Elections : A Case Study


Disclaimer – The situation and characters in this case study are entirely fictional and resemblance, if any, to any individuals or organizations is purely coincidental.

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The company in which you are a shareholder has been having a poor run in the past few years. What had seemed to be a money spinner with promising growth just a few years ago is struggling to even break even. There have been recent instances of some of the senior management being involved in serious misdealings. The CEO, though apparently a very honest and capable person, has not been able to exercise any modicum of leadership to stem the rot that has gripped the company. The water-fountain gossip is that he is merely a puppet in the hand of the family that owns the business.

You are to elect a new CEO. There are three applicants for the job. First is the scion of the family in question, the heir apparent set to inherit the business. He has been dabbling with back seat driving, trying to run the business without actually being a part of the board of directors, for the past few years. He has no business or administrative experience, never having held any kind of a job, within the company or out of it, even for a day. On top of it, he is not too bright, and the only thing that he seems adept at is putting his foot in his mouth every time he opens it.

The second applicant is a young, bright and energetic intern who joined the company a year back. Because of his unexpected and unprecedented success in handling sales, he was put in charge of a territory over the heads of several more experienced contenders. He resigned after 49 days to throw his lot in the race for the CEO. He has a reputation for being scrupulously honest, and he is obviously very well intentioned. However, his brief experience is restricted to sales.

The third is the seasoned head of one of the regional units. He has been successfully running the unit for the past 13 years and the unit has been doing quite well under his leadership. Of course, there is no dearth of people who can’t stand this manager. There are talks of his being parochial, dictatorial and ruthless. Whispered rumors about him being partial to a particular community, and therefore discriminatory in hiring and appraisal policies are doing the rounds. Yet nothing has been proved against him in this regard, and the results on the ground speak for themselves about his effectiveness.

Who would you like to vote for as the CEO?

We might have liked to put our money on the new intern. Take a risk and hope for a radical change in the way the company does business. He has all the markings of being a game changer, may be with the potential to take the company to new heights. We would have done that if the company was at a point where it had the luxury of being able to take such a risk. If the growth had been steady, profits stable, and the balance sheet healthy. But then, in such a situation there would probably be no reason to change the management.

Common sense dictates that We go with the experienced regional manager, who is the best bet we have right now. And this choice may not be out of any personal likes or dislikes for individuals, but what is the best alternative available to the company today.

As shareholders, we would also like to move the company from being a family owned ‘lala company’ towards a professionally managed organization. And we would like credible succession planning. For that to happen, it would be ideal if the young intern stuck to his territory and gained experience in all aspects of running a successful business besides his obvious expertise in sales. Thus, a few years down the line, he would be a viable alternative CEO whenever the need arises.

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The Spooking of Raisina Hill


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Such is the strong apolitical image and impeccable reputation of the Indian Army that even the thought of a military coup in the country seems ludicrous. So when Indian Express broke the story about two Army units closing in towards the capital on a dark, cold January night, it never suggested the C word. It tantalizingly left the obvious connotations to the active imagination of the readers. It hoped that the readers would leap to the same conclusion that the high and mighty in the government had when they had heard that a battalion each of Mechanized Infantry and Paratroopers were heading from opposite directions towards the capital.

It is difficult to say who was quicker to deny the implied connotations of the story – the government or the army. And they both did so independently and vehemently. The outrage expressed on talk shows by enraged veterans, red faced and whiskers quivering, lasted a couple of TRP rich evenings. And with the recent revelations by the then DGMO, recently retired, has sparked the debate afresh. The basic premise of the outraged veterans is that even the suggestion of such an eventuality casts a slur on the image and honour of the army, questioning it’s patriotism and respect for democracy. It seems they are either deliberately or mistakenly missing out the woods for the trees. The question here is not about the loyalty of the organization as a whole, but the atmosphere of extreme distrust that was prevailing largely due to the unprecedented acts of the incumbent Chief of Army Staff.

Attributing the troop movements to a plan to overthrow the government would be ridiculous to say the least. But passing off the sudden mobilization of paratroopers and an entire Mechanized Infantry battalion complete with 48 Infantry Combat Vehicles to the outskirts of the capital as a ‘routine training exercise’ would also be extremely naive. Mobilization exercise would make sense if taken along the route westwards, for induction into the operational area of the unit, not 180 degrees opposite towards the national capital. The reason given for this subsequently – that moving westwards was not possible since as per norms prior intimation needs to be given to Pakistan – seems rather lame. Units move towards the field firing ranges located in that direction all year around. Besides, the options of moving north towards Kaithal or south towards Churu were also available (see map below).

