Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wide Angle 39 - Lords of Finance - The Great Depression Explained - Part 1

Back to sermonizing people. Long weekend in the UK and I am at home doing not much, reading and sleeping. BTW, go watch Piranha 3D, it is awesome – not for the faint hearted of course. Today’s Wide Angle is about the Great Depression. Everyone has read about the current credit crunch and has read and re-read analyses. The Great Depression was the big daddy of them all – the world has been living through booms and busts through centuries but nothing has come close to the Great Depression in terms of scale (destroyed most of the big economies), impact (quarter of the American population became unemployed during the height of the depression) and duration (lasted almost 10 years). In my quest for finding out answers to why this happened, I read a book called “Lord of Finance: 1929 The Great Depression Explained and the Bankers Who Broke The World” by Liaquat Ahamed. Ahamed has been a successful investment manager on Wall Street. And is currently an advisor to several hedge fund groups.
The book is the story of four Central Bankers – Montagu Norman the Governor of the Bank of England, Hjalmar Schacht of the German Reichsbank, Benjamin Strong – the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) of US and Emile Moreau – the head of the Banque de France. These four were the heads of the Central Banks of their respective countries between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Great Depression around 1929. It was their actions taken in concert and individually that led to the Great Depression. While these four cannot be held totally responsible, the policies and principles that they stood for and propagated eventually led to the world going into Depression pretty much the way the bankers today caused the recession with the “toxic” investments. I am going to lay out in a simple manner what exactly happened back then that caused such a massive debacle in world finance. For ease of reading, I will break this up into parts since the topic is long and needs explaining.

Some Concepts to Start Off With:
Here are the main concepts that I thought I now understand and that results in financial problems in the world. Firstly, inflation – this simply means rise of prices because of more currency being becoming available in the market due to either lowering of interest rates or through printing of more money by the government. If interest rates are lowered, more people opt for loans since the interest is less, banks lend freely and hence money supply in the market increases. If money supply increases, the thing that cost X would cost X+Y because of more currency in the market.
Conversely, if inflation is too high either due to high prices (maybe because of shortages e.g. the prices of food grains) then the government increases the interest rates to reduce the money supply in the market thus reducing the prices of things (or so they aim for). This is called deflation. Deflation can result in less demand for goods (more demand – more price, less demand – less price) due to which industries cut production and unemployment may rise. Governments and central banks always have to balance the interest rate against prices and demands in order to make sure the economy is neither too overheated nor too slow. This is what is typically called credit policy which our RBI governor announces from time to time.
Another concept is of exchange rate of the currency. In simple terms, if your currency is valued lower than others, your prices will be cheaper in the world market and hence your exports will be more competitive. If your currency is higher in value, imports will be cheaper because you will pay less for the goods. Every government is free these days to determine its currency value i.e. internal and external considerations are applied to discreetly decide on the currency rate.
However, before the Great Depression, there were a handful of powerful economies in the world (US, France, England and Germany) with lot of small sized ones and they all adhered to something called the Gold Standard. This simply meant that the value of your currency was in direct correlation to the amount of gold that your country had. The higher your gold holdings, stronger would be your currency. Also, currency could be interchanged with gold, for example France could hold a million pounds in its accounts which were secured by gold in the vaults of England. Theoretically, France could pay the million pounds back to England and demand its gold in return which under the laws of the Gold Standard was an automatic assumption.
The Gold Standard was a matter of high principle for most of the bankers of that era because it tied down governments to a tangible asset i.e. gold thus limiting their powers of printing money at will and thus maintaining fiscal discipline. This also worked beautifully because through the nineteenth century and up to World War 1, the discovery and production of gold was able to keep pace with economic growth so the currencies could be pegged to gold. Before the war, US owned 50% of the world’s growth while Germany, England and France owned around half of it thus maintaining a delicate balance in the currency and trade world.

Impact of War:
Before the World War 1, London was the financial capital of the world and acted as the bank of the world. It borrowed, lent, insured to the world economies and industries and the pound was the prime currency of the world. The economies of the four main countries were intertwined deeply with German assets in the Bank of England and French holding English assets etc. Most of the bankers thought that a war was simply impossible since the world depended so much on each other. However, the World war did happen and for four years, the battles were bloody and costly in France and Belgium. America was the one who profited most from the war since till 1917 they were outside the war and thus able to act as suppliers to the warring nations. This trade gave America significant amount of gold (transferred from UK and France) and they also ended up giving debts to UK and France. The economies of France, Germany and Britain were hammered because of the war and the dollar became more pre-eminent because of the surplus gold that America now held.
Some figures to quote before we move on that will give a view of the situation – the economic impact of the War on the major countries was that German and French economies shrank by 30 percent while Britain’s shrank by 5 percent. Before the war, the GDP of America was $40 billion per annum and was roughly equivalent to that of Britain, France and Germany put together. After the war, it was more than 50 percent larger. The gold held by America increased from half of the world’s supply to more than 75% of the world’s stock.
Additionally, to finance the war effort, different countries adopted different methods. The simplest method was to raise taxes on the population that would pay the bill but that was impossible. None of the governments even tried this, they resorted to borrowing first, then they resorted to most common technique used by governments at war – inflation, they simply printed more money to pay for the war effort. The supply of money in England doubled by the end of the war, it tripled in France and quadrupled in Germany. All these countries ditched their link to gold and resorted to inflation. Britain was the most responsible of the countries and thus ended up borrowing mainly from banks and the US, they resorted to less printing of money. France was between UK and Germany, they spent $30 billion on the war, $15 billion was raised through selling bonds to the middle class savers (French were notoriously good savers), $10 billion came from UK and US and the rest through inflation. Germany was at the other end of the spectrum, it simply did not raise taxes nor could it borrow from rich allies, so they printed money. Prices quadrupled and they ended up losing the war which made them subject to reparations.

Case of German Reparations:
The situation at the end of the war was thus – France owed Britain some money and owed lot of money to US. Britain owed money to US. France was extremely insecure about gold hence they had simply removed their gold and stored it elsewhere and resorted to government bonds for financing. Britain had gone the straightway and in the transactions with America, lot of its gold had gone to America. The bankers i.e. Strong and Norman (UK Bank Head) became good friends and they began to collaborate to bring the world back to the gold standard. Norman was the voice respected in the financial world and he was a fervent believer in the gold standard and the pound’s pre eminence in the world. Both France and UK wanted Germany to pay reparations for the war since it was the loser, they expected to pay off America’s and internal loans by German money. The mood in Germany was completely against reparations – France was more belligerent since it had suffered many casualties. This question of reparations haunted the world of finance for the next two decades.
Around this time, John Maynard Keynes rose to prominence by writing his treatise “The Economic Consequences of Peace”. In this book he argued that Germany was in a bad shape and to ask them for reparations would only cause bad blood. Since America was the richer power, it could simply loan Germany the money which Germany could pay to France and UK as reparation which France and UK could use to repay America’s loans. This would ensure all were satisfied and America got their money back after circulating. However, the Americans did not agree to forego the Allies loans and France did not agree to let go of German reparations. The demands being made on Germany ranged from $50 billion (German GDP was $12 billion) to $100 billion. Finally, the Allies settled at a first payment of $5 billion before May 1921. The Germans were also treated badly at the peace talks (no chairs were given for them to sit). This led to anger in the German nation and it was this anger that eventually caused the Second World War.

Path back to the Gold Standard:
If the main countries had to return to the Gold Standard, they would have to do a lot of restructuring since the situation with the gold reserves had completely altered. Britain had much more currency in comparison to the gold they held so they could not have their currency rate at the same level as pre-war ($4.86 per pound as against the rate of $3.2 now). To move towards parity, they would either have to reduce the currency in circulation (deflation) or reduce the exchange rate of the pound (devaluation) to reflect its current gold reserves. England chose deflation since Norman wanted to maintain the pound as the primary currency of the world. This caused recession and the British economy went through pain (job losses) for the next few years (till 1923) but the currency circulation was back to normal.
France had significant gold reserves and more inflation which it brought under control by putting a lid on more currency printing. It ran a budget deficit but its army of middle class savers ensured that the country was in good fiscal shape. Its only problem was the debt to America which it hoped to pay for by German reparations. The French were also mentally reconciled to devaluating their currency once they went back to the Gold Standard.
It was here again that Keynes came back with a stinging pamphlet called “A Tract on Monetary Reform”. In this he argued that the gold standard was now a “barbarous relic” which should be now be discarded because of the skewed distribution of gold and governments should be in full control of the decision to peg their currency rates in accordance with the domestic fiscal situation. His views were met with derision and especially opposed by die hard Gold Bugs like Norman and Strong. Time was to prove him right.

So much for this week. Hope you found this interesting to come back next week for the next part of the story. It gets fascinating to say the least.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wide Angle 38 - Cats in the Cradle and Work/Life Balance

Had a “Marathi Manoos shopkeeper” moment in Stratford market today. For those of you who are not Maharashtrians, we are supposed to suck at business and the shopkeepers especially in Pune think the customer is the most “ignore-worthy” object in the shop. The entire attitude is, we have this much to offer, if you want to, take it else leave. The fate of such shops of course is “Sell them to a Gujarati/Marwadi” and then you are free to give lectures on why “Maharashtra lags behind in business”. I am quoting the God of Maharashtrians late P.L.Deshpande (humorist of extremely high caliber). So back to London, I walked by this open-air sort of shop which was selling fruits very cheap. I started picking up pears, the Englishman owner came over and told me curtly “Mate, go to the counter, they will serve you, don’t touch the fruits here else the arrangement will be disturbed.” LOL.
Today, I write about a very famous song which I think many of you may have heard. It is attributed to Cat Stevens but has been originally written by Harry Chaplin. It is called Cats in the Cradle. I am not going to write much about it, will just print the lyrics down here and then put my thoughts up on it. If you don’t have the song, please try and get a hold of it, it is not only well written but well sung as well. So here goes:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking before I knew it and as he grew
He said, "I’m gonna be like you, Dad,
You know I’m gonna be like you"

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin home, dad, I don’t know when,
But we'll get together then, Son,
You know we'll have a good time then.

