that their heart is in the right place rather than because of an ardent belief that ‘all men should be equal’. Therefore it is no surprise to hear Mani Sankar Aiyar often cavil about Antilia, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor residence in Mumbai’s southern suburbs. Flaunting his knowledge of the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality of wealth distribution) he often cites Antilia as an example of the deep chasm that exists between the rich and the poor in India. He did so again in the television debate, ‘Is India ripe for a revolution?’ hosted by Tim Sebastian on Bloomberg / Headlines Today recently. (Indian television anchors have much to learn from Sebastian, but that is a different matter altogether.)

One way to look at Mukesh’s opulence is to attribute it to his business acumen, hard work and intelligence. For, although he has inherited a large part of his wealth he must have worked hard to grow the rest. In a democratic society which at least theoretically provides equal opportunities to all, one should not grudge Mukesh his success. Much has been said about Mukesh’s father Dhirubhai’s business acumen. His life is the stuff that made it to case studies in business schools. The less uncharitable (but probably more accurate) view is to attribute Dhirubhai Ambani’s success less to business acumen and more to his ability to network with the ruling establishment. Even this may be characterised as business acumen, but to put it bluntly Dhirubai was able bribe his way through the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi administrations to tweak government policy to suit his business interests. Dhirubhai’s Reliance Industries was perhaps the first example of crony capitalism on a gigantic scale. It had all the ingredients: funnelling funds through invisible sources, stock exchange skirmishes and manipulation of government policy. V. P. Singh who took on Dhirubhai to alter government policy on import of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) lost his job as Finance Minister! (See For this fighter, life was a big battle). On hindsight one might even suspect that the Bofors scam could have been a decoy. This being so, why does Aiyar constantly invoke Mukesh as a negative example of economic distortions knowing fully well that the seeds of the Ambani empire were sown during Congress regimes? More importantly, the Ambani empire reached its exponential growth stage during the regimes of Aiyar’s deities, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Be that as it may, if opulent living reflects a ‘vulgarity of greed’ to use an expression coined in the Films Division (of the I & B ministry) documentaries of the emergency era, how much does it cost to put up MPs like Aiyar in Lutyen’s Delhi? How much does empress Sonia’s upkeep cost the people of India?

[N.B.: What follows are only ‘back of the envelope’ calculations based on certain realistic assumptions.]

According to a recent Economic Times report, bungalows in Delhi’s Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone (LBZ) cost between Rs 111 and Rs 170 Crore. (See Delhi's most expensive realty deal: Torrent Group buys bungalow in Lutyen’s Zone for Rs111 crore). As No.10 Janpath is in an even more exclusive zone, it may be safely rated at the top end of the scale, i.e. Rs 170 Crore, assuming of course that it is of the same area and not bigger! At 1% of the price as rental value the bungalow costs Rs 1.7 Crore a year (as rent) to the people of India. [A] One might safely assume an expenditure of Rs 30, 00,000 per annum on staff and maintenance. [B]

Her electricity bills come to Rs 2. 49 Lakh a year. [C] (See Sonia Gandhi's power bill: over Rs. 7 lakh for 3 years). We are relieved to know, that of the Rs 7.47 Lakhs incurred in three years, she herself has paid all of Rs 0.09 Lakh whereas the Lok Sabha Secretariat paid Rs 7.38 Lakh!

As an MP she is eligible to salary and perquisites of Rs 36. 45 Lakh, excluding house rent which is already computed above. [D] (See SALARYOF MP'S - Indian Parliament members salary)

She is entitled to Z+ security which consists of 36 personnel of the NSG. An NSG Z+ team consists of various ranks from IG to constable. Assuming an average salary of Rs 3 Lakh per commando, the team cost Rs 1.08 Crore per annum. [E]

The total of [A]+ [B]+ [C]+ [D]+ [E] = Rs 3.47 Crore per annum. Based on a similar computation, Rahul’s expenditure to the exchequer (only salary and security included) comes to Rs 1. 45 Crore.

It is interesting to note that (if our rental computation is right) Sonia exceeds her rental allowance by 700% and her electricity allowance by 400%.

