Thursday, December 30, 2010

BRIC cleaves in the middle (contd.)

Coincidences never cease to surprise us. Have a look at the following report from AFP:

29 December 2010 - 11H26

Medvedev fires space chiefs after satellite failure

"A Proton-M rocket, carrying the Russian Glonass-M satellites, blasts off from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 5. President Dmitry Medvedev has fired two top space officials and reprimanded the head of Russia's space agency after the failed launch of three vital communications satellites, the Kremlin said. AFP - President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday fired two top space officials and reprimanded the head of Russia's space agency after the failed launch of three vital communications satellites, the Kremlin said.

Medvedev fired Vyacheslav Filin, vice president of the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, and Viktor Remishevsky, the deputy head of Russia's Roskosmos space agency, news agencies quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.

The Russian president also reprimanded Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov, the statement added.

"On the Russian president's instructions, Roskosmos will undertake additional measures to strengthen its performance discipline," the Kremlin statement said.

A Russian Proton-M rocket failed to reach its initial orbit during the December 5 launch, causing it to dump the three high-tech Glonass-M satellites near the Hawaii Islands.

It marked an embarrassing setback to Russia's much-publicised attempts to introduce a global rival to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), a programme that was first begun by the Soviet Union in 1976."

Last week, India's attempt to launch a GSLV rocket ended in failure in the first stage itself causing deep embarassment. However, no scientist was fired. We may perceive the contrasting styles of Russia and India in any of two ways.

1) There is accountability in Russia, but not in India.

2) India is more considerate and does not resort to witch-hunting.

The choice is yours.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Responsibility of the Prime Minister

The Hindu recently published an interestng essay written by Jaswant Singh on the perils to parliamentary democracy. I hope our prime minister would have had the opportunity to read this. (The prime minister lamented a few days ago that the parliament was not allowed to function by the opposition parties which are insisting on JPC probe into the 2G scam.) The essay follows:

"If our parliamentary democracy has indeed become a source of great worry to the Prime Minister, then who other than he and the government can steer the ship of state to safer waters?

The Prime Minister, recently, while returning from a G-20 meet expressed his concerns about the future of our parliamentary democracy. I share these apprehensions, for different reasons, though. Doubtless, his dire pronouncement is born of this unhappy ending of our Parliament's recent session. This disappointment, too, is shared by many. The PM, then rejected the Opposition's demand for establishing a JPC to enquire into the scandalous mismanagement of our ministry of telecommunications, but chose to do so outside the Parliament. Why outside, when he had chosen to remain studiedly silent throughout the session, on an issue that had shaken the Parliament? To an assembly of business leaders the PM rationalised the government's philosophy on surveillance of telephones. Again, why not inside Parliament? For of this matter, too, the Parliament was fully seized. Why, on all issues of serious parliamentary concern did the PM choose to comment only when away from it?

Reflect then, briefly, on what transpired in the Parliament during the winter session. After almost a month of unprecedented parliamentary turmoil, never earlier witnessed, the two Houses adjourned without transacting any business. The obstructing boulder of contention was this demand for a JPC, and the government's continuous rejection of it. Of course, it was an utterly depressing ending and greatly worrisome, too. But where, in this hour of grave challenge to our Parliament was the PM? The impasse was grave; the issue of substance; the opposition determined; it is here that leadership was needed; did the PM provide it? Under all circumstances the government must govern, but by leading not absenteeist withdrawal. The opposition will always question, confront, challenge, increasingly when not heeded, and even more when the prime mover of the government remains mutedly distant.

The Prime Minister has, perhaps unwittingly separated himself from the ‘ills of parliament'. This he cannot do and must not, for he is after all a product of this very institution. From where else does, or can his office originate? The Parliament is that great aorta of authority through which the sustaining blood of our relevance flows; sever this link and collapse must follow. The Prime Minister, in voicing his apprehension is, doubtless pointing an accusatory finger at the opposition, though, again involuntarily he is admitting to a great personal failure, too. It is failure of a profound and telling lack of leadership from him, personally. After all, at the heart of this kind of conduct and the current immobility in our Parliament lies an absence of regard for the laws of our land. This is the core debility: a wilful and uncaring disregard for not just the letter of our laws but almost a flaunting defiance of the spirit of it, too. It is this variety of corruption, heading all other manifestations of it, that is poisoning all our laws, debilitating our Parliament, in the process our democracy; not the noisy interruptions alone of the opposition, however unacceptable they also be.

Why failure?

Why such profound failures? Perhaps, because our grievance redressal systems have ground to a halt; also because we have lost regard for each other, we have abandoned our sense of kinship and fraternity without which no parliamentary democracy can function. We have forgotten how to accommodate dissent, and the less we do so, the harsher it becomes. We no longer consider the alternative view-point as being even remotely relevant; instead, we now treat disagreement as a disservice, a rebellious challenge, which must either be totally rejected, or then crushed. The tone, tenor and the content of our language, of mutual address, government to opposition, or the other way round has become dryly ritualised, patronisingly rejectionist, emptied totally of the spirit of parliamentary democracy. The hierarchy of our concerns no longer harmonise; courtesy and accommodation to the opposing view point is treated as being ‘soft', a weakness. We no longer recognise the great relevance of the ‘intensity, passion, intimacy, informality and spontaneity of parliamentary debates'. Perhaps, the Hon'ble Prime Minister no longer recognises, or accepts, that it is this ‘passion' which constitutes the personality and the heartbeat of our (or any other) Parliament. This ‘passion' occasionally obscures, but often illuminates, too; it distracts, yes, but this then is both it's strength and its weakness. Parliament is an assembly of human beings; it must have human virtues, and vices and failings, it is not, must not ever be, just a container of ritualised nothingness.

Where, therefore, has that human sense and good cheer of our Parliament gone? Surely, it is not the opposition alone that has robbed our institution of it. It saddens me greatly to have to rebut the Hon'ble Prime Minister, who chooses to, almost always declaim his views outside the Parliament, and that, too, about the Parliament. He is after all, the head of the government, he is a consequence of Parliament, not an outsider; he has to understand the failings of it, to sympathise, to be with it in both its strengths and its weaknesses; to value and nurture it, not to shun it. Above all he must attend to all the concerns of it, vital or trivial, just or unjust, for Mr. Prime Minister this is a living organism, not just a hide-bound institution. Doubtless, there would arise occasions when its actions border on the unwise, or even totally unjustified, but those are the very situations in which the Leader must lead. More when those sudden and awesome storms of contention shake the very pillars of Parliament; it is then that the Prime Minister must step in, take command, not abandon the Institution and proceed to comment on it as if uninvolved, unconcerned, unconnected. Let us never forget that the spontaneity of the House, or it's debates, even an absence of them is an integral of this institution; a part of its personality.

The telecom issue

It would be repetitively wearisome to recount here the sorry episode of this telecom scandal. Clearly, no minister can, or ought to act entirely on his/her own, to take significant decisions involving national laws, national economy, and the exchequer, without due diligence and a full consideration of the views of his cabinet colleagues. No one is authorised to throw overboard the entire philosophical and functional core of parliamentary, representative and cabinet system of governance. Has justice been done to this central aspect? Clearly not. Where then was the PM? That is why the victims of this neglect is the institution of Parliament; also our cabinet system of governances; its accountability and answerability, and above all due regard for law; indeed a wilful denigration of the majesty of it. Nobody can today say, with any lasting conviction as to which of the great institutions of our Republic have remained unsullied. Who is responsible?

Yet, the Prime Minister complains — ‘Our parliamentary democracy is under great strain'. Yes, but can the government, or the Prime Minister, voice this concern only as a complainant; always as accuser and forever be complacent in the face of this great wrong that has been done, continues to be done, to the very moral fibre of our country? And if our parliamentary democracy has indeed become a source of great worry to the Prime Minister, then who, other than the government, and he will steer the ship of state to safer waters? What then are we, the rank and file of Parliament to do, as we are confined to the lower decks, other than to clamour for attention?

What has brought all this about? An experimental division of the functions of governance in our parliamentary democracy. This division of responsibility, instead of being handled normally, as has always been done uptil now, through India's independent years, has now been turned into a kind of a diarchy. In this all authority, all decisions of substance are made outside of the government; for there now exists a kind of a supra-cabinet, too, which is not answerable to the Parliament. What then remains with the ‘elected executive' is empty, residual ‘responsibility' for decisions, which in reality are not even of its own making. This is a totally unnatural and unviable arrangement. Why has this been set up? How then is the parliamentary system to work? It is elementary, and axiomatic, that unproductively dry dynasticism is the very antithesis of democracy. For preserving hereditary priorities if our systems have to be bent, means made subservient to ends, and until that desired ‘end' is attained, all rules will continue to be bent, then surely for all this India will be made to pay. And if India pays, then in the process surely the instrumentality of our parliamentary democracy will also pay, thus be debilitated. And that is what is happening now: along with a tragic, painful and absurd trivialisation of our concerns. It is manifestations like these that strike at the heart of our parliamentary democracy, not what the delphic utterances of the Hon'ble PM imply.

That is why it needs to be asked: as our parliamentary democracy is in danger, according to the Prime Minister, what then has he done about it — or intends to do?"

(Jaswant Singh is BJP Member of Parliament and former Finance Minister

Sunday, December 19, 2010

BRIC cleaves in the middle

The Economist dated Dec 11 says the following:

" "Corruption no longer meant breaking the rules of the game; it was the game.-----------

“The problem is not that this regime is authoritarian, the problem is that it is unfair, corrupt and ineffective,” says one leading businessman. “Corruption will erode and bring down this system.” The paradox is that few  government officials disagree with this. -----------

But even if the Prime Minister would like to retire, can he afford to?" "

The magazine was referring to Russia. The reference can as well be to India. Among the BRIC countres, Russia and India seem to be racing towards unheard levels of corruption, incompetence and malgovernance.

