Friday, 30 March 2012

Book Review: Is Paris Burning

Dominique Lapierre / Larry Collins 

A great book by the authors, but a very difficult one  to review, as it is set in a scenario with which not many Indians are familiar. Secondly, it is a largely fact-based interpretation of historical events, and requires an understanding of the underlying events. Therefore, before getting to the book per se, it is essential to get a feel of the underlying situation in France in 1944, and how it got there. This novel is set in a World War 2 scenario, centering on the liberation of Paris in August 1944 

In May of 1940 the French surrendered to the Germans, who installed Marshall Phillipe Petain as the “head of the government” and gave under his control 2/5th of France {mostly the interior regions}. The regions on the coast and the along the Siegfried line remained under German control. This titular government reigned from “Vichy”, and was known as the Vichy Government 

{This was by no means the only altercation: France and Germany have a long history of war behind them, the most notable being the Franco – Prussian war of 1870 in which the Legendary Count Bismarck won for Prussia [modern Germany – history class 10th]. The result led to establishment of the Third Republic in France, which was not a very popular government from its start in 1870 to its finish in 1940} 

The Vichy Government { June 1940 to August 1944} of France was not very popular, as it was collaborating with the Nazis. Thus, it was a very divided nation that was fighting for its independence from the Nazis, a nation that had for the past 150 years not had a notable period of unity and peace, what with the French revolution, Napolean Bonaparte, the Second republic, Napolean III…. Even the third republic was beset with problems throughout. 

This is important to the book, as will be understood from the review that follows: 


The book starts with the appointment of General Deitrich Von Choltitz as the chief of the German Army in early August 1944. The orders for Choltitz are crystal clear: hold Paris, or destroy every building before leaving. Simple and straightforward! 

The logic for these is explained in the first few pages in the book, as the germans are expecting a push to liberate Paris by the Allied armies, who were moving inwards from the coast of Normandy {D-Day landing: June 1st week - 2nd week}. 

And from this point unfolds a tale of political ambition, sheer callous and brutal planning on both parts, the fragmentations on the resistance side and the status of the german army. The rest of the book concentrates on the the 7 day period from 19th August 1944 to 26th August 1944, giving a blow-by-blow account of the sequence of events that led to the liberation of Paris. 

It describes the allied plan of attack with respect to Paris {which was actually brilliant}, how the said plan was forced to be abandoned, how the resistance – fragmented and ridden with rivalry – planned a last resistance. It describes the leaders of the segment and their motives, with one segment focussed on ostensibly gaining independence even at the cost of 200000 civilian lives, while the other focussing on the fastest possible independence while securing the safety of the civilian population 

It describes the german army, its state of demoralisation and fragmentation from the higher levels to the lower levels, the german planning for the destruction of the city. All of this is given, but not in the form of words – which would have made it a history book – but in the form of the actions of the principal characters. That is the reason why you need an understanding of the background. 

It is evident in the fragmentation of the resistance, their behaviour, their insistence that Paris be liberated before De Gaulle reaches {even if 200000 french are slaughtered in the process}. It is evident in the unilateral offer of peace by a german general defying the orders of the wehrmacht and the fuhrer. It is evident in the desperation of De Gaulle to get to France {being aware of french history helps here... }. It is evident in the serial disobedience / neglection of orders by a series of german officers- and many, many more instances spread throughout the book 

It is not a war story, but rather 2 stories – one a story of naked greed and political ambition set in a war scenario, the second a story of the liberation of Paris. Both of the stories are told in bone-chilling detail. It is the story of the race to save Paris both from the germans as well as from itself. If you can coin one phrase, it is the story of the creation of modern France.... 

Judging anything of such a book would be a capital folly, as it is all in the past, and it is all documented. The interpretation of the same is upto us. But this book has many take-aways that need to be highlighted- like getting an insight into the reasons for the stunning german collapse that started in 1943, the ugly face of politics, how one man can change the course of a nation, how a few determined people can save the day...

