Thursday, April 28, 2016

Commentary: Refusal to grow

Some people inherit power (if you are born in the right family), some people earn it through assiduous work (including wheeling-dealing and back-stabbing) and a select few have power bestowed on them. Manohar Lal Khattar became the chief minister of Haryana more as a shock therapy by Modi-Shah duo. In his initial days, he played the parrot very seriously, as is clear in this interview, commented in this post. 

Much water has flown down the Yamuna, but Mr. Khattar steadfastly refuses to grow. His recent interview amply showcases that. As is the style of journalists these days, Mr. Khattar was questioned in the best kid-glove fashion. But he still shines with his gems. Consider this – the skewed sex-ratio, one of the biggest blots on the state, started changing rather drastically once the BJP came to power. The ratio was 827 on 22nd January 2015. By December 2015, it crossed 900. By March 2016, it inched to 907. Now Mr. Khattar’s goal is to take it to 950 by the end of his tenure in 2019. An impressive increase of about 9% in the first year. And then the target dwindles to 5% in the next four years. Are the journalists so severely affected by Arithmophobia? 

Then Mr. Khattar goes on to claim that for ‘foreigners’, pronouncing Gurugram is easier than Gurgaon. First question is how did he find that out, and the next question is, so what? But the journalists change track and go on asking about Vadra. The answer to that is lackluster, to say the least, but the questioning changes track again. It is frustrating. 

What comes out of this interview is, Mr. Khattar has still a lot of growing to do. In content as well as confidence. Just to contrast, look at Kerala CM’s interview. This is not to state that Chandy is the benchmark or hallmark, but the way he handles much more troublesome questions is what is expected from a full-time politician. Mr. Khattar is probably aware that he got the CM’s chair solely at the whim and fancy of Modi-Shah duo and the chair can go any time. Only that would explain his utterings….

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How to sabotage your own long term future – lessons from Maharashtra

For the first three decades of independent India, the ‘opposition’ parties didn’t have much of a space in Maharashtra. The Janata Party experiment in 1977 gave it some hope, but not at the state level. It took Sharad Pawar to break away from Congress and form PDA (Progressive Democratic Alliance). It was a curious mixture of a sizeable chunk of congressmen and a smattering of socialist and right-wing people. The experiment lasted for a couple of years and Sharad Pawar had to spend six more years in political wilderness before meekly re-joining congress.

It took another decade before the ‘opposition’ got a respectable number of seats in 1990 and finally enough to form a government in 1995. Even then, the Shiv Sena and BJP had only 138 out of 288 seats. The rest needed for the majority were ‘independents’, euphemism for power hungry and freely saleable political dons. The SS-BJP government from 1995 to 1999 was infamous for rampant corruption and lawlessness. So much so, that for the straight fifteen years after that, the parties mustered 125 (in 1999), 116 (in 2004) and 91 (in 2009) seats. Point to note - both Bal Thakre and Gopinath Munde were alive and kicking in all these elections. In 2014, the numbers were unbelievable. After breaking the ‘alliance’, BJP got 122 seats and Shiv Sena 63, in a multi-cornered contest. But the rancor between the erstwhile partners saw some mind boggling twists – Sharad Pawar offering ‘unconditional’ support to BJP, “in the interest of stability”. BJP did flirt with Pawar for quite some time, and then came back to its old partner.

With this background, let’s look at how the government is faring. BJP is seriously pursuing the commendable activity of self-destruction with a dedication unmatched so far. Its leaders have become more arrogant than congress leaders. And the chief minister is indecisive and spineless. Let us look at Ms. Pankaja Munde. Her claim to fame is that she is daughter of Gopinath Munde, the person who took BJP to rural Maharashtra with a vengeance. After his accidental death, Ms. Pankaja rose prominently on the political horizon. In the initial phase after the 2014 state assembly election results, she fantasized for a while about becoming the chief minister. Then she woke up, but didn’t keep quiet. After becoming minister, she was very quick to open her 'scam account'. Her latest utterings and actions amply justify the conclusion that she has a lot of growing up to do. And how does the CM respond? He keeps quiet, or he defends her.

