Monday, June 26, 2017

BJP's coup may send a nice man to Rashtrapathi Bhavan; but questions remain about politics by caste

In political and strategic terms, the BJP leadership staged the equivalent of a coup d'etat when it nominated Ram Nath Kovind for President. The choice killed three birds with one stone. Bird No. 1: The opposition parties' unity against the ruling dispensation. Not only did Bihar's Nitish Kumar break rank to support the BJP; the usual dissonance between father Mulayam and son Akhilesh Yadav pushed the Samajwadis into yet another imbroglio. Bird No. 2: The opposition's chance to field independently a candidate of superior status. Meira Kumar has the right credentials, but her choice essentially means the opposition imitating the BJP's tactic of playing the Dalit card. Bird No. 3: Presumed Dalit antipathy to the Hindutva camp which is seen as a Pune-Nagpur savarna setup. The party in power is in a position to ensure that the election of the President next month will be a mere formality.

The strategists of the BJP scored grace marks as well by picking a man who seems to carry himself well. We need to remember that there were proposals to nominate the RSS chief himself for the highest constitutional position. That would have sent out the message that hardline Hindutva ideology was taking over the country in unabashed style. Avoiding such an unwise projection of the country's image, the decision-makers zeroed in on a man whose chief asset is his low profile. Kovind is a card-carrying BJP man. But as Governor of Bihar he attracted no adverse publicity as, for example, the BJP governors of UP and Karnataka did. Actually he remained unknown all these years. We now hear that he has been a lawyer of some quality and has a scholarly bend of mind, unusual by BJP-RSS standards. In a country where small-minded careerists like Zail Singh and inconsequential bystanders like Pratibha Patil brought disrepute to the presidency, Kovind has the potential to uphold its dignity.

The political calculations behind Kovind's nomination are a different matter, however. It is obvious that his scholarship and non-controversial profile were not the factors that led to his elevation. His caste was. Caste has been a decisive factor in the electoral strategising of all parties across the country. It was especially so in UP where Mayawati built an empire in the name of Dalits despite her service to the community being minimal and self-centred. Kovind, a Kanpur native, will be embraced by UP Dalits, BJP calculates. But Mayawati, significantly, has switched to Meira Kumar.

While the BJP has done a smart job for itself, the larger question remains: On account of electoral compulsions, is India condemned to be nothing more than a sum of its communal parts? Politics and even law and order in many parts of India in recent years have been dominated by caste-based campaigns, often violent, by Thakurs and Dalits, Jats and Gujjars, Patidars and Rajputs and Vanniyars. Is this how our political parties want India's future to be, or do they have a responsibility to lead the country away from narrow casteism?

This is the first time a presidential nominee has been picked on the basis of his caste identity. K. R. Narayanan was not fielded because he was a Dalit. It was his background as diplomat, administrator and minister and, above all, his stature as a public figure that made him a candidate for the highest post in the country. And he lived up to the trust the country placed in him.

P.J. Abdul Kalam was not nominated because he was a Muslim. Nor was Zakir Hussain long before him. In fact those gentlemen were outstanding examples of India's secular identity. Not once did they conduct themselves or take decisions as Muslims. They were Indian citizens and were recognised as such.

It is true that in those times, too, political parties made their electoral calculations on the basis of religion and caste. Even Marxist E.M.S. Namboothiripad went to the extent of creating a new Muslim-majority district in Kerala to please its constituents. But the emphasis on religious and caste is now at a higher pitch, the UP state election signalling a climax of that process. Since the BJP's current strategy is anchored on caste considerations, the role of communal elements in public life will increase.

That Ram Nath Kovind is a worthy candidate is unrelated to the cynical calculations behind his nomination. Principles matter. In the life of a nation, todays are the building blocks of tomorrows. Compromises adopted for momentary victories may well lead to defeats in the long term.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Congress planning to lose its hold on Karnataka, too? With boldness (not National Herald) it can win

Even in its glory days, the National Herald never had a South Indian presence. It was always a Delhi-Lucknow entity and knew it. It would have been another inconsequential provincial rag but for its ownership (Jawaharlal Nehru) and its editorship (Chalapathi Rau). Actually, the latter more than the former. While Nehru was an absentee overlord, it was Chalapathi's superior qualities as editor, writer and activist that made the paper a stand-out.

The Delhi-North Indian stamp of the Herald is an unalterable historical reality. Yet, when they decided to launch a commemorative edition of the paper, they chose Bangalore as the launching pad. Strange. Why didn't they pick Delhi where the multistorey Herald House rises proudly in the city's newspaper street, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg? Why not Lucknow, the paper's birthplace and headquarters? Why did they choose a location never associated with the Herald in any way?

The reason of course is that the Congress was playing practical politics. Today's Delhi is unfriendly territory for a Nehru-linked institution. Lucknow would be even more unfriendly with a saffron-clad yogi reigning as the monarch of all he surveys there. Karnataka is a major state where the Congress is unchallenged in power. To hold a launch function there would not only be safe; it would ensure the attendance of government leaders and thus the attention of the entire state administration. That was what happened. The National Herald and Rahul Gandhi were praised skyhigh with the entire state cabinet turning out and the police closing major highways to make it an easy ride for the Congress.

In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi, the star of the show, made a good impression with his speech. Someone had obviously provided timely input, for the Congress scion said that "the power of truth is being completely replaced by the truth of power". He even quoted Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the legendary Soviet era poet, to remind us that "when truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie". Very true. But when the British tried to replace truth with silence, another Gandhi responded with action that found a million tongues.

What does the present Gandhi do? He quoted Yevtushenko, then flew to Delhi and then went off to Italy to spend time, we were told, with his 93-year old grandmother. A sycophant added insult to injury by saying that "attending to aged grandparents is part of Indian culture". Rahul Gandhi is known for his regular disappearances from India. But this was a critical moment, with strategies being worked out for the presidential election, a gathering of opposition leaders taking place and the farmers' agitation in the Hindi heartland growing worse by the day. Rahul chose to ignore all that and become part of Indian culture instead.

That the Congress is in the hands of a part-time leader is the biggest asset of the BJP. Unable to come up with initiatives that enthuse the people, the Congress goes after ideas that confuse them -- like the National Herald commemoration in Bangalore. What was its purpose? Certainly not to revive the paper which is an impossibility. Was it then a move to give a boost to the Congress in Karnataka in preparation for the election next year?

That is going to be a life-and-death election for the Congress. But a gimmick built round a newspaper that is unknown in Karnataka is no way to prepare for so crucial an election. A bold Congress can still fight and win. The key word is bold. It must be bold enough to realise that the incumbency factor alone will lead to its collapse if the present leadership structure continues. A new face and a new promise, on the other hand, can certainly give it a fighting chance.

The Congress can electrify the scene in its favour if it projects Mallikarjun Kharge as its chief ministerial candidate in the next election. He is the only leader in Karnataka with a clean image and his administrative experience is unrivalled. He is also the only Congressman tall enough to keep in check the criminal elements that occupy important positions in the party leadership today. Indeed, Kharge appears to be the only option open to the Congress to keep at least one state under its flag in the South. The question is less whether Kharge can be persuaded to take up the task and more whether the Congress leadership has the ability to understand its plight. The alternative is to go the National Herald way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

With political help, lobbies put chemicals in our diet; BJP must honour its pledge to keep GM food out

Before the power of commercial lobbies, even the BJP government bows. The party's manifesto took a strong stand against GM foods; ignoring it, the Government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) greensignalled genetically engineered mustard in India. GM mustard is known to be more dangerous than GM cotton (which has caused havoc already) and GM brinjal (which was stopped in the nick of time).

Because mustard is used in every household every day in India, its health implications are of special importance to us. GM mustard is an HT (herbicide tolerant) crop. This euphemism means it uses a single herbicide, eventually becoming resistant and necessitating heavy use of chemical herbicide. Such excessive use has been linked to birth defects and childhood cancers. Almost all of Europe has discontinued the GM concept altogether because of health issues.

Why then does India welcome these traps? There are three reasons: The vested interests of politicians, over-enthusiasm of civil servants, and the apparent ease with which watchdogs like GEAC can be compromised. Much of this is facilitated by the world's most powerful lobbying groups which routinely influence US Government policies. (Barak Obama appointed several Monsanto executives in his Government's food and agriculture supervisory bodies).

These lobbies are no less powerful in India. Remember those horrid, heart-wrenching videos of endosulfan victims in Kasargod areas? They are still there -- pitiably malformed children and men with bloated body parts. Every time such pathetic pictures of human suffering appeared on television screens, people would ask: Why doesn't the Government ban endosulfan? And every time Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was confronted with the question, he would say: We need to do more tests to know if endosulfan is harmful. How thick can political skins get?

Insensitive politicians are aided and abetted by specialists in the Government's planning bodies. Niti Ayog has argued in favour of GM mustard on the ground that the GM technology will substantially increase yield. This is a myth as UN statistics prove. Non-GM users have the highest mustard yield -- Germany, France, UK, Poland, Czech Republic. Way down in the table are GM users -- USA, Canada, Australia. Why did Niti Ayog rely on other self-serving statistics? And why did it ignore social and health issues?

The bigger tragedy is that we cannot be sure of our watchdogs; under pressure, they become promoters rather than preventers of malpractices. India has for long been a victim of this malaise. In 2009 the Food & Safety Standards Authority of India, our only food regulatory body, saw Pepsi and Coca-Cola officials becoming members of panels to judge various technical matters such as sampling methods, additives and flavourings. With a board comprising representatives of the very companies it was supposed to regulate, what safety standards could FSSAI ensure?

Similar manipulations made the GEAC clear GM brinjal in 2009. Monsanto, described by The Guardian of UK as "the world's most hated company", infiltrated the GEAC and also gave various research assignments to field researchers and sundry agricultural scientists in the country. The result was that Monsanto-flavoured research reached the GEAC for Mansanto-flavoured decisions. Activist Kavita Kuruganti publicly charged that the chairman of the Expert Committee appointed to examine the matter was "pressurised by the Agriculture Minister, GEAC and the industry" to clear GM brinjal. We were saved from it only because an alert minister, Jairam Ramesh, put it safely in Trishanku Swarga.

