The Politics, Populism and Downsides of Surgical Strikes Against Cash Transactions

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There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of anger at the ground level, against tax evaders and people who are making merry and enjoying the luxuries of life based on unaccounted funds. This anger & resentment is particularly strong among the salaried classes, wage earners and even the ‘have-not’ sections of society. Given that this anger has built up over many years, it is easy to tap into this and exploit it, using a mixture of tall promises, popular fables built up over the years ( ‘ will bring back all the unaccounted funds parked in Swiss banks & distribute it among the people’), jingoism and hyper-nationalism.

I find that the support for this has been coming from sections of NRIs, the salaried classes and wage-earners and of course the bhakts across all sections of society. Some of them, like the NRIs are of course not affected at all. The salaried classes, particularly the urban middle classes are among the least affected immediately as they have recourse to privileged treatments in banks (relationship banking is still active ) and a variety of electronic transfer of funds and transactions which is what I gather the dusted-out and much-hyped term, ‘cashless economy’, refers to .

You lost the war, the battle and me

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik on Demonetisation

Some of the support is based on brainwashing, deluded thinking and sheer hypocrisy even. For example, I find several folks I definitely know to be dealing in substantial ‘unaccounted funds’ and ‘tax evasions’ routinely as an integral part of their businesses extolling this ‘courageous and radical’ step taken by Modi-ji. They are possibly doing so because a) it is the right thing to say during these times b)they owe their allegiance to the right-wing, conservative, Hindutva proponents who are in power and have taken this step, soon after surgical strikes of a different kind against public enemy no.1, Pakistan.
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I have little doubt that they have found a way to convert their ‘unaccounted cash funds’ already, using mules who have been apparently costing around 10% and hosts of ‘convertors’ who have seized on this business opportunity and who started doing business initially for 30 – 40% of the amounts put up for conversion and are now operating even at 20% – 25%, owing to heightened competition among their ranks. Shaking up the stocks of ‘unaccounted cash funds’ one-time, which as per every informed estimate is a relatively small percentage of the total ‘black money’ in circulation, achieves little other than mindless populism. The pain, by all informed estimates, far outweighs the gain.

Why Demonetisation Won’t Help to Minimise either Black Money or Corruption

Modi’s Money Mess

India’s Strange Cash Problem – NYT

Demonetisation is a Large Shock to the Indian Economy with Little Impact on ‘Black Money’ Generation

Economics is a nuanced and rather complex subject and many experts & analysts have weighed in on the pros & cons of this move and the way it has been implemented so far and the net impacts, almost invariably, are quite negative according to almost all of them. Besides the shock-and-awe to farmers, traders, small businessmen, retailers, daily wage earners and the poorer sections of society is real and very visible even now. If some folks are blinded by ‘bhakti’ and choose not to take cognizance of these realities which does not tie in with their beliefs and ‘bhakti’ that is their problem, and not ours.

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I am not sure about the political gains & losses of this move either. Leaving aside all other sentiments & political angles, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in recent times make little or no sense economically, among other things. Yet the proponents of Brexit, Trump and Erdogan have managed to tap into some deep-seated resentments, fear, anger and below-the-surface prejudices and biases even for stunning electoral gains in the short-term at least. Modi’s politics & promises are pretty much in the same vein.

Narendra Modi Takes A Great Leap Backwards – Mao Would Approve

Apna Paisa Funny Money

Demonetisation Has Turned India into the World’s Fastest Slowing Economy

Modi Has Brought Havoc to the Indian Economy – The Guardian

Cash is King (Facebook Post)

Why Demonetisation Will Not Eliminate Black Money or Corruption

There’s heightened consciousness & debate now, particularly after the victory of Donald Trump against all odds, about ‘fake news’ and the need to flag them off as such and curb them. While Facebook, Google and some others are trying to come up with a technology and AI based solution to the problem, no safeguards are possible I suppose against fake promises and lemons sold by ambitious politicians to their base and to large sections of the unsuspecting masses, for votes and for grabbing the levers of power, of course.

P. Chidambaram on the Demonization of Cash

Raja Mitra

 

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The Turbocharged Masala Chai

The hills are alive with the sound of gas escaping!

Vroom, vroom! The sight of men on a noisy motorbike, the pillion rider tightly holding on to the waist of the guy in front, was somehow disconcerting. Dad had once explained that they needed to do so for reasons of safety, lest the guy behind gets thrown off while the rider is negotiating those bumpy tracks. While that may be the ostensible reason, the lingering thought about the range of emotions experienced by both men when that hand slipped a little below, inadvertently perhaps, was always unexplainably exciting.

Oh hell! Reality always brought one down to earth during these mental interludes of fancy. How could one ignore for long that guy with the strange headgear, irritatedly scratching his crotch at times, in between bouts of picking his teeth, hollering all the while for cutting masala chai and fafda. Dad had made it clear to him, more than once, that customers must be served promptly and on the few occasions that he had failed to do so, immersed as he happened to be in one of his lingering daydreams, a couple of hard spanks, administered on his somewhat misshapen keister, had quickly brought him back to reality.

Years later, after he had put his misadventures behind him and had settled down to a life of regurgitating the text that they put in front of him from time to time and made him memorize, he decided to put the fleeting thoughts of his early years to the test. He was pillion riding on Lijet’s new Vespa scooter and when Lijet took a sharp turn, he sensed that this was his moment and let his hand slip down a little lower. Strangely, Lijet didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, he appeared to be in a trance for sometime afterwards till he stopped in front of a public lavatory, muttered that he was going to be awhile coming back and virtually ran inside. When he finally emerged, after what appeared to be an interminably long time, he had a glazed look in his eyes and a little smile playing on his lips. Soon afterwards, he muttered something about being faithful and loyal always. While what exactly he had in mind wasn’t fully clear then, it became rather evident that day that letting the hand stray a little lower, while hugging from the back or front, helped trigger feelings of loyalty.

