Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stalling Parliament helps the UPA

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated November 30, 2011)


On November 24, the Union Cabinet cleared a proposal to allow up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment in the multi-brand retail sector. The decision is not suspect, because it will eventually be a game-changer for the consumers, traders and farmers, who will all benefit. What is suspect is the timing. Why on earth did the UPA Government, fully aware that it does not enjoy the support of not just the Opposition but also some of its own allies on the issue, take the decision in the midst of the Winter Session of Parliament? It cannot have been unaware that the Cabinet decision would raise the hackles of several parties in the two Houses and add to the list of controversial subjects that have already stalled the functioning of the current session since it began on November 22.

The Cabinet could have cleared the FDI proposal soon after the Winter Session, which in any case is a mere 21-day affair. The skies would not have fallen because of a delay of three weeks, and the Members of Parliament would have had an issue less to create a ruckus. There can be two reasons for the move: One, faced with the allegation of policy paralysis and loss of confidence of the corporate sector, the Government was desperate to counter the charge and simultaneously expose the Opposition for its conduct over progressive legislations that the UPA was ‘committed’ to. Two, the decision was a well-calculated step by the Government, designed to further plunge Parliament into chaos so that the crucial Lokpal Bill – among the most contentious legislations – is not taken up for consideration. The first aim does not enjoy credibility because the FDI decision alone is not going to reverse the UPA’s negative image. Moreover, by antagonizing the majority of parliamentarians and making it even more difficult for the decision to be implemented, the Government has done no favour to industry. On the contrary, the UPA stands more tainted than vindicated by its ill-timing.

The second theory is more alluring. We have been often told that investigators involved in resolving murder mysteries never lose sight of the motive behind the crime, because the motive pins the criminal down like nothing else does. If we apply this analogy here, it is obvious that the Congress gains to benefit the most by the disruptions in the two Houses, since it can avoid the presentation of Bills that are bound to raise a storm and expose the UPA for its duplicity. This provides a credible enough motive for the Government to prefer a situation of the kind that we see in Parliament.

But why should the UPA, which is supposedly committed to a strong Lokpal institution, want to prevent the Bill from seeing the light of the day for as long as it can manage? After all, this is one piece of legislation that can undo much of the damage that the Government’s image has suffered over the last few months in the wake of a series of scams. The answer is: While the Congress has been assuring every one that the Government will bring before Parliament a strong anti-corruption Bill, it has already chickened out and done its bit to weaken the proposed legislation. Congress members in the Parliamentary Standing Committee that is examining the issue have been vociferous in opposing the inclusion of the Prime Minister under the Lokpal’s ambit. Naturally, if the Bill comes before the two Houses, the Government will be hard-pressed to explain how the Bill can be “strong and effective” – as it had promised – by excluding the high office of Prime Minister from the Lokpal’s jurisdiction. Because the Congress has no satisfactory answers, it would want to avoid the embarrassment by preventing the Bill from coming before Parliament, at least for now. This, of course, does not mean that the party will succeed. Despite everything, the Lokpal Bill may still be placed in Parliament – and trashed.

That the Congress should announce the FDI policy in multi-brand retail even without getting its own allies on board furthers the suspicion that the party’s strategy was not to push through the FDI as much as it was to somehow ensure that Parliament did not take up the Lokpal and some other Bills. What else can explain the fact that, while key UPA ally and Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee has been opposed to the FDI, the Cabinet went ahead and endorsed the decision, instead of having waited for a while more and convinced her of the benefits of FDI? Now, she has bluntly refused to allow multi-brand retails with foreign direct investment in her State. The all-party meet that the Prime Minister convened to discuss the controversial matter – which incidentally yielded no result – should have happened earlier.

Having thrown up the FDI controversy in an apparent bid to prompt the disruption of Parliament, the UPA can now turn around and say that all its defining legislations are becoming victims of Opposition-staged chaos in the two Houses. This way the Government can also seek to ‘expose’ the ‘non-progressive agenda’ of the opposition parties. In fact, this is precisely what the Congress has begun doing. At an event recently organised by a leading economic daily, various Union Ministers slammed the Opposition for disrupting Parliament and not allowing key legislations to be considered. Such was their anger that one of the Ministers even took swipes at Indian business for praising BJP leader and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The context was different but the intent was crystal clear: Discredit the Opposition for the UPA’s dwindling image.

