Monday, December 11, 2017

LOOKING BEYOND A SHAM ELECTION


No harm would have come to the Congress Party if Rahul Gandhi was named President one fine morning. Much harm was done to its image by staging a charade of an election. As many as 89 sets of nomination papers filed for Shri Gandhi. Not even one nam-ke-wastay opponent. (Dissidents? What dissidents?) The party's dutiful “Central Election Committee” wanted a day to scrutinise the papers. A deadline was fixed for withdrawal of nominations. Then voting. Who were they trying to fool? Why?

Among the first to react was Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Congressman who has just lost his Congressmanship. Off-centre as ever, he underlined the meaninglessness of the election by proclaiming that Rahul's elevation was as natural as Mughal succession. “After Jehangir, Shah Jehan came. Was an election held? After Shah Jehan it was understood that Aurangazeb would be the leader”.

Understood by whom? There was a bit of humbug there introduced by Mani. The Mughals had no tradition of passing power from father to son. Shah Jehan did want to crown his eldest son Dara Shikoh, a thinker and religious liberal though poor in military matters. The ambitious Aurangazeb defeated various opponents, then turned on Dara accusing him of being no longer a Muslim. Dara was betrayed by a general and was eventually executed. Aurangazeb cut his brother's head and sent it to his father detained in Agra Fort.

So why did Mani compare Rahul Gandhi's succession to that of Aurangazeb? Nothing disloyal, to be sure; he is known as one of the few civilised men in politics. But he loves intellectual mischief, as most intellectuals do. He probably wanted to give another handle to his nemesis, Narendra Modi, and watch the fun. He did that once by revealing something nobody had noticed till then – that Narendra Modi began as a chaiwalla. The Modi juggernaut used that bit with great success. Naturally Modi seized the Aurangazeb bit as well. He has been having a ball comparing the Congress with the Mughals.

Of course the BJP has no moral right to criticise the Aurangazeb in the Congress when its own leaders are saffron-clad Aurangazebs. Were L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi sent to pasture through an election? How many BJP chief ministers became chief ministers through inner-party elections? The Indian voter is not dumb. He and she can see the hypocrisy of one party accusing another of wrongdoings when all of them wallow in wrongdoings. Dynastic autocracy is no different from personality-based autocracy.

Fortunately for the Congress, its tactical mistakes have not so far dented the image-boost that Rahul Gandhi acquired in recent months. The rise of Patel politics in Gujarat and the remarkable electoral setbacks the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, has suffered in Delhi, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Rajasthan, Guwahati and even the Central University of Gujarat point to a trend. Modi will remain unbeatable in oratory. But recent events show that, without oratory, his opponents can attract some attention.

Image matters in public life: Richard Nixon's camera-unfriendly “7 o'clock shadow” undid him before the fresh and friendly face of John Kennedy. Modi's dreamlike idealism will remain unrivalled, but it can no longer be separated from the image of Amit Shah who has become his alter ego. Nor can he escape from the negative vibes produced by his Finance Minister who goes on introducing half-baked reforms, then keeps correcting them in bits and pieces, all the time claiming superior wisdom incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. Image matters – and the image of the Government today is not what it was yesterday.

Opposition forces have gained ground support in Gujarat, but Gujarat is one state the BJP simply cannot afford to lose. If they lose Gujarat, they lose India. So they will use every trick in the book and then some to win. They have already got help from squirrel parties like NCP and AAP who will field their own squirrels and thus split anti-BJP votes. BJP strategists must now protect EVMs to prevent Hardik Patel from tampering with them, and protect the Election Commission also to prevent Alpesh and Jignesh from misusing it. Got it?

For Rahul Gandhi a setback in Gujarat will not be the end of the road. It will be the beginning of a new journey. Everyone is looking for a New India. The BJP spoiled its chances by equating New India with patriotic lynchings. A new Congress can seize the opportunity.

A new Congress? Ay, there's the rub.





Monday, December 4, 2017

JUDGES MUST CROSS LAKSHMAN REKHA


Jawaharlal Nehru showed the judiciary its place when he said in the Constituent Assembly in 1949: "No Supreme Court can make itself a third chamber. No Supreme Court and no judiciary can stand in judgment over the sovereign will of Parliament. If we go wrong here and there, it can point it out, but in the ultimate analysis, where the future of the [country] is concerned, no judiciary can come in the way. And if it comes in the way, ultimately, the whole constitution is a creature of Parliament".

Ravi Shankar Prasad is no Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, his party has deleted Nehru from its memory pad. But the Law Minister was on Nehru's page when he, too, showed the judiciary its place. His phraseology was different because it was meant primarily to please his chief, but the spirit was the same when he told judges at a Law Day meeting: The people of India trust the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister possesses the nuclear button, that's how much the people trust him. Yet the Prime Minister through the Law Minister cannot be trusted to have a fair judge appointed. Why don't you trust the Prime Minister?

That is a self-serving approach to electoral democracy. A declamatory answer to the Law Minister's declamatory question would be: The Supreme Court does not trust the Government for the same reasons that the Government does not trust the Supreme Court. Such mutual mistrust suits the citizen because it will ensure a fair measure of checks and balances.

Justice J.S.Khehar gave a pointed answer to the Law Minister when he said "the judiciary is mandated to shield all citizens against discrimination and abuse of state power". The curse of party politics as played in India is that power is abused by all parties. This is evident in the appointment of governors, in giving undue favours to relatives, in promoting the interests of crony capitalists.

A Government favourite, Pahlaj Nichalani, was made film certification board chief; he proved such a liability that he had to be removed. The Pune film institute was reduced to a laughing stock by another BJP favourite, Gajendra Chauhan. His replacement, Anupam Kher, has more filmic credentials but his principal credential is that he is a BJP bhakt. Come to think of it, what about Raghuram Rajan's exit from the Reserve Bank?

All governments want pliable people in key positions, from the Reserve Bank to the CBI. All governments want a pliable judiciary. Indira Gandhi used crude authoritarianism to achieve her purpose. The present government passed a law that gave the Law Ministry a say in the appointment and transfer of judges. But Justice Khehar's 5-judge bench struck it down on the ground that the judiciary must remain insulated and independent from organs of governance -- a position India's citizenry will wholeheartedly support.

This does not mean that a Supreme Court collegium is a perfect arrangement. With embarrassing frequency, collegium-backed appointments have favoured sons and uncles and promoted private interests. Judges have faced impeachment and one is currently in jail. But the solution to a flawed system is not the installation of another flawed system.

We had a taste of what would happen if this Government were to have its way in appointing judges. The eminent jurist Gopal Subramanian's name was put up by the collegium for appointment to the Supreme Court. When resistance came, he withdrew his name with dignity. It transpired that he was once the amicus curiae on behalf of the Supreme Court in the Shorabuddin Sheikh encounter killing case, which the BJP has turned into the most politically sensitive case in modern India. The Government's resistance to collegium recommendations led, as CJI T.S.Thakur said last year, to 478 High Court positions being vacant and "people languishing in jails for 13 years without a hearing".

The idealism that propelled Nehru lost its meaning even when his party was in power. The "sovereign will of Parliament" became a farce when gangsters and money-bags entered the House as "elected representatives of the people". The first two chambers Nehru had in mind lost credibility while the third, the judiciary, despite black sheep, remained a saving grace. That's why Subramanyam Swamy was unconvincing when he argued, in the 2G spectrum corruption case, that the courts should remain within the Lakshman Rekha of executive wisdom. Justice Ganguly intervened: "It was only when Seeta crossed the Lakshman Rekha that Ravana was killed". May the judiciary continue to cross executive rekhas and help kill the Ravanas roaming around.

Monday, November 27, 2017

RAHUL HAS AN OPPORTUNITY, BUT...


Circumstances have brought about a change in Rahul Gandhi. More complex circumstances are forcing the Congress Party to change. Gujarat elections are the first of a three-stage test that will decide whether the Congress lives or dies (the others being Karnataka elections a year from now and then the general election). The party is fighting bravely in Gujarat, and shrewedly, too, if the alliances with Patidars and Dalits are any indication. But is that enough to get the better of the richest party in the country? (Reports mention, not hundreds, but thousands of crores of rupees being brandished about. So much for the victory over black money).

The Congress needs an internal revolution to survive. This is history's revenge. As a national movement for independence, it had earned the emotional backing of people en masse. Independence won, it should have wound up, as Gandhi advised, so that political organisations would have a level playing field in the new game of democracy. It chose instead to take unfair advantage of the afterglow of the freedom struggle, thereby becoming more equal than others. That advantage lasted only a few years. Then rot set in.

The undemocratic nature of dynastic rule made the rot spread fast. Rahul Gandhi's ascent to yuvaraj status brought the Congress to its lowest ebb thanks to his absences and arrogance in the early stages. Recall his barging into a press conference and publicly downgrading his own party's prime minister by tearing up an ordinance issued by the Government. It came as a surprise that the same man impressed audiences with his mature ways during his US visit in September. At 47, it was about time.

The flowering of Rahul Gandhi gives hope that his appointment as Congress President (expected in December) may bring about the reforms the party badly needs. The first priority is to give the party a new energy with a set of young faces. This won't be easy because every Congress leader above 60 is convinced that he deserves to be the Prime Minister of India. Note how P. Chidambaram objected when A.K.Antony's name came up as a possibility for the vice-presidentship of the party. That Antony cannot unite even warring Congressmen in Kerala is as evident as the fact that Chidambaram does not have a single constituency in this vast and fertile country that he can consider safe. But nothing stops Congressmen from pulling down one another.

India is the only democracy in the world where the Indian principle of vanaprastha is unacceptable to politicians. Rahul Gandhi's task is to bring in a New Guard without driving the Old Guard into belligerence. Some may resort to demonstrative vengeance by walking over to the BJP, but the Congress President will do well to hold fast knowing that there is a mood change in the country.

BJP has been in power long enough for people to see the gap between word and deed at the government level. The Prime Minister holds forth on grand dreams, great principles and wonderful ideals. On the ground, the jobless turn desperate, farmers abandon all hopes, the middleclass go crazy over GST-Aadhar idiocyncracies and, worst of all, a new criminality called lynching becomes part of a new patriotism. These sham patriots publicly call for the beheading of people they don't like. The Government encourages them by not taking any meaningful action to put them down.

