Monday, September 2, 2019

Musings on Arun Jaitley

Around two decades ago, during the Vajpayee government, a bespectacled man good-looking in a studious way, was a regular on an NDTV debate program, Big Fight, moderated by Rajdeep Sardesai.  (Big Fight still happens on NDTV but has a different moderator.) Those were the days of Congress consensus (some may call it Nehruvian consensus) and naturally, a new non Congress government was attracting hostilities from all quarters (the media, activist lobbies and the opposition)  whenever & wherever it was departing from the traditional ways of handling big and contentious issues (the economy, Pakistan etc).

Big Fight was among the most popular current affairs programs those days. NDTV was the only English channel of note and there weren’t too many current affair programs. In a way, for many like me, Big Fight was the only way to watch televised opinions on important issues facing the nation. Conversely, it was the only noteworthy platform for public figures with an opinion to be heard.
Big Fight used to host debates on multiple subjects with eminent figures from different walks of life participating in them. But the ones on politics mostly used to have only one figure at the center of the debates representing the BJP government – the bespectacled man. And every participant in those debates would point their barrels at him.

In the spirit of the times, everyone had a bone to pick with the government – journalists, activists and of course opposition leaders. But there was something uncommon happening here. The bespectacled man was out arguing everyone in smooth English laced with legal intricacies and in a suave manner. After sometime I came to know it was Arun Jaitley.

It was uncommon those days because erudition, sophistry and elegant arguments were expected only of people defending the left liberal side of the fence. Arun Jaitley changed that perception in me and I guess in many others. How he would defend some of the things that were quite indefensible back then leaving a trail of outsmarted co-debaters gasping for words and ideas – looked like a superhuman act those days. Nowadays the BJP line prevailing over other lines of political thoughts, in TV debates, has become a common sight and to do so, you don’t require Jaitley’s finesse anymore.

But Jaitley’s superhuman acts wouldn’t save his party in 2004 general elections nor in 2009. 10 years would be a long time out of power.  The first five years in the opposition would be rather uneventful for BJP. A Congress-led UPA 1 would gain momentum under a somewhat steady leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. There would be occasional hiccups but none big enough to upset the momentum. (The 2008 Mumbai attack didn’t rattle the UPA government much.) In fact, by the time the Congress-led UPA came back to power in 2009 to serve its second term, some of the pet BJP issues like the real center of power being the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and not the PM, Congress being a family oriented party etc – had lost their traction on a pan India level.  

Then the scams came – one after another – 2G and many others - and the momentum started slipping away. The rising chorus over the scams and the opposition finally getting its act together set in motion a series of things – leadership crisis  caused by internal bickering among Congress leaders, leaders making their ideological leanings and disagreement with the PM public, Gandhi Family loyalists looking for scapegoats to blame everything on to protect the reputation of the Family etc. This led to a rattled Government failing to function properly (which later came to be known as policy paralysis). This is the time Arun Jaitley came into his own.

In this chaos, there were many mainstream political parties and activist groups (including Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement) trying to monopolize the anti-Congress / anti-government space.
And if BJP eventually emerged as the only face of public anger against the Government, it was largely due to the brilliance of Arun Jaitely, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha then. His sharp attacks on the Government both in the parliament and media made sure that in public perception the Government always looked like a house caving in. This public perception of a fumbling government only got stronger with time.

In a way, Arun Jaitely was a politician of the television era. He was never a mass leader. His core competency was being a spokesperson and backroom strategist. In pre television days, such a leader would be permanently in the shadow of another mass leader like Vajpayee, Advani or Modi. What helped him step out of the shadow of a big mass leader and be known was TV. His ability to give long interviews explaining BJP’s stand on complex issues, present a sound political perspective on something, deliver sharp soundbites together with his pleasant personality – made him very media friendly – and probably that’s why we know him so well today.

When he passed away last week, I was finding it difficult to imagine an unfolding political situation without a sharp Arun Jaitely observation on it. I am sure many would have felt the same way. As time goes by we would get used to his absence. A lot more is coming to my mind but the blog has to end somewhere.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Musings on World Cup 2019 & How Cricket Has Changed

World Cup 2019 was a cricket tournament I watched earnestly after several years. The intervening years have changed cricket significantly. A generation of cricketers retired. T20 became very big. New rules came in. As much as everything has had their impact on cricket, T20’s effect has been most transformative.

