Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A Hung Parliament Is Just A First World Problem

Take a deep breath Australia. A hung parliament, contrary to what the screaming headlines are telling you, isn’t the end of the world. We had the courage and patience to overcome this before and it will be done again. Look, I get it – your trepidation is understandable. A flooded road during rains is as far as we got towards a total breakdown in civilisation. In the context of things, Saturday’s results may appear a fit comparison to BREXIT or worse things like the Great Samoan upset of 2011. There is a reason why we are reacting like this. While we leisurely sip our filtered water, breathe in cleaner air than most of the world, watch our Super go up and chook prices go down, there may be a temptation to look at the prospect of a Prime Minister negotiating their way through the next legislative term as ‘totally apocalyptic’. You see, the problem lies in perspective. In a world where 30% of the population doesn’t even know what it’s like to own a toilet, Australians look at their politics and go, ‘crikey, why is God mercilessly punishing us like this’. What you are experiencing is a well-documented condition called ‘a first world problem’. It is a congenital condition that affects people who won the genetic lottery, but the good news is, you can cure yourself with periodic doses of facts, and plenty of perspective. Here’s a bit of both to help you get started.

  • No, Australia isn’t going to lose its coveted AAA credit rating just because the election doesn’t have clear results. That’s like saying watching footy games can make you lose a job. It’s possible that you are too much into footy and miss work regularly, which is why you lost your job. But it’s not watching the footy, but the ‘missing work’ clue that dunnit. A minority government doesn’t automatically downgrade ratings. Its bland fiscal policies and runaway spending that will cause the glint to fade off our gilt-edged bonds. If the rating agencies downgrade us next week, it’s probably because the conditions already exist, not because the indecisive election somehow brought about an overnight change of heart and turned a rosy AAA outlook into junk credit. Did you see how the stock markets reacted on the Monday after the election? They went up. So did the Aussie. Go figure!

  • No, Australia didn’t have a BREXIT moment. Australian elections and the BREXIT are apples and orang-utans - not even the same life form. Commentators and Bill Shorten use these analogies to get your attention, a bit like how teenage kids compare you to the worst thing that ever happened to them. Unless you are a convicted criminal of the worst kind, you know, they know and everybody knows that is just bollocks. BREXIT is a life changing event that unravelled a four decade old union. Australian elections come around every four years. Perspective, mate!

  • Our politics may be messy, but there are worse things happening elsewhere on the globe. No, I am not talking about the political wastelands of the third world or people without toilets. Look at the UK, for example. Do you even know who’s captaining that ship? And don’t get me started on Trump! Cory Bernardi and Peta Credlin may want to see Turnbull get Ned-Starked for not having won 5 or 6 seats more, but hey, he’s just 5 or 6 seats short. I’m no Turnbull fan, but it seems to me that everyone is wildly over-reacting to what is essentially a win. A small win, perhaps. But a win, nevertheless. When the AEC rolls up its sleeves and counts the last postal ballot thirteen days from now, you may even find that Turnbull squeaked through with a simple majority. That may ‘weaken his authority‘, and the scorned few may get their daggers out, but even that isn’t a disaster by any measure.

It’s amusing for me to see all this hyperbole in the media since Saturday. We are a country known for daredevilry and unbridled excitement. But with our lives so predictable and sanitised, we need that extra dose of induced excitement. Which explains the desire to go swimming in the ocean during a storm and journalists plotting international kidnapping. I see this hyperventilation in the media about the hung parliament as a similar attempt to induce excitement into an otherwise boring affair. So, let’s all close our eyes, breathe in and out a few times to relax because what is happening in Australia is plain vanilla compared to even the rest of the Anglosphere, barring Canada. Wait, does anything ever happen in Canada at all? Perhaps, there lies our problem. We just don’t want to be Canada!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

India Ejects A Change Maker

Bruce Munro, the disgraced former boss of Thiess, famously defended bribe-giving allegations against him by saying, ‘the culture and business in India is different, everybody in India lies to everybody (sic)’. While Indians in Australia like me were dutifully offended by that sweeping generalisation, I have to admit that he is partly right. India is a notoriously difficult country to navigate for business. Corruption is a way of life for bureaucrats and deception is a management philosophy. Such a system, just like the mafia, demands unquestioning obedience. After Raghuram Rajan, the straight shooting ‘rockstar’ chief of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), announced last week that he won’t be seeking a second term, Munro’s words rang in my ears. Rajan fell victim to the same system that Munro was talking about.A former Chief Economist at IMF and famous for having predicted the meltdown in the US mortgage markets before the global financial crisis, Rajan has credentials that few central bankers in the developing world can boast of.

When he came to the job in 2013 with a reformer’s mindset, the suave and articulate Rajan became a darling of the press. Soon, a man with the boring job of a central banker had fan pages on Facebook. Within hours of taking over his job, he called a press conference to outline his actions to stabilise the fast depreciating Indian currency that everyone was worrying about. When he matched his celebrity with actions, he was seen as the new sheriff in town who meant business. In under three years since, he brought rapid change to the functioning of the central bank, reined in in the inflation and began the unenviable task of cleaning up public sector banks that concealed bad loans.