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So, if it was not a possible coup attempt, nor a very routine training move, what was the reason behind the controversial mobilization? The following series of tweets from Lt Gen CS Panag, a straight shooting and highly respected former Mechanized Infantry officer himself, just about sums it up:-

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So what happened on that night was probably an attempt at psychological warfare, a ‘feint’ to cause confusion in the minds of the ‘enemy’. Possible aim was to pressurize and embarrass the government and forestall any thoughts of summarily dismissing the chief like Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had been. The beauty of the plan was that it could be indignantly passed off as a routine training move – just like it was – irrespective of the fact that it was highly unusual and unprecedented. And the government would be too embarrassed to admit to being apprehensive about a coup – as it was. Especially a weak government which was already reeling under multiple corruption scams and was quite visibly short of public support and sympathy.

While the absolute truth may never come out – at least not in the foreseeable future – there are no doubts that the incident has done irreparable damage to the already precarious civil-military relations. It has done a lot to fuel the dying fires of the scare of a military takeover that prevailed amongst political leaders in the years immediately after independence, a strong distrust which was largely responsible for the gradual but substantial erosion in the status and privileges of the armed forces.

Whatever may be the emotional assertions of the veterans on television channels against the media and the government – we have only the ambition and actions of one man to blame for this – a man who’s sacred charge was to be the highest custodian of the interests of the organization.

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Dubious Honours


1A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon” Napoleon is said to have told the captain of HMS Bellerophon, which was transporting him to exile at St Helena in 1815. Much has changed in the world in the 200 years since – but the truth of this statement still holds as good today for soldiers across the world. The bit of coloured ribbon, with a metallic talisman attached at the end, is the ultimate reward a soldier gets for doing his utmost even while risking, and often losing, limb or life – a gallantry award as a token of appreciation and admiration by a grateful nation.

But not every commendable act or series of acts take place in the face of the enemy. Some acts of devotion to duty don’t involve physical courage or valour, but nevertheless exhibit extreme sense of selflessness – putting ‘Service Before Self’. And the corresponding rewards for such acts are medals for distinguished service. Like all awards, these are meant to highlight commendable acts, encourage the awardee, and motivate others to emulate.

Then there is a third category of ribbons and medals adorned by service personnel.  These are not really ‘awards’, but given as a matter of routine to mark completion of a particular length of service (nine years, twenty years), or for serving in a qualifying area such as high altitude or specified operational areas. These are colloquially referred to as ‘free ration’ medals – a term originating in the fact that prior to the eighties, the entitlement of free rations for officer extended only to those serving in field areas, which were generally the same as the qualifying areas for such ribbons and medals.

With that in mind, consider the following rank-wise breakdown of recipients of the 184 distinguished service awards announced this Republic Day:-

  • Lt Gens – 51
  • Maj Gens – 37
  • Brigs – 43
  • Cols – 45
  • Lt Cols – 05
  • Majs – 03
  • Capt / Lt – Nil
  • Persons Below Officer Rank (PBOR) – Nil

The army is authorized a total of 81 Lt Gens, 274 Maj Gens, 1044 Brigs and 4013 Cols. Thus 63% of all serving Lt Gens, 13.5% of Maj Gens, 4.1% of Brigs and 1.1% of Cols have been recognized for distinguished service. And, ostensibly, not one out of the over 10,00,000 personnel below the rank of officer performed any act qualifying him to be recognized for devotion to duty.

In June last year, a terrible disaster struck Uttarakhand. A massive rescue and relief operation was launched, that involved thousands of soldiers. They worked tirelessly and selflessly to provide succor to the victims – the images below tell a small part of this great story of service before self.

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The fact that not a single one of those thousand soldiers was chosen to be recognized on Republic Day with a distinguished service award doesn’t speak very highly of the entire system of awards. Agreed, that there are other, lower awards –Commendation Cards of the Chief and Army Commanders, which would have been awarded to quite a few of the PBOR including those involved in the rescue operations. But the non-inclusion of any of the lower ranks amongst the higher awards, and the explicit rank bias exhibited in the percentages above, suggests a clear co-relation between rank and recognition for distinguished service. This is something that negates the very purpose of such awards – viz, distinguishing the extraordinary from the ordinary. It undermines the significance and the value of such awards.

There is no denying the fact that any individual who rises to the upper echelons of the steep pyramid of army hierarchy does so based on outperforming his peers. The reward for such differential performance is the promotion, which is pretty elusive in itself. But duplication of such performance parameters with qualification for distinguished service awards cannot be justified. Thus, the bar for what can be considered as ‘distinguished service’ should be raised with the rise in ranks. This would ensure that at every level of rank and service, individuals who perceptibly differentiate themselves from their peers by performing outstanding service are duly recognized by such awards.

Otherwise, if we continue this trend unabated, distinguished service awards may soon be reduced to glorified ‘free ration’ medals for senior officers.

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Who stands to lose?


news_27-1024x682In the past few years television debates between politicians of various dispensations reinforced one thing loudly and clearly. Amidst all the hand wringing, finger pointing and name calling, the message that came through was this. In the opinion of politicians, the common citizen of this country is a simpleton with a single digit IQ. Someone with a very short memory, someone they can continue to fool and heap indignities upon day after day, while in turn the hapless people will continue to repose blind faith in them.

