Monday, July 28, 2014

Brand Rahul will need..... Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/July 27, 2014

Brand Rahul Will Need More Than Just Bloodline to Acquire Political Market

For a sinking galley, even a floating straw offers the hope of succour. Inbuilt in each failure is the opportunity for redemption. Such is life for the highly demoralised 128-year-old Congress party. For the past few weeks, Gandhi Inc was running around like a headless chicken. It lacked leadership. It existed sans a mission. It had lost all of its aura and visibility. Both its admirers and detractors had dashed off its political obituary, though there remained loyalists who felt that the Congress may be bruised and dented but the idea and ideology of the party was immortal and capable of surviving any political tsunami, hurricane or tornado.

Last Friday, a small miracle turned into an organisational windfall for the beleaguered dynasty. When it won all the three Assembly by-elections in Uttarakhand, the entire Congress leadership went into frenzy as if it had recovered some long lost glory.  From Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to CM Harish Rawat, as well as some middle-level leaders, none of them lost any time in terming the victory as the waning of Modi wave which demolished the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections. The Uttarakhand win was much more than just an electoral triumph. Some influential Congress leaders saw it as a vindication of Rahul Gandhi’s policy of trusting the local leadership which had thwarted all attempts to destabilise them. Soon after the Congress lost all the five Lok Sabha seats in the state to the BJP with huge margins just a few months ago, there was clamour to replace all the CMs of those states in which the party’s performance was pathetic. Replacing Rawat was one of the demands of the dissidents because even his wife had lost the elections. But Rahul stuck to his guns. As one of his trusted aides said jokingly, “Rahul follows the principle of leadership enunciated by Napoleon Bonaparte that a ‘leader is a dealer in hope’.” Rahul firmly believes in hope and therefore has ignored all protests and machinations. It is rare for a ruling party in a state to win by-polls within two months of losing in the national elections. Rawat had been given a free hand. As a result, not only had he himself won with a huge margin of over 20,000 votes while convalescing in hospital, the other Congress candidates  defeated their saffron rivals impressively. The Congress snatched two Assembly seats from the BJP; one of which was vacated by former BJP CM Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.
The Congress is obviously celebrating its marginal recovery in Uttarakhand. But it also means that the Rahul line will prevail in the party. Sonia has always practised the policy of not disturbing CMs in adversity. She had allowed Sheila Dikshit, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, late YSR Reddy, Tarun Gogoi and others to continue in office even after electoral reversals. Of late, however, powerful voices have been seeking the replacement of CMs like Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, and Gogoi. Historically it’s shown that when the Congress is not in power, it acquires much more ferocity in opposing itself rather than the party ruling in the state or at the Centre.  It rules united but fights its opponents divided. Ever since it lost the elections, both the anti-Rahul elements and conniving CM aspirants have been running relentless campaigns for a change of leaders. Some of them even threatened to leave the party and join the BJP. For example, in Assam, 28 MLAs, including a couple of ministers, even went to the governor with a letter expressing no confidence in Gogoi’s leadership. In Haryana, a former Union minister considered close to the AICC boss and a former State congress chief revolted against the CM. In Maharashtra, it was not just its ally, the Nationalist Congress party, but also prominent Congress ministers like Narayan Rane who  demanded that Chavan should be replaced pronto if the Congress wanted to put up even a symbolic fight against the mighty Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.
For a while now, Rahul has been under fire for the party’s worst-ever performance since Independence. Pressure was mounted on him to change his non-political (so called) Rasputins  in his kitchen cabinet. None of them had any political experience and a few of them had left lucrative assignments abroad to join the young scion. But instead of yielding to pressure, he took a brief sabbatical and returned to active politics with aggravated aggression. It is the new Rahul Congress which has been taking on the Modi government inside and outside the government. Mr Gandhi contemptuously dismissed every suggestion to sideline C P Joshi and Madhusudan Mistry, portrayed as the villains of the Congress’s debacle. The Congress decision to go after Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and disrupt Parliament on any and every issue is part of Rahul’s strategy to keep the limelight on the Congress.
For both PM Narendra Modi and his Enemy No. 1 Rahul Gandhi, the upcoming Assembly polls in Haryana, Delhi and Maharashtra are deemed crucial. If a defeat in these states, currently ruled by (barring Delhi) the Congress, would dent Modi’s armour of invincibility,  it will also strengthen the anti-Rahul forces within the Congress. Rahul has placed full confidence in all the three CMs who are in trouble. After dithering for couple of weeks, it was he who decided to let both Chavan and Hooda lead the Assembly elections. For Assam, Rahul even ignored Mallikarjun Kharge’s report suggesting a review of state leadership. He has scrupulously kept himself away from his party’s desperate bid to acquire the Leader of the Opposition status in the Lok Sabha.
Though Rahul doesn’t have the powers of the party president, he seems to enjoy veto power on all crucial decisions. Perhaps Rahul is still undergoing an apprenticeship for leadership. But he must keep in mind that leaders are not born; they are made. On the face of it, he seems to possess a single leadership trait—saying no and saying yes is the easiest option available to any leader. He has been in politics for over a decade. He was lucky to be born a Gandhi. But his evolution as a leader has been rather slow so far. His promoters have always credited him for the party’s successes and passed over the blame to others for the failures. His excessive political engagement during the past few weeks may reflect his resolve to stay in politics. But he has a champion challenger in Modi. In the coming war for retaining and acquiring political markets, Brand Rahul will need more than just bloodline. Modi has a mission and a model. Rahul badly needs both, and even in a better packaged avatar. An accidental win in a tiny Himalayan state can’t be the starting post for the campaign to recapture India.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, July 21, 2014

