Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, April 26, 2010

WHAT do you do when things are not going as planned, or worse, show signs of falling apart? Order a cabinet reshuffle. That’s what Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh seem to have decided and I understand that once the current session of Parliament is over, they will order a reconstruction of the Union cabinet to show that there is a lot left in the UPA tank.

By any yardstick, this has been one of the most embarrassing Parliament sessions that the UPA has faced in its second term, where not even one major legislation has been passed. The Sania Mirza saga and the IPL drama have turned out to be blessings in disguise for the government. But for these events, the morning headlines and prime time entertainment after sundown would have been all about the government being mercilessly hauled over the coals. The unexpected reprieve saw Sonia and Manmohan undertaking a review of all the ministers and the functioning of their departments.
Their conclusion, I gather, is summed up in one word: pathetic. In a minority government like the UPA, any reshuffle can involve only ministers belonging to the Congress, since Sonia and Manmohan can barely risk rocking the boat by tossing around ministers from alliance partners like the DMK, Trinamool, NCP and others. M.K.

Alagiri may not come to his office, the Parliament or meetings of the Union cabinet, but his truancy has to be tolerated. Changes must therefore be limited to the Congress. Of the 33 ministers of cabinet rank, 27 are from the Congress, as are six of the seven ministers of dtate with independent charge and 25 of the 37 junior ministers, so there’s lots of scope for chopping.
The rationale for the impending exercise cuts both ways. There are too many ministers who are quite unhappy with their portfolios, while a whole lot of others have plum assignments but don’t have the calibre or the dedication to do justice to their jobs. In the first category fall Ambika Soni, Jaipal Reddy, Subodh Kant Sahay, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Vayalar Ravi, G.K.

Vasan, all of cabinet rank, Dinsha Patel (MoS-Ind) and Harish Rawat, who is one of the senior party men but sadly enough, serves as a minister of state. Then there are ministers like K.H. Muniyappa and Sachin Pilot who are so stifled, they feel it’s better being jobless than work under the likes of Mamata and A. Raja. The ebullient Ambika Soni who did an admirable job as tourism minister in UPA(I) somehow seems out of sorts in the information and broadcasting ministry and is said to be looking for a change, preferably to the party, where she has already had stints as the AICC general secretary.

Overseas Indian affairs minister Vayalar Ravi, still recovering from a nasty road accident in Liberia, is said to be looking for a less gruelling assignment. At the other end are a handful of ministers on whom the party is likely to wield the axe. Topping the list is Pawan Kumar Bansal from Chandigarh. Otherwise an efficient administrator, it is his misfortune that he is saddled with the parliamentary affairs portfolio at a time when ties between the treasury and opposition benches are at their frostiest. I understand that Bansal will be relocated to the party. The only non- Congressman who is likely to come under the purview of the reshuffle is E. Ahamed, the MoS, railways, who has always kept an eye on his former job at the ministry of external affairs which has now fallen vacant after the exit of Shashi Tharoor.

After its seamless victory in last year’s elections, the UPA has of late begun to resemble a rudderless ship. Ministers like Pranab Mukherkjee, P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath and Anand Sharma and a few others have brought innovative ideas into administration, but the rest have been like wind- up toys, doing merely what they are programmed to do by their bureaucrats.

Many of the latter are likely to be shifted and who gets what portfolio will depend more on performance in the ministry and implementation of promises made in the UPA manifesto and less on winnability, factional clout or parliamentary histrionics.

Manmohan realises that his government needs a new face and for that he will need many more Pranab da s, Chidambarams and Sibals. From the talent available at his disposal, it is a tough task.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Snippets / Mail Today, April 26, 2010

The case of the missing ministers
THERE are some people whose actions — or lack of it — never cease to amaze. M. K. Alagiri, the Union fertilisers’ minister and the DMK supremo M. Karunaidhi’s son is one such. He is an embarrassment to the UPA government, but since he has a doting father, there is nothing Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi can do but grin and bear the nuisance. Last week, he again caused red faces in the government by failing to turn up in Parliament for the question hour.
That he doesn’t attend cabinet meetings, even when matters concerning his department are up for discussion, is well known. Alagiri of course is not the only one. Mamata’s truancy is legendary as is A. Raja’s and so many other ministers, all belonging to alliance parties.

