Friday, September 30, 2011

Maybe CBI should investigate the CAG now…..

This story has been brewing for a few days now. The CAG appears to have played a political game by calling the 2G scam a Rs 1.76 lac crore scam. The illogic of this estimate was obvious to anyone with even an iota of intelligence right from the beginning; but the CAG being a Constitutional body – no one usually doubts it for intellectual honesty. It’s now however becoming clear that the CAG has played a game….and it has many questions to answer. Why and under what circumstances did the CAG ignore the estimate of loss of its own team member, the Lead Investigator of the 2G scam? Why did the CAG choose to sensationalize the scam by putting out a much larger figure? Why has it chosen sensationalism over conservatism – a hallmark of all auditors?

The news report I am referring to has been featured prominently on the front page by Indian Express today. Before taking any political sides, it is worth reading the story objectively once. The Director General of Audit (Post and Telecommunications) RP Singh – the person who actually conducted the probe on the 2G scam – had been wary of estimating “notional” or “presumptive” losses. When he finally put out a figure, that figure was a mere Rs 2500 crores. However, this number was unacceptable to Vinod Rai – the CAG – for reasons that he must explain now. Vinod Rai inflated the Chief Auditor’s estimates by 70 times to Rs 1.76 lac crores. And although he also gave two other lower estimates, he knew very well that the higher number would be picked up by the media and it would stick in the minds of people. What was his motivation to play this political game?

This is not the end of the story. In line with procedure, the DG (Post & Telecommunications) wrote to the Secretary, Department of Telecom (on July 19, 2010) to respond to the observations made in the report. Apparently, the Secretary DoT responded with a preliminary reply stating that the files of the ministry were with the CBI and he would be able to respond fully only after the files were returned or some such thing. Thereafter the new Secretary, DoT responded with the revised replies (on September 21, 2010). Upon receiving these replies from DoT, the DG forwarded them to CAG Vinod Rai and the Deputy CAG Rekha Gupta for “perusal and necessary action”. As per process, the DoT’s replies have to be taken on record and their observations play an important role in explaining the observations made by the Audit team and arriving at any estimates if required. The DoT’s reply is a critical input in writing the final report. Look at what happened here. The CAG was obviously upset that the DG had written to the Secretary DoT. Why? The CAG needs to answer why he didn’t want process to be followed. The CAG made his mind clear when he wrote “I wish we had not written to the DoT”. Really? Why should the auditor not have written to the DoT – the department that was being investigated? Why was the CAG interested in filing its report without getting the final response back from the department being investigated? Which audit process allows this? Worse, his deputy, Rekha Gupta chose to amplify her boss’s observation by writing “Please convey CAG’s observations to DG (Singh). Also please re-iterate he is not to write to Secretary DOT on this or any other issue for the present”. Wow. Penalize the smaller officer for following the process. Two bosses more interested in playing politics than in arriving at the truth. Shameful.

RP Singh has now retired. He has confirmed the dates of the above events, though he’s refused to be drawn into any controversy over the same. He’s also mentioned that by the time the new DoT Secretary’s reply came (the revised reply), the CAG had already finalized its explosive report. In other words, the reply was not considered. What kind of a CAG is this? Indian Express has published a picture of the letter with the CAG’s observations.

It’s worth looking at the final three figures put out by the CAG in its report. All of them are specious methods of estimating the notional loss to the exchequer.

The first method is based on an offer made by S Tel for a pan-India license to the Prime Minister. S Tel was one of the applicants and it may have been anxious to acquire spectrum ahead of the others. No other applicant made such an offer. As such, there was no provision for any such open offer being made. And why was the offer made to the PM? The government policy was to give spectrum fee and charge entry fees based on 2001 figures. Such open offers have no sanctity in the government system. In any case, the offer was later withdrawn by S Tel. CAG has estimated the value of the new license based on this flawed method at Rs 65,909 crores.

The second method used was the one that has drawn the max attention – using 3G pricing to estimate value of 2G spectrum. This was based on a recco by TRAI (in 2010 – not in 2008 when the Licenses were issued) that 2G and 3G could be compared. This recco has rightly not been accepted by the Government. Even then, CAG has found merit in using this method. Everyone knows that 3G spectrum is used for premium “data” services. The objective of 3G spectrum is not to enhance teledensity but to provide premium services to those who need data on the move. The CAG’s view is like saying that a flat in Bombay is valued only on the basis of its size and it does not matter where it is located – in upscale
Napean Sea Road
or in far away Virar! The two are to be valued identically. After all, a flat is a flat and spectrum is spectrum!

The third method used was to look at the stake sale that new licensees undertook to their foreign partners. The CAG has used the “dilution of equity” by DB Realty and Unitech to imply that they made “massive profits”. Since this is a technical point, most lay readers do not understand the matter very well. “Diluting” equity is not the same as “selling” equity. Let me clarify. Diluting equity means issuing fresh equity. The company issues the fresh equity and the foreign company “buys” the fresh equity. Where does the money go? Into the company. Did Unitech or DB get even a single paisa for the dilution? No. Did they make any profits? Obviously not. What will the company do with the money? The company (which became a joint venture) will spend the money in rolling out the network, acquiring customers, advertising, building distribution….in short in running the business. Like every business, this one may or may not succeed. Most businesses don’t succeed. We know today that most, if not all, new licensees are losing money hand over fist. In all probabilties, these two will not make money for at least the next 10ears for sure. Why, an early operator like Vodafone just declared its first profit this year. What if Unitech and DB want to exit the company today so as to realize profit? Firstly, such joint ventures usually have lock-in clauses. Secondly, even if they do exit now, they will most likely make a loss. Their original investment will be sunk. This is basic level understanding that any student of commerce has. But for a politically minded CAG, obfuscation of truth was an acceptable way of work. But why?

The real truth is slowly but surely coming out. First truth: Spectrum sale for free was a great policy. It has helped bring telephony to the poorest of the poor and has transformed their lives. Second truth: The policy was rightly continued in 2008. Teledensity in January 2008 was still pretty low – there were just 275 million mobile phones then compared to some 750 million now. The poor have come into the revolution the last – and had the licenses been auctioned in 2008, the spread would have been far far lower. Third truth: Chidambaram was wrong in wanting to auction the licenses. He may have been tempted to do so for reasons of raising government revenues; but given the larger teledensity objective, he was wrong. Fourth truth: The entire cabinet took the decision to give spectrum free. It overruled Chidambaram. They cannot act coy about this decision Fifth truth: Raja surely appears to have indulged in wrong-doing. Like a petty thief (only in this case, the theft wasn’t petty!), he changed the rules of the game to favor a few. For this, he is being tried in the trial court. Sixth truth: Raja is in jail because of the DB-Kalaignar Rs 200 crore linkage; not because of the policy of giving 2G spectrum free. And lastly, rather than the word “scam” following the word 2G, it should be the word “revolution” that should follow. Enough politics has already been played. Let’s not play it any more…..

(PS: as more of the truth unveils, the CBI has stated that Videocon is in the clean…..)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Manmohan Singh, Mahendra Singh (Dhoni) – both in trouble; both need to re-invent….

Half way through his second term, the PM must surely must be wishing the story hadn’t played out this way. Half way through his playing career, Mahinder Singh Dhoni would be wishing the same. What should both these men do now that they have been pushed onto the back foot? How should they overcome the formidable opposition that they face? Can they recover at all or is the match pretty much lost?

It’s a striking similarity that both these valiant heroes are facing today. Err….make that past heroes. Till a year back, Manmohan Singh was the cleanest PM the country had every had; the economist who suddenly proved that a non-politician could successful rule India’s fractious political system. A man credited by winning the UPA its second term purely on the basis of his personal credibility. A man who showed he had the guts to stick his neck out when it mattered – by passing the Indo-US nuclear deal. A man who was regarded as one of the most sought after internationally – be it by Obama or by the G20 or the global financial institutions staring at a meltdown. Why, it was just last year that India hosted leaders of all the big five countries. The world seemed to be fawning over Manmohan Singh. It was the same with Dhoni. He could do nothing wrong till the recent England tour. He won India the ICC T-20 tournament in 2007, took India’s 5-day squad to the numero uno position and most recently won India the cherished ICC ODI trophy. In the IPL, the Chennai Super Kings entered the finals three times out of four, winning twice. Dhoni even won the CSK the Champions League T-20 trophy last year. Everything Dhoni touched turned to gold. Dhoni was rated as the coolest cricketing captain the game had ever seen. He was aggressive; yet never displayed an emotion on his face. He would push his team hard; yet would refrain from giving ball-by-ball instructions to his team. Both Manmohan Singh and Dhoni took India to the pinnacle of glory – the world preferring to laud their achievements rather than focus on the many chinks they continued to have in their armours.

In a short while, both men have been reduced to near failures. Dhoni has had the worst possible tour of England – losing every single game that had a result. His team is plagued by injuries. Worse, there is no respite. He has one tournament after another to face in the near future. No time to rest; no time to wrest control. Whatever he does, he has to do on the move. It’s the same with Manmohan Singh. India’s second-term winning PM has been ridiculed for being a puppet for long; while that hurts, what must hurt even more is that the opposition has finally found a way to hit him. His impeccable personal credentials about his personal integrity are intact; yet his inability to control a colleague who started off the entire 2G scam is being seen as another evidence of weakness.  His ministers appear to be squabbling in public. His boss was out of action. He was out on his own. And he’s now come out good.

