Asian Correspondent » Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Violence flares in India as election race heats up Thu, 06 Mar 2014 04:01:07 +0000

A BJP activist throws a rock at AAP supporters as they clash outside the BJP office in New Delhi, India, Wednesday. Pic: AP.

On Wednesday this week, almost two hours after India’s official election body announced the details of a nine-phase mammoth general election to elect 543 lawmakers to begin on April 7, nouveau-politician Arvind Kejriwal was stopped by the Gujarat police as he staged a road show. The leader of India’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) embarked earlier in the morning on a campaign trail in what can be euphemistically called the lion’s den: the political bastion of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJ{) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

What followed is immaterial. What matters is the perception that Modi is showing signs of nerves as Kejriwal’s road show was obstructed by an administration under his charge. Two hours later still, violence erupted in New Delhi when AAP volunteers clashed with BJP workers after the former protested at the BJP office to demonstrate against Kejriwal’s detention. Reports followed of sporadic violence from other cities of north India.

BJP leaders are clearly on the back foot. One of them claimed that the Congress party was using AAP to stop Narendra Modi. The BJP, past masters for over a quarter of a century in playing on the sentiment of victimhood, rediscovered the virtue of this ploy. However, this time the ‘victim’ is Modi, a leader who until the other day was being projected as an Indian-style Rambo.

This episode involving two men who are obvious contenders for the top job indicates that the forthcoming election is unlikely to be a tepid affair; it could turn violent, both verbally and physically. Normally, tensions don’t overflow until polling day, but there are indications that police and security forces have tough months ahead. However, with large parts of India, including the national capital, being under political control of the Congress party, there is a possibility that the situation may be allowed deteriorate. This in any case appears to be the main hope for the Congress to perform creditably.

(MORE: India readies for the biggest election on earth)

It needs to be reiterated that the parliamentary election still remains multi-polar with the top two or three parties unlikely to win many more than 300 odd seats between them. This means that a huge block of almost 250 seats will be bagged by regional parties or smaller national parties like the communists. The distribution of seats among the top three parties that is uncertain and making any projections have become extremely difficult at this stage.

The AAP is of recent vintage and grew out of the anti-graft movement of 2011. The formation of the party was mired in controversy because the main leader of the movement, Anna Hazare, refused to join it. But the new party fired the imagination of voters in state elections in New Delhi in December last and formed the local government. It was a political ploy because AAP did not have a majority and it opted to quit the government after being disallowed form passing the anti-graft laws which the central government argued was beyond the powers of the local government.

AAP and the anti-corruption movement have been at times seen as India’s Tahrir Square. But its leaders tried blending street politics with intervention in parliamentary elections. It has attempted what has not been done for more than two decades: contest elections on a shoe-string budget, raise money from small donations and not through corporate donations. In the process, it has tried to make those who have been denied the benefits of India’s economic liberalization programme stakeholders in the electoral process.

In this squabble involving BJP and AAP, the Congress would like to see for itself a chance to stage a comeback. In the electoral race, the party which has led the ruling coalition for a decade is having a tough time catching up with the BJP which secured an early lead with Modi at the helm. But with the entry of AAP and Kejriwal’s repeated challenges to Modi that he will contest directly against him, the BJP juggernaut is definitely at a crossroads. So far, the BJP campaign ignored the AAP. After violent clashes between workers of the two parties, Modi and his party leaders can no longer ignore the threat. The biggest threat to BJP comes from AAP in urban majority seats that account for almost 20 percent of the total constituencies. Any seat that the AAP wins from this category will essentially mean a direct decrease in the BJP tally. AAP may eventually decide if Modi becomes Prime Minister or not.

What appeared to be a fairly straight story as projected by opinion polls and surveys so far has suddenly become more complex. It is still anyone’s game.

]]> 20
India readies for the biggest election on earth Mon, 24 Feb 2014 06:11:59 +0000

Arvind Kejriwal, center, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, or the Common Man's Party, looks at an auto rickshaw displaying a poster in support of his party. Pic: AP.

In less than eight weeks, India will be in the middle of a boisterous election campaign. In another few weeks – by the end of May, India will have a new government. In a land of serial elections that take place over a number of weeks, the impending parliamentary election is truly big one.

For starters, this will be a parliamentary poll, not a round to elect provincial governments. The numbers are huge: 815 million voters are eligible to vote to elect 543 lawmakers. The numbers of registered voters has gone up dramatically by almost a hundred million from 716.9 million in 2009 when the last parliamentary poll was held.

What makes it particularly significant in 2014 is that nearly 20% – 163 million – of voters will be first time voters in the age group of 18-25. This is the demographic group that has, in the years it acquired political consciousness, been brought up on the staple diet of discourse on policy paralysis and corruption in high places. This fact suggests it will be very difficult for the present ruling coalition to return to power.

As India prepares to go to the polls, it is worth recalling some significant facts. Since 1984, no single party has secured a majority. That time the Congress party romped home by the highest ever majority following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The closest that any party came to securing a majority since then was in 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by alleged Tamil militant groups fighting for independence in Sri Lanka.

From 1989, India has been governed by either coalition governments or – like in 1991 – by a minority government. Part of this has been attributed to Indian politics becoming more fragmented, rising political aspirations of the hitherto underprivileged and the collapse of the traditional party system. In recent decades, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a significant party and has been in power once for six years at the head of a coalition government. The party is making a determined bid this time to return to the government after a shock defeat in 2004 resulted in it being out of power for a whole decade.

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

Indian parliamentary elections have in recent years taken on the colour of the American presidential style of polls. As a result, the prime ministerial candidates of the main parties have attracted both media and public attention. Until a few months ago, it appeared that elections in 2014 would be a two-horse race with Narendra Modi of the BJP and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party as the two principal candidates.

There was considerable opposition to Modi even within his ranks, because of alleged complicity in riots that erupted in Gujarat – the state he has governed for the past 13 years – in March 2002 after the torching of a train that killed 59 Hindu activists returning from the site of a major religious dispute that was initially instrumental in pitchforking BJP from being a peripheral political force to a significant party.

Until December last, various opinion polls and surveys suggested that Modi was forging ahead as his personal popularity soared. He was seen as a pro-development leader who had the capacity for firm action and was personally incorruptible. The three attributes attracted India’s burgeoning middle classes that were badly hit by the slowdown in the Indian economy on the one hand and were incensed by allegations of rampant corruption in government on the other.

Rahul Gandhi, for all his earnestness, was seen as a leader whose sincerity had few takers even within his own party. But in December the two-horse race suddenly appeared to change its course as a new entrant  entered the fray. This development was the result of the dramatic performance of the Aam Aadmi Party – Common Man Party – which was formed just months prior to state elections in New Delhi. Coming close on the heels of a public uprising in support of an anti-graft agitation in 2011 and a gigantic protests after the brutal gang rape of a young girl in December 2012, the AAP suddenly queered the pitch because of fears that its success in the national capital could have a spiralling affect in other urban majority seats, potentially 70-90 of the total seats up for grabs.

Though it is too early to correctly make an assessment, it is evident that BJP will be entering the fray with fewer allies than in the past. The same appears to be the case of Congress party as association with the Grand Old Party of Indian politics is now being considered a liability and not a benefit. This naturally makes the regional and other smaller parties that are expected to win anything between 220-250 seats very significant players, even though internationally the spotlight is rarely on them.

These are still early days in the election. In Indian elections dramatic developments are known to change the course of the narrative suddenly. As elections come closer, it will be possible to gaze into a crystal ball more sharply.

]]> 1
India: Tejpal rape allegations bring Tehelka to its knees Thu, 28 Nov 2013 03:00:16 +0000

Journalists and analysts in India often commented that economic liberalisation, ushered in in the early 1990s when present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was finance minister, brought about a fundamental change in the nation’s value system: money-making stopped being a dirty word and those in pursuit of mammon were no longer considered as enemies of people. As the notorious license-quota Raj (euphemism for state control) was defanged, businesses ventured into areas that were not their core specialisation. First generation entrepreneurs also stepped outside the confines of secure jobs to chance luck, abilities and tenacity to make inroads into what had until then been a closed club. Over time, the first-timers also included media entrepreneurs who launched ambitious projects.

Tarun Tejpal was among those few journalists and writers who stepped into a realm where few of his tribe had. Riding on the first wave of the Internet boom, he launched a website in March 2000 which showed its capacity to sting with an explosive story based on clandestinely recorded interview with cricketers and officials to unearth the dirty business of match fixing in India and abroad. A year later he was back with a similar sting operation showing the murky world of defence deals. It showed the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which headed India’s coalition government at that time, as accepting a wad of currency notes from decoy reporters who posed as representatives of an arms manufacturer.

Tarun Tejpal. Pic: AP.

In the 13 years since its inception, the website has transformed into a weekly magazine and has positioned itself as a moral authority in India. It is called Tehelka – a Hindustani word loosely translatable as uproar, storm or furore. For over a week this is exactly what the magazine has created, but for non-journalistic reasons as celebrity editor and promoter of the magazine, Tarun Tejpal, has been accused of rape by a female colleague – also a close friend of his eldest daughter – still in her early 20s.

What makes matters tougher for Tejpal is that he is accused of sexual predation in Goa on the night when he was flanked by Robert De Niro and Amitabh Bachchan at the THiNK 2013, an orgy of intellectual platitudes by lavishly hosted celebrities and thinkers with tabs picked up by a bevy of corporates. Tehelka’s female staffers chaperone guests and the girl who has survived Tejpal’s assault was a reporter assigned to escort De Niro and his daughter. She has since resigned her job to join the growing list of colleagues who have put in their papers in protest.

Tejpal faces torturous months – probably years – in police stations, lockups and jails as India made its anti-rape laws more stringent after the gang rape and murder of a young girl in capital, Delhi, in December 2013. The amended law, whose rules are not yet formally notified, widens the definition of rape and this includes the acts which Tejpal’s colleague has accused him of. A basic reading of the amended law reveals that any person found guilty of the charges that Tejpal is accused of would face anything between 10 years to a life term in prison.

Tejpal and Tehelka’s story is not just a narrative that began as a considered sexual harassment and later snowballed into gory rape where two basic power equations have been used to subjugate a victim: the relationship between an employer and a subordinate; and the other with a woman who was both a friend’s daughter and a daughter’s friend. In the Indian context, the latter borders on incest, which though widely prevalent is not approved.

While the Tejpal case has focussed attention on sexual harassment so rampant in Indian media with few institutional avenues of redressal, the issue has also brought to fore several dubious business deals of the promoter who it now transpires is no longer the majority shareholder of the magazine he started. Instead, the onetime loss-making venture is now bank rolled by a businessman who has also reportedly bought his way into Indian Parliament. It has also come to light that though Tejpal used the infrastructure and brand name of Tehelka for the Goa bash, it was organised by a firm in which he hold eighty percent of the equity. The other 20 percent was split evenly between his sister and his managing editor, who is among the few senior colleagues who have stayed on since the magazine’s launch. It is this company which pockets the handsome profit it makes.

Tejpal also partnered a liquor baron who was murdered in 2012 in an internecine feud. The partnership was for an elite salon in India’s capital where select well-heeled Indian urbanites could share “great intimacy” with important people amid flowing fine drinks and exquisite cuisine. This club, currently being renovated in an upmarket Delhi locality, is to be named Prufrock – probably after TS Eliot’s poem..

The Tejpal case also has its share of political controversy because of the pronounced anti-BJP stance of the magazine and its role in shaping the discourse after the 2002 Gujarat riots. This was done with the help of several watershed reports that pinned the blame on the administration led by the party’s prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi. Supporters of Tejpal have argued that there is a BJP hand in his woes and the BJP is claiming that there is a Congress party-driven cover-up operation being mounted.

