Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How much more time before WB dumps Mamata?

It’s not just one gaffe. It’s a series by now. Each time a gaffe happens, Mamata’s response has been predictable and totally unacceptable. She has been insensitive; paranoid about the CPM; has seen skeletons when none existed and acted like a bully most of the time. They usually say that a new leader has a honeymoon period of a few months – a period when the people are less demanding and more understanding of the leader’s new challenges. In Mamata’s case however, the honeymoon’s gone away even before it started. And she and she alone is responsible for this.

It all started with a whole series of infant deaths. What was more tragic than even the deaths was the attitude that Mamata took. She blamed it on the CPM’s 36 year old rule. In those initial days, people sympathized with her – after all, she could not be held responsible for the mess that existed in WB’s public hospitals. Surely the CPM had to take the blame for that. Then there was that unfortunate fire at the AMRI hospital – but again Mamata’s attitude was to sensationalize the matter, cover her back side and focus on the arrest of the Directors of the hospital – not try to understand what went wrong. We haven’t heard of the case since then. Was any analysis done on why the fire happened? Were there any lessons learnt? Can the CM assure her people that such accidents wouldn’t happen again? No, as far as Mamata is concerned, she’s done her job by arresting the Directors. So what if most of them were not even looking after the affairs of the company on an operational basis? This revolutionary trait – one that separated her from the rest before she became the CM – had not vanished….in fact; it had only become worse after she became CM.

This revolutionary image came back to the fore yet again when Mamata marched into a police station in Bhowanipur to get two of here partymen released after they had been arrested by the cops for hooliganism. This was bizarre. The CM of the state almost looked like she was “protesting” against her own government! She was still the revolutionary protesting against the cops under the rule of the Leftists. But then Mamata has never gotten out of her revolutionary mould. Protesting against your own is just one of the prices you pay when the revolutionary trait has penetrated your genes!

No sooner had seen won the WB elections with a handsome majority, she started protesting against her partners, the UPA at the Center. Clearly, she realized she didn’t need the Congress to form the government in WB. In behavior that smacks of dumping friends when they were not needed, she turned her partners into foes. She was ready to protest against anything the UPA did, even if her own ministers were part of the decision in the cabinet. She opposed the Lokpal Bill – not worried about the political fall-out of being seen as opposing the Lok Ayukta clause – a point that Anna’s team had made inseparable from the concept of Lokpal itself (why Anna’s team didn’t protest against the BJP when it too did a u-turn on this is another subject!). She snubbed the Congress on the issue of FDI in multi-brand retail – in fact going so far as to make the announcement of the decision to put the matter in cold storage herself – almost as a sort of a victory announcement. She joined forces with the BJP in blocking insurance and banking reforms. More recently, she has joined up with a motley mix of opposition CMs in blocking the setting up of the NCTC.

Turning against friends and partners is nothing new for Mamata. She did that to the NDA when she junked them after having been a part of the government. At least at that time, she officially quit the NDA. Now, she prefers to attack the UPA from within.

The only good thing – and really the only different thing from the Marxists – that Mamata has done has been to oppose the strike call given by the communists (and supported by the other unions). And she succeeded. Newspaper reports indicate that the strike call in WB was at best a partial success. Mamata had absolutely no qualms in announcing that though she had always supported strikes when she was in opposition, she had “learnt” that such things do not work. How convenient. Now, she might as well invite the Tatas with folded hands back into Singur! In reality however, its not that she has started loving industry and business – it’s just that she saw the strike as a CPM initiative. Obviously she had to block it….

Mamata seems to be under the impression that she has decimated the Left. That they have been completely annihilated. That she has absolutely no competition left. She believes that her anti-Left stridency will continue to help her win favor with the people of WB. But the people of WB did not vote her to power because they wanted Mamata to behave like the Leftists. If they had wanted that, they could have continued with the Left for another 36 years. They wanted change. They wanted better governance; less assertion of power; less goonda raj; a more progressive attitude towards economic reforms. For Mamata, the biggest joy appears to be to upset the Left’s applecart. She is happy to take over the Left’s traditional strategic position just so that she can throw them out of that position. Not because she believes in it. Rather than being a little Right of the Left, she is happy to be the Left herself!

That is why with every new incident coming, Mamata’s ship appears to be sinking. Her insensitivity in the two rape cases that emerged in the last two weeks shocked the nation. In one case, she doubted the claims of the woman. In another, she saw the hidden ghost of the CPM again. This is surely not what people expect from a woman CM. The least a woman CM would do would is to order a time-bound inquiry. In fact, a savvy woman CM would seize the opportunity and take strict action so as to build her constituency amongst the women. But Mamata did the opposite. She converted her opportunity into an opportunity for her opponents. And this time, the opponents included the Congress. As you reap, so shall you reap they say. Mamata is soon learning this!

And then yesterday’s incident. Mamata’s nephew attacking a traffic cop. Now we’re all familiar with this kind of abuse from the powerful. But what is shocking is that Mamata’s government refused to arrest the uncivilized nephew. It was only when the media took up the issue that he was arrested. How is this any different from what the people of WB saw during the worst of the Left’s days?

Its obvious Mamata is in serious trouble. The media has already given up on her. The media is a barometer of the people’s moods – it rarely drifts too far away from public sentiment. If the media is starting to oppose Mamata, she should understand what it means.

The real truth is that unlike the other state satraps who have converted their huge mandates into sustainable strengths, Mamata appears to be doing the opposite. Give her another 6 months – some would say even 3 months – and she will soon be rated as one of the poorest CMs in the country. Is it too late for her to amend her ways? I don’t think so – but then when someone has a bee in her bonnet, logic and common sense are the first casualties…..

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ten years after Godhra…..hardly anything for Modi to be proud of

As Godhra completes ten years of grief (and Modi completed his a few months back in October 2011), it’s time to look at how Modi’s tenure really has been. The two most often discussed topics in this context tend to be the “economic miracle” that is Gujarat and the communal state of affairs in the state. Modi’s supporters like to tom-tom the former; his detractors the latter.

Let’s take the economic progress first. I first wrote about this on September 17th last year when Modi started his government funded sadbhavna fast in Ahmedabad (Modi’s growth story is a sham). Source of data: For the purpose of analyzing the economic progress under Modi and previous CMs, I had used data from the RBI’s website (readily available at The data needs to be understood correctly since the growth numbers are higher than what we usually hear. I have used Net State Domestic Product at factor cost at constant prices in Rupees as the measure of economic growth. By using “at factor cost”, we eliminate the effect of taxes. By using “at constant prices”, we eliminate the effect of inflation. And by using “in Rupees”, we eliminate the impact of the $: Re exchange rate. Further, to calculate the average growth rate during a period under consideration, I have used a “simple average” of the growth rates of each year during that period. Whatever method I have used, I have used it evenly for all periods of time under all governments.

What does the data indicate? Check it out for yourself.

Annual growth under Modi (2002-3 to 2010-11) – average 16.25% per annum
Annual growth under Keshubhai Patel (1998-99 to 2002-3) – average 7.5% p.a
Annual growth under Chimanbhai Patel (1990-91 to 1993-94) – average 16.75% p.a
Annual growth under previous Congress CMs (1980-81 to 1989-90) – average 14.8% p.a

So quite clearly, Gujarat under Modi has done well. In fact, Gujarat has done better than all of India put together (14% during the period of Modi’s rule in Gujarat). Nothing surprising in both these facts really. Gujarat is a prosperous state. And India’s average is pulled down by many of the lower performing states across the country.

But just compare Modi’s results with the results in the state since 1980-81 and the truth becomes apparent. Gujarat has always been performing well (except for the period when Keshubhai was ruling). The high growth rate of Gujarat has nothing to do with Modi. Modi has merely continued the work of previous Congress CMs. In fact, a CM who doesn’t deliver economic growth in Gujarat will be booted out – as Keshubhai learnt.

So that the data can be compared effectively, let’s look at growth from other states as well.

