Sunday, September 29, 2013

More than a rockstar performance

The new RBI Governor has loosened capital controls to attract investments from abroad. But the weather is still rough and the economy weak. Raghuram Rajan has a lot to do, and his debonair looks will not see him through...

These days everyone, including celebrity author Shobhaa De, is writing about Mr Raghuram Rajan for the country’s leading pink papers, which surprisingly cover lifestyle alongside business news. In the Reserve Bank of India’s long history, such excitement over a new Governor is unprecedented. But much of this has been manufactured by the Union Ministry of Finance which also clouded the end of Mr Rajan’s predecessor’s term.

Mr D Subbarao was given a politically-motivated farewell for his conservative handling of the central bank. He will also be remembered for his principled tussle with the Finance Ministry for quite a long time. It is a cliché that the nitty-gritties of politics overrule broad-based approaches because, for now, politics has won, and the Finance Ministry and the RBI are enjoying a rare harmony.

I have known Mr Rajan since his early days in Government, was impressed by his celebrated 2005 lecture, The Greenspan Era: Lessons for the Future, that was delivered at a symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I also read with great interest his radically upfront book on capitalism, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy.

If his 2005 lecture placed him among visionaries who sensed in advance the impending trouble in the Anglophone financial model, his 2010 book added to his position as a rational thinker who had confronted the ills of the financial model, spoke against the rise of cronyism and the suspicious increase in the number of billionaires in post-reform India. Unfortunately, I fear we will miss that person now that he has taken his position at the helm of the RBI.

There is good reason why Mr Rajan’s nicely tailored suits are more talked about than his policies. Some of these, for instance, he has taken overnight to stop the downfall of the vulnerable rupee. Mr Rajan has also loosened capital controls to attract investments from abroad. But the weather is still rough and the fundamentals of the economy still weak. The pampered corporate sector is in no mood to fight its incompetencies.

In the last three decades, financial systems around the world have witnessed major change. The credit system has liberalised and the reaches of financial markets have expanded. But these changes have come with greater risks. The RBI, on many occasions, has had to step in to control visible and imminent challenges such as the earlier East Asian crisis to the worldwide recession of 2007-2008, from which we are yet to recover.

The RBI especially deserves praise for maintaining an effective regulatory grip over the new entities in the financial sector such as private equity and hedge funds. But on the other side, it remains a helpless hawk that cannot control the unethical business model of the capital market or rein in the impractical mutual fund sector which is destined for be untrustworthy. But with regard to the banking sector, the RBI has appeared to be in sync with the Finance Ministry. As a result, this sector has remained semi-reformed and non-progressive.

The last two decades have seen the emergence of diverse institutional networks in India and together they make a huge impact on policy-making. From inflation control to monetary policies, the RBI is controlling them all but individually. The clout of established third party financial assessors and lobbyists is also being strongly felt, now that India’s financial system too is seeking to become a clone of the Anglophone financial model. This is fine in the short run, but will lead to heavy losses in the medium to long term.

Mr Rajan has to take a position on this. But in the short span of time that he has been in office, he already seems to be losing his sheen. The Economist, which for some reason is religiously read in India, has compared the RBI with a pressure cooker and covertly offered sympathy for Mr Rajan. I don’t subscribe to such an extreme evaluation but have no doubt that leading the RBI during the last months of a beleaguered UPA2’s term is not a comfortable task.

At a time when the Government has made governance a redundant theme, reviving growth and containing price rise are among toughest tasks for the new RBI Governor. Also, since election is around the corner, agencies that have been sleeping all this while, such as the Planning Commission, will awake to action and offer concessions to cover up the incumbent regime’s fiscal imprudence. The RBI will come under pressure from the top and play safe, or not play at all.

