Monday, March 28, 2016

As Parties UP the Glam Quotient ...... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard / March 27, 2016

As Parties Up the Glam Quotient, Ideology May Become Fading Star of Indian Politics

BJP named former pacer Sreesanth as its candidate for Thiruvananthapuram
Politics and entertainment have long been brothers—both require a measure of magnetism, a talent for self-promotion and an instinctive feel for media manipulation. No wonder, come election time, the world of politics likes to pull in the stars and the trappings of stardom. Ideological icons fall by the wayside as glamazons from the world of cinema and sports clamber onto political bandwagons for electioneering, and political campaigns morph into entertainment shows. This year promises to be no different. For the elections in five states, even mighty leaders like Narendra Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have despatched their best hunters to scout for cine stars and sports icons as well as literati and chatterati who can expand their share of the political market. In situations where the party has no more than a symbolic presence in the region or state, local celebs, who’re au courant with regional politics, have been roped in to move the electorate.

Last week, the BJP announced that it was fielding former cricketer S Sreesanth as its candidate for Thiruvananthapuram. Since Sreesanth has become known more for match-fixing and dancing than for his medium pace bowling, he was banned for life from playing cricket by the BCCI in 2013. But, clearly, the ruling party at the Centre believes that he is still capable of bowling out its rivals in a state where it’s struggling to open an account.

Now, Tamil Nadu has been dominated by screen stars for the past 50 years, as was undivided Andhra Pradesh (with NT Rama Rao, who was as successful in the political arena as he was in cinema, along with Jayaprada, Chiranjeevi, Mohan Babu, Kota Srinivas Rao and, more recently, Pawan Kalyan). In Tamil Nadu, the state’s biggest film stars created political parties for personal ambition rather than ideology. It was easy, as the charisma of MG Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa easily moved the masses to bring them to power even as many others turned out to be also-rans. Of late, both the Congress and BJP have been struggling to persuade Tamil filmstars like Vijaykanth, who formed the DMDK in 2005, to join them as an ally to increase their political share, but with little success.

In West Bengal and Assam, too, the parties have identified famous persons from sports, art, culture, cinema and society to help them with their electoral mission. The BJP, for instance, has decided to field a member of the Subhas Chandra Bose family against CM Mamata Banerjee. This despite the Bose family having nothing to do with the Sangh Parivar except for the fact that Modi went out of the way to make some secret documents public and hosted the Bose family at 7 RCR.

But then, all political parties without exception have been diluting their declared ideology over the past few decades. The process began with the catapulting of Indira Gandhi to the top in 1969 when she took over the Congress after the first split. The khadi dhoti- and Gandhi cap-wearing leaders were purged and a new crop of people bearing personal loyalty to Indira was drafted into the party. Though the Congress still swore by secularism and Garibi Hatao, Indira was seen as the Congress. Later on, Dev Kant Barooah, the portly and balding party president, redefined the party’s ideology by giving a slogan: Indira is India. Congress leaders of the time insisted that the personality of their leader reflected what the party stood for: socialism, secularism and democracy. Indira Gandhi, for sure, didn’t depend on glamour or corporate leaders to win an election. In fact, the joke at the time was that even a lamp post could win an election if it was backed by her.

It was Rajiv Gandhi who introduced glamour and a corporate culture into the Congress. A natural charmer, he inducted technocrats Arun Singh and Arun Nehru into politics, took India into the 21st century through technology and responsive government, and gave a new twist to Congress’ ideology. But he also relied on glamour from sports and Bollywood. He brought his friend Amitabh Bachchan in to defeat the formidable Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna. Later on, biggies like Rajesh Khanna, Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar, Govinda and Ramya from Karnataka too came in to fight elections on behalf of the party. The Congress was also the first to field former cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as its candidate from Bhopal (but he lost). The trend continues till today, with over a dozen filmstars and sportspersons holding key positions at the Centre or the states.

With Congress using the glam quotient (GQ) to maul its powerful leaders, the BJP also decided to fall back on its fair and lovely supporters. Lal Krishna Advani, a film buff and cricket enthusiast, opened the party doors for both film and sports stars. He brought in Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini from Bollywood and cricketers Navjot Sidhu, Chetan Chauhan and Kirti Azad for their vote-catching capacity. Now the Modi-Shah duo is taking forward the strategy of using GQ to bolster the party’s electoral chances.

