Thursday, January 31, 2013

Blame right-wing politics for attacks on our freedom of speech….

Too many incidents have happened of late attacking our freedom of speech and expression – all in the name of defending our religion or our culture. Things have reached a flash point today ….and if we don’t stand up for our rights now, they could be snatched away from us for good. Unsurprisingly, its our right-wing political parties – the entire Sangh parivar including the BJP, the Muslim parties, and the sympathetic allies of these groupings that we have to guard ourselves against….

Consider some recent incidents:

MF Hussain, the world famous “Indian” painter was hounded to no end simply because he sometimes (not always) chose to use nude forms of Indian (read: Hindu) deities in his portraits. In reality, his crime was not that he used these nude forms, for several other painters have also done the same thing. His crime really was that he was a Muslim, and hence his paintings were seen as a kind of an insult to Hinduism. When Hindu chauvinist groups were questioned about their opposition to Hussain, their only defence would typically be “try painting with Muslim motifs and see what happens”. What kind of answer is this? True, the response of the Muslims would be no different. But that does not give us any comfort.

Take Prashant Bhushan’s comments on Kashmir. He was thrashed up right in his own chambers inside court premises. Again, a bunch of people (the ultra-nationalists…..a typical brigade of people who attach to the right wing political outfits) thought he was anti-national because he said something that they didn’t like. And they decided to take the law in their own hands.

Or take this Dhule incident yesterday where some Bajrang Dal and VHP activists went berserk and thrashed a professor for what they believed was his attacks on Hinduism. The TOI reports: The attackers claimed that Pramod Sukhdev Bhumbe had hurt their religious sentiments while delivering a lecture, police said. Bhumbe told TOI  “The students had raised objections to some of my comments on Ramayana while I was delivering a lecture on the social reform movement in India. Although, I did not insult anyone and just narrated the history of casteism, I tendered an apology in order to resolve the issue”.

Or of course the recent AIADMK ban on Vishwaroopam, Kamal Haasan’s film, in which he has dealt with the issue of terrorism. Now whether we like it or not, many (not all) of the recent acts of terrorism have been orchestrated by certain dysfunctional elements of the Islamic world. Making them the setting of a film is but natural. How can one avoid either the topic, or the treatment, if it is such a hot button issue in today’s world?

Or take Salman Rushdie’s and Taslima Nasreen’s mistreatment at the hands of various Muslim organizations. Again, we’ve been small minded, and parochial. 

Or the case of the two girls in Palghar who expressed frustration at the city of Mumbai being shut out of fear when Bal Thackeray died. They were harassed and even the property of a relative of one of the girls was damaged by Shiv Sena goons. But Raj Thackeray was allowed to get away with his fiery speech. 

It’s not as if the average Hindu or Muslim is this fanatical. It’s just that our political class has refused to emerge from the feudal mindset that they have. Justice Markandey Katju recently wrote in an editorial in the TOI: “Democracy is a feature of an industrial, not feudal, society. But the intention of our founding fathers – Pandit Nehru and his colleagues – was that democracy and other modern principles, such as liberty, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, liberty or equality, as well as modern institutions such as Parliament and independent judiciary, etc would pull our backward, feudal society into the modern age”. Obviously, that’s not happened as yet. Our society hasn’t progressed. And our right-wing parties have only become worse.

It’s not acceptable when governments take the excuse of “law and order” when they fail to act to control elements that try to take away our freedom. Jayalalitha said yesterday that her state government did not have the police strength to protect 500 odd cinema screens. What kind of excuse is this? TN is one of the top 5 industrialized states in the country. It is a “wealthy” state in relative terms. And it surely has tens of thousands of cops on its rolls. Are we saying that such a massive force cannot control a few hundred hoodlums who threaten the release of the film? The CM is being too clever by half. Law and Order is the oldest excuse any politician has used to control our voice.

While politicians will do what they have to do, we the people have ourselves to blame as well. We have been inconsistent in our response to such attacks on freedom. When it came to Aseem Trivedi, we protested till sedition charges were dropped. Ditto with the Palghar girls. But we did nothing when Prashant Bhushan was slapped. In fact, when I wrote a post on it, three quarters of the comments I got were happy that he was slapped. Or when Salman Rushdie had to cancel his trip to Kolkata recently (and to Jaipur last year), no one stood up to reassure him. It is this inconsistency of our resistance that politicians exploit.

The real truth is that we have to speak in one voice when our freedom of speech is curtailed. We must protest against the right-wing parties who are most responsible for this. And our media has to support this fight. After all, they are the ones most directly affected….

Amazing. All parties gang up against AIADMK on Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam ban….

It’s amazing what’s happening in India these days. It looks like political parties first gauge the public mood, and then decide what stand they should take on issues. Gone are the days when they would take predictable “principled (?)” positions and fall in or out of line with public opinion. We saw this first with the Delhi rape case, where every party demanded the death penalty. Likewise, on the border skirmish with Pakistan, all parties demanded the government take a tough stand. But those were open and shut cases where taking an opposite viewpoint was unthinkable. But now, even on a controversial subject like Kamal Haasan’s film, it appears all parties are united. All except AIADMK of course. What’s going on??!

All the politics has put Kamal Haasan in trouble. A creative guy, who wants nothing more than to see his film released, and hopefully some profits made, he is having to run from pillar to post just to keep his head above water. In a world in which the first week-end is the only chance a film has of recovering its investments, his film has been canned by the AIADMK Government in TN and then by the HC of the state. While he battles it out, in frustration and anger, the state government has kept him guessing. The AIADMK government’s lame duck excuse is that the film could cause a law and order problem. Not even 100 protesters have demanded the movie be shelved; but that’s enough for the state government. Out of disgust, Kamal Haasan is contemplating self-exile out of TN, and even India, a la MF Hussain.

The crisis has clearly been fabricated by the AIADMK. It really has nothing to do with the content of the film per se. That is just the excuse. Apparently, it is to do with the fact that Kamal Haasan refused to part with the TV rights to Jaya TV of Jayalalitha, presumably because the channel wanted it for a song. Miffed at this, the party deployed a few Muslims connected with it to lead the charge against the film. Such strong arm tactics is hardly uncommon in Tamil politics.

The matter appears to have united the political parties, making them unlikely bedfellows.
Usually, the Congress would be expected to take a line against the film, considering that it is the Muslims who have taken offence. However, strangely, the party has actually come out in full support of Kamal Haasan. Taking an unusually supportive line on the actor, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari has indicated that the government may consider amending the law. He tweeted on Thursday that it's time the Cinematograph Act is revisited to ensure that state governments cannot question a certificate that is once given by the censor board. He tweeted that this is necessary as each state would otherwise be its own censor." 

The possible reason for this unusual Congress stance is that Kamal Hasaan is considered close to the party. He is also close to the DMK, which is why the problem has happened in the first place. Not surprising then, the party’s support for him; and the attack on the AIADMK government. Through a press statement DMK chief Karunanidhi said, "I know Kamal and Rajnikanth won't hurt the feelings of any religion. Even I don't tolerate anything that is against Muslims. I urge them to hold talks with Kamal Haasan. Also state government should cooperate in maintaining law and order.” He further added “Though the Madras High Court judge has suggested an amicable solution, Tamil Nadu government has not taken any initiative," he said writing in the party organ 'Murasoli'.

In a similar vein, criticising the ban on the movie, DMDK (a party that is getting close to the Congress) leader Vijaykanth warned if Jayalalithaa government continued to take 'anti-people' stand, it would face the fury of the people.”

The Left parties also took a liberal view, surprising, considering the size of the Muslim population in West Bengal. The state executive council of the CPI(M) asked the ruling AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu to lift the ban for the actor-director Kamal Haasan’s fim Viswaroopam, saying it was “morally unjustifiable” to ban a movie after the Censor Board gave its clearance. “The (two-week) ban on the movie by the Tamil Nadu government is legally and morally unjustifiable,” CPI(M) state secretary G Ramakrishnan said in a statement here, adding the Supreme Court had in the past observed that it was not right to ban a movie after Censor Board certification.

The BJP took an expected view on the subject, opposing the ban, since the objection to the film came from Muslims, not Hindus. Rajnath Singh has made a statement asking the state government to lift the ban on the film. I wonder why the party wasn’t this liberal when Hussain was being targeted by its ranks and when its ally in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena, routinely rampaged other films in Mumbai. As always, the BJP is being opportunistic.

Even the Samajwadi Party (SP) has taken a comparatively mild line, only saying that the party will decide after watching the film. Usually, they would have demanded a ban first, then thought later! 

So in a strange way, Kamal Haasan has become a unifier of political parties. All of them are aligned against the AIADMK. Maybe that’s what made Jayalalitha soften her stand. And offer to facilitate talks between Kamal Haasan and the Muslim groups. 

The real truth is that it’s difficult to explain this bizarre alignment of parties against the AIADMK. I would have thought that the Congress would have kept mum or supported the ban; and I would have expected the BJP to remain mum or oppose the ban. But like I said, its truly a bizarre situation!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Treat Ashish Nandy as if he were Aseem Trivedi….

Someone observing India from a distance is bound to be confused. What do we Indians really stand for? When Aseem Trivedi, the cartoonist, was arrested for trivializing the Indian flag and trashing the Constitution, we took this to be an attack on our freedom of speech. But now when Ashish Nandy made some innocuous comments – vastly misunderstood by the junta – we want to put him in jail? No one wants to protect his freedom of speech. What’s going on here????

To be fair, the intellectuals in both cases have taken a consistent stand. It’s the junta that’s behaving weirdly. The intellectuals in both cases have shown they are strongly pro-freedom-of-speech no matter who the person on the spot is. They wanted Aseem Trivedi released. They also want Ashish Nandy freed from this onerous Mayawati-demanded FIR. No, the problem is not with the intellectuals. The problem is with everyone else – the politicians and the junta.

In the Aseem Trivedi case, the movement had become political from the beginning. Aseem Trivedi was an Anna group member. Not surprising then that he became the rallying point for people against the UPA government. In private, many in the junta conceded that depicting the Indian Parliament as a toilet bowl (WC) and the Constitution as toilet roll was stretching freedom of speech a bit too far; and though the sedition charge was too far fetched, Aseem was surely guilty of abuse of freedom of speech. In public however, the junta sided strongly with him, simply because many of them were politically opposed to the UPA. Aseem Trivedi succeeded, and became a hero. As is typical with such quick-fire celebrities, Aseem was soon a part of Mumbai’s entertainment industry, featuring on the Big Boss show on Colors!

In the Ashish Nandy case, there was no political angle to begin with. In fact, no political party had even an inkling of what he was going to say. Ashish Nandy said something, which was expectedly not understood by most. Everything would have been fine; but the politicians suddenly smelled an opportunity.

For Mayawati, it became a case of asserting her dalit credentials; by pretending to protect her ilk from Nandy’s imagined attack. For Samajwadi Party also, it meant being seen on the right side of the OBCs. And likewise for the Congress, there were the SCs and STs. For the BJP, it was a question of not getting left behind. The party which cares mostly for Brahmins, and which should have actually welcomed Nandy’s statement, was compelled by competitive politics to issue statements of condemnation. The die had been cast against Nandy. He had stoked the big, bad world of politics. Ashish Nandy presented an opportunity (or a threat) to all political parties; Aseem Trivedi was an opportunity only to those opposed to the UPA. That’s why Ashish Nandy failed and became a villain; but Aseem Trivedi succeeded and became a hero.

Both cases relate to freedom of speech, but politics has ensured that we take contrarion positions on the two. We’ve known this for some time now. In India, viewpoints of political parties depend on whether they are in power or in opposition. When the BJP was ruling, it was pro-reform. When it is in opposition, it has suddenly become anti-reform. When it was in power, it did nothing about constructing the Ram temple; or even pushing the case aggressively in the courts. When it came to opposition, it changed tracks and embraced Hindutva and Ayodhya all over again. It’s the same with all political parties. Viewpoints of political parties are never based on principles; in fact, nothing about our political parties is based on principles. Everything is opportunity based. Politicans are correctly branded chameleons!

The fact is that the same principle should apply to Ashish Nandy as applied to Aseem Trivedi. Freedom of speech is paramount in a democracy. What is democracy without freedom of speech? One may disagree or agree with a viewpoint. And one may counter it fiercely with one’s own points of view. But at no point should this vital freedom be compromised or sacrificed. It may be about petty politics for our politicians; but for us as the people of this country, it is the oxygen we breathe every day. Take this freedom out, and India will soon become a China. In any case, there are several threats we face every day. We have Kamal Hasan’s film being attacked; many books being banned; and we have also seen one of India’s best known painters MF Hussain being compelled to quit India before he died. Let’s not make the mistake of adding Nandy to this list.

There will always be the question of where the line should be drawn. The restrictions ordained in Article 19(2) guide us there. In our own interest, we should be liberal to the point where it is no longer viable. Being too restrictive will hurt only us the people. The politicians will only be too happy to tether us down.

The real truth is that if ever there was a need for a mass movement at India Gate, it is now….for expressing support to Ashish Nandy. Let’s see what we, the ordinary people, can do for him. At the very minimum, we can create a virtual India Gate in the media. Media survives because of freedom of speech. It’s time our media shed its indifference and supported Ashish Nandy to the hilt. In the end, I want to refer to an excellent argument that Yogendra Yadav (oh, I so much don’t like calling him an Aam Aadmi Party leader) made the other day on TV. He said this to a fellow panelist who was demanding Nandy’s arrest “Even if you are arrested some day, I will fight for your freedom”. That is the only correct position on this subject….

Monday, January 28, 2013

C’mon Governor….take the leap of faith….be a hero

Today, the Governor of RBI, Subba Rao will again face thousands of expectant faces when he announces his twice-a-quarter monetary policy. Expectant of a rate cut. Expectant of a cut in CRR. Expectant of a little balancing of priorities of the RBI. And expectant that the head of the central bank will join hands with the Finance Minister in putting the economy back on the rails. But will the Governor oblige? Or will he continue to in his boring, predictable style?

If one were to go by past trends, the Governor won’t cut rates. Subba Rao has followed only one mantra during most of his Governorship: inflation control. And while no one can dispute the importance of this for any central bank, one cannot also forget that the central bank has a major role to play in stimulating economic growth. If economic growth was not an objective, the job of the RBI would be childishly simple. Just keep increasing rates, and eventually the inflation will come down. The best central bankers however are tested on managing the balance between low inflation low and stimulating high economic growth. Subba Rao’s performance appraisal should also factor in his efforts at stimulating growth.

If Governor Rao looked at data a little objectively, he might realize how much precious time he is wasting. Consider this:

a)    The Governor last decreased repo rates in April 2012. Since then, Wholesale Price Inflation increased for a short while (he would like to believe in response to the rate drop), but within a few months, the inflation started to drop.
b)    The diesel price increase of September last year – by a whopping 12% or so – had no long term impact on WPI. It has kept dropping, and has now reached a near 3-year low. So if the Governor was worried that the government’s recent diesel de-regulation could spook inflation, he needn’t worry.
c)     Since the time he has been increasing rates (13 times before April 2012), the GDP growth has fallen drastically. In the last three quarters, growth has been below 5.5%, a level not seen in India in the last decade (almost). The RBI Governor himself has lowered the growth prospect for this year and the next. Surely, this must play on his mind?
d)    Core inflation – or manufacturing inflation – has been at less than 5% for quite some time now. Manufacturing has a weight of 65% in the calculation of overall inflation. Governor Rao knows that his rate controls work most effectively only in the manufacturing sector. In the other two components of inflation – fuels and food – the influence of rates on pricing levels is tenuous. Surely if core inflation is down so much, the RBI should be a little relaxed?
e)    A few months back, the Governor had said that he would wait for Chidambaram to take steps to take steps to control the fiscal deficit. Well, Chidambaram has gone farther than most people anticipated. He has de-regulated diesel, gradually for retail buyers, but immediately for bulk buyers (a really smart move, and one hardly noticed). The railways has increased fares, for the first time in a decade. Power utilities are increasing rates like never before. Chidambaram has laid out a 3-year fiscal roadmap which should see fisc deficit go down to some 3% of GDP by 2016. For the current year, he has re-assured us that fisc deficit will be kept lower than 5.3%, a figure no one believed even a few months back. Surely, Governor Rao should now play his part?

The fact is that inflation – especially consumer inflation which is in the double digits – is largely led by fuel and food prices. Fuel prices needed a correction, and now that that has been done, it should help contain inflation in the long run. With respect to food prices, the reason is actually more buying power in the hands of the poor, with NREGA and higher MSPs to farmers and generally better distribution of wealth. I have consistently argued that a higher overall inflation level, with a low core inflation, should not be seen as a problem. The pain the urban middle class faces is because for the first time, the rural poor are partaking of the food production. This is proven by the fact that it is protein-based foods (eggs, non-veg, lentils) etc that have seen high inflation, not cereals. As the poor have more money in their hands, they are finally getting more nutritious food to eat. The middle class should be willing to bear this pain.  

The other way to look at this issue is to ask when (eventually) will the RBI lower rates, if not now? Will it wait for inflation to come down to 5%, even if that means the GDP growth slips to an even lower number? The RBI Governor cannot be so clerical. He has to experiment. No model in the world has been developed for India’s unique conditions. For all we know, our model may well become the benchmark for the world.

The real truth is that the economy is waiting for action from the RBI Governor. And he has to oblige. In fact, he must drop rates by 50 basis points. He must signal his support for the Finance Minister’s efforts. If thing boomerang, he can always reverse course. But being predictably conservative helps no one….

Where Rahul Gandhi can make a difference….

While most people agree that Rahul Gandhi is a charismatic guy, they think that he doesn’t have it in him to turn around the fortunes of his party. At this point, no one knows exactly what he will do. However, there are some hints that he could use. Here’s a list of things that Rahul may want to focus on as he embarks on this difficult, yet hardly impossible, political journey:

On corruption: This is one issue the country is truly fed up with; and while every political party is accused of it, the Congress has to live with the biggest burden. Rahul must convert this perceived deficiency of his party into his biggest opportunity. He must aggressively convey that he will not tolerate corruption in his party and elsewhere. This is easier said than done of course, as there are skeletons in his own party’s closets. It needs patience; attempting it in one go will be disastrous. Here are some specific steps he could take:

a)    Rahul has to differentiate between party workers who make money for the party’s requirements and those who make money for their own gain. The latter must be given an outer time limit: say 2016 by which they should turn clean or leave the party. It may sound like forgiving the crimes of the past, but if this ensures that the future is cleaner, it is worth it. The message has to be silently given to the person concerned. For those who take money for party work, Rahul has to work towards changing the electoral funding system. Funding has to be made transparent, and brought above board. Corporates and HNIs must be encouraged to declare their funding; funding should be made tax deductible to a limit. The Election Commission must remove the existing arbitrary spending limits, and insist instead on transparent accounting.
b)    The government must become smaller. Most corruption happens at points of interface with the government. In sectors where the government’s role has been reduced, corruption is lesser. Manmohan Singh succeeded in eliminating licenses in many parts of the economy, and that reduced corruption in those areas. But in areas where governmental controls have not reduced, like in real estate, or mining, or government procurement, corruption is rampant.
c)     Rahul must insist on reforms in police, judiciary, PDS, etc, using technology to bring in transparency. Rahul must emulate his father Rajiv Gandhi when he introduced computers and telecommunications into the country.
d)    The Lokpal bill must be passed. This won’t reduce corruption by itself, but it will signal the Congress’s intentions. The law may not be the perfect one, but it can always be amended later.
e)    Government salaries must be vastly increased. This is like the elephant in the room syndrome. Everyone knows that government pay scales are the worst, and government employees are almost compelled to “top it up” illegally, but no one wants to address the issue upfront. Pay scales must be indexed to market rates. This will ensure that better quality people join the government. This will also compel the government to reduce it’s size. Less people; but earning better will help curb corruption. For senior bureaucrats, the government must take away housing privileges, and give them a cash HRA instead. Likewise, free entitlements like phone calls, train and air travel and limitless domestic help must be removed totally.
f)      Reduce discretion in decision making: one of the biggest playground for corruption is the tax department; tax laws are loosely defined and subject to “interpretation”. Most corporate have learnt to “handle” tax authorities, but the longer term solution is to make the laws practical, remove grey areas, and then implement rigidly

On social reforms: Rahul has to choose whether he wants to side with the new generation or the earlier ones. The answer should be obvious. If he himself wants to stay relevant for the next 30 years, he has to be with the youth.

Rahul has to be progressive on social issues. Attack the khaps, because the youth don’t support them. Protect women, because the younger generation wants equality of rights. De-politicize religion, because the youth believe religion is a private affair. Improve education and bring in social reforms from there. Amend the laws and make them more progressive. There’s a lot that can be done.

On economic policy: Rahul must understand people are hungry for economic growth. They want more jobs, better salaries, better choice of goods, better and affordable housing….Rahul’s biggest competitor, Modi, is going to play the growth card. Rahul has to do the following:

a)    Openly support Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram’s liberal policies. He seems to be doing this already.
b)    Make laws simpler. Cut size of government. The private sector should have to deal as less as possible with the government.
c)     Get out of business: Sell Air India. Privatize Indian Railways. Open up coal mining to private sector. Get out of power production and distribution….Instead, focus on governance – make regulations to protect consumers, ensure competition and fair practices, etc. (Difficulty level: Relatively easy)
d)    Reduce unviable social schemes: none of the schemes – like NREGA, Food Security, Fuel subsidies, tax exemption for agricultarists, farm loan waivers etc – can be faulted individually, but collectively, they wreak havoc on the economic system. The approach should be one akin to managing a wardrobe. When you get new clothes, old ones have to be thrown out compulsorily.
e)    Strongly push Direct Cash Transfer. This will cut corruption, improve coverage, bring in more efficiency, and reduce fiscal deficit….in short, it’s a technological solution that can cure a myriad problems. Likewise, use the mobile phone as a revolutionary tool – enable mobile banking, enhance communication, facilitate access to data, encourage small entrepreneurs etc. Selling spectrum cheap should be the idea.

There are many more areas that Rahul will have to focus on. The above should just be the starting point. Once he signals his intent clearly, he will have ample time to embark on the rest.

The real truth is that Rahul has it in him to revamp his party. He has the advantage of age on his side. He has to show the determination to do new things. To overturn the old order. Ideally, like I wrote in an earlier post, it would be great if he could get Chidambaram as the PM, and he himself remained the party President for one term….that way he could stay focused on revamping his party and its ideology, while someone like Chidambaram could deliver the goods….

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ashish Nandy’s statement shows how poor our language and mathematics skills are….

