Monday, September 28, 2015

BJP only lowering Modi's Cachet .... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ September 27, 2015

BJP Only Lowering Modi’s Cachet by Turning National Debate into NaMo vs RaGa Battle

‘Love me, hate me but don’t ignore me’ is the phrase de jour of Rahul Gandhi and his party. The success of any leader lies in his ability to provoke both his friends and foes to keep on talking about him or her. It’s one of the most successful methods to beat the popular belief that out of sight means out of mind. In the slipstream of his frequent disappearances, it is this message that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi leaves behind for both his promoters and detractors. Last week, RaGa once again decided to take a break from his pusillanimous political tourism at home. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in the US for a diplomatic-cum-commercial covenant with the global alpha group, RaGa chose some arcane venue to engage in academic and intellectual acrobatics with a battery of opinion shakers and makers.
Unlike Modi, the Congress scion was not hot news for the American media or establishment. He, however, managed to capture almost the same amount of mind and media space back home as Modi. A leader who’s yet to show his mettle to win a major political battle for his 129-year-old party, Rahul and his cohorts were happily preening in the attention they have got; more for his absence than his actions. The quality of the political narrative and debate has been debased so much that, now, even a private visit of a political leader becomes an instrument to score brownie points. How does it matter to any normal Indian if Rahul or any other leader spreads his carbon footprint, whether it be to Aspen or Brisbane? At a time when most Indian leaders are discussing the implications of the Bihar Assembly elections on the NDA and its loquacious leader, a section of hyper-committed political sympathisers were speculating about the venue, nature and characters who would be dining and wining with a Gandhi 12,000 miles away from the dust and drumbeats of political war.
So it has come to this! It seems that all it takes to be a leader today is to grab prime time spots and make front-page news for something he or she has hardly done or said, which is relevant to the ordinary citizens. Inexplicably, the BJP seems to be obsessed with the idea of Rahul Gandhi as a mass leader. Instead of ignoring his antics, wannabe BJP leaders are fiercely engaged in a verbal competition with each other on how to attack Rahul for his periodic vanishing acts. New-age BJP leaders prefer personality-bashing over beating their opponents ideologically. If Modi is anathema for the Congress, for the BJP, RaGa appears to be the worst thing that has ever happened to Indian politics.
Last week, hardly did a day pass without BJP leaders aggressively asking the Congress leadership about the whereabouts of a leader who barely has any significant role to play in running the establishment. They were accusing his ‘bhagoda’ act from the Bihar electionscape as a betrayal, as if the Congress poses any threat to the NDA. The party has been given 40 Assembly seats as an act of charity by the Nitish-Lalu combo to contest in the state, but is already finding it difficult to identify eligible candidates. The attrition between the BJP and Congress has centred more around the reasons for Rahul’s foreign visit than on the successful sojourn of the Prime Minister to the US. The BJP is convinced that by targeting RaGa incessantly on even inane issues, it can make him the least acceptable alternative to NaMo. From all visible indicators, RaGa is myriad miles behind the Prime Minister in terms of popularity and credibility. If the ferocity and frequency of the BJP’s offensive against the peripatetic princeling exceeds its voltage of venom against the Congress party, then it is evident that Rahul has hit the BJP where it hurts the most.
RaGa habitually makes fun of the Prime Minister at his rallies. Since the Gandhis are not big crowd pullers like Modi, they are restricting their public contact by choosing to engage with only a well-defined target audience. For the past two months, RaGa has addressed students, women, farmers, youth, Dalits, party workers et al. Instead of expounding on the Congress agenda, he has been viciously vituperative against Modi for betraying the mandate of the people. Rahul has been lampooning the NDA government for its failure to bring back black money and tame inflation. He has been repeatedly calling the NDA government a suit boot ki sarkar.
Undoubtedly, RaGa is more focused and confident since his return to active politics from a long sabbatical this year. His strategy appears to be only to provoke the BJP. And the saffron party has obliged by walking into his trap. Fortunately, its top leaders like party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi have refrained from even indirectly naming the Congress princelet in their political speeches. In the age of political marketing, various parties are expected to choose their target audience carefully and create a message accordingly. Modi understood this truth and mastered the art of selling himself. He could get a buy-in from all sections of the electorate because he could reveal many earthy things about himself. In contrast, RaGa is now selling himself without having much to say about himself. If his dismally low popularity is slowly heading north, the credit must go to his rivals and not the Congress or his marketers. Never before in the political bazaar has a leader been so conspicuous by his absence than his presence. RaGa has decided to dump the upper middle class and urban elite totally since they seem robotically mesmerised by the Modi mantra. His focus is on bringing back the traditional Congress vote bank of labourers, marginal farmers, Dalits and minorities, which has spurned it. It is to this segment that RaGa wants to project Modi as a pro-rich leader.
The Congress has been losing elections because it is seen to be an outfit that promotes corruption and crony capitalism. RaGa knows his foreign visits matter little to his highly polarised electorate. In fact, there are many rich and mighty in India who would be admiring him for going on holiday like they do. With Indian elections becoming more and more personality-driven, the GOP would like RaGa to stay on top of mind of the people. It is unable to displace Modi from public space, since his public connect through the Demosthenic power of his words and the novelty of new ideas reigns supreme. Rahul’s unique invisibility should have been the natural victim of Modi’s excessive and choreographed visibility. But by making his periodic AWOL an incessant issue, the BJP is lowering Modi’s cachet by turning the national debate into a NaMo vs RaGa battle for the future.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, September 21, 2015

Revealing, not withholding information, is Real Power ... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ September 20, 2015

Revealing, not Withholding Information, is Real Power. In India, It's the Other Way Round

Information is power. Withholding information is even more power. News is what the powerful want to hide from the public. The rest is just free publicity. Since the government is the sole repository of all classified matter, it is instinctively reluctant to disclose any information on any subject. An Indian citizen cannot access any file marked ‘confidential’ by any babu, even if it is something relatively harmless like instructions on framing a policy to contain dengue. The civil services have flourished in the smoke and mirrors ecosystem, by cloaking in secrecy even the most visible silhouettes of the establishment and revealing little of what lies hidden in history. The denial of information is its most potent magic spell, which preserves its clubby sense of power. Preventing the public from being illuminated on government matters is deemed the most effective method of protecting national interest.

For the past few weeks, the political class has been obsessed with the quality and quantity of the Subhas Chandra Bose files made public so far. Since West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee joined the Bose battle, it has become evident that the classified files on the INA war hero are a puissant political bomb. Setting an odd precedent, Banerjee not only ordered the local police to release 64 files containing 12,000 pages, but also drove down to the police station herself where they were kept. Bose had become Didi’s latest instrument to woo Netaji worshippers for the upcoming Assembly elections. She went a step further by challenging the Centre to release all Bose files kept in North and South Block.
The furor over the files indicates the lack of transparency in our administrative system. Netaji was one of India’s most respected political leaders. The country has the right to know about his whereabouts and how he spent his days after fleeing India. For the past 65 years, successive governments have refrained from releasing the entire docket of files despite promises made during election campaigns. It is clear that it is the political leadership and civil service, which decide to hold back information without following any consistent principle or policy. For example, why cannot Banerjee reveal the truth about the rise and death of Naxalism in Bengal and the dismissal of state governments in the past?
At the Centre, the Modi government had promised to make the maximum number of classified government files public. But most Union ministries are reluctant to disclose information. According to the Manual of Department Security Instruction, 1994, “every classified file/document will be reviewed every five years for the purpose of declassification”. It also says the “automatic declassification may take place after 25 years except in cases where particular information may require to remain classified beyond this period for reasons of national security and national interest”. Rarely has the bureaucracy followed its own manual in letter and spirit. Official agencies do not maintain records about the number of files to be considered for annual declassification. Many are marked ‘Not to Go Out’. Even a joint secretary-rank official cannot retrieve one.
The situation in the states is worse. None of them have declassified any file during the past six decades. If classified documents that contain details of snooping on political and opinion-driving leaders were to be made public, it would expose the tyrannical nature of ruling establishments. Even Parliament has been denied knowledge about a serious matter like the number of corporate shares held by senior civil servants, by invoking the privacy or security clause. The most well-guarded open secret of the past is the process of appointment of High Court and Supreme Court judges. Much before the collegium system came into force, it was on the basis of secret reports that a person was chosen for the post of a judge. If 50-year-old files about their appointments were made accessible, the ugliest side of the Indian political system will come to light. Even files on the appointments and removal of governors would tell their own stories that delineate the noxious narrative of Centre-state relations.
Ironically, babus have invoked convenient clauses relating to national security to conceal files containing matter that pose a real threat to national security or the leadership. Many, like the ones dealing with the defence preparedness during the Indo-China war haven’t been declassified. But then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon was forced to resign. Why doesn’t the government release the chain of files and correspondence preceding the 1965 Indo-Pak war and Tashkent declaration, after which PM Lal Bahadur Shastri met a mysterious death? If the files containing Indira Gandhi’s views on Henry Kissinger and the US establishment were to be made public, they would expose a simulacrum of the tortured nature of the Indo-US relationship in the 1970s. Why is India being blindfolded to the circumstances that led to cancellation of nuclear tests when P V Narasimha Rao was in power? How did Mrs Gandhi conduct the Pokhran nuclear test without a single colleague getting a whiff about her intentions? Even her decisions to sack Finance Minister Morarji Desai and nationalise private banks were taken after exchange of secret notes with the Cabinet Secretary.
The people have the right to know the details in the files in North and South Block, concerning US groupies infiltrating the system. There lie numerous files in the defence ministry, containing questions a few upright civil servants had raised on defence procurements. Some of them even name the individuals responsible for sabotaging the domestic production of equipment. Declassification of 30-year-old files from the petroleum ministry would reveal how ONGC wasn’t allowed to explore more terrain and which foreign oil companies were favoured for imports. Even the documents dealing with choosing the new PM’s home after Jawaharlal Nehru’s passing would make an interesting study about decision-making. Who decided to reverse the decision to retain Teen Murti Bhavan as Prime Minister Shastri’s official residence?
The unedited saga of the imposition of Emergency and supersession of three Supreme Court judges is yet to be told. Files recording the consultations among various ministries and PMO on Operation Blue Star remain hidden. Other democratic countries like the US and UK declassify material after periodic reviews. Unfortunately, in India, withholding information from the people is considered the tool to retain power than gaining it by revealing more and more.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, September 14, 2015

Meat Ban a battle between ..... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard /September 13, 2015

Meat Ban a Battle Between Promoters of Faith and Those Diluting it in Name of Freedom

Meat in India is being priced higher than morality on the political menu today. Food comes in numerous colours and cuts. It is now dividing the nation into various hues and habits, from Kashmir to Kerala. Bloody morsels of slaughtered animals and birds are dictating the contours of dialogue and debate. Foodies are so incensed over the ban on meat in many states that they are willing to send conscience to the abattoir over the inhuman act of a well-heeled Saudi diplomat who has been accused of raping two poor Nepalese women, and behaved like a butcher of decency. Most part of the last week was usurped by meat-loving gourmands to denounce and demonise a government, which was just implementing a ban that has been in place for decades. The municipal body in Mumbai was reinforcing a resolution, which was adopted in 1994. But for ill-liberals, it was a cardinal crime to extend the number of days during which the sale of meat was banned. They charged the BJP government of vote bank politics because the ban was imposed to oblige the Jain community. In the Valley, extremist elements took to streets and slaughtered animals after the J&K High Court directed the government to enforce a ban on killing cows that has been in force in the state for over a century. Forces opposed to the PDP-BJP government charged it of exclusively pandering to the Hindutva agenda. The print and electronic media, which were obsessed with Indrani Mukerjea’s salacious sins for weeks, shifted their cameras and took to their iPads to broadcast and podcast what they deemed was massive damage done by imposing a ban on their favourite dish for a couple of days.
Even the foreign media, which usually ignores retrograde practices in their own countries, started labelling India a Ban-Ban nation. Anyone and everyone who could speak English with an Oxbridge or Harvard accent left their bedrooms and boardrooms to moan and groan about the death of the freedom of gastronomy. All the famous TV anchors and the usual experts on everything, from potatoes to politics, played down the physical assault on impoverished Nepali women by a depraved diplomat, who would have been dead meat by now in any other country’s media coverage. They were more concerned about missing a meaty meal for a few days than leading the protest against the diplomat accused of rape. The discourse on the meat ban also reflected the nature of priorities, which are dear to the hearts of a privileged section of the urban elite. For them, freedom of food, the nature of sexual choices, free access to pornographic sites and mocking Indian deities, heritage and sites trump the survival of inclusive Indian culture. Any attempt to laud or revive Indian traditions of cuisine or clothing is termed an attack on privacy and individual liberty. But the ferocity of the uproar over the restriction on the sale of meat appears to be a clear indication that a vocal, well-connected, influential section of urban India is determined to dictate the lifestyle and moral choices of the entire nation.
In principle, it is none of any government’s business to dictate the food habits of people. They should be allowed to eat what they think is good for their health and mind, as long as it doesn’t violate any law. It should be left to the market forces to dictate and determine the sale of any food product. In fact, many senior leaders of the ruling BJP are enthusiastically non-vegetarian. Some of their staunch supporters boast about the virtues of Kobe beef over the Wagyu beefsteak they ate in Michelin restaurants all over the world. On the other hand, the number of vegetarians outnumbers non-vegetarians in the Congress and Left parties. Hence, it is not surprising that it was the Congress-dominated Constituent Assembly, which introduced the provision for the ban of cow slaughter in the Indian Constitution. It was during the party’s rule that majority of states imposed selective restrictions on the sale of meat.
