Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Here, ego is bigger than the nation

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 29)


As Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee regularly reached out to Opposition leaders. They did that not only to enhance their personal image of being statesmen-leaders but also to learn from the others and add value to the task that they had been entrusted with. No other Prime Minister has had that quality. Perhaps the other Prime Ministers did not do so because they believed they had nothing to learn from the rest or that they were too insecure to seek guidance, more so from their political rivals.
This is a strange attitude given that the complexities of governing a country like India within the constraints of democracy would require all the advice that an incumbent Prime Minister can get from people who have seen it all and dealt with similar if not exactly the same situations.
But, for Prime Ministers to seek guidance from their predecessors and other senior politicians, requires a level of maturity that is sadly missing in our political system. Excelling in petty politics and scoring brownie points against opponents occupies so much of a Prime Minister’s time that the incumbent leader of the Government simply fails to think beyond these pursuits. Even if a Prime Minister wants to break the glass ceiling, there is no institutional mechanism that can come to his (or her) aid. There is no — official or unofficial — Prime Ministers Club which can meet at regular intervals and discuss the state of the nation, share notes on matters of governance, or simply discuss friends, family, films and books.
By contrast, the United States of America, easily the world’s most powerful democratic country, has an institutionalised Presidents Club comprising former Presidents or whose expertise the incumbent President often draws from in governing the country. Club members meet regularly and keep in touch in other ways all the time. At some time or the other, these members have been bitter political adversaries of one another, often having waged acrimonious campaigns. Yet, those differences are set aside in the larger interests of the country. Remember, the first calls that President Barack Obama made after the elimination of Osama bin Laden were to former Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton — the first being from the rival Republican Party and the latter a fellow Democrat whose wife had challenged him for the presidency in 2008.
The fascinating story of this unique bonding among former American Presidents and the assistance that the club has extended — whenever asked for by an incumbent President — in resolving crucial matters of the state, has been laid out in a wonderfully written book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Americans have the gift of glamour, and this book has been packaged to read glamorous even when it deals with weighty matters of statecraft. Yet, the authors, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, have lent the book a great deal of gravity with material that had earlier not been in the public domain. More importantly, the book offers a deep insight into how politically mature leaders, whether in power or outside, come together when it concerns the larger good of the nation.
The authors cite the instance when Lyndon B Johnson took over the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy. The United States was in turmoil in the wake of the tragedy, and political uncertainty loomed in the air. The first person Johnson (a Democrat) turned to for guidance was his rival, former President and, as the authors say, “his old sparring partner”, Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican). The book quotes Johnson telling Eisenhower, “I need you more than ever now.” The latter then arrived at the Oval Office and “wrote out on a legal pad what he thought Johnson should say to an emergency joint session of Congress.” Can such a thing happen here in India, where an incumbent Prime Minister seeks similar guidance from a former Prime Minister belonging to the Opposition?
Despite having to leave in disgrace after the Watergate scandal broke out and he was panned by his rivals, Richard Nixon remained a most sought after former President for advice by his successors. He was not found wanting. To quote the authors of the book, Nixon told newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1980, “President Eisenhower said to me when I visited him after the election of 1968, ‘I am yours to command’. I now say the same to you.”
There are many instance of the incumbent President reaching out to his predecessors for help and the latter responding generously, regardless of their political affiliation. But there are also examples, even if rare, of Presidents demonstrating a sense of magnanimity, and in the process rising several notches high in public esteem. The authors speak of the controversial decision that Gerald Ford as President took to grant Nixon a pardon over the Watergate issue. The book quotes Ford as saying in exasperation, “Everybody was trying to crucify the guy and I finally said to people, ‘Enough is enough. Pardon him.’ I don’t care on what basis. Enough.” Contrast this conduct of a US President with the manner in which our Governments and its leaders launch witch-hunts against their political rivals with the battle cry, “Finish him!”
Perhaps a ‘Prime Ministers club’ could have gained shape in India too had we leaders of calibre to undertake that initiative. Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover got together to establish The President Club at Eisenhower’s inauguration as President. Since then, the club has had nearly all through the period former Presidents whose services were available to the incumbent President. In India, though, it was not until the mid-eighties that the country was blessed with living former Prime Ministers. Lal Bahadur Shastri took over after Nehru died; Mrs Indira Gandhi assumed office after Shastri’s demise; and Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister in the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. When VP Singh took charge, Rajiv Gandhi was available for advice as a former Prime Minister. But, given the situation then, such an idea was unthinkable.
However, later, on many occasions the Government of the day could have drawn on the expertise of former Prime Ministers Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar. The first two are still around but there is nothing to indicate that our incumbent Prime Minister has ever sought their counsel in matters of governance. Mr Vajpayee is, unfortunately, in no physical shape to offer his expertise, not that the Congress would have been eager to have it.
Both in the US and in India, political rivalries are deep and often acrimonious, and the race for the top position is filled with intrigue and back-stabbing. But there is one big difference that explains the existence of The Presidents Club and the absence of its equivalent in India: In the US, it is the post (of the President) that looms larger than the image of the incumbent to that position, whereas in India personalities are seen as bigger than the position of the Prime Minister. Thus, although Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister, it is Congress president Sonia Gandhi who is the more powerful person. With those like Mr Singh at the helm, how can the Prime Minister’s post be considered with respect, and which former Prime Minister will reach out with any advice to such a weak-kneed leader?
Not that the US Presidents have been infallible. But at least they took their own calls and were not remote-controlled. They made mistakes, and historians will judge them. As the authors say in The Presidents Club, “Historians measure and rank Presidents. But when they take the longer view, Presidents do not just compare themselves to one another; they weigh their leadership against what might have been.”
Now, if only that leadership had been evident in our incumbent Prime Minister to be weighed

Word power missing from today's songs

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 22, 2012)


Lata Mangeshkar (does she need an introduction?) reportedly remarked recently that contemporary music was no music at all. This is not the first time that the legendary singer has slammed the abysmal levels that music in Hindi films has plunged to. Nobody in the film industry has the stature to challenge her statement. Even if some people summon the courage to do so, they would be on a weak ground. Because, the quality of Hindi film songs has indeed gone down over the years. There is no point in trying to refute that by citing the instance of a few good songs here and there, because these songs are mere exceptions. We live in an era of Bhaag DK Bose bhaag and Sheela ki jawani and more.
What makes for a good or a great song? It’s primarily a combination of music, lyrics and voice. When the three seek to excel one another, we have a good song. And, when they submit to one another’s excellence, a great song is born. In either case, excellence is the key. We still have among us truly good singers like Sonu Nigam, Shaan, Alka Yagnik, Richa Sharma and Sunidhi Chauhan. It would be unfair to compare them to all-time greats like Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle, who have become benchmarks and will forever remain unassailable. All the same, these new singers are at least not a blot on the proud legacy that they have inherited. The problem is with the other two elements: Music composition and lyrics.
By and large, both have abandoned the pursuit of quality and are content with creating work which is not just forgettable but also aesthetically offensive. The appetite for excellence that the music and the lyrics of the fifties and the sixties — and to some extent even the seventies — demonstrated has been replaced by a self-consuming desire among today’s song writers and music composers to explore the crassest levels. No purpose will be served in mentioning the names of the perpetrators of what is being passed off as music, beyond giving them the attention that they ill deserve.
Between the lyricist and the music composer, the writer holds the key to a good song. If a song has good music but weak lyrics, it will shine like a meteor and fade away quickly enough. On the contrary, if the music is average but the lyrics of a song are of high quality, that song still has a future. In fact, we have had songs where the orchestration was muted or deliberately underplayed to give full play to the lyrics, and these songs went on to become all-time greats. A good instance is lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s song, Tumse kahoon ek baat paron se halki halki from the film Dastak. Another example is the song written by noted poet Kaifi Azmi, Main yeh soch kar uske dar se utha tha from the film, Haqeeqat.
The three decades of the 50s, 60s and the 70s produced arguably the best songs that Indian films have had to date. Those were the years of giant poets and lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nissar Akhtar, Shailendra, Rajinder Krishan, Hasrat Jaipuri, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Neeraj and Shakeel Badayuni. Try counting the number of quality lyricists of today and you will run out of them after the mention of Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. There is simply no one. And remember, neither Gulzar nor Javed Akhtar belongs to today’s generation.
Far from being poets, today’s song writers are not even true lyricists. They have such a pathetic repertoire of words that they are simply unable to express effectively what they wish to through their songs. But it’s not just the very limited vocabulary which is a problem. It’s the lyricists’ apparent insincerity in and shallowness of expression that has prevented them from writing meaningful songs. There was a time when every word in the song mattered and was carefully crafted by the song writer. However, lyrics in contemporary songs have become mere fillers, because their writers are feather-weights.
