Monday, October 26, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, October 26, 2009

AS THE old saying goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics and over a period of time, they start trading places very freely. But in the United Progressive Alliance, even at any given time it is difficult making out who is friend and who is foe. There is a lot of friendly fire going on out there in the 11 party coalition and though there have been no casualities as yet, I suspect it won’t be long before that happens.
Increasingly it is becoming clear that relations are far from cordial between the Congress and the DMK. Their feud has been on for a while now, first over a dam in the south involving neighbours Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in which the DMK accused the union environment ministry of filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court which favoured Kerala’s case.

Last Thursday, the shadow boxing turned into open sparring when the CBI raided the Telecom ministry headquarters at Sanchar Bhavan before its long arm reached out to several other locations across the country. Normally, the CBI takes prior approval from either the minister or the secretary of the department concerned before initiating raids, but Telecom minister A Raja of the DMK came to know about the raids only when the Telecom Secretary PJ Thomas informed him even as the raiding party reached the Sanchar Bhavan gates.

A CBI source told me that at least a week’s planning goes into an operation of this nature. Four hours before the raids began, all entry and exit points at Sanchar Bhavan were shut, the elevators switched off and officers and staff asked to stay put. After the raids, they even whisked a Deputy Director General serving in the Wireless Planning Cell.

The CBI is directly under the Prime Minister and crucially, as searches expanded to Mumbai, Mohali, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad and Jaipur last Friday, Manmohan Singh left New Delhi to attend the India- ASEAN summit in Bangkok. The raids followed the CBI registering a case on Wednesday after the Central Vigilance Commission found blatant and scandalous violations in the auction of 2G spectrum in September 2007. Two companies, Swan Telecom and Unitech, which had acquired licences for Rs 1537 crore and Rs 1658 crore respectively sold these within a week to overseas buyers for Rs 2400 cr and Rs 6100 cr respectively.

The loss to the government was estimated at Rs 7105 crores and the CVC claimed that overall, the government suffered losses of over Rs 22,000 crore in the allocation of 2G spectrum in all 122 circles. DMK circles counter the CBI and, in effect, the Centre’s argument.

Their questions are many: if the spectrum allocation was done, as alleged, without cabinet approval, why did the Ministry of Finance last week okay it and for- A Raja ward it to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs for final clearance though Pranab Mukherjee is not the kind to clear a file without vetting it minutely? How did the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, which has representatives from the PMO, finance, commerce, home and foreign ministries also sign on the dotted line? Why didn’t the IB raise objections since Telenor, the Singapore registered Norwegian company that bought Unitech’s licence, also operated in Pakistan and Bangladesh? The arguments are not without basis and that’s why I am inclined to think that it’s all about politics.
That the raids picked up momentum after last week’s election results showed there was no stopping the Congress juggernaut is perhaps a sign of the Congress trying to flex muscles in the run up to the 2011 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. Congressmen see signs of hopes of revival for the party in the state where it has not tasted power for 43 years now. Rahul Gandhi’s recent membership enrolment drives which are said to have been hugely successful has galvanised them to go on the offensive.

Already ministers like Jairam Ramesh and Kamal Nath have targeted DMK leaders in charge of various environmental panels and port trusts for a purge. This is in retaliation to the DMK’s refusal to share power in Tamil Nadu with the Congress on whose support Karunanidhi presides over Fort St George. Worse, none of the 35 Congress MLAs have been given posts of any significance in even state government undertakings. Now local Congress leaders want all DMK leaders who were given plum Central PSU postings to be replaced. The winter session of the Lok Sabha is scheduled to begin on November 19 and I have reason to believe that alliance partners will begin to value their enemies more than they value their friends. The aisles that divide the treasury and the opposition benches could blur as the Samajwadi Party and Mamata’s Trinamool Congress rally around the DMK. Combined, the three parties command the support of 61 MPs, enough to remind the Congress that it is not as invincible as it thinks.