The lobbyists turned smarter this time. They presented GM mustard as the product of a Delhi University team's research. This was followed by another report: The genes that went into the DU mustard was the property of Bayer, a merged part of Monsanto. Three giant corporations including Monsanto-Bayer control both the seeds market and the pesticide market globally. It's a win-win situation for them and Swadeshi scientists, too, necessarily work as their foot soldiers.

The only thing that can be done about technologies based on chemical pesticides is to eliminate them. Reckless use of pesticides in the cotton region of Punjab ruined a generation of farmers. Their tragedy was dramatised by the "cancer train" that took afflicted farmers daily from Bhatinda station to Bikaner (where the Acharya Tulsi cancer institute was more affordable). Biologist Pushpa Bhargava, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2008 to observe the GEAC's functioning, was outraged by the manipulations he saw. "Whatever Monsanto said was God's own word", he said and warned: "If bt. Brinjal is released, it will be the single largest disaster in the country".

Larger still will be the mustard disaster.

Monday, June 5, 2017

BJP approach to cattle trading will hurt the economy; but who cares since the idea is to create vote banks

It's clear: The cow dominates India. The world is changing in radical ways and life-and-death issues confront our country -- GST's impact on everyday life, the "dirty war" in Kashmir, rising attacks on women, crisis in the IT industry, tensions with China. But none of them gets the national attention the cow gets. It is as though the country is meant only for cow worshippers and cow eaters. Religion is the key here as it is in all policy matters nowadays.

(Before we go any further, it is important for this writer to make what is called a disclaimer. I do not eat meat. Of any kind. Can't even stand the sight of it dangling from hooks in wayside stalls. In school days I was in love with Lakshmi, one of three cows in the family shed. She was a real beauty, plump and wholesome and shining deep brown and aglow with a smile, I thought, when she saw me. No one worshipped her, except me, only that my worship was that of a lover).

The most important thing we should know about today's cow debate is that it is not rational. It is emotional and political. This is because the BJP in power believes that it can alter the country's DNA. Remember that legislation for cow protection need not be aggressive. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Act is dated 1964 when Congress stalwart Kengal Hanumanthaiah was the chief minister. Note that it specified cow, without hiding behind terms like cattle as now.

The BJP has given the issue a combative, party-oriented twist. This comes through disastrously in the violence unleashed by cow rowdies: Lynching a citizen on mere suspicion, flogging dalits who skinned dead cattle as per tradition, beating to death a dairy farmer taking his cows home, ABVP activists attacking a student in IIT-Madras for eating beef. That such crimes are committed before cameras and then publicised shows that the criminals are sure of support from law-enforcers. On the record so far, they are right.

No wonder that reason has no chance and partisan emotionalism wins the day. Historian D.N. Jha's 2001 book Holy Cow: Beef in India was a scholarly study. But even before it was out, Hindutva forces declared war. The Government banned the book and the author, facing death threats, was obliged to take police protection. Jha had merely quoted chapter and verse to show that Hindus ate beef in the past.

With the same belligerence with which they attack the facts of the past, communal partisans reject the realities of the present. The economics of cattle farming are of existential importance to India. Farmers who rear cattle must have the facility to sell them at will, hence the thousands of cattle markets in the country. A productive cow (useful in agriculture and dairy work) can get half a lakh of rupees in the market. Once productivity stops, the bovines have no value except in the meat market. To deny this is to hit farmers below the belt.

Farmers who cannot sell cattle profitably, will stop rearing cattle (providing 20 kg of fodder to an animal means Rs 150 a day to the farmer). At the same time the population of stray cattle will increase. This is already visible in Maharashtra and Haryana where the BJP has banned beef. There are no organisations with the ability and the willingness to run goshalas for the tens of thousands of cows that roam shelterless. And what of the industries dependent on various parts of cattle -- skin (India's leather exports earn $ 6 billion a year), bone, horns, tail hair, blood? And the employment given to traders, middlemen, transporters, tanners, cooks? From no angle relevant to the progress of a nation is a cattle trading ban justified. It is not justified even from the point of view of Hindus en masse; many non-Brahmin Hindus are meat eaters. Just as many non-Hindus are vegetarian.

Wouldn't a national programme to promote vegetarianism have been wiser than an arbitrary ban on traditional cattle business? Given the increasing popularity of vegetarian diets across the world, India could play a leadership role in such a programme as it did in the case of Yoga. That would have indirectly led to cow protection as well. Such constructive thinking can of course have no scope if the intention is to divide people and create vote banks. The cow has been reduced to a political tool -- an insult to its holiness.

Monday, May 29, 2017

When Trump calls for a war against Islamic terrorism and praises its historical promoter, it is hypocrisy

Abu Zubaydah, a "high-value" associate of fellow Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, was captured by America's CIA from a safe house in Pakistan in 2002. (Pakistan's ISI got $ 10 million for services rendered). Badly wounded, Zubaydah was put on painkillers. CIA strategists manipulated the medication until the man was hallucinated into believing that he was in Saudi Arabian custody. Feeling relieved, he gave the "doctors" a telephone number and asked them to call a member of the Saudi royal family to ask for further instructions. He also revealed that the royals had agreed in late 1990s to support bin Laden in return for assurances that the kingdom would be excluded from his jihad. The CIA got to work. Three Saudi leaders and a Pakistani army officer Zubaydah had named died one after another in accidents. All secrets were safe.

Details like these, described in the 2003 book Why America Slept: The failure to prevent 9/11 by Gerald Posner are alarming enough. They get scary when read alongside reports that, after President George Bush proclaimed a no-fly order covering America's entire airspace following the 9/11 attack, a solitary aircraft rose from the Washington area and flew out of American space, safely, unchallenged. It was a Saudi Arabian passenger plane. Few knowledgeable people today doubt that Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 terror strike that shook the world. Of the 19 terrorists in the four hijacked planes, 15 were Saudi citizens.

It was from this Saudi Arabia that the new President of the United States appealed to Muslim nations last week to ensure that "terrorists find no sanctuary in their soil". He told what was called the Arab Islamic American Summit (35 Sunni countries friendly with the Saudis) that it was necessary to "honestly confront the crisis of Islamist extremism".

As it happens, Islamist extremism is also a wholly Saudi Arabian contribution. Warring tribal chieftains who established the Saudi dynasty used Wahabism, a violently orthodox reconstruction of Islam, as a ruse to build up their hegemony in the Arabian peninsula. In recent years they have been using it to spread Saudi-Wahabi influence in countries with large Muslim populations. The flow of Saudi money and Saudi evangelists has been radicalising local Islamic communities in many countries including India.

An unplanned offshoot of Saudi Arabia's undeclared religious war is the rise of the IS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a caliphate that is out to capture the world by force). The ground was prepared for them, first, by the Bush profiteers who created a war to milk Iraq's oil resources and, then, by Saudi Arabia's putsch to establish Sunni dominance over Iraq's Shias and Syria's ruling Alawi sect. An entire generation in the region has been brutalised by Saudi machinations.

From Wahabism's rise in the 18th century and the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932 to the rise of IS in 1999, Saudi Arabia has been the principal incubator of the terrorism that gentlemen like Donald Trump now condemn. But they dare not point a finger at Saudi Arabia. For a moment Trump sounded like he was finally calling a spade a spade when he told the aforementioned Summit: "No discussion on stamping out terrorism would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three [essentials] -- safe harbour, financial backing, and social standing for recruitment". A perfect profile of Saudi Arabia, but Trump hastened to say: "I am speaking of course of Iran". What relief! Ironically, Trump and his Saudi hosts attacked Iran just when the only democratic election in the region saw the re-election in Iran of a modernist-moderate, Hassan Rouhani, over a hardline cleric.

But Trump's rhetoric is fully understandable. He is a deal-maker with his mind focussed on money. Saudi Arabia agreed to buy US weapons worth $ 100 billion. It agreed to invest $ 350 billion in America. It agreed also to give $ 100 million to a woman's business fund promoted by Lady Trump. That's real money. For Trump the embrace of Saudi Arabia is the embrace of money. America First as he proclaims.

What about us? Our joint projects with Iran -- the Chabahar port, gas pipelines -- are of great value not only economically but also strategically considering China's parallel activities with Pakistan. Smart nations find ways to pursue their bilateral interests without letting third parties come in the way. We let the America First approach come in the way of what should be an India First stance with Iran.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The manner in which Hindi is promoted hasn't helped national unity. One-sided policy has hindered it

Was it necessary to kick up the Hindi controversy all over again? A better model was available to the authorities. Within a fortnight of the Modi Government taking office, a circular had gone round Central Government offices asking for Hindi to be used in social media. Protests rose from non-Hindi states and the PMO quickly doused the fire by explaining that the circular was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. Earlier this month, in an apparent bid to prove more loyal than the king, the Official Language Committee headed by Kiran Rijuju proposed -- and the President of India approved -- that all dignitaries give their speeches/statements in Hindi only (meaning that those who did not do so in Hindi would not be considered dignitaries), that flight announcements be in Hindi followed by English (that is how it is now, so what was the need to rub it in?) Minister Rijuju said "we are not imposing Hindi, only promoting it like any other language". Like any other language? What's his most recent move to promote Telugu or Konkani?

It is part of Hindi chauvinism to assume that South Indians are anti-Hindi. They are not. They have heartily welcomed cinema, television, sports and latterday phenomena like migrant labour that spread spoken Hindi across the region. What blocks Hindi are two other obstacles. First, the air of superiority of the Hindiwalla, especially when he has precious little to be superior about. Secondly, the advantage people from Hindi states get in the job market.

In 2016 the official Sarkari Naukri Portal advertised hundreds of thousands of jobs -- total government vacancies 2,73,879, graduate government jobs 82,319 and so on. When applicants for these jobs are processed, candidates whose mother tongue is Hindi get a natural advantage over those from non-Hindi areas, irrespective of professional qualifications. It is a pity that the over-enthusiastic Rijuju does not understand the bread-and-butter implications of Hindi.

