Risk off!!!

The two words of ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Liberalisation’ have been the bedrock of the Bull run over the last 2-3 decades. The winners of this run have been big corporates and the emerging economies round the globe while the losers have been the ‘Working Class’ in the developed world. Both in Europe and the US, Far-Right and Far-Left politics is at historic highs and Centre-left and Centre-right at their lowest in popularity for a long time. This trend has the risk of becoming a surge in the next 2-3 years but the markets, the analysts and the media have just had it so good for such a long time that they believe nothing can go wrong. Whether we have a Brexit tomorrow or not is anybody’s guess, but the complacency frightens me. One of these events is soon gonna catch a lot of the experts with their pants down!!! The EU is a failed economic and political project and no amount of Central bank printing is going to o save it. We are in times where the new buzzwords for the next 2-3 decades are likely to be ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Protectionism’. ‘Islamism’ may just be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.

 

Kunal Shah

June 23, 2016

Nationhood and the Nationalism debate

The idea of a Nation-state though not much more than 200 years old is very much the norm in the world we live in today. Nations have a Constitution which define the structure and framework within which they function. But what has been the basis of Nationhood? In a majority of cases it is ethnicity and / or the sharing of a common language. In the rare case it has been religion. India though, has enough diversity represented by languages, dialects, castes, religions etc. to constitute an entire continent!! What it derives its Nationhood from is its history as a civilisation. Its diversity makes it rich but also vulnerable. Not only has she been partitioned once (though before her formal Nationhood), but what has happened in Kashmir, Punjab, Assam and the North east since independence isn’t distant history. These happenings aren’t just illustrations of her soft underbelly, but also a reminder that there are sufficient forces prepared to exploit it. What a section of the Left has been doing for a number of years in the JNU and what Owaisi has done by raising the ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ controversy has that one common strand. They are using Freedom of Speech as a right under the Constitution to challenge the fundamental basis of India’s Nationhood. The Indian State can certainly function more efficiently and more justly under the Constitution. Many lessons have been learnt and many will be learned in time to come, but no Right can be exploited to challenge its very existence. The Freedom of Speech argument in this instance is spurious and its juxtaposition with Nationalism is nothing short of sinister.

Test for Kohli’s captaincy

After a disappointing performance by the Indian cricket team in both the T20’s and ODI’s, few would be expecting a winning performance against the Springboks in the Test series. The visitors have probably the best record overseas amongst all teams and are rightly the No. 1 ranked Test team. Led by Steyn they have an excellent seam attack with Tahir to provide it the spinning balance. IPL has given their batsmen exposure to Indian conditions and the confidence to attack spinners on these wickets. Their record in India over the last 7-8 years is the best of all teams and to top it all they have AB De Villiers!! It seems the writing is on the wall for Kohli’s young guns.

I would be loath to think so though. Virat Kohli is a smart street fighter and this series is going to be as much about his ambition as captain as anything else. He is the kind of guy who revels in playing against the best and he will be ready for sure. With every match his captaincy seemed to improve against the Lankans and though they were a much weaker opposition, the learnings from that tour will be reflected this series. He will definitely not play a defensive brand of cricket and one can expect a result in at least 3 of the 4 matches. Both his captaincy and batting will be critical to the team’s performance and to the final result.

The home team will definitely prepare pitches which will help their spinners and the SA batsmen’s skill will be fully tested. Their vulnerability to the turning ball was apparent in the Chennai game and after the ODI defeat, we are not going to see any pitches like the one at the Wankhede, not even at Mohali!! Batting in the first innings will be the key to success and hence we will see both teams play 6 batsmen every game unless there is a real flat pitch on offer. Reverse swing will also come into play and Ishant Sharma and Yadav / Aaron will have to contribute at least 5-6 wickets out of 20. The SA bowlers will look to exploit both the new and reverse swinging ball and the short ball will definitely be used as a weapon, more so on pitches with a bit more carry.

As far as team selection goes, I would play K L Rahul at 6 if there is no place for him at the top of the order and give him at least 2 games. Hence Rohit Sharma misses out. At Mohali you will play 2 pacers and 2 spinners but Kohli should be open to play 1 and 3 if any of the pitches turns from day 1. Ashwin will be the key to India’s bowling performance and if he isn’t fit for the first Test better rest him; can’t risk losing him for the rest of the games.