When Majrooh wrote, Hum hain matay-e-koocha-o-bazaar ki tarha, uthti hai har nigah khariddar ki tarha for Dastak, there was much consternation that the song would sink because nobody would understand the lyrics! But Majrooh stood his ground, and for all its lyrical complexity the song has gone down as a classic. Besides, it became a rage among listeners who excitedly worked to decipher the meaning.
A similar domination of the poet-lyricist is evident in Ye mahlon, ye takhton, ye tazon ki duniya/ ye insaan ke dushman samajon ki duniya/ yeh daulat ke bhuke rawazon ki duniya/ ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai from Pysasa. Many film aficionados believe this to be the best song written by Sahir Ludhianvi. Whatever the opinion may be, it remains a fact that only a genius could have penned those words. To expect something even distantly similar from the current generation of lyricists is to grossly overestimate the calibre of our so-called song writers.
But songs do not have to be always as obviously profound to be good or even great. Shailendra had mastered the art of blending poetry with lyrics so deftly that his profundity almost went unnoticed. For example, what compels the listener into complete submission when he hears Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar/ chithiya ho to har koi baanche, bhaag na baanche koi/ karamwa bairi ho gaye hamaar, is the simplicity of the words. Yet these words are also deeply philosophical. And, as philosophical yet simple is another song of the lyricist, Sab kuch seekha hamne, na seekhi hoshiyari/ sach hai duniyawalon ke hum hain anari.
A similarly nuanced play of words is seen in lyricist Rajinder Krishan’s song, Aaj socha to aansoo bhar aaye/ muddate ho gayeen muskurayee from the film, Hanste Zakhm or Sahir’s Main pal do pal kar shayir hoon, pal do pal meri kahani hain/ pal do pal meri hasti hai, pal do pal meri jawaani hai from the film, Kabhi Kabhi.
Lyricists of today, who believe they are churning out ‘intense and romantic’ numbers in keeping with modern trends, must look to the works of Shakeel Badayuni — in fact they need not far beyond his just one film — Mughal-e-Azam — to learn what ‘intense and romantic’ poetry means.
Like in the case of Shailendra, simplicity of expression combined with the depth of understanding has become the hallmark of Gulzar, who is among the greatest living lyricists — many would say he is the greatest. He first broke fresh ground with his song from Bimal Roy’s 1963 film Bandini, when he wrote, Mera gora ang lai le/ mohe shaam rang dai de/ chhup jaaongi raat hi main/ mohe pi ka sang dai de. He must have been in his mid-twenties then. Gulzar continues to straddle the film world to this day, and his lyrics have evolved magnificently over the decades, becoming even more meaningful and deep.
The success of his song, Dil to bachcha hai ji/ thoda kachcha hai ji, from Ishqiya, released recently, demonstrates that good songs can be written and appreciated and accepted by the audience in modern times too. Those writers who justify their mediocre and worse work on the claim that the audiences ‘like’ shallow stuff are merely seeking to justify their incompetence. As the 80s set in and Hindi film lovers began to be tormented by insane lyrics and mindless music compositions, the development was justified with the same argument that the audiences wanted something ‘new’. Perhaps so, but the listeners had definitely not asked for nonsense. Had they been happy with what Bollywood was dishing out, ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh would not have rose to prominence during that very decade with his largely non-film ghazal albums.
If song writers cannot deliver quality, they have themselves to blame for it. They must stop pointing fingers at the listeners, whom they torture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aamir Khan shows mirror to society

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 15, 2012)


The problem with success is that it spawns an industry of cynics and carping critics who cannot see the balloon soar. They will punch at it and try to puncture it. They seek glory not in inflating the balloon but in deflating it. And they eagerly wait for such occasions to come by. Actor-producer Aamir Khan has given these critics one such opportunity through his recently launched television serial, Satyamev Jayate. Though not all the criticism of the show has been negative, a lot of it has been just that.
On a television talk programme that was devoted to Satyamev Jayate — in itself a confirmation that the serial had made a power-packed impact in its very first episode — an elderly social rights activist slammed Aamir Khan’s venture as mere “entertainment”. She questioned the tears shed by the participants who were discussing female foeticide. She also wondered how one such programme could eradicate the social ill when those of her kind had been unable to do even after decades of struggle.
