Monday, November 24, 2008

Snippets / Mail Today, November 24, 2008

LAST week, over 150 police officials, including DGPs, IGs and senior IB officials from across the country, gathered in Delhi for a meeting convened by the Home Ministry. Normally, such a meeting takes place in the first month of the new year but was advanced this time at the instance of the IB whose chief P. C. Haldar is retiring next month. More time was spent on bear hugs and back pats than serious discussion and I am told the little brain- picking that took place centered around the political impact of Malegaon and its implications on intelligence gathering. But the meeting assumes significance because it is the last one before the elections. The agency has always been seen as an adjunct of the ruling party at the Centre, whoever the incumbent is. The IB's role during the July trust vote was shameful to say the least. As elections near, its officers are getting hyperactive on behalf of their political bosses. The flip side is they have seldom got it right.

Set up GoM, sit back and relax

THERE are Cabinet ministers and Ministers of the Union Council. And then there are Groups of Ministers ( GoM). At last count, there were about 60 such groups. When faced with a delicate problem that has the potential to ruffle the feathers of coalition partners, the UPA Government takes the easy way out and sets up yet another GoM. There are GoMs looking into a whole gamut of issues that normally should have been tackled by the Cabinet. There are groups dealing with Naga talks, airport modernisation, Commonwealth Games, disaster management and even one to decide how far the Delhi Metro should be allowed to expand.
It’s a nice way to abdicate responsibility and avoid taking decisions. But does anything worthwhile happen at these meetings? Not a chance. Last week, a scheduled meeting of the GoM to decide on the Enron- built disaster at Dabhol was postponed because many members were not in town.
They were busy campaigning for the Assembly polls in their states. Many GoMs are headed by senior ministers belonging to alliance partners to whom the PM can hardly afford to hand down sermons like “ Take your job more seriously”. GoM meetings have in the past been scrapped at the last minute because ministers supposed to provide notes on whatever is on the agenda from their ministries came ill- prepared.

But the real reason why nothing works is because quite a few of the GoMs are looking into contentious issues involving corporate rivalries. Among the many GoM meetings put off in recent times was one to decide the gas pricing policy where two brothers, until recently hailed as among the richest men in the world, are fighting a bitter battle. It’s easy to see why the ministers can’t make up their minds.

THE Sangh Parivar is not the type to gloat over a minor victory scored in faraway London but whispers are doing the rounds about the reasons behind Chris Patten, a former British Minister, talking the same language as some ministers of the UPA government. The latter have demanded a ban on the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal while Patten is said to have actively lobbied with Whitehall for a ban on the entry of Sangh Parivar outfit members into Britain, a demand which has now been rejected by the British government. Sangh Parivar circles wonder if Patten’s endorsement of the ban is due to a link with MK Narayanan, the National Security Advisor. Narayanan is a former cop, while Patten is some sort of expert on policing.

Five years ago, Narayanan, as vice- president of a Chennai based think- tank, had hosted Patten and in a speech gushed about being in the presence of “ a celebrity like Patten”. Never mind that the electorate back home in England had rejected him outright. Patten visited Chennai again last month and among the first things he did after getting back home was to raise the demand for the ban in the House of Lords of which he is now a member. I am not sure if the two met on Patten’s recent visit but senior members of the Sangh Parivar do suspect a link between the timing of his Chennai trip and the lobbying for the ban that began on his return home.

Paying for GenNext campaign

THE Election Commission and political parties have for long been involved in a cat and mouse game. Every election, the EC keeps a close watch on poll expenses incurred by parties while the latter devise newer and more sophisticated methods to connect with voters. Delhi is in the middle of an election but a visitor to the city won’t be able to tell, because the EC long ago curtailed the visible, vulgar and ugly aspects of campaigning — the gaudy posters, the loud speakers that blared late into the night, the currency notes and booze bottles that changed hands outside polling booths. And most of all, the cap on expenditure on candidates.

But political parties and leaders have devised innovative methods to get around such curbs. One being the ubiquitous SMS. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all of 80+ then, who employed this new age strategy first. Millions of handset owners were surprised to receive calls ( which were recorded messages) from him asking for votes.

That seems ages ago and cellphone ownership has grown exponentially since then. Today, every third Indian possesses a mobile phone and service providers, knowing there is a killing to be made, have provided details of users to political parties which are now connecting with voters via the handset. Millions of SMSes go out every day seeking votes. But the EC doesn’t agree. It is planning to ask service providers to furnish details of calls made and SMSes sent by politicial leaders and their managers.
The EC wants to club call and SMS charges to the total election expenses allowed per candidate.
Political parties and candidates are likely to accuse the EC of playing spoilsport. To which Nirvachan Sadan can well say: Fair play please.

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