Maharashtra – during the same period as Modi – 15.5% per annum
Haryana – last five years under Congress – 18% per annum
AP – Since 2004-5 under Congress – 16% per annum

Again, the data proves that Modi’s performance is hardly exceptional. There are many other states that have done well. I have pointed out the Congress states above since most political tussles on Gujarat happen between the BJP and the Congress. Gujarat is one state that the BJP can be truly proud of – how can it allow the Congress to puncture its story in this state?!

Other commentators have also written the real truth about Gujarat. Sample this from Dipankar Gupta on 6th October, 2011 in TOI, a few days after Bapu’s birthday….

“Telling the Whole story” is an amazingly well written piece on how the Congress has led Narendra Modi get away with claiming all the credit for Gujarat’s progress. The article brings out several stats to prove what I have also written earlier. Some nuggets: 1) In 1991, a full 10 years before Modi arrived, as many as 17,940 out of 18,028 villages were already electrified 2) 87.5% of Gujarat’s road were already asphalted before Modi. 3) By 2000-01, Gujarat’s share in India’s manufacturing had already risen to 28.7%. 4) Since 1980, Gujarat has been India’s poster state. Modi has nothing to do with the world’s largest ship-breaking yard coming up in Bhavnagar, nor with the setting up of the Ambani refinery in Jamnagar. 5) Well before Modi, Gujarat accounted for 45% of India’s petroleum products 6) Since the 1990s, Gujarat produces as much as 26% of the country’s pharmaceuticals 7) Because of the CM Chimanbhai Patel’s intervention in 1993, port traffic in the state jumped from a mere 3.18 million tonnes tonnes in1981 to 86.1 million tonnes in 2001. 8) During the 1990s, Gujarat successfully augmented 35% of its power generation capacity. 9) If Gujarat’s agriculture is prospering today, it is because the state has begun to receive Sardar Sarovar waters from 2002. Modi had little to do with the inauguration of this project, but he was at the right place at the right time to take the credit for it. If there was ever a person who reaped what somebody else had sown, then that is Modi. 10) It is not as if Gujarat is the richest state either; Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Kerala are all much better off…..

Here is the truth about agricultural growth in Gujarat – another point that Modi never fails to make: Gujarat’s agricultural output is so small that even a high growth rate in agriculture means little. Even today, after the tripling of production, overall foodgrains production in Gujarat is just 7.8 million tonnes. Compare this with UP (47 million tonnes), Punjab (27 million), Rajasthan (19 million), Haryana (16 million), Andhra (16 million), Maharashtra (15 million), Madhya Pradesh (15 million), West Bengal (14 million), Karnataka (13 million) and even lowly Bihar (10 million), and Gujarat’s growth number starts looking pale. Gujarat’s foodgrains production is just about comparable with Orissa’s and Chhatisgarh – a number that must surely irk Modi supporters.

Talk about social metrics of progress and Gujarat again starts to falter. So while Modi’s economic story is not bad, there is nothing that he can singularly take credit for.

Now let’s come to the other subject. Modi likes to claim that there have been no riots under Modi’s tenure since 2002 when Godhra happened. This is factually 100% correct. But putting this in the correct context would help in the understanding the truth. There have only been two major riots in India since 1992 in fact – one was Godhra and the other was the riots that followed the Babri masjid demolition. Both of these are attributable to the BJP. There were also riots in Malegaon – again there is a suspicion about saffron terror. Besides, there have been innumerable ‘encounters’ that have taken place in Gujarat right under Modi’s nose – and not surprisingly, all of them have targeted the minorities in the state.

Sanjiv Bhatt was on Times Now last night making a point that Gujarat has become a “Gestapo state”.  Since I come from Gujarat and go there many times every year even today, I can tell you this is certainly not true. There is no extra-high visibility of the police forces in any of the cities of Gujarat. However, this does not mean that Modi has brought about communal harmony. The fact is that Modi has managed to polarize the entire Hindu population of Gujarat. Again, from personal experience, I can say that most middle class urban people in Gujarat support Modi strongly – since he’s taught them (the Muslims) to stay within “limits”. He’s shown them “their place”. Modi is going to win the state elections later this year very comfortably. The Congress doesn’t even stand a small chance. Modi must be truly proud. He’s been given the title of “Hindu Hriday Samrat” by the Hindus of Gujarat!

The real truth is that Gujarat (and following in its footsteps, MP) are “successful” BJP experiments. Successful because the party has managed to polarize the voters… make the majority count and assert itself over the minority. It’s the worst possible interpretation of the word “majority” in the context of democracy. The BJP knows Modi's limitations - and so decided against using him in either UP or Bihar campaigns.....

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The SC order is harsher on Baba Ramdev than on the Delhi Police…..

It’s a long order, beautifully written, cogently argued, and it takes time to read! It created a fair degree of initial storm in the media, but suddenly and surprisingly, the storm just died down in a day or so. It’s now totally out of the news. There is a reason for this. The reason is that the order is a very telling commentary on the role played by Baba Ramdev himself and his organization in causing public harm…..and even the death of Rajbala. This is an anticlimax really and the media has hence dumped the story….

Before we go into the judgment itself, we must remember the context in which the case was taken up by the SC. It was a suo-motu case…..which means that the SC initiated the proceedings on its own….no doubt because of the high-octane media coverage that had followed the midnight crackdown by the Delhi Police at the Ramlila Grounds. Baba Ramdev’s so called “yoga shivir” was itself held in the backdrop of the surcharged political environment created earlier by Anna – supported covertly and overtly by the BJP and the RSS. The media coverage on the midnight action was thus singularly anti-government. Baba Ramdev was showcased as the victim. Rajbala’s death was the handiwork of the government. There was an underlying assertion that even the imposition of Section 144 was illegal. When the SC took up the case, most people expected it to castigate the government in the most severe of terms…..

Before I comment on what the SC has said on Baba Ramdev and his trust and followers, let me highlight the SC’s observations on the police itself. First and foremost, the SC has blasted the Delhi Police for taking action in the night – saying there was no emergency that necessitated this midnight action. “The state and the Police could have avoided this tragic incident by exercising greater restraint, patience and resilience. The orders were passed by the authorities in undue haste and were executed with force and overzealousness. The decision to forcibly evict the innocent public sleeping at the Ramlila grounds in the midnight of 4th/5th June, 2011…..suffers from an element of arbitrariness and abuse of power to some extent”. Surprised with the words “to some extent”? That is a common theme running across the order. The SC goes on to state: “The action demonstrated the might of the State and was an assault on the very basic democratic values enshrined in our Constitution”. While this last averment appears harsh, it appears to have been spoken in the context of the timing of the action rather than the action itself “Except in cases of emergency or the situation unexceptionably demanding so, reasonable notice/time for execution of the order or compliance with the directions issued in the order itself or in furtherance thereto is the pre-requisite”.

From the reading of the above statements, it is clear that the SC has blamed the police basically for 1) Acting in haste in the midnight and 2) not giving enough time to Baba Ramdev’s followers to follow the orders given under Section 144.

Now coming to the other parts of the order dealing with Baba Ramdev’s conduct. “It was primarily an error of performance of duty both by the police and respondent no 4 but the ultimate sufferer was the public at large”. The word “both” is critical and the same tenor is carried on later in the order. “I have held that the respondent no 4 (Baba Ramdev’s trust) is guilty of contributory negligence. The trust and its representatives out to have discharged their legal and moral duty and should have fully cooperated in the effective implementation of a lawful order passed by the competitive authority under Section 144 Cr. P.C.” So the order to impose Section 144 was clearly lawful. Further “Due to the stature that Baba Ramdev enjoyed with his followers, it was expected of him to request the gathering to disperse peacefully and leave the Ramlila Maidan. He ought not to have insisted on continuing with his activity at the place of occurrence. Respondent no 4 and all its reps were bound by the constitutional and fundamental duty to safeguard public property and to abjure violence. Thus there was legal and moral duty cast upon the membes of the Trust to request and persuade people to leave the Ramlila Maidan which could have obviously avoided the confrontation between the police and the members of the gathering at the Ramlila Maidan”. Thus the SC is clearly saying that the order was legal, and Baba Ramdev was at fault in not accepting it.