Is it not pertinent to ask, how many households in India can incur an expenditure of Rs 4.92 Crore per annum, especially in a country in which the BPL is set at just Rs 11, 520? 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Krishna Key

Book Review

Sanghi, Ashwin. (2012). The Krishna Key. Westland. Chennai. Pages: 475. Price: Rs: 250/-

Indians do not have a sense of history. The ancient rishis did not leave a record of their scientific experiments and achievements. For them science was a philosophical pursuit, an eternal quest for truth and unravelling the mysteries of the universe, and aimed at improving the lot of mankind. (See SCIENCE INANCIENT INDIA).

If the youth of today does not have an understanding of the achievements of their ancestors, there are several reasons for this. One is that the nation was subjugated and ruled by aliens for nearly a thousand years. If the theme of the alien rule during the first six hundred and fifty years was inflicting physical cruelties, the British who ruled next for about three hundred years used a different tactic. Their objective was to keep the Indians physically and psychologically oppressed. By the time the British left in 1947, large numbers of Indians were oblivious of their ancient glory. They were convinced that they were always a backward civilization and that they were civilized by their alien rulers!

The history of India had been often a ‘made to order’ product commissioned to sub-serve the interests of those who did so. History was written to suit the religious and political interests of the rulers. The religious objective was to lower the self-esteem of the people and show India’s indigenous religion as a backward cult. The political objective was to cleave the society vertically and horizontally. It is as a part of this game plan that the ‘Aryan – Dravidian’ bogey and ‘Sanskrit is a dead language’ myth were created. (See Should WeRe-write Indian History?)

Any residual knowledge or achievements that survive were sought to be explained away as relevant only to the upper strata of the society. The caste system that plagues the nation today was in fact congealed into place during the two phases of alien rule mentioned earlier. Originally, it was merely a division of labour and social mobility permitted both upward and downward movement of people. The castes were no more different than the Anglo Saxon surnames like ‘Barber’ or ‘Carpenter’, which only connote the trades the ancestors of these people might have adopted in the past. Any hope that history written during the colonial rule would be corrected and rewritten in the post independence period to project the glories of the ancient civilization was shot down because of the political imperatives of the new rulers and their fellow travellers in the academia. Both the rulers and their fellow travellers, the ‘rootless intellectuals’ (to use Ernest Bevin’s phrase) who occupied the higher echelons of the academia failed to see the role of history as a unifying force and nation building. As a result, we are today not one nation but a loose conglomeration of states held together ironically, by a civilization which the rulers and the academia wish to airbrush. If the ‘official’ academia is unwilling to correct wrong history how do we educate posterity about the grandeur of their ancestry?

It is against this backdrop that ‘The Krishna Key’ assumes significance. The book discusses in great detail the history of the extinct Saraswati River and the civilization that shadowed its growth and decline. Thanks to all the scientific evidence that has come to light in recent decades, the politically motivated ‘Aryan - Dravidian’ theory can at last be laid to rest. (RIP Aryan Invasion / Aryan Migration Theory!) The evidence includes not only new archaeological evidence but dating historical events based on the planetary configurations described in our epics. It would be ridiculous to argue that the writers of the Ithihasas not only exhibited extraordinary skill in creating everlasting stories but went to the extent of calculating planetary configurations that predated them by thousands of years simply to include them in their works. It was not beyond the power of the rishis who created the epics to do so, but it would only be natural for them to describe the planetary positions as they were seen in their time. It is in this context, after demolishing the impugned ‘Aryan - Dravidian’ theory, the book pointed out the possibility of an ancient civilization spreading from east to west instead of west to east as always presumed. Ironically it bases its argument on the same philological logic on which the protagonists of ‘Aryan - Dravidian’ theory based theirs. If ‘Dalton’s atomic theory’ could be rescinded within forty years of its proposition, why should we also not discard the ‘Aryan - Dravidian’ theory in view of mounting evidence to the contrary? There is a lot of discussion in the book about the cryptic symbolism of numbers and various other practices of Hinduism which were originally initiated by the rishis in their scientific wisdom. It is for this wealth of detail that the book should be read by everyone interested ancient Hindu civilisations.  