The GQ bug has even hit regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and, specially, Aam Aadmi Party, which has mastered the art of roping in the maximum number of local and national icons for expanding its base.

With each party fighting to maximise its GQ, the Indian political establishment has the globe’s largest number of movers and shakers from the glamorous world working for it. With over 40 prominent film personalities and some 20 sportspersons, India is leading the world followed by the Philippines and the US. The UK, the mother of democracy, has been able to absorb less than a dozen leaders from non-political background.  In Europe too, political parties rarely rope in film stars or sportspersons to win elections for them as they feel that the shelf life of the bold and beautiful paratroopers is limited.

Back home in India, however, the story is quite different. This despite the fact that, with the exception of some regional parties, the nation has seen all its ‘political celebrities’ vanishing without leaving any trace of an ideological contribution. If this continues and parties fail to create credible, acceptable leaders from their shrinking base of committed cadres, ideologically led Indian politics will be replaced with musings of egoist leaders and ideologically bankrupt-but-highly successful stars from the film and sports arena rather than the real world of the politics of heat and dust.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, March 21, 2016

Development Card BJP's best Bet..... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ March 20, 2016

Development Card BJP's Best Bet to Stop the Kashmir Valley from Drifting

Mufti (left) and Abdullah

Experiments in political engineering can throw up strange results, as seen in Jammu and Kashmir. In January last year, keeping aside its ‘non-negotiable’ nationalistic ideology, the BJP decided to strike an experimental deal with the pro-separatist Peoples’ Democratic Party of the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Now, after 14 months, the BJP seems to have discovered something rotten in both the taste and odour of the power it has consumed in the state. The experiment of fusion politics, mixing nationalism with separatism, has proven to be a recipe for disaster. Ever since the Mufti died two months ago, his successor Mehbooba Mufti and the BJP leadership have been holding both public and secret parleys to revive the dead alliance. Officially, they have been exuding confidence about the formation of the new coalition government, and yet both have been talking about the lack of a confidence-building road map for a political reunion.

Any alliance made on the basis of convenience rather than conviction, collapses sooner than later. In a state like Jammu and Kashmir, where a love for money and romance with extra-territorial ideas dictate the political narrative, any formation which threatens established social and political order is bound to fail. The BJP has been unsuccessful in imposing its brand of politics and societal practices on the PDP, which survives by supporting and feeding those who oppose the Valley’s integration with India.
The tug of war between the PDP and BJP is not just for grabbing proprietary right to a few power plants or any special package. It is a confrontation of two ideologies and the idea of India. Mehbooba wants J&K to remain emotionally separate from India while the BJP wants to erase all legal, social and economic hurdles and make the Valley a part of the national mainstream.
By joining hands with the PDP, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP Chief Amit Shah expected to restore the secular character of the Valley. They thought they could push the state government to facilitate the safe return of the Kashmiri Pundits, with full liberty to do business and participate in the electoral process. The Centre linked the entire economic package and phased withdrawal of the armed forces with the rehabilitation of the Kashmir Pundits and the tightening of the noose around separatists. But Mehbooba is no Mufti, who could survive on his own charisma and credibility. Indeed, she has acquired political legitimacy only by pandering to the sentiments and tears of those whose relatives have died while participating in attacks on civilians and Indian Army personnel. She has realised that by staying with the BJP, she will lose her traditional support base.
The current constitutional crisis in the Valley is also a manifestation of the confrontation between two political dynasties led by Mehbooba and Omar Abdullah. Both of them are competing with each other in painting the BJP as a threat to the autonomy and welfare of the Kashmiri people. Both of them are determined to marginalise the role of national parties such as the Congress and BJP. While the Abdullahs have been a part of national politics, Mehbooba has always confined herself to the Valley. The Abdullahs also enjoy the support of a small section of the Hindu minority in the Valley and Jammu region while Mufti survives only on Muslim backing in the Valley.
It is, however, the complete failure of both the Congress and BJP to erode the core constituency of the National Conference (NC) and PDP. Even after 69 years of Independence, a substantial majority of Kashmiris are hostile to the idea of calling themselves Indian. The Congress has ruled the state for 12 years alone and over 50 years as part of a coalition or with the support of a regional party. The Abdullahs ran the state for over two decades. If one includes 10 years of Congress-backed NC rebel Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the NC was in command of the sensitive state for almost 30 years.
Pakistan has never accepted the reality of Jammu and Kashmir as part of the Indian Republic, and till 1990, has supported and financed the separatists. When it failed to destabilise the state, it started armed infiltration and used local operatives to bomb and kill civilians and army personnel. The Centre’s attempt to use governors for neutralising extreme elements also failed. Even the current governor Narendra Nath Vohra, a favourite of every party, has not succeeded in diluting the impact of the separatists by ensuring proper development of the state by using his charm over the local government. On the other hand, Pakistan’s objective was to halt the economic development of the state and sow the seeds of terror. It has succeeded. In spite of liberal money flow from New Delhi, the state’s GDP rose by less than 1 per cent during 2014-15 down from over 13 per cent the previous year. The lack of development and misuse of funds have generated more unemployment and have pushed the youth into the hands of anti-national elements.
But development has never been a glue that’s bonded ideologically opposed political parties. With Pakistan in a mood to talk, the best solution open for the BJP is to play the development card, treat separatists as enemies of the state, and appoint a governor who bothers far more about greater governance rather than his own survival. In the past seven decades, instead of coming closer to India, the Valley has drifted into the black hole of politics of opportunism and convenience. If matters remain the way they are, the black hole will seal itself and darkness will endlessly prevail. 

