Sunday, December 05, 2004

the curse of red ink

An ex-government minister attacks India's bureaucracy

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in Newsweek International in December 2004.)

Dec. 13 issue - Arun Shourie, who has captained a half-dozen different ministries, knows what ails India's government. But reading his latest book, "Governance, and the Sclerosis That Has Set In" (262 pages. Rupa & Co.), one gets the feeling that it was his experience as minister of Disinvestment—charged with selling off India's sick state-owned companies—that motivated the journalist turned politician to pick up his pen. Resistance to the sale of state companies ran deep, even though none of the ailing firms had made a profit for years. In the end, political infighting guaranteed the minister would fail. But he realized that it wasn't ideological disputes that tied government after government into knots of inaction: it was the system of governance itself. As he puts it, a sclerosis had set in.

Shourie begins this compendium of examples of stupefying bureaucratic obstructionism with a hilarious one. Two officers in the Ministry of Steel set off shockwaves when they appended comments to an official document in red and green ink. Their worried superiors consulted the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances: "Can officers use inks other than blue or black?... Are there Guidelines on the question? If so, could these be forwarded to the undersigned..." In resolving this quandary, the department took 18 months and consulted the Directorate of Printing (experts on ink), the Department of Personnel and Training (experts on rules), the National Archives of India (experts on longevity) and the Ministry of Defence (experts on hierarchy). The result is outlined in two conflicting paragraphs appended to the hallowed Manual of Office Procedure, and can be summed up roughly as follows: some people can use red or green ink some of the time, but nobody can use red or green ink all of the time.

The red tape extends far beyond red ink. Shourie outlines how internecine disputes not only helped prevent many state-owned companies from ever turning a profit but also made it nearly impossible for the government to sell its loss-making firms, since nobody would bid on them without a clear statement of their assets and liabilities. Likewise, he shows how the government's move to adopt new telecommunications was slowed by conflicts not over the actual policy but over who should be deciding that policy. And the public remained in grave danger because debates over which authority should be held accountable—rather than what needed to be done—prevented environmental legislation from being enforced.

This is an admirable exercise in truth-telling. But it's hard to share Shourie's cautious optimism that the disease can be cured by "wielding the axe" to limbs of government that don't function. The patient won't lie down on the table. Whose responsibility is it to decide which table and which axe? And should it be an axe or a scalpel? That, too, is a matter for careful consideration.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

india: playing its last card?

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in December 2004).

Having been sidelined by its election loss in May, India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party jumped at the chance to get back in the headlines last week after the arrest of the country's foremost religious leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, a.k.a. the Kanchi seer. BJP leaders denounced the jailing of the 70-year-old holy man—who was charged with arranging the killing of an employee who had worked at the seer's Hindu temple in southern India—and went on a three-day fast to demand the seer's release. BJP-associated far-right Hindu groups alleged the arrest was a "Christian conspiracy against Hinduism" perpetrated by the Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

The issue was not just religious, but political too. Observers say the BJP is scrambling for an issue to help them recover from the election, and playing the Hindu card has become their best option. BJP hard-liners claimed the party lost because the party strayed from its traditional Hindutva message—an ideology that seeks to transform India into a Hindu state. "They're trying to use the arrest to reintroduce the Hindutva agenda," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of comparative and Indian politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "They have no other agenda. Both [the Congress and the BJP] are doing economic reforms [and] trying to improve ties with Pakistan. Hindutva is the only differentiating factor they have." Last Wednesday BJP president L. K. Advani admitted as much, saying the seer's arrest could help mobilize support for his ailing party. It's worked before. In the early 1990s, the BJP galvanized Hindu support by casting itself as the protector of Hinduism in the midst of nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots. Just a few years later, in 1998, it gained control of the government for the first time.

Monday, November 22, 2004

india: commies vs. capitalists

Manmohan Singh's economic ambitions could be strangled by the leftists in his governing coalition
By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in November 2004).

In a pitch at the New York Stock Exchange in September, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked U.S. investors for $150 billion in foreign direct investment. His country desperately needs the money for infrastructure improvements over the next 10 years. While India's recent economic growth has been strong, Singh argued, his country has barely scratched the surface of its potential. An economist credited with helping to launch India on the path of economic reform in 1991, Singh claimed that annual GDP growth over the next five years could average 8 percent a year—up from a 6 percent average over the last decade—if the country stuck with its reform agenda. Added the prime minister: "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come."

Except maybe his own ruling coalition. Bound by his Congress party's weak showing in the most recent elections (a mere 145 seats in Parliament out of 542) to an alliance with the communists and other leftist parties, Singh's reform ambitions are fragile, to say the least. Shortly after his NYSE appearance, communist M.P.s attacked Singh over the presence of so-called foreign experts in consultancies working with the national Planning Commission, the government agency that determines India's long-term strategic priorities. (All of the supposed foreigners were Indian nationals, but the leftists argued that their ties to foreign companies and organizations—including McKinsey & Co. and the World Bank—made their intentions suspect.) In the end, Singh disbanded the consultancies altogether, sending the pro-business "foreigners" and more leftist compatriots packing.

The tiff is a microcosm of the challenges facing Singh as he tries to accelerate economic growth while mollifying millions of voters, many of whom felt left behind by the liberalization policies of the former Bharatiya Janata Party government. On the one hand he has new allies among India's business elite, who are now influencing not just local but national politics and policies; on the other, he is hemmed in by his coalition partners, whose rhetoric and actions are themselves often at odds. It's not quite the capitalists vs. the communists, but the tug of war is real—and potentially the greatest drag on India's growth.

The economic-policy skirmishes have already started. Singh's reform plan has three key components: selling stakes in upwards of 35 state companies, raising the caps on foreign investment in key industries like telecommunications and insurance, and loosening the country's inflexible labor laws. Already, Singh's cabinet has approved an increase in the limit on foreign investment in India's aviation sector from 40 to 49 percent. But the left has so far blocked a proposed 25 percent increase in the FDI cap on the telecommunications and insurance sectors. In late October, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told a meeting of business leaders that political pressures from coalition leftists would not stop the government's march to a market-oriented economy. He announced that a "reconstruction board" to advise the government on the sales of loss-making public companies would be set up soon, adding: "Some [state] companies will be closed down or sold."

The privatization issue is extremely sensitive. "Let privatization go to hell," Communist Party of India chief A. B. Bardhan said after last May's national election. On Oct. 27, the day before they were to meet with the prime minister, Bardhan and the Communist Party of India Marxist General-Secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet told reporters that they were aware of government efforts to sell stakes in state companies such as Power Grid Corp. and Power Finance, both profitable last year. The Communists oppose the move, calling it "privatization through the back door."

The political left particularly opposes selling off parts of India's navratnas, or nine jewels, which are major state-owned industrial and energy companies. Markets have been hoping for years that the government would sell stakes in Bharat Petroleum Corp. and Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Last year the Cabinet Committee on Disinvestment decided to do just that—but the decision was overturned by the India Supreme Court, which said that such equity sales must be approved by Parliament. Later, the Communist Party forced the government to disband the Disinvestment Ministry, although Chidambaram's recent comments suggest it will be reincarnated soon. The Finance minister has denied that he wants to sell all nine jewels, saying "a line must be drawn" between those that are candidates for government "disinvestment" and those that aren't. He hasn't stated which criteria will be used.

