Iron Women of Iran

On Mahsa’s graveyard, they said, in collective mourning, “She is not dead.” With barren hills as backdrop, the women threw their hijabs into the air even as her funeral began, their heart-breaking in mournful cries, in chorus, their angry tears choking the blue sky. They are also shouting for justice. Mahsa Amini is not dead, they are saying. She lives.

Her hair lives, her eyes and face live, her soul and heart live. Her youth, and dreams, they too live. On the inflamed, inflammatory, enraged streets of Iran. In the angst and anger of all the women out there — protesting.

All over Iran, across its big cities and small towns, across its 36 provinces, on by-lanes, streets and roundabouts, they are in rage, the women of Iran, and men in solidarity, screaming: Death to the Dictator. The young portrait of Mahsa, without a head scarf, is on every poster.

A murder as a grotesque public spectacle. The murder of a young, Kurdish girl in Tehran, walking with her brother, peacefully. Just about 22. Heart attack? Natural causes? Certainly not.  Beaten to death? Yes, undoubtedly, the scars on her body prove that. Did we not see her suddenly collapse in that heavily edited official video?

So why did they kill her? Why? Because of her hair? Her head scarf? Why do they beat women so brutally if their hair shows, or, if they think the dress is not damned appropriate?

Yes, they beat women. And they can do worse!

So who are they? The notorious neo-Nazi Gestapo of the regressive, religious police, male Islamic fundamentalists of the most ruthless and retrograde species — the morality police; in this case, as in the past, a relentless, brutalizing, degrading, inhuman, irrational, torture and murder machine let loose on the streets to stalk and hound women citizens of Iran at the behest of its ultra-orthodox regime, pushing both rationality and modernity to the abyss of absolute dismay and despair.

Meanwhile, at other places, the impossible seems to have happened: stoning the portraits of Ayotollah Khomeini, and burning the pictures of Imam Khameini, the highest symbols of patriarchal power; surely, this is the biggest act of blasphemy in Islamic law in Iran. Even as the government has unleashed its armed and unarmed forces on the streets, including pro-regime loyalists, male demonstrators, shouting the usual slogans to counter all forms of democratic dissent – Death to America and Death to Israel.

At least 50, or more, are dead, including women shot on the streets. Men cops are forcing screaming women inside unknown vehicles. Women are being arrested and packed off to that notorious prison and torture/interrogation chamber of Evin, situated in the picturesque hills of Northern Tehran. A prison, which started its bloody torture-and-death-in-custody rituals during the ‘free’ days of the Shah of Iran, backed by America.

They are crying, tears streaming down in memory of Mahsa, and their own deep, personal memories, ancient memories, screaming, dancing, holding each others’ hands, going round in circles singing songs, shouting slogans, running from the cops and regrouping, and, most crucially, cutting their hair and burning their head scarves in public bonfires. Don’t look at our hair, they are saying. Leave our hair alone! Who are you to tell us what to wear? Why are they so obsessed with our beings, our bodies, our presence, our identity, our human existence and essence? Our hair? Go and look somewhere else. Why do you have to look at us on the streets at all? What is it to you if we show our hair or our face or discard the hijab?

Who are you to tell us to do this and do that, to control our young and adult minds, our education, our children, our love and life, our social identity, our aesthetic, political and existential essence, our existential freedom? Go to hell, they are shouting out there, you can hear them, the videos are out there despite a total ban on internet; the fire and the slogans are all over. The whole world is watching the protests, the whole world is watching the brave women of Iran – go ban the internet and instagram!

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The authorities claim 25, but there are at least 50 dead, according to sources, including women. The ambulances are being attacked, because the protestors claim, that the male soldiers and morality police are using the ambulance to transport arms and men. One woman stands all alone in front of a water cannon. The memory of Tiananmen Square, June, 1989, comes back as a resurrection, yet again.

History repeats itself in different kaleidoscopes and rainbows. The water cannon stops and retreats. Another woman hits the window of a police car. Another shouts at the cops, hair flying, eyes aflame, surrounded by her comrades.

Somebody has made a flag with a pole and women’s hair flying like a glorious monument of great bravery and beauty; oh, let the hair fly, without a hijab, in defiance, in magic, in freedom, in joy, in beauty and rage. Let the hair become the body and the soul and the heart! Let the hair become the sublime song of the women street fighters.

What is it with the hair of a woman? What is it with a head scarf not worn properly? What is so goddamned proper and not proper with the hair of a woman? What is so pathologically sick and perversely insane with these fundamentalists who are obsessed with how the women dress, and how they should wear their hair and scarf? In this age and in these times! What do they teach the boys in school?

They are writing poetry and saying that if we are dead then our dead bodies will still write the poetry. They are saying that if you are render us silent and mute, then our silence and exile will create a new poetry. They are saying that you want to brutalise and control us, but this is not acceptable anymore, we shall defy and fly.

Hadis Najafi, 20, no hijab of course, fixes her golden pony tail and spectacles as she joins the peaceful protest. Just about 24 hours later she is dead, women grieving over her dead body, her portrait now in a hijab. But she too would live defying the orthodoxy, her golden pony tail as a testimony of living history.

A young, spectacled girl, her angst and anger becoming the melancholy melody of her face and eyes, sings a magic-realism Bella Ciao in Persian – oh, how beautifully she sings; oh, how exquisite and refined is this language, full of strange substances and sensibilities! Turkish artist Masis Aram Gözbek, performs a play, ‘Enough’, like a synthesis of solo and chorus protagonists, all young, in solidarity with the women of Iran. You look at the play, and you don’t have to understand the language. Every face and voice tells the same story – Yes, Enough!

Reminds me of the peasants in the profoundly poetic films of Milos Jancso, in the picturesque countryside of Hungry in East Europe, with the peasants going round and round, the girls forming circles holding bread as the symbol of their labour and love, and their imagined homeland, and the horses with soldiers and their whips circling around them, like the repressive State apparatus. Remember the magical poetry of a film — ‘Red Psalm’!

Round  and round they go, as round and round the women go, on the streets of Tehran, around a bonfire, burning their hijabs in a bonfire, forced on them outside their will by a regressive, orthodox, control-freak patriarchal, feudal, fundamentalist Islamic male regime led by fossilized and frustrated clerics and misogynists, brutish, nasty and short.

Enough, said the women. We are fed up!

Five Things That Happened Last Week

Five Things That Happened Last Week (And what to make of them)

In Ukraine, the war continues as does the propaganda

For a moment imagine that you have a time machine at your disposal. A contraption that can take you forward or, in this case, behind in time, at your whim and at any time. Let’s use it to go back to August 2, 1990. Where were you on that day? Ah, yes, many of you probably did not exist yet then and an equally large number of you were too young to remember. For the rest of us dinosaurs, if memory still serves us right we will be able to remember that date as the beginning of the Gulf War.

To quickly recap, it was a war waged by a coalition force of 34 nations led by the United States against Iraq to counter Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. The war, which, towards the end, was codenamed Operation Desert Storm, lasted for around seven months, roughly as long as Russia has been waging its ongoing offensive against Ukraine right now.

The point of bringing up the Gulf War is, however, not about the reasons for that war or the controversy that surrounded it and later led to further turmoil and tension in the Middle East. The point was about how much we got to know about that war in real time and with reasonable levels of accuracy. One of the most distinctive factors about the Gulf War was the live reporting from the war zone. Most significantly, many will recall CNN’s 24×7 live reporting with images and videos from a Baghdad hotel. Millions of people across the world were able to access that reporting. In India, cable TV was taking baby steps then but in larger cities there were many venues where viewings were organised for the cognoscenti to watch what was happening in the Gulf.