It is shocking that a social rights activist who has studied the issue from such close quarters by interacting with victims and perpetrators of female foeticide should be so insensitive to the real stories that Satyamev Jayate presented. What did she find ‘entertaining’ in the cry of a woman who was tormented by her in-laws and husband because she had given birth to two daughters? Or in the fact that many family members who tortured women into aborting girl children were highly educated and financially well-off? Or the visual footage of female doctors in Rajasthan caught in a sting operation nonchalantly asking a ‘pregnant’ woman to dispose of her girl child, in which they would be only too willing at a price to help?
The social activist on that television show indeed had a strange understanding of what ‘entertainment’ is all about. And, as for the tears, they have indeed helped the programme enhance its ‘emotional’ appeal. But those tears were actually genuine and not glycerine-induced.
The social activist’s concern that programmes like Satyamev Jayate or celebrities like Aamir Khan can hardly make a difference in the fight to eradicate deep-rooted social evils such as female foeticide is a result of mixed-up argument. She has been working in the field for several decades and yet female foeticide is rampant in the country. Has she then failed? Should she then halt her campaign, because even she has not been able to make any significant impact? This is ridiculous logic. Aamir Khan has not claimed nor must he have been under the impression that his one episode will bring about mammoth change. But change comes when there is awareness in the people, and Satyamev Jayate has aroused that awareness. It is now for activists and other stakeholders including the Centre and the State Governments to seize on that awareness.
Aamir Khan did not have to do this programme. He is doing it apparently because he strongly believes in this sort of a contribution to society. He could have produced a routine soap serial that would have drawn large television rating points and fetched him more money. Or he could have set up a tobacco firm or a plastic manufacturing company. We must compliment him for using the reach and impact of television to spread a social message. But, again, we have the critics carping that Aamir Khan is getting funds for and making money by exploiting the plight of people.
One of the panelists on the talk show mentioned earlier referred to this criticism. Non-Government organisations are said to be working in various areas ranging from health to education to child care to women’s empowerment. Are they not funded? Are they not accountable for the manner in which they spend the money and the results those spendings fetch? Satyamev Jayate is a commercial venture, and so there is nothing wrong if the makers of the programme are focussed on earnings or on accountability in spending. The important thing to keep in mind is that they are not just focussed on the earnings but also on the purpose of the programme. You cannot do much with an empty cash box, can you, however lofty your thinking is?
Moreover, isn’t it too early to talk of Satyamev Jayate being a commercial blockbuster? It’s just two episodes old and the jury is still out on its commercial prospects. It remains to be seen to what extent the programme will be able to sustain the existing audience and add on new viewers. In that sense, Aamir Khan has taken a huge risk, and that fact is getting lost in the din of criticism against him. If he succeeds, he is condemned as a mercenary, and if he fails he is ridiculed as a pseudo-activist. But, let’s be fair to him and acknowledge that, either way, he will have attempted something that has been worthy of praise.
Thankfully, Aamir Khan is far from getting swayed by the negativity. The second episode of Satyamev Jayate highlighted the rampant cases of child abuse in the country. A survey conducted in 2007 by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in collaboration with an NGO in more than a dozen States found that more than half of the children surveyed reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. In 50 per cent of such instance, the exploiters were known to the child or were in a position of trust and responsibility. Should we then compliment the actor-producer for taking up the issue or condemn him for ‘exploiting’ the tragedy of abused victims?
There is some merit in the suggestion that Aamir Khan must not allow politicians to bask in his glory and score political points. The suggestion emerged after the actor met Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with a petition seeking action against those accused of female foeticide in the State. While Mr Gehlot used the occasion as a welcome photo-opportunity, the fact remains that his Government has done nothing over the years to punish the accused. Government doctors who had been caught in the sting operation continued in their posts, with some being promoted even, according to the journalists who had conducted the sting operation.
But look at it in another way. Politicians like Mr Gehlot have not really gained mileage with Aamir Khan’s visit, but they stand further exposed by such a visit. It’s as if the actor-producer is saying, almost mockingly: “Here I am, seeking justice from a Chief Minister who has done nothing so far to bring the culprits to book. Will he have the courage to act now?”
