Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 30,2010

THIS Friday marks the first death anniversary of Andhra Pradesh’s charismatic chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy. It will also mark one year of grandstanding by Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy, YSR’s 37- year- old son and Lok Sabha MP. A year ago, the Congress was faced with the prospects of a serious revolt in the ranks in Andhra Pradesh when Jagan staged serial dramas to stake his claim to succeed his father even before YSR’s last rites had been performed.

A year later, nothing has changed. If anything, Jagan has become more ambitious and more reckless. Now matters are set to reach a climax and don’t be surprised if a few months from now, Jagan is left with nothing but a severe hangover.

For a year now, the young man in a hurry has been indulging in activities that would have got anyone else the boot. He began by promoting YSR loyalist MLAs to ignore K. Rosaiah, the soft spoken 77- year- old new chief minister. Jagan instigated ministers, many of whom were YSR loyalists, to boycott cabinet meetings.

He also used his considerable money and media power to project himself as the only alternative. If all this were not enough to tax the Congress high command’s patience, the proverbial last straw was his decision to embark on the controversial “ Odarpu” ( remembrance) yatra across the state to commiserate with, and compensate, those who “ committed suicide” after YSR’s death.

He set out on the yatra ignoring even a plea from Sonia Gandhi. She had called him to Delhi and he met her accompanied by his mother and sister. She tried to dissuade him from the yatra and instead suggested that a function be held where family members of all those who took their lives be invited and handed compensation. A stubborn Jagan rejected her plea.

Worse, after the meeting which was supposedly private, he released a statement saying the yatra was an “ emotional” issue for his family. “ We explained to her ( Sonia) the need for the yatra to console the family members of those who died following the death of my father. She did not cite any specific reason but did not appear to be favourably inclined,” Jagan said in his statement.

The high command was livid. “ All loyal Congressmen must necessarily observe the party dharma and laxman rekha of propriety and party discipline,” party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, adding that the party would not hesitate to take a firm stand to crack down on indiscipline.

From the flurry of activity, both in the government and the party, it appears that this was no empty threat. The Congress K. Rosaiah may finally be readying to wield the axe. A recent secret note from an Andhra Congress MP, an ex- YSR groupie, to Sonia Gandhi recommends that the damage will be minimal and containable if action was taken against Jagan.

The note also says that far from being spontaneous, the yatra is a politically motivated gimmick where even grief is well choreographed.

Though the number of persons who committed suicide last year was said to run into hundreds, it appears now that it is considerably less, perhaps a few dozen. The MP’s note echoes the inputs that the Congress has got from state party chief, D. Srinivas.

Last Thursday, governor ESL Narasimhan flew to the Capital and met the Prime Minister.
Though the ostensible reason was to brief the Centre on developments relating to Telengana, the governor is understood to have given a lowdown on the Jagan factor.
This week, chief minister Rosaiah will also be in town. Jagan’s supporters say his yatra is aimed at strengthening the Congress in the manner that Rahul Gandhi’s yatras into the hinterlands have revitalised the party in areas where it had been written off.

They point out that it was a similar bicycle yatra that YSR undertook in 2004 that led to the Congress unseating the TDP in the assembly elections held that year.

Andhra Pradesh’s importance in the Congress’s scheme of things cannot be overstated. But for its 33 MPs, the UPA may not have come to power for a second consecutive term.
Its hopes of a repeat in 2014 depends to a large extent on how Andhra Pradesh votes.
The dilemma facing the Congress is: do we do it with or without Jagan. At the moment, only one thing is clear. Sonia Gandhi, who hasn’t lost an intra- party war since taking over as the Congress chief, is not likely to surrender to a greenhorn.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 29, 2010