With India being home to over 10,000 communities with different culinary habits, no uniformity of choice can be imposed by any agency. In a democracy, an elected government enjoys the right to protect the religious sentiments of various sections of society. Ever since vote bank politics became the gravy train to win elections, many parties have used gastronomy as governance to influence voters or retain their core constituencies. For example, the Kerala government doesn’t allow schools to serve mid-day meals during Ramzan, because it may hurt the feelings of Muslims. Similarly, in many North Indian schools, meat is not served in hostels or at government functions. Sticking to mutually acceptable principles and conventions has been the prudent policy of various governments  worldwide. For example, horsemeat is banned in the US. Pork can’t be served or sold in most West Asian counties in deference to the religious beliefs of citizens. In India, 24 of the 29 states have banned cow slaughter. The majority of states permit the sale of beef only in designated places. Last week, when all the five states—Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Haryana —imposed a temporary ban on the sale of meat during the Jain festival period, it was dubbed as a move to restrict the palate preferences of the people. But such bans are imposed periodically in various parts of the country depending upon the local situation. But never before has the country seen such an angry and aggressive protest against it. The BJP is hitting back at its detractors with a vengeance by imposing a ban regime on more and more states.
The uproar over a temporary ban on meat sale in certain parts of the country is also motivated by political, cultural and commercial reasons. India is the fifth largest exporter of beef in the world. As the BJP-led NDA government moves forward on its agenda of imposing a total ban on cow slaughter, it would hurt the massive commercial interests of a section of the trading community. According to some reports, powerful political leaders in Maharashtra and North India clandestinely support the beef mafia, which smuggles cows from India to Bangladesh, where each animal fetches three times its price in India. The ban is not new. But what is novel is the assertion of individual choice of victuals over the feelings of some others. The current confrontation over meat seems less to do with eating habits than the battle between the promoters of Indian faith and heritage and those who want to dilute it in the name of freedom of choice. Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, September 7, 2015

Under Siege for Others' Failure ...... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ September 06, 2015

Under Siege for Others' Failures, Modi Must Win Back Trust of His Core Constituents

Like it or not, Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodar Das Modi is not one who easily forgives or forgets. His assertive actions and proactive policies during the past 16 months have proved he hasn’t forgiven those who are deemed inefficient, politically motivated and place roadblocks in his march to achieving his mission. He has moved, removed and dumped them. Yet, in his endeavour to achieve the maximum in minimum time, the PM and his adjutants seem to have forgotten the many covenants he had made with the people during the 2014 elections. This may be an oversight on his part or has happened because of misplaced trust in many of his ministers and civil servants. As the PM, his performance has been exemplary on the global front. He has restored India’s prestige worldwide. He is seen as a leader who means business. He has sown the seeds of many innovative ideas, which when harvested will make India a world power.

But the Modi establishment has forgotten the PM’s committed constituencies at the cost of pleasing brown nosers. In his 2014 election campaign, Modi had wisely chosen his target audience—farmers, nationalists, students, middle class, business community, retired armymen and corporates. He made it a point to address the grievances of each section and vowed to resolve them soon after coming to power. But 16 months later, the groups, which had taken up Modi’s cause as their own, are experiencing a crisis of faith. They feel his government has not acted enough to address their issues. Since they had made stellar contributions towards getting the BJP seize a majority on its own, they were expecting the NDA to give priority to their demands. Most upset are the over three million-strong retired soldiers and war widows who were convinced that their 40-year-old demand for One Rank, One Pension (OROP) would be accepted by the dispensation they voted for.
Modi began his election campaign from Rewari in Haryana where he addressed a huge rally of defence veterans, whom he assured that his government would meet their legitimate demand for OROP. Through the past year, various BJP leaders, from the PM to party president Amit Shah, have reiterated their commitment to implement it. The delay forced faujis to go on an indefinite fast at Jantar Mantar—India’s  ground zero of protest. What angered them were the excuses trotted out by Cabinet ministers about financial constraints regarding OROP. They fumed when the finance ministry accepted in less than 48 hours a panel report which recommended a repeal of the retrospective Minimum Alternative Tax on Foreign Investment Institutions. India’s defence personnel were wondering why a government that’s ready to forgo over `40,000 crore (a figure not disputed by the government) to keep up the morale of foreigners, could not find `8000-10,000 crore for those who had laid down or risked their lives for the country. They feel North Block has misled the PM about the financial impact of OROP on the exchequer. They were furious with bureaucrats for obstructing its implementation even after Modi’s directive to proceed. The PM was kept in the dark that the OROP fighters were asking for nothing more than what civil servants who belong to All India Services like the IAS and IFS get. Uncouth attempts were made to divide the protesters by planting stories in the media. Ultimately, it was a combined push from saner elements in the BJP and RSS which compelled the government to resolve the issue. But when the government decided to do it, it didn’t reflect its magnanimity.
Apart from the ones in uniform who have retired, India’s youth are also being short-changed. The PM’s vision of creating more jobs has reached nowhere near the launch pad. On the other hand, shoddy handling of the Pune-based FTII irked even Modi’s sworn Bollywood supporters. Many film personalities who were in the forefront of campaigning for ‘Modi for PM’ protested the manner in which young minds were being mishandled. The PM has been engaging students and the youth through national radio and television. But all these popular exercises have not translated into practical action on the ground.
The nation’s youth, accounting for over 50 per cent of India’s cell phone-owning population, are outraged over the frequent call drops, which are almost emptying their pockets. The telecom ministry woke up only when Modi understood the damage it was causing his government. But the ministry is still soft-pedalling on the issue. It has roped in TRAI, which has given further time to mobile companies to set their house in order. Next, the civil aviation ministry remains totally blase about the exorbitant, arbitrary fares being charged by airlines. It is again Modi’s staunch middle class support base, which is feeling the pinch. Despite protests by air travellers, the ministry has been dawdling on the runway. Finally Modi got into the cockpit. But this, too, is unlikely to yield results because ministry officials have always favoured airline bosses.
As the youth and middle class fret about a fruitful future in the Age of Modi, Indian farmers are just as worried about the devastating drought in Maharashtra and Karnataka due to a deficit monsoon. Earlier they were living under the fear of their land being acquired according to a new law. A few senior ministers pushed the Land Bill in such an aggressive manner that they alienated the entire farming community. Finally, it was left to the PM to intervene and save any further erosion of his popularity. But he has to accelerate his vow to bring back black money. The Congress never misses an opportunity to attack Modi for his failure to recover the loot. The apex court has been seeking reports from the finance ministry on the steps taken by the government in this direction. A few senior party functionaries and diehard Modi supporters have approached the court seeking immediate action.
Most surprising is the whispering campaign by top corporates against the Modi government’s inability to revive the economy. The finance ministry’s failure to evolve a consensus on the GST Bill has irked India Inc. They sing paeans of praise for the government in public, but in private they collectively damn India’s economic future by blaming it all on none other than the PM. Unfortunately Modi is under siege for the failure of others in his government. It is not just an accident that his constituents are becoming captives of forgotten promises.; Follow me  on Twitter @PrabhuChawla