Thirty-two years later, media technology has taken quantum jumps. Theoretically, international media groups today have access to technology and devices that can help them produce accurate, real-time reportage with much greater ease than the challenges CNN and other media organisations had to overcome back in 1990. And yet, reportage on the war in Ukraine is disputed and so pockmarked by propaganda from both sides that it is difficult to get a handle on the real facts. Russia, which has been waging the war now for seven months, insists that it now controls increasing parts of Ukraine. One the other hand, Ukraine claims that it has countered the Russian forces by weakening them and winning back lost territory. Nobody knows who to believe.

Recent reports suggested that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered conscription of 300,000 able-bodied male citizens to join the Russian military offensive. Thousands of people protested against the decision and faced a crackdown by the authorities. Meanwhile, Russia has also commenced holding referendums in what it considers Russia-occupied regions of Ukraine– Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The referendums will seek people’s votes on whether these regions should be annexed by Russia. Ukraine and the NATO-aligned West believe that the referendums will be rigged and that the exercise is a sham. Meanwhile, the exodus of Russians to neighbouring countries continues with long lines of vehicles at Russia’s borders with two neighbouring countries, Finland and Georgia.

But as both sides continue to make claims and counterclaims over what is happening in Ukraine, the only fact that is real is that no one knows for sure what is really happening. And that is quite a deplorable comment on the credibility of contemporary media.

Is Moonlighting Here to Stay?

Wipro, the leading Indian IT company, recently decided to terminate the jobs of 300 employees when the company found that they were secretly working for other firms, including Wipro’s rivals, in violation of the terms of their employment contracts. The practice of working for another company while being employed in one company is known as moonlighting, thus named because typically it is work that is done secretly and at night.

Moonlighting is not new in the work arena. It is a common practice followed by many in industries and businesses where the individual employee doesn’t really need capital goods or a team of others to produce output. Take journalism or creative copywriting or even legal or financial advisory services. Even if employed by a firm exclusively, secretly an employee can do similar work, usually anonymously, for someone else and earn additional remuneration, which in many cases is untaxed or unaccounted for.

Wipro, which sacked 300 employees, responded in a predictable way. It found out that 300 of its employees were working illegally for rival firms and decided to terminate their services. Most companies, if they found that their employees were doing something like that, would follow Wipro’s example.

But what “work” really means has been rapidly changing. Especially in the past couple of years in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Remote working or Work from Home (WFH) has become an accepted norm, not only in industries where individuals work without needing machines or factories but also in a limited manner in highly capital-intensive industries. In such a scenario conceivably working hours have become flexible and employees are able to enjoy far more autonomy and independence than they did before when they had to be in their workplaces or offices at fixed hours.

The new scenario is what is often referred to as the “gig economy” where instead of choosing one “job”, individuals can opt for a few different employers and allocate time and effort to work for each of them. Of course, there is the aspect of legality. If an employee insists on exclusivity (as most employers continue to do) then an individual would be violating their contractual obligation if they secretly worked for others.

But is it not time for employers to change the way they formulate contractual agreements with their employees? Or at least offer their employees contracts that are flexible enough for them to decide whether they can work on two, three or more “jobs” at a time? In some industries, the time may have come to go for that systemic shift.

Worrying Trends of Communal Tensions

What happened recently in the British city of Leicester can be compared to what often happens in many Indian cities and towns when an incident sparks communal tension, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. In Leicester, the incident happened to be a cricket match between India and Pakistan in Dubai on August 28. Mobs of Muslims and Hindus clashed for a number of days after India beat Pakistan in the match.

Although the cricket match is cited widely as being the trigger for the violence and the clashes, many believe that social media posts may have aggravated the incidents. Some believe that tensions have been simmering between the two communities among the immigrants from the sub-continent. As for the British authorities, they fear that unless reined in, such incidents could spread to other parts of Britain.

Inter-communal tension has been ratcheting up in India in recent years. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, anti-Muslim sentiment has been rising. Many believe that incidents such as what happened in Leicester recently could be influenced by the widening chasm between the communities in India.

RSS’s New Overtures

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation to which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is affiliated. The RSS has a hardline against minorities such as Muslims in India and its stance has clearly been majoritarian.

So when the chief of the organisation, Mohan Bhagwat, 72, reached out to Muslim leaders recently, it was news.

Last week, Bhagwat met Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, the chief of the All India Imam Organisation at a closed-door meeting in a New Delhi mosque. Not much is known about what transpired but RSS sources said that the meeting was a part of Bhagwat’s efforts to meet people from “all walks of life”.

But observers believe that the outreach to Muslims–Bhagwat also visited a Madrassa and met other Muslim intellectuals–could be a part of the move to soften the public perception of the right-wing organisation whose image is not exactly describable as tolerance or secular.

Cinema Halls Open in Kashmir

For the people in violence-torn Kashmir, there was a bit of good news last week as movie theatres opened after being closed for three decades. The theatres were shut when armed rebellion erupted in the state and public places such as cinema halls were targeted with violence.

The Lieutenant-Governor of Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, who inaugurated a new multiplex in the state, said, “The opening is a reflection of a new dawn of hope, dreams, confidence and aspirations of people” The theatre he inaugurated held a special screening of Lal Singh Chaddha, the Bollywood remake of Forrest Gump, starring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

After the split of Jammu and Kashmir and the latter being brought under more direct governance of New Delhi, there have been sporadic protests by local leaders and a demand for democratised elections in the state, which are scheduled to be held in the near future.

Many believe that the opening of cinema theatres could be one more step towards normalcy in Kashmir.

Man Handling Computer

Making Light of Moonlighting

Unable to put up with angst that management interferences in editorial issues caused, the legendary Indian editor Samar Sen left the cushy job with a leading publishing house in the mid-1960s to start a highly Left oriented but classy at the same time weekly magazine Now that became an immediate hit here and abroad. How could that be so since all that Sen could count on was the part-time editorial support in the office from Utpal Dutta, who subsequently became a big theatre and cinema personality? The magic was large scale moonlighting that several assistant editors at the then highly acclaimed The Statesman and also a few in the Times of India did for Now and subsequently for Frontier.

Philosopher economist Dr Ashok Mitra who then was working with the government first in the capacity of chairman of Agricultural Prices Commission and then as economic adviser to the prime minister, would write the famous Calcutta Notebook and also editorials for the two magazines without government approval. Why did they do that for gratis? For, the newspapers that the contributing journalists worked to earn a living did not provide the platform to write freely. Dr Mitra used the publication to tell the readers about the unacceptable kind of existing inequity and what was the way out, besides occasionally writing in his inimitable style about literature, music et al.

To return to The Statesman of the past. There then came a moronic CEO who nursed the ambition of seizing the editor’s chair and would spy on the journalists he suspected of moonlighting and then harass them to end.

That advertising people and journalists have always indulged in moonlighting in their spare time to earn some extra money has never been a secret. (Take the case of Nityapriya Ghosh, famous essayist and expert on Rabindranath Tagore, who through his entire career first as an adman and then as a corporate communicator practised moonlighting on an unbelievable scale writing for the country’s leading English and Bengali dailies. No doubt, the government and also company managements in the past didn’t find anything wrong in the practice if some restraints are exercised by practitioners. But times have changed.)

