Monday, November 25, 2013

Muscled with dosh from India Inc, ....Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/November 24, 2013

Muscled with dosh from India Inc, poll industry yields richest dividends in the game

Surviving in politics without black money is like Dionysius living without wine. As the electoral glove game of 2014 gets dirty and malodorous, not a single player involved is extemporising on cleansing electoral economics. Last week, when a portal carried a sting operation on some Aam Aadmi Party candidates, the outfit smelt political vengeance. Stung by AAP’s growing acceptability, its opponents struck back and accused it of double standards by using unaccounted money. In the sadistic political slanging match between parties, the role of money power in elections became toast. From PM Manmohan Singh to aspiring PM Narendra Modi, not one leader spoke about bringing financial transparency into election funding. Even the vociferous and sanctimonious Election Commission achieved Zen by the monotonous repetition of its decade-old representations to the government. An analysis of over 100 speeches made by the PM, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Modi and the CMs of election-bound states generates revealing revelations. The use of bad money coming from ugly sources wasn’t an issue. All parties are competing with one another in a decadent display of money power with choreographed rallies and fancy stages. According to an estimate by a corporate, Croesus, who ponies up poll funds to all leading parties, it would cost candidates in the coming state elections over Rs. 2,000 crore to fight for the 650 Assembly seats. While the upper spending limit set by EC for an Assembly election is just Rs. 35 lakh per candidate, it would cost each aspirant at least Rs. 1 lakh a day to cover his constituency during a month-long campaign. If the details of collections given to EC are any indication, it’s a record of parties being Shylockian with the truth. Together, all candidates spend over Rs. 25,000 crore every five years to win or lose. With the political-business nexus becoming stronger and blatantly visible, all talk of transparency in election spending is perceived as naff.

Since most parties have refused to come under the RTI Act, it is clear that they have more to hide than to reveal about the dubious sources of their funds. Not a single CM has made a feeble attempt to promise that his or her party would accept political donations only by cheque. Even the BJP, which 20 years ago was the first party to pass a resolution refusing to accept donations in cash, was the first to forget and violate its own resolve. Surprisingly, all political outfits become animadvert on the use of brobdingnagian amounts of money in politics only after they have won or lost an election. One doesn’t have to go far to seek the reasons for their sinister silence on finances. Even though India’s geographical boundaries remain unchanged since Independence, electoral expenses have risen manifold. Earlier, senior leaders, including CMs and officebearers, would cover the country by road and would rarely use flying machines to reach remote forested areas. Today, even a petty leader-come-yesterday takes pride in commandeering a helicopter or a chartered plane for election campaigns. Some of the so-called national leaders have refused to campaign because they were not allowed to jet set to various states in luxury. According to a civil aviation contractor, over 100 helicopters and small jet planes have been pressed into service in all the five election-bound states. The majority of the aircraft are owned by big business houses, which have acquired their flying toys by floating aviation companies. In fact, some leaders have made it a condition that they would not campaign unless they are provided an eight-seater twin-engine jet complete with five-star catering. Now the leaders are dictating terms to the parties. They decide their campaign schedule in such a way that they can return to their urban playgrounds for late night social rendezvous. They also seek caravans of luxury sedans for local poll peregrinations. A decade ago, our earthy leaders would draft publicity campaigns with catchy slogans, posters and graffiti. Now each party hires a top-end ad agency whose slogan writers are given the task to market the leaders who sign the contracts. Even district-level officers are demanding Innovas, Scorpios and Tata Safaris with unlimited gas and grub money before they even step out of their houses.
The complexion of the Indian election campaign is becoming more colourful and exhibitionistic than ever. It is not the crowd or quality of speeches that make an impact on voters. Leaders have convinced themselves that only the feel and look of the stage and the campaigner’s body language would them get them eyeballs and votes. With over 400 TV channels beaming news 24x7, all major parties have devised strategies to splurge on expensive media space to reach the maximum number of people. Both national parties are fully exploiting the shrinking top lines of news organisations, which are unable to spend massively on live coverage. Moreover, parties are hiring state-of-the-art technology along with experts to dictate the live coverage of their rallies. According to media circles, both the Congress and BJP have engaged IT companies to provide dedicated feeds to all TV companies so that the channels could save money. No wonder, viewers are being fed similar images rallies with the focus on the leaders and selected crowded spots. These cost a minimum of over Rs. 1 crore per rally, since the effort requires over a dozen cameras and heavy techquipment.
It is not only the crony capitalists who have benefited from the pace of economic reforms. It is the money, which they have generated through means fair and foul that has changed the way India engages in the battle of ballots. Hired marketers have replaced barefoot campaigners as ideological messengers. Muscled with dosh from India Inc, the election industry yields the richest dividends in the political game played in the shadows of the dark side of India’s economy.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, November 18, 2013

Poll 2014 will decide fate ...Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/November 17, 2014

Poll 2014 will decide fate of opportunists who seek success in political currents

Shifts in the quicksands of loyalties and the forging of new ideological consociations are determined by the electoral pendulum. As various political outfits seek new partners and promoters, members of the Permanent Ruling Party of India (PRPI) are no lofty exceptions. It is not just a few chameleons of the political class which are changing their colours. Opportunism is much more visible among those who have acquired the art of jumping from one ship to another to avoid turbulence in business and social life. Depending on the nature of oscillations, foes become friends and villains are seen as emerging heroes. Old social encounters are retrieved from the archives of alliances to show and prove their ideological compatibility in sepia to the Caesars of tomorrow. Even friendly losers are liabilities and have to be dropped like hot potatoes.

Not long ago, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was the darling of the classes. So were Omar Abdullah and Akhilesh Singh Yadav. A couple of years before, even A Raja and Kanimozhi were coveted guests at chatterati soirees in Delhi and Chennai. Now they have disappeared from the mailing list of those who only host rising stars.
As various opinion polls reflect a clear swing in favour of Narendra Modi, his once-sworn enemies are desperately looking for platforms to bellow their allegiance to him. Participating in bellicose TV debates, writing columns and speaking at business forums in his favour are the most effective ways to join Modi-for-PM campaign. Earlier, he was the dreaded Decurion of divisiveness who had choreographed a pogrom in his state in 2002. For over a decade, they hounded Modi and sponsored and even supported every move to fix him legally, politically and socially.
From corporate caliphs to opinion operators, members of his new cortege see him as the only politician who can save India from disaster. Undoubtedly, Modi has a clean image. He has also performed well in Gujarat. But these aren’t new achievements. He was one of India’s best chief ministers for the past 10 years. Those who are now buzzing in the spindrift of the Modi juggernaut used to be uncomfortable with Modi’s class and character. For them Moditva was the face of a murderous ideology and Modi, a man without a mission. From New Delhi to New York, the rich and mighty were hell bent on banishing Modi and his brand of politics forever. They made him an international pariah who had to be avoided at all costs. For pseudo-secularists, NaMo was the most malignant threat to communal harmony. Now all of them, including the Obamas and the Camerons of the world, suddenly don’t find anything wrong with him. India has 30-odd chief ministers and some of them have done as well as Modi. Even Congress chief ministers like Bhupinder Singh Hooda have beaten Gujarat on many development indicators. BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan has an even better marksheet. But for both the BJP and Congress, NaMo is the only alternative claimant for the national throne. And that makes the power-hungry class of middlemen, image consultants and media mandarins who promote Modi and dump the rest. To be seen in Modi’s company or even in the periphery of his circle is a sure way to earn profits and retain social acceptability. Now even the secular and liberal brigade take schizophrenic pride in associating with Narendra Swayam Sewak Sangh (NSS) while hating RSS. The PRPI has converted its luxurious drawing rooms into war rooms to plan the launch of Modi as the new national brand. For them, 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi is history, and 63-year-old NaMo is the herald of a bright future.
For the past few weeks, Modi has become a god who can do no wrong. Earlier, his harmless barbs would invite pernicious barks from all over the country and even from abroad. Now, even the global rating agencies whose survival depends on a friendly government in India predict an easy victory for the BJP’s candidate. Those who would refuse to attend any social gathering where Modi was expected  now stand in the queue to sponsor his events and even his M-merchandise. Over 100 top industrialists, socialites, media personalities and Bollywood icons are conceiving events in which NaMo would be the chief guest. Modi is now becoming an icon in demand for inaugurating seminars and debates, laying foundation stones for new buildings and even becoming the stellar visitor at weddings.
What is baffling a few top Congress leaders is the new tendency on part of their traditional promoters to avoid their phone calls, even from Union ministers. While some ministers continue to have good relationships with industrialists, they are unable to make them support the party the way it was done in the past. Even the UPA regime’s beneficiaries are now taking pot shots at the senior Congress leadership and even the Prime Minister—the same cabal which would earlier organise national and international conclaves to promote the Gandhis and the once-powerful reformist Manmohan Singh and his team.
Interestingly, the PRPI doesn’t owe its allegiance to any doctrine of principles. It only flirts with individuals in various political parties depending upon their utility and class. They behave like modern slaves always looking for a new ruler in front of whom they could bow and scrape  for crumbs. They are the beneficiaries and products of India’s economic reform and crony capitalism. Since they have flourished not necessarily thanks to hard work and ability, but due to continuous state protection in the form of a favourable fiscal and administrative regime, they are always at the telescope peering out for those who would not only protect their new wealth but also help in fattening it. As their number has multiplied during the past two decades, they are in a position to influence the political charter and agenda. For them, conviction has always been a matter of convenience. Election 2014 will decide the fate of not only NaMo and RaGa but also of the avaricious floaters who seek success in the whimsical currents of politics.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, November 11, 2013

PM's Lanka decision proves ...Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/Nvoember 10, 2013

PM's Lanka decision proves he is no longer India's sole arbiter on foreign relations

The broth of diplomacy could turn out to be a noxious concoction made of “scale of dragon; tooth of wolf; witches’ mummy; and maw and gulf” if the pot is stirred sans care and caution. Throw in a dose of dilemma, and diplomacy is certain to cause undiplomatic trauma—the current mot juste for the Indian diplomatic community’s state of mind. For the past few weeks, PM Manmohan Singh is under tremendous pressure to choose between pleasant pastures of international diplomacy and the quirky quicksands of domestic politics. He has now discovered that good diplomacy could be ‘Adder’s fork, and blind worm’s sting’ for the Congress’ political interests. His indecisiveness on participation in the CHOGM to be held in Colombo next week reflected his vulnerability. Diplomats have always deplored the influence of domestic or regional politics on international relations and the PM has been a fellow traveller. But as the countdown to general elections begins, he is more concerned about winning the election than maintaining consistent faith in traditional diplomacy. The current contours of Indian diplomacy are being defined by those expected to be the kingmakers after 2014. The magic number of 40 (including Puducherry) Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu is defining the UPA’s foreign policy. The PM’s conciliatory contortions to soothe Tamil anger over his Sri Lanka visit was quite droll, though he was bold enough to defy the BJP which demanded suspension of the Indo-Pak dialogue because of cross-border terrorism, since they are as unlikely to form a coalition in 2014 as Macbeth’s witches would brew elixir. The Indian PM has always dictated foreign policy from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of those who midwifed the CHOGM—a result of Nehruvian romance with international diplomacy. In the age of coalition politics, even diplomacy has become an effective instrument of votebank politics. Currently, dialogue with Pakistan is a sign of secularism, which pays rich political dividends. Boycotting CHOGM is a regional weapon to capture votes and power. Even liberal Congress ministers who otherwise would have nudged the PM to defy regional parties advised him against any adventurism fearing worse electoral humiliation in Tamil Nadu. Even the BJP, ideologically in simpatico with Sri Lanka’s ruling establishment, prefers to beat around the bush because it, too, expects one of the Tamil parties to support its PM candidate.

