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.