Regardless of the course of the legal travails of Tejpal, Tehelka’s public image has been badly dented and the crusader has been presented as morally corrupt. Ironically, the day after the first of the two episodes of alleged sexual aggression by Tejpal, the Goa bash was deliberating on the trauma of rape and on stage were some rape survivors in a discussion moderated by Tehelka’s managing editor, who though being a woman, has been accused of attempting  to hustle together a private treaty between Tejpal and the young journalist. It surely will be a long haul for Tejpal, but it’s too early to say if Tehelka will be able to recover and regain its moral authority. Reports day it is not yet clear if the next issue will be published soon.

]]> 1
India: Rivals turn up heat on Modi with snooping revelations Thu, 21 Nov 2013 03:20:22 +0000

Traditionally in India, private lives of political leaders have never entered the public domain. However, from the years immediately after independence, information about private lives – especially related to affairs of the body and heart – was always in circulation. But this flow of information was only within the power elite of the country – be it the political, economic or media. Ordinary citizens of the country had to do with salacious gossip, which some dropouts from elite circles would circulate. This is how peccadillo tales of several leaders came into circulation, including Indira Gandhi’s whose nonexistent marriage from the 1950s was well known.

Writers and journalists when writing about Indian politics and its leaders had to decide which gossip was allowed to creep into their writings. When working on an ‘unauthorised’ biography of India’s most controversial contemporary leader, Narendra Modi, I decided to limit myself to material available in the public domain regarding Modi’s personal life. In the course of researching on the wife with whom he never cohabited and a charge by the husband of one of Modi’s cabinet colleagues, accusing him of destroying his marriage, bits of gossip did filter in. But these were kept out because not a word had been written or was available in the public domain.

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

Last week, however, this changed and has snowballed into a raging controversy with one section stirring up the matter politically and the other spreading the joke that the iconic Hindi film of the 1960s, Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam, now has a Gujarati remake. The reference was to the purported recording of a conversation between Modi’s Sancho Panza, Amit Shah and a police officer. What has stirred controversy is that Shah, then the minister for internal security in the state, is giving instructions to the officer, then the chief of the anti-terrorist squad, to keep a young woman under surveillance because the ‘saheb’ (boss) was interested in this matter.

This conversation is now being sought to be made part of the judicial process in the maze of cases that relate to the Gujarat riots of 2002. The leak of the recording to two web portals has obviously come from sources in the Central Bureau of Investigations which was handed the files by GL Singhal, an accused in a key case of extra-judicial killing. What has further mired the pitch for Modi is the charge of another senior officer under suspension after his relations with Modi soured, that his sacking was because he had knowledge of the relationship of the girl under surveillance with political higher ups.

The Congress party has seized this moment to allege that a letter from the young woman’s father which has been circulated by the Bharatiya Janata Party shows that instead of providing protection, the police action indicated surveillance and violation of the woman’s privacy.

Some of what is being purported in the stories and gossip circulating currently in power circles in India matches tales one has heard. There are obvious questions that surface, besides the obvious ones regarding the Modi’s administration mixing up protection with intrusion. There are also issues of relevant clearances, if they were taken at all, before making available public resources for satisfying whims of the unnamed ‘saheb’.

No one has asked as yet, but questions will surely be asked regarding the reasons behind the proximity of the suspended officer, Pradeep Sharma, with the chief minister who at that time had not become the powerful figure that he is now. The present episode has brought out into the public domain a facet of Modi’s persona which to date has been kept under wraps.

This may not have a negative impact on Modi’s popularity, but the course could become rougher if more scandals come out and they are backed by evidence of extra-legal activities ordered directly or indirectly by Modi. Even if his direct culpability is not established, any indiscretion on the part of the administrative machinery under him is going to show him in negative light.

As far as his political journey is concerned, the episode of the snooping on the young woman is the first bump in the smooth ride Modi has had so far. As he enters the thick of the campaign for next year’s election in a few months, the Congress and other adversaries will leave no stone unturned to cast an aspersion or two.

But more importantly, with this episode, India political morality has probably turned a corner and the rivals will no longer hesitate to keep private matters wrapped for limited circulation. The genie is out of the bottle!

]]> 0
India’s ‘Third Front’ shakes up political landscape Mon, 04 Nov 2013 05:10:53 +0000

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

In the run up to the parliamentary polls in India, almost all political parties have embarked on an early campaign. This is being nosedived into the rounds already being made by political parties and leaders for local elections in four key north Indian states in November-December. While so far the race has essentially been a two-horse race with the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party leading small clusters of political parties as their electoral partners, the pitch has been queered by the entry of 17 political parties who are threatening to make a common cause. Last week they came together on a joint platform at the Convention for People’s Unity Against Communalism. Though the prospects for the formation of a pan-Indian political alliance distinct from the ones led by the Congress and BJP – as a natural follow-up of this meet – appears remote at this stage, but the coming together is cause for worry for the two largest parties.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Gujarat state chief Minister Narendra Modi at an inauguration event in Ahmadabad last week. Pic: AP.

The reason for unease in the Congress and BJP is that in the Indian political lexicon, anti-communalism means a stance against the BJP. Communalism in India is the word that describes religious sectarianism and its use in politics by parties. The reason for the BJP’s discomfort is that of the 17 parties present in the Capital’s grouping on October 30, it was hoping for an electoral alliance with at least a couple of them. In contrast to this, the Congress fears a division in the anti-BJP vote if the new grouping goes its own way and parties stay away from the alliance led by it. This would result in a split in the anti-BJP vote in several crucial states and would benefit the saffron party and its leader, the extreme Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Already, the Nationalist Congress Party – a member of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government and an electoral partner of the Congress in the crucial state of Maharashtra, which at 48 elects the second largest brigade to Parliament – joined the Convention in New Delhi sending shock waves down the ruling party.

Part of the reason for the so-called Third Front still being a romantic draw is that it is often posited as the morally correct counter to a corruption-ridden Congress party and the communally-oriented BJP which continues to pursue the policy of social polarization. India has in the past had six prime ministers who can be said to have been part of the political forces that either back or are part of this Third Front. It is a different matter that none of these governments lasted full terms and collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

In the almost 10 months since it became evident that Modi would lead the BJP charge to the political citadel, the BJP has not gained any new ally, lost one crucial partner yet has won in strength purely on the basis of the rising popularity of its electoral mascot. In contrast, the Congress has failed to pull its act together and has continued on the slide downward. Despite this, the BJP is yet to reach a position of safety and most surveys and estimates fathom that even in a best-case scenario, the party is going to be significantly short of a majority on its own.

In a House of 543 members, the role of the so-called Third Front could become pivotal to government formation if the combined strength of the BJP and the Congress hovers around the 300 mark – give or take a few seats. In case the BJP or the Congress forms a national coalition, it is essential to win upward of 200 seats if they wish to avoid coalition partners from breathing down its neck. Since coalitions became inevitable in India from the mid-1990s, the Congress managed to win more than 200 seats just once – in 2009, while the BJP stayed a neat 10 per cent below this in 1998 and 1999, the two occasions when it headed a government at the Centre with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister.

The BJP under Modi will expect to go beyond that mark and thereby negate the antipathy towards him and also force other parties to come to the negotiation table after the elections on the terms set by the BJP. Even those smaller parties that are traditionally anti-Congress because the Congress is their principal adversary remain wary of the BJP and Modi because of the fear of losing the minority vote and also because of being subsumed by the BJP in the event of pan-Indian support for him.

The 17-party grouping at the moment is most importantly an attempt on the part of the regional parties to retain their political bases by sending a signal to supporters that they are not isolated from the national mainstream. As of now, it appears that despite outward signs, chances are high that the 2014 election will be marked by fewer pre-poll alliances and more explorations in post-poll negotiations for forming a government. Parties would like to get the maximum number of seats in their bag before sitting to negotiate government formation.

]]> 0
Analysis: Patna blasts deepen India’s political and religious divides Tue, 29 Oct 2013 06:06:41 +0000

More than one day after the serial blasts executed by suspected terrorists in Patna at the venue of the campaign meeting of extreme Hindu nationalist leader and prime ministerial nominee of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi, Indian political leaders are busy trading snide comments instead of worrying over the possibility of the forthcoming election being held in the shadow of terrorist threats.

A series of blasts in Patna on Sunday left six people dead and over 80 injured, hours before the Gujarat Chief Minister addressed a massive crowd in the state capital where the BJP was a part of the coalition until June. What has queered the pitch is the fact that Bihar Chief Minister and Modis bête noire, Nitish Kumar, has been locked in a war of words with opponents after reports surfaced that Indian intelligence agencies forewarned his administration of a possible terrorist strike.

Plumes of gray smoke swirl above the crowd after one of a series of small bombs exploded near the venue of a rally by India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Patna, India, Sunday. Pic: AP.

The BJP is campaigning that the anti-Modi campaign is so virulent that its opponents are paying scant attention to his security. They cite the fact that Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde attended a film-related event in Mumbai hours after the serial blasts claimed several lives. Though Shinde justified the act, saying he was directly in touch with top officials who were briefing him about the developments in Patna, his explanation did not cut much ice.

Noted social scientist and celebrity author, Ram Guha, tweeted on Monday: “To nominate India’s best ever Home Minister is easy (Sardar Patel); as for the worst, Mr Shinde and Mr Shivraj Patil must be contenders.” For the uninitiated, Patil was the custodian of India’s security during several macabre terrorist strikes from 2004, including the attacks of 26/11 in Mumbai. Among other indiscretions, Patil was known for changing his spotless while suits when going from one site of a terrorist attack to another and changing again before going to the hospital to check up the injured.

However, security in India is a state subject, because of which the state government is being faulted for not drawing up a detailed security plan for Modi’s rally despite knowing that the state capital would be swamped with people. The police did not draw up an evacuation plan despite the ground being packed with more than two million people. Moreover, there were only a few security check points and almost no metal detectors. No wonder the serial blasts occurred with such ease.

There are two deep implications of the serial blasts: the first obviously suggests the possibility of terror lurking behind each and every meeting of political leaders, particularly the BJP. Over the years, India has witnessed has seen the emergence of several homegrown terror groups owing allegiance mainly to Islamists – Sunday’s incident is being ascribed to the Indian Mujahideen. There are alleged Hindu terror groups but most security analysts argue that they have not been able to develop the wherewithal for such coordinated multiple strikes. Moreover, due to the state offensive on alleged ‘saffron terror’, most such groups are in disarray.

The second implication is that Sunday’s terror strikes will further consolidate support for Modi and the BJP. Without invoking any hate speech, the turn of events is bound to further deepen prejudices and widen social cleavages on the basis of religious identity. On Sunday, Modi argued that Hindus and Muslims must unite to fight poverty. He also cited comparative figures to claim that Muslims in Gujarat were more prosperous than in Bihar. However, Modi glossed over the fact that out of the estimated six million Muslims in the state under his administrative and political control, more than 10 per cent of them live in probably India’s largest Muslim ghetto, Juhapura – located on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

Civic amenities in this overgrown slum are non-existent even though the population accounts for among the richest and the poorest Muslims of the city. Most moved there after the riots in 2002 because they felt more secure in living in areas where Hindus do not go.

But the Patna meeting did provide an insight into the unfolding strategy of Modi. Given the fact that he does not have to resort to unreason and politics of prejudice, Modi is clearly going to go the extra mile to sound reasonable and one who is extending his hand to estranged communities. Despite this, the cleavage in society will become wider because the politics which has resulted in such schisms now runs too deep in India.

As a result, the other participant in what is so far a two-horse race – Rahul Gandhi – is in a spot of bother over what tactics he should adopt. Should his strategy be to attack Modi or should he sidestep his adversary and raise basic issues which may concern people? So far Gandhi has vacillated between the two options and this lack of consistency is the cause for results not being encouraging.

India has three categories of voters – those who decide early, those who make up their minds in the course of the campaign and the last lot who decide with whom to cast their lot in the dying stages of the campaign. In the campaign so far, Modi has established a significant lead over Gandhi and other aspirants for the top spot. It remains to be seen if he is able to keep up the momentum or whether his chief adversary be able to pull a surprise. There is no denying that events like the Patna serial blasts will help to take Modi closer to realising his ambition of becoming prime minister of India.