The house in perpetuity will remain divided about the ethicality of using the free time to do some work by people holding regular jobs. Moonlighting is practised globally with employers taking stands moving from wholesale acceptance to rigid disapproval. Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “do a second job, especially secretly and at night, in addition to one’s regular employment.” Whatever it is, moonlighting always has a veil of secrecy about it and carries a certain of risk of being found out and then paying a price for that.

An official of a leading Delhi based chamber of commerce says on condition of anonymity “employers may be suspecting that many in their payrolls are accepting gig assignments from third parties for execution during off hours, but rarely they got caught in the process. How much control should an employer have over his/her employees? No question about employees falling in line with office rules and doing an honest day’s job. What also goes without saying that in their free time, they must not accept any assignment from competition or share any information about the company with outsiders that may compromise its interest.” But such restrictions that come with full time jobs are more honoured in their breach than in observance, thanks to the growing ranks of gig workers.

Boutique ad agencies, which by definition are all small outfits in some cases without regular offices are generally run by senior executives who quit jobs in big agencies to strike out on their own in the belief of making a success of their ventures. Their business is pivoted on moonlighting. They outsource most work from preparing presentation material to copy writing to art work to outsiders working for big agencies and rewarding them handsomely. The ones doing such work do so with clear conscience that the work-order their own agency has already lost to the concerned boutique agency. Whatever that is, gig workers will get paid for their efforts but they can’t claim credit for the work done. In India, gigging is practised on a large scale by school and college teachers who would not spare a thought in charging usurious rates for giving private lessons to students and at the same time do regular classes more as a routine. In this profession all that is done openly. The nobleness in teaching has been sacrificed at the altar of commerce.

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Bangalore-based Alok Seghal who retired as vice president of a leading ad agency a couple of years ago and continues to do copywriting as a freelancer for old associates and friends says: “I shall neither confirm nor deny if I ever indulged in moonlighting while I was in regular service. At the same time, I shall confirm that ad executives doing outside work for a consideration is rampant in the industry. Ad agencies will also not stop from utilising the services of pliant business journalists on the sly.”

Here in the last case ethical issues are involved. Besides advertising, in consultancy services, especially finance and engineering, moonlighting is quite common and also largely tolerated by principal employers. Doing work for others using time over which employers should ideally have no control while holding a permanent job somewhere else has always been in vogue but is largely overlooked for comfort of the two parties. Actions are taken when limits are crossed like doing it stealthily sitting in office desk or when office information is compromised. But why suddenly a subject of which people are ever aware but thought it wise to look the other way is generating so much heat and media attention?

All this is happening because some leading IT (information technology) companies, including Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and IBM have raised their shrill voices against accepting outside assignments by staff members, though to be executed using their free time. No doubt, work from home (WFH), which virtually became the norm for IT companies and other industries during the two and a half years of Covid-19 movement restrictions has spawned a big gig economy with more and more white collar workers participating in moonlighting with abandon much to the discomfiture of regular employers. Even as Covid scare faded and most companies wanted their employees to return to the regular desk, many refused to give up WFH not willing to disengage from side hustles. A representative survey of people working in IT&ITES done by Kotak Institutional Equities found 42 per cent of respondents saying that they would either change jobs or quit if they are denied WFH facility. Not surprising since a whopping 65 per cent survey participants confirmed of their awareness of moonlighting in the industry. Sadly norms of decent behaviour are crossed in many cased as revealed in the survey such as using the office email for doing gig work or holding several active provident fund accounts amounting to doing more than one job at the same time.

When margins for the IT industry has come under pressure due to the Western economies experiencing recession, low rates of growth and inflation all at the same time and its constituents have to live with high rates of attrition, it is no wonder some employers will react very strongly against “two-timing and double lives.” Wipro chairman Rishad Premji says: “There is a lot of clatter about people moonlighting in the tech industry. This is cheating – plain and simple.” He finds full support from IBM India MD Sandip Patel who says: “I am with Rishad on moonlighting. Notwithstanding what people can do with the rest of their time, it’s not ethical to do that.” In the meantime, Infosys told its employees in an email “dual employment is not permitted as per the employee handbook and the code of conduct. As clearly stated in your offer letter, you agree not to take employment, whether full-time or part time… without the consent of Infosys.” But to the relief of gig workers the industry remains sharply divided on moonlighting.

For example, Tech Mahindra MD & CEO CP Gurnani has made the startling observation that his company is in the process of formulating a policy which will let employees to pursue more than one job at a time. He recently said at a conference: “Most of us (IT companies) have efficiency and productivity targets that are measurable. If someone meets the productivity and efficiency norms, and wants to make an extra buck, as long as he is not committing a fraud and not doing something that is against the values and ethics that the company upholds, then I don’t have a problem.” Many of the new technology driven companies are not disposed to punishing the employees found to have accepted second assignments. In fact, cofounder of CashKaro and EarnKaro Swati Bhargava told the Economic Times: “Moonlighting can be a great way to improve skills one doesn’t get the time to practise during their full-time job.” Bhargava will look the other way when employees at her companies accept gig assignments if these don’t compromise their “commitment” to principal work. The debate is on. The last word on moonlighting remains to be said.

Putin

India Shines At Samarkand SCO Summit

The 22nd summit of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation  (SCO) took place in Uzbekistan’s capital Samarkand, last week. The summit was held amid the growing geo-political turmoil set-off by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive military posturing in the Taiwan Straits.

China which initiated this regional grouping as Shanghai Five in 1996, has transformed the forum into an influential grouping of 8 nations, with many more like Iran to join as a permanent member and diverse countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkiye, Belarus and Mongolia being given Observer status, which shows its transformation into an influential regional forum, besides challenging to other western regional alliances.

In his address at the summit, PM Modi obdurately touched every relevant aspect of the current geo-political situation. He urged SCO to strive to develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in the region. For this, better connectivity will be required, besides giving full rights of transit to each other, he asserted, in a veiled reference to Pakistan. He also batted for making India a regional manufacturing hub. On tackling the challenges of food security, he spoke of India’s efforts to popularise millets as an alternative and cheap option.

In a speech that was otherwise free from references to India’s regional issues on terrorism with Pakistan and on territorial sovereignty with China, Mr. Modi called for greater cooperation in the Eurasian region. He also focused on initiatives on manufacturing that India is willing to pilot in the next year, when India assumes the chair of the SCO and hosts the Summit in mid-2023.

Modi-Xi Jinping meeting

The most important meeting from India’s standpoint was a possible meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Jinping. Everyone wondered whether roadblocks have been cleared and temperaments cooled after the recent success of commander level talks between two countries on the issues of Chinese aggression in Indian Ladakh region in May 2020.

But, officially the MEA mentioned no such meetings. In fact, Samarkand offered the perfect opportunity for two leaders to reset the ties. But there seemed little willingness from the two sides, to compromise. In fact, if the reports are to be believed, the exchange between the two leaders, reminded one of the cold treatment meted out by Mr Modi to former Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif at the 2014 SAARC summit, though it eventually ended with a handshake at the last moment, but nothing such happened in Samarkand. But the moot question here is whether China is in a mood to mend ties with India?

Well, it seems no, not at the moment perhaps. Modi and Xi have met twice earlier but that is not enough to read each other’s thoughts and also make a convincing and principled case, though both the countries stand to gain much economically, if ties are improved.

Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, when asked about a meeting that never happened said that he did not “think there is anything more to read into that”.