Leftists claim their opposition to raising the caps on foreign investment is similarly nuanced. They maintain that selling foreign companies majority stakes in telecommunications firms, for instance, could have negative implications for national security. On the privatization issue, Prabhat Patnaik, a left-wing economist, contends that it's wrong for the government to sell state companies to private investors who must borrow from banks to finance the purchase, when the companies themselves could do the same to help boost their competitiveness. "It's absolute nonsense from my point of view," says Patnaik.

The intensity of leftist resistance is in some ways a testament to the clout India Inc. now holds in New Delhi after several years of healthy growth. At the local level, executives—many educated or formerly employed in the United States—have promoted capitalism aggressively in such cities as Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, home to the country's booming information-technology industry. They've also begun to make their presence felt in the halls of government. Business leaders, for instance, have managed to cut through red tape at the Ministry of Telecommunications to set up a new high-speed satellite uplink that can be shared by a number of software houses. IT tycoons have played a key advisory role in Bangalore, in particular, applying modern business-management techniques to the local government, boosting its transparency and modernizing its record-keeping.

Nationally, a growing, U.S.-style respect for corporate titans—fed by glowing profiles in magazines like Business Today and TV shows like CNBC's "India Business Hour"—has made stars of top executives like Reliance Group's Mukesh Ambani and Infosys India's Nandan Nilekani, and the bureaucrats are taking notice. "Twenty years ago, business and government would talk at cross-purposes," says Jerry Rao, CEO of the outsourcing company Mphasis and president of India's National Association of Software and Service Cos. "But over the last 10 years we've established a dialogue with each other, and in the last five years have included civic bodies in the conversation."

Several corporate high fliers, for instance, sat on the government's Kelkar Commission on tax reform. It recently recommended the elimination of some income-tax exemptions for individuals, a reduction of corporate taxes and the elimination of a corporate-tax loophole related to how firms define depreciation. The commission also advised the government to ax its many service taxes in favor of a single value-added tax that would drastically reduce the tax on retail goods.

None of the recommendations have yet been implemented, but they are under discussion within cabinet agencies. In the past, such policy changes would be bogged down in bureaucratic infighting for years. There is still some of that, to be sure, but with the corporate sector showing how to cut through red tape and get things done, ordinary Indians are now demanding more accountability from their government representatives. "Today, every government department is very conscious that political survival depends on economic progress," says M. K. Sanghi, president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

The executives aim to press their case by pointing to specific success stories. "Whether it's at the state level or the central level, there's a general receptivity to ideas from business," says Infosys CEO Nilekani. "It's not necessarily that all the ideas get implemented. But the receptivity is pretty decent across the board, with all governments." Analysts note, for example, the great increase in services available from the insurance industry since 2000, when the sector, long dominated by two state firms, was opened to private competition. The industry now has more than a dozen firms.

Business leaders also point to the transformation of West Bengal state, which was long notorious as a hotbed of trade unionism and economic nationalism. West Bengal's chief minister these days is a communist, but he's adopted a strong pro-business stance to attract industry and investment. The minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, likes to boast that Japan's biggest foreign investment is in technology firms based in his state. Indeed, he's so bullish that he's taken advantage of an unusual law to ban strikes in the thriving IT sector.

Most of Bhattacharjee's leftist brethren will still require convincing, however. Y. K. Modi, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce, a group made up of mostly family-run firms, says that "many [leftist] political leaders are still living in the 1960s and 1970s, and don't realize that if we're to provide employment for all, growth needs to be stepped up to 10 percent." Saumitra Chauduri, economic adviser at the credit-rating agency ICRA Ltd., says that the left still tends to equate foreign investment with "imperialism," adding: "That is an illogical view."

The question is whether Singh, a political novice, can convince his partners that the voice of India Inc. should be more closely heeded. As Chaudhuri says: "[Singh] made it clear at the New York Stock Exchange that he has to have a relationship with the left, because this government has to last for four or five years. He'll use consultations and try to convince them [to back his plan]." Though Chaudhuri and others foresee difficulties ahead, Singh is not the only developing-country leader walking a political high wire. The president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio da Silva, has faced similar pressures—and so far he's kept Brazil headed in what the smart money believes is the right direction. There's no reason that the pragmatic Singh cannot do the same. India's economic future depends on it.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

past perfect

Ha Jin's latest novel is a solid read, but won't meet readers' high expectations of this writer's work

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2004).

War Trash by Ha Jin. Pantheon $25

A NOVEL LIKE Ha Jin's Waiting, which won the National Book Award in the United States and elicited comparisons with Russian masters Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel, can become a heavy burden on a writer's subsequent work. Though impressive, Ha Jin's fourth book, War Trash, does not meet the same lofty standard.

Set in 1951-53 and written in the form of a memoir by Yu Yuan, a Chinese soldier captured and imprisoned by American troops during the Korean War, the book offers an intriguing view of that conflict. But perhaps because it reads so much like a memoir--the book hinges on Yu Yuan's political development--War Trash lacks the drama needed to make it a successful novel.

Apart from the setting, the story of political disillusionment is well-trodden territory for Chinese authors writing in English. Though Yu Yuan does not begin as a communist, he realizes quickly that he must ally himself with the communist leaders in the prison camp if he is to have any hope of returning to the mainland, rather than emigrating to rival Taiwan. Because he has an elderly mother and a young fiancée waiting for him at home in China, he fights off the overtures of the Nationalists and cooperates with the communist-led agitations at the prison, which include not only hunger strikes and other nonviolent resistance but also the clever capture of the American general in charge of the prison camp.

Yu edges closer and closer to joining the party himself. But his class background as an educated graduate of the formerly Nationalist-run Huangpu Military Academy holds him back. The more he observes the decisions of the camp's party leaders--symbolic struggles to fly the Chinese flag, for example--the more he comes to believe that their faith leaves no room for humanity. "I was ambivalent about the attempt to reseize the flag," Yu reflects. "On the one hand, I admired the courage our men had displayed, and in a way I'd been awestruck by their passion and bravery, which I have to admit I didn't share. On the other, I doubted whether it was worth losing a man's life for the sake of a flag, which, symbolic as it might be, was just a piece of nylon cloth." Making explicit the striking parallel between fervent communism and religious fanaticism, Yu concludes: "I had noted there was a kind of religious fervour in some of these men, who were capable of laying down their lives for an idea."

By the end of the novel, of course, Yu has become a cynic, ready to mouth the party's platitudes if that will get him home--but fully aware that every political machine grinds on without a care for the people who fuel it and even thrives on their destruction. "Without such obliteration of human particularities, how could one fight mercilessly? When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers--how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: It reduces real human beings to abstract numbers."

This passage has resonance today, as the world's collective thinking about political issues again falls victim to the foolish polarity of a theory of a clash of civilizations. But these are not new ideas, nor are they expressed well. All of Ha Jin's books have dealt with modern China's baffling combination of idealism and brutality. But Waiting, and to a lesser extent his other fiction, was remarkable foremost for its understanding of human relationships, not political ones. He captured the sweet tragedy of our frail loves and petty hates with sensitivity and wisdom.