Both men can argue that the world is being unfair to them. Dhoni can say that after so many years of success, there is bound to be some failure. Statistically, Dhoni is dead right. No one can succeed forever. There is no other cricketer who can turn in better results than Dhoni has done. Manmohan Singh may also feel that the media has been unkind to him. The media played along with a random 2G scam number which the CAG put out – but which, it now transpires, was surely more a political estimate than an economic one. The Chief Auditor– RP Singh – himself pegged the scam at a much lower Rs 2500 crores (read yesterday’s ET – such stories are hidden in the inside pages!). The CWG scam numbers have been highly inflated. More than a year after a Supreme Court supervised investigation, the charges against Kalmadi don’t even add up to Rs 200 crores – a pittance of the Rs 70,000 crores that was being brandished by the media and the “authorities” – and by the way, these are contract values, not corruption amounts. Manmohan Singh may argue that the TRAI itself recommended that auctions not be conducted – what’s the point in having a regulator if the government is going to overpower it? Both men can complain – but it will get them nowhere.

Companies often go through such periods in their otherwise perfect lives. Take Infosys – after being the darling of the Indian and global investors for more than a decade – the company has today been dislodged from its perch. Today, TCS has widened its lead over Infosys and a lowly Cognisant is snapping at its heels. It’s the same with Nokia. The mighty handset manufacturer – which once had 70% of the marketshare in India – is today down to no more than 20-25%. The brand has got squeezed by the Iphones and Android phones at the top end and the cheap Chinese brands at the bottom. Just look at what happened to Star TV a couple of years back when Colors was born. 8 years of unquestioned leadership vanished into thin air in no time. But corporates know how to fight back. Corporates don’t suffer the several malaises that political parties suffer from. A Star TV re-invented itself and came back to #1 position. An Infosys is changing its team and strategy; and is bound to recover lost ground. A Nokia is struggling; it seems to be merely tinkering its old strategy; is not bold enough to embark on something totally new. In a world of shared operating systems and user developed apps, Nokia is shut to both of these. Can it re-invent itself? Can it start from scratch?

Will Manmohan Singh be a Nokia or will he be a Star TV? That’s the question that is relevant in today’s politics. It’s no longer whether he is down or up. That’s been amply answered. How is he going to re-invent himself and his government?

For starters, every person who is down and out must look for his strength inside. What are Manmohan Singh’s strengths? For the PM, his strengths are not great oratory; political power play; or political grandstanding. His strength is economics; an understanding of the problems of the poor; knowledge of how to get more FDI; a proven capability to turn the global economic worries into a grand opportunity for India. After all, if India got its act right, the global fears should lead to foreign monies flowing into India, not out of it. Manmohan Singh should make sure his government takes all the economic decisions that are pending. It’s time he overruled his team members who think more of politics than of economics. He has to believe that good economics is good politics. He must push hard for raising the industrial growth rates. He has to reign in the RBI’s mad and futile insistence to keep raising rates – even though it’s now proven that it won’t contain inflation. The inflation is in agriculture; raising rates doesn’t help there; in fact, it harms industrial growth. The PM has to personally make sure that in the next six months, India sees top-drawer economic reforms. The PM has another major strength – he is personally incorruptible. He must take the lead on the Lokpal. He has to surprise the nation with something that no one expects from him. He has to stop the politics; take the game in his own hands. He must make sure that Anna comes out singing paeans of praise about him; rather than having to go whining into another fast.

If the PM can show action on the economic front and on the corruption front, he can re-ignite his party. But he needs his boss’s support. Sonia Gandhi has to reign in her childish and increasingly insufferable ministers. MTV’s One Tight Slap needs be the motto for Sonia Gandhi now. No one in the Congress can afford to ignore Sonia Gandhi’s wishes. But she has to make those wishes clearly and amply known.

The PM and Sonia Gandhi must get comfort by knowing that the opposition is in no great position really. Just like Dhoni must know that there is no serious alternative to his captaincy. But that’s only in the short run. If the mess continues for long, a Virat Kohli, a Suresh Raina, a Virender Sehwag will lay claim to the top job. Why, even Dhoni got his job under similar crisis conditions. Manmohan Singh should understand this. The BJP is today in a state of disarray. It has its own corruption cases to fight and leadership crises to overcome. Like I have argued earlier, even if elections were held today, the BJP or the NDA is unlikely to win. That’s the opportunity that the Congress must grab with both hands. The BJP’s internal troubles must serve as the elixir of life. But that opportunity won’t last for long. The BJP has got re-energized. It’s smelling the blood from Congress’s festering wounds; sensing a victory.. It’s hungry for a second shot at the center. If the Congress won’t get its act together; the BJP will….

The real truth is that the UPA need to re-invent itself; or needs to prepare to go. When all your supporters – journalists like Shekhar Gupta, Vinod Mehta included – all start joking about your ineptitude, you should know you are in trouble. Minor tinkering won’t fix the problem. Major overhaul will. This is really a test for the leadership of the party. For Manmohan Singh and for Sonia Gandhi……Just like it is for Dhoni.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A season of silly politics….

The 2G scam has been back in the limelight over the last few days for an absolutely silly reason. Apparently, if Chidambaram had wanted to stop Raja from giving away free spectrum, he could have. Maybe, he could have. Maybe not Chidambaram himself, but the Cabinet could surely have. Any sensible government would concede this point. Policy decisions are taken by the Cabinet and not by any single minister alone. The first silly episode in this political season saw the Congress/UPA acting coy about its decision to give away spectrum free, rather than claiming credit for this absolutely perfect strategy (I covered this partly in my post titled Of course Chidambaram is guilty. But of what???? on 22nd September). The second silly episode of this political season is what is happening now – when the opposition is intentionally mixing a scam-free policy decision to give spectrum free with the possible scam of allocating spectrum out of turn. Giving spectrum free is a policy decision; the same rules apply to all players. But favoring a few players is a scam. The two are totally different matters and the entire country is being intentionally misled on this matter.

So let’s get the facts right first.

There are two different things that everyone is now starting to accept. The first is that giving spectrum free is a policy decision. And just like all policy decisions, this one also was taken by the cabinet. As always, the proposal must have been brought forward by Raja as the minister in charge of Telecom, but the entire cabinet saw the proposal, discussed it and cleared it. The cabinet must obviously have been influenced by the recommendation of the TRAI that clearly was against auctioning 2G spectrum. In the same way, the Cabinet clears every diesel, LPG and kerosene price hike whenver it is taken. These items are subsidized and the government bears a huge burden of subsidy on account of these items. Obviously, the decision on pricing of these products is not taken exclusively by the Ministry of Petroleum – but by the entire cabinet. It has huge financial implications and hence the Finance Minister – whose job it is to manage the fiscal deficit – is a key participant in the discussion in the cabinet. It also has huge political ramifications and hence every single cabinet minister becomes a participant in the decision. Like always, such big policy decisions are taken by the cabinet. That’s why I am a little confused here – is the Congress saying that the policy of allocating spectrum free was taken by Raja alone? If so, then it is being really silly. It was obviously a cabinet decision. It was a cabinet decision during the NDA rule. It was a cabinet decision during the UPA-1 rule. And it was a cabinet decision during UPA-2 rule. The opposition may disagree with the merits of this policy decision, but it is a policy decision nonetheless and there is no scam in the policy decision.

Once the cabinet takes a decision, it is then the nodal ministry that takes over the implementation of the policy. If the minister concerned decides to defraud the system and make money on the side, I doubt if he brings this proposal to the cabinet! This is out and out corruption, the benefits of which would accrue to the concerned minister and his party alone. This criminal liability is what Raja is being tried for.

If the charge now is that Chidambaram was part of the criminal conspiracy to extort money, it looks silly. Much as the DMK and Congress have been alliance partners for the last seven years or so (since 2004 when the first UPA was formed at the center), the politics of Tamil Nadu is such that no party trusts any other party. Prior to 2004, the DMK was safely ensconced in the arms of the NDA. In fact, between 1991 and 2004, the Congress had an alliance with the AIADMK at the state level and the DMK was a sworn enemy. In 1989, the Congress had gone alone in the state assembly elections (no alliances with either AIADMK or DMK). Prior to 1989, the Congress had had alliances with both AIADMK and DMK at the state level. If there is one thing that TN politics shows, it is that the parties have no long lasting alliances with anyone at the center. The DMK was part of the NDA when it was ruling at the center; now it is part of the UPA. Does anyone think that this type of political reality would lead to a secure bond or trust between the two parties? A bond so strong that they would conspire together? Does anyone think that Chidambaram and Raja were “best buddies”? Anyone with even an iota of political sense would understand that in spite of their alliance, the DMK and Congress (or for that matter any party) remain mutually suspicious of each other. Conspiring together is out of the question.

Some would argue that even if this were true (that the two wouldn’t conspire together), why should anyone in the Congress object to at least probing Chidambaram. My view is that probing a senior minister without any logical reasoning leads to a virtual shut-down of that ministry. At a time of heightened security threats, do we want to shut down the home ministry till a probe goes on – a probe based entirely on a blatantly political accusation? The only reason being offered for a probe is that Chidambaram could have stopped Raja. Firstly, it wasn’t for Chidambaram to stop Raja. It was for the cabinet to do so. (It was an NDA policy to have the Finance Minister and Telecom Minister decide on such matters without referring the same to the cabinet; not a UPA decision. In the UPA, such decisions are taken by the cabinet). And the cabinet didn’t want to do so. It wanted to give spectrum free. If this is the only basis to try Chidambaram, why not try the Petroleum Minister for subsidized petroleum products; the Foods Ministry for subsidized grains to the poor; the Industries minister for subsidized tax rates in the SEZs; the Education Minister for subsidized education and the Health ministry for subsidized hospitals. If giving spectrum free is deemed to be a crime, then why only Chidambaram – the entire cabinet should be put in jail!