Modi-Putin meeting

PM Modi’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin at the summit also received a lot of attention. The two leaders shared the customary diplomatic greetings, with Modi specifically emphasising that the modern era was not a time of war. According to reports, Putin acknowledged India’s position on the Ukrainian conflict and reaffirmed his commitment to a speedy resolution.

India and Chinese leaders expressing their concerns directly with the Russian leader about the war in Ukraine is reflective of global concerns about the effects of its aggression, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday.

The mainstream American media on Friday praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that this is “not the time for war” in Ukraine. It was the lead story on the webpages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times, and was widely carried by the mainstream American media.

Modi-Erdogan bonhomie

Among other impromptu meetings was the one important one between PM Modi and Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was held unannounced on Friday.  After the meeting, Modi underlined that the focus was on economic ties between the two countries.

The MEA, in a statement, described the meeting as a review of current India-Turkiye relations. While noting the increase in recent years in economic relations, particularly bilateral trade, it acknowledged the potential for further enhancement of economic and commercial partnerships. Erdogan last visited India in 2017.

While India-Turkiye’s economic and commercial cooperation constitutes an important dimension of the bilateral relationship, diplomatic ties have been adversely impacted over Turkiye’s public criticism of the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the February 2020 riots in north-east Delhi.

Modi-Raisi meeting, looking ahead

Another important meeting at Samarkand was between PM Modi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Both the leaders took the opportunity to discuss boosting ties in areas like energy, commerce and connectivity. They also reviewed progress of the Shahid Behesti terminal at Chabahar Port and there are indications that the Iranian president also discussed a new mechanism to supply crude oil to India on rupee payment basis, instead of American dollars. This may bring the two countries closer on the trade and economic fronts.

The manner in which Mr Modi and his diplomatic team carried the business at Samarkand shows the maturity and coming of age of the Indian diplomacy under PM Modi. India will be hosting the next SCO Summit in 2023, and this will offer Mr Modi an opportunity to develop the organisation into a more meaningful and cohesive organisation. A fact evident by the number of countries, which are desirous of joining it, due to its regional potential.

As Kremlin Bulldozes The Russian Dream…

Orwell, like the authors of the other negative utopias, is not a prophet of disaster. He wants to warn and to awaken us. He still hopes – but in contrast to the writers of the utopias in the earlier phases of Western society, his hope is a desperate one. The hope can be realized only by recognizing, so 1984 teaches us, the danger of a society of automations, who will have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet who will not be aware of it because of ‘doublethink’. Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalainist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.
– 1984 by George Orwell, Afterword by Erich Fromm

When I first visited the Red Square in Moscow as a journalist, it was a sparkling, chilly night, and it seemed that I was living a dream. The beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral stood shining in splendid splendour, even as priests in ornamental robes burnt incense sticks, while in the pebbled expanse next to the River Moskva flanked by the walls of the Kremlin, all the memories of Soviet Russia which I had read as a student flashed by in a cinematic kaleidoscope.

In the morning I joined the long queue at Lenin’s Mausoleum, with mostly Chinese tourists, even as soldiers paid solemn homage to the martyrs of the ‘War against Fascism’ nearby. Lenin was dressed in a black suit and tie. He was too still young and exhausted, when he died.

The night train took me to St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad (Lenin’s City), where the protracted and epical battle against the Nazi siege took place for months. Did 20 million people of Soviet Russia die fighting against the fascists, or many more? I think many, many more died defending their land, and the idea of revolution, with General Secretary Joseph Stalin at the helm.

Beyond the great art museum of Hermitage next to sublime River Reva in St Petersburg, the Tsarist palaces were on display, including the golden peacock. There are oral traditions of how the Bolsheviks entered the palace for the first time. You have to imagine the obscene opulence of the palaces to understand how the peasants and working class, oppressed, crushed and suffering, had no other option but to rebel.

This obscenity was multiplied a thousand times in the sprawling summer palaces near Peterhoff , next to the sea shore with Finland in the distance – glossy Italian architecture and the infinite luxury of cruel kings and queens who thought they were eternal and immortal. Indeed, if you read Russian literature of the times, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, you can measure the contrast between the existential suffering of ordinary times, the entrenched injustice, and the vulgarity of this unsurpassed hedonism before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

My visit was soon after the post-Gorbachev era; the times were heady, confused, liberating, with the economy having crashed. Soviet Russia had broken up. Glasnost and Perestroika was still in the air. Thousands of youngsters were crowding public places, drinking beer under the statues of Pushkin, and other greats, and next to the opera house where they would still play exquisite ballet; the young would talk incessantly, falling in love, celebrating a different kind of high. People could speak and loudly so, without the fear of being picked up, or spied upon.

Suddenly, I saw four communists, all elderly women in humble clothes, chanting slogans with a red flag at the Red Square – my heart skipped a beat. They were collecting donations in a tin box. I gave my bit – in American currency. They said, in a chorus, Red Salute! I repeated, surely, Red Salute Comrades!

At the Red Square, among the other revolutionaries, both Leon Trotsky and Stalin were missing. Bang opposite, a flashy mall loomed – it’s a new capitalism in Russia between the crony, the corrupt and the oligarch, the dead dictators and the latest, body-builder incarnation of the Tsar, a former KGB agent, ex-confidante of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Now, a superstar. A new Stalin.

In her incredible collection of memories, footnotes, diaries, text, silences and anecdotes in the book, Second-Hand Time, writes Noble Prize-winning journalist, Svetlana Alexievich: “Twenty years have gone by… ‘Don’t try to scare us with your socialism’, children tell their parents… From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, it’s a different story… Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country. And they’re oriented towards radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’”

She writes: “There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin… A new cult of Stalin in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler…Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the iron hand, the ‘special Russian path’…. The Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say, he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…” (That she was born in Ukraine, tells a story.)

So does no one read anymore the stories of the Siberian death/labour camps under Stalin, as in that epical short novel called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Is it so, really? Does no one read such literature anymore? Certainly, The Gulag Archepelago, they must have read that?

Or, do they read Dostoevysky, Anton Chekov, Anna Akhmatova? Nadhezda and Osip Mandelstam, the great poet  – how did he die in the labour camp at Vladivostok in Siberia, and what was his crime? Why was Akhmatova hounded?

Writes Eric Hobsbawm in the Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century – 1914-1991: “In turning himself into something like a secular Tsar, defender of the secular Orthodox faith, the body of whose founder transformed into a secular saint awaited the pilgrims outside the Kremlin, Stalin showed a sound sense of public relations. For a collection of peasant animal- herding peoples mentally living in the Western equivalent of the eleventh century, this was almost certainly the most effective way of establishing the legitimacy of the new regime, just as the simple unqualified, dogmatic catechisms to which he reduced Marxism-Leninism, were ideal for introducing ideas to the first generation of literates… Nor can his terror simply be seen as the assertion of a tyrant’s unlimited personal power. There is no doubt that he enjoyed that power, the fear that he inspired, the ability to give life or death, just as there is no doubt that he was quite indifferent to the material rewards that someone in his position could command…”

Writes Ivan Krastev, from an East European perspective (The Guardian, September 4, 2022), “The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger labelled him ‘the hero of retreat’. But does retreat produce heroes? For most westerners, what is difficult to grasp is that the man who destroyed Soviet communism was one of the few genuine Marxists in the Soviet leadership.” “I still see Lenin as our god,” Gorbachev confesses in Vitaly Mansky’s film (Gorbachev. Heaven)

Krastev writes: “…He freed us from the psychological abyss that tomorrow is nothing more than the day after today… He did not free us, but he gave us a chance to taste freedom… There are groaning shelves of volumes written by political scientists, dissecting ‘what constitutes open and closed societies. Far less is written about the striking difference between coming of age in a society that is opening its shutters and coming of age in a society, even a relatively open society, in which the air smells of fear and stagnation. This first Gorbachev was not the hero of retreat, he was the angel of opening…”

Imprisoned several times, playright Vaclav Havel, who led the second Prague spring and became the first elected president of the Czech Republic, said, “Sometimes when I sleep I feel that I will wake up in a prison cell… Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul… It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

Operation Blue Star An Inside Story

Operation Blue Star – When India Failed Punjab

Of independent India’s many disasters, Operation Blue Star in 1984 must rank among the worst. It has left behind a legacy that nobody owns, and none has been held accountable.

