Sachidananda Murthy en Fri Mar 19 14:06:59 IST 2021 will-outsider-parties-bring-votes-for-mamata-asks-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>She wears a red cap, but she is not a communist. Her political outfit, the Samajwadi Party, has not fielded a single candidate in the assembly elections in West Bengal. Yet, Jaya Bachchan gets a huge crowd response in the state, as her roadshows and meetings are organised by the Trinamool Congress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The veteran Bollywood actor, whose family hails from Bengal, makes it clear that her party president Akhilesh Yadav has asked her to help Mamata Banerjee in her campaign. Jaya avoids strong language as she pitches for Trinamool Congress candidates against the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jaya, who is married to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been more vocal than her husband when it comes to politics. Amitabh, who had a brief fling as an MP from Allahabad in the 1980s, has stayed away from electoral politics since then. But he has been close to political leaders from Narendra Modi to Mulayam Singh Yadav. Jaya has been elected thrice to Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, on a Samajwadi Party ticket.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mamata wanted regional parties to support her as she had faced the onslaught of the BJP, led by Modi and Amit Shah. Both have continuously conducted personalised campaigns against Mamata, her nephew and the Trinamool Congress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rashtriya Janata Dal of Bihar is lending a helping hand to Mamata. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been supportive, but he did not make an appearance in the election campaigns. The Shiv Sena also offered its support to Mamata, but the party has no base in West Bengal for its supremo Uddhav Thackeray to campaign in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The West Bengal BJP relied more on the star power of dancing star Mithun Chakraborty. A chopper has been allocated to him by the party to attend the rallies. Apart from Jaya, Mamata relied a lot on stars from Bengali cinema and television, to match the BJP in terms of glamour. The left-Congress front, which is struggling to be an alternative between the bruising giants, has had less stardust to claim.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the other hand, the regional parties of other states did not take much interest in the election campaigns in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, unless they had state units in the two southern states. Even though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has shared power with regional parties in the National Front, United Front, National Democratic Alliance and United Progressive Alliance governments in the last three decades, it could not attract the support of dominant parties of other states, because the DMK-led front includes the Congress and the communist parties. Unlike Mamata, who had sent out what sounded like an anxious appeal for support against the BJP, the DMK remained circumspect in soliciting support from outside forces. Even though Tamil Nadu has several Telugu-speaking pockets, the leaders of the YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtra Samithi or Telugu Desam Party from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were conspicuous by their absence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, the contesting fronts in Tamil Nadu did not bring any Bollywood stars, as they had enough of their own from Tamil cinema. Even the BJP relied more on campaigning for women votes by fielding Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, rather than yesteryear heroine Hema Malini—who is from Tamil Nadu—though she is a Lok Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, in Kerala and Assam, too, the firepower for the campaign came more from political leaders, though there was a sprinkling of actors in the contest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Jaya, the success of the Trinamool Congress in the constituencies where she had campaigned would not only boost her image but also make her one of the most in-demand campaigners for the SP in the 2022 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 15 15:27:14 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-writes-about-how-politics-influenced-some-top-film-awards <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On April 6, people of Tamil Nadu, including many film stars, voted to choose between the political fronts led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Just two days before the end of campaigning, the Union government made a crucial announcement of conferring the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s top honour in cinema, to superstar Rajinikanth.</p> <p>The choice of the icon came at a time when there was much debate on Tamil identity and whether an aggressive BJP government at the Centre was threatening it through its electoral ally, AIADMK. The Rajinikanth fans association did not go into a frenzy to thank the BJP leadership for the selection. The BJP’s rivals, DMK president M.K. Stalin and actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, gave a strong positive reaction to the award. There seems to be an unspoken consensus to treat the award above politics, as the superstar himself had finally chosen to be out of the cesspool of politics.</p> <p>This was not the first time a superstar had been chosen for a top honour by the Centre at a politically crucial moment in Tamil Nadu. There was much criticism in 1988 when the Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to confer the nation’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, posthumously on M.G. Ramachandran—the film star-turned chief minister who had died in office in 1987. The opposition had described the award as an opportunistic attempt to catch votes for the Congress-AIADMK combine. But the Central government said MGR had fought separatist tendencies and worked for national unity. Gandhi, however, could not reap any benefits as the AIADMK was split between the loyalists of MGR’s widow Janaki and party leader J. Jayalalithaa, and the DMK came back to power. There was another award controversy earlier when MGR, who was the treasurer of the undivided DMK, broke with the party. The Indira Gandhi government conferred the national award for the best actor to MGR’s emotional drama <i>Rickshawkaran</i> (1971)—it was seen as a reward for jettisoning the DMK and forming the AIADMK in 1972.</p> <p>The Dadasaheb Phalke Awards have rarely attracted criticism as the choice has been made by a respected jury, though sometimes there would be a nudge from the information and broadcasting minister or the prime minister. The juries have resisted the temptation to pick only box-office stars and have also chosen filmmakers, playback singers, music directors and cinematographers. In 1996, the jury was divided between two south Indian thespians—legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan and Kannada superstar and playback singer Rajkumar. C.M. Ibrahim, the then information and broadcasting minister, picked Rajkumar. However, Ibrahim had noted that Sivaji Ganesan should be given the award for 1997. Incidentally, Ibrahim lost the I&amp;B ministry portfolio a week before Sivaji Ganesan received the award.</p> <p>Similarly, Arun Jaitley as the I&amp;B minister in 2014 was confronted by a strong demand that the government should honour Hindi actor-writer-director Manoj Kumar, who is known for his right-leaning patriotic films. But Jaitley was also a huge fan of thespian Shashi Kapoor. The happy compromise was that Kapoor received the award in 2014 and Manoj Kumar in 2015.</p> <p>In 1990, I&amp;B minister P. Upendra, from the Telugu Desam Party headed by Telugu superstar-turned-politician N.T. Rama Rao, was keen that another Telugu superstar, Akkineni Nageswara Rao—known for his social dramas—should be considered for the Phalke Award. Though Upendra lost his I&amp;B portfolio, and prime minister Chandra Shekhar took over it, Nageswara Rao received the 1990 award.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 08 21:19:34 IST 2021 army-continues-fight-to-retain-control-over-equestrian-sports-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some may dismiss it as horseplay. But the fact that four Indians participated in an international equestrian event as representatives of Nepal has left the fraternity and the Army, which controls the sport in India, red-faced. The protests about the imposters came from the Olympic Association of Nepal, which said it had not sent its national team to the qualifiers of the international tent pegging tournament scheduled to be held in 2023. Further inquiries revealed that the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI), which has a serving lieutenant general as president and a colonel as secretary, had admitted the team in consultation with the International Tent Pegging Federation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The controversy has once again resurrected the demand that the Army should give up its control of equestrian events and allow a democratic set up to come up. But the Army is in no mood to relent. The EFI has asked the government for five years to adopt the new sports code. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has stripped the EFI of its voting rights, but has allowed it to continue as a member.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a country where the horse and pony population has declined from 15 lakh in 1951 to three lakh in 2019, very few horses are used for sporting activities. In the civilian sector, they are used mostly as draught animals or for wedding processions, while the Army and the police forces maintain cavalry and mounted units. The most famous such unit is the President’s Bodyguard (PBG), which escorts the president on ceremonial occasions. A few thousand horses are used for commercial racing in racecourses across the country. Although it is very expensive to maintain those horses and courses, betting makes the enterprise lucrative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the various organisations in the country, the Army has the maximum number of horses in its stables, and it encourages select officers and men to specialise in riding. The three services have more than a million soldiers, sailors and aviators, and they are encouraged to participate in sports as part of physical fitness training and for all-round excellence. Their vast campuses and long training courses offer space and time for sports like racing, shooting, golf, yachting, canoeing and paragliding, as well as for field games like hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When there was not much of a civilian initiative in these sports, it was the military which produced top-notch performers. At the national level, the Services team, with the cream of sportsmen from defence units, was a tough one to beat. Subsequently, national and regional federations of such sports came to be promoted and controlled by the armed forces and it became a prestige issue for senior officers. But the march of the civilian enterprise has meant that many of these sports bodies are no longer dominated by men in uniform.