Of course, India will eventually bounce back but the recovery will happen with a volatile financial sector that will remain densely populated by crony-capitalists and marred by their incompetent corporate spirit. The impressive ratings of the new RBI Governor must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer on 25September2013)

United against the terrorism

Five years ago, fugitive Indian Mujahideen commander Riyaz Ismail Shahbandri slipped through the India-Nepal border near Madhubani. From there, he undoubtedly continued to safer havens and made sure the Indian Mujahideen would be better trained and more dangerous than ever before.

The recent arrest of high-profile fugitive Siddibapa of the Indian Mujahideen—popularly known as Yasin Bhatkal—from near the Raxaul border in the northern part of Bihar has confirmed that the traditional structure of the India-Nepal border needs drastic changes.

Once, the border areas were known as peaceful regions. But now, more and more terror cells are using the area to cross international borders and plan their attacks. There have been many such cases and the current border security system has been incapable of stopping them from crossing from Nepal into India and vice-versa.

Both in principle and practice, India and Nepal are cooperating to fight terrorism and protect their lands from being misused by rogue elements. Notwithstanding the good intentions of both countries, it is clear that the open border between Nepal and India is being covertly used for passage by terrorists.

Bihar shares a 625 km border with Nepal, of which a long stretch between Jaynagar in Madhubani and Raxaul in East Champaran has been under the scanner of the Indian police since 2006. The complicity of Pappu Khan, Mohamed Khalil, Omar Madani, Ghayur Ahmed Jamali and Ajmal alias Shoaib, in recent terror attacks on Indian cities and the establishment of their activities in northern Bihar districts have justified the police’s attention and call for more of a focus in this region.

The Bihar government has shown resilience in recent years in curbing terrorist activities. The State Government woke up after a joint operation of the Intelligence Bureau and the Delhi Police in October 2005 where these agencies scanned the call details from Madhubani to East Champaran and found an unusually high number of ISD calls to hostile destinations and known terrorist linkages.

India surely appreciates Nepal’s readiness to cope with these challenges and thanks to a joint operation, India was
able to nab a deadly terrorist like Yasin Bhatkal. However, the overall security situation is very complex and the two countries have to deal with it cautiously and on time. Measures need to be taken now, as tomorrow might already
be too late.

We immediately need to end the notion that the open border between India and Nepal poses no security risk. Also, border security has to be up to the mark, which it is currently not. Second, both countries should allow each other to track wanted criminals in their respective territories, thereby making the region unattractive for wrongdoers. Times are getting tougher for India and Nepal due to the rise of international terrorism.

The leaders of both sides must recognise this and they must focus their efforts on fighting terrorism—whilst not neglecting other crucial issues. Nepal is aware of India’s problems with imported as well as homegrown terrorism. Broadly, Nepal cannot afford an unstable India and obviously, a peaceful Nepal is one of India’s main concerns. On the political side, there should be no obstacle for a new security cooperation.

An effective way to deal with cross-border terrorism could be through dialogue on high official levels. Sadly, neither side has taken this issue very seriously in the past. As a consequence, terrorists have been able to move across borders and carry out crimes.

There is, therefore, a crucial need to restructure border security arrangements and build better infrastructure on both sides of the borders. Furthermore, as Indian police are state agencies, Nepal should find a way to involve state governments, who share common concerns along the border, instead of only dealing with New Delhi. Third, the Nepal Police needs a modern upgrade when it comes to interface technology and an increase in the headcount to be deployed near the border.

The Government of Nepal has partnered well with India and if it continues to do so by making its territory safe and
its borders impassable for terrorists, India will be the beneficiary. This strategic response to the activities of non-state terror networks would end their so far successful acquisition of easily accessible resources and pieces of infrastructure.

Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable that terrorists could misuse places like Janakpur or Pokhara to conduct illegal activities against India. The two Indian districts of Madhubani and Darbhanga also suffer from these latest
developments, despite their past intellectual traditions of refined cultural practices and communal harmony.

