Trial By Fire

“You fools!” thundered the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the Virtual Reality (VR) headset that he used whenever he had to thunder but did not have a real crowd of fools in front.

Spontaneous celebrations broke out across the country as soon as he had uttered these words. Youngsters engaged in arson and protests against the Agnipath recruitment scheme for the armed forces that has replaced traditional recruitment methods for non-officer cadres, stopped in mid-stride while trying to hurl a stone or brick at the police barricades. Throwing their projectiles on the ground, they moved forward and hugged the closest member of the police force and exchanged sweets that had magically materialized.

It is alleged that these spontaneous celebrations were instigated by coaching institutes that mattered to nobody even if they existed, as were the outbreaks of violence when the scheme was announced a few days back. Owners of coaching institutes that mattered to nobody even if they existed, were blamed for voicing their opinions on the scheme, in violation of that holiest of unwritten rules of democracies according to which an opinion, if at odds with the opinion of the government, tantamounts to being anti-national. Particularly when it is regarding a scheme that was introduced “without parliamentary approval or gazette notification” and “quashed the century-old army selection process and imposed impugned Agniveer-22 scheme in the country” as a petition filed in the Supreme Court seeking a review of the scheme says.

But try telling that to the protestors. And the celebrators.

“Do you know our Prime Minister has been ranked number one in the world on calling the people fools?” said one protestor to another, while biting off a piece of the ‘laddoo’ in his hand, and looking reverentially at the message on his phone that announced this new ‘fact.’

Of course, “You fools” is not something he said. What he did say was, “Some decisions and reforms might appear temporarily unpleasant but benefit the country in the long run.”

“Shame on you for not knowing this simple fact, you overgrown morons, especially for the reforms introduced by my government,” was also not said by the PM during this speech.

Corporate leaders, some of them bidding for large government projects, have handled their responsibility with aplomb. They have come out vocally in support of the scheme and said they will hire Agniveers, how the people taken in under this scheme will be known, on priority. Apart from the priority of hiring women and people with special needs and people from low-income backgrounds and people from rural areas and many others that they have announced from time to time. One feels for them. A corporate leader’s job is never finished.

When asked, “is that a commitment?” by a reporter, they said in unison, “Read our lips. As we said, there is a large potential for employment of youth in the corporate sector. If that is not a commitment, we don’t know what is.”

Leading universities of the country have been quick to respond and have started to rebrand their programmes. The Bachelor of Arts (BA) will henceforth be called the Agniveer BA. The Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com.) will henceforth be known as the Agniveer B.Com. Agniveer B.A. (Honours) and Agniveer B.Com. (Honours) programmes are in the offing. Master’s programmes are expected to follow suit.

Corporate leaders are licking their chops gleefully at the unexpected windfall the new scheme has brought for them in the form of talent. The Agniveer talent is proven to be better than the current talent available, since it is based on a government-in-power announced scheme and not tested anywhere, even in the form of a pilot scheme. What more could a software development company want if not a young person who can handle a machine -gun? What better resource could a bank ask for if not a young person who can do a hundred push-ups while whistling the tune of “Saare Jahan se achcha?”

These skills are so useful that no established corporation appears to have made an effort to either evaluate new hires on these skills during their existing recruitment processes or upskill them during the training phase. But, how could they? Their leaders do not have the smarts of either the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister to have suddenly decided on the new, well-thought-out programme, sidestepping parliament where questions could be raised, delaying well-intentioned schemes.

On top of the government-minted Agniveers, they will have access to Agniveers from many leading universities across the country. Graduates are delighted that their degrees, that were not considered job-worthy, and forced them into an expensive and almost equally job-unworthy MBA programmes, had become hot property overnight.

With great ideas, one really cannot say how far they can go. Agniveer B.Tech. from IIT Delhi anyone? Or, an Agniveer MBA from IIM Ahmedabad?

The CAPF (Central Armed Police Forces) like the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) will get the privilege of absorbing some of the 75% rejected, sorry, not absorbed in the armed forces, population of Agniveers. There will be an additional 10% quota for this group in addition to the quota they already have, since a developing, transparent, free, open, equal, merit-based, progressive, democratic society should keep building up its quotas of reservations for reasons other than economic disadvantage. Since the training required for handling civilian situations is identical to the training necessary for handling armed forces of enemy nations, the two have been kept separate all these years.

The scheme is of a transformational nature and will significantly boost the capability of the forces. Such schemes should not get bogged down in financial calculus. Hence, it is also expected to deliver savings in the form of reduced outlay for pensions of service-folks. Pensions to politicians are of course important for national security, even for truncated terms, and must, hence, continue, so that more transformational schemes can be introduced.

Chiefs of the three forces, were nowhere on the scene when the scheme was announced by bureaucrats, in an expansion of their roles, are being paraded in front of an incredulous public to sell it, a job so far done well by the National Security Advisor (NSA).

Like all schemes that meet with opposition, it appears that we have a brave PM to introduce such transformational change at the cost of political goodwill. With two colluding nuclear-armed states as adversaries and perhaps the longest unresolved borders, one hopes he is.

End Game

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has entered its third month. Though I was following the developments closely at the start, interest has since flagged. However, questions are rising.

“14 Ukrainians including a pregnant soldier have been freed in the latest prisoner exchange with Russian forces,” apparently stated by Ukrainian sources as per the newspaper I read today morning.

A few days back, and I don’t remember the name of the town now, the Russian army reached close to a town they wanted to capture and opened up a path for people to exit.

Whatever happened to the good old playbook of reckless killing and pillage, I wondered. Is this what happens in a war?

But I jump the gun.

What happens then, I wondered, when I read about the exit path for people to leave the town.

Presumably the civilians go to the next town, wait for the Russian army to reach, threaten the town and its residents, and open up a passage for exit to the next town?