“Blue Star was a disaster – ill-conceived, poorly planned, and terribly executed. Consequently, for the troops, it was a pyrrhic victory. A few hundred militants were killed. But their death sowed the seeds for ethno-religious nationalism to proliferate and generate violence far worse than what the operation had eliminated.

“Blue Star was not the epilogue, but a prelude to the violent struggle for Khalistan. The Army won the battle but at the cost of peace in Punjab,” Ramesh Inder Singh writes in Turmoil In Punjab: Before and After Blue Star, an “Insider’s Story”.

“It was a brutal time. The nation lost a Prime Minister, a former Chief of Army Staff, a Chief Minister, many ministers, leaders, and thousands of innocent citizens and of course some not so innocent, ” he notes in his 555-page work.

The writer was District Magistrate, Amritsar, during and after the various operations by the Indian Army against militancy, including Operation Woodrose and Operation Black Thunder I, and II. Which makes him an ‘insider’. He retired as Punjab’s Chief Secretary.

Singh is not the first to write. Many politicians, bureaucrats and generals have given their side of the story. It has been analysed by academics and security analysts, at home and abroad. Journalists, some getting vantage views, have recorded what led to 1984 and its aftermath. But his is perhaps, the first attempt at an all-in account.

His principal point is that while militancy was over by 1993, all the factors that caused it are present. He argues that militancy, which started with the Akali-Nirankari clash in 1978, was never a separatist movement for Khalistan.

He says the state lost the battle of perception. It failed to carry the community along. “This was, more than any other factor, the cause of the fatal consequences that followed Blue Star, and it continues to haunt the community even today”.

The civil administration, working on the ground was under constant pressure dealing with the diverse and fluctuating demands of the political class. It got compromised and governing Punjab became a nightmare.

As the events unfolded, he says, it became obvious that the Central leadership and the key military advisers were not conscious of the public sentiment or the political consequences of launching a direct assault on space considered sacred by millions.

It was a flawed strategy. No appeal was made to the militants to surrender. No attempt was made to negotiate to forestall the armed confrontation. The troops launched the attack suo moto. That left the trained, heavily armed and religiously motivated men with no option but to kill and die fighting.

Nobody comes out unscathed, untarnished, be it the politicians at the Centre or in the state; officials, both military and civil; the Sikh clergy and their Hindu adversaries; the media, the intelligentsia, and most certainly, not the militants with their varying emphases on tenets of the faith and on means they adopted. It was, and remains, a collective failure of a nation.

Imagine an India that hosted in a span of a few months of 1982-83, the Asian Games, the 7th Non-Aligned (NAM) and Commonwealth Summits, lapsing into a bloody turmoil in 1984.

Inevitably, the buck stopped at then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s desk. She reneged on softer, conciliatory options, including a deal worked out by Congressman Swaran Singh, brokered by Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

Although politically stable and most powerful then, she was not the Indira of 1971 when India helped Bangladesh’s birth and dismembered its principal adversary. Her advisors were no match to the earlier set.

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The book deconstructs the making of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale into a demagogue, as a counter to the Akalis, helped by Congress leaders Snjay Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh.

Diverse and even conflicting political factors coloured Indira’s decisions or their absence. Her government missed many psychological moments when it could have acted. She baulked when bold, potentially less damaging, options were proposed. Her prescription was no civilian casualties and no damage to the Golden Temple. Yet, both happened.

Blue Star was kept such a top secret that even the Intelligence Bureau director did not know. At the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) meeting in May 1984, Pranab Mukherjee opposed Army action but was overruled.

She first lost her way to the ‘why’ of the militancy and then, on the military action. She was hustled into both to block the “foreign hand”. Horrified — “Oh, My God”, she exclaimed – and rued that she had trusted those who promised a swift surrender.

She knew that she would have to pay a price. Her place in history was assured after Bangladesh. But Blue Star was different. Her idol now was Joan of Arc, the Frenchwoman who died at the stake. “One has to pay a price to find a place in history,” she told Chandra Shekhar, a fellow politician and future prime minister.

The Army lacked a Manekshaw who could refuse untimely action to the political leadership in 1971. It was inducted despite its earlier reservations. It stormed an enclosed structure, without intelligence on the scale of resistance. Sophisticated arms with unlimited ammunition with the militants and fortification of the shrine proved too formidable.

The militants’ defences were the handiwork of cashiered (some say, wrongly) Major General Shabeg Singh, the Army’s own hero-turned terrorist. Shabeg and Indira, although perched on extreme ends of a blood-soaked see-saw, underscore Punjab’s tragic irony.

The Army officially acknowledged 83 soldiers (four officers, four JCOs, and 75 from other ranks) dead, and 249 (13 officers, 16 JCOs, and 220 from other ranks) wounded. Although hardline Akali leader Simranjit Singh Mann claims 25,000 to 30,000 civilian casualties, Singh says the correct figure is 783.

He does well to place Punjab in the domestic and regional contexts to which, one must add the global one — that of the cold war’s hottest period. Was Punjab, like India, its unwitting player-cum-victim? Was Pakistan avenging the loss of its eastern province by promoting militancy in Punjab and Jammu and Kahsmir?

Given Zia ul Haq’s uncanny ways, the Pakistan factor did force India’s decisions in Punjab. But post-Zia, Singh claims, Pakistan was also part of the swift end of militancy. Benazir Bhutto shared crucial information on militants with Rajiv Gandhi in exchange for the withdrawal from Siachen. Later, she accused Rajiv of not keeping his commitment.

Pakistan’s ‘establishment’ couldn’t have relished this. Through the 1980s, its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) simultaneously worked on promoting militancy in Punjab and the West-supported ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, diverting resources from the latter to the former. ISI’s chiefs, Abdul Rehman and Hamid Gul scored successes on both fronts. Punjab militants would meet America’s favourite Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

How has India fared? Those responsible for the excesses, alleged or real, in Punjab and for the November 1984 killings of Sikhs, over 5,000 across the country, of them 3,000 in Delhi, have, by and large, gone unpunished.

The 1984 events impacted India as few others have. But Indians are particularly bad at reading their past. No lessons have been learnt. By the end of the same decade, moves began on how to deal with another minority, the Muslims, leading to the demolition of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid in December 1992. That, again, led to more sectarian violence in 1993 and thereafter, in Gujarat in 2002. It is seemingly an endless cycle of actions and reactions.