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officers and men are upset over calls for inquiry about why so many Army units are affiliated as members of the EFI despite IOC rules stipulating that there should only be one association representing one state or entity. The Army, however, has clarified that the working of the EFI is not an Army activity; it has only loaned out its facilities for events and training. Similarly, the Army has said that it does not own any competitive golf course, and all golf courses on its property are part of training facilities for officers and soldiers. Yet, notwithstanding the stink caused by the Nepal fiasco, the Army is unlikely to give up the reins of equestrian sports easily.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 01 18:49:58 IST 2021 sitharamans-new-law-will-protect-bankers-from-probe-agencies-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nirmala Sitharaman has partially redeemed a promise she made 15 months ago to bankers. In December 2019, before the pandemic hit India, the finance minister had told chairmen of public sector banks that she would ensure that they would not be unduly harassed by Central investigative agencies, provided they followed proper procedures in sanctioning loans. She was referring to the fear of the three Cs in the banking sector. While the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) can book cases against anyone, from chairman to clerks, the other two Cs—Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which can block promotions and appointments, and the Comptroller &amp; Auditor General (CAG), whose critical reports spoil retirement plans—affect senior management members. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had made the original promise to bankers in 2014, followed by Sitharaman’s predecessor Arun Jaitley. When Sitharaman made the promise in Delhi, CBI director R.K. Shukla was also present.</p> <p>Now, the government bill on the establishment of a new development finance institution (DFI) to boost infrastructure projects has a provision—no Central agency, including the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), can initiate a probe against a senior official, until they convince the finance ministry that a prima facie case exists. There was widespread relief in banking circles. Once this ring-fencing is accepted, the government intends to amend other acts of Parliament that govern the State Bank of India, nationalised banks, Life Insurance Corporation of India, General Insurance Corporation, National Housing Bank and rural banks. That way it can provide a similar protection to the chairmen, directors and senior employees of these banks, too.</p> <p>However, the government has been silent as to whether it would still depend on the vetting of senior bankers when they are appointed either as chairman or managing director or executive director of the DFI. The CVC goes through the career files, including anonymous complaints, to check whether there is any lapse of probity or misconduct by the official. Though the government has the final say on appointments, an adverse CVC report makes the official’s chances more difficult. Similarly, the CAG, which reports directly to Parliament, has the right to audit the accounts of ministries and government-owned companies, pointing out irregularities as well as acts of omission and commission.</p> <p>Supporters of the change argue that government employees, including the prime minister and ministers, are already protected as prior government permission is required before investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The lokpal, which can conduct investigations against every employee, remains moribund eight years after the law was passed by Parliament. The first lokpal has not completed an investigation so far.</p> <p>Critics say that prior permission for investigation would mean that bad elements in the banking system would have a field day as successive governments delay giving approval, effectively killing the chances of successful prosecution. Since bankers report directly to the finance ministry, there are chances of conflict of interest if the ministry has to sit in judgment over its appointees.</p> <p>Yet, on the brighter side, it is evident that the government has partially walked the talk on its promise to protect bankers from being harassed, intimidated, shamed and prosecuted for genuine commercial decisions. The investigative agencies that report to the prime minister (CBI), finance minister (ED) and home minister (NIA) would only hope that approvals will come in quick time for them to crack down on offences in the banking sector.</p> Thu Mar 25 18:00:31 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-why-the-bjp-will-keep-wooing-ganguly <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sourav Ganguly has made it clear that he is not in the electoral or even the political arena. Despite this, leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP president J.P. Nadda have brought up the BCCI president quite often in their campaign speeches in West Bengal. Singh, whose main interest is agriculture and party organisation, apart from his administrative experience in the home and defence ministries, has waxed lyrical about Ganguly’s shot-making. He has said that his party’s performance against the Trinamool Congress would be like Ganguly hitting bowlers to all parts of the ground. In another rally, he said the BJP would hit sixes like Ganguly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The former India captain is the second biggest star the BJP has failed to woo in these assembly elections. At least the bigger star—actor Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu—kept the BJP on tenterhooks. He announced the launch of a party, praised Modi and held long talks with an RSS interlocutor. But&nbsp;he withdrew citing health reasons, dashing the BJP’s hopes of hitching its wagon to Rajini’s party for an electoral stunner in the south. With yesteryear star Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam exiting the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP has lost its last cinematic glitter in Tamil Nadu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ever since Modi and Shah identified Bengal as their big target, Ganguly was among the top names the party wanted. The former captain, who had maintained equable relations with Left Front chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then with Mamata Banerjee, was seen by the BJP as the ideal leader; he would appeal to the youth and the women of Bengal. He had a heroic reputation as player and captain, and his handsomeness would appeal to both the young and the middle-aged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, like his illustrious ODI opening partner Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly was friendly with all parties, but would not pad up for anyone. The other two members of India’s famed ‘fab four’—Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman—have remained politically aloof.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has roped in many film stars like Mithun Chakraborty and lesser cricket stars like Ashok Dinda, but no one matches the glamour of Ganguly, who effortlessly took control of the Cricket Association of Bengal before moving on to the BCCI. When Shah’s son, Jay, became BCCI secretary, there was speculation that Ganguly would join the ruling party at the Centre. But Ganguly kept smiling and refused to commit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Rajinikanth and Ganguly had bouts of illness ahead of the elections. And leaders of major parties, including Mamata, made a beeline for the hospital to wish Ganguly well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if he keeps his lips sealed till the eighth phase of polling in Bengal, BJP campaigners like Singh would invoke his name. If nothing else, this would garner applause from those who admire the cricketer and<br> the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 19 14:07:28 IST 2021 a-burning-concern <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Fires spew a lot of sparks. A fire that raged for a fortnight in Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve has sparked a controversy that has local activists and the forest department engaged in a fiery exchange of words. The 2,900sqkm sanctuary in the mountains of Mayurbhanj district is home to 100 tigers, most of which are in a core area of 845sqkm. The Odisha government insists that it brought the fire under control within a fortnight, and that the core area was untouched by flames.</p> <p>The fire was caused by local people gathering mahua flowers to make an intoxicating drink. As is their practice, they set the forest floor on fire to burn dry leaves on the ground and collect the flowers that are not burnt. The forest department says it had long tried to discourage the practice by supplying the villagers with green nets for gathering flowers and other forest produce.</p> <p>But the fire in Simlipal has apparently been so destructive that activists are now questioning the department’s firefighting abilities. Even as embers cooled in Simlipal, reports of a devastating fire in neighbouring Kuldiha sanctuary poured in. The activists are demanding an independent assessment of the loss of the flora and fauna in Simlipal, saying the fire in Asia’s second largest biosphere has destroyed a huge number of reptiles, amphibians, birds, orchids and mushrooms.</p> <p>Forest officials, however, say activists are making a volcano out of a molehill. They say such medium-intensity fires are common in the extremely dry months of March and April. According to the Forest Research Institute and state forest departments, India has around seven lakh square kilometres of declared forests, and it reports 30,000 forest fires a year on an overage. But loss of forest area has never been higher that 1,000sqkm a year.</p> <p>According to government data, there were 886 large fires (ones that encompass 10 or more hectares) in the last week of February alone. Of these, 233 were in Odisha, and 126 and 107 were in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. The fires are mainly caused by human activity―ranging from controlled fires set off by forest managers to the burning of dry leaves by tribals and mischief by miners and poachers.</p> <p>According to the last biennial State of Forest Report released in 2019―a new report is due this year, but Covid-related restrictions on field work may delay it―one in every 11sqkm of forest in India was “extremely” or “highly” fire-prone for a variety of reasons. A big chunk of forests in northeast states are in this category, while more than 10 forests in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra are in the highly to moderately fire-prone category.