Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, April 27, 2009

HALF of India has already voted in the two rounds of elections held so far and three more rounds remain. We will have to wait till May 16 — or perhaps considerably longer — to know who our next rulers are. But one thing is certain: this is the dirtiest Lok Sabha campaign ever and the level of debate has alternated between the gutter and the sewer.

There is more than one reason for this. The first and obvious one is because all parties acknowledge that this election will be among the closest we have had since Indians began electing their rulers in 1952. Nobody is taking anything for granted and everyone is going for everyone else’s jugular. The second is because this is the first “ presidential” style election where the two biggest parties announced their prime ministerial candidates long before the first vote was cast. And the third is that the 15th Lok Sabha poll has become a TV election.

It was the BJP’s LK Advani who set both the style and the pace for this race, taking to the roads and the skies as early as six months ago, criss- crossing the country in chartered jets and choppers and touching down on some of the remotest areas of the country, a TV crew from either a national or regional channel and a handful of print journalists in tow. Not a day goes by without Advani appearing on one of the channels, holding forth from above 40,000 ft in his Hawker Beechcraft executive jet.

Even Manmohan Singh, who is normally publicity shy, is suddenly discovering merits in the media. In his five years as PM, he has addressed just one formal press conference. At other interactions, journalists are carefully chosen and the questioners handpicked. But suddenly, the prime minister is also turning media friendly. His recent heart surgery does not allow him to campaign as much as his managers would have wanted him to. He still travels a lot but, unlike his rival, never takes journalists along on his trips across the country. Though Advani challenged him to a TV debate, the prime minister ducked it and instead takes him on via press briefings and short TV interviews to select channels.

These have been mostly defensive exercises in response to Advani’s pointed attacks. Senior Congress managers then advised him to open up and in the past fortnight, he has really cosied up to the media. He hosted Delhi’s women’s press corps for high tea, invited a few senior editors for an off the record briefing and even hung around with journalists for over an hour at a book release function last week. Not being a man of the masses, he seems to be taking his message to them through the media. His efforts are complimented by Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. Until about a month back, it was inconceivable that they would be so accessible to the media, but suddenly all three are on all major TV channels and it is not difficult to see why. With crowds staying away from campaign meetings, all of them think the medium is the message. But the low polling — some key constituencies recorded as low as 45 percent — indicates they are vastly overrating the power of the media.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, April 26, 2009

आज तक के खास कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में राष्‍ट्रवादी कांग्रेस पार्टी के प्रमुख शरद पवार से बात की. पवार की राय में लेफ्ट की मदद के बिना सरकार नहीं बन सकती और तीसरे मोर्चे की सरकार बनना मुश्किल है.

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

Snippets/ Mail Today, April 27, 2009

WHETHER Advani’s long cherished dream of becoming prime minister will be fulfilled remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. He has set the agenda for the campaign and the ruling party’s reactions have been more like afterthought. Last Friday came the latest of the Congress party’s responses to an Advani offensive. In an interview in Guwahati, Manmohan Singh, who has been in office for exactly 1,798 days as I write this, has sought another 100 days to put the economy back on the rails, make people feel secure, and, get ready for this, bring back that huge cache of money that wealthy Indians have stashed away in Swiss accounts. The last, you will remember, was a demand initiated by Advani and seconded by Narendra Modi. Now Manmohan has promised to do that, though considering that much of the money is held by politicians and their industrialist friends, you can be sure there will be a wide gap between promise and deliverance.

All eyes are on Rahul Gandhi’s whiz kids

AS the dust of this nastiest of elections settles in about three weeks’ time, the Congress party will be anxious not just about the overall outcome but about the R- factor. The fate of a core group of Rahul’s favourites is being eagerly watched by senior Congress leaders who have little doubt that in the next Lok Sabha elections, it will be the young Nehru- Gandhi scion whom the party will project as its prime minister.

But for that to happen, much will hinge on the fate of Rahul’s core group, all in their 30s or early 40s. Their victory is essential for Rahul to establish his credentials as a leader and a vote catcher.

Milind Deora, Jiten Prasada, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Dipender Hooda, Sandeep Dikshit, Sachin Pilot, Manish Tewari and Raninder Singh, son of the former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, are among those who are part of Rahul’s inner circle. Like him, most of them are second or third generation politicians who have risen to positions of power without having to work for it.

Though Rahul has personally campaigned in their constituencies, nobody is taking victory for granted. That is because the delimitation exercise has altered the demographic profile of their constituencies. If the UPA continues in office, those who come through will be in the next government. That automatically rules out several of the old guard returning as ministers. I am told some of them are hoping that a few of the young ones bite the election dust.

WITH every election, the cosy relationship between minister and bureaucrat comes under strain as both begin to worry about the future. Ministers worry about re- election and being back in office; bureaucrats, especially in Lutyens’ Delhi, worry because their future is linked with the way the electoral wind blows. With most ministers busy in their constituencies, I thought babus will be sitting back and taking it easy.

But debunking conventional preelection wisdom, I found bureaucrats hard at work during a couple of recent visits to North and South Blocks. It’s normal election eve practice for bureaucrats to do a review of the outgoing government’s performance and prepare a brief for the incoming government. Five years ago, when all opinion polls pointed to the NDA continuing in power, babus’ audits were full of praise for the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When the UPA became the surprise winner, many of them were made to pay the price, shunted off to obscure postings. So this time, they are taking no chances. A senior bureaucrat told me that most of them are preparing two totally divergent sets of notes — one singing hosannas for the government and the other a stinging critique.

Funnily enough, babus in the economic ministries are falling back on the same set of documents and dismal statistics — the four economic surveys presented by this government, 10 per cent fiscal deficit, 20 per cent export decline, low infrastructure growth, high unemployment — to paint a picture of ministerial ineptitude as well as to show the mantrijis as administrative supermen. Politicians may be at the receiving end of voters’ wrath but for the bureaucrats, it is a winwin situation. The double work they put in is bound to pay off.

The idiot box has a lot of power
STRANGELY, even the Communists are veering round to the belief that the right media exposure is as potent a tool as committed cadres. Comrade Prakash Karat’s CPI( M) owns a couple of TV channels and his extended family a handful more but so far he has showed zero- tolerance for the press. The odd times that he deigns, the media are invited to that run- down edifice called the AKG Bhavan in Gole Market, the insides of which, in true Communist tradition, look more like an interrogation chamber than a national party’s headquarters.

Comrade Karat has discovered that the media can be a useful ally in his efforts to reach out to voters beyond the party’s bastions of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The Left is likely to see fewer of its candidates returned this time from these states as compared to five years ago and they hope to make up the numbers from other states where alliances have been sewn up. That Karat is now beginning to concede the power of the idiot box is evident from the fact that he is ready to brave Delhi’s chaotic traffic to hop from TV studio to TV studio, a job that until now belonged exclusively to Sitaram Yechury. The comrade apparently believes that no government can be formed at the Centre without the CPI( M)’ s support and with too many prime ministerial aspirants from the Third and Fourth fronts, the CPI( M) supremo, I am told, fancies his chances as a possible consensus candidate.

Good luck to him.

As indeed to Jayalalithaa who probably thinks that the only thing that stands between her and the prime ministership is the free and vibrant press. She too is suddenly wooing the media, flying in TV journalists from Delhi at her expense for “ exclusive” interviews and making her Poes Garden residence in Chennai as open a house as a NSG protectee's could be. I am sure other pathological media bashers are also converting. The only one who won’t is Mayawati. She has as much use for the media as she has for Mulayam.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, April 19, 2009

'Withdrawal of Tytler's ticket right'

In an interview on Seedhi Baat, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit says party withdrew Jagdish Tytler's ticket as it listened to the people.

Part2 ; Part3 ; Part4 ; Part5

समय पर होंगे कॉमनवेल्‍थ खेल: शीला

आज तक के कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में दिल्‍ली की मुख्‍यमंत्री शीला दीक्षित ने कहा कि 2010 में दिल्‍ली में होने वाले कॉमनवेल्‍थ खेल समय पर ही होंगे. टाइटलर के मामले में उन्‍होंने कहा कि इसे जानबूझकर मुद्दा बनाया गया. शीला ने कहा कि सर्वसम्‍मति से ही टाइटलर से टिकट वापस लिया गया.
टाइटलर मामले को मुद्दा बनाया गया: शीला

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, April 20, 2009

A FEW weeks ago, Lal Kishan Advani made an impassioned plea for bringing the nearly US $ 1.4 trillion ( Rs 50 lakh crore) that rich and/ or corrupt Indians have stashed away abroad. Indians with tonnes of cash have always kept large chunks of it in Swiss banks and in tax havens in tiny isles across Europe.

So why is the BJP’s prime minister in waiting suddenly raking up the issue? His critics say his main fundraisers have promised much but delivered little, which is not surprising considering that it is a cash crunch season. Coming as it did in the run- up to the elections, major political parties are feeling the pinch.

The normally reliable benefactors — top flight industrialists — are struggling to save their bottom lines and have either disappeared or politely folded their hands and expressed helplessness. The other reliable provider — the real estate sector, where the colour of money is mostly black — is in distress and needs a bailout for itself.

A recent study showed that, apart from expenses run up by the Election Commission, political parties will spend close to Rs 4,000 crore while individual candidates will account for thousands of crore more during the 15th Lok Sabha polls. Under existing rules, companies are forbidden from making political donations in excess of five percent of their profits but politicians had always managed to find a way around and extract money in a way that it was not reflected in the balance sheets.

More than a decade ago, one of India’s most trusted business houses had drawn a corpus from all its group companies and created a trust to give political donations to the major political parties. By that yardstick, the Congress and the BJP would have got about Rs 5 crore from the industrial house.

That sum isn’t enough to run half a campaign in one constituency. In recent times, the more aggressive players in sunshine sectors like telecom, pharma etc also formally entered the field of political funding. I know of at least two such houses which have set aside Rs 2 lakh each for candidates contesting in areas where their business interests lie. For regional leaders like Jayalalithaa, Deve Gowda, Lalu Prasad or Naveen Patnaik whose parties contest a maximum of 30 seats, Rs 60 lakhs amounts to small change. Election Commission rules put a cap of Rs 25 lakh expenditure per candidate but it is no secret that no serious contender would enter the fray without setting aside at least Rs 10 crore for campaign expenses.

Of late, following sustained pressure from the regional leaders, some of the “ new business” leaders have been loosening their purse strings. One of them explained the logic to me thus.
Whoever forms the next government, allies will demand and get key portfolios like telecom, health, civil aviation, forest and environment, company affairs, steel and mines and others. Instead of doling out small amounts to large numbers of candidates of the national parties, it makes good business sense to splash liberally on lesser number of candidates from the smaller parties.

So while the national parties are scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep their campaigns going, smaller outfits have enough money to contest elections and still have some money to even buy an IPL cricket team. Governments may change, but some parties stay permanently in power. No wonder it is the small parties which are getting big money.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, April 20, 2009

There is certainly a touch of pathos in watching George Fernandes going around the Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar in a rickshaw seeking votes in his bid to enter the Lok Sabha. With one time good friend Sharad Yadav and his protégé Nitish Kumar banishing him, George, the demon slayer, is fighting as an independent and reports have it that he is gaining a lot of sympathy votes. The JD( U) leadership is worried since most observers say its candidate Jainarayan Nishad should consider himself lucky if he comes fourth. A desperate Nitish has requested his friends in the BJP’s B team to ask Advani to persuade George, the finest symbol of anti- Congressism, to withdraw for the cause of defeating the Grand Old Party and its fair- weather friends. It is doubtful if Advani will intervene but should he attempt it, my instincts tell me George, as much as he hates to do it, will rebuff his old friend.

CPI( M)’ s dirty tricks fail to deter Jaswant
AS A holiday destination, outsiders have always been attracted to Darjeeling and the scenic hill resort has welcomed visitors warmly. Now the place looks all set to elect an outsider and the unlikely candidate is the former NDA minister Jaswant Singh.

Actually, it should come as no surprise because Singh is an ex- army man and I presume the predominantly martial people of this constituency will welcome anyone who has ever worn a uniform. But the real reason why Singh is likely to win is because the Gurkha Janmukti Morcha is backing his candidature, in return for the BJP’s promise to take a “ sympathetic view” of their demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

With the GJM’s popular leader Bimal Gurung backing Jaswant, victory is almost certainly his. The arrival of the Washington friendly Singh — he claims to have been on first name terms with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others — has the CPI( M) seething with rage. But if the party’s famed dirty tricks department had lived up to its reputation, Singh may not even have been in the race. His nomination papers were almost rejected because he had failed to attach the mandatory letter from the state president of his party and had only submitted the official letter from the central office which was signed by BJP chief Rajnath Singh.

The state BJP unit was immediately alerted and the relevant papers signed by the state unit chief Satyabrat Mukherjee were soon readied. Two party workers travelled by road for over 16 hours to make the 650 km plus road journey from Kolkata to Darjeeling. The CPI( M) party faithful who are said to have moles in every other political outfit failed to detect or capture the couriers. All is not lost however. They can still capture the booths.

TWO weeks ago, LK Advani released the please- all BJP manifesto. He had then stated that the National Democratic Alliance would release its manifesto by April 16 after BJP leaders discussed its finer points with alliance partners. The day has come and gone and there is still no sign of it. It is not as if the coalition partners — or whoever is left in it — are unable to find a common meeting ground.

It is just that Nitish Kumar is playing hooky once again. When, on his behalf, Advani’s aides broached the subject with the Bihar chief minister, Kumar brusquely told them that since the BJP had already announced its manifesto without consulting its partners, he did not feel the need for releasing a common manifesto at this juncture. And he added for good measure that an Agenda for Governance can be thrashed out among the partners after the results are out.
Considering that as recently as three weeks ago, Nitish had stated that his JD( U) was in the NDA, but only “ as of now”, this sounded like an ominous early warning of several possibilities.
One could be that he seriously believes that the numbers will favour the alliance in which case he expects more parties to come into the NDA fold. The chances of that happening appear very slim and the more likely scenario is Nitish is waiting to jump ship once the final tally becomes clear on May 16. Now that even Manmohan Singh has begun to praise Nitish, the chances of this happening cannot be minimised.

Exactly five years ago, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had released the NDA manifesto and the BJP’s resident sloganeerpar- excellence Venkiah Naidu was quick to come out with the memorable one liner “ BJP ka Jhanda, NDA Ka Agenda ”. From the current frosty relations, it appears to be “ BJP Ka Jhanda, NDA Thanda ” this time.

Jaya can swing either way
ALL HER political life, she has been watched and analysed like few others and with the elections now kicking off, every move Jayalalithaa makes and every word she utters will be watched and analysed like never before. Since that day in 1998 when she pulled the AIADMK out of the NDA triggering the collapse of the Vajpayee government, the tag “ unpredictable” has stuck to her.
Speculation is now swirling around the political market place about the path she is likely to choose if, as is widely expected, the AIADMK gets the better of the DMK in these elections.
She has played a gracious host at parties aimed at reviving the Third Front and the party manifesto she released on Friday had elements that clearly show her party’s views converging with the Left’s: she is all for scrapping the Indo- US nuclear deal, she would not allow disinvestment in PSUs.

Yet parts of the same manifesto have enough to warm the cockles of the BJP’s heart: on the Ram temple, her views are similar to that of the BJP; like the BJP, she wants tough and specific anti- terror laws; she has also echoed Advani’s demand to bring back the money Indians have stashed away in Swiss banks. Her support for the last is based on her belief that DMK ministers account for a fair bit of that cash. Even the Congress is not ruled out. She would even agree to sup with the party if the Congress concedes her demand and dismisses the DMK government.
If she gets considerably more seats than the DMK, the Grand Old Party won’t think twice about sacking Karunanidhi and getting her on board as it did in 1991.
History may be waiting to be repeated.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, April 13, 2009

WE DON’T need a pollster to tell us that Narendra Modi is the most sought after leader on the campaign circuit. A pile of requests from the BJP and NDA candidates from Kashmir to Kerala and Kolkata to Kolhapur lie in the Gujarat chief minister’s residence and if he were to accept all of them, he would be addressing close to 500 rallies before the grueling campaign is through. But he has chosen to address only about 200 rallies, covering most of the big states.

Bihar, where a JD( U)- BJP coalition is in power, won’t be among them. Because Nitish Kumar doesn’t want him there. There could be two reasons for this: one, the affable but uninspiring Bihar chief minister may genuinely have apprehensions of being dwarfed by the charismatic Modi; equally plausible, he may want to insulate himself from all saffron affiliations in the hope of garnering some of the minority votes.

His advisers in the party, as also close friends in the BJP, have told him to keep equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP just to make sure he is seen as a shining 24- carat secularist. That’s why he publicly stated last week that he will not share the dais with the BJP’s most effective vote catcher. Instead, he is quietly lobbying with his friends in the BJP’s central office to invite him to campaign for its candidates.

Needless to say, in the event of these candidates winning, Nitish would want to hog all the credit. So keen is the man to sport his secular credentials on his sleeve that he was said to be reluctant to share the dais even with L. K. Advani, though last Friday, he finally relented and was seen on stage with the BJP’s prime minister- in- waiting.

Nitish is actually having his cake and eating it too. In public, he shuns the BJP, but in private drops by at the home of some of its second rung leaders for a meal while in Delhi. Some of the more hardcore Hindutva elements have told me in recent times that Nitish is as ungrateful and double- faced as one can get. In the immediate aftermath of Godhra, when Modi was the man that every secularist loved to hate, Nitish, as the- then railway minister, had shared the dais with Modi many times on his visits to Gujarat. As late as last August, after the Kosi floods submerged vast parts of Bihar, Modi was the first to respond to Nitish’s appeal for help.

He released Rs 10 crores from the Gujarat CM’s relief fund, sent 108 ambulances and asked his senior officials to camp in the affected areas and oversee the relief and rehabilitation opera- tions. Then, Nitish had publicly expressed gratitude for Modi’s humanitarian gestures. The grapevine has it that in this season of a prime ministerial bid that’s open to all, Nitish fancies his chances as much as the rustic Lalu Yadav or the cunning Ram Vilas Paswan. And his BJP friends have even assured him support in case the saffronites don’t become the single largest party.

We will know in just over a month if Nitish’s keep- Modi- out strategy yields the expected dividends. If it doesn’t happen, Nitish will live to regret for long. As will Naveen Patnaik in Orissa where, as I write this, Modi is said to be working his magic.

Snippets / Mail Today, April 13, 2009

THE month- long elections will begin this week and in about five weeks, a new government will be in place. Insecurity prevails at all levels and some of the regime’s favourites are already bolting. Pulok Chatterjee, the mystery man who liaised between Race Course Road and 10 Janpath is off to Washington; others are scouting for plum postings. And the super superannuated are finally contemplating retirement.

It’s apt that national security adviser M. K. Narayanan chose the Holy Week before Easter to hold his own version of the Last Supper. The mood among the 50- odd bureaucrats — including the entire Mallu brigade — who gathered at his house to break bread for one last time was said to have been very sombre, as if the beginning of the end was already here.
Enemy’s enemy is a friend
THE arena could not have been more perfect for a showdown between two of Bihar’s biggest exports to the world of show business. The Patna Sahib constituency will witness a battle royale between Shatrughan Sinha and Shekhar Suman, and this is one contest that will be watched more closely than any show on reality TV. Sinha, as we all know, has been the BJP’s main vote catcher in Bihar since the 1991 elections and has himself won two elections to the Lok Sabha and was also a minister in the Vajpayee government.

But once Nitish Kumar arrived on the scene, Shotgun’s stars began to fade. When his second term in the Rajya Sabha came to an end in March last year, Nitish worked on his friends in the BJP to deny him another term and the BJP leadership invoked the two- term clause. It is another matter that if strictly implemented, many second rung BJP leaders who have chosen the safer parliamentary route via the Rajya Sabha will not be sitting in that august house now.

Considering that he and Nitish don’t really get along well, Shotgun had apprehensions of Nitish scuttling his seat prospects. Long before the electoral process got under way, he began campaigning and much as they wanted to torpedo his nomination, Nitish and friends could really do nothing. Mystery surrounds the Congress’s choice of Suman to take on Shotgun. His only public appearance on a political platform so far has been at the swearing- in of Narendra Modi after the 2002 assembly elections that followed the Godhra massacre.

The grapevine has it that Shekhar Suman’s candidature is the result of a secret deal between the BJP, the JD( U) and the Congress, all of whom share a dislike for Shotgun. So in Suman, they found a Kayasth to stop another Kayasth in the Kayasth- dominated constituency. As a Bihari icon, Shotgun has the edge, but if the applecart is upset, I suspect the BJP and the JD( U) will join the Congress in celebration.

WITH elections on the horizon, most Cabinet ministers have taken a sabbatical from work these past few weeks but there is someone who looks at the polls as a once- in- a- fiveyear distraction and continues to pour time and energy into the job entrusted to him.

I am of course talking about P. Chidambaram, our home minister. Having dispatched that other national distraction, the IPL, to the distant shores of South Africa, PC is criss- crossing the country, visiting state capitals to discuss security arrangements for the voting that will begin later this week.

That nothing, not even “ Shoegate”, would deter him became evident when, a day after journalist Jarnail Singh hurled a Reebok at him, he went to Chandigarh to discuss pollrelated matters with the governments of Punjab and Haryana. Next stop was his own Tamil Nadu where he discussed reports of possible reprisal from the LTTE with the state security establishment.

But he did not go to Shivaganga whose voters have sent him to the Lok Sabha on five occasions. Most of his colleagues are skipping office to keep their quinquennial date with their constituentcies, but PC is sticking to work despite the fact that he faces a formidable opponent in Raja Kannappan, who recently quit the DMK to join the AIADMK. Could this turn out to be a case of overconfidence? Or is PC trying at the last minute to erase the image of the UPA government as a weak one in the fight against terrorism? The former is understandable, considering he has won the seat five times and the last time got over 60 per cent of the votes. If it is the latter, he may be barking up the wrong tree since Shivaganga is as tranquil as it gets. The rare flare up that terrifies Shivaganga’s denizens happens over water shortage in the mainly agrarian constituency. Maybe, instead of talking security matters with the state home minister, he should sit across the table with the DMK’s water resources minister.

The hidden hand struck
IT is seldom that the Congress succumbs to blackmail or pressure tactics. Its leaders handle pressure cooker situations with a been- thereseen- that kind of attitude. If my memory serves me right, this is the first time that the party has withdrawn two of its most known, if infamous, faces — Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar — from impending polls. Was it just a shoebite or was it an insider job that did the trick? The timing of the CBI affidavit makes me believe it is the latter. In the quarter century since the riots, numerous commissions were set up to look into the state sponsored mass murder in which, officially, 2,700 people lost their lives. The actual toll is said to be much higher. Though the Nanavati Commission found “ credible evidence” of Tytler’s involvement, he twice got clean chits from the CBI, which was however ordered by a Delhi court to reopen the case. The third clean chit has not brought him any luck either. But questions remain.

The CBI report was submitted to the court in a sealed envelope. So who leaked the contents, how and why? I am told the hidden hand belongs to a junior minister from the Rajya Sabha who was, along with Tytler, part of Sanjay Gandhi’s original gang of louts. The two have since fallen out. The minister who is in the good books of both 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road played his cards perfectly to put an end to Tytler’s controversial political career.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, April 12, 2009

In an interview on Seedhi Baat, BJP president Rajnath Singh says the public had seen the UPA's performance in the last five years and was intelligent enough to make the right choice.

'लोगों को गुमराह कर रही है कांग्रेस'
आज तक के साप्‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में भाजपा अध्‍यक्ष राजनाथ सिंह ने कहा कि कंधार मसले पर कांग्रेस लोगों को गुमराह कर रही है. मनमोहन सिंह को इसकी जानकारी दी गई थी.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009



With the Mood of the Nation Poll predicting a photofinish, regional chieftains are likely to play a key role in the selection of the next prime minister. It could even be one of them.

The complaint is as old as the politics of social justice: the hegemony of urban elite over the wretched and the dispossessed. Votaries of the so-called Other India—the India beyond the sensations of the Sensex and the temptations of the marketplace—never get tired of narrating the conspiracy of the privileged.

Twelve of our 14 prime ministers, they keep reminding us, have been from urban India. Only two, H.D. Deve Gowda and Charan Singh, came from the peasant class, and both were accidental. Now that the politics of cohabitation has made India one of the most crowded—and politically promiscuous—democracies in the world, the sociology of power has become starker.

There are no clear winners in a fragmented verdict but contenders for the top job continue to multiplyThe most obvious trend in the India Today Mood of the Nation poll on the eve of the General Elections is the shrinking bipolarity—or the thriving multiplicity. There are no clear winners as the ruling UPA and the NDA are separated by only 19 votes. The middle is occupied by that amorphous group called Third Front, populated by provincial pachyderms who think their time has come to be the rulers of India. If they can’t, they will decide who will. It may not be the revenge of the regions but it certainly brings out the less-than-national appeal of the national parties.

The only certainty in a fragmented polity is that we have an embarrassment of prime ministerial riches. In the beginning, there was only one, and BJP leader L.K. Advani has been campaigning in true presidential style, that too without an identifiable opponent.

Much belatedly, and less ceremoniously, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said Manmohan Singh would get another term as prime minister if the UPA won the elections. She can only name him, she just can’t make him prime minister. Without the support of regional parties with more than 70 members, either Advani or Manmohan can’t become prime minister. That support can no longer be taken for granted as kingmakers now aspire to be kings.

As Lalu Prasad Yadav, a Sonia worshipper-turned-heartbreaker, said in an interview with the television channel Aaj Tak, “The UPA exists only in Delhi and why can’t we consider Ram Vilas Paswan, a Dalit leader, for prime ministership after the elections?” Then, why just Paswan? Why not Pawar? The NCP has been projecting its leader and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar as a future prime minister for a while.

He will share a platform with CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat and Orissa Chief Minister and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik at a rally in Bhubaneswar on April 13. That is the freedom of being Pawar. His party is fighting the Congress everywhere except his home state of Maharashtra and Goa. The strategy of each regional party is to contest maximum number of seats so that they can improve their tally of 2004. Obviously, both the Congress and BJP are anxious, and they may end up fielding more candidates than they did in 2004.

The poll provides little cheer to the Congress and BJP. Parties which belong to neither of the two alliances are likely to get almost the same number of seats as the others. Leaders like Lalu, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Paswan, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and the communists are an independent lot. Pawar’s feet may be on the UPA ground but his heart is elsewhere. And each of these satraps is worth 25 to 30 seats, and their combined strength could go up to 180. Still, they are too volatile a group to remain intact. Will Maya and Mulayam ever be compatible? Unlikely. A candidate sponsored by the so-called Third Front led by the Left and others can’t reach 7 Race Course Road without the support of either the Congress or the BJP. In the marketplace of prime ministers, choices are many and the art of bargain alone can ensure a politically profitable deal.
How come we have got so many choices—or so many competing ideas of India in the fray? The UPA has been particularly fertile for prime ministers in waiting. Leaders like Lalu and Pawar have acquired a national profile as star Cabinet performers. They used their power at the Centre to expand their regional base. For the UPA, the vote of confidence was the moment when it realised the true worth of its allies. It survived the vote because partners like SP, RJD and DMK not only kept their flock together but broke the ranks of others.

It gave the allies a new confidence. As the poll illustrates, all those regional leaders seeking national glory enjoy more support in their states than the prime ministerial candidates of both the national parties. Mayawati with 24 per cent votes and Mulayam with 21 per cent are way ahead of both Advani (11) and Manmohan (7) in Uttar Pradesh. For the voters of Bihar, Lalu or Nitish Kumar would make a better prime minister than Advani or Manmohan.

With 120 seats, these two states will play the arbiters after the elections. In Gujarat, Modi is the choice of over 40 per cent of voters: Advani gets only 3 per cent. In Maharashtra, Pawar is the second most popular candidate for the top job. In the South though, Manmohan scores over the likes of Gowda, Jaya, Karunanidhi and Chandrababu Naidu. When Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were in power, there were no regional leaders who could match—or come anywhere near their popularity.

This regional eruption in leadership also means the rise of so many little Indias. Post-election, India is all set to stage a thriller of mathematics and megalomania, of oversized prime ministerial ambitions and total repudiation of political morality.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, April 6, 2009

IN POLITICS, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is all too common. It is now almost three weeks since the two Yadav honchos, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad, along with that eternal freelance coalition bedmate Ram Vilas Paswan, formed a regional power bloc within the larger ruling alliance.

The Congress leadership reacted initially with shock and horror at the UPA’s impending number shrinkage and continues to be baffled by the posturing of allies like the SP, RJD, Lok Janshakti Party, Nationalist Congress Party et al. During seat sharing talks, there was no shortage of insult trading and humiliation as Mulayam, Lalu, Paswan and Pawar denied the Congress even the seats held by its MPs. In normal times, that would be the political equivalent of talaq, talaq, talaq . Yet, all of them insist they are part of the UPA and, barring the NCP, swear they fully back Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate. Last week, Mulayam, Lalu and Paswan held their first joint press conference in Lucknow and defying all logic, Paswan claimed “ This is the real UPA”. Significantly, not a single Congress representative was present on the dais. This is strange considering it was the Congress that formed the UPA and though not protected by patent, received wisdom tells us the Congress is the head of the UPA. The appropriation of the alliance nomenclature leads me to believe that Paswan and Co are holding out an open ended invitation to the likes of the AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal, the Left parties and a whole lot of others who are opposed to the Congress to come on board. Strategically, this makes sense.

The UPA, as we know it, was formed post 2004 elections and, tardy as its performance has been, it has lasted five years. So are the bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar usurping the name only because it worked for five years and rings a bell with voters? Or are they merely playing their cards until the elections to see what happens after? My belief is it is the latter.

If you recall, during the seat sharing talks, messrs Lalu, Mulayam and Paswan heaped abuse on the middlemen — interlocutors, if you prefer — even as they praised Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. This is a strategy which is as safe as it can get, because the Congress reacts only if the abuse is aimed in the direction of the top two and a half — Rahul included. And Lalu and Co don’t do that. Digvijay, Dwivedi and Moily are easy targets because there need be no fear of retribution.

I think that the attempt to appropriate the UPA leadership is aimed at scuttling speculation that, if the numbers favour the other side, some of the new “ Fourth Front” partners may hop across to the NDA. Out of the 134 seats in Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress currently has just 16, while the RJD, SP and LNJP together account for 67.

The Theory of Probability, when applied to politics in the heartland, says that the more seats you contest, the more your chances of winning more seats. Or so these leaders seem to believe. So they say nice things about Sonia and reiterate their support to Manmohan’s bid for another term but they leave nothing to chance to ensure that the Congress is roundly thrashed.

Make no mistake, these messiahs of social justice won’t desert the UPA. They are just regrouping before hoping to come back with greater numbers. The timidity of the Congress in the face of the Left blackmail during the last five years will be repeated. This time it will be the Fourth Front playing Fifth Columnist.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, April 5, 2009

I'm a self-made actor: Priyanka

On Seedhi Baat, actor Priyanka Chopra says all her achievements are a result of hard work and fate.

Part2 Part3 Part4

'मिस इंडिया के बारे में सोचा नहीं था'

आज तक के खास कार्यक्रम 'सीधी बात' में बॉलीवुड अभिनेत्री प्रियंका चोपड़ा ने अपने करियर, अपनी जिंदगी, फिल्‍मों और अपने तजुर्बे जैसे मुद्दों पर बात की. प्रियका के अनुसार उन्‍होंने कभी भी मिस इंडिया बनने के बारे में नहीं सोचा था और अगर वो अभिनेत्री नहीं होती तो इंजीनियर होती.

Snippets / Mail Today, April 06, 2009

WHILE the BSP faithful queue outside Rakabganj to pay obeisance to the diva, expect a rush of veshti - clad devotees from Tamil Nadu to head for South Delhi where a huge bungalow is being constructed for the AIADMK’s presiding deity J. Jayalalithaa. Residents of Vasant Vihar say the old house, which has now been demolished to make way for the new, was recently bought by a person who is an intimate associate of the party supremo. Presumably, it will be from here that Jayalalithaa will indulge in her machinations to ensure that her younger political cousin from the BSP does not make it to the top job. Post elections, you can hope to see a steady stream of red beacon fitted white ambassadors snaking their way through the narrow streets of the area whenever she is in Delhi. No need to know the address. All you do is ask “ Where does the Kingmaker live?”

Mind your own business
IN THESE days of economic meltdown and cost cutting, it is heartening to know that even union ministers are tightening their belts. Different ministers have different ways of doing it. Some merely turn off the lights while leaving office, others say they will be fine with a mere half a dozen orderlies, one minister has opted for a fuel efficient and green CNG car. But there are a couple of others who, while trying to cut costs, may actually be putting their lives at risk. Armed commandoes who are assigned for the ministers’ security are asked to stay back when they leave home in the morning, with just a driver accompanying them. No pilot cars, no AK- 47 wielding cops in follow up cars.
Workaholics that they are, they seldom return home before midnight. All work and no play could turn even ministers into dull dour creatures, so they occasionally take a break from work, hop into their official cars and dash across town to keep some good company.

But their security officers are a worried lot. They began to keep a logbook of their protectee’s departure and arrival timings, updated the diaries for a month, then showed it to the immediate superior, who passed the files on to seniors until these finally found their way into the hands of a top security official who then sought an appointment with one of the ministers.
But the meeting was anything but cordial. Instead of appreciating the police efforts to secure the well- being of ministers, the official got a stern lecture from the minister on the laws of privacy.There is no more thankless job than being a security man in Delhi.

EVERY five years, as elections come, we hear the same tired old slogans being repeated. But once in a while someone comes up with something new that may not turn out to be effective but still manages to catch attention. L. K. Advani’s promise that, if elected to power, the BJP will bring back the money that wealthy Indians have stashed away in Swiss banks and other safe havens in Europe is one such. The money he is talking of humungous: Over a Trillion dollars. That is One Thousand Billion dollars or One Million Million Dollars. I will make it simpler: that’s just a shade under India’s annual GDP. The idea to add this attention grabber was mooted by some of his advisors, none of whom are politicians, and some exbureaucrats whose sympathies lie with the BJP. They believe that in these days of pink slips and salary ‘ decrements’, “ Bring Back The Money” would make a good electoral slogan, specially among the BJP’s traditional vote bank, the urban middle classes. The idea first came up as early as February and after the matter was discussed within the party, it was decided that this would be one of the main slogans during the Advani campaign.

But there were some Cassandras in the party with close links with the corporate world and MNCs. Not only were they less than enthusiastic about the proposal, they painted terrifying scenarios about Corporate India pinning a pariah tag on the BJP and of election funds drying up. The consensus man that he is, Advani once again discussed the matter with all top honchos in the party and those for and against seemed evenly matched. The matter was finally settled and the announcement was made last week only after he discussed the issue with Narendra Modi. He is Corporate India’s best friend, but it was the Gujarat chief minister who insisted that the BJP commit itself to “ Bring Back The Money”. No matter how many wealthy friends the party may lose.

Palatial pampering
WHEN Mayawati played host to the Third Front grandees at a sumptuous dinner a fortnight ago, the general surmise was that the BSP chief was throwing her hat into the prime ministerial ring. Like so many others, Mayawati too has prime ministerial ambitions but I think she is going to bide her time. She is not foolish enough to jump into the fray when the next prime minister could hope to get, at best, a short term lease in South Block. Then what was the dinner all about? Behenji , as we all know, loves to flaunt her acquisitions, be it gold, diamonds or even her bank account( s).

In this case, she invited her peers to dinner not to talk politics but to flaunt her new address at Gurdwara Rakabganj Road, a stone’s throw from Parliament House. Twenty- five years ago, when the prime minister’s residence was shifted from Safdarjang Road to Race Course Road, they merged bungalows numbered 1,3,5,7 and 9 RCR where 1 and 9 were occupied by security and the rest formed the prime minister’s sprawling residence cum office complex.

Mayaywati’s new estate isn’t quite that opulent, but she too merged three independent bungalows — 12, 14 and 16 Rakabganj Road — to construct a huge complex that forms her residence, a Kanshi Ram Memorial and the party office. Which just goes to show that Mayawati does not have to be prime minister to enjoy all the trappings that go with the office.


Aajtak, April 05, 2009

'अभिनेत्री नहीं होती तो इंजीनियर होती' : प्रियंका चोपड़ा

आज तक के खास कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में बॉलीवुड अभिनेत्री प्रियंका चोपड़ा ने अपने करियर, अपनी जिंदगी और अपने तजुर्बे जैसे मुद्दों पर बात की. प्रियंका चोपड़ा ने बताया कि उनका बचपन बरेली में बीता. उन्‍होंने कभी भी मिस इंडिया बनने के बारे में नहीं सोचा था. प्रियंका की मां ने उनकी फोटो ऐसे ही मिस इंडिया के लिए भेज दी थी और सोचा भी नहीं था कि वहां से बुलावा आ जाएगा.प्रियंका ने कहा कि जब इंटरव्यू के लिए बुलावा आया तो उन्‍होंने सोचा कि चलो इसी बहाने घूमना हो जाएगा. लेकिन इंटरव्यू में भी वो चुन ली गई और फिर मिस इंडिया भी बनीं और फिर मिस वर्ल्‍ड भी. प्रियंका का कहना है कि ये सब किसी अजूबे से कम नहीं रहा. जब उनसे फिल्‍म फैश्‍ान के बारे में पूछा गया तो उन्‍होंने कहा कि इस फिल्‍म के लिए उन्‍हें बहुत मेहनत करनी पड़ी.प्रियंका ने बताया कि उन्‍होंने केवल तीन महीने ही मॉडलिंग की थी इसलिए फैशन के लिए उन्‍हें काफी मेहनत करनी पड़ी और इसमें फैशन इंडस्‍ट्री के उनके पुराने दोस्‍तों ने उनकी बहुत मदद की. प्रियंका ने कभी नहीं सोचा था कि वो फैशन का किरदार निभा सकेंगी. उनका कहना है कि इस किरदार के लिए उनमें आत्‍मविश्‍वास की कमी थी. जब उनसे पूछा गया कि फिल्‍मों का चयन करते समय वो किन बातों का ध्‍यान रखती हैं तो उन्‍होंने बताया कि सबसे पहले तो स्क्रिप्‍ट जरूर पढ़ती हैं और फिर बहुत ध्‍यान से फिल्‍म चुनती हैं.प्रियंका की हर फिल्‍म उनके लिए क्‍लासिक है और अगर फिल्‍म नहीं चलती है तो उनका दिल टूट जाता है. प्रियंका के अनुसार सफल फिल्‍म के लिए किरदार के साथ ईमानदारी बहुत जरूरी है. प्रियंका ने कहा कि फिल्‍म दर्शक की निगाह से बननी चाहिए और कहानी कुछ अलग और लोगों से जुड़ी होनी चाहिए क्‍योंकि फिल्‍म की जान उसकी कहानी होती है. जब उनसे पूछा गया कि अक्षय कुमार के साथ फिल्‍म नहीं करने का कोई विशेष कारण तो नहीं है तो उन्‍होंने कहा क‍ि फिलहाल अभी ऐसा कोई ऑफर नहीं मिला है इसलिए उनके साथ काम नहीं कर पा रही हूं.प्रियंका ने अक्षय की तारीफ करते हुए कहा कि उन्‍होंने अक्षय से बहुत कुछ सीखा है और उन्‍हें अक्षय से कोई परहेज नहीं है. मीडिया में उनके रिश्‍तों के बारे में होने वाली बातों पर प्रियंका ने कहा 'मेरे रिश्‍तों पर बेकार चर्चा बहुत होती है. उन्‍होंने कहा क‍ि मेरे बारे में लोगों को जानने का हक है लेकिन थोड़ी प्राइवेसी तो मिलनी ही चाहिए. शादी के बारे में पूछे गए सवाल के जवाब में प्रियंका ने कहा कि वो अभी शादी के लिए तैयार नहीं हैं और अगर उन्‍हें कोई अच्‍छा लड़का मिले तो उसको अभी इंतजार करना होगा. प्रियंका ने यह भी कहा कि अगर वो अभिनेत्री नहीं होती तो इं‍जीनियर होती.