Monday, May 31, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, May 31, 2010

MANMOHAN Singh must have known it was coming and it has come earlier than he expected.
There have been deep divisions within the union cabinet before, but now for the first time, these are on public display.

Ministers of the pro and anti caste census lobbies appear at each other’s throat and neither wants to be the first to ease off. Three weeks ago, in its hurry to have the cut motions on the finance bills defeated in Parliament, the government struck private deals with some of the regressive opposition parties. I had in these columns said that the finance bill victory was likely to come with a heavy price tag.

That has happened much earlier than expected.

The divide in the party was evident early this month when barely hours after the Home Minister P Chidambaram told the Lok Sabha that he was against caste based enumeration as “ many members felt caste is a divisive factor”, the prime minister said his government would give it “ serious thought and take a decision shortly”. They were again in the open at last week’s Cabinet meeting where senior ministers like Chidambaram, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal and others clashed with those like Veerappa Moily who took up the cause. And now we have Ajay Maken writing an open letter to young MPs terming the caste census as a “ regressive measure”. Maken is not known for his flamboyance or is the kind to talk out of turn. As a junior minister, he has never joined debate on any political issue. That’s why his letter last week to young and like- minded members of the Lok Sabha belonging to different political parties came as a surprise.

His letter was sent out to 67 MPs aged between 25 and 45 years. They aren't ordinary MPs either. The recipients include Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh, BJP MP Dushyant Singh, Ajit Singh's son Jayant Chowdhury, Union minister Dayanidhi Maran, Supriya Sule, Milind Deora and all young ministers in the government.
Being a very unlikely source for controversy, the question naturally arises: did Maken act on his own? Or was he speaking for the new Congress which has a stake in the future that its current leadership evidently doesn’t? I have known Ajay from the days he was a student leader at Delhi University and can say with a great degree of confidence that he is a stickler for rules. It was something of a sur- prise therefore to see him releasing his letter just a day after the prime minister warned the many warring members of his cabinet not to air their personal opinions in public and limit these to appropriate party forums. The issue must have been playing in mind for long, but the May 27 cabinet decision to appoint an Empowered Group of Ministers to decide about the timing and contours of the caste based census was the last straw. What now comes across loud and clear is that Maken was not speaking for himself alone. He represents the voice of GenNext who have been either kept away from the political decision making process or given such raw deals that they have chosen to stay away. It appears to me that they have decided to retaliate by working as a pressure group that will dictate political agenda from outside.

Arrayed against them is the entrenched Congress that continues to subscribe to the politics of convenience. Though the Congress party as a whole was opposed to the idea of caste based census, with their survival at stake, they unashamedly compromised with the Yadavs.

Now the liberal elements in the Congress have chosen to strike back. Historically, the Congress has always split into ideological factions every time a new emerging generation sought to assert itself. During the late 60s, it was the Syndicate vs Indicate represented by Indira Gandhi. In his short political career, Sanjay showed signs of raising an army to take on the old guard. Rajiv thundered about “ power brokers” and “ cabals” but fell victim to their machinations. The professorial Manmohan would be the last man you would expect to succumb to such low level politicking but even he chose the politics of convenience over conviction. Win is what counts, no matter what the cost of the trade- off is.

But the many young ones like Maken, who have a much longer political shelf life seem bent on setting the tone for future politics.

If Maken's voice is not muzzled by the Congress old guard, it will certainly signal the drawing of new battle lines. And Maken may have very powerful supporters within.

Seedhi Baat/ Aajtak, May 30, 2010

All AI employees not bad: Patel

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel says that he is deeply saddened by the Mangalore Air tragedy and says that everyone involved in the airline industry should be more careful. Seedhi Baat.
Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Snippets/ Mail Today, May 31, 2010

Trouble in store for YSR’s son
HELL hath no fury like a politician scorned…. by fellow politicians. YS Jaganmohan Reddy, the Congress MP who thought the chief minister ship of Andhra Pradesh was his birthright after the unfortunate death of his father YSR in a chopper crash last September, and his party are on a collision course which could end up with the state Congress splitting and the rise of another regional party in the next few months. Jagan believes that he has been handed the wrong end of the deal every time: no chief minister ship, no cabinet berth at the Centre, not even a job at AICC. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that his impending padayatra onslaught is aimed at the party leadership. During his state wide padayatra, he is to visit the families of the hundreds— the numbers seem vastly exaggerated— who had committed suicide on hearing of YSR’s death. But he does not have 24 Akbar Road’s sanction and the AICC wants Jagan to call off the padayatra. That Jagan has already hit the road, disregarding veiled threats from the AICC, is indication that he doesn’t see a place for himself in the Congress set up and has made up his mind to set out on his own.

The padayatra may seem a masterstroke, considering that it was a sustained and highly popular mass contact programme that enabled his late father to oust the Telugu Desam’s Chandrababu Naidu in the assembly elections in 2004. He is counting on the support of the Reddys who, though only a little over ten percent of the state population, form about 40 percent of the MLAs.
But trouble lies in store for Jagan. Supporters of the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti that is spearheading the cause of a separate state do not want him to enter the Telangana region.

Last heard, the Congress is tapping Praja Rajyam Party leader and actor Chiranjeevi to come to its aid. He will arrive in Delhi this week to meet both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. There is never a dull moment in Andhra politics.

Cheats with money abroad feel the heat
THE WHEELS of justice grind exceedingly slow, but grind they do. Last week brought bad news for unscrupulous rich Indians who stash away black money abroad after the IT department served notice on fifty Indians whose names the German authorities passed on to the Indian government as having accounts in that country. During the last election campaign, BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani had raised the issue and demanded that the money, which he claimed was about US$ 1.2 trillion, or the equivalent of India’s annual GDP, be brought back.

Advani’s argument was that, the money was enough to fund hundreds of hospitals, thousands of schools and lakhs of primary health centres across the country.

