Archive for November, 2012

The Queen of Versailles

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012 November 27th, 2012 J Jagannath

Ever since the global financial industry went kaput in the fall of 2008, the 99% have been an enraged lot. The Occupy Wall Street movement showed this chasm in its starkest hue. But are the 1% really to be reviled this much? This borderline-blasphemous thought struck me after watching the harrowing-but-oh-so-beautiful documentary called The Queen of Versailles.

In 2007, Lauren Greenfield chose to document the riches of David Siegel, a time-sharing mogul, the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts. The time-sharing model works like this: Imagine a wonderful apartment in a place of your choice that you can  use for the same week of every year for a token amount. Siegel tapped this middle-class American ambition to create what eventually proved to be a Frankenstein’s monster.

In the man’s own words, he was given “cheap money”, which is the junk bonds dressed up attractively. Like a junkie, he also says he was “pushed” into building more resorts, of which the neo-plus ultra would be in Las Vegas.

Greenfield was initially supposed to document this decadence in a hagiographic manner but then she struck gold in 2008. What helped her wonderful documentary is Siegel’s trophy wife, Jacqueline Siegel, a former Miss Florida, and her love for extreme luxuries. Jackie, as she would be referred to in the docu, is really the lynchpin.

The title derives from the massive mansion that the Siegels were building on 90,000 sq ft land in Orlando, which is inspired from the palace in Versailles, France. The initial half-an-hour is a romp and charts out the lavish lifestyle of the Siegels. David talks how he got George Bush re-elected and how Donald Trump and he are chummies. But things get really interesting when the family is pushed into an austerity drive. The kids go to public school and the support staff gets reduced. There’s unattended dog poop all over. Greenfield’s camera just creeps under the viewer’s skin.

There’s a very evocative scene where one of the seven kids asks his mother after their first public airline trip, “Who are these people on the plane travelling with us?”. The triumph of The Queen of Versailles is how humane the people come across as.

At the near end of the docu, David says that he is not happy with his marriage and that having a wife is a bit “like raising a child”. Watch The Queen of Versailles to know how the grass on the other side is no more greener, while Greenfield is busy fighting a defamation suit from David.

An execution and a farewell in Mumbai

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 November 23rd, 2012 Jyoti MukulJyoti Mukul

Within a week of Balasaheb being laid to rest, Ajmal Kasab was executed. Mumbai city felt the sorrow of a leader’s demise and then soon enough probably rejoiced the death penalty to the one who wronged them. Death after all can evoke different feelings. And, a vibrant city like Mumbai does not like anything which comes in the way of business and the Mumbai way of living.

Balasaheb, whose roots have often been traced to Bihar, represented one side of the business capital of the country -— that of being a hardline Mumbaikar. He gave Mumbai a militant identity through his Shiv Sainiks. But, at the end of his life’s innings he got praise and tears from the citizens. In some respects, it was a typical Hindu way of thinking -— not talking ill of the dead. More so, when the person is a political leader who, without contesting elections, commanded a massive following by appealing to the marginalized Maharastrians at some point in the political history of the city though most of it was built out of sheer muscle power that usually follows such a one-world view.

Perhaps, in a fitting tribute to the Mumbai leader, the local police acted against Shaheen Dadha for posting a seemingly innocuous update on Facebook. Innocuous because much harsher obituary pieces on Balasaheb had been published by newspapers.
The philosophy of intolerance had always found acceptance in the city and the police action was just a vindication of this belief. The action was obviously because the girl was a non-Hindu and the one who clicked like on the Facebook update though a Hindu was apprehended probably just to give it some kind of a secular hue.

Then, came Kasab’s execution. The Pakistani national was part of a conspiracy to kill and cause irreparable damage to the Indian state. Damage came in the form of a debate on whether by lodging Kasab in jail and not executing him, Indians were giving another proof of being a weak nation and by extension Hindus were a coward lot. So, with one execution, the government has debunked this allegation of being soft on Kasab. But how far this will work for Congress remains to be seen especially since, with one killing, militancy cannot be eroded. Besides, what do you do to those who vandalise and threaten common people every day?

Problem is trust deficit, not twin deficit

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 November 22nd, 2012 Santosh Tiwari

While concerns on the twin deficits – fiscal and trade deficit – are being raised across the board, digging deep into the developments in the last two years throws up a simple diagnosis and simple prescription for a remedy to the Indian economy.

Twin deficits are just the symptoms and the real disease is trust deficit, which the current government has created with little scope for redemption.

Why should Indian companies invest at a time when they are not at all sure about the policy direction in any of the areas? Similarly, why should a foreign investor choose this kind of a destination for medium- or long-term investment? Of course, short-term money chasing quick returns will always come, but is that the need of this hour?

The 2012-13 budget proposals including General Anti-avoidance Rules (GAAR) and retrospective amendments have just played the catalyst role in aggravating the situation which was already scripted by policy-paralysis.

The debacles on the 2G spectrum allocation front and failure in getting even one disinvestment proposal through this year up till now are putting immense pressure on fiscal deficit front. The goalpost for this fiscal has already been shifted from 5.1 per cent of GDP to 5.3 per cent of GDP. Clearly, even to achieve 5.3 per cent, nothing less than a miracle would be required.

This could have been possible but the trust deficit, both within the government and also that of the people on the government, is unlikely to help the cause.

The Winter session of Parliament beginning Thursday may provide another lease of life to the UPA government but it is all set to blunt its newly acquired reform drive as FDI in retail may not find majority favour during the impending discussion.

The larger question in this kind of an atmosphere is: should the economy be allowed to languish till 2014 Lok Sabha Polls the way things are going currently?

The prescription in favour of bringing growth and investment back to the track asks for a bitter medicine.

The UPA government has lost trust, if not of the people across the country, surely that of the investing community. This trust is hard to revive. A government running with the support of SP and BSP bears the possibility of getting pulled down any day.

The medicine then is – call it a day – go to the elections and allow this trust deficit to diminish. In the current situation, there is a possibility of a UPA-III or a Third Front government with Congress support if this government goes, besides the NDA option.

Whichever party comes to the power after the elections, will at least start without the trust deficit, and will have a better chance to be able to tackle the twin deficit, inflation and subsequently push the growth prospects.

Hang the gallows?

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 November 21st, 2012 Sreelatha Menon

While the life of Ajmal Kasab was a revelation on the brutalities human beings can stoop to, his hanging was a revelation of another kind.

There was an air of morbid cheer reeking through the messages visible on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook ever since 7:30 in the morning on the day he was hanged. There were joyous messages about the relief caused by the hanging of Kasab and how the next in line should be Afzal Guru, who was convicted for masterminding the blast in Parliament.

Soon after the hanging some reported on Twitter that, “There’s a feel good feeling!” Some felt that it was not enough. And the next in line Afzal Guru should be hanged at the earliest if justice was to be done, and so on.

One felt like a  participant of a medieval public execution where people were at liberty to stone the offender to death.

Should people be hanged at all is a question that needs to be asked, despite the fact that not many would believe that men who shoot down 160 people in cold blood deserve compassion.

Would things change if Osama bin Laden or people like him were never murdered for their crimes? Imagine a world with Osama in a jail or a reformatory where he must spend all his life tending to fruit trees, or weaving carpets.

The spirit of the man who kills another is certainly in disrepair. But what about those who want it paid back in the same coin? Is it in any better shape? Some of the tweets by eminent citizens  fill one with a sense of shame at what people probably in absolute innocence end up wishing and thinking.

Do these celebrations go well with the learning of love and oneness of spirit that has been passed on by Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, Christ, Sufis, and others? Or is it too old-fashioned and stupid to have compassion even for the worst criminal?
The best thing that the Government of India did in the given circumstances was the quiet way it did the unpleasant job that law demanded. It allowed him a trial and even offered to pass on the body to his relatives. These are gestures that reassure you that the Dark Ages have not returned.

India now has more than 400 people on death row. The government has been slow in carrying out death sentences with the last one being in 2004 when a  man was hanged for rape and murder of a girl in Kolkata.

Amnesty International, which has condemned the execution of Kasab said that it is a blow to India’s movement away from death penalties since 2004. Hanging, it says, is the ultimate denial of human rights. But even without the jargon of human rights activists, it is plain sense that killing another person does not end crime or reduce your own pain. And forgiveness has, on the other hand, been recommended down the ages as the ultimate therapy  for both the killer and the victim.

Mahatma Gandhi considered a death sentence as an act of violence and believed that a murderer’s place was in a reformatory. But Indian Government after freedom opted to go for capital punishment though limiting its application. In fact, two days ago two-thirds of the countries in the world with the exclusion of India, China, United States and few others voted for a moratorium on executions in the United General Assembly.

As for United States, it did not even bother to arrest or try  Osama bin Laden but straightaway captured him and eliminated him where he was  …. But has that ended terrorism?

Since Kasab was the cause of pain to so many families and the collective conscience of the nation, may be this was also an opportunity to appeal to this collective conscience for amnesty for this man. Since that did not happen, would any government in the future have the courage to change the law and put an end to hanging for ever?

If that were to happen and a criminal conduct as that of Kasab were to repeat itself, what would a future government do with the person?

Would it confine him to an orchard for the rest of his life to grow fruits or make baskets of cane ? Would any country have the courage to do that?

Imagine if Kasab had been just handed over to Pakistan, would that have meant that more Kasabs would have been born? Or would that have reduced the dark feelings on the two sides of the border?

No one would even try these. Some say that if a government were to follow a policy of forgiveness, then it would fall in the next election. Would a government dare to do the right thing even at the risk of falling in the next election? Such a loss would be a victory still.

Why going job savvy online may be a tedious task

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 November 21st, 2012 M Saraswathy

The most prominent e-mail on my mailbox reads, “XXX professional networking site is going premium. Click now to upgrade your account free of cost.” The mail sounds genuine, so i click on it. The link indeed leads me to the actual website of the professional networking site and no, this is not about any phishing scam. This is, in fact, about the painstaking process of upgrading one’s account on professional networking sites and job sites.

Since the link said it was free of cost, any ordinary individual would be prompted to click on it. However, the process is not easy as it seems. As soon as one reaches the site, one is asked to click on the free upgrade link. But the account still doesn’t become a premium account. The user is the redirected to a payment gateway, implying that the ‘premium services’ do not come for free. Now, why in the first place would one be asked to upgrade the account for free and yet directed to a payment gateway? I wouldn’t mind paying up for upgrading the account, only if the procedure could be completed.

The tryst with the site continues. Even though I did try to pay, the page was redirected to several such pages so many times, that I lost patience exited. While narrating this to friends, I found out that they too had faced this technical glitch. If they tried to upgrade, either the payment gateway wouldn’t work or they would get a notification saying they should try later. This was true not just of one professional networking site, but of several such websites.

Take job sites for example. Leave alone upgrading your account, mere registration may takes hours of effort. The first task is to understand the website architecture and navigation system. Then comes the actual registration. You fill in the details. Yet, there are ten more steps before you can start using the site. Some sites need mobile number verifications. I understand that verifications are needed, but people may just not be comfortable giving out their mobile numbers. After much ado, even if they give it out and get done with the mobile code verification, the process is not over yet.

If it is a job site senior top executives, you need to enter years of work experience. Though there may be options like 2-5 years, if you click on them you are redirected to another page since you do not have ‘adequate experience’. If the target audience was people with 10+ years of work experience, why would the other options exist in the first place? This may not be true of all job sites, but these issues persist with several of them.

Friends who tried registering on these sites,almost instantly got e-mail like, “There seems to be some problem with your registration process” or “You do not have adequate work experience. We are sorry” or “We will get back to you soon”. Most friends have lost hope and trying out the offline processes and are more or less content with the results.

While these user-targeted websites still struggle to bring out the perfect user-friendly simple site free of technical glitches, it is amazing to see how  social networking sites have almost perfected this art. Be it registration or online payment for certain games, these sites have mastered the art of smooth flow of content and data. The other professional networking platforms and job sites have a lot to learn.

Kashinath Tapuriah and India’s hunt for black money

Saturday, November 17th, 2012 November 17th, 2012 Dev Chatterjee

Kashinath Tapuriah, a Kolkata businessman, had planned his retirement well. After he retired from family business, Tapuriah  was living a frugal life in the City of Joy with his wife – going to the temple twice a day; attending  prayers in the evening and occasional visit to the hospital like any other senior citizen. What he did not expected that at 75, he would be spending his life’s last years in Mumbai’s most notorious Arthur Road prison in the company of killers and terrorists.

Last year, Tapuriah was charged by the enforcement directorate, along with co-accused Hasan Ali Khan under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002. His crime: Tapuriah came in contact with Hasan Ali in April 1992 to seek a Rs 60 crore loan to rehabilitate his company, Incab Industries.  The money promised by Ali never came but after almost a decade later, the ED and Income Tax department started knocking at his doors to investigate India’s “biggest” money laundering ever worth billions of dollars. Tapuriah, who pleads innocence at Mumbai courts, is in Arthur Road prison since March last year, waiting for his bail plea to be heard by the Sessions Court.

Tapuriah defence says he never opened or operated any foreign accounts like Hasan Ali and he never received any money from any foreign country or accounts. On the contrary, Tapuriah says he is a victim of crime rather than the perpetrator and has prayed for bail on medical grounds.

