Asian Correspondent » Bala Murali Krishna Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 iPhone 3GS and the Aircel trap! Sat, 11 Aug 2012 17:13:55 +0000

Aircel has been one of two carriers in India selling the iPhone. Many have wondered how the second-rate carrier managed to forge an alliance with what is arguably the best mobile phone brand in the world, and what earned it the privilege.

The question seems even more gripping today. Let me provide you the context.

Recently, Aircel slashed the price of the iPhone 3GS by half – to 9,999 Indian rupees (about $185) – and began selling it bundled with a service package of 3,000 rupees (about $56). It was an imaginative deal in a price-sensitive market, one in which Apple has hardly made a ripple.

Apple’s role in this deal has never been explained. Airtel, the only other carrier that offers the iPhone in India, has simply not followed the price cut. It still sells the same iPhone 3GS at double Aircel’s price.

I know Apple cares for its customers. It should partner with carriers that share the sentiment. Let me explain why Aircel is one that doesn’t.

My wife has used the iMac for the past several years. We bought an iPad soon as it was launched and recently I bought a MacBook Air. But only last week, my wife was tempted to pick up the iPhone and fell for the Aircel offer – a moment of impulse she bitterly regrets after 10 days. Here’s why.

She received her phone three days after booking. It took Aircel a further three days to activate voice calling, but not the Internet. Twenty-four hours after activation, it barred outgoing calls, apparently because Aircel’s system (and humans) thought my wife had exceeded her “credit limit.” At other times, customer service agents asked her to pay a deposit of 3,000 rupees, apparently the money already paid had yet to find its way into her account. When my wife has called Aircel’s customer and technical service, she has been bumped off – like cell signals, perhaps – from one number to another.

When she finally confronted the guy who sold her the phone, the voice calling was restored after 24 hours. But, tonight, Aircel has again pulled the plug for no clear reason.

Unlike elsewhere in the world, Aircel’s iPhone users can’t make use of Genius bars in India. We think activating a phone – especially one as simple as the iPhone – shouldn’t take a genius. But Aircel obviously doesn’t care enough.

Aircel’s service guy in Ooty, a relatively small hill station in southern India, was no genius. He told us the iPhone wouldn’t work on the Wi-fi until it was activated by the carrier. For the past two days, the clearly ill-trained guy has been trying – earnestly, I would have to concede – to get the iPhone connected to the Internet. He tells us the Internet activation can be done only through iTunes authentication. We are no Luddites but remain clueless why that should be a method of authentication, not to mention Aircel’s preferred method. All it should take is for the SIM to be activated for data usage. Or so we think.

I think the above should be a matter of serious concern to Apple chief Tim Cook, who last week told analysts he “loved India” but doesn’t consider its business potential very high. At this rate, Apple is not going to win any friends out here in India. I simply can’t understand how a company that sets high standards in nearly everything – including the customer experience – can allow this kind of appalling service standards for its phone sales.

As I write this on a Saturday night, my wife is still furiously working the Aircel phones for help. My suggestion to her has been to simply throw away Aircel’s SIM card and use her existing Airtel connection to the thankfully unlocked phone. But why should we expect, and put up with, this kind of service from an Apple brand?


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India: What Time magazine missed, Salman Khurshid hit Tue, 10 Jul 2012 13:18:13 +0000

It would have been hard to imagine an attack worse than the one Time magazine unleashed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last weekend. But it looks like Salman Khurshid just did.

The suave law minister’s broadside was directed against the Congress Party’s royalty, so to speak, and quite brutal. Coming from an insider – the party’s intellectual pillar, senior leader and Gandhi family loyalist – it surely feels a whole lot worse to the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Pic: AP.

Khurshid has obviously had to backtrack since The Indian Express published his interview on Tuesday morning but his admirers, as much his foes, would recognise that he is one of the most articulate leaders in our polity. Consequently, it is particularly hard to understand which parts of his remarks could be misinterpreted.

I have excerpted only complete quotes from The Indian Express to ensure there are no interpretations at all by the daily’s reporter. Consider these:

On Rahul Gandhi, the prime ministerial ‘heir’: “Until now we have only seen cameos of his thought and ideas like democratising elections to the Youth Congress. But he has not weaved all of this into a grand announcement. This is a period of waiting.”

On Rahul’s inability to come up with a new ideology: “We need a new ideology to meet contemporary challenges. Reforms in the 1990s were the emergence of a new ideology. But today we need an ideology to be given by our next generation leader Rahul Gandhi to move forward. We have to be clear about what we want to go ahead with in the next elections.”

On Rahul’s standing in the party: “The fact is that he is undoubtedly and unquestionably the number two leader in the party. Yet he has not taken up the mantle or accepted a functional responsibility. He is so far not willing to accept the number two position. In such a situation, we have to wait. This is a waiting time.”

On Sonia Gandhi’s failure: “In UPA II, governance and politics have all got intermingled. The political props have got mixed up. It’s a scattered situation. The stage has to be set up again and only the Congress president can do it. She is the one who has the stature. The prime minister can then run the government, but he cannot set the stage.

“The problem with mixed-up props is that you know the lines but you suddenly realise that things around you are not the same. And we have also not had the time because events are forcing the pace, they are leading us.”

On the government: “It’s not only economic reforms that have slowed down. Even political and administrative reforms have not happened because of this situation.”

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Reforms and the ‘Man’ Tue, 03 Jul 2012 07:37:57 +0000

It’s only a week since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took over the finance portfolio. But already there is an electric buzz in the markets, an air of expectancy and talk of reforms. In six sessions, the markets are up nearly 4%, though some of that will have to be credited to optimism from the embattled eurozone.

Early signs suggest Singh’s magic might be intact, two decades after he hauled India out of an economic abyss with path-breaking reforms and set it on the road to relative prosperity.

He demonstrated it, as it were, with a short but swift wave of his wand – dispelling the fears, notably, of foreign investors. Singh hinted the government may not press its $1.2 billion tax claim against Vodafone – wrought vengefully by his predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, by passing a law retroactively after a court rejected the claim – and made it clear that he would weigh in on the controversial GAAR, or General Anti-avoidance Rules.

It wouldn’t take long for anybody to guess Singh’s reforms agenda – if he were given a free hand. Surely, he would have waved in the likes of Wal-Mart into the country, raised FDI limits on insurance companies, and probably found ways to bring more foreign investment into the infrastructure, a sector that he has said needs a trillion dollars. He also would have freed petrol and diesel prices, and slashed a variety of subsidies that have led the fiscal deficit to balloon, and sharply eroded the value of the Indian rupee.

Obviously, he has done nothing of the kind in eight years as prime minister for reasons known to all of us. Still, the big question is: Can Singh really do something now?

Unsurprisingly, there are two views. One, held by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar of The Economic Times and others, is skeptical. Aiyar doesn’t expect real reforms, primarily because Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi doesn’t believe in reforms. Worse, she doesn’t believe reforms win elections, even though many recent surveys have tracked the growing correlation between economic growth and political victories. With general elections less than two years away, and the party already facing a lot of reverses, Gandhi will be loath to take risks, Aiyar concludes.

Economist Sanjaya Baru, who previously served as Singh’s media adviser, sees hope and probable redemption for his former boss. If the Congress Party is sensible, he says, it would give Singh free rein. The suggestion is that a measure of reforms might undo the damage that has been caused to the economy and growth by UPA-2, and that it might still be able to swing the party’s fortunes in the next elections.

Baru’s argument is pragmatic and worthy of consideration than one might initially suspect.

One, contrary to expectations, the 2014 general elections is not going to be Rahul Gandhi vs. Narendra Modi, but Singh vs. Modi.

The young Gandhi, still widely considered a prime ministerial heir, is down and out after the rout in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. He is no closer to joining the government and is in position to lead the country. Consequently, Congress is likely to keep Singh at the helm and it behooves Sonia Gandhi to back him more strongly than she has in the past, especially on big-ticket issues.

Two, the opposition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party remains in disarray and might be hard pressed to gain a broad political mandate. Even though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has given Modi the nod, the controversial Hindutva leader is right now winning more enemies than friends – within his own party and within his home state of Gujarat. Besides, the BJP is locked in battles with its allies on several different fronts.

Finally, it would be folly to underestimate Sonia Gandhi’s leadership qualities. She is shrewd, if nothing, and motivated in her goal of eventually installing her son as prime minister. In a losing situation, such as this one with most analysts predicting a reverse for the Congress, Gandhi is capable of taking bold gambles. One of them could be to give her chosen prime minister a freer hand in shaping the party’s fortunes in the next two years, and forging some clever alliances – a task at which she has succeeded to a great degree in UPA-2, overcoming several challenges.

