Sunday, June 28, 2009

How we smashed a jewel


What a pathetic plight Air-India has reached. It’s become the first government-owned company that is unable to pay salaries. The unions blame the Government and insist on their privileges. Which means the irresistible force of business economics is in head-on collision with the immovable object of employee resistance. Disaster beckons.

Public sympathy is unlikely to be with Air-India. For one thing, it has been unpopular with passengers for many years. The reasons range from unreliable timings to on-board discrimination against Indians. In the Gulf sector, where it maintained a lucrative monopoly for as long as it could, its ill-treatment of passengers on delayed flights had become a scandal.

For another, the villains in the Air-India tragedy are the bureaucrats and the unions – a combination that has been the undoing of many public sector undertakings. Because of the glamour and perks associated with the airline business, Air-India became a magnet for IAS top brass. Those who were good at lubricating politicians – a tribe that loves lubrication – managed to appropriate the company for themselves. Thus non-specialists took charge of a highly specialised enterprise. The unions, as usual, put rights before responsibility.

True to public sector morality, Air-India today has the world’s highest staff strength for an airline: 31,000. Their salary bill is Rs 350 crore a month. The norm in the airline business is to have 75-80 employees per aircraft. Air-India has about 230 per aircraft. It is currently running at a loss of Rs 15 crore A DAY.

Those who have brought the company to such a pass deserve punishment, not a bail-out package. They had inherited a jewel of a company before they ruined it. Tata Airlines, established one year before independence, had become, one year after independence, Air-India International. In 1953 it was nationalised but, on the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru, J.R.D. Tata continued as Chairman. In 1978 Tata was summarily dismissed by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. After that there was no stopping the IAS-politician nexus.

Under J.R.D. Tata’s leadership, Air-India had become one of the world’s great airlines, admired for on-time performance, excellence of service, cleanliness and good food, not to mention the “exotic hostesses” at a time when the saree was not all that familiar in foreign cities. All this became possible because J.R.D. was an aviator himself and he put together a team of internationally respected professionals. As author Anthony Samson noticed in his book “Empires of the Skies”, J.R.D insulated his airline from favouritism in appointments – the exact opposite of our bureaucratic culture.

That contrast is also the clearest pointer to what needs to be done. Politicians and babus must stop pretending that they are Vijay Mallyas and Naresh Goyals. Business is not their business. They should do what Margaret Thatcher did to British Airways. When she became Prime Minister in 1979, she announced she would return BA to profit-making. It was an elaborate process. By 1987 it was completed and British Airways became a private company. Of course it has been caught in the present business downturn, but that is a factor of business, not of mismanagement by babus and exploitation by unions.

Thatcher took one procedural move, which too is worth emulating. She appointed Lord King, her “favourite businessman”, to work out the modalities of privatisation. Perhaps Manmohan Singh can entrust the task to the Coimbatore Paramount Airways owner for a compelling reason: He has worked out the only business model that seems to be bucking the economic downturn syndrome. Besides, M. Thiagarajan is a pilot, like J.R.D.Tata.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Time to say: BJP-CPM Bhai-bhai

It’s incredible but true. In their hour of defeat sworn enemies BJP and CPM act like identical twins. Both make much noise about introspection and analysis. Yet both refuse to face the facts that stare them in the face. They play with self-serving justifications which fool no one but themselves.

The overwhelming difference between this election and every previous election is the change in the character of the electorate. Times have changed and people have changed for a variety of reasons – economic liberalisation, the emergence of an affluent middle class, the spread of internet and the civilisational shifts in attitudes it has brought about, the rise of youth power, popular disgust with political corruption, a growing tendency to hold rulers accountable. Yes, the India of 2009 is very different from the India of even 2004, not to mention the India of Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee.

But the BJP and the CPM either didn’t see the change or, more likely, did not have the leadership to know what to do about it. The first thing the BJP should have realised was that strident communal posturing would not sit well with the temper of the changed times. Using religion for political ends does nothing to help a country compete in this competitive world or to raise the quality of life which is what the vast majority of even god-fearing people want.

If the BJP leadership had grasped this truth, they would have instantly taken action against that badly brought-up brat, Varun Gandhi, for speaking in the fundamentalist idiom of the Taliban. In retrospect, that speech should be seen as the single most ruinous blow the BJP suffered during the election run-up. Consider also that wherever Narendra Modi campaigned, the BJP did not do well. It is clear that India is moving forward and the BJP is standing still.

The CPM is actually moving backward. A party whose leaders and cadres were known for simple living today accepts luxury as a norm at the top. From P.C.Joshi to Harkishensingh Surjeet, not one Communist leader was considered corrupt. Today the supreme leader of the party in Kerala is an accused in a major corruption case the CBI is pursuing. In West Bengal anti-communist politicians have succeeded in turning the state into a war zone. For the first time in three decades the CPM-led Government is unsure of its survival.

Much of this could have been averted if the CPM’s central leadership were capable of feeling the pulse of the people. When the highhandedness of the party boss in Kerala alienated party cadres, coalition partners and large sections of the general pubic, the Karat-Yechury leadership did not intervene with corrective measures. In fact it sided with the errant state leader leading to suspicious about its own bonafides.