]]> 0
Will Indian PM Singh boycott Sri Lanka Commonwealth summit? Mon, 21 Oct 2013 05:21:35 +0000

Probably for the first time in Indian politics, the prime minister’s decision to attend a Summit-level meeting of a multilateral body is likely to be dictated by domestic pressure, which has become acute in an election year. This underscores the growing fragility of the Indian government and also the increasing weakness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Pic: AP.

The Summit in question is the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, November 15-17. What has complicated matters for New Delhi is that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will boycott the high profile meeting of the body. He has cited Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate human rights violations during and after the 29-year civil war that fractured the island nation. The Canadian government has also consistently argued that there is continuing erosion of democratic freedoms under the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Though Sri Lankan and many Indian Tamils have applauded Harper’s actions, they are critical of Australia and Britain whose premiers have indicated that they will board flights to Colombo in November. These groups, who also have backers among human rights groups, have accused Canberra and London of putting domestic political concerns ahead of Commonwealth principles. They further contend that attendance by leading countries at next month’s Colombo summit would help “consolidate” the regime.

Pressure has mounted on Manmohan Singh to call off his visit because of growing pressure from Indian Tamil political groups. K Thiagarajan, General Secretary of Tamil National Liberation Movement, has been on an indefinite hunger strike since early October. He is demanding that the Colombo event is cancelled and moved elsewhere, and if this is not done then Singh should stay away. The fast was started in dramatic circumstances after the Madras High Court allowed it following a petition after police refused to give permission for the hunger strike.

Within days of the fast, the state Opposition DMK chief M Karunanidhi made a similar demand and publicly extended support to the fasting leader. In may be recalled that in March this year the DMK quit the United Progressive Alliance government after repeatedly voicing its consternation over the Indian government’s policy on Sri Lanka. Karunanidhi’s initiative sparked a similar reaction from other political parties, most notably Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who also demanded from Singh that he “exert diplomatic pressure” on Sri Lanka by boycotting the CHOGM and ensure that Rajapaksa’s government adopted a reasonable approach towards its Tamil minority population. In his bid to fish in Tamil waters in the election year, even Narendra Modi at a lecture in Chennai on October 18 said that he favoured greater role for states in evolving foreign policy. The move is an attempt to connect with the anti-Lanka sentiments in the state and thereby keep doors open for allies – either before or after elections.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has boycotted the Commonwealth meeting. Pic: AP.

Under pressure from former allies, potential allies and adversaries, Singh took an unprecedented step of writing to Karunanidhi. He wrote that there was no decision yet on attending CHOGM and that it would be taken after considering various factors, including sentiments of Tamils. Singh wrote: “I wish to inform you that a decision on the issue of my participation in the CHOGM conference will be taken only after considering all relevant factors, including the sentiments of your party and the Tamil people.”

However, there are other Tamil groups which do not consider there is any need for Singh to stay away from CHGOM or for India to lobby for shifting the venue. Vardaraja Perumal, a former chief minister of Sri Lanka’s North-Eastern Province from the days of Tamil militancy has a completely different viewpoint. Speaking to Asian Correspondent, he questioned why CV Wigneswaran, 73, who was sworn in as the first elected Tamil chief minister of Sri Lanka’s northern province last month, has not called for a boycott of the summit. The Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of 38 seats in last month’s polls – the first in the war-torn region since the councils were formed 25 years ago and Perumal argues that since neither the government nor the people have voiced opposition to the Summit, it should be held as per schedule.

Perumals’s views are echoed by many analysts and observers. They argue that most Indian Tamil political parties and leaders have engaged on the issue with an aim to pander to Tamil sentiments within India without keeping long-term interest of Sri Lankan Tamils in mind. This becomes particularly true as the dream of a Tamil Eelam or a separate Tamil state is no longer a significant sentiment among Tamils in both countries.

The situation is also particularly advantageous for Indian Tamil groups because of recent incidents in which Indian fishermen have been arrested by Sri Lanka’s navy for straying into Sri Lankan waters. On this issue, few in India acknowledge the fact that it pits Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils against one another. But like several others contentious issues that are sought to be swept below the carpet, this one too remains unresolved and often ignored over others.

It is still too early to make out what the final decision of New Delhi will be regarding the CHOGM. Either way, it will open several questions about the Indian foreign policy.

]]> 2
Analysis: Is Priyanka Gandhi the Indian Congress Party’s trump card? Wed, 16 Oct 2013 05:25:19 +0000

The Indian political grapevine has been abuzz for the past few days following rumours that 41-year-old Priyanka Gandhi, is set to take a more active interest in politics than merely tending to Raebarelli, the electoral constituency of her mother, Sonia Gandhi.

On Monday, October 14, the rumour mill spilled over into several television channels which broadcast reports saying that the entry of the granddaughter of India’s first and only woman prime minister into active electoral politics was imminent. The reports contended that there were two possibilities: one – she could become the star campaigner of the party in the face of the tepid response of the people to her elder brother, Rahul Gandhi. The second possibility was that she may herself contest parliamentary elections.

Priyanka Gandhi. Pic: AP.

To ensure that the spate of reports did not gather further momentum, the Congress party officially dispelled them. It was evident that this was done to ensure that the leadership of Rahul Gandhi was not challenged either outside the ‘family’ or from within. But the official denial does not mean that it marks the end of speculation on the issue. Clearly, this is not the last time that Indians and the world would have heard the story that in a last ditch attempt to stall the ascendance of Bharatiya Janata Party and extreme Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, the Congress party will play a trump card in the form of Priyanka Gandhi.

Reasons behind this are not difficult to seek. The younger of the two Gandhi siblings has a more favourable public presence owing to a more amiable persona. In a country where norms of patriarchy govern families and where sex-selective abortions are commonplace, it has been ironic that the same people have had no qualms about women occupying the highest positions of power. Before President Pranab Mukherjee moved to the largely ornamental position in July 2012, India had a woman Constitutional head in Pratibha Patil.

Concurrently, the chairperson of the ruling coalition was a woman – Sonia Gandhi. She was complimented in power politics by two other women – Sushma Swaraj and Meira Kumar – the former being the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House and the latter being the Speaker of the same House.

Despite the fact that the legislation which will constitutionally guarantee that one third of parliamentary and legislative seats (in the States) are reserved for women has been hanging in fire for several years, the people have cast their lot with several charismatic women leaders. India currently has three women who are chief ministers in their states and there are at least four others who have previously held the position. With this in the backdrop, speculation had been rife almost a decade ago when the BJP-led coalition was in power, about the identity of the Gandhi sibling who would eventually enter the political arena.

Most who hoped that it would fall on Priyanka were a tad disappointed when Rahul Gandhi’s name as the party candidate for Amethi, the seat held by his father and mother, was announced in March 2004, just a month before the watershed polls that resulted in a dramatic regime change in India.

Disappointment stemmed from two factors: there was general consensus that Priyanka was the more charismatic of the duo and secondly she was closer in public image to Indira Gandhi, her grandmother and the tallest leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family in the post-independence era. Such was Indira’s appeal that nothing negative stuck to her – not even the fact that in a country dominated by caste and religious considerations, few mentioned that the Gandhi name came from a husband who was born a Parsi, among India’s smallest religious minorities.

In the past decade there have been several occasions when it has appeared that a change of guard was imminent in the Gandhi family. Yet Priyanka remained astutely at the side of her mother and brother as an assistant, not as a leader. Despite this, the spotlight has always been on her – both due to the fact that he is a ‘good story’ for TV and also because she was capable of giving the choicest sound bites.

In 2008, days after the outrageous terrorist attack in Mumbai, she famously told journalists that her grandmother “would have acted in a way that would have made all of us proud.” The comment went down well with a nation and its people who were looking for some steel in its hour of crisis. That this did not come from either prime minister or any other official, but from someone who was not even a political leader in the true sense of the word, was not lost on the people. It only increased the people’s longing for her to enter public life.

The question, however, is, despite Priyanka having such a huge public draw, why has the ‘family’ not made optimum use of her charisma? The answer is mainly tucked away within family living rooms and the full truth may never come out. But the decision is in line with the Indian patriarchal tradition where the family enterprise passes to the son and not the daughter who gets a chance at a golden moment only after the passing of a male sibling or if the other chooses to opt out.

Priyanka also has a handicap in the form of a husband who has been under  a cloud for a long time – first within the Indian capital’s gossip circles and in recent months when allegations have flown regarding financial misdemeanours that have forced the government to go into overdrive to defend him. In the face of the delay to launch Priyanka into politics, her brand value may have diminished somewhat in a country that is now looking at change not within the system, but from someone – like Modi – who is an outsider. But knowing him, he would have every reason to feel more unsettled if pacing a pitched battle against the sister rather than against the brother.

]]> 0
State of play: India’s Telangana headache Fri, 11 Oct 2013 05:34:51 +0000

Although this week’s crisis has been averted, India faces major issues in the creation of a new state

Since India became independent in 1947 its leaders have repeatedly tried to find a perfect and rational methodology and process of reorganising its internal boundaries. Though most efforts generated conflict among people and governments, no process has been as treacherous as the current attempt to form India’s 29th State – Telangana.

Had it not been for a sudden change of heart of the leadership of striking power workers who, called off their protest on October 10 in 13 affected districts, the misery of the people could have been much greater this week on account of the likely devastation from Cyclone Phailin. But such relief notwithstanding, the ham-handed manner in which the government has handled the issue has become a butt of jokes. Celebrity author, Chetan Bhagat, tweeted: “Can RG (Rahul Gandhi) roll up his sleeves and give a 10 second statement to end the AP-Telangana-Seemandhra mess please?” He was referring to Gandhi’s dramatic public chiding of the government when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was away in the United States for pushing through a law obstructing a court order for immediately disqualifying convicted law makers.

 (READ MORE: Life paralyzed in south India due to protests)

Part of the reason is that the Congress-led government dithered for too long in taking a decision regarding carving out Telangana from the existing linguistic state of Andhra Pradesh, the first state in India formed on the basis of common language way back in 1953. Though the demand for a new state of Telangana has been waged by various organisations from the 1950s to correct an alleged regional imbalance, the agitation really got off the ground in the past decade or so with its advocacy by Telangana Rashtra Samithi and its leader K Chandrashekar Rao who quit the Andhra-domnated Telugu Desam Party in 2001. Though it is more than two months since the Congress Party convinced coalition partners to endorse the division of the almost 90 million strong state of Andhra Pradesh, signals have been aplenty that the party is in no hurry. This has complicated the process.

Supporters of €'United Andhra Pradesh'€ join hands and shout slogans during a protest in Hyderabad Tuesday. Pic: AP.

The impending election in India that is due to be held before next summer has further mired the political stage. This is a result of rather strange spectacles: On the one hand the Centre has passed a cabinet resolution and appointed a cabinet sub-committee to determine boundaries of Telangana and residuary Andhra Pradesh; examine legal and administrative measures required for smooth functioning of Hyderabad as common capital for 10 years; and consider legal, financial and administrative measures needed for transition to a new capital for the residuary state which is being referred to as Seemandhra; besides suggest means on how to address special needs of backward regions for both states.

But on the other hand, the Congress party in Andhra Pradesh has been in the throes of dissension with several central ministers quitting to protest the decision and the chief minister also openly aiding rebellion in the state. In contrast to this, leaders of the Congress party in the Telanagna region of the existing state have not just supported the move for splitting the state but also joined the exasperated brigade at the slow pace of developments.

It is not that the Congress is alone in sending conflicting political messages. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a long standing advocate of the new state has been wooing both pro-T and anti-T parties. Even among the parties opposing Telangana, the BJP has been playing ball with both TDP and Jagan Reddy and his party, YSR Congress. The multiple lines of communication opened by various political parties have further vitiated the atmosphere and the moot point is which faction of which party would eventually be able to outwit the others.

For the moment, the ruling Congress party has got caught in a bind. Facing an electoral challenge in the Telangana region, it agreed to accept the division of the state in principle. This was done in opposition to the sentiments of the people of the residual state who see the loss of Telangana as a major political affront and which causes economic losses to the people who have entrenched business interest in parts which will now become Telangana.