And though he himself once served in the People's Liberation Army and sometimes writes of soldiers, Ha Jin's best stories have, like Chekhov's, always been about love. The chief interest of War Trash, in contrast, is in its value as history. The Chinese prisoners' perspective on the war in Korea and their American captors is not one with which many foreign readers will be familiar, and though the novel's thematic conclusions are thin gruel, the prisoners' machinations make good reading. But these are not the usual pleasures we expect from fiction.

Monday, October 11, 2004

phone power

On the cheap: Asians are buying up U.S. digital networks
By Rana Foroohar
With Jonathan Ansfield in Beijing and Jason Overdorf in New Delhi
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in October 2004).

Pity the poor western telecom. The digital networks on which American carriers spent billions in the late 1990s are being snapped up in fire sales by foreigners—and Asians are leading the pack. Since last year Global Crossing has been purchased by Singapore's ST Telemedia, Flag by Reliance of India. Now Tata of India is bidding for the network built by scandal-ravaged Tyco.

The buyouts, some of which have been done for a mere 10 cents on the dollar, are only part of the story. Asian telecom manufacturers are also gaining steam, with Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE challenging Western rivals such as Cisco and Siemens. The new reach of Asian telecoms has two dramatic effects: cheaper calls worldwide, and a boost to the regional economy—from Indian call centers to Chinese and Korean manufacturers. "Instead of being small players who have to pay big fees to use the international networks of companies like MCI or AT&T or France Telecom, some of the Asian telecoms can now sit down as equals and simply swap the use of the networks for free," notes OECD economist Sam Paltridge. The result, he says, is "cheaper calls for all of us."

With more traffic routing through countries like China, a political backlash is inevitable. Manufacturers like Huawei, which reportedly has strong links to the Chinese military, are racking up new contracts in Africa (where it is now the lead player), the Middle East and Europe. U.S. authorities prevented Hong Kong magnate Li Kashing, owner of Hutchison Whampoa, from buying a big stake in Global Crossing last year, saying they were concerned about Li's ties to the Communist Party.

But it will be tough even to see who's handling all the traffic. "There are just so many routes into and out of a country now that it will be difficult for politicians to maintain control," says Tim Kelly, head of strategy for the International Telecommunications Union. Each acquisition will in the meantime fuel growth. "The better networks will further increase Asian manufacturing competitiveness, allowing them to deal with customers more efficiently, and boost the Indian call-center phenomenon, which depends on strong IT connections to the West," says Andrew Odlyzko, director of the digital-technology center at the University of Minnesota. Translation: America's loss is Asia's gain.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

yet another cross to bear

A new state law that seeks to extend the reservation of jobs for low-caste Indians from the public sector to private companies has business worried that the government is turning back the clock.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2004).

THIS SUMMER the Congress Party-led government of the Indian state of Maharashtra--home to Mumbai and many of India's largest companies--vowed to enact sweeping affirmative-action legislation that would force private corporations to reserve 52% of all jobs for low-caste Indians.

The move came in the run-up to state elections. But many business leaders nevertheless interpreted it as a sign that the Congress Party meant to make good on its promises to temper reforms designed to unfetter Indian industry with measures to ensure that business doesn't leave the poor behind. Notably, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance federal government elected in May listed a call for a national dialogue on the expansion of affirmative action to the private sector in its mission statement.

Maharashtra's new law--the first of its kind--was passed in January, but the state government has yet to frame the rules for implementing it. The furore that resulted when the government promised to begin enforcing the law by July 30 (a deadline it failed to meet) arose partly because of the all-encompassing nature of the legislation. The law mandates quotas in "any government-aided institution: those that are recognized, licensed, supervised or controlled by government," which can be interpreted to mean that it applies to virtually all companies operating in the state. The first major companies to see the sword looming over them could be those whose government-land leases are about to expire.

"We've already been suffering under many constraints, like socialist economic planning and labour restrictions," says Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto, the world's largest manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles and one of India's largest companies. "If we implement reservations, we'll have no way to become internationally competitive."

"An employment-quota system is only perpetuating the caste system in India," says Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, one of India's largest corporations. "It is also perpetuating benefits for a 'creamy layer' amongst the backward and scheduled castes and tribes."

India first implemented an affirmative-action programme for members of what the constitution calls "the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes" in the 1950s. Essentially, the scheme reserved a percentage of jobs in government departments and government-owned companies for tribal peoples and castes once thought of as "untouchable," who'd long been victims of discrimination under the Hindu caste system.

Many say the constitution intended reservations as a temporary measure. But the rising political clout of low-caste Indians (who make up some 50% of the population) prevented the programme from being discontinued. Instead, it was expanded to include Indians from lower-middle positions in the caste hierarchy, now known as other backward castes, or OBCs. Now, as India dismantles its socialist-style economy and sells off more and more of its public-sector units--drastically shrinking the number of reserved jobs--calls to expand the scheme to include private-sector companies have become more strident.

Bajaj and other business leaders--though sympathetic--believe that discrimination is fading away and it is time for a relaxation of labour restrictions, not further constraints. "There are poor people," says Bajaj. "The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are suffering. Nobody says nothing should be done about it. We must do something. But we can't correct one wrong with another wrong . . . Most of us do not have that prejudice [against low-caste Indians]." He adds, "Of Bajaj Auto's 10,500 employees today, 28% [are from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes]. Where is the discrimination?"

Likewise, Nandan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys Technologies, India's billion-dollar software-services giant, said in a statement, "We compete with the best in the world and recruit people who are the best, without any consideration for age, gender or caste. We believe that to retain its competitive edge, the country has to invest in training and developing our talent for the global market place."

In a more candid television interview, Nilekani sympathized with plans to help create a more equal society. "There is no substitute for economic growth and globalization to remove people out of poverty," he said. "The point is, how do you make sure that the wealth creation is funnelled into social causes? Clearly we need to have affirmative action. We really need to give people an opportunity. But I think the focus has to be on education and making sure that we create high-quality education opportunities for everyone and then provide, obviously, the jobs that can absorb them. Reservation in a company, per se, may not be a great idea." Ambani agrees. "A more equal society in India can be created by an intense investment in education for empowerment and employability, combined with creating employment on an unprecedented scale," he says.

If India's employers are so committed to social reform, why is the opposition to affirmative action so strong? Just as in other countries with such policies, like the United States or Northern Ireland, there is a huge gap in opinions about how much discrimination exists, especially between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Many of the elite, like Bajaj, believe much of the prejudice has been eradicated.

But even successful "untouchables"--who now call themselves Dalits, or the oppressed--believe discrimination is still so prevalent that it defines every social interaction. While industrialists think the government should focus on uplifting the poor regardless of caste, low-caste leaders believe such a shift in emphasis would mean only that the lion's share of the benefits poor, low-caste Indians now enjoy would be transferred to poor members of the higher castes.

Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit who moved from state-run Bharat Petroleum to become managing director of Petronet India, a private-sector company, says this debate reveals a fundamental misconception about the reservation policy. Most people believe the policy is intended to uplift the poor, rather than to offer redress for 2,000 years of discrimination. "There is never an iota of reference to the intrinsic disability of Indian society to treat all people equally and justly," he says. "It is not the disability of the Dalits but the disability of Indian society that necessitates reservation."

When industry suggests that requiring companies to fill positions with Dalit personnel will erode efficiency, it implies that Dalits are by nature incompetent, he argues. "I would say the very tone and tenor of these reactions against reservations from the corporate leaders constitutes reason enough for reservation in the private sector."