In Bengal the Singur agitation going out of control was clear indication that popular goodwill for the party was slipping. But the Politburo was unwilling and/or unable to check strong-arm tactics by the state leadership which alienated its own traditional supporters. It is reasonable to conclude that the Communist movement in India has never had a weaker leadership than today.
Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that two parties with extremist ideologies are in a fading phase. But it will indeed be a bad thing if that leaves India at the mercy of a dynastic party. The least our country deserves is a rightist party, a leftist party and a centrist party in perennial competition. The collapsing dreams of today should lead to such a triangular model tomorrow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

BBMP: Subramanya is indestructible, imperishable!


Don’t believe reports that our justly revered Subramanya is no longer the face, voice and soul of BBMP (Bada Bangalore’s Mukhya Pracharak). In the land where Indira was India, Subramanya is and shall always be BBMP.

Subramanya’s footprints cannot be erased, his legacy cannot be ignored.

For Bangaloreans Subramanya is indestructible, imperishable, immortal.

True, Subramanya’s empire was not quite of Mughal proportions. But it did cover vast territories from Govindapura (which is somewhere in the Himalayas) all the way to Kengeri (somewhere near the Indian Ocean). Vast multitudes of people live in these territories. Among them there is not one man, one woman or one child whose life has not been touched and shaped by the genius of Subramanya.

Such has been the power of the Magic Boxes and the Tragic Hoaxes he invented.

A combined Akbarnama cum Babarnama will be required to record the major horizons he conquered during his short reign. Since no editor will allow the space required for such a compendium, let us confine ourselves to just one of his gifts to BB – the VIP road from Golf Club Circle to Mekhri Circle. That short stretch of “signal-free highway” is a signal contribution by the visionary in Subramanya.

There used to be a police station at the Golf Club circle. In the lockup of this police station, a visiting lawyer was once beaten to death and his body dumped near the railway tracks. No doubt keeping that in mind, Subramanya had the police station demolished (yet another instance of the IAS correcting the wayward IPS).

Putting the opportunity to good use, another skill where the IAS excels, Subramanya also demolished the great-grandmother trees that had spread out majestically and made this area one of the coolest, most verdant spots in cool and verdant Bangalore. A great deal of fresh space was freed for traffic.

Of course there was no signal at the circle. There was no signal at the Windsor Manor Circle either. Between these circles Subramanya gave us a magnificent stretch of road making us feel like we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Unfortunately, at both ends of namma New Jersey Turnpike, traffic piled up in signal-free chaos. This was because of traffic’s unpatriotic habit of coming from different directions. The flow from one side has to stop for the flow from the other side to proceed. How unreasonable! This became quite a mess at the Windsor Manor circle. During rush hours, especially with KSRTC buses appropriating all the lanes, it was one big chaos. That is why citizens renamed the Windsor Manor Circle as Subramanya’s Folly. To enjoy it fully, go there in the evenings.

If you got past Subramanya’s Folly and thought that everything would now flow smoothly, you would have time to think again. For by the time you negotiate the Palace Guttahally Magic Hoax Flyover, you will resume your crawling pace, bumper to bumper. This is because the traffic has backed up from the Cauvery Circle a kilometer away.

Ah, the Cauvery Circle. This is already in the Guinness Book as the world’s most stunning U-turn. You got to see it to believe it. A straight road is suddenly made to turn left and then take a U-turn to reach the straight line again. What imagination! What originality! You should see the way the buses negotiate the U-turn and how all traffic pay homage to the planning genius as they move forward in slow motion.

Wonderstruck citizens have renamed the Cauvery Circle also. It is now known as Subramanya’s Revenge. Look closely in the evening hours. You can see Subramanya on top of a flexboard hoarding, watching the tortuous muddle below and chuckling to himself about the unforgiving effectiveness of the punishment he has meted out to these goddamn Bangaloreans including meddlesome politicians and Lokayuktas.

The sheer genius behind the U-turn inventions has led to two marvelous developments.

First, Harvard Business School has taken it up as a case study. Second, the inventor is getting an international patent on the U-turn.

It does not matter where Subramanya is posted. Even if he is Secretary to the Department of Cockroaches, the twin glories of Subramanya’s Folly and Subramanya’s Revenge will keep him as the face, the voice and the soul of BBMP for ever.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Diffident us V/s combative them


By any standard, the violence against Indian students in Australia is nasty business. What lends an astonishing edge to it is the Indian Government’s routine, pedestrian, unfeeling handling of it. Indeed, non-assertiveness seems to be a characteristic of the Manmohan-Sonia leadership.

By contrast, Australia took a combative position. First, police bosses remained almost indifferent, refusing to see any racial angle in the repeated attacks on Indian students. At the political level, high-ranking leaders chose to express themselves against violence in general terms while declaring Australia as “the safest country in the world” for students.

