Archive for May, 2009

Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics

Thursday, May 28th, 2009 May 28th, 2009 Shyamal MajumdarShyamal Majumdar

In August 1999, Anjolie Ela Menon was telling everybody that she wished Sonia Gandhi remained the Congress President and Manmohan Singh was projected as the Prime Minister. At that time, it sounded like the celebrated painter’s ultimate flight of fancy
Ms Menon was then one of the inspirations behind a unique platform called `Volunteers for Manmohan Singh’ (VMS), which was basically a Dr Singh fan club. It was election time and VMS was trying hard to drive home the point that the Lok Sabha needs people like Dr Singh.
VMS’ efforts failed miserably as Dr Singh lost the only election he has contested so far (he was defeated by the BJP’s V K Malhotra in the South Delhi constituency by over 30,000 votes). But Ms Menon’s words proved to be almost prophetic as Mrs Gandhi listened to her not once – but twice.
It’s easy to understand why in 1999, everyone thought Ms Menon was stretching her imagination a bit too far by wanting to see Dr Singh as the PM. I am sure even Dr Singh could never imagine this. For, more than anybody else, the gentlemanly Oxford-educated economist himself was acutely aware of his lack of political mass base.
For proof, listen to the man himself.  In his interviews much before he became the PM, Dr Singh has been quoted as saying that “it is nice to be a statesman, but in order to be a statesman in a democracy, you first have to win elections”. That’s something he has never achieved.
Earlier, I agreed with Dr Singh’s self-assessment fully – something which was reinforced during my two interactions with him (both were five years before he became the PM). The first meeting was an interview I did during his election campaign in 1999. Since his answers were becoming almost a repeat of the Congress’ election manifesto and I was more interested in knowing more about Manmohanpolitics than Manmohanomics, I tried hard to provoke him into rebutting the charges his political opponents were making about advertisements issued by his campaign managers in prominent local dailies.
The campaign, designed by Anjolie Ela Menon and issued by a company called India Business Network, asked for votes for Dr Singh. Malhotra, however, complained to the Election Commission that Dr Singh must have spent an estimated Rs 8 lakh on the advertisement and must have exceeded the per candidate personal expenses limit fixed by the EC – serious enough charges against a politician who considers honesty to be his biggest asset.
The charges later proved to be baseless as the advertisement was issued by a couple of industrialists who openly supported him, and I expected Dr Singh to take the opportunity to rip the opposition apart.  But the “politician” before me just requested that he be excused from answering that question and that it would be nice if I could stick to his record in the finance ministry! After that experience, I marvel at the transformation every time I hear Dr Singh using strong words against the Opposition.
My second interaction with Dr Singh was during a trip to Amritsar four months later. I had gone there to attend a function to honour B S Minhas as the Financial Express Economist of the Year (I was working for the paper at that time) and Dr Singh was the chief guest of the evening. After the initial pleasantries, Dr Singh did only one thing during the seven-hour train journey to Amritsar by Shatabdi Express: Read.
But what made me agree with Dr Singh’s the then self-assessment about his lack of political instincts was his response at a press conference after the function. The local journalists were all excited about talking to a man who was not only the country’s former finance minister, but also a son of the soil (his brothers still run auto parts shop in Amritsar) So most of the initial questions were in Punjabi and strictly about local issues.
Dr Singh looked visibly uncomfortable and requested through his assistants that the questions be restricted to national economic issues and that he would prefer to respond in English only. Here was an opportunity to address your own people in their own language and about the issues that impact them directly and the “political leader” was just letting it go! It wasn’t a surprise that most of the local journalists kept quiet throughout the press conference.
Finally, let me share one personal reason why I am a huge fan of Dr Singh and am glad that my initial belief that his lack of political instincts would doom him to fail in a job that is a largely political office has been proved wrong.
Way back in 1995 when he was the Finance Minister, Dr Singh came to the Bombay Stock Exchange to address a distinguished gathering. He was in a hurry to leave as soon as the meeting was over and the huge gathering around him ensured that I failed to ask him any questions despite my best efforts. Dr Singh, who was walking towards his car, suddenly turned back and came near me to say “Sorry, young man, I will talk to you on my next visit to Mumbai”.
I have come back to Mumbai after a stint in Delhi in between and the increasing crowd around him has ensured that I haven’t been able to ask him any questions still. But the humility of the man continues to stump me — still.

Comparing Democracies

Thursday, May 28th, 2009 May 28th, 2009 Praveen Bose

‘Mysore’ Satya, known so for having owned and run a local newspaper in Mysore – Mysore Samachar — has had a chance to experience first-hand the working of a democracy other than India.

He was in New Zealand, to be more precise, in Auckland. He was in NZ to be with his daughter who was having her child. Being a journalist, he could not stop himself from getting a first-hand feel of the politics of New Zealand. It was the general elections there.

He got to see how exactly parties canvassed. He canvassed for Helen Clark’s Labour party. He was surprised by the lack of interest among the Kiwis in the elections.
He seemed ecstatic when he spoke to me for the first time after returning from NZ: “India is much more democratic and people are better informed and better educated about elections. Indians also participate more in the polls. Kiwis are disinterested when it comes to politics.”

So we need not fret about the low turnout, he said. “We are at least more aware of the politics in the country and a greater proportion of people participate in the electoral process.”

But, happened to Helen Clark’s Labour Party he campaigned for? Her party had lost the 2008 general elections. But, he didn’t seem disappointed. “India is a far superior democracy.”

The elections here are so colourful and participatory, despite all efforts to check excess spending by the Election Commission of India this time.

Despite the restrictions and curbs this time, Mysore Satya is a delighted man.

Will we ever use GPS to find our way?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 May 27th, 2009 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi


Frankly, how many of us actually use personal navigation devices (PNDs) to find our way around? Perhaps, a handful of technology-crazy users and yet companies continue to put their faith (and money!) on global positioning systems (GPS), maps and services around GPS. The numbers tell a positive story. We are soon going to be a 400 million strong mobile phone market, of which smartphones (with GPS features) would be roughly 15-20 per cent. We have over 1.8-2 million still/digital cameras. IDC numbers tell us that the total installed base of PCs in India has surged past the 36 million units mark, and now India has one personal computer for every 30 people. (more…)

Any takers for Unified India?

Thursday, May 21st, 2009 May 21st, 2009 Bhupesh BhandariBhupesh Bhandari

India, year after year, returns a good number of people to the Forbes list of billionaires. Two of them have broken into the top echelons: Lakshmi Niwas Mittal and Mukesh Ambani. Any person from Pakistan is yet to find a place on the list. Several Indian companies have done stunning acquisitions all over the world in the last few years. How many Pakistani takeovers have you read about? Many Indian companies have attained global scale of operations. Case studies are done on them in business schools across the world. Again it will be difficult to find anything from Pakistan here.

India has its problems. But there are signs of success as well, especially in the world of business. India’s businessmen are the new brand ambassadors of the country. The same is not true of Pakistan. A visit to any Pakistani news website will bring out what consumes the people there. The main news, nine times out of ten, will be on sectarian violence or the military offensive against the Taliban. You will be hard pressed to find business news on the home page. The columns and the blogs bring to light the angst at the primitive ways of the Taliban and other extremists. There are people there who want none of all this and are not afraid to raise their voice. But it is a tough fight. The Taliban may have suffered a setback in the Swat valley but this is not the last we have heard of them.
There is still a section of the radical school in India which believes in Akhand Bharat (Undivided India). Given the current state of Pakistan, do they still hold on to their dream? It is without any doubt now the most dangerous place on earth. 
Two countries separated at birth now live out different destinies. It is a story straight out of a Bollywood film. But the portents are ominous for India. A volatile neighbor is a dangerous proposition. This is a challenge the new administration will have to handle deftly.