That all this is done in the name of Hinduism must be abhorrent to a great many Hindus, hence the change in the public mood. In all religions the fanatics compromise the faithful. Atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition made a mockery of Christianity in Europe. The murderous advances of fundamentalism violate Islam across the world. Sanatana Dharma had sustained its greatness until narrow political ends turned it into an electioneering tool. India deserves to get back to a state of equilibrium where the faiths that sustain people are not misused for petty political purposes.

The BJP will continue to use religion as a polarising force because obviously it is unable to do the right thing: Winning popular support through policies that make life easier for the people. That the public has recognised this reality is Rahul Gandhi's opportunity. Across the country there is a growing realisation that something somehow must put an end to a culture that enables self-styled nationalists to offer rewards for cutting off an actress's nose. It is a shame that we have a system that does not put such anti-nationals in jail.

Monday, November 20, 2017

India has broken its own traditions by joining US-led strategic group. This will restrict Delhi's options


Did India gain from last week's Southeast Asia summit? The big takeaway, as admitted by our External Affairs spokesmen, was a "deepening of engagement" with the US. This is useful upto a point. America is the only power with the capacity to checkmate an increasingly assertive China. But America's interest in using this power for the common good is open to doubt. President Trump is basically an "America First" bargainer and he was quite happy bargaining his way into $235 billion business deals with China on his way to the ASEAN summit. This narrow vision of the US President makes our big takeaway from the summit look not all that big.

In a broader strategic sense also, the wisdom of India joining a quadrilateral alliance against China is questionable. The 'quad' as it is now called was originally a pentagon, but Singapore, recognising the elephant in the room, withdrew. Australia is an existential ally of America. Japan, worried about China's growing might, clutches every available straw but also tries to mend its ties with Beijing. India has the biggest stakes in the game with border disputes on the one hand and Pakistan's scheming on the other. The traditional posture of non-alignment would have given India more space for bilateral diplomacy.

The External Affairs Ministry claims that Southeast Asia sees India as a "dependable partner" and wants it to be "more assertive" with Beijing. This is self-deception. The fact is that, barring Vietnam, all countries in the region have reconciled to China's dominance. Singapore's is the most calculated switch for it plans to be a hub of Xi Jinping's dream project, the Belt-and-Road network. The Philippines faced the ground reality in a different way. In August it had tried to put up a makeshift structure on a sandbank within its territorial waters.China despatched a naval force whereupon Manila stopped work and pulled out its troops. China isn't open to any compromise.

Vietnam is different because of history. Although China was on its side during the Vietnam wars, the two countries have been in conflict from the third century BCE. Modern guerrilla warfare was said to have been invented by the Trung sisters who led the rebellion against China in 43 CE. After Vietnam defeated America, Chinese troops invaded its northern region leading to tens of thousands of deaths on both sides. China withdrew without victory. The ugly episode was the result of Vietnam destroying the tyrannical Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; China saw Pol Pot as an ally.

More consequential was a Chinese naval attack on Vietnamese boats in 1988. Tiny Vietnamese islands in the nearby waters were taken over by China. That was early warning about what has become China's mainstream policy today: Militarising all islands in the region under the Chinese flag.

Vietnam is not big enough to engage China militarily. But then, it was not big enough to take on the US either. Yet its barefoot army defeated the world's most powerful war machine. The Vietnamese people's spirit of independence combined with their genius for innovation will pose a challenge China may not face elsewhere. The Vietnamese will fight for more centuries if necessary.

From 1988 India has been involved in oil exploration off the Vietnamese coast, ignoring Chinese protests. This India-Vietnam collaboration has political advantages. But India's best strategic option is to be in active negotiations with China. Relations with other countries, prudently managed, can strengthen India's position in such negotiations -- relations with US, Russia, Europe and even Vietnam and major stand-alone powers like Iran.

This is where identification with just one power group led by the US becomes a liability. The US has a record of refusing to pass on technology of any kind to India whereas Russia has given high-end military ware along with technology transfer. Ironically, India's deepening of engagement with the US seems to have coincided with a worsening of engagement with Russia.

Russian news portals have reported that India allowed an American technical team to inspect INS Chakra, the top-secret Russian nuclear submarine on lease to India from 2012. India has denied the report, but will Russian media play up such a story without political clearance from above? This happens when India wants another nuclear submarine from Russia.

The "Indo-US global strategic partnership" is good for the US, but India ought to develop ideas that are good for India. Being a junior member in a US-led quad is playing the US game. Smartness lies in getting others play the Indian game.


Monday, November 13, 2017

DeMo, GST, etc: How to create a mess, then make it messier. Now, link your Aadhar number to your sambar-vada


It is difficult to imagine that a full year has passed since 1000-rupee notes disappeared from our world. Champions and critics marked the occasion by bitterly attacking one another. The champions were highpitched as they celebrated the anniversary and boasted about three lakh fake companies that were closed down and the detection of fraud involving Rs 4000 crore. Quoting their rhyme-loving leader, they said hard work had beaten Harvard.

In a country so cleansed, the critics were handicapped. But their numbers were large. A survey by this newspaper showed that half the people (47.58 percent) thought that DeMo was a bad idea. As many as 60 percent said it failed to reduce black money; 66.52 percent said it did not eliminate corruption.

When Manmohan Singh said in Parliament that notebandi was "legalised blunder", he didn't cut much ice because he was a Congressman and his records as a Congress Prime Minister was pathetic. But he got more mileage when he spoke as an economist in Ahmedabad last week and asked: "By questioning bullet trains does one become anti-national"?

We have forgotten those who died amid the chaos of notebandi. Manmohan Singh said "more than 100" had died. Wire services listed names and locations of 90, including a bank peon in Pune who succumbed to stress handling large crowds 12 hours a day, and many elderly people who simply collapsed waiting in queues.

Government partisans said the deaths had nothing do with the currency reform. Finance Minister Jaitley dismissed "initial inconveniences" and said the absence of social unrest and "any significant economic disruption" showed that DeMo was a great achievement.

There was no social unrest even when the Emergency denied citizens the right to life. But people kicked out Indira Gandhi. On disruption, the Honourable Minister could not have been more wrong. Take just one example: Surat and Tirupur, crown jewels of India's textile exports, were devastated overnight. It was a 400-crore-a-day business in Surat, a 50,000-crore-a-year backbone in Tirupur employing ten lakh workers. Surat was cut down by half. Tirupur, dependent wholly on textiles (unlike Surat which had diamonds, too), was reduced to a graveyard. Are these, too, "initial conveniences?"

The obstinacy with which the Government continues to justify every detail of its decision adds further dimensions to the damage already done. As Kaushik Basu pointed out: "A bigger worry than the demonetisation itself is the failure to recognise that it was a mistake. That is what is getting investors and businessmen worried about future policy decisions".

The biggest conundrum is that, to this day, nobody knows what it was all about. To cut off black money? To starve terrorists of funds? To promote digital economy? The Honourable Finance Minister swears that all these policy objectives have been achieved. It must be one of the great pleasures of life to sit in an ivory tower and believe that you are the wisest that Brahma ever created.

But Brahma himself will have trouble figuring out the sarkari logic regarding high-value currency. We were told that 1000- and 500- rupee notes were made illegal because they made it easier for bad people to store unaccounted money. Then why were 2000-rupee notes introduced, making it easier still for bad people? Within days of the pink note's appearance, Indian genius produced stacks of fake 2000-rupee notes. Stacks of banned old currency are still being transported around by traders who ain't fools. What's going on?

What's going on is a huge big mess. Notebandi created a confusion that other brainwaves compounded, making life miserable for everyone. GST was supposed to simplify the tax system. What it has done is: You pay tax when you earn money, and you pay tax when you spend your money. Worse, you pay more for your sambar-vada and your vitamin pill. There is a GSTN, a network to make tax-paying easy. But when you pay something, the receipt says something else. Errors are justified as server delays and/or session timeouts.

Then there is Aadhar, a simple idea turned into a torture chamber. One day you are told to link Aadhar with your marriage certificate. The next day you are told to wait until the courts decide whether your marriage is fake or love-jihad. You then have to link your Aadhar to your pancard, the page number of the book you are reading, the number of vada-pavs you can eat in one go and finally your dhobi account. Never forget it is a privilege to be a citizen linked to links.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Abdul Karim Telgi, Harshad Mehta were geniuses of crime; But a philosophy evolved: 'Money is very bad, sir'


Abdul Karim Telgi's passing should remind us that only in India are criminals so creative. Legends like Chicago's Al Capone and the Sicilian "families" of New York's gangsterdom got the limelight because of films and books. But they were run-of-the-mill killers and looters. No originality. Only in India did criminals develop the imagination to become ministers and MLAs. The genius criminals rose above politics as well. To this group belonged Telgi and Mehta.

No two men could have been more different. Telgi, son of a porter, eked out a living by selling vegetables on trains passing through his native place in Belgaum district. But he showed his mettle by using his earnings to attend an English-medium school and eventually get a B.Com degree. Harshad Mehta was also born in a poor family. With his Gujarati business instincts, he was too impatient to go to college, preferring to get specialised education as a broker in Bombay. Telgi moved in middleclass circles as a struggling travel agent in Bombay while Mehta mixed with the shakers and movers of a bustling business district.

Imagination soon started sending both men into similar trajectories. As a travel agent, Telgi had to procure various documents, from ID cards and mark sheets to visas and birth certificates. He developed shortcuts and some fake visas he issued landed him in jail in 1992. A jailmate educated him about the attractions of stamp papers. The Telgi imagination was set alight.

Harshad Mehta developed into a flamboyant, self-assured operator with the capacity to convince others about the charms of his dreams. He found mere brokering boring, but he also found unusual possibilities in the business. It is the nature of genius to see what others have not seen before, then pursue new goals with impatience.

When it became a rule in the 1990s that banks should invest a minimum amount in government bonds, Mehta's original mind developed what was respectfully described as the Replacement Cost Theory. It merely meant that he helped bankers meet their obligations and even make a profit on the sidelines by operating through him. It also meant that while the banks moved their moneys, some amounts always stayed with him for a short duration. He would invest that money in shares. In the most notorious investment he made, ACC shares jumped 4400 percent from 200 to 900.