In the heat of the election campaign, Manmohan Singh scoffed at Advani’s charges but found the matter serious enough to ask finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to take a closer look. He did. Well begun, but will the job be left half done? My hunch is that. Because the tax cheats consisting mostly of politicians, businessmen, powerful bureaucrats, real estate sharks and others form a cosy club where everyone takes care of everyone else. Already, many rich Indians have got wind of the crackdown and are queuing up to pull their money out. Governments in the past too have tried and failed, but mostly because of a lack of will.

The UPA government would do well to borrow a leaf from the Obama administration which ordered a crackdown on American tax dodgers late last year. Within a fortnight after President Obama asked them to come clean, 7500 such cheats who had kept amounts varying from as little as $ 10,000 to as much as $ 100 million applied for amnesty. The amounts appear puny compared to the booty that Indians have hidden away. It’s time the UPA government shows the same resolve.

IT’S THAT time of the year when the heat wave takes its toll on the toughest of men, but the worst affected seem to be our ministers: the heat simply scares them away from Delhi. That many union ministers fix long official tours during the summer months is well known. Many of them take their families along, all of whom are looked after by the Indian embassy in the concerned country, though technically, ministers are supposed to pay for the expenses of relatives. While the government sometimes looks the other way on minor transgressions, ministers are strictly forbidden from accepting hospitality from private individuals or firms on such tours. But recently, a senior diplomat wrote to the Foreign Office about a conflict of interest involving a senior Union Cabinet minister.

The minister who was travelling with his family members flew in a private aircraft within the US and accepted the hospitality of several American hosts. The deputy chief of mission brought this to the notice of the Foreign Office as well as the joint secretary in the PMO who is the coordinating officer for foreign office. It is not the first time ministers are blatantly flouting rules. I am told that in the UPA’s six years rule, the government has reports of about 25 to 30 ministers transgressing rules, but this one was so blatant, the PMO has decided to soon crack the whip.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, May 24, 2010

EVEN as you are reading this, Manmohan Singh is probably preparing for what is only his second formal press conference after assuming office as the Prime Minister in May 2004.

Undeniably, there is much that he can be proud of, not the least of which is the fact that he is the only Congress Prime Minister from outside the Nehru- Gandhi clan to occupy office for six years. That’s an achievement that would have called for raucous celebrations but the unfortunate death of over 160 people in the plane crash on Saturday morning means all revelries now stand cancelled.

Yet, the government is treating the press meet as a very special event. More than two months ago, in these columns I had written about the Prime Minister’s decision to shelve the dour “ Report to the People”, which had marked his first five anniversaries and instead meet the press. I had then said that in keeping with the coalition spirit, Manmohan would invite senior ministers from the major alliance partners to share the dais with him.

The plan has now been shelved.

His cabinet colleagues have been requested to sit in the front row, ahead of the over 900 journalists from the print and TV media. While the ostensible reason for the change of plans is that the government wants the focus to be on the Prime Minister, the real reason is the fear in the establishment that journalists may choose to train their guns on the likes of controversial ministers such as A. Raja and Mamata Banerjee who would have flanked him on the dais.

The barrels of midnight oil being burnt would suggest that babudom is putting more effort into the event than it would for, say, the joint session of Parliament or the Union budget. Cabinet secretary K. M. Chandrashekhar and the PM’s principal secretary TKA Nair have personally been monitoring the run- up. The former had issued a circular to about a dozen select secretaries asking them not only to update the PMO on the latest developments and decisions relating to their ministries but also be present at the press conference while Nair held a review meeting with senior secretaries last Thursday at the conference venue, Vigyan Bhavan. Secretaries of key ministries are busy updating on the main talking points such as internal security, Maoists, Pakistan, proposed amendments to the Right to Information Act, the many inter- ministerial tussles, etc.

Bureaucratic and political circles are united in their belief that the success of the press conference will lie not in the answers that Manmohan will give to the tough questions but by the number of leaders from alliance parties who will be present in the special enclosure. The Congress cabinet contingent will be there in full strength and I am sure the A- Team of Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram, A. K. Antony, Kamal Nath, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma and S. M. Krishna will be occupying the front row. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to attend though the PMO expects the AICC officebearers to be present in full strength to show that the PM has the full backing of the party.

As a coalition, UPA ministers from all alliance partners are expected to be present just to show that they stand united.

But I have reason to believe that the government will be left red- faced due to the absence of several senior leaders from alliance partners.

Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar is abroad and may not make it back in time to attend the show. Mamata Banerjee has said neither “ yes” nor “ no” to the invitation. Of the DMK’s three ministers, Dayanidhi Maran is abroad. The other two are an embarrassment to the government; Raja, for the clouds of dust that he kicks up at every step he takes and M. K. Alagiri for his inability to comprehend anything that is remotely connected with his job as Union minister for chemicals and fertilisers.

Manmohan should be glad if they don’t turn up even if the message that goes out from Vigyan Bhavan will be of a Prime Minister who is wary of keeping the company of his own cabinet ministers.

Their absence may even be a blessing in disguise for Manmohan to blunt the BJP charge that his government is characterised by 3C’s — corruption, conspiracy and contradictions. Whether he can turn the tables on the Opposition by offering his own 3C’s — clean, credible and commendable— will depend to a large extent on the display of candour from Manmohan.

Snippets / Mail Today, May 24, 2010

Cleaning up the civil services
WITH CORRUPTION rising and babudom showing scant regard for ethics, the government has decided to crack the whip. Earlier this year, the cabinet secretary had sent notes to secretaries of all ministries at the Centre and chief secretaries in the states to take strict action against officers charged with corruption, indiscipline or actions that tarnished the image of the civil services. The CabSec’s missive was timely. Vigilance cases were registered against 54 all- India service officers in 2009, of whom 35 were from the IAS, 10 from the IPS and nine from the IFS. The corresponding figures for the previous year was 38, eight and four respectively.