Some months ago, the India Today magazine had invoked the RTI to find out the attendance record at cabinet meetings after we learnt that at some sittings, it was less than 50 per cent. Our request was thrown out, almost as if we were seeking a state secret. In December, Sonia Gandhi had sent a missive to Congress MPs after the question hour in the Lok Sabha fell through one morning because of lack of quorum. Delinquency among ministers and MPs is nothing new but is rising alarmingly by the day. The latter can be dealt with by their respective party chief whips, but who is to rein in delinquent ministers? In the current coalition setup, the Prime Minister does not have the power to change even a junior level assistant to a minister from an alliance partner.

What is worrying in all this is that in a parliamentary democracy, collective responsibility reigns. What happens to the concept of collective responsibility if half the cabinet is on perpetual leave? The people have a right to know what their ministers are up to. The cabinet secretary would do the country a great favour if, after every cabinet meeting, his secretariat issues a circular that tells us who attended and who did not. The people will then know about the rotten apples.

Lotus fails to bloom in the Delhi heat
SINCE its ouster from power six years ago, the BJP has been bumbling from one blunder to another. The election of its youngest president hasn’t changed its fortunes and the litany of disasters continues. Last week’s anti- inflation rally in the Capital was the latest. It was to have been the party’s biggest rally in the Capital in more than a decade and was meant to signal the main opposition party’s new found vigour and a fresh offensive against the government.

That it turned out to be a damp squib was partly because it was ill- timed and partly because the well- planned but badly executed event was overtaken by other events. The party had threatened to unleash one million protesters on the Capital’s streets, but on the day, less than two lakh turned up. The reason was that in its catchment areas of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the party faithful were too busy harvesting. The oppressive heat in Delhi ensured that barring the hardcore, its substantial middle class supporters in the Capital stayed indoors. The party had hoped that the rally will monopolise TV airtime and print space, but thanks to Lalit Modi, the only pictures that newspapers carried and the only clips news channels showed were that of the party chief Nitin Gadkari, unable to bear the scorching sun, fainting towards the end of his speech and being helped to his feet by party colleagues who put wet towels on his overheated head.

The Delhi summer could take its toll on the fittest of men. But the sight of the man, who was brought in to inject fresh life into the party, collapsing, while others around him including 83- year- old Advani braved it out, has done no good to the morale of the party.

IN NORMAL times, the visit could have been dubbed as just one more foreign jaunt by another bunch of babus. But next week’s tour to Australia by a team led by Arun Mathur, director ( Enforcement) at the department of revenue, has attracted unusual attention from both the top echelons of the government and the corporate world. For the record, they will be participating in a meeting organised by the Financial Actions Task Group ( FATG) to monitor real- time money laundering by suspected terror outfits and drug smugglers.

India is just an observer for such meetings and has been lobbying hard for formal membership of the FATG. For the past week, the ministry of finance has been in a tizzy over Mathur’s agenda at the FATG. The government is already under attack for not making serious efforts to track the black money which is stashed in Swiss banks. The goings on in the IPL has added another dimension to the visit. The government is mulling over whether IPL should be added to Mathur’s agenda. It fears that if it does and gets a negative report, the entire investigative process will collapse. Thus, there is a suggestion for detailed but informal discussions with the top brass of the FATG before proceeding further. The government wants to be cautious now rather than regret later.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, April 19, 2010

THE MESSAGE to both the Congress and the Prime Minister appears to be stern, loud and clear: your foes are known, now choose your friends. Last week when the railway minister, Mamata Banerjee, directed her 19 MPs, six of them ministers in the UPA government, to avoid sittings of the Lok Sabha and return to their constituencies, she was merely reiterating what she had all along been saying: political friendship is not a one - way street.

With the government appearing to be faltering on several fronts, the Congress will have no option but to reciprocate. And Mamata wants the Congress to respond not by merely handing out a few cabinet berths to her party but standing shoulder to shoulder with her in her ‘ bloody’ battle against the Marxists.

She has made it clear that the MPs from her Trinamool Congress will return to Parliament only if the Centre serves an ultimatum to the Left Front government to improve the law and order situation in West Bengal and refrain from attacking her ministers and cadres.

Her latest ire against the UPA leadership was triggered by violent attacks on Union ministers Mukul Roy and Sultan Ahmed. A senior TMC Lok Sabha member asked me: “ Will the Congress leadership keep quiet if a Congress minister is attacked in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat? Why hasn’t the Centre sought an explanation from the state government so far?” The Trinamool feels that the Congress is using its allies to stay in power but is not joining the battle of the regional parties against their common enemies in the states. Since her eyes are set on occupying Writers’ Building after the assembly elections that are due next year, Mamata has been mounting pressure on the UPA government to keep a wide distance from the West Bengal government. She is particularly upset with both the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and home minister P. Chidambaram, who, for maintaining cordial relations with the state government, have done nothing more than observe protocol in their dealings with the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.