Small wonder that the house of cards came crumbling down one day. Mehta had acquired fancy homes and a fleet of several dozen fancy imported cars. All that turned into nothing when he was sent to jail. He died there in 2002.

The Big Bull was credited with a scam that ran into Rs 5000 crore. That was considered sensational, incredible, etc. To understand Abdul Karim Telgi's genius we must reckon that his stamp paper scam was quantified at Rs 20,000 crore. There were subsequent reports that raised it to Rs 32,000 crore. The unsophisticated Telgi's empire was six-seven times bigger than the urbane Mehta's. Limitless is the imagination of the gifted.

The stamp-paper lessons Telgi learned in jail offered much scope thanks to the sarkari culture of stamped sarkari paper for everything: court fee stamps, revenue stamps, notary stamps, foreign bills paper, share transfer certificates, insurance agency stamps. These papers were bought and kept in bulk by banks and insurance companies.

Telgi went about it with the thoroughness of an inspired inventor. He acquired the licence of a stamp-paper vendor from the Bombay Government. Then he acquired a specialised stamp paper printing machine from, who else, the Indian Security Printing Press in Nasik. The high-security press is not supposed to do such things, but in Telgi's case, technicians from Nasik set up the press, helped him get stocks of the special paper and special ink and even the same security marks as used in Nasik. Substantive help arrived also from politicians and police bosses, among them a Maharashtra home minister, City Police Commissioner and other high-rankers. How come so many VIPs helped him? Meri Aan Meri Shaan Meri Jaan Hindustan.

When he was convicted in 2007 and transferred to Bangalore jail in 2015, Telgi pleaded guilty and said: "I am the only breadwinner in my family. I'm suffering from various ailments which have no cure" (AIDS, meningitis and diabetes).

He also spelt out a philosophy. "Money is very bad, Sir", he told an investigating official on his way to jail. "It makes a man as well as destroys him". This man would have made an inspiring political leader.

Monday, October 30, 2017

China rises to new heights as Xi decimates his rivals and keeps people under extensive surveillance


Faster than expected, China's dominant duo became a trio with Xi Jinping promoting himself to the rank of Mao Zedong and Deng Hsiaoping. Mao kept China in "continuous revolution" complete with upheavals, violence and famine. Deng transformed the nation with the modernising touch of capitalism which he camouflaged as "socialism with Chinese characteristics". He let people get rich, but adhered strictly to one-party political dictatorship. Xi, more Maoist than Dengist, has taken internal control of citizens to unprecedented heights with ultramodern surveillance systems. He also raised China's economic, military and strategic power high enough to challenge the US. He strides the world today as its strongest leader.

But he has always faced -- and continues to face -- intra-party opposition. The Central Committee (about 250 members), the Politburo (25 members) and the all-important Standing Committee of the Politburo (7 members) are as faction-ridden as the Congress Party in India -- without the advantage of a Sonia Gandhi before whom enemies pretend to be friends. India's own Communists are divided not only into CPM and CPI but into the reactionary Karat faction and the expedient Yechuri faction within the CPM. The difference is that the Indian Communists are too weak to survive disunity while the Chinese comrades are so strong that winners take all.

It was to check party infighting that Deng Hsiaoping introduced the system of an elected Paramount Leader with a fixed 5-year term extendable by one more term but no further. The time limitation worked well, but infighting continued. Jiang Zemin who succeeded Deng retired after 10 years, but he tried to install a chosen successor so that he could continue to influence policy. Factionalism ensured that he did not succeed. Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, also tried to see that an ally succeeded him. He too failed.

Hu's successor, Xi Jinping, is different. The 19th Party Congress just concluded was astir with speculation that he would break the Deng system and make himself Paramount Leader for life. This amounted to acknowledging the shrewdness with which Xi had strengthened himself during his first five years. But if that strength allows him to nominate his own preferred successor, why would he want to earn the opprobrium of breaking the principle the revered Deng had established?

He is now the "core" leader, heading all committees that matter, including the military. He has carried on an anti-corruption campaign which, in effect, decimated his opponents and potential rivals. According to an official account, 1537 party members were punished, 3453 corrupt fugitives were repatriated and 48 out of 100 most-wanted economic fugitives in Interpol lists were captured during Xi's first five years. The unofficial -- and believable -- estimate is that about one million party workers were "punished". Among them were 60,000 high level officials, 176 vice-minister level leaders and nearly 5000 military officers. This does not mean that the Politburo and its Standing Committee are rid of elements that belong to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao factions. But Xi Jinping has another five years to tackle them.

Xi has hastened to do what his predecessors did not. He has got the party constitution amended to include his "ideology" next to Mao's and Deng's. A task force formulated Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, reminiscent of Chinese communism's textbook, Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

The emphasis his freshly minted ideology has put on the New Era is important because the bedrock of Xi's "Thoughts" is the building of a super China that dominates the world. He is well on his way to achieving it, displaying diplomatic finesse (the first Chinese leader to appear at the economic conclave in Davos; he spoke there like a wise world statesman), economic initiative (the $ 900 billion Belt & Road scheme comprising ports, pipelines, railways, bridges and manufacturing centres aimed at creating "a new era of globalisation") and above all military aggressiveness (virtually all of South China Sea has been acquired and militarised with airstrips and naval centres, the world watching helplessly).

The international situation favours Xi and China. The unpredictable Donald Trump has led the US into divisiveness at home and eccentricities abroad. The European Union is lost in its own existential problems. Japan is struggling to stay outside China's shadow. True, Xi's policy of repression attracts criticism, and rightly because it is despotic; electronic devices identify citizens critical of government and impose restrictions that amount to virtual imprisonment. But repression is a pillar of his power. And before power, criticism has no chance.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Mass appeal is easy for filmstars, but respect is tough. Amitabh Bachchan earned it, after many setbacks


Filmstars seldom celebrate their birthdays. Perhaps they do not want to know that they are getting older by the year. Amitab Bachchan's birthday (11 October 1942) was an exception. Television interviews apart, a serious newspaper or two subjected his persona to intellectual analysis. This exceptionality was warranted because, at 75, Bachchan has remained relevant through significant activity.

There are greater artistes who have disappeared from public view because of age -- Dilip Kumar, 94 and Kamini Kaushal, 90. There are others like Lata Mangeshkar, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayantimala and Gulzar, all in their 80s, who are in reasonably good health but not active in any field. Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, both 82, Julie Andrews 81 and Dustin Hoffman, 80 are out of action and out of sight.

Bachchan's own contemporaries have withdrawn from the scene. Dharmendra, seven years older, was his co-star in a blockbuster of the time. Today he looks very much 'retired'. His wife Hema Malini, six years younger than Bachchan, keeps busy but her product endorsements are as unconvincing as her politics. Jeetendra is the same age as Bachchan but has disappeared into business. The only big name that remains meaningfully active is singer K.J.Yesudas, 77. His is a different league, though, devotion to famous Hindu temples being his signature appeal these days.

Clearly Bachchan is in a class by himself. What makes him different is that he attracts respect, not just fan following. The likes of Raj Kapur and Dev Anand attracted love, not respect. Even NTR and MGR and Jayalalitha attracted respect primarily on account of the political power they wielded. Rajanikant got it right when he said that filmic popularity was not enough to succeed in politics. MGR was in the centre of the Dravida movement when it had the power to move minds. Jayalalitha, though a Mysore Brahmin, identified herself with that movement and benefited from its pulling power. Today the movement itself has lost traction and people like Rajani and Kamal Hassan have not developed an alternative. That leaves them willing to wound, but unable to strike.

In Kerala, Mammooty and Mohanlal have remained "superstars" for long. Their films succeed and they do extracurricular activities aimed at winning a place for themselves beyond the filmic universe. But they appear too self-centred to earn respect.

There was only one actor in all of India who commanded respect going beyond even Bachchan's level. That was Raj Kumar of Karnataka. He didn't do anything special to achieve it. It was his humility, his simple way of life, his sense of values that made him admired, respected and almost worshipped across Karnataka. But he was confined to one language and one state, so his worth remained unknown to the rest of the world.

Bachchan had the universe at his feet with Hindi and English. It was the way he deported himself that earned him respect. Perhaps he was also a good learner. He must have learned valuable lessons when he started a corporation and it collapsed ignominiously. His attempt to get into politics not only failed; it cost him the family friendship he had with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. His son got nowhere in filmdom and had to find his fulfilment in kabaddi. From all this Bachchan emerged as a mature and rounded personality capable of that rare human quality, empathy.

Of course it's his movies that made Bachchan -- the early 'angry young man' films and the post-prime character roles such as in Piku. But it's his off-film work that brought him respect -- his Crorepati TV show and his advertising shorts. The quiz show brought out the best in him. The way he related to the participants and the way he made them relate to the world made that show a memorable one. When he endorsed products, he exuded confidence and made the viewers believe him. He had a way of identifying himself with the product, be it Gujarat tourism or Lux innerwear.

The fee for an endorsement was Rs 2 crore a day, and he had ten campaigns going at a time. The fee for Kaun Benega Crorepati was Rs 1.5 crore per day. Forget the films (7 to 10 crore per role), the money here is inconveniently big. So there's a problem. It's a pity that filmstars have not woken up to the beauty of giving. Our IT pioneers did that from the start. Warren Buffet uttered distilled wisdom when he said that if you die rich, you are a fool.

Think.

Monday, October 16, 2017

They want a new assassin identified in the Gandhi case; they want BJP painted as a peace dove in Kerala


These are unusual days no doubt. But how unusual can unusualness get? Can the murder of Mahatma Gandhi be enacted again to show that he was not killed by the man who killed him? Can a propaganda war, however elaborate, really convince anyone that mass killings of migrant workers are taking place in Kerala? Controversies of this kind are politically loaded. Hence the heat -- and the danger.

The Gandhi assassination twist is typical of the politics that motivate it all, one Hindutva wing at loggerheads with another Hindutva wing. Pankaj Phadnis, a self-confessed devotee of V.D.Savarkar, is exploring judicial routes to prove that Gandhi was killed not by the three bullets Godse had fired but by a fourth one that could only have come from a second assassin. Who? Force 136, a British subversive unit, says Phadnis. He seems keen to demolish the prevailing notion that RSS influence was at work in the Gandhi killing.

Ironically, he was challenged by the Hindu Mahasabha. Here are the astonishing words of the Sabha's national vice president Ashok Sharma: "Both BJP and RSS owe their existence to the ideology conceived by the Hindu Mahasabha and they know that it is only this outfit that can expose the mask these two organisations wear today". They are trying to deny Godse the credit for the assassination, he said, "because they know that the Mahasabha will be marginalised without Godse". Credit for assassination -- that is what ideological faithfulness is all about.

The propaganda war against Kerala is ideological faithfulness gone berserk. This flows from BJP chief Amit Shah getting angry with Kerala and seeing its annexation as a matter of personal prestige. He got angry for two reasons. First, the party's local leaders not only proved ineffective, but got involved in kick-back scandals. Secondly, the public in Kerala -- aided and abetted by the state's incorrigible media -- started making fun of him, something no one else has dared.

In his anger, Shahji ordered daily protests before the CPM office in Delhi, as though the CPM office in Delhi was Kerala. Worse, he brought in stars like Yogi Adityanath to campaign in Kerala. (That journey to Malabar must have been the Yogi's first trip abroad). Of all things, the Yogi picked on Kerala's hospitals and said they should learn from UP hospitals. Obviously the man has a sense of humour.

According to the Amit Shah propaganda machine, Kerala's Communists are killing innocent BJP peaceniks all the time. Again two mistakes here. One, he assumed that the aforesaid incorrigible media is a docile tail-wagger like Delhi's channel media whereas the fact is that the Communists cannot kill even a Communist without the Kerala media pouncing on them. Two, statistics show that 26 Sangh Parivar activists and 21 CPM activists were killed since 2005. But it's still a victory for the Sanghis because, earlier, it was Communists killing Communists in factional rivalries. The Sanghis fought their way into it and succeeded in proving that they were as good killers as the Communists.

Where the Shah machine went wrong was in overdoing the propaganda bit. The over-doing reached a climax last week when voice clips circulated among migrant workers saying that the state government had started killing Hindi-speakers in large numbers. Many migrants left the state in a hurry. This in a state where the Government had started literary and health programmes for migrant labour. Special textbooks such as Hamari Malayalam aimed at making them familiar with the local language. An insurance scheme was also launched for them. Locals who know all this saw the exaggerations of BJP propaganda as crude and as an affront to Kerala people as a whole. The party lost more than it gained.

As the BJP counts its losses, the Congress in Karnataka is giggling over a faux pas committed by B.S. Yeddyurappa and union minister Ananth Kumar; unaware that the recorder was on, they exchanged secrets about internal bribery in the BJP. The voices have been tested and certified as genuine and now the leaders are trying to figure out how to escape from the mess.

These are less than achche din for the BJP. No longer a spotless white dove, it is now seen as much prone to promoting family as the Congress was. Its tendency to be overly belligerant, antagonistic and quarrelsome is going against it. And the overall scene is grim with falling growth figures and rising joblessness. As the poet asked: Comforter, where, where is your comforting?




Monday, October 9, 2017

It's easy to condemn racist supremacists in America; but remember communal supremacists are no different


The mass murder of people at a music concert in Las Vegas last week and the racial savagery that rocked Charlottesville earlier must not be dismissed as far-away things that do not concern us. They are part of the ideological terrorism that has gripped large parts of the world, including India. The name of the game is hatred. Multicultural nations are the principal theatres of this war because that is where one group wants other groups reduced to nothingness. In America and Europe the war is ethnic. In India it is communal.

The Las Vegas killer was a well-to-do loner who had amassed a small mountain of firearms over an extended period-- typical of those in affluent societies who, in their loneliness, start hating things around them. He must have felt tremendous power as he collected those weapons and when he killed some 60 country music listeners.

Group hatred is more sinister. The rioting in Charlottesville a few weeks earlier was a mob affair, hundreds of white people ideologically fired up to put down non-white races in a bid "to take our country back". The names of the groups that unleashed the violence told their own tale: No to Marxism in America, Unite the Right, Patriot Prayer, Vanguard America. They all came together to hold a White Lives Matter rally in Charlottesville.

It was a throwback to the days of the American civil war, literally. That was a war about perpetuating slavery. Abraham Lincoln got elected in 1860 on a plank of stopping the expansion of slavery. Seeing that as an unacceptable agenda, seven slave-rich states in the south declared secession from the United States. Four more joined them later. They formed a Confederate Government. The United States declared it illegal. The two waged a war that lasted four years. It ended when Confederate General Robert Lee surrendered to the US forces.

With that everything seemed settled. But the subsequent assassination of Lincoln showed that the seeds of white-black hatred were embedded in people's minds. Southern states continued to make life hell for blacks. The civil rights movement gathered pace in the 20th century. Then Martin Luther King, its leading light, was also assassinated. But blacks won legal rights progressively across the United States.

Why has the Confederate philosophy come alive again? Two years ago a white supremacist opened fire in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine people. He wore a flag of the old Confederate Army. Which in turn made liberal whites start a campaign against old Confederate symbols. A grand statue of Gen. Robert Lee stood in the centre of a park in Charlottesville. Moves to demolish it brought enraged white supremacists to the streets, battle-ready. The city exploded with violence.

It is important to note that early moves against Confederate memorials had passed off unnoticed. Only after Donald Trump's rise as President did the supremacists take to the streets spitting venom. In his freewheeling comments, Trump made one point that sounded historically sensible. He said that the idea of removing Confederate symbols was foolish. He was right because the Confederate Army, the Civil War and slavery are all parts of the history of the United States. There is no use pretending that they did not happen. Trying to erase them is like saying that the Taj Mahal in Agra is not a tourist attraction because it is a Muslim musoleum and does not reflect Indian culture.

However, Trump did not stop with decrying the symbol removers. He made various comments that backed the ultra-right white supremacists prominent among whom was the Grand Wizard of the old Ku Klux Klam, the organisation that made the lynching of Negroes a part of contemporary history in the US.

There is no doubt that dark forces have come out into the open because they see Donald Trump's election to the presidency as a sign of approval for their viewpoint. They see him as a supporter in the cause of turning America into an "all-white ethnostate". Their programme includes what they call the "White Baby Challenge", a movement to increase Caucasian fertility as an antidote to the "ghetto culture" of the blacks.Sounds familiar?

Stop for a moment before dismissing these as contemptible concepts of a contemptible racist civilisation in America. The sentiments behind their actions are alive in our country as well. And they have come to the fore in aggressive self-assertion in the wake of an extremist ideology scoring an election victory. The bell tolls not just for America.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BJP's image dims with economic disruption; Rahul's image glows with US tour. This is Sonia's chance to score big


The Congress Party published full-page advertisements in New York to announce a Rahul Gandhi meeting there. It made history by including, alongside the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, those of Lal Bahadur Shastri and P.V.Narasimha Rao. Shastri was never recognised during the Sonia years while Narasimha Rao was actively ostracised. To give the non-person that was Rao all these years a place now in the galaxy suggests something of an internal revolution.

Is there one? Is the Congress finally acknowledging the need to re-invent itself if it is to have an address in Narendra Modi's India? Rahul Gandhi's American tour was itself a pointer to the party's willingness to do new things. It was essentially a tour of intellectual America by a man considered uniquely un-intellectual. Apparently he made efforts to catch up. Early photographs showed him in Silicon Valley flanked by IT wizard Sam Pitroda, author-diplomat Shashi Tharoor and savvy Mumbaikar Milind Deora, all practitioners of the Kalam art of igniting minds.

Whether it was their influence, or the bracing holiday weather of California, or the compulsions imposed by Modi's relentless march, Rahul Gandhi rose to unexpected heights, impressing university crowds that are usually hard to impress. The key tactic was to compliment the enemy where necessary and to acknowledge mistakes on his own side. He praised Modi's communication skills and also his Make In India programme. The focus of this policy, he said thoughtfully, should be on small and medium businesses which do not get access to finance and the legal system. If this was done, Make In India would be a powerful idea, said Rahul. Frank, balanced, informed.

He was just as frank when he said that the Congress Party had developed "a certain amount of arrogance" at one time, that some concepts of UPA-2 had use-by date ten years old. The only off-colour remark was that dynasty "is the way India runs". That's not the way India runs right now. And it's fatuous to compare private industrial dynasties with contrived political dynasties. That slip-up apart, Rahul's American tour was a success. This was proved when Smriti Irani was scared into calling him "a failed dynast".

However, Rahul's success in the US is unlikely to help him or the Congress. The big problem that makes rejuvenation hard for the Congress is the internal fight between the old generation and the young. This is a unique Indian problem. In civilised democracies presidents and prime ministers serve their term, then leave it to others. Obama is still young and active, but he is not manoeuvring to become President again.

In our country, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati still imagine that the nation needs them. Lalu Prasad, discredited and legally debarred from public office, is convinced that Bihar and India itself will be the poorer without his services. Oommen Chandy, caught in a maze of scandals that brought humiliation to his party, insists on serving the people. Political leaders never see what others see.

In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi brought in some new faces. Some of them were miserable failures, like Arun Yadav in Madhya Pradesh. But some did well, like K.C.Venugopal who replaced Digvijay Singh as the in-charge in Karnataka. (Digvijay Singh and before him Gulab Nabi Azad had contributed mightily to the devaluation of the Congress in Karnataka because they became patron saints of the state's corrupt Congressmen).

Rahul will be unable to move forward unless he takes a good chunk of the veterans with him. Veterans who still have clout must be in, like Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. Those with poor track record must be sidelined, like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. State-wise, personalised adjustments, patiently canvassed and carefully implemented, can give the Congress a new look, essential for a new future.

Rahul Gandhi cannot bring this about. Sonia Gandhi can because the old guard is beholden to her. She can make them accept a restructuring by telling them that without the infusion of some new blood and new thinking, the Congress will sink. This is perhaps the only chance she will get. The gap between words and deeds under the BJP Government's dispensation, the many policy breakdowns of recent years and the economic dislocation that has become too serious for the Government to hide have created a situation where the BJP is no longer the unstoppable force it seemed at first. By uniting the old guard and the younger leaders who have proved themselves, Sonia Gandhi can make history in 2019. This is her moment.



Monday, September 25, 2017

In a world of bullies, tiny Kim now equals mighty Trump; What if one makes a small miscalculation? It's scary


Kim Jong-un is said to be unpredictable and half mad. Donald Trump is known to be unpredictable and often acts like half mad. Both have nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. North Korea's latest muscle-flexing was so scary that Trump said he might be forced to destroy North Korea. The foreign minister of North Korea replied that he had heard "sounds of a dog barking". More hurting perhaps was German Chancellor Angela Markel's criticism of Trump's trumpeteering. "Any form of military solution", she said, "is totally inappropriate".

We now have a clear picture of the conundrum into which these unpredictable half-mad gentlemen have led the world. To put it another way, we can now see the cleverness with which Kim and his tiny country have cornered the world's mightiest military behemoth. May be the funny-looking dictator is not as mad as we are told. May be there is a method in his madness.

To see the nuclear annihilation threat in perspective, we should recognise the Kim family as contemporary history's most successful political dynasty, lasting 72 years as of now with the third generation in charge. Kim Il-sung, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese who was trained by Russians became the leader of the northern half of the country when Korea became free at the end of the war.

He invented a personality cult, projecting himself as equal to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. History books were re-written to give him a divine origin. If his pictures were printed on cheap paper, the printers were punished. Newspapers carrying pictures of him were not to be used as wrapping paper. He assumed the title of Great Leader and developed his own ideology called Juche (self-reliance).

Kim No. 1 died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over. His was a desultory reign with the economy going down and a famine hitting the people in 1998. But he oversaw the country's first nuclear step with a detonation in 2006. He died in 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took control. Not that the dynasty had no critics. All the three Kims were ruthless in eliminating potential rivals through execution, torture and banishment into labour camps. Some estimates say that there are about 120,000 political prisoners in the country today.

Kim No. 3, currently facing Trump, has an obesity problem that's uncontrolled (he weighs more than 200 pounds). He is said to have heart problems that felled his father and grandfather. But he is not just a playboy. Schooled in Switzerland, he is comfortable with French, German and English. He loves racing cars, football and pop music. Additionally, he is an ardent student of military history and strategy. Under him North Korea has seen modern consumer culture spreading. Agriculture has picked up, farmers are no longer slaves but share croppers. Special economic zones have been developed. Overall prosperity has increased.

And of course the nuclear capability of the country has grown by leaps. Obviously he is smart enough to know that if he drops a bomb in the wrong place, he and his country will be wiped out and the world will not moan for him. Like other nuclear powers, he must be seeing those lethal weapons as a protective shield rather than as a conquering device. But he wants his nuclear pile to be equal to that of the US. Clearly he has the contacts necessary to do so. In 2004, two years before the first detonation in the reign of Kim No. 2, Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q.Khan, had admitted to have transferred the technology to North Korea. There must have been other players, too. And why not? Unknown players helped Israel secretly to amass a still-secret nuclear stockpile. What's good for Tom must be good for Dick and Harry as well.

Israel went nuclear as insurance against its enemies. North Korea had the same motivation, the main enemy being the US which led the Korean war against the North. Enemies of the US who had no insurance met with horrible deaths. Saddam Hussein was trapped in an underground hole and eventually hanged before TV cameras. And all that on the basis of a lie -- that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Well, here's North Korea proudly displaying weapons of mass destruction. Even the bombasting Trump given to bombastic threats is unable to strike.So Kim No. 3 has won so far. Bullies produce bullies. But if one of them makes a miscalculation, all of us go up in smoke. Scary indeed.




Monday, September 18, 2017

How 'Scoundrel Christ' betrayed his twin brother Jesus; A laboured re-telling that fails to impress


You are sure to hit the best-seller list if you write a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. New versions of old religious legends are today an industry in itself. Some religions are too rigid to accept such liberties. But Christianity and Hinduism seem to be fertile ground for free-thinkers.

The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman was published in 2010. This is one instance where the familiar disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance... is coincidental" is indeed superfluous. But you will be disappointed if you expect juicy blasphemy by a non-believer. Pullman is a believer and the blasphemy is disguised as humour.

And there is only a small bit of it. Christians brought up on the idea of Immaculate Conception will be outraged by Pullman's rather entertaining version of the birth of Jesus. In this version, Mary, 16 years old, allowed into her room at night a young man who whispered through the window that he was an angel. He said, "you are going to conceive a child". And she said, "But my husband is away". And he said, "But the Lord wants it to happen at once". It did. When he came home and heard the news, Joseph, so old that he "had not touched her" during their marriage, cried bitterly. He was consoled by Mary who said: "I've done no wrong. I've never been touched by a man. It was an angel that came to me".

In the mood for a little more blasphemy? Well, author Pullman says that Mary had twins -- Jesus who was healthy and boisterous and Christ who was a weakling. As time passed, "there came more brothers and sisters". Pullman slips into what must be taken as straight humour (without blasphemy) when he starts dealing with the miracles attributed to Jesus. The well-loved story of water turning into wine is a case in point. In Pullman's re-telling, Jesus first feigned innocence when he was told, in the middle of a wedding reception, that they had run out of wine. Then "he took the chief steward aside and spoke to him, and soon the servants discovered more wine". The author's line: The steward had hidden the wine hoping to sell it and "Jesus had shamed him into honesty". So much for miracles.

The thesis of Pullman's narrative is that corporate interests had seen the promise of building a big institution, the church, on the foundations of Jesus's popularity. They recruited his twin brother Christ who betrayed Jesus and helped the corporate plotters. Rather far-fetched a stroy for believers to accept, and too outlandish for others to comprehend. This is one of those books where the author was fired up with a title but could not weave a story to match it.

The Indian tradition is too liberal to allow much scope for blasphemy. See how the Charvaka school of materialism finds acceptance despite its rejection of notions like karma, moksha, the vedas and the very idea of God. When Ramanand Sagar brought the Ramayana to television in 1987, he took liberties the camera allowed: Arrows would stop midair, Goddess Saraswathi could be seen inside Kumbhakarna's mouth making him say nidra instead of indra. All 78 parts of the serial were artificial and melodramatic. But people would have a bath, wear fresh clothes and sit reverentially before their TV sets to watch Hanuman leela and Sita swayamvara.

Greater sophistication arrived with the entry of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi. Inevitably different people have reacted differently to them. Some believe that Pattanaik trivialises Hindu philosophy, a reference perhaps to volumes like Fun in Devlok and The Sita Colouring Book. Tripathi began by re-imagining Shiva at trilology length, then started reconstructing Sita as a warrior princess. Nobody objects to the liberties he takes with the storyline and characterisation. That's because the underlying element of devotion is intact. An atheist, Tripathi turned religious as the books seized him.

It may be difficult for us to see Sita as Ravana's killer. But she was Ravana's daughter in another re-telling. A.K.Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas was enlightening in that sense though Hindutva zealots got it removed from the history syllabus in Delhi University. How can petty minds erase truths from history? With the likes of Tripathi at work, there will be 400 Ramayanas soon. Can zealots keep pace with the march of writerly imagination? And the unstoppable push of marketing? Sita and Rama will endure after Philip Pullman's Jesus and Christ are forgotten.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Assassins of old were honest, modern ones are cowardly. But the cowards are destroying the Indian dream


In the days of Nathuram Godse, things were straightforward and honest. When he shot Mahatma Gandhi there was no attempt to hide his identity. The courage of his conviction emboldened him to say bluntly, "I did fire the shots... I do not desire any mercy to be shown to me". His final statement before the court was an eloquent defence of the Hindutva view of history.

Courage of conviction similar to Godse's was seen again in 1984 when Beant Singh and Satwant Singh shot Indira Gandhi dead. They were her bodyguards, professionally committed to protect her. But their ideological commitment proved stronger. Again, there was no attempt to escape from responsibility. In fact, according to some reports, they shouted Sikh slogans as they fired their weapons. When Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a bomb in 1991, it was known that the LTTE was behind it; soon after the horror they informally admitted it, too.

Times have changed and ideologically motivated killings are done these days in cowardly fashion. Godse and others were proud of their ideologies and therefore had no problem coming clean on their killings. Today's ideologues are different. They are ready to use the violence demanded of them, but they lack the conviction to own it up. They kill in clandestine operations, then run away into the safety of darkness. In that darkness, obviously, hide protectors powerful enough to protect them. The protectors also are cowards who hide themselves.

Thus, the killers of Narendra Dabholkar in Pune have remained untraced since the murder in 2013. Three years after the event, CBI arrested ENT doctor Virendrasinh Tawade who is still in jail. But CBI suspects that the killers are Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar. There is no trial yet and no answer to the question: Who killed Dabholkar?

Govind Pansare was shot in 2015 in Kolhapur and died four days later. Sameer Gaikwad was arrested seven months later. In June this year he got bail. A Special Investigation Team took into custody Virendrasinh Tawade already in jail in the Dabholkar case. Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar are also wanted in the Pansare murder case. Nearly three years after the event the question remains: Who killed Pansare?

Six months after Pansare was silenced, ideology-driven murderers turned their attention to Karnataka. They killed M.M.Kalburgi in Dharwad. That was on August 30, 2015. To this day neither Karnataka police nor CBI have been able to make a single arrest. The state's authorities, evidently more incompetent than their counterparts in Maharashtra, cannot answer the question: Who killed Kalburgi?

Interestingly, though, there are some strange parallelisms among these unsolved murders. All three victims were free thinkers and rationalists, opposed to conventional beliefs including religious. Dabholkar campaigned against superstitions. Pansare, a communist, carried on a war against caste. Kalburgi fought idol worship. On the other side, Tawade and Sameer Gaekwad were members of the Hindu rightwing Sanathan Samstha. Vinay Pawar was a friend of Gaekwad. Add to these interconnections the fact that all three killings were carried out by motorcycle riders. Two cyclists shot Dabholkar on a public road, two cyclists shot Pansare and his wife in their house, two cyclists entered Kalburgi's house posing as students and shot him.