All in all I think this will be a closely contested series, but performances in those 50-50 situations when the game is in the balance will probably decide the result. The Indians will be hungry to get one back after losing in both the shorter formats and one expects them to be planned and prepared for this challenge. A winning result for either of De Villiers or Kohli will set them up as captains to watch out for over the next 5-6 years. Both are leading young teams (very young in case of Kohli and relatively settled for De Villiers) and along with Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson are the batsmen and captains to watch out for the next few years.

If I were to make a prediction it would be India wins 2-1.

My two bits on Arvind Kejriwal

Today, Arvind Kejriwal’s transformation from activist to politician will probably be complete. Regardless of the National Council meet’s outcome, his bluff has now been called. The practice of Alternative Politics, a theme close to many an AAP supporter’s heart, is a long, arduous and often tedious process. It requires a lot of patience and ‘weight bearing capacity’ and Kejriwal has neither of the two. What he has, is a shrewd political instinct which he will henceforth utilise to be at the forefront of the next emerging anti-BJP front. Though Delhi is a small State, the optics it gets for being the National Capital gives it a much bigger profile. He will use this and the media and the symbolism of challenging Modi in Varanasi in 2014 to emerge as the one man who is capable of taking on the Prime Minister. He will have no qualms in leading any of the off-shoots of the Congress, the Congress itself or tukdas of the erstwhile Janta parivar because the greater ‘Secular’ and ‘anti-Capitalist’ cause must prevail. In the battle between Realpolitik and Idealism the former always prevails. And Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan aren’t the only sacrificial lambs; they are just the fattest ones.

Raina, Ojha must be back in the Test squad

The Indian cricket season 2014-15 has begun with a truncated ODI series against the West Indies and the on-going one with the Lankans. All eyes are now on next year’s World Cup and cricket fans across the country have begun pencilling in the 15 they believe will make it down under. My breakup of the 15 would be 6 batsmen, 1 keeper-batsman, 2 finger spinners, 1 wrist spinner, 4 seamers and 1 floater. The floater could be a spare keeper-batsman, a medium pace all-rounder or a fast bowler. 11 of the 15 have already selected themselves and the fight is on for the remaining 4 spots. The squad will probably have to be finalised at the beginning of the triangular ODI series in January next year, though I won’t be surprised if performances or the lack of them in the Test series preceding it will influence the same. Australia and South Africa are bookmakers’ favourites and I would complete the semis line-up with India and New Zealand. It’s too early to make predictions, yet one cannot see any other team having the consistency to win 3 knockout games and become champions. I think New Zealand at 10-1 is a good bet given that they are going to play all matches till the semis at home. Coming back to the squad, death over bowling is one area of major concern and Dhoni would hope to find some kind of answer to that problem. Shami is doing that job the best as of now, and Ashwin bowls in the batting power play through to the 44th-45th over, but there is no other seamer who can do the job consistently. That is where that floater spot may come in and the Indian selectors could pull a rabbit out of the bag from domestic ODI performances. The other interesting one will be to see which one of Karan Sharma, Amit Mishra and Kuldeep Yadav (wrist spinners) makes the 15. This is going to potentially be the ace up Dhoni’s sleeve especially in the knock-outs against teams which don’t play wrist-spin well. Some of us have decided to take the flight to Australia for the semis and finals and if Dhoni’s team obliges, it shall be a trip to remember.