A.L.Basham's book on Indian history was aptly titled "The Wonder that was India". Any contemporary analysis would be called "The Tragedy that is India". Our posterity will not forgive us for misusing our inheritance and ruining the nation.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Manmohan Singh and Ratan Tata

Manmohan Singh and Ratan Tata are among the few Indian leaders with unblemished reputation. At least, they appeared to be so before the 2G Scam broke out. Their reputation is now in tatters. Strangely they have responded to the telecom imbroglio in opposite ways.

The prime minister has been steadfastly quiet when he should have spoken aloud and put his foot down. The industrialist on the other hand was uncharacteristically outspoken and getting hoist with his own petard. In the process both have revealed their true selves.

When a respected leader indulges in a misdemeanour, the unsuspecting public goes through a crisis of faith and turns cynical. This is what is happening in India today. Singh and Tata have let us down very badly. Brand valuers will have a tough time figuring out the huge dip in the value of the Tata brand.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Should we not marvel at Assange's digital diligence and dexterity in prising open the dichotomy between the public and private views of so many leaders and diplomats? Instead of trying to gun down Mr.Inconvenient, the governments ought to introspect on the advisability of continuing to indulge in double talk. We may succeed in tracking down the "evil genius", but the pioneering path he has shown is likely to get crowded with many followers, some skilled and many naive.

Equally interesting is the "Radiagate" that is blowing the lid off the imaginary integrity of business tycoons like Ratan Tata. It is indeed sad that an icon of our times is getting exposed in this sordid way; it is even more sad that his amateurish attempts to protect his teflon coat are only aggravating the damage to his reputation. It appears that there is no leader in politics or elsewhere whose image has not been sullied. Tragic times, indeed!

It would be a travesty if instead of modifying our errant behaviour we resort to silencing the critics.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Tata's discomfiture and Chidambaram's strange argument

As noted on 28th November, Ratan Tata is aggrieved over the leak of tapped telephonic conversations. His petition in the Supreme Court pleading for an order against further public dissemination of private conversations is in the hearing stage. He has argued that right to privacy is an essential part of right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of our Constitution. He has sought to widen the implications saying that any damage to his reputation will also affect the interests of innumerable investors in the Tata group of companies. It is moot however if such an argument does not assume a larger right to privacy for some over others. While the court proceedings promise to be interesting, P.Chidambaram's public statement on leak of tapes is rather strange.

Economic Times dated 4th December quotes the minister as saying  that such leaks are inevitable when tapping relates to a major scam or tax violation. "I am afraid that when there is a major scam and a major tax violation and such conversations are recorded, things tend to get leaked. It is unfortunate but some of this is inevitable." Is it really so, Mr.Minister? If your private conversations are repeatedly telecast, will this reasoning appease you? When there is a major scam and therefore attempts at leak are expected, should not the government be more careful? Attempts to leak may be inevitable but not the leak itself. It is indeed scary when the government itself argues that crimes/misdemeanours/violations of constitutionally granted rights are inevitable and "therefore, grin and bear them". Of course, the last quote is not attributed to the minister.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Impeccable integrity (contd.)

Apropos the post dated 23rd November, let us read what Justice V R Krishna Iyer has to say on this unsavoury incident: (Courtesy: The Hindu)

Submission of suspicion

V.R. Krishna Iyer

A statement by the Attorney-General before the Supreme Court raises a question mark over judicial appointments. It spells an implicit challenge to the integrity of the judiciary as a whole.
On November 22, an extraordinary oral statement on behalf of the Union Government was made before the Supreme Court of India. During the course of hearings on a writ petition questioning the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner, the court had raised certain questions about whether the person chosen would be able to function effectively, given that a charge sheet was pending against him. Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati was then reported to have told the Bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Swatanter Kumar: “If the criterion [of impeccable integrity] has to be included, then every judicial appointment can be subject to scrutiny. Every judicial appointment will be challenged.”

Deserves to be defended

This writer, who happened to be a Judge of the Supreme Court some 30 years ago, has been morally molested by the suspicion cast on the Indian judiciary as a whole by that statement. The Indian judiciary, one of the best such institutions among global democracies, deserves to be defended rather than besmirched. However, since there has been silence in the few days since the statement was made, I am provoked to register my protest against the insinuation that was implicit in the submission of the Attorney General made to the Supreme Court. Insinuation is imputation concealed by cowardice. Are all judges innocent of integrity? Alas!

Can it indeed be true that the present Attorney-General, a successor in office to the great M.C. Setalvad and others of his ilk, did submit to the Chief Justice of the highest court of judicial justice of the nation, that if the integrity of every judge of the higher court were to be assured, it would turn out to be a very embarrassing adventure? What about the integrity of the Attorney-General himself?

Therefore, the court should put the Executive under obligation to answer the question why the integrity of the person who was chosen as Chief Vigilance Commissioner was not thoroughly investigated before the appointment was made. The hint given to the court and the hunch left to the nation through that statement is that the integrity of even Supreme Court judges is problematic, and that no investigation was made when members of the noblest robed brethren were chosen and appointed, nor could it be scrutinised. This submission, if it is true, puts under a shadow a sublime institution that is empowered to pronounce with high authority its judgment if ever the executive and legislative instrumentalities violate the Constitution, and the fundamental rights are under threat. In short, the Attorney-General's observation amounts to casting doubts over the integrity of the highest institution to which We, the People of India, can go seeking justice and human rights.

‘It is blasphemy'

Are judges, then, a suspect instrumentality with their very credibility under challenge? Expressed as a submission, it is blasphemy uttered against the most glorious and finest of the trinity of instrumentalities under the Constitution. The most sublime instruments of the Indian judiciary, every member thereof, are no exception. Suspicion about their probity and impartiality has been expressed openly. When their integrity, credibility and impartiality are raised as issues by the Executive, through its Attorney-General who has dared to submit it, no assumption in their favour can be made. Yes, we cannot assume their integrity and secularism: both must be investigated.

This is scandalous — a shock and a shame. I protest, and expect the Supreme Court to get the Attorney-General to explain whether the President, on the advice of the Cabinet, appoints judges without making any assessment of their integrity, character, social philosophy, antecedents or democratic commitment. All these values hang on the iron string of integrity.

Let the nation awake to this implicit slander. The Attorney-General may have his alibi or a valid defence in this matter. Fiat Justicia is an idle phrase, and as in Pakistan and once in Sri Lanka the top executive is then on top of the Supreme Court itself. This submission of suspicion is the upas tree under whose shade reason fails and justice dies — here it concerns the court itself. The Indian Bar must protest against this.

Let there be a commission

Let there be an Appointments and Performance Commission so that any suspicion over the integrity of a member of the judiciary is dispelled before that person sits on the Bench, an incredibly public sanctuary of dignity and divinity. Indeed, the high judicial bench is Bharat's non-negotiable institution of integrity. Parliament must immediately discuss this dangerous attitude of the Attorney General. A grave National Judicial Commission should be made a part of the constitutional judicial code.

Does that statesman, Dr. Manmohan Singh, support vicariously this dubious statement by the Attorney-General? Why does the Bar Council of India remain silent when a covert aspersion on the institution of the judiciary comes up in the open court? This is either a grave crisis or a casual, though accidental, aberration. Silence is guilt when fearless speech is basic courage. Or else confidence in the Supreme Court will become a casualty.
It is my conviction that judges of the higher judiciary should be like Caesar's wife — they have to be above suspicion. Or else, justice, social and economic, will remain a paper promise and the robe will become a mere cover-up of concealed sins. Speak up, Indians. Taciturnity is trauma and a taint.

Sans the Supreme Court, beyond doubt India will face functional chaos under the shadow of criminality. Satyameva Jayate will have to surrender to corrupt power syndrome. Do we want a new forensic avatar? This puts all other scams to shame.

Maybe I have somewhat exaggerated the implications of an innocuous submission by the Attorney-General, but mainly I stressed the truth of my soul. Judges ought to beware.
Yet, now it would seem that the members of the robed brethren have themselves started suspecting one another. A Bench comprising Justice Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra of the Supreme Court on November 26 made remarks that amounted to questioning the integrity of at least some of the Judges of the Allahabad High Court.

It said: “We do not mean to say that all lawyers who have close relations as judges of the High Court are misusing that relationship. Some are scrupulously taking care that no one should lift a finger on this account. However, others are shamelessly taking advantage of this relationship. There are other serious complaints also against some judges of the High Court. The High Court really needs some house-cleaning and we request the Honourable Chief Justice of the High Court to do the needful, even if he has to take some strong measures, including recommending transfers of the incorrigibles.”
How corruption seems to have corroded one of the finest institutions of India!

© Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The agony of Ratan Tata

Ratan Tata is aggrieved that Niira Radia's telephonic conversation with him was tapped and is now public knowledge. Niira Radia of Vaishnavi Communications, a PR agency had her telephone bugged by IT authorities. The tapped conversations with numerous industrialists, media people, bureaucrats,politcians and others serendipitously exposed the sinister ways in which influence peddling vitiates governance.

Obviously Tata's sangfroid is under test. He seems to have cracked under pressure. Though his foibles pale into insignificance when compared to those of others, it is undeniable that he has not resisted the temptation to game the system and to have more accommodative or less malicious politicians in seats of power.