They wanted us to believe that businessmen offer interest free loans to them without any quid pro quo. That their astute investments and extremely productive agricultural assets have been the reasons behind the almost universal rise in net worth amongst politicians of all shapes and hues.  That being born in illustrious political families bestows divine rights  and innate leader­ship skills even in college dropouts of abysmally low IQ. In addition, it gives them, and even those married into such families, unlimited access to state resources, security and ability to dole out patronage.

Unfortunately for this established political class, their endless good times seem to be hanging on an edge.

A hyperactive and hyper competitive media, a politically aware and vocal electorate expressing their opinions and debating on social networks, not hesitant in questioning the ruling class, were some of the changes that came about in the recent years. Popular protests and movements, like the spontaneous demonstrations in reaction to the Delhi gang-rape case and the anti-corruption  / Janlokpal agitation, saw large scale and spontaneous participation by ordinary people.

Continued complacency of the political class in failing to adequately react to these changes resulted in the rise of a completely new breed of popular leadership. Thrown up by the popular movements, they are not really politicians in the conventional sense, since the term is not associated with a lot of respectability. They are people like us and unlike the politicians, they come across as being sincere and well meaning.  The reason why this phenomenon is considered both, amazing, as well as one replete with hope, is because they have managed to turn conven­tional wisdom on its head.

For years common people were trapped under a realization that they were powerless to do much to change the system despite their overwhelming dissatisfaction with the governance. The best that they could hope to do was to cast their vote in favour of one party over other. The choice offered in that was also limited between various shades of grey. Besides, elections were fought and won largely through vote bank politics based on caste and similar considerations rather than performance or policy issues. So the common man’s vote was not considered to have much impact. And the common man from the street actually managing to fight elections (and win) was only in the realms of fantasy.

But all that has changed. Ordinary people- professionals, businessmen and people off the street with no political connections – came together to form a political party. They managed to muster adequate resources to fight an election, and adequate public support to win it. And they could do all that without invoking castes or the use of muscle power. Their incredible success was possibly even beyond their own highest expectations, and events have suddenly propelled them from being the underdogs to the forefront.

Having come so far, and now having formed the government, the burden on their inexperienced shoulders is heavy indeed. There is the justifiable burden of people’s expectations. But, in addition, they have the burden of the heartfelt desire of all other political parties to see them failing to meet those expectations. Because, if they manage to survive, and manage to deliver even a fraction of what they have promised, it would signal an end to the way politics has been practiced in our country.  The old order of privileges, patronage and nepotism, of corruption and lack of accountability, would necessarily have to come to an end.

And the list of stakeholders for the established order is formidable indeed. It includes the established political parties, and those that benefit from their way of doing things – the corrupt amongst the bureaucracy, judiciary and industry, including the power brokers amongst the Media. It is no wonder that every baby step of the new government is sought to be criticized and downplayed, even laughed at.

The same people who have ruled  the country for 65 years without living up to people’s expectations are expecting miracles within days from the newbies. They are waiting along the sidelines for them to slip up, so that they can go back to the electorate and say “we told you so”. The degree of urgency for them is rather high in view of the impending Parliamentary elections.

But the people who have elected this promising dispensation to power would do well to be patient and give their representatives time to prove themselves – for their failure would mean a return to the old order, and this defeat would not be of the party or the leaders, but of the people themselves. They will then have to go back to being reconciled with the way things have been done earlier.

 

 

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Congress Commission for Women?


As per news reports, the National Commission for Women is sending a notice to Gujarat government on the alleged ‘snooping’ case. The commission is well within its rights to do so, as the custodian watchdog of women’s rights in the country. Having said that, it is also the commission’s sacred duty to act in a completely non-partisan manner. However, the manner in which the National Commission of Women has been selectively picking up cases to take cognizance of indicates otherwise.

The commission did not consider it necessary to send any notice against the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien,  against whom serious allegations of raping a minor exist. It did not even suggest that he step down from the post till the allegations against him are investigated. Similarly, the Congress leader and Rajasthan minister Mahipal Maderna, accused of raping and murdering Bhanwari Devi, did not draw the ire of the commission. Nor did Gopal Kanda, who was implicated in the suicide of a former airhostess and his close associate. Incidentally, Gopal Kanda also belongs to the Congress party. While the commission did not demand a report in any of these incidents, it was prompt to do so in a case involving the death of the maid of a BSP MP, or in the case of the death of a teacher in BJD ruled Orissa.

The selective targeting of cases involving non-congress politicians by the NCW becomes a little clear when we take a look at who is the chairperson of the commission – Mamta Sharma. A congress politician, she has just been given a congress ticket from Bundi in Rajasthan. Amongst the members of the commission is Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, who was the Congress Mayor of Mumbai, and fought the 2004 elections from Malad on a Congress ticket. In fact she was, at one time, a contender for the post of Maharashtra Congress Chief – apparently has now be rehabilitated in the NCW. Ms Shamina Shafiq, another member is, as per her details on the NCW website, “An academician turned politician having a strong political background…She hails from an illustrious political family with her mother-in-law Late Smt. Salma begum (may peace be upon her) also a veteran Congress leader and member of UPCC and AICC.” She has served as state Secretary UP Mahila Congress and as Member AICC. The packing of NCW, and also of the Delhi Commission for Women, with political appointees and loyal bureaucrats, was commented upon by the Hindu.

Congress is a past master in packing vital institutions with its sympathizers and then using the same institutions for narrow political gains. It has had to face the ignominy of the Supreme Court striking down the appointment (despite a dissent note by the leader of the opposition) of tainted bureaucrat PJ Thomas to the post of CVC as illegal, and of the same Supreme Court calling the CBI a “caged parrot”.

Going by the track record of the Congress, the current composition of the NCW, and the selective manner in which it has chosen to pursue cases with political implications in the recent past, the latest action by the NCW can only be seen as politically motivated.

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Every way you look at it you lose


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This post is not about individuals. It is not about who is right and who is wrong. Enough has been written on this blog about that, right from the inception of this sordid affair. Some extracts are quoted below for context:-

“Today it is not an individual issue at all. It is an issue of the office of the Chief of Army Staff. It is an issue of the image of the Army .…… By polarizing the entire organization into followers of different camps headed by possible beneficiaries of the outcome of this ‘battle’, aren’t you seriously undermining the very fabric of the army?” (From An open letter to the COAS – 1 Jul 2011)

“The fact that some political leaders have made public statements joining cause leads one to believe that their support is being canvassed – something that can’t augur very well for the established fabric of the organization” (From Another open letter to the COAS – 04 Jan 2012)

“It is possible that the General harbors political ambitions, and has used his time in office to set the stage for launching his second career. Viewed against this possibility, his actions suddenly begin to make a lot of sense. Not only has he received more media attention than all the chiefs before him put together, he has also supposedly projected himself as an honourable, fearless and honest crusader against injustice and corruption. Having thus carried out his personal brand building (at the cost of brand Army), it could be a simple matter to step out of uniform and into politics. All will probably be revealed in Act three.” (From Casus Belli Aching – 28 Mar 2012)

 But as I said, this is not about individuals and their follies. It is about the outcome, as it is unfolding now. And the resulting effects on the organization. As per the latest reports, the Army has recommended probe against the actions of its former chief. These recommendations, as per the reports, are based on an investigation headed by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) into the functioning of a controversial intelligence unit Technical Support Division (TSD) set up by Gen VK Singh.

Since, as forecast, Gen VK Singh has since jumped into politics and joined the BJP, and recently shared the stage with the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, these recommendations by the Army are being viewed as political vendetta by the opposition. The ruling party denies this, even hinting that the actions of TSD under Singh’s command were guided by some political parties.

Taken together, these claims and counter-claims imply that actions taken by the Army under the former chief and the present chief, have been guided by political interests of different factions. Never before in its glorious past has the Indian Army been accused of this. The fact that India can boast of the most apolitical Army, in the sub-continent and also probably in the rest of the developing world, is because politicians and generals have scrupulously avoided involving each other in their respective functioning. That barrier has been breached, and it does not bode well for the future of the Army as an apolitical organization.

The Army, a holy cow for the politicians so far, is now fair game – like the CBI, CVC and all others. And we have seen the fate of those organizations in the hands of an unscrupulous regime. The question is, will the events set in motion by the personal ambitions of some unscrupulous self serving people reduce the magnificent Indian Army to yet another caged parrot?

Irrespective of which side is telling the truth, the implications are ominous. If the former chief and the opposition party is right, and the enquiry report is framing the former chief because of his political affiliations, it implies that the army and present chief are lying at the behest of the ruling party. Conversely, if the report is right, it implies that the former chief went way beyond his mandate and tried to interfere in the political functioning.

From the point of view of the Army as an organization, words from the old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Mrs Robinson’ come to mind – “Every way you look at it you lose”.

 

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Nailing the Files


stack-file-folders-10953830That some crucial files relating to the ‘Coalgate’ case are missing is undisputed. These are files that the CBI wants to peruse to investigate and fix culpability in the scam. The government and the opposition are now engaged in an elaborate posturing dance over the issue. Obviously, the probe would be as good as finished without these files, another occupant in the great graveyard of government scams.

The disappearance itself is not surprising. It is not the first time or the first probe in which inconvenient evidence has been conveniently removed. What is surprising is the blasé methodology of removal. Mantralaya_Fire_295x200The least that could have been done was to have a face saving fire accident, like the one at the Maharashtra Mantralya building which destroyed the Adarsh scam files. Doing away with even the thin veneer of plausibility provided by an accidental destruction shows the government complacence in the belief that it can subvert and compromise every single institution in this country with impunity.

What is also surprising is that neither the CBI, nor the opposition are asking the obvious questions. Simple questions that can fix the accountability for loss of the files – and possibly even help miraculously find them. To the uninitiated, a government office would be the epitome of chaos and disorder – where losing a few dozen files would be the easiest task, and ever locating them next to impossible. One only has to see the ‘Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure’ to dismiss this fallacy. There is a high degree of method in the apparent madness. In 250 pages of pure bureaucratese, the manual gives out detailed instructions on how every scrap of document is created, circulated, preserved, and accounted for in the ministries. Are the CBI and the opposition unaware of the existence of this bible of babudom?

Tracing the files, or fixing accountability for their disappearance is a matter of carrying out a simple audit. Beginning with finding out who the custodian of the files in question was, their movement within and outside the ministry can be traced using the entries in the diaries and registers maintained by each section, as amply explained in the manual. The files are government property, so their loss, by acts of omission or commission, is an offence. The offence gets compounded as they are also evidence in an ongoing investigation. Therefore, fixing accountability and vigorously prosecuting the officials responsible for safe custody of the files is easy enough. It will have the following effects.

The files might suddenly and miraculously be found. Or the officials concerned may start singing to save their own skin, and reveal the actual people behind their disappearance. Besides, it will serve as a deterrent to similar disappearances in the future.

Is the Supreme Court listening?

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Join the army – and die!


bhimpoonchFoot in the mouth disease is a common affliction of the Indian politician. It comes in two basic forms – the ‘shoot and claim misquote’ and ‘shoot and apologize’. Dr Bhim Singh, the minister from Bihar was struck down by the latter when he asserted quite indignantly that “people join the army to die”. Of course, he duly expressed remorse and apologized following a media driven outrage. But the truth is that one is not surprised to hear the attitude displayed by his remarks. Possibly in the throes of the virulent affliction mentioned earlier, Bhim Singh voiced his opinion on the role of the soldiers – that of cannon fodder, paid to lay down their lives for the great nation that the likes of him govern. And while he was castigated for expressing it openly, majority of the political class and a large section of the Indian population share his perception – even though it may be politically incorrect to acknowledge it. They more than display it by their actions.

How often, in his tenure of almost ten years as Prime Minister, have you seen or heard of Dr Manmohan Singh visiting or addressing the troops deployed on our far flung borders? Reviewing the passing out parade of any academy? Address war veterans? These are all things that the President of the United States does on a regular basis. Here is an excerpt from President Obama’s speech at a Veteran’s convention in Arizona

“To all those who have served America — our forces, your families, our veterans — you have done your duty. You have fulfilled your responsibilities. And now a grateful nation must fulfill ours. And that is what I want to talk about today.

As President, my greatest responsibility is the security and safety of the American people. As I’ve said before, that is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, it’s the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night. And I will not hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests.

But as we protect America, our men and women in uniform must always be treated as what they are: America’s most precious resource. As Commander-in-Chief, I have a solemn responsibility for their safety. And there is nothing more sobering than signing a letter of condolence to the family of servicemen or women who have given their lives for our country.

And that’s why I have made this pledge to our armed forces: I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary. And when I do, it will be based on good intelligence and guided by a sound strategy. I will give you a clear mission, defined goals, and the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That’s my commitment to you. (Applause.)

Which brings me to our second responsibility to our armed forces — giving them the resources and equipment and strategies to meet their missions. We need to keep our military the best-trained, the best-led, the best-equipped fighting force in the world. And that’s why, even with our current economic challenges, my budget increases defense spending.”

There are several things here that indicate the sharp contrast in attitude. First is the acknowledgement by the president of a grateful nation, of the debt it owes its veterans, and that the nation is obliged to fulfill its responsibilities towards them. Contrast this with our country, where veterans have to return their medals and burn their artificial limbs Delhito get the government to pay attention to their woes – and yet remain unheard. Next, and specifically relevant in the context of Bhim Singh’s statement, is the acknowledgment that soldiers are a “precious resource” – NOT cannon fodder.

Then is the resolve to provide the best training and equipment for the forces. The tragedy here is that in the absence of any such sentiment amongst our leadership, even the sanctioned amount of the defence budget remains unspent due to the incompetence of the procurement machinery of the government. Thus we have had a situation where the Chief of Army Staff has to write to the Prime Minister to inform him of the critical shortfall and obsolescence of equipment affecting the operational preparedness of the army. Obviously, equipping them well is not of much concern to a leadership that feels it is the soldier’s duty to die for his country.

We have a political class that has, even after six and a half decades of the army’s apolitical existence, a deep rooted phobia against it. And we have a bureaucracy which is only too happy to prey on these fears, and ensure that the generals ‘remain in their place’.  Military advice is thus routed through the bureaucracy. This was the attitude that led to the debacle of 1962, when military advice was ignored and ill equipped and inadequate forces were thrown into battle without adequate intelligence or preparation.

Today, when the nation’s enemies threaten it on its borders as well as from within, it is all the more important to get our act together as a nation. Bhim Singh, and our political leadership in general, would be well advised to learn from what Gen George S Patton said in his famous speech to the 3rd Army – “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by killing the other poor dumb bastard for his country.”

So, if we have to win future wars, we need to ensure our soldiers are enabled and equipped to kill the ‘other poor dumb bastards’.

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Aam Aadmi ko gussa kyon aata hai?


_68914373_68914321Amidst our obsession with the gladiatorial standoff between the prime-ministerial hopefuls of the two leading political parties in India, the events in Bulgaria last month went largely unnoticed in the country. They did not even catch the fancy of the more eclectic twitterati, let alone mainstream media. That’s quite a pity, because they could serve as food for thought for the political class in India, on either side of the political divide.  That is, if their thoughts ever feel hunger pangs.

The people of Bulgaria, fed up of a weak, corrupt and apathetic government, took to the streets to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation.  Seven weeks of continuous protests failed to move the government, the PM refusing to resign. Frustrated and exasperated, thousands of protestors surrounded the parliament, with a sizeable number of MPs and journalists trapped inside. There ensued a prolonged standoff, with the peaceful protests turning violent when the police attempted to break through the barricades and evacuate the parliamentarians.

The ignition point triggering the protests was the appointment of a media mogul as the head of the national security agency, but people’s resentment stemmed from “a government dominated by murky business interests” and “private interests controlling state institutions”. The government remained insensitive to people’s sentiments even as protests were on – the parliament “voted in the first draft of a highly contentious budget deal, which sanctioned the emission of one billion BGN in debt, ostensibly to boost social welfare policies.” Sounds familiar?

People in India have also been increasingly vociferous about their dissatisfaction with the way the country is being governed – or rather, to be precise, the lack of governance. We witnessed the spontaneous outpouring of rage as an aftermath to the horrendous Delhi gang-rape in December. The protestors were ordinary people, probably out on the streets to make their voices heard for the first time. And while the barbaric rape and subsequent death of the young girl became the rallying point, it was actually the deep seated anger and resentment with the political class in general and the government in particular, that was behind the swelling ranks of protestors. The remarkable feature of the fortnight long protests was the complete absence of any leadership or political direction. The few times some politicians tried to cash in on the popular sentiment they were promptly put in their place by the resolute protestors.

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The protests died down following the typical assurances by the government, and people returned to their troubled lives. A commission was appointed and submitted its report in record time. Trial of the accused in the case that sparked protests started, and continues. As do rapes in Delhi and elsewhere in the country – with regular frequency and increasing barbarity. The government gets increasingly apathetic and arrogant in its attitude towards the plight of the common citizens – be it the safety of women or the back breaking rise in prices. Scams and scandals continue to break, each more brazen and with a bigger price tag to the taxpayer than the previous. And in the midst of all this, Indian politicians continue to insult people’s intelligence with platitudes, jargon and rhetoric.

It is interesting that whether it is India or Bulgaria, or for that matter Egypt, the people are getting more vociferous and reactionary in demanding their dues from their elected representatives. Conversely, the representatives also uniformly remain apathetic and insensitive to their demands, leading to the street protests across continents.

The big disconnect between the government and the governed probably gives the former a false sense of security and insularity. Modus operandi of the Indian politicians has long been to use caste, religion, pseudo secularism and regionalism as an opiatic substitute to governance – to law and order, infrastructure, creation of jobs and similar functions that people expect in return of their franchise and taxes. And, like parents of the yore, they believe that people should be seen (in election rallies only), and not heard (ever). And like it often happens with lies and yarns, they seem to have started believing firmly in their own. The absolute disconnectedness from reality was displayed by stalwarts and spokesmen of some parties when they spoke about the availability of cheap food in various parts of the country.

The people’s frustration rises from the double whammy of the fact that the alternatives to the corrupt and inefficient government don’t inspire too much confidence either. The institutions such as the law enforcement and investigative agencies have been effectively neutered or selectively empowered to act in accordance with political expediency of their masters. Whenever there are attempts by any external agency to enforce a degree of probity or accountability in them, the political class as a whole closes ranks. When the Chief Information Commissioner ruled that political parties are under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, there was near political consensus against this and the cabinet approved an amendment to the act to prevent this. When the Supreme Court ruled that criminals in jails cannot fight elections, an all party meeting promptly ‘expressed concern’ over judicial overreach.  It is ominous that the latest move to tinker with judicial appointments has engendered uncharacteristic bonhomie between bitter opponents across political lines. And the graphic below shows why – criminalization cuts across party lines.