Opinions differ as strongly about how effective reservations in the public sector have been in uplifting the targeted groups and what the costs have been to performance. Dalits, especially, believe that reservations are the only useful step India has taken to undo the damage done by the caste system. "It is the only effective action that the government has taken," says Udit Raj, president of the Indian Justice Party, a political organization that represents Dalits and minority groups. "Otherwise, I don't see anything, any progress."

Other high-caste Indians think government-sector reservations have been too effective in enriching low-caste Indians and disastrous to the performance of the government. "There are so many so-called backward castes. Take the Nadars [a South Indian caste]. They're filthy rich and yet they get preference over [higher-caste] Brahmins everywhere in Tamil Nadu. For all the things Brahmins did [to the lower castes] 100 years ago, you can't keep penalizing them," says K. Mahesh, chairman and managing director of Sundaram Brake Linings.

These differences of opinion can translate into vitriol--even violence. The last time India increased the scope of its reservation policies, when former Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to extend job quotas to include not only the scheduled castes and tribes but also Indians from "other backward castes," fanatics burned themselves to death in protest and riots broke out across the nation, eventually leading to the collapse of Singh's government in 1990. To some, Singh's reforms made a mockery of the affirmative-action policy, entitling over 90% of the population in some states to reserved jobs.

"A lot of people feel there is this class of people that are being pampered . . .," says Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit who is principal adviser in the department of economic analysis and policy at the Reserve Bank of India, speaking for himself. "Most people do not recognize that in every single walk of life the extent of implementation of reservations has been extremely poor."

Dalit leaders allege that high-caste officials responsible for recruitment and promotions leave positions vacant rather than hire or promote those they view as inferior, then justify themselves to superiors by claiming they couldn't find suitable low-caste candidates.

Regardless of the merits of those claims, the numbers hardly suggest that reservations have turned the scheduled castes and tribes into a pampered new elite. Although they make up about a quarter of the population, the scheduled castes and tribes hold only 10% of the top group A positions, 13% of group B positions, 16% of group C positions and 21% of group D positions in central-government services. Meanwhile, 44% of the sweepers come from scheduled castes.

Perhaps the haphazard and incomplete enforcement of reservations in the public sector offers a clue to the likely fate of the Maharashtra law. In the end, it might only apply to companies in which the government holds a stake.

Monday, August 23, 2004

comics: off to save mumbai

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the American edition of Newsweek in August 2004).

Even superheroes aren't safe from job outsourcing. Next month Marvel Comics will launch "Spider-Man India," the first ethnic adaptation of the popular comic-book series. Peter Parker of New York City becomes Pavitr Prabhakar of Mumbai, Mary Jane becomes Meera Jain and the villainous Norman Osbourne (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) turns into Nalin Oberoi. But the reinvention goes further than just translation: Spider-Man's been transformed from an allegorical figure representing the dangers of scientific experimentation, which grew out of anxieties from the nuclear age, into a hero trying to navigate a modern India still steeped in Hindu mysticism. His alter ego, Prabhakar, wears the white dhoti favored by Hindu-temple devotees. "I was trying to capture the essence of India," says Jeevan Kang, the 26-year-old former architect hired to write and draw the series.

It's a blending of cultures that Marvel Comics sees as natural—and profitable. "India is very rich in graphical mythology, and that plays well to the superhero ethos," says Marvel Comics president Gui Karyo. The new four-comic-book series will capitalize on the release of the film "Spider-Man 2" in India, leveraging the publicity and flattering a population worried about the creeping influence of the West. Marvel also plans a U.S. release for the "transcreated" hero. But diehard fans, rest assured: Spider-Man remains a force to be reckoned with, loincloth or no.

Friday, July 23, 2004

a multicultural web

Spiderman dons a dhoti and battles a Hindu demon in a new Indian version of the popular comic.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in July 2004).

Even superheroes aren't safe from job outsourcing anymore. Next month Marvel Comics will launch "Spider-Man India," the first ethnic adaptation of the popular comic-book series. Peter Parker of New York City becomes Pavitr Prabhakar of Mumbai, Mary Jane becomes Meera Jain and the villainous Norman Osbourne (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) turns into Nalin Oberoi. But the reinvention goes further: Spider-Man has been transformed from an allegorical figure representing the dangers of scientific experimentation into a hero trying to navigate a modern India steeped in Hindu mysticism. The hero gets his powers from a yogi who performs a ritual on him to access the "web of life," and the villain is a demon from the Hindu pantheon of gods. Prabhakar wears a dhoti, a loincloth favored by Hindu-temple devotees. "I was trying to capture the essence of India," says Jeevan Kang, the 26-year-old former architect hired to draw the series. "I looked at a lot of artwork on mythological characters and tried to intertwine that with the characters here."

It's a blending of cultures that Marvel Comics sees as natural—and profitable. "India is very rich in graphical mythology, and that plays well to the superhero ethos," says Marvel Comics president Gui Karyo. At the same time, India—with a population of 1 billion—has a rapidly growing middle class and a burgeoning interest in Western culture. In 2002, 32-year-old Sharad Devarajan launched Bangalore-based Gotham Entertainment to publish Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Warner Brothers comic books on the Indian Subcontinent. Since then, the company has ramped up circulation to about half a million copies each month of such titles as "Superman," "Batman" and, of course, "Spider-Man."

Gotham and Marvel have distributed some U.S. comics, including "Scooby-Doo" and "Wonder Woman." But by Indianizing "Spider-Man," they hope to win over a larger audience and demonstrate their sensitivity to India's rich culture. "We are a business that manages intellectual property, so there were definitely concerns [about tinkering with the character]," says Karyo. "But there was also acknowledgment that you can have the same character interpreted differently."

Kang was an obvious choice for the reinterpretation. Before being drafted by Marvel for "Spider-Man India," he had been working on a comic-book version of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic in which the hero battles the demon-king Ravana. For "Spider-Man India," Kang turned the Green Goblin into a modern-day reinvention of Ravana, who gets his powers by performing a forbidden fire ritual. But diehard fans, rest assured: Spider-Man remains a force to be reckoned with, loincloth or no.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

failing the grade

Who says cheaters don't win? In India, criminals are making millions by stealing exam papers. That's casting a shadow over the education system's ability to function as a meritocracy.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal in June 2004).

WHEN POLICE STORMED a building in a middle-class New Delhi neighbourhood late one night this spring, they found the men they were looking for in the midst of an unusual crime. The alleged perpetrators of one of the biggest scams to rock Indian higher education were chaperoning a midnight crammers' session for some 39 students--with a healthy sampling of parents looking on--as they studied for the entrance examination for India's prestigious medical colleges. When officials verified that their handwritten study sheets perfectly matched the top-secret question paper, not due to be released until the beginning of the exam the next morning, the test was cancelled and the tutors were taken into custody.

That was bad news for the 240,000 or so would-be doctors who had sweated over textbooks for months in preparation for the Central Board of Secondary Education's All India Pre-Medical Test, which determines who will gain admission into 15% of medical degree programmes here. Far from a reprieve, the cancellation meant more waiting, more studying and more stress. For students from rural areas, who had to travel long distances to reach testing centres, it meant they would have to spend even more money for their chance at a lucrative career.

Worse still, this wasn't the first case of its kind. Over the past several years, as many as 10 important question papers have been leaked. They include the Common Admission Test that governs admittance to the ultra-prestigious Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM, a degree from which virtually guarantees a bright future in business. The leaks have left Indian education officials scrambling for solutions--and excuses. More seriously, they have raised serious questions about the Indian educational system's ability to function as a meritocracy.

"A couple of my friends who had studied very hard for the exam were devastated" by the leak, says 17-year-old Nitya Asavari of New Delhi. "Mentally it was really a setback to them. I think it makes the whole system lose credibility. There is no guarantee. This leak got published in the newspaper, but there must be thousands of others," she adds.

Another student, 17-year-old Chitwan Mittal, was one of those due to take the cancelled pre-medical test. "People who pay the money can easily get through," she says. "It's happening every year." The corruption in the system also makes it even harder for poor students--whose parents cannot afford to buy placements--to get a good education. "It's absolutely not fair," says Mittal. "People just throw money and they get seats. Seats are literally sold to students."

Cheating is big business in India. For the latest leaked paper, the Central Bureau of Investigation--the federal investigative agency--says the accused sold exam questions to students and their parents for 700,000-800,000 rupees ($15,400-17,600), and may have had up to 400 customers. Even by the most conservative estimate, the alleged theft would have brought in 50 million rupees--more than $1 million--for a single exam. "The money involved is enormous," says Dependra Pathak, of the Delhi Police Crime Branch. "That generates temptation." The temptation to cheat is just as strong on the side of the buyers--the students and their parents--in a country where college places, particularly in areas like medicine and engineering, are like gold dust.

This spring's late-night raid ahead of the pre-medical test was a major coup for Delhi's police. But the fact that the leak happened in the first place discouraged many officials--and outraged many ordinary Indians. Among the main reasons for the dismay: The authorities thought they had solved the problem with the arrest of Ranjit Kumar Singh, or "Ranjit Don," a Bihar doctor who allegedly masterminded last year's leaking of the admission test for the IIM.

Singh, who has not been convicted of any crime, is in jail awaiting trial in his home state. To some there he's become something of a Robin Hood figure, despite news reports claiming he has a personal fortune of 2 billion rupees. But the latest exam leak shows that the methods attributed to him, at least, live on, as Pathak of Delhi's crime branch explains: "They called the students to a central location, they gave them handwritten question papers, they didn't let them go out until the morning," he says.

At the time of Singh's arrest, police said as many as 70 similar gangs might be operating around the country, though G. Mohanti, spokesman for the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, now calls that figure an exaggeration. The investigative agency also said it suspected that the school board's pre-medical exam had likely been compromised for at least five years.

Among those calling for an explanation is advocate Raj Kumar Gupta: Earlier this year, he filed a public-interest suit with India's Supreme Court, requesting that the country's major educational authorities, as well as the CBI, make public their findings on the reasons why the testing system is vulnerable to leaks and what they have done to correct the problem. In May, the Supreme Court issued a notice in support of Gupta's demand.

"The leakage of question papers is affecting the psychology of students and their parents," Gupta argues. "Students who are real hard workers are getting demoralized and depressed. Above all, it has a great negative impact on the whole education system." The despair of students is understandable: After the leaking of the 2003 pre-medical exam, allegedly by Ranjit Singh, around half of the 1,200-or-so medical school placements awarded went to students from his home state. Another "natural inference" from the rash of exam leaks over the past year, according to Gupta, is that the authorities haven't learned any lessons from previous failures.

That may be only partly true. The Central Board of Secondary Education, or CBSE, said its chairman was too busy to grant an interview. But the CBI and police say the source from which the alleged perpetrators of the leak obtained the pre-medical exam paper suggests that most of the usual gaps in security have been filled. In 2004, the alleged source of the leak was a computer operator working inside the CBSE's "confidential" exam section. Police say that means that the traditional weak link of the chain--the printers who are entrusted with producing the exam papers several days before the test--has been strengthened.

So far, the authorities have arrested a dozen people allegedly involved in leaking and selling the 2004 exam paper. But to some, suspicion concerning N.K. Thaploo, a professor, and Suchdir Sachdeva, owner of Sachdeva New P.T. College--a coaching institute with a history of producing exam "toppers"--is greater cause for concern. Police say the two agreed to buy the leaked exam for 5 million rupees. The authorities have arrested Thaploo, who maintains he is innocent. Sachdeva, currently on bail, says he will cooperate with the investigation but has made no comment on his guilt or innocence.

"What is their [the coaching institutions'] role?" asks S.C. Tripathi, secretary of higher education at the Ministry of Human Resource Development. "Why is it that students are tempted to go to coaching institutions, and some coaching institutions are able to model their coaching programmes in such a way that over a period of time they are able to claim that children or students who come to their coaching programmes have a better rate of success?"


India has thousands of coaching institutes, three or four to every mid-sized town, Tripathi says, and many charge high fees. The question becomes: Do students cheat because they don't believe the system is a meritocracy, or have they lost their faith in meritocracy because of cheating? Student Asavari, though just 17, already talks like a cynic. "In every leak," she says, "the coaching centres are majorly involved."

Until a better answer arises, the IIM selection boards--shocked by the first-ever leak of their admissions test last year, but also concerned that coaching institutes skew exam results--have resorted to an old-fashioned solution. They use the test only to select the students for the second round of the admission process, a combination of one-on-one and group interviews designed to test the candidate's subject knowledge, as well as evaluate his or her personality. "Suppose someone has managed to get a high score in the written test that does not reflect the true abilities of the individual," says Bakul Dholakia, director and a professor of IIM Ahmedabad. "This is something that gets spotted in the interview process." Perhaps for that reason, so far nobody has raised doubts about the quality of IIM graduates.

But can the same be said for India's medical schools? Quite a few exam cheats "muddle through medical school," says S.K. Vohra, a respected New Delhi doctor with 50 years' experience. While he says the established medical colleges are up to standard, at some less reputable institutions, poor systems and inferior teachers are reflected in the quality of the graduates. One of the question papers leaked in 2000 was for the gynaecology and obstetrics exam for final-year medical students at the University of Bombay. That's a graduating class you don't want to meet--at least not in a professional capacity.

saving the raja's horse

British horsewoman Francesca Kelly brings India's fiery Marwari to the United States in hopes of reviving the breed.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in June 2004).

When Francesca Kelly took her first trip to India—for a luxury horse safari in 1995—a friend told her, "You'll either love it or you'll hate it." Francesca was one of those who fell in love, and hard—first for an exotic and desperate Indian horse, the Marwari, and then for its sprawling desert home.

But when Kelly bought her first Marwari with the intention of bringing it to the United States, the horse was on a long list of threatened breeds illegal to export. With Indian scientists then estimating that only 500 or 600 Marwaris remained untainted by crossbreeding, the odds against getting the Indian government to reverse its position looked insurmountable.

