Barfi! is about paisa vasool, not an entry for the Oscars

Vivek Kaul
So it’s fashionable to criticise Barfi these days. My wall on Facebook is full of acerbic updates on the movie with a link to this YouTube clip. The movie borrows liberally from a host of other movies without giving them any credit.
Here is a list of few such scenes in the movie.  One of the most hilarious scenes in the movie is the scene where Barfi (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is trying to avoid getting caught by the Inspector (played by Saurabh Shukla) via a sliding door. This scene has been lifted directly from the1917 Charlie Chaplin film The Adventurer. Another scene where Barfi wakes up from under a statue in front of a crowd is a copy from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 classic City Lights.
The ladder scene where again Barfi is trying to avoid the police is borrowed from the Buster Keaton’s 1922 film Cops 1922. Another scene where Barfi grabs onto a bus to run away from the police is borrowed from the same movie.
There are clear influences from early Jackie Chan movies in the chase scenes in the movie. The overall plot of the movie is said to be inspired from the Hollywood film Benny & Joon (1993) and Korean film Oasis (2002).
The inspiration doesn’t end here. A small scene where Barfi is trying to entertain Jhilmil (played by Priyanka Chopra) with a dummy on a sofa is copied from the hit 1952 Hollywood musical Singin’ in the Rain. (For a more detailed list click here).
But the beauty of Barfi is that all the copy-pasting fits into a coherent whole which is backed by some good performances (I thought Saurabh Shukla was fantastic in the movie), great music with some really soulful lyrics, stunning visuals of Darjeeling and an end which makes women cry (Well, at least when I saw the movie First Day First Show, I saw red eyed women all around me.  The only other explanation I guess could be conjunctivitis). All this made the movie a total paisa vasool experience.
But does that justify the copy-pasting? Hindi cinema has always had a culture of borrowing liberally from other sources without giving them credit. Sholay, the biggest Hindi film hit of all time is a very good example of the same. As Anupama Chopra writes in Sholay – The Making of a Classic “They wanted to create a big action adventure, an epic confrontation between good and evil. The inspiration was the Hollywood western. All three (Salim-Javed, the writers and Ramesh Sippy, the director) had been greatly influenced by films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and of course, the mother of the mercenary movie, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.”
The basic plotline of Sholay was borrowed from The Magnificent Seven which in turn had been inspired by Seven Samurai. A lot of scenes in the movie have been shot like scenes in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The water tank scene featuring Dharmendra is a straight lift from the 1969 Anthony Quinn movie The Secret of Santa Vittoria.
Mehbooba-Mehbooba  the movie’s most famous song featuring Helen was a copy of Demis Roussos’s ‘Say you love me’. (You can listen to it here). The entire Veeru ki Shaadi scene is copied from a book called The House of Fear written by the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction Ibn-E-Safi. The book was originally published in Urdu in 1955 as Khaufnak Imarat. (you can read about it in detail here).
And there was more. As Chopra writes “Raj Khosla’s 1971 hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the story of a one-armed man who reforms a petty criminal and uses him to protect their village against dacoits, loomed like a ghost in the background…The Bimal Roy classic, Madhumati, has a scene in which a boastful servant is caught by his master much like what happens with Soorma Bhopali (played by Jagdeep). And the coin motif – Jai (played by Amitabh Bachchan) tosses the coin before making any decision – came from Gary Copper starrer, Garden of Evil.”
As is the case with Barfi these influences fit into a coherent whole which the audience liked. The movie even though it started slow went onto become the biggest hit of all time. I still remember when Doordarshan broadcast the movie sometime in the early 1990s. The city of Ranchi where I grew up was deserted that day. Ranchi Express, the local newspaper, carried pictures of empty roads in the city, the next day. Such was the power that Sholay had on the audience.
Deewar, the other big Bachchan hit of 1975(the other being Sholay) was a clever re-working of Dilip Kumar’s Ganga Jamuna. But that still doesn’t take away the power and intensity of the movie. The scene where Amitabh Bachchan tells Iftikar “main aaj bhi feke hue paise nahi uthata” is simply superb. If there is one scene that summarises the entire Bachchan era of the angry young man this is it.
Raj Kapoor’s 1970 mega dud Mera Naam Joker was inspired from the 1952 Charlie Chaplin film Limelight. Then there also movies like Mahesh Bhat’s 1992 hit Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi. The film is a total copy of the 1934 Hollywood hit It Happened One Night. Even the dialogues (written by the master Hindi writer Sharad Joshi) have been translated as it is from the English original.
The point I am trying to make is that Hindi cinema has always had a culture of borrowing without crediting, from other sources. And it doesn’t really matter to anyone. If the copying is well done (as is the case with Barfi and was with Sholay) the audiences love it. The producer laughs all the way to the bank. The actors move onto other projects and demand more money. And so everybody gains.
All this of course does not justify copying without credit, but as they say in Indian English, we are like this only.
Now that brings me to the main question that I am trying to answer in this piece. Should Barfi have been the Indian entry at the Oscars? The answer is no.