It’s a question the actor-producer will need to ask more people more often as he proceeds with his programme.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Supreme Court proposal to fight graft gathers dust

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 8, 2012)


Many politicians in the country are quick to complain about ‘judicial overreach’ every time the Supreme Court makes observations on the policy conduct of the Government or its various arms, or compels the Government to act in a particular manner. But there are also instances where the apex court has been less than intrusive, merely advising the Government to frame guidelines on matters that concern the well-being of the people. What has been the response of the Government in such cases where the court has played the role of a benign guide rather than that of a stern schoolmaster who is determined to humiliate his student in full public view? The Government has either dragged its foot on those recommendations or simply forgotten about them. And so, when the Government (and in many cases the entire political class) behaves in this fashion, does it not prepare the ground for a concerned citizen to knock the doors of the court and seek redressal?
Let’s take a recent instance to demonstrate how callously the Government deals with recommendations of the Supreme Court on a matter that has direct relevance to the empowerment of people in a thriving democracy such as ours. In a civil appeal of Subramanian Swamy versus Manmohan Singh and Another relating to sanction for the prosecution of Government officials under Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, the apex court had on January 31 ruled that any private citizen had the right to seek sanction of the authorities concerned for the prosecution of a Government servant under the Act. This has now become a binding verdict. But what the court said next was equally important. It asked — recommended, advised, suggested: Call it what you may — the executive to frame guidelines to ensure that the Government responds within three months (with a grace period of another month) to the request for sanction. The rules should also provide that, in the absence of a response in the stipulated period, sanction will be deemed to have been granted. In other words, the private citizen can initiate the proceedings to prosecute if he does not receive a response latest in four months from seeking such sanction.
The Supreme Court was thus careful in not stepping into the domain of the executive, leaving the Government to frame the relevant rules. Yet, even more than three months after the verdict, there has been no apparent movement to implement the recommendation. It is difficult to understand what the delay is all about. It may be that the UPA regime is caught in many more important issues such as the Budget Session of Parliament and the forthcoming presidential election. But the Government has so far not even shown any inclination to bring forth the amendments required to the anti-graft Act and secure the approval of Parliament, wherever needed, for those amendments. That the UPA is dragging its foot only demonstrates its reluctance to bring in greater accountability in fighting corruption.
Every time there is an inordinate delay in getting the sanction, two things generally happen: First, the accused gets away because evidence is washed off over a period of time and the case collapses. Second, the proceedings against the accused are quashed by the courts. Justice AK Ganguly, who was one of the two judges on the Supreme Court bench which gave the January 31 verdict, had pointed out to this travesty of justice. He said, “There are instances where, as a result of delayed grant of sanction, prosecution under the Act against a public servant has been quashed.” He illustrated his contention with the case of Mahendra Lal Das versus State of Bihar and Others, in 2002, where the apex court had quashed the prosecution as the sanctioning authority had granted sanction to prosecute after 13 years! He gave another example of the court quashing prosecution proceedings on a similar ground of delay in sanction in Santosh De versus Archna Guha and Others in 1994. Taking strong exception to such delays, Justice Ganguly observed, “The aforesaid instances show a blatant subversion of the rule of law. Thus, in many cases… public servants are being allowed to escape prosecution.”
He then added, “Parliament should consider the constitutional imperative of Article 14… where due ‘process of law’ has been read into by introducing a time limit in Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 for its working in a reasonable manner.”
But the UPA Government appears little concerned over the continuing subversion of the due process of law and seeking Parliament’s attention. What is worse is that the absence of a time-limit to grant approval for prosecution has given the sanctioning authority the leverage to manipulate issues. Justice Ganguly minced no words when he said, “This has virtually armed the sanctioning authority with unbridled power which has often resulted in protecting the guilty and perpetuating criminality and injustice in society.”
Justice GS Singhvi, the other judge on the bench, had in the same vein referred to the celebrated Vineet Narain versus Union of India case of 1998, where the court had mandated that the response to a request by Government agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation for sanction of prosecution must come within three months of seeking such sanction. Since that directive already stands, all that the Government has to do is to frame rules to ensure that the same time-limit is followed when a private citizen requests approval for sanction to prosecute a public servant.
The hesitancy of the Congress-led UPA to empower citizens to prosecute Government officials has largely to do with its own misery. It is neck deep in corruption charges ranging from the 2G Spectrum scam to the Commonwealth Games irregularities to the Adarsh Housing Society scandal. The last thing it would want now is an awakened citizenry armed with the powers to seek prosecution within a set time-frame. The disgraceful manner in which it had tried to block Mr Swamy’s claim as a private citizen to seek prosecution of a Government servant (in this case former Union Minister for Telecommunication A Raja) betrayed its determination to keep people away from questioning the Government’s dubious deals and seeking prosecution of the accused.
The Attorney General, appearing on behalf of the Government, had desperately tried to justify the failure of the Prime Minister to adequately respond to Mr Swamy’s request in 2008 for sanction to prosecute Raja, by stating that the question of granting sanction came only at the stage when ‘cognizance’ of the offence has been taken. Both the judges categorically dismissed this contention.
The court pointed to a 2009 three-judge bench ruling in a case where the bench had held that, without sanction the “very cognizance is barred.” In other words, it makes no sense to take ‘cognizance’ if it is not accompanied by sanction to prosecute. The Supreme Court had also trashed the Attorney General’s various other submissions on the ground that they were “contrary to the scheme of Section 19 of the Prevention of corruption Act, 1988.”
It is clear that the sole intention of the UPA through its submissions was to somehow block private citizens from being armed with the power to seek approval for the prosecution of corrupt Government servants. Now that the UPA has failed it its motive, it is delaying as much as it can the next enabling step: To frame rules to codify the time-frame for granting such approvals.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What ails India

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 6, 2012)

Author: Ruchir Sharma
Publisher: Penguin
Price : Rs 599
Ruchir Sharma says there are a handful of countries that in the coming years will break away from the pack of emerging economies and surge far ahead of the rest. He, however, believes India has a 50-50 chance of being a ‘breakout’ nation, writes RAJESH SINGH

Ruchir Sharma is possessed with great persuasive skills. If he didn’t have them he would not be the trailblazing investment banker that he is. (He heads Emerging Market Equities and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.)
In this greatly publicised book that he has written and which has taken experts and lay readers by storm, he throws around statistics with the easy authority of a punter who has spent a lifetime laying bets and getting them right most times. He uses the material to persuade you into buying his theory, or at least considering it with respect. He believes that there are a handful of countries that will in the coming years break away from the pack of emerging economies and surge far ahead of the rest. Also, there are nations whose economies will stabilise, if not stagnate, at far lower levels than over-the-top optimists have projected.
For the Indophile, Ruchir offers mixed hope: He believes that India has a 50:50 chance of being one of those “breakout” nations. And, based on the distillation of all the impressive material that he has gathered over the years, he comes to a few startling conclusions, going to the extent of indicating that BRICS is really a sinking ship. But, as he rips apart established perceptions and questions conventional wisdom on the growth of ‘emerging’ economies such as Russia, India and China, Ruchir offers a philosophical emollient: He quotes scientist Antoine Lavoisier, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”
The author discusses the coming transformation for a clutch of countries which possess those emerging economies. His analyses are interesting not just because they are based on experience and hard facts but also because he refrains from being politically correct and is stridently unrepentant about his views. He seems to say: Consider them as a wake-up call for course correction or ignore them and pay the price that many countries have after being in a similar situation.
On why he is hesitant to be more endorsing of India’s growth potential, Ruchir is clear-headed. Although he does not subscribe to the view that everything about the country’s economic rise is an illusion — like the Great Indian Rope Trick — he finds many problems in categorising India as a “breakout” country. One of them is erratic political decision-making. He points out that, while India does not have a “command and control” economic system in place that places the state in charge of even micro-management of business, the political structure of the Congress which manages the country’s economy is very much the ‘command and control’ type, where all decisions are taken by a clutch of people that comprise the so-called high command. We all know that in the Congress’s lexicon, ‘high command’ essentially means party president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi.
The author takes a gentle swipe at the situation when he remarks, “The Gandhis have demonstrated a great capacity for reinvention over the years, such that many see 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi as the contemporary face of India.” The resultant undermining of central leadership, he remarks, has led to States being more powerful and to some extent making it more difficult for New Delhi to “champion breakthrough reforms”. He adds, “Indian is again starting to look like a commonwealth of States with distinct identities and waning national conscience.”
But, politics aside, the author points to two very specific factors that he believes are not good for an economy such as India’s, which aspires to be among the world’s top three in the coming decades. The first is the UPA Government’s populist but wasteful schemes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the second is the rise of crony capitalism. The two by themselves may not be the principal contributors, but they are indicators of what is going wrong with the economic thinking of the Government. He reminds us that “welfare schemes (he is referring to the likes of MNREGS) create a perverse incentive for villagers to stay on the farm”. Such measures, he warns, “backfire against economic growth because it involves running up deficits”. He backs this contention with the fact that over the past five years Government spending has grown “at a 20 per cent annual pace, much faster than the economy”. Ruchir explains that, while the Government can get away with such deficit spending when the going is good (although even then such spending is not advisable), it is suicidal to do so when the economy is slowing down. Unfortunately, the basic logic that the author lays down does not seem to have percolated down to the UPA Government.
Crony capitalism is being much talked of today in the country. The author has a simple formula to address the issue: Keep track of the list of billionaires and the billions that they are making, and you get a fair idea of the direction in which the economy is heading to. He remarks, “This information provides a quick bellwether for the balance of growth. If the country is generating too many billionaires relative to the size of its economy, it’s off balance.” And this lack of balance, he adds, can lead to stagnation and the growth of crony capitalism. Is this what we are seeing in India? Going by Ruchir’s hypothesis, we have some reason to worry. In 2000, no Indian figures in the world’s top 100 billionaires; now there are seven. The author says this is more than in all but three countries: The US, Russia and Germany. China has just one and Japan none.
But more important than the numbers is the manner in which these people have made their money that will show if crony capitalism has been at work. Like Ruchir says, if all that wealth has come largely from Government patronage rather than “productive new industries”, it points to a disaster for the economy. Moreover, if there is no ‘turnover’ in the list of billionaires, it means competition is slacking and the hold of crony capitalists is growing. Ruchir points out that “nine of the top 10 Indian billionaires on the 2010 Forbes list are holdovers from the 2006 list, while the 2006 list had only five holdovers.” Of course, this can also be interpreted as the success of Indian billionaires to consolidate businesses and stay ahead. Perhaps a deeper study of the phenomenon can unravel more conclusive material, either way. But, cronyism is not limited to capital; it also extends to the country’s politics. Ruchir quotes from a 2010 book by author Patrick French, to point out that “every member of the Lower House of Parliament (Lok Sabha) under 30-year-old was a hereditary MP”. Also, “in the ruling Congress the situation was more extreme: Every Member of Parliament in the Congress under the age of 35 was a hereditary MP”.
After rattling the senses, Ruchir leaves the readers with a prophesy sounding like that of Nostradamus. In his final chapter titled, ‘The Third Coming’, he concludes the following: One, “China’s looming shadow is about to retreat to realistic dimensions”; and, two, “it’s impossible for countries like India and China to break out when expectations exceed the maximum possible growth rates of the relevant income group”. If all of this seems like an obituary of the world’s favourite emerging markets, the author doesn’t intend it to. His book informs, fascinates, shocks and outrages. And, yes, it does also warn without sounding pessimistic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Crony politics and weak leadership

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 1, 2012)


Something bad is happening to the Great Indian Dream. Fewer people now than a year ago are talking of the country as the next economic super-power. It may be premature to write an obituary, but the temptation is there. Many experts believe that the country’s economy has slipped into a coma. Can it revive? And, soon?
The bad news for India is coming thick and fast. Standard & Poor has downgraded the rating for the country’s economy from “stable” to “negative”, Moody’s has called the UPA Government a “drag” on the economy, the International Monetary Fund has expressed strong negative sentiments, foreign investors are jittery with the constant shifts in fiscal and taxation policies, Indian businessmen are increasingly looking offshore to expand their businesses because they believe doing business in India is getting increasingly “difficult”.
In the midst of all this, the economy continues to falter. Annual growth has been pegged down at a modest seven per cent from the earlier expectation of eight to nine per cent; inflation at close to seven per cent remains a constant source of concern; fiscal deficit is unlikely to be contained at the projected 5.1 per cent of the GDP; and subsidy bill continues to soar (with food subsidy alone expected to be at an annual two lakh crore rupees). Yet, the Manmohan Singh Government continues to be profligate, allotting large funds for wasteful schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the National Food Security Act. Worse, due to the rank mismanagement, the Government has failed to get its allies and the Opposition on board on crucial issues such as foreign direct investment and goods and service tax.
Why have we come to such a pass? The Government is led by an ‘economist’ Prime Minister who is credited with unleashing fiscal reform in the early nineties as Finance Minister; the incumbent Union Minister for Finance is the Cabinet’s senior-most and most experienced hand with a sound understanding of economic matters; the Prime Minister and his Government utilise the services of economic advisers that have tremendous experience and credentials; the Planning Commission is headed by a Deputy Chairman who too is a well-established economic mind and who almost became the Finance Minister. Still, things are going wrong. Why?
Clearly, for an answer, we have to look beyond the numbers and to politics and leadership. If power flows from the barrel of a gun, the gun that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has is malfunctioning. Or it has run out of ammunition. Or the gun is in reality a toy-gun which is every now and then used to scare the Opposition and the errant partners of the UPA. But the gun does not scare anybody anymore. What is scary is the dizzying speed at which the Government is losing direction and purpose and taking the country down. The UPA regime will not last forever; it will probably be voted out in the next election. But what will last for a long while is the messy legacy that it will leave behind to be cleaned up by its successor. The Government that comes in next will begin on a grim note, happy though it will be at assuming power.
The symptoms are many, but the disease in one: A weak leadership. American politician Stewart Udall had said, “We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.” In the case of Mr Manmohan Singh, there is no scope of confusion. He neither has power nor greatness. He is not the first Prime Minister to faces crises. Jawaharlal Nehru was constantly badgered by his critics within and outside the Government. But he dealt with them firmly. What eventually did him in was the disastrous war with China.
Mrs Indira Gandhi constantly battled challenges to her leadership and triumphed. She even split the Congress to assert her leadership, took bold political decisions and never ducked under pressure. Defying international pressure, she presided over the country’s first nuclear test, won the war with Pakistan in 1971 and helped liberate Bangladesh. She made a come-back from political wilderness in 1980 and paid with her life for clearing the Golden Temple of militants. By sheer leadership skills and moral stature, Atal Bihari Vajpayee deftly managed the country’s first truly coalitional Government, without allowing frictions to come in the way of economic growth.
Mr Singh is the weakest Prime Minister that we have had. Even Mr Deve Gowda and Mr IK Gujral took important decisions despite being fettered by the limited political space they commanded. As a short-term Prime Minister whose tenure was at the mercy of the Congress, Chandra Shekhar displayed rare leadership quality and had the courage to call the Congress’s bluff. He preferred to step down rather than be that party’s puppet. Narasimha Rao, who began with a minority Government, kicked off economic reform, brought peace to terror-struck Punjab and demonstrated that it is possible for a Congress leader to govern the country without enjoying the patronage of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
So, what ails Mr Manmohan Singh? Like his mentor Narasimha Rao, Mr Singh is hobbled by the loyalists of the Congress’s first family, but, unlike Rao, he has succumbed to them. If Mr Singh no longer is his own man, how can we expect him to effectively lead the country? A weak leader does not possess the moral authority to impose decisions on others. His colleagues refuse to listen to him, and even occasionally ridicule him. Policy decisions are arrived at and soon enough disbanded or deferred because the leader does not have the strength to stand by them. Because the leader is directionless, the people he leads too become that or set of in various different directions. Once such a stage is reached — as it has now — there is no turning back.
It can be argued that the Prime Minister is not all that weak and lacking in self-esteem. Did he not show spine when he threatened to resign if the India-US civil nuclear deal was not approved by his party and Parliament? Did the Congress not win the 2009 Lok Sabha election by projecting him as the prime ministerial candidate? But what happened to that ‘self-esteem’ and strength when he was compelled to continue with A Raja in the Cabinet even after the latter was found deeply involved in the 2G Spectrum scam? Or when a junior Minister of State defied his directive to visit the site of an accident? Or when he had to give that same defiant Minister a Cabinet rank later?
A weak Prime Minister has given rise to stronger State-level leaders who have suddenly discovered that they can push their agenda more forcefully with the Union Government. There’s nothing wrong in having powerful Chief Ministers, but it’s certainly a matter of concern if we have a weak Union due to a supine Prime Minister. Mr Singh has had eight years as Prime Minister to develop from a drab bureaucrat to a striking politician. If he has failed in that task, it’s probably because he simply does not have it in him. Lal Bahadur Shastri had asserted his leadership in a fraction of the period that Mr Singh has had at his disposal.
But there is another equally plausible reason: Mr Singh is a beneficiary of ‘crony politics’. Like crony capitalism that feeds on state patronage to generate personal wealth and in the process creates little for society that is long-lasting, crony politics involve favours extended to light-weight politicians by established family names. Such light-weights  leave no positive legacy behind. Everyone, for instance, knows that Mr Singh is the Prime Minister because of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s munificence and not because he won the position. He is a beneficiary of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s largesse. How can he then assert his leadership?