Friday, May 26, 2017

Goodbye Greats!


By Ajit Chaudhuri – 21st May 2017

It’s a sentimental time for ageing sports lovers! I watched the last Test of the West Indies-Pakistan series (10-14 May 2017, Pakistan winning the Test by 101 runs and the series 2-1, its first ever series win in the Windies) that saw the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq (43) and Younis Khan (39) from cricket. Last night, I watched the Bayern Munich vs. Freiburg game (4-1 to Bayern, who had already won the Bundesliga title) that saw Xabi Alonso (35) and Philipp Lahm (33) bow out from football. And finally, we have Francesco Totti (41) hanging up his boots after next week’s Roma vs. Genoa game, with Roma needing a win to be sure of second position in Serie A and automatic Champion’s League qualification for 2017-18.

Five greats going out over a 20-day period, all quiet, self-deprecating men who brought dignity to sports, has to be worth a few words. And, given the reams of information available on the Internet, I will stick to my own relationship with these five men, why I think they are special, and why they will leave huge gaps behind.

I will begin with a joke about Helmut Kohl, the leader of Germany at the time of German reunification and European integration, who was known for his love for good food. It was said that ‘there was something comforting about an all-powerful German Chancellor who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about raiding the refrigerator rather than re-drawing the borders of Europe’. There was something similarly comforting about Philipp Lahm, a World Cup (2014) winning German captain who was 5’7’’ and spoke only when he had something to say[i].

I first saw him as a young kid in the 2002-03 season and must confess that, good as he appeared to be, I felt for his future – here was a wingback trying to break in to a Bayern team that had the Frenchmen Lizarazu and Sagnol (the former a star of the 1998 WC-winning side who I humbly confess to having met at a match between Chelsea and Marseilles in London in 2010 – he had long retired – and the latter a fixture for France at the 2002 and 2006 WCs). The Bayern coach obviously felt similarly, because he was farmed out to Stuttgart on a two-year loan spell, returning in 2005 as first choice in his position for both club and country. He went on to win almost everything there was to win (a European title eluded him) in a career that spanned three WCs. He will be remembered for his versatility, playing at both right and left wingback through his career and also moving to central midfield as per the demands of the then-Bayern coach Pep Guardiola. He will also be remembered for his sense of calm, and his subdued and low-key leadership style.

The 2002-03 football season was memorable (to me) for another reason – Real Madrid’s expensively assembled Galacticos (the best players in the world; Zidane, Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, et al) were chased to the title by …. not Barca, not Valencia, not Sevilla, but a team called Real Sociedad from Spain’s Basque region. It was a fascinating chase for neutrals like me – the little club simply did not relent, and ended up only two points behind Real in a race that was decided only on the last playing day. The stars for RS were its big-man-little-man strike force of Kovacevic and Nihat, who were played in by the youngest ever captain of a La Liga side – Xabi Alonso. Alonso went on to play for Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and won everything there was to win at both club and country. Such was his influence at each club that, had his final game been played at any of the four, the home supporters’ respect and sense of loss would have been the same.

This was because of his game; he combined the ability to sit in front of a defence and protect it (the defensive midfielder or the ‘Makalele’) with being able to set up moves from far back in the field (the deep-lying playmaker – one of only two exponents of this art that I have seen). This was also because of his demeanour; fans would remember De Jong’s kung-fu kick on his chest in the 2010 WC final that was not punished by the referee, and the way Alonso smiled it off and played the remaining 60 minutes of the match in pain to earn his WC winner’s medal.

Let me now move to cricket, and to the Pakistanis! It is something of a surprise to me that Indian cricket fans (the genuine ones, not the tools who infest stadiums these days for social reasons and/or as an outlet to their patriotic fervour) haven’t made a bigger deal about this. The Guardian in England said that ‘for all their records, their achievements are not of the kind best expressed in numbers or on lists. Between them, they carried Pakistan through the hardest, darkest years and, in doing so, they did not just serve their country but also the sport and all of us who love it.’[ii]

Misbah-ul-Haq was a late bloomer – my first memory of him was that paddle scoop that he played in the T20 WC final in 2007 that handed India the title. He took on Test captaincy in the aftermath of the 2010 spot fixing scandal, and dealt with the public opprobrium, the difficulty of not playing Tests at home, the inability of the Pakistani cricketing authorities to extend vision beyond their noses, and the considerable abuse from past players, to take Pakistan to a no. 1 rank in 2016 (albeit for a short while) while restoring dignity, integrity and respect within and for the team. He has the honour of even being criticised by the Taliban in a rare intrusion by those luminaries into sports punditry – they called him a ‘pathetic player’ in 2013[iii].