Or, perhaps the evacuees do not stop at the next town and simply seek out the nearest border to exit to another country?

But what is the big game plan of the invading army?

Is it to raze all structures to the ground?

Is it to rid the landmass of its present population?

Is it to pick and choose locations to join Russia, then withdraw, and hope nothing has changed?

What is the game plan?

Concern for civilian lives is appreciated, though I wish it was for all lives. Unfortunately, this concern seems to be only a patchwork attempt at face-saving. There are daily reports of civilian lives lost, like this one today, “Moscow has turned its focus to Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture the capital Kyiv in a nine-week assault that has flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 5 million to flee abroad.”

So much for rules of war, if there are, that both armies have to abide by. But, why could these rules not be extended to a blanket ‘no armed conflict’ rule? Would that work any worse than the present rules? By the way, did the Taliban sign off on them?

And if the big idea is to bomb the agricultural fields and vacant buildings and factories without any human beings, into submission, would it not be better to earmark a desolate piece of land, and the air and space above it, as the designated ‘war zone’ instead of inflicting collateral damage on the global GDP by destroying stuff and killing people?

The battle of Kurukshetra in the epic Mahabharat holds a lesson for all of us. The great battle was fought between the Kaurav and Pandav armies on the plains of Kurukshetra, about a hundred miles from Delhi. The blind king Dhritrashtra, too old and inform to fight, could continue to live comfortably in his palace far away from the battlefield, with Sanjay giving him a running commentary on the unfolding battle.

Where can this place be? How about Siberia, since Russia is one of the antagonists in the current conflict? Or the Australian outback? What about the Sahara desert? Greenland? The Amazon rainforest? Nations that have a score to settle would need to reserve the place in advance. For a fee. Since we live in a GDP-driven world, imagine what it might do for the economy of the host nation?

The United Nations will work out a cost-sharing formula between the adversaries in advance, lest that become the reason for another conflict. Hopefully they will be better at it than at preventing and resolving conflict.

But I jump the gun. Once again.

In my early understanding of the conflict, it seemed that Russia was concerned at Ukraine’s attempts at gaining entry into NATO, as that would bring NATO warheads to its doorstep. And that it had given fair warning that such ambitions should not be entertained. Leaving alone the argument about independent nations deciding their alliances and fate themselves, one wonders what Russia would do after subsuming Ukraine (assumed since it is the much larger and much better armed adversary). Would Poland, then, not become a neighbour? Would it then dislike having a NATO member on its doorstep once again and take suitable action? Would Germany be next? Is there any satisfactory end in an armed conflict?

But that is conjecture.

What is probably fact is that Russia has sent blind soldiers to Ukraine.

The other day, the US secretary of state Antony Blinken and defence secretary Lloyd Austin crossed the road into Pushkin Park in Kyiv, wearing their sharp business suits, dodging Russian tanks, for tea with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky among the elm trees. Later the same day, President Zelensky hopped over to the Ostannya Barykada, a bar inspired by the three Ukrainian revolutions since 1990 – the Revolution on the Granite, the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, for a drink in the evening with UN chief Antonio Guterres. Many other leaders are said to be on their way to meet him. Video calls no longer work.

Only the Russian troops don’t seem to be able to find him.

And I cannot seem to be able to find the reason for the senseless loss of life.

The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was recently reported as saying that “progress has not been easy” even though negotiators from both sides talk every day. I can imagine. It has only been 67 days.

Still looking for the reason, I looked up the stock price performance of two of the larger arms manufacturers. And yes, there are big corporations in America that are not called Google and Tesla and Amazon and Apple and Meta.

What did I see?

Lockheed Martin went from USD 386.46 on 18th February to USD 441.71 on 28th April.

Raytheon went from USD 93.37 on 18th February to USD 98.08 on 28th April.

In the same period, the NYSE composite index went from 16392 to 16032, while the NASDAQ composite index went from 13751 to 12871, both in the opposite direction.

The war started on 24th February, 2022.

I wonder how and when it will end.

Truth Be Told

“Which word I uttered did you construe as conveying that?” The words were uttered in an even tone but the menace was palpable. If this was a comic strip, icicles would have formed around the speech bubble.

“Does that mean that you are against the Kashmiri Pandits, who have suffered so much?” was the query from a reputed reporter upholding the noblest traditions of media reporting, of asking irrelevant questions, that had elicited the response from John Abraham.

This question had been the natural outcome of Abraham’s silence on the earlier question asked by the same journo, “What do you think of Kashmir Files?”

Kashmir Files, incidentally, is the name of the commercial movie directed by a private individual that, according to some, lays bare the ‘truth’ behind the atrocities against the Pandit community by another community in Kashmir leading to a mass exodus in the eighties and nineties. The truth that the director was able to lay his hands on, that multiple governments formed by multiple political parties at the centre, could not unearth. That no enquiry commissions or judicial cases or military action could unearth in the last thirty years.

In fact, going by the reactions, it seems our political leaders had no idea about the ‘truth’ till the movie was released, as they appear to be quite effusive in praising it. I think we are in good hands. Immature leaders might have taken issue with being upstaged by a private individual with perhaps no access to government archives and records, presenting a ‘truth’ that they could not. But mature leaders take it in their stride and shower praise where it is due. On a private individual who has made a commercial movie.

Several states, it appears, have also exempted the movie from entertainment tax, in order that more people have access to the truth presented by a private individual in a commercial movie. Seemingly a better choice for entertainment tax exemption than ‘83,’ a movie about India’s unlikely victory in the World Cup of cricket in 1983, that, arguably, put India on the path to leadership in world cricket, that released around the same time.

But then, ‘83’ did not need a director to unearth truths that no government could access. The truth it presented has been known to everyone interested in cricket for 39 years. It is only a feel-good presentation of that truth. So, on second thoughts, how can one justify entertainment tax exemption for such a movie? Good it did not get it.