These two districts are known in official police criminal records as the ‘Madhubani Module’ and ‘Darbhanga Module’ What, then, is fueling the hate-game? Consensus can be attained by looking at some of the most recent terror cases and their link to the districts of north Bihar. There is evidence of local support and—shockingly—most of the culprits ended up as terrorists because they misinterpreted the teachings of Islam.

They have forgotten the shared past and the unbreakable trust which still remains among the different communities of the Mithila region. Neither historical records nor the present situation justifies such misinterpretations. Nevertheless, terror has expanded. It has to be ended and terrorists have to be reformed (those who are willing to be) or wiped out.

There is no reason for us to treat them with kid gloves. India has been suffering greatly from terrorism, although it was only after 9/11 that the world acknowledged India’s pain. India has the capacity to fight terrorism and its determination to do so is unshakable. Nothing could be as helpful at this stage as effective security cooperation between India and Nepal.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on October06,2013)

Aboard the Madras Express

Book Review: Non-fiction/ Degree Coffee by the YARD by Nirmala Lakshman, Aleph, 158p; Rs295 (Hardback)Nirmala Lakshman thinks Chennai of olden days can be better understood through its culture, language and heritage rather than politics and history...
The memory of a political class could have its own distinctive merits as well as flaws, but they do immeasurable harm when they start tampering with historical facts. For example, the city of Madras was founded by the Brits, almost four centuries back in 1644 when the Fort St George was built by the British East India company—but in a sudden stroke, its name was indigenised, to Chennai. Nevertheless, the city retained its basic characteristics flowing with the time.

Nirmala Lakshman can say much about her city, which fortunately in her descriptions is still Madras, but in Degree Coffee By The Yard, she has chosen to present a short biography instead. Her sense of history is immaculate and undisputable, as it is hindered by no barrier of ideologies and shows no alignment with specific camps within historical debates.

She gives the readers an outline, and in patches descriptions too, about how the city, established by the British, rose to become a site of powerful nationalistic movements. Lakshman also charts the later phases, describing the glory of this city in independent India, despite its formidable distance from the seat of power, Delhi.

This was not a mean feat, because identity politics of any kind, too, had to thrive on the Centre’s ‘assistance’ — and on different occasions it became evident, especially in post-reform eras, when the politics had been in the grip of sinister business interests than issues on ground. Although it was and still persists as a universal phenomenon, Madras, as a hub of shadowy politics, is neither unique, nor too typical.

The city has a quaint vigour, charming characteristics and the people live with them, as Lakshman reminds us about the little intricacies that make Madras different from other Indian metros. Lakshman, a senior journalist herself, has, over the years, strengthened The Hindu Group of Publications—so, directly or indirectly, she has made the city’s biggest and strongest brand more popular and inclusive.

Lakshman’s accounts of her family and their standard publication interests — spanning RK Narayan, literature, authors and books, over dosa and coffee — give a sublime quality to her narration of the city. While looking back on bygone Madras days, she appears more a preserver of heartwarming, conventional practices rather a conservative harping on tradition at all costs.

Of course, she admits the essentiality of change and sees the partial Western cultural invasion into modern day Chennai, with ease. With the world fast turning, old things are making peace with the fact that now their existence would probably be confined to being items in a curio shop or the museums of memory, stacked neatly, although, often falling out of people’s minds.

Still, some incorrigible inheritors will not cease to intertwine old symbols with life style. As a brief history (but of course not as semi-history) of the city, the book chooses to not dwell at length with the state’s parochial politics, where the culture of succession is an accepted reality now. Cinema, too, has not given extensive coverage, probably to not enter the usual discussion on its unhygienic nexus with Tamil politics.

The book, consciously, has a leaning for music and public life. That places it closer to ‘people’s history’ rather than resembling with an official charter on Madras. The readers would be delight in reading Lakshman’s personal views on her city, who helps them recall a Madras minus the clear and present fears of political vandalism or the atrocious dictates of Shiv Sena’s Tamil counterparts.

