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.