Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, July 26, 2009

Seedhi Baat with Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi. She talks about her political fight with Mayawati, the role of Rahul Gandhi in the revival of the Congress and about factionalism in the party. She discusses future plans of the Congress Party and speaks about her father, H. N. Bahuguna, former Chief Minister of UP and his political legacy.
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Monday, July 27, 2009

POWER & POLITICS / Mail Today, July 27, 2009

PARLIAMENT has never been known to be a hotbed of black humour but after the shame of Sharm- el- Sheikh, a lot of it originates there. In the last tumultuous week when even Congressmen were seen ready to go for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s jugular, I ran into some ministers in that circular edifice and they were debating amongst themselves about the level of trust they could have in the mandarins assigned to their ministries.

After Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon’s confession that the fiasco in the Egyptian resort was nothing more than a case of “ bad drafting”, ministers are becoming, and justifiably so, quite wary of bureaucrats.

One mantriji , fortunate enough to have been to the best of colleges in the world, told me he pitied several of his colleagues who have just a fleeting acquaintance with the English language and could fall victim to bureaucratic machinations.

Never in the past has a prime minister read and endorsed a statement that would later come to haunt him so much. Having passed the statement, Manmohan ideally should own responsibility. Not since the IAS and the IFS replaced the old ICS after Independence have our “ world class officers” put the country in such an embarrassing position before a worldwide audience. Anywhere else, including the tinpot dictatorships masquerading as democracies in our neighbourhood, such “ wordsmiths” would have been sacked. But in our India that is Bharat, they carry on unscathed.

I only hope that it is one- off. Because these are times when India is increasingly dealing with the outside world and bilateral and multilateral joint statements are a weekly occurrence. It therefore would not be out of place to ask: are our “ draftsmen” up to it? The errors are not in their language — not when men of eminence such as TKA Nair, MK Narayanan, Shiv Shankar Menon and others are involved — but their understanding of the nuances. Time was when ministers and bureaucrats gave press interviews and then went into denial mode to say they were misquoted. I thought the advent of TV channels would make things slightly more difficult for them, but I was wrong.

Because when caught on tape in an awkward situation, they blame TV channels for doctoring tapes and quoting them out of context. But this is the first time I have found officialdom trying to disown a joint statement by simply saying “ that is not what we meant, it was something else”. What next? Nobody really knows to what extent babudom will go to cover up their follies but a minister friend has a solution. I find it a very practical one, considering that two weeks after Shame el Sheikh, they have not Menon: In dock been able to identify the culprit behind the bad drafting. It is my friend’s contention that in future, all agreements be brought under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, so that when things go wrong, as they did in Egypt, accountability is immediately established. As in Bollywood movies where the credit- titles are scrolled at the end, all bilateral and multilateral statements that India signs should have similar credits showing who drafted the statement, who vetted it, read it and passed it. These should be uploaded to the ministry’s website.
That will show who is culpable. After that, there is no escaping.

Snippets / Mail Today, July 27,2009

IT’S BEEN a depressing two months for the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The less than expected performance in the Lok Sabha elections was compounded by the BJP’s humiliation in the municipal elections in Junagadh where he had fielded several heavyweights, including Muslim candidates, meant as a test run of his new avatar as a minority friendly CM. His misery was further compounded when the high court last week gave permission to the SIT to include Modi among the 62 persons to be interrogated for the 2002 riots.

The party’s central leadership hasn’t lent him a shoulder to cry on, busy as the leaders are fighting one another. No wonder the poster boy of the BJP is suddenly feeling isolated, let down by his fair- weather friends in Delhi and the constituents he tried to reach out to. The latter is proof that image makeovers don’t work in politics. Modi has always turned adversity into an opportunity. We will wait to see if once again he will pull something out of nothing.

How to become a people’s president
AS ANNIVERSARIES go, this was as quiet as it could get. Last Thursday, Pratibha Patil completed two years in office as the President of India and but for Rashtrapati Bhavan sending out a press release to commemorate the occasion, it was a low key event that went virtually unnoticed.

Two years ago, Patil came into office in a blaze of controversy, but since then has gone about her job in a businesslike manner, laying the odd foundation here, unveiling a statue there, giving a bhashan somewhere else and occasionally taking off on a foreign jaunt. Going by the coverage she gets, even the media doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of what she is up to.
But go through the Rashtrapati Bhavan website and you will get the picture of a president who keeps herself really busy. The press release issued last Thursday headlined “ President completes two years in office working towards building a compassionate and people centric society” gives an idea of the areas of her concern. From inclusive and balanced growth to people centric administration, efficient and affordable justice delivery to battling social evils, the country’s first citizen is pitching in everywhere with her bit. The more I went through the website, the more I was convinced about the excessive self praise and wondered if previous presidents also indulged in the same.

Unfortunately, while the website lists all previous presidents, it doesn’t provide links that would take the reader to their tenure on Raisina Hill. I don’t know if these existed in the past. If they did, were they removed and why? It is such a shame really because all rulers are judged in comparison with their predecessors and it would have been revealing to know how she fares relatively. Patil still has three more years to go and to be fair, presidents are best judged after they demit office. By that yardstick, Abdul Kalam’s crowded calendar would indicate he has been the most popular in recent times. That’s why he was called the People’s President.

THE Maharashtra Anti Terror Squad’s attempts to bounce back after being sidelined in the aftermath of 26/ 11 is finally bearing fruit. Warnings almost on a daily basis from the IB and other agencies about Mumbai being targeted once again has woken the Congress- NCP government in Maharashtra from its deep slumber. Stung by the serious criticism over the shoddy treatment of the crack outfit, the government has launched a massive plan to revamp the ATS, giving it additional powers, men, state of the art equipment and bulletproof interceptor jeeps.