Many people would have given up. Not Kelly. A 49-year-old woman with a slightly square jaw that hints at a streak of stubbornness and impatience, Kelly grew up the stepdaughter of Sir Harold Beeley, the United Kingdom's ambassador in Cairo from 1961 to 1964 and again from 1967 to 1969. Some of her fondest childhood memories were of midnight gallops in the sands surrounding the family's Egyptian desert retreat, a large Bedouin tent filled with colorful hangings and rugs. Nearly three decades later, looking into the eyes of Shanti, her untamed Marwari mare, was like looking into that past. She wasn't about to give that up. But first she would have to go toe-to-toe with some pretty tough opponents—among them, the Indian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her battle lasted five years. By the end, she'd not only won—bringing six Marwari horses home with her to Massachusetts in 2000—she'd launched a remarkable drive to preserve one of the world's oldest horse breeds.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

picture perfect

India: The Definitive Images, 1858 to the Present Photo editor Prashant Panjiar. Penguin Books India and Dorling Kindersley. $28.16

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in May 2004).

WHEN PENGUIN INDIA asked photojournalist Prashant Panjiar to edit India: The Definitive Images, 1858 to the Present, a coffee-table book he came to see as a "visual history" of the country, Panjiar did not simply pull out his collection or pick the brains of other shutterbugs for inspiration. Instead, he talked to a cross-section of photographers, writers, journalists, friends and acquaintances, coaxing them to recall images and explain the meaning they held for them.

"It struck me that it was important to investigate which photographic images the average Indian knew best," he writes in an explanatory note. "Could we, by studying these images, arrive at some understanding of our nation?"

The answer to that question, at least in the form of this collection, must be yes and no. India is a schizophrenic country--one of "too many people living too close to each other," as Khushwant Singh writes in the accompanying text--so it is no surprise that The Definitive Images is a schizophrenic collage.

Divided into three sections--"Timeless India," "The Road to Freedom" and "The Years of Freedom"--the book ranges from the hackneyed exoticism of Steve McCurry's "Dust Storm," a shot you feel certain you have seen in postcard form; to Henri Cartier-Bresson's powerful image of Jawaharlal Nehru announcing Mohandas Gandhi's assassination; to an uncredited journalist's picture of three young sisters, hanging by the neck, who killed themselves because their family was too poor to arrange their dowries.

The book's creators decided to locate the beginning of modern India in 1858, after the event that Indian patriots call the First War of Independence and the British know as the Sepoy Mutiny. But it contains few photographs from the period preceding the Freedom Movement of Gandhi and Nehru, which began in the 1920s. Only a handful of photographs, most portraits, represent the final days of the British Raj--a shortcoming that the exceptions, like Felice Beato's staged photo of Secundra Bagh after the British slaughter of 2,000 rebels there in 1858, make one regret. Alongside its newsy shots of political events, the book includes an embarrassingly sentimental shot of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar wielding a bat (and looking remarkably like he does today) at age five, as well as publicity stills from various Bollywood films.

For all its flaws, however, The Definitive Images is a stirring collection, evoking what many have called India's "contradictions." More importantly, perhaps, it reveals Panjiar to be the best sort of patriot, one who sees his country, spots and all, and can love it and hate it at the same time. It took no small courage to include, in a book of this sort, Raghu Rai's photograph of one of the 31 men blinded with bicycle spokes and acid by police in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in 1980; the notorious photograph of the Roop Kanwar sati, which ultraconservatives used to glorify a widow who in 1987 burned herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre, an outlawed practice; and D. Ravinder Reddy's picture of Hindu fanatics storming the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. This unflinching gaze undermines the myth of India favoured by the country's Hindu nationalists. Instead, juxtaposed here with Gandhi seated next to his spinning wheel and Nehru delivering his "Tryst with destiny" speech, these photographs stake a claim for an India with an unwavering commitment to a progressive, enlightened social justice.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

a reluctant heir

Sonia: A biography, by Rasheed Kidwai, Penguin India (December 2003). Hardcover. ISBN: 0670049557. Price US$8.8, 256 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in March 2004).

When journalist Rasheed Kidwai set out to write an unauthorized biography of Sonia Gandhi, many were not optimistic about his chances. The Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is notoriously tightlipped with the media, and she is hardly likely to be any more friendly to a biographer - always seen here as hagiographer or character assassin. But Kidwai was not dissuaded. If anything, the difficulties he would face in gathering material for his book gave him new inspiration to write it. Though the president of India's illustrious Congress Party had scores of sycophants and legions of critics, nobody had managed "an objective evaluation of her life".

Without a doubt, Sonia is one of the most intriguing figures in Indian political life. Like many of the more appealing public personalities, she became part of Indian history accidentally, and with some reluctance, as a victim of circumstance. When she married Rajiv Gandhi - no relation to Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi - in 1968, the scion of the Congress party's hereditary dynasty claimed to have no interest in following in the footsteps of his mother Indira Gandhi and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru (both premiers). Rajiv was a commercial pilot, and more than happy to leave the political wrangling to his brother, Sanjay. Nevertheless, Sonia's entrance into the political family required her to remake herself as an Indian bahu, or daughter-in-law, deferent and traditional. And when her husband entered politics in 1984, winning the prime minister's post by a landslide after the assassination of his mother, Indira, Sonia was forced fully into the limelight. She tried to keep away from politics and lead a normal life during her husband's term as premier, but this was a decision that would come back to haunt her, as it founded her image as "an inscrutable person, constantly tense, aloof and cold".

Kidwai's biography deals primarily with the period of Sonia's life leading up to her selection as the Congress party president, several years after Rajiv was assassinated in 1991. As a cub reporter with a Congress-allied paper, Kidwai was one of the few journalists who stuck by the then-lackluster widow for the months following her husband's death. During that period, Kidwai said in a telephone interview, Sonia never discouraged Congress leaders from coming and meeting her, so "although she didn't join politics, she became a sort of listening post". Knowing the leader from these days, Kidwai offers an interesting insight into her personality and motivations - which are still mostly unknown, even as she mounts her second run for prime minister against incumbent Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which forms the lead party in the ruling coalition.

"One needs to look at it in a very human way," Kidwai says. "She came from a far away place - she didn't come from Rome, she was in a very small place in Italy. Indians know a lot about the UK and English people know a fair amount about India, but Italy is very far from us. Her family knew very little about India. Her father was very opposed to this marriage. Her father died in 1988 without ever visiting India, even when Indira died or the birth of Priyanka and Rahul [Sonia's children]." With all this distance in the background, Kidwai says, when the Congress offered her the mantle of leadership, it came as a shock. She was still grieving for her husband, and suddenly she was thrust into a world of Machiavellian intrigues, with everyone seeking to use her to further their own ambitions.

While it does get bogged down in the details of the petty rivalries and backroom deals of the Congress party, this section of Kidwai's biography, which comprises the bulk of the book, also provides an excellent history of the woes that have brought the once unassailable political party into its present disarray. Kidwai traces how, without a Nehru or Gandhi to lead them, rival factions nearly split the Congress on several occasions, until finally the cabal of leaders prevailed on Sonia to take charge as leader. Not surprisingly, it was a compromise destined for trouble, as many saw Sonia as a neophyte they could turn to their advantage, but it did prevent a schism. Today, though, many blame Rajiv's widow for the Congress' failure to defeat the BJP, forgetting to credit her with arresting its precipitous decline.

Kidwai's recapitulation of Sonia's achievements is useful. Along with holding together her fractious supporters, he also credits the Congress party president for the elimination of "black" or untraceable money from the party's finances, the steadfast support of a bill that would allot a quota of seats in the parliament to women and a new, more democratic operating style. The latter move - a change in demeanor from the autocratic methods of Indira and Rajiv, who ushered in and shunted out state chief ministers as a matter of course - has helped her to marshal her troops and makes it very unlikely that a leader will emerge to oppose her within the party, despite some grousing that the Congress should not be led by a foreigner.