Now the government plans to get tougher. Last week, the government set up a committee headed by P. C. Hota, former chairman of the UPSC, to suggest measures to expedite punishment in cases involving corruption and disciplinary proceedings.

One of the recommendations that will be considered is dropping compulsory retirement as a major penalty for errant civil servants and instead handing down the penalty of demotion or dismissal from service. The Department of Personnel and Training ( DoPT) feels that an officer who is penalised with compulsory retirement will continue to get all his retirement benefits.

Noting that compulsory retirement does not actually work as a deterrent, the DoPT says: “ In this way, such government servants may feel a sense of comfort even while indulging in wrongdoings because they know that even if they are compulsorily retired from service, they would get full pension benefits.” Instead, demotion or dismissal from service would send a clear message to all government servants of the severe consequence of wrongdoing, the note said. The DoPT has sought comments from all secretaries and state chief secretaries by June 5 after which the Hota Committee will review and fix new and tougher punishments.

Kashmir’s date with a high- profile visitor
KASHMIR has always occupied a special place in Sonia Gandhi’s heart and the Congress President will keep her date with the Valley later this month. Though it's a purely private visit, she is expected to check on efforts being made by the state government to clean up the Dal Lake on seeing which she is reported to have been “ shocked” when she took a shikhara ride last October while on an official visit.

The lake cleansing plan, being personally looked after by deputy chief minister Tara Chand, includes shifting some 11,000 families living around the lake and rehabilitating them on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Sonia Gandhi will lay the foundation stone of the new colony for the Dal dwellers. The Centre has been quite liberal in funding the clean- up operations and last year, at Sonia’s request, the Prime Minister sanctioned Rs 356 crore for the project. Only last month, Priyanka Gandhi, Robert Vadra and their two children flew away from the dirt and grime of New Delhi to celebrate the birthday of her husband at a five star hotel that overlooks the world famous lake. It was a private visit and even state Congress leaders were not given access to the family whose only social engagement was a lunch hosted by chief minister Omar Abdullah at the Dachigam National Park.

Priyanka’s was the first private visit by a Gandhi family member in almost a quarter century. Indira Gandhi was a frequent visitor to Kashmir as was Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri, who grew up in Allahabad, but went back as often as he could. Rajiv had made a couple of visits in an official capacity or to campaign during elections as has Rahul who campaigned during the last elections. Now that Sonia is on her way, Omar Abdullah should take a leaf out of Narendra Modi’s book. If Amitabh Bachchan can be persuaded to become brand ambassador for Gujarat Tourism, why not Sonia for Kashmir?

AS A community, Sindhis account for less than 0.3 per cent of India’s population. It is, thus, surprising to see everyone from President Pratibha Patil to the UPA chairperson lining up to woo such a negligible vote bank. Late April, Patil released a postal stamp to honour Kanwar Ram Sahiba, a leader of the Sindhi community, at a function at the Rashtrapati Bhavan where L. K. Advani was also present.

The function was held at the Durbar Hall, usually reserved for major events such as cabinet swearing in. In a break from protocol, the President also asked Advani to speak. Advani sought hard to make some connection between Ram Sahiba and the Lotus, which of course is the symbol of the BJP. Today, Sonia Gandhi is being felicitated by a delegation of Sindhis after which she will host a dinner for them. Sonia is, of course, a politician and needs to keep everyone on her side. But what explains President Patil’s overdrive to woo the community? Someone in the know tells me that in Maharashtra’s Amravati constituency which Patil once represented and is now held by her son Rajendra Shekhawat, Sindhis account for over 60,000 voters.

Considering that Shekhawat won the last election only after a recount, the President’s eagerness to keep Sindhis happy is understandable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, May 23, 2010

Talking on Seedhi Baat, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh says Naxals are frustated and therefore targetting civilians. He talks about the Naxalite problem in the state, the need for a coordinated action against the Naxals and full cooperation with the Centre in tackling the menace, and future plans with respect to development in the state.

Interview with Raman Singh, CM, Chattisgarh

(Aajtak, May 23, 2010)

Q. You were identified with development, but for the last few months a lot of bloodbath is taking place in Chhattisgarh and now this is the only point left for talking to you.
A. Since 1970s we have been campaigning against the Naxals. Such big incidents take place when their strongholds are targeted. Now out of despair, they are targeting common people.

Q. The Naxal activities have been on the rise in the last two months. If the people are with you, how are they successfully launching attacks? Do you suspect some mole somewhere?
A. The people are with us and that is why we got elected. But some people are made to go along with them out of terror and fright. Almost 98 per cent people of Bastar are with us. We have launched very successful campaigns against the Naxals in the last six months and now they are reacting. The incidents of past two months took place because of this only. We need to work out a good strategy and achieve success in the coming days.

Q. Seems like your intelligence and government are losing grip somehow.
A. Information network certainly requires to be strengthened. The more information we will have, the better will be our performance. Previously they were waging guerrilla war and now are resorting to mobile war. When we put pressure on them, they flee to other states. The objective of their attacks is to demoralise the police, public and the state. But the way we are moving ahead, we will be in a better position. In the last two years also we have performed better.

Q. Andhra Pradesh has pushed the Naxals towards your state. They had prepared a system. Why could not you develop any system in the last six to seven years?
A. I had a very thin police force. Around 54 police personnel are required for an area of 100 sq km and I had only 17. The police posts are sparsely located. Where there were police stations, there was no wall, no seating arrangement. Between 2003 and 2010, we have inducted 22,000 personnel into the police force. We have set up the Guerrilla Warfare College in Kanker along with several police stations and police posts across the state. The budget for policing has been increased from Rs 270 crore to Rs 1,100-1,200 crore. The new force which is being raised is fully prepared to take the guerrilla war.

Q. Sometimes the Centre and the state seem united and sometimes it seems that you people are more interested in taking on each other than fighting the Naxals.
A. Eight states and 160 districts are infested with Naxal violence. On pressure from one side, they move to the other side. The Central and the state governments will have to work together on an assorted work plan, leaving no space for the Naxals to flee and hide. The experts should put up a plan; there should be a long-term strategy and we should work on that. That is the only way to success.

