Thursday, 13 September 2018

Why Did You Do This, Amma?

“This picture defines auntie”, a young woman in my neighbourhood said when she saw this. The very words I had used when I sourced this picture from my niece. This dates back to 2009 when the two of us and my sister’s family had gone on a trip to Himachal Pradesh. This was on the lawns of the hotel in Narkhanda where we made the first stop. The paper was either Indian Express or The Tribune.
Amma simply HAD to read the newspapers – note the plural – every day. And she would make sure she got it. On that trip, whenever we passed a wayside shop, the car had to stop and we had to check if an English newspaper was available.
She was always up to date on the news – after going through the newspapers, she was constantly switching between her Tamil serials and television news channels. Often it was she who informed me about breaking news events, knowing that I don’t watch television news. She knew the biases of every news channel and which anchor is fair and which one is patently unfair. `Yenna adaavadi (what brazenness)’, was a constant refrain as she watched the 9 pm panel discussions. She would give me the low-down on the discussions and I would tell her to stop wasting her time on those. 
How does one even begin to describe her?  She was beautiful as these two pictures, one of her just after her marriage when she was sixteen and the second when she was in her forties, will prove.   

And this with zero grooming routines - she knew zilch about tweezing, threading, waxing, manicure/pedicure - and frankly she thought little of all this. Once my nephew, then just four, told her, `I don't like my grandmother always dressed in saris and no make up'. She shot back, 'I don't like my grandchildren to be obsessed about their looks' (he used to stand in front of the mirror and keep combing his hair!) But she was always well turned out and her sari collection was something everyone envied.
She was a bundle of contradictions in many ways. She combined tradition and modernity in her own unique way. She was the source of strength to her four daughters but was never the conventional mother. She was God fearing (`I have blind faith in Venkateswara' she would say and often make pledges to Hanuman) but shunned ritualism in any form. She lit the lamp in front of her deities every morning and spent some time in silent prayer, but she never chanted mantras or observed fasts or attended bhajan sabhas/kirtan sabhas. But she made sure all festivals were observed the way they should be. She could be very infuriating at times.
Where she came from is best described in this post about her family. She was highly educated – BA from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, BEd from Central Institute of Education, MA through correspondence course in geography from Aligarh Muslim University, and PhD in urban geography from the Delhi School of Economics. Her PhD thesis was a talking point when she submitted it in the seventies. The central argument was that Connaught Place would decline in importance as a retail destination and markets in what were then the suburbs – Greater Kailash, South Extension etc – would rise in importance. She was interviewed by Hindustan Times, I remember. Her prediction did come true, though Connaught Place is regaining its lost glory now. I remember accompanying her on her field trips, as she went around markets noting down details of shops and talking to residents about their shopping habits.
She was all dynamism, but she lacked that certain something that should have made her a successful career woman – she taught in schools (Queen Mary's, Springdales, Mater Dei) for short spells and did some post-doctoral research. That was just about it. 
Her focus on her education and research – even though she was married straight after school – did not mean even the slightest neglect of her daughters. She wanted all four of us to be strong, highly educated, independent women with successful careers and went all out to ensure we got the best possible education. As one of her sisters-in-law once said: “Ranga lives for her daughters”.
But the relationship is best described in Facebook lingo: “it’s complicated”. She was a strong-willed woman – some would call her headstrong and she would accept it as a compliment. So were her four daughters. Clashes were, therefore, inevitable, though she backed us to the hilt in our choices of academics, careers and life partners. So what were the clashes about? When one looks back, trivial things in comparison to the areas where she let us simply be. 
One frequent reason for fights used to be her penny-pinching ways. ‘For heaven’s sake, we are not so badly off, I can afford this,’ one of us would invariably snap. `Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you have to blow up money,’ she would retort. And the final word was always hers: `It is because I am like this your father never had to take a loan for educating all you or for weddings.’
But was she perhaps also responsible for some of our weaknesses? She was never one of those pushy mothers who put pressure on their children to top the class, come first in school, excel in this, surpass in that. Knowledge was more important for her than a mere exam, substance scored over appearance/style. But even in those days, marks and appearance were becoming more important than mere knowledge and substance. I keep swinging between “I wish she had been like that (switching between conventional and pushy mothers)” and `Thank God she wasn’t like that’.