The respected doyen made two mistakes. One he needlessly gave a clean chit to the lobbyist under investigation. The other error is that he demands that the recorded conversations should not be aired. The damage has been done and it is now too late to undo the past indiscretion. Pleading for secrecy is totally unlike Tata and it does irreparable damage to his well-earned reputation.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The New York Times on the Spectrum Scam

Here is how the New York Times looks at the scandal allegedly involving $ 40 bn:


November 21, 2010

Unlikely Person at the Heart of India’s ScandalBy LYDIA POLGREEN

NEW DELHI — He was a small-town lawyer from a regional political party in a southern Indian state. By almost any measure, Andimuthu Raja, who had no background in telecommunications or in business, seemed an unlikely candidate to be the government minister presiding over the fastest-growing cellphone market in the world.

But he had the only qualification that mattered: the ironclad backing of the political chieftain of his party, a crucial ally of the governing Congress Party. Without his party’s 16 members of the lower house of Parliament, the government cobbled together from squabbling allies would collapse.

Mr. Raja is now at the center of what may turn out to be the biggest political corruption scandal in Indian history. He is accused of using his post to sell off valuable mobile telephone spectrum licenses in 2008 at rock-bottom prices. His decisions may have cost the Indian treasury as much as $40 billion, according to a government investigative report released last week.
The widening scandal, coming on the heels of two major political scandals involving senior Congress Party officials, has eroded faith in India’s government. Last week, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, widely regarded as a figure of unimpeachable integrity, was rapped by the Supreme Court for failing to investigate quickly. The scandal also threatens to undermine one of the cornerstones of India’s rapidly growing, technology-driven economy.

The story of how Mr. Raja rose from small-time regional politician to telecommunications minister is emblematic of how politics in India, the world’s largest democracy, really work. Small, regional parties, often formed along family or caste lines, hold outsize sway here, taking command of crucial and potentially lucrative parts of the government to fill their pockets and party coffers.
“When there is a multiparty coalition at the center, you have got to turn a blind eye to the actions of some of the less principled parties,” said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst.
Since 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi’s government went down in defeat in the wake of a corruption scandal involving military contracts, no party has won an outright majority in Parliament. As a result, forming a government has required complicated and often messy coalitions with smaller regional parties. These parties often have no national agenda and see power in the center as little more than an opportunity to loot.
The Congress Party has had no shortage of corruption scandals of its own. But it currently controls the most crucial government functions — internal security, foreign policy, defense and finance — and has entrusted them to seasoned leaders with unassailable credentials. But the realities of coalition politics, in which crucial allies must be given important posts, have left some large ministries in the hands of smaller parties, which have in turn put questionable politicians in important jobs.

This has led to embarrassing scandals and mismanagement in the past. In 2006, the coal minister, Shibu Soren, a politician from the eastern state of Jharkhand and an important ally of the Congress Party, was forced to resign after he was convicted on murder charges. India’s railways, the country’s largest employer, are in the hands of Mamata Banerjee, a populist leader whose sole aim appears to be defeating the Communist Party of India in West Bengal and putting her party, the Trinamool Congress, in power.
Mr. Raja’s party, the Tamil Nadu-based Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or D.M.K., was once a liberation movement built on Tamil nationalism. But the party has largely jettisoned ideology. An octogenarian, wheelchair-dependent patriarch named M. Karunanidhi and his plentiful and perpetually feuding progeny run it, and it more closely resembles a sprawling family business empire than a political party.

When the Congress Party returned to power in 2004, it won narrow advantage over the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, whose former ally, the D.M.K., linked up instead with Congress. The D.M.K.’s reward was the telecommunications ministry and several other posts.

Mr. Karunanidhi sent his grandnephew, a local media tycoon named Dyanidhi Maran, to Delhi to become telecommunications minister. But Mr. Maran fell afoul of Mr. Karunanidhi’s eldest son. In an effort to quiet the burgeoning family feud, Mr. Karunanidhi replaced Mr. Maran, a powerful political player in Tamil Nadu, with Mr. Raja, who was much less well known but who had a close relationship with Mr. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, who is also a powerful party figure.
Mr. Raja had a history of party activism dating to his college days. He had been a minister in a previous government. He was the most important politician in the state from the Dalit, or formerly untouchable, community, and giving him a big job would secure Dalit votes.
“He was loyal and he was not a threat,” said Vaasanthi, an analyst who has written extensively about Tamil Nadu politics and who goes by one name. “That was his qualification for the job.”

Mr. Raja may not have been a threat to Mr. Karunanidhi’s children, who jealously guard control of the party as their birthright. But his handling of the spectrum sale has undermined confidence in what initially appeared to be India’s most stable and competent government in years.

Even Mr. Singh, widely seen as one of the most upstanding politicians in India, has been tarred in the scandal. While no one has suggested he was involved in corruption, India’s Supreme Court criticized him last week for failing to respond to a call for an investigation into Mr. Raja’s handling of the spectrum sale.

Mr. Singh has pledged to punish anyone found guilty in the scandal, but questions linger about why he did not act sooner to remove Mr. Raja, leading some to conclude that the Congress Party will sacrifice almost any principle to hold on to its governing coalition.

Mr. Raja resigned under pressure on Nov. 14, but he has denied any wrongdoing. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation is carrying out a criminal inquiry.
The Congress Party has faced its own corruption scandals in recent weeks. The senior politician who was in charge of the disastrous preparations for the Commonwealth Games last month had to resign from a minor party position amid multiple inquiries into fraud and graft. The chief minister of Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai, was also forced to step down after it was discovered that members of his family had improperly received valuable apartments meant for war widows.
Such scandals, analysts say, could undermine efforts by the Congress Party’s chief, Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul to win an outright majority in the next election, in 2014.

Impeccable integrity

Indian government is relentlessly striving to commit one mala-fide act after another. Attorney General's impish statement in the Supreme Court in the CVC appointment case deserves nation's condemnation.

When the Bench wanted to know if the mandatory eligibility criterion of "impeccable integrity" was satisfied by P J Thomas, the AG atrociously replied , "If integrity is a criterion, all judicial appointments will come under scrutiny, even constitutional ones." One wonders what the AG was driving at. Was he not in the process accepting that this simple requirement was not met in the case of CVC ?

Framers of Indian Constitution will certainly turn in their graves if they come to know how the government is playing ducks and drakes with institutions like presidency and vigilance commission. Ill fares the land and to hastening ills a prey, where arrogance accumulates and governance decays !

It is very sad that our premier is playing possum when onslaughts on ethical conduct are becoming more venomous. It is a shocking irony that standards of governance are hitting the nadir when an honest person is at the helm.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The "presumptive" argument

The ever-repulsive spokesperson of the Congress party has unconvincingly argued that CAG's report on 2G Scam refers only to "presumptive loss" to the exchequer and therefore the country is needlessly agitated over a non-issue.

Even before we could digest this argument, the normally sensible P.Chidambaram has sought to throw further light on the theory of presumption. "I place some 50-60 signatures in a day with the presumption that they are right to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps few may go wrong, but they were not malafide because the intentions were right." (The Hindu dated 22nd Nov.)

Is Chidambaram serving advance notice on the prime minister ? This specious presumption argument can be used by every decision-maker. So no one can be held accountable for any decision, for who will accept his intentions were wrong?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lessons from the 2G Spectrum Scam (contd.)

The scam is so pernicious and deep that it is impossible to grasp fully the significance of the entire scandal. Failure of governance has never been so outrageous. Economic loss to the nation is enormous. The prime minister's role (or should we say non-role) has caused dismay all over the country. How could a supposedly honest leader be a helpless bystander when his team-mate was literally running amuck? Some columnists have averred that this could have happened only at the instance of some one more powerful than the prime minister himself.

Let us not blame only the Congress and the DMK for the abysmal fall in political standards. The BJP which used to claim that it was a party with a difference is shamelessly proving by its behaviour in Karnataka that it is an equal match for the Congress party. Politcs cannot become dirtier than this.

There are also disturbing reports that even some eminent journalists of the electronic media have had a role in rehabilitating proven scamsters in the central cabinet. It is easy to turn pessimistic in a situation like this. At the same time, one may also hope that things can only become better.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lessons from the 2G Spectrum Scam

The spectrum scam, the largest ever skulduggery in Independent India -- trust our politicians to make this reputation unsustainable even for a short time --  has enabled us to understand the legerdemain of the likes of A.Raja, to some extent. Suhel Seth of CounselAge, a respected observer of events, understated the obvious when he recently referred to these scamsters as scoundrels and rascals.

Some sections of the media played a remarkable role in uncovering at least partially the bottomless scandal. Ar nab Goswami of Times Now needs special mention. He was unrelenting in pursuit of the covert and not so covert machinations of the political-bureaucratic-business nexus. He richly deserves a Padma award for his efforts. Of course we are living in a fools' paradise if we hope that the government will honour such sincerity of purpose.

The Hindu true to its recently cultivated culture of conflating perversion and partiality was doggedly abstaining from editorially seeking the resignation of the egregious minister. After the minister put in his papers, the newspaper praised that he had done the right thing. The Hindu's representative,  one Mr.Radhakrishnan,  while participating in a TV panel discussion desperately and dolefully pleaded that the media leak of the CAG report on the scam before it was officially placed in the Parliament must be probed, thus exposing the shameless tilt of the newspaper. A newspaper that is less concerned about the contents of CAG report than about the logistics of its release is a national disgrace and not a national newspaper.