Even as Rijuju was busy promoting "all" the languages, another patriot went to the Supreme Court with the plea that the Centre, the states and Union territories be asked to make Hindi compulsory for class I to VII students across the country "to promote national unity". The Court not only refused to entertain the plea; it noted that the petitioner was a spokesman of the BJP's Delhi chapter and asked: "Why does he not ask his party to do it? He is part of the Government". For that matter, why does he not ask about the three-language formula, enshrined as state policy in 1968, which requires people in Hindi-speaking states to study Hindi, English and a modern Indian language. How many in UP have studied English and another Indian language? A one-way perspective supported by arrogance cannot "promote national unity".

Other countries march ahead of us by being practical, not chauvinistic. In 2001 China made English a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. English also became a required subject, along with Mandarin and mathematics, for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. Today nearly 94 percent of students who have to study a foreign language choose English. This has been a factor in China's march in recent years to world leadership.

Inspiring was the example set by Indonesia, a country of 17,500 islands with 260 "vigorous" languages and 350 declining languages. As much as 45 percent Indonesians are Javanese. And yet the leadership of the freedom movement, though dominated by Javanese, decided that independent Indonesia should not have a system that would give undue advantage to the Javanese and their language. So they chose as the national language a Malay-Jawi mix and gave it a neutral name, Bahasa Indonesia. To clinch the unifying reform, they also adopted the Roman (Latin) script for the new Bahasa. That was patriotism true and proper.

The only Indian leader who had that kind of vision was Subhas Chandra Bose. In the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, Bose as President mooted the idea of adopting Roman script for Hindustani. He explained how Kamal Atatuk's decision to introduce Roman script in Turkey had worked wonders in that country. Of course the Congress simply ignored the idea. It was Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, who proposed that Hindi be the national language with Devanagari script. Instead of uniting India, it has proved divisive because Hindi is promoted with neither the pragmatism of Subhas Chandra Bose nor the wisdom of the Javanese. All that the promoters have is a blinkered view of nationalism -- and we keep paying for it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

With Kerala's CM inviting humiliation after humiliation, the CPM saga may be coming to a close in India

Are we witnessing the final fade-out of communism's run in India? West Bengal was a Left citadel that seemed impregnable for three long decades. Rather suddenly it crumbled and repeated attempts to put it together again have failed. Kerala then became the Marxists' only viable address. The electoral victory they gained in the state last year was impressive and the chief minister's chair was filled by the Indian Left's legendary Strong Man, Pinarayi Vijayan.

From day one, however, and for reasons no one can understand, Pinarayi became a standing monument to foolishness. False step after false step led to humiliation after humiliation for himself and for his Government. By last week, in the wake of heavy lashings by the Supreme Court, Pinarayi looked not just a comic figure but also a dangerous one out of tune with all others including his own party leaders.

There is a pattern in his conduct: He always takes a position against public opinion. Is it ego, arrogance or the Strong Man showing that he can do what he pleases? When students began an agitation against malpractices in a family-run law college, the Chief Minister supported the erring family. The students gained widespread public sympathy and eventually won their demands, but Pinarayi continued to be on the side of the wrongdoers.

More unpopular was his backing of a private college management against which students rose in revolt following the suicide of one of them. The management was accused of torturing him and others who questioned practices like extracting money under various pretexts. When the dead boy's protesting mother was manhandled by the police, people across the state were outraged by the Government's insensitiveness. The family's demands were finally conceded, but only on paper, while the Chief Minister went on making disparaging remarks about the grieving mother and her relatives. The loss of public goodwill for the Government was massive.

On other fronts, too, the public was either puzzled or offended. In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister started surrounding himself with special advisors -- legal advisor, media advisor, economic advisor (from Harvard University), police advisor; two of his ministers were obliged to resign in unhappy circumstances; Kannur politics (from his region of the state) saw 18 political murders in one year attributed to the CPM and BJP; he was seen generally against the popular drive to remove encroachments in the hills of Munnar, criticising the officials carrying out orders.

It was his handling of the police that exposed a confused, inefficient and self-obsessed Pinarayi ( who is Home Minister as well). He began his term by removing the police chief, Senkumar. Improving police efficiency was not the intention, for major cases of incompetence followed. A film actress was kidnapped and assaulted and even before investigation could begin, the Chief Minister said it was not a conspiracy. On World Women's Day, Shiv Sena's moral police attacked couples, and policemen stood around watching. A woman student died in mysterious circumstances and so did two school girls within two months of each other; police investigations became a farce.

And Senkumar went to court. The way Pinarayi handled the matter became a classic case of moronism. The Supreme Court ordered the Government to take Senkumar back as chief of police. A sensible government would have quietly done so and minimised the damage to its prestige. But Pinarayi, with all those advisors around him, delayed Senkumar's reinstatement for a week, then filed a new petition asking for clarity in the court's order. The court dismissed the petition, disregarded the Government lawyer's apology, imposed a fine of 25,000 rupees towards costs, remarked that it was now convinced that the removal of Senkumar in the first place was done with "malafide intentions", and issued notice on a contempt of court petition against the state's chief secretary.

Shamed as no government had been shamed before, the Pinarayi machine still didn't see the light. Just before Senkumar was reinstated, a hundred police officers were hastily reshuffled in the state, evidently to keep a watch on the new chief. A chief minister so scared of his own police chief? Additionally, he stood before the state assembly and made amazing claims: the Government had not been fined by the court, there was no apology by the Government, we only followed procedures, the Government did nothing wrong....

If this is how Pinarayi Vijayan goes on, the CPM may be off India's power map for good. People can take the foolishness of fools, but not the foolishness of egoists.

Monday, May 8, 2017

China's take-over of the South China Sea is complete; a summit next week clinches its strategic gains

A week from today "the biggest diplomatic event of the year" will take place in China with many heads of government in attendance (not India's). This is the first summit of Xi Jinping's prestigious signature project -- the One Belt One Road (OBOR) enterprise to build a network of railways, ports and powergrids linking Asia, Africa and Europe.

The sheer sweep of the concept -- shall we say, the daring -- is a proclamation of China's ambitions. We will miss the big message underlying the big idea if we see OBOR in isolation. It is part of an awakening that has transformed China into the world's second most powerful country, poised to overtake the first. The economic muscle that is being built through projects like OBOR is but an extension of the military and strategic muscles that are continuously being strengthened.

Consider the South China Sea. Large portions of this expanse constitute the territorial waters of Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. Early on they had protested against China's aggressive moves. The Philippines even went to the International Court which ruled in its favour. China ignored it all and went on strengthening sandbanks, filling up shoals, laying airstrips. American military sources now say that "hundreds" of surface-to-air missiles are being set up in the now militarised islands. Australian experts have said it is too late to challenge China. Philippine President advised his fellow Southeast Asian leaders to reconcile to the fait accompli. Without firing a shot, China has taken over an ocean and turned a half dozen littoral states into virtual satellites.

China's second aircraft carrier was launched last month, built in China at what is described as amazing speed. (India's second carrier being built at Kochi is eight years behind schedule). China has announced that six more carriers are being built, two to be deployed permanently in the Indian Ocean. Note, too, that China has taken over Gwadar port in Pakistan and has set up a military base in Djibouti's port in the Gulf of Aden. It's clear that China's status as a naval power in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region is already formidable, and steadily becoming more so.

Add to this the headway China has made in strategic alliances. It has significantly improved its relations with Russia, leading to a China-Russia-Pakistan economic partnership. What is interesting here is that Russia was a close ally of India for a long period during which it had kept Pakistan at a distance. The strategic balance of the whole region changed following India's decision to cultivate America in preference to Russia. What has India gained? Pakistan is today an integral part of Southeast Asian geopolitics as shaped by China and Russia while America's Asia pivot policy of which India was to be a central component has evaporated. Unpredictable as Trump's America is, the State Department said last week that China would be America's highest priority in Asia.

China's attitude to India has changed, too. It seems to have concluded that India is no longer the serious competitor it once appeared to be. On the OBOR issue China officially stated that "India will have a representative". (Perhaps a middle rank diplomat or businessman). The Chinese media, however, felt no need to be diplomatic. It said Delhi would be isolated and embarrassed by its stand, that Russia and Iran are "seeking to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which will put India in a more awkward position".

Iran was initially most interested in building relations with India. Given Shia Iran's problems with Baluchistan, close ties with Tehran should have been a strategic (besides economic) priority for India. But our responses were tardy. Iran has since moved away to the warmer China-Pakistan-Russia partnership. Yet another pointer to the altered situation is India's apparent loss of interest in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. There was a time when India was eager to get full membership. In another month formalisation of full membership, along with Pakistan's, is to be processed. Despite the fact that this is part of the profound realignments that are taking place in Eurasia, India is sulking.

Even in Sri Lanka, when a project was drawn up for India to develop Trincomalee, local protests become so powerful that the idea had to be dropped. At the same time China is building a massive new port in the country's capital itself, adjacent to the existing Colombo port.

Somewhere we've done something not good. Who will find out? Who will take remedial measures? Who will bell the cat?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dissent is a vital part of nationalism. We need it. Enforced nationalism is counter-productive

It is part of India's vedic wisdom that even amrut, when taken in excess, turns poisonous. The case of nationalism is no different: Too much of it becomes counter-productive. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M.Kalburgi were nationalists, proud of their country and working for its betterment. But they were independent thinkers like most educated Indians are, and that was enough for hypernationalists, with the fanaticism of the ignorant, to kill them.

Fanatics have grown more defiant in the last couple of years. They dare even the Prime Minister. When cow vigilantism raised its head, Narendra Modi, though belatedly, condemned the vigilantes as anti-social. Some leaders of the vigilantes responded with words of defiance against the Prime Minister. After the BJP's recent victories, violent vigilantism has increased. Transporting even buffaloes invites attacks. A dairy farmer was lynched. UP's meat industry has collapsed leaving thousands jobless and the economy badly hit.