The ATS was marginalised after 26/ 11 when it was taken off all cases relating to the Mumbai attacks. Internal politics and factionalism led its then chief and bravest officer Hemant Karkare to walk into a deathtrap. Since then senior police officers were hesitant on an ATS posting which was seen as a dumping ground. K. P. Raghuvanshi, who was an earlier chief, had demanded the restoration of the agency’s powers as soon as he was reinstated in the wake of Karkare’s death.
The government has yielded a lot of ground.

Under the revamp plan, young officers would be posted and given proper security cover and weapons. They will also have powers to deal with all terror related issues and will report to Director General of Police ( Ops), a post which has been created recently, and not, as was the practice until recently, to the state DGP. It is to be hoped that the ATS will get down to its primary task of pre- empting and preventing terror attacks rather than keep itself busy fighting internal saboteurs.

Those who hide behind the NSG
LEADERSHIP is something that cannot be left in the hands of cowards. The message that came out after all the noise in Parliament last week after the reported moves of the union home ministry to review the security cover for our “ VIPs” was that this nation is being led by a bunch of cowards. Home Minister P Chidambaram has shed the elaborate security detail meant for himself. We have a lot of VIPs who wouldn’t be seen in public unless surrounded by men in black wielding fearsome looking guns.

It was a good social and political symbol that Chidambaram wanted to take away from the undeserving, for which he laid out plans to downsize the security cover of many politicians.
That triggered a convergence of strange bedfellows. Politicians who wouldn’t even deign to attend each other’s funeral joined hands to oppose it.

Mulayam and Lalu Yadav said the government would be responsible if anything happened to them, while Mayawati’s BSP contingent brought Parliament to a standstill. Politics has always been a paying profession, but it is also a dangerous one and anyone in public life — even a low profile MP — is a soft target. When a CM insists that she will settle for nothing less than Z+ security which doesn’t tally with IB’s assessment, she is merely inflating her importance.
My mind goes back to 1993 when Jayalalithaa was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and PV Narasimha Rao the prime minister.

There was no love lost between the two. The Tamil Tigers were having a free run in the state, yet the Rao regime withdrew the NSG cover to the lady. I am privy to the letters exchanged by the two and recall that in one of his letters, Rao had asked Jayalalithaa how she could be trusted with the security of the state when she feared so much for her own life. Jaya then set up the state’s own elite guard, the Greyhounds, and shamefully, other chief ministers followed suit.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, July 20, 2009

OUR lawmakers who sit in the twin houses that constitute Parliament are faced with challenging tasks every day but their attention of late has turned from legislation to personal safety. Like any 82 year old, the building has seen much wear and tear and if your job as a minister, MP or even secretariat staff takes you to Parliament House, there is a good chance that you may end up at the nearby dispensary to be treated for minor abrasions or hypertension.
About two weeks ago, chunks of concrete and bricks came off the ceiling of the room of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora. Fortunately, the minister was not in office.

Last week, half a dozen secretariat staff who had got on to an elevator were trapped inside for close to three hours and none heard their shrieks for help from the deep bowels of that cavernous building. The seat of our democracy should not be such a health hazard.

I FIRST sat in a train more than fifty years ago and one thing I know for sure is that they haven't changed a bit in the last half century. While going through the railway budget papers I was therefore a bit surprised to notice that of the total investment of Rs 40,745 crore envisaged in this year's budget, Mamata Banerjee has earmarked Rs 12,393 crore for “ research”. I don’t know what kind of research goes into gauge conversion or for switching from steam or diesel to electric engines but the money set aside for research is the kind that would enable global auto majors, for example, to design half a dozen new hybrid cars. Forget hybrid trains, they have not been able to provide us decent toilets. There is Rs 12000 crore plus for research when less than half that amount has been set aside for safety that would save several hundred lives every year, Rs 1797 crore for machinery and plants, and Rs 2054 crore for restoration of lines.

Much has been written about it being a railway budget for Bengal. A letter I got from an irate reader in Orissa sums up the neglect, betrayal and the sense of letdown after Mamata's budget, particularly among people living outside Bengal. After going through the Railway budget papers with a toothcomb, he has discovered that while Orissa generates more than Rs 5000 crore for the railways, the minister sanctioned just Rs 715 crore for railway development in the state.

What’s more, that is about Rs 235 crores less than what Lalu had sanctioned in the 2008- 09 budget. One of the prerequisites of a good minister is the ability to be responsive to different groups and constituencies and to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people as well as the ministry.

In theory this sounds good, but in practice it seldom works. Ministers keep an eye on the next election and shower bounties on their constituency/ state at the expense of others. Much has been written about the goodies Mamata has showered on West Bengal at the expense of other states. Such largesse for her home state is not surprising considering that she hopes to replace Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Writers Building in about two years’ time.

POOR Nitish Kumar. He has been taking one wrong step after another ever since newspapers, in the runup to counting day in May, painted him as a kingmaker. He actually believed all those reports and positioned his JD( U) as a secular outfit, in the NDA, but independent of the right- wing BJP and willing to do business with the government, if requested.

He must be ruing the day. True, Manmohan Singh sang Nitish’s praise, but that was before the results gave the UPA a clean sweep. Since then, the Congress party has dealt with him the way it treats its other allies — with a take it or leave it attitude. News reports say that for more than a month now, he has been trying to get an appointment with the prime minister and every time he is told Manmohan is busy.

Ever since the flooding of River Kosi ravaged large parts of Bihar last year, he has been knocking on the Centre’s doors. It was bad enough that help wasn’t forthcoming. But the speed with which New Delhi sanctioned crores of rupees and rushed relief measures for those affected by Cyclone Aila in West Bengal was really rubbing salt into his wounds. More embarrassments could be in store if newspaper reports suggesting a rift between him and the JD( U) chief Sharad Yadav turn out to be true.