But I suppose I am guilty of doing to Abraham what the journo did to Attack; of ignoring him.

It was clearly the most pertinent question as the occasion was of Abraham promoting his upcoming movie Attack. He should have come prepared to answer questions about Kashmir Files. What was he thinking?

“What do you hope to achieve with Attack?”

“Will Attack be a suitable movie for families to watch together?”

“How do you keep yourself physically fit to execute the demanding action sequences in the movie?”

“What advice do you have for youngsters who come to watch your movies?”

Such questions are passe when there is an unrelated commercial movie in the ecosystem directed by a private individual that claims to lay bare the ‘truth.’ They need to be consigned to the dustbin. When you come to participate in a promotional event for the movie Attack, you must, as a journalist, ask for the producer’s views on the unrelated commercial movie. Quite simple.

And Abraham should have come prepared to answer questions about Kashmir Files whether the name of the movie he was promoting was Attack or Defence. Quite simple.

In any case, who is he trying to fool? Does he not know that there is also an interpretation for silence?

The Kashmir Files director is expected to announce the commencement of his next movie, Taiwan Files, to unearth the mystery behind Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s plane crash and disappearance in Taiwan in August 1945, followed by Tashkent Files, to unearth the mystery behind the death, apparently of cardiac arrest, of then Prime Minister Las Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent in January 1966.

The judiciary is considering keeping the execution of death sentences for heinous crimes pending till the same private individual has been able to craft a commercial movie on the case, so that there is no chance of an injustice. The trial of heinous crimes may be entirely done away with.

The possibilities boggle the mind. The common man will finally get a Bollywood commercial movie directed by a private individual to provide the answers, beyond doubt, that governments and commissions have failed to. Most importantly, the answers that he wants.

Course Knowledge

“It is quite clear the government has opted to focus on the long term, instead of the short.” I decided to take the bull by the horns and fired the first shot on the par four first hole that curved left.

The ride to the course had been a study in silence, both of us perhaps lost in thought about the future of the nation, like all responsible people who have the weight of the nation’s affairs on their shoulders and not that of the state or city or locality or household.

Pat came, “You know I am concerned about manufacturing. For all that the government claims, will India be able to live up to its potential in manufacturing?” demonstrating, by starting a new line of thought, that he was in fine form as he lined up for the putt that would give him a par on the first hole.

Equally respectfully, I did not even acknowledge the concern by stating, “with frozen squids becoming cheaper, it could well be the inflection point our fishing industry has searched for in vain in a vegetarian nation,” as soon as I had teed off on the par three second, landing just beyond the green on the right.

“With X-ray machines becoming dearer, could we be deferring the cost of curing a sick nation down to future generations? After all, many people may not be able to go in for a more expensive diagnostic X-ray which could lead to incorrect diagnosis and wrong treatment. For that matter umbrellas are becoming costlier. Does it not mean more people getting wet and falling ill?” The concern was writ large on his face as he walked down the fairway on a glorious February day to hit his approach shot. We were already on the fourth. Time flies when one is having fun.

“Let us take cryptocurrencies,” I began, without any preamble to clarify why one should take them or where one should take them. “Since the government has had no role in their creation and trading and the profit and losses arising from them, it is such a great idea to tax the income from any virtual digital asset. This looks like the shortest path to Amrit Kaal,” I said, mentally patting myself for remembering to throw in the great new era recently invented by the government, over and above the sacred texts, as I teed up for a drive on the next hole, which was the stroke index one hole of the course.

It gave our deep conversation a new twist. He was well prepared as he did not react and added, just as we were sitting down for a quick snack before proceeding to the back nine, “Gatishakti can be such a gamechanger. Like so many initiatives in so many years past that could have been such gamechangers.” In fact, I realized with some shame, that his preparation extended to years past as well, as he had alluded to them with such conviction and fact.

I could only offer, “I wonder why nobody thought of Parvatmala earlier? I mean yes, plans have been made around developing ropeways in the hilly regions, but why is it that it had to be left to this government to call it Parvatmala, mountain garland if we translate it literally. One can only conclude that since they could not call it Parvatmala, the earlier governments had no intention of developing ropeways in the hilly regions.”

“With services activity slowing down, would it not be important for normalcy to return before needless consumption can improve?” It was said with a distant look in his eyes. He had, obviously, seen his ball lose momentum, veer off track and drop into the bunker while trying to climb up to the green.

“If the government is serious about balancing its books, it has to watch out for the pension figure, which is slowly creeping up and is now almost 4%,” I countered, not his point, as usual, but just countered. Anyone has a problem with that?

“What about the real estate sector I say? We are all customers of the sector with our little properties here and there. They seem to have been left in the lurch, to make do as last year. How unfair on part of the government. No needless policy change. No nothing.” He was getting excited and seemed to be warming up to the discussion. So much so that while my attention was on searching for my tee on the seventeenth, he added, “What about the common man? He does not deserve to be ignored. He is not a nobody. Why did they not change the income tax slabs and then change them back next year if no change was needed?”

I had recovered my tee, as well as my senses, but I had run out of answers. I clutched at straws which, in India, are either cricket or Bollywood. I said, “Taapsee and Tahir’s Loop Lapeta has been leaked online. It is distressing to know that some people don’t seem to have any scruples.”

It was obvious he had heard it as, like my earlier observations, he completely ignored it, and said, “Like all past years, at least 6 million jobs are being created. In 75 years, 450 million jobs must have been created as every government every year has been creating them. What is a government to do if people cannot stick to jobs? I think we should encourage population growth, else we will have to import people for these jobs.”

I heaved a sigh of relief as we both parred the par five eighteenth and packed our bags and readied to leave. It had been a competitive round and we had ended up even. I mean in the game. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. This being a two-ball affair, came to an end all too quickly.

The last two days had been tumultuous, as they are every year at this time. You may be able to run, just maybe, but you surely cannot hide. That is the territory that comes with having made it through to a much sought-after business school, even though it was around the Palaeolithic Age. The attending of the business school, not the Palaeolithic Age itself. And if you have worked for a big bank for many years after that, forget running too. People just seem to crawl out of the woodworks and keep making doggy eyes or popping the deep question “Well?” at you. Some are more brazen. They will even directly ask, “So, do you think the infrastructure investment spending of the government will have the desired results?” or “Is the time right for the introduction of a digital currency?” These are important questions that they must know the answers to, since they will all vote in the upcoming elections based on either their caste or religion.

I could see that my partner, a classmate at business school and later a colleague at the big bank, had gone through the same turmoil. His face now bore an easy smile against a grim look and tightly pursed lips at the start.

To be fair to the occasion and its organisers, the moment was not a surprise. The date is always known in advance. Every year. To be fair to me, I have my schedule mapped out for the day for many years. I always spend the day in going over the event and understanding its ramifications that I am always unable to. I was happy to know that my friend and playing partner had been doing the same.

It is an important occasion. Especially since these decisions and announcements can be made on any other day of the year as well.

We had risen to the occasion is all I can say. We had sparred with each other over four hours and successfully failed to understand and respond to not a single statement made by the other pertaining to the Indian Union Budget 2022 announced earlier in the week.

We headed back warm in the thought that the nation, as well as the two of us, were now well prepared for the challenges the world was likely to throw up, including people making doggy eyes or popping the deep question “Well?” at you. Even for the more brazen ones.

The time has come

Life imitates art.

And governments imitate private corporations.

Now light years ago, I started working life as a Management Trainee at a global, UK-headquartered bank in Mumbai, a bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate from the Well Know Institute of Management in Western India, or WIMWI, as referred to in case studies. Upon getting the first role with responsibility, after an initial training period, a Management Trainee became an Assistant Manager. In due course, and with some good performance evaluations, one could become a Manager, and thereafter, a Senior Manager. The world beyond a Senior Manager was too far and too dim to worry about at that stage.

Management trainees joining the big American banks of those days, went from Assistant Manager to Manager, then to an Assistant Vice President followed by Vice President. Perhaps there too, the world beyond Vice President was too far and too dim to think about.

As realisation of this unfairness dawned, the bunch of Management Trainees in our bank were up in arms, to the extent well-paid and well-fed youngsters can be up in arms against a desirable to work for corporation. This ‘upping in arms’ was usually a whisper in the ear of the boss after a monthly report had shown signs of an improvement in performance, or as a joke with the HR Manager when he was sufficiently drunk.

I cannot be sure about the other participants in this ‘upping in arms,’ but I don’t think we were very serious about it, nor did we ever believe that it would happen.

If ever a war was won without a shot being fired, this was it. A few months later the bank had adopted the structure of AVP and VP after a Manager. It was a heady feeling. Not a paisa increased in our salary. Not a single benefit changed. Even the dark abyss beyond Senior Manager, which everyone secretly hoped to reach fast as that is where the serious money apparently started, got pushed back further away by a step. It was a victory that we savoured for many months.

Many years later I came to know that my WIMWI classmates who had joined American banks were fighting for a Senior Manager designation that they did not have. But it was after a few drinks. I cannot be certain.

It was our secret. It was our victory. Though I departed for other pastures after some years, friendships formed in the first job endured. At a recent meeting with some people from the bank, I learned that management trainees can now go all the way to Senior Assistant Certified Business Corporate Vice President, though it might take 86 years. I was glad to know that youngsters have so much to look forward to even before they reached the point of serious money.

I was reminded of this history when I read the headline in today’s newspaper that screamed “Indian Railways redesignates post of ‘Guard’ as ‘Train Manager’ with immediate effect.”

I looked up from the newspaper, refocused my gaze, and read it again. To my amazement, the headline had not changed. Indian Railways, India’s largest employer, and that counts for something, clarified that the move, being demanded for some time, would result in a “dignified designation for them without any financial implication, so that, they can also lead a respectful life in the society.”

Further, it seems that “The demand was raised as the designation ‘Train guard’ had become outdated and in society people commonly draw reference that he/she may be a guard in some private firm etc..”

Clearly, all those who answer to the designation of a ‘guard’ in some ‘private firm etc,’ belong to a species that deserves our contempt and scorn. Thank you, Government of India, and thank you, Indian Railways, for making that clear.

I was overcome with emotion, thinking about the thousands of people designated as ‘guards’ toiling away at their jobs who would now be able to lead a life of dignity toiling away at the same job for the same pay under the same working conditions.

And that is not all. “An assistant guard will now be called assistant passenger train manager, and the goods guard will be called goods train manager. Senior goods guard has been re-designated as senior goods train manager, senior passenger guard is now senior passenger train manager.” Trust the government to go the whole hog.

“Manager, huh,” I said to myself, looked away from the newspaper and wondered how much time would be allowed to pass by the government before making the move to the vice president structure.

There were questions on my mind as I have a train journey coming up soon. During past train journeys I have met various people working for the Indian Railways, such as the people who keep the cabin clean, those who serve refreshments and the obvious ticket checker, but never the erstwhile ‘guard.’ I was left wondering if the person serving the refreshment would take umbrage if I called him ‘bhaiya’ (brother in Hindi) which has historically been acceptable in all situations, or would I be better off addressing him as “Assistant Manager In-cabin Passenger Nourishment?”

It is another matter that the opportunity of meeting the ‘Train guard’ has been taken out of my hands, for no fault of mine.

Word gets around. One man’s meat is another’s poison.