Add to this the misuse of sedition laws. The silliest example was the filing of a sedition case against Kannada actor-politician Ramya. Her crime? She said Pakistan was not hell, that ordinary Pakistanis were like ordinary Indians. Normal people would see this as a normal observation. But an overheated patriot accused her of sedition. She said she was entitled to her opinion. The self-styled nationalists responded by throwing eggs at her car. This kind of nationalism is one-dimensional, intolerant, in fact anti-national.

Manufactured nationalism enforced from above only leads to tyranny and oppression. Hitler's Germany proved that, as did Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile. On the other hand, dissent has never really harmed a nation. See America's record.

During the Vietnam war, America's writers and film-makers and students turned into vicious critics of the Government. Some 30,000 books came out on Vietnam. They minced no words. A 2013 study, bluntly titled Kill Anything That Moved: The Real American War in Vietnam, established how that war was a manifestation of American state terrorism.

No author was taken to court on sedition charges. In fact, public opinion forced America to end the war.

A New York Times columnist quoted chapter and verse to show that, as the Iraq war drew to a close, businessmen tied to President George Bush and his family were controlling business opportunities in the country in segments such as reconstruction. The columnist said that "Iraq is proving to be a bonanza for the Bush administration's corporate cronies... The Bush II crowd is arrogant, venal, mean-spirited and contemptuous of law and custom".

No case of sedition was filed against the columnist.

The director of a human rights organisation in New York said in an article that America used "torture, abuse, lies and cover-up" in Iraq. He described American occupation in Iraq as "a criminal enterprise masquerading as liberation".

He was not called anti-national.

A corporate executive wrote a book in 2003 arguing that American politicians had consistently promoted evil, from installing dictators in a dozen countries to supplying anthrax and arms to Taliban. The book's title: Rogue Nation.

No unknown patriot knocked at his door and, as he opened it, shot him dead.

Americans expressed their hatred for Bush in numerous ways. 'Impeach Bush' car stickers were among the more sober forms of protest. Some others left nothing to the imagination. Book titles, for example, were explicit: Stupid White Men, The Liar George Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

Not one of the writers had eggs thrown at them, let alone sedition cases filed.

After nationalism drove Margaret Thatcher to the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982, she organised a Thanksgiving Service in London, the assumption being that God was on UK's side and the nation had to express its gratitude to him. Britain's religious head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, took a different view. He said in his sermon: "Those who dare to interpret God's will must never claim him as an asset for one nation rather than another. War follows when the love and loyalty that should be offered to God are offered to some God-substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism".

The Indians who are promoting a parochial version of nationalism with the help of guns, eggs and the Sedition Act may be inspired by what they consider religious sentiments, but it's a misinterpretation of religion. History has given them a moment of opportunity. If they do not use that moment wisely, it will disappear.

Foolish things done with immunity because of political power are still foolish.

Monday, April 24, 2017

V. P. Singh was meant to be a dreamer, a poet, an artist; It was bad luck he ended up as prime minister

In the political universe of India V. P. Singh rose as high as a citizen could -- MLA, chief minister, union finance minister, defence minister, prime minister, father of coalition politics. For all that, he was seen as a "failure" because he was a lone crusader against corruption and for social justice; those who disapproved of crusaders were more powerful. The footprints V. P. Singh left on the sands of time were rapidly washed away.

To make it in politics in India, one needs a certain crudity of disposition, a well-developed insensitivity to other people's needs. V. P. Singh had the opposite attributes, for he was really not a politician; he was a poet and an artist. He was shaped by the essential qualities of an artist -- sensitiveness, a penchant for the subtleties that make up life, an eye for beauty including the beauty of the invisible. That a man of creative sensibilities was pushed into the negative tumble of politics was the tragedy of V. P. Singh.

How different it would have been if he had decided to dedicate his life to writing. See how his imagination takes wing as he watches tea being poured through a tea-stainer. The poem is titled Tea-Stainer and the lines go:

Bounded by wires
And punctured by holes
Is my being.

For a moment
My heart
Rapturously fills up
Then drop by drop
Drains away.

Whatever you may pour
Is never retained

What remains
Are some drained leaves
Spent desires.

Life then a wait
For someone to come
And make tea again.

Fortunately some of his work as poet and painter is available in book form. He usually wrote poems in Hindi, then, Tagore-like, translated them himself into English, making his imageries and dreamings available to a wider audience. Every Time I Wake Up is a collection of poems published by the Penguin Group in 2006. It's really a collector's item because, apart from the surprisingly revealing poems, some of them just two or four lines and untitled, the book contains evocative drawings by the poet. The cover jacket carries colour paintings in front and back in two contrasting styles.

V. P. Singh was a sick man. (He died in November 2008 after a long struggle with bone marrow cancer). The loneliness and the anxieties hospitalisation brought him are the more moving for the candidness with which he wrote about them. Every time I wake up / It is night.... / With only my echo to tell me / How far away I am. How could a man of such perceptive responsiveness cope with the all-or-nothing attrition wars of politics? Singh as Defence Minister unveiled Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in kickback defence deals such as Bofors. But he could not pursue that campaign with the relentlessness it needed. Poets just do not have the ruthlessness of politicians.

Did V. P. Singh have a private love link? It could as well be the flights of fancy of a poet felled by a fatal illness. But we cannot miss the tenderness of some of his untitled couplets that take up half the book under the generic heading Vignettes. After confessing in the very first Vignette that Desire tip-toed right up to me / It was too late to run, he gives us some teasers:

Blossoms whispered
You are in town

The floating lines are no doubt meant to be momentary thoughts that inspire and/or depress the poet. But the power of sentiment makes you pause and ponder when you read sudden lines like

The moon
Just peeped into my window
Did you send it ?

He certainly was aware that his public image was that of a politician, not a writer or artist. There are repeated references to the fallibilities and transitoriness of what makes news. But clearly the politician found consolation in the poet.

All their swords
Could not slay
My shadow

Not that he considered himself a ranking poet. At one point he says, with disarming self-effacement.
I counted
My poems
Like money
And realised
How bankrupt am I.

Perhaps he knew that he was trapped in politics. That, at any rate, seems to be the message in the very last Vignette in the book:

I switched off the moon
And switched on the lights
I was in town.

A decade after his passing, he is still in town -- as prime minister, and as poet and artist.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Craze for fairness creams, too, is an aspect of racism. No need to deny facts; all peoples are racists

Why do we deny the racism in us? All humans are infected by it. When an Indian techie was shot dead in an American pub, when an Indian woman was stabbed to death in Australia, we knew and we said they were racial attacks. Why do we do a metaphysical turnaround when we are the attackers and Africans the victims?

When Africans were beaten up horrendously in a Delhi mall recently, government spokesman expressed regret but hastened to add that it was not a racial attack. What else was it? Even when a fight is triggered by routine factors like a restaurant altercation or taxifare dispute, when the fight is between Indians and Africans, it takes on at once a racist character expressed through the expletives used and the sheer ruthlessness of the attack.

This message has been conveyed by many incidents of violence in recent years. Typical was the case of the African student who stopped at a wayside shop in Bengaluru and asked for cigarettes. The shopkeeper said he was out of stock. A minute later a local came along and he was given the brand he wanted. The African protested -- and was beaten up. The worst part is that the police either turn bystanders or side with the locals.

Denial doesn't help anyone. In the language of social scientists, racism exists as an unconscious attitude in individuals and societies everywhere. "There has been a racial element in human history", said A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his 1998 book India 2020. Long before him, the poet in Sarojini Naidu had referred to "the natural conflicts of races and religions" and said that only education could resolve them.

That was an optimistic view. The greatest racist crimes in history were committed by apparently educated people -- the annihilation of the natives of America by European colonisers, the decimation of Australia's aborigines by British settlers and Nazi Germany's extermination campaign against Jews. Education may tone down racism but cannot eradicate it because ethnic prejudices are ingrained in human psyche.

That Germans claiming pure Aryan blood set out to obliterate Jews showed that racism is not always colour-based. But colour is the most potent element in racism. In Israel itself black Jews from Africa and India are second class compared to white Jews. George Washington, who pioneered the concepts of equality enshrined in the American constitution, kept blacks as slaves because he considered it normal. Despite the "black is beautiful" movement and an icon like Cassius Clay defiantly becoming Mohammed Ali, white policemen still attack black Americans because they are black.

We in India should be able to understand this clearly because no other Asian country is home to such colour-based prejudices as we are. See the matrimonial ads and the craze for fairness creams. Scholars trace our colour complexes all the way back to our Vedic heritage. R.S.Sharma, author of books like Sudras in Ancient India, cites chapter and verse in the Rig Veda to show that "other survivors of earlier societies were reduced to what came to be known as the fourth varna of Aryan society". But, he adds, "it would be wrong to think that all the 'blacks' were reduced to the status of Sudra helots, since there are some references to black seers". He also draws attention to the fact that "in the tenth book the Angiras author of the Rig Veda x.42-44 is called 'black' ".

Perhaps it is the Rig Veda's triumph that the average North Indian sees all South Indians as "Madrasis". That dumbness of the brain made Aam Admi Party's court poet Kumar Vishwas and JDU's antique leader Sharad Yadav talk about the dark damsels of the south. They are convinced no doubt that Deepika Padukone is a Garhwal native.

By comparison Tarun Vijay is a worldlywise politician. Even for him it came naturally to wonder "how we live with" South Indians. For all his public relations chutzpah, Tarun Vijay's veins carry RSS-treated blood, making the Vindhyas a cultural wall. Compulsions of vote politics may impose different public posturings but the inner cells remains fixed.

That is why it is important not to miss the significance of the "we" he used. The message to the Africans was: How do "we", inheritors of Aryavarta's glories, live with "them", the unsanskritised natives of the south; if we can live with them, we can live with you. Convinced? It's time to expand Kipling: North is north and south is south and never the twain shall meet.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Almost unnoticed, our democracy is getting abridged; is perpetual one-party rule the future of India?