Shop No. 187

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 May 20th, 2009 Bijoy Kumar YBijoy Kumar Y

So what do you do when you are on holiday in North Goa? Ride a motorcycle? (We rode to Goa on a motorcycle, so!) Eat a hearty breakfast at Infantaria? (Skipped this time…too many people) Drink your first beer before lunch? (No, we stuck to Bisleri! What a question!)Go to Brittos for their golden fried prawns and potato wedges? (Mental note to extend swimming sessions back home by 30 minutes for a whole month)Try your hand at parasailing? (As in hanging on a sail that is hooked to a speed boat ridden by some one who is still thinking about the drunk Norwegian who gave him a US$100 bill as a tip during peak season),  rode a Jet Scooter? (Trying to ensure that your arms are still attached to your torso while the ‘thing’ progresses uncontrollably towards Dubai), listen to 70’s music and chill at Cavala? (The band was named Bellbottoms, so what?)And get all misty eyed? (As the evening grows into night and you start wondering which direction your hotel is).

So we did the usual. And woke up every day morning with a hangover the size of Pangaea. And then of course, we made a mental note to hire a fat-wheeled Gypsy next time around – they look awesome and come for under a grand for a day. A wind in the hair blast to the lighthouse and back should be great. But the point of this note is none of the above.

Tucked away in the middle of the confusion called Mapusa Municipal Market (not too far away from the Aguada – Baga stretch and is conveniently on the way to NH17 and rest of the world) is a small shop not more than 10-15 sq ft called Francis Picardo and Sons. Shop Number 187 to be precise. It is adjacent to Simonia Bakery which, of course, is world famous in Mapusa. And trust me no trip to Goa is complete without a visit Shop No.187. This time too I made the pilgrimage. Sure, proprietor Raymand Picardo makes money by selling booze to dignified bootleggers who buy their share of Smirnoffs and Bacardi bottles (Rs 350 and Rs 300 per bottle in Goa! Please continue reading… can wait!) But that is half the secret at 187. Picardo stocks the very best Goan sausage money can buy – all home made and carefully chosen by him, the tastiest fish pickles and Goan masalas. On a steamy afternoon, you will find the entire Picardo family at the shop – wife arranging fresh rolls of Goan sausages and son stacking up crates of Kings and Belo beer. If you are into local brews, and we are not talking about fortified grape juice that passes as ‘port’, Picardo will select the best of Cajulana or PVV branded cashew feni. My discovery though was a new coconut rum that goes by the name Cabo. From the picture on the bottle it is clear that the local drink got its name from Cabo de Rama (the southern most point of Goa and made up of stunningly beautiful ruins of a Portuguese fort). Cabo costs Rs 350 a bottle and is a brilliant substitute to fiercely expensive Malibu. How do I know?

 Back home I made some phenomenal Goan sausage pulav (lightly fry the innards of a Goan sausage roll and cook rice on top of it in a electric rice cooker for full blooded flavor!. While it was being cooked and its aroma was making my neighbour’s tummy rumble, ahem, I invented my very own cocktail called ‘Picardo to brain 187’ – one generous shot of Cabo, canned pineapple juice, twist of lime and a solitary mint leaf’. Trust me, I could feel the Arabian Sea lap on my feet. Thanks Picardo!


How things have changed

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 May 19th, 2009 Aabhas Sharma

After watching Manchester United winning their 18th English Premier League title, I celebrated for less than an hour. Here is how my “grand” celebrations panned out. Saw the presentation ceremony for 5 minutes, which was abruptly cut short by the sports channel. Went online, caught hold of a live stream, saw the celebrations for about 20 minutes and then relived the season for about 30 minutes in my head. After that, it was back to the nitty gritties of life, thoughts moving on the next trophy, in fact, to the next season as well. So in a season, where I had countless anxious moments, was left with almost no finger nails to chew on and took a lot of flak for being anti-social on weekends (more on that later), the jubilation lasted all of 60 minutes.

Family, friends, acquaintances have told me countless times over the years that I have an unhealthy obsession with United. Passion is one thing, but at times they think that I take it on an extreme level. Although I don’t subscribe to that view and think of myself as a regular supporter who just loves the club passionately and wants them to do well.