Lets fast forward a few years down the line to the time when that dynamic leader, Komod, took him under his wings. His many duties, Komod explained, included serving tea, coffee and what Komod referred to as ‘refreshments’, to Komod’s distinguished guests. Once, after Komod had managed to strike a deal he was very keen on, amidst sips of his turbocharged masala chai, he detected that strange look in Komod’s eyes. Later that evening, when he was alone with Komod, he suddenly got a tight hug from him, a pat on the cheeks, a suggestion that he should let his facial hair grow and felt Komod’s hands slowly, deliberately, straying south. They eventually came to rest between his legs and strangely, his mind conjured up visions of Karna ‘doing’ Duryodhana during the Mahabharat era. Afterwards, he went and swore undying loyalty to Komod since that seemed to be the done thing, though as has been the case since his childhood years, he never quite meant what he said and never ever intended to keep a promise. He also decided that day that come what may, he will do whatever it takes to get to the top job one day.

Some years later, after Komod had departed this earth under rather gruesome circumstances and his own career plans were humming along nicely, he tried all that Komod had done to him and more on Rasik, who had served him well for some years. Rasik said he was immensely uplifted by the experience and beseeched him to repeat the exercise as often as he wished to. As he had expected, Rasik promptly swore to be faithful and loyal to him for the rest of his life and he decided, that very day, that if he ever made it to the top job, Lijet & Rasik were going to be his A-team. He had no need to look any further afield.

Some years later, when he had succeeded in eliminating much of the opposition within and appeared to be within striking distance of his goal, he was referred to this high priced international consultant who, he was told, had turned one-time mendicants into princes, globally. While they charged him an arm and a leg, they did give him some valuable tips. Some of the key ones were:

a) Physical attributes were important and many international unisex bars forbade people, whose chest did not measure at least 120 cm., from even entering. He decided to play it safe and be at least 10 cm. above that defined threshold.

b) Clothes maketh the man and the more the clothes the bigger the man was perceived to be. Again, he decided to take no chances and proceeded to build up a wardrobe which, in terms of quantity, would have made many a viscount blanch with envy. Since this burgeoning wardrobe wasn’t meant to remain in the jumbo-sized closet that he had custom built, he took to changing his clothes at least thrice daily and displaying as many of them publicly as he could, regularly. He did hear whispers about some folks referring to him as a clotheshorse but since horses had always given him that warm feeling down below, he was happy to conclude that he was on the right track.

c) His international consultants advised him that it was important to latch onto some buzzwords and make them his very own. These buzzwords were then to be strung up and displayed widely and were to appear in virtually every nook and corner of his territory till the person-in-the-street thought of him whenever they glimpsed these buzzwords and vice versa. Apparently, in marketing parlance, this was known as top-of-the-mind recall. After sleeping on various sets of buzzwords and consulting his mentor, who was known popularly as ‘The Walrus’, he settled on the words ‘focus’ and ‘hocus’ initially. ‘Hocus’ had to be replaced soon though because ‘The Walrus’ severely disapproved of it and even chided him for his choice. After much deliberation and consultation the word ‘shaft’ was chosen instead.  Lejit was enthusiastic about this and assured him, given the several nuances of the word, that his choice was a brilliant one.

Thus began his exciting journey to the top. More about that, some other time though.

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As an Asian Giant Departs the World, the Tributes and the Assessments of the Imprint He has Left Behind, Pour In.

An internet tribute from a Singaporean which appeared after his passing away.

An internet tribute from a Singaporean which appeared after his passing away.

Much has been said and written about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the builder of modern Singapore, during his lifetime. The man himself has talked and written extensively about his journey and his experiences in nation-building since 1965, when he found himself in charge of a newly independent nation which Malaysia had cast adrift.

This piece is a compilation of obituaries, write-ups and images that appeared soon after the news broke, on the morning of 23rd March, that he had passed away during the early morning hours. It includes my own observations and comments on some social media networks.

To start with, here is the announcement by his son, the current PM of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.

A compilation, by The Wall Street Journal, of LKY’s life and times .

Check out the obituary by The Guardian and The New York Times.

This is what The Australian and The Atlantic had to say.

Here is a compilation of some of his more interesting and, at times, controversial quotes.

“If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.” (Remark to a BBC reporter, 2000 who asked questions about Singapore’s chewing-gum ban & said that without chewing on gum, he couldn’t think)

“If Singapore is indeed a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one” – from his book, The Singapore Story, 1965 – 2000

“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”

“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach.”
“Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.” — Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923 -2015) on religion and on his death.

On his observation that people should generally marry keeping their educational levels in view:

“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”

On the high pay of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants:

“You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again… and your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”

“In new countries, democracy has worked and produced results only when there is an honest and effective government, which means a people smart enough to elect such a government. Remember, elected governments are only as good as people who choose them.”

Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, a few years ago.

Lee Kuan Yew, in his later years, talking to students of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

My edited comments on SM networks:

A towering figure among 20th century political leaders, I have seldom, if ever, seen the kind of charisma & presence that Lee Kuan Yew had. Many Singaporeans, particularly in their 50s & 60s, regard him truly as a father figure and are possibly feeling orphaned at the news of his demise.

A lot has been said and written and will continue to be written about the Singapore model. What, to my mind, differentiates Singapore from success stories like Hong Kong or Dubai is the fact that Lee Kuan Yew had his priorities right and implemented them singlemindedly. Among other things this included a really good schooling & higher education system through world-class universities and polytechnics, affordable public housing (housing ownership for Singaporeans is among the highest in the world, at about 90%), zero tolerance for corruption, highly pragmatic and efficient systems & processes which are regularly tweaked and adapted to changing situations as often as needed, a world-class infrastructure for businesses & individuals, an efficient bureaucracy built on meritocracy and a truly world class airport and sea port which have firmly established Singapore as a key tourism destination and a logistics hub in Asia Pacific. He also put in place a system of succession planning which ensured that all these will remain in place and be nurtured across generations. He set the bar for quality and customer service high in all that he planned and implemented.

Even after Singapore became a first-world country, an oasis among a whole host of third world countries in the region, he kept pushing Singaporeans to strive hard and excel in their chosen spheres and not become complacent or mushy. He may have exercised strict control in many spheres of daily life but he ensured that Singaporeans and residents had what it takes to not worry about the essentials of life and an environment where they could focus on doing well for themselves and their families. Among other things, the sense of safety and security one has in Singapore can hardly be matched by most other Asian countries and only by a small number of countries globally. As LKY said, if Singapore is indeed a nanny-state, the credit largely goes to him for making it one. Anyone accustomed to the standards and efficiency levels of most things in Singapore, can’t quite be faulted for getting irritated and frustrated with what he or she sees in virtually all other South and South-East Asian countries.

Typical of the efficiency of the place, tourists or business travellers could look forward to getting off their flight, clearing customs and immigration, picking up their baggage and reaching their hotels or offices downtown in less than an hour’s time. Businesses could be registered and be up and running in a week’s time. There can be no better testimony about systems that work clinically and efficiently.

No one is perfect or should claim to be. The downsides of his period at the helm and even later, as a key influencer and mentor of the government of the day, have been discussed in some of the obituaries referenced above and I have nothing further to add on that count.  All I can say at this instant of his departure from the world stage is, ” Farewell Sir, you have been inspiring in many ways and your achievements and vision will be remembered and admired for a long time.”

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Stray thoughts and facts about Android, iOS and the Apple vs. Google Smartphone Faceoff

This piece is primarily a compilation of comments & observations by me on a social media network, in response to a post of the subject. Some additional links, images and facts have been included to round off the comments & observations made earlier.

The smartphone revolution got kickstarted really when Apple came out with its first iPhone running on a O.S. it named iOS. The first iPad followed soon after and the history of mobile devices changed radically thereafter. Android, at that point in time was just another Google acquisition as far back as 2005, which had developed an open-source O.S. for mobile phones but had failed to find too many takers. As a matter of fact, the smartphone revolution was still some years away.

Flash forward to the present scenario, where, as far as market shares are concerned, Android commands a share of about 85% globally, leaving iOS to be a niche player and reducing Windows to being virtually no player at all with a paltry market share of 2.5%. A good part of iOS’ global market share is courtesy the U.S. which still remains the largest single country market for smartphones globally and where, though Android occupies pole position with 51.5%, iOS is not too far behind with 42.4% market share. So, while Android-based smartphones rule the roost globally, Apple remains very much an American phenomena still & since they don’t have the kind of fragmentation Android has had, over the years, many developers in the U.S. still prefer developing their app on the iOS platform first.

While the reasons for this can be many, it’s worthwhile looking back at the history of it all. Firstly, Android being open source & free built up the perception that it’s a cheap product. Secondly, Android couldn’t find any major takers initially since the smartphone hardware, as we know it today hadn’t quite evolved yet and Nokia, which was the dominant player in feature phones during the pre-smartphone era, wasn’t keen on taking on anything beyond its own S40, Maemo, Meego & Symbian. Consequently, when the iPhone / iOS first made its appearance, it had a virtual free run for a while in the smartphone market. Hence, in the U.S. market, they had a headstart in terms of market share & later, the number of Apps in the Apple store, which were responsible largely for the iPhone really taking off.

The early adopters of Android, primarily Samsung, HTC & LG, had few options in terms of O.S. since the iOS operated in a closed environment and since Apple was in no mood to license it to any third party. While Apple had beautifully positioned itself at the top end of the market, the Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese & Chinese manufacturers who wanted to foray into the smartphone market, found Android particularly convenient since it was open-source and free.

Lastly, as you may have noticed, none of the major companies. producing Android based smartphones – Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony & now even Motorola / Lenovo – are American companies. so possibly some good old xenophobia & national pride has been at work in the preference for iPhones by a fairly sizeable section of the U.S. smartphone market. Many Americans, who can afford it, would rather patronize Apple than any of these Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese or Chinese manufacturers.

As has been rightly pointed out, Android smartphones have largely failed to displace Apple’s firm grip at the top end of the smartphone pyramid. This is also evident from the fact that the iPhone continues to bring in nearly two-thirds of Apple’s profits even now, leading to Apple’s market capitalization remaining impressive despite the flagging sales of iPad tablets & Macs. It must be said though, that while Apple is no great innovator when it comes to software, in iOS, most basic functions & utilities come shrink-wrapped which can be comforting and reassuring for the average customer who is not quite tech-savvy.

