Saturday, April 21, 2012

BJP must get its act together

The BJP is the Principal Opposition Party to the Congress and the ruling alliance in power in India - the UPA. In name atleast.

The current government is reeling under a series of scandals - ranging from the distribution of 2G licences, the construction of infrastructure for the CommonWealth Games and most recently, related to Defence Procurement. Atleast of two of its ministers have spent time in jail and atleast one continues to be in prison with others at different levels of investigation. The Prime Minister of the ruling dispensation is a silent man - he speaks but rarely. But even he is a garrulous man as compared to his bosses - Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi - who are mostly seen in photos and rarely in person. In their photos they usually wave to crowds (perhaps, of photographers) and are not known to give any interviews. The leaders of the Congress party are never seen on TV defending the many faces of corruption – they are allowed to get away with platitudes like “Action will be taken” or “We are against corruption” or just silence.

If corruption is a big issue, the governance part has been abysmal as well. The BRICs that the India story was part of is coming apart. The India part of the BRICs for sure. Governance has been uninspiring, ruddlerless and mostly reactive. There are barely any positive messages coming out. Handwringing seems to the flavor of the day when it comes to leadership. Foreign policy has been abysmal. India has been doing all the wrong things in the past few years – wandering aimlessly in the diplomacy space instead of using its clout to settle issues, mediate and generally remain a force to reckon with. Instead what we have is a capitulation to vote against Sri Lanka, a denial of the Chinese threat and ability and a clueless approach to Pakistan.

In the midst of all this, you would think that the principal opposition party would have positioned itself as the champion of bringing the government down. And yet that is not the case. The anti corruption cases are being fought in courts by Subramaniam Swamy a politician of repute but not in any of the houses at present. He and Prashant Bhushan - an advocate who fights various things, but also has distinctly anti-national views on Kashmir are together on some cases. The anti corruption movement is spearheaded by Anna Hazare and his team - a rather motley set of people comprising mostly of ex-bureaucrats of one form or another. Baba Ramdev - a yoga guru with tremendous business interest and influence in "Middle India" - is another.

Where is the opposition party in all this? The election in Indias largest state happened recently and the principal ran a lackluster campaign that brought out more infighting than inspiration. The result of it was clear. The party emerged as an also ran in a state which it ruled less than a decade or so back. One theory could be that the BJP is waiting for the UPA to unravel itself layer by layer. But they have seen that the UPA is like a Phoenix. It has its own lives and manages to attract allies with a combination of posts and promises and a chance to make money. Quite unlike the BJP, they handle the media very well – which in turn pays it back in terms of positive coverage.

No battle was ever won with the opposition doing nothing. True, the BJP leaders give speeches, press conferences and newsbytes every now and then. Yet, where is their alternate vision of governing India? Why is that vision not being articulated? The leaders of the party are seen on TV regularly but mostly in defensive positions – where they are asked to comment on goings on within their own party.

Over all these years, where every politician worth his salt seems to own or run a TV channel (some politicians have two channels), the BJP has none. The BJP has been providing good governance in the states that it rules. Gujarat, MP, Karnataka and newly elected Goa to name a few. If you add the NDA – Bihar has been doing rather well on national parameters. Yet, the BJP/NDA finds it difficult to articulate this position in the media or in front of its voters. There is no niche in the media space that brings out the BJP position on anything of national importance. What is there are maverick writers or social media or some good curated websites who are frustrated with this lack of vision.

In this whole mess the BJPs message (if any) to its voters is lost. They still have another year to go before elections are announced. Now is the time to up the ante and get the people on their side.

(Published as an oped in Pioneer with some edits)

Monday, April 16, 2012

After 2G, no lessons learnt

When the 2G scam broke, only the Pioneer reported it. Most media houses were silent about the existence of such a scam. I remember putting a link to the Pioneer story somewhere in 2008. Finally media began to report it only when there was no choice but to report it.