This is why I am wary of the Anna proposal to include the PM unconditionally under the Lokpal. Something as flimsy as someone’s imagination of the meaning of a letter or memo could become the grounds to put a PM under scrutiny. As soon as one such episode would end, another one would be initiated. After all, people who see conspiracies everywhere would want an investigation for every alleged conspiracy. This is why my own view on including the PM under the Lokpal has been that the PM should be included but only after a preliminary inquiry has been conducted by an independent authority (not the Lokpal) to establish a prima-facie charge. If this were not done, the PM (any PM) would never be able to perform.

The real truth is that politics has always been silly; and yet this must be a high point of silliness. To intentionally obfuscate the difference between a policy decision and an implementation programme is being silly. Or being too clever by half. And has anyone wondered why it is Subramaniam Swamy who is fighting this battle and the BJP is merely enjoying a free ride? That’s because the BJP itself had gone with a free spectrum policy during its rule. With what face can it challenge the free-spectrum policy the UPA followed?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

If the General Elections happened today….

The PM raised the point yesterday that the NDA was out to destabilize the UPA government. I don’t know if the BJP wants an early election or not, but my own reading is that it doesn’t. If elections did happen right now, the BJP or the NDA would hardly be able to secure the majority it needs. Ideally, the BJP would like to continue attacking the UPA for another couple of years and in the meantime, it would like to clean up some of the mess in its own backyard before the 2014 elections.

I am not a psephologist and my note today is not based on swings, voting percentages, margins of wins and defeats in the last elections and other such technical stuff. It is entirely possible that I may be off the mark. My note today is based on what we generally see around the states, the condition of the political parties and the like. I may be off, but I am confident that I wouldn’t be off by too much.

If elections were held at this point, here’s what I think could possibly happen in the main states:

Andhra: Cong could lose as many as 15 seats (2009: 33) because of the split of Jagan from the Congress and the generally poor political situation the Congress finds itself in. Who would gain is a question mark. Jagan would surely take some of the spoils….but TRS and other Telengana parties could also pack in a punch if the Telengana emotion continues to sweep 42% of the population of the state. On the other hand, if the Telengana emotion dies down or is not as big as being made to look right now, then the TDP could gain because it has always stood against the bifurcation (or trifurcation) of AP. No matter what happens to the Congress, the BJP directly is hardly in a position to gain. Who would align with the NDA? Perhaps Jagan if the NDA has emerged strong nationally. Perhaps the TDP (yet again) – especially to keep the Congress out (the Left is hardly expected to do well). So the NDA might still gain, but not the BJP.

Bihar: The NDA has 32 of the 40 seats and I doubt if they will able to build on this number. Also, I doubt if the NDA will lose much since the alliance has done well in the state and Nitish carries a solid reputation….

Chhatisgarh: The BJP could lose as many as five of its present 10 seats, if not more given the corruption in the state and the general level of disenchantment with Raman Singh. The direct beneficiary would be the Congress.

Gujarat: In the Lok Sabha elections, the state has notoriously remained evenly divided – all through the strong Modi wave of the last 10 years. The BJP has 15 of the 26 seats and I doubt if there will be any change in numbers in Gujarat.

Jharkhand: The BJP is likely to lose 4-5 of its 8 seats in the present House. Direct beneficiary could be the Congress or the JMM.

Karnataka – The BJP would lose massively here. It would lose maybe 15 of its 19 seats given the scale of corruption in the state. Also, the BJP has done well in the state two times in a row and anti-incumbancy is bound to take its toll. Obviously, the key beneficiary will be the Congress – the margin of vote difference between the two parties being hardly 4-5%.

Kerala: The Congress could lose a few and the Left could come back with a few – given the trend seen in the latest state assembly election. From its current position of 13 seats out of 20, the Congress could lose 4-5.

Madhya Pradesh – Even though the state is evenly split between the Congress and the BJP, I feel the BJP could lose a few seats (it had 16 out of 28 in 2009) because of a series of scams including the revelation of India’s most corrupt IAS officer, the murder of Shehla Masood and the anti-incumbancy factor. Obviously, the beneficiary will be the Congress. I doubt though if the change of seats will be very significant. A few seats here or there maybe.

Maharashtra: The Congress has ruled the state quite poorly even though Prithviraj Chauhan’s induction has given the party a certain surefootedness recently. Also, the BJP/Shiv Sena combination remains in disarray – with a war simmering below the top bosses, the Gopinath Munde mess being part of the same. The role of Raj Thackeray continues to be a bugbear for the NDA.

Orissa – This is a state where the Congress could gain. The BJD currently has 14 of the 21 seats and given the mining issues, the villagers protests against POSCO and other similar matters, the BDP could lose and the Congress could gain as many as 5-6 seats. There is also the anti-incumbancy factor of the last two terms that one has to keep in mind.

Rajasthan – This has been a flip-flop state in the last two general elections. But the BJP appears to be a bit of a fractious party in this state. Also, the Congress has done reasonably well in spite of the recent communal flare-up. I think the Congress could lose 5 seats here from its present 20 (out of 25). The benefit would go to the BJP.

Tamil Nadu: From a current strength of 18, the DMK is bound to lose at least 10 if not more seats. From its current strength of 8, the Congress may not lose much – it has traditionally held on to 8-10 seats in the state. Collectively, the UPA could face its biggest threat in this state losing as much as 10-15 seats or so. The gains will obviously be to the AIADMK – and it is likely to join the NDA – as the regional party that rules TN typically tends to align with the victorious alliance at the center.

Uttar Pradesh – will be discussed towards the end. The state holds the key really!

West Bengal – The UPA will gain from its already strong position of 25 out of 42 seats as we have seen recently in the state assembly elections. The UPA could pick up an additional 5 seats or so.

And now finally coming over to the biggest state of them all! Uttar Pradesh, like I mentioned earlier, will hold the key to who rules at the center if elections were to be held now. The Congress has relatively less to gain, given its rather strong showing in 2009 (21 seats). The Land Acquisition Bill will be key to building a sentiment for the party. Also, the Muslim vote is likely to side with the Congress, given the disenchantment of the community with SP (after Kalyan Singh’s flip flop with the party – Kalyan Singh being the face of the Ayodhya pogrom). The BJP is unlikely to gain given the quality of its leadership in the state – it has had to revert back to Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati – who can only whip up communal passions. But the communal card is unlikely to work any longer. The surprise winner could be BSP which has only 20 seats at the moment but which could swell that by another 10 seats – mostly at SP’s loss. A person who knows the state reasonably well tells me that Mayawati has actually done a lot of good work for the dalits. Now she is pitching for reservations for the Brahmins. If she wins, who will she align with? My belief is that she will either align with the NDA or support it from outside. Given Rahul Gandhi’s continued focus on UP, and given the intermittent support that Congress receives from the SP, it is obvious that the BSP will tilt towards the NDA. The point to be noted is that the BJP won’t gain in UP…..

In conclusion – given the state of the BJP across the country, it is unlikely to gain from the problems the Congress is facing. There is hardly a single state where the party can gain massively – none in reality (except Rajasthan where it could pick up a few seats). But there are states where it can lose massively – Karnataka (10 seats or more), Chhatisgarh (5 seats or more) and Jharkhand (4 seats or more). The Congress will lose massively in Andhra (15 seats or more), Kerala (5 seats or more), Rajasthan (5 seats or more) and Tamil Nadu (10 seats or more), but it will recover smartly in Karnataka (10 seats or more), Chhatisgarh (5 seats or more), Jharkhand (4 seats or more), Orissa (5 seats or more), West Bengal (5 seats or more) and Madhya Pradesh (4-5 seats) – by and large staying exactly where it is at present.

The sum total of all this is this. It appears that the Congress may be able to recover its losses in some states with gains in some other states. But the BJP will be unable to do so. Where the BJP loses, the Congress gains. But where the Congress loses, it’s the other parties – not the BJP – that gain. Of course, some of these parties could support the NDA – but if the core of the NDA, the BJP – is not strong enough, the regional parties may not be willing to join the NDA… best, they may support the NDA from the outside. What this means for the country is obvious – five more years of political instability.

The real truth is what I have said before. That the Congress may lose seats, but the BJP is unlikely to gain. The regional parties could gain…..and they could well support the NDA, but the BJP itself will not gain. The only factor that can change this drastically is the Anna factor. Whoever wins Anna’s support is likely to be a big beneficiary in the next polls. At present, the Congress appears to be on the losing side of this crucial factor. But if it can pass a decent Lokpal Bill, and do other things to curb corruption, and if it can contain the damage from the 2G case, it may still be able to ride out the storm. But if it fumbles, and if the BJP gets its act together in the states where it is in trouble, the tide can still change for the party…..It’s a fluid state of affairs right now!

Monday, September 26, 2011

New Balaji show playing on News TV!

The continuing coverage of the “civil war” between Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee hogged prime time on news TV last night (again). Save and except for the better “sound effects” of drama that Balaji specializes in, the news channels were right there – giving Ekta Kapoor a run for her money! Sample this statement by one anchor: The drama is unfolding minute by minute gentlemen (this a few days after the issue first broke out!). There is a lot more to come! Another statement: We will not let this story die down gentlemen…..we’re back after a 2 minute break (Gentlemen?!)! Drama, drama, drama! Either this is a Balaji soap….or Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti……but it’s now on News TV!

The antagonist in this latest soap of course is Subramaniam Swamy who seems to relish keeping the 2G pot simmering! This time around, he’s presented a new document from the Finance Ministry which seems to suggest that the previous Finance Minister could have done more to stop spectrum from being given away free. It’s not Subramaniam Swamy who has unearthed this document. That was done by someone else – but it’s Subramaniam Swamy who’s the prima donna right now. There’s more to come, promises Swamy! And the news editors salivate!

It’s just a note written by a low level bureaucrat says the government. But it’s a note seen by the Finance Minister says the opposition. It was leaked by the Finance Minister. No, it was released by the PMO in response to the RTI application. No no….its not just any note. It’s an office memo. It’s a very very important note! Please…..dont lets call it a note; for god’s sakes, it’s a memo. And it’s surely not a letter! It’s not the Finance Minister it implicates – it’s the PM! Let’s get after the PM now! The news anchor is right – it’s indeed a story that’s unfolding on a minute by minute basis (gentlemen!). Except that it isn’t.

Competitive TV journalism makes TV channels make a mountain out of a molehill. But then that’s what news journalism is all about these days. A full hour was devoted to the subject on the letter/note/memo/scam/evidence/whatever. Pranab Mukherjee has said that Chidambaram is a pillar of the government and he is a value colleague. But that’s not important. That’s in fact downright boring. What’s important is that Pranab has not denied the letter! How interesting. How can he deny a letter than exists in physical form and shape? No, but he’s also not denying that he’s “seen” the letter. OK, so he’s seen the letter. So what?! There must be something……I don’t know what…..but there must be something! The Balaji scriptwriter is working overtime to create something. Soaps are so much easier to handle – kill a character; introduce a new one; fast forward a few uncomfortable things; slow down the dramatic scenes. In real life unfortunately, the main characters don’t always do the anchor’s bidding!

For eg., Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee are both saying that they wont issue any statements until the PM returns. But the PM is returning only on Wednesday. That’s 72 hours away from Monday morning. That’s 3 full day and 3 prime time nights to fill up? Why can’t the ministers issue something…..anything – that we can dissect and shred into pieces over these 72 hours?! TV channels have so much trouble keeping all their legal beavers busy. It’s not for no reason that lawyers are sometimes likened to the Piranha! What will all of them do, if Chidambaram and Pranab refuse to give new interviews?! It’s a tough job to be a news TV editor in chief, I say!

How much innovative content can a TV news editor provide after all? When Pranab Mukherjee apparently went to meet the PM in New York, he didn’t just go. He “rushed”! He “changed his itinerary”! He was “summoned”. He went for “damage control”! He “scrambled to defend himself”! You see….balance is very important here. If you say he was summoned, that shows the PM as being too strong for the news editor’s liking! So it can’t be used. Goes against the sponsors of the channel (the opposition?)! After all these days….money is everything. News is for sale….but hushhhhh…..let’s not get into that subject please. Let’s keep the camera pointing in the other direction please….! So, the PM did not “summon” Pranab. It has to be something else! Likewise, last night, Chidambaram and Pranab went to meet Sonia. Why did they go? Did she admonish them? Poor Sonia. She’s still recovering from her surgery. There must be something going on. Someone help the news channels please! Ahhh…’s an angle from this young “journalist”. Pranab arrived after Chidambaram left. That has to mean something! Attaboy young man….What a genius you are! By the way did we ever investigate what Sonia really went abroad for? She looked quite healthy in that little shot we got of hers in some car after she came back. Don’t think she went for any surgery at all…..or maybe, she did. The dissection of her Swiss bank account! That’s why Rahul also went! We must do this story some day!

And let me not forget ex bureaucrats! How can the ex Cabinet Secretary not add his two bits to the storyline? There are many more papers still to come out! I am telling you….this is not just another usual soap from Balaji. It’s a saga! We’ll have to wait for each and every single note, memo, letter, grrrr whatever….to come! It could take 13 weeks or 26 or maybe even 52 (it could even outlast KBC!) – the duration of a soap on entertainment TV usually being measured in weeks!

And yes, the Supreme Court! How can one forget the Supreme Court! It’s the “temple” of news TV soaps. Every Balaji soap has a temple scene – where the protagonist (the victim always!) goes seeking justice! It’s the same with our New TV soaps where every protagonist (politician) goes seeking justice to the Supreme Court! But just like the Gods never speak, out here….the judges of the Supreme Court never speak (at least on TV)! And just like God’s actions speak louder than their words……the pronouncements of the Supreme Court judges speak louder than their absent TV bites! God’s actions are often confusing…..ditto the SC’s!

Wait….there is some breaking news. Chidambaram has resigned! No no…Chidambaram has offered to resign….Poor Chidambaram, he was not that bad. It’s actually the PM who should have resigned. Wait….more breaking news….Chidambaram has not offered to resign (That damned phone line was so aweful…..must be the 2G scam!). What a shameful man. The least he could have done is resigned…..or at least offered to resign! Should he resign or should he not? Ahhh….that’s the question to ask Anna! Anna is two steps ahead of all news editors. He has already investigated everything and he’s already pronounced his verdict: If the Lokpal was there, Chidambaram would have been in jail by now! And the other rooms at Tihar would be getting dusted for the PM to come in next! And yes…..someone has to increase the capacity at Tihar. I tell you….the government is in a policy freeze….they can’t even decide who that contract should go to! Oh what did you say? They’re taking a pre-approval from the CAG? Right!

Isn’t news TV entertaining? Wonder why the government treats news channel as something more serious. Why is there even a 26% FDI cap on news TV – it should be removed! After all, there is no FDI cap on the General Entertainment Channels (GECs). Why do the Directors on the Board of a news broadcaster have to go through security checks by the Home Ministry? They are just like Directors of a movie or a GEC soap! They are just running an entertainment company! But wait…..if it’s an entertainment show, then there might be entertainment tax. No No….let’s not call ourselves an entertainment show! We are serious news!

And the soap continues every night. While the ladies are on the GECs, the “gentlemen” are watching the soap on news TV. Vir Sanghvi once wrote in his blog – news TV is actually news radio (no wonder the government thinks it doesn’t need to allow news to radio stations!). You can “listen” to news TV since its only non-stop yap yap yap; hardly any coverage from the field (that costs money!); In fact, Vir could have added that it is strictly news radio – only to be heard. Watching would make it a horror show! At least the GECs have a fair degree of fair skin on their shows….News TV??? It’s ghastly! It has grumpy fuddy duddies!

The real truth is that the Chidambaram-Pranab spat is just so much of drama. But in today’s competitive news TV space, its this kind of drama that works. The difference between news and entertainment (and horror!) is very limited. Earlier parents use to advise their young children to watch TV to learn a few things – now I guess they will have to stop doing that! The kids had better watch KBC!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Telengana – Hyderabad holds the key..….

The Telengana movement has disrupted life in AP repeatedly – especially in the last 5-6 years. From a distance, it appears that the time for creating a new state of Telengana has come. And yet, politicians of all hues have failed to make the state a reality. In 1990, the BJP had promised to create Telangana if it came to power, and yet it did nothing when it ruled at the center. The Congress promised to create the new state in 2004 – when it got into an alliance with the TRS – and it too did nothing. As recently as in December 2009, the UPA government went as far ahead as to agree to start the process for creation of Telengana – but since that announcement, it has developed cold feet. Why is it proving so difficult to allow the birth of Telengana, if all major political parties seem aligned on the issue? The reason of course is plain old politics!

First the historical perspective. Telengana was always a region that wanted to stay away from the other regions of Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. As far back as in 1953 – when the States Reorganization Commission was set up – the need to create a separate state of Telengana was felt. In fact, the SRC had at that time said that Telengana should not be merged with Andhra State (the predecessor of the current Andhra Pradesh) even though the language spoken in the two regions was the same: Telugu. However, going against the recommendations of the SRC, Telengana was merged with Andhra – perhaps because the mood those days was to make states only on linguistic basis. As a means of giving the Telengana people some degree of comfort, a “gentlemen’s agreement” was reached between the Andhraites and Telenganaites… part of which specific promises were given to Telengana with respect to reservations in government jobs, educational institutions, investments and the like. These assurances were required given the poor development status of Telengana – it was the most backward of all Telugu regions. As a result of this agreement, the state of Andhra was formed in Nov 1956.

But in spite of all assurances given, the region of Telengana continues to remain backward. Nine out of the thirteen backward districts of AP are from Telengana. Except for the city of Hyderabad (a part of Telengana), there is relatively much lesser development in Telengana. The story of Telengana is not uncommon in India. It has a lot of natural resources – 20% of India’s coal; 45% of Andhra’s forests – and yet, the development has been mostly in the other two regions of AP. It’s much the same story as the one that led to the formation of Jharkhand. So if we are now ready to make states on the basis of “better governance” rather than merely languages, why not give Telengana a chance? After all – debatable though it is – the state of Jharkhand has performed better as an independent state rather than when it was a part of Bihar.

I am told the issue is not really Telengana. Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema would be happy to allow Telengana to form if only if wasn’t for Hyderabad. India’s sixth largest city is one of the fastest growing cities of the last 15 years or so – since the IT revolution started in India – at one time even challenging the status of Bangalore as India’s IT capital. However – Hyderabad is today in a state of stagnation and disrepair – thanks to the politics of Telengana. Repeated strikes have paralyzed industrial and IT activity in the city. Whatever happens, we have to find a solution to the Telengana issue quickly. The status quo simply cannot continue.