BJP gets a life- saving injection
RIVEN by dissension and infighting, the BJP’s chances of long term survival seemed remote as late as a week ago. But suddenly there is a spring in its leaders’ steps and who should they collectively thank, but Manmohan Singh, just back from Egypt. With opinion gaining ground that Manmohan gave away more than he got when he clasped hands with Gilani at Sharm- el- Sheikh, the BJP sees a window of opportunity.

Take a random poll among ordinary Indians and a majority of them would say that Pakistan’s leaders are not to be trusted. But devious as they are seen to be, our leaders seem to go weak in the knees in their presence.

LK Advani, who led the BJP walkout of the Lok Sabha on Friday, learnt this four years when he sang Jinnah’s praise and was roundly stung by his party. Manmohan met Gilani in neutral territory, yet got so carried away that he is now accused of having capitulated on India’s known stance on the issue of cross border terrorism. So eager was he to display bonhomie that he even traded his trademark namaskaar for an aadaab. There is much mystery over why he did what he did. With an election won, he had no domestic compulsions.

In parliament Manmohan said things that seemed inconsistent with the joint statement issued in Egypt. The mystery is not likely to be solved soon either. And how did Balochistan, which has never figured in any round of talks over the years, finally find a place in the joint statement? Islamabad can fling that ball back at us and accuse India of fomenting trouble in the province.

A month ago, I had written about the absence of the RoD ( record of discussion) of the PM’s “ chance” meeting with Asif Ali Zardari at a multi- lateral summit in Russia. Is there an RoD of the Manmohan- Gilani meeting? If so, the people have a right to know. Meanwhile, Advani should thank Manmohan for bringing BJP out of its comatose state.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, July 19, 2009

Yoga Guru Swami Ramdev, in an interview says homosexuality is a genetic disorder and pranayam and yoga can cure it. Further he talks about his understanding of homosexuality; how homosexuals can be converted into heterosexual; risk to society from homosexual behaviour; the need to preserve Indian institution of marriage and the complexities that can arise in a society in case of acceptance of homosexual behaviour.

Power & Politics / Mail Today, July 20, 2009

THIS week we ought to have been celebrating the tenth anniversary of our victory in Kargil, but thanks to our politicians we won’t. We have always known better than to expect honourable behaviour from our politicians.

Last week, they dragged themselves down to the gutter level. Nothing could demoralise our forces more than downplaying the importance of the 1999 war in which over 500 of our bravest soldiers laid down their lives.

As if that wasn’t enough to trigger revulsion not just from the forces but even ordinary citizens, two senior Congress leaders — one a former union minister of state for home — were quoted by Headlines Today TV to the effect that Kargil wasn’t something that was worth celebrating. Credit to Sriprakash Jaiswal who at least knows which side won the war, though this former junior home minister does not know when the war was fought or whether it called for celebrations.

But hear this from Rashid Alvi: “ Kargil is not a thing to celebrate. Pakistan army entered our territory, we did not go across. Only the NDA wants to celebrate it as a victory”. Another Congress leader who did not wish to be quoted told the channel, “ The BJP derived political mileage from the war to win the 1999 election”. We should count our blessings that Alvi did not opt for a career in the military. And going by the logic of the unnamed Congressman ( it’s easy to see why he did not wish to be quoted), Indira Gandhi could have plotted the 1971 Bangladesh war with an eye on the elections a year later.

Our defence forces have always been apolitical and remain one of the few institutions that the country can be proud of. As a college student I remember seeing volunteers of the RSS and Jan Sangh collecting jewellery to raise funds for the war effort in 1965. Six years later, after General Sam Manekshaw forced the Pakistanis to surrender after the 11 day war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then of the Jan Sangh, led the thumping of desks as Indira Gandhi walked into the Lok Sabha and in a speech that many old timers still recall, he compared the then prime minister to Goddess Durga. Alvi, Jaiswal and their ilk need to be told that no history lessons are needed to know that Naik Abdul Hamid laid down his life in the 1965 war fighting for India and not for Indira or the Indian National Congress. Or that 22 year old Captain Vijayant Thapar died in Kargil fighting for Bharat and not the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Even more distressing is the attitude of the government which has limited the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Kargil to a minor function on the icy heights of Drass in Kargil. Neither the prime minister nor the defence Jaiswal minister is scheduled to observe remembrance.
Headlines Today TV quoted high placed army sources and said the forces were keen to celebrate in a big way but the government thought otherwise. Ironic, isn’t it, that this reluctance for public champagne popping — it called for nothing less — came in the very week that the prime minister Manmohan Singh took the pride of place at the Champs Elysees in Paris during the Bastille Day celebrations where the might of the French defence forces was on display.

Forget the likes of Alvi and Jaiswal who have disgraced their positions. The government has let our own troops down. They deserved better.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, July 13, 2009

RECOGNITION is something that all politicians crave for. Our prime ministers are no different and believe that the wider the recognition and acceptability, the better. In their first two years in office, they focus mostly on matters at home, but later on develop a desire to become global figures. If the number of foreign tours lined up in the next few months is anything to go by, Manmohan Singh seems determined to encash on his reputation as a renowned economist to acquire the status of a global leader.

In his first five year term, he made 35 trips abroad, exactly as many as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in his six years in Race Course Road, visited every continent and spent 151 days away from our shores. That's equivalent to spending a whole month abroad every year. At the rate he is travelling, he is destined to break the record set by Rajiv Gandhi who went on 46 official visits abroad during his five years in office. In less than 50 days of his second term the PM has already been to Russia and last week was in Italy.

Today, he sets off for Paris where he will be the chief guest at the National Day celebrations and then go on to Egypt for the Non Aligned Summit. And in the coming months, he will criss- cross the globe to discuss global warming and economic recovery at several bilateral meetings and is also scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly in September. His spin doctors had tried in the past to catapult him to the international stage but their efforts then were in vain as his political acceptability levels at home were seen to be below par.

