Monday, September 27, 2010

Power and Politics / Mail Today, September 27, 2010

IF ANYONE ran Suresh Kalmadi close on the front pages of newspapers and on TV last week, it wasn’t Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee or any of the usual suspects. It was Ramesh Chandra Tripathi. Tripathi who, you may be tempted to ask. He is the 71- year- old retired bureaucrat who cited, among other things, the chances of disturbance to communal harmony while approaching the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court to seek postponement of the Ayodhya verdict which has been awaiting its denouement for over 61 years now.

Last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party accused Tripathi of being a Congress plant, set up by the ruling party that did not want to deal with the political and social consequences of a judicial verdict that, whichever way it went, was bound to pit one community against the other.
Last Friday, the BJP which had earlier decided to maintain a discreet silence on the matter till the verdict of the Lucknow bench was out, broke the silence and blamed the judiciary for failing to resolve the issue.

After a meeting of its core group, the party said it “ was of the opinion that judicial delays over the last 61 years have contributed to the failure of the resolution on the issue… we hope that the resolution of this issue is not delayed any further” . Why the sudden turnaround? My instincts tell me that the BJP is as wary of an early judgment as the Congress. Both national parties have their reasons to believe that the more the issue is allowed to linger on, the less they will be compelled to take a stand.

Take the Congress. The government at the centre already had its hands full even without the near fiasco of the Commonwealth Games. A judgment either way would have forced it to display some steely resolve in dealing with an issue with immense potential to inflame communal passions.

The BJP’s dilemma was no different: if the verdict went against its cause, it would have been left with no option but to take a strident stand, something that the party does not want to do at this juncture.

You can pin it all down to Bihar, where assembly elections are due to take place in the next couple of months. Electoral considerations have always dictated the agenda of political parties. But what we are witnessing now, and for the first time perhaps, is how parties are using their political convenience to cloud the judicial delivery mechanism.

The BJP turnaround came on a day that its leader L. K. Advani R. C. Tripathi was in Somnath from where, — exactly 20 years ago — he started the Rath Yatra. It was when the yatra entered Bihar that Lalu Prasad, then Janata Dal chief minister, ordered Advani’s arrest which led to the BJP withdrawing support to the V. P. Singh government at the Centre and its subsequent fall.

The political landscape may have changed much in 20 years but Bihar remains as polarised now as it was then. The BJP is a partner in the Janata Dal- United- led coalition government of Nitish Kumar who wears his pro- minority credentials on his sleeve. As electioneering picks up, Nitish has told Narendra Modi that he is not needed for campaigning in Bihar. But the party’s central office is facing tremendous pressure from the party’s state unit and RSS cadres to dispatch the BJP’s most charismatic votecatcher to Bihar.

A similar pressure is now being put on the central office from the RSS and hardcore party faithful. In the last few days, as the apex court and the high court tossed the ball back and forth, the RSS and the VHP top brass have meet several times to take stock. Both agree that the issue cannot be resolved through reconciliation and would rather opt for an early verdict from the Lucknow bench. Both have also assured the BJP that whatever outcome will be dealt with peacefully.

While the BJP deals with its internal pulls and pressures, the message is the government is willy- nilly allowing the perception to gain ground that administrative convenience is more important than judicial pronouncements.

In the process, the clear message that goes out is that a state that is scared of implementing a judicial verdict is impeding the judiciary from delivering justice.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, September 26, 2010

International president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Ashok Singhal says in Seedhi Baat that all the parties involved in the Ayodhya dispute should welcome the court's decision and further adds that the ultimate decision rests with the government in the matter.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, September 20, 2010

WHEN he was appointed general secretary of the Indian National Congress three years ago, Rahul Gandhi was given charge of the party’s youth wings — the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India. The unmistakable spring in the steps of these frontal organisations is proof that he has made a difference.

Something similar is happening in the parent organisation and in the government. After leaving the party and policy matters to the old guard all these years, Rahul is suddenly taking a string of initiatives and making statements that are sparking debate in the Congress and setting the agenda for the UPA government, leaving many of his senior party colleagues standing.

Rahul was in Kolkata on the day of the allparty meeting on Kashmir convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but he was all the while being updated about the goings- on at Race Course Road during the five- hour session. His keen interest may have something to do with the fact that after the last assembly elections in Kashmir, it was his support that helped friend Omar beat his father Farooq Abdullah for the chief ministership.

So, when he came to know that Omar was being pilloried not just by the Opposition BJP and the PDP but even powerful elements in the Congress at the all- party meeting, he addressed a press conference in Kolkata to reiterate faith in his friend. “ Kashmir is a difficult place and Omar is a youngster doing a tough job. We have to give him time and support him in his job,” Rahul said.
With Rahul backing Omar to the hilt, Congressmen were quick to fall in line while Mehbooba Mufti, who fancied her chances of replacing Omar with the Congress’s help, saw it slip by.

It was the first time that Rahul had expressed himself publicly on a contentious political issue but it may have far- reaching consequences which are difficult to predict now. But it is no flash in the pan and the young general secretary has been preparing for this for long.

A casual glance at the schedule of this itinerant traveller over the past 16 months of UPA- 2 would reveal that there is hardly a place in the country that Rahul has not visited. He has made no less than 46 crosscountry trips during this period. This, of course, does not include the frequent private tours that he is known to make in the company of sister Priyanka and her family.

Though in the beginning, he limited himself to subjects related to the young generation, he was soon taking on larger local issues at the state level and Omar Abdullah even the biggest of political enemies such as Mayawati . The UPA government may seem like a bundle of confusion and contradictions but there is none of that in the young man’s mind. Many states are due for assembly polls in less than a year and in some, as in West Bengal, the Congress has to take on the Left as well as do the delicate balancing act of trying to win votes while at the same ensuring that a powerful ally like Mamata Banerjee is not annoyed. Rahul went to Kolkata and Shantiniketan last week to convey the message that after 33 years of communist misrule, Bengalis deserved a change.

He was equally forthright in telling the Trinamool Congress that “ allies we may be but some home truths need to be told”. Retribution was swift as Mamata compared him to a “ cuckoo” whose visits are seasonal. Instead of retorting in the same language, Rahul expressed his respect for Mamata while reiterating that the Congress would not bend before her. The party cadres in West Bengal could not have asked for a better booster shot.

The “ environment versus development” debate that had been raging in the government and the Congress for some time now seems to have been put to rest after Rahul’s visit to the Nigyamgiri hills earlier this month where he battled for the rights of the tribals.

The seal of authority was rubber stamped when Sonia Gandhi, in her letter to Congressmen in the party mouthpiece Sandesh, wrote: “ The Congress party’s commitment to the welfare of the underprivileged and weaker sections was reinforced after the decision to protect the Nigyamgiri region from mining by party general Rahul Gandhi, who assured the tribal people that their fundamental interest would not be sacrificed in pursuit of development of natural resources.” I don’t know if synchronised swimming is included in Commonwealth Games aquatics but if they were handing out medals for synchronised politics, we know around whose necks the medals will hang.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Power and Politics/ Mail Today, September 13, 2010

POLITICS, they say, is the art of the possible.
Just four months after the two sides went through a messy divorce, the BJP and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha are together again and Arjun Munda was sworn in as chief minister for the third time last Saturday.

That the Congress cried foul, and called it an “ unholy alliance” was something expected, but what came as a surprise were inspired leaks from party bigwigs about the BJP being a house divided on the matter and of L. K. Advani being so miffed that he was planning to give the swearing- in a miss.

If it is true that Advani and other senior leaders at 11, Ashok Road, are upset and angry at the turn of events, that may have a lot to do with the fact that, perhaps for the first time ever, the senior party leaders were absolutely in the dark about the quiet moves that were being made to put a government in place in Ranchi.

The decision was taken by the RSS leadership which had decided a long time ago that the sensitive state, which is both a theatre for conversions and a playing field for Naxalites, cannot be allowed to slip into the hands of ‘ pseudo- secularists’. The RSS, based on inputs from its frontal organisations in the state, had decided that since it were the tribals, whom the JMM claimed to represent, who were the primary targets of conversion, the BJP had no options but to make some compromises for the bigger cause. The RSS believes that only a tribal- dominated government lead by a tribal leader would be able to resist forced conversions.

To recap: Relations between the two parties had turned sour in May when the JMM, which formed the government in alliance with the BJP after the assembly elections in Jharkhand last December threw up a hung assembly, voted in favour of the Manmohan Singh government against the BJP- sponsored cut motions in parliament. An angry BJP withdrew support to the Shibu Soren- led government. The BJPJMM’s has been a love- hate relationship.

When a non bailable warrant was issued against Soren, the coal minister in the UPA government in 2004, the BJP stalled Parliament for days together and even petitioned the then President APJ Abdul Kalam to dismiss the minister. Politics has turned a full circle and not only are the two parties supping once again, even Soren and Arjun Munda, once sworn foes, are now camp mates.

Once the RSS was certain that another government could be formed, it went about it in a very hushed manner. The reason that no more than a handful were privy to the goings- on was because the last time a reunion was attempted, it was sabotaged by elements at Ashoka Road who spread the canard that the party will concede leadership to the JMM. Yashwant Sinha This is humbug, because when efforts were made in July and MLAs sounded out, 13 of the 18 BJP MLAs had said they would support a new government conditional to it being led by Munda.

Yet, for reasons that only the central leadership knows, it propped up Yashwant Sinha, an efficient administrator no doubt, but who is seen in the Jharkhand context as some sort of a cultural misfit.

Evidence of the internal sabotage was strewn all around and the RSS was clearly determined not to let it happen a second time. The entire operation was a well kept secret.

Though the BJP constitution says the party’s choice of a chief minister is decided by the party’s Parliamentary Board, there is also a clause that allows the party president to take a decision if an emergency arises.

Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh, trusted soldiers of the RSS, had worked quietly on the MLAs of both parties as well as those belonging to the JVM. The legislators were warned about the prospects of dissolution of the assembly and the possibilities of central rule under a Congress regime in New Delhi.

Even as they were in touch with important leaders in the state, they never divulged the shape and contours of the new government nor did they give out details of the time frame within which the operation was to be carried out.

His two earlier terms put together, Munda had served less than three years as chief minister.
The quicksand that Jharkhand politics is, it will be foolish to speculate how long he will stay in this third innings.

To hard core BJP sympathisers, that is less important than the fact that for the first time, the RSS not only stepped in but did so decisively. That’s not good news for the bosses at Ashoka Road.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, September 06, 2010

POLITICS is about the unpredictable. Except when it involves an election in the Congress party where a member of the dynasty is in the fray. In which case, it becomes a no- contest.

Last Friday’s election for the Congress president’s post falls in this category. Sonia Gandhi won the election for the fourth consecutive term, making her the longest serving party chief in its 125 year history. It’s a moment worth noting, because neither her husband, nor her mother- in- law or her husband’s grandfather, all prime ministers, stayed at the helm for as long. It’s all the more creditable because, unlike them, she was not born into politics. Yet she has shown that she alone is the party’s saviour.
The BJP showed a total lack of grace by terming her election as proof of the family’s “ monopoly” over the party. A Congress spokesman’s retort was that Sonia could be party chief “ not for four terms but even 40”. However, the possibility of that happening can be safely ruled out for two reasons: Sonia is 63 and may not want to go on and on. More importantly, though young Rahul shows no signs of being in a hurry, his coronation cannot be that far away.

When Rahul finally takes over, he will find himself in charge of a party that is much healthier and more robust than when his mother took over. The party has had 71 presidents in the last 125 years, only five of them women. Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu and Nellie Sengupta headed the Congress when it was at the forefront of the freedom struggle. Indira Gandhi took charge when the party was beset with internal strife, while Sonia became chief when it was virtually struggling for survival.

Both women adopted different strategies but the goal was the same: to take it back to its glory days. With the entire North slipping out of the Congress’s grasp in the 1967 assembly elections and prospects loomed large of the Congress ceding power in Delhi, Indira took bold steps like bank nationalisation and abolition of privy purses, fought the powerful “ Syndicate” comprising the entrenched old leaders, split the party and then split Pakistan, all of which contributed to her huge majority in the 1972 elections. After she was ousted from power in 1977, it took her just two years to come to power with a two- thirds majority.

Sonia became Congress president under somewhat similar conditions. Her husband had come to office with over 400 MPs but was forced out five years later as the Congress won under 200 seats. When Sonia became the party chief in 1998, the figure had shrunk to 112. She did not, like Indira, indulge Sonia Gandhi in theatrics like sitting on a dharna in Connaught Place or riding an elephant to Belchi.

Yet in her 12 years as Congress chief, she has done enough to rout and eclipse her rivals both within and outside her party. When Sharad Pawar broke ranks in 1999, a powerful block was believed to have been lost, but she played her cards right and just five years later, the Grand Maratha was back in the fold.

What’s astonishing is that she manages to do all this even as she keeps her cards close to her chest. Even most top flight Congress leaders do not know her mind because she seldom says anything. In the Lok Sabha, she occupies the seat next to the prime minister but is never known to participate or even intervene in debates.

On inflation, the Maoist menace, terrorism and so many issues of concern, Sonia can rarely be accused of over speak. Yet, Congress leaders acknowledge she is the best thing to have happened to the party.

No leader can be so enigmatic and enduring at the same time unless she represents some deep national feelings. After six years in power, the alliance may be facing the anti- incumbency wind but Sonia’s rating have never been higher. Just two years ago, the Congress was at the mercy of its many allies in the UPA. Today, she has the allies eating out her hands.

I don’t expect Sonia to be as ruthless as her mother- in- law and discard her friends once she realises she has no further use for them. But having taken the Congress from the 112 seats when she inherited it in 1998 to 206 in 2009, she is clearly working to a plan that sees the Congress crossing the parliamentary halfway mark by the time Rahul is ready to take on the mantle. If she succeeds, it will be further proof that, in the Congress party at least, women are better at fixing problems.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, September 05, 2010

Rajya Sabha MP and Rama Janmabhoomi activist Vinay Katiyar and Babri Action Committe convenor Zafaryab Jilani speak about the construction of Ram temple at the controversial site in Ayodhya.