Monday, August 31, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 31, 2009

LAST WEEK’S press conference in Delhi addressed by the RSS chief Mohanrao Bhagwat is a classic case of bad timing that makes the best laid plans go awry. As an organisation, the RSS seldom opens its doors to a cast of nosey journalists. But more than six weeks ago, Bhagwat had scheduled a media interaction in Delhi. Two days before the event, TV channels began parking their OB vans outside the RSS office in Jhandewalan and started to beam “live and exclusive” visuals of the comings and the goings outside the Jhandewalan office.

The long awaited event came and went and it turned out to be something of an anti-climax. It’s not that Bhagwat disappointed; it’s just that the media was looking for one thing and Bhagwat wanted to talk about something else. Bhagwat wanted to share with the media his vision for the organisation. Newspapers and TV channels instead wanted to grill him about the crisis in the BJP and RSS chief would not be drawn into it except to express confidence that the party will tide over the crisis.

Bhagwat took charge on March 21 and waited more than five months to meet up with the media. There is a reason for the long delay. When he took over, the election process was about to begin and it was felt the time was inopportune. Anything he said that had even a dash of political colour would be construed as interference in the affairs of the BJP. The decision sat well with Bhagwat’s reputation as a non-interventionist who believed that the BJP must be left to its own devices.

The end of elections coincided with the RSS’s training camps which are held in May-June every year. The two events done with, in the first week of July, the RSS top brass consisting of himself, Bhaiyaji Joshi, Suresh Soni, Dattatray Hosebal and Madan Das Devi met and finalised a schedule of media interactions across the country for Bhagwat. At that time, Jaswant Singh’s eulogy to Jinnah was just beginning to roll off the printing press and Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha were still disciplined foot soldiers of the BJP and nobody could have imagined that the BJP was sitting on a volcano waiting to erupt.

The media which had descended in droves at Jhandewalan last Friday would not have been so disappointed had they, in the first place, known why they had been called. What Bhagwat wanted to tell them was not about the goings-on in the BJP but his vision for the RSS which is quite different from the image of lathiwielding rabble rousers so far associated with it. He wanted to tell them about an “inclusive Hindutva” that is quite different from what has hitherto been associated with the RSS; he wanted to define the RSS’s cultural role and its occasional forays into political territory that were meant to fulfill the organisation’s social responsibility.

His ultimate message was the change that he sought in keeping with the changing times to rescue Hindutva from the politics of hate. In his view, Hindutva did not exclude any citizen of this land and a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya would be a tribute to an icon not just from members of one community but all communities and castes and all those who believed in Bharatiya.

Having said that, I still hold the belief that this moderniser is not going to bury the RSS’ core issues. “ Hindutva is Bharatiya and Bharatiya is Humanity”, he said at the press conference. There is a message in this for those in the BJP who are on an overdrive to show that issues like the Ram Mandir are outdated. Bhagwat made it clear Ayodhya remains a core issue. Yet, he is far from rigid. In mid 2005 after Advani’s controversial statement on “ secular” Jinnah in Karachi, Bhagwat was among the first to tell the RSS top brass that the BJP veteran should be shown his place. But three years later, it was again Bhagwat who went to meet Advani and tell him that there was none more qualified or more widely acceptable to lead the BJP. Last Friday, he reserved the best for the end.

Virtually spiting the BJP’s flock of wannabe historians, he termed Jawaharlal Nehru an Indian icon who deserved the nation’s gratitude. Just goes to show that even walrus mustachioed fearsome looking men can be gentle reconcilers.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 30, 2009

We will win the elections: Chavan

The Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan tells on the show Seedhi Baat that his government has not only worked for the poorer sections of the society but also towards infrastructure development of the state. He also talks about the seat- sharing formula between the Congress and NCP in the upcoming state assembly elections; how the two parties will work out the chief ministerial candidate issue; and steps taken by the state government to improve security in the aftermath of 26/ 11 terror attacks
Part2 ; Part3 ; Part4 ; Part5

Snippets / Mail Today, August 31, 2009

REAMS of newsprint have been wasted on the faction feud in the BJP but there is a potentially explosive internal battle going on in the Congress over its alliance with the NCP for the Maharashtra assembly elections.

Senior Congress leaders are taking the cue from Rahul Gandhi's mantra of ‘ freedom from prickly allies’. Party general secretary Digvijay Singh who is in charge of Maharashtra has joined former CM Vilasrao Deshmukh in pushing the “ go- it- alone” policy, with support from Prithviraj Chavan. Pitted against the troika are chief minister Ashok Chavan, union power minister Sushil Shinde and the local Congress leadership who fear a strong anti- incumbency factor because of the drought and price rise.

True, they led in over 100 assembly segments in the Lok Sabha elections, but that was because Raj Thackeray played spoiler. With a Cong- NCP alliance in place, victory may not be so difficult; without, it may. The Congress leaders are counting their chickens before the eggs hatch, with old timers being comfortable with the idea of Ashok Chavan consolidating his leadership after the elections.

Like his illustrious father SB Chavan, Ashok is not acceptable to Sharad Pawar who ignores the fact that if the alliance loses, he will be diminished more than Ashok who has time on his side. Yet another instance of individual ambitions overrunning logic and the accepted order.