The reason Hyderabad is so important is that thousands of crores of investments have been poured into the city by people from Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. Andhraites fear that if Hyderabad goes to Telengana, their investments will be threatened. This is a strange fear – after all, it’s not as if a new country is proposed to be formed. It’s not like the creation of Pakistan at the time of independence – when people migrating from Pakistan to India had to leave behind all their wealth in that country. Even if Hyderabad goes to Telengana – surely the investments of Andhrities can be protected? Surely, a new capital for Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema can be made in the next two decades. Surely, the Andhra investments can slowly shift back into the non-Telengana AP?

Different political parties are sensing different types of opportunties in Telengana. For the BJP – which has failed to make any impact in unified AP – any intitative that helps in the creation of Telengana will be a good political strategy. Beyond that, the BJP has very little at stake. In supporting Telengana, the BJP has to go against its one time alliance partner, Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP - who is dead against the formation of Telengana. Of course today, TDP is not a partner of the BJP. For the BJP thus – its political opportunism. For the Congress – its plain indecisiveness and internal politics that is at play. Since YSR’s departure, the party has been submerged by internal fissures. What else can be the reason then for the state not to be formed after Chidambaram had announced in Dec 2009 that the Congress had agreed to the proposal? By being indecisive, the Congress is losing on any political capital it could have acquired in the new state. The TDP is opposed to Telengana perhaps because Chandrababu Naidu fears his investments (he runs one of South India’s largest dairy businesses headquartered in Hyderabad) would be in serious jeopardy if Hyderabad were to go to Telengana.

The key to the Telengana problem then lies in the resolution of the Hyderabad question. Unfortunately, Hyderabad is ensconced deeply within the region of Telengana – and making the city a common capital of Telengana and the AP like Chandigarh is is simply not possible. In my mind – the Center has to reassure the people of Andhra that their investments in Hyderabad are safe and secure. Maybe while conceding Hyderabad to Telengana – the center may want to make it a “shared city” for 20 years – after which it could move into Telengana. Or maybe, Hyderabad can be made a Union Territory. But that won’t be acceptable to the Telengana people. The solution to the Telengana problem lies in the solution for Hyderabad. But that’s easier said than done……

There is one other consideration that needs to be kept in mind while deciding on the fate of Telengana. If the demand for Telengana is conceded, what about all the demands for the other states, that are in the waiting? Well… needs to put some filters in place for such decisions to be made. What goes in Telengana’s favor is the fact that the movement has stood the test of time (it has been going on since independence); it seems to have wide political agreement (Congress, BJP, most Telugu parties); it is a development driven reasoning (Telengana is the most backward region of AP) and finally, the population of Telengana is 42% of the population of unified AP (you cannot ignore the demands of such a huge number of people). If other regions in the country can meet such criteria – then maybe it’s a good idea to make smaller states. The experience of both Jharkhand (average growth rate 12.5% in last 5 years) and Chhatisgarh (16% growth) suggest that smaller states are better to run.

The real truth is that the Telengana problem is – like everything else – a political problem. There is an economic logic that demands that a new state be formed. And then there is a political reason which makes the BJP support (yet again) the need for Telengana, while giving the Congress sleepless nights. The key to the solution is the status of Hyderabad. Rather than debating whether Telengana should be formed or not (it should be), we should debate on what should happen to Hyderabad…..

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is the Congress protecting Minority Rights or practicing Minority Appeasement?

A lot of comments I get on my blog from BJP supporters relate to the appeasement of minorities by the Congress. On the other hand, there is a counter-charge made by Congress supporters against the BJP that it wants to thrust a single unified Hindu culture on the minorities. The truth obviously is somewhere in-between. Neither party is entirely right; neither is entirely wrong. I decided to research this subject and come to some factual conclusions. What I found is enough to start a debate!

It appears to me that there is a fundamental disconnect between the views of many Indians on religious diversity and identity and the vision of the founding fathers of our nation – the ones who wrote the Constitution. Many of the complaints that people make against the Congress are really (though perhaps unknowingly) complaints against the Constitution itself. If it is true that the Constitution of the country specifically provides for the protection of religious minorities, then the Congress is only protecting the Constitution. Let’s look at specific articles of the Constitution which cover the area of minority rights:

Article 14: Right to Equality: The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law and shall provide equal protection for every person within the territory of India.
Article 15: The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender, place of birth etc.
Article 16: No citizen shall, on grounds of religion, race or caste, be ineligible for, or discriminated against, in respect of any employment or office under the state.
Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his right of personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
Article 25: There shall be freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propogate religion.
Article 26: There shall be right given to minorities to a) establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes b) manage their own affairs in matters of religion in any manner they wish to administer and maintain such properties in accordance with law.
Article 29: Protection to the cultural rights of minorities
Article 30(1): Right to establish and administer educations institutions of their choice
Article 31(2): The state shall not – in granting aid to educational institutions – discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language.

The above Acts were included in the Constitution of India probably keeping the religious plurality of India in mind. India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society. I agree with the view that diversity of all types in the very soul of India.

If we believe in the Constitution, then the following are the implications:

1)      Religious conversions are fine as long as they are not forced (SC in 1977 also re-affirmed this). However, there are a number of states like Orissa, Arunachal, MP, Gujarat and TN which have enacted state laws that severely curb the right of people to convert. It is alleged that the state of Punjab intentionally delays or denies the venue and the date for religious conversions/conventions where the practices for preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ. Since most conversions are of Hindu dalits to Christianity or Buddhism, followers of these religions complain that the state is not doing what the Constitution has expressed allowed.
2)      Muslims are free to set up madrassas and carry on education in accordance with their religion. Many Hindus complain that these madrassas are the hotbeds of terrorist activities. That’s an entirely different matter. If that is indeed true, then clearly that’s not allowed. But the running of madrassas per se is fine.
3)      The concept of “Hindutva” – a “soft” attempt to impose Hindu culture on the religious minorities is – at least in spirit – wrong. The problem is that the BJP’s Hindutva is anything but soft – it is in fact an aggressive strategy. Professor Balraj Madhok – the first secretary of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP – suggested that minorities must adopt Indian (Hindu) names. In short, they must adopt the Indian culture – the Hindu culture – in their religion. The religion of the minorities should bend its loyalty towards Indian nationalism (defined by Hindu culture). The BJP has been pumping up its demand to have a Uniform Civil Code – again perceived by the minorities as an attempt to mute the individual cultures of the minorities.
4)      Religious identity is fine. So a separate marriage act, a separate succession act is fine as long as it is protecting religious identity.

The only problem with some of this is that at the end of the day, we are one single country and if every community becomes a distinct and separate vertical, then how will we make it a single country. So there has to be some common national identity created – one that is not a Hindutva identity nor an identity based on minorities, but a more contemporary pluralistic one. Plurality has to be at the core of any national identity we create. Just like it cannot be a Hindutva identity, the national identity cannot be based on the Shah Bano kind of precedent either.

Considering that most people who accuse the Congress of minority appeasement are talking largely of the above issues, it is arguable if the Congress is a protector of the minority rights or an appeaser of minorities. Clearly the truth is somewhere in-between.

Now let’s come to another issue that deals with minority rights of a different type. These are minorities as defined largely by the caste system. I am talking of the Affirmative Action policies of the Indian state. I wrote on this subject on the 12th of September (4% compulsory government procurement from dalit firms is dangerous politics…..) and brought out the reasons and the rationale for the Reservations policy that we have in India. It must be noted that Reservations were initially based on caste and race alone – and not on religion. So there was 15% reservation for Scheduled Castes (dalits) and 7.5% reservation for Scheduled Tribes (tribals). Subsequently, an additional 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was introduced by the Mandal Commission in 1980. In the beginning, the Constitution only provided for SCs and STs from the Hindu religion. In 1956 however, an amendment was made to the Constitution which extended the benefits to dalit Sikhs (1956). The Mandal Commission extended the benefits to backward castes belonging to all religions.  The exact list of castes included in the OBC category is a state subject and we know that a lot of politics is played in this area. All political parties indulge in appeasing some or the other castes in their states including the Congress and the BJP. By and large, it is not the Reservation policy or the OBC list however that one refers to in a discussion on minority appeasement.

With this discussion done, let’s go back to the beginning. The idea is to discuss the politics of the Congress and the BJP. Is the Congress appeasing the Muslims (and other minorities) by allowing conversions, allowing madrassas to flourish, blocking the Uniform Civil Code etc or is it merely protecting minority rights? Is the BJP not in violation of the Constitution by demanding that a Uniform Civil Code be imposed on all? Are the people of the country today less progressive in their mindsets than the authors of our Constitution were with regard to tolerance for religious diversity? How do we balance a need for modernity with the need to protect some form of identity? I leave it your judgment…..

I must bring out one other bit here. I read an article in The Times of India (20th August, 2011) written by Kanti Bajpai which brought out different types of democracies. There is something called a majoritarian democracy in which the will of the majority is the only thing that matters. Then there is liberal democracy in which the will of the majority is considered but it is tempered with the rights of the minority. Our democracy clearly is a liberal democracy. Many Indians wrongly believe that we are a majoritarian democracy – which means that whatever the majority wants – with no restrictions – should be the rule of the country. This perception needs to be corrected. It is possible that the majority of our people may want to declare India a Hindu nation; but the Constitution has intentionally preferred to call India a secular nation. This point brings out the possibility that maybe the Congress sees India as a liberal democracy; the BJP as a majoritarian democracy.