The lady who works in our house is on leave today. Her phone is switched off. My wife is wringing her hands. We can anticipate the issue. For once she believes I am better placed to solve the problem, with my long years in large corporations. Our neighbours seem to be faced with a similar situation. Another chapter is about to be written in the struggle for the development and recognition of the disadvantaged, that has gone from servant to maid to house-help over decades, with no change in duties or benefits. Clearly it will no longer be enough. The time has come for a new name to be called by.

The residents’ society has called an emergency meeting to decide upon the new designations for the help. I did not know this, but the email also said that the society guards are not at their stations and are engaged in a heated discussion in a corner of the society and words like ‘Director,’ ‘Manager,’ ‘Founder’, ‘Evangelist’ have been heard issuing from that direction.

Uncertain times seem to lie ahead.

Your suggestions on possible designations will go a long way in enabling more people to live a life of dignity.

Did someone say, “What’s in a name?”

Adwords

Political dirty linen is beginning to be washed in public. And hung out to dry. Yet again.

The governments of the BJP-ruled states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat have been caught with the smoking gun. They have no place to run, neither to hide. Sedition is the unspoken thought in many impressionable minds.

Only the state governments of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand (UK) have come out smelling roses, their patriotism and good intentions beyond reproach. Only the state governments of UP and UK have bothered to publish half-page advertisements extolling the central government and its efforts in rolling out the world’s largest free vaccination campaign. With a photograph of the Prime Minister (PM), apart from their own Chief Minister (CM).

One is published on the page facing the one where the central government has placed a half-page advertisement extolling its own efforts in rolling out the world’s largest free vaccination campaign. The other is published on the page just behind the central government advertisement. And I am referring to The Hindustan Times here, the daily newspaper I read. I cannot say which other daily they are not published in.

Finish reading the central government ad, spend a moment in contemplation of your blessings, after you have already read the UP government ad and spent a moment in contemplation of your blessings, turn the page and the UK government ad catches you smack in the face, forcing you to spend yet another moment in contemplation of your blessings.

Did I even turn the page? Am I seeing double? Or triple? The insecurities of advancing age also come rushing back as the same ad stares back page after page.

But I guess I am missing the point, as usual. After all, unless three government advertisements say the same thing in the same edition of the same newspaper on the same day, how is the common man to understand?

To make sure the common man understands, since they understand the common man so well, they have taken the trouble to ensure that not a shred of additional information is shared in either of their advertisements. The copy is exactly the same as in the central government ad. Except for the “Thank you PM Modi!” extra line over and above the exact copy of the central government ad that both the state government ads have.

Check it out for yourself.

Can the non-Indian readers identify the central government ad out of the three?

This is clear evidence of both the state governments, even the central government for that matter, having independently conceived the idea and worked on the creatives. One cannot even begin to imagine the senior leadership time that would have been spent in fine-tuning the language of these ads. Publicis, Dentsu, WPP, Omnicom, Ogilvy and Euro RSCG, your loss of creative advertising talent has been the Indian common man’s gain of political talent.

Coming as it does on the day the central government has told the Supreme Court that they cannot make ex-gratia payouts for Covid deaths, as provided in the Disaster Management Act of 2005, as it is ‘beyond fiscal affordability’ of the government, it has particular relevance for the common man.

Fiscal affordability?

The centre, as well as the UP and UK state governments, have risen above the challenge of fiscal affordability and issued these ads.

Are the other states trying to convey an impression that they understand what it actually means? There will be hell to pay. Central governments have rarely been bothered with such trifles.

Besides, not taking up opportunities for publishing advertisements with a picture of the PM, preferably preening with a peacock…sorry, with a preening peacock, when the opportunity presents itself, could well be made an act of treason soon. These state governments are not trying to become test cases, are they?

I heard from a cousin that his children have questioned his claims about graduating from a prestigious college in Delhi University. “But where is the PM’s picture?” they asked him when he proudly showed them his graduation certificate. The children, adults now, had just received their Covid-19 vaccination certificate with the PM’s mug. Never mind that in the early eighties when he graduated the PM was not the PM, not even the CM of Gujarat. He was probably not even an elected representative of a municipal corporation at that time. Poor chap has returned his degree certificate and requested the University to issue a fresh one with the picture of the PM.

I believe from the next renewal, all driving licences issued in India will have the picture of Mr. Modi, instead of the driver.

And silly me. I never realized that PM Modi is funding this vaccination drive out of his personal fortune. I am sure if that was not the case the ads would have said “Thank you, central government!” or “Thank you, government of India!” Simple man that he is, he has never made a hue and cry about his fortune. Messrs Ambani and Adani have much to learn from him.

But I must admit that I was caught off guard by the declaration of this being the world’s largest free vaccination programme.

If you have the world’s largest population, or thereabouts, how can you have the world’s largest free vaccination drive as well? Isn’t something amiss here? Should you not be having the world’s smallest free vaccination drive while the world’s largest free vaccination drive is carried out in Singapore, or Luxembourg, or Vatican City? Especially when the government that is implementing it has been elected by the largest voter list in the world.

It’s a bit like proudly claiming in a public-money funded ad and thanking the PM for India having the world’s largest number of children. Or the largest number of adults. Or the world’s largest number of employed people. Or the world’s largest number of unemployed people. Or the world’s largest number of construction workers. Or the world’s largest number of non-construction workers. Or the largest number of children in school. Or the largest number of children not in school. Or the largest number of, well, anything.

Wouldn’t you be surprised?

Status Quo

After a heated, one-sided debate in Parliament, held in response to a public petition filed by concerned citizens, the Parliament has unanimously voted to speedily address the concerns of farmers protesting against the farm bills recently introduced by the government.