What about the “abuse” of power that Baba Ramdev and the media had alleged. “The chain of events reveals that it was a case of police excesses and to a limited extent, even abuse of power”. Did the court say “limited” abuse of power? Was it a mistake? Read on. “This is not a case where the Court can come to the conclusion that the entire police force has acted in violation of the Rules….”. Further “I find from the evidence on record that some of the police officers/personnel were very cooperative with the members of the assembly and helped them to vacate the Ramlila Maidan while others were violent, inflicted cane injuries, threw bricks and even used tear-gas shells, causing fire on the stage….Therefore these two classes of Police Force have to be treated differently”. So clearly, it was not like the entire police acted in a brutal manner – only a section of it. But this much is well known of our police! And hence the court ordered that “The police shall also register criminal cases against the police personnel and members of the gathering at the Ramlila ground (whether they were followers of Baba Ramdev or otherwise) who indulged in damage to the property, brick-batting etc. For breach of the legal and moral duty and for its contributory negligence, the consequences of financial liability would also pass, though to a limited extent, upon the respondent no 4 (Baba Ramdev’s trust) as well. Thus I direct that in case of death and grievous hurt, 25% of the awarded compensation shall be paid by the Trust. Quite clearly, the blame is on both equally…..

Even if the blame has been put equally on both, the context makes it a harsher punishment for Baba Ramdev. Remember, he was riding a sympathy wave. The media was all against the government. The SC took up the case on a suo-motu basis. And yet….the Supreme Court has ordered that he must share the blame equally. Did the fact that Baba Ramdev’s personal credibility in fighting a battle on black money is suspect influence the SC’s decision? I guess it didn’t….but even if it had, it would be a reasonable influence. After all, Baba Ramdev has lots to answer on his own private island in Scotland and other such controversies. Whether the island is a gift worth $2 million, or an island bought from siphoned-off funds worth $20 million needs to be established. Opponents will say that this smacks of government vendetta…..but the truth will eventually be out. Till then, he will remain a suspect.

Baba Ramdev is no Anna… wonder his struggle died down so quickly. There has never been a charge of integrity against Anna (none except the stupid charge made by Manish Tewari from which he was forced to backtrack almost immediately). But there have been quite a few against Baba Ramdev.

The real truth is that while the order blames both the Delhi Police and Baba Ramdev “equally”, the order must be considered to be harsher on the latter simply because the order flows against the wave of sympathy for him. Far from absolving Baba Ramdev of his own mistakes, the court has asked him to compensate the victim. Baba Ramdev can come again to Delhi, but this time he had better follow the laws of the land…..

Friday, February 24, 2012

Believe in the PM…..

The PM has made very uncharacteristically bold statements about the hand of certain NGOs from certain foreign countries in stalling the Koodankulam nuclear power project in TN. The PM hasn’t given “proof” as such; but knowing him, he would not have spoken had he not been convinced. Already there are many who are accusing the PM of playing the “foreign hand” card – a la what was common political strategy in the 1970s and 80s – needlessly politicizing an issue of such national importance. If these people are to be believed, we should trust the agitators more than the PM. I find this atrocious.

The PM is the last person to rely on a foreign hand theory to push for the resolution of the logjam in Koodankulam. If anything, the PM comes from a rather pro-Western belief system – having been known to be a liberal all his life and having served in many multilateral financial institutions. The major complaint that the PM’s opponents – most notably the Left – have against the PM is in fact that he is too liberal, too pro-US. As per them, the PM has a definite bias towards Western bodies and institutions, not against them. It looks highly unbelievable then that the PM would speak out against US funded NGOs for any political reason. If he has done so, he must have solid reasons to do so…..

The PM’s party, the Congress, has nothing to gain directly from a resolution of the Koodankulam issue. If the issue is resolved – as it should be considering that Rs 14000 odd crores have already been spent and the plant is more than 99% ready – it is the country that benefits, not the Congress party. There is also no existential threat to the Congress at the moment – at least not from the Koodankulam stalemate. In the past, when the foreign hand excuse was used, it was used to deflect failure of the government. That is simply not the case here.

The PM has also done his level best to reassure the agitators that the plant is safe and that they should not be worried. Well, there is always a certain amount of worry with anything in life; but there is nothing specific about Koodankulam that should worry the people of that place. There is a whole phalanx of scientists in India and worldwide who have reassured us about the safety of the plants. In fact, the PM sent the most respected of them all – the former President Abdul Kalam – to have a look at the issues raised. And Kalam re-iterated what most scientists have said. Not only is the plant safe; it is amongst the safest in the world. For the agitators still not to be convinced smacks of a lot of political agenda. If Kalam cannot satisfy the agitators, can anyone then? This is turning out to be a movement similar to Anna’s – no matter what one tried to convince Anna, he was hell bent on only his single formulation of the Lokpal being accepted. Out here too, the agitators want only their point of view to be accepted – that the plant be scrapped.

There is one major reason why I have no sympathy for these agitators. Or for that matter, their sympathisers. Sympathizers like Medha Patkar. These agitators have no solution to offer for the power needs of India. Let’s say we give up on nuclear power. How then will we raise the 4,00,000-6,00,000 MW of power we need to additional generate in the next 20 years? Many of these agitators are opposed to thermal power plants also – because they also reflect the global warming cause. Many of them are against hydro electric plants because they submerge large tracts of land dislodging millions of people. One such person is Medha Patkar. She’s been a strong voice against the Narmada dam project (hydro electric power and irrigation). She’s fighting against Koodankulam (nuclear power). And she also talks against global warming caused by thermal power plants! (She repeated this on TV last night). So if we rely neither on thermal, nor hydro, nor nuclear power plants, how do we build the capacity we need? Many activists ignorantly state that we should rely on non-conventional energy sources – wind power, tidal power, solar power, biogas and the like. I do agree that we should, but the capacity of such systems is very limited. Unfortunately, none of these technologies 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. The biggest biogas, or tidal, or anything else is even smaller. These simply are no options at all. We simply have to rely on the traditional forms of power generation – and amongst all of them, nuclear power is the cleanest, safest source of power.

Many people – including panel members on TV shows – talk about how Germany has decided to stop using nuclear power. They forget that the Germans have already got all the power they need – they don’t need to build too many more plants in the future. The US did not build nuclear power plants for 30 years apparently. Sure, but they are building many now. Besides, they have never been power deficient. These panelists forget to mention how France generates more than 70% of its electricity using nuclear power plants and they don’t seem to be having any rethoughts. What about China – a country which has huge needs of electric power like we have? Well, its building a lot of everything – the world’s biggest hydro power; a huge amount of thermal capacity; and a huge amount of nuclear power plants. It’s time we stopped dishing out such ignorant arguments.

What about the political opponents of the PM? Well, it’s strange that Jayalalitha has not been able to figure out what kind of destructive politics is being played by the activists in her own backyard. Is it that she is unaware – a highly unlikely probability considering her own political savvy – or is that she is part of the brigade that wants to make life difficult for the Center? And what about the BJP? Wouldn’t one expect that at least on matters of national importance, the party would think of the country first? The NDA had a pro-nuclear power stance when it was in power. Rather than asking the PM to furnish evidence of the foreign hand, wouldn’t it be better if it extended unquestioned support to the government on this limited issue? After all, if Rs 14000 crores of investments gets stuck, it harms the country. Is there any reason for any politics on this?

The real truth is that governance is becoming impossible in this country. Every arbitrary protest group is able to cobble together a few thousands supporters. Getting funding is easy. And then a hungry and ignorant media is happy to fan all such movements irrespective of the consequences for the country. It’s time the political leadership of all parties got together and decided where to draw the line…..

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

C’mon sack Kripashankar Singh…..what’s there to think about????

There are some legal cases that are aptly labeled “open and shut” cases. No sooner are they opened that it becomes clear what the verdict should be….and the cases are shut. Kripashankar Singh’s – Mumbai Congress President – case of disproportionate assets is one such case. The man’s assets are worth thousands of times more than his known income. His assets are apparently worth some Rs 320 crores or more while his known income is just a few lac rupees a year. It would appear that many of his assets have been “gifted” to him… if he were one of the most popular people on this planet. His wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law all have assets disproportionate with their sources of income. I cannot even think of a justification that the Congress could possibly have in supporting such a politician. Why then has Prithviraj Chavan merely accepted his resignation from the post of Mumbai Congress President? Why has he not sacked him from the party itself?