The novel is about the quest of a group of four scholars (a historian, an archaeologist, a marine archaeologist and a geneticist) to unlock the secrets of Krishna’s ancient kingdom of Dwaraka. The storyline is a broth of mythology, history, archaeology and theology cunningly intermingled with the current narrative that makes for compelling reading. The story of Krishna and Mahabharata is used as a backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. The cast of characters includes an intelligent, middle-aged, widower professor and a dutiful (and middle-aged), widowed woman police officer to pair him. There is a beautiful, clever, not so honest (again middle aged) spinster, research scholar and her unquestioning, criminal acolyte. There is a sharp, ruthless criminal lawyer who made his pot of gold representing the criminal underworld (imagine someone like ‘Raj Malhotra’ in the Govinda starrer, ‘Kyonki main jhut nahi bolta ’) and a gangland boss with a hoary ancestry dating all the way back to Sri Krishna. As the narrative picks up speed (it does so right in the beginning) the characters run about from Jaipur to Pune to Delhi to Jodhpur to Dwaraka to Chandigarh via Manasa Sarovar and finally to the Taj Mahal in Agra, the crooked on a murder spree and the righteous in pursuit. As in all virtuous stories, in this novel too good triumphs over evil and the culprits were captured. Giving away more details of the story would be spoiling the thrill of reading it. One can’t help recall Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code after reading all those twists and turns, allusions to mythological events and cryptic puzzles.

Though there are only a few errors in the book, some of them are significant and cannot be ignored. See these examples: There is a story behind Bhima’s slaying of Jarasandha. It was not about Sri Krishna's  desire to strengthen his Yadava kingdom by eliminating a potential enemy, as mentioned. (p. 187) According to the Mahabharata, five mahabalas (immensely strong warriors) were born at the same time under a single birth star. They were Bhima, Bakasura, Duryodhana, Keechaka and Jarasandha. According to a divine ordinance, the first to slay any one of the others would also slay the remaining three. Therefore for Bhima to slay Duryodhana at the end of the war according to his vow, it was necessary for him to slay any one of the others first. Yudhisthira’s first Rajasuya Yaga  was to make the kings of all those kingdoms through which the horse roamed accept his suzerainty; not as an equal. (p. 187). The raison d’ etre for performing a Rajasuya Yaga was correctly described when Yudhisthira performed it a second time after the war. In line 14, p. 189, it should be Sastra chikitsa or tantra (meaning surgery) and not Sastra karma. In the sentence ‘Some coincided, others differed’ (line 7, p 272), shouldn’t it be ‘concurred’? The Rig Vedic hymn (line 6, p. 293) should read as ‘ekam sat; viprah bahudha vadanti’ (not vidhaante). Isn’t it ‘Rahika and Saini’ and not ‘Priya and Saini’ in p. 301? Prithviraj Chouhan the last Hindu king was killed in 1192 AD and not BCE (p. 328). In line 9 page 330 the sentence should read as ‘… Indian blacksmiths had succeeded’, not ‘succeeding’. Is it necessary to repeat the story of ‘Syamantaka mani’ once told by Sri Krishna and a second time by Sir Khan? The event of Gandhari bestowing Duryodhana with vajra sareera with her fondling touch had occurred in his childhood, not before the war. Sri Krishna prevented Duryodhana’s whole body being bestowed with a vajra sareera by jeering at him for walking naked (p. 372). Sri Krishna thus ensured the upper part of his thighs remained vulnerable, to enable Bhima to hit there and so fulfil his vow which he made when Draupadi was insulted. It should be Saini and Radhika who put their hands up and not Priya and Saini (line 16-17 p. 389). The sastra that dictates temple architecture is the Aagama Sastra and not the Vaastu Sastra. (p. 402). A nerve does not supply blood. It should be a blood vessel (line 13, p. 406). Avoiding these errors would have improved an otherwise excellently researched well-written novel.

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at 

Friday, October 05, 2012

Will Sonia Gandhi debate with Narendra Modi on TV?