In my view, the Constitution is paramount. The liberal and secular fabric of the country is paramount. Many people have made attempts to modify the Constitution and remove the protection provided to minorities. For eg., in July 2001, a Shiv Sena MP Anant Gangaram Geeta moved a private member’s bill called the Prohibition of Religious Conversion Bill – but in spite of having a BJP government at the center, the Bill could not be passed. I think this reflects a continuing belief in protecting the plurality that is the defining characteristic of India.

Minorities of all form and nature need protection. As an example, Indians living in Australia are also a minority. Our blood boils when we here stories of atrocities committed against them by white Australians. We – the minorities there – need protection by Australian authorities. Given India’s fractious history of religion-based divide and rule – which the British exploited to the hilt – it is only appropriate that minorities in India be provided protection.

The real truth is that minority appeasement and minority rights are intertwined concepts. If you are a Congress supporter, you will believe that the party is only protecting minority rights. If you are a BJP supporter, you may call this minority appeasement. Primarily and fundamentally, this core difference in ideologies defines the two parties and what they represent…..

Friday, September 23, 2011

Haha….now BJP wants government majority in Gujarat Lok Ayukta selection panel

Just a few weeks back, the BJP at the center was grilling the Congress over the composition of the selection panel for the Lokpal proposed by it. The Congress’s proposal gave the ruling government three members in the selection panel – the PM, the Speaker and one other minister, while the opposition would have two members – the Leader of Opposition in both the houses. The other four members were to be either from the judiciary or from other “non-political” classes. When this proposal was made, the BJP went to war with the Congress claiming that this was a Congress ploy to be able to annoint a pliable Lokpal. Now Modi is proposing the same!

Modi plans to have a 5-member selection panel for the Gujarat Lok Ayukta. Three out of these five members would be from the government – led by the CM himself. The other two would be the Speaker of the Assembly and the state Home Minister. The last two would be the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of the High Court. So there would be three from the ruling party, one from the opposition and one from the judiciary (hence 60% from ruling party). Nice! The Congress had proposed to have three members from the ruling party in a selection panel comprising nine members (33%)…..for Modi, maybe 33% is not enough! The BJP has outdone the Congress!

But why should we be surprised? The BJP has shown repeatedly that it says one thing and practices quite the opposite. It tried to usurp the anti-corruption platform after Anna had brought corruption center-stage; yet it tolerated corruption for years in its sole southern state of Karnataka. It kept proclaiming on TV that it was in “total” support of Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill; yet when it came to the crunch, it said that it didn’t want the PM unconditionally included under the Lokpal (“unconditional” was a key demand of Anna). Nor did it want the judiciary under the Lokpal. Nor give powers to the Lokpal to tap phones. When it comes to Lok Ayuktas, the BJP supported Anna in having a single central act to enact Lok Ayuktas in the states; yet it has failed to create Lok Ayuktas in so many of its long-ruled states. When it demands that Kalmadi be sacked as President of the IOA, it appears to be taking a principled stand against politicians running sports bodies. Yet it allows its senior leaders Arun Jaitley and Vijay Kumar Malhotra control the Delhi District Cricket Association and the IOA respectively (after Kalmadi’s departure).

There are many other similar examples of double-speak. One the one hand, when the CAG came out with a sensational report on the 2G scam, the party wanted the PM’s resignation even before the report was placed in Parliament; on the other hand, when the same CAG comes out with reports against its state governments, it wants the reports tabled in the assembly! On the one hand, the BJP accuses the PM of being “remote controlled” by 10 Janpath. On the other hand, all of the BJP is remote controlled by its RSS bosses in Nagpur. On the one hand it supported the GST in the early stages; on the other hand, it is now creating roadblocks in its passage. On the one hand, the BJP dubs the CBI as the Congress Bureau of Investigation or even the Congress Bachao Institution (Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha); on the other hand, its CM in Madhya Pradesh demands a CBI investigation into the murder of Shehla Masood. On the one hand, the BJP jokes about the internal politics of the Congress; on the other hand the internal politics of the party virtually kills Advani’s yatra even before it gets started.

One question that emerges is why the BJP engages in double-speak? I have a theory, but I will leave it to the end of this piece.

The other question is: why does Modi want a “pliable” Lok Ayukta in Gujarat? His supporters claim Modi is a clean CM; that he has nothing to hide. Why then does he want the ruling party to have 60% of the rights on the selection panel? When the Lok Ayukta Act of the state clearly states that the CM has no role to play in the appointment of the Lok Ayukta, why does Modi want to have a role? (Incidentally, the Act was passed by the Congress government and at that time, the BJP had forcefully argued in the assembly that the CM should be kept out of the selection process so that the Lok Ayukta could be chosen fairly). Then there is this uncomfortable Gujarat government circular (dated November 14, 2005) which disallows, under RTI, state officials to part with file notings made in the process of decision-making. We all know how important file notings are. Why is Modi blocking that information from going out? In fact, why has Modi not filled up the Chief Information Officer’s position for so long?

My point here is not that the BJP alone is a party of double-speak. All politicians and all political parties engage in double-speak. The Congress obviously finds itself in a jam over its double speak on corruption. It claims that it wants to rid the country of corruption; yet it does very little to actually remove it. It protests against CAG reports being used by the opposition at the center; yet it revels in doing the same against opposition ruled state governments. All political parties are the same. If the BJP is a master of double-speak, the Congress is no less. If that’s the truth, then nobody should claim to be holier-than-thou…..neither the BJP nor the Congress.

Now my theory of why the BJP appears to engage in double speak! I say “appears to” because all that we catch of the BJP is what we see on TV and read in the papers. The BJP is extremely savvy when it comes to using media – especially TV. It puts up strong speakers for debates on TV channels. Almost all BJP spokespeople – Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nirmala Seetaraman, Arun Jaitley amongst others – are better communicators than Congress spokespeople – with the exception of Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Just think of Renuka Chaudhary – she probably thinks she’s acting in a soap opera when she comes on the news channels! Or the spokespeople from the states who cannot speak English but still come on English news channels. Even the un-official spokespersons of the BJP – Swapan Dasgupta, Anupam Kher, Raian Karanjawala to name a few are definitely more aggressive than Congress’s un-official spokespersons (If you don’t believe this…..Kirron Kher, wife of Anupam Kher joined the BJP last year and Raian had contested student elections on a ABVP platform). The BJP at its heart is still a party that reflects the aspirations of the urban middle-class (even though it lost most cities in the 2009 elections). At heart, the BJP is a “baniya” party – urban traders who surely are big TV news watchers. It’s also a “brahmin” party – which explains its Hindutva strategy. The BJP caters largely to an urban TV audience; preferring to address countrymen and women through TV than through the tough political route of going through the dust and grime of rural India. In its zest to appeal to urban TV viewing audiences, it takes one type of a purist stand on TV; but as soon as the rubber meets the road, it changes color. One thing on TV; the opposite in practice…..

The real truth is that when it comes to corruption, both the BJP and the Congress are equally guilty. For every 2G scam that the Congress has to worry about, there is a Karnataka mining scam that the BJP has to hide. For every attack the BJP makes on the Congress on the Lokpal, there is one that it has to face on the same subject. For every corrupt CM the Congress has, it has one of its own. Honestly…..there is very little to choose from amongst the two biggest political parties on grounds of corruption…..

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What’s really spooking the stock markets is our political climate….

The stock markets tumbled yesterday by a massive 700+ points (4%). About Rs 2.25 lac crores of investor wealth got eroded. Of course, this fall was nothing specific to India. Markets fell globally; the most in the US and Europe. The fact that the fall happened around the world makes us a little complacent. We feel that it’s not that bad that our markets have fallen. Most of us make the usual complaints and then wait for a better day. My belief is that our markets need not fall just because the world markets are falling. In fact, our markets can gain in strength every time world markets fall. But that’s only possible if we manage our affairs better….

People often use the poor global economic conditions to explain our slowing economic growth. But is this really true? Sure, our economy is now linked to the global economy and surely it cannot remain isolated from the fortunes of the global economy. But has the Indian economy really been hurt by the global conditions? Not really. The best indicator of this is the performance of our export sector which has boomed in the first 4-5 months of this year. The growth in exports has been a staggering 50% or so – no doubt aided by a falling Rupee. Unlike China – which has seen a slow-down in the growth of its exports, India cannot complain on this front.

Of course there are headwinds coming from the external sector that do affect us. For eg., the rising prices of crude put pressure on the domestic costs of fuels – leading to a rise in inflation and a slow-down in some sectors like automobiles. Likewise, the poor stock market – India has been one of the worst performers this year – has almost killed the primary issues market – affecting funds flow to the emerging sector. And yes, FDI inflows have slowed down – so growth is bound to be affected. So yes, international conditions are bound to affect India, but should the effect be so drastic? And can’t we counter these headwinds?

Why is it that our economic growth estimates continue to be lowered month after month? If it is not entirely on account of global factors, then what is it on account of? In my view, it’s because of the policy logjam – the deep freeze the government has gone into – that is to be blamed.