May we say, cometh the hour, cometh the Man(mohan)!

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Cricket: Fixing allegations put BCCI on the spot Wed, 16 May 2012 15:12:43 +0000

Few across the country may have heard of T.P. Sudhindra, Shalabh Srivastava, Mohnish Mishra, Amit Yadav or Abhinav Bali.

They are the five cricketers suspended after a sting operation by an Indian television channel showed them agreeing to unfair, and probably illegal, deals that bring shame to the fair name of the game.

It is tempting, especially for the administrators of the game, to portray the cricketer as evil. After all, it would deflect attention from their own failures. But that would be a shame. For, the men who run the game in the country — seen as equally evil by many — have a greater responsibility to protect it.

If the men who run the game in this country had been wise, they would have learned from the case of Pakistani fast bowler Mohammed Amir — an uneducated, under-aged cricketer who was trapped by clever, ruthless professional bookies. He was trapped by a sting operation by News of the World, the now defunct British tabloid, and later convicted by a British court on charges of illegal spot-fixing — illegal bets on specific events on the field of play, rather than the outcome of matches.

Sadly, India’s cricket bosses chose to see in Amir’s case further evidence of Pakistan as a hotbed of match-fixing and chose not to see the many Mohammed Amirs — the “vulnerable cricketer” ill equipped to deal with the familiar vices of wine, women and money, all of which have invaded the game — in Indian cricket.

Sudhindra, Srivastava, Mishra, Yadav and Bali differ from Amir only in their average abilities. Where Amir was an outstanding fast bowler with a bright future, these five are mediocre cricketers who earn a pittance when compared with even the Kohlis and Rainas of the country, and very likely know they will never gain comparable wealth or fame. This makes these average cricketers particularly vulnerable to malicious influences. After all, they stand to gain a lot in terms of money and stand to lose very little in terms of a career.

The large pool of average players represent, perhaps, the weakest link in any fight against corruption in the game. India needs to set up an institutional mechanism that proactively counsels these players and vigorously polices the entire system.

In a strange coincidence, three days before India TV aired its sting operation, the Board of Control for Cricket in India named Ravi Sawani, the former head of the International Cricket Council’s anti-corruption and security unit, to head a new domestic anti-corruption bureau. Despite match-fixing scandals of the past, India is only the fourth country — after Pakistan, Australia and England — to set up such a domestic unit. That reveals India’s weak intent, rather than BCCI president N. Srinivasan’s assertion of “zero tolerance” for match fixing.

Egregious on-field incidents are next to impossible to investigate. Consider a deliberately dropped catch or a no-ball deliberately bowled — two common devices employed in spot-fixing. The best of cricket pundits cannot call these. Until Amir’s no-balls were replayed, nobody ever suspected them to have been bowled deliberately for a price. To then suspect every error in a game as deliberate simply would destroy the very fabric of the game.

Unlike on-field lapses, other allegations can and should be investigated. The sting operation has served to shine a fresh light on the game’s old scourge but little is known about the scale of these deals. The IPL — by all accounts, a vulgar display of money power and underclad cheerleaders on the sidelines — has attracted a lot of allegations. In fact, a previous boss, Lalit Modi, has alleged fixing of player auctions. Now India TV raises under-the-table payments to cricketers, over and above the auctioned amounts, by owners of the franchises.

To BCCI’s credit, its response to the India TV sting was quick. Within 24 hours of the videos being aired, its officials held a tele-conference, some of them watched original video clips provided by the television channel, and suspended the five cricketers implicated.

But will it go all the way and clean its stables?

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Shall We Elect the President? Mon, 07 May 2012 11:16:37 +0000

India may have run its course in tokenism as far as presidential choices are concerned. More than one Muslim has held the position as the country’s titular head; and a Sikh (Zail Singh), Dalit (K.R. Narayanan) and woman (incumbent Pratibha Patil) have each held the august office. Unless somebody comes up with a Christian or a Buddhist name, we should be done with the symbolism that purportedly demonstrates our inclusive society, and begin looking for truly inspired choices for the position.

But the presidential poll next month is about everything except making an inspired choice.

To the opposition BJP, it is about opposing any candidate proposed by the ruling Congress Party. Sushma Swaraj, tactlessly, articulated it in such stark terms, in the process even denouncing the honorable credentials of Vice President Hamid Ansari.

To the Congress, it has always been about rewarding a loyal party senior, and sometimes about ending the ambitions of a man eyeing the more powerful prime ministerial job — this time it might be the latter, given the strong rumors on Pranab Mukherjee being the party’s chosen one.

The rest of the political parties matter less and, besides, are easily swayed by regional considerations. For example, the last time around, even the Shiv Sena ended up backing Patil because she is a Marathi. Trinamool Congress and/or the communist parties will likely back Mukherjee for the same reason.

The last sagacious choice — oddly enough the BJP’s — for the position was Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a technocrat who played a key role in India’s science program. He was the first non-politician to be elected to the largely ceremonial position. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, for one, may have been the more scholarly and intellectual type but when it comes to truly connecting with the people, none fared better than Kalam. In one of the most youthful countries, he was a great inspiration for the young and used the office of the president to make an even more forceful impact.

Good reason would suggest the elected representatives — a broad indirect electorate consisting of MPs and MLAs — who elect the president would be open to a non-politician and some might even throw up a few names. But the presidential election has given rise only to some of the worst politics. Oddly, the call for a non-political candidate came from Sharad Pawar. But the dyed-in-the-wool politician that he is, the Maharashtra senior quickly backtracked, flatly denying making any such suggestion. Consequently, the poll has been reduced to one-upmanship and a shadow political war, rather than a meaningful quest for a candidate that can bring dignity, scholarship or inspiration to the office and the nation.

What if the president is elected directly by the people, rather than by the electoral college, consisting of elected politicians largely incapable of looking beyond petty politics?

This would open up the position to many — perhaps former Infosys chief N.R. Narayana Murthy, who in a media interview expressed a readiness to fill that post, or Amitabh Bachchan, even though he has dabbled unsuccessfully in politics. Or, in later years, actor Aamir Khan, who professes a larger social agenda, or cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar. In the current system, none of these will likely have a shot at the presidency. The office of the president, while devoid of real power, offers the opportunity to effectively pursue a robust non-political agenda, and each of these personalities — and surely many others — is capable of creatively using the office to pursue their broad social goals.

Such choices might be able to not only inspire fellow Indians but also win friends overseas, using the nation’s “soft power” to advance its quest to become a superpower. Finally, for a nation that doesn’t elect its prime minister, it might be a way to test how direct elections work.

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India: A fuel price experiment in Goa Sat, 31 Mar 2012 02:09:12 +0000

Does India really subsidize petrol, diesel and cooking gas?

Our national debate has singularly focused on raising prices in what is already one of the costliest countries for gasoline, ostensibly because all petroleum products are subsidized by a state that can ill afford to do so. This, in turn, has led the opposition — and some allies like the Trinamool Congress — to resist any increase in administered prices, ostensibly to protect the poor. So, what we have is a perpetual debate with little or no nuance, and no freedom from high energy prices, hurting a variety of businesses.

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, an IIT alumnus, has turned this debate on its head. Last week, he sharply cut some the value added tax his state government imposes on petrol and diesel. The result: petrol price in the state will be down a whopping 16 percent, effective April 2.

“I want to expose the central government on the petrol prices. It’s an artificial hike created by the central government. The center is simply looting the people,” Parrikar told, a news website, in a telephonic interview.

Parrikar is right. Actually, there is even more room to cut prices because taxes account for nearly 50 percent of the cost of petrol, for example. According to a report in The Economic Times, if state governments follow Goa’s example, the fuel will become cheaper by roughly Rs. 15 a liter in the four metros — Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata —  and higher in some states like Andhra Pradesh that tax petrol at a higher rate.

So, should other states follow suit? Would economic benefits gained by lower energy prices offset revenue losses? Could it inflate consumption, and lead to galloping oil imports? Will the real price cuts favor the rich at the expense of the poor, as some argue?

It is not clear anybody has answers to any or all of the above questions. No chief minister has responded to Parrikar’s bold initiative. Not other BJP-ruled states. Not West Bengal, ruled by the pro-poor Mamata Banerjee. Or, perhaps, West Bengal, more than other states, is loath to follow suit because of its precarious finances.

The experiment in Goa is going to be interesting. It is a blessing of sorts that such a trial is taking place in a small state that has only about a million automobiles, 70 percent of which are two-wheelers. It is believed that the revenue the state foregoes might be small. But as a proportion of the state’s revenues, it may be no different from other states.

Parrikar believes the impact of lower petrol prices to be revenue-neutral to his state. This is because he expects the lower price to lower inflation and boost tourism, making up for the tax loss.

Still, the revenue question is a big one for states and what happens in Goa would be crucial to adoption by other states. But an even bigger question might be: How will consumers respond? The last thing most of our overcrowded cities need is an automobile boom, giving short shrift to public transportation.

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Death of reform in India: UPA has no right to simply give up Sun, 18 Mar 2012 13:32:27 +0000

First there was poor governance. Now there is, shall we say, the death of reform. That has been the story of Manmohan Singh’s UPA-2.

Pranab Mukherjee

Pranab Mukherjee. Pic: AP.

The budget, presented by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Friday, reinforces the latter point about reform and has been slammed by all and sundry.

Parties have called it “anti-poor” and “status quo-ist,” among other things. Economists, bankers and editorial writers have pointed out the lack of even a token stab at reforms, besides questioning the validity of key numbers — fiscal deficit target of 5.1%, GDP growth of 7.6% for the next fiscal year, and even the proposed cap of 2% of GDP for subsidies.

In the context of a sharp decline in growth and the uncertain global environment, the budget does little to boost growth, and may be downright inflationary, adding to policy constraints. Far from bringing any reform, Mukherjee’s budget is also regressive on some counts. For example, the retrospective change in tax laws to overrule a Supreme Court ruling on Vodafone’s tax liability arising from its acquisition of Hutch’s telecom network.

The loud and clear signal from Mukherjee’s budget is this: The government has simply given up building political consensus on reform, and on reform itself. That’s a pity for both the nation and the Congress Party.

India’s growth rate slipped below 7% this year and many fear it could languish in that range in the absence of genuine reforms; and the Congress’ slipping numbers, evidenced by the recent round of elections in five states, could languish if it does nothing to redeem its governance record.

The Congress Party’s political compulsions — and the accompanying frustrations — are understandable. Still, with two years left in its term, UPA has no right to just give up and choose to remain a lame duck government. It will hurt the nation and it will likely hurt the Congress Party itself in the next general elections, and, perhaps, even galvanize the regrouping of the so-called Third Front.

By simply submitting to Trinamool Congress’ persistent and often unreasonable threats, the Congress is betraying its aging leadership, and a lack of enthusiasm, when the time might be quite opportune to demonstrate more daring and a can-do attitude.

A bolder party would take advantage of the new political equations, rather than be dispirited by the losses and sink further into inaction. It could start by building bridges with the Samajwadi Party, which won an overwhelming mandate in Uttar Pradesh. After all, the regional party, a likely catalyst in any regrouping of the so-called Third Front, has reiterated its support to the UPA.

Even more importantly, the Congress needs to finally call the bluff of Banerjee, whose party blocks every economic reform measure with a zeal greater than that shown by even the communist parties, which lent support to UPA-1. Recently, Trinamool opposed a marginal rise in passenger railway fares, the first in nine years during which period diesel prices have nearly doubled, even when it is proposed by its own minister-nominee, Dinesh Trivedi. Banerjee’s party makes mockery of any reform.

The emergence of a ragtag Third Front, with constituents such as Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party and the AIADMK, is likely in the next two years. It could even win a significant mandate, given the state of both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But that is hardly good news for the nation. In fact, it could be downright scary. Besides the lack of a broad agenda, the likely Third Front coalition has no leader that believes in economic reforms. Consequently, we could be pushed into a prolonged reform-less period that could further hurt growth. That is why the UPA, a coalition led by a reform-minded economist, needs to show greater zeal for reforms, regardless of its so-called coalition dharma, and find support for positive measures. In fact, that may also be the best way for the Congress to avoid a possible rout in the next elections.

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India: UP verdict holds a lesson for Rahul Gandhi, but will he learn? Thu, 08 Mar 2012 02:32:51 +0000
Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi. Pic: AP.

For the past several years, Rahul Gandhi has been jumping hoops, so to say. He would swoop down on remote villages, share a humble meal at Dalit homes and, on occasions, even spend a night on the mat in a mud house — all in the belief he was transforming the terms of political engagement with the poor of the country, and earning credits in political college.

Guess what, the poor of this country might be, well, poor but not stupid.

Civility, perhaps, restrains them from shunning such a visitor but they aren’t parting with their votes for this kind of thing. People want to vote for somebody who truly lives amid them — doesn’t merely airdrop from the national capital —or somebody who has the wherewithal to actually alleviate their lives.

Gandhi doesn’t live in Uttar Pradesh and wouldn’t even stand up to be his party’s chief ministerial candidate in the recent elections; and clearly, he and his party have very little to offer to the state’s people after 22 years of being out of power.

Gandhi’s grassroots campaign in the state is years-long and many in his party believed its turn had finally come. That is a main reason why, in the run-up to the elections, he turned it into an unusually aggressive one. But that has hardly paid off.

In the 403-member Uttar Pradesh assembly, Congress added a mere six seats to its tally of 22 in 2007, and Gandhi indisputably lost the battle of the youth to Akhilesh Yadav, the amiable 38-year-old son of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and the man credited with the party’s resounding victory.

Analysts, predictably, are reading varied things from the verdict in the five states — the end of reforms, relegation of national parties, re-emergence of a so-called Third Front, mid-term elections etc. To me, the verdict from India’s largest state is an indictment of Gandhi’s brand of politics and perhaps his candidature, too, given his stature as the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family and his expected rise to the position of prime minister.

People might actually like Gandhi but they simply don’t believe he or his Congress Party can make a difference to their lives. Unless he can demonstrate that, Gandhi is unlikely to win votes for his party. What is more, the result in Uttar Pradesh is likely to significantly dent his image as the big young hope of the country.

To his credit, Gandhi not only accepted responsibility for the fiasco but also expressed humility, saying he was ready to learn from the experience.

“In U.P., I led the campaign and I led from the front and so it is my responsibility…This is one of my defeats and I take it in my stride. I think it is a very good lesson for me. I think it will make me think in detailed ways, which I like to do,” Gandhi told reporters as his party leaders embarrassingly tried to shift blame from the party’s prime minister-in-waiting.

But it is not clear how much Gandhi can learn because he betrayed a streak of defiance.

“I made a promise to the people of U.P. that I will be visible in the cities and villages and fields in U.P.…with the poor. I will continue my work,” he asserted, without saying if he would do anything different or more. For good measure, Gandhi also said he expects his party to “win there one day.”

But facts belie his hopes.

So far, Gandhi has shown no political smarts, demonstrated no organizational flair (poor organization structure in U.P. has been suggested as a reason for the debacle) or true leadership (Anna Hazare’s arrest and the ensuing drama occurred when he was in charge in the absence of his mother Sonia Gandhi on medical grounds). Also, he has never held any public office. Clearly, with a mentor like Digvijay Singh, the party’s hatchet man, Gandhi may not have taken the best path into politics.

At 41, Gandhi is no youth. His beard is beginning to show streaks of gray. With the next general elections in 2014 (or sooner?), time is running out for India’s heir apparent. Can he really succeed Manmohan Singh as the prime minister?


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Acid test for India’s exit polls Mon, 05 Mar 2012 12:37:28 +0000

Exit polls in India have been contentious in the past. Many times, they have proved to be wrong, even horribly wrong. It still doesn’t behoove diverse players in the democracy to simply trash the whole exercise and lend a sympathetic ear to nearly everybody else.

The political class that expresses the greatest condemnation of the exit polls, ahead of the results in the assembly polls in five states, might want to look at the stock market, where the investing class put its money where its mouth is. Today, the market was sharply down right from the morning, primarily because investors read into the many exit polls published over the weekend and concluded (wisely?) that the results would be a setback to the ruling UPA government.

Much of the criticism of the polls comes from parties that are not favored by them. Obviously, no pollster looked for approval from Digvijay Singh, whose Congress Party has been trounced in all the exit polls, or the BJP or Bahujan Samaj Party, who also have been predicted to suffer losses in the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state. But Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi’s jibe through a tweet (“Opinion and exit polls should at best be on entertainment channels”) was surprising. It would be more fitting if the custodian of the largest democracy in the world to show a little more respect to psephology, not a perfect science but certainly an earnest one.

The exit polls represent a way of measuring voter behavior. In many democracies worldwide, such polls have a fair measure of success. India’s diversity, among other things, makes the task vastly more difficult but perhaps not impossible. In the past, the polls have found mixed success. Most notably, they erred in 2004 when the BJP was vanquished on its India Shining slogan. But elsewhere, the results have been less off the mark.

One hopes the exit polls win this time around, if only to strengthen the credibility of a legitimate tool in a democracy. We will know early Tuesday morning Indian time.