Dilip Padgaonkar holds the televised debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as a lesson worthy of emulation for Indian political leaders. (Such glaring contrasts). Although televised debates between American presidential candidates were generally level-headed, their campaigns were not. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters called President John Adams a “hermaphrodite, with neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In the 1828 campaign John Quincy Adam’s supporters called his rival Andrew Jackson ‘a murderer, his mother a prostitute and his wife an adulteress’. This year’s campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has been none too gentle. All the stories of nastiness in previous election campaigns are being dug up by the American media to tell the public that there was nothing new in it. Bob Schieffer cites Laura Brown (in News and World Report) as saying that ‘the role of the media in all this has not been exactly stellar.’ (Nasty campaign ads an American tradition)

In the 1960 election between the Democrat J. F. Kennedy and the Republican Richard Nixon (Eisenhower’s former Vice President), the Democrats put up a poster with the leering form of Richard Nixon holding out a finger and the caption ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ It was also in the 1960 election that a televised debate between the candidates was first introduced. The candidate that was able to deliver a knockout punch in the debates usually won. It was so with the Kennedy election of 1960 when the nation saw him as confident and relaxed while Nixon appeared ‘shifty, sweating and badly under the lights.’ The debates too were not devoid of their share of wit at the expense of an opponent and knockout punches. In the 1980 election, Ronald Regan debated Jimmy Carter. Finding Carter’s penchant for manipulating statistics irksome, Reagan taunted him with the humorous line, ‘There you go again!’  (The 10 best US presidential campaigns)

Therefore, if we have nothing to learn from the US Presidential campaigns or the US media, what was Padgaonkar’s point in bringing up the Obama – Romney television debate in his ToI blog? A few minute’s trouble to google would have told Padgaonkar, who once held ‘the second most important job in India’ that he was on a sticky wicket. Well, he has to begin somewhere. But his objective was different. It was to rile Narendra Modi for raising the issue of the alleged expenditure of Rs 1880 crore towards Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels. Narendra Modi did not refer to her treatment and has repeatedly said so. He tried to convince anyone who would listen that he did not make the statement from first hand knowledge but from newspaper reports that appeared in Gujarat, Haryana and even in the national media like The Indian Express and India Today. BJP’s Menakshi Lekhi who vehemently argued Narendra Modi’s case on national television pointed out that there was not one but several RTI petitions filed from various parts of the country. In spite of all this the media would have none of it. They buy into the versions of the Congress spokespersons, who flitted from one RTI petition to another in a clumsy attempt at bluff, bluster and subterfuge to shroud the issue in secrecy. They wouldn’t even hear the counter argument that if the GoI spent any monies on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign travels the people of the country are entitled to know about it. And that people in public life have to forego some of their privacy. Remember Sanjay Joshi and Abhishek Manu Singhvi? They had a right to their private lives but had to pay a price for being public figures.

It is a strange fact of life that in democratic India where all citizens are presumed to be equal, there is one family that is above the pale of the law and public scrutiny. It is a privilege that is not available even to rulers in traditional monarchies like Britain. Is it a hangover from our colonial past? ‘So be it’, would our Congress politicians with the skin of a hippopotamus, say, without batting an eyelid! The sad part of this drama is that the Indian media, which should have played its role as a bulwark against dictatorial mores has been not only abdicating its responsibility but is willy-nilly conspiring with the unseemly conduct of the ruling politicians.    

Now, let us look at a proposition that Dilip Padgaonkar, unconsciously (and perhaps unintentionally) put forth. It is about the televised debate between the two contesting rivals. America introduced these televised debates sixty years ago (with the Kennedy – Nixon debate as mentioned earlier) to enable the voters to understand who they are (or rather their electoral college is) sending to the White House for the next four years to rule them. It helps the nation understand what a candidate stands for, what his understanding of various issues of governance is and how he intends to cope with them. Could a leader who reads her Hindi speeches written for her in Roman script be able to cope with such a debate? Or would the Prince whose understanding of the complexity of Indian politics leaves much to be desired, do?

How would Padgaonkar like Sonia Gandhi to debate with Narendra Modi on national television? 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rahul Gandhi, BCG’s ‘problem child’!

