Sunday, December 30, 2007

Inflation , a non-expert's view

Wholesale inflation and Consumer inflation
The government has its own measure of inflation. There is Wholesale Price Index. And then there is Consumer Price Index. All the newspapers and TV channels talk loudly about only Wholesale Price Index. To know the Consumer Price Index for any month is pretty difficult since it is tucked somewhere deep in the inside pages of the newspapers, away from the screaming headlines and the business TV channels hardly make a mention of it, as if inflation in items of consumption by households has no relevance. But for the common man, Consumer Price Index is what really counts. An honest practice would be to talk about both the figures when some one boasts of having contained inflation. My suspicion is that in India , inflation as measured by CPI is a good 2% higher than WPI.
Inflation same for every one ?
People who are curious about the impact of inflation on their money and life should go for an independent assessment of annual rate of inflation. The items in the CPI bag, prices of which are tracked by the Government may not be relevant to you at all. They may include tea but not coffee. But you are a coffee drinker. You eat rice during every meal and make faces at the sight of wheat. But to the extent that both rice and wheat are in the CPI bag, the real inflation for you is either higher or lower than CPI, depending on the rise in cost of rice and wheat. You are an orthodox and religious man; you turn away your face from the heap of tempting onions in the vegetable vendor's shop. But onion is an important measure of food inflation since for a majority of Indians a meal without onions is unthinkable. You get free transport from the company for commuting to the office. Your inflation is less than that of your neighbour whose BP shoots up every time Petrol Prices shoot up. It is another matter that every item or almost every item you buy for your consumption has some element of cost impacted by price rise of Petrol.
Maintain a broad record of prices
Do you care to note down either in your memory or in a scrap book the prices of important items of expenditure at different points of time? It would be a very interesting exercise. Petrol used to cost Rs.4.50 per litre in 1982. Now it is more than 10 times that price. But the taxi fares in Mumbai have not gone up by 10 times. It is a modest figure, about 4 times. Only if you compare with 1973 figures, the taxi fares have gone up by 8 to 10 times.
A simple vegetarian meal (Thali) in middle -class localities of Mumbai used to cost Rs.2.- in 1971 and Rs.5.- in 1988. Today it is Rs.35.- So, food inflation for those who eat out has been steeper during the last 15 years than during the earlier period.
What goes up does not come down, right?
Wrong. Even nominal prices of some items have come down. For example, color TV. Mobile Phones. Computers. The real prices ( after accounting for normal inflation) have come down for ceiling fans, refrigerators etc. There is a pattern. Manufactured goods can beat inflationary trend and could cost less or proportionately less than before, if advancements in technology of production and improvement in productivity take place rapidly. Also, level of competition helps to keep a thumb on inflation. With market economy holding sway over the entire world, price movements can not be entirely in one direction.

Friday, December 28, 2007

24-Hour Nuisance Channels

TV News Channels
In the last few years, several 24-hour news channels have made their appearance. Not only in English , but also in Hindi, Tamil and other languages. It is not necessary any more to wait till the next morning to get to know the latest happenings in the country and the world from the newspaper. Be it the detailed analysis of election results or the the bizarre shooting incident occurring in an University at the other end of the world, we get minute-by-minute coverage and expert commentaries. This is not only a faster way of being informed, but a passive mode of getting the news. If all that is required to do is to just switch on your TV before making yourself a potato in the couch, why be bothered to hold the bulky newspaper in hand and struggle to locate the continuation sheet of the first page head-line news?
Battle-ready 24-hours
The channels compete with each other fiercely. All the twenty four hours. Every one of the three hundred and sixty five days. They have to fly or reach the reporter to far-away places in the shortest possible time immediately after the news-worthy incident has occurred. They have to manage fast and suitable comments from at least two to three people who have some expertise on the subject that is making news. They must frame a relevant question around the subject and shoot off a sms poll.
Only convey or even create news?
Competition forces channels to cross the line of propriety. In order to make the news presentation spicier, some of them indulge in exaggeration. Presenting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Mody as the worst villain of communal peace was the dubious achievement of NDTV channel in 2002. Freezing that image in the people's mind was a contribution by CNN-IBN channel. Even when Mody was shying away from communal topics in his election campaign this year, the above channels ably joined by Times Now succeeded in bringing the old wounds like post-Godhra violence to the centre stage of the campaign. No doubt, all the above channels received a shock of their lives when the election results in Gujarat went in favour of Mody. Now they can not present such a result as vote by people for communalism. They are in a fix and fumble for words to explain the result. If these news channels had not overdone their 'hate Mody' stories, they would be enjoying much greater credibility today.
Hindi News Channels
While the English news channels distort political news and exaggerate things in their presentation, the Hindi news channels opt for triviality. Any thing that will appeal to the common minimum denominator among their viewers. Look at their favourite topics. Rakhi Sawant's problems with the Law that played spoilsport in some of her planned dance programmes. A 60-year old Professor of Patna University who fell in love with a 20-year old female student of his and the resultant physical fight between his wife and the student. Star News goes to more absurd levels. There was a news story about a village woman who is troubled by a snake every night , the snake being her dead husband according to the woman. While the intention behind choosing such a story seems to be to pander to and even fan the superstitious tastes of the viewing public, the channel covers it up by calling a Psychologist to analyse the woman's delusion.
Manufacture controversies?
Whatever problems have arisen between Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have been due to the mischief by the 24-hour news channels. The news channel reporters carried tales and planted falsehood methodically. They twisted statements and quotes. They screamed in headlines what the stars said in murmur. In public perception, the two stars have become two childish adults quarrelling for the sake of quarrelling. About nothing in particular. The stars are either the innocent victims of the 24-hour cub-reporters' unhealthy desire to create some hot news that will sell , or are playing along knowing the game fully well in the interest of securing some cost-free publicity. After all, any publicity, even negative one, is preferable to no publicity.
Not enough news for 24 hours
The world is big. True. Events keep happening. Very right. And the public have a right to know. Agreed. But so many fresh news-worthy events are not happening to keep feeding the story-hungry channels for 24 hours. These channels should reinvent themselves so that they do not have to stoop to the point of creating news where nothing exists, exaggerating events to the detriment of public interest and misdirecting the course of history by false alarms.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Political Dynasties in India

