Monday, October 26, 2009


As a political animal, there’s nothing more fascinating than following the Great Indian Dance of Democracy. Every once in a while, when millions of ordinary Indians put their faith in the power of their vote and pass verdict on their elected representatives. And so it was this past week in Maharashtra, one of India’s largest states. The Indian voter has spoken and this is his message from Mumbai.

I hate to sound like a Khadi-sporting Congresswallah, but the fact is that the Grand Old Party is returning to its heydays in the fifties and sixties. The Congress is slowly but surely going back to being the natural party of governance. Not so much in terms of number of seats, but definitely in terms of its umbrella social coalition. And there are two very good reasons for it. The Muslims and Dalits who deserted the GOP through the politics of mandal and kamandal in the nineties are now returning.

To know the Muslim story in this election, just look at Amravati. Look at how the President’s son won. He was trailing till almost five rounds into counting. It’s only in the next four rounds when the votes of Muslim dominated segments started getting counted, that he emerged winner. It’s symptomatic of what Muslims across Maharashtra have done.

For the Dalit story, look at what happened in Vidarbha. Of the 27 seats won by the Congress and NCP, 24 of them have gone to the Congress. The BSP and the RPI, traditional Dalit parties in Vidarbha have been totally decimated. Behenji has to do more than just flash opulent Louis Vuitton bags if she wants Dalits to back her fully.

Whether it’s the Muslims in Haji Ali road or the Dalits in Khairlanji, they’re willing to go saath saath with the Congress ka haath. And if this happens in Mumbai, it’s quite possible it will happen in Patna and in Lucknow. Watch out for the big two next.

And contributing in handsome measure to the Congress’ impressive display is the imbecile, spineless and divided opposition. In fact, if not for Raj Thackeray, this election would’ve been as good as a goner for the GOP. Consider this. Apart from the 13 seats the MNS won, Raj Thackeray also turned the tide in 28 other constituencies. Which basically means, his party polled more votes than the margin of defeat of the BJP-Sena candidate. That’s a total of 41 seats. And in those 41 seats lies the story of this election.

What gives this a national dimension, is that this is the exact same thing that Vijaykanth did in Tamil Nadu and what Chiranjeevi did in Andhra Pradesh in the last general elections. Between these 3 states, we’re talking of 130 seats. That’s a quarter of the Lok Sabha. In Tamil Nadu, in the last LS elections, Vijaykanth polled more than one lakh votes in 25 constituencies. The opposition space has never been as fragmented today as anytime in the last 3 decades.

More than any other party, the BJP has the most to worry about, after this election. The party has lost close to 5 percent voteshare in Maharashtra this time. It has been relegated to fifth place. The message is simple. The politics of mandir has run its course. It’s time for a new beginning. And for that the BJP needs a classic Class IV moment. And it desperately needs a ‘Tony Blair’ kind of figure to lead it into the future. That’s what Labour did in Britain after 15 years of Iron Lady Thatcher. It re-defined itself. And has now been in power for more than 12 years now. The Tories are doing that just now. They’ll reap the rewards for it in next year’s election. Political processes take time and the BJP will have to go through this painful but necessary journey. In the interests of healthy democracy, we need a strong BJP. Life would be so boring without the Jaitleys and Modis of the world. Buckle up boys!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


The easiest thing to do with Raj Thackeray is to hate the guy. And there are a large number of Bombay Scottish educated, Colaba-residing Bombayiites who do that. And much of that anger and hatred is justified. But the more difficult thing is to try and make sense of him. Why does he tick? Why is he so popular and who is voting for him?

Let’s just get the bare numbers out first. Because numbers don’t lie. And numbers cannot be partisan. And numbers definitely don’t speak Marathi or Bhojpuri. Numbers will help us understand the Raj Thackeray phenomenon.

In the last Lok Sabha elections, the MNS contested only 12 seats. In each of those, except one, it polled more than one lakh votes. In the Mumbai-Thane region, which accounts for about nine seats, the MNS polled as much as 21 percent of the votes. Meaning, one in five voted for Raj Thackeray. And this in a Lok Sabha election where the chances of his candidates winning is slimmer than what it would be in an Assembly election.

There is clearly a constituency that he’s appealing to. And mind you, as the CSDS post-poll study showed, Raj is not just taking away traditional Sena-BJP votes. That’s the biggest myth floating around. That Raj Thackeray is dividing the saffron vote and hence helping the Congress and NCP. Muslim youths have voted for him. Dalits have. And so have women. These are not traditional Sena constituencies. These are traditional Congress votebanks. How does one explain this?

Interestingly, unlike his uncle, Raj has never positioned himself as a crusader for Hindus alone. He has carefully projected himself to be a pin-up boy for the entire Marathi multitude. And therein lies his political acumen.

There’s a definite vacuum in Maharashtra’s politics today. There’s no political entity or figure that traditional middle-class young Marathis relate to. And by traditional Marathis, I mean the sons and daughters of erstwhile mill-workers, government clerks, teachers and intellectuals. The Sena no longer appeals to them. They don’t figure in the priorities of the Congress and NCP. So who do they turn to? Naturally, it’s this vacuum that Raj has successfully managed to occupy.

And the Shiv Sena has only itself to blame for allowing this Frankenstein to grow. It’s easy to blame the Congress-NCP for feeding and fostering the MNS. But part of the reason for the MNS’ appeal lies in the Sena’s own failings.

The BJP-Shiv Sena has been the worst opposition in the history of Maharashtra. For ten years, they have allowed an absolutely insipid, imbecile government to stumble from one failure to another.

More than 2 million Maharashtrians lost jobs even before the recession. The state languishes third from the bottom in terms of number of people living below the poverty line. Only UP and Bihar are worse. 40,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. And to top it all, the state is reeling under a combined debt of 1.5 lakh crores, the highest in the country.
Yet the BJP-Sena’s complete cloddishness has made the Congress & NCP look like angels. And it’s this empty opposition space that Raj is trying to corner. Love him or hate him, the Thackeray cub is here to stay. Jai Maharashtra!

(P.S. By the way, Karan Johar does owe all of us a collective apology. Not for using the term Bombay. But for making such a lousy film. Downright trash.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009


She was the best among us. The very best. Soumya. Every time I see those eyes, I shudder. Why did this have to happen? Why her?

It’s been a year. And it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Her images keep floating in your head like flashes from an old movie. Those eyes. Aah those eyes. They were the most beautiful any woman had. Those eyes lent an endearing quality to her. People took to her, like moths to a flame.

There’s not a soul I know, who has bad things to tell of her. And that in this bitchy, cut-throat, shameful world is a rarity. I can’t think of another living person I know who could boast of this honour. (My grandfather comes closest. He’s been dead a couple of years now)

As a worker, she was one of the finest. I’ve never heard her say no to work. Never. Not even in the dead of night. Alas, if only she had! On the night she died, Soumya stayed back in office, beyond her call of duty. For what? For an ungrateful employer to earn a few crores more!

No matter what I say and feel, it will not even be a patch on what her folks have gone through in this past year. What can we offer? Only empty words. We can’t and never will be able to fathom their grief, unless we’ve lost an offspring so young. Which is why, it was so refreshing to see the parents of Jigisha Ghosh and Aarushi Talwar at Soumya’s anniversary. Apparently, they’ve been in touch with Soumya’s folks. After all, they’ve gone through the most horrendous of horrors. Losing a child to murder.

She was the last person I bid goodbye to before leaving office on that fateful night. I had just returned after a long marriage holiday. And the last thing she said was, “We should go out over the weekend. I want to see your wife and tell her what a big mistake she just made.” Ann never had the good fortune of meeting Soumya. Life is indeed a bitch.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


For all those Congresswallahs who are seething with rage at Shashi Tharoor’s uncharitable comments about the High Command, a reading of his book From Midnight to Millennium is highly recommended. He has criticized, the Holiest of Holy cows in the Congress. The Godmother herself, Indira Gandhi. This is Tharoor on the original Mrs. G.

"Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla (liquor trader) rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometime wonder, might India’s political history have been different?" Heresy, anyone?

This post is not an attempt to justify or decry Tharoor for what he did. Just an attempt to find humour where it scarcely exists. In our politics.

In the whole debate on cattle class and holy cows, everyone seems to have missed out on the obvious. In the end, it’s not Shashi Tharoor who’s emerged a loser. But it’s the Great Indian Chattering Class. They’ve been shown for what they are. Uptight, humourless twits who can’t take a bit of self-depreciation.

In this country we tend to take everything seriously. And you don’t need a Shashi Tharoor to point out the holy cows in our life. From academics to cricket to even our politics. Irreverence is not something that comes naturally to us. We’d much rather worship than question. In our politics, finding an irreverent politician with a sense of humour is like finding a needle in a haystack. Any Parliament reporter will tell you that. Why do you think Lalu is such a media favourite, despite his million failings?

Maybe Tharoor should drive down to 14, Akbar Road to meet his fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar. Now, there are a lot of people who hate Mani’s cocky arrogance, but you can’t grudge the man’s wit. Sample this. “Since Sitaram Kesri is all of 31 years younger than the Congress party itself, he has everything it takes to rejuvenate the party.”

