Monday, June 27, 2016

Is the BJP managing decisions in the Congress? Did it send a bird to scare Karnataka's CM?

The BJP's luck must be at its zenith, otherwise the Congress cannot be gripped by such an unstoppable death wish. Even reigning Congress chieftains seem to be working for the party's demolition. When Kerala's Industry Minister Kunjalikutty promoted patently corrupt projects in the last days of the government's term, Chief Minister Chandy must have known that he was signing his government's death warrant. Karnataka, the only other Congress state in the south, is repeating the same story. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah reshuffled his cabinet in such a way that the defeat of the Congress in the next state election is assured. Why doesn't Rahul Gandhi keep his men in line? Well, in Kerala his men defied him and he had to take it lying down. In Karnataka... sorry, he is on holiday abroad, place and duration top secrets.

With the Congress so helpful, the BJP makes public relations blunders one after another and yet remains on top of the heap. It appointed a series of half-baked fellow travellers to head some of the country's hallowed institutions; it kept quiet when independent thinking was ridiculed and, not infrequently, suppressed violently; it put up unworthy characters to make incendiary calls like "Muslim-mukt Bharat".

In normal times people propagating such petty bigotry would have had to face the law of the land. Not only do BJP jingoists float above it all; the party increases its vote share in proportion to the decline and fall of other parties, the latest example of the effectiveness of the TINA principle (There Is No Alternative). The incompetence of the Congress gives the principle its biggest boost for the Congress is the only party with a national footprint.

The way the Congress rules itself out as an alternative suggests that its decisions are made by BJP's undercover agents. How else can one explain Kamal Nath being made the Congress's man in charge of Punjab elections? One of the smartest political operators in India, Nath was a lead player in the Congress-sponsored anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination. Putting such a man in charge of soliciting Sikh votes in the Punjab says something about how things are in the Congress. Nath's subsequent withdrawal is unlikely to undo the damage.

The damage done in Karnataka is worse because, after Karnataka too is lost, the Congress will be faceless in a region that had stood by it in its worst moments. Kerala alone voted for the Congress in the post-Emergency election. After Indira Gandhi was defeated in her home constituency of Rae Bareli in 1977, it was Chikmagalur in Karnataka that sent her to Parliament in a byelection the next year.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had been undermining the Congress steadily, by giving the impression that he never applied his mind to the issues that cried out for attention, that he never really cared. His image had become so negative that an alert high command would have gracefully kicked him upstairs and put a more pro-active leader in the chief minister's chair.

What the high command did instead was to let him appoint a virtually new cabinet. True, the 14 ministers who were dropped deserved to be dropped. Unfortunately, the 13 new ministers who were appointed did not deserve to be appointed either. There was no logic, either caste-wise or age-wise, in the reshuffle. There was no "correction" either. Rahul Gandhi had asked Siddaramaiah when he became chief minister back in 2013 to keep two "senior" Congressmen out of the cabinet because of their long record of corruption. They were kept out initially. But seasoned manipulators in Delhi saw that Rahul Gandhi's diktat was quietly sidelined and the two tainted men taken into the cabinet. They are still there, still tainted.

One of them playing the Vokkaliga card may be overtaken by another who has successfully played the Lingayat card. The old war horse B.S.Yeddyurappa is all set to return to the chair which he had to leave in disgrace in 2011. Appropriate notices were given by a little black bird that perched on the bonnet of Siddaramaiah's new SUV and would not budge despite proddings by law enforcers. The Chief Minister must have sensed a BJP manoeuvre. He promptly acquired another new SUV. But
The black bird scare
Floats in the air

Monday, June 20, 2016

Modi scored sensational success in US. But then he suddenly turned to Russia. What's up?

Narendra Modi's triumphalist performance at the US Congress set off the usual fan frenzy in India. (This organised brouhaha over every Modi visit abroad is losing its sheen through repetition). However, the hype should not prevent us from recognising the political importance the Prime Minister's fourth visit to the US achieved. For the first time India appeared to fall into America's military-industrial web. This has been a long-cherished ambition of not only Washington but also influential lobbies in India's political, administrative and intellectual circles. Modi seemed to follow their script. But immediately thereafter he took steps that pointed to possible second thoughts about what he had achieved in America.

Indians promoting American interests in India had their first victory at the policy level during the early phase of Indira Gandhi's prime ministership. This was ironic because Indira was to build her strength on the slogan of socialism and Nixon-Kissinger's America was to use dirty words to describe her. But in the 1960s her most trusted cabinet colleagues were Food Minister C.Subramanian and Planning Minister Asoka Mehta. They were also America's most trusted friends in India. They were backed by a good chunk of our senior civil servants who looked up to the World Bank-IMF as paragons of international virtue.

Then came, in the 1990s, the ultimate strategic guru, K.Subramanyam. A former civil servant and journalist, Subramanyam became the architect of India's nuclear doctrine and the India-US civil nuclear energy agreement. His position was that India should have strategic partnership with the US in order to strengthen Indian economy and to compete with China technologically and militarily. Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh paid heed to his advice, but without crossing what had come to be known as India's independent line.

There must have been developments in Delhi, unbeknown to the general public, that brought about a subtle departure from the Vajpayee-Manmohan line. In 2013 the leading American think tank, Brooklyn Institute, opened a branch in New Delhi to give "recommendations to Indian policy makers". This year the other leading American think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also opened a branch in Delhi to "collaborate with decision makers in [Indian] government, business and civil society". Two powerful American establishments to help decision-making in India?

We can now see the larger picture into which the Modi visit fitted. It could not have been a coincidence that US senators who were critical of Modi before supported him now as they hailed the "Modi doctrine" and moved to pass a special Global Partnership With India Act. The joint statement from the White House declared that India had been upgraded into a "major defence partner". This meant, as experts pointed out, that India would be qualified to buy sophisticated modern weaponry from the US. In other words, India's elevation meant better prospects for America's weapons sales. The significant advantages America gained must be the reason why major US newspapers, which had paid scant attention to Modi's earlier visits, now played up the importance of America's closeness to India.

But Modi, there is ground to believe, has become a savvy player in international relations. As soon as he left the shores of America, he must have realised that becoming America's strategic partner essentially meant becoming part of America's strategic move to contain China. To be sure, China has accelerated building up Pakistan, including its nuclear capability, to contain India. Should India respond by ganging up with the US against China, or by trying to tell China that other choices are available?

The question must have occurred to Modi, for the first thing he did on getting back home was to phone, of all people, Vladimir Putin. Russia has had a long history of trusting relations with India which included transfer of military technology. This had come under strain on account of Manmohan Singh's overtures to America. At the same time, US-NATO hostility has forced Russia to forge extremely close relations with China. This makes Moscow the best possible interlocutor between India and China.

We must hope that Modi saw the un-wisdom of directly antagonising China. It would be in China's interests, too, to help improve relations with India. Modi must have calculated that the Shangai Cooperation Council's meeting in Tashkent next week is an opportunity not to be missed. India is to become a full-fledged member of the SCC at this meeting, opening new avenues for cooperation and understanding. Tashkent, more than Washington, will decide the way things move -- for Asia and for Narendra Modi.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Opposition parties struggle to form an alliance to stop the BJP. But how to find a leader?

In politics one party's shukradasa depends on another party's shanidasa. The stars are so propitious for the BJP these days that other parties are struggling to figure out how they can re-position the planets in order to survive. Since the planets are a-political, they may have no objection in giving all players equal opportunity. But the saying is "half by me, half by God". Who is to do the by-me half that will persuade the heavenly bodies to do the rest?

Forget the Congress. When the obvious stared it in the face, it stood dumb. The octogenarian Tarun Gogoi had created an anti-incumbency tsunami in Assam with three consecutive terms. Himanta Biswas, half his age and functioning as the defacto chief minister, called for a change to win the election. The High Command remained numb and dumb. Biswas joined the BJP and the rest was history. In Kerala Oommen Chandy insisted on nominating his tainted friends as candidates. The High Command told him not to. Chandy then threatened that he would not contest either. Whereupon the High Command went numb and dumb and the rest was history. Forget the Congress. It doesn't even seem to know what's going on.

Which way then should the planets look? The silver lining is the realisation by almost all players that they should get together on the principle that unity is strength. The BJP itself embraced this principle and tied up with all sorts of regional groupings. The other parties know that any alliance they form cannot be led by the Congress. Even the more sober Congress leaders recognise this though no one will speak out due to the High Command culture that rules them.

So who will lead the alliance? At Mamata Bannerjee's swearing-in, the assemblage of non-Congress leaders was impressive enough to make many dreamers dream. Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal and Farooq Abdullah sharing happiness with Mamata was indeed an unusual spectacle. But a closer look shows that the dreamers don't have much to dream about.

Two important personages were conspicuously absent -- Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. Among those present, Farooq is no longer relevant and his dynasty is faring no better than the one in Delhi. Kejriwal is a question mark, his position as Delhi Chief Minister continuously compromised by a scheming BJP and his bonafides put in doubt by his early associates. Akhilesh Yadav is a reminder of the dangers that grip Indian politics. He is only a figurehead, his father running the show with antediluvian ideas of power, celebrating his birthdays like an emperor of yore and not hesitating to appoint convicted associates as ministers. Nitish Kumar has the ambition to become a national leader and has some of the qualities required. But what is his administrative calibre when he is unable to end lawlessness in Bihar? Nor has he made his presence felt in Punjab or Maharashtra or the South. He does not have an all-India visage.

