Saturday, 22 November 2014

INVITING TROUBLE


Its my wife's birthday later this month and I've been thinking of inviting a few people for dinner and drinks. And that's precisely where the problem lies. Extending invitations nowadays is a risky proposition, what with the entire nation watching including Arnab Goswami, Shobha De, Swami Adithyanath and Manu Singhvi ( when he is not growing termites, that is). Look at what happened when Prime Minister Modi invited Nawab Sharif to his swearing in: half the nation was swearing at him instead for extending this courtesy to our Enemy No. 1. And soon thereafter the Shahi Imam of Jumma Masjid was held by some to have created a constitutional crisis by NOT inviting Mr. Modi to his son's " dastarbandi"! Finally, last week another furore was engendered by the selective guest list for the Nehru birthday celeberations. Things have come to such a pass that, no matter who you invite, or don't, you are likely to be labelled either a right-wing fundamentalist or a " sickular", a capitalist or a Nehruvian socialist, a war-monger or a spineless pacifist, a status quoist or an anarchist, and worse.

I have difficult choices to make, as you can see. I can't invite Mr. Modi for a number of reasons, the main among them being that I neither belong to the Gujarat cadre, or to the Vivekananda Foundation or to the RSS or to the NRI community. Furthermore he may consider the invite as a ploy to wrangle a post-retirement sinecure( he may not be wrong in this but that is not the point). The point is that he is likely to refuse, and what would my wife think of me then?-that is, if she thinks of me at all.

I could invite Mr. Rahul Gandhi, I suppose, but he is an impulsive person and he might just tear up the card and throw it into the nearest dustbin where that old ordinance is probably still lying. Or he may regard my usually backward looks as indicating that I belong to an OBC family ( he HAS made mistakes before, you will concede) and decide to spend the night at my place and have only dal and chapattis for dinner. That would be very inconvenient.

Another possibility is to invite Mr. Robert Vadra, but approaching him with an invitation is a bit of a risk. He is likely to scream: " Are you serious? Are you serious?" four times and knock me down ( once is enough in this case) with his sixteen inch biceps. On the other hand, if I DON'T invite him I'll never get that DLF flat in Gurgaon that I have my eyes on.

You see my dilemma? Issuing invitations is serious business these days. But it was not always so and there have been a few memorable moments  in my career worth sharing.
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In the early eighties I was posted as a Deputy Secretary at Shimla, still wet  behind the years and laboriously climbing the learning curve. One day I received an invitation from the Governor for an " At Home" in the Raj Bhavan the next evening. This clashed with my squash game and, since the most potent drink served at the Raj Bhavan was tomato juice laced with Chyawanprash, I decided to skip it. The day after I was summoned by the Chief Secretary and given a proper dressing down with an implied threat of being posted to Spiti as the OSD( Potatoes, Peas and Ponies).
" Let me explain the rules to you, young man," roared the CS." You never disregard an invitation from either the Governor or the Chief Minister. An invitation from them is not an invitation-its an Order! Have you got that?"
" Yes sir", I mumbled, but wanting to get things right the first time, I further ventured:" But what about an invitation from you to me sir-what would that be?"
" That, Shukla," he yelled," would be an act of folly! Now take that junior-scale arse of your's out of my office!"
Today, even though that "arse" has now retired in the apex scale, I take invitations more seriously.
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Well intended invitations can sometimes have unintended consequences. I was still at Shimla when Mr. IK Gujral became the Prime Minister and arrived at Shimla with his family for a holiday. I had worked with him earlier when he was the External Affairs Minister and could also claim a tenuous  relationship with him. Armed with these credentials I called upon him and invited him and his family for lunch to my home: the gracious and warm person that he always was, he immediately accepted. The local administration and SPG was duly informed of this for making the security arrangements.
All hell broke loose thereafter.