But it’s his pet-hate, the BJP, which brings out the secular fundamentalist in Mani. This one’s about Enron and the BJP. “The mystique of unctuous self-righteousness that the BJP assiduously cultivated has been ripped open. They said they would throw Enron into the Arabian Sea. Now they are, metaphorically, in bed with Rebecca Mark.”

But, here’s a disclaimer for Mr. Tharoor. For all his Aiyarisms, Mani will also tell you how utterly boring it is to be an out of work politician in Delhi. Lesson one in politics: never upset the high command.

Each political party has its own set of Holy cows. For the Congress it’s the Gandhi parivar. For the BJP, it’s the Sangh parivar. For the Commies it’s Marx and his parivar. Anyone who dares to question these is cast out as a traitor. It’s a testimony to just how rigid our politics and especially our political parties have become. Did someone say internal democracy?

Our netas need a class in political humour from the Brits and the Americans. Obama can call Sarah Palin a pig who wears lipstick and yet the world doesn’t come crashing down. David Cameron calls Gordon Brown a complete phoney, and there’s still as much water flowing in the Thames. Only in India are politicians revered to the point of puking.

It’s only fitting to sign off with the most irrepressible of British politicians, Winston Churchill. This is a conversation that happened between him and Lady Astor in the British Parliament. After a bout of intense arguments over the war and his government’s handling of it, Lady Astor signed off by saying “Frankly Winston, if you were my husband, I’d mix poison in your morning tea.” To which the razor-sharp Churchill replies “Frankly, Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Imagine Jairam Ramesh saying that to Sushma Swaraj? Can it ever happen in uptight, puritanical India? Your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The more things change, the more they remain the same. A year after Lehman Brothers collapsed, what’s surprising on Wall Street is not how much has changed, but how little has.

To be fair with the Ben Bernankes and Henry Paulsons of the world, they did the right thing by bailing out the financial industry. If not, we would’ve not been referring to the events of the past year as just a recession. It would’ve simply been the Great Depression Act 2 Scene 1.

But having said that, what Bernanke & Co didn’t do was reform the system. They just rescued it, that’s all. The fundamental flaw of big banks cutting nine figure paychecks for executives who take irrational risks for short-term profits still exists. Banks are still rewarding bad actors. Only worse, these are the same guys who were bailed out by taxpayer largesse.

Now I don’t belong to the Investment Bankers hate club. I think it’s an honourable profession just like anything else. But my problem with this business is there are too many incentives for irrational risk-taking and too few punishments, if those risks don’t pay off.

And those incentives still exist. At the time of writing this post, Goldman Sachs was preparing to pay its 30,000 employees an average of $700,000. That’s pretty much what it was before the crash. So if I am a taxpayer who’s hard-earned money has bailed out these fattened chicken, then what am I to believe?

The impression that’s going around is that no matter what happens at these big banks, the government will always bail them out. So what’s happening is that investors are once again beginning to lend money to these banks and other financial majors on easy terms. That in turn will prompt the banks to take on risky loans. (After all, it’s somebody else’s money). When the going’s good, the banks keep the profits. When it turns sour, taxpayers will swallow the losses anyway. Heads I win, tails I still win.

A small case in point. Even today, even after the cataclysm of the global financial bust, in Goldman Sachs $1 in actual capital supports $14 in loans and investments. This is the same bloody over-leveraging which led to the financial bloodbath of last fall.

There’s simply no question that there has to be more regulation. That’s daft. The question is: is there the political will to do the same. Obama is a transformational politician. Can he also be a transformational President? History will judge his Presidency by what he did to correct the flaws which led to the catastrophe of September 2008. Or what he could have but didn’t do.

Friday, September 4, 2009


In May of 2003, the Times of India carried a very poignant photograph. It showed a bare-chested man, by the side of a highway in Andhra Pradesh, taking a shower from a government water pipeline. The photo would’ve been nondescript, if not for its subject. The man in the picture was YS Rajasekhara Reddy. YSR was then criss-crossing the most backward districts of his state, in what’s now being called his famous padayatra. But back then, it was called a gimmick by the state’s second most powerful politician.

Hundreds of miles away, in Hyderabad, the state’s most powerful politician, the self-proclaimed CEO of Andhra, Chandrababu Naidu was rubbing shoulders with corporate czars and chairmen of global banks. The state was going through one of the worst droughts ever. But Naidu’s worldview was restricted only to the swank IT super-structures of Cyberabad. Poverty, hunger and disease were unknown aliens. Who has time for the starving millions when there are millions to count in Swiss banks?

Well ten months later, the starving millions punished Naidu in the only way they knew. With the power of their vote. Back then too, no one in the media (both national and regional) gave YSR a chance. Naidu was after all the model Chief Minister. Who could dare predict his defeat?

Now as the country comes to terms with the shocking and sudden death of the Tiger of Cudappah, my mind goes back to that one image. It, in many ways defined YSR. The man, the politician and all that he stood for. He was a people’s politician. Always there to lend a ear or a shoulder. It’s this incredible people’s connect that made YSR what he was. In his native village of Pulivendula, people will tell you that YS knew the head of every family by his first name. In contrast, Naidu appeared aloof and distant.

I’ve had the good fortune of meeting YS on a couple of occasions in Delhi during his various trips to meet the high command. The first thing that strikes you about the man is his body language. He was so supremely confident. He would always look you in the eye, even if you asked the most uncomfortable question. And not to forget, the YS smile. He had the most endearing and warm smile you’ll find in any of our netas. It immediately drew you to the man. In the cut-throat world of our politics, it’s difficult to find a politician who smiles from the inside. Chandrababu would pay a million bucks to smile like that.

Unfortunately in our politics, there are no headlines for good governance. All the headlines are reserved for bad governance. What YS managed to prove with the 2009 victory is that people will vote for you purely on the basis of good work. It was incredible, during the campaign you’d run into these extremely poor people, ordinary folk who didn’t know where their next meal would come from, but they’d still be able to name atleast one scheme that YS had started. Arogyasri was very popular. So was the Indiramma housing scheme. The point is that these poor people may not even have been direct beneficiaries of these schemes, but to them, atleast here was a man who appeared to care for them. And that’s all the starving millions in this country ask for. Some compassion. A bit of empathy.

At a time when politicians are taking management lessons to run their constituencies, YS was a misfit. Straight out of the old school. A classical, old-world politician who’s politics was all about caring for the poor and the weak. There was no great rocket science to his politics. Just basic human compassion.

Mass hysteria is not something alien in the melodramatic world of South India. We’ve seen it when MGR died. Then when NTR passed away. And most recently when Annavaru, Dr. Rajkumar bid adieu. But mass hysteria was always reserved for filmstars or for matinee idols turned politicians. Never for an out and out politician. YSR changed that. And that gives you an indication of his greatness. Johar Rajanna. Johar.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


If the title of this post is misleading, let me clarify right at the start. Kaminey is not a bad film. In fact it’s a good film. But it just stops short of being a great one.

Especially when you compare it with the regular Bollywood staple, this is like manna from heaven. It’s the kind of film which a Karan Johar, even if he’s twice re-born will not have the skills or daring to make. It takes a man of supreme conviction and craft to put together such a racy, pulsating film.

My problem with Kaminey is that it didn’t sweep me off my feet. It didn’t blow my top off. Like Dev D or Departed did. The kind of film which sends an electric shock through your cerebrum, shaking your system down to the marrow. Kaminey just pretended to do that.

And part of it has to do with the stratospherical hype that preceded the film. The makers of the film and their friends in the media made this out to be our answer to Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. And it falls short only because of this irrational chest-thumping and trumpet blowing.

Not one film reviewer in this country gave it less than four stars. In fact the film critic of the country’s most popular newspaper gave it the same rating as she had given to Love Aaj Kal. There cannot be a greater travesty. It’s like equating Cabernet Sauvignon and horse piss.

It seems to be a bit of a strategy these days with Bollywood films. Go on this publicity blitzkrieg before the release of the film. Send the lead pair (sometimes with the director, to bring that intellectual touch) to do the rounds of TV studios. Hype the movie to such heights that out of sheer curiosity the viewer will go and watch. And if you’ve made it in the opening weekend, then it’s as good as a home run.

But publicity also has its negative side. The audience has already been fed with great expectations. So they expect to see Citizen Kane every time they walk into a movie hall. And invariably, the real thing always feels pale compared to the hyperbole built around it. And that’s what has killed Kaminey, an otherwise perfectly good film.

For three-quarters of its length, Kaminey keeps you engaged. Just like any edge of the seat thriller. But it’s in the climax that Vishal Bhardwaj lets you down. It’s too tepid an end for a movie which promised to take you to the moon and back. In the end, it’s just regular caper fare. Why should good always prevail over evil? Why should both the brothers live and one not die? Why should it always be happily-ever-after?

Funnily I’m reminded of Marlon Brando’s famous line in On the Waterfront. Funny, because Terry (Brando) says this to Charlie (Rod Steiger). “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.” This one’s from a fan to our very own Charlie.