Now the defence scam has broken. Pioneer and Gopi report that the person in the thick of it, Rajiv Rishi has a lions share in the governments expo hub. Do read this article. When it becomes part of MSM you can see for yourself. The Tatra scam has been covered since 2009 though, in DNA if I am not mistaken - but this connection is a new one ferreted out by Pioneer.

"According to statements submitted to SEBI by Rishi’s Global Vectra Helicorp, the India Exposition Mart Limited, where Rishi’s Vectra Investments has a 20-per cent share, is the biggest share holder in India Expo Centre & Mart. The Government, through Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) under Textile Ministry,   subscribed to 9.02 per cent share in this Rishi-controlled project, which operates across the world, dealing with handicrafts sale, export and import." [link]

Now you will see that this a nice cozy ecosystem - when you read the article and see some of the names and positions (or ex-positions) of the people. Surely, the chap knows a lot of people with passwords to the high and mighty or else to swing a deal like this wont be easy.

In both 2G and Defence scams, there are these two so called honest gatekeepers who stand guard while the looting happens in the background. (see here) This seems to be a pattern. A scammer, a honest guard and a scapegoat for every scam. The scammer takes the money and is never found out, the scapegoat goes to jail and is promised a great life when he comes out of gaol, the guard faces the media and tells them, "but I am honest"!

Also think for a moment when you think exports, handicrafts, Moradabad what or who comes to your mind? Now let us see how many of our fearless media channels run with this story.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bangalore public transport

About 10 years back, we were somewhere near MG Road wanting to come back home at the unearthly hour of 730 pm. And in what would seem a familiar story, there was no other way to come back than take a rickshaw - whose ideas of fares would make airlines want to commit suicide. Rickshaws never offer a discount, while airlines often do. Take that, KFA.

The same story was repeated near ISKCON, Jayanagar and quite a few other places after which all us either depended on our own bikes or stayed put at home.

As a one time Mumbaikar, the comparison was hard to miss. Mumbai trains ran packed till 1 am. The buses were equally reliable. Autos charged you the exact fare and offered you the exact change back regardless of the hour of the day. Bangalore public transport sucked big time. There were no trains. Autos were a rip off.

Earlier this year, I travelled by BEST in Mumbai. The buses were shaking and rattling. The frequency was good, but hardly an improvement in 10 years. I got into an airconditioned service from Bandra to Navi Mumbai - the fares were cheap, but the service was quite a slow one. And not too frequent either. Most of my friends had given up using the bus over the past few years. BEST seemed to be fighting a losing battle in keeping up with the wishes of its customers.

Contrast with Bangalore. The Volvos - a familiar sight across Bangalore are as comfortable as a car, even if crowded. The number of people who use them (especially on the high density IT corridors) is a sight to watch. If all these people used their own transport, Bangalores chaotic roads would be so much worse. They have done another thing - perhaps unnoticed unless one is a user. Bangalore had a large number of private rattletraps registered as buses. These transported people in high decibels inside and outside with significant danger to both those inside and outside. Many of these are banished to the periphery (and theres no reason they even need to run, but some lobby ensures that dangers things still run).

Today, BMTC gives BEST a run for its money - across multiple parameters. Much has been written about it. But here is a user perspective.

So how did Bangalore BMTC win this?

Some years back, BMTC introduced the Volvo - now a familiar sight on Bangalore roads. In the initial days, there were a few Volvos running here and there and somehow, BMTC took a plunge by buying a whole lot of them. In my view, this is the crucial difference, between Mumbai and Bangalore. In Mumbai you will have to wait for an AC bus. Not a great thing when you have to reach office on time. Bangalore cracked this by flooding the road with buses - especially in the high density corridors. A bus nearly every few minutes - which is as good as perhaps Western Railway of Mumbai at peak time. So, at peak hours, you reach the stop and theres a bus before you can catch your breath.

The result? People dumped their cars and bikes and preferred to leave the driving to BMTC. It is pretty cool even if you are stuck in a traffic jam. The car drivers are busy crawling at 1st gear while you are hearing your own music in a cool bus. If you are on a bike, there is no comparison. And then, given Bangalores mad parking situation, imagine that you dont have to think of parking at all.