</p> <p>Interestingly, these states account for 25 of 50 tiger reserves in the country. They also have national parks for large mammals. But veteran foresters say large-scale wildfires, like the one that happened in Australia last year, remain rare in India. Three years ago, major fires destroyed large tracts of forests in Bandipur in Karnataka and Theni in Tamil Nadu. Now that the fire in Simlipal has been doused, a fair survey can reveal how much damage has been done. India’s forest fire-fighting strategy, meanwhile, could use more resources to tackle rampant fires caused by extreme climate change.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Mar 11 10:56:23 IST 2021 congress-faithful-and-faithless <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A little over a century ago, the Congress began debating the role of religion in politics, especially within the party. It has been a debate that has been conducted by Congressmen, but has been joined by parties both on the right and the left.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once again, the debate has reached a high pitch as everything the grand old party does is being argued about, with fingers from the political spectrum being pointed especially at the Gandhi family. If the BJP has been pitching hard on the old bogey of minority appeasement, there are figures from the left who accuse the Gandhi siblings’ temple hopping as proof of soft hindutva. Now, some members of the Group of 23, who began a debate on internal democracy in the Congress six months ago, have started questioning the secular credentials, the alliances and half-alliances in the three states going to polls, and the contribution of some Congress leaders for construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. There is once again a demand on deciding what exactly is the ideological core of the Congress, confronted with the twin-challenges of the aggression of the BJP’s hindutva and weakening organisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While a century ago the arguing groups were labelled as moderates and extremists arguing over the separation of politics from religion, now there are no such easy labels available. A Rajya Sabha member was heard joking in Parliament’s corridors that the best would be to describe the two sides as “faithful and faithless”, where faith is not in ideology, but the Gandhi family’s control of the Congress. Thus, the Group of 23 led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Kapil Sibal were once completely faithful, but now their faith is shaken. They were all supporters of the high command’s nomination culture that had begun during Indira Gandhi’s time and was institutionalised by Sonia Gandhi. Apart from religion and the two-nation theory which rocked the Congress during the freedom struggle, the party has also seen sharp divisions over economic policy, public sector domination, foreign policy, affirmative action for scheduled and backward classes, and desirability of a cadre-based party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The recent defeats and setbacks have also forced the Congress to reluctantly or enthusiastically embrace many political and social forces which were considered untouchables in the party’s heyday. The party shares power with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra which is strident in its hindutva, while the party is now in alliance with parties like All India United Democratic Front in Assam whose politics is antithetic to that of the Shiv Sena. Anand Sharma and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury—West Bengal unit chief of the Congress—recently had a verbal spat over the party’s tie-up with Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front. Leaders like Shashi Tharoor, who was aghast at the admission of admirers of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse by the Madhya Pradesh unit, have warned against the Congress becoming a lightweight version of the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An earlier generation of leaders led by Jawaharlal Nehru allowed fierce debate on the political and economic direction of the party. The last time the party did such a soul-searching on its attitude to religious issues was in the Faridabad session of 1993, held after the demolition of Babri Masjid. The role of religion in government and politics was discussed along with the organisational issues. The arguments were won overwhelmingly by the party establishment, but led to a minor split in the party. Now that similar issues have come up, the high command has to decide on the right approach to the questions raised from within and outside the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Mar 04 14:05:24 IST 2021 old-horses-new-courses <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>At one level, there was nothing unusual about the importance given to former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh when the BJP’s national office-bearers met physically after a year. Singh, who had ruled Chhattisgarh for 15 years before losing elections to the Congress in 2018, is the first in the BJP’s list of 12 vice presidents. He was thus the primary speaker on a resolution applauding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership during the Covid-19 and economic crises. He enumerated the “historic” and “visionary” decisions taken by the government—developing personal protective equipment, drugs and vaccines; passing three agricultural reform laws; amalgamating public-sector banks; and bolstering Atmanirbhar Bharat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Chhattisgarh, there is cheer among Singh’s supporters that he could be on the comeback trail, as far as his favourability in the party is concerned. Singh and fellow chief ministers Vasundhara Raje Scindia of Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh had lost their states to the Congress in the 2018 assembly elections, denting the formidable electoral juggernaut built by Modi and Amit Shah. While Chouhan’s loss was narrow, both Singh and Vasundhara had lost by big margins. Singh lost even his own assembly seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The trio, apparently, had lost the knack for winning—a big offence in the party’s new success code. Though Chouhan and Vasundhara had won their assembly seats, they were not made leader of the opposition in their states. And, in a ‘surgical strike’, all 10 party MPs in Chhattisgarh, including Singh’s son Abhishek, were denied tickets to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the erstwhile first family of Chhattisgarh went into political eclipse, there was talk of a new leadership being groomed—as Modi had done in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana. But Singh stayed below the radar, without getting provoked by either his party rivals or taunts from the Congress. He allowed those who took the reins of the party, both within and outside the assembly, to reveal their limitations.Meanwhile, as the faction-ridden Congress in Madhya Pradesh imploded, Chouhan’s stock rose as the most experienced leader who could manage not only the restive BJP factions, but also the large group of incoming defectors from the Congress who were loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elevation of J.P. Nadda as the BJP’s national president has given confidence to the party’s veteran warhorses to get back into the reckoning. But in Rajasthan, though, the rift between Vasundhara and her detractors has been deepening. The MLAs supporting her recently alleged that the denial of tickets to her supporters in Kota had benefited the Congress in the local body elections. Earlier, when the Congress was rocked by Sachin Pilot’s rebellion, the anti- Vasundhara faction in the BJP had kept hinting that she was not keen on toppling Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She is the most senior vice president of the BJP after Raman Singh, followed by Raghubir Das of Jharkhand, another former chief minister who lost the elections. It will be interesting to see whether Singh and Vasundhara would be considered when Nadda fills the three seats that have long been vacant in the party’s powerful parliamentary board. Many leaders in the party, young and old, are in contention. Chief Ministers B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka and Yogi Adityanath of UP have not made it to the board, even though Chouhan is a member.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Wed Feb 24 18:33:17 IST 2021 state-vs-commissioner <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Minister P. Ramachandra Reddy has escaped “house arrest” thanks to an urgent intervention by the High Court. But, the big-talking minister has been told not to address the media till the panchayat elections are over on February 21. State Election Commissioner N. Ramesh Kumar, who had directed the police to confine Reddy to his home till the elections were over, is fuming.</p> <p>The ruling YSR Congress Party calls Kumar a puppet of the Telugu Desam Party. Kumar has had major run-ins with the government after Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy became chief minister in 2019. Kumar charged Ramachandra Reddy, who is the nodal minister for the elections, with threatening district collectors and returning officers. The minister had accused Kumar of favouring the TDP and said he was preparing a list of bureaucrats to be punished after the elections. The skirmish between the government and the autonomous commissioner has enlivened politics as the two political parties vie to control the state’s 22 district panchayats and 21,807 panchayats.</p> <p>A close aide of the chief minister had lamented that the ruling party lacked the two-thirds strength in the legislative council to impeach and remove Kumar. Hence, the government had sought to conduct the elections in the summer, as Kumar is due to retire on March 31. The government said that disaster response norms were in place because of Covid-19. But, Kumar responded that states like Kerala and Karnataka and the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir had held local body elections during the pandemic. He has accused the government of trying to curb his powers as a constitutional authority because he did not dance to its tunes.</p> <p>Like the Election Commission of India, the state election bodies, too, are a creation of the Constitution. Hence, they have similar protection. The chief election commissioner of India cannot be removed without an impeachment motion passed by both houses of Parliament with two-thirds of members present. Article 324 gives the election commission powers of superintendence, direction and control. The state election commissioners get these powers under Article 243. The state bodies are not under the Central commission. The Central election commission can summon staff from both the Central and state governments, while the state election commission can ask the respective states for staff and other facilities.