Gandhi-Nehru Dynasty
Years ago, when I was talking to an European friend of mine on the then imminent elections in India, I was surprised to discover that my friend thought Indira Gandhi , the then Prime Minister of India was related to Mahatma Gandhi. Later I learnt that he was not the only non-Indian to think so. Leave alone non-Indians, even a substantial number of rural Indians thought so. The benefit of such misunderstanding has been ample for the Nehru Family. Today the Nehru Family is known as Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, though the name 'Gandhi' in this case pertained to Indira Gandhi's husband Feroz Gandhi who had nothing to do with Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi-Nehru dynasty has given so far three Prime Ministers to India. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi , who controls today India's biggest Political Party, the Congress Party , almost became the Prime Minister in 2004. Her son Rahul Gandhi is being widely thought of as the next Prime Minister, if the Congress Party wins the coming 2009 elections.
Karunanidhi Dynasty
Karunanidhi, the four-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has founded a powerful political dynasty. Stalin, one of his sons, is being groomed to be the next Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi's another son Azagiri has been a DMK party strongman of the southern parts of the state. It should not be a great surprise, if he is soon given a vey senior position in the party, as a compensation for missing the chief minister's chair. Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi is a member of the Indian Parliament and an announcement of her inclusion in the Central Cabinet is expected any time.
Deve Gowda Dynasty
Deve Gowda, Prime Minister for a year in the mid-nineties has been working hard to see that his sons get established in Karnataka politics. His son Kumaraswamy was chief Minister for 18 months. His other son Revanna, angry and unhappy about having lost a previous opportunity of becoming the Chief Minister to his younger brother, is Chief Minister-in-waiting. Deve Gowda does not think twice about toppling any Government that survives on his support, if it does not suit the political interests of his family.
Lalu Prasad Dynasty
When Lalu Prasad Yadav had to quit as Chief Minister of Bihar due to the corruption charges against him, he brought in his wife Rabri Devi, a housewife as his successor. Rabri Devi's brothers are already playing important roles in Lalu Yadav's RJD party. The latest buzz is that Lalu Yadav's son is entering politics to carry on the family's stranglehold over the party and possible positions in the Government.
Mulayam Singh Dynasty
Mulayam Singh Yadav was Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India more than once. His brother has been occupying the second or third most important position in his party Samajwadhi party. Mulayam Yadav's son has been a Member of Parliament for a few years and is the likely future Chief Minister if the Samajwadhi Party comes to power ever again.
Gwalior Dynasty
The rulers of the former princely state of Gwalior, the Scindias have managed to carve out a powerful niche in Indian Politics. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan Vasundara Devi belongs to this clan. Her nephew is a member of Parliament and her sister is a member of a state Legistative Assembly. This dynasty has been intelligent enough to create roots in both the major Political Parties of the country, the Congress and the BJP.
Democracy or Dynocracy?
Besides the above dynasties, there are others in the making such as Sharad Pawar dynasty, Patnaik dynasty, Badal dynasty, Ramadass dynasty etc. While the Congress Party was the original innovator of this practice, the Regional Political Parties quickly caught on to this and have been the main spirit behind the spread of this quasi-feudal system. Well, however uncomfortable this development is to blue-blooded democrats, one can not dub this practice as totally undemocratic, since the succession from one generation to the next of these dynasties has the endorsement of the Indian people through voting in the elections. India has invented a new system of governance which is a hybrid of Democracy and Monarchy. India has always spiced its imports with indigenously-grown additives, be it the American Burger or the English Language. Democracy is no exception.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What is 'Communist' about China today?

There was a time the People's Republic of China was fiercely Communist. There was no private ownership of any thing. The Government run by the Communist Party decided on every aspect of its citizens' life. There was centralized planning of the economy.There was only State-sector. Private citizens were not allowed to set up industries. Foreign Companies were not allowed to exist. There was no individual freedom. No political party other than the Communist Party was allowed to function.

China remained closed to the outside world for a long time. No one who was an adult in the sixties could forget what Cultural Revolution meant for the citizens of China. Intellectuals were jailed, if not murdered. Books were burnt. No idea other than Communism was allowed to take roots. The Chairman of the Communist Party wielded more power than the President or the Prime Minister of the country. So, China was really an arch Communist Country then.

But what about today? What is so 'Red' about it? Can one still call China Communist? If so, on what grounds? The country , of course, still does not allow any Political Party other than the Communist Party to operate. There is no Democracy. The freedom of speech is still very much restricted. The Govt.uses force to make its Citizens obey. But such conditions exist in some other countries too, though the ruling parties in those countries are not Communist. So, single-party dictatorship and absence of democracy and freedom of speech alone can not make a country Communist.

Today China follows its own version of Capitalism. Though big industries are still in the State sector, private initiative is allowed in several walks of life. There are opportunities to grow rich. Capital inflow from the outside world is encouraged. There is a Stock Market trading in Chinese company shares. Foreigners visit China in droves. Beauty contests which were once considered part of the 'Decadent Capitalism' are now a part of the Chinese social scene. Private ownership of houses, cars and other trappings of the Capitalist system has been accepted. China is no more insular. There is considerable disparity among its people in sharing the fruits of the economy. While in the old Communist China there was no economic disparity among its people ( except for the fact that the party functionaries were a privileged class), today's China is like any other country where there are rich, poor, and middle classes.

Yes, China has its right to pursue any economic policy which guarantees a better life for its citizens. When the whole world is under the spell of Market Economy , why should China be an exception? But why this Communist mask ?