Two (or three) motorcyclists entered Gauri Lankesh's compound and shot her. She, too, was a rationalist. She, too, opposed superstitions and conventional religious beliefs. As a journalist, she also had clear political views; she fought the very concept of Hindutva. This and the similarities with the earlier killings of rationalists have spread the impression that Gauri too was felled by Hindutva forces. Trollers strengthened the impression by suggesting that she deserved death for her anti-Hindu views.

Partisans turned the whole thing into a vicious political war on social media, indicating the depths to which bigotry has dragged the country. What is certain as of now is that India has become a dangerous place for independent thinkers. Even the barbarous practice of lynchings is condoned. Gauri was not as powerful an opinion maker as Kalburgi or Dabholkar. Even then she would not be allowed to live. Intolerance has reached levels that threaten India's basic values. The outpouring of protests across the nation, sensational in itself, is reflective of a fear complex that has seized the people. Are we losing the dream? If Gauri's killers are not punished, there will be more Gauris because assassins will feel safe in our system. Gauri herself will remain an exemplar -- a journalist who was killed for her journalism.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Brave judges do us proud, carnal godmen bring us shame. Is the goodness of the few our only salvation?



What an amazing week it was. The judiciary made us feel proud, not once but three times back to back. At another level, though, the nation was shamed by a seducer whose frenzied followers killed and destroyed to support his freedom to rape. India remains an unending puzzle, inspirational one day, incorrigible the next. Just as a group of judges project the country as a model of democracy, a mob of idolaters turn it into the world's laughing stock. Can we ever win?

For a long time to come, we will proudly recall that historic week's triple bang: A No to the cruelty of triple talaq, a Yes to citizens' right to privacy, and a firm No to the right to rape in God's name. The talaq judgment, passed by a three-member majority in a five-member bench, was overshadowed by conventions of religion when in fact the emphasis should have been on constitutionality and the principles of equality. Nevertheless, the fact that the five judges came from five different faiths carried its own message at a time when majoritarianism is being asserted aggressively.

No shadows fell across a nine-member bench's unanimous verdict that privacy was a fundamental right protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty. Some sentences in the judgment read like aphorisms that should be put up in golden letters in offices and homes: Privacy constitutes the foundation of all liberty. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern. Criticism and critique lie at the core of democratic governance. Tolerance of dissent is equally a cherished value.

Against such proclamations, the Government's reactions looked childish. The Law Minister turned himself into a farcical figure by claiming that the Court had actually affirmed the Government's position that the right to privacy was a fundamental right subject to reasonable restrictions. The Government's stated position was not that at all. It was that privacy was a common law right that was a subspecies of many rights and hence incapable of being termed as a standalone homogenous fundamental right. Eminent lawyer K.K.Venugopal paid the price of accepting the position of Attorney General by putting up the contrived argument that the right to privacy was an elitist construct. The Court dismissed the submission as unsustainable. The message was clear: What is good for the politics of a ruling party is bad in law.

It becomes ugly when what is bad in law is tacitly approved by the establishment. Tens of thousands of men were pouring into Panchkula days before the verdict was to be pronounced in the Dera Sauda rape case. Weapons including AK 47s were also being stored. Yet, Haryana's Chief Minister Khattar did nothing, said nothing. Finally, when violence claimed 31 lives and left 250 injured, he said anti-social elements had created problems. The Punjab & Haryana High Court exposed him by calling the Government's inaction "a political surrender to allure vote bank".

That's exactly what the official position was. Khattar and many BJP luminaries had been publicly cultivating the Dera Sauda leader because the man, for all the criminalities he was involved in, had gathered a following that ran into crores. This is a peculiar Indian phenomenon. No other country offers frauds such a free run. Born-again Christian zealots of the West and their imitators in India have developed the God industry with modern corporate efficiency. But they command neither the mass following nor the vote potential of the godmen in India.

Criminally culpable godmen have been riding high under all religious labels because of conspiratorial support by those in power. The illegalities of the Dera cult had received support from Chautala's National Lok Dal and from Hooda's Congress before the BJP, all of them condoning criminal actions for perceived vote bank support. What is new is the level of Khattar's incompetence. If he had belonged to any other party, the BJP would have created a ruckus for his removal. In the event, the BJP extended unprecedented protection to him, proving to be as unprincipled as all other parties. All the more reason we should admire the courage of the High Court and the CBI court judges. In a dangerously charged atmosphere, the CBI judge had to be airlifted to the makeshift court. Unpurturbed by threats all around him, he pronounced that the Dera chief deserved no sympathy.The goodness of the few makes up for the wickedness of the many. To that heaven of upright minds, my father, let my country awake.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Thinking Congressmen fail to win tired old Congressmen. Rahul Gandhi remains Amit Shah's best asset

Three weeks have gone by since the Gujarat Rajya Sabha election saw Ahmed Patel scoring a sensational victory over the formidable forces of Amit Shah. More than a humbling of the BJP, it was a life-giving boost to the Congress. Everyone expected the Congress to regroup with newfound confidence and emerge a fighting force again. But there is no sign of it yet. The reason is clear: The dynastic leadership remains invincible, immovable. And the reason for that? Amit Shah's good fortune.

In the mundane world of elections, Rahul Gandhi is indeed Amit Shah's most important asset. Even those who dislike BJP often vote for it because they dislike Rahul Gandhi more. We can't really blame them because the young Gandhi scion has a style that is offputting. He seems impetuous by nature. Remember his walking into a press conference in Delhi and tearing up with contempt a copy of an ordinance issued by his own party's prime minister, the hapless Manmohan Singh? He is also politically insensitive; notice his frequent, unexplained absences from the country. There is something disconcerting even in his personal mannerisms -- rolling up his sleeves and striding around like a pahelwan. He just isn't the inspiring kind.

The defeat the Congress suffered in 2014 was so devastating that, for the first time, Congress leaders began talking in public about the party's problems. Satyavrat Chaturvedi, usually a vehement cheer leader of the dynasty, called for "an honest and ruthless introspection". Priya Dutt, daughter of Indira Gandhi worshippers Sunil and Nargis Dutt, spoke of a "disconnect" between the leaders and the people.

Perhaps the most important critical note was struck by Milind Deora, a respected new-gen leader and close friend of Rahul. He was smart enought not to blame Rahul directly. Instead, he said Rahul had advisers who had no electoral experience and were still calling the shots. He then explained: "My comments are out of emotions of deep loyalty to the party and a sincere desire to see us bounce back".

Three years after that baring of the heart, new -- and shall we say more senior -- voices are being heard about the now-or-never moment the Congress is facing. Jairam Ramesh is an unblemished Congress loyalist and an unflinching Indira loyalist, as his new book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature testifies. It must be heart-ache that made him say that the Congress was facing an existential crisis. Every point he made was timely and important: Modi and Shah think differently, act differently and if we are not flexible in our approach we will become irrelevant, frankly; we must recognise India has changed, the Congress has to change; a collective effort by party leaders to overcome the challenges is essential.

JR was not being negative. "On the contrary, I think there is a lot of goodwill for the Congress, but people want to see a new Congress", he said. There was no disenchantment with Rahul Gandhi; in fact he asked for an end to the uncertainty about Rahul becoming the President of the party. Manishankar Aiyar, the resident loyalist of Rajiv Gandhi and a man who brought some bold thinking into governance when he held office, joined JR in calling for a new Congress. As he put it: Congressmen should look at reality; we have only 44 members in the Lok Sabha. We need new ideas, new thoughts, new methods to be relevant.

Will such sober voices be heard? No chance. The Gandhis do not hear what they don't want to hear. And there are enough "veterans" to humour them in self-interest. When Jairam Ramesh said the sultanate was gone, "but we behave as if we are sultans still", tired old Sheila Dikshit asked whether he wasn't part of the sultanate? Tired old Veerappa Moily said the party should have zero tolerance for indiscipline. Tired old K.V.Thomas refereed to the grand sacrifices made by people like him and mocked the Congress leaders who came through the back door. These are the rusted minds that sustain the unsustainable dynasty raj and lead the Congress to destruction.

People applauded the unusual conclave of party leaders under the inspiration of Sharad Yadav in Delhi recently. The reason was that it gave a ray of hope that a united opposition might emerge. Undaunted, Amit Shah went beyond his earlier ambition of a Congress-mukt Bharat and proclaimed that the BJP rule will go on for 50 years. With the support he is getting from Rahul Gandhi, this should be easy.


Monday, August 21, 2017

August 15 was the wrong date, chosen for the wrong reason. Also, Iqbal's Hindustan Hamara deserves a fresh look


Has the time come for Independence Day to be shifted to a date other than August 15? The question is neither facetious nor irrelevant. The controversies that accompanied the celebrations this year are a reminder that August 15 was rejected by the astrologers of the time as an "unfortunate and unholy" date. But Viceroy Mountbatten insisted on it because, for him, it was a "very lucky" date; it was on an August 15 that the Japanese army surrendered before him, the Allied Commander in Southeast Asia at the time.

Before his obstinacy, the astrologers suggested a compromise -- August 14-15 midnight. That hour, as far as the astrologers were concerned, was August 14 because astrologically days began with sunrise. Mountbatten didn't care because, for him, days began at midnight. So the flag went up at the midnight hour. But it was a compromise, none the less, to get the better of a stubborn Englishman's ego. Now that a Bharatiya party is in power, the wisdom of astrology should be given its due place and an auspicious date found for Independence Day lest unfortunate and unholy vibrations occur.

This year, for example, official programmes went off well, with lavish splendour on show. But jarring notes came from Tripura, UP and Kerala. The Communist Chief Minister of Tripura had a prepared speech for the occasion. But he was asked to make some changes in the text. He declined whereupon Doordarshan refused to broadcast his speech. The Kerala Chief Minister (also a Communist) had a speech strongly critical of the developments that had taken root in the country under BJP rule. But he wasn't stopped. Smart cookie.

What Kerala witnessed was another kind of disequilibrium. The chief of the RSS, visiting the state, was listed to hoist the flag at a school in Palakkad. It was an aided school and the rules stipulated that flag hoisting should be done only by a teacher or an elected people's representative. The local collector served a notice on the school pointing this out. But the RSS chief chose to violate the rule, went and hoisted the flag, sang Vande Mataram and left the stage with his companions. A minute later, the whole troupe returned to the stage, assumed their previous positions and sang Jana Gana Mana; they had forgotten the national anthem in the first round.