On top of this exercise in nationalistic self-justification, the Australian Prime Minister turned provocative last week. He indirectly accused unnamed Indian politicians of seeking to inflame passions. And then he said that Australians in India had also been violently attacked. In the last decade, he said, there were 20 such cases.

Ill-advised words from an inexperienced Prime Minister. White thugs in Australia may well interpret this belligerence as a call to even up the score. (Against 20 Australians attacked in India, only a dozen Indians have so far been attacked in Australia. So another eight can “legitimately” be attacked. Then what about the interest outstanding from a decade ago?)

The strongest statement from the Indian Prime Minister is that “we are appalled” by the attacks. The External Affairs Minister wasn’t even appalled; he just asked Indian students to “concentrate on their studies”. What a noble race we are, combining the virtues of Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ, and turning the other cheek to our tormentors.

Just as Indian students are contributing massively to Australian economy today, Malaysian students were the mainstay of British revenues from education in the 1980’s. Seeing it an easy way to boost the national income, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a big increase in the fees of overseas students. Malaysian families felt cheated and exploited. Their Government then announced the “Look East” policy. Imports from and industrial collaboration with Britain were cut down significantly and Japan given preferential treatment. Hit where it hurt, the famous Iron Lady lost her iron and withdrew the fees increase on Malaysian students.

Malaysia then was governed by neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Jesus Christ, but by the no-nonsense Mahathir Mohammed. He was feared by the West but admired by Malaysians whose quality of life reached international standards during the twenty years of his stewardship. Manmohan Singh is loved by the West, especially by the likes of George Bush. So they feel free to do what is in their national interest and ask us to tag along. And we do.

Even Indian business houses show more assertiveness. From Arcelor to Jaguar, world famous companies have become Indian-owned against stiff resistance. Indian entrepreneurs seldom receive the governmental backing American and Japanese companies routinely receive. In fact, companies like Essar and Reliance have faced problems in major markets like Iran because of American pressure and lack of counterveiling Indian support.

Developing an Indian presence in the Iranian oil scenario would have pointedly benefited India’s national interest. But we surrendered to American national interests even on the critical Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. America’s policy towards Iran may get friendly tomorrow. By then we will have been overtaken by China and Russia and even Europe on the Iranian oil front.

Why is our national leadership so diffident? Even as they talk of India as an emerging world power, why do they buckle under small-time Australian goons? Why do they forget that even the Christian George Bush never turned the other cheek? He gave’m hell.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Love in the time of pain

As a writer who combined originality with daring, Kamala Das had no equal in Indian literature. The originality established her as a poet in her teens. The daring made her an international sensation, making waves from Canada to Japan.

Man-woman relationship was her theme. She wrote about it with no sense of taboos – a quality that is applauded as ‘modern’ in men. Women modernists usually approach the theme from a feminist angle, seeing man as an adversary, even enemy.

Kamala was no feminist. She of course dismissed the idea of male dominance, but she cherished the idea of man and her right to do so. She set out to demolish the notion that women had no right to enjoy their emotions. The result was a celebration of life which some interpreted as lustful, many saw as courageous, but all enjoyed as literature of quality and stylistic freshness. This qualitative excellence was all the more remarkable because she never had formal education beyond the primary level.

Kamala was bilingually talented. English made her works prescribed texts in some universities abroad. Malayalam made her a topic of hot debate in Kerala where she was occasionally attacked as a “loose” woman. (Loose men were never an issue). When she died in Pune last week, good finally prevailed over evil and her greatness was unhesitatingly recognised by friend and foe alike. People turned out in tens of thousands to pay homage as her cortege travelled from Kochi airport to Trivandrum’s main mosque for Islamic burial. For Kamala Das had become Kamala Suraiya ten years ago.

Many thinkers said many things about the literary eminence and the sociological importance of Kamala Das – that she was an eternal child, that she was a revolutionary social force. The best way to know her and what she stood for is to read her. A random sample.

● If I had been a loved person, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I would have been a happy human being.

● Each poem is really born out of pain which I’d like to share. But you have to live that person, the sharer of your pain – and you don’t find him anywhere. It is the searching that makes the poet go on writing. If you find him, the search is over, poetry is over.

● I sold away my past. I distributed it. I called everyone for dinner and I said, eat a bit of my past, all of you, drink a bit of my past. And they drank the wine of my past and they ate the flesh of my past. And I feel battered, weaker for it.

● When I love somebody I do so whole-heartedly. I experience acute emotions in the wee hours. Poetry flows out. Once all the poetry has come out of me, my heart goes empty. All the emotions I felt for a person evaporate. That person becomes just a corpse then.

● In India women can get old in a dignified manner. After 35-40 everyone calls you Elder Sister. After 45-50, everyone calls you Amma. Can women in America get such respect? There women’s status depends on their beddability. They have to sustain their beddability with silicon implants and things.

● Every embrace is a fullness, a completed sculpture.

● Interviewer: Who was your first lover? Answer: Srikrishna.

● Ya Allah! Punish me at least now. I loved him more than I loved you. Cut off my hands that melted into his body in search of treasures. I am a sinner who worshipped man. A servant thirsting for penalisation, that’s this Suraiya.