Archive for March, 2013

Muddled Mental Maths

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

Mail Today, 2 March 2013

You are Bruce Wiilis. OK, your star days are far behind you. You now act in films called “The Expendables”. You look back at your career and there’s nothing really other than the Die Hard series, and Sixth Sense, whose director has since steadily descended into utter mediocrity, and a walk-on role in Pulp Fiction, which is anyway all about Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta—no one even noticed that you killed Travolta in the film. So you decide to do a film called A Good Day To Die Hard 5, because, really, there’s nothing more to do other than cash in on tired frabnchises.

You are Palaniappan Chidambaram. You have maintained a sterling image as the great reformer. Your 1997 Budget made you the most beloved Finance Minister in history for the Indian TDS-ridden middle class. You can in fact take credit for reversing the tide of the two previous two atrocious Budgets presented by your current boss, Dr Manmohan Singh, which plunged the country into a recession-like situation. So now you have this Die Hard-situation on your hand. Economic growth is slowing, your predecessor, who now lives in Rashtrapati Bhavan, has presented Budget after ruinous Budget that belonged to the 1970s and the early 80s. In the meantime, you were Home Minister, and presided over the worst Maoist violence India has ever seen. And no you have a situation here, but you have the role that you’ve always liked the best, Finance Minister.

The economy’s growth is slowing, and anyway everyone now knows that it’s jobless growth, inflation is high, industrial growth is down, foreign investors aren’t interested any more, the current account deficit is alarming, and credit rating agencies are just waiting to downgrade you. Plus, this is the last Budget before the next Lok Sabha elections, and that lady out there is more socialist than her mother-in-law and has no other aim than to be stay in power by buying votes. Forget about the Prime Minister. He is a hologram (I watched the Budget with a buch of kids who are going to be practicing journalists in a few months from now. Whenever the Prime Minister was shown on TV, there was a burst of laughter. I am not joking.).

So you presented a Budget. Like Bruce Willis, I am sure, you crawled through air-conditioning vents and dirtied your singlet. But why was there nothing in the Budget that indicated any vision, any long-term perspective, any hint at policy? Even your election-aimed populism was a bunch of lies and lame promises. You increased expenditure on various social sector schemes, but that increase was over Revised Estimates (RE), not last year’s Budget Estimates (BE), and you have (quite rightly), cut government spending dramatically in your six months as PM, so the REs are actually Rs 63,000 crores below the BEs! You weren’t spending much more, really! You were just pretending!

And even this much money which you have promised to spend, where is that money going to come from? You have not raised tax rates by any significant amount, so you are actually banking on the GDP rising by at least 7 to 8 per cent in the coming fiscal year. And there’s nothing in the Budget you have presented that encourages growth in any way! The stockmarkets, which have always loved you—and you have always focused on getting the Sensex to rise with your Budget—the stockmarkets have unambiguously told you what they think of your poorly worked out exercise.

Yes, it’s poorly worked out, because your arithmetic is obviously fudged.  How did you expect that that won’t get noticed? Of course, your cleverness has never been in doubt. But this time around, you may have been too clever by half. You have my sympathies of course. You had too many constituencies to please. Too many objectives.

Pretending to present a populist budget was the most obvious one. But you also wanted to please Nitish Kumar, and agreed to redefine “backward areas” (a nod to Nitish Kumar’s demand for “special state status” for Bihar). You even pandered to Mamata Banerjee, and in the very first paragraph of your Budget speech, made a veiled reference to the Gujarat model of development.  Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi last month seemed to have had a greater effect on your government than we imagined.

So, the Modi impact on the Budget is vague talk about vocational training and skill development for the youth. And meaningless promises about women’s security, and a hilarious proposal for an all-women’s bank. What are the objectives, the goals of a Rs 1,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund? Why do we need an all-women bank? A poor man and a poor woman has equal chance of getting a bank account opened (whichis, very low, and may Aadhar flourish and change the situation). Also, banking is one of the few industries where women have done marvelously! At least three of the 10 most respected bankers in the country have XX chromosomes! This sort of thing is ridiculous, and only makes sense when you think of a certain Chief Minister who came to Delhi and charmed the hell out of everyone. Is this what we should be wasting our money on?

To be fair, I fell asleep a few times while Mr Chidambaram droned on. For the first time in his distinguished career, he matched the sheer boringness of other Finance Ministers who have subjected us to this unavoidable annual exercise that draws us lemmings to the television screen. He even quoted from Thiruvalluvar. Give us a break, man!

And the fudged maths? Chidambaram is a win-win situation. It won’t matter whether his maths fail or not. The elections will happen, and if the Budget projections work out, great! If they don’t, no one will be noticing, by the time the next Budget comes round, even if it’s presented by him again. Bruce Willis has again got by—the simple truth is: never overestimate your audience’s intelligence.