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The $35 Aakash tablet: India’s daily dose of embarrassment Thu, 23 Feb 2012 15:40:59 +0000

Not a day passes off without a news report on Aakash, the world’s cheapest tablet computer developed by the Indian government. Most of it is downright embarrassing — for the Indian government, for the prestigious IIT that set the specifications for the tablet and for DataWind, the British-Canadian company that might have become a victim of its own venture.

India Supercheap Aaakash Computer

ndian students pose with the supercheap 'Aakash' Tablet computers which they received during its launch in New Delhi, India last year. Pic: AP.

I hate to say, “I told you so.” But I predicted Aakash’s fall, right when the $35 tablet was launched. If you missed that post, it might still be worth reading because a lot of the criticism leveled at that venture, and the tablet, is proving to be real.

DataWind, the small British-Canadian company that designed Aakash, claimed orders of 1.4 million but, according to Reuters, only 10,000 units have been shipped since October. That is unsurprising because the Aakash, expectedly, performed poorly. Low battery life, poor resistive touchscreen and much more plagued the gadget. Consequently, clumsy efforts are afoot again to upgrade Aakash, probably at a cost of $50, according to a report in The Indian Express. But by the time the second version hits the market— or if it really does — chances are it would again come up short on features, given the lightning speed of technology’s progress.

So what went wrong? And who is to blame?

Let’s first take the Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan. An undergrad in the school could have told that a tablet computer with the specs of Aakash had no chance of succeeding in the market. But, of course, the elite technology school didn’t ask or didn’t heed. Instead, the elite faculty at the school came up with the specifications. On top of it, when things began to go wrong, it entered a turf war by setting impossible benchmarks — ruggedness standards set by the U.S. military including withstanding four inches of rain — on what is a low-cost computer. IIT-Rajasthan’s role in Aakash must now be as embarrassing as the National Institute of Design’s, in the 1960s, when it attempted to recreate the bullock cart.

The government led by the IT Minister Kapil Sibal hasn’t covered itself in glory. Given the government’s monumental ignorance in matters technology — a previous minister promised to build a $10 computer — and its capacious inability to deliver, it should never have embarked on this venture. To bridge the digital divide — an avowed goal — it could have simply contracted a company in Taiwan and imported the tablets and sold it at subsidized rates to students. The cost would have been nominal — after all, the Indian government is subsidizing the cost of Aakash 1, which costs $50 to produce — and the tablets would have reached students sooner.

Finally, DataWind. I am beginning to feel sorry for the Tuli brothers who run the company. They bid rock bottom to win the tender from the Indian government, clearly in the hope that they would be able to sell several million units in one of the largest markets in the world. They also did all the hard work of designing and setting up a manufacturing unit.

Now, DataWind is not assured of any further government contracts to produce the tablet, and it is unlikely the company can sell that many units in the free market to turn in any profit — in India or anywhere else in the world. Reuters reports that DataWind claims “receiving tens of thousands of orders daily for a commercial version of the tablet with a built-in GPRS modem that is due to be launched this month for 2,999 rupees.” But given the performance of Aakash 1, it is a stretch to believe it can win in the market. If it is lucky, DataWind may win a small contract along with other manufacturers or may completely lose out in competitive bidding. Regardless, it seems inevitable that the Tuli brothers might just have to swallow their pride, and possibly losses, and move on.

Is there a lesson for the Indian government? You bet. But will it learn? I bet not.


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Can India really build toilets for 800 million people in a decade? Fri, 17 Feb 2012 17:24:52 +0000

“Women demand mobile phones…not toilets. That is the mindset we have,” Jairam Ramesh on Friday told a conference in the Indian capital debating the Asia-Pacific Millennium Development Goals.

India’s national news agency, Press Trust of India, characterized the remark as a lament. It must be so because Ramesh is not the telecom minister (though he might be a good candidate to sort out the mess in Indian telecom) but the rural development minister, and a very motivated one at that.

Many of us who are Indian, and have mostly lived in India, recognize this “mindset” or “culture”, if you will. Good sanitation has inexplicably escaped our age-old civilization. We think nothing of defecating in the open. In fact, many of us insist on that freedom. That is why we are barely on par with sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the proportion of our population that has access to good sanitation. But unlike poor African countries, the primary reason, historically, might be an unwillingness to build hygienic toilets or use them.

For a rising nation with superpower aspirations, this might seem a trivial matter but the challenge is two-fold and real.

One, how do we build toilets for hundreds of millions of people inside a decade? Ramesh has set a target of 2022 for ending defecation in the open.

The first time we had the Toilets vs. Cellphones comparison was in 2010. It made global headlines after a smart World Bank analyst gently tossed up the stink bomb. It continues to embarrass Indians. Last year, when Anita Narre left her husband days after her wedding because his home didn’t have a proper toilet, the Pakistani press, amongst others, was quick to seize the news.

At that time, India had 700 million mobile phones, or one for more than half its 1.2 billion population. But only a third, or about 366 million, had access to proper toilets. That gap has grown because India adds nearly 10 million new mobile connections every month. Today, nearly 74% of the population, or about 884 million, own mobile phones. We do not keep statistics of new toilets but it might be reasonable to assume the growth is only a fraction when compared to cellphones.

Assuming 400 million Indians currently have access to proper toilets, it leaves the country the onerous task of building toilets for 800 million more over the next decade. Accepting the Third World benchmark of one toilet for 35 people, India will need to build 23 million new toilets — or 6,300 toilets every day.

If that is not daunting, the second challenge might be: How do we change the “mindset,” as Ramesh termed it?

Here, the indefatigable minister has a plan. Ramesh wants to urge a film-maker like Shyam Benegal, rather than a Bollywood producer like Karan Johar, to produce a movie with the social message that defecating in the open is harmful to the nation — the World Bank in 2010 estimated an annual loss of $54 billion on account of resultant poor health — and its global aspirations. In the 1970s, the award-winning director transformed rural women’s attitudes to dairy farming with his film ‘Manthan‘.

One might be tempted to keep faith in the MIT-educated Ramesh. He is very able and determined. Still, in order to succeed, he needs to remain a minister for the next decade. Now, that’s a tall order in Indian politics.

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Salman Khursheed and Other Men Behaving Badly Tue, 14 Feb 2012 10:49:52 +0000

Men behaving badly is becoming a recurring theme, and an emerging challenge.

The recent rash of men throwing basic decorum and caution to the winds is a deliberate affront to establishment and takes advantage of a society that is largely indifferent and an uneducated electorate that is simply forgiving.

First there was the Madhya Pradesh minister who brought along a boy to tie his shoelaces; then there was the minister in Kashmir who ordered state officials to write exams for his son; and then there was the infamous case of degenerate Karnataka lawmakers watching porn in the assembly, followed by a party official condoning it saying they weren’t actually doing it. Now Salman Khursheed, the country’s erudite law minister, has been deliberately intransigent, besides feigning an apology to a constitutional authority as the Election Commission.

For sheer audacity, it is probably hard to beat Cooperation Minister Lakshman Savadi and Women and Child Welfare Minister C.C. Patil watching porn inside the Karnataka assembly, or later of BJP’s Manohar Parrikar, an IIT alum, saying they “were only watching and not doing it.” Still, Khursheed’s is an egregious one, even given the exigencies of a poll campaign. He took on a constitutional authority such as the Election Commission, little realizing his own responsibilities as the custodian of laws in this country. By turns, the Oxford-educated minister ignored the panel’s strictures on using religion and religious quotas during poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh; and defied the early warning by telling one public rally he would not stop even if he were to be hanged.

Clearly, it was a deliberate tactic on the part of Khursheed, and probably his Congress Party as well. After having taken full political advantage at the grassroots level in what is a tight election, Khursheed has tendered what can only be called a mock apology — “bow to the wisdom of EC” — to show deference to the commission’s complaint to President Pratibha Patil. Reports suggest the Election Commission, sadly, will go no further and close the case.

It’s time somebody somewhere says enough is enough and simply begins to do the right thing and penalize bad behavior.

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India: UP poll is no bellwether; Congress’ real test will come later Wed, 08 Feb 2012 07:33:49 +0000

Uttar Pradesh remains India’s most populous state and a politically important one, even though its stature stands diminished since Uttarakhand was carved out of the northern state. It still is home to a sixth of India’s population and occupies about 15% of the seats in Parliament, giving it an elevated political importance.

Still, it is no longer a bellwether state, as many consider it to be, and no proxy for the voice of the nation. After all, the Congress Party — which has ruled the country since 2004 — has been in the wilderness in the state for over two decades. That is why the election to the state’s assembly, starting today, has limited significance.