Mamata’s antics after Jyoti Basu’s death last year, which left even her ardent supporters red- faced, were shameful. She boycotted the funeral because she thought Manmohan Singh was getting too close to Buddhadeb when all that happened was that the two stood next to each other at the state funeral for the late leader. Protocol dictates that when the Prime Minister visits a state, the chief minister be present at all public functions. Yet Mamata seemed Buddhadeb convinced that the Prime Minister and the chief minister were hatching something.

What Mamata fails to understand is that in a federal set up such as ours, both the Centre and the state governments have to operate within the Constitutional framework. Mamata nevertheless wants the Modi treatment to be extended to the Marxists too. Shun them, shame them, call them all things vile for their anti- poor policies. She routinely boycotts the visits of senior Congress leaders to the state and even as she stays in the Union cabinet, has been opposing most of the policies of the UPA. So obsessed is she with dislodging the Marxists from Writers Building that she has not attended even 25 per cent of the cabinet meetings held so far. Asked once about her chronic absenteeism, she retorted: “ I am not Delhi- based, am I?” Her habitual absence from cabinet meetings poses no danger to the stability of the UPA. But her defiance could turn out to be ominous for the Manmohan regime. Other UPA allies such as the NCP and the DMK are already upset because they suspect that the Congress is unleashing various central government agencies to keep a tab on them. The NDA and the non- UPA parties in the Lok Sabha have decided to move a cut motion on the Finance Bill during the current session and the Congress will need the collective strength of all its allies to defeat it as well as to ensure the safe passage of important government Bills. True, at this point, none of the allies would want to topple the government.

But Mamata’s posturing has sharpened the debate within the UPA. If the Congress wants the government to be strong, safe and stable, it must lend strength to its allies, give them the feeling that it values their support and will in turn stand by them.

Snippets/ Mail Today, April 19, 2010

Now tatkal clearance for Games
IN THE old days when a telephone was a luxury and owning one involved a waiting period that often took years, you could opt for a Tatkal scheme and acquire a connection. Ditto for the railways where if you had to travel and didn’t have a reservation, you could opt for a ticket under the tatkal scheme. But ever heard of a tatkal clearance for the cause of sport? With the 19th Commonwealth Games now less than 200 days away, among the many things that cause headaches to cabinet secretary K. M. Chandrasekhar is the woeful shortage of accommodation for the thousands of visitors who are expected to visit the Capital for the 11- day event.

Delhi, rising India’s shining Capital, has fewer hotel rooms than many small cities in the US or Europe. The government came up with a scheme to bridge this shortage by offering fully furnished DDA flats at reasonable rates for visitors. Plans were afoot to offer about 2,700 such flats, but there were hitches. Green activists planned to petition the environment ministry against clearance for the flats. In Jairam Ramesh, they saw a friend who would sympathise with their cause and give the government a thumbs down.

Last week, the matter came up for discussion during a meeting of the standing committee of the CWG, chaired by the cabinet secretary. Faced with several imponderables, Chandrasekhar called Ramesh who promised to get back later in the day. The minister promptly reviewed the situation with the mandarins of his ministry and within hours called back the CabSec to assure him that clearance for the project had been okayed and the necessary notifications would soon be issued. Like everyone else, Chandrasekhar knows that Ramesh is a very efficient minister, but the minister’s lightning reflexes have now prompted the CabSec to rechristen Ramesh “ the Tatkal Minister”.

Nitish could mar prospects of BJP, Cong in Bihar
NITISH Kumar may have failed to get special status for his state from the Planning Commission, but during his tenure, the socialistturned- free- marketer chief minister has himself acquired a special political status in the state that goes to polls in a few months’ time. In the once lawless state, now there is more than a semblance of law and order. Yet, Nitish’s political arrogance and highly individualistic rule has not only created mayhem in his own party, the JD( U), but has paralysed the BJP, its ally.