Rahul's southern strategy is unfolding

AWAY from the headlines, Rahul Gandhi is carrying on with the business of resurrecting the Congress. Rahul’s contribution to the Congress’s surprisingly good performance in the last elections can never be overstated; it was he who took the pivotal decision for the party to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh. The young man’s strategy paid rich dividends as the Grand Old Party picked up 20 seats. The last time it had double figures in the state was a quarter century ago when Rajiv’s Congress swept all 85 seats. Now Rahul is turning his attention south of the Vindhyas to the only state in the entire country where the Congress hasn’t tasted power for over four decades — Tamil Nadu. The last Congress government in the state bowed out in 1967 and since then the state has been alternately ruled by the DMK and its offshoots. Though the DMK is a loyal ally, Rahul doesn’t think that the ties will remain cosy once patriarch M Karunanidhi moves on. He has drawn up long- term plans not just to revive the party but to nurture young leaders. In the last few weeks, the Youth Congress had a membership enrolment drive and over 2.5 lakh young men and women are said to have joined. The swelling of the IYC ranks was in some measure helped by the young Tamil actor Vijay whom Rahul tapped using the services of a cabinet minister belonging to the state. The actor met Rahul in Delhi. The meeting was followed by a subtle endorsement from the actor. The membership drive now complete, elections for office- bearers are to be held next month and Rahul has appointed KJ Rao, a retired officer of the Central Election Commission, as the returning officer for these polls. By holding these elections, the message Rahul seeks to convey to Tamil youth is this: the DMK and the AIADMK have nothing to offer you since they are controlled by either dynasties, as in the case of the former, or autocrats like Jayalalithaa. The winners of this inner party democratic exercise will in all likelihood form the Congress A- team that will lead the party in the next assembly elections that are due in 2011. Or even earlier, if the Congress shows signs of quick revival and the DMK, as is expected, is felled by contradictions within the ruling family.

PM rues Karuna’s errant son
MANMOHAN Singh is no politician, but he must be thrilled to bits with Rahul Gandhi’s plans for the rejuvenation of the Congress. Having had hegemony over power for decades, the Congress is now forced to share it but there exists an instinctive distrust of allies. Some time back, I had in these columns written of the PM’s frustration with files piling up on the intrays of the DMK ministers who are seen to spend more time in Chennai than in their ministerial chambers. M. Karunanidhi’s problem child, the 64 year old M. K. Alagiri, is also the errant minister in the Manmohan cabinet.

Even his staff doesn’t seem to have an idea of his whereabouts and when around, he kicks up controversy. He appointed an IG rank officer as his Officer on Special Duty in violation of central guidelines which state that officers of the rank of Joint Secretary and above cannot serve as personal staff. The appointment has since been cancelled by the PMO. For the last few weeks, the prime minister and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who also heads a GoM on the fertiliser subsidy policy, have been waiting in vain for Alagiri, the minister for fertilisers, to initiate a note on the matter of fertiliser subsidy. Elections are due in a few months in Haryana and Maharashtra, both states where farmers form a huge chunk of voters.

But the note wasn’t forthcoming because Alagiri’s whereabouts were not known. The prime minister is said to have been so livid that he hinted that a junior minister be asked to forward the note or alternately, fertiliser secretary Atul Chaturvedi initiate and forward the note to the cabinet secretariat for consideration by the GoM and the union cabinet.

Alagiri may be missing in action much of the time but I think he leaves behind spooks. The note was being readied by the secretary when the minister got wind of the news and he took the next flight out of Chennai to Delhi to append his signature. There should be a lesson in this for all ministers taking their duties lightly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 24, 2009

WHEN a problem spirals out of control, it is easy to emulate the ostrich, stick your head in the sand and hope that it will go away. That is what is happening in the BJP. They are in denial mode. This past week, there has been a flurry of statements, denials, then statements denying the original denials, that has left the dedicated but confused cadres wondering: In the name of Lord Ram, will somebody please tell us what the hell is going on? The antics of its leaders have made the main opposition party the butt of all ridicule. It has a president whose vocabulary currently is limited to one word: NO. Ask him anything and he is in denial mode and the only answer you can draw out of him is an unconvincing NO. After the media leaked out parts of the “ confidential report” about the reasons for the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, Rajnath denied its existence.

Can Rajnath deny that BJP Vice President Bal Apte was given the task of preparing a background paper on the causes of the party’s humiliating defeat in May? Can he deny that Apte had dispatched two emissaries to various states to collect information from local units about the reasons for the losses? Can he deny that a nine page report formed part of the papers circulated among select participants before the party leaders set out for Shimla for the Chintan Baithak ? Getting into the denial mode comes easily to Rajnath. Nearly two months ago after the now expelled Jaswant Singh circulated a stinging letter amongst leaders at a BJP meeting, he denied the existence of such a letter, but only after getting Jaswant to withdraw it by placating him with the post of the Chairman of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Since the bitter defeat in May, the BJP leadership has been following up one priceless performance with another. They don’t seem to acknowledge that they have been soundly thrashed by the UPA in two consecutive elections; they see no need for soul searching. The Chintan Baithak ought to have been an occasion for honest introspection. Instead, as a party wag put it, it was all about baithak ( meeting), bhojan ( food) and vishram ( rest). It is difficult to believe that the BJP has its origins in the RSS which goes in for a b aithak only after drawing up a s oochi ( list of people to be invited) and s oochna ( agenda) for the meeting.
In the BJP, any list is arbitrary, often never finalised, and only at the last minute are agendas made.

