A Tale of Two FMs!

In the last week, two Ex-Finance Ministers of India, pushed Kashmir out of the headlines and debates, though for reasons completely different. Palaniappan Chidambaram (PC), an Ex-Finance Minister in the UPA ministry hogged the headlines for being a political heavy weight who finally got close to the long arm of the law. Arun Jaitley (AJ), the other Ex-Finance Minister but of the Modi 1.0 cabinet, dominated news since yesterday when he passed away after prolonged ill health. The lives of these two successful personalities have many common strands but, what is striking is the way it is finally diverging and in this lie key lessons for aspiring politicians.

The similarities first. Both PC and AJ came from privileged backgrounds and were never the “rags to riches” type leaders. They were lawyers by profession and extremely successful at that.  If they weren’t full time politicians, they would have been among the top 10 highly paid lawyers in the country for sure. Both were extremely articulate.  Both made their first impressions through their communication skills within their parties.  And that also turned out to be the lasting impression. In the last few years, the most interesting debates in the parliament were, when PC and AJ were pitted against each other – whether it was the GST or the Aadhaar debates. Both were tailor made for TV interviews and discussions. Both came extremely prepared for interviews and were at their combative best in putting across their views. More often than not, one tended to change opinions after listening to their points of view on a subject.  PC through his weekly columns and AJ through his blogs have also been using the written medium to get across their views effectively.

Both PC and AJ with their legal backgrounds, would give key inputs in drafting of bills to their respective parties. Their opinions were always sought in all issues related to passing laws in the parliament. In spite of not having a background on economics, both got the opportunity to be Finance Ministers. Both showed alacrity in dealing with numbers.  And when the situation demanded, they were the chosen ones to step in, as In-charge for other ministries. In the wake of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai during Manmohan Singh’s regime, it was PC who was asked to take over the reins of the Home Ministry from Shivraj Patil who was found wanting in terms of responding to the situation. In AJ’s case he was asked to handle Defence Ministry as well, till Narendra Modi could convince Manohar Parrikar to take up the job.  One point of time he was handling three key portfolios concurrently.

In spite of these strengths, both PC and AJ were never mass leaders. PC did win elections from Tamil Nadu but that didn’t make him a mass leader. AJ could not manage to win the election even amidst the “Modi wave” in 2014 when he contested from Amritsar! And I also reckon that their elitist background, their success in their profession and thereby their high net worth made them easy targets for “not fit for public life” barbs.

Now, coming to the divergence in their personalities. AJ has been more loyal to his ideological moorings. Having started as part of the ABVP, he stuck to the Sangh parivaar during his entire life. PC, though known as a Congress man, left the party in between to be part of Tamil Maanila Congress. He was rewarded with the important Finance Ministry by both Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.

While AJ is known to be congenial with his staff and peers, PC always came across as arrogant and rude. He was known to be firm in his views and not one to suffer mediocrity. This projected him as an aloof politician who won more enemies than friends. On the other hand, as can be seen from the obituaries since AJ’s death yesterday, his friend circle cut across professions and political parties. And this turned out to be going against AJ most of the time.  Among the hard core BJP followers or Bhakts, AJ was viewed with suspicion of protecting his friends from other parties and corporates in corruption and other charges.

The same goes with relations with media.  AJ had many among the media who are now calling him as “My friend Arun” in their obit pieces. I suspect PC has few friends in the media!

PC while in Government had many run-ins with his ministerial colleagues. His spats with Pranab Mukherjee and Jairam Ramesh are in public domain. Who will forget that “patching up” Press conference he did along with Mukherjee? With AJ, we have not heard of any spats he had with his peers.

PC was seen more of a self-centred person even within his party and there was always a question mark over his commitment and loyalty to the party and the leadership.  But here, AJ was always seen as a party man. When not in power and not a minister, AJ was handling the poll strategy and electioneering. Before the Amit Shah era, AJ was the master strategist in putting together the poll campaigns for BJP in states including Gujarat when Narendra Modi was fighting the elections. PC apart from being a member of the manifesto drafting committee he was not known to be a poll strategist or an organisational man.

It is to AJ’s credit that many of today’s senior ministers in the Modi cabinet were all at some time mentored by him. Whether it is Piyush Goyal or Nirmala Sitharaman or Dharmendra Pradhan, they have all been coached and guided by AJ in the past. Similarly most of today’s BJP spokespersons have been mentored by AJ. PC has no such reputation.