Last month, India Today magazine ran an opinion poll that showed the corruption-tainted Congress Party would win no more than 110 seats in parliament if elections were held now; and the party’s prime ministerial heir, Rahul Gandhi, would be soundly beaten by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare in any constituency in the country. You can read more of the findings here, but let me not digress.

Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi. Pic: AP.

The same Rahul Gandhi has aggressively spearheaded the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh. He has sought to raise the stakes in the state in the probable belief that Uttar Pradesh — home to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of which he is a privileged heir — is key to his own political fortunes. Gandhi has little real presence in the rest of the nation even though he is the likely prime ministerial heir to Manmohan Singh. For the past several years, the young Gandhi has worked extensively at the grass-roots level in the state. Some recompense for that has come in the form of the present situation in which he and his party just can’t lose. Besides, the party has little to lose — 22 seats in a 403-member assembly.

Most opinion polls expect the Congress to win many more than that number. This comes less from a groundswell of renewed loyalty toward the Gandhi-Nehru family, or from any tangible performance by the party. It emerges from the fact that the scam-tainted party is seen more kindly here than in the rest of the nation because the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party is equally hit by corruption allegations.

Even if the Congress doesn’t end up capturing a whole lot of seats, a big likely beneficiary of the prevailing circumstance is the Samajwadi Party, led by former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. The secular outfit is seen emerging as the single largest party but without a majority – an outcome that should be to the great satisfaction of the Congress because it is hard to see Samajwadi joining hands with the BJP. Yadav could count on Congress support to form the government in Uttar Pradesh, and, in return, Samajwadi Party could bolster the creaking UPA at the center, giving Congress a tactical negotiating advantage with defiant allies such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

Congress will surely ride out the U.P. polls in good shape, regardless of the 2G spectrum and other scams. Its real test will come later.

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Is India giving up on Test cricket? Mon, 30 Jan 2012 02:39:21 +0000

There is much anguish about India’s rout in Australia, the second successive tour in which it has suffered a 4-0 drubbing in a Test series. A billion critics, as it were, are coming up with their own analyses of what went wrong. But there might be a rather simple explanation.

India no longer wants to play Test matches, much less against tough-as-nails opponents like the Aussies in unfriendly conditions. This is, probably, best exemplified by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has thrown broad hints of quitting the longer form of the game.

Rahul Dravid

India's Rahul Dravid walks back to the pavilion after being bowled by Australia's Ryan Harris earlier this month. Pic: AP.

Notwithstanding the late defiance by Virat Kohli, the only Indian batsman to score a century in the four Tests, the striking thing about the series in Australia was the lack of any will to fight. Even in England, when the team lost by an identical margin, one saw sincere, though feeble, attempts to do battle from more than one cricketer. Unsurprisingly, Saurav Ganguly, the former Indian skipper credited with building a lot of fight and resilience in the team, calls the debacle in Australia the worst ever by India. But the players’ voice, as articulated by Ravichandran Ashwin, is at odds with the view of Ganguly and others. We are disappointed but not embarrassed, Ashwin said on more than one occasion. The subtext of this assertion is this: Just you wait until the ODI series starts, that’s where our heart is.

Even though there was a big skills gap when it came to batting in Australian conditions, the lack of any resolve to fight was an equal hurdle. That is why the batsmen failed consistently even in friendlier conditions such as those in Adelaide. For most players, it seemed too much of a task, given the huge opportunities in other forms of cricket, notably T20.

Notably Virendra Sehwag and Dhoni, but many others too, looked as if they were in a hurry to see the Test series to an end and move on to the ODI series, where they might actually be able to carry the fight. Who is to blame them for it? It is what economists call “rational choice” — described by the late Milton Friedman as “simply to mean that an individual acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes personal advantage.”

Administrators of the game in India have also long signed out of Test cricket, preferring, notably, the Indian Premier League. If the last home series against the West Indies was any indication, fans are signing off, too. In fact we might have an unusual predicament: Our cricketers are not ready to do real battle against formidable opponents and our fans are not ready to watch the home team triumph over pushovers. So, who will watch Tests? Nobody except the sentimental, traditional purist pundit is interested in Test cricket.

One would expect the Ashes series, for example, to be kept alive. But Test cricket is probably dying in India. Market forces — like administrators of the game — don’t respect tradition. Today, nobody wants to be a batsman like Rahul Dravid. A lot of the Bangalore batsman’s technique has unraveled at 39, but when Dravid was growing up, he wanted to be a “correct” batsman like Sunil Gavaskar and succeeded, too. It just doesn’t make sense for any young cricketer to model himself on Dravid. Who would consign himself to playing the “B” league, which is what Test matches are today?

Senior cricketers are near unanimous in saying that every young batsman’s dream is to play Test matches, and that every cricketer still considers that form of the game as the ultimate challenge. That is plain and simple bunkum, and betrays the distance they have put between themselves (in the commentary box!) and the cricketer out on the club greens.

With the imminent exits of Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and probably Sachin Tendulkar, India will struggle to find suitable replacements, especially to succeed in overseas conditions. The new breed of batsmen — Kohli might be an exception but it is too early to call — doesn’t model its cricket on the veteran trio. Rohit Sharma might also rise to be a Test batsman but otherwise the emerging batsmen will likely be in the mould of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina or Sehwag, and may not fit into Test cricket.

India doesn’t play a Test match until this fall. That gives a lot of time for selectors and the seniors under pressure — Dravid and Laxman for sure, but also including Tendulkar — to chart out a future. But that window of time is too short to produce new exciting Test batsmen. It would be curious to see how administrators of the game in India, not to mention selectors, deal with the looming crisis.

When (and if?) Test cricket gets a decent burial in India, the Test series in Australia will be seen as a turning point.

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Rushdie affair: India’s hour of shame Mon, 23 Jan 2012 06:29:23 +0000

This blog, it might be worth reminding, closely monitors India’s steps and mis-steps as it strides onto the global stage. On that count, it couldn’t have embarrassed itself more when it played a cheap trick to keep one of its finest authors since Independence, Salman Rushdie, from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival.

It is not clear who exactly masterminded the subterfuge but suffice it to say Indian authorities did so after all efforts — or, rather, threats by an Islamic group and others — to dissuade the British-Indian novelist had failed. They did so by fabricating an assassination plot and scaring away a man who has, for a large part of his life, suffered under a death sentence issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. When Rushdie first faced that fatwa in the late 1980s, months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel that allegedly hurt Islamic sentiments, the British government spent millions of pounds to provide its adopted citizen the best round-the-clock security cover. It is shameful that India — the birthplace of Rushdie — declined to give its own son adequate security for just a few days.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie. Pic: AP.

The Hindu, which uncovered the “fabricated plot,” called it a “national shame,” taking aim squarely at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, more than anybody else, in a hard-hitting editorial.

“Rushdie is entitled to a full apology for this shameful episode and to an unconditional assurance that he is welcome in India at any time and place. Prime Minister Singh must ensure he receives both,” the daily said.

Many other commentators have bemoaned India’s conduct. Among them, two are worth reading. One is by Salil Tripathi in the business daily Mint; and the other is by Aditya Sinha in the Mumbai daily DNA.

“Writers should not need armies to protect them in a free society. That Rushdie might need protection in India reflects poorly—not on him, but on India,” Tripathi concludes. Sinha ends similarly: ‘In effect, after many years Rushdie has, successfully if not deliberately, held a mirror up to us. We ought to cringe at what we see.”

I would like to believe the broader Indian society was ready to forget and forgive Rushdie but the political class was busy trying to play mischief to serve their own narrow interests. Rather than liberating India’s millions from divisions of religion and caste, some political party desperate to win Muslim votes in the upcoming election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the one with the largest number of Muslims, rustled up the issue. And before you knew it, almost all political parties had joined the game with utter disregard to civil liberties and propriety.

The fact is, Rushdie has visited India several times since 2000. None of his visits caused any uproar whatsoever. Besides, nearly 24 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, few young Muslims know anything about Rushdie’s book, and the older generation of Muslims has simply not read the book. After all, Penguin India decided not to publish the controversial book in India (on the advice of Khushwant Singh) and months after its publication overseas, India banned The Satanic Verses anyway.

The least India can do now, besides apologizing to Rushdie — as The Hindu has demanded — is to stop any possible witch hunt against four writers who read from The Satanic Verses in defiance after the novelist had been kept out of Jaipur. All four are of Indian origin, but two (Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi) are residents of India.

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Analysis: Indian cricket needs a smart solution, not a witch hunt Mon, 16 Jan 2012 16:30:38 +0000

Cricket is a funny game.

