Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 29, 2010

Crackdown on brokers
IT IS nearly a quarter century since Rajiv Gandhi delivered his inspirational speech to “ rid the country of middlemen and powerbrokers” at the Congress Centenary celebrations in Mumbai. But they continue to thrive. Visit any of the bhavans in Lutyen's Delhi that house key ministries and their presence is overwhelming.

This despite the Prime Minister's Office and the cabinet secretariat regularly issuing circulars to all ministers and senior bureaucrats to stay away from these parasites and every now and then, the CBI compiling and circulating a list of “ Undesirable Elements” — people who are persona non grata.

But circulars alone cannot keep them away. Things have got so bad that a handful of ministers handling key infrastructure ministries have decided to crack down. Shipping Minister GK Vasan has told officers of his ministry that any official found liaising with such people would be immediately suspended.

As Health Minister, Gulam Nabi Azad has to deal with hundreds of private medical colleges that are mushrooming across the country. Promoters of many of them are hard- boiled businessmen who are in it for the money and wouldn’t bat an eyelid before cutting corners. Azad recently sent letters to Vice Chancellors and Deans of medical colleges warning them to keep away from people making promises “ of getting things done by proclaiming themselves to be close to me". Azad's letter is as tough a warning as can be. While reiterating his intention to maintain absolute transparency in the functioning of his ministry, he has threatened colleges that engage middlemen with stringent action including withdrawal of recognition and even banning new admissions for a year or two.

Considering that some colleges charge up to Rs one crore for a seat, it is hoped that the promoters of these institutes will think a dozen times before letting the parasites loose in the corridors of power.

Cong & DMK take to stamp diplomacy to boost ties
HERE'S something to scotch unending speculation that the Congress and the DMK, allies both at the Centre and in Chennai, are drifting apart and will go their separate ways before next year's assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.

The alliance has always been an uneasy one and in the last thirty years, both parties have swapped partners. The Congress has been in alliance with Jayalalithaa's AIADMK while the DMK had embraced the NDA during the Vajpayee regime.

Right now, the alliance looks strong but there is a feeling it will remain so only as long as M Karunanidhi is in the driver's seat. There are apprehensions that once he hands over the baton to one of his sons, the alliance will come unstuck.

Such speculation gained weight after Rahul Gandhi went on an overdrive to revive the Grand Old Party in the state where it has not tasted power for 33 years now. His Youth Congress enrolment drives have met with spectacular success with over two lakh youngsters joining the party on one day in big cities like Chennai and Madurai. Rahul's initiatives are his own and alarmed seniors in both parties who feel his revival offensive will harm relations between the two parties. So how do you mend the rift? A bit of stamp diplomacy would do, feels the DMK's Union Communications Minister A Raja. He has decided to issue a stamp in honour of C Subramanian, former AICC chief who was also the Union industry and finance minister. The proposal came from Home Minister P Chidambaram and Raja promptly gave his stamp of approval. It's only fitting that the Department of Posts will issue the stamp this year which is Subramanian’s centenary year. But in honouring the man who is widely credited as the architect of the Green Revolution and was responsible for Tamil Nadu’s rapid industrialisation in the 1960s, the DMK may just manage to wean away some Congress votes.

YOU would be mistaken if you think Rahul Gandhi spends much of his time scouring for Dalit hamlets to sleep in or trying to revive the Youth Congress in states where the party’s fortunes are at an all time low. The young man’s interests are varied and there is nothing that doesn’t arouse his curiosity. Two weeks back, without any of the fanfare that accompanies VVIP arrivals, the young man quietly walked into the India Today Conclave at the Taj Palace Hotel to listen to Professor David Bloom of Harvard University talk about the impact of population on economic growth.

He then stayed on to hear Alan Mullaly, CEO of Ford Motor Corporation of the USA tell the audience about how his company beat the economic downturn and thrived.

The grapevine has it that apart from meeting political scientists and thinkers, Rahul has also been meeting up with some renowned religious scholars of all faiths, including Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. One of them is Dr Karan Singh, whose interests range from art and culture to music and literature and who has authored several books on Hinduism. I understand that Rahul frequently drops by at Singh’s place. He merely sits back and is all ears as Singh extols the teachings of the Vedanta and the Upanishads . Hindutvites, please note. You may be in for some serious debate.

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, March 29, 2010

WHO GOES there? Friend or foe? Indo-US relations have been on the up and up ever since Atal Bihari Vajpayee went on an official visit to Washington in September 2000. Just a few months back, the world’s two largest democracies celebrated the special friendship as President Barack Obama hosted the first state dinner of his administration at the White House for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur. But now there are signs of the relationship turning sour. The UPA government and the Congress party are now deeply divided on the issue of dealing with the United States vis a vis Pakistan.

As a cynic observed, the Obama administration’s mantra seems to be: words of wisdom for India and weapons for Pakistan; treat India as a market to be conquered and Pakistan as a mission to be accomplished. There are red faces in South Block over the red carpet reception given to Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his delegation.

There’s much hangwringing over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that Washington had opened up a “strategic alliance” with Islamabad and her remark that “Pakistan’s struggles are our struggles”. It has upset even those in the UPA who have traditionally been in favour of strengthening Indo-US ties, whatever the political cost involved.

The prime minister and most of his senior cabinet colleagues like Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath and Anand Sharma have been advocates of stronger strategic and economic ties with the US which they think is India's best long term ally.

Under US prodding, the UPA government tried to push through the Nuclear Liability Bill which later had to be abandoned following stiff resistance from the opposition benches. With the US now bending over backwards to accommodate Islamabad’s demands for more financial and military goodies, even the pro-US lobby in the government is beginning to have a rethink. Despite its public censures of Pakistan for holding terrorist training camps within its territory, the Obama administration seems to be following Richard Nixon’s path: Pakistan is in the wrong, but they are our friends.

