15 November 2009

The greatest evil

The use of fear as a weapon is nothing new. Not just in war or by totalitarian governments upon their people or by the mafia or by landlords over farmers and peasants in agrarian societies like India, but even in cases as simple as parents disciplining their children or children bullying other children.

What I find interesting (as a study) and, at the same time, horrifying about the use of fear are two things: (a) how this use of fear is endorsed by others, making it legitimate; and (b) how power, and therefore political authority, is exercised by this use of fear to achieve goals.

By the endorsement of use of fear – and violence, which naturally comes with it – I don’t simply mean people in authority supporting and encouraging others to use fear to achieve their goals. No, what I mean is the belief – and the support and encouragement of that belief – that those who use fear and violence as weapons against others are ‘free of all blame’.

In short, the belief that the use of fear and violence is for good. This is where I see the greatest evil.

07 November 2009

Evil in their blood

Although we tend to single out Adolf Hitler and the Nazis for their evil nature and deeds, we all know that they weren’t the only ones in modern history. In fact, a few years before World War 2, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), hundreds of thousands of Spanish people were brutally murdered by General Francisco Franco, the Nationalists and their allies the Falangists.

British author Jason Webster, who lives in and writes about modern-day Spain, in his 2006 book ¡Guerra!, narrates incidents of atrocities committed by General Franco, his Nationalist side and the right-wing Falangists during the Spanish Civil War. Here’s an excerpt:

“In public, Franco used to declare that Republicans with no blood on their hands would be spared. In secret, at Castuera many were murdered simply for having been on the other side. Grouping the prisoners into batches of ten, the Falangists would tie them together around the waist and then drag them to the mine just outside the camp. There they would line them up at the top of the shaft and push them over the edge. Some fell directly to their deaths, others smashed their limbs at the bottom but remained alive. The Falangists finished them off with grenades.”

Most of these deaths were never reported and it is only now that Spanish and world historians are trying to make sense of the killings during the Spanish Civil War. I’ve read accounts by Professor Paul Preston, eminent British historian and an expert on the Spanish Civil War, in which he suggests that the number of deaths – and missing persons – is likely to be tens, perhaps hundreds, of times more than what has been found, reported and documented.

Where does this violence, this cruelty, this evil come from?

Although all is supposed to be fair in love and war, I wonder what goes on in the minds of the people who mastermind these heinous plans and commit these murders in such large numbers. Laurence Rees, in his 2004 book and the BBC TV series Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ (about which I’ve blogged here), gives us an insight into the Nazi mind, describing the coolness with which the Nazis committed mass murders and how inventive they had been in their methods. It seems evil was in their blood.

Perhaps Franco and the Nationalists/Falangists weren’t as inventive as the Nazis in finding ways of killing people, but they did know how to instil terror within their enemies. Both Professor Preston and author Webster cite the example of General Emilio Mola who was Franco’s counterpart during the Spanish Civil War (actually General Mola had masterminded and spearheaded the Nationalist coup against the ruling Republicans before Franco joined him) and led the attack from northern Spain.

Apparently, shortly after instituting martial law in Pamplona in July 1936, General Mola had addressed a group of mayors in the city with these (or similar) words:

“It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do. There can be no cowardice. If we vacillate one moment and fail to proceed with the greatest determination, we will not win. Anyone who helps or hides a communist or a supporter of the Popular Front will be shot.”

Jason Webster in ¡Guerra! narrates the story of another Nationalist General, Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, who had mastered the art of radio broadcasts to effectively instil terror in the people of Seville over whom he ruled ‘like a wicked medieval warlord’ in the early years of the Spanish Civil War. Every night he would come on Radio Seville (then under his control) with his announcements and demoralise the town’s people through a series of threats and insults.

But General Queipo de Llano was known for more than his radio announcements. Webster writes:

“Queipo went on to rule his southern territories through a system of fear, terrorizing the people into a state of submission through violence. Mass executions and torture were the norm, soldiers often dragging men out of their homes and shooting them in the street or bayoneting them to death. At night the sound of gunfire ricocheted around Seville as small groups of union leaders, left-wingers or people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time were taken to the outskirts of the city to be shot. Simply having a callus on your hand or a sunburnt face (which suggested you were a manual labourer or farm worker), or had a tattoo or your shirt undone were reasons enough to be imprisoned.”