It was a huge help that the matters pertaining to which the resolution was passed are those of farmers in India, especially in the state of Punjab, while the unanimous vote was in the UK Parliament. Hence, once the resolution was passed, nothing needed to be done. There were high fives all around in the hallowed portals of Westminster after the vote.

Demonstrating alertness to threats to the nation from foreign sources, and taking immediate cue from the example set by the UK Parliament, India’s foreign secretary Harsh Shringla immediately summoned British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke, with the intention of issuing a demarche, an official protest, purposefully ignoring the British envoy to India, Alex Ellis, who may have, at least, been able to understand the issue.

As Ms. Clarke was unable to attend the meeting in person, Mr. Shringla read out the demarche to her over a phone call that included a request for the British Parliament to debate and pass resolutions on the rising fuel prices caused by escalating state and central levies, Haryana’s proposal to reserve 75% jobs for locals, the Indian cricket team representing England in Test matches in view of the English team’s recent capitulation and the widespread disbelief at replacing Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone with an unknown female voice in the mandatory-to-hear-before-every-call Covid message, among many other issues of international significance. Ms. Clarke has promised to share the message across the British envoy world, so that more and more Parliaments around the world, who have nothing to do with the issue, can pass these resolutions.

Om Birla, the speaker of the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, saluting the continuing leadership demonstrated by the UK in best practices for parliamentary democracies around the world, scrapped the day’s agenda that included a discussion on the Uttarakhand tragedy last month caused by a suspected glacier burst, and replaced it with a debate to fix responsibility for the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan ten years back. He also removed the motion to condemn suspected police atrocities against alleged Naxals in Jharkhand in favour of a motion condemning marginalisation of indigenous people in the US. He has also scheduled a motion for a peaceful handover of the part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan, to India.

Alarmed at its Punjab farmer issue being usurped by the UK, the Canadian Prime Minister has summoned an urgent meeting of the Parliament (not yet clear which, but could just be Canadian) to pass laws to pave the way for immigration of farmers from states of India other than Punjab. This, he says, will bestow upon the Canadian government of the day a moral right to pass resolutions on how farming should be done in these states.

The US, the torchbearer of freedom and liberty, not to be left behind in the revolution sweeping across parliamentary democracies around the world, has scrambled to unanimously pass a resolution making communism illegal in Cuba. That too voluntarily. A unanimous resolution for China to accept responsibility for the Covid-19 outbreak is slated for the coming week.

Meanwhile, signatories on the resolution that led to the resolution on farming in India, in the British Parliament, have refused sponsorship to their brethren and ‘sisteren’ in Punjab looking to migrate to the UK to escape the draconian laws recently enacted. “It is for their own good,” they have clarified in a joint statement issued after Parliament passed the resolution. “If they also migrate, whose lot will we improve? They need to stay there so that we can fight for them.”

In the history of parliamentary democracies, this has been the most productive period ever. Never have so many resolutions been passed unanimously.

As a result, nothing has changed.

Tuning In

Another sensational high profile suicide or murder?

Or is it yet another ghastly rape?

Or, could it be the discovery of another wrongdoing by Bollywood, like being involved in making movies that people like?

Of course, the unmasking of another attempt at influencing the presidential elections in the US cannot be ruled out either.  

These were the thoughts uppermost in my mind as I sat down and dug my eyes into the newspaper report headlined “Cops summon three over TRP scam.”

“At least three channels have manipulated TRPs,” the article quoted the Mumbai Police Commissioner, confirming my worst fears. Concerns for the law and order situation started running through my mind, painting dire doomsday images. Who cares about whether Rhea procured drugs or not, when channels are busy manipulating TRPs. “There is a need for further understanding the situation,” the same article also quoted Karti Chidambaram, a Congress MP. Challenge that for a sentence laden with meaning, if you can.

I made some surprising discoveries.

There are a few businesses in the, well, for want of a better alternative, business, of TV programming. In an economy that operates on the principles of a free market? Can you believe it?

These businesses, being businesses, try to increase revenue and keep costs under control so that their investors can generate handsome returns. Ever heard anything as preposterous?

These private businesses have collaborated to form a body known as BARC, short for Broadcast Audience Research Council, which also comprises of advertisers, ad agencies and broadcasting companies. BARC is a private body, classified as non-government company. One of the things BARC does is collect TRPs, short for Television Rating Points, a proxy for popularity of different programmes based on time spent watching them. This is done through installation of measuring devices in 40000 TVs. 40000 installed devices that represent 200 million households and 800 million individuals. Isn’t Statistics a life saver? Or a money saver? Depending on whether you are an individual or a business organisation.

These businesses, the ones creating programmes for TV, let’s call them channels, vie for an advertising (on TV) pie that is estimated at about INR 300 billion (USD 4 billion) annually. As the potential gains are substantial, it has always made sense for everyone involved to keep the 40000 households off the gravy train. The 40000 households that, by sharing their consumption data, make these revenues possible for TV channels, and enable spenders to believe they are doing it scientifically.  

Channels are interested in high TRP ratings as that will lead to more advertising revenue. It has been argued that they have offered financial incentives to participating households to tune in to certain channels. It seems offering financial incentives is a crime. I am wondering if I should cancel the Smartphone I ordered on Amazon yesterday. Mr. Bezos could get into trouble for offering a financial incentive. It was at a handsome discount. I am in two minds.

The spenders, or businesses who spend on advertising on TV, are represented on BARC, and are also private businesses who don’t have to worry about the financial situation of farmers in rural India, or hardships faced by migrant workers during the onset of the pandemic. They have not been forced to take decisions based on BARC data. They choose to. Hence, it must be an issue of national importance that ratings have been manipulated.

It appears that the government also bases its ad spend decisions on TRP ratings. One can never be sure, but it is believed that they were also not forced to. They could follow the established practice of ‘positive mentions’ of the government by a channel to allocate their advertising spend. Of course, it helps if the two are the same.