Of those assembled in Kolkata, the star was Mamata Bannerjee herself. Her stint in Delhi, especially as railway minister, made her known across the country. But her record as chief minister has been marred by whimsicality, favouritism, authoritarianism and refusal to accept responsibility for lapses on the law and order front. Will the second term she has won with an overwhelming majority help her see the opportunity that stares her in the face -- the opportunity to project her as a leader with the potential to grow beyond West Bengal? She can make a serious bid if she listens to experts. A few speaking engagements in other states will generate interest on a large enough scale because of her image as a grassroots leader. She will also have to respect the sentiments of other leaders.

Her biggest problem will be to work out any kind of understanding with the Congress. The last election saw the Congress joining hands with Mamata's sworn enemies, the Communists. A few days ago Rahul Gandhi said openly that the alliance with the Communists should continue. Which highlights the conundrums of the moment: Who is the Congress's principal enemy, Mamata's Trinamool or the BJP? Who is the Communists' principal enemy, Mamata's Trinamool or the BJP? Who is Mamata's principal enemy, the Communists or the BJP?

When conundrums keep the opposition divided, the BJP nestles comfortably with the Assam Gana Parishad and the Akalis and the Kerala SNDP. The BJP's shukradasa looks set to continue because the Congress's, the Communists', the JDU's shanidasa looks set to continue.

Monday, June 6, 2016

If the Congress is to live, the Gandhis must go. It has clean, capable leaders. Let them lead

The fall of the Congress is the principal reason for the rise of the BJP. This was clear in 2014 when the reticent, text-reading Sonia Gandhi was no match to the eloquent, conquistadorial Narendra Modi. It was reinforced in last month's five-state election when the Congress was decimated across the board. India's founding political party has reached a stage where it knows it has fallen, knows what it must do to get on its feet again, but has no guts to do it. The extent of this cadaverous state will be the determining factor again in the major state elections next year and the parliamentary elections in 2019. If the Congress does not rise from the mortuary at least in time for 2019, it might not get another chance.

With hindsight, Mahatma Gandhi's appeal for the winding up of the Congress upon independence now looks not only ethical but also wise. After all the Indian National Congress was not a political party; it was a people's movement for independence. Jawaharlal Nehru defied Gandhi's advice and made the Congress a party. It gave the Congress a big advantage to begin with; as the saying went in those days, even a lamp post put up by the Congress would get elected.

That was a short-term advantage because the idea was fundamentally flawed. A democracy needs two or three parties, competing on different ideological platforms. Nehru prevented other parties from coming up so that he could win easily. Despite his professed socialism, he engineered the fading away of even the Congress socialists led by people like Jayaprakash Narayan. His cabinet was a hotchpotch of conservatives, business tycoons, corporate executives, capitalists, rightists, leftists and plain camp followers. If Gandhi's advice had been taken, there would have been a leftist party under Nehru, a rightist party under Sardar Patel, and probably a Hindu nationalist grouping under Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. That would have provided a healthy base for democracy to develop.

The multiplex character of the Congress prevented it from becoming a party with a defined ideology and a cadre of leaders committed to that ideology. It was left to Indira Gandhi to give the party what looked like an ideology -- dynastic hegemony. The power of her personality ensured that Congress leaders not only accepted the anti-democratic concept but started justifying it with more loyalty than the King's. The Congress started losing its credentials.

Popular acceptance of the dynasty idea declined steadily after Indira, hitting rock-bottom with Rahul Gandhi. He created a bad first impression, appearing to be a part-time politician with frequent disappearances. We don't know if that phase has passed. What we know is that his big speeches in Parliament and many appearances with common people, students and dalits have not made much of an impact. He looks amateurish and not grown up. He just doesn't have it in him.

The cronies who matter in the top-heavy Congress will argue that if he gives up his number two status and takes over the presidentship of the party from his mother, he will flower and all will be well. Indeed, in their desperate search for ways to make the party relevant again, Congressmen might try to make Rahul Gandhi the party President. That will be a move towards Congress-mukt Bharat. For the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is not the solution. He is the problem.

If the Congress is to revive itself, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi must leave the scene. For good. They must have nothing do with the party or with politics, only then will the party get a chance to rebuild itself. The immediate impact may be a spurt in factionalism. But Congress has split before and regrouped. It must regroup now with a clear policy platform and a leadership seen by the people as clean. That is the only way to become a democratic party with a fair chance to compete in the electoral field.

With the Gandhis must go every leader tainted with corruption. Fortunately for the party, there are leaders senior enough and capable enough who are untainted, Kapil Sibal and Jairam Ramesh, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Makan. There are also younger men who have proved their mettle: Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora. In the states there are a whole lot of thinking Congressmen, modernistic, socially aware, environment-and-climate conscious. If these men and women take over with no High Command to constrict them, the Congress will live to see another day. If not, the High Command alone will fly high.