Let us look at another self-proclaimed mass leader, Eknath Khadse. He thought his claim to the CM chair was much stronger, what with him being the leader of the opposition in the outgoing assembly and a six-term MLA and all that. But his lack of pan-state appeal and his blatant ‘family first’ principle worked against him. Apparently he still hasn’t recovered, and is following Ajit Pawar’s footsteps in being brazen. Mr. Khadse should remember the fate that befell Pawar.

After the serious spoil-sports, come the jokers for comic relief. BJP provided this through a little known party member called Makarand Deshpande. Mr. Deshpande came up with the brilliant idea of transporting water to Latur by train from Sangli. Each of these are questionable. Why Latur? Is it so that it is the only city in Maharashtra facing drought? The district collector doesn’t think so. Why by train? Because the Indian Railways have nothing else or better to do? And how much of Latur’s water needs are getting fulfilled by this fantastic exercise? A report says not enough. The eastern part of Sangli district, Jath, Atpadi and Kawathe Mahankal have been drought prone for the last few decades. Distance from Sangli? Around 100 – 150 km. Distance from Sangli to Latur? Around 300 km. Clear arithmetic, except that it is not clear to BJP.

Alliance partner Shiv Sena is doing its bit to harm the government. Uddhav Thakre, the party ‘Working’ President (only Bal Thakre could be the ‘President’) has been making noises, apparently ‘criticizing’ the government. BJP responded earlier in a provocative manner, but Uddhav continues to bark without biting. He is quite a pro in that game. During the 2014 assembly elections, when BJP broke the ‘alliance’, Shiv Sena criticized BJP bitterly, but spinelessly continued to hold on to minister’s post at the center.

And all this is happening when the state is facing one of the worst famines. And when in the civic poll results, BJP is in the fourth position. Congress, followed by NCP are the winners. PM Modi should either wake up, or keep quiet and write the ‘state donation receipt’ in the name of Congress.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

PM Modi - Still Underwhelming

Source -
As I read different news about Indian PM Modi, I am still sorting out how PMO works and how is India's highest politician working to solve India's myriad problems. It does not render any reassuring picture.

First, I was impressed that PM Modi did not buckle under Chinese pressure and allowed minority Uyghur leader to visit India. India had a reasonable case when China played sucker to Pakistan in stalling terrorist designation of Massod Azhar. If China wants to be a global power to be respected by many countries around the world, increasing funding for global spin masters is not necessarily an effective way. Such a desperation is a classic sign of a weaker dictatorship. India has no reason to be a supplicant to any such low level Chinese model of politics and it was an excellent move by PM Modi to allow alternative voices about China to come to India. It is an act from strength to perfectly project India's resolution against China. India is one of the few countries which is lot less dependent on mighty Chinese Economy and has military wherewithal to withstand any Chinese military adventures (even if her friend Pakistan joins simultaneously). Given this, it is entirely appropriate that Indian Government remains cognizant of it's strength and does not hesitate to assert itself in Sinosphere. 

For sure, granting a visa to a so-called separatist of China is with it's own risks too.[1] There is nothing to stop China in reciprocating that by inviting and nurturing many of India's dissidents as well. But the hope is open and democratic polity of India offers enough avenues to all opposing voices so that Indian minorities do not need to cross India's border to vent their grievances. And that is where doubts start coming to my mind whether Modi government is open enough to accommodate minorities and opposing voices. With its famous umbilical chord to RSS, Modi government has lot to do in keeping away the poisonous, one sided Hindutva Chauvinism of Sangh variety. Otherwise all these bold moves to shelter minority thinkers and leaders from China would simply backfire.

Secondly, PM Modi has been pitching Make in India program and related policy prescriptions for a while. After the initial euphoria and launching of any such policy, one expects a coherent set of policy framework to achieve these economic goals. But Modi Economic policy is nothing but sloganeering with no coherent thought behind it. Such an approach might be able to make improvements in a single state like Gujarat; but one doubts whether it can succeed at the national level where the policy has to cover multiple states, many of which are governed by opposing political parties.