Probably, this reflects the differing temperament of the two mega Indian cities. Whereas, recalling Bomaby is taboo, Madras can be still used synonymously with its present name, Chennai. Lakshman believes, Madras can be known better through its culture, language and heritage rather than with politics and history.

Thus, she dwells on the caste and language movements in the state with the prism of the city’s softer attributes, rather than any rigid polemic. Understanding any part of India requires flexibility and informed inquiry to decipher some of its qualities or lacunas. Lakshman, a visionary and veteran journalist at The Hindu, has distilled that gist with perfection for this book. It reads well, both as a precise work of history and a short memoir of a city, about which most of us need to know more.
Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on September15,2013)

All gore for the crown

Book Review: Non-fiction/ The Bloodstained Throne by Baburam Acharya, Penguin, 266p; Rs299 (Paperback)
Baburam Acharya sheds light on the inglorious power struggles within Nepal’s bloody royal history.

Nepal has an eventful past, but sadly its culture of historiography isn’t that strong. Few historians from the land, which has on occasions, seen both war and peace between the royalty and half-baked democracy, have documented the changing times. Baburam Acharya was an exception among the Nepalese scholars, who had shown great leaning for historical writing, without ever fearing the wrath of ruling kings of his time.

The Bloodstained Throne is the English translation of Baburam Acharya’s seminal work in Nepali—Aba Yasto Kahilyai Nahos. The translation has been done by his grandson, Madhav Acharya, a well-known journalist. Moreover, Baburam’s son Shreekrishna Acharya has done justice with the book, as its editor, preserving the facts, while moulding the book for new era readers.

The book covers a very disturbed timeframe of 1775-1914, when the ruling Shah dynasty confronted both the internal and external oppositions against its rule. A fragile kingship and corrupt feudal structure allowed the despotic Rana regime to come to fore, plunging the throne to a new low.

All 11 chapters of the book dwell with the gloomy time of Nepal’s royal rule, recalling major conspiracies, murders and court politics. The violent eras were preceded by Prithvi Narayan Shah’s effort to unite Nepal into a single entity, even though there was hardly any connect with that principled vision. The time to come was rather driven by the court conspiracies, massacre and assassinations — violence in tune with the disenchantment with royalty.

From Pratap Singh Shah to Dev Shamsher, there was not a trace of hope. Nepal has been living under the ‘factional challenges’— the royal massacre of 2001, the beginning of civil war to ongoing democratic blunders in the country, which have largely stemmed from the same complexes. Prithvi Narayan Shah died early, causing a young nation to fall from the track of consolidation and development.

As an articulate historian, Acharya had rightly chosen not to write a fictional history of the nation. The book gives rich details of Chinese incursion into Nepal’s territory during the rule of Bahadur Shah—and the decisive role played by the Malla kings and Gorkhali Empire. Bhimsen Thapa’s real character is revealed, contrary to his popular nationalistic image.

The death of Pratap Singh Shah and emergence of Rajendra Laxmi as the new power centre had allowed Thapa to pursue his wrongful ambitions. The shadowy nexus left a deep scar on nation’s prospects. From there, started the Rana’s adventurism with the throne—Rana Bahadur was made the Prime Minister and he met his end in court, while pronouncing the punishments targeted at courtiers.

Rule of Jung Bahadur was bloodier. The brutal Kot Massacre was the height of his cruelty. If the Shah had drawn the middle name ‘Vikram’ from India’s Parmar dynasty, the surname ‘Rana’ came as sign of newfound clout for the ‘Kunwars’. The nomenclature had wider symbolic values.

The Rana rule continued in Nepal for almost 100 years and they made the Shah dynasty a puppet during those painful decades. Nepal remained a hub of ignorant and greedy feudals. Between the senseless war between the Shahs and Ranas for power, Nepal remained sandwiched with all bad turnouts.