Perhaps the channels who are a part of BARC have signed a specific clause to not influence behaviour through financial incentives. Always a great idea to insert terms calling for unnatural behaviour into commercial contracts so that taxpayer money can be spent in unravelling them. And it must be treated as a crime, so that our perpetually understaffed and overworked police force can get involved, as soon as they are done checking on Rhea’s drug usage.

Just as well, though. Can you imagine the pandemonium it could unleash if left unchecked? Viewers having to watch a commercial for Dove soap instead of the rightful Pears during their daily dose of the ‘saas-bahu’ ‘soap.’ Or, being forced to watch a Trivago commercial during the news break when it should have been Makemytrip. Or, even worse, being exposed only to Samsung phones during IPL cricket matches. The common man needs to be protected.

So, it was for a good cause. I calmed down somewhat.

And, of course, it is scientifically justified. After all, science, and statistics, have helped in designing the system in a way that a few rogue households can poison the entire data. It is science, after all, which mandates that if more than 40000 devices are installed, the cost will go up and profit down. And science again which decides that the participating households should not be equitably compensated.

Such being the case, who can argue with the government getting involved.

I am looking forward to some honest and fair news coverage on the channels being probed for the TRP scam.

Off With His Head

It appears they have filed for copyright protection of ‘statue destruction as a method of protest’ and asked destroyers to pay them royalty. “We gave this to the world,” the filing says, and draws attention to the two Buddha statues of sixth century vintage, in Bamiyan in Afghanistan, then the highest standing statues of Buddha in the world, that they reduced to rubble in 2001, against entreaties from around the world. “And you said we were off our rocker then.” So, does the Taliban get the last laugh?

Could they have taken their cue from developments in the land of the free where pulling down statues is rapidly gaining favour as the means of righting wrongs? Or is it the other way round? Difficult to say. Easier to say that traditional forms of protest have been found to be ineffective.

“Merely saying sorry is not enough,” as Bill Maher, the American TV host, so eloquently said in a recent talk. “Statues have to be pulled down,” as he equally eloquently did not say.

“Sorry” does not quite have the same impact, as India realised when it asked Theresa May, then Prime Minister (PM) of UK, to apologise in 2019 for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919. A year later, who remembers the apology, or expression of regret as it was called? For that matter, who remembers May? It would have been a lot simpler to build a statue of May, who was not even a gleam in her parents’ eyes in 1919, and then pull it down. The good thing with this form of protest is, it can still be done. And again. And then once more.

Full marks to the UK for having retained its basic political identity during the hundred year period so that they could be held liable. Makes one wonder what would have happened if, say, an apology was expected from Yugoslavia? Would we ask Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Croatia, or Macedonia, or Montenegro, or Serbia, or Slovenia, to do the honours?

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo may not have realised the significance of this declaration, his own, but the modern human certainly does.

As demonstrated by the expression of regret by the then PM of UK, descendants can now be held accountable for crimes perpetrated by a person. Not merely the immediately following generation, but coming at any point of time in the future. Not merely direct descendants, but anyone either remotely connected in any way or not remotely connected in any way. In short, anyone can be held responsible for anything.

Talk about beauty, apart from lying in the beholder’s eye, being in simplicity. This law, presently in the early stages of conceptualisation, would be hard to better for its simplicity.

As can be forebears. Not merely the immediately preceding generation but having existed at any point of time in the past. As pulling down of statues demonstrates.

In these charged times, Christopher Columbus has emerged as an unlikely favourite. Indigenous people of America are pulling down his statues as they blame him for discovering America which led to their displacement and marginalisation. Minority groups are pulling down his statues for discovering America that led to centuries of colonisation and segregation. And, believe it or not, Indian officials are preparing to erect statues of Columbus so that they can be pulled down. Why? For setting out to find India, but discovering America instead. “How dare he? Because of him losing his way, India lost the opportunity of becoming America. He has much to answer for. We all know what happened after that. Babur showed up in a few years with his hordes from Central Asia and the rest, which would have been history regardless, is history.” Descendants of Columbus are trying to come to an agreement on whose statue to erect for destruction. “Why was India not where he went? He had to discover America instead, where he is now a reviled figure. India needs to answer for that.” 

There is urgency and palpable excitement everywhere. The Orissa government has commissioned a statue of Emperor Ashok for waging the bloody Kalinga war in the fourth century BC, so that it can be taken down. Statues of Kauravs, from the epic Mahabharat, are sprouting up around the country like weeds during the monsoon, to be pulled down for their criminal acts against the noble Pandavs. The PM designate in the newly formed government in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has vowed to create statues of Ram, Laxman, Hanuman, and all major characters in the epic Ramayan. You guessed it…so that they can be pulled down, for showing Lanka and Lankans in poor light.

In a far-sighted move, and recognising the problem being faced by people in having to erect statues that need to be pulled down, the Indian government has decreed that every individual sculpt a bust of themselves and deposit it at the newly constituted Bust Bank (not to be confused with any Nationalised Bank, though both might mean the same thing) so that many years hence, when it is realised that the twenty first century human indulged in despicable practices like binge-watching Netflix, endlessly swiping mobile screens with one finger, running behind a bouncing round object on a football pitch, or even trying to meet with other people face to face, and the need arises to pull down their statues, they are readily available. The PM is expected to bless the initiative by giving it a name which, after a few days, he will explain the real meaning of.

Even as the present day rulers erect statues of invaders who repeatedly, well, invaded (is there a better suited word?) Indian territory for several centuries starting about 800 AD, to pull down in protest for being the cause of the misery faced by its people in the twenty first century that they are unable to solve, the common man in India, has, finally, started to ask for identification of the self-serving rulers who failed in their primary duty of protecting their people and real estate from invaders, and capitulated, repeatedly, for several centuries starting about 800 AD. To erect their statues and then pull them down.

On account of his less than kosher behaviour, as viewed in today’s context, Maher had the temerity to suggest rehab and sensitivity training for God, his God, to the point of saying “God is cancelled.” Should we open up other Gods for a twenty first century performance evaluation? Or, let sleeping Gods lie?

Truth Will Out

It seems that people who make Hindi movies, do so successfully, i.e. make movies that make money for the makers, have been doing so for many years, with actors vying for getting roles in their movies, do not value talent. They routinely ignore talent, ignore suitability of actors for roles in their movies, and instead cram their movies with untalented actors, typically younger relatives of people already working in the film industry. Their main objective is to make movies that will fail.

Not only do they not value talent, they also have no ability to judge the ability of actors. It is actually the common man, or other actors who do not get roles in these movies, who are the best judges of an actor’s ability and suitability for a role in any movie.

These people, the people who make Hindi movies successfully, are not running businesses or business organisations. They are actually running charities whose job it is to continuously scan the market for everyone just got off the train from Patna or Hyderabad or Ambala or Chittorgarh or Dhanbad, at Dadar or Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with stars in their eyes, dreaming of making it big in the film industry, enable them to realise their dreams by casting them in their movies over other actors who may be more suitable for the role, especially if these other actors happen to be younger relatives of people already in the industry. All million of them who are estimated to arrive in Mumbai every year to make it as big as Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan.

Adults, the million who come to Mumbai every year to be a part of the world of movies, come armed with a right, somewhat equivalent to the right of first refusal, for movie roles, especially in movies made by repeatedly successful producers and production houses who make movies that make money and who have no value for talent. This right makes it a duty of producers to give roles to people from outside the industry who have come there forsaking family and other opportunities, before they even begin to consider actors who have been associated with the industry far longer or are younger relatives of people in the industry, and do so repeatedly, till they are as successful as imagined by them before embarking on the journey.

It is unfortunate that these lessons have been learnt in the immediate aftermath of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a popular young actor in Hindi films, who apparently committed suicide over a month back. He may not have been in the top rung of stars, but he would certainly be considered an aspirant for the top rung. Wildly successful. What would one call a guy who just showed up from wherever he was and in about ten years played several lead roles in Hindi movies, yes Hindi movies, including that of India’s cricket captain, in a movie on his life. Who apparently had 15 crores (about USD 2 million) in his bank account that was seemingly transferred out. 15 crores sitting in the account? More than what 99% of Indians will earn in a lifetime. Remember ten years back he was perhaps one of the million who arrived at Dadar or CST. Unusually academically bright. He dropped out of the undergraduate engineering programme he was enrolled in at one of the top engineering colleges in India to make a life in the movies. As most will understand, a necessary precondition for dropping out of an academic programme is to have secured admission to it first. Through perhaps one of the most challenging academic entry paths in the world.

Likely candidate for a suicide?

Shakespeare would be proud. Unlike the ghost of Hamlet’s father who kept appearing only to his son Hamlet, Rajput’s ghost seems to be appearing to several near and dear ones.

To his girlfriend, exhorting her to write to the Union Home Minister, to seek help in understanding what led him to take the extreme step.

To his father, exhorting him to file a First Information Report (FIR) with the police authorities of Bihar, where he lives, a thousand miles away where, and not Mumbai, where he chose to reside and make a life, against his girlfriend, contending, among other things, that she had befriended Rajput to further her own career.

To the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the feared central agency, whose cases hold suspects guilty till proved innocent, and not the other way round as in the case of normal criminal proceedings, exhorting them to initiate proceedings under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

To the Chief Minister of Bihar, exhorting him to offer help in requesting the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the other feared central investigating agency, to take over the case if the family requests, even while the earlier request for CBI’s involvement, apparently made by the girlfriend, seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

To his sister, exhorting her to write to the Prime Minister requesting his intervention in ensuring justice is done.

And leading to more lessons for the common man.

It is a part of the Home Minister’s job to help people understand the reason for a near and dear one taking the extreme step. One can involve the Home Minister and Prime Minister in solving wrongdoing by any authority in the country by posting messages on Twitter with hashtags like #VandeMataram and #SatyamevJayate. Much like Indians in distress overseas could post to the Twitter handle of the then Foreign Minister who would, in a blaze of media glory, rescue the people in distress. The nation does not need any other process to make justice available to the common man and let him sleep in peace. Except a few Twitter handles.

ED is a vigilant organisation. If there is a possibility of misappropriation of 15 crore Rupees (USD 2 million) in a case of death seen as a suicide, they will jump in. Wrongdoers, be warned! People with suicidal tendencies, don’t take the final step unless you have 15 crore Rupees in your bank account.

Adults can be befriended by members of the opposite sex at will, to advance their own career, and they will have no say in the matter. Adults who have probably been considered responsible and mature and allowed to lead an independent life.

Really?

Aishwarya, here I come. To use you for furthering my career in Hindi movies. You have no choice in the matter. Or should I target Alia Bhatt? There is a much greater age difference between me and her. Will look more natural in the movies.

And, most significantly, any event can be used for settling political scores, especially where different political parties are involved, like the BJP led Union government, Shiv Sena led Maharashtra government and JDU led Bihar government in this case. There is value in multilateralism.

Don’t get me wrong. It is tragic. Any unnatural loss of life, any loss of life in its prime, is tragic. As is Rajput’s. While one can understand heightened emotions of near and dear ones, one expects governments and government bodies to behave in a judicious and equitable manner which is what eventually allows the common man to feel safe. Of the more than hundred thousand suicides in India every year, I wonder how many get investigated by the ED and CBI.

Hopefully, as Shakespeare says through Lancelot in The Merchant of Venice, the ‘truth will out.’