Mind you, these narrations and descriptions of violence and evil are about Spanish men acting against their own countrymen – not against another race or religion as was the case with the Nazis or the Japanese during World War 2. In the Spanish Civil War, and perhaps for many years after (as General Franco continued to rule Spain until his death in 1975), the Spanish tortured and murdered their own kind in hundreds of thousands.

[Citation: 1. ¡Guerra! by Jason Webster, chapters 6-9. 2. Paul Preston: The Crimes of Franco – The 2005 Len Crome Memorial Lecture, delivered at the Imperial War Museum on 12 March 2005.]

25 October 2009

Is man good or evil?

Danny Archer: So you think because your intentions are good, they'll spare you, huh?
Benjamin Kapanay: My heart always told me that people are inherently good. My experience suggests otherwise. But what about you, Mr. Archer? In your long career as a journalist, would you say that people are mostly good?
Danny Archer: No. I'd say they're just people.
Benjamin Kapanay: Exactly. It is what they do that makes them good or bad. A moment of love, even in a bad man, can give meaning to a life. None of us knows whose path will lead us to God.

This oft-quoted dialogue from Edward Zwick’s 2006 film Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer and Basil Wallace as Benjamin Kapanay) is rather poignant. Poignant because, though the dialogue reveals to us the dichotomy of human nature, good and evil, it doesn’t leave us with any answers as to what is man’s inherent nature. Perhaps because there is no simple single answer to the question: Is man good or evil?

This question, I’m sure, has given many of us sleepless nights – especially if we’ve recently experienced unexpected behaviour of goodness or evil from people close to us whom we’ve judged to be of contrary disposition. That was exactly my experience in watching Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 a couple of months ago. However, in Blood Diamond and District 9, our predisposition to good and evil – or, rather, who is good and who is evil – is made clear by the films’ stories and the films’ directors.

But, what if life was not so clear to us? How would we respond to good and evil then?

These questions made me think about a book I had read in my childhood (I, later, saw the older version of the film made on the book as well). The book was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, first published in 1954. Lord of the Flies narrates the story of a group of marooned British schoolboys when their plane crashes on a deserted island – and the consequences thereafter when the boys fight for their survival in the jungle, making up their own rules as they go along, guided by their instincts.

What unfolds in Lord of the Flies is a sort of morality play, with different characters in the story assuming different roles of good or evil, or somewhere in between, defining a conflict between civilisation and savagery, reason and impulse, good and evil. However, unlike Blood Diamond or District 9, Lord of the Flies and its author Golding do not offer a simple answer or explanation or outcome of good winning over evil. On the contrary, Lord of the Flies suggests that evil comes easily to man. And that, the instinct for evil is far more basic and far stronger than the instinct to do or be good.

16 October 2009

Evil against the ‘other’

One aspect of Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 (see my previous blog) that intrigued me was the question of man’s willingness and capacity to do evil. Not just evil against the ‘other’ (depicted, in the film, as the aliens or the ‘prawns’), but also evil against a member of one’s own tribe – that is, another human being (the film’s protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe).

Of course, in District 9, at the moment of evil, the human in question was, perhaps, not entirely human. For, Wikus van de Merwe, after exposure to an alien fluid, was biologically (that is, genetically) transforming into a ‘prawn’. So, perhaps, at the moment of evil, Wikus van de Merwe had become the ‘other’... and the treatment meted out to him by the humans was justified.

But, was it? Was that how it worked?

When I look at the recent spate of bombings and killings (and even beheadings) that are taking place in my own country, India, as well as in neighbouring Pakistan, I am, once again, troubled by the question of man’s willingness and capacity to do evil... to his fellow men. Because, it’s here, in our daily lives, that I see no ‘real’ difference between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

But, that’s not how it seems. In defence of their actions, I suppose, the men of evil in question here can justify themselves: in India, the Maoists defending the rights of the farmers and the peasants against a (still active) feudal system and oppression; and, in Pakistan, the Taliban and its allies protesting against the government’s inability to run its own country peacefully, without foreign intervention.

Is this justification enough to destroy innocent human lives? In the minds and the hearts of the Maoists in India and the Taliban and its allies in Pakistan, apparently, it is. For, to the Maoists, the Taliban and their like, those who are not with them in their struggle are considered the ‘other’. And, any evil against the ‘other’ is a logical end in itself.

22 September 2009

District 9 busts the myth of good and evil

This year, from an unexpected quarter of the world, comes a film that takes head-on, and then shatters, the myth of good and evil. That film is District 9 and it comes from South Africa. What’s more surprising is that District 9 is a sci-fi thriller that deals with aliens on Earth; but, interestingly, steers clear away from the United States (the favourite invasion ground among aliens) to take its roots in, and over, Johannesburg.

District 9’s director, Neill Blomkamp, adopts an ingenious news broadcast-like technique to tell us the story, jumping cuts and cameras and viewpoints here and there to give his film-viewers the feeling that everything is happening in real-time. If that isn’t enough, Blomkamp keeps the adrenalin flowing with suspense, action and an incredible skill in storytelling.

Early on, in the mid-eighties, we learn that a huge alien spaceship arrives over Johannesburg and becomes immobile, perhaps due to a technical fault. A mission, when sent up to the spaceship, finds a huge population of weak and undernourished aliens, and rescues them by bringing them back on Earth. These aliens, which look like large prawns on land and are given that nomenclature by humans, are quarantined in a colony of their own just outside Johannesburg. This colony is District 9.

Twenty years later, with a total failure in integration between the humans and the prawns, matters come to a head between the two populations, and the South African government decides to relocate the prawns farther away from Johannesburg. It enlists the services of a large multinational company, MNU, which is also the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world. When MNU forces, led by a mild-mannered Wikus van de Merwe (played by South African actor Sharlto Copely), enter District 9 to inform the prawns about their forced relocation and serve them eviction notices, things get out of hand.

During the operation, Wikus becomes accidentally infected by a mysterious alien fluid from a canister which he confiscates from a prawn. A genetic metamorphosis sets in in Wikus, and he slowly, and then rapidly, begins to turn into a prawn. When his metamorphosis comes to the MNU’s notice, MNU jumps at the unexpected opportunity of using a part-human-part-prawn to learn how to use prawn weaponry which they were, so far, unable to do as the weapons are genetically coded to prawn bio-technology.

As MNU scientists and doctors prepare to cut him open for medical experiments, Wikus escapes from MNU’s grasp and is then on the run as a fugitive. Rejected by his own people (including his wife) as a freak, Wikus hides in District 9 and ends up befriending a prawn leader when the prawn leader suggests that it can reverse Wikus’ metamorphosis if it could go back up to the spaceship hovering above Johannesburg. To make this possible, says the prawn, it requires the mysterious fluid in the canister which is in MNU possession. So, the two of them attempt to get that mysterious fluid back from MNU headquarters.

Scorched by Wikus’ daring mission to attack MNU headquarters and escape again, MNU soldiers step up their chase. Wanted alive for his unique bio-technological importance, Wikus is now hunted not only by the MNU, but also by the Nigerian mafia ruling District 9. The Nigerians believe that if they eat Wikus’ flesh, his alien powers will be transferred onto them. So begins a hunt for Wikus… right until the gruesome end of the film.

Although disturbing to watch and, in places, heart-wrenchingly emotional, this is where District 9 excels. Director Blomkamp turns the concept of good and evil on its head, showing us the predatory nature of humans and the greed that resides within us. The viewers of District 9 end up believing that being human is, perhaps, not such a good thing after all.

15 September 2009

Good and evil

In war, if there is no geography, no physical ground or territory to conquer and to bring under one’s control, it’s difficult to claim victory.

In war, if there is no individual enemy – i.e. an individual person or a group of persons acting collectively as an entity (such as a party, a movement or a nation) which can be called enemy – to conquer and to bring under one’s control, or perhaps to eliminate altogether, it’s difficult to claim victory.

For, in war, victory comes when the enemy, in its tangible and finite form, is identified, located, engaged in combat and defeated.

In a cosmic war, where the forces fighting each other believe that they are both acting in God’s name and are freeing the world of and from evil – in other words, when the war is declared as a war between good and evil – the situation and the enemy become difficult to comprehend, and the strategy and solution even more difficult to conceive and execute.