The Ministers at the event also lectured business leaders to stop cribbing and start finding solutions to problems. In doing so, the Ministers in a way placed them at par with the opposition leaders who they allege are forever plotting damage. Corporate India is, like all of us, witness to the games the Congress-led UPA has been playing to deflect attention from its failings. So, will such measures work?

It is true that the BJP has made a laughing stock of itself by opposing FDI in multi-brand retail after having over the years positioned itself as a reform-minded party. But it is equally true that the Congress did not bother to reach out to the main opposition party before announcing its decision on FDI, giving the BJP an opportunity to hit back. Since the Left’s position has been as intractable as ever on the issue, the BJP was the one hope of the Congress. But the ruling party did not think it important enough to get the BJP on board, just as it did not solicit the Opposition’s support in handling Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, depending instead on a bunch of Ministers who were too puffed up with a sense of their own importance to project the humility needed in tackling such emotive issues.

The fall-out of the Congress-led UPA Government’s strategy has been the creation of a ‘mood’ against foreign direct investment in the retail sector, with several key leaders ranging from the BJP to the Left to regional parties, voicing their opposition. The Congress has managed to vitiate the atmosphere by hardening the stand of the Opposition and some of its allies over the issue. This is most unfortunate, because FDI in retail deserves a fair chance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Industry disenchanted with UPA

(First published in The Pioneer dated November 23, 2011)


The winter fashion season has arrived and Corporate India is all dressed up. But it has nowhere to go. There is a sense of despondency, if not utter despair, among its members, many of whom could not resist the temptation of airing their frustration in the open. Inflation is up and growth is down. The rupee continues to depreciate while fiscal deficit is poised to grow. Industrial production has dipped whereas bank interest rates have gone up. Key public sector units are posting losses while the UPA Government throws good money after bad projects that are driven by ever rising subsidies. Current account deficit is growing but collection of indirect taxes has fallen. Trade deficit is rising and agricultural growth has stagnated. While none of these grim situations is irreversible, no one in the Government is prepared to stick his neck out and offer a timeframe when things will begin looking up.

If that is bad enough, worse has come with the recent gloomy statements of key figures in the Government. Chief Economic Advisor to the Union Ministry of Finance, Mr Kaushik Basu has candidly admitted that the picture is far from “rosy”. The Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia has conceded that he erred in projecting the inflation figures – headland inflation and food inflation – that continue to hover in the double-digit range despite repeated assurances that it would be moderated to the single-digit mark. The failed moderation, he added, has raised “questions” over the UPA’s credibility. To top it all, Union Minister for Finance Pranab Mukherjee recently admitted that the depreciation in the rupee will impact growth for the worse.

Just for the record, let us keep in view two projections made by experts across the board: One, growth could hover in the range of 7 per cent to 7.5 per cent during the current fiscal, down from 8.5 per cent in 2010-11. And, two, it is near impossible to restrict fiscal deficit to 4.6 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product during 2011-12, in view of rising fuel prices and the growing burden of subsidy; we may end up with a deficit figure of more than 5 per cent. A third may be added: The rupee is not likely to appreciate very much against the dollar in the coming months, because, among other things, the American currency is getting stronger as a result of the messy Euro.

Corporate India has several solutions to offer. Some are concrete while others are merely aspirational. It is seeking to provide a sense of direction to the Government, though it should have been the other way around. But the corporate sector too is disunited in the hour of reckoning. On the one hand a section is petitioning the Government to intervene in the Kingfisher Airlines crisis. But on the other there are influential voices opposed to any ‘bailout’. If representatives of the airlines industry are demanding a slew of measures like lower taxation on aviation turbine fuel and the flow of foreign direct investments to resuscitate the domestic civil aviation industry, others like Mr Rahul Bajaj have asked market forces rather than the Government to determine the fate of Kingfisher. His scathing one-liner, “Those who die must die”, is, to put it mildly, a radical approach to the problem. Though he later clarified that his comment was not specifically directed at the airline but industry in general, the context in which he said it has not changed. We do not know if the remark has many takers in corporate India, but the aviation sector must be seething in anger since many within in it could soon be in a situation similar to one that Kingfisher finds itself in.

