Thursday, February 28, 2013

Chidambaram delivers good economics, great politics!

Most commentators on TV and in press are praising Chidambaram for the good economics he has practiced in his budget. There are no populist schemes, no enhanced spending plans and no grandiose announcements. There are big investment revival strategies prompting corporate India to give him a thumbs up. While I agree that the budget is indeed shorn of the usual pre-election-year rhetoric, and I compliment Chidambaram for it, I think most people have not deciphered the political intent behind the budget. I am convinced this is a budget driven largely by the compulsions of looming elections.

Before I go on to what I mean by that, let me say a word about the usual critics. The BJP has been totally silenced. The only lame duck argument the party could provide (read Yashwant Sinha in Indian Express today) is that Chidambaram first cut spendings in FY13, and then raised allocations for the next year to merely make it all look optically nice. His contention is that this is a form of “trickery”. I call it smartness. This is what private companies do. They never look at last year’s budgets to set next year’s numbers. They look at “actuals” of last year for that. Chidambaram has brought the best of private sector governance standards to the government. The BJP can crib! Chidambaram even silenced the loudest critic of the UPA – the number 1 TV news anchor! The poor soul was forced to agree meekly with his panelists that Chidambaram had indeed delivered! The Left could not decide whether they should agree with the taxing of the “super rich” (something they would be naturally prone to do) or disagree (considering it was inspired by the US President)! The JD(U) made some really good overtures, stoking speculation that a political re-alignment is in the offing! So all in all, the usual suspects were firmly silenced!

Now let me prove that this is an election-eve budget.

1)    In the first 5 minutes, Chidambaram made the most important statement of his entire speech. I reproduce verbatim “As Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize winning economist said “There is a compelling moral case for equity; but it is also necessary if there is to be sustained growth. A country’s most most important resource is its people”. We have examples of states growing at a fast rate, but leaving behind women, the SCs, STs, minorities and some ackward classes. The UPA does not accept that model. The UPA Government believes in inclusive development, with emphasis on improving human development indicators. I hope this budget will be yet another testimony to that commitment”. Who do you think Chidambaram hit with that statement? BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi of course!
2)    The Congress’s core electoral constituency is the rural poor, the farmers, the SCs, STs and in some states, the OBCs. Just look at the spending increases Chidambaram has promised for these constituencies:
a.    Rural development: budget of Rs 80,000 odd crores, an increase of 46% over last year’s actual. This is huge. Of this, NREGA and the PMGSY are big schemes, both of which have seen enormously enhanced budgets. Clearly, the rural constituency won’t be starved of funds!
b.    Ministry of drinking water and sanitation (targeting the above identified electoral constituencies) has a 17% higher allocation
c.     Ministry of education also has a 17% higher allocation. A large chunk of this is in the form of scholarships for SCs/STs/OBCs/Minorities/Girls and that has grown by 16%. The Mid-day meal scheme has also grown a lot.
d.    The Ministry of Health budgets have increased significantly to Rs 37000 crores. Of this, the National Health Mission has seen a 24% increase to Rs 21000 crores.
e.    Ministry of Minority affairs has seen a 60% over last year’s actuals.
f.      Agricultural credit target has been increased to Rs 7 lac crores from Rs 5.75 lac actuals of last year, an increase of 22%. This is the credit target. The Ministry of Agriculture has been allotted 22% higher at Rs 27000 crores.
g.    There is a small provision of Rs 10000 crores for the food security bill related expenses. I guess, the larger part of this burden will come in next year’s budget.
3)    The symbolism of making the rich pay more in a tough year – the surcharge on the “super rich”, the higher surcharge on corporates, the higher excise duty on SUVs and big cars, the higher customs duties on costly cars and even mobile phones – are all meant to make the core election constituency feel privileged.
4)    The symbolism of being concerned about women is obvious. The special “Nirbhaya” fund for women’s safety, the all-women’s bank are all part of this; clearly aimed at growing the election constituency to include women.

The above should show that Chidambaram’s spending focus is squarely on his party’s core consituencies. Where has he cut? He has given a very small increase to defence, though to take care of any attacks from the BJP on grounds of national security, he has said he will provide as much as required, if required. This is a good way of keeping it “off-balance sheet”!

Of course, there are many good ideas in the budget as well. The strong emphasis on reviving investments, the cut-backs on fuel subsidies (though not adequate in my view), the plans to increase savings (inflation indexed bonds), the focus on infrastructure (tax free bonds up to Rs 55000 crores etc), the incentives for local manufacturing (industrial corridors, investment allowance etc)….are all very good proposals. No wonder the near unanimous opinion that the budget makes for good economics. What most people have not realized is how savvily Chidambaram has also presented a great political budget!

The real truth is that this is a clear pre-election budget. It is focused on ensuring that the Congress wins the next elections. Spends are targeted at key election constituencies; painful tax provision are aimed at making these constituencies feel special. This is Chidambaram at his best. Good on economics, great on politics!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Predicting the BJP’s cribs against the budget….and the news channels’ headlines was never easier!

Just as much as Chidambaram must be busy brushing up his budget proposals and speech, so must the opposition – especially the BJP –and news TV channels with their crib lines. Since the budget is a big deal, the top guns in each opposition party would have been mobilized for the job. Equally, news TV channels must be sharpening their knives, as a raucous prime time show tonight is a foregone conclusion. In all of this, Chidambaram’s budget proposals will hardly matter. And an intelligent analysis is too much to ask for.

The BJP in particular must have prepared clever (and dishonest) lines for most likely budget scenarios. The party of lawyers and Brahmins is particularly adept at this. The TMC will just wait for Chidambaram to open his mouth before dashing off to the nearest TV camera to complain. So also the Left Parties, who don’t like “Paribartan” (reforms) of any type – political or economic! So predicting tonight’s TV headlines is not a particularly difficult task, and I must admit writing this post took less than ten minutes. Here’s a sample of what to expect:  

If Chidambaram does achieve the 5.3% fiscal deficit revised target for the current year (most likely scenario), the BJP will scream “Government achieved this by cutting on defence spending and compromising on national security. This government is soft on terrorists”. If he misses the target, “Chidambaram doesn’t know how to run the economy”!

