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".



Monday, July 10, 2017

Saudis want Qatar out; Turkey wants new dominant role; hostilities in Muslim lands pose problems for all


There is turmoil in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has made a hardline prince the effective ruler. Qatar, isolated by neighbouring Arab states, is defiant. Turkey has become a virtual dictatorship, changing the country's profile and claiming a larger regional role for itself. The war zone in Syria sees Russia and the US challenging each other. Jihadists lie in wait for every opportunity. These are not developments that concern only the Arabs and other Muslims. They make the world unsafe. India has reasons to worry.

The epicentre of the upheaval is Saudi Arabia, more specifically, its newly elevated crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, son of the 81-year old King. He was the power wielder even earlier as deputy crown prince, defense minister and economic decision-maker. It was he who started the war in Yemen in early 2015. Despite US-backed air assaults and continuous ground bombardments at a cost to the Saudis of an estimated $ 200 million a day, the Saudis have failed to suppress the largely Shiah Houthis of Yemen; the war that is into its third year has only shown Saudi Arabia's military incompetence. At one point, the Saudis used their wealth to put together what was called the Islamic Military Alliance with Pakistan's former army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander. It lead to Sunni embarrassment all over, Gen. Raheel himself quietly quitting the scene.

Undaunted, the aggressive prince launched other, bolder initiatives: Arm-twisting of Qatar, an economic overhaul to reduce Saudi's dependence on oil (taxes have been introduced in the country), and a hardening of policies against Iran. These caused concern across the world. A memo by Germany's foreign intelligence service said Saudi Arabia was destabilising the Middle East with "an impulsive policy of intervention".

The unprecedented move against an Arab alliance member was not only impulsive but also counterproductive. Qatar is the headquarters of America's military base in the Gulf -- a strategic reality that made the US, otherwise a spirited ally of Saudi Arabia, less than enthusiastic about "boycotting" Qatar. The reason for Saudi anger against Qatar is that the Qatar rulers do not consider Iran as an enemy. Qatar has tried to maintain, what is by Arab standards, a neutral position on many fronts. At one level, it runs Al Jazeera, the only Arab news service that has a degree of credibility. At another level, it keeps open its channels of communication with Iran, the Shiite power Sunni Saudis consider their rival and which, therefore, they want to destroy.

While other Sunni Arab states like UAE fell in line with Saudi Arabia, the non-Arab Muslim power, Turkey, maintained fairly close relations with Iran. It did not hesitate to help Qatar when the Saudi alliance excommunicated it. Turkey's elected dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is dismantling the secular republic created by the legendary Kemal Ataturk and building instead an Islamic State which he hopes will acquire the kind of influence the old Istanbul-based Ottoman Empire did. Turkey was waiting like a supplicant to be admitted as a member of the European Union. Not any longer. Now Erdogan has turned against Europe, especially Germany and Netherlands where Turkey's ministers were not allowed to address Turkish diaspora. Erdogan went so far as to call the Germans and the Dutch "Nazi gorillas". Turkey's foreign minister warned that Europe now faced the prospect of Holy War.

As far back as in 1996 Samuel Huntington had foreseen something like this happening. His Clash of Civilisations had said that at some point Turkey could resume its "historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor". This would happen, he prophesied, if Turkey rejected Ataturk's legacy "more thoroughly than Russia has rejected Lenin's". That is just what is happening.

Fear of the unexpected has changed the tenor of life. Security protocols control everything. Suddenly, it's an unsafe world. For India, too. The US and Saudi Arabia turning against Iran could tempt India to join them -- which would be a costly mistake given the benefits India can reap from economic collaboration with Iran. The Bangladesh Government told Delhi a few months ago that there was a three-fold increase in the number of jihadis infiltrating into India. The IS has made its presence felt in the country. It has even attracted young people from well-to-do Muslim families to join their ranks. The insecurity violent cow vigilantes have produced among Muslims in some parts of the country may be a factor in this. Everywhere there is uncertainty in the air. The world is tense. The darkness deepens.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Business leaders, SBI turn sceptical about our economy; farmers react with suicides -- which is a bad sign


Those of us who spend the midnight hour sleeping missed the celebratory introduction of GST. After all, it was not the same as the hour "when the world sleeps, India awakes to life and freedom... when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". Every soul, illiterate or educated, felt the thrill of that utterance 70 years ago. A big majority of those who are going to pay the "consolidated" tax called GST don't understand it at all. That's the way of the sarcar whichever party is in power. Try paying property tax in any city, try paying income tax without the help of at least one chartered accountant, and you'll know how the sarcar likes you to run in circles.

Such is the confusion that we can't even be sure if the economy is going forward or standing still. It is galloping forward if we listen to the Finance Minister and his government/party colleagues. But business leaders are giving warning signals while the Government's own State Bank of India has openly criticised demonetisation. And it is no longer secret that a cold war has developed between the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank.

Manmohan Singh -- now seen as a Congressman rather than an economist -- was ignored when he said that demonetisation triggered an economic slowdown. But no one can ignore A.M. Naik, executive chairman of L & T, when he says that there is hesitancy in private investment and if the Government does not spend, "there will be no growth in the economy".

What is becoming clear is that, now that people have had time to see the impact of notebandi, informed criticism of that trademark policy of the Government is turning strident. Experts grant that when the economy is operating normally and people are gradually made familiar with the concept of cashless transactions, discontinuation of high-value currency can have a favourable effect. But that was not what happened in our case. The suddenness of the drastic policy shift created chaos across the country. Cash became unavailable. Small traders stared at starvation. Agriculture mandis saw prices crumbling with disastrous consequences.

Last month the State Bank of India cautioned that demonetisation could continue to slow down the economy. It told institutional investors that the long-term impact of the note ban on India's economy and the banking sector would be "uncertain". So what was the currency coup all about? It certainly did not end black money. Within days of the new currency's entry, large sums of it went underground creating new black money. Headlines turned sensational when a BJP activist was caught recently with machinery that printed fake currency notes. SBI's words of caution strengthened the view that demonetisation was not an economic move, but a political one.

When demonetisation was announced, there were conflicting reports on whether the RBI Governor was in the loop or not. Raghuram Rajan's departure from Governorship was linked to his purported disagreement over the idea. Earlier this month present Governor Urjit Patel said that members of the Monetary Policy Committee had refused to meet finance ministry officials for a policy review meeting. Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramaniam presented the Government's view when he said that "the RBI's inflation forecast errors have been large and systematically one-sided".

The advantage of highfalutin cerebralism among economists is that black can be presented as white and vice versa. The World Bank's India Development Report released in May appeared under two opposing headlines in the print media. One said: "India to grow at 7.2 percent in FY 18", and "7.7 percent forecast for 2019-20 on the back of strong fundamentals". The other said: "World Bank cuts India's growth estimates". Both were correct of course. Only that the second one pointed out that the World Bank's original growth estimate was 7.6 percent, but the performance had fallen short. The first one mentioned nothing about the fall and added the rosy forecast for the next year.

Publicity tricks can go so far but no further. Farmers are in deep crisis and they are responding with suicides in the thousands and mass protests that alternate between the violent and the pathetic (near-naked protestors wearing the skulls of their departed friends). The way the farmers agitation has spread across the country points to a very serious crisis that cannot be met by financially dangerous shortcuts such as loan waiver. Arguments stop and propaganda fails when people, their livelihood lost, start killing themselves. That's how tempests gather.



