Archive for September, 2012

It’s Not the Economy, It’s The Botany

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Mint, 20 September 2012

I learnt a lot last week from the Prime Minister’s speech.
I have only the vaguest of memories of botany from school texts. So it definitely increased my knowledge base and improved my mind when I learnt that money does not grow on trees. However, what gave me greater joy was that our Prime Minister—and presumably at least some of his cabinet colleagues—had also now come into possession of this valuable information. Obviously, their record of the last some years proves that they did believe that money was some sort of fruit or foliage—and not a very rare variety either. This piece of data uttered in a flat mumble by an alarmingly motionless anthropomorphic figure on our TV screens may just be that secret that was more heavily guarded in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II than the Da Vinci Code and now it’s out in the open. I am waiting gleefully for the next EMI-chasing thug to call me. I have just the right answer for him, sanctioned at the highest level.
I also learnt that diesel is used in India mostly by rich people to run their big SUVs. This, I think I have correctly surmised, is a very significant comment on our political class. As a former business journalist, I keenly watched traffic on Indian roads for many years, because my editors had told me to keep a hawk eye on how the economy was moving. I have empirical data to prove that among all professions, per capita SUV is highest among politicians, especially when they visit their constituencies or are campaigning. For example, I have never seen our top young politicians go anywhere other than in a big SUV, followed by another three or four diesel-guzzling beasts. This is what the PM meant: Politicians are rich, they ride SUVs. The opposition is clearly barking up the wrong tree (oops, botany again) as they gripe about the diesel price hike hitting the common man. It is actually Manmohan Singh’s stiletto offensive against political profligacy. Even corruption. Now all those shady politicians will have to drive to those coal mines that have not been mined, leaving Mother Earth unspoiled, in Maruti Altos. Serves them right, too.
In fact, the Prime Minister went further than that. He said he had not raised petrol prices so that the millions of Indians riding scooters and motorcycles would not be hurt. This is, of course, a reference toRahul Gandhi sneaking through police cordons and reaching the villages of Bhatta and Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh, riding pillion on a motorcycle, to protest against cheap land acquisition. If he had not left his SUV behind for this intrepid journey, he would never have discovered that 72 people had been murdered by the police and their bodies burnt and buried in a giant ash heap. Yes, this proved to be rather far from the truth, and the Congress lost the assembly election at Bhatta-Parsaul, but it cannot be denied that there is less chance of finding corpses if you are in an SUV than on a two-wheeler. In an SUV humming with industrial-level air conditioning, you can’t get the smell. On a two-wheeler, you can.
Our Prime Minister has always been understated in his—er—statements. So many of us have missed this clarion call to politicians to go easy on the king-of-the-road lifestyle. This Gandhian suggestion, if followed, will surely have an impact on the electorate’s perception.
There are other lessons to be learnt, too. His reference to the dire situation we found ourselves in in 1991, and the implication that we could be heading towards that stage again. What a frank confession! I see all those angry men and women in those boxes on the TV screen shouting that it is his government—the UPA government—which has brought our economy to this pass. Has the Prime Minister denied it? And I can bet you my entire contribution to the fiscal deficit that he will not deny it, not utter even half ashairi to say that these allegations are false. His 2012 quota for speaking is over. Or as they say in some other language, finito.
Also, he has been taking action. First, he punished his former finance minister by making him a Padma Vibhushan, a clear reference to the lotus flower, or the world of flora—plants and trees. But the man didn’t get the hint. So he has now been summarily dismissed to the post of the President of the Republic. There are thousands of trees on the President’s Estate. He can spend his days studying them, and regretting ever giving the Prime Minister and his cabinet a false botanical interpretation of economic policy.
And the final flourish: if some money does grow on trees, there will be now cold-storage chains to see that it doesn’t rot. All financed by greenbacks. Greenbacks? Was that word the root of all the confusion? Or did it stem from something else? And made saps of us all? “Sap”, too, I remember now, is a botanical term.

Rama, Reforms and India

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Mint, 14 September 2012

Having been a journalist for two decades, it’s quite natural that I never do anything until I can feel the anxious warm breath of my editor on my shoulder. This was the one week when I found that I would be very busy, so it made sense to write the Mint column ahead of time and keep it ready in advance. Also, there was much to write about. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had indulged in a frenzied 24-hour burst of “reformist” activity. So, I wrote my piece on Monday, three days ahead of schedule, and went about my business.
Famous last words. I’m never now going to start writing till five minutes before deadline.
These “reforms”, first. (And when will we stop using that weighty term for mere policy announcements? Surely “reforms” convey something more basic and far-reaching?) P. Chidambaram, returning to the finance ministry, had sent out just the right messages. Investors—both Indian and foreign—were calming down. The stock markets, which have always been fond of the sultan of the suave veshti, were rising. The express train—whose headlight had been the light at the end of the tunnel—was appearing to slow down. And then even Kumbhakarna seemed to open his eyes and raise his head a bit from the pillow.
In the Ramayana, Ravana’s giant brother was considered pious, intelligent and brave (hmmm, does that remind you of someone?). He performed a major yajna for Lord Brahma, who was pleased and dropped by, with the usual bagful of boons. But when Kumbhakarna tried to ask the Mr Big for indraasana (the seat of Indra, the king of the gods), the goddess Saraswati sneakily tied up his tongue, and it came out as nidraasana, a bed to sleep in. When he tried to ask for nirdevatvam (annihilation of the gods—the Devas), it came out as nidravatvam (sleep). Mr Big granted his requests and teleported back home. However, brother Ravana figured out that the boon had actually turned into a curse and convinced Brahma to take a re-look. So Kumbhakarna slept for six months of a year and was awake for the remaining six.
Readers can find their own metaphors in this tale—who Brahma could be in the UPA, who Ravana could be, and so on.
It should also be noted that, just as Kumbhakarna was woken up when external forces—led by Ram—attacked Lanka, these “reforms” have happened more due to the threat of global credit rating agencies downgrading India to junk status, than any other reason. So it’s the foreign menace—Ram in the form of suspicious rating agencies and increasingly disinterested foreign investors (and—should we say it?—damaging reports in foreign media like Time and The Washington Post) that has forced the government to act. The people of Lanka had shouted themselves hoarse, but that had hardly disturbed Kumbhakarna’s slumber.
And now comes Mamata Banerjee. This is a politician who knows nothing other than to oppose. Who she’s opposing doesn’t matter—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the National Democratic Alliance, the UPA, some poor cartoonist; the reasons don’t matter. In fact, the word “reason” should be uttered cautiously around her. Her career has been built on destructive politics—much of it obtuse and negative. It’s no wonder that she has made a total mess of governing West Bengal once she came to power. She represented “change”, and the people of Bengal have been left wondering if it was a change for the better.
The Union government will not fall. Instead, Banerjee, whose state government is completely dependent on Central funds, will preside over her state, using the Centre vs state logic, which the Left Front under Jyoti Basu used so cynically and effectively in the 1980s to keep West Bengal’s economy deprived, and its people focused on a bogey. Meanwhile, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who urged her up the ladder and coolly walked away once before, on the Presidential candidate issue, will gleefully carve out his pound of flesh for the Samajwadi Party and Uttar Pradesh. Isolation will make Banerjee more furious and defiant, give her more of a martyr complex, and every nook and cranny of West Bengal will be blasting ceaseless Rabindra sangeet from street corner megaphones. Ekla chalo re, one can safely predict, will be in the Top 10.
In the Ramayana, waking up Kumbhakarna before his sleep time was up had been a monumental task. A thousand trumpeting elephants had to be paraded on his tummy before the giant muttered the Lankan equivalent of “Eh, whazza time?” In India 2012, however, it seems quite certain that the elephants will be called off and Kumbhakarna will turn over and go back to sleep. It’s frightening to see how every political party is trying to outdo each other in paying brazenly disingenuous lip service to the “interests of the poor”. No party—including a large section of the Congress—gives two hoots for either a long-term perspective or the national economy. “The government can roll back a bit on diesel price and LPG cylinders, but they can hardly roll back the FDI in multi-brand retail,” I earnestly told a friend who firmly believes that the entire Indian political scenario is a big joke. (Please read his blog at Shovonc.wordpress.com). “Why can’t they?” he asked. “What face will they have left?” I said. “What face do they have now?” he responded, raising one eyebrow.
I retreated in confusion, and have just placed an order for M. Veerappa Moily’s 1,700-page exploration of the Ramayana.