This review first appeared on my previous microblogging effort on

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Defence acquisition mess; Media and Citizen attitudes

The Hindu : News / National : Inside India's defence acquisition mess:

'via Blog this'

Continuing from my previous post, a simple perusal of the morning papers revealed an expected but nevertheless interesting scenario: Most news coverage was concentrated either on The General or on the Congress / UPA. Here we are- faced with a nearly 1962-like situation in terms of Defences, sitting on a powder-keg situation, nearly naked (if the Chief's letter is 100% accurate - which I dont doubt, judging from a series of critical articles in various sources over the past few years) - and the entire Media is focussing on anything but Defence. Most newspapers are sticking to their market positioning - which is fine under normal circumstances. If you are known for reportage, your readership will be of that kind. Similarly, if you have a market position of in-depth focus, then that will be reflected in your product. Being a sales & marketing professional I both understand and accept these realities. But this situation is anything but normal - it is exceptional, anyway you look at it! Rather than build pressure on the government to take immediate remedial measures to correct the scenario (as well as restore the morale of the Armed Forces) the Media is just doing routine reportage.

None of us can say that this development has come as a complete surprise: there have been any number of articles in magazines highlighting the increased level of problems in the Army. Admittedly, none were as serious in tone: but the fact remains that murmurs of something of this kind were rife in some magazines which questioned delay in fighter aircraft procurement, tank procurement etc. What makes this different is that this is coming from the head of the Army - which is an infinitely more serious development, as it impacts the morale of the forces, saps their energy and exposes its underbelly. More is expected from the Media at this juncture: and I hope that this particular development is not consigned to the back pages with time. A concentrated pressure is needed to ensure follow-up action! We need to gavanise the bureaucracy and the government to respond to this serious threat to national security - and if our Armed Forces are indeed so underprepared, then this is a threat to security. As it is we are facing serious threats from terrorism - and an Army unable to respond is the last thing we need at this point. 

Some good can still be had from this - if we can get the bureaucrats and the government to act on the weaknesses highlighted rather than do a witch hunt. Judging from the happenings in Parliament, this does not seem to be happening- with various speakers waking eloquent on the state of our Armed Forces as being ship-shape. Who are you trying to fool? By covering up, you are only fooling the people, some of whom will believe in your mumbo-jumbo. The more knowledgable (including enemies) probably already have an excellent idea of the state of the Indian Army. What is more, the fall in morale can only be good news to enemies. Rather than mere statements, the need of the hour is a white paper than either gives specific rebuttals - or gives a plan to plug same.

This is not a problem that can be wished away - it needs a clear strategy to be managed. And it is the absence of a strategy that is bothering me. No witch hunts now, please- at least, not in public.   Present a common front. For one thing is clear: given a choice, I would rather believe the General than the Government. The credibility of the government is lesser as compared to the General, simple as that. And that is what the government also needs to address. As for the rest, please rise above party lines and affiliations... that is the need of the hour!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

It's The Army Now....

Army toothless: General VK Singh drops letter bomb on govt - Hindustan Times:

'via Blog this'

I am beginning to wonder what is required for the people of India to wake up from their abhorrent stupor... Institution after institution is collapsing with monotonous regularity due to abject neglect! School performance is the lowest in the world; rampant corruption; inefficient policing; falling economic indicators; Telecom tangle; FDI in retail imbroglio; Judicial activism; Satyam....

And now the Army.

One point shines through this entire episode: The Media is more concerned with the Government's continuance / Fate of the Army Chief / How the letter leaked / political reactions / Army's politicization. What about the security of the nation? Rather than criticize the Army Chief, why has no one from the Media (judging from the coverage so far seen on various websites) critically examined the issues highlighted in the letter? What is more important: The Government, The Political Parties, The Letter - or The Nation? That should be a no-brainer: the nation should supercede all other considerations. And yet, I have not seen any reaction in print on any website so far. Let me see what the morrow brings - I am keenly waiting for tomorrow's newspapers to see if there is critical analysis of the contents and their truth; as also how much pressure there is on the IAS lobby and the government to come clean on this matter.

I, for one, want to know the extent of the truth in the letter: has our Army indeed been rendered powerless for want of Modern Equipment and Ammunition? I very much fear this might be true- judging from the delay in finalising the Fighter Aircraft deal. The time has come for all of us to demand from the powers that be in New Delhi - Bureaucrats and Politicians alike - that they come clean on the state of affairs in the Army. Further, this matter should be dealt with without accord to politics- for we have now been rendered powerless as the respect of the Indian Army will have taken a severe beating across the world. This is also going to have a serious effect on the "India Shining" image. There was only last bastion that was left untouched at the altar of power games and corruption - The Armed Forces.

We have been hearing rumblings of dissatisfaction in the Armed Forces over the process of procurement of arms, over the control of the bureaucrats, the increasing politicization of the process. We have also read quite a few snippets of news highlighting the urgent needs of the Armed Forces... but nothing quite as serious as this. And in my opinion - the blame lies at our own doors - our carelessness, our I-Me-Myself-First attitude, our how-does-it-effect-me syndrome.  Corruption, Bad Governance is eating away steadily at all of our achievements - and this is being compounded by our total lack of concern on this issue. For this is what this is: Corruption & Bad Governance!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Retail: Survival Strategies of the Kirana Retailer

ICRIER Report on Organised Retail:

I have been arguing in my writings that the threat to kirana stores in India does not exist, and that the 2 can co-exist.... interested parties may refer the above researches that have been conducted in India circa 2008 & 2010. I admit that these are a bit dated, and might need to be re-validated. However, I have not observed any difference in any of the cities in which I have made queries and observations; the trend seems to be the same as before. Not one of the small retailers I have spoken to in any city has told me of a decline in business volume or profit.

The key finding of the report are encapsulated below:
1) An initial fall of 23% in terms of volume. This loss is made up in the subsequent years
2) No evidence of a decline in overall employment in the organised sector
3) Closure rate of the small kirana store @ 1.7% due to the Organised Retail Phenomenon. Total Kirana closed were @ 4.2%. Out of this 4.2%, only 1.7% were due to organised sector factors
4) Competitive response from traditional retailers through adoption of technology and improved business practices
5) Extension of credit to customers

Far more interesting is the anaylsis of the impact of / on customers
1) Increased Consumer Spending
2) Proximity is a major advantage of the small retailer

Increased Consumer Spending
This is something all of us should have observed! We do tend to pick up far more items when the full range is displayed in front of our eyes: that 10-rs pack of chocos; those cakes and tit-bits; small tinkers that we spot on shelves; the odd item with a deal too good to refuse; the latest kitchen gizmo; that shiney kitchen aid; that bunch of hankies we dont need; all those lovely toys for the kids... the list can be endless.

An Organised Outlet will be at least a km away - if not more. The very fact that the local kirana store is right next door is in itself a powerful advantage. This is particularly important since needs arise in a normal household practically everyday. Further, quite a few items are usually forgotten in our trips to the mall - or the brands we need are not available.

Both the above do not explain why is it that kirana concept is not only surviving, but also thriving. The adjustments made by this category can be said to be:

1) Convenient Timings
2) Credit Facility
3) Lower wait time in-store
4) Personalised Service
5) Smaller Pack Size Availability
6) Consumer Goodwill
7) Home Delivery
8) Facility of open goods: loose sale of packaged goods
9) Local Brands Stocking
10) Knowledge of Consumer Preferences
11) One-stop shop concept, with a wider range of products being stocked - viz. stationery, batteries, bakery items, snacks and sweet meets, ice cream, soft drinks,
12) Friendly replacement and return policies
13) Innovative new products especially in impulse categories
14) Perishables like milk - esp home delivery on coupons
15) Bill payment support to nearby households and other services
16) Stocking of all new product launches - faster than even the chains

The above small items, taken together, are creating a powerful force that is retaining the customer profile. On the customer front, what is happening is that the share-of-wallet, which was earlier 100% to the local kirana market, is now being shared between the organised retailer and the kirana merchant in a few segments of the market. For the lower segments of the population, the facility of smaller pack sizes, loose goods and credit are together ensuring stickiness. In fact, these last 3 factors are powerful strategies, given India's demographic and income profile.  As an example, I have frequently found that a 100g pack of my brook bond herbal variant of Red Label is not stocked by malls. I can think of quite a few other similar cases...

The other major factors in the equation are
1) Increased Consumer Spending
2) Increased Prices
3) Increasing Households and Population
4) Increase in Per Capita Income
These factors are growing the overall market: which is creating space for all the players!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Honesty can get you killed: CBI Ex-director

The Hindu : Opinion / Op-Ed : Honesty can get you killed:

'via Blog this'

" It has been openly acknowledged that a sizeable number of candidates, who were recently put up or elected to the State Assembly, at least in one State, had a known criminal record. There is no public outrage over it."

"What is the practical course of action to prevent the mafia in Madhya Pradesh from striking again? The Chief Minister has ordered a judicial enquiry. This is the best way to ensure the truth about those who were behind the gory incident does not emerge, at least for a long time."

" Things have now reached such a pass that you can speak and stand for honesty and adherence to the law only at your peril. Physical harm to you and your family are normally to be expected, and it is your luck if that does not visit you. This would not have been the case if these rapacious elements in society have not been lent unholy support by some of our elected representatives."

"Finally, is it not time for the Apex Court to steamroll the reforms it had so eloquently pushed in 2006, in response to the PIL of former U.P. DGP Prakash Singh? Many former and present IPS officers are disappointed that the pace of reforms ordered by the Supreme Court has been painfully slow. Here again, the truth is that a number of Chief Ministers are opposed to these monumental changes, changes that are aimed at freeing the Indian Police from the stranglehold of small time street-level politicians."

These are the words of an ex-director of the CBI.

If the Director of the CBI can state this so bluntly and in print... it is time to be worried with the state of our nation... seriously worried. Apparently, even the police is not in a position to stem the rot. First I was just concerned...

But Now?

I am worried- deeply so. I am seriously worried- and I cannot forget that even a man as powerful as a CBI Director feels completely hopeless and helpless. 


Friday, 9 March 2012

Whither Law and Order: Another IPS officer attacked in MP

Another IPS officer attacked in MP - The Times of India:

'via Blog this'

Circa 2007

It is truly amazing how the simplest of experiences leads one to a train of thoughts transcending a multitude of subject-domains, as happened to me yesterday night. The event in itself was mundane, were it not for the extenuating circumstances: A motor-bike drive between 2 cities 44 kilometers apart. But what happened on that route has set my mental rollers rolling something fierce! I would like to enumerate these diverse thoughts, and justify my connection to and rating of the above topic. 

The time was 9:15 PM at night when I left Bhilai for home, 44 kms away on NH-6 towards Nagpur. This is usually a very safe track, with hardly a policeman or checkpoint visible along the way. I have made this drive on bike as well as by taxi several times at night, but yesterday was different, in that the entire last 24 kms were policed – and very heavily policed at that! I noticed around 4 major checkpoints along the way. At each point, I naturally stopped, but to my amazement, was informed at all except one– exteremely politely: “Aap Jaayiye”. The entire stoppage at each point was not exceeding 10 – 15 seconds at the most – no hassling, nothing! The 4th point was rude, very rude. It was that, and one other observation, that has set my mind racing. 
The police and the babus are known to be rude. Rude? This wasn’t my experience in 75% places. In fact, they were quite gentle. Furthermore, no senior officer was in sight, so it cant have been that they were behaving for brownie points! Secondly, there was a complete absence of visible gun-men or gun-toting policemen at any place. Consider this: you are driving a bike on a highway on which all vehicles except 2-wheelers have been halted. It is nearly 10 at night, pitch dark, and you are the only vehicle on the road… 
Had I noted a gun anywhere, my reactions would have been fear, for between checkpoints, there was no traffic!  But, as it happened, I traversed the distance safely and without any untoward worries. This caused my mind to go back in time to circa 1994 – district Jhabua in MP. We were in the first car in a convoy escorted by the police across a particularly dangerous track of highway, and we were roadblocked by thiefs… the policeman in our car jumped out and started shooting. 
In both cases, I was glad the police was around. Note that point – I was GLAD to have the much-maligned police officer around. When it came to the crunch-  when my life or property was at risk all those years ago, I was glad to have the police around! And it was that realisation that came as a jolt to me yesterday. 

(The above is an extract from my previous blog on mouthshut written in 2007)

Circa 2012

When the apparatus of the police itself seems to be targeted and vulnerable, what would happen to the morale of the people? To the sense of security and safety? In both the case above, I was thankful for the presence of the police, who lent me a feeling of safety and security. I was able to carry on and complete my task because of the police... and that is precisely why they are so central to a society. 

It may seem far-fetched to equate 2 incidents with a breakdown of law and order, but remember: it wont take long for 2 incidents to reach 20 - and then 200 and so on... then what would be the difference between MP and Bihar? Or between India and Palistan or Afghanistan? Whatever be the reason behind the incidents (there is suspicion of accident, of deliberation, of.... ), it is suspected that a nexus is behind it - probably a politician - criminal - law nexus behind the mining. It is difficult to state with certainty, but this is a commonly stated suspicion. Several instances of these have also been brought to the public attention over a period of time. We citizens have to make but one contribution for sure-fire long term success: use our vote responsibly. Either that - or Section 49-O of the constitution:

Section 49-O is a section coming under the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. It has nothing to do with the Constitution of India. It reads as follows:

“49-O: Elector deciding not to vote. – If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form-17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49-L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.”

This is only a provision for abstaining from voting or at the best negative voting. It does not provide for cancellation of polling if the 49-0 votes are more than the candidate’s majority or provide that the candidature of the contestants will be removed and they cannot contest the re-polling, since people had already expressed their decision on them.

In fact in the PROPOSED ELECTORAL REFORMS by the Election Commission of India, which was forwarded to the Prime Minister of India on 05/07/2004, the following reform was proposed;


The Commission has received proposals from a very large number of individuals and organizations that there should be a provision enabling a voter to reject all the candidates in the constituency if he does not find them suitable. In the voting using the conventional ballot paper and ballot boxes, an elector can drop the ballot paper without marking his vote against any of the candidates, if he chooses so. However, in the voting using the Electronic Voting Machines, such a facility is not available to the voter. Although, Rule 49 O of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 provides that an elector may refuse to vote after he has been identified and necessary entries made in the Register of Electors and the marked copy of the electoral roll, the secrecy of voting is not protected here inasmuch as the polling officials and the polling agents in the polling station get to know about the decision of such a voter.

The Commission recommends that the law should be amended to specifically provide for negative / neutral voting. For this purpose, Rules 22 and 49B of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 may be suitably amended adding a proviso that in the ballot paper and the particulars on the ballot unit, in the column relating to names of candidates, after the entry relating to the last candidate, there shall be a column .None of the above., to enable a voter to reject all the candidates, if he chooses so. Such a proposal was earlier made by the Commission in 2001 (vide letter dated 10.12.2001).

(A petition by the People.s Union for Civil Liberties seeking such a provision filed at the time of the recent general elections is pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court)”

This, combind with the right to recall as demanded with Team IAC, can indeed be a powerful lever on the political class of India. For there is only one thing that the politician is scared about: Loss of power, and the vote. This lever - if used legally and effectively - can indeed by a solution....

Think.... just think. Wake Up, India!

Digital divide: does India need 4G right now,as it is struggling for broadband?

Digital divide: World gets 4G iPad, India still struggling for broadband - The Economic Times:

'via Blog this'

While the west moves to 4G, we are still trying to get Broadband. Nothing surprising with that - we have been late movers in communication technology and therefore, it is only to be expected. But if you look at the Broadband scenario in India, the statement that we are struggling is simplifying the state of the market in this space. In India, Broadband solutions in the B2C space are given by Wired and Wireless technology platforms and at speeds ranging from the basic 256/512 kbps to 4 mbps and above. What has been their experience? Have they managed to cover costs? Is there a market for 4G services that is big enough to justify investments? My take on this is that it might just be premature to roll-out 4G services in a market that has yet to fully experience 3G and broadband. First, the market needs to mature and second, the current hypercompetitive phase of the Telecom market needs to settle down.

The cost of a broadband connection in the B2C {Business To Consumer / Customer} market is in the region of Rs. 250 per month (free upto 1GB), ranging upto 2100 per month for 3G sticks. Even at the lower level, the 1 GB usage limit means that the total bill in some customers is going to be substantially higher. Given the nature of the market, this means that the potential market needs to be defined very clearly in terms of  household income. Second, the penetration of home PCs - while on the upswing - in nowhere near the west. Even in households with PCs, internet awareness is low and usage limited to only checking mail, simple reservation checking etc. The full gamut of the internet has yet to reach the majority of households. So much so that even households with high income will sport a Home PC: but it will be used primarily for games for the kids. The primary earner will be the regular user of the laptop or desktop - but usage of the same will be limited to stocks and financial markets; reservations, simple googling. Services such as online cinema booking / restaurant booking, hotel booking, online purchasing, e-papers, news services etc are simply not used, as the customers find it more convenient and safe to do these the old way. The point of the above is that the Indian market is still on a learning curve, and the consumers have a long way to go before the full potential of the market can be realised.

On the income aspect, there are again 2 factors at play: the first is perception and the second has to do with expenses. Given that the internet has not yet become a need, a necessity for the majority of users outside the top 8 - 10 cities of the country, there is a perception in place that expense on broadband connectivity is a luxury, or a needless expense. This perception will only recede with the increasing awareness levels and usage of technology. The second factor is actual expenses: shelling out Rs. 1000 for a true broadband connection with 1 mbps speeds calls for a heavy investment for a typical household: this expense takes the total expense on communication to above Rs. 2000 per month given that there will also be 2 mobile connections at least in  operation. That makes this a very significant share-of-wallet for a normal household, and places high-speed broadband firmly out of reach of most normal middle class consumers. Further, when people have not even experienced high-speed connectivity and the supporting applications for the same, one cannot expect them to upgrade to 4G. Please note that I am talking about high-speed plans with decent usage limits: 1 mbps unlimited with 5 GB high speed limits at least.

This factor can be seen in the various prepaid broadband and 3G plans in evidence - 1-day, 7-day vouchers; 1GB limit vouchers, cheap postpaid plans with low limits of 1GB - 3GB at less than 500 Rs. which are meant to pull in non-users and get them to experience the world of high-speed connectivity. This fact itself is a powerful indicator of the state of the market, and that things are on a learning curve. This market is still at 256/512 kbps, and the customers first need to experience the high-speed phenomenon. Further, the awareness of applications needs to increase. And third, either rates have to come down - or PPP has to increase for it to be a mass market. This does not mean that there is no market: indeed, there is a very large market as evidenced by increasing penetration of smartphones, PC and Laptop Sales, Data Usage on 2.5G networks (GPRS). The challenge is to convert these customers to high-speed customers through exposure to applications through any means that are available - for example, net-kiosks; bundled handsets (as tried by idea and vodafone); gaming parlours and websites; support to application developers; links via sms; co-advertising with events / websites / applications etc. There can be any number of strategies for that. And this is precisely what the telecom industry is currently working on.

The last point is that the trade needs to settle down and get into working mode after the tough 2011 year. Some sense of order needs to emerge especially as a huge amount of investment has gone into 3G networks, completing 2.5G rollout obligations, network upgradation. This is painfully evident on the stock market performance and the ballooning debt of the sector due the above factors. Thinking about a further upgradation does not seem to be warranted in this scenario. This does not mean that the industry forgets 4G. I am advocating an increased focus on content and application development, customer education initiatives etc: in other words, the development of an entire ecosystem that engenders increased usage of data. Data consumption increase will directly translate into revenues for the industry: which will make 4G far easier to introduce.  

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

India a superpower? Unlikely, says London School of Economics study - The Economic Times

India a superpower? Unlikely, says London School of Economics study - The Economic Times:

'via Blog this'

As per the London School Of Economics, the 7 reasons identified that we cannot become a superpower are:

  1. The Challenge Of The Naxalites
  2. Hindutvawadis
  3. Degradation Of The Center
  4. Increasing Rich-Poor Gap
  5. Trivialisation Of The Media
  6. Unsustainable Resource Consumption
  7. Instability And Policy Incoherence Of A Coalition Government
The first point regarding Naxalites can and should be extended to include terrorist threats that sap the energy from the atmosphere and prove to be a real impediment to development. Why state only Naxalites? India is facing a range of internal threats to peace that go far beyond the Naxalite problem. What is more, the threats are not showing signs of waning. We are nowhere in sight of a solution - and without a solution, this problem will continue to be a dead-weight around our legs as we strive for progress. The second point is, in my opinion, simple ignorance on the part of the LSE. Yes, increasing fundamentalism is indeed a cause of grave concern - but it is not just the Hindutva factor at play. What is more to the point is the fractured nature of our societies - our divisions along Language and Religion - and especially the mutual distrust that this engenders. As an excellent example: Marathi upsurge led by the Thackereys. Such incidents drive a wedge into society - if repeated often enough, they can prove to be extremely divisive!

As for the rest, I have to say that I find it hard to dispute the claims of the London School Of Economics. The Rich-Poor gap is very evident; as is the instability and policy incoherence of a coalition government. Being a superpower means a more equitable distribution of wealth.  for only then the full potential of the demographic dividend - so eloquently extolled by Nandan Nilekani -  can be fully exploited; and conversely, it will prove unsustainable if everyone were not able to share in the development. Such a lop-sided growth can never be sustained for any length of time. Similarly, a coalition government can never have the freedom of polcy making that a clear majority government can have. We do have a long way to go!

It is in the rest of the 3 factors that the punch lies: namely, Degradation of the center / Media / Resource Consumption. In fact, I would term it as a near collapse of most of our institutions due to rampant and endemic corruption. It is impossible to do anything without paying something in the form of a bribe - that is indeed the hard truth. It has become an endemic problem - and this is exacerbated by public apathy as evidenced by our civic behaviour, our penchant for paying bribes to cops, ticket-checkers, government officials as well as in our day-to-day behaviour. As for the Media- as I have previously argued, they seem more concerned with profit and reporting what sells. The Media can- if it wants to- play a stellar role in leading change; it can be both the bulwark as well as the Rallying Point of positive change. Paradoxically, The Media is perhaps the only point in the seven which offers a ray of hope: at least there is credible evidence of change in the Media.

The most critical point is Resource Consumption: and we need only look at our core sector for confirmation of the same. All in all, a superbly argued article... we need to act on corruption, internal threats, resources, spreading the wealth. So far, it seems doable. But what do we do about the problems of coalition politics? Do we have a solution? We citizens can bring about change through means such as India Against Corruption in the sphere of corruption: but there is little we can do about the political setup as it exists today. There are vast differences in culture, regional development status, languages, aspirations, problems from state to state. In such a scenario, perhaps the coalition system is the best as it ensures local participation - and this acts as a safety valve!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Book Review: The Day Of The Jackal

The Day of the Jackal was penned around 1971, and was set in the French Republic of the early 1960’s. The story is based partly on fact, and partly on fiction, and revolves around a plot to assassinate the then French President Charles De Gaulle. The fact part is an attempt on the presidents’ life by a French army officer {Bastien-Thiry}. The rest of the book is fiction. 
The beauty of this book is in the way it offers 3 windows into the same story: offering the reader a look from 3 view–points, which makes for fascinating reading. The 3 view points are the 3 parts of the book: The Motive of the perpetrators & the planning of the Jackal {The Anatomy of a plot}, The French investigation: How the plot is discovered and stopped, {The Anatomy of a Manhunt} and the final climatic moments,  {The Anatomy of a Kill}. This approach actually enhances your understanding, takes you deep into the plot, and gives you a 360-degree view of the the story. 
But what takes the cake is the narrative: by that I mean the way the story moves forward at a rapid pace, not stagnating anywhere even for a page- throughout the book. And this is despite the triple-change in perspective. That is the real beauty of this book. This stye has enabled a complete understanding of the entire plot in the mind of the reader, with every angle being well explained and covered appropriately. The changes have been deftly handled, with not an iota of momentum being lost along the way 

The Characters
The Jackal: The quintessential enigma; Brilliant in conceptualisation & execution; Unfortunately task-oriented
Lebel: Methodical, Sincere, Intelligent, Brllliant
General De Gaulle: Making his presence felt by his absence!!!!

Thats it. This book is about these  3 people, and no one else. There are supporting characters in plenty, but mentioning them would take away from the frontispiece of the story: Jackal Vs Lebel. De Gaulle makes his presence felt in the book more by inference than by actual presence, an approach that is far more effective than showing his presence as head of  state. 

Another hallmark is the refrain the author has shown in the book in dealing with the central character of the Jackal, and his growing enmity with Lebel. The way his identity has been built with a minimum of sensationalism is a thing to behold. That is the central point of the book: the Jackal, his identity, the style of operation and his mystery – all of which have been built not by excessive description but rather by limiting references to his past, and by his style of working, which was a master-stroke! Secondly, the other masters-stroke was in not having an equally well-developed character as his opponent. Indeed, while his opponent – Lebel - comes out as a professional equal to or better than the Jackal, the frontispiece of the book remains the Jackal 
And last but not the least: this book is about 3 characters only: Lebel, De Gaulle, and above all The Jackal. Nothing else. The book starts with that and ends with that, concentrating on that theme, with not even a single sub-plot of note. No pages have been wasted in developing sub-plots, which has made the narrative taut and rapid. Of note is also the way the persona and charisma of Charles De Gaulle looms over the book, even though his appearances are limited and far-between. 
The Story
The first part – the Anatomy of a plot – explains the motives as well as the planning in detail: Who wants to kill De Gaulle and Why, How is the Assassin hired, How the Assassin gains knowledge of his intended target, The exact steps of the planning including passports/multiple identities/Gun/Target/Site. These are covered in exhaustive detail - such that you can visualise the scene in front of your eyes. The second part – The Anatomy of a manhunt, deals with how the French discover the plot, and the hunt for the assassin across France and Britain, the manhunt in both countries leading to the ultimate foiling of the plot. The story picks up from the first suspicions of a plot, and methodically covers police routine, highlighting their failures and frustrations, the pulls and pressures in brilliant detail, going on to successes and the ever-increasing speed of the investigation.  The book continues its relentless pace in the third part: The anatomy of a kill, which is hectic and describes the way the police realize the exact date of the attempt {by gaining an understanding of the president – something the Jackal has already done!}, and how they save the day in the nick of time… 
The parts are written in three styles of writing {from the intense descriptive style in Part 1, to the urgent and hectic style in Part 2 and ending with the rapid pace  in the 3rd Part, with the beauty being in the way the tension, the pace and the narrative builds through successive pages, never slackening in between right through to the fitting finale makes this book one of a kind. Such is the attention to detail in the book that it is beyond my capabilities to even begin to write about the story beyond the broad parameters outlined above. This is a book that concentrates on detail - and has done so without slackening the pace, without compromising on the story and keeping reader interest alive throughout. 
 The Conclusion
This book is about the Jackal - and, despite your realisation that the Jackal is a criminal, a killer, you are caught in 2 minds in more than one point in the story. You feel a tinge of some undefinable regret at the defeat of the Jackal - for the story is about the Jackal. The Anti-Hero of the book, man without any scruples, ends up as the centerpiece. The rapid pace of the narrative - despite its concentration on detail - gives you no time for value judgements. Lebel has intentionally been left underdeveloped, so that the Jackal can be emphasised - which takes this book beyond the ordinary killer-chase, and elevates this into the stuff of legend that it has become!

Personally, I cant think of a single book of the Spy / Thriller Genre that quite matches it. Most other books have interludes where the pace relaxes for a bit, with romantic by-plays or scenario description- not in this one! No romantic by-plays, dilly- dallying of any kind anywhere, which makes for frantic page-turning, as the tension builds up relentlessly page after page, making it a book which you will not be able to put down till the last page.. 

This review is an edited and expanded version, which first appeared in my previous blog site