Monday, June 26, 2017

BJP's coup may send a nice man to Rashtrapathi Bhavan; but questions remain about politics by caste


In political and strategic terms, the BJP leadership staged the equivalent of a coup d'etat when it nominated Ram Nath Kovind for President. The choice killed three birds with one stone. Bird No. 1: The opposition parties' unity against the ruling dispensation. Not only did Bihar's Nitish Kumar break rank to support the BJP; the usual dissonance between father Mulayam and son Akhilesh Yadav pushed the Samajwadis into yet another imbroglio. Bird No. 2: The opposition's chance to field independently a candidate of superior status. Meira Kumar has the right credentials, but her choice essentially means the opposition imitating the BJP's tactic of playing the Dalit card. Bird No. 3: Presumed Dalit antipathy to the Hindutva camp which is seen as a Pune-Nagpur savarna setup. The party in power is in a position to ensure that the election of the President next month will be a mere formality.

The strategists of the BJP scored grace marks as well by picking a man who seems to carry himself well. We need to remember that there were proposals to nominate the RSS chief himself for the highest constitutional position. That would have sent out the message that hardline Hindutva ideology was taking over the country in unabashed style. Avoiding such an unwise projection of the country's image, the decision-makers zeroed in on a man whose chief asset is his low profile. Kovind is a card-carrying BJP man. But as Governor of Bihar he attracted no adverse publicity as, for example, the BJP governors of UP and Karnataka did. Actually he remained unknown all these years. We now hear that he has been a lawyer of some quality and has a scholarly bend of mind, unusual by BJP-RSS standards. In a country where small-minded careerists like Zail Singh and inconsequential bystanders like Pratibha Patil brought disrepute to the presidency, Kovind has the potential to uphold its dignity.

The political calculations behind Kovind's nomination are a different matter, however. It is obvious that his scholarship and non-controversial profile were not the factors that led to his elevation. His caste was. Caste has been a decisive factor in the electoral strategising of all parties across the country. It was especially so in UP where Mayawati built an empire in the name of Dalits despite her service to the community being minimal and self-centred. Kovind, a Kanpur native, will be embraced by UP Dalits, BJP calculates. But Mayawati, significantly, has switched to Meira Kumar.

While the BJP has done a smart job for itself, the larger question remains: On account of electoral compulsions, is India condemned to be nothing more than a sum of its communal parts? Politics and even law and order in many parts of India in recent years have been dominated by caste-based campaigns, often violent, by Thakurs and Dalits, Jats and Gujjars, Patidars and Rajputs and Vanniyars. Is this how our political parties want India's future to be, or do they have a responsibility to lead the country away from narrow casteism?

This is the first time a presidential nominee has been picked on the basis of his caste identity. K. R. Narayanan was not fielded because he was a Dalit. It was his background as diplomat, administrator and minister and, above all, his stature as a public figure that made him a candidate for the highest post in the country. And he lived up to the trust the country placed in him.

P.J. Abdul Kalam was not nominated because he was a Muslim. Nor was Zakir Hussain long before him. In fact those gentlemen were outstanding examples of India's secular identity. Not once did they conduct themselves or take decisions as Muslims. They were Indian citizens and were recognised as such.

It is true that in those times, too, political parties made their electoral calculations on the basis of religion and caste. Even Marxist E.M.S. Namboothiripad went to the extent of creating a new Muslim-majority district in Kerala to please its constituents. But the emphasis on religious and caste is now at a higher pitch, the UP state election signalling a climax of that process. Since the BJP's current strategy is anchored on caste considerations, the role of communal elements in public life will increase.

That Ram Nath Kovind is a worthy candidate is unrelated to the cynical calculations behind his nomination. Principles matter. In the life of a nation, todays are the building blocks of tomorrows. Compromises adopted for momentary victories may well lead to defeats in the long term.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Congress planning to lose its hold on Karnataka, too? With boldness (not National Herald) it can win


Even in its glory days, the National Herald never had a South Indian presence. It was always a Delhi-Lucknow entity and knew it. It would have been another inconsequential provincial rag but for its ownership (Jawaharlal Nehru) and its editorship (Chalapathi Rau). Actually, the latter more than the former. While Nehru was an absentee overlord, it was Chalapathi's superior qualities as editor, writer and activist that made the paper a stand-out.

The Delhi-North Indian stamp of the Herald is an unalterable historical reality. Yet, when they decided to launch a commemorative edition of the paper, they chose Bangalore as the launching pad. Strange. Why didn't they pick Delhi where the multistorey Herald House rises proudly in the city's newspaper street, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg? Why not Lucknow, the paper's birthplace and headquarters? Why did they choose a location never associated with the Herald in any way?

The reason of course is that the Congress was playing practical politics. Today's Delhi is unfriendly territory for a Nehru-linked institution. Lucknow would be even more unfriendly with a saffron-clad yogi reigning as the monarch of all he surveys there. Karnataka is a major state where the Congress is unchallenged in power. To hold a launch function there would not only be safe; it would ensure the attendance of government leaders and thus the attention of the entire state administration. That was what happened. The National Herald and Rahul Gandhi were praised skyhigh with the entire state cabinet turning out and the police closing major highways to make it an easy ride for the Congress.

In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi, the star of the show, made a good impression with his speech. Someone had obviously provided timely input, for the Congress scion said that "the power of truth is being completely replaced by the truth of power". He even quoted Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the legendary Soviet era poet, to remind us that "when truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie". Very true. But when the British tried to replace truth with silence, another Gandhi responded with action that found a million tongues.

What does the present Gandhi do? He quoted Yevtushenko, then flew to Delhi and then went off to Italy to spend time, we were told, with his 93-year old grandmother. A sycophant added insult to injury by saying that "attending to aged grandparents is part of Indian culture". Rahul Gandhi is known for his regular disappearances from India. But this was a critical moment, with strategies being worked out for the presidential election, a gathering of opposition leaders taking place and the farmers' agitation in the Hindi heartland growing worse by the day. Rahul chose to ignore all that and become part of Indian culture instead.

That the Congress is in the hands of a part-time leader is the biggest asset of the BJP. Unable to come up with initiatives that enthuse the people, the Congress goes after ideas that confuse them -- like the National Herald commemoration in Bangalore. What was its purpose? Certainly not to revive the paper which is an impossibility. Was it then a move to give a boost to the Congress in Karnataka in preparation for the election next year?

That is going to be a life-and-death election for the Congress. But a gimmick built round a newspaper that is unknown in Karnataka is no way to prepare for so crucial an election. A bold Congress can still fight and win. The key word is bold. It must be bold enough to realise that the incumbency factor alone will lead to its collapse if the present leadership structure continues. A new face and a new promise, on the other hand, can certainly give it a fighting chance.

The Congress can electrify the scene in its favour if it projects Mallikarjun Kharge as its chief ministerial candidate in the next election. He is the only leader in Karnataka with a clean image and his administrative experience is unrivalled. He is also the only Congressman tall enough to keep in check the criminal elements that occupy important positions in the party leadership today. Indeed, Kharge appears to be the only option open to the Congress to keep at least one state under its flag in the South. The question is less whether Kharge can be persuaded to take up the task and more whether the Congress leadership has the ability to understand its plight. The alternative is to go the National Herald way.


Monday, June 12, 2017

With political help, lobbies put chemicals in our diet; BJP must honour its pledge to keep GM food out


Before the power of commercial lobbies, even the BJP government bows. The party's manifesto took a strong stand against GM foods; ignoring it, the Government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) greensignalled genetically engineered mustard in India. GM mustard is known to be more dangerous than GM cotton (which has caused havoc already) and GM brinjal (which was stopped in the nick of time).

Because mustard is used in every household every day in India, its health implications are of special importance to us. GM mustard is an HT (herbicide tolerant) crop. This euphemism means it uses a single herbicide, eventually becoming resistant and necessitating heavy use of chemical herbicide. Such excessive use has been linked to birth defects and childhood cancers. Almost all of Europe has discontinued the GM concept altogether because of health issues.

Why then does India welcome these traps? There are three reasons: The vested interests of politicians, over-enthusiasm of civil servants, and the apparent ease with which watchdogs like GEAC can be compromised. Much of this is facilitated by the world's most powerful lobbying groups which routinely influence US Government policies. (Barak Obama appointed several Monsanto executives in his Government's food and agriculture supervisory bodies).

These lobbies are no less powerful in India. Remember those horrid, heart-wrenching videos of endosulfan victims in Kasargod areas? They are still there -- pitiably malformed children and men with bloated body parts. Every time such pathetic pictures of human suffering appeared on television screens, people would ask: Why doesn't the Government ban endosulfan? And every time Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was confronted with the question, he would say: We need to do more tests to know if endosulfan is harmful. How thick can political skins get?

Insensitive politicians are aided and abetted by specialists in the Government's planning bodies. Niti Ayog has argued in favour of GM mustard on the ground that the GM technology will substantially increase yield. This is a myth as UN statistics prove. Non-GM users have the highest mustard yield -- Germany, France, UK, Poland, Czech Republic. Way down in the table are GM users -- USA, Canada, Australia. Why did Niti Ayog rely on other self-serving statistics? And why did it ignore social and health issues?

The bigger tragedy is that we cannot be sure of our watchdogs; under pressure, they become promoters rather than preventers of malpractices. India has for long been a victim of this malaise. In 2009 the Food & Safety Standards Authority of India, our only food regulatory body, saw Pepsi and Coca-Cola officials becoming members of panels to judge various technical matters such as sampling methods, additives and flavourings. With a board comprising representatives of the very companies it was supposed to regulate, what safety standards could FSSAI ensure?

Similar manipulations made the GEAC clear GM brinjal in 2009. Monsanto, described by The Guardian of UK as "the world's most hated company", infiltrated the GEAC and also gave various research assignments to field researchers and sundry agricultural scientists in the country. The result was that Monsanto-flavoured research reached the GEAC for Mansanto-flavoured decisions. Activist Kavita Kuruganti publicly charged that the chairman of the Expert Committee appointed to examine the matter was "pressurised by the Agriculture Minister, GEAC and the industry" to clear GM brinjal. We were saved from it only because an alert minister, Jairam Ramesh, put it safely in Trishanku Swarga.

The lobbyists turned smarter this time. They presented GM mustard as the product of a Delhi University team's research. This was followed by another report: The genes that went into the DU mustard was the property of Bayer, a merged part of Monsanto. Three giant corporations including Monsanto-Bayer control both the seeds market and the pesticide market globally. It's a win-win situation for them and Swadeshi scientists, too, necessarily work as their foot soldiers.

The only thing that can be done about technologies based on chemical pesticides is to eliminate them. Reckless use of pesticides in the cotton region of Punjab ruined a generation of farmers. Their tragedy was dramatised by the "cancer train" that took afflicted farmers daily from Bhatinda station to Bikaner (where the Acharya Tulsi cancer institute was more affordable). Biologist Pushpa Bhargava, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2008 to observe the GEAC's functioning, was outraged by the manipulations he saw. "Whatever Monsanto said was God's own word", he said and warned: "If bt. Brinjal is released, it will be the single largest disaster in the country".

Larger still will be the mustard disaster.

Monday, June 5, 2017

BJP approach to cattle trading will hurt the economy; but who cares since the idea is to create vote banks


It's clear: The cow dominates India. The world is changing in radical ways and life-and-death issues confront our country -- GST's impact on everyday life, the "dirty war" in Kashmir, rising attacks on women, crisis in the IT industry, tensions with China. But none of them gets the national attention the cow gets. It is as though the country is meant only for cow worshippers and cow eaters. Religion is the key here as it is in all policy matters nowadays.

(Before we go any further, it is important for this writer to make what is called a disclaimer. I do not eat meat. Of any kind. Can't even stand the sight of it dangling from hooks in wayside stalls. In school days I was in love with Lakshmi, one of three cows in the family shed. She was a real beauty, plump and wholesome and shining deep brown and aglow with a smile, I thought, when she saw me. No one worshipped her, except me, only that my worship was that of a lover).

The most important thing we should know about today's cow debate is that it is not rational. It is emotional and political. This is because the BJP in power believes that it can alter the country's DNA. Remember that legislation for cow protection need not be aggressive. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Act is dated 1964 when Congress stalwart Kengal Hanumanthaiah was the chief minister. Note that it specified cow, without hiding behind terms like cattle as now.

The BJP has given the issue a combative, party-oriented twist. This comes through disastrously in the violence unleashed by cow rowdies: Lynching a citizen on mere suspicion, flogging dalits who skinned dead cattle as per tradition, beating to death a dairy farmer taking his cows home, ABVP activists attacking a student in IIT-Madras for eating beef. That such crimes are committed before cameras and then publicised shows that the criminals are sure of support from law-enforcers. On the record so far, they are right.

No wonder that reason has no chance and partisan emotionalism wins the day. Historian D.N. Jha's 2001 book Holy Cow: Beef in India was a scholarly study. But even before it was out, Hindutva forces declared war. The Government banned the book and the author, facing death threats, was obliged to take police protection. Jha had merely quoted chapter and verse to show that Hindus ate beef in the past.

With the same belligerence with which they attack the facts of the past, communal partisans reject the realities of the present. The economics of cattle farming are of existential importance to India. Farmers who rear cattle must have the facility to sell them at will, hence the thousands of cattle markets in the country. A productive cow (useful in agriculture and dairy work) can get half a lakh of rupees in the market. Once productivity stops, the bovines have no value except in the meat market. To deny this is to hit farmers below the belt.

Farmers who cannot sell cattle profitably, will stop rearing cattle (providing 20 kg of fodder to an animal means Rs 150 a day to the farmer). At the same time the population of stray cattle will increase. This is already visible in Maharashtra and Haryana where the BJP has banned beef. There are no organisations with the ability and the willingness to run goshalas for the tens of thousands of cows that roam shelterless. And what of the industries dependent on various parts of cattle -- skin (India's leather exports earn $ 6 billion a year), bone, horns, tail hair, blood? And the employment given to traders, middlemen, transporters, tanners, cooks? From no angle relevant to the progress of a nation is a cattle trading ban justified. It is not justified even from the point of view of Hindus en masse; many non-Brahmin Hindus are meat eaters. Just as many non-Hindus are vegetarian.

Wouldn't a national programme to promote vegetarianism have been wiser than an arbitrary ban on traditional cattle business? Given the increasing popularity of vegetarian diets across the world, India could play a leadership role in such a programme as it did in the case of Yoga. That would have indirectly led to cow protection as well. Such constructive thinking can of course have no scope if the intention is to divide people and create vote banks. The cow has been reduced to a political tool -- an insult to its holiness.



Monday, May 29, 2017

When Trump calls for a war against Islamic terrorism and praises its historical promoter, it is hypocrisy


Abu Zubaydah, a "high-value" associate of fellow Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, was captured by America's CIA from a safe house in Pakistan in 2002. (Pakistan's ISI got $ 10 million for services rendered). Badly wounded, Zubaydah was put on painkillers. CIA strategists manipulated the medication until the man was hallucinated into believing that he was in Saudi Arabian custody. Feeling relieved, he gave the "doctors" a telephone number and asked them to call a member of the Saudi royal family to ask for further instructions. He also revealed that the royals had agreed in late 1990s to support bin Laden in return for assurances that the kingdom would be excluded from his jihad. The CIA got to work. Three Saudi leaders and a Pakistani army officer Zubaydah had named died one after another in accidents. All secrets were safe.