On the eve of elections, the divide between the two is widening by the day and there is no clear agenda or chain of command to steer the NDA. While Nitish cocks a snook at his “ high command” in Delhi, the local BJP appears to be a house of cards which could collapse any moment. Five months after his appointment, BJP chief Nitin Gadkari has not chosen a state party president nor named a central leader to oversee the party’s election strategy. This is crucial, because the Bihar polls will be the first after Gadkari’s elevation and therefore could make or mar his own career.

The state BJP is being managed and manipulated by Friends Of Nitish Kumar ( FONK) based in Delhi and Patna. The Congress seems to be in a deeper crisis as state chief Anil Sharma is unable to carry the cadres with him. Jagdish Tytler, the AICC’s point man for Bihar, is spending sleepless nights in the heat and dust of the backward state, but his efforts may come to nought because the caste and community- ridden party consists of many invisible Nitish admirers.

Rahul Gandhi's resolve to revive the party in the state is unlikely to yield dividends unless he takes direct command. The only beneficiaries of the confusion are the regional satraps such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. The fate of the two national parties will depend on how quickly their central leadership rids their respective parties of the virus called FONK.

THE CURRENT BJP leadership may believe that there is no matter of national importance more pressing than the shenanigans of Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor, but the parent RSS obviously thinks otherwise. A resolution passed by the Akhil Bharatiya Prathinidhi Sabha of the RSS, which met last fortnight, was as much an indictment of the Centre and the state government in Jammu & Kashmir for the drift in the state as of the BJP leaders for nitpicking over trivial issues. The resolution was passed just a few days before Manmohan Singh left for the United States where he had a scheduled meeting with his Pak counterpart.

In the past, before any such meeting, the BJP president or the Leader of the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to convey the Opposition’s mood on important bilateral issues. No such meeting was sought this time, which the RSS feels, is an indication that the BJP had got its priorities all wrong. The new party president who hasn’t allocated work responsibilities to his office bearers despite being at the helm for nearly six months now, is busy hiring second grade management doctors to cure the party’s ills. Nitin Gadkari came to office promising to take the BJP back to its roots. So far, he has nothing to show and time may not be on his side for long.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, April 12, 2010

UNION home minister P. Chidambaram has acted with honour and integrity and set an example by offering to resign after the massacre of 76 security men by Maoists in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh last week. By his action, PC has set a precedent for his colleagues. More important, he has consolidated his position within the government hierarchy. The Congress “ appreciated and commended” his “ buck stops at my desk” statement but would not go beyond saying that the resignation would not be accepted.

What came as a surprise though was the reaction of the opposition BJP which would normally have used an occasion such as this to go for the government’s jugular. “ We have not sought Chidambaram’s resignation or want him to resign on his own. He has to continue the country’s fight to the finish and our party would extend ( the) support he needs to defeat the forces backed by foreign states”, BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said. These are words that Rudy couldn’t have afforded not to utter. Chidambaram succeeded the effete Shivraj Patil as Union home minister in the wake of 26/ 11 and since then there is a near cross- party consensus that the lawyer- economist- politician from Sivaganga is the best CEO for India’s law and order machinery. That India did not witness a single case of terrorism for the next 14 months is testimony to that. The spotless record was somewhat blemished by the attack on the German Bakery in Pune in February this year; yet there is acknowledgement of the broad success of his strategy to snuff out threats from across the border. Indeed, so convinced was PC about the success of the path he chose that just a couple of weeks ago, he stated in an interview that he would wipe out the Maoist menace within the next three years.

Why then has he offered to resign? Has he thrown in the towel? I hope not, just as I am sure do a majority of our countrymen. At a time when the vandals rule a third of the country’s 600- odd districts, India needs a man like him who carries no ideological baggage, has chalked out a clear agenda and goes about it with clockwork precision. PC uses both the carrot and the stick in equal measure.

In the last few weeks, on more than one occasion he signalled the government’s willingness to open dialogue as long as they “ abjured” violence. Like any tough administrator who sets out to change the rules of the game, PC has run into hurdles.

There is no shortage of bleeding hearts within and outside the government who’d rather that the state go soft on Maoists and adopt a twopronged strategy that includes both carrying out anti- extremist operations and addressing their socio- economic issues.

