Stolid bovine resistant to change. China’s animal of the year.
We were rather happy to send 2008 packing, joking that 2009 would have to try very hard to equal its horrors. Unfortunately, 2009 is trying pretty hard and it has a head start. Despite the newfound determination of the Ministry of External Affairs Pakistan continues to play shape-shifter on the terror issue. And right in the first week of the year, the Satyam scam sets markets see-sawing like a bad hangover from 2008.
It’s caught us by surprise, but the Chinese knew this was coming. By their reckoning, 2008 was the Year of the Rat, characterised by uncertainty. And 2009, which begins on our Republic Day, is the Year of the immovable Brown Ox in which no change is possible. So put away that ‘Yes We Can’ slogan, because the Chinese say you can’t.
Actually, we too should have known you can’t. We were improbably hopeful in imagining that with the US backing our play, we could force Pakistan to respond to the crisis as a responsible, united nation. Pakistan’s power structure has been fragmented and its political ethic poisoned by decades of cold warrioring. Last year, a civil society movement may have helped oust Musharraf, but it will take a while for normalcy to return. The MEA’s aggressive petitioning of the international community is also a welcome development, but it could take years to regain the ground lost in decades of fruitless bilateral talks.
As for the Satyam scam, we were far too confident about our systems. They were indeed installed after the disaster wrought by the late, unlamented Harshad Mehta, but they cannot prevent corporate governance failures. Like the Enron scam, such situations develop over time and are typically imperceptible to regulators. It’s not like an executive flops into his expensive lumbar-support chair one day and decides: today, I shall inflate this quarter’s revenues by a billion dollars. He pads his figures by a few thousand to meet targets and secure his incentive. He may not even be criminally motivated. He is usually confident of making up the difference in the next quarter.
But his inflated figure becomes the base for the next quarter’s targets and to keep up in a competitive market, he must inflate revenues again by a higher volume. This cycle continues until the difference between imagination and reality is imponderably huge. No one notices until white lie blossoms into black sin.
In sum, don’t expect 2009 to bring change. It’s the year of the brown ox, the plodding beast; the colour of immovable earth. “Bite down on old, rotten wood,” as the I Ching advises, and hope that this too will pass. Seriously, it’s in the authorised version.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine