Thursday, June 25, 2015

India’s darkest hour

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; Great men are almost always bad men.”… The words of Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th- an English politician talking about the monarchies in Europe attaining status of demi gods.

Time and again it has come across in history that great leaders went on to reach a status of total power over their subjects. They were good as leaders, decisive and ruthless against external threats and also with a sense of care and concern for their people. But at some point, the power and sense of judgement turned foes and leaders turn into demons.

Exactly 40 years ago - 25th June 1975 is one such date in the history of unified India- when a democracy went through a phase of Political Emergency with everything and everyone coming under the direct rule of one person- the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A period that might have been the darkest hour of unified India till date.

So why is this even relevant today? Its past, history, dead and buried…. Yes, it is. But what remains to be recalled is how a country can drive itself into doom without realizing the effects till very late. I openly say that I am not a fan of Mrs Gandhi (I’m not Nixon as well) but I do feel that as the 2nd longest serving Prime Minister of India, there are actions of hers (especially post 1971) which continue to affect us even to date. 

Though I was not around when it happened (if I was, I’m sure I’d have been in jail for writing something like this), I have read a lot of accounts from journalists, historians and other who witnessed the drama unfold to help me find understand the times. Not to mention, my journalism classes and “India after Gandhi” by Ramchandra Guha (I regard this as the most in-depth account of India post- independence) to be the basis of my writing.

Mrs Gandhi was not a politician, not even someone who might have has anything to do with the freedom struggle or a nationalist. An estranged daughter of Nehru; she was more like a personal assistant who was not even a member of the Congress party. But the unofficial influence got her to be the Party president in 1959 and a cabinet minister for I&B in the cabinet led by Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. All this while, her party leadership was more of a coy to keep away an ambitious Morarji Desai; the infamous Kamraj Plan. Even on her appointment as the Prime Minister in 1966, the tag of “Moom ki gudiya” did reflect the fact that no one had faith in her abilities to lead India.

The concentration of power started to happen when Mrs Gandhi on being expelled from the Congress due to fall out from the senior leaders, formed Congress (I) and pulling along the entire but 65 members of the existing people in power. Nehru was a Socialist, but his ideology of keeping government away from business was well defined. Indira broke this line and prior to the 1971 elections, 14 banks were nationalized and the allowance to the princely state heads was abolished. This naturally led to a lot of dissent amongst the people, but opportunity presented Mrs Gandhi very soon.

December 1971 and the Bangladesh War saw Mrs Gandhi take the ruthless path against Pakistan and paid no heed to the fact that the US Navy was on alert during the conflict. The fact that even an opposition leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee deemed her as “Goddess Durga” was a testimony to the way she handled the situation. The populist slogans like Garibi Hatao won hearts of the people and the whole country stood behind the lady. With a lot of support, Congress (I) swept the state elections in 1972 without anything given away to the opposition. It had become a scenario where “Indira is India” was actually happening.  But this was possibly where things went wrong and the power structure turned amorphous. Indira Gandhi self- conferred upon herself a Bharat Ratna – much like Nehru.

Failed monsoon, rise in unemployment, rising inflation, the pending expenses of a jubilant but costly war with Pakistan and the state resting with all the powers for finance and wealth; it was just an explosive situation. With her son Sanjay Gandhi acting as an advisor, draconian powers were unleashed on the people. While students and youth came out on the streets following an able socialist like J P Narayan, new leaders like George Fernandes crippled the railways with a strike. Former royalty stripped of their privy purse used all their might against Mrs Gandhi. Adding fuel to the fire was the Allahabad Court verdict regarding election malpractices which dismissed Mrs Gandhi’s membership to parliament.

Was it the romance with power or the fact that you have people’s support behind- not prepared to step down and the social uprising at hand; a Political Emergency was imposed. It was now a crazy circus that was controlled by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi for the next 21 months. What followed was definitely something that I feel was short of the Simon Commission Report.

Ordinances were passed and constitution amended in a manner by which all political opposition was crushed with people suspected of anti-government activity being imprisoned. The press was gagged and power to newspaper offices and presses was shut off. How can one not talk about the courageous R P Goenka printing blank spaces in Indian Express as a mark of protest against the government imposed censorship?

Ruling with an iron fist got a whole new meaning and fear became the currency of the government machinery. Civil liberties were curtailed and with brutal activities like forced population control programmes and dismissal of any state government not in tune with the central power was the biggest blow to democracy. Certainly the darkest hour – and a trauma for all those who saw the worst of it.

I’m happy that such things might never happen again in India. Changes in the constitutional framework have now eliminated the possibilities of an Emergency being imposed unless absolutely critical and agreed upon by 2/3rd of the parliament. Media today is much more deep rooted and India is no longer in a space to be isolated from the rest of the world. The biggest difference – people now have access to ways and means where they cannot be dominated by a force that is suppressing them and anything that is against national interest meets stiff opposition.

