MY 90-MINUTE DATE WITH DEMOCRACY

Pattabhi Ram


I decided to land at the polling booth early, cast my vote, and continue to tell the world “voting is your right, not your duty.”  That way, I was better than those who live abroad and wax eloquent on why we should vote, but they don’t follow their preaching.  

The previous night I downloaded an App, logged in my name and my dad’s name, both of which been spelled horribly wrong, to check my polling station.  At 6:35 a.m. I set out to vote.  The place was 12 km. away from home; but you see for ICAI elections I traveled in all 60kms. That time I had great trouble locating the booth. This time it would be easy. Or so I thought. 

Twenty-five minutes later, I reached the polling station. There was no sign of any poll. I asked a lady cop, but she had no clue. I walked to where my booth should have been, some zonal office of a corporation, but lo there was, to use a colloquial phrase, no-fly-no-crow. When I asked the odd guy there, he pointed to a school 300 meters away. “That’s the nearest booth.”

So yours sincerely, like a true citizen, went to the school. A guy looking like a corporator asked me to name the street I resided. I named the apartment. “No, I want the Street’s name.” I gave him the Road’s name. “Road name is fine. What about the street number?” I gave him the number, and he said, “I don’t know that place! This school is for Kodambakkam. Yours should be somewhere else.” Which somewhere, only God knew.

So off I treaded back to my car, engaged the start button, and drove down to yet another school. The place was crowded. I showed the address on the App and asked the cop whether this was the place. He asked me to see the SI. I went to the SI, salaamed the guy like a good Indian. The conversation went thus after I showed the App.

 “Hey, the venue on the App is changed. Your school is two streets away. 

“Sir, what is the name of the school?” 

“Look I don’t know. That’s not my jurisdiction. Because I happen to be from this place, I know the venue is changed.” 

I thanked him for nothing and went to where the school should have been. There was nothing there. A corporation guy guided me to a third school, and so I landed there. I showed my credentials and was shooed away. “This not the station for you. There is another school, just check that out.” There was a bad (!) citizen beside me who got angry at being like me constantly shunted. He screamed, “India will never prosper. With this kind of system, how do you expect 100% polling? You even won’t get 50%.” 

I wasn’t angry because I had no expectations. I decided to return home. Then it flashed. There is the army fighting for us at Siachen in sub-zero temperature. For their sake, I should vote. There are the jawans who earn a pittance and still brave for us. For their sake, I should vote.

So I checked into the yet another school. At the entrance, I asked whether this was my polling booth. “Tell me which party you belong, and I will tell you.” I hissed the 5 lettered English word that guys in school hiss when they get angry. The word ends with the letter ‘s’.  I walked down and asked a cop who wanted to know my ‘Part No.’ I gave him. He asked if I knew my serial number. I said, “Yes.” He was mighty pleased and asked me to join a line. 

Finally, I voted. After pressing the button, I saw the VVPAT machine. Ah, it showed the same person’s face, but the red light was refusing to stop. The polling officer said, “No issues. It would end in some time.

Pleased at having successfully voted about 80 minutes after leaving home, and having braved 55 minutes of checking for my station, I left, pleased with myself. Those guys stood in queues for hours during demonetization. Can I not struggle like a vagabond for a mere 55 minutes? For the guys at Siachen. I drove home. All the hotels were closed. Where was my breakfast? Where was the promised 10% discount if I voted? Phew. 

That night I learned that my constituency was the one, which had the least voting percent. Well done, I told myself. 

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SOUTH CHENNAI’S MARKEDLY DISTINCT LOK SABHA CANDIDATE

Do you know that a CA and an ex-IAS officer is fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from South Chennai constituency? The Tiruvottiyur-lad who graduated from DG Vaishnav was associated with famed MNCs like PwC and ICICI Bank.

J Evenjeline speaks to R Rangarajan who is standing on a Makkal Needi Maiam (MNM) ticket. 

FROM CA TO IAS TO TEACHING CIVIL SERVICE ASPIRANTS, AND NOW A PLUNGE INTO POLITICS! DO YOU LIKE TAKING NEWER CHALLENGES?