The Congress and the BJP vied with each other in adopting dilatory tactics in order to redirect the attention of the nation away from the sins of politicians. The BJP is equally shameless as the Congress in not addressing the main issue in the Karnataka land scam. These two national parties only take pride in mutual satisfaction that both have serially indulged in scams, cover-ups and recidivism. The Communist parties have behaved much better at least in the recent past.

Manish Tiwari, the irrepressible buffoon of the Congress party has once again proved his limitless capacity to outdo the ostrich in denying the obvious. His incorrigible tendency to disallow co-panelists to express themselves is not helping the Congress party in any meaningful way. Jayanthi Natarajan's repeated references to falsehoods as "the fact of the matter" were eminently avoidable. Her obstinate utterances unsurprisingly invited Subramanian Swamy's plea that she must revisit the law school.

One interesting matter has not received the attention it deserves. DMK claims that A.Raja resigned on the advice of his leader Mr.Karunanidhi whereas Kapil Sibal maintains that the ever-decent prime minister sought his resignation. Manish Tiwari has expressed both these contradictory views at different points of time. Jayanthi Natarajan has insisted that Raja had resigned and was not sacked. Prime Minister's taciturnity engendered and sustained this glaring confusion. The Raja's Rule mentioned in the previous post stands untested as of now.

Kapil Sibal's aggression is patently self-defeating. His sanctimonious dismissal of Subramanian Swamy's attempts to lay open the government's unconcern for good governance as procedurally incorrect , a trick also practised by Jayanthi Natarajan will hopefully not succeed in obfuscating the real issue. It is an old trick to shoot the messenger when the message is unwelcome. The new trick is to shoot the behaviour of the messenger if you can't shoot the messenger.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Raja's Rule

Most of us are naive enough to assume that in a cabinet and that too in a coalition cabinet, the ministers continue as ministers only as long as they enjoy the confidence of the prime minister. Our Communications and IT czar , Mr.Raja has clarified that our assumption is completely perverse and wrong.

According to a PTI report, when asked whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would ask him to resign, Mr.Raja said the question was "fictitious". He continued,"I have full confidence in myself". In other words, as long as a minister has confidence in himself/herself, the prime minister cannot ask for the minister's resignation.

This is the historical origin of Raja's Rule which simply says, "In a coalition ministry, a minister continues to be a minister as long as he retains confidence in himself, notwithstanding prime minister's lack of confidence in the minister". However we are awaiting clarification whether this rule applies to every minister or only to those ministers who have royalty embedded in their names.

The pun in the caption is unintended.

How clean is Mr.Clean?

With great difficulty the Congress party (aka Sonia Gandhi) chose Prithviraj Chavan as successor to the scam-tainted Ashok Chavan. The choice was hailed as confirmation of high moral standards of the party. Now read the following report from The Hindu:

"A Right to Information (RTI) application seeking the names of owners of flats in the Chief Minister's quota for weaker sections has revealed that Maharashtra's new head Prithviraj Chavan owns a flat in Wadala under the scheme.

Official sources clarified that Mr. Chavan did own a flat under the MP's quota, but was taking steps to return it. The flat was bought for his deceased mother Premilatai Chavan, who was being treated for cancer in Mumbai.

Mr. Chavan did not own a house in Mumbai, and had applied for a house under the MPs quota so that members of the family could stay while his mother was being treated. However, by the time the flat was allotted, his mother passed away, it is learnt from sources. RTI activist Anil Galgali had applied for this information in 2008.

He told The Hindu that he filed an application for information on all the people who had obtained flats under the Chief Minister's five per cent quota.
The request was refused. Mr. Galgali appealed, which was heard in February 2009. It was in March 2009 that he got the list of 4,200 names who were allotted preferential flats under the quota from the year 1984 to 2009.

“I read the list of names and came across one P. Chavan who, I realised, is the man who was in the Prime Minister's Office,” Mr. Galgali said. Then, he went about asking for the file from the collector's office, and found this flat in Bhakti Park, Wadala, was for the weaker sections who cannot otherwise afford flats. “Mr. Chavan got the flat because of the then Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde,” Mr. Galgali alleged.

He said there was no income certificate, no domicile or no income tax documents. The applicant should also show that he did not own a house anywhere in Maharashtra, and should have an income below Rs. 1.5 lakh, which was the limit for eligibility at that time.

Mr. Chavan's stated income in the application form was Rs. 76,000 per year. Besides, he applied for the flat on May 17, 2003, and on May 19 his application was considered eligible. The letter of allotment was issued on May 20, 2003. He paid Rs. 3,66,969 for the flat which measures 1,032.74 square feet. Mr. Galgali said the per square foot rate of the flat was over Rs. 13,000-Rs.14,000 at present, and questioned how the income could be only Rs. 76,000 as shown.

He said there was double violation as not only was Mr. Chavan not eligible for the flat, but he had also given it out on rent.

The Congress said Mr. Chavan was clean, this proves he is not, said Mr. Galgali, who said he was not affiliated to any political party and neither was this motivated by any other considerations.
Since this information was available in 2009, when asked if any news reports had appeared at that time, Mr. Galgali said there were articles then too, but this time, since Mr. Chavan is the Chief Minister now, there was more interest. “Mr. Chavan should return the flat and set an example.”
Of the 4,200 names on that list, Mr. Galgali asked for the files on a few “famous” names, including Mr. Chavan, whose information he got within a week. “There were some 10,000 to 12,000 files and I did not photocopy all of them,” he clarified. The 36-year-old freelance journalist has been filing RTI applications for a while, and has totted up 500 requests since 2002. Now he has a request for those allotted flats under the Chief Minister's two per cent quota, where one has to pay the entire amount for the flat. That information too, is being delayed."

Is there any honest politician in India today? If such a person really exists, he must be hiding somewhere being mortally afraid that in case he reveals himself he will be lynched to death for betraying the political class.

Monday, November 08, 2010

World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen of Norway is a phenomenal player in chess. Though only 19 years old, he is already rated as even better than the current world champion, Viswanathan Anand of India. He has raised a meaningful issue about the logistics of anointment of world champion. The present system is that a challenger to incumbent champion will have to emerge from a set of tiring tournaments. The challenger so chosen will play against the incumbent. This system , accordng to Carlsen and perhaps logically also, offers an undue advantage to incumbent champion who need not go through the dilatory process. Carlsen should be appreciated for flagging this issue. However his decision not to participate in the process unless the rules are changed forthwith is disappointing.

Corporate Governance : over-rated?

Do independent directors really make a positve difference? Does improved governance result in better corporate performance? The answers may be ambivalent at best. Following excerpts from The Economist (Schumpeter) are perhaps the most unflattering assessment so far:

"New research by David Erkens, Mingyi Hung and Pedro Matos, of the University of Southern California, powerfully reinforces the sceptics’ case. The authors conducted a comprehensive study of the performance in 2007-08 of 296 financial institutions with assets of more than $10 billion. They found that none of the tenets of good corporate governance stood up to close examination. Directors who were well informed about finance performed no better than know-nothings. Companies that separated CEOs and chairmen did no better. Far from helping companies to weather the crisis, powerful institutional shareholders and independent directors did worse in terms of shareholder value. Indeed, the proportion of independent directors on the boards was inversely related to companies’ stock returns.

Why was this? The authors argue that in the run-up to the crisis powerful institutional owners pushed firms to take more risks to boost shareholder returns. This suggests, they argue, that outside shareholders may be inherently more risk-hungry than managers who have their livelihoods tied up with their companies. They also argue that independent directors were much more likely to press firms into raising more equity capital even when the company’s share price was tanking. One possible reason for this is that independent board members are worried that their value in the market for directorships will plummet if they have overseen companies that have filed for bankruptcy or debated restructuring. "

What is there to comment?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Multiple Conflicts of interest

The war of words between Oracle and Hewlett Packard is becoming curiouser and curiouser. It is now a dated story that Mark Hurd was sacked as CEO of HP ostensibly  for fudging his expense accounts in trying to mask a graver ethical lapse. This dismissal was characterised as stupid by Oracle's CEO, Larry Ellison who subsequently roped in Hurd as Oracle's President. HP accused Hurd of attracting conflict of interest in view of the possibility of proprietary information on HP's business strategy being misused by Oracle through Hurd.

Oracle fought back by intensifying its legal efforts to nail Leo Apotheker who was recruited by HP in the place of Mark Hurd. Apotheker was working for SAP, the German software behemoth when SAP had admittedly stolen Oracle's software. As if these conflicts of interest are not enough, a new interesting development has now taken place. Joe Nocera, a columnist at NewYork Times has decried HP's injudicious decision to take in Leo Apotheker who had allegedly played an apparently unjustifiable role in the theft of Oracle's software. So far it has been okay as a journalist's espousal of the need for ethical behaviour.

The interesting twist that now emerges as yet another conflict of interest is the information that Nocera's fiancee is the Communications Director of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the law firm that is advising Oracle in its legal dispute with SAP. Oracle has alleged that Apotheker had a role in software theft.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Supreme Court on "Rarest of rare crime"

The Supreme Court recently had occasion to revisit what is the rarest of rare case which deserves capital punshment. The Hindu reported as under:

"Expressing serious concern over dowry death cases where young women are being killed, the Supreme Court has said that such offences are to be treated as the ‘rarest of rare' ones and extreme punishment of death should be awarded to offenders.

