Monday, April 8, 2019


Everyone knows that this election is a game-changer. It is becoming clear that it is a convention-breaker as well. Things that were no-no in electioneering are now accepted norms. Things to which T.N.Seshan said "out" are now "in". The founding fathers of America said that, even at its best, governments were a necessary evil. Ditto with post-Seshan elections.

That a judicial ruling should contribute to this feeling is disturbing. Bangalore city civil court issued a blanket order banning 49 media outlets from publishing anything "defamatory" against BJP candidate Tejaswi Surya. This was the first instance of a prior restraint order against a class of persons. And it happened at election time. Legal circles were quick to argue that the order was unconstitutional. Beyond that, the idea that a candidate should ask for a gag order against media raised suspicions. Public curiosity led to reports that there were allegations of misconduct against Surya. The end result was that the gag order drew attention to a questionable aspect of Surya's persona as much as to the sidelining of the spirit of democracy by the court.

While Surya wants to stop the world from talking about him, he wants full freedom to say what he pleases. In a public statement a week ago, he said "If you are not with Modi, you are anti-India". Should courts stop the media, and the public, from reacting to such an anti-India statement? Our election rules make it obligatory for candidates to disclose the number of criminal cases if any against them. In such an environment, are not allegations against a candidate a matter of public interest? It is clear that Surya was given a privilege he did not deserve. The "interim order" will come up for review only when the case is taken up for hearing again, which conveniently is on May 27, after the counting of votes will be over. Who is fooling whom?

Surya is BJP's candidate in the Bangalore South constituency which had elected H.N.Ananth Kumar six times in a row. In the first election after Ananth Kumar's untimely death, his wife Tejaswini was a natural choice for the BJP, not merely because she was his widow but because, in her own right she was an activist NGO leader supported by the entire state leadership of the BJP. But the BJP's destiny makers in Delhi picked Surya for reasons only they knew. Local BJP leaders were unhappy and came round only after school master Amit Shah used his cane stick to discipline his boys. Given Surya's unpopularity among local BJP leaders, he would have lost. But the Congress came to his rescue by putting up its most unwinnable candidate Hari Prasad in Bangalore South. The stars are on BJP's side.

That explains, also, why big leaders violate Election Commission rules and the EC takes only naam-ke-wastey actions. Kalyan Singh, the Governor of a state, publicly asks people to vote for BJP. The EC brings it to the notice of the President of India. Adityanath, a chief minister, refers to the Indian Army as "Modiji Ki Sena". Initially only UP's Chief Electoral Officer seeks a report from the District Electoral Officer. The EC sends a notice to Air India for issuing boarding passes with Modi pictures on them. Air India does not even reply and EC "conveys its displeasure" to Air India's chairman. EC "pulls up" the railways for using paper cups with Modi propaganda on them, but the railways take its own time to withdraw the cups.

The game is clear. The BJP uses India's state machinery for party propaganda in ways that have never happened before and ignoring the fact that necessary evils, too, are evil. All that EC does is to go through the motions of action. Those who are asked to explain know that the EC is under the same compulsions as they are. This is an unfamiliar India becoming all too familiar.

In the process, unheard-of things are happening. A TV channel starts broadcasting without getting the permits the law stipulates. NaMo TV is not in the list of channels permitted by the I & B Ministry. Its ownership is unknown. Yet it broadcasts on a government-sponsored channel and is backed by government advertisements. Belatedly the EC asked the I & B ministry for an explanation -- like all the other explanations it asked for in all the other irregularities. We could have found solace in the old saying: This too will pass. Except that we can't be sure, alas.

Monday, March 25, 2019


The Congress and the BJP have one thing in common -- each is led by a Superman. But the BJP's superman has a bunch of subalterns with him. That is a force multiplier. The Congress superman is a solitary sentinel. That is poor war tactics.

Narendra Modi uses his fire power as no one else does. Yet he has Amit Shah making aggressive speeches all over the country, Piyush Goel holding forth even in alien territory like Tamil Nadu, Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh raising voices that draw attention, Sushma Swaraj and Venkaiah Naidu bringing up the rear. A sizeable bunch to make a sizeable impact.

Turn to the Congress and what we hear is a one-man orchestra. An entrepreneurs' meeting in Bangalore? It's Rahul Gandhi. A public meeting in Itanagar? It's Rahul Gandhi. A mass meeting in Gandhinagar? It's Rahul Gandhi. A popular do in a Chennai women's college? It's Rahul Gandhi. A campaign meeting in Sabalgarh in Madhya Pradesh? It's Rahul Gandhi. In Guwahati, Kanyakumari, Gulbarga, Kochi, wherever the Congress states its case, you see no Congress stalwart other than Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has no other stalwarts?

But it has. There are young and articulate leaders like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora. There are old war horses like Digvijay Singh and Kamalnath and Oommen Chandy. But we don't see or hear the young and the bright. We hear about the old and the tested only in their unending battles for prominence. At a time when all guns should be blazing at a single target, the Congress is leaving everything to one individual. Is the dynasty thing at work again despite the havoc it has wrought?

Naturally the Congress is too ineffective in too many places. Ask who is the chief of the party in an important state such as Maharashtra and you will hear some people mentioning Sanjay Nirupam, and some others mentioning Ashok Chavan. Nirupam in turn is constantly fighting with Milind Deora, probably because he sees a threat in Deora's popularity cum capability. Not surprisingly the Congress attracts none of the smaller but important group leaders such as Prakash Ambedkar or Raju Shetty.

Delhi is another revealing case. Commonsense demands that the Congress must tie up with other parties that want to check the BJP. In Delhi's case it is the Aam Aadmi Party. Important Congressmen favour a working alliance, but yesterday's leader Sheila Dixit goes by day-before-yesterday's ideas. Result: The BJP gains.