It is PC’s contention that, far from yielding results, this strategy has proved costly, both in
terms of men and material. Since 2005, 1,800 paramilitary personnel have met their death at the hands of extremists; 140 in the last months alone. PC has probably taken a cue from Y. S. Rajashekhara Reddy and N. Chandrababu Naidu, two men who otherwise followed policies that were as different as chalk and cheese. But on Naxalites, they — one a Congress chief minister and the other from the Telugu Desam Party and the bitterest of political rivals — were one.
They were ruthless in their pursuit of Naxalites and both had the full support of the Centre. It is no secret that during the NDA regime, Naidu had a carte blanche from the then home minister L. K. Advani to act as he deemed fit and it is largely due to their tenacity that the Naxalite menace in Andhra is no more what it used to be.

PC tried to establish the same kind of rapport with opposition chief ministers like Raman Singh and Naveen Patnaik. But he is being held back by the breast beaters in the government and professional human rights protesters.

There was no sight more shameful than one such organisation claiming last week that the jawans were ill- trained to tackle extremism. It is not about lack of training. What they need are weapons and most of all, a morale booster. And that can only happen if the state empowers them with both weapons and policies that make them feel that the state cares. For a start, politicians could start thinking beyond the vote bank and give them powers for preventive arrest and interrogation and even POTA. Give them autonomy; their demoralisation will vanish as will their death count.

As finance minister, PC had greater exposure and influence over the nation’s destiny. He missed the global stage and initially found it difficult to adjust to his new role in North Block.
He had just begun to assert himself when Dantewada happened.

He enjoys the confidence of both the PM and Sonia and by offering to resign, he stooped to conquer. He is indispensable now and his foes will think twice before engaging him in a bout.

Snippets/ Mail Today, April 12, 2010

MPs ready to get more salary, perks
NOT many outside the privileged group share the feeling, but our honourable MPs believe they are a very hardworking lot and therefore should be paid a lot more than they now earn. Sometime later this month, the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha will witness rare unanimity when MPs cutting across party lines join hands to pass a resolution— moved by a committee comprising their own— that recommends a substantial hike in their salary and perks.

Currently, an MP’s salary and perks add up to about Rs 65,000 a month. Besides, he/ she gets free travel on both Indian Railways and business class by air, constituency allowance, daily allowance for signing the Parliament roster, free electricity and phone, office and secretarial allowances, etc.

All these add up to an amount that could make many whiz kids working in top MNCs green with envy. It is customary for MPs to vote themselves higher pay and attractive perks. This time, they have done one better. They are demanding a better standard of living not only for themselves but for their children and even their servants.

While MPs are now entitled to 40 trips a year to New Delhi from their constituencies with their wives or personal assistants, there is a move to extend 12 free trips by air ( six two- way tickets to New Delhi and back) for dependent children.

What’s more, they are even seeking allowances for the domestic help that most of them bring along to Delhi. There are minor differences within the committee on the last one. I am told that Punjab and Haryana assemblies have already shown the way and I have no doubt that before the current session ends, the MPs would have voted for themselves another round of freebies.

Advani sees in BJP’s history an echo of Christian events
THE brilliant ideas that L. K. Advani hatches in his mind never cease to amaze. Now that there is a new and younger team at the party’s helm, the writer in him— remember he began his career as a film critic— seems to have resurfaced.

While the party that he once headed pursues issues that belong to an era long bygone, the tech savvy leader used the worldwide web to reach his thoughts to the world. It is not the medium he uses, but the message that he seeks to convey that is pushing eyebrows northwards.

Last Easter weekend ( April 2- 4), Advani was at the Kumbh in Haridwar where he joined the Dalai Lama and thousands of sadhus, sants and assorted scholars on the banks of the Ganges and took a pledge to make the holy river pollution- free. On his return to the capital, he sat down on his comp and pounded out a few stray thoughts on his blog titled “ sthapana divas” ( Foundation Day). “ The party is exactly thirty years old today. In 1980, the party was launched in Mumbai on April 6, Easter Sunday. This year Easter Sunday fell on April 4. I happened to be at the Kumbh in Haridwar where one of the speakers was Father Dominic Emanuel. He casually mentioned that this function was being held on the eve of Easter. That gave me an opening to recall how both the Christian festivals of the week, Good Friday and Easter, had significance even for the BJP’s history. Good Friday is the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Easter Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection.

And the launching of the BJP on Easter Sunday was certainly our ‘ resurrection’.” I spoke with many senior BJP leaders, none of whom could figure out the import of Advani ji ’s jottings. Is he turning over a new leaf? Or is it that he wants to end his career just the way he had begun it— as a writer?