Snippets/ Mail Today, October 26, 2009

Can we afford unpredictable and erratic Mamata?
LIKE THE weather, the only predictable thing about Mamata Banerjee is her unpredictability. Examples are many, but recall just the latest in May last when she became the first ever minister to assume office, not at the ministry headquarters in New Delhi, but at the divisional office in Kolkata. And Ms Unpredictable is living up to her name once again. Among the hundreds of mails that I got last week was one which made nonsense of her claim of being the sole guardian angel of the poor and the underprivileged, a theme around which her entire political career has been built for nearly three and a half decades now. The mail was from an Odiya organisation that was protesting the Railway Ministry’s decision to withdraw the weekly Garib Rath express that currently runs between Puri and Bangalore.

Readers may recall that it was Mamata’s predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav who introduced these “ poor man’s air conditioned chariots” in 2005. Over the last four years, 28 of these were rolled out to enable the poor to make long distance journeys in air- conditioned comfort.

The weekly Puri- Bangalore Garib Rath was introduced just a month ago and was used mostly by poor Odiya labourers working as cooks, carpenters, plumbers etc in Bangalore.

The decision to withdraw the train, less than a month after it started operation, flew in the face of Mamata’s famed concern for the poor, as did her bizarre behaviour last week, when more than 30 people died in a train accident near Agra.

Instead of rushing to commiserate with the poor, she stayed put in her Kolkata home for two days, only to land up in Agra and do the rounds of hospitals where the injured lay. A day later, she said she would settle for nothing less than a CBI inquiry to look into the cause of the accident.

Coming from a railway minister, this was astonishing because such matters are normally looked into by a departmental inquiry. In calling for a CBI inquiry, was Mamata suggesting that she had no faith in her officers? She should clarify.

MORE on the BJP. As I said earlier, the Parliament Board met last Friday but had no time to introspect on the latest round of defeats and why the party found itself in such a mess.

Probably the array of leaders without followers were scared that they would end up pointing fingers at each other. Instead, they acted with lightning speed to accept Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s resignation as leader of the opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly and to appoint a leader of opposition in Maharashtra where the party was soundly thrashed. This is further proof that they intend to target the few charismatic individuals who can still bring in the votes, not to speak of posing a threat to the so called GenNext who, like squatters, continue to occupy the party headquarters long after the lease has expired.
They have already silenced leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Jaswant Singh, and now Raje Scindia. Her resignation was sought in the wake of the BJP’s disastrous outing in the Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan, which was supposed to have been one of the party’s strongholds. By that yardstick, the wise men at 11 Ashoka Road who have been collectively responsible for so many electoral debacles should have been asked to retire from politics. The party is so much a victim of internal dissension that my gut instincts tell me the BJP’s future is already behind it.

BJP is up a creek minus the paddle
THE BJP has in Rajnath Singh a president whose last known brave act was to take a flight in the dark from an airport without night flying equipment. The verdict from Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh is proof that its leaders are groping in the dark even as the party lurches from one crisis to another. But instead of switching on the panic signs, the BJP leaders seem to have disconnected the electricity and gone underground. The fact that the BJP National Executive, originally scheduled to be held later this month, was postponed, almost makes me think that the leadership had an inkling of the impending disaster. Normally, the members of the Parliament Board and office bearers meet after election results are declared to draft a political response to the verdict. The PB met briefly, not to conduct a postmortem but to ratify Vasundhara Raje’s resignation.

The normally TV savvy leaders suddenly became camera shy and fielded the likes of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to face the media. He flitted from studio to TV studio and provided for much mirth.

When asked about the reasons for the disastrous performance of his party, Naqvi was clueless and came up with a very original alibi: it’s the damn Electronic Voting Machines( EVMs).

LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar — the BJP’s A- team that planned and executed the entire campaign were exposed as B- grade strategists. Politics is the art of the possible, about seizing the right moment at the right place, but these people have let too many moments slip.

Take Haryana. They jettisoned Om Prakash Chautala who is of course chuckling now. Could they have won in alliance with the INLD? Couldn’t genuine efforts have been made to douse Raj Thackeray’s ire? The search for answers must be accompanied by the axing of a few heads. But will they?

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, October 25, 2009

'I don't want controversies'

Bollywood's new diva Asin says success needs a combination of dedication, sincerity, hard work and talent.
Part2 ; Part3 ; Part4

Monday, October 19, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, October 19, 2009

PM & Montek don’t see eye to eye for once
LIKE two great minds that think alike, Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia have rarely disagreed on anything. Ahluwalia has been a Manmohan favourite for long and if the economist turned prime minister’s hands were not tied politically, Montek would have even been made the finance minister when the new government assumed office in May.

Last week, for the first time perhaps, the prime minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission differed publicly. In 1985, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, on a visit to Kalahandi in Orissa, one of the poorest districts in the country, had said that of every rupee that the government spent on welfare schemes for the poor, only 17 paise reached the intended beneficiaries.

Statements of top government and Congress functionaries in recent times make it clear that after all these years, Rajiv’s words still ring true. During a campaign rally sometime in April this year, Rahul Gandhi recalled his father’s words and said the situation had only become worse since then.

Last week, while addressing a seminar in New Delhi, Ahluwalia too quoted Rajiv Gandhi and said it was a tragedy that even after a quarter century, the government had not figured out how to plug the leaks.

But the very next day, the prime minister refuted Ahluwalia’s remarks. “ Leakage of funds earmarked for development does exist but I don’t admit these leakages are as big as is being mentioned”, Manmohan said in Mumbai.
I am no judge to decide who is right, but what I do know is that since Rajiv uttered those words, government allocation for social sector spending must have gone up by more than 200 percent. Considering that last year the Centre and states together earmarked nearly Rs 3,51,000 crores on social sector spending, the scale of the loot by crooked politicians, middlemen, agents and contractors can only be imagined. And as the already filthy rich become richer, the poor can only become poorer. Manmohan and Montek can differ on the quantum of pilferage, but implied in this is an admission of a huge, faulty delivery system. The shame is that they can’t seem to do anything about it.

FINANCE Minister Pranab Mukherjee found instant stardom when he wielded the axe on External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and his junior Shashi Tharoor and asked them to move out of their 5- star hotel rooms. As if to show that austerity was serious business, Pranabda himself took a economy class flight to Kolkata one day; Sonia Gandhi flew by a commercial airline to Mumbai and babus began to get used to sitting cramped in cattle class. In the last few weeks, however, the signals have been mixed. Pranabda flew in a chartered aircraft to Kochi for a INTUC function; Rahul Gandhi took a private jet to Kerala and bullet proof cars for travels within the state were flown in by the IAF. How gratifying then it is to note that there are people who still swear by austerity.

Last Wednesday, I called up Anand Sharma, the Commerce Minister. He was in the US. And, get ready for this, he told me he was actually on a train from Washington to New York. Last month, P Chidambaram, on his first visit to the US as home minister, also travelled by train on the same leg. The proof of the austerity pudding will of course be if, on their return, they condescend to travel by Mamata Didi’s Indian Railways. We shall wait and see.

RSS sends out warning to BJP’s allies
THE RSS seems to be getting tired of being repeatedly bitten by the hand that it feeds. Under its new chief Mohan Bhagwat, there is a new mood of aggression in the organisation and this was evident in its decision to hold the three day national working committee meeting last week in Rajgir, near Patna. The venue was deliberately chosen. The RSS feels that Bihar’s JD( U) chief minister Nitish Kumar has been following a policy of minority appeasement and cites the government’s decisions to allot land for setting up of a centre of the Aligarh Muslim University in Katihar and to give scholarships to Muslim girl students as the latest in a chain of steps aimed at appeasing minorities.

By holding the session in Rajgir, the RSS hopes to tell Kumar, who heads a coalition government, that the BJP’s support will be conditional to the government not compromising on the core issues of Hindutva. Nitish had earlier irked the BJP by asking both LK Advani and Narendra Modi to stay away from the Lok Sabha poll campaign. The RSS didn’t spare the BJP’s deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, a good man if ever there was one in Bihar politics, for lying low while the government pursued its minority appeasement policies.
There is a feeling in the RSS that the BJP is being used by allies to stay in power even as they expand their base at the cost of its own ideology. The message from Rajgir was: in a coalition, the BJP should insist on following its agenda and force alliance partners to agree to a common minimum programme that does not compromise on the core values of Hindutva. No one would have failed to notice the paeans of praise that Bhagwat had for the home minister P Chidambaram’s efforts to squeeze the life out of the ultra leftists.

Power & Politics / Mail Today, October 19, 2009

OCTOBER 15, 2009 was a day that many rich and powerful Americans dreaded. Last Thursday was the deadline set by the Obama administration for American tax dodgers, who considered Switzerland an address of convenience, to come clean on the billions of dollars they had stashed away in Swiss banks and other tax havens around the world. More than 4,500 Americans have already admitted to holding money abroad and many more were expected to follow as the deadline approached.

Now consider this: according to reports earlier this year, Indians held more money in Swiss accounts than people from all other countries put together. The figure of US$ 1.2 trillion (Rs 60 lakh crores, the equivalent of India’s annual GDP)) may have been trotted then by opposition parties in the heat of an impending General Election but there is no doubting that well heeled Indians have stashed away money that is enough to build hundreds of hospitals, thousands of schools and lakhs of primary health centres. One of the pledges made by LK Advani during the last poll campaign was that, if elected to power, the NDA will bring back this humungous amount of money within its first 100 days in office. In the true spirit of elections, Manmohan Singh mocked at Advani’s charges, yet found the matter serious enough to later forward to finance minister Pranab Mukherjee a letter Advani had written on the matter.

Election campaigns are all about rhetoric and tall promises but nothing much happens afterwards. Which is proof that scandals are good poll issues that are best brushed under the carpet once the heat and dust of elections is over. At every election, the UPA too waves its own scandal chargesheet at the NDA but later both sides choose to live and let live. The Obama administration made a promise and then bullied the Swiss government to act and warned UBS, Switzerland’s banking giant, of punitive action. Even Nigeria got back almost a billion dollars stashed away in Swiss banks by despot Sani Abacha while Croatia got back millions embezzled from the country by a former president.

If tiny Croatria can do it, why can’t India, an emerging superpower and an aspirant for a high seat on the Security Council? My guess is no different from yours. It’s a cosy club they have there, the politicians, businessmen, powerful bureaucrats, real estate sharks and others who all believe in status quo. More than a year ago, the German government offered to hand over to India a list of account holders in Liechtenstein's LTG which was in its possession. The government sat on it for long and it was only after Ram Jethmalani filed a PIL that it assured the Supreme Court that the authorities were following it up. Yet it invokes the confidentiality clause to avoid making the information public. Faced with the wrath of MPs in both houses of Parliament, all that Pranabda would say was that he “ will look into it”. I have reasons to believe that with so much focus on offshore holdings, many Indians have already pulled out their money and invested them in acquiring businesses. With the Swiss Ambassador in New Delhi announcing last week that his government was ready to amend its laws, I suspect more and more Indians will be lining up to pull out their money.
In the past, governments had tried and mostly failed, because of a lack of will to go after evaders. On the home front, many schemes had failed altogether though the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme ( VDIS) that the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram unveiled in 1997 helped the government mop up about Rs 10,500 crore. Even that was just a drop in the ocean considering that it accounted for less than three percent of India’s GDP. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is on record that he is averse to another amnesty scheme.
But I know a lot many people in North Block who think otherwise.

Bring on another scheme, they say. Let the dodgers bring their money in, don’t ask them about the source of their wealth, make it conditional that their money be invested in key areas like health, education, water management, urban renewal etc where more than 80 percent of the money is looted by middlemen.
The tax dodgers will at least make sure someone else is not going to walk away with their money. The government can then utilise the crores it currently spends on the social services sector to build airports, expressways, convention centres, stadia etc. And still be left with spare change to make a bid for the 2020 Olympics.

Seedhi Baat/Aajtak, October 18, 2009

In the wake of an FIR lodged against him and Amitabh Bachchan in a fraud case, SP's Amar Singh tells in Seedhi Baat that people try to achieve fame by using big people's names.
Part2 ; Part3 ; Part4

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, October 12, 2009

AS A professor, economist, minister and prime minister over the last five decades, Manmohan Singh, more than anyone else, knows how unprofessional and underperforming our bureaucracy is. He is equally aware that his pursuit of 10 per cent growth will come to naught if the sloth continues.

The genial doctor is not the kind to crack a whip but he has made it clear that nothing less than radical reforms in the bureaucracy are called for if the targets set by his government are to be achieved.

At a chief ministers conference on e- governance just before the last general elections, he dropped a few hints about the sloppiness in the bureaucracy, particularly while drafting notes for cabinet and inter ministerial consultations and in matters that related to the states. He recalled the PV Narasimha Rao regime, when he was finance minister, and noted that in those days such notes were “ clear, composite, complete and nothing was missing”. Cabinet secretary KM Chandrashekhar has so far maintained a low profile, but with his term now extended, he has decided to crack the whip. The grapevine has it that, taking the cue from the prime minister, he has now launched a programme to familiarise the bureaucracy with one of its basic duties — preparing notes. The result was the first “ Workshop on Preparation of Cabinet Notes” where participants from the level of joint secretaries and above were to be taught to “ familiarise themselves with relevant procedures, instructions, minimise deficiencies in preparing cabinet notes, create awareness for preparing better quality notes, acquire better understanding of cabinet procedures, minimise procedural errors in notes and reduce the time for finalising these”. Most of us would think that these are basics that bureaucrats were taught during their stint at the Mussoorie academy as probationary officers. But the August meeting is proof that the babus have unlearnt all that. On several occasions, cabinet meetings, inter- ministerial consultations or even the Centre’s meetings with state governments have been abruptly called off midway because of faulty or incomplete drafting of notes.

Something like this would never happen in the private sector where company honchos are accompanied by legal experts who vet every word that goes into a document. But in the government, this is the rule rather than the exception. Babus sometimes are too lazy to check if his or her department has the competence and the jurisdiction to look into a particular matter. They forget to check if Chandrashekhar the subject matter at hand concerns the central government exclusively or it lies in the state list which implies that the states must be consulted. In matters that call for inter- ministerial consultations, often these are given the go- by, leading to wrangling over jurisdiction.

A note which is said to have been prepared for the meeting makes for hilarious reading for no other reason than it shows how casual the approach of our “ steel frame” is. Babus are advised to “ check whether the name of the ministry, security grading, page number, file number etc are correctly indicated on each page, that each paragraph is not bulleted but numbered, the date of the note as given on the front page is the same as the one signed by the officer, that notes have been typed in double space of A- 4 size paper, 1.5 inch left margin has been given and the notes have not been bound spirally and been stapled only once on the left hand corner”. Other gems include these: “ quality of the language used must be clear and unambiguous, all pages must be numbered and arranged sequentially”. Democracy may not be about speed. The commies and the tinpot dictators do things faster.

Democracy is about transparency and accountability which tyrannical despots cannot lay claim to. The cabinet secretary must be lauded for his initiative which has now been adopted by individual ministries which are now conducting their own workshops to ensure that each babu works according to the guidelines laid out. In particular, bureaucrats should know that though they think they are good administrators, they may not necessarily be good communicators.
In this age of communication, that’s equally important.

The key test of course will be if this programme is extended to the entire bureaucracy and the government holds out the promise of reward for good performance. That would automatically imply that the laggards are punished. With pay cuts preferably.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, October 11, 2009

Actor Akshay Kumar on the show Seedhi Baat says that he is not doing the negative role for the first time. He also talks about his role in the upcoming movie Blue ; his journey so far in Bollywood; his love for martial arts; his riskiest stunt so far and his biggest regret in life.
Part 2 ; Part 3 ; Part 4

Snippets/ Mail Today, October 12, 2009

Just what should we do with MK Alagiri?
CABINET secretary KM Chandrashekhar may have found a way to deal with truant babus, but who will tame truant ministers? MK Alagiri has raised the truancy bar to new heights. It’s almost five months since he took charge of three very important departments as the minister for chemicals, petrochemicals and fertilisers, yet his attendance in office has been abysmal and important files are piling up.

Though there are two secretaries to assist him — Bijoy Chatterjee in chemicals and petrochemicals and Atul Chaturvedi in fertilisers — the minister is in dread of meeting them. The reason: communication problem. Alagiri speaks only Tamil and both secretaries do not understand the language.

Being senior officers, they are not going to let the simple matter of language come in the way of effective governance. One of them even wrote to the cabinet secretary to say that he had not seen his minister for over two months while the other is biding his time in office waiting for Alagiri to show up. Recently, the minister skipped the meeting of the 13th Finance Commission where he was to present the fertiliser ministry’s projections.

He also gave the go- by to the meeting of the apex body of industry on fertiliser imports. It is no secret that Alagiri’s heart lies in matters relating to the DMK. Sources in the DMK say that Alagiri has held out twin threats: either he be assigned secretaries who speak Tamil. If that is not possible, he wants to be reassigned to Tamil Nadu. Most would say the latter is the better option.

But until either happens, a lot of important work will continue to be held up. But on the flip side, consider this. The minister isn’t around, the official cars are lying idle, the lights and the airconditioners have never been switched on in his office. That’s a lot of saving on petrol and energy bills. That’s austerity Alagiri style.

RAHUL Gandhi’s well- meaning forays, often unscheduled, into the hinterland are turning out to be a nightmare for his security men. Even senior Congress leaders are beginning to get worried. On his visit to Kerala last week, he took off unannounced on three different occasions, sending the SPG and the local police into a tizzy. On such occasions, policemen do get anxious, even irritated, just like you or me would if a son or a daughter stayed out late. In Kozhikode, he suddenly stepped out at night for a stroll on the beach leaving an anxious state police officer to ask another “ Where is our friend hanging around now?” It was an innocuous query. But it was picked up by the police wireless and soon the Youth Congress was seeking the officer’s suspension. What are police officers supposed to do? Particularly when someone like Rahul disregards their advice, skips their cover and simply vanishes. I am reminded of the time when during his prime ministership, Rajiv Gandhi — an ex- Indian Airlines pilot — wanted to take command of the special IAF plane that was flying him. The SPG chief, who was on board, politely but firmly vetoed him. It’s time BV Wanchoo, the current SPG chief, did some plain speaking to Rahul.

How to hold on to Diwali bonanza

AFTER a long hot and tiring summer, there is finally a nip in the air. It’s that time of the year when ministers, senior bureaucrats, income tax officers and sundry PAs get ready to receive fatcat businessmen with big hearts and deep pockets. Biz czars see Diwali as the ideal time to line pockets as an investment for the future. A bureaucrat friend told me recently that in Delhi alone, gifts worth several hundreds of crores are distributed by corporates, real estate tycoons, big stock market players and such like during the festive season.

The good times may just be over. Last week, the government announced that henceforth all gifts valued above Rs 50,000 will be taxable for the receiver unless the donor is a relative or gifts are given during special occasions such as marriage. Bureaucrats and others who were used to their annual festive time stimulus package are naturally seething with rage because their loss is enormous.

Time was when babus were happy with a suit length, a bottle of Black Label and couple of kilos of dry fruits. Now moneybags are known to hand out imported cars and penthouse apartments. Previously such gifts were exempted from tax. That’s why I doff my hat to Mayawati who admits her rags to riches transformation to the donations in “ small change” from millions across the country.

Yet I believe it won’t be long before they find a way out of this one. For one, who will decide on the value of the gifts? In the past, it was easier to put a price on gifts. But at a time when a Mercedes comes free on purchase of a penthouse apartment, the task of putting a price on a gift is not easy. A plasma TV whose value you or me may declare as Rs 50,000 may be only worth a tenth of that to the brazen babu. So trust them to find a loophole here. My hunch is that despite Pranab da ’s diktat, most of them will remain unscathed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, October 05, 2009

Modi outwits Patel at function for Sardar
FOR close to a decade, Narendra Modi’s bearded visage has been like a red rag to the Congress bull. The sight of him makes the Congress’ blood boil and Modi’s close aides in turn say he sleeps better after every verbal skirmish with the khadi brigade. Dinsha Patel is a senior Congress leader in Gujarat and a Union minister but he obviously was not aware of protocol requirements which dictate that at all functions involving the President of India, the local chief minister must necessarily be consulted. Patel, who heads the Sardar Patel Memorial Trust, wanted to keep Modi out of a Presidential function in Ahmedabad.