She would say marriage should not define a woman, but she worried herself sick that I did not marry. At the same time, she also tried her best to ensure that I never came to know of this, just so that I did not feel pressured into getting married. I once overheard her telling someone that she had taken a vow to do puja at the Gole Market Kali temple if I got married within a certain time. When I asked her about it a few days later, she flatly denied it and said I was imagining things! 
When my younger sister was going through a divorce, a neighbour came and said `hamare sanskar mein divorce nahin hota (our tradition doesn't allow divorce)’, my mother snubbed her saying in her broken Hindi (she spoke atrocious Hindi even after six decades in Delhi) that if one goes by tradition, then she should not have allowed an inter-caste marriage. There was no confusion in her mind – her daughter had made a mistake and wanted to correct it and she had to give her full backing.
Concentrating on her education also did not mean neglect of the kitchen or outsourcing to a cook. We had two brief spells of cooks, but even then it was her domain. The sweets/snacks at every festival were made at home till she was well into her sixties.
One lady in her neighbourhood told my sister, `aapki mother to gai thi gai (your mother was extremely docile)’. We all had a hearty laugh about that (really, the things people say when they are offering condolences!!). 
Amma was no gentle soul, as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, masons and neighbours who were a nuisance very soon realised. We would cringe with embarrassment and try to stop her but to no avail.
In the eighties and early nineties she was involved in the consumer protection movement. She came up against crooked ration shop owners and stood up to them. One dared to send our rations home. She not only returned it immediately, but went to his shop and ticked him off. Another took the name of the local MLA. Off she went to see him and tell him what the ration shop owner said. Soon the MLA would invariably make a stop at her home when he was on his rounds and touch her feet.
She used to control the queue at the Delhi Milk Scheme counter and at the vegetable trucks sent by the Delhi government civil supplies department (something she was instrumental in arranging). Invariably that involved clashes with those trying to jump the queue. Some times there were personal attacks, and that became another source of our fights at home. But she wouldn’t stop. Soon many of those who had fought with her would concede that she was fair and often ask her to arbitrate.  She became famous as doodh vaali auntie and alu-pyaaaz vali auntie!
She continued to remain physically and mentally active till the end (she was discussing politics with my aunt till one hour before she passed away). If the maid didn’t come, she would not leave vessels piled up like many much younger women would. If we stopped her from doing anything or from going out to the market alone, she would get furious: `don’t make me an invalid’. Of late, she had stopped her evening walks (she was diabetic) because she found walking difficult but that didn’t stop her from climbing three flights of stairs to her sister’s home just because she wanted to go there on account of having missed the cremation. Last year I suggested that she use a walking stick. She flared up: `Chhe, I don't need a walking stick'.
I would tell people, my mother is never going to suffer from Parkinson’s or dementia and I was right – she went quickly, peacefully, in full control of all her faculties till the end. In her eighty-six years, she had never been hospitalised except for the deliveries of her daughters. She didn’t trust government hospitals and was sure private hospitals only exist to fleece patients. She ensured that she was not admitted to hospital even at the fag end of her life - she was declared brought dead when we took her to the hospital, so there was no question of her being admitted.  
I guess this is one of the rare examples of someone who lived and died on her own terms.
`Amma, why are you doing this?’ was an angry question each of us has asked multiple times. Now the question will be, ‘Amma, why did you do this, leaving us so suddenly and without warning?’
As I said before, all four of us had a very complex and complicated relationship with her. We relied on her in so many ways, we turned to her in times of trouble, we fought with her, we accused her of being overbearing, we used to be embarrassed by her and be angry with her for that. But from now on, we are just going to miss her very, very much.

Friday, 31 August 2018

The Amazing VK family

There  are  just  three left now. Out  of a brood of 11. And what  a brood – bright, strong, temperamental, tempestuous, best of friends, best  of enemies, innocuous conversations leading to massive fights where  some wouldn’t talk to each other for months, years. The VK family fights and politics were legendary. And if any of us cousins railed against this or ribbed them about it, the combined put  down was swift – we may have our fights, but in times of trouble we will always be with each  other. And as one aunt married into the family said today – look they always used to say they would be together despite all the squabbles and so Babu and Sukumaran went  within days of each other and  Mythili and Ranga within less than 24 hours.