If China still calls itself Communist, Karl Marx must be squirming in his grave. The Chinese have discarded his 'Das Kapital' once for all and embraced his class enemy, the Capitalists in a bear hug. Or Dragon hug. Marx, if he can make himself heard to the Chinese Rulers, must be pleading helplessly " Choose any name you like for your rule, but not Communism and any colour you like but not Red. Bitte nicht Rot."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quebec is a state of mind

Vive Le Quebec libre. Many would remember this phrase uttered by French President Charles De Gaulle. The people of Quebec, the French-speaking province in Canada have an identity distinct from the rest of Canada. Quebec , more than a geographical location , is a state of mind. Such Quebecs exist in several countries. For example Bavaria in Germany. India, which is of continental proportions, too has some Quebecs.

I have used the word Quebec here as an euphemism for sub-nationalism. Strong undercurrents that distinguish themselves from the mainstream. Undercurrents that assert their individual identities , mostly culturally but sometimes politically . Tamil Nadu is one such location where sub-nationalism is a strong emotional strand. For the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with the geography of India, let me add that Tamil Nadu is a state situated in the southernmost part of India. The state is mainly populated by people who speak the ancient but vibrantly living language of Tamil. Tamil is one of the two classical languages of India, the other being Sanskrit. It is said, with good justification, that if there is one Indian language which can live without words contributed by Sanskrit, it is Tamil. Sanskrit is dead as a spoken language. There are only a few hundreds of people who declare Sanskrit as their mother tongue. Of course, every major Indian language is said to be a derivative of Sanskrit and so Sanskrit in a way continues to live through other major Indian languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi etc. Not Tamil. Tamil is very much a living language and almost 70 million people declare Tamil as their mother tongue. Just as Sanskrit is the mother of the North Indian languages, Tamil is said to be the mother of the South Indian languages such as Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu.

Language is perhaps a principal reason why some kind of sub-nationalism exists in Tamil Nadu. While most of the Indian states had no objection to accepting Hindi ( spoken by one third of the Indian population) as the official language of India, Tamil Nadu put up a strong and successful fight to ensure that English continues to be an official language along with Hindi. The fear in the minds of the people of the state that with the removal of English as official language, job opportunities would dwindle was somewhat justified.

While Bollywood, which the Hindi Movies are called as, holds sway over the rest of India, it is the home-grown Tamil movies which rule the Cinema halls of Tamil Nadu. For every Shah Rukh Khan or Amir Khan that Bollywood flaunts, the Tamil movie land called Kollywood answers through its inimitable Rajnikanth and cinestar-turned-politician Vijaykanth.

The major Indian states vote for either of the major National Political Parties, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party. Not Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, these two major national parties put together get less than 15 % of the total votes polled. Tamil Nadu elects either of the two Dravidian Parties, DMK and AIADMK. There are several political parties in Tamil Nadu who have the word Dravidian in their names. The word is a kind of assurance to the people that the said parties are 'us' , not 'them'.

Most of the Indians drink tea. The favourite beverage of the people of Tamil Nadu is Coffee. North Indian food has wheat-made Chappatti as the main item. The Tamil Food abhors wheat and opts for rice. In classical music, the Northern states enjoy Hindustani Music. The Tamils are mesmerised by Carnatic Music. The northerners wear Kurta and Salwar Kameez. The Tamils wear Dhoti and Saree. The difference spills over into religion as well. Among the various Hindu Gods, Ram and Krishna are the deities the Northerners worship most. Though Hindus constitute a majority in Tamil Nadu too, the predominant preference in Tamil Nadu is to worship Subrahmanya whose name has been suitably tamilized as Murugan. By the way, the puzzle is that Lord Subrahmanya is a bachelor God whereas Lord Murugan( the Tamils' Subrahmanya) is a married God.

Though the differences are very apparent, Tamil Nadu is as solidly Indian as any of the other states. Tamil Nadu has contributed great politicians and statesmen to the national leadership( C.Rajagopalachari, K. Kamaraj, C.Subramaniam, to name a few). Bollywood has had several Tamil-speaking stars dominating it (Vyjayantimala, Hemamalini, Rekha). Several people from Tamil Nadu have happily migrated to other Indian states for professional reasons and find themselves at home. Several important ministers in the Indian Government and several highly-placed civil servants in New Delhi belong to Tamil Nadu. So, the sub-nationalism or the Quebecian flavour has not , in practice , resulted in any alienation. It has only served as a safety valve to let off steam in certain circumstances that are peculiar to any heterogeneous country like India. While Quebec has been recognised as a distinct society within the united Canada, Tamil Nadu's aspirations do not travel beyond demanding recognition of Tamil language as a Classical Language by the Indian Government . The political parties which had earlier demanded autonomy are happily a part and parcel of the Indian Government in New Delhi. Their demand is not autonomy for the state of Tamil Nadu any more. All they want is more ministries for their elected representatives. The people of Tamil Nadu , in any case, have never been enthusiastic about autonomy espoused by these political parties. They are happy just celebrating their distinct cultural identity , while being equally happy within the political identity of India. A lot like Bavarians in Germany.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How to prepare for Overseas Holiday

Travelling overseas gives every one great pleasure. Opportunities of exposure to a new culture, getting to know unusual local customs, tasting exotic food and bringing back scores of digital images that will form staple food for many future conversations with family and friends in the winter evenings are an irresistible temptation. But a lot of preparation is required before one actually undertakes the dream trip. Let us look at it in detail.

1.Choice of destination: This depends not only on one's interests but on the budget as well. You might like to travel to Scandinavia. But if you can not afford the expensive hotel accommodation in Stockholm , you will be forced to consider cheaper alternatives, say Spain or Malaysia or Egypt. Internet gives you more than enough information on the hotel room tariff.

2.Choice of package: There are group tour packages available from major tour operators such as Thomas Cook, Cox & Kings, Orbitz etc. These travel organizations offer individual packages as well. Both the packages have advantages as well as disadvantages. If you want to be in the midst of 'birds of the same feather' , then group tour is your cup of tea. But you should not mind the conflicting interests of the various members of the group. You might like to spend more time in a museum. But the majority might like to hang out in a theme park. A disgruntled minority might keep complaining about the insufficient time given for shopping. Individual packages do not have this problem. But you are on your own and every small detail is not meticulously taken care of, on your behalf. Another alternative is to do all the arrangements on one's own , either through the Internet or using your phone.

