Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Where we stand

Where we stand
By Narendra Luther

Robert Orme was a civil servant of the East India Company in India in the 18th century. He wrote a history of India called ‘Historical Fragments’ which was first published in 1782. In that he observed that two English sawyers did the work of 32 Indians. For his calculation he made allowances ‘for the difference of dexterity and the advantage of European instruments’. He went on to say that had the Indians been given the instruments used by the Europeans they would have scarcely been able to wield them.’ In modern terminology he was saying that the productivity of an Indian was less than seven percent of a European.

This may sound preposterous today when we notice the great demand for Indians abroad particularly in the field of IT. Only the other day a friend of mine, who is a well - known consultant told me that he attended campus recruitment in the Cornell University in the United States. He found that the American companies gave first preference to Indian students, second to the Chinese, and the last to Americans. But we have to compare the productivity of Indian in India with that of the European or American in his own country. According to my observation, the Indian productivity is very low. It is due largely to the lack of availability of tools which impart greater efficiency to the hand than that wields them. Most of our workers are still in the ‘craft’ stage. In other words, they depend upon their individual skills and the use of hand without supplementing them adequately with tools. Our labour is cheap because it is poorer in quality.

The Craft System

Some time ago when we were having our house painted, the workers covered their hands and faces with rags. In Europe and America their counterparts would use overalls for the body and gloves for their hands. The latter are imported from India and under prevalent regulations, they have to be discarded within a fortnight. Again, to paint the outside walls the contractor made a sort of platform and hung it with ropes from the top. The workers stood, sat or lay on that depending on the demands of the task and painted the walls. Four or five workers standing on the roof manipulated the platform. I looked at that spectacle and prayed for the safety of the workers. I also wondered how that sort of work would have been done in Europe or America. There, they would have had power- operated ladders or crane and workers would have been fully clad with paint-proof clothing and gloves for their hands. The painting would have been done mechanically and the whole job would have taken half a day for two men, compared to half a dozen men working for five days here.

Currently, I am getting more insights from watching the construction of a neighbour’s house. The steel rods for making pillars are cut by a chisel and hammer. Then two workers jump with their bums on the rods to bend them. Some of them are children not yet in their teens. It can be dangerous and can hurt them – and passers –by.

For the construction, the existing parapet wall about three feet height has to be demolished. Two young boys do that with hammers hardly bigger than what I have for driving nails in the walls. From the last ten days they are breaking the mortar. I have seen that sort of thing being done mechanically with giant hammers in two or three hours. We discussed this and it was argued that it was cheaper for the contractor to do the way he was doing it than to use some machinery of equipment to demolish it quickly. My calculation showed that it could be cheaper for him to do it mechanically.

Productivity & Capital-intensity

He can improve his productivity by improving the quality of the tools given to his workers. With improved productivity he can utilize his employees better. He can thus earn more and do the jobs faster. Productivity entails capital-intensity to begin with. But in the long run it pays its way. A recent study by McKenzie showed that the productivity of a Chinese worker is three to five times that of an Indian. It is worthwhile studying how they were able to achieve that standard since today we are in competition with China.

In the first half of the last century, the American genius Buckminster Fuller said about the American house building industry that it was like ‘manufacturing’ your own car in your garage by assembling different parts bought from different shops. He suggested the concept of pre- fabricated housing. According to that, main parts of the house including walls and windows and floors etc., are prefabricated according to a standard design. They are then brought to the site and the house gets ready in no time. He also suggested the concept of what he called a ‘dymaxion’ car and a ‘dymaxion’ house. His concept of the geodesic dome is well known. It can cut off the sun and rain and provide a hall without pillars. The concept has been used on a limited scale to house exhibitions. He said that he could cover the whole Sahara under a geodesic dome and make it more habitable and productive.

BPO ‘Islands’

We have however to see how productivity can be increased in small items of work and in small pieces. Productivity is not only better time-management, but also use of better implements. If that is done the inglorious equation of Robert Orme quoted above can be annulled if not reversed. If our Indians have shown better productivity abroad it is largely due to their ability to use the same tools which their counterparts do. Even in India we have islands of BPO where young men and women are performing better because they are cheaper in real terms than their counterparts abroad. Such island need to be multiplied and replicated in other fields and integrated with the ‘mainland’ so that our overall productivity increases. In our BPOs the same people are working who earlier did not appreciate the virtues of punctuality, value of time and the importance of self-confidence. In the new islands they are trained to appreciate the elementary virtues. The new names given to them are symbolic in more than one way. They virtually change their identity and set in motion a new ‘’virtuous cycle’.

Such attitudes need to percolate down to our contractors, labourers and lowest level workers who live in their own time capsule and cling to their orthodoxies. For example, they observe long period of mourning and celebrations because that is their inherited and prevalent culture. They can improve only if they know that the cost of such luxuries is loss of job. Those who are better placed and can set an example can provide a ‘demonstration’ effect.

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Monday, November 1, 2004

Let them do it

Let them do it
by Narendra Luther

In administrative and managerial jargon the term ‘delegation’ occurs very frequently. It is recommended for good management in all textbooks. A good leader is one who delegates responsibility. That makes his burden lighter and helps the mangers under him grow. Every CEO makes it a point to stress in public statements and endowment lectures that delegation has been a key to his success. In a good organization the top man does not waste his time on small decisions. He concentrates on policy formulation -- that is, determining the direction and speed of the march of his forces.

What is Policy?

In the field of public administration, policy is concerned with issues. For example, it means deciding, whether we should have controlled economy, or adopt the free market approach. It may grapple with the issue of laying down the limits of foreign direct investment in various sectors, and whether we should accept the provisions of W.T.O.

Similarly, in the corporate world policy may decide whether a company should go in for diversification or stay rooted in its ‘core competence’. It would determine whether a company would concentrate on domestic market or venture into the world for exports. It may also mean deciding whether it should go alone, merge with a rival, or acquire it.