PS: Last week I wrote about why Modi adores Sri Sri. Last week, Art of Living Guru took to Twitter to prove his worldwide acceptability. He tweeted twice as follows:
19/03/16, 1:35 am: The World Culture Festival had 767,436 locations in 188 countries viewing the webcast according to our webcast partner, Livestream’s report.
The social media partner reported 1.4 bn impressions on Twitter & 30 mn engagements on Facebook during the World Culture Festival.
For Modi, visibility on social media is an accelerator that keeps him going.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, March 14, 2016

For Brand Modi, Endorsing ..... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ March 13, 2016

For Brand Modi, Endorsing New Age Gurus Tiny Price to Win Over Classes and Masses Alike

There’s no business like the godmen business, they say, with no fixed working hours, exotic travel, much public adulation, and no need for a shave every morning. 

No wonder, saints and self-styled godpersons have been around from time immemorial, most of them symbols of sacrifice and wisdom. Some made mountains and caves their natural habitat. Others lived in palaces and forts, as advisers to the throne, with kings and queens running to them for salvation and solutions. 

Today, in the 21st century, we still have gurus and preachers of all shades and faiths, and with solid community, caste or religion support. If yesterday, they were courted by royalty, today they enjoy the patronage and protection of the kings of polity. For, they represent vote banks and mould public opinion. From Punjab to Kerala, from Gujarat to Assam, the nation is dotted with men and women who act as spiritual advisers to the ruling classes and a source of inspiration for the masses. In the process, some of them acquire the image of kingmakers or influencers of government policies.

Consider Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev, who have done some admirable work in their respective fields. Their ever-growing visibility and clout in the current political dispensation is an indication of the renewed importance of the guru in the establishment. Both have easy access to the nation’s high and mighty; both have followers across political parties. Corporates, Bollywood stars, even diplomats, stand in awe of them and touch their feet. 

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not indifferent to their lure. Indeed, the duo provides him easy access to two extreme ends of the Indian social milieu and a huge audience that the Prime Minister loves to engage with. Last week, when Modi chose to attend, and address, the World Cultural Festival (WCF) on the banks of the Yamuna in New Delhi, it reinforced the relevance, effectiveness, acceptability and credibility of India’s saintly symbolism. By spending over three hours at the venue, Modi left no one in doubt that his faith in Sri Sri and his Art of Living (AoL) foundation was unshakable. Not only did Modi and his ministers dismiss with contempt all criticism of the event, they ensured that the entire might of the state was mobilised to make WCF a grand success. Modi, in fact, called WCF a Kumbh of all cultures. Harking back to history, the Prime Minister addressed Sri Sri as Parampujniya Guruji (most revered) and said, “This is the Kumbh Mela of culture. Through Art of Living, the world has got to know about India. I remember a reception by the Art of Living family in Mongolia. We are all linked not only by economy but also by culture.” 