Actor Rakhi Sawant says on the show Seedhi Baat that since top Bollywood actors have started featuring in TV shows, it's important for one to look different. She talks about her new show Rakhi Ka Insaf, her transition from an item girl to a counselor; her quest to get good and meaningful roles in Bollywood ….. her future plans as an artist and so on ….
आजतक के कार्यक्रम 'सीधी बात' में 'नीलपरी' बनकर आईं राखी सावंत ने कहा कि अलग दिखने के लिए सबको कुछ-न-कुछ नया करना पड़ता है, चाहे वे अमिताभ बच्‍चन ही क्‍यों न हों. उन्‍होंने फलसफा दोहराया, 'जो दिखता है, वही बिकता है'. चर्चा के दौरान 'बिग बी' पर टिप्‍पणी करते हुए राखी ने कहा कि अमिताभ बच्‍चन कोई गॉड नहीं हैं.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

RAHUL RISING / India Today, August 23, 2010

In the Indian political lore, the reluctant prince is an unusual character, an alluring anomaly amidst those who thrive in entitlements. His existential badge of I'm-not-ready-yet is all the more exceptional because he is the chosen one of India's oldest party whose evolutionary saga is inseparable from the fortunes of India's first family in politics. He is the heir to a political tradition that has put the supremacy of genealogy above ideology.
His bloodline is his ticket to power; his surname is his highest political qualification. Still, Rahul Gandhi is a profile in patience; his modesty is in conflict with his ancestral privileges. India, though, is impatient; it wants more of him. In the INDIA TODAY Mood of the Nation Poll, he gets the maximum votes as prime ministerial candidate.

It is not the enigma of the mother but the mystique of the son that is turning out to be the biggest political asset of the Congress. It is the psephological equivalent of matricide as Rahul dislodges Sonia to the third slot. (Not surprisingly, the popularity of Atal Bihari Vajpayee continues to be intact even though he has retired from public life.) The enormity of Rahul's popularity is further magnified by the shrinking acceptability of Manmohan Singh as prime minister. In public perception, Manmohan is nothing more than a dutiful figure of transition; and to be fair, the man has never had any exaggerated notion about himself as an overwhelming political presence. His fall is so drastic and certainly embarrassing for him in his sixth year as prime minister that there seems be a clear case of disconnect between the much marketed moderniser and the unforgiving Indian public. A loser even in urban India and in his home state of Punjab, Manmohan has been condemned to 13th position. Of the 21 per cent gain in Rahul's popularity, 17 comes from Manmohan's and two from Sonia. There is only one message: Brand Manmohan has already passed its use-by date and the voters want the family (read Rahul) back in power.

The political reality of a rising Rahul eroding the popularity of Sonia and Manmohan not only brings out the shifting axis of authority within the Congress. It also tells the changing dynamics of the dynasty. It is often said that too much sunshine should not be allowed to fall on the mystique, and Sonia Gandhi seems to have taken it literally. Despite being one of the most powerful politicians in the world, she is still not comfortable in the public eye. The Sonia enigma is born out of that cultivated aura of inaccessibility. The second Mrs G in the making has not obviously learnt the art of emotionally connecting with the masses from the original. It looks like the grandson has gained more from the family album.

That said, the rising Rahul marks a definitive shift from the family script. Most Gandhis before him were children of destiny. Indira was made the president of the party when she was 40 by Nehru; Rajiv's political career began in the glow of his mother's funeral pyre. And Sonia acquired her political legitimacy as the widow of an assassinated Gandhi. Rahul has created his own syllabus for his political graduation, and he has chosen Uttar Pradesh, the home state of his ancestry, as his karmabhoomi. His Discover-India picaresque has made him a favourite of both India and Bharat. And he has a voice of his own, distinctive and daring, and often at variance with the party's.

His patience is not in tune with the political zeitgeist, and six years of apprenticeship and still waiting for the right moment at the age of 40 can be mistaken for diffidence at a time when the president of the United States has just celebrated his 49th birthday, when the prime minister of the UK is only 43. For the Rahulites within the party, it is as if the crown prince is still passing through his political adolescence. As our survey shows, in India, where over 70 per cent of the electorate is below the age of 35, he is the ideal as well as the alternative. And tellingly, Rahul's rise is not matched by his party. For the young, he embodies the politics of change, though he has not proved his ability to win elections beyond Uttar Pradesh and we have not yet heard from him his vision for 21st century India, which is today waiting for Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi.
India is ready. Is he?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 23, 2010

ITS MANY achievements — and failures — notwithstanding, the Right to Information Act which came into effect during the early days of UPAI was truly a feather in the government’s cap. Yet, take a closer look now and you will see that just five years after the landmark legislation was enacted, the RTI is more a whimper and less the bang that the government promised.

The rot begins at the top. The provisions of the RTI Act are diluted or blatantly ignored to ensure that the political class doesn’t come under the scanner. The readiness of the government to reveal the assets of ministers seems to be inversely proportional to the public curiosity to know the same.

Here are the rules. The Code of Conduct for ministers says that a person, before taking office as a minister, shall “ disclose to the Prime Minister or the chief minister ( as the case may be) details of the assets and liabilities and business interests, of himself and members of his family”. Similar rules exist for MPs of both Houses. While contesting polls, candidates have to declare their assets before the Election Commission, the details of which are then made available on the commission’s website. Later, MPs file declarations to the presiding officers of the two Houses. These, too, can be accessed via the RTI route. But when it comes to ministers, the goalposts are shifted. I am told that most ministers regularly comply with the prime minister’s directive to file annual declarations, but for reasons unknown, the PMO doesn’t place these in Parliament.

Two weeks ago, as a result of an RTI query, the Lok Sabha secretariat wrote to the PMO to say that since ministers’ declarations are made directly to Prime Minister, “ it is felt that the instant reference is not required to be placed before the Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha”. A similar letter went to the PMO from the Rajya Sabha. Shorn of ‘ bureaucrat- ese’, what this means is that the presiding officers of the two houses are not privy to information about ministerial assets. It’s easy to guess why someone wants to hide something. The question is: Who?
Ask Wajahat Habibullah, who as the Central Information Commissioner is the custodian of RTI. He put the ball into Parliament’s court. There are more RTI applications on the subject of ministerial wealth than anything else, but RTI activists — the media, lawyers and public — spirited citizens are constantly being stonewalled by the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, both of which maintain that details of ministerial wealth are personal matters and therefore cannot be divulged. So much for transparency in government.

As if that weren’t bad enough, here is more proof to show that the RTI is as good as dead. Incredible as it may seem, the W. Habibullah R. PRASAD government has no idea of the number of people who enjoy the perks and comforts of ministerial office while not being ministers in the government. You’d think the CabSec will know, but ask and you will be told to knock on the doors of the Ministry of Home Affairs. India Today magazine filed an RTI in July 2009 seeking to know the number of such people and details of offices they held and their perks.

The CabSec forwarded the application to the ministry of home affairs ( MHA). The MHA in turn sent us a reply saying that “ the status of Union cabinet minister on a person, is processed by individual administrative ministries/ departments for approval of the Prime Minister directly. A centralised list is not maintained by this ministry. You may approach the individual ministries and departments in respect of organisations under their administrative control.”
Earlier this year, we tried our luck again. Once again, the Cab- Sec forwarded the application to MHA. Last month, the home ministry informed us: “... the status of union cabinet minister on a person, is processed by individual administrative ministries/ departments for approval of the Prime Minister directly. A centralised list is not maintained by this ministry.”
A year later, nothing changed, not even a comma. Well placed sources tell me that there are as many people enjoying ministerial perks as there are ministers in the Union council, which at last count was over 75. All of them are allotted bungalows in Lutyens Delhi, driven around town in official cars with a red beacon light and entitled to official staff of nine, whose salaries are paid by the government.

Considering that each MP costs the country nearly ` 40 lakh a year, the cost of these ministers- without- ministries can be imagined. That’s perhaps why the government exercises the Right to Conceal.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 22, 2010

Singers must experiment: Sonu

Talking on Seedhi Baat, Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam says that if singers try new and different things with music they can leave a legacy behind them.

बॉलीवुड के मशहूर गायक सोनू निगम ने आज तक के साप्‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में कहा कि मैं अब केवल क्‍वालिटी के गाने गाना चाहता हूं. सोनू निगम ने बताया कि अभी मेरी लता मंगेशकर के साथ एक गजल एलबम आने वाली है.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 16, 2010

THERE is only one thing worse than being remembered and that is not being remembered at all. This is a dilemma that President Pratibha Patil faces as she enters her fourth year in office. The record books will, of course, show she is the first woman president of the republic, though hers has been a rather unremarkable stint till now.

But it would appear from some of her recent engagements that she is keen to make a mark and is busy making up for lost time. According to a senior bureaucrat, far from being a rubber stamp, Patil is on her way to becoming an “ activist president”. And coming as she does from an agricultural background, it was just as well that she chose the subject of farming for a recent extensive brainstorming session with experts.

Last week, she summoned Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, Union food processing minister Subodh Kant Sahay, the agriculture ministers from Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana, the last represented by chief minister Bhupinder Hooda who holds the portfolio, besides 50- odd experts, a few dozen bureaucrats from the agriculture ministry and vice- chancellors of about 20 agriculture universities around the country, along with Dr M. S. Swaminathan, to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a “ colloquium on approach to sustainable farming in rain- fed areas”.
I know that is a mouthful, which many ministers from the states had difficulty comprehending. But the fact that the president frequently departed from her prepared text and made extempore remarks meant she knew what she was talking about. The brainstorming session that started around 5 pm went on till about 10 at night and at the dinner that followed, the president mingled with her guests where she is said to have touched on a whole range of subjects.

What makes Patil different from her predecessors is that despite spending a lifetime in politics, she lived in relative political obscurity until her election in 2007. She was a minister in the Maharashtra government but the media began to notice her only when some of her relatives began to indulge in activities that fall under the purview of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Sonia Gandhi is said to have zeroed in on her only after coalition partners of UPA- I failed to reach a consensus on anyone else. As such, she was neither expected to scale the heights nor plumb the depths that some of her predecessors had in the past 60 years.

There was the humble Rajendra Prasad, the first president. He was followed by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, scholar, philosopher and teacher. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed is best remembered for signing the Emergency proclamation, allegedly without bothering to even glance through the document, though ironically he was a lawyer by profession.

There was Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who lost to V. V. Giri in 1969 and came back eight years later to occupy the high office. There was also Giani Zail Singh who opened up the palace on Raisina Hill to the aam aadmi and whose backslapping ways with even visiting heads of state left mandarins in the foreign office red faced.

In between and since, there have been men of eminence who occupied the office and some who, amid all the pomp and ceremony, forgot the presidential script.

In more recent times, it was our good fortune to have APJ Abdul Kalam whose unconventional style led to him being dubbed the “ People’s President”. My most abiding memory of Kalam saab was when he arrived to address a conference organised by India Today magazine in 2004.

He came with a power point presentation, but somewhere along the way, crossed cables or whatever, the system malfunctioned. Before his ADC or the retinue from Rashtrapati Bhavan could react, Kalam saab was already on the podium floor, fixing the cables and I still remember the deafening applause from the vast gathering that greeted the president when the screen came alive.
President Patil is not as tech savvy as Kalam. But of late, in between hosting visiting presidents and releasing the occasional postage stamp, she has been taking serious interest in subjects ranging from judicial reforms to development of the north- eastern states.

Her sudden interest in all things has set tongues wagging and her adversaries are spreading word that she is aiming for another term.

If that happens, she won’t be just India’s first woman president but also first since Rajendra Prasad in 1950 to serve a second consecutive term.

Wait two years to know.

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 15, 2010

Actor Aamir Khan speak on the show Seedhi Baat, about Peepli Live, his successful production house and his unique market strategies.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, August 09, 2010

MAKING political predictions is a difficult task. Ask the psephologists. The task gets even tougher should you be brave or foolish enough to predict the moves of the Gandhi family.