Though there have been a few occasions over the last 13-odd years when I might have stepped over the line. A few TV remotes have bore the brunt when United have lost a match. I almost punched a very close friend, who by the way is twice my size, when he offered me fake consolation after a United defeat. Things have been thrown, glasses have been broken, and many such things were a common occurrence if the result went against United. I haven’t taken calls, avoided meeting friends, had arguments earlier with my mum and now my wife, on why can’t I just take it as a game. Of course, my wife having known me for donkey years always knew this about me. But I won’t be surprised if one day she penned down a book called How Manchester United Ruined My Life!

Apart from that, there have been times when to watch a United match I have gone to extreme lengths as well. Once, while living in the hostel, just when a match about to start at 1.30 in the night, the cable connection went off. I promptly called the cable guy and woke him up from his slumber asking him to fix the cable. We had a conversation which can’t be repeated here but after a few threats were exchanged between us, he caved in and put the channel.

Then there was a time, when due to the cricket match being shown on the hostel telly, me along with another United supporter, travelled a good 100 kilometres to and fro to his distant relative’s house to watch. I have landed at acquaintances’ houses at vague hours, if there was a power cut at my place. I have wriggled out of social engagements countless times, so much so, people have stopped inviting me if they know there is a game on. People who want me to take part in such engagements are generally sweet and kind enough to not hold such events on a matchday. So even though I don’t agree with the unhealthy obsession, I can understand why they think so.

But over the years, I have mellowed down considerably. For instance, I deal with United defeats in a much better way. I get upset but I try to get it out of my system as soon as I can. Things aren’t broken anymore, neither do I avoid people nor do I find myself switching off the cell phone to avoid messages reminding me of the agony I went through.

Somehow, I think that has rubbed on to the way I celebrate as well. Earlier, I used to be high on a title victory for days. I never stopped rubbing it in to friends who supported rival clubs and made sure that they almost came close to hating me. But now, I find myself sympathising with them, a favour which I am sure they won’t return if the roles were reversed. Not that I am too worried about this change which has happened, but still after devoting so much of my time, I would have liked to celebrate some more. Ever since the weekend, I have been humming these few lines of an Ozzy Osbourne song, “Times have changed, times are strange, here I come, but I ain’t the same”. Well, that just about sums up how I feel!







Big bang gain?

Monday, May 18th, 2009 May 18th, 2009 BG ShirsatBG Shirsat

Led by a landslide victory by the Congress, the UPA has returned to power, with a strong coalition that removes a huge overhang among investors. I had indicated in my previous blog that markets will revisit October 2008 lows if the new government has to take support of the Third Front, which includes Left. The Indian voter turnout to be smarter voted for stability, defeated communal forces and sideline Left for their anti-development economic policies.

The expectation from the new government is reflected in the first trading day after election results on Saturday with the benchmark indices frozen to upper limit of 15 per cent in just nine seconds and trading was halted for the day. Investors now expect big bang economic reform with key pending bills such as insurance and pension to be passed. The market expected to be firm from here and the FII inflows expected to increase due to political stability.

If the corporate earnings cycle improves, we may revisit January 8, 2008 Sensex high of 21,000 any time in the next 12 months. Most US macro data and credit market indicators are showing some improvement. However, incremental gains are modest and indicate continued growth contraction ahead following two quarters of GDP decline of -6.4% (QoQ) and -6.1% (QoQ) during the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first of 2009.

However, the historical evidence shows investors entering the equity market at lower level get a market return of over 50 per cent within six months and the recent slowdown considerably thereafter. Investors entering the equity market after 150 per cent performance get a modest return after three-five years. According to a Credit Suisse report, if you buy the market after a drop of 40 per cent, the probability of posting a positive return after three years is over 70 per cent. After five years, it goes up to over 80 per cent, against close to 40 per cent if you buy after a long rally.

The Sensex has appreciated by 75 per cent in two months from its low of 8,160 on March 9, 2009. So, the short-term upside is limited and for long term gains, economic recovery is the pre-condition.