Further evidence of how poor we Indians are with language and mathematics came yesterday when Ashish Nandy said “most of the corrupt came from OBCs, SCs and STs” (Indian Express). This was interpreted by the junta to be an attack on the underprivileged. But before coming to that conclusion, let’s understand his statement from both a language and mathematics perspective.

What did Ashish Nandy really say? Let’s look at the words carefully. Clearly, his emphasis was on the word “most”. But what does most mean? In common English parlance, most means the highest occurance of an event, though it does not necessarily have to be more than half (a majority). The question to ask then is if most of the corrupt are likely to come from the underprivileged. Even without any data in hand, one thing is for sure. Purely mathematically, since most people in the country belong to the underprivileged sections (which is why we provide 50% reservations to them), most cases of corruption must also come from them. Mathematically, Nandy’s statement was hardly sensational, and maybe Nandy never intended his statement to be sensational. What would be sensational is if the % of corrupt from the underprivileged was actually much lower or much higher than their share of population. But no one has that data. The truth probably is that corruption knows no caste; and all castes contribute to corruption in proportion to their share of population.

Poor Nandy was of course put on the defensive with all the unintended controversy. His defence offered some good insights however into what he really meant: “I believe a zero-corruption society in India would actually mean a despotic society,” Nandy said, elaborating that privileged people could be corrupt in underhanded ways — such as using connections to get their children fellowships at elite universities abroad — but such behaviour was not recognized as corruption. “That could be seen as supporting talent.Bereft of such camouflage, dalits, tribals and OBCs were perceived as very corrupt, he explained.” Now this explanation gives his statement a totally different hue. It appears what Nandy really meant was that the privileged are equally corrupt (but in underhand ways), but not “visibly” (not camouflaged) so. The underprivileged simply contribute “the most” to visible corruption. Fair point!

Nandy’s statement is indicative of a problem that Indians have with language. Any language. Not just English. We have so many languages, none of us is fluent (or even properly conversant) with any language. Not even our mother tongue. Some people speak in a fine and sophisticated way, others in a much more earthy manner. In this case maybe, Nandy’s English was too sophisticated for the junta. That sophistication got him into trouble; an FIR was demanded (by Mayawati and others) and filed (by the Jaipur cops) against Nandy. Now the poor man will be harassed to no end.

In a similar way, a few days back we split hairs over the usage of the phrase “saffron terror”, and pretended the phrase called all Hindus terrorists. The junta objected to it. But when it comes to using “Islamic terror” to describe the various Muslims caught in acts of terrorism, the same junta is comfortable with the term. The reality is that either both phrases are wrong, or both are OK. It can never be anyone’s point that one is OK but the other is not. But again, this simple point of language created a huge political stir.

It’s the same with numbers. Most Indian politicians, and media personalities, are extremely uncomfortable with numbers, especially percentages. When the UP elections were underway last year, there was this controversy about the % of reservations for Muslims (of course, now that the elections are over, the subject has been junked!). The Congress manifesto said that it would provide 4.5% reservations to Muslims if elected to power. The controversy started when Salman Khursheed went beyond the manifesto and said his party would provide 9% reservations. Then Mulayam Singh Yadav – not to be outdone by the Congress – said his party would provide 18% reservations. In all these numbers, mathematics got compromised. % are always stated with reference of a base. People often forget to mention the base. The max cap on reservations, as specified by the Supreme Court is 50%. What Mulayam may not have understood (intentionally maybe?) is that his 18% would have to be on the base of 50% max, or 9% of the base of the total population, exactly the same that Khursheed said! So Mulayam and Khursheed were saying the same thing, but Mulayam’s appeared to be the stronger offer! No one knows if the junta understood the fine difference though!

Take the recent gang rape in Delhi, and the surfeit of data that emerged from the NCRB records after that. A friend of mine wrote in a Facebook update “2.5 million crimes were committed against in India out of which a staggering 10% were against women”. Is this a happy statistic or a terrible one? If there are 50% women in the population, and if only 10% of the crimes are against women, that’s a statistic to be happy with, not upset about, right? Actually, 10% is a happily low number. But no one understands maths and 10%, when said with emphasis, is enough to dominate several prime time shows on TV!

Remember also Pranab Mukherjee’s “assurance” to Parliament in Dec 2011 that FDI in multi-brand retail would be deferred until “consensus” emerged. By any measure, consensus means 100% “ayes”, and that’s pretty impossible in a democratic set-up. Pranab Mukherjee had made a mistake. But politics being politics, he couldn’t issue a clarification. He had to give some devious explanation to show that by consensus, he actually meant “majority”!

There are numerous other examples of Indians not understanding numbers. GDP growth is one such. Most people think that when inflation is 7% and the GDP growth 5.5%, there is actually de-growth. Wrong. The reality is that GDP growth is measured in “real” terms; that is over and above the inflation number! In “nominal” terms, the GDP growth would be approximately 12.5%. Similarly, any “change” is difficult to understand. If something changes from 50 to 100, that is 100% growth, not 200%, even though it has become two times! And if 50 becomes 150, that is a 200% growth, not 300% even though it has become three times! A few months back, the editor (hardly) of what I call Scam TV made several prime time shows on Montek Singh Ahluwalia spending Rs 40 lacs on “2 bathrooms”. Either the anchor did not understand maths or did not want to, but the reality was that Rs 40 lacs was spent on “2 bathroom blocks of 10 bathrooms each….meaning 20 bathrooms”, but this was either too fine a point for our dense anchor or too boring a detail! Similarly, during the Commonwealth games much was said about tissue paper rolls being bought for “Rs 1000” or some such number, when it was actually a box containing a thousand rolls! Most people also don’t understand what “proportion” means. So poor Ashish Nandy had no chance at all!

The real truth is that every now and then an incident occurs that shows just how illiterate we are with language and mathematics. “Most” (meaning the highest number, not necessarily a majority!) such incidents are blown out of proportion and politicized. In a land of fools, the intelligent are harassed. Alas, this is part of a country’s journey to the top…..

Friday, January 25, 2013

We should celebrate Headley’s 35-year sentence, not complain….

After the 35 year conviction of David Headley, the Pakistani-American terrorist who aided and abetted the Mumbai attacks, the Government of India and the Indian media appear to be disappointed with the “light” sentence awarded by the US judicial system. Actually, the sentence is a result of a plea bargain process, as a part of which Headley avoided the death sentence and extradition to India in return for information on other terrorists. I find it bizarre that we in India are upset at all. We should be happy that the man has been sentenced so fast. How much time would we have taken for the same?

If David Headley had been in India, his conviction would have taken more than ten years; maybe even twenty years. Kasab was different, caught as he was red handed. In Headley’s case where the evidence is not that readily available, the investigations, shoddy as always, would have gone on for ever. Even this is assuming that they would not have become biased because of politics or botched because of corruption. That’s a big assumption in India, considering so many “open and shut” cases drag on for years.

Just look at the recent cases of “Hindu terrorism” or “saffron terrorism” (yes, I am comfortable calling them that). No convictions have been made despite so many years having gone by.

The Malegaon blasts in which 37 people were killed and more than 125 injured took place in Sept 2006 (six and a half years back). No convictions have taken place till date. Not only that, the investigating agencies have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other in first accusing the LeT and SIMI of the crime, and later charging Hindu organizations for it.

The Samjhauta Express blasts in which 68, mostly Pakistani tourists, were killed and dozens injured took place in Feb 2007 (six years back). Again, no convictions have taken place so far. The accused here are clearly terrorists backed by Hindu organizations – including former Indian army officer Prasad Shrikant Purohit, and also Swami Aseemanand. The pace at which the investigations are going, it could take another decade for anything to happen.

The Mecca Masjid bombing in Hyderabad in which 14 people were killed (some in the police firing that followed) took place in May 2007 (again, nearly six years back). Again, nothing has been finalized in terms of who is being prosecuted. Whether it is the HuJI or Swami Aseemanand and other Hindu terrorists, there is no certainty.

In comparison, the US first apprehended David Headley in Chicago in 2009, and then prosecuted him in a little over three years. The quality of investigations was of such high order that the prosecutors were able to get a 35 year “reduced” sentence to the terrorist. The nature of the evidence produced was such that Headley was forced to accept his guilt in a plea bargain in return for information on his fellow compatriot Tahavvur Hussain Rana and others. While Rana was not convicted for the Mumbai attacks, he was of plotting to attack a Danish newspaper for publishing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet. Rana himself was awarded 14 years earlier this month in double quick speed. The US system works. We have no right to complain.

In India, the cases mentioned above have become political in nature. The Congress and the BJP have engaged in slugfests on whether Hindu terrorist groups are involved or not. The BJP even objects to the concept of Hindu terrorism. Why can’t Hindus be terrorists? How can the BJP acquit them even before the trial is completed? The party’s assertion that India is a country of Hindus (complete balderdash) and hence Hindus cannot be terrorists is bizarre. The BJP ratchets up communal passions since that’s the only it believes in. Even in the Samjhauta Express blasts case, it first accused Pakistan, even though Pakistani citizens were killed (In the BJP’s scheme of things, this is a “long game” the Pakistanis are playing; killing their own citizens so that they can accuse India). That aside, the whole issue of Hindu terror is being sidelined by splitting hairs about whether Hindu terror (or saffron terror) is the right phrase to use. The BJP wants us to believe that the phrase conveys the meaning that all Hindus are terrorists. But then does Islamic terror (which the BJP liberally uses) mean that all Muslims are terrorists?

At least in the US, there was no politicization of the issue. We are making much noise about “our system is better than yours”. Why? Because our system does not allow plea bargaining in murder or terror cases?? Super. But what about the delays our system takes? Why have none of the accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case been brought to justice even after 20 years? Why are Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Vinay Katiyar and others not behind bars for life after clear evidence of their inflammatory speeches, moments before the demolition. We demand the death penalty for rapists, but we don’t for cases such as Babri? Even in the Gujarat riots cases, we have taken more than 10 years to start pronouncing some verdicts.

That aside, the Indian judicial system is so flawed that all cases settled by “special courts” or “CBI courts” will run the full course – from the High Court to the Supreme Court to the President’s office in case of a mercy petition. This will take another ten-twenty years. The most bizarre thing of course is the last part…..the President has no time limit for deciding on the mercy petitions.  

We are the last country in the world who can accuse the US of leniency in the Headley case. We should be happy that he was arrested in the US. At least he got convicted so soon and will now spend the rest of his life in jail. If he had been caught in India, he would have lived far longer.

So rather than shedding crocodile tears about how lenient the US has been, and how we would have given him death, we should celebrate that at least one known terrorist has been taken out of the circuit. But because we love to mix politics with everything, we cannot do that. Instead, we will all pretend that we are oh so hurt by the US action. Strangely, and increasingly these days, both the BJP and the Congress will end up taking the same extremist line. Both will attack the US. Both know how the public sentiment can be exploited. The media knows it too. Times Now went so far as to call it “betrayal by the US”. What betrayal? They took action. What would our investigation/judicial have done????

The real truth is that we should celebrate Headley’s 35 years sentence, not complain of him not getting death. By the time he comes out, he wont even be able to think about India. The US system has delivered quick justice. We should applaud them for it….

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Now neither the Congress nor the BJP wants to name it’s PM candidate….

If ever there was evidence required that neither the Congress nor the BJP was confident about 2014 (irrespective of their public posturing), it is that neither party is willing to name a PM candidate before the elections. The Congress has never done so – with the exception of 2009 when it “indicated” that it would continue with Manmohan Singh – and has been often chided by the BJP for it. The BJP on the other hand has always given the impression that it will announce its PM candidate in advance. The speculation of late has been that that name would be Modi. Suddenly now, the party has turned coy. If Rajnath Singh, the new BJP President is to be believed, it is the “BJP Parliamentary Committee” that will choose the PM. Really? I thought that was the Congress stand; and the BJP was a “party with a difference”!!

Of course we understand what has prompted this sudden change in the BJP’s tune. The recent public embarassment over the appointment of its President has exposed clearly exactly what the party’s internal challenges are. The truth is in full public glare now – that its not like the party has a number of “options” for the PM’s job; rather, it has a lot of “claimants” or “competitors” for it!

One thing that the BJP won’t do in a rush is announce Modi’s name for the job. I have written several times about this. What is Modi’s strength in his home state is his biggest weakness outside it. By polarizing his state, which has a Muslim population of under 9%, on communal lines, he has managed to retain power for 3 consecutive terms. But the problem for Modi is that this strategy has been well publicized beyond the boundaries of his state. And that has made him one of BJP’s least desirable PM candidates. Nitish Kumar has been vocal about his opposition; but most others including Modi’s friend Jayalalitha, the TDP, the BJD, Mamata’s TMC and others also feel the same way though they don’t speak openly. It’s interesting. It’s said that “an enemy’s enemy is a friend”, but when it comes to Modi, none of the Congress’s “enemies” are willing to become the BJP’s friends!

For the Congress, it has to be a calculated gambit. My own reading is that the party will not make Rahul Gandhi the PM just yet. There is a reason for this. In his first stint as PM, Rahul would want the comfort of a strong electoral position in the Lok Sabha. He would be loathe to taking over if his party got less than 200 – 225 seats. At this point in time, he hardly has the experience of managing wily, fickle partymen, leave alone allies.

If the Congress’s numbers are small, I think the party will plump for Chidambaram as PM. Chidambaram is an astute politician; knowing the ways around the complicated labyrinth of power politics. He has one other big virtue. Also in an India newly sensitized to economic issues, Chidambaram would be better placed than Rahul Gandhi against a competitor like Modi.

Rahul is a visionary. He has charisma. When he speaks, people feel like he can lead them to a better place. He inspires trust. He has the ability to rise above petty political brawls. He is like the CEO of a company. Chidambaram in contrast is a efficient, hard working, focused and astute; an ideal COO. The CEO and COO work together in winning the Board’s (the public) trust. It’s not much different from the President-VP structure in the US. We’ve seen over the last 9 years that the Congress prefers to work through a split-leadership structure; Sonia as the Party President has been the CEO till date; MMS the COO. The same model could well work for Rahul and Chidambaram.

The trick would be for the Congress to “let it be known” without formally announcing it that Chidambaram would be its PM it it won power. Rahul would act as the crowd puller, especially in the Hindi heartland; while Chidambaram’s performance record would help him dent Modi’s if the BJP also “lets it be known” that Modi would be their PM. I know a lot of BJP supporters (actually fence sitters) who would vote for Chidambaram, just as they did for MMS, even though they may have disdain for the Gandhi surname.

Whatever happens, its interesting times ahead! Politics changes very quickly. A few months back, it looked like it was going to be the BJP all the way. But from September last year, the Congress has fought back. Gone is the policy paralysis, the diffidence, the inability to fight back. With the reforms push, Chidambaram has re-energized the party leadership back. And with Rahul ascending to the top of the party hierarchy (well, almost!), the lower rungs of the party are galvanized too. In the meanwhile, the BJP has suffered heavy blows – Gadkari’s corruption charges and eventual denial of a renewed term, Yeddy’s departure, Modi’s Lok-Ayukta loss in the Supreme Court……But who knows, it could all come undone in the next few months! Like cricket commentators often say during an exciting ODI “the match is evenly poised”!

The real truth is that given the dynamics of Indian politics (unlike the US, where out of 51 states, almost 40 are “steadfast supporters” of one or the other party), it is impossible for any party to know its fate in advance. Both the BJP and the Congress have conceded that they cannot get the requisite numbers on their own. In such a scenario, both parties will keep their cards close to their chest….and wait for the election results to emerge before choosing their PM candidates….

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Justice Verma panel brings much needed sanity; but could have gone further….

There will be a thousand points of view on the Justice Verma panel’s recommendations to strengthen our laws against sexual assault of women. Not surprising considering there were thousands of suggestions given by thousands of people to the panel. In my view, the panel has done a good job overall, though on a few issues, it could have gone further….

The best thing is that the panel has managed to keep its wits about itself. It hasn’t pandered to the reckless demands of a newly awakened youth brigade and an opportunistic political class demanding death for all rape cases. Why should a rape elicit a death sentence at all? The death sentence is reserved for the most heinous of crimes. While rape is a very very ghastly crime, by asking for the death sentence, we are basically equating it with murder. A raped woman has not been murdered. A raped woman feels pathetic that her body has been invaded, but she doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) think that her life is over. In this context, the article written by Sohaila Abdulali, author of  the novel “Year of the Tiger” in The New York Times is worth reading “”. As she rightly points out, a rape is a personal horror, not even a societal one. And there is no loss of honor or virtue for the family when a woman is raped. She writes “It is horrible because you are violated, you are scared, someone else takes control of your body and hurts you in the most intimate way. It is not horrible because you lose your “virtue.It is not horrible because your father and your brother are dishonored.” People who demand the death penalty for rape are actually supporting such orthodox views. In doing so, they are actually harming the women’s cause.

Of course when there is a death involved post rape, the perpetrator should be considered for the death sentence (as per the homicide law). The crime then becomes a murder and whatever that entails should be given (Personally, I am against all forms of capital punishment, except in terrorism cases). But in other cases, Justice Verma has suggested correctly that the punishment terms should be made more strict. It has also smartly differentiated between one rape and repeated rapes, recommending that in case of serial rapes, the person may even be given the maximum sentence of life. This is a mature recommendation, again spurning the demands of the angry, but ill-informed, protesters who thronged Delhi’s streets that all rapes be treated alike. Even Ram Jethmalani had said the same thing on TV, but he was booed out by the anchor. Fortunately, Justice Verma has brought the requisite sanity.

Likewise in saying that our laws are quite alright, but the implementation is the problem, Justice Verma has said the right thing. We can have any number of laws, but if our investigative bodies are so ill equipped, and so poorly recruited (basis caste reservations and all), then nothing will change.

Where the panel could have done better is in changing the definition of a juvenile. By merely suggesting that the juvenile justice system be “strengthened”, it has missed an opportunity to take cognizance of a natural biological change that is taking place. Children are becoming mature faster; puberty occurs earlier today than ever before. Today’s 16-year old is physically as strong as an 18-year old, and at least for select crimes like rapes, he should be treated on par with adults. Justice Verma has instead backed the softer view that a 16-year old is not mentally developed enough and if he’s punished as an adult, he may not be able to learn from his mistakes. My point is that the 18 year old limit was set in a different era; it certainly needs to be revisited today.

The other subject on which the panel has lost an opportunity for reform is in not making rape gender neutral. Here I think the panel has kept an eye on the current mood of the public, and probably felt that making the crime gender neutral may go against it’s wishes. Because if it had been bolder, and fairer, it would have realized that rape of men is becoming increasingly common. It’s a new trend, and like all new trends, it has started first in the liberally outlying segments of our societal firmament – the world of films, theatre, modeling and the like. It is rumored that in Bollywood, the “casting” couch is now used more for men than women; “sleeping your way up” likewise. What is true in this small segment is bound to spread to others. The law that we make now should be good for the next 25-50 years; and there is no denying that when we demand gender equality in all other spheres, we should here too. A rape of any kind – and on anyone, male or female – is a terrible crime and should be treated equally.

Also Justice Verma should have favored chemical castration. It is not a “mutilation of the body”, nor is it a violation of the human rights, as he has said. Chemical castration is an effective medicinal tool to control the libido of a rapist, without even touching his body physically. It’s something that is practiced in several countries as well.

One last point. There was really no need for Justice Verma to attack the Home Secretary for praising the Delhi Police for the good work in arresting the five accused. It’s a fact that the police was prompt in this. We should learn to de-link issues. Justice Verma was right in blaming the cops for being insensitive; and attacking innocent protesters. But that does not mean that they didn’t do a good job in the arrests. As their formal boss, the Home Secretary praised the cops to improve their morale. They were being battered by everyone. It was almost as if they had done the rape themselves. Whatever we do, we cannot hold the cops responsible for what is basically a societal issue.

The real truth is that law making should always be done with a cool mind. Never in the heat of the moment. It was a good decision of the government to resist announcing new laws there and then at India Gate, even though the public would have liked that. For his part, Justice Verma has done a good job, as always….

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The one who led BJP to defeat in 2009 is now its President again….

The Congress must be licking its chops. For the chief opposition party’s Presidential crisis is making its own dynastic traditions of choosing the leader look like just the pefect way to go about the task! With Rajnath Singh back as President of the BJP, and with divisions in the party out to the fore, the Congress will surely have to worry a little less about it.

Lets first see who Rajnath Singh really is.

Rajnath Singh was the President of the BJP for nearly four years before the 2009 elections. Remember, those were the elections in which the Congress was widely expected to be routed. But it was Rajnath Singh who played a key role in handing over an unexpected victory to the Congress. The most notable reason for the BJP to lose in 2009 – remember the loss was the worst in the urban areas – was its opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal. Surely as President, Rajnath Singh must have played a key role in deciding the party’s position on the subject. One has to presume that it was he who took the final call to oppose the deal and force a No Confidence Vote in Parliament. Not only did the BJP lose the vote in Parliament, it also lost the vote in the 2009 elections. The same man is back in charge of the party now.

A quick Wikipedia ref check of Rajnath Singh points out what the man stands for. When he became the Education minister of the BJP Government in UP, Wikipedia notes that “Major highlights of his tenure included rewriting history texts and incorporating vedic mathematics into the syllabus”. Just imagine this. He is a post graduate in Physics, and all he could care about was introducing vedic mathematics in the schools? Wikipedia also mentions this about his efforts at re-building the party in the past “Rajnath Singh sought to rebuild the party by focusing on the most basic Hindutva ideologies. He has announced his position of "no compromise" in relation to the building of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya”. We then get an idea of who this man is. He is a typical BJP hardliner. Rajnath Singh is also considered to be very close to the RSS, having been part of this “cultural” organization for nearly 50 years. Combine all the above, and you get an idea of what can be expected from the BJP under Rajnath Singh; a much more hardline kind of politics. If Modi and Advani are hardliners, Rajnath Singh is probably a step ahead.

I wonder what Nitish Kumar, and the other allies of the BJP will now say. For if there is one thing that is clear to both the Congress and the BJP, it is that no single party can expect to get a majority on its own. If alliances are going to determine who forms the government, Rajnath Singh does not look to be the right guy for the job. But that begs the question about who the right person within the BJP could possibly be. There is no Vajpayee like stateman left in the party; not even remotely close to him. There is Arun Jaitley who appears to be a progressive leader. But Jaitley is in the Modi camp, and there is no way that he will get a chance to be PM before Modi. Then there is Yashwant Sinha, but really he doesn’t seem to be acceptable to the RSS. The fact is that there are no moderates in the party at all. And coalition politics needs moderates. Does the NDA have any chance at all then? Will the BJP accept Nitish Kumar as its PM candidate? If it does so, what will it tell Modi?

But at least the BJP survived the ignominy of having to renew the tenure of a President whose personal credibility has been severely tarnished. Had he been reelected, the BJP would forever have been on the backfoot; forever skewered by hawkish journalists on TV. This much was apparent a couple of days back, when BJP spokespeople on TV were embarrassed beyond their wits by questions on the BJP’s compulsions on reelecting Gadkari.

There are reports that in electing Rajnath Singh, the RSS has ensured that Modi doesn’t become President. Will the same compulsion not work when it comes to choosing the PM?

This entire episode has brought out an acutely embarrassing reality about the BJP. There are too many leaders, but none of them who rises above the rest. It’s a problem that CEOs often face in their companies as they look for their successor. When there are a number of equal people at the 2nd rung, its not a happy situation. In fact, it’s a terrible situation. Picking the first amongst equals becomes extremely difficult, because many of the others leave the company and move on. We saw that happen when ICICI Bank anointed Chanda Kochhar as the CEO after KV Kamath. In politics, this can be disastrous. If the anointing of one of the leaders as PM or President of the party leads to it getting fragmented, the party is over, pun intended. Already with Yeddy out of the party, and with Modi likely to do so if denied his rightful place, the party is starting to crumble. If the BJP was hoping that this ugly reality could stay under wraps till the elections were over, the Presidential election has put paid to that hope. The chinks are out there; and the chinks are very visible and ugly.

In that sense, the Congress is much better placed. Maybe it’s a dynasty that rules the party; but at least the leader is accepted without any fuss. Also, its not as if the BJP has a great democratic process to choose its leader. When the seniors decided that Gadkari should be out and Rajnath in, it took less than a day to finalize this arrangement. Where is the democracy then?

The real truth is that the BJP is in disarray. This when it is at least a year away from possible power. One wonders what will happen if it actually emerges as the single biggest party in 2014. Honestly, that now looks like an unlikely scenario. After all, the man who led them to defeat in 2009 is in charge again now!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Shinde is right….even Babri and Godhra are examples of saffron terror

What is this hullaballoo about asking Shinde to resign because he said that RSS and BJP training camps were fanning saffron terror? Why is there even an iota of doubt that these bodies – or atleast a part of them – do indeed fan saffron terrorism? Why look further than the 2 decades old Babri Masjid demolition and the 10 year old Godhra riots to understand the truth behind Shinde’s statement?

Who demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992? Which BJP and Sangh parivar leaders were present in Ayodhya on that eventful day? Who amongst them gave fiery speeches to the frenzied Hindu mob? What was the content of those speeches? Weren’t there exhortations made to the “followers” (whose followers were they?) to go ahead and raze the historical monument down? Who has been accused in the demolition? In fact, who has built a political strategy around Ayodhya and gained the most from it?

Coming to Godhra, which state government ordered its cops to “let the Hindus vent” for three days? (Those of us who lived in Ahmedabad in those days know exactly what I am talking about. Incidentally, even today, the talk in Ahmedabad is about how Modi showed the Muslims their place). Who was the PM who raised the question of “raj dharma” but did nothing beyond asking the question? Which CM and PM candidate is called “Hindu Hriday Samrat” and for what reasons? (Why is he not simply called Gujarat Hriday Samrat if he is indeed taking care of “6 crore Gujaratis”? Which state government has politicized even the state judiciary so much that the Supreme Court routinely shifts hearings outside of the state? Which state has specialized in “encounter killings”, which is nothing but a euphemism for the knocking off of Muslims?

C’mon, lets get real here. The BJP and RSS have fought a pitched battle for decades against the Muslims (they may call it “protecting Hindu culture” or “Hindutva” or whatever). Its strange they don’t openly own up to their acts of aggression, for if it is their belief that Hindus support such acts, then they should publicize them and win the elections right? In fact, have BJP workers forgotten that their party has its beginnings in the All India Hindu Mahasabha founded in 1915, which clearly demanded a “Hindu Rashtra”, and which opposed “the Congress commitment to non-violence, civil disobedience, secularism and its efforts to integrate Muslims and hold dialogue with the separatist Muslim League party, which the Mahasabha deemed to be appeasement.” (source: Wikipedia).

Who was it who killed Graham Staines, the Christian missionary working in parts of Orissa and on sections of the population that the Hindu society had abandoned? It was one Dara Singh, convicted and imprisoned for the act. Dara Singh was a member of the Bajrang Dal, a sister outfit of the RSS and BJP family.

Likewise, though not proven in the courts yet, the investigations have revealed a solid connection between the Hindu groupings and terror acts at Malegaon, and Modasa and Samjhauta Express and others. Many such examples can be provided to the BJP to think about.

We shouldn’t worry about what the Pakistani terrorist Hafeez Sayeed taunts us with. No one is saying that the Mumbai attacks were an act of saffron terror. Nor was the Parliamentary attacks an example of saffron terror. But when there have been acts of saffron terror, they should be named. Just like the BJP recently demanded that Pakistan should be named and shamed globally as a terror-supporting nation, so also should we name and shame all perpetrators of terrorism, be the Islamic or saffron. Instead, what we find is that the BJP is happy to name and shame Muslim terrorists, but when it comes to Hindus, they turn coy.

The fact is that saffron terrorism is a reality, just as much as Islamic terrorism is. Even though they are described in such language, the terms “Islamic” and “saffron” are not meant to include all Muslims or all Hindus in their definition. These are neologisms that loosely describe who the chief patrons of these acts of terrorism are. Just like Islamic terrorism, defined in this way, is spawned by certain Islamic organizations, so also is saffron terrorism spawned by the Hindu organizations. For the BJP to split hairs and accuse Shinde of calling all Hindusterrorists is like a comedy show. The party should focus on the core issue he raised. And correct its ways.

But honeslty, can we expect the BJP and RSS to mend their ways? That will mean them having to jettison their absolutely core philosophy. It’s akin to asking the MIM of Hyderabad (of Akbaruddin and Asaduddin fame) to drop their communal rhetoric. The MIB never wanted Hyderabad to integrate with India. How can they suddenly change their tune? It’s an impossibility. It’s the same for the Sangh parivar. Protecting Hindu interests – even if it means indulging in acts of aggression – is of top priority to the saffron grouping, and yet they refuse to own it publicly. The BJP would like to continue with supporting saffron terrorists, but do it in a veiled way. This is the duplicity that the party has mastered as a strategy. Nobody can change this reality.

The real truth is that rather than demanding Shinde’s resignation, the Sangh parivar should introspect. Either it should give up supporting saffron terrorists, or it should accept its support publicly. Hiding behind veils is a sign of cowardice.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Chidambaram’s brilliance shows up in recent reforms….

The usual pro-forma and stereotypical screams and protests – which have completely lost value – against the “deregulation” of diesel prices at the retail level and the capping of the LPG cylinders first at 6 and later increased to 9, completely diverted attention away from the smartest and biggest parts of these reforms. For no one has fully understood the really bold sub-texts of these reforms. In hindsight, it would appear that the government (read: Chidambaram) was really smart in the way it played its cards.

Take the diesel price increase. Most media attention, and political opposition, was directed at the very minor price increase at the retail level. To our TV anchors who crave for any and every TRP they can grab, there was no difference between the 50 paise price hike announced this time and the 5 rupee hike a few months back. Their rants were the same; the panels they put up were identical and even the “verdict” they pronounced were the same. The government is heartless and is bleeding out the middle class. Blah, blah, blah. None of these blokes however understood that more than the retail price hike, the larger move announced by Chidambaram was that bulk buyers would have to pay market rates immediately. I keep referring to Chidambaram here though the announcement was made by Moily, the Petroleum minister, because Chidambaram’s hand is clearly behind these smart moves.