My son turned ten just the other day
He said "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on lets play
can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do" He said "Thats okay"
And then he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said "I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m going to be like him"

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin home, dad, I dont know when,
But we'll get together then, Son,
You know we'll have a good time then.

Well he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head, and he said with a smile

"What I'd really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?"

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin home, Son, I dont know when,
But we'll get together then, Dad,
You know we'll have a good time then.

I’ve long since retired, my son's moved away
I called him up just the other day........
I said "I'd like to see you if you don’t mind"
He said "I'd love to Dad, if I could find the time.
You see my new jobs a hassle, and the kids have the flu.
But It's sure nice talking to you, Dad,
It's been sure nice talking to you........"
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me,
My boy was just like me..............

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin home, Son, I dont know when,
But we'll get together then, Dad
We're gonna have a good time then.


Sounds familiar? At least does to me. The Dad can obviously be replaced by Mom now since so many moms are also away these days (and consumed by the guilt of not being there for their children etc.). So what is the holy grail, is there a work-life balance that can be really achieved or is this simply a fad that has caught on. A lot of youngsters (at least in Infy) tend to quote this famous article by NRN that stresses about Work Life Balance (WLB) etc. I am not sure whether he really said or wrote it but I am sure it may have been in some context. I was asked by Venkat when I met him before joining UBS what I thought about Work Life Balance (first time I had even thought about it). Thinking about playing it safe and since this was Infosys where they seem to be touting this concept, I said “Yeah it should be there”. Venkat’s answer was interesting and something close to my thoughts which I will lay down here. You are free to disagree and follow your own path, like I said, there is no silver bullet for achieving this “balance”.
First and foremost, the entire term seems to divide one’s mental canvas into two distinct areas – work and life. So it assumes that there is no life when you work and there is no work when you are in your “life”. I think this is plain misleading, work is not something you are forced to do simply to make money. There is a degree of fulfillment associated with work. Don’t we feel good when the project is delivered, CSAT is high, attrition is low, engagement feedback is 7 or one wins a deal. I believe work defines life or at least the purpose in life and hence is extremely essential. Also, isn’t there work in the “life” outside work. There is the tidying of things, polishing of shoes, even driving to the mall which one may not like but has to do. So if one is to be objective, these two are completely diffused areas. When people think work-life balance, they mean more like work-leisure balance.
Now leisure is essential, but you cannot enjoy leisure unless you have worked and achieved. Doesn’t a drink with friends or a movie on weekend feel better if you have had a full week submitting proposals, delivering code or anything else you do and you have received reward for it. So there is no escape from work if you ask me.
Now for the neglecting children part and this is only relevant to people with kids here. I grew up watching my father work a lot, he travelled 2 hours one way in the Mumbai local trains and then came home and did some more work. I didn’t hate him for it, the image sits in my mind and drives me to achieve. Same for my mother who used to take penicillin shots every week but taught in school, won prizes for her projects at State level and yet would come home and crash because she was very tired and ill. Believe me, these images stick and inspire. So if you think that your kid is not happy with you because you are working too much, I say bunkum. Your kid will hate you if you sit around at home and do nothing but gossip or have fun (this is not a reference to house wives, they do much more “work” than us). So get rid of that guilt, it is not a crime to want to get ahead in life and wanting to achieve something and I firmly believe your kids will understand and respect you. And please for God’s sake, don’t try and compensate the kids with gifts for the time you are away from them, they don’t need stuff, they need you and you are simply teaching them bribery.
Finally, the panacea to guilt pangs that driven folks do face and which a lady friend of mine was distraught about is what I would venture to suggest. I had told her the same, don’t know whether it worked for her but I think it makes a lot of sense. It is actually based on a dialogue from the movie “Bluffmaster” where the doctor tells Abhishek Bacchan that he is going to die in 3 months. He also explains to him that he has spent 30 years with his daughter but what he tends to remember are maybe 30 really good moments that they had together e.g. a picnic, a movie seen together – it is not the quantity that matters but the quality of the time. Try and fit in those 30 great moments in whatever time you do spend with your child. In my case, it was the concepts that my parents taught me through stories/examples – self reliance, common sense, probity etc. which have stood me in good stead. I hope in my son’s case, it is the time the both of us played Mini-Golf together, the stories that I conjure up for him out of thin air and many more such moments. You can pick your moments too – your work life balance would be easily attained if you achieve glory (and gold) at work and spend those special moments with your loved ones in life. And of course went drinking, bungy jumping or whatever else that suits your fancy.
Please let me know how you found this thought. I have tried to be audacious and offer unsolicited advice here, hope it helps you .

Wide Angle 37 - Portuguese fervor and the conquest of the Indian Ocean

Interesting visit by David Cameron – most of the Indians in UK and US vote for the liberals i.e. Labor Party in UK and Democratic Party in US and ironically it is the right wingers i.e. Conservatives in UK and Republicans in US who court India. Anyway, did I tell you about an interesting encounter I had. Me and my family had gone to the Indian High Commission in London to get my family’s passports renewed. That day being a Friday, a protest by “Kashmiri” people was stage managed in front of the consulate. A group of about 20 girls and boys (girls in head to toe burkhas) were holding placards saying “India Quit Kashmir” etc. They were also holding posters with pictures of young men apparently “killed” by Indian Army. They had of course been limited to a fence and there was a cop standing next to them. There were video cameras and photographers shooting them and these folks were raising a huge ruckus. “India – Quit Kashmir” and of course “Allah-ho-Akhbar” etc. I don’t know what got into me, me and my son walked up to a distance of 10 feet of them and I started staring them in the eye. Most of them did not meet my eye, the policeman standing there (he was an Asian) got very nervous and was looking at me as if to say “Please don’t create any trouble”. We did that for 10 minutes, my son kept asking me “Dad, why are they shouting?”. We went back of course, but I felt great doing that.
Anyway, today’s Wide Angle is about something relatively unknown in Indian history. We of course know of the East India Company and how they eventually defeated and impoverished us. The precursor to that was the arrival of Vasco Da Gama in Calicut which we read as a sentence in our history books. However, I own and have read this book called “Empires of the Monsoon: A history of the Indian Ocean and its invaders” by Richard Hall who was a historian specializing in East African history. This book vividly describes the process of European conquest of the Indian Ocean and the complete alteration of world maps because of this. The process was started by the Portuguese and of course culminated in English dominance on sea waves for the longest of times. In today’s column, I will write about this process right up to the Portuguese dominance of our ocean.

The Ocean before European advent:
The Indian Ocean is relatively smaller in size and depth than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is also surrounded by the older civilizations i.e. East Africa on its western front, Arabia and West Asia, India and stretching on the East to Indonesia and Australia. The Ocean served as a major facilitator of trade of all sorts between these regions due to a major geographical factor – the monsoon winds. As we all know, the monsoon winds blow from the African coast to the India during the summers i.e. when we have our monsoons and they blow the other way during our winters. These winds were propellants for all the ships that traversed the ocean using pre determined trade routes. There was exchange of slaves, gold, precious stones, cattle, grains and everything else. The earliest voyagers included a highly placed Eunuch from the Chinese court called Zheng He who went as far as Africa from China (the Chinese have resurrected this figure to start laying claim to lands which he conquered – the Chinese believe that whatever was ruled by them once belongs to them).
The travel across the Indian Ocean was mainly anchored by Arab traders who had specially designed smaller ships called Dhows. These were made of wood and tied together by Coconut hide ropes. These could not be used for combat – they were only good for trading. Since the entire life around the Indian Ocean was fairly settled in terms of agreed treaties, exchange mediums and non aggression, the boats could afford to be non-combative. In addition, there were prominent coastal towns along these routes like Kilwa, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Calicut, Aden etc. This way of life that existed for centuries was soon to be shattered and completely overturned by a new pestilence – the Europeans.

Portuguese Fervor:
Portugal is a small nation and doesn’t count for much now. So why were they the first to find this route to India. We all know the story of the fall of the Byzantine empire (The Eastern Roman Empire) and the capture of Constantinople by the Turks which led to the closure of the overland trade routes to India for the Europeans. In about the beginning of the 15th century, the Portuguese, won an important victory in Ceuta which was near Morocco and a trading port in the hands of the Muslims. When the Portuguese saw the riches in this city, they could contrast it with the pigsties that were their homes and this aroused their curiosities to seek a route to the Indies.
The Pope had decreed a bull by which he had divided the world into two halves – the West for the Spanish and the East for the Portuguese. The Portuguese kings though being poor decided to go East. There was a general consensus that if one went down the African coast, the continent would end somewhere and the route to India would be found. About this time, Henry the Navigator began his rule of Portugal and it was under him that the fervor of ship building and undertaking voyages down the coast of Africa began. The whole nation was devoted to this task and newer and better ships that could have bigger and powerful guns (cannons) on them started being built. Each year, different Portuguese captains went farther down the African coast. Many lost their lives and ships but Henry’s persistence and inspiration drove them on. The ship building was a communal task and utmost secrecy was maintained by even the lowliest of citizen so that none of Portugal’s rivals could get access to the technology and more importantly the new maps that were being charted.
Eventually, till the time Vasco Da Gama made his ground breaking journey, the ships were big and well armed and the Cape of Good Hope had been found. The path was cut out for Da Gama to take it to its logical end. One more reason for the Portuguese push eastwards was the search of a mythical rich and powerful Christian king called Prester John. Henry and his successors wanted to tie up with this king and thus dominate the East for Christianity.

Da Gama first reached Kilwa after a lot of struggle. The locals welcomed these “Franks” but were only interested in trading. Da Gama was not interested in trading, he wanted loot and so when the locals refused to comply, the ships let loose barrage of ammo on the town. The locals had never seen such fire power and they simply gave up. The balance of power in the world had forever shifted by this one incident. Da Gama continued the same story by bombing one coastal town after another in Africa till he reached Calicut. All the while the Europeans collected as much stuff as they could. When Da Gama reached Calicut, he and his band went ashore. When they saw temples and images of Devki and Krishna (which they thought were different shaped churches and Mary and baby Jesus), they believed that this was a Christian kingdom and had to be Prester John’s kingdom.
Da Gama met the king Zamorin who was laden in jewels. The meeting was cordial, Zamorin gave permission to set up a trading base in Calicut. Da Gama was only scouting of course. The Portuguese realized that this was not a Christian population but a “heathen” one and so had to be destroyed. Da Gama went back to Portugal and reported all that he saw. He was commissioned a bigger fleet and this time he came back to Calicut well prepared. He docked near Calicut and asked Zamorin to surrender and convert. Zamorin simply laughed him off. The answer was a barrage of firepower that led to most of Calicut being flattened.
Now Zamorin was frightened and sued for peace. He sent a Brahmin lawyer for negotiations – Da Gama cut his nose and ears and stitched a dog’s nose and ears to him and sent him back. Eventually, the Portuguese cut a huge deal with Zamorin and took over all rights to trade from Calicut.