Fact No. 1: Donations by companies to political parties is the biggest contributor to corruption in India. All parties acknowledge this.

Fact No. 2: Elimination of corruption has been a top priority with the BJP government. After the currency demonetisation, government leaders even claimed that black money and corruption had been virtually stamped out.

Fact No. 3: The Finance Bill rushed through Parliament two weeks ago made nonsense of the Government's stated positions. It actually legalised unlimited donations by companies, that too, anonymously.

Fact No. 4: Brazenness characterised the Government's move to promote the interests of the ruling party. If new rules also promoted corruption and black money, so be it, seemed to be the official stance.

Consider the audacity on display. Companies were allowed to contribute to parties 7.5 percent of their average net profits of the previous three years. The Finance Bill abolished that limit. A company can now contribute any amount of money to political parties regardless of whether its own balance sheet shows profit or loss. Ominously, they do not have to disclose to whom they have given the funds. Thus, the new policy position boils down to: Unlimited and anonymous. So much for the policy of transparency the Government swears by.

This is in addition to the electoral bonds idea introduced in the budget earlier. The Finance Minister claims that this system will bring in clean money. How can it be clean when neither the donor company nor the favoured party has to declare the transaction? In fact the legally permitted secrecy make it a profound boost to crony capitalism.The power of business houses to influence policies has always been a feature of our democracy. Now it can be exercised without even the vexatious paraphernalia that Niira Radia had to organise for her clients.

If things were clean, then what was the need to introduce the finance Bill with non-money amendments in violation of parliamentary convention? Those amendments should normally have gone through Rajya Sabha voting as well. But the BJP does not have a majority in the upper house, so the short cut of money bill with non-money amendments was resorted to. The opposition objected to the irregularity and walked out, and clauses that would alter the character of Indian democracy were passed by voice vote.

Corporate donations to political parties always help the party in power more than others. The Association of Democratic Reforms reported that in 2015 the BJP had received contributions totalling Rs 437.35 crore, more than twice the aggregate declared by the Congress, the NCP, the CPI and the CPM put together. Donations received by all political parties that year showed a 151 percent increase over the previous year. As much as 94 percent of the donations declared by the BJP came from corporates. These figures point to developments not anticipated either by the Constitution makers, or indeed by the voters.

The Finance Bill 2017 altered as many as 40 existing laws. One example should suffice to highlight the scary potential of the changes. Under the new amendments, an Income Tax official can now raid your house or office, carry out a search and seize things without giving any reason. This is reminiscent of the powers that Indira Gandhi acquired under the Emergency. Just as she did, the authorities today can "legally" intimidate political opponents and subjugate critics. A perilous future awaits those who try to exercise the rights they imagine they have in a democracy.

The picture gets grimmer with the controversy that has arisen over voting machine malfunctioning. People like Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal have zero credibility. When they complained about machine tampering, it was dismissed as the cry of the loser. Subsequently, however, official tests found that the machines could indeed record votes in favour of one party whichever button was pressed. Following the demo in Bhind under the supervision of the Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh, three government officials including the district collector had been transferred. The state government resisted any further transfer of officials, but under the pressure of the Election Commission, two more revenue officers were transferred.

Only the dumb will fail to understand the implications of these disturbing developments -- of money flowing anonymously to the coffers of a party, of laws getting amended conveniently, of self-opinionated voting machines. We may be witnessing the historical spectacle of a people governed by one of the world's most enlightened constitutions electing through constitutionally prescribed channels the same party continuously for ever and ever, Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

If gangsters have taken over the education 'industry', all talk of development in India is bunkum

Education in India is in tatters because of horrendous corruption. This is making the country wobble like a skyscraper detached from its foundations. The authorities ignore the crisis because they are themselves either the destroyers or protectors of the destroyers. Frauds and scoundrels have been having such a field day that it is difficult to imagine the country rising to its potential in the foreseeable future. So much for our glorified development.

How can there be any kind of development when examination papers are routinely leaked, copying becomes a cottage industry as in Bihar, admissions are based on bribes and colleges and examiners are, to a large extent, fake? Cheats have invaded even the army. In Mumbai recently question papers of the army recruitment examinations, supplied by insiders, were made available to aspirants at Rs 2-to-5 lakh per head. Forged domicile certificates were also on sale if a candidate wanted to appear in another examination centre. Investigators said the racket had been going on for two years -- which means battalion-size numbers of unworthy recruits might already be wearing army uniforms.

How many unworthy recruits who got fake medical degrees from fake medical colleges must be there in our hospitals? The Medical Council of India, the supreme controlling authority, was dissolved in 2010 because of corruption. President Ketan Desai was arrested. But the influential Desai remains active while government announcement of creating a new controlling body remains on paper.

Remember the biggest scandal of them all was the Madhya Pradesh Government's Vyavasayik Pareeksha Mandal, tasked with conducting eligibility tests for medical colleges and government jobs. It was manipulated for so long that thousands of unqualified people became doctors and government servants. So powerful were the manipulators that, after the story broke in 2013, at least 48 people were killed, mostly witnesses, and a journalist who had started investigating the story? Were the guilty punished? Are the Vyapam examinations clean today? Keep guessing.

We all know the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, ICSE, is the prized class X examination conducted by more than 2000 schools in the country. But the Intermediate Council of Schooling Education is also ICSE. Their website offers not only Class X pass but also degrees from MBBS to BL, from B.Sc to B.Com. The police busted the racket in 2014. The racket reconstituted itself in different formats.

Kerala is currently scandalised by private colleges not only fleecing students but also beating them up as routine practice. A "law university" had shed its original backers and become a family-controlled business with the chief organiser's daughter becoming the principal. Women students, unable to tolerate the principal's highhandedness and caste insults, launched an agitation that attracted massive public support. The principal was forced to resign. But the support extended by the ruling communist leaders to the college's owning family casts doubts on whether the widely-detested principal is really gone or is only having a holiday.

A student "committed suicide" in another private college. Students went on strike saying it was murder. They said the college had a special torture room where any student who raised questions about the college's affairs was given appropriate treatment. The chairman of the college was arrested and bailed out. Two others charged with torture are at large. Again, the Government is on the side of the college which ensures that inquiries are getting nowhere. All this in a state once reputed for its high level of education and its model colleges.

In Vellore last month, the chairman of the GGR College of Engieering, G.G. Ravi, was hacked to death by a gang armed with sickles. Apparently Ravi's family had a long-running war with a known rowdy Mahalingam. In September 2015 Mahalingam had tried to kill Ravi, but Ravi escaped while his sons chased Mahalingam and stoned him to death. The gang finally took its revenge -- which is all fine, but what have people of this kind got to do with colleges of engineering and stuff?

Plenty. Gangsters have turned to education because tens of thousands of youngsters are out there seeking jobs. They are easy prey. Education of some quality is the foundation without which no country can progress. If education at the government and private levels is taken over by racketeers and torturers and killers, all patronised by corrupt politicians and civil servants, what hope is there for the country? Human history, said H.G.Wells, becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Not much of a race for us, is it?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Self-propelled and cleverest among BJP's state chiefs, Adityanath could emerge as the star to watch

It is possible that Adityanath Yogi is not the communal dracula he is seen to be. He is of course a Hindutvavadi with a history of promoting doctrinal dogmatics of the extreme kind. But he is unlike the usual fringe zealots whose foolish statements shame their own mentors. He is intelligent. He is capable. He is clever. Importantly, he is beholden to no one in the political hierarchy of the day, yet he is a force the hierarchy cannot ignore. He has worked out his own narrative, not always in sync with the BJP's. Think of the implications of this exceptionality.

Think of the eight long days it took the BJP high command to name him as the chief minister choice. Obviously there was no ready consensus. On the contrary, there must have been efforts by important elements in the high command to block him. Eventually they had to yield to the forces that were behind him. Who were against him and why? Who fought for him and why? In which camp was Narendra Modi?

Answers will not be available outside the innermost circles of the BJP and RSS. But there were reports that, apart from other things, Adityanath's sword arm, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, would create trouble if their maharaj was sidelined. Right or wrong, the idea drew attention to Adityanath's uniqueness: No one else in the ruling dispensation has his own fighting arm of activists. Adityanath may belong to the BJP, but the BJP needs him more than he needs the BJP.

It is against this background that the new chief minister's debut pronouncements must be judged. The perceived dracula turned into a paragon of pragmatism as he managed to say that "development is my priority", then warned bureaucrats of penal action if they did not check communal flareups, crimes against women, and, yes, cow slaughter. Sanitation had to be taken up on a war footing, he told them. Off with lal battis on top of government cars, he ordered. And he asked his ministers and senior civil servants to provide details of their income and assets within 15 days. One thing is sure: Unlike BJP chief ministers in most other states, Adityanath Yogi will not be corrupt.

He developed impersonal goals as part of his sadhana as a temple priest. But then, inflexible ideological steadfastness is part of the same sadhana. It is no accident that the big issues that filled the UP air within two days of his taking over were not women's safety and sanitation, but the Ram Temple and slaughter houses. Ayodhya was a cause the revered Gorakhnath Peeth had taken up before the BJP or RSS did. Earlier temple heads had resorted to militant action to promote the cause. Adityanath is the proud inheritor of that tradition of militancy which would explain the explosive declamations he made from time to time against Muslims.

That background would have made Adityanath the candidate preferred by Hindutva hardliners who would like to "turn UP into a saffron laboratory on the lines of Gujarat". The BJP laid the foundations for experimentation by not fielding even one Muslim candidate in a state that is home to 140 million Muslims. Adityanath took into his cabinet a solitary Muslim, a benign cricketer. But he also made Suresh Rana a minister despite the man's role in the Muzaffarpur riots and four cases pending against him.