Much like the maharajas of yore, Modi clearly understands the utility of the new-age gurus. Known for his attention to detail, the Prime Minister knows that both the AoL chief and Ramdev represent the pulse of two major social groups. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar connects him with an upmarket, global following. Indeed, among Sri Sri’s disciples and admirers are the chatterati and upper middle class of all parts of India as well as leaders from the Western world and Muslim-dominated West Asia. He also has a huge following in South India. Above all, his organisation possesses huge skills and expertise in mobilising large numbers of people in many parts of the world. Given that Modi has been targeting the Indian diaspora and people of influence during his foreign visits, he finds in AoL a natural ally.  Ever since Modi took over as Prime Minister in 2014 (when Sri Sri was one of the few spiritual leaders to come out in his support), AoL has been connecting him with many international leaders. Though Ravi Shankar’s posturing on Indo-Pak relations may be at variance with that of the Prime Minister and Sangh Parivar, Modi has allowed the AoL guru to pursue people-to-people contact with Pakistan. AoL also has powerful connections in Jammu and Kashmir, where it is considered to be the most secular link with the ruling party at the Centre. 

If Ravi Shankar is useful to the Prime Minister owing to his connection with the world and liberal India, Baba Ramdev delivers to Modi the rural and urban poor and middle class. The Baba, who belongs to a backward class and has made ‘Everything Desi’ his mantra for success, is one of the rare spiritual leaders with hardly any formal education and training. The 50-year-old guru started his Patanjali Institute to bring yoga to the common man and, within a period of two decades, has acquired over 25 million followers across the country. His yoga camps are attended by over 10,000 people daily. While Sri Sri promotes breathing as an instrument of wellness, Ramdev emphasises on physical exercises. In the past few years, Modi has been a frequent visitor to Ramdev’s ashram in Haridwar and has always invited the Baba for any important official function held in connection with spirituality. 

There may be a connection of conviction between Ramdev and Sri Sri and the Prime Minister, but critics believe the relationship is based on an understanding of mutual advantage. Modi detractors have already charged the NDA government with doling out huge financial and other concessions to both the gurus. For the New Delhi event, they point out, the Union government not only gave a massive grant, but it also deployed the Army to create the infrastructure at the venue. Now, with AoL beginning the sale of daily use products like mineral water and toothpaste, their suspicions are even more heightened. On his part, Ramdev has never hidden his commercial interests. His swadeshi Pathanjali has taken on well-established multinationals selling FMCGs and hawks energy drinks, beauty creams and yoga DVDs. Various government agencies, including the defence ministry, are among his clients. 

Given their huge fan following and resources, both AoL and Patanjali’s dependence on the government is quite baffling and erodes their credibility. But for Brand Modi, it is a tiny price to pay for the endorsement of Sri Sri and Ramdev who mesmerise a substantive section of Indians, here and abroad.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, March 7, 2016

Assembly Polls will decide ...... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ March 06, 2016

Assembly Polls Will Decide Which Way the Fortune Cookie Crumbles for the Big Five

(From left) Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanadhi and Mamata Banerjee
(From left) Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanadhi and Mamata Banerjee

Opportunism trumps ideology, come election time. The axiom appears to be metamorphosising into a fact in the ongoing countdown for the Assembly elections. During the next few weeks, over 170 million voters in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will vote and elect 824 new leaders. But, even before a single nomination has been filed in any of the states, political parties and their supreme leaders have begun looking for new allies and causes for seeking a legitimate mandate. Since politics is the art of converting symbolic-egotistic impossibility into a remunerative possibility, the leaders are working on a negative agenda, where the others’ defeat is more important than their own victory.