The Indian public can be both forgiving and unforgiving of political parties and politicians. If a political party accepts a mistake and makes amends (sacks the wrong doer), it is willing to forgive the party. But if it holds on to an untenable position (of corruption or otherwise), it is punished. So many politicians have been held for improprieties, and yet when they have either quit or accepted blame or left the limelight, their parties have been forgiven. Just look around the country and this becomes obvious. In TN, the government changes every five years – and each time, the party that is booted out is accused of corruption! People in India are pragmatic. They know every party is corrupt. But they like to teach parties a lesson every now and then – and if they believe the erring party has learnt a lesson, they are happy to give it another chance.

On the other hand, parties that do not accept mistakes or make amends are not forgiven – at least the slur is never removed. This is true not only for corruption related matters. The Congress is held guilty even today for the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It may win elections in Punjab, but the smear of having been responsible for a pogrom of such proportions will never go away. It’s the same with Narendra Modi and his widely-suspected role in the Godhra riots. Modi hasn’t apologized; he hasn’t even accepted that he was involved….or at least that his government was inefficient in handling the riots. Modi’s case is particularly interesting – it’s likely he will be punished outside Gujarat every time he makes a move to become PM for the exact same reason that he will be rewarded within Gujarat. His “Hindu Hriday Samrat” badge will give him sustained power in Gujarat, but the same badge will deny him the position of PM that he so badly desires. People outside Gujarat are unlikely to forgive him because he hasn’t apologized. If he did apologize….the story could well be different.

That’s why it’s important for the Congress to sack Kripashankar immediately. In fact, sacking him should have been an obvious call. There is this concept of “cutting losses” that any astute politician and party knows of. Sacking Kripashankar would help the Congress cut its losses and get a little relief. Any delay would be seen as reluctance to act against the corrupt within the party. At the end of the day, Kripashankar Singh is a small fry. It should be easy for the party to ditch him in order to salvage a little space for itself. Kripashankar’s political career was anyways on the decline after the poor performance of the Congress in the BMC polls. Sacking him wouldn’t harm the party at all. But the delay in taking this decision surely will harm the party.

Politicians should learn a few things from the corporate world. In good private companies, if an employee is caught on charges of graft, he/she is immediately sacked. Not only that…..a big deal is made out of the sacking…..the entire company is told about it… as to send a message to the others. For employees who are not corrupt, this message works as a further reason to continue working for the company – knowing that the company won’t tolerate such stuff. It becomes a reason for attracting good talent into the company. But this is possible in the corporate world because most private corporates are intolerant of corruption. Political parties are not. Out here, corruption is a way of life….almost a necessity as the parties see it.

The Kripashankar episode shows that there is a climate in the country today against the corrupt. The country may not have a Lokpal Act yet, but the existing machinery is starting to crank itself into action. The judiciary for one has surely been stepping on the gas. Government companies and departments are starting to resist their political masters – another story in the papers today about Hiranandani Constructions being strongly panned by the Bombay HC also shows how the MMRDA protested against the state government’s soft attitude against the builder. Ministers are becoming more careful – wanting to give up discretionary powers at the earliest as another story in the Economic Times shows.

The real truth is that the Congress must sack Kripashankar immediately. The CM must make a public statement that he will not tolerate any more cases of corruption. If there are others connected with this particular case, he should remove them as well. Failure to do all this will cost the Congress the state the next time elections are held here….

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The EC needs to be statutorily regulated…..

The government has walked into the hornet’s nest by bringing up a proposal – which it now denies – to give statutory powers to the EC’s supervision of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). To a layman, it may look like the EC’s arms are actually being strengthened since it will now be actually illegal to violate the MCC; the MCC so far was only a “moral” compact between political parties. But the opposition has reacted by calling this proof of the Congress’s desire to clip the wings of the EC. Which side is right?

Well, let’s look at the conduct of the EC in recent times.

The first big controversy was the Salman Khursheed one, on which I had written that the EC was strong enough to take whatever action it felt was necessary. The EC had taken a belligerent stand on the controversy, threatening to take action against Khursheed. The issue provided fodder to the media for several days. The opposition demanded that Khursheed be punished. There was talk of the election to Farukkhabad getting cancelled. But what happened eventually? Salman Khursheed uttered a few pleasantries; said he “respected” the EC; he had never wanted to offend the EC blah blah. But he stuck to his grounds that he had made no mistake – that the 9% minority quota was as per his party’s manifesto and hence he had not violated the MCC (the manifesto did indeed say: reservation in proportion to population. Population is 18%. So 18% of the max reservation limit of 50% is 9%. That’s the number that Khursheed mentioned, but no one understands maths these days!). If you thought Khursheed’s explanation was all rubbish, you were wrong. The EC agreed with Khursheed and merely “censured” him. Now for anyone to think that politicians are actually bothered of being censured is a bit of a stretch. Life was back to normal for Khursheed; his objective achieved. Whether his wife gains from his gimmicks or not, only time will tell. In my mind, the EC appeared arbitrary and discretionary. No one could understand why it let Khursheed go off so easily. Why didn’t it just cancel the elections? Why didn’t the EC ban Khursheed from campaigning for three years like it did recently in another case in UP? Of course, the EC is answerable to none.

Again, in the repeat case of Beni Prasad Verma, he too got away by repeating (almost) the exact words that Khursheed had used. Again, the EC has so far merely served him a notice. That’s it. So many days have gone by now, it’s unlikely the EC will take any firm action against Verma. Again, the EC has come out as being undecisive and weak. But more importantly, it’s come out as being whimsical, unpredictable and almost unlawful in condoning a chosen few. Its conduct has been as suspect as a babu’s when it comes to administering his discretionary powers.

The opposition’s main complaint in both the Khursheed and Verma cases was that the Congress was using religion to polarize the voters. This was supposed to be Congress’s grand plan – garner all the Muslim votes and upset the plans of all the other parties. Even assuming this was possible (the results will show that this isn’t), is the BJP really in any position to accuse the Congress on this? What’s its own politics in UP based on? Development? Anyone who believes that has to be kidding. The BJP’s entire UP politics (indeed its national politics) continues to be based on one single agenda – the Ram Mandir. If it’s not so explicit, then it’s about an amorphous term “Hindutva”. In UP in particular, it’s all about getting votes by promising the Ram Mandir. It’s pulling at the heartstrings of avowed Hindus to get them to vote for it. If Khursheed’s and Verma’s campaigning was wrong because they were exploiting religion, then how was BJP’s campaigning right? How come the EC hasn’t issued any notice to BJP leaders? Again, a lot of discretionary decision making.

What about Samajwadi Party’s campaigning? What’s the SP’s main poll plank? Again, it’s appealing to the Muslims. Remember what Mulayam is jokingly called? Maulana Mulayam Singh Yadav. And what has the Maulana promised in his speeches? 18% reservation to the Muslims! He’s got to be two steps ahead of the Congress when it comes to political grandstanding! But wait…..did the EC “censure” Mulayam? Did it even serve him notice? Did it cancel any elections where he made such speeches? None of the above. Again, the point I am making is that the EC’s conduct has been discretionary and unexplicable.

Let’s also ask what is really in the hands of the EC to do if some politician breaks the MCC? On the face of it, the EC can do “anything” it wants to do. But in reality, it does nothing in most of the cases. Maybe it’s the lethargy of having to organize elections all over again that makes it so casual. Whatever the reason, in reality, the EC doesn’t do much. Is this alright? Should the EC really not do anything if there has been poll related violation of law? Should the EC itself be allowed to get away with such conduct? This is a case where the EC (headed by a Muslim) has attacked the Congress (which is trying to please the Muslims) – so no one has accused it of playing the religious card itself. Just imagine if the EC had attacked the BJP? The BJP would have communalized the entire issue. Remember James Michael Lyngdoh in an earlier era in Gujarat?

That’s why it’s a good idea to make the MCC a legal statute. Every party would then be duty bound to follow it. It’s would no longer be merely moral; but legal. If there was a violation, the implications would be clearly laid out. The action would necessarily have to follow. There would be no discretion. Or even if discretion was there, it would be as per the law laid out and transparent.