A Bench consisting of Justices Markandey Katju and T.S. Thakur said: “Although bride-burning or bride-hanging cases have become common in our country, in our opinion, the expression ‘rarest of rare' does not mean that the act is uncommon, it means that the act is brutal and barbaric. Bride killing is certainly barbaric.” "

Given that the crime we discussed in the blog on 10th Oct. was certainly brutal and barbaric, we reiterate that the accused in that Bengaluru case has to receive only capital punishment.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Supreme Court on 2G spectrum allocation

On Oct 29th, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure over footdragging by investigative agencies on the alleged scandal in allocation of 2G spectrum. So far so good.

However what is worrisome is that the apex court went on to say, "The CBI has not done anything. The matter is serious. THE SAME MINISTER IS STILL CONTINUNG TODAY."

Judiciary has every right, and in fact the duty also, to stress that investigations should be expedited. But is the court justified in jumping to the conclusion that the minister is guilty even before the investigation and court  proceedings are completed?

The following was blogged a year back on 27th Oct 2009. Nonetheless the supreme court is not expected to prejudge the issue. That right is available for lesser mortals only !

" October 27, 2009

Scam, what scam?

The whole country may be talking about the telecom loot in which new licences were issued and spectrum allocated at throwaway prices duping the exchequer of Rs.22000 crore or Rs.60000 crore depending on whether you trust the CBI or the opposition parties. But Mr.A.Raja, the Communications and IT minister, is unfazed. He has rhetorically asked, "Where is the question of any scam? I ONLY FOLLOWED MY PREDECESSORS and carried out the entire process as per laid norms ------". I was wondering who the predecessor could be.

Former Communications minister, Sukh Ram was sentenced to 3 years of rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs.1 lac by a CBI special court in New Delhi on 5th July 2002 for indulging in corruption by favouring a private party at the cost of Rs.1.68 crore to the public exchequer. The judge said, "Being the head of the ministry, he was expected to act in public interest , but he betrayed the trust imposed upon him---If the minister himself abuses his position, it will hardly be possible for him to check abuse by the other public servants working under him."

Poor Sukh Ram! He was defrauding the nation by a paltry Rs.1.68 crore. He did not belong to a party that had enough leverage in the cabinet to claim as Mr.Raja has done,"All decisions were taken in consultation with the Prime Minister. Let the CBI investigate and if anyone is found guilty, law will take its own course." In other words, if the minister is guilty, so too is the prime minister! If the minister is to be arrested, the prime minister also should accompany him to the prison!

Should the minister resign since the CBI has raided his ministry? The minister has answered himself. "Where is the question of resignation? I have done no wrong." Touche! "

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Supreme Court's queer logic

On 18th Oct., a Division Bench of the Supreme Court was hearing a public interest litigation petition on streamlining the public distribution system. Justice Dalveer Bhandari observed during the hearing,"If the foodgrains are not fit for human consumption, they should not be given even to animals." Strange logic, isn't it ?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Microfinance shenanigans

Microfinance institutions exist only because commercal banks have abdicated their responsiblity to extend productive loans to the economically poor. Insistence on collateral security makes bank loans non est for the underprivileged. MFIs utilise this opportunity to make predatory loans to weaker sections of society.

Dr.Vikram Akola, the controversial executive chairman of SKS Microfinance has now claimed that his company is ready to cut lending rates by 2% from the present 26%  SKS has come under spotlight on account of its hugely successful IPO and subsequent dubious ouster of its CEO, Suresh Gurumani. Unable to bear the strong-arm methods adopted by SKS and similar MFIs, more than 25 penurious persons have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh in the recent past.

N.R.Narayana Murthy's venture capital fund, Catamaran has invested in SKS Microfinance. He has so far abstained from commenting on alleged corporate malpractices in SKS. Vikram Akola claims that Gurumani was sacked due to inter-personal issues between Gurumani and other members of the Board. His refusal to clarify what these issues are has rendered the ouster episode intriguing. Suresh Gurumani was earlier associated with the Standard Chartered Bank and Barclay's Bank. Akola was working for Mckinsey for some time. His book "A Fistful of Rice: My unexpected quest to end poverty through profitability" wll soon be published by Harvard Business Press.

In the meanwhile, Malini M.Byanna, the former wife of Vikram Akula has alleged that the latter had misused SKS corporate resources to terrorise her. If the allegations are true, corporate governance has received yet another mortal blow. Is Vikram Akula a Ramalinga Raju in the making ?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Inchoate justice

The "Fast Track Sessions Court" at Bengaluru has at last delivered its judgement in the HP GlobalSoft BPO case. A lady staffer in this company was kidnapped, raped and murdered on December 13, 2005 by the driver of one of the cars assigned to transport staff.

The cab driver has been sentenced for life. Explaining why capital punishment was not given, the Judge has said,"The act has not been committed by a hired assassin, nor was it cold-blooded. There was no dominating control over the deceased. She was not a helpless woman. The crime was not enormous in nature and not in the "rarest of rare" bracket. This was not a case of bride-burning and not against a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or minority religion." The judge has also opined that the accused must be given the opportunity to reform himself.

Very strange reasoning indeed. You expect a kidnapper cum rapist cum murderer to reform himself ? If our law is like this, the law needs to be revised. Soft state and a softer judiciary will only ensure that we bequeath a violence-prone future to our posterity. Nothing can be more unjust.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Ayodhya judgment

"Ayodhya" means 'without bellicosity'. The judgment delivered by the three member Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court has been variously interpreted as "Solomonic Resolution" (by the NewYork Times) , "Force of faith trumping law and reason" (by Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu) and "Annulment of respect for history and seeking to replace it with religious faith" (by Romila Thapar, a distinguished historian).

The three judges have delivered three separate judgments. On a cursory reading of the judgments, the one delivered by the senior-most judge Sibghat Ullah Khan seems to be the most coherent. His pronouncement highlights the solemnity and gravity of the issue that desiderates resolution. "Here is a small piece of land (1,500 square yards) where angels fear to tread. It is full of innumerable landmines. We are required to clear it.----- Some very sane elements advised us not to attempt that. We do not propose to rush in like fools lest we are blown. However, we have to take risk. It is said that the greatest risk in life is not daring to take risk when the occasion for the same arises." The prelude could not have been more apt !

Siddharth Varadarajan argues that the judgment is based on "an unverified and unsubstantiated reference to the 'faith and belief of Hindus' ". In other words, the criticism is that the judgment is not evidence-based. Justice Khan has in fact based his conclusions on solid evidence. He says,"Both the parties have failed to prove commencement of their title. Hence by virtue of Section 110 of Evidence Act both are held to be joint title holders on the basis of joint possession". Joint possession has been proved because "Much before 1855 Ram Chabutra and Seeta Rasoi had come into existence and Hindus were worshipping in the same. It was very very unique and absolutely unprecedented situation that inside the boundary wall and compound of the mosque Hindu religious places were there which were actually being worshipped alongwith offerings of Namaz by Muslims in the mosque". In view of this finding, Justice Khan has held that Muslims as well as Hindus were in joint possession of the premises in dispute. Such hard evidence cannot be dismissed as matters of faith.

All three judges have stated that as per the faith and belief of the Hindus the place under the central dome of the Babri Masjid was the birthplace of Ram. Siddharth Varadarajan's comment that "For every Hindu who believes the spot under the central dome of the Babri Masjid is the precise spot where Lord Ram was born there is another who believes something else" smacks of rebellion without cause. Multiplicity of opinions is not ipso facto negation of a preponderant opinion. Further, reference to faith and belief should not be condemned as reliance on the same. It may be true that Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas in 16th century Ayodhya but made no reference to the birthplace of Rama. This does not mean,as Siddharth Varadarajan argues, that the court's reference to Ram's birthplace is vitiated.

Siddharth Varadarajan's scepticism regarding the finding of the Archaeological Survey of India that there was a massive Hindu religious structure below the masjid is suggestive of selective acceptance of evidence. In his espousal of a particular view, he has accused the judges of not having  relied on evidence (when in fact they have, as already shown above) while he seems to be oblivious of his own discomfort with evidence.

P.P.Rao, a distinguished jurist wonders how the court can divide the disputed land into three portions when none of the petitioners asked for division of land. Justice Khan has clarified this aspect quoting an earlier judgment. He has opined that though there was no specific prayer made by the plaintiffs seeking partition, this should not come in the way of granting a decree for partition and separate possession of the share of the plaintiff. Denial of relief would only lead to another suit. Multiplicity of proceedings should normally be avoided as the same tends to delay justice.

Justice Khan has amply explained why he has not delved deep into history and archaeology. He did not want to be caught in the crossfire of historians. As the Supreme Court has held in Karnataka Board of Wakfs vs.Government of India , there is no room for historical facts and claims in a title suit of civil nature.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Constitutional Democracy

A former (and untainted) Chief Justice of India, M.N.Venkatachalaiah delivered the fifth Rajaji Memorial Lecture on 25th September. The function was presided over by E.S.L.Narasimhan, Governor of Andhra Pradesh. The topic was "Degeneration of the idea of constitutional democracy in India".

The lecture was replete with quotes from historians, poets and legal luminaries. MNV explained how the transformation of leadership from muddled mediocrity to dangerous deviancy is posing cataclysmic challenge to Indian polity. He humorously brought out the greatness of democracy by quoting a Malaysian judge who had once told him that in Malaysia too one has freedom of speech but not freedom after speech!

He circumspectly evaded answering a question on recent debates on probity of Supreme Court Chief Justices. He only said that he has not visited the highest court of justice ever since his retirement. But the tone of his response suggested that all was not well.

The governor came down heavily on the acquisitive urges of present day politicians and administrators. His abandonment of gubernatorial caution provided a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

CEOs and Board Chairpersons

As we continue to discuss the propriety of the same person being simultaneously the CEO and Chairperson of a company, the current happenings in HSBC Bank have upped the ante by raising the issue of corporate governance involved in the CEO becoming the Chairperson after ceasing to be the CEO. It s customary for HSBC's CEO to get elevated as Chairperson. This tradition is now attracting adverse notice of investors.

Michael Geoghegan, the present CEO is supposed to have threatened that he would resign from HSBC if he is not made the Chairperson. (Stephen Green is joining the UK government as Trade Minister making the Chair vacant.) The two posts require different kinds of expertise, but it is not impossible for the same person to excel in both positions. Governance aficionados argue that conflict of interests is inherent in a CEO taking the avatar of Chairperson immediately after demitting the CEO office.

HSBC's decision will be watched with 'interest'.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Competitive Malgovernance

It's a pity that all three pillars of Indian democracy namely executive, legislature and judiciary are vying with one another to lose public confidence.

One of the three judges of the Allahabad High Court Bench that heard the Ayodhya title case says that he was not consulted by the other two judges before they pronounced the decision in an interim petition in the case. The Supreme Court is in a dilemma on how to respond to allegations of a former Law Minister that corruption envelopes the top echelons of the Supreme Court also.

The Executive sees nothing amiss in ignoring the warning of the leader of opposition while recommending a person for appointment as Chief Vigilance Commissioner. Corrupt and incapable ministers are retained in the cabinet as if any logical action would violate their 'fundamental rights'.

The parliament continues to be held to ransom by various political parties in apparent furtherance of their narrow interests.

If the trend continues, it may not be long before India is written off as irredeemable.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Corruption in India

Pratyush Sinha who recently retired as Chief Vigilance Commissioner has lamented that one-third of Indians are "utterly corrupt". (He has provided some ammunition for a new advertisement slogan from Amul!) He has also said that half are "border line" which means that one-sixth are honest.

Shanti Bhushan who was the Law Minister in Morarji Desai's cabinet has given a list of 16 former Chief Justices of India to the Supreme Court mentioning that 8 of them were corrupt, 6 honest and 2 could be either way.

It is interesting to note that the proportion of the corrupt among CJIs is more than that among the entire Indian population.

Veerapa Moily, presently Law Minister has taken serious exception to Pratyush Sinha's observation. Moily is typically shooting the messenger.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

China's "downward" progress

China has a huge appetite for natural resources whether they be hydrocarbons, metals or whatever. China is acquiring huge stakes in various mining companies worldwide. This is an excellent business and geo-political strategy. Cost of acquisition is now pretty low thanks to the global economic crisis. When the crisis comes to an end, strategic  control of natural resources wll help China to continue to grow much faster than other economies.

It is now reported that China has started delving deeper into the ocean bed through a submersible called Jiaolong named after a mythical sea dragon. China and Japan are miles ahead of the U S, France and Russia in exploring the deep oceans. Here also, the main objective seems to be to get a stranglehold on precious minerals and other natural resources. It appears that China is as far-sighted as its neighbour India is myopic.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Manmohan Singh's moral decline

It used to be said that the toughest job in India was that of the prime mnister Manmohan Singh because he had to carry along with him many centrifugal forces speaking in divergent voices. Each of these forces was equally fastidious and queasy since their individual demands were many and, thanks to political compulsions, very sensitive to parochial issues. But gone are such days. Manmohan Singh has discovered that politics is the art and chicanery of making the impossible possible and trading off ethics for survival.

Corrupt ministers are tolerated. Honest and empathetic pronouncements of the Supreme Court are treated with disdain. Unbecoming dissent and discord among cabinet ministers are alchemised as freedom of expression in action. Inappropriate comparisons are made with the cabinets of Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Manmohan's fall is as abrupt as it is inexplicable. Now the toughest job is that of spokespersons of the Congress party who have to justify the unjustifable and explain the inexplicable and thereby defend the utterances and actions of the prime minister.. One pities the likes of Abhishek Singhvi and Jayanthi Natarajan whose discomfort is all too patent. Manish Tewari of course continues to be comfortable and consistent in his belief that he and Congress are infallible.

Misuse of Freedom?

A pastor's threat to burn a copy of Koran kept the entire world on edge for the past three days. True, the American laws on individual's liberty do not permit the government from embargoing such acts of lunacy. Luckily better sense seems to have prevailed on the pastor and it is now unlikely that he will go ahead with his threat.

In the meanwhile, a comparable ominous development is taking place in Germany. A director of Bundesbank, the German central bank, Thilo Sarrazin has recently written a book titled "Germany does away with itself: How we are gamblng away our country". The author accuses the immigrants of not integrating with the host country. Sarrazin, ironically in charge of risk control in the Bank, has made provocative observations about different religions in his book. His views were generally well received by the German public though the sharpness of comments was criticised. Deeming the book as politically incorrect and reminiscent of Hitler's Mein Kampf, the Bundesbank sacked the writer from its Board. The question that now arises is who is more intolerant, the person who voices deviant/inflammatory views or the organisation that punishes an employee for his incendiary comments made in his personal capacity?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Google vs Microsoft

Google and Microsoft do not let go any opportunity to belittle each other. The Texas government has recently initiated an enquiry into Google's implementation of "Search Neutrality". As a search engine, Google is expected to be impartial in ranking various websites . Google contends, perhaps rightly, that its obligation is only to users of its services and not to various websites which are ranked in the results. The following excerpts from Google's Public Policy Blog are revealing:

"Texas inquires on our approach to competition

Friday, September 3, 2010 at 4:13 PM ET

Posted by by Don Harrison, Deputy General Counsel

We've always worked hard to ensure that our success is earned the right way -- by building great products, not locking in our users or advertisers. That said, we recognize that as Google grows, we’re going to face more questions about how our business works.

As Search Engine Land first reported, we've recently been approached by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which is conducting an antitrust review of Google. We look forward to answering their questions because we’re confident that Google operates in the best interests of our users.

Occasionally, we’re asked about the “fairness” of our search engine -- why do some websites get higher rankings than others? The important thing to remember is that we built Google to provide the most useful, relevant search results and ads for users. In other words, our focus is on users, not websites. Given that not every website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it’s unsurprising that some less relevant, lower quality websites will be unhappy with their ranking.

The Texas Attorney General’s office asked for information about a number of companies whose cases have been well publicized. Here is some background on them:

•Foundem -- the British price comparison site that is backed by ICOMP, an organization funded largely by Microsoft. They claim that Google’s algorithms demote their site because they are a direct competitor to our search engine. The reality is that we don’t discriminate against competitors. Indeed, companies like Amazon, and Expedia typically rank very high in our results because of the quality of the service they offer users. Various experts have taken a closer look at the quality of Foundem’s website, and NYU professor James Grimmelmann concluded, “I want Google to be able to rank them poorly.”

•SourceTool/TradeComet - SourceTool is a website run by parent company TradeComet, whose private antitrust lawsuit against Google was dismissed by a federal judge earlier this year. The media have noted that TradeComet is represented by longtime Microsoft antitrust attorneys, and independent search experts have called SourceTool a “click arbitrage” site with little original content.

•myTriggers - Another site represented by Microsoft’s antitrust attorneys, myTriggers alleges that they suffered a drop in traffic because Google reduced their ad quality ratings. But recent filings have revealed that the company’s own servers overheated, explaining their reduced traffic.

We work hard to explain our approach to search and how our ranking works, and we also listen carefully to people’s concerns. We’re looking forward to working cooperatively with the Texas Attorney General’s office, and we strongly believe our business practices reflect our commitment to build great products for the benefit of users everywhere. "

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Swami Parthasarathy and R.Seshasayee

Both Swami Parthasarathy (SP) and R.Seshasayee (RS) are towering personalities in their respective fields. The former is well known for his peripatetic lectures on the Bagawad Gita and the latter for his scrupulous adherence to principles of corporate governance. Hence it was not surprising that RS was to receive the first copy of SP's book titled "Governing Business and Relationships". The function was to begin at 6.30 pm on 31st August. The start was unusually delayed by half an hour. Since SP and RS are known for punctuality the audience was wondering what was happening.

RS was quick to solve the puzzle when he apologised for being late on account of an unusual traffic snarl. This apology would have been forgotten then and there but for SP's subsequent 'unbecoming' reference to his own record of never having  been late to any function. It is beyond one's understanding whether a public reprimand of this type was necessary at all. One can easily visualise RS's contretemps when he was chided like a schoolboy.

SP's disappointment at delayed start was obvious from his facial expression also as if words were not brutal enough. RS is certainly wise enough to ensure that he does not place himself in a similar circumstance anytime in the future.

RS likened himself to Napolean's security guard. Whenever Napolean wanted to communicate with his subjects, he " test-marketed" his message with his not-so-well educated guard. If the guard could understand, there was no doubt that everyone would understand. Similarly, the first copy of the new book was being given to RS !

RS also referred to the eternal dilemma faced by business managers on ethics of creating demand and then catering to it in order to make a profit. He was also complacent enough to justify this managerial behaviour under the pretext of "Swadharma". This was perhaps stretching the concept of Swadharma a bit too far. Swadharma is ordained by nature or driven by circumstances. One cannot create one's own swadharma and claim to justify one's behaviour. If RS was trying to placate SP or was looking for SP's elucidation on this existential moral dilemma , SP did not appear to be obliging.

SP's hour-long lecture focused on the three C's for successful governance of business. He defined Concentration as the ability to zero in on the present without being distracted by worries about the past and anxiety about the future. Consistency is the invariable direction of one's efforts towards attainment of a goal. Cooperation stems from the realisation that we are all spokes in a large wheel and that everyone has to play one's role.