I often used to say the oddballs of  the VK family need to be chronicled, but today I will forget about their eccentricities and celebrate them.
The VK referred to V Krishnamachari, our grandfather. He trained as a lawyer but refused to practice after a point because he didn’t want to wear trousers – his way of opposing British rule. So he became a journalist in The Hindu. He  retired as assistant news editor and was a legend there. Kasturi particularly held him in high regard. My mother and her elder brothers have read proofs of pages carrying news of World War II that used to come home for checking. But journalism was such a badly paying job that he didn’t want any of his children to become one. Many years later, his youngest son (who was just four when he died) became one – in the Hindu. And then two granddaughters also did, one me and the other  in the Hindu again.
Then there was his wife Chellama. Daughter of a railway  official, my mother is not sure if she went to school but she was a voracious reader in Tamil and English and  apparently even wrote short stories in a little notebook. So broad-minded was she that when  my mother nervously told her that my eldest sister wants  to marry a UP baniya, she said, if they are decided  then  just  fix the earliest auspicious date.  And when my second sister took her Kerala Christian husband to meet her, she immediately took my sister to buy her utensils. Not once did she come in the way of her daughters’ education.
Between VK and Chellama, they raised a remarkable brood, particularly the four daughters.
 My grandfather was insistent that  all his daughters would be at least graduates. My mother, Rangamani (sibling number 3, daughter number 1) was married straight after school, but when searching for a groom, my grandfather insisted that she should be allowed to go to college and become a graduate.  She went on to do her BA (she was pregnant with my eldest sister while giving her third year exam), MA, B.Ed and PhD (she was pregnant with my youngest sister then).
After her was Mythili (sibling  number 4, sister number 2), who became a doctor. When VK died of a heart attack a few months after my birth, his youngest son was only four years old.  Mythili shouldered the burden of educating all her younger siblings, deciding to remain unmarried.
Sister number 3 (sibling number 6) Shakuntala Chellappa (the second of the siblings to die) was a school teacher as well as a gifted singer who was a staff artiste on All India Radio, Hyderabad. She passed on her musical genes to her daughter Nandini Srikar. Daughter number 4 (sibling number 8) Vatsala Mani is an economics PhD from the precursor  of JNU - School of International Studies. By the way, all the daughters had to learn music.
The sons were qualified and highly respected professionals – from a telecommunications engineer (V. K. Aravamudhan, a crack solver of cryptic crossword puzzles); a veterinary  doctor (V. K. Seshadri, a voracious reader who could quote passages out of books he had read years earlier); a mining engineer (V. K. Raghavan); IAS (V.K. Srinivasan); IPS (V.K. Rajagopalan); journalist (V.K. Raghunathan). V.K. Soundarajan was the only one who lagged behind, thanks to an overdose of anasthaesia when he broke his arm as a child. The reputation of Srinivasan and Rajagopalan for being non corruptible and sticklers for rules was legendary in IAS and IPS circles. Raghu too got drawn to music – rock music - in college and continued his interest through his career. He had his own band at one point.
All the siblings had a ear for music. With Tata Sky, Srinivasan, Mythili and my mother would often be tuned to Carnatic music programmes on various channels and would be constantly calling each other almost every  evening to listen to this new singer on this channel or an established singer on another channel. 
I’ve just read this again and it reads flat. That’s because the eccentricities of the VK family don’t figure. But that’s for another day. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Fight Crackers on Your Own; Don't Bring the Government, Courts into It

Last year on Diwali day I wrote this article, Everyone Who Criticises The Way Festivals Are Being Observed Is Not A Hindu Hater, that earned me the wrath of, and consequently countless abuses from, the cultural right, a loose group that claims it is out to save Hinduism not just from other religious groups but also what they call `Hindu-hating Hindus’. I was making a simple, nuanced point: I don’t agree with the campaign against crackers, but not everybody wanting them banned or restraint on their use is a festival shamer or Hindu hater. Of course, I was promptly labelled as both (apart from a lot of other things).
This year, my criticism of the Supreme Court order banning sale of fire-crackers  in Delhi before and till well after Diwali could earn me another label, this time from those who are rejoicing over the court order – Hindu fanatic. Apparently only this lot, which wants to add to Delhi’s air and noise pollution and has no consideration for people and pets affected by the smoke, will object to the order. 
Now, one has reconciled to the death of nuance in any debate, but even then this is a bit much. When will people get this: someone asking for a ban on crackers or for some restraint in over-the-top celebrations of any festival is not necessarily a Hindu-hater. And someone criticising the Supreme Court order is not necessarily an inconsiderate Hindu fanatic/sanghi/BJP-sympathiser.  
That apart, the Supreme Court order is wrong because it is a clear case of judicial over-reach. 
There is no clinching evidence that firecrackers are the main cause of air and noise pollution in Delhi. Monday’s Supreme Court judgement quotes an earlier order of September 12 which says: 
. . . from the material before us, it cannot be said with any great degree of certainty that the extremely poor quality of air in Delhi in November and December 2016 was the result only of bursting fireworks around Diwali. Certainly, there were other causes as well, but even so the contribution of the bursting of fireworks cannot be glossed over. Unfortunately, neither is it possible to give an accurate or relative assessment of the contribution of the other identified factors nor the contribution of bursting fireworks to the poor air quality in Delhi and in the NCR. (emphasis added)
So, then, why the ban? Apparently the 2016 order restricting sale of firecrackers came  after Diwali and the Court wants to see the effect of the ban around Diwali this year. This is not convincing enough. 
Those welcoming the order say this judicial intervention was necessary because this is a serious and very real social problem that affects the health of people in Delhi and the government was not doing anything about it. Okay, point conceded. But then wasn’t the issue of accidents on highways due to drunken driving also a serious social issue, which led the Supreme Court to prohibit state governments from granting licences to liquor vends and bars  along state and national highways? 
But that sparked enormous outrage from the very sections that are hailing the current Delhi-centric ban. Many of the arguments at that  time cited lack of evidence that all drunk driving deaths on highways were caused by people who drank at liquor vends along these roads. So why doesn’t this lack of evidence apply now? 
Gautam Bhatia and other legal experts have pointed out on social media that the order on firecrackers is faulty because there’s no specific law being violated. Bhatia also cited the example of the Court’s interim order on standing for the national anthem, which was justified on the basis of the lack of a law on the subject, as another example of overreach. 
But that order attracted widespread condemnation by the very sections that are welcoming Monday’s order. Go figure.
Am I indulging in whataboutery? Yes, unapologetically so. Sometimes whataboutery is needed to call out hypocrisy. One cannot say judicial intervention is justified when it serves your pet cause but not justified when it does not. (Incidentally, this applies to the `cultural right’, that is lambasting the order, as well. You cannot hail the Supreme Court when it orders people to stand up for the national anthem and criticise it for banning firecrackers on Diwali.)
The Indian Constitution, which many of those welcoming the order swear by, has certain tasks set out for the three arms of government. There is a principle called separation of powers. The issue of liquor vends along highways, firecrackers during Diwali and standing up for the national anthem are all areas where the executive and legislature need to act. Just because you cannot persuade them to do so, you can’t seek and justify judicial intervention.  
Am I belittling the issue of the problem of over-the-top firecrackers during Diwali? No. It is a serious problem and not just in Delhi. Even someone like me who loved bursting firecrackers (and  initiated my nephew  into bursting them) and think Diwali is incomplete without them cringe at what goes on these days. I know the problem asthma patients face – my sister used to be asthmatic and my parents had a hard time keeping her away from crackers and keeping her indoors when  the smoke got too much (incidentally, she  did not stop her son from bursting crackers). I know a lot of devout Hindus who are distressed by the noise and smoke. In Delhi, at least, crackers have always been more about display of wealth than anything else.  
But getting the government, or failing that, the Supreme Court to ban it is not the solution. This only gives the government more power over our lives. We cannot  bring the state into every your-freedom-ends-where-my-nose-begins issue. There are some issues we have to address ourselves. 
So, go ahead appeal to your colonies/housing societies to regulate use of crackers, raise awareness  about the ill-effects of crackers, call the cops when you find people bursting crackers beyond  10 pm (instead of  saying `how can we complain about our neighbours, it doesn’t look nice’), don’t give or accept sweets and presents from neighbours  who burst  crackers. But don’t bring the government or the courts into it.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Goodbye Brave Gauri

I was sitting at my computer and writing an article – was not on the net and don’t watch news television – when my mother called. “Didn’t you have a friend called Gauri Lankesh?” “Yes,” I said, “but I haven’t been in touch since. . .” My mother cut me short: “She’s been shot dead in Bangalore.”
As I got on to Facebook and Twitter and switched on the television, numbed, so many memories came to life.
Perhaps the most poignant one was a practical joke Gauri played, which backfired badly.  It was the first memory of Gauri that popped into my mind as I grappled with the news.
This was in the mid or late nineties. After some years in Times of India, Delhi, where we were colleagues, Gauri had moved to Bangalore office. She, me and Kalpana Jain used to exchange letters over the office air bag. Gauri’s Hindi was a joke and once she wrote a letter to us – Hindi in English script. Kalpana and me responded with English in Hindi script.
Some days later, I was on night shift when I got a call from office saying news has come that Gauri has died of a heart attack. If I remember right, there was then a call saying this was a practical joke (or perhaps I learnt about it when I reached office).
This is what had happened. Gauri, the brat that she always was, had sent a message over the office telex machine addressed to Kalpana and me, saying “this is to inform the sad demise of Gauri Lankesh. She died after receiving a letter in Hindi. . ..”
The teleprinter operator had handed it to Kalpana, who was on the afternoon shift. She read the first sentence and, shaken, didn’t read beyond it and handed it to the news editor. He too did not read beyond the first line. Apparently the editor was informed, a short meeting was called, condolences offered. Then one of the senior editors – either editor Dileep Padgaonkar or resident editor Ajay Kumar - called the resident editor of the Bangalore office to get some details. He was taken aback saying she’s right here hale and hearty! Gauri had to face some disciplinary action for that (since the office telex had been used) but she bounced back.
Oh, how I wish this news too was just a practical joke. Unfortunately , it is all too real.
Gauri was spunky. In those days in Times House, women journalists who did smoke would not do so in the large hall on the second floor where journalists of Economic Times, Times of India and Navbharat Times sat. They would go to the women’s loo and smoke. So did Gauri initially, seeing the others. It used to irritate me and I used to tell them to smoke openly in the hall like the men did. One journalist said she couldn’t because her father (also a journalist) would come to know. Another had some other feeble excuse. But Gauri decided to go ahead. One night shift, after the dak edition andas we were preparing for the city edition, she lit up. The peons were aghast. But the unwritten rule had been broken.
So many times I have rested at her home in Defence Colony when I was out on meetings for an article I was writing and had to report to for night shift on the desk. My first haircut went horribly wrong and it was Gauri who took me to another and told him what to do. I continued with him for nearly 10 years.
Like I said earlier, I hadn’t been in touch with her for ages – just the normal drifting apart that used to happen in those days when there were no cellphones or email or Facebook. I used to keep hearing news of her and reading about her. The last time I had a serious discussion about her was when she lost the defamation case. When I read about details, I felt she had been on weak ground on that and had talked to a former boss and another journalist about it.
I doubt whether Gauri and I could have bonded like we used to very much if we had met recently, given our political leanings. That would have come up after the initial pleasantries. But she did not, absolutely did not, deserve to be shot dead.
Goodbye brave Gauri.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Modi's Cabinet Reshuffle: What A Waste of an Opportunity

So the biggest move (game-changer, said one over-the-top anchor) of Narendra Modi in this cabinet reshuffle is making Nirmala Sitharaman India’s first woman defence minister? There are women serving in the army and the mere appointment of a woman minister is the breaking of a glass ceiling? If the gender of a minister – and not any policy or directional change – is a game-changer, it is a sad commentary on our expectations from government. As for the media, the less said the better. 
This cabinet reshuffle has certainly been a disappointment, barring some heartening exceptions.
