Monday, March 26, 2012

Mishra or Yeddyurappa, it's the same game: Parties live for today, ignore tomorrow

Not all high commands are the same. The originator of the system in India, Indira Gandhi, enforced it with shock and awe. Congressmen, however exalted, were trained to see their high command the way vassals see their master. Only one chief minister, the late Rajasekhara Reddy, could do things without trembling before the high command. Even he kept up pretences, never publicly defying the almighties.

The BJP is a party with a difference. Nobody trembles before the high command. Many actually defy it. A mighty revolt broke out last week over party nominees for the Rajya Sabha, leaving the high command with mud on its face. This was on top of the running revolt by the party's hungriest infighter, B. S. Yeddyurappa.

The problem may be that party chief Nitin Gadkari, being a wealthy businessman, has the perceptions and preferences of wealthy businessmen. He tends to act like a one-man high command, and he tends to promote his own kind. The nominees who provoked the maximum resentment among party seniors were Anshuman Mishra, an NRI “moneybag”, and Ajay Sancheti, a “fund manager”. Both were Gadkari's buddies.

Mishra was shamed out of the race eventually. But not before senior leader Yashwant Sinha complained about “money power” and said “MLAs should not be on auction to the highest bidder”. Mishra appeared on television which was a mistake because he came through as an operator, the type who exudes the confidence that money is always right. On his own admission, he was a “discreet” Overseas Friends of the BJP propagandist in American campuses and NRI forums. He must have channelled substantial funding to the party. How else could he have the cheek to parachute into India and say L.K.Advani must retire?

The last time an activist of the Overseas Friends hit the headlines was in 2003. Bhishma Agnihotri, wealthy fundraiser like Mishra, was a friend of A.B. Vajpayee, then Prime Minister. So he got appointed as India's Ambassador-at-large based in New York. This was in complete violation of protocol rules and India had to suffer the humiliation of being told by the US that it could not accept the credentials of two ambassadors at the same time.

This is the funny thing about politicians. They often do things they don't have to do. Issues like image, credibility and long-term interests are ignored in the rush for immediate gain. The non-stop Yeddyurappa saga fits into this pattern. Here's a chief minister who had to leave office in disgrace. His successor turned out to be not only a credible chief minister but, more importantly, a clean one in whose watch no scandal broke out. This was a good opportunity for the BJP to retrieve the reputation it lost when the “first BJP Government in the South” became also the most corrupt government in the South.

But the BJP lost a byelection or two after the strong man was ousted. No one asked whether he played a part in bringing about that setback. Some party stalwarts simply panicked and were persuaded to believe that without Yeddyurappa, BJP could not win in Karnataka? Who persuaded them? Yeddyurappa of course, the cleverest intriguer in politics today.

His pressure tactics have been so relentless that questions that should have been asked were not asked. Were not all his victories, beginning with Operation Lotus that gave him a majority in the first place, won on the strength of money, money of the kind that Karnataka politics had not seen before? Did he not polarise politics along caste lines? What makes a lot of MLAs rally round him – sheer love of his statesmanship? And what about the cases still pending against him? If a court were to find him guilty, who then will win elections for the BJP? Gaining time for a few weeks is not the solution. Yeddyurappa is not used to waiting. The BJP will have to decide whether it is a battle or two it wants to win, or the war itself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Railways: From Kalmadi to Mamata tantrums, a story of missed opportunities

Indian Railways never really had a chance. The latest tantrum by India's most negative ruler, Mamata Banerjee, may be unprecedented in that she is the first party boss to publicly disown her own minister. But it is not the first instance of politics devastating the Railways.

To see what the Railways has missed, just look at any listing of India's biggest companies by net sales. At the very top usually is the Indian Oil Corporation. Immediately behind will be Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. Among the top ten will be Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Metals and Minerals Corporation and Coal India. There is a common link among these giants: They are all Government of India undertakings. Another common link: They are all autonomous, run by professionals.

So, too, are the National Thermal Power Corporation, Steel Authority of India, Bharat Heavy Electricals, Gas Authority of India. Of course politicians try to interfere in their affairs, but the autonomy of the corporations ensures that the interference does not seriously damage the functioning of the companies. In other words, public sector companies can indeed compete in this commercial world and be counted among the highest performers in the country.