What’s the real problem with all this? Soli Sorabjee brought this out clearly on TV last night. The problem is that the courts in India take forever to adjudicate on a case. Hence violaters of the MCC would get away without any restrictions. If that’s the case, then the Judiciary must rise to the occasion and create special courts which come up only during election time. Just like school staff, cops, and every other bureaucrat get assigned to “election duty”, so should the judges be. There can be courts set up which adjudicate within 2-3 days; in any case, the EC doesn’t decide faster. In fact, the EC doesn’t adjudicate on most cases at all. In Punjab alone this year, the EC received some 3,230 complainst related to polling. I haven’t heard of how many of those got cleared by the EC. As lay public, we never question the EC. We simply assume that the EC is “above board” and must have taken the appropriate decisions. Because we dislike politicians so much, we tend to like every other body, especially a Constitutional body like the EC. Admittedly, the EC has otherwise done good work in India. But the fact is that the EC also needs some regulation. Maybe the Executive should not regulate it; but the Judiciary? That looks fair.

The EC would like to have statutory powers, but it wants the exercise of those powers to stay with itself. How convenient. This is the basic problem I had with the structure of the Lokpal proposed by Anna’s team also. The EC wants to be the investigator, prosecutor and judge all rolled into one; accountable to none. Now we see the dangers of this. In all cases mentioned earlier – the EC did nothing. And no one can point a finger at the EC. Do people even realize that the EC has actually been very kind to the Congress?

Just because a body is a Constitutional body doesn’t mean that it is above the Constitution; or the law of the land. The laws can be made only by Parliament and even Constitutional bodies have to follow the laws. All that a constitutional status does is that it makes it difficult to do away with a body by a mere simple majority (which any ruling coalition has). It makes it necessary to garner a 2/3rds support which ensures that no one plays with a Constitutional body. But it means nothing else.

Look at the conduct of another Constitutional body – the CAG. Let me leave aside its estimate of “presumptive” loss on 2G spectrum. That is for the courts to decide (my views are that there was no loss; it was a government policy to give spectrum free and was followed by all governments till now. There was corruption in exercise of discretion by Raja, but no corruption in the policy itself). Let’s take the CAG’s pronouncements in the Antrix case. The CAG said it was a loss of Rs 2 lac crores. It’s now been proven that the CAG didn’t know it’s a@& from its elbow. What happened then? Did it apologize after messing up the issue? No way. It’s a constitutional authority after all!

The real truth is that we need laws even for Constitutional bodies. The fact that the judiciary takes too long to decide on petitions cannot be the reason to bundle the powers to adjudicate and give it to a Constitutional body. The Constitutional body will only be too happy to grab all the powers. But then it remains accountable to no one. Just like the Lokpal would have been. Just like the CAG is (well it is accountable to the PAC…..but it prefers to sensationalize first by going to media). Just like the EC has been of late…..

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How the Shiv Sena can capture power in Maharashtra….

Shiv Sena put up a good show and won the BMC elections fairly convincingly. They didn’t quite get a majority, but they emerged as the largest alliance (alongwith the BJP) with a clear lead over its rivals. There is a new hope in the party about coming to power at the state level. Before it can achieve that goal however, the Sena needs to take cognisance of the limitations its current political strategy puts on its growth prospects. It’s to do with the “positioning” the party has taken as part of its political strategy that should worry it.

The Shiv Sena’s primary platform (the “positioning”) for seeking votes is that it stands for the Marathi Manoos. It stands for their pride, their dignity, and for their right to be the privileged citizens of Maharashtra. To the Sena’s credit, they have pursued this strategy rigorously, avoiding diluting it with anything else. It’s this single minded pursuit of guaranteeing Marathi pride that has seen the party rule Mumbai for 16 years so far (and for five more years now).

The Sena unfortunately split a few years back, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was formed from within it. In the long term, the biggest competitor of the Sena is the MNS. Led by a charasimatic and young Raj, the party has smartly also added the word “Navnirman” in its name. Navnirman stands for development and as I will prove later in this post, that one word gives the MNS the edge over the Sena in the long run.

The Sena’s strategy has ensured that it succeeds in parts of the state where the Maharashtrian-first platform is relevant. For example in Mumbai, which is pot-pourri of cultures and languages, it is a highly relevant platform. The business in this city is dominated by the Gujaratis – the stock market being the symbol of that hegemony. The trading business and the diamond industry are also strongly dominated by the Gujaratis, as is “big” business. At the lower end of the population is the large bunch of people who have come from UP and Bihar – accounting for some 20% of Mumbai’s population. This section has drawn the ire of the Sena for long. The Sena (and the MNS) have protested against the Chhath puja as being an unnecessary display of Bihari strength; they have created problems for candidates from these states taking part in the Railways exams held in Mumbai and so on. It is this mixed population which gives the Sena its appeal amongst the Maharashtrian population in Mumbai. Maharashtrians are hard working and well educated people and feel that they should have a larger say in the economy of the city (remember, Mumbai cares most for the economy; everything else is secondary). No wonder then that they eagerly support the Sena (and now also the MNS).

The Sena and the MNS do well in all cities where there is some sort of a perceived threat to Maharastrian pride. That’s why the MNS has emerged as the single largest party in Nashik – an industrial hub of Maharashtra – where a large number of migrants from UP and Bihar have come for work. The Sena also does well in the towns around Mumbai – Ulhasnagar (where the Sindhis dominate) and Thane (which is really an extension of Mumbai itself). These have been the traditional areas of strength for the Sena and the MNS. Added to this list now is Pune where – though the NCP/Congress alliance has won the recent polls – the MNS has emerged as the 2nd largest party after the NCP. Not surprising, given the increasing number of migrants year after year that make Pune their home. Pune is the second largest city in Maharashtra, and has tradionally been known as the cultural hub of the state. But today, Pune is also getting well known for its youth (thanks to the colleges there), pub, and BPO culture. Pune is also getting a lot of investment in the real estate sector from Mumbaiites. Pune is now considered a “cosmopolitan” city, somewhat like Mumbai. As Pune has become more mixed, the issues that the Sena and the MNS address become relevant. No wonder then that the two parties are starting to do well here.

But in cities which don’t have such mixed population, the Sena and the MNS start to falter. Take Nagpur, or for that matter, the entire Vidharbha region which includes Amravati and Akola as well, and the two start to struggle. While Nagpur is ruled by the BJP, Amravati and Akola are dominated by the Congress, NCP and the BJP. So also in Solapur which is largely dominated by Maharashtrians.

The Sena also fares relatively poorly in rural Maharashtra where the Maharashtrian platform is irrelevant – since the rural areas are anyways predominantly Maharashtrian. Since the Sena and the MNS have almost single mindedly focused only on the Marathi platform, and this is an irrelevant issue in rural Maharashtra, the Sena and the MNS havn’t been able to cut much ice there. No wonder then that the NCP-Congress swept the recently held zilla parishad elections.

This challenge (of having a limited appeal and that too only in certain urban pockets) has made the Sena dependent on the BJP. Where the BJP succeeds is in appealing to the non-Marathi Hindus…..those who resent Muslim appeasement (as they call it) of the Congress and the NCP. By itself, the BJP is a smaller outfit in Maharashtra than the Congress and the NCP but for the Sena, it is the ideal partner. Together, the two occupy the right-of-center saffron platform. The only moral conflict the BJP faces is that the Sena’s anti-UP/Bihar positioning makes life difficult for it in Bihar, where it is the minority partner with JD (U). Every time the Sena strikes in Mumbai or Nashik, it faces the heat in Bihar and UP.

The relatively limited appeal of the Sena explains why the Sena-BJP combination has seized power at the state level only once between 1995 and 1999. At that time, Maharashtra was roiled by the politics of Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid demolition (including the riots that followed the demolition in Mumbai in 1992-93). The same conditions that helped the BJP take power at the Center (consolidation of Hindu votes) helped the alliance gain power in Maharashtra also. And as the communal tempers cooled, the BJP-Sena lost power at the Center and in Maharashtra.