If Chidambaram proposes to reduce fiscal deficit to 4.8% next year (most likely scenario), the BJP’s comment could be “This government is bowing down to pressure from the ratings agencies. It has surrendered the country to inimical foreign forces”. If he proposes a higher than 4.8% number, “Chidambaram is the worst FM ever”!

If Chidambaram launches a new subsidy program (likely, though not certain), the BJP will allege that this is politics at its worst. “This is a political budget, for political gains, and it puts the country at a serious risk of a ratings downgrade”. If Chidambaram cuts subsidies (also likely, using the Direct Transfer of Benefits – Aadhar - route), the BJP will then have the opportunity to say “This government is insensitive to the needs of the poor. In a high inflation environment, the only place it found to cut was the spending on the poor” ignoring the fact that the Aadhar scheme will only cut corruption, not entitlements!

If Chidambaram introduces a tax for the super rich (a very bad idea and an unlikely scenario), the BJP would scream “This is Chidambaram’s “nightmare” budget. He is completely reversed his famed “dream” budget”. If Chidambaram decides not to increase taxation for the super rich, the argument is much easier “This government is pro-rich. When the entire world is increasing taxes on the rich, this government prefers to mollycoddle them”!

If Chidambaram adopts an aggressive disinvestment strategy (most likely scenario), the BJP will shout “This government is selling off the family silver. All the wealth our forefathers created is being frittered away by this government”. Oh sorry….a correction. They may avoid reference to the forefathers, since most of them were Congressmen! If he does not increase disinvestment targets (unlikely), the retort could be simply “The budget lacks imaginative ideas. We started the disinvestment process. This government simply does not know how to continue it”!

If Chidambaram launches new schemes in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, AP and Delhi (likely), it is because “he is only bothered with Congress governments”. If he launches similar projects in BJP ruled states (also likely), it is either because “the BJP governments are so dynamic, even the Finance Minister had to bow to them” or better “This is a political move to gain attack the BJP governments”. If he launches similar projects in UP, it’s obviously to “bribe the UP parties into supporting the government”. And if he does so in Bihar, it is to “disrupt a strong BJP-JD(U) alliance”. If he doesn’t launch any new projects anywhere at all, the “Finance minister has no vision for India”!

If Chidambaram reduces taxes for some industry segments, it is because “they have funded the Congress’s election campaign”; or better “the family has been bribed”! If he increases taxes for some other industries, it is because “they refused to fund the Congress or pay the family bribes”!

If Chidambaram makes it easy for the corporate sector to access global funding, he is “selling off the country to the foreigners”. If he doesn’t, “he is not concerned with the slowing growth and the country’s need for funds”!

If Chidambaram launches major infrastructure schemes, “all this was started by Vajpayee. This government has no new ideas” and if it doesn’t, just the latter part of the crib: “This government has no new ideas”!

In addition to the above cribs on specific points, there would be some made irrespective of anything that Chidambaram says:

  • This government singularly lacks any vision. It is unfit to rule the country any longer.
  • This government is anti-aam aadmi. It is unfit to rule the country any longer.
  • This government is corrupt and that is why the fiscal deficit is so high. It is unfit to rule the country any longer.
  • The Prime Minister is unfit to be called India’s most brilliant economist. This government is unfit to rule the country any longer. We demand the PM’s resignation for the 35th time!

What the BJP will do, most TV channels will amplify! In the hungry world of TRPs, the only way to get hold of scarce TRP crumbs is to out-crib everyone else.

See how easy it is to predict tonight’s news? That’s why Chidambaram should stop looking at TV news channels. The people of this country already have. That is why even Hindi news channels command just 5-6% of the viewership of Hindi entertainment channels. And English channels a measly 0.1%.…..

The real truth is that the real analysis of the budget will only be known in the newspapers. Forget the “analysis” provided by the TV channels tonight. One thing is certain: The BJP and the TV news channels will hit a new high on creative cribbing tonight!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Well done Pawan Kumar Bansal. The Railways makeover begins….

How often does one get to read a newspaper headline that praises a minister (this is still impossible on TV!)? A headline like “Bansalonomics: High on substance, low on flourish” as in the TOI today. Or “Bansal scores with berth of a new idea”. Or how often do we hear a minister admitting “I cant afford to be impractical”. That too just a year before elections? These headlines capture the essence of the difference between this year’s Railway budget and the ones seen in the previous years. It’s clearly a reform oriented budget as the Indian Express headlines “Reform express rolls…”. The response from the BJP (More Rae Bareli than Railways) was on predictable lines (they just had to choose one from amongst a dozen or more they must have pre-fabricated!) and the amplification of this BJP line by some sensation-building TV news channels also was predictable.

It’s not as if Bansal hasn’t made the standard announcements that accompany all railway budgets. There are a lot more new trains (67 express; 26 passenger trains), a lot more route extensions (57 trains) and a lot more increase in frequency of trains (24 trains). There are also a number of new-generation announcements like “wifi in trains” and “lounges at stations” and “escalators at stations” and “ISO certification of food” and so on. There is also a big dose of populism (Rs 1.5 lac new jobs). This much is expected from any Railway minister. What is completely new though is that these announcements have been matched with plans for revenue enhancement. In the past – especially under that economically illiterate politician, Mamata Banerjee – revenue enhancement was not considered to be the job of the Railway minister. The excess spending plans were to be funded by the Finance Minister.

There are a few most important highlights of Bansal’s maiden budget:

