Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, January 26, 2009

TO TALK of Amar Singh’s clout is a bit like talking about Barack Obama’s charisma or Bill Clinton’s philandering. Everyone knows about it. But it is as if the man wakes up each day determined to prove the point once again. When Amar Singh serenaded Sanjay Dutt after he joined the Samajwadi Party last week, the Congress was so infuriated, it even got his sisters to turn against their brother. He is one man who can simultaneously annoy the establishment and have it dance to his tune. When the Republic Day honours list was being finalised, the government was under pressure to honour Aishwarya Rai with the Padma Bhushan, an award she richly deserves considering her unchallenged supremacy in the industry for nearly a decade and half. A little hitch though. The award to Aishwarya could have created tension on the Bachchan home front since Jaya Bachchan, Aishwarya’s mother- in- law, is merely a Padma Shri. Honours Shared.

Praising Modi a dicey affair
THE corporate titans who sang hallelujahs for Narendra Modi and nominated him as the country’s next prime minister at the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Ahmedabad two weeks back — it’s another matter that Modi said no thanks, I will wait for my time — are in course correction mode. The swift repudiation of their endorsement of Modi from the Congress triggered fears amongst some of them of impending retribution.

A recent meeting in the capital of the apex industry bodies brought many of them to Delhi where some of them knocked on the right doors to explain their conduct to those who matter in the ruling dispensation. Some are reported to have said that they were merely keeping up the Indian tradition where it is seen to be impolite if you don’t praise your host for the hospitality extended to oneself. Anonymous senders despatched CDs on behalf of some industrialists to ministers and even their minions in an effort to prove innocence. It is presumed that the CDs were raw and unedited. Still others took the all too familiar excuse of blaming the media for misquoting them. Ah, minting money is not the only factor that unites our corporate and political class. As this incident makes clear, both relish media- bashing.

Austerity should begin at home
THE first signals from the new occupant of the White House are encouraging and I would like to believe that in sending a blunt message to Pakistan to set its house in order, Barack Obama may have been telling us Indians, don’t worry, sooner or later I will have these rogues on their knees. That doesn’t mean of course that South Block should sit back. Obama has his uses for us elsewhere too. For a start, why not borrow a leaf from his first day in office? Amongst his early decisions were two that our lawmakers would be advised to adopt: a freeze on salaries for our ministers and bureaucrats and a more transparent government.

This government flaunts the Right to Information Act as one of its achievements but anyone who has tried to access information invoking RTI will tell you what a sham it is. We have 73 union ministers, when we could do with half as many. Their numbers go up each time the ruling alliance nets a new coalition partner and each of them accounts for about Rs four crores a year. We have about 400 officers of the level of secretaries, many of whom are superannuated and have been given reemployment as a token of gratitude for past favours. The government homes in Lutyens’ Delhi, the white Ambassadors with red beacons and the paraphernalia at their disposal costs the government about Rs two crores for each of them. Indira Gandhi ran the country for 17 years with probably half as many ministers and secretaries. And she did a much better job. Cutting even a third of the flab would net the government enough money to build thousands of primary schools, hundreds of public health care centres and such like. For reasons known only to him, Manmohan told George Bush at their last meeting, “ Indians love you”. In these troubled times, if Manmohan Singh takes the cost cutting cue from Obama, acts like a CEO, cuts the flab, orders wage freeze in government and hands out the pink slips where they are overdue, millions of Indians who admire Obama may actually send him text messages professing their love.

LALU PRASAD YADAV’S Rashtriya Janata Dal has three cabinet ministers, but the railway minister’s profile is so larger than life that few would have heard of the other two — Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Prem Chand Gupta. The latter is Minister for Company Affairs and you would think that in these days when Satyam is another byword for large scale fraud, he is a busy man. Not quite. Not much was known about him until he joined the cabinet, except that he was a businessman from Haryana who stood by Lalu even as some of his closest friends ditched him when he was caught up in the fodder scam.

Lalu rewarded him by sending him to the Rajya Sabha twice and in 2004 wangled for him a cabinet post. But Gupta is slowly realising that a reserved seat in the cabinet room doesn’t necessarily mean that he has work to do. That the real power lies elsewhere. That he had no clue about the people that were being placed on the reconstituted Satyam board became clear when TV networks relayed the names even as he was telling an interviewer that these were being finalised. The one decision he attempted to take — to supersede the Maytas board — was overruled by the government.

Under normal circumstances, Lalu would have taken up cudgels on his party colleague’s behalf, but his strange silence means only one thing: Lalu is aware of the powerful connections that both Satyam and auditors Price Waterhouse have in the ruling establishment. A lot has been written about the former, but the clout that PW wields among the movers and shakers on Raisina Hill is enormous. In fact, so enormous that despite fudging in Satyam, it still acts as advisor to some crucial government departments. Such arrogance should come as no surprise. Nearly a dozen offspring of the political and bureaucratic elite work in the auditor’s offices worldwide.

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