In the early years of 2000, anything from 230 to 250 was considered a good score. Anything above was match winning. I was surprised to see the ease with which teams, in this World Cup, were scoring 300 plus.

Batsmen took more risks, there were more boundaries and over boundaries, fielding seemed to have improved, there were fewer poor deliveries. The margin of error seemed to have shrunk.

The shortest format of the game, where teams get into tight situations more often than its more generous cousins, has also got teams used to handling adversities. In the past, it was rare to see teams batting second win. Now teams seem to negotiate the pressure of chasing better and often come up triumphs. How England chased in the final, moving in and out of the game almost in every alternate over, is a good example of that.

I also saw lot of unconventional shots being played with ease and success. Again, in the final, it was heart-stopping and delightful, at the same time, to see Jose Butler spooning balls, with his bat, over the wicket for boundaries. Most of the shots were played during tight situations when his dismissal would have dealt a mortal blow to England’s Word Cup chances, yet he took the risks, an indication that team leaderships are more welcoming of risks taken even if they lead to setbacks. 

And undoubtedly these are the bequests of T20, allegedly the most vulgar of all forms of the game.
Only one bequest of T20 is not so good. And that is the ICC rule that in case of a tie in a Super Over the team hitting the most number of boundaries would win. This rule has been adopted from T20. After the match, the Kiwi captain said they couldn’t complain because they were signatories to this rule. Great professionalism! They wouldn’t have thought it would come to haunt them in the final match and be the singular reason for their defeat or England’s victory without outscoring them. The more I think of it, in fact, the more life seems unfair.

But the bigger question is not the vagaries of luck, but lack of judgement in adopting a rule from T20 which is not suited to its longer counterpart, ODIs. The 50 over format was derived from Test – and it has the languid characteristics of Test. One offers enough space to both the bowler and batsman. The bowler gets as many as 10 overs to bowl. And if you are a batsman, and you are not comfortable hitting the bowler, you can just play him off and have your colleagues at the other end handle him. T20 does not allow this space. You cannot plan your innings in a similar way.

The bowler can only bowl a few overs in which either he takes wickets or he gets clobbered. T20, which is a derivative of ODI, is not about intrigues but solely thrills and chills. Boundaries are a defining characteristic of T20, but there is a little more to ODIs. Therefore the T20 rule, which takes the number of boundaries as the yardstick to decide the winner in case of a Super Over ending in a tie, is reflective of the personality of T20, a derivative of ODIs, but not ODIs, a derivative of Test. The personality of a format is partly determined by its progenitor and partly by the intent behind creating the format. One days were invented as a shorter version of Test; T20s were invented as shorter versions of one days.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond

If a movie is made based on a book you have read, watching the movie is a must. But if you have seen a movie based on a novel you haven’t read, it’s unlikely that you would read the novel. We somehow tend to believe it’s always a novel to a movie and the reverse journey doesn’t excite us a much. But with The Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond I did make that reverse journey.

I had watched Junoon (based on the novel The Flight of Pigeons) many years ago and liked it, the story of a passionate one-sided love of a Pathan for an English girl in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years ago I chanced upon the book the movie was based on. A few months ago, after wanting to read it for many years since I saw it the first time, I finally read it.

 In a foreword Ruskin Bond informs that as a kid he had heard the story from his father, who, in turn, had heard it from Bond’s grandfather, a soldier those days, several times. The incident which took place in a small town in UP (Sharanpur) during the Mutiny had captivated a young Bond.

Many years later, when Bond decided to write a novella based on the incident,  he visited Sharanpur and found many of its parts, especially those the British families occupied in the days of the Mutiny, unchanged from how his father had described them.  

The action starts with a church where a mass is underway being attacked by rebels inspired by the hate wave that’s blowing across swathes of the country against the British. Among others, the narrator’s (a British teenage girl) father is killed. 

Following the death the family takes shelter in a Hindu merchant’s house who has braved the consequences of sympathizing with a British family amidst the anti-British frenzy which has gripped the town. 