If the Sena has to capture power again in Maharashtra, it has to add another dimension to its Maharashtrian-first strategy. Being focused on Maharashtrian pride is great; but there is need also for another story. The best story in these times is the story of development. Much like the MNS has adopted. If the Sena could focus more on development – show some good governance in Mumbai for instance – it could capture the imagination of a wider section of the people of the state. But if it sticks to the same old platform, it will find its growth prospects a little limited. In that case, it will be the MNS that will leapfrog to the numero uno position in the state.

The real truth is that the Sena will have to re-invent itself if it has to make a serious attempt at gaining power at the state level. Its opponent – the Congress and NCP – haven’t exactly taken done themselves proud on governance or development. Maharashtra has been losing out to neighboring states like Gujarat, Karnataka and AP on the economic front. The only reason they are surviving is because of the Sena’s own limitations. If that changes, the Congress-NCP could lose power in Maharashtra…..

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Using federalism to politicize terror…..

Several CMs – nine or ten at the last count – are “strongly” opposing the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) that has been set up by the Center. The stated reason for the opposition is that “the states were not consulted” and that “it impacts the federal structure” as provided in the Constitution. Since a major terrorism attack has not happened for a little while now, the CMs have forgotten that India remains under the threat of another attack and that if the next attack does happen, they would have no place to hide. Clearly, the bogey of federalism is being used now – for purely political reasons.

Sometimes I wonder if the opposition parties think in their heads that they will always remain in opposition. It certainly appears so. For the subject of NCTC to become a political one, it has to be assumed that the opposition parties believe the Congress will always rule at the center. Only then would this be an attempt by the Congress to control the states (under the garb of terrorism). However, this is an assumption that certainly cannot be made – at least in times such as these when the Congress is under so much flak. If things continue this way, it is very likely that the Congress will lose power at the Center in 2014. If hypothetically, there is an NDA government that gets set up at the Center in 2014, the powers to “control” the NCTC and hence the states will shift to the NDA. At that time, many Congress ruled states will suddenly start to complain about an attack on federalism. Federalism is an atrocious argument. Our politics has to rise about petty turf issues and understand the new challenges being faced by the country now.

When the US enacted its own NCTC (first called Terrorist Threat Integration Center) after the 9/11 attacks, most Indians said “See how the Americans fight terror. They take action. We must learn from them”. The NCTC in the US also cuts across state lines and works in a federal manner under the control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It draws its officers from the CIA, FBI and Pentagon. It tries to ensure that clues about potential attacks are not missed because of turf issues. In fact, the 9/11 commission that was set up to understand why the attacks took place at all made a scathing attack that the US had no clue that the attacks were going to take place. It was in response to this that the NCTC was set up by George Bush.

The story is no different in India. It is post the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai (in 2008) that the UAPA was amended in 2009 and the NCTC was sought to be set up under this act. In the aftermath of the attacks, every political party supported the amendment, not wanting to appear opposed to a strong anti-terrorism act. I am presuming that the amendment would have gone through rounds of debate in Parliament. Every political party – including of course the BJP and the BJD – had the chance to think about federalism at that point in time. Why did they choose to support the amendment then? The NCTC is nothing but an outfit set up under this very amended act (The original act dates back to 1967).

Our politicians have to recognize that terrorism is a new threat the world is facing. Terrorism in the current international form has been around for maybe only a couple of decades or so. When the Constitution was written in 1950, the writers had no clue that this sort of terrorism would come around one day. The Constitution thus kept law and order in the state list. There is a need today to change that. Law and Order for normal criminal activity can well remain in the state list. However, the law and order related to terrorist activities should be taken out of the state list and put under the Central list.

Fighting terror requires a unified response. Out here, we have a situation when even normal criminals take advantage of the turf fight between states. There are so many cases when two state police forces cannot coordinate their actions to nab the culprit. Just look at the politicization of the fight against the Maoists. Again, the Central government can do pretty much nothing except request the states to up the ante. Because all states don’t coordinate their efforts, Maoist attackers often jump across from one state to another to escape their capture. Most of the Maoist affected states are poor and don’t even have the sophisticated arms and the trained forces required to take on the Maoists. And yet, when the Center wanted to plan a bigger offensive, it had to tamp it down under similar excuses – that law and order is a state subject. The next time a Maoist attack happens, lets all wring our hands in anger and shame and despair. And let’s make more political attacks on each other.

Terrorists have become extremely sophisticated. As the attack on Mumbai showed, the terrorists came equipped with satellite phones, modern weaponry and the backing of foreign nations and their intelligence agencies. The attack on the Israeli diplomat’s wife in Delhi recently shows that India can get drawn into a conflict in which it is not even a party. Are we to say that the Delhi Police alone should investigate the probe? And if the biker who supposedly planted the bomb on the diplomat’s car came from say Gujarat or Maharashtra, then the Delhi police must go through the bureaucracy of talking to the state police, no matter how much time it takes? How can terrorism be prevented this way?

The Center is also to blame – at least partly – for the backfoot it finds itself on in this matter. When it backed down on allowing FDI in multi-brand retail, I had mentioned that the Congress would have to suffer similar consequences in the future also. The FDI decision was only an Executive decision and needed no approval from Parliament. By backing down then, the Center exposed itself to similar pressure tactics later. The NCTC also doesn’t need the approval of the states. That approval was already taken when the UAPA was amended in 2009. The states had their chance then. Why are they creating a problem now?

The reality of the opposition to the NCTC perhaps is what Arnab Goswami brought out in his debate on the subject a few days back (on Times Now). Maybe the bogey of federalism has become an easy way to rally opposition parties against the Congress. The completely derelict Mamata Banerjee can always be counted on to oppose any move of the Congress……and that gives the opposition a chance to say “Even the UPA allies don’t support it”. Mamata’s opposition has become a joke nowadays. Nobody knows what she stands for. Her opposition cannot be taken seriously.

But what is it that the states are really worried about? Why are they really opposing the NCTC? It’s the power of “search and seizure” that passes onto the central government under which the NCTC will operate. The states are worried that the NCTC will be used by the Congress to browbeat them. If this is the only issue, it can be resolved by better defining the occasions on which the Center can intervene. The UAPA is very specific in defining terrorist organizations – it lists 32 such organizations in its schedule.

There is also the history of federal agencies in India that worries the state governments. When POTA was enacted, Jayalalitha used it for arresting Vaiko, a political opponent. When the NIA was set up, and when it started investigating cases of saffron terror, the NDA accused the Congress of abusing the investigating agency. The CBI is another central investigation agency that is accused of kowtowing to it political masters. This history cannot be wished away – and yet we have no option but to have a more federal terror prevention authority.

The real truth is that there is a huge dose of politics in the opposition of the states to the NCTC. There may also be a certain element of genuine worry, but it’s not so much that we have to shelve the authority. The Center may take steps to reassure the states about its intentions, but under no circumstances should it back down. The argument of the states that they were not consulted is specious, considering that they supported the amendment to the UAPA in 2009……

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mumbai poll results puts paid to MNS-Sena merger talks…..

The Congress-NCP lost Mumbai and its neighbourhoods, Thane and Ulhasnagar. These have been won by the Sena-BJP – though they will need support from outside. Had the result been any different and along the lines predicted, the drumbeats for the merger of the MNS with Sena would have become louder. Maybe that would have been a far more politically consequential development than the mere win of Mumbai by the Sena. Now the politics will be driven by a combination of factors – most importantly, basis what’s happened in the other cities.

The Cong-NCP won Pune and its neighborhood township of Pimpri-Chinchwad. The BJP retained Nagpur, though it will need help from others to reach the halfway mark. The Congress retained Solapur and Amravati, though it will need external help too. Nashik and Akola however are badly hung…..While the Sena and BJP are rightfully celebrating their win in Mumbai, the results in the other cities will help understand what happens next to alliances across the state.

One of the possibilties thrown by Bal Thackeray himself just a day before the Mumbai elections was that of the Sena and the MNS merging. Of course, what drove him to make that appeal was a near unanimous prediction that the Sena would be routed in Mumbai. The invitation to Raj Thackeray to join back was not out of any love for him or a change of heart; it was just desperation. Now with the Sena-BJP emerging as the biggest block quite comfortably, it is unlikely that the offer made by the senior Thackeray will stand. There is no way that that offer will be acceptable to Uddhav – the one who was being written off, but who showed clearly what he is capable off. Even if the offer was still open, it would most likely not be acceptable to Raj either – since the fundamental reason for his departure was a power struggle within the Sena with brother Uddhav. That situation has just got worse. Besides, Raj himself has tasted victory, expanding his seats four-fold in Mumbai and emerging as the largest party in Nashik (and ahead of the Congress in Pune). Why should he resile from his position?

There is one more reason why the MNS will not tango with the Sena-BJP. In Nashik, where the MNS is now the biggest party, and where it has worked very hard to develop a following, it will need the support of the Cong-NCP to cross the halfway mark. Together, the three will comfortably hit the halfway mark. Alternatively, the Cong-NCP may not join the government, but may support the MNS from outside in return for favors in Mumbai at a later date.There is also a possibility that the MNS may align only with the NCP in Nashik – in an arrangement similar to the one that the NCP had struck with the BJP-Sena in Pune in 2007 – called the Pune pattern. At that time, the Congress had refused to support the NCP and stayed in the opposition. If this happens now, the MNS-NCP combo will be able to form the government in Nashik with a little external help and the Congress will sit out. But the question is: will the NCP be able to ditch the Congress in Nashik? Or the Congress the NCP? Both scenarios are unlikely since the two parties need each other in the other cities. That is why Ajit Pawar has already issued a statement that the two allies will work together all over Maharashtra.

In the key city of Pune, the NCP has not been able to get the majority on its own. In a 152-seat corporation, it has only 51 of its own; but with the Congress it reaches the magic figure of 79. Instead of the Congress, it could ally with the MNS, especially if it ties up with the MNS in Nashik. However, there are other cities like Amravati and Solapur where the two parties still need each other. Besides, Pune is the bastion of Ajit Pawar – there is no way that he is going to let Pune slip out of his hands. He will want all the support he can stitch together. In short, the Congress-NCP alliance is going to stay, irrespective of all the accusations the two parties may make against each other in Mumbai.

So it appears that the Sena will not merge with the MNS. It’s alliance with the BJP is enough to serve its objectives. In Mumbai, the Sena-BJP cannot ally with the SP because of core ideology reasons. The two parties will count on the support from the amorphous group called “Others”.

What about Akola? Neither the Cong+ nor the Sena+ has managed to get enough seats to form a dispensation. Both groupings will have to count heavily on “Others”. The share of Others is huge – 23 out of 73 seats. Akola will remain hung – and I wouldn’t be surprised if elections have to be held again within a year or so.

So in summary, the Sena-BJP alliance with the help of others will rule Mumbai and its neighborhoods, as well as in Nagpur (4 towns). The Cong-NCP will rule Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Solapur and Amravati (4 towns). The Cong-NCP-MNS combo could get together for Nashik. And in Akola, we could see re-elections in some time.

Now coming to Mumbai. An attempt is being made by the Sena-BJP to portray the results as an indication of the “mood of the public”. That’s what Sushma Swaraj tweeted. Sena politicians are showing the victory as proof that people are actually happy with their governance. That corruption was an issue that hurt the Congress. I beg to differ.

If the “mood” was against the Congress, then why did it win in four out of the ten corporations? Why did it win the clear majority in the recently concluded civic elections all over Maharashtra (the smaller towns) where it in fact routed the Sena-BJP combo?

If “governance” was the issue, then what are we talking about? Anyone who lives in Mumbai knows how this city suffers every single day because of the apathy of its rulers. Whatever the Sena may say, the win in Mumbai is certainly not a stamp of approval on its governance.

If “corruption” was an issue, how come the Cong-NCP combo won in the heart of Kalmadi-land, Pune? Yes, Congress did lose seats in Pune compared to the last time (28 v/s 35 last time), but the decline is more attributable to the NCP’s sustained growth there than corruption. The NCP won 51 seats this time against the 41 in 2007. In fact, the Congress had lost a lot more in the 2007 elections when it declined from 61 seats that it held in 2002. Also, if corruption had been the issue in Pune, then it should have been the BJP that gained, but that’s not the case. The BJP has remained more or less flat. Likewise in Nagpur – the bastion of BJP and RSS – the Congress tally increased from 33 to 41.

The real reason for the Congress loss in Mumbai was the infighting within the NCP and Congress alliance. With public sparring between Sharad Pawar and Prithviraj Chavan there for everyone to see, the morale of the workers downstream was low. Workers of the two parties were not even keen to tie-up together in the first place. It was only Prithviraj Chavan’s belief that the simple act of tying up together would get them a victory that made them do so. In reality, Chavan must now surely realize, mathematics seldom works in politics!

Whatever the reasons, the Congress cannot be a happy unit after the Mumbai results. The larger concern for the party will be its ability to handle its allies. It’s the same story with Mamata as well. Whoever is at fault, the UPA keeps losing. But it’s equally important that the allies think of this matter as well. Mumbai’s loss is as much a loss for the NCP and Sharad Pawar as it is for the Congress and Prithviraj Chavan. It would be the same for Mamata in WB, if she continued in the way she is. It won’t be long before the Left is voted back to power there.

The real truth is that the shock defeat of Mumbai for the Congress-NCP must hurt the two parties badly. They have only themselves to blame; letting go such a low hanging fruit. They need to introspect…..Equally, the results will ensure that the MNS and the Sena stay apart. In the long term, this development has far more important political ramifications…..the Marathi votes will continue to be divided.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mumbai votes for infrastructure and a liberal culture

As Mumbai votes today to decide who will rule the BMC – supposedly the richest municipality in the country – for the next five year, there are two main questions that cross my mind when I think of what Mumbaiites really want from their municipality. Infrastructure….and a liberal culture. Over the last twenty years, both have been attacked and both have suffered; consumed by the parochial and rural instincts of its rulers.

Mumbai has been aptly called Maximum City. When Suketu Mehta used that term, he used it positively – to show the city’s professionalism, the ambition of its people, and the penchant its people had to live it up. Today, the word maximum means something else. Mumbai’s become a city with maximum potholes on the road; maximum trashy housing; maximum number of slum-dwellers; maximum number of traffic snarls……and so on. It’s not like the city was always like that. I remember when I moved to this city twelve years back, the distance from Bandra to CST (erst-while VT) used to take about 50 minutes. Ten years later (a couple of years back), it took the same time to travel from Bandra to Lower Parel, a distance roughtly half of Bandra-CST. This is the story that everyone suffers in Mumbai. Those who travel by trains haven’t seen time delays, but the “crushing” they experience in trains has pretty much doubled. There have been small reliefs available and that too to only to a few. For someone like me, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link came as a god-sent. It cut my time to Lower Parel down to 25 minutes. Likewise, the Western Railways made the rakes (compartments) bigger partially reducing the crush. The Central Railway travelers weren’t that lucky.

The two cities that Mumbai is most compared to are Delhi and Kolkata. The former for showing how Delhi has become far better in infrastructure. The latter to shock Mumbaiites into seeing where their city is headed. The decay is visible on an almost daily basis. Roads are repaired every year – no one asks the question as to why they need to be repaired every year in the first place. There is rampant corruption – and yet the same old contractors are given contracts year after year. The Maharashtra CM said in a press interview in the Indian Express a couple of days back that there is a huge racket in road projects – some contractors bid as low as 40% cheaper, thus securing the orders. As the project progresses, the costs are increased in an almost premeditated manner. The contractors and their political patrons all benefit – the city suffers.

The Shiv Sena BJP combine started off well in 1996. At that time, they were ruling in both Mumbai city and Maharashtra state. Maybe that’s why they were so effective. They were responsible for building a large number of flyovers in Mumbai. Those flyovers make the commute on the Western Express and Eastern Express highways somewhat bearable. It’s a different matter that calling these roads “express highways” is a bit of a travesty. But then, Mumbai’s entire infrastructure has become a travesty.