But the impact from the days of the Emergency is still around. Dynasty politics is now deeply entrenched in our system. The son-daughter distant relative of a politician becoming a successor is a common thing for today. Also, the feeling that an MP’s relative is above the law is somehow still a law. Going back to privatization of the financial system is still work in progress. There are some other misdoings from the tyrant leadership in those days which led to a lot more complications – but 1975 to 1977 was by far the worst we saw as a nation in terms of a democratic state turn into a pseudo dictatorship. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Argumentative Non-Resident Indian

The cabin of my very first boss in life had a very nice statement printed on a wall behind his back- “If you don’t like something, try to change it. If you can’t; then change your attitude”. I can safely say this was taken on to a very different level by most of my classmates from the engineering days – Don’t wait to find out if there can be a change; it is easier to just change the country you stay in.  These were the people who even before fishing graduation had the dollar dreams and education loans for their MS degree already in place.

Frankly, I have nothing against anyone who chooses to take this way of life. I guess the universities abroad need Asians to fill up their seats as much as they looking to move out of their land. The idea of life for an average Indian looking to settle down abroad is having a house and a car of his own with 24 water and power, good civic amenities and yes- a fair skin wife (firang is the ultimate but unfulfilled dream). It is when the erstwhile Non-residential Indian turns in the Not Returning Indian and the attitude changes.

Just a point of context- a few days back; Mumbai had its first spell of heavy rains for the year. In a space of 24 hours, Mumbai got about 260mm of rain (2400 mm being an annual average) and coupled with the rising tides gave the city a few new lakes for the day. The trains were out of gear and the traffic was at a stand-still. As unforgiving social media is, tonnes of pictures and comments were floating around the network. My engineering college group on WhatsApp was not isolated from it and soon the pictures and jokes started making the rounds. But what also started was some NRI ranting.

“India will not improve, BMC just doesn’t care, BMC has abuses built in its name… take a piss and Milan subway is flooded… etc…” 

Honestly, I don’t give a damn for such ranting as it has been over 10 years I have heard these people complain of how backward India is and we cannot offer basic amenities to its citizens. Frugal arguments like a change in government doesn’t change a nation and 65 years on we still in dark ages are just pitiful in my opinion. But what was massively surprising was that no one from India was complaining or cursing the authorities. Not that we had got used to it and settled in to the fact that things can never change- but we do see ground level activity and can understand grass root problems.

While we claim that people lack civic sense, the BMC now sweeps roads twice a day to maintain basic cleanliness standards at a high level. While storm drains are cleaned every year, the amount of filth that is washed in with rains has private level origins. The challenge to build new infrastructure and replace the aging structure is a tight rope walk. But sadly, we have an ever bursting urban population and cannot control migration. But sadly, the NRI eye catches only what it likes to see and the counter measures are neither appreciated nor observed.

While the argument was on its high, a comment was made claiming NRI money drives India. Is that a fact? I can safely say that most personal investment from overseas is in to residential spaces to make immense of the exchange rate disparity. Most of this population already have properties bought as investments in India and left either vacant or on rent to the residential population. Bottom line- is this money actually helping India grow or is just pushing up the realty prices for the locals making housing more and more expensive? Not to mention, aren’t the investment returns are more to the personal benefit as interest rates and property appreciation is much better in India than in; say US?

In words of Kennedy- it is actually never about what the country does for you; but what we as citizens have to offer. Are we doing our individual bit in helping it change or just expecting a few local bodies to deliver once we have elected them? Politics and corruption are rampant; but do we challenge the system against it or be a part of the same chain? In my opinion; an NRI giving up a lucrative job and setting up something in India, building about a change is always appreciated by people. But these are very few; the ones who don’t mind travelling in public transport. The others are the – jaldi se AC chalu karo variety who just don’t care for the country.

The argumentative non-resident Indian is only just happy to stay in a cozy comfort of their foreign land and critique matters where they don’t have a clue of the ground reality. I don’t have an issue with then; but I do believe that unless you can make a difference, keep it shut.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Manipulation Game

I learnt this a part of economics- The Circular Flow of Income.

Industry produces goods: people buy the goods with their wages :: People work for the industry making the goods: Industry pays people wages.

This was simple and pretty basic. Then there was the government which taxed the people and industry to provide for the infrastructure for both. The next layer was financial institutions which gathered surplus from the wages and loaded it to the governments and industry to bridge gaps and grow larger. In return, people earned interest and bought more goods…. And so the cycle grew larger with a global perspective and international trade come in.  

In an ideal world, we have actually set in motion a perpetual growth system that is worldwide and self- sustained. But somehow this never happens. There is always a rouge element which tries to play folly and break the complete cycle. In most cases globally, a government- industry- financial institution nexus has often played havoc and has left communities, countries and even entire financial structure around the world jeopardised. Enron, the crash of 2008 are just a few examples which have left a mark on global economy.