First and foremost the movie does not have original content. But more than that while awarding movies in the foreign movie category what the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, looks at is whether the movie could have been set anywhere else.
Barfi is set in Darjeeling and Kolkata in the seventies and eighties. But it could have been set almost anywhere in the world. Sholay is an excellent example of the same phenomenon. It was set in a fictional Indian village called Ramgarh. But similar movies had been set all over the world. Seven Samurai was set in Japan. The Magnificent Seven was setin Mexico. And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was partly set in Bolivia.
Three Indian movies have made it to the final nominations for the Best Foreign Film. These are Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. (Of this whether we can call Salaam Bombay an Indian film is doubtful. Mira Nair who directed and co-produced the film has largely lived out of India, all through her adult life.)
The setting of these movies was uniquely Indian. Also, Mother India was not an original script. It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s 1940 movie Aurat. The Marathi movie Harishchandrachi Factory which was the Indian entry at the Oscars in 2009 was another such uniquely Indian film, even though it did not make it to the final nominations.
From the list of Hindi films made this year Gangs of Wasseypur or Paan Singh Tomar would have been better bets for the Oscars, given that they clearly fit into two genres that Hollywood loves i.e. epics and underdogs. Gangs of Wasseypur is a story set around the coal mafia of Dhanbad which plays across three generations. The movie received a very good reception at the Cannes Film Festival. Paan Singh Tomar on the other hand is an excellent biopic set around an army man turned steeplechase runner turned dacoit. An underdog story that Hollywood would have loved!
I am sure there would be many better movies which fit into the kind of criterion that the Academy looks at made in other Indian languages as well. Given this I’d like to conclude by saying that while Barfi was a total paisa vasool movie but it is just not right for the Oscars.
The article originally appeared on on September 29,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected] )

Call of the mall: Tricks they use to make you spend more

Vivek Kaul
On a recent visit to a refurbished supermarket I was surprised to see a bakery right at its entrance. What it clearly told me that Indian retail was finally catching up with its global counterparts when it comes to marketing. Now you might like to believe that having a bakery as a part of a supermarket is a perfectly natural thing. But there is more to it than what meets the eye.
So why do most modern supermarkets have bakeries right at their entrances?  Martin Lindstrom has the answer in his book Buyology How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong. As he writes “Not only does the fragrance of just-baked bread signal freshness and evoke powerful feelings of comfort  and domesticity, but store managers know that when aroma of baking bread or doughnuts assails your nose you’ll get hungry – to the point where you just may discard your shopping list and start picking up food you hadn’t planned on buying. Install a bakery, and sales of bread, butter, and jam are mostly guaranteed to increase. In fact, the whiff of baking bread has proven a profitable exercise in increasing sales across most product lines.
In fact Lindstrom even points out that some Northern European supermarkets don’t even bother with setting up bakeries they just pump artificial fresh-baked bread smell straight into the store aisles from their ceiling vents.  In some cases a florist shop or a cookie store comes into play.  “Smell and sound are substantially more potent than anyone had even dreamed of…All of our other senses, you think before you respond, but with scent, your brain responds before you think,” writes Lindstrom.
Music also has a role to play in this. Ever wondered why supermarkets generally tend to play soothing music? This is to slow down the consumer so that he takes time to look around the items in the supermarket.
And this is not the only trick that supermarkets malls and companies use to get you to buy more than what you may need and even things you may not need.
Another favoured trick is to offer something extra free rather than pass on an equivalent decrease in price to the consumer. Now this sounds a little complicated so let me explain this through an example that Akshay R Rao, a marketing professor atthe Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota in the United States, discussed with me in a recent interview.
Imagine that I am selling coffee beans, and I offer you 100 beans for Rs. 100 on a normal day. Then, one day, I offer you a 33% discount, so you receive 100 beans for Rs. 67. On another day, I offer you 50% extra (or free). You now get 150 beans for Rs. 100. But, I impose no limit on how many or how few coffee beans you can buy, on either day. So, on the day in which I offer 50% extra, you could quite easily have bought 100 beans for Rs. 67! Yet, most people prefer 50% more to a 33% lower price, even though the two options are economically equivalent,” said Rao. (You can read the complete interview here)
This inability of the consumers to distinguish between the options is exploited by businesses. Bookstores often resort to this trick. As Paul Ormerod writes in Positive Linking –How Networks Can Revolutionise the World Marketers observed…that discounts offers such as ‘buy one, get one free’ or ‘three for the price of the two’ – a concept I am very keen on because this is how bookstores often package up their offers – tend to be more effective is boosting sales than the exact equivalent price reduction on a single purchase. The amount of money which is paid for the bundle of products is identical in each case, but more will usually be bought if they are packaged under an offer than if there is a simple equivalent reduction in the individual prices.”
Another trick used to great effect by retailers is contrast effect. It has been put to great use by retailers as well to increase the attractiveness of certain products. A 1992 research paper written by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky, shows this through an example of a retailer who was selling a bread making machine. The machine was priced at $275. In the days to come the company also started selling a similar but larger bread making machine. The sales of this new machine were very low. But a very interesting thing happened. The sales of the $275 machine more or less doubled. As an article on the website of the Harvard Law School points out “Apparently, the $275 model didn’t seem like a bargain until it was sitting next to the $429 model.” (You can read the complete article here)
This is a trick used by retailers all over the world to great effect. By displaying two largely similar but differently priced products, the sales of the product with the lower price can be increased significantly by making it look like a bargain.
Retailers often use this trick to promote their own brands by placing their own cheaper products against more expensively priced other brands. Tim Harford points this out in his book The Undercover Economist– “In Dalston, Sainsbury’s  (a big retailer) own brand of fresh chilled juice was sitting next to the Tropicana at about half the price., and the concentrated juice was almost six times cheaper than the Tropicana.”
You would be surprised to know that malls and supermarkets are even built in a way so as to encourage people to shop more. In a multi floor store, typically the women’s apparels are on the first or the second floor. This is because women are likely to go the extra distance to shop for something than men. Also, a lot of things that can be bought instinctively and do not require much thought are placed near the payment counter so that people can almost pick them up mindlessly while making the payment.
In fact the reason why most food courts are on the top floor of the mall is because the retailers want you to buy more and pick up things you hadn’t planned to. This is done by ensuring that in order to reach the food court you have to go through the length and the breadth of the mall and in the process you might pick up something along the way. The smarter individuals might just take the lift to the food court. But then once a person reaches a mall the tendency is to loiter around for a while.  This also explains why there are multiple escalators in a big retail store or a mall. This is done to ensure that once you are in the mall you go through a large part of it.
Supermarkets use the same logic and ensure that essential items like wheat, rice and vegetables are placed inwards in the store. This is to ensure you to go through the entire store and thus increase your chances of picking up something you hadn’t planned to. The next time you are at a big supermarket try buying an essential item like milk and see the sections that you pass by the time you have found the essential you are looking to buy. Chances are you might find chocolates and other junk food along the way.
Supermarket shelves are also strategically planned. The more expensive items are typically around the middle shelves to ensure that they are at the eye height of the consumer. The cheaper products are rather right at the top or at the bottom. This ensures that a consumer might just be lazy and buy the expensive product. There is also a psychological aspect at play. The supermarket by placing the expensive products in the middle is trying to project it as a quality product in comparison to the ones placed in the top or the bottom shelf.
So the next time you are at a supermarket or a mall be aware of these tricks and don’t get caught in the trap of buying things you did not plan to in the first place.
The article was originally published on on September 28,2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Sibal jumped the gun: SC may well see Coalgate as a scam

Vivek Kaul
Gyan Chaturvedi, a famous Hindi writer of this era, makes a very interesting point in the introduction to his 2004 book Marichika . He writes “jungle ke apne niyam hote hain aur wahan kissi tark ka koi sthan nahi hota (a jungle has its own rules and there is no space for any reasonable arguments to be made there).”
Nobody understands this much better than politicians operating in the jungle of politics. They rush to save their own skin and keep justifying what they had said earlier, despite evidence to the contrary. “My position is right because I had said so in the past,” is the logic with which they operate. There is no scope for a “reasonable argument” there.
The Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s “opinions” on the government reference to it asking for broad-sweep clarifications on its policy of allocating natural resources is a very good example of the same. “We welcome the Supreme Court(SC) opinion. SC has confirmed what the government has been saying,” Sibal said yesterday.
This comment came after a five judge bench of the Supreme Court answered the questions it had been asked by the government of India through a Presidential reference on April 12,2012. Among other things the government had asked the Supreme Court to clarify on “whether the only permissible method for disposal of all natural resources across all sectors and in all circumstances is by the conduct of auctions.”
This question had arisen in light of the Supreme Court judgement cancelling the licenses given to 122 telecom companies in 2008, when A Raja was the Telecom Minister. The government had given out these licenses on the basis of “first come first serve” principle rather than auctioning them as they had done in the past and thus causing a huge loss to the exchequer.
In response to the government’s question the Supreme Court clarified “Auctions may be the best way of maximising revenue but revenue maximisation may not always be the best way to subserve public good. Common good is the sole guiding factor under Article 39(b) for distribution of natural resources. It is the touchstone of testing whether any policy subserves the “common good” and, if it does, irrespective of the means adopted, it is clearly in accordance with the principle enshrined in Article 39(b).”
This paragraph in the suggestions made by the Supreme Court perhaps got the politician in Sibal gloating and into the “I had told you so” mould. The government has maintained that auctioning natural resources is not always the best possible way to operate because it tends to drive up prices. For example, if coal is auctioned to the highest bidder, then power prices will go up. Hence, in lieu of the “common good” natural resources cannot always be sold to the highest bidder.
Let’s see how strong this argument holds in case of the coalgate scam. Between 1993 and 2011, the government gave away 195 coal blocks with total geological reserves of 44802.8million tonnes free to private and government companies. An estimate of the total amount of coal present in a block is referred to as geological reserve. Due to various reasons including those of safety, the entire reserve cannot be mined. The portion that can be mined is referred to as extractable reserve.