But since May, when he became the first non- Gandhi and only the second Congress leader to win a second consecutive mandate, his ratings have soared on the home front and internationally. It will be a while before he strikes up the kind of rapport that Nehru had with leaders like Marshall Tito of the former Yugoslavia or Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt; that Indira had with Fidel Castro or Rajiv shared with Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping.

But from his crowded schedule, it would seem the PM is well on his way to making many friends at the high table. According to sources in the foreign office, over 50 invitations from various heads of governments are pending with the Prime Minister's Office. If his travels during his first term are any indication, he is likely to accept invitations for multilateral events where he would be able to deal with many leaders at one go. Manmohan would be a permanent and prominent participant in most of these meetings where economics and not politics will dominate.

With the world getting highly polarised along economic lines, India is expected to play an important role. India is now a permanent member of the G20 and an invitee to the G8/ G14 and the forthcoming NAM session will throw some light on the chances of India's ambitious bid for the UN Security Council seat.

All this suits him fine because Manmohan Singh is fully aware that the political space in the Congress will be occupied for the time being by Sonia Gandhi and then by Rahul. That the Manmohan PMO would play a more active transnational role was clear from the appointment of the low profile S. M. Krishna earlier as minister and Nirupama Rao as foreign secretary.

On the international stage he may well rise to the great heights that Nehru and Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee attained because in these days of global economic woes, his reputation as an economist makes him a much sought after man whose sage advice will be tapped by leaders from around the world. The world will soon discover what we in India took a long time to do: that the good doctor is less about style and more about substance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, July 12, 2009

In Seedhi Baat, actress- politician Smriti Irani talks about her new serial and role, the changing trends with respect to lead characters in Indian television, the role of television in changing the viewer’s mindset, her experience in politics, and maintaining the right balance between work and home, among others.

टेलीविजन नहीं देता है संस्‍कार: स्‍मृति

आज तक के साप्‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में भाजपा नेता और नामचीन टीवी कलाकार स्‍मृति ईरानी ने कहा है कि टेलीविजन बच्‍चों को संस्‍कार नहीं देता है.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, July 13, 2009

IN the three decades or so that he has been in public life, Farooq Abdullah must have stepped onto thousands of podiums to talk passionately about the rights of the Kashmiris. But at a time when his only son Omar presides over the state’s destiny and helplessly watches as Jammu & Kashmir goes through one of its worst periods in recent history, Abdullah Sr is nowhere to be seen, except, of course, in TV studios where he is seen reiterating his faith in Omar's ability to handle the crisis.

Apart from being a minister in the Union Cabinet, Farooq is also the president of the ruling National Conference in the state. His hands- off policy may seem inexplicable to most of us, but those in the know of Kashmir politics, say he is applying the old East German sports model in politics. They used to throw two and three year olds into the water and kids learnt to swim, grew up and quite a few ended up winning Olympic golds. That's called learning on the job. It's not recommended in politics though.

Does this party have a death wish?
MATTERS in the BJP are becoming stranger by the day and the once passionate supporters of the party are becoming immune to the poisonous infighting that rages within. The status of the main opposition sits easily on it because everybody is in opposition to everyone else.

Instead of doing their job of opposing the government, the leaders of the “ losers brigade” are busy taking on each other over matters like who gets to occupy which room in Parliament House and the party office, who will sit behind whom in Parliament, and even over who will face the TV cameras for their 15 minutes of fame each evening.

Far from disciplining those who led the BJP to its worst electoral defeat in two decades, the poor pitiful party chief, Rajnath Singh, can only look on as leaders continue to gang up against each other. A frustrated Rajnath takes his wrath out on minions in the state units who were merely underlings to the powerful central cabals that ran the party campaign. So Jairam Thakur was divested of the Himachal party chief post, which was given to Khimi Ram, a Dalit. The excuse was that with his induction into the state cabinet, Thakur could not continue as party chief under the one- manone- post formula. There are no such fig leafs in Haryana and Rajasthan where incumbents were thrown out and new party chiefs brought in.

In Haryana, Atmaprakash Manchanda gave way to Krishnapal Gujjar, and in Rajasthan Om Mathur was replaced by Arun Chaturvedi. The men who were kicked out may well have deserved what they got but the induction of a Dalit, a Gujjar and a Brahmin, all of whom are at best bantamweights, suggests that caste considerations were at work.

Meanwhile, the fight amongst the political featherweights at 11 Ashoka Road continues and it has come to a stage where the likelihood of fireworks happening when two BJP leaders are in the same room is very real. At the rate they are going, it won’t be long before they shut the place down.

AS a lawyer, P Chidambaram must be a firm believer in the dictum that justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done. As a politician, he must be one of those who believes that ministers must not only do their work but must also be seen to be doing it. The scorching pace that he has set as Union Home Minister would leave a lot many of his younger colleagues gasping for breath. He has managed to do in a few months what former home minister LK Advani, who liked it when people referred to him as Iron Man 2, could not do in six years.

Every day, reams and reams of papers, in the form of parliamentary questions and answers are placed in both houses of parliament. Most MPs don’t go through those papers, while journalists as a tribe are too lazy to do the same. But Chidambaram is firm that his work must be seen to be done and so has instructed the information wing of his ministry, attached to the Press Information Bureau to send out regular press releases of papers tabled by him and his two junior colleagues in the two houses.

Assuming that Parliament is not to be misled, take a look. You will find that on everything from jail reforms to communication and intelligence sharing network, naxal violence to law and order in the North East, pensions for freedom fighters and their dependents to fencing on the Indo- Bangladesh border and construction of additional posts, he has set a pace that would leave his many predecessors green with envy. I think Manmohan should demand the same level of intensity from all his ministerial colleagues.

