Monday, June 30, 2008

Home and away games/Power&Politics/Mail Today-June 30,2008

Never in Independent India has a government been so fragile and so susceptible to pressures that even foreign policy, an area in which all previous governments operated on across- party consensus, becomes avictim of domestic politics. On June 20, the National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh were in Colombo. Since the newspapers maintained a mysterious silence on the matter, it can safely be assumed it was asecret mission. Ichecked around and was told that they had gone to oversee security arrangements for the forthcoming SAARC summit. That’s laughable, since Ithink the SPG is more equipped to do the job. Aspecial aircraft took them from Delhi to Colombo where they met Tamil politicians like RSampanthan among others. On Saturday morning, they held long discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and chiefs of the three services at the Temple Trees (President's home- office). The Indian team is understood to have told the President that apolitical solution –within the framework of a united Sri Lanka –was necessary to the Tamil problem. The Indian officials also stressed the Sri Lankan military campaign could not be the only option. With the Army closing in, the LTTE, many of whose leaders have been killed in recent times, is with its back to the wall. In the late 1980s, it was Narayanan, then IB director, who was Rajiv Gandhi’s main interlocutor with the LTTE. But that’s another story. Back to the present. Enter M Karunanidhi, the LTTE’s biggest benefactor whose wish is the UPA leadership’s command. He couldn’t bear to see his boys getting slaughtered by the Sri Lankan forces. And so the whirlwind tour by Narayanan and gang. Next, the Communists who want to debate everything but never want to tell the truth about anything, decide how much India should cosy up to the US. If it’s Pakistan, it’s the Wagah border Candle Light Brigade. Of late, Indo- Nepal ties hinge on the whims of an apparatchik in Gole Market. Despite heading one of the weakest governments that it has been India’s misfortune to have, Manmohan Singh sought his place in history via the Indo- US nuke deal. Having taken the first step, he should have done his best to take it to its logical conclusion by enlisting all round support. Instead, he sat back in the madcap hope that industrialists and other lobbyists would take care of the rest. The results are there to see. No tears will be shed if this government is turfed out sooner than due. But it is the damage done to the foreign policy establishment that is cause for concern. During the last Congress government at the Centre, PV Narasimha Rao personally chose the then leader of Opposition and his close friend Atal Bihari Vajpayee to head Indian delegations to the UN in New York and the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. It was the most eloquent way to tell the world that when it comes to national interest, India is united.

An offer with his hands tied/Power&Politics/Mail Today-June30,2008

AMONG President John FKennedy’s more famous exhortations was calling on Americans to “pay any price and bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe,” for the cause of liberty. The UPA leadership seems to be heeding his advice and appears ready to pay any price and bear any burden. The cause once again is liberty, but with a twist. Liberty from the Left. Iam talking about the latest flirtation between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, which if it materialises will enable the Congress to rid itself of the baggage that is the Left. The question is: Can Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh come up with the kind of offer that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh will find hard to refuse? For them, it's atough choice. If they do join, they have just awee bit to gain in the remaining tenure of this government, but much to lose. The SP is sure to be dumped by the UNPA, the backlash from the Muslim community, the SP’s core support group, could be catastrophic. The Congress offer has to be something that more than compensates for these losses. Will Manmohan, for example, be ready to give four or five Cabinet berths and afew junior ministers jobs to the SP, which with its 36 MPs, will become the second largest constituent in the UPA, if it chooses to join it? But Manmohan Singh is faced with arather ticklish problem. He is already presiding over the largest ever Council of Ministers with 74 members which is just about within the prescribed 15 per cent limit. His options are limited: He can either drop ministers from his party, which is relatively easy or ask smaller allies to vacate seats, which is alot more difficult. To save one deal, Manmohan Singh is weaving many smaller yet complex deals.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back to the past for the future/Power&Politics/Mail Today,June 23,2008

THE TRUE test of any vote catcher is the ability to swing elections and on that count, the reverses in several Assembly elections suggest the Gandhi name is not enough to see the Congress through. After 12 back- to- back electoral defeats, in true Congress tradition, the party set up aseven- member committee headed by defence minister A. K. Antony, to prepare an “action plan”. Having been chief ministers, Union ministers etc, its members know what it takes to win an election. Areport, prepared after several rounds of meetings with Congressmen at all levels, has been handed over to party chief Sonia Gandhi. The committee has obviously learnt its lessons from the Karnataka debacle and among its recommendations is that the party name its chief ministerial candidate well in advance of elections in astate. It achieves two objectives: it enables the party to project the candidate and his/ her record in office/ governance; it also eliminates the need for last- minute compromises that neither serves the cause of good governance nor does any good for the image of the party. The committee is also faced with the uncomfortable truth of alack of an emerging leadership. In many states, it is yet to produce anew crop of leaders to whom the torch could be safely passed. It is therefore likely to recommend that the party fall back on the tried and tested leaders of the past. Five states are facing polls later this year. So in Delhi, Sheila Dikshit is likely to go for athird consecutive term, though Ajay Maken is said to be Rahul’s preferred candidate. In MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh too, the committee suggests the party fall back on old warhorses Diggyraja, Ashok Gehlot and Ajit Jogi. They may have the lost the elections the last time but have it in them to bounce back and boost the sagging morale of the Congress.

Panchayati Raj/Power&Politics/Mail Today-June 23,2008

WHEN IS more less merrier? When it involves Mani Shankar Aiyer. The ebullient Panchayati Raj Minister has already lost the coveted Sports and Youth Affairs portfolio for speaking his mind about the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, atrait which has earned him enough enemies. They rejoiced at what was perceived as his downgrading, but are obviously dismayed over his appointment to the power Congress Election Committee headed by AK Antony, aclear indication that at 10 Janpath, Mani still matters. So efforts are on to cut him to size. The latest is the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). It was set up in 2005, after agap of 40 years with Congress General Secretary Veerappa Moily as its head to look into, among other things, strengthening the financial management system. Its reports are submitted in phases and one more will soon be handed to the government. One of the recommendations pertains to cutting down the number of government departments from 400 to 395 or thereabouts. Among the causalities could be the Department for the Development of North East Region (DONER), and Mani is the minister. Mani says the ARC did not consult him even once while coming to its conclusions while those close to him accuse ARC Chief of backstabbing. Moily is perfectly placed to do that. His office in Vigyan Bhavan, that shunting yard for countless commissions and useless ministries, is right behind Mani’s.

Retirement Blues/Power&Politics/Mail Today-June 23,2008

LIKE MOST politicians, there are some bureaucrats and judges who never get to enjoy retirement. One of them, Justice VBalakrishna Eradi, will finally get his due. Eradi was appointed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986 to head the commission to look into the sharing of the Ravi Beas river waters between Punjab and Haryana. He retired from the Supreme Court the next year but concurrently chaired the National Consumer Redressal Forum besides acouple of other inquiry commissions. Since then, governments, presidents and prime ministers have come and gone and much water has flowed down the Ravi- Beas. Yet, asolution to the vexed water dispute seems as elusive now as when the Honourable Judge set out to broker truce. Twenty two years on, Eradi has decided to pack his bags and take some well earned rest. At 86, he deserves it. Like him, there are several retirees heading commissions. They have the comforts of abungalow in Lutyen’s Delhi, cars, liveried staff. Not a day goes by without the papers informing us about yet another commission being given another extension. It’s another matter that their reports never see the light of day. Like the Honourable Eradi, these gentlemen should gracefully take awalk into the sunset instead of being adrain on the government.

Power & Politics/Mail Today-June 23,2008

FOR ALL the drama, intrigue and tension, Manmohan Singh’s tough posturing over the weekend may have been just one big yarn. They may have buried the deal already. What else explains the shunting in the recent past of several key officers associated with the deal from the outset? SJayashankar, our High Commissioner in Singapore who had the delicate task of convincing the Indian stand to the 45- member Nuclear Suppliers Group has been replaced, Raminder Singh Jassal, our No 2 man in Washington and another key member of the Nuke India Team has been moved to Turkey while the Big Dad of them all, former Foreign Secretary and Manmohan’s Special Envoy on the N- deal Shyam Saran now seems preoccupied with his other job as the Special Envoy on climate change.

Minimum PM /Power & Politics/ Mail Today-June 23,2008

Sometime in August last, Manmohan Singh made one of the most ill- timed, ill- advised statements he has ever made as Prime Minister. “If they (the Left) want to withdraw support, so be it” he said in arare interview to a Kolkata newspaper. Since then, the UPA government has been living on daily wages. Manmohan considers the nuclear deal critical to his governance paradigm. With his economy managers unable to contain inflation, the Left obstructing his reforms agenda and his ministerial team lacking in substance, the deal, he hoped, would at least ensure his place in history. But he sized up Prakash Karat wrong. Those who have dealt with Karat will tell you that compromises don’t come naturally to him, draw him out for aduel and Karat transforms into aformidable fighter. In an earlier column, Ihad written about what has now become regular feature in this regime –the meeting of the UPA- Left coordination committee on the nuke deal. The two sides get together every now and then and decide to do nothing more than meet again in afew month’s time. Last Wednesday, they were to meet for the ninth time but there were afew twists, so they decided to meet aweek later. But ominously, by late evening, TV channels reported that Manmohan had threatened to quit if the deal, whose deadline is staring his government in the face, is not done. Success has many fathers and failure none. The deal is as good as dead and the Congress Party, instead of rallying around the good doctor is busy preparing a charge- sheet against him for bringing the party to such apass in an election year. But if blame were to be apportioned, the party leadership should split it in equal measure. Aseries of flaws accompanied what is perhaps the most contentious bilateral agreement India has ever signed. The Congress leadership failed to build apolitical consensus around the deal. The media hype and active involvement of corporate houses and US lobbyists in pursuing the deal put so much pressure on the political system, it hardened opposition to it. Some Opposition leaders were shocked to hear from American interlocutors who came to India to convince them about the deal that the Congress party had assured them of support of a majority of the political parties while the reality is they did not even try. It could have activated senior party to reach out to the NDA to build apolitical consensus on the matter which would have isolated the Left, but didn’t. The managers bungled. There is amoral to this story. Ahead of government can lead from the front only if he has the political mandate and the authority that goes with it. Manmohan didn’t have either, yet did what he thought was right. He made promises but couldn’t deliver. In politics, you seldom get asecond chance. The weekend saw his miseries pile up. South Block keeps mum on anews report which says India has been sitting on massive reserves of uranium enough to feed our energy requirements for 40 years. It’s astory that knocks the bottom out of Manmohan’s case that the country needs foreign uranium for energy. Worse, with inflation at 11+, a13- year high, the credibility of the economist in Manmohan stands eroded. And so the beginning of the end. Minimum Karat: Formidable

Monday, June 16, 2008

Interview —Pushpa Kamal Dahal- Prachanda, India Today-June 23, 2008

"We have set an example by moving from bullet to ballot"
It’s not often that a prime ministerelect drives halfway
across town to meet a journalist for an interview. But that’s Prachanda, the 53-year-old Communist whose demeanour hides the fact that he is Nepal’s prime minister-in-waiting. He moves around in a heavily-protected Mahindra Scorpio with his guards drawn from the notorious Red Army as well as the Nepal Police. Despite winning only a third of the Constituent Assembly seats, the man instrumental in overthrowing Nepal’s 240-year-old monarchy is confident of dictating the politics of the world’syoungest republic. He spoke to me for more than an hour for Seedhi Baat on Aaj Tak channel. Excerpts:

Q. How did an underground leader like you manage to form a multi-party government in Nepal?
A. This is a new political model that we are trying to set up. We had decided in favour of a multi-party system some eight years ago. We are trying to evolve and change it according to changing times.

Q. Am I talking to the new prime minister or the President of the country? Will you still carry on with your violent ways?
A. Now that we have begun the peace process, resorting to violence is out of question. Until the provisions of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chief PrachandaConstitution are laid down, you can call me the new prime minister.

Q. Who will have more power — the President or you?
A. The President will just be a ceremonial head. The executive powers will remain with the prime minister.

Q. Why don’t you appoint Girija Prasad Koirala as the President?
A. I have political and moral issues with appointing him as the President. We want a leader of his stature, who can bind the Assembly, represented by 25 parties, in a single agreement. He has to play an important role in doing that.

Q.Your party holds just one-third of the total seats in the Assembly but people say you are still very rigid.
A. Our stand is clear. We want to move together with the rest of the parties to form a Constitution. But as the largest party,we definitely have our say.

Q. Nepal is a country with a 99-per cent Hindu population. So why do you want to include the provision of a secular state in the Constitution?
A. Nepal accommodates people from all religions, castes and creed. Though Hindus are a majority, we have a considerable population of Buddhists and Christians. My only point is that the state should not interfere with religion.

Q. Why do you want to keep outfits like the Young Communist League alive?
A. Ever since we began the peace process, we have put the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) cadre under state control. We plan to organise an orientation programme to address their problems.

Q. Have you lost faith in the Army?
A. It is not about faith. All this while, the Army had been loyal to the monarchy. Now that we are a republic, there will be changes in the Army too.

Q. Which economic model will your government want to follow?
A.We won’t follow the model of any nation. We will develop our own philosophy of a mixed economy. We can neither ignore the demands of globalisation, nor give in to them blindly.

Q. It seems you want to distance yourself from India. Why else would you review the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950?
A. I don’t want to stay away from India. In fact, we want to build good relations. Nepal has changed a lot. So to keep pace with the changes, we need to change the treaty.

Q. One of your party leaders recently visited China, which gave an impression that you are close to it.
A. It’s not true. How does a small trip to China matter? Politically, we will maintain equidistance. We share geographical, historical and cultural relations with India which we can’t ignore.

Q. Will you allow your land to be used for terrorism against India?
A. Never. However, we will maintain good relations with Pakistan.

Q. The Maoists have been a troubling factor in India. Do you support them?
A. The way we have moved from the bullet to the ballot, we have set an example for the rest of the world.

Q. Would you request the Maoists in India to adopt the ballot?
A. I can’t ask them to do so but what we have achieved has given a strong message not only to Maoists in India but to those elsewhere in the world.

Q. Will your government order an inquiry into the Palace killings of 2001? Will you keep the King alive?
A. The fate of the King has been sealed. We had been considering the option of a graceful exit for the King which has finally been accomplished.

Q. You are keen to build close ties with India. But BJP recently passed a resolution saying that your government poses a threat to us.
A. We are not a threat to anybody. We want to build relations with India and with BJP too. We are planning to hold talks with BJP leaders L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh. We want India and all its parties to support our new model of peace process.

MAN ON A MISSION/Power & Politics, Mail Today-June 06,2008

THOSE who have followed Narendra Modi’s remarkable career from simple RSS pracharak to one of India’s most powerful chief ministers believe that the Gujarat helmsman cannot be tied down to his home state for long. Last week, there was irrefutable evidence of Modi’s larger ambitions. Addressing apublic meeting in Vadodara, he charged the Centre with virtually looting states, to illustrate which he said that while his state contributed Rs 40,000 crores in taxes to the Centre, it received less than 2.5 per cent of its contribution in return. “Let us not take from each other for ayear and see how it works”, he said with the air of aman with no doubts at all in his mind. To be sure, it wasn’t astray remark aimed at whipping up public passion. It was acarefully calibrated, well- orchestrated and precisely- timed statement, about not just Gujarati pride, but pride of the states. The kind which has now become aModi trademark since his victory last year. He has an insatiable appetite for innovation. Recently, he joined other NDA chief ministers in petitioning the Prime Minister against discrimination of the states by the Finance Ministry. But while the rest met Singh, handed over the petitions and headed back home, Modi chose to up the ante and taunted the Centre. What followed wasn’t surprising. The Congress walked into his trap saying Modi should be charged with sedition and arrested, though Idoubt they were serious because there is nothing Modi would have loved more. What makes Modi different from other chief ministers is that what he says is what he thinks. One of his favourite lines is “good politics and good economics can co- exist” and it is not something even his party seniors agree with. Take the Indo- US Nuclear Deal. While the BJP’s opposition to the deal is known, Modi told the Centre his party will consider supporting it if the government takes it into confidence on all aspects of the deal. Such statements are the prerogative of LK Advani or Jaswant Singh, but Idoubt if the thought crossed his mind that that he may have extended his brief. At arecent FICCI meeting, even Congress chief ministers lined up to pat his back after he invited the governments of landlocked states like Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, UP etc, which are all large importers and exporters, to set up dedicated ports along the vast Gujarat coastline. “You save time and money by not having to depend on existing congested ports and Iearn revenue from you. It’s awin for all of us”. Last year, at an India Today meeting attended by many chief ministers, he called on states to adopt the best practices of other states. “Gujarat can learn from Kerala about literacy and tourism and we can show them the way on industrial development. We will take lessons even from Marxists in West Bengal”, he said and added “if there is something positive we can absorb from them”. Of course some things never change. He remains steadfast about Hindutva and against pandering to minorityism, but no retributive hate campaigns are seen these days. On the contrary, diplomats of Western Europe who denied him visas in the early part of the decade now regularly visit Gandhinagar to catch up with him. Modi is finally getting accustomed to being wooed.

A DOUBLE WHAMMY by Jaswant Singh/Mail Today-June 16,2008

THE MOVING finger writes and having written moves on. Well, not quite. Politician’s pens are traditionally less mightier than their swords and their tongues but when the politician’s moving finger writes, the results can be embarrassing, if not self defeating. Jaswant Singh, the former finance and external affairs minister and friend to Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice has just completed atome. It’s all wrapped up, the editing, proofing and everything after the contents were discussed with both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, his senior party leaders. Yet the book may not hit the stores until we have a new government in place in New Delhi. Lest you think that the delay is due to fears that the book will trigger another fratricidal war in the BJP because of revelations of Kandahar, Kargil etc, perish the thought. The hefty volume (it is 1000 pages plus) is in fact about Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man who created Pakistan 60 years ago and almost destroyed Advani three years back. From what Igather, alot of research has gone into it and Jaswant had exclusive access to alot of original material thanks to the company that he is known to keep. The former Army officer meets up with the Qaid- e- Azam’s relatives in India. But for the BJP, Jinnah is ahot potato. Jaswant’s book is not said to show Jinnah as the monster that the RSS and much of the BJP paints him to be. In 2005, Advani nearly singed his career by singing Jinnah’s praise. Earlier this year, Advani again courted controversy with his biography, My Country My Life .Clearly, both books and Jinnah don’t go down well in the BJP. For Jaswant, it’s adouble whammy.

NO RETIREMENT BLUS/Power & Politics/Mail Today-June 16,2008

LAST WEEK, this column had pointed to the impending change of Governor in Jammu &Kashmir and Ihad stuck my neck out saying the new incumbent will not be a retired Army or police official but an ex- IAS officer. The government has now appointed NN Vohra and my neck remains intact. But to get to the larger point, this is further proof of the stranglehold the IAS lobby has over this government. Idon’t know of any IAS officer who has retired in the last four years who spends his time playing with the grandchildren or taking the dog out for a walk. They have all moved on to bigger assignments. Nearly 30 of them have moved onto juicier posts the morning after, from key posts in regulatory bodies of Petroleum and Telecom. Such is their power that even the normally obstinate Ram Vilas Paswan could not stall the creation of apost of Special Secretary in the Ministry of Fertilisers and Chemicals, to accommodate ababu who had just retired. For the first time, all three Election Commissioners are from the IAS. All this thanks to one IAS officer in the PMO whose clout is disproportionate to his administrative skills. The IAS versus the rest tussle is now poised to move onto another level as two very senior ministers grapple over akey post –India’s envoy to the UNESCO in Paris. The post is current held by an IFS officer and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee wants to keep it this way, but HRD Minister Arjun Singh thinks otherwise and is backing an IAS officer.

ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED/Power & Politics/Mail Today-June 16,2008

BY ASKING his ministers and senior bureaucrats to cut down on foreign junkets, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is following aproud tradition of politicians, even wellmeaning ones like him, becoming subjects of jokes, if not objects of ridicule. The PMO circular saw ministers like Ambika Soni, Renuka Chowdhury, Murli Deora, Mani Shanker Aiyar canceling their tours which were probably planned when the price of crude was under US$ 100 abarrel and inflation was yet to touch five per cent. Some others could not entirely resist the travel bug and so hopped to destinations closer home than to distant shores. But the frequent flyer in Kamal Nath continued undeterred. The Commerce Minister took off for the US, presumably to prepare for the next WTO meeting which will probably be in Doha, Qatar. Not all of them were so brazen. One minister, kept his tongue firmly in his cheek while drafting aletter to Manmohan. It read thus: “Dear Manmohan Singhji, in deference to your austerity drive, Ihope everyone in the Cabinet will take your advice and avoid unnecessary expenditure. Ihave decided not to travel abroad for official or personal purposes and Ihope my move helps in containing inflation". He has not dispatched the letter so far, but will do so if inflation keeps shooting up and reaches 10 per cent, which is not far away.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gulam Nabi Azad/Power & Politics/Mail Today-June 09,2008

After its rout in Karnataka, the considerably weakened Congress is finding it difficult dealing with the demands of its allies and there is no more difficult customer than Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the former chief minister of Jammu &Kashmir, who made way for the Congress’ Gulam Nabi Azad under the power sharing agreement. It is no secret that the Mufti and his daughter Mehbooba don’t see eye to eye with Azad and they are now said to be putting pressure on the Congress High Command to move Azad out of Srinagar, perhaps back to Akbar Road where he will return as general secretary “to strengthen the organisation”. The central issue, once again is politics, and not the security of the region. The Mufti wants paramilitary forces, vital for security, withdrawn from the Valley while Azad will have none of it. Azad is opposed to replacing a“uniformed” governor with acivilian, which the Mufti wants. In recent years, only retired police officers or Army generals were dispatched to Srinagar, keeping in mind the security angle. Gen SK Sinha, the incumbent governor is due to retire soon and the Mufti wants both the governor and the chief minister moved and replaced with people better disposed towards him. Local Congress leaders are aghast and rightly so. Mufti’s demands, if conceded, will work in favour of the BJP which will once again wield the stick accusing the Congress of being soft on terror.

With fair weather friends like these...

If LK Advani was apolitician on the lecture circuit in America, these past few months would have made him amillionaire many times over. His formal anointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate coupled with the party’s impressive victories in state and local elections have made him ahot commodity on the circuit. The very people who mocked at him behind his back are now lining up for appointments, seeking his presence at abook release, afilm premiere or even apower wedding. Unlike the PM, the man whom he may well succeed, Advani loves crowds, big and small, and is capable of bowling them over with his wit and can even make them part with their wallets for agood cause. Last week, at one such function, TV cameras caught him weeping when someone recited acouplet. Thank God for that, we are now assured that our leaders are as fallible as you and me. But Advani’s success will not depend on the number of book release functions or corporate seminars he attends since the audiences at such glitter gatherings are fair weather friends who leave you out in the cold when it’s not so sunny. No doubt seven victories on the trot is acreditable achievement, but there are four more crucial polls due later this year. There are many in his own party out to convince him that his coronation is just aformality. In reality, alot of them are waiting for him to do another Jinnah. However, the party’s dream of recapturing power will depend on how effectively he contains his scheming colleagues for whom personal ambitions transcend everything else. Advani should spend more time with his core constituents. They won’t sing his Hosannas but they will work for him tirelessly. Ultimately that’s what fetches votes.
The Warrant of Precedence last updated on May 16, decides who sits next to whom at ceremonials like Republic Day, Independence Day and investiture ceremonies. It does not list Sonia Gandhi though nearly 520 others, all of them no doubt lesser mortals, figure in the list. LK Advani, Leader of the Opposition is listed No 42, sandwiched between Prem Chand Gupta, Union Minister for Corporate Affairs at 41 and Jaswant Singh, Rajya Sabha Opposition leader at 43. As UPA Chairperson, Sonia doesn’t hold any official title but so far has always been seen seated next to the prime minister. Nobody has bothered to ask “How come?”. The new notification is certain to leave various government agencies in afix. Wait and watch for August 15.

Man of few mumbles / Power & Politics, Mail Today

Public speaking is something that comes as naturally to Manmohan Singh as say, the truth would, to, Bill Clinton. Though prime minister for four years, Singh hasn’t given asingle interview to the country’s media, even dispensed with the occasional Press conference that his predecessors addressed. This may have alot to do with the fact that he is not arun of the mill politicianprime minister, just an economist who stumbled on to the job because fate willed it. Ihave reason to believe that last Tuesday, just before the government finally and reluctantly hiked the prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas, Manmohan spent asleepless night. He knew the UPA allies were against the move, the Congress Party was divided over the issue, the Opposition would pounce on him and it had serious political implications for his party that, after back to back defeats, is looking at the impending Lok Sabha election with dread. That he still prevailed is proof that the economist in Manmohan, concerned about the health of public sector oil companies, decided that the price of oil was too serious amatter to be left to politicians. It is easy to understand why afew hours after the hike was announced, Manmohan took the unusual step of addressing the nation on TV. Others have done it before, but in circumstances far more grave. Pandit Nehru spoke to the people over radio after the Chinese invasion; Indira Gandhi did the same many times over while preparing the country for the war that was inevitable in 1971, Narasimha Rao went on TV to wash his hands of the Babri Masjid demolition (nobody believed him though) and Vajpayee went on TV to tell the country why his government went in for Pokhran II. But the times were different and so were the circumstances. Why then did the Prime Minister take to this route over amatter that everyone knows was economically correct, even if it was politically suicidal. That, too, aman who is reserved and who once told me that he was not the public face of the party. That was in 2003 and Ihad gone to invite the then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha to address a function organised by India Today .That same year, he was gracious enough to attend a lunch that Ihosted which was attended by many senior Congress leaders. What struck me then was that while most Congress leaders hovered around Sonia Gandhi trying to catch her attention, Singh kept to himself and as is his habit, chose to talk only when talked to. But ayear later, circumstances saw him becoming the public face of the government. Last week, Iam sure it was Singh’s decision to go before the TV cameras. If it was just another political crisis, he would have probably let the many jokers in the Cabinet go on air and make themselves look silly. As for the speech itself, did Manmohan try to portray himself as aresolute leader who, when the going got tough, was capable of taking tough decisions? Hardly. Ithink he was trying to earn sympathy, though truth be told, it’s the people who deserve all the sympathy.

Congress’ knuckles are still sore after the judicial raps

OLD habits die hard. Despite the rebuff from the Karnataka electorate, at least some Congress minions held hopes of doing aMadhu Koda in Bangalore. A Cabinet meeting at 7Race Course Road, convened to ratify the Governor’s recommendation for revocation of President’s Rule in the state, was delayed by nearly half an hour leaving Cabinet Secretary Chandrashekhar, Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta and senior PMO officials waiting in the Conference room, Panchwati. All the while, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee Law Minister HR Bhardwaj et al were in the adjoining room, triggering speculation they were discussing apossible Congress bid for power. It was nothing of the sort. Yet, there was an upbeat mood when someone mentioned aconditional offer of support from an independent legislator if the Congress’ Siddharamiah was made the chief minister. Nobody even thought anything amiss about his claim of enlisting JD( S) support considering that Siddharamiah had walked out of the party over differences with Deve Gowda. Finally, Manmohan and his team trooped out and the outrageous idea was not even discussed. One senior minister, an ally at that, believes the proposal was dismissed outright because the Congress’ knuckles are still sore after the judicial raps that followed its misadventures in Goa and Bihar.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The last time Gujjars took to the streets

IT is the job of an Opposition party to pillory the government when things go wrong. Which is what the Congress did in Rajasthan. But is there agang up in the BJP too, that feels Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia should be asked to pay amore personal price for the chaos in the state that has left dozens dead in caste riots? The mysterious silence in the party would suggest so. Late last week, as Gujjar protesters from Rajasthan spread out to Delhi, Raje tried to get in touch with her party colleagues in New Delhi and found nobody was even taking her call. They were all busy celebrating Yeddyurappa’s impending coronation in Bangalore. It was after about two days that the party sent Gopinath Munde, Kalraj Mishra and spokesman Prakash Javedkar as if to tell her “we are with you”. The last time Gujjars took to the streets a year ago, she flaunted her daughter- in- law, aGujjar, to prove her neutral credentials. This time, even the girl opted for silence leaving the saas very worried. Elections are due in the state later this year and the BJP has to keep up the momentum of the last few months. Raje’s race up the leadership ladder was spectacular but will her fall be as swift? ?Will she be sacrificed? That may not be easy as agood majority of the BJP MLAs in the state have given the thumbs up to her firmness in dealing with the crisis. One of the lessons that Raje learnt early on in administration is not to compromise as it leads to regrets later. It should come as no surprise if she calls alegislators party meeting to reaffirm faith in her leadership, effectively closing all options for the party high command.

Maya, the party pooper

IN an Olympic year, it is quite appropriate that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is living up to the Games motto which is, “It is not the winning but the participation that matters”. Since winning what is perhaps among the most spectacular victories in independent India’s history, the BSP has not won any election, though it is not due to lack of trying. In Gujarat, where the BSP’s chances of winning against the Modi juggernaut were about as much as the Muslim League’s, she put up 166 candidates. All barring three lost their deposits. In Karnataka she put up 217 candidates, all of whom lost. But is she distraught? Far from it. The nearly 5.7 lakh votes that the BSP candidates polled were mostly at the expense of the Congress, which in the process lost about 20 seats. Nothing makes Mayawati happier than seeing the Congress lose. Her efforts are aimed at ensuring that the social engineering formula –Dalit, Brahmin, Bania or DBB, an acronym that’s gaining currency – that worked so well in Uttar Pradesh now gets spread across the country. Next year (after the Congress rout in Karnataka, nobody is talking about elections this year) she is planning to put up over 500 candidates. While the candidate selection process is already on, she is also quietly poaching from, where else, the Congress! She has no need for more Dalits and has enough Brahmins lined up. Akhilesh Das and Naresh Aggarwal, both Banias, have already trickled over, but Iunderstand the floodgates are waiting to be unlocked. The BSP’s doors are wide open for anyone as long as he/ she is not aYadav or aThakur. While Rahul baba spends time with the poor and the downtrodden, here is this feisty woman who rose from among them spoiling his party. She has it in her to spoil the planned coronation also.

Sultan of swing

CONVENTIONAL wisdom proclaims that there are two power centres in the Congress. 10 Janpath, where Sonia Gandhi lives and 24 Akbar Road, the party HQ. Now athird address is clearly emerging and that is 12 Tuglaq Lane .If you didn’t know, it is the bungalow allotted to Rahul Gandhi which has now become one of the most hyperactive political addresses in town. Not in the traditional sense, for you won’t find milling crowds outside or white Ambassadors speeding in and out. Rahul has been an MP for over four years and aAICC secretary for nearly nine months, but seldom does he go to the Akbar Road office; instead he chalks out strategies with the help of a close knit group from his Tuglaq Lane home- cum- office. In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of his father, uncle, grandmother and great grandfather, all of whom despite their wide appeal, in reality worked with close knit groups. Pandit Nehru had close friends in whom he confided and whose advice he valued, Indira Gandhi had her groupies who helped her fight the powerful party bosses in the Syndicate and in the many challenges she faced later; Sanjay preferred the company of streetfighters who believed might is right and rewarded many of them by bringing them to Parliament; Rajiv was surrounded by technocrats who were derisively – and wrongly as it turned out – referred to as the “computer boys”. Rajiv, appointed AICC secretary ayear after Sanjay’s death, chose to work out of 2A Motilal Nehru Marg assisted by the likes of Arun Singh, Vijay Dhar, Satish Sharma, though he paid the occasional visit to Akbar Road. Rahul is treading the same path. When he is not on his Discover India tours, Rahul, who like his father was appointed AICC Gen Sec early in his political career, is to be found mostly at his Tuglaq Lane address, his affairs strategised by Kanishka Singh, son of former foreign secretary and now Governor SK Singh, who was close to Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi’s interactions are mostly with the Old Guard like general secretaries Motilal Vora, Digvijay Singh, Janardhan Dwivedi etc, but Rahul has cleverly put amember of his “Babalog team” under each senior so he is never out of the loop. Within party circles, they have come to be known as the Delhi Daredevils. In between his tours to the hinterland, Rahul is known to sit down with his A- team and check on the list of potential Congress candidates for the next elections that his aides are drawing up. Aclose Rahul aide informs me he has been really transformed after his visits to Dalit hamlets and partaking of food prepared in their humble kitchens. After eating out with friends at tony eateries in Delhi, when the bill arrives, he is known to wonder aloud how many mouths the money would have fed. All that’s missing are the doctors who can make the Congress win with their spin. Not to speak of the small matter of announcing its next prime ministerial candidate? It’s time Rahul threw his hat in the ring.

ULTI BAAT with Rakhi Sawant/Aajtak, June 01, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

INTERVIEW - BENAZIR BHUTTO, India Today-September 24, 2007

"Musharraf can’t become President"
For seven long years Benazir Bhutto has been dreaming of returning to Pakistan, the country she has served as prime minister twice. As she began finalising the details of her impending return to her homeland, the excitement was laced with uncertainty. Not surprising, since last week another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who too was on a homecoming after eight years, was bundled from one airplane to another and banished to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader spoke to India Today Editor Prabhu Chawla for Aaj Tak. Excerpts:
Q. So how do you feel about your impending departure for home?
A. I am very excited. Seven years is a long time and I am wondering what changes have taken place.
Q. What do you expect? A red carpet or the reception that Sharif got?
A. I don’t know how I will be received. But I am not in the same boat as him. He has been convicted by the court of law and sentenced for treason and tax evasion. He had traded his imprisonment for a 10-year exile in Saudi Arabia with his family and this involved foreign guarantees. I was given the same offer. But I refused. So unlike Nawaz Sharif, I cannot be put on a plane and sent out.
Q. But the Government will not allow you also to return as there are charges pending against you.
A. The corruption charges against me have not been withdrawn. As far as I am concerned, I am out on bail and should not be arrested. I stayed out so I would not lose my freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of movement and association.
Q. Is there an agreement with General Musharraf that he would be your presidential choice and you will be his prime minister?
A. The discussion or transition to democracy has not been successful so far. I am going back in an uncertain environment.
Q. Is there any deal with him?
A. Of course not. Please do not use this word. It is unfair to my long history of suffering.
Q. I know you will not admit it but you went to Abu Dhabi to meet him.
A. That was a non-meeting.
Q. Non-meeting or no meeting.
A. Neither side has officially admitted to the meeting. But contacts between the regime and PPP have been taking place since 1999.
Q. General Musharraf’s popularity is on the wane and he needs a civilian face to stay in power. Are you willing to protect him?
A. Whether he needs someone to protect him or not, only he can answer. But the people of Pakistan need someone to fight for their rights.
Q. You are Benazir Bhutto,who is in exile, facing persecution and whose father was executed. Is it right on your part to compromise with someone who has deposed an elected prime minister?
A. I cannot compromise. I am seeking the restoration of democracy.
Q. Prime ministers rarely survive their full term in Pakistan. You yourself were dismissed twice. Is there something wrong with the DNA of Pakistan which makes military rulers throw out elected rulers?
A. I feel very upset to hear that there is something wrong with the DNA of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the military has impeded the democratic growth of Pakistan, unlike in India where you have a democracy and a peaceful transfer of power. India is also emerging as an economic powerhouse and is a force to reckon with on the world stage.
Q. But we have the same blood. We are only divided by geography.
A. Because of the military, Pakistan has not developed institutions or has had a stable environment where growth can take place.
Q. Have you set any pre-conditions for your return to Pakistan?
A. There are no agreements. I am going back unconditionally.
Q. You have been holding talks.
A. Everybody is talking. Sharif has been talking since 2000, otherwise how could he go to Saudi Arabia?
Q. Will you allow Musharraf to continue as President?
A. There has been a dialogue, but there has been no agreement. The dialogue is not about personalities but about holding of free and fair elections to get civilians in power.
Q. If Musharraf gives up the uniform, can he be the President?
A. First, this question is premature. Second, it is not for me to choose the President. The people will decide.
Q. Will your party support Musharraf if he stays in uniform?
A. We oppose a unformed presidency.
Q. What comes first? Kashmir or uniform?
A. That’s a good question.
Q. You are dodging the issue.
A. No, I am not. It is not based on one element. If today, for example, Musharraf announces that he will give up the uniform, it doesn’t mean there will be an agreement. Same if he were to lift the ban on twice-elected prime ministers from contesting.
Q. You have not defined the transition of democracy.
A. We are for holding of free and fair elections.
Q. In India, we cannot make a general the President under our Constitution.
A. In your country, you make even a nuclear scientist the President. If we did something like that in Pakistan, there would be utter chaos.
Q. But our nuclear scientists do not sell state secrets abroad. Why don’t you make a rule that prohibits generals from becoming President?
A. I think you are right. In Pakistan, we make rules but the military does not allow us to implement them.
Q. Has Musharraf lost the will of the people?
A. Opinion polls suggest that.
Q. Should he go?
A. This is for the people to decide.
Q. You represent the people, don’t you?
A. I am no Nostradamus. I cannot predict events.
Q. The judiciary has been very active in Pakistan.
A. Yes. Under the restored chief justice. We have great satisfaction that there is a check from the Supreme Court in disputed matters. But there are disputes over everything.
Q. Are you going to be a future prime minister or prisoner?
A. There are questions that don’t have answers. Will elections be held? Will they be free and fair? Will opposition parties get together?
Q. The only permanent answer is that Musharraf will stay.
A. That is also uncertain. The question is if Musharraf is eligible to contest another term in office. According to the Constitution, as a former army chief, there’s a two-year bar on a government servant to contest. So this issue will end up in courts.
Q. So you are saying Musharraf should give up the uniform, the ban on twice-elected prime ministers contesting elections should be lifted and …
A. It is important that all corruption cases against party workers be lifted and immunity be given to them. This is in everyone’s interest.
Q. Do you support Sharif’s deportation?
A. The courts have to rule in this matter. Every citizen has the right to come back. But the other argument is that Sharif traded his rights to live in Pakistan for the dropping of charges against him.
Q. Is your fight against Sharif or Musharraf?
A. My fight is for democracy.
Q. But he has scored a symbolic victory over you.
A. I don’t buy it. Very few people were present at the airport when he arrived. He made a mistake by making a deal, involving foreign parties and so on. But people can review mistakes. And I hope he will.
Q. People say America is playing the intermediary between you and Musharraf.
A. They are going back and forth in Pakistan in the larger interest of the war against terrorism.
Q. Are you not talking to them? Aren’t you the US nominee for the prime ministership of Pakistan?
A. Of course, we have been talking to them. They talk to all parties. This is the nature of political discourse. We welcome their democratic support.
Q. But unlike you, Sharif is clear that he will not talk to a dictator.
A. I disagree, because he did talk.
Q. That was earlier.
A. We are told that he talked. He was supposed to be travelling on Gulf Air earlier, but he went on a state PIA plane later.
Q. Are you saying he had a secret deal with the Government?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Will you become prime minister under Musharraf as President?
A. This will depend on the people of Pakistan if they get to vote in free and fair elections.
Q. Assume that the elections are fair.
A. I can’t do so because of the ground realities. The point is Pakistan is in turmoil because of so many issues and no one knows the course. Things could lead to an emergency, a military rule and deferment of polls. Even the militant hardliners are frightened of democracy. They seem to have adopted a Minus 3 Formula now—first it was opposition to me, then Sharif and now me, Sharif and Musharraf. The hardliners who formed the Mujahideen and became members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda do not want the people to get back their rights because their agenda will be rolled back.
Q. So for you, restoration of democracy is more important than whether Musharraf stays in power or not.
A. No. For me, the right of the people to choose their leaders is most important.
Q. And is it none of your business whether Musharraf is chosen or not?
A. The question is whether he is eligible or not.
Q. You are also not eligible to become prime minister under the current laws.
A. Yes, but I can contest elections and Parliament can change the law.
Q. But you would like to become prime minister.
A. Yes. If people give me the mandate, it will be a great honour.
Q. In the event of your party coming to power, is your candidature for prime ministership certain?
A. Of course, my party has only one candidate.
Q. So your mission to Pakistan is to return as prime minister and restore democracy.
A. I can sit back and ask why should I take the risk? But I believe every Pakistani has the right to live in Pakistan.