3.Choosing the Airline: When you do not go through any tour operator, you have the additional task of having to choose a good Airline. Almost all the Airlines offer a certain number of seats at concessional price. This could come with some strings attached, such as minimum or maximum number of days of stay, period of validity of ticket etc. But these conditions do not hurt the holiday-travellers. It is better to choose the Airline of the country one is travelling to. There are better chances of flying directly to the destination through such airlines . They will be cheaper too .

4.Applying for Visa: While the Citizens of the U.S. and some other countries are lucky to be exempted from Visa formalities by many destination countries, people who do not enjoy such exemption should act in time. Normally, besides an Application, Passport, Air Ticket, Hotel vouchers etc. must be submitted to the Consulate of the destination country. Citizens of developing countries have more headaches. They have to submit even a copy of their Bank Statement for the earlier 6 months to prove their financial well-being. While Consulates such as German Consulate are very efficient and give you the Visa in 24 hours , many Consulates take 3 to 7 days. Consulates of the former Communist Countries of Eastern Europe are much slower in issuing Visas. After Schengen Visa has been introduced, it is not necessary to apply separately to individual Consulates of Western European countries if your journey takes you to more than one country. Schengen Visa is valid for 14 countries and it is enough if you apply to the Consulate of the first country you visit.

5.Travel Insurance: It is advisable to buy travel insurance. In fact, Schengen Visa makes submission of Travel Insurance a pre-requisite to issue of Visa. Allianz, AIG and Lombard are some of the reputed insurance companies. There are suitable policies depending on the number of days of travel and age of the insured. All of them cover Hospitalisation, obviously. But some of them cover, in addition, loss of documents, travel delay, baggage loss , baggage delay etc.

6.Hotel Booking: There are various categories of hotels suiting different budgets. The travel agents may be more interested in promoting costlier hotels. You should put your foot down and stick to your specifications of overnight room rates. If you are booking through the Net, include Guesthouses in your search. You will get a wider choice and cheaper offers.

7.Packing: Remember the weight/dimension limits specified by the Airlines. Keep in mind the risk of losing some of the baggage and arrange to have part of the clothes packed in the cabin bags.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Annual Medical Check-Up

As one ages, the human body starts wearing out. It develops complications. Years of neglect and misuse take a toll on the health. In today's fast -paced world , there are very few professionals who can claim that they eat at regular intervals and balanced meals. Many of them eat breakfast while dressing up to leave for work. For lunch it is sandwiches while still shuffling papers or making calls. Several cups of coffee are consumed during the working hours. Though smoking is fast going out of fashion and many of the large companies have banned smoking within the premises, the die hard smokers find ways of retaining their chain-smoking habit. If one sits late in the office in the evening to catch up on pending work to beat approaching deadlines, dinner means some fast food, not a balanced meal. Office work invariably means sedentary work and the executives do not have opportunity or time for any exercise for the body. Not even much of walking. How long would the body cope with this kind of assaults? The result is Acidity, Diabetes, Hypertension, Backache, Migraine, High Cholesterol etc. etc.
Preventive steps are obviously the best. But living in a big city , long commuting hours , mounting expectations from employees in these competitive times and associated mental tension do not allow one to implement all the preventive steps. So, the next best course is to go in for periodical medical check-ups to identify any potential problem while it is still in its infancy. Almost all the major hospitals have such packages at affordable cost. Depending on the age of the user, the packages vary in the tests offered.
All the packages have complete blood count , Blood Sugar, routine chest X-ray and urine test. ECG, Cardiac Profile, Renal Profile, Mammography etc. are modules that are added, depending on the need. Nowadays, the hospitals in big cities are well-equipped with all the latest diagnostic devices. High Frequency X-ray machines ( reducing radiation hazards) , Random Access Automatic Chemistry Analyser, Electronic Blood Cell Counter, Multichannel ECG, Ultrasound Scanners including Color Doppler, Mammography etc. have become a pre-requisite to run any good diagnostic centre these days. If in the routine check-up, any thing suspicious shows up, the patients are referred to other departments for further check-up and diagnosis. In order to facilitate this, the Hospitals have more sophisticated diagnostic equipment like CT scanner, MRI , Cathlab , Gamma Camera and PET Scanner.
It is very human to live in wishful thinking. What you have not heard does not exist. But future being full of surprises, one can never be sure of what is in store . By undergoing regular check-ups, at least once a year, one can take timely action on the health front. The fear that some underlying disease could be discovered during the check-up should not discourage one from opting for routine medical check-up. The momentary unpleasantness on learning the problem will soon be washed away as quick steps following the diagnosis are taken to put the health back in excellent shape.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

American Democracy does not come cheap

With just less than a year to go for the American Presidential elections, there is a lot of noise in the media about the likely candidates. Democrats have some three or four front runners. Republicans have more or less the same number. There is still time for dark horses on both the sides to emerge.

The first primary to be held in New Hampshire is just a few weeks away. That will set the tone for the subsequent primaries. Primary is a peculiar American invention. Who should be the official candidate of either of the two major parties is left not to the party leaders or selected luminaries of the parties, but to the general public. So whoever emerges finally as the official candidate of either party happens to have had endorsement from the grassroots, namely the voters in the Presidential election. Of course, the way it operates in practice is not very simple. Different states adopt different systems of primary. There are open primary, closed primary, semi-open primary, semi-closed primary , blanket primary etc.