In terms of handling the Finance Ministry, I always thought that PC did a better job. He took over as FM in 2012 from Pranab Mukherjee during UPA-II, when the economy was at its lowest ebb. He quickly put in measures in place to arrest the Rupee slide and restore investor confidence by drawing a clear red line on fiscal deficit. That the mood of the country had already set in for a change that time is another matter.  But, it always seemed like he was a right person in the wrong party under a wrong leader. I personally felt that under a stronger government and a more decisive PM, PC would have relished his job better and would have made a bigger impact in governance.  AJ, though armed with the luxury of heading the Finance ministry of a majority government, showed very little appetite for getting into a “Mission mode” on the economy front.

The introduction of the landmark tax reform – GST shows who is a consensus man. The work on GST which started during the UPA era couldn’t see the light of the day during UPA. The then Finance Minister PC was not accommodative on many of the requests from the states like revenue compensation… However, during Modi 1.0, AJ could build a clean consensus and despite stiff opposition from Congress (in particular PC) on certain clauses could get GST off the ground in 2017.

Amidst all this, if there is a big divergence between PC and AJ, it is how they managed their families, which has now become PC’s Achilles heel.  The legal troubles PC is facing today all claw back to the conduct and involvement of his son Karthi Chidambaram. We wouldn’t know if PC was a wilful partner in all his son’s business misadventures.  However, the fact that he didn’t and he couldn’t reign his son from misusing the office of the Finance minister, makes PC a partner in crime. And today he is paying for the same.  On the other hand, AJ had a spotless track record. Except for pointing fingers at him for developing friendships across the board and being a gossipmonger, there is no charge of misconduct or misappropriation against AJ or his family. He had kept his family away from his political and public office.

In public domain, Chidambaram is seen most of the times in spotless white shirt and dhoti. However, his public life has not been spotless. On the other hand, Jaitley while being in a similar political boat, lived his life without a blemish. And kept his family away from tapping his political influence.

In analysing the lives and career of these two fascinating politicians, there lies a key lesson for many a politician – Control thy Son(s)!

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From Mission Kashmir to Fusion Kashmir!

No one else could have put across what “Status Quo” actually meant, better than Ronald Reagan! He said, “Status quo, you know, is Latin for the mess we’re in”! In the context of Kashmir, this Reagan’s definition fits very aptly! In India, the strategy of successive governments has been to maintain status quo as far as Kashmir is concerned, the cost of which has been quite high.  This, while knowing it very well and doing nothing concrete about the mess we were in.

By now, we all know that this Government under Narendra Modi has an allergy for Status Quoism.  So, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that it went about systematically this week, to nullify Articles 370 and 35A. But, that they put this issue on such a high priority and got it done early into this term, came as a big surprise to me. With this move, the liberal circuit had another melt down – its 2nd, since May 2019 as can be seen from the many pieces one gets to read, since the 5th of August. The commentary on this issue post 5th August are at three levels – wisdom behind the decision, execution of it and hypothesis over cause and effect.

Coming to the wisdom behind the decision of nullifying articles 370 and 35A, liberals see it as India’s betrayal of Kashmiris and going back on the terms of Kashmir’s accession with India.  The original article was indeed a temporary provision and was to be repealed when the preferences of the Kashmiris were to be understood and acted upon. As a country, all along we approached the Kashmir issue with a defensive mind set, as due to various circumstances we failed to find out what the Kashmiri on the street wanted, back then. And this was complicated by the definition of who is a Kashmiri – the one in Jammu or the one in the Valley or the one in the hilly Ladakh!

70 years is a long, long time and much water has flown under the Jhelum Bridge. And much blood too! Now the only objective for any Government should be to stop the flow of blood and let just water flow.  Since successive Governments have been stressing that Kashmir is an integral part of India, it was high time that it was made so. So, doing away with the articles 370 and 35A were the logical steps in embracing Kashmir as part of India. The much tom-tommed about provisions like any Indian from other states being able to purchase land in Kashmir … are in my opinion not the major issues today! Doing away with any constitution within constitution of India and stuff like Special powers, dual citizenship….are. In my blog just in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, I had written that shedding the historical baggage and moving forward on scrapping all special status to Jammu and Kashmir as an important step (not the only step) towards lasting normalcy in Kashmir.

For those who are asking that, anyway 370 of today is a much watered down provision compared to the original and hence what was the need to nullify now, the answer is simple. Why then have it, if its existence today anyway doesn’t make any material difference to the Kashmiri on the ground?