But for all Kidwai's skill as political analyst, the biography suffers from an impersonal feel, perhaps because he was denied regular access to his subject. The portrait that emerges is that of a political leader, as Kidwai concerns himself chiefly with Sonia's political choices as he attempts to sketch out her ideology. And while that may prove useful to Indian voters (and journalists) as the Congress president ramps up her campaign for national elections in April and May, it gives the book a dry, academic tone. Just as Sonia's stern face hasn't endeared her to the public as India's Jackie Kennedy - whose trials are in many respects paralleled by her own - this serious biography is likely to hold the interest only of scholars and committed policy wonks.

sonia on the ropes

Politics has never been easy for Sonia Gandhi, yet she's grown ever more adept at remaking both herself and her once-dominant party. Now, as elections loom, is it all too little, too late?

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2004).

SONIA GANDHI didn't come to Kaudiram, a crowded and dusty town in Uttar Pradesh, to pull her punches. Over a booming public-address system set up at the city bus station, the Italian-born president of India's Congress Party kicked off her national election campaign with a strident assault on the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Calling Vajpayee's government incompetent and corrupt, the custodian of the dynasty begun by Jawaharlal Nehru unveiled a new willingness to go for the throat.

With polls approaching in April, the Congress Party--credited with gaining India's independence from Britain--is fighting for survival. It was defeated in the country's last two national elections and suffered disastrous losses in December's state assembly polls. If Vajpayee wins a third term as prime minister, it will be the first time anyone from outside the Congress has managed the feat. A second victory over Sonia would also signal an end to the politics of hereditary dynasties that have shaped India's history since 1947.

"The last person from the Gandhi family who won elections for Congress was Mrs. Gandhi's dead body in 1984," says Pramod Mahajan, chief campaign strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant partner in India's governing coalition. Since that election, when Congress won 400-plus parliamentary seats after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the party's performance has steadily waned.

The BJP, meanwhile, has gone from two seats in 1984 to 180 today, and is tipped to do even better this time out. Vajpayee, a 50-year election veteran and brilliant orator, leads India at a time of political détente with Pakistan and with the economy booming. By contrast, Gandhi is facing probably her toughest challenge yet in what has always been a reluctant political career--one that only began when, first, her mother-in-law, Indira, and later her husband, Rajiv, were killed by assassins.

Faced with this crisis, Sonia has begun to reinvent herself and the party. She has finally become a politician--seeking friends and embracing the media. Few doubt she has made a genuine attempt to turn Congress--and herself--around, but the question remains, is it all too little, too late?

As the young and exotic wife of Rajiv Gandhi, the scion of India's first family, and then as his grieving widow, Sonia might well have become India's Jackie O. But because of her own reluctance to sacrifice her private life, and her advisers' desire to "protect" and thereby control her, she instead became India's Al Gore--seen to be clumsily acting out the instructions of a coterie of handlers. "She's still uncomfortable being a politician," explains Rajesh Tripathi, a Congress leader. "With people she's not at ease. She doesn't have the quality that her mother-in-law had, and Rajiv was a natural also."

Sonia Gandhi only entered active politics in 1998, seven years after Rajiv's assassination, when she finally yielded to Congress leaders' pleas and took over the helm of the party her husband once led. Although still relatively inexperienced, her confidence has appeared to grow in the role. "In the last seven years, she has matured," says Digvijay Singh, former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and one of Sonia's closest advisers. "She's understanding the issues, she's taking stands."

Singh, along with other pundits, saw the emergence of this new avatar when Sonia, as leader of the opposition, delivered a withering motion of no confidence in the Vajpayee government in August. "The very fact that her charge sheet was never replied to [by Vajpayee]" illustrates how much better she's become at the game, says Singh.

Singh credits Sonia for her democratic style, which has brought "consensus politics" to the Congress. In party meetings, she prefers to listen to all sides before weighing in with her opinion. She takes copious notes, which discourages party members from flip-flopping on their stands. Unlike Indira and Rajiv, she doesn't try to micromanage the states under Congress' control, and that has won her respect, if not the awe her predecessors inspired.

But that consultative approach has its limitations, Singh admits: "The leader has to lead, rather than be led." Today, he says, the Gandhi widow has begun to do precisely that.

To start, Gandhi worked to convince Congress that unless it worked with other parties it had no chance of regaining power. Realizing that the once-dominant Congress would have to show humility, she opted to leave the party's choice for prime minister open for now, and has emphasized repeatedly that the party and its partners will select their leader--together--only after the polls. That's a clear change of tactics from 1999, when the election was seen as a presidential-style race between Vajpayee and Gandhi. That move, coupled with personal approaches by Gandhi, has won Congress some potentially important allies in the electorally significant states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

More importantly, perhaps, Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow--who did not become an Indian citizen until 1983--has also realized that her surname won't be enough to win her the election. She hit the campaign trail with a new political personality, endeavouring to overcome her natural reserve and, if such a thing can be accomplished by an act of will, to make herself lovable. Her first target: Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

When Sonia embarked on a gruelling, three-day pilgrimage through the eastern part of the state in February, thousands of villagers lined the road along her convoy's route. In some places they were crowded on rooftops and gathered four rows deep on the roadside. "This is how you have to reach these people," says Congress's Rajesh Tripathi, who travelled with the convoy.

And yet, he adds, "she has to do it more intensely. She has to have more exposure, and it has to be an audience like this." Those comments reflect a common perception of Gandhi's relationship with the voters. "Her basic problem remains the same," says Rasheed Kidwai, veteran reporter and author of Sonia, an unauthorized biography of the Congress president. "She's not very open. That's her nature."

So why does she do it--why did she decide to leave the privacy of domestic life and plunge into Indian politics? Tripathi recalls once asking her a similar question. "Do you really think I have a choice?" she replied.

"Over a period of time," comments Kidwai, "she slowly got into believing that the party needed her, the country needed her, and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty demanded that she keep the communal forces at bay." A turning point came in 1992, when the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu fanatics stirred to passion by BJP stalwarts L.K. Advani and Uma Bharti, now deputy prime minister and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, respectively. According to Singh, it was this "absolute" commitment to the fight against the various chauvinist groups threatening Nehru's idea of India that brought Sonia into the fray--after much pressure from the party.

"She's the only person who has a global vision . . . that goes beyond a parochial, local, regional view," echoes Salman Khurshid, former Congress president in Uttar Pradesh. "Then she is extremely secular and extremely liberal, again, in the mould in which we had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and so on. Maybe we're not being able to sell it properly, but that should be a strength."

Indeed, Congress's "selling" of Sonia has at times been lamentable. Incomprehensibly for a major politician, Sonia, who speaks fluent, if heavily accented, Hindi, waited until late in the campaign before giving her first-ever extensive interview, in two appearances on the television programme Walk the Talk with Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. That reticence contrasts sharply with the openness of the avuncular Vajpayee. "She's absolutely an unknown entity," says Kidwai. "People are prepared to accept shortcomings. . . . The issue of foreign origins--the Indian people are prepared to accept that--but they want to know who she is, and what she is all about."

