Welcome to my blog. I may write copy here that I would not present elsewhere. This blog allows me to comment while reporting for clients which can include subscription-only platforms. I use it to take a sideways look at running stories, and all views presented here are my own.

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Saturday, 12 March 2011

I give in; only one subject dominates in South Asia now

Seeing as everyone I know wants to watch the cricket, (even one of the BJP leaders, Arun Jaitley, has been lending a comment to radio) I have little option but to post this from M.J.Akbar for cricket fans everywhere

Stars and Style
M.J. Akbar

Style is the yeast of leadership. The league rounds of this World Cup Cricket are not designed to offer much by way of excitement since it would require too much stupidity on the part of the Biggies not to qualify for the knockout stage, which is when the mercury will start rising. England, possibly in honour of its long sporting tradition, is trying very hard to fail, but I suspect that it might very well fail to fail. I hope Bangladesh marches into the quarter-finals, precisely because it is the very opposite of England: its spirit is greater than its ability, unlike England, which brought along quality to the Cup but mislaid its spirit somewhere on the flight to the subcontinent.

The one fascinating aspect of this tournament so far is the difference in the management style of its captains. The test of a captain lies, obviously, in adversity, and Bangladesh’s Shakib al Hasan is blessed with the courage of self-belief. He could have fallen into that worst of all traps, sulking self-pity, when angry fans broke his windowpanes after his team’s pathetic loss to the West Indies. Instead, he picked himself and the team up, and led them to a famous victory against England. It does not actually matter now whether he goes into the next round. He has restored his nation’s pride. Bengali fans are right. They do not expect Bangladesh to win the Cup, but they will not tolerate a team that betrays its honour.

The surprise is Shahid Afridi, who could easily join Pakistan’s Foreign Service after this swansong. The man who has tweaked a ball or two in his time, has flowered into a diplomat. He soothed ruffled feathers after defeat against New Zealand through a brilliant strategic pincer movement: he invited the huge Pakistani media contingent for dinner with the players. Mollifying the messenger is the best treatment for the ache of bad news. Afridi is clearly aware that contemporary Pakistan has only two powerful institutions, the Army and the media. The Army has only cursory interest in cricket during wartime, so an alliance with the media is sufficient for crisis control. Pakistan remains the contrarian’s favourite; and if Afridi can handle his temperamental eleven with the kind of aplomb he has shown off the field, then watch out for the Greens. Predictably Pakistan’s erratic, slippery-fingers wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal has induced the best joke so far: “What is Akmal’s favourite pick-up line? Can I drop you anywhere?”

In contrast, Mahendra Dhoni is so laidback he could have been training in a sauna. Dhoni is proponent of the Yawn School of Business. When asked why India had made such heavy weather of defeating less-than-ordinary sides like Holland, he replied with a verbal shrug. India was winning, wasn’t it, and that was good enough for him. Well, he might lose when there is no second chance left. It may not be much of a problem for him personally, since the advertisement deals are done, cheques are in the bank, and he probably thinks that the Great Indian Public is fickle in its affections anyway. Somebody should tell him that the symbol of India is the elephant, and while the elephant treads with a light step, it also has a long memory.

The captain who really knew how to lie on his back was the incomparable Viv Richards, but he had a few advantages over Dhoni. He was a genius with the bat. He was fearless [he disdained a helmet, trusting his eye and instinct instead]. And he had a set of bowlers who could break your hand when you were looking and crack your head when you took your eye off the ball. Dhoni has fashioned half a team for this tournament, just a set of brilliant batsmen, on the assumption that opponents will get themselves out. We shall see what we shall see.

The finest gentleman ever to captain England was surely Colin Cowdrey. In his last match as captain Cowdrey walked to the pitch for the toss, dressed in immaculate whites. And waited. Richards sauntered up twenty minutes late, wearing a T shirt and bandana in more colours than a rainbow would dare to advertise. The coin was tossed. Richards won. Richards looked at the prim and proper Cowdrey and asked the Englishman what he wanted to do, rather than exercising his right of decision. Once Cowdrey had recovered, he said England would like to bat. Okay maan, said Richards, you bat.

The West Indies won that Test match by ten wickets. That is why it was Cowdrey’s last match. And that is why few lovers of cricket can remember Cowdrey, and no one has forgotten Vivian Richards.

Style is an art, particularly if it can be complemented with swagger. But style is not a substitute for substance.

Friday, 11 March 2011

P.Sainath- again. He has been covering poverty for 30 years.

His latest piece for The Hindu, called Gates, Buffet and the Art of Giving

The latest Forbes billionaires list is out. A mere 10 per cent return on the wealth of Indians in it would cover Health, Higher Education, MGNREGS and Handloom budgets for years and years.

Some suggestions for Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who plan to visit India and encourage philanthropy amongst India's super-rich.

