Monday, January 12, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, January 12, 2009

WHERE was T. R. Baalu, the road transport, highways and shipping minister last week when truckers went on strike and essential supplies ran scarce? Baalu is known to be absent without leave even from crucial cabinet meetings, choosing to spend time in Chennai to secure his political future.

As such no one was surprised that he did not even turn up for a Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs ( CCEA) meeting convened by the Prime Minister to discuss the strike. Some suspect he was at Thirumangalam in Madurai where a by- election was held on Friday. In his absence, Manmohan Singh briefed the meeting.

Baalu, sources say, is available in his office only every fifth day. I have some advice for the striking truckers. They should add to their agenda the demand for better highways.
Because it is entirely due to Baalu’s apathy that the national highway construction programme is in reverse gear for the last couple of years.

Shekhawat comes out of retirement
IF YOU think the confusion in the Congress makes things rosy for the BJP, perish all such thoughts. Dark days have descended on 11 Ashoka Road which is still trying to come to grips with the defeat in Delhi and Rajasthan and a meeting ground eluding its old guard and its GenNext leaders. And now Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, among its senior most members and former Vice- President, is further muddying the waters by threatening to contest the Lok sbha elections. Nearly three months ago, in these very pages I had written about Shekhawat’s itch to get back into public life. He told me once about a national campaign against corruption that he wanted to initiate. I had then assumed he was eager to take on a JP- like role, a father figure who will keep away from the dirt and grime of power politics.

Anyone except the corrupt would welcome such a campaign. But that he chose to launch it by writing to Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot seeking probes into deals made during the previous Vasundhara Raje regime smacks of intra- party politics at the gutter level. A decade ago, the BJP boasted a GenNext that peers were envious of. Today the GenNext leaders are in dire need of eye- bag therapy. Worse they have nothing to show for the years that have rolled by. Shekhawat in a way reflects the state of the BJP, where the old refuse to retire and the young don’t measure up. That’s why V. K. Malhotra became its chief ministerial candidate in Delhi when anyone with a voter’s ID knew that Sheilaji was a better bet. And 75- yearold Chaman Lal Gupta is the leader in J& K. Last week, they pulled O. P. Kohli out of the woodwork to head the Delhi BJP. His initial reaction — “ I am shocked, stunned” — sums up the man’s predicament. He is clueless because he hasn’t run a campaign since they reducedthe voting age to 18. It is here that you doff your hat off to Farooq. So what if GenNext is from the family’s next generation?

Chidu ka jawab nahin
SIX YEARS and countless terrorist attacks later, P. Chidambaram last week was all set to tread the path that one of his predecessors had taken. In 2002, then home minister L. K. Advani embarked on a trip to the US with detailed and irrefutable evidence of Pakistani hand in the December 2001 attack on our Parliament. Nothing came of the trip and the jihadi menace became worse. Chidambaram was to go to Washington with evidence to drum up international pressure on Pakistan to rein in the murderous thugs. Nobody is more suited than the erudite, articulate Chidambaram to put across India’s point. More so because after the horrific events in Mumbai in November, Islamabad seemed to be winning the propaganda war with its consistent state of denial. But late Thursday came the announcement that the trip has been deferred. There were uncharitable comments that the postponement was forced because Washington was too busy with the transition. That is nonsense because the US ambassador to India, David Mulford, had met PC to chalk out his programme which included a meeting with members of the transition team.

It is my belief that between January 3 — when PC announced his travel itinerary — and January 8 — when the trip was called off — foreign office mandarins who believe dealings with Washington, London and other major world capitals lie exclusively in their domain became hyperactive. The five days saw scores of ambassadors being invited to the foreign office where external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee gave them the same documents that Chidambaram was to carry to the US. The documents were also sent to about 120 missions around the world to be handed over to the governments of their respective countries. The official explanation given for the postponement is probably more to the point: Chidambaram was needed at home to tackle the crisis arising out of the oil PSUs strike. Which just goes to show that when it comes to taking on terrorists — whether Pak or oil- based — Chidu ka jawaab nahin hai.

LAST week has brought dark clouds and silver linings for the investing classes. I have it on reliable authority that after the Satyam fiasco, the Department of Corporate Affairs has sought details of the ownership patterns of high value companies where promotee- owners currently hold less than 20 per cent of the stocks. The truth behind Satyam’s lies will continue to tumble out in the next few days but it has put the spotlight on the role of market- driven economic policies and their administration.

For a start, the government will reconstitute the board with 10 of its own appointees. But the Satyam failure reflects the total collapse of our regulatory and monitoring mechanisms and how myriad agencies like SEBI, the IT authorities and the stock exchanges were unable to detect the shenanigans that went on inside the once- blue chip company.

Investigators are still trying to figure out how the Raju family was allowed control of the giant when all they held was eight per cent of the stocks. The department has gathered information about several high- profile companies where promoters have divested up to 90 per cent of their shares at high prices and swelled their bank accounts ( probably held in Liechtenstein or Canary Island) after manipulating the market valuations. I am told the government is planning a crackdown and new regulations will soon be in place to ensure that no promoter who holds less than a minimum 40 per cent stake will be allowed to exercise management control over a company. Better late than never, the investors would say.

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