There has been much criticism and take downs on the Government’s execution part. Why didn’t the Government discuss with “stake holders” and take them into confidence? Why was this done when there was no elected Government in J&K? Scrapping 370 & 35A is O.K. but why division of the state into two Union territories? Why has been curfew and press muzzled in Kashmir? So on and so forth. These questions, coming not so much from the common public but from the liberal intelligentsia have their own pitfalls. When we read such criticisms at times we wonder if liberals live dividing their time between Utopia and some fantasy land!

For decades, we have been wasting time in talking to the so called stake holders without any outcome! “Keep talking” in diplomacy most likely means “Do nothing”! I have lost count of the number of times successive Governments appointed interlocutors to talk to stakeholders. Has anything concrete in terms of a road map emerged out of these engagements? And who are these stake holders? The separatists? The book “Kashmir – The Vajpayee Years” written by Ex-RAW Chief A.S.Dulat gives details of talks L.K.Advani had with separatists, during Vajpayee’s NDA rule.

In the 2nd meeting Advani asked, “What is it that you want?” Not one single Hurriyat leader said anything. Finally, Prof. Ghani said, ‘Next time we will come prepared with our ideas.”

So much for talking and taking these leaders into confidence. Having said that, we must not forget that during Modi’s 1st term, the then Home Minister invited all stake holders for talks and even appointed another interlocutor to engage with sections of Kashmiris with no result!

If Kashmiri politicians of the like of Abdullahs and Sayeeds are part of stake holders, the less said the better. There can be no other clan of politicians which has been more ambiguous on their stand viz a viz Kashmir than the Abdullahs. For long, the Abdullahs carried the tag of being on the India side. But when they had the opportunity, Farooq earlier and more recently Omar did not use their political heft to take Kashmiris into confidence once for all and get them to gravitate towards India. They, for their own political reasons kept their ambivalence of keeping one leg here and one leg there going! Do you see any other state political leader calling and addressing the Central Government as “New Delhi” or “Delhi”??? And we know very well what Mehbooba Mufti and her party were up to in helping to bring normalcy in Kashmir when they were in power! So, I don’t think the Government could have engaged with such stake holders and made any progress!

The brains of liberals are wired to react to ideal situations and that explains why they are up in arms against the way the Government went about this. But the situation in Kashmir was never ideal or normal in the 1st place. Ergo, it required out of box solutions executed in an out of box manner. If everything was normal and was a question of another state bifurcation, I am sure that the Government would have followed the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) as prescribed in the text book.  So, using the Governor’s rule to revoke the powers of Article 370 and dividing the state into two Union Territories are all par for the course.  In short, an issue which is festering without a solution for decades cannot be handled with standard approaches. The only pitfall I see is the “tyranny of precedence”! Future Governments may opt to follow this as SOP even when the situation is normal showing this as precedence!

In today’s viral age, social media would be easily misused to just create a panic by circulating fake news and pictures. So, clamping down on internet services till situation settles down makes sense. But, was there a need for a control on the press from covering?

For those coming down heavily on the Government for the clamping down and heavy deployment of forces… if these were not done and trouble erupted on the streets, the same commentariat will rip apart the Government for not learning from past episodes in Kashmir like during Burhan Wani’s death!

And finally coming to the cause and effect. It is certain that all will not be happy in Kashmir over the changes that has been foisted on them. Vested interests who have been taken off guard by the move may not keep quiet. Pakistan may crank up their covert channels to fester trouble in India.  But then, all these are not new. Even while we were trying hard to maintain status quo in Kashmir, all these were in play.  I am sure that the Government is more than aware of all the risks before they moved deftly on these moves. Let us hope better sense prevails among the Kashmiri youth for whom the best chance is to be aligned with a prosperous India than an Azad Kashmir!

I have been reading that this is Modi’s Mission Kashmir! But I think Mission Kashmir has been the one earlier governments have been trying all along which failed. This is Modi’sFusion Kashmir” and let’s hope this succeeds in its attempt to break the status quo!  After all status quos are made to be broken!  The time is now and the ball is in the court of Kashmiris!

Pic Courtesy: Businesstoday.in

Calling it a Day!

It’s sad when someone takes his own life.

It’s sadder when the person is relatively young!

And even more sad when he is known to be a successful entrepreneur, a role model and founder of an iconic home grown brand!

As news started trickling in on Tuesday of the missing of Café Coffee Day’s (CCD) founder VG Siddhartha, leaving behind a letter purportedly written by him, a sense of foreboding loomed large.  When news of his death by suicide was confirmed the next morning, there was a pall of gloom, even among those who didn’t know him personally. That the brand he created touched many a lives across the country was enough to trigger a wave of emotions in the media, social media in particular.