That is what Indian Railways, too, could have done. Its size and the advantages it enjoys as a monopoly put it in a class of its own. It is the world's fourth largest network (in kilometre terms) after the US, Russia and China. It is the envy of others in terms of passengers and freight carried. But it is run, unlike IOC, ONGC et al, as a departmental activity. This has reduced it to the pitiable plight of Air-India, another national treasure ruined by politicians. Indian Railways is the only public sector undertaking which has a minister presenting a separate budget of its own every year. This uniqueness has become a measure of deterioration over the years.

Perhaps the priorities got misaligned on account of what we inherited. There were 42 separate rail systems at the time of independence. Railway Minister N Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, one of the ablest administrators India had known, focussed his skills on weaving the many companies into an integrated zonal grid. If he and Prime Minister Nehru had also thought of professionalising the network under an autonomous structure, the story would have been different.

In the hands of politicians, the Railways became a plaything to be tossed around and exploited for private gains. At one time Suresh Kalmadi – yes, he of the Commonwealth Shames – was the Railway Minister (1995-96). Need anything more be said? Lal Bahadur Shastri's term is remembered only for his resignation after three horrible accidents. Not remembered for anything are the regimes of Congress veterans like Jagjivan Ram, Kamalapathi Tripathy and Swaran Singh. Two ministers, Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Jaffar Sherief, became known for the favours they bestowed upon their own flocks.

Lalu Prasad's term, ironically, was noted for some significant progress. The reason was that he had neither the time nor the interest to pay any attention to the Railways. It was a time when Bihar politics was on the boil and Lalu was straining every nerve to keep his hold. Politics in Patna so obsessed him that he told an officer of the Railway ministry to run the show in Delhi. Untrammelled by politicians, the officer performed wonders.

The lesson is obvious. But to expect Indian Railways to be turned into an autonomous corporation will be like expecting Air-India to be returned to the Tatas. But the opportunity is there for all to see. It may be scary to look at the impossible crowds of humanity that throng into Mumbai's suburban trains, or the concourses of Chennai Central and Howrah stations. But the overflowing multitudes also point to the size of the 'market'. If only we had a professional set up that could efficiently manage this enormous potential – and the hundreds of station buildings that are real estate gold – the Railways could become a driver of India's progress instead of the ignominy it is today.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

There's writing on the wall for dynasties; will the desirable meet the possible?

In our elections, nobody is voted in; always somebody is voted out and somebody else steps into the vacancy by default.

This was the pattern since the Emergency. Indira Gandhi was so dictatorial during those two years that she was thrown out humiliatingly. The Janata Party then took office, but performed so miserably that it could only last two years. In the 1980 election people threw out that lot. And who came in? The only available alternative, Indira Gandhi.

More graphic is the see-saw history of Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha, considered autocratic and corrupt, was voted out in 1996. Successor Karunanidhi, autocratic, corrupt and dynastically obsessed, was voted out in 2001. Jayalalitha came in again, and was voted out in 2006. Then Karunanidhi came in, only to be voted out in 2012.

In mature democracies the system functions in a self-renewing way. A capable politician, Neil Kinnock, led the British Labour Party in the 1992 general election. Labour lost. With that Neil Kinnock left politics and went into jobs like university president. In the US presidential election of 2000, Al Gore lost to George Bush. With that, Al Gore left politics and went into environment campaigning and business activities.

When a leader withdraws following a defeat, his party gets a chance to make a fresh start with a new leader, new ideas. Tony Blair did not hang around as ex-prime minister waiting for another chance. Nor did Bill Clinton stick on after his term was over. He retired, Barack Obama came in, and Americans got a chance to try out a new Democratic Party.

When Mulayam Singh was defeated three times in the past, he did hang around until he got another chance last week. Mayawati will not now go into the sunset. She too will hang around. The UP voter is condemned to choose between earlier rejects. Voters in the rest of the country are on the same page.

In this election no one has been defeated as roundly as the Congress. Yet the Congress does not have the slightest chance of renewing itself. The same discredited leaders and discredited attitudes will present themselves before the people again. They may get into office as and when some incumbent is voted out. But the country will not gain because it will only keep going in circles, not forward.

The Congress is simply incapable of analysing its performance objectively because its basic position is one of servitude to its ruling dynasty. Look at the predictable pronouncements of the courtiers. Digvijay Singh declares that “Rahul has huge support among the people.” Rajiv Shukla points out that “the organisation has failed.” Ashwini Kumar wants the word 'dynasty' to be replaced with 'charisma' and proclaims: “you cannot take the Gandhi family's charisma away from them.”

