Monday, March 30, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 29, 2009

Seedhi Baat with the Union Minister of State for External Affairs, Anand Sharma. The subjects include the emergence of Varun Gandhi as a leader, the idea of a debate between Manmohan Singh and the BJP leader L. K. Advani, shifting of the IPL to South Africa and formation of the next government after elections.

कांग्रेस के रणनीतिकार एवं विदेश राज्‍य मंत्री आनंद शर्मा ने कहा कि वरुण गांधी से कांग्रेस को कोई खतरा नहीं है.

Part 2 --> Part 3 --> Part 4 --> Part 5

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 30, 2009

THE LAST week has truly seen a shift in power equations. The unilateral pullouts by crucial alliance partners in the UPA and the NDA signifies not just the end of the dominance that the two alliances had in the past few years but also reflects the erosion of authority of the leaders of the two major parties that head the coalitions.

Smaller parties are deserting in droves and their leaders don’t even feel the need for a formal goodbye. Last week, the PMK bid farewell to the UPA with just an informal parting note to Sonia Gandhi from the PMK boss P. Ramadoss, better known in Delhi as Anbumani’s father.

The PMK, you will recall, was with the NDA until it lost the elections 2004. Seeing the numbers stacked against the NDA, it bolted across. Then, as now, Ramadoss had written a letter, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I quote: “ We formed the NDA to serve the cause of the people of India. But the circumstances in Tamil Nadu have made us part company…. however, we will always cherish the friendship forged with the prime minister ( Vajpayee).” I don’t know if he was similarly courteous to Sonia. My guess is not.

The reason is the cabals surrounding the top leaderships of the two parties. Grassroots leaders are denied access to the leadership which in turn leaves the top brass with no idea of the ground realities. Many alliance partners are small outfits but there is so much they can take pride in. And it hurt when the top brass of the Congress and the BJP sent rootless wonders to act as interlocutors to solve intra- coalition problems. These negotiators, all learned, cosmopolitan and very urbane, can carry on a debate in TV studios but not beyond. These interlocutors don’t know either the language or the idiom of small regional leaders or their party’s ideologies.

Earlier, the BJP had officially nominated Jaswant Singh, Venkaiah Naidu and Sushma Swaraj to deal with intra coalition problems but had they been at work, Naveen Patnaik would not have walked away. Instead, it was “ non- official” interlocutors with cross party and cross corporate connections who went as firefighters. Their mission was doomed from the beginning. The Congress sent Digvijay Singh to negotiate with the Samajwadi Party.

Considering that Amar Singh can’t stand him, that’s like sending Jayalalithaa to forge an alliance with Karunanidhi. For more than a year, the UPA and NDA leaders haven’t convened even a single meeting of the coalition partners to discuss issues and the problems plaguing their coalitions.

Instead, lowly deputies who don’t have a finger on the pulse are dispatched to sort things out. When murmurs began of Mulayam, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan forming a bloc within the alliance, Sonia never bothered to deal with them Shinde: Unfit for job directly and instead sent Sushil Kumar Shinde to sort out matters with Lalu. Shinde who? I am sure that was Lalu’s reaction.

The Congress and BJP leaders believe that alliance partners are dependent on them. In the real world, it is the other way round. A deeply divided house is now a certainty and post May 16, leaders of various parties will burn the midnight oil trying to sew up fresh alliances. I will wait to see who the interlocutors are. Will the same sycophantic “ non official types” have seats on the negotiation table or will they be people with knowledge of the terrain. If it is the former, you can be certain that enemies within are at work in both parties.

The new RSS chief /India Today, April 06, 2009

The Moderniser

A perfect blend of idealism and pragmatism, the new RSS chief marks a generational as well as cultural shift in the organisation.

The man with a walrus moustache, framed and garlanded, is a customary backdrop to any stage show by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Now that Mohanrao Bhagwat has taken centrestage as the new boss (sarsanghchalak) of RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founding patriarch of the Sangh Parivar, seems to have got a true inheritor.

They may be two Brahmins from Maharashtra, united by the shape of their moustache and the sweep of their vision about a Hindu Rashtra, but Bhagwat refuses to be a throwback to history. The 58-year-old bachelor from Chandrapur, born 10 years after the death of Hedgewar, is the 21st Century face of an organisation that has often been accused of being steeped in a mythological make-believe.

His new role as a moderniser (a word that doesn’t sit well with the image his organisation has acquired in urban India) is daunting, for he has to strike a fine balance between the challenges of future and the burden of heritage. When the generational shift took place in Nagpur on March 21, it was pretty evident that Bhagwat wanted to be different. The meeting began with Bhagwat’s request that, after nine years as general secretary, he would like to pass the baton to someone else.

But before the veteran pracharak M.G. Vaidya could start the election process, K.S. Sudarshan, the outgoing sarsanghchalak, intervened. He said: “My memory is failing. Recently I was unable to recognise the photograph of Mangal Singh who died after serving as our cook at the RSS headquarters for over 50 years.

Recently, I met Swami Vishwesh Tirth and he advised me to speak less. My responsibility requires me to study more and more but I can’t do that due to my poor health. I want to transfer my responsibilities as sarsanghchalak to Mohanrao Bhagwatji.” Then he vacated his seat and Bhagwat, after touching the feet of Sudarshan and other elders, took over. His first appointment itself spoke a lot about the man. Many expected Suresh Soni, who works as a coordinator between RSS and BJP, would succeed him as general secretary. Bhagwat’s choice for the second-incommand and general secretary was Suresh (Bhaiyaji) Joshi.

It was a smooth transition at Nagpur where the old and the interventionist gave way to a new generation that puts culture above politics. Was it that the new boss didn’t want too much “coordination” between the Sangh and the party? Not surprising as he is the highest apostle of non-intervention.

Bhagwat thinks the BJP— or for that matter any other front organisation— should be left to its own devices. (His predecessor, though, was fond of giving sagely advice to leaders like L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.) Still, he wanted the pracharaks to be familiar with other family members like the BJP, VHP, ABVP and BMS. Under his initiative, some pracharaks were given six-month internships in these organisations. The RSS for him is essentially a cultural organisation with a social responsibility.

Bhagwat’s life so far has been a perfect blend of idealism and pragmatism. Born on September 11, 1950, in a Karhade Brahmin family in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, he began his career as a veterinary officer. His father, Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, was a close associate of Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak.
After spending five years as a pracharak in Gujarat, Bhagwat pére did something rarely heard of in the upper echelons of RSS: he got married and began a new life as an advocate. The son, though, would not be deviated from his path by such temptations. Bhagwat became a pracharak during the Emergency in 1975 and he has remained a strict disciplinarian ever since. At a meeting of state pracharaks, he said, “Our focus must be on quality, not on quantity.”

Quantity matters in the RSS, and Bhagwat is entitled to take credit for making the Parivar bigger. Look at the numbers: 43,905 shakhas (drills) are held daily at 30,015 venues; weekly shakhas at 4,964 and monthly shakhas at 4,507 places. The RSS has over 2,800 full-time pracharaks. And it has 58 front groups representing sections as varied as youth, teachers, Dalits, women, labour, students, and even overseas Indians.

There is one for Muslims as well: The Muslim Rashtriya Manch, which wants to send out the message that “every Muslim is not a fanatic”. Presiding over such an extended Parivar, Bhagwat has the mandate to be the final arbiter of “family values”. Will those values be in harmony with the spirit of the modern times? Or, will they make the existing cultural fault-lines more glaring? He has to kill so many stereotypes before he can play out the script of modernisation within the organisation.

He will have to disown and neutralise the army of rabble-rousers and demonisers who continue to manufacture enemies of the socalled Hindu Rashtra. The lathi-wielding cultural Gestapos running amok or the trident-waving demolishers atop a mosque are not images compatible with Bhagwat’s message of change. He has to redeem Hindutva from the politics of hate. He has to make it culturally and socially acceptable. And it has to be a time of introspection as well. RSS is an organisation which has produced leaders like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Vajpayee, Advani and Nanaji Deshmukh. Today it is only capable of offering us an atrocity like a Pravin Togadia or others who can only divide the mind of India.

He may not consider the pub-going girls of Mangalore particularly modern, but he doesn’t endorse the violent enforcement of culture either. Though he says that the socalled Hindu terrorism is an “illusionary and self-contradictory lie” created by “Hindu-hating political forces” desperate for votes, he is believed to be unhappy about some fringe Hindu groups taking the terror route. And some of his reforms are even sartorial.

Till 10 years ago, it was mandatory for the swayamsevaks to wear a uniform of khaki shorts and white shirts while attending the daily shakha. No longer. The uniform is compulsory only on special occasions. The new dress code is called “supravesh” (all white); it could be anything, even kurta-pyjama or dhoti and shirt. He was very much instrumental in recognising the importance of caste leaders in expanding the RSS’ base.

He doesn’t make a virtue out of rigidity masquerading as consistency. Following Advani’s controversial statement on “secular”Jinnah, Bhagwat was the first to tell the RSS top brass that they should take on the BJP leader. Three years later, the same Bhagwat realised that there was no better alternative than Advani to lead the BJP. So he himself went to meet Advani to announce that he was once again acceptable to the RSS.

A great admirer of Gandhi, he was the one who took the initiative in bringing Scheduled Castes and Tribes into the RSS fold. In one of the speeches he delivered after becoming the general secretary, he didn’t mention the name of Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar even once but Gandhi was a recurring hero. An agitated Savarkar supporter went to Bhagwat and complained. Bhagwat, always polite, apologised first and then took on the challenger: “But tell me whether you appreciate Gandhi’s contribution to society despite his mistakes.” The challenger just walked away in silence, most likely as a wiser man. And his soon-tobe-launched programme called Gau-Gram Sankarshan Yatra (a cow-protection journey across the villages) too is inspired by Gandhi.

Bhagwat, a Reader’s Digest junkie and a regular watcher of History and National Geographic channels, ended his speech in Nagpur with a call for facing up to new challenges: “Let all of us strive to expand and consolidate still further our already existing nationwide network to enable our society to effectively respond to all the challenges it is facing, by adopting appropriate strategies and techniques”.

What are Bhagwat’s strategies and techniques to keep RSS relevant as a cultural organisation? He certainly requires techniques other than powerpoint presentations (of which he is a new convert) and the emphasis on youth power (of which he is a tireless promoter). He needs a message that is in tune with the ideas and aspirations of 21st Century India where a brotherhood based on religion still evokes fear, no matter what the religion is called. “You can change everything , except our core belief in a Hindu Rashtra”, he says.

If such a civilisational definition of India makes some Indians the excluded others, the challenges of the man who aspires to be the moderniser become all the more daunting. It also provides Mohanrao Bhagwat an opportunity to become the Great Reconciler.
—with Shyamlal Yadav and Uday Mahurkar

Snippets / Mail Today, March 30, 2009

NOTHING illustrates the spurious nature of the CPM brand of secularism than its sudden love for Abdul Nasser Madani, the rabble- rousing preacher who spent time in jail for his role in the 1998 serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore. He is rabid enough to make Varun Gandhi look like an angel. Madani was acquitted but police in Karnataka and Kerala, investigating the trail of young men being drafted from the south for terrorist training in Kashmir, are said to have zeroed in on his household. Someone who shares the same roof and more with Madani is indulging in antinational activities. Yet the CPM sups with him for Muslim votes. Clearly, their national interests don’t lie within our borders.

One cheer for election code of conduct
EYEBROWS moved upwards last week when the government announced a three month extension to Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta. Pliable journos swallowed the government’s explanation that the extension followed a request from the Election Commission that he be allowed to stay until the end of the election process.