He also did something that Indian bureaucrats never do – he spoke his mind. After NaMo, as PM Narendra Modi is known, came to power in 2014 promising economic renaissance, Rajan was under constant pressure to deliver policies that complemented the Government’s ambitions. In a country of yes-men regulators who readily acquiesce, Rajan was an aberration. He declared that his first priority was to control the runaway inflation and not helping banks grow their loan portfolios. Economists cheered Rajan’s defiance while the common man saw merit in his arguments. The sheriff was also outspoken, condemning the growing intolerance in the country and cautioning against the Government’s exaggerated narrative on the economy. With corruption resurfacing and deception becoming an official policy, even the supporters of the ruling party saw Rajan as a voice of reason.

All that changed in May when Subramanian Swamy, an MP and senior leader of the ruling party, wrote two scathing letters to the Prime Minister that would have put Joe McCarthy to shame. Swamy, himself a Harvard educated economist, is notorious in Indian politics for his Nixonian dirty tricks. He accused Rajan of making a ‘wilful and deliberate attempt to wreck the economy’ and rehashed his favourite ‘CIA agent’ smear when he alleged Rajan was ‘mentally not fully Indian’. Taken aback, Rajan called himself a karma yogi - a man who believes in doing his duty despite obstacles.  In spite of the Government’s muted reaction to the episode, media speculated that the whole episode was Swamy’s lone battle. Few foresaw what came next.

When Rajan announced that after ‘consulting with the Government’, he decided to not seek a second term, it became apparent that Swamy managed to shoot the sheriff. While the nation reeled from the announcement, one thing became apparent - it wasn’t Swamy’s war alone. In a revealing tweet within hours of Rajan’s announcement, Swamy congratulated NaMo for not bending to the pressures from foreign forces and for pushing out Rajan.

Rajan’s exit was neither voluntary nor due to his ‘monetary policy’ positions. His independence and belief in freedom of expression proved his undoing in a notorious system that NaMo seems to have only embraced despite his election promises. In the echo chambers of ruling party’s supporters, this was seen as a victory of nationalism and rejection of foreign values such as freedom of expression. It is clear the mud-slinging was orchestrated by the Government to dim Rajan’s star and assassinate his character before the ouster. In a pyrrhic victory, Rajan did not let the Government control the narrative and announced his departure in a public letter to RBI employees replete with hints about what had transpired. 

While it may not have a huge impact on the economy in the long run, this episode only serves to remind the world that the oppressive system is still alive in India. Loss of credibility and reputation due to the way this was handled will hurt the country more than the benefits of rate cuts, which the ruling party accuses Rajan of withholding. It is difficult to imagine a political drama like this unfolding in the corridors of central banks in any major economy. Like Munro said, the culture and business in India are indeed different. Though it is preposterous to say that everybody lies to everybody, it appears that if you don’t lie with the Government, you don’t get a salary anymore. Rajan, having spent decades outside the country, seems to have missed the memo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'It's your choice' I said and the man exercised it

For the past few days, I've been walking in a playground nearby. It's a small municipal ground, completely barren. Kids from the nearby slums play there by the day and keep it mostly clean of garbage because that's their only ground. From the looks of it, the local gamblers and drunkards take over in the night, but every day I see that yesterday's bottles and cards have been cleared.

I also realised that lot of passing car drivers use the ground for urinating even though several warnings are painted on the walls. People urinate right below the warnings with impunity. It's not for a lack of choice though. You can't blame the government for it. There's a well maintained Sulabh complex just 50 mtrs from the ground.

At first I ignored the urinating men and walked around. Anybody who knows me, knows that I'm very cynical about my countrymen. I'm of the opinion that there's no hope for this shit hole. But people are urinating right below the boards and I couldn't stay away for too long. Today, I started telling people about the Sulabh down the road and requesting them to go there instead. People were mostly surprised when I stopped and asked them if they wanted to use the toilet. Most of them got embarrassed and walked away. Some argued a bit. "I've been urinating here every day!"is a common response. I told them about the kids who pick garbage every day and requested them to keep it clean. People obliged and it gave me hope.

I'm not a Swachh Bharat volunteer. I'm just a man who saw something wrong and decided to put aside my cynicism to tell people to do it right. While walking, I pondered about how people obliged readily and thought, well, they just need someone to tell them and most people will do the right thing.

It's not like nobody is telling them. The new government is making a lot of noise about cleanliness and toilets. There are Modi posters on the same wall talking about Swachh Bharat. There's a massive Sulabh toilet in the neighbourhood. Govt is building 15 million toilets in the country and movie stars are campaigning for the movement. Still, people need face-to-face convincing to move away from old habits. I was elated that I got involved for a brief moment.