Q. What are the fallacies of the Home Ministry policy towards your state? What could they have possibly done, but have not done? Your party is attacking Home Minister P. Chidambaram.
A. On this issue, there are no differences with Chidambaram or with the prime minister. What we have told the Centre is that you help us prepare to work according to the strategy. Neither Raman Singh nor his party disagrees with the line taken by the home minister.

Q. Why the BJP is attacking the home minister? What does it expect him to do?
A. The BJP is simply saying that it is improper for different people in the Congress to speak in different voices. The strategy must be clear and must come to the fore of the country. I have had one-and-a-half years of experience of working with the home minister. He is taking along all the states and working according to a planned strategy with better coordination. I have no complaints against him.

Q. But Digvijay Singh repeatedly challenges you for a debate.
A. If he has some formula, then why doesn’t he go to the prime minister or home minister and tell them? If he has some suggestions to make, he should not put it in the media but should offer them to the prime minister and the home minister. Aren’t they listening to him? I am not against talking to Naxals, but it is possible only when they drop the gun and talk of ballet. I am always prepared for debates, but this is not an issue of debate. It is an issue of democracy and if he has any suggestion, he should put it forward.

Q. Why are your good deeds not highlighted? There are repeated charges against you that you have links with the mining lobbies?
A. A continuous charge against us in Delhi is that we are campaigning against the Naxals to let the multi-national corporations enter Bastar. I want to make it clear that no multi-national corporation is mining in Bastar. Entire mining is being done by the public sector companies only.

Q. So, Bastar was excluded from your model of development thereby allowing the Naxals to get an upper hand.
A. My grievance is that the Naxals, who destroy the roads, hinder the development, blow bridges, demolish schools and hospitals, are compelling Bastar to live in the 18th century.

Q. What is the solution: bullet or negotiations?
A. The police force should be allowed to work effectively and the doors for negotiations should be kept open.


Q. People say that the home minister has been a failure in tackling the Naxal menace. Should he resign?
A. Resignation is not the solution of the problem.

Q. Had you been the prime minister or the home minister, how you would have dealt with the problem?
A. I would have established better coordination among the state governments and would have worked swifter on the advice of security experts.

Q. How much time will it take to solve the Naxal menace?
A. The country is facing this for the last 40 years. If we work according to a plan in a better way, we can get good results in five to 10 years.

Q. Don’t you or your family fear for safety?
A. We too face the danger. But we carry the faith of 2.1 crore people of Chhattisgarh along with us. This is the source of our strength.

Q. What do you aspire for?
A. I want Chhattisgarh to be the first among the most developed states of the country.

Q. Are you too a claimant for the prime ministership from your party?
A. I have never been a claimant for any post. Whatever responsibility the organisation will entrust with me, I will be totally prepared for that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, May 17, 2010

I AM not the betting kind, but if for a change, I were to indulge in it, I’d put some money on the next bizarre thing that could happen in the BJP. I have come to this conclusion after watching over the past few months, a series of extraordinary happenings in the main Opposition party. It’s been six months since Nitin Gadkari took over as the party president and promised to take the BJP back to its glory days. As an outsider from Nagpur, he was said to be the most qualified man for the job, unbeholden to any faction and uncorrupted by the dirty intra-party fights that frequently erupted in the Central office. Gadkari was seen as the party’s best — and last bet. Has the chance slipped by already?

All pointers suggest yes. Two months ago, Gadkari appointed a new team of 121 office-bearers that included 13 vicepresidents, 10 general secretaries 15 secretaries and a treasurer. Barring the last, no one still has a clue what he is supposed to do since there has been no allocation of work. Many states, including crucial ones such as Bihar are going to polls in the next few months, but there is no central election committee in place yet. Normally, the presidents of state units are elected before the national president is chosen, but here we have seen the reverse happening. And Gadkari’s choice of party chiefs for the Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh units don’t exactly inspire confidence among the rank and file.

Delhi was once the BJP’s pocketborough but after three successive defeats to Sheila Dikshit, the party seems to have lost the will to fight. What else could explain the elevation of little known Vijender Gupta as the Delhi BJP chief? His only claim to fame is that he was trounced by Kapil Sibal in the Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, not even hardcore Gadkari fans think that Surya Pratap Shahi in Uttar Pradesh and Prabhat Jha in Madhya Pradesh are the panacea for the party’s ills in the two big states.

In Bihar, the tussle between warring factions ended with C.P. Thakur being appointed party chief. He appears to be the best choice, but the likes of deputy chief minister Sushil Modi and Rajiv Pratap Rudy are said to be raising the banner of revolt. The party’s daily flip-flops in Jharkhand would have been comical if the matter weren’t so serious.

Gadkari was tasked with discovering the Advanis, Modis, Shekhawats, Mahajans and Uma Bharatis of the future. Instead BJP cadres are livid that Gadkari is persisting with the Brahminical hierarchy in the party both at the Centre and in the states.

One of Gadkari’s first pronouncements after being elected to office late last year was that he won’t allow himself to be remote controlled. Yet that is precisely what is happening. The oligarchy that’s held the party in a vise- like grip for the past 20 years continues to call the shots, knowing that Gadkari is yet to negotiate his way through the bad, bad ways of New Delhi politics. With the main opposition too busy fighting its own internal battles, it has no time to take on the government.

Is it any wonder that the government takes demands from its allies and other supporters more seriously? Contrast this with the Yadav combine. With 25 MPs, Mulayam and Lalu command the support of just about a fifth of the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha.

Yet it is the two Yadavs who seem to dictate the agenda and with whom the government chooses to enter into dialogue and discussions. All decisions taken in the recent past seem aimed at placating the voluble Yadavs. When they protested against the women’s reservation Bill, the government chose to put it on the back- burner after getting it passed in the Rajya Sabha.