In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh the victory the Congress recently won should have energised the leadership. But what we see is a sense of nothing-is-happening. Would it have been different if the choice of CMs was based not on pressure politics by the old guard but on an assessment of the need of the hour? Rahul Gandhi does not seem to have the power to enforce his will and bring new blood into leadership ranks.

The consequent infighting in the party is nowhere more dismal than in Kerala. To begin with, the Congress in Kerala has several heads -- Oommen Chandy, Mullapally, Ramesh Chennithala, A.K.Antony, V.M.Sudheeran. It is also the only state where the Congress is officially and openly divided into "A" group and "I" group. Fights between A and I are more deadly than Congress-Communist fights. Younger leaders are not allowed to come up. In fact, the younger ranks have such bright and modernistic leaders that if they are allowed to take over the party, both the party and the state are sure to see rapid progress. But such things do not happen in a Me-Myself-And-I culture.

The macabre nature of that culture bared itself last week when veteran leader K.V.Thomas declared war against the party. The ticket he expected was taken away from him and given to Hybi Eden instead. Thomas was 72 and Eden exactly half that age, 36. Besides, Thomas had had a lot of jam; he was MLA for long, MP for long, a minister in Kerala, a minister in Delhi and the holder of several positions inside the party and outside. Still he wouldn't yield to a younger man. The party finally bought peace by offering him more jam without revealing any details.

The BJP has internal fights as well. But the number of top leaders campaigning diligently makes up for it. There is energy and imagination in the BJP's campaign style. There is energy in Rahul Gandhi, but there is no imagination, and he is alone. The chief enemy of the Congress is the Congress.

Monday, March 18, 2019


This is going to be the make or break election. It will either make the idea of India viable, or it will break it completely. The ruling dispensation knows that if they don't win this time, they won't win for a long time. And if they win, they'll make sure they don't lose again. Get ready for the bitterest, most cold-blooded election in the history of our democracy.

Early symptoms of the power play were already on show. In a short span of 30 days the prime minister declared open 157 projects, from an airport in Sikkim to a highway in Kanyakumari. They were all publicised in ways seldom seen in our country before. And most of them were crowned by no-holds-barred election speeches. Even the inauguration of the National War Memorial in Delhi saw the PM attacking the Congress's dynastic leadership. The Election Commission helpfully waited until the ground was prepared by all these shows and speeches.

India's electorate is famously under-literate. Yet the savvy with which the illiterate and semi-literate voters of UP defeated Indira Gandhi after the Emergency is part of legend. Part of a more shameful legend was the way literate Kerala became the only state to vote for her in that historical 1977 election. The question that came up then was: Who is better for democracy -- the literate or the illiterate?

This time the question is more complicated because religion is involved. So is nationalism in its new avatar. The rise of Hindutva has given a new emotional dimension to religion. It helped the BJP create some waves although, like all waves, they dissipated quickly. Dissipation happens because Hindutva activists resort to extreme steps that violate Indian sensibilities. Lynchings and whippings and killings in the name of religion repel more than they attract. The IS is an example. Islam's concept of martyrdom was an attraction for over-enthusiastic youngsters to volunteer for suicide missions. But even in Muslim societies, IS lost the prestige it once had.

There can be healthy arguments over nationalism, like Ravindranath Tagore initiated with his notion that humanism was right and nationalism wrong. But it is something else when an Indian, born and brought up as an Indian, is asked to prove his bonafides as a nationalist. Diversity is the essence of this nation of many languages and diets and dress habits and cultural backgrounds. Unity in diversity is the ideal for such a kaleidoscopic nation. And it proved workable. To discard that in favour of a monolithic culture will be to invite disaster.

The highlight features of the last five years will have to be a guide to voting decisions this time around. Topping all lists of major policy decisions are demonetisation and GST. The passage of time has not helped paper over the disastrous impact of both, especially of demonetisation which wrecked the lives of thousands of ordinary people and small businesses. Many deaths were reported due to exhaustion waiting in queues and to newly experienced poverty that blocked access to food and medicines. The Government blocked all attempts to get relevant statistics about the deaths.

Many autonomous institutions had zealously preserved their independence to ensure checks and balances in governance. One by one these were compromised, none more worrisomely than the Reserve Bank of India. High profile economic advisers like Arvind Subramanyam and Arvind Panagariya resigned as they discovered that the Finance Minister neither needed nor desired advisers. An RBI Governor abruptly resigned over issues relating to autonomy; the Government appointed a bureaucrat in his place.

In short the BJP Government has been focusing on a partisan agenda to transform the basic democratic structure of the Indian polity. Its trump card has been the personality of the prime minister. There is no one in India today to rival his energy, his oratory and his nonstop campaigning style. He also has a capacity to attract sycophancy. Consider this India Today web desk item of May 2017: "The popular leader has completed three years, but the excitement on his being the prime minister has not died down".

That excitement will be kept at high pitch during the voting weeks ahead. Is that the best for us? A kind of answer was given by a 19th century American columnist named Peter Dunne. He wrote: "A man who expects to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic. But a man who thinks that men can be turned into angels by an election is called a reformer and remains at large".

Beware of reformers.

Monday, March 11, 2019


Pakistan is ruled by its military and the military has an animosity against India that won't go away. The reason is permanently engraved in a photograph -- Gen. A.A.K. Niazi signing papers formalising his country's surrender to India in Dhaka in 1971. The wiping out of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh were twin humiliations that became etched in the Pakistan army's DNA. For this reason, we should not expect meaningful peace with Pakistan in the foreseeable future. Large sections of ordinary Pakistanis have campaigned from time to time for normal relations with India. So have Indians. But normalcy will not come as long as the craving for revenge drives Pakistan's military leadership.

Currently a worldwide awakening against terrorism has weakened Pakistan. European nations raised the issue in the UN. The influential Paris-based Financial Action Task Force included Pakistan in its "grey list", a mark of disapproval. Even China advised Pakistan to distance itself from terrorist groups. This could be why Pakistan hinted that it would not oppose a UN listing Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Action was necessary, the Foreign Minister said, to protect "our global reputation".