All the same, Corporate India is united in one thing: Its firm belief that the UPA 2 regime has lost direction and purpose in steering economic growth after being hit by a series of scams. The open letter addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by a set of influential people from based in Mumbai and largely drawn from the corporate sector – calling themselves the Group – said the corporate-bureaucrat-power-broker nexus poses “one of the greatest threats to the Indian economy”. The letter, among whose signatories are Mr Azim Premji of Wipro, Mr Deepak Parekh of HDFC and Mr Narayan Vaghul, who is chairman emeritus of ICICI Bank, reflects the desperation of Indian industry at the atrocious manner in which the Government has handled the issue of corruption, sending wrongs signals to investors here and abroad and eventually harming economic growth and expansion.
To that gets added the remarks made by India’s wealthiest man and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) chairman Mukesh Ambani. He joined the growing chorus of industry experts when he urged the Government to push through policy reforms that matched people’s growing aspirations. “The Indian Government needs to work at a faster pace”, Mr Ambani told delegates at the annual India Economic Summit organised by the World Economic Forum and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) recently in Mumbai.
The policy stagnation which the UPA has perpetuated is reflected in Mr Ambani’s observation: “Just because we live in a democracy doesn’t mean that we should feel paralysed.”
These are not stray remarks by stray people but represent the opinion of the Indian corporate sector that is increasingly getting disillusioned with the Government’s inertia. The Government may believe that the corporate figures are looking at the situation from their perspective without appreciating the political and economic constraints that it has to function under, but the fact is that the UPA was until very recently the darling of the corporate sector and had apparently managed to put up a ‘dynamic’ show within the very same constraints that it is now holding as the culprit for the slowdown in its response.

Hit from all sides by Corporate India and in threat of losing out its most valuable support base after the aam admi – who, incidentally, is already preparing to cross over to any one else but the Congress and its allies – the UPA has hastily attempted to present a picture of a ‘Government in action’ by indicating that it would seriously consider allowing 51 per cent foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and open up the civil aviation sector to investments (reportedly with a cap of 24 per cent to 26 per cent) by foreign airlines. The Union Cabinet has also cleared foreign direct investment with a cap of 26 per cent in the pension sector. The Government believes that these measures will reassure the corporate world about its ‘honourable intention’ in pursuing fast-paced reforms. And for those worried by mounting corruption and its impact on economic growth, the UPA is giving the final touches to a “strong Lokpal” legislation.

On any other occasion, such announcements and signals would have invited cheers from the corporate honchos. But they have not, because many of these measures, such as the establishment of Lokpal and permission for FDI in multi-brand retail, have been long overdue and the Government has dragged its foot on them. If it is acting now it is under pressure and not out of genuine conviction. In any case, the damage that has already been done due to the UPA Government’s mismanagement of the economy is of such proportion that it cannot be undone with a smattering of announcements. We have yet to see that ‘push’ which will take our economy to the next level – not of inflation or stagnation, but sustained high growth – and restore the confidence of Corporate India.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Inside Hamas: An insider's story


Son of Hamas
By Mosab Hassan Yousef
Publisher: Jaico Books,
Price: Rs 295

When an important member of Hamas — a terrorist outfit that controls Gaza Strip and is fanatically committed to the destruction of Israel — writes a book, it cannot be ignored. And, it most certainly cannot be brushed aside when the author is the son of one of the founders of the organisation. It is not always that an important Hamas member decides to spill the beans and speak out against the outfit in a manner that would invite not just condemnation from within but also a real threat to life. That Mosab Hassan Yousef gathered the courage to do is an act of valour. But his act also in many ways demonstrates the rot that has set into Hamas that began its journey as a group dedicated to the welfare of Muslims in the midst of an overpowering Israeli presence.

Yousef will have his critics point out that he has betrayed not just the cause but also his religion which is so deeply connected with that cause, because he shed Islam and converted to Christianity. That the religious transformation should have come alongside his growing scepticism of the organisation, the critics would add, is ample evidence of a larger conspiracy by the West to wean away Islam’s committed foot soldiers. But it’s a personal choice that Yousef made, and not in haste. What led to that decision and to his renunciation of militancy are what the book is all about.