It also helps that auto fares are 20 rupees minimum and auto drivers haggle enough to increase the blood pressure of a monk. This has helped BMTC price its premium bus services in a way that they can make money off it as well - yet affordable and keeps enough buses on the road without having to transport people like cabbages. BMTC prices are more expensive than Mumbais and that is reflective of its target audience who dont mind paying for comfort. Monthly and daily passes (again, not dirt cheap, but competitively priced) make it more usable.

BMTC also has opened routes to many of the IT complexes and from many of the bigger housing societies - unthinkable anywhere in India. They have initiatives like Bus Day which are smart ideas. And then of course, their airport service perhaps has no parallel in India.

It is not all utopia, there are still enough people who think buses are a traffic obstacle and drive to work and back each day, but it is a great place to be from about say, 10 years back. BMTC has managed to attract an entirely new population to public transport and that is commendable. A large part of this credit to the transport minister, R. Ashok.

And if you think this is a one off story, make no mistake.

10 years ago, you would be hard pressed to find a KSRTC booking counter in most parts of Bangalore. APSRTC (AP, of course, was ruled by Chandrababu Naidu), on the other hand, had a counter in almost every block. Today, KSRTC is making more money and running better services than any of its neighbours. Some of them have woken up now, but KSRTC and its Airavats have left them far behind. Indeed, the KSRTC Airavat races to Mumbai from Bangalore in about 18 hours (with scope to cut it further) while the Indian railways train continues to take 24 hours - the same as perhaps when the train service started 50 odd years ago.

That is, in a nutshell a success story of both KSRTC and BMTC.

Inside job

Recently, due to a set of unavoidable circumstances, I found myself watching Agent Vinod and sitting through it as well. The movie was not a comedy, but we were laughing throughout at the absurdities being thrown at us. Well, Agent Vinod does assume that the audience is an extremely dumb and stupid one, very mildly put.

The second movie, that I watched (and because I wanted to wanted to watch) is Kahaani. Agent Vidya is leagues ahead of Agent Vinod. She is a treat to watch, she is.

But in both these movies there is a small issue that I think is a very dangerous trend. Bollywood as a whole is a cowardly industry, rarely making hard hitting movies on powerful themes. I remember that they took a pledge that they would not make a movie on Indias most dastardly terrorist act, though of late there's news that a movie is being made on it. If at all there is any hardhitting movie they are made by independent producers and almost all of them toe to the left border of the page.

But coming back, the trouble with both the movies mentioned above is that it portrays terrorism as an inside job. In the latter movie, it focuses on one agent and one incident which is stated to be an inside job with help from the Indian establishment. The former, however, surpasses all absurdity. It passes on the crap that the entire military-jihadi complex and jihad funded and sponsored by the easterly neighbour is an inside job of an "Indian" businessman with quite an obvious name. This, in my mind, is a dangerous trend. As dangerous as politicians ascribing terrorist attacks to RSS to cover their aRSeS.

The terrorism problem in India has a long history for those to care to see beyond their nose. Starting from 1947, when the first "non-war" between India and Pakistans irregulars was fought. The eastery neighbour has openly promoted a "holy war" on India through various guises. It varies from support for Indian fugitives turned businessmen, support for terror fronts, gun running, training camps, funding activists through shopping trips and business class trips, currency printing and of course serving as a launch pad for terrorists and bombers among other things. And we have lost many a soldiers life and many an innocent civilians life to terrorism.

To portray that terrorism is an inside job is to negate all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and innocent civilians and gives a clean chit to violent ideologies. The result is about as genuine as a Roys articles. And the trouble with mainstreaming such views is that "worthies" will tag this as "genuine" and certain sections of our press will give them space to express such views. Exhibit A.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

India's New Superhero

This is an age of confusion. There are so many things happening in this world, especially in this country of ours. The country is being divided into two - I have heard this too often, there are two Indias. And then there is the problem of the country going to the dogs and the presence of too many oranges. This could be an unrelated problem, but there is no saying that someone needs to step in, preferably by helicopter, become a sipahi for the nation and unite the country into one. And thereafter the world. The time is ripe, in other words, for, Rahulman.