Closed system permits only registered members of the parties to vote in the primary election. The registered members of the Democratic party vote in the Democratic Primary and the registered voters of the Republican Party vote in the Republican Primary election. This is very logical. States such as Florida, New York and Massachusetts follow this system of primary. More complicated is the Open system. In this system, any registered voter can vote. He does not need to be a registered member of any party. Worse, he can participate in the primary of either of the parties. It does not matter if he being a traditional Republican voter in the Presidential election participates in a Democratic Primary. Or, the other way about. The disadvantage of this open system is what the political pundits call as 'Raiding'. What does Raiding mean? If I , my uncle and my neighbour happen to be Republican party supporters and fear that no Republican candidate can beat Hillary Clinton in the Presidential election , we can try stopping Hillary's nomination by participating in the Democratic primary election and vote for a weaker candidate , say John Edwards. States like Texas and Tennessee have open primary. Then there is semi-open primary in some states and semi-closed primary in some others.

Primary as a tool to ensure that the candidates nominated by the two political parties must have some support from the grassroots is a noble ideal. Probably, it serves the purpose too. But at what cost? I read that millions of dollars are being collected for the war chests of the candidates. According to the newspapers, Hillary Clinton has collected the maximum. Obama is not far behind. Undoubtedly, money is required to fight Presidential election. Crisscrossing the country, TV campaigns, huge supporting staff. These do cost a bomb. But the candidates do the same in primaries too. In the Presidential election, only two candidates namely the official nominees of the parties spend big money. But in primaries, a dozen candidates spend big money. After all who donates this money? Not just the traditional voters and sympathisers of the two parties. The big business. Lobbying groups. Vested interests. Those who want policy changes made in their favour. With what confidence could one say that whoever becomes the President ultimately will choose to act in favour of the greatest good of the largest number of people? What if the greatest good of the largest number is in conflict with the interests and wishes of the special interests groups? So, what has one achieved by these primaries ? Juicy news bits for the media. Some entertainment for the general public. Heartbreaks for the losing candidates. How would it be less democratic if one does away with these primaries campaigning in which start a year in advance edging out more important issues from the national consciousness ? How would a candidate be less representative if a few thousands of the party's higher forums choose instead of several millions of people? Why have a costly dress rehearsal when the main event too is going to be a costly affair? Well, the answer is that nothing in the United States can be done on a small scale. Compactness is just not OK. Every thing has to be gigantic. Larger than life. That, I suppose, is the American way of life. So, primaries too will continue to be expensive and time-consuming.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My tryst with self-improvement books

I was 25 years old when I stumbled upon a copy of the well-known book by Dale Carnegie " How to win friends and influence people". I had just started my career a couple of years earlier. So it was no big wonder that I was drawn to the title of the book. Of course, I wanted to win friends just as any other young person. But more importantly, I wanted to learn the secrets of influencing people. After all, in this competitive world of ours how could one make it on the basis of professional talent alone? Talent plus something else were required. So, here at last was a book which was going to teach me step by step how to influence people. More exactly, how to influence people into helping me. Into beating my peers in the game of climbing the career ladder.

As I began reading it, I became mesmerised with both the style and the contents of the book. Looking back today with the advantage of hindsight , I would say that whatever was written was plain common sense. But then common sense being so uncommon, a book was needed to teach remembering common sense. There were plenty of tips, all personally tried successfully by Dale Carnegie. So, several of them were workable. The only problem, even in those days, was that so many other youngsters too were learning Carnegie techniques of influencing people. The result could not be any thing other than creating a level playing field , one cancelling out the advantage of the other.

The next self-improvement book I read was also one by Carnegie. How to stop worrying and start living. This book was not very useful to me since at that age, I did not have too many worries. Whatever few worries I had were solvable without paying money to Dale Carnegie. But then , having bought the book and read it, I had to utilize the knowledge gained. So I started counselling a senior colleague of mine who , I was convinced, had thick lines of worry on his forehead and constantly so. With all the sincerity, I suggested that our friend Carnegie would have answers to let him stop worrying and start living, if only my colleague will let me know what was bothering him so much. Probably, my body language made him suspect that I was ridiculing him. Who was I , a man as much as 10 years younger than the worried man, to hint that the latter should start living? His reply, delivered with all the heat and passion that he could collect ,taught me a lesson of a life time; never mess with people with thick lines of worry on their foreheads.

Carnegie was fast becoming a liability to me. But I gave him one last chance. I bought his book on Public Speaking. The book was eminently readable. But Public Speaking is never learnt by reading a book. It is learnt by going up the stage , mustering up some courage and spitting out some murmurs. Nevertheless, I must concede that once I joined a Public Speaking course, many of the techniques Carnegie suggested came handy.

It was time to say good-bye to Carnegie and graduate to Napoleon Hill. Hill's book "Think and Grow rich" cited numerous examples to prove that growing rich was indeed within reach. I do not remember now very well what all the qualities he had listed to stand a chance of becoming rich. Determination was one. I remember this, since my Ophthalmologist friend who always carried this book while travelling, used to roar " Determination !" in the Public Speaking class. In fact, this Ophthalmologist friend has indeed become very rich over the years. I suspect that some credit should go to Napoleon Hill's book. I do not know whether he still carries the book with him while travelling because he does not use Public Transport any more. The Ophthalmologist drives what to my eyes looks like a BMW.

There was this book the title of which was " How to live 24 hours a day". I do not remember the name of the author. The book cautioned that one should not waste even a single minute of one's precious life. So,the author said, if you are travelling in a train, take a book with u , at least a dictionary and read. But not newspaper. Spending more than a few minutes on a newspaper is oriental lavishness, according to the book. The author permits you to do budgeting for your household during the travel. Or think of what you are going to do in the office that day. Any thing would do, but do not allow the mind to rest. In other words, do not let your mind be in peace. And when you return home from the office, there are other pieces of advice to follow.If you want to go to a music concert in the evening, you would get the author's permission only if you have already read a book on " How to listen to music" . Feeling the flow of music is just not enough. One of the craziest books I have ever read. The author perhaps thought that living meant continuous mental action and whacking the brain. Some living indeed !

During mid-seventies, I read ' I am OK, you are OK". The title itself is very reassuring. I did find the book useful. In an overall sense. One should take the gist and let it operate in the background of the mind. If one gets too much into the nitty-gritty and starts analysing which of your friends is conducting a child-parent conversation with you, you will surely lose that friend. If you always wanted to be an adult and speak or conduct yourself like one , you will soon miss the pleasure that certain childlike qualities such as looking at things with wonder or with open mind can bring to life.

I first thought that the book " Your erroneous Zones" was pure pornography. But the content was applied psychology. The title scared away several people who would have otherwise read the book and found it useful. I think that the name of the author is Dyer or some such short name. Not only the title of the book, this guy grinning broadly from the cover page did make people think that he was some modern day version of Vatsyayana, the author of Kama Sutra.

I have moved on. I do not read " How to..." books any more. Well, age is one important reason. Besides, the wise books of today advise you to accept the self as it is and watch how such acceptance becomes the trigger to let changes happen on their own. Sounds very Zen, no?

Celebrities of Yesteryear, where are they?

Where is Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady now? She was the Prime Minister of U.K. for three terms. She made Britain turn right in its economic policy and away from soft Socialism which the British Labour Party was specializing in. But when did you hear about her last? The newspapers do not write about her any more. The TV cameras do not chase her any longer. She does deserve her retirement and rest after an aggressive pursuit of power in a man's world. But, along with the loss of power, her celebrity status too seems to have gone. We do not know whether she has taken this loss in her stride and moved on emotionally.

Thatcher is not the only celebrity who has lost that status. She is in the good company of so many other politicians and movie stars. Jimmy Carter, Senior Bush, Gorbachev, the residual Beatles, Walesa, Mandela, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor.....the list is long. In India where I live, there are several celebrities of yesteryear whom time has forgotten to carry with them forward. Rajesh Khanna, the first actor of Bolywood to earn the title 'Superstar' does not hit the newspaper headlines any more. If he does compete for space in the middle pages and that too occasionally, it is not for any worthy reason that can bring back his for-ever-lost celebrity status. If Vyjayanthimala, one of the most admired actresses of the Hindi movies of the sixties were to walk on the Mumbai roads today, she would not get a second look from the passers-by. Not because she has aged. But because she has lost her celebrity tag. No one wants to Google-search Rajesh Khanna and Vyjayanthimala. The new celebrities are Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Why would any one be interested in the post-retirement phases of Khanna and Vyjayanthi? Sad. Is it not?
On second thoughts, one has reasons to be interested in knowing what these celebrities of the past are doing now. Have they come to terms with the loss of admirers? Countless fans hungry for every piece of news about them? The interviews, the Award functions, the controversies? In the case of politicians, the power of deciding the destiny of millions of commoners? The sands of time have buried all those perks that came to them with the celebrity status. I am convinced that their lives post-retirement are more difficult than yours and mine, psychologically speaking. Their identity has been taken away. The balloon has deflated. The one anchor on which they leaned has collapsed. The average Joe has less respect for the 'has-been' than for the 'yet-to-be' or even 'no-body'. This is what hurts the once-upon-a-time-celebrities most. They look for recognition in your eyes, if not admiration. They do not get it. You look through them. And that shatters the celebrity hearts. Dharmendra, a seasoned actor of Bollywood , who is past his prime was frank enough to pen a poem on this. The much-appreciated poem talks about his standing in front of a multiplex cinema hall in Mumbai recently and finding that not one pair of eyes in that huge crowd showed the mildest sign of recognizing him.
Well, that is life. Like every thing else in this world, fame too comes with an expiry tag. Any one who keeps this truth in mind constantly, while still being a celebrity, has more chances of surviving the death of the celebrity phase. Others will be emotional wrecks.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Making money through Mutual Funds

I started investing in Mutual Funds about 10 years ago. Those were the days when there were only a few Mutual Fund Houses. Though Unit Trust of India is the oldest Mutual Fund Organization in the country, having been founded in 1964 no one ever associated UTI with mutual funds; nor were their schemes called MF schemes by UTI. The normal risk associated with mutual fund schemes was not considered applicable to UTI. It was not wise to think so. But because of the excellent reputation of UTI, the lines between a Nationalised Bank 's investment products and UTI's schemes were very blurred in the investors' minds. It was much later that UTI faced some problems of credibility and people's blind faith in UTI schemes was shaken a bit.

I started with Debt schemes. In the years following 1998 and up to 2002, the Debt schemes delivered high returns. 12%-14% annual returns were normal. These were far higher than the interest one received in Fixed Deposit schemes of the banks. Safety was not a big problem either. Reputed Mutual Fund Houses invested in highly-rated bond instruments of the Government, financial institutions and companies.. In 2003, the situation changed. The returns from the Debt schemes of the MF houses started dwindling. Monthly Investment Plans which invest about 10-15% of their funds in the stock market held on since the reurns from their investment in stocks in a rapidly-emerging bull market compensated for lower returns from their fixed income investments. It was clearly time for jumping on the bandwagon of the equity schemes of the Mutual Fund houses. HDFC, Zurich, Franklin Templeton, Reliance, SBI , ICICI Prudential , Birla Sunlife, Tata MF etc. had been introducing several new schemes. I must admit that my faith in these fund houses and their equity schemes has been fully justified. While I carefully avoided sector-based equity schemes. I had no doubts about diversified equity schemes. The above-mentioned Fund Houses have been employing excellent fund managers and most of them have delivered mouth-watering returns. Many of their schemes have been delivering above 40% annual return in the last 3 years. Direct investment in blue chip stocks may have also given similar returns since essentially the success of several MF schemes has been due to the long-term bull market which is currently on. But investment in a MF scheme makes life easier for us since experienced fund managers know about investing in stocks far better than us . They ride the ups and downs of the stock market with effortless ease; such ups and downs would have been far more difficult for the average investor to ride and come out unscathingly. Besides, there is a limit to the money which an average investor can invest in any particular stock. And the number of stocks in which one could invest.

One lesson I learnt the hard way has been about the Systematic Investment Plan. Though every piece of advertisement issued by the Mutual Funds or every article in investment magazines eulogises the SIP way as the optimum way, I do not think that it is good for a constantly-rising stock market such as ours in the last 4 years. SIP is more suited to matured markets where the rise and fall are not so steep. In the bull market we have been experiencing over the last 4 years, lump sum investment would be a wiser thing to do than the SIP route. Over a year of SIP investments, there are hardly 2 or 3 months when one has been able to obtain the MF units at a lower NAV than in the previous month.

Midcap schemes are a riskier proposition than large cap schemes. If one wants to avoid pure midcap schemes, there is the option of going in for multicap.

Any beginner in Mutual Fund investment who wants to play safe can consider the following equity schemes. HDFC Equity, Templeton Flexicap, SBI Magnum Global, SBI Magnum Contra, Reliance Growth, Reliance Vision, Birla Midacap, Sundaram Growth, Sundaram Midcap and DSPM Opportunities.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Nirvana through the Internet

When I am talking about Nirvana here, I am not referring to any Rock Band known by this term. I have the Buddhist term Nirvana in mind; it means enlightenment , end of suffering etc.
Spiritual literature of the east suggest ways of attaining Nirvana, though the more abstract among them call it pathless. People serious about Nirvana try various methods. Zen Meditation, Vipassana Meditation, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga Gyana Yoga . These are eastern methods. Besides, there are western methods. Lifetime gets spent in pursuing one or the other of these paths. Also, when the search through one path does not bring about much progress, the seekers, more particularly the impatient ones, switch to some other path. After the initial euphoria, the new search too proves elusive. For the overwhelming majority.

How about using the Internet as a tool? I am serious. After all, what do the various systems or paths teach? That life is transient. That what we see as reality is not REAL. That every thing perishes and nothing is permanent. That the time-space dimensions blind us. Ok. Internet gives you more than a glimpse of all these. I do not mean the countless writings on the above subjects. But the experiential understanding that the net imparts. We all use e-mail. We adopt user names. Right? The older among us take names like Newyorker2005, Workaholic, Aries1 etc etc. The younger people call themselves Iam18tillIdie, Lifesucks, CoffeeTeaOrMe etc.etc. With time, we acquire more mail accounts with different websites or service-providers. We adopt different user names. In course of time, the old accounts are forgotten and we use the more recent accounts. We are not stuck with the old names. We move on. Is this not a teacher of 'Life is transient'? Not just the mail accounts or user names. We change our friends. But the process is seamless. We do not do it consciously. Suddenly one day we realize that 90% of the mail friends are not in touch with us. Nor we with them. No fights. No misunderstandings. No violent break-ups. We have just moved on. Effortlessly and without pain. This,sure, is some kind of detachment. People who chat more than mail realize this much faster. Life at the chat sites is lived on the fast lane. Striking a friendship, developing closeness , sharing snapshots, living through stagnation, and peacefully moving on ......all these happen with such rapidity that a few months later one feels that it had been another time, another place. One has reincarnated and is now experiencing another Avatar. If only we could develop in real life the same kind of detachment that we experience in virtual life on the net, we shall be a few steps closer to Nirvana.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Postman never rings even once

Where is the Postman these days? That friendly-looking guy in khaki uniform with a shoulder bag matching the dress in colour and age. When did you receive a hand-written letter addressed to you last? In my case, it has been ages since I received any such letter. I do still receive dividend cheques sent by post. I do receive junk mail sent through snail mail. But hand-written personal letters? No. Things were never this gloomy. Even as recently as ten years ago, we looked forward to the postman's arrival thrice a day. He would bring at least once or twice a month inland letters or at least postcards that have been posted by a grandmother living in a far-away village telling us about her recent hospital visit or a classmate remembering us after years and enquiring about the jumps or falls that we have experienced in our career or a poor cousin asking us to spare some money for the wedding of his youngest sister. Whatever the contents of the letter were or whoever had sent it, it gave us immense satisfaction to realize that someone had taken the trouble to remember us and spare a few moments to write a few intimate words with his own hands.

The advent of e-mail, with all its otherwise admirable qualities like speed, low cost and ease of despatch, has killed the snailmail. And with it, the intimacy we shared with the Postman. Even the Postman now feels guilty when he knocks at our doors at festive times once or twice a year and asks for Diwali or New year tips. The old bonds are no more intact. The e-mail has given us the confidence that life will go on with or without the Postman. It is not only the rise of e-mail culture which is responsible for the near-demise of Post Office. The mobile phone revolution too has contributed to this. Telegrams as a means of urgent communication ceased to survive when Fax was introduced in business establishments; personal telegrams stopped when telephone services expanded, first the landline and then the mobile.

Post offices wear a deserted look. They do every thing except handling mails.Well, almost. Last year, the Government of India used Post Offices to handle collection of Annual Income Tax Returns filed by the citizens. Recently, I saw the neighbourhood Post Office selling Aloe Vera Juice. It is not a joke. It is 100% true. Of course, Post Offices handle other tasks such as Public Provident Fund, National Savings Certificates, Monthly Income Scheme etc. But then, Banks are essentially meant to do these things. The primary purpose of the existence of Post Offices is to pick up mail posted in one town and deliver it to the addressee in another town. So, Post Offices have started suffering an identity crisis. To rub salt on the wounds , the private courier organizations that have mushroomed in India have ensured that Post Offices do not even get an honourable share of speed mails or handling of important documents meant for safe personal delivery .

One might say this. If horse-drawn coaches could give way to automobiles and steam engines could be dumped in museums after Diesel or Electric locomotion became the order of the day, what is wrong in Post Offices disappearing and Private Couriers taking over or Postcards being replaced by Hotmail and Yahoo mail? Nothing wrong. Except that I experience some pain somewhere deep in me. Perhaps some of you do too. One more familiar edifice associated with our childhood or boyhood has fallen. One more way of life hinting that meaningful life without complexities or hitech was still possible has been blown away. Should all progress be necessarily through destruction of familiarity? Is there no mid-way?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I do not laugh any more , I just lol now !