When the Right and the Left joined hands to move cut motions on the finance Bill, the government quietly weaned the SP and the RJD away and got the motions defeated. Subsequently, the two supported the government on the nuclear liability Bill.

Led by two highly individualistic and egoistic leaders, the parties united on a mission and found a slogan. The BJP has neither. Its leaders are happy flitting from one TV studio to another to run the government down when they should have been doing the job in Parliament. The party which once took the lead in setting the tone for debate, it seems, is yet to recover from the debris of back to back electoral debacles. With an Opposition such as this, who needs allies?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Snippets / Mail Today, May 17, 2010

Ministers’ scramble for the RS
WITH THE Election Commission announcing June 11 as the date for elections to fill 57 Rajya Sabha seats, time is running out for some high profile ministers who may start to feel the employment pinch. Anand Sharma’s term in the Rajya Sabha has already ended and those of Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh are ending by July.

Accommodating three Union ministers is a huge task for the Congress. Last week, when a senior Union minister from Tamil Nadu met Sonia Gandhi, she gave a clear hint that only loyal workers will be sent to the Rajya Sabha." You can suggest, and I welcome it, but please do not insist that A, B or C should be accommodated or X, Y and Z should be kept out" was Sonia’s blunt reply to the minister.

It’s almost certain that Soni will get one of the two seats that are up for grabs in Punjab but ensuring seats for Jairam and Anand is going be to a tough task for the Congress leadership. The two are as different as chalk and cheese. Jairam talks and talks and talks, while Anand maintains a low profile while quietly going about his job. In the latter's case, the Congress is now said to be exploring options in Rajasthan since in Haryana, which was also looked at as an option, Congress MLAs don’t seem to be very eager. It is after a long time that state legislators are openly defying the authority of the high command to make known their preferences for the Rajya Sabha.

These are the first signs that the AICC is losing its grip over the state units. The Andhra Congress is dead set against renominating Jairam and one of the reasons is said to be that he showed disrespect by not turning up for the funeral of the late chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy. All Reddy MLAs, it is being said, will skip the voting on June 11.

Chief minister K. Rosaiah, who is just about settling in office after months of initial turmoil may find himself running into turbulence again.

Who is afraid of the big bad press conference?
SO MANMOHAN Singh has finally decided to go public, even if it means getting damned. Next Monday, the Prime Minister will address what is only his second formal press conference is six years. Normally, the news would have followed his press conference, but the very fact that the announcement of the event itself was considered breaking news by TV channels says a lot about our democracy. We elect our politicians to work for us and they cannot claim to be private citizens and ask to be left alone, however unpopular a government may be.
And Manmohan is not an unpopular ruler like, say, George W. Bush. Yet, even as his ratings plummeted after Iraq, Bush did not avoid the press and kept his monthly date with the media. Contrast this with our prime ministers. All of them, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was among the most popular prime ministers, kept the press at arm’s length. Ironically, it was Indira Gandhi whose contempt for the press was legendary, who regularly met the press.

Like millions of Indians, the media too rejoiced when she was voted out in the 1977 elections and after her triumphant return in 1980, she was widely expected to shun the press. But she chose to settle scores not by avoiding the press, but by inviting and then humiliating them. I had a taste of this once when I once accompanied Suman Dubey, then India Today managing editor and Sumit Mitra, Special Correspondent to attend one of her news conferences. Mitra asked her: " Madam, how do you assess the performance of your ( Congress) general secretaries?" She assumed that the question was specifically about Rajiv Gandhi who had just completed a year as a party GenSec.

You could see the rage in her eyes as she ordered us out of the hall. Manmohan is too gentle a soul to act in a similar fashion. But considering the smoke shrouding several controversial decisions of his government, the Prime Minister should seize the opportunity and try to clear the air.
THERE was a time when the only portraits hung in ministerial chambers in Lutyens’ Delhi were those of the President and the Prime Minister. But times have changed and where once a minister served in the cabinet at the pleasure of the prime minister, in today's coalition set up, it is no more the PM's prerogative to pick his cabinet colleagues. They are imposed on the prime minister chosen by regional chieftains whose support is necessary to prop up the government. The changed power equations are reflected on the walls of ministerial rooms. The rooms of DMK ministers have photographs of poet saint Thiruvalluvar and Karunanidhi. In the office room of S. S. Palanimanickam, there is a huge photo of Murasoli Maran with the words Ennude Gurunathan ( My Guru) inscribed and I am told that on entering his office, the minister actually stands in front of the portrait with folded hands for two minutes before taking his seat. The whole of Bengal may be celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of the state's most famous son Rabindranath Tagore, but for the Trinamool Congress ministers, the presiding deity is Didi. G. K. Vasan has one huge picture of Sonia Gandhi and one of his late father, G. K. Moopanar. Jairam Ramesh’s theme is his portfolio, Environment, so there are lots of pictures of animals, mountains — and even a volcano.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, May 16, 2010

26/11 case was a challenge: Nikam

Special Public Prosecutor for 26/11 case Ujjwal Nikam on the show Seedhi Baat says that his motive was to bring out the truth before the court.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Power and Politics/ Mail Today, May10, 2010

ONE MORE Parliament session has ended and once again it is time for the aam aadmi to wonder if they have wasted their time and energy queuing up to vote for a bunch of representatives whose behavior can, at best, be termed as irresponsible.

Of all the sessions, the budget session is the most important one where the government seriously seeks to take the opposition along to have as much business transacted as possible.

I have been indulging in Parliament gazing for over 35 years and I have reason to believe that current session which began on February 22 and ended last Friday has set many records and created many unhealthy political practices. In saying this, I am merely quoting the presiding officers of the two houses and this is what they said in their valedictory speeches: The Vice- President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari said that one “ cannot avoid the impression that much time was lost in disruptions and adjournments.

… The trends in the conduct of business have invited adverse comments and lowered the image of the legislature in the eyes of the public”. In the lower house, Speaker Meira Kumar was no less scathing while advocating sweeping reforms, including the shifting the question hour, and vowed to talk to all party leaders to “ save the honour of the house.” Their angst isn’t misplaced. According to one study, while the First Lok Sabha devoted 49 percent of its time to legislative business, the 14th Lok sabha devoted less than 25 percent. The study also shows that while in 2000, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha met for 5.5 and 4.4 hours respectively every day, it had come down to 4.3 and 3.3 hours by the end of 2007. The stats of the current 15th Lok Sabha, I am sure, will paint an even more dismal picture.

When you consider that each minute of Parliament costs the exchequer over Rs 26,000, it is obvious that our Parliamentary democracy comes with a hefty price tag.

The aam aadmi who send MPs to parliament face serious difficulties in their everyday life: rising prices, deteriorating law and order, the menace of Maoism and terrorism and many more. But what do our politicians do? They cut deals so that everyone lives and lets live. All political parties including the ruling Congress struck and broke alliances to score brownie points at the cost of important legislation. For them, disrupting the proceedings of the house to seek an apology for an inadvertent remark was more important than discussing important bills that have serious ramifications.

There is a decline in the seriousness with which legislative business is conducted in both houses and many bills are rushed through without any discussion Hamid Ansari whatsoever. Even the annual budget was passed this time without much discussion. The far- reaching Prevention of Torture Bill was adopted by the Lok Sabha last Thursday with only 25 of the 543 MPs present. Other important bills like Women’s Reservation and Nuclear Liability were introduced with much fanfare to be withdrawn later.

To give credit where due, it must be said that the government has weathered the parliamentary storm in a much easier way than expected. The budget session began with the entire Opposition joining forces to corner the government on a whole slew of issues from price rise and fertiliser subsidy removal to the civil nuclear liability bill. It ended with the Opposition in disarray and the government crossing many milestones: successfully introducing the nuclear bill which will now be considered by the standing committee on energy; dividing the opposition on the caste based census as one section broke ranks and lavished praise on the regime. Be it the cut motion on the finance bill, women’s reservation, nuclear liability, the foreign universities bill and so many more, the government has struck private deals with sections of the opposition to ensure its victory.

But I fear such deal making is going to come with a heavy price tag. Parliament is losing its relevance as a body meant for creating consensus on national issues. Worse, as the old entrenched leaders dominate the front rows and continue playing the game of caste and community politics, the young are confined to the backbenches to play second fiddle. Once upon a time, the backbench strength of the major parties was such that titans like Madhu Limaye, Piloo Mody, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chandrashekar, Jyotirmoy Basu, Indrajit Gupta, emerged. We are more likely to see political pygmies in future.

Snippets / Mail Today, May 10, 2010

Curious ‘ illness’ of absent MPs
MORE ON Parliament. There is much that is going wrong and MPs absenteeism is only one of them. There are some who get elected and haven’t seen the inside of the House, others don’t attend sessions for weeks together. Technically, any member who remains absent for 60 days or more without permission forfeits his seat, but it is seldom that the Parliamentary Committee on Absence resorts to the harsh step. A cursory glance at the report submitted to the Lok Sabha speaker by the Committee on Absence makes for interesting reading. While applying for leave, MPs have to detail the number of days for which leave is being sought and the reasons. Shibu Soren who never attended a sitting said he was ill while seeking leave from November 19, 2009 to December 12, 2009 and again from Feb 22, 2010 to March 23, 2010.

But he continued with his duties as the Jharkand chief minister in Ranchi and turned up in the Lok Sabha to bail out the government on the finance bill cut motion. As with most things about Soren, this too was bizarre as he was an ally of the BJP in Jharkand. He was granted leave for a total of 56 days. K Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti applied for leave from Nov 19,2009 to Dec 21, 2009 and then again from Feb 22, 2010 to March 16,2010, a total of 56 days.

His application clearly stated that he was on a hunger strike for a separate state of Telengana and the CoA agreed to give him leave. Soren’s party colleague Kameshwar Baitha was in jail for 33 days, leave granted. Kabir Suman ( Trinamool) claimed illness to take 20 days off but during the period, newspapers reported extensively on the Maoist sympathiser’s public activities. Neither sarkari babus nor even school children would have had it so easy.

The return of the prodigal minister
IS THE irrepressible Alagiri turning over a new leaf? It’s not just the DMK leaders, but even other MPs seem to think so and the evidence is plenty. It now transpires that after Alagiri raised the banner of revolt by vowing to contest for the post of Chief Minister and president of the DMK once his father calls it a day, M Karunanidhi decided to crack the whip and a disciplinary notice was even drafted.

Alagiri got wind of this and knew that if the party suspended him, DMK MPs and MLAs who swore by him would desert him, making younger brother MK Stalin, the undisputed successor. Big brother was convinced that the succession battle would be fought on a level playing field only if stayed within the party.

Besides, the booty from the highly lucrative ministries that are in his charge would also come in handy to fight the cash rich Stalin. Once his aides tipped him off on disciplinary action, Alagiri flew into Delhi from Madurai, attended a cabinet meeting, sat through an entire day's proceedings in the Lok Sabha and even began attending office for three hours every day.
He also seems to be taking rapid English lessons because the man who spoke nothing but his native Tamil is suddenly talking, even if in monosyllables sometimes, in English. But what surely takes the vada is this: in front of many MPs in Central Hall last week, he called to one of the canteen bearers and asked him " Aaj Kya Kya Hein Menu Mein?" Even as those around him wondered how he had overnight managed to master the national language, Alagiri pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and held it aloft for everyone to see the question in Hindi written in the Tamil script.
There were chuckles all around which turned into loud laughter when one of the MPs remarked that even national leaders routinely read out Hindi speeches written in the Roman script.

LATE last year, Cabinet Sectretary KM Chandrashekhar who is quite net savvy and an ardent votary of e- governance sent memos to secretaries of all departments about the pathetic quality of the government websites. They were pathetic in terms of design, accessibility, quality and currency of content, all of which were compounded by the obsolete technology that was used. “ Today, websites are considered the virtual face of the Department in cyber space… and must accurately reflect the Department's activities and initiatives in the real world as well as offer more and more services online” his note said and asked all department Secretaries to nominate senior officers at Additional Secretary or Joint Secretary level who would ensure up- to- date and high quality content on the websites as well as ensure timely response on queries received through websites.

He has now gone a step further and has decided to give incentives to the ministries/ departments than maintain the best websites. The National Informatics Centre maintains more than 450 websites relating to virtually any government department or organisation and a new software developed by NIC translates all contents into about 85 foreign languages. Prizes will be given away in November this year and the winner stands to gain a prize of one lakh rupees. As the prime minister very graciously put in recently, " e- tarakki" is a major achievement of both the NDA and UPA governments.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010



The Congress may have outplayed a divided Opposition in Parliament but the victory only highlights the paralysis of governance and time for Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to assert their political authority.
Was it the day of the Conquistador? When the Government survived the cut motions in Parliament, the upa masters were a study in political triumphalism. It was a victory built on the wreckage of the Opposition, and their smugness was partly justified by their ability to make best use of the divided enemy camp. It also gave them that much-needed adrenaline rush on the eve of the ruling coalition’s first anniversary. So, now that ipl nights are over, isn’t it the ideal time for the upa after-party? Imagine the hosts—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi—indulging their most important guests, among them such honourable worthies like Mayawati, Shibu Soren and Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose benevolent gestures made the Golden Tuesday possible. With such friends to count on in the time of acute political anxiety, the Government, headed by not your average politician but a global statesman in the making, can be sure of overcoming bigger existential crises.
The shallowness of the cut motion victory tells a sordid saga of opportunism, compromises, and a blatant repudiation of political morality. One look at the ladies and gentlemen who came forward to ensure the survival of the Manmohan Government will reveal the darker side of the victory—and the price they may have extracted from the Government. Or the moral price the upa may have paid for just being in power. For instance, Shibu Soren, and these two words stand for the worst instincts of Indian politics. The vote of the Jharkhand chief minister, an ally of the bjp in the state, and a man whose back story is a narrative in crime and punishment, alone will take the sheen out of the UPA victory.
Then there is the lady from Lucknow, who also happens to be the singular force that neutralises Rahul Gandhi’s admirable battle for regaining the dynasty’s karmabhoomi. Quite possibly unsolicited, she provided a lifeline to the Government. Would Delhi now dare to be ungracious to the magnanimous Mayawati? And what would be its effect on Rahul’s revival struggle in Uttar Pradesh? Maya is not the one who plays the game without a winning plan. She cannot, beyond a point, keep the Centre as a permanent antagonist, especially when she has the habit of getting embroiled in legal controversies. Manmohan may still aspire to be a stickler to political decencies but can he, or for that matter his party, rage against the transgressions of the autocrat in Lucknow with a clear conscience? Interesting days are ahead.
Equally dubious is the strategic absence of the foxy Yadavs—Mulayam and Lalu, both pillars of the Third Front and ‘victims’ of Congress’s highhandedness. It cannot be just the elasticity of secularism alone that has made them the friends of the Congress for a day. It may very well be the first instalment of a political investment which is certain to yield rich dividends in the future. Every vote that came from outside the upa—and every absence that benefited the Government—only brings out the politics of compromise that defines the Manmohan regime. Even the Congress’s cohabitation politics is sustained by the philosophy of mutually assured survival. All of them—whether it is the ncp, the tmc or the dmk—remain with the Congress because they badly need the spoils of power. They have never been taken into confidence; they have only been informed about major policies of the Government. And the Government rarely misses an opportunity to “defang” or “tame” the ally, the best example being the containment of ncp in the wake of the ipl controversy, or the cbi raid on the telecom ministry, which is headed by a dmk leader. The result: allies may vote with the Congress but they are not working with the Government in harmony. It is just the arithmetic of survival that keeps them together, not ideology or ideas of governance.
Inevitably, the real casualty of the politics of submission and survival is governance itself. If we are into legislative deep freeze, it is a direct consequence of the upa’s inability to make use of its mandate. The much-trumpeted Women’s Reservation Bill, prematurely celebrated as the Congress president’s ticket to history, is yet to be presented in the Lok Sabha, where the so-called male chauvinist Yadavs from the heartland are dreading its arrival. Looks like it may not reach there at all, and the commitment to gender justice is likely to be replaced by vintage Congressism: pragmatism at the cost of principle. Also, what about the controversial Nuclear Liability Bill, or the Foreign Universities Bill, both in a way dealing with subjects closer to the prime minister’s heart? I can go on listing stalled bills and each case shows paralysis of governance. The Government has no courage—or the conviction—to take the risk. It has even failed miserably to take advantage of a divided Opposition and implement its pet agendas. Sonia Gandhi may be back at the National Advisory Council, but no members have been appointed yet because of the conflicting claims of the social groups within the ruling establishment.
It is a failure incompatible with the mandate, and sadly, it is all happening in the first year of upa-ii. In the traditional five stages of power, the first is devoted to unveiling the road map, the second to delivery, the third to consolidation, the fourth to concession, and the fifth to election. The upa in its first year is doing what usually is being done in the fourth. Ideally, on the eve of its first anniversary, the Government should be spelling out its vision. After all, the upa retained power with a definitive victory, and the Congress is hoping to get absolute majority in 2014. And the current parliamentary matrix is such that there is the near impossibility of a non-Congress Government. The victory margin in the cut motion (289-201) itself proves how numerically strong the upa is. Still, at a time when it should be playing out the romance of renewal, the Manmohan Government looks tired and tiring, spent, as if every moment is caught between the limits of freedom and the demands of power.
In the end, it all boils down to leadership. Sonia needs to take a refresher course in the ways of the original Mrs G, one smart leader who realised the uses of adversity in politics. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to play Dr Moderation with a bit more political savvy. He should reach out to the Opposition on issues of national interest. Their credibility is still better than any other leader on the Opposition benches. They could be a formidable duo, and they could very well be the co-authors of the second golden phase in the life of India’s Grand Old Party. For that to happen, they have to first abandon the self-defeating politics of confrontation and compromise—and carry on with the agenda of reform.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal speaks about education reforms being pursued by the UPA Government, the recent Cobalt-60 disaster, the slew of bills to be introduced in Parliament and their impact, and the challenges that lie ahead. Excerpts:

Q. You are the first education minister who doesn't pursue a political agenda, but an agenda of reforms. But deliverance is not as much as much it should have been?