PM Manmohan Singh with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

CHOGM wasn’t an important noting on Manmohan’s diplomatic diary in 2011. He had requested Vice-President Hamid Ansari to represent India. Though CHOGM can hardly influence international diplomacy, it has become an instrument for India to dominate dialogue; at least among smaller nations. With over a dozen other multi-nation platforms including ASEAN, G-20, BRICS and SAARC being prima donnas of South Asian diplomatic savoir-faire, CHOGM has lost its sheen and relevance since the same subjects are discussed at its venues too. Those opposed to Manmohan’s Sri Lanka visit had argued that CHOGM failed to guarantee that Sri Lanka adhered to principles when it blatantly flouted the 14-point 1971 Singapore Resolution which mandates members to ensure human rights protection. In the past, CHOGM had suspended Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji and Zimbabwe for human rights violations. Unfortunately, none of its rich and powerful members have attacked Sri Lanka for the Tamil genocide. Most members take divergent positions at various forums, and no  important multilateral issue has been resolved because of differing loyalties. Sri Lanka has been wooing the Chinese for the past few years by granting increasing access to its ports and markets. It is not merit but pure politics, which is forcing Manmohan to surrender his only fief in the government. He attended three of the last four CHOGMs. Though not officially announced yet but with all indications implying the same, by deciding to miss the last one of his tenure, he would prove he is no longer India’s sole arbiter on foreign relations.
Come November, New Delhi becomes the salubrious rendezvous point for international meetings and seminars. Post recession, New Delhi has lost its global corporate clientele. Instead, it is now hosting diplomats from countries experiencing bad weather. Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh decided to invite 140 heads of Indian Missions for a four-day brainstorming session. Prime Minister, the Commerce Minister and the National Security Advisor addressed the jamboree. Unlike in the past, the meeting was more interactive. A short 450-word summary explaining the salient features of the PM’s speech was uploaded on the MEA’s website. As usual, the PM’s address was very high on principles and low on count. Most of those who participated found serious contradictions between what he meant by effective diplomacy to protect national interests and what the Congress was pursuing on ground. At the end, they were left wondering what their job would be—selling the ruling party’s line or that of their ministry and the PM’s. But their major grouse was that though they were flown first class to India, they were handed just Rs 5,000 a day to find accommodation.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, November 4, 2013

Modi takes a leaf out of Congress book ..... Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/November 03, 2013