Perhaps, the only way to win a cosmic war, as Reza Aslan suggests in his book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, is to win over the hearts and minds of the people.

11 September 2009

A new geography

What fascinates me about a Cosmic War is that it defines the battleground at a new spatial level. And no, I’m not talking about the mystical ‘war in the heavens’ I mentioned in my previous post. I’m here on Earth… or so I think… talking about something far more dangerous.

The thing is, in a Cosmic War, geography is no longer mapped on land and sea – and defined by latitudes and longitudes as we know them. A Cosmic War leaves all such mundane matters behind… to enter the human mind. And, it is here that a Cosmic War creates its battleground.

For, a Cosmic War is really about controlling the human mind. It is not about geography or politics or religion or the military. Since it is in the human mind that thoughts, desires and actions originate – and are determined – whoever conquers and controls the human mind controls the Cosmos.

06 September 2009

Cosmic War

Recently, on Fora.tv, I watched an interview of Iranian-American author Reza Aslan by Phil Bronstein, Editor-at-Large Hearst Newspapers and the San Francisco Chronicle. In the interview, Aslan discusses his latest book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.

Through subjects such as Islam, jihadists, the al-Qaeda, medieval zealots, the Crusades, and evangelism in modern America, Aslan explains that the Cosmic War, in essence, is a conflict over identity... a conflict between good and evil, where the battles are fought on Earth as much as in the heavens.

Aslan suggests that, in a Cosmic War, there is no compromise, no negotiation, no settlement, no neutral ground... and, therefore, the war can be neither won, nor lost. He proposes that the only way to win the Cosmic War is by not engaging in it... by refusing to fight in it.

How feasible is this idea? You be the judge. Watch the Reza Aslan interview here.

[Citation: How to Win a Cosmic War, Reza Aslan interviewed by Phil Bronstein on Fora.tv]

21 May 2009

Critical perspectives on global power

Nermeen Shaikh’s scholarly work of non-fiction The Present As History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power is probably not intended for non-scholars like me. The book is a selection of interviews with 13 leading contemporary thinkers from the social sciences... discussing how the social sciences affect global power. The interviews are erudite and require much concentrated reading. Moreover, the reader is expected to be (already) well-versed in subjects as varied as Islam, Economics, International Affairs, Anthropology, Human Rights, Feminism and Post-Colonial History. As you can guess, I’m struggling with it.

Meanwhile, on YouTube, I came upon a short interview of Nermeen Shaikh on News Weakly - a TV programme from Pakistan hosted by Sami Shah. The interview, while introducing Ms Shaikh’s book The Present As History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power, presents a perspective on how the United States and the West view a concept like ‘war on terror’... and how foolish and dangerous that view can be for the rest of the world.

19 May 2009

An end to war?

“State television showed hundreds of corpses scattered around the battlefield and floating in a nearby lagoon as the armed forces combed the ruins where the Tigers made their last stand.”
[Quote reproduced from an article in the Economist, 18 May 2009, titled An end to the war?]

As I read reports on the recent ‘end to conventional war’ in Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in which God knows how many millions of Sinhalese and Tamil people have died over the past 25 years, I wonder… and I wonder… and I give up.

I give up because I cannot make sense of this ‘war’ we humans wage against one another. I give up because I feel ashamed of what I’ve become: a cold and callous observer of meaningless death and the politics that rules this world in the name of freedom and national security.

13 May 2009


There has been, and still is, so much talk and literature on the 9/11 WTC incident from the American perspective that one often forgets how that incident has affected others around the world.

To start with, there is a continuing American suspicion of Arabs and virtually anybody with a Muslim name or anyone who may look like an Arab – including, foolishly, Hindus and Sikhs from India – and the fear it generates both in the West and in Muslims. Then, there is America’s ‘War on Terror’ – an idea which is equally abstract and absurd, shifting strategies from Afghanistan to Iraq and back to Afghanistan, with no specific result in sight.

On the other hand, there is Islamic fundamentalism – a metaphor, at least according to the West, for old-world regressive thinking and practice, made acutely prominent by the deeds of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Mutawas in Saudi Arabia. To these and many other Muslims around the world, there is a suspicion that America and the white Europeans are really the oppressors, while they are the persecuted lot.