And although there are no, or fewer, communal riots as per official records, compared to the last century, fear, polarisation, mutual distrust, the ghettoization of the minorities, and, partisan actions of the state in dealing with each of these issues, are there to see, provided one is sensitive and discerning.

Regrettably, 38 years after Blue Star, those who are currently engaged in putting their political stamp on the past and the present, as also those who are fighting to retain their ‘Idea’ of an inclusive, pluralist India, are both guilty of glossing over it. To put it bluntly, even their crocodile tears have dried up.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

China's BRI Project and Sri Lanka

Belt Road Initiative: A Blessing or A Curse?

The Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the BRI with much fanfare and high promises and grandiose plans for the participating countries in 2013. It was considered to be a centrepiece of the Chinese foreign and trade policy.

Basically, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) earlier also referred to, as One Belt One Road or OBOR for short, is a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in nearly 150 countries and international organisations, around the globe.

The BRI formed a central component of Xi’s “Major Country Diplomacy” strategy, which calls for China to assume a greater leadership role for global affairs in accordance with its rising power and status. As of August 2022, 149 countries were listed as having signed up to the BRI.

Xi originally announced the strategy as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” during an official visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, referring to the proposed overland routes for road and rail transportation through landlocked Central Asia along the famed historical trade routes of the Western Regions; in addition to the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, referring to the Indo-Pacific sea routes through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In fact the BRI was also considered a grandiose plan to challenge the American hegemony over the global trade and diplomacy.

However, the recent events in Sri Lanka, with similar echoes being heard from Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan has led some China watchers to conclude that this is an indicator of the hit that the Chinese economy has taken during the Covid pandemic and the BRI appears to be under revaluation with recipient countries wary of the debt trap and its economic feasibility.

Let’s take a closer look at the original intent of the BRI, its expansion and its long and short-term impacts on the aid recipient countries and whether it has been a success or a failure and how the U.S. could have countered it in a much better manner.

In his report in 2020, Rafiq Dossani, Director, RAND Centre for Asia Pacific Policy opined that China’s strongest motive behind the BRI was its long-term economic security. The maritime routes of the BRI would have helped the relatively underdeveloped, landlocked areas of China such as Yunnan and Xinjiang provinces by linking them with ports in the more rapidly growing areas of Asia.

At the same time, the emerging land routes of the BRI were marked as an alternative to the South China Sea, through which most of China’s trade currently passes and which is becoming a zone of contestation between the United States and China.

Dossani further explaining the reasons for the initial welcome of BRI opined that traditionally, many countries prefer to work with the World Bank and other multilateral lenders, which provide borrowers with good practices, while making significant funding available on a meritocratic rather than political basis.

But, he says further that from a developing country’s viewpoint, accessing the world’s spare capital has been difficult because of the risk entailed in many such investments. The Asian Development Bank estimates that Asian countries face an infrastructure investment gap of $459 billion a year.

This logic also explains the sentiments, which in the initial stages of the launch of the BRI seemed to be the main attractive reason for the BRI projects and Chinese funding. But nine years after its launch BRI seems to have lost its sheen, due to the economic meltdown in several countries, which borrowed heavily from China under the garb of infrastructure development, progress and prosperity.

Bangladesh Finance Minster AHM Mustafa Kamal has publicly blamed economically unviable Chinese BRI projects for exacerbating economic crisis in Sri Lanka. He says that developing countries must think twice about taking more loans through BRI as global inflation and slowing growth add to the strains on indebted emerging markets.

In fact Bangladesh has made it clear that it will not accept any further loans but only grants from Beijing. Nepal has also taken the same stand. Pakistan with some US $ 53 billion being spent by Beijing under the aegis of BRI also faces the same fate.

China has also invested some US $ 44 billion in Indonesia, US $ 41 billion in Singapore, US $ 39 billion in Russia, US $ 33 billion in Saudi Arabia and US $ 30 billion in Malaysia.

The cry against Chinese BRI is not limited only to Indian sub-continent as its reverberations can be heard in the stalled US $ 4.7 billion railway project in Kenya, also. Five years since its launch, the project ends abruptly in an empty field, 200 miles from its destination in Uganda.

As conflicts between the United States and China appear to mount, some experts have questioned the intentions of China’s BRI. It has been viewed as a debt trap for impoverished states and a means for China to expand its territorial control, but is it a reality? Is the United States missing an opportunity to participate-in or initiate parallel activities?

BRI has been repeatedly labelled a debt trap and a power grab, and perhaps this seemed like a possible scenario. However, this concept has been debunked by recent research. Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, found no evidence that Chinese banks over-lend or invest in loss-making projects to obtain a foothold in those countries, in one of her studies on Chinese lending to Africa.

There is further evidence that China is not engaging in debt trap diplomacy. Brautigam has noted that in some countries the IMF has been labelled as being vulnerable. Also Chinese loans were not responsible for pushing indebted countries above IMF debt sustainability limits.

Furthermore, it should be noted that not just impoverished nations, but East Asian and Europe countries have also been smitten by the BRI. Over 18 European Union countries have joined the BRI.

In fact, rather than decrying China, the United States should engage in infrastructure lending to poor countries, and/or make it easier for multilateral banks to lend for such projects, reducing bureaucratic requirements. It should also initiate similar activities in under-developed or developing countries.

To better its image, China should improve transparency around BRI deals. The World Bank and other bodies have also called for increased transparency. This would go a long way in improving U.S. and other countries’ understanding of Chinese intentions about the BRI.

World's Third Richest Man

The Adani Ascendency Phenomenon

Jawaharlal Nehru consciously avoided being seen close to any of the large business houses of his times. In their ingeniousness, those houses successfully found their way through the labyrinth of the much feared and despised Indian bureaucracy and political establishment. The bureaucracy’s vice-like grip over economic administration remained unchanged for a good number of decades since Independence. At the same time, a few brave hearts, determined to make it big despite the infamous licence Raj and the concomitant bureaucratic cobwebs, managed to get into the inner court of the country’s third Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966 till October 31 1984, except for 1977-1980).

In Mrs Gandhi’s personal secretary and confidante extraordinaire RK Dhawan, wielding enormous power, three business men in particular – one from Bombay (Mumbai renaming hadn’t happened then) and two from Calcutta (since renamed Kolkata), found a friend who wouldn’t stop doing anything for them.

What was not ordinarily possible till Dr Manmohan Singh, under the prime ministership of Narasimha Rao rolled out a series of economic reforms, necessitated by a grave economic crisis, Dhawan would ensure that nothing would come in the way of securing for his three loyal friends what they wanted. Many would expectedly take exception to the favours thus extended selectively. At the same time, if the three were not enabled to overcome the hold that the then industry leading groups had on private sector economic activities, the country would not be experiencing some extraordinary entrepreneurship marvels of present times.

The worst thing that the industry leaders did in the licence Raj was to deny the possibility of aspiring businessmen to enter some industries by pre-empting licences all of which they would never implement. Business men cosying up to politicians and bureaucrats is not, however, unique to India. It happens everywhere with powerful lobbies working in developed countries on behalf of businesses. Civic society will frown on the practice and media will take note from time to time when limits are crossed and distribution of favours become disturbingly so.

Corporate governance in India was an unknown phenomenon almost till the end of last century. And till the non-resident Indian industrialist Swraj Paul (earned peerage in the UK since) made infructuous attempts to buy into two Delhi based groups – Escorts and the diversified DCM – in the early 1980s, people in general were not aware that in majority of cases families with equity holding of less than 10 per cent stayed in full control of companies. Abuses naturally followed with impunity. Today provoked or on occasions without provocation, the seemingly uninterested politician Rahul Gandhi will invoke two groups Reliance and Adani for amassing great wealth helped by their proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will not be anybody’s case that proximity to the powers that be doesn’t help in running businesses. Great risk taking capacity, foresight, execution of very large projects without time and cost escalation, ability to get into sunrise sectors ahead of others and capacity to hire the best talents and empower them count a lot more than connection with people in power.

It will not be out of place to recall here that once when Pranab Mukherjee was told by a party colleague in a somewhat disapproving tone that the Ambanis always got favoured treatment from him, his retort was “get me any number like them, I can assure you I shall extend them the same kind of courtesy.” Once again the message that came out from that unofficial conversation is that knowing people in right places is no guarantee for success in business.

Let’s take the case of the Birla family, which once had free access to Mahatma Gandhi then all through with the ruling political establishment and also the principal opposition parties. In spite of that proximity, it is only one branch of the family headed by Kumar Mangalam Birla that counts today. Businesses of a number of leading groups of the past have either shrank in size beyond recognition or just withered away, thereby underlining the point political patronage is no guarantee of success. Consider several information technology companies, including TCS, Infosys, Wipro and HCL Technologies acquiring global status without any government help or the over a century old Tata Group with presence in automobile to steel to retail reinventing itself to greater glories.

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The country will never be short of people who will always see the presence of an invisible hand (in the present case distribution of patronage by the government) in the meteoric rise of Adani Group. Such vigilance, if it is informed is good for the economy and general public who responding to sustained campaign by official agencies make investment in the equity market either directly or through mutual funds. Investors find reassurance when promoters themselves have substantial holdings in companies. As said earlier, Indian promoters per se managed to exercise total control over companies by pegging their ownership of equity capital as little as possible till the late 1980s. In that kind of environment, promoters enjoyed running companies putting all risk on banks, financial institutions and general investors. But shaken by Swraj Paul episode and in order stave off takeover attempts, all Indian business men started raising holdings in their promoted companies.

What about Gautam Adani, who starting with trading in commodities in the late 1980s made big strides in infrastructure (roads, airports, seaports), energy (both coal fired and renewable) and electricity transmission, gas distribution, mining, FMCG and real estate? Bombay Stock Exchange says promoter holdings in Adani group companies are like this: the flagship Adani Enterprises 72.28 per cent; Adani Ports & SEZ 66.02 per cent, Adani Power 74.97 per cent, Adani Transmission 73.87 per cent; Adani Green Energy 60.5 per cent, Adani Total Gas 74.8 per cent and in the recently listed Adani Wilmar 89.74 per cent.

Remarkably all Adani group company shares are doing very well with their prices continuing to appreciate a lot more than progress of BSE and NSE indexes. A report published the other day by CreditSights, a Fitch arm saying Adani group is “deeply overleveraged” as it is predominantly using debts to invest aggressively across its existing as well as new businesses. Giving a warning, the report says: “In the worst case scenario, overly ambitious debt-funded growth plans could eventually spiral into a massive debt trap, and possibly culminate into a distressed situation or default of one or more group companies.” No doubt many horizontally fast expanding groups here and elsewhere have run into debt traps from where they could never come out. At the same time, there are quite a few examples in India, more importantly the Tata Group and Reliance Industries, both not very long ago carrying the burden of debt mountains, have been able to achieve comfortable debt equity ratio through sustained improvements in cash flow and EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.) After having recorded profitable growth of its mobile telephony and data delivery and retail businesses and also announced massive plans for development of green energy and hydrogen, the outlook for Reliance improved so much that Mukesh Ambani could sell small parcels of equity at substantial premium to global giants such as GIC of Singapore, TPG of the US and Aramco of Saudi Arabia. The funds thus mobilised are used both to pare debts and further grow business.

The Economic Times, which saw Adani reply to CreditSights on its describing the group as “deeply overleveraged”, says in a report: “The group’s net debt was ₹1.6 lakh crore by the end of the June quarter this fiscal year, compared with ₹50,200 crore of run-rate EBITDA. Leverage as measured by gross debt to EBITDA ratio was at 3.92x, reflecting a drop in the debt level, Adani group said. The group’s gross debt was ₹1.8 lakh crore.” Whatever Adani may say, funding this scorching rate of growth through greenfield ventures and acquisition of the kind Swiss giant Holcim’s cement business in India for $10.5 billion – in one giant stroke Adani becomes the country’s second largest cement maker after Birla’s Ultratech – will remain a subject of concern.

The other day Gautam Adani made a startling announcement that his group will be building the country’s largest single location alumina refinery of annual capacity of 4 million tonnes in Odisha. (Alumina is an intermediate chemical derived from bauxite mineral used in smelters to make aluminium) The selection of Odisha is natural, for the eastern state owns over half the country’s bauxite deposits of 3.9 billion tonnes. No doubt before he commissions the refinery, he will use bauxite mines in the upstream and build a large smelter in the downstream. There is a point here. Odisha is a non-BJP state and is long under the rule of Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is educated, cultured and suave.

So if anyone’s thesis is that ascendency of Gautam Adani to the extent of becoming Asia’s richest and the world’s third wealthiest is because of his proximity to Modi, then she/he is short on understanding the economics of how business is run. Adani exercising the option provided in the loan agreement that at any point that loan can be converted into equity at face value of share making the way for his acquisition of marquee television channel NDTV no doubt raises the prospect of the channel undergoing change in character of content. But the acquisition cannot be challenged. The watchdog SEBI has not found anything wrong in Adani move.

Iraq-Kurd Oil Controversy Spills Over

There are reports that international oil firms operating in Kurdistan have asked the US to help defuse an upsurge in tension between Iraq’s central government and the Kurd Autonomous Region or Kurdistan regional government (KRG), according to a letter seen by Reuters.

Kurdistan had been supplying oil to Turkey and in the present circumstances they say intervention is needed to ensure oil continues to flow from the north of Iraq to Turkey to prevent Ankara having to increase oil shipments from Iran and Russia.

Besides this, to a large extent the economy of the Kurdistan region depends on oil export, as the monetary support from Baghdad is not enough to cover its developmental projects, and shutting the oil export could pose a gave threat to its economy and it may even collapse.

Earlier in February this year, Iraq’s Federal Court deemed that an oil and gas law regulating the oil industry in Iraqi Kurdistan was unconstitutional. Following the ruling, Iraq’s federal government, which has long opposed allowing the KRG to independently export oil, has increased its efforts to control export revenues from Kurdistan.

Reuters reports that it has copies of letters which shows that some oil multinationals even approached US ambassadors in Baghdad and Ankara in January 2022, seeking mediation in a separate case dating back to 2014 concerning the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline (ITP).

Baghdad claims that Turkey violated the ITP agreement by oil from Kurdistan – which it deems illegal – through the pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

According to Iraq’s oil ministry the final hearing in the case took place in Paris in July, and the International Chamber of Commerce will issue a final decision in the coming months.

Apart from requiring Turkey to get more crude oil from Iran and Russia, a cessation of oil flows through the ITP, would cause the KRG’s economy to collapse, oil companies’ letter to US representatives said.

Iraq is already getting benefit of high oil prices, which leapt to 14-year-highs after major oil exporter Russia invaded Ukraine in February and they remain close to $100 a barrel.