So where does the mix of signals leave UP and India? The intelligent politician in Adityanath will try to ensure that there are no Muzaffarpurs in UP now and that the Ram Temple issue is handled without triggering violence. However, he may not be too keen to control vigilantes who, always more loyal than the king, will insist that all meat is beef, all love is jihad. Since the BJP attributes its enormous victory in the state elections to its conscious policy of divisiveness, that line may be pursued for the run-up to the 2019 election as well.

In all this, Adityanath's role as UP's supremo will be critical. He will put his stamp on events as the days pass because he has a standing of his own unlike other state leaders who are mere extensions of the central command. Adityanath's potential to emerge as a BJP star in his own right -- a potential not shared by anyone else -- is what the world will be watching. Already there are references to him as "another Modi" and "the new Modi".

And he is only 44.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Modi's vision has a target year, exactly same as Xi's; But Modi's foot soldiers pursue other targets

Miracles never cease. On March 12 Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of BJP workers "I have a milestone of 2022 when India completes 75 years of independence". He wanted everyone to take up a project for the good of the country and complete it by 2022.

On March 13 China's official news agency said that President Xi Jinping had picked a milestone, 2022. Xinhua explained that later this year the National Congress would elect a new leadership for another five-year term, "the crunch period of President Xi's vision of a well-off nation by the party's 100th anniversary" which falls in 2022. Neither country noticed the milestones coinciding.

Modi talked about his vision of a new India rising. Xinhua news agency dwelt on President Xi's "governance philosophy" which was "leading more than 1.3 billion people on the march toward the Chinese dream". It said that by 2020 "China's GDP is expected to exceed $ 13 trillion. There should be a middleclass population of about 400 million by then, a huge market for the world".

Both leaders turned visionaries and presented their dreams and their plans to their people. But the comparison between the two cannot go any further. Xi Jinping presides over a one-party system. What's more, unlike his predecessors, he has concentrated all power in himself. That and the effusiveness of media build-up currently going on are reminiscent of the personality cult that marked Chairman Mao's reign.

Narendra Modi is more powerful than the prime ministers of the past. This strength comes primarily from the power of his own personality and the star quality he has achieved in public life. That the victory in this election is Modi's rather than the BJP's is by now common knowledge. For once P. Chidambaram struck a truthful note when he described Modi as the country's "most dominant political leader" (much to the chagrin of his own Congress Party's dominant leaders). But Modi operates in a parliamentary system with limitations Xi is free from. Besides, he does not have the seasoned, talented, dedicated apparatchiks Xi can rely on. Modi's apparatchiks do not even seem to comprehend his lofty ideals.

Modi said, "my vision for a new India is about empowering the poor with opportunities, the only thing that will propel India forward". None of his partymen on the ground in UP rose to that level of thinking. They were only concerned with winning by hook or by crook. The party manifesto talked about Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and facilities for visiting Hindu holy places by helicopter; the party's star campaigner, Yogi Adityanath did what he is best at -- polarising people along religious lines; Sakshi Maharaj publicly disagreed with his Prime Minister's view that equal attention should be paid to graveyards and crematoria, his own view being that there should be no graveyards at all in India: all citizens should be cremated whatever their religion. No hint anywhere here of empowering the poor or reflecting the Prime Minister's vision.

A one-party and one-leader system is prone to no such contradictions. Potential rivals of Xi Jinping have been imprisoned or otherwise neutralised in the name of his anti-corruption drive. Nevertheless, Xinhua is able to report that the anti-corruption campaign has gathered "crushing momentum" and "at least 240 senior officials and more than 1 million lower-level officials have been investigated".

Media eulogisation of Xi is fulsome, referring to him as a reformer who has scripted "China's own story, neither copied from other countries nor imposed on any" and has taken China's economy to a level where "it contributes over 30 percent of world economic growth".

China is positioning itself not as a regional power any longer but as a pacesetter of the world when it talks of its "reform juggernaut" and its supreme leader's vision. It is pitted against the United States and sees itself wresting leadership away from today's superpowers. Xi's flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative, symbolises China's uniqueness. Xinhua proclaims: "In three years Chinese businesses have helped build 56 economic and trade cooperation zones in 20 countries with total investment exceeding 18 billion US dollars. They have helped generate more than $ 1 billion in tax revenues and create more than 160,000 jobs for host countries".

Big gains, big claims. We are not in the same league. We are proud of our expensive elections, of our ability to stall Parliament sessions as per rules.We enjoy warring with ourselves. We are a democracy. We are India. We are like this only.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Winners cheer, losers sulk, but what real difference do elections make to our anarchic democracy?

This is a loner's lament when more than half the country is rejoicing over the BJP's overwhelming triumph in UP. The party and its leaders deserve the best of compliments. But the victory -- and the defeat of those who lost -- need to be assessed in the overall context of democracy's growth in our country. That is when a note of caution becomes necessary.

Six decades of anarchic democracy has taught us many things. The stand-out lesson is that winning elections is the be-all and end-all of politics. Parties would use cajolery, intimidation, false promises, caste/communal instigation, big money and plain violence to ensure victory. That's what they did yet again in this election.

And yet again, both winners and losers will continue as before, putting the party above the country and sending criminals into legislatures.In Uttar Pradesh 36 percent of the candidates in this election were criminally tainted, the Samajwadi Party heading the list with 50 percent and the BJP coming second with 36 percent. About 110 on the BJP's tainted list won. How can the state's new government be significantly different from the last one which included gang leaders involved in murder and kidnapping?

When Mayawati was chief minister, several of her senior ministers -- Mukhtar Ansari, Babu Singh Kushwaha, Badshah Singh, Chandradev Ram Yadav, Rangnath Misra -- landed in jail following disproportionate wealth cases. That must have been infradig for honourable members; real leaders prefer blood sport. Remember Amarmani Tripathi? He was a known offender in police records when he entered politics, shifted from Congress to BSP to BJP depending on the wind until he became a minister in Rajnath Singh's BJP cabinet. He was dismissed following a kidnapping case. He got into an affair with poetess Madhumita Shukla in 2003. She was found murdered and Tripathi was sentenced to life imprisonment.

(Twelve years later Amarmani's son Amanmani landed in jail after he emerged unscathed in a car accident in which his wife Sara was killed. He was already in the wanted list in a kidnapping and extortion case. Driven by patriotism as his father was, he ran as an independent in this election).

Perhaps the most dreaded figure is Raja Bhaiyya, famous for his no-nonsense style of disposing of people he dislikes. In his eagerness to serve the nation, he too drifted from party to party, becoming a BJP minister under Kalyan Singh and then Rajnath Singh. He was Food Minister in the Akhilesh Yadav cabinet when a police officer was shot dead in his constituency. Raja Bhaiyya's name appeared in the FIR whereupon he resigned from the cabinet and disappeared -- until it was time to stand for election again. He won of course.

The star of last month's campaigning, however, was Gayatri Prasad Prajapathi. He, too, was a minister. Naturally he felt that he was entitled to do what took his fancy. By the time the election campaign got into full swing, he was wanted in a rape case involving a woman who was ravaged repeatedly for two years and her 16-year-old daughter who was traumatised by attempted rape. Following Supreme Court orders, the police launched a hunt, even airports were put on alert. Nothing prevented the irrepressible minister from campaigning in Amethi, "hiding in plain sight", as a headline put it. In fact, PTI reported that a UP police officer who had gone to record the victim's statement threatened to kill the women in a fake encounter. This is what electoral democracy has come to.

The decline actually extends beyond politics and elections. Human nature itself seems to have become progressively less human. How else do we explain some recent developments that pull at our conscience? This spine-chilling story, for example, from the "Maoist-infested" areas of Chattisgarh. Police and killer squads had been carrying out an elimination campaign against villagers and activists using sadistic methods. The scandal forced the Government to transfer the last police chief out of the area. Yet, IPS officer Indira Kalyan Elesela said publicly in Raipur that human rights activists must be crushed on the roads by heavy vehicles.

Unbelievable? But this is today's India where the unbelievable has become believable. Elections in such a polity only mean one set of wrongdoers going out and another set of wrongdoers coming in. Where is the democratic India the first generation leaders nurtured in the spirit of the Constitution? Where is the ethical India envisioned in the Vedas? Where is the India we all talk about? Where indeed are simple human decencies?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Should the gods be cheaper than a luxury bungalow, cost less than a wedding? A tale of emperors

K. Chandrasekhar Rao is without doubt the most devout chief minister in the country today. No one gives as much space and attention to temples, sages and priests as he does; he had a seer sit and thus sanctify the new chief ministerial chair in the new chief ministerial house in Hyderabad before he himself occupied it. During the agitation for Telengana, he had vowed to present gold ornaments to as many as five temples. Two weeks ago he fulfilled one of the vows by donating 18.85 kilograms of gold ornaments worth Rs 5.45 crore to the holy Tirupathi temple.

Faith is a sustaining force in India. We should be grateful for that because it encourages us to be good. Leaders with faith in the divine can be expected to bring a degree of fairplay and justice to their leadership responsibilities. Faith enjoins those in power to be guided by the principles of nishkama karma, action without expecting rewards, the central message of the Bhagwad Gita.

But to what extent is this principle honoured in practice? Faith has also become a force that leads to considerable hypocrisy these days. This is true of all religions as a cursory glance will show. Buddhism, the ultimate creed of renunciation and peace, has been an instigator of violence in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Christianity has a provision for Confession. Many go to the priest, confess their sins in holy privacy, carry out the priest's instructions for absolution -- then go back to life and commit the same sins. A dip in the holy Ganga purifies the devout Hindu. How many of those who are thus purified remain purified after they return to their everyday life? Religion demands that its followers be righteous. Since religion is man-made, it provides ways for man to appear righteous without necessarily becoming so.

Chandrasekhar Rao's devotion is beyond question. The problem is that he wants the public to pay for his private faith. The gold ornaments he offered at Tirupathi should have been financed by himself and his family. Instead, he made the very first meeting of the Telengana cabinet pass a resolution authorising the state's Common Good Fund to pay for the gold he offers to temples.