What could be more bizarre than the party taking more than three months to meet for a post poll- post mortem? And what has this baithak achieved? Barring the spate of denials issued at Shimla, it appears that the leaders went all the way up to the hills just to get rid of one man who raised some inconvenient truths.

Thus the BJP that once prided itself on being “ the party with a difference” is now not willing to discuss its differences. Its leaders display a Stalinist streak that would make dyed in the wool Reds turn green with envy.

It is in the grip of a handful of wise men who shudder at the thought of seeking a popular mandate and yet think they know what is the best for the party and the people. After two back to back defeats, the very people who were responsible for these fiascos are now talking tough on ideology. Rajnath has asserted that Jaswant was expelled because he violated the BJP’s core thought and ideology which, “ is non- negotiable”. But has the BJP under its current set of leaders ever initiated internal debate or discussion? It is no secret that a section of its leaders advocate a return to its core values and revival of its pet issues while the other more elitist group pursues a more modernist policy. It is this group and its hangers on who are now saying that the party could not connect with its voters because of its fundamentalist mindset.

Indeed if that were so, why was Jaswant shown the door for exhibiting a liberal outlook? The BJP is in dire need of radical surgery. The only way to get the party back on its feet again is by throwing the whole lot out; elect a new chief and a new leadership and make a new start.The sooner, the better.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, August 23, 2009

In Seedhi Baat, expelled BJP leader Jaswant Singh talks about the actual reasons leading to to his expulsion from the party, the role of Nehru, Patel and Jinnah in the Partition of India, his relations with Vajpayee, Advani and the RSS, his biggest political regret and his future plans.

विचारों पर पाबंदी दुर्भाग्‍यपूर्ण: जसवंत सिंह

बीजेपी से निकाले गए वरिष्‍ठ नेता जसवंत सिंह ने कहा है कि विचारों पर पाबंदी लगाया जाना देश और राजनीति के लिए दुर्भाग्‍यपूर्ण है. आज तक के कार्यक्रम 'सीधी बात' के दौरान उन्‍होंने ये बातें कहीं.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, August 24, 2009

Who speaks for the government ?
THE H1N1 and the virus affecting the BJP are the hottest topics of discussion at any gathering in Delhi. But if there is anything that runs them close, it is Indo- Pak relations. Last week, I dropped by at a “ social gathering” that was crammed with diplomats, bureaucrats, socialites and a handful of journos where the discussions centred mostly around prime minister Manmohan Singh’s recent remark about another 26/ 11 type attack being imminent.

“ There is credible information of ongoing plans of terrorist groups in Pakistan to carry out fresh attacks. The area of operation of these terrorists today extends far beyond the confines of Jammu and Kashmir and covers all parts of our country,” Manmohan had told the conclave of chief ministers held in New Delhi last Monday.

This was at total variance with what Home Minister P Chidambaram had said a day earlier in Hyderabad. He had arrived in the city incognito, took a private car to the Gachibowli stadium, stood in line to buy tickets for himself and his granddaughter and watched the best shuttlers in the world ply their trade at the World Badminton Championship finals. Later, he said he doesn’t see an immediate terror threat from across the border. I saw not just foreign diplomats, but even homegrown ones buttonholing a few IAS officers, particularly a few from the Home Ministry, wanting to know if there was a disconnect in threat perceptions between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Home Ministry.

Did Manmohan seek inputs from the Home Ministry before sharing his apprehensions of a possible strike with the chief ministers? Or were his words inspired by the National Security Advisor MK Narayanan who has been confined to South Block’s equivalent of the doghouse ever since Chidambaram assumed office as home minister. We will never know, because babus being babus, they won’t tell even if they know. But two statements, totally at variance with each other, from the Prime Minister and his Home Minister in the space of less than 24 hours does not exactly inspire confidence among the aam aadmi this government swears by.

Graceless expulsion of BJP veteran
JASWANT SINGH’S ouster came amidst much drama but there was one thing missing: grace. A total lack of it. Mystery still surrounds the sacking and with saffronite leaders speaking in different shades, it is difficult to deduce who is being economical with the truth. But based on conjectures, I assume this is how it happened. Jaswant’s Jinnah book was released on the 17th evening at the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial. Though invited, none of his party colleagues turned up. Among them was LK Advani who was already in possession of a copy presented by Jaswant when he went to invite him. I don’t know if Advani has since read the book, but what I do know is that he cited a prior commitment in Chandigarh to excuse himself.

The book launch may have been low profile, but the next morning’s papers didn’t treat it so. Rajnath Singh, who is normally an early riser must have woken up rather late on Tuesday, August 18, because it was not before eight am that he called Jaswant at his house, only to be told that the Rajput from Darjeeling had already caught the train to Shimla for the Chintan Baithak. Unaware of the flutter he had created in his party and the machinations of his top party colleagues, Jaswant arrives in Shimla and checks in at the Cecil Oberoi. On Wednesday morning, he was getting dressed to attend the party think tank when around 10.30, Rajnath telephoned him and asked him not to attend the meeting’s morning session. No explanation was given nor did Jaswant seek any. “ I will get back to you later,” Rajnath said.

Rajnath kept his word. Shortly before 1 pm, he called again. He curtly told Jaswant about the expulsion. No questions asked, no show cause given: just a guilty verdict without a fair hearing. That’s how the wise men at 11 Ashoka Road abruptly brought a 42 year old association to its end. Even the CPI( M) showed some grace when last year it threw out Somnath Chatterjee, a party member for nearly five decades.

SINCE 1962, each year September 5 has been celebrated as Teachers Day across the country, in honour of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the teacher turned president whose birth anniversary falls on that day. For children and for teachers, it is a big day. In Delhi, among the many functions is one at the Rashtrapati Bhavan where National awards to the best teachers are given away by the President.

The winners are selected after a rigorous selection process that starts at the district level and goes all the way up to the Union HRD ministry. Alas, the function will not happen this year — at least not on the designated day — because some mindless bureaucratic moron in Rashtrapati Bhavan forgot to check the calendar. Instead of honouring the best of our teachers just as all her predecessors did, President Pratibha Patil will be away to Russia on a state visit on that particular day. The irony is all the more stark when you consider that President Patil belongs to a family that runs several educational institutions.

Last heard, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal was using all his persuasive powers to save the day while Rashtrapati Bhavan is said to have offered alternative dates. That’s the equivalent of telling children that since the VVIP is not available on November 14, let’s find an alternative day to celebrate Chacha Nehru’s birth anniversary, observed as Childrens day. That would be playing with fire.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 17, 2009

ANOTHER Independence Day has come and gone and we are left with more of the same. From Red Fort, the prime minister made several announcements, among them a scheme for slum dwellers to be known as the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, and a new solar mission to be named after Jawaharlal Nehru. Their nomenclatures should have no bearing on their implementation, but Mayawati must be delighted. The Congress and the BSP chief are already engaged in fierce combat on several fronts.

Mayawati is being pilloried for her alleged obsession for parks and monuments and naming them after Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram or herself, and not necessarily in that order. She, in turn, points to the Congress obsession for naming anything and everything of any lasting value after members of one family. Now, the UPA government is said to be pressing ahead with plans to rename the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and several other schemes on the educational, health, employment and rural development sectors and name them after one of the members of the Gandhi family. This could happen on August 20, Rajiv’s birth anniversary, when the revamped NREGS is scheduled to be flagged off at a function, where Rahul Gandhi will be present.

The renaming is the brainwave of C.P. Joshi, the Union rural development minister and a Gandhi family loyalist, who seems convinced that since the Centre funds these schemes and the states merely administer them, the UPA government — which initiated the scheme — is justified in claiming full credit. Joshi’s eagerness to milk the scheme — currently operational in about 400 districts but soon to extend to all 604 — for electoral purposes is understandable considering that states like Maharashtra, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Jharkhand are all due for assembly elections between now and 2011. It’s a sound strategic move that is meant to convince voters that the states are up to no good and manage to stay afloat only because of central bounties.

Several chief ministers are already up in arms about some of the clauses expected in the new and revamped NREGS , particularly one that makes it mandatory for state governments to put up sign boards in every taluk that all ongoing projects are part of the centrally sponsored schemes. The ministry of information and broadcasting is also working in tandem with the rural development ministry on a scheme whereby henceforth, government advertisements of these schemes released by the Directorate of Advertising Visual Publicity — which will no doubt carry the pictures of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and C. P. Joshi — will be directed to the moffusil press and not in the mainstream media. The aim is to make sure that villagers, even if they cannot read or write, will see the pictures and realise who they should be grateful to.

Most of the non- Congress CMs are agitated but Mayawati is not among them. I am told her aides have compiled, for submission to the courts, a list of all monuments, roads, parks, airports, rail stations, bus terminals et al all over the country named after the Nehru- Gandhi family. A close Mayawati aide told me the list is over 1,000. I am not surprised, nor would a firsttime visitor to the Capital.

Spend just five minutes on Google maps and you will realise why. If he is flying in, he will land at the Indira Gandhi international airport. Should he decide to take a day’s tour of this ancient Capital, he will drive down the Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, drive by the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Nehru Stadium, Nehru Yuva Kendra, Nehru Nagar, Nehru Place, Nehru Enclave, Nehru Park, Indira Chowk, Indira Colony, Indira Enclave, Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, Indira Kala Kendra, Indira Gandhi Centre for Arts, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Indira Tennis Stadium, Rajiv Chowk, Rajiv Colony, Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan and Rajiv Gandhi Road. All these are in Delhi alone.

This by no means is the complete list and you will probably need something as thick as the MTNL directory to list all of them. Mayawati’s aides may have miscalculated the actual numbers which, across the country, could be ten times or more. That’s why Mayawati seems least concerned by the rap on the knuckles from courts. I am sure she relishes this impending battle royale.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, August 16, 2009

Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on the show Seedhi Baat says that swine flu should be looked at with a global perspective. He also talks about formulating new guidelines to prevent and contain the outbreak of swine flu and the measures already taken by the government to prevent the spread of the disease. He also speaks about the need to contain panic around the spread and the ways in which schools ought to deal with the situation. But is the government prepared to deal with the crisis?

Snippets/ Mail Today, August 17, 2009

Half- baked information from the Act
I HAVE in the past written about the sham that is the Right to Information ( RTI) Act. I still stand by it and here’s why. India Today , the magazine where I am editor, had nearly two years ago used the RTI route to seek information from the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat about the many Groups of Ministers ( GoMs) set up to look into various issues.

Roughly, I knew there were more than a 100 of them and had sought details about the names of the chairmen and members, the number of times each has met, original deadlines set and dates set for submission of reports for each of the GoMs. After about a month came the first reply from the Cabinet Secretariat which said, “ Issue of providing information of this nature is under consideration.” Later, we filed an appeal to the Appellate Authority. No reply. Three months later, we approached the Central Information Commission. Still no reply.

Then last November, we again wrote to the CIC Wajahat Habibullah who was kind enough to inform us that the matter was “ being looked into”. For the next three months, each reminder from us saw the ball being lobbed into yet another government court and we had almost given up hope when last week, we were surprised by an thick dossier from the director, Cabinet Secretariat which informed us that there were 141 GoMs in all and gave the names of their chairmen and members but provided no further details.

“ You may, if so desired, obtain the information with the concerned ministry/ department who is servicing the GoM.” The stipulated time to provide the information sought under RTI Act is 30 days, but when the Cabinet Secretariat itself takes 22 months to give a answers that are half- baked and incomplete, I am left with no option but to conclude that the UPA’s crowning achievement is sought to be undermined by highlevel bureaucrats. Last week, the government set up three more GoMs to look into the mess in the aviation sector, the sibling war over oil and the drought induced food situation. So I guess I will start all over again.

TODAY, state chief ministers will attend a conclave in Delhi to again talk about the many common threats they face from extremists and the many differences that keep them from evolving a unified policy to deal with them.

How many of us know that surrender policies for insurgents have varying yardsticks in different states? The money goes from secret funds but I am told that a terrorist surrendering in Kashmir is given a one- time payment of Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 and is eligible for a Rs 3- lakh payout if he abhors violence for three years. A Naxalite laying down arms in Jharkhand doesn’t get such bounty: he is entitled to Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,500 every month until he reaches the age of 45. Other states have their own varying policies.

Law and order is a state subject, but the Naxalite menace or fundamentalist violence are phenomenon that require a uniform policy across the country.
Today’s conclave is expected to conclude with a closed- door session where the CMs will be joined only by Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, the director of the IB and the home secretary. Singh will lay bare the facts and seek some give and take from the chief ministers. Hopefully the latter are as aware of their responsibilities as much they are of their rights

Rules are meant to be broken
A MONTH ago, the Department of Expenditure issued an extraordinary “ office memorandum” noting that henceforth “ the provisions of air- conditioned ( a/ c) cars may be extended to officers of the level of Joint Secretary and equivalent”, with a rider that “ as far as possible hiring of a/ c taxis may be resorted to”. It seemed a bit odd because I have seen junior officers of the level of directors or even under secretaries being driven for their morning round of golf in a/ c Ambassadors with red beacons.

My mind went back to 1985 when the police in Delhi busted an international spy ring and the kingpin of the espionage network spilled the names of several bureaucrats who were on the take. I did a story then in India Today magazine on the government’s pathetic wage structure that forced many bureaucrats to look for something on the side. A secretary’s salary then was Rs 3,500 a month ( it is Rs 80,000 now) Rs 500 less for an additional secretary and a joint secretary took home Rs 2,500.

The very people who had the power to sign files sanctioning crores of rupees were not given funds to offer coffee and biscuits to visitors in their offices. Today, under secretaries are driven around in official cars, but nearly a quarter century ago, even joint secretaries had to drive to work or use public transport.
Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, had set up a committee under K. P. Singh Deo, then minister for personnel to look into the issue. Before the year was through, based on the panel’s report, bureaucrats salaries were more than doubled.

The benign Rajiv seemed to have had a soft corner for the poor overworked babudom, for it was he who ushered in the five- day week for all central government employees. Which brings me back to last month’s “ office memorandum”: if only joint secretaries and above are entitled to a/ c cars, how is it that we see so many junior level officers going to work and to play golf in these? It’s because babus know that rules are meant to be broken.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 09, 2009

Seedhi Baat with ‘ item- girl’ and reality TV star, Rakhi Sawant. Rakhi talks about her life has changed after the conclusion of the show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar , where she chose to marry Elesh Parujanwala. She also speaks about how her faith in Jesus has stood her in good stead. Conversation veers towards whether she will leave the country to be with her NRI husband and whether she will join politics.

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, August 10, 2009

EXTERNAL Affairs Minister SM Krishna and Shivraj Patil, the former home minister who had to resign in disgrace after fiddling through 26/ 11 have in common an obsession for sartorial elegance, but that’s about all the common ground that they share.

Yet, ribald SMS jokes are doing the rounds about their many commonalities and I suspect the government’s spin doctors are behind these crude attempts. Some of the text messages border on the vulgar, so I will not share them here, but their underlying theme is this: Krishna is as clueless in South Block as Patil was across the road in North Block.
Such comparisons are less than fair to Krishna and the reasons are many.

For one, he has been in office for less than eighty days which is a very short time to judge a man who I assume is there for a five year tenure. In comparison, Patil blundered along for four and a half years and it wasn’t until the blasts in Hyderabad and Jaipur well into his third year in office that questions began to be raised whether he was the right man for the hot job. On that count alone, Krishna deserves the benefit of doubt but there are more crucial differences. In UPA I, Patil was Sonia Gandhi’s handpicked nominee with a mandate to run the ministry as he deemed fit. As foreign minister, Krishna does not enjoy that privilege. In fact, few foreign ministers in recent times have had that. Barring perhaps Pranab Mukherjee in the last government and Jaswant Singh in Vajpayee’s, foreign ministers have played second fiddle as foreign policy has always been directed from the PMO.

A Fulbright scholar, chief minister and governor, Krishna has the finesse and the articulation for the job. His fault is that he is less than ambitious and quite new to Delhi’s cloak and dagger world of plots and conspiracies. How shameless then that over enthusiastic babus in the foreign office should try to deflect the blame for the recent shames in their backyard from the PMO to this affable Kannadiga. It is no secret that at Sharm El Sheikh and during all the acrimony witnessed in Parliament over the alleged sellout, foreign office mandarins were seen closeted not with their minister but in the PMO.

The work that ministers do is judged in comparison with the accomplishments/failures of their predecessors. Krishna is disadvantaged here since his predecessor was the UPA’s all purpose man and super minister Pranab Mukherjee. He seldom took directions and always took decisions.

And don’t forget he has also been Manmohan Singh’s boss and it comes as no surprise that despite being the prime minister and first among equals, Manmohan frequently consults Pranabda for inputs on vital policy matters, be they on the economic, domestic or external front. At the moment, Krishna is merely allowed to take directions. There cannot be accountability without responsibility. The PMO cannot run the foreign office and dodge responsibility when things go wrong. Krishna should be judged when he is given the powers to perform.

Snippets / Mail Today, August 10, 2009

ALL speculation about the Congress- NCP alliance visa- vis the impending assembly elections in Maharashtra will be put to rest next week. It is near certain that the two parties will enter the fray as a coalition and take on the BJP- Shiv Sena combine. A powerful section in the Congress, led by former chief minister Vilasrao Deshkmukh, had wanted the state- level ties to be snapped and had even painted rosy pictures to the High Command of a rejuvenated Congress. But it looks like the affable Chief Minister Ashok Chavan will have his way. It is Chavan’s contention that for the Congress to go it alone, the party would have to do solid groundwork for at least three years. Congress circles believe Deshmukh, who lost his job in Mantralaya after 26/ 11, was advocating the go- it- alone policy, knowing fully well that the Congress wouldn’t make the grade and thus make Chavan carry the can. The clever Ashok saw through the game. That’s to be expected of the son of the legendary SB Chavan.

The strong man of the UPA govt
FINANCE Minister Pranab Mukherjee may not look, talk or act like the very, very important being that he is in the government wheel, but the last week of the 15th Lok Sabha’s first session left no doubt in my mind as to who is The Boss. The prime minister may be the leader of the government, but in the Lok Sabha, Pranabda is The Leader. The frayed tempers of the last week meant Manmohan Singh spent much of his time in the Rajya Sabha and let the finance minister handle the many bushfires that were raging in the lower house.

When treasury benchs heckled the BJP leaders who were turning up the pressure on the government, Mukherjee, who believes in the dictum that “ the opposition must have its say, the government must have its way,” chided his own MPs. When BJP MPs objected to the uncharitable words that minister CP Joshi had for Raman Singh, the Chattisgarh chief minister, Pranabda scolded his cabinet colleague “ for not respecting the federal structure of the Constitution and raising matters relating to a state in this house”. He again chided Congress MPs from Andhra Pradesh who heckled their own minister Murli Deora and asked them “ not to put up divisions within the party for public display”. Later, he called them to his chamber for a gentle pep talk.

Pranabda is effectively the UPA’s one man emergency service. The opening session of the 15th Lok Sabha has been unlike any debut sessions of the past: the pillorying and pounding from the opposition benches saw the government’s nose bloodied in the first round itself. To make matters worse, the UPA doesn’t seem to have any floor managers to coordinate its functioning.

God knows how many responsibilities have been thrust on him, but it appears the older he gets, the more he takes on and the better Pranabda becomes. But for him, the government’s wounds would have been far more severe.

SEVEN nominated members of the Rajya Sabha retired last week but there will be a long wait before the champagne is uncorked to ring in their replacements.
Ram Jethmalani, Hema Malini, Dara Singh, Chandan Mitra, Bimal Jalan, Kasturirangan and Narain Singh Manaklao all retired and there is a clamour amongst Congressmen and fellow travelers to occupy their seats. Nominations are arbitrary, no questions are raised, no fingers pointed.

Sonia Gandhi has her own list comprising mostly of those who provide her social and intellectual stimulus, Manmohan Singh has his favourites from the IIC Saturday Club and the Congress has its set of superannuated and ambitious. What makes it a minefield are the ambitions of allies. Last heard, the list was over a 100 strong, with chief claimants being Trinamool and DMK, both of whom have prepared a long list of writers, editors and filmmakers. Both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are states where such local icons can pull in more votes than many seasoned politicians.

Don’t be surprised if Manmohan Singh takes a leaf out of his guru PV Narasimha Rao’s book and decides that the best decision is to take no decision at all. Rao learnt the trick from his guru Atal Bihari Vajpayee who reportedly advised him in mid 1990’ s that nomination was a “ provision” mandated in the Constitution that had no deadline, unlike elections.

Ambanis slug it out
SIBLING rivalries are fun when the fights are over vanilla ice cream but when the stakes are in billions, these can positively turn ugly and, as in the case of the Ambani brothers, have the entire nation riveted and an “ uncle” squirming on his seat at his ministerial office. From the heyday of Dhirubhai Ambani, whose admirer he was, Murli Deora has been “ uncle” to both Mukesh and Anil. It is his misfortune that he is now being accused by one “ nephew” of taking the side of the other.

TV sting operations have given us an idea of the kind of equipment that is now available for espionage but the fact is the Ambanis have been doing it for nearly three decades now without the benefit of sophisticated gadgetry. When Dhirubhai was alive, the family was accused of using means fair and foul to spy on corporate foes, but with Mukesh and Anil daggers drawn now, they are using it against each other. Neither brother can take a step without the other being aware of it.

Mukesh is an introvert who puts his foot soldiers on the job. Anil directs the operations himself. As the oil row between the two flared over the last few months, both Mumbai based brothers are spending a day every week in Delhi, more if Parliament is in session. Mukesh flies in from Mumbai on his private jet, an Airbus A319, early every Tuesday and spends the day meeting those who matter. He is among the few who can get to meet even the Prime Minister at a few hours’ notice. Back in Mumbai, every move he makes is monitored by Anil’s spies, because the following day is kid brother’s day out in Delhi. He takes off from Mumbai around 6 am and by the time he gets back well past midnight, he would have met everyone that big bro met the previous day.

For spooks, business has never been better. As indeed it is for lawyers. Around 50 of the country’s best legal brains will line up on either side when the case comes up in the Supreme Court in September and another 50 for other involved parties like the government, NTPC, GMR etc.
I expect them to be collectively richer by at least Rs 150 crores.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rakhi Special/ Headlines Today, August 04, 2009

I have created history: Rakhi

The reality TV star says nobody has the guts to date 16 men on screen.

Exclusive chat with Rakhi & Elesh
Rakhi Sawant and Elesh Parujanwala discuss their future plans.

Rakhi Special:

Speical Chat with Rakhi with Elesh

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, August 03, 2009

IT’S doubtful if Sonia Gandhi expected it, but at a time when the UPA government is being pilloried from all sides, including large sections of the Congress, for the faux pas at Sharm El Sheikh, she couldn’t have hoped for a better ally than Sushma Swaraj.

Remember, the two had fought a bitter battle for the Bellary Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka in 1999, which Sushma eventually lost by around 50,000 votes. Five years ago, when the Congress led coalition cobbled up a majority and Sonia looked set to become the prime minister, the BJP leader had threatened to have her hair tonsured in protest against a “ foreign born” leading the country. All that now seems so long ago. By design or accident, more likely the latter, Sushma indeed appears to be the friend that Sonia badly needs. When most of the political class was attacking the government for the “ sellout”, Sushma virtually gave the Congress President a clean chit by saying that even “ Sonia Gandhi didn’t agree” with the prime minister’s actions at the NAM summit.

As a certificate, it’s priceless. Here is the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha absolving the president of the ruling Congress of all responsibility, virtually saying she is as nationalistic as the BJP would like everyone to believe it is while the prime minister is the one who is keen to walk that extra mile even if it means breaking political consensus at home.

It’s obvious that the BJP’s current crop of frontline leaders don’t learn from past mistakes.
In the last Lok Sabha election, the party’s campaign was targeted around Manmohan Singh and portrayed him as the “ weakest prime minister ever”. The election results showed that the campaign was wide off target. Yet the BJP seems to persist with the failed strategy which I believe is an indication of the confusion that prevails in the party from top to bottom. Just another example would suffice. After the stellar performance by Yashwant Sinha in the Rajya Sabha following which even some Congressmen told me that he clearly had the government on the mat, in the Lok Sabha, Sushma stood up to wax eloquent about climate change. In doing so, she not only helped the government out of a sticky situation but ended up showing the deep divisions in her own party.

Dr Manmohan Singh was my professor in college and much as it is an honour for anyone to be taught by him, it must be stated that, by nature, he is a follower. He may have original ideas yet he would rather follow an agenda set by someone else rather than set one himself. So be it Amartya Sen, Narasimha Rao or Sonia Gandhi, he’d rather listen than talk, follow than lead. That is why I disagree with my dear friend Sushmaji. It Sinha: Great show is my firm belief that what happened at Sharm el Skeikh was not without clearance from 10 Janpath, because Manmohan knows his survival depends on doing the bidding of the most powerful address in the country. Just as in the nuclear deal last July, the prime minister had the full support of Sonia in the recent re- direction of the foreign policy. Sharm El Skeikh was a result of that.

The Congress leadership has been smart enough to make it appear that it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to guide policy making. Manmohan doesn’t have that. It’s a pity that barring the main opposition party, everybody knows this.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 02, 2009

Actor Mithun Chakravarthy says in Seedhi Baat that his latest film Chal Chalein gives a message to parents for letting children follow their dreams. He also goes down the memory lane talking about how he struggled hard in the initial days to make a name in the industry, the roles he preferred, and, his political preferences.