This point and counterpoint of suspicion plays in the hearts of people from both sides of the ‘war’: the aggressors and the victims. Each living in their ‘reality’ of what the ‘truth’ is… while terrorism continues to take centre-stage.

12 May 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

At a cafĂ© in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man corners an American with a beseeching question, “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”; and so begins Mohsin Hamid’s tale of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Then, in the next 180-odd pages, we live through the Pakistani’s life as he pours out his heart, chapter by chapter, to the unknown American.

We learn that the Pakistani’s name is Changez; that, not too long ago, he was in America, studying in Princeton and then working in one of the most reputed management consulting firms there; that, he was in love with a beautiful white American woman; that, due to a series of events not in his control, and in spite of the loving support of his family and friends, his life comes crashing down to a bitter end… bringing him back to Lahore and to this meeting with an American stranger.

Does this sound real? You bet it does! And Mohsin Hamid weaves the tale of The Reluctant Fundamentalist admirably. The tale of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a confession, written in first person in such polite, beseeching and convincing language that I can understand why the unknown American couldn’t walk out of this conversation with Changez. I certainly hung on to every word of his until I finished reading the book. I’ve seldom read a book that is so engrossing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is really a tale of an immigrant’s loss of love, hope and innocence. But, what’s also interesting about The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that author Hamid presents a unique perspective of a normal Pakistani’s response to the world’s response to global terrorism and how this ‘whole enchilada’ of global terrorism and retribution, and the fear that it envelopes us with, changes the lives of even those who are non-participants… forever.

29 April 2009

Shaken, not blurred

Not only can terrorism lead to economic uncertainty, in a roundabout way, political, social and economic uncertainties – and, therefore, discontent – can give rise to terrorism. Some of this notion can brew and grow as movements of national liberation as well. The French and Russian revolutions are a case in point; not to mention the continuing insurgency in rural India by Maoist Naxalites.

There are ideological differences too, closely linked to this uncertainty and discontent, and perhaps as a result of it. These differences often motivate sections of people into challenging existing/ruling regimes, holding them responsible for racial/religious/ethnic discrimination, inequality in distribution of wealth and therefore polarisation of lifestyles, political exclusion, and obstructing civil rights.

In India, we have seen and experienced a variety of terrorist acts due to ideological differences. These include planned acts of terror by Islamic radicals who believe that their Allah is the only God and whose goal is to create an Islamic State not just in Kashmir, but across the globe. And, let’s not forget violence from Hindu extremists who wish to save our country from this Islamic challenge.

Like many others, we, too, have believed in national liberation and have freed our country from British Rule. And, on achieving Independence, we have declared our country as a secular State, where we believe that several points of view can coexist harmoniously and that no single view or dogma is likely to be entirely right for the welfare of our people.

Yes, it’s true that, specifically in the last ten years, we have been a target of terrorist attacks and have suffered at length. Still, I hope that, though our confidence may have been shaken, our sense of values and good judgement have not been blurred. As we go to exercise our constitutional rights on Election Day 2009, I hope we shall all continue to believe in the foundation of a secular State and not let our prejudices cloud our judgement.

25 April 2009


Does terrorism have a negative impact on our economy?

I simply don’t have the wherewithal to provide a quantitative response to that question. But I know, in most terror-hit places, economists and city planners have tried to assess the economic damage caused by terror attacks. For instance, the economic impact of the 9/11disaster in the United States is a case study among many scholars and governments. However, in India, research in this area is sadly neglected.

As a resident of Mumbai, I have been a silent witness to several terrorist attacks over the years. By ‘a silent witness’ I mean that, though I have not been ‘on the spot’, I have experienced the shock waves that have rocked the city immediately after the attacks, and those that have continued ever later. Moreover, my childhood memories of Marxist and Maoist insurgency in Calcutta still remain with me.

Apart from loss of life and injury to people (which is tragic enough), terror attacks leave a trail of fear, confusion and panic. Almost like a domino effect, people stop work, schools and colleges are closed, shops and offices shut down operations, factories and workshops stop production, and stock markets behave unpredictably, bringing down stock prices.

But, most important of all, terrorism creates uncertainty... uncertainty in the minds of people, and in the economy.