Part of the reason why Indian political parties have repeatedly grappled with the issue of new states is that there has been no uniform principle that has been used to reorganise India. In the aftermath of Independence, there was pressure to redraw India’s internal map on the basis of linguistic identities of people. But the recommendations of the first such attempt by a centrally appointed high-power Commission in the 1950s were followed by piecemeal implementation.

In the six decades, new states have been carved out on several occasions – at times due to linguistic reasons and at times because of regional imbalances. A few years ago when the agitation for a separate Telangana was gaining ground, the time was opportune for another States’ Reorganisation Commission. But this was not done and now the nation is committed to Telangana. The only hope is that peace will return and the events will roll slowly so the division of the state does not become an electoral issue.

]]> 1
India election: Is Rahul Gandhi making his move? Tue, 01 Oct 2013 03:46:04 +0000

For the past several months Indian politics has been in a fixed mode: fortification of bunkers that have been swiftly built to enable extreme Hindu nationalist leader and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime minister designate Narendra Modi to launch a frontal assault on his main electoral adversary, the ruling Congress party. On this linear trajectory where nothing has seemed to unsettle Modi and no one has been able to display the ability to thwart him from inching towards his goal of becoming the top executive, a sudden spin was given by scion of the Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi on Friday, September 27.

On that sunny afternoon, Gandhi gatecrashed a pre-scheduled meet-the-press programme of party apparatchik, Ajay Maken, being held in the premises of Press Club of India, which ironically was once the residence Rahul’s grandfather.

Sona and Rahul Gandhi. Pic: AP.

The 43-year old vice president of the Congress party almost walked on the same path as his grandfather who first blew the whistle on India’s first case of political corruption in the late 1950s and embarrassed his father-in-law, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the case of Rahul, what he said was the first public castigation of his party’s government since it came to power in 2004. In the public eye, Gandhi’s statement was nothing short of berating the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

In focus was a controversial law that the government proposes to introduce to prevent disqualification of lawmakers convicted for criminal offences. The matter has seized political parties in recent weeks as several significant parliamentarians faced disqualification – including political allies of the ruling coalition. Gandhi dramatically stated that he believed that the proposed legislation – pending with the Indian President for approval as an interim law till it secures parliamentary mandate – should be ‘torn up and thrown away’. This was interpreted – quite naturally – that Gandhi and his mother, Italian-born Sonia disapproved of Singh’s decision taken shortly before he embarked on a bilateral visit to the United States and hold parleys on the sidelines of the United National General Assembly with Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Singh’s loyalists responded to his public humiliation and short-circuiting of the government process of decision-making by arguing that the prime minister should put in his papers. The viewpoint – also reiterated by several columnists and opinion makers – created a buzz in India’s unidirectional political track. Was Rahul Gandhi’s outburst a part of a strategy to force Singh to step aside barely months before India heads into a crucial general election? Was Gandhi preparing to finally shed the image of being a reluctant leader and take charge of his party’s electoral campaign by becoming prime minister, dropping the old guard among ministers and replacing them with a younger team of personal loyalists?

Caught in a bind at the unexpected development, Modi went into an unexpected defence of Singh at his showpiece election rally in the Indian capital on Sunday, September 29. He raised the alleged slight of Singh by Nawaz Sharif at an off-the-record briefing with sub-continental scribes in New York and said that the prime minister was being shamed abroad because he was being targeted by his party.

It is not difficult to comprehend reasons behind Modi’s line in his speech and also why he upped the ante against Rahul Gandhi. If The Congress does effect a generational change before the elections and Gandhi becomes prime minister at the head of a young team, he would wrest away from Modi his plank of imparting a certain element of ‘newness’ in Indian politics. If Gandhi was to actually throw out a law to protect convicted lawmakers, he would usurp the moral plank from Modi as being the sole custodian of public propriety.  If there is a new leader at the helm of Congress, it will delink itself from the image of a moribund edifice that has come to be identified with the present government. The only untested area would be Modi’s charismatic appeal versus Gandhi’s charm and the Indians’ reverence to the ‘family’.

Singh on his part is to return to India late on Tuesday and has convened a meeting on Wednesday October 2, coincidentally the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a public holiday to pay obeisance to the apostle of peace. This is a week that will greatly determine the nature of India’s impending election campaign. A further spin was added on Monday, September 30 when speaking at a public rally in distant Karnataka, Sonia Gandhi strongly supported Singh, raising the question whether there was disconnect between mother and son.

India and the world – this includes Modi and his party – will wait with bated breath to see the developments in coming days. Will Singh once again accept reversal of government policy due to party pressure or will he choose to walk into the sunset? If the former scenario becomes reality will Rahul Gandhi remain a leader who never had the gumption when it mattered most and someone who jumped the gun? The events within the Congress party will also determine if Modi will continue with the issues being raised by him so far. Or will he be forced to change tack and grope for fresh strategies. If that happens, the political script in India could be turned upside down.

]]> 0
Analysis: The politics of India’s communal violence Wed, 25 Sep 2013 03:11:03 +0000

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

This body resolves to “condemn violence in any form committed to disturb communal harmony and to deal with all those indulging in such violence in a prompt and resolute manner under the law.”

Normally, such a declaration need not be made in a country which has just faced a serious bout of social violence waged on religious lines. But on September 23, the Indian government convened a meeting of the non-partisan National Integration Council (NIC) to pass resolutions that, besides reiterating platitudes, failed to make any fresh attempts at controlling the communal menace, so integral to India from the colonial era.

Indian army soldiers patrol during a curfew imposed following deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims at Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state earlier this month. Pic: AP.

Latest figures from India’s Home Ministry show that more than 2,500 people were killed in incidents of communal violence in the country since 2002. So far, 107 have died this year – and the toll is increasing. The deceased have died in almost 8,500 incidents of communal violence in the past decade – a figure which demonstrated that more than two incidents of communal violence have occurred every day somewhere in India. Communal conflict in India is defined as violent clashes between two groups on the basis of their religious identity.

Most often, the clashes are between Hindus and Muslims – India’s largest religious minority with current estimates pegging their population at more than 15 percent of the total. Clashes between Hindus and other religious groups or between Muslims and other religious communities also occur but with no similar regularity. Relations between Hindus and Muslims are steeped in decades-old animosity and resulted in the division of the Indian sub-content when British rule ended in 1947. Pakistan at that time chose to make Islam the official religion while India opted to remain secular and provide equal rights to Muslims and practitioners of all other religions.

Despite this, communal conflict has been a harsh reality as has been the fact that political parties tend to use religious communities as loyal blocks during elections. This practise of framing laws, policy and strategy aimed at assuaging either of the religious minorities or the majority Hindu community has acquired the euphemism of ‘vote bank politics’.

In common discourse this has been used mainly by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies who have argued that India’s fragile social peace has been repeatedly shattered by attempts to ‘appease’ Muslims and other religious communities. In recent decades this argument has found growing numbers of supporters as people agreed that the Congress party has not put minority communalism and the one propagated by Hindus on an even keel.

Communal violence have provided occasions for all political parties to consolidate their own ‘vote banks’ and attempt to wean away chunks of voters from the stranglehold of other parties. Most of the post-violence social and political discourse is dominated by parties and their supporters taking pot-shots at each other.

The NIC meet was given the cold shoulder by several chief ministers including BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and several of his likely allies in the elections. The NIC itself is a toothless body which was formed more than 50 years ago with the aim of addressing problems of communalism, casteism and regionalism. Its members are union ministers, chief ministers, leaders of prominent political parties, chairpersons of various constitutional commissions, media persons, business leaders, trade unionists, representatives of women and representative eminent people. The body does not however have any power to make recommendation and resolutions adopted are merely to convey the idea that there is political unanimity across various shades of opinion in India.

But the NIC has also not been taken seriously by successive governments: Monday’s meet was just the 16th of the council with the last one being held almost to the day two years ago. There have been long years when no meeting was held, like between 1968 to1980 and again from 1992 to 2005.

Meanwhile, as the recent violence in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh demonstrated, the spread of the communalism has widened areas. Most previous outbreaks of communal violence – barring occasional instances – were urban in nature. Muzaffarnagar, barely 120 km the Indian capital did not have a tradition of communal violence but the present episode left more than 40,000 villagers homeless after targeted attacks resulted in them fleeing from villages dominated by other communities.

In India, communal violence has been on the rise in recent months as the country prepares for the next parliamentary elections with the extreme Hindu nationalist leader Modi at the helm of the BJP. Though Modi has neither paid a visit to any of the riot hit villages or towns, nor has he said anything substantial, his shadow has loomed large over the discourse.

Social peace in India remains fragile and in the past three decades this writer has witnessed social prejudices becoming deeper and social schisms widening further. More Muslims now prefer to live in localities that have a Muslim majority than before and in Hindu dominated localities in cities it is increasingly difficult for Muslims to find houses that they can rent. Even mixed couples – where one of the spouses is a Muslim – now find fewer residential options.

Sixty-six years after India became independent it is still divided on the basis of religious, caste and other secondary identities. These fault lines are used by all political parties for electoral gains. The task for the administration is to prevent more outbreaks of communal violence. But there are times when such fissures are allowed to rupture because it may benefit the party at the helm – as is being alleged in Muzaffarnagar. At other times, the issue remains dormant, yet very much alive.

]]> 0
India: PM candidate Modi lets dirty work take care of itself Thu, 19 Sep 2013 04:18:41 +0000

Almost a week after being announced as his party’s prime ministerial candidate for the next parliamentary polls in India, Narendra Modi has not exactly scorched the tarmac. Those who expected a sudden shift in gears in his campaign have found the steady pace that he has continued with, somewhat difficult to unravel.

Like previous years, Modi began his activities on September 17, his birthday, with a visit to his nonagenarian mother, Hira Ba, who stays with one of his younger brothers – a clerk in the government over which the elder sibling presides. The bulk of tweets on his Twitter handle @narendramodi since May 13, the day when he was anointed by his party, have been largely congratulatory and polite thank you notes to fans. In between, there was the electrifying meeting in Rewari, a small town less than a 100 km from the heart of New Delhi, where he addressed a gathering consisting of thousands of former soldiers.

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

On the most volatile issue in India these days – Hindu-Muslim riots in Uttar Pradesh that have left almost 50 dead – Modi has been judiciously silent. If there were any who expected Modi to jump into the fray and follow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President, Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi to visit Muzaffarnagar, the district town which has borne the brunt of the violence; they have been mistaken. Reasons behind this are not difficult to seek: Modi’s party colleagues have done the ‘dirty job’ for him.

On September 18, story petrel, and one time iconic leader, Uma Bharti waged a battle with police in Lucknow the state capital to prevent arrest of her party legislator who has been accused of inciting communal violence. She in fact warned of ‘more tension’ in Uttar Pradesh if politicians from her party were arrested.

Modi has actually not felt the need to intervene personally in UP by paying a visit to the sites of communal violence because the task of deepening inter-community prejudices and social cleavages is being done in absentia.

As far as Modi is concerned, he has to balance between two facets of his persona – the one that wins elections by making use of existing intolerance and dislike of the other community and the other that governs efficiently to enable him to claim that he has moved on from the discourse of 2002 when he had infamously stated that relief camps after communal riots could not be construed as “baby manufacturing factories” by Muslim residents of these camps.

Modi has in fact not even changed his programme after his elevation. On September 3, his office announced a schedule of his programmes through September and he has stuck to the plan. The meeting in Rewari was pre-scheduled and so is the forthcoming meeting in Bhopal on September 25.

The latter meeting will be keenly watched because it is in the state capital of Madhya Pradesh that goes to the polls this winter and where Modi’s party colleague and rival Shivraj Chouhan is chief minister and ready with his development model to buttress claims that Modi is not the only efficient chief minister in his party.

Over the next few months, Modi’s task is cut out: balance between the two facets of his persona. This will ensure that his core supporters do not get disillusioned by perceived abandoning of his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalistic politics and the neo-converts do not get put off by his old-style politics where he underplays the development plank, a strategy Modi has skilfully used for the past several years.

As Modi’s days roll into weeks and they convert into months, all eyes will be on him and to assess if he is beginning to make a transition from an aggressive state leader to one who is more acceptable not just within the country but also internationally.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has recently written ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. The book is available at:

]]> 0
India bids to clean up its act with ‘manual scavenging’ ban Mon, 09 Sep 2013 06:12:47 +0000

India has a major problem with its toilets, its cleaning and management of human excreta. To circumvent this somewhat, Indian Parliament passed a significant law last week banning manual scavenging or cleaning of dry pits by hand and carting them in handcarts to other unattended dumping grounds. The law also introduced tough sanctions for municipalities and other local administrations, including prohibiting employment of sewer cleaners without protective gear. This is however neither likely to dramatically change of fortunes of India’s ‘ultimate untouchables’ nor enable the nation to clean its messy sewage system. Part of the reason behind this, is that the problem is much deeper than what is presented in official discourse.

In March 2012, freshly released Indian Census Data revealed the heartening figure that in 2011 when the head count was conducted, 63.2 per cent Indian households owned telephone connections, of whom 53.2 per cent had a mobile. In contrast to this picture of growth, development, was another set of data: 49.8 per cent Indian households defecate in the open as they do not have access to a toilet – clean or unclean. In urban India it is commonplace to see shadowy male figures moving into shrubs at the crack of dawn with bottles of water dangling at the end of outstretched arms. In many cases the latest Bollywood songs blare from the mobiles these men carry.

A migrant worker takes bath near an open sewer at a slum in Mumbai, India. Pic: AP.

Women do not have such privileges: their daily ablutions are at the end of day, well after dusk has set in and while moving in groups. They do not carry mobile phones lest they attract a potential assaulter. But these men and women who have no access to toilets have never been a problem for the Indian state because they have not contributed to the challenge of human waste management and disposal. They do not pose a problem to the administration because such human refuse is left in the custody of nature.

The problem for the government is posed by the almost 47 per cent of Indians who have access to toilets, only a third of which are connected to any sewage system. While it a different matter that much of the waste goes into rivers and from there into city water supplies without getting treated; India’s unspoken shame has been the practise of manual scavenging. It is still a common sight even now to find men and women crawling narrow back lanes, faces hidden, shouting for prospective customers: “get your toilet cleaned”. For decades, every few days people living in homes with a pit toilet have called the manual scavengers to clean out their pits for pittance.

In 1993, after much campaigning, India’s lawmakers enacted a law to outlaw employment of manual scavengers and the building of dry lavatories. Despite this, people remained in the profession and the 2011 Census recorded that there were still had 2.3 million pit toilets in urban India. A decade ago, a representative body of manual scavengers moved the Supreme Court asking it to direct the Union government to take effective steps to eliminate manual scavenging and implement the 1993 law.

However it was eight years before steps were initiated in this direction. Last October the draft law was brought before Parliament and thereafter to the ministry’s select committee, which mandatorily examines all draft laws, submitted its report following which the government brought a final version to secure the nod from lawmakers.

The law is a significant step forward from the previous law. First, within two months of the law coming into effect, the local administration has to determine if the area under its jurisdiction has any lavatories that require to be cleaned manually. Once this process is complete steps must be taken immediately to ensure that these toilets are converted and the people employed to service them are rehabilitated by providing one-time cash assistance, a residential plot or training. There are safeguards for contractually employed scavengers and they have to be provided alternate jobs with the same terms and conditions.

There are provisions to ensure implementation: cash fines and imprisonment for violators within a specified timeframe. However, the law is still not water tight and experts have argued that there are some grey, including the right of Parliament to legislate on an issue related to conditions of work, a matter under the jurisdiction of state governments in India’s federal polity.

Second, it has not been specified whether the Centre of states would fund the conversion of existing dry lavatories and this may hamper implementation. There are other issues also but the most worrisome matter is that despite having engaged with India’s messy problem with lavatories and people’s access to them, little has been done to initiate a process where each Indian can have access to a clean and safe lavatory in the near future.

]]> 0
Analysis: Why has India’s rape verdict reaction been so subdued? Tue, 03 Sep 2013 01:49:22 +0000

More than eight months after the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman in India’s capital, the first of the verdicts was announced at the weekend. Yet the anger at the extremely light sentence has remained relatively muted. Coupled with the acceptance of unprecedented levels of brutality and a sense of inevitability regarding corruption, questions can be asked whether India’s tryst with middle-class activism is a thing of the past.

The unease in India is over the verdict – this past weekend – of a Delhi juvenile court that found the juvenile guilty of rape and murder and sentenced him to three years at a reform centre. Of the three years, the boy has already spent eight months in a remand, which will be counted as time served. People in India expressed consternation that though the boy reportedly was the most brutal of the six people who assaulted the girl, who died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital, he is the one who will in all probability get away with the lightest sentence.

Pic: AP.

This anger and criticism of the verdict has been made also by people in responsible positions. The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung said he was disappointed with the verdict and that rape laws for juveniles need to be revisited. Jung is constitutionally responsible for the law and security in the capital, which is considered ‘half a state’ in terms of powers that have been granted to the elected government in Delhi.

However, looking at Indian TV reports and Internet headlines, the general sense was that India was vertically divided. The anger at the rape verdict seemed to ebb as another sex-related crime, the one involving Hindi religious leader Asaram Bapu, grabbed the headlines and sought public attention.

However, the question that surfaced in the wake of the December 16 multiple rape of the deceased Delhi woman still remains valid: Was it time for India to reduce the cut-off age of juveniles from 18 to 16? For child rights activists, any debate to reduce the legally defined age of juveniles should be nipped in the bud because it is against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Activists argue that though New Delhi signed the Convention in 1992, it raised the juvenile age to 18 as part of its obligation only in 2000. This was a hard fought victory and child rights activists do not want to let it go, despite the public clamour.

The debate surfaced again in the wake of the recent incident of another gang rape in an abandoned textile mill in Mumbai. The controversy came to the fore because relatives of one of the accused claimed that the arrested person be treated as a minor because he is not yet 18. The demand for taking a fresh look at India’s juvenile laws was also raised in Parliament during the current Session, barely months after India amended laws relating to sexual violence. Enacted in March, the amended law and ensures stringent punishment for crimes against women by widening definition of rape.

The power of India’s middle class activism has raised issues to the world stage in recent years – first in April and June 2011 on the issue of corruption, and a gain last December after the rape of the young woman in Delhi. And while the weekend’s verdict has sparked a lot of anger, the backlash has been relatively tame compared to the past.

This has brought to fore the limited role of political movements outside the party structure and the fact that in India’s electoral politics still continues to revolve around either major parties or the coalitions they head. This is India’s election year, with the parliamentary pollsto be held by May. Eyes will remain riveted on political action initiated by non-party players and how political parties channel the public anger to their benefit.

]]> 0
Analysis: Can food bill turn the tide for India’s ruling coalition? Wed, 28 Aug 2013 04:33:41 +0000

By getting within handshaking distance of enacting a law to ensure food security for the majority of Indians, the country’s lawmakers have sought to redeem themselves and ward off the charge that the entire time in Parliament is spent scoring points over one another.

However, though there is unanimity that the decision has been forced on the country’s parties by the Congress party – the main constituent of the ruling coalition, there is no certainty that the move will enable the ruling coalition to reap electoral dividends. The National Food Security Bill has been presented as a game changer, but doubts are being expressed over the ability of the legislation to deliver adequate votes several months down the line and enable the Congress to return to power once again. It needs to be kept in mind that elections in India are not due before April-May 2014 and Congress leaders, including all-powerful Mrs Sonia Gandhi, have repeatedly stated that there are no plans to advance them.

Pic: AP.

But there is no denying that in a country where ritualistic promises of providing food security have been made by political parties for years, it is now just a matter of time before a minimum guarantee of food will become legally enshrined. This is a major development and has naturally generated a howl of protest from the rich and the corporate lobby which sees the move as a recipe for economic disaster given the already high CAD and the crashing value of the Indian rupee.

In many ways, it is ironic that while Manmohan Singh initiated the process of economic liberalisation in India in 1991 as finance minister, the time when India began abandoning policies of economic inclusion and opening the markets, he is prime minister when the government has been forced to return to the path of economic inclusion.

This is primarily because of political pressure on the government from the Congress party which has in the past nine years often acted as the political watchdog and got the government to initiate several steps, even if key leaders in it were against it. No wonder that Sonia Gandhi has been repeatedly listed as one of the most powerful women in the world in poll after poll since 2004.

The Congress party, it must be understood, has also not acted of its own volition. Gandhi and other senior leaders were quick to realise that the party’s surprise victory in 2004 was a result of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition being focussed solely on the upper and middle classes in the six years its governed Indian from 1998 to 2004.

As a result, the Congress party allowed itself to be influenced by a clutch of middle-class activists who have traditionally been identified with the ‘politically-correct’ class in a country that has followed the basic Nehruvian tenets of secularism and welfare state.

The Food Bill itself is rooted in a public interest litigation filed at the Supreme Court in 2001 by a key civil liberties group – the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. In a series of orders, the apex court also forced the hand of the government and the legislation is the result of a lengthy process of preparing the political class for the law and when that failed, ensuring that all parties were presented with a fait accompli and creating a situation where opposing the Bill beyond a point could turn out to be electorally counter-productive.

There are however fears that the Bill is going to further drain the exchequer and that it is not going to be easy to ensure swift roll-out of highly subsidised food grains throughout the country. It has presently been already initiated in three Congress party controlled states, but it remains to be seen how the law is implemented in other states especially where non-Congress governments are in power.

The principal opposition party, BJP, has already criticised the law saying that it was full of loopholes and pledged to plug them if it comes to power after the next polls. As far as the Indian people are concerned, the food security law has the possibility of becoming a significant electoral issue. But the ruling party has to contend with the fact that the average Indian’s spending on food is lower than in the past when compared with the overall spending. Experts say that it is because of this that, despite soaring inflation, public anger on the issue has not come to the fore. This alone is the reason behind scepticism of the food security law being a game changer.

]]> 0
India: Journalist exam proposal sparks media backlash Thu, 22 Aug 2013 04:43:35 +0000

India’s minister for information and broadcasting Manish Tewari has come under heavy fire this week after raising the idea of a licensing exam for Indian journalists. Words like ‘preposterous’ and ‘laughable’ have been commonly heard in media circles as journalists made their feelings known.

Tewari’s suggestion was that a ‘common examination’ should be conducted for journalists by a competent professional body which would issue ‘licenses’ to aspiring journalists. Only after acquiring such a permission to practise what they have learnt – or unlearnt – mainly in private colleges after most paying through their noses, will they earn the right to seek a job in the market as a media practitioner.

Pic: AP.

“I think a good starting point would be that rather than possibly prescribing a curricula which is then standardised across institutions, possibly the media industry could think about at least having a common exam,” Manish Tewari was quoted as saying.

Predictably there has been a howl of protests from all sections of the Indian media. But beyond the derision that has marked even political discourse – one Opposition member of Parliament, Jay Panda, even tweeted: ‘Next, a govt license b4 you can post on Twitter,’ – is the discomforting truth that large sections of the Indian political class sees the media as an intrusive force which prevents complete State control of opinion making.

In fact, with disinformation ministers like Tewari, where is the need for the likes of Joseph Goebbels? Or for that matter, with a leader like Tewari, groomed in the Congress party since his youth, at the helm of the party’s propaganda machinery, can the party now continue its charge against Narendra Modi that he needs to be opposed for his fascist traits and disinformation campaign?

Tewari in many ways is inconsequential because despite being minister with charge of both government and non-government he is unable to articulate his misgiving about the profession. It does not take much effort to locate sufficient numbers of senior journalists – active in various mediums – who are extremely critical about the depth to which the profession and the industry has fallen. They suggest means to rectify this and conceded that even in the past, the profession had its share of second-raters and power-hungry practitioners who cosied up to political masters and money bags.

