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We are all Americans. Not that we have the passports and the green cards to go and live there, but we all seem to be tied in to the new hope: Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th President of the United States. And probably the only President of the United States of America to take the oath of office twice within a 24 hour period. The first oath - which 2 billion people witnessed on their television sets - got a bit jumbled.
Obama’s election as the first non-white President of the United States must not have gone down well with the Russians or the Chinese. Not because he is black or from a minority race but, well, because he is American. And the beacon of a new hope. The beloved leaders must be jealous. I mean can you spell the names of the leaders of China or Russia? Would even 200 people outside of Russia or China watch the swearing in ceremony of the new, beloved leaders of either China or Russia? Well, maybe the CPI and CPI (M) - excited by the change of leadership in their parent countries - would watch the telecasts. Yes, I stand corrected: a global audience of 227 (not 200) would tune in to watch the change of leadership in China or Russia.
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Within minutes of Obama being sworn in with his full name - there is a "Hussein" in it - he reiterated his desire to lead Americans in their fight against terrorism. India has had its share of minority wins - our presidents have been from the minority communities but they don’t go around the country winning the "popular" vote as Obama has done. They are placed in the Presidential palace because they represent a minority community. Obama faced a gruelling battle and months of media scrutiny - and came out on top.
Waving the flag...
America is rich, but still a hugely indebted country. Every year the world has to lend America USD 500 billion dollars just to let the citizens of the greatest democracy in the world live their lifestyle and fund their daily consumption habits. And the money that the world lends to the Americans to buy goods, earns the lender less than 2% a year. And it may not be repaid in a long time.
Yet, the game goes on - not with the gay abundance and recklessness that it was played with in 2006 and 2007. But it goes on. Because, if the Americans stop buying their toys, cars, clothes and plastic hangers, the factories of the world stop producing - and jobs are lost in those exporting countries.
Finding a solution to America’s problem will help the millions of Chinese who headed home for the Chinese New Year. Many of them not sure if they will be called back to the sweaty production factories to manufacture more soft toys that little American babies cuddle up to when they fall asleep every night in their pretty, white-fenced homes. And that is a bigger problem: Daddy may not have any money to pay the mortgage on that pretty, white-fenced home. And if Daddy cannot pay the mortgage on the home, that man with the sports car down the street will lose his job. He works for the bank that gave Daddy the loan. And if that bank goes bust, the call centre in India that answered Daddy’s phone calls each time Daddy wanted to borrow more money to buy more homes as an investment will have no phone calls to answer. And the people working there will go bust. And they will default on their home loans. And those banks in India that were wiling to lend 120% of the purchase price of the home will be in trouble.
And many of the hedge fund managers are now hanging from the same "I am Ivan the Invincible" tag they wore around their neck as a calling card to greatness and immortality. They are selling their shares to get some money back for their investors. Our policy-makers chose to dip their hands in those swirling pools of speculative capital. And now our capital markets are caught in a whirlpool as money gets sucked out and our politicians and policy makers watch helplessly. And our wealth disappears.
That is why we are all Americans.
....but not the wand
In India, breathless TV commentators invited guests to be available for a sound-byte and a comment on January 21st. There will be "hectic activity" they opined and they wanted the "experts" to come by and give a view.
But January 21, 22, and 23 were normal trading days - the markets went down, recovered, skipped sideways. There was no magic wand.
The only wand that seemed to be uncovered was the one that Raju used in Satyam to move money out. Reliance continued to wave their wand with results that showed anything is possible if you have a good execution team and the tenacity to be the best. "Slumdog Millionaire" (a wonderful movie, indeed, but maybe "A Wednesday" was the Oscar candidate?) showed the rise of a slum boy in the property business with the help of the underworld - and, though not featured in the film, I am sure there was a supporting cast of good auditors. Behind every great businessman, stands a good audit firm or friendly rating agency. The wives are confined to the kitchens where they can do the things that make the Taliban of Mangalore proud.
The arrest of Santiago Meza Lopez, a Mexican drug lord’s "stew maker", showed the power of mixing chemistry with efficient business practices: over 300 bodies (presumably of rivals and irritants) were stirred till they dissolved in acid pots. Maybe the auditors gave a certificate of verification, based on management inputs: "we confirm that there was no material part of the material left".
But hopes run high. And wishes are our prayers.
As Hariprasad Chaurasia, the mischievously magical flautist, said at a concert at the Gateway of India: I wish those people who came by boat to Bombay had carried flutes. It is so much lighter to carry a flute than it is to carry AK-47 guns. They could have carried so many more flutes in their boats."
Indeed they could have.
Just as the Dream Team that conquered our imagination when they came to power in May 2004 could have delivered more than they did.
The market cap story has vanished; the miserable conditions that most Indians live in still remain. If you think Raju was a crook, read what Jagannath of DNA had to say about the Finance Ministry. I wonder who audits the government’s books: the crooked and ill-meaning in corporate India should make a beeline to hire them!
In case the BJP and others get excited on this damnation of the Congress-led UPA, their government had even less to be proud of - and enough to hide.
Corruption increases year after year, government after government.
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And while change has come to America, it has also come to India: we just hired the first ever lady life guard to help police the beaches of Goa. That honour goes to 22-year old Ms. Kerry Blewett of UK.
But we had "change" in 1977 when the Janata Party swept aside the dictatorship of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the criminal actions her son, Sanjay Gandhi, and the forced sterilisation programmes. I was 17 years old then and hope was the dominating passion.
There was no BSE 30 Index then (it began with a base of 100 in 1979-1980) but, if there was an Index, it would have shown a spike for sure. There was no CNN, NDTV, TV 18, UTV, or Zee in those days. But if those channels did exist, they would have transmitted the hopes of 700 million Indians awaiting a new dawn.
But what happened after that earth-shattering destruction of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime was a fiasco. And an embarrassment to democracy. Luckily, we kept the democracy and threw out the embarrassments! Many of the remnants of those times still live on, though, under different party names - but still focused on how they can maximise their gains at the cost of the country. Like a Raju with his hands in the till of the Satyam bank accounts.
Yet we strive on " as 36,000 people did in the Bombay Marathon " ignoring fear and winding along the streets of a "resilient" Bombay. How many bullets must the bad men have? How many honest people " and hopeful people " must there be? I would wager that there are fewer bullets with the bad men. As of today. But there is a tipping point when the power of bad is greater than the power of truth and goodness. Some countries have crossed that tipping point and become "failed states".
India is far from being a failed state. The people of Kashmir came out in force (67% of the people voted) and voted for Omar Abdullah, aged 38, to become the Chief Minister of a state that has been troubled for 19 years. With over 60,000 people killed. In a message of hope delivered at Business India’s Businessmen of the Year function, Chief Minister Abdullah said: I know I cannot ask you to invest in Kashmir today. Tell me what you need to make it ready for you to invest. In the meantime, please hire a few people from Kashmir and train them. Then send them back to run your businesses when I have made Kashmir ready for you to invest in.
Nope, 2 billion people around the world did not hear that speech. But it does not matter. The world will always have an Obama, an Abdullah, and a Chaurasia. They can act as our role models, as spiritual guides.
But they alone cannot solve the problems. In our own universe we need to sow hope, honesty, and hard work. And, in an economic sense, save more and spend less. There will be a period of economic pain as the global economies adjust to these new realities. As the factories in China are idled and the call centres in India are silenced. For a while - till some balance is restored. Until the auditors can say with full integrity that they have confirmed that the world has enough savings to start consuming again.
Till then keep cash in a sensible bank or under your mattress (6 months to 24 months of your monthly needs) and the rest in stock markets (80%) and gold (20%).