How to govern one's relationships? SP was forthright in highlighting the importance of proper 'assessment' of the persons we deal with. Why is this difficult? Any species of animals has uniform character and behaviour. For example, all tigers are ferocious, all cobras are venomous and all cows are docile. Humans do not conform to any such uniform standards. This peculiarity is at once a challenge and an opportunity. We cannot govern our relationships with the suave and the irritable in the same way.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Airtel's sharp practices

Airtel is known for prompt customer service. However, it appears that it also adopts deceptive business practices to the detriment of its customers. Unfortunately we cannot complain to the telecom regulator, TRAI because TRAI does not look into individual grievances. One wonders what a regulator is for.

If you are availing prepaid mobile services from Airtel and if you pay Rs.200 for topping up / recharge, you will get credit for Rs.46.51 only. On enquiry, the company surprisingly claims any payment of Rs.200 is taken as renewal of monthly charge. I wonder what it means. Is not the company expected to inform its customers in advance that Rs.200 should not be paid for top/up or recharge unless they desire to contribute munificently to Airtel's bottomline?

When a complaint is made to Airtel, the company drags its feet endlessly. Ofcourse, the company also claims that it redresses customer grievances within 24 hours ! Airtel should learn to be more transparent and up-front in its dealings with its hapless customers.

Here is an update as on 28th August:

Airtel has taken a long time to decide on a simple issue. The company has declined my claim. The amount is small and therefore not the issue. The question is whether the telecom company can confiscate the amount paid for recharge for some other unintelligible purpose. I have sought an explanation from the company as to what is meant by "monthly validity recharge" and how the company assumes that I have applied for "monthly validity recharge". I could not help pointing out the dubiousness of the claim that "we will respond within 24 hours" when the company consistently has taken much longer time. (There is some improvement now ! The company has not sent an auto-reply that they would respond within a day. Perhaps Airtel may decide not to respond at all.) I must reiterate that Airtel is known for good customer service. That is why one is pained when it misbehaves like any other company.

Here is the latest correspondence:

"I strongly resent your statement that what I have done is what you call "monthly validity recharge". I do not know what this monthly validity recharge is. Will you please explain? The shop where I paid the amount did not explain anything to me. I wanted recharging the mobile. I did not want what you claim I wanted. I look forward to your prompt response. Your assurance of responding within 24 hours looks hollow in the light of your consistent delayed response. I wonder why you say you were not able to contact me. My email ID and mobile number are well known to you. I expect a more truthful response from Airtel. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement."

Your disgusted customer,


--- On Tue, 8/24/10, wrote:




Date: Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 12:19 PM

Dear Customer,

Thank you for contacting Airtel.
We regret for the delay in replying to your mail.
We understand from you previous your interaction 21/08/2010, you have provided the details received after successful recharge of Rs.200/- for your Airtel mobile number 9789875092.
We understand your concern and will work towards resolving the same.
We tried to contact you but with little success.
We regret to inform that as recharge which you have done on 07.08.2010 is monthly validity recharge not a full talktime recharge. Hence we are unable to process your request for reversal of amount

For further assistance, mail us at
We thank you and value your association with Airtel.

Warm Regards,

Nodal Officer
Bharti Airtel Limited

Further update as of 4th Sept.:

I sent a reminder to Airtel on 1st Sept. Airtel acknowledged this on 1st Sept. itself  and undertook to resolve the matter within 24 hours. Needless to say, there was no further communication from Airtel. The correspondence is given below:

Dear Airtel Customer,

Thank you for writing to us. We have already received a similar email from you earlier and the reference number of your previous mail is 109201013824.

We are currently resolving your query and would revert to you within in 24 Hours.

Warm Regards

Airtel Customer Service

This is an auto-generated response. Kindly do not reply on this mail.

---------------------Original Message--------------------------


Date: 01/09/2010 10:58:59 AM



Message body:

I am still awaiting your response clarifying what is "monthly validity

recharge". Please advise me the features of this and how it would help me.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Furore over NDM-1, the new superbug

The Lancet report on what is now referred to as "NewDelhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM-1)" certainly deserves our serious attention. The report has been prepared by 31 researchers of whom 12 are Indians. The rest are based in the UK and Pakistan. Of these 31 authors, only two have acknowledged possible conflict of interest. Karthikeyan K.Kumarasamy MPhil had received a travel grant from Wyeth, one of the sponsors of this study. David M.Livermore PhD had received conference support from numerous pharma companies and also holds shares in Astra Zeneca, Merck, Pfizer and GSK. All other authors have declared absence of conflict of interest.

Naming a bug after the possible place of its origin is not uncommon. Verona Integron encoded metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (VIM-1) was first reported in Verona, Italy in the year 1997. In the same year another bug called the Sao Paulo metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (SPM-1) was first isolated in the eponymous Brazilian city. However, it is uncommon and rather strange that an alarm is sought to be created about visiting India for surgical treatment.

Lancet's assertion that "Gram-negative Enterobacteriaceae with resistance to carbapenem conferred by NDM-1 are potentially a major global health problem" is certainly over the top. Carbapenem is the latest heavy-duty antibiotic but not the ultimate antibiotic. Superbugs are the mother of new antibiotics.

Lancet's argument that "Given the historical links between India and the UK, that the UK is the first western country to register the widespread presence of NDM-1 positive bacteria is unsurprising" is a little unscientific. Lancet's conclusion ("The potential {sic} for wider international spread of producers and for NDM-1 encoding plasmids to become endemic worldwide, are {sic} clear and frightening") is perhaps paranoia-genic in its impact and possibly suspect in its grammar.

The report draws inspiration from an an earlier editorial by Abdul Ghafur which highlighted the  widespread non-prescription use of antibiotics in India. It is no consolation to realise that prescription abuse of antibiotics is more widespread and not less dangerous in India.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Indians' unconcern for finality

It is a trite saying that India lives in eternity. Occidental anxiety to 'settle issues' and 'move on' is typically absent in India.

For instance, a judge may be allegedly venal; in case he or she is not politically backed, probes and investigations would follow. After these processes consume enormous time without nearing the truth in any way, impeachment proceedings may be set in motion which will meander along till cows come home. In the meanwhile, the judge may have retired, deceased or settled cosily abroad. Impeachment proceedings will get aborted at some stage or the other. In the event all are happy that all procedures have been gone through though the fact that no finality has been reached does not bother anyone.

This is a far cry from what obtains in the western countries. When the Barings Bank was bankrupted by a rogue trader called Nick Leeson, no time was lost in establishing his guilt and awarding condign punishment. He was duly imprisoned and released when the sentence was completed. He reinvented his life and is now one of the most sought after speakers on Risk Management. This is not an isolated case where justice was delivered in time, finality was reached and life moved on.

In India however such cases are few and far between. Resolution of the Satyam company's persona is one such rare event. (Of course, punishment of the fraudsters may not happen anytime soon.The lower court which is now seized of the criminal matter will take a lot more time to pronounce judgement. After that the promoters will certainly go on appeal to higher courts and ensure indefinite delay in judicial proceedings.) The company is not comatose only because the government took extraordinary pains to "showcase" our ability to wriggle out of a crisis.

It is too soon to forget how the Global Trust Bank was systematically plundered by the promoters who are yet to face justice. Indians have an enormous tolerance for lack of finality. Why is this so? Is this because we believe in rebirths and therefore look for continuity from one birth to the next and take it for granted that what is unfinished in the present birth will come to fruition in subsequent births ? Whereas the westerners seek to close their life accounts in what they believe to be the one and only birth, Indians tend to carry over from birth to birth and look for finality at the end of eternity which by definition never occurs.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Relevance of Auditor's Certificate : Infrastructure Development Finance Co.Limited

IDFC is issuing Compulsorily Convertible Cumulative Preference Shares (CCCPS) to specific investors. In terms of Chapter VII of the SEBI ICDR (Issue of Capital and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, the company has to disclose the details of investors to the shareholders while issuing the shares on preferential basis. IDFC has accordingly sought shareholders' approval as required under the provisions of Sec 81(1A) of the Companies Act and Chapter VII of SEBI ICDR Regulations. The Postal Ballot Notice issued to the shareholders mentions that the Conversion Price for CCCPS is fixed at Rs.176/-

The Notice also mentions that "It is proposed to obtain a certificate from Deloitte Haskins & Sells, Statutory Auditors of the Company, certifying that the price for conversion of CCCPS into equity shares is calculated in accordance with requirements of SEBI Regulations." This prima facie gives the impression that obtention of Auditor's Certificate is treated more as a formality to fulfil SEBI requirements and that the auditors would perforce issue the compliance certificate. This is indicative of perfunctory adherence to SEBI guidelines and scant regard for relevance of auditor's certificate.

This was taken up with IDFC as follows:

"Your statement that "it is proposed to obtain a certificate from DH&S certifying that the price for conversion of CCCPS into equity shares is calculated in accordance with requirements of SEBI Regulations" has converted the certification process into a mere formality and also belittles the auditor in the process. You will agree that it is not a good corporate practice to take its auditors for granted and to consider SEBI Regulations as just a procedural requirement whose sequence is of little importance. The certificate should be at hand before issue of the notice."