  1. There is a definitive plan revenue enhancement. Along with the passenger fare hike taken last month, the freight hike of 6% or so and increases in certain other items should give the Railways an additional Rs 11,300 crores in revenues as mentioned in the TOI. This and this alone is responsible for the “surplus” (operating profit in simple language) of Rs 13,147 crores budgeted. Under the Congress (or rather, “not under” TMC), the Railways have pulled back in the last six months, cutting spends by some Rs 1000 crores and bringing operating ratio (the reverse of operating profit) below 90% of revenues from the 95% in Mamata’s last year as minister. The revenue enhancements will only improve that ratio marginally next year, taking it down to 87%, a far cry from the 75% odd number that should be the target. So the reforms have just begun. There is still a long way to go.
  1. There is a determination and confidence to increase tariffs. I cannot understand why our politicians always crib about rising tariffs. Is there any item whose price does not increase by 5-10% every year? Don’s salaries, MSPs (paid to farmers), PF interest rates (8.5%), NREGA payouts (linked to inflation), business profits (10-20%) all increase proportionately or more? A 5-10% increase is considered “reasonable”; anything more hurts. If only the Railways had taken a 5% increase every year since 2002-3, ticket prices today would have been double of what they are today. At least the process of corrections has started. In contrast, the biggest news in Mamata’s budget of 2 years back was “No increase in passenger and freight rates”.
  1. What I find interesting in the budget is that freight prices have been linked to fuel prices and those should now change twice a year. It’s a smart move, for it helps offset the impact of a depreciating rupee or rising global crude prices. The good news is that even a 10% increase in freight prices would only cause a minor blip in inflation (estimated at 0.03 to 0.05% by Kotak Securities).
  1. The other highlight of the budget of course is the stress on improving facilities and safety. A full 16% of the budgetary spends have been earmarked for enhanced passenger amenities (better toilets, cleaner stations). A lot more is being spent on safety. So while all ministers in the past have promised “anti-collision devices” and “eliminating manned level crossings”, this time it looks like the announcement is being backed up with a funding plan.
  1. There are also several new initiatives. The push for PPP (Public Private Partnership) is welcome, and if the minister has his way, we should see Rs 1 lac of PPP projects in the next five years with Rs 6000 crores this year itself. The launch of a “world class” experience in the form of Anubhuti coaches sounds interesting. Internet connectivity, sms alerts etc are good because people have got used to getting such facilities from air and bus operators.
What did the BJP have to say about all this? Expecting anything constructive of course is impossible. But the party’s creative “copywriters” went into overdrive and found something catchy as always. This is a Rae Bareli budget, not a Railways budget apparently (I don’t think the BJP cribbed when Mamata Banerjee, Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar doled out most of the projects to the East). What was there in the budget that helped earn the BJP’s ire? That a “wheels factory” has been proposed in Rae Bareli. Where else would a wheels factory be if not inside a “coach factory”???! And this is one announcement amongst a whole slew of new investment plans including in Bangalore, Bilaspur and other cities ruled by opposition parties. But for the BJP, Rae Bareli is impossible to resist, considering it is Sonia Gandhi’s constituency! I think much of the BJP’s creativity gets expended in such inane responses and there is very little left with it to respond intelligently.

The real truth is that the Railways budget is responsible and reforms oriented. Going forward, the main coalition party (Congress or BJP) should keep Railways with itself, so that petty state-level issues don’t dominate this huge budget exercise. Bansal has done well….now all eyes are on Chidambaram.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A point by point rebuttal of Jaitley’s letter opposing NCTC….

Arun Jaitley has said that the BJP is opposed to the NCTC “in its current form”. The lame duck excuse he is given is the same old argument – that the NCTC “impinges upon the powers of the state government”. Powers of “search, seize and arrest”. In short, the powers of the state government to play big daddy. In the meanwhile, terrorists – a wholly different breed of criminals from state-level goons – can continue jumping across from state to state, freely going about their business. Nothing but a few more terrorist attacks will make the BJP realize how it is politicizing and harming India’s fight against terrorism.

Arun Jaitley has written an open letter on the subject. In the letter, he writes “India needs a concerted approach against terror. The war against terror must be uninterrupted – it must be uninterruptible”. Very powerful words….and yet all that he is doing is interrupting the fight. It would be better if he practiced what he wrote.

This post offers a point by point rebuttal of the points raised by him.

  1. On the powers to search, seizure and arrest, Jaitley writes “Why would the Central government need to give police powers to the NCTC which would otherwise be under the domain of NIA or state police”. So Jaitley is OK with these powers being under another central agency – the NIA; somehow the principles of federalism are not impacted then. But if the same powers are extended to the NCTC, India’s federal structure gets destroyed. The only difference between the NIA and the NCTC is that the former acts after the terrorist act (to nab the culprits), while the latter acts before the attacks take place. If anything, the need for search, seizure and arrest powers is higher for the NCTC, as much of the intelligence can be gathered only by “talking” to suspects. If the NCTC isn’t allowed to do that without the help of the local cops (a bureaucratic process which takes several days, especially if the state government is ruled by a different party and is prone to leaks), then how will it be effective in preventing attacks?

  1. In the letter, Jaitley has said that even in the US, the NCTC does not have the power of search, seize and arrest: “The American NCTC deals with only strategic planning and the integration of intelligence without any operational involvement”. Well, Jaitley is right (after all, he is a great lawyer!), but Jaitley conveniently ignores that the US has the FBI which can do all that is being proposed to be given to the NCTC here – including in a pro-active preventive manner. We don’t have anything akin to the FBI. The CBI is the only body that exists, but its mandate is really very different (not terrorism). The CBI can search, seize and arrest without any reference to the state police. Why can’t the NCTC? Even apart from the FBI, the US has several other agencies dedicated to anti-terror activities (just check out how many American TV shows exist on the subject).

  1. Jaitley also writes about his objection to the NCTC being placed under the IB. He hasn’t bothered to elaborate what his real problem with this is except to state that “IB has shifted its focus from security related activities to political and quasi-political activities” and that “IB functioning is a secret. It is a non-statutory body. Its budget and spending has no accountability”. Clearly, Jaitley is the one politicizing the issue. Also, what does he expect the IB to do? Share its secrets with the opposition? Likewise, does it also expect the National Security Advisor’s office to share information with the opposition? Since Jaitley conveniently referred to the US NCTC when it suited him (previous point), let me also point out that in the US, the NCTC is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a body similar to our IB.

  1. Jaitley also writes “Why should the central government not trust the states” and “Is there any reason to doubt that the state police in India cannot be trusted for anti-terror functions?”. Great political rhetoric. But we’ve seen what happens when the IB passes on intelligence inputs to states. Most such intelligence is not “specific” and the state police doesn’t have the capability nor the resources to investigate the leads. As a result, many preventable attacks go undetected. If the NCTC was tasked with such investigations, it would directly probe the leads. And for this, it would need to arrest suspects and question them.

I also have a question to ask Jaitley. Since he keeps accusing the Congress of being “soft on terror” because it scrapped the POTA, I want to ask him why his government was OK with curbing civil rights the way POTA did, but is not OK with even sharing (not even curbing mind you) certain rights of the states with the center? A very harsh attitude on one subject, and a very opposite view on the other? I also want to ask him “Why should the state governments not trust the states?

The real truth is that it is the BJP that is being soft on terror. It is politicizing the issue of terror because it believes that it can score a few points in the next elections on this issue. If it was really concerned about the country’s fight with terror, it would strengthen the center’s hands, just the way I would expect the Congress to do so if the BJP were ruling at the center. Ruling parties can change….but our fight against terror must remain non-partisan….

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Effusive praise for Dhoni shows how fickle we are and why no one can predict 2014 elections….

Just a few months back, we were unforgiving towards Dhoni. Yesterday, as he scripted his first double century, we were effusive with praise calling him India’s best captain ever – again. This yoyo behavior – alternately seeking to punish and reward the same person, all in a matter of months – shows how fickle we Indians are. This fickle nature pervades every sphere of our life including politics, making it impossible to correctly predict outcomes of polls just a few months away. Forget 2014, we cannot even predict what will happen in the polls later this year….

Want more proof of our fickle nature? Observe how people’s opinion about Manmohan Singh has yoyoed in just a couple of years. He was the coolest dude till recently. When he pushed for the Indo-US nuclear deal, he became the darling of the middle classes. All criticism about him being a puppet vanished. Suddenly Singh became King. The praise was effusive. Singh was praised for his personal integrity, his modest lifestyle, his intelligence and the fact that even US President Obama took his counsel. Not surprisingly, they voted the him and his party back to power in 2009. Today, after a few not-so-proud incidents involving some members of his party, the same Singh is being ridiculed. The same puppet charge is back. And though no one doubts his personal integrity even today, they accuse him of having allowed others to “loot” the country. Earlier, when he spoke less, they branded him a silent intellectual. Today, they call it his poor skills of oratory.

Extreme viewpoints are part and parcel of this same fickle nature. We see everything in black and white. Either a leader is the best there is, or he is simply the worst. Today, many people are effusive in their praise of Narendra Modi. They see nothing wrong in him. They simply cannot conflate Modi’s charisma and his growth credentials with his murderous handling of the Godhra riots. They cannot appreciate that he claims far more credit for Gujarat’s progress than he deserves; that growth in Gujarat predates him. Likewise many people dismiss Rahul Gandhi as inexperienced, and one who hasn’t delivered in UP and Bihar. But they forget that leadership is not only about experience. Vajpayee scarcely had the kind of experience that counted (his stint as foreign minister during the Janata Party rule is best forgotten). Politics is about charisma and vision, both of which Vajpayee had in abundance. And he became a successful PM. Likewise, when Rahul Gandhi’s supporters look at him, they see him as a young, charismatic leader. Someone who will lead the country differently; in an inclusive way, making everyone (not just one community) feel at home. They see his campaigning in UP and Bihar (two most difficult states for Congress) as signs of his fearless nature. Modi didn’t even try to campaign in these states.

So we have extreme views and we are fickle. Combine the two and we have an explanation for many of our past election results. We voted Indira Gandhi out decisively in 1978 but we brought her back to power with a thumping majority in just 2 years. Her fortunes turned almost overnight. Ditto with Vajpyaee – who we gave the biggest personal approval ratings to – and then tossed him out of power.

Our extreme views and our fickle nature makes our politics colorful. We have seen the fickle nature at work right through the 90s and 2000s also. I once wrote how the India Today election forecasts – usually made a few months before elections – almost always got their predictions wrong. And it’s mostly because of what happens in the “last few months”. Here are examples of the last 3 general elections from my earlier post (August 26th, 2012: Last 3 poll forecasts all wrong…..India Today now forecasts an NDA win….):

The magazine did a poll in Dec 1998 and predicted that the BJP+ would get 135 seats while the Congress+ would get a huge 305. In fact, for the first time in a long while, Sonia pipped Vajpayee in the “Who will make the best PM” question by 31%:27%. Considering that the forecast was done just 9 months before the elections, one would have expected it to capture the mood fairly accurately. But aaah…..the painful truth is that the magazine got it all wrong. Why? I believe it was the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999 which swung the mood decisively towards the BJP.

Take the 2004 elections held in May. The magazine had a poll forecast in its April issue in which it predicted a huge BJP+ win with the alliance getting as many as 282 seats compared to the Congress+ alliance’s 165. In fact, Vajpayee was riding a high with a personal rating of 51% - his second highest after the 59% before the 1999 poll. This time around, there was no “Kargil” explanation possible. Within a month, the magazine had to eat crow when the UPA romped home with 218 seats (enough to make it the largest formation) with the NDA relegated to just 181.

Again in April 2009, the magazine’s forecast indicated that the UPA would be just marginally ahead of the NDA by 200 seats to 177. Again, the forecast was held immediately ahead of the elections. The Indo-US nuclear deal had been passed by Parliament in July 2008 and all the positive vibes it generated for the Congress and the UPA were factored in. And yet, the magazine’s forecast failed to capture the mood of the nation. The reality was there for everyone to see. The UPA got 262 seats, with the Congress itself performing at its best level in recent times. The NDA was down to 158….

So those of you who are already making predictions about 2014, beware. The Indian voter is unfathomably fickle. It doesn’t take too long for him to change sides. Whatever happens in the last few months is what matters. A flop actor becomes a big star overnight. A sackable captain becomes the toast of the country with one double century. And a corrupt non-performing leader suddenly becomes a “pragmatic” (a victim of political conspiracy!), dynamic one in no time. The battle for 2014 has not even begun!

The real truth is that unlike more stable, evolved societies, we are still fickle, shallow and immature. We are emotional. We change sides often, depending on how things change (see how many people change teams as the IPL progresses!). Dhoni shouldn’t read too much into the praise. Nor should Narendra Modi. This is India meri jaan – where things can change overnight!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

For good news on India, forget Indian media. Read a Pakistani paper instead….

Indian media has decided that it is not going to give us any good news about the country. Good news simply doesn’t get eyeballs. Good news about the country is actually bad news for media – especially TV channels. For them, it’s the imaginative conspiracy theories (which was the family that got the bribe from Agusta Westland?), hyperbolic scam figures (Rs 70,000 crore CWG scam, when only one chargesheet for a total value of less than Rs 150 crores has been filed) and the morbid doomsday scenarios (Pakistan cuts off Indian soldier’s head; as if India’s conduct at the border is entirely Gandhian) that work the best. To turn to the positive stories, turn instead to a – hold your breath – Pakistani newspaper.

I am referring to yesterday’s Dawn and specifically to an article titled “India rises quietly and steadily”. The article relies in part on figures provided by the CII. Here are some of the highlights of the article for those who are unable to access the paper (though it’s easily available on

  • China has stolen the spotlight but the perception is that it is more of a threat than an opportunity for the region. Few have taken note of the rise of India which has been lying low. Through shrewd “camouflaging”, India has been able to avoid attention all these years.
  • At US$ 4.8 trillion, India’s GDP in terms of PPP has already surpassed Japan’s $4.5 trillion to rank third in the world (after the US and China).
  • India’s economy is one of the world’s fastest growing. In 1992-93, the size of India’s economy was $250 billion. Today it is around $1.8 trillion.
  • India is overcoming more than 200 years of poverty. It’s middle class is now emerging. There were 4.6 million middle class households in 1995, with annual income of 2-10 lacs. In 2015, the number of middle class households is projected to reach 60 million and 128 million by 2025. (note: these are households, not individuals).
  • There were 160 million “poor” households with annual income under Rs 2 lacs in 1995. By 2015, this number will fall to 143 million households (despite the huge increase in population).
  • While most of the developed economies are facing sluggish growth, India and other emerging countries have been able to post respectable growth rates. Last year, the US economy grew 2.3% compared to 2% for Japan and -0.5% for the EU. India posted a growth rate of 4.5% (note: it gets this figure wrong. It was more like 6.5%) compared with 7.8% for China.
  • These official statistics don’t tell the whole story. India is a leader in Information Technology. Its software engineers are working in every corner of the world.
  • Indian nationals hold key positions in finance and banking, capital and financial markets, and international institutions such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
  • Significantly India a regional nuclear power. While North Korea’s recent nuclear test has attracted negative criticism and Iran’s nuclear program has brought Western sanctions against the country, India’s test launch of a long-range rocket last year went almost unnoticed.
  • India has avoided much attention all these years while at the same time rising fast because it has walked a delicate line between superpower rivals. It does not upset anyone, except maybe in near neighbors, for historical reasons. It’s non-alignment policy is conspicuous. It has good ties with all countries. Its defence cooperation extends to all camps.
  • It emerged from British rule after the 2nd World War with an understanding of the West. And now it is looking East, particularly to Southeast Asia. In this aspect, India appears to be a better player than China in the regional and global arenas. Last year, trade between India and ASEAN reached almost $70 billion for both exports and imports. All the ingredients are there for India to become a regional power.
Now while India doesn’t need an endorsement from Pakistan for its economic achievements, it certainly helps to know that our neighbor allows such articles to get published. I don’t know when an Indian newspaper published such a glowing article about Pakistan. That’s the problem with Indian media. It tends to be parochial; and focused on dishing out viewpoints that it believes its readers will like. Truth is often sacrificed. I remember this was not the case in the past. Back then, Indian media turned the mirror inwards – towards the ills of our society – and helped in making the country better. It had the courage to point out the flaws in our society; talk directly to the people and ask them to change. Media was an instrument of progress. It led people onto a path of social and economic progress. It wasn’t just a business.Today, Indian media is focused on the negatives; and believes everything wrong is with the government and its institutions. Even during the Anna movement, Indian media failed to ask people to first shun corruption; or on analyzing the pitfalls of the Jan Lokpal Bill; it’s focus was only on accusing the government.

Maybe in the past, we had just the right amount of media. Today, we have a surfeit. In the mad mad fight to emerge the winner in the readership and viewership stakes, our media has surrendered to the lowest instincts of our society, doling out grisly stories and calling it news. India media is free, but it is tainted by political bias, uninformed reporting and even shades of yellow journalism.

The real truth is that India’s growth story is even today the toast of the world. Except that we hardly know it. Sometimes, it is important to look outside to get the real view of what’s inside. The Pakistani article does just that. I wish Indian media could shake itself up a bit, and remind itself of its important role as the 4th estate in a vibrant democracy like India….

Friday, February 22, 2013

Quality of debates in Parliament more dangerous than even terror attacks….

Thank god Parliament is at least functioning. Usually, the first few days (at the very minimum) are just washed out on one excuse or the other. But its hardly a happy feeling one gets when we consider the quality of debates taking place on two important issues that have rocked the country in the last two weeks – the chopper deal and the Hyderabad blasts.

Take the Hyderabad blasts. And the BJP’s “strong attacks” on the Congress on the subject. As per media reports, after Shinde gave his statement in the House, the BJP accused the Home Minister that if only he had gone to Hyderabad “in the night and come back the next morning”, he would have been better prepared. Really? But if he had gone immediately, wouldn’t the same BJP have accused him of disturbing the investigations? But read on to understand how silly the debates can get. Shinde apparently responded by saying that he worked “till 4 am, then flew to Hyderabad, then came to Parliament”, indicating that he had not slept and had in fact been fully involved in the investigations. Even at low levels in the corporate sector, companies don’t demand that their employees account for every minute of their time spent. But it’s not over yet. To Shinde’s statement, the BJP responded “Then you should have gone immediately when the blasts happened”. So having the last word was the objective. There was no suggestion given (but when does the BJP ever give suggestions?). If this is what the BJP means by strong attacks, then god save this country.

The BJP has proved itself to be the most petty, the most shallow of all opposition parties. It is also the most obstructionist; opposing for the sake of opposing. It sees ghosts when none exist. Last year, it opposed the setting up of the NCTC on some lame-duck excuses; mainly taking the “Center is attacking the federal structure” line. Federal structure, my foot. Today, if we had had the NCTC, we could at least have had a better co-ordinated intelligence gathering and sharing function between the Center and the states. It’s unacceptable that Sushma Swaraj today accepts that “But is Centre’s responsibility only to pass on information to states or help them in preventing it? Terrorism is not a normal law and order situation which states can handle on their own” (Economic Times). This is exactly why the NCTC is needed. But instead of accepting its responsibility in opposing the NCTC, the BJP accuses the Congress of “being soft on terror”. We know who’s soft on terror; the party that released scores of terrorists in Kandahar.

Then take this ridiculous debate on the chopper deal, where it is becoming increasingly clear that if anything, the Defence minister is taking it as a personal challenge to turn the tables on the opposition. He wants to cancel the deal, even if that’s an over-reaction. He wants to blacklist Agusta Westland, even if that will harm the country’s interests in the long run. He wants to initiate global litigation and arbitration, even though there is no prosecutable evidence yet. The BJP is finding itself losing the opportunity afforded by this scam. It’s grand hopes of calling it Bofors 2 is failing. So it’s only focus now is on “Italy” and “the family that received the bribes” hoping (praying) that it will somehow connect with Sonia Gandhi. The BJP’s debate in Parliament on the subject is solely focused on this issue.

Ditto with the JD(U). Apparently Sharad Yadav “thundered” in Parliament “We know that bribes were given and we know who gave the bribes. The government should now tell us who received the bribes” (Indian Express). He might as well give options for his question a) Sonia Gandhi b) Congress c) Rahul Gandhi. Such is the pettiness of debates, such the political purpose of it all, that Sharad Yadav pretends not to understand that the information he wants is simply not available. But the political objective is to “make it appear” like the info is available and the Congress simply “isn’t giving it”. It’s such politicization of issues that leads to a status quo on such important issues. The debates are hardly debates; they are simply ways and means to score political brownie points.

In this context, one has to look at the role played by TV cameras installed inside Parliament, supposedly to inform the public about the debates. I am not sure how many “real people” watch Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha TV, but what I do know is that several TV and newspaper editors certainly do. And then they “amplify” the most sensationalist parts of what they see. Sharad Yadav and the BJP are not interested in the debate. They are interested in “being seen” as being “tough”. Once they get enough “bytes”, they are happy to let the issue go. It’s all grandstanding. We really need to ask ourselves whether we need such trivialization of Parliament, just like we have trivialized news by allowed hundreds of news channels. Maybe its time to stop live telecasts of Parliamentary proceedings. The only ones who are benefitting are lowly politicians and even more lowly TV channels. (In this context, also consider the demand of the Anna Hazare’s “gang of 5” to telecast “live” their discussions with the government. They too were interested only in grandstanding, but who wants to understand this?).

Consider also how the TV media operates in our country. They work solely for their “advertising dollars” since all of them depend on that for their survival. And advertising flows depend on TRPs. And TRPs depend on sensationalism (so they have figured). TRP data is released weekly, and hence the focus on weekly “highs”. Every week, something has to be blown up sky high. Usually, it is about government bashing. So it’s the Delhi gang rape one week (or two if they are lucky), the chopper deal another week, and now the Hyderabad blasts for yet another week. Next week will be something else. This shifting focus does nothing to enlighten the public, nor does it do anything to improve the “system”. It’s entirely self-serving and if it works, it brings in the moolah for the channels. The biggest nightmare for TV “journalists” (I shrink at calling them that) is “good news”. TV journalists hate good news. Good news doesn’t get TRPs. Not surprising then that we hardly have any good news on TV. The 1st FDI deal in aviation, (Air Asia), gets just a few seconds. Sharply reduced Whole Price Inflation hardly gets a mention, but a minor uptick gets a full show. Chidambaram’s success in reigning in fiscal deficit gets no mention. Petrol price reductions are boring, but even a 50 paise price hike in diesel is “breaking news”!

The real truth is that the real danger for India is not the terrorists. They strike only once in a while. But our opposition, with their debased political debates in Parliament, and our TV channels, with their perpetual pushing of bad news, attack India every single day. If these are the pillars of our democracy, then we really need to worry about democracy….

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hyderabad blasts should force a new debate on NCTC….

It was exactly a year ago (on Feb 19th, 2012) that the political conflagration over the NCTC broke out, with opposition-ruled states opposing the setting up of the NCTC (National Counter Terrorism Center), even though they had all “unanimously” voted in favor of the UAPA in 2009. The NCTC is part and parcel of the UAPA. I call it a political conflagration because it was just an example of bad politics; keeping political interests ahead of the country’s. Those were the days when the bogey of federalism was being bandied about a lot to attack the Center. The NCTC could not be set up eventually. And today, we have to grapple with another case of terrorism. Who knows…..if the NCTC had been set up, maybe the “unspecific” intelligence report we had could have been more specific and the attack averted.

I am going to reproduce extensively from my post of that day (“Using federalism to politicize terror…..”) since I find most of my points relevant even today. Here goes:

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.

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?

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 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? And 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.

The real truth is that we have wasted a year because of the kind of politics we practice in the country. Even a sensitive subject like the NCTC got politicized. Today Hyderabad was attacked. Tomorrow it could be any other city. Our intelligence set-up remains weak. We remain vulnerable. It’s time we raise our voice against such politics. And demand that the NCTC be set up immediately.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shinde’s regret like parents giving candy to a sulking child….

Sushil Kumar Shinde’s “regret” (for his comments on saffron terror and the RSS/BJP’s involvement in cultivating terror outfits) means little. It’s just a way to appease a crying child by giving him a sugar candy. It’s what parents do all the time with their spoilt children; especially ahead of important events. It’s no different with Shinde, who expressed regret keeping the impending Parliamentary session in mind.

When parents give their sulking child a candy, they “temporarily” forgive the child’s tantrums. It does not mean that the child is right, or that the parents wrong. All that it means is that the wiser of the two – the parents – takes a larger view of things and focuses on the bigger picture. If there is an exam ahead, its important the child focuses on that. If there are guest coming home, its important the child doesn’t throw a tantrum at that time. The compulsions of the moment determine the parents’ course of action. It’s the exact same in this case. The Congress figures it will achieve more by withdrawing a bit now.

To be fair to Shinde, he never linked any particular religion to terror. By calling something “saffron terror”, he only pointed out that there are Hindu terrorists as well (in addition to all the other varieties). It was the exact equivalent of “Green terror”, which doesn’t mean that all Muslims are terrorists. Both descriptions are just a colorful way of understanding terrorism patterns. Shinde’s statement was correct – there surely are Hindu terrorists, just as there are Muslim terrorists. That does not mean he linked a particular religion to terror, even if the BJP thinks so. I don’t think the Shinde’s regret withdraws from that position of fact.

Hindu terror is a position of fact. So many arrests made recently – in cases ranging from the Samjhauta Express blasts to the Mecca Masjid bombing – link Hindu groups to terrorist activities. But I fail to understand why Hindus should get rankled with this. What’s so surprising that a few Hindus were caught indulging in terrorist activities? Is it anyone’s – except the BJP’s of course – hypothesis that Hindus simply cannot be terrorists? And if so, why? What is there in the Hindu religion (or for that matter, in any religion) that permits terrorism? It’s always the rogue elements who bring disrepute to a religion. Why can’t there be rogue elements amongst the Hindus? This is just political balderdash. Stray elements exist in all groupings, and Hindus are no different.

There may not be a linkage to any particular religion. But there surely is to a particular religious grouping – the sangh parivar. In several cases, the linkage with the sangh parivar been established. Several terrorists arrested for the above mentioned crimes are members or ex-members of one or the other outfit of the saffron parivar. The murderer (convicted) of Graham Staines, the Christian missionary working for the benefit of the poorest in Orissa, Dara Singh, was a Bajrang Dal activist. Swami Aseemanand, accused of masterminiding the Samjhauta Express blasts is a Hindu religious leader. This is what Wikipedia writes about him “Swami Aseemanand born as Jatin Chatterjee in West Bengal, joined the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1978”. Lt. Col Purohit, also an accused in the same case is suspected to be a member of the Abhinav Bharat, another Hindu right wing outfit. The organization was first set up before independence by Veer Savarkar, and is currently headed by Savarkar’s grand-daughter, Himani Savarkar, who (Wikipedia mentions) is related to Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi. Abhinav Bharat has also been linked to the Malegaon blasts. Incidentally, Savarkar has been described as having extremely good relations with Hedgewar (the founder of RSS) and the two have been described as “two bodies with one heart”. So let’s not fool ourselves. RSS/Abhinav Bharat/Bajrang Dal….all have regrets of their own to offer to the country.

A regret by Shinde does not mean that he has absolved the sangh parivar of its involvement in terror ats. It is not meant to undo the truth. Shinde’s regret means little on the ground. It won’t stop the arrest of Hindu terrorists, if they are out there. It won’t stop the political fight on the basis of religious ideologies. It won’t stop the hangings of Hindus who are on the death row. The actions will continue as earlier. Whoever is involved will be punished. And that’s the way it should be in any country that believes in the rule of law.

In any case, now that the issue is behind us, let’s see what the BJP does. Does it allow Parliament to function? Or does it disrupt it on some or the other flimsy excuse. My feeling is that it will find some other excuse. Like I wrote yesterday, the party’s obstruction is not on any specific point; it is intended to stop the Congress from doing its job. Let’s keep an eye on what happens.

The real truth is that Shinde and the Congress have behaved like responsible parents, who sometimes concede ground to a spoilt child, keeping an eye on the larger goals. It’s called “maturity”, something that most in politics don’t understand….

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

JPC on chopper deal granted…..but BJP’s real objective is to block Parliament

The government has offered a JPC as well as a full discussion in Parliament to prove it has nothing to hide on the chopper deal. Earlier, it had ordered a CBI inquiry and dispatched a team off to Italy to get any evidence possible. It has also decided more or less to cancel the deal. Every action that Antony and the Government has taken in the last few days indicates its determination to clear the air. If anything, the actions of the government show a confidence that there is nothing to hide. But the BJP is not “satisfied” (as if the job of the ruling party is to satisfy the main opposition party). It is moving towards it’s well thought through plan of blocking Parliament.

It’s now become a habit of the principal opposition party to do so. It did it earlier when the 2G matter came up; that time it didn’t allow Parliament to function for a whole session. Then it did so over what it saw as Chidambaram’s involvement in 2G. He was later cleared by the courts of any involvement. Then yet again on his comments on saffron terror. They have now threatened to boycott Shinde for the same thing. And now, when the BJP says that it will take up the issue of the chopper deal “strongly” in Parliament, it basically means that it will block Parliament again.

The BJP appears determined to create a political ruckus on the chopper deal, come what may. Nothing the government does can satisfy it. They complained about the CBI inquiry, because that’s great politics by itself. With one shot, they can kill two birds – juice the chopper scam itself and also attack the CBI. Then they demanded that “truth” and an explanation on why so much corruption happened on its watch. The government agreed to a discussion in Parliament. It also put out a fact sheet. Then the party demanded “Parliamentary scrutiny”. Now the government has yielded on setting up a JPC, even though JPCs are just a way for jobless MPs of all parties to get the comforts of office. The BJP is now stuck on another demand – a Special Investigation Team (SIT) monitored by the SC. Is that what Parliamentary scrutiny mean? Guess the government will sanction that too….but the BJP will again shift the goal post.

The BJP has been shifting the goal post on another subject – its attack strategy. It first alleged that there was a direct linkage between Tyagi and the Defence Minister and (if they were lucky) the PM as well. But nothing even remotely close has surfaced. In fact, their attacks on Antony are boomeranging. He is emerging stronger by the day. It appears he cares nothing about anything now; except on proving his honesty. He appears hell bent on canceling the order, even ready to ignore the views of his cabinet colleagues. Then the BJP drew up a comical connection with “Italy”, hinting that Sonia Gandhi was somehow involved. The attack has come a cropper. Then it called it “Bofors 2”, but when it emerged that the tech specs were in fact changed under Vajpayee’s term, it ran the risk of being dubbed “Coffin gate 2” instead. And now, the BJP has zeroed in on another attack plan: “Which is the family named in the Italian report???”, alluding (and praying) that the family was the Gandhi family. Arun Jaitley has already given the benefit of doubt to former ACM Tyagi, saying “the Tyagis were never so big as to be called the family”. Well from all that I am reading, the family (which definitely indicates “several” members) clearly means the Tyagis (ACM Tyagi, and his three cousins). But it could also be Vajpayee’s extended family that includes Ranjan Bhattacharya, his foster son-in-law.

This confusion in the BJP’s attack plan is giving the Congress the confidence to take on the BJP. It probably realizes that the BJP is digging its own grave by pushing the matter. Maybe, the BJP will end up with soot on its face. Politics works on hope and this could well be the Congress’s hope, just as much as something (anything!) sticking to the Gandhis is the BJP’s.

The real reason for the BJP to stop Parliament is however different. It wants to stop the Congress from implementing its legislative agenda. It wants to block the passage of the Lokpal, and since it has run out of options to do so, blocking Parliament on some other pretext seems the only route possible. It wants to halt the government’s reforms agenda, hence it wants to block Parliament. It wants to stop the passage of the politically valuable Food Security Act, hence it wants to block Parliament. It wants policy paralysis to recur, so that the economy suffers even more, and it benefits at the hustings, so it wants to block Parliament. The BJP’s agenda is clear. It has to somehow block Parliament. Somehow obstruct the working of the government. And reap political dividends from it, the country be damned.

The biggest fear for the BJP is that the government has started to move. Chidambaram is on a mission to reign in the fiscal deficit, and he will soon get a grip on the current account deficit as well. He has managed to tame inflation, at least the WPI, and has managed to get the RBI to lower rates. He has taken price hikes across sectors. He has also got consensus on GST. Chidambaram is on a roll. There is an economic revival visible on the horizon. The BJP must be really worried, for just a few months back, they were boycotting him in Parliament. Chidambaram must somehow be stopped. And Shinde is also becoming a problem. He hanged Guru and Kasab, depriving the BJP of a baton on that subject. And he now seems set to hang a few others who are on the death row. And then the government also acted so fast on the rapes issue. The BJP was caught by surprise when it brought out the ordinance. All this is making the BJP jittery.

The only way the BJP can halt the Congress now is by keeping on accusing it of corruption. It has to somehow make Choppergate look like a Congress scam. Tyagi or others are not important. The truth is not important. And it has to make the issue drag on as long as possible. The sting of 2G is already gone with nobody being able to prove anything beyond the Rs 200 crore allegation against Raja. The sting of the coal scam also is going away with equal cases coming up against Congress and BJP netas. And the “Rs 70000 crores” CWG scam has become a Rs 100 crore odd charge (of which Kalmadi and co would have made 10-20% at most). The BJP can be expected to nudge “its ally”, the CAG, for a favorable report on the chopper deal. The battle for 2014 has started in right earnest!

The real truth is that the BJP is desperate to halt Parliament, and the Chopper issue is just a good excuse. It would have found something else – maybe the rape law, maybe the “flawed” Lokpal – if this had not surfaced…..

BJP attacks one Constitutional authority (PCI), but applauds another one (CAG)….

The BJP is up in arms against retired SC judge and Press Council of India (PCI) Chairman, Justice Markandey Katju, for his remarks against Narendra Modi. These days, the BJP goes up in arms against anyone and anything that speaks against Modi (including this blogger!) – that must be a sign that Modi is gaining acceptance in the party. What I find peculiar though is the moral high ground the BJP tries to take, arguing that constitutional authorities should not take political sides. Wonder why the party did not consider this point when it openly supported and in fact, applauded the political sides the CAG took???

Let’s be honest here. Katju has the habit of speaking his mind. When he called 90% of Indians idiots, he stirred a hornet’s nest. But honestly, if we consider the behavior and conduct of so many of our people on so many issues, one has to agree that there is at least an iota of truth in what he said. Just look at the way our men treat women – isn’t that idiotic? The way we throw garbage on the streets, liberally smear the street corners with paan syrup (ugghh!), and ogle at women, isn’t that shameful (idiotic in other words)? One can argue with the choice of words that Justice Katju uses, but one can hardly argue against the spirit of his statements. Likewise when he called 80% of Hindus and 80% of Muslims communal, I think he spoke the real truth. Deep down, we all (and not just Muslims) put our religion ahead of everything else. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Immediately after independence, we the people of the Indian subcontinent divided ourselves up into Pakistan and India. Today, we have political parties still based on religious ideologies (BJP, Shiv Sena, SAD, several Muslim parties….). These are all signs of our communal nature.

The BJP doesn’t like Katju because Katju was so forthright on Modi. But what has Katju said that is new? He has only repeated the charge that Modi was complicit in the Godhra riots. How can he not be? He was the CM and he should have been able to control the riots in no time, if he really is as efficient as he claims to be. The truth is that Modi is efficient, and Modi efficiently instructed his police force to stay out of the picture for 2-3 days after the riots started. That’s why the mayhem spread. Had the CM acted promptly, he could have restricted the deaths to 10-20-50. Look at what happened in the communal riots in Assam recently. The CM there did not allow his forces to cool their heels. So while much damage was done, the deaths were limited to a relatively modest number (compared to Godhra).

The moot point is not whether Justice Katju is more Congress than the Congress as the BJP claims. The moot point is about how much politics has entered even our constitutional bodies. If Justice Katju is accused of being a Congress stooge, then why should the CAG, Vinod Rai not be accused of being a BJP stooge? After all, the CAG has broken all conventions in the way he has gone about his job. He has chosen to address media with his reports, while it is an established constitutional provision that the auditor stays behind the scenes, submitting his report to his masters, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee. Not only that, the CAG played politics by calling policy choices losses, exaggerating those “loss” numbers, and projecting (though not directly claiming) that this loss was corruption. In a political environment so surcharged as ours, surely the CAG knew that his colorful remarks would be turned into political missiles? Surely, he is not as na├»ve and innocent as he claims to be when he says that he is merely doing his job?

So if the BJP can applaud the CAG in a full throated way, and croon for the protection of the CAG’s independence, then why can’t it do the same for another constitutional body, the PCI? Is the BJP’s support for the CAG merely because they like the reports brought out by the CAG? There are some rumors that the BJP has a “side deal” with the CAG, with promise of an important ministerial office after he retires (and if the BJP comes to power). There are also reports that Murli Manohar Joshi was in touch with the CAG before the report was published. So are we to assume that the CAG is more BJP than the BJP itself? It surely appears so from a distance.

Such selective criticism of and applause for two constitutional bodies does the BJP no good. It only furthers the impression that the BJP hardly has any principles. It is opportunistic to the core. And it has no qualms in taking clearly parochial viewpoints.

The real truth is that the BJP doesn’t like Katju because he has spoken against Modi. But Katju has spoken against several other things in the past. The BJP is wrong in accusing the PCI Chairman….