Towards the end of my walk, I stopped a man with a look on his face like he wanted to take a leak. He protested like a few others. I kept him engaged with various arguments. He kept coming up with excuses to urinate there. 'I live in the neighbourhood', 'I do this every day', 'Sulabh is too far', 'I need to go urgently'. I kept countering him. He stood his ground. I finally put an end to it by raising the stakes. I told him, 'You look like a reasonable, educated man. I'll leave it to you to decide. I told you what I have to. It's up to you now. You do what you think is right' and I waked away.

He exercised his choice and urinated on the ground.

I'm not going to stop telling people about the Sulabh because of one man. But, I'll probably remain cynical.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Paper or Plastic?

Being environment friendly is tough. Mostly because we humans still don't know what's good for the environment. Remember when we were children and there were no plastic bags? If you went to a shop without your own shopping bag, the shopkeeper packed your stuff in brown paper bags or ones made with newspaper. But those bags weren't reusable and often tore before you reached home.
Then came the plastic. It was hailed as a revolution because here was a product that's durable, reusable, tough and also 'environment friendly' - meaning you are not hurting the trees anymore for your paper bags.
Plastic became universally acceptable until they discovered that plastic contaminated food. It also clogs the rivers and seas, enters the food chain, is killing birds, animals and causing cancer in people. Environment friendly? Far from it. The last decade saw plastic being branded the biggest threat to our environment. Governments reacted by banning plastic bags but what's the alternative found by people?
You guessed it right. Paper. Recycled brown paper bags came back again and the elite flaunted them along with their Prada bags. You go to any upmarket deli or cafe and they pack stuff in paper bags. Because it is cool. And somehow, 'environment friendly' again. Of course, the spurt in paper demand means the trees took a hit. And trees aren't just standalone things. They prevent soil erosion, create mini ecosystems around them so cutting a tree is bad for the environment too. Which is why plastic got there in the first place.
Luckily, paper didn't catch up with everyone.  People are slowly going back to the cloth bags now. It may be unfashionable to carry a stained yellow bag you got for free from a garment store in Madras, but for now that seems to be the lesser evil.
But what if you weren't carrying a cloth bag for once and had to buy something? And the shopkeeper gave you the option to choose between a plastic bag and a paper bag? That is not a hypothetical question by the way. It is a real dilemma you will face. What would you choose then?
Paper or plastic?
Cutting down a tree or adding to the already unmanageable garbage in the seas?
There is no right answer. If there is, I don't know it yet. I'd probably choose plastic because it is reusable and that means I can delay the destruction my choice is bound to unleash, no matter what I choose.
What would you do?

Saturday, February 07, 2015

WhatsAAP with you?

Imam Bukhari's support perfectly summarises the inherent identity crisis of the AAP universe. It brings to the fore the key question I raised last year - what exactly does Aam Admi Party stand for?

Every constituency of AAP supporters views the party from its own prism of convenience and  interprets the ideology as per its requirement.

The muslim right wing is now seeing the party as its current alternative to BJP. What they don't understand is Kejriwal is not an appeaser. Even if he wants to, he can never get into the give-and-take politics because that's his only differentiation. If he resorts to give-and-take, there won't be any difference between Kejriwal and Lalu Yadav.

The left wing activists see him as one of their own - a vehicle for revolution. But he already abandoned that path when he split with Hazare and took the plunge into politics, famously declaring that to bring real change he needs to go from andolan to prashasan.

The middle class armchair revolutionary sees him as an anti corruption crusader. The armchair guy somehow convinced himself that with AAP in power, everything will be exactly the same - the same economic opportunity, social mobility, his sedan and the iPhone and the glitzy hipster life - EXACTLY the same, except the corruption is now magically gone! I think the flaw in that prism is the most stark of all.

Lastly, the Aam Admi, who is the real claimant to the party sees it as a simpler solution to his problems. No money? Instead of breaking your head to figure out how to earn more income, just vote for the guy who'll subsidise your power and water bills. Yes, the low ticket corruption - the real give-and-take he is used to - will be gone.

He thinks he will now get to take, but need not give. But he will realise that it comes with a huge price. If you demand honesty from others, the least you can do is to become honest yourself.  Let's start with the law that says 'no spitting'; then 'no-hawking without licence'; and then, no tampering with the weights; no ticket-less travel; no cutting through the queues; no priority in school admissions through corporator recommendations; no tax evasion; no loudspeakers at your son's wedding; no driving on the wrong side of the road; no helmet-less travel; no stopping beyond the stop line.

Yeah, no breaking the law at all! That's because you elected to deprive the system of its life blood. The system will stop working if its ill-gotten income isn't substituted with increased salary. And who will pay for the higher salaries to the police and the babus? Yes, you - the Aam Admi who got away with all the little cheeky rule-breaking that the system never really cared about. The system will start penalising you for all those transgressions. Like I said, if you demand honesty from the system, the system will want the same from you. Do you have it in you to face the music?