The ITP has the capacity to pump up to 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude, roughly one percent of daily world oil demand, from Iraqi state-owned oil marketer State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO) as well as the KRG. For now it is pumping 500,000 bpd from northern Iraqi fields.

The multinational oil companies have also lobbied US congress members to write letters to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on 16 August that disputes between Baghdad and Erbil were between the two sides, but the US could encourage dialogue.

Al Arabiya TV channel reporting on the matter quoted Raad Alkadiri, managing director for energy, climate, and sustainability at Eurasia Group, as saying that the US has become disengaged from Iraq over the past decade. And thus, no pressure from Washington or other governments will resolve the issues between Baghdad and the Kurds.

To make matters further complicated last week, SOMO threatened legal action against international buyers of Kurdish crude, only adding to the risks associated with investing in the region. This is the latest step by Baghdad in the escalating dispute with the KRG over who should control Kurdistan’s oil.

Experts say that Kurdistan could see its oil production and exports halved within five years, further depleting the already drained coffers of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). 

The investment climate in Kurdistan is currently not conducive to major oil industry investments – despite Kurdistan officials’ claims to the contrary – amid a bitter dispute between the KRG and the federal government of Iraq over who has the right to control the oil resources and revenues in the semi-autonomous region. A Kurdish official has described the dispute as the worst fallout between Baghdad and Erbil in nearly 20 years. 

Oil exports account for over 80% of the KRG budget, and without revenues from oil, the region faces even more hardships, on top of the limited budget allocations from the federal government in Iraq, which itself is a caretaker cabinet as politicians have been unable to form a regular government for nearly a year after the October 2021 general election.

Without new investment in oil, Kurdistan risks losing half of its current oil production by 2027, according to government documents seen by Reuters. But attracting investment to Kurdistan again is much easier said than done.

Throughout the 20th century, Kurds in Iraq oscillated between fighting for autonomy and for independence. Kurds experienced Arabisation and genocide at the hands of Ba’athist Iraq.

The Iraqi no-fly zones over most of Iraqi Kurdistan after March 1991 gave the Kurds a chance to experiment with self-governance and the autonomous region was de-facto established.

The Baghdad government only recognised the autonomy of the Kurdistan Region after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with a new Iraqi constitution in 2005. A non-binding independence referendum was passed in September 2017, to mixed reactions internationally.

The Kurdistan Region largely escaped the privations of the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the chaos that followed his ousting in 2003, and built a parliamentary democracy with a growing economy.

It seems that now perhaps the time is ripe for the international community to step-in to ensure Kurdistan’s independence once and for all, from Iraq and let the country embark on its route to democracy and prosperity.

Congress party in a crisis

Is Rahul The Last Mughal Of Gandhi Dynasty?

These are dire times for democracy thanks to happenings in the two Grand Old Parties (GOPs). America’s Republican Party remains captive of Donald Trump, despite the havoc with the presidency, ‘invasion’ of the White House after he lost and the outcry over his carting away state documents. And in India, the Congress is on a precipice.

Defeated in two parliamentary and 39 of the 49 elections to state legislatures, the Indian National Congress is losing mass support and senior members, mostly to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The record of three generations of the Gandhis and the Nehrus who preceded is being omitted from history books. The current leadership is being challenged from within.

Whether they cannot quit or will not, is the crux of an internal churning and much public lampooning. It’s Catch-29: arguably, the party cannot grow with them, and it cannot survive without them.

The Congress is in desperate need to carry out a rigorous internal review and acknowledge that a root-and-branch re-organization and a grassroots revival are both imperative for its survival.

The Gandhis are a fair game, accused of greed for power. But as much as them, if not more, criticism ought to be directed, but is not, at the parry’s men and women who refuse to find among themselves an acceptable leader. This is from a party that elected, despite internal quarrels and factionalism, a new president and a working committee every two years. That culture died long ago.

Ironically, Sonia Gandhi, who never wanted her husband Rajiv and children to join politics, is the party’s longest-serving chief, for 24 years. Though not the first not born in India to head the Congress, she has virtually dictatorial powers in the organization. For a decade, she even influenced the policies of the government headed by a hand-picked prime minister.

Frail and ailing, she is now called the “nominal figurehead” who has yielded authority to her children, particularly her son Rahul. He is openly called out for lacking the ‘aptitude’ required to lead the party and for “childish behaviour.” He is charged with shunning responsibility but taking all key decisions, surrounded by a ‘coterie’ of politically inexperienced aides.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, the latest stalwart to quit, is being quoted here because, with his harsh, even personal criticism, he has shown the mirror to the party. He has exposed the desperation of many more Congressmen who are afraid to speak up. If nothing else, he has nudged the leadership to announce firm dates for the much-delayed election, albeit only for the top post.

If not a Gandhi, who? Shorn of most stalwarts, having none with a pan-India image, the party is groping. An alternate plan is not in sight. The final choice may still be called, rightly or otherwise, a ‘proxy’. The seniors among the loyalists are reluctant. Truth be told, they are too used to a Gandhi to pick up the gauntlet.

Sonia’s woes do not begin or end with party affairs. The government’s revenue enforcement authorities have interrogated her several times, for several hours, on trusts and the dealings of the National Herald newspaper firm, allowing her relief only when she tested Covid-19 positive.

For once the party galvanized into action, with thousands protesting and courting arrest in many cities across the country. Leaders who have forgotten mass contact programmes were in action. The adversity augured well for the party.

But that leaves a vital question: why can’t they display the same spirit and action to protest against the government’s many actions, at the central and state levels? Many opportunities were simply wasted.

The party was squeamish about supporting protests against the citizenship laws, the farmers’ agitation, and a host of issues, including remission of the sentences of those convicted for 2002 gang-rape of Gujarat’s Bilkis Bano. Joining these and other protests, if nothing else, would have given a sense of purpose to the party cadres and allowed for mass contact.

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Raising some hope amidst the gloom, beginning September 7, Rahul will ‘participate’ in the party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra covering 3,500 km from Kanyakumari to Kashmir through 12 states. Its success will depend upon the consistency with which it is conducted, the slogans raised and the message sent out, the public response it gets, the effectiveness of the follow-up done on the ground, and lastly, the media projection.

Congress’s record in recent years has been dismal on all these counts. For one, Rahul’s absence from the daily political activity is too frequent to allow for consistency. The state leaders failed to garner ground support during election campaigns.

Spirited though, Rahul’s 2019 polls campaign was no match for Narendra Modi’s relentless rhetoric. His up-front attacks on Modi’s persona, like “chowkidar chor hai” did not go well. The public shows deference, if not always respect, for office. In the media, Rahul, by his own admission, is the country’s most ridiculed person. By all accounts, he is a good person, but that is not enough in politics – not in these days of media’s weaponization and more.

In hindsight, Rahul should have launched a Yatra long ago, at the beginning of his probation in politics. He did not utilize the decade his party was in power. Suggestions that he should join the Manmohan Singh Government and gain some administrative experience were scoffed at. The family entitlement – see the Shiv Sena’s Thackerays – and top-down trajectory is difficult today.

The walkathon should keep Rahul on the move for five months. There is no clear signal if he will stick to his resolve and that no Gandhi will contest for the party chief’s post. But certainly, this may be the party’s last chance to stay relevant as a national party. Failure is a recipe for disintegration – like the last days of the Mughal Empire.

One can wish its success, not as support or sympathy for the GOP, but for the sake of democracy that needs an effective opposition and a healthy political discourse.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com