Details like these, described in the 2003 book Why America Slept: The failure to prevent 9/11 by Gerald Posner are alarming enough. They get scary when read alongside reports that, after President George Bush proclaimed a no-fly order covering America's entire airspace following the 9/11 attack, a solitary aircraft rose from the Washington area and flew out of American space, safely, unchallenged. It was a Saudi Arabian passenger plane. Few knowledgeable people today doubt that Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 terror strike that shook the world. Of the 19 terrorists in the four hijacked planes, 15 were Saudi citizens.

It was from this Saudi Arabia that the new President of the United States appealed to Muslim nations last week to ensure that "terrorists find no sanctuary in their soil". He told what was called the Arab Islamic American Summit (35 Sunni countries friendly with the Saudis) that it was necessary to "honestly confront the crisis of Islamist extremism".

As it happens, Islamist extremism is also a wholly Saudi Arabian contribution. Warring tribal chieftains who established the Saudi dynasty used Wahabism, a violently orthodox reconstruction of Islam, as a ruse to build up their hegemony in the Arabian peninsula. In recent years they have been using it to spread Saudi-Wahabi influence in countries with large Muslim populations. The flow of Saudi money and Saudi evangelists has been radicalising local Islamic communities in many countries including India.

An unplanned offshoot of Saudi Arabia's undeclared religious war is the rise of the IS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a caliphate that is out to capture the world by force). The ground was prepared for them, first, by the Bush profiteers who created a war to milk Iraq's oil resources and, then, by Saudi Arabia's putsch to establish Sunni dominance over Iraq's Shias and Syria's ruling Alawi sect. An entire generation in the region has been brutalised by Saudi machinations.

From Wahabism's rise in the 18th century and the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932 to the rise of IS in 1999, Saudi Arabia has been the principal incubator of the terrorism that gentlemen like Donald Trump now condemn. But they dare not point a finger at Saudi Arabia. For a moment Trump sounded like he was finally calling a spade a spade when he told the aforementioned Summit: "No discussion on stamping out terrorism would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three [essentials] -- safe harbour, financial backing, and social standing for recruitment". A perfect profile of Saudi Arabia, but Trump hastened to say: "I am speaking of course of Iran". What relief! Ironically, Trump and his Saudi hosts attacked Iran just when the only democratic election in the region saw the re-election in Iran of a modernist-moderate, Hassan Rouhani, over a hardline cleric.

But Trump's rhetoric is fully understandable. He is a deal-maker with his mind focussed on money. Saudi Arabia agreed to buy US weapons worth $ 100 billion. It agreed to invest $ 350 billion in America. It agreed also to give $ 100 million to a woman's business fund promoted by Lady Trump. That's real money. For Trump the embrace of Saudi Arabia is the embrace of money. America First as he proclaims.

What about us? Our joint projects with Iran -- the Chabahar port, gas pipelines -- are of great value not only economically but also strategically considering China's parallel activities with Pakistan. Smart nations find ways to pursue their bilateral interests without letting third parties come in the way. We let the America First approach come in the way of what should be an India First stance with Iran.




Monday, May 22, 2017

The manner in which Hindi is promoted hasn't helped national unity. One-sided policy has hindered it


Was it necessary to kick up the Hindi controversy all over again? A better model was available to the authorities. Within a fortnight of the Modi Government taking office, a circular had gone round Central Government offices asking for Hindi to be used in social media. Protests rose from non-Hindi states and the PMO quickly doused the fire by explaining that the circular was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. Earlier this month, in an apparent bid to prove more loyal than the king, the Official Language Committee headed by Kiran Rijuju proposed -- and the President of India approved -- that all dignitaries give their speeches/statements in Hindi only (meaning that those who did not do so in Hindi would not be considered dignitaries), that flight announcements be in Hindi followed by English (that is how it is now, so what was the need to rub it in?) Minister Rijuju said "we are not imposing Hindi, only promoting it like any other language". Like any other language? What's his most recent move to promote Telugu or Konkani?

It is part of Hindi chauvinism to assume that South Indians are anti-Hindi. They are not. They have heartily welcomed cinema, television, sports and latterday phenomena like migrant labour that spread spoken Hindi across the region. What blocks Hindi are two other obstacles. First, the air of superiority of the Hindiwalla, especially when he has precious little to be superior about. Secondly, the advantage people from Hindi states get in the job market.

In 2016 the official Sarkari Naukri Portal advertised hundreds of thousands of jobs -- total government vacancies 2,73,879, graduate government jobs 82,319 and so on. When applicants for these jobs are processed, candidates whose mother tongue is Hindi get a natural advantage over those from non-Hindi areas, irrespective of professional qualifications. It is a pity that the over-enthusiastic Rijuju does not understand the bread-and-butter implications of Hindi.

Even as Rijuju was busy promoting "all" the languages, another patriot went to the Supreme Court with the plea that the Centre, the states and Union territories be asked to make Hindi compulsory for class I to VII students across the country "to promote national unity". The Court not only refused to entertain the plea; it noted that the petitioner was a spokesman of the BJP's Delhi chapter and asked: "Why does he not ask his party to do it? He is part of the Government". For that matter, why does he not ask about the three-language formula, enshrined as state policy in 1968, which requires people in Hindi-speaking states to study Hindi, English and a modern Indian language. How many in UP have studied English and another Indian language? A one-way perspective supported by arrogance cannot "promote national unity".

Other countries march ahead of us by being practical, not chauvinistic. In 2001 China made English a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. English also became a required subject, along with Mandarin and mathematics, for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. Today nearly 94 percent of students who have to study a foreign language choose English. This has been a factor in China's march in recent years to world leadership.

Inspiring was the example set by Indonesia, a country of 17,500 islands with 260 "vigorous" languages and 350 declining languages. As much as 45 percent Indonesians are Javanese. And yet the leadership of the freedom movement, though dominated by Javanese, decided that independent Indonesia should not have a system that would give undue advantage to the Javanese and their language. So they chose as the national language a Malay-Jawi mix and gave it a neutral name, Bahasa Indonesia. To clinch the unifying reform, they also adopted the Roman (Latin) script for the new Bahasa. That was patriotism true and proper.

The only Indian leader who had that kind of vision was Subhas Chandra Bose. In the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, Bose as President mooted the idea of adopting Roman script for Hindustani. He explained how Kamal Atatuk's decision to introduce Roman script in Turkey had worked wonders in that country. Of course the Congress simply ignored the idea. It was Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, who proposed that Hindi be the national language with Devanagari script. Instead of uniting India, it has proved divisive because Hindi is promoted with neither the pragmatism of Subhas Chandra Bose nor the wisdom of the Javanese. All that the promoters have is a blinkered view of nationalism -- and we keep paying for it.



Monday, May 15, 2017

With Kerala's CM inviting humiliation after humiliation, the CPM saga may be coming to a close in India


Are we witnessing the final fade-out of communism's run in India? West Bengal was a Left citadel that seemed impregnable for three long decades. Rather suddenly it crumbled and repeated attempts to put it together again have failed. Kerala then became the Marxists' only viable address. The electoral victory they gained in the state last year was impressive and the chief minister's chair was filled by the Indian Left's legendary Strong Man, Pinarayi Vijayan.

From day one, however, and for reasons no one can understand, Pinarayi became a standing monument to foolishness. False step after false step led to humiliation after humiliation for himself and for his Government. By last week, in the wake of heavy lashings by the Supreme Court, Pinarayi looked not just a comic figure but also a dangerous one out of tune with all others including his own party leaders.

There is a pattern in his conduct: He always takes a position against public opinion. Is it ego, arrogance or the Strong Man showing that he can do what he pleases? When students began an agitation against malpractices in a family-run law college, the Chief Minister supported the erring family. The students gained widespread public sympathy and eventually won their demands, but Pinarayi continued to be on the side of the wrongdoers.

More unpopular was his backing of a private college management against which students rose in revolt following the suicide of one of them. The management was accused of torturing him and others who questioned practices like extracting money under various pretexts. When the dead boy's protesting mother was manhandled by the police, people across the state were outraged by the Government's insensitiveness. The family's demands were finally conceded, but only on paper, while the Chief Minister went on making disparaging remarks about the grieving mother and her relatives. The loss of public goodwill for the Government was massive.

On other fronts, too, the public was either puzzled or offended. In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister started surrounding himself with special advisors -- legal advisor, media advisor, economic advisor (from Harvard University), police advisor; two of his ministers were obliged to resign in unhappy circumstances; Kannur politics (from his region of the state) saw 18 political murders in one year attributed to the CPM and BJP; he was seen generally against the popular drive to remove encroachments in the hills of Munnar, criticising the officials carrying out orders.

It was his handling of the police that exposed a confused, inefficient and self-obsessed Pinarayi ( who is Home Minister as well). He began his term by removing the police chief, Senkumar. Improving police efficiency was not the intention, for major cases of incompetence followed. A film actress was kidnapped and assaulted and even before investigation could begin, the Chief Minister said it was not a conspiracy. On World Women's Day, Shiv Sena's moral police attacked couples, and policemen stood around watching. A woman student died in mysterious circumstances and so did two school girls within two months of each other; police investigations became a farce.

And Senkumar went to court. The way Pinarayi handled the matter became a classic case of moronism. The Supreme Court ordered the Government to take Senkumar back as chief of police. A sensible government would have quietly done so and minimised the damage to its prestige. But Pinarayi, with all those advisors around him, delayed Senkumar's reinstatement for a week, then filed a new petition asking for clarity in the court's order. The court dismissed the petition, disregarded the Government lawyer's apology, imposed a fine of 25,000 rupees towards costs, remarked that it was now convinced that the removal of Senkumar in the first place was done with "malafide intentions", and issued notice on a contempt of court petition against the state's chief secretary.

Shamed as no government had been shamed before, the Pinarayi machine still didn't see the light. Just before Senkumar was reinstated, a hundred police officers were hastily reshuffled in the state, evidently to keep a watch on the new chief. A chief minister so scared of his own police chief? Additionally, he stood before the state assembly and made amazing claims: the Government had not been fined by the court, there was no apology by the Government, we only followed procedures, the Government did nothing wrong....

If this is how Pinarayi Vijayan goes on, the CPM may be off India's power map for good. People can take the foolishness of fools, but not the foolishness of egoists.

Monday, May 8, 2017

China's take-over of the South China Sea is complete; a summit next week clinches its strategic gains


A week from today "the biggest diplomatic event of the year" will take place in China with many heads of government in attendance (not India's). This is the first summit of Xi Jinping's prestigious signature project -- the One Belt One Road (OBOR) enterprise to build a network of railways, ports and powergrids linking Asia, Africa and Europe.

The sheer sweep of the concept -- shall we say, the daring -- is a proclamation of China's ambitions. We will miss the big message underlying the big idea if we see OBOR in isolation. It is part of an awakening that has transformed China into the world's second most powerful country, poised to overtake the first. The economic muscle that is being built through projects like OBOR is but an extension of the military and strategic muscles that are continuously being strengthened.

Consider the South China Sea. Large portions of this expanse constitute the territorial waters of Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. Early on they had protested against China's aggressive moves. The Philippines even went to the International Court which ruled in its favour. China ignored it all and went on strengthening sandbanks, filling up shoals, laying airstrips. American military sources now say that "hundreds" of surface-to-air missiles are being set up in the now militarised islands. Australian experts have said it is too late to challenge China. Philippine President advised his fellow Southeast Asian leaders to reconcile to the fait accompli. Without firing a shot, China has taken over an ocean and turned a half dozen littoral states into virtual satellites.

China's second aircraft carrier was launched last month, built in China at what is described as amazing speed. (India's second carrier being built at Kochi is eight years behind schedule). China has announced that six more carriers are being built, two to be deployed permanently in the Indian Ocean. Note, too, that China has taken over Gwadar port in Pakistan and has set up a military base in Djibouti's port in the Gulf of Aden. It's clear that China's status as a naval power in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region is already formidable, and steadily becoming more so.

Add to this the headway China has made in strategic alliances. It has significantly improved its relations with Russia, leading to a China-Russia-Pakistan economic partnership. What is interesting here is that Russia was a close ally of India for a long period during which it had kept Pakistan at a distance. The strategic balance of the whole region changed following India's decision to cultivate America in preference to Russia. What has India gained? Pakistan is today an integral part of Southeast Asian geopolitics as shaped by China and Russia while America's Asia pivot policy of which India was to be a central component has evaporated. Unpredictable as Trump's America is, the State Department said last week that China would be America's highest priority in Asia.

China's attitude to India has changed, too. It seems to have concluded that India is no longer the serious competitor it once appeared to be. On the OBOR issue China officially stated that "India will have a representative". (Perhaps a middle rank diplomat or businessman). The Chinese media, however, felt no need to be diplomatic. It said Delhi would be isolated and embarrassed by its stand, that Russia and Iran are "seeking to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which will put India in a more awkward position".

Iran was initially most interested in building relations with India. Given Shia Iran's problems with Baluchistan, close ties with Tehran should have been a strategic (besides economic) priority for India. But our responses were tardy. Iran has since moved away to the warmer China-Pakistan-Russia partnership. Yet another pointer to the altered situation is India's apparent loss of interest in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. There was a time when India was eager to get full membership. In another month formalisation of full membership, along with Pakistan's, is to be processed. Despite the fact that this is part of the profound realignments that are taking place in Eurasia, India is sulking.

Even in Sri Lanka, when a project was drawn up for India to develop Trincomalee, local protests become so powerful that the idea had to be dropped. At the same time China is building a massive new port in the country's capital itself, adjacent to the existing Colombo port.

Somewhere we've done something not good. Who will find out? Who will take remedial measures? Who will bell the cat?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dissent is a vital part of nationalism. We need it. Enforced nationalism is counter-productive


It is part of India's vedic wisdom that even amrut, when taken in excess, turns poisonous. The case of nationalism is no different: Too much of it becomes counter-productive. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M.Kalburgi were nationalists, proud of their country and working for its betterment. But they were independent thinkers like most educated Indians are, and that was enough for hypernationalists, with the fanaticism of the ignorant, to kill them.

Fanatics have grown more defiant in the last couple of years. They dare even the Prime Minister. When cow vigilantism raised its head, Narendra Modi, though belatedly, condemned the vigilantes as anti-social. Some leaders of the vigilantes responded with words of defiance against the Prime Minister. After the BJP's recent victories, violent vigilantism has increased. Transporting even buffaloes invites attacks. A dairy farmer was lynched. UP's meat industry has collapsed leaving thousands jobless and the economy badly hit.

Add to this the misuse of sedition laws. The silliest example was the filing of a sedition case against Kannada actor-politician Ramya. Her crime? She said Pakistan was not hell, that ordinary Pakistanis were like ordinary Indians. Normal people would see this as a normal observation. But an overheated patriot accused her of sedition. She said she was entitled to her opinion. The self-styled nationalists responded by throwing eggs at her car. This kind of nationalism is one-dimensional, intolerant, in fact anti-national.

Manufactured nationalism enforced from above only leads to tyranny and oppression. Hitler's Germany proved that, as did Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile. On the other hand, dissent has never really harmed a nation. See America's record.

During the Vietnam war, America's writers and film-makers and students turned into vicious critics of the Government. Some 30,000 books came out on Vietnam. They minced no words. A 2013 study, bluntly titled Kill Anything That Moved: The Real American War in Vietnam, established how that war was a manifestation of American state terrorism.

No author was taken to court on sedition charges. In fact, public opinion forced America to end the war.

A New York Times columnist quoted chapter and verse to show that, as the Iraq war drew to a close, businessmen tied to President George Bush and his family were controlling business opportunities in the country in segments such as reconstruction. The columnist said that "Iraq is proving to be a bonanza for the Bush administration's corporate cronies... The Bush II crowd is arrogant, venal, mean-spirited and contemptuous of law and custom".

No case of sedition was filed against the columnist.

The director of a human rights organisation in New York said in an article that America used "torture, abuse, lies and cover-up" in Iraq. He described American occupation in Iraq as "a criminal enterprise masquerading as liberation".

He was not called anti-national.

A corporate executive wrote a book in 2003 arguing that American politicians had consistently promoted evil, from installing dictators in a dozen countries to supplying anthrax and arms to Taliban. The book's title: Rogue Nation.

No unknown patriot knocked at his door and, as he opened it, shot him dead.

Americans expressed their hatred for Bush in numerous ways. 'Impeach Bush' car stickers were among the more sober forms of protest. Some others left nothing to the imagination. Book titles, for example, were explicit: Stupid White Men, The Liar George Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

Not one of the writers had eggs thrown at them, let alone sedition cases filed.

After nationalism drove Margaret Thatcher to the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982, she organised a Thanksgiving Service in London, the assumption being that God was on UK's side and the nation had to express its gratitude to him. Britain's religious head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, took a different view. He said in his sermon: "Those who dare to interpret God's will must never claim him as an asset for one nation rather than another. War follows when the love and loyalty that should be offered to God are offered to some God-substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism".

The Indians who are promoting a parochial version of nationalism with the help of guns, eggs and the Sedition Act may be inspired by what they consider religious sentiments, but it's a misinterpretation of religion. History has given them a moment of opportunity. If they do not use that moment wisely, it will disappear.

Foolish things done with immunity because of political power are still foolish.

Monday, April 24, 2017

V. P. Singh was meant to be a dreamer, a poet, an artist; It was bad luck he ended up as prime minister


In the political universe of India V. P. Singh rose as high as a citizen could -- MLA, chief minister, union finance minister, defence minister, prime minister, father of coalition politics. For all that, he was seen as a "failure" because he was a lone crusader against corruption and for social justice; those who disapproved of crusaders were more powerful. The footprints V. P. Singh left on the sands of time were rapidly washed away.

To make it in politics in India, one needs a certain crudity of disposition, a well-developed insensitivity to other people's needs. V. P. Singh had the opposite attributes, for he was really not a politician; he was a poet and an artist. He was shaped by the essential qualities of an artist -- sensitiveness, a penchant for the subtleties that make up life, an eye for beauty including the beauty of the invisible. That a man of creative sensibilities was pushed into the negative tumble of politics was the tragedy of V. P. Singh.

How different it would have been if he had decided to dedicate his life to writing. See how his imagination takes wing as he watches tea being poured through a tea-stainer. The poem is titled Tea-Stainer and the lines go:

Bounded by wires
And punctured by holes
Is my being.

For a moment
My heart
Rapturously fills up
Then drop by drop
Drains away.

Whatever you may pour
Is never retained

What remains
Are some drained leaves
Spent desires.

Life then a wait
For someone to come
And make tea again.

Fortunately some of his work as poet and painter is available in book form. He usually wrote poems in Hindi, then, Tagore-like, translated them himself into English, making his imageries and dreamings available to a wider audience. Every Time I Wake Up is a collection of poems published by the Penguin Group in 2006. It's really a collector's item because, apart from the surprisingly revealing poems, some of them just two or four lines and untitled, the book contains evocative drawings by the poet. The cover jacket carries colour paintings in front and back in two contrasting styles.

V. P. Singh was a sick man. (He died in November 2008 after a long struggle with bone marrow cancer). The loneliness and the anxieties hospitalisation brought him are the more moving for the candidness with which he wrote about them. Every time I wake up / It is night.... / With only my echo to tell me / How far away I am. How could a man of such perceptive responsiveness cope with the all-or-nothing attrition wars of politics? Singh as Defence Minister unveiled Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in kickback defence deals such as Bofors. But he could not pursue that campaign with the relentlessness it needed. Poets just do not have the ruthlessness of politicians.

Did V. P. Singh have a private love link? It could as well be the flights of fancy of a poet felled by a fatal illness. But we cannot miss the tenderness of some of his untitled couplets that take up half the book under the generic heading Vignettes. After confessing in the very first Vignette that Desire tip-toed right up to me / It was too late to run, he gives us some teasers:

Blossoms whispered
You are in town

The floating lines are no doubt meant to be momentary thoughts that inspire and/or depress the poet. But the power of sentiment makes you pause and ponder when you read sudden lines like

The moon
Just peeped into my window
Did you send it ?

He certainly was aware that his public image was that of a politician, not a writer or artist. There are repeated references to the fallibilities and transitoriness of what makes news. But clearly the politician found consolation in the poet.

All their swords
Could not slay
My shadow

Not that he considered himself a ranking poet. At one point he says, with disarming self-effacement.
I counted
My poems
Like money
And realised
How bankrupt am I.

Perhaps he knew that he was trapped in politics. That, at any rate, seems to be the message in the very last Vignette in the book:

I switched off the moon
And switched on the lights
I was in town.

A decade after his passing, he is still in town -- as prime minister, and as poet and artist.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Craze for fairness creams, too, is an aspect of racism. No need to deny facts; all peoples are racists


Why do we deny the racism in us? All humans are infected by it. When an Indian techie was shot dead in an American pub, when an Indian woman was stabbed to death in Australia, we knew and we said they were racial attacks. Why do we do a metaphysical turnaround when we are the attackers and Africans the victims?

When Africans were beaten up horrendously in a Delhi mall recently, government spokesman expressed regret but hastened to add that it was not a racial attack. What else was it? Even when a fight is triggered by routine factors like a restaurant altercation or taxifare dispute, when the fight is between Indians and Africans, it takes on at once a racist character expressed through the expletives used and the sheer ruthlessness of the attack.

This message has been conveyed by many incidents of violence in recent years. Typical was the case of the African student who stopped at a wayside shop in Bengaluru and asked for cigarettes. The shopkeeper said he was out of stock. A minute later a local came along and he was given the brand he wanted. The African protested -- and was beaten up. The worst part is that the police either turn bystanders or side with the locals.

Denial doesn't help anyone. In the language of social scientists, racism exists as an unconscious attitude in individuals and societies everywhere. "There has been a racial element in human history", said A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his 1998 book India 2020. Long before him, the poet in Sarojini Naidu had referred to "the natural conflicts of races and religions" and said that only education could resolve them.

That was an optimistic view. The greatest racist crimes in history were committed by apparently educated people -- the annihilation of the natives of America by European colonisers, the decimation of Australia's aborigines by British settlers and Nazi Germany's extermination campaign against Jews. Education may tone down racism but cannot eradicate it because ethnic prejudices are ingrained in human psyche.

That Germans claiming pure Aryan blood set out to obliterate Jews showed that racism is not always colour-based. But colour is the most potent element in racism. In Israel itself black Jews from Africa and India are second class compared to white Jews. George Washington, who pioneered the concepts of equality enshrined in the American constitution, kept blacks as slaves because he considered it normal. Despite the "black is beautiful" movement and an icon like Cassius Clay defiantly becoming Mohammed Ali, white policemen still attack black Americans because they are black.

We in India should be able to understand this clearly because no other Asian country is home to such colour-based prejudices as we are. See the matrimonial ads and the craze for fairness creams. Scholars trace our colour complexes all the way back to our Vedic heritage. R.S.Sharma, author of books like Sudras in Ancient India, cites chapter and verse in the Rig Veda to show that "other survivors of earlier societies were reduced to what came to be known as the fourth varna of Aryan society". But, he adds, "it would be wrong to think that all the 'blacks' were reduced to the status of Sudra helots, since there are some references to black seers". He also draws attention to the fact that "in the tenth book the Angiras author of the Rig Veda x.42-44 is called 'black' ".

Perhaps it is the Rig Veda's triumph that the average North Indian sees all South Indians as "Madrasis". That dumbness of the brain made Aam Admi Party's court poet Kumar Vishwas and JDU's antique leader Sharad Yadav talk about the dark damsels of the south. They are convinced no doubt that Deepika Padukone is a Garhwal native.

By comparison Tarun Vijay is a worldlywise politician. Even for him it came naturally to wonder "how we live with" South Indians. For all his public relations chutzpah, Tarun Vijay's veins carry RSS-treated blood, making the Vindhyas a cultural wall. Compulsions of vote politics may impose different public posturings but the inner cells remains fixed.

That is why it is important not to miss the significance of the "we" he used. The message to the Africans was: How do "we", inheritors of Aryavarta's glories, live with "them", the unsanskritised natives of the south; if we can live with them, we can live with you. Convinced? It's time to expand Kipling: North is north and south is south and never the twain shall meet.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Almost unnoticed, our democracy is getting abridged; is perpetual one-party rule the future of India?

Fact No. 1: Donations by companies to political parties is the biggest contributor to corruption in India. All parties acknowledge this.

Fact No. 2: Elimination of corruption has been a top priority with the BJP government. After the currency demonetisation, government leaders even claimed that black money and corruption had been virtually stamped out.

Fact No. 3: The Finance Bill rushed through Parliament two weeks ago made nonsense of the Government's stated positions. It actually legalised unlimited donations by companies, that too, anonymously.

Fact No. 4: Brazenness characterised the Government's move to promote the interests of the ruling party. If new rules also promoted corruption and black money, so be it, seemed to be the official stance.

Consider the audacity on display. Companies were allowed to contribute to parties 7.5 percent of their average net profits of the previous three years. The Finance Bill abolished that limit. A company can now contribute any amount of money to political parties regardless of whether its own balance sheet shows profit or loss. Ominously, they do not have to disclose to whom they have given the funds. Thus, the new policy position boils down to: Unlimited and anonymous. So much for the policy of transparency the Government swears by.

This is in addition to the electoral bonds idea introduced in the budget earlier. The Finance Minister claims that this system will bring in clean money. How can it be clean when neither the donor company nor the favoured party has to declare the transaction? In fact the legally permitted secrecy make it a profound boost to crony capitalism.The power of business houses to influence policies has always been a feature of our democracy. Now it can be exercised without even the vexatious paraphernalia that Niira Radia had to organise for her clients.

If things were clean, then what was the need to introduce the finance Bill with non-money amendments in violation of parliamentary convention? Those amendments should normally have gone through Rajya Sabha voting as well. But the BJP does not have a majority in the upper house, so the short cut of money bill with non-money amendments was resorted to. The opposition objected to the irregularity and walked out, and clauses that would alter the character of Indian democracy were passed by voice vote.

Corporate donations to political parties always help the party in power more than others. The Association of Democratic Reforms reported that in 2015 the BJP had received contributions totalling Rs 437.35 crore, more than twice the aggregate declared by the Congress, the NCP, the CPI and the CPM put together. Donations received by all political parties that year showed a 151 percent increase over the previous year. As much as 94 percent of the donations declared by the BJP came from corporates. These figures point to developments not anticipated either by the Constitution makers, or indeed by the voters.

The Finance Bill 2017 altered as many as 40 existing laws. One example should suffice to highlight the scary potential of the changes. Under the new amendments, an Income Tax official can now raid your house or office, carry out a search and seize things without giving any reason. This is reminiscent of the powers that Indira Gandhi acquired under the Emergency. Just as she did, the authorities today can "legally" intimidate political opponents and subjugate critics. A perilous future awaits those who try to exercise the rights they imagine they have in a democracy.

The picture gets grimmer with the controversy that has arisen over voting machine malfunctioning. People like Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal have zero credibility. When they complained about machine tampering, it was dismissed as the cry of the loser. Subsequently, however, official tests found that the machines could indeed record votes in favour of one party whichever button was pressed. Following the demo in Bhind under the supervision of the Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh, three government officials including the district collector had been transferred. The state government resisted any further transfer of officials, but under the pressure of the Election Commission, two more revenue officers were transferred.

Only the dumb will fail to understand the implications of these disturbing developments -- of money flowing anonymously to the coffers of a party, of laws getting amended conveniently, of self-opinionated voting machines. We may be witnessing the historical spectacle of a people governed by one of the world's most enlightened constitutions electing through constitutionally prescribed channels the same party continuously for ever and ever, Amen.



Monday, April 3, 2017

If gangsters have taken over the education 'industry', all talk of development in India is bunkum


Education in India is in tatters because of horrendous corruption. This is making the country wobble like a skyscraper detached from its foundations. The authorities ignore the crisis because they are themselves either the destroyers or protectors of the destroyers. Frauds and scoundrels have been having such a field day that it is difficult to imagine the country rising to its potential in the foreseeable future. So much for our glorified development.

How can there be any kind of development when examination papers are routinely leaked, copying becomes a cottage industry as in Bihar, admissions are based on bribes and colleges and examiners are, to a large extent, fake? Cheats have invaded even the army. In Mumbai recently question papers of the army recruitment examinations, supplied by insiders, were made available to aspirants at Rs 2-to-5 lakh per head. Forged domicile certificates were also on sale if a candidate wanted to appear in another examination centre. Investigators said the racket had been going on for two years -- which means battalion-size numbers of unworthy recruits might already be wearing army uniforms.

How many unworthy recruits who got fake medical degrees from fake medical colleges must be there in our hospitals? The Medical Council of India, the supreme controlling authority, was dissolved in 2010 because of corruption. President Ketan Desai was arrested. But the influential Desai remains active while government announcement of creating a new controlling body remains on paper.

Remember the biggest scandal of them all was the Madhya Pradesh Government's Vyavasayik Pareeksha Mandal, tasked with conducting eligibility tests for medical colleges and government jobs. It was manipulated for so long that thousands of unqualified people became doctors and government servants. So powerful were the manipulators that, after the story broke in 2013, at least 48 people were killed, mostly witnesses, and a journalist who had started investigating the story? Were the guilty punished? Are the Vyapam examinations clean today? Keep guessing.

We all know the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, ICSE, is the prized class X examination conducted by more than 2000 schools in the country. But the Intermediate Council of Schooling Education is also ICSE. Their website offers not only Class X pass but also degrees from MBBS to BL, from B.Sc to B.Com. The police busted the racket in 2014. The racket reconstituted itself in different formats.

Kerala is currently scandalised by private colleges not only fleecing students but also beating them up as routine practice. A "law university" had shed its original backers and become a family-controlled business with the chief organiser's daughter becoming the principal. Women students, unable to tolerate the principal's highhandedness and caste insults, launched an agitation that attracted massive public support. The principal was forced to resign. But the support extended by the ruling communist leaders to the college's owning family casts doubts on whether the widely-detested principal is really gone or is only having a holiday.

A student "committed suicide" in another private college. Students went on strike saying it was murder. They said the college had a special torture room where any student who raised questions about the college's affairs was given appropriate treatment. The chairman of the college was arrested and bailed out. Two others charged with torture are at large. Again, the Government is on the side of the college which ensures that inquiries are getting nowhere. All this in a state once reputed for its high level of education and its model colleges.

In Vellore last month, the chairman of the GGR College of Engieering, G.G. Ravi, was hacked to death by a gang armed with sickles. Apparently Ravi's family had a long-running war with a known rowdy Mahalingam. In September 2015 Mahalingam had tried to kill Ravi, but Ravi escaped while his sons chased Mahalingam and stoned him to death. The gang finally took its revenge -- which is all fine, but what have people of this kind got to do with colleges of engineering and stuff?

Plenty. Gangsters have turned to education because tens of thousands of youngsters are out there seeking jobs. They are easy prey. Education of some quality is the foundation without which no country can progress. If education at the government and private levels is taken over by racketeers and torturers and killers, all patronised by corrupt politicians and civil servants, what hope is there for the country? Human history, said H.G.Wells, becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Not much of a race for us, is it?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Self-propelled and cleverest among BJP's state chiefs, Adityanath could emerge as the star to watch


It is possible that Adityanath Yogi is not the communal dracula he is seen to be. He is of course a Hindutvavadi with a history of promoting doctrinal dogmatics of the extreme kind. But he is unlike the usual fringe zealots whose foolish statements shame their own mentors. He is intelligent. He is capable. He is clever. Importantly, he is beholden to no one in the political hierarchy of the day, yet he is a force the hierarchy cannot ignore. He has worked out his own narrative, not always in sync with the BJP's. Think of the implications of this exceptionality.

Think of the eight long days it took the BJP high command to name him as the chief minister choice. Obviously there was no ready consensus. On the contrary, there must have been efforts by important elements in the high command to block him. Eventually they had to yield to the forces that were behind him. Who were against him and why? Who fought for him and why? In which camp was Narendra Modi?

Answers will not be available outside the innermost circles of the BJP and RSS. But there were reports that, apart from other things, Adityanath's sword arm, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, would create trouble if their maharaj was sidelined. Right or wrong, the idea drew attention to Adityanath's uniqueness: No one else in the ruling dispensation has his own fighting arm of activists. Adityanath may belong to the BJP, but the BJP needs him more than he needs the BJP.

It is against this background that the new chief minister's debut pronouncements must be judged. The perceived dracula turned into a paragon of pragmatism as he managed to say that "development is my priority", then warned bureaucrats of penal action if they did not check communal flareups, crimes against women, and, yes, cow slaughter. Sanitation had to be taken up on a war footing, he told them. Off with lal battis on top of government cars, he ordered. And he asked his ministers and senior civil servants to provide details of their income and assets within 15 days. One thing is sure: Unlike BJP chief ministers in most other states, Adityanath Yogi will not be corrupt.

He developed impersonal goals as part of his sadhana as a temple priest. But then, inflexible ideological steadfastness is part of the same sadhana. It is no accident that the big issues that filled the UP air within two days of his taking over were not women's safety and sanitation, but the Ram Temple and slaughter houses. Ayodhya was a cause the revered Gorakhnath Peeth had taken up before the BJP or RSS did. Earlier temple heads had resorted to militant action to promote the cause. Adityanath is the proud inheritor of that tradition of militancy which would explain the explosive declamations he made from time to time against Muslims.

That background would have made Adityanath the candidate preferred by Hindutva hardliners who would like to "turn UP into a saffron laboratory on the lines of Gujarat". The BJP laid the foundations for experimentation by not fielding even one Muslim candidate in a state that is home to 140 million Muslims. Adityanath took into his cabinet a solitary Muslim, a benign cricketer. But he also made Suresh Rana a minister despite the man's role in the Muzaffarpur riots and four cases pending against him.

So where does the mix of signals leave UP and India? The intelligent politician in Adityanath will try to ensure that there are no Muzaffarpurs in UP now and that the Ram Temple issue is handled without triggering violence. However, he may not be too keen to control vigilantes who, always more loyal than the king, will insist that all meat is beef, all love is jihad. Since the BJP attributes its enormous victory in the state elections to its conscious policy of divisiveness, that line may be pursued for the run-up to the 2019 election as well.

In all this, Adityanath's role as UP's supremo will be critical. He will put his stamp on events as the days pass because he has a standing of his own unlike other state leaders who are mere extensions of the central command. Adityanath's potential to emerge as a BJP star in his own right -- a potential not shared by anyone else -- is what the world will be watching. Already there are references to him as "another Modi" and "the new Modi".

And he is only 44.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Modi's vision has a target year, exactly same as Xi's; But Modi's foot soldiers pursue other targets


Miracles never cease. On March 12 Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of BJP workers "I have a milestone of 2022 when India completes 75 years of independence". He wanted everyone to take up a project for the good of the country and complete it by 2022.

On March 13 China's official news agency said that President Xi Jinping had picked a milestone, 2022. Xinhua explained that later this year the National Congress would elect a new leadership for another five-year term, "the crunch period of President Xi's vision of a well-off nation by the party's 100th anniversary" which falls in 2022. Neither country noticed the milestones coinciding.

Modi talked about his vision of a new India rising. Xinhua news agency dwelt on President Xi's "governance philosophy" which was "leading more than 1.3 billion people on the march toward the Chinese dream". It said that by 2020 "China's GDP is expected to exceed $ 13 trillion. There should be a middleclass population of about 400 million by then, a huge market for the world".

Both leaders turned visionaries and presented their dreams and their plans to their people. But the comparison between the two cannot go any further. Xi Jinping presides over a one-party system. What's more, unlike his predecessors, he has concentrated all power in himself. That and the effusiveness of media build-up currently going on are reminiscent of the personality cult that marked Chairman Mao's reign.

Narendra Modi is more powerful than the prime ministers of the past. This strength comes primarily from the power of his own personality and the star quality he has achieved in public life. That the victory in this election is Modi's rather than the BJP's is by now common knowledge. For once P. Chidambaram struck a truthful note when he described Modi as the country's "most dominant political leader" (much to the chagrin of his own Congress Party's dominant leaders). But Modi operates in a parliamentary system with limitations Xi is free from. Besides, he does not have the seasoned, talented, dedicated apparatchiks Xi can rely on. Modi's apparatchiks do not even seem to comprehend his lofty ideals.

Modi said, "my vision for a new India is about empowering the poor with opportunities, the only thing that will propel India forward". None of his partymen on the ground in UP rose to that level of thinking. They were only concerned with winning by hook or by crook. The party manifesto talked about Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and facilities for visiting Hindu holy places by helicopter; the party's star campaigner, Yogi Adityanath did what he is best at -- polarising people along religious lines; Sakshi Maharaj publicly disagreed with his Prime Minister's view that equal attention should be paid to graveyards and crematoria, his own view being that there should be no graveyards at all in India: all citizens should be cremated whatever their religion. No hint anywhere here of empowering the poor or reflecting the Prime Minister's vision.

A one-party and one-leader system is prone to no such contradictions. Potential rivals of Xi Jinping have been imprisoned or otherwise neutralised in the name of his anti-corruption drive. Nevertheless, Xinhua is able to report that the anti-corruption campaign has gathered "crushing momentum" and "at least 240 senior officials and more than 1 million lower-level officials have been investigated".

Media eulogisation of Xi is fulsome, referring to him as a reformer who has scripted "China's own story, neither copied from other countries nor imposed on any" and has taken China's economy to a level where "it contributes over 30 percent of world economic growth".

China is positioning itself not as a regional power any longer but as a pacesetter of the world when it talks of its "reform juggernaut" and its supreme leader's vision. It is pitted against the United States and sees itself wresting leadership away from today's superpowers. Xi's flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative, symbolises China's uniqueness. Xinhua proclaims: "In three years Chinese businesses have helped build 56 economic and trade cooperation zones in 20 countries with total investment exceeding 18 billion US dollars. They have helped generate more than $ 1 billion in tax revenues and create more than 160,000 jobs for host countries".

Big gains, big claims. We are not in the same league. We are proud of our expensive elections, of our ability to stall Parliament sessions as per rules.We enjoy warring with ourselves. We are a democracy. We are India. We are like this only.