Before this though, India will also play four very demanding Tests in Australia. Our record in away Tests over the last 3-4 years has been appalling and though there can be various explanations ranging from the IPL to aging seniors retiring together for the same, the lack of fight and the complete capitulation especially towards the end of the series each time has raised several questions. I think this could well be Dhoni’s last season as Test captain and the only reason he may carry on is because there is no other alternative. He has been a superb limited overs captain, but his lack of imagination and over-defensive tactics in Tests overseas has not done a team in transition any favours. He would like to end his stint with a fight, and at least one Test win in Australia if not the series. The whole team, especially the batting and slip catching, will have to perform much better than in England if we have to have any chance to compete. With Shastri a part of the think-tank now, one would expect much better tactics, planning and team selection going forward. K. L. Rahul is all set to make his debut series as the reserve opener and if Shikhar Dhawan does not perform in the first two Tests, could well play the last two games. Rohit Sharma’s ability to play both pace and bounce could be handy and so could Suresh Raina’s all-round abilities. In fact Shastri has made it clear that he wants to see Raina in the Test squad notwithstanding his weakness against the short ball. I think it’s a very good move as his batting ability has never been in doubt. He is more than a useful bowler and a brilliant slip catcher, something that will be vital in Australia. His play against the short ball seems to have improved, though playing Mitchell Johnson on Aussie pitches is a different proposition altogether. Players with his ability are rare and I would back him to put up a fight and maybe even come good. Coming to the bowling, at the cost of repeating myself, I wish to say again that Pragyan Ojha should be the first choice spinner, especially overseas. He is as Sourav Ganguly says,’ a good wicket bowler’, and a left-arm spinner will always create more chances, especially in the first innings. Dhoni must give him the confidence and play him in all four Tests down under. If that means leaving Jadeja out of the squad, so be it. Test matches are not won by bits and pieces cricketers but by specialists and Dhoni with his weak bowling attack must try out all options. Ideally, like all teams who don’t have a genuine all-rounder, we should be playing 4 bowlers on most pitches and someone like a Raina to fill in as the 5th bowler. Over the last year, this new Test team has shown both glimpses of brilliance and periods of despair. How many of this team will have the hunger to play Test cricket with the consistency of Dada’s team of the last decade, will determine India’s performance over the next few years. If they succeed the world will be at their feat. If not, we will still be looking for scape-goats.

My Team for Australia

  1. Murali Vijay
  2. Shikhar Dhawan
  3. K. L. Rahul
  4. Cheteshwar Pujara
  5. Virat Kohli
  6. Ajinkya Rahane
  7. Rohit Sharma
  8. Suresh Raina
  9. M.S. Dhoni ( c )
  10. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar
  11. Mohd. Shami
  12. Varun Aaron
  13. Ishant Sharma
  14. Umesh Yadav
  15. Ravichandran Ashwin
  16. Pragyan Ojha
  17. Wriddhaman Saha (wk)

Kunal Shah

November 2014

 

The Maharashtra Conundrum

Maharashtra politics over the last month has resembled a T-20 match which keeps ebbing and flowing and no one knows till the last ball/day as to who is aligning with whom and who is contesting how many seats. I think the drama will continue right through the election and even after the results are out, as government formation might be quite a tricky affair. Many believe that it will be tough for any party to cross 75-80 seats in a 288 member assembly where the target is 145. I doubt if any opinion poll has been conducted in the state with the assumption that all the 4 major parties contest separately, though parties must be doing their own ones of course. I am presenting my opinion on why the alliances broke, what the results could be and of course how the government will be formed. If anyone who got the Delhi prediction right last year was a genius, one who gets Maharashtra this time round has gotten plain lucky. I am saying this because I could go horribly wrong and hence better to put a caveat just in case.
The state’s politics has thus far been dominated by the Congress party which is the only one with a pan Maharashtra presence. The Shiv Sena is restricted to the Konakan belt, pockets in Marathwada and a few urban centres, the NCP to western Maharashtra and the BJP to northern Maharashtra, Marathwada and Viddarbha. If there is one state in the country which could be described as an old fashioned Congress state it is Maharashtra and if there is one word to describe its voter it is loyalty. In fact there are some seats in western Maharashtra which the Congress party has never lost since independence. The count would improve I am sure if we were to include the NCP or the erstwhile Congress (S) which are/were very much offshoots of the Congress. The hold which the NCP-Congress has had over the sugar co-operative belt of western Maharashtra is unbelievable and till a few years back they had no opposition. Often the contest here would be between the official party candidate and a rebel of one of the two parties. Similarly in urban areas especially the Mumbai-Thane region through the 80’s and 90’s the Shiv Sena under Balasaheb Thackeray had a committed, almost fanatical support base. It is only after the split that the party now appears a shadow of what it previously was. Unlike in all other large states, the patience, almost reverence of the Maharashtra voter is something else. But over the last five years following a disastrous UPA government in Delhi, the breakdown of Congress leadership in both centre and state, and a squabbling, corrupt and arrogant Congress-NCP government in Mumbai the situation has changed. And of course there also has been the little factor of Narendra Modi.