But Rashtrapati Bhavan was finding it difficult to accept Patel's plea unless the state government concurred. Modi's office insisted not only on his presence on the dais but on his being seated next to the President since the blue book says that on visits to the states, the President must be flanked by the governor and the chief minister. Patel was thus consigned to one of the corner seats.

Modi may be in trouble with the courts rapping him for his shameful handling of the post- Godhra riots, but it seems every time he finds himself down and out, the Congress comes to his rescue. By harping on the Ishrat Jahan encounter during the recent byeelections, the Congress walked into the trap he laid. Modi ended up winning five of the seven assembly by- elections. Modi’s strategy has always been simple: invoke Gujarati pride.

A message from Sonia Gandhi was read out at the Ahmedabad function last week in which Sonia said that Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru never had unbridgeable differences.

It was of course a travesty of facts. So when his turn came to speak, Modi left red faces all around him by saying that “ the history of independent India would have been different had Sardar become Prime Minister instead of Nehru.” The sight of President Patil squirming in her seat couldn’t have escaped Modi, but again, what mattered to him was Gujarati pride.

BRITISH politics was thrown into turmoil recently by the expenses scandal but there is a much bigger controversy that’s happening in our own Parliament. With many crorepatis and corporate czars forcing their way into Parliament, mostly the Upper House, questions are being raised about information that they are privy to as MPs being used for promoting their own financial and business interests. It has come to the notice of various ministries that some of the companies involved in disputes and arbitration, particularly in the infrastructure sectors, are owned by MPs or their relatives.

As of now projects worth over Rs 10,000 crore have suffered both cost and time overruns because officials dealing with the relevant files are reluctant to take decisive action fearing retribution. Some of the MPs have also managed to get nominated to various Parliamentary Standing Committees that deal with sectors in which they have pecuniary interests.

Some prominent leaders cutting across party lines have mooted the idea that MPs must be kept away from panels that deal with the sectors in which their companies are involved in much the same way that judges are barred from presiding over courts in which their relatives practise. Now the ball is in the court of the leadership of all the parties and presiding officers of both the houses. Last heard, they may ask such MPs to disclose their interests and resign from the committees if required.

Babus seek cut in grants for NGOs
BUREAUCRATS being bureaucrats, it is perhaps inevitable that they see opportunity beckoning in virtually every official file. Groaning under the austerity measures that have forced them to forsake the morning drive to the golf club in the official white Amby and fly cattle class instead of first class, they suddenly see a ray of hope that could put their lives back on five- star track. A letter sent by a Union minister from Kerala to his senior in the ministry, seeking a Rs one crore grant from the ministry’s discretionary funds to an organisation in his home constituency for some social celebrations set them thinking. A quick audit was done of all the money that various ministries distributed during the last two years to NGOs and such like, working primarily in the areas of health, environment, women and child welfare, culture etc.

It was found that the Centre gives Rs 5,000- 6,000 crore every year to such organisations across the country. The babus needed no convincing that less than half of the funds given as grants to these organisations reach the actual beneficiaries, the money being spent mostly on establishment and administrative expenses. Unlike charity, austerity need not necessarily begin at home, they argue. A file has now been moved to the finance ministry detailing a few examples of the misuse of such grants and a proposal has been mooted for the slashing of the grants by half, which could save the government up to Rs 3,000 crore.