Specific industries are hit adversely: e.g. tourism and, therefore, travel and hospitality services. Foreign investment is reduced. Investments into, and plans to grow, local projects and industries are halted or delayed. There is loss of revenue due to drops in productivity in various sectors... and even in consumption.

How significant is this impact on the economy is difficult to tell. But there is no denying the fact that acts of terrorism have negative influences on a country’s economy.

21 April 2009

India is no stranger to terror attacks

India is no stranger to terror attacks. Our history is replete with instances of invaders and marauders attacking our country and terrorising our people: from the (controversial) Aryan Invasion to the Greeks, the Sakas, the Huns, the Pathans, the Moghuls, the Portuguese, the British... and now the Pakistanis.

Regrettably, not all terror attacks have been from foreign invaders. Some of it has been internal. I remember growing up in Calcutta during the late sixties and early seventies when anti-establishment Marxists and Maoists killed many policemen, government officials, teachers and innocent people over ideological differences with the government.

Then there were terrors of the separatist movements – the Sikhs, the ULFA, the GNLF, the Bodos, the Mizos – and retribution by the Indian government thereafter.

Since Independence, we’ve lost three national leaders to assassinations by fellow countrymen – Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – and thousands of others from terror attacks by insurgents like the recent Maoist attacks to disrupt elections, or violent civil riots under State supervision like the infamous Gujarat riots in 2002.

17 April 2009

Election terror

It’s one thing to blame Pakistan for striking terror into India’s heart from across the border. It’s another to resolve terror within the country’s borders – much of which, at least recently, is not from Islamic dissidents or due to Islamic influence. For, if we are to go by yesterday’s Naxalite attacks at polling stations, India has a lot to worry about managing terror from within.

Here’s the scene:

As India goes to polls in certain parts of the country, Naxalites or Maoist insurgent groups are coming out of their hideouts to strike terror on unsuspecting Indians. No one seems to be spared: from election officials to security personnel to ordinary citizens. Their methods are simple: bombs, landmines and guns to kill and injure people… setting polling booths on fire, blocking roads by felling trees and with boulders. Even electronic voting machines are reported to have been looted.

Since these insurgents are nestled within a few states/territories in India, one hopes that their terror strikes will be contained within these territories. If not, we have a lot to worry about in the next two weeks.

13 April 2009

The question of terrorism

From an economic perspective, India surviving the global economic recession in the coming years seems plausible. In fact, as I’ve tried to explain in my previous post, it seems almost assured. However, there is the question of terrorism.

Everyday there is some report or the other on terrorist activities disrupting – or threatening to disrupt – life in India. Terrorism has become so commonplace that I worry that the people of my country may accept it as they accept the beleaguered traffic on the roads, the power cuts in their homes and offices, or the coming of the monsoons every year. Soon, I fear, terrorism may become a part of the fabric of normal Indian life.

What’s dangerous about terrorism in India is that it is not just an ideological or a political viewpoint, but one that combines the worst of these two with strong religious and ethnic lineage and feelings. Indeed, we have a history to prove it. Since Independence, and much earlier, these feelings and differences have been hard-wired into us – and into Pakistanis – and it’s unlikely that they will be expunged soon.

How much economic disruption and damage can this terrorism cause? I have no answer to that.

10 April 2009

Can India live through the recession?

“What is the truth behind the fitful hints which reach us intimating that there exists in India an old wisdom that promises the most extraordinary development of mental powers to those who practise it.”
– Paul Brunton, spiritual seeker, in his book A Search In Secret India (Chapter 1)

With job cuts in certain sectors, a drop in demand and in production, no doubt the global recession has hit India. Interest rates have fallen, the stock market is idling, and the government is reconsidering its estimate for the country’s growth in GDP. Most likely it’s going to be far below last year’s projection of 9%. Indeed, the figure will be half as attractive as that. Still, in all probability, India will be one of the very few countries around the globe to end the year with a positive growth in her GDP.

Current market reports indicate that FMCG, retail, automotive and pharma sectors will do well... not just in the usual urban areas, perhaps less so, but by exploring markets in smaller towns and in rural India. For instance, the FMCG industry, estimated at $40 billion, is expected to have huge wins in rural markets with large populations from India’s over-600,000 villages asking for and buying branded consumer goods. Most other industries are likely to follow suit in order to grow their businesses or sustain them.