In the meantime, a Pathan, a married man with a reputation for his dare devilry and cruelty, who is wreaking havoc in and outside the town by killing and looting the British and wealthy Hindus and setting their establishments ablaze, has taken a shine to the British girl and coaxes the Lala to let the family go with him and stay in his haveli.

After bringing them to haveli the Pathan does what was not expected of him. Instead of forcibly marrying the British girl or dishonoring her, he asks her mother for her daughter’s hand and the mother says the Pathan could marry her daughter if the rebel side won the war. Finally, the British win the war.

After some time the British reenter the town of Sharanpur to the relief of its British inhabitants and those who had persecuted the British families following the outbreak of the Mutiny and the reverses the British had suffered, flee the town to escape British retribution. 

However, after knowing that the lover Pathan has fled the town and gone beyond any possibility of return or been seen again, the British girl, in a silent acknowledgement of her softness for the handsome and chivalrous man, wishes him a safe passage.

By reading the outline of Flight you would expect it to be a romantic thriller, but it is not. After the initial burst of action it settles into a slow pace and shows reveals different layers of the story. 

The reaction of the people to what the Pathan wants to do, the transformation of the Pathan from a reckless troublemaker to a lovesick man patiently awaiting the matrimonial permission of his muse’s mother, the grit of the girl’s mother, who, despite the fact that she and her family are at the mercy of the testy Pathan, manages to keep her wit and composure in place.

And then you have the magic touch of Ruskin Bond to savour.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

One Year with My Maruti 800

This month my car – a Maruti 800 – completes one year with me and nine years since it rolled out of a showroom. Yes, when I purchased it last March, it was eight years old. And as is expected of a car that old, it did give me some troubles and caused me minor expenses for the first eight months or so. But after the first burst of repairs, it seems to have stabilized and functions smoothly without being an irritant.

This one year with the car has been a series of discoveries.

One of the reasons for buying the car was learning how to drive, which I had tried many, many years ago with a cousin’s second hand Premier Padmini and had not been able to get the clutch and brake coordination correct resulting in the car starting and then stopping without moving an inch.
I was booed at.  Frustrated, I left trying. After that unsuccessful attempt, I never tried my hand at driving again until I joined a training school last year.

The first thing I learnt was - driving is not easy. It is an applied art - where how good you are at it is determined not by how well you know the theories but how deftly you apply them when behind the wheels. You are told a few things at the school and many more you discover on your own.

It requires a mix of many skills. You have to take quick decisions, you have to have quick impulses to react to situations, you need what I would call space-ial intelligence, and as you are doing all this, you have to remain calm and relaxed. 

That I am able to successfully drive came to my mother as a surprise. A year ago, when I started learning, I would be surprised to know that a year later I would be able to drive. My personality traits run contrary to the prerequisites of driving.

I am slow to react to situations. I am a slow thinker. I am confusion-prone. And generally I place a chair or  table right the second or third time.

It took me two months of training (10 hours) and six months of practice to overcome my natural deficiencies. Probably it would be a little longer had it not been for the fact that I had a Maruti 800 to learn with.

These six to eight months were not without pain. Once, while trying to complete a 60 degree turn, I hit the bumper of an SUV and had to pay heavily to get it repaired.  The driver of the SUV informed me, while we were returning from the service center, that there was a new driver who had hit the car bumper against a pole while backing it. “Sale ko chalana nehi ata.” I would be thankful to him if he had not told me.

The other mishaps were minor but enough to dent my confidence for a while. Along the way, I also learnt a few life lessons.

One of my friends, who learnt driving about four years ago, told me the guy who shouts first in an accident and shouts the other guy out generally gets mob support and prevails: “Yaar, a second later no one knows whose the fault was.”

Seeing me appreciating his point, he shared a deeper human insight: Following a crisis, we pretend to look for the actual culprit, but actually we look for a fall guy - enough to quell our anger!

I learnt another thing: driving doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it’s a poor man’s job.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Silence - a Movie That Will Stand the Test of Time

When a new arrival – a book or a movie - is based on a piece of history you are familiar with, it does not leave you with too many options – you have to devour it. So when in promo pics of Silence, the latest movie by Martin Scorsese, I saw two guys with scrubby beard looking like coming from another time in an exotic mountainous locale, it piqued my curiosity. (I was not familiar with Scorsese‘s reputation and repertoire.) Upon digging deeper, I came to know Silence deals with a piece of Japan’s past I had read about many years ago.

The time is 16th century and Japan is going through a period of extreme religious persecution aimed at those who have embraced Christianity and Jesuits operating in the country. Amidst this, two Portuguese jesuits visit Japan to find out about their mentor jesuit – father Ferrero - who is said to have abandoned his faith in Christianity publicly, and also to help Christians facing persecution in the country.

This is the period which has a parallel with post Nagasaki Hiroshima Japan: when the nuclear attack forced the country into a shell – to rebuild a nation maimed by a war and nuke. Many say these two incidents and their aftermath left Japan with a permanent paranoia for the foreigner (much like what the Opium War did for China) which still informs its public policies.  However, people familiar with the bit of Japan’s history Silence deals with will trace the source of that paranoia a little further back in time.

An edge-of-the seat suspense takes you through the first half an hour or so of the film and then it slowly dissipates and the film gradually settles into an easier pace but a certain tension continues to characterize the narrative throughout, thanks to the subject, but also how the director has brought that element to bear upon the narrative.

Given the nature of the subject Scorsese has chosen for Silence, a plaintiveness running across the film is understandable. But the scenes depicting the dehumanizing treatment meted out by Japanese officers to those who have moved to Christianity, mostly poor villagers, leave you with a sour mood. And this I feel helps the evangelist  side get sympathy with the viewer and win the argument obscuring the viewer to the fact that  the colonial powers often hid sinister intent behind the guise of faith (many advocates of the Opium War on China had used faith as their justification), a point that Scorsese’s movie overlooks. 

In fact, many would say Silence is a passionate argument for Christianity - one of the travelling Portuguese padres dies but the other lives and goes through a forced public denial of his faith in Catholicism following which he becomes a Buddhist and never acknowledges his faith in Christianity in his lifetime only to be shown with a cross in his rolled palm when he is being cremated as per Japanese customs - in an apparent show of trump of his Christian beliefs. 

Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly rooted for the characters undergoing persecution and the torture scenes left me downcast for a long time.

Silence is easily a classic, something which will stand the test of time and be remembered respectfully many years later for several things – great cinematography (some of the scenes are simply breathtaking), authentic recreation of a period in history (the monasteries, the wooden structures, everything looks so much like they have leapt out of the period) and above everything else a film which powerfully tells a story showing the two sides of religion – devotion and intolerance.

It’s a must watch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are We with Demonitization

It’s been sometime since I wrote the earlier blog on demonetization – and the situation has changed since then. We have got used to the new normal – that ATMs will not be the same again, that some visits to ATMs will be disappointing, some fruitful, that 2000 rupee notes will be in greater use than 1000 rupee denomination ever was and therefore getting it changed will always be a concern, that although a complete cashlessness may still be some years away, more and more number of small shops, the most formidable bastions of cashbased transactions, will offer digital options for payment. In sum, liquid cash will become less and less part of our day to day lives.

Well, all this is good news, but is it the whole picture or just an urban snapshot? From the reports that are emerging, rural India is still smarting under the effects of demo. A few days ago a news portal solely reporting on the effects of demonetization on rural India reported that in Maharashtra prices of some vegetables have dropped substantially due to over supply resulting from the inability of middle men to buy them due to lack of cash availability  (these transactions are almost always cashbased). Some rural regions are not receiving enough cash supply in their banks – and it’s a bigger concern in rural areas than in urban ones.  

And even in urban areas, even by the standard of the new normal, order has not completely returned. Most ATMs are still out of cash. Most of those that are working are mostly dispensing Rs 2000 notes.  Many have concluded that visits to banks to draw cash via cheques is a better option than depending on ATMs; but then if that is so, then does it not defeat the whole purpose of demonetization?

By now it is undeniable that the implementation has been a disaster. How the government and various financial institutions have reacted to situations suggests they were not foreseen and planned for earlier. Surprisingly though, as it appears, demo hasn’t hurt the government politically, although many would suspend their judgement about it until UP delivers its verdict.

Apart from Modi’s thunderous speeches, what has helped the government is that the opposition continues to be hopeless. To start with, there is hardly any opposition unity. Some parties are ambiguous about their stand on demo, some are half-heartedly supporting it by maintaining silence, some are mindlessly hurling accusations none of which is sticking. 