The government would ideally lap up the recommendations and implement them right away, since most NGOs are headed by left wingers who are otherwise very vocal critics of its policies. But there is a catch. Sonia Gandhi is very much a patron of several NGO causes and is on very friendly personal terms with the heads of many. If the recommendations win the seal of approval from finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the NGO sector will keep their fingers crossed and hope that Sonia will intervene and save them.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, October 04, 2009

I never wanted to be an actor: Lara

Actor Lara Dutta on the show Seedhi Baat says that she wanted to be a journalist. In the interview, Lara talks about her journey so far in Bollywood, her transformation from beauty queen to comedy princess, her experience of working with senior actors in Bollywood, her upcoming movies including the just released Do knot Disturb and the kind of roles she would like to do in the future.
Part2 ; Part3 ; Part4

Power & Politics / Mail Today, October 05, 2009

FOR THE government and indeed for the Congress party, the biggest challenge on the international front lies not in the NPT, CTBT or getting a seat on the Security Council. It is the Commonwealth Games that are due to begin in New Delhi exactly a year from now. The CWG is the biggest sporting event to be held in the country since the 1982 Asian Games. When New Delhi won the bid for the CWG in 2004, India had hoped to use the games to showcase the country’s economic progress in much the same way that China did during Beijing 2008.

Unless a miracle is pulled off, the games are doomed to become an international sporting disaster which, in an ironic twist to the tourism ministry’s “ Incredible India” campaign, will end up showing just how incredibly slothful the second fastest growing economy in the world is.

Besides a loss of face, forfeiting the games could impact India vastly on the international front. Now that another Gandhi Jayanti has come and gone and Rahul Gandhi has exceeded his wildest expectations by persuading his partymen to spend a day with a Dalit family, there are ministers and Congress leaders who believe it’s time Rahul shed symbolism and got down to serious business by taking up the challenge of ensuring the successful conduct of the CWG. That sets my mind back to the 1980’ s.

Then, as now, we were running woefully behind schedule. An international commitment that the Indira Gandhi government had given in 1976 to host the 1982 games was ignored by the Janata Party government which thought it was no big deal if India forfeited the games. When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, she had just about two and a half years to get the then overgrown village that was Delhi into shape for the Asian Games. She sidelined Vidya Charan Shukla, then chief of the Indian Olympic Committee ( the post is now occupied by Suresh Kalmadi), appointed a Special Organising Committee with Buta Singh as its chief and appointed her son Rajiv Gandhi as a special invitee to the SOC. Things began to move at a rapid pace with Rajiv taking special care to ensure that nothing was lacking and no effort spared. He assigned his close aide Arun Singh to monitor the progress of all facilities on a day to day basis and brought in people known for their competence into key areas.

Sankaran Nair, Indira Rajiv Gandhi Gandhi’s security chief, was made secretary general of the SOC. Jagmohan was brought back from Goa where he was Lt Governor and given a key charge and so were KP Singh Deo, Kiran Bedi, HKL Bhagat, Air Vice Marshal HL Kapur and others. They were assisted by a volunteer army of thousands.

Rajiv himself visited the stadia, the games village and other sites daily and held meetings, often twice or thrice a day. I remember once he took me along on one of his inspection tours. It lasted nearly eight hours during which time we visited the Asiad Village, the indoor stadium on the Yamuna banks near ITO, the swimming complex at Talkatora and the main venue, the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. His efforts bore fruit and the ninth Asiad was a spectacular sporting success and an organisational triumph for India.

Long before Obama made it a catch phrase, Rajiv showed us “ Yes We Can”. But now there is a real danger that this time next year, as a nation we would have collected a lot of eggs on our face. This week, Mike Fennel, the CWG federation chief, will meet Manmohan Singh in New Delhi to tell him that India stands the risk of being branded a pariah on the international sporting stage. That’s why I wholly support the ministers who feel only Rahul can save the games. He should step in, induct his young Congress colleagues, including ministers, many of whom aren’t doing enough because the senior ministers refuse to allocate any meaningful work to them.

They are all incredibly gifted young men whose talents are wasted in the council of ministers. Admirers of the young Rahul feel that he should, as his father did, get rid of the fellows who have been lining their pockets in the name of the CWG, and lead the team. I am sure they will deliver. We can still put up a spectacular show that will make all Indians proud.