The next morning the SPG arrived at my house even before the bed-tea in the form of three burly officers in track suits. They rousted me from my warm bed and poked into all nooks and crannies where assassins could hide or bombs be planted. Since it was a house that was a hundred years old there were numerous such places so the dogs were called in. Three fat Labradors were summoned who promptly started romping in the garden with my golden retriever: they didn't find any bombs but they destroyed all my flower beds and were sent away in disgrace. The SPG then turned its attention to my neighbours, all very senior IAS officers who could make or break( more likely) my career. Disappointed at not having been able to implicate me in a plot against the PM, they poured their professional training and expertise on these folks. They were all ordered to close their windows and doors and stay inside till the PM left my house: it was hinted, not too politely, that any head that poked out would be blown away. Hell hath no fury like an IAS officer being ordered about by an IPS officer( unless it be that IAS officer's wife) and it was a long time before I was forgiven for this " humiliation".

One fat policemen was stationed INSIDE the tiny kitchen where Neerja( my wife, folks) was cooking the lunch for Mr. Gujral and family!  He would not move out in spite of all our entreaties:his job, he stated, was to  ensure that no poison was put into the food being cooked for the PM. The situation was getting desperate: Neerja wanted him out and had that NIKE look on her face( JUST DO IT!), and the cop wouldn't budge. Taking advantage of a break when she had left the kitchen I pleaded with the copper: " Listen, just take a look at what my wife has cooked. Don't you think that if Mr. Gujral can survive this kind of food, he can survive any poison?" Surveying the smorgasbord of burnt and oily stuff on display, the constable gave the knowing smile only a husband can, nodded as if in agreement and left. I am glad to report that Mr. Gujral survived the lunch and I went up a couple of notches in Neerja's estimation. Another reason why I just can't invite Mr. Modi. Any marriage can take only so many shocks, and no more.
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And now its time to let you all in on a well kept secret. Have you ever wondered how, whenever one invites people over for a wedding , engagement or the birth of a child the first to land up are the " hijras" or eunuchs? They WILL NOT LEAVE until you fork out a considerable sum of money to them-and their demands keep pace with the rate of inflation. The going rate in South Delhi is anywhere between Rupees fifty thousand to one lakh! This is their secret: they have informers in all the printing presses( where the cards are printed) and the hospitals/ nursing homes( where the deliveries occur) and so know immediately where to go and do their song, dance and swearing routine. These days I am sure they also have Google maps. The way to beat them is to issue your invitations on-line. Not only will it save you a lot of money, it is also environmentally sustainable as it cuts down on the need for paper. Of course, this stratagem will endure only till some nerd from IIT develops an app to track all on-line invitations. But hopefully by then people will stop marrying in favour of live-in arrangements, and couples will prefer to freeze their eggs for posterity instead of having kids.
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Postscript: I've decided to take Neerja to Murthal on her birthday. Not only are the parathas there to die for, but hopefully there will be no Prime Ministers, SPG, Labradors or Hijras there. 


  

Thursday, 13 November 2014

IS IT TIME TO DO A RETHINK ON MR. MODI AND THE BJP ?


Long before words such as " populism" and " majoritarianism" started dominating public discourse Mark Twain had written: " Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." Today, after what happened in the Maharashtra Assembly yesterday, I am inclined to follow his advice seriously.
In July 2013 when Mr. Modi was still the rank outsider in the electoral sweepstakes and was being reviled by the press and the intellectualatti I had written a piece in these columns- WHY I SHALL SUPPORT MODI IN 2014- laying out the reasons why the country needed him as Prime Minister. Today, he is not only the Prime Minister but also the flavour of the season, sweeping state after state, adulated by frenzied crowds, and fawned upon by the same people who had earlier cosied up to the Gandhis and the Chidambarams. It appears he can do no wrong. And, mindful of Mark Twain's words, I am worried and inclined to do some deep reflection.
I have not changed my opinion that Mr. Modi is what India needs to pull us out of the morass of the last ten years. He has the vision, energy, commitment and resolution to extract the country out of the quagmire of corruption. cronyism, indecisiveness, breakdown of systems and values that we had become entrapped in. But I still worry.

There are indications-straws in the wind as yet, but they tell us which way the wind is blowing- that Mr. Modi is becoming too powerful and uncaring of the few sane voices stifled in the roar of the hosannas. Consider some of these straws:
Far too many senior appointments to government are being made of persons associated with the Vivekananda Foundation, a right wing forum with links to the RSS. I will not name them because those who follow public affairs seriously know who they are.