Snippets/ Mail Today, August 03, 2009

SHIV Shanker Menon, the draftsman who got it all wrong, finally retired last Friday. Going by the sharm at Sharm el Sheikh, he wouldn’t be touched with a bargepole, but if the diplomatic grapevine is any indication, he is likely to bounce back and be rewarded like many others before him who did nothing more than draft notes that left a lot many people red faced. The government’s fascination for retaining such retired hands is understandable. They have benefactors who are certain that if things go wrong, the blame can always be laid at someone else’s doorsteps. We saw that during the Ramsethu case when some lowly babus were made scapegoats for filing wrong affidavits.

Last week, the Petroleum Ministry amended its affidavit in the Supreme Court in the Ambani brothers fued and the accusing fingers pointed towards a junior level legal officer who allegedly was the culprit. The real one, a senior officer, got away. The moral of the story is this: if you have the right connections, never mind the occasional goof ups.
We can always find a scapegoat.

DEFEATED and discredited they may be but the shrill game of one- upmanship continues unabated in the BJP. At its 11 Ashoka Road headquarters, GenNext leaders are vying with each other to milk the BJP’s media cell to promote themselves. The evening tete- a- tete that party spokespersons had with the media so far has more or less given way to lengthy e- mails informing the hacks of what leaders were up to during the day. Journalists too love it since they don’t have to brave Delhi’s cruel weather and can instead sit in the comforts of their air- conditioned offices and get to know everything still. On some days, as many as a dozen of these mailers go out to a mailing list that has a few hundred e- mail addresses. In recent times I have got several mails which gave me details of what Messrs Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Ananth Kumar said or did that day in Parliament or outside.

I have no doubt that these worthies are all trying to do justice to their jobs as responsible members of the opposition. I have been covering Parliament for the last three decades and when the houses are in session and if I am in the city, I make it a point to drop by at the press galleries or in Central Hall. Last week, I was in the Rajya Sabha when Yashwant Sinha tore the government apart over the PMGilani joint declaration. In the last couple of weeks, I have seen Murli Manohar Joshi pinning down the government on the mat and Arun Shourie holding the House spellbound.

They were brilliant performances, yet they didn't make it to the “ sent- box” at the BJP’s media cell though the newspapers gave the speeches the importance they deserved.
The moral of the story: the medium is not always the message.

THERE is something about Delhi that makes union ministers from Tamil Nadu pine for home, sweet Chennai. With nine ministers, the state has the largest contingent in the ministerial council, but only home minister P Chidambaram, who is more Delhiite than many born- and- bred Delhiites that I know, has made this his city of residence. The others are as apart from each other as they could be: the suave Dayanidhi, the controversial A Raja, the quiet GK Vasan, the rustic Azhagiri, the filmy Napolean, Jagathrakshakan and others.
But what they share is an aversion to staying in the capital. Maybe it is the climate of extremes in the capital, their unfamiliarity or even antipathy for the Hindi speaking crowd or even the reluctance of their families to relocate to Delhi. Consequently, many ministers are spending more time in their state than in their offices. There was a time when ministers and MPs used free Indian Airlines coupons to visit their families on weekends, log frequent flyer miles and get back to work in Delhi during the week. But now even ministers are devoting less and less time to their jobs.

Some, like Dayanidhi can of course borrow brother Kalanidhi’s private jet to fly into Delhi on urgent summons; others show no such enthusiasm. The result is that the in- trays on ministerial tables are piling up and babus have no clue how or indeed when they will be dealt with. I have a suggestion. Instead of asking his ministers to draw up 100 day agendas for their ministries, Manmohan should tell them to attend office for at least a 100 days a year.

Omar needs to have a thick skin
THE non- resignation drama in Srinagar last week is one more warning to politicians that they should coat themselves with a thick skin before taking up responsibilities of high office.
Omar Abdullah is young, handsome, charming and honest. He is also emotional and very very naïve. Muzaffar Hussein Beig, the PDP leader, may have been trying to play to the gallery but he acted absolutely irresponsibly when he made tendentious and unsubstantiated charges about Omar's involvement in the Srinagar sex scandal. The discredited PDP has much to cover up but doff your cap to Beig for sizing up Omar right and laying a trap into which the young chief minister walked.

Omar should have known that politics of sleaze is something that comes with the hot seat that he occupies. He probably did not realise the implications of his resignation which was submitted amidst much emotion and theatrics, first in the state assembly and later in the Raj Bhavan. I understand dad Farooq sent an SMS to his son asking him to show the maturity that befits his office. But Omar was in no mood to yield and Farooq and the Congress leadership in Delhi worked overtime to find a face saver.

Omar’s resignation letter was redrafted to make it “ conditional”. Though CBI does not function under the home ministry, P Chidambaram made a statement that Omar’s name does not figure in the list of accused. This was followed by something unprecedented — a letter from the CBI Director which was effectively a clean chit. But when Omar held out and insisted that he would not return to office until he was cleared by the governor, NN Vohra who has neither the investigative machinery nor the judicial authority to decide, was more than helpful. That’s hardly surprising since the Congress High Command’s wish has always been a command for Governor Vohra. Omar meanwhile should put this sordid chapter behind him, be less emotional, more mature and acquire a thicker skin.