Friday, May 27, 2011


Back in September 2006, when we launched The Sunday Indian, our first cover story was on the likelihood-some would say inevitability of Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister of India. Back then, we wondered how a Gandhi would handle the fact of being the first Gandhi to not be the unquestioned leader of the Cabinet and the nation. The only message that is loud and clear from assembly elections and bye elections held over the last one year is: there is just no way the Congress will improve upon its 2009 tally of 206 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The rest of the MPs required to cross the magic markof 272 will be supplied by Mamta Bannerjee, Sharad Pawar and perhaps even Jayalalitha, apart from assorted smaller allies. How then would Rahul Gandhi function as Prime Minister?

Let's look at the best case scenario for Congress, where it has a chance of significantly improving its tally. Out of the 112 odd seats in Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Bihar and Karnataka, the Congress won just 16 seats. Let us assume that the Rahul Gandhi magic works in these states. Even then, the most hopelessly die hard supporter of the Congress would not bet on the party’s tally from these states going up by more than double. (Do you seriously expect the Congress to sweep Bihar, Karnataka and Orissa that give 87 MPs?) That gives the Congress 16 more seats. In effect, the Congress tally would go up to 230 if you are wildly optimistic.

But electoral politics is different from wild optimism. In U.P, the Congress already has 22 seats and cannot significantly improve; in Delhi, it has 7 out of 7 seats; in Haryana, it has 9 out of 10 seats, in Uttarakhand, it has 5 out of 5 seats, in Rajasthan, it has 20 out of 25 seats; in Madhya Pradesh, it already has 12 out of 29 seats and has 11 out of 26 seats in Gujarat. Worse, it has 33 out of 42 seats in Andhra. After the Jagan Mohan Reddy show, how many of you would bet on Congress retaining the tally? It then boils down to West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where the UPA already swept the elections in 2009.

The most intriguing question then is: would Rahul Gandhi be amenable to being the Prime Minister of India and yet be at the mercy of temperamental allies? It is OK for a Manmohan Singh to be the Prime Minister in such a situation because he never was a leader anyway. But what happens to the fabled aura and charisma of the Gandhi family when Indian voters see Rahul Gandhi the way he will look after coalition politics inevitably takes its toll? Can the Gandhi family take that kind of risk?

My advice to CEOs of India Inc, start investing in another ManmohanSingh right now. There is little doubt that he or she will be India’s next Prime Minister with Rahul Gandhi playing the now familiar role of being the real power behind the throne. Sad for Indian democracy, but then that is democracy, isn’t it?


Saturday, May 14, 2011


In a recent column, the respected agriculture economist M. S. Swaminathan has described the bumper crop of wheat in Punjab and Haryana as a moment of both ecstasy and agony. Ecstasy because the 85 million tons of wheat output reveal how our intrepid farmers battle against all odds do their bit for food security in the country; agony because most of their efforts go down the drain because of a hopelessly incompetent and criminally callous Government, particularly the Food and Agriculture Ministry headed by our cricket Czar Sharad Pawar. At the moment, India is sitting on about 45 million tonnes of food grains, quaintly known as buffer stocks. As procurement gathers momentum each day, it will not be surprising if the stockpile of food grains crosses the 50 million ton mark very soon. In fact, so acute is the crisis of ‘surplus’ that state and central procurement agencies now claim they simply have no space left to store any more food. There will be the usual tales of corrupt and venal procurement officials harassing poor farmers with demand for bribes. Worse, most of the food procured will simply rot as the government has not managed even the childishly simple task of building adequate and safe storage godowns despite more than 20 years of persistent surpluses. What can you say about the priorities of our system when spanking new stadiums for the recently concluded Cricket World Cup can be built almost overnight under the benign supervision of Mr. Sharad Pawar while we fail to erect simple concrete structures to store food in a dispensation run by the same man?

The most commonsense and obvious solution is to allow Indian farmers to export food so that they can reap the benefits of globalisation, just as our IT, Telecom, Automobile, Petrochemical and Infrastructure tycoons have been doing. But mention the word 'exports' and you will encounter storms of protest from both do-gooders and government types who say allowing exports of food will once again uncork the genie of food inflation. They will say how each kilo of food will now be crucial since the Right to Food is now a constitutional requirement and that the buffer stocks will be needed to distribute free food to the poor. They also talk about how onion exports and one bad harvest led to onion prices going through the roof last year.

Frankly, such arguments are nonsense and reflect the defeatist mindset our policymakers acquired during the dark era of socialist inspired shortages of everything. First, be assured that almost all the ‘free’ food that will be doled out to the poor will be so rotten due to poor storage that it will be virtually unfit for consumption. Second, and more important, such arguments ignore the fact that foodgrain productivity in India is still half that of China. Quite simply, we have the potential and the ability to almost double our foodgrain output to close to 500 million tonnes a year. That one national endeavour will enrich tens of millions of farmer families who can export food even as the poor get enough free food.

But I guess shrinking TRP ratings of IPL matches are a bigger priority for our honourable Minister.