Sunday, November 8, 2009

Indira was never India, India will never be Indira !

It is 25 years since Ms.Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh guard. There were several programmes on TV last week to mark this occasion. If I were still a young man in his twenties, I would have believed all the lies the TV channels uttered. But I was already an engineering student when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966. And I was in my late twenties when she imposed emergency on the country in 1975. I was in my mid-thirties when she was killed brutally. I watched with sadness the downward slide the country took under Indira Gandhi's leadership. Therefore, I can not agree with the TV channels on their description of Mrs.Indira Gandhi as the best Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Indira Gandhi was one of the most popular Prime Ministers. May be, even the most popular. But that can not blind us from making a fair judgement of her contribution . If this great divide of time namely 25 years does not enable us to look at her period of rule with clear hindsight , what else will? In my opinion, Indira Gandhi set the country back by two decades in terms of economic progress. She was not a natural believer in Socialism or Leftist policies. She used these as a tool to beat her inner-party opponents with. But that brought disaster to the country's economy. She wanted to discredit the old 'Syndicate' politicians of the sixties; so she nationalised the banks. She wanted to win the elections in 1971; so she coined the slogan 'Garibi Hatao'( Drive out the poverty). What is her contribution to removal of poverty other than mouthing such slogans? Did she lay any great policy foundations for the economy to take off? Like all the Socialist Politicians, she called for fair distribution of wealth. But when and where was the wealth created? There was only poverty to be equitably distributed. She supported the loss-making Public Sector companies and made it difficult for Private Sector to do honourable business without greasing the palms of the ruling party politicians. Corruption grew to monumental proportions during those times and that is eating into the vitals of the country till date.

Her dislike for equals or near-equals was legendary. She nipped in the bud career of any Congress politician who showed promise. She was highly insecure and so could tolerate only intellectual pygmies around her. She permitted or rather promoted the growth of a personality cult around her name. The slogan 'India is Indira, Indira is India' coined by one of her stooges Dev Kant Baruah had her tacit approval. She was a dictator by temperament.

Indira was no friend of the working class though she talked of socialism in bated breath. The brutal way she crushed the All India Railway Employee's strike in 1974 was a national shame.

Indira Gandhi wanted her arrogant son Sanjay Gandhi to succeed her as Prime Minister. She was never a true democrat. She was the one who firmly laid the roots for dynastic politics. She let him play the role of an unconstitutional authority . The lad assembled a lot of lumpen elements around him and ran a parallel Government. Imposing Emergency was probably more his idea than hers. But it suited her, so she played along and imprisoned several political leaders including the then-80 year old Morarji Desai. Her admirers even now proudly recollect that trains ran on time during emergency. They do not have any other grounds to defend the draconian emergency.

People in the know say that Indira Gandhi was solely responsible for the rise of Binderenwala which later led to the blood bath in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

Popularity among the public is no yardstick to measure one's contribution. The Indian villagers have always blamed poverty on their fate and spared the rulers of any role in it. Politicians like Indira Gandhi reaped the benefits of such an innocent world-view of things. Indian people vote with their heart. I wish they voted with their mind or at least their stomach.

Indira Gandhi might have had several good traits as an individual. As a daughter, as a wife and as a mother. Even as a person interested in fine arts, literature and music. I do not know. But Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister was not a good thing that happened to India. People cite victory in Indo-Pak war of 1971 to praise her leadership qualities. Even granting it, a single achievement over a period of 18 years can not cloud all the overwhelming negatives.

Indira Gandhi's period throws up a lot of lessons to the people. Never hero-worship any leader. Never believe empty slogans. Never loosen the guard over democracy. Never vote for a politician because of his or her family background. Never trust a leader who thinks that Prime-ministership is God's gift to his or her family for all times to come.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Layman's peek into foreign exchange matters

When I boarded a KLM plane to Amsterdam in 1975, I had less than 20 British Pounds with me as foreign exchange. One Pound used to be equal to Rs.14 at that time. Why only 20 Pounds? Why not more? That was the limit imposed by the Indian Government for travellers from India. Those were the days when the country had very little foreign exchange and every dollar or pound the Govt. had in foreign exchange reserve was precious , mainly used for unavoidable imports. How would I have survived with that little foreign exchange in Europe and for how many days ! But then I was to get an advance payment as soon as I reached Munich , from the company I was going to work for. So, I had to manage on my own and with 20 Pounds only for two days. But, when I reached Amsterdam on a misty Sunday morning and was looking forward to board a connecting flight to Munich, I was told that due to weather conditions, the flight to Munich was cancelled. I should either wait overnight in Amsterdam and take the next morning flight to Munich or go to the Amsterdam Railway station and take a train to Munich. What a shock ! But then I managed ; got a transit visa to get out of the Airport, travelled to the Railway Station by the KLM bus, bought a second class ticket for 150 Dutch Guilder to Munich and slept my way to Munich. This could not have been possible with the 20 Pounds ; but then the intelligent travel agent back in India knew how to circumvent the rules and made sure that when I made that bus trip to Amsterdam Railway Station, my pocket had more foreign currency notes than when I landed at Amsterdam Airport. No need to go into the details ! All is well that ends well.