In public administration, the theory is that man on the spot knows the situation best. So he should be allowed to take appropriate decisions. He will learn by that. No doubt he will make a mistake here and there, but that is part of the process of acquiring experience and maturity. The government and corporate manuals lay down the authority of various functionaries in a hierarchy. The top people should deal with broad issues, not with the nitty gritty.

What is Power?
But in real life, power lies in small decisions. Policy is an abstract, amorphous concept. The examples of issues mentioned above don’t constitute raw power. That power lies in recruiting people for jobs, in transferring employees from one place to another. It lies in allotting work to a particular person or party – in deciding who will do what. Within the frame work of the Pubic Distribution System policy, for example, power lies in selecting beneficiaries, in choosing areas where to start the implementation of the scheme.

In the corporate world power lies in choosing a franchisee, in releasing or withholding quotas, in making purchases from particular suppliers. Negatively, it also lies in being selective in attending to service calls.
In theory, these functions are delegated to lower functionaries. But in actual practice top people poke their nose into them. I haven’t seen one person who practises delegation. If you have, let me know.

The Boss’ Wife

Once I was a deputy secretary in a Union ministry. My boss, a Joint Secretary asked me to appoint a particular person as a driver in a temporary vacancy on ad hoc basis. A fortnight later the Minister sent someone for the same job. My boss coolly asked me to sack the earlier appointee and employ the minister’s man. I suggested he should might tell the minister that the job had already been filled up. He gave me a piece of advice which I never forgot. ‘The minister is not supposed to get interested in small jobs but most probably this man has approached his wife. Now if he is not accommodated, he will go back to the Minister’s wife. She will then taunt her husband who was the boss? - He or the deputy secretary? That will hurt his ego and he will have it out with me - or you. The boss is always right. Don’t antagonize him’. So, the minister’s replaced our man.

Strictly speaking, it was within my jurisdiction to fill up the job. First my boss broke the boundary, and then the Minister.

CM’s Son-in-law

We hear ministers quite often say: ‘What is the use of becoming a minister if I can’t appoint an attender?’ They are generally not interested in policy matters which should be their preserve. Policy initiatives thus come largely from civil servants and go to the credit of ministers!

As managing director of a public undertaking, I had set up committees, amongst others, for recruitment at various levels in accordance with prescribed rules. So the cases of recruitment to lower were decided by a committee without reference to me.

Once a son-in-law of the chief minister rang me up to find out whether a particular person had been selected for a lowly job. I said I would not know. The result of the selection would be put up on the notice board after the concerned committee had made the selection. He asked me threateningly whether he should ask the chief minister. I replied that he could do as he pleased.

I was transferred after a weak of this incident. Only a few days earlier the chief minister had specially rung me up to say that he was very happy with my work.

Coming to decentralization in administration, once the late President, Sanjeeva Reddy, when he was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, said in an address to senior officials that he was surprised at a situation in which he could be trusted with a budget of 1000 crore rupees, while his younger brother who was a sarpanch, could not be trusted to handle 50,000 rupees!

While the state governments complain against centralizations of functions by the union government, they are loath to empower local bodies. It took four decades to devolve some functions on local bodies under the Constitution through 73rd and 74th amendments in 1993. Yet the state governments have dragged their feet to vitiate the spirit of the amendments.

The Calibre of Panchayats

The local bodies don’t seem to be morally equipped yet to exercise power. Orthodoxy, casteism, and corruption seem to be entrenched in those bodies. I don’t say that they are not there in our higher legislatures. But there is a better chance of exposure there. We have seen recently the case of a panchayat members participating in an honour killing because a young woman had married a man from another community. In another case, the Panchayat let off a rapist with a small fine. More recently, a village Panchayat in Haryana ordered the annulment of a marriage of a couple because they belonged to the same ‘gotra’. It asked the husband and wife to live as brother and sister and to abort the fetus that the woman was carrying. The High Court, on the basis of a PIL had to intervene to stop the implement of the decision. Would these cases have come to our notice but for the exposure by the electronic media? The local tyranny is the worst.

I am a strong votary of delegation and decentralization. I believed in the old saying, ‘Panch mein Parmeshwar’ (In Panchs, there is God’). But the cases mentioned above have made me wonder whether I am right
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Sunday, August 1, 2004

Peacock and the Dragon

Peacock and the Dragon
By Narendra Luther

India became independent in 1947. Two years later, the Peoples Republic of China came into being ending decades of foreign domination and exploitation.

Comparisons between the two great Asian neighbours were inevitable. While India was a democracy, China was a totalitarian society. China had a centralized state economy; India had a mixed economy. Whereas there was an established system of data collection for economic planning and the publication of its results in India, China was closed to the rest of the world. One had to rely upon the figures given out by the official agencies. It was quite common for many intellectuals in India to highlight the poor performance of India as compared to China.

Around that time one of my friends, Virmani, a Climatologist in ICRIASAT (International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Topics) located at Hyderabad went as member of an official delegation to China. On return he told me that an average agriculture graduate was about four years behind ours in his knowledge of the subject. The reason was that China had closed all contacts with the outside world and did not let even knowledge of advances made in science penetrate the country.

The Four Modernizations

The myth of China’s greater progress was exploded in 1978 when its leader, Deng Xiaoping launched the program of ‘Four Modernizations’. They were to cover agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. The goal was to make the country a relatively advanced industrialized nation by 2000.

One of the methods of accelerated development adopted was the creation of ‘Special Economic Zones’. Four such Zones in small coastal areas were established in 1979 to promote economic development and introduction of advanced technology through foreign investment. Special preferential terms and facilities were offered to outside investors in taxation, land-use fees, and entry and exit control for joint ventures, cooperative ventures, and enterprises with sole foreign investment. These SEZ’s were given greater decision-making power in economic activities than provincial-level units. Since then, their number has increased manifold. The Stock Exchange, which was closed by Mao Zedong, was opened in 1992.

Comparison with India

Post- Modernization, once again people started making comparisons with India and again China was shown as overtaking India. Lately, we have seen our markets flooded with goods made in China. Fears have been expressed that it will kill our manufacturing industry.

When a topic becomes hot, it lands up in seminars and workshops. It was therefore appropriate for the Economic Forum at the Indian School of Business to pose the question ‘Will the 21st Century belong to India and China?’ to an International Conference last month. It was attended by prominent business leaders, academic scholars from abroad, and, amongst others from India, a member of the Planning Commission.

A study done by Mackenzie quoted there noted that the growth of per capita GDP since 1990 had grown to 2407 in India as compared 3829 in China. The share of manufacturing and the GDP in 1999 was only 6% in India compared to 19% in China. The Chinese manufacture - and exports - comprises largely bicycles, toys, leather goods and computers. The increase in growth of manufacture in China was largely due to increase in productivity which was three to five times that of India. For example where as an Indian worker produces three pairs of shoes per man-day, the Chinese production is eleven. The growth in manufacture is not due to exports as is commonly believed, but due to domestic consumption. The average per capita consumption of consumer goods in China is three times that of India. Prices of consumer goods are cheaper by 14% in the case of motorcycles to 53% for DVD’s compared to those in India. The study pointed out that lower prices where not due to subsidy and marginal costing but because of fundamentals like lower indirect taxes, lower import duty and lower interest rates. It rubbished the myth that the Chinese products are of poor quality. If that were so they would not be such an increase in exports particularly to quality conscious countries like the United States.

China has also attracted more foreign direct investments than India. The lesson from Mackenzie was that a reduction of prices of consumer products would increase the market. There is a need for reducing import duties to 10%, introduce VAT and to reform labor laws. These measures will improve employment and raise exports considerably.

The Prospects

John Talbott, currently consultant at the Indian School of Business, provided the antithesis to this analysis and approach. He believes that the statistics given out by China are not reliable. In China, he said that nobody could publish statistics because he would be jailed for revealing ‘state secrets’! China is a repressive dictatorship. Only eight countries rank lower than China in political freedom. Even Internet access in China is restricted. There is an absence of social benefits and of regulations on pollution. China’s military expenditure is high and will outgrow that of America in a decade. He therefore thought that China was a poor model for development.

China today is the manufacturing hub of the world; India the IT platform. The Asian Development Bank believes that India would catch up with China by 2020. The FICCI View is that by 2050 China would be the largest economy of the world followed by U.S and India.

The Indian Constraint

There was general agreement that India’s greatest handicap is lack of proper infrastructure. For that FDI should be encouraged. However the left parties which today constitute an important ally of the ruling coalition at the Centre are opposed to it. The Common Minimum Programme of the ruling United Progressive Alliance talks about the imperative of consensus on these critical issues.

Management experts per se need to develop a greater appreciation of the context in which the economy operates. China and India represent two different, contrasting models of growth. India is a democracy where there is debate and dissent arising out of diversity and pluralism. The constraint of democracy is compounded by the compulsions of coalition. Democracy provides for opposition in the legislature; coalition brings it into the political executive. That retards further the speed of decision-making. A dictatorship, suffers from no such handicap. It also lacks a system of feedback to provide for a corrective mechanism for mistakes in time.

Our reforms will have to start with politics because that constrains economics. If we can lay down that only parties with a clear-cut majority will rule the Centre and the States we will have removed the greatest obstacle in the way. That will strengthen the establishment and relieve it of its constant search for a consensus beyond the bounds of the parliamentary system. The difference between the two countries is symbolized by the peacock, which is our national bird, and the dragon which is China’s traditional mascot

Next time there is a debate of this type of topic, I hope to see some political scientists, or better still, some active politician to moderate it.


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Thursday, July 1, 2004

Of Sand and Dates

Of Sand and Dates
By Narendra Luther

Last month six of us -- poets and writers -- visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Hyderabadi community there. With an area of 2.2 million square km, the country occupies 4/5th of the Arabian Peninsula and is strategically located. It has one-fourth of the proven oil reserves of the world. Its gas reserves are 4.2% of the world's total. It is endowed with minerals also. There are 600 sites for gold mining alone, besides other base metals.

It has a population of 20 million. The male population at 54.3% heavily outnumbers the females. About one third of its population comprises foreigners -- the largest being Indians. Amongst Indians, Malyalis number about half-a-million. A close next to them, people from Hyderabad number about 400 000. They cover the entire range of jobs, from the highly qualified to the non-skilled.

We visited Riyadh the capital, and Jeddah the port city.

American City

Riyadh is a modern well- planned city on the American pattern. It has grown rapidly in recent years and now has a population of 4.7 million. There are tall multi-storey buildings and super markets some of which are open 24 hours a day. We saw no camels there; only limousines. Large mansions of the local people with closed forbidding gates can be seen in most places.

In Riyadh the State Museum is worth seeing for its architecture, its landscape and the highly sophisticated manner of presentation. Saudi men wear their traditional dress while women are in burqua. Women are barred from driving alone. They must have a close male relation with them.

Korea and China have flooded the consumer market. The traffic is well regulated. No cops are visible; yet no one jumps the red light. On the whole it looks like an American city transplanted there. In Riyadh there are the Hyderabadi quarters called Hara. The lower middle class of Hyderabadis lives there. The bazaars and the chaos and confusion of traffic of Hyderabad are replicated here.

Jeddah is both a seaport on the Red Sea and an airport for the Muslims going for Haj and visiting Madina, the holy city. It is therefore the most cosmopolitan city of the country with a population of 2 million. It has a beach with recreational facilities spread over a distance of 20 miles, called Corniche.

The City Never Sleeps

The azan – call to prayers -- is made five times a day and all business must come to a stop. Shops are closed for the duration of the period of the namaz. The religious police enforce this rule. The siesta time is between 12 to four PM. Apart from these breaks, there are no closing hours and the city never seems to sleep.

The people of the Hyderabadi origin are generally well of and occupy important jobs in business and government. Surprisingly, some of them have relocated from America were they were holding good jobs. The reason for that is that there is no tax in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, at the same level of compensation, the take-home pay almost doubles in Saudi Arabia.

However, every expatriate is not rolling in money. The driver from Rajasthan who one day drove me to the city told me that he earned one thousand Rials (equal to Rs. 12) per month). In that income, he could not afford to keep his family there. Rent alone would be 400 Rials. There are others who get even less. The Bangladeshi attendant in our apartment was getting only 400 Rials – half the official minimum wage. Jobs like airhostesses are done by Filipinos.

No public meetings are allowed in the kingdom. Indians, used to open meetings, rallies and procession have to get used to a rigid discipline. All our functions were held in the auditoria of the Indian Embassy School, or of the Embassy. In Jeddah one function was held in the auditorium of a hospital and the other in a hotel.

Everyone must carry an identity card or a passport. Every time we came out of our rooms some made sure that we carry our passport because you can be asked to produce them at any time.

High Regard for Indians

Indians are regarded highly compared to Pakistanis. The latter have on occasion been involved in cases of smuggling contraband items. Both live in segregated areas and generally don't mix much. In Jeddah, for example, a road constitutes an informal border between the Indians and Pakistanis. The Saudis too don't mix with expatriates.

The Problems

All expatriates miss their homes. I suspect the invitation to us was a part of the attempt to relieve that feeling of homesickness. They seemed to feel good to listen to poetry, prose and jokes from the homeland.

Because of the large number of children of Indian origin the government of India has opened a number of Indian schools under the embassy in all major cities. These schools follow the Indian system and examinations are held by CBSE. The problem for the parents arises when the children have to go for higher education. Those who are well of send their children to America, Canada or England for higher studies. Others send them back home. That necessitates a split in the family leading to enforced and prolonged abstinence on the part of couples. The hen that lays the golden egg stays abroad. The wife may get gizmos – and the old in-laws to look after.
That leads to family tensions – and in some cases, depression. As one of them put it to me, 'We don't get a chance to see the children grow'. Some of them asked me whether some solution could be devised for providing for higher studies for children of Indian origin.

The third problem arises out of the new call for 'Saudiization' because of unemployment amongst the local people. As more and more Saudis are returning from abroad after acquiring higher qualifications, Indians face retrenchment. There is therefore an air of nervousness particularly among the lower- skilled.

While many Hyderabadi stayed have there for twenty-five years and over, a few have acquired the Saudi nationality, which is not easy to get. Every Indian dreams of coming home to start a better life with the earnings from petro-dollars. Some low - paid Indians there raised this point. People back home expect them to finance their 'conspicuous consumption' in lavish ceremonies thus frittering away their hard-earned savings in avoidable indulgences. They want to construct houses in India while working there so that when the time comes they can come to a home. One of the points made by them was whether the government could allot some land -- and even build houses for them. Some of them have been duped by unscrupulous people in this regard.

I felt good in seeing the Indian community doing well and being regarded highly by the host country. However, if only half the opportunities were available back home, they would gladly come back and contribute their mite for their own country – if only they could. Meanwhile, could we do something to solve their problems?


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Saturday, May 1, 2004

The Great Churning

The Great Churning
By Narendra Luther

The heat and dust of elections is over. We have a new government at the Centre, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. This is the first national government of the new century. The results were full of surprises. The NDA coalition did not expect to be beaten so badly. The Congress did not expect to do so well. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh was expecting to get a new term though the Congress seemed to equally sure of throwing him out. And that is what happened.

Numerous analyses have been made. Let me give you mine. The first is beware of politicians because they never die. How many people whom we had written off have risen from their graves as it were? Patience is a virtue in politics. After all we have to choose from those who stay on.

Naidu's' defeat

Remember Lord Acton's maxim: power corrupts? One way of doing that is by making the holder of power blind. After a while in power one stops seeing things as they are . Those who are in charge of showing things do not do so accurately because they know that it is risky to do so. They show their masters the things and trends, which they want to see. It happened to Indira Gandhi during the elections after the Emergency. She was told by her coterie including the Intelligence agencies right till the end that she was winning while in fact she was losing. It happened this time too. Naidu believed that he had done so much for the people that they would gratefully vote for him. He also felt that having survived an attack on him, people would have sympathy for him. He did not realize that in the countryside he had not done adequately. While there was no power cut in Hyderabad and some urban areas, the farmers suffered. He projected a larger-than –life image in urban areas and outside the State, even internationally. But his voters were in rural areas.

He also centralized power too much. No one else mattered in the government or the party except him. While it seems a good thing when the going is good, in the battle of the ballot, you need layers and layers of cadres who will go out in the heat and fight. Centralization kills initiative at lower levels and breeds dissidence below the surface. Naidu nurtured an illusion and that was his undoing. He became a prisoner of his chosen babus. They did not – indeed could not -- correct his thinking and policies on crucial matters. It is the bureaucratic embrace that killed him.

Another factor that went against him was the inability to see the strength of the sentiment for a separate Telangana State. The hearts of people of Andhra and Telangana have never met. Some prominent leaders of Telangana had reservations about the creation of Visalandhra. The States Reorganization Commission did not recommend it straightaway. But somehow it was pushed through. Whenever the demand of Telangana is raised seriously, it finds touches a responsive chord amongst the people of the region. Even the people of the coastal areas are not very happy carrying on with a disgruntled region.

Vajpayee's feet of clay

What killed NDA was Gujarat. It was no ordinary rioting. It was carnage and was seen as such not only by Muslims, but a majority of Hindus too. It was a massive failure of administration. Unfortunately, instead of admitting it as such and taking remedial action, they sought to condone and even glorify it. Narendra Modi did not show any remorse. His party lionized him. If Narendra Modi had resigned after the riots, NDA would have secured a moral victory. If Vajpayee had sacked him for his failure or alleged connivance, his party and his alliance would have romped home. It was the lack of moral fibre, which threw out a party, and a leader who was being projected a statesman.

BJP and NDA also became victims of their own illusion, much like Naidu in AP. The slogan of 'India Shining' was, if any thing, an urban phenomenon. It meant little to people in the countryside who had seen no improvement in their standard of living. The government in Delhi did not seem to be doing any thing. The Dalit daughter went on her spree of collecting money and no one could touch her lest she should go to the other side or turn openly hostile. People saw a decline in moral values of a vast magnitude. The Tehelka episode was another thing, which besmirched the image of government. The Defence Minister resigned and then when the inquiry was taking too long, he came back. That did not add glory to the ruling coalition. The parliamentary principle of vicarious responsibility of the minister for the sins of omission and commission of his ministry was upheld to begin with -- and then jettisoned.

The result of the new elections is a new coalition of parties. As I said in one of my earlier articles in this magazine, coalition politics is based on compromises. It is a game of survival in power. It is smitten in its approach to issues by a consideration of not offending anyone. It is government by expedience. But we seem to be condemned to be governed by coalitions.

Sonia's noble gesture

While the vote was decidedly against the BJP, it was not decidedly in favour of the Congress. What it definitely rejected was the issue of the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi. She got the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. But she did not get absolute majority. The Congress had therefore to depend on some other parties and groups. The Left was a prominent part of this group being the third largest party in the Lok Sabha.

The most moving part of the elections was that when the crown was offered to Sonia Gandhi, and she, in a rare and dramatic gesture, declined it. She said she had never pursued power. She wanted to lead her party to victory. Having done that, and promising to continue to do that, she stepped aside and offered the crown to one of the least political of persons in the Indian politics. The man, Manmohan Singh, is known for his expertise, his integrity -- and despite all that -- his humility. That gesture by Sonia Gandhi shocked her supporters and baffled her opponents. The one-point agenda that they had against her was rejected. Their biggest guns of BJP were silenced. Their ammunition was rendered useless. They – and other cynics -- have put uncharitable interpretations on one of the noblest acts of self –abnegation in history. They alleged that Sonia Gandhi would rule indirectly, by remote control a la Bal Thackeray and thus enjoy power without responsibility. That is the prerogative of the president of the ruling party. All said and done, the noble aspect of the decision of Sonia Gandhi needs to be acknowledged as something extremely rare.


Thursday, April 1, 2004

Hobson’s Choice – Not Mine

Hobson’s Choice – Not Mine
By Narendra Luther

The Roman statesman, Cicero advised rulers that if they could not give bread to people, let them give circus. The democratic equivalent of circus is elections – all the more so after Maneka Gandhi’s tirade against cruelty to animals resulted in a drastic reduction in the conventional circus shows. Of course cruelty to humans has been a dominant feature of all history and so there is no escape from it.

We had still some months before the nest elections were due. But Chandrababu Naidu in his punarajanama advanced the elections in Andhra Pradesh. What he does today, the rest of the country does tomorrow. So, the ruling coalition at the Centre also decided to seek punarajanama. Karnataka can’t remain behind Andhra Pradesh. Orissa also cried ‘me too’. So, now we are in for a mini-General Elections.

Face replaces Faith

Elections are a churning of the country. Political parties suddenly come alive and start reorganizing themselves. Persons who have been waiting for changing courses find it opportune to do so at the time of elections. Since politics of faith has lapsed, the politics of faces has emerged. In the new scheme of things there is a great demand for good–lookers. They are generally found in the world of films. So, actors and actresses are being recruited in a big way on all sides. Rumour has it that political parties are paying them hefty fees for joining parties unlike other ordinary mortals who have to pay to get a ticket. Of all the people from the worlds of acting, Shatrughan Sinha, put it aptly when he said, ‘Acting has glamour, politics has power. I have seen both. Power is better.’ It is an unfortunate trend. It demeans politics, that is, if there is any more scope to do so. Politics should be a civil war of ideologies. Now it is being transformed into beauty contests. Actors who deliver brave dialogues scripted by faceless writers, will now mouth inanities from open platforms. They have no understanding of, or interest in, any ideology. They will only go to add numbers to the membership of different political parties in the legislatures. We deserve better.

Slanging Match

Did Lord Tennyson have the Indian elections in mind when he said

‘…blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed
On all things, all day long’.

. Now the pre-election clamour and cacophony has started. There is excitement in the air-- and also depression. Excitement is for those who have hopes of coming into power; depression for those who have to make a choice without really having a choice!

Mind-boggling adjustments and alliances are being worked out. Parties, which swore at each other, are now swearing by common causes. Every morning in the papers and every hour on the electronic media the average citizen gets his dose of surprises. He has become immune to shocks. The endless shifts and emergence of new conglomerations amongst various groups defies common sense, logic and the sense of decency. That is because the parameters of individual behaviour are different from those of politics. In politics ends justify means – and on the eve of election, ends also justify being mean!

At the time of writing, manifestoes of different parties are being ‘crafted’ by way of a formality. The slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ has become stale and hence given up. Earlier, ‘Roti, Kapda and Makan’ has long been the triune slogan of shouting brigades. All these items are deemed to have been provided to the people. So, the new slogan is for Pani, Bijli and Sadak. This is so that people can drink enough water to be able to walk on roads in good light in search of better opportunities!

None of these

And we will be asked to exercise our ‘precious vote’ to elect our representatives. But what is the choice we have? We will have to pick up one or the other out of persons who are put up by various parties or cabals. They will include persons who are charge-sheeted or are under investigation and may be on bail on technical grounds. Yet our choice will have to be limited to these persons only. That is because the law as yet does not disqualify people who are charge-sheeted. And parties dare not ignore them because of their ‘winnability’.

There have been talks about barring ‘tainted’ people from contesting elections. But in the absence on any provision of law, that cannot be done. If there were, according to the election commissioner, Krishnamurthy, the Chief Election Commissioner, 40 persons with criminal record in the last parliament, chances are that there will be more this time. The Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh has released a list of 51 likely candidates with shady credentials.

Our so-called ‘precious right to vote’ loses all its value because it is limited to the slate on offer. Our freedom of choice therefore becomes meaningless because it cannot go beyond the panel.

What then is the voter to do? The right to elect logically implies a right to reject. Some political thinkers in our country, including the former Vice President, the late Krishan Kant advocated that right. But there is no likelihood of a legislation of that type being enacted. The Law Commission had suggested in 1999 the incorporation of this option by adding a button on the electronic voting machine. The Election Commission had supported this proposal. But the Government has spiked it on the pleas that it needs discussion amongst parties.

Absolute Majority

Coupled with that, there should be a law making it compulsory for a candidate to secure an absolute majority –not the maximum number of votes -- to get elected. That will compel parties to rise above religion, caste and community in the selection of candidates because none of them by itself can manage to secure an absolute majority. In an interesting satirical article in the Times of India on March 16, 2004 Jug Suraiya showed how a legislator elected by 23.75% votes rationalized his non-performance. He explained to his electors that he did 23.75% of every thing he was supposed to do. Come to think of it, a person elected on the basis of 23.75 % votes had 76. 25% of the electorate against him!

The requirement of absolute majority for election is prevalent in many countries – and even in elections within political parties.

These two reforms – of the elector’s a right to reject all the candidates, and the candidate’s obligation to secure an absolute majority of votes are necessary to make our elections meaningful.

However, it is unlikely that our legislators who are the beneficiaries of the present imperfect system will ever introduce these reforms. Till then we will continue to remain playthings in the hands of politicians. So, we must continue to protest. Maybe, who knows, the impossible might happen.

* * *
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Monday, March 1, 2004

On having a holiday

On having a holiday
By Narendra Luther

What is this life if, full of care, /we have not time to stand and stare? complained the poet W.H. Davies. We get so much engrossed in the routine of life that we forget that there are some finer aspects to it. For appreciating that, an escape from the dreary schedule is necessary. A break from work also enables you to have a fresh look at the work you are doing -- and the way you are doing it. You reflect on the worthwhileness of your goals and the manner of their pursuit. In short, even to do the same things better, it is desirable to have a holiday. It refreshes your mind and recharges your batteries. That is why all organizations provide for holidays – some even pay for them. But such is our reluctance to break from the daily grind that we ask for encashment of leave entitlement instead of having a holiday. Much of the misery in our lives and flatness in our dealings would be avoided if every one were forced to go on leave once a year.

I must hasten to add here that I myself have been guilty of not practising what I have preached. Years have rolled by without a holiday. But every time I take a break, I blame myself for not doing it more frequently. One can have a holiday anytime, but the best time for that in India is summer. And the best holiday is to escape to the hills. The best of hills are of course the Himalayas. That is where you can see snow any time of the year—at least from a distance.

The Escape

A holiday came my way last month. My friend, Pavi Sarin had organized the launch of two of my books at Chandigarh. He recommended that after that I could run up to the hills for a week or so. The suggestion was tempting and I succumbed. My wife too was keen to visit Manali, the hill station made popular by Nehru, and now by Vajpayee.
A holiday is best enjoyed in early youth in a group, in full youth with a mate, in middle age, with the family. For an old couple it is advisable to have an intermediary. I chose my wife’s brother, Manmohan for the job. He is a gourmet, a good cook and a good teller of tales. What I can say in ten words or one minute, he will stretch to a thousand words or an hour. He has a razor- sharp memory for details including names of persons, places and dates that never existed. He is rich -- and generous. I envy his faculty for making friends in an instant and mixing with strangers in no time. He makes an excellent foil for a couple, who left to them, would have nothing to say to each other.

Heavenly abode

Pavi had arranged for a break for us at Palampur. He said that the view of snow-capped mountains from our resort was magical and was guaranteed to lift our spirits. In five hours we were there. He was right. It was mildly cold. Suresh Bhasin, the owner of the Silver Oak Resort, is an amiable ex-Air Force officer. The place was informal with no frills. Food was good and service prompt. We had long walks, visited Sarin’s tea estate and enjoyed two nights there. Pavi had also thoughtfully arranged a lunch meeting with some of the eminent persons of the town. Dr. Ahuja of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and Dr. Negi, the Vice Chancellor of the HP Agriculture University told us that they were trying to get the Palampur tea its due place in the export of India. We got some advice on how to savour the true taste of tea -- which meant no milk or sugar.

Dr. S.S. Johl, the eminent agricultural economist of India, and a former chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, has a house in Chandigarh, but escapes to Palampur ever so often Despite being knowledgeable, he is a charming conversationalist. Once someone asked him why he did not bring his family with him to Palampur. He replied, ‘You go to heaven alone, not with your family’. When he told a friend about the bliss of staying all by himself in the hills, he was told that only those who are full up inside could stay alone. These two statements say volumes about Palampur and using it as a retreat.

I had picked up three books awaiting perusal, but on second thoughts, I dropped them all. What is the use of going to a scenic spot and getting curled up in the bed reading a book. One should go to a holiday in the hills for enjoying nature, not to spurn it. In the event, I had human company -- and nature. Looking back, it was a good decision. If you do not take any book to the hills, you can bring back material for one.

Our Qualis van, which swallowed miles on plains, took time to negotiate the hilly bends and climbs. It is very frustrating to go up the hills only to come down, again to go up. Sometime all this up-and-down business had to be undertaken only to cross a rivulet, or to go from one range of mountain only to go up another. In that respect, I found Italy has done a remarkable job. That country is eighty percent hills. Yet the highways go in a straight line. They have cut through mountains with miles of tunnels. My host in Italy drove me 120 kilometers in ninety minutes flat. The same distance in Indian hills through serpentine roads takes five hours. I hope one day there will be bridges across gorges and tunnels through mountains to cut the travel time and to bring hills closer to plains. The continuous murmur of rivulets all along the journey was soothing. I was reminded of Shakespeare’s famous metaphor of finding brooks in the running brooks tongues in trees and sermons in stones. Our stay at Manali was the highlight of our holiday. When our cell phone stopped working there, Manmohan invoked Johl’s line: there are no phones in heaven.

New insights

As with Bacon, travel is education. One is exposed to new sights, sounds, landscape, and ideas. I found that in Delhi and Chandigarh, seat belts for cars, and helmets for two-wheelers are taken seriously. In Manali, you are fined if you are found carrying a plastic bag. There are vast open spaces in Chandigarh, and a park for each square. No hoardings are allowed; no encroachments are tolerated. The city breathes and allows you to breath fresh air. We too could do that only if we had the will.

The best part of a holiday is when you start unpacking. I write this as we are doing just that while contemplating our next holiday.


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Sunday, February 1, 2004

Preface to a Budget

Preface to a Budget
By Narendra Luther

Budgeting is a daily exercise for the common people. But the Government being too busy in spending money cannot waste time on such an activity on day-to-day basis. So it does its budgeting once in a year. There is too much unnecessary mystery about the budget. It is simply an exercise of balancing loot against largesse. Or, cut down every need to half.

There is the well-known story of a first-time Finance Minister in a State. The family heard him talk too much about the budget. One day they all surrounded him and asked him to explain what the term meant.

The greenhorn minister proceeded to educate them. He asked each member what he or she wanted. Every one expressed their wish. As usual, the wife’s turn came last. The simple old lady asked only for a salwar’. The great husband turned to her gravely and pronounced:’ All right, you want a salwar. One leg this year, the other next year. That is budget’.

That is all that is done on the national basis – adjusting wants to the available resources. It boils down to raising levies somewhere and lowering them elsewhere.

But that is not all. An elaborate speech has to be made by the Finance Minister to test the patience of his fellow lawmakers. He does it sometime by obfuscating the listeners with tons of statistics. Some relieve the tedium with a sprinkling of humour. Manmohan Singh started the practice of reciting couplets of Urdu poetry. Urdu couplets have one great quality. They elicit wah, wahs no matter whether the audience understands the meaning or not. That results in a quick approval of the budget. Chidambram emulated him by adding a few lines from a Tamil poet. People called it a novel budget only because of that element. They don’t understand the difference between poetry and fiction.

The Afternoon Budget

For half century our budget was presented at half past three in the afternoon. No one knew the reason for that except that the British had fixed that mahurat. Since we followed all their conventions, this too was meekly accepted. Some people believed that it was designed to give less time to the Opposition. Others said that after his long speech, the Finance Minister -- and more than him, the members were too exhausted to sit any longer. Also they got an evening to frame their comments and objections. Then one finance minister declared heretically that the budget would be presented at 11 AM. He explained that the British had fixed that time for their own convenience. They being five-and –a half-hours behind us, they wanted the Indian budget to be presented when their offices opened. How clever!

Budget speech is routinely followed by comments from the treasury and the Opposition. Their remarks are entirely predictable. The treasury benches keep their cheerleaders, and the Opposition their jeer leaders ready for the purpose. Te Opposition is paid to criticize the budget. Their comments can be forestalled. ‘The budget has nothing new’. ‘It takes away more than it gives’. ‘It is anti-poor’. It will increase the burden on the middle class’. ‘It is a script dictated by IMF and the World Bank’. ‘It is a jugglery with figures’. Once, a week before the presentation of the budget, I published all possible comments and reactions which leaders of different groups and parties could possibly make Some leaders rang up to thank me for the briefing. Others objected that I had deprived them of the chance of sounding original. Nothing is more recycled than the comments on budget from the treasury benches and the Opposition.

The Santa Clause Budget

Apart from the regular budget, sometime there is the miniature budget. It is called ‘vote-on –account’. It is put into effect when elections come in when the budget should have bee presented. It seeks temporary sanction of the legislature to cover the expenditure pending the constitution of the legislature so that there is no stoppage of work in government. It serves the purpose of dividing the budget into two parts. The first part is sweeter. All the milk of human kindness stagnating in the withered breast of the abstemious Finance Minister suddenly gushes forth for the common man. His taciturn face, which is duty –bound under oath not to smile, assumes the visage of the smiling Buddha. The Santa Clause opens his bag and starts distributing goodies to all and sundry. Old claims for increase in salaries are conceded. New concessions on income tax are announced. Custom duties are slashed. New jobs are sanctioned and promises made for creation of more. The government, which, like an alcoholic, was always in denial, and in a fighting mood suddenly, turns benign and indulgent. The Spanish bull transforms into the Indian kamadhenu. That is democracy at its best – government entirely for the people. No courting is more fervent than the one by the incumbent ministers for the voter.

The second part of the budget comes after the new government is installed. There are two possible scenarios there. Either the old government comes bask, or a different party forms the government. In the former case, it is like the morning after. All the frisson of the vote-on –account is dissipated. Now is the season of tightening of the purse strings by the government, and of belts by the people. The Kennedy-an clarion call for asking what you can do for the country is made from house top – no, from inside the House - once again. Sacrifices for the future are asked for. Those promises? Ah! They were made at a different time.

The Change of Guards

It is worse if another party from the Opposition come to power. Its ministers expose the financial profligacy of their predecessors. They explain how they looted the people, spent money on wasteful projects and in the course of that made money for themselves. They left the treasury empty and the government bankrupt. They had spent every penny, and left the State in a debt trap. Every citizen owed to the invisible creditor the equivalent of one month’s salary. All their promises made by them were hollow. Now we will have to build from scratch. For that people – you, dear readers and I, poor writer -- will have to make sacrifices and atone for our democratic sins. That is the time to pay the price. The new leaders, washed in milk will promise to set up an inquiry to look into the misdeeds of their predecessors. Law will be set on its course.