In November, Australia plumbed new lows in the game, being bundled out for 47, its fourth lowest total ever. In December, it was beaten on home ground by New Zealand for the first time in 26 years. Michael Clarke’s men faced the nation’s wrath.

On the other hand, India was ranked the best Test team in the world a little over six months ago, besides being the winner of the World Cup.

When India began its tour Down Under, many — if not most — cricket experts and fans thought it would have its best chance ever of beating Australia on its home soil. In a bid to further strengthen its chances, the Indian board even sent out its top three batsmen — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman — to Australia a week before the tour began, hoping that they would be able to adapt sooner to the local conditions.

Rahul Dravid

India's Rahul Dravid walks back to the pavilion after being bowled by Australia's Ryan Harris on the third day of their cricket test match at the WACA ground in Perth, Australia, Sunday. Pic: AP.

Today, after three devastating losses in Test matches in Australia, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men face the nation’s wrath.

Thankfully, everybody recognizes it as a crisis, rather than basking in denial or offering creative excuses, as officials and experts alike did last summer when the national team suffered an equally crushing 4-0 rout in England. But acknowledgement of a problem is not to be confused with identifying its cause. You would think the chairman of selectors might be the best person to start off any meaningful analysis of what has gone wrong, rather than set off on a witch hunt suggested by many dismayed critics and fans.

But Krishnamachari Srikkanth is equally at sea as his batsmen. He offered an emotive response (“We are totally devastated”) and another factual comment (“Definitely our batting has failed consistently throughout the series”) but no meaningful analysis.

At the heart of the problem is the question: Why do Indian batsmen severely, and consistently, underperform on overseas soil?

This has been a historical problem, stretching all the way back to the time India began to play Test cricket. Exceptions have been rare and far between, such as India’s successful chase of 403 to win a Test against the formidable West Indies in 1976. Individual batsmen such as Sunil Gavaskar have been exceptions as well, though most often without being able to haul the team’s performance any higher.

Over the past decade, more consistent progress was seen, especially under the captaincy of Saurav Ganguly and on the strength of some phenomenal batsmen — Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Virendra Sehwag, besides Ganguly himself. Now it is the same set of batsmen, except Tendulkar, that is under fire. Even Tendulkar has underperformed by his own high standards but the others have performed abysmally. Laxman, Sehwag and Dravid scored a fifty each, with the first two named averaging under 20 and Dravid averaging less than 30. Tendulkar has the highest average of 41.5. Overall, the top six batsmen have averaged a measly 26.19 runs per innings.

Critics have turned on Dravid, who turned 39 on tour, and Laxman, 37, because of their advancing age but not on Sehwag, who is only 30.

Laxman has had two bad tours — both to England and Australia — suggesting fading skills, though it must be mentioned that he was a batting mainstay on the preceding tours of West Indies and South Africa. But Dravid was a standout performer in England, scoring three centuries and emerging the highest scorer. It is hard to believe his skills could have faded in a matter of a few months. What is clearer is that the batsman, known as “The Wall” for his astonishing defensive skills, has developed a huge chink in his technique that has seen him being bowled eight times in his last 10 innings. Even in England, when he was scoring all those runs, he ended up being bowled several times. A master technician, Dravid obviously has been unable to fix the problem and may be in need of only a good coach and a batting workshop.

In contrast, Sehwag may be the one has been “thought” out by the opposition. Also, Gautam Gambhir, the other opener, has been successfully bounced out by the Aussie quickies, and Virat Kohli, despite showing great flourish in the last Test at Perth, will face more tests.

India’s batting crisis is not one caused solely by the advancing age of its top batsmen. The fact is, many of its younger batsmen suffer equal, if not more discomfiture on fast, bouncy and seaming wickets, and may have far less experience to overcome such challenges. Regardless of what happens in the last Test at Adelaide, what India needs is not a witch-hunt but a smart response to what is essentially a skills gap among Indian batsmen — something Dhoni has suggested.

India can do this by tapping modern technology. With virtually unlimited resources at its command, it may be possible to recreate Australian, English or South African conditions in a controlled indoor environment. If the National Cricket Academy can do something like this, Indian batsmen will have had enough practice before they face the first ball in a match of any consequence overseas, and the results could be far different.

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Is Bajaj’s new ‘car’ more than just a poor man’s cab? Sun, 08 Jan 2012 13:04:28 +0000

Last week, Bajaj Auto, the company that revolutionized personal transport in India with its range of scooters, unveiled what might be the cheapest ‘car’, at $3,500. Company chief, Rahul Bajaj, declines to call the RE60 — named so for its rear engine and its emission of only 60 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer — a car, preferring the term “four-wheeler” but it may have the potential not only to displace the highly touted Tata Nano as the most inexpensive car but also the opportunity to successfully tap a large (global?) market that the house of Tatas squandered.

Where the Nano sought, unsuccessfully, to be the poor man’s car, the RE60 seeks to be the poor man’s cab, replacing the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. This might be Bajaj’s smartest move since it started an initial alliance with Renault-Nissan to develop an ultra low-cost car on the backburner and went solo with the RE60.

In one stroke, the positioning scales down expectations and demolishes potential perceptions that the RE60 might somehow be the common man’s car. Bajaj clearly has learned from Nano’s mistakes. The Tata Nano, unveiled in 2008, fell prey to dizzying expectations after early and extraordinary international acclaim. That heady optimism led to a vital marketing error — a fact Ratan Tata conceded recently — as the company believed that the car would sell regardless.

Bajaj’s approach makes even better sense considering experts already are calling the RE60 an inferior engineering product when compared even with the inexpensive Nano. It is slightly smaller than the Nano and has a less powerful 200 cubic centimeter engine. It also has a lower top speed of 70 kmph but is more fuel-efficient. Despite the limitations, the four-wheeler could be a valuable upgrade to the traditional three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, at a price that is about 25% higher.

Bajaj’s strategy also is designed to leverage its own strengths. It builds on a ready market — an estimated 10 million auto-rickshaws that could conceivably be upgraded — and an existing network of dealers and service centers across the country and in several countries overseas. It needs to do very little other than roll out the RE60. Having said that, risks abound for any new product and the RE60 will be no exception. It likely faces challenges, both in adoption by auto-rickshaw drivers and by regulatory authorities that have to approve the vehicle as a cab.

But there might be life to the RE60 regardless – whether it succeeds or fails in the market. This is because Bajaj is hardly going to rest content with making “four-wheelers”. It will eventually want to make real cars, probably the small affordable car for which there is inestimable demand. This it can do either by building on the alliance with Renault-Nissan or simply on its own, given how far it has come with the RE60 using traditional Indian jugaad — or innovation.

Rajiv Bajaj, the son of Rahul Bajaj, is only 44 years old and hungry for challenges and success. He is also known to obsess with new products and design, having successfully met challenges in the two-wheeler market from the likes of Hero Honda. If he needs any more persuasion, Bajaj will recognize that the Indian car market is projected to be the world’s third largest, behind the US and China, inside a decade.

Given the experiments with Nano and the RE60, I would also imagine that a truly affordable car for the masses might have better chances of coming from an Indian company, rather than a western one. What do you think?

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Opinion: Time to put India’s Lokpal Bill on the back burner Tue, 03 Jan 2012 09:32:25 +0000

What will be India’s agenda this year?

Political and electoral drama, probably even a mid-term election? Long-delayed economic reforms and a renewed attention on growth? Or just a rerun of the Lokpal debates that dominated 2011 without yielding the desired result?

If their response to Team Anna’s third round of protests in Mumbai is anything to go by, the people have spoken. People care about corruption, as their previous support demonstrated, but they don’t want the Lokpal debates to crowd out their lives.

To Anna’s credit, he quickly grasped the message. He called off his fast a day ahead of schedule, even though his own health was an additional factor. The social activist also indicated a smart change of tactic. His team will focus on urging people to punish the Congress Party in forthcoming elections, rather than beat the Lokpal Bill to death.

Why, then, are the political parties still flogging the Lokpal issue?

This is because almost every political party has been disingenuous in its handling of the Lokpal Bill and is therefore keen to score brownie points (but with whom?).

The Congress blames the BJP and others for the fiasco in the Rajya Sabha when voting failed to take place after a debate; the Bharatiya Janata Party blames the Congress for “murdering democracy” by calling off the vote and adjourning the upper house; the Trinamool Congress blames the Congress for “reneging” on a promise to remove clauses that impinge on the power of states before presenting the bill in the Rajya Sabha; and the communist parties are merely using the opportunity to attack archrival Trinamool.

