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.