Modi must find formula..... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ July 20, 2014

Modi Must Find Formula to Dismantle Monstrous Diplomatic Machinery

In technical jargon, Track II always runs opposite to Track I. Moving parallel, they never meet. These trains of thought also end up at different platforms of the same station—precisely what has been happening with Indian diplomacy for the past few decades. Why and by who was Track II invented is anybody’s guess. While changes occur in governments, Track II members, promoters and financiers remain unchanged. In fact, it has become a sinecure for retired, tired and fired civil servants, diplomats, opinion-makers and recovering journalists. Last week, when the country was outraged over the flirtatious rendezvous between former hack Ved Pratap Vaidik and proclaimed terrorist Hafiz Saeed, questions were raised over the motives and intentions of Track II diplomacy. Vaidik may be justified in meeting Saeed as a former media maven, it was undeniably inappropriate for him to make out a case for J&K as an independent country.
His two-week undisclosed cross-border visit brought the spotlight on not just his hosts but also Indians who have been granted multi-entry visas to Pakistan. The Pakistan institute is run by former military officials, including a few from ISI. It has been inviting liberal and secular Indians for promoting peace and dialogue between India and its duplicitous neighbour. Some of them genuinely feel that India should engage Pakistan in a dialogue even if Pakistan-sponsored terror groups continue to kill innocents in India. On other hand, it is not a coincidence that those opposed to the idea of ‘Paki-Hindi Bhai Bhai at any cost’ are denied visas to visit even relatives or places of birth. ISI is so powerful that it can defy its heads of state or government when it comes to granting visas to independent journalists.
Instead of working towards a single mission, there has been a serious dissimilitude between Track I and Track II over the past decade. If the official line is to demolish terror camps working within Pakistan, Track II interlocutors have been espousing liberalising the visa regime and to give Pakistan free access to Indian market. PM Narendra Modi has been hinting at possible military intervention if terror attacks don’t stop, but India’s peacenik perambulators have been pleading for restraint so that they can grab more airmiles to Lahore for red carpet welcomes followed by biryani and bootleg Scotch. In fact, the new government is now examining the number of visits made by members of various think tanks to Pakistan and other countries, as well as their presentations. The idea is to ascertain whether these self-appointed ambassadors have taken a stand at variance with official policy. An analysis reveals that at none of the conferences or seminars in Pakistan did any of the Indian participants raise the issue of closing down terror camps. Strangely, many of these talking heads have much in common—conflict resolution, peace initiatives, terror and unknown sources of funding. The NDA government has started the process of identifying their financing patterns and ensuring that government funds are not being diverted through devious methods. They acquire legitimacy because Indian missions are obliged to organise receptions in their honour and even facilitate meetings with kindred souls in Pakistan. What has baffled senior ministers is that even after the change of regime in New Delhi, none of these interlocutors make it a point to brief the government before or after their visits, unlike their Pakistani counterparts.
Another revelation is that the number of these think tanks rose during UPA regime. Though it was Brijesh Mishra, a former diplomat and Principal Secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee— one of the most powerful ever—who encouraged Track II, the UPA under Manmohan Singh patronised legions of the intransigent interlocutors. Most were promoted by former diplomats and military officials, since serving officers who worked under them make it a point to oblige their former bosses by creating opportunities to indulge in non-stage diplomacy. This has dangerous implications. These retired diplomats get informal access to sensitive information from their colleagues in the government. There are many examples of individuals working as go-betweens for decades after their retirement—even after governments changed. The Track II establishment is so powerful that it can influence any government to follow its advice and ignore views of its ministers. Surprisingly, the composition of Track II phalanx defies any logic. It consists of individuals from all parties who are known for defiance of party or government line. Their only virtue is their consistency in keeping their honeymoon with Pakistan alive. They are found haunting residences of the Pakistan and UK High Commissioners and ambassadors of the US and China. They include senior media personalities known for their soft approach to Pakistan. But it is not that these think tanks are working only for a dialogue with Pakistan. Some have taken upon the responsibility of disarming the world by fighting against nuclear proliferation. Their only mission is to discourage India from becoming a nuclear power so that Western nuclear equipment manufacturing companies can capture Indian market. No wonder, their membership comprises those who share the doctrine of ideological junketing.
Surprisingly, these intellectual itinerants of both India and Pakistan are like MACs ( Mutual Admiration Clubs). They invite only those from each other’s country who are ideologically, culturally and politically compatible. For them, any change of government hardly makes a difference. An analysis of their writings or presentations reveals that all of them follow the same line of argument even if they come from different parties or outfits. They are so organised that if any non-MAC member makes a contrarian move, they move heaven and hell to gag the disagreeable point of view using their connections. Modi’s challenge is finding the right formula to dismantle the monstrous machinery, which has destabilised and undermined South Block with fraternal finesse. He has to take a call to merge both Tracks so that national interest prevails over culinary and travel preferences of retired apparatchiks who try to transcend oblivion with undying ambition.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jaitley's next Budget should be with a difference..Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/July 13, 2014

Jaitley's Next Budget Should be with a Difference, in Taste, Tone and Tenor

Union Budget 2014 is just like a three-star Michelin course. The chatterati waits for it to be arranged and displayed in the proper ambience. Corporates expect it to be served in fine China tableware. And the media, opinion-makers and political leaders enjoy its flavours according to nature of their palates. Whether it serves its intended purpose or not, the budget has become the talk of the town. All TV channels paraded exclusive panels of experts, spent lavishly on sending reporters out to get voices that mostly supported the budget, with a few contrarians thrown in for the sake of balance. Like all food, the freshness lasted for a few hours, after which people looked for a different cuisine to savour. Since 1947, 25 finance ministers have read out 86 budgets, with C D Deshmukh making the shortest speech and Arun Jaitley breaking the record—with a short break—by speaking for 130 minutes. Barring the Congress talkathletes and the usual BJP and RSS baiters, few found fault with his logic or schemes. Jaitley has something for everybody. The budget proposals, however, resemble the menu of a roadside dhaba, which serves everything from Punjabi-ised pasta, desi pizza, Indian chow mein to even lamb chops for snooty Anglophiles.
For Jaitley, crafting the budget was a class and caste dilemma. His heart was with market reforms, which benefit more the types whose habitat is Lutyen’s Delhi, South Mumbai, upmarket Chennai as well as those who direct the markets in Shanghai and New York. But he was constrained to expound on fiscal deficits, subsidies and the interest regime, which only a few sitting in boardrooms would understand. His original constituency comprises middle class traders, unorganised labour, Swadeshi propagandists and lower middle class urban voters. It wasn’t surprising, however, that he let his heart down and used his mind instead to present a please-all budget, hailed not just by those who gained but also by those who gained even marginally. He didn’t get plaudits for presenting a bold, a dream or a super budget, but Modinomics, which brought the party to power and made him the finance minister, was not lost in translation.
Jaitley’s budget might probably join the myriad forgotten documents in the dusty archives of the finance ministry. But the question remains whether it resolves the fundamental problems ailing the economy for the past 65 years? The finance minister took a bold step by opening up defence and insurance sectors to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). He magnanimously announced 20-odd schemes of `100 crore each. He reiterated Prime Minister Modi’s resolve to launch a bullet train and create IITs, IIMs and AIIMS in almost every state. He also humoured the Sangh Parivar by providing liberal outlays for cleaning and developing the Ganga and pilgrimage tourism. But can just opening elitist educational institutions and inviting FDI in remunerative sectors lift India from the bottom ranks on various social indicators? Undoubtedly, the budget is not an instrument to abracadabra any magical mission to make India a prosperous and healthy nation. Jaitley has been able to provide something good out of the worst situation he has inherited from the UPA.  But providing a paltry `500 crore as a palliative for a permanent plague like inflation appears to be a non-starter.
In a nation where every third person is living below the poverty line, fiscal and monetary policies should aim at providing each wholesome food and shelter. In India, real disposable income has just grown by 2.8 per cent over 2004-05. More than half of the country’s 1.2 billion people have no toilets in their homes. Surprisingly, they have mobile phones. In the age of modernisation, a single Indian consumes just 52 kg of steel a year as against the global average of 203 kg per person. Even after 65 years of Independence, the average citizen gets only 734 kWh of power (500 units a month) vis-à-vis the worldwide average of 2,782 kWh. If that isn’t enough, only half a bed is available per 1,000 Indians in government hospitals. Poor Bharat is afflicted with all categories of poverty, which vary from water poverty, healthcare poverty, education poverty, housing poverty, sanitation poverty and even transportation poverty in the form of a pathetic road network.