Action was indeed taken -- banning various organisations identified with terrorism and taking 44 men under preventive custody, including Masood Azhar's son and brother both of whom were named in the Indian dossier given to Pakistan. Pakistan's bonafides in these actions are unsure; preventive custody could mean custody to prevent any harm coming to the men. Even so, Pakistan has been forced by international opinion to take measures and make statements it has not done before.

It would be dangerous for India to interpret these developments as signs of peace breaking out in the region. The hatreds that drive organisations like Jaish e Mohammed are too deeprooted to go away in a hurry. Comparable hatreds have unfortunately developed in certain segments of the population in India also in recent years. If we do not accept this, we will have no right to claim moral superiority over Pakistan. Post Pulwama, India's positions have raised several questions. Two of them are especially disturbing.

Question number one: Why did the BJP-- and the Congress-- politicise the military action? The Prime Minister and the president of the ruling party made statements that linked the air strike with the imminent elections. Beyond them, Salman Khurshid of the Congress Party made a fool of himself and his party by claiming credit for Wing Commander Abhinandan's bravery. He said the IAF hero "received his wings in 2004 and matured as a fighter pilot during UPA". How pathetic can a politician get!

From the BJP's side, minister Piyush Goel turned himself into an embodiment of intolerance when a TV anchor politely asked him questions many Indians were asking about the IAF strike at Balakot. Goel was inexplicably agitated, wouldn't listen to the anchor, and went on with his near-abusive onslaught. When the anchor managed to say, "Minister, neither me nor anybody sitting here needs any lesson in patriotism from you", the audience clapped showing the isolation of Goel and his bigotry.

Question number two should worry us more: How will Israelisation of Indian policy help? For years now Israel has been carrying on an intensive military campaign against Palestinians in their homeland. It is the world's most unequal war since Israel is equipped with the latest military devices while the Palestinians have only militant groups left to their own devices. Offences like stone-pelting by Palestinians are met by state-of-the-art missile attacks by Israel. In recent years India's ties with Israel have become closer than its ties with any other country. Is Israel's policy towards Palestinians to be a model for India's policy towards Kashmiris?

Decades of Israeli overkill have failed to ease their Palestine problem. This adds irony to India's newfound admiration for Israel's style of functioning. It was left to Brussels-based researcher Shairee Malhotra to point out that "Israel's biggest fans in India appear to be the 'internet Hindus' who primarily love Israel for how it deals with Palestine and fights Muslims".

The doyen of Middle East specialists, Robert Fisk, wrote: "Israel has been assiduously lining itself up alongside India's nationalist BJP Government in an unspoken -- and politically dangerous -- 'anti-Islamist' coalition, an unofficial, unacknowledged alliance, while India itself has become the largest weapon market for the Israeli arms trade... It is difficult to see how Zionist nationalism will not leach into Hindu nationalism when Israel is supplying so many weapons to India".

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Monday, March 4, 2019


It is good that 12 fighter jets bombarded a terrorist camp in Pakistan with the intention of delivering a blow that would be remembered. More significantly, India crossed the international border for the first time to hit Balakot, the terrorists' nerve centre. The message was heard in other countries as well; many of them asked the Pakistan Government to help eliminate terrorism. The pressure exerted by them also persuaded Pakistan to release the IAF hero who had shot down their F-16 before his own jet was shot down and he was captured.

But this is no occasion for jingoism. Carefully calibrated military operations lose their import when cheap celebrations are mounted for populist approval. The damage done in this area by the shouters of our television channels is a disgrace. Citing the over-patriotic declamations of channel monologists, Pakistan was able to argue that India was a trigger-happy hatemonger. It gave them a brownie point or two when Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured, giving Imran Khan an opportunity to say: "Our action was only intended to convey that we have the capability to hit back".

The outcome of that capability was not known to the Indian public for quite a while. As TV-fed superpatriots enjoyed fire-crackers, Agence France-Presse released a photo showing the wreckage of an IAF jet shot down by Pakistan. The Defence Command of Pakistan released photographs of Wing Commander Abhinandan "arrested alive after successful air combat within Pakistan territory". It was left to retired Indian army colonel turned columnist Ajay Shukla to tweet what happened: "Two MIG-21s were lured by two PAF F-16s into an air def ambush. The F-16s made shallow ingress into Indian air space, dropped bombs and waited for IAF MIGs that scrambled. Then F-16s turned back, MIGs followed, were shot down by air defence guns". A prestige win for Pakistan.

So where do we go from here? The most important thing for any country in a situation like this is to present a united front. The unity has to come from within, clear and unambiguous. This has so far been proving difficult. Twenty-one opposition parties complaining together about the Government not taking them into confidence was not indicative of unity. The Cabinet's strong man Arun Jaitley's attack on the opposition did not help either. Nor did high-profile government functions like the launching of the Khelo India Mobile App and the dialogue between the Prime Minister and BJP Karyavahaks gathered from all over the country. Couldn't these things wait for a day or two?

If we cannot get over narrow political self-interests, perhaps we do not deserve the honour and respect we demand as a nation. The depths to which politicians can sink even at a time like this were shown when Karnataka's BJP leader said that the IAF action against terrorists in Pakistan had resulted in a Modi wave that would help his party win 22 out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Are our defence personnel facing the enemy and risking their lives to help BJP go to the Lok Sabha? A man who does not understand that the country is bigger than his party ought to be banished from public life for good. When such petty men flourish in our country, it becomes difficult for us to successfully confront an overrated adversary across the border.

If India is to assert itself as an effective modern state, it will have to first stop politicians who hurt its cause. It then must firm up international links that it can depend on. In the current crisis, Saudi Arabia and even China provided sober advice to Pakistan. But to what extent can India depend on them? Saudi Arabia's main ambition is to destroy Iran. For that purpose it has even joined forces with its traditional enemy, Israel. Iran on the other hand is having exactly the same problem with Pakistan on the Baluchistan side as India is having with it on the Jammu-Kashmir side. Incensed by Pakistan terror groups attacking Iranian interests, Teheran's strong man, Gen. Soleimani, warned Pakistan quite bluntly only a couple of weeks ago.

It is a complex scenario. But the handling of it can be simple if we decide to join forces with those whose interests coincide with ours. They are different from those who want to join hands with us to further their interests. So the challenge is double-headed. Can we distinguish between promoting our interests and helping others promote theirs? More importantly, do we have the guts to do what's best for us?

Monday, February 25, 2019


It's now two months since the Union Government issued orders that turned India into a surveillance state. Ten investigative agencies were authorised to "intercept, monitor and decrypt" all computer material kept by all citizens. The authorities justified it by saying that the rules were framed by the Congress-led UPA Government. That is a flop explanation because one iniquity does not justify another.

The scariest picture of a surveillance state was sketched in George Orwell's classic novel "1984" written in 1949. Looking 35 years ahead at that time was, for Orwell, like looking into a completely re-configured world because the war had just ended and Soviet Communism seemed poised to gobble a sizable chunk of the world. Orwell saw The Party, led by Big Brother and the Thought Police using media manipulation and advanced technology to control populations. Doublethink was common and Newspeak emerged as the lingua franca. Oceania, the country that emerged when the US devoured the British Commonwealth, Eurasia constituted by the Soviet absorption of continental Europe, and Eastasia that controlled all of the Far East were in perpetual war.

What Orwell feared didn't quite work out that way except that the superpowers got into perpetual war. But a more comprehensive version of the Orwellian nightmare took shape, quite unexpectedly, in India. Advanced technology has been at work for a while. Media manipulation and Thought Vigilantes became facts of life after 2014. Doublethink became a mark of nationalism, Newspeak the way to success. And now Big Brother has officially declared that he is watching. A group of filmmakers in Mumbai said at a closed-door meeting that they feared being branded anti-national. Amol Palekar was stopped by on-stage officials of the National Gallery of Modern Art when he started to criticise some official policy decisions on art. An Ahmedabad college cancelled its scheduled speech by Jignesh Mevani, a former student, because of ABVP threats. The principal resigned in protest, realising no doubt that he had no role when The Thought Police thought all permitted thoughts.

It must have surprised Orwell that Stalinism, the hatred of which was the provocation for his novel, did not become the horror he feared. Stalin was repudiated by his successors and then forgotten. Strangely, the Big Brother concepts took shape in the very country with which Orwell was umbilically connected. (He was born in Motihari, Bihar, where his father was a British civil servant).

Did Orwell pick the year 1984 on a whim? British speculation centred around a Jack London novel in which a political movement comes to power in 1984 and a G.K.Chesterton story set in 1984. But the choice of the year proved portentous for the country he had probably forgotten by then, some calling it the year that changed India. Early that year Indira Gandhi ordered the ill-advised military assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had sought refuge to escape from arrest. In October Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own Sikh guards. This was followed by anti-Sikh riots that killed an estimated 10,000 people. The year closed with one of the worst industrial disasters in history when poisonous gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, killing 4000 people outright and another 16000 later. Did Orwell have some kind of a premonition about India when he picked 1984? Was some evil eye at work unseen?

The world Orwell conjured up might have been maniacal. But it was fictional. The India that emerges from the Home Ministry's surveillance order is all too real. It gives agencies like IB, RAW, CBI and even the Delhi Police Commissioner a blanket licence to access electronic information. A full week would pass for any restraint order to come if at all. This makes a mockery of the Supreme Court order that the right to privacy is integral to the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. Why is the Government so jittery?

In an ideal world where people identify themselves with their government, the security of the state and the security of its people would be one and the same. Since the world is not an ideal one, some security systems are necessary. But no democracy has introduced an omnibus spying system of the kind India has put in place. What Delhi has revealed in the process is a "them and us" separation between the people and the Government. Why have the people of India become such compulsive contrarians, to use the phrase coined by Arun Jaitley, our impulsive disciplinarian.

Monday, February 18, 2019


Prime Minister Modi had, and will continue to have, the backing
of all of India in his stand against the terrorists who "made a big
mistake" in attacking jawans in Pulwame. The attack must have given
the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and its protectors in Pakistan a cheap
thrill of achievement as they managed to kill 40 CRPF men in one go.
But it was a big mistake because it made India unite against the
assassins. Enemies have been shown that they cannot take advantage of
India's noisy democracy and create divisions in the name of religion.

Nevertheless, the latest JeM strike is an opportunity for us to
examine our record, our resolve and our capabilities more closely than
before. The unity of purpose that binds India together in crises is
different from the ability to stop terrorists in their track. The
record shows that JeM's ability to strike has in no way been curbed
over the years. They attacked India's Parliament in 2001 and the IAF
base in Pathankot in early 2016. Later that year four terrorists near
Uri town were able to stage "the deadliest attack on security forces
in Kashmir in two decades." In retaliation to the Uri attack, India
said it made a surgical strike. The people know precious little
about it, except that it has not weakened JeM in any way. Within a
year and half they struck at Pulwame.

A reality that has to be faced is that this is a war India has
to fight alone because, at the international level, India really has
no friends. This isolation is linked to a series of strategic
blunders beginning from the time of independence. When Pakistan
rushed tribal fighters from the Northwest Frontier to capture Srinagar
in 1947, Sardar Patel was quick to rush troops there and save the
situation. If the soldiers were given a few more days they could have
thrown the tribals out of Kashmir and brought the whole state under
Indian control. But Viceroy Mountbatten played the friendship card
with Jawaharlal Nehru and managed to get a ceasefire ordered,
permanently dividing the state between India and Pakistan. Nehru
went on to make blunders by allowing the UN a role in the dispute and
by pledging to hold a plebiscite in the state. Britain, a world power
in those days, was unfriendly to India and manipulated the UN in
Pakistan's favour.

