Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bees Sal Baad

24th July 1991 - this date should be hailed as the Second independence Day for India.  On this date, Dr Manmohan Singh presented his first budget and officially inaugurated the process of economic liberalization. Equally, if not more important, was the announcement of a new Industrial Policy on the same date by the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. Both the announcements paved the way for end of license-permit Raj in the country and opened up the pent-up economic energy of the country. This date of course marks both the culmination of a desperate attempt to save the country from default and the beginning of the economic reform process.
When Dr Singh rose to present his first budget at 5 PM on that date, there was no mobile phone (you were lucky if you had a residential phone and more importantly if it worked) or a single shopping mall in the country. There was no cable TV, packaged drinking water, Coke, Pepsi or Pizza Hut. There was no ATM, credit card, no NSE and Infosys was yet to be listed. I was in high school then and it was very difficult for us to imagine that one day we would be having personal computers at home, highest level of information access (in Calcutta) was British Council Library, and foreign vacation was unimaginable. Our maximum ambition was to crack engineering or medical entrance exam and to see India winning cricket world cup again.

Previous few years were disastrous for India – two Prime Ministers were killed between 1984 and 1991. First V P Singh’s campaign against Bofors and corruption shook the Congress and altered the political equation in the country and then came Mandal and Mandir – society was polarized along caste and communal lines like never before. Added to it was the political instability – V.P. Singh government made way for Chandrasekhar-led another third front experiment, which barely lasted a few months. In the summer of 1991, when Congress looked almost set to regain power, Rajiv Gandhi was brutally assassinated. Elections were rescheduled and a new  Congress government – though minority in the House – was formed under Narasimha Rao. Brought back from retirement to lead the party and the country, he sprung a surprise by naming Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister. After serving in almost all the top posts in economic administration – Chief Economic Advisor, Secretary, Deputy Chairperson Planning Commission, RBI Governor, Dr Singh was heading University Grants Commission at that time. It is now widely believed that Rao’s first choice was another veteran economic administrator - Dr I G Patel, who was the Director of London School of Economics at that time. After Patel declined the offer, the choice fell on Manmohan Singh.

Policy makers led by the Finance Minister in the Chandrasekhar government, Yashwant Sinha were working overtime in previous few months to ensure that there was no default for the country. Through their desperate efforts they could manage some loans and then Sinha took the bold step of shipping out gold to raise money abroad. Yet on 24th July, India had forex of just $ 1.2 billion - enough for less than three weeks. And India’s GDP size was just under 300 billion dollars. Just to compare – today our forex reserve itself is around 300 billion dollars and GDP is around 1.3 trillion dollars. Immediately after taking over as the Finance Minister, Dr Singh had to pledge more gold and then in two installments devalued Rupee by 20 per cent. Along with abolishing license raj and opening up export-import, India also opted for IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme. From 1991 to 1994, in all the Budget and policy announcements, Dr Singh and Commerce Minister P Chidambaram tore away the entire fabric of control economy. For businessmen, who literally spent their lifetime at New Delhi’s Udyog Bhavan to get one license, it was unbelievable that they do not need to even apply for one. All these sparked tremendous reaction both from the Left and the Right. Also there were strong critics within the Congress Party and among the well-entrenched Indian business groups. It was Narasimha Rao, who withstood all the pressure and provided unstinted support to his Finance Minister and Commerce Minister – both lacking any political clout.
In next two decades, both the Right and grudgingly, even the Left would embrace Reform. Many would argue that more substantial reforms have taken place under the Third Front governments (1996-98) and NDA government (1998-2004) than the subsequent Congress-led government. Similarly it would not be wrong to argue that today’s robust growth is more inspite of the government than due to the government. Once the shackles were removed, then the entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen of Indians drove the economy faster and faster. And indeed today’s bottlenecks – infrastructure, social development, labour reform - are more due to the inefficiency of the government than any other factor.