Amazingly, India still remains a rich country inhabited by the poor. From 1991, when extraneous pressures forced it to take a right turn from a mixed economy to a World Bank-imposed reform mechanism, only the rich have benefitted from budgetary exercises. India is perhaps the only developing country where 64 per cent of the GDP comes from the services sector, which provides hardly any facilities to the poor but definitely offers luxurious services to the rich. Both manufacturing and agriculture, which contributed over 70 per cent of the GDP in the ’80s, now account for less than 40 per cent. Over 50 per cent of the population still depends on agriculture for livelihood, but have been left out of the growth miracle. Yet, our fiscal policies are aimed at attracting FDI only in services. Will FDI in
defence and insurance solve India’s unemployment and poverty problems? Foreign investors have been investing in captive markets or high yield sectors. For example, the percentage of FDI in trade, hotels and restaurant business has grown from 14 per cent in 2001 to 24 per cent in 2014. Foreign funds (belonging to invisible Indians as some suspect) investment in financing, insurance, real estate and business services rose from 14 per cent to almost 18 per cent during the past 12 years. Evidently, FDI sponsors have taken more money out of India through tax-free dividends and sale of their shares than they have actually invested. They haven’t created any tangible assets in India. Instead, they provided plum jobs with stratospheric salaries to those who influence policymakers. Modi is under no obligation to give more opportunities to those whose sole aim is to earn more miles and munificence from their foreign promoters.
Sadly, successive finance ministers from Manmohan Singh onwards have been guided more by endorsements from markets than from masses. The colour of the budget and its prose, along with the sartorial elan of the finance minister, get more premium and publicity than its content. For Modi and Jaitley, the time will arrive soon—in eight months—to present the next budget with a difference, in taste, tone and tenor.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, July 7, 2014

Time Has Come for Gandhi Family ...... Power & Politics /The Sunday Standard/ July 06, 2014

Time Has Come for Gandhi Family to Prove That it is Still a Powerful Brand

The litmus test of a leader lies in his or her ability to pull to safety followers who are teetering on the precipice of defeat and despair. Both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul have been put to this test. It was under Sonia’s leadership that the Congress won the elections twice after Indira Gandhi. It was under her that Congress broke Rajiv Gandhi’s record of winning minimum number of 200 seats in 1989. And it was under Sonia’s leadership again that the 125-year-old party suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat this year. With just 44 seats in its kitty, this is the first time since Independence that the Congress can’t even claim the status of Leader of the Opposition (LoP). The deserted Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road and the unemployed status of former ministers and key functionaries reflect the impotent state of the party that ruled the nation for almost six decades. 
"The Congress leadership needs an effective and innovative marketing team, on the line of Narendra Modi’s, to repackage and sell their product. Unfortunately, their mood doesn’t reflect either the urgency or the inclination to recapture the lost market or glitter."