It may be best for the nation if the current Lokpal Bill is never passed. This is because it is too flawed to make any impact on fighting corruption. To name just two glaring loopholes, the appointment of the 9-member institution of the Lokpal is still controlled by the government through nominees to the selection panel; and the Lokpal lacks investigative and prosecutorial powers.

If the opposition is smart, it will step back and let Congress battle its own ally, Trinamool Congress, over the Lokpal bill. After all, the Congress could be damned if it passes this bill and damned if it doesn’t. It would behoove parties such as the BJP to set a wholly different agenda that resonates with the people, and pressures the Manmohan Singh government, as they wait for the next general elections in which the Lokpal can again be a powerful campaign issue.

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India: The Lokpal Bill and the Predictable Impasse Fri, 23 Dec 2011 07:51:52 +0000

We are damned if we pass this Lokpal Bill and damned if we don’t pass any Lokpal Bill.

That seems to be the predicament facing not just the Congress Party and the Parliament, but also the nation at large. Given the manner in which political forces and Team Anna coalesced in the run-up to the draft bill, it was predictable.

Team Anna, expectedly, cries foul. The Congress Party is claiming the high moral ground for “delivering” on its promise. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading opposition party, continues to be somewhat ambivalent though it seeks to bring part of the CBI under the Lokpal and also opposes religious quotas in the nine-member institution of the Lokpal. The communist parties remain peeved at insults by Team Anna, and seek, among other things, a wider debate without, in a manner of speaking, a gun being held to the head of Parliament; and other parties such as Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party would best prefer that the bill is never passed.

The bill cobbled together by the Congress-led UPA government is, by most standards, a weak one that will be limited in its ability to fight corruption in the country. Even more importantly, it’s been designed to create a weak anti-corruption ombudsman, cleverly exploiting fears of an all-powerful body purportedly envisioned by Team Anna, and to exacerbate differences among political parties. It’s hard to see the bill being passed by Parliament in three days, as now proposed with some enthusiasm by the Congress Party, even if the Lokpal Bill is not accorded constitutional status — a feature that requires a 2/3rds majority the ruling Manmohan Singh government doesn’t possess in Parliament.

Justice Santosh Hegde is the only Team Anna member who believes the draft might be “workable,” subject to the devil in the details. The former Karnataka Lok Ayukta, who has in the past been unafraid to air differences with Anna Hazare, thinks the bill might not offer the best way forward but is a good second option, depending on details that have not been specified in the draft bill.

Specifically, for this Lokpal to be effective, he or she needs to be designated the cop with the highest supervisory status, similar to Section 36 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. If that is accorded, Hegde believes, the Lokpal can surmount lack of direct investigative and prosecutorial powers and effectively be the boss of CBI with regard to corruption cases and the boss of the Central Vigilance Commissioner with regard to oversight of Group C and D central government staff.

However, Team Anna opposes the bill. It has unveiled its protest plans and is articulating its harsh views on politicians and Parliament, heightening tensions. What form and shape these protests (three-day fast by Hazare, scaled down from an indefinite fast; and a jail bharo agitation) will take is hard to tell. It would be even harder to say how the government and Parliament will respond to such an agitation.

We are damned if we pass this Lokpal Bill and damned if we pass no Lokpal Bill!

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Mr Sibal, you still don’t get social media Fri, 16 Dec 2011 09:43:23 +0000

In August when Team Anna — the activist group led by Anna Hazare — ran a widespread and hugely successful social media campaign — the Indian government was caught napping. It failed to recognize the importance of social media, preferring to live in its illusory Luddite world.

Several months later, IT Minister Kapil Sibal shot off his mouth, virtually threatening censorship on Facebook, Google and the likes because they had allowed vociferous criticism of Congress Party leaders such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. The heavy hand, unsurprisingly, didn’t work. Sibal not only suffered a vicious backlash in the ‘virtual’ world but also invited rebuke from political leaders including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and virtually the entire global media led by The New York Times.

A couple of days ago, Sibal came off his high horse. Gone were the veiled threats of regulation in the absence of self-regulation. Instead, here he was trying to placate the executives of Facebook, Google and other global giants. But once again he came off poorly, betraying a complete lack of understanding of social media, or probably the broader Internet as well.

“This dialogue is about how the social media can empower the government,” Sibal told reporters, referring to the meeting with the Internet giants.

First off, social media is not about empowering the government. It’s about empowering the people. Get it, Mr Sibal?

Secondly, it is far from clear why Facebook, Google or any other company would want this dialogues. It is not their brief to empower government. If the Indian government wants to utilize, or exploit, social media to empower itself, it might want to consider hiring an expert who can advise them on how best to leverage the social media. You aren’t going to get it for free from Facebook and Google.

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Is this a lame duck Indian govt or what? Thu, 08 Dec 2011 16:00:59 +0000

Let’s look at six incidents that have happened over the last week to see how much has gone wrong for the Manmohan Singh government.

• Prime Manmohan Singh’s reputation stands diminished, both in the eyes of Indian voters and foreign investors after bungling on foreign direct investment in retail.

• Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal has made a mockery of freedoms we in India have taken for granted in India, not to mention Internet freedoms across most of the world, by pressing Facebook and Google to block adverse criticism of the Congress Party leaders, and even holding out a veiled threat.

• Home Minister P. Chidambaram stands diminished by his alleged role in the 2G spectrum scam, especially after a court today allowed Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy to testify against the former finance minister.

• The Karnataka Lokayukta has filed a FIR, or First Information Report – the first step toward charges – against Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna for his alleged role in allowing illegal mining in the state when he was chief minister.

• Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the government’s untiring troubleshooter, admitted that the government quickly went back on the retail FDI issue because it feared a collapse. The remark suggests Trinamool Congress may not have been fully honest when its leader Mamata Banerjee publicly said she would not topple the UPA government over the FDI issue. With already tenuous ties with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which also opposed FDI in retail, on account of the incarceration for months of Kanimozhi, the party supremo M. Karunanidhi’s daughter, the Congress Party obviously didn’t want to take any risk.

• Team Anna has rejected the first version of the draft Lokpal Bill, even though it has yet to be debated in Parliament and finalized, and Anna Hazare appears to be mounting an even bigger challenge to the political establishment before the year is out.

It is clear the Congress-led government merely wants to ride out the rest of its term. Given the political equations, it could well do that unless there is a Black Swan. But what it will achieve in the next 28 months is anybody’s guess. With gathering domestic political clouds, and global economic ones, it might be dark days ahead for us Indians.

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India’s foreign retailer impasse: It’s all about the politics Wed, 30 Nov 2011 15:25:17 +0000

When were economic reforms only about the economy? Maybe in 1991, when India had to submit to IMF diktat, having already pledged its gold to get foreign exchange. Otherwise, it’s always involved politics, perhaps the worst kind, too. So, it was quite naïve for business pundits and economists to imagine they can take the politics out of the decision to allow big international retailers like Wal-Mart into India. Or for that matter the UPA government to believe it can bulldoze its way through opposition and allies alike.

For a government that has been extraordinarily adept at managing a series of corruption scandals, it politically erred on two counts.


Pic: AP.

First, it couldn’t have picked a worse time to announce the decision – just as campaigning for the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly polls was gaining momentum. Besides, there are a few other polls coming as well. If the UPA government had shown the same zeal for economic reforms early in its second term, much of this opposition could have been averted.

Second, it again erred in managing its allies, particularly Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. When petrol prices were sharply raised a few weeks ago, the party that rules once-communist West Bengal vigorously protested and also held out the threat of not accepting any such unilateral decisions. This time around, even the southern ally, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has joined in protest, embarrassing Singh’s party. Clearly, the government has swung to the other pole since bowing to so-called coalition dharma on far more important issues including ministerial berths and corruption.

Regardless of what businessmen and the U.S.-India CEO Council might say, allowing foreign retailers into India is not an open-and-shut case, even if you weigh it by its potential economic impact because a lot of it could be offset by potential losses. Even though several studies have been made on the subject, none has painted a utopian outcome because of obvious risks and unknown market dynamics.

Months before it made the decision, the government sent out people like Finance Secretary Kaushik Basu and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Ahluwalia to bat for FDI in retail. In interviews, both economic leaders cited wide-ranging benefits, citing studies, notably the experiences of China and Thailand, to back entry of foreign retailers.

The two economists also tried to sell the idea on the premise that it would moderate inflation, especially of food products. This argument hasn’t found any takers among political parties. It also might be debatable, given the underlying reasons for persistent inflation in the country and the global outlook in the future. Even if it is true, it might be so only over the long run, about which politicians wouldn’t really care about.