Slamming the open door shut
ALL its other achievements notwithstanding, it was the Right to Information Act, passed in the early days of the UPA’s first innings, that was truly supposed to have been a feather in the government’s cap. All that the ordinary citizen had to do was pay Rs 10 and ask the trickiest of questions and the government was duty bound to provide the answers. Transparency was supposed to have been the buzzword and accountability the government’s mantra.

The reality is far from it. At India Today , the magazine where I am editor, we learnt it the long and hard way. It took us nothing less than a year to receive information regarding declaration of assets by ministers of the Manmohan Singh government. I thought the inordinate delay had rendered the whole exercise meaningless since ministers being, well ministers, their assets would have doubled or even quadrupled in the twelve months that we waited for a response. But at least we got the information, though outdated.
But now comes news that is truly distressing. In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha last Wednesday, the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions said that the government proposes to amend the RTI Act whereby it intends to do away with the current practice of hearing RTI appeals. A government circular dated May 22, 2009 also advised all Information Commissioners to hear appeals and complaints as a single body. The circular is a masterpiece in mumbo jumbo but the subtext makes it obvious that the government’s much vaunted pious intentions to usher in transparency are, at best, phony. There continue to lurk a whole lot of babus and possibly ministers too, who believe that a government, even one that functions under a democratic set up, must be a riddle wrapped in a mystery.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Lotus Eaters/CS/India Today, June 29, 2009

The lotus eaters

A tired and discredited leadership short on ideas and a demoralised cadre tak the BJP to a new low. A major overhaul is due if the party is to bounce back.

Cricket is a gentleman’s game where fielders are known to applaud an opposing batsman’s century or an exquisite shot. But last week, when BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley, ensconced on the balcony at Lord’s, was seen on TV applauding a boundary by Kevin Pietersen in the India-England T20 match, his detractors back home were busy circulating text messages.

One read: “He led his party to a debacle, and now he is a witness to the defeat of India”. Jaitley, a hardcore cricket buff, was in London with his family on holiday while his party back home was imploding, just like the Indian team. At the same time, his colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad was in New York while another spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, was holidaying in Europe.

It was clearly a good time to escape from the heat of Delhi and, possibly, the heat being generated by the internal wars that have reduced the BJP to a caricature of its disciplined “party with a difference” image and raised embarrassing questions about its future.

Just as success has many fathers and failure none, the BJP was left scrambling for scapegoats to blame for the party’s most debilitating performance since its phenomenal rise began exactly over two decades ago. Suddenly letter writing became a primary talent of party leaders and the purple prose came with a premium.

Individuals who formed the Losers Team started blaming ideology, or lack of it, for the loss. And those who had won decisively discovered new infirmities in the leadership.

Can't afford to miss

  • Instead of rewarding the winners and others who worked hard for victory, Advani chose to reward those whom the party cadres sawas the architects of doom.

  • The BJP’s mistake was in choosing to fight the 2009 elections around Advani’s personality and not its ideology.

  • The party faithful could relate with senior leaders who sought an internal debate on the reasons behind the defeat.

  • After back to back defeats, the party leadership which is a creation of the RSS is blaming the organisation for all its ills.

  • For the first time, the BJP dispensed with the old RSSstyle campaign. Even key issues like Mandir and Article 370 were relegated to the background.
    The BJP is still blessed with an array of leaders who, given a meaningful role, can turn the party’s fortunes around.

  • RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has so far chosen to be non-interventionist but is expected to play a more proactive role.

Appropriately enough, the first shot was fired by ex-soldier and veteran Jaswant Singh, considered to be one of the most disciplined leaders of the party. His furious fusillade in the form of a letter he circulated at a party meeting questioned the discriminatory punish-and-reward system in the party. Singh demanded some serious soul-searching in the party over the electoral defeat. He was quickly joined by many others, including former finance minister and senior leader Yashwant Sinha. It was clear that a fight was brewing between what is called the Byte Generation and the Substantive Generation, the Old Guard versus the New Pretenders.

Meanwhile, cadres watched helplessly from the sidelines as television studios and newspaper columns became convenient platforms for party leaders and functionaries to defend failure.
The leadership finally decided to fight back—clumsily as it turned out—by issuing a gag order on party leaders, exposing the communication gap and mistrust in its own ranks.

It is a pivotal moment in the 28-year-old history of the party. When the BJP lost the general elections in 2004, no one in the party held Atal Behari Vajpayee responsible for it. The election was fought in his name but the slogans, strategy and timing were decided by his anointed successor, L.K. Advani.
But there is one crucial difference between 2004 and 2009. Five years back, no one held the party’s ideology responsible for the defeat. Back then, there were also leaders who accepted responsibility for the defeat and offered to reign, like Pramod Mahajan. Turn the page to 2009. The party bagged just 116 seats. However, this time none of the top leaders accepted moral responsibility and offered to resign.

The absence of a leader like Vajpayee has eroded the BJP’s base and affected its fortunesAdvani made a token offer to resign but withdrew within 24 hours under pressure from those who took the party to disaster and were on the verge of losing their perks and posts. Instead of rewarding the winners and those who steered the party to victory in some states, Advani chose to reward the architects of the defeat.

Despite stiff opposition, Advani appointed Jaitley as Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha which carries the rank of a cabinet minister along with all accompanying perks. Jaitley is one of the best parliamentarians but his colleagues consider the legal eagle to be a part-time politician. His elevation was seen by many as Advani’s effort to consolidate his control over the party and deny any substantial role to other senior leaders.

For the first time, the party had no management role in the election, which was handed to a bunch of favourites in the party and outside. Eventually, the election was fought around Advani’s personality and not the party’s ideology.

The problem was compounded by Advani himself by not being clear about the line to follow—Hindutva or an extension of Brand Vajpayee. The ideological mismatch did not fool voters, not the least its middle class base. Little wonder then that the letter writers are insisting that the BJP should now be led by those who have an ideological stake in it.

The crisis in the BJP would perhaps have not assumed such proportions if the party had not been allowed to be hijacked by a handful of leaders, who have over the last decade or so got a stranglehold on it.

Jaswant Singh
In the process, many others, genuine winners who carry more conviction with the cadres, were sidelined. And it is they who are now challenging the establishment and the “Cosmetic Generation”. When former ministers Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Arun Shourie chose to break their silence and demanded inner party debate on the reasons for the unprecedented defeat, the party’s core constituents connected with them.

Their credentials were impeccable: all of them were top performers in the Vajpayee government, were torch bearers of reforms and represented the party’s modern face.

Yashwant Singh
And unlike those who held the party in a vice-like grip without ever having won a popular election, two of the three leaders had successfully fought Lok Sabha elections. Their query, which so far has elicited no response, is simple: when it is time to take stock and introspect, why is the leadership running away?

Shourie and Jaswant particularly had reasons to be livid since both were staunch supporters of Advani, yet were kept out of the party’s election machinery. It is this attitude of those who led the party to its worst humiliation that the three senior leaders are determined to fight. Jaswant was blunt in his twopage letter to Rajnath in Sanskritised Hindi.

“Our party resembles a football ground where no rules apply and anyone can kick anyone else without any fear of punishment,” he averred. Sinha went a step further and in a five-page letter to the 11 members of the core group sought a debate on the issues, policies, and faces that were projected during the election and which boomeranged.

He sought the resignation of all the office-bearers of the party for the electoral debacle, but when no one was ready to oblige, he offered his own as vice-president, which Rajnath promptly accepted.

Murli Manohar Joshi
They found support from ex-party chief M.M. Joshi and former Uttarakhand chief minister B.S. Koshiyari. Now, as the leadership gets ready to hold its first post-election meeting of the 130-member national executive, the challengers are set to force a wider debate on the debacle.

Arun Shourie
The volcano, as Sushma termed it, is waiting to erupt. But the tired and the discredited will most likely outlive the volcanic eruption and continue to demoralise.

By the end of the year, Rajnath’s tenure as the BJP president will come to an end and it is unlikely that he will get another term. As he leaves office, the man who has had the second longest tenure as the BJP chief—next only to Advani—will be remembered more for the decisions he didn’t take than those that he did.

Rajnath will be remembered not for what he did but for what he didn’tWhen the RSS anointed him as the party chief in 2005 after Advani was forced to step down following the Jinnah fiasco, Rajnath was expected to transform a demoralised party into a winning unit.

A former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, state BJP chief and an ex-Union agriculture minister, the Thakur had everything going for him. Ultimately nothing went right for him in four years, rendering him the weakest party chief ever. People like Ananth Kumar, Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu never considered him as “their” chief; he is the president who is in power but never quite in control.

Last week, confronted with the most delicate task of his tenure, he was found wanting. When senior leaders demanded that the party introspect over the reasons for the defeat, he issued a gag order to silence the dissenters. Marxists would have loved to adopt him, except that it was seen as an attempt to keep Advani and his supporters on his side so his tenure would get extended.

Since then he has been at best a captive president. He was the chairman of the central election committee, but only nominally since the campaign was managed from elsewhere. When Jaitley, secretary of the all-powerful parliamentary board, boycotted election committee meetings in protest against the appointment of Sudhanshu Mittal as an election-in-charge, Rajnath was simply cowed down. His only success has been to keep a powerful section of the RSS happy by obliging them with small favours. For these reasons the buck should stop at his desk.


Raman Singh
It seems cruel irony that the dashed hopes of a leader who wanted to become the prime minister of India have led to a confrontation with an organisation that created him and made him what he is today.

Advani himself has not spoken against the RSS, but his aides, both known and anonymous, hold the RSS and all that it represents responsible for the humiliating electoral defeat.

Some Advani acolytes even proposed that the BJP abandon its Hindutva image and tell the RSS to stop interfering in the BJP’s affairs. The key question then is: can the BJP survive without the RSS? For over 57 years of its existence, the BJP (earlier the Jan Sangh) derived its moral authority, discipline and ideology from the RSS which was its lifeline, guide and philosopher.

It also provided the BJP an army of foot soldiers to achieve its dream of a Hindu Rashtra. But after two successive defeats, the same leadership is holding the RSS responsible for the current mess. With over 55 million active members spread across the country, the RSS has provided the BJP with an ideological framework and a dedicated workforce to fight and win elections. In the past, the RSS deputed full-time Pracharaks to mobilise workers and manage polling booths. As one senior RSS leader put it: “The BJP without the RSS is like an engine without fuel.”

Election 2009 changed it all. The high powered e-campaign launched to propagate the Advani-For-Prime Minister message meant that the old style RSS campaign was conspicuous by its absence.

Even the BJP’s election manifesto relegated all volatile issues like the Ram Mandir, Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code to a few paragraphs on the booklet’s last page. For the first time since 1952, the top leadership of the RSS was not even consulted on formulating strategy or in the selection of the candidates.

A far cry from the ’80s and ’90s when leaders like Nanaji Deshmukh, Sunder Singh Bhandari, Kushabhau Thakre, J.P. Mathur, all ideologically committed and with a high moral quotient, were deputed to manage the party’s political thrust as well as keep a check on the individual aspirations of BJP leaders.

The decline of RSS influence in BJP affairs began with the NDA assuming power which also coincided with changes at the top in the RSS which saw those junior to Advani and Vajpayee at the helm in the parent organisation. Vajpayee’s liberal policies infuriated the RSS leadership which, however, could do nothing. When the NDA government sought to amend the Indian Patent Act in line with the international environment, the RSS bluntly told him that 60 of its MPs would oppose the Act.
But when Vajpayee dared them to bring his government down by advancing the passage of the Bill, the RSS backed off. Yet, all through the Vajpayee regime and later, the RSS had periodically tried to reassert its authority. It forced Advani to quit after his infamous Jinnah remarks and when he tried to make Venkaiah Naidu his successor, the RSS stalled it and got Rajnath in to carry the RSS ideology forward with the help of GenNext leaders. The move backfired since the second rung leaders never accepted Rajnath’s authority.

The gap between Advani and the RSS has only widened since and matters have reached a stage where the RSS is expected to review its relationship with the BJP at its pratinidhi sabha in July. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, a non-interventionist so far, is likely to play a more proactive role. That leaves the RSS with two options: it can either wash its hands off the BJP or fully take over the party. A senior RSS leader said they would be very keen to restore to the BJP its original tag of “the party with a difference”. How successful their mission is will be reflected in the choice of the BJP’s next president. One thing though is certain: the BJP doesn’t have much time to save itself from oblivion.

Notwithstanding the current crisis of identity and leadership, there is hope for the party. It still has solid votebanks in most of the states and also boasts of powerful state leaders who can steer the party to victory in the next general elections. Those who are blaming the ideological confusion at the top for the electoral losses forget that the same party has trounced the Congress in Bihar, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Jharkhand which accounted for over half of the 116 seats the party won.

Gopi Nath Munde

These states have leaders who are committed to Hindutva and development. Even Madhya Pradesh was able to retain a majority of the seats because of Shivraj Singh Chouhan—a young chief minister with an RSS background. Former and current chief ministers along with deputy chief ministers like Raman Singh, Narendra Modi, Prem Kumar Dhumal, B.S. Yeddyurappa, Manohar Parrikar and Gopinath Munde are capable of turning around the fortunes of the party if they are given a meaningful role in party affairs and are not ordered around by those who can’t win their own elections.

The combined credibility and influence of these comparatively young, successful chief ministers can be a formidable threat to the Congress which has none to match them. Since the future of the RSS depends on the new allies it can gather in the future, only a credible leader can carry conviction. The party under Advani could get an ally in the south and lose one in Orissa because lightweight emissaries with no political experience were chosen as interlocutors instead of former chief ministers. In the south, the party couldn’t retain a single seat in the three states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and it has failed to grow in Uttar Pradesh which once sent 59 BJP members to the Lok Sabha.

Narendra Modi
There are also those in the party who feel that Varun Gandhi can revive the party in Uttar Pradesh as its traditional voters feel that the BJP let them down on the Hindutva plank. Varun won his own seat with one of the highest margins in Uttar Pradesh, more than the victory margin of the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Those who are rooting for the silent majority feel that the days of the personality cult are over. With both Advani and Vajpayee about to retire from active politics, the BJP has to establish a collective leadership to steer the party in the future.

And in the new dispensation, the Byte and Cosmetic Generation will have to pave the way for those who are performers and can carry the masses and not just the classes. The message from verdict 2009 is quite clear.The voters want a party with a genuine difference and not differences based on personal animosities. They want a leader with an ideology and not a leader with mere aspirations. The decline of the BJP is also a cause for concern. In the absence of a cohesive opposition, the country may face an autocratic ruling party, blinded by arrogance and lack of political restraints.

The BJP flirted with the idea of individual superiority over ideology under Vajpayee and won the mandate. But the same voters rejected Advani who had no definable ideology. Now, the party has to find itself a face which looks more like Bharat and less like India. To achieve that, it has to first replace the drawing room strategists who walk the ramp of political fashion shows with those who can survive in the heat and dust of the India the party forgot.
—with Bhavna Vij-Aurora

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, July 06, 2009

WE ELECT a government in the hope that it will stay in office for a full five years. So it’s somewhat meaningless to judge a government by what has been achieved in its first 100 days.

If the people don’t expect miracles to happen in the first 100 days of a new government, why is Manmohan Singh selling dreams by asking his cabinet colleagues to roll out a 100 day agenda for their respective ministries? It’s actually a scary prospect as it raises expectations of the public and fuels misplaced enthusiasm among ministers.

That perhaps explains why as the government approaches the 50th day of its first 100 days, less than half a dozen of the 32 cabinet ministers have done the prime minister’s bidding and drawn up a time bound agenda. For their troubles, they are still collecting the flak. Take a look: Law Minister Veerappa Moily promised to put in place a package of judicial reforms by September but is being pilloried by his own party, the press and the public alike for his comments on gays; HRD minister Kapil Sibal introduced a slew of packages to tackle the mess in the education sector but now even his partymen are accusing him of being “ overenthusiastic” and ignoring the views of the states; Urban Development Minister Jaipal Reddy announced a 100 day package for urban renewal but is now facing the wrath of environmentalists.

That these and the other ministers who announced 100 day programmes are all from the Congress should come as no surprise. Because, this is what coalition dharma is all about. Congress ministers are more likely to fall in line while ministers from alliance parties have their own priorities. Mamata Banerjee was so busy with panchayat elections in West Bengal, I wonder where she found time for the railway budget she unveiled last Friday; Sharad Pawar has his hands full repairing the damages in the NCP-Congress alliance in time for the Maharashtra assembly elections later this year; the DMK troupe couldn’t care less about prime ministerial 100 day directives; they have their own longer term agenda.