The final act of the tamasha occurred several minutes after the RSS boss and his group had left the school. The authorities of the school, worried about the implications of the collector's notice, assembled in front of the school and went through a flag-hoisting ceremony anew, complete with the national anthem -- a demonstration of patriotism twice over. Last heard, the Chief Minister said a case would be filed against the rule violation, but he also transferred the collector. Smart cookie.

In UP it was quite unnecessary for Chief Minister Adityanath to prove his patriotism by asking Muslims to provide video proof of their patriotism. Government directives had gone out to all madrasas asking them to take video records of the national anthem and the national song being sung by the students and staff.

In the event, barring some Deoband institutions, no one sang the national anthem. Spokesmen for an Islamic seminary in Lucknow had a disarming explanation. Jana Gana Mana, they said had 'Sindh' in it. "Sindh is now in Pakistan and we cannot pray for Pakistan. Remove that word and we'll sing the anthem proudly". What can Yogiji say to that.

Most madrasas hoisted the national flag, and sang Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara. Actually, a moment's thought should be enough to convince perhaps even the UP Chief Minister that this is a song that should be encouraged.

Mohammed Iqbal was a 27-year-old college lecturer in Lahore when he wrote the classic song of patriotism. He was then a believer in pluralism and a composite Hindu-Muslim national culture. It was after he went to Europe that he became an Islamist. In a subsequent song he wrote, the earlier line Watan Hai Hindustan Hamara was re-born as Watan Hai Sara Jahan Hamara. The original song, as sung in those madrasas, is a paean to Hindustan's composite culture as opposed to Islam's concept of world hegemony. That they sing the first version and not the later Islamist version is something to be appreciated. Of course, if the vision is one of Hindutva hegemony, then nothing will do. Even videos may not be conclusive evidence of patriotism. Brain mapping next?



Monday, August 14, 2017

Time to ponder what happened to Independence. How the confidence of 1947 gave way to antagonisms


"August 15, 1947 will go down in history as one of the most memorable dates, not for India alone but for Asia and the world... For India it marks the beginning of a new age, a new outlook, a new future. For the world it gives a new idea and a new method..."

That was how the main editorial began in The Indian Express dated Madras, Friday, August 15, 1947. Seventy years and many ideological somersaults later, it is sobering to took at the sentiments that prevailed then and the reality today. As Freedom Day dawned there was great joy at all levels of opinion, and great excitement. The national mood was marked by confidence. And optimism. These were expressed in mature ways.

One reason was that there was no television in those innocent days. Which meant that news was purveyed with sobriety and a sense of balance. The shouting patriotism of modern-day anchors (the louder you shout, the greater is your nationalism) was alien to newspaper editors who covered news and commented on it with judicious moderation. This applied to what was then British mouthpieces such as The Times of India and to the nationalist press such as The Indian Express.

The Express, though a leading campaigner for independence, maintained editorial restraint on the day of its triumph. It did not go out of its way to make its independence day editorial a trumpeting piece; it was one of three editorials that day, the others being "Inter-American Conference" (on plans to set up a regional council independent of the UN) and "Cochin's Way" (on the Maharaja of Cochin's decision to give key portfolios like Finance to elected ministers). No self-applause, no bragging, no exaggerations in the name of nationalism. Only a sober assessment of today's achievements and tomorrow's challenges.

Seventy years later, where are we? History moved on of course. Regionalism in the Americas gained no traction and the UN is flourishing. Cochin has disappeared into Kerala where all ministers are elected. However, the confidence and optimism that lighted up the mood of the people at the time of independence has all but gone. The main reasons are (a) the hopes that the wounds of partition would heal in time proved wrong, and (b) the idealism of the Gandhi-Nehru era gave way to politics of opportunism.

Who today would believe that there were hopes in 1947 that partition would not last? There were serious people who seriously thought so and the sentiment found expression in the Express's own editorial. It said: "That this freedom is temporarily fissured and broken does not alter the fact that the heritage is common, that the future is yet to be made. Reconstruction and unity must be the aim... Just as the past belongs to India and Pakistan alike, the future too belongs to both". And today we have an officially designated global terrorist, Syed Salahuddin, flourishing under Pakistani protection and proclaiming that he can hit targets anywhere in India at any time.

On the domestic front, too, expectations turned into pipe dreams. The lofty spirit of the time was reflected in a sentence in the Express editorial: "While we should ensure good government for realisation of future destiny, we should also remember that self-government is not to be an instrument of power alone, but an opportunity for service".

Within a decade or so, democracy became an instrument of power and a means of self-aggrandisement. From panchayat members to prime ministers, everyone took to corruption as a routine right of public life. Criminals with jail records became MPs and MLAs, some even ministers.

Why did the early expectations dry up and unexpected forces take control? Perhaps the wholesale copying of Britain's parliamentary system was too much too soon. Perhaps our early leaders underestimated the influence of factors like caste and linguistic parochialism. Neither the generation of Indians who sacrificed everything for freedom nor the early leaders who did their best to strengthen the constitutional integrity of democracy's systems could have foreseen religious animosities overtaking civil life in the country. No one imagined that votes could be won by inciting communal hatreds among people. It is ironic that democracy and elections became instruments of generating intolerance and violence across the country.

The candle lit in 1947 burned out somewhere along the way. No one seems eager today to light a new one. Was V.S. Naipaul right when he wrote: "India's strength, her ability to endure, came from the negative principle, her unexamined sense of continuity"



Monday, August 7, 2017

A strong man gets his due, but BJP betrays a greed for one-party power. That's dangerous for India


D.K.Shivakumar is Karnataka's most formidable politician. He is also the most feared. There are many in Karnataka, including senior Congress leaders, who see him as a liability in public life. Currently the state's Energy Minister, he is recognised by all as a muscleman, fixer, campaign manager, crowd mobiliser, money bag and general go-getter who makes impossible things possible. He is actively into businesses unbecoming a political leader -- real estate, construction, jewellery, mining, malls, education, transport. It is said that Rahul Gandhi had named him as one of two Congress leaders who should be kept out of government. Indeed Chief Minister Siddaramaiah formed his cabinet without the two men. Within a few months, however, both men were handling key portfolios in the government. That was the power of internal manipulators in the Congress.

Shivakumar is so confident of his might that he flaunts his assets openly. His residence in Bangalore is made up of two outsized mansions, their pillars and parapets and windows and balconies glittering either in the sun or in the special decorative lights around. An ordinary citizen building such a residence would immediately attract Income Tax sleuths. In Shivakumar's case, there was also the tidbit that his declared income had gone up from Rs 75.5 crore in 2008 to Rs 251 crore in just five years. The BJP Government in Delhi had a good opportunity to net him in straightforward cases and thereby win the appreciation of citizens who were tired of a politician gone so wrong so openly for so long.

But they botched it. The timing made it clear that the raid on Shivakumar's premises was a case of the party in power using the agencies of the government to serve the party's political ends. By doing it so bluntly, the BJP helped Shivakumar achieve what would have been otherwise impossible -- an element of public sympathy.

The politics of it all is so clear. The Gujarat Rajya Sabha election on August 8 has become a prestige issue for the BJP. The Congress's sole candidate is Ahmad Patel, Sonia Gandhi's faithful follower and a Congress brand. In its all-out bid to get Patel defeated, the BJP already poached Congress MLAs in Gujarat. (The going rate is said to be Rs 15 crore per MLA). One of them was fielded in opposition to Patel. A worried Congress sent its remaining MLAs for safe keeping in Karnataka.


As it happened, D.K.Shivakumar was put in charge of taking care of the MLAs from Gujarat, presumably because a toughie strong man was needed to protect the MLAs from entrapment tactics by the BJP. The BJP, in its current mood of don't-care about the niceties of democracy, then went for the jugular.

There is no doubt that the raids -- five hours of questioning in the first round itself -- and the seizure of cash, gold and documents rattled Shivakumar who never experienced, and never expected, anything of the sort in his life. It must have rattled several other Congress leaders in the state also because their cupboards too are full of skeletons. There are skeletons in plenty in the cupboards of BJP leaders, too, but they will have nothing to worry. For this is a case where the ruling party is determined to do things its way. Conventions and legalities are for the birds.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's protestations of innocence sounded like jokes. The raid on Shivakumar had nothing to do with the Gujarat election, he said. The resort was raided only to check out Shivakumar, he said. Four of the Gujarat MLAs at the resort contradicted that claim and said they too were questioned. They sought the Supreme Court's intervention to ensure their safety now that CRPF men were at the resort.

Will the MLAs be intimidated and threatened into voting the BJP way in Gujarat? They are certainly scared. With the invincible D.K.Shivakumar threatened -- and feeling it -- will some Congressmen in Karnataka play safe by joining BJP as Karnataka goes to the polls in a few months? Winning Karnataka is a bigger prestige issue for the BJP than defeating Ahmad Patel -- and 15 crore for a head is chickenfeed. The BJP of course sticks to its line that its only aim is to end corruption. It does want to end corruption in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. Corruption in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh is of course not corruption, it is nation-building. Please note the new normal in India: BJP or nothing.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Narayanan's non-partisanship was classic. So was Kalam's. Mukherjee played safe. His successor will be safer


In his farewell speech President Pranab Mukherjee highlighted India's strong points and said they had become endangered. "Multiplicity of culture, faith and language is what makes India special", he said."The soul of India is in pluralism and tolerance", he said. Then he referred to increasing violence in the country and warned: "At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear and mistrust". All true, very true. But the question arises: What did President Mukherjee do to use the constitutional and moral power of his office to protect the soul of India against the forces of darkness?

The Bengali intellectual in Pranab Mukherjee paid laudable attention to the culture associated with the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. His focus during the period of his presidency was on bolstering the grandeur of the place -- converting the old stables into a museum, restoring the building housing the President's Body Guard and so on. Reports say that the complex now looks more magnificent than before. But the pluralism, the tolerance, the darkness, the mistrust? That story got lost in translation.