Let’s get the exceptions out of the way, first. Piyush Goyal taking over from Suresh Prabhu as railway minister is good news. Prabhu was undertaking some significant reforms in railways – his only problem was that he was unable to deal with a railway bureaucracy running rings around him. It is unfortunate that he put in his papers after a series of railway accidents, but Indian politics requires such meaningless optics. Goyal is a go-getter and his chartered accountant background could be useful in dealing with the mess in railway finances. He has addressed some of the fundamental problems in the power sector (though how the UDAY scheme plays out in the long run remains to be seen). He will be getting an equally go-getter of a Railway Board chairman in Ashwani Lohani. So he is well placed to take Prabhu’s creditable legacy forward.  
Fortunately, Prabhu has been given an equally important portfolio in commerce and industry. His immediate task will be to prepare for the World Trade Organisation ministerial in Buenos Aires in December. There are several knotty issues there and he will be on top of things. India needed a competent negotiator for the ministerial and Prabhu will fit the bill. The ministry holds other challenges for any minister – the need to grow the country’s exports at a time of increasing protectionism, the need to get investments going, to name two crucial ones. Prabhu’s presence gives a sense of reassurance. 
The fact that Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi got promoted to cabinet rank is also a positive. All three have earned their spurs. R. K. Singh replacing Goyal in the power and renewable energy ministry is being touted as a positive, but one will have to see how he performs; the power sector is a pretty knotty one, after all. 
But this reshuffle has certainly not been about rewarding performance. If that were the case, there would have been change in the agriculture ministry. Radha Mohan Singh’s stewardship of the ministry has been uninspiring, to say the least. Agriculture is in deep crisis and there was need for a dynamic minister there in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The argument being put out that Modi did not want to take any chances with new people having to learn the ropes does not wash. Singh has been given three years of chances; it has not worked. Sitharaman, too, did  not exactly set the Yamuna on fire with her underwhelming stewardship  of the commerce and industry ministry; yet she has got a promotion in rank and portfolio. 
The performance-oriented reshuffle line draws strength from a shifting of additional charges of some ministers. But none of these are going to make a big difference to governance, which should have been the main criterion for the cabinet rejig exercise. 
If this reshuffle was about performance, what explains ignoring the core strengths of people when allotting portfolios? This has been a common malaise in most governments over the decades and, unfortunately, Modi is continuing on the same path. What is the logic of putting Hardeep Puri, an extremely distinguished diplomat who would have been better placed in external affairs, commerce or defence as minister of state, in the urban development ministry? And in giving Alphons, a seasoned bureaucrat who shook up the Delhi Development Authority and was PS to Ram Jethmalani when he was urban affairs (or whatever that ministry was called those days) in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet, responsibility for tourism, a ministry that has no business to even exist? The befuddlement at these postings is best summed up in a tweet by Kunal Singh @d_extrovert: “In India if you have specialised in a particular field, it is counted as a negative in ministry allotment”.     
A slight digression here to deal with the jeers about the induction of four ex-bureaucrats into the cabinet. That, Modi’s legion of critics say, is a sign of the lack of talent in the BJP and further proof of Modi’s preference for bureaucrats. This is a silly criticism. One, there is a factual problem with this. And all four are BJP members, Alphons since 2011. Two, if there is a lack of talent among elected representatives, that shows talented people lack winnability and that is a reflection on us voters. But R. K. Singh and Satya Pal Singh have won elections.  Three, if you are bemoaning lack of talent, how can you object to Modi bringing in talent from outside? Doesn’t it  show Modi in good light – he is accepting the lack of bench strength and is addressing  it? Four, why should former bureaucrats not come into politics? 
What completely boggles the mind is the way ministers have been given additional responsibilities. There is very little synergy with the main ministry in most cases. When Modi in 2014 clubbed power with new and renewable energy and, more importantly, coal, that seemed to indicate he understood the need to combine related ministries. But that principle has been completely undermined in the latest reshuffle.
What synergy does petroleum and natural gas have with skill development? Why has coal been de-linked from the power ministry? Goyal has additional charge of coal along with railways. The only link between coal and railways relates to movement and coordinating that does not require the railways minister to be in charge of the coal ministry. On the other hand, coal is important for the power sector and that is why the two ministries had been brought under a single minister in 2014. Why has Gadkari been given additional charge of water resources; what does it have to do with the transport related sectors he is looking after very competently? He’s pushing for inland waterways but that is a small part of what the water resources ministry deals with. What is the logic of clubbing mines with rural development and panchayati raj?
All in all, this exercise is a waste of opportunity. Pity.  

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Why This Blog and Why This Name: An Update

Quite a few people have been curious about my blog (which I resumed after a long gap) and I have had to refer them to my first post in January 2005, Why This Blog and Why This Name. Then I started reading the post myself. And I realised nothing has changed since then. In fact, things have gotten worse now.
The sharpening of polarisation in discourse had, even in the early 2000s, made normal conversation difficult. Now it has become impossible.  Not virtually impossible. Not next to impossible. Just impossible.
Nuance was fading then. It has disappeared now. There was some labelling then. There is outright name-calling now. And yes, it is all centred around Narendra Modi – the Divine Deliverer or the Devil Incarnate, depending on which side of the ideological divide one is on. If you believe – like I do – that he is neither, that he is as much capable of getting things right as getting things hopelessly wrong, then your plight is worse than that of the proverbial dhobi ka kutta.
This is not about the bhakt brigade alone. Stories about their trolling, abusive name-calling, peddling of lies and fake photos/news and assertions that whatever good is happening in the country is only because of Modi are well known. I am not going to spend time repeating them.
This post is equally about the Modi/BJP/RSS haters. In fact, it is more about them, because they are not being called out sufficiently. They rue the demise of nuance and the rise of intolerance, but they have contributed to both in no small measure. Try saying something positive about this government at a gathering of Modi haters. Try pointing out factual inaccuracies and logical flaws in their arguments. Try outing their fake news and fake photos (yes, they too indulge in them). Hell, just try joking about their obsession with Modi. You will not emerge unscathed. They are as sneery and spew as much venom as the bhakt brigade, except that the English is better.
Nothing brings this out better than the cacophonous debate over demonetisation. The DeMo Deriders (an assortment of libertarians, Modi hating liberals or MoHaLis and opposition politicians) are no less shrill and unreasonable than the DeMo Defenders (an assortment of liberals and Modi bhakts). It is one thing to question someone’s claim to being an economic liberal/libertarian or their understanding of basic economics if they made even a `yes, but’ kind of equivocation on the issue. It is quite another to question their professional and personal integrity. The bhakt brigade calls anyone who doesn’t agree with them a Congress chamcha. The hater brigade calls anyone who doesn’t agree with them a Modi chamcha. Is there a difference?
Personally, though, my experience has been slightly different. I have liberal friends who are bhakts and liberal friends who are allergic to the very mention of Modi. The former lot are okay with my not deifying Modi. They don’t bully me. The bullying has come only from bhakts whom I don’t know. I have been told to change my name to Soorpanakha (which explains my Twitter handle) and go back to Lanka (Pakistan is not an option for me, clearly).
But my MoHaLi friends, have a huge, huge problem with my refusing to demonise Modi, and have not hesitated to bully me. I have been told I need to fight the good fight, that my pox on both houses stand won’t do, that my obsession with facts is irksome and so on and so forth.
But I am not going to be bullied by either side and I will continue to strive to be beyond labels, through this blog and other writings. The writings on this blog will be more free-wheeling than in my journalistic pieces. I believe the need for this blog is more in these times. As in my journalistic writing, I will take a stand on issues based on facts. Regardless of what the bhakt brigade or the hate gang feels. Just one word to members of both: don't waste your time posting abusive comments; comments are moderated.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Moving Beyond DeMo and GST: Growth Crisis is More Deep Rooted and Needs Tackling

Posting after a long, long time.😊

The economic growth figures released by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) will have the strident critics of demonetisation in a see-we-told-you mode and the ardent supporters more subdued than they have been in a while.
Fiscal year 2017-18 has started out on a dismal note indeed. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew a measly 5.7 per cent in the first quarter (Q1, April-June) against a healthy 7.9 per cent in Q1 of 2016-17.  Other economic data also released yesterday too did not give cheer – eight core industries grew only 2.5 per cent in April-July 2017-18 against 6 per cent in the same period of 2016-17.
For a government that has been patting itself on the back for pulling the economy out of the morass it was in when it assumed power, this is not be welcome news.