In marketing, Boston Consulting Group’s growth share matrix (or BCG matrix) is an instrument used to assess the current state and predict the future performance of a product (brand) or product line. In marketing parlance, the grid determines a product’s ‘attractiveness’. The grid plots a product’s relative market share against market growth to analyse its current state and predict its future. The four quadrants in the grid which represent the life cycle of a product are named ‘dogs’, ‘question marks (or problem children)’, ‘stars’ and ‘cash cows’. While ‘stars’ and ‘cash cows’ are every marketer’s dream the ‘question marks (or problem children)’ are a real dilemma. This is because if these products make the ‘success test’ in the market place they move into the ‘stars category and eventually into the ‘cash cows category. But while they consume large amounts of resources for promotion, they do not generate immediate revenues. If they gain market share, they move into the ‘stars category but after years of consumption and effort, if they fail, they degenerate into the ‘dogs’ category. Even as ‘dogs’ they pose another dilemma to the marketer. Some marketers believe that although the ‘dogs’ do not generate large net revenues; they are still useful because they split overheads. More importantly, from a human resources standpoint, they help in maintaining employment potential. Occasionally marketers have to choose the hard option – bite the bullet as it were – and shed the ‘dogs’.

What does all this have to do with the politics? Well, political philosophies are like product lines and individual political leaders are like products. Remember, how the ‘India shining’ campaign turned out to be the undoing of the BJP in 2004. Not even its enemies predicted the BJP would lose the election. For the common man, prices were stable and inflation was under control. The era of licences and permits and scarcity was well and truly past. There was an abundance of never before choices in the marketplace. The sun was shining on a billowing economy; presaging increased employment generation. ‘God appeared to be in his heaven and all well with the world!  Why then did the campaign bounce back? It is perhaps one of those marketing enigmas. The story is quite similar to that of brand Churchill who won the Second World War for Britain with his slogans, ‘All out for England’ and ‘V for victory’, who was then quietly shown the door by the British electorate! 

As we advance to 2014, the Congress party wishes to launch brand Rahul. The teasers for brand Rahul have been in the air for far too long, that people wonder whether they would see the première at all. An elementary principle of brand management is that even the fattest advertising budgets or the slickest commercials will not be able to help a marketer if a brand does not have inherent strengths.

In 2008 Barack Obama rode to power on the flood tide of his oratory. One is yet to see Rahul delivering his ‘Gettysburg address’! From what little one has seen Rahul’s oratory does not exactly seem to set the Ganga on fire. In all these years since he came to represent the family fiefdom of Amethi in parliament, one has heard only one ‘Kalavathi’ speech from him and no other intervention, not even to ask a question!

Although according to his sycophants Rahul ostensibly represents youth in spite of his 43 years, he does not seem to inspire the youth brigade of the internet age with his profound wisdom. As students of Mumbai discomfited Barack Obama, their brethren in Patna and Ahmedabad made Rahul squirm. What is the vision he has for the youth of this country? How does he plan to educate and employ them? No one knows, for no one has heard him elaborate. The only solution his party comes up with in times of crises is offering freebies and proposals of reservations and more reservations.

Notwithstanding his pilgrimages to Dalit homes and second class suburban travel, his understanding of men and matters leaves much to be desired. (Gujarat is larger than the European Union!) One fine morning he decided to take up the cause of the victims of Bhatta-Parasul village whose lands were forcibly acquired by the UP state administration. Narrating the horrors he witnessed of people (presumably) killed and burnt, he informed the media that there were ‘70 feet of ashes’, whatever it meant!

If the piece in The Economist (Adams Robert. The Rahul problem. September 10, 2012) is anything to go by, even his biographer (Ramachandran, Aarthi. Decoding Rahul Gandhi) was hard put to paint a colourful portrait of him. AR says, this is the moment for Congress to dare to think of something radical: of reorganizing itself on the basis of policies, ideas and a vision of how India should develop.’ According to his biographer (as cited in the article) Rahul wants to apply the principles of management he learnt from Toyota to modernise the Congress party’s youth organisation. 