India's next round of blunders occurred under Prime Minister A.
B. Vajpaye. The hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999 was
handled with great incompetence. The pilot had cleverly pleaded fuel
crisis and got permission from the hijackers to land in Amritsar.
This was an opportunity for India to take control of the situation.
But in Amritsar, as a member of Vajpaye's staff put it later, "airport
officials ran around like so many headless chicken, totally clueless
about what was to be done." A team of special commandos could not
reach the airport because of traffic problems in the city.

The flight finally landed in Kandahar in Afghanistan. The
Government, still clueless, not only agreed to all the demands of the
hijackers, but Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh personally went to
Kandahar in a special plane along with terrorists released from Indian
prisons (and bundles of currency notes, as some reports said).

The main terrorist released by India to satisfy the hijackers
was Masoon Azhar who had been in Indian prisons for five years.
Accorded a hero"s reception in Pakistan, the man went on to found the
JeM and become the world's most strongly motivated terrorist.

What India needs to realise is the futility of depending on others
to come to its aid. Pleading for UN intervention is useless because
China has veto power there and China is as openly hostile to India as
it is friendly to Pakistan.US will give verbal support to India but
nothing more, especially now when it is planning to withdraw from
Afghanistan with Pakistan's cooperation. Saudi Arabia under Mohammed
bin Salman? Forget it.

Look beyond and we see another approach. US special commandos
found out a secret hide-out in Pakistan, staged a lightning operation
there and killed Osama bin Laden before anyone knew what was
happening. In 1976 when an Air France flight was hijacked by a
Palestinian faction demanding the release of militants imprisoned by
Israel, a completely unexpected 90-minute night operation by Israel in
Uganda's Entebbe airport rescued 102 of the 106 hostages there.

Examples exist. So does expertise. All that is needed is a
shared, non-negotiable, politically unpolluted pride in one's nation.

Monday, February 11, 2019


Unlike father Rajiv Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi has to wear two crosses -- the Gandhi dynastic cross and the Vadra controversies cross.The second hurts more. The haste with which the Government has opened the Vadra can of worms points to the viciousness of today's politics. But the worms cannot be wished away.

We have a tradition of leaders allowing family and friends to influence policy. It began with Jawaharlal Nehru himself whose private secretary, M.O.Mathai, was the source of much evil. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, considered a paragon of virtue, allowed son Kanti to sit in the PMO and influence decisions. P.V.Narasimha Rao hit a new low lending his ears to the international fraudster Chandraswamy. A.B.Vajpayee was supposed to usher in a new era, but he had a "foster son-in-law" who enjoyed official protocol status even when the Prime Minister went on foreign visits. There are sons and relatives getting special status under the present BJP rulers as well.

The problem therefore is not confined to one party or one leader. It looks like an implant in the DNA of the Indian politician. K.Chandrasekhar Rao and N.Chandrababu Naidu, sworn enemies, have both installed their sons as key cabinet ministers. Deve Gowda, with a son as chief minister, is grooming a grandson for prime ministership. Even "singles" like Mayawati and Mamata Bannerji have nephews throwing their weight around. For us politics is a blood thickener.

In such a situation, it is perhaps unfair to single out Robert Vadra for special mention as an offender. Besides, the present Government's hypocrisy is too blatant to be missed. Accusations against Vadra were publicly aired during the BJP's election campaign back in 2014. Though the party came to power, they took no follow-up action against Vadra for five years. Suddenly, the day Priyanka took charge as Congress secretary, the Government got into action. What explains the coincidence? The people know even if the ruling party thinks that the people are dumb.

And, pray, who is looking into the misdeeds of Vadra? The Enforcement Directorate, one of the many supposedly independent agencies that have lost their credibility in toto. This of course is not a new development; all parties in power have made a mockery of all agencies. But no one has done it with the rascality, the sinfulness and the in-your-face arrogance of the present regime. Things have reached a stage where an investigation by RAW, IB, CBI, ED etc spreads the impression that the citizen investigated is innocent and is merely being harassed for political purposes.

This would be ironic in Vadra's case. Transgressions attributed to him stretch from family affairs (his father was "disowned" by him and a few years later was found dead in what was first described as a heart attack and later as a suicide) to his posturings as a political leader. He led a farcical motorcycle rally in Rae Bareli in 2004 and declared, even more farcically, "if people want, I can join politics". On the day Priyanka went to take charge at the Congress office, a poster appeared there featuring him with her. It was quickly removed by an embarrassed Congress.

A smart ED will leave him alone so that he can continue embarrassing his wife and her party. Evidently this guy is an untamed horse. The first rule about wild horses is that one must approach them with caution. The texts say: "Ritual posturing and snorts often resolve a confrontation, but fighting does occur". By interfering, the agencies of a spiteful government can achieve nothing and lose much.

Perhaps the Government's strategists think that a Vadra hullabaloo will divert public attention from issues that matter, such as rising joblessness, farmers' distress, destruction of small business through demonetisation, the rise of fringe elements with freedom to lynch and so on. This may be true up to a point. But the desperation with which such tactics are resorted to also suggests that the ruling dispensation will stop at nothing. The suspicions over voting machines, for example, may not be out of place. In the 2014 elections the present Prime Minister had acknowledged the importance of the Election Commission. "With full responsibility", he told a rally in UP then, "I am accusing India's Election Commission of discrimination". The rest of India has been making the accusation from the opposite side of the ring this time. Hullabaloo about Vadra's vagaries and Priyanka's looks is a way to outshout others. Clearly this is going to be an anything-is-possible election. Politics has never been this dirty in India.

Monday, February 4, 2019


Imagine all South Indian states uniting on a platform of ethnic difference from the north, as C.N.Annadurai briefly contemplated once upon a time. Something similar is happening in the northeast. Ethnically, culturally and historically, the northeastern states have been different from the rest of India. Northeasterners often talked about going to the "mainland" when they meant going to India. The mainlanders for their part often referred to northeasterners in terms and tones of racial superiority.

Elections last February signalled what looked like a seachange in this scenario. The Congress was unseated and so was the Communist Party that had ruled Tripura under one leader for 20 years. A triumphant BJP formed a one-party government in Tripura while it formed alliances with other parties to take control of the remaining states. It was a clean sweep for the BJP which has had no presence in the northeast till then. In political terms, it was the equivalent of a coup d'etat.

But suddenly last week, the gears slipped into reverse. An ideology-driven initiative by the BJP ignited resentment among its allies across the region. Protestors have taken to the street with mass demonstrations, burning of effigies, and hunger strikes. Six of the region's seven chief ministers have suspended their BJP links and formed a united front to fight the BJP-sponsored move to enforce the new legislation in the region and across the country.

What is the BJP move that has provoked so much resentment? Outwardly it looks noble: Promoting a citizenship amendment bill that will give "persecuted minorities" in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan the right to become Indian citizens. The phrase "persecuted minorities" does not mean what it means linguistically. Shias and Ahmediyas, Islamic minorities routinely persecuted in Pakistan, qualify to be covered by the phrase, but that must be farthest from the minds of BJP strategists. Everyone knows that the BJP is referring only to the Hindu minorities in neighbouring countries. The proposed amendment means that Hindus in Bangladesh who migrate even illegally to the northeastern states and to West Bengal will get citizenship rights. Such migration/citizenship will alter the demographics of the northeastern states -- a consummation the BJP wants and the local people don't.

The powerful student organisations of Assam and the Assam Gana Parishad were the first to rise in protest. One leader put it bluntly: "Assamese and other indigenous peoples feel betrayed by the Modi Government which seems hellbent on making Assam a dumping ground for foreigners thereby threatening our existence". The Gana Parishad has ended its two-year alliance with the BJP. Meghalaya's chief minister has warned that the northeast will seek support from across the country including the Congress. Thirteen local parties have said they would pull out of the BJP-led NDA if the amendment bill is taken up in the Rajya Sabha (it is already passed in the Lok Sabha).

Actually, there are issues involved here that concern the whole country. The existing laws do not take religion or ethnicity into account in determining citizenship. The "right of birth" is the accepted norm. If this is enlarged to include the "right of blood", it will mean the acceptance of religion as a determining factor. That is precisely the BJP's aim as its lead strategist in the region, Hemant Biswas Sarma, made clear when he said: "We have to decide who our enemy is -- the 1.5 lakh people or the 55 lakh people". (That is, Bengali Hindu illegals or Bengali Muslim illegals in Assam). Note also that the 55 lakh are automatically considered enemy.

Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing is the idea. China is paying heavily for its cleansing drive in Xinjiang, its vast autonomous province with 12 million Turkic-speaking Muslims. This region has more in common with Turkmenistan and the people of central Asia than with the Chinese which term, in the lexicon of Beijing, principally means the Han people. Beijing's policy of "integrating" Xinjiang has been relentless. Military repression, re-education camps, Sinicization of religion and officially sponsored re-location of thousands of Han Chinese families from the eastern heartland have not yet succeeded in changing the face and demography of Xinjiang.

India does not even have China's luxury of a one-party dictatorship. Worse, it has a Constitution, a Parliament, a judiciary with its own mind and a media that defies discipline. But there may be a way out. China used the camouflage "socialism with Chinese characteristics" to grow into a capitalist success story. If BJP goes for "Hindutva with Indian characteristics", perhaps it may yet help India grow into a modern state.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Small men in big chairs are usually dangerous. It isn't just the Napoleon Complex: the tendency among short men to be overly assertive to make up for their lack of height. A politician who occupies a chair too big for him gets not only overly assertive but also contemptuous of others and their rights. The result is a dictator complex, the feeling that whatever they do is right.

Consider the case of Kishorechand Wangkhem, a television journalist in Manipur. One fine night in November he was arrested for criticising Chief Minister N. Biren Singh and Prime Minister Modi. The charge was sedition. A magistrate found no sedition in the remarks the journalist made and released him on bail. Within two days he was jailed under NSA which is beyond judicial review.

What exactly was the sedition Wangkhem committed? His style was typical Manipuri TV style, strong words strongly used, -- "street language" as the Chief Judicial Magistrate put it while allowing bail. The substance was something else. He objected to the CM weaving the Rani of Jhansi's struggle against the British into Manipur's freedom struggle. "When you praise the Rani of Jhansi as a freedom fighter covering Manipur your knowledge is nill and an insult to the freedom fighters of Manipur", he said.

A historically accurate stance. But CM Biren Singh condemned it as "prejudicial to the security of the state". At worst it was prejudicial to the security of the Chief Minister. Which makes this is a classic case of the Louis XIV mentality of "I-am-the-state". Which should not surprise those who look into the story of N.Biren Singh. This guy was a footballer who used that skill to get into the Border Security Force. But he wanted a political role and power, so he quit and started a publication of his own, using journalism for political ends. Like many politicians, he too developed an "ideological" affinity to whoever was in power. That helped him become a minister in a Congress government in 2003. When the pendulam swang in favour of the BJP Biren Singh became a BJP man. Mission accomplished.

Power gave him new insights. Addressing a conference of doctors, he outlined a vision no one else had done so far. "Be it doctors or politicians. We are here to serve the people. We are not here to take your abuses. If you think that common people can say anything to those in power, no you can't. If somebody in power has done something wrong, you can go to the court. But you don't have the right to abuse anyone publicly".

Criticism is not abuse -- and criticism is one of the pillars of democracy. If criticism is taken as abuse and penalised, many of India's intellectuals, academics, editorial writers and columnists will be in jail under NSA. However a closer examination shows that Biren Singh, in his BJP avatar, has merely learned the techniques of currying favours with his bosses. At a fair in Porbunder in Gujarat in March last year, he said: "During the time of Lord Krishna, there was no separate Arunachal Pradesh or Assam or Manipur. The entire northeast was one entity. Arunachal, Manipur and Nagaland are bordering China. Lord Krishna made them part of India during his time".This is a determined man. History and geography must bend to his will.