This is hogwash, because I crosschecked with CEC N. Gopalaswami who told me that the EC had made no such request. Readers may recall that Gupta is the same gentleman who slept while Mumbai burned last November. He remains the only bureaucrat who hasn’t been made to pay a price for his inefficiency. This is primarily due to two things: the powerful benefactors he has in Lutyen’s Delhi and the tug of war in the bureaucracy. Caught between the ambitions of the Commerce Secretary GK Pillai and the Revenue Secretary PV Bhide, both of whom had an eye on the coveted post, the government took the easy, if appalling way out.

An Election Code of Conduct is currently in effect but nobody, not least the government, cares. Since the elections were announced, it has cleared 29 FDI proposals amounting to over Rs 600 crores. Also, it hurried through with the appointment of Meera Shankar as India’s new envoy to Washington.

There is now speculation that the government will announce the appointment of a new election commissioner to fill the vacancy that will arise on April 20 when Gopalaswami retires. There is no constitutional compulsion to have a three member EC. I feel such an appointment will amount to direct interference in the fair conduct of the polls, four of the five phases of which will take place after Gopalaswami's retirement.

THERE were no surprises last week when the RSS nominated Mohan Rao Bhagwat to succeed the ailing K. S. Sudarshan as the new Sarsangchalak. What was surprising, however, were reports that the 58- year- old Bhagwat, who incidentally looks a lot like RSS founder KS Hedgewar, is a Advani backer and has been brought in to strengthen the hands of the BJP’s prime minister- in- waiting. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Before his appointment as Sarsangchalak, Bhagwat was for more than a decade the RSS general secretary.

At several meetings of the organisation’s think tank during that period, he had openly stated that getting embroiled in the politics of the BJP reflected badly on the organisation. He was, in effect, an advocate of a hands- off policy — total non interference in political matters. Sources close to him tell me that his emphasis will be on bringing about a generational change in the RSS, reverting back to the basics of character building and producing committed pracharaks who will wield moral influence over the various organs of the Sangh Parivar.

Over the years, pracharaks who were sent on “ loan” to the BJP have got influenced, even corrupted by the culture of groupism that is ingrained in the BJP. One of the first diktats to come out of Nagpur since Bhagwat’s accession is one aimed at preventing RSS functionaries from directly getting involved in the BJP’s election campaign.

Until now, a designated pracharak headed the election campaign of every BJP candidate, but henceforth, they will not. There will also be minimal interference from the organisation in the party’s candidate selection process. It is obvious his thinking is influenced by the fact that the RSS finds itself at the crossroads. Bhagwat wants to take it back to its past glory. It’s a long haul, but he has age on his side.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 22, 2009

गांधीगीरी से मेरा फायदा हुआ:

संजय दत्त

आज तक के साप्‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम 'सीधी बात' में अभिनेता से नेता बने संजय दत्त ने कहा कि गांधीगीरी से उनके व्‍यक्तितत्‍व को काफी फायदा हुआ. संजय ने कहा कि वह राजनीति में पारदर्शिता लाने की कोशिश करेंगे.

Part 2 --> Part 3 --> Part 4 --> Part 5

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 23, 2009

THERE wasn’t much that was unpredictable that happened last week. The Gandhis as usual dominated the news, but with a surprising twist. In the midst of a most challenging election campaign, Rahul Gandhi was conspicuous by his absence, not to be seen either in college campuses or in the barns of Amethi. But the Gandhis were not missed, since his younger, estranged cousin Varun Feroze took full advantage and was all over the TV channels and newspapers, and for all the wrong reasons. His election campaign — if he still gets the ticket — has got off to the worst possible start after his abominable and totally unacceptable diatribe against the minorities.

He later denied the statements attributed to him but then, you can say he is learning the ropes fast. But that’s besides the point. The question that begs an answer is: was it just a slip of the tongue from the 28 year old Varun, arguably a bright young man who graduated from the London School of Economics, or was there a method behind what leading writers have been unanimous to term as “ political madness”. The BJP, in the midst of an intra- party feud, flip- flopped from totally disowning his remarks one day to showing restrained support to his claim that he was a victim of mischievous media manipulation.

Predictably, the BJP’s allies like the Shiv Sena have been fulsome in supporting him and even hailed him as the “ Real Gandhi”. His subsequent statements, wherein he said he was “ proud of being a Gandhi and a Hindu” would suggest that Varun was consciously setting himself apart from other members of the estranged clan who have been brought up to believe quite to the contrary. So, was there a strategy to project Varun as the new Hindu icon in a state which was Hindutva’s original laboratory and where the BJP has truly fallen on hard times? It has no issues to fall back on, no leaders beyond panchayat stature and a demoralised cadre. Friends in the BJP have told me that, on his own, Varun is trying to mobilise and revive the Hindutva forces and it must have been the exuberance of youth that stood in the way of Varun realising that he had crossed the Lakshman Rekha.

I don’t know if he will now get a ticket and if he gets one, I am no pundit or psephologist to predict victory or defeat. But should he win, there could be two Gandhis in the 15th Lok Sabha who couldn’t be more apart. Cousin Rahul, restrained and cautious and confining himself to the company of close confidantes, just as dad Rajiv did with Arun Singh and Romi Chopra in the short time he was in politics and his mother does now.

And Varun, aggressive, forthright, go- forthe jugular type, just like his dad Sanjay was in the company of Jagdish Tytler, Kamal Nath, Akbar “ Dumpy” Ahmed and others. On a cold wintry night in early 1982, I was outside 1 Safdarjang Road, then home to the country’s prime minister, when Maneka scooped the two year old Varun in her arms in defiance of her mother- in- law and walked out of the Gandhi household for ever. Indira Gandhi was then said to be the most powerful woman in the world and here was a 26- year- old widow taking her on.

The rest, as they say, is history. The moral of the story: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And Varun is as tough as they come.

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 23, 2009

SHASHI Tharoor and VK Krishna Menon have more in common than the fact that they are both Malayalis. Tharoor worked at the UN for 28 years. Menon, High Commissioner to London and Defence Minister during the Nehru years, had a UN connection: he led the Indian delegation there for 10 years and his 1957 speech during a debate on Kashmir is still recorded as the longest ever — 7 hours and 48 minutes.