For brand Rahul the time has come to move from the quadrant of ‘problem children’: up, to the quadrant of ‘stars’ or down, to the quadrant of ‘dogs’, to be dropped eventually. As of now there is nothing to indicate that brand Rahul can become a ‘star’!  

Friday, September 07, 2012

The ‘Naroda Patiya’ Judgement in context

The August 29 judgement of Judge Jyotsna Yagnik in the Naroda Patiya massacre case is as unprecedented as the crime it seeks to adjudicate. It may or may not be the first time in independent India that sentences on several counts in a criminal case were ordered to be run consecutively. The usual practice in India unlike in the US is to order sentences to be run concurrently. That is why we have never heard such bizarre sentences as, for instance, ‘105 years in prison’ as we do from US courts. The judge also dispensed with the definition of ‘life’ imprisonment which in her own words was usually 14 years because she felt that it would be ‘grossly disproportionate and inadequate’. Be that as it may, in the present case, one of the key accused, Maya Kodnani, a BJP MLA was sentenced to 28 years in prison. This in effect means the middle aged Kodnani is unlikely to come out alive from prison. The judgment however mentions that ‘there is no evidence that she, in fact, has physically contributed commission of any offence’. She was punished more for her role in instigating the rioters and abetting the crime. Babu Bajrangi, another key accused was sentenced to life imprisonment with no remission permitted if one understands the judgment correctly. The judge felt that these were the minimum terms that would meet the ends of justice even while keeping in mind the agony the accused suffered with a sword hanging over their heads for ten and a half years. Nowhere in the judgement, which runs to about 2000 pages was there even a hint that links Narendra Modi to the violence. 

The secular establishment shrugged off the sentences as their real target is not the 32 convicted, but Narendra Modi. For over ten years, he has been pilloried by the secular establishment, for what he had not done rather than (at least) acknowledging what he had done to contain the 2002 riots.

First, let us see what he had done:

He had had the army deployed in 48 hours. His police fired 10,000 rounds of bullets to quell the mobs. In the process some 77 Hindus and 93 Muslims were killed. 27,901 Hindus and 7,651 Muslims were arrested as a preventive measure. (According to some sources, the number of Hindus arrested was as high as 35,000.)  The riots rendered 40,000 Hindus homeless, a fact which was not even whispered by the secular media. They were sheltered in relief camps for a long time alongside the Muslims uprooted from their homes. Finally, one has to keep in view that 254 Hindus were also killed in the riots along with 790 Muslims. Therefore the riots were not as one-sided as they are made out to be.

Let us see what would have satisfied the secular establishment:

1. The bodies of the 59 Hindus (more than half of whom were women and children) who were burnt to death should not have been brought to Ahmedabad to be handed over to their families. Would the secular establishment rather that they were buried in Godhra as orphans? Did they not deserve some consideration in death, of a decent cremation, when they were denied life? Should their kith and kin not be allowed to keen in grief and pay their last respects - to the unfortunate victims of a pernicious ideology, who had to die for no fault of theirs?

2. The police/army should have taken sterner action. It is difficult to comprehend this logic. What could the police or for that matter the army, could have done more? Should the police/army have shot everyone at sight and killed hundreds of people? Had the Gujarat Home Ministry given such an order would it have been obeyed? What would have happened if the police had disobeyed an order of the government? P. V. Narasimha Rao had faced a similar dilemma in 1992 at the time of the ‘Rama Janma Bhumi – Babri Masjid’ demolition. He too had been accused of not calling in the army to shoot the agitators at sight. (What else would he order the army to do?) In the end Narasimha Rao had decided that it would not do for the army to revolt. (This is according to an unimpeachable secular source!)

3. The courts should have worked faster and hanged everyone accused (especially the politicians including Narendra Modi), with the least possible delay. How could the Gujarat government have facilitated this? Why, by somehow rendering the defence of the accused in the courts, ineffective. In other words the state government should have obstructed the course of justice, and do to the Hindus what it has been, though falsely, been accused of doing to the Muslims.  