Take the new manufacturing policy as an example. A few days back, there was a story that the government would pass a new manufacturing policy that would revive industrial growth – bringing hope and confidence into the industrial sector. However Jayanti Natarajan was unconvinced and she put her foot down. Now we hear that the policy has been delayed. These days, everything in the country is getting delayed. The GST has no hopes of being passed ever going by the way relations are these days between the two biggest political parties. The Land Acquisition Bill is bound to face political hiccups – given the kind of impact it will have on UP elections. The new mining policy will likely be delayed given the controversies that surround the sector in any case. The FDI policy with respect to multi-brand retail – a move that can generate a lot of employment and help contain inflation at least partly – has similarly been stalled after weeks and months of being in circulation, again because of the political ramifications of the policy. There are numerous other examples. The fact is that the government has gone into a deep freeze – and that is affecting our economic growth.

Take inflation as another key variable that affects economic growth. I explained in my post of a few days back (The loud political message from agriculture…..and why RBI cannot control inflation – September 20th) that no matter how much the RBI increases rates, the inflation is bound to continue remaining high. The RBI’s rate increases affect mostly the manufacturing sector which takes loans from banks to fund its expansion and for working capital. By raising rates twelve times in the last 18 months, the government has severely dented profitability thus clamping down on industrial growth. No wonder then that that sector has started stuttering to a halt. But the inflation in manufactured goods is only 5.5%. How does it help to put the brakes on this sector? The problem of inflation is in agriculture – where the number is nearly 18%. Nothing the RBI does can affect inflation in agriculture in a big way. Agriculture is suffering because there has been no increase in yields. And that’s because every single government in the last 20 years has failed to act on agriculture. There is hardly any improvement in the irrigation facilities; the power conditions remain terrible; pesticides growth has stopped; and there is no push for Genetically Modified crops.

The focus of this note is not in establishing that the government has gone into a deep freeze. That’s well known. The focus of this note is to highlight that politics has so badly vitiated the environment today that it has destroyed economic activity. It’s impossible for the government to function. It’s not about the UPA or the NDA – it would be difficult for either of them to function. If the government goes with the recommendations of the regulator (free 2G spectrum as per TRAI’s recommendation), it is damned. If it had gone against, it would have been damned even more. If the government acts fast (Praful Patel, in ordering Air India aircrafts – even though the process took 17 months), the CAG points out to too much speed. If it takes slow decisions, it is anyways doomed. If it increases revenues (by petrol price hikes), it is damned. If it doesn’t increase revenues (telecom license fees), it is damned.

Unfortunately, nothing in the economic sphere is driven by economic logic today. Not one person is able to explain why petrol prices should not increase. The impact of petrol on WPI is not even 0.07%. The middle and upper classes certainly get affected, but if the government continued to subsidize petrol, the poor would get affected. Not one high priest of the economic world is able to justify the continuous rate increases by the RBI. And yet – to demonstrate its independence from the government – the RBI continues to do what it wants to do. There is complete economic consensus on the GST – and yet there is zero political consensus on it.

Politics has its place in a democracy. But there has to be a limit to it. Today, politics has become center-stage for us. It’s become the main activity of our lives. Every single issue has such a strong political impact that nothing else seems to matter. Every single day there is a demand for someone or the other’s resignation. Today it is Chidambaram’s turn. In the last few weeks and months, it has been the turn of Kapil Sibal, Sheila Dixit, Murli Deora and many others. The PM’s resignation is always in demand! How can any government function under such circumstances?

It’s time we bring back some balance. It’s time we decide what we want to do with our country. Take advantage of the global conditions and emerge stronger – or drift downwards with the rest of the world. I have no love for this particular government. If the people don’t like it, let them vote it out in 2014. Let’s get in another government then. But till the time the government is ruling, lets let it perform…..

The real truth is that the economy has taken a back seat as far as this government is concerned. But what else can we expect from a government that appears to be on the brink of extinction every single day. Is this a good thing for the country? Is this only about the Congress? Or would it have been no different had it been a BJP government at the center? It’s time we thought about all this…..

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of course Chidambaram is guilty. But of what????

A new and totally unnecessary controversy has erupted regarding the “guilt” of Chidambaram in the 2G “scam”. I put scam in paranthesis because I have always maintained that there is no real scam – at least not the way the CAG and the media have hyped it. Apparently, a letter written by Ministry of Finance and “seen” by Pranab Mukherjee in March this year suggests that if the Ministry of Finance had “held” its views, then Raja could not have proceeded with giving away start-up spectrum for free. Of course this is true! Of course important decisions are taken by the cabinet jointly. Of course there are differences of opinion in the cabinet which are subsequently resolved by the ministers concerned. Exactly how and why is Chidambaram guilty of the corruption charges?

Let’s start at the start. The problems for the government began when it was caught with its pants down when the CAG report came out. That report – the most sensationalized and politically motivated report ever by CAG – suggested that by giving away spectrum “free”, the government had caused a loss of Rs 1.76 lac crores to the nation. Usually, a CAG report is tabled in Parliament and the government of the day gets enough time to make its defence. This time however, the CAG leaked the report to the media and the media spun it as a huge scam. At that time, no one in the government knew how to handle the matter. They should have immediately clarified that giving spectrum free was a thought-out government policy and not a scam. Instead, they sought to distance themselves from the policy. They tried to give the impression that it was Raja alone who was responsible for the policy. The media hype was so much that eventually when Kapil Sibal did make an attempt to suggest that this was only a “notional” loss, he had no chance. The truth was buried under a heap of media and opposition rubbish. Now the truth is gradually coming out.

One of the truths that has emerged is that the TRAI was against auction of 2G spectrum. Media doesn’t like to give this fact too much publicity, because this report alone could douse the entire 2G fire out. It’s not as if the TRAI report is binding on the government, but imagine if the government had gone against the TRAI report. That would have been seen as a scam too! In this case, the government was in line with the regulator who had maintained since the beginning that auctions should only be conducted for non-2G spectrum. It was the TRAI that recommended that 3G spectrum be auctioned. It was the same government that went with TRAI recommendation in 3G also. It was the same government that earned Rs 1 lac crores in 3G and BWA auctions. And it was the same government that decided rightly to keep 2G spectrum totally free.

The second truth that has come out – which points to the culpability and political ambitions of the CAG – is that the Chief Auditor who actually led the investigation on behalf of the CAG himself was sure that no loss could be calculated. The grounds for calculating the loss were flimsy. Yet, he was over-ruled by the CAG Vinod Rai himself. Why? Why was Vinod Rai interested in making it a sensational number? Of course, the CAG being an independent “constitutional” body, it is virtually outside the scope of grilling itself.

The MoF letter is supposed to be proof of Chidambaram’s guilt. What guilt? Guilty of being completely involved in the decision to price 2G free? Yes, he is guilty! Guilty of (maybe) having initially disagreed with the policy and later changing his mind? Yes, he’s guilty! But so are all cabinet members guilty. Why is he being singled out? In the cabinet, one assumes (hopefully) that there is a fair degree of debate. There are differences of opinions and subsequently agreements are reached. One cannot take the differences of opinions out of context and say that if those different opinions had been agreed to, the scam may not have happened. In a team working, differences of opinions are always expressed, and then a final call is taken. I think the same has happened here.

But let’s come to the main point. Was there a scam at all? Was Raja guilty? The answer to both is yes, but not the way it is commonly understood.

I have written earlier and I am going to write it again today. 2G spectrum is “plain vanilla” spectrum meant to provide “basic telephony” services to one and all. We don’t remember it today, but before 2001, one had to wait for years before getting a telephone connection. There was rampant corruption in MTNL and BSNL for granting an “out of turn” telephone connection. I remember how MTNL “linesmen” would tamper with the telephone line of one subscriber to give access to illegal STD call for free to another subscriber willing to pay a bribe. Every diwali, the MTNL employees would come home demanding “baksheesh”. Like everything else, economic liberalization freed up telecom as well. The whole telecom policy of free spectrum should be seen keeping this context in mind. The objective of the 2G policy was spreading telephony all over the country. Not making money….This much is contained in the NTP 1999 as well. It is as a result of this objective that the telecom policy has been modified numerous times – every time removing hurdles that were impeding the growth of the sector. The first concession was given when the “fixed” license fee was changed to “revenue share”. That was a good decision too and it helped grow the sector.

From those days to today, just see how the telecom scenario has changed. Today, it’s the telecom companies that chase customers and give free this and free that; not the other way around. Today, the pricing on telephony is cheaper compared to what it was before the 2G revolution; there is deflation, not inflation! Today, even the poorest of persons in this country – yes even those who earn less than the much maligned Rs 30 a day – can afford a telephone connection; earlier owning a telephone connection was almost a status symbol. Today, small disempowered, underprivileged sections of the society are able to conduct their business even without having a permanent business address; earlier, having a “shop” where one could visit was mandatory. 2G has revolutionized communications; empowered the poorest; and made India the fastest growing telecom market in the market. None of this would have been possible if 2G spectrum had not been given away free. If the pricing had remained as high as at the beginning, we wouldn’t even had 100 million subscribers today. Would we have called that telecom policy successful? Even if we assume that spectrum was auctioned and “lacs of crores” of rupees were collected, that money would have been spent on various social programs for the poor only. This way, the efficient private sector was used to distribute the money. It was a good policy – first propounded by the NDA government and later continued by the UPA. Both governments deserve our applause; not constant criticism. 2G should be followed by the word “revolution”, not “scam”.