Of these 115 blocks were given to companies which would use coal that they produced from these captive blocks for the manufacture of cement and iron and steel, conversion of coal to oil and commercial mining. These blocks have geological reserves amounting to 20526.9 million tonnes of coal.
The manufacture of cement and iron and steel or commercial mining operations are “for profit” operations and cannot be termed as “common good”. Hence there was no reason for the government to give away these coal blocks for free. That is a clear interpretation that one can draw out of what the Supreme Court said.
Eighty coal blocks were given to companies for the manufacture of power. Of these 80 coal blocks, 53 blocks were given to companies for captive dispensation of power. These blocks had 10621.4 million tonnes of geological reserves of coal.
What this meant was that companies had to use the coal produced from the blocks they had been given to produce power to meet their internal needs. Hence a company manufacturing steel could use coal produce from its blocks to manufacture power needed to produce steel. The “free” coal blocks would allow them to produce power cheaply and thus bring down their costs and thus make higher profits from what they would have made. Again, the end result is a “for profit” operation and this cannot be categorized as “common good”.
Hence, 168 out of the 195 coal blocks with geological reserves of 31148.3 million tonnes were allocated to companies supposedly in “for profit” operations. The remaining 27 blocks with geological reserves of 13654.5 million tonnes were allocated for production of power. Of these seven blocks had been allocated to ultra mega power projects. The companies which were given these blocks could produce power cheaply because they did not have to pay for the coal block. This can be categorized as a “common good”.
Hence, common good is limited to around 30% of the coal reserves allocated under the government’s policy of giving away coal blocks for free. Even this can be questioned given that all the seven coal blocks (with geological reserves of 2607million tonnes) allocated to the ultra mega power projects are in the private sector. And no private sector company is in business to make a loss.
If Sibal had read the suggestions of the Supreme Court carefully enough he would have realised that Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, one of the judges on the bench, does make the points I just raised above.  “When natural resources are made available by the state to private persons for commercial exploitation exclusively for their individual gains, the state’s endeavour must be towards maximisation of revenue returns. This alone would ensure, that the fundamental right enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution of India (assuring equality before the law and equal protection of the laws), and the directive principle contained in Article 39(b) of the Constitution of India (that material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good), have been extended to the citizens of the country,”Kehar points out.
Given this, it clearly means that 70% of the coal blocks given away for free should have been auctioned because there is clearly no “common good” involved there.
Judge Kehar also pointed out that “No part of the natural resource can be dissipated as a matter of largesse, charity, donation or endowment, for private exploitation. Each bit of natural resource expended must bring back a reciprocal consideration. The consideration may be in the nature of earning revenue or may be to “best subserve the common good”. It may well be the amalgam of the two. There cannot be a dissipation of material resources free of cost or at a consideration lower than their actual worth. One set of citizens cannot prosper at the cost of another set of citizens, for that would not be fair or reasonable.”
Khehar also clearly points out that even though the Supreme Court was saying that the auction of natural resources wasn’t the right way to proceed always, but that did not mean that there should be no auctions at all. “Government should remain alive to the fact that disposal of some natural resources have to be made only by auction…A rightful choice, would assure maximization of revenue returns. The term “auction” may therefore be read as a means to maximize revenue returns,” the Judge said.
The Judge also makes it clear that in several situations giving away coal blocks for free wouldn’t work. “If the bidding process to determine the lowest tariff (of power) has been held, and the said bidding process has taken place without the knowledge that a coal mining lease would be allotted to the successful bidder, yet the successful bidder is awarded a coal mining lease. Would such a grant be valid?… Grant of a mining lease for coal in this situation would therefore be a windfall, without any nexus to the object sought to be achieved,” he said. Thus a power company which is in the business of selling power at commercial rates could get an undue benefit because it had access to free coal blocks.
Another interesting point that the Judge makes is that the man on the street should know why the decision has been taken in favour of a particular party. What this means in terms of the coalgate scam is that the government owes an explanation to the nation as to why relatives of ministers in the government got coal blocks for free? It also needs to tell us is how did dubious companies with no previous experience in any business land up with coal blocks?
Kapil Sibal clearly jumped the gun while making the comments that he did yesterday. Guess by now he would have found time to read through what the Supreme Court had to say in totality. Given this he would understand that the underlying tone of the suggestions made by the Supreme Court is that the UPA government screwed up majorly while giving away coal blocks for free since they came to power in 2004.
(The article originally appeared on on September 28,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

‘India grows at night while the government sleeps’

Gurcharan Das is an author and a public intellectual. He is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma which interrogates the epic, Mahabharata. His international bestseller, India Unbound, is a narrative account of India from Independence to the turn of the century. His latest book India Grows At Night – A Liberal Case For a Strong State (Penguin Allen Lane)has just come out. He was also formerly the CEO of Proctor & Gamble India. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul on why Gurgaon made it and Faridabad didn’t, how the actions of Indira Gandhi are still hurting us, why he cannot vote for anyone in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and why democracy has to start in your own backyard if it has to succeed.
What do you mean when you say India grows at night?
Essentially the full expression is India grows at night while the government sleeps. I thought that would be insulting to put in the title. So I left it at India Grows at Night. And I subtitled it a liberal case for a strong state. The basic idea is that India has risen from below. We are a bottom up success, unlike China which is a top down success. And because our success is from below, it is more heroic and also more enduring. But we should also grow during the day meaning we should reform our institutions of the state, so that they contribute much more to the growth of the country. We cannot have a story of private success and public failure in India.
Could you explain this through an example?
I start chapter one of the book with a contrast between Faridabad and Gurgaon. If you were living in Delhi in the seventies and eighties, the big story, the place you were going to invest was Faridabad. It had an active municipality. The state government wanted to make it into a showcase for the future. It had a direct line to Delhi. It had host of industries coming in. It had a very rich agriculture. It was the success story. So if you were an investor you would have put your money in Faridabad.
And what about Gurgaon?
In contrast there was this village called Gurgaon not connected to Delhi. No industries. It had rocky soil, so the agriculture was poor. Even the goats did not want to go there. So it was wilderness. And yet 25 years later look at the story. Gurgaon has become an engine of international growth. It is called the millennium city. It has thirty two million square feet of commercial space. It is the residence of all the major multinationals that have come into the country. It has seven golf courses. Every brand name, from BMW to Mercedes Benz, they are all there. And look at Faridabad (laughs)…
Faridabad missed the bus?
Faridabad still hasn’t got the first wave of modernisation that came to India after 1991. It escaped Faridabad. Only now it’s kind of waking up. And Gurgaon did not have a municipality until 2009. This contrast really is in a way the story of India grows at night. And the fact is that the people of Gurgaon deserve a lot of credit because they didn’t sit and wait around. If the police didn’t show up they had private security guards. They even dug bore-wells to make up for the water. The state electricity board did not provide electricity, so they had generators and backup. They used couriers instead of the Post Office. Basically they rose on their own.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
My point is that neither Faridabad nor Gurgaon is India’s model. Faridabad is a model where you have an excessive bureaucracy. Why did Faridabad not succeed? Because the politician and bureaucrats tried to squeeze everything out in the form of licenses. And Gurgaon’s disadvantage turned out to be its advantage. It had no government. So there was nobody to bribe. But at the end of the day Gurgaon would be better off, people would have happier if they had good sanitation, if they had a working transportation system, they had good roads, parks, power etc.
All that is missing…
All the things that you take for granted that you would get in a city, you shouldn’t have to provide them for yourself. This is the point. Neither model is right. And we need to reform the institutions of our state. And we need to create what I call a strong liberal state.
What’s a strong liberal state?
A strong liberal state has three pillars. One an executive that is not paralysed like Delhi is right now, where you have push and drag to get any action done. Second that action of the executive is bounded by the rule of law and third that action is accountable to the people. When I mean a strong state? I am not talking about Soviet Russia or Maoist China. I am not even talking about a benign authoritarian state like Singapore which is very tempting because it has got such high levels of governance. I am talking about classical liberal state the same kind of state that our founding fathers had in mind or the American founding fathers had in mind when they thought about the state. And so that is not easy to achieve.
Why do you say that?
It is not easy to achieve because some elements in these three pillars fight with each other. In other words you have an excessive drive for accountability then the executive gets weakened.  I mean right now the Anna Hazare movement has so scared the bureaucrats that they won’t put a signature on a piece of paper. The Anna Hazare movement is a good thing because it awakened the middle class but it also weakened the executive. So, today more important than even economic reforms are institutional reforms i.e. the reform of the bureaucracy. If a person is promoted after twenty years regardless of his performance there are repercussions. If it doesn’t matter whether he is a rascal or outstanding, and both are treated the same, you won’t get high performance. You will get a demoralised bureaucracy. Those are the kind of reforms we need.
What are other such reforms?
Take the case of the judiciary, why should it take us 12 years to get a case settled when it takes two or three years anywhere else? You go to a police station to register an FIR, do you think they will do it? Either you have to bribe somebody or lagao some influence. You have this rising India amidst a very very ineffective state.
One of the things you write about in your book is the fact that India got democracy before it got capitalism. World over it’s been the other way around. How has that impacted our evolution as a country?
That also explains some of our problems. By getting democracy before capitalism, you had a populist wave. The politicians when they thought about going to elections started realising ke bhai we will tell people that I’ll give you four rupee kilo rice and get elected. In Punjab the politicians said we will give free electricity to the farmers and got elected. So you killed your finances through this populism. The states which did this really went bankrupt. Punjab and Andhra Pradesh which did these two things couldn’t pay their salaries to their bureaucrats.
And this started with Nehru’s socialism?
Nehru’s socialism created the illusion of a limitless society, that the state would do everything. Jo kuch hai, which we used to do for ourselves, through our families etc, we now expected the state to do. That was the message given by the socialists. The fact is that the state did not have the capacity. In the courts judges knew their jobs. It was a good judiciary. Even the police was very good but suddenly you expanded the mandate so that half the cases today are government cases. You haven’t been paid a refund. Or the government is taking your land or something and so you go to court.  So the guilty in many cases is the state.
What you are suggesting is that the mandate of the state was expanded so much that it couldn’t cope with it?
