IIPM Admission

Friday, March 29, 2013

While the Western press remained as clueless as Alice in Wonderland, Hugo Chavez posted a spirited win against the combined opposition

If someone had been following the events in Venezuela in the run-up to the elections through the Western press, he or she might have expected a different result than what came out this Sunday. The Western press had already read the epitaph on President Chavez and were, for all practical purposes, ready to usher in Henrique Capriles Radonski as the next president. The reality was off the mark and substantially so.

Incumbent Hugo Chavez was re-elected Venezuelan president for 2013-2019, trouncing his younger conservative rival Capriles for the Roundtable of Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD). The election marks Chavez's third term in office under the amended 1999 constitution and is his fourth election as president since 1998. In fact, with this, he has won 12 victories in all, including the parliamentary elections as well as a recall referendum.

With almost all the votes totalled, Chavez bagged 55.11 per cent of the popular vote against Capriles’ 44.27 per cent, a lead of 11 per cent. The Latin American firebrand also won a majority in 22 of Venezuela’s 24 provinces, including the capital territory of Caracas. He won with 0.5 per cent margin in the province of Miranda, which is governed by opposition candidate Capriles. The opposition took the two Andean provinces of Merida and Tachira. Chavez also won in Zulia and Carabobo provinces currently held by opposition governors.

While it was expected, based on some documents and evidence that came out through sting operations and investigative journalism, that the opposition would try to discredit the election, Capriles was quick to accept the verdict and congratulate the incumbent. International election observers and independent experts, including former US President Jimmy Carter, have gone on record to suggest that the electoral system in place in Venezuela is fool-proof and impossible to rig and is probably one of the best in the world.

Following the elections, the UNASUR election observer team congratulated the Venezuelan election commmission for the free and fair polls. “Venezuela has given an exemplary demonstration of what the functioning of democracy is and has taught a lesson to the world, and this is important,” the Argentine observer team head Carlos Alvarez was reported as saying.

However, in the run-up to the elections, this fact did not stop the Western press from going on a wild goose chase. Now since the voting machines are hi-tech and impossible to sabotage, the press gave it a curious spin by saying that “since it was hi-tech, Capriles' voters are fearful that their fingerprints might be used for retribution against them.” In fact, the reporting on the Venezuelan election will go down as one of the most biased in recent history, even more so than the Iranian or Russian ones. While the exit polls across the board clearly showed a lead in the range of 10-14 per cent for Chavez, reports in the Western press suggested his imminent fall. Headlines like “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant” (NYT), “President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator” (NWR), “Hugo Chávez: A Strongman's Last Stand” (The Guardian) and “The End of Chavez?” (The New Yorker) indicate the level of biased reporting the Western press resorted to.

“Luckily both the candidates shared a pleasant telephone conversation in which Chavez invited Capriles and the opposition 'to respect our differences,' while Capriles urged Chavez to promote national unity and 'respect for all'. This reflects the maturing of the electoral process,” asserts Ewan Robertson, a political analyst with Venezuela Analysis.

However, there is a visible reduction in the margin of victory for Chavez. That can be attributed to several factors. To start with, this election was more polarised than any of the elections in the last decade and a half. The opposition coalition consisted of 30 political parties and outfits ranging from Left to Right with opposition of Chavez the only common goal. There were four candidates other than Chavez and Capriles but they were so irrelevant that none managed to win even 0.5 per cent of the vote. The third place went to Reina Sequera with 0.47 per cent votes.

Another factor in this election was the media campaign targeted against Chavez. Contrary to popular belief, more than 70 per cent of all the active media outlets in Venezuela are privately owned. And a majority of them are controlled by elites who are virulently against Chavez and his socialist brand of politics. For example, one of the biggest groups is owned by a Cuban in exile based in Miami. No prizes for guessing who he will be rooting for. Also, unlike the previous elections, a remarkable synergy developed between these media outlets and those from the West, creating an atmosphere of doubt where many started believing that Chavez might not return.

The anti-incumbency factor also set in. A large section of voters believed in the old adage that nobody should rule thrice. Plus, there is genuine concern about corruption and lethargic bureaucracy as well. “There indeed is some discontent with the bureaucracy and corruption within the ranks of the ruling coalition as well as other government departments. Also, the government has not performed satisfactorily on the issue of revamping the justice system and rein in crime. These things affect all the voters and has played its part in the elections,” explains Tamara Pearson, an analyst with Venezuela Analysis.

Although the victory for Chavez is complete and overwhelming, his task is clearly cut out. His coalition will have to gear up for the upcoming elections for the National Assembly. The opposition, emboldened by the show, will not disintegrate on the face of defeat as they would have had their tally been less. The margin of victory in provinces like Amazonas, Anzoategui, Bolivar, Carabobo, Lara, Nueva Esparta and Zulia, is slender and the opposition might spring a surprise there. Chavez would want to reinforce these areas.. His recent speeches suggest that he acknowledges the shortcomings and is ready to make amends.

But for the next six years, Chavez is going to stay and push his revolution deeper. And that will definitely not go down well with several capital cities in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Foreign investment in the retail sector will be actually beneficial for it in many ways

Perceptions about the government’s decision to permit 51 per cent FDI in the retail sector have triggered a major controversy. Not only have the opposition parties gone all out to thwart the move, but allies to have backed out of the government over the issue, leading to an impending risk of the government collapsing. Why does FDI in retail prove to be so controversial? Today, the small shopkeeper prices staple food items and household products so arbitrarily that two different consumers may pay different prices for the same product on the same day. However the entry of big retailers into the market will ensure such malpractices cease through standardisation of prices.

While the unorganised sector of traditional retailers, which comprises 92 per cent of the retail market, has apprehensions over FDI, the organised sector of modern retailers which represents the other 8 per cent of the market is open to the idea but with some reservations. Traditional retailers are against FDI in multi-brand retail because they think it could drastically displace them from the market space with customers getting attracted to the retail giants through offers of lower prices.

On the other hand, modern retailers largely favour FDI as they believe it could create healthy competition, offer wider consumer choices and compel infrastructure development. Moreover, modern retailers do not feel threatened – given the enormous size of the Indian market, estimated at US $ 450 billion – because they feel that there is sufficient space for them to co-exist along with the new entrants in the field.

Also, the retail giants are unlikely to pose a threat to the 15 million small, independent grocery and retail shops, scattered across the country that comprise the traditional retail sector who would be able to continue to attract their loyal clientele. Given the size and diversity of the demographic profile across the country in terms of age, education and income, this is a reality.

For instance, a construction worker from a rural area would not feel comfortable shopping at an air-conditioned mall while a young urban professional would prefer doing so. Moreover, the young professional would be an extremely brand conscious consumer which a small store would be unable to provide for. Another aspect pertains to personalised services in terms of credit and home delivery and proximity to home – which the small shop owner offers his customers.

Undoubtedly traditional retailers would have to innovate and improvise their store strategies to cope with the entry of large format retailers. Considering that customer segments for unorganised and organised retail sectors are different, it is unlikely that traditional retailers would face the threat of displacement from FDI.

Among the many misconceptions, it is little known that the retail giants will only be allowed to establish a presence in population centers over one million, which is synonymous with urban areas. To that extent, rural India is not the target demographic for the retail giants. This would give the foreign retail majors access to 53 towns/cities in the country according to the Commerce Ministry. Moreover, these retail majors would have to source 30 per cent of their requirements from either manufactures or process units in the small and medium enterprisesaccording to one of the conditions specified for them.

For global retailers who suffer from low growth in the West due to poor consumer demand, India offers a maturing market for them to boost their top line and profitability. Some global retailers who now operate in the country with the Cash and Carry (wholesale) format have not been able to make the desired dent into the retail sector. The lack of supply chain and logistics infrastructure, government regulations, absence of coordination with small and medium scale processing units related to commodities; prove to be a stumbling block. Otherwise, some big retailers have plans to start their Cash and Carry businesses to primarily establish a market presence and create brand awareness for themselves in the country.

Today the retail sector as a major pillar of the economy, accounting for 15 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, or US $ 450 billion. The sheer size of the country’s population – 1.2 billion people – puts India among the top five retail markets globally. Also, the fact that retailers are unhappy with the existing supply chain infrastructure which only FDI in retail can facilitate through capital investments only strengthens the argument to implement such a revolutionary economic policy.  


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Haroon Reshi courses around the floating market on Dal Lake and finds the commerce inconspicuous next to the spectacle...

Shaban Wani (64) wakes up at 3 AM every morning; he loads his small wooden boat with fresh vegetables cultivated in his floating garden (called Radh in the native language) at Dal Lake, and at 4 AM, paddles his vegetables-laden boat towards the floating market in the middle of the Lake for sale purposes. That is how Wani has been earning his livelihood for the past 50 years.

Wani, however, is not the only one making a living off the floating market – a one-of-its-kind market in India and only the third in the world after the famous ones in Vietnam (Mekong River) and Bangkok.

This market cluttered with rowing boats is at its best in the mornings, the air fragrant with freshly harvested vegetables, fruits and fish, not to mention the picturesque Valley scenery under the morning sun. The market stays from 5 AM to 7 AM; the leftover fruits and vegetables are then sent to the city’s terra firma street markets.

While serious buyers show up in droves, locals and tourists also flock to the floating market to take in the colourful sights and sounds and to feel the invigorating morning breeze. Most folks residing in and around Dal Lake are affiliated with the tourism trade, but fishing and harvesting of water plants is also an important revenue source for many Dal dwellers.

More than ten thousand kanals (one kanal = 1/8th of an acre) of land is used for vegetable cultivation along the Lake. Vegetables like bottle gourd, ladyfinger, cucumber, pumpkin, cabbages, tomatoes, spinach, chilies, capsicums, potatoes, onions, melons, brinjals, radish and cauliflower make it then to the rowing wooden shops. The floating gardens are made on a base of roots of various grasses and weeds growing wild in the water.

Leaves and wild vegetation compost is spread over the base and it is then ready for the plantation of vegetables, fruits and flowers. There are many who plant only seasonal flowers and sell them to tourists. At the market, farmers and vendors not only sell their green vegetables against payment but also indulge in barter business.

“The vegetables, fruits, flowers and fish from Dal had a vast market in the entire Srinagar city when there was a canal called Nala Mar going through the middle of the city. The canal was filled by the government to be replaced with a road in the 70s,” Zarief Ahmed Zarief, a noted social activist, recalls. The waters of Nala Mar divided the city into two parts; apart from vegetables, vendors used to ferry things like construction material, timber, rice etc to the city over this canal.

For most tourists in the Valley, a visit to the floating market on Dal Lake is one other must-do apart from a stay in the houseboats. “It is a superb experience to see this market on pristine blue waters of the Lake. Its timing makes it more beautiful. One can also get to see many types of aquatic birds around. I had never known something like this in my life…. One gets to be really close with nature,” Rakesh Roy, a tourist from Mumbai, who had come to the market in a Shikara (water taxi), gushed to TSI.

It is said that the rowing market first attracted attention globally when a photographed feature of the market was published in Japan in 1960. Congress scion Rahul Gandhi had also made a sudden visit to the market, on a visit to the Valley in September, 2011. The Dal farmers and the vendors were surprised to see him amidst them. They used the opportunity to share their problems related to trade with Rahul Gandhi. “Rahul Ji patiently listened to us; he briefly stayed at the house of a farmer, and had Kashmiri Kahwa (green tea) too,” recalls Wani, who was also around when Rahul’s father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had come visiting in 1984.

Celebrities and dignitaries can be easily imagined to be humbled by the natural glamour of the Dal Lake, referred to as the ‘jewel in the crown of Kashmir’. Add that earthly touch lent by the quiet chaos of the floating market, and one can go Hami Asto all over again…

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chavez manipulates state resources shrewdly to get reelected; a review

After the victory of Hollande in France this year and with the rise of Putin in Russia, all eyes have turned to the US Presidential election due in November. However, for Latin America, it was the election in Venezuela that made news. On Sunday, October 7, Hugo Chavez was expectably reelected, defeating Henrique Capriles by nearly 1.3 million votes (a 11 per cent lead with 90 per cent votes counted) and has in the process gained another six years to press forward his crusade for socialism in Latin America.

This was Chavez’s toughest electoral battle since taking over office in 1999. Interestingly, early exit polls indicated that odds were in Capriles’ favour with a commanding 51-48 per cent lead. This is bound to raise suspicions over the fairness of the elections. The secretary-general of Capriles’ coalition portrayed it as “free, but not fair” elections. Well, he might not be too far off the mark. Chavez’s control over state resources and state media has deprived all opposition parties of a level playing field. Consider this: while Chavez could broadcast his speeches in all television channels for hours, for Capriles, the allowance was just three minutes per day!

Although Chavez is often criticised for not being able to rein in high crime rates, consolidating too much power and crushing the private sector, he has been able to reduce the level of poverty by spreading the nation’s oil wealth to the poor with public housing, healthcare and various other social programmes aimed at uplifting the poor. However, his reduced margin of victory as compared to previous elections, may prompt changes in government policies, particularly with regard to public security. Moreover, after heavy spending in the election campaign, the nation actually faces a growing pressure to devalue its currency. At the same time, Chavez’s victory means that PDVSA (Venezuela’s state oil company) will remain highly politicised and will continue to supply oil to socialist allies like Cuba, Belarus, Iran and Syria at discounted rates. In the past, Chavez has taken election wins as opportunities to bring in radical reforms; this time too we can expect reforms in the food, healthcare and banking sectors.

Interestingly, China has become a key source of funding for Venezuela with loans totalling $32 billion over the last few years; in return, Venezuela is sending 430,000 bpd of crude oil to China. Chavez aims to further boost these exports to one million bpd. However, diplomatic relations with Washington would continue to be sour. Hugo Chavez continues to be the flag bearer of ‘anti-imperialism’ and his regime is still marked with strong anti-American rhetoric. In consequence, he is likely to continue befriending the likes of Iran and Syria. And, if Romney wins in US in November, expect their diplomatic relations to deteriorate further.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Labelling welfare schemes with the "Garib" title is an ignominious act

Our political parties, which have a reputation of being fierce advocates for the poor people have some phony means in their vault to connect to them – branding them as garib! Political machines are stepped up to address the poor in an attempt for an instant connection with them using the catchword. The launching of schemes and programmes for the poor, more often than not, carries the tag of garib that the policy makers think that they will successfully keep the beneficiaries in their pocket.

One of the most bizarre forms of identifying the poor is designed at Dabhiya village of Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh, where the walls of the BPL families houses are painted with clear word – Main Garib Hoon (I am poor)! This has drawn stark criticism not only from families but also from activists and rights groups. The BPL families are seeing this calling a spade a spade by panchayats as stoking class wars and stirring humiliation. Another programme, Kanshiram Shahri Garib Awas Yojna – a housing scheme for the poor that came to an abrupt end with the change of guard. The programme had promised housing (corruption and ad hoc implementation notwithstanding) that was strengthened by 1 lakh beneficiaries in the first phase, followed by construction of 42,000 houses in the second and a targeted 42,484 house construction across 62 districts in Uttar Pradesh in the third phase. This programme was launched by the Mayawati government – and was scrapped by Akhilesh Yadav after the state election victory. Mayawati introduced another scheme called Mahamaya Garib Balika Ashirwad Yojana. Narendra Modi has also tried to cast a deep reflection of loyalty from the deprived section by introducing Garib Kalyan Melas with a commitment to build 16 lakh houses, which he claims has already been implemented. In a scathing attack on Congress, he asserted that while Congress for the past 40 years boondoggled with welfare schemes in Gujarat, he raced with the pro-poor schemes that benefited the deprived. And of course, why should we forget to mention the quintessential Garib Rath train introduced in 2005 by the then Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. The train was ostensibly introduced to provide air conditioned and elitist train travel to the 'garib' in the society.

Time and again our profligate politicians have used the reprobate catchphrase of garib to secure their loyalty showing few qualms about using it purely for political aims. But really, wasn't the adminstration supposed to ensure that rather than accepting poverty as a part of normal society and even brand positioning, the same should be wiped out? So what should we expect next? A day when poor people are advised to tattoo the garib nomenclature on their bodies as fashion statements?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An interview of Enrique Iglesias from The Sunday Indian!

Eight years after his last tour in India, Enrique Iglesias is back! As the Micromax Enrique Iglesias Tour with UTV Bindass prepares to explode with rhythms divine later this month, here’s a little prelude…

Enrique Iglesias
Enrique Iglesias
What can we expect from a live Enrique Iglesias tour this time around?
I am very excited to come to India again. Fans can definitely expect a lot of surprises and some great new production. I cannot give away any more information than that! You'll just have to come and see for yourself!

This will be the second time that you will be performing in India. What are you looking forward to the most?
I've been looking forward to this trip for years; I’ve been trying to come back for a while, and was only waiting for the right opportunity. Besides the show, I'm looking forward to the fans who are so amazing and enthusiastic, as well as the great food.

Who are your musical influences?
There are so many – I love Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Juan Luis Guerra, Billy Joel and Dire Straits. But the list is too long to name them all. I have 14,000 songs on my iPod. It’s too much. I’m going nuts going through it. I gotta start skimming it down.

What is the last song you played on your iPod?
Let me see… it was “Cooler than Me” (Mike Posner). I got anything from Juan Luis Guerra, Lionel Richie, to Kings of Leon and Hombres G. I can name a lot of people you wouldn’t know.