My goal has always been to serve people. By undertaking sincere audits, you do that.  Civil Service is also a means to that end as it deals with day-to-day problems of people. Teaching young minds, through Officers IAS Academy, has been fulfilling too! I liked Kamal Hassan’s intentions to serve people within the constitutional framework, and by upholding values such as secularism. I met him 18 months ago, and he gladly took me on board. I have been contributing by formulating policies, preparing the manifesto, and working with NGOs to bring about a change in the way Gram Sabhas function. It has been a fantastic journey.

I HEARD GRAM SABHAS IT IS YOUR PET PROJECT. WHY THIS SPECIAL LIKING?

Just that Gram Sabha are a constitutional requirement, and the fact that people aren’t aware of their power disturbed me. Having been an IAS Officer, I am familiar with its legal aspects. But it was surprising that in Tamil Nadu, at the ground level, statutory meetings that required to be conducted every three months are a formality. Unlike what is shown in our movies, Gram Panchayats are not judicial bodies. They are executive bodies and form the third tier of governance. Their primary function is to implement welfare projects. 

YOUR EXPERIENCE DEALING WITH BUREAUCRATS AND POLITICIANS 

I believe that IAS and IPS Officers are the steel-frame of this country. Had they been allowed to work independently, India would have been very different. I left the service due to personal reasons. At the Academy, we advise aspirants to stick to their ambitions. And yes, politicians must also support these officers. A good nexus must exist between bureaucrats and politicians. This is missing, especially in Tamil Nadu.

MANY PEOPLE COMPLAIN THAT KAMAL HAASAN’S CENTRIST IDEOLOGY IS CONFUSING. 

Centrist ideology is pure ideology. It is easier to explain than the doctrines of the Right and the Left. Here, with people’s interest in mind, you stand in the center, without any bias, and take whatever good comes your way. 

THERE IS A NOTION THAT FILM STARS ARE INEXPERIENCED AND WOULD NOT SURVIVE THE LONG-TERM POLITICAL CHURN. 

People from any profession are free to enter electoral politics. So why can’t an actor? After all, they understand the public pulse better. During their occupation, they interact with people of prominence. Kamal Hassan, in particular, is an erudite, worldly-wise person, and hasn’t been afraid to express his opinion. Now that he wants to channelize people’s anger let us leave it to the electorate to decide. We are a party of youngsters and win or lose, we are here for the long run. 

HOW DOES YOUR PARTY MAINTAIN A BALANCE BETWEEN THE WELL-EDUCATED AND OTHERS? 

I think educated people entering our political system must be encouraged. At the same time, we ensure that people from a humbler background, and ones with knowledge of the ground, are adequately represented. Many of them are part of the executive committee and have been made district in-charges. Our party is a mix of people from all backgrounds.

YOUR VISION FOR SOUTH CHENNAI

There are fundamental problems that affect South Chennai like water scarcity, lack of proper underground drainage system, flooding, traffic menace, and women safety. We have discussed these issues with sector experts and have devised solutions to tackle these problems. In the next five years, I want to regenerate our water bodies, establish an independent wing for women’s safety headed by a woman police officer, and implement an integrated traffic management system. The solutions we have devised are practical and are not electoral rhetoric. 

HOW HAS THE CAMPAIGNING BEEN GOING SO FAR?

People acknowledge my candidacy as they like seeing new, young, and educated men enter politics. One person who was jogging in the park had apparently watched me on YouTube. He came trotting towards me as he did not want to stop his workout, took my pamphlet and screamed, “don’t worry, I will vote for you.” It was so encouraging. When I met a few Telugu-speaking people, they were surprised to hear me talk in Telugu. It brought a smile on their face: after all nothing connects people more than language! In the slums too, people have welcomed me with traditional aarati and flowers. Even elderly people have promised to vote for change. Slums must be properly, and I want to work towards that as well.

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L&T PLAYS CORPORATE RAIDER

V Pattabhi Ram

A company should go to the highest bidder, unless the bidders are crooks. That’s the nature of market economy.