In general, people who have interacted with Siddhartha talked high of him as a gentleman who knew his moorings well. And who didn’t have an air of himself even after reaching a reasonable peak in his career quite early in life.  In his interviews which surfaced after this tragedy, he can be seen talking passionately of taking his brand to the high streets of the world. There is no much evidence of him being a corporate bully or as a person who grew too much for his shoes or as one who wanted to grow by hook or crook!

In the letter which surfaced on Tuesday, Siddhartha basically talks of three reasons which sort of forced him to call it a day! Pressure from investors, high debt and finally bullying by tax authorities. The narrative that followed this unfortunate incident had two extreme tones mostly picking up threads from the letter and joining the dots. One painted Siddhartha as a victim. In this version, people slammed the Government of the terror it unleashed on hapless businessmen like Siddhartha in the name of Tax compliance. “Tax Terrorism must stop” was the clarion call.  The other narrative painted Siddhartha as a businessman who took advantage of his political lineage and used it to grow while crushing others.  This narrative sort of led to the conclusion that he was no more a crook in a nice pinstripe suit.

Like in most situations these days, the truth could be somewhere in between.  I don’t know of Siddhartha personally.  So, I don’t have personal likes or dislikes of him. I don’t own CCD shares either. Though, I like some of the CCD outlets, as a once upon time filter coffee connoisseur, regret to say, I am not a fan of the CCD coffee!! Ergo, I do believe that I can have a very detached view of this situation.

First up, I do not want to buy the victimhood argument which is being bandied about. In his own admission, Siddhartha has admitted to some financial misdealing. It is the tax sleuth’s job to go after suspects in the way they have been trained to. There is no record of this particular IT officer having singled out Siddhartha for harassment without evidence. On the other hand, what would have been the reaction if the story was slightly different? Had Siddhartha not taken his life but taken a flight out to Cayman Islands under the cloud of debt, tax evasions and investigation trail, what would have happened?  The same commentators would be today slamming the Government and the authorities concerned of letting go of Siddhartha just like Nirav Modis and Vijay Mallyas of the world! Here the angle of Siddhartha’s Father in law, S.M.Krishna being a BJP sympathiser now will be put to use to flog the argument further.

Secondly, that he built an iconic brand that employs 30,000 people cannot be brought forward again to defend his omissions and commissions. Any entrepreneur as far as I know, doesn’t start out with a mission of giving jobs to people. Most probably the larger objective is to build a successful business. When the business grows, people are obviously employed to attain or manage that growth.  So this argument is a non-starter.

Thirdly, the overwhelming victimhood narrative is also because the brand Café Coffee Day touched the lives of many people all over the country and so many had their own CCD stories to share. Of businesses that were “started up” over coffee meetings, over jobs that were landed, over romances that blossomed, over handsome deals that were stuck and so on. My question is, what if Siddhartha did not build Café Coffee Day chain but, a nondescript but equally successful business that supplies components to a global car manufacturer that employed 30,000 people in his factories?  I bet the emotional outbursts in favour of this Siddhartha would be far lower!  It must be also remembered that apart from CCD, Siddhartha ran a slew of businesses from Coffee Estates to Hotels to real estates to being an angel investor!

My point is that in the absence of clear details, it is too early to curse the tax authorities or the Government of pushing Siddhartha literally over the brink!

At the same time, in the absence of full facts, it is also not correct to paint Siddhartha as a villain! In the aftermath of the tragedy, WhatsApp University started spreading unnamed posts of how Siddhartha evaded tax through a complex web of dubious transactions. As they say, there is no smoke without fire or in this case there is no coffee without the bean!  In fact, activists like SR Hiremath have been raising noise about Siddhartha’s dealings as early as Aug 2015!

Be that as it may, it could very well be that as Siddhartha himself admits in the letter, he committed grave mistakes. The point is, if at the end of the day his assets outweigh his liabilities, what was the need to take such an extreme step? He could have very well faced the law, paid up his dues and still walked tall. This is where there seems to be more than that meets the eye, certainly.

In life, Siddhartha imparted many lessons for wannabe entrepreneurs on how to build a successful and adorable brand in such a short time. In his unnatural “Calling it a day” as well, he has imparted a few key lessons!

In Sanskrit the word Siddharth means “One who is in possession of all desirable things”! Yes, VG Siddhartha also was in possession of all desirable things except peace of mind. Most likely.  May his soul find that peace in this journey!

Image Courtesy: TheNewsMinute