Living in a world where nothing seems to be robust leaves a lot of gaps for me to think in all the places where greed and instant profits are linked to a scenario that seems a calamity but seems like a cover- up for a larger plot. I can’t help but speculate that sometimes it almost seems like a crisis is being created to manage the financial bearings. When companies issue stocks, they are borrowing from people with the idea of mutual ownership and sharing of profits. When the company buys back their shares; dividend is no longer a liability to be paid. A recent article by Jayant Vidhvauns in a Marath daily drew my attention that this is actually a big possibility. (

Let’s take the recent case of Maggi in India. A legendry brand that’s almost 30 years in existence and stands to take 70% of the instant noodles market. It contributes in the range of 20% of Nestle India’s revenues and is almost a habit for most people who have grown with the brand. We always knew it was not healthy, had MSG and other flavouring agents. So why all of a sudden did one fine morning in June we got alerted? How did this happen to a company that was over exceeding analyst expectations? Why all of a sudden did the share prices fall for a few days and bounce back? Its hard to imagine how many shares might have been bought back by Nestle within the sessions it was running low and how much money was lost by the investors in the process. 

I can’t help but question, is this a planned move to buy back shares in a bid to retain profitability? The company has recovered its shares in the few sessions of panic sale and now the stock is back on track. People have lost money- the company lost nothing. As for its reputation: the entire set of packaged food market with all its competition has gone sluggish; so no loss of market share. The losses in sales are going to be far less as compared to the dividend to be spread amongst shareholders.
Now wait a minute… How did Cadbury’s get worm infested in 2003? Never happened before or after? But that was the time Cadbury got "Delisted" and there was an active buy back. How come Coke had pesticide residues one year and is sharing happiness ever since with no issues? Not to mention the pesticides later got bottles from all the brands and no one lost anything in the market. 

I don’t have enough evidence, study and the understanding to put my finger on things. But one thing is for sure; there are more ways to manipulate and control the business outcomes- especially when big numbers exchange across over a matter of few days. Shares have often been subject to allegations of insider trading, bubbles and scams- but this seems to be a new way that even the regulators might find tough to manage and distinguish as a rouge activity. No matter if you agree or call me a skeptic-  Business today is not just a PnL statement- it is an entire manipulation game. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ever Lasting to Lasting as long as it does….

I recently read an article in the newspapers talking about the expansion joints on the flyover bridges in Mumbai getting worn out and not much being done towards repairs. While this is actually not a one off occurrence, I was a bit concerned as two of them were in around my home. Apart from the fact that I do take them often to go around, they offer a bigger potential problem of traffic snarls for me. (

So even though a part of my concern was the likelihood of inconvenience, it is also to be noted that the flow over at King’s Circle is just a few years old and with no real heavy vehicular traffic, this might actually be due to bad construction rather than wearing due to higher traffic.  Considering I have witnessed some of the flyovers for over 30 years myself and some in South Mumbai have been dated to far earlier, it just brought me to a thought- do we still believe in the ideology of ‘Built to last’? I mean, there was a time when contractors gave municipal corporations a guarantee on its construction, but I believe they don’t make them like that anymore.

But this change in attitude is not limited to large capital projects. I have a desktop which has been upgraded from time to time due to technology getting obsolete. My dad has been using an IBM Thinkpad for 8 years and except for its battery has never had a problem. So has been the case with all the mobile phones I used. Most have lasted 3-4 years and I was forced to upgrade rather than change as the phone I was using had gone bad. Well, that existed until very recent when my first smart phone lost its mind and somehow screwed the motherboard chips. While I’m comfortable with the idea of a new purchase, my parents are seeing it as a sign of splurging.

But that is exactly where the difference in ideology makes its presence most felt. My parents have grown with the “Built to last” feeling deeply rooted. Every bit of furniture used teak and meant to last two generations with minimal repairs until the design loses its appeal in total. That is where some cupboards designed for me as a kid became less of a use as I grew up and felt the space wasn’t designed for my growing and changing needs. And this is not just me; I do see study desks, book shelves and pin- up boards sitting idle that once were hot possessions for my friends and family.

As against this, a colleague of mine bought some very cheap furniture with composite boards last year with a very simple thought- “This will last a few years and serve well until then… possibly the needs with my kids in teens, I might have to redo the room in a few years and Mickey Mouse will be replaced by Miley Cyrus”. I did agree with his point and got a study desk and book shelf that flaunted books rather than hid them behind closed doors. Also, it gave me the chance to look for my room a few years down.

The thought that I am perplexed with is what is driving this attitude of short term planning and change- over of assets. My dad has a car that is a decade old and mine is under 5. But given a chance, I’m looking to change the car and my dad doesn’t even run the thought in his mind. My argument is the car gets outdated while his opinion is that the car should last 15 years until the RTO forces a replacement. Even for capital purchases, my generation seems a bit more comfortable replacing things; in fact if observed, the next generation has an almost instinctive buy and dispose cycle.

My argument got me a response from a friend saying, “You know they don’t make things like they used to make before”. Against it, my car mechanic or electronics repair shop often say , “Iska life ab khatam ho gaya hai sahaab- aur kitne saal ragadoge???”. It possibly is a reflection that idioms like my old faithful, built to last might have run their course. That old mechanical lift in a building in Fort draws an awe; a swanky automatic door lift in a plush new office complex somehow always has an odd shake in between to send down the shivers.

Though I’m tempted to say that possibly the boom of the “China ka maal” mentality has much to play with the change in attitude; one thing is for sure… We no longer crave for ever lasting; it’s now about compromising to enjoy the good as long as they last.