The government policy to give 2G spectrum free was just that – a government policy. A well considered; supported by TRAI; debated in cabinet policy. It was not a scam. Just like it is government policy to give kerosene, LPG and diesel cheap to the poor. There is no scam in this. Just like it is government policy to subsidize the cost of fertilizers for the farmers. There is no scam here too. Just like it is government policy to give foodgrains cheap through the PDS system to the poor. There is no scam here. That does not mean that everything is hunky dory. There is rampant corruption throughout the PDS supply chain. There is rampant corruption in the way LPG cylinders are given away to commercial establishments at subsidized rates. Yes, there is a scam if corruption is the scam. But we must understand the distinction between the scam in policy (none) and the corruption in the execution of the policy (rampant).

It’s the same with Raja’s role in 2G. There was no scam in pricing of the 2G spectrum free. The scam was in the way Raja manipulated the rules of the game to suit individual companies. In the way he advanced the date for submission of the entry fees. The way he changed the eligibility criteria to suit certain companies (DB Realty, Unitech). The way he turned a blind eye to certain obvious maneuverings of existing large operators to gain a larger control of the market (Swan-Reliance). These are the scams that have put Raja behind bars. Not pricing the spectrum free. That’s a criminal case of corruption which the SC is trying.…..

The real truth is that we’re a society that has started seeing everything as a scam. Our most successful government policy ever has been branded as the biggest scam. And then, instead of a reasoned debate, we have accusations hurled at each other in public. Of course, there is a reason for this. It’s not as if our politicians have covered themselves in glory with good behavior. All their shenanigans of the past are coming out to bite them now. It is natural for people to see a scam everywhere. The 2G scam is not a scam the way it is being portrayed; but it is surely an indication of the amount of distrust that we have with politicians…….

(PS: This piece requires a post script! I must declare that I carry no brief for the UPA or for Chidambaram. I don’t even know a single politician – leave alone a Congress politician. I have not received any money from the Congress to write this piece (!). And no….I have not been paid by anyone to write this!)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Politics killing India’s nuclear power dreams???

First it was the politics around Jaitapur. Now the same story is repeating at Koodankulam. Atleast at Jaitapur, the investments have not yet been made. One can possibly justify the protests as a valid democratic process of being heard. In Koodankulam, the plant is nearing commissioning after more than Rs 15,000 crores have been spent…..and for the local public to demand that the plant be junked at this stage is an expense that the country cannot afford to bear.

All political parties are trying to earn cheap brownie points at the cost of the country’s development. The Left would like the government to put the plant “on hold” as if putting something on hold after waiting for it to be completed would help the country in any way. The BJP talks vaguely that ‘participative democracy” should be practiced in the country indicating that it was not practiced in Tamil Nadu. It is happy to ignore the protests at the nuclear power plant coming up at Kakrapar in Gujarat. One must assume that there is participative democracy in Gujarat, but not in places where the BJP isn’t ruling. The TN government wants to take the easy way out. It is happy to ignore the benefits that the larger population of TN would get from the power plant; it prefers to side with any and all protestors, no matter how small the gathering or how impossible their demand. Smartly, it plays the populism card – passing on their demands to the center for the center to play the bad cop’s role. If this is the meaning of democracy, then India is in for trouble. It is because of such endless debates, and putting things “on hold” all the time that the first sixty years after independence appear to have delivered lesser than what they should have. If we keep on putting things on hold even now, we will again complain about the poor development in the present period of time. That’s why I think it is politics. If development slows down, opposition benefits…..

What’s the reality about nuclear power plants? Are they really the dangerous monsters that they are made out to be? As with most things in our country these days, politics trumps the truth. But this post is all about the truth and it will try to clear the conspiracy against nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants are in reality extremely safe. There have been only six nuclear “accidents” in the last 20 years. A total of only nine people have died in these accidents. This includes three people who died recently at Fukushima – these too died because of non-radiation reasons. Surprisingly, all these six accidents happened in the US (three) and Japan (three). There were eight accidents in the 1980s – the worst of which of course was the one at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Prior to Chernobyl, the biggest nuclear disaster was at Pennsylvania in the US in 1979 known as the Three Mile Island accident. Both these were large scale accidents involving perhaps thousands of deaths on account of radiation effects over several years after the accident took place. It’s the memory of these two which tends to scare people. Local people automatically assume that the nuclear plant will definitely explode and start panicking.

It is important to consider the risk of nuclear power plants in a relative context. It is not as if thermal power plants are safer than nuclear power plants. The only difference is that thermal power plants cause “slow death” – with the constant degradation of the environment leading to global warming and eventual massive destruction of the environment. It is estimated that India is one of the twelve most vulnerable countries to global warming. Slow death appears to the human psyche to be an acceptable risk of thermal plants. Since there are few “spectacular” disasters around thermal plants, we tend to think of them as safe. We should also compare the safety of nuclear power plants with hydro electric power plants. Now hydro-electric power plants can be very dangerous – since dams are susceptible to the effects of excessive rainfall, earthquakes etc. How can one forget the bursting of the Morbi dam in Gujarat on account of which as many as 10-15000 people perished? The earthquake in Sikkim a few days back has also led to deaths at the hydel power plant under construction in that state.

In many ways, one needs to be philosophical about death – death is everywhere – only we seem to notice it more when it is sudden and high in impact. We all remember the 3000 people who died in the twin towers in New York on 26/11, but we hardly seem to notice that more than 150,000 people have been subsequently killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars that were launched specifically to avenge the attacks in New York. We scarcely notice that there are more than 100,000 people who die on the roads in automobile accidents every single year in India. Again, the news is hardly spectacular – even though every once in a while, spectacular images of a bus toppling over a bridge and into a gorge or a river makes it to the front pages. Likewise, there are enough number of train accidents every year and enough number of people dying every year in train related accidents. Why, in the suburban train network of Mumbai alone, there are nearly 4000 people who die every single year – most of them trying to cross the tracks. There are more deaths in road and rail accidents, but we are blasé about them. It is the air crashes that get the most attention. Air travel is the safest form of travel – and yet whenver an air crash happens – and 50 to 150 people die – it causes great amount of fear in the minds of the people. Air crashes are considered “spectacular”. Train and road accidents are considered routine. Likewise nuclear disasters are spectacular events. When man cannot control the course the disaster takes. Man appears helpless. That’s why it is spectacular in the first place. We don’t ban air travel. Why should we ban nuclear power?

If we do ban nuclear power, what is the option we have? India currently has an installed power generation capacity of about 150,000 MW of power. China has about 700,000 MW of power. Everyone agrees that India has to get to China’s level in the next 20 if not 10 years. If we have to get that far, then how are we going to get there? Whether we like it or not, there is no “totally safe” way of getting there. We cannot rely solely on coal-based power plants, even though they will always remain the mainstay of Indian power – after all India is the fifth largest holder of coal reserves in the world. But to depend totally on coal will destroy the environment so badly that we simply cannot do that. We have of course to rely on hydro-electric power also – in fact, India is developing an 11,000 MW hydro-electric power plant called the Siang Upper HE Project. But it’s due for completion only in 2024. And it’s not as if local people and activists don’t complain against hydro plants. In addition to thermal and hydro power plants, we need a lot of nuclear power as well. Currently, we only get 2% of our power from nuclear power; we must attempt to raise this to at least 10-15% in the next 20 years. We are not talking of making nuclear power our mainstay, but we certainly have to enhance it to these levels.

Nuclear power plants are environmentally very clean – they don’t release poisonous carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide etc – unlike thermal power plants. Compared to coal plants, the amount of “wastage” is also very small. An analogy I read over the internet is that if a family of four could use nuclear power for all its needs, it would generate, over a long period of time, nuclear waste of the order of one golf ball. Further, this waste is localized at the place of the plant and can be handled safely, unlike the waste generated by thermal plants which spreads across a much wider area and is difficult to handle. Many people believe wrongly that handling nuclear waste is a problem – in reality it is not. They don’t lead to the submersion of millions of hectares of prime land the way hydel dams do. And most importantly for India, they don’t depend on fossil fuels – and hence the production cost will not shoot up every time the oil costs go up.

People often fashionably talk of non-conventional energy sources – wind power, tidal power, solar power, biogas and the like. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that none of these is either sizeable or scalable. The biggest wind power plant is in the US – the Horse Hollow Wind Energy center in Texas – has only a 700 MW capacity. The biggest solar power plant is also in the US – in California’s Mojave desert – has a capacity of only 354 MW. Contrast this with the biggest hydro plant – 22,500 MW Three Gorges plant in China. Or with nuclear power plants – where India plans to build the world’s biggest cluster in Jaitapur with 10,000 MW capacity. Or even with thermal power plants – where 4000 MW plants is quite the norm. Non-conventional power plants are unfortunately not the solution to hungry India’s power needs.

Activists like Medha Patkar find it alright to oppose anything and everything. In the past, she had opposed the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada. She was also one of those who drove out the Tata Nano plant from Singur in West Bengal. It is not surprising then that she is one of the high profile protestors at Koodankulam. Some activists point out to Germany which has made a statement that it will not build any more nuclear power plants in the future. How convenient. Germany knows that it hardly needs to add too much power capacity in the future – it’s ok for it to take this stand. Neighbouring France generates 75% of its energy using nuclear power and it seems to be having no second thoughts. The US, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, Canada, UK, China are all ok with nuclear power – only India has a problem.

The real truth is that opposing nuclear power plants is not the solution. There should be no politics in this matter of national development. The BJP itself is happy with the Kakrapar plant in Gujarat. Why is it playing games in Koodankulam? The Left can keep shouting – after all, it has nothing left to lose. We’ve already had too much politics in our country in the last 18 months – its time now for us to join hands – at least in areas of national priority.