Finally, all the flurry of economic policy making begs a question whether Modi government is putting the cart before the horse. Fundamental to India's economic well being and welfare of Indians is the rule of law, protection of property (physical and intellectual) and timely delivery of justice. Heart of a successful Capitalism is solid, strong and effective property law enforcement. When your law enforcement - judicial system - is weak, over worked and delayed; commercial transactions and disputes do not get addressed in timely manner; slowing down utilization of Capital which results in clogging of economic progress wheels. Successive Indian Governments have failed to understand the importance of an effective judiciary system. Uncontrolled corruption is an outgrowth of the malaise in India's judicial system. When CJI cries in front of PM, one gets a clear evidence that PM Modi does not grasp the importance of improving India's courts. Modi's Make in India policy has no meaning if he does not help achieve unclogging of India's courts. Otherwise, he joins the long list of India's PMs who neglected improving Justice in India.

[1] Update - Looks like Modi Government after all buckled under the pressure of Beijing and has stopped the Uyghur leader from entering India. That is a shame, one more sign that Modi Government is not thinking through and not showing any ability to carry through tough calls. Equally worrying is Indian Media is silent on this reversal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reclaiming world history as it really was

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The Silk Road
A new history of the world
Bloomsbury, Rs 799, pp 636
By Peter Frankopan
One of the most rewarding books for me in 2015 was Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ which also sensationally claims to be a ‘new history of the world’. I fell for the brazenness and the decision turned out to be more than worthwhile. All my life I have been reading critiques of the so-called euro-centric view of history that moves in a golden line from Greece through Rome to modern Europe, almost predictably punctuated by the eras of renaissance, reconnaissance, reformation, and enlightenment down to the several waves of the industrial revolution. But the critiques never got me anywhere far enough and the grand march of European progress continued to seem a valid though an oversimplified model, as models are wont to be. China, India, Egypt, Persia – they all seemed like glorious but ‘also’ stories that decorated the margins of the grand European table spread. But I have to admit that just one reading of the book ‘The Silk Roads’, and I have recovered from my slavery to the grand narrative in the favour of a complex mass of grand narratives in the plural. To put it simply, the axis of human history is to be found neither in the west nor the east, but in the numerous pathways connecting the distant shores of ancient China to the Mediterranean and Persia, with India, the central Asian region, the Mesopotamian spread as well as Rome and Greece. In brief, history belongs not to frozen spaces but the highways and the lanes through which the civilizational traffic moves. This movement is made visible as men carry goods and ideas, circulating and creating constant ripples in the global fabric of humanity.  
Before I get down to the specifics from the book I would like to share how this view of global human history matches my own nano research experience in the field of popular culture. Nearly all my research projects in the last ten years began with hypotheses that presumed a point of origin for specific cultural forms. Just as routinely my research projects ended up concluding that cultural dissemination through migration and trade related travel lay at the core of the unique forms. To use a metaphor, the water of culture invariably came flowing like a river rather than emerging from within like a bore well. This is why I appreciate Frankopan’s title ‘The Silk Rods’ for putting civilization on a ‘road’ rather than a settlement! Civilization in brief is the name of a traffic and not a place, except for the moment. The traffic of course is called the silk roads, a nomenclature given in the 19th century. But think of other traffics and confluences like the Silicon Valley or Bangalore, where the intermeshing of myriads of talents creates local ecologies of growth and employment.   
So what happens if you turn your history upside down or inside out? You begin to notice that the first Neolithic civilizations after all emerged in Asia. Ancient Greece looked to the east towards Persia rather than towards the west. Ancient Rome similarly depended on Egypt as its granary and traded with a chain of centres in the east as far as India. All the wisdom of the Greeks was preserved in the east in translations by the early Islamic scholars. The early Muslims were the new masters of the silk route, placed as they were at the very nerve centre connecting China, India, Africa and Europe.  
After a long interval when Europe showed signs of stirring, it was only in the 9th century through the stimulus received from the Islamic trade channels and for long Europe’s one major commodity was the slaves it could sell for pieces of silver. Yes, the first slaves came from Ireland, Britain and the Slavic regions and not Africa – this is how Europe began its economic rise which culminated in the wealthy city states around the 13th century, which again looked to the east for wealth and started the crusades. The age of discovery too clearly indicates an eastward thrust for access to the fabulous wealth of the Chinese and the Indians. The violent story of discovery and colonialism continues to this day when the oilfields of the mid-east receiving the most devastating form of attention from the super powers. Both the world wars begin to make sense only when you put the colonies as the central issue, a prerequisite to understanding the cold war as well, not to mention the unending disturbances in the Mideast in recent times that show no signs of abatement. But even as the high points of the Silk Road like Syria and Iraq seem reduced to wreckage, a new silk route may be taking shape connecting China with the numerous central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are undertaking massive infrastructural projects. What emerge as the keyword with an epic value for all ages bygone and to come is ‘networks’ in its vast and extended sense. So why do the historians get stuck over fixed points like magnets?  
According to Frankopan most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons.
1. First, they ‘challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West’.
2. ‘Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. To say something new means opening a new field of investigation – which requires turning over a small stone, previously assumed to be unimportant, and assessing what lies beneath. Revolutionising history on a grand scale calls for a braver and more ambitious approach’.
3. ‘Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages’. Students and scholars rarely peek into Greek, medieval Greek especially from Byzantium, and Slavic sources like The Russian Primary Chronicle (850-1110) and The Chronicle of Novgorod (1016-1471).  Similarly, the ‘works of Muqaddasī, Ibn Faḍlān and Mas􏰀ūdī are almost entirely overlooked. ‘The great works of Persian poetry and prose – such as the epic Shāhnāma of Firdawsī or the Ta’rīx-i Jahān-Gušā of Juvaynī, which relates the history of the Mongols – remain a mystery, while texts in Tamil, Hindi, and Chinese – such as the Shi Ji, written more than two thousand years ago by Sima Qian – fare no better’.

