Sachidananda Murthy en Sat Oct 26 16:14:55 IST 2019 ministry-of-utmost-friendliness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>S. Jaishankar has been a very cerebral foreign minister, concentrating more on high policy of international power and relationships than his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, who was seen more as a people’s foreign minister. Sushma endeared herself as the Twitter minister, who responded to every message to her on social media. Jaishankar, on the other hand, has preferred that his profile is of a foreign policy leader connecting with the countries round the world to further relationships and to deal with shifting power balances. While his use of social media is very restricted, he has carried forward Sushma’s people-friendly approach by making the ministry equally responsive, especially when Covid-19 has upset the travel and other plans of so many people in India and abroad.</p> <p>Sushma built up hugely on the people-friendly initiatives of S.M. Krishna, who was external affairs minister under prime minister Manmohan Singh from 2009 to 2012. Krishna had revolutionised the approach of the foreign ministry towards ordinary citizens by starting a network of passport seva kendras, which used technology to issue passports and other travel documents in quick time. Even though there was another minister exclusively for overseas Indian affairs, Krishna made the Indian consulates and embassies round the world more responsive to citizens’ needs. His team would respond round the clock to emails and SMSes (Twitter and WhatsApp became popular after Krishna’s tenure) of distressed people from different parts of the world.</p> <p>The UPA’s objective of launching the Overseas Indian Affairs ministry—manned by IAS officers—was to look into the multiple woes of the Indians living abroad. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in accordance with his minimum government policy, made Sushma in charge for both the MEA and OIA. Subsequently, in 2016, the OIA ministry was merged into the MEA, to be run by diplomats.</p> <p>Sushma’s people-first approach also changed the attitudes of the foreign service, which had always held that its only brief was to deal with foreign governments and multilateral issues. She was the ultimate agony aunt for the Indian diaspora around the world. She even received requests to save troubled marriages or help those facing prosecution. With tact and humour, she declined such unviable demands on her powers.</p> <p>Jaishankar merged the people-focused divisions—passport and visa services as well as overseas Indian affairs—under one senior secretary of the ministry, and chose Sanjay Bhattacharyya, a people-friendly diplomat, to spearhead its functioning. Bhattacharyya had the heft to deal with not only Indian missions but also foreign governments on diaspora issues. The personal approach under Sushma was institutionalised by Jaishankar and Bhattacharyya, as the new system worked round the clock.</p> <p>Then Covid-19 happened, impacting millions of non-resident Indians and PIOs across the globe, with air, land and sea links snapped. The home ministry, in consultation with the foreign office, cancelled visas of not only foreigners but also of PIOs with foreign passports. The limited resumption of travel through the Vande Bharat Mission has been the MEA’s joint effort with the civil aviation ministry, which is headed by a former ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri. More than five lakh Indians stranded around the world were brought back to two dozen cities through special flights, which involved delicate negotiations with 100 countries. Then came the air corridor bubbles with countries to which Indians travel maximum for work, by allowing reciprocal flights from airlines of those countries. And, all this managed without much tweeting!</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 29 15:57:07 IST 2020 conflicts-in-capitals <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Chhattisgarh Governor Anusuiya Uikey is miffed that Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has not spared a “full-time reliable” IAS officer as secretary to the governor. Instead, Sonmoni Borah, the secretary in-charge of parliamentary affairs, has been given additional charge of Raj Bhavan. So the IAS officer reports to both Baghel and Uikey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The governor’s secretary is privy to the Raj Bhavan’s communications to and from the Central government, and Uikey is correct that the officer cannot have two bosses—especially on issues when there is a conflict between the governor and the chief minister. Uikey, an appointee of the BJP government at the Centre, has protested saying the governor has the right to appoint officials so she can “manage” the state through “quality and order”. Baghel, one of the more combative opposition chief ministers in the country, is yet to make amends by either appointing an officer of Uikey’s choice as secretary or by taking away parliamentary affairs from Borah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a common practice that the president, vice president and state governors are allowed to choose officials to serve in key positions in their establishments, even though the appointment orders are signed by the prime minister or the chief minister of the state. There have been tussles earlier at the state level when chief ministers refused officials who were the first choice of a governor, and who in turn have circumvented the obstacle by appointing their favourite outsiders as officer on special duty. When there is full rapport between the president and prime minister, presidents like Pratibha Patil and Ramnath Kovind have left it to the respective prime ministers to suggest and appoint secretaries at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The relations between 14 non-NDA chief ministers and the Central representatives in the state Raj Bhavans at present ranges from cordial to extremely hostile. At the nice end are the governors and chief ministers of Punjab, Odisha, Mizoram and Andhra Pradesh. The frosty relation in Delhi between Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has thawed to a great extent after the Supreme Court ruled on division of powers between the two constitutional functionaries. While the off-and-on relation between the BJP and AIADMK has ensured cordiality between governor and chief minister in Chennai, in nearby union territory Puducherry, the power struggle between Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi and Congress Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy saw the issue being fought in the High Court and outside.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is in the two largest cities, Kolkata and Mumbai, that the relations between the Raj Bhavan and state government secretariat are at a boiling point. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankar are accusing each other of violating and not even reading the Constitution, even though both have sworn to uphold it. They could easily get copies of it from Kolkata’s College Street, the country’s largest book market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, when Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari asked Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray if he had “turned secular”, the latter had to remind him that the word ‘secular’ was in the Constitution. Till now, Koshyari’s fame was for a report and a non-report—he headed the parliamentary committee which recommended One Rank-One Pension for all service personnel in 2011. The non-report is that of the India-Nepal Eminent Persons Group, of which Koshyari was the co-chair from the Indian side; he became governor before the readied EGP report could be submitted. Now, he will be known more for the political brawl in Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 22 16:37:19 IST 2020 problem-peaks <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For saving his salary, an adviser-level officer in the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change is bearing the entire weight of the Western Ghats, with its 77 high peaks, more than one lakh square kilometres and valleys. The figures in his monthly salary are pygmyish compared with the physical numbers of the ghats. But the National Green Tribunal has said the adviser dealing with the ecological sensitive zone would not get a rupee if the government does not implement the K. Kasturirangan committee report on declaring a large portion of the ghats as a silent zone.</p> <p>The tribunal’s order, passed on September 28, has given the official less than five months to convince the governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu that they should agree to final notification of 56,825 square kilometres of the ghats—of which Karnataka has the most (20,669 sqkm) and Gujarat has the least (449 sqkm). But the states together want at least 6,386 sqkm saved for development activities. Maharashtra has tried to balance its stance by saying that 2,570 sqkm in the state should be excluded, but an unlisted area of 1,740 sqkm can be added.</p> <p>The tribunal, headed by retired Supreme Court judge A.K. Goel, has held that the Union government cannot alter the contours without the tribunal’s orders. It has also held onto a very optimistic undertaking given by the adviser at a hearing that the notification would be issued in March this year—by which time Covid-19 began spreading its tentacles even in the sparsely populated Western Ghats.</p> <p>The tribunal’s ultimatum shows the limits of its power, as the Western Ghats issue is beyond the power of any single official or a group of officials. Political leaderships both at the Centre and in the six states have to hammer out a solution to the issue which is deeply entangled with conservation and development, as well as crores of lives. There is an urgent cry to save the fragile Western Ghats which are getting denuded by logging, industries, agriculture and urbanisation. On the other hand, there is intense pressure from residents that their right to livelihood, agriculture and industry should not be curtailed.</p> <p>Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has tried to bring the states together to agree for a broad consensus, but the BJP-ruled Karnataka itself has demanded that the draft notification should be annulled, which the Centre does not agree with. Javadekar has also not been able to get an election-free window, and the calendar is crowded in the next four years. Kerala and Tamil Nadu assemblies go to the polls next year, Goa and Gujarat in 2022, and Karnataka in 2023. There will be both Lok Sabha and Maharashtra polls in 2024.</p> <p>Some experts have suggested that the government should try to notify areas on which there is agreement between the Kasturirangan committee and the states, while more discussions can be held on contentious areas. But other experts say that a piecemeal approach would leave the disputed areas permanently out of the ecological sensitive zone, as more political pressure will be applied to retain human activities there.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the salary stoppage threat may not work, as courts have ruled that the salary committed to an employee is sacrosanct, and even when an official is suspended, he/she gets half the salary as subsistence allowance. The tribunal may have to wield other sticks to prod the recalcitrant governments to move forward on the very important issue of conservation of the Western Ghats when the matter comes up in January 2021.</p> Thu Oct 15 21:59:45 IST 2020 money-for-the-masses <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A teaser announcement by the State Bank of India has raised speculation among bankers on whether the Reserve Bank of India and the finance ministry are allowing the “elephant to dance again”, after nearly a decade. In 2011, the banking regulator had frowned on the hugely successful home loans scheme launched by the SBI’s rock star chairman O.P. Bhatt, who took the largest public sector bank to dizzying heights of financial performance.</p> <p>Now, as the country is faced with the twin crisis of existing borrowers facing repayment burdens and the banks being flush with funds, the banks are asking for innovative solutions. Groups of large borrowers have asked for relief from all kinds of interest. The two government committees, headed by former ICICI Bank chairman K.V. Kamath and the just-retired comptroller and auditor general Rajiv Mehrishi, have been tasked with giving recommendations which would ensure the stability of banks and help borrowers.</p> <p>The Supreme Court, which is monitoring the demand for total interest relief, has heard from the government that banks can only waive off the interest burden of small borrowers. The economic slowdown has also affected loan off take and the banks are looking at the salaried class to take loans.</p> <p>Bhatt, who disliked the phrase “teaser loans”, had shaken up the staid world of banking by offering concessional interest rates for housing loans to middle- and lower-income groups in February 2009, soon after the global banking crisis caused by the collapse of American investment firm Lehman Brothers. He said that the bank would charge lower interests for housing loans for the first three years and then allow normal banking rates. The prevailing interest rate was 11 per cent; SBI charged only eight per cent in the first year followed by nine per cent in the second and third years. SBI branches in the country were besieged by loan seekers and Bhatt had the satisfaction of overtaking the country’s largest housing lender, HDFC.</p> <p>Apart from the lower interest rates, the bank also cut much of the red tape in the process of loan applications; branches were decorated with buntings and customers were welcomed with soft drinks. Soon, there was a scramble among other banks to offer similar schemes. Bhatt told an interviewer that he had made the elephant (SBI) dance.</p> <p>But, the RBI, under governor D. Subbarao was not amused with Bhatt, who had had many run-ins with the apex bank. Bhatt insisted that his loan scheme should not be compared with the subprime loan pyramids, which had caused the crash of big housing banks in the US, and said he would not use the term “teaser loan” at all. He said the loans were more secure because the middle and lower classes were prompt in repayment and the bank had enough mortgages. But, the RBI feared that once the higher rates were implemented in the fourth year the risks would be unmanageable. Bhatt’s exit from SBI also meant that the RBI could ensure that the concessional interest schemes were phased out by the banks even as Bhatt’s supporters argued that repayment success rates were better for teaser loans.</p> <p>The real estate sector has been lobbying for concessional loans to boost demand for housing. But, banks have been wary of overreach, as conservative chairpersons focused on the big customers. The Bank of Baroda, into which Dena Bank and Vijaya Bank were merged this year, has offered a 0.25 per cent interest discount for existing and new home and car loan borrowers of the merged banks, as well as the car loans from the mother bank. Other public sector banks are discussing incentivising their home and car loans during the festive season, which would bring a big smile to the face of Bhatt, who had argued strongly for catering to the smaller customers.</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Oct 09 18:55:37 IST 2020 foodstuf-for-thought <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There was much amusement in 2012 when the Pakistan supreme court spent considerable time on whether the government has the right to fix the price of a <i>samosa</i> at Rs 6. After lengthy arguments by bakers’ association and the government, the lordships decided that <i>samosa</i> could not be subject to a fixed price, as the price of its ingredients, including meat, fluctuated widely.</p> <p>If the Pakistan supreme court allowed cases to pile up while examining the stuffing of <i>samosas</i>, the Indian Supreme Court may now be asked to define the meaning of ‘foodstuff’. This word, which is used in the Constitution, would be at the heart of the dispute between the Centre and states on agricultural marketing reforms.</p> <p>These reform bills were declared passed amidst din in Parliament, without allowing for voting. The resentment has spilled into the streets even as the prime minister has described the reforms as historic benefit for the farmers.</p> <p>There was discord in the ruling NDA, and one of its founders, Akali Dal, walked out of it, as violence erupted in Punjab and other states. The Congress said the reforms were a prelude to dismantling the minimum support price for foodgrains, and that the benefit would now go to big business groups, pushing farmers into debt.</p> <p>Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked her party’s chief ministers in Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry to pass their own state-specific bills to nullify the effect of the new Central law. The Centre’s lawyers say that even if they pass the bills, these cannot become law without the assent of President Ram Nath Kovind, who has to act on the advice of the Central government. But, Sonia’s move is to gain political mileage by saying that the protectionist proposals of states are blocked by an apathetic Central government.</p> <p>At the heart of the dispute is Entry 33 in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. Unlike the Union List and the State List, which give specific law-making powers to only the Union government or state governments, the Concurrent List gives equal riding rights, though there are provisions when a Central law will prevail over a state law on the same subject. Though agriculture is Entry 14 in the State List, the founding fathers brought confusion with Entry 33 of the Concurrent List, which says both governments control “trade and commerce in, and the production, supply and distribution of...., foodstuff, including edible oils and seeds.”</p> <p>Agriculture, broadly, includes food and non-food (for example, cotton) crops. States have assumed the right over it ever since the Constitution came into force in 1950. All states have enacted agricultural produce marketing laws.</p> <p>Now, the Centre has asserted its own right to bring changes not only in trade in but also in production, supply and distribution of ‘foodstuff’. The dictionary defines ‘foodstuff’ as a substance suitable for consumption as food or to make food. Thus, ‘foodstuff’ could mean agricultural products, which are consumed, or are processed to be made into food.</p> <p>Interestingly, neither the food minister (Ram Vilas Paswan) nor the food processing minister (Harsimrat Kaur, who resigned in protest) moved the new laws. They were moved by Narendra Singh Tomar, the agriculture minister.</p> <p>While the battles would be fought in Parliament and in courts, the real test for the reforms would be in the marketplace. Narendra Modi is sure that the freeing of farmers from the control of the agricultural produce marketing committees would give them the freedom to sell ‘foodstuff’ anywhere in the country for advantageous prices.</p> <p>In the government’s eyes, it is an eternal rainbow for the farmers, while the opponents fear a dark age without guaranteed prices for farmers. The fickle economic weather of the country alone will determine what the skies hold for the farmers.</p> Mon Oct 05 18:20:20 IST 2020 the-moral-no-oral <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Parliamentarians are known for unleashing oral barrages during debates, with the presiding officer having to repeatedly ask them to conclude. But the CPI’s Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam got into trouble with his party for using the word oral. Viswam thought he was taunting the government when he asked for an oral amendment during the discussion on the controversial agriculture marketing reforms. But, CPI general secretary D. Raja was not amused; perhaps more so when Viswam stated he would vote with the BJP members if Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar could give an assurance that the minimum support price scheme will be protected. While opposition parties were accusing the government of a conspiracy to dismantle the half century old price protection given to farmers, Viswam’s rhetorical flourish gave the contrary signal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even though Raja frowned, Viswam should be thrilled to get the credit for introducing the phrase “oral amendment” to the parliamentary lexicon. He had baffled experts hurriedly searching the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure to check whether a minister could amend a law by mouth. They came up with a unanimous no. Even the president or prime minister cannot alter the words of a written law. The Supreme Court can interpret it in new ways. If, during the debate, the government accepts the suggestions or demands of a member, then the concerned minister has to introduce a written amendment. The process of consideration before passing a law is called reading, where every word mentioned in the draft is considered and approved clause by clause.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In one way, Viswam was not wrong. Two oral assurances made to Parliament and to state governments have been controversial. Both, interestingly, involve former finance minister Arun Jaitley. One is the Centre refusing to pay the shortfall in GST this year; Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has told all states to borrow the shortfall from the Reserve Bank of India. Though BJP- and NDA-run governments have agreed, while murmuring about the interest burdens, finance ministers of opposition-ruled states such as Punjab, Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra are crying foul. They quote a promise by Jaitley in 2016. Jaitley had insisted in both the finance ministers’ conference and in Parliament that any shortfall would be paid out of the GST compensation fund.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Jaitley had declared “We will compensate...”, his successor, Sitharaman, and Attorney General K.K. Venugopal are convinced that “We” meant the GST Council, of which the Centre and the states are members. The finance ministry insists that it was not a grand “We” meaning the Central government, but a collective “We” referring to the Union and state governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other instance of an oral assurance not being followed through was when Jaitley wriggled out of a verbal commitment made to Parliament by former prime minister Manmohan Singh. While intervening in an acrimonious debate on the bill to divide Andhra Pradesh in 2014, Singh told the agitated members from what would be the residual state of Andhra Pradesh, without the cash cow of Hyderabad, that the Centre would give special status to the state for a decade. But, the elections saw the rout of the Congress and the emergence of Telugu Desam Party-BJP combine in Andhra. Chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, put pressure, first friendly, then annoyedly, on the Central government, run by his regional ally, to make good on the promise by Singh. It would have meant more Central funds and support for mega projects.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, Jaitley turned the tables. He asked Naidu why the oral agreement was not incorporated into the bill by the Congress. He added that the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendation of higher revenue share to states from Central taxes had abolished the special status scheme, and that Parliament had accepted it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Naidu could not get it for five years and now his successor Jagan Mohan Reddy has also not got it. Given the pressures on the economy, that is another pie in the sky.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 25 17:46:06 IST 2020 redrawing-red-lines <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made a virtual address to the US-sponsored multinational convention on Afghanistan in Doha recently, India crossed a self-imposed red line. The convention attended by representatives of many countries had nominees of the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. Two decades after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government decided not to have dealings with the Taliban, in the wake of its support to the hijackers of the Indian Airlines flight 814, New Delhi has boldly altered its anathema list of governments and entities. The message is that India does not mind the Taliban in the Afghan tent, as long as the elected Afghan government is also there.