Is this a pattern among BJP leaders? At a meeting addressed by Maharashtra Minister Vinod Tawde recently, a student asked a question with his tape recorder on. The minister asked him to turn off the recorder and the student wanted to know why. The minister's response was to ask his security men to arrest the student and confiscate his recorder. The same arrogance of power made V.K.Singh, known variously as the Sanghi General and the foot-in-mouth mantri, to proclaim that "people making accusations over Rafale aircraft deal are illiterate".

Perhaps small men imagine that they can frighten critics away. The media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, found India was the fifth deadliest place for a journalist.The All Manipur Working Journalists Union disowned journalist Wangkhem. For them discretion was the better part of valour. However, the Students' Union found the courage to support Wangkhem while the Indian Journalists' Union said that the freedom of expression included the right to offend. Or course it does. But what do you do when a politician says that the right to rule includes the right to arrest critics and to call them illiterate. Either politicians win and others lose or others lose and politicians win.

Monday, January 21, 2019


What a curse democracy has become. It truly is bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. With no stops. Look at the cabinet circus in Karnataka. Look at Devendra Phadnavis fighting ally-turned-enemy Shiv Sena. Look at Yogi Adityanath still struggling to figure out whether governance is animal or vegetable. Look, if you have the heart, at the tragic spectacle of Manohar Parrikar, stricken with advanced cancer, being forced to carry on as chief minister in Goa because the party wants to safeguard its interests. Pathetic.

The MLA circus of the kind seen in Karnataka is by now a familiar feature of Indian politics. Parliament went to the extent of amending the Constitution in 1985 to pass the anti-defection law. The aim was to stop "the evil of political defection". The evil never stopped. The resort politics popularised by N.T.Rama Rao continues unabated. The old motto of Aya Ram Gaya Ram has given way to the new bazaar practice of Buy Ram Sell Ram.

The Kumaraswamy government that carries on precariously in Karnataka was the result of swalpa adjust maadi between the Congress and Gowda-run Janata Dal United. The BJP's Yeddyurappa sat momentarily in the seat of power thanks to the connivance of the state's BJP Governor. But not all the treasures of Arabia could buy him a majority in the House and Yeddyurappa had to quit before he could form a government.

But the Buy Ram Sell Ram culture continued as the latest "crisis" has proved. The BJP was out to buy 12 to 15 Congress MLAs and negotiations must have progressed far enough for several MLAs to be housed in luxury water holes in Delhi and Mumbai and other places. More than ten Congress MLAs had apparently conducted their bargains successfully. But Yeddyurappa & Co still could not reach the magic number that would have toppled the government.

Then came the Congress shouting from the hilltops that no force could bring its government down. Translated into everyday language, it meant that the Congress-JDU had out-bid the BJP in the auction of MLAs. As the ruling combination, they could offer not only cash but also ministerships and boards chairmanships, both recognised routes to riches. Expect new ministers in the cabinet with plans of course to serve the people. Congress leader Siddaramaiah, sounding more innocent than a baby, accused Yeddyurappa of horse trading and "offering crores of rupees" to Congress MLAs. What a nasty thing to do to the pure-as-heaven Congress.

The chances are that the crisis and its sudden ending (has it ended?) were more than a Congress-BJP affair. A Congress-Congress combat could as well have been part of it. The power struggle within the Karnataka Congress is no secret. Siddaramaiah who headed the Congress government until Kumaraswamy took over in May last year is not reconciled to his loss of office. He speaks and acts like the Congress party boss if not also as the effective chief minister. That means a barely hidden confrontation with party maverick and troubleshooter, D.K.Shivkumar. The long standing ambition of Shivkumar to become chief minister makes him an active player in the buy and sell market. Ambitions are not snuffed out by temporary ceasefires. So the drama in Karnataka will continue, crisis giving way to peace and peace breaking into crisis.

That pattern has become part of life across the country. Those in power believe that they should remain there indefinitely while those in opposition believe it is their right to topple the government and take over. To achieve their aims, sworn enemies become close friends, like Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have done in UP and Chandrasekhar Rao and Jagan Mohan Reddy in Hyderabad. Every tukda party is proclaiming that it will join hands with "like-minded partners". All are like-minded in their shared greed for power.

What makes politicians different from ordinary human beings is the certainty with which they can extoll their own supposed virtues and ridicule others. At a long, televised press conference in Guwahati last week the BJP's Ram Madhav did just that. He proclaimed how mahagathbandhan parties were unstable, corrupt and devoid of vision while the BJP was stable, corruptionless and visionary. As simple as that. What a pity that there are citizens in India who vote for unstable, corrupt and visionless parties when the saints and angels of the BJP are ready to sacrifice themselves for the country.

We already have the facts and figures of tomorrow: public presentation of lies as truths, intolerance, polarisation, religious violence. The future is already here.

Monday, January 14, 2019


Two factors are preventing the Sabarimala conundrum from moving towards a solution -- and the self-promoting politics of BJP-RSS forces are too unimportant to be one of them. It's true that Hindutva extremists' political obstructionism drew attention in the early days through violence. Although their campaign was in the name of tradition, they had no compunctions about breaking traditions; a leader climbed the holy steps to deliver a speech. Only when they realised the counter-productive nature of their agitation did they move to Trivandrum with the idea of "relay" fasting which, when we think about it, is a con game: One person lying in a bed for a couple of days without food and then going away to eat while another person takes to the bed, presumably after a hearty meal.

The real reasons behind the crisis continuing in Sabarimala are, first, wrong readings of the issue of discrimination and, secondly, the tactlessness of the chief minister that defies commonsense. Liberal opinion has taken a one-track position based on women's right to equality. According to them, a prolonged campaign was necessary in Kerala to let Dalits enter temples and a similar campaign has become necessary to let women enter Sabarimala.