A. I think whatever has been achieved so far is our agenda and it needs to be carried forward. I don't think it could have been more rapid.

Q. So far, this good work is only on paper. Are there problems in implementation?

A. Yes, implementation is difficult as long as laws are pending, order is not established and the environment is not conducive. We have created the necessary environment, implemented certain things instantly, for example doing away with Class X board examinations. We have passed the Right to Education Bill, but to implement it, everyone will have to come along.
Q. Problems appear unexpectedly as you proceed ahead. For example, had you even thought that Cobalt-60 would be traced to Delhi University?

A. As far as Cobalt-60 is concerned, we have given autonomy to our universities. The Government doesn't ask them about stray radioactive materials. The universities will have to look after the security aspects themselves. Now, since this tragedy has taken place, we have asked the University Grants Commission (UGC) to frame guidelines. The measures suggested by the UGC shall be binding on all the universities. This tragedy was caused by Cobalt-60; someday something else might cause similar tragedy. Universities are flush with money, researches are undertaken and several types of chemicals are bought by them. Secondly, we are also inquiring about different rules being followed by different ministries. I think every thing will be in order in few months.
Q. Were you aware that the university had auctioned the machine on its own and has now put it in a room under lock?

A. This is a very serious matter. There are certain rules associated with nuclear energy and they should have known it. It should not have been kept in a room. It should have been buried underground. The vice-chancellor has started an inquiry; we shall take stringent action as soon as the report is out. Q. What is your take on Mayawati's announcement to accept 45 instead of 50 per cent marks as the minimum eligibility to sit for the B.Ed. entrance test?

A. This is a matter of grave concern. If we are to take education to a higher plateau, the standards will have to be followed very strictly. Once we have said that 50 per cent marks are required to appear in the B.Ed. entrance test, it is not fair that some states reduce the qualifying marks to 45 per cent. This must be annulled. Those who get their degrees would not get good jobs, and even if they do, the jobs will be negated in the courts.
Q. There should have been one common entrance test, isn't it? Or each state takes a separate test?

A. Each state takes a separate test, but national standards apply to all of them. A similar situation had emerged in West Bengal few years ago; they too had done quite a lot of staffing in the same manner. Those recruitments are a problem now. But total solution has not yet been achieved. If the same is repeated in Uttar Pradesh, it will lead to a big conundrum. Mayawati's announcement doesn't conform to the law.
Q. Education is in the Concurrent List and so both the Central and the state governments can take a decision. Can there be dispute over it?

A. No, disputes don't generally occur. For example, since the Right to Education Bill has been passed by Parliament, it will supersede the state laws. In case of any dispute, the central act will be binding.
Q. People say that though the Right to Education seems very brawny on paper, there will be problems in its implementation.

A. It is not possible to put the onus of ground implementation on the Central government. The state, guardians and panchayats too have an important role in it. They will have to fulfill their social responsibilities. This bill requires every school to provide basic infrastructure, or else face closure. We have taken strong measures to see that the bill is implemented.
Q. Education still doesn't have the status of industry in India. Shouldn't it get it now? Do the governments, the state and the Central, have some role in deciding the fee structure in educational institutes?

A. Education should be granted the status of industry. The Central Government doesn't decide on the fee, the state government does it. This structure has to be changed. Wait for three-four months to see how it happens.
Q. You are bringing foreign universities to India for better education, but people are still opposing you and that too when so many Indian students go abroad for higher education.
A. We have to change it. Now foreign people will have to be brought to India and this would be possible only when we can provide education of international standard here. We are going to present four bills in Parliament to this effect which will be consequently referred to the standing committee. We are planning to introduce the Education Tribunal Bill and the Educational Misconduct Bill. We will also establish a national certification authority to check poor quality institutes. The fourth bill is related to the foreign education, the Foreign Educational Institutions (regulation of entry and operations) Bill.
Q. Education in India has had a leftist leaning. Why is it so?

A. We have changed it all. We want the mode of appointment of the vice-chancellor to be changed, with no interference from the government. The government would not interfere even in the certifying committee and agency. I promise the people of India that education of high standards shall be made available to them. New central universities and IITs are coming up.
Q. Like others, you also seem to be depending a lot on star power. Or else why did you appoint Aamir Khan as the brand ambassador for sanitation to promote cleanliness schools?

A. We wanted an inspiring leader to be the brand ambassador so we decided on Aamir.
Five sharp questions:
Q. Would you forcefully enforce a 25 per cent quota within the Right to Education Bill?
A. Sure, we will.
Q. Would you allow people with 45 per cent marks to appear in the B.Ed. entrance test like Mayawati has suggested?
A. No, we would not.
Q. Would you advise Indian students to not to go to Australia?
A. No, because the Australian government is also changing the system.
Q. A change which you dream to bring?
A. To raise the gross enrolment ratio to 30 per cent from the present 12.4 per cent by 2020.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, May 02, 2010

Radiation leak is serious: Sibal

Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal on the show Seedhi Baat says after the radiation leak incident in Delhi he has asked the UGC to write letters to all the colleges about the safety norms.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4