The DeMo Deriders insist that the note ban is solely responsible for this worst-ever quarterly growth figures in 13 quarters. However, it would not be entirely factually correct. The other explanation, that the draw down of inventories by manufacturing companies ahead of the goods and services tax (GST) rollout is also responsible, is not the spin that this lot insist it is. It is not just the government that is offering  this explanation; most economic analysts are saying the same. Not all of them will trot out the government line.
It is the combined effect of demonetisation and preparing for GST that saw growth in gross value added (GVA) in the manufacturing sector plummeting from 10.7 per cent in Q1 of 2016-17 to 1.2 per cent in Q1 this year (though base effect could also have played a role). The higher growth posted by the trade, hotels etc segment – 11.1 per cent against  8.9 per cent in Q1 of 2016-17 – shows sales were happening. Anubhuti Sahay of Standard Chartered also  said on Bloomberg Quint that de-stocking has been far more than was expected. It is this manufacturing slump that has pulled down overall GDP growth.
The only sector where demonetisation can be identified as the sole cause of slowdown is construction and real estate. Growth in construction has fallen from 3.1 per cent to 2 per cent between Q1 of 2016-17 and 2017-18. Chief Statistician T.C.A. Anant pointed out that in the `financial, insurance, real estate and professional services’ segment, real estate has done poorly, though he said this was a longer, pre-demonetisation story. But cement production figures in the index  of  core industries also shows a de-growth, month-on-month since November 2016.
But one needs to move beyond the demonetisation explanation. Because the fact is that the economy had been slowing down well before November 2016. This has been said before and has been dismissed as spin, but it bears repeating.
After a blip in Q3 (October-December) of 2015-16 when year-on-year growth fell to 6.9 per cent over the Q2 (July-September) year-on-year growth of 7.8 per cent, there was a rebound to 9 per cent growth (year-on-year) in Q4. But, thereafter, from Q1 of 2016-17, there has been a steady decline, every quarter. Yes, the deceleration sharpened after demonetisation, but it had set in before.
Blaming the slump entirely on demonetisation will give the government a ready excuse – this is an expected but temporary fallout, which will peter out. And it will allow the government to escape an inconvenient question – you promised to put the zing back in the economy, why did it start slowing down under your watch? Have you identified the cause and started  doing something about it? One has to keep the focus on these questions.
Beyond demonetisation and GST, there are clearly some deep-rooted problems that are pulling the economy down. And the signs for the near future are not very good.
Private investment, which is crucial for sustained and robust recovery, is still sluggish. There is a slight uptick in investment as a percentage of GDP – from 25.5 per cent in Q4 of 2016-17 to 27.5 per cent in Q1 of this fiscal. But this is way below what the economy needs and it is not certain if this will sustain.
What is also worrying is that this comes along with a slight dip in private consumption as a percentage of GDP; this has been fluctuating through 2016-17 and in Q1 of this fiscal has dropped to 57.3 per cent. It needs to get back to the around 60 per cent plus levels of the boom years of 2004 to 2008. The economy needs both consumption demand and investment demand. Earlier it was the former which was holding things up, but if this also begins to flag, then there is a serious problem at hand. How much of a boost government spending alone can give remains to be seen. Government expenditure has risen 17 per cent in Q1 and this is because of the front-loading of expenditure thanks to advancing the budget.
Economists continue to debate about whether it is interest rates or other reasons (including the twin balance sheet problem) that are holding up private investment. The government needs to get to the bottom of this urgently and do what it takes to get companies to invest.
There are challenges on the agricultural front too, as evidenced by the difference between the real and nominal agricultural GVA growth (2.3 per cent and 0.3 per cent. This is an indication of a problem in prices and this could translate into a dip in rural demand. A State Bank of India research notes cautions that agricultural growth in the coming quarters could be muted as the monsoons were deficient in key food grain producing states in the first three months.
The laundry list of what the government needs to do at a general level is pretty well  known; it needs to get down to it. The government has moved  on some fronts – subsidy reform, bankruptcy reform, indirect tax reform (though this will be a bit painful initially) – but it needs to move  on others as well – drastically paring down the public sector, banking reforms, to name just two.
The government’s spin doctors are explaining away what is said to be the economic failure of demonetisation by saying the note ban was a political move. The government should now see economic revival as a political matter and do all it takes to get growth back.