IDFC was kind enough to respond as under:

"IDFC believes and always follows the high standards of corporate governance in all its activities. In this case, in terms of provisions of Section 192A of the Companies Act, 1956 read with Postal Ballot Regulations, the Company is required to provide a period of 30 days to its shareholders to cast their votes. At the same time, in terms of SEBI ICDR Regulations, the price of the security to be issued and allotted on preferential basis is required to be arrived by taking into consideration the average of the weekly high and low of the closing prices of the equity shares quoted on a recognized stock exchange during the two weeks preceding the Relevant Date which is 30 days prior to the date of declaration of the results of postal ballot. Hence, it was difficult to print and dispatch the notices to ~ 3.05 lakh shareholders after getting auditors certificate. DH&S has issued the certificate and the same is available with the Company.

I hope I have answered the questions."

IDFC is taking refuge under apparent logistical problems whereas the real issue relates to constructive non-adherence to well-intentioned SEBI regulations and the proclivity to consider auditor's certificate as a mechanical formality.

Friday, July 09, 2010

PNB's "Consensus Banking" ?

The annual report of Punjab National Bank for the year ended 31st March 2010 says the following under 'Corporate Governance" (page 17):

"All our decisions are consensus decisions involving voice of our stakeholders". (Bold letters not mine). Wow ! Do only like-minded people work in the bank ? Is honest dissent discouraged? If no decision is taken in the absence of unanimity, the bank must be missing many opportunities for growth of business. Perhaps we should not take vapid statements seriously.

Arithmetic mistakes are another matter.In page 115, it is reported that 197263 shareholders have shareholding of nominal value of Rs.500 or less totally amounting to Rs.106823070. Simple arithmetic would show that even if every such shareholder has shareholding of nominal value of Rs.500, total will only be Rs.98631500. This table is entirely wrong.

I wonder how companies are confident that shareholders do not read their annual reports.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The "Jabulani effect" : G-H outplay A-B

The shocking exits of Argentina and Brazil even at the quarter finals stage of the World Cup are an unprecedented disaster to soccer aficionados all over the world. The decline of South American football skills was shocking beyond words.The city of joy (Kolkata) went into mourning when Brazil was knocked out by Holland. The crushing 0-4 defeat of Argentina at the hands of Germany sank the football-crazy Kolkata into unfathomable despair.

Why did the unexpected happen? "Jabulani", the ball produced by Adidas has been criticised by almost every team in the World Cup for its unpredictable behaviour. Its speed and direction of movement puzzled both the forwards and the goal-keepers. "Jabulani" has become an idiom for something or someone that is universally condemned. It is easier to 'handle' Jabulani than to 'kick' it. This peculiarity of the ball was exploited by Uruguay's Luis Suarez who used his "Hand of God" to block an otherwise certain goal for Ghana. Subsequently even Asamoah Gyan's fabled footwork could not convert the penalty into a goal for Ghana.

Argentina's Maradona and Brazil's Pele spent more time recriminating each other than in motivating their respective teams. This resulted in their mutually assured destruction. But the psychic octopus, Paul has had the final say so far. It had predicted the victory of Germany over England and also Argentina. Though born in England, this octopus is domiciled in Germany. It remains to be seen whether Paul is merely jingoistic or a soothsayer nonpareil.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Self-indulgent hyperbole : ICICI Bank's narcissism

I was surprised and dismayed to find the following compliment from a customer being included in the Directors' Report of ICICI Bank for the year 2009-10:

"I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from you in response to my e-mail requesting for a refund of charges. This was followed by your e-mail accepting my request. What is really amazing is that this was all done in just about 12 hours. I am an admirer of ICICI Bank for your liberal attitude, transparent transactions, up-to-date technology, customer friendly automation, professionalism with a human touch, etc. The list goes on and on and this response to my request has made me indebted to ICICI Bank always. I shall remain your brand ambassador for the common man, Thank you and good luck to you always!" -D.Sivaswamy, Chennai.

Three more compliments in similar vein also find a place. Does publication of such encomiums betray the fragility of the bank's ego? Would fairness not demand that the bank give similar publicity to complaints made against it? If refund of charges is praised, should not the levy of unreasonable/inapplicable charges in the first place be condemned? Does correction of a mistake (albeit within 12 hours after a complaint is made) warrant a pat on one's back? ICICI Bank ought to have better benchmarks.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Histrionics in the Supreme Court

That our legal fraternity is adept in histrionics too was demonstrated in the Supreme Court on 15th June. The case relates to a special leave petition filed by the Karnataka High Court against the utterances of one of its judges, D.V.Shylendra Kumar.

Senior Counsel Mr.Uday Holla appearing for the High Court contended "it pains me a lot". Not to be outdone, one of the two judges on the Bench observed, "I have tears in my eyes". One cannot be more theatrical. Incidentally, where was the pain and where were the tears when the Supreme Court recommended elevation of a land-grabbing judge ?

(Reference to Supreme Court was apparently necessitated to rein in Justice D V S Kumar who has been questioning the administrative orders issued by the Chief Justice P.D.Dinakaran against whom parliamentary impeachment proceedings are under way. The Chief Justice is attending to administrative functions only and not judicial functions. This arrangement itself is funny. The Supreme Court has so far been unable to sort out the issue. One hopes that the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Kapadia will soon bell the cat.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crises galore

Thomas Friedman advises us that in the midst of all the potential crises, there is still some scope for sensible action on our part that will ensure sustainable progress for mankind. We need to act before it is too late, apprehensive that there are just too many trouble-spots and groups which can go bonkers anytime. Here is Friedman in his own words: (Courtesy: The NewYork Times)

June 11, 2010

This Time Is Different  By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

My friend, Mark Mykleby, who works in the Pentagon, shared with me this personal letter to the editor he got published last week in his hometown paper, The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill — and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where.

“I’d like to join in on the blame game that has come to define our national approach to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word. It’s what we do as individuals that count. For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem. Government’s role should be to create an environment of opportunity that taps into the innovation and entrepreneurialism that define us as Americans. For those on the right, if you want less government and taxes, then decide what you’ll give up and what you’ll contribute. Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry. I haven’t done my part. Now I have to convince my wife to give up her S.U.V. Mark Mykleby.”
I think Mykleby’s letter gets at something very important: We cannot fix what ails America unless we look honestly at our own roles in creating our own problems. We — both parties — created an awful set of incentives that encouraged our best students to go to Wall Street to create crazy financial instruments instead of to Silicon Valley to create new products that improve people’s lives. We — both parties — created massive tax incentives and cheap money to make home mortgages available to people who really didn’t have the means to sustain them. And we — both parties — sent BP out in the gulf to get us as much oil as possible at the cheapest price. (Of course, we expected them to take care, but when you’re drilling for oil beneath 5,000 feet of water, stuff happens.)

As Pogo would say, we have met the enemy and he is us.

But that means we’re also the solution — if we’re serious. Look, we managed to survive 9/11 without letting it destroy our open society or rule of law. We managed to survive the Wall Street crash without letting it destroy our economy. Hopefully, we will survive the BP oil spill without it destroying our coastal ecosystems. But we dare not press our luck.

We have to use this window of opportunity to insulate ourselves as much as possible against all the bad things we cannot control and get serious about fixing the problems that we can control. We need to make our whole country more sustainable. So let’s pass an energy-climate bill that really reduces our dependence on Middle East oil. Let’s pass a financial regulatory reform bill that really reduces the odds of another banking crisis. Let’s get our fiscal house in order, as the economy recovers. And let’s pass an immigration bill that will enable us to attract the world’s top talent and remain the world’s leader in innovation.

We need all the cushions we can get right now, because we are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats that have the potential to turn our country upside down at any moment. We do not know when the next Times Square bomber might get lucky. We don’t know how long the U.S. and Israel will tolerate Iran’s nuclear program. We don’t know if Pakistan will hold together and what might happen to its nukes. We don’t know when North Korea will go nuts. We don’t know if the European Union can keep financing the debts of Greece, Hungary and Spain — and what financial contagion might be set off if it can’t.

“It is not your imagination,” says corporate strategy consultant Peter Schwartz — there is a lot more scary stuff hanging over the world today. Since the end of the cold war and the rise of the Internet, we’ve lost the walls and the superpowers that together kept the world’s problems more contained. Today, smaller and smaller units can wreak larger and larger havoc — and whatever havoc is wreaked now gets spread faster and farther than ever before.

That is why we have to solve the big problems in our control, not postpone them or pretend that more lobby-driven, lowest-common-denominator solutions are still satisfactory. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, but a reprieve and a breathing spell — which is what we’re having right now — is a really terrible thing to waste. We don’t want to look back on this moment and say: How could we have gone back to business as usual and petty political gridlocks with all those black swans circling around us? Then we will really kick ourselves.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Travel risk: Between the Maoists and the (co-)pilots

Travel has become more hazardous in India. If one undertakes train journey in the large corridor where the Maoists are active, one is not sure when one will reach the destination. If one chooses to fly, one is not sure whether the pilot will understand what the co-pilot is telling him. (It is reported that the co-pilot in the ill-fated Dubai-Mangalore flight advised the pilot to opt for a go-around when the safe distance in the runway was overshot. The pilot apparently could not understand him.) In another flight in the Dubai-Mumbai route, when the pilot had gone for a wash, the co-pilot was in command. The auto-pilot system got disengaged testing the skills of the co-pilot. He was not equal to the task and the aircraft dropped by about 5,000 feet causing a justifiable panic among the passengers. The pilot tried to make a quick entry into the cockpit. Just then the cockpit door did not open. The pilot had to use some emergency procedure to open the jammed door. It is also reported that the co-pilot had a spatial disorientation at that crucial time. Providentially the pilot could resume command at the last minute (second?) and a horrible accident was averted.
Travellers are between the devil and the deep sea, between the Maoists and the (co-)pilots.