In Tamil Nadu, the Karunanidhi clan wants to dislodge current Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa by forging an alliance with those who have hardly anything in common with the DMK, including caste or religion. In West Bengal, the Reds have gone forth and merged with the tricolour to defeat Mamata Didi. Never before has a formal alliance between the Marxists and Congress taken place in the state just to trounce a ruling political deity. In Kerala, the BJP is out to cohabit with caste-led small parties only to stop both the United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic front from grabbing power. The BJP doesn’t and can’t become the ruling party in the state but, in anticipation of a photofinish outcome, it wants to win at least a couple of seats and thereby play kingmaker. In Assam too, the BJP is confident of forming its first legitimately elected government in the Northeast by polarising the entire electorate along regional and communal lines. It has been able to instal a rebel Congress government in Arunanchal Pradesh by breaking it. In Assam too, the BJP has split the Congress by admitting a large number of partymen during the past few months.

A prerequisite to winning the battle for ballots is a meticulous deployment of logical contours and formations. Hence, breaking parties matters more than projecting an alternative leader or an agenda for governance. From Thiruvananthapuram to Guwahati, thus, political parties have unleashed deal-makers to strike visible and invisible deals with caste dons, religious gurus, corporate promoters and local opinion-makers to market their parties. But none of them have put forth even a strategy that’s synchronised with its ideology or leadership for seeking the mandate.

The outcome of the coming elections has serious implications for five individuals: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, DMK chief Karunanidhi, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. All of them have points to prove. But the stake is especially high for the BJP, which is still battling the dilemma of whether or not to fight the elections in the name of the Prime Minister. Of the 824 Assembly seats, the BJP won less than double digits during the 2011 state elections. Riding on the massive Modi wave, however, the party led over its rivals in 114 Assembly segments in the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Currently, the BJP has the highest number of about 1,000 MLAs in all the states put together; that is some 100 more than the Congress. 

But the BJP doesn’t expect to form the government in any of the states except Assam. It is neither a ruling party nor an influential group in any of these states. After its ignonimous defeat in Delhi and Bihar, Shah and his team need to reverse the downward turn in the electoral fortunes of the party. The beating in the two northern states was seen as a mark of the diminishing appeal of the Prime Minister and the fallibility of Shah as master strategist. 

But the saffron party doesn’t have a single local leader in any one of the four states, much like Bihar and Delhi. In fact, it is confronted with formidable local leaders. Even a 79-year-old chief minister like Tarun Gagoi is giving the BJP a serious fight in Assam after remaining in power for just over a decade. Though the BJP has formally forged an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and appointed a new state party chief, it is still depending on the Congress rebels to give it a majority. Buoyed by winning seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the BJP is confident of forming a government on its own. The party led in 79 of the 126 Assembly segments during the Lok Sabha elections although it had won barely five seats in 2011. Its share of popular votes rose tremendously from 11.45  per cent in 2011 to 36.50 per cent in 2014. 

According to party managers, both Modi and Shah have decided to move manpower and resources to Assam and win it at any cost. Though it has indirectly projected Union Minister of State for Sports Sarbananda Sonawal as its chief ministerial candidate against Gogoi, it dreads an unprecedented backlash from the Muslim community, which determines the outcome in about 30 seats. The Muslim-dominated AIUDF won 16 of the minority seats and led in 24 segments in 2014. The Congress party is already trying to strike a strategic alliance with the Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF to defeat the BJP+AGP combination. West Bengal’s case is more dire. There, the BJP is faced with the same threat of polarisation of votes along religious lines to prevent the division of anti-Mamata votes. The party has only one MLA in the current Assembly and has not been able to groom a state-level leader even after leading in 24 Assembly segments. In southern states, the party is conspicuous by its token presence outside the state Assemblies. 

Well, 2016 is not 2014 when Narendra Damodardas Modi was taller than all the other leaders put together. In 2016, he may still be the tallest leader individually, but the BJP has failed to create anyone who can stand up to the likes of Mamata, Jayalalithaa and Nitish Kumar. Going by the early signals, both Mamata and Jayalalithaa are likely to romp home with handsome victories while the Left may stage a comeback in Kerala. For the BJP to prove to the country that the Modi-Shah partnership wasn’t a one-knock wonder, it needs to beat or at least repeat its 2014 Lok Sabha performance in terms of vote share.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla