Will this “Kamal” bloom in TN?

In his films, Kamal Haasan is not usually satisfied with wearing one hat or donning just one role. While his peers in the Industry were happy with double roles or at best triple roles, Kamal, in one of his own production – Dasavathaaram as the title suggests, took up 10 roles. And roles as varied from an elderly widow to a Sardar to a CIA Agent to a Japanese Ninja and even George Bush! So donning many roles comes to him easily. In the big screen, that is. However, I don’t recall Kamal playing the role of a full-fledged politician in any of the films but for that short gimmicky role as George Bush and I may be wrong here!!! So, it came as a surprise when all of a sudden from the year 2017, Kamal started making political noises initially as feeble as tweets! Gradually the tweets got louder culminating with the announcement of the formation of his own party this week in Madurai.

Surprise stems from not just this. Kamal has had a long and worthy career in films not just as a fantastic actor but also as an accomplished film-maker in Tamil Nadu. Unlike many other stars and also rans in TN who invariably ended up in politics, Kamal stayed far away from it. He has been repeatedly saying that the only thing he knows in life is films and nothing else but films. He is quoted to have said often that he has been extremely fortunate in life for getting “Karumbu thinna kooli”, a euphemism for having been possible to pursue his passion as a paid profession! And he is also quoted as being unfit for life in politics full of machinations and hypocrisies. While he claimed to be socially aware, he was happy to serve people in his own way rather than wearing the garb of a Neta.

Actors who take up politics seriously, do it in their twilight of their career when the lights around them start fading away. Though Kamal’s last few films failed miserably at the box office, as an actor or a film-maker few would dare to write his obituary yet. He still displays the passion for making meaningful cinema and as we speak, has 2 if not 3 films on the floor vying for his attention.

The sudden turn in Kamal’s life led to the forming of Makkal Neethi Maiam (Centre for Justice for people) early this week. In the last few months of twists and turns in the politics of “Turmoil Nadu”, this is the latest. As a film-maker he is known to be indulgent. He has also been an avid risk taker in the choice of some of his scripts. At many points he has risked his wealth and probably his career by throwing his weight behind risky subjects – his Vishwaroopam project being a prime example. So, the question is – “Is Kamal once again indulging himself and taking his biggest risk yet by jumping into the murky world of politics?”

It would appear to seem so, if one looks at the odds ahead of Kamal. I believe that for Kamal, there are battles to be fought within, before looking at the battles outside. Kamal has had an Ultra clean image thus far in terms of probity in public life. He is not known for entering into shady deals for the purpose of commerce and has been an honest tax payer. But being honest is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to succeed in politics.  Secondly, as a film star and a film maker he has not displayed enough permanence of purpose. In the sense, he is known to announce grand projects and junk them mid-way and move on.  Cutting losses as a strategy may work in films or business but certainly not in politics where one expects a deeper commitment to a cause. Whether Kamal will show enough resilience to stay put and continue to fight the political battle even if there are initial setbacks is a big question.

As a film-maker he has never hidden his left leanings and public posturing towards atheism. Left as a philosophy is in the ICU worldwide and India is not an exception. Unless his left leanings are more reformed and tuned to the times we are in today, he will find it difficult to move beyond surging crowds in his rallies. Similarly in TN, atheism has of late become a matter of daily WhatsApp humour, thanks to the famed Dravida parties and their leaders reaching out to Gods in private! So, for Kamal to make these personal beliefs cornerstone of ideology of his new party is fraught with imminent risk.

Coming to external battles, there are many and are similar to any new comer trying to make a mark in politics. it is clear that Kamal is trying to fill a gap which presented itself after the death of Jayalalitha and her legacy. If one looks at history, MGR was successful as he could seamlessly morph his fan base into his loyal political base. No other actor in TN so far could manage that feat. Whether even our Superstar Rajini will be able pull that off remains to be seen. In the case of Kamal, in his prime days as an actor he was not a fan of Fan Clubs himself. So, how he will organize and use his Fan Clubs to be part of his political story will determine if the climax will have a happy ending or not!

Kamal has a good marketing bent. That comes across very well the way he has been able to create big hype over some of his films which turned out to be lemons. Hyped up films ending up as duds is not limited to Kamal only.  Just that in the case of Kamal, all the marketing ideas are his and only his. His marketing acumen could be seen through in his party launch event as well. The crowds were impressive. The media attention he could garner was even more impressive. However, I am extremely skeptical if these will lead to more fingers at the EVMs in the next election.

In the event, Kamal was idealism personified. He had Arvind Kejriwal by his side. And Pinnarayi Vijayan by the video link. The irony of the old and new symbols of Communism in his new avatar couldn’t be missed. His party’s flag displayed six hands which apparently were referring to the six southern states including Pondicherry. That showed that Kamal’s political ambitions are not limited to just TN. However what intrigued me was if that is the case, will a Tamil name for the party make sense in Telangana or Karnataka?  He should very well remember that even his Tamil film Indiran Chandran became Indrudu Chandrudu in Telugu!

While it is no denying that Kamal is a well-read man and an idealist with good intentions, his sudden decision to jump into politics raises many questions. As I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts, is Kamal on the path towards achieving Self Actualisation as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?  It seems Kamal said “Except for the two films which are coming out, there will be no more films for me,” in a recent interview. Well if that’s the case, it will be filmdom’s loss!  And nobody’s gain!

The original “Kamal” in politics of India namely the BJP though successful in other parts of the country is yet to bloom in TN.  Will this new Kamal bloom in Tamil Nadu? I have my own doubts. I have no doubts of Kamal stealing the show in Michael Madana Kama Rajan – II though!

Postscript:  Kamal got his 1st National award for Moondram Pirai, a film in which his co-star Sridevi was expected to walk away with the honours. However she didn’t, much to the disappointment, agony and sorrow of cinema followers in TN. Today, that sorrow pales in comparison to the news of Sridevi’s untimely, sudden and shocking death, 54 vayathinile!  Padma Sri Sridevi – RIP.

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Can the ‘Gem of a scam” become “Gem of an opportunity’??

The debate on privatisation of Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) banks has a habit of rearing its head in public discourse in India with regular frequency. Not so long ago, it was when the PSU banks were hit by the NPA (Non-Performing Assets) crisis embodied by the likes of a fleeing Vijay Mallya. Later, it was when the Government finally took a call on recapitalisation of the PSU banks last year. And now, it is when the Nirav Modi – PNB scam, the latest to hit the Indian shores (and shares) surfaced. Yesterday even Arvind Subramanian, the usually reticent Chief Economic Advisor has joined the debate!

Reformists are of the view that the Government is betraying Winston Churchill again and again who famously said that “Never let a good crisis go waste” in the context of biting the PSU bank bullet. They are of the view that the repeated crises which hit the PSU banks provided a plausible excuse and “Gem of an opportunity” (pun entirely intended) for the Government of the day to privatize PSU Banks and thereby get out of the rigmarole of using tax payer’s money to keep bailing them out. The underlying assumptions being that the PSU Banks are run usually inefficiently and being under sarkaari control are subject to pulls and pressures.  While this is true for almost all PSUs in general, money being closer to the pocket and heart of the public, privatisation topic haunts the banks more. One cannot dismiss the very popular data point thrown in the above argument’s favour which is that the market cap of a relatively younger HDFC Bank which is privately held is higher than all PSU banks put together!

At the core of the argument against privatisation is of course the security it provides to the Aam Admi. Irrespective of what happens around the balance sheets of these PSU banks. The general public does believe that the Government will not let their savings go down the drain come what may. One remembers the furore and angst in WhatsApp groups recently when we were all told that our deposits above 1 lac are not safe if the banks go belly up. So, for any Government of the day, it is a minefield of a quandary to attempt privatisation of PSU banks unless it is completely politically immune to a public outrage and the after effects thereafter!

Be that as it may – the Government’s quandary I mean, the larger issue is the conflict bordering on hypocrisy in the minds of people like us which is – my direct stake in the bank by way of savings/deposits Vs my indirect stake in PSU banks by way of government’s stake which is in effect all our tax payer’s money. In short “My money” Vs “Our Money”! Nirav Modi has just swindled a government bank of few 1000 crores but that still is not “My money” though it is “Our Money!  And largely our outrage has stopped with laughing out loud (or is it laughing like Renuka these days?) looking at jokes, memes and sarcastic jibes on the Government while a smart cookie has “been crying all his way to the bank”! I think as individuals we are more concerned about the safety and security of our savings which we feel is protected if PSU banks remain as is – Government owned.  Even if that means

  • The Government of the day interfering in the day-to-day functioning
  • The Government mandating the banks to carry out populist programmes which may not make commercial sense but may make immense political sense to them
  • Mounting NPA’s due to favouring cronies of the likes of Vijay Mallya
  • The Nirav Modi kind of frauds due to conniving staff
  • Less accountability in the system.

At the end of the day, as along as the banks are Government owned, the only fix for all the above ailments is injecting more capital which is by tapping into tax payer’s money. It’s obvious that the same money if not used for bailing out banks could be put to use for better roads, power, water, electricity or even for that matter the proposed grandiose Health Insurance programme – stuff our country has been deprived of in the last 70 years since Independence.

The 1.6 billion dollar question is whether as tax payers and citizens we are okay and ready to let the government seize the opportunity and privatise the PSU banks? My guess is maybe we are not. And this stems from our socialistic belief that next to God, the Government is the savior and hence must protect us. And the constant fear associated with losing our money if not protected by the government.

In a country like ours which is evolving and is still a work in progress on many fronts like urbanization, education, social mobility,..,… the fear is mostly legitimate. Coupled with the fact that the private sector has not fully covered itself with glory. But the performance of the new private banks set up since the opening up of the economy in 1993, provide quite a lot of hope. For example, as far as we know, the new private banks are not part of the NPA problem.  Even during the 2008 Lehman shock, when all over the world financial institutions were rocked and many went belly up, in India none of the banks including the private ones were affected so much (though banks like ICICI had exposures to the subprime crisis) due to very strong regulations in India.  So, so far we could bank on these banks!

In summary, my point is may be if not all in one go, the Government could contemplate privatising PSU banks in batches of say 2 starting with the smaller ones. This will give adequate space to watch out for any pitfalls in the process and fine tune the same. This of course with the continued strong regulatory frame work in place.  The smooth completion of the ongoing privatisation of Air India may give the much needed heft to the Government.

With may be all banks out of governmental control in the next 10 years, the frequent exercise of tapping into “Our Money” to protect “My money” may be a conundrum of the past. The moot question remains if this current “Gem of a scam” will be turned into a “Gem of an opportunity” by the Government and that we as public will let that pass!

Postscript: Overheard in a lift: “These jewelers kept telling us that Diamonds are forever. But, they never told us that loans are also forever! Saala vaapas hi nahi kiya!!!

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)