And they did not expand the capacity. Suddenly you needed a tenfold increase in judges and a tenfold increase in bureaucrats. This is because the jobs you expected this people to do were so much greater. And you told people, especially workers and government servants, that you have rights. So a school teacher suddenly realised that he did not have to attend school, he could get away with it. The person who was his boss or her boss was too scared because of the union of the teachers. So one out of four teachers is absent from our schools. And nothing happens to that person. I am answering your question about how embracing democracy before capitalism hurt us.  We became more aware of our rights. We tried to distribute the pie before the pie was baked. Before the chapati was created we started dividing it.
In fact there is a saying in Punjabi ke pind vasiya nahi te mangte pehle aa gaye (the village is still being built and the beggars have already arrived)
Bilkul. Perfect. That’s an even a better saying. This has been one of the problems. In 1991 we did start building the economy base to support a democracy like ours. But these people fettered away some of the gains. Just see how much subsidy is being given on petroleum products. It is around Rs 1,80,000 crore. I mean you could transform your school system with that kind of money.
And the health system…
Yes even the health system.
How much do you think the socialism of Nehru and Indira Gandhi is holding us back?
The damage that Indira Gandhi did was far greater. Her license raj combined with the mai baap sarkar, this double whammy gave the illusion to the people that the state would do everything. Nehru had never talked about a mai baap sarkar. The second was the damage she did to our political institutions. We owe Nehru a great debt because he built those institutions. Our modern political democracy we owe it to him. But she did a lot of damage to those institutions. Could you elaborate on that little?
During the period she was the Prime Minister, I think she dismissed fifty nine elected governments in states. Now we hardly hear of this. This is partly a reaction to what she had done. She tried to change India’s culture and change our political system. A lot has been written about the emergency and so on. But the enduring damage we don’t realise. Before her, Chief Ministers were a little afraid when a secretary said no sir you can’t do this. And if you tried to do it, the secretary wouldn’t bend very often. Now they just transfer. Look at what Mayawati did. Also after Indira Gandhi the police became a handmaiden of the executive. The police lost its independence.  Even the judiciary was damaged. She wanted committed judges. Fortunately the Supreme Court did not succumb to that rot.
“It is tempting to compare crisis-ridden Hastinapur with today’s flailing Indian state,” you write. Could you explain that in some detail?
Before this I wrote this book called The Difficulty of Being Good. I interrogated the Mahabharata in a modern contemporary way. And I realised that the Mahabharata is us, still. The great scholar Sukthankar, the editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata had once said that the Mahabharata is us. And I had always wondered what he had meant. I realised reading the book that really it’s a story of India. And why I preferred the Mahabharata to the Ramayana is because in the Ramayana, the hero is perfect. The brother of the hero is perfect. The wife of the hero is perfect. Even the villain is perfect. Luckily I had done Sanskrit in College and so I went back to my roots. I went to study in Chicago.
And what did you realise after studying the Mahabharata?
Essentially the Mahabharata is about the corruption of the kshatriya institutions of that time. The way the rulers, the nobles behaved, it clearly upset the author of the Mahabharata or we should say authors, because it was continuously evolved over 400-500years. They were very upset and enraged as today young Indians are enraged by the government. They were enraged by the institutions of these kshatriyas. The sort of the big chested behaviour.  The idea that you went to heaven if you died fighting on the battle field. That sort of notion. So most people think Mahabharata is about war, but actually it’s an anti war epic.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
In Mahabharata, Hastinapur is the capital of the kingdom of the Kauravas. The Pandavas have created a new capital at Indraprastha. The point is crisis ridden Hastinapur is somewhat like our crisis ridden institutions of today. People were impatient and they were enraged by what was going on and so they had to wage a war at Kurushetra. And I just hope that we don’t have to do that. We can reform the institutions before we reach that point. That’s the comparison to Kurushetra and Hastinapur that I spoke about.
You were a socialist once?
I was a socialist like all of us when we were in the 20s and 30s. But then we could see that Nehru’s path was leading us to a dead end. Certainly a part of India Unbound is a story of the personal humiliations that I experienced, and on top of that Indira Gandhi’s failures really converted me. When the reforms came in 1991 I had become a libertarian. I really celebrated the reforms. For me that was Diwali and so I began to believe that the story of India rising without the state was a sustainable story. And I began to believe that this was a heroic thing and a laissez faire state was the best state. Back then, in my view the state was a second order phenomenon. Now writing this book partly and looking back over twenty years, I have concluded that state is a first order phenomenon. So I have gone from being a socialist to a libertarian to what I would go back and say is a classical liberal, who really doesn’t believe that laissez faire is the answer, and who does believe that you need the state.
Can you elaborate on that?
You need a limited state and not a minimalist state as Nozick(Robert Nozick, an American political philosopher) would have said. But that limited state must perform. So I have come to realise that the success after 1991 has partly been because there were regulators in those sectors, which rose. The election commissioner, the RBI, the Sebi, these have all contributed. Or even the first TRAI(Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the telecom regulator) under Justice Sodhi and Zutshi. That first TRAI sent the right signals. If we had left it to the Department of Telecom (DOT) and did not have any regulator things might have been different. DOT wanted to crush the new private companies. So what I am saying is that you need good regulators. You need government as a good umpire. You don’t need government to own Air India. But you need a good civil aviation regulator who will ensure a level playing field for everyone in the market.
You explain in some depth in your book as to why Indian political parties treat voters as victims. One can see that happening all the time and everywhere…
And it also explains why I cannot vote for anybody in 2014. Really as an Indian citizen I have been thinking who will I vote for? Every party treats voters as a victim. They are all parties of grievance. We don’t realise that one third of India is now middle class. This new middle class are tigers. They have just made it. They don’t want to be reminded that they are victims. They are looking for the state to further their rise. And they are looking for good roads, good schools and these things.
But nobody talks about development in India…
Yeah. BJP if you scratch them you know they are talking about 1000 years of Muslim oppression. Congress says you are victim of globalisation and liberalisation. So we will give you free power, free this and free that, NREGA etc. Dalit parties say you are a victim of oppression. OBC parties say you are a victim of upper caste oppression. Nobody is talking about the reform of the institution. Even the Anna Hazare movement was talking about only one Lokpal, which is fine, but it had to be couched in a bigger story.
You critique the Anna movement by saying that they have further undermined politicians and political life. Could you explain that in detail?
They have undermined the politics and political life. It is very easy to do that. When you attack politicians then you are also unwittingly attacking the institution of elections. The good thing is that it has put a fear in the minds of politicians. Whether the Anna Hazare movement fails or succeeds is no longer important. What is important is the legacy that it has woken up the middle class. That won’t go away easily. The question then for a young person today is that the Anna movement may have gone, but what can I do? The answer is start with your neighbourhood. Start with your ward and see what can be done. And that is the local democracy I am talking about. That’s where politics begins and that’s where habits of the heart created. I am so in favour of grass-root democracy, the fact that we should put the power downwards. Also even in the rhetoric of the Anna Hazare movement they talked about the gram sabha, the mohalla sabha, that’s where we get the habits of the heart.
What about Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to enter politics? How do you view that?
Before I get to that let me discuss something that I talk about in my book. In this book I hope for a formation of a new political party along the lines of the erstwhile Swatantra Party. But the agenda of this party is not just economic reform but institutional reform. At the Delhi launch of my book Arivnd Kerjiwal was there. TN Ninan, Chairman of the Business Standard newspaper,was moderating the discussion and he said since both of you are advocating a political party, why don’t you join hands. I said, I admire Kejriwal, but he has got all kinds of crazy people around him, who still think that reforms were a bad India. Also, they never talk about institutional reform. So I am not sure that we could be together.  But I said were we would be together is that both of us are tapping into the new middle class, which is impatient, confident, assured and which wants to get rid of corruption. But I feel that we need the hard work of institutional reforms and that street protest is not the answer. I also said I am so glad that Kejriwal is now looking at politics because that is the right route to go.
One of the things that one frequently comes across in your book is that you are hopeful that the politics of India will change in the next few years as more and more people become middle class.
But it doesn’t look like…
It doesn’t look like because politics has been left behind. But now they are realising. They have been shaken up because so many of them (the politicians) have gone to jail. Even the language is a little more cautious now.
So you see the kind of chaos that prevails right now will go away?
It is only out of chaos that something happens. As Nietzsche(Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher) said that it is the chaos in the heart that gives birth to a dancing star. I see things positively even though we have been a weak state. But as they say, history is not destiny.
 “The trickling down of power has made India more difficult to rule,” you write. Could you explain that in the context of the politics that is currently playing out?
It has made India more difficult to govern. But it remains a very important development because I am in favour of federalism. The best thing about FDI in multi brand retailing is that they have given the states the freedom to decide whether they want foreign investment or not. So imagine an FDI decision is now in the hands of the state. And I think that is wonderful because each state is like a country in India. The state of UP has 180 million people and I have no problem is with the trickling down of power. My problem is that we should be able to have an effective executive at the centre. Today we have a very weak Prime Minister. We need a stronger person in the role. We don’t want an Indira Gandhi, but we want a strong person who can be an institutional reformer.
You hope for the rise of a free market based party like the erstwhile Swatantra Party(a party formed by C Rajagopalachari and NG Ranga in 1959 to oppose the socialist policies of Nehru). Do you see really see that happening?
You have to be lucky to some extent and hope to get a young leader. I don’t know who it will be. But there will be somebody in their thirties and forties. Then the country will rally behind them. The way they rallied behind the Kejriwal, Anna Hazare movement. In one sense the last thing India needs is a another political party. But I also see that I cannot vote for any political party. I see that there is a wing of the Congress which does not like this free power and that entitlement culture and the corruption that is being bred in the Congress. There are people even in the BJP who have faith in the past, but they are not anti-Muslim necessarily. So I think they will come together for a secular political liberal party. Similarly there are people in the regional parties. And this is a good time for a liberal party. Swatantra Party was at the wrong time. They were too early.  They were ahead of their time. So if we are lucky we will throw up a leader, but you can’t depend on that.  But the hopeful thing is the rise of the middle class which will make the politics change.