To wind up this review essay, I would like to assure the lay reader that this new history runs like a thriller and if you end up enjoying it more than you ever expected no need to hold it against yourself or the author who is the Director at the Centre for Byzantine research at the Oxford University. There is nothing sinful in writing a history book that can be enjoyed by the lay reader and provides the expert with a lot to chew over even if the professional historians of the type who reduced us to jaw-breaking yawns in classrooms all over the world, do not concur. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Commentary: The mystery of the missing food grain and Punjab’s credit woes

The problem of non-performing assets [NPAs] shows up in India in the oddest of places. Even as the courts have issued a non-bailable warrant against Vijay Mallya as a wilful defaulter, another monster of a problem has cropped up in Punjab, involving the state government and not a private company or individual. Just as the state of Punjab was about to launch its annual grain procurement drive, the Reserve Bank of India made the discovery that grain stocks worth Rs 12,000 crore have gone missing in the state. The state requires credit from the government banks to pay for the procurement and the credit is forwarded on the basis of the grain held in stock. With the Reserve Bank breathing over the necks of the public sector banks over their NPAs, a consortium of 30 banks decided to refuse further credit to the Punjab government. With the elections due in 2017, the state government is now writhing in anxiety and looking of all possible solution to the hitch, all of which must have come up during a recent meeting between the CM Badal and PM Narendra Modi. In a fast developing story, the picture is yet not clear. But clearly, the banks have to bend their earlier resolve and sort out the imbroglio created by what is being termed as a scam. This also raises the question whether something similar is going on in other states, although Punjab is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of the procurement eventually pumped into the public distribution system [PDS] throughout the country.

Among all the news coverage and articles, this one seems to give the most complete picture, though the fact is the real magnitude of this financial outrage will unfold only in the coming days. For both the reasons – the urgency of procurement and given that the BJP is part of the Punjab government, a solution will of course be found with due promptness. What is not clear is whether the mystery of the ‘missing food grain’ will be unravelled and whether the financial regulator, the Reserve Bank will be able to hold on to its strict policy on NPAs vis a vis the government agencies in the future.