Our ministers are not in the habit of indulging in plain-speak on matters relating to ties with friendly countries, but trust Chidambaram to call a spade a bloody shovel. On an official visit to London last week, the home minister minced no words when he squarely put the onus of taming Pakistan on the US and Britain. In an interview to the BBC, he virtually accused Washington and London of doing nothing to force Pakistan to close the terror camps operating in the country. “ Certainly we ( in India) have not been able to persuade Pakistan. It’s Pakistan’s friends, mutual friends who have to put the pressure”, he said before signing off with a warning: “ Don’t think India alone is under threat. Once you allow these terror groups to train, recruit and be able to build capacity to strike, they can strike in India, they can strike in UK, they can strike in Denmark as they were planning out of the Karachi project”. New Delhi is also livid with Washington for its tepid response to Indian requests for the interrogation of David Headley who confessed to US authorities of his role in the 26/ 11 attack. There have been contradictory signals from the Americans, with the visiting U. S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake saying in New Delhi last week that Indian investigators could be given access to Dawood Sayed Gilani aka David Headley, only for the US Ambassador in India Timothy Roemer to state two days later that Washington was yet to take a decision on the matter. Party insiders say the leadership is now convinced that India could do without such one sided friendship. Don’t be surprised if India starts cosying up elsewhere.

Recently, Manmohan Singh, while welcoming Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, described Russia as a “ tried and tested friend” that has stood by India in “ times of need”. It was the second meeting between the two in less than three months. Three months ago, Manmohan was in Moscow. He is due to fly to Washington next month. If Obama again mouths those platitudes about “ great democracies and shared values”, the prime minister should simply turn around and tell the president what he thinks about him.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 28, 2010

'I will not join politics again'

Talking on Seedhi Baat show, actor Amitabh Bachchan says he has accepted his failure in the field of politics and never wishes to join it again.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 22, 2010

Gadkari loses fight at start of innings
THERE is something rotten in the BJP and it has taken barely three months for Nitin Gadkari to show that he is not the man for the clean- up job. This is the only conclusion I can draw from his exercise last week to recast the BJP’s team of office- bearers.

The party’s youngest ever president evidently thinks that the road to Raisina Hill starts at Nagpur. Of the 200 named to help him revive a demoralised and demolished party, over 75 are from the RSS stable. Thirty per cent are either Brahmins like him or from Maharashtra. Add a dash of Bollywood retirees and you have a prescription for self- destruction.

As its president, Gadkari was supposed to lead the BJP from the front but he has chosen to be led by the same set of losers. He was expected to present to his kartas and karyakartas a basket of ideas and an ideology that would revive its right- wing national agenda. While the Congress confidently looks forward to a future under Rahul Gandhi and his brand ambassadors, Gadkari fell back on poor cousin Varun and the likes of Smriti Irani. Gadkari’s team reflects the extent of the rot.

Two successive electoral reverses don’t seem to have taught any lessons and he has chosen to depend on the same set of televangelists who have never fought elections or have a record of only losing and are themselves responsible for the party’s defeat. It’s an oligarchy that’s in place consisting of about 20 leaders who are more bothered about securing their own future than the party’s. If the party is in power, they make sure they are ministers; out of power, they become office- bearers.

Gadkari was supposed to be the talent scout who would discover the Vajpayees, Advanis, Modis, Shekhawats, Mahajans and Uma Bharatis of the future. A second- rung leader himself, Gadkari would have justified his elevation had he done so. Instead, he has fallen back on those a rung below him.
Bachchan hit by Yechury’s political correctness
A MAN is known by the company he keeps. By that logic, Sitaram Yechury, who relishes the company of Amar Singh who, in turn, is “ like family” to Amitabh Bachchan, should be good pals with the Bollywood superstar. But perish the thought. The former Jawaharlal Nehru University ( JNU) activist, who was among CPM’s first campus recruits in the politburo admits he is a fan of Bachchan but does not want him to be the brand ambassador for the Marxist- ruled state of Kerala. Why? Because Bollywood’s Badshah is also the brand ambassador for Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Queer logic, right? Read on. Evidently, after Bachchan professed his love for Kerala and Keralites, the state tourism minister wrote to him requesting him to be the department’s brand ambassador. Enough to make Yechury see red. He reckons that any association with a man who sees Modi as an icon would cost the CPM- led alliance dearly in terms of minority votes in the assembly elections next year.

Bachchan is an icon in Kerala as he is anywhere else in the country or abroad and the votes of the literate people of the state are not likely to be swayed either way by star endorsements. Last year, the CPM expelled one of its MPs, Abdullah Kutty, after he praised Modi’s industrial policies. Kutty joined the Congress and won the last Lok Sabha election from a predominantly Muslim constituency thumping a former Marxist partymate.

When L. K. Advani’s book My Country My Life was released in Kerala last year, the chief guest was Kerala’s top film star Mammootty, aka Mohammed Kutty. Yechury’s assessment of minority votes is an insult to the community’s collective intelligence. And it’s laughable when you consider that the only popular election that Yechury himself contested was more than three decades ago while a student at JNU. It is such absurd calculations that make even many CPM leaders say the party’s future is behind it.

RAJ Thackeray, eat your heart out. Take a leaf from the original architect of regional politics and learn how to be a better Indian. Last week, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi won the hearts of Biharis by hosting a mass thanksgiving lunch for construction labourers who built the new Tamil Nadu Assembly building in Chennai. His decision to acknowledge the efforts of thousands of migrant workers from Bihar has earned praise from friend and foe alike. The newly appointed Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad as well as arch foe Lalu Prasad lauded the 86- year- old DMK patriarch.

Even the normally reticent Jayalaithaa is said to have confided to an aide that the Kalaignar has killed all enemies with a single stone. For years now, unskilled workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have migrated to Tamil Nadu in search of a living and many found work in the construction sector where strict working and living conditions have ensured that their lives now are better than the ones they left behind.