The Internet has changed the way we write. Gone are the days when a lot of meticulous effort was invested in every sentence that one wrote. Care was taken in the choice of words and even in punctuation marks. The finished product made the writer proud and brought cheers to the recipient . Not any more. E-mail and Chat have created another version of the English language. Grammatically correct sentences are no more a must. People have started writing in a style that is slight refinement of the good old telegraphic language. No one mistakes the writer to be any less educated for doing so. Nor is such writing considered to be impolite or discourteous. These are times when one is perennially short of time. So, e-mail reflects this change. It is OK as long as the message is conveyed. Clothing does not matter; bare bones will do. No need to pay attention to the spellings, no need to write a complete sentence, no need to watch out for mistakes in propositions or verbs or any thing at all. Besides, abbreviations are aplenty. When it is enough to say 'lol' to convey the impression that one enjoyed the sense of humour found in the person at the receiving end, why should we waste words? To complement, emoticons are always available. There is an icon to convey that one is confused; there are icons to convey that one is belly-laughing or weeping copiously or blushing or yawning. Words can be misleading; can pictures be? If in the process the fine art of writing is vanishing, there are not going to be many tears shed. Even if a few tears do get shed, why spend words to record them? There is an emoticon readily available , which shows a sad face. Place it and forget it !

Monday, December 3, 2007

Indian Movies, Rajnikanth and Real Life

That movies tend to influence real life is something proven beyond doubt. While the impact of movies on life in the rest of the world is something debatable, the influence movies have had on life in India is unquestionable. 30 years after the blockbuster Sholay was released, the dialogues spoken by Gabbar Singh, the villain in the film are still received with applause, when a mimic show is held. The songs of the sixties are still on the lips of the Indians. Remix albums are a tribute to songs which have defied mortality.

Among the many states of India, Tamilnadu stands out as a region that has been most heavily influenced by movies. Every Autorikshaw driver in the city of Chennai thinks that he is Rajnikanth , the reigning Tamil movie Megastar with his adolescent mannerisms and very peculiar bite-and-spit-out way of pronouncing Tamil words. While sociologists might conclude that Rajnikanth's role as an Autorikshaw driver has given the hitherto-lowly drivers some self-respect and professional pride, the passengers have a different tale to tell, which will not be very flattering to these Auto-men. Courtesy has been replaced by rudeness. It is not Rajnikanth who should be blamed. The entire film industry including script-writers who have created roles which glorify bad behaviour, uncultured words and disrespect to fellow-citizens is responsible for this degeneration. Autorikshaw drivers are not the only group which has taken to film-characterlike behaviour . Students of colleges and Universities are very prominent imitators of the negative heroes. Every other movie presents the hero as a lovable eve-teaser.
The movies of an earlier age ( up to sixties) had heroes who were epitomes of good behaviour. After the decade of seventies saw heroes who were essentially angry young men out to destroy the establishment and uproot old values, movies were never the same. What they did was to kick out the well-behaved heroes out of the frame and make the earlier villains the new heroes, with every uncouth behaviour given licence for exhibition. Tamil movies are not the sole propagators of this change. Hindi movies popularly called 'Bollywood' are no better. But the difference is that the Tamil people seem to take movies far more seriously. They do not think that once they come out of the cinema hall, the movie just watched should cease occupying their mind space. Tamil stars are larger than life. Several of them have a chance to ascend the political ladder. I wonder whether any sociologist can conclude that such a development augurs well for the society.

Monthly Budget and Miscellaneous Expenses

I am fairly certain that a good number of people plan their monthly household expenses. Just as I have been doing. When one does that, one does get a reasonable idea of where the money is going, how much of it is being spent on essentials, how much on non-essentials but which brings us pleasure and satisfaction etc. Obviously, monthly budgeting and expense accounting are done under various heads. Food, Transport, Domestic help, Electricity/water bills, Entertainment, Telephone/Internet, medicines etc. etc. When certain expenses can not be put under any of these heads, one groups them under miscellaneous expenses. This is where the mystery lies. While the expenses under other heads are uniform month after month with some acceptable plus/ minus tolerances , the 'miscellaneous' does not subject itself to any such discipline. If one studies over a year, the fluctuations are found to be very wild. The individual items of expenditure under 'miscellaneous' are too many in number , they vary from month to month and by themselves do not qualify to earn a separate head .

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Low-cost Air Travel in India. Will the party last?

It was 32 years ago that I first saw the inside of an Aircraft, as a passenger. Those were the times when very few travelled by air and 95% of them on expense account. Snacks served were bad without exceptions and the crew used to be impolite. After all, the crew was in the employment of a major Public Sector organization and so considered the impolite behaviour as their privilege.

Even after allowing for the fact that 32 years mean a very long period, air-travel in India has changed substantially. The private Airline companies have brought about a remarkable change. The fares have dipped; even the premium Airlines keep a few tickets for selling at low fares. The staff is polite enough. Complaints are addressed with acceptable efficiency. Every time I board a low-cost Airline flight , I see faces, among the passengers, whose body language shows very clearly that they are first-time air travellers; their enthusiasm is very visible. Their children run from one end to another. The elders open their lunch boxes soon after the take-off since there is literally no 'free-lunch' in low-cost flights. Many of them prefer to address the air-hostesses as 'Sister' in the best tradition of small town India. They are mostly converts from train passengers. There are more families than individual travellers among them. It makes one really feel good to notice unassailable proof of more and more people sharing in the fruits of the economic growth.

There is one factor which can spoil the party. It is the relentless climbe of the crude oil prices in the international market. Being heavily dependent on imported oil, India will bear the brunt. And one reads in the newspapers every few weeks about a fresh increase in the price of aviation fuel. The airlines will pass on the cost to the passengers and in course of time, the value-for-money kind of passengers who form the bulk of low-cost air traffic will say ' Enough is enough' and switch back to the good old Indian Railways. By then, the now-first-time-flight- passengers will have collected enough boarding passes and so will have satisfied their earlier curiosity about air travel. They will carry with them enough stories about air travel, to tell their co-passengers in the train for time-pass.