Unlike the other superheroes who have walked the earth and have extraterrestrial origins, Rahulman, is from this earth only, indeed your very country. He is not from any other planet, though at times, you might easily find yourself asking, what planet is he from? But that's just you, an ordinary human being condemned to your lowly existence. Believe in the legend, you ignoramus.

Unlike other superheroes, he does not have a secret identity. The secret is that there is no secret at all with his identify. What you see is all there is to Rahulman. And this is what keeps people guessing as to who is the superhero and where he is? Indeed, it is the whole question of the existence of the secret identity that makes him a real superhero - a superhero of the times. Don't confuse him with your aunty's superhero who had a secret identity. These days, the superheroes have no secret or identity or they rely on the media to create it for them.

Unlike other superheroes, he grows a beard. Especially during election time. Why does a superhero need to be elected? If you cannot understand this, please stop reading this right away.

Unlike other superheroes, he even has dimples - two of them. And they are put to good use. Those dashing good looks can make up for many an anomaly. In an age of superficiality, he is the definition. How many superheroes can claim to be superficial as well? After all superficiality has to be a superpower no? Even our country is a super power, and we sometimes have a super power cut as well, right?

And how could I forget. He eats. Like ordinary mortals. How many superheroes do you know actually eat? Have you seen Superman savour a meal? There! I got you, did I not. Rahulman eats, often at other peoples houses. And especially those poor ones, who struggle for a meal. He shares a meal with them. At other times, he has been spotted partaking many other rich Indian delicacies. And no, this is not fiction, there is proof of it everywhere.

Unlike other superheroes. He can read. Give speeches. Lots of them. Prepared ones. Usually to illiterate audiences, but from what I have heard, even illiterates learn about deep economics in a 30 minute speech after waiting for about 3 hours. Like the fact that there are two Indias while all along we have been led up the garden path believing there is just one.

Unlike other superheroes, he makes things happen, not directly, but by his presence. Come on, real work is done by those 20th century superheroes. In the age of telepresence, who needs reality? Reality is for TV's. His mere presence is enough to ignite the confidence of millions, as a catalyst. Just a smile, a wave is enough. Imagine, a smile that lights up a million, a wave that is noticed by a billion. Direct work takes way too much time and it just too inefficient.

Unlike other superheroes, he has the ability to retrospect. No, thats not a typo of introspect. He can retrospectively fit himself into an event and ensure that his countrymen succeed. Like the world cup for instance. How many superheroes inspire an entire team into winning a world cup after they won the cup? And that is just the beginning. Many events have his unseen, invisible hand.

Unlike other superheroes, he attracts successes. Only. Go on, search for it. There is no failure that is registered in his name. There are a million others who fail for him, so that he and he alone succeeds, sometimes with retrospective effect.

He travels. Like other people. Sometimes by helicopter. Sometimes by hitching a ride on a bike. Or travels ticketless on a train. Just like you and me. There are pictures sir. Not too many superheroes linger around for a photograph once they have done their deed. Thats for those superheroes. Not this one. Life is but a series of photo opportunities for Rahulman. Unlike other superheroes who are content to do the deed and vanish into anonymity, he poses near every deed of his waving his hands till all photographers take the best pictures. Often he takes pictures even before the deed is done and his team does the remaining doctoring. Just see all those pictures on the net of the good deeds in anticipation and good deeds in assumption of Rahulman.

He has a mentor. And a media wing. And security. Remember, I told you, he is no ordinary superhero? He is not. Unlike those other superheroes, he is neither too young or too old. Who wants them? Rahulman defines youth, not the other way round.

Unfortunately the last battle he faced, he was kind of pummeled by someone upstart. But he will be back. Like all good superheroes. There will be a comeback, just when you think he is vanquished.

(Any resemblance to anybody you know is not my fault - it is, as they say, pure coincidence. I personally dont know any such person.)