Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kerala Votes - 2011

May 13 is a normal dull day in Minimum City but I am tuned to the TV right from 7.30 in the morning to get into the mood of the results of the State election results. Most pollsters have predicted decisively in all states except Kerala where the VS factor was looming large. But the Bengalis were keenly waiting for history to be created and a few hours later, it finally happened – The one traffic light in the world that was red for 34 years, just turned green (Derek O' Brien's tweet). Tamil Nadu threw out the DMK family and voted back JJ Amma in a landslide victory while Kerala saw the UDF score a technical victory in points over the divided house of LDF.

Let me stick to a perspective on Kerala. Psephologists were scared to predict the results of the elections but were hiding behind the safety of the state’s anti-incumbency voting record. After many ups and downs, the UDF finally pipped the LDF to the post (in an almost 1984 PT Usha moment) but as Shashi Kumar very aptly said – The winner is left with a crown of thorns while the loser has emerged as the hero.

The LDF won a clear majority of the districts while the Congress just about won the state in a below par performance compared to the Parliamentary elections and survived due to the performance of its ally, IUML (primarily in Malappuram). The CPI (M) emerged as the single largest party while the vote difference between the fronts was a paltry 0.58%. With a mere 38 seats in the House, Congress will have a tough time running the state (expected future CM Oomen Chandy had been quoted earlier as saying that he was no interested in becoming CM if the UDF had less than 85-90 seats).

As a cadre based polity, the CPI (M) will of course refuse to admit that Individuals can matter. Most people had written of the Leftists due to the massive infighting in the party and despite last minute dithering on who will lead the party, the CM was able to project himself as an honest street fighter willing to tack on the various mafia groups in the State. Pinarayi controls the party organization but cannot garner votes for the party and still needs VSs skills to get popular support. If the Reds had stood strongly behind him, we would have seen another slice with history with the LDF beating the traditional anti-incumbency wave but that was not to be.

For a party with a strong grassroots base, it is surprising that it failed to gauge VS popularity and tried to block his campaign; the worst enemy of the Left is itself and this cost it dearly in the election (the losses in Kannur for example). I am no Left sympathizer but in the last few years, I have supported VS initiatives against the real estate and sand mafia and his pro-environmental stance; I hoped that the LDF would pull off a last ball six for his sake but it did not happen. (Cynics have also pointed out that VS had tremendous sympathy of the masses because of his clean image and the obvious negative tactics of the Pinarayi faction).

The UDF seemed to have put their faith in statisticians rather than party workers; the only idea was that the people of Kerala would anyway throw out the incumbent party and so there was nothing much to do – just wait and watch for the results. There is hardly a leader in UDF who can stand tall and fight VS in a man-to-man contest and while the party led initially, as time progressed, it suddenly trembled at the prospect of taking on the CM. To the extent that Leader is no  longer in our midst, maybe the infighting within UDF may be minimized but only a fool would think that the UDF CM will be able to govern peacefully without Ramesh Chennithala, K M Mani and Kunhalikutty breathing down his throat.

The highly exaggerated Rahul Factor was expectantly absent in the state. His only contribution in the election was taunting VSs age and getting rebuked for being an Amul Baby (In a state with a huge graying population and a fairly traditional society, was that a smart remark to make?) Nevertheless, Rahul’s Amul Babies did not create any impact and almost none of the candidates hand-picked by him won. It’s time Rahul realizes that you cannot just crash land into a state a few days before elections and then hope to make a difference. Rahul’s ambitious youth membership drive has been zealously implemented in Kerala, compared to most states, but the results at the ground level are not too inspiring. The Rahul factor remains a topic for discussion in media circles in Delhi and outside it; it has now become a butt of jokes.

The BJP continued to be consistent with its strong showing of zero seats. Kerala’s strong bipolar political setup has severely hampered its growth and it continues to languish as a party which garners a few votes in Kasargod and Thiruvananthapuram. While the RSS is a strong grassroots force in Kerala, it has not been able to translate this into any form of electoral gains for the BJP. The fact that it has not been able to open its account in the state even after so many years is discouraging and there seems to be little chance of any changes in their fortune in the future, even though they managed to emerge triumphant in a few areas during the last Panchayat polls.

Analysts say that the voting was split vertically along religious lines with Hindus voting for the Left and the Muslims and Christians voting for UDF. IUML winning in Malappuram is evident (often wondered how an outsider like Banatwala won a record number of times from Ponnani) but how does that explain the LDF dominating most other districts. Pollsters mentioned that UDF hobnobbing with minority groups and VS severely reprimanding communal fringe leaders may have attracted Hindus to the Left (otherwise, when did Nairs and Brahmins grow Left-friendly?). 