An obscurantist historian trapped in the vedic age, who is unknown even to students of history, is made head of ICHR ( Indian Council of Historical Research) inspite of across the board protests by his peers.

A man whose life mission is to burn books and propagate a version of history that mocks all scientific progress, Mr. Dinanath Batra, is made Advisor to the Education Department of Haryana and his books prescribed as text in 35000 schools in Gujarat,

An avowed Hindu hard liner who had advised opponents of Mr. Modi ( read Muslim) to go to Pakistan and in whose house ten million rupees of unexplained cash was found is made a Minister in the Centre.

Delhi is denied an elected government for ten months and the local BJP cadre given a free hand to purchase MLAs; it is only when the Supreme Court steps in that a thoroughly compromised Lieutenant Governor orders re-elections.

Unexplained communal riots break out in Trilokpuri, Bawana, Babarpur and Okhla-all sensitive areas of Delhi- when it becomes clear that elections are inevitable. The signature on them is obvious. No action is taken against party loyalists who spew poison against minority communities or saffron clad hooligans who attack couples for holding hands or dining together in restaurants.

Hindu supremacy is being reasserted against Pakistan through the doctrine of " disproportionate response" which now appears to have replaced the Gujral doctrine of peaceful engagement with neighbours. Yes, Pakistan had to be taught a lesson for its continual violations of the cease-fire and the ten thousand shells fired by the BSF have effectively conveyed this message. The Pakistan army has learnt its lesson. Shouldn't the victor now be gracious and take the first step towards restoring normalcy again? Or is this about Hindu supremacy over Muslims again: if so, what message does this convey to the 200 million Muslims in India?

And finally Maharashtra. The vote of confidence in its Assembly yesterday has shamed the nation and set a new benchmark for chicanery and electoral fraud. For the first time in the history of this democracy, we are told, a minority government has established its " legitimacy" by a voice vote and not by a proper process based on Division. This, after committing an even bigger fraud on the voter who elected it- viz. by allying with the party( NCP) against whose corrupt govt. it had asked for the votes!

These instances make me reflect and suggest to me that the BJP and Mr. Modi are perhaps becoming too imperious and over-bearing with the power they are rapidly acquiring. The issue of concern is not that of a mere appointment or two or of a riot here or there. It is of a trend that appears to be emerging- of a sustained domination of one community, of ramming down the throats of a nation a flawed concept of Hindu values and history, of Mr. Modi himself donning his personal cloak of integrity and high morals while allowing his party to shred ethics and morality to bits( how does that make him any different from Mr. Manmohan Singh then, you may well ask), of playing Russian roulette with two unstable neighbours( don't forget Afghanistan). Its an ill wind that blows no good and the BJP is fanning it.
We need Mr. Modi, if not the BJP. We need his initiatives in liberalising the economy and manufacturing, in foreign relations, in financial inclusion, in strengthening our defence forces, in rebuilding our failing infrastructure. What we don't need is a return to the vedic ages, to attempts to re-write history, to packing the higher bureaucracy with persons of a particular ideology, to an unleashing of the dogs of war, to criminal and mercenary politics, to handing over the streets to dogmatist and sectarian bigots.
What we need most of all is a Mr. Modi who is responsive to public opinion, even though it may be that of a minority, a Mr. Modi who respects a contrary point of view, a Mr. Modi who does not consider the press his eternal foe, to be treated with accumulated contempt as a form of vengeance for years of baiting. So far he has not displayed these qualities- he talks, but he does not converse, or respond or answer, and this is not healthy for any democracy.
The crux of the problem is that Mr. Modi has no opposition worth the name, and consequently the hubris is building up in his system and, like the hero in a Greek tragedy, he is moving towards his denouement. But this is far more serious than a Greek tragedy, for when( in a metaphorical sense) he falls he will not fall alone but will take the entire nation with him. Mr. Modi is here to stay and the only force which can persuade him to do a course correction is a strong opposition. The entire universe survives on a balance of forces: every yang needs a ying, a thesis an anti-thesis, a point a counter-point. This critical balance is even more crucial for nations and somehow our present political dispensation must find this.
We need Mr. Modi but we also need a strong opposition in Parliament and other parties in power in some critical states. I hope voters of Delhi will bear this in mind in the days to come. This of course is free advice, but as Oscar Wilde said: " The best thing to do with free advice is to pass it on!"