We all know what followed, they found Goa and set up their rule there. The Indian Ocean was now dominated by the Portuguese ships which issued a pass called “Cartaz” to ships that wanted to trade. A ship without a Cartaz was looted and sank. Many a times, ships with a valid Cartaz were also looted. Eventually, the Portuguese were surpassed by the Dutch in Naval power and then the British who came to rule over the East. However, the process of colonization was started by the Portuguese who despite being a small, poor and ignorant nation dominated the coast of three continents and an entire ocean for two centuries simply on the basis of their ambition and fervor. Therein lies the lesson for us, this is what I lay out in my analysis.

Analysis and thoughts:
We have all heard of our rise now and all that. I have a simple concept to put forward. The Europeans were poor and it was the Portuguese fervor that led to them working hard and smart and taking risks and winning. During this time, India was rich and complacent, the people who mattered i.e. the rulers were busy in cavorting and having a ball. Having travelled so much, I see the reverse today – the Europeans go home at 5 in evening, what time do we switch off from work – I think never. This is where the nub lies – they were poor and hungry so they worked hard and won. Now we are poor and hungry – and we are working hard. If we play it straight, we will eventually dominate. Simple example – my son who is five years old beat the pants out of every kid in his class in reading – where other kids read 5 books, he read 20 and was given an award by the Principal. And the fun part was all my acquaintances expected this, “He is from India so obviously he has to”.
Bottom line, we i.e. us and the next few generations but especially the IT sector have a task of nation building, we are creating jobs for our people and transferring wealth back, if we believe that and keep at it, our mental health will be much better. This is our higher purpose in life – it is not only about buying the latest car, a bigger house or settling down abroad – our mission is to make our country rich again and like I said before a “Great Power”. For that, we don’t need chest thumping jingoism, just the quite confidence of the able who believe in themselves and their abilities. It is our time now, better believe it.
Please let me know your thoughts.

Wide Angle 35 - Burn After Reading

Out of Swindon and into London. Suddenly the blood that was crawling through my veins is now rushing through. For a boy raised in Mumbai, it brings back happy memories, I guess the British made Mumbai like London. The tubes run every minute, everyone is walking fast and you can travel 40 minutes in what seem like 20. This is pace and life force at its best. And then the Canary Wharf office - super views of the Thames and tall buildings all around. Good fun.
Today, I write about a movie that is funny but in a dark sort of a way. The movie analyzes foolishness, self absorption and delusion and meshes it with intrigue and intelligence. Most of the characters in this movie are foolish and the star cast is unbelievable. George Clooney, Brad Pitt (he enacts this stupid gym instructor called Chad, you can’t believe it is The Bradd Pitt), Frances Mcdormand (fabulous actress, she won an Oscar for Fargo, plays a very stupid woman called Linda), Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich - all act well, I guess they did this movie just for the subject. Directed by the Coen brothers, this movie did not do as well and is not very well known, but it is entirely watchable multiple times.
The movie is about some people who are not so bright but have big egos and their lives get intertwined in curious ways. CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is removed from the Balkans desk because of his drinking problem, he rejects the transfer and quits the job because he gets very angry and blames everything on politics (“Whose ass didn’t I kiss?”). He comes home to his condescending wife who is a pediatrician Katie (Swinton), she asks him what he plans to do now, he says he would write a memoir to which she says “huh”. She is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney) who is a Treasury Department employee and family friend of the Coxes. His wife is a children’s book writer and travels the country especially Seattle. He loves her very much but dates women on the Internet on the side. He also runs 5 miles every day to stay in shape.
The other set of characters is Linda who is a middle aged clerk in a Gym called “Hard Bodies”. She wants to reinvent her looks by having cosmetic surgery which are going to cost $50,000. No insurance company wants to pay for these so she is frustrated. Her friend is the Gym instructor Chad (Pitt) who is as stupid as her. Linda also dates men on the internet and is always disappointed with the men she meets – they are either married or losers or both. Gym manager Ted is secretly in love with Linda and keeps trying to convince her not to go for the surgeries since she is very attractive the way she is. The dialogues between them are hilarious. Sample this “I really need those surgeries Ted, I want to reinvent myself, don’t be so negative Ted, I need a can do person”, Ted says “There are many men who will find you attractive just the way you are Linda”.
Anyway, Ozy’s wife gets frustrated by his drinking and “loser” ways and goes to a divorce lawyer. He advises her to get all information about all the bank accounts of Ozy and then strike. The CD that has Ozy’s memoirs on which the bank information is also dumped gets left by the divorce lawyer’s assistant in Hard Bodies. Linda and Chad find it and think it is some very secret classified CIA information (In Chad’s words, this is secret CIA shit). They think if they return it to the owner, he may give them a reward. They think it is their “moment” and Linda thinks her surgeries are now paid for. Chad gets Ozy’s phone number and calls him at midnight. The dialogues are again very funny “Osborne Cox …(deep throated voice by Pitt)…we have your shit, we are just good Samaritans”. Cox starts shouting at them right away. Chad mentions a reward to which Cox shouts “Oh so this is about money, who are you…..”. Finally they hang up.
An exchange is decided, Chad wears a suit (Linda’s suggestion) and goes on a cycle to collect the money. Cox shouts him down and punches him. Linda gets very angry and takes Chad along in her car and bumps Ozy’s car from behind. She then goes to the Russian embassy and tells them there is secret information from the CIA which she would like to give. The Russians take it and promise to get back. Meanwhile, since the Russians have asked for more information, Linda asks Chad to visit Cox’s house and get some more information. She asks him to go in a suit and remove the labels off the clothes for “deniability”. Anyway, Pitt enters the house and hides in the closet when Harry also comes in from his run. He gets startled by Chad and shoots him. Seeing that Chad’s clothes has no labels, he thinks he has killed a spook.
The comedy of errors continues with Cox’s wife locking him out of the house and cleaning his bank account. Harry finds out a big secret about his wife that crushes him. He goes to Linda for comfort (he is seeing her after meeting her over the internet). The Russians rebuke Linda saying her CD contains “drivel”. Finally, everyone kills each other, the CIA who is watching all these folks covers up the bodies and arrest Linda. She says she would play ball if her surgeries are paid for which are. Finally , the CIA boss asks his deputy who is reporting these things to him “What did we learn from all this, probably not to do it all again, but what did we really do?”. The deputy replies “Very hard to tell sir”.
The story doesn’t seem to be much I know and I don’t have much to analyze on this one but the movie is very interesting and fun especially Brad Pitt’s role and acting. I guess another little thing to learn from this is that people with inconsequential lives too think they are important and may just stir pots which are unknown to them and cause consequences beyond their control. We often hear stories of people being killed because of “rage” or “he looked at me funny”. In my childhood in my neighborhood, fights would start on dialogues like “Kya re, kya dekh raha tha?”. When you look back at it now, it seems funny, in our alley, every little punk was this “bhai” or that “bhai”, I guess this is the same syndrome. I am sure the same bhais are now clerks somewhere or selling insurance.
I have written a mundane Wide Angle after a long time but I thought everyone should watch this movie for the “difference” factor. Ciao.

Wide Angle 34 - Panipat

Took me a long time to finish this one with so many transitions happening in life right now. This time, I write about something from my historical heritage again. The word “Panipat” is associated with disaster in the Marathi memory and lexicon. When someone says “Tyacha Panipat zala”, they mean, that guy was devastated. A side reference to this episode is the negative connotations of Sankrant, when one says “Tyachavar Sankrant kosalali”, it means Sankrant has fallen on the person i.e. the guy is in trouble. So why this association, well it all has to do with this earth shattering event that happened on 14th January 1761 on the battlefield of Panipat where close to 1 lakh Maratha forces got sacrificed along with many civilians which dealt a serious blow to the aspirant Maratha empire – I am talking about the Third Battle of Panipat. As the history books mention in one line, the third battle of Panipat was fought between Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas and the Marathas were defeated. In today’s Wide Angle, I will not write about the battle or the strategies per se but examine the pre and after effects of the battle and more importantly, glean lessons from the defeat which in no uncertain terms was an Indian defeat. If the Marathas had won and tied up with the Sikhs who were also rising around the same time, the British would never have quite succeeded in conquering India so easily.

A little prelude:
Shivaji laid the foundations of the Maratha empire but died too soon at the age of 50 in 1680. He was succeeded by his older son Sambhaji who was very brave but probably less strategic. He was betrayed and captured by Aurangzeb who tortured him to death. Sambhaji was formally succeeded by Rajaram who was then succeeded by Shahu. However, the Maratha power had waned during this time and it mainly existed as bands of independent armies under powerful sardars e.g. Dhanaji Jadhav, Santaji Ghorpade who kept Aurangzeb busy in the last 30 years of his life in the Deccan where he eventually died. Shahu then moved to Kolhapur and handed over the office of Peshwa (Prime Minister) to Balaji Vishwanath Bhat (a Konkanastha (from Konkan) Brahmin) who not only took up administration but also unified and set up the army. On his death, Shahu chose his young son Bajirao to succeed him and run the kingdom on his behalf thus establishing that the Peshwai was hereditary.
Bajirao Peshwa is one of the well known Marathas in India and rightly so. He was a daring warrior and charismatic general. He devised the lightning raids using cavalry that won him many successes in the Deccan, Central India (mainly Malwa) and the North. He was ably assisted in these conquests by his brother Chimaji Appa. Bajirao also handpicked a few brave soliders who became his aides and famous generals and later went on to establish the three kingdoms of Indore, Gwalior and Baroda – these were the Holkars, Shindes (Scindias now) and the Gaikwads (one reason why you find so many Maharashtrians in these three cities including the ancestors of yours truly). After Bajirao’s death, his son Nanasaheb Peshwa took up the reins of the kingdom and spread the empire far and wide. It is said that the Maratha empire stretched from Attock near Peshawar to the Ganga in the East to the boundaries of Tamil Naduin the South.
Nanasaheb was very close to Sadashiv Rao Bhau who was Chimaji Appa’s son and was also the Karbhari (administrator) of the empire. The valorous soldier in the family was Nana’s younger brother Raghoba dada who had aspirations for the crown. Raghoba was the one who conducted all the conquests that took the empire past Attock. There is a term in Marathi “Atke-paar zhenda” which literally means “Flag past Attock” and signifies a huge achievement.