Karunanidhi was among those at the forefront of the anti- Hindi agitation that gave rise to the Dravidian parties and is to a large extent responsible for the Congress being out of power in the state for more than four decades. The paper tiger cubs of Mumbai should draw some lessons from the magnanimity and large- heartedness of the DMK boss.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 21, 2010

Baba Ramdev says people who are fooling public on the name of religion should be severely punished by the government.

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, March 22, 2010

SOMETIME in May, when UPA II completes a year in office, Manmohan Singh will do something he has done only once in his five and a half years as prime minister. I am reliably told that he will address what is only his second “ formal” press conference in the capital. The first happened in May 2005 when the UPA completed a year in office and Manmohan released the first “ Report to the People”, which was a detailed compendium of the programmes initiated in the government’s first year. Though similar reports have been compiled annually since, there have been no formal launches. But two months from now, the prime minister is expected to release the sixth volume for which a news conference is being scheduled.

In any functioning democracy, there are frequent interactions between the rulers and the media. The British Prime Minister routinely interacts with the press. Apart from regularly addressing press conferences, the US President keeps an annual date with the White House Correspondents Association where the interaction is more banter than business.

Compared, what’s happening in India is the closest thing to censorship. Manmohan has been in office since May 2004 and has formally met the press just once. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was perhaps the most popular PM we have had in the last quarter century. He knew a lot many journalists personally but was averse to addressing them as a crowd. It wasn’t always like this. Jawaharlal Nehru routinely held conferences and was on first name basis with several senior journalists, many of whom had unrestricted access to Teen Murti Bhavan, the official residence of the first prime minister.

Indira Gandhi was blessed with boundless charm and even more cunning and used both in equal measure in her frequent dealings with journalists.
In her early years, she met up with journalists almost every month, but as her popularity began to wane in the early 1970s, she began to avoid the media. Morarji bhai was in office for only two and a half years, but began two New Year’s days with a press conference. After her triumphant return to power in 1980, Indira began to befriend the media again, holding a news conference every quarter at Vigyan Bhavan.

Considering that there was no love lost between the host and the guests, these interactions witnessed much handwringing, incisive questions and sharp- tongued responses. Yet, Indira always welcomed everyone with a smile. A permanent curiosity of her press conferences was that the privilege of asking the first question always belonged to a gentleman from a little known Urdu eveninger published from Chennai. Many of us couldn’t figure out the reason for the special chemistry between the two— one who was then considered the world’s most powerful woman and the other a hack from an obscure newspaper— until a veteran journalist told us that the Urdu paper had been founded by a Congressman who was a close associate of Motilal Nehru. Rajiv’s interactions with the media weren’t as frequent as Indira’s and that may have had something to do with the fact that he had his own group of friends in the media. Yet, until Bofors began to weigh him down, he did meet the media at least twice a year.

After Rajiv, the tradition has taken a toss.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh was so busy balancing allies from the Right and the Left that he found little time. Chandrashekhar’s interactions happened on a daily basis, but were limited to four or five close “ journalist” friends and were held invariably at his kutir on South Avenue where he chose to live even after becoming prime minister. P. V. Narasimha Rao was perhaps the last one who tried to keep the prime ministerial tradition. His fiveyear term saw as many news conferences, which is not bad going considering that after December 6, 1992, he was no media darling.

Hopefully, in about two months, we will see Manmohan treading the same path as his mentor. I am told the prime minister truly believes that he has earned enough credits to flaunt the Progress Report at a press conference before live cameras and hundreds of unruly newshounds. Let’s hope it is only the first and that many many more press conferences will follow.

Friday, March 19, 2010


BJP? What BJP?

This are the questions which come to a bharatiya's mind as he or she reads this excellent article on the state of the Labour Party in UK.

BJP should seriously introspect and figure out what went wrong with the party and what continues to be wrong with the party.

Somehow, there is a disconnect between the 5-star hotel lifestyles of BJP bigwigs and the aam-aadmi, the bharatiya whom it is supposed to represent. Has it moved far from the vision of integral humanism or karma vaad?

Let every BJP functionary give up his high chairs and lofty positions and get back to each of the 6 lakh + villages of Bharatam. Each member should submit a weekly progress report on the number of villages visited and the number of villagers with whom he or she interacts.
Is this too much to ask?

namaskaram. kalyanaraman
Read on...
Labour Party? What Labour Party?
Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, Published: March 18, 2010Updated: March 18, 2010 00:07 IST
AP The Blair-Brown transition and Mr. Brown's domestic struggles reveal a government in near-chaos, without a single coherent idea, and unaware of how the voters feel about it.Excellent inside sources illuminate a fascinating story of electoral triumph, illegal war, and internal chaos.
For Labour Party supporters, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. On May 1, 1997, the British electorate all but crushed the ruling Conservative Party, which had held office for 18 years and had become what one major newspaper called the most venal and mendacious British government of the preceding century. Seven Tory Cabinet Ministers lost their seats, no Tory won in Scotland or Wales, and large parts of the southern English Tory heartlands fell to Labour.
This Labour victory, unlike the Party's sweeping win in 1945, was not based on the promise of a country genuinely for ordinary people, with hugely expanded public institutions and a first-class public health service. Instead, it resulted from voters' bitter resentment towards a Tory party which stood for finance capital, greed, and little else, and which had gone deeply against the grain of a modern social democracy by privatising major public bodies, selling them off cheaply in a process which was openly called theft. At the next election, in 2001, Labour won another huge majority, despite serious problems. These included the leaders' obsession with tabloid headlines, with spin amounting to mendacity, and a contempt for institutions which included traducing the parliamentary oversight function by bullying Labour MPs to reveal select committees' questions in advance. Other problems occurred over the leaders' cravenness to big business, which caused several episodes of sleaze or near-sleaze, such as the flirtations with the Hinduja brothers, who may have been trying to evade prosecution in India. On the credit side, major constitutional promises had been honoured. Labour had created the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, had incorporated most of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, and had had an unexpected triumph with the U.S.-brokered peace agreement in Northern Ireland. For ordinary voters, there was a prospect of substantial attempts to redeem two decades of Tory underfunding in the public services. Labour were set to continue winning elections, an unaccustomed position for them.

In a fast-paced book, Andrew Rawnsley, the chief political correspondent of The Observer, covers the next nine years of government by Labour, or, as it called itself until even its leaders realised that the emperor's clothes had fallen off, New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party; the rise and fall of New Labour, London: Viking Penguin, 2010). The defining issue is the Iraq invasion. Using excellent inside sources, Rawnsley shows how Prime Minister Tony Blair committed the United Kingdom to aiding the U.S. in war. Mr. Blair did not provide the Cabinet with all the documents he himself used, rejected a last-minute chance offered by George W. Bush to withdraw, and then lied to the electorate, to Parliament, and to his Cabinet that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was an immediate threat to the United Kingdom if not the whole world.

Mr. Rawnsley also shows how Mr. Blair was used by Mr. Bush, who was even more cunning than Mr. Blair. Mr. Blair thought that he was the only leader who could restrain Mr. Bush and his messianic neocons, and that he could build a bridge between the U.S. and Europe; but that was soon “sawn away at both ends of the Atlantic,” and Mr. Blair had no influence on the U.S., which also drove a very hard bargain with the U.K. over steel tariffs. Mr. Blair, however, has not changed; he recently told the Iraq Inquiry in London that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and that Iran is now posing the same kind of threat as Iraq had allegedly done.

The failure of institutions of the British state — the Cabinet and civil service, and above all Parliament — to stop the Iraq war crime is only tangentially indicated by Mr. Rawnsley. In 1997, the Labour Party had been demoralised by four successive election defeats and was terrified of an overwhelmingly right-wing written press. The simple-majority electoral system had divided the consistent 60 per cent opposition to the Tories, thereby delivering Tory governments for about 70 years in the preceding century, and the Labour MP Bernie Grant reputedly said, “We've had the stuffing knocked out of us.” Mr. Blair and the cabal around him had set their sights on winning above all, but once in government continued to behave like an opposition. Furthermore, to the dismay of supporters at every level, they intensified one Tory policy after another.

As the Labour Party's membership and highly-federalised structure withered and as the trade unions — which had founded the Party and are still its main funders — distanced themselves from the main policies, the leaders' personalities became decisive factors. Mr. Rawnsley shows how their inevitable flaws made for a series of débâcles. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was progressively more embittered over Mr. Blair's repeated reneging on promises to stand down so that Mr. Brown could take over. Even in New Labour's first term, Mr. Brown controlled the domestic landscape by controlling the budget, and thereafter the relation between Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown reminded insiders of a marriage in serious trouble. Mr. Blair, never good at personal confrontations or detail, knew he needed Mr. Brown; Mr. Brown, never as good with people as Mr. Blair and far better on major economic issues than at making the rapid and varied decisions which confront a Prime Minister, knew he needed Mr. Blair. Yet he destroyed Mr. Blair's plan to take the U.K. into the European Single Currency and possibly ended any foreseeable prospect of an informed British debate on the European Union. Paranoid manoeuvrings, spinnings and counter-spinnings, and raging rows occurred all the time, but both protagonists always retreated before the government disintegrated.

Another person to dominate much of Mr. Blair's time in office was the former tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell, whose past included a “drink-fuelled psychotic breakdown.” Mr. Campbell's world was constituted by tabloid headlines, and his loyalty to Mr. Blair was absolute. He had enormous power in Mr. Blair's entourage, and insiders wondered whether Mr. Blair or Mr. Campbell was the boss. Mr. Campbell finally left some months after Mr. Blair chaired the inner-circle meeting where the decision was made to leak the name of the former U.N. weapons inspector David Kelly, who had told a BBC journalist that the infamous Iraq dossier had been “sexed up”; the leak resulted in Dr. Kelly's apparent suicide after ferocious publicity and a parliamentary committee grilling.

More recently, the Blair-Brown transition and Mr. Brown's domestic struggles — which contrast with his authority and decisiveness on the international stage when the world financial crisis started in 2007 and 2008 — reveal a government in near-chaos, without a single coherent idea, and unaware of how the voters feel about the destruction of their jobs, their pensions, and their children's futures, not to mention how they feel about unregulated bankers who have been saved by nearly a trillion pounds of taxpayers' money. Yet Mr. Rawnsley says little about substantive policy, about Labour's unseen achievements in doing a great deal, quietly so as not to wake the tabloids, for the substantial numbers of children in poverty after 18 Tory years. He says nothing about the money put into the public services routinely used by all but a tiny fraction of the public — an important omission, because vast amounts of the money went only into creating a target-obsessed managerialist régime in which former bus-company bosses run major hospitals, in which finance officers tell surgeons which operations to perform, and in which dozens of inspectorates intimidate dedicated front-line staff. Mr. Rawnsley also omits the unrestrained use of the Private Finance Initiative for capital projects, whereby the state indemnifies private corporations against all manner of documented waste, incompetence, and failure, and he says nothing about New Labour's introduction of reams of repressive legislation, some of which has been badly abused by central and local government.

Mr. Rawnsley is nevertheless always absorbing, and he closes with (New) Labour in tatters over the MPs' expenses scandal but before Tory troubles started over the tax status of their own deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft. The public-service cuts Tories love are also yet to bite; British universities alone face cuts of £600 million in the next two years. At the time of writing, opinion polls point to a hung Parliament, and even a possible Labour win. The most venal, mendacious, and repressive British government in over a century could be rescued by an electorate they have treated with contempt. Seldom can the Labour Party have deserved it less. Labour Party? What Labour Party?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 15, 2010

THERE’S considerable speculation surrounding the longevity of the government following the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha last week and almost overnight, the UPA regime is seen to be as shaky as an alcoholic’s fingers.

By steamrolling the Bill through after evicting belligerent MPs from the SP and the RJD, the government is said to have annoyed “ allies”, leaving the minority regime weaker now than ever before. True, in purely numerical terms, the argument holds water even though the support of the SP and the RJD, led by Lalu Yadav, was at best symbolic.

Together, the two account for 24 Lok Sabha MPs and 16 in the Rajya Sabha. The latter will come down drastically further once the biennial elections to the Upper House are held in the next two months.

I don’t think such considerations were swirling in the minds of either Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Congress chief Sonia Gandhi when they decided to end 14 years of procrastination and push through the Women’s Bill. A government is judged by the determination with which it pursues its agenda and delivers on its promises. But what we have seen in the last six months is the UPA- II abandoning many of its initiatives under pressure from unpredictable allies like the DMK, Trinamool Congress and others.

Several big ticket reforms on labour and land acquisition and disinvestment in Public Sector Undertakings are on the backburner.
The Women’s Reservation Bill was neither the most difficult nor the most contentious of the many pending legislations.

But tactically, it was the most potent weapon in the government armoury to bulldoze the opposition outside and tame the unruly ones inside. It is no secret that the BJP was a house divided on the issue. The opposition to the Bill in its present form within the Congress was no less as were the reservations of some of the alliance partners. But for Sonia, the bill was an article of faith and therefore, non- negotiable.

Once the government made clear its intention to introduce the Bill last Sunday, some Opposition leaders as well as sections of the Congress sought more time to discuss the Bill in meetings with senior ministers.

When the message was conveyed to Sonia, her reaction was said to have been: “ What were they doing for 14 years? How much more time do they need?” Once the message percolated down that it was the High Command’s wish, reluctant partymen and alliance partners kept Lalu Yadav their reservations under wraps and came out in wholehearted support of the Bill. For much of its first term and indeed in the eight months of its second term, UPA- II has been hounded by fear and pressure.

For the first time, we now see a government saying that we will not negotiate out of fear, or rule under pressure. By pushing the Women’s Bill through, both Manmohan and Sonia have sent out a clear message that henceforth, governance will be on the Congress’s terms. Thus, technically it is the UPA Government that is in power; the agenda will be that of the Congress. The allies should be happy with little slices of the power cake. Such arrogance would seem misplaced considering that the Congress has no more than 204 members in the 544- member house and withdrawal of support by one of the big alliance partners is enough to bring the government down. But the Congress also knows that the political contours of the 15th Lok Sabha rule out the formation of an alternate government. The BJP just doesn’t have the numbers to even make a claim. The alternative is fresh polls, which of course nobody wants.

That’s why I see the passage of the Women’s Bill as a milestone for the UPA. It has helped the Sonia- Manmohan duo stamp their authority on the alliance. The unpredictable allies, who have in the past held a pistol to the government’s head, will now think deeply before setting out to indulge in political blackmail.

It is to be hoped that the confidence does not get converted into arrogance. If the good doctor can continue with his trademark humility, the remaining four- and- a- half- years of the UPA will be quite different from the first five- and- a- half. Plans kept in deep freeze are likely to be revived, big ticket reforms will be back on the agenda. And four years on, it may be time for UPA- III.

Snippets/Mail Today, March 15, 2010

Gadkari gives up on radical change in BJP
IT’S been nearly three months since Nitin Gadkari replaced Rajnath Singh as the BJP president and almost a month since his appointment was ratified by the party’s national executive that met in Indore, but there is still no sign of the new “ captain” putting in place his new team of office bearers which is meant to take the BJP back to its glory days. It appears that the BJP’s youngest ever president has taken very little time to realise that the party is full of old warhorses who simply refuse to fade away.

He has also learnt to his horror that there are more factions in the BJP than there are political parties represented in the Lok Sabha. I know him well enough to realise that he has little faith in numerology, astrology and such occult sciences, so what’s holding him up? Last I heard, he was advised by someone to let the Ides of March pass, and I gather from very reliable party sources that on Tuesday, March 16, he will announce the new team. Lest you think he was simply whiling away time, forget it.

I gather that he has held consultations with more than 120 former and current office bearers of the party, ranging from presidents and general secretaries to RSS bosses, state satraps and others. At the end of the long exercise, Gadkari seems to have realised that it would be an uphill task to shake off the old ghosts, making his plans to usher in a new team a virtual non- starter. If current indications are anything to go by, no more than 30 to 40 per cent of the incoming team will be new faces, which means that the majority will be the old guard.

They may not be able to remote control him the way his predecessor was, but it is evident that Gadkari’s wings will be clipped, while the powers of the cabal that runs 11 Ashoka Road continue undiluted.

Cabinet Secy warns babus on corruption
CORRUPTION in bureaucracy is as old as the hills. But the reports coming in from states in recent times about bureaucrats being caught with their hands in the till are enough to make the few good men and women among them contemplate voluntary retirement.

That perhaps explains why after newspapers carried reams and reams about a few bureaucrats, including an IAS couple in Madhya Pradesh, being caught with tens of crores in unaccounted money, Cabinet Secretary K. M. Chandrashekhar shot off a letter to the bureaucratic fraternity demanding “ zero tolerance on corruption”. Chandrashekhar is what I would call a proactive bureaucrat.

Earlier this year, I had in these pages written about his plans to bring babudom in tune with the government’s policies in these fast- changing times.

Last month, he had invited chief secretaries of all states for a two- day conference where many Union ministers were also present. It was a first of sorts in many respects, for apart from the mandatory speeches by the prime minister and the cabinet secretary, even chiefs of the army, navy and air force for the first time directly addressed bureaucrats from the states on the security environment.

His latest missive therefore comes as no surprise. “ Of late, there have been some disturbing incidents which call for serious introspection by civil servants. It is important that we ponder over the manner in which we discharge our duties and fulfil our responsibilities and what we need to do to refurbish our image,” he wrote while reminding them that though they were appointed on the basis of a fair and open competition, they must respond to the faith that citizens “ have reposed in us and meet their hopes and aspirations of good governance.

The government’s policy of zero tolerance on corruption must be implemented fully and effectively”. It is of course too much to hope that the bureaucrats will start putting the country above their own self- serving interests.

THE recent reconstitution of the various committees of the Union Cabinet gives an indication of the ministerial pecking order. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chairs eight of the 10 committees which were recast to “ lessen the workload burden of the Cabinet”. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P. Chidambaram figure in eight of them, followed by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar who has a seat in seven, followed by Defence Minister A. K. Antony who sits on four committees. Manmohan predictably heads all the key committees including those on prices, economic affairs, infrastructure and matters related to the WTO. The Prime Minister has had to do a fine balancing act in dealing with the DMK ministers while recasting the committees.

M. K. Alagiri, DMK chief Karunanidhi's son and the Union minister for fertilisers and chemicals, finds a place in the committee on prices, while textile minister Dayanidhi Maran is in the committee on political affairs as well as in that of parliamentary affairs. The pride of place goes to A. Raja, who is in three important committees of infrastructure, economic affairs and Unique Identification Authority of India.

The placement of three DMK ministers in so many crucial committees leaves one with the feeling that the entire exercise was undertaken just to placate an ally.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 14, 2010

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's estranged daughter-in-law Smita Thackeray says politics and family are two separate things.
Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 08, 2010

IF YOU think work is bogging you down, that you are left with no time to indulge in your favourite pastimes, spare a thought for the good doctor. Rarely does the Prime Minister, any prime minister for that matter, spend almost the entire day in Parliament. But Dr Manmohan Singh did it twice last week, listening to speeches from MPs on both sides of the aisles as he prepared to reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in both houses of Parliament.

Last Friday, Manmohan skipped his usual home lunch and hung on in Parliament. When it was his turn to speak, with uncharacteristic aggression, he disarmed his foes and surprised his friends. His two interventions in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha reflected his new avatar as a politician inferior to none.

The acerbic and often sarcastic nature of his discourses ensured that the image of him as a prime minister without any political power was a thing of the past. The normally soft spoken Singh proved beyond doubt that after nearly six years in the hot seat, he has developed a hide thick enough to engage in ill- tempered political debates with the likes of L. K. Advani, M. M. Joshi, Sushma Swaraj or Sitaram Yechury. In fact, the Congress couldn’t have found a better tactician to take them on.

And he did it with panache. Advani’s poisonous barbs at the Prime Minister’s “ adventurous diplomacy” were enough provocation to make the Prime Minister’s response equally lethal. He threw his weight around, played to the gallery, paused for the resounding applause and went on to deal a few killer blows. When the opposition leader quoted a long article from an American magazine to suggest that “ clandestine efforts were on under US pressure to hammer out a pact on Kashmir” and demanded that Parliament be kept in the loop, Manmohan retorted: “ First you tell me how many times did Jaswant Singh ( BJP foreign minister) hold secret negotiations and talks with Strobe Talbott ( former US deputy secretary of state)? And how many times did he come and explain what was going on behind the scenes to Parliament?” For the past six years, the opposition has seen Manmohan as a leader without political power, given the task of leading a team chosen by someone else.

He was perceived as a ruler who wasn’t free to formulate policies that have a domestic political fallout. But the reiteration of his resolve to pursue long term policies vis- a- vis Pakistan, China, fiscal discipline and Maoists ignoring the political damage L. K. Advani these may cause at home in the short term proves just one thing: the party stands solidly behind him. So be it the privatisation of mines, the large scale retrenchment in the Communications Department, the decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan or even the withdrawal of petroleum subsidies, he has managed to put to rest all speculation that the party will hound him into reversing the policies.

As usual, he was dressed in his trademark kurta pyjama jacket and sky blue turban, but it was clear he had shed the financial wizard’s robes as his speeches centred more around politics than economics. Thanks to the rare unity among the opposition benches, not seen in a long long while, Advani got massive applause, but it was Manmohan who had the last word. If his demeanour is any indication, Manmohan appears to have dropped his earlier decision to let his work do the talk. Now he chooses to brag about his work and even his trusted people and ministers are surprised over Singh’s newly discovered strategy of offence being the best form of defence. In his second term, the Prime Minister has been asserting his ideology and imposing his chosen individuals on the system.

Without tinkering or interfering with the political hierarchy, Singh drafted retired civil servants and corporate leaders and technocrats in key policy panels and bodies to lay the blueprint for future economic and political governance. He has drafted over 50 retired civil servants and business leaders to advise the government on issues varying from climate change to security to infrastructure.

You wouldn’t see their pictures in the newspaper pages, but most of them are going about their jobs in a very quiet manner. And though they are mostly non- political, most of them are better connected politically than many of the leading Congress leaders. Even if they deliver and none else does, Manmohan would stand vindicated.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 08, 2010

Kerala and Bengal are poles apart
LAST WEEK, A. K. Antony flew off to Trivandrum. No surprise, considering that his family still lives in the Kerala capital. But what did come as a surprise was that he had gone to inaugurate the new headquarters of a local Malayalam TV channel which is owned by — now get ready for this — the CPM. The Congress and the Marxists may have tangoed in Delhi but in the two party system that exists in Kerala, the two have been at each other’s throats for more than 53 years.
Antony shared the dais with arch political rivals, the Marxist chief minister V. S. Achutanandan and the powerful state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, among others. I would think it’s as unthinkable as Mamata Banerjee lighting the lamp at a Marxist function in Kolkata or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya dropping by at Mamata’s place on her birthday.