Post-independence India saw the newspaper industry being seen as a mission both by those who ran newspapers – because they made no profits and had to be subsidised by other businesses of the owners – and by journalists, who were paid abysmally. This continued for almost three decades and in this period hardly any newspaper was started. The market remained restricted and journalists saw themselves as partners in nation building.

The trend changed after the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi was lifted and investigative or angry journalism saw a sharp rise, along with a boom in the number of magazines being published from the late 1970s. By the late 1980s media started emerging as an industry where significant profits could be made. Big money also came into the profession as industrialists got into the business and, in an attempt to create a niche product, began wooing journalists who would not otherwise touch ‘slush’ money with wages that were significantly higher than the prevailing levels.

However, prior to economic liberalisation of the 1990s, the media in India remained limited in size. But with exponential growth due to several factors – huge rise in literacy rate, advent of satellite television and the resulting increase in the clout of media in Indian languages – saw a huge increase in the demand for journalists. But though the industry grew exponentially, little thought was given to creating training grounds to produce personnel who would work as journalists.

The Indian media surely needs corrective measures but this can hardly be achieved by requiring journalists to have licenses, like pilots. India has a long tradition of free media, which has acquired more power in the age of Internet and now social media.

Instead of targeting individual journalists, governments and political leaders may do better for themselves and for the profession by scrutinising laws pertaining to media ownership and partnerships with the industry. Vested interest groups have become entrenched in the Indian media and thought needs to be given to free the industry of such forces. Other corrective steps can then follow.

]]> 0
India: Rabble-rousing Modi overshadows Singh speech Thu, 15 Aug 2013 09:00:40 +0000

In a country like India where at any given time expectations outweigh fulfilment of dreams, it is always a tough act for an incumbent to make a public speech that touches an emotional chord with the people.

This becomes truer when the incumbent being referred to – Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh – is not known for his oratorical abilities. This fact gets rubbed in deeper when Singh has to face Narendra Modi, by far the most charismatic leader in contemporary Indian politics and a public speaker who uses his childhood training as a theatre actor to his advantage. Modi is known to spew flawless demagoguery.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center, and other Congress party leaders at the Independence Day ceremony in New Delhi Thursday. Pic: AP.

For the past several months, since Modi scored a third successive electoral victory in Gujarat in December last year, he has frequently locked the Congress in a direct penalty shootout type of a contest. Modi is aware that though Indian elections are not presidential in nature and instead are essentially a sum total of 543 contests in the constituencies of the Lower House, or Lok Sabha; a victory in a series of shootouts will enable him to create a ‘wave-like’ sentiment.

It is because of the failure of Prime Minister Singh, his party and government that what should have been a significant milestone – addressing the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort, a symbolic of the citadel of power, for the 10th successive year – ended up as a weak launch of an electoral campaign. There was never any doubt that with elections barely months away, the Independence Day speech of the Prime Minister would be keenly scrutinised. Even more so as Modi picked up the gauntlet by saying that the people of the country would compare his speech with that of the Prime Minister.

Modi’s advantage is that he is selling a dream. A dream in which India runs seamlessly and people are provided on-the-tap services of government deliverables. Initially he took his merchandise to urban India outside Gujarat but increasingly is peddling his wares to the rural populace also – their support is after all critical to enabling Modi to realise his ambition. Since he is selling a dream, he does not have to be accountable – does not really have to explain, like any demagogue who has walked the same path previously, whether the objective is achievable or not.

Narendra Modi - selling a dream. Pic: AP.

Modi is successful in selling the dream because of his ability to hide away expectations in Gujarat, put a shroud over the pockets of want in the State, many of which have slipped deeper in the morass than when he acquired political power in October 2001. In his theatrical performances, Modi uses every tool – even singing Hindu hymns and chanting Hindu prayers at government functions. When asked, like I did when researching on his biography, he always makes it evident that is not wrong for the State to opt for the dominant culture, the majority belief.

In contrast, Singh no longer has the license to sell a dream because the one that brought his party to power in 2004 and gave him a second tenure in 2009 has assumed nightmarish proportions in the past three years or so. Even the litany of claims that has been put out by his office in recent weeks, about the transformation and progress in India under Singh, has few takers among the articulate who are given to verbalising their sentiment. If a silent majority still believes in what Singh and his team claims, then its result will be seen only during the polls and such a verdict would stun not just India, but probably the world.

In recent years Modi has widened his appeal by projecting himself as a service provider and not as a statesman. He cited facts to claim that more projects had been launched in Gujarat than in the country under UPA. In his speech Modi mentioned again one particular agony of people – multiple-window clearance as a problem as against his single-window style as a solution. Nowhere did Modi ventured in his speech into a territory which could not be filled with hyperbole only. He made an attempt recently in Hyderabad to venture into areas that are not firmly in his control – for instance how to deal with Pakistan, or the dilemma of smaller states.

Modi’s success in recent years has been to take the contentious dimensions of politics away from public glare without ever abandoning them. It is thus always ‘one-India’ and ‘best-India’ – scary singular propositions in a pluralistic country. But since these statements are not made in anger and ostensibly not targeting anyone, most people do think the formulation is worrisome.

In ways more than one, one can only empathise with Singh. For the past three years he has coped with a reluctant leader in Rahul Gandhi while most party leaders have never shied from projecting the scion as the man of the future. So where has it left the man of the present? Definitely, without having the confidence of his party – as being capable of leading it in the next round! And, this showed in his speech. In contrast, Modi does not need endorsement of his party. Either they put their stamp of approval or become irrelevant for the moment. Time will tell if Modi’s strategy will take him where he wants to go. Or he takes a long walk.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. The book is available here.

]]> 1
Kashmir’s communal violence: A portent of things to come? Wed, 14 Aug 2013 03:02:06 +0000

Religious conflict in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is not a new phenomenon. The entire social and political discourse of the state – that once included parts under control of Pakistan – has since the third decade of 20th century revolved around communal polarisation. But it is not often that the latest religious sectarianism, or communalism – the word used by Indians to describe the phenomenon – spills out on the streets resulting in violence. In any case, militancy-driven violence has been so regular and recurring in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990 that it takes an extraordinary incident for the rest of India to sit up and take notice.

The last time there was communal violence was in 2008 when Hindus and Muslims clashed over the state Governor’s decision to allow a Hindu shrine board the right to land use. At that time a dozen people were killed, but in clashes between Hindu and Muslim protestors on the one hand and the police on the other. There was no instance when the two warring groups from the two religious communities clashed with each other and fought pitched street battles.

Jammu and Kashmir police officers extinguish a fire created by protestors, background, during a curfew in Jammu, India. Pic: AP.

But there have been previous instances when Hindus and Muslims have clashed. These clashes have often been sparked by the most mundane of manners – similar to the rest of India. A motorbike rider inadvertently driving too close to a procession of members of another community; a young prankster teasing a girl from another community; not supporting the Indian cricket team vociferously enough during a match with the Pakistan team. These are the seemingly banal gaffes that can spark sectarian violence. Of course, violence has also been fanned in an organised manner by desecrating places of worship.

Relations between the two communities in Jammu and Kashmir in the past two decades has established that the historical romantic notion of Kashmir’s composite culture rooted in Sufism is a thing of past. Religious identity has steadily acquired greater importance and reached peak levels from the time militancy in Kashmir raised its head from early 1990s. The state today is clearly drawn between Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Buddhist enclave in Ladakh.

The latest round of communal violence has paralysed most parts of the Hindu-dominated Jammu region of the state. What has been particularly worrisome is that the internal disturbances have come at a time when India’s relations with Pakistan are strained amid tit-for-tat accusations from both sides that the other is breaking the tenuous ceasefire that has been in place since  November 2003.

Given the fact that India is a more vibrant democracy than its neighbour, the debate has been more unruly and political parties and leaders have been at the throat of another. This also has to do with the fact that India’s general elections are less than a year away and there is a distinct possibility that communal polarisation may become an important factor in the elections with the near-certain anointment of extreme Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, as the main electoral mascot of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In such a situation, the handling of the situation in the Jammu town of Kishtwar by the National Front-led state government, an ally of the Congress party, has naturally come in for scrutiny because there were indications that Hindus were organising an attack on Muslims during the Eid prayers on August 9. Moreover, chief minister Omar Abdullah controversially tweeted on August 12 about the religious identity of the dead in the violence. A similar move was made by the Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram, who also specified numbers of the deceased in terms of their religious identities when making a statement in Parliament.

India has witnessed an upswing of communal violence in the two months since the appointment of Modi as the BJP’s chief of the campaign committee and from the time the BJP parted ways with ally Janata Dal (U) in the state of Bihar, where it shared power with it. As the BJP prepares for the next parliamentary polls with fewer allies and election partners than in previous polls, India is clearly preparing for communal polarisation. Unfortunately, its adversaries, including the Congress and its allies, are not taking adequate steps and in time to ensure that this does not happen. The violence in Jammu and Kashmir is probably a portent of things to come in India over the next one year.

]]> 0
Telangana: India approves a new state Wed, 31 Jul 2013 03:07:21 +0000

After dithering for more than a decade the Congress Party finally bit the bullet and cajoled coalition partners into endorsing the division of the almost 90 million strong state of Andhra Pradesh into two new states: Telangana and Seemandhara. But even after the ruling alliance partners and the highest decision making body of the Congress formally announced the endorsement of the demand for a separate Telangana, questions remained regarding the timeline that is to be followed. It remains to be seen if the new state will become a political reality before the next parliamentary elections, due in less than nine months.

Indian students of Osmania University celebrate with a cake after India's ruling coalition endorsed the creation of a new state - Telangana. Pic: AP.

For a long time it was obvious that the Congress party was unable to make up its mind on announcing the decision to split the existing state because it was unsure about the political consequences. It was evident that the party was in decline in those parts that would remain in the larger portion that is now going to be called Seemandhara. However the reason behind holding back the decision on the provincial split was that party leaders hoped that the decline in the region could be reversed.

Because of this, the Congress steadily lost ground in Telangana region as it had previously committed to a separate state and was seen to be backtracking like previous governments in office. Finally, it seems that the Congress leadership decided that it could do little to stem the tide in the non-Telegana region. As a consequence, it opted to announce the split of Andhra Pradesh in the hope that it would do creditably in the 17 parliamentary seats that will be voted by the people of Telengana while the majority of the remaining 25 seats will largely be split up between the YSR Congress and the Telegu Desam Party.

But there is little doubt that the entire exercise has been conducted in a ham-handed manner. The constitutional process of forming a new state out of an existing one is complex. To begin with, after a political decision has been taken, the existing state assembly has to pass a resolution supporting the geographical division. Once this resolution has been passed by the state legislature, both Houses of Parliament have to pass the law and only thereafter does it go to the President of India for final ratification. The new state can be inaugurated only thereafter. With such a long timeline in sight before the formation of the two new states, it is anyone’s guess how soon this will happen.

The issue of redrawing India has vexed the leaders of the country since independence. When India became independent, large parts of what constitutes India now were not part of British territory but only had suzerainty rights over large parts that were ruled by almost 550 rulers of small and medium Princely States. British territories during the colonial period were mainly divided in arbitrary manner into various Presidencies – Bombay, Bengal and Madras besides provinces like Central Provinces and United Provinces.

From the 1920s, the anti-colonial movement led by the Congress party endorsed the idea of provinces formed on a linguistic basis. But by the time India became independent its leaders also became aware of the divisive nature of linguistic identities. In November 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru conceded the linguistic principle, but said security and stability of India was important and could not be jeopardised by diving the country on linguistic lines. Various committees and commission were set up by Nehru’s government but before the first organised bid at redrawing internal maps was made in 1956, Andhra Pradesh was formed on a linguistic basis after an agitation turned violent when an activist on a fast died.

For more than six decades India has constantly been redrawn time and again in an arbitrary manner because political pressure groups became unmanageable. India was last time recast in 2001 when the states of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. By conceding the demand of Telangana, the Centre has opened the Pandora’s Box for many more states for which nascent agitations have been going on for several years.