Saturday, 1 November 2014

UNEARTHING BLACK MONEY-- THE HINDU WAY !

   So we have come full circle again- the list of holders of foreign accounts which had been lying with the  government for three years and was given to the SIT four months ago has now been submitted to the Supreme Court and has been passed on to the SIT again yesterday. Hallelujah! The Chairman of the SIT has announced that their investigation into all the 700 accounts shall be completed by March 2015. Amen! Whether they will find even a cent in these accounts, now that their holders have had three years to move the moneys to anyone of 193 countries, is the next big thing to be debated on prime time television.
   Actually, lets admit it. Indians love black money and treat with renewed respect and a sneaking admiration anyone raided by the Income Tax Department. We welcome, nay invite, Laxmi into our houses but prefer that she comes with hard cash rather than with a bank transfer or a draft. To fully understand this phenomenon, and the govt's convoluted strategy in the present case, we need to understand the Hindu view of wealth.
   Nirad C Choudhury, that iconoclast of everything Indian, explains in his book " Passage to England". Hindus, he says, are devoted to wealth and to the hoarding of it because of their belief in reincarnation or rebirth. The devout Hindu reasons that since he will be coming back to this mortal coil at some future date, he may as well hoard his wealth to ensure a good life in his second innings. Nirad Babu is aware of the flaw in this argument- how can the person be sure that he will come back to the same family where the wealth has been hoarded? He answers this by contending that if all, or most, Hindus do the same thing, then statistically there are good chances of the new soul landing in a family with amassed wealth! To put it bluntly then, the Hindu is genetically and spiritually primed to hoard his moneys- black money, therefore, is something to aspire for and to respect.
   Enter the government with its farcical attempts to recover this stockpile. To comprehend its PC Sorcar kind of moves we must first understand another facet of Hinduism- its rituals. Hinduism is all about ritualism, not substance. We can commit all manner of wrong doing-kill, cheat, beat, destroy, molest- provided we observe the right rituals: wash our sins in the Ganga, organise weekly havans, shave our hair, sing kirtans, feed portly Brahmins and so on. We garland the cow with many incantations and then let it starve to death on the streets. We feed widows in temples and then throw them out of our own houses. You get it? The ritual is everything.We are in no way interested in doing the right thing, we merely want that we should not be punished for doing the wrong thing.
    This is precisely the kind of ritualism the central government( and dare we say, the Supreme Court?) is indulging in in the matter of the Black Money. It signs treaties, obtains lists from foreign banks, sets up SITs, makes announcements about getting back the lucre in 100 days, promises investigations-and allows business to go on as usual. The business, of course, being the continued generation of black money in the country.
   Forget the foreign accounts: there won't be a farthing left in them by the time our sleuths get there. One report states that Rupees 14000 crore has already been moved out of Switzerland in the two years ending 2012. The obvious solution is staring the government in the face but it won't even look at it: take immediate steps to stop the generation of black money within the country itself. Just three measures will ensure that 90% of the tap can be turned off.
   First, tackle the real estate and property sector, the main generator of illegal and untaxed wealth. The devil here lies in the difference between the price actually paid for a transaction and the price at which it is registered, which is between half and one-third of the former: the difference is the black money. Today, anywhere in India, an all-white money sale is unheard of: if some idiot wants only white money for his property he will have to settle for a price far lower than its market value. All state governments have performed the mandatory ritual to counter this problem: they have fixed circle rates below which a property cannot be registered. The problem is, these rates are so far below the market rate they have no effect at all. In Greater Kailash of South Delhi the real rate is about Rs. 5-6 lakhs per square yard but the circle rate is about Rs. 2 lakhs. In the village where I betook myself after retiring to lick my wounds( above Shimla) the circle rate at Rs. 35 lakhs per bigha is only half of the actual market rate. It is inconceivable that the governments are not aware of this, what with their armies of Registrars,Tehsildars, Patwaris and what not, all with their hands on the pulse( if not the pocket) of our citizenry. Simply by doubling the existing circle rates the government would instantly knock off the major chunk of black money from the economy: in the process it would also realise thousands of crores of additional revenue as stamp duty every year and real estate prices would come down to sane levels as the speculators with their illegal money would be driven out of the market. A win-win situation, you would say? Well yes.....except that our politicians only want to win-win elections, and for that they need the difference between the two rates to continue. As Adam exclaimed after having a long, hard look at the uncovered Eve: " Viva le difference!"
   Second: why make a joke of our Income Tax mechanism? Only 4% of our population file income tax returns, and only 1% actually pay income tax! Can you believe that there are only 40000 people who have declared an annual income of Rs.one crore( and above) as per the IT Department's own figures? In a country where thousands of luxury cars are sold every year, where gold imports crossed the figure of US $3.5 billion last month, where a flat in South Delhi sells for Rs. 15 crore, where one peg of premium single malt at the Habitat is priced at Rs. 7500/, where the Presidential suite in a Jaipur hotel at US $ 45000/ for one night is the second costliest in the world? Why, I could point out 40000 of the one crore plus types within a ten minute walking radius of my mother-in-law's house in GK-I! And this is when one can barely walk in GK-I what with all the Audis, Mercs, BMWs and Rolls parked on the roads there!
   Furthermore, I am fairly confident that most of the people in that hallowed neighbourhood pay less tax than I do on my pension. Their salaries would be negligible and every single expenditure they incur, down to the toilet paper in their eleven bathrooms, is booked to either their company or their business- drivers, servants, electricity bills, fuel, parties, travel, holidays, even their pet dogs who are probably covered under Security Expenses. ( OK, there may be some exaggeration here but not much, I assure you). Not only does the government lose on Income Tax, it is also fiddled of its Corporate Tax.
  The other great escape route deliberately provided is the exemption from Income Tax for agriculture. There is no rational basis for this and therefore its justification does not even merit a discussion. This exemption may appear obtuse and stupid but actually its quite clever, from a crooked perspective: it enables politicians and bureaucrats to launder their ill gotten wealth by showing it as agricultural income even if the land they own is as barren as the Gobi desert. I can bet my next DA instalment that there is no major politician in this country who does not " own" agricultural land. It is not for nothing that Ms. Jayalalitha bought 2000 acres of land-such a huge area can launder far more than what she is accused of amassing, and I have a feeling that she may yet avoid the VIP cell on the strength of this acreage!
  You can be sure the government performs its rituals in this matter also. It sends notices to you and me for not declaring the Rs. 2373/ received as interest on our Savings Accounts, and fines us for filing our returns two months late. It conducts raids with much fanfare and nets the plankton and shrimps but allows the sharks to get away. But it will do nothing to broaden the tax base or to suck the undeclared income out of the parallel economy. It will not mount surveillance on some HNI individuals to match their life-styles with their declared incomes. It has PAN, TAN and what not but cannot or will not track purchases to any effect. Nothing else can explain the deplorable tax base of a country whose GDP is estimated at almost a trillion US dollars.
  And finally, that other great repository of black money- our political parties. The disclosed accounts( and these accounts are about as transparent as the sludge in your sewer line)reveal that both the Congress and the BJP have collected funds in excess of Rs. 2000 crore each and BSP is not far behind. We have no idea where this money came from, and we will continue to remain blissfully ignorant because ALL parties have ensured that the RTI Act will not be made applicable to them. They have refused to comply with the order of the Election Commission to provide information to querists. The Commission itself, clearly surprised by its own temerity in passing such an order, has retreated into its protective carapace, trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing before even attempting to enforce its order. And so tens of thousands of crores of black money continue to be spent on elections. The ritual? Oh yes, the EC fixes modest limits on expenditure by candidates, appoints Observers, audits expenditure statements, issues notices and warnings and is interviewed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Rahul Shivshankar.
    We don't need treaties or SITs to flush out the black money in this country. We simply need to go beyond rituals, to the one real religion that this country so badly needs- good governance.