However, a despicable aspect of the saga of (Naroda Patiya) was the conduct of the secular intelligentsia which circulated a story about a womb being ripped open and a foetus gouged out. Arundhati Roy concocted the story in her article in Outlook of  May 4, 2002. It was not exactly calculated to bring about harmony between communities at a time when the atmosphere was still rife for another round of explosive violence.Thousands of people from both communities uprooted from homes were still living in camps. In view of the reputation of the 'source' the story was repeated without verification, thousands of times since. Human rights outfits of dubious reputation like New York's Human Rights Watch went to town with it.

Three postscripts with respect to the judgement deserve mention here:

1. This could also be a rare judgement in which the principle of secularism as defined in the Indian constitution was invoked in delivering judgement in a criminal case. (p. 1955)

2. The judge primarily relied on an ‘extra-judicial confession’ (her expression) of a key accused made in a ‘Sting Operation’ to convict him. 

3. The judge also dispels the myth about a foetus being gouged out of a womb when a pregnant woman was killed. In her opinion only a trained gynaecologist or someone more experienced in such procedures could perform such an act. (p. 1686-89) The secular establishment perpetuated the myth unmindful or oblivious to the  consequences of putting out such a story, especially during the early days of the riots when the atmosphere was palpably incendiary. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

‘Secular’ Opposition to Narendra Modi as P M

This is the second and concluding part of the series, ‘Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014’.  

The issue of secularism has been debated ad nauseam. There are those who wear their secularism on their sleeve. Some call themselves ‘secular fundamentalists’. It is the ultimate one can achieve in the ‘discipline of secularism’, a Ph. D. degree granted by the ‘University of Secularism’.

Even so a naïve a politician as Chiranjivi claimed his short-lived Praja Rajyam was a secular party. It is no disrespect to Chiranjivi, the man or the film-actor to say that he was politically naïve. It is because during his stint as head of his short-lived political party he exuded no leadership nor expounded on his socio-economic philosophy, if he had any. He jumped into the political fray because his numerically considerable social formation (for some inexplicable reason the word caste is taboo in the vernacular discourse!) egged on him to do so as it wished to wield power through him. And why not? If the Reddys have wielded power for long and the Kamms did so for a while in Andhra Pradesh, why should the Kapus who form the third largest social formation not do so? Chiranjivi attracted leaders from the left and the right, but the ideologically-fired leaders who flocked to him soon found out that his vaunted idealism was a chimera. They deserted him when they realised that far from any ideology, it was Chiranjivi’s family members who called the shots in the party.

Had he been given a third term, Chandrababu Naidu would have evolved into a charismatic leader. Although oratory was not his forte, he had a vision and was seen as a capable administrator. 

The boss-man of the Telugu Desam party, who loved it when he was referred to as the CEO rather than the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, had a dream. It was, to establish an IIT at Basara, the home of a Saraswathi temple, one of six such temples in the country. There is nothing strange in this. Naidu may not be an overtly demonstrative Hindu but he is not an atheist. Every Hindu child is initiated into education with the invocation to Saraswathi:

Saraswathi Namastubhyam, Varade Kaamaroopini|
Vidyarambham Karishyami, Siddhir Bhavatu Mey Sada||

Even so, his Education Minister, Pratibha Bharathi walked out of a conference of state education ministers protesting against nothing sinister but something as innocuous as singing ‘Saraswathi Vandana’ at the inaugural of the three day conference. She also opposed the introduction of the Vedas and Upanishads in school curricula. (See Protests force HRD minister to withdraw controversial RSS paper on education) Like Naidu, Pratibha Bharathi too is not an atheist nor could she have walked out of the conference without his express instruction, going by the nature of the party’s functioning.

Every Ramadan season, Naidu may be seen hosting an Iftar dinner playing the gracious host, complete with skull cap. Why does a Hindu who has no qualms about going against the grain of his own religion, be so eager to be demonstrative of the practices of another religion? It may be a contradiction in terms but it precisely defines the nature of Indian secularism: the calculus of electoral politics.

Even a term in political wilderness does things to politicians. Two terms is one too many. A prisoner who undergoes a long prison term is not the same person when he comes out. The long stint in prison does something to the psyche. Similarly the psyche of a politician who is in political wilderness for long also undergoes psychological change. The politician is not the same person as before. It is all the more difficult for a politician who had wielded power before. The hunger for power is such that, cherished principles would appear as impediments. After two terms out of power this was what happened to Naidu. 