The Nexus 6 from Google, manufactured by Motorola/ Lenovo, is Google’s first attempt to break into the top-end of the smartphone pyramid. Also, Motorola/ Lenovo is possibly trying to make some decent money & cut down its losses with this particular product. Though the Nexus 6’s hardware specs together with Android 5.0, (Lollipop) beats the iPhone 6 Plus hardware & iOS8 hands down, it is doubtful whether their pricing strategy for the Nexus 6 will work, particularly at a time when prices of Android phones are generally on a downward path. Pricing is essentially an outcome of strategy, branding & product positioning and it remains to be seen whether Google is able to make the top-end of the market perceive that the Nexus 6 is an all round superior product to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus at a price which is still lower than theirs.

For those interested in the gory details of the two different products referenced here, take the jump to the reviews for each of them that you see below.

The Apple iPhone 6+ Review

The Google Nexus 6 Review

Android 5.0 Lollipop Feature Review

 

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Is There More To L’Affaire Khobragade Than Meets The Eye?

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One would think that the country’s finest should represent India overseas, particularly when it comes to dealing with the lone superpower, U.S.A., with whom India is endeavouring to build up a special relationship, arguably more beneficial to India than to the U.S.

Consider now, some of the information which has come out in the public domain about Devyani Khobragade, the mid-ranking Indian consular staff in the New York office who was recently arrested on multiple charges, which led to a furore and considerable outrage back in India.

Now, check some of these facts out:

Adarsh was a co-operative housing society formed supposedly for Kargil war widows and Indian war veterans, but considering it stood on some of Mumbai’s most expensive real estate, politicians and bureaucrats made a beeline to grab flats by making a mockery of the law. When many read about Devyani and Adarsh, and given middle-class India’s utter frustration with India’s endemic corruption, many gleefully said the US arrest was payback time and karma had worked. Whether karma works or not, things have just gotten worse for Devyani and new revelations may mean that the Indian government’s vociferous defence of Devyani and actively fanning flames to bring things to a boil may actually be something that may come back to burn India.

First up, while earlier Devyani’s involvement in the Adarsh scam was just a serious allegation, a respected commission set up to investigate Adarsh has now said in its detailed 670-page report that Devyani furnished false information to own a flat in the Adarsh Co-operative housing society. She had falsely claimed that she did not own a flat anywhere else at the time of her application for Adarsh membership, the commission has said, according to The Indian Express. “Devyani told the Commission that she owned the Jogeshwari flat only in 2005. This statement is false since the 2004 application MEM-392-A mentions her to be a member of the society (Meera), which she said she would resign from when she gets the Adarsh allotment,” the report says, according to the newspaper. Worse, she also sold her earlier government-allocated flat at Jogeshwari for Rs 1.9 crore and possibly at a fat profit. To be exact, the Adarsh Commission report was rejected by the Maharashtra cabinet considering it also raised serious questions on the murky doings of past Maharashtra Chief Ministers, one of whom is India’s current home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.

On Sunday, the Times of India carried another story that brought another skeleton tumbling out. India’s Supreme Court had noted that the rules for allotment of foreign language to Indian Foreign Service officers on the basis of their rank in the select list was changed only for Devyani’s batch in 1999 to ensure she got her chosen language. According to the ToI, the Supreme Court noted this in a judgment while reinstating a dismissed IFS officer Mahaveer V Singhvi in Devyani’s batch, and imposing a fine of Rs 25,000 on the Union government for wrongfully terminating his services. The article quotes the SC bench of then Justices Altamas Kabir, J M Panchal and Cyriac Joseph as saying, “The Union government and ministry of external affairs have not been able to satisfactorily explain why the rules/norms for allotment of languages were departed from only for the year 1999 so that the Singhvi was denied his right of option for German and such choice was given to Khobragade who was at two stages below Singhvi in the gradation list…The mode of allotment was amended for the 1999 Batch in such a calculated fashion that Ms Khobragade, who was at Serial No.7, was given her choice of German over and above Singhvi, who was graded at two stages above her.” Singhvi’s lawyer Jayant Bhushan has alleged that the unwarranted change in rules for which the Union government received a slap on the wrist from the Supreme Court was done thanks of Devyani’s father Uttam Khobragade’s IAS and political connections.

Read more at: This article in Firstpost

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Regarding the outrage in India this is what a recent article had to say:

In fact, a lot of rubbish has been written—and spoken on national television—about diplomatic immunity in this case. First of all, Khobragade was not a diplomat—she was part of consular staff. (Now, of course, with the Indian government coming to her rescue by assigning her to India’s permanent mission to the United Nations, she’s acquired full diplomatic immunity). The relevant diplomatic provision that applied to her was not the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations but the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. It is only the 1961 Convention that grants absolute immunity to a diplomat from the jurisdiction of the host country. The 1963 Convention grants immunity only in respect of official acts, not personal ones.
The US’s legal case against Khobragade is to do with her personal act, not something she did in her official capacity as the deputy consul general for political, economic, commercial and women’s affairs at the consulate general of India in New York. So the focus needs to be on the case itself, and unlike what prime time pseudo-nationalists would have you believe, it is not one between the US and India, but between two women, neither of whom is more Indian than the other.
Khobragade is a millionaire. She owns a flat in Mumbai’s Adarsh housing society, 30 acres of farmland in Maharashtra, a 5,000 sq. ft plot in Alibaug, and another plot in Noida. And she works in the Indian foreign service. Her salary might appear modest compared with the US minimum wage, but she was no more entitled to an Indian nanny in America than the nanny in question, Sangeeta Richard, was entitled to American wages in America—which, incidentally, she legally was entitled to. If Khobragade did not want to pay her the minimum wages as per the law of the land, she had multiple options.
One, she could have chosen not to go for a posting that did not allow her to maintain a lifestyle of her choice. Two, if she wanted the New York posting so badly, she could have opted to do all the domestic work herself. Three, she could have chosen not to take Richard along with her to US, and instead hired a part-time nanny in the US in keeping with her budgetary constraints.
But she chose none of these perfectly legal options. Instead, she pursued a course of action that involved, according to the chargesheet framed against her, visa fraud, perjury, falsification of documents, and exploitation of another Indian woman in a foreign land, which is pathetic considering that her official duties in the US also involved being an upholder of women’s rights.
Anybody who cares to read the full text of the complaint against Khobragade can only wonder how she hoped to get away with her actions, which amounts to a felony under US law. Does diplomatic immunity mean diplomatic impunity?
 Here are some more facts which don’t quite seem to add up. For a full backgrounder on l’affaire Khobragade, check out this entry from Wikipedia.

As per the reports she is all of 39 years old, which would mean that she was born in 1974. Assuming a 3 year pre-school, 2 year kindergarten, and 10 year schooling, she would have finished her schooling in 1989. Then after two years of junior college, she would have been eligible for admission to medical school, which takes one to 1991. The medical undergraduate course is a four and a half year course which needs to be followed up with a one year mandatory internship, which would take one up right up to the year-end of 1996 at least, considering the typical start times for the undergraduate course during the 2nd half of the year.

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Since she is said to have graduated with the 1999 IFS batch, she would have then joined the IFS batch in 1996. Now, if she finished her internship right during the end of 1996, she couldn’t have started her course for IFS much earlier in the year during 1996.

Alternately, she either never  completed her internship by the end of 1996 at the earliest or, if she did, she may not quite be someone who completed her IFS with the 1999 batch.

She apparently paid Rs.11.8 million for an apartment in Adarsh which she wasn’t even entitled to buy in the first place. The father, Uttam Khobragade has been involved in every possible scam on earth from BEST Land Scams, the Cadbury ban because of worms (likely an extortion racket), the Adarsh Land scam, the King Long Bus scam and the diversion of Rs 340 million in Tribal Welfare to name a few. This is possibly just a little peep into how illustrious the Khobragade family is. Some of these details can be read in detail in this Moneylife piece.

In her Linkedin profile, Devyani lists her job function as ‘law enforcement’. Yet, at the time of her arrest she was the Deputy General Consul for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs. From law enforcement to Economic & Commercial affairs is quite a jump isn’t it? One wonders whether that was the only slot available in the New York consulate?

Has anyone ever wondered why the govt. of India, together with the IFS officials, are so hell-bent on kicking up a ruckus about someone who should have been normally suspended from service for some of the irregularities and untruths she has been involved in so far?

What may also puzzle many is why Devyani’s husband, Dr. Aakash Singh Rathore, a U.S. citizen currently based in New York, has hardly made any statements regarding this whole issue and seems to be keeping a very low profile deliberately. He has apparently done stints in Germany and Delhi in the past. According to some other reports, Devyani herself has done two stints in Pakistan, one in 2005 and the other in 2008. A brief profile of the two can be read in this report from the Washington Post.

Is there a lot more to this than meets the eye? Why are some publications hinting at intelligence alliances betweeen five nations, NSA links and linkages with some of the UIDAI implementation partners. Read this article in Moneylife for the full details.

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Twice Bitten, Nary a Chance to be Shy – The Vodafone Kolkata Tales

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Some years back, during a somewhat extended visit to Kolkata, I was made to jump through hoops and rings of fire after picking up a prepaid Vodafone connection for my local communications during my stay. There was no 3G those days; nevertheless, the experience was distasteful enough to make me launch into an uncharacteristic and rather long and rambling rant in a blog piece. Those of you, interested in going through this rather long piece, will find it here.  [ The Vodafone Pummel ]

Six years later, circa 2013, very little has changed. Or so I discovered when, during another extended visit to Kolkata, a combination of laziness, convenience (in the form of a nearby Vodafone store @ 204, Sarat Bose Rd. , near the Southern Avenue crossing) & possibly a subconscious streak of masochism led me to revisit this onerous institution which could well be representative of the state of Telecom services in India.

Unlike my earlier ramble, intended in parts to be sardonic & mildly amusing, let me confine myself to the bare, dry facts.

After initial inquiries and a brief wait, I was handed over to an executive with the name tag ‘Debashis’.

I made it known to him that I wanted to pick up 3 post-paid 3G/ mobile broadband connections, two of them to be used with smartphones and one to be used, together with a dongle which I intended to purchase, for broadband internet access on my laptop.

After a quick discussion, we settled for a 8 GB scheme for the broadband internet access using the dongle and two supposedly ‘unlimited’ schemes for 3G access on the smartphones (in reality, that translates to up to 1 GB / month at 3G speeds ; subsequently at 2G speeds). After furnishing the necessary documents & identification and making all payments on the spot, we were repeatedly assured by Debashis that activation would happen shortly, possibly in a few hours time.

Later that evening, I dialled a number I was asked to, for activation. After going through the identification procedures, I was assured by the Vodafone person at the other end that activation will happen within a couple of hours. True to form, that assurance fell by the wayside.

The next day I received a SMS about ‘physical verification’. Fortunately, later that evening, a person turned up for the purpose (apparently they are under instructions to pay surprise visits). He went through the process clinically & quickly & assured me that he will be ‘calling in’ his report very soon and that ‘activation’ in a few hours that day itself. That didn’t quite turn out to be true.

Sometime the next day, I discovered that internet access had been ‘enabled’, though the speeds were the painfully slow 2G speeds. I called up Vodafone Customer Care to mention this, registered on the Vodafone site, wrote an email for good measure and requested for a quick resolution of the issue. Despite various platitudes & assurances, nothing happened really for the next couple of days. Someone at the Helpdesk finally told me that if I was indeed interested in a quick resolution, I would do well to visit the Vodafone store and speak to the executive concerned who had sold me the packages.

I did so a couple of days down the line, picked out Debashis from the several front desk salespersons at the store & asked to speak to him. He assured me that he will take care of this right away and complimented me on my patience and tolerance (compared possibly to most other customers who by this stage start getting somewhat prickly & thorny).

Some hours after this, internet access on the smartphones started happening at 3G speeds, though neither on my laptop nor on the smartphones, I ever managed to attain speeds of 7 Mbps or more (Speedtest.net) which, I had been repeatedly assured initially, was the least I should expect.

Despite the delay and several hiccups and the considerable amounts of time spent in even getting the service I had signed up and paid for, I was almost ready to believe that my previous experience was a one-off aberration and that Vodafone had improved in the 6 years that had elapsed since that first experience. Having spent over 3 decades in the IT & Telecom industries across Asia Pacific including India, I should have knownfeline mattress better.

Vodafone delivered the sucker punch a few days later, when the bills arrived. I will spare you the gory details but even for a fortnightly period, the amounts were humongous and not at all in accordance with the postpaid 3G mobile internet packages I had signed up for.

I went through the same routine that I have mentioned earlier and eventually was told by someone in customer care that I should take up the matter with the executive who had sold me the ‘packages’. In less than 3 weeks, I had to undertake my 3rd pilgrimage to the Vodafone store and pick out Debashis.

I was again reassured by him that he will sort out the issue that day itself or latest by the next working day. I was told to remind him through SMS messages and ‘missed calls’ (apparently much in vogue in this city ) if I didn’t hear from him by the end of that day. As I was beginning to expect by now, days passed and there was no comeback from the ‘friendly, reassuring’ Vodafone sales executive, despite my sending out text messages to him with the concerned numbers regularly. Nearly a week passed by during which I received a call late one evening from him, telling me that while he had referred the matter already to the concerned department, there had been no comeback from them till date. Finally, in utter exasperation, I made a ‘missed call’ to his number one evening and he responded shortly afterwards. What he had to tell me this time blew my mind. Apparently, since I had started ‘using’ the services even before my 2nd visit to his store (refer narrative above), after which he taken on the task of getting the ‘3G mobile internet services’ activated, despite the 2G speeds at which the mobile internet  had been operating till then, I had been charged for a few days as per some ‘fancy ad hoc rate’ Vodafone has and not as per the 3G mobile internet package I had signed up for.

If the narrative above is rather too labyrinthine, here’s the elevator pitch. Vodafone, despite repeated promises by multiple agents & individuals, repeatedly delayed activation of the contracted services, failed on more than one occasion to respond promptly and satisfactorily to my queries & concerns and capped it all by sending me a bill which was way too high and not at all in accordance with the package I had signed up for. Subsequently, the concerned Vodafone salesperson  tried to fob me off with the story that I was somehow ‘responsible’ for all this, particularly the ‘erroneous’ amounts reflected in the very first bill. [ Check out update 1 below ]

To be fair, amidst all these crumbling rooftops and falling pillars, the only folks who have responded professionally to some of my emails till now are people who man the Nodal care services for Vodafone Kolkata (nodal.kol@vodafone.com ). The rest of it, as I have endeavoured to explain at some length here, has been a veritable train-wreck in terms of customer service & orientation.

A quick search on the net as well as a glance through Vodafone’s social media pages / accounts tells one that not too many are exactly enamoured with their services. Additionally, Vodafone seems to be under investigation by regulatory bodies like the TRAI for apparently flouting certain laid down norms and by the tax authorities for defaults on taxes payable. The only bright spot amidst all this are some of the interviews by the person responsible for Asia Pacific & Indian operations, Mr. Marten Pieters, that I came across. Well, Mr. Pieters, I am not quite sure what the priorities are at this point of time but, as you can see, things weren’t too hunky-dory six years back and have hardly improved noticeably since then. Possibly these heathens in chaotic developing countries like India need to go through some pain to understand the big favours MNCs like Vodafone are doing to them.

I leave it to the readers of this blog to mention whether this is the case particularly with Vodafone Kolkata or with Vodafone all over the country.  I am also curious to hear about a cross-section of experiences people may have had with some of the other major Telecom service providers in this country.

This narrative, at this moment is an unfinished tale and I will be back with updates in the not-so-distant future. Keep watching this space to find out how the saga unfolds.

Update 1

Emails detailing the problem and linking to this blog by way of details, copied to other IDs which are meant for escalating such problems, one presumes,  were met with stony silence. In the absence of any kind of comforting communication, which is possibly unrealistic to expect under these circumstances, even a mere acknowledgment would have been somewhat reassuring. Possibly, one-off retail customers like yours truly don’t quite merit such attention. A routine mail from local customer care, tried to reiterate the same ‘storyline’ as the one narrated above through an email.  Subsequently someone from Vodafone Care, Kolkata’ called up and needed to be explained in great detail, over & over again, all that has been narrated here. At the end of these rather irritating exchanges, the picture became clearer though. Here is the executive summary.

1. On 31st July, while at the Vodafone store, I had clearly discussed & settled for 3 data plans, 2 of them being the 1 GB Unlimited plan for 2 Smartphones & one the 8 GB unlimited plan which was planned to be used, together with a dongle purchased during that time from the Vodafone store,  for 3G internet access on laptops / other mobile devices. Despite being repeatedly told about the urgency for activation of the data plans, the salesperson in question did not activate the 1 GB Data plans for the smartphones. He did so for the 8 GB plan however.

2. This fact clearly escaped me because the elaborate forms needed were filled up by the salesperson alluded to, who, after obtaining the necessary ID documents & proof from me, got me to sign on the dotted line, assuring me that everything else will be taken care of by him. In good faith, I signed and exited the store, feeling reassured.

3. Due to non activation of the 1 GB Data plans, internet access, after a couple of days, was restricted to the slower 2G speeds. Puzzled by the fact & unable to resolve the issue, as stated earlier, I was forced to make my 2nd visit within a week to the Vodafone store & speak to the concerned executive. It appears that thereafter he quickly activated the data plan, which as per the discussions & earlier agreement, he was supposed to do on Day 1 itself i.e. on 31st July.

4. Vodafone apparently charges such ad-hoc accesses of the Internet at 2G speeds as per some humongously high rates. Unknown to me, Vodafone kept charging me at these rates for several days till the data plan I had signed on for initially on Day 1 itself was quietly activated after my 2nd visit to the Vodafone store.

5. Whether this is an error of omission or commission on the part of the salesperson mentioned, is not quite clear. However, Vodafone customer care executives have been repeatedly trying to obfuscate the issue & claim that they were quite justified and right in billing me the way they did. If there is any intent to redress the wrong done and resolve the issue satisfactorily, it has not been evident from the tone & tenor of the communications, written & verbal, till date.

Update 2

Since multiple people from Vodafone continue to try & obfuscate & distort the issue and fabricate post-facto scenarios in an attempt to cover up for their acts of omission, commission & negligence, I have sent out the following detailed communication to all concerned in Vodafone and to the various regulatory authorities and statutory bodies on the 12th of September, 2013. Here it is, unabridged:

It is now fairly clear to me that Vodafone, Kolkata circle is engaged in a game of hoodwinking first-time & gullible customers, fabricating a sequence of events post-facto to justify their acts of omission, commission & negligence, possibly wilful & deliberate at times & backing up frontline salespersons who commit such acts possibly because they do so with the active encouragement of the management.

It is also evident that despite various fancy names & slogans, Vodafone’s attitude towards the customer is one of supreme indifference & unconcern, bordering on hostility at times.

As would be evident from the various communications below, Vodafone has neither cared to answer several pertinent questions raised during these exchanges but has stuck to a crafted scenario which is, in parts, fabricated post-facto to cover up for their negligence, acts of omission & unprofessional & unethical practices.  Here is a summary of the queries which have not been answered either satisfactorily, convincingly or at all.

1. On 31st July 2013 when I stepped into the Vodafone store on Southern Ave, / Sarat Bose Rd. crossing, Kolkata, as a first-time retail prospect and was directed to a particular salesperson, no attempt was made to either show me the internal forms which are now being alluded to as the defining & clinching document in this whole process. Instead, various talk time & data plans were told to me by the concerned salesperson at the end of which I chose 2 specific talk-time & 2 3G data plans for two smartphones I already had as well as a 3G data-plan solely for usage on internet enabled devices like laptops etc.,.  While I repeatedly requested for a quick activation of all services and the concerned salesperson repeatedly assured me that this will happen in a few hours time, at no stage was I ever informed that the activation, particularly the data-plan activation might take several days. I have subsequently come to understand from informed external sources that this is the case presently. This constitutes a deliberate suppression of facts and an attempt to mislead and provide glib & false assurances for ‘closing a sale’.

2. After asking me for the requisite IDs & photographs, the salesperson was insistent on my paying the sums mentioned on the spot and on my signing on the dotted line in an internal form, assuring me repeatedly that he will take care of all other formalities & processes. At no stage was even an attempt made to explain the various entries in the internal form that is being alluded to repeatedly here; neither was any attempt made to walk me through the form or to get me to fill in any details in the mentioned form. This appears to have been a willful attempt to keep me from reading any fine print in the form and to build up a provision for covering up internal errors & acts of omission and possibly for deliberately misleading customers who may not know any better.

3. It is now claimed that since apparently no data plan for the smartphones had been opted for (a white lie which Vodafone keeps clinging on to & repeating), I was charged for access at slow 2G speeds @ 10 p / 10 KB. At no stage had Vodafone either informed me of this fact or obtained my consent in any manner about such services & charges before or during this event. To state this now, after the charges have been levied already, constitutes clearly unethical & less-than-transparent business practices on Vodafone’s part.

4. It is also now claimed by Vodafone that during my 2nd visit to the said Store on 3rd August, I had opted for certain 3G data plans for 2 smartphones which were subsequently activated.  In fact, the 2nd visit to the Store was to get the issue of ‘slow, non-3G speeds while accessing the internet on my smartphones’ remedied, as advised to me by someone from the Vodafone helpdesk earlier. Since I did not either fill-in or sign any form on that day, how did someone in Vodafone go about deciding that such 3G data plans could now be activated? If, as stated by Vodafone in their several responses, such ‘internal forms’ are essential documents for activation of services, including data plans, how can anyone in Vodafone take it upon himself or herself to activate such ‘paid services’ without a filled-in & signed form from me? If someone can indeed do so, it clearly shows that their internal systems are susceptible to & designed for gross customer abuse.
Further, how did someone take it on himself to activate such 3G data plans for smartphones without ascertaining in any manner or form whether the handsets I have are indeed capable of  accessing such services and operating at 3G speeds? Is this not another example of callousness, negligence & either misleading or demonstrating complete unconcern for the customer?

I now understand from some friends and associates with whom I have shared this experience that several even old-time customers have suffered similarly at the hands of Vodafone Kolkata and that unhappiness with one or more of their services as well as their attitude towards customers in general is the cause for considerable unhappiness among quite a few.

What has been your experience with Vodafone in India? Do share your experiences by commenting on this post.

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India Adrift

 

 

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The observations and comments here are derived from my several posts and comments on the issue in various social media networks. 

The first para largely pertains to a discussion about the TMC’s and particularly Mamata Banerjee’s time in power since her victory in 2011.

Politics is as much a game of building up perceptions (even illusions for that matter) and communications as it is of actually ushering in good governance and delivering on promises made. Mamata falls quite short on at least the first count and matters haven’t been helped in the least by her periodic outbursts, loose comments, whimsical and knee-jerk reactions to events and propensity to put her foot in her mouth on several occasions. Her media managers have done a pretty poor job so far and if at all she has a P.R. agency managing affairs for her, either she needs to replace it with one far more competent and adept or pay greater heed to their suggestions & recommendations.

I can’t help drawing comparisons with someone who has capitalized on the masterplan laid down by his high-powered, expensive, U.S. based P.R. agency and adroitly turned around a disastrous situation which stared him in the face in 2002 to one where he has become a cult-guru of sorts for a section of the middle-class urban Indians who have started believing the carefully cultivated hype that he will return India to double-digit growth days in a trice and solve most problems of governance with a wave or two of his ‘lathi’.

Consider some of the following inconvenient facts, even in Modi’s home state which has been relentlessly touted as a model of development.

  • Gujarat ranked 17th overall within India in terms of literacy when Modi took over. Currently, after more than a decade of Modi-rule, it ranks 18th.
  • Gujarat’s fiscal deficit a year back was the 3rd highest in India, behind W. Bengal & U.P. While W. Bengal & U.P. have never even remotely claimed that they are model states in terms of fiscal management & development, Modi has built his whole reputation on those premises.
  • Hunger & malnutrition are worse in Gujarat than several other large states and the U.N. development Index report of 2011 (which uses govt. data) indicates that 45% of children in Gujarat are malnourished.
  • No political pundit or veteran columnist seems to have qualms about the fact that a man who has little formal education, a family life which is murky (Is Modi married or divorced? Why doesn’t he answer questions about the woman, supposedly his wife, languishing in some village) and whose background largely includes being an on-again, off-again RSS ‘pracharak’ and  tea stall owner previously may not quite be the right choice to run a country as large and as diverse as India and tackle the economic complexities, foreign affairs and social media exposures & inquisitions which are a given in 2014 and beyond.

Check out details about some of these ‘facts’ and issues in these reports:

Deccan Herald – Fact-checks & Statistics about Gujarat

TOI report based on the U.N. Human Development report 2011 pertaining to Gujarat

A word cloud of Narendra Modi’s speeches over the years (most of them used to be in Gujarati & Hindi to the unwashed masses in his early years) would surely show up streaks of his personality and governance style which may not be quite palatable to the discerning. The almost indisputable fact that his P.R. agency and media managers gamed the system by pushing in over 50% fakes to build up his 1 million plus followers on Twitter also doesn’t quite indicate a man who can be ‘trusted’ to lead India in 2014 & beyond.

Some unpalatable truths about Modi’s social media strategy

Ramachandra Guha’s piece in The Hindu about the implications and fallouts about Narendra Modi as PM in 2014, makes some incisive and well-argued observations. Here is the link to the full piece.

Ramachandra Guha piece on Narendra Modi in The Hindu

The alternative to Modi, Rahul Gandhi, attempted to be projected by the Congress, is largely a non-starter too. Rahul Gandhi is widely perceived to be well-meaning but vacuous with no vision or original ideas for governing India.  He is also perceived as someone who has achieved little or nothing during the years that he has been in politics. He seemingly lacks the drive or the decisiveness needed to provide effective governance. While he may come across as charming, he also comes across as someone who has been unwilling to roll up his sleeves and get hands-on when it really matters. As a friend mentioned, had he really wanted to turn things around for the Congress in U.P., he should have shifted base to Lucknow for a couple of years at least and gone about the task with gusto and singlemindedness, rather than the fleeting visits, periodic speeches and occasional photo-op moments that happened to be part of his U.P. campaign over the years. He has also often been silent or even absent when visibility was the need of the hour and hasn’t given any indication over the years that he has either the political instincts or the panache to ‘seize the moment’ which is so important for a politician to position himself in the perceptions of the people.

Ramachandra Guha again touches on several of these points in this interview with IBN

Ramachandra Guha on Rahul Gandhi as a Prime-ministerial candidate

Surely India, a country of 1.22 billion people, with its great diversities and complexities as well as its huge talent pool and major potential, needs someone at the helm, other than these two gentlemen who don’t quite have the attributes to measure up to the task,  who is potentially capable of steering the ship safely past the icebergs after the general elections in 2014!

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