THE Prime Minister is off to Washington and among the many knotty issues that will accompany him is this one: Who will take over from K. M. Chandrashekhar as the new cabinet secretary two months from now? The options: Sudha Pillai or M. Ramachandran, both from the 1972 batch.

Sudha from the Kerala cadre is the senior most and her elevation means another glass ceiling broken as she will become the first woman head of the civil services.

But there is a hitch. Sudha is due to retire at the end of the month and in case she has to be accommodated as the first woman cabinet secretary, the government will have to appoint her as officer on special duty in the cabinet secretariat with an extension of her tenure in the cadre beyond May 1, 2010. But since this contravenes rules, the only option is to grant her an extension of two years. The other option is to make her a member secretary of the Planning Commission which gives her the status of minister of state, but I gather she is not keen to accept this. A more attractive option for her seems to be the Union Public Service Commission. Sudha is one of those who doesn’t have to chase post- retirement jobs. The jobs chase her.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Snippets/ Mail Today, April 05, 2010

Governance agenda back on track
SO, AFTER a long gap of four years, the National Advisory Council is back with Sonia Gandhi once again heading it as the Chairperson. When set up shortly after the UPA had come to power in May 2004, it was often criticised as being a parallel power centre as Sonia enjoyed the rank of a cabinet minister and the NAC was given unrestricted access to all government documents, including cabinet files.

The NAC attracted further attention when, in 2006, Sonia got embroiled in the office of profit controversy and quit as its chief as well as a Lok Sabha member. She easily won reelection to Parliament but she did not return to the NAC which remained a defunct body. Even its website hosted by the National Informatics Centre simply said, “ This site is temporarily unavailable”. I am not surprised at the sudden decision to revive the NAC. The feathers in the crown of the UPA — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information Act, among others— were thanks in large measure to the vital role that the Council played in pushing these through in the UPA’s early years.

Since then, there is widespread feeling that the government has lost its way, particularly on the UPA’s social agenda where implementing policies and programmes that ensure delivery to the aam aadmi is first priority. Sonia is busy picking the members for the newly resurrected council which once constituted will meet once every month as in the past.

I believe that just as the government has decided to go in for a broad political consensus on programmes and legislation concerning national interest, the NAC under Sonia will interface with the civil leadership and provide feedback to the government to ensure that good governance is back on track. For first signs of that, I will keep checking the NAC website to see if it springs back to life.

Ministers learn that PM runs a tight ship indeed
MANMOHAN Singh is known as a prime minister who gives his ministers a free hand in running their departments. What is less known however is Manmohan’s habit of keeping a close watch on the departments, in particular, the financial health of units under the public sector. This was evident once again last week on the occasion of the inauguration of 47th National Maritime Week when Manmohan had a quiet tete- a- tete with the Minister of Shipping Shri G. K. Vasan where I understand he was busy quizzing the minister on matters like turnover and profits at our ports.
Normally, these are the kind of functions where the prime minister, or any other dignitary, pretends to be a keen listener but is actually very bored and can’t wait for it to be over. But Manmohan was different. What caught his attention was the theme for this year’s Maritime Week celebrations : “ Sea Faring: A Career of Opportunities”. Apparently, one of the speakers noted that there are about 50,000 ships sailing around the world at any point of time and the demand for new crew was estimated to be around 2 lakh sailors in the next five years alone. According to sources who attended the meeting, that’s when Manmohan smelt opportunity.

Remember, he is the man who unleashed the liberalisation process that now enables Indians and Indian companies to compete with the best anywhere in the world. He was all ears as the Shipping Secretary K Mohandas explained in detail about the immense potential in the sector and later as the Chairman of the Shipping Corporation of India gave a detailed account of the PSU. Don’t be surprised if the prime minister now keeps a close watch on the maritime sector. As long as there are jobs waiting to be filled and profits to be made, he believes Indians will be up there challenging the finest in the world for every job and every dollar.

FOR months now, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs, the National Security Council Secretariat, Home Ministry and many other ministries and departments have been on guard against cyber attacks originating in China aimed at destabilising the establishment. Now here is something to prove the existence of the menace within. Last week, the government issued a curious circular. It was curious because the government went to great lengths to clarify that it had not revised rates of overtime allowance for central government employees. The circular issued by the Ministry of Personnel said: “ It has been confirmed from the ministry of finance that OM NO 1( 4) 2010 E- II dated 27/ 3/ 2010 signed by M Rajan Chandranaydu, Under Secretary to the Government of India, purportedly issued by the Ministry of Finance is a fake.