BJP-Shiv Sena ++++ alliance
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the NDA fought with four new allies. Two of these, the Swabhiman Shetkari Sangathana led by Raju Shetty and the RSP of Mahadev Jankar played a key role in the alliance’s victory. Both these leaders have over the years developed a significant support base in 4-5 districts of western Maharashtra where the BJP-SS has not been able to make a mark thus far. Though Narendra Modi had a huge impact on the election and is likely to have some impact this time round too, the SSS and RSP ensured an almost total consolidation of the OBC vote behind the alliance across the state. Jankar, who contested against Supriya Sule, reduced her margin to less than 75,000. It is for this reason that these allies have today become more important to the BJP than the Shiv Sena. Together they would have swept the election, but the BJP state leadership believes that even without the Sena, the alliance will win close to 110-120 seats. What that means is that outside of the Mumbai-Thane-Konkan belt the BJP does not need the Sena in alliance. The losses made in this belt could be made up in the rest of the state. So there was no way a BJP under Modi and Amit Shah was going to concede 150 seats to the Sena. Also the untimely death of Gopinath Munde who was the tallest and the only true mass leader of the BJP ensured that there was no bridge left between the two allies. He was the No. 1 OBC leader of the state and no wonder the Shiv Sena has decided not to put up a candidate against his daughter.
The Sena on the other hand knows that this is the last chance for them to make a mark and remain relevant in Maharashtra politics. The MNS split has significantly weakened the party in its areas of traditional strength and it is only the massive anti-incumbency against the present government which gives it a ray of hope. Uddhav Thackeray in a very smart move decided to project himself as the CM candidate, which he thought to be natural after Munde’s death. He knew that even if the BJP fought fewer seats they would beat the Sena and take the CM post if there was no prior projection. He also knew that if the Sena contested less than 150 there was no chance of beating the BJP. If the BJP had a CM for 5 years who ran a performing government the Sena would be further marginalised. Hence there was the deadlock and the inevitable split.
My gut feel is that this was well planned and orchestrated by the BJP. They have often taken a much longer term view of things and see this as an opportunity to capture the entire anti Congress vote in the state. It wasn’t a surprise that all the four allies decided to go with the BJP rather than the Sena. In fact one could almost see this coming. Uddhav Thackeray’s public wooing of Ramdas Athavale and his RPI, by offering the deputy CM post shows how desperate the situation is for him. What the result of this parting will be we shall know in a few days, but regardless of how the BJP does, the Sena will not even be close to doing as well as it would have in an alliance.

Congress-NCP alliance
The NCP views this election a little differently from both the BJP and the Sena. Though they too are facing anti-incumbency, in a strange way they want to distance themselves from the Congress. Also by conceding seats to the Congress in western Maharashtra which is their area of strength, they risk losing rebel leaders to the growing BJP. They wish to consolidate their position here and if they win 50-60 seats they could well play king-maker. In fact all the parties want to make the most of a depleting Congress which has towered over the others for more than six decades now. The NCP believes that just as regional parties and Congress off-shoots completely took away the traditional Congress vote and finished the party in UP, Bihar, Bengal, Delhi and AP over the last 20 odd years, it is their turn to do so now. The rumour of a pact with the BJP is more to retain its traditional voter who impressed by Modi may move away from the party.
Though the Congress is a sinking ship, an election where there are going to be three, four and five cornered contests in many seats is the party’s best chance. It has always had a loyal voter base across the state and if even 75% of that remains intact they will be heading the next government. In fact this election will tell us a number of things; the extent of the Congress’ unpopularity, the impact of Modi on a state election where there is huge anti-incumbency, the strength of the Sena vis-à-vis the MNS in urban and the BJP in both urban and rural Maharashtra, the relevance of the Sena and MNS’s brand of politics and finally the value that Sharad Pawar commands in Maharashtra today.