While I hold mixed views on the impact of international retailers like Wa-Mart setting shop in India, I am a reformist and support the UPA government, I can’t think how Singh can politically sell the idea short of doing a deal of some sort – either with his own allies or with the opposition.

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A tale of two airlines: Kingfisher & Indigo Mon, 14 Nov 2011 06:27:52 +0000

Vijay Mallya has blamed the government policy of forcing airlines to fly some loss-making routes as the cause of the financial crisis at his Kingfisher Airlines. That, of course, is not the only reason why the airline is in bad shape and Mallya surely knows that. It is incumbent on all airlines to fly on some less profitable routes and there is no evidence to suggest Kingfisher has had to bear a disproportionate share of the burden.

What explains Kingfisher’s plight – $1.2 billion debt and accumulated losses of nearly $1 billion?

Vijay Mallya, Kingfisher Airlines

Indian lawmaker and Chairman of Kingfisher Airlines Vijay Mallya. Pic: AP.

Before that, let’s make a comparison with Indigo Airlines. Mallya is being compared to the other brash airline chief, Richard Branson of Virgin Airways. But the airline best compared to Kingfisher is Indigo.

Started in 2006, Indigo has built a viable business over the past five years, thanks to advisers such as Rakesh Gangwal, an operational expert and the former CEO of US Airways. Kingfisher, in contrast, entered the business by acquiring the low-cost Air Deccan in 2005. Both airlines have operated in the same business environment. If anything, Kingfisher held two advantages. One, it inherited the infrastructure, staff and expertise acquired from Air Deccan; and two, Mallya forged an alliance with Jet Airways, the nation’s biggest, to smoothen out any competition.

Still, Kingfisher eschewed the low-cost model and appears to have concentrated on forcing its air hostesses to wear designer outfits two sizes smaller and signing up cricketers for its commercials. Indigo, on the other hand, built a powerful low-cost model, even though it may be forcing some of its air hostesses to wear standard wigs.

Still, the contrast between Kingfisher and Indigo is telling. While Kingfisher is teetering on the brink, Indigo is believed to be readying an initial public offering. Also, if Kapil Kaul, a veteran aviation analyst and head of the CAPA Centre for Aviation, is to be believed, Indigo may be the only Indian airline in the year ending March to post profits despite the double whammy of rising jet fuel price and a sharply depreciated rupee.

Kingfisher has dug its own hole through bad strategy and poor understanding of the aviation business and the business environment. As Rahul Bajaj categorically asserted, Kingfisher should receive no bailout with taxpayer money. It should, of course, be allowed to dig itself out of that hole or simply die.

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Katju outburst: Can an angry old man uplift Indian media? Fri, 04 Nov 2011 08:15:24 +0000

Retired judge Markandeya Katju is an angry man. Weeks after taking over as head of the Press Council of India, the regulatory body for newspapers, he lashed out at the Indian media and sought to bring television, the more egregious offender in the eyes of many, under his control.

Now the Indian media is, rightly, livid. The Editors Guild of India and the News Broadcasters Association, among others, have objected to Katju’s remarks. But, unlike the judge, most sections have responded with reason, not rage. By so doing, the media is, gratifyingly, ensuring it won’t prove Katju’s depiction of journalists as “uneducated” and the media as “anti-people.”

Several of Katju’s comments, and even his anger, could be excused if his views were not disturbing on at least two counts – shocking intolerance of diverse voices, a sine qua non for free media; and the desire for totalitarian control.

For a learned man and judge who seeks journalists to attain a higher intellectual level, Katju himself betrays a poor understanding of free media, free market, commercial media and their necessity in a diverse country such as India. If he had, Katju wouldn’t have complained about media publishing, or broadcasting, zodiac forecasts or even about media not focusing on poverty. He surely should understand that if I want to run a 24-hour channel exclusively on tarot card readings, or poverty, I have the right to do so in this country. God forbid this right is taken away.

Even more dangerous is Katju’s bid to inject “fear” into the media, suggesting draconian controls on what can be published or aired. This would take the country back to Emergency-era controls or at least the type of state-controlled television India had until the early 1990s. I don’t think anybody in his right mind would want either of the two. Under Katju’s guiding philosophy, all the media that exist would then be those endorsed by one man, one agency or, worse, one government. It’s bad enough that the government already plays favourites with newspapers by handing out lucrative advertisements only to those that toe its line, and penalizing others that don’t.

Most Indian publishers, broadcasters and journalists will acknowledge grave problems in the media. Quality of journalism, tabloidization, paid news and irresponsible commercialization plague the India media. When Katju first met Indian journalists on Oct. 10, days after he assumed office as Press Council chairman, he displayed earnestness in addressing these problems. But when he faced the camera for Karan Thapar, he turned into a man consumed by rage. Unsurprisingly, what emerged was far from rational. Katju himself should know, having served as a judge for two decades, including five years in the nation’s highest court.

Over the past several years, the Press Council has been an ineffective agency and is in dire need of reinvigoration. But hopes have to be low, with Katju having started his three-year stint on the wrong foot and holding untenable views.

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India: What drove Rajat Gupta astray? Greed or ego? Mon, 31 Oct 2011 06:03:25 +0000

Former McKinsey chief Rajat Gupta’s indictment on insider trading charges has not come as a shock but that’s only because it has been in the pipeline for nearly a year. The Kolkata native has been closely implicated with the case of Raj Rajaratnam, the Sri Lankan-born hedge fund manager who was recently convicted.

Gupta’s eventual arrest and indictment last week has, unsurprisingly, led to widespread curiosity about how a man of his caliber and standing could have erred – circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly suggests Gupta, at the least, exercised poor discretion. He was the first Indian to become a global business leader when in the mid-1990s he was named the worldwide head of the famed consulting firm McKinsey.

Rajat Gupta, India

Rajat Gupta. Pic: AP.

Since then, his stature grew immeasurably and by the time he retired from McKinsey he was an acknowledged global business leader whose advice was sought by many. He served as an adviser to the U.N. on corporate reform, sat on the boards of some of the biggest companies, roped in Harvard and Kellogg business schools as partners to establish a business school in India and was also running a venture capital/private equity business.

There is a media overdose on Gupta since his indictment. But not enough is known about Gupta for us to easily connect the dots. And, what is more, some information and analyses are patently wrong.

Consider Gupta’s description as hailing from a humble middle-class family, and the consequent shock and surprise that his current predicament might be the result of forgetting those “middle class” values.

It might be okay for Western media to suggest this but it seems downright silly for Indian media to repeat it. Yes, Gupta was the son of a journalist and a schoolteacher – two professions that don’t ordinarily lead to affluence of any kind. But nobody can tell how such a “middle class” Indian entered Harvard Business School in the 1970s? Even in today’s affluent India, most middle class Indians cannot afford to pay themselves through business schools such as Harvard?

While it is reasonable to believe the young Gupta may have acquired admirable middle class values from his parents, it is also true that he was orphaned at 18. Surely, it is probable that he forgot those childhood lessons.

A second set of reports suggests, without quite sharing enough first-hand sources, that Gupta felt “poor” despite his millions because many of his Indian peers from the famed IITs and others had amassed far greater amounts of wealth. Consequently, the argument goes, Gupta began an all-out quest to earn wealth and may not have cared about methods or ethics.

This line comes in two separate articles – one in the Economix blog by David Leonhardt in The New York Times and the other in The Economic Times by Bennett Voyles, who is described as a former executive at The Economist Intelligence Unit and a frequent contributor to Knowledge@Wharton and the ParisTech Review. Both articles seem unfair to Gupta simply because they contains hearsay, unidentified sources, unsubstantiated conclusions and little response from the fallen Indian leader.

Besides, the argument seems unconvincing. It is true that Gupta’s net worth is only in the hundreds of millions, compared with billions of several others including Rajaratnam and perhaps entrepreneur and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who also is an alumnus of IIT, Delhi. Gupta’s relative wealth hasn’t changed in recent years. Even when he headed McKinsey, Gupta was far less rich than several of his Indian and other peers. Unless there is something new to suggest Gupta had come around to measuring his ego with the number of zeroes against his net worth, the case that simple, old-fashioned greed may have led Gupta to his downfall seems unconvincing for at least one reason – investigators have yet to find a smoking gun in the form of any quid pro quo to Gupta, which suggests he may not have done it for money alone. To understand the legal challenges, read this.

I would rather go with The Economist’s interpretation. The magazine cites a 2009 study (Utpal Bhattacharya of Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and Cassandra Marshall of Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond) that examined whether insider trading is “economically rational.” The conclusion: Friendship and ego may matter more than money.

Still, you will have to wonder how Gupta could succumb to such frailties at 63, when he also was in the thick of a variety of philanthropic activities.

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