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So, if the government is corrupt and inefficient; the opposition opportunistic, weak and probably also corrupt; the legal system being willfully rendered ineffective – what recourse do the people have? The global trend of popular street protests, with Bulgaria as its latest focus, is an indication that the citizens of 21st century are not content with waiting for the next elections to express their dissatisfaction through the ballot. The politicians must wake up and smell the coffee or disregard the warning signs at their own peril, as their insularity is no longer a given.

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My Dream Road Trip


The first thing that greeted me as I woke up groggily was the intense glare of the midday sun in my eyes. I sat up, a little confused, because I was used to waking up to the sight of a white ceiling, and my disoriented mind grasped feebly for an explanation for the burning light. It could find none.

I looked around. I was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. This was definitely not my room. I looked out of my window, to see a barren desert landscape, with no greenery except for the odd little shrub here and there.

This was strange, I seemed to be in an arid part of the world, and even though my sense of sight confirmed that, my sense of smell begged to differ: I could smell the sweet scent of spring around me. A cursory look around explained that: the little Ambi Pur car freshener attached to the air conditioning vent was releasing the calming aroma, even in the middle of this desolate desert. For some reason, this gave me comfort in the middle of my very strange situation.

The car was an SUV of some kind. I opened my door and stepped out, and immediately felt the unforgiving heat of the desert around me. As soon as I took a step back from the car, my jaw dropped in surprise. It was a Hummer, the undisputed king of SUVs. The commercial version of the American Army’s Humvee, this beast (the one I had acquired out of nowhere was black in colour) was the best vehicle to be stuck in in the middle of a desert like this. I had just begun to wonder afresh what I was doing in the middle of the desert when I heard, from behind me, the sound of a galloping horse. I turned around to see a sight I will never forget: the fiercest looking man I have ever seen in my life, with a long, black beard and hair flying behind him, riding towards me on a strong, sleek black horse. I was seized by terror, and though my instincts told me to try and escape, my feet were rooted to the ground.

The man rode right up to me, stopping his horse and jumping off in one fluid motion. I got a better look at him: he was wearing what seemed to be black leather with trimmings of white fur, and a black fur hat. At his belt hung a huge curved sword and a number of smaller daggers. He looked at me and grinned evilly. For a second I thought he was going to draw his sword and chop me to pieces right there and then.

He walked towards me. I flinched. However, he walked right past me and to the car, which he regarded admiringly. I heard him whistle with delight, and chuckle. He turned to me and pointed at the car. I understood that this was an order, and I valued my life and limb too much to not obey the orders of this terrifying man.

I opened the door for him, and he took the driver’s seat. He beckoned for me to come in too. I hesitated.

“Come!” He barked. I flinched again, at the same time registering the fact that he spoke English. I climbed into the passenger seat and gathered the courage to ask him who he was.

“Me Temujin”, he said, in a gruff voice.

“Hello, Temujin, its very nice to meet you”, I managed, even though it was absolutely terrifying to meet him. But manners were manners. My mother would’ve been proud.

Temujin chuckled, “No worry, I no kill you”

This bit of reassurance made me a little more comfortable, and I hazarded another question:

“Where are we?”

“This Mongolia, my home!” said Temujin, throwing his arm around as if to show off a seven star hotel. I looked out at the desert. How in the world had I ended up in a Hummer in the middle of the Mongolian desert with a terrifying man who, for some reason, spoke broken English?

Suddenly, something clicked in my mind. Temujin. Mongolia. The way this man was dressed. A hundred history lessons came back to me. Temujin was one of the most famous men in history, except he was known better by another name: his title. Changez Khan (anglicised as Genghis) This was a little too much to process. Changez Khan had been dead since the early 13th century. And yet here he was, sitting next to me in a Hummer. I turned to ask him something, and had just opened my mouth when he exclaimed delightfully: “This car smell good!”

I had no idea how to react to that. I nodded, “Yes it does. Ambi Pur. You should get one for your horse”

“Good plan. Horse sweat much. Bad smell. Ambi Pur, good smell”

Good. So the man who had conquered most of Asia and was the terror of Europe was happy with me.

“Mr Temujin, are..are you Changez Khan?” I stammered pathetically.

“Yes! It is I, Changez Khan, RULER OF WORLD” He was clearly excitable. This was going to be interesting.

He started the car. This surprised me: after all, he had been dead for some 700 years before the first automobiles came around, and yet he seemed to know exactly how to handle it. I wanted to ask him, but decided not to: I didn’t want to risk offending or insulting THE most terrifying man in history.

He started driving, and that was when it occurred to me that I had no idea what our destination was.

“Mr Khan, Sir, where are we going?”

“Where you home?”

“Uh..I’m from New Delhi sir”

“Then we go New Delhi!”