A couple of years ago when the Telagana agitation was heading for the political quagmire, it had been suggested that the occasion could been used to form the second States Reorganisation Commission. But by not doing so and instead dividing Andhra Pradesh as a single case, the Congress party has lost a chance to take a long term view. The decision shows that the ruling coalition is not looking at anything beyond its present tenure.

]]> 0
Modi’s electoral campaign team announced Sat, 20 Jul 2013 02:31:02 +0000

More than a month after extreme Hindu nationalist leader and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was named the chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign committee, the team he will preside over for the next ten months was finally announced. The question uppermost, given the schism Modi’s elevation caused within the party, is would he have gone to bed on Friday night happy or not?

In all probability, the answer to the question would be ‘po’ – the ‘beyond yes and no’ response concept popularised by ‘lateral thinking’ conceptualiser, Edward de Bono. Since the answer to the question is that the formation of the 20 panels would most likely have neither completely satisfied Modi, nor left him chewing his fingernails, his sleep would have been sometimes peaceful and at times, disturbed. On Saturday morning, Modi would have woken up – very early before the crack of dawn as usual – and immediately convinced himself that being halfway up the tree was better than not getting started at all.

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

To begin with, the central campaign committee is virtually the existing parliamentary board of the party in another garb with three additions – the chief ministers of the other three BJP governed states, Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh) and Manohar Parikkar (Goa) while three top leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and Rajnath Singh move away as mentors. Some would interpret this as a downer for Modi because he has not got another team at his disposal. Others are likely to contend that he has been given charge of the all-important power club of the party. What this does for this power elite of the party is a different matter: at times it would function as a campaign committee and at times as the all-important organisational select group.

Similarly, the 80 odd leaders who have been appointed to 19 committees are a motley assortment. In fact the deal brokered by Big Brother from Nagpur, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and fountainhead of Hindu nationalist politics in India, is really a saffron coalition instead of a single shade. In fact, the entire exercise underscores that Modi will have to function in a more broad-based manner because those who opposed his elevation have been given key charges along with his loyalists. The entire team is ideologically balanced and also accommodates the political aspirations of others. It almost appears that the leadership is not – for the moment at least – putting all its eggs in Modi’s basket.

Yet there is no denying that Modi is still being given a significant place in the campaign for the next parliamentary election. This recognises the fact that Modi remains probably the biggest electoral draw of the BJP – the best foot that the party can put forward when it’s going to the voters. But therein lies a catch – Modi also is likely to become the biggest handicap for the party in the event of it not securing a 200 plus bounty to take it close to the majority mark of 272 required for government formation.

The reasoning of party leaders is that if the final BJP tally falls short of 200 but is more than the Congress figure, Modi is unlikely to get support. In such a situation, the BJP will have to project someone else as the leader of a non-Congress coalition. This is the reason why despite Modi being given an eminent position, his detractors and rivals are not being sidelined completely.

The situation is going to be challenging for both Modi and his party colleagues who also nurture ambitions of making it higher. For Modi the challenge is to work with those who are also likely to snap at his heels. Used to functioning in an autocratic manner, Modi will have to perforce accommodate views of others. For the other leaders of the BJP who were opposed to Modi’s elevation, the next few months will force them to play second fiddle to Modi. How the two tacitly antagonistic groups come to terms with each other yet contribute to strengthening the party’s electoral prospects, is going to be the key in the BJP’s attempt to wrest power form the Congress-led coalition.

For the moment, Modi has nudged ahead, but the RSS leaders have ensured that he does not canter ahead. The reins are firmly in the hands of the shadowy figures who control RSS and through it the entire political clan which is called the Sangh Parivar or Saffron Brotherhood.

]]> 0
True to form, India’s Narendra Modi causes stir in Reuters interview Mon, 15 Jul 2013 03:09:25 +0000

 Whenever extreme Hindu nationalist leader and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi makes any statement on the riots of 2002 or regarding inter-community relations, especially about Muslims, it invariably not only becomes the top news story of the day but also continues to reverberate for several days. Friday, July 12 turned out to one such day as international newswire agency Reuters put out a Special Report ‘The remaking of Narendra Modi’, along with edited excerpts of an interview with the man. What began as a ‘scoop’ for the agency, because Modi is not in the habit of giving many interviews, turned out to have a cascading effect because of the deluge of other reports and reactions that followed it. 

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

‘Outrageous’, ‘shameful’ and ‘puppy remark triggers new controversy’ were some of the words and phrases that dominated headlines within hours of the Reuters story hitting the Internet. From the side of Modi’s defence there were also comments and headlines: ‘unfair tirade’, ‘Modi is not communal’, ‘nothing wrong’ in claiming to be a Hindu nationalist was the basic tone and tenor of those batting for Modi.

Why is that though Modi conversed in the interview in Hindi – the language he is more at comfort with than English – he chose to say something so provocative that was sure to raise an outrage? “If a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not”, was the exact quote – surely not a civil one because it was instantly argued that Modi was drawing an analogy between the man’s best friend and those who clearly are not his best mates. Was this a slip on his part or was it another deliberate ploy – using the media – to limit the political discourse on him within the framework of the 2002 riots? Is this the latest instance of Modi managing to force his political adversaries to contest with him in his political terrain, his home base?

Just the night before the Reuters interview was released (subsequently it has been reported that it was conducted on June 25), I was asked by an old colleague who is reviewing my book for a leading books’ journal, if he could embellish his write-up with a few Q&As. When I gave him the nod, the last query was if Modi would ever apologise for 2002? I had told him that I did not think he would express any regret because it would turn his entire USP upside down.

Modi has probably used the wrong analogy and in hindsight felt that he should have chosen his words better. But his words convey his actual thinking that the victims in the 2002 riots were incidental in the path of his political growth. Any regret is only to put it on record and therefore has to be expressed in a contrived manner.

But it must be kept in mind that all evidence submitted in various courts of law have so far not established Modi’s role in the execution of the riots. Most people who were involved in managing the security in the state at that time and have later turned to Modi’s critics believe that at best Modi can be found guilty of not having responded as promptly and firmly as the situation warranted. However till the time there is a judicial verdict on this, it is a subjective opinion of observers and the matter will remain ambiguous for several years.

Journalist turned activist Teesta Setalvad has attacked the journalists from Reuters for not conducting a hard-hitting interview. She argued that the interview is not “a dispassionate or thorough exercise that attempts to genuinely probe opinions and views. It is a sensational tokenism.” Similarly, Modi’s office had called foul after the interview became public. It is evident that opinion on Modi is so sharply drawn that both camps get incensed even at professional execution of news gathering centred around Modi.

The reason for citing this statement is that it underlines the draw of Modi’s puppy comments and demonstrates that despite having made a slip, Modi has probably ended up being the winner.

As a close associate contended, the battle lines over Modi are so sharply drawn that controversial comments from Modi is unlikely to increase or decrease his support base. A majority of urban Indians have by now decided if they are pro-Modi or anti-Modi. Episodes like the controversy over the Reuters interview only sharpen the already polarised field. And of course, keep Modi in the news.

]]> 1
History, education and mangoes in Rataul, India Fri, 12 Jul 2013 07:56:15 +0000

In what place will you get the following: lessons in liberal Indian medieval history; a charitable primary school run for village children, and the most delicious mangoes which will not only tickle the palate but also churn your belly at the suggestion of over-indulgence?

The answer lies north-east of the Indian capital along a bumpy road that winds its way through the western fringes of Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest state by population. The highway is a typical Indian state highway where the weirdest of motorised innovations jostle for space with man, animal, and motor vehicles of different shapes, capacity and antiquity. As always, there are streets sellers all along – even in patches where there is little habitation. These smaller highways, after all, are the sales windows to most of rural and semi-urban India.

Given the Indian diversity in the number of fruits grown, there is always a fruit which is available in abundance and at a pittance because of a lack of proper cold chain and adequate food processing units. It is the peak of summer and this is mango season. So the highway is strewn with bullock carts loaded with mangoes.

Pic: Nilanjan Udwin.

So where does one get the best mangoes of the region?

“Go to Rataul,” you are told. Rataul is a small settlement with a population of approximately 15,000, and that it is an important destination on the mango map of India is evident as people give more than adequate directions on how to reach the place without any thought. It almost appears that people know that the moment a car stops and a window is rolled down, the face with the quizzical look will invariably seek directions to Rataul.

The village is in the district of Baghpat – political and ancestral home to Charan Singh, India’s fifth prime minister who managed to stay in office by  quirk of fate without ever facing Parliament for a single day. It now is his son Ajit Singh’s bastion. He is India’s civil aviation minister.

Recalling Baghpat’s link with this nugget of Indian history is not an exercise in futility as Zahoor Siddiqui is the one to greet us. He was a history professor for decades before retiring from Delhi University. But in our conversation we restrict the conversation to what brought us to Rataul – mangoes in which his family history played an important role and a school which he runs along with his wife to “give back something to society.”

Zahoor Siddiqui. Pic: Nilanjan Udwin.

For years one has heard about Rataul mangoes but never knew the story of their evolution. On a hot summer afternoon, the historian turned mango-cultivator and educationist says that the tryst of his village with mangoes began with his great-grandfather, Hakim-ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui, who worked for the British government in colonial India. He liked mangoes and the job took him from one place to another.  Whenever any variety of mango rested pleasurably on his palate, he secured a plant and got it sent to his village and planted in the orchard that he began developing.

By the early years of the 20th century, the orchard developed and got a name – Noor Bagh, Noor after his grandson Noor-Ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui and Bagh for the Hindustani word for orchard. Within decades the place boasted of 300 varieties of mangoes. The fame spread and so did the clones. One particular narrative that has survived decades of Indo-Pak hostilities is a quaint one about General Zia-ul-Haq gifting Indira Gandhi a hamper of premium Pakistani mangoes named Anwar Rataul.

Popular lore has it that an agitated delegation from Rataul, went to complain that theirs was the real Rataul mango and the one which the general had carried from across the border was just a variant of the original one. As if to prove that the narrative was true, a small green ripe Rataul was handed over by Nisar, the manager who is introduced to us by Siddiqui as the real mango-cultivator. Without any doubt, this small mango was among the finest that one has ever tasted.

Pic: Nilanjan Udwin.

But mangoes give the village of Rataul only its touristy identity – without which it would be lost as just one of the many settlements in the dust bowls of Uttar Pradesh. What gives Siddiqui an identity beyond being just an inheritor of the orchard is Zahoor’s creation – Salma Public School which he established along with his wife Nishat Saiyada, a trained teacher who taught previously in a government run school before seeking premature retirement.

Siddiqui and Saiyada sound extremely proud when they say that out of almost 500 students almost forty per cent of the students in this primarily level school for pre-teenagers, are girl students. Since the students are primarily Muslim, it means a lot given the abysmal rate of female literacy among Muslims.

The school charges nominal tuition fees which barely cover the salaries of the teachers – but this is levied more because of the belief that education should not be free – there must be a desire in the family to educate children. The school has continued to run for the past two decades thanks to occasional contributions from friends and admirers and even volunteers who come in often to conduct workshops for teachers.

But constraint of resources is not the only hurdle. Siddiqui explains: “We do not look at our effort in isolation but as part of the overall growth and education of the child who comes to us.” His wife adds that a major concern has been to oversee the transition of children from their school to the secondary level school and then college. “The highest dropout rate is among girls when they are in the 4th or 5th standard (between 10 -12 years old) – families then want the girls back in the homes so they can contribute to the daily chores,” Saiyada says.

It is an uphill task no doubt. For both the famed mangoes of Rataul and the educational venture of the Siddiquis. The mangoes face the danger of losing out to more cultivated varieties as more and more orchards in the vicinity either stop replanting trees or their owners branch out to new areas and leave the orchards in the care of sub-contractors focused on yield for the year.