In giving up Hamas, terrorism and the religion he was born into, Yousef not just discarded an ideology or a faith, but also snapped an even more personal link — with his family which he adored. His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who arguably remains the most popular leader the organisation has had, was also his idol and mentor, inculcating in him in the early years the virtues of compassion. Until the very end, Yousef never believed that his father had a direct hand in the various massacres that Hamas has been involved in. But the fact that the Sheikh justified the killings as appropriate punishment to the Israelis and those who supported it did confuse him. How could a man who never harmed an insect, he reasoned, condone the killings of human beings? He never found the answer, and that perhaps contributed to his growing rift with the system that he was brought up to believe as being the way of Islam.

Yousef recounts the time when his father was taken away from home for no apparent reason other than being a respected teacher of Islam who lectured the gathering at a mosque on the need for goodness, and released months later, brutally tortured but not broken. The lessons that Yousef learned from the episode were many, the most important being that his fellow citizens and relatives could not be trusted. They fawned over the family when his father was home but turned strangers when the family lived through a financial crisis while the Sheikh was held captive by Israeli forces.

Yousef recounts with distaste the extremism Hamas displayed not just in its militant conduct but also in the personal space. He recollects an amusing incident when fanatic members would bring down a wooden partition in front of the television screen to block viewers from seeing it every time an advertisement came showing a woman without a head scarf.

Yousef also provides a scathing account of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s contribution to the continuing unrest in the region. He recalls, for instance, the time when the Israeli leadership had offered all of Gaza Strip, a huge part of West Bank and the entire East Jerusalem for a proposed Palestinian homeland. It was a deal that had surprised even Israelis who believed too much was being given, but Arafat turned it down. That effectively quashed an opportunity for the Palestinians, Yousef says.

Yousef shatters Arafat’s carefully constructed international image of a peacenik when he remarks, “Arafat and the other Palestinian Authority leaders had been determined to spark another intifada. They had been planning it for months, even as Arafat and (then Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Barak had been meeting with US President Bill Clinton at Camp David. They had simply been waiting for a suitable triggering pretext.” Having met Arafat, attended meetings where he was present and been in the know of things that went on behind the curtains, Yousef’s impressions are not the fulmination of a fertile mind.

The disillusionment became so acute that Yousef accepted an offer to work for Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, as an undercover agent. It was not money that tempted him, nor was it the belief that he would remain forever protected; after all, Shin Bet could not prevent the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Right-wing Israeli radical, despite having the information for a long time. Yousef’s move resulted, however, in two benefits: One, his father was finally safe from the Israelis; and, two, the gates of the West opened up for him. It is a reflection on the depths Hamas and the Palestinian leadership had sunk that Yousef found his Israeli handlers more trustworthy and genuinely concerned about his and his family’s welfare. They also let him go after he decided to quit spying and lead a normal life abroad.

Even as he wrote the book, Yousef felt pangs of guilt for those that he had seemingly betrayed — not the Hamas or the Palestinian cause but his parents and siblings. He confesses to them, “Please understand it was not you I chose to betray, but your understanding of what it means to be a hero... I paid, you paid, and yet the bills of war and peace continue to come.” In dedicating the book to his family and to the victims of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Yousef has shown in his small way the road to peace. The point is: Is there anyone willing to walk it?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Icons can be without glamour too

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated November 3, 2011)


For days after Apple founder Steve Jobs died the media was full of stories of his life, his struggles, his dramatic rise, ignominious fall and a yet again spectacular rise. Both the electronic and print journalism latched on to the demise as the ‘breaking story’, digging up little known facts — if there were still any of the very public Jobs — for its consumers. At the end of the week after he passed away, television watchers and newspaper readers in the country had been fed so much adulatory material that they almost believed he was god of the present times. Even those who had never heard of Apple — there are millions of them in the country — were suitably educated about the way he had changed the world through his gadgets. So, after all this, if you still do not know Steve Jobs and how he revolutionised the globe, something is terribly wrong with you.