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even while dealing with China’s transgression on the border, Jaishankar has found time to promote the new vision of Indian foreign policy through his new book based on his long experience as a diplomat. He has indicated that it is time for India to respond quickly to changes in global power. He wants to abandon the old black-and-white perception of foreign policy where friends and non-friends were clearly identified, and policies remained immutable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The alternative is either grey or technicolor, depending on one’s pessimism or optimism. But, India has agreed with interlocutors like the US, Qatar and the European Union that the talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban should be given a chance, while keeping an eye on Pakistan’s puppeteering of the Taliban through the integration of the dreaded Haqqani Network into its leadership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The foreign ministry also feels the participation is a necessary recognition of India, which had been left out of earlier conferences on Afghanistan during the 18-year war by the US. Pakistan had always tried to circumscribe India’s role in its western neighbour. The US has its own objectives now—ensure Indian security participation and use India to bring out the erstwhile northern alliance groups opposed to the Taliban.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s red line has evolved since independence because of the hostility of certain governments and entities or because of India’s own ideological impulses. The government did not recognise or deal with countries which practised aparthied like South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), rather supporting leaders like Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe who led movements to liberate those countries. The Pakistan army and its offspring, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which are accused of sponsoring terrorism, have been anathema. After initial support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the government has shunned the LTTE ever since the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Specific issues like Khalistani activism (Canada), non-extradition of Purulia bomb drop convict Kim Davey (Denmark), opposition to the scrapping of Article 370 (Turkey) and non-extradition of wanted preacher Zakir Naik (Malaysia) have put countries on the negative list, too. Portugal, which for long was avoided after the liberation of Goa, is now an enthusiastic India supporter in Europe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Israel was on the no-go list because of India’s strong support for the Palestinian cause. It was given diplomatic recognition by the Narasimha Rao government after the Cold War ended, and in turn helped to soften American sanctions after the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. The wisdom in the government is that alterations to the red line, like taking Israel off the negative list, have been helpful in many ways. If talking to the Taliban is a departure from past policy, the self-imposed restraint not to displease China can also be reworked, if Beijing does not relent on the Line of Actual Control.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 17 15:10:50 IST 2020 criticism-commendation-and-key <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The adjective ‘idiosyncratic’, meaning an individual whim or fancy, appears just four times in the Reserve Bank of India’s 308-page annual report, which was made public a fortnight ago. But it was enough to make senior bureaucrats and economists in Delhi share the report online and discuss the implications, as the word is used to criticise policies that contributed to economic slowdown in the last five years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Decisions taken by key economic ministries like finance, transport, ports, coal and civil aviation came under the scanner. The report notes that the enforcement of emission and axle load norms for commercial vehicles was an idiosyncratic event. The decision was announced and implemented by the transport ministry, but the deadlines were rigidly enforced by the Supreme Court. Listed among domestic and global idiosyncratic factors are the grounding of a domestic airline (Jet Airways), financial sector stress, revenue issues in telecom sector, coal production losses impacting railway freight traffic and lessened port activity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The candid report by RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das lists the “formidable drags” that led to the slowdown from 2018 itself, weighing heavily on “animal spirits” of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. Using the virus analogy, the report warns that the usual risks that are relegated to the background—due to the stimulus packages of the Central government and the RBI—“may be sinisterly mutating”, thereby predicting newer economic viruses that would plague the country even after the vaccine is administered to the population. Barring this warning, the report is a continuous commendation of the RBI’s responses initiated since early 2019. The report also lists out steps to be taken to put the economy and the banking system back on track. The RBI’s prescription is monetising assets of the Centre in steel, coal, power, railways and ports, which has already been announced as part of the Rs20 lakh crore stimulus package.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The RBI’s thumbs-up for privatisation came just a few days before the death of Swami Kesavananda Bharati, who was associated with the 1973 Supreme Court judgment on basic structure of the Constitution. It was a judgment that changed not just the law but politics itself. But the pontiff, who focused on spirituality and music, was fighting for the citizen’s fundamental right to property, in order to prevent the Communist government of Kerala from taking over the mutt’s lands. The Supreme Court registry had clubbed his case with the appeals of some businessmen who were fighting nationalisation of their assets by the leftist government of Indira Gandhi. It became a fight for the control of the nation’s political and economic soul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After defeating the grand coalition in 1971, Indira Gandhi went on a nationalisation spree. The grand coalition was made up of the rightist Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Swatantra parties, the left-of-centre socialists and the rightist syndicate faction of the Congress, and was supported by privilege-stripped maharajas, land-owning classes and private businesses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While privatisation of the nationalised sectors began with the 1991 economic reforms of a Congress government, the second wave of ambitious privatisation is being undertaken by the Narendra Modi government. The aim is not only to monetise the state assets but also to make an ideological statement on privatisation of property, which would have thrilled the petitioners and their backers in the Kesavananda Bharati case.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it was the genius of the Supreme Court of that time that took a dispute on property ownership to answer the larger questions of the Constitution and its unalterable basic structure, of which an independent Reserve Bank of India is a vital part.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:10:15 IST 2020 stand-at-ease <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global pandemic has given the Indian economy many severe shocks. On that large frightening canvas, the decision by the World Bank to suspend its Ease of Doing Business index for 2018 and 2020 is only a pinprick.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 17-year-old index, which ranks 190 countries on the way they allow businesses to be established and to function, has been a beacon of verification for Modinomics. During the six years of the prime minister’s tenure, India jumped 77 places in the index, from a lowly 134 in 2014 to a healthier 63 in 2020. The global lending institution has cited flaws in data collection and interpretation from certain countries for pausing the index, but the reporting fraud has happened in four other countries, including China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not known when the global benchmark will return and how much credibility it will then retain, as the index measured in two large business cities is extrapolated to an entire country. The bank measures ten major indices, including procedures for starting a business—like electricity connection, property registrations, environmental clearance, getting financial credit, protection—to investment, reasonability of central and local taxes, enforcement of contracts and resolution of insolvency.</p> <p>Thus, New Zealand has been on top of this greasy pole. India breached the 100 barrier only in 1999, when it was ranked 77, and moved up another 13 places. Since 2014, the Prime Minister’s Office has focused on eventually making India achieve a number below 50, while aiming for the moon—a single digit ranking. That is why the first economic stimulus package for tackling Covid-19 had many provisions to make life easier for start-ups and medium and small enterprises. However, the proposal to dilute environmental and labour laws and regulations has met with strong resistance from political parties, activist groups and labour unions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the most ardent champions of the successes of the government in easing business has been Amitabh Kant, the NITI Aayog CEO. He had been secretary in charge of the department of industrial policy and promotion, directly entrusted with providing a business-friendly environment. Kant has been using the World Bank honours to prove that the policies of the Modi government have worked. He is unfazed by the World Bank decision, especially as there is no suspicious finger at India. He has assured global and domestic investors that easing the regulations and restrictions would move at a furious pace.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The World Bank had cited three major legislative acts including GST, insolvency and bankruptcy code, and the relaxation of the land acquisition act as motivation for investors and entrepreneurs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bibek Debroy, the chairman of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, who sits in the same building as Kant, has been campaigning relentlessly for doing away with obsolete laws and regulations. Based on studies done by Debroy before joining the Modi government, Parliament scrapped more than one hundred obsolete laws. But, there are more laws still on the books at the Centre and in the states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the last six years, the Modi government has been on a law making spree. The strong focus on security issues has made the cabinet accept more procedures and regulations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As bank frauds, asset stripping of companies and cases of money laundering increased, stricter financial norms were required, as the government had to protect the interests of investors, banks and the national exchequer. Interestingly, reform lobbyists have been happy with the decision not to appoint a chairman and members of the Law Commission for several months, as the commission, too, churns out new regulatory laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The push and pull of external conditions and governance demands will depend on the pace at which ease of doing business is enabled in these abnormal times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 03 15:42:48 IST 2020 make-the-fund-public <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Amid his grim preoccupations on domestic and foreign fronts, Narendra Modi released visuals of him taking care of peacocks in his residence in New Delhi. These visuals gave rare glimpses of the softer side of the workaholic prime minister, and brought back memories of president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam attending to an injured peacock at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.</p> <p>If peacock care has been a ‘light motif’, Modi’s feathers remained unruffled in a more weighty matter relating to the PM-CARES Fund, which has received more than Rs10,000 crore as donations for Covid-19 relief. The Supreme Court has ruled that the fund is not a government initiative and hence need not be statutorily audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The court also said the money collected need not go into the National Disaster Response Fund, even though the government has declared the disease a biological and medical disaster. But critics want the fund to be open to public scrutiny, as the money is collected in the name of the prime minister and three top ministers.</p> <p>The Supreme Court agreed with a government lawyer that the fund has nothing to do with government and that it is a public charitable trust under the Registration Act, whose accounts can be checked by a private auditor. The court accepted the statement that the fund would be used to fight the pandemic and for giving economic relief to those affected.</p> <p>The fund was set up soon after lockdown was imposed and there was a flood of donations from private and public sector companies, their employees, celebrities and ordinary citizens. Besides, there was compulsory deduction of a day’s salary of several categories of government employees.</p> <p>Though the government claimed in court that it has remained at an arm’s length from the fund, its fingerprints are all over the fund. Like many government schemes, it is named after the prime minister, giving the impression of a government-sponsored initiative. The PMO has aggressively pushed for donations through all ministries, and announced disbursal of Rs3,100 crore, much of it through state governments and district collectors. Funds were given to a group monitored by the government’s chief scientific adviser to develop a vaccine. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a fund trustee, gave approval for income tax exemptions for donations and to treat them as part of corporate social responsibility. The other two ex officio trustees are Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Modi can also appoint three eminent persons from outside the government as trustees.</p> <p>The PMO has told RTI applicants that the trust is not a “public institution” and has declined to give them information. It is true that the prime minister is free to be chairman of a trust. He heads the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, but then it was established by an act of Parliament and gets government funding.</p> <p>The opposition parties plan to demand a discussion on the fund when Parliament meets soon. The government is likely to use the same arguments it did in the Supreme Court to counter them. But it can disarm them even better by showing Parliament the trust’s account books.</p> <p>The peacock is magnificent even when it does not display its plumage. Similarly, the PM-CARES Fund will shine as a symbol of caregiving when it becomes a public institution, embellishing the promise of selflessness and accountability made to the nation when Modi first became prime minister six years ago.</p> Thu Aug 27 17:22:21 IST 2020 no-easy-answers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Central and state governments are faced with the difficult decision of unlocking schools and colleges in the country. It is much tougher than deciding on reopening metro train services or cinema theatres or allowing religious, social and political gatherings. While going to cinemas or marriages is optional and occasional, attending schools and colleges is a compulsory and daily activity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In many western countries, there are demands to reopen schools and some countries have allowed children to return to schools, but in India, states are unwilling to open schools for a variety of reasons. The Central government itself runs thousands of schools, colleges and universities, all of which have far more space per student than schools run by state governments, municipal councils and panchayat bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the other hand, there is concern about keeping tens of millions of students at home for long periods. Even though online classes are encouraged, their reach is not more than 60 per cent compared with regular classes. There is not enough wireless connectivity in rural and urban slums. Political parties and activist groups have pointed out that children from families with economic and social disadvantages lack access due to affordability and infrastructure reasons.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The hope that there would only be a deferment of three to four months in the 2020-21 academic season seems to be misplaced. The worsening pandemic situation across the country has made administrators more cautious and the plan to restart classes in September has been deferred. Some even want the government to wait till a vaccine is developed and administered to the population.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Private school teachers are facing another jeopardy. They are worried about the cascading effects of the long closure of schools, as parents plan to pull out their wards or stop paying fees, which could result in job losses. Parents feel the pressure of children remaining at home, missing competitive learning, sports and extracurricular activities. Obesity and other health issues develop quickly in children who spend more time using computers and watching television.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Supreme Court has, meanwhile, raised the question whether the country can afford to wait to reopen its educational institutions till a vaccine is ready. The court made the observation while greenlighting entrance examinations for engineering and other professional courses, with strict observance of Covid-19 protocols.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the efforts to spread digital links to villages and slums, a good percentage of the population is either not connected digitally or is constrained by economic handicap. According to one estimate, nearly one crore students are not able to access online classes, and many rural school teachers are not able to connect with their students.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are touching anecdotes of conscientious teachers going to homes without connectivity to teach children so that they do not miss out on crucial lessons. As education departments across the country try to restart classes with safety measures, the first problem they confront is that of space. Classes with reduced capacity will have to be held in shifts or alternate dates.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The second problem pertains to hygiene as maintenance of toilets and canteens—where they exist—is not up to new requirements. Finally, although children seem to be less affected by Covid-19 than other age groups, regular travel to schools poses a risk. Reopening of educational institutions, therefore, remains a knotty question, as decision-makers wonder whether it is better to be safe than sorry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Aug 21 13:34:00 IST 2020 the-damage-control-portfolio <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Political office holders across states often meet at conferences based on their designations or the subjects they handle. Chief ministers, assembly speakers, ministers of specific portfolios and even chief whips have conferences. The only political appointees who do not have a meeting club of their own are the deputy chief ministers.</p> <p>With the dismissal of Sachin Pilot, the Congress lost its lone representative among deputy chief ministers, whose number has now dropped to 24. Among the 28 full-fledged states and two semi-states (Delhi and Puducherry), 16 have the deputy chief minister post—which does not find a mention in the Constitution.</p> <p>The BJP has the maximum number of deputy chief ministers—including the one in Bihar where the party is the junior partner to Janata Dal (United). Interestingly, even small states with tiny legislatures have deputy chief ministers, showing the compulsions on chief ministers with regard to coalitions and factions within ruling parties. The National People’s Party, a small regional outfit, has two deputy chief ministers—in Meghalaya and Manipur.</p> <p>Pilot had a complaint that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot did not care for him during the one-and-a-half years when they were cabinet colleagues. The ill-treatment of Pilot is one of the “grievances” which will be examined by a Congress committee headed by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.</p> <p>But Pilot’s case is not in isolation. When Karnataka’s B.S. Yediyurappa government celebrated the completion of its first year, Laxman Savadi, one of the three deputy chief ministers, skipped the celebrations and went to Delhi to complain to the BJP high command that he was being ignored by the state strongman. Apart from the trio, Yediyurappa has a former chief minister and two former deputy chief ministers in his cabinet, and has omitted all six from his kitchen cabinet. Yediyurappa was shocked when the high command ignored his preferences last year and forced the trio on him.</p> <p>Unlike Yediyurappa, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has had a smooth sailing with his two deputy chief ministers—Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya. In the last three years, the chief minister has climbed high in the party hierarchy and expanded his popular base. If the most populous state in the country has two deputies, so does tiny Goa where the BJP is on a continuous poaching expedition to ensure that numbers are shored up to prevent a raid from the Congress.</p> <p>Gujarat’s deputy chief minister Nitin Patel had made his displeasure known when he did not get a politically big portfolio. But once his demand was accepted, his working relationship with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani improved.</p> <p>Even though he has no challengers within the party and has a massive majority in the state assembly, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has created a national record for maximum number of deputies. Not two or three, there are five in the mid-sized state. Reddy has picked the five from five different castes and religions to show that he has a rainbow government.</p> <p>Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has great clout as he handles major portfolios and enjoys a distinct number two status after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.</p> <p>In neighbouring Haryana, all eyes are on young dynast Dushyant Chautala, whose great-grandfather Chaudhary Devi Lal was deputy prime minister in two short-lived governments. As deputy to the BJP Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, Chautala is vying to build his Jannayak Janta Party at the expense of main opposition party, the Congress.<br> With peace returning to Rajasthan, the Congress, too, may soon have a representative among the country’s deputy chief ministers.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Aug 13 14:16:20 IST 2020 trains-for-the-future <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The power to dream big in times of difficulties is both brave and poignant. For the Indian Railways, the pandemic season has been a very shrinking experience. From the normal of 13,500 passenger services a day across the country, it is just plying 230 special trains. Several of these trains are running empty, even with Covid-related restrictions on coach capacity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The national carrier’s budget has taken a hit by the loss of Rs40,000 crore in five months, forcing the Rail Bhavan to suspend all developmental activities, and allowing only safety-related works to continue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, there is one exception to the curfew on new projects. The Railways is pushing ahead with the prime minister’s dream project of a 300kmph bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The Railway Board’s optimistic chairman, V.K. Yadav, with strong support from the PMO, has again green signalled the project, which has been mired in difficulties ever since Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid the foundation stone in 2017 for the mega project costing more than one lakh crore rupees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The project, which gets Rs80,000 crore soft loan from Japan, has been delayed because of hitches in acquiring 1,434 hectares of land in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Even when Maharashtra had a BJP-Shiv Sena government, land acquisition, which included the prized Mumbai Terminus (Bandra Kurla Complex), proved complex. Now difficulties have multiplied, as the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition has no enthusiasm. Even in the BJP-ruled Gujarat, there were strong protests by farmers, and the leader of the agitation has been persuaded to join the BJP, smoothening the tracks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The disparity in land acquired is clear—76 per cent in Gujarat and 24 per cent in Maharashtra. But the government wants tendering to begin during the auspicious Diwali time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The constant for the project has been Abe, who, in May 2013, signed a memorandum of understanding with Manmohan Singh for a feasibility study to be conducted for high-speed rail corridors in the country with Japanese collaboration. But, it was Modi who catalysed the first segment on the 508km stretch between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The project has been criticised as one of the prime minister’s vanity projects, along with the Central Vista scheme for a new Parliament and government buildings in Delhi. But Modi has strongly advocated that India has to enter the high-speed rail league of Japan, China and France. Interestingly, the Railway Board has now proposed six more high-speed corridors, two of which link Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi, with Delhi and Kolkata. The national capital will also get linked with either bullet trains or semi-bullet trains (of 200 to 250kmph) with Ahmedabad and Amritsar. Mumbai will get additional links to Nagpur and Hyderabad, while the southern representation will link Chennai with Mysuru.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, even if the land acquisition is completed and the Maharashtra government cooperates fully, the first train, with each passenger paying Rs3,000, will run from Ahmedabad to Mumbai only in December 2023. The original date scheduled was August 15, 2022, which marks 75 years of India’s independence. It would be just ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections and would not be a handicap in campaigning on government’s achievements. Even as the bullet train track is being developed, the Railways is keeping a weary eye on the track of the Covid pandemic, which has gone spreading beyond official deadlines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 06 18:11:46 IST 2020 check-on-chiefs <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>BJP president J.P. Nadda had a plan to convene a conclave of the party’s chief ministers on July 29. But that plan has changed, and Nadda is now meeting the chief ministers one by one via videoconferencing. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has been punctual about holding meetings of its chief ministers and its deputy chief ministers in states where it is a junior partner in government. Currently the party rules 12 states and is a junior partner in Bihar. Deputy chief ministers of the BJP-headed states are also invited to take part in the conclave, normally.</p> <p>The chief ministers’conclave was started by veteran leader L.K. Advani in the early 1990s. There was strong emphasis at that time on implementation of the promises made by the party in its state-level manifestos. The meetings discussed organisational issues, too. The state governments were also advised to assist party activists in neighbouring states. The tenure of A.B. Vajpayee as prime minister from 1998 to 2004 saw a different dynamic, as the chief ministers could get to interact with multiple Union ministers and demand better deals for their states.</p> <p>The geographic spread of the BJP in states shrank last year, after the party lost a series of regional elections. But the inorganic growth through defections has brought back the party to power in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.</p> <p>Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa celebrated his first year by ensuring that all those who defected from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) were accommodated in the state legislature, even while placating two dozen party loyalists with chairmanships of boards and corporations.</p> <p>In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan accommodated loyalists of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had helped topple the Congress government, while holding out the promise to accommodate disgruntled BJP legislators.</p> <p>Since 2014, the party’s central leadership has been keen on receiving report cards from the states on implementation of the Central schemes and on how they are popularising the work and message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party is worried that anti-incumbency has become a greater phenomenon in the states in the last three years. Among the current chief ministers, only a few were projected prior to elections. Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh, Jai Ram Thakur in Himachal Pradesh and Trivendra Singh Rawat in Uttarakhand were all post-electoral surprise choices.</p> <p>Two of the states where the BJP is in government, Bihar and Assam, are going to the polls soon and the party is anxious to retain power there. It has launched a fierce digital campaign in Bihar and has declared that the alliance will be headed by Janata Dal (United) supremo Nitish Kumar once again. In Assam, the electoral activity will pick up after the monsoon.</p> <p>The focal point in the conclaves now is Uttar Pradesh, where Adityanath has been running a brute-majority government. His main focus is on policing and economic development. His war on criminals has had its successes as well as controversies. Adityanath’s tough attitude towards minorities has also been questioned, but the party justifies it as a correction to the appeasement policies of the previous government. Adityanath has bet big on industrialisation and, supported by Modi, is jacking up infrastructure so that foreign and domestic investors flock to Uttar Pradesh. But electoral delivery will still be a challenge for him as the party’s Lok Sabha sweep is credited only to Modi.</p> <p>Nadda, who is out to prove himself as a strong organisation man, is pushing the chief ministers hard to popularise not only the Union government’s 020 lakh crore stimulus package, but also the human touch of the relief provided by the government through free rations and subsidies.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 30 18:29:28 IST 2020 prevention-and-fear <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>After ruthlessly launching the Rajasthan Police against his own party’s ministers and MLAs, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has hurriedly withdrawn the general permission given to the Central Bureau of Investigation to take up cases in the state. The order came just when it seemed that the Centre was going to transfer to the CBI an audiotape case against Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and some MLAs, which was being probed by Rajasthan’s Special Operations Group.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Gehlot camp insisted that it had ordered the SOG investigation to expose an “unholy nexus” between the BJP and Congress rebels led by Sachin Pilot. It also alleged that the Centre was misusing the Enforcement Directorate to raid two businessmen friends of the chief minister’s family. But, the BJP argued that the ED raids sought to expose rampant corruption around the chief minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ED, the National Investigation Agency and the income tax department—unlike the CBI—do not need state government permission as they investigate crimes under the Central list, like terrorism and tax evasion. But in the case of CBI investigation of crimes not on the Central list, the states can withhold permission under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the cases that the CBI is investigating in Rajasthan involves the Olympian discus thrower Krishna Poonia, who is a Congress MLA. She is accused of pressuring a police officer in Churu district who killed himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI has long been at the centre of a tussle between the Union government and states. A few years ago, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh withdrew consent for CBI operations. However, Andhra Pradesh cancelled its decision after Jagan Mohan Reddy replaced N. Chandrababu Naidu as chief minister in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was in 1977 that the CBI was denied investigative freedom in a particular state for the first time. The Janata Party government at the Centre had at that time decided to act on a corruption charge-sheet against Karnataka chief minister D. Devaraj Urs of the Congress. He quickly withdrew permission to the CBI and appointed an inquiry commission headed by former High Court judge Mir Iqbal Hussain. The Centre appointed its own commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge A.N. Grover. The apex court ruled that the Grover commission had the sole right to probe the charge-sheet. But, Grover could not use the CBI as Urs had withdrawn permission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gehlot’s preventive action would not stop the Centre from using other agencies. The NIA is under the Union home minister, and the ED and the income tax department are under the Union finance minister. Until the 1970s, the CBI was part of the home ministry. But, the prime minister’s office felt it gave too much power to the home minister, so the agency was placed under the department of personnel and training, which is under the prime minister. Later, the Supreme Court gave supervisory powers to the Central Vigilance Commission, to provide autonomy to the CBI. However, the three vigilance commissioners are appointed by the Central government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress alleged that Central agencies were “skilfully” used to topple its governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. If Gehlot survives Pilot’s revolt, he would be in a strong position to take on the Centre, which may bide its time. For now, CBI teams can continue to work on cases in Rajasthan that are already registered and have been referred by the Jodhpur High Court or the Supreme Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 23 15:12:03 IST 2020 jail-bail-and-the-frail <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Covid-19 spread its tentacles, several high courts gave liberal bail orders to reduce congestion in prisons. The Delhi High Court, for instance, extended the interim bail of 2,961 undertrial prisoners by 45 days. This action came after the Supreme Court asked high courts to form committees to consider applications fit for bail.</p> <p>While high courts granted bail to undertrials who faced simple charges, opposition parties and civil liberties organisations demanded similar concessions to high-profile political prisoners, including those held under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or in preventive detention in states like Jammu and Kashmir. But the Central government and several state governments are against releasing them, even the elderly and the ill who are more vulnerable to the virus.</p> <p>There is a high-voltage campaign in Maharashtra for bail to naxal activists and sympathisers who were arrested for supporting the Elgar Parishad rally near Pune. But, the National Investigation Agency has stoutly opposed their bail applications moved on medical grounds.</p> <p>The octogenarian poet Varavara Rao has become a symbol of the political prisoners. His family says his life is in danger as he is very ill, but the Central government is firm that people facing serious charges that can attract seven years imprisonment should not get bail.</p> <p>The laws enacted in India do not recognise anyone as a “political prisoner”. This phrase was last accepted by the Indian state when lakhs of people were imprisoned under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act during the Emergency.</p> <p>Seven of the leaders who had opposed the Emergency—Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, A.B. Vajpayee, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Narendra Modi—became prime ministers, but the tough laws against political activities deemed as unlawful have remained in the statute book. In fact, violent agitations in Punjab, the northeast and Kashmir provoked enactment of harsher laws like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.</p> <p>The UAPA, enacted in 1967, was strengthened last year. Its critics say this law has been invoked against political dissenters who oppose the class or caste system or state oppression. But, governments argue that these dissenters and intellectuals are promoting violence and encouraging Maoists and separatists who are trying to break up the country. Pro-government voices have described many academics as “urban naxals”. One of them, the Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, is a lifer in wheelchair.</p> <p>The police say incarceration of these intellectuals breaks the Maoists’ command and control chain, and so Rao and his dozen friends should not get bail.</p> <p>Home ministries note that high courts’ bail review committees have not released non-political undertrials charged with murder, rioting and money laundering. They insist that even political workers who take part in public demonstrations should be slapped with serious charges like attempt to murder, rioting, destruction of public property or obstruction of public offices from functioning.</p> <p>But, when the party of these “offenders” comes to power, the charges are waived routinely as vindictive actions of the previous government. Rao and his fellow prisoners, however, have little chance of getting bail unless the higher judiciary intervenes.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 16 17:42:02 IST 2020 administer-sans-minister <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The phrase ‘group of ministers’ is anathema to the Narendra Modi government, as it was a much ridiculed tool of decision-making in the Manmohan Singh government. In the decade-long rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the GoMs were constituted on every third important subject before the cabinet. Pranab Mukherjee, till he became president, headed the most number of GoMs; fellow ministers frequented his offices in different ministries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Modi did constitute these groups—for inter-ministerial issues that needed to be sorted out—they were given complicated names to avoid the acronym GoM. One popular title was ‘alternative mechanism’, but the names kept changing. A ministerial group headed by Home Minister Amit Shah to decide on disinvestment is called Air India-Specific Alternative Mechanism. But its recommendations need to go to either the cabinet or the cabinet committee on economic affairs, as it happened during the UPA government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, when the Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown called for large-scale coordination among ministries, a group of ministers was constituted under the chairmanship of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The group met regularly in the initial weeks of the lockdown to solve complex issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the frequency of the meetings came down as there were fewer issues to consider as the lockdown progressed, and also because another governmental mechanism took over. Instead of burdening ministers with routine subjects, the cabinet secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office set up 10 committees of secretaries of ministries. These committees were tasked with specific issues like ensuring availability of drugs, protective gear and other medical equipment, transportation of goods and people, protection of migrant labourers, supply of food grains and other essential commodities, community messaging and propping up industries. Members included heads of large public-sector companies like the Food Corporation of India, Indian Oil Corporation, National Housing Bank, Employees Provident Fund, Indian Railways and National Highways Authority of India and various port trusts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The secretaries would coordinate among themselves and consult with ministers only on policy issues. Officials deputed from the Prime Minister’s Office would give the final green light after consulting with P.K. Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister. So there was a sense of quicker decision-making.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These committees also created the framework for the Rs20 lakh crore economic stimulus package and the slew of reforms announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Some ministers wanted to announce measures relating to their sectors, but they were advised that it would be better if a single minister announced the whole package. Fellow ministers could take ownership by organising a big event to implement the decisions involving their ministries. Thus, Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi could organise a big virtual function to launch the privatisation of coal mining, which was attended by Prime Minister Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The slew of reforms put a heavy load on the legislative affairs department of the law ministry, which had to quickly vet the drafts of ordinances issued by President Ram Nath Kovind and several new rules which were gazetted. It is to be seen how this new system to tackle the fallout from health and economic emergencies would redefine the minister-bureaucrat relationship in a government dominated by Modi’s power and persona.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 09 16:46:15 IST 2020 rage-for-reforms <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Memorialists of P.V. Narasimha Rao recall not only his prime ministership, but also how he had been politically punished by the Congress in the early 1970s for ushering in land reforms in Andhra Pradesh as the state’s chief minister. There are also the sentimentalists who look at how Rao’s 1991 economic reforms spurred growth, and argue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take a leaf out of the former’s book to revive the slackening economy.</p> <p>Unlike communists, land reforms have always been a tricky subject for the Congress—the party needs to balance it across the spectrum of its support base. Interestingly, the legacy of another Congress chief minister, D. Devaraj Urs—who executed major land reforms in Karnataka—has been dismantled during this pandemic period. In 1974, Urs gave land to the tillers and banned non-agriculturists from buying agricultural land. His policies dispossessed four million absentee landlords, but built a new vote bank for the Congress, which helped both his return to power and Indira Gandhi’s stunning political comeback in 1978.</p> <p><br> Karnataka was a state where those who had non-agricultural income over a modest threshold could not buy agricultural land without special dispensation from the state government. Ironically, the BJP’s B.S. Yediyurappa, who was stung by a series of land-scam allegations during his first term as Karnataka chief minister, has now taken the plunge to junk the land laws of Urs, and allow free land purchase for individuals and companies. A huge edifice of laws is being junked to make rural land a free-trade commodity. The Congress in opposition says it is a counter-reform which will dispossess farmers of agricultural lands. The party also alleges that this will lead to monopoly holdings.</p> <p>Urs had imposed fixed ceiling on land holdings, enforced by tribunals packed with Congressmen. But Yediyurappa’s reforms have rhymed well with the Centre’s decision to loosen the Essential Commodities Act, allowing free trade of many agricultural commodities across the country.</p> <p>But the Karnataka initiative is a part of the growing trend among Central and state governments to force changes in well-entrenched laws. In the 2000s, change was much more incremental than under the dynamic team of Rao-Manmohan Singh-P. Chidambaram, though there was a minor encore from the A.B. Vajpayee-Yashwant Sinha-Murasoli Maran team. The pandemic situation has seen the BJP-ruled governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka being joined by the Congress-ruled Rajasthan in bringing major changes in labour laws. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu governments have promised reforms after they stabilise the alarming outbreak of Covid-19. Amid strong protests from trade unions and lukewarm response of employers, the governments did little to implement the decision to extend working hours and suspend major labour laws. The employer bodies had more problems with the bureaucratic hurdles, rather than labour management. They pointed out that there were more issues that had to be sorted out by the ministries of finance and industries, rather than labour.</p> <p>The Union government has announced privatisation of several strategic sectors including atomic energy, space, defence, coal and mines. It has also gone ahead with a controversial decision to change environmental norms, by giving more freedom for economic activity in eco-sensitive areas.</p> <p>The 1991 reforms of Rao were based on the revolutionary Congress manifesto prepared for former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi—who had been assassinated in the middle of elections. The 1991 reforms clicked because the global economy was in a healthy state. But the current reforms face the headwinds unleashed by a global economic slowdown.</p> <p><a href=""><b></b></a></p> Thu Jul 02 19:46:12 IST 2020 an-oily-challenge <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Daily rise in the prices of petrol and diesel for a fortnight in June has made retail consumers unhappy. The Narendra Modi government is facing unfavourable comparisons with similar price hikes during the Manmohan Singh regime. Critics have dug up the statements made by Modi and other BJP leaders criticising UPA for burdening the common man.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government and the BJP have adopted a strategic silence, refusing to explain why the prices are shooting when global oil prices are very low. An otherwise voluble Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has also been quiet, while the oil marketing companies shrug and point at the finance ministry—which needs more revenue as tax collections are down.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the Covid-19-induced restrictions have put street protests on hold. A significant marker is that diesel is no more a holy fuel, and its price would almost match with that of petrol after a few more hikes. There were times when diesel was selling at half the price of petrol as it was considered an essential subsidy for farmers, Railways and road transport sector. It was one of the essentials for farmers along with cheap fertilisers, free power and zero income tax. Governments would tremble at hiking the costs of agricultural input or for imposing income tax on farmers. But the Modi government, which has a vision to limit subsidies, has tackled those for fertilisers and diesel in the last six years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the first acts of Ananth Kumar as Union fertilisers minister in 2014 was to get Modi’s approval for changing the subsidy scheme for fertilisers, where the differential amount between factory price and sales price was directly going to fertiliser factories. Then, neem-coated fertilisers were promoted by the government to eliminate diversion of fertilisers for industrial use. The success in limiting fertiliser subsidies gave confidence to the government to tackle diesel subsidies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Modi government claims that dependence on diesel has come down due to improvement in electricity supply—as it made water pumps more efficient. The government also claims that increase in support prices for cereals means big farmers could now absorb the rising diesel prices. There was a time when ruling party leaders used to appeal to the prime minister and the petroleum minister not to increase the diesel and kerosene prices, as it would upset rural voters. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana programme has increased the usage of cooking gas extensively, saving both kerosene and firewood. This has, in turn, led to increase in the green cover and wildlife, as fewer trees are now felled for cooking purposes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political leaders feel that price increase protests can become a mass agitation only if there is a severe shortage of essential commodities. The economic reforms started in 1991 have taken care of the supply side of almost all essential commodities. Unlike fertilisers and fuel, the Centre has not been able to raise electricity prices in rural areas, because states, run by all parties including the BJP, are committed to give free power. That is why under the new economic reforms, loans to state governments is made conditional on power sector reforms. But increasing power tariffs is a tricky business as the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala has discovered during the lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As far as income tax on agricultural income is concerned, the NITI Aayog and the income tax department had recommended reforms during Modi’s first term itself. But the then finance minister, Arun Jaitley, had scotched it saying government would not tax farmers. Comparatively, diesel price hike is a low hanging fruit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 26 12:08:56 IST 2020 cost-of-reserve <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Diplomacy is one profession where statements are made carefully, especially if it involves intruding into other ministerial domains. But Sanjay Bhattacharyya—the secretary in the external affairs ministry, who has been coordinating Mission Vande Bharat—has tweeted something which should evoke interest in the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India. Bhattacharyya, who has served as ambassador in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, looked at one of the major positives of the Covid-19 crisis—India’s foreign exchange reserves hitting the $500 billion mark. In early January, it was $461 billion.</p> <p>Bhattacharyya wonders whether this is “too high” and feels it is time to reconsider the optimal reserve level, and capitalise the excess. Ever since foreign reserves started growing after the economic reforms of 1991, there has been questions whether these funds should sit idle with the Reserve Bank or can be used to meet government expenditure. Successive finance ministers have considered using it, but Reserve Bank governors and economists have consistently argued against tinkering with the funds. They said that the reserves are a hedge against currency manipulation and sudden surge in imports, while being a morale booster to attract both long-term and short-term investment.</p> <p>There were also suggestions that the reserves should be used to pay off the huge foreign debts. But, it has been pointed out that these loans, procured at low interest rates with long repayment periods, need not be paid in a hurry, even though there is a substantial interest burden on the budget every year. Economists argue that the country has a huge import bill due to the dependence on oil imports and needs to maintain a more than adequate reserve, especially if there is a sharp drop in exports like during the pandemic.</p> <p>But cashing even 20 per cent of the reserves would release Rs 6.5 lakh crore to meet the ever growing hunger of the Central and state governments. In 2018, the Narendra Modi government asked the Reserve Bank to transfer more than Rs 3 lakh crore of its reserves. The Central bank’s governors Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel had resisted the idea, but it happened after a committee led by former governor Bimal Jalan studied the surplus and made a detailed recommendation. The money went into the consolidated fund, helping the government to reduce the fiscal deficit.</p> <p>The finance ministry is happy that the flow of foreign institutional investments (FII) into the stock and other markets has not suffered because of the global economic crisis; India is still considered a reasonable country to invest in. The government is also anticipating that the reforms announced as part of the Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus package, like opening up defence, space, agriculture, coal and mining for foreign investments, would fetch more long-term foreign direct investment. FDI is less prone to be withdrawn compared with FII which come into the markets. The information technology ministry is also expecting a Rs 1 lakh crore investment into the electronics industry under the new scheme approved by the cabinet to go for self reliance in the hardware sector.</p> <p>But there are economists who point out that the reserves may not stay at $500 billion, as payments are released towards pending import bills and imports shoot up post the current crisis. Thus they want to look at the actual position of balance of payments between imports and exports before any move is made to use even a small portion of the foreign exchange reserves. However, if the economic slowdown persists longer, Bhattacharyya’s suggestion may merit urgent consideration by a government in dire need of funds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p></p> Mon Jun 22 16:50:57 IST 2020 gowda-returns <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In Britain, when prime ministers resign, they also lose the leadership of their parties, and soon leave the House of Commons. They either get elevated to the House of Lords or, like many recent prime ministers, stay out of active politics. The last British leader to make a comeback to prime ministership was Harold Wilson in 1974.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for former Indian prime ministers, Parliament is a magnet. Thus H.D. Deve Gowda is returning to Parliament after having lost the Lok Sabha elections last year. Gowda would be 93 when he completes the six-year term. He has contested every Lok Sabha elections since 1991, except in 1996.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the 1996 elections produced a hung parliament, Gowda was Karnataka chief minister. The United Front chose Gowda as the leader of its government, which was a surprise. He wanted to join the Lok Sabha, but his colleagues persuaded him to take the easy route of a Rajya Sabha berth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gowda led the country for 11 months. Since then he has won the Lok Sabha elections five times and lost twice. Last year, he had hinted at electoral retirement after losing to a BJP stalwart in Karnataka. But now he has heeded to the appeal of Sonia Gandhi and other top leaders to come back to the Rajya Sabha. Gowda is an active participant in parliamentary debates and attends even committee meetings without worrying about protocol.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister to return to Parliament after losing power. In 1978, she won a byelection from Karnataka, but her bitter opponents in the Janata Party were determined to keep her out. She was arrested from the Lok Sabha on allegations of misleading Parliament in the Jeep Scandal, and was expelled from its membership. It was another matter that she rode back to power within a year, winning from two Lok Sabha constituencies. Morarji Desai, the first non-Congress prime minister retired from electoral politics after he was toppled in 1979. Rajiv Gandhi had a brief tenure as leader of opposition after being prime minister, but was assassinated during the 1991 election campaign.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee, Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh—all returned to Parliament after losing power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Charan Singh, who resigned without attending Parliament as prime minister, did not take much interest in proceedings while in opposition, Vajpayee was troubled by ill health after losing the top job, and made rare appearances in the Lok Sabha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In opposition, Narasimha Rao had the double mortification of facing a party coup and corruption cases. Chandra Shekhar, however, played the role of a senior statesmen during the tenure of five prime ministers. Known as Adhyakshji, he would counsel treasury and opposition benches, as he had friends across the political spectrum. Manmohan Singh has been regularly attending the Rajya Sabha in the last six years; his rare but pointed interventions in debates have made the Narendra Modi government sit and take notice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gowda insisted on sitting in the last bench of the Lok Sabha when he lost the first seat of prime minister. He had a tough time with speaker Somnath Chatterjee who would just give a couple of minutes to him—because Gowda was the lone member of his party, and Chatterjee insisted on allotting speaking time based on numerical strength of political parties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But United Progressive Alliance leaders would persuade Chatterjee to give more time to Gowda, and later he was granted a front row seat—a convention for former prime ministers and deputy prime ministers in Parliament. As he did in the last edition of the Lok Sabha, Gowda has to find ways to make a government with full majority hear his views.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 12 15:14:00 IST 2020 political-porcupines <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the Covid-19 and migrant crisis grips the country, the ruling parties at the Centre and in the states are becoming very sensitive to criticism by the opposition parties. If the BJP at the Centre complains that the Congress and left parties are weakening the morale of the fight against the twin national crises of health and economy, the ruling Shiv Sena in Maharashtra is attacking the BJP for the same reasons.</p> <p>Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury have been caustic in their remarks about how the Union government has handled the pandemic. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which is part of the National Democratic Alliance, has flayed the Congress government in Punjab. The Congress, which invited left parties for an opposition conclave in Delhi, has been lambasting the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala. In West Bengal, it is the ruling party at the Centre versus the state ruler—Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee complains she is being targeted particularly by the Centre, while the BJP alleges that her Covid management is poor. Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party is keener on attacking a fellow opposition party, the Congress, than the Yogi Adityanath government.</p> <p>The ruling parties insist that the claims of mismanagement, for example, of the migrant crisis are a direct attack on frontline workers like the railway workers. But the critics argue that the railway workers were ready to move migrants from day one of the national lockdown, but the rail links were shut by an order of the political executive. Ministers and leaders of ruling parties of all colours and ideologies argue that it is the duty of the opposition to cooperate during a national or state crisis, rather than criticise. This is not the first time that ruling parties are taking exception to opposition criticism. When United Progressive Alliance ruled at the Centre, Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat, was accused of playing politics during the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai and the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand.Though the parties in power argue that there is a broad convention that the opposition does not criticise the government in critical times, the same parties, while in opposition, do not consider it an ironclad rule. Normally during tense military confrontations, the Congress and the BJP say that as the government has all the information, it should take the decisions. But this principle has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance during both UPA and NDA regimes.</p> <p>Another convention is that the prime minister should not be criticised when he is out of the country, but this old British precedent has been abandoned. While Manmohan Singh was criticised by the BJP for his discussions with Pakistan, Modi, too, came under criticism for his impromptu visit to Lahore to meet Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Suave prime ministers like A.B. Vajpayee and P.V. Narasimha Rao used to brief the opposition leaders much more intensively than Modi and Manmohan Singh. After the national lockdown, Modi held an all-party meeting via videoconference. Several chief ministers also held all-party meetings. But the coronavirus has not stilled the political noise. The clamour has only grown day by day, as in most other democracies around the world.</p> Mon Jun 08 22:38:36 IST 2020 reactionary-regimes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the lockdown is easing, there are doubts whether the new-found initiatives of several Central ministries will sustain when normalcy returns. The much-hyped claim of the human resource development ministry on the switch to online education has got a reality check as schools and colleges are reporting that they are not able to provide substantial coverage, especially in villages and impoverished urban centres.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Centre’s BharatNet programme has claimed near-total optic fibre connectivity in the country, but its next phase—covering every home and individual—has a long way to go. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government’s promise that the city would be a ‘Wi-Fi metropolis’ remains unfulfilled, with only a small part of the city having dependable connectivity. Even cities known as tech hubs—Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Gurugram—do not have cheap or free connectivity for all residents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While bureaucrats advised schools and colleges to switch to online classes during the lockdown, the experience of government and corporation-run schools has not been encouraging in many states. Teachers themselves have not been trained to give their classes online and managing a remote class scattered across multiple locations has been challenging. Even several universities have said that they have not been able to achieve maximum reach, and have advocated opening physical classrooms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though demonetisation increased digital currency, the dependence on cash has not come down. Similarly, if online classes increase, experts feel a huge budget and time would be required to move education online. Apart from connectivity issues, there is a lack of affordable and compatible hardware across the student spectrum. Some experts feel that relying on the internet for education may widen the social gap, unless the government supplies computers to needy students.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The UPA government had launched a programme for supplying a tablet, costing 010,000, to each student, but the project did not take off. The NDA government did not think of it as a viable option. Similarly, the enthusiasm of some state governments to supply free laptops, like the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, was not followed up by successive regimes. There is an argument that smartphones can do the job, but school managements and teachers’ associations are sceptical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are also doubts about the overall development of children if they are confined to homes, and lack contact with teachers, who inspire, guide and correct. The demand for a total switch to digital education would need a national debate, as the recent Kasturirangan report on national education policy did not consider in detail the pros and cons of switching over to digital education. Even this one-year-old draft report is yet to be considered and adopted by the government. There are concerns about the commonality of digitally prepared curriculum, providing remote laboratories for science subjects for every student, and extracurricular activities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another issue is the extreme enthusiasm for keeping labour laws in abeyance in some states in the wake of the lockdown as the governments did not hold extensive dialogues. While some of the laws have become antiquated because of the fast changes in manufacturing, services and society itself, the migrant crisis has exposed the perils of multi-layered subcontracting, especially in construction and road-building projects. There is a clamour that such far-reaching changes should not come as reactions to a pandemic, but after informed and time-bound public discussion, including debates in Parliament and the Lok Sabha. The haste to strike when the country is in lockdown can make the hammer miss its mark.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 28 18:10:50 IST 2020 the-right-leaning-reforms <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The final two tranches of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcements on public sector irked the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the country’s largest trade union—which is part of the sangh parivar—as they would throw unionised workers at the mercy of private sector wolves. But the decision to restrict the role of government companies in the most sensitive sectors is a vindication of the ruling party’s economic pledge since the Jana Sangh days. Indira Gandhi had used the nationalisation weapon in 1969-1977 period to punish industrialists who were against her. She had nationalised the entire coal industry which was backing her opponents, and, 47 years later, the industry will welcome private players.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi grew up in the inner circles of the BJP hearing the fierce opposition of its stalwarts, led by A. B. Vajpayee, to the ills of nationalisation. He was part of manifesto drafting committees which criticised “inefficient state capitalism... promoted at the cost of our entrepreneurial class”. These words were in the 1998 manifesto which helped the party win enough votes to form a viable government, and immediately Vajpayee pushed for disinvestment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, industries minister Sikander Bhakt threw a tantrum as the prime minister directly ordered dilution of government shares in Maruti Udyog, a public sector company created by Indira Gandhi in 1981. In 2002, Vajpayee received a cheque from the Japanese partner Suzuki when they gained full control; by 2006, the government did not want a single share in India’s most profitable carmaker.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Jana Sangh’s economic philosophy was shaped by its leaders, a group of right-leaning businessmen led by Viren J. Shah, and economy writers led by Jay Dubashi. Though Vajpayee could sell half a dozen public sector companies, he could not go the whole hog due to resistance from its regional allies. But disinvestment became part of political vocabulary in UPA period also. Now there are 120 major public sector enterprises of which two dozen companies generate profits of Rs10,000 crore each.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi had been cautious in the first term on privatisation, preferring to merge banks and petroleum companies, as well as sell minority stakes. Lack of majority in Rajya Sabha is a handicap for him as many of the reforms as part of Covid-19 stimulus package need approval from both houses of Parliament. However, the success of pushing through changes in Kashmir through the Rajya Sabha has given him confidence. Now, strategic sectors like space and atomic energy will be opened up, while the government will have a policy on public sector, restricting number of public enterprises in different sectors to four. As there are more government companies in the profitable areas of banking, petroleum, power and mining, either the companies would get merged or sold, along with 19 identified loss-making companies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress and left parties are saying the second wave of reforms would help cronies of the BJP in a big way. Interestingly, through the 1970s to late 1990s, the Jana Sangh and the BJP leaders had accused the Congress of using nationalisation and other economic policies to grow a breed of crony capitalists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, trade unions across the political spectrum are planning protests as the new reform is threatening their unionised bases in public sector enterprises. Apart from ideological commitments, Modi is confident that he can score other goals by shrinking the public sector. It would bring more revenue to government through licences, royalties and revenue sharing; improve India’s ranking in the World Bank’s global index of ease-of-doing business; and distract from miseries of the pandemic-induced lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 22 17:09:44 IST 2020 ministers-vs-super-bureaucrat <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>People get “high” after consuming good quantities of alcohol, but ministers and the top bureaucrat of Punjab are in high temper over a discussion on liquor policy. Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal, who has led the ministerial revolt against Chief Secretary Karan Avtar Singh, however calls it a “high” policy debate, not an ego clash.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the row over liquor licenses between ministers and Avtar Singh—who was heading the excise department—has given light entertainment in a state hit by lockdown. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh gently chided Badal and his colleagues for walking out of a liquor policy meeting. During the meeting, Avtar Singh felt that ministers were supporting liquor sellers, while the ministers accused the bureaucrat of owning a distillery through his son. The chief minister felt that the ministers should have asked the chief secretary to leave the room, as he is below the ministers in protocol.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ministers said they would boycott the cabinet meeting if Avtar Singh is present. Amarinder Singh asked his favourite bureaucrat to take leave for half day when the cabinet was meeting. When the ministers attended but protested the behaviour of Avtar Singh, the leader asked them to dictate an “unofficial” resolution of their intention to boycott. But he also asked them to pass an “official” resolution that the chief minister alone will decide on liquor policy. Within an hour, Avtar Singh was back at the side of the chief minister. However to keep peace in cabinet, Avtar was divested of excise and taxation departments a day later.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In several states, bureaucrats close to chief ministers have caused resentment among ministers. In Odisha and Bihar, chief ministers Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik have favoured such “super bureaucrats” with Rajya Sabha memberships. In Haryana, Home and Health Minister Anil Vij—who has had differences with chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar—finds himself being overruled by the chief secretary on orders from above.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under the government business transaction rules, if there is an irreconcilable difference on a subject between a minister and a departmental secretary, then the subject should go to the cabinet. At the Centre, the cabinet secretary is never the secretary-in-charge of a ministry and does not report to a minister. But in states, the chief secretary sometimes handles a department, and can have more than one boss. That is what has happened to Avtar Singh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there have been clashes in the Union cabinet, too. Deputy prime minister Devi Lal used to complain that prime minister V.P. Singh was using the cabinet secretary and other officials to thwart proposals from the agriculture ministry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1994, there was a fierce exchange of words between the Union minister of state for food, Kalpnath Rai, and cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah. The abnormal rise in sugar prices had become a crisis for the P. V. Narasimha Rao government. The civil supplies ministry proposed procurement of sugar at lower prices, which Rai opposed. Saifullah argued against Rai. The high-tempered Rai stormed out of the cabinet saying Saifullah and other officials were chaprasis (peons). The top bureaucrats were incensed and started a signature campaign.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rao appointed a retired bureaucrat to hold an inquiry; when the uproar died down, he dropped Rai from the government. By then Saifullah, too, retired. In subsequent governments, food and civil supplies have been brought under one minister to avoid policy clashes supporting the producer and the consumer. Amarinder Singh would find his own solution to the “high” dispute at the pinnacle of the Punjab government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 14 17:51:26 IST 2020 who-will-save-mehbooba <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Has Mehbooba Mufti become a forgotten figure? Her preventive detention began when Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status, was demoted from a state and split into two Union territories on August 5, 2019. She was the last chief minister of the state and is, at present, the most high-profile political prisoner in the country. The petitions for her release filed by her family members are pending in the courts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The flurry of political activity that led to demands for release of two other former J&amp;K chief ministers—Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar—has not been there for the only woman chief minister of J&amp;K. In fact, for octogenarian Farooq, it was the Rajya Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, who filed a petition in the Supreme Court. Interestingly, when Farooq’s father—Sheikh Abdullah, former prime minister of J&amp;K (before the title was changed to chief minister)—was kept in preventive detention for 11 years by the Jawaharlal Nehru government, he spent nine of those years in Tamil Nadu’s Kodaikanal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There was demand from opposition parties for the release of all three former chief ministers, but it was more forceful in the case of the Abdullahs. The Congress and its allies have been unhappy that Mehbooba and her father, former J&amp;K chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, formed a coalition government with the NDA in 2014 after the elections resulted in a hung assembly. Mehbooba succeeded her father as chief minister post his death in 2016, after prolonged suspense on whether the alliance would continue. The Muftis’ Peoples Democratic Party had earlier shared power with the Congress. The PDP had pulled out of that coalition at Mehbooba’s urging. The Congress is now more comfortable with the Abdullahs’ National Conference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Central government has told courts that political leaders were detained as their speeches and reactions were inciting violence and encouraging separatist elements in the Kashmir and Jammu regions. Home Minister Amit Shah justified the detentions by pointing out how the Congress had incarcerated Sheikh Abdullah and others for more than a decade.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Farooq and Omar were released, the government has been more wary of Mehbooba, whose PDP has been disintegrating. The government feels she is moving closer to the separatists and wants to occupy the opposition space. The Congress is also wary as it feels that strong support to Mehbooba may give the BJP the chance to push the rhetoric that the Congress is soft on the Kashmir issue. Mehbooba’s daughter, Iltija, has been running her mother’s social media accounts and carrying on the political battle for the battered PDP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even though Mufti Muhammad Sayeed was once part of the Janata Parivar and was the home minister in the V.P. Singh government in 1989, Mehbooba has not maintained much contact with the regional parties which were part of that alliance. The political flux in J&amp;K, which can have an elected assembly under the new division, is also making parties hedge their bets; the BJP wants to dominate the new assembly when elections are held and is promoting a new regional outfit in the valley.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Amid the political vacuum, the second most political family in the valley has not publicly reached out to the anti-BJP opposition much, which suits the BJP fine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 08 19:43:34 IST 2020 remote-possibilities-in-mumbai <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Bhagat Singh Koshyari is a man who loves to take his time. Or, as critics say, the Maharashtra governor waits patiently for a word from Delhi while dealing with Constitutional issues, especially if they are unfavourable to the BJP. But when the signal comes, he acts with lightning speed, as was evident when he swore Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar as chief minister and deputy chief minister in November last year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, Koshyari’s silence on the recommendation of the Maharashtra cabinet to nominate Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to the legislative council has caused speculation. Of course, this time, Koshyari has the luxury of weeks to decide as Thackeray has to become a member of the legislative assembly or the legislative council only before May 28.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under the Constitution, a chief minister or a minister has to get into the legislature within six months of taking oath. The chief minister of Maharashtra had not contested in the election, but his plan to get elected to the legislative council on March 26 got derailed as the Election Commission postponed polls due to the pandemic. So, instead of Thackeray, it was Pawar who presided over the cabinet meeting which noted Thackeray’s eligibility to be nominated. Thackeray was advised to stay away as it would amount to conflict of interest. The Constitution says the 12 nominated MLCs should be experts in literature, science, arts, co-operative movement and social service. The cabinet noted Thackeray excelled in arts, as he is a wildlife photographer and does social service as head of the Shiv Sena.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Governors use their powers to scrutinise cabinet recommendations when they are on opposite poles. This is not the first time a chief minister was nominated. It happened two years after the Constitution was adopted, in 1952, when the governor of the erstwhile Madras State nominated C. Rajagopalachari as chief minister to the legislative council to fulfil his Constitutional obligation. Informally, the ruling alliance of Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress has conveyed that, if necessary, Thackeray would get elected through an election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there is a definite timeline hitch as the governor’s nod is sought for a vacancy in the nomination category, which expires on June 6. Some experts argue that since nominations for four slots had been made on June 5, 2014, the governor cannot nominate Thackeray for a very short term, which is less than a year. They argue that Koshyari, if he wants to nominate Thackeray, can make the order effective from June 6. But the CM can save his chair only if he is nominated at least on May 27. The state government’s legal eagles say the six year term starts on the day of nomination, as is the case with eminent persons picked for membership of Rajya Sabha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some local leaders have suggested that if Koshyari declines to nominate Thackeray before May 27, the alliance could re-elect Thackeray and ask him to be sworn in again, or choose a Shiv Sena member to be the stopgap CM. The first option runs into a problem because the re-swearing in of Thackeray would mean that the two terms would be seen as continuous, and it would fall foul of the Tej Pratap Singh judgement of the Supreme Court. Singh had become a minister in Punjab and could not get elected to assembly within six months. He resigned and was made a minister again. Five years later, the apex court ruled that the ministership without legislature membership beyond six months was invalid and unconstitutional.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If it is the second option, Thackeray could appoint either his son Aditya or senior Shiv Sena minister Eknath Shinde as stopgap CM. He would be following the precedent of his father and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who never occupied the CM’s chair but ruled through proxies. Bal Thackeray famously said the remote control was with him. But for now it is Koshyari who holds the button.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 30 20:20:07 IST 2020 messages-ignored <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Indore district administration in Madhya Pradesh is baffled on one aspect. The district is one of the Covid-19 hotspots in the country and officials are sure that most of the carriers got off flights from Dubai, the city’s only international airlink. Not all passengers were subjected to a fever check on arrival, nor was an effective self-quarantine system followed. The administration wishes it had received advice in advance on how to handle the airport. A consequential speculation is that Indore would have fared better if powerful ministries at the Centre had read their tea leaves—in this case, E-grams from Indian ambassadors abroad—and joined the dots.</p> <p>E-gram is the governmental term for telegram in the internet era. Ambassadors and high commissioners of all countries keep the highest powers in their governments aware of what is happening, including confidential information and advice. In India, the recipients are the president, vice president, prime minister and a few top ministers and bureaucrats.</p> <p>There are also E-grams meant only for the eyes of the prime minister, containing communication from a foreign head of government and other ultra-secrets. During the negotiations for the civil nuclear deal with the US, the ambassador in Washington would brief only Manmohan Singh, keeping others out of the loop.</p> <p>If the E-grams received from China, Iran, Iraq, Italy and other countries since January had reflected the developing crisis, then there was a shadow between information and action in sealing the air borders. Vikram Misri, Indian ambassador to China, who had been arranging for the evacuation of Indians from Wuhan, has kept his ear to the ground on the virus spread and is now coordinating imports of testing kits and personnel protection equipment. As have the ambassadors in other highly affected countries.</p> <p>Returnees anxious to avoid enforced self-quarantine came via countries that were not in top priority screening. Airports in the Gulf were main transit points for those who had been to Europe and North America. The crisis showed that the Bureau of Immigration was overstretched as there has been an explosion in air travel. The bureau’s leadership, which had earlier dealt with SARS and Ebola entering India, is now using the lockdown period to tighten security gaps that can let in disease carriers. The crisis shows that even top bureaucrats like the cabinet secretary and home secretary need to read the foreign reports in detail and act upon them.</p> <p>During the rule of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an E-gram sent by the Australian high commission had caused an international storm of queries. The Australian diplomat had reported that an Indian finance ministry official had privately said that India would not take any more foreign loans. The Australian foreign ministry asked missions in multilateral lending organisations to check. Other countries, too, wanted to know whether one of the world’s largest borrowers was changing its policy.</p> <p>Finance minister Jaswant Singh used his diplomatic skills to manage the queries, as there was only loud thinking that the NDA government should shed the borrower image of the Congress days. But wise counsel said it was prudent to borrow at no interest and repay it over a long period, rather than borrowing from the market.</p> <p>Unlike other democracies, Indian governments have never released the E-grams (and earlier telegrams), treating them as permanent official secrets. Even historians writing on independent India’s policies have depended on E-grams released by western countries, written by their ambassadors posted in India. But in the present, it is critical for the restricted readership to read the E-grams and act in real-time.</p> Thu Apr 23 18:23:46 IST 2020 eye-on-foreign-designs <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>But for digital networking, the stock market, operating from a very crowded street in South Mumbai, would have been closed for business as part of the national lockdown. But stockbroking is no more a brick-and-mortar activity. If stockbrokers were still turning up at Zaveri Bazaar, it was out of old habit and also because their offices were in the neighbourhood. Now, the sale and purchase happen in globally linked networks, administered, also remotely, by the Securities and Exchange Board of India.</p> <p>During the lockdown and the weeks preceding it, the markets have been hammered by international and domestic forces, with the Sensex sliding down to where it was when Narendra Modi took office, wiping out the massive gains made during his 72-month rule. Along with equity transactions, the markets dealing with commodities, precious metals and currencies, too, are open but fluctuating. While headlines speak of investors losing huge amounts because of plummeting prices, the sell-off by institutional and retail investors is causing a change in the ownership mosaic of several listed companies.</p> <p>Several promoter groups with deep pockets have been buying their own company’s shares as the prices have come down because of global reasons and not because of changes in the fundamentals of the company. There are reports that blue-chip groups like the Tatas, Aditya Birla and Reliance have made use of the slump to shore up their portfolios. Similarly, big overseas investor groups that have bet big on India are also buying shares of established as well as greenfield companies, both for a say in the management and to hold enough stocks to sell when the boom period returns.</p> <p>But Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has raised a genuine concern, and his admirers insist it is as prescient as his warning in early February about the need for a master strategy to prevent the spread of Covid-19. After it became clear that the People’s Bank of China had been acquiring shares in HDFC (it now holds over one per cent stake in the country’s largest private bank), Gandhi said that the economic slowdown had weakened companies in India and he wanted the government to prevent “foreign interests” from taking control of any company “at this time of national crisis”.</p> <p>It is easier said than done though, as all governments from 1991 onwards have allowed both foreign direct investment and share market access to foreign players, specifying sectors and shareholding limits in areas ranging from banking to automobiles to pharmaceuticals. Indian promoters of several successful companies, from airports to white goods, have sold their shares to foreign interests. Any sudden withdrawal of these rules could have a shock effect on the economy. The government, however, has prevented any Pakistani investments for national security reasons. The security establishment is also wary about Chinese investments.</p> <p>Ownership regulations for the banking sector have been controversial for long. As the Reserve Bank of India wanted promoters to slash their holdings to 15 per cent within 15 years of getting a banking licence, many promoters shed their equities for profits. Only Kotak fought a court battle to hold on to its larger shares. There is a feeling that Yes Bank promoters indulged in many shenanigans as their equity base was low and there was no “ownership stake”.</p> <p>Normally, finance ministers do not intervene when markets fall or rise. Manmohan Singh’s famous statement that he does not lose sleep over the markets has been repeated by some of his successors. It will be interesting to see how Nirmala Sitharaman will react to Rahul Gandhi’s concerns.</p> Sat Apr 18 10:17:45 IST 2020 coronomic-cost <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p lang="en-GB" style="margin-bottom: 0cm;">Former Congress treasurer Motilal Vora shared an interesting anecdote in his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha a day before the lockdown was announced. When he was governor of Uttar Pradesh during the president’s rule in 1993, he got a desperate call from then Lucknow MP Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The future prime minister said that an important road in the state capital was in bad condition and that three chief ministers, including Kalyan Singh of Vajpayee’s own BJP, had not got it repaired. Vajpayee, a bachelor, had quipped that no young husband risked taking his pregnant wife on the road. Vora got the road repaired quickly.</p> <p> </p> <p lang="en-GB" style="margin-bottom: 0cm;">Vajpayee had been upset that he could not sanction a road repair even though he was the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. Hundreds of MPs in the Tenth Lok Sabha shared this feeling and in 1993 they asked a weakened prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to give them some financial powers. A key mover was Mamata Banerjee who could not get a tree planted in communist-ruled West Bengal. Lok Sabha speaker Shivraj Patil strongly supported the move. The CPI(M) opposed it and so did then finance minister Manmohan Singh. The bureaucracy argued it would be a waste of money and would lead to corruption. But Rao knew his survival depended on the MPs and the speaker every time there was a vote in Parliament. After consulting a supportive Vajpayee, he launched the MP Local Area Development Fund, allotting 05 lakh per year to each MP. </p> <p> </p> <p lang="en-GB" style="margin-bottom: 0cm;">It was continued by all Rao’s successors, including Singh. Over the years, the fund grew to Rs5 crore per year and the scope of projects widened. Over Rs50,000 crore has been spent under the scheme. Lok Sabha members had to spend the funds in their constituencies and Rajya Sabha members had to spend it in states from where they were elected. Nominated members of both houses could use their funds anywhere in the country. A survey found that nearly half the funds went to “roadways, railways, pathways and bridges” where boards would proclaim the munificence of the MP. Some funds were released to help societies and trusts run by influential castes and for religious works to woo vote banks. However, the fund also facilitated laboratories in IITs, dialysis and chemotherapy units in government hospitals and school classrooms.</p> <p> </p> <p lang="en-GB" style="margin-bottom: 0cm;">Successive ministers for programme implementation have expanded the scheme and ensured that balance funds could be used by successor MPs. Buoyed by the Central scheme, MLAs, corporators and councillors got their own development funds. Now, Narendra Modi, a prime minister who does not depend on MPs for his power, has suspended the scheme for two years to save funds for the battle against Covid-19. There have been howls of protests from opposition parties which have demanded reconsideration of the decision as there was no assurance that the amounts forfeited by MPs would be put to use in their constituencies. Ruling party MPs have stoically accepted the decision, with one of them noting that “coronomics” will demand sacrifices. MPs who are not from the parties ruling their states—a majority in states like Kerala, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—feel that the suspension of the scheme weakens their ability to get things done in their constituencies. Some MPs are happy because there was too much competition among supporters for these funds, not to mention recalcitrant bureaucrats. For now, the scheme is in limbo. But once normalcy resumes, there may be a clamour for its restoration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 09 17:03:46 IST 2020 no-truck-with-the-virus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When pandemics come, truckers across the world are in focus. They are essential for service, but they are also vulnerable. They are constantly on the move through different climate, hygiene and lifestyle zones, as they keep moving vital goods and live for long periods away from home. Their relevance came to the fore yet again when the state and city borders were clogged with trucks, their loads and hapless crews. Though the country has seen multi-lane highways mushroom, little attention has been paid to the welfare of drivers and their assistants, with the national highways authority more fascinated by electronic management of the system.</p> <p>The initial lockdown order had only allowed movement of essential commodities, but the police enforcing the lockdown had not got clear instructions. While trucks with “nonessential” goods like raw materials and machinery parked where they were, even trucks carrying food and medical goods came under extra scrutiny. As the home ministry kept tightening the lockdown orders, there was more confusion.</p> <p>Finally, it took the inter-ministerial management skills of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (among the five cabinet members with chief ministerial experience, including Narendra Modi) to sort out the issue. As head of the ministerial group to implement the response to the crisis, Singh agreed with Industries Minister Piyush Goyal that movement of goods was essential to keep the economy ticking. The group also took some of the load off the prime minister as all ministers were looking to Modi for direction. The earlier group under Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, which managed the screening and patient containment policies, was subsumed into the larger group, which drew in ministers dealing with rural economy like Narendra Singh Tomar (agriculture and rural development), Ram Vilas Paswan (food and civil supplies) and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (water resources). As number two in the cabinet, Singh carried the clout and persuasive powers to ensure implementation of decisions.</p> <p>The group discussed the lack of flow of goods in and out of rural areas, where small and medium-sized vehicles play a big role. Farmers across the country complained that their produce—from perishables like flowers and milk to food grains—was not being picked. The government ordered that all goods transport vehicles be allowed to ply, but the lockdown is still affecting their movement.</p> <p>Meanwhile, activists have flagged health and safety concerns of the truckers. The government is now working on supplying safety gear to truckers and also testing them regularly.</p> <p>Two decades ago, the health ministry, under its mission to combat the spread of HIV, had identified truckers as a vulnerable group and had sensitised them regarding precautions. It was a long and sustained campaign. Now, the new pandemic has not given the government the luxury of time and the medical force is already burdened with an uneven fight to contain the virus. The road transport and industries ministries, with their counterparts in the states and Union territories, will have to take responsibility to keep the wheels of the economy moving by ensuring a proper work and rest schedule for the eight-million-strong transport family—drivers, helpers, loaders and agents spread across the country—so that they move only goods and not the virus.</p> Sat Apr 04 14:48:01 IST 2020 anti-viral-salvos-diplomatic-salves <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as Indian diplomats posted abroad are busy coping with the public health crisis, the external affairs ministry is readying its response for important shifts in the political landscape of Asia. The ban on travel into India, even for Indian citizens, from more than 75 countries has stranded millions of workers and tourists, so the embassies have been asked to work overtime to ensure that there is support for those who are stuck.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The change of government in Malaysia has come as a positive development, after the recent ousting of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was critical of the Indian government’s decisions on Kashmir and the citizenship law changes. The nonagenarian leader had also rallied other critical countries like Pakistan and Turkey to join the chorus against the policies of the Narendra Modi government on Muslims. Even though a travel ban has been imposed on Malaysian flights, the embassy has reached out to new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and has explained the steps taken to ease the situation in Kashmir. Even as Malaysia has been muted in its criticism of New Delhi after the change of government, there is concern about neighbouring Indonesia, which also has a minority Hindu population. There have been demonstrations against the Indian government policies towards the Muslim population, and some fringe groups issued threats to the Indian embassy in Jakarta.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the government of president Joko Widodo has assured full security for Indians there, his officials have conveyed the concerns in the archipelago about new policies of the Indian government. Malaysia and Indonesia, who are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also unhappy with India for not joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would have helped them to access the huge Indian market. Though Prime Minister Modi had China in mind when India pulled out of the negotiations with 15 countries, political efforts have to be doubled to assure the Indo-Pacific countries that India is economically with them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another development is in Israel, where after a third hung election, the president has asked opposition leader Benny Gantz to try to form the government, after long-term prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to get the majority. Gantz has the support of legislators from the Palestinian region, and there are questions as to whether they would influence a change in Israeli policy towards India. Netanyahu and Modi have had an excellent personal rapport, though India has also reached out to the Palestinian leadership regularly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The third development in the region is the agreement between the US and the Taliban about changes in Afghanistan, including the participation of the Taliban in the Afghan government. India, which has so far refused to talk to the Taliban, did send the Indian ambassador to Qatar for the ceremony where the agreement was signed. But, there is fierce division in the strategic community on whether India should reach out to the Taliban. Some say the whole world, including the United Nations, has recognised the agreement, which shows the Taliban has evolved from its brutal avatar during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft in 1999. But, there is also an argument that India should be consistent with its stand of the past two decades that the Taliban should sever its linkage with Pakistan, which is the “epicentre of global terrorism” and would not hesitate to use the Taliban, whose Haqqani network is accused of being an agency of Pakistan’s ISI. The plate is quite full for the external affairs ministry in these months of global emergency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Mar 21 17:29:02 IST 2020 unions-and-bailout-tremors <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is a tiny drop in an ocean-sized investment made by funds managed under social security schemes of the Union government. Yet the Reserve Bank of India’s decision to wipe out the Additional Tier-1 (AT1) bonds issued by the crisis-ridden Yes Bank has caused tremors in the Union labour ministry, and among Central trade unions. The total write off is Rs9,000 crore. Of this, the amount invested by five provident and pension funds of four public sector companies, and one large public sector bank, is just Rs35 crore. One of the public sector funds is of State Bank of India employees and, ironically, it is the SBI that is leading the bailout of Yes Bank. But, in the process, its employees’ fund will lose a few crores.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Central provident funds have invested over Rs2 lakh crore in mutual funds and private sector bonds, the loss of Rs35 crore should not even cause the tiniest flicker. After all, as every honey-worded advertisement says, these deposits are “subject to market risks”. The Employees’ Provident Fund, National Pension System, Coal Mines Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance Corporation are among the largest public funds, which have a combined corpus of Rs15 lakh crore. Until 2015, the Central government had mandated that the corpus be parked in government-owned banks and securities. But since economic reforms opened up the financial sector for domestic and foreign private players to set up banks and insurance companies, there had been a strong demand for the prohibition to be relaxed. But there was strong resistance from the trade unions of all parties. The left parties had supported the United Front and UPA governments, while the RSS affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh had a significant voice in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But pro-reformers argued that the government should not discriminate, especially as there was pressure for provident fund interest rates to be higher than the interest paid out for fixed deposits by banks and for government bonds. During the boom years of the economy, it was argued that private mutual funds offered a better yield. The finance ministry had a group of economists who argued that the door could be slightly opened for private banks and mutual funds, while the bulk of the deposits could be vested with government banks and schemes. They pointed out that, world over, workers’ pension funds had invested in markets successfully.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the trade unions that had seats on the boards of social security funds were adamant about not investing in markets, even when governments refused to support higher interest rates in provident funds. The unions argued that the provident, health and pension monies invested by workers during their careers cannot be used for “gambling” in high-risk markets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the election of a single party-majority government in 2014 strengthened the reform voices. That year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley were convinced that there was a need to simplify the hard rules if India had to move up from its abysmal position in the World Bank’s index of ease of doing business. Jaitley permitted the funds to invest up to 5 per cent outside government schemes. As there was no negative effect, the limit was first raised to 10 per cent and now stands at 15 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The finance ministry, which has, with the help of the RBI, handled the crash of several public and private sector banks, is confident that the door should remain open. It would make one more assessment of the financial sector strengths and risks before reacting to the industry demand for raising permissible investment to at least 30 per cent. The unions would put up their objections, citing the fear of contagion among the private players.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 13 15:07:18 IST 2020 master-of-equidistance <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As he grows more successful and senior in electoral politics, Arvind Kejriwal is steering himself strenuously to the middle path. The past twelve weeks have seen him being in the crystal bowl of public gaze, and he has responded to it by moderating his speeches and deeds to avert controversies. But, an axiom of public life is that even silence can be controversial in turbulent times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In his third term as Delhi chief minister—a feat made possible by the strong positive response to his track record and large-scale transfer of Congress votes to the Aam Aadmi Party—Kejriwal has taken care to avoid any confrontation with the Centre. The firebrand who once went on a fast against the Delhi Police and pummelled the Narendra Modi government at the Centre is now averse to criticising the way Union Home Minister Amit Shah dealt with the riots in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His friends in the opposition had sensed a change in Kejriwal’s attitude after the AAP drew a blank in the Lok Sabha elections in Delhi last year. He shifted his stance to focus on development, subsidies and governance issues at the local level, refusing to walk into the trap of debating national security with the BJP. Though he was the toast of the regional, anti-BJP parties, Kejriwal did not want to invite any opposition leader or chief minister to his swearing-in ceremony. He did not want to send a wrong message to the Delhi voters. Kejriwal has also not taken part in any opposition conclave after he attended the swearing-in of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government in Karnataka in 2018.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the opposition was still shocked when the Delhi government gave permission to prosecute CPI leader and former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and his supporters over the sedition charges slapped on them by the Delhi police. Earlier, despite pressure from the police, the state government had told a local court that it was not in favour of granting the permission. Kejriwal had even tweeted on March 3, 2016: “What a brilliant speech by Kanhaiya.” He was even more euphoric the next day: “Heard Kanhaiya’s speech many times. Amazing clarity of thought expressed wonderfully. He said what most people have been feeling. God bless him,” he tweeted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kejriwal’s admiration was such that he gave Kanhaiya an appointment to meet him a fortnight later, at CPI leader D. Raja’s instance. But Kanhaiya missed the meeting because of a traffic jam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Exactly three years later, the AAP government has decided not to “bless” Kanhaiya, and agreed with the Delhi Police that he spoke against the unity and integrity of India. The law and home ministers in the state government—Kailash Gahlot and Satyendar Jain—ruled that Kanhaiya must face trial.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The decision, which dismayed opposition parties that had celebrated Kejriwal’s election victory, has come as a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Union home ministry. His moves indicate that he is weary of joining any initiative to unite the opposition, and that he would instead follow the path of regional parties in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which oppose the BJP in elections, but otherwise do not annoy the Centre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hawks in the Congress who had opposed joining hands with Kejriwal insist that the AAP is the BJP’s B-team, and that he would be comfortable with right-leaning socialism rather than be left of the centre. Kejriwal, however, has shown enough nimbleness to keep everyone guessing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 06 14:34:02 IST 2020 to-woo-or-not-to-woo <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When the AIADMK joined the National Democratic Alliance early last year, the Dravidian party had high hopes of being part of the second Narendra Modi ministry. When the Lok Sabha elections results were announced, the regional party fighting an election for the first time since supremo J. Jayalalithaa’s death, had a rude shock—it had won only one seat in a state that sent 39 members. Yet, the AIADMK pitched hard for a ministerial berth as the government was dependent on the party’s 12 members in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA did not have a majority. But within three months, the deficit had narrowed as a rampaging Amit Shah made MPs from the Congress and regional parties quit and get re-elected on BJP tickets. There were also splits in regional parties like the Telugu Desam Party, benefitting the saffron party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, the AIADMK has begun to flex its muscles as the Tamil Nadu elections are a year away. The party has realised that the BJP does not bring much to the electoral table, and some district secretaries have argued that it is better not to “waste” assembly seats for the BJP. They also point to the unclear plans of Rajinikanth, who is yet to fully launch his party, but has been fulsomely praising Modi. The worry of some leaders about income tax and enforcement cases against some ministers has not muted the opinion that the party should cut ties with the BJP before it is too late.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy, who is also party chief, would like to keep all options open until elections are much nearer. He wants the party to take a different line on controversial policies of the Modi government like the National Population Register, but keep the channels open. Thus, the AIADMK, which voted for the Citizenship Amendment Act, now says the concerns of the Muslim community have to be taken into consideration. The state assembly has passed a law which prevents drilling for petroleum in the Cauvery irrigation belt, frustrating the plans of the Union petroleum ministry. But Palaniswamy also wants to get maximum funds from the Centre, critically needed in a pre-election year to complete projects and woo voters who preferred the DMK-led UPA in the Lok Sabha elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AIADMK also has regret that it has not enjoyed Central power on par with its terms in Fort St. George, which houses the seats of executive and legislature in Chennai. An AIADMK minister was there in the short-term government of Charan Singh, and then there were two representatives in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-month government. On the other hand, the DMK has enjoyed ministerial power in Delhi— for long terms in the cabinets of Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee, as well as smaller spells under V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Narendra Modi has kept two dozen ministerial positions vacant and electoral allies like the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK hope they would get a berth or two. Modi has also kept the post of Lok Sabha deputy speaker vacant, which had been given in his first term to AIADMK’s M. Thambidurai. Interestingly, the deputy chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha will fall vacant soon, as the term of present occupant Harivansh Narayan Singh of JD(U) is coming to an end. But it is to be seen whether a piece of the ministerial pie at the Centre will restore the political bonhomie between the BJP and the AIADMK, or whether the two are likely to go their own way next year at the hustings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:58:22 IST 2020 head-to-head <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Where are we heading!”tweeted West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar as he flounders in a sea of apathy and resistance in a state where he and the ruling Trinamool Congress are at loggerheads. A combative Mamata Banerjee has restricted his powers to the Raj Bhavan compound, as she thinks he is an agent of the Narendra Modi government out to help the BJP in its ‘Oust Mamata’ campaign. The highly successful lawyer from Rajasthan has been denied entry to the state assembly once and also to some of the prestigious educational institutions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now he finds the vice chancellors of the state’s 20 universities cocking a snook at him, even though he is the chancellor of these universities. Upset that his “right to preside”over the convocation of the Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University was not honoured as vice chancellor Debkumar Mukopadhyay did not invite him, Dhankhar then served a show cause notice to Mukopadhyay, asking why he should not be removed from his post. Even though Dhankhar offered him a personal hearing, Mukopadhyay turned to the association of vice chancellors that declared that the notice was infructuous as it was not routed through the education department. Mamata had amended the rules to say that all communication between the chancellor and the universities had to go through the education department, which she controls. Subsequently, the chief minister met the governor, which the latter described as “satisfactory”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With 13 of the 28 states ruled by parties not aligned to the BJP. The governor-chief minister relationship varies from state to state, depending on the tempers of the two individuals. Several states have tried to circumvent the control of the governor over state universities (there are 409 such institutions in the country). Kerala also had two BJP-nominated governors—P. Sathasivam and now Arif Mohammad Khan—directly questioning vice chancellors, thereby annoying the state government. Such differences have been there since the 1960s when there was increasing divergence in political rule at the Centre and states. When prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao appointed Andhra strongman M. Chenna Reddy as governor of Tamil Nadu (which was ruled by an initially supportive chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa), Reddy kept a cane on his table. He would joke that if the job of vice chancellors was to discipline students, he was ever ready with his cane to discipline errant vice chancellors! The differences with the governor was one of the reasons why Jayalalithaa withdrew support to the Congress government. Though Rao survived a trial of strength, a frustrated Reddy soon began to carp about the prime minister who had moved him to Madras (as Chennai was known then).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has, however, been less friction in the functioning of 50 Central universities where the visitor (who also appoints vice chancellors) is either the president or vice president of India. The prime minister is the acharya of Visva-Bharati, the Central university in West Bengal. The collision has happened when parties opposed to each other are at the Centre and the states. But where there is political similarity, there have been allegations of collusion to push the dirt under the carpets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The national law universities, which were set up with the initiative of the Supreme Court, have the chief justice of India as the visitor. When the first national law university was being set up, there was a suggestion that the tradition of making the president as the visitor of a Central university should be incorporated. But the Supreme Court judges felt that the government of the day could intervene as the president is bound by the advice of the council of ministers, and it was better to ensure autonomy by giving the top job to a judge. Perhaps, all universities need such robust systems, as otherwise everyone will know where they are heading—downhill!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Feb 22 11:43:20 IST 2020 stay-and-deliver <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>S. Suresh Kumar has been an innovative minister in Karnataka. In charge of the education portfolio now, the BJP leader has launched an initiative in which he picks a primary school in a remote location to spend the night. It is not just for slumbering on a mat, but to send multiple messages. For instance, in Gopinatham village, once haunted by poacher Veerappan, Kumar spent the evening talking to parents of children who walk miles through forest and scrub to reach the school.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics sneer that the minister has the media in tow to publicise the night stays, but Kumar feels he is sending out a message to his department that he can walk into any school in the state. More than a decade ago, newly-elected chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy would spend one night in a rural home every month to get a feel of village life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Kumar’s visit is announced in advance, officials “prepare” the school as well as the villagers to ensure that the stay is a success. Arrangements are made to ensure that there will be food and other necessities, including hot water. Health department teams will do the sanitisation discreetly, like it happens whenever a VIP moves out of his comfort zone. Sarojini Naidu had once said that a lot of money was spent to ensure that Mahatma Gandhi travelled in third class railway compartments along with the poor. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent a night in a cave in Kedarnath, the Centre and state governments deployed resources to ensure that the well-publicised stay went off without a hitch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kumar’s initiative brings focus on the school and ensures that its basic amenities are improved, and the work of the teachers is monitored. One of Kumar’s predecessors H. Vishwanath (who was in S.M. Krishna’s cabinet) used to visit villages unexpectedly during school hours. In one school, he saw a teacher asking a seven-year-old boy to remove his shirt and wipe the blackboard. Vishwanath was astounded that schools got money to buy chalk, but not dusters. He ordered that all schools should get sundry allowance so that no student had to take off his shirt in pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, Kumar’s night stays should help in bringing about statewide improvement. But, as no minister can visit even one per cent of the total number of schools, what he needs to do is to ensure that his department officials, inspectors and teachers take care of systematic improvement of facilities and methods of instruction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While schools and colleges are asleep at night, university campuses are abuzz even after sunset because of the hostels and the libraries that function round the clock. It is, however, doubtful whether Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal would like to spend a night in the hostels of institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University or the University of Hyderabad which have been witnessing confrontations over fee hikes and other issues. Unlike schoolchildren, the very adult students of these universities belong to student unions which are politicised. Pokhriyal had a taste of student politics when he was gheraoed during an event in JNU and the administration could ensure his safe exit only with great difficulty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Following Kumar’s logic, it may be a good idea for health ministers to spend a night awake in small government hospitals and see the kind of emergencies that are handled. But most ministers will not be able to follow Kumar. For instance, ministers in charge of the home portfolio are unlikely to enjoy a night’s stay in prisons or police stations with their dangerous inmates!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 14 11:36:50 IST 2020 tailored-for-growth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>At a time when Bangladesh is threatening to permanently overtake India in apparel exports, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has paid strong attention to the sector which employs over two crore people. Sitharaman announced a national technical textile mission in her budget and promised 01,480 crore for the new mission-based approach. Technical textiles include a wide range of medical and mining dresses as well as textiles for non-human usage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Sitharaman pointed out, the country imports a huge quantity of technical textiles to meet the stringent standards in healthcare, mining and other industries. With the assistance of state governments, the mission aims to promote manufacturing using different kinds of materials like cotton, wool, jute and plastic. The idea is to help existing manufacturers to have multi-fold expansion or even to set up new industries. The budget has also announced tax reliefs and procedural simplification for manufacturers in categories of cotton, silk and polyester. This would help India to maintain the second position after China in overall textile exports. (The European Union has more exports than India, but among individual countries, India is second).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Textiles Minister Smriti Irani has been prodding for stronger relief to face the competition from across the eastern border. The coronavirus epidemic may affect the performance of China, though no estimates are available on cancellation or delay of garment import orders placed by the United States and European countries with the Asian major, yet. The Bangladesh government is projecting apparel exports valued at $38 billion with a growth rate of 7 per cent in 2019-2020, while Indian exports projection in this category is $35 billion with a growth of little over 1 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparels account for more than 80 per cent of the total exports of Bangladesh, whereas it forms a smaller portion of India’s textile exports. When India started competing in the 1990s with southeast Asian countries for exporting apparels, prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao said traditional trade like tailoring had given new hope to millions of Indians, especially women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The small textile department in the industries department grew into a ministry, as commerce ministers P. Chidambaram and P.J. Kurien lobbied hard for elimination of country-wise limits put by the United States on garment imports. Once the limitations were removed, textiles from little known places like Tiruppur and Ludhiana, and from big cities like Bengaluru and Ahmedabad crowded the ports. For Bengaluru, after software, apparels became the second largest export item. The World Trade Organization agreements further boosted Indian exports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But shifting American policies, combined with rising costs of production in India, gave other countries more space in the global marketplace. When the United States said it would give preferential treatment for countries affected by external and civil wars as well as refugee influx, even some Indian exporters shifted their factories to special-category countries like Jordan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bangladesh has benefitted in recent years because of its humane policy towards providing shelter to the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The technical textile mission’s first objective is to ensure self sufficiency in special kind of textiles across the country and to eliminate the imports, as it is a tough global market for exports—dominated again by the Chinese. Both Sitharaman and Irani are ambassadors of the rainbow range of sarees, and now they have joined hands to promote other kind of textiles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 07 14:47:00 IST 2020 pension-politics <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Chhattisgarh has joined fellow Congress-ruled states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in discontinuing pensions for political workers who were detained during the Emergency which was in force from 1975 to 1977. The pension was introduced when the BJP ruled these states. In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had raised the pension for the 8,000-odd persons who had been kept under preventive detention. They also get medical benefits in government hospitals. In Bihar, 3,100 persons get pensions for being imprisoned by the Indira Gandhi government, including former chief minister Lalu Prasad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The decision of the three Congress governments has become a bone of contention, and has even reached a court in Madhya Pradesh. But Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has questioned the claims of the pensioners that they were fighting for the country’s “second freedom”. Baghel’s ministers felt the pension, ranging from Rs15,000 to Rs25,000 per month, was going to BJP and RSS workers. Two years ago, the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra had also awarded pensions to those who fought the Emergency. The Shiv Sena, which had supported the scheme as an ally of the BJP, and the Congress are the new coalition partners, and the scheme’s fate is in question. Congress-ruled Punjab is also under pressure to discontinue a similar scheme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During the Emergency, the Indira Gandhi government and the Congress-ruled states had put about one lakh people in jails. The draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) of 1971 was one among the series of laws where the state could pick up its opponents. Though MISA was scrapped by the Janata government that replaced Indira Gandhi in 1977, there are more variations in force at the national and state level. The latest preventive detentions in Jammu and Kashmir have been done under such laws, with three former chief ministers kept under detention, and no court coming to their rescue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the liberal claims of successive governments from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, preventive detention has been demanded by security forces to tackle political agitations, whether it was the Communist uprising of 1950s in Telangana or the Maoist challenges in central India. Demand for political pension to those who fought governments of the day has been going on since independence, when the government started giving pension to those who had gone to prison fighting the British rule. But the demands of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army volunteers, who fought the British-controlled Indian Army, were not accepted as the regular Army objected to them as collaborators of Axis forces and also of political association with the Forward Bloc, the party inspired by Bose. Regions that attained separate statehood after violent struggles, like Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, have given compensation to families of those who were killed in police action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The recent move of the three Congress-ruled states has made the BJP leaders in these states launch protests. But they are also asking the Central government to consider a scheme for MISA detenus and widows of detenus who have died since then. They argue that the financial burden would not be much, because as it is the Central government gives pensions to over 50 lakh former government employees. They point out that Narendra Modi himself highlighted the fight against the Emergency during the dark event’s anniversary on June 26. But the finance ministry officials feel that opening new categories of political pension, apart from the monthly honorarium given to freedom fighters who went to jail fighting the British, would open a Pandora’s box.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 31 11:17:32 IST 2020 eyes-on-the-pearl <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Eyebrows went up in the strategic community about an enthusiastic announcement by the new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his meeting with India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who had flown down to Colombo. Gotabaya said he had a very cordial discussion with the NSA about cooperation in national security, intelligence sharing and maritime security. The president’s office was more frank; the discussions were on strengthening military relationship, it said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As per convention, the Indian government does not share the details of the NSA’s diplomatic and strategic outreach with different countries. Doval, who is an invitee to the cabinet committee on security, had been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pointsman on foreign relations during his first term, as the then external affairs minister rarely accompanied the prime minister on his foreign tours.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar—being a career diplomat—has been much more active on the global stage. He visited Colombo the day after Gotabaya was sworn in. Gotabaya appointed his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister, completing the family’s return to power in the island nation. In November, he had flown to Delhi for a meeting with Modi, and promised Sri Lanka would never take any decision that would affect India’s interests. Modi, in turn, promised all help for the development of the debt-ridden neighbour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rajapaksas had led the ruthless military campaign to eliminate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Though Gotabaya promised to be the president for all Sri Lankans, he acknowledged that the linguistic and religious minorities in the country had not voted for him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are allegations of war crimes against him and the generals who ran the military during his tenure as defence secretary. Gotabaya has already moved towards closing the cases initiated by the previous Maithripala Sirisena government. The discontinuation of playing the national anthem in Tamil in national functions is seen as an assertion of his Sinhala-Buddhist identity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Delhi has a high stake in ensuring that the assurances given to the war-ravaged Tamil minority in northern and eastern Sri Lanka are implemented, so that the ethnic diversity is maintained within the nation. But the Rajapaksas have been critical of the move for devolution of powers. They also are perceived to have a special relationship with China, whose influence India had blunted during the Sirisena period. Doval’s visit came on the heels of the Chinese foreign minister’s declaration in Colombo that Beijing would not allow “outside influences” in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Doval’s visit showed India’s earnestness to balance Chinese pressure. But critics of the Gotabaya government have the view that any military and financial aid from India would be used to strengthen the military and police; Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka view the forces with suspicion even now. The United States and the European Union are also keen that China does not get a bigger hold on Colombo.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Doval’s visit was one of the moves on the regional chessboard, Mahinda’s Delhi visit in February will be another important development. Mahinda, though second in protocol to his younger brother, is the real power centre of the new government. In 2015, soon after his defeat, he had grumbled that Indian intelligence agencies had brought his opponents together—a charge denied by the Modi government. But India would be watching with caution on whether there is genuine change in the attitude of the new president and prime minister towards the big neighbour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 24 19:50:23 IST 2020 home-to-be-bulldozed <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A favourite phrase of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in governmental meetings of ministers and senior officials is to “eliminate silos in governance”. The prime minister has been emphasising the need for ministries to work across compartments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In December, Modi’s bulldozer brought down silos in two of the biggest manpower-centric ministries—defence and railways.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the defence ministry, the office of the chief of defence staff was created. The CDS took lot of powers from the civilian bureaucracy in the ministry, and got charges of cyber and space commands. Expectedly, General Bipin Rawat was made the chief with extensive financial powers, though purchase of capital items like tanks, aircraft and ships remained with the defence secretary. While the need for a CDS had been under discussion since the Kargil Review Committee recommended it in the early 2000s, Modi had committed to appoint one in his Independence Day address after returning to power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Changes in the structure of railways came as a shocker to senior officials in the railways. At one stroke, the government abolished eight specialised services and brought in a new railway management service, and trimmed the all powerful railway board. The cabinet also said outsiders could become railway board chairman and members, thus opening the doors for the ever expanding all-India services like the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Revenue Service, which had no admittance in the railways till now. The railway officials remain sceptical and wonder whether there is a hidden blueprint to privatise the country’s largest public enterprise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, 2020 may see more attacks on silos. Another big ministry which is ripe for reforms is the home ministry, with departments dealing with unconnected subjects like internal security, promotion of Hindi as official language, administration of Padma awards, Centre-state relations and pension for freedom fighters. There is already a report of the expert committee headed by Ajay Shah to reorganise the ministry. The proposal is to ensure that the home minister and his team focus strongly on issues of internal security, border management (including airports and immigration), citizenship and Centre-state relations. While the department of pensions can take care of freedom fighters, the department of personnel or culture would be better equipped to promote Hindi as well as give Padma awards.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Reform in the home ministry could see the merger of at least six of the seven paramilitary forces, whose top leadership is drawn from the Indian Police Service. At present, four different forces—Border Security Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Assam Rifles and Sashastra Seema Bal—deal with different borders. The Central Industrial Security Force deals with security of nuclear plants, large industrial projects, government offices and civilian airports. The Central Reserve Police Force is another behemoth used for internal security operations from northeast to Maoist areas. The thought is to combine these institutions under a police commander and then make theatre commands, dealing with different locations and tasks like desert, jungle, plains and mountains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Earlier, Modi had restructured the departments dealing with agriculture and water resources, but change is happening at a slow pace in the work culture of these ministries. Like home, another gargantuan ministry awaiting demolition of silos is human resources, which has separate departments for different levels of education. It would be interesting to see how Modi would push the reforms in these big ministries, especially, in home affairs headed by party and government powerhouse Amit Shah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 17 13:21:56 IST 2020 delhi-dominates <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A perception about the top leadership of the BJP is that compared with the tough-mannered Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari is less hawkish and more accommodative. Gadkari, who comes from a business background, is more of a go-getter, who has avoided harsh language towards the Congress and other opponents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But a circular from the transport ministry to all state governments shows that Gadkari, too, can be considered a part of the kettle of hawks in the saffron party. Gadkari, who had pushed for tough changes in motor vehicle laws to impose very high fines on offenders, was upset that some states had refused to implement the new fines. BJP-ruled Gujarat was the first such state. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani unilaterally announced a drastic reduction of Parliament-fixed fines to assuage angry motorists, as compounded fines were sometimes more than the price of the vehicles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gadkari firmly believes that India has to adopt the foreign model of heavy fines for reckless driving to stop the rising tide of fatal road accidents. Even as he pushed for superhighways on which motorists could zoom at higher speeds, the minister wanted zero tolerance towards reckless and criminal driving. When he pushed for changes in the law, he was happy that there was a consensus among state governments that it was high time for the era of light punishment to end. Thus, there was a 10 to 20 fold increase in fines in the law approved by Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, as police and transport officials began imposing the high fines three months ago, chief ministers began panicking at the reaction of drivers in their states. Rupani and others thought the fines had been devised by activists who did not care for the financial burden placed on vehicle owners and drivers. While some states reduced the fines, others told the enforcement officials not to be zealous in prosecuting errant drivers for multiple offences. The defiance came when the NDA government at the Centre was riding high on the big majority it received in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Gadkari was firm that the states had no business in diluting the new fine regime and advised the states to comply with the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He was not satisfied with just sending the advisory. Now, he is armed with the legal opinion of the hawkish Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, who was asked to decide whether state governments had the power to defy a law passed by Parliament. Venugopal, after studying the constitutional implications, has advised that the states had no powers to defy the Central law unless the deviation was done by a law passed by the state legislature, which was approved by the president on the advice of the Union cabinet. Venugopal also said that the states which reduce fines without such legal empowerment can face action under Article 356 of the Constitution, which provides for dismissal of a state government for violating the Central law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The invocation of the dreaded Article 356, which has been used by the Centre to dismiss many state governments since the 1950s, would be a red flag for opposition-ruled states. Already, the Kerala assembly has passed a resolution against the implementation of the controversial amendment to the Citizenship Act, and several states have announced they would not be implementing the National Population Register. The tough legal opinion of the attorney general is an assertion that the supremacy of the Central government dominates the federal system, but becomes another flashpoint between the BJP and its political opponents ruling some of the states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 10 13:09:17 IST 2020 poach-and-win <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sharad Pawar had attributed his high energy levels during the Maharashtra assembly campaign to the defection of many of his Nationalist Congress Party colleagues to the BJP. With the 79-year-old political warrior inspiring the younger generation of the party, the NCP fared better than its partner Congress. Pawar persuaded the Congress to join hands with the Shiv Sena and adeptly handled the brief desertion by his nephew Ajit Pawar. With the Maharashtra government up and running, the NCP is now mulling a reverse Operation Lotus. This is the exact opposite of the Operation Lotus launched by the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in the summer of 2019 to woo heavyweights of the NCP and the Congress. The defectors, who are feeling lost in the BJP, now want to return and enjoy the goodies at the table of power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Operation Lotus was first launched by Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in 2008 to shore up his minority government. He got Congress and JD(S) MLAs to resign and contest on the lotus symbol. Eleven years later, Yediyurappa launched Operation Lotus once again. He toppled the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led coalition government by getting 17 MLAs to resign. Twelve of those defectors managed to win the byelections on the lotus symbol, cementing Yediyurappa’s hold on power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pawar wants to do a reverse Operation Lotus for two reasons. If he can forgive his nephew for joining hands with the BJP, he should be able to forgive all those who committed the same mistake. Second, such an operation will weaken the BJP’s capacity for mischief in Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Maharashtra Congress is also under pressure to lure back defectors who won on BJP tickets, although Rahul Gandhi is against bringing back unreliable leaders. But party members cite the threat from Fadnavis, who enjoys strong support from Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. They both believe that the BJP’s mandate was stolen by the three partners in the Uddhav Thackeray government, just like it happened in Karnataka. However, BJP chief ministers who lost in straight contests are being forced to cool their heels, as the high command feels that they did not convert the Modi factor into victory. Thus Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje have been given the grand title of national vice president, but not any actual responsibility. Now Raghubar Das of Jharkhand is also being sidelined, as he lost the state comprehensively to the grand alliance led by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some BJP leaders in Maharashtra, however, feel that the party’s best bet is to create a rift between the Shiv Sena and its partners, as they are even less compatible than the Congress and the JD(S) used to be in Karnataka. There is suggestion from the anti-Fadnavis camp that the party should nominate a new leader who is acceptable to both the BJP ranks and the Shiv Sena. Supporters of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari say he is the best bet because of his seniority, his acceptance among all factions and his cordial relations with the Shiv Sena. But Gadkari believes that this is not the right time to get involved in state politics as the stakes are not so high. He knows that Modi and Shah are confident that the mandate “stolen” by the Congress in cahoots with the Shiv Sena and the NCP will be restored, as the Thackeray government will not be able to survive its own internal contradictions. It will be interesting to see how the BJP handles a reverse Operation Lotus, if and when it is launched by the NCP or the Congress or by both.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 03 14:43:21 IST 2020 home-affairs-external-too <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When there are differences between the Union finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India, it is said that Delhi and Mumbai, where the two are headquartered, do not speak to each other. But now there are doubts whether parts of the Union government based in Delhi speak to each other. The aggressive comments of Home Minister Amit Shah while piloting the citizenship amendment law in Parliament had upset key neighbouring countries whom the Narendra Modi government has been cultivating. Shah was severe while saying that non-Muslim minorities had faced religious discrimination in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, leading to protests from the first two, which are on the government’s friendly list. The external affairs ministry scrambled to assure Dhaka and Kabul that the reference was more to previous governments in these two countries, which had practised extreme religious intolerance. Whether the feathers remain ruffled or not will be known over time, as the governments of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan are attacked by their opponents for being too close to New Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There were suggestions that the home and external affairs ministry did not have a conversation on the details of Shah’s defence of the citizenship bill. In his interventions in Parliament, Shah had elaborated on the constitutional and legal points, based on strong briefs from his own ministry and from the law ministry. He also took the traditional RSS-BJP line to attack the Congress and the governments of the three countries, especially as Bangladesh was East Pakistan from 1947 to 1971, till the India Army liberated it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a career diplomat who retired as foreign secretary, has advocated a more muscular policy towards critics of India. He was in the cabinet when the issue was discussed and was present in Parliament during the discussions. He was in Washington after the protests erupted over the Citizenship Amendment Act; he refused to attend a meeting with a Democrat-dominated committee of the House of Representatives as Pramila Jayapal—a congresswoman who had introduced a congressional resolution urging India to lift restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir—was invited to the meeting. The minister took objection as Jayapal was not a member of the committee and her name was not in the list of participants given to the Indian embassy. The minister, after consulting the prime minister, decided to cancel the meeting, as he did not mind ruffling feathers. Similarly, the ministry has been using strong language to counter criticism from countries such as Malaysia, even though it is an important economic partner and a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, the ministry has taken steps to repair relations that have been frayed due to the strong opinions of the security establishment. Jaishankar visited Canada to pick up the twisted threads of the relationship with the Justin Trudeau government, which has been accused by Indian intelligence agencies of being supportive of the Khalistan movement. Senior officials say there is always a balancing act, and recall that there were long, chilly spells with Canada after the nuclear tests by India in 1974 and then again in 1998; A.B. Vajpayee’s external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, had initiated the thawing process. In the wake of international concerns about the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, Jaishankar would have a lot of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to do in the coming months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 28 14:25:05 IST 2019 modi-needs-to-brainstorm <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>UNLIKE SOME</b> of his predecessors, Narendra Modi takes extreme interest in security aspects, especially policing. As a leader who likes to interact a lot with bureaucrats, he has found time every year to meet with the heads of security and intelligence agencies as well as state police chiefs. Hence, he spent a lot of time at the 54th annual police conference in Pune earlier this month. The conference is convened by the director of the Intelligence Bureau, who is considered the dean of police forces. It is also where officers representing states ruled by parties with political views diametrically opposite to those of the prime minister’s party talk about what is happening and what needs to be done.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the conference, in which the home minister participates, participants pitch for more funds for modernisation activities like new weapons, technology and specialised wings. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who used to convene the conferences when he was IB director, is another key player at the conference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi spends many hours listening to the police honchos and the knowledge update is not just about listed items on the agenda, but on activities of criminal gangs, terrorist groups, drug cartels and, sometimes, snippets of political and governance value. But DGPs representing opposition states are careful, mostly, as they do not want to annoy their bosses back home. Interestingly, the prime minister has not felt it necessary to call conferences of all chief ministers to discuss security or developmental issues, which used to be the norm when coalition prime ministers ruled the country. Modi, as Gujarat chief minister, had been unhappy with the format of the conferences, where the prime minister, the home minister and chief ministers made speeches and there was less time allotted for discussions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But as the economy has slowed down amid concerns of stagflation raised by the opposition, led by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, it may be the right time for the prime minister to go for brainstorming with his own ministers, political parties and economists, especially as the budget would be presented in early February.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the cabinet and the committee on economic affairs meet every week to discuss specific points, there is need for ministers to pitch in on their sectoral needs. The slowdown has affected key areas like power, textiles, agriculture, coal, mining, real estate, exports and telecom.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Usually, it is the finance minister who meets sectoral representatives for a pre-budget discussion, where the pitching is mainly on issues of taxation rebate and fund allotment. The GST mechanism has limited the taxation powers of the finance minister on goods and services.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are also several BJP MPs who feel they are not getting the chance to freely interact with the prime minister on urgent issues, as the interaction mainly happens in the weekly one-hour meeting held when Parliament is in session. The BJP has regular meetings of its state chief ministers, but the interaction with the party president and office bearers concentrates more on political and organisational issues, than on the economic policies of the party governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Along with the BJP’s political agenda of 2020, which includes elections in Delhi and Bihar, and getting back power in Maharashtra, there are non-political challenges in the new year. Modi and his foreign policy team have to focus on innovative strategies to deal with a turbulent neighbourhood. The trade issues with China have become complicated, and as the government blamed earlier Bangladesh governments for genocide and minority persecution while pushing through amendments to the citizenship law, the Sheikh Hasina government is under domestic pressure to be firm with New Delhi. The prime minister’s cup of priorities is always full, but now it is overflowing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Tue Dec 17 16:55:52 IST 2019 politics-over-prisons <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The jail portfolio is not a priority on the list of new ministers, who always covet ministries that have either huge budgets or high visibility. Normally, chief ministers add another smaller portfolio so that the minister for prisons is spared from banter of colleagues and critics. In Punjab, too, Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has been given charge of the heftier cooperation department. But it is as the man responsible for the state’s 25 jails that Randhawa is at the centre of a political storm.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the opposition Akali Dal has accused Randhawa of protecting the state’s notorious gangsters, he has found a defender in Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who has ordered a police inquiry into the nexus between gangsters and the Akalis, especially former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and son Sukhbir. The Badals last ruled the state for a decade, and Amarinder says he has shown photo evidence to the governor about the criminal links of the Badal family.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sukhbir, who was deputy chief minister and home minister, held a demonstration in Batala, accusing Randhawa of not allowing the police to fully investigate the murder of an Akali Dal leader and also alleging that Randhawa openly advocated support to drug mafia, as evidenced by a leaked video of the state’s cabinet meeting. The state’s prisons hold around 3,000 inmates (Delhi’s nine-prison complex at Tihar has more than 10,000 inmates), but organised gangs are a menace in the border state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If the chief minister’s photographs show Bittu Sarpanch, a politician accused of sheltering members of the dreaded Gurpreet Sekhon gang, felicitating the Badals, Sukhbir has a photo showing Amarinder inducting Bittu into the Congress during an election campaign in 2017. Randhawa says he has sacked or suspended or demoted more than three dozen jailers for aiding dreaded prisoners to smuggle in mobile phones and to run extortion rackets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The country has around 1,500 prisons, with an inmate population of around four lakh. Though the heads of prisons are on deputation from the police department in most states, the staff, including jailers, are from the prison service. It is an opaque world behind the high walls and locked gates, occasionally glimpsed by the visit of judges, lawyers and social activists. The powerful prisoners use bribes and threats to get access to the outside world, especially through use-and-burn SIM cards. Many material and human comforts, which costs high sums, are also smuggled in. While normally younger ministers get the prison berth, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath decided to keep the jail portfolio with him. He has a junior minister of state to assist. But he pushed forward his agenda against mafia dons—surrender or get hit in encounters, the police now tell gangsters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jail ministers also face enormous pressure to ensure that high-profile inmates get parole for family celebrations, condolences and medical treatment. The Delhi High Court took a dim view of the way former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, convicted for a ten-year term in a recruitment scandal, was frequently getting parole on medical grounds, but indulging in political activities. When the Akalis ruled Punjab, Chautala even tried to get transferred from Tihar jail to a Central prison in Punjab, as he thought that parole rules would be lax there and his rapport with the Akali Dal would help.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, Randhawa is confident of a clean chit from the Punjab director general of police, but the Akalis want the probe to be conducted by a Central agency as they have no faith in Amarinder’s police. Some gangsters behind bars must be having a laugh over the squabble among the state’s politicians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 13 12:27:32 IST 2019 a-few-remarkable-men <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Leaders like Union minister Giriraj Singh, and MPs Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (Congress), Pragya Thakur and Ananth Kumar Hegde (both of the BJP), Azam Khan (Samajwadi Party) and Sanjay Raut (Shiv Sena) attract cameras and recording devices, as they are more likely to give controversial statements than other “dull” leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes they are stalked more than even chief ministers and senior Union ministers. Despite their parties and well-wishers counselling them to be careful in articulation, these political leaders hold forth, especially when they see large crowds or cameras.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They also tell the tale depending on the audiences. Hegde is known for his uninhibited style, and tells the truth as he perceives it. He explained that the BJP’s disastrous nocturnal attempt to form a government in Maharashtra was an attempt to preserve Rs40,000 crore of Central funds under the chief minister’s control, which a coalition government would misuse. The 80-hour chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was aghast at this, as the message went horribly wrong. Instead of being the saviour of a big pot of money, Fadnavis was seen as a master of financial skullduggery, acting against the interests of the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Earlier, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Hegde junior minister for skill development, he told petitioners requesting help: “This ministry is like a well without water.” Hegde is among the few MPs who prefer the Parliament library to the noisy central hall inhabited by MPs, former MPs and senior journalists. A Lok Sabha member since 1996, with a one-term break, he tells the opposition voters they need not even come to listen to him, and that he does not need their votes. Addressing an enthusiastic upper caste audience as a minister, he had declared that the BJP was voted to power to change the Constitution. As the occasion had been a conference against reservations in jobs and education, Hegde’s remark was seen as a deep RSS-BJP plot to dismantle the Ambedkarian legacy, forcing the Modi government to hastily insist that it had no such plans. But Hegde, like the other controversial remark-makers in the party, has the admiration and backing of a big section in the BJP and the RSS.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chowdhury has been pitchforked to a major opposition role in the Lok Sabha, though his party lacks the numbers to get him recognised as the opposition leader. In a rhetorical flourish to attack the Citizenship Bill, Chowdhury described Modi and Amit Shah as migrants from Gujarat, forgetting that all Parliament members come to the capital from their states. Congress managers have been briefing the West Bengal politician to moderate his free-to-air viewpoints, both inside and outside the Lok Sabha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even the communist parties, which train and discipline their members well, have to deal with the odd leader who makes controversial headlines, like Kerala’s CPI(M) minister M.M. Mani. However, two leaders in recent times had ensured total obedience. The first was J. Jayalalithaa who forbade her party leaders from making comments, and even had the speeches made by party MPs in Parliament faxed from her Poes Garden residence. Then it is Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, who exhibits instant displeasure at any leader making a comment without her clearance. MP Danish Ali, who quit the Janata Dal (Secular) to contest and win from Uttar Pradesh on a BSP ticket, learned this quickly. He was appointed leader of the BSP group in Lok Sabha. But when he made some remarks without prior clearance, he was dropped as leader. After amends were made, he was forgiven and made leader again!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 06 11:43:12 IST 2019 rhinos-in-corbett <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Uttarakhand wildlife board’s decision to introduce the Asian one-horned rhinoceros into the grasslands of the Jim Corbett National Park has enthused wildlife activists, who were campaigning to bring the gentle giant back to an area named after the great conservationist and hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards. The rhinos had earlier been introduced into the Dudhwa National Park in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, which has a terrain similar to rhino habitats below the Himalayas in Assam, Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan. The rhinos had, centuries ago, been natural to the area now named after Corbett, but became locally extinct. The decision needs the endorsement of the Central government, which has been encouraging such relocation programmes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The most successful in recent years has been the reintroduction of tigers into wildlife sanctuaries from which the striped carnivore had disappeared, like Panna in Madhya Pradesh and Sariska in Rajasthan. The reintroduction has been so successful that there are grumblings that Panna is getting overpopulated. While tigers roam in 50 wildlife parks from Kerala to Rajasthan, recent camera trap records show the presence of tigers in the icy Himalayan heights of Arunachal Pradesh. This has excited tiger watchers as the Himalayas are better known as the home of the elusive snow leopards. The country has also successfully relocated other species like the gharial and several deer species.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One relocation plan that has failed to materialise is the search for a second home for Asiatic lions, now found only in Gir, Gujarat. There have been pleas that it is dangerous to concentrate the entire population of 600-odd lions in one sanctuary, and to move a small number to a similar habitat in another state. The Madhya Pradesh government identified the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary exclusively for the relocated lions. (Since ancient times, lions have symbolised state power.) But the Gujarat government dug its heels in, refusing to transfer the lions, saying Gir was large enough. When two dozen lions died last year—some victims of the canine distemper virus—the demand was renewed. But Chief Minister Vijay Rupani described the fear of mass extinction of the big cats as exaggerated, and said they were absolutely safe. The Madhya Pradesh government has renewed the proposal, with some of its Congress politicians saying Gujarat is not magnanimous enough to give up the unique identity of being the only home of Asiatic lions. But Gujarat says Kuno-Palpur suffers from handicaps such as low prey base and the presence of tigers. Interestingly, tigers are unknown in Gujarat, though a recent video of a tiger sighting on a state highway created some buzz. Gujarat also says it had relocated some animals to a lion safari in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, and they had perished.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The issue had gone up to the Supreme Court, which had also ordered the leonine relocation, but there was no follow-up as the BJP ruled both the Centre and Gujarat. Till last year, Madhya Pradesh was also ruled by the BJP, and it was delicate to press Gujarat to part with its pride.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Wildlife activists are sure that one day the relocation will help. Meanwhile, there are campaigns to find new habitats for dozens of wildlife species that are threatened with loss of habitat and other dangers. The sight of rhinos grazing alongside elephants and other herbivores will add to the excitement in Corbett.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 29 11:56:42 IST 2019 livid-about-livery <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A tweet by an ex-Army chief is as powerful as a gunshot. This was most recently seen when Gen V.P. Malik, who led the Army during the Kargil war, questioned on Twitter the decision to provide Rajya Sabha marshals with uniforms resembling that of top military officers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The two middle-aged marshals, who help Vice President Venkaiah Naidu conduct Rajya Sabha proceedings, recently traded their traditional white attire and turban for a dark-blue uniform with braided peaked cap. Eyebrows were raised, and Naidu, ever sensitive to public perception, immediately ordered a re-look at the change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The change in uniform, however, reflected a long-term grievance of officials serving successive vice presidents. The officials had long been pointing out that the vice president, who is next only to the president in protocol, lacked an aide-de-camp from the military. For several decades, the vice president’s office had been hinting that it would serve the dignity of the vice president if he were to be accompanied by ADCs, rather than by just personal security officers. But the defence ministry and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which deal with protocol-related matters, could not come to an agreement.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The president has five ADCs, one of whom always shadows him. There is also the military secretary and the deputy military secretary, who, along with the ADCs, are drawn from the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. On ceremonial occasions, all seven personnel march in slow time as the president arrives and departs. In addition, there is the president’s mounted bodyguard, also drawn from an Army unit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though they are below the vice president in the pecking order, governors have two ADCs. They take salute at Republic Day parades in state headquarters, like the president does on Delhi’s Rajpath. In many states, the Army has persuaded governors to recruit ADCs from the state police. The Army found that some governors tried to make ADCs, usually captains or their equivalent, do non-protocol work. Malik was among the chiefs who felt that deploying 60-odd captains in state capitals could be avoided, as young officers were needed for military work.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The vice president does not have any military responsibility, even though he is entitled to use Air Force planes and helicopters. K.R. Narayanan, who served as both vice president and president, insisted that the vice president’s personal security officer, who sits next to the president’s ADC, should know protocol, be well-educated, should be conversant in both Hindi and English, and wear a smart suit in winter and safari jacket in summer. He banished security officers in shirtsleeves and sweaters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rajya Sabha marshals had been complaining that their uniform and headgear resembled that of the junior personnel who supplied water and stationery to MPs. Since they served the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, they wanted a distinctive dress. The secretariat, while granting the demand, did not realise the gaffe it made by allowing the officials to choose their uniform. Interestingly, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, who is also served by two marshals, did not think it necessary to upgrade their uniforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gen Malik tweeted that providing military uniforms to non-military personnel was illegal and a security hazard. When he was Army chief, he had directed employees of private security agencies to not wear the Army’s olive green. Private guards were given a distinctive dress code.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rajya Sabha marshals may now be barred from using three colours—the Army’s olive green, the Navy’s white and the Air Force’s blue. And, they may not like to sport the Rajya Sabha’s official colour—red!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 22 11:41:38 IST 2019 telugu-tots-english-thoughts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Scholar and communist E.M.S. Namboodiripad would read anything and everything that he could get his hands on. A memoir recalls him reading even commercial handbills, saying what is written should be read if it comes into one’s hands. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has no reputation for scholarship nor is he a communist. But he seems to recall everything he had read during his statewide padyatra as opposition leader last year. Now, he is remembering everything given in writing by people who met him, and the oral interactions his aides had recorded on paper. He is also implementing a wide range of suggestions, thereby deeply upsetting the orderly flow of governance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jagan, as he is popularly called to distinguish him from his father and former chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, burns with single-minded ambition to change the state. He is also changing everything done by his predecessor and bête noire N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state is agog about Jagan’s decision to convert every government school, including those run by panchayats, from Telugu- to English-medium. He says this was the aspiration of the poor he had heard during his yatra. They had told him that only English provided jobs and equity in an unfair world. Jagan also says that, due to the insistence on mother tongue as medium of instruction, the state’s illiteracy level was 33 per cent, above the national average of 27 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The decision, however, goes against the National Education Policy and the new draft suggested by the K. Kasturirangan Committee, which says the medium of instruction should be the mother tongue “preferably till grade eighth”. Several states have been more aggressive on promoting the local language, though the protests in states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been more about the imposition of Hindi by the Narendra Modi government than against English.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jagan’s decision was received with howls of protest by Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Chandrababu Naidu and actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan. They said Telugu will wither away if it was just confined to a single subject from 1st to 10th standard in all schools. Jagan sarcastically asked them which medium of instruction their children and grandchildren studied in. One critic sneeringly said that Jagan should change his party’s name from YSR Congress to English Desam!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jagan has also decided to curb the use of liquor in phases, so that Andhra Pradesh would be dry in 2023. Telugu Desam founder N.T. Rama Rao had introduced total prohibition at his swearing-in ceremony in 1995, but it was reversed, ironically by his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu. Jagan says women, in tears, had told him that families were being destroyed because of the liquor policy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jagan has also cancelled mega contracts for construction of the Polavaram project and the new capital of Amaravati, for sand mining, and for land allotted to big industrial groups by the Telugu Desam government. A stack of notebooks—filled with public suggestions and Jagan’s speeches at village squares and on roadsides—is being scanned for fresh policy initiatives. His government has introduced a massive number of welfare schemes to provide womb-to-tomb social security for varied vote banks. However, the war over the medium of instruction is becoming hotter as questions of Telugu pride and identity are being raised. Just five years ago, Andhra Pradesh was divided into two Telugu-speaking states—Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, if Jagan can persuade the people of Telangana that he would like to reverse the merger and rule the larger state, the state would be English with Telugu characteristics!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Nov 14 15:30:56 IST 2019