Two issues arise from this mixing of personal interests with public exchequer. The first is the morality of Rao's donations even by the scripture in which his faith is anchored. The other is the political fallout of an act that revives memories of similar moves by less credible devotees.

The moral issue that Rao's munificence raises is simple: Can the Lord be pleased only with such ostentatious offerings? The answer is simpler: Kuchela pleased the Lord with nothing more than a handful of beaten rice. The poverty-stricken man was reluctant to go to his childhood friend who had become the king of Dwaraka. Pushed into it by his wife, Kuchela was overwhelmed by Krishna's love and hospitality. He forgot to say a word about his poverty. But the Lord knew everything and Kuchela returned home to find his hut transformed into a mansion.

It is sincerity of the heart that matters. When desire overtakes devotion, everything changes. Kubera did tapass for 10,000 years hanging upside down in water to force Brahma make him the lord of wealth. Brahma did not appear. But gods had their own obligations. When Kubera continued his tapass, this time standing on one leg in the middle of panchagni, Brahma had to oblige him. Chandrasekhar Rao's devotion is akin to Kubera's, minus the upside-down and the fire.

His golden gift also recalls Janardhana Reddy, the erstwhile Karnataka minister who was jailed for corruption, presenting a 30-kilogram diamond-studded gold crown worth Rs 42 crore to Tirupathi in 2009.

Those figures offer some interesting sidelights. Compared to Rao's 5.45 crore, Reddy's 42 crore looks massive. But compare the 42 crore with the Rs 550 crore Reddy spent on his daughter's wedding last November. Compare Rao's own 5.45 crore with the Rs 50 crore he spent on his luxury bungalow. Our netas want to buy even their blessings on the cheap.

Janardhana Reddy had kept a replica of the crown at home, wearing it occasionally, for he believed he was a descendant of Krishnadevaraya, emperor of the Vijayanagara empire. Tirupathi temple officials thanked Chandrasekhar Rao by comparing him to Emperor Krishnadevaraya. How unique is our democracy: It turns elected leaders into emperors.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Akhilesh jumps over dynasty, gives UP new horizons; Alas, Rahul can do no such thing in Congress

It's an unusually long wait for Uttar Pradesh election results. But something more important than the results has already made history. In a state where the dynastic culture had reached vulgar limits, the reigning scion broke out of it by defying his elders. That he had reached the top as a beneficiary of the system cannot be denied. But he rebelled against the mentors on principles of governance. He won. And it became a victory of the new against the ancient. If the lessons of this historical shift are learned by our politicians, perhaps India will be ready to become at last a modern nation. Will they, or will UP prove an isolated case?

Ideology had nothing to do with Akhilesh Yadav's triumph over his father, the I-am-the-boss Mulayam Singh. What was on display was excellent political skill. He defied his father without appearing to defy him. He rejected the candidacy of some of his father's cronies and demolished Amar Singh, father's closest ally and the Shakuni of UP politics. All the while, he paid obeisance to his father, criticising those who criticised him. His unwavering affection for the father eventually persuaded the father to go back on his own words and campaign for the son. Akhilesh emerged a facile manoeuvrer, the perfect diplomat.

By challenging his father in politically firm but personally caring ways, he achieved legitimacy and popular approval at once. That dynasticism could reveal such a positive streak was in itself extraordinary. It gave Mulayam Singh, too, a make-over. Either his fatherly instincts were stronger than anyone suspected, or the old war horse sensed what was happening and decided to stay with the winner. Either way UP gained.

As Akhilesh became his own man, a bit of the shine fell also on Rahul Gandhi, his partner in the UP electoral battle. They enjoyed "good chemistry", he said. "We are the same age. We think alike". It did not follow that Rahul could do an Akhilesh. For one thing, the Gandhi dynasty matriarch has no Shakunis to impose on the heir. For another, the heir has neither any modernistic agenda nor any manoeuvrer capability of his own. But there are useful lessons that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress can learn -- if they want to learn -- from the attention they received by associating with the iconoclastic dynast of UP.

The most important of these is that it is no longer possible for a family darling to win public approval in India just because he is somebody's son. At the same time, being somebody's son won't go against him provided he proves his mettle.

Such lessons, however, are more likely to go unlearned in the citadels of dynastic omnipotence. Will the Badals learn anything even though several members of the family shared the pie of power and saw the state plunging from prosperity to decay? Sukhbir Singh Badal, the de facto chief minister, once boasted: "The family system runs because of credibility. Why do people buy a Mercedes or a BMW car? They know they can depend upon it". They also know they cannot depend on a Mercedes the original parts of which have been removed and sold and a fake engine put inside.

Lalu Prasad, the inimitable Rolls Royce of Bihar, placed his whole family at the service of the nation -- his illiterate wife as chief minister of the state, his two sons as cabinet ministers, his daughter as Rajya Sabha MP. Even the BJP, proclaiming that it is not bitten by the dynasty bug, fielded several VIP sons in this election.

This obsessional race to keep power within the family (obviously for its material benefits) keeps India mired in stagnation and corruption. It prevents new ideas and new talent from coming up. Akhilesh Yadav's achievement is that he has shown a way out. The acknowledged "young talent" in the Congress consists entirely of dynastic scions -- Jyotiraditya Scindia (born 1971), Milind Deora (1976), Sachin Pilot (1977), Agatha Sangma (1980). Born around the Emergency, they have only hearsay about the independence struggle, even about Jawaharlal Nehru. In other words, they have a new-gen view of the world with new policy concepts and new approaches to problem-solving. Some of them have even shown exemplary leadership talent, Sachin Pilot for example. But they get no opportunity like Akhilesh Yadav got in UP because the dyanastic hold on the Congress is inflexible, immovable and non-negotiable. This is not just the tragedy of the Congress; it's the tragedy of India.

Monday, February 20, 2017

As Rahul Gandhi drives S.M.Krishna out of Congress, issues of morality, bankruptcy & dilemmas surface

There is a tragic inevitability about the doom of the Congress party. It's a Greek tragedy where the hero's powerful wish to achieve a goal is defeated by a flaw in his character complicated by fate and the will of the gods. Why the will of the gods should go against the Congress, we do not know. For past sins, perhaps. For present sins, the BJP may face similar wrath of the gods in due course. But that can be no consolation for the Congress now.

Rahul Gandhi, as the Congress's Greek hero, revealed the flaw in his character when he stormed into the Delhi Press Club in 2013, declared an ordinance issued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "nonsense" and tore up a copy before the cameras. Manmohan Singh took the insult lying down. S.M.Krishna did not. Resenting various humiliations Rahul Gandhi heaped upon him, he gave up the primary membership of the party he had served with distinction for a lifetime.

The fate of the Congress in Karnataka is now sealed. When the state goes to the polls next year, the Congress will perforce hand over its only state in the south to the BJP's Yeddyurappa. On a silver platter. For free.

An elated Yeddyurappa was quick on his feet to exploit the opportunity. He called on Krishna and ensured wide publicity for the meeting. Talk of Krishna joining the BJP filled the air. Krishna inadvertently contributed to the rumours by merely saying that he had not decided about future action. More masala came from Delhi with reports of the Vice President's post being offered to him.

We can see the Greek tragedy entering a three-pronged denouement here, highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the BJP, the political bankruptcy of the Congress and, interestingly, the dilemma of those of our political veterans who still have some experience-enriched wisdom that only they can contribute.

The Congress has made itself so unwanted in Karnataka that the BJP can afford to plan a clean government in the next round and surprise the country to its advantage. But it cannot see beyond Yeddyurappa. That a chief minister who was jailed for corruption is again being projected as the party's leader is a pointer to the BJP's political morality. Other cabinet-level jail birds can now return to power, making a mockery of the BJP leadership's claim that it has freed India from corruption. Is this burlesque or sarcasm? Perhaps it's humour.

The Congress's role as the facilitator of the BJP's return to power in Karnataka underlines its political bankruptcy. Karnataka was the state that rescued Indira Gandhi when the rest of the country rejected her. From that pinnacle of influence, it has fallen to a level where the chief minister's main concern seems to be the installation of his life-size posters at every bus stop. This is burlesque. It's not humour.

The hero's character flaw brought out a problem that's generic to all parties -- the role of their veterans. There are two types of veterans, those who brought shame to the party who should be kept out, and those who earned respect and should therefore be kept in. S.M.Krishna has had his share of mistakes and lapses, but they did not diminish his glamour value in public life. Admired for his patronage of classical music, his social graces and his consideration for colleagues, he is seen as the most cultured leader from the south, with perhaps only Ramakrishna Hegde matching him. Parties must find ways to benefit from such personages.

The BJP sidelined L.K.Advani, but extended all respect to him, enabling him to retain his dignity. The CPM resented V.S.Achuthanandan for his mass appeal, but gave him a position of honour in the government structure. The Congress seems incapable of such gestures. The will of the gods?

The veterans themselves need to approach the problem with equanimity. Joining a rival party out of pique is the worst course to adopt. If, for example, Krishna were to become Vice President courtesy BJP, he will be seen as politically second fiddle to Yeddyurappa and indebted to the Prime Minister -- a fall from the frying pan into the fire.

Krishna's education and standing equip him to popularise in India what is routine for retired American presidents -- give lectures, write books, promote education and research, as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam did with great impact. He has in him more than one book that would add substance to current history.

Power passes. Work of value lives on.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Defying possible peace in Syria, defying Russia, Trump brings the world to the brink of war

Is war coming? America's activities vis a vis Iran lend substance to the scary prospect. Indications began surfacing within days of Donald Trump assuming office. He rubbished the nuclear treaty Obama had worked out with Iran and, instead, described Iran as "the greatest state sponsor of terrorism". Among the first world leaders he phoned were those of Israel and Saudi Arabia, sworn enemies of Iran. Saudi Arabia astounded the world by calling Trump's Muslim ban "a firm and correct decision", a typical argument being that "among 57 Muslim countries of the world only seven were blacklisted". That Iran headed the list was the point.