Both are also parliamentary paratroopers with minor differences. Menon was a charismatic “ outsider” when he contested the 1971 Lok Sabha elections from Trivandrum as an independent after the Congress denied him a ticket. The voters of the cosmopolitan Kerala capital gave him an overwhelming thumbs up. Tharoor has now got the Congress ticket over the claims of several local aspirants who view him as an “ outsider”. His boyish good looks and clipped Malayalam accent will win him many “ ooohs and aaahs”. Menon had neither but got the votes.

AFTER Naveen Patnaik bolted from the NDA, BJP leaders are increasingly coming around to the view that there is another resident Trojan Horse in the alliance in the guise of the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The JD( U) leader has very cordial relations with individuals in the BJP but politically, Nitish is acting like a butcher who is slicing up the BJP piece by piece. All this suggests that Nitish, perceived to be an avowed NDA ally, would rather wait for the election results to be out so that he can plot his future moves.

Strangely for an alliance leader, he tried to influence the selection of his coalition partner’s candidates in a few constituencies. Now that these attempts have come a cropper, he is on a maniacal mission to demolish the BJP- friendly leaders in his own party. George Fernandes fought and won the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, held in the backdrop of the Emergency, from jail, but is now a victim of Nitish’s machinations. He has been denied a ticket on the grounds of ill health, with a promise that he will be sent to the Rajya Sabha, though no vacancy arises there at least for another year.
Another NDA votary who has fallen casualty is Digvijay Singh, the former Union minister of state for external affairs, though in his case, it wasn’t advancing age but caste animosity — Digvijay’s Thakur lineage as against Nitish’s MBC. Unlike Nitish who prefers to keep all doors open, Digvijay has been a staunch NDA supporter and from the outset been against everything that has to do with the Left parties. Is it any wonder then that alliance leaders suspect that while Nitish is physically with the NDA, he is waiting till elections to find out where his heart lies.

EVER since Jawaharlal Nehru ushered Indira into politics, the Gandhi family has been accused of trying to foist democratic monarchy on the country. Indira, in turn brought, first Sanjay and later Rajiv into politics. The baton has since passed on and today, it’s the fourth generation that’s in control. If the charges of dynastic ambitions sound less shrill now, it is because the Gandhis no longer have a monopoly over it. These elections will see two more political sons take the electoral plunge.

In Andhra, Chief Minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy’s son Jaganmohan, a businessman with a somewhat controversial background, is contesting on a Congress ticket. In Karnataka, BS Yedyurappa has quietly nudged his son Vijendra in, bypassing the claims of more senior local BJP leaders. The rate at which scions are being ushered in, the day is not far off when India becomes a union of “ princely” states. Much of North India is already that. Jammu & Kashmir has Omar Abdullah, a third generation CM. In Himachal, PK Dhumal’s likely successor will be son Anurag Thakur.

In Punjab, succession is now a mere formality with Prakash Singh Badal and son Sukhbir sharing the CM- Deputy CM posts while in Haryana, chief minister BS Hooda is keeping the seat warm for Deepender. In Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit may not be mom’s immediate successor, but I have no doubt one day he will be so, as will Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, who will take over from Mulayam.

Though not by design, a second generation CM is now in office in Mumbai. To the South, barring the Left parties, in Kerala dynastic succession plans are in place in every party, while in Tamil Nadu, for every Karunanidhi, there is a Stalin, for every Ramadoss, an Anbumani. This is why we must celebrate the likes of Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. Autocrats that they are, they leave behind no offspring to carry on the tyranny.

The dimming star light
IN POLITICS, as in advertising, nothing works like a star endorsement. In the past, politicians’ eagerness to welcome stars into their fold was matched by the zeal of the latter to take the leap into the world of politics, wicked as it is. That enthusiasm seems to be on the wane. Stars, from the tinsel and sporting world, seem reluctant to take the plunge. Sanjay Dutt and Mohammed Azharuddin are exceptions.

In the case of Sanjay, the Samajwadi Party candidate from Lucknow, it was a matter of scoring brownie points over the Congress with which his late father was and sisters are associated. Having embraced Azharuddin, the Congress can’t seem to find a suitable seat for him, which is not surprising considering that he is accused of selling out the country’s cricket matches. Dharmendra was so bored in his first term, he rarely turned up and has said “ no” to a second term. So have many others. The BJP gave a choice of South Delhi and Lucknow seats to Hema Malini who rejected both. Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Kapil Dev and Anil Kapoor were all approached by one party or the other and each time, the reply was: thanks, but no thanks. Somewhere in the North East, a certain Suresh Oberoi is contesting and voters may know him as the father of Vivek Oberoi, who they will recognise as a one time lover of Aishwariya Rai. But one star who was game for a fight hasn’t been given a ticket. Poor Smriti Irani.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, March 15, 2009

इंडियन प्रीमियर लीग के कमिश्‍नर ललित मोदी ने कहा कि आईपीएल को लेकर राजनीति नहीं होनी चाहिए. मोदी ने कहा कि आईपीएल की तारीखों को लेकर सरकार से किसी तरह का झगड़ा नहीं है.

Part 2 --> Part 3 --> Part 4 --> Part 5 --> Part 6 -->

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, March 16, 2009

A S E- DAY approaches, the bookies are licking their lips in anticipation of making a killing. This is probably the first time when bets will be placed not about the number of seats parties will win, but on which leader will get how many seats and who will be able to outmaneuver others into an unsteady stint at Race Course Road. Strangely, the leaders of the major parties, the Congress and BJP, despite their ubiquitous presence on the worldwide web, don’t seem to figure in the punters scheme of things. But the many other prime ministerial hopefuls promise to make this one of the grandest electoral spectacles ever.
Last week, Sharad Pawar was all over the TV channels and the crux of his argument was: each can project its own prime ministerial candidate. Contrast this with what he said two weeks back. On My TV show Seedhi Baat on Aaj Tak channel, he categorically told me that he was out of electoral politics and said he will not contest elections this time. As if to prove his bona fides, he nominated daughter Supriya Sule as his successor in Baramati. But on Friday, he was seen lighting a lamp somewhere in Mada, a new parliamentary constituency that has emerged from the delimitation exercise. He spoke about the time having come for the election of a Maratha as the Prime Minister, but crucially, his followers zeroed in and identified the Grand Maratha as that Maratha.

It is my belief that it is the ambivalence of the Congress High Command that prompted this Uturn. Look at the Congress campaign and you will see it’s all about Sonia and Rahul. Poor Manmohan Singh just about brings up the rear in the hoardings. This must be disquieting to a man who just a month ago had declared that the UPA will face the elections under Manmohan’s leadership. So, Pawar who had but 11 MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha and who cannot hope to significantly improve upon it in the 15th, set the cat amongst the pigeons. When Pawar does it, everyone sits up and takes note.

The UPA government doesn’t need the IB to tell them that Pawar keeps close contact with the Third Front. He has friends in the BJP. More importantly, he has corporate backers who have the money to dictate the agenda of many smaller political parties. With Pawar, the last word is always the next one.

But Pawar isn’t the only one dreaming. It was IK Gujral who proved that lack of support is no hurdle to realising dreams. So everyone is joining the race. Ram Vilas Paswan told me recently that “ if I am offered prime ministership, I will not reject it”. Such modesty can only come from a man who heads a four- MP party in the Lok Sabha.

Lalu Yadav has said often he “ would like to be prime minister one day”. He may believe the day has come. The fourth rebirth of the Third Front, in front of three lakh people at Tumkur, Karnataka is likely to encourage Deve Gowda to throw his humble farmer’s pagdi into the ring.
Mayawati discarded her trademark aloofness and invited all Third Front members for dinner last week. Add Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalithaa, whose ambitions are likely to soar if they manage to get into double digits. The challenge to Advani may not be from the dynasty after all.

Welcome to the Great Indian Circus.

Snippets/Mail Today, March 16, 2009

WHILE we lament the denial of chance to the youth of this young nation, let us spare a thought for some veterans who will not grace the august chambers during the 15th Lok Sabha. Politically, they may have been poles apart, but the presence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Somnath Chatterjee was a reminder that politics can indeed be a honourable profession. His failing health has not deterred the doughty George Fernandes from seeking election, but if he fails to make it, it won’t be because of ill- health but because of the fratricidal instincts of his partymen. They will be missed. Nobody, though, will miss Giridhar Gomango who is also a nine term member. He stood parliamentary propriety on its head when, as chief minister of Orissa, he turned up in the Lok Sabha to vote in the trust motion that the Vajpayee government lost — by one vote.

Out with the young, ring in the old
THE largest electoral exercise in the world will get under way in just under a month's time and of the over 750 million voters, nearly 500 million — or two- thirds — are aged 35 and under. But if young India expects this reality to be reflected in the 15th Lok Sabha, they should perish the thought. If recent history is anything to go by, leaders of the major parties are unlikely to hand out tickets liberally to their younger colleagues and “ Over To The Youth” remains an empty misleading slogan. In the 57 years since the first general elections, the average age of Lok Sabha members as well as the council of the ministers has climbed up. Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were liberal in handing out election tickets to the young, but their progenies have been rather miserly. In the first five Lok Sabhas, the average age of an MP was less than 50, while in the 14th Lok Sabha, it was 53.
The Congress party may be projecting Rahul Gandhi as the face of the party's — and indeed the country's — future, but the emphasis on youth starts with the young scion and ends with a handful of leaders who form his inner circle. Sonia and Rahul are merely following the tradition set by Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi who gave us perhaps two of the oldest Lok Sabhas.

In 1980, two- thirds of the members were handpicked by Sanjay Gandhi and yet the house had a grey look about it. In 1984, the chosen ones of India’s youngest Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, filled nearly 4/ 5th of the seats and yet, the treasury benches had a grizzled look. In 1999 and 2004, Sonia followed the path of her husband and reposed faith in the old guard. Ironically, it was the 12th Lok Sabha formed in 1998 which had the lowest average age: 45 years. It was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then 73. Proof that it takes the old to truly empathise with the young.

POLITICAL leaders may be looking for issue or ideology based alliances but their spinmeisters can't seem to make out the difference between social networking and political matchmaking.
The collapse of the BJDBJP pact in Orissa, which had withstood many pulls and pressures for eleven years broke less because of Naveen Patnaik’s new found anathema for the BJP. Indeed it had a lot to do with the fact that while the interlocutors on both sides were socially and culturally compatible, politically one side didn't quite measure up.

It is no secret that the son of the legendary Biju Patnaik, who used to rub shoulders with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis until his father’s death prompted him to take the plunge into politics, is uncomfortable in any language other than English. In fact, it was only after he became the chief minister that he began to learn his mother tongue. Yet the BJP leadership picked Vinay Katiyar, the former Bajrang Dal chief, to soften him up. The reception he got from Naveen is said to have been so frosty, Katiyar was quick to retreat.

The wise men sitting at 11 Ashoka Road then decided to send another set of emissaries, those who Naveen would find “ socially and culturally compatible” — People Like Us ( PLUs). That they are Naveen’s good friends is never in doubt, but there is a crucial difference between friends you invite home for an evening over 16 year vintage Lagavulin and those who come by for more serious business. The BJP emissaries fell in the first category. It's amazing how a party that seeks to capture power at the Centre could be so naïve. Pappu Patnaik's interlocutors, on the other hand, were politically motivated enough to take their social friends in the BJP for a ride. Suggestions that senior leaders with stature and political pedigree deal with a man of Naveen's stature were sabotaged.

The result is that while Naveen retains his “ social and cultural acceptability” in a section of the BJP that has no electoral significance, the saffronites have lost a crucial ally.

Democracy's soaring costs

ELECTION may have succeeded in taming the mafia and money bags from indulging in naked political dance. With every passing election, the percentage of eligible voters who actually bother to turn up shrinks. Yet the expenses on the quintennial exercise keeping spiraling.

An independent study estimates that all the political parties and candidates put together, the spend on the 15th Lok Sabha elections can be about Rs 10,000 crores in less than two months.
That’s more than what all presidential aspirants, including the ultimate winner Barrack Obama, spent through the year and a half long process beginning with the primaries until voting day. The fault, partly, is the Election Commission's for its inability to manage its own expenses and fix a more compact time frame for the polls. Even with EVMs and the full support of the state machinery, including para- military forces, it takes almost two months, as against a week it took in the 1950s, for the poll process to be completed. The commission’s own expenditure in the last elections was around Rs 1,300 crore — approx Rs 2.4 crore for each Lok Sabha constituency. Compare this with the Rs 10 crore spent for the 1952 polls — that is Rs 2 lakh per constituency.
So while the EC's expenses skyrocket, the expenses that candidates are allowed remains static at Rs 25 lakh. No wonder most politicos, as in real life, don’t file honest returns.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, March 8, 2009

आज तक के साप्‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम 'सीधी बात' में पाकिस्‍तान के पूर्व राष्‍ट्रपति परवेज मुशर्रफ ने कहा कि भारत-पाक के बीच शांति के लिए कश्‍मीर समस्‍या का हल बहुत जरूरी है. उन्‍होंने यह भी कहा कि आतंकवादी किसी देश का नहीं होता और ना कोई देश आतंकवाद को बढ़ावा देता है.
Part 2 --> Part 3 --> Part 4 --> Part 5 --> Part 6 -->

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today/ March 09, 2009

DESPITE frequent reminders to the contrary, most of us still like to believe that politics and sports should not be mixed. But last week was a curious case of a dose of politics coming to the rescue of sport.

It has taken but one season for the Indian Premier League to become the most anticipated event in the country's sporting calendar. But after the Election Commission announced the polls dates last Monday, the IPL, whose schedule was drawn up much earlier, faced the real danger of postponement, putting into disarray the carefully laid out plans of the eight teams that forked out crores of rupees to bring world- class cricketers to India to play for a worldwide audience.

It started with the normally extra cautious Home Minister P Chidambaram who cited security reasons and the strain of paramilitary forces to state that the IPL and LSE ( Lok Sabha Elections) cannot be held together. The real reason, I gather, is something else. PC’s statement may have something to do with the DMK government’s opposition to the holding of matches in Chennai, which in turn had less to with security concerns and more with the proximity of the Chennai Super Kings team bigwigs with the AIADMK’s Jayalalitha.

Since the Home Minister’s statement is seen as the official stand of the Centre, Sharad Pawar was quick to back it. But in the meantime, the Maharashtra Home Minister, Jayant Patil from Pawar’s own NCP, had already assured the Mumbai Cricket Association that the state government would provide full security for all matches featuring the Mumbai Indians to be played in the city. Elsewhere in the country too, apprehensive state governments were rapidly toeing the IPL line.

Behind the mystery of these quick turnarounds was the hand of commissioner Lalit Modi, whose baby the IPL is. In West Bengal, elections are never easy, never free and never fair and the Left Front government’s worries about law and order during the poll process wasn’t quite out of place. But the apprehensions were removed after Modi got Saurav Ganguly, cricketer- turned cricket ambassador, to contact Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Even Shah Rukh Khan, who owns the local Kolkatta Knight Riders, is said to have got through to Writers Building.

Initially, the BJP officially adopted a low profile, but Arun Jeitley, its chief campaign strategist who is also on the IPL board, wasn’t lying low. He got all cricket associations in NDA- ruled states to offer their grounds, along with assurances from the local BJP governments of security for the teams. Overnight, Himachal offered the picturesque ground in Dharamsala, Modisaab in Gujarat said he would personally welcome teams to Rajkot and Ahmedabad, and in Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Chauhan offered the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Indore. Police Commissioners and District magistrates in each of these cities were asked to give clearances after complying with the all requisite requirements.

What started out as political one- upmanship has now culminated in distant Dharmsala getting to host two matches of the Punjab Kings XI for which the stadium is being fitted with floodlights.
Sometimes a controversy ends well, and this is one of those. No major bruises, though the Congress is left looking a bit sheepish. When the first ball of the second IPL is bowled, cricket aficionados in the country will be saluting Modi, Pawar and Jaitley.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, March 09, 2009

EARLY morning in Chennai today, with by the typical fanfare that is associated with nearly everything that she does, the AIADMK leader Jayalalitha will sit on fast in support of the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Strangely, the man whom she even today hates as much as she once hated the LTTE, Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi has welcomed the move. Another sworn enemy, the Pattali Makkal Katchi( PMK) leader Dr S Ramadoss has gone a step ahead and said, though a muchbelated decision, he will personally go to the site of her protest site and offer a glass of " soothukudi" juice ( mausami) to break the fast. So is the DMK- led alliance in the state crumbling? Will the PMK follow in the footsteps of Vaiko's DMK and hitch itself to the AIADMK bandwagon? If it happens, it will be as much a a shock to Karunanidhi as the news of the Biju Janata Dal deserting the NDA is to LK Advani.
A meeting waiting to happen
WHATEVER he sets out to do, P Chidambaram is a hands- on kind of man. As home minister, he is known to chair meetings like a CEO, dictating targets, setting deadlines and keeping a hawk’s eye on the implementation of the orders. And when it come to the Law and Order situation in the NDA- ruled states, he displays a missionary zeal which is not seen in his dealing with, say the Left- ruled West Bengal and the Congress- NCP alliance in Maharashtra. Since the unfortunate events at a Mangalore pub and in Bangalore in January, Karnataka has been very much on his radar. On three occasions he scheduled meetings in Bangalore with the local authorities and all three were put off.
The reason: the absence of the BJP chief minister of Karnataka. PC believes BS Yedyurappa should be present at thee meetings while the chief minister thinks that with elections announced, he has his plate full. So he deputed his home minister VS Acharya.

The Union Home Minister’s advisors are known to have cited protocol and rank to bring Yedyurappa to the talks- table. But Yedyurappa seized the same argument to state that he has already met the prime minister in this regard and he wasn’t compelled to sort out matters with PC. Perhaps Yeddy has more important items on his agenda. While PC only has to manage his own election from Shivaganga in Tamil Nadu, Yedyurappa will have to deliver Karnataka for
the BJP.

TO SAY that Rahul Gandhi is the second most powerful person in the Congress is to state the obvious. Yet this most important of persons has so far stayed away from the intricacies associated with coalition politics, leaving the job to others who are more accomplished in the wheeling- dealings that go with it. So there was intense speculation about young Rahul taking the plunge into hitherto- unchartered territory when last week he visited Vasantdada Patil Sugar Institute at Manjari near Pune where he was received by sugar baron Sharad Pawar who also happens to be the Union Agriculuture minister. Tongues wagged that Sonia had dispatched her son to woo the Nationalist Congress Party chief who of late was seen to be hobnobbing with the Shiv Sena and strike a 50: 50 deal for the 48 seats at stake from the state to the Lok sabha. It was nothing of the sort. No politics was discussed and the visit was merely the latest in Rahul’s “ Discover India” tours that has taken him to the interiors in several states.

About a month ago, Rahul had sent a request to the Institute directors expressing a desire to visit one of the sugar cooperatives. Taken by surprise, they got in touch with Pawar, who is also the Institute chairman. All arrangement were made to receive the VVIP visitor, which included a 90- minute long power point presentation from the institute directors that detailed the success story of the sugar cooperative movement.

The party’s crown prince who was accompanied by the minister of state for communications Jyotiraditya Scindia was surprised to be received by Pawar himself. Local Congress leaders had hoped to use the visit to score brownie points over their inner party rivals but Rahul made it clear that he would not want to meet with anyone from his party during the trip. Among those sulking was Suresh Kalmadi, the self- styled Pune icon. Was young Rahul showing his displeasure at the tardy progress in the preparations for Commonwealth Games, whose Organising Committee Kalmadi heads?

Ramesh arrives unannounced
WITH power in its hands, the Congress has never had a problem encroaching on property that rightfully did not belong to it. Lutyens’ Delhi in littered with bungalows that belong to the government but have been in the occupation of the party for years. But now there is a curious intra- party encroachment battle brewing in the Congress which has left several top leaders seething with rage.

For years, the Congress publicity department has been functioning out of 15 Gurdwara Rakabganj Road, which became an adda of sorts for the bigwigs. Among those who often dropped in in the evening by to discuss strategy over hot, heavenly coffee and greasy pakoras were the AICC general secretary and its publicity department chief Digvijay Singh, Sonia- aide Ahmed Patel, junior external affairs minister Anand Sharma, Science and technology minister Kapil Sibal, BK Hariprasad, Janardan Dwiwedi, with Rahul Gandhi occasional dropping by. Like the bizarre stories of land- grabbing on tony South Delhi addresses that one occasionally reads about in the papers, there is a new occupant at No 15. He arrived virtually unannounced and plonked his belongings.

Jairam Ramesh, you may recall, was Union minister of state for commerce, industry and power until about a fortnight ago when he suddenly realized that his services were be needed by the party in this crucial election. Sonia Gandhi then appointing him as co- coordinator “ for Lok Sabha elections- related affairs”, aware ofall his connections including those in the corporate. The others came to know about the new occupant only when they grouped together at the adda a few days later. The suave, Harvard- educated Ramesh has all the qualities that endear him to both Sonia and Rahul, including an accent that is music to the ears of the First family. It’s not for nothing they call him the Arun Jeitley of the Congress. Right accent and right connections, including corporate ones.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, March 01, 2009

In Seedhi Baat, the Lok Janshakti Party leader and the MP from Hajipur, Ramvilas Paswan, talks about the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and the political battleground of Bihar. He also makes his position clear on the issue of a Dalit PM. As far as relations with Pakistan go, he is of the opinion that the government of India has been quite successful in dealing with that country, post 26/11.

'पीएम पद के लिए अभी सोचना गलत'

केंद्रीय मंत्री और यूपीए के नेता रामविलास पासवान का कहना है कि आगामी लोकसभा चुनावों के बाद अगर प्रधानमंत्री पद के लिए उनका नाम सामने आएगा तो वो जरूर विचार करेंगे.
Video: Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Monday, March 2, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 02, 2009

ANY serious illness or injury needs adequate recovery time. When Sachin Tendulkar tears a ligament and has to undergo operation, the entire country prays for his recovery. We don’t mind if India lose a few matches in his absence as long as he is back fully fit. Recently, the rotator cuff on Shah Rukh Khan’s shoulder packed up and he went under the knife. We waited and hoped and prayed that he will be back better than before. We are ready to give these young men in their 30s and 40s the time they need to recover.

And indeed we pray that Manmohan Singh is healthy and back at work soon. But it seems his party is not ready to show the same grace to our prime minister who has just had a major heart surgery.

Thankfully, the surgery went off well and his recovery rate is said to be amazing for a man who is all of 77. But you don’t have to be a doctor to know that rapid recovery doesn’t make him fit to get back into the rough and tumble of Indian politics. But the embedded sycophants in the party and outside seem to think so and I assume they want to milk him for all the votes he can get them.

Almost daily, “ unofficial” health bulletins are released about his state. One overenthusiastic partyman even told journalists he will be attending the last day of the last session of the 14th Lok Sabha while one newspaper quoted unnamed sources to report that he works out daily on the treadmill and holds meetings with key aides every morning.

This is nothing less than perverse, does him more harm than good and has left the prime minister’s family seething. It’s a fact that he wanted to attend Parliament. His doctors told him he was fit enough to do that, yet advised him to take it easy and be fit for the impending Big Battle instead of getting tangled in petty parliamentary skirmishes. That’s why he didn’t go. But since some of the papers had said he will attend Parliament and he eventually didn’t, questions were suddenly raised about the state of his health, and rumours began to do the rounds that all is not well.

It prompted the punting classes from the UPA to float trial balloons of alternative prime ministerial candidates and the BJP’s LK Advani even called for a constitutional amendment to ensure that only a Lok Sabha member can become the prime minister. I don’t know what the connection is, but if Advani is alluding to a candidate’s state of preparedness to fight a gruelling election, he couldn’t have been more mistaken. This is a country where candidates have won elections without ever having stepped out of their prison cells. And the groundswell of sympathy for Manmohan is such that he may well win his first popular election, if he chooses to contest, without ever emerging out of Race Course Road. But he will emerge soon. I have known Dr Singh for many years and though I won’t claim to have met him after his surgery, I am told that in a few weeks’ time, he will be ready for the Big Fight.

Tomorrow the election schedule will be announced and not long afterwards will begin the countless meetings of the Congress Election Committee, its Working Committee etc. One cabinet minister told me that Manmohan will be attending all of these and apart from being the UPA’s candidate for a second term, will be an important cog in the campaign wheel. If the overeager partymen leave him to his own to recover, they will be giving his family — and themselves — a very precious gift.

Snippets/ Mail Today, March 02, 2009

THE unseemly spat between the Women and Child Welfare Minister Renuka Chowdhury and Nirmala Venkatesh, member, National Commission for Women, has reached its denouement. Venkatesh has lost her job, being removed from her post when barely 96 hours were left for the electoral code of conduct to come into effect which forbids the government from removing or transferring officers. It is further proof that most such commissions are shorn of all independence and function at the mercy of the government of the day. Her only fault was that she refused to toe the minister’s — and the UPA government’s — line and gave a clean chit to the Ram Sene in the case relating to the attack on girls at a Mangalore pub in January. Nirmala was appointed to the commission by the UPA, so presumably she cannot be accused of being a “ chaddiwali”. Like baldness, there seems to be no cure for intolerance.

For Lalu it’s all about striking a pose
THE story of Lalu Yadav’s flamboyance is an old one, but every now and then, the man himself updates it by giving it a new twist. This only reinforces the widespread belief that whatever the railway minister does, he has one eye set on the vote bank and the other on public impact. The largesse he has showered on Bihar in successive railway budgets is proof that he is in a hurry to again occupy his old office at the Patna secretariat.

Last week, the man who left office as Bihar chief minister in shame after he was caught with his hands in the till walked into chief minister Nitish Kumar’s office on a holiday and handed over to him two cheques totalling Rs 40 crore. Despite their frosty relations, Nitish warmly received him and accepted Lalu’s donation for the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, fully aware of the political import of Lalu’s gesture.

Of the Rs 40 crore, Rs 38 crore had been collected through voluntary contributions from railway employees after Indian Railways set up a relief fund in the wake of the Kosi floods that devastated much of the state in mid 2008.

The balance of Rs 2 crore came from Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. The collection drive began sometime in August soon after the Kosi breached its embankment. The money was all in the bag months ago. But Lalu would have us believe that he was so busy turning around the fortunes of Indian Railways that he found no time to visit his home state to hand it over to Nitish. The truth is that nobody knows it better than Lalu that acts of generosity are better done in full glare of election TV cameras. Better still, on election eve.

ABHISHEK BACHCHAN, who is said to have broken the Guinness record for maximum public appearances in a day while promoting his latest movie, will not be too happy to know that his efforts pale in comparison with the achievements of the UPA ministers. Without exception, they are all laying foundation stones, opening bridges, flagging off new trains, unveiling statues, inaugurating steel plants and new airports and it makes you wonder if they ever manage to find time to drop by at office and look at a few pending files. Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has opened/ laid foundation stones for nearly two dozen airports, leaving most people gasping trying to figure out where are they going to find the airplanes to service these airstrips. Someone has to remind the fawning ministers of the UPA government that their chairperson is actually squirming at the barrage of newspapers advertisements, all flaunting her pictures, over the past few days for which crores of public money are being spent to remind us of the breakneck work rate for our welfare.

Technically, the power behind the throne is not a public office but in reality, the world knows that in the current dispensation, Sonia Gandhi is the entire cabinet rolled into one. In the last two weeks, most national dailies have had on an average anything between eight and ten full page ads from various ministries and departments making outlandish claims about ministerial achievements, all flaunting her pictures alongside that of the respective ministers.

I can’t figure out how public money is being spent to sing paeans to someone who holds no public office, when it is well known that both Sonia and Rahul are squeamish about such things. Some years ago, on a PIL from the late HD Shourie, probably India’s best known consumer advocate, the judiciary had restrained ministries from using public funds for such advertisements that really fool nobody. But the court directives are brazenly flouted. Mercifully, with the electoral code of conduct coming into effect from tomorrow, this nonsense will stop. At least for the next six weeks.

Verbal jousts are in now
WE ALL know that most political speeches are written by clever speech writers. These elections are likely to see less of this tribe as the fight between the major players seems to be less about ideology and is taking the shape of many minor verbal skirmishes in which leaders often use words without realising their implications.

Many of them are unwittingly falling back on history books, if not at least a thesaurus, to find new ways to pin the opponent. Last week, LK Advani hosted several, mostly unknown, former foreign service officials at his residence, presumably to get a lowdown on foreign policy. The consensus at the end seemed to be that Indian foreign policy is perceived to be weak kneed and correctives were called for. In a press release that followed, the party said that if elected to power, the NDA would “ follow a muscular foreign policy”. With that the floodgates of abuse opened up. The Congress spokesman said this was further proof of BJP’s fascist tendencies since the phrase used was a legacy of the Third Reich.

Referring to recent pictures of Advani lifting dumbbells at a gym in Ahmedabad, the party warned him about the perils of “ gymming” at 81. Home Minister P Chidambaram was restrained in saying that the UPA believed in “ cerebral foreign policy and coercive diplomacy”. Advani started it, but Round 1 clearly goes to the Congress.