The enduring agony of a soccer fan

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

Mint, 27 February 2013

The Union Budget is upon us, and I feel this pressure as a former business journalist to write about it, speculate, suggest, proselytize, comment, bore. So I won’t. There are better men than me, doing it with sincerity, a sense of purpose and much greater knowledge and insight. The irresponsible wastrel that I am, the truth is that while all good men were worrying about the Budget and the future of the economy and such lofty things, I was spending my time in bed, airports, planes and hotels reading British author Nick Hornby’s 1992 book Fever Pitch. It’s about his life as an Arsenal fan. And I don’t even follow soccer actively any more.
I bought the book off the net by accident, because I enjoy Hornby’s novels, and assumed that this too was one. But when the book arrived, I read the back cover blurb with growing discontent: “Nick Hornby’s devotion to the game has provide one of the few constants in a life where the meaningful things—like growing up, leaving home and forming relationships—have rarely been as simple or as uncomplicated as his love for Arsenal.” I was disappointed; I knew nothing about Arsenal Football Club, other than the fact that they are referred to as Gunners (for obvious reasons), but what the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound, I decided to try to read it.
By the time I reached page 27, I was hooked, and I am someone who hasn’t thought about Mohun Bagan for, like decades. The moment I learnt that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal has the same corporate owner/sponsor, I lost all interest and stopped following the fortunes of my club. It made no sense any more. Something died. But, as Hornby writes (on page 27): “Loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something that you were stuck with. Marriages are nowhere near as rigid—you won’t catch any Arsenal fan slipping off to Tottenham for a bit of extra-marital slap and tickle, and though divorce is a possibility (you can just stop going if things get too bad), getting hitched again is out of the question.”
My generally happy, untraumatic childhood was marred by only one thing. I was a Mohun Bagan supporter, and every friend I had, rooted for East Bengal. It becomes even stranger when you consider the fact that my ancestors are from East Bengal (Bangladesh) and both my parents were Partition refugees. But my father was a Mohun Bagan supporter, and these things just get handed down the male line. I had no choice, I was given Mohun Bagan. I was told about its great victory in the IFA Shield Final in 1911, the first Indian team to win the tournament, and how it was a huge thing for Indian nationalist pride and a centrepiece of the independence movement, then centred around Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal on religious lines. As the Mohun Bagan captain left the ground, an elderly Brahmin came up to him and said: “You’ve taken down a British football team today. When will you bring that down?” And he pointed to the Union Jack fluttering over Fort William, the British cantonment in Calcutta. I was eight or nine years old, I fell for it, hook, line sinker. It was patriotic to be a Mohun Bagan supporter.
The trouble was that, in those years, Mohun Bagan always lost to East Bengal. Every time. East Bengal had an amazing run from 1970 to 1975. They won the Calcutta League, they won the IFA Shield, the Durand and the Rovers Cup, and everything else in sight. In 1972, it won the League without conceding a single goal through the season! Arun Banerjee, the goalkeeper, perfectly shielded from all untoward incidents by an awesome defence line-up, was photographed leaning against the goalpost and yawning while a match was on. He became known as Bhagabaner bachcha—Son of God—because he was a mediocre goalkeeper who just happened to be at the perfect place at the perfect time.
In 1973, when Mohun Bagan took the lead for the first time in a game in four years, through a superb shot from 35 yards by Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar, it just started raining like mad, and the match was abandoned. We lost the replay. The same year, East Bengal centre-forward Subhash Bhowmik fell (that’s what one would like to believe) on Mohun Bagan captain Shankar Banerjee. Banerjee’s legs were smashed, his football career effectively over. Fights broke out in the stadium as the poorly refereed game went on. At the end of the match (my team had obviously lost), Ghosh Dastidar walked up to the referee Bishwanath Dutta, and struck him a mighty blow on his nose. Ghosh Dastidar was arrested, and he never played again, but he had also ended Dutta’s refereeing career. He had crushed Dutta’s nose, and bone fragments had got into his eyes, affecting his vision irreparably.
The final blow came in 1975, when in the IFA Shield final, East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 5-0. Several fans committed suicide. Listening to the match on the radio, I wept.
Ok, I suppose I have made the point. Which is, it was a very tough time to be a child fan of Mohun Bagan in Calcutta in the early ‘70s. Three or four times every year, the teams would play each other, and all those evenings, I would just stay cooped up in our apartment, hearing all my friends celebrate, crackers going off, knowing that I was only postponing the jeers till next morning. Oh yes, children are merciless, and they were more merciless to me, who was an ethnic East Bengali and supported the team that represented the Ghotis, the West Bengali untermensch.
But I had no choice. It was never a possibility that I would change my allegiance. Every year, at the beginning of the season, we would follow the news with avid interest, as the clubs made clandestine offers to players, and hid them away in secret ‘safe houses’, and produced them at the last minute to sign the contract for the rival club. Players were imported from across India, and then from abroad. When I was 18, I started going to the Mohun Bagan ground and watching matches. The language all around me was incredibly abusive, and also incredibly funny. Being a football fan was hardly about admiration and worship. It was about anger, pain, being let down, about promises unkept. Fandom was about rage and disappointment, and it was all astonishingly invigorating. And it involved being frequently chased by brutal horse-mounted policemen for no reason at all.
All we did in the stands was abuse the players of our team. In every match, whether we won or lost, we knew that they had let us down. We should have got more. And we kept going back and abusing—helpless prisoners to obsessions we had no power over. There were players who never left Mohun Bagan, whatever amount of money East Bengal offered them—Compton Dutta, Subrata Bhattacharya. We abused them much less. For we knew that they were the true guys, the guys on our side.
I have been now out of touch with Indian football for 20 years. The whole league system has changed, there are strange foreigners playing for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Even the team jersey colours—that most sacred of things—have changed. I can’t imagine going and watching a football match again in my lifetime. I have no idea who the current stars in Mohun Bagan are. But when my father told his unsuspecting child that to be a fan of Mohun Bagan was the patriotic duty, because of something the team had achieved in 19-bloody-11, he had carved something into my DNA.
Come to think of it, I can possibly change everything about me, but I can’t change the fact that I support Mohun Bagan. It’s a relationship that I was chained to in childhood, and even though we haven’t met for so many years, she is mine, and I am hers. When I think about this, the only apt reaction seems be a string of four-letter words, but I can’t do that here. So, let’s just say, I accept this fate. Because I have no way out.