And yet, the leaders are not making any effort to get back to the basics and connect with the common man who felt betrayed by their 10-year misrule and non-governance. Instead, they seem to think that acquiring the LoP label will help revive the party, and the perks and paraphernalia of office will suffuse them with an aura that will influence voters. If that was the case, over 70 per cent of the old ministers wouldn’t have lost the elections. But they don’t seem to realise that. Instead of learning from the ignominious rout, they are still seeking out comfort zones. For the past two weeks, top party leaders have been lobbying, begging and even prostrating themselves in front of the ruling party leaders for the LoP and deputy LoP post. Why? So that they can get a room, a flagged car and over a dozen officials as personal staff.

According to convention, a party needs a minimum of 55 members to support its claim for the LoP’s office. The Congress doesn’t have the numbers, but is demanding the position on the basis of it being the second-largest party in the House after the 282-member BJP. The party has collected endorsements for its demand from both current and former allies. But the Lok Sabha Speaker is not bound by such support coming through press statements. The Congress seems to be so disorganised that it didn’t even occur to them to call a joint meeting of UPA allies and elect one of them as leader. The combined strength of the UPA is about 60 MPs and they fought the election as one group; their leader could easily have got the post of the LoP. But effective communication isn’t the virtue of the Congress; indeed, all its leaders work and walk in different directions.
The Congress’s avaricious politics of grabbing office at any cost has left its local leaders and cadres confused and directionless. All of them look to the Gandhis as the saviours of the party. After the humiliating defeat, Rahul ducked out of view but Sonia started meeting leaders to get direct feedback from those who had lost the elections. So far, she has met over 4,000 people. But the outcome of the long confabulations has shocked many party leaders. Because Sonia has once again chosen the saintly and god-fearing A K Antony to review the causes for defeat and send her a report with his recommendations. Now, Antony has conducted similar assignments in the past as well, but his reports, if there are any, appear to be confined to inaccessible archives of the AICC headquarters. The reports are never read, and hence the question of axing the culprits doesn’t arise. And the liabilities continue lording over the party.
On the face of it, Sonia appears to be serious about taking harsh measures and replacing the dead wood in the party with younger and committed leaders from the states. For the past two decades, the Congress has been controlled by people who have failed in their own states and have limited mass appeal. But it’s Sonia’s own core team that impedes any major overhaul of the party. They are all experts at destabilising strong local leaders and protecting inefficient ones. For example, for over three weeks after the electoral debacle, three Chief Ministers—Bhupinder Singh Hooda of Haryana, Prithviraj Chavan of Maharashtra and Tarun Gogoi of Assam—were kept dangling and threatened with the possibility of losing their posts. Senior leaders were sent to Maharashtra and Assam to gauge the situation, but no action was taken on their reports. Hooda, who had done better in terms of votes polled than the other chief ministers, was destabilised because of factional fights.
Ironically, the Gandhis have been trapped in solving factional fights rather than chalking out any strategy to win elections in the six states of Delhi, Maharashtra, Assam, Jharkhand, Haryana and J&K. Barring some doling out of freebies and reservations on caste and religious grounds, the party hasn’t done anything to win in any of the states ruled by the Congress or its allies. The Gandhis have not even given any attention to the growing tension with its allies in Maharashtra, J&K and Jharkhand. Though the first of the elections is just four months away, party leaders are still fighting each other instead of alongside each other. Some loyalists have asked Sonia and Rahul to take full charge of the organisation. They’ve told them that the Congress without the Gandhis is like a jet without fuel.
If the truth be told, it’s not just the fate of the Congress that is at risk; the very survival of both Sonia and Rahul lies in their capability to put their party on the victory stand again. A party packed with pygmies and sycophants may pose no threat to the Gandhis, but it can’t propel them forward either. The time has come for the family to prove that it is still a powerful, marketable brand. For this, the leadership needs an effective and innovative marketing team, on the line of Narendra Modi’s, to repackage and sell their product. Unfortunately, their mood doesn’t reflect either the urgency or the inclination to recapture the lost market or glitter. They seem to be content dreaming about a scenario where the promise of ‘Achche Din’ has evaporated. But “a dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work”.; Follow me  on Twitter @PrabhuChawla