Friday, April 17, 2009

Why the Third front is Good

After a flurry of plaintive laments from pseudo pundits and crypto analysts, the words have finally been repeated by the Prime Minister. Dr. Manmohan Singh feels that the Third Front is a bad idea, because it will promote ‘regionalism’ at the cost of a national vision. The pseudo pundits have, of course, labeled even the possibility of a Third Front government as an unmitigated disaster for India. Everybody says that coalition governments are messy, unruly, incoherent and consumed by centrifugal forces. History perhaps supports this contention with prime ministers like Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V. P. Singh, Chandrasekhar, Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral leading notoriously fractious and unstable governments. Pseudo pundits even claim that the era of coalition politics that descended upon India since 1989 is singularly responsible for preventing the country from emerging as a genuine World Power. They lament that coalition politics that sacrifices the ‘national’ for the ‘regional’ is singularly responsible for India not clocking double digit growth rates and falling way behind China in the global sweepstakes.

The arguments are surely logical and persuasive on the face of it. But, really, the caveat is: On the face of it. For, the shrill cry against the Third Front and regional chieftains reveals a disturbing streak of feudalistic elitism. As long as regional chieftains of the Congress party ran notoriously corrupt governments in major states of India, there were hardly any complaints about the absence of governance. That was till the late 1980s when the intermediate castes and the Dalits really had no say either in elections or governance. It also helped that the Congress regional chieftains knew how to tackle the ‘national’ media. Do you seriously believe that states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were islands of good governance and prosperity till the ‘Third Front’ type of regional chieftains empowered the backward classes and rode to power?

The fact of the matter is: good governance depends on both institutions and individual leaders; not on elitist distinctions between ‘national’ and 'regional’. Tamil Nadu has been ruled by regional parties since the late 1960s and Madhya Pradesh has been ruled by national parties forever. Where would you like your kid to grow up – given a choice? Given good leaders and a strong civil society, even national parties deliver good governance. Shiela Dikshit and Congress are a classic example in Delhi.

But I am happy that the Third Front is growing because it will lead to more chaos and more instability. It is only then that we Indians can finally accept the fact that our Constitution is a great document; but perhaps urgently needs some tweaking. And please don’t talk about precedents and the sanctity of the Constitution. Remember, out Constitution talks of a ‘elected’ Prime Minister. Our current PM is an ‘appointed’ one. Also remember, the same Constitution was used to impose the Emergency. So for heavens sake, at least talk of how to deepen democracy, rather than cursing emerging backward caste leaders.

Jawaharlal Nehru had unparalleled knowledge and experience of foreign policy and diplomacy; something no ‘regional’ chieftain can acquire. And yet, he gave us lemons like Kashmir in 1948 and China in 1962. I rest my case.


Friday, April 3, 2009

The Consumer Always Comes Last

A pril 1, 2009 could well turn out to be a red letter day (due apologies to Prakash Karat) for Indian consumers. Following a directive from the Reserve Bank of India, you and I can withdraw money from any ATM anywhere in India without having Rs.20 to Rs.50 deducted from our accounts. Banks opposed it fiercely, even issuing threats that they will be reluctant to expand their ATM networks if they can’t impose ‘transaction’ charges. For a change, their lobbying efforts with the RBI have failed, and the latest move will be a huge convenience for Indian consumers.

This is a rare victory for the Indian consumer. Even now, banks have surreptitiously imposed such crazy conditions that an average bank account holder will, more often than not, pay extortionate charges. Take the little known policy whereby a bank account holder cannot access her own bank’s ATM more than thrice or four times a month without paying ‘transaction charges’. The banks say this is to discourage unnecessary crowding at ATM counters. Years ago, the same banks used the same logic to deny account holders access to a bank branch. Account holders were encouraged to use ATMs and actively discouraged (sometimes even prohibited) to use their own bank branch for basic transactions. Consumers were told then that unlimited access to ATMs will be better than waiting in a queue at a branch. But then, unlimited access to ATMs was soon restricted. This is just one example of how banks routinely fleece their consumers. Anyone with a credit card or a deposit in a private or multinational bank will have horror stories.

It is not just banks. Telecom companies, passenger car makers, FMCG companies, commercial aviation companies, insurance companies… just about any enterprise in India with an interface with a consumer ends up fleecing her. Sample a few more examples. A study found that more than 80% of the new electronic meters installed by a private electricity distributor in Delhi were so hi-tech that they ran faster than actual electricity consumption! Of course, the hapless consumer has to first pay an inflated bill and then argue because his power will be cut off otherwise. From out of the blue, private airport operators in Bangalore and Delhi started charging a Rs.200 plus fee from every passenger. This was never a part of the lucrative deals they had signed with the government. And yet, the Civil Aviation ministry – tasked with protecting the interests of the Indian air traveller – connived with private operators to loot the Indian consumer.

In theory, the Indian consumer can approach a consumer court for relief. But in practice, large companies and their battery of lawyers have made the process a frustrating grind for the consumer. Consumer courts were formed to ensure that cases can be settled without lawyers. That basic philosophy has become a joke. In any case, even if a consumer court passes an order favouring the consumer, other Indian courts now promptly – and distressingly – provide relief to the company. Very soon, consumer courts could resemble the average Indian court, where a case might be settled after the litigant has died.

Sure free access to ATMs is a great move. But without much, much more, it could well be an April Fool gesture!