Mumbai needs loads of big thinking. It needs maybe $100 billion of investments in infrastructure. Its people are amongst the wealthiest in the country – and are willing to pay for the infrastructure they demand. They routinely pay Rs 75 for a 4-km ride over the Bandra-Worli sea link. They are happy to cough up Rs 130 for using the Expressway to Pune. Money is not the issue in Mumbai. The vision of its leaders is.

It’s not as if everything is bad in Mumbai. There are no power cuts; very little (compared to other cities) water cuts and the crime rate is low. The people of this city are hard-working. They are focused on making money; the Gujaratis and Sindhis defining the business culture. The office culture is the most professional in the country – the investment bankers defining its NY like efficiency. But most of all, it’s the safety the city offers to its women…..women feel safe and wear clothes that they couldn’t possible wear in any other city. The liberal culture that allows its young citizens to roam around hand-in-hand….. It’s no surprise then that Bollywood resides in this city. Mumbai’s liberal culture is its biggest virtue. It’s what makes Mumbai, Mumbai. It’s why they say that once you have lived in Mumbai, you cannot live anywhere else.

The Shiv Sena – BJP rulers in Mumbai have taken an extreme view of culturism and nationalism as always. For them, young girls and boys holding hands is anti-Indian-culture. For them, migrants who come from almost all parts of the country, but most notably from UP and Bihar, are an irritant. They forget that in every global city, migrants have contributed enormously. The CM of Maharashtra gave the example of countries (like the US and UK though he didn’t name them) where migrants have played a crucial role in development; and then there is Japan – which has been suffering as a result of its policy of not allowing migrants. Then again, the very hard-nosed “Marathi manoos” governance strategy is anachronistic. None of my Marathi friends empathize with it. Maharashtrians are proud people; they are culturally rich; and educationally sound. They don’t need such patronizing politics. Scratch a bit and the BJP’s Hindutva peeks out. None of this is right for a city that hopes to be counted alongwith Hongkong, Shanghai and indeed London and NY. The kind of nationalism that the Shiv Sena has practiced belongs to another world entirely. I know for a fact that Mumbaiites disagree with the Shiv Sena’s diktat against the Pakistani team playing cricket in the city.

Mumbaiites are culturally liberal. For ever, they have lived in hybrid clusters. Religious polarization has taken place only in the post-Babri Masjid days. The city is perhaps the only truly cosmopolitan city in the country; a virtuous pot pourri of traditions, food habits, languages and cultures. The only city that comes somewhat close to it in diversity is Bangalore. It is this diversity that has been attacked by one politician after another. It’s not as if the Congress-NCP has been very liberal either. One remembers the way RR Patil went about closing dance bars. Rather than closing them, maybe he could have cleaned the sleaze out. But for Patil, shutting down dance bars in Mumbai was a ticket to ensuring that he won some more votes in his constituency (Tasgaon) in rural Maharashtra (Sangli district).

Patil’s conduct also highlights Mumbai’s biggest challenge. The fact that it is a city within a state called Maharashtra. Too many MLAs coming from rural areas of Maharashtra decide the fate and fortune of this mega city. This has to change. The city generates much of the cash that feeds Maharashtra’s economy. Taking the city out of the state and making it a city-state like Delhi is pretty impossible. At least, let the state not starve the city off the funds it requires for all its projects. The PM on his part has promised funds for Mumbai’s growth. The CM has spoken of projects costing Rs 1 lac crores that the central government should fund. Can we just make sure that whoever rules Mumbai or Maharashtra, this part of development is taken out of the political equation?

The real truth is that the people of Mumbai are looking forward to better governance. They don’t care who comes to power. All they want is better governance. Poll forecasts indicate that there will be a change in the political set-up running the BMC. If the Congress-NCP comes to power, can it promise the people of Mumbai that it will do better? That’s the million dollar question…..

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

PM gets down to serious business…..there could be no better time

The Economic Times carries a story that the PM has gotten down to dirtying his hands with respect to the economy. Economics remains the PM’s forte and his involvement is bound to remove the policy freeze that has gripped his government for the last year and more. There are also several other factors that should help him now. There could not possibly be another time as opportune as this.

Let’s first look at the economic factors that are giving some degree of confidence to the PM. The inflation has finally started cooling off, the January number being around 6.5%. Now while that is gratifying, it must be remembered that the low number benefits from the high base of last year’s price level. Hopefully this tapering of inflation will be followed by some interest rate cuts by the RBI which is really the trigger that industry is looking for. Industrial growth has slumped to less than 2% recently, and a rate cut could well provide the necessary kick. The market has already factored the rate cut probability in its calculations – if the Purchase Manager’s Index (PMI) rising to a high level of 57.6 odd in January is anything to go by. A high PMI indicates confidence of the manufacturing sector about expansion.

Let’s also look at the other issue that led to the freeze in the first place. The series of scams. Well, the government may have been spooked by the SC on the cancellation of 2G licenses, but apart from that, there has been nothing but a slew of good news. The trial court refused to indict Chidambaram and more than this fact, the reasoning the court gave must have been heartening to the Congress. The Antrix “scam” has more or less ended with it now becoming clear that the CAG had grossly overestimated the loss to the exchequer. Forget Rs 2 lac crores….what is now being doubted is if there has been any loss at all. The S-band spectrum is simply not comparable with the 2G or 3G telecom spectrum. Further, the PMO and the PM personally have been completely exonerated. If anything, the lapses happened at the end of the ISRO scientists. And finally, the General VK Singh brouhaha with the government has also ended in a huge anticlimax. The SC refused to even entertain the General’s plea contending that he had not been made a victim. Even the SC cancellation of the 2G licenses only indicates that the allotment of licenses was improper in law – the FCFS policy earning the wrath of the court. It refuses to indict anyone in the Congress. If anything, it looks more certain now that Raja alone will be charged with the conspiracy.

And finally the political scenario seems to be improving for the Congress. The Star News poll suggested that the Congress was likely to do well in UP. Suddenly, the opposition has changed its tune from saying that “the Congress will be buried” or some such thing to “even if the Congress crosses 50, it cannot be said that it has done well”. The change in tune is important because it was the opposition that posed the UP elections as a test of Rahul Gandhi’s capability to lead his party. If the results come good, Rahul would have proved himself. Not only in UP, the Congress is expected to do well in Punjab and Uttarakhand also. Lastly, there is a widespread belief that the Congress-NCP alliance will win the BMC elections handsomely in Mumbai. Will political victories give the Congress confidence to get out of the pit it finds itself in? It should….unless the party messes up again elsewhere.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done. But first and foremost, it’s important to settle the 2G auction issue amicably. One of the possibilities could be that the government returns the license fees already collected from the new telcos in 2008 and then limits the auctions that follow to only the new players. As the Uninor CEO said….the government’s objective in 2008 was to allow more competition so that consumers benefitted. If that objective hasn’t changed, then the auctions must keep out the older telcos. If that happens, the likes of Uninor, MTS and others would be back in business in a few months. However, the older telcos are not going to accept this. They too are starved of spectrum and would like to participate. They have more financial resources and if they win the bids, what happens to the thousands of crores of investments the new players have put in? There is significant amount of diplomatic pressure also that Russia in particular is likely to put on India. Given the fact that the new telcos did nothing wrong by following the government policy of the day, I feel it would only be fair that the government limited the auctions to them first. It’s a sticky situation and will prove to be a difficult one to solve.

The stock markets are up – almost in anticipation of business returning to normal. With the rupee also strengthening and returning to the sub-50 level, it makes sense for FIIs to return back to the Indian markets. With the government planning some big ticket dis-investments, there could be enough opportunity for the Indian bourses to get back into a bull phase again.  What’s worrying however is that capital receipts from a disinvestment exercise will end up funding populist revenue expenses. This is suicidal and very bad economics. What needs to be done of course is for disinvestment proceeds to be deployed into infrastructure development. If the Congress does do well in the state elections, it will be further encouraged to pursue financial profligacy.

The real truth is that it’s a good time for us to move away from politics and focus on getting the work done. For one reason or the other, the UPA has been on the backfoot for long. But just like one MS – Mahendra Singh (Dhoni) – has shown resilience and signs of bouncing back, it’s time now for the other MS – Manmohan Singh – to do the same. The PM won’t get a better time politically to move ahead….