There is no denying the fact that Jobs was a genius and in his own way he did bring about a huge difference in the lives of people across the world through his iPhones, iPods, iPads and Mac computers. But to place him on a pedestal — as his over-enthusiastic admirers and some media commentators have — along with the likes of Thomas Edison, is something that would have embarrassed even the cocky Jobs. Next, we will have him on equal footing with Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin! There is a sense of proportion to everything, and when that is disturbed we end up with a grotesque image that does justice neither to the protagonist nor to the sensibilities of those who engage in idolatry. In India, particularly, the over-glorification of the Apple genius is sickening because he has impacted the nation and its one billion plus people in a very fractional manner. How many people use his technological wonders here? And what changes have those gadgets brought to the lives of ordinary Indians struggling for the most basic amenities of life?

The print media was so occupied with the deification of Jobs that it barely had space to inform readers that a truly great revolutionary, Wilson Greatbatch, had passed away. Greatbatch invented the pacemaker which over the decades gave a fresh lease of life to millions of people in the world and opened a new window for further research in medical science. The facility was available to all — from the rich to the less privileged. Yet, Greatbatch died a relatively quiet death. In a nation like India that has a huge number of heart patients, surely the inventor of the pacemaker should rank far ahead of Jobs.

Closer home, days after Jobs died, noted Hindi writer and satirist par excellence Shrilal Shukla (Shukl, as it is pronounced in Hindi) passed away. Some papers grudgingly devoted a few centimetres of news space to the event, but none, barring a handful of Hindi publications, gave him the attention that he so richly deserved. Although he wrote in Hindi, Shukla had transcended the language barrier and become a household name after his widely acclaimed novel Raag Darbari was adapted into a televisions serial. A scathing caricature of feudal exploitation in a typical Indian village, the book and the serial represent India as few others have done, with warts and all. All of the country connected with the story because it was so real, and its brilliantly carved-out characters -some devious, others funny and many pathetic — are to be found in any part of rural India. For the uninitiated so-called urbane Indian, Raag Darbari is an eye-opener and a valuable course in understanding Bharat. It showed up the chinks and what was needed to be done to address them. But for all that, the Jnanpith awardee simply stood no chance before Jobs when it came to media attention.

The power of glamour has always been overbearing, and it has always had the capacity to muzzle every other form of achievement. Let us remember the days of the untimely demise of Princess Diana. The international media went hysterical, almost as if a dozen heads of state had been assassinated in one fell swoop. For days until she was laid to rest and even after, BBC television had nothing else worthwhile to how its audiences across the world. Twenty fours a day we saw and heard men, women and children sobbing with wreaths in their hands, and glorious tributes being paid to her. (Celebrated writer VS Naipaul was moved to later comment that he was filled with shame and disgust at such public display of mourning for a princess.) Of course, there was none of the many controversies that she had been embroiled in following her differences with and virtual separation from her royal husband. For most Indians, she represented glamour more than substance, although she was reportedly involved with a few charitable activities here. In the end though, it was not her work but her dazzling persona, that winsome smile which fetched attention.

If there is any doubt on that score, compare it to the media coverage given to the death of Mother Teresa, who left for her heavenly abode a few days after the princess did. The BBC — and every other prominent media organisation here and abroad — was almost formal, carefully apportioning the pithiest possible space and time in the given circumstance, to her demise. Surely, Mother Teresa’s contribution, to India in particular where she lived and served, was far substantial than Princess Diana’s. Motivated as much by a sense of humanity as by religious zeal, she cared for the unfortunate human being that was discarded by society to die. Unlike in the case of Lady Diana, for whom charity was a means to appear ‘human’ to her admirers as she went about her almost other-worldly royal chores, Nobel laureate Mother Teresa had no point to prove. So, for a glamour-struck society she was no match for the princess.

Should we then conclude that, what moves us the most is what the media presents before us as the most ‘moving’? There is something to say for the impression, because we are indeed hugely carried away by what we see and read. The ‘what is not reported is not news’ maxim extends on other frontiers too. According to a study, more than 2.5 lakh farmers in the country committed suicide between 1995 and 2010. Since the shocking details are unlikely to make it to the ‘breaking news’ category or be sustained as a discussion point in the many television debates, most of us will consider the figures as just another of those aberrational ‘depressing’ statistics that an otherwise booming India occasionally throws up. The tears that flow down the eyes of unknown widowed women and orphaned children due to these suicides do not, after all, provide as much glamour as those shed in the memory of Princess Diana or Steve Jobs.