The Second Budget

The small, interim budget is over. We have got all that we could from it. Now the bell will toll. I wait in trepidation for the second, normal budget, which will put us back on the bumpy road, which, regrettably, was not repaired by last government. In Shakespeare’s phraseology, the maid would soon be wed – and the very sky will be changing.


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Thursday, January 1, 2004

Will the People?

Will the People?
By Narendra Luther

Last month I wrote about the elections coming sooner than expected in Andhra Pradesh. You have now to concede that what AP does today, the rest of the country does tomorrow. It has happened in this case too. Chandrababu Naidu wanted to cash in on the sympathy generated by the assassination attempt on him. But what prompted the NDA Government to advance the polls? Well the 25(?) parties knotted together and called the National Democratic Alliance invented a new term -- FGF.
Feel good Factor
Basically it was the victory of the BJP in the Hindi belt which gave hope and optimism to the main alliance party. If they could win those states, the electoral mood seemed to be in their favour. The Prime Minister had dominated the Saarc meeting. Relations with Pakistan were improving sidelining the Kashmir problem for the time being. The harvest was good and rats were getting fatter nibbling at the stocks. The growth rate of the economy did better than expected. Exports outdid the forecast. Our foreign exchange reserves were swelling. Foreign institutional investors started thinking no end of India. They bought stocks. They made other investments. Telephony had become cheaper. More and more people were using mobile phones. People could talk while they walked. The sensex was zooming. It is very emotional. It starts booming and then goes fut for no reason at all. But somehow it is considered as a barometer of the nation’s mood. And it showed the nation was mighty pleased with the performance of the government. So the political managers thought it was a good time to go to the country. The nation will say, go ahead; we give you another term.
Merit of the parliamentary system
So, first the speculation was encouraged. Testing of waters, some call it. Sounding people who matter. Note the reaction amongst the adversaries. Deny all rumours. In politics don’t believe anything unless it is officially denied. That is one of the merits of parliamentary democracy. It allows you to take people – which include your opponents -- by surprise. The presidential system does not allow that. It follows a dull predictable timetable. In the parliamentary form the ruling party has the advantage of deciding when and where to fight. NDA managers thought this was a good time. Who knows what might happen in October when elections were due?
The ruling party has another advantage. It can suddenly become generous, loosen the purse strings and start doling out goodies. It can concede long pending demands of the employees. It can raise salaries – or appoint a commission to recommend that. It can lower or even abolish import duties across the board. It can make things cheaper. It can raise the income tax exemption limit. It can announce many welfare measures which no one ever expected. All that adds to FGF. The ruling party is feeling good. It believes that the nation too is feeling good. The media starts feeling the coolth of the FGF. So, you are feeling good whether you like it or not.
Civil War
Elections are won by defeating opponents. Individual defeat individuals, parties defeat parties. That is done by demoralizing rivals. While you buck up your ranks, you sow confusion in the opponents’ camp. You raise questions about the legitimacy of the leadership of the biggest party. Election is civil war by other means; it is a love affair with the people. And according to old wisdom, every thing is fair in love and war.
There has been criticism of India’s foreign policy right from Nehru’s days. But no party which came to power made any change in its basic thrust. Now the same has happened to our economic policy. The Opposition attacks liberalization and globalization, but when it comes to power, it adopts it proudly as a part of the pragmatic approach in the national interest. So, what is the difference between one party and another? Ideology? But a coalition dilutes ideologies. Its manifesto is survival. You adopt the lowest common denominator and call it CMP – Common Minimum Programme. Without survival you can’t achieve anything. So, survival is the ideology of coalition. The opposition has to mobilize enough strength to defeat the incumbent party or group of parties. So, it looks for allies. Any party, which can add to it fighting power, is good enough. Here again, ideology is an empty term. You go and embrace your bitter enemies of yesterday. Like the advertisement in newspapers, to get the runaway son back home: ‘Mother serious. Return home. Every thing is forgiven -- and forgotten’.
Acquisitions & megers
This winter is the season of mergers and acquisitions. Big fish always swallowed the small one. But before the elections the small one suddenly develops an illusion of grandeur and makes a bid for reversing the old practice. The queen of the largest, oldest party goes to wish a happy birthday to the Dalit ki Beti because her bag contains some precious jingling votes. She can swing things. Old colleagues of the NCP forget the principle on which they broke away from the main party and established a new one. For one, it is ‘homecoming’. The other asks :where is the home? It is a house without the spirit which makes a structure into a home. He finds comfort in a party which he denounced earlier. The NCP breaks up. Mulayam Singh is still mulling over his options. There is time yet for that. He may find himself in the same camp, which has accommodated his arch enemy.
Where are their oft-repeated declarations? Where are the manifestoes? asks the common man. That is what prevents him from becoming uncommon. In his innocence he looks for steadfast adherence to principles and ideology. He/she forgets that politics is the art of the possible – making impossible into possible. Didn’t Emerson say that foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of a small mind? How can one be consistent in a changing situation?
Watch the circus
I have seen many elections. I have been updating myself on changing equations and new names and symbols. I do that because they tell me that my vote is precious. I should cast it carefully. On that depends my future and the future of the country. I like the sudden arrival of elections. We get so many freebies and incentives. There will be excitement in the air for some time. We will get to know the truth about various persons and parties from their opponents. That is one reason why I prefer parliamentary democracy. It can herald elections when we least expect it, like rain in dry season.
Let us now await the circus. At the end of that there will be new friendships and enmities. In the security of my superannuated situation I shall be amused to watch the loss of security of many and even forfeiture of deposits with the equanimity of a bystander.