Last week, in Parliament and the corridors of power, inside TV studios and in newsrooms across the country, one question was being hotly debated by politicians, journalists, opinion makers and those who like to be known as just analysts: Why were the Gandhis keeping a stoic silence when the government was being hauled over the coals by the Opposition which suddenly seems to have discovered a spring in its step? While the Prime Minister and his A- team were under fire for multiple failures on the price front, Kashmir, Naxalism and now the Commonwealth Games fiasco, both Sonia and Rahul were nowhere to be seen. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refrained from making a symbolic intervention. The Gen Next, once the Congress’s in- house shoutdown- the- enemy brigade, kept a low profile while the UPA ministers and AICC functionaries, rather than taking on the Opposition, were busy settling scores with each other.

A brief interaction with the ruling party’s many Mr Know- alls in the central hall of Parliament last week has now convinced me that the Gandhis are aiming to make drastic changes both in the government and the party establishment. The dilemma that faces them is: How to wield the axe without spilling much blood.

The exercise is expected to start next month with the re- election of Sonia as the Congress President, a mere formality. She would then become the first Congress leader to hold the post for over a decade without a break. After Indira, Sonia remains the only Congress leader in more than four decades to steer the party to a second consecutive victory in the general elections.

In the party, she shares with Rahul, now the most popular leader in the Congress if not the country, a veto power that no other Congress functionary has. I understand that they are giving finishing touches and waiting for Parliament’s monsoon session to get over to effect a massive shake up aimed at revitalising the party and the government.

The objective is clear: Four years from now, the Congress must win a majority on its own. To raise its current tally from the current 206 to 272 plus, the party has no option but to concentrate on Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka and choose leaders who can make a difference.

Manmohan Singh Experience has taught the leadership that it is not the performance but a perfect connect with the local leaders and voters that is vital to ensure victory. At the moment, there is an utter lack of compatibility between high- profile ministers and senior party functionaries.

Party leaders have for long lamented that, with the disconnect that exists between the government and the organisation, it is difficult for the latter to carry the message across to the grassroots. I am told some of the senior ministers who command respect may be moved over to the organisation with a view to make Congress ministers accountable to the party. Armchair strategists who wax eloquent at seminars and TV debates may have to give way to those with a readiness to face the heat and dust and take the rough and tumble of Bharat.

So far, Rahul has studiously stayed away from the politics of the parent organisation even as he energised the Youth Congress to make it a parallel power centre.

The genuine competitive elections for Youth Congress officebearers that were held across the country at Rahul’s directions were, in reality, talent scouting exercises that brought thousands of new workers into the party’s fold and threw up hundreds of hugely talented men and woman who have both the drive and vision.

While a shake- up in the party was never expected to pose much of a problem, getting rid of the many non- performing ministers was not that easy. Plans earlier for a purge of the old order were met with stiff resistance from the well entrenched. This time, they may not have an option. Congressmen in general know that they have a lot of broken promises to keep. But it is perhaps only Rahul who acknowledges that it is probably the last chance to convince voters that they are worthy leaders ahead of 2014.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 08, 2010

बार-बार 'डॉन' का रोल नहीं करूंगा: इमरान हाशमी

हाल ही में प्रदर्शित हुई फिल्‍म 'वन्‍स अपॉन ए टाईम इन मुंबई' में एक डॉन की भूमिका निभाने वाले बॉलीवुड अभिनेता इमरान हाशमी ने आज तक के साप्‍‍ताहिक कार्यक्रम सीधी बात में कहा कि मैं ट्रेंड के मुताबिक चलता हूं. एक सवाल के जवाब में उन्‍होंने कहा कि मैं बार-बार डॉन का किरदार नहीं निभाउंगा.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Seedhi Baat / Aajtak, August 01, 2010

Balika Vadhu fame Avika Gor, on the show Seedhi Baat, says she aspires to become Miss Universe as she is interested in modelling and wants to do something for India.