(The interview originally appeared on
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

The Singh Talkies

Vivek Kaul
One of my favourite Hollywood comedies is Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie made in 1976. As its name suggests, the film had no dialogue and the only audible word in the movie is spoken by Marcel Marceau, when he utters the word “No!” Rather ironically Marceau was one of the most famous mime artists of the era.
The Congress party led UPA in the last few years has been behaving in the opposite way.In the Congress movie every leader other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the man at the top, had a dialogue. Singh chose to keep quiet rarely telling us what was going on inside his head, as his government moved from one scam to another.
But over the last two weeks he has suddenly found his voice, initiated a wave of reforms, from increasing the price of diesel by Rs 5 per litre to allowing foreign direct investment in the retail sector. “​It will take courage and some risks but it should be our endeavour to ensure that it succeeds. The country deserves no less,” Singh said after the announcements were made.
He even addressed the nation and explained the rationale behind the decisions. The media went to town saying that Manmohan has got his mojo back. But the question is what has got our silent Prime Minister talking?
When Pranab Mukherjee presented the budget earlier this year he had projected a fiscal deficit of Rs 5,13,590 crore or 5.1% of the gross domestic product(GDP). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
The projected fiscal deficit has gone all awry primarily because the price of oil has continued to remain high, despite a slowdown in the global economy. Currently, the price of the Indian basket of crude oil is at around $114.4 per barrel.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if the diesel, kerosene and cooking gas, would have been sold at their market price. But the Indian government hasn’t allowed that to happen over the years and has protected the consumers against the price rise. This means that the oil marketing companies (OMCs) Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum have had to sell diesel, kerosene and cooking gas at a loss.
The government needs to compensate these companies from the losses they incur, so that they don’t go bankrupt. These losses were close to touching Rs 1,90,000 crore, when the government decided to increase the price of diesel by Rs 5 per litre. Even after this increase the OMCs will lose over Rs 1,00,000 crore just on the sale of diesel this year. The total loss on diesel, kerosene and cooking gas is now estimated to be at Rs 1,67,000 crore. The OMCs are also losing around Rs 6 per litre on selling petrol, but the government doesn’t compensate them for this.
The government hadn’t budgeted for such huge losses on the oil front in the budget.  The budgeted amount was a miniscule Rs 43,580 crore. Of this nearly Rs 38,500 crore was used to compensate the OMCs for losses made during the course of the lost financial year, leaving a little over Rs 5,000 crore to meet the losses for the current financial year.
The subsidies allocated for food and fertiliser are also likely to be not enough. In fact as per the Controller General of Accounts the fiscal deficit during the first four months of the year has already crossed half of the budgeted fiscal deficit of Rs 5,13,590 crore. This was a really worrying situation. More than that with tensions flaring up again in various countries in the Middle East, it is unlikely that the price of oil will come down in a hurry.
Given these reasons if the government had carried on in its current state there was a danger of the fiscal deficit crossing Rs 7,00,000 crore or 7% of the GDP. This is a situation which India has never had to face since the country first initiated and embraced economic reforms in July 1991. The fiscal deficit for the year 1990-1991 had stood at 8% of the GDP.
Reforms like allowing foreign investment in multi brand retailing will have an impact on economic growth over a very long period of time, if at all they do. Allowing foreign investors to pick up 49% stake in domestic airlines will also not have any immediate impact. But what is more important is the signals that these reforms send out to the market i.e. policy logjam that was holding economic growth back is over and the government is now in the mood for reforms.
As a result the rupee has appreciated against the dollar. One dollar was worth Rs 55.4 on September 14. Since then it has gained 3% to Rs 53.8. This will help in bringing the oil bill down. Oil is sold internationally in dollars. When one barrel costs $115 and one dollar is worth Rs 55.4, India pays Rs 6,371 per barrel. If one dollar is worth Rs 53.8, then India pays a lower Rs 6,187 per barrel. So an appreciating rupee brings down the oil bill, which in turn pushes down the fiscal deficit of the government.
The thirty share BSE Sensex has rallied by 2.9% to 18,542.3 points, from its close on September 13 to September 17. Nevertheless, even after these moves the actual fiscal deficit of the government will be substantially higher than the targeted Rs 5,13,590 crore. To bring that down the government needs to come up with more reforms so that the rupee continues to appreciate against the dollar and brings down the oil subsidy bill. The market rally also needs to continue, so that the government meets its disinvestment target of Rs 30,000 crore for the year. And on top of all this the government also needs to reign in the oil subsidy by gradually increasing prices of petrol, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas. Unless this happens, the government will continue to borrow more and this will keep interest rates high. Interest rates need to come down if businesses and consumers are to start borrowing again. This is necessary to revive economic growth, which has slowed down considerably.
If all this wasn’t enough we also need to hope that a certain Mrs G and Master G need to continue to understand that good economics also means good politics. If they switch off anytime now, Manmohan Singh is likely to go quiet again.
(A slightly different version of the article with a different headline appeared in the Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on September 26, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a Mumbai based writer. He can be reached at [email protected])