Okay. So that was good. We were going home. But then another thought struck me: How wise was it to take Changez Khan, famous as one of the greatest conquerors and raiders of history, to my city?

“Uh…Mr Khan, please don’t kill people in Delhi?”

He looked at me as if considering it. “Hm…okay. No kill people.”

I accepted happily. This wasn’t too bad at all. An amazing car with an amazingly interesting driver, and a long road trip in front of us. And Changez Khan wouldn’t kill my fellow Delhiites! Yay! For the first time that day, I smiled.

We drove into what seemed like endless desert, the powerful car growling as it sped through the harsh terrain without the slightest unease. This is why the Hummer was a symbol of macho all around the world.

I sat back contentedly and started thinking about our route. We’d have to go through China before entering India. As if he had read my mind, Changez looked up and said “I been this way before. On horse, with many soldiers! Great fun we have in China”

I gulped. The Mongol horde would surely have had fun, but the poor Chinese, stuck on the receiving end, would definitely not call it fun.

“What about Visas?” I asked, thinking about how strict the Chinese government was known for being about these things.

“Visa? What Visa? Changez Khan need no Visa. And you Changez Khan friend!”

Admittedly, it felt good to be Changez Khan’s friend.

We drove on for hours, as the hot desert afternoon turned into the cool desert evening, and my friend and companion cheerfully recounted tales of his adventures and conquests, the many days and nights spent on horseback riding through the same deadly yet beautiful landscape that we were now traveling through. I asked him about his sword, and he told me proudly how it had once belonged to his father, the chieftain of a local Mongolian tribe. When Changez Khan had united the many tribes of Mongolia and set out to conquer the neighbouring lands, this was the sword that shone at the head of the famed Mongolian horde.

Somewhere in between, I realised that I was hungry. The sun was setting over the horizon now, and upon mentioning that we should probably stop for food soon, Changez snorted.

“Huh. Mongol never stop for food. Mongol ride on” With this, he reached into one of his many travelling pouches and pulled out a hunk of dried, spiced meat, and handed it to me. I looked at it suspiciously, recalling that the Mongols often ate anything they could get their hands on, including their own horses. They were a tough nomadic people, and couldn’t afford to be fussy. I sniffed the meat. It didn’t smell too bad, it was like a sausage. I bit into it, and though pungent, it was edible. I slowly ate this piece of unidentifiable meat, hoping it wasn’t anything too sickening and that it wasn’t as old as the man sitting next to me and driving the Hummer.

Sometime late at night, we seemed to have crossed the Chinese border. It surprised me that we hadn’t seen a single other person all this while, and that it had been just so easy for us to cross over from Mongolia into its much larger southern neighbour. The landscape started changing, and we found ourselves driving on dirt tracks amidst green foothills. Looking out, I saw the first people I had seen thus far: rice farmers bent over paddy fields, working hard just as the sun came up. It was a beautiful sight. Looking over at Changez, I realised that even this man, known for being a ruthless leader and capable of acts of great violence, was moved by the sight.

The journey continued, and we went through so many different terrains: hills, mountains, plains, and even cities. For some reason, nobody in the cities seemed surprised to see a 13th century Mongol warlord driving a Hummer with a dazed looking Indian sitting next to him. We never stopped even once, Changez insisted that we keep going, and ate little odds and ends that he produced from his seemingly bottomless pouches.

By the time the sun went down on the second day, we had travelled through a large part of China, alternating between urban centers and the countryside. I was weary, having stayed up for what seemed like an entire day. I closed my eyes for a moment.

When I opened them, the scene outside my window was very different: the office buildings of Gurgaon whizzed past as Changez Khan, who for some reason seemed completely fresh, drove on.

“You sleep long time, you no make good warrior”, he said gruffly.

This crushing judgment woke me up completely. I mumbled an apology.

“We close to Delhi now” He said, and seemed pleased with himself. I found myself wishing he didn’t have the no stopping rule so I could show him the wonders of Indian dhaba cuisine.

He weaved through the crazy traffic like an expert, and soon we found ourselves on the roads of Delhi proper. Changez Khan seemed to like the city, and said, “I hear much of this city. Never see before”

Instead of heading home, we went around the city, as I pointed out the various monuments I was so proud of. Most of them were built much after his time, and he was awestruck at them. When I showed him the Red Fort and mentioned that his descendants, the Mughals, were behind the amazing work of architecture, he grinned proudly.

Suddenly, there was a jerk as the car sped over what seemed to be the biggest speed breaker ever. I was thrown off my seat.

I got up, and looked around. I was in my own car now, a Tata Safari, a step or two down from the Hummer. Changez Khan wasn’t driving, and my driver was in the seat instead. I looked down to see the book I had fallen asleep while reading: Genghis Khan and His Conquest of Asia. The car smelled of spring breezes, and I had fallen asleep and had the road trip of my dreams with Changez Khan.

 

 

 

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