Of course, there will be some set-backs. Industries dependent on foreign markets for their customers and foreign investments will suffer. But, thanks to local demand from a large population (over a billion people with varied needs), a conservative banking system (no toxic debts to worry about), adequate resources of her own to channelise towards growth (only 20% of India’s GDP is dependent on external trade), management prowess of her industry leaders (competing with the world’s best), and an educated and skilled workforce, India is likely to live through the global recession without a great scare.

09 April 2009

India’s selflessness

At the G20 Summit’s trillion dollar global recovery plan announced in London last week, although Eastern Europe had been singled out as the region in dire need of financial aid and assistance, no help has reached it yet. Mexico alone seems to have secured a $47 billion credit line by the IMF.

Perhaps it’s because the IMF has already pledged $60 billion in loans to Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine ahead of (and in spite of) the G20 Summit, and are a little skeptical of making further investments in the region without due diligence. However, the IMF has other requests to worry about. Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and South Korea have already queued up behind Mexico.

But, what about India? Wouldn’t India benefit from a little IMF funding?

According to various media sources, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been quoted as: “India does not need IMF funding but we have been in favour of expanding IMF resources as this will help developing countries that need assistance. It will restore confidence about emerging markets.”

Adding that, “We have agreed in favour of greater resources for the world’s developing countries, because developing countries who are not responsible for this crisis are yet major victims of the crisis.”

What explains India’s selflessness is difficult to tell. One hopes India will prosper on her own inner strength.

[Citation: India for 3-Fold Increase in IMF Equity, Outlook magazine, 7 April 2009; India helps secure G20 deal for developing countries, Thaindian News, 3 April 2009]

07 April 2009

No quick fixes

UK’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown has put it succinctly at the G20 Summit in London recently: there are no quick fixes to resolving the world economic meltdown. So, will the $1.1 trillion dollar deal help?

If anything, the financial markets around the world have responded marginally positively to the G20 trillion dollar news. But the greatest gain, certainly, has accrued to the IMF – which, I thought, had fallen out of the world economic radar in the recent past – bringing it back into prominence after years of anonymity.

It looks like, at the moment, the IMF funding and the credit lines are to be extended to smaller/poorer/fiscally-immobile/developing countries. Eastern Europe has been mentioned often, but there’s no news of Africa. Mexico’s got lucky with a $47 billion credit line; so, perhaps, names of other countries will be announced soon.

The trillion dollar deal is expected to improve trade flows, raise world output, increase demand, save people’s jobs, save several ‘poorer’ economies, and shorten the recession. To me, this certainly doesn’t sound like a quick fix; but rather, a grand plan. The question is: can all this be achieved?

The good news is, if the G20 leaders can rustle up a trillion dollars in a single day, there’s probably more money available for funding, should there be a need for another rescue operation. The bad news is, the plan doesn’t seem to account for key Western economies which are still weighed down by the debts of their banks, businesses and individual consumers. After all, that’s where the trouble started!

04 April 2009

Fend for yourself

President Barack Obama’s declaration, at the G20 Summit in London on 2 April 2009, that the United States (or rather, the American consumer) can no longer be viewed nor accepted as the role model for driving global growth is a fascinating submission.

Fascinating from two perspectives: one, that, perhaps, the age-old (American) belief of hardworking risk-takers being rewarded meritoriously now stands under scrutiny; and two, after years of following the American economic model, most countries are now left to fend for themselves.

For many developing countries, like India, this is rather sudden. For, these countries had been emulating the American capitalist model for many years and had become heavily dependent on exports to the US and other developed nations, reaping the benefits of trade, investment and currency exchange. Now, that very foundation is shaken.

What should these countries do to face this new reality? Well, no doubt, fending for oneself should be high on their agenda… looking inward, protecting jobs and businesses, increasing demand and consumer spending, and reducing overall debt. Locally, within the countries’ boundaries.

With a little blessing, things should look up in a couple of years.

01 April 2009

These are uncertain times

“The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.”
– Professor Albus Dumbledore, speaking to Harry Potter about the Time-Turner at the end of J K Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

While President Obama has been busy trying to revive the failing US economy, I’ve been busy dodging in and out of various corporate ‘measures’ which my company is taking in order to meet the needs of the future. Restructuring, reorganising and rationalising have been in full swing for the past few months, and some results are already in view: my CEO loses his job, my head of digital strategy is appropriated by my corporate office, and my restructured pay comes into effect today.

As I stepped into a new financial year this morning, a friend in a senior position in a leading telecom company in India called to reiterate the fact that the economic downturn has come down hard on his company and the telecom industry in general. Apparently, in his business, existing clients have delayed their renewals or renewed their contracts at substantially lower fees; prospects have either walked away or are delaying their decisions to purchase; and a few projects have been abandoned under a credit squeeze.

These scenarios are probably true for most businesses and countries around the world. But, the heartbreak for most people is the fact that nobody seems to be able to predict an accurate picture of what lies ahead.

Globally, it seems, the demand for, and hence the value of, every type of asset (including intellectual property) is falling and it is uncertain if this trend will be reversed soon. This fall in demand is creating a downward pressure on incomes from those assets, leading to losses in businesses, jobs and demand for talent (an artist I met recently is selling his paintings at one-third of what similar paintings have fetched him last year)… which, in turn, are steering economies towards a world of unhappy minds and empty stomachs.

09 February 2009

For the world has changed

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

These words could well have been uttered by India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, describing the state of things in our country. Or, by Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, lamenting over his Party’s failure to show the people of the UK a light at the end of the tunnel. However, these words were spoken by President Barack Obama of the United States in his Inaugural Address at the White House three weeks ago.

Could the situation be any worse? Well, in President Obama’s words: “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many – and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

Not exactly the kind of situation to inspire an incumbent President! The risks are great… especially, when the whole world is waiting to see if he can do some magical thinking to save his country and the planet, without tramping over and destroying others in his eagerness to fulfil his responsibilities. For, without doubt, such has been the style of his predecessor.

But, President Obama seems to know this well; and he preempts us all, saying (and I quote from his Inaugural Address):

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy the relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Wonderful words. The question is: will President Obama be able to keep his promises?

[Citation: President Barack Hussein Obama’s Inaugural Address, 21 January 2009.]

28 January 2009

The year of magical thinking

“It is my opinion that the earth is very noble and admirable by reason of so many and so different alterations and generations which are incessantly made therein.”
– Quote from Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Galileo’, translated by Charles Laughton

No, I wasn’t at the Taj Hotel, nor at the Oberoi Trident, in Mumbai on 26 November last year when (Pakistani) terrorists attacked and shot dead innocent people at their dinner tables. Nor did I lose a close friend in those terror attacks of ‘26/11’ as they spread across South Mumbai, killing close to 200 persons. But, when I try to imagine the events of that night, I cannot help but recall American author Joan Didion’s opening words in her book, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’:

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as we know it ends.”

If you find these words ominous (particularly since this is my first post in 2009 after an absence of close to three months), I apologise. I’m no soothsayer. I don’t wish to spoil your mood by forecasting anything darker than what you would have heard already from your neighbourhood economist. The truth is, the way things are globally and in India, terrorists notwithstanding, we’ll all need some magical thinking to help us through 2009.

But, why magical thinking?

Joan Didion’s book, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ (forgive me, for I have stolen the title of the book to name this post), published in 2005, is an account of her grief in losing her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, quite suddenly from a heart attack on the night of 30 December 2003… while their daughter, Quintana, was in an ICU in a hospital downtown suffering from septic pneumonia.

Ms Didion had trouble accepting this reality. For an entire year, she hoped her husband would come back. She believed if she hoped enough, if she held onto her husband’s memories and possessions long enough and strongly enough, if she re-lived her earlier experiences with her husband vividly enough, if she performed the right actions timely enough, her husband’s death could be averted and her life would be normal again.

Alas, hope may be a strength in times of human weakness, but it cannot turn back time. And so, regretfully, Ms Didion confesses at the end of her book:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

By magical thinking, perhaps, Joan Didion means hope. Perhaps she means acceptance. Perhaps she means the transition from grief to hope to acceptance as a natural progression of events and human experience. I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Perhaps, I need to find the answer to this question in my own personal way… as I journey through 2009.

[Citation: Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Charles Laughton, Grove Press; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Harper Perennial.]