But thank God for small mercies. Murli Deora would have had to eat his words and tear up his agenda papers since among his first major decisions has been to order an increase in the prices of petroleum products, a move that has even the allies, not to speak of the opposition parties, baying for his blood. The home ministry has prepared an omnibus 100 day agenda that seeks to “secure internal security and preserve communal harmony” but P Chidambaram will be busy the next few days picking the brains of his cabinet colleagues Moily and Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to formulate the government's response to the Delhi High Court’s landmark verdict decriminalising homosexuality.

I am sure this is not what the ministers set out to do. The people of this country do not judge their rulers by what they have achieved in the first 100 days or even the first 200 days. Just as they take time to make assessments, our ministers also should take their time but do a good job.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, July 06, 2009

THAT Union Home Minister P Chidambaram is a stern taskmaster is to state the obvious. He sets high standards and expects everyone else to keep up with these and anyone who produces results below expectations can look forward to an early dispatch to the recycle bin. Less than two months into the new government and some officers are already moving out or being moved out. As of now, there is little indication whether it is because of the pressure getting on to them or whether they are just not up to the job. But mystery surrounds the transfer of Raman Srivastava, a highly acclaimed former DGP of Kerala who was brought in Special Security ( Internal Security) a week after 26/ 11. Last week, the government appointed him as the Director General of the Border Security Force, which in bureaucratic parlance would be seen as a demotion. With the BSF’s fleet of airplanes that include the Brazilian built Embraer, Srivastava can draw some comfort from the fact that he has more flying machines at his disposal than India’s richest businessmen.

Hang together or we hang separately
AMONGST our current crop of politicians, there is no one quite like Sharad Pawar whose words and deeds are often mismatched. The occasions in the past when he flexed his muscles to eventually chicken out are far too numerous to list here but there he was last week up to his old tricks. Ten years ago, the affable, ever grinning PA Sangma had walked out of the Congress along with Pawar to form the Nationalist Congress Party, but after his daughter Agatha was made a minister in the UPA government in May, Sangma had called on Sonia Gandhi to rebuild bridges. This time, it was the slender shoulders of Sangma that Pawar chose to fire from when he got the former Lok Sabha Speaker to issue a July 15 deadline to the Congress to formalise the NCP- Congress coalition ahead of the Maharashtra assembly elections due later this year. But a day later, Pawar sprang a surprise when at the inauguration of the Bandra- Worli sea link in Mumbai, he suggested that the bridge be named after Rajiv Gandhi. Chief minister Ashok Chavan found nothing wrong in promptly accepting the suggestion without even referring the matter to his cabinet. If you think this was quick decision making at the highest levels in government, perish the thought. Pawar and Chavan are guided purely by narrow self interest.

The NCP will end up as an electoral wreck without the Congress which is currently on a roll; and with former chief minister and current Union minister Vilasrao Deshmukh setting his eyes once again on Mantralaya, Chavan needs Pawar to checkmate his ambitions.

Deshmukh wants the Congress to go it alone and is confident the party will come up trumps, while Pawar and Chavan have recurring nightmares about a coalition break- up handing the state to the BJP- Shiv- Sena alliance on a platter. That is a distinct possibility, if talks of reconciliation in the Thackeray family turn out to have any truth.

HERE’S further proof that many men- only bastions are crumbling one by one.
Last week, the government appointed Nirupama Rao, currently our ambassador in Beijing, to succeed Shiv Shankar Menon as the next Foreign Secretary.
It is after nearly a decade that the foreign office will have a woman at the top and soon Ms Rao will be in good sisterly company. By the end of the year, the MEA would end up having three women secretaries, as current incumbents N. Ravi will retire and Nalin Surie, is likely to be posted to London as High Commissioner. Parbati Sen Vyas is already there as secretary and one of the vacancies is expected to be filled by Vijayalata Reddy, currently ambassador in Bangkok, leaving to Vivek Katju, Special Secretary ( Pol), the job of ensuring that the once male bastion doesn’t entirely crumble. Since the UPA government gave the country its first woman President, Pratibha Patil, in 2007, the glass ceiling has been repeatedly battered.

We now have a woman Speaker, Meira Kumar, presiding over the Lok Sabha; more women were elected to the Lok Sabha this time than at any time in the past; the president’s address to the opening session of the 15th Lok Sabha announced more womencentric programmes than any previous government has done. There is only one job that is left to be regained, which for the last 25 years has been a male preserve. It’s the big one. The decision is Sonia's and so is the job.

Babri report is too much and too late
A WHOLE lot of people are nervously chewing their fingernails over the contents of the Justice Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri Masjid but there’s equal mystery shrouding the timing of its submission. It took 17 years, 48 tenure extensions and a cost of over Rs 8 crore to the exchequer before the Honourable Justice ( Retd) MS Liberhan produced his tome.

That itself is a record that is unlikely to be bettered for a long time to come. But it is speculation over its timing that raises eyebrows. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are waiting for the report to be tabled in Parliament, but it is my firm belief that the government will keep it a closely guarded secret for some time, just to add grist to the rumour mill with an eye on putting the opposition BJP, already writhing in pain from self- inflicted injuries, in total disarray. Newspaper reports have quoted sources close to the horse’s mouth and indicted LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, among others, and as long as these remain in the realm of speculation, they will be under a cloud. They will not be able to launch a counteroffensive, a prerogative they would have if the report is made public.

The Samajwadi Party will also be squirming in embarrassment since speculation centres around its latest recruit, Kalyan Singh, who was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1992 when the Masjid was brought down.
The few remaining allies of the NDA who swear by secularism, like the JD( U), will also have a rethink on supping with such friends.

Later this year, elections are due in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and possibly Haryana where chief minister BS Hooda wants to bring them forward. Don’t be surprised if within days after the poll dates are announced, the government tables the report. It can always claim that Liberhan took 17 years, and it just a few months.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, July 05, 2009

Media's freedom to continue: Soni

The information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni on the show Seedhi Baat says that the government has no plans to restrict the media with laws.