Tapuriah’s case just reflects the lacunae in the Indian government’s efforts to fight black money and corruption. If the Courts agree with the ED that Tapuriah is guilty then he should be convicted by now and considering his advanced age, his case should be heard by a fast track court. But if he is innocent, what happens to his life’s two precious years now already spent in the prison?

If Arvind Kejriwal is to be believed than almost every top business leaders in India operate foreign accounts. Many, like Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways, can legally operate a foreign account as they are non-resident Indians. Others biggies like Mukesh Ambani’s business empire in foreign countries is so big that having an account abroad is more to facilitate business operations rather than to stash money abroad.

In the past, it was difficult for the ED to prosecute any one  as none of the foreign banks cooperate with the Indian law enforcing agencies with information. In many cases, when information is offered by the foreign regulators, our own investigating agencies are not in the mood to receive information and in fact delay any meetings with the foreign agencies.  The Indian banking regulator, the Reserve Bank of India do not even makes its orders on offenders public on its website like its counterparts in the UK and the US. In fact, both the Sebi and RBI have a consent mechanism under which an offender can pay a fine and walk free.

By going after small fish, the investigators are just harassing those who do not have access to expensive lawyers and political bigwigs.  There are thousands of Tapuriahs in the Indian jails who are waiting for justice in the economic offences cases. The question to ask is: Who will be responsible for the ED’s actions if, at a later stage, Tapuriah is found not guilty by the courts?

A cancelled trip, a journo’s woe

Friday, November 16th, 2012 November 16th, 2012 Nivedita MookerjiNivedita Mookerji

“PM is not going to Japan tomorrow.” On any other day, that statement wouldn’t have hit hard. But on Wednesday afternoon, when the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs broke the news to a waiting group of journalists, each word weighed heavy and untrue.

How could the PM call off such an important visit just a day before his scheduled departure? While the MEA gave reasons -— fast-paced internal developments in Japan—- a journalist, who was part of the media delegation accompanying the PM, had a pointed question. “So, what happens to the trip starting November 15?” The MEA official’s reply was stern: “Like I said, the PM is not going to Japan at this point….” That was enough to silence all those present, with their suitcases packed with woolies to beat the Japanese chill.

One had sensed something was amiss with the way briefing was re-structured at the last minute. Four officials walked in late, indicating there were ‘developments’. Nobody uttered Japan till the first part of the briefing on the PM’s Asean trip to Phnom Penh was out of the way. Then came the bombshell -— both sides have decided to defer the Tokyo meeting due to internal developments in Japan. Elections may be announced there on Friday, the day the Indian PM and his Japanese counterpart would have discussed bilateral issues!!

The scheduled ‘bandobast meeting’, a regular usage before any such high-level visit, was not spoken about at all. With the PM’s visit shortened to three days, from six earlier, accompanying journos began busily changing their plans too. Attempting to hide their sorrow at Japan being dropped from the itinerary, some said it was good that the long flight was off their back, others were heard talking about more pressing assignments in India at this point. I too told my friends and colleagues that I was happy to sleep some extra hours in the morning than reach airport that early.         

Three-day outing to Phnom Penh for the Asean summit is still on, one hopes…. But, there has been a rush of emails and calls, ever since Japan was removed from the plan. People who cared called to say they were sorry I was not going to go to the land of the rising Sun. What a missed opportunity, an email said. Even when I tried to remind them that I would get to see Cambodia at least, not many  sounded excited. “Why didn’t they cancel Cambodia instead of Japan,” was the best I heard!

Now, what does one do with the shopping list for Tokyo, the most interesting being the hair pin that the local girls wear, that was handed over by friends and family? Some precious moments were also spent on what to eat and drink, of course sushi topping the list, once in Japan. A fat book on all things Japan was already in my travel kit, which must be altered fully now. The CDMA phone, that was rented for use in Japan, must be returned too.

I’m also worried about the lunch invite, that I may have to forego now, at a Japanese restaurant in Delhi. The deal was that I would narrate the Tokyo tales to a friend over a Japanese lunch once I was back from the trip. Should one look for a Cambodian joint in the city, instead? 

 

It’s Diwali, Mr Kejriwal

Monday, November 12th, 2012 November 12th, 2012 Jyoti MukulJyoti Mukul

After the firecrackers, it’s Diwali this time.

President Pranab Mukherjee was the target, though not for the first time but Mr Kejriwal, what about Diwali? Please do something about it. Crackers outside have caused smog, and gifts traffic jam. It is so difficult to make home these days and Dhanteras was here too, thankfully on Sunday.

Which car should he buy this time and who will finance it? No Ferrari ki Sawari but BMW for the son, my lord.

Daughter can choose from diamond that has no resale value. But copper-plated gold looks nice but her iPhone 4S is not working so the father has to buy that too. But over the counter it is expensive. So why not without the VAT and with some cash? But that too is dangerous these days even if it is in Swiss accounts.

Nobody knows this better than Mr Mukherjee this time. So ask the company and order one jewellery set and ask the other ones to give few gift vouchers for Croma this time.

IPhone 5 is home too. But the pen can tweak the policy in return. Though this time, none is sure. Mr Kejriwal is watching with his cap and he has the corruption recorder on. Media is playing the song.

But Mr Kejriwal, there is a complaint. Down the road and outside my office, gifts are troubling us. The flag bearer of courage on the Fleet Street has gifts piled in the glass chambers and some small fries who are yet to write big are crying foul. Hands are weak but gifts are heavy and the car is far.

Please Mr Kejriwal, do something. Needed, an expose on the street too. Mr Jindal too is crying foul. The next cracker should be from Radia tapes and why not in full. Do you like the TV camera or the cap on your head? Please let me know by the next Diwali.

Till then, at least keep the firecrackers on.

Super, just super

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012 November 6th, 2012 Pablo ChaterjiPablo Chaterji

After coming out of a viewing of The Dark Knight Rises a while ago, I was struck by a thought - various superheros have very distinctive vehicles associated with them, and many of those would make for excellent driving companions in today’s insane driving conditions.

Take the Batman series of films, for example. The average person is likely to think that a Lamborghini (any Lamborghini) is a very cool car indeed. Right from the first ever car, the 350GT, to the current Aventador, and encompassing greats like the Miura, Countach and even the LM002 SUV, Lambos have always looked six ways to arresting, if not outright stunning.

Well, somebody out there thought that it would be even cooler to cross-breed a battle tank and a Lamborghini, and the result of that tryst was The Tumbler, Batman’s ride in Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies (it was never called the ‘Batmobile’). A ‘car’ as fast as a Lamborghini, as tough as a tank, as agile as a gecko, with enough firepower to blow away cities AND with a motorbike incorporated into it? Are you kidding me?! Where do I queue up?

There is probably no other superhero who is as umbilically associated with a car as Batman is to the Batmobile, a vehicle that has been through various design iterations in its illustrious life. There are plenty of other superheroes out there with some pretty serious machinery as well, however, and all of them would make for the ultimate dream garage.

Take the Green Hornet, for example. The recent movie (with funnyman Seth Rogan hopelessly miscast as the titular character) may have been a steaming pile of tripe, but boy, how’s about the mid-‘60s Chrysler Imperial Crown, nicknamed Black Beauty, that the fellow drove? With a GM Performance 500 hp engine, three miniguns, two AR-15 machine guns, a flamethrower, twelve missiles, spiked wheels and a bulletproof body, it’s just the sort of car needed for daily commuting in Mumbai. Ooh, just thinking about what could be done to errant taxis, rickshaws, pedestrians and the like gives me goosebumps.

I wouldn’t throw Captain Nemo’s ‘Otto Mobile’ out of bed either. Again, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a cinematic dud, but this quite extraordinary car, made of silver and ivory and with six wheels and a tracking device, is glacially cool. By rights, it should have the handling capabilities of an aircraft carrier on grease, but who cares? Roll up to the friendly neighbourhood nightclub in it and be prepared to make an impression like no other.

Need something more utilitarian, along the lines of a Toyota Innova? There’s always the Battle Van, The Punisher’s wheels of choice. It’s meant to look like a humble TV repairer’s UV, but it hides enough weapons of mass destruction and advanced communication systems to start WWIII. If you know how hardcore a character The Punisher is, you will pull over well in advance if you see the Battle Van coming. Just the thing for a daily runabout in Delhi, then.

These are all undoubtedly excellent vehicles, each with its own merits, but the one that would occupy pride of place in my superhero garage is the Batmobile from Tim Burton’s Batman films. It’s an Art Deco masterpiece on wheels, and with its gas turbine, Browning machine guns, oil-slick nozzles, grappling hook and smoke shields, among others, it gets my vote as the most amazing superhero car ever made. Indeed, for those ultra-narrow, heavily crowded mofussil streets, it even sheds its sides and transforms into a sort of Bat-missile, making it a breeze to simply blast through everything and everybody. As Val Kilmer’s caped crusader says in Batman Forever (not my choice of Batmobile in this one) ‘It’s the car, right? Chicks dig the car.’