First, he forgot the raison d’etre of his party. His father-in-law, the late N. T. Rama Rao founded it on the plank of Telugu pride in contradistinction to the Congress which he said had ‘sold the self-respect of the Telugu people in the streets of Delhi’. 

Second, Naidu forgot that in 1999 when he had sought re-election, it was his alliance with the BJP-led NDA that saw him coast to victory. One should remember that at the time Naidu had not yet demonstrated his administrative skills, for he was in power for too short a period. On the other hand, he had to fight the stigma ‘of stabbing his father-in-law in the back’ for usurping power. He now attributes his loss in 2004 to his alliance with the NDA. He lost in 2009 too although he did not have an explicit alliance with the NDA. If he refuses to align with it in 2014 as he steadfastly refuses to do - as of now – he would be willy-nilly handing victory to the Congress.

In 2004, the NDA lost due to a number of factors, one of which could be the communal stigma attached to it after Gujarat 2002. Or it could be because of the perceived insensitivity of the ‘India shining’ campaign. In either case the margin of difference between the Congress and the BJP, leaders of the two formations was just 7 seats. It is true the Congress improved its tally to cross the 200 mark in 2009. Congress’ stunning performance could be at least in part due to Naidu’s inability to regain lost ground. Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy repeated his 2004 performance of sending 33 MPs to the Lok Sbaha.

It was not the perceived communalism of the NDA that was Naidu’s undoing in 2004 but another kind of leadership offered by his bete noir YSR. YSR offered a sop for every numerically strong group of supporters in the state. His profligacy depleted the state’s coffers but it was his hapless successors that were left holding the baby. Another factor that some analysts believe has gone against Chandrababu Naidu was his attempt to discipline the state’s 9,46,000 government employees (see AP Factfile - Employee Census), who with their families formed a formidable block that voted against his party.

The elusive third front is of course every non-Congress, non-BJP politician’s dream. Who knows ‘he / she’ might be the ‘chosen monkey that arbiters between the two cats’? In the absence of such a possibility, Naidu cannot but support BJP for no other reason than his political survival. He simply cannot allow a Congress government to come back to power. The shrewd Naidu is not unaware of these facts in spite of his ‘secular’ posturing for public consumption. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, both the DMK and the AIADMK have done business with the BJP-led NDA in the past. For them their state’s interest comes first; ‘secularism’ is a slogan.

As in Andhra Pradesh (whether it goes to the hustings as one state or two is anybody’s guess), in Maharashtra too a change of guard could be expected after two successive terms of the Congress­-led coalition and all the scams and sandals that riddled it. That brings us to the three large states (those excepting the BJP-ruled states like Chattishgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh), with large Muslim populations. They are Bengal (why do we persist with ‘West’ when there is only one Bengal in India?), Bihar and UP. BJP does not have a presence in Bengal nor does it expect to significantly improve it in the immediate future. In UP, the BJP may not have done well in the recent assembly polls but is likely to make significant gains in the national election. For one thing, electorates are generally able to discern between state and national elections. Second, with both the SP and the BSP having pandered to ‘minority vote-banks’ (for far too long), it may not be unreasonable to expect a Hindu backlash.

The same dynamics that apply to Chandrababu Naidu apply to Nitish Kumar too. He might do all the huffing and hawing but in the end, will not be able to do business with the Congress for fear of erosion of his vote bank; the target vote-bank being the same for both the parties. In the case of Mamata Banerjee, she has to contend with two enemies at the state level: the Communists and the Congress. If she leaves her flank unguarded, either of them might usurp her electoral space.

That brings us to the question as to who would lead the NDA. It would be naive to expect the dominant party in a coalition would allow a smaller partner to head the government, irrespective of whether or not Nitish Kumar harbours any such ambitions. If the BJP will be able to retain its current tally and make incremental gains in states like Maharashtra and UP as it most likely will, and acquire a critical mass of about 200 seats then the allies may not be in a position to dictate who its leader should be.