Voters of Rae Bareilly and Amethi did just that. In Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi's alleged pocket borough, the Congress lost all five Assembly seats. In Amethi it won only two of the five seats. These were the stamping grounds of Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka and the very charismatic Johny-came-lately Robert Vadra. Nothing worked. Ashwini Kumar would have had more charisma if he had campaigned there. The big news of the UP election is not the rejection of the Congress, but the rejection of the Sonia parivar.

Hop across to Goa. The dynasty principle was applied there with a vengeance by the Congress. In a state the looting of which had brought shame to all of India, notorious Congress dynasties cornered one-third of all available party tickets. Churchill Alemao's family put up four candidates. Voters threw all of them into the dump.

This five-state election, following the Tamil Nadu election, is the first decisive indication that people have had enough of dynasties. The most sensible thing for the Congress to do is to encourage Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi to leave politics. That of course will be like expecting Karunanidhi to tell Kanimozi to take to fulltime writing. The desirable and the possible seldom meet. But they can.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

It's a bird, it's a beer, it's an Airline. And it's part of India's newfound self-esteem

There is a notable lack of public sympathy for Kingfisher Airlines in the hour of its crisis. This is mostly because of owner Vijay Mallya's jewel-studded lifestyle. Some link his personal extravagance to his airline's woes. Some argue: If he has all that money to burn, why doesn't he burn some of it to save his airline? Other businessmen as well as the general public are against the Government spending taxpayer's money to bail out the carrier.

To a large extent these sentiments are valid and Vijay Mallya has only himself to blame. One problem may be that his flamboyance is not relieved by counterveiling attributes which help others like him to rise above their money. The theatrical tycoon he is most frequently compared with, Virgin airline's Richard Branson, has involvements that transcend his yachts and his publicity stunts like hot-air ballooning. His African programmes aimed at education and poverty alleviation and his activism with issues like global warming put him in a league of his own.

Giani Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune, was a star of the Reviera pleasure spots in his younger days. But the playboy matured into one of the world's most admired businessmen. Even when depression and terrorist threats rattled businesses during the 1970s, his management skills helped him survive and grow. A style icon all his life, he was once described by Life magazine as “an exquisitely tailored Julius Caesar”. The point is that neither flamboyance nor business setbacks deprived Agnelli of his status as “an unelected statesman”.

No different was Ted Turner who embellished his billionaire dazzle by having Jane Fonda as wife for ten years. He never missed a fun moment or a luxury fling, but his personal achievements never flagged either. He skippered his yacht to a win in the world's toughest ocean race, the America's Cup in 1977. When the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he organised a parallel Goodwill Games in Moscow six years later; 3000 athletes from 79 countries attended. Above all, he changed the media game by founding CNN, a wholly original idea at the time.

While Branson, Agnelli and Turner are all known for substantial philanthropic activities, Vijay Mallya's corporate or personal social responsibility is yet to develop. But he has come to symbolise something that has been good for India. It is interesting to note that until Kingfisher Airlines ran into its current phase of humiliation, Vijay Mallya's bigger-than-life flashiness was something his countrymen enjoyed. He personified India's newfound prosperity, and the ideals the new middle class admired. News of his yacht Indian Empress titillated many Indians because it was the boat Richard Burton had presented to Elizabeth Taylor.

Mallya's business capabilities also commanded attention. The spirits business he inherited rapidly developed into a world player. As a deal maker he became a bit of a legend. Perhaps it was his weakness for glamour that made him go into the airline business. But no one will forget the touch of class he brought to air travel in India. For the first time, seats sported leather upholstry, there were individual video screens for every passenger, a personal welcome by the chairman , and excellent food; people would take the Mumbai-Delhi flights in business class only for the fresh Norwegian salmon served inflight. Above all, passengers alighting at airports to catch their flights were greeted by usher boys who took charge of the baggage and led the surprised “guests” through check-in.

Such an airline deserves not just to succeed, but to be appreciated. No doubt, the high costs generated by government policies adversely affected all airlines; Naresh Goel of Jet Airways is said to have lost his billionaire status and become a mere millionaire. Perhaps all the billionaires have learned their lessons and perhaps the Government has learned that killing a golden goose is no way to get eggs. If Kingfisher goes under, it will hit not only several hundred employees but also a corner of India's newfound self-esteem.