Dear Bill & Warren,

Delighted to learn that you plan to tour India, among other countries, to inspire and ‘grow' the practice of ‘giving' among our super-rich. Indeed, to have them follow in your charitable footsteps and part with vast sums of their wealth as you have, for a good cause. This does get to be a bit of a problem with those for whom charity begins at home and stays there. And for a corporate world which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concedes, (much like your own corporate world) suffers from a perceived ‘ethical deficit.' On the bright side, Dr. Singh's government also generously concedes billions of dollars in freebies each year to the ethically-challenged, doubtless to bridge that deficit. Close to $20 billion in corporate income tax write-offs in this year's budget alone. This offers your campaign a vantage point, surely. No need to ‘give-till-it-hurts' here. All that's been done with public revenue. Now they can give without hurting.

Moreover, your pal Steve Forbes has just brought out his new list which, taken together with our budget, lends powerful ammo to your proselytisation project. Stevie's list tells us India's billionaires have done us proud again. There are now 55 of them. That's more than last year despite a few unfortunate dropouts — Shahid Balwa of DB Realty among them — who have plunged into the misery of barren multi-millionairehood. And while China may have posted a list of 115 billionaires, theirs are mainly Little Leaguers, with an average net asset worth of no more than $2.5 billion. Way below our own $4.5 billion average. (It was over $6 billion in 2008, till those twits on Wall Street blew it). That places us above — and China below — the $3.7 billion global average net asset worth of these super-rich. And there is also our obvious moral superiority over the Russians who keep sending their billionaires (101 of them) to prison. We send ours to Parliament. And while China and Russia might have sneaked ahead of us on the numbers, we've knocked those Germans off their perch (52).

I'm eager to help with the planning of your trip. Let's start with the pre-visit homework. There are now 1,210 dollar billionaires on the planet, the Forbes list tells us. We don't believe this for a moment, though we agree it's a fun exercise to undertake each year. Our own number has to be much higher. But concealed income in India is so huge that it, firstly, denies a number of our billionaires due global recognition. Secondly, it leads to their being grossly undervalued. Anyway, 14 of those Indians whose wealth can be established in the 10-digit range occupy slots within the top 15 per cent of those 1,210 super-rich. The top seven of these make it within the first 100 of the Forbes list. And two — Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal — make it to the list of the 10 richest men in the world. True, unlike both of you, swanking around at ranks two and three, they languish lower down at ranks six and nine. But we do have the policy structures in place to remedy that in a while.

The net asset worth of our boys (and three girls) is around $246.5 billion (Rs. 11,13,750 crore). This, of course, does not include unaccounted income, or stuff stashed away from public gaze. But even on this modest sum of wealth, let's assume they earn an equally modest annual return of 10 per cent. (Now we know that for the super-rich, anything less than 30 per cent's a joke, but let's just assume 10? At least as the part they will be persuaded to give away, by both of you.) Then you might want to glance at these humble calculations before you make it here to inspire ‘giving' among the Indian super-rich.

A return of 10 per cent on the declared wealth of Indian billionaires comes to over $24 billion (Rs. 1,11,375 crore). Let's recall for a moment that 836 million Indians live on a daily expenditure of less than 50 cents (Rs.20 or even much less). We might have clocked in fourth on the billionaire stakes, but in the share of poor people, those in hunger, those getting the lowest number of calories, fastest rising food prices — we're up there at the top of the world.

Well, the modest interest amount of $24 billion would easily cover the annual consumption expenditure of 150 million poor Indians. If the return on wealth was actually 20-30 per cent, then the numbers whose consumption could be taken care of each year would be twice or thrice as many.

Take our health budget — now around $6 billion (Rs.26, 897 crore) after Finance Minister Pranabda hiked it by 20 per cent over last year. That 10 per cent return on the wealth of the dollar billionaires — let's call them DB for short, a now familiar acronym that's almost a household word here — would cover that budget for four years at least. Or the health and higher education ($4.8 billion) budgets together for two years. On a return of just 10 per cent, that's a bargain. The more so when you consider that health and higher education budgets together are just a little more than half the nearly $20 billion (Rs. 88,263 crore) Pranabda is writing off in corporate income tax, apart from other freebies for struggling billionaires.

Now that $20 billion would run our Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme at present levels ($ 8.8 billion) for at least two years. But Pranabda probably realised, shrewdly, that a 10 per cent return on the wealth of the richest would provide over $24 billion — and provide that each year. Which means all three — health, higher education and rural employment programmes — could be run for many, many years (assuming the banks stay afloat). And there would a bit left over for covering budget allocations for sectors like Handlooms. Somewhere between five and ten million families with perhaps the finest weaving skills in the world, have to depend on a fraction of the $95 million (Rs. 431.61 crore) given to the handlooms sector in the present budget. Who knows we might even be able to cover the whole central Textile budget, a piffling $1.2 billion or Rs. 5,855.75 crore. (Come to think of it, the total value of our Flying Fifty Five at $246.5 billion is just a little short of the total expenditure proposed in our Central budget at $278 billion. But let's not go there just now).

Pranabda also probably knew that the two of you were coming down to persuade our guys to part with a fraction of their wealth for noble purposes. He's a wise man, our Finance Minister. I think he's also figured that if he could get 10 per cent of the interest on the funds the Indian super-rich have stashed away overseas, we could probably bridge our deficit as well. So he's thinking of offering them an amnesty on their little fiddles. That way we could access those funds painlessly. I can't help thinking you ought to meet Pranabda too, when you visit. Like both of you, he believes in persuasion and his skills in that direction are unique. He's working hard to ensure that the men you will persuade to ‘give,' accumulate more each year and thus have more to give. After all, more giving leads to more giving. He's also thoughtfully creating more hungry people they can help.

Looking forward to your visit and a year of giving.


Saturday, 5 March 2011

M.J.Akbar's comments on the week past

One of Akbar's stronger recent pieces, but at the end of the day, what difference does it make? Who takes notice or cares? Rani

Byline for 6th March 2011

I regret to inform you...

M.J. Akbar

Friday the Fourth of March should be declared the International Day of Regret by the United Nations. Regrets flooded Saturday's newspapers, in stories from east to west; it came in many forms, from eyes-lowered-acknowledgment to muted-murmured-sorry to the antithetical no-regret accompanied by a brash to-hell-with-you.

The most creative instance was surely that of Bangladesh cricket fans: they did not quite rue stoning the West Indies team bus after their side was hammered into oblivion; they merely regretted the fact that they had got the wrong bus. What they wanted was to throw some accurately-aimed stones at their own players. They atoned for their mistake by breaking window panes of their captain Shakib al Hasan's home. That should put Hasan in a good frame of mind for the next match. To be fair, Bengalis don't mind defeat; they just can't take humiliation, whether in Dhaka or at Kolkata's Eden Gardens.

The most ingenious example was from the London School of Economics, which had, in its infinite wisdom, awarded a doctorate to surely the most intellectual thug of the 21st century, Saif al-Islam, the second son of Muammar Gaddafi, in 2008. Saif's supervisors detected neither irony nor plagiarism in the Saif thesis on "The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from 'soft power' to collective decision-making?" Don't miss the deliciously academic question mark at the end. The director of LSE, Howard Davies, has resigned, but can probably expect to head the Saif Conglomerate of Universities for Economics and Mercenary Operations just as soon as Saif has reconquered Libya. It was, but naturally, a complete accident that LSE got a 1.5 million pound donation from Saif's dad soon after the doctorate, since British institutions can never be accused of corruption. London must be full of people nostalgic for the old days: this was exactly how it happened during those good old days of the Raj, when the British gave a gong to natives and took the jewels in return. The natives, however, have got cleverer. Saif actually gave only 300,000 pounds of the promised 1.5 million. He must have learnt something about economics at LSE. Regret, though, is not in his DNA; his father Muammar has at various times imagined himself as either the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of India, but is really a French Bourbons who, famously, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.

But the real market for regrets has surely opened in India. There is explicit or implicit regret wherever you look. The disgraced Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas must be seething with them; if he had quit in the first week of December he would have lost his job but not his grace. That is not a bad trade-off. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still has the quality to dignify regret, which is why his acknowledgement of responsibility for Thomas' appointment received such a civil response from the BJP leader of the Lok Sabha Opposition, Ms Sushma Swaraj. But Dr Singh has not revealed what he truly regrets: that his leadership is under question today because he has been misled by his own side. He signed off on the decision, but the choice was not his. He would not have dismissed Ms Swaraj's objections as politics if his own civil servants had briefed him better.

Two points arise. First, is regret sufficient? In the case of Thomas, yes, since the CVC has not done anything to besmirch the CVC's office. The real problem before the Prime Minister is that the list of things he should regret during the tenure of the UPA2 government is slicing off its credibility, day by day, both in sequence and consequence. What he should truly regret is that a man like Hasan Ali Khan, fingered by Indian police for stashing away 8 billion dollars in Swiss and other banks on behalf of an elite bunch of crooks, is still breathing free air. Khan has the mysterious ability to fall ill whenever the police want to question him; and the police have the even more mysterious desire to accept Khan's word for it. Khan used this excuse again about an hour of his latest meeting with the Enforcement Directorate, and the very solicitous police officers agreed. There is something deeply rotten in the system.

The saddest non-regret is surely from those leaders of Pakistan who have chosen silence as their response to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the Cabinet, killed for his views on the blasphemy laws. According to Ahmed Rashid, the doyen of Pakistani commentators, army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani refused to condemn the killing of Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab, for similar reasons, because there were too many soldiers under his command who sympathised with the assassins.

That is the transition of regret to fear; how long before fear mutates into dread?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

BBC News Channel; the assassination of Pakistan's only Christian minister

The carefully planned assassination of Pakistan's cabinet minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, by three gunmen waiting for him as he left his mother's house yesterday managed to find a place in the news bulletins despite events in Libya. The Pakistani Taliban left leaflets at the site of the murder. I was able to squeeze in a studio appearance during an evening's break in my current major project and turn my attention to the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan which has ramifications for the region.

MP Sherry Rahman, the only other politician to publicly back reform of the draconian blasphemy laws and call for the death penalty to be removed has now gone into hiding. She has stated that she is receiving death threats every half hour.

One of my excellent former interviewees, human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, whom I last spoke with a week or so ago, courageously continues her work. What will happen to the liberal, moderate voice of intellectual Pakistan in the face of the rise of the hard right religious extremists?