</p> <p>The skirmish in Andhra Pradesh is not the first of its kind after the Constitution was amended in 1992 to give protection to rural and urban local bodies. In 2008, the Maharashtra state election commissioner, Nand Lal, was sent to prison for two days because he refused to appear before the privileges committee of the legislative assembly, insisting he enjoyed the same immunity of a High Court judge. In 2013, in West Bengal, newly elected chief minister Mamata Banerjee had railed against commissioner Mira Pande. One of her ministers vehemently criticised the commissioner. Often, opposition parties, too, make serious allegations against commissioners who are the appointees of the ruling party.</p> <p>Kumar reminds many people of T.N. Seshan, who as chief election commissioner had ordered the removal of a governor who had gone to his son’s electoral constituency. Jagan Mohan Reddy will install his own election commissioner on April 1. But, by then, Kumar would have completed the election process.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Feb 11 18:04:40 IST 2021 gentlemen-for-gender-parity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Biju Janata Dal is a party that avoids controversies, furrowing its own middle path in national politics. Led by the charismatic Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the party strongly opposes both the Congress and the BJP at the state level. At the national level, it has had a more constructive approach towards both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After being part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA for 11 years, Patnaik left the rightist coalition ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when the BJP was led by L.K. Advani. The BJD, which has won five consecutive assembly elections, sends a sizeable contingent of members to both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Its members avoid noisy tactics like disruption of the houses, doing dharna in the well of the house or staging walkouts, preferring to make their points in debates, even if the main opposition is absent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the last two decades, its leading members like Bhartruhari Mahtab, Pinaki Misra, Tathagata Satpathy (now out of electoral politics), Baijayant Panda (now in the BJP) and Kalikesh Singh Deo have made constructive contributions in Parliament and its committees. There is more reason and less passion in their speeches as the party takes debates very seriously, emulating the serious demeanour of the party supremo himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from vigorously pursuing higher monetary allocations for Odisha and demanding its entitlements of mineral royalties and interstate river waters, the BJD has been vocal about the passage of the women’s reservation bill. The bill proposes to amend the Constitution to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies. This affirmative action has been an ideological badge for the party, where its leaders invariably ask the government of the day to take steps to complete the process. Its MPs also lobby their counterparts in other parties to support the move. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had pushed hard for the legislation when the UPA was in power, regularly responds to their calls. But the response from the BJP and most regional parties has been lukewarm.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJD itself has been unable to implement one-third quota for women in its tickets for national and state elections, as other parties put up stronger male candidates in most constituencies. Hence, its critics say there is a mismatch between rhetoric and action when it comes to women’s representation in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The women’s reservation bill had seen angry reactions when the Manmohan Singh government sought its passage in the Rajya Sabha; seven members were suspended for unruly behaviour. But a near consensus involving the Congress, the BJP, the left and several regional parties saw the bill being passed by a big majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even so, there were strong misgivings among MPs of both the major parties, and though Singh was in power for four more years after the success in the Rajya Sabha, his government could not get it passed in the Lok Sabha. Among the strong opponents of the bill were Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a crucial ally of the BJP, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a rival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the NDA’s majority in the Lok Sabha since 2014, the government has not considered the women’s reservation bill a legislative priority. The BJP has argued that Modi has given ministerial positions to the highest number of women in any Central government, entrusting some with crucial portfolios like finance, defence, external affairs, human resource development, and commerce and industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if there is less enthusiasm in the government, the BJD will continue to press for better gender parity through legislative representation in its own gentlemanly ways!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Feb 04 15:56:48 IST 2021 bridging-the-gaps <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though Union Culture Minister Prahlad Singh Patel has not yet accepted the demand to declare the Ram Setu a national heritage site, he recently authorised a scientific study by organisations under his colleague, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, to determine the origin of the 40km-long shoals connecting India and Sri Lanka.</p> <p>Patel has moved cautiously on an issue that has divided political parties in Tamil Nadu for 16 years. He has approved a proposal from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the National Institute of Oceanography to send an exploration ship to the Palk Strait to determine when the shoals, believed to be built by Ram’s army, actually originated. Many marine geologists believe this long formation is a natural one and not man-made. Proponents of the Ram Setu, however, have argued that Valmiki’s Ramayan had given detailed information on how the raging sea was bridged for a huge army to cross into Lanka to free Sita.</p> <p>Shipping experts have said that the rocks were making it impossible for bigger ships to use the strait, forcing them to go around Sri Lanka, thereby increasing cost and time. A number of studies had been initiated for dredging the sea, thereby removing the shoals to develop a deep sea channel.</p> <p>When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam joined the Manmohan Singh ministry in 2004, there was high drama over the shipping ministry. Singh, while allotting portfolios to allies, bifurcated the shipping and transport ministry, giving transport to the DMK and shipping to current Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi asked three of his ministers not to take charge until his party got shipping. After hurried consultations, Rao was requested to take the portfolio of labour, while shipping and transport was given to the DMK’s T.R. Baalu.</p> <p>The new minister’s first priority was to launch the Sethusamudram project for dredging the Palk Strait, which led to protests by then Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, the RSS and Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy. The DMK ministers pushed hard for the project, but the opponents went to court, questioning the decision on environmental and heritage grounds. The project was stalled because of the protests and was shelved later, even though a huge amount was spent on the first phase of dredging.</p> <p>The BJP had declared that the Ram Setu, which also had the British name of Adam’s Bridge, would be preserved as part of heritage. Swamy has been pursuing the cause of declaring it a national monument, even asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi why the decision was being delayed.</p> <p>The Union government had not moved on the issue till the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the Ayodhya land dispute in 2019. Interestingly, the Archaeological Survey of India, which has given the CSIR-NIO permission to study the shoals, had itself done marine studies to locate Dwaraka, Krishna’s lost city on the Gujarat coast. Now, the scientists would have to not only determine the age of the shoals, but also determine when the incidents in the Ramayan happened, to see whether the dates match. Meanwhile, it is election time in Tamil Nadu and the new decision will surely cause a political debate.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 28 16:31:00 IST 2021 age-of-marriage <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sealed envelopes, whether given to the Supreme Court or to the government, often cause much expectation and speculation. The report of a 10-member task force on raising the age of marriage for women submitted to the prime minister’s office, however, seems to point in one direction—a move upwards from the current limit of 18 years. But the committee headed by activist and handicraft curator Jaya Jaitly has been silent about its recommendations, as per the advice of the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The committee was tasked to decide whether the age of legal consent for marriage for women should go up to 21, like in the case of men. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had spoken last year on the urgency to revisit the age limit, which was raised in 1978 from 15 to 18 for women and 18 to 21 for men.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The increasing educational and career opportunities, the need to further reduce maternal mortality rates, improvements in nutritional values for mother and child, and the end of discrimination between genders have been the main reasons mentioned in petitions before courts on the issue. But activists and rights groups worry that raising the age limit could be used as a “coercive” weapon to prevent love marriages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Status quoists point out that love affairs are more common among teenagers, which culminate in marriage once the boy and girl reach the eligible age. They say the 2006 law against child marriage has largely been used by parents who are opposed to love marriages to file police complaints and court cases, arguing that their ward was underage. The law is also used to annul failed marriages, with ‘family honour’ being saved by a decree of annulment, rather than a divorce. The young women who were brought to police stations and courts suffered more trauma, it was argued.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some have voiced suspicions that the new proposal is a subtle attempt to control population growth, as women tend to produce less number of children if the first conception does not happen before they turn 20. India has recorded a drop in maternal mortality rates in urban areas, but it is three times higher in rural areas, although teenage pregnancies are more prevalent in urban areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Three years ago, the Law Commission of India had noted that gender-based discrepancy in the lower age for marriage was against Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which guaranteed equality and liberty to all. Even now the Indian society—across faiths and regions—expects wives to be younger than husbands. The wife being older than her spouse is still frowned upon, although society accepts elderly men marrying young women. The government feels that women’s right to equality, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals, can be realised only when there is parity in the age of consent for marriages under personal laws as well as civil laws.</p> <p>The Jaitly committee report will soon be made available for public feedback, as the government wants to reconcile its proposals with religious, familial and tribal viewpoints, and also with modernistic demands of education and health. When the British colonial government raised the age of marriage in India in the early 20th century from 10 to 12 years, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak argued that only Indians could decide on their religious practices. Yet, he added that he would support a far more revolutionary step of raising the age of consent to 16. A century later, the Modi government hopes to create a consensus on the issue, which affects not just women, but families and communities across the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 21 14:58:18 IST 2021 marine-malice <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The owners of the Indian cargo ship MV Jag Anand and the 23 Indian sailors on board had no intention of making headlines when they set sail from Australia early last year. They had been operating at the height of the pandemic, to keep earning their livelihoods at a difficult time when international shipments had come down and crews were stranded.</p> <p>The Jag Anand was carrying coal from Australia to the Chinese port of Jingtang. By June, relations between China and Australia had become an ugly contest of abuses and sanctions over trade and human rights. The Chinese simply kept dozens of ships flying different flags anchored at the sea, denying them permission to dock.Coal is non-perishable, but the sailors wilted. After a delay of weeks, most ambassadors managed to get berths for ships flagged in their countries. But the Jag Anand remained moored, even as India’s Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, got kind assurances from China. Even permission to change the crew was denied. The face-off in Ladakh had made the Chinese government frosty. The sailors had become unwitting pawns in an international spat.</p> <p>On September 20, another Indian ship, MV Anastasia, with 16 sailors on board, was told to anchor off Caofeidian port in China. Anastasia, too, was carrying Australian coal.</p> <p>Three months later, Australian naval ships sailed in to the Bay of Bengal to join the navies of India, Japan and the US for the Malabar exercise held as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). All countries indicated that the grouping would contain Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific. Even though the navies dispersed in November, it took another six weeks for China to relent to Indian pleas.</p> <p>The Jag Anand has now moved to a Japanese port with the Australian coal still in its belly. The crew will get an air ride to India. Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who negotiated with their Chinese counterparts for freeing Jag Anand, are now focusing on the Anastasia.</p> <p>Though the number of cargo vessels flying the Indian flag is few, Indians constitute the fifth largest nationality among seafarers. They prefer the glamorous name of merchant navy to describe their profession. There are at least two lakh seafarers in India who spend months away from home facing various dangers. In the past two decades, more than 2,000 Indian seafarers have been abducted by pirates and released after undergoing terrible hardships. Shipping companies pay ransom to get their crew back, even though international efforts have increased to combat piracy. The Indian Navy operates its ships and surveillance aircraft along the dangerous coasts off Somalia and Yemen, as well as in the narrow Malacca Strait, where large cargo vessels are slow-moving targets for raiders in fishing boats.The notorious Somalian coast has been free of pirates for the past two years. The most dangerous place now is the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, which comprises 13 countries. Two months ago, four Indians were among 10 seafarers abducted from a ship off Nigeria.</p> <p>Despite the dangers, the seafaring profession continues to promise adventure and good income. Hence the admission rush to 130 maritime colleges in India, which teach students everything from engineering to laundry work―all in demand on the high seas. A fresh lesson, perhaps, can be had from the experience of sailors aboard the Jag Anand and the Anastasia: there is a new Cold War gripping the Indian and Pacific Oceans.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 14 14:34:45 IST 2021 the-stinking-truth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The National Human Rights Commission used to be a noisy organisation, making up with strong words its lack of teeth to punish delinquent governments and individuals. But the commission has been rather subdued of late, leaving the job to more specific bodies like the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Minorities. But an NHRC team led by Justice P.C. Pant recently returned to its earlier style of functioning after a workshop on manual scavenging exposed the claims of many state governments that they had put an end to the inhuman work.&nbsp;</p> <p>A horrified commission issued a stinging circular, taking note of the situation. Although it did not use the word “lie”, it said what the states were saying were “far from truth”. The commission asked the definition of manual scavenging to be expanded to include other types of equally hazardous work undertaken in sewers across the country and called for total accountability from officials concerned. It called upon the Union home and finance ministries and the social justice department to prepare comprehensive schemes for the rehabilitation of scavengers, who face the worst forms of caste discrimination among the dispossessed groups in the country and demanded strong action against municipalities and panchayats that continue to employ manual scavengers.</p> <p>Although manual scavengers constitute a major vote bank in many states, their concerns were not addressed properly for a long time. It was prime minister Manmohan Singh who appointed a separate minister of state to handle the challenges of sanitation. Prime Minister Modi has appointed a cabinet minister to deal with the issue under the omnibus Jal Shakti portfolio. He has also set up the Swachh Bharat Mission. Some of his colleagues did not like being addressed “minister of toilet”, but the department grew in stature after Modi made sanitation one of his signature initiatives and set the target of building ten million new toilets to make India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2, 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. On that day, Modi declared that every Indian household had a toilet.</p> <p>When Modi took over in 2014, only 40 per cent of the households had toilets. And his government achieved the impressive feat of covering the remaining 60 per cent in five years. Modi’s next target is to make India&nbsp;ODF+ by 2025. The government has allocated Rs1.5 lakh crore for the initiative, which is aimed at sustaining the ODF programme, and will also take up solid and liquid waste management.</p> <p>Critics say many state governments have given themselves ODF certificates without actually meeting the target. It is alleged that some panchayats, districts and states claimed to have achieved a large percentage of their target during the fortnight before the national deadline. But the Central government is satisfied with the progress, which it says is being monitored by official and informal sources. Officials say ODF+ will address the more serious issue of lack of running water, which drives people back to open defecation. The initiative will also subsidise panchayats to build sanitation complexes for the homeless and the hutment dwellers. As hygiene is an issue involving exploitation, there are allegations that casteism is behind the denial of wet toilets to dispossessed groups in rural areas.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi is happy that the ODF project has helped rural women, whom he calls his “invisible voters”. Along with the Ujjwala scheme which provides cooking gas to rural households, the Swachh Bharat Mission, too, has a gender specific target. But it is important that the Central and the state governments act urgently on the timely alert given by the NHRC on the terrible tragedy that manual scavengers continue to face on a daily basis.</p> Thu Jan 07 17:47:15 IST 2021 digital-loan-sharks <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as there is good news of the arrival of vaccines against coronavirus, there is another virus from India’s northern neighbour that may need a legislative antidote when Parliament convenes for the budget session.</p> <p>The digital loan apps that have been ravaging lives are not exclusively from China, but the Telangana Police have identified a large number of such apps developed by the Chinese. Following cyber-bullying of defaulters and a spate of suicides by those who had borrowed at exorbitant interest rates, there have been crackdowns in various states. In late December, the Reserve Bank of India cautioned people against sharing their personal details with such apps and against borrowing what seemed to be easy money from unverified sources.</p> <p>The harsh methods loan sharks use to recover money digitally have caused widespread misery, and have not been widely reported. A Mumbai Police officer describes it as cyber blackmail; the borrower’s family and friends receive calls and messages abusing the defaulter. Just as only a small portion of blackmail cases is reported to the police, many fail to report that they were lured by offers of easy money. Parents have shivered seeing messages telling them they had given birth to cheats, while friends of defaulters have inquired whether they are in need of help.</p> <p>Usury is as ancient as barter. It is a sin in many religions and, even recently, research has been published describing the practice of lending at exceptionally high interest rates in ancient India.</p> <p>But, despite the government’s tall claims on protection of personal data, the racketeers have easily mined borrowers’ information. In some cases, they have accessed bank account details of the defaulters, including details of deposits and borrowings from regular banks and employers.</p> <p>While banking laws insist on rigorous procedure for granting licences to lend to general customers or to accept deposits (look at the travails of Sahara India Pariwar, which is accused of operating as a non-banking financial company without licence), the micro-lending apps escape legal regulation as their operations are treated as loans from individual to individual. There is also the argument that there are good app-based lenders who go through the Reserve Bank’s Know Your Customer (KYC) norms. But, the KYC itself has been more of a formality than a rigorous norm, even to some banks.