India before the battle of Panipat:
The Marathas had a free run of Central and North India and were sworn to protect the Mughal throne of Delhi by the Ahmadiya pact with the Mughals. This growth was a thorn in the eye of Najib Khan who was the leader of the Rohillas in Rohilkhand (in current UP). He had ambitions of being the Vazir of Hindustan and was pestered by the Marathas’ demand for more territory especially the Hindu holy places like Kashi, Mathura etc. Raghoba dada had Najib in his grip and was about the execute him once but Malharrao Holkar (who had declared Najib as his foster son) intervened and let him go. Finally, to get rid of this Maratha menace and to increase his influence in India, Najib invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to attack India and clear it of the Marathas. To do that he raised the bogey of Hindu capture of the Mughal throne and the familiar cry of “Islam in danger”. Abdali finally set off for India with a huge force of 60-70000.

The Maratha campaign starts:
In order to stop and defeat Abdali, Nanasaheb decided to send a Maratha force of significant strength. In his previous campaigns, Raghoba had drawn money from the royal treasury due to which the kingdom was already in debt. Therefore it was decided that this campaign would finance itself through raids and levies on the local populace. When Bhau complained of the wasteful ways of Raghoba, Raghoba taunted him as “Boru-Bahaddar” i.e. pen warrior. Stung by this, Bhau volunteered to undertake this campaign. He was given about 80000 forces which comprised of the Shinde, Holkar and Gaikwad armies. Since the Maratha power was at its zenith, the practice of taking wives and families along with many civilians had now got established (Shivaji and Bajirao took only the fighters along). In addition, many pilgrims who wanted to visit the holy places and could do so easily with the forces’ protection joined in. Bhau was against this and tried his best to prevent the non-fighters from coming along but had to give in to pressure. This was one of the biggest cause of the eventual rout.

Delays in Maratha plans:
The Maratha plan was to reach and cross Narmada and then the Yamuna before the onset of the winter in North India and engage Abdali and defeat him. However, the army had to stop every few days and sometimes take detours because the pilgrims and wives wanted to take a dip here, pray in a temple there, have weddings of their kids and so on. This led to delay in reaching Yamuna which had swollen because of the rains.

Lack of resources:
Another major impediment for the Marathas was the lack of enough money for the provisions of the army. Having 40% civilians in their entourage did not help who simply ate and raised the burden but could not contribute and had to be protected. The policy of raising resources on the go added to the strain since repeated battles across the land had left little cultivated and most of the peasants and traders were holding on to whatever was left in anticipation of the big battle that would decide who the winners would be. This problem continued till the battle itself since repeated requests to the Pune court for money/grain were turned down on the pretext of the original agreement.

The Marathas had alienated most of the kingdoms in India due to the plundering nature of their raids and tribute demands. They were initially joined by Surajmal Jat of Rajasthan but he wanted one thing in return for the support – the waziri of Delhi. When Bhau did not agree to it, the Raja simply walked away one day. However, Surajmal did allow the safe passage of the women and fugitive army of the Marathas after the battle was lost. The second important alliance that the Marathas lost was that of Shuja-ud-Daulah of Awadh who had a very fertile and rich state. Whoever had Shuja on his side was bound to be more powerful. The Marathas tried a lot to get Shuja with Shuja’s mother also vouching for the Marathas but in the end it was the silver-tongued Najib who bagged him in the name of “Islamic brotherhood”. Shuja forever repented this decision since he had a mostly Shia army and they were quite ill treated and insulted in the Sunni camp of Abdali.

Before the final showdown:
The two armies were stuck on the two banks of Yamuna, Bhau captured and sacked Delhi to make up for some revenue. This enraged the local populace around who was also provoked by the agents of Najib. Bhau then captured the important fortress of Kunjpura from Abdali’s vazir and his nephews and took away treasure kept there. This and the talks that Ala Singh Jat of Punjab was sending aid to Bhau brought urgency to Abdali’s movements and in a daring move he crossed the Yamuna at a shallow place which was shown by a local fisherman. Thus Abdali’s army was now directly behind Bhau’s. Bhau took up camp in Panipat due to its strategic location and the proximity of the Shahi canal nearby. However, Abdali encircled this force from all sides by killing numerous of Bhau’s aides around the area. The Maratha force was surrounded and had nothing to eat or drink (after Abdali destroyed the Shahi canal). Finally, in desperation Bhau decided to break out in one push.

The battle:
Details of the battle abound but in short the Marathas lost because of a few reasons: the Marathas had planned to follow the “circle” way of army arrangement where the circle sticks together and is surrounded by canons which blast their way forward and thus move out together. However, when the first successes were achieved and Abdali’s flanks were broken, couple of generals broke the circle and chased the Afghan army. This broke the arrangement and the chasing army was shot down. While initial success was theirs and there was a big gap created in Abdali’s army through which the Marathas could have escaped – the hunger of so many days affected and the Marathas simply collapsed from the sun rays. This hampered their advance. Abdali had kept a reserve army which he unleashed and quickly breached the gap. He also had a punitive squad which whipped his fleeing soldiers back into battle. Finally, Bhau had imprisoned a few Afghan soldiers and kept them as his reserves on the recommendation of his generals and these slaves created a huge ruckus that the Marathas had lost which caused a lot of the army to lose morale. Finally, the death of key leaders like Vishwarao (son of the Peshwa Nanasaheb) and Bhau as well caused disarray in the army and ultimately defeat. In the aftermath, thousands were slaughtered by the Afghans and thousands of women were captured and sold.

The Marathas lost much of their cream fighting force and generals in this battle and thus their power. The shock was too much for Nanasaheb to bear and he passed away. The throne passed to his second son Madhavrao Peshwa who did much to rebuild the power but died very young of T.B. The powerful generals like Shindes, Holkars and Gaikwads eventually broke off and formed their own kingdoms. The Marathas lost much of their influence in the North and were limited to playing below the Narmada. In the absence of growth of the kingdom, the family members turned on each other and decay set in that led to the Maratha defeat at the hands of British in the early 1800s.

Well, this was a bit of Maratha history though not a happy one. Since the Peshwas eventually lost out to the British, their story is not officially told in the curriculum in Maharashtra while the more inspiring story of Shivaji is narrated more often. This also has to do with the caste factor. Hope you found some of this enlightening.

Wide Angle 33 - Psychology of Human Misjudgment

This time I am going to write about something totally different. I happened to read an article which is actually a speech given by Charlie Munger at Harvard Business School, who is Warren Buffett’s partner and right hand man at Berkshire Hathway. He is known for his quotes, writings and lucid wisdom. If you are interested in reading practically sensible things, read “Poor Charlie’s Almanack” which is a very famous book by Munger. I intend to someday but haven’t saved enough money yet to buy it . Anyway, today I write out of his article which is called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment” which I found on the net. I thought this was really interesting therefore I am writing about it, folks can do their own research on the concepts mentioned here. The article lists down about 21 factors which contribute towards misjudgment individually or in combination and lead to blunders. Let us go through them:

1. Under recognition of the power of incentives: Very self-explanatory. The underlying motivation behind every human action is incentives. These are both positive and negative but in the absence of them, there will be no action. Biggest difference is between the public sector or the government where there is no negative incentive for people to perform while in private sector there is (the threat of sacking) hence the difference in performance. Those who do not recognize the power of incentives are prone to misjudgment.

2. Simple psychological denial: An example is that mothers of criminals or terrorists continue to believe that their “boy” is innocent. The reality is too painful so the mind distorts it till it is bearable. This is a big cause of misjudgment.

3. Incentive cause bias: This simply means that to every man with a hammer, every object seems like a nail. A salt salesman always has the urge to tell everyone how much salt he needs. Wherever there is incentive, there is bound to be a bit of fib with the truth and that may lead to misjudgment in the minds of the receiving party as well as the salesman.

4. A little worded but in Munger’s own words – a superpower in error-causing psychological tendency: bias from consistency and commitment tendency: This means that once the mind is committed to believing something, there is an ability to shut it off to let any diverse opinion in. This is typically the case regarding religious beliefs – people are taught something in childhood which they believe. Even if shown contrary evidence after they grow up, they find it difficult to let go of the beliefs imbibed in child hood. This is a tendency to avoid or promptly resolve “cognitive dissonance” – this means that the human mind does not like to hold two differing thoughts in their mind at the same time (which is cognitive dissonance broadly) and hence tries to resolve it to the nearest deeply held belief.

5. Bias from Pavlovian association i.e. misconstruing past correlation as a reliable basis for decision making: A Russian scientist named Pavlov is very famous for his path breaking experiments with dogs where he demonstrated through experiments that dogs remembered different stimuli like ringing of a bell, smell of food, electric shocks and drooled or performed physical acts accordingly. This is true for us too, we often react to situations based on previous experiences and through formulations.

6. Bias from Reciprocation Tendency including the tendency of one person to act as other expect of him: This is out of the concept of “Influence: the psychology of persuasion” by Robert Cialidini. He has written a famous book called “Influence at work” wherein he has described six influences at work that make human beings act in the way they do. Reciprocation is one of them wherein one person acts the way he does because someone else has done the same for him or because his family/society expect that out of him. Very common cause of misjudgment.

7. Bias from Over influence by social proof – this simply means the belief that if ten people are doing something, it must be right and hence accepted. Most recent example of the Satyam board members – all prominent and wise personalities that simply rubber stamped Raju’s decisions because they saw no one else objecting. This also explains why in India, people stand around and look when someone is being murdered and do not interfere because the agreed wisdom is that there will be “trouble” if they do.

8. The efficient market theory: I haven’t explored this one in detail but something that the economists and the bankers did relying completely on math to solve problem and being sure that the market was efficient and worked the way they expected it to.

9. Bias from contrast-caused distortions of sensation, perception and cognition: This follows from that famous experiment that Einstein quoted where there are three buckets of water - one hot, one cold and the third lukewarm. To the person who dips his hand first in the cold water and then the lukewarm water, the water feels hot. To the person that dips hand first in the hot water, the lukewarm water feels cold. This is true of human experiences as well. Women who live in terrible homes before marriage settle for the first available person and may end up in terrible marriages simply because they had come to expect less from life.

10. Bias from Over influence by authority: There are a series of famous experiments under the title “Milgram experiments”. These were devised by a Yale psychologist Stanley Miligram who demonstrated that otherwise ordinary people go out of their way to be evil to their counterparts just to obey an authority figure and when given unlimited powers over the subjects. The study was aimed primarily to ascertain why ordinary Germans treated the Jews the way did under Hitler. You can read up on these experiments – they are quite fascinating. This is one bias that leads to misjudgment.

11. Bias from deprival super-reaction syndrome, including bias caused by present or threatened scarcity – Simply put, people react extremely violently and out of proportion to minor decrements to things they already have. Munger mentions about the Pavlovian dog who bites if you try to take a ball that is in its mouth. Notice the extreme reaction to the 9.15 hours rule, in my opinion, it was a simple reinforcement of a logical expectation from the organization but people perceived it as a decrement and this caused the deprival super reaction syndrome.

12. Bias from envy/jealousy – Munger says he has often heard Warren Buffett saying “It is not greed that drives the world but envy”. The whole Mahabharat happened because of Duryodhan’s envy for his cousins. This bias does not need more elaboration, everyone is familiar with it. I guess the hardest thing is to recognize it in oneself and tame it towards motivating oneself rather than burn with envy.

13. Bias from chemical dependency – I am assuming this is about physical dependency on substances.

14. Bias from mis-gambling compulsion – In essence this is about the tendency of human beings to think that it is alright to gamble on something because “I am doing it so it must be alright”. People fail to recognize that they are gambling and that it is a problem. There is an element of the commitment tendency here i.e. since one is committed to the decision, it has to be gone through. An example if Yudishthir’s suicidal game of dice with Shakuni that lost him everything.

15. This one is beautiful – quoting Munger fully – Bias from liking distortion, including the tendency to especially oneself, one’s own kind and one’s own idea structures, and the tendency to be especially susceptible to being misled by someone liked. Disliking distortion, bias from that, the reciprocal of liking distortion and the tendency not to learn appropriately from someone disliked: Need I explain more, Indian business and politics is full of examples. This bias is ripe to cause misjudgment.

16. Bias from non-mathematical nature of the human brain in its natural state as it deals with probabilities employing crude heuristics (heuristic is an adjective for experience-based techniques that help in problem solving) – basically people find ways out of a situation using ways and information that are more convenient to them than the contrary.

17. Bias from over-influence by extra-vivid evidence: Sometimes the evidence is so vivid and in your face that you tend to ignore it simply because it is so. I haven’t understood this one completely but Munger has given an example of him not buying 1500 extra shares from the director of a company simply because it seemed too good to be true. He ended up losing an extra $30 million because of not buying the shares.

18. Other normal limitations of sensation, memory, cognition and knowledge.

19. Stress-induced mental changes, small and large, temporary and permanent: Quite self explanatory, being stressed makes us make errors in judgment which may seem like silly blunders later on.

20. Common mental illnesses and declines, temporary and permanent, including the tendency to lose ability through disuse.

21. Finally – the developmental and organizational confusion from the say-something syndrome: Munger describes the case of the honey bee. The honeybee goes and finds the nectar in a flower and comes back and communicates this location to its cohorts through a coded dance. A scientist called Skinner placed the nectar straight up. The honeybee did go and fetch it but it had no way of conveying this to its friends since there exists no such signal. One would expect the honeybee to come back say nothing but it does a come into the hive and does an incoherent dance. We often see such people who have to say something for the sake of saying something.

Well, this is what Munger has to say about the causes behind human misjudgment. There may be a lot more that you folks may have observed in your life and careers. I wrote about this because life will simply get easier if we are able to figure out why certain people act the way they do in a certain situation. It is not always “Vinash kale viprit buddhi”, always more than that. Please let me know what you thought.

Wide Angle 32 - Mao - Part 2

Back to Mr Mao or rather Chairman Mao. Well he got this sobriquet after he became the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by eliminating his rivals through terror, denunciations and executions. Last week charted his journey till he became the ruler of China, this week concludes the story with his conduct in power from 1949 till his death in 1976 at the ripe age of 82. Let us get to it then.

Tussle with Stalin:
Though Mao conquered China with Stalin’s help, he had ambitions far beyond being the junior protégé of the Master (Stalin). Though he acknowledged Stalin as the head of the Communist Camp in the world, he believed he too was a brand and over the 3 years till Stalin was alive, there was a blow hot-cold relation with Stalin. Finally, Stalin agreed to leave Asia for Mao to dominate. Towards the end, the Vietnam problem was delegated by Stalin to Mao to handle. Mao helped Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam with men and material and establish his base against the French. The bigger project he undertook with Stalin’s blessing was to start the Korean War.

Milking the Korean War (1950-53):
As we all know, Korea today is divided into two countries – North Korea which is an impoverished Communist country run by dictator Kim Il Sung, the South is a prosperous democracy. Korea was ruled by the Japanese before WW2 and then was divided along the 38th Parallel latitude with the North going to USSR and South under Americans. Kim took over power in the North and kept persuading Stalin to attack the South – Stalin was reluctant to do so since that would mean provoking a conflict with America. In stepped Mao – he assured Stalin that he had unlimited people to put into war with the West which he was ready to expend and this would actually help Stalin since it would mean unsustainable body count for US which will weaken it and also push it out of Korea. In return he wanted only one thing – to realize his dream of making China a superpower by getting access to latest arms industries, a modern army, navy air force and the ultimate – the Atom bomb.
Kim attacked the South and America intervened with UN backing and the war began. Mao sent waves after waves of Chinese “volunteers” to help Kim who bogged down the UN forces for years. Meanwhile, Stalin sent in experts to build China’s industries, armaments and its forces. The war lasted for 3 years post which an armistice was signed but Mao had achieved a lot of his needs with many projects kick started with Russian help. Close to 3 million Chinese men were put into Korea out of which at least 400000 died, a Russian document puts the figure at 1 million Chinese dead.

The Secret Superpower program (1953-57):
As described above, Mao’s ambition was to be a great world leader on the back of making China a superpower so he embarked on acquiring all the hardware he wanted from the Russians. The only was he could pay back was through food. The only way this could be achieved was by setting strict targets for food production which meant squeezing every grain out of the peasants. This led to terrible famines in the countryside with millions of people dying of hunger. Also, people in the village were not allowed to leave the village which meant the natural response to famine i.e. migration was thwarted and that meant more deaths.

The Great Leap (1958-61):
This was an extension of the Superpower program where Mao set a target of 3-5 years in which China would be a superpower – ambitions like building big ships to maintain control on Japan, Philippines and even landing them in San Francisco. For the Chinese population, this meant more food extracted. The targets were calculated on the basis of what was needed for the Program rather than what people could afford. This meant more famines, more deaths and a ravaged population. To gain influence in the Communist world, Mao freely helped other countries with non returnable loans, food consignments e.g. Hungary which was much more richer than China was given several millions in aid and food to help their “people”. All this was primarily to build brand Mao and portray him as alternative leader of the Communist camp.
Amongst the many silly things done during the Great Leap was the backyard furnaces mandated in every home to make steel. Steel output was Mao’s obsession since it was a measure of a country’s industrialization so it was incumbent on every citizen to help increase steel output. People were made to build furnaces in their homes and feed anything and everything including utensils, door latches etc. to produce the “quota” of steel. If you couldn’t do it, you were branded a “rightist” or a “capitalist agent” and of course denounced in front of your village and then killed. Naturally, the steel produced this way was of bad quality. Most of the Chinese products during this time were of shoddy quality. There were reports of Chinese built tanks going back instead of forward and planes falling off air. This program killed many people and there were stirrings of discontent in many quarters but especially at the top.

President’s ambush:
Mao had two very trusted lieutenants. One was Chou En Lai who was his Prime Minister and his charming face to the world. He sold the worst of Mao’s deeds to the world by turning them into virtuous ones because of his charm. The other was his President Liu Shao Chi. Liu was the number 2 in the cabinet. Liu was also of a poor peasant background and his conscience was pricking at the famine and the deaths caused by the Great Leap. He visited his ancestral village and was appalled at the condition of the people, this made him determined to reverse these atrocious policies of Mao. At a party congress where 7000 delegates were present (hence called Conference of 7000), Liu openly attacked these policies and called for their reversal. Most of the delegates supported him which came as a surprise to Mao. To prevent further rebellion, Mao set up a group under Liu to study the policies and change course.
Liu along with Chou en Lai and a rising star Deng Xiao-Ping (who became the ruler of China after Mao and opened it up so spectacularly to make it what it is today) quickly slowed down the industrialization programs and relived the burden of the populace in terms of food extraction. Spending on arms was scaled down and help to agriculture and consumer industries was increased. In a year, people’s lives improved and deaths from hunger stopped. Mao reluctantly went along but was seething inside and waiting for a chance to get rid of Liu. That chance was soon to come in the form of the “Cultural Revolution”.

Getting the A-bomb:
Stalin was dead in 1953 and Khruschev who succeeded him quickly denounced whatever Stalin did. However, he was more gullible than Stalin and Mao tricked him into helping China get the bomb. Mao provoked a war with Taiwan which was protected by America and this would mean American intervention. Mao built up the fear of a nuclear attack due to this by America and in a quid-pro-quo, Russian help arrived to build the bomb for China. Mao’s dream was now complete.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-70):
Mao was waiting for his chance to get back at those whom he hated primarily Liu. Liu had grown in stature because of his courage in repealing the torturous programs and his photographs were now placed alongside Mao’s at every place. He was also immensely liked and respected. To destroy him, Mao needed the army on his side, he got this in the form of Lin Biao who was his long time confidant and head of the army and also shared Mao’s bloodlust and cruelty. With his help and that of Mao’s fourth wife Madame Mao, the “cultural revolution” was launched. The basic concept of this was that the ancient Chinese culture was regressive and was anti-people. Whatever being taught traditionally in schools and all forms of art, theatre was a problem which led to the regression of China. Therefore all those who stood for “culture” had to be punished and mostly liquidated.
This started with a small group set up by Mme Mao called the Cultural Revolution Small Group. This was then extended to have branches in every town and was mostly staffed by young students who were ideologically “pure” and brutally violent. Teachers were beaten to death, artists were rounded up and tortured, anyone suspected being associated with “culture” was killed. There is an instance of a woman teacher who was made to cross from one end of a hall to the other and beaten with shoes by her students simply because she was suspected of being a “rightist”.
The final victim was of course Liu. Liu and his wife were arrested and tortured to death by denying them medicines and proper food. Both remained proud till the end and refused to apologize to Mao. The death toll in this “Revolution” led to only a few million deaths. One of the prime victims of this was Deng who had to spend years in jail. It was this experience that showed him the evils of the regime Mao had created and this led him to change everything once he came to power.

Patch up with America (1970-73):
Having berated America for all his life, Mao needed their support since his relations with Soviets had turned sour and he always feared them attacking China or removing him. His led to the famous thaw with Nixon-Kissinger where Mao and Chou ran circles around the Americans and got access to the latest technologies from the US.

Fallout and mistreatment of close confidants:
Mao felt Lin Biao was getting too powerful so he had him cut to size. Lin fearing for his life tried fleeing to Russia in a plane along with his family. However, his daughter who was brainwashed and loyal to the “Party” informed the guards and they tried preventing Lin from leaving. Lin’s plane did not stack up enough fuel and thus crash landed while leaving China killing him and his family. Chou en Lai was always loyal to Mao and had helped build his image in the world by his suave charm. He was a couple of years younger than Mao and this always made Mao insecure since he did not want to die before Chou. Chou was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder in 1972 which was treatable. However, Mao denied him cancer treatment for a year during which he also overworked Liu who kept dousing diplomatic fires. Finally, Chou got surgery done but this left him bitter and weakened. Chou got Deng back and they formed a group against Mao’s policy.

Last years and death:
Mao became very enfeebled in his last years till 1976 when he died. He could barely see and was mostly in bed. This emboldened Deng and Chou to reverse many of his policies and get a lot of people who were purged reinstated. Chou died soon and his death sparked lot of protests across China. This indicated the unpopularity of Mao and increased Deng’s power. The end was quite insignificant, Mao died in his bed, towards his end he was obsessed with fallen rulers like Nixon, Bhutto and also Chiang Kai Shek who he had run out of China. Till his death, the only thing that motivated him was power.

Post script:
Deng succeeded Mao by outwitting the Gang of Four who were Mao’s favorites – one of them being Mme Mao. As is well known, Deng opened up the economy, almost turning China capitalist and changed the fortunes of China.

Something on Maoism:
If you have read till here, you would have seen that there is nothing spectacularly noble about Maoism. What the Maoists in the world generally believe is that power flows from the barrel of the gun. They also tend to follow the Maoist pattern of capturing power by first dominating the countryside, mobilizing the population and then taking over the cities. This is what happened in Nepal if you have read it. They tend to use the poor, farmers and tribals (as in the case of Naxalites in India) as cannon fodder – the idea is to arm lots of people and send them over as waves for fighting. The other side is wary of losing people, Maoists are not. They believe that any order that is “unjust” has to be first destroyed and then remade so that the people can rule. The leadership of Maoists is always the well educated, intelligent people (the leader of the Maoists in India is Koteshwar Rao aka Kishenji) who are driven by ideology but also by lust for power. This leads them to getting support from intellectuals who are generally left leaning – the Maoists always have a worthwhile cause – that of the poor so that makes their criminal face look just.
What happens after the Maoists come to power – there are various degrees of outcomes. The extreme example if of course Mao’s rule that I just described. Another example is of the Khmer Rouge that came to power in Cambodia in early 1970. They simply arrested all “intellectuals” which meant doctors, engineer, lawyers etc. (sometimes anyone wearing spectacles) and made them work on community farms under very bad circumstances. Needless to say, millions died. One thing that definitely happens in Maoist/Communist regimes is that the leadership lives in luxury, while the “people” whom they claim to represent suffer and mostly die. This is true of all dictatorial regimes of course but we have seen almost every Maoist/Communist regime ending up being dictatorial (harks back to Animal Farm).
If anyone has read about Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists in Nepal, he behaves quite like the aristocrat wearing Rado watches and drinking expensive whisky.
Why I wrote all this is because there is nothing great about Maoists and all their claims of taking up arms for the “dispossessed” are only that – claims. They will end up being like any other ruler but mostly more violent and generally contemptuous and casual about human life. Therefore, we cannot allow the Maoists in India to win because their declared aim is to overthrow the democratic system of India through an armed revolution. That in itself is a problem but more than that, look at the template regimes across the world in history and the present and what you will see is something that is scary, not beneficial. Next time you see an intellectual pontificating on television in the “Big Fight” or “We the People” in favor of the Maoists, think twice and hard.
Hope this did not bore you. My interest in history stems from the fact that it often repeats itself and it is not very well taught in India which creates a revulsion for it. Hope I have been able to shed some light on this controversial but little known man of the twentieth century

Wide Angle 31 - Mao - Part 1

Another day, another dictator. Since the Maoists are creating havoc in India and finally coming to the notice of the “people like us”, I decided to read up a bit on Mao to understand what this is all about. I have known and disliked communism for long because it ultimately leads to tyranny all under the false garb of being for the “people” and also had vague idea of Mao and that he was not such a nice person. I therefore read a very celebrated book called “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday which like the book on Stalin that I wroteonuncovers a lot of papered over facts of Mao’s life. My feeling after reading the book was simply of being “stunned”. The whole world criticizes Hitler and stops at that. If you ask me, after reading about the three “top” dictators, Hitler is 1 * X in terms of tyranny, Stalin 20* X while Mao is probably 100*X. About 70 million deaths are attributed to Mao and this is through the mainstream channels. All this while being venerated all over the communist world and having movements in his name. The book exposes many myths about him and shows us the true person – one who was only interested in power for self and glory. If Hitler did what he did for the German people and the Aryan race, Stalin for Marxism and probably paranoia later on, Mao lived only for himself and sacrificed millions for his power and ambition.
Through this write up, I will write about a few main events in his life and the way he grew from being a peasant’s son to ruler of quarter of the world’s population and then all the foolish schemes that he launched to kill millions of his countrymen. I have split the write up into two parts so that I can keep each part short and can cover the story in detail, today it is part 1, next weekend will be part 2.

Origins and early days:
Mao was born in 1893 into a peasant family in a valley called Shaoshan in the province of Hunan in the heartland of China. He grew up in relative comfort and went off to study in college. He came in contact with Communist party set up in China in 1921. He doubled up as a college lecturer and a worker in the Communist movement but never showed any conformance to beliefs always showing his skills as an opportunist. The Soviets had identified the CCP as the future of their movement in China and had it helped through their international branch called the Comintern. The Soviets were interested in the Outer Mongolia area of China and the existing rulers of China i.e. the emperors were not too inclined to support this position. There was another party called the Nationalists in fray who was mostly comprised of the army generals and nobles. These folks were supportive of Soviet claims and this got them support from Stalin to capture power in 1925. Mao joined the Nationalists by aligning party members under him to join the Nationalists.
Mao had shown his bloodlust during these days when he was made the leader of the Hunan province where he was asked to arrange for revolution against the landlords. He unleashed a brutal regime by liquidating anyone with surplus land and encouraging torture and indiscriminate terror. The specialty of this regime was denunciation meetings where the suspects would be denounced and abused by the entire village for hours and then often tortured and killed in public. This regime was ultimately broken by the Nationalists.

Road to recognition:
The Nationalist leadership ultimately went to a dynamic general Chiang Kai Shek who was not only able but passionately patriotic. He was also against the Communists and acted to destroy the rising communist enclaves in the country. During this time, Mao aligned himself with two prominent bandits in the Jiangxi province and outwitted them to become the leader of their band and a red army in this province. It was in this province that he would rule for many years till the Long March forced him out. The description of his regime again stands out as being totally brutal and typically dictatorial with the locals and peasants squeezed out of every grain of corn they had and the leadership especially Mao rolling in luxury.
Mao had the central CCP leadership in Shanghai send more armies southwards on one pretext or another and simply took over these armies to simply increase his power base. This continued till the fabled Long March happened.

Long March:
Chiang’s armies were squeezing the CCP armies everywhere and this led to the Communists having to flee to the safe areas of Manchuria. History talks about the Long March being the defining moment of Mao’s life when he led the Red Army with lot of bravery away from the Nationalists to safety. Actually, all he was trying to do was to make sure he became Number one in the party by preventing his army merging with that of another formidable red general Peng De Huai. Peng had a much stronger army and a much better relation with Stalin. If the two had merged, Mao would have been overshadowed. Chiang expected these armies to merge too but Mao simply kept marching his armies around very bad terrain to prevent the merging and this led to more than 75% of the army dying along the way. They finally reached Tibet and Mao quickly liquidated the leadership there to become in charge. From there he took another arduous march to the northern province of Manchuria which was next to Soviet Union. Once he reached there, he could connect and get aid from Stalin and thus become the top leader of the CCP. He sacrificed thousands more and achieved this.

Japanese invasion and Mao’s benefit:
The Japanese had a base around Manchuria and ruled a part of China. They had no intention of getting into war with entire China. Neither did Chiang want to fight them because he knew the Chinese army was not as strong as the Japanese. Stalin was scared that if the Japanese did not fight the Chinese, they would invade the Soviet Union. The Reds had a mole in the Nationalist army (called ZZZ) who provoked the Japanese by repeatedly attacking them despite Chiang ordering him not to. Finally, the Japanese had enough and a full blown war started with the Japanese attacking multiple areas of China in 1937. This war lasted 8 years and took some 20 million Chinese lives. It weakened Chiang’s state and enabled Mao to gather an army of 1.3 million. At the beginning of this was, the ratio of Chiang’s army to Mao’s was 60:1, at the end, it was 3:1.
The strategy that Stalin had dictated to the CCP was to cooperate with Chiang against the Japanese so that they stayed occupied in China. Chiang also wanted this to keep the country together. However, Mao ignored Stalin’s diktat and participated minimum in the fight against the Japanese. What the communists did was to fight and drive the Nationalists out of the areas they had won from the Japanese by attacking their rear. Thus, the people who fought and died against the Japanese were the Nationalists while the Communists gained in power and areas. Finally, the war with Japan after the Second World War weakened Japan.

Defeating Chiang:
The Nationalist forces were in much better shape than the Red Army and with renewed vigor, they beat Mao’s forces almost out of China. It was at this moment that America intervened and saved Mao by forcing Chiang to stop the civil war and negotiate with the Reds. Mao used this time to secure Manchuria and link with Soviets who built railways, trained the Red Army and supplied them with armaments. When the war restarted, the Reds could match Chiang’s army and could defeat it at places especially the border areas with Soviet Union which they could not throw the Reds out of. The advantage was with Chiang though but this time Red Moles who were in the top echelons of Chiang’s administration delivered. These moles were placed in Nationalist regime in the early 1920s and nothing was asked of them till this time. One of them was Hu Tsun-nan. He was Chiang’s favorite and trusted General and it was to him that Chiang assigned the task of taking Yenan province which was the capital of Mao.
Hu simply showed as if he was fighting but sacrificed entire divisions to the Communists by informing them of troop movement and having them ambushed. Chiang had blind faith in his men and did not sack Hu till it was too obvious that betrayed after the whole army was destroyed after a year. Another general was Wei Li-huang who was given 550,000 troops in Manchuria to beat the Reds. He too sacrificed the entire army to the Reds. Slowly and steadily, the Reds captured the entire China and Chiang had to flee to Taiwan where he ruled for many years with American support. Chiang lost because he was nicer and less ruthless than Mao. Mao was now the supreme ruler of China – this was 1949, China had fallen to the Communists.

What Mao did after gaining power will be covered in the next Wide Angle. Hope you enjoyed the story so far.

Wide Angle 29 - The Baader Meinhof Complex

Today is about a very good German movie I saw a week back called “The Baader Meinhof Complex”. This movie was with English subtitles and tells the story of the left wing terrorist group called the “Red Army Faction (RAF)” or popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. This group rocked West Germany through the latter part of the 1960s and most of the 1970s before it was brought under control. The movie is very balanced in its depiction of this terrorist group managing to steer clear of romanticizing the personae of the group leaders and their cause and tells the story very dispassionately. It is about a relatively less known phenomenon in history hence thought of writing it up. I am not sure whether this movie will ever play in India but if it does, go ahead and watch it, it is a good watch.
The movie begins with one of the main protagonist Ulirch Meinhof (a journalist to begin with and then one of the leaders after whom the gang is named) in a party reading out an article she has written addressing the visiting Queen of Iran criticizing her about the state of the poor and oppressed in her country. The next scene shows a group of protesters protesting against the visiting Shah of Iran near his hotel. This demonstration is brutally broken up by a gang of pro-Shah thugs first and then the police who beat the daylights out of the unarmed and innocent protesters who are mainly students. One student Benno Ohnesorg is shot in the head by a policeman and this leads to escalation of tensions between the left wing students and the government. This was the match that lit the forest fire to follow. Meinhof kept defending the students on television and through her columns and was attacked for her views by the society and the government.
The next big incident that incited the students and led to the formation of this terrorist group was the shooting of left wing student leader Rudi Dutschke by a deranged Right wing young man. The third big leader of the gang Gudrun Ensslin was the daughter of a priest but had very radical views about the supposed imperialist policies of America in Vietnam and West German support for the Americans. The BM gang started its first action with Gudrun and her lover Andreas Baader planting a bomb in a department stores. They were arrested for this but managed to convert their trial into a show and gain publicity for their cause. They were sentenced to three years in prison but were given parole post which they escaped first to France and then to Italy where they went underground. At this point, Meinhof was still a journalist and was actively writing articles supporting the BM group.
The group slipped back into West Germany and formed the RAF and started attacking different targets. Baader was arrested while driving a stolen car. At this point, the gang was staying at Meinhof’s residence, they hatched a plan there to spring Baader out of prison through Meinhof’s help without implicating her. However, when the event actually happened, Meinhof also escaped with them after they had shot a security guard at the library where Meinhof was supposed to interview Baader (this was a ruse). This marked the decision that Meinhof made about joining the RAF and become a full blown terrorist. From then on, life was on the run for her, her boyfriend and her two daughters. Before moving on, the one notable thing about these revolutionaries was the emancipation of women in the group and the complete sexual freedom that the members enjoyed. There is a scene in which Gudrun is meeting up with a new student recruit into the gang – she is in a bathtub bathing and coolly asks the recruit to strip and join her in the bathtub all the time interviewing him. Baader comes in and is totally cool about all this despite his girlfriend being in such a state with another guy.
The group next goes to Jordan to receive training from the Palestinian guerrillas who are fighting the Israelis. The cultural clash shown there is worth praise – the women leaders are in tight miniskirts which the Arab men find incredulous. In another scene, the group is sunbathing naked on the terrace of a building which the guards are enjoying. The leader of the Arabs walks in and brusquely asks the women to dress up which they simply ignore. There is also a clash between the group and the Arabs regarding the training since the Arabs are trying to teach them normal warfare and the group wants urban guerilla training.
The group then returns to Germany and intensifies its attacks, bombing cars, offices, robbing banks, buying more weapons etc. The thing that stands apart in all these acts is the more than equal participation of women. The group is hunted down by launch of the largest manhunt in West Germany and they are nabbed one by one ending with Ulrich Meinhof being arrested. They are all kept in the Stammheim prison under solitary confinement and a lengthy trial begins. The trial is very popular in Germany and the accused become heroes in public opinion. They win the appeal against solitary confinement and are allowed to gather together and are given television and books. The second generation of RAF members is now ready outside which intensifies the attacks which leads to clamp down against the leaders in prison with their rights being taken away.
The strain of prison and the trial shows on the leaders and Meinhof is slowly hounded out by the group especially Gudrun who dislikes her intellectual pretensions. Meinhof commits suicide soon after. There are a couple of efforts to get these leaders released by storming the German embassy in Switzerland but they don’t work. Another attempt is made by kidnapping one of the most powerful industrialists in Germany Hanns Schleyer. The final attempt to free these leaders is made by the RAF members in conjunction with Palestinian fighters when they hijack a Lufthansa Flight and take it to Somalia. The RAF leaders are hopeful that they would be released. However, the plane is stormed by German military and the hostages are released. The hopes of the RAF leaders are dashed and they end up killing themselves in their cells thus bringing the worst days of the RAF terrorism to an end. This sequence of events is also called the “German Autumn”. This came about in the year 1977. The second and third generation of RAF terrorists continued their activities but with lesser force and the group was formally dissolved in 1998.

Most of the Western world was rocked by left wing movements especially from students on campuses in the sixties and seventies. This was the baby boomer, post war generation in the West especially Europe and US which had seen renewed prosperity and also the harmful imperialistic activities of the Western block. The anti Vietnam war movement on American campuses which was brutally broken by riot police, the French students movement which paralyzed the nation for months and the German movement just described are some examples of this great leftward surge of public opinion during the sixties and seventies. This was of course replaced by the movement towards the right in US and Europe and the victory of the West over Communism in the eighties with Reagan and Thatcher leading the “free” world.
What is it that made the students of these countries protest against the very environment that had made them prosperous to begin with. My theory is for the middle band of people who belong to the middle to upper middle class. Barring the obvious associations of class with ideology e.g. a labor union leader’s son becoming a communist or a rich industrialist’s son becoming a conservative, the ideological leanings of a person are mostly decided by the amount of struggles that the person has undergone personally in his life. More often than not, those who have grown in the lap of luxury (or relative comfort) feel the “pain” for the poor in the “liberal heart” way and often end up being leftist supporters at best or do something violent like the RAF or the founders of Naxalism. Those who have come up the hard way are usually conservative and support the right wing theory (for details of conservative v/s liberal, please refer Wide Angle 12). The clearest example is Nehru and Sardar Patel. Nehru grew up in comfort and became a leftist, Patel grew up poor and was self made, he was a right winger.
I have seen these strains in lot of people I know. Essentially, the self made folks believe in making their own destiny and are against government intervention, doles and largesse. The privileged lot bleeds in its heart and often want to help the poor and ends up supporting big government with the “jholawala” brigade. This is what happened in the West during the sixties and seventies with the students embracing leftist ideology. The leftist thought ran out of steam when their mother ship i.e. the Soviet Union was shown up for its moral and fiscal bankruptcy and folded up.
I’d love to hear contrary views to my theory above but I believe it holds good in most of the cases, it works at least in my case. It will be interesting to watch what happens to our kids when they grow up seeing that they are so much more privileged than the others – any bets?

Wide Angle 28 - Court of the Red Tsar

“The biggest fear that people in a cannibal society would harbor would be that of sleeping. One could never be sure that one would wake up if one slept soundly. “Are you hungry, I know the look in your eye, you are hungry, stay away from me”. – Jerry Seinfeld.

Hi All,
It has become warmer here with temperatures between 10 to 15 degrees which means no thermals and single jackets. So wondrous the human body is – if it was this cold in India, we would have been shivering – like Einstein said, everything is relative. Anyway, hope the last Wide Angle stirred something in you – didn’t hear from too many people. This week I write about this fantastic book that I read over a period of 5 weeks. It is 600 page long but very interesting which meant I was able to finish it – been quite a while since I have read such a long book. The book is called “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and is written by Simon Sebag Montefiore. The author is a British historian and has travelled extensively through the ex Soviet empire in the nineties after it collapsed. He also did an extensive study of the Stalinist times through interviews with different people associated with that period and studying recently opened archives of the key players of Stalin’s regime. From these, he has constructed a fascinating inner world of Stalin’s court and the narration of the major historical events through the eyes of this court.

I had briefly touched upon Stalin in Wide Angle 5 i.e. Animal Farm where I had written that Animal Farm was an allegory for what turn the Communist revolution took under Stalin. When I finished reading this book, I can almost relate everything that is described in Animal Farm to events in the book that I am writing about. Wonder how George Orwell was so well informed. For the communists, Stalin is God, the Karats and Yechurys and Achutanandans of the world have pictures of Stalin in their offices. Karunanidhi has even named his name after Stalin. However, for most accounts, Stalin is placed up there with Hitler in terms of deaths caused (20 million deaths directly caused excluding WW2). I really wonder how ideology can blind people so much that they worship a mass murderer – after reading this book, I was mostly disgusted by Stalin and co but I was also impressed the way he led the Soviets to victory in WW2. In today’s column, I will touch upon a few aspects of Stalin’s life from this book and while doing so highlight what an unbelievable world these people lived in and what havoc they caused to so many lives while building a great empire.

Stalin was born in 1878 in a vassal state of the Tsarist Russian empire called Georgia. This state is distinctly un-Russian with historically being a different kingdom with its own culture. People from Georgia are more like Sicilians with vengeful attitudes, quirky natures and emotional cores. Born to a cobbler, Stalin became associated with the Bolveshiks (Communism started in Russia with this name) around 1905 and steadily climbed up its ranks through repeated imprisonments and exiles by the Tsarist forces during the long struggle for the Revolution. He became Lenin’s close confidant along with Trotsky and after capture of power, became a member of the government. On Lenin’s death, Trotsky was named as his successor but it was Stalin with his ruthless drive and partnerships who managed to become Premier in 1924.

The initial years of power:
In his initial years as Premier, Stalin was more of a first among equals rather than being the complete dictator he later became. He had many close buddies who were his partners during the revolutionary struggle – Molotov who later became PM and then foreign minister during WW2, Kaganovich (Jewish) who ran railways and was Stalin’s Deputy, Sergo Ordzhonikidze who was his close friend and Heavy Industries Minister, Bulganin who was Defense minister, Voroshilov who was a defense commissar, Yagoda who was his secret police chief and ran the NKVD (predecessor of KGB) and Andrei Zhdanov who was his friend and a fellow intellectual of caliber equal to Stalin. I have named all these people because what follows next is what happened to them. These were magical times for the friends and the book describes these folks as the Magnates of the empire. The revolution was new and they all were building up a country with the newest dogma around which was a religious creed to them – Bolshevism. Life was about working hard and partying hard with Stalin often leaning on them for advice and support. These magnates worked feverishly planning the five year plans, executing them, then holidaying for weeks in country houses (Dachas in Russian) with Stalin.
Stalin was married to Nadya Alliluyeva at that time though this marriage was rocky with both being unable to connect to each other. The wives of the magnates were also very strong during this phase with each boasting of personal connect with Stalin and joining in the court as well as parties. Most of the wives were also important post holders in the Communist Party as well as Government.

Turning point:
Something snapped in Stalin when his wife Nadya committed suicide, she was depressed due to which she took this step. She was survived by three children with Svetlana being the youngest and most favorite of Stalin. From this point, Stalin became the ruthless person inside which led to so much havoc. He considered many of the wives being instrumental or at least not having prevented this suicide which was to have an effect later.

Collectivization/anti Kulak drive:
Before the death of Nadya and during the sweet years of co-existence with the magnates, the Communist party had started with something called “Collectivized farming”. This meant that there was going to be no private property from now on and all farmers had to collect on a communal farm where they would raise crops together and be paid accordingly. This was resisted by the Kulaks (term used for the relatively affluent farmers in Russia). This resistance was met by tremendous force by the party which resulted in deportation and massacre of hundreds of thousands of farmers. In their zeal to collect the targeted quotas of grains, the party workers squeezed every grain out of reluctant farmers often branding even a small farmer as a “kulak”. Public trials of kulaks were common and so were executions. This brought about a tremendous famine in the countryside due to botched up farming production which emptied villages and towns and killed a few million people. The book describes the total apathy and denial shown by Stalin and his magnates who thought the negative reports were simply fabrications by the enemies and ordered even stringent measures.

The Terror:
Around 1933, the behavior of Stalin towards his court started changing with his patience for opposition running thin. This is where Yezov (Blackberry) stepped in, he was a bisexual dwarf who was also a sadist. The terror officially started around 1936 when they first arrested a couple of “rightist” peers of Stalin - Rykov and Bukharin and arranged show trials for them. Both of them were executed with their families also sent to slave labor camps. Yezov was relentless in his pursuit of “enemies of the people” and soon turned his attention to liquidating the regional bosses of the party along with their families. Then they turned their attention to the Army where most of the top generals were arrested. One of the most brilliant generals and Chief of Staff Tukhachevsky was arrested, tortured and executed for being a Trotskyite and this was followed with a purging of the Army off its top generals. Through this period, Stalin kept ticking and signing off lists of people who were to be arrested and liquidated. The chain was such that the arrested people were tortured brutally and made to denounce others who were in turn arrested and tortured to reveal other names.
After this, Stalin turned his attention to the wives of his closest comrades and many of them were arrested and killed. The wife of his closest confidant Poskrebyshev called Bronka was arrested and Poskrebyshev never got out of this shock though he continued to serve Stalin with the same intensity. In most of the cases, Stalin encouraged the comrades whose wives were arrested to remarry. The Terror also touched his own family wherein his brothers in law Stanislav Redens and Alyosha Svanidze were arrested and tortured and then sent to slave camps. The terror of course ended by taking the life of the person who had caused most of it – Yezov. This coincided with the rise of a remarkable secret policeman Lavrenti Beria who arrested Yezov and took over his role and became Stalin’s closest confidante.
It was during this time that Sergo who was Stalin’s closest friend was so harassed by the Party that he committed suicide.

The War:
Stalin knew that he was no match for Hitler in a fight since the army was recently purged off its best generals so he got Molotov to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Germany. Of course, Hitler betrayed them and attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The book describes the moments before the invasion when Stalin was getting detailed reports of German troop mobilization on his borders but chose to ignore them and threatened anyone who tried to show it up. When the attack happened, Stalin went into a depression for a day when the magnates seriously thought of replacing him. He was back though and was soon directing operations. The first year was disastrous for the Soviets with defeats everywhere and German tanks in sight of the Kremlin. These disasters were primarily caused because of the amateurish magnates leading troops on the front and making a hash of it. Soon Stalin realized his folly and handed the war effort over to Marshal Zukov and other professional Generals who reversed the war first at Stalingrad and then at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history). However, he took a momentous decision before this when they were in two minds whether to evacuate Moscow or not – Stalin stayed put working from an underground railway station while bombings happened overhead.
The strategy of throwing in millions of men (not caring for lost lives) into the effort along with breakneck production of armaments at gun point worked and the Russians drove back the Germans out of their territory and eventually captured Berlin. This is where Stalin was at his most glorious and became a world statesman along with Roosevelt and Churchill. It was at this point that the Terror had also stopped. It was soon to restart.

The Jew Massacre:
After the war started the Cold War with America. In Stalin’s mind, the Jews who were omnipresent in his party and government as well as arts and society were potentially American agents and this belief led to disaster. Many Jewish intellectuals, artists, scientists were arrested by Beria, tortured and murdered. This terror also touched Molotov’s very talented wife Polina who was accused of being a “Jew spy” and arrested and sentenced to slave labor. At this point around 1948-49, Stalin was fatigued due to the stresses of the war and was increasingly becoming senile and paranoid. This helped Beria who played up these fears and had many more people killed. Even Zhdanov who was Stalin’s peer and a gifted intellectual fell out of favor and died of severe disease ignored by his friend.

The Doctor’s plot:
The most ridiculous episode of this entire show was the Doctor’s plot which happened from 1951 up to Stalin’s death in 1953. Stalin suspected that the top doctors of his regime were involved in a plot to kill his magnates (Zhdanov’s death was pinned on them) and this led to arrest, torture and execution of many a top doctors in the state. His closest doctor who was also the family doctor of the entire cabinet Vinogradov was arrested and tortured simply because he had suggested that Stalin take it easy due to his health and age. The architect of this all was Beria and his people especially Abekumov who was another rising star of NKVD. This drama continued up to Stalin’s death.

Before his death, the magnates and their lifestyles had become very depraved. There used to be drinking sessions every night that lasted till dawn where Stalin made everyone drink till they puked or passed out. Beria had a special office where he brought and raped women. Most of the magnates had looted priceless articles from all over the world. Some months before Stalin’s death, his attention had now turned to Molotov and Mikoyan who were being excluded from meetings and it was almost certain that they were next in line to be arrested. Suddenly, Stalin suffered a stroke. His bodyguards called the magnates who came in and saw but did not have the courage to call a doctor since if Stalin woke up, he would nix them for trying to challenge him. Nothing happened for 12 hours after which they called doctors. Stalin had lost a lot of faculty by then and eventually died. Beria was most likely to succeed him but Molotov and Khruschev had him arrested through General Zukov and he was shot soon after. As all know, Khruschev succeeded Stalin and opened up the regime for the better till it got closed back under Brezhnev.
This is where the book ends and the prologue states where all the prime actors and their descendants are today.

Don’t have much to analyze here, I am more amazed about how someone can cause so much damage to multitudes and still live with a clear conscience not to mention strut around. How can people go about normally - the magnates that - is knowing what they were doing to their closest comrades. How can the suffering of so many not affect the people in charge who continued to inflict it? I believe that ideology (which includes religion as well) does this to people where nothing can come in the way of achieving that glorious utopia which really is nothing but the satisfaction of fantasies and egos of a few people who are at the helm of it – ideology is nothing but a tool for use by these people. The strangest part is that children of Zhdanov, Molotov, Beria all respect Stalin till date despite knowing what he did to them and others. Most of the people he executed cried “Long live Stalin, long live Bolshevism” before they were shot. I thank God that these ugly regimes were destroyed along with the eclipse of the ideology as well. Their remnants still lurk around in India, hope they continue to remain scantly relevant the way they are.

I know it was a long write up, it was very painful for me to write because there was so much content and I didn’t know what to keep and exclude. This was the best I could do in terms of brevity. Hope you enjoyed reading.