But my Mallu friends say that despite their bitter, often bloody rivalries, the political class does not look at political opponents as people below respect. A friend tells me that when K. Karunakaran, then leader of the Congress- led opposition turned 70, the Marxist government organised a public felicitation programme attended by thousands of Congressmen and Marxists. More recently, when the state CPM secretary’s son got married, the entire top brass of the Congress was in attendance though Pinarayi Vijayan remains the Congress’s bitterest enemy.

Contrast this with the same stock in Bengal. Jyoti Babu used to address Mamata as “ that 420”, and she paid back recently by refusing to attend his funeral. Mamata says to hell with protocol and refuses to attend a function presided over by Manmohan Singh in Kolkata because Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is seen sharing the dais with the Prime Minister.

Such hysterical outbursts help none. Mamata should know that some amount of political decency will help remove the ordinary citizen’s disgust with politicians.

Absenteeism of ruling party MPs can be deadly
MINISTER of state for parliamentary affairs V. Narayanaswamy is a much harried man in Parliament on Friday afternoons. It’s at 3.30 pm on Friday that the Lok Sabha moves what are called Private Members Bills. As opposed to government bills that are moved by ministers after due deliberation in the cabinet, Private Members Bills are moved by individual members, often without even informing the party that he or she belongs to. Neither the government, nor the MPs take these bills seriously, and not one such bill has received the assent of the house in the last 40 years.

Most often, MPs remain absent when their turn comes to move the bill. Some of the more determined ones insist on a debate if only to prove a point, at the end of which they withdraw the bill. But a member can, if he wants, insist on a vote and there have been times when large scale absenteeism of MPs has brought the government close to embarrassment because in a thinly attended house, the opposition had more MPs than the treasury benches.

Most of the bills are innocuous but you can never rule out an MP, with nothing but mischief in mind, moving a bill, say, calling for the “ abolition of Article 370 in Kashmir” . Many MPs have moved such bills aimed at embarrassing the government.

Though Sonia Gandhi’s recent missive to her party men to take their work more seriously centred around Question Hour which kicks off the day’s proceedings, I am sure that the Congress high command is not unaware of the many times when the government came perilously close to a loss of parliamentary face due to the sheer laziness of its MPs during Private Members Bills.

That’s why Narayanaswamy has to be hyperactive on Friday afternoons. It’s no easy job to ensure members’ presence. With the house going into weekend recess, most MPs, particularly those from the south and the east, are in a hurry to get back to their homes and choose an early evening flight. Is it any wonder that absenteeism amongst MPs is higher than among students at university?

HELL HATH no fury like a woman scorned. It gets worse when a clutch of them are scorned — by other women. The dirty politicking of our major political parties pales in comparison with the kind of muckraking that goes on in what are known as “ Better Halves” associations of babudom. We have, for example the Indian Foreign Service Wives Association, the IAS WA and the IPS WA. Now if you think these are kitty party groups that meet up once in a while to admire each other’s perfect coiffure, perish the thought. Elections to the IPS WA were held recently. The wife of the IB director is the ex- officio chief of the IPA WA, so elections were held for other posts.
As expected, the wives of many senior officers were in the electoral fray and nearly 50 members were present for the voting.

With so many high profile wives throwing their hats into the ring, there were frayed tempers that stopped just short of fisticuffs, with a clear divide being evident between spouses from the north and others from the rest of the country. I wish the badshahs of TV sting were around to capture the scenes on hidden cameras. The fear was such that wives of junior level officers, exposed to this kind of thing for the first time, felt terrified.

Wonder why none of them thought of dialing 100, the police control room. Just like their husbands, even the wives are mastering the art of “ politricks” very fast.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, March 07, 2010

Former Indian hockey captain and Olympian Dhanraj Pillai says he is still fit to play for India.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 01, 2010

Why can’t politicians tell the truth?
NOW here is something to ponder about. Telangana has been on the boil for over three months now. People are immolating themselves, MPs and MLAs are resigning en masse and the local administration is paralysed. As Telangana flared, noises began to emanate from places as far as Vidharba, Purvanchal, Mithilanchal and Saurashtra for separate states. To douse passions or to buy time, the Centre offered to set up a second States Reorganisation Commission.

Though the issue dominated the front pages, there was strangely no mention of it in President Pratibha Patil’s address to Parliament’s joint session. Why, she skipped any mention of the appointment of the B. N. Sri Krishna Commission.

This is strange because as far back as 2004, the then president APJ Abdul Kalam had made two references to Telangana in his address to Parliament. It appears that the government doesn’t quite believe in what it preaches.

But the Centre is not the only guilty party. Many regional leaders had demanded smaller states, including Mayawati. She claims to have written a letter to the PM “ urging him to give us clearance for creating independent states of Bundelkhand and Harit Pradesh out of a giant sized and unmanageable Uttar Pradesh”. But if what the junior minister for home affairs Ajay Maken told Parliament last week is anything to go by, it is difficult to believe who is telling the truth. He said “ as per records available, no political party or leaders have requested for setting up of the second States Reorganisation Commission. However, some representations have been received from individuals/ organisations. As of now, no decision has been taken in this respect.”. All of which just goes to show that our political class doesn’t bat an eyelid about fudging the truth.

RS re-election jitters for five top ministers in UPA govt
THERE’S more turbulence awaiting the Congress and things could slip from bad to worse in the coming months. Five senior and “ indispensable” ministers of the UPA government, all members of the Rajya Sabha, are due to retire within the next couple of months. The Congress will have to ensure their re- election, which looks easier said than done considering its frosty relations with some of the alliance partners. A. K. Antony, Ambika Soni, Anand Sharma, M. S. Gill and Jairam Ramesh are all high profile ministers as is B. K. Harikumar, a general secretary.

They are due to retire between April and June. Among them, Soni and Gill can hope to get elected from Punjab. Sharma will have to look outside his state because his party is at least 13 seats short to win the lone seat in Himachal. Antony can take the one seat available for the Congress- led UDF in Kerala, but there is a hitch. The Muslim League, the Congress’s local ally in the state, has held a Rajya Sabha seat uninterrupted since 1957. Its MP Abdul Wahab will retire in April along with Antony. As things stand now, Antony is the obvious choice.

But Muslim League leaders from Kerala are coming to meet Madam on Tuesday to remind her that the ML has stood by the Congress since 1957, even after the Babri Masjid demolition when everyone else deserted it. The ML argument is that since the Congress can dispatch candidates to other states, Antony should be asked to contest from elsewhere. But sources close to Antony say he will not relish the idea and will opt for ministerial renunciation rather than switch states. Will Madam heed the sentiments of the Muslim League? Ramesh is from Karnataka but he is a Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh and considering the sentiments of the Telangana brigade, the party is looking at all options. Last heard, it may even rope Chiranjeevi’s Praja Desam Party into the UPA to ensure that the environment minister gets to stay on in the job.

AS things stand now, the Commonwealth Games ( CWG) due to be held in New Delhi this October could shame India. Its successful conduct could also be held up as an exemplar of a shining India. For months now, as deadline after deadline passed by and work continued at snail’s pace, the odds were on India showing itself up as a sporting pariah to the world. There is some hope now. And it may have come about by default. Girish Chandra Chaturvedi, currently additional secretary financial services, is being appointed as chief executive officer of CWG. GC as he is affectionately known has completed a seven- year tenure at the Centre and was to have gone back to his parent cadre in Uttar Pradesh. But GC is some sort of a financial wizard, just the kind of chap that Mayawati may not want around. The feelings must have been mutual, because GC is known to have used the immense clout that a close relative enjoys with the powers- that- be to stall his possible transfer back to his home state. By the time the Games are over in October, GC would have been empanelled as secretary to the Government of India. He won’t then ever have to serve in Lucknow, Mayawati or no Mayawati.

Power & Politics /Mail Today, March 01, 2010

FOR A long time now, Pranab Mukherjee has been the Congress- led UPA government’s Miracle Man. He is many parts rolled into one: the main troubleshooter, a great unifier and the man to get the most improbable job done. “ The man for all seasons and all reasons,” they called him. But even miracle men are human and prone to errors. On Budget Day, he made a misstep whose effects are likely to be felt on our politics for a long time.

His decision to hike Customs and excise duties and remove the existing concessions on petrol has created history for more than one reason: for the first time ever, the entire Opposition walked out of the Lok Sabha during the Budget presentation. We also saw something we haven’t seen in a long time — MPs from the CPM, BJP, RJD, SP, JD( U) and many smaller parties grouping together outside Parliament, hands linked and pledging to fight the government collectively.

Perhaps, Pranab da and the Prime Minister didn't bargain for the backlash when they went through the formality of approving the Budget proposals in a 15- minute cabinet meeting on Friday morning. It wasn’t that the Budget was a letdown. The prime minister has congratulated Pranab da for a “ job well done” which he feels would take the country back to the 9 per cent growth trajectory.

Even sections of the Opposition were seen thumping desks when Pranab da rolled out a series of measures for the social, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. But in the end, petrol’s inflammable properties spoilt the party. It is quite likely that faced with the backlash from the united Opposition and even a section of the ruling coalition, the petroleum cess will be rolled back. But the damage has already been done. The UPA which is still a minority government in power with outside support of the BSP, SP, RJD and some smaller parties will be alarmed as some of them begin to find better options across the aisle.

If anything, this Budget reflects the crises and the lack of political consensus within the UPA. With Sonia opting to stay out of the government, there is no tall leader who can iron out the differences within the coalition.

Though Madam is the chairperson of the UPA, there has been no formal meeting of the coalition convened in a long time. The Telangana fiasco best sums up the collapse of the consultation process in the coalition when each coalition partner talked a different language. Of course young Rahul Gandhi offers hope but he is busy— and rightly so— creating a Congress party for the future and has left it to the current establishment to handle its own affairs.

The Prime Minister ought to be commended for giving full autonomy to most of his minis- Sonia Gandhi ters to deal with their departments as they deem fit. But some ministers, particularly those handling fertilisers and telecom portfolios have milked this autonomy to deviate from acceptable norms and policies.

When the Centre tried to rein them in, it couldn’t, because the ministers rushed to Chennai to complain to M. Karunanidhi. With the Prime Minister’s mind focused on economic diplomacy and forging strategic international alliances, the UPA’s internal political management leaves a lot to be desired. The Opposition seems set to take full advantage of the disarray. The new found political unity is not the outcome of a preplanned strategy.

The decision to walk out of the Lok Sabha was taken on the spot by the BJP leaders; the others found common cause and joined. The Congress’s problems will only mount with the political authority of Pranab da , its tallest leader, taking a beating. So far, his cross- party friendships and acceptance ensured that the government was able to take allies along and take its legislative agenda forward.

Till recently, the BJP too had been playing the role of a “ constructive, friendly” Opposition since it found ideological and social affinity with the Congress on many economic issues. But now the BJP sees an opportunity and may no more be content being the “ loyal opposition”. For the Congress and the UPA, the only remedy now is course correction.

It has to take the alliance partners more seriously and revive the spirit of the UPA. And oh yes, it has to help restore the credibility of the Man for All Seasons.

Through his budgetary exercise, Pranab da has tried to paint a scenario of ‘ short- term pains for longterm gains’. But the experienced warhorse didn’t seem to have anticipated the political realignments.

The assault from the joint Opposition could leave the government not just in pain; it could even leave the government crippled to reap the long- term gains it set out to do.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, February 28, 2010

'People are trying to belittle me'

RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav slams Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's Budget and also criticises Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government.
Part 2 Part 3 Part 4