Friends, their babies and my puppy

Monday, May 18th, 2009 May 18th, 2009 Abhilasha OjhaAbhilasha Ojha

I love children. I’ve never known what it is like to dislike them like many people (including my husband) who don’t particularly like being around them. I’ve taught toddlers when I was around 16 years old and unlike most of my school friends who used to be in shock at my patience (and who are proud mothers today), I always loved being with children. My mother who ran a school in Jaipur a long time ago, and where I did most of the teaching during my school vacations, used to think of me as a savior, promptly sending me to manage chubby toddlers at the kindergarten (sometimes the number was close to 25-30 in one batch alone).

I’ve never known why I’ve enjoyed the company of little kids. I love chattering away with most of my friends’ kids (all in the age group of 3-6) and find it almost therapeutic being with them. “You don’t have to look after them 24×7 that’s why,” feels one friend while there’s another friend (whom I’ve known for the past several years) who’s even more blunt: “Oh, these people who don’t have their own babies think children are all so cute and cuddly.”

I get my friend’s point. She (let’s call her Sonal) was a powerhouse of talent in school and college but didn’t have any regular job as one would’ve expected her to. A writer with a city magazine to begin with, she got into publishing for a brief while but not before trying copywriting at another small firm. Later, Sonal married and moved to LA and there she worked with one of the leading directors on a film that never got made. By her own admission, though the job sounded glamorous, her work was to keep the coffee in constant supply for the director and his guests. And no matter how close we once were as friends, I can’t help but think of how we drifted away; a) by her constant taunts of reminding me that I’m childless, b) her own discomfort at seeing me as a career woman. What I also witnessed over time was her obsession with her child (“It’s a fulltime job, bringing up a baby, but you won’t understand it Abhi” I was told) and this includes her desire to not send her child to school because she can’t bear the thought of her child facing all that heat and dust!

Truth be told, I have gone through my own phase of depression when friends have announced the arrival of the stork, have done their bit of work to have “complete families” in that they have two children and can breathe easy when they go for social gatherings. And without wanting to sound too melodramatic, I’ve cried, even drank out of depression (okay, just twice, but I still have) and felt miserable for myself. Some relatives have advised me to keep “12 bhraspati var vrat” and sleep in a certain direction and do other (too objectionable to be written and read here) things the right way! I used to feel pathetic earlier but I don’t now and I frankly don’t know why.

foxie1.jpgMay be it’s a coping strategy or maybe I’m just so happy to look after Foxie, a stray pup that my husband and I adopted eight months ago. I love readying her breakfast, giving her a bath, cuddling next to her and watching her grow. I could be wrong but it’s a nice feeling to see my maternal instincts get channelized in what I can safely call the right direction. By that, I don’t mean pets can replace children. No, but somehow I’m more comfortable, more at ease with the situation than I was ever before.

It could be because of my friends too and through whose eyes I see glimpses of today’s parenting and understand how — and why — children are such a big responsibility. Sadly, I also find how terrible it is to just “have” children as opposed to “want to have” children. A school friend (I’ll call her Akshita) who remarried two years ago and almost immediately got pregnant (her mother-in-law and her husband only talked babies with her, even discussing her period dates to calculate her “fertile days”) was happy when she delivered a healthy baby. But her pregnancy (she conceived within four weeks of her marriage) was riddled with angst; her husband, she realized, around that time, had a drinking problem and she found herself going through tremendous depression each time he came home drunk and even remembers going over to her neighbour’s place to bring him back home. She’s been slapped and beaten too; all this while she was pregnant. Now, after two years of her so-called marriage, she’s forced to think of separation. And while divorce is still such a taboo in our society, having a child, she thinks, have only weakened her chances to get out of this messy situation.

Then there’s another friend (we’ll call her Khyati) who, having had an extra-marital affair, has moved out and filed for a divorce from her husband but not before willingly giving him the custody of their five-year-old child. The first hearing comes up in two weeks time and the child — who hated the idea of seeing “Mummy with uncle and not papa” is already kicking, beating and even biting other classmates in school. Khyati, a housewife, who had moved out of her home to be with her boyfriend, is now, naturally, pining for her child. She’s confused, “feels like having the baby back with her sometimes” while her former husband is irritable because the personal problems have meant a drastic decline in his project work. And the last time I met them (separately, of course), their first words were: “If only this child wasn’t around, it would’ve been so much simpler.” But the child is there, more cranky as ever and while I’m hopeful that he’ll deal with the situation in the long run, it did break my heart to even hear the parents say that.

So every time I talk to my friends about their children (without thrusting too many of my own opinions and views), I hear just one thing: “You won’t understand because you’re not a mum.” They are right on one account: I’m not a mum. But they’re wrong on another: I understand. And understand it only too well.

All eyes on Jayalalithaa

Friday, May 15th, 2009 May 15th, 2009 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

All eyes are on Jayalalithaa once again. In 2004, it was a hasty and ill-considered National Democratic Alliance (NDA) decision to snap ties with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and shift to the ADMK, led by Jayalalithaa. DMK got 40 out of the 40 seats in the Lok Sabha elections on the back of a powerful alliance in Tamil Nadu plus Pondicherry and the NDA was thrown out.

This time, anxiety reigns in AK Gopalan Bhavan, the headquarters of the CPI (M), for they’re getting a strong feeling that Jayalalithaa, meant to be one of the most important bulwarks of the Third Front, is going to cut and run.

Initially, Sitaram Yechury called Jayalalithaa, earlier today. She didn’t take his call so the CPI (M) spoke to Chandrababu Naidu and got him to call her. “We’ve heard rumours that you’re talking to Narendra Modi,” began Naidu carefully.

“Well, anyone can talk to me,” Jayalalithaa replied and after a few pleasantries, the conversation was over.

Jayalalithaa has only one objective: somehow dislodge the Congress from supporting the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Chennai. If this happens, the government falls and if the Congress supports ADMK, well, Jayalalitha is Chief Minister!

The numbers are like this. The Assembly has 235 MLAs. The halfway mark right now is 117. DMK has 95 and is currently supported by ally Congress which has 35 making the alliance a comfortable 130-strong.

Over the last few months, all other alliance partners have drifted away from the DMK and have joined the ADMK. They number 38 seats, including PMK, the Left parties and Vaiko’s MDMK. So 38, when added to 60 seats of ADMK is a minority but when the Congress supports it… presto! the government falls.

This is the politics of Tamil Nadu. That is why the DMK is being super careful on the Lankan Tamil issue and on everything else. And that’s why DMK insisted Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh come to Chennai for the public meeting. If publicly the allies appear on the same platform it is that much harder for them to walk out of the alliance.

Who is a non-performer?

Thursday, May 14th, 2009 May 14th, 2009 Joydeep Ghosh

Nowadays, whenever companies sack their employees, the standard line is … “their performance was not in line with our parameters.” Or, something similar. While it may be true in some cases, that argument looks more than a bit stretched in most.

Let’s do a reality check. Not so long so, industry bodies were claiming that there’s still dearth of good talent. With companies in an expansion mode, hiring was frenzied. Head hunters would call executives aggressively. And in the event that a particular executive was uninterested, pat would be the reply, “Would any of your friends be interested?”

But things have turned for the worse. With recession plaguing the entire world, the demand for talent is no longer so great. In fact, companies need to cut flab.

And all that excess capacities built up in anticipation of future growth need to be pruned. So, quite a few employees have had to take the bitter ‘layoff’ pill.

But by branding the ‘laid-off’ employees as the worst performers is grossly unfair. If the company’s plans have gone haywire, it is not the employee’s fault. Instead of admitting this, many are harping about non-performance, stricter parameters and so on…

The fact being that no management wants to admit that their ambitious plans have gone wrong and in many cases, over-aggression has caused them grief.

Take the example of real estate companies – huge land banks were built by buying at astronomical prices. And that too in the latter half of 2007-08, when it was well known that the subprime crisis is looming large over the world.

Now that many of these projects are under hold indefinitely, can the employee who is being thrown out be called a non-performer?

In fact, the word ‘non-performance’ has almost become a joke. Sample this: Recently, when the two senior employees (CEO, COO types) left an organisation, a mail was sent to the corporate communications enquiring about the reason. The response was something like this… ‘individuals whose performance were not in line with the company’s parameters quit’.

It isn’t funny…