Reform has shaken this ancient civilization out of its decades-old slumber. Now India, along with China is one of the power houses of growth for the global economy. Despite its obvious limitations, reform has changed not only the economy but also the society and relationship in this country. India – a nation of Maharajahs and snake-charmers is today mentioned more in terms of its economic and intellectual prowess. Apart from the people, who lived through this incredible revolution it is difficult to understand how almost everything around us stands thoroughly transformed today.
For individuals at the helm of affairs, it has been a different journey – right from Sriranga Purushottam Shukla (1991) to Ashok Chawla - we have been fortunate to have a series of brilliant bureaucrats as the Finance Secretary. After playing their stipulated innings, most of them have faded out of public life. On the other hand, the group of economist- technocrats, which played the most crucial role in changing the course of Indian economy right from 1991, is still mostly around. Apart from Dr Singh, other luminaries in this group include Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Commerce Secretary in 1991), Rakesh Mohan (Advisor in the Industry Ministry), C Rangarajan (soon to become RBI Guv) and a series of economic advisors – Deepak Nayyar, Arvind VIrmani, Shankar Acharya, Ashok Desai, Ashok Lahiri. It is a tribute to their capabilities that under their stewardship, not only the basic structure of Indian economy underwent a revolutionary change but India also emerged from regional or global crises like East Asian Crisis of late nineties or recent sub-prime crisis almost unscathed.

Two main actors in 1991 were Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao. Contemporary history has treated them very differently – Rao – a visionary Prime Minister – got embroiled in a series of controversies and his political life ended in sad humiliation. Manmohan Singh – the technocrat-politician – has been hailed as the mascot of liberalization by the media and middle class. Dr Singh rose to become the Prime Minister in 2004 – even though many would argue that he is the first appointed and not elected, Prime Minister of this country. As Prime Minister he steered the nation towards a new foreign policy but has long lost his reformist zeal. I do not know how history will remember him but looking at 20-something people of this country, I know for sure, this country has changed forever and it does not really matter which party is in power or who is the Finance Minister – Indian middle class today more or less can decide their future themselves – two decades down the line, perhaps that is the greatest legacy of the Reform. Though open economy has helped to lift more people out of poverty in last two decades than in previous four decades of socialism, sadly, the super highway of growth has not yet reached the poor.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Golden Chariot

  El Dorado!! For centuries adventurers have been searching for this mythical city of gold. And now the nearest thing to El Dorado is Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala. First, huge amount of cash and gold in Sai Baba’s bedroom and then astonishing amount of treasures hidden in this so far not-so-famous temple of South India – but why are we so surprised? God in Indian conception is always a dazzling, bejeweled presence!! And not only in India, in every civilization God and wealth have a very close connection. One possible explanation could be that a place of worship perhaps provides the best protection for extraordinary wealth. People are still searching for the treasures of the temple at Jerusalem nearly 2000 years after its destruction – recently a scholar claimed that it may be hidden in present day Palestine though most people believe that it was taken to Rome. From ancient Egyptians to Incas of South America, there is no death of stories about fabulously rich places of worship.

Vanijye Vasati Lakshmi: India’s richest people are regular visitors and major donors at some of the country’s wealthiest temples like Tirupati, Sirdi or Siddhivinayak. At times they patronize or contribute lavishly for some particular religious sect or mandir – one of India’s most prominent business families has in recent years contributed significantly in complete up gradation of Srinathji temple and surrounding areas in Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
Between 725 AD and 1701 AD Somnath temple in Gujarat was raided and destroyed 6 times even though the most infamous raid was that of Mahmud Ghazni in 1024 AD. There is a contemporary account, which says that Mahmud took away from the temple a number of gold and silver statues and other precious items – the total loot were estimated to be worth twenty thousand gold dinars and was used in rebuilding his capital Ghazni. Equally important to note that from the Sind Governor, who destroyed the temple in 725 AD to Alauddin Khilzi and Aurangzeb - every conqueror found enormous wealth in this temple.
Major contribution for any temple comes from the trading and business community – perhaps because they need God on their side more often than ordinary mortals do.  Since Somnath is situated along the most important trading route of India, it is but natural that the temple would be endowed with riches. And it is not only this particular temple – we have enough evidence to suggest that Hindu and Jain temples of Gujarat were repositories of incredible amount of wealth, which were repeatedly looted by various attackers. Again, this has been the trend world over.
Buddhist monasteries along the famous Silk Route were famed for their astonishing wealth – both spiritual as well as material. Some of the richest hauls of ancient treasures in Asia have been found from Buddhist monasteries and other buildings in India, Afghanistan and Central Asia – all spread along major trade routes. There are many legends about the hidden wealth of the Templars in Europe – one of the themes in Dan Brown’s famous Da Vinci Code – though monks and Christian soldiers in theory, Templars amassed their massive wealth by controlling and participating in trade and by lending to Kings.
 Southern Splendour: But on both counts – close links between God and wealth and link between temple and trade - it is difficult to beat South India. We have evidence at least from the Chola dynasty (9th century onwards) to suggest that a significant part of the economy was used to be driven by temples. A temple generally provided the focal point of urbanization in a particular area and used to drive the economic, social and at times political life of that region. We have epigraphic evidence to suggest that these temples – or at least the bigger ones – used to actively invest money and participate in domestic and international trade through trading guilds like Manigramam or Nanadesi guilds. These temples were so rich that at times they even lent money to the King! Among the major temples were the great Shiva temple at Chidambaram and the Srirangaswamy temple; later the temples of Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram were added to this list.
Between 1309 and 1311, Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s celebrated General led two military expeditions to South India. At the outset, it was pointed out that the entire region was dotted with rich temples, which owned huge landed property and were involved in trade and money lending in a major way. Kafur defeated the rulers of present day Maharastra, Telangana, Hoyasalas of Karnatakas and looted - though could not completely defeat - the Pandyas of Tamil Nadu during the course of his two expeditions.  When he came back from the Deccan after subjugating the rulers of Maharastra and Telangana, two hundred camels carried the booty and a dazzling exhibition in the capital showcased the riches Kafur brought from the South. Much of this priceless booty was looted from the temples. During his second expedition, Kafur came back with more gold and jewels plundering cities and temples up to Rameswaram – among the temples he looted was the great Chola temple at Chidambaram.                                                                                                                                                                
From the 14th to 16th century, under the great rulers of Vijayanagar, temples regained their prominent place in South Indian economy and society. A number of travelers have written about great temples prospering on the basis of extensive land grants and then investing their surplus in trade and money lending. Interestingly, one of the travelers – Persian Abdur Razzaq described cells similar to those being opened at Padmanabhaswamy temple today in a royal palace of Vijayanagar – basins filled with gold and different jewels! 
Divine Masala: In 1498, Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama reached Calicut –  it was an epoch-making journey in World History, comparable to the discovery of America by Columbus. It has been a matter of debate for a very long time that what motivated da Gama in his quest for India – there is strong evidence to suggest that the immediate motivation was the desire of the Portuguese King Manuel to become a King of Jerusalem, birth place of Christianity and the zeal to discover the legendary Eastern Christian Kingdom of Prester John. But as da Gama reached Calicut what came to dominate European imagination was spice trade, or more specifically trade in black pepper instead of religion. Pepper was worth in gold in medieval Europe. Pepper and other spices used to travel from South East Asia and various Western Indian ports from Calicut to Cambay to Red Sea ports and from there through overland routes to Egypt and then to Europe. Egyptians and Italian merchants used to control this lucrative trade. da Gama’s voyage brought Portuguese in this equation and the most important contribution of the Portuguese in this trade (or Indian Ocean trade in general) was to introduce a system of monopoly, which they enforced ruthlessly.
Fast forward to 1730, in Southern Kerala a new empire under King Martanda Varma was fast taking shape – he forced smaller zamindars into submission, established a standing army and bureaucracy and managed to defeat the Dutch forces with the help of the English. And to fund his empire-building, he took a cue from the Portuguese and monopolized the trade in spices. Taking advantage of disturbances and decline in other ports in Western India, Travancore and its new port of Alleppey (Alapuzha) became the main centre for spices trade. Merchants were turned into government servants, a new department of commerce was opened and royal monopoly resulted in doubling of prices of pepper – an efficient management of this trade under Martanda Varma (1729-58) and then Rama Varma (1758-98) turned Travancore into a golden state. It was mainly the proceeds of this spice trade, which went into royal treasury and as it seems now, increasingly into the underground vaults of Padmanabhaswamy Temple since January 3, 1750 – the date on which Martanda Varma dedicated the Kingdom of Travancore to God Padmanabha and since that day all Travancore Kings ruled as “Padmanabha-dasan” or servants of Padmanabha.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Devika Rani: India's First Modern Heroine

In 1936, a lab assistant of the famous Bombay Talkies was called by the Studio head Himanshu Rai to appear as a hero in their next production. His name was suggested under extra-ordinary circumstances by his brother-in-law and one of the assistants of Himanshu Rai – Sashadhar Mukherjee. Kumudlal Ganguly – who would soon become famous as Ashok Kumar – was of course more than happy but could not act at all in initial few takes. In a Bengali autobiography (told to a journalist of Aajkal newspaper), Jeevan Naiyya – named after this debut film – he recalled how he was completely overwhelmed by the heroine. The heroine in question was none other than the leading lady of Bombay Talkies - Devika Rani. The last minute change in casting was due to marital tensions between Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. Devika Rani had eloped with the original hero of the movie Najam-ul Hasan. Himanshu managed to bring her back but decided to drop Najam from the movie.
On silver screen and outside of it, Devika Rani was an extraordinary heroine. Named after the famous heroine of Bankim Chandra, Devika Rani Choudhuri was born in VIshakapattnam in 1908 in a distinguished Bengali Brahmo family. She was related to the Tagore family through her mother - her grandmother was the daughter of Rabindranath’s eldest sister. Her father M N Choudhuri was a member of the Indian Medical Service and was the first Indian Surgeon General of Madras Presidency. Her paternal uncles - Ashutosh Choudhury, Pramotho Chaudhury - were well known in the socio-cultural scene of Bengal. As a sixteen year old, Devika travelled alone to England to study architecture – perhaps the first Indian girl to have done so. She was inspired by the works of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed some of the landmark buildings of London including the St Paul’s. In London, apart from architecture, she also studied at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and started working in theatre and cinema production. Devika worked as an apprentice under Elizabeth Arden. Himanshu Rai – already famous as the Director of Light of Asia – requested her to design sets for his movie. Devika married Himanshu in 1929. In 1933, their production Karma with Devika as a heroine opened to a grand reception in London and elsewhere in Europe. She was invited to act in the inaugural episode of first ever BBC TV Series and was also given the distinction to make the first broadcast for BBC Short Wave Hindi Service.

                        (In)famous 4-minute long kissing scene with Himanshu in Karma

Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani along with their associates founded Bombay Talkies – India’s first ever stock market-listed film company, which had prominent businessmen and bankers as Directors on the Board. Bombay Talkies changed the rule of the game and soon came to dominate the Indian film industry. For all its real life drama preceding Jeevan Naiyya, it received a modest reception from the viewers. But the next movie starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani was to become a landmark not only for Bombay Talkies but also in the history of Indian films. Acchyut Kanya, a love story between a Brahmin boy and an untouchable girl created waves across the country.

                                                                 Acchyut Kanya

 In 1940, Himanshu passed away and widowed Devika had to fight with Sashadhar Mukherjee and others for the control of Bombay Talkies. In 1943, Sashadhar and his associates left Bombay Talkies to start Filmistan Studio. It was during this phase, that she came to be known as the Dragon lady. As the head of Bombay Talkies she “discovered” actors like Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.

                                                  Roerich's Portrait of Devika Rani

After Sashadhar and other left, Bombay Talkies gradually faded in importance. In 1945, Devika married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and left Bombay and the world of movies. Thus began another, quieter phase of her life. She lived with her husband in a sprawling estate in Bangalore till her death in 1994. Apart from numerous other honours, she was given the first Dadasaheb Phalke Award for her life time contribution to Indian Cinema in 1970.