This is a mixing of issues that have neither historical nor sociological similarities. Dalit oppression, which had reached sadistic levels in Kerala, was based on open, shameless, caste-based discrimination. It violated the basic tenets of any civilised society and had to be brought to an end. Sabarimala's no-woman stance is not a comparable case of discrimination. It is based on faith, tradition and, let it not be forgotten, a High Court ruling in 1991. The court remarked that the practice was there from "time immemorial" because women could not do the mandatory 41-day penance due to menstruation. The present court ruling has to be weighed against the previous one.

More importantly, the no-woman tradition in Sabarimala runs parallel to no-man traditions in other temples. What is considered the largest annual gathering of women in the world takes over the main roads in Trivandrum to cook rice in earthern pots for the Goddess in Attukal temple at Pongala time. Men are barred from participation. In fact, the Attukal temple is known as the Sabarimala of women. Another revered pilgrim centre in Kerala, Chakkulathu Kavu, is also for women only. So is the famous Bhagati Maa temple in Kanyakumari. No one accuses these temples of discrimination against men and there is no campaign for men's equality. By the same token, no one should accuse Swamy Ayyappan's temple of discrimination against women. The space for faith in our lives is legitimate. Those who do not have the faith should not hinder those who have. That is what makes a society free.

As has been said before, "It is natural for an old civilisation to have old practices. Justice is best when it recognises that there is no offence in the logic of the faithful being at variance with the logic of the rationalist".

The second factor that keeps Sabarimala on the boil is Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's haste in helping women to enter Sabarimala. The steps he has taken in the wake of the Supreme Court order and the statements he has made in a stop-me-if-you-can tone reflect a Communist leader's attitude rather than chief minister's. As head of government, he could have gained much by keeping tempers low, ensuring an atmosphere of peace and giving time to various players to adjust to new concepts. But he rushed into action saying that he had no option but to carry out court orders.

A week ago he showed that he did have options. A court order allowed a Christian faction to conduct services in a disputed church. An opposing faction physically prevented this, but the state Government did nothing to ensure that the court order was duly implemented. Evidently the Pinarayi Government picks and chooses cases in which it wants to use the courts and cases where it likes to ignore the judiciary.

Never has Kerala politics been in such a mess. Pinarayi is considered the strong man of politics, but there is no sign of his strength benefiting the state. He cannot even control the faction-ridden police force despite repeated reshuffling of top officers. The Congress is in Trishanku Swarga, not knowing who is its leader and who is not. In the melee, the BJP has outshouted others and matched communist murder politics with its own. These manipulators are only committing sacrilege in the name of the Lord of Sabarimala.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Now that a week has passed, we can reckon how many New Year resolutions have already been broken and how many are left to go down the drain. There is nothing here to feel guilty about. What are New Year resolutions for if not for breaking? Anyway, a brand new New Year will come soon enough enabling us to make a whole new set of resolutions to be freshly broken. After all, the purpose of a new year is not to let us have a new year, as British thinker-writer G.K.Cresterton said. The New Year comes to tell us that "we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes".

If we absorb the spirit of that sound advice, in the first place, we won't make resolutions that bind us to exercise every morning for half an hour, to save ten rupees every day, to drink 12 glasses of water without fail, etcetera. We will be able to look at traffic jams, pickpockets and politicians with new eyes and new nose, drink unsafe water and breathe poisonous air with a new backbone. In other words, we will be able to cope with what we cannot control.

And what about resolutions that should be made but are not? Justice S.R.Sen of Meghalaya High Court recently showed us how to proceed in this area. He said that there should have been a resolution by the makers of modern India to declare the country a Hindu nation. He urged a new resolution that would allow non-Muslims of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to come to India and claim citizenship here. Any takers?

The Union Government, for its part, appears to have resolved to lease out islands in Andaman Nicobar to private firms to build holiday homes for foreign tourists. These are islands the ecology of which is famously fragile. They are also considered important in terms of defence. Until recently there were restrictions, for strategic reasons, on visitors to Andaman-Nicobar. All caution is now gone as the islands are being opened for "private firms". Which are these private firms and how private are the forces behind them?

A resolution that should have been passed with some sense of urgency was one banning misinformation by the Government. Since nothing of the sort was done, the Finance Ministry and the PMO itself have been feeding us with false claims and false statistics.The repeated claims about the success of the Swatch Bharath campaign is an example. This mission, with Mahatma Gandhi's spectacle frame as its logo, grabbed headlines with a show of the Prime Minister sweeping a road. It describes itself as "the world's largest cleanliness drive" with "53,565 pledges taken, 26,565 activities done, 40,651 active participants".

The campaign was launched in October 2014. At the end of four years, how clean is India? Of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in India; the capital city of New Delhi hit the headlines in 2018 with the air going noxious. According to Lancet magazine, 1.2 million Indians died in 2017 due to air pollution problems. In the Environmental Performance Index, India ranked 141 out of 180 in 2016. In just two years, it slipped further down to become 177th out of 180. Lakes in Bangalore became a science curiosity by catching fire; accumulated filth had turned into poisonous white foam covering the surface of the water. In the Global Hunger Index India stands 103rd out of 119. The highest number of malnutrition deaths in 2017 took place in India. The highest number of stunted children is also in India. Even the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster 34 years ago received no attention from the authorities. The remains of the catastrophe that killed 4000 people continue to poison groundwater in the area.

This is how Swatch our Bharath is.

The listing of failures can go on because attempts to deceive citizens have not worked. Ten million jobs were promised, for example, while only 1.4 million materialised, doubling of farm income promised, but only a 5 percent rise materialised. But there is no need to go on because the picture is clear in spite of the usual tricks of denial. India has gone backward, not forward despite the New Years that have come and gone. That reality will prevail even as new promises and new claims rain on us this election season. "Happy New Year" has lost its glamour. It's more relevant to wish "Happy Old Years".