</p> <p>There are also arguments that the current laws are enough to handle the shadowy operators. However, even though Indira Gandhi had initiated a crackdown on unauthorised money lenders during the Emergency, the business has endured into the 21st century.</p> <p>While the usurious moneylenders in rural and urban areas have had a good time during the economic slowdown, so have big companies with fancy attributes engaged in the same business. They offer loans without physical security, knowing that digital data and familial links can be used by what are known as “recovery agents”. Auto-financing companies usually hire these recovery agents to stop cars on roads, eject the defaulter from the driver’s seat and take away the vehicle.</p> <p>The hyperactive Enforcement Directorate, which has courted controversy over raids on political persons, may perhaps swing into action against the app operators, some of whom seem to have dubious sources of money, including from money laundering and even proceeds of heinous crimes like drug-running. The ministries of home, finance, information technology and law need to sit with the Reserve Bank to handle these digital lending apps, just as some of these institutions had got together ten years ago to handle the suicides caused by micro-finance companies that operated physically outside the legal boundaries.</p> Thu Dec 31 16:16:56 IST 2020 carry-forward-effect <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The multiple packages of economic stimulus introduced by the Central government and the Reserve Bank of India to battle the twin disasters of Covid-19 and the economic slowdown have shown mixed results.</p> <p>The monetary side of the rescue plan has shown improvement in the economic figures since September as several indicators have moved up. As the prime minister has told businessmen and industrialists, the huge flow of foreign investment is a sign of robust confidence, though the break-up showed one telecom giant garnering a big chunk of these investments. Though the cash dole outs to farmers and other sections does not match the help given by advanced economies, it increased money circulation. This included targeting government employees with incentives to spend more during the festive season. But small businesses did not get&nbsp;much direct sustenance, though those who depended on banks got some relief.</p> <p>The non-monetary parts of the stimulus have been more problematic with protests spilling into the streets. The Central and state governments pushed far-reaching changes in agriculture and labour laws, and made drastic openings for private and foreign investors in core resource areas like coal, mining and defence.</p> <p>The farmer protests have shown that approval by a tame Parliament driven by an inexorably determined executive will not impress the affected sections of the population. Ministers emphasise that Narendra Modi’s credo is consultation before decision, not surrender after a decision is taken. But less determined BJP chief ministers as well as Congress-ruled Rajasthan withdrew the orders increasing working hours in factories. But other labour reforms have been implemented in the name of promoting Atmanirbhar Bharat and this has seen protests spilling into the streets in Karnataka in relation to two foreign investment projects.</p> <p>But the thinking in government is that the perception damage is more because of the farmers camping on Delhi borders, though the BJP is confident that the protests would not be pan-India. The central intelligence and investigative agencies are also trying hard to find the soft pressure spots through which the farmers’ leaders can be approached. It is a tussle between a determined group and an aggressive establishment.</p> <p>The farmers are taking in their stride both the allegations of opposition support and innuendos about anti-national elements and foreign funding. The government treats the street protests more as local law and order incidents to be handled by the police. The government and the party are working hard to fight negative perceptions like the government being against Sikhs or of bulldozing farmers.</p> <p>There is confidence that these perceptions can be neutralised as in the case of the criticism of the way the government handled the massive migrant crisis during the lockdown. The seventh year of all multi-term prime ministers from Indira Gandhi onwards have been more turbulent, though the pandemic is a new factor compared to what Indira and Manmohan Singh faced during a similar period.</p> <p>Economics and health experts project a better normal, if not the old normal, in 2021. There is optimism that the severely hobbled sections of the economy like education, exports and travel would revive more vigorously. The multiple vaccines for Covid-19 is expected to galvanise confidence levels. Modi is also looking at the aggressive campaign for snatching the elusive Bengal crown from Mamata Banerjee, while plotting the complete rout of the Congress in five assembly elections. Yet, the deep impact of the events and decisions of 2020 will have to be managed with determination and flexibility in the new year.</p> Thu Dec 24 19:02:44 IST 2020 the-cleft-stick-of-emergency <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Supreme Court’s decision to issue notice to the Central government on a writ petition challenging the legality of the internal emergency imposed 45 years ago has drawn interesting comments on social media. The court was sceptical if it should revisit the distant past, but constitutional lawyer Harish Salve persuaded the bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kaul, to decide after getting the response of the Narendra Modi government. The response of the government, at one level, can be straightforward, as the BJP had opposed the Emergency, its leaders had been imprisoned and Modi as a young man had gone underground. But at another level, the Centre has to decide if it is ready to face the consequences if the petition succeeds.</p> <p>The petitioner, 94-year-old Veera Sarin, has narrated the traumatic experience she and her husband, H.K. Sarin, a jewel merchant, suffered for three generations due to customs raids and cases of violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. Their businesses and residences were raided, properties confiscated and valuables seized. Even after the Emergency was lifted in 1977 and the order to detain Sarin under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act was withdrawn, they had to live abroad, as prosecution continued under the Janata, Congress, United Front, NDA and UPA governments, until the courts dismissed the cases and the Delhi High Court ordered restitution of the family properties. Now Veera Sarin wants a closure by getting her two demands upheld.</p> <p>As expected, she has relied extensively on the reports of the omnibus commission of inquiry into the Emergency by J.C. Shah, former chief justice of India, which put former prime minister Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay, some of her ministers and scores of officials in the dock. Shah held that the declaration of the Emergency itself was illegal as the cabinet did not meet to decide whether the Constitution had broken down. It was a decision of Indira, Sanjay, West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray and law minister H.R. Gokhale. The cabinet was kept in the dark and president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the order at midnight.</p> <p>Sarin says the merchants of Delhi’s Karol Bagh, where her husband had a shop, were targeted because they supported a party opposed to Indira (the implication is the Bharatiya Jana Sangh). In a tightly written petition Sarin has asked for two reliefs—declaration of the Emergency as unconstitutional and a compensation of Rs25 crore from the “concerned authorities as having actively participated in the unconstitutional acts”.</p> <p>All the leaders indicted by the Shah Commission are no more, the last of them being Pranab Mukherjee, who was minister of state in charge of customs and income tax during the Emergency.</p> <p>If the Modi government asks the Supreme Court to declare the Emergency as unconstitutional, then there would be a flood of demands for justice by many of the lakhs of activists detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act or their families, those who lost their businesses and properties in the beautification drive carried out in Delhi and other cities, and the victims of enforced family planning. Even if the government is politically passionate about denouncing the Emergency, it may suggest a closure to the petition short of accepting liability for the sins of the distant predecessor. Yet the court would have to decide how Veera Sarin can be compensated for her losses of all these years.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 17 23:03:21 IST 2020 the-yes-or-no-trap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Battling the perception war on the farmers’ agitation, which has become a challenge to its authority, the Narendra Modi government resembles a mighty warrior forced to fight with his hands tied. After initial attempts by some BJP office-bearers to dub the protesters as having an anti-national agenda, the party realised that the strategy was counterproductive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the prime minister himself justified the three farm laws, the government and the party instead trained their guns at opposition parties, especially the Congress. The BJP knows that if the agitation succeeds, the opposition will reap the political benefit, just like the BJP benefitted from the anti-corruption agitations against the Manmohan Singh government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senior ministers have a lot of ammunition against the Congress as it had championed the very reforms which Rahul Gandhi is opposing now. While Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar adopted a farmer-friendly approach without actually yielding to their demands, his senior colleagues Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar blamed the Congress for its double standards. They have noted how the Manmohan-era Planning Commission had got a report done by a committee of chief ministers led by Haryana Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda to abolish the mandi system. They quote the most recent Congress manifesto to show that when Rahul was Congress president, the party had demanded agricultural marketing reforms, which is exactly what Modi has implemented.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Planning Commission, which Modi remade into NITI Aayog, had prepared several reports to bolster the economy, offering solutions ranging from far right to far left. In 2017, it suggested that rich farmers should pay income tax, forcing finance minister Arun Jaitley to douse the flames by quickly clarifying that the government had no such plans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former president Pranab Mukherjee, who was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission during the reforms era of P.V. Narasimha Rao, used to say that the huge cupboards of the Yojana Bhavan had reports which would suit different political lobbies. Among the heads of the Planning Commission were reformers like Manmohan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Arvind Panagariya and socialists like Mohan Dharia and Madhu Dandavate. Centrists like Mukherjee, Ramakrishna Hegde, N.D. Tiwari and K.C. Pant, too, had headed the Commission. Its archives would contain reports justifying the continuation of the public procurement system, which the agitators fear would be undermined by the new laws enacted by Modi. But policies change not only under different political parties, but also under the same prime minister so that today’s report could become irrelevant tomorrow. For instance, while negotiating a new global trade agreement under the World Trade Organisation, leaders of the Indian delegation like Murasoli Maran of the DMK and Mukherjee had to navigate contradictory positions and even mutually antagonistic laws. That is why Modi said 21st century India could not be built with 20th century laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the counter argument is that when they were in the opposition, Modi and the BJP objected to laws like GST, but adapted and adopted them after coming to power. Modi and his ministers have the benefit of a strong research facility as the BJP has backgrounders on every subject and an impressive collection of clippings, television speeches and documents of the Congress. The CPI(M), too, is backed by a research department which is thorough in its documentation. In comparison, the intrinsic belief in “Congress culture” makes its members less rigorous in research, even though there are many talented leaders who have mastery over specific subjects. But the farmers’ agitation has avoided divisive debates by demanding a brutally simple ‘yes or no’ answer to their demands, which has baffled the verbose politicians!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 10 14:45:21 IST 2020 keeping-and-spilling-secrets <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Journalist Rashid Kidwai, who has written books on the Congress, has revealed that Ahmed Patel spurned the suggestion of writing a tell-all memoir on his role as one of the most powerful men in the country. Patel, who died last month, said he would instead take all the secrets to his grave. Interestingly, the memoirs of another Congress giant, Pranab Mukherjee, who passed away this year, will be published soon. It will be the fourth and final volume of his autobiographical series. But, knowing the caution exhibited in the first three volumes, this one may not reveal any scandalous details.</p> <p>Like Patel, Mukherjee knew too much, but took much of it with him. Yet the book will be a revelation of Mukherjee’s assessments of Narendra Modi, who called the former president his guide. Mukherjee, despite being from the Congress, treated Modi fairly and squarely.</p> <p>While Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi left bundles of letters and files, which have been a treasure trove for researchers, the archives of other prime ministers are not readily available. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who had an eventful tenure, chose to write a thinly disguised novel, <i>The Insider,</i> which symbolised the man of many silences and ambiguities. Manmohan Singh, who had the third longest tenure as prime minister, is in demand by publishers for a revealing account of his decade in power.</p> <p>Interestingly H.D. Deve Gowda, who had a short tenure, asked Prof K.E. Radhakrishna to write his biography of six decades in politics, but after several sessions with the busy leader, Radhakrishna joined the Congress and wrote a book on Nehru! The most revealing book by a president so far has been <i>My Presidential Years,</i> by R. Venkataraman, who conducted two general elections and had four prime ministers during his five years on Raisina Hill. It is a guidebook on the presidency and the Constitution. Venkataraman’s successor, Shankar Dayal Sharma, who dealt with three prime ministers and had a sweet tooth, would ply a publisher with sweets, but refused to reveal secrets. K.R. Narayanan, again, refused to write a memoir, saying his detailed press notes issued in real time on the multiple constitutional issues he handled were the best reference for those interested in his presidency.</p> <p>Though A.P.J. Abdul Kalam wrote many inspiring books, he said he was trained as a defence scientist to keep secrets and not blurt them out. But, his secretary P.M. Nair wrote <i>The Kalam Effect: My Years with the President</i>, detailing how Kalam handled constitutional issues like dismissing a state government and that there was no evidence to show Kalam had raised a question on the foreign birth of Sonia Gandhi in 2004.</p> <p>Inside stories by people who worked very closely with leaders—like Natwar Singh on Sonia Gandhi, and Sanjaya Baru on Manmohan Singh—have given glimpses into what takes place beyond the corridors of power.</p> <p>The latest insider story is by bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah, who served in the PMO during the Indira and Rajiv era. He was a schoolmate of Rajiv. The revelations in the book on how a junior defence minister, Arun Singh (yet another classmate of Rajiv), and a maverick Army general, K.S. Sundarji, kept the prime minister largely ignorant of Operation Brasstacks, which almost sparked a war with Pakistan, is being discussed in military circles. The compassionate and friendly account of Habibullah reveals the games played by another trusted minister Arun Nehru (a relative of Rajiv) on the Babri Masjid issue. There are those in the higher circles of power in all parties who like Patel are privy to multiple secrets. How many of them will reveal how much, is grist for the growing demand for political books in the country.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 03 19:20:01 IST 2020 tweak-in-the-tale <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even though the Narendra Modi government has insisted that the bipartisan nature of the Indian-American relationship is immune from any negative fallout of leadership change in either country, there is great interest in New Delhi in the foreign policy priorities of the Joe Biden administration.</p> <p>The rapport between Modi and Donald Trump, who staged stunning joint shows in Houston and Ahmedabad, resulted in many convergences, especially against China. Trump was supportive of Modi’s decisions on Kashmir, and Modi lent support to Trump’s economic sanctions on Iran. The four-nation strategic alliance of India, the US, Japan and Australia has led to military and intelligence cooperation. If there was no pandemic, leaders of the four countries would have had a summit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Delhi also benefited from Trump’s rapport with his ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, who helped smoothen American belligerence on trade issues. Now Juster will be leaving and there is no indication about Biden’s preference for the crucial Delhi assignment. But India has an accomplished team of diplomats in the US led by Ambassador T.S. Sandhu, who has strong contacts in the Democratic policy group as well as in the Congress. But some of the progressive members of the house, including the Indian American representatives, have a perception that the BJP and the Republicans were far too thick friends.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While bilateral relations are expected to be smooth—the foreign policy team of secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken has emphasised the importance of India—the focus would be on how different the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy would be under the new administration. Trump’s treaty with the Taliban had made India feel that America would give the advantage to Pakistan in the long run, after withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. Trump’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had persuaded India to shed its touch-not-Taliban attitude that had been adopted after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in December 1999. Unlike the Obama administration, Trump’s foreign policy team had given more importance to Pakistan because of Islamabad-Rawalpindi’s strong ties with the Taliban. Now India is waiting to see what changes Biden will bring.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, Biden’s commitment to engage with Iran on its nuclear programme, which would restart the Obama policy abandoned violently by Trump, would be of relevance for India. The Modi government has moved closer to Iran’s regional opponents like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, although it has not joined in the rhetoric against Tehran. If Biden focuses more on Europe, Russia and the Middle East, there is great curiosity on whether he will be as bellicose towards China as Trump has been.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On economic issues, Biden has indicated that he would like to rebuild the bridges of international trade, which were damaged by Trump’s aggressive America First policy. But India is keen to know how committed Biden is towards rebuilding the World Trade Organisation and reviving other multilateral agreements.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is one area where Trump and Modi sharply differed. Modi believes that climate change is a genuine global threat and has committed India to mitigating its bad effects by word and deed. Trump thought the whole hubbub on climate was a hoax to sabotage the American energy sector and pulled the US out of the Paris agreement. Now Biden has named the old India friend John Kerry as his special envoy for climate and this would be a fruitful partnership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Overall, it is time for a different tango between the two big democracies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Nov 26 16:38:07 IST 2020 banking-on-rivers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Except during some monsoons, the Sarayu is a gentle tributary of the Ganga. But, for the next two years, the river known for its most-famous town, Ayodhya, will be the focus of hectic construction activity. It is not just the grand Ram Temple which will be the jewel of the river, but Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has also claimed the river to be his own for dazzling development.