Amidst this chaos, though, one thing is becoming clear: emergence of a new order of payment methods, networks etc. The problem is how fast people can get used to the emerging order. The lightning speed with which demo was brought by the government will keep people on their toes, causing them to rush to the new transaction practices, in terms of learning them and making them an integral part of their day-to-day financial transactions.

Good or bad, this attitude towards government-brought changes is another bequest of demonetization. In the past, whenever it came to matters relating the government, people felt things would largely remain the same and they would be able to bypass the minor changes and survive the effects. Such comforting assurances have become a thing of the past. 

In the meantime, stories will keep emerging, some funny, some tragic. Let us look at this one from Karnataka. To raise funds, to help a depleted exchequer, the government is invoking an old law where pubs will have to achieve a minimum target of liquor sale set by the government, falling short of the target will attract penalties.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The I and We of Demonitization

It’s been sometime I have been at the receiving end of the effects of demonetization. I still am confused whether what the government is telling is right, that it’s today’s pain and tomorrow’s gain. Or what the opposition parties are claiming is true, that it’s not going to serve the intended purpose of eliminating black money, that it’s legalized loot, that nothing will prevent counterfeiters from counterfeiting the newly introduced notes and so on. 

Whichever side of the argument you are on, a few things are very clear. It’s almost a month since  demonetization and the situation on ground is still not back to normal. Most ATMs are not functioning, barring a few located in prominent places per area. The load on these few functioning ATMs is so high, as a result, that they are running out of cash within a few hours of refill. I stood in long queues of several such ATMs and the cash ran out when my turn was two to three people away. The luckiest ones walked away with 100 rupee notes, the luckier with 2000, some (including me) had to return emptyhanded. Even if you are lucky to get some cash, there is restriction to how much you can draw. Until some time ago ATMs cards from banks other than the host bank were not working. Now they are.

Like many of you, I am tracking this development closely and have read several articles and heard some interviews. Posthumously, they say a range of things which could have prevented or at least brought down the scale of the crisis. Instead of banning both 500 and 1000 rupee notes, they say, the government could have banned one – preferably  1000 – and left the other, which would have given them time to replenish the banned notes and also the option of targeting the 500 rupee denomination later. If they had taken some time to make all the notes the same size, which is how it is in many countries, the ATM machines would not require recalibration, they say.

These ‘should have beens’ may not bother us much now that it’s too late, but at a national and personal level there are a few possible outcomes of them. The happy political consensus over GST seems to have dissipated and reorganized itself as a pan India opposition against the government over demonetization. No one seems to mind the purported goals – end of black money, cashless economy etc - of demonetization; given their lofty nature, they are slightly unchallengeable. The opposition parties seem to smell a political opportunity in how demonetization has been carried out. And that seems to be the bone of contention for the amm janta too…who may think, if the mainstream media reports are to go by, that little bit of pain is worth the long term gains. But as each day goes by without the situation coming under control, the concern that’s becoming bigger and bigger is: how long the patience will hold out?

The answer to that lies in several things. How long will the government take to pull the situation under control? How soon, in what forms and how tangibly will people see the benefits of the pain they are undergoing? How long the government will be able to prevent the growing voice of a uniting opposition into becoming a nationwide roar (something like the G scams)?

A lot of this will require perception handling. Also, as the government works towards getting things in order, care has to be taken to make sure that nothing undermines the ground which is being covered on the way to normalcy. The system has countless holes through which illegal money can travel back and forth having a termite-like effect. And there is enough evidence that this is happening. New notes worth over Rs 4 crore have been seized in income tax raids in Bengaluru. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country. And there are inherent challenges. One of them is the unorganized economy in India is intricately entwined with the mainstream economy and the former is mostly (unless it is illegal) cash based.

On ground a few things need to be made smooth so that after I get a 2000 rupee note it’s easy for me to find change or there are enough 100 notes in ATMs. The number of functioning ATMs should start growing so that I don’t have to stand in queues for too long. If the problem is to linger for a few more months, then special arrangements should be made on payment days, either by pumping in more currencies or devising ways to identify and move as many as possible to crediting their stuff salary into their accounts.  None is easy. And what makes it difficult is this hydraheaded monster has to be tamed FAST.
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