The book opens up many hidden facets from Nepal’s royal history, but there are no detailed narratives on the people or their suffering. Acharya had sensed the aristocratic pulse of those eras and streamlined his research towards the same. It was a better idea to focus on decisive factors, whose sources were available. The diversification would have made the project superfluous, especially because of the severe limitation of reliable information.

The Bloodstained Throne is a pathbreaking addition to Nepal’s politics and history. It would redefine the perception on the established institutions and symbols, bring in sharp clarity.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on October06,2013)

Delhi by Heart

Book Review: Non-fiction/ Delhi by heart by Raza Rumi, Harper Collins, 322p; Rs399 (Paperback)

As Raza is Rumi, so ploy of narrower gratifications should normally evade his identity. Surprisingly (for conformity between author and editor), the cover of Delhi by heart presents this most impartial and genuine self-narration on the city Delhi as—‘Impressions of a Pakistani Traveler’. In actual, the author was never alien to this city—as like many of us, he too could see beyond the boundary without falling in guise of extreme limiting factors—such as nationality and uncomfortable equations among the two nieghbouring nations.

Like insiders of this city, his comfort level is more competent with the old parts of Delhi than its shining hotels and sprawling urban extensions, which tirelessly ostracize wisdom and release endless hallucination of modernism. Clearly, this can’t be confronted by wimps—praying to be separated from the load of past and oddness of present.

Still there is no dearth of alibis from the people and machinery that make the old urban structures, marginalised and dying slow death. Sadly, the pattern of certain kind of living too diminishes with the demise of symbols. Delhi is catching up that pattern blindly—so it’s naturally justified, if majority of its residents know Chirag Delhi by a nearby over-bridge than for its historic significance.

The days are not far when Nizamuddin Dargah would be better known as a landmark to reach Hotel Oberoi—and Kutub Minaar as picnic spot for absentee landlord type scholars from western part of the earth, living in the farmhouses of M.G.Road. This road ends Delhi, hence civilisation and brings Gurgaon—an anti-thesis of former. This book has no taste to travail any uncivilized roads.

Raza’s leaning with the northern India, as he confesses in writing—grown-up by listening the pre-partition stories from elders at home. That part of the land was once his home—he got that sense and also pain for not being able to see it freely. This happened with so many people, we have various accounts on that but those were from earlier generation. Author leads the debate here, as he represents those who didn’t see the trauma of partition though felt its darkness even after decades.

As he shares, his first visit took place to see his forefathers’ land—and in the course of the time, his bond of sharing developed with fellow Indian students in LSE during University days and later working in Multilateral Agencies, being part of Pakistan’s elite Civil Services.

Years back, he moved from the service to become primarily a writer, with free pen and conscience. That made him writing this meticulously researched and well involved book on Delhi—a city that was in want of authentic looking back on its fading edifices and cultural tradition.

As a columnist too, Raza has been writing about Delhi, its people, who are his friends. And on different side—he is the person, whose writing infuse hope from Pakistan. He can speak of his mind, for making the ills obvious, and thus less harmful. However, the establishment running Pakistan like a half-baked democracy has no intention to stop its slumbering for listening rational commentaries.

Raza likes Delhi—and this city reciprocates with him in same warm way. This book marks it better than any other additional attribute. He has remembered his Delhiwaala and they are reading this book and loving it. Even in conservative estimation, I see this book reaching in ‘essential reading list’ on Delhi. This solely based on the authenticity, the book upholds.

Delhi’s eternal characteristics defies partitioning views—so compilation of its good and bad can be sensibly done only by those not pursuing many goals at a time. That stands opposite with most of the historians, claiming to have expertise on this restless city. Raza Rumi’s Delhi by heart is an important addition to the literatures on Delhi and for delinking the concentration of history writing from royalty to people. In either or both ways—the book will command a wide readership, from across the sections.

If travelling can enrich entitlement with the places—its articulation could make history, simple to be remembered. We can believe it, if not overlooking a remarkable book like this one.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kashmir Walla on October23,2013)