I am also a little puzzled by this thought; I vote as an individual and not a representative of my religion. How do Hindus en-masse suddenly decide to vote for the Left one fine day? The Church did not issue any edict or letter asking people from voting against the Left, so why would they have voted for the UDF? This is all under the assumption that people vote strictly on religious terms but I find it hard to believe this.

It must be said that while the VS charisma made a difference, we at Kerala only have him to look up to but VS in no Modi (despite my misgivings against him) or Nitish Kumar; he is a crusader but no great administrator (something that Mamata Banerjee will have to bear in mind). People vouch for his honesty and frankness but he’s not scored top marks for administration acumen any time and at this age, no one expects him to have a change of heart anyway. We don’t dream of any Poribartan here; both the options have been tested and no one thinks that there is anything to choose between the two fronts.

We have won enough laurels for our social and health indices but it is time to go beyond this. Gulf Remittances in the form of cash transfers are the only forms of investment and it is this mass migration that has kept the state's economics afloat for such a long time. The challenges of poor industrialization, record levels of unemployment, empty treasuries and worrying signs of religious extremism will not evaporate one fine day unless something concrete is done about it...

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Corruption Strikes Back with a Vengeance

In a dramatic development that shocked agile Government officials, leading political and social luminaries headed by Maharashtra CEO, Sharad Pawar, started a fast unto death demanding the return of corruption to Indian shores. Since Anna Hazare performed the Houdini act of evaporating corruption from India, there has been widespread unrest across the country with middle class people from all walks of life protesting against this totalitarian approach by the civil society.

Citizens across cosmopolitan India joined Mr Pawar’s demand to introduce the radical Graft Commission Bill (GCB). This bill has been drafted by a panel comprising Sharad Pawar, Aamir Khan and Baba Ramdev in consultation with prominent pro-corruption activist, Ramalinga Raju, who is currently authoring a paper on Jail Reforms. They also roped in Nude activist Poonam Pandey as their brand ambassador; Poonam, returning after a stint as the Chief Motivation Officer of the Indian cricket team, has received a lot of flak lately for her NPAs (non-performing assets) but she’s promised to give whistle-blowers something to cheer this time.

The panel released the provisions on their flashy website, designed by Five Point Someones from IIT-Delhi who were not offered campus jobs. The bill proposes to legalize corruption and place it under the ambit of a newly formed body called Graft Commission. The Graft Commission would unilaterally define a multi-pricing strategy for bribes based on complex parameters like nature of activity, officer vintage, funds involved etc. Bribes would be treated as over the table income and taxed accordingly but officers have to ensure that attested receipts in triplicate are provided.

Each department would have graft targets and these would be included in the individual KRAs. The Graft Commission would arbitrarily review the bribe pricing strategy every financial year and adjust the rates as per inflationary trends. The all-powerful Graft Commissioner (envisaged as a Charles Bronson meets T N Seshan meets Narendra Modi) would have the power to slap penalties, issue search and arrest warrants and prosecute non-cooperative consumers. Critics have baulked at the prospect of investing so much authority in one body but they have been shooed off citing the success of such tribunals in Afghanistan and Somalia.

Corporates welcomed the protest by staying silent but they believed that the bill gave a raw deal to bribe givers. So, social activists Vijay Mallya and the Ambani scions (in a rare show of universal brotherhood) met the panel within closed doors and made a Power Point presentation explaining their demands. At the end of the meeting, the panel agreed to include variable corporate tax slabs based on bribe turnover, amnesty from audits in core acquisitions like land, spectrum and arms, an annual VDS to fund party treasuries and the right to FICCI to recommend a member of their choice to the Graft Commission. In turn, the business community agreed to provide comp offs to employees to join the fast and fund the campaign through a current account in Liechtenstein (Rumours of Baba Ramdev being given exclusive rights to teach Yoga in offices and corporates producing Aamir Khan’s Cheaply Live were denied).

ADAG bagged the contract to provide communication infrastructure for the crusade – consumers can call up at toll free numbers or send SMSs to designated numbers to register their support. Due to lack of resources to man these calls, it was agreed that missed calls would suffice. Retailers were asked to stack up their godowns with sufficient stocks of revolution memorabilia like Adarsh cement, Kanimozhi poems, corruption badges and stickers, to quench the patriotic thirst of people. 33% of the sales proceeds would be channelized to a trust with a majority stake in an Andhra based micro finance institution, which would in turn invest in hedge funds and Wall Street junk bonds.

These provisions have largely been welcomed by the public who have borne the brunt of the civil society’s draconian Lokpal Bill. The salaried class was hugely upset to see their monthly incomes crashing due to their inability to forge rental receipts and medical bills on one hand and the RBI mercilessly hiking interest rates on the other. The other main factor that has led to this demand to restore corruption was the massive slump in productivity observed in Government offices after the anti-corruption forces took over. PwC, inducted into the Auditing Hall of Fame for its creative work in Satyam, published a report stating that the productivity had fallen from 62.5% to 32% in most states because of officers refusing to work, without any bribes.
Economist Jijumon Punnoose, in an article The Anatomy of a Bribe in The Hindu, states that money being paid out through under-the-table channels constituted close to 3% of the GDP and the cost of delay in decision making by the Govt was much higher than that of combating corruption. He also points out that during the last WTO Summit, India had agreed to formulate benign laws to promote intra and inter-regional corruption but the leadership’s U-Turn had isolated India. He laments that while the West has evolved from the era of brokers and agents to subtler forms like lobbyists and sponsored research scholars, we were trying to turn the clock back by criminalizing corruption.  

To understand the idea better, we caught up with one of the brains behind the bill- ex-CVC Ananthan Nambiar, who now runs an ice-cream parlour in Ottapalam. As he licked his fingers after helping himself to the sumptuous avial prepared by his wife, the unassuming bureaucrat told us-‘10% of the people will always be corrupt, 10% always honest while the remaining 80% will follow the group that is rewarded. So we just need to target the 10% and the rest will follow. The beauty of the process lies in its simplicity - assets are transferred seamlessly at low cost among people without any governmental intervention; it is a zero sum game with proven results. I agree that a fasting protest is blackmail but then desperate situations require despite measures, eh?’ Delicious insight!!!

Meanwhile, in local news: Addressing a group of party workers who were rejoicing after drawing level 2-2 with RSS in Koothuparamba, CPI (M) State Secretary and Director (Kimbalam Vikasana Kendra) Pinrayi Vijayan, inaugurated the Malabar Gold Citizens’ Hartal Charter. Among other things, the Charter provides the annual hartal schedule across the state against the anti-proletariat approach of the Government to eradicate corruption. Vijayan also declared that he would personally lead a delegation to visit Eastern Europe to understand how corruption had been ingrained successfully there without any protest. Insider information revealed that the delegation also included a Minister who planned to visit Germany to get his dental surgery done but the name cannot be revealed here due to a personal conflict of interest that the author of this blog has.
The sweet smell of a Revolution has invigorated the Nation and its people; Moonlight Candle lit protest parties have become the new rage. Drastic methods of supporting the protest have emerged – some people decided to stop playing Solitaire in offices, some agreed to skip reading Chetan Bhagat comics while a few even promised to stop watching Rajinikanth movies!!! A Times Now sponsored survey of the protestors gathered at Bhindi Bazaar threw interesting results –32% were relieved to bunk office, 17% felt it was a romantic idea, 21% hoped to be seen on TV, 18% desperately wanted to get away from their spouses while the rest were too drunk to answer.

While these demonstrations have led to an increasing momentum for change, these have largely been overshadowed by the record number of tweets and Facebook comments by Netizens. Facebook servers crashed twice in the last week due to the large number of ‘Like’ buttons being clicked on pro-corruption links. After an intense brainstorming session, Facebook engineers operating from Hyderabad replaced the ‘Like’ button with the ‘Dislike’ button calming the charged Netosphere and abruptly putting brakes on the bloodless Revolution.
Breaking news – After 96 hrs of relentless marketing pressure, the Government succumbed to the protest and agreed to set up a committee to look into the demands of the pro-corruption gang; Sharad Pawar broke his triumphant fast sipping a peg of McDowell’s single malt whisky, followed by a noisy belch. But in the midst of the IPL and the tax payer sponsored UK royal vaudeville, this news was relegated to the sidelines. The masses too celebrated the triumph by bunking the next phase of Bengal elections to be a part of this spectacle. Nevertheless, middle class democracy in India rocks!!!  

In an unrelated story, the IPO of India’s leading candle manufacturer Flames & Roses has been oversubscribed 35 times; leading analysts believe that given Indians’ obsession with candle lit demos, it is an attractive business to invest.

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