Now just see how smart this move is. The biggest beneficiaries – the undeserving kinds – of the diesel subsidy provided by the government are the bulk users. Those who use diesel gensets to power telecom towers and transmission equipment, the Railways, the bus companies….and even defence forces as well. These users will now have to pay some Rs 10 more per litre with immediate effect. How much media attention has focused on this? Negligible, if at all. These are the big daddies of diesel consumption (apart from farmers who use diesel pump sets), and all of them have been made to pay full prices in one go. This is huge. The impact of cutting diesel subsidies to these users will be enormous. If Rs 90,000 crores is the diesel subsidy, then at least a fifth of this could be cut by simply making such bulk users pay the full price. The government quietly and cannily hid this bold move within the more sensitive 50 paise a litre retail price hike – knowing fully well that the ignorant media and opposition would take the bait.

Again, take the capping of subsidized LPG cylinders at 6 announced in September last year. By imposing a cap, rather than reducing the subsidy per cylinder (it was reduced only marginally), the government showed a rare canniness, again bearing Chidambaram’s mark. The cap hit bulk users – the restaurants, car users (many use LPG), industrial outfits – as it should. Again, media attention was solely on how the capping affected the middle class. The government really didn’t worry too much about it. It promptly increased the cap to 9, stymieing most of the protests. But the big users – or abusers as we should call them – will still have to pay market rates. Smart, isn’t it?!!

Likewise, on the Vodafone tax issue, has anyone noticed how smartly the government has moved from making it a prestige issue to recovering “only the principal” and “waiving off the interest”. Both parties appear to find this solution acceptable. Voda must have “provided” for the principal+interest in its books, and is thus now a lot more amenable to a settlement. It also realizes that India is too important a market to fight the government. Also, in an accounting sense, if it can get a waiver on the interest part, it can “write-back” this in its books. For a CEO, that means higher profits! For the government, getting the principal shows its determination in enforcing what it thinks is right and also helping improve the fiscal situation.

A lot of smart thinking has come about this government since Chidambaram has taken over as the Finance Minister. Chidambaram has combined political savvy and good economic thinking; and stayed focused on meeting the end objectives rather than on bothering about optics. He’s ok to make concessions in order to achieve the bigger goals. Getting the principal from Voda is more important than getting embroiled in a global litigation.

It is the same savvy that one is now seeing in the telecom auction process as well. The government has lowered the reserve fee quite significantly, although industry players are complaining that it is still not enough. CDMA reserve fee has been halved; and GSM by 30%. The government made a mistake in the first instance; but its willingness to correct the mistake is typically the style that Chidambaram is noted for. There is no ego here; no false pride. A mistake was made; and a correction was required. Period. It is my belief that the auctions will be largely successful in March, and the government will meet its Rs 40,000 crore target for the fiscal year.

The ultimate challenge for Chidambaram is RBI governor Subba Rao. The RBI governor seems unrelenting. How Chidambaram will be able to push him a bit and cajole him as well will determine whether the RBI lowers rates or not. And upon that will hinge how the economy rebounds. Given Chidambaram’s track record, I think he will succeed.

The real truth is that Chidambaram has made a big difference to the UPA government’s performance. He became Finance minister in July. By September, the UPA had mustered enough courage to pass through tough reforms. Chidambaram is politically and economically savvy and his mark is clearly visible now…..

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rahul Gandhi elected unanimously; BJP President’s race gets murky….

The Congress has been chided a lot for its dynastic politics. True, Congress leaders have mostly been Gandhi family members. In contrast, the BJP has never had any major dynasties ruling the party. The BJP showcases this as a major strength, and it could well be that had it not been for the fact that the party’s top leadership is so riven with mutual distrust of each other.

On a day when the Congress unanimously appointed Rahul Gandhi as its Vice President (the number 2 in the party; with a clear plan to make him the President in the future), the BJP’s internal bickering was out in full public display. First there was Advani proposing Sushma Swaraj for the President’s post (I wrote about the Advani-Swaraj axis in my post just yesterday). And then there were “other” leaders proposing Rajnath Singh for President. Normally, 2-3 candidates for Party President would be considered a sign of strong internal democracy, except that in this case, these two last minute nominations appear more driven to thwart Gadkari’s chances of becoming President a second time. It’s not that Advani really wants Swaraj to become President, or that the other leaders want Rajnath Singh to come back for a second stint as President; its just that they simply don’t want Gadkari to be re-elected. Gadkari is accused of corruption charges, and the party’s rank and file cannot seem to agree with the RSS’s decision of propping Gadkari up for a second term. The rival candidates thus don’t represent strong internal democracy; but a fractured party.

In contrast, Rahul was appointed by a unanimous vote. In fact, newspaper reports indicate that there was a huge demand from the rank and file to anoint him the successor. Now, its true that Rahul has always been the chosen one; the prince in waiting as it were. It is also true that Rahul unanimous choice is indicative of the lack of democracy in the Congress. But look at the positives of this. A strong leader unites the party. Whether a fraction of the party likes it or not, the bonding that develops within the party is rock solid. Loyalty is much under-rated in the intellectually liberal media and society, but its advantages in a heterogeneous, fractious society are too powerful to be ignored.

It is for this reason that most political parties have seen dynastic politics, be in the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, or DMK in TN or the Akali Dal in Punjab or the SP in UP or the JD(S) in Karnataka….a dynastic leader succeeds where a democratically elected one would fail.

If one were to go by charisma, both Modi and Rahul Gandhi get high scores. It is for this reason that both make news whenever they do something. The Modi-Rahul G showdown has been the flavor of the political circuit for some reason. The advantage Rahul has is that he has age on his side; if he can leverage it well, he can swing the votes of the youth towards the Congress. Not that Modi is fuddy duddy either. He is no mean youth vote catcher himself, especially given his aptitude for new technology and an ability to conduct a youthful dialogue. However, I would like to believe that youngsters in general are more intolerant of religious dogmatism, as well as an illiberal social culture. This is where Rahul shows more promise than Modi. Modi is a hawk; he is anti-Muslim. In fact, he is anti-minorities. Rahul on the other hand is decidedly liberal. Rahul’s family itself is a motley mix of religions, with his grandmother (Indira Gandhi) having married a Parsi man, and his father a Christian woman (Sonia). Even prior to that, Jawaharlal Nehru was known for his liberal views. Will the youth swing towards a charismatic Modi or a charismatic Rahul G?

It’s the same when it comes to castes. All Gandhi family members have been accepted by the most downtrodden and underprivileged sections of India as saviors, while Modi, and even more the BJP, is a party catering to the privileged class, especially the Brahmins. The Congress’s top leadership shows great diversity – with Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, and upper and lower castes occupying positions of power. In contrast, with the exception of Modi, and a few others, most other senior leaders in the BJP, and its sister outfits, are Brahmins. In fact, Modi’s lower-caste reality may be the reason why the RSS doesn’t support his candidature as BJP President. Swaraj scores on that point.

Will Rahul’s elevation lead to a uniting of different sections of the Congress? Will he inspire his team to reach a newer height now? He’s never been shy of taking on a fight and a challenge. He fought in UP and Bihar knowing that his back was to the wall. To his credit, he chose not to run away. In contrast, what will the BJP now do? Who will it make its party President? Appoint a charismatic person like Modi or Swaraj as the President, or settle for a light-weight dummy like Gadkari? Given its severe factions, I think the party will settle for Gadkari. But even if that happens, the party is unlikely to be united as one. Yeddy’s departure took away any chances the party had of returning to power in Karnataka….if either Swaraj or Modi depart, the party would be fractured beyond repair.

The real truth is that Rahul Gandhi could catapult the Congress to a third successive term at the center. There are advantages in dynastic politics. The leader’s position is unchallenged. And if the leader is even half as smart as anyone else, he can pull off the role of leader better than a democratically elected one. The battle for 2014 just became a lot more exciting!