More ominous developments followed. On January 29, Iran conducted a missile test claiming that it was not in violation of the UN resolution barring ballistic missile tests. America called the Iranian action "unacceptable" and said "we are not going to stand [idly] by". Two days later the US conducted a three-day naval exercise close to Iranian waters. This was followed by a warning. Charging that Iran "continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region", US National Security Advisor declared: "As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice".

Donald Trump is no clown though he provides comic relief now and again with his mannerisms, his grammar-defying language, even his more outrageous executive orders. (When he dismissed his Attorney-General for not supporting his illegal order blocking refugees, satirist Borowitz wrote in the New Yorker magazine that she was fired because a copy of the American Constitution was found in her computer).

For all that, Trump is a shrewd businessman. He is now President of the United States and commander of the world's most powerful military forces. His decisions can make or unmake nations. When such a person announces decisions that seem temperamental and unpredictable, the world has cause to worry.

His moves against Iran are puzzlingly in conflict with several ongoing political-military-diplomatic exercises aimed at achieving peace in Syria and ending ISIS terrorism. America itself has been a participant in many of these operations. In the military putsch that has brought the war to what looks like a possible conclusion, the lead player has been Russia to which Trump is believed to be well disposed. To sound the gongs of war against Iran at such a time is equivalent to encouraging the terrorists who seek to establish a worldwide caliphate. Russia has publicly rejected Trump's moves against Iran, saying it values its "friendly partner-like relations" with Teheran.

Adding to this convoluted mess of crisscrossing policy pursuits is the supreme contradiction of Trump, a White American traditionalist and therefore a hater of Jews, coordinating action with Israel. The belief is that he is trying to consolidate his position by playing to the powerful Jewish lobby in America which controls the US Congress and the US media. This may be good domestic politics, but toeing the Israeli line in the Middle East could lead directly to a showdown no one wants (except Israel which at one point was on the verge of launching a nuclear attack on Iran).

Iran is no longer the weak polity that America needled in the George Bush years. It is recognised today as the most effective force in the battle against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and it is a prime mover, with Russia alongside Turkey, in the efforts to bring normalcy to war-ravaged Syria. No strategy against Islamist terror will be workable without Iranian participation. Nor can peace be sustained in the devastated area without Iran's cooperation.

Trump had asked the Pentagon to prepare within 30 days a blueprint to destroy the ISIS for ever. There is irony in the same Trump boosting ties with Saudi Arabia which has been exporting Wahabi extremism for decades, backed with liberal finance. From extremism to terrorism is not a long haul as shown by ISIS successes in attracting radicalised youth in previously tolerant Islamic societies in South and Southeast Asia. For Saudi Arabia Sunni Wahabi terrorism is acceptable. Should that be Trump's position as well?

Iran will not be an easy target for the US. A top military commander in Teheran said last week that it would take Iranian missiles only seven minutes to pulverise Tel Aviv. For good measure, he added they could also "raze to the ground" the US military base in Bahrain. Part of the boast may be rhetoric, but only the foolish will dismiss such warnings completely.

So, is war coming? As of today Yes seems more likely than No.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How come Jaitley's imaginative budget left a slot for anonymous black money to thrive?

How predictable we are! Come rain or sunshine, we evaluate budgets strictly along party lines. Introduce a dream budget that guarantees benefits for all and, if it is a Congress budget, the BJP will condemn it as anti-people; if it is presented by a BJP Government, the Congress will reject it as worthless. Polarisation is not merely a pseudo-communal element that vitiates our thinking; it is a malignancy that diminishes our value systems just as comprehensively.

The layman, not exposed to the intricacies of high finance or the compulsions of party loyalties, has to separate wheat from chaff on his own. Such exercises will be influenced by critics and supporters alike. "Railway man" E.Sreedharan's criticism of doing away with the railway budget, for example, cannot be lightly dismissed. "It is a foolish decision", he said, stating that the Railway Ministry will now be at the mercy of the Finance Ministry for funds.

Many have welcomed various aspects of the budget such as the allocation of a record Rs 3.96 lakh crore to the infrastructure sector. The financial incentives provided for the promotion of swipe machines and e-transactions are also to be welcomed. (Problems in this sector arise only when the Government insists that all transactions without exception must go through machines and a cashless society must rise overnight. That will not happen until literacy becomes near total and poverty levels less humiliating).

Elimination of political corruption is one topic on which the budget's approach has been half-hearted and overly clever at the same time. A good opportunity to strike at the roots of black money has been missed despite the budget presenting two seemingly decisive reforms. First, it has reduced the individual cash donation limit to Rs 2000 from Rs 20,000. Secondly, it has launched the new idea of electoral bonds which a donor can buy and his favoured party can encash. The first is just a trick, the second is a move that will favour a party in power leaving other parties handicapped.

Bloomberg, the business-news agency, once described black money as "the profits of political corruption, tax evasion and ordinary crime". All three have flourished in India under the patronage of those in power, making black money the fulcrum of all that is cancerous in the country's public life. The Prime Minister launched a crusade against black money while the Finance Minister set out to eliminate it. But the words of both have been belied by action.

Retaining the very idea of anonymous contribution bears this out. Political parties get about 80 percent of their funds from anonymous donors in cash, that is, in black money. The anonymous donors can now give Rs 2,000 per person as against Rs 20,000 per person earlier. This is like closing the main door in front and leaving a small side door open. It will not fool the donors or the political parties, and it is unlikely to fool the public. The lowered limit only means that a party will have to find ten bogus donors where one was enough till now. No problem. Remember the thousands of citizens who competed to garland Mayawati with festoons of currency notes. Unless black-money donations are reduced to zero, there will be no chance of eliminating political corruption.

The electoral bonds idea is a clever one. The good thing about it is that money donated through bonds will be white and subject to accounting checks. But in the nature of things, a bond system favours a party in power over other parties. Citizens in need of services at government offices are vulnerable to pressures. In a system that demands a bribe even to issue a power-of-attorney, it is not difficult for a politically motivated sub-registrar to persuade a citizen to buy a bond. In big infrastructure projects where high-value decisions are taken by ministers and top officials, contract-hungry businesses will be happy to buy bonds. A party that is in power can manage the bond system in ways the powerless cannot.

On top of it all, there are more than a thousand registered political parties which never contest elections, but collect funds, anonymous and otherwise. There is not a word about these "parties" in the Jaitley budget. No wonder that Dr. A.K.Verma, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Politics, said: "Most criminals are now opening parties and getting their gangs registered with the Election Commission as party functionaries".

We are on the way to inventing an altogether new genre -- Anonymous Democracy.

Monday, January 30, 2017

News, when true, wasn't truth. But news that is untrue is taken as truth today. Is anybody safe?

What's happening to news, that precious information source that has kept the world ticking for ages? News has now turned into a weapon of destruction. They have a new name for it, Fake News, used as a term of endearment. Fake news has grown into a phenomenon of evil in the West and has made a sinister splash or two in India as well. Social media, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, is the breeding ground of malicious news spread for malicious ends. Where are we headed?

It was the Trump-Hillary presidential campaign that highlighted the noxious nature of fake news. At one point devices like Instagram and Facebook carried fake stories saying that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking racket. Naturally online reactions were fierce, some threatening to kill those involved. None of the accusations were true.

The anonymous artistes of the internet had other guns to fire at Hillary -- that she had secretly helped sell weapons to the ISIS terrorists, that she was involved in the 1999 plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Junior. Donald Trump himself promoted the idea that Barack Obama was not born in America. One fake story against Trump got traction when a private citizen tweeted that he saw paid protestors being sent in buses to demonstrate against Trump. There were no paid protestors.

By comparison, the fake news menace is not in full bloom in India. Or is it that we are not agitated enough because we haven't yet faced the ruinous consequences of lies masquerading as news? We came pretty close to it, though, when the JNU campus erupted with reverberations of anti-national cry. As it turned out, the video showing student union leaders shouting pro-Pakistan slogans was a doctored video.This fake news was broadcast by a national channel as well. Naturally, anger welled up against the student leaders. By the time the doctored nature of the video was established, student leaders had already been slapped with sedition charges and some of them manhandled by partisan lawyers.

Some cases of fake news in India were rather comical in nature and obvious offshoots of the political project to project the Prime Minister as a heroic figure. In June last year reports appeared in India saying that the UNESCO had declared Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister in the world. Claims of a similar nature followed -- that the UNESCO declared Jana Gana Mana as the best national anthem in the world and the new 2000-rupee note as the best currency in the world.

The ludicrous nature of the claims made them counterproductive. More sinister were reports that spread, within hours of the currency demonetisation announcement, that the new 2000-rupee notes had nano-GPS chips and radioactive ink embedded in them, enabling satellites to track accumulation of the notes anywhere in the world. A Hindi news channel even showed a video on the hightech nature of the notes. There was a degree of fear across the country because 300 to 400 million Indians are exposed to WhatsApp and other online instrumentalities through which information, especially false information, spreads fast and free.

In advanced countries there is an awareness of the dangers of this online menace. In Germany, preparing for general election this year, a special government department is being planned to fight fake news. In UK, parliamentarians are asking for measures that will prevent politics from getting "infected by the contagion". Cambridge University scientists are working on the idea of "pre-emptively" exposing readers to small doses of misinformation so as to "provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance" to real-life fake news, a kind of psychological vaccination.

No such remedial measures are contemplated in India because we seem to be unconcerned about the social, political and moral issues involved. That national channels are willing to broadcast provocative visuals without checking their authenticity is indicative of our easygoing approach to the menace.

Will that approach change only if a catastrophe strikes? Advance signals of possible disasters have already come. News of salt shortage swept across India last November causing panic everywhere. There were fights in front of shops; in Kanpur police lathicharged people who robbed shops. In 2012 communally-inspired text messages warned of attacks against Northeasterners in Bengaluru during Ramzan. Overnight panic-stricken Northeasterners began an exodus from Bengaluru causing massive labour crisis in the city.

The wise used to say: News may be true, but it is not truth. Today news that is untrue is taken as truth -- Kaliyuga at its zenith.