It is clarified that no such instruction has been issued by this Department or Ministry of Finance.
Ministries/ Departments are advised not to take cognisance of the fake instructions being circulated in Central Government Offices”. It remains a mystery how such a fake order was issued on the letterhead of an Officer of the rank of deputy secretary and even more, how it came to be pasted on the walls of central government offices across the capital. An inquiry has now been ordered and it is hoped that the culprit, possibly someone at the lower level, will soon be caught.

But pity the poor babus who went on a splurge in anticipation of a largesse.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, April 5, 2010

TODAY, senior Union ministers are to meet with the leaders of the opposition parties to sort out differences over the contentious Women’s Reservation Bill.

Over the last weekend, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that his government was ready to sit with the opposition parties to resolve differences over the nuclear liability Bill. Taken together, these convey one message: the UPA government has finally realised that it needs to get off the high horse before it falls off it. Eleven months ago, UPA II came back to power.

Technically, it wasn’t voted back to office.
The coalition leader, the Congress, has just over 200 seats in the 544 member Lok Sabha and even with all its alliance partners, UPA II falls short of a simple majority and has to depend on the support from outside of parties like the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s RJD and Mayawati’s BSP for survival.

Yet, senior ministers and officials known to be close to the establishment strutted around the corridors of power and Parliament with an arrogance that belied this fragility. When opposition leaders sought to highlight genuine concerns about important legislation, the government, far from showing regard, displayed a determination to steamroll all opponents.

On the women’s reservation Bill for example, it roped in the support of the opposition BJP and the Communists to bulldoze “ friendly foes” like the SP and the RJD. The chickens may finally be coming home to roost. With a host of important legislation awaiting passage in the two houses of Parliament, the government now realises that it cannot afford to brazen it out any longer. Recently, members of the “ core group” in the government met to review the proceedings of Parliament during the brief but disastrous Budget session.

There is silent acknowledgement that a woeful lack of floor coordination has brought the government to this pass. Nothing illustrates this better than the confusion in the run- up to the introduction of the Nuclear Liability Bill which was to be piloted in the Lok Sabha a fortnight ago.

The Bill formed part of the list of business in the Lok Sabha, but shortly before it was to be introduced, Speaker Meira Kumar informed the house that she had received a request from the government that it does not intend to introduce the Bill in the house as slated. This was something unprecedented in Indian Parliamentary history.

The core group that consists of Pranab Mukherjee, AK Antony, P Chidambaram and Veerappa Moily was joined by Parliamentary Affairs Minister PK Bansal, as is the custom, when matters relating to Parliament and its proceedings are discussed.

Bansal’s earnestness is beyond question but the same cannot be said about his capability or efficiency. I suspect the government wished it had the likes of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Vayalar Ravi or even Pramod Mahajan or Sushma Swaraj who used their cross party connections to win bipartisan support to push through crucial legislation. Neither Bansal nor V Narayanaswamy, the affable junior minister for parliamentary affairs, seem up to their admittedly difficult assignments.

Many more important and contentious legislation are due to come up in the next few months.
Apart from the nuclear liability and women’s reservation bills, there are the Pensions Funds Regulatory Bill, the Foreign Universities Bill and the Communal Violence Bill, to name just a few.
In all these, the dividing line between supporter and opponent is blurred and the government will have to walk the tightrope to ensure that allies are not annoyed and opponents are won over.
There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. It is all the more important to keep this truism in mind in the coming months when the Congress and its allies set out to face elections in important states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Whether the Congress faces the polls in alliance with the DMK and the Trinamool Congress would depend to a large extent on how the party manages these allies in Parliament.

I understand that the core group, or the “ awesome foursome” as they are known, have in a reversal of recent policy decided to abandon the confrontationist model that has characterised the Congress in the first year of UPA II and adopt a consensual approach. Many of the prime minister’s big ticket reforms will come up for parliamentary scrutiny in the next few months. The Congress will need all the help it can hope to garner.

Already, HRD minister Kapil Sibal has spoken to Murli Manohar Joshi and I see many more hatchets being buried. I predict that UPA II will bend over backwards to win the support of even ideological opponents as long as they have a national perspective, which many of the Congress's own allies don’t.

Seedhi Baat /Aajtak, April 04, 2010

'BCCI a charitable institution'

IPL chairman Lalit Modi on the show Seedhi Baat says that the money earned from IPL is used to build cricket infrastructure.