In a signal that her opponents smell blood in the water, early on the BJP took to calling this campaign a contest between Vajpayee and "the Question Mark." Sonia's appearances on Walk the Talk seemed an effort at rebuttal. The results were mixed. While Gandhi shed some of her reserve and occasionally seemed to speak from the heart, her suspicions about her interviewer's motives were transparent, and at one point she allowed herself to be trapped into parrying a question with a damning, "I wouldn't want to discuss it now."

For the time being, at least, the party's answer appears to be more Gandhi, rather than less. Congress workers are pushing Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, to join the campaign. That hints at another reason why the party's president soldiers on: She knows this is a relay race and she's carrying the torch.

Will she falter? Is this the end of the dynasty? The BJP is bullish: "I'm afraid this time they may not even get the three-figure mark" in seats, says Mahajan, the campaign strategist. While there is some speculation that Gandhi may step down if Congress does as badly as predicted, Mahajan--like many others--believes that for now she's all Congress has. "Sonia is their biggest liability, and still she is their biggest asset because there is no [other] unifying force," he adds. "It's a Catch-22 situation for them."

Sonia herself has said she'll take losing in stride, if she has to. Asked on television if a loss would spell the end of her political career, she responded: "I have certain duties which I have to fulfil, about which I have spoken earlier. And there's no turning back."

boom times--but no jobs

Gaudy economic-growth numbers can't solve a simmering unemployment crisis

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in March 2004).

In general elections next month, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is campaigning, Reagan-like, on the theme that the country is "shining." These are, in fact, heady days for India, which has witnessed average economic growth of 5.6 percent over the BJP's current five-year reign. Buoyed by a booming stock market and reports that the country's GDP rose by an even stronger 8 percent during the third quarter, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recently crowed at a political gathering, "Our growth rate has surprised the world." The prime minister also took issue with his critics, who, he said, claim "that [people] are not seeing the rapid economic progress made by the country. There is overall satisfaction," said Vajpayee.

That depends on whom you ask. While millions of citizens have benefited from the country's recent boom—especially those in the IT and outsourcing sectors clustered around cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad—hundreds of millions more are in danger of being left behind. India's jobless rate last year was a seemingly manageable 8 percent. But with the country's population surging, the numbers of people out of work or underemployed have been rising steadily. According to the government's Planning Commission, more than 40 million Indians are registered with employment exchanges, and population projections suggest that 35 million new workers will join the country's labor force by 2007. That means India will need to create a staggering 75 million jobs over the next three years, according to the consultancy McKinsey & Co.—assuming full employment.

That isn't going to happen. India is creating new jobs, but not nearly enough of them to keep up with the ferocious demand for work. Between 1994 and 2000, India's rate of new-job growth was a paltry 1.07 percent. With the working-age population (15 to 60) set to balloon, the country could face social unrest unless it can find ways to funnel a mass of poorly educated people into decent jobs.

The current conundrum is a function of population growth and the country's modernization drive. In 1991 India abandoned its socialist, planned economy and began to open various industries to private competition. Some state firms were privatized; others were made more efficient. Since 1997 the public sector has eliminated 4.5 million jobs—or roughly 15 percent of its work force. The private sector was supposed to make up the difference through rapid growth, but instead has slashed a million jobs of its own over the last seven years.

One problem is the nature of India's success story. It's largely the result of investments in technology and in more modern manufacturing methods—a capital-intensive economic strategy that emphasizes productivity and efficiency, getting more output out of existing workers. "The private sector is growing very fast," says S. P. Gupta, chairman of the employment section at the Planning Commission. "But the high-tech [strategy] essentially means jobless growth." Shirish Sankhe, a principal at McKinsey & Co. in Mumbai, agrees. "There are productivity enhancements happening all over the country, especially in sectors where the government is still a big employer, like banking, steel and telecommunications. So despite a huge growth in output, you will see low growth in employment because productivity is very low."

That's certainly true in India's biggest industry. Some 60 percent of India's population—more than 600 million people—still earn their livelihood from farming. The industry is labor intensive and uses almost no machines. As machinery gradually comes into use, however, many farm workers will become redundant. "China pulls 1 percent of its people out of agriculture and [puts them] into construction or light manufacturing every year," says Sankhe. That's a feat that India is not likely to match.

To expand job-heavy industries like construction, manufacturing and retail would require pushing ahead with politically unpalatable reforms, encouraging more foreign investment—and putting an end to lingering socialist ideas. For example, manufacturing regulations limit the amount that clothing and textile makers can spend on new plants. The policy, which can be traced all the way back to Mahatma Gandhi's anti-British "buy Indian" movement, both protects inefficient operations and prevents them from growing. The same bias hampers the vitality of retail businesses, where a ban on foreign direct investment has stopped companies like Wal-Mart and Carrefour from entering the market.

The construction business suffers because rent-control and zoning laws prevent the development of valuable plots of land in city centers for new retail outlets. Despite the high price of land, thousands of tenants in the heart of Old Delhi, for example, pay as little as 10 rupees (US$.25) a month in rent. The archaic policies have limited growth rates in all these sectors to half or less of the rates in the same industries in China.

In those businesses where foreign investment is strongest, job growth as been impressive. "Foreign companies are creating huge numbers of back-office jobs in India for tasks like inventory, payroll processing and customer service," says McKinsey's Sankhe. "But that should be happening in manufacturing as well." That process has begun in the automotive industry. After the government lifted curbs on investment in the sector in the early 1990s, output began to take off. The industry's labor force grew by 11 percent from 1992 to 2000, even as productivity more than doubled. Today, the sector directly and indirectly provides jobs for more than 10 million Indians—and the business is expected to expand even more as Indian-made cars begin to sell in foreign markets.

Unsurprisingly, Indian experts and outside consultancies have different views on how best to create jobs. While Western-trained experts believe India should push ahead with reforms as rapidly as possible, the Planning Commission doesn't think a purely growth-oriented strategy will solve the unemployment problem. It recommends that the government focus on protecting and stimulating what it calls the "unorganized sector"—meaning nonregistered, small, mom-and-pop-style businesses.

India's informal sector accounts at present for 92 percent of India's jobs and nearly 60 percent of GDP. But India's small companies must become much more productive before they can expand and, potentially, create jobs. Experts say making small firms more productive is a much more difficult task than simply enacting the broad-brush reforms that are speeding the growth of big manufacturers. Informal firms need low-cost credit, access to better technology and enhanced knowledge of marketing and cost control. None of these things can be created by merely striking laws from the books. "In a country like India, substantive employment growth will have to be in the rural sector, and that's linked to a whole [array] of labor- and business-law changes that have not been implemented," says Bibek Debroy, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Development Studies. The government, he adds, must eliminate preferential policies that allow small firms to compete with larger rural companies.

Much of India's jobless are concentrated in a handful of poorly governed states with enormous, uneducated populations. Among the worst are Bihar and Assam—where a recent riot among thousands of job applicants for positions with Indian Railways resulted in more than 30 deaths. The situation is also dire in West Bengal and Kerala, where communist governments have increased the literacy rate but fostered strong labor unions that have stifled employment growth. In Kerala, the unemployment rate has topped 20 percent, while in West Bengal 15 percent of the population is jobless. Until numbers like that come down, it will be hard for Vajpayee to claim it's truly morning in India.