Which concert of yours has been the most memorable one?
There have been so many that it's hard for me to single out any one in particular. I can say that I love playing at Madison Square Garden and at Radio City Music Hall in NYC. There is just so much history there.

Considering that you'll be in India for a few days, is there any place in particular you'd like to visit, or things you'd want to take back as souvenirs?
I won't really have any time for sightseeing. The only ‘souvenir’ I care about is just knowing that the show went great and everyone left happy.

You were offered to judge American Idol and you passed it on. Was there any specific reason for it? Do you not believe in reality shows?
If the time was right, I would definitely have been honoured. I am a big fan of American Idol.

You have also done stints in movies like Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and have had special appearances on shows like How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men. Would you ever consider taking up acting seriously?
I am always open to all opportunities. Acting is a talent I respect very much, and am envious of those with such talents. I would definitely be open to give it a shot.

Can you tell us a little bit about your last album, Euphoria?
Euphoria was an amazing run for me. The world tour was ‘epic’ in a sense from my end, and I hope my fans enjoyed the shows as much as I did. I was also fortunate enough to collaborate with some amazing artists such as Pitbull, Juan Luis Guerra, Wisin and Yandel, Nicole Scherzinger, Lil Wayne, Lionel Richie, and others. It was a truly incredible experience.

How was it working with artists like Lionel Richie, Pitbull and others?
Oh it was super fun! I’ve worked with Lionel in the past as well. As for working with Pitbull, Pitbull and I grew up in the same town. We have a bunch of friends in common and his energy is off the roof. He’s like a freakin’ Energiser Bunny. He doesn’t stop!

What’s in the pipeline? Will we be seeing something new in the near future?
I'm currently in the studio recording. Fans can definitely expect a new album in 2013.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The survival strategy

Down and out for quite sometime now, the Indian equity broker community is again trying to hit the deck as bulls are in command for the last couple of weeks. But with investors being highly risk averse, the question remains, how will these brokers manage to find the mass that they need to survive? mona mehta tries to find out...

Unlike the period between 2004 and 2007, when the country's stock market was witnessing a massive boom and, any and everyone was more than ready to put every single penny of their savings in the stock market; investors are more defensive and risk averse now. Going by the trend witnessed over the past couple of years, investors seem more interested in instruments like insurance and fixed deposits than mutual funds, let alone equity investment. That certainly has threatened the bread and butter of many of the equity broking firms which mushroomed during the boom period. Survival is their basic problem now. Though the recent bullish market has created some hope, participation of huge number of investors is still a distant dream. Questions remain: What is the way out? What are the strategic moves that can help these firms stay afloat?

Answers, B Gopkumar, Head of Broking, Kotak Securities, “Broking is a cyclical business and the challenges in a bear market are many, the biggest one being to ensure that clients do not erode value of their portfolio." In order to live up to the task, his firm is now running programs to sharpen skills of their research team, dealers and the advisory board to steer the customer smoothly through a bearish market. He reveals, “In order to overcome challenges, we are focused on improving our research advisory and technology so it becomes easier for people to interact with us". This certainly is an essential requirement to boost confidence of existing customers as they are very selective and expect a good return on every penny invested.

In the meantime, some broking firms have moved on to a different level. They are busy conducting investor-education programs all over the country to educate investors on how to trade in volatile markets. The long term vision of course is to keep investors associated with the firm throughout the bad phase.

However, the most prominent approach followed by broking firms at this point of time is diversification of product offerings. Broking firms, which were dealing with only stocks once, are now trying their hands with a number of other investment instruments ranging from currencies to commodities to bullions and real estate.

More or less all firms who were dealing with "equity only", are now forced to offer multiple products from their stable. Take CARE Ratings for example. As informed by DR Dogra, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, CARE Ratings, informs, “The firm is now following the policy of diversifying our product mix to counter swings in the business cycle. In today’s environment where investment is low and debt markets are static, we have been developing and expanding our reach in other segments such as small and medium enterprises (SME) rating as well as various grading products such as those in real estate, education, equity markets and so on.” Pick up any broking firm and the approach is more or less the same currently.

But what about those, who decide not to diversify and continue in their domain of expertise – stocks? Well, experts believe that they would have to relate more to their clients and properly guide them through these times and enable them to take informed decisions. They have to get closer to the customer so as to build trust and have to work that much harder. Most importantly, if the broking firm is advising, they must ensure that the advice is perfect and will deliver results up front. They have to necessarily show the right direction in these challenging times. If they fail, investors will show them the door in no time.

According to Gopkumar, the real marketing challenge for broking firms at this point of time is to identify opportunities with limited downside but larger upside to the customers when the cycle turns. He comments, "In a bearish market, volumes tend to dip. Like cash volumes have dropped more than 40 per cent over the past year (till September), mutual funds are witnessing net sales, and the market was going nowhere for months. In such a situation, customers lose interest and focus on debt instruments." Thus, the "equity only" broking houses have to be on their toes just to survive.

Nevertheless, the best strategy to survive the situation is to diversify, especially into the bullion and foreign exchange trading, the biggest challengers of equity market at present. Says Kumar Ramchandran, CEO, Capital Markets Group, Concept Communication, “The biggest challenge in the marketing of financial products has been the way gold and silver have out performed in the last 24 months. They have left all other financial products behind." Similarly, owing to economic turmoil major global currencies are on slippery grounds witnessing great degree of movements, creating huge opportunities for investors and, of course, the brokers.

Many believe that product innovation can be another solution for brokers at this point of time. But is it really so? When investors are already risk averse and market conditions and outlook are uncertain, would they even want to experiment with some new product? Sounds tough. Keeping that in mind, perhaps the best possible strategy for the brokers at present is to sharpen their skills in their core domain and diversify to other areas, where they can promise assured returns to the investors to keep them interested.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Struck with Alzheimer's and living a catatonic existence, George Fernandes is a pale shadow of his fiery best. Ranjit Bhushan looks at the controversies that continue to dog the veteran Socialist in the twilight of his political career...

In a quiet house in south Delhi's Panchsheel Enclave, aptly christened Shanti Nivas, a piece of modern India lives on.

The nameplate at Shanti Nivas merely announces 'Leila Fernandes'. In the portico, a stationary mid-size steel gray Volkswagengives no indication of its owner, nor his hallowed background, which three decades or so ago, had rocked a smug Congress establishment like few things till then.

At closer scrutiny, it is the living abode of George Fernandes, former Union minister, rebel, maverick, a drop out, survivor, call it you may. Typically of the man, there is no ostentation or guards on duty outside the residence – not different from his tenure in two NDA governments between 1998 to 2004 when he became the first and only Union Defence Minister ever not to deploy official security at his official residence on central Delhi's Krishna Menon Marg.

By not doing so, he had paid a price. In2001, investigative journalists from Tehelka portal used this lacunae to slip into his official residence and meet Jaya Jaitly, Samata Party head and his close aide.

It was no ordinary meeting. Setting up a bogus London-based company selling thermal binoculars, the portal claimed to have filmed Jaitly and other leading lights, as being part of the deal making. In the outcry, George quit, although he was not accused of taking a bribe. Sadly for the veteran Socialist though, the Jaitly saga continues to dog him.

Back in the 1960s, when he galvanised Mumbai's trade unions and took on the might of Congress strongman SK Patil, no one gave him a chance. Yet he had come out fighting and carved out a niche in Mumbai's politics till then dominated by Congress and its Maratha satraps.

Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride for a man who can legitimately be placed in a select list of politicians who are truly pan-Indian. Born in Mangalore, employed in Mumbai, winning successive elections in Bihar and presiding over policy as Cabinet minister, George Fernandes or Gerry to his close circle, was always far removed from the straitjacketed andparochial Indian politician who rarely ventures out of his state.

In the caste-ridden Bihar politics of the 1970s, when the vote bank arithmetic centered around intensely local equations, the entry of George Fernandes, a south Indian Christian, on the state's scene was like a wisp of fresh air. Cutting across barriers, he registered a record breaking victory margin of 4.25 lakhs from the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha constituency in the 1977 post-Emergency General Elections.

The road leading up to that victory was no less dramatic. As a principal accused in the Baroda dynamite case, the picture of a bespectacled, curly haired man in chains, captured the imagination of an entireelectorate and became the symbol ofdefiance to Indira Gandhi's authoritarian ways and global news networks flashed it as their lead photo. After then, it became a question of cashing in on an anti-Congress sentiment and no one knew how to do it better than George.

Says Dr Harendra Kumar, his close friend from Muzaffarpur, "Nitish Kumar is a product of the George Fernandes school. It goes to the latter's credit that he goaded Nitish and his Samata Party into an alliance with the BJP ending years of Laloo raj in the state."

No surprise then that the Bihar Chief Minister's backyard Nalanda, became George's next stop after Muzaffarpur. He won the Nalanda seat twice, 1996 and 1998. Later came the fall out with Nitish but before the controversy could snow ball, the wily Bihar Chief Minister quickly nominated him to the Rajya Sabha.

As Union Minister in the Morarji Desai government, George raised a storm when he banned Coca Cola, in an act of defiance to multinational companies. The littlebackground to this ban is interesting. According to Harendra Kumar, when George after his historic first win came to the Muzaffarpur circuit house, he was offered a Coke by the then district magistrate. What followed took everyone by surprise. He launched a diatribe against multinationals and vowed to remove Cola from not just the state but the country itself! The rest is history.

George's political actions during his four-decade political journey have never been easy to predict – and that perhaps is his USP. When political brinkmanship and vaulting ambitions threatened to bring down the Morarji Desai government, George offered one of the most stoic defences of the Janta Party government – but later in the day, quite inexplicably, put in his papers.

Which is a bit like the checkered history of Socialists in India itself. Pretty much in the mold of a Ram Manohar Lohia, his two principal political opponents have been the Congress for its family rule – and it goes to George's credit that he one of the few politicians not accused of nepotism – and the Left which believes that Socialists like George actually scuppered India'sCommunist dream and worse, acted as Trojan Horses for a revivalist Hindu rightwing.

Even though George's stint as the Defence Minister was marked by the sacking of the country's Navy chief and the Kargil War, the then Chief of Army Staff General VP Malik, says, "He was a very open person and was always willing to go through the documents, even if lengthy. He was concerned about the welfare of men. It was proved by the number of visits he made to difficult forward areas. Siachen was one such destination."'

At Panchsheel Park, it is difficult to believe that its main resident has had such a hoary past. Out of the public eye and political networks, the once fiery orator has wife Leila Kabir and three attendants for company. Life is a tad staid: break fast at 9.00 am, lunch at 1.30 pm and dinner between 7.30 to 8.00 pm.

Controversies, it appears, are not willing to let go of him even in this catatonic stage. In August this year, Jaya Jaitly was allowed to meet George once every fortnight for 15 minutes by the Supreme Court following her plea. For George, it is probably ironic that a controversy of this nature has emerged at the end of his political career. Sadly, this is one dispute where his legendary oratory skills to persuade cannot be put to use.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The resignation of NCP’s Ajit Pawar as Maharashtra deputy CM has helped him and his powerful uncle derive more political mileage than their opponents could have bargained for, reports Chandran Iyer

The bombshell that Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar dropped recently by stepping down as Maharashtra deputy chief minister was, on hindsight, a smart move. Not only did the surprise political salvo fox everyone, it also helped him derive more mileage than anyone had bargained for.

The resignation drama did set tongues wagging about the stability of the Congress-NCP alliance in the state as well as about a possible rift between Ajit and his uncle, NCP strongman and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. But eventually the move only appeared to strengthen the hands of the two Pawars.

The Pawars’ political opponents, of course, were quick to impute ulterior motives to the move. Devendra Fadnavis, BJP MLA, says that “the resignation drama enacted by Ajit Pawar was only a ploy to refurbish his tainted image and bounce back after getting a clean chit in the form of a White Paper”.

He adds: “Ajit Pawar knows very well that a White Paper hardly ever indicts any minister. It makes convenient scapegoats of some junior officials.” Fadnavis is right and the eventuality that he alludes to could not have been very far from the former Maharashtra deputy CM’s mind.

While, with a single stroke of a resignation, Ajit Pawar made it amply clear to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan that he commands considerable support within his party and still has his sights firmly on the Mantralaya hot seat, the senior Pawar found a handy bargaining chip for use at the Centre, where he is an ally of the ruling UPA with only nine Members of Parliament.

The initial analysis by political observers was that Pawar’s nephew was planning to do to the Union minister what Raj Thackeray had done to his uncle, Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, by breaking away from him and floating his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Raj had rebelled against his uncle because the latter had given more powers to his son, Uddhav.

In Ajit’s case, it was said that he had taken a belligerent stand because he felt that the senior Pawar was promoting his daughter, Supriya Sule, at his nephew’s expense. Moreover, it was suggested that Ajit was also peeved because Sharad Pawar was being soft on the Maharashtra CM, who was systematically undermining NCP’s hold on the cooperative banking system in the state.

The Shiv Sena had been split wide open. But nothing of that sort happened in NCP. Both Ajit Pawar and his uncle vehemently denied the rumours of a rift. However, the stability of the Maharashtra coalition government did come under a cloud for a while. Congress and NCP have been allies in Maharashtra for 13 years.

Ajit Pawar’s resignation from all ministerial posts, including the finance ministry, followed persistent reports of his alleged involvement in a Rs 20,000-crore scam that occurred when he held the irrigation portfolio between 1999 and 2009. The reports brought into focus the role of powerful, politically connected contractors who used their links to corner irrigation projects and make huge amounts of money without carrying out the requisite construction work. As a result, the quantum of irrigated land in Maharashtra increased by only 0.1 per cent in the last ten years.

The Ajit Pawar resignation rattled the foundation of the NCP and Congress alliance in Maharashtra which was already creaking because of the tussle between Ajit Pawar and the Chavan, who do not see eye to eye on several issues. Ajit was seeking to deliver a double blow, one aimed at Chavan, who has been choking his cooperative banks and the other at his own uncle. He wanted to convey to the latter that he was now big enough to grow his own wings and fly the coop if he was not given his due in the party.

It is an open secret in the corridors of power in Maharashtra that Ajit has a single-point agenda – to become the chief minister of Maharashtra. Sharad Pawar had become the youngest chief minister of the state at the age of 38. The nephew is 53 and still biding his time. His impatience is understandable. He thought his time had come to become the deputy chief minister after the 2009 Assembly elections but his ambitions were thwarted. But he managed to have his way in December 2010 when he replaced the OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal in that post.

Uncle and nephew are poles apart. Sharad Pawar is totally unpredictable. Ajit is blunt and arrogant. A politician who has seen both of them from close quarters says: “Saheb (as Sharad Pawar is called) can be smooth, polished and very amiable in conversation but one can never fathom what he is thinking at any given point of time. His action could be totally at variance with what he utters. Dada (Ajit Pawar), on the other hand, can be blunt to the point of being rude.”

Describing Ajit’s style of functioning, he adds: “If something cannot be done, he tells you so up-front. But if he gives his word, then chances are that he will fulfil it at any cost.”

Vandana Chavan, NCP’s Pune city president and Rajya Sabha member, describes Ajit Pawar as a perfectionist and a go-getter who does not mince words. “He does not let things linger. If something has to be done, he will ensure that it is done forthwith. He does not tolerate excuses. Punctual to a fault, he starts his day at 7 AM and expects others to follow. He can be very blunt with those who do not meet his standards. He is an amazing administrator.”

She denies that there is any rift between Sharad Pawar and his nephew. “Reports about Ajit Pawar’s misgivings about his cousin Supriya Sule are all fabricated,”

In fact, as an obvious part of a damage control exercise, Supriya herself said in Pune that all was well in the family and she had no differences with her cousin. “Blood is thicker than water and I want to see NCP riding to power in Maharashtra with my cousin Ajit as its chief minister,” she declared, putting all speculation at rest.

Ajit Pawar made his foray into politics through a path that has been the mainstay of his clan for long - the sugar cooperatives. He was elected to a sugar cooperative body in 1982. 1991 was quite eventful for the younger Pawar. He was later elected as chairman of the Pune District Co-operative Bank (PDC). He held that post for 16 years. His first shot at national politics also came in the same year1991 when he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Baramati but he chose to vacate the seat within six months for uncle Sharad Pawar, who would go on to become the defence minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government.

Later that year, Ajit returned to the state and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in the same year joined Sudhakarrao Naik's government. Later, he would become the youngest Cabinet minister at 40, when he became the irrigation minister in Vilasrao Deshmukh’s government. It was his 10 year stint at this post that is now the crux of the scam.

NCP spokesperson Ankush Kakade says the working styles are different for obvious reasons. “Sharad Pawar has a great deal of patience. He worked with veteran politicians like YB Chavan, Vasantdada Patil and several others. He possesses amazing organisational skills, which come to the forth in crisis situations, be it the Latur earthquake or the Mumbai blasts.”

He adds: “Ajit Pawar, too, is a great administrator and a taskmaster. But while Sharad Pawar waits for the right time to make a move, Ajit Pawar believes in immediate action. The media often portrays him as aloof and arrogant because he does not believe in publicising his own work”.

In Fadnavis’ opinion, Ajit had not taken his uncle’s permission before announcing his resignation. The senior leader, he claims, was informed only after the deed had been done. “But this proved to be a win-win situation for both. For Ajit it proved to be a muscle-flexing exercise in the state, while it increased the bargaining power of Sharad Pawar at the Centre.”