Modi takes a leaf out of Congress book, plays politics of grief on enemy turf

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is known for his innovative epiphanies. His cannily choreographed rallies are the envy of many a corporate and political leader. NaMo has become a mantra, a mission and a model of governance. Offence is always his best defence. But he is on a course correction spree. Modi is not a Demosthenes of ideology anymore. He has chosen to pay back his rivals like RaGa (Rahul Gandhi) and NiKu (Nitish Kumar) in their own coin. The Congress and its apple polishers dubbed Modi’s weekend visit to Bihar martyrdom tourism, charging him with playing politics of grief. Modi visited the homes of all the six victims of the serial blasts which rocked Patna’s Gandhi Maidan and other parts of the city during his visit to address the Hunkar Rally on October 27. NaMo, who had avoided visiting the victims of the 2002 riots in his own state for a long time, lost no time in burning up aviation fuel by dashing to Patna twice in one week to express condolences and score points over his rambunctious rivals. These well-calculated demarches have rattled his detractors and hit them where it hurts the most-their political constituency. A close look at his recent manoeuvres reveals that NaMo, a staunch RSS faithful, is experiencing his Dale Carnegie moment-he has lifted virtual chapters from the Congress’ book of ‘How to Make Friends and Influence Enemies’ in order to establish himself as the new messiah of terror victims. Fishing in troubled waters has been the most effective and consistent virtue of all political leaders. For our avaricious politicians, agony is opportunity, and misery the canon of success.
The last two weeks have witnessed scathing and scandalous scrimmages between NaMo and the supporters of both RaGa and NiKu. All have been extravagant with their arsenal in trying to lacerate and paralyse the opponent’s political moves. Both over half a dozen senior ministers of UPA and the Bihar Chief Minister challenged NaMo, accusing him of making factually incorrect statements against his adversaries and polarising voters in Bihar and other parts of the country. Now, he is charged with exploiting the grief of the terror victims of 26/10. Modi’s strategy is crystal clear. Like any guerrilla operating in a treacherous political jungle, he has chosen to shoot and scoot. Even though he was caught making gaffes about Nehru avoiding Sardar Patel’s funeral, NaMo is determined to impose both his politics and political narrative on his rivals. His Bihar Mission has a method in its madness. With Lalu Prasad in jail, Modi launched verbal drone attacks against the weak NiKu government on the twin issues of security and governance. He has decided to demolish NiKu’s credibility by accusing him of patronising terror at the risk of serious threats to the lives of senior leaders and communal harmony in Bihar. By visiting the families of the Patna blast victims, NaMo is drilling home the point that NiKu is least bothered about the personal tragedies of his people. So incensed was the Bihar chief minister with NaMo’s missiles that he retorted by unleashing a personal attack on his oppugner. Ridiculing NaMo’s frequent visits, NiKu termed his foe an outsider and claimed that the people of Bihar are “buying brooms during Deepawali to clean the garbage that has come to Bihar”.
It’s History Redux in the politically fertile land of Bihar. NaMo seems to have carefully imbibed that chapter of political history which changed Indian politics. It was in Bihar that Indira Gandhi launched her retaliatory charge against the Janata government in 1978. In August that year, militantly aggressive Kurmis mowed down 14 Dalits in the sleepy hamlet of Belchchi in Nalanda district. Only a year ago, Indira had lost power. But she lost no time in taking advantage of the bloody caste war that ensued. Karpoori Thakur, a socialist but a weak administrator, was the state’s chief minister. Indira landed in Nalanda and waded into the floodwaters on an elephant to visit each Dalit family, which had lost members in the caste pogrom. On her return to Patna, she called on the ailing Jayaprakash Narayan who was responsible for her crushing electoral ignominy. JP expressed his distress over the non-performing state government. He told Indira, “Indu, I wish  you a better future, brighter than your past.” Her Nalanda visit revived the Congress, and the party won its first by-election in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh three months later—Mohsina Kidwai, the Congress candidate, won the Azamgarh Lok Sabha constituency, the first seat won by the party in north India after its 1977 rout. If a collapsed colossus like Indira could manage a triumphant return to power using raging caste violence, a NaMo with an equally charismatic personality and supported by a committed cadre could use the same political thesaurus.
In his campaign, Modi is only using the well-tested techniques adopted by Congress leaders in the recent past. His research team has compiled a long list of grief and poverty tours undertaken by top Congress leaders. Last year, Rahul Gandhi made a motorbike trip to bond with Bhattaparsol, where the Uttar Pradesh Police allegedly tortured farmers. The grief list also includes the nights spent by Rahul in Dalit colonies and the visits of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to Chhattisgarh after top Congress leaders were massacred by Naxalites. Modiites are now reminding the Congress about the trips which Sonia and the Prime Minister made to Muzzafarnagar after 43 were killed in the worst-ever communal clashes in decades. If the Congress is accusing NaMo of marketing grief for electoral gains, the BJP has charged it with selling poverty to retain power. The tendency to encash on human tragedies for electoral gains is becoming an acceptable norm for taking a gullible voter for a ride. The Battle of 2014 is fought on the landscapes of the mistakes and miseries of the past and not on how to draw a new roadmap for the future.