Like many other places in India where issues and tradition is undergoing a period of transition, Rataul and its mangoes are struggling to find acceptance beyond a handful of connoisseurs who regularly troop there every mango season with people like Sohail Hashmi, a Delhi-based cultural personality-cum-activist who also organises heritage walks and a few other ‘friends of Rataul’ who pass the word around. Of course, they are helped in spreading the love for Rataul mangoes thanks to Siddiqui who always welcomes guests with warmth year after year.

Those interested in further details may connect with Sohail Hashmi on his Facebook page:

]]> 1
India in the spotlight: The Ishrat Jahan case Thu, 04 Jul 2013 07:28:06 +0000

For days there were selective leaks in the media that India’s Central Bureau of Investigations would name Gujarat Chief Minister and extreme Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, his political aide and former state security minister, Amit Shah and Rajendra Kumar, a serving officer in the Intelligence Bureau – the internal snooping agency, in the chargesheet to be submitted to an Ahmedabad court in the Ishrat Jahan case. When on Wednesday this turned out to be untrue, the question which naturally arose was if the development was a relief for Modi or a dampener in his political campaign?

Also related is what does the chargesheet reveal and how does it impact investigation of cases involving alleged extrajudicial action by Gujarat police during Modi’s tenure?

There are two aspects to the Ishrat Jahan case – the first pertains to investigations on the extrajudicial killing of the four and action against those involved in the crime. The second aspect – for which it has hogged the limelight in recent months – is its political fallout amid whispers that the killings had political sanction from the highest levels in the state. With Modi being named as the chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign committee, the investigation by CBI and its chargesheet has been followed very closely.

Narendra Modi. Pic: AP.

Modi has been campaigning for some time that the central agency has become a misnomer for Congress Bureau of Investigations. Modi argued that probes regarding his involvement in this case – and some others – were aimed at miring his political developing. Of interest has been the fact that before establishing Modi’s involvement in the case, the CBI had to first establish – and begin proceedings – against Kumar, the senior police officer who has past personal links with Modi.

This made the conflict in recent weeks between CBI and IB somewhat incongruous and indicated that it was the result of a turf war in the central political establishment. The CBI is under the control of the prime minister’s office while the IB is answerable to the Home ministry. Breaking this down politically, it suggested that the PMO wanted to begin “fixing Modi” while the ministry wanted to go by the rule book. Does this then suggest that there is actually no evidence of Modi’s direct involvement – that even if in any manner he was in the know of the extrajudicial killings, the tracks are covered impeccably and do not lead to any political master?

The CBI – and through it the political establishment – has kept its options open by saying that investigations are still underway and that a supplementary chargesheet would be brought later. The move could also be a ploy to skirt past objections of the Home ministry that Kumar should not be named in the chargesheet since he was a serving officer. But Kumar is due to retire at the end of July and thereafter no departmental clearance would be needed to begin any judicial proceedings against him.

Any direct action involving Kumar would be aimed at unravelling Modi’s involvement – if any – in the case. This is because Modi and Kumar have an association dating to 1996 when the strongman was cooling his heels in Chandigarh and after he became chief minister, Modi secured his placement in the state Intelligence department, a charge he also held when Ishrat Jahan was killed.

Modi’s supporters have argued that there have been many more extrajudicial killings – or police encounters as they are called in India – in states other than Gujarat but that the Congress party was singling out cases in Gujarat because its leaders want to stem Modi’s political growth. This argument will enable him to consolidate his position among those who support him or look at him somewhat positively without firming up their position in his ranks.

Because the Ishrat Jahan case has got caught up in a political race, a simple question has not been probed much in the past nine years. Why was a teenaged breadwinner from a lower middle-class family killed in the first instance? Was it just her ill-luck that she happened to be with the wrong people at the wrong time? Or, did she know something or see something due to which her existence posed a threat to some powerful people? The CBI has said that it needs to probe the case further to establish the motive behind the killings. If it makes any headway on this, the rest of the case will possibly unravel automatically. Till it happens, the Ishrat Jahan case will continue to show the Indian system – regardless of political party – in very poor light.


Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. The book is available at here and here.

]]> 0
India’s CBI may officially link Modi to murders, political impact uncertain Fri, 28 Jun 2013 09:04:49 +0000

There are several reports – leaked selectively to the media – that the Indian Union government controlled Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is likely to name Gujarat chief minister and extreme Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, and his key aide – Amit Shah, in a charge sheet due to be filed on July 4 in a state court in a sensitive case of alleged extra-judicial killing. If this turns out to be true, it will generate a huge political controversy. The development will also have considerable impact on Modi’s political future.

The case pertains to the death of a 19-year-old Muslim Mumbai girl, Ishrat Jahan, along with her three male companions, including a Hindu man who converted to Islam in the 1990s. The four of them were killed in police firing at an isolated stretch between the twin towns of Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad in Gujarat in June 2004.

The police claimed they were Islamic terrorists who had plotted to assassinate Modi and were on the run. Human rights campaigners and Modi’s political adversaries contended that the four were gunned down in cold blood after being detained several days prior to the incident. In selective leaks, the CBI has suggested that its investigations reveal this was indeed the case and senior police officers were complicit in the crime with “clearance” from Modi and Shah – then internal security minister of the state.

Referred to as the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, it is one of the high profile post-2002 riots probes that threatened to unsettle Modi’s career. But the timing of the disclosure – within a month of Modi being appointed as chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign committee – is unlikely to yield any political dividends for the Congress. Instead, it is likely to further consolidate Modi’s position, not just among core supporters but also among those who were somewhat inclined to support him. Legal denouement of Modi will be a long, drawn out affair if the charges are true. But prior to that, there is every likelihood of him securing political mileage.

At the centre of the alleged extra-judicial killing of the four is a senior officer of the Intelligence Bureau – Rajendra Kumar formerly head of the state unit of the IB. Kumar’s association with Modi predates him becoming chief minister. In 1996 when Modi was positioned in the northern union territory of Chandigarh and handled several states in the region, Kumar was also posted in the same city. The two got to know each other, interacted professionally and maintained ties.

After becoming chief minister, Modi secured Kumar’s transfer to the state. In 2002, after the attack of a train load of Hindu activists, the officer theorized that the attack was the handiwork of Pakistan’s intelligence department – the ISI. But this argument – which yielded political benefit for Modi – was subsequently rejected by various courts. The CBI has also selectively disclosed that fresh submissions are most likely almost entirely based on the testimony of an unnamed police officer regarding a conversation he heard between Kumar and another top cop of the state police – DG Vanzara, currently under detention in another case.

The CBI will have to take a political call if the charge sheet is to be followed by any “action” such as questioning or detention of Modi and Shah. If any action is indeed taken, further social polarization is a possible result with benefits accruing to Modi because the anti-Modi sentiment is fairly coagulated already. The government will also have to contend with the fact that the Intelligence Bureau is at loggerheads with the CBI over the latter’s attempt to indict Kumar, currently on the verge of retirement a 34 year old career in the police department.

Most of the evidence that the CBI claims it has unearthed is circumstantial – call record details that the CBI claims established that Vanzara had spoken to Shah twice barely hours before Ishrat Jahan and her colleagues were killed. In recent years, several courts have taken the path of judicial activism and directed police to take specific action. From the nature of the disclosures, it appears that the CBI is hoping that the court will direct it to take action against Modi and Shah.

If any action is initiated against Modi, he will get further isolated among political parties and even in his own political fraternity. But on the flip side, the development will further enable him to strike a more hardline posture to consolidate his primary political base. There are several precedents of political leaders in India facing criminal charges yet contesting elections and leading campaigns. It is only when a charge sheet is filed against any particular leader that holding public offices become untenable.

Modi has been chief minister for more than a decade despite being under legal scrutiny. In the course of researching on his biography written by this author, I had asked a source if the arms of law could ever catch up with him? The reply was revealing: Only dereliction of duty. The punishment? Simple imprisonment for one year, or fine, or both. But, non-cognizable and bailable.

Modi’s reaction so far to the disclosures suggests that either way he thinks, he would stand to gain. If the court presses for no further action, his supporters will claim that references to him and Shah were an instance of political vendetta. And if any probe is ordered, politics will take over his defence.


]]> 0
Political controversy envelops Uttarakhand before disaster mitigated Tue, 25 Jun 2013 07:00:56 +0000

Regarding disasters – both manmade and natural ones – there are two presuppositions in India: firstly that government – regardless of the party leading it – underplays the numbers of fatalities and the injured. Secondly – and more significantly – there is scepticism about the intent and extent of government rescue, relief and rehabilitation measures.

There is a basis in both beliefs, shared by the majority of Indians. The Indian State is not known for transparency and even after 65 years of independence, India’s disaster preparedness is nothing to talk about. As late as April this year, India’s constitutional auditor, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) stated in a report that Uttarakhand’s disaster plan doesn’t exist and the officially mandated State Disaster Management Authority, formed in October 2007, had never met.

Because of the trust deficit, disasters often have ended up in wrangling matches between political adversaries with Opposition parties wasting no opportunity to attack government. This year, political controversy has enveloped Uttarakhand much before the disaster has been mitigated and every stranded person rescued.

The Hindu holy town of Kedarnath after a flood in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand last week. Pic: AP.

The primary reason behind this disaster becoming a matter of political conflict is that India’s parliamentary polls are barely ten months away and all political parties realize that efficient management – and projection – of their conduct now will go a long way in scoring brownie points over rivals. And, like most recent controversies in thee recent past, this one also has a direct link to Gujarat chief minister and extreme Hindu nationalist leader – Narendra Modi.

It began when before any other national political leader, Modi used his most preferred tool of instant communication and tweeted on June 18 at about 8 p.m.: “Seeing extremely disturbing visuals of floods in Uttarakhand. We stand by the people during this hour & pray things get back to normal soon.” Till that time, barring rescue operations by the state government, there was no word from any national political leader. Within minutes of Modi’s tweet, handlers of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official twitter account responded – putting out five tweets to put on record that the government had initiated action and Singh was seized of the matter.

The next day, Modi became the first leader from outside the state to become proactive. He announced the formation of a team of five senior officers of the state government to coordinate relief and rescue operations for people from Gujarat who were stranded after disaster struck the Himalayan region.

Within two days, Modi also ordered special flights from Dehradun – capital of the affected state – to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. Clearly, his focus was to rescue people from his state. The same day he left for the affected areas and on June 22 he undertook a widely publicised aerial tour of the worst hit towns, hamlets and villages. Modi also visited a special relief camp which had been set up by his government in Haridwar. By this time the team of Gujarat government officials had been expanded to fifteen and people were beginning to both question and compliment Modi for his pro-activism. The state government’s PR machinery also put out to the media that 15,000 people from Gujarat had been rescued.

But Modi’s public display of efficiency sparked other political VVIPs to embark on disaster-tourism with their security paraphernalia. Even Sonia Gandhi flagged off a fleet of trucks from New Delhi carrying relief material for the flood hit people with specially alerted photographers and TV crews in tow. She had incidentally undertaken an aerial survey of the affected areas along with the prime minister on June 19, more than 72 hours after the tragedy.

The Congress also went into offensive after realising that Modi had been able to extract political mileage because of the absence of similar initiatives from other leaders. Party leader and information minister, Manish Tiwari, said Modi’s claims reflected “rank opportunism” to try and “milk a tragedy for political reasons.” But his comments appeared unconvincing as a day later Rahul Gandhi, who had been abroad when disaster struck, also flew over affected areas, thereby underscoring the need to for such symbolic visits that yield little beyond a photo-op.

Modi has in recent years built an image of himself as an efficient administrator and by the latest episode demonstrated that the tag was not exactly wrongly pinned. The fact is that the Uttarkhand government and central government gave ‘space’ to him to act and thereafter project the ‘achievement’.

It took the state government considerable time to get its act together – though when it managed to begin rescue operations, it did a commendable job. But the initial sluggish response gave space to Modi to virtually run an unstated political campaign. Though no political Indian leader would accept the argument, but the disaster in the Himalayan state has underscored that such occasions are used by them to score brownie points over each other. In the process, humanistic efforts get underplayed and the tragedy becomes a melodrama.

]]> 1