Not that the President has powers comparable to the Prime Minister's. But he has powers that can be used -- powers that come from perceived impartiality, from the exercise of checks and balances. Of the 12 presidents before Mukherjee, nine chose to remain safely inconsequential. (Zail Singh and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed went to the extent of declaring their servitude to the Prime Minister while V.V. Giri and Sanjiva Reddy sustained servitude without declaring it -- evidence of the overriding power Indira Gandhi ensured for herself).

Of the three presidents who dared to plough independent furrows, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic, was a loner. Firstly, he became President despite Prime Minister Nehru's opposition. Nehru was against him because he was Sardar Patel's choice and was religiously inclined (though not communally, in today's Hindutva sense). Secondly, he wanted powers the Constitution did not envisage. There was an exchange of letters between the President and the Prime Minister with Rajendra Prasad arguing that he must have the power, for example, to contact any government secretary directly for information and to function as a third arm of the legislature with discretion to sign bills passed by Parliament. He lost out in this argument because Nehru had the Constitution on his side.

It was K.R. Narayanan who brought out the full potential of the presidency. It was a turbulent period with Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral and A.B.Vajpayee successfully eroding Congress omnipotence. The hour found the man. Narayanan showed his individuality by becoming the first President to exercise his right to vote, and by using his Republic Day address to caution against growing discontent among the deprived sections of society.

Narayanan dissolved Lok Sabha twice. He was the first to establish that a person could be appointed prime minister only if he convinced the President, through letters of support, that he could secure the confidence of the House. Vajpayee was the beneficiary of this decision. The President underscored his non-partisan independence by declining the United Front Prime Minister's recommendation to dismiss the BJP Government of UP, and later by declining the BJP Prime Minister's recommendation to dismiss the Rabri Government of Bihar. An interesting conundrum rises. The nation's first Dalit President, an ardent Congressman, became so impartial as to help the nation's first BJP Government to power; will the nation's second Dalit President, an ardent BJP leader, become impartial enough to decline a BJP Government's recommendation? No prize for guessing the answer because there is no need to guess.

P.J.Abdul Kalam had fewer challenges compared to Narayanan, yet the "people's President" became admired for his independence. He demonstrated it when he declined to sign on the dotted line in the office-of-profit case. The Government wanted various VIPs to be exempted, but the President would not agree.

But there was a more dramatic demonstration of his independence. He was proposed for the presidency by the BJP. But within days of his assuming office, he made the BJP jittery by deciding to visit Narendra Modi's Gujarat, then reeling under the aftershocks of communal rioting. Prime Minister Vajpayee tried to dissuade him, but he said he had to go.

Pranab Mukherjee, the most political President in our history so far, steered clear of tricky situations in his own way. At least at the moment of saying goodbye, he addressed issues he could have addressed earlier. In the days ahead, even that is unlikely to happen. Where hearts unite, tongues are superfluous.




Monday, July 24, 2017

Lalu is natural target in the fight against corruption, but the problem is larger. All parties are guilty


Mention corruption, and the names of some politicians jump out like registered trademarks. Lalu Prasad Yadav is right when he says that the BJP Government is hunting him for political reasons. The Government has indeed been using the CBI to hunt its opponents on a selective basis. But it is able to play politics of revenge because facts are there to exploit. Lalu has been a synonym for corruption in unique ways -- the only leader who breaks laws with defiance and daring.

When his second daughter Rohini got married in 2002, arrangements had to be made on a grand scale which meant dozens of cars for guests, comfortable sofas and chairs for use in the pandal, dry fruits, provisions, garlands and so on. Organising them was no problem for Lalu. Musclemen walked into car showrooms in Patna and just took away all the models there. Others went to furniture storerooms, cake shops, grocery shops, fruit and dry-fruit stalls and flower shops and just took things away. What an original idea! The press published reports but didn't quote shop-owners who were so scared that they pleaded for anonymity. But Rohini got happily married. Those were also days when kidnapping for ransom flourished. Wellknown doctors were among those who lived in fear.

No Indian politician has so openly misused power. Nor has any other leader pushed the family into power with the same I-am-the-proprietor attitude. When the courts disqualified Lalu following the fodder scam (fraudulent payments for non-existent cattle feed), he unashamedly put his illiterate wife Rabri in the chief minister's chair. In the united front with Nitish Kumar, he got two of his sons into the cabinet, one as deputy chief minister. His daughter Misa, inheritor of many of her father's special talents, is in Parliament.

Left to himself, Lalu Prasad would think it perfectly natural for Rabri Devi to become President of the country, Misa to become Prime Minister, Tejaswi the Home Minister with additional charge of Industries, Finance and Information, Tej Pratap the Chief Minister of Bihar, and daughters Rohini, Ragini, Chanda, Hema, Rajalakshmi and Dhannu to be named ambassadors to the world's big powers. He would want nothing for himself except his formal portrait to hang in all government offices as the most loving husband and father in Indian history.

How nasty of CBI to get going suddenly and shatter all the dreams. It filed charges with unusual promptness, claiming that the family had acquired nearly a thousand crore rupees worth of benami properties in a decade. Contracts for the maintenance of railway hotels and licence for a liquor factory were the kind of favours given in return for prime properties. There was a "gift" of land even by Rabri Devi's cattle-shed owner. Some unkindly opponents referred to Lalu as "the Robert Vadra of Bihar".

Lalu's operations were wide and his attitude reckless. Therefore he made himself easy prey to his opponents. But deeper is the corruption that goes on at the grassroots. There has been a drop, since Narendra Modi's rise, in big-ticket scandals in Delhi like the Commonwealth Games or the Spectrum sale. But that does not lighten the burden of everyday corruption that continues as before. The last Transparency International report put the total bribe Indians paid to access routine government services at Rs 21,000 crore. (How? Go and register a trust or a will at any sub-registrar office and you will know).

All parties contribute to this shame despite the BJP's holier than thou posture.A former Gujarat chief minister's daughter faced charges of getting 422 acres of land from the state government at Rs 15 per square meter when the government's own prevailing rate was Rs 180 per square meter. The long-running Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh rocked Parliament again recently but is yet to be fully investigated. Lalit Modi, with friends in BJP, is not trawled the way Vijay Mallya is though both are absconders of the same kind. Most importantly, some BJP leaders in Kerala have been found to have taken money to help start new medical colleges in the state.

Prime Minister Modi made yet another call for a corruption-free India when he said, at the all-party meet on the eve of Parliament's current session, that it was the responsibility of all political parties to take action against corrupt leaders. All parties? That sounds like an instruction to the Karnataka BJP to find a clean chief minister candidate instead of one who was jailed for corruption the first time around.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Be it currency shift, Aadhaar, GST, there is a mad rush; People feel cornered, vexed. Why this mad rush?


Usually life gets simpler as nations progress. But not in India where a barrage of sudden changes, new rules and revised regulations are making life burdensome for ordinary people. First it was demonetisation. The dislocations that abrupt adventure triggered are still haunting people. As if that were not enough, a whole new mess has developed around Aadhaar. Then a bigger mess around GST. The wise men in Government tell us that it's all simple, that it's all good. What we know in everyday life is that it's all oppressive.

All tax paying in India is oppressive and vexatious. In a small outpost like Hongkong, to cite one example, there is a one-page form (that's right, one page) for the citizen to fill up and send to a named tax officer along with a cheque. If there is a doubt, the officer will phone you and settle the matter. That simple. In our country the system is designed to sustain the chartered accountants of the country. Not even an educated citizen can file his tax return on his own because of the technicalities involved. The ground rule is that the tax-paying citizen is guilty until proved innocent.

In this climate Aadhaar is turned into all kinds of things it was not meant to be. Way back in Nandan Nilekani's days, Aadhaar looked like a decent thing -- an ID card for Indians, the more sensible because it was voluntary. There was nothing intimidating about it; it merely confirmed your presence and identity in a yes-no format.

What we now have is mandatory Aadhaar. It has acquired a whole new existential importance because a citizen cannot get a passport, cannot open a bank account, cannot file tax returns, cannot buy a car, cannot even get a railway ticket unless he produces his Aadhaar. Tens of thousands of pensioners have not received their sustenance because their PF accounts are not linked to Aadhaar. Weak or infirm, they are now part of a huge rush to get the paper work done -- presenting Aadhaar card, pension passbook, bank passbook and biometric details to be qualified to get their own money.

Franz Kafka foresaw this kind of nightmarish situation where an omnipotent power floated just beyond the senses. "You go to the city to see the law. Upon arrival outside the building, there is a guard who says 'you may not pass without permission', you notice that the door is open, but it closed enough for you not to see anything (the law)".

Not just Kafka, George Orwell also saw what was coming. The expanded, post-Nilekani Aadhaar violates norms of privacy and individual freedom with joyful abandon, making surveillance of citizens as patriotic as in the days of Big Brother. Orwell was cited in the Supreme Court when a petition came up against Aadhaar. Countering it, the new Attorney General, K. K. Venugopal, argued that Aadhaar had helped more than 300 million poor. Why does Aadhaar attract such contrarian reactions, Kafkaesque, Orwellian and Venugopalish? And indeed Narendra Modi-like? One month before he became Prime Minister, Modi said that in Aadhaar, "there is no vision, only political gimmick".

Is there vision in GST? Minister Venkiah Naidu, who sees life in simple blacks and whites with no inconvenient greys in between, said last week that only those who avoid taxes would criticise GST. Is the Finance Minister of Telengana one who avoids taxes? For the state minister said that GST was "impractical" because of "irrational tax rates".

By Naidu's yardstick, textile businessmen, small traders, hotel keepers, farmers, fishermen, petrol bunk operators, chicken traders, and a whole lot of people who are on the margins are tax dodgers. For they are all at their wit's end over the GST complexities such as price variations and overcharging. Fishermen leading a harsh hand-to-mouth existence, are placed in the tax squeeze for the first time. How will they live during the off-season months when they cannot go out into the waters?

In principle, GST is a good concept. As is Aadhaar. As is demonetisation. The problem is that these are not introduced properly, gradually and after giving people time to understand and adjust to wholesale changes. The Government does not seem to have learned anything from the chaos -- and the deaths -- caused by demonetisation. It is still in a mad rush to change the country, change the way people live, change the way people think. The wise say: Make haste slowly. The otherwise show "no vision, only political gimmick".