</p> <p>If the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad and the Ganga in Varanasi are developed as big riverfronts because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative, Adityanath is focusing on the Sarayu to leave his imprint. It is not just the lakhs of lamps lit during Diwali that would make the Sarayu sparkle, but the plans include a 500-acre theme park, the world’s tallest statue of Ram and green walkways. Each year, Adityanath is increasing the number of lamps as the length of the riverfront grows. The government has committed over 01,000 crore for the riverfront land reclamation and beautification.</p> <p>Urban river landscapes have caught the imagination of not just town planners but politicians as well. Adityanath found that the Gomti riverfront in Lucknow had been lavished attention by both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav as chief ministers, with the latter developing new green lungs on a 17km stretch on either bank of the Gomti. Yadav’s government spent 01,500 crore on the development.</p> <p>Even the less flamboyant Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has invested in the development of a 6km stretch of the Ganga, which is the lifeline of Patna, with 16 embankment ghats already built and more planned. According to the plan, thousands of visitors would be able to have fun on the riverfront and watch dolphins in the mighty river every day. Already 0150 crore has been spent and more is intended. In Assam, BJP Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has even bigger dreams for the wider Brahmaputra that flows through Guwahati.</p> <p>It is not just state governments that are taking up waterfront projects. The Nanded municipal corporation in Maharashtra has finalised a Godavari waterfront scheme for the famous Sikh pilgrim centre. Downstream, MNS leader Raj Thackeray had big dreams of developing the Godavari riverfront in the Kumbh Mela city of Nashik when his party controlled the corporation. But the project is embroiled in controversies and the BJP now controls the civic body.</p> <p>The biggest dreamboat of all has been the 22km Yamuna riverfront in Delhi, which has thousands of acres of vacant floodplains. As an urban development minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, jurist Ram Jethmalani had drawn plans for modelling it after the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. Then, in 2009, chief minister Sheila Dikshit had a plan to develop recreational and ecological parks along it. Now, the Delhi development authority under Modi wants to replicate the Sabarmati model. But the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court have remained vigilant guardians of the open spaces lining the filthiest river in the country, which has ironically become greener on its banks owing to non-development.</p> <p>Environmental activists are crying that the spate of riverfront projects would mean putting millions of cubic feet of concrete into the rivers and their embankments, affecting water flow and handing over floodplains for real estate and recreation. But waterfront enthusiasts are jogging on, arguing that planned development actually rejuvenates the river. And in case of chief ministers like Adityanath, it could mean a spike in popularity, too!</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 19:21:11 IST 2020 how-to-vaccinate-a-nation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as laboratories and pharma companies are announcing varying stages of success in developing a Covid-19 vaccine, an inter-ministerial group in Delhi has carved out a universal vaccination plan. The health ministry and the state governments were the nodal agencies for mega vaccination campaigns in the past. This&nbsp;time in view of&nbsp;the size, scale and timeline of the programme, the government has also brought in other ministries—home, finance, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, railways, agriculture, consumer affairs, education, civil aviation and even defence—for consultations and input on their expertise.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;As the government has promised free vaccination for all, the operation would be much bigger than other countrywide operations like the annual polio vaccination, the census or the general elections.&nbsp;The government wants to get the vaccine administered within 12 to 18 months from the date&nbsp;the drugs controller general of India certifies a Covid-19 candidate vaccine as viable. There is hope that India can be declared free of Covid-19 when the nation celebrates its 75th Independence Day in August 2022. The task becomes even more gigantic in the light of the prime minister’s promise to the international community—that India would not only take care of its citizens, but also help humanity by exporting huge quantities of vaccine produced in India.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has assured that there will be no dearth of funds for the programme. The official task force is, however, not in favour of recommending vaccines developed in the west, which could be priced at&nbsp;&nbsp;300 to&nbsp;&nbsp;500 per dose. The health and pharmaceuticals ministries are checking whether there are enough drug companies in the country which could conform to the World Health Organisation’s good manufacturing practice&nbsp;code—a prerequisite for being permitted to manufacture the highly sensitive drug.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;There are also suggestions on capacity augmentation for RNA-based vaccines for which the manufacturing base is insufficient. The challenge of supplying enough syringes is also being addressed, as the present thinking is that the vaccine has to be administered twice, with a gap of at least three weeks.&nbsp;The temperature at which the vaccine has to be made, transported and stored is also a big challenge as most of the vaccine candidates require cold-storage facilities.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;The agriculture ministry has been sounded out on the capacity of&nbsp;cold storages in the country. The transport ministries are being asked whether it would be easier to shepherd the recipients to a single urban centre and administer the vaccine, rather than take the whole operation to every village. There is also hope for availability of a vaccine that would not require refrigeration and can remain effective in normal temperature.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;The inter-ministerial group has also worked out the sequence of the population segments that would get vaccinated first. These include health workers, associated Covid-19 warriors in police, sanitation, transportation and connected areas, and all high officials like ministers, judges, MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats. Next in priority would be senior citizens and those having specific health&nbsp;conditions. The group feels the more widespread and penetrative the design of the programme, the faster the entire population would be covered. But the plans would remain on paper, until the specifications of the approved vaccine are known.</p> Mon Nov 16 19:22:45 IST 2020 lone-republican-ranger <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (A) has attained the unusual distinction of being the only non-BJP minister in the Modi ministry. Representation of other allies has ended either because of desertion (by the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal) or death (of Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party). A dalit activist, Athawale has been a lone wolf in the Maharashtra assembly and in Parliament, as he has not been able to get any other member of his party elected in the last three decades. But he is visually and verbally colourful. His wardrobe is full of coats and waistcoats of multiple colours and designs. He has vowed not to repeat a jacket in Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Athawale has been a junior minister in the social justice and empowerment ministry. The BJP has granted him a second term in the Rajya Sabha. He had won three Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Congress, and was also a Maharashtra cabinet minister. But he resisted offers to merge his outfit with national parties, and has enjoyed being in demand during elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the joint rallies of the coalition, Athawale is invited for his oratory and his popularity among dalits. At these rallies, he ensures his party’s blue flags and scarves outnumber those of his allies. In 2009, at a rally in Pune for Congress candidate Suresh Kalmadi, which was to be addressed by Sonia Gandhi, managers of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party were aghast at the sea of blue flags. They scrambled to get more of their party flags, but the police would not let them in, citing tight SPG security for Sonia. In Delhi, Athawale insisted that blue tiles, normally used in the kitchen, should be plastered onto the outer walls of his ministerial bungalow, though his desire for designer tiles with the party symbol was not granted by the Central government officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He has party units in all states and grandiosely announces that the RPI(A) would contest all assembly seats. He has refused invitations to contest on the Congress, BJP or NCP symbol, though it might have better helped his ambition to be a cabinet minister with a weighty portfolio. He symbolises many dalit leaders who prefer to be lions in their small regional dens. Athawale has also been lukewarm to suggestions of bringing together the factions of the Republican Party of India, including the one headed by Prakash Ambedkar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bihar assembly elections would determine the fortunes of some dalit parties like the 20-year-old LJP, founded by Paswan and now headed by his son Chirag, who has cocked a snook at Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Also in the fray is the Hindustani Awam Morcha founded by former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who is trying his luck as part of the NDA. In Tamil Nadu, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of Thol Thirumavalavan has remained a steady member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led front. The VCK is hoping that if the alliance unseats the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in next summer’s assembly elections, it could have a minister for the first time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi is likely to expand his council of ministers after the Bihar assembly elections. His party has to decide whether it should offer ministerships to other remaining NDA partners such as the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK. And whether the LJP deserves a return to the ministry, after causing confusion in Bihar NDA by fielding candidates only against the JD(U) and avoiding contests against the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP, on its own, has comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, but needs regional parties in the Rajya Sabha as well as in the coming state elections. If the expansion is limited to only new ministers from the BJP, or if the exercise itself is delayed, Athawale will continue to bask in his unique distinction.</p> Fri Nov 06 16:23:06 IST 2020 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