Election results over the last decade have consistently surprised pundits, even politicians and I think this one will be no different. In a multi-cornered contest the selection of candidates is of prime importance and a difference of 15-20 seats is what could decide who gets pole position. We are going to see big upsets and surprise winners I am sure. Government formation will be decided by numbers alone and if the moment comes all secular and Hindutva ideologies will be buried in the dustbin. I see one of the two broken alliances being re-stitched to form the next government. The chances of NCP-BJP government though less, are not zero. If the outcome is akin to what I think will happen, the Thackeray cousins will eventually come much closer to each other for the sake of survival. Maharashtra politics is in a state of transition and the movement away from loyalty to aspiration and results has begun. The extent of it will decide who forms the next government and what shape its polity takes over the next decade.

Predictions for 2014 Maharashtra elections
BJP+           100-110
Congress+     65-75
NCP+             40-45
Shiv Sena      35-40
MNS              15-20
Others           10-15

Kunal Shah
September 2014

Bye Elections 2014

There are a number of conclusions one can draw from the results of the Vidhan Sabha bye elections over the last couple of months. Though bye elections are rarely taken seriously for the purpose of extrapolating trends, this round was keenly watched by both backers and baiters of Narendra Modi and his government. It would be very easy to take sides and come up with a biased analysis of the same, but an objective assessment should give us a reasonably fair picture of the political realities of today.

First and foremost, for anyone who still hasn’t come to terms with it, (there are more in the BJP I think) the 2014 General election was all about Narendra Modi. It had little to do with BJP’s or RSS’s ideology and even less to do with the tirade against ‘Love Jihad’. You remove Modi from the picture and suddenly it’s a different ball game altogether. His ascent has catapulted the BJP to becoming the No. 1 party in Bihar (from No. 3 a year ago), the main challenger in Haryana next month and probably in UP in 2017. (Two states where they weren’t even in the reckoning in the previous round) In West Bengal where the BJP is making significant gains, it has an MLA on its own strength for the first time since at least I have been following politics. Since the BJP has now replaced the Congress as the major national party, it will have to encounter myriad challenges in the form of alliances, understandings, tie-ups both overt and covert at the local as well national level. The foot will have to be fixed firmly on the pedal as there is no place for over-confidence or complacency to set in. But most importantly they will have to find a narrative and the leadership for each state which they can sell to the people. The challenges posed by regional leaders will be much stronger than those posed by the Congress Delhi leadership. The opportunity is there for the taking but a course correction and a lot of reality check is required. The time for jubilation and celebration in the BJP is over.

Modi and his politics will be much more in command now, though. He can easily focus on governance and reform, as the fringe element in the BJP has been quietened. I think he should waste no time in getting a couple of technocrats in his ministry post Diwali, and there is every chance that NDA would have won Maharashtra and Haryana by then too. For the market guys, the next six months leading up to the budget, will give a much clearer picture if there is to be a 10 year bull market (with at least a couple of big bumps if I may add) as many believe could happen.

The politics of ‘Mandal’ maybe ‘down’, but in UP and Bihar especially in local elections is certainly not ‘out’. In fact my opinion is that Nitish Kumar greatly underestimated his strength and appeal and panicked in aligning with Laloo. But that’s a different story and how Bihar politics plays out leading to next December will be very interesting to follow. The results in UP have not only shown up BJP’s weak organisational base, but emphasised the need for them to find the right leadership and narrative (repeating again) to counter ‘Mandal’ which is so entrenched in the DNA of central India. If they re-focus on development with a moderate face to lead them, there is every chance they will win Bihar in 2015 and UP in 2017. If they put their money on Love Jihad, my money will be on Mayawati getting a bulk of the anti-incumbency vote in UP.

Though not very significant, but Sachin Pilot has led the Congress to some impressive wins in Rajasthan albeit with small margins. And of course the prince has been far away from these bye-elections. The message is clear for the Congress as to where the road ahead lies for them. If they don’t move quickly, and the economy under Modi turns around, they will be reduced to being a party of 3-4 major and a few small states.

The CPM has been reduced to an unprecedented fourth (this is my personal favourite) in both seats in West Bengal. Their cadre is deserting them by the day and it is of course the BJP which is gaining at their expense. This is like a breath of fresh air, something I thought would be impossible in the land where I was born. The next few years should mark the end of rotten and archaic ideologies of both Left and Right. The BJP has changed a lot since the 1990’s (though not as much as some would want them to) as the country and the World changes. I doubt whether the Comrades’ bible will permit them to do so.

Kunal Shah
September 2014