I first came across Younis Khan in 2005 – he had scored 147 in Kolkata and 267 in Bangalore – and I knew that there was something here. And there was! Of the 30 men who scored 4,000 plus test runs in the 2000s, he was the only one continuing to ply his trade in 2017 (Gayle continues in franchisee cricket, and Jayawardene and Sangakkara still play counties). He went on to break every Pakistani batting record – the first to score 10,000 test runs and 30 test centuries, has a 50 plus test batting average and a world record five centuries in the 4th innings of a test match. He too had issues with the authorities, including being ‘banned for life’ in 2010, and yet the only time I ever saw him react was when he refused the Pakistani captaincy in 2007, saying that ‘when our families get threatening calls, our effigies are burnt, and our pictures are put on donkeys, I can’t lead the team in such circumstances.’

But it was what they did together that is irreplaceable. On the field, they had the third highest ever runs scored in partnership together (after Hobbes-Sutcliffe and Langer-Ponting). They also brought Pakistani cricket back in from the cold.

I now return to football, and to Francesco Totti. I first saw him as Serie A’s youngest ever club captain in a madly attack-minded Roma side in 1998-99, and then combining the roles of a ‘media punta’ and a ‘false 9’ (more than 10 years before either position had become fashionable) in the Italian team that did surprisingly well in the Euro 2000 (Totti was the man of the match in a pulsating loss to France in the final). He went on to a winner’s medal in the 2006 WC, starring again as a between-the-lines playmaker who would turn up as centre forward at critical moments, signifying most of what was worthy about the team (along with Cannavaro’s defending and Buffon’s goalkeeping) and none that was bad (like the abuse that resulted in the infamous head-butt in the final that won the WC for Italy).

He is irreplaceable for two reasons. The first is that he is the last one-club man in the upper echelons of football – he never left his boyhood club, where he retires next week. The second is for his handling of that fatal combination of Roman God looks, inert shyness, and a reputation for stupidity (from some minor gaffes on television and a strong Roman accent), and the jokes that resulted from it. He went about collecting the jokes himself, with two stipulations; they could reflect badly on him but not his family, and they had to be readable by children. The book “All the Totti Jokes” was published in 2003 with a third stipulation – the proceedings from its sales had to go to a charitable project to help the elderly in Rome and to a UNICEF project for homeless children in DR Congo. It was a smash hit!

My favourites –

‘The three hardest years for Totti? Class 1 in elementary school.’

‘A tragic story in the newspaper: Totti’s library had burnt down. Totti is inconsolable. ‘No! I hadn’t finished colouring the second one yet.’

‘Totti and Del Piero came out of an exam at the CEPU (a remedial school for high school drop-outs and losers).

Totti: Alex, how did it go?

Del Piero: Not so well, Francesco! I handed in a blank sheet.

Totti: You too? Now they are going to say that I copied.’

You just have to love a guy who can do this!

To conclude – thank you, all five of you, for the wonderful memories and for reinforcing in us why we love sports so much! I for one will never forget you.

[i] And when he spoke, it was powerful stuff! He received a record Bayern Munich fine for criticizing the club’s transfer policy and its lack of a footballing philosophy and strategic plan in 2009. And when regular captain Ballack wanted his armband back after the 2010 World Cup (Ballack was injured, and Lahm was chosen instead to captain Germany at the tournament), Lahm said he saw no reason as to why he (Lahm) should relinquish the captaincy. Coach Jochi Lowe agreed, and Ballack never played for Germany again.
[ii] “Misbah and Younis did more than serve Pakistan, they served cricket”, The Guardian, 16th May 2017.
[iii] “Taliban urge Pakistanis to ‘stop praising Sachin Tendulkar’, BBC News, 28th November 2013.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Things I'll Never Say

The Things I’ll Never Say

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2017

I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2014! This is not exactly New York to Jhumri Telaiya (or, before I offend anyone, the other way around) – nonetheless, it takes some getting used to. Looking back, the three biggest culture shocks I faced were 1) I have to refrain from questioning the virtue of my opponents’ female relatives while playing football, 2) the right to scratch my testicles in public places has ceased to exist and 3) in social sector meetings, I am invariably the jholawallah in the room.

Many of you, my dear readers, would empathise with the debilitating effects of the first two shocks; it is the third that requires some articulation. Social sector meetings are typically meant for NGOs and left leaning academics to ruminate about the state of the world, where the opinion on the corporate sector is akin to what President Trump’s would be on a cross between North Korea and the New York Times. These are supposed to be alien spaces for the likes of me who represent large conglomerates; we are the barbarians at the gate, good only for signing cheques to make up for the harm that we inflict upon society, the ones subjected to whispered pejoratives when our backs are turned (and more voluble stuff once we leave the room) – you get the drift. In Mumbai, things are a little different – such meetings are genteel affairs attended mostly by middlemen (usually consulting firms masquerading as NGOs), where the corporate sector are the good guys and the discussion is focussed on money, returns and visibility. My opinions are solicited, and my jokes are laughed at. But not many people in the room have worked directly with the community, and critical (for me) questions such as ‘have you discussed the need for the project with the proposed beneficiaries?’ elicit responses similar to that of the Taliban when asked about the need for women’s agency. All in all, good fun!

More boring are my meetings with recent converts to the social sector (Mumbai for some reason has a lot of them) – usually people who ‘know someone’ and therefore who I am not able to politely fob off. Most of them have me glazing over within three minutes (my normal in meetings is ten), and scoring goals for Brazil or Real Madrid in my mind while waiting for the torture to end. The reasons for this are threefold.

The first is the predictability of the conversation, which is invariably a long and boring monologue in three acts; what I call ‘the great sacrifice’, ‘the grand vision’, and ‘the brilliant idea’ (in order of temporal precedence). In the first act, the person expounds on his/her qualities, qualifications, and corporate experience, describes the epiphany and subsequent move into the social sector while not neglecting to mention the likely exalted position and earnings s/he would be at but for this, and conveys how fortunate we all are that s/he has taken this step. The second act is an articulation of the need for extreme poverty to be eliminated or some other similar objective achieved, to which the person is going to devote him/her self towards. And the third act is a much more mundane plan by which all this is going to happen – often something like a self-flushing pre-fabricated toilet that my employers should pay for. Common across these are a focus on self, a declining level of detail, and no time left for me to respond with my thoughts (which is probably not such a bad thing).

The second is the liberal use of jargon during the spiel. ‘Bottom of Pyramid’ usually crops up in minute 1, often in acronym, and is then repeated every other minute. Other high frequency stuff is ‘optics’, ‘metrics’ and ‘impact investment’. More recently, I have been zapped with ‘adaptive leadership’ and ‘capital plus approach’.

The third is what is not said but is assumed, along with the erroneous presumption that I share the view – usually that the beneficiary community is just a dumb bunch of dole seekers, that the government does nothing, and that the sustainability of the proposed project will be assured by poor people paying for costly services once they see their efficacy – all of which are rarely supported by hard facts.

I am, however, occasionally, very occasionally, confronted with a neo-convert who is not an unadulterated waste of time; who is looking to learn rather than to teach, who sees the community as a resource rather than as a recipient, and who has an open mind on what it would take to make a difference. Official meetings are not conducive for giving unsolicited advice but, if I could, this is what I would say to this lot.

One – go to the ground, do something, and then talk! Nobody is interested in what you are going to do unless it has a basis in what you have already done. Learn about the communities you wish to work for, understand their strengths and aspirations, and base your proposed work on this. Don’t take short cuts! Test your assumptions!

Two – lose the halo! Within the social sector, it is a sure sign of a charlatan. If you really think that you are making a sacrifice, for God’s sake go back to selling soap or investing money or whatever it is that you are moving away from.

Three – work for the poorest and most vulnerable! If the poverty line is at 26 percent, work for those in the 0-10 percentile, they are the hardest to reach and effectively do something for, and are therefore the most worthy of your efforts. Leave the easier stuff to others. And know that market-based solutions do not work for this section.

Four – understand the importance of institutions! Widespread change doesn’t happen because an inspired individual takes on a system, this only happens in Ayn Rand novels and in the PR material of those with self-anointed halos. And recognize the role of existing institutions, governmental and others, in what you propose to do.

Five – know that poverty is more than the lack of this or that, it has a relational element and is also about access to rights. Giving someone a cow does not convert him/her from poor to non-poor (as the government’s flagship Integrated Rural Development Programme discovered in the 1970s). Addressing the structural aspects of poverty, the barriers caused by caste, gender, et al, is far more difficult than doling out benefits, but it is this that may bring about lasting change.

I would like to benignly conclude by stating that Mumbai is a great place, dynamic and inspiring, but its NGO sector is not. And don’t feel too bad for me, I am paid reasonably well for the time spent being bored by these guys. But I have a darker set of alternative conclusions – that the world is changing, and I am that dinosaur from Jurassic Park expecting discussions with NGOs to focus on the community, rights and participation, that the people described here and their new age rubric is the way of the future, and that maybe I should learn from instead of laugh at them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Reality Check!


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – October 2016

What is statesmanship? Different dictionaries have different definitions, but none quite bring out the multiple flavours and nuances of this term. Comparing statesmanship with other constructs of leadership gives one a better perspective, (such as an article on the difference between Israeli Presidents Peres and Netanyahu[1]). Some wit, differentiating between statesmen and politicians, suggested that the former were like vegetables, ‘you don’t like them but they’re good for you’, and the latter ice cream, ‘yummy, I’ll worry about the stomach ache later’.

I was not around during my country’s formative years as an independent nation – my generation spent its late teens and twenties in the 1980s, a time bereft of anything resembling statesmanship. It was later, after extensive travel in the neighbourhood[2], that I came to the conclusion that I may not have seen it, but we definitely had it – many things that we take for granted (the ability to elect and change leaders, an army that is under civilian control, a secular and functional constitution, an independent judiciary, the existence of institutions such as an election commission and a comptroller and auditor general, et al) simply do not exist in other places – and we have much to be thankful to our (currently much maligned) early leaders for.

I am reminded of the term ‘statesmanship’ in the current climate of mass jingoism, chest beating, and clamour for war, where morons and provincial upstarts are masquerading as policy makers, and where an intellectually challenged leadership (across the political spectrum, may I add) are displaying their absence of vision in the manner of the flashers that hung around outside girls’ colleges in the 1980s.

Here is a reality check for you, my friends!

One: ‘You can fight history, but you can’t fight geography’ – Pakistan will always be your neighbour, and you will always share a long border. What sort of a relationship do you want, in the long term, and how do you propose to go about building it? Don’t forget that countries are unlike homes, where the neighbourhood bully can Haryana-style threaten and harass someone it doesn’t like into vacating and moving away.

Two: Nobody wins a nuclear war!

Three: You may not win a conventional war! Pakistan may be a mess, but its army is not – like us, it is a professional army that knows how to fight. Unlike us, its hardware, spares and ammunition come from a single and reliable source (we obtain these from 6-7 countries, most of them notoriously unreliable[3]). It is by no means a given that a conventional war will result in a quick and painless victory.

Four: You will not have international support! There may be widespread exasperation with Pakistan, but it would be foolish to assume unequivocal support for us if hostilities escalate[4]. And, don’t forget, they (unlike us) have an all-weather friend with veto powers in the UN’s Security Council.

Five: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you! Ninety percent of Pakistan’s fresh water comes from India, but threatening to abrogate treaties and divert rivers at the first sign of tension is remarkably short sighted (even by the current abysmal standards) given that three major Indian rivers originate in China.

Six: Goodbye, permanent membership of the Security Council! Our own narrative of ‘a jaw for a tooth’, etc. in the recent escalation of tension is at odds with others’ view that this is a silly fight (to quote The Economist, ‘the tenor of recent exchanges between the two countries is suggestive of playground conflict’[5]) but for the facts that we are lobbing live mortar rounds at each other, thousands of villagers along the LoC have been evacuated, and both countries are nuclear armed. We need to maintain a modicum of maturity to be taken seriously at the world’s stage.

Seven: Pakistan is an army with a country (and not the other way around)! The rational security calculus that emphasizes the primacy of national interest and a calibration of the costs and benefits of conflict, which would demonstrate the necessity of compromise with India (more so after having lost three wars to us), does not apply here. To them, ‘not winning, even repeatedly, is not the same as losing. Simply giving up and accepting status quo and India’s supremacy is, by definition, defeat’. And victory is ‘the ability to continue fighting, regardless of the consequences for the nation’s development, welfare, or international opinion’.[6]

Eight: You are losing Kashmir! The valley has been rocked by protests and curfews for the past four months, which seems fine with everybody except the average Joe on Kashmiri streets, the poor Johnnies at the receiving end of the protests, and me. I am deeply uncomfortable with what is happening there which, according to Kashmiri friends and colleagues, is the worst they have lived through. So what, our policy makers would say, screw them and screw you! So this – as per seven above, the Pakistani state will not give up its relationship with non-state terror groups as long as they, i.e. the terror groups, have operational utility. And they will have utility as long as we have a bad relationship with Kashmir[7]. So if you don’t want these buggers crossing the border and doing their stuff, sort out Kashmir. Nothing binds Pakistan’s deeply fractured polity and society more than protests in Kashmir. Not even Islam!

To conclude, my dear chest-beating leaders, distinguish between going to war without a strategy and fighting elections in Uttar Pradesh. Don’t let the imperatives of the latter take you down the former path. The cacophony of dumbass supporters may not be synonymous with national interest. Show a little bloody statesmanship!

[1] Ben-Meir, Alon, “Statesmanship vs. Demagoguery’, The Huffington Post issue of 29th September 2016, available at
[2] With due modesty, I have visited and travelled in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
[3] Prakash, Arun, “Look Before You Escalate”, Indian Express issue of 26th September 2016.
[4] Mehta, PB, “The Die is Cast’, Indian Express issue of 1st October 2016.
[5] “Reversing Roles”, The Economist issue of 8th October 2016.
[6] Fair, Christine, “Fighting to the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War”, Journal of Strategic Security, No. 4, Vol. 7, 2014, Oxford University Press, NY.
[7] Varshney, A, “Inside Outside”, Indian Express issue of 27th September 2016.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Foxes and Swans

Foxes and Swans

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2016

The younger crowd in the Delhi diplomatic scene, with whom I played football in the late nineties and early noughties, consisted of two types – those that endured India, and those that enjoyed it. Non-footballing interactions with the former were all about heat, dirt, and misdeeds of maids and cooks. The latter were much more fun, and Andy Peale, our midfield engine room, was one of these; he drove an ambassador whose engine he tuned himself, and his son, born in Delhi, was christened Robert Arun aka Robby. We all missed him when he returned to his home in the countryside in Leicestershire in 2002, where he said he was going to do two things; write, and follow his beloved Leicester City Football Club (also called the Foxes).

You would wonder why I am remembering him now. Well, something amazing has just happened in the world of football – the Foxes have won the English Premier League. The odds on this happening at the start of the season were 5,000 to 1 – the same as those of the Loch Ness Monster being found, and of Barack Obama captaining the English cricket team. To give you a point of comparison, cricket lovers of my generation would remember a team of no-hopers, who had lost every single previous world cup match they had played in (except one to some part-timers from East Africa), and who had ‘Mr. 36 not out’ himself opening the batting, going on to win the 1983 world cup – well, the odds on them doing it were a mere 100 to 1.

As a sports lover and supporter of underdogs everywhere, I am delighted that Big Football’s caste system (described in Table 1 below) has been so emphatically breached. There are already reams written about it, so I will restrict this paper to its consequences rather than causes. Are we on the verge of tectonic shifts in the world of football, or is this a one-off that we are lucky to have been alive to witness?

Table 1: The Football Caste System
The High and Mighty
The Upstarts
The Middle
Relegation Fodder

Society’s equivalent of the upper class - big clubs, with large stadiums, a huge fan base both in the city and globally, and lots of money and trophies
Society’s equivalent of the ‘noveau rich’ - middling clubs converted via a fund infusion (usually from the Middle East or Russia) into challengers for and occasional winners of titles. Can splash the cash, but they don’t have the history

Society’s equivalent of the middle class – smaller clubs that occasionally punch above their weight and hand out a hiding to the clubs above them in the hierarchy, but are at best good for the minor trophies and a fight for some European adventure. This is a fluid group, with some of yesterday’s members are now in lower leagues.
This lot are condemned to fighting against relegation from day 1 of their respective campaigns. Some survive the drop and continue the fight for another season, and some don’t. Of those who don’t, some return and others disappear into the lower leagues
Real Madrid
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Paris St. Germain
West Ham
Tottenham Hotspurs
Athletic Bilbao
Leicester City

But first, when did the pundits figure that something big was brewing? After all, some team or the other punches above its weight for a while every season, and the Foxes themselves played down their own performances until the very end.

Speaking personally, I did not pay any particular attention to the Foxes phenomenon for the first half of the season (which included striker Jamie Vardy breaking the record for goals scored in the maximum number of consecutive games), fully expecting the statistical phenomenon of ‘regression to mediocrity’ to kick in at some point. It was only when the January transfer window began (this is when big clubs pick apart small clubs by buying up their high performing players) that one got the first inkling that something was up; the Foxes did not sell anyone, and there were no rumours about its players’ moving out – they had obviously collectively told their respective agents to keep their phones switched off, a sure sign that they themselves believed that they were on the road to somewhere. The second inkling was in Manchester on 6th February, when Man City were on an upswing and its expensively assembled squad was expected to make their title intentions clear by thumping the upstarts from Leicester. To cut a long story short, the exact opposite happened! And one of the funniest moments I have seen in football was towards the end of that thumping, when the home supporters were leaving the stadium in disgust and the away fans sang a song that went ‘Is there a fire drill?” The third inkling was during what has famously been described by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘squeaky bum time’, the stage in the season when pretenders get exposed and chokers choke – this was when the Foxes put together a string of nerve wracking 1-0 victories in the face of a relentless, valiant and ultimately futile chase by Tottenham Hotspurs.

So, is this a ‘black swan’ event? To be one, it has to meet three criteria; it has to come as a complete surprise, it has to be easily ‘rationalizable’ in hindsight, and it has to have a major effect. It obviously meets the first – let’s look at the other two.

Can it be rationalized in hindsight? I have to say that none of the causes put forward make a convincing case, either on their own or in combination (and in these two paragraphs, dear readers who are not ardent football followers, please excuse the flashing of technical details). The coach had done stints in top clubs, but was appointed only this season (he was available because he had just been sacked by the Greek national team after a loss to Faroe Islands, in itself something of an achievement). The players were either journeymen rejects or complete unknowns (they aren’t now – for example, the Foxes’ box to box midfielder’s relentless running is the source of the joke ‘two-thirds of earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by N’Golo Kante’) whose combined cost was less than what Man U had paid for their teenaged winger Anthony Martial. The scouting system that put this team together has come in for much praise (Riyad Mahrez, who has won the player of the year award, was plucked from the French second division for a song – the scout had gone to watch another player on the Foxes’s radar when he saw Mahrez), but there were bummers as well such as their record signing having to be shipped out to another club. Their playing style was the antithesis of Barcelona – it played ‘smash and grab’ football, deeply attractive to the viewer but with the least number of completed passes of the 20 teams in the league, and the second least time spent in possession of the ball. Yes, the big four did their bit to contribute to the Foxes phenomenon; defending champions Chelsea imploded, Man City got psyched by the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, Man U are still reconciling themselves to life after Ferguson, and Arsenal played to achieve their ambition of finishing fourth, leaving only Spurs to provide a realistic challenge (and what a challenge it was – had it not been for the Foxes, we would all be celebrating their achievements this season). Several other contributing factors have been bandied about (being injury free, not having European distractions, et al) but, in sum, nothing quite explains what happened out there.

What about effects? Will the Foxes’ win shake the roots of football, and alter that entangled web of relationships between history, money, performance and trophies that prevent clubs from crossing the borders of the caste system? Will strategic truisms and footballing philosophies change, or revert back to the times before telephone number like formations, media puntas, false nines and tiki-taka? After all, the Foxes played traditional 4-4-2; two large, slow centre backs (Huth and Morgan) who sat deep and two wing backs (Fuchs and Simpson) who bombed forward, two central midfielders (Drinkwater and Kante) who combined to boss the centre of the park, two inverted wingers (the left-footed Mahrez on the right and Albrighton on the left) who provided spark on both flanks, one striker playing high speed direct to the goal football and one working off the ball. It was 11 players and a coach having the season of their lives simultaneously, and their opponents thinking they were playing against relegation fodder until it was too late. The other big leagues had no such surprises, with the same old clubs using the same old methods to occupy the same old places on the podium; Barca, Real and Atletico in La Liga, Juventus in Serie A and Bayern in the Bundesliga. So – my reading is that this is a one-off, but one that reinforces to football lovers why we love this game and gives us hope for the future (that this can happen, and we merely have to wait 5000 years for it to happen again).

What does the future hold for the Foxes? I’m not optimistic here, because football is unkind to clubs that fly close to the sun. Do too well, and two things happen. One, the big boys descend like vultures and pick the team apart. And two, the reward of playing in Europe is actually a mixed blessing – great money, and travel to exotic places, but the wear and tear of playing midweek and on weekends requires a deeper squad and a different mentality. Many teams struggle after doing well (and I remember Ipswich Town being relegated the year after they over-performed – they are now ensconced in the lower leagues. I also remember their supporters thanking the team as it went down, for the two wonderful years and the European adventure – none of them would have had it different). A good outcome for the Foxes would be crossing caste lines from relegation fodder to the middle space, and staying there.

A word here about Tottenham Hotspurs, who lost the race to the finish but whose future prospects seem considerably stronger. The Spurs have a brilliant manager, a great goalkeeper, and a golden generation who have tasted blood, so to speak, this campaign – all the necessary ingredients for great things ahead. Watch this space!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Case For War


Ajit Chaudhuri – October 2015

‘Join the Army - Travel to far-off, exotic places - Meet unusual, exciting people - And kill them’[1]

My Days in J&K: I am gallivanting around in J&K again! This time, i.e. the past year, has been different from earlier occasions in that I have travelled around freely, and at no time have I felt unsafe, insecure, or threatened. I am often reminded of earlier sojourns, when the same could not always have been said.

My first visit into J&K was back in 1995, by bus from Delhi to Leh via Manali when I entered the state after the descent down the Baralacha La pass. ‘Wow!’ I remember thinking while looking at the yellow mountainous landscape (that part of J&K is a high altitude desert). I returned on foot, journeying from Leh to Spiti on to Manali and Delhi and leaving the state via the almost 6,000 metres high Parang La pass.

I next had a series of visits between 1997 and 1999, this time while coordinating a research study in Changthang and Batalik (both in Ladakh). The latter required me to visit border areas in the days of shelling, when journeys between Dras and Kargil were done at night with lights off (there is a two km stretch of road that is in direct sight of our friendly neighbour’s artillery), a deeply unpleasant experience on those mountainous roads to the extent that I think I would prefer to have been shelled.

I saw the Kashmir valley only after the 2005 earthquake, when duty took me to Uri and Tangdhar for the next two years. My organization of the time, along with the Army, built a students’ hostel in Tangdhar (said to be the best in the state) – made possible by the 2003 ceasefire along the border that ensured no shelling. Travelling within the state, i.e. Srinagar to Tangdhar/Uri (via towns that anyone following the news would be familiar with, Baramulla, Kupwara, Sopore, et al) was not so much fun – do it in a military vehicle and face attacks by the militancy, and do it in a civilian vehicle and face long searches and make explanations every 25 km, usually with three AK-47s pointed at different body parts until one’s identity was established.

As I said, notwithstanding the drama on our news channels, it is much better today!

The benefits of long term peace and stability should be obvious to all; flowers bloom, infrastructure builds up, the wheels of the economy churn, growth, development and prosperity are ushered in, democracy flourishes, blah, blah, blah, and we can have children in the knowledge that they will not have to face the brutality of war.

The Case for War: Why then is war such an attractive option? Why is it touted so often, by the powers-that-be and the general public, even as a solution to minor problems and as a course of action to address irritants? Are people idiots, that they don’t know what war costs? Or is there something about war that is sensible, rational, and sane? This note examines the case for war, in general and in the case of the current environment in India and its immediate neighbourhood.

The economic perspective: War is a stimulant to an economy, especially in its initial moments, creating demand for all things military and revving up the defence production sector. It can become a drag as it goes on, as the warring country prints more notes to finance it (thus reducing the currency’s worth), and as the ‘guns vs. butter’ argument over the use of scarce resources slants away from food. Long wars are the luxury of the large economies, and that is why superpower-hood (defined as the ability to conduct two remote wars simultaneously) is a one country club.

The military perspective: Armies tend to like war! This is for obvious reasons; generals decide things in armies, and a) they tend not to die in war, and b) war reminds a country why it has an army in the first place (in peace, an army is a non-productive expense and therefore a burden on the exchequer). War builds an army’s profile, and helps justify its budget demands. But also, a good army needs to have a war every generation for practical reasons – generals need to have fought wars as captains and majors, when they are in the frontline, to be competent generals, and they therefore need opportunities for the current crop of captains and majors to gain the necessary experience to be the generals of tomorrow. It is in fact a little disconcerting to note that the Indian armed forces are soon going to be led by people who have no first-hand knowledge of the ‘fog of war’.

The societal perspective: Policy makers often have to deal with the problem of large numbers of useless young men – they are disruptive, they challenge status quo and they upend established power relations in society. They scare the powerful and elite, to whom policy makers are accountable. The traditional method of dealing with them was to send them off to war – this killed them in numbers, and those that came back did so respectful of structure and authority, ready to go on to a life as part of the system, lawyers, accountants, etc. This had the added advantage, from the perspective of the elite, of leaving large numbers of young women available to them. It is no surprise that most of the major wars across history took place when the warring entities were experiencing spikes in the population of young people. Long term peace leaves policy options like skilling programmes, subsidized universities, and creating jobs in sufficient numbers, to address the menace – less effective because (apart from neither culling them nor freeing up the women) these are no guarantee against them exerting their disruptive influence on society at large.

The political perspective: Politicians tend to like being seen as war-time leaders for the obvious benefits that winning a war brings to their political careers – and the option of war is particularly attractive to those whose CVs have little else to offer; who have no experience of or interest in nation building, and whose inclinations are more towards destroying institutions and systems rather than creating to them. You are thinking it – politicians like the crude, bigoted provincials in our central cabinet[2].

Most of our current masters share two more dangerous traits. One – they are semi-educated. While shrewd enough, they have limited knowledge, a zero world view, and an inability to distinguish between mythology and reality, the products of a broken education system and a reason for their inability to fill public positions that have intellectual requirements. And two, while Pakistan serves them as a convenient object of hatred, it is also their role model for India. They lack the intellectual capacity to take into account the arguments against military adventurism – that you cannot fight geography (and therefore that Pakistan will always be your neighbour, whether you like it or not), that while Pakistan may be a dump it does have a fighting army, and that nobody wins a nuclear war. That even if they ‘win’ (i.e. assuming no nukes and interventions by the US or China, all big ‘if’s), they will then have to administer the most un-administrable parts of the world (the thought of these bozos running Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA, which even the British left alone, anyone?).

To Conclude: War as a continuation of politics by other means (to quote the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz) is one thing. And war because of some fools’ ideological bindings, proclivity for groupthink, and need to compensate for the inability to do anything constructive, quite another. We are in for interesting times.

[1] Slogan on a popular anti-war T-shirt at about the time of the Falklands War.
[2] Anyone taking umbrage could see ‘India’s Great Educational Divide’, Aatish Taseer, NYT of 9th October 2015.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Half Century


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

‘If this were a cricket match, the crowd would be roaring’


I never really thought about life after turning 50 until I turned 50 – 50th birthday parties, to me (on the occasions that I attended them), were full of decrepit old people trying desperately to make a final attempt at having fun before moving on, and anyway I always thought I’d be dead by then. Actually, I never thought about life beyond 37 years and three-and-a-half months, because that was the next century.

My generation has lived in good times! We have heard Dylan sing, seen Maradona play, and watched India first win the World Cup! We remember Chandrashekhar bowling with Engineer behind the wickets, Wadekar at slip, Venkat at gully, Solkar at silly point and Abid Ali at forward short leg – easily the scariest thing in cricket for a batsman, especially at Eden Gardens when 90,000 people screamed ‘booowwwwlllled’ as Chandra ran in. We grew up in a highly subsidized higher education system (college fees – Rs. 15 per month, monthly DTC bus pass – Rs. 12.50), and then earned liberalized salaries. We saw the country open up to the world, and we travelled around it as a result; tales of visits to London or Paris that inspired shock and awe now attract yawns, and you have to go to Antartica or the moon (or take an all-girls trip around Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, as my wife did) to get people envious any more. We had it easy; our grandparents were an awesome generation that fought wars, brought in independence, and built institutions solid enough to withstand the subsequent assault upon them. Our parents worked through cynical times; license raj, the Naxal movement, and the decline in the public sphere. Our children will likely grow up into a me-first globalized and Internet-connected world with many opportunities but few jobs. Yes, we have been lucky!

This paper looks at the changes in life brought upon when one turns 50. Is this the beginning of the end, when we contemplate retirement in a no-pension world? Do we pick up a liking for the opera, and for playing golf? Is this when we move up a level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, hit the ‘self-actualization’ phase, and start doing things for the community and society? I have had two years to ponder these matters, both in my own life and in those of my peers, and these ponderings form the basis of this note. I have categorized my thoughts into the important things – family, women, work, football, food and booze. Here goes!

With Family: The children grow up! In earlier times, my wife and I used to wait for them to sleep and then sit down in peace, get a whisky, and chat about the day. Now they wait for us to sleep and then sit down in peace, get on to the Internet, and do whatever it is that kids do on the Internet these days (I have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with mine). We don’t have to drive them around anymore, but also have no idea of where they are. And I increasingly find that I have to lecture or admonish them for activities (drunkenness, disorderly or sluttish conduct, scatological utterances, inter alia) that I am in a position of little moral authority to do by virtue of my own past behaviour on these fronts, and they are well aware of this.

With Women: The pretty young things of yore have, by now, turned 40 – and you know what they say about turning 40, it’s when men rethink the value of integrity, and women of virtue. This is the area of rich pickings for the lecherous – anyone younger and you think you’re with your daughter, and as for women in your own age group, what can I say except ‘yuk’? Be warned, though, because attributes that kept you ahead earlier like the ability to fake sensitivity, and having hair on one’s head, or a GSOH (the importance of this as a turn-on for women is one of life’s abiding mysteries – can you imagine a man giving a hang for whether a woman is able to make him laugh) decrease in importance relative to good ol’ money and power.

At Work: The harsh truth is that, if you haven’t made the C-suite or its equivalent by now, you are never going to. At issue is how you adapt to it. Earlier generations accepted this, and were willing to spend the remainder of their professional lives in the rabbit warrens of middle management as their bosses got younger in the interests of stability and security. My peers, on the other hand, have been willing to make big changes at 50 – taking on new professional assignments, seeking opportunities abroad, changing from job to business and vice versa, inter alia. While these don’t always work out, the ability to start anew is an important attribute at 50.

At Football: This is where the decline is most discernible. In the 40s, when one begins to slow down, one is protected somewhat by an ability to read the game better and a fearsome reputation within one’s playing fraternity. At 50, one turns into an anachronism; the others are now 20-30 years younger and look up to you less for your playing ability and more for your still being able to ‘do it’. Is it time to shift over to golf? Not yet; you still have something important in common with the others – that deep and abiding love for the game – and there is much knowledge to be gained during post-game gossip from an age-group whose idea of fun is to go off in a group to Bangkok and get themselves a ‘hot and cold’ (figure it out yourselves) while there.

At the Table: A love for good food, as with football, does not change with age – it is just that one’s ability to do it justice tends to diminish. I, for one, continue to search for super food and great service wherever I am, and to delight when I find it in people’s homes and at simple eateries at ordinary prices. I still check as to what’s on the menu when I am invited out, eat vegetables only when I have no options, and avoid all healthy stuff. And as for booze, while the pleasures of country liquor (such as santra, gulabo and kesar kasturi) have long given way to a cold beer or a smoky single malt, I continue to derive considerable joy from the occasional tipple, and my ability to hold it continues to be questionable. I dread the day that I am forced to exercise control, count calories, and cut out these small joys from my life.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is a short description of life at the beginning of the wrong side of 50. For those of you not yet there, rest assured that it is not necessarily a milestone requiring compliance with the old Doors number ‘The End’ that also formed the music score of Apocalypse Now, that went ‘this is the end, my friend’. And for those of us who are, let’s continue to live life as it is meant to be lived; working hard and playing hard, with experiences to be savoured, places to be travelled, knowledge to be gained, battles to be fought, and hearts to be won.