Mindtree Limited is an IT and outsourcing company based in Bengaluru. Founded in 1999 by the high-profile business author Subroto Bagchi and nine others who exited from WIPRO, the company employs about 20,000 people and has an annual dollar turnover of 846 million. The company shot into the limelight recently with construction bellwether, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), announcing it was looking to buy a majority stake in Mindtree. And then all hell broke loose as the promoters responded sharply to the overture. 

In a letter to Mindtree Minds (read family), which was widely circulated in the social media, patriarch Bagchi gave a clarion call to ‘hold the tree.’ Says the founder, “…as we have remained focused on the institution building process, we have also drawn attention from people (read L&T) who really don’t care about all this. Suddenly, Mindtree has become an ‘attractive asset’ that they must have.”   Well, I am tempted to ask him, “What’s wrong with that?” So long as they pay fair, and do not do an underhand deal, what’s so wrong about wanting to buy an attractive asset? After all, human resources are also assets, which corporate poach from each other. 

Remember, a company should go to the highest bidder, unless the bidders are crooks. That’s the nature of the market economy.  While I have the highest respect for the founders and can understand their emotional connection with the company, there are a few things that merit attention in a market economy.

First up, no one denies Mindtree is an outstanding company. Bagchi’s claim that they have built a great institution is true. Otherwise, it would not have got a suitor like L&T. Second, in a company, unless you hold 100% of the stake, you are only a co-owner. And when your company is listed in the market, and you have just a 13% stake you are at best a majority owner. Third, and most importantly, if you founded the company, you are a founder and not the owner for life.  It is therefore palpably incorrect to believe that you can hold on to it for dear life, forever, unless you hold a 51% stake.

Let me get down to where promoters go wrong. 

If you allow outsiders to invest in your company, you run a risk. By allowing V G Siddhartha of Café Coffee Day to do that the promoters had to ready themselves for its consequences. If you wanted full ownership, you should have raised debt, not equity. Corporate Finance 101 says equity capital is costlier than debt. You pay the price of equity by helping the investor to pick his return from the market.  As an investor Siddhartha has a right to sell to whoever pays him the highest. L&T offered him that. Media reports suggest that he had at the behest of the promoters invested Rs 44 crore in 1999, Rs 125 crore in 2011, and Rs 171 crore in 2012. By now selling it at a fat Rs 3270, he made an IRR of 21.1% per annum across these years. 

L&T is now making a public offer of cash to investor at a price that is a little above market price. It’s asked its brokers to buy another 15 percent at 980 apiece. This struggle to capture is not new, its old hat; and the news has been on for a year. If Mindtree was so very worried about L&T destroying value and wealth, it should have got a white knight long ago. 

A couple of decades ago, L&T faced the same situation as Mindtree. The stalkers were Reliance and the Birla. While in the end, L&T won out, it had to go through a long drawn process when there were changes in ownership. Today, India is far more open. You can have friends in powers that be, but the financial institutions will and should vote in favor of those who deliver higher value. They are also answerable to their investors. 

L&T has the money, and they are a hard-nosed professional outfit. The fight seems to be headed only one way.  Let me make one thing clear. I like Mindtree, I can understand them; but I must say the law is not on their side.

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WHAT’S THIS 10 PERCENT QUOTA?

V Pattabhi Ram

I have never been a great votary of job reservation, now that we are 70 years into Independence. Incidentally, I have found that people have rightly taken umbrage when largesse is so distributed, but when it is doled out to them they happily embrace it. Therein lies our double standards. But that’s a topic for another day and time. 

Yes, there are occasions when affirmative action is important. The Modi government, now in its last lap, has announced a 10% reservation in government jobs and higher education for the economically weaker sections. This will apply to the upper castes and other communities currently covered under quota. Let’s look at this is some detail.

First, does the Constitution allow this? “No.” So you will have to change the Constitution. This needs amendment by two-thirds of the members in both the Houses. It has then to be ratified by at least 50% of state legislatures. All this may not turn out to be an issue, because they will have to be approved by politicians who always have an eye on the elections. 

Second, can it be challenged in the courts of law? “Yes.” The courts struck down a similar move by the Rao government.

Third, is this realistic. To understand that let’s assume that the courts clear this. What next? These reservations are for government jobs. But does the government create jobs? I guess “No.” This government has created about 45,000 jobs a year. Had reservation of 10% been in place, it would have given them 4,500 jobs a year. That’s piddling given that 1 crore youth enter the market each year. 

Consider the central public sector enterprises. In the last ten years, the number of people working in these PSEs has dropped by 5lacs. Take public sector banks. Here too the headcount has fallen in the last five years. When it comes to state government jobs, there has been no great traction in the number of posts in the previous 20 years, with the number ranging between 71 to 75 lacs. 

The drumbeaters would stop beating the drum the moment the government steps in and mandates such reservation for the private sector. 

When it comes to education, I sense that the canvass is so broad that the reservation amounts to a reservation for all. Which means it’s a reservation for none!! My own take is that you must provide education for all until class XII and that after that you are really on an equal footing.

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Governor Patel’s exit is a slap on the government, but it can’t care less

V Pattabhi Ram

When he stepped down, ahead of term, as the governor of India’s central bank, the reclusive Inflation-warrior Urijit Patel created history. It was the first time that someone in post-liberalization India had done so. 

To imagine the man, handpicked both by the prime minister and the finance minister, should have shown chutzpah in a remarkable display of self-respect is frightening. Largely inaccessible and hugely silent on operation demonetization, Patel has earned the goodwill of the chattering class as the one who stood up for the autonomy of the RBI. That he gave in, instead of fighting till the finish, is more a reflection of his scholarly upbringing as well as the power equations. 

We may never know fully the circumstances that lead to his exit but we can surely guess. 

First is the government’s demand for parting with what is popularly called the secret reserve. It wanted the RBI to share with it the profit on unsold currency. The argument is that currency acquired when the dollar was in its 40s and 50s should now be valued at the current market price of Rs 70, and the difference be booked to profits and declared as dividend. Patel rightly regarded this as fantastic nonsense. Remember, unless those dollars are sold in the market the profit is not realized and accounting does not, repeat does not, allow recognition of such profits. Even in corporate financial accounting, revaluation reserves are not available for dividends. If the government is suggesting that the RBI should sell the dollars, one can only ask the government to mind its business.  Let it not dabble in areas that belong to experts. 

Second is the ILFS scandal that saw Rs 90,000 crore go through the black hole. Is this a cause for the governor’s resignation? Was the RBI lax in its role as an overseer? Were faint hints given that the government could open up the can of worms, unless Patel either played ball or left. If that be so, its equally incredible, because it would mean there is every reason why you should not let him go. As things stand, ILFS is a bigger scandal than Satyam, and looks as large as Sahara from the fact that no one is opening his mouth. As Holmes told Watson in the xxxx that the dog did not bark is the matter of concern. 

Three, the demand to cut lending rates. This can at best be a nudge. You cannot push such requirements down the throat of the governor. If you wish to do so, then why have checks and balances? The remarkably funny thing is that this government is now opposing exactly the same thing that it wanted to be done. Namely, have a leash around rogue banks and ensure that they don’t lend to all and sundry. Now the government also has on the RBI board a man who once said it does not matter if the SMEs fail to repay.

We also have as the governor, with no offence meant to Shaktikantha Das a man schooled in, hold you breath, history. True as you go up the hierarchy you need people skills and not just subject matter expertise but heading an independent organization by men known to have been good executors in the ‘Yes Boss’ mold is a tricky affair. The fact that this government chose not to bring in an independent thinker speaks volumes of it.

Sad to say, but another institution has been severely let down by a man who is wanting to play megalomaniac. In a country where most are neither schooled in economics nor finance but in WhatsApp University, this is plain dangerous. The office of the CVC, the CBI, the Election Commission, the state Governor, everything, absolutely everything is under vice-like grip of one office. And that’s bloody scary.

The power in the RBI always vested with the governor. We have had some outstanding men steer India’s economy from their saddle as the head of the RBI. If India was insulated from the global financial crisis of 2008, it had a lot to do with the pre-eminence and the honesty of our central bankers.  Some of them were bureaucrats but the governments of the day gave them their just respect, until this man in 2014 landed on the scene.  Ever since you have seen two exits: Raghuram Rajan and Urijit Patel, outstanding men, who stood up to what was just and right. 

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