Sunday, December 10, 2017

Thou shalt not speaketh ill of the dead

Had only Moses (Charlton Heston) had longer and stronger arms, God need not have stopped with 10 commandments; could have added many more injunctions, like the one in the title.
This thought came to me soon after the Indian Supreme Court put a full stop to the mega serial of trying Jayalalithaa and her cohorts for amassing wealth “disproportionate” to the known sources of their income. But, as irony would have it, Jayalalithaa died as someone still under trial. All her cohorts have not been that lucky!
I am no legal eagle and among the more than a few words in the final judgment that I happened to read in the MSM, one stood out. The case against Accused No. 1 (or something like that, referring to Jayalalithaa) stands “abated”. The appropriate meaning of this term as far as I can tell, is the case has become null and void. This appears to be the direct result of the “eleventh” commandment given in the title.
So, my question: In what way does the fact that she was not alive to hear the pronouncement of guilt against her make the case against her “null and void”? True, the sentence would be “abated” – (I am starting to hate that word).
For the uninitiated, Jayalalithaa tried every trick in the book of Indian jurisprudence and introduced some more on her own before the case came to the Supreme Court, for the second and final time, if my timelines are correct. So, there cannot be the defence that she was not there to defend herself. All her defences were duly noted and breached definitively. Now, to imply, by saying that her case stands “abated” is a pretzelized form of saying she was not found guilty.
And, I am appalled. If her cohorts were found guilty, Jayalalithaa was also guilty – if there is a gradation of being guilty, she was more so – and she escaped the sentence only by dying. Why could our Supreme Court not get itself to say the same in simple words, just like I put it? Legalese, never favoured by common citizens, just added to its burden of making itself less understandable – legalese becoming more and more jargonized, to be understood only within the corridors of our system of justice, while claiming to serve the society as a whole. Another piece of irony, you say?
I am sure God did not issue the eleventh commandment only because He was afraid how the legal community would twist and interpret it, and in the process wring out its meaning, like drying clothes in a tumble drier. So, Charlton Heston was meant to carry only Ten Commandments and he surely did.
And the “Shalt nots” ended.
Raghuram Ekambaram

P. S. This is where I appreciate the apocryphal stories of the past about the behaviour of Tamil rulers – Manu Needhi Cholan, just hearing the cries of the cow, through the ringing of the bell, that its calf had been run over by the prince’s chariot, ordered that his son be done in so. No, I am not for death penalty and that is simply not the message. It is to admit guilt as early as possible, do not go through hoops of fire to avoid being pronounced guilty. One retains his/her dignity through this act. Jayalalithaa just fell down on the other side of the wall she was sitting on, but the result was the same – none could put her back together.   

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The one thing I am confused about Service Tax

The heading is misleading to the extent that I seem to claim I know everything else about Service Tax! Obviously, that is not correct.
About all other types of service tax, I haven’t a clue. But, there is one service, such unreliable service at that, I have to give voice to my confusion. This is about religion, no differentiation, here. I am talking about RELIGION.
Some claim that being religious is good because it smoothens one’s perspective of bad times – good times are just round the corner, if only ...
That is a service, in my reckoning. I understand that religious establishments are out of reach of the taxperson (see, how gender neutral I am!) in India. But, service tax is levied on the devotee as (s)he is being offered a service. After all, my bill for buying medicines comes with a large service tax (I don’t think I can say the percentage before going into a swoon). So, why not the devotee at the place of prayer? Lest you misunderstand me, I am not demanding that temples/churches/mosques/sangas pay service tax. Let them merely serve as the conduit between the devotee and the Department of Taxes, a mere pass-through – surely you have heard how these so-called pass-throughs are exploited by hedge fund managers, another set of people providing service.
Say, now you pay Rs. 200/- to jump the queue, my suggestion is merely for you to pay Rs. 200/- + Service Tax and the temple will send the tax part of it to the government. Temples must be keeping scrupulous accounts, you agree.
If you are going to argue that prayer assemblies (moderated in whatever way) are not to be considered as places of service offerings, I would like you to talk to the devotees (you may be one of them) first. As said earlier, they do get comfort, mental it may be but a comfort nonetheless. More to the point, in the services sector, we do include, and I am sure there is a separate tracking of it, religious tourism. If the other segments of such tourism are levied service tax – for example, your bus ticket, the hotels you stay in, etc. – then, why cannot the temple charge you a service tax? Simple, ain’t it?
To conclude, if religious tourism is a sub-head under tourism, and tourism is a sub-head under services, then religious tourism, logic demands, comes under services and hence, someone, as usual, the ultimate beneficiary, the devotee must pay that tax.
This is why I am confused about not levying Service Tax on every aspect of religious tourism, including the charges at places of worship. Nothing but logic leads me to this conclusion. Before you say it, I know, logic and religion don’t sleep on the same bed. But, please do explain why they don’t.

Raghuram Ekambaram 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Presidential v. Parliamentary System

The US Constitution predates the Indian Constitution by 160 years. This is one thing in which we cannot claim, “…been there … done that etc.” But, we surely can claim that the writers of our document were wiser than the so-called Founding Fathers of the US. But, we can say this for sure only now. All thanks to Donald Trump.
When a nuclear war came within the realm of at least a plausibility, like the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, Americans thought that if the then available procedures and protocol were to be followed in retaliation to a nuclear missile attack on the US, it would be a dead man attacking. They then handed over that decision, launching missiles against a hostile power, to one man, the President of the United States. But, they never foresaw Donald Trump occupying the White House, even if only between his golfing activities (by the way, do you think Trump claims a handicap? I am sure he does – take advantage of any and all situations, however serious or silly it may be, being his motto).
Now, you go to any “False Media”, what you find is Americans shuddering at the thought of their unstable president repeatedly reaching for the nuclear button and accidentally setting it on the course of destruction.
Whatever you may say about the parliamentary system, giving us all kinds of personalities at the top, none has descended to the level of Trump.  Our system has given us Modi, quite belligerent, I will admit, but he has never given reasons for us to fear India being annihilated. Can’t say the same for the world, with Trump as the US president. Now, I am ready to blame the presidential system of the US for such a situation coming to pass.
Even while giving credit to Modi the person, I would also raise my thumb for the system we have in place. We may not have a rigid system of checks and balances that the US claims it has, but which, alas, has a hole through which the huge and elephantine ego of a Trump can just rustle through.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

University Convocation Address – What it should not be.

I am one of the lucky/unlucky few who, despite having 3 degrees to my (dis)credit, have never attended his convocation.
Over the past three years, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to attend two convocations and heard an academic and an entrepreneur delivering the addresses. Oh, how I feel for the graduates, for whom that must have been the highest of the highlights of their life thus far.
In the first of the two addresses, this one by the academic, the focus was on how teaching must be done. There was not a word about the kind of world the new graduates will be facing or how different the new phase of life would be compared to what they have been exposed thus far. No, not a single word. The “Orator” (yes, that is how pompously he was addressed), for all he cared could have delivered in full Mark Antony’s speech and the audience would have been none the wiser.
The second address, this one by the entrepreneur, was all about how people are “funneled” away from their soil. The point was that the students are “escaping” the rural ambience (outside of the compound walls of the institutions) to reach out to greener (money, prestige, status etc.) pastures instead of making rural pastures greener. He went on to talk about how his company is doing this and that. It was much about his company and very little about anything else, including the new graduates.
It was when the useless segment “Vote of Thanks” was being delivered, the orator ostensibly felt the serious omission of focusing on the students in his speech. He signaled to the speaker at the lectern and rushed to it and said a sentence or two of how, when he comes back the next time (arrogance personified or self-invitation, your choice), he would hear that at least a few from the current student audience would have become entrepreneurs. I felt that he should have kept quiet and no one (excepting yours truly) would have noticed his omission. But such thoughts are far from the blinders-on thinking of those who have “made it”. Unfortunately, it is this same set of people who are called to deliver convocation addresses.
A Trumpian “SAD” is not out of place here.
Raghuram Ekambaram
P.S I do not know who delivered the convocation addresses for my graduating classes and I am unable to decide whether I was lucky or unlucky

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Modier than Modi

At first read, the title may make no sense (I hear you saying, “... as if the rest of what you write makes sense!”, and I will let go at that).
You have heard many anglophiles being described, with undisguised contempt, as “More British than the Brits”. I have heard this said of Naipaul, a transplant Brit, no more. It is in this sense the title needs to be understood.
I know of a food court type of place where you bought tokens at one centralized counter and bought foods of your choice at the appropriate vendor and got on with your eating, drinking, watching TV etc. Some months ago, this food court lost that character. It was each vendor for his/her own, but with a twist. You could not pay in cash at any of the vendors and what more the centralized billing was done away with it. If you suspected that this was in response to Modi’s call for cashless / less-cash economy (I have never understood the meaning of either of these) in the wake of the demonetization exercise, you could not be more right.
Then, there were some murmurs and perhaps in response to them, the old cash counter was open, but designed for limited transactions only. Now, people had a choice – cash or cashless. But, my thoughts strayed slightly far away from the prime minister. It reached into the office of the Governor, Reserve Bank of India. You see, the currency notes we use have no inherent worth. They are merely promissory notes, IOUs, underwritten by the Government of India.
Now, by not accepting the currency notes I am ready to tender at the individual vendors, they are saying, implicitly yet loudly, “Go, keep your IOUs to yourselves!”
I know the following to be true: Governor of RBI is beholden to the Finance Ministry, who, of course is beholden to the office of the prime minister. This is how the demonetization was promulgated by the prime minister himself, sidelining the finance minister, and of course, down the pecking order, the governor of RBI. First, it was the finance minister who twirled his baton to put all kinds of spin on the government’s effort to wring out black money, stop funding for terrorism and ... later on, the RBI governor added his two bits. After a month or two of chaos, we are back to some kind of normalcy.
But what I saw at the food court was some local bigwig currying favour with the Government of India. There has been no ordinance from the prime minister saying no cash transactions for everyday items. Have you? I guess not.
The near normalcy is being stirred by the local honchos in their own universe. I cannot see any logic beyond this for the food court to go from cashless/ less-cash to no cash economy. Even Modi did not promulgate an ordinance demanding no cash economy. But, here the powers that be who control the food court have done precisely that.
Now, I hope you understand the title – Modier than Modi.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“No deal is ...” – Theresa May

Theresa May repeats, “No deal is better than a bad deal,” talking about her preference to exit the Euro zone, come what may.
What May may mean is that even without any deal with the EU, Brexit is OK for UK as compared to a bargain that gives Britain the short end of the stick. But, the phrase does not necessarily mean only that.
In one way of reading, the saying is OK, that Britain would exit without a deal and would be none the worse for that. But, the more nuanced reading is, a bad deal to Britain is the best deal that Britain can hope! That is, whatever the deal may be, it cannot be better than the bad deal! Bad deal is the best.
Perhaps, this is what May means! Let Europe give Britain as bad a deal as possible and May maybe happy with it, as nothing else could have been better, as she herself claimed.
When we were taught to convert a sentence between the comparative and superlative adjectives, this is how it was to be done! I am just going back to my roots.
Raghuram Ekambaram  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where is James Bond, when we need Him?

The cyber-security establishments across many countries (at the last count, 12) are in search of, not Superman who is all brawn and hardly brains, James Bond who prefers blondes, though not lately.
Yes, I am referring to the stolen NSA software that is stopping cyber-ops around the globe, as per New York Times, an “audacious global blackmail”. Golden Eye, anyone?
Golden Eye foretold the current crisis, someone attacking the cyber-financial system for personal gain (I am kind of, perhaps, stretching it; please excuse me). Golden Eye was a one-hit job. Here, it appears to be death by thousand cuts. I do not know when I would be asked to pay up a billion dollars ransom to get access to my account that does not cross five figures in dollars! But, that is audacity, howsoever in vain (I ain’t gonna pay!) it may be.
I am wondering whether Trump has tweeted yet on this (it must be the time in Washington D.C Trump starts tweeting!). I guess not, as he must be in the so-called Situation Room, along with Ivanka and Kushner,  not handling the global crisis but protecting his personal assets.
To something more serious.
The above is a graphics taken from New York Times, showing the computers across the globe that have been hit (a snap shot at 6:05 AM on Monday 12th May, 2017). 
The image below is from NASA, a composite image of how the earth looks at night. The intensity of lights that a satellite captures at night over various regions of the earth, a nicely completed jigsaw puzzle, if an analogy is warranted.

The brighter or more dense the sources of the lights, we learn economics from it. These are the places (typically conurbations) where economic activities are concentrated – the eastern half of the US, Brazil, Chile (conurbations), whole of western Europe, the North African coast of Africa, Egypt (River Nile, particularly), Johannesburg in South Africa, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne in Australia (New Zealand cut out), the Tran-Siberian Railway Corridor, the eastern seaboard of China, much of India except for the central regions, the desert of Rajasthan, the more dispersed yet evenly spread population of Kerala – just a crash course on economic geography of the world.
Now compare, pixel by pixel, even the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is the obvious takeaway from the comparison – development is connectivity. First, there is electricity – generation, transmission, distribution – spreading like locusts; then, telephones – exchanges, undersea cables, satellites; then, computers – again individual, networks, satellites, truly global, indeed trans-global.
And then, catastrophe, nay, a series of catastrophes – Stuxnet, Conficker, Wanna Cry, Wanna Decryptor …
That is precisely why I Wanna James Bond on my side! I know he would do it. Destroy the blanket of satellites orbiting the earth that connects all the computers. Dig up all the underwater cables across the oceans. World would be dark, the ultimate Skyfall. The earth at night will be fully dark, just like how Africa was called in the old days – the Dark Continent. Now, it would be the Dark Earth. No communications, no economic activity, no human life, earth ceases to exist because humans do not exist on the earth.
And, if you recall, that is exactly what Drax planned for the earth, in Moonraker! Bond did not know that in future he would be asked to reprise the role of Drax, which itself was a reprise of Noah’s Ark, by Drax’s telling.
Now you know why I asked the title question.
Raghuram Ekambaram