Nowadays, the Indian Govt. kitty is bulging with foreign exchange. A year ago, the Govt. brought some restrictions on the incoming foreign money so that Indian Rupee did not appreciate too much, inconveniencing Exporters. What a drastic change ! Any tourist can take up to 10000 USD out of the country for his travel expenses. For business purposes, it is 25000 USD.

Of course, restrictions, as the above amounts suggest, still exist. There is only current account convertibility, not capital account convertibility. One can travel abroad more comfortably, get educated in foreign universities, get treatment in hospitals abroad etc. But one can not invest abroad. Moreover, while in India, one can not keep financial assets in foreign currency ( may be, one could keep a very restricted amount). Unless full convertibility happens, this situation will not change. All developed countries have full currency convertibility. That is why Dollar or Euro is accepted everywhere in the world. Rupee is not accepted anywhere in the world except in Nepal and Bhutan. But experts say that India can not afford full convertibility at this stage since such a step is fraught with major risks. The East Asian crisis is still fresh in mind.

In 1975, one U.S.Dollar fetched Rs.8. Today, it is Rs.46.- Why did this happen? One major reason is that the annual inflation in India has, on a long-time average, been around 8% while in the U.S. it has been 2 to 2.5 %. So, over the years the divergence between a dollar's purchasing power in the U.S. and the Rupee's purchasing power in India has grown enormously. While the foreign exchange Pundits would not like to simply the matter so much and would suggest many other reasons for this change in exchange rate, this is the most believable explanation in my eyes.

Since this subject of foreign exchange has always fascinated me, I could share some more observations here.

1.Of all the currencies that have appreciated, nothing has appreciated more than Swiss Frank. In 1975/76, one dollar could buy two Swiss Franks. Today, one dollar just about manages to get exchanged for one Swiss Frank.

2.Deutsche Mark does not exist any more. But projecting its possible exchange rate on the basis of Euro's performance , a DM if it lived today would have been equivalent to 75 U.S.Cents. In 1976, one DM was 50 U.S.Cents.

3.The Canadian Dollar has appreciated considerably. A Canadian Dollar today fetches 92 U.S.Cents, whereas 30 years ago, it trailed far behind.

The 'benevolent' Nigerians !

I keep getting e-mail messages from some strange people who happen to be Nigerians. The contents of the messages do not differ much from each other. They all say that there is a large fortune ( running into several hundred thousands of dollars) left behind by some one who has passed away or has been killed and there are no known inheritors. The senders of the mails who claim to have the said-fortune in their custody want to get it out of their country with my help (or your help if you too have received such mails). In return they are willing to pass on a hefty 30 % of the loot . They ask me for my bank account details. They ask me for my telephone number. Having come into this world several decades ago and having heard of the Nigerian racket many times, I junk such mails into the recycle bin immediately. But if you are a curious person who has never heard of this special brand of Nigerian scam, you will let them know your telephone number. Soon you will get a call and the caller would inform you about a small hitch in his pious plans of rewarding you. He has corrupt officials in his country to bribe off so that they do not play spoilers. So the caller would want you to pay some 4000 to 5000 dollars to him which he promises to return to you along with the 30% share of yours. Now there will be a battle between greed and commonsense before you decide to act. You will either laugh it away and forget all about it. Or, your greed will actually make you end up parting with your hard-earned money in expectation of the promised windfall. While it might appear too silly to think that any one could fall in this kind of deceivers' net, facts speak otherwise. There are several Indians who have fallen for this and ended up losing money. I read one such case every two months in newspapers. The people who get deceived are not uneducated men or innocent home-bound housewives. Many of them are in good jobs or run their own businesses. They do not question themselves what is so special about them that makes some foreigner decide to seek their help even if there really is some such fortune waiting to be claimed in a far-away land. The con men send hundreds of mails betting on the statistical average of the gullible and the greedy in the population. The police keep cautioning the public routinely; but the human greed for unearned wealth is so huge that the Nigerian tricksters will continue to thrive. Many of those Nigerians are students in Indian Universities. What puzzles me is why these Nigerians have such luck with Indians alone. Or. are they trying it successfully elsewhere too? Also, why do only Nigerians specialise in this particular brand of cheating? Why have the Kenyans or Tanzanians or Ugandans left this lucrative field free for the Nigerians? After all, there are a lot of students from these countries as well in the Indian Universities.