New on my other blogs

Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?


16 January, 2018

Judiciary faces a crucial test

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Supreme Court, ostensibly the world’s most powerful judicial institution, is in the grip of a crisis following its four senior-most judges’ public disapproval of the manner in which Chief Justice Dipak Misra distribute work among the judges.

When the Constitution came into force in 1950 the Supreme Court had only seven judges and they sat together to hear cases. As the workload increased and the number of judges was raised, they began sitting in benches of two or more judges to hear and decide cases. 

The Constitution vests the power to appoint judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts in the President. Since he acts on the advice of the council of ministers, the Executive enjoyed primacy in the process, although it was mandatory to consult the Chief Justice of India in making appointments to the apex court and the Chief Justice of the high court concerned in making appointments to that court.

Between 1982 and 1998, the Supreme Court, through three judgements, arrogated the right to select judges to a collegium comprising the CJI and his four senior-most colleagues. The deep division in the polity having weakened the Executive and the Legislature, they had no option but to accept the situation. The Executive’s role in the appointment and transfer of judges became one of passing on the collegium’s decisions to the President as its own recommendations. 

In the process India earned the dubious distinction of being the only country where judges appoint judges. Several eminent jurists said this was not a happy situation but successive CJIs and their senior colleagues were keen to preserve their newly acquired clout.

The Manmohan Singh government planned to amend the Constitution and enact legislation to abolish the court-mandated collegiums and create a National Judicial Appointments Commission to select judges. However, it could not complete the process. 

After the change of government in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up the thread and Parliament passed the NJAC Act. However, the NJAC could not be brought into being as the CJI, who had a key role in it, refused to cooperate. 

The Supreme Court subsequently struck down the NJAC Act as unconstitutional by a 4:1 judgement and restored the collegiums. Justice J Chelameswar, the lone dissenter among the five judges who heard the matter, criticised the collegium system for its lack of transparency. Later he stayed away from collegium meetings. That held up judicial appointments and forced the Court to reform the system. 

Last November a bench headed by Justice Chelameswar heard a petition seeking the setting up of a special team to conduct court-monitored investigation of alleged bribery involving the Medical Council of India. The Central Bureau of Investigation arrested a retired Odisha high court judge in one of the MCI scam cases.

According to the first information report filed by the CBI the ex-judge had assured the management of a private medical college, which had been barred from making fresh admissions as its facilities were substandard, that the Supreme Court would settle the matter in its favour. Justice Dipak Misra had headed the bench which heard all MCI scam cases.

Against this background the petitioner pleaded that Justice Misra should not be part of the bench which hears the matter. Justice Chelameswar referred the matter to a five-judge Constitution bench. 

The next day Justice Misra asserted that as the CJI he was the master of the roster and it was his sole prerogative to decide which bench should hear a case. He nullified Justice Chelameswar’s order and constituted a new five-judge bench to hear the petition.

Another issue that prompted Justice Chalameswar and the other senior judges to air their differences with Justice Misra publicly was his practice of bypassing them and referring sensitive political cases to benches headed by junior judges. At a press conference one of them conceded that the assignment of a petition seeking probe into the death of CBI court judge R H Loya to a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, a comparatively junior judge, triggered their protest. 

Loya was hearing a fake encounter case in which Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah was an accused. His sister said that before his death he had told her of a bribe offer of Rs 1 billion for an order favouring Shah.

The differences between the CJI and his colleagues have a bearing on the administration of justice. The way it is resolved will determine whether the apex court can function without external influences.

Stunning Dalit assertion

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A sudden Dalit assertion which disrupted life in several cities of Maharashtra, including the commercial metropolis of Mumbai, last week stunned the authorities and caste supremacists across the country.

Dalits from far and near had descended on the village of Bhima Koregaon, about 30 kilometres from Pune, on New Year’s Day to celebrate the 200th anniversary of a decisive victory of an East India Company regiment, comprising members of the Mahar community, over a much larger army of the Peshwas who ruled over the Maratha region at the time. 

Peshwas were Brahmin prime ministers who usurped power from the Maratha rulers. Mahars are one the erstwhile “untouchable” communities who now prefer to be known collectively as Dalits, meaning “broken people”.

Dr BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s Constitution, was a Mahar. His father, Ramji Sakpal, and grandfather, Maloji, had both served in the Company’s army. 

According to an early military history, in 1795 the Company maintained three separate armies at Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). Their total strength was 46,000, of whom 33,000 were Indians. The Mahar regiment was part of the Bombay army. The Calcutta army included Brahmins and Muslims and the Madras army had several non-Brahmin communities. 

The names of the Mahar soldiers killed in the Bhima Koregaon battle are engraved on a war memorial the British erected there. Ambedkar, who visited the memorial on the 109th anniversary of the battle, told his followers how 800 infantrymen, of whom 500 were Mahars, under the command of 12 British officers, had defeated the Peshwa’s army of 28,000. The memory of the battle became a rallying point for Dalit pride. 

Ambedkar had viewed the event in the context of the iniquitous social order imposed by the Brahminical code of Manu. Today Marathas, and not Brahmins, are socially and politically the most influential community of the region. 

Under the Peshwas, the Mahars had suffered much indignity. In 2005 Dalits formed an organisation to pay homage annually to the Mahar soldiers who had redeemed the community’s self-respect at Bhima Koregaon. Since then a few thousand Dalits have been assembling there each New Year’s Day. 

This year the number swelled to a few hundred thousand. Large contingents came from Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and from the southern state of Karnataka, where that party is making a bid for power in the elections due this year. 

Jignesh Mevani, who had led Dalit protests after some members of the community were flogged at Una in Gujarat and was elected to the State Assembly last month with Congress support, Radhika, mother of Osmania University scholar Rohit Vemula who was driven to suicide by pro-BJP elements in the campus, and Umar Khalid, a leader of the anti-BJP campaign in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, were among those joining this year’s celebrations. 

Dalits, who have been targeted, along with Muslims, by Hindutva goons in several states since the BJP came to power in 2014 viewed the event as an occasion to demonstrate their solidarity. Hindutva groups stoned the Bhima Koregaon-bound Dalits and they retaliated. One person was killed.

As news of the trouble reached Mumbai, Prakash Ambedkar, former MP and grandson BR Ambedkar, called for a strike in Maharashtra the next day. Several Dalit organisations endorsed the call. The huge response the call evoked surprised the aggressive Hindutva forces, including the BJP’s coalition partner, Shiv Sena, which rules the metropolis. The BJP-led state government instructed the police to exercise restraint. 

Dalit power having been demonstrated convincingly, Prakash Ambedkar withdrew the strike in the afternoon. 

There were solidarity demonstrations elsewhere in the country too.

“Dalits are saying we aren’t a polite, manageable community,” Rahul Sonpimple, a student leader of the community, said. 

The week’s developments were laced with irony. The youth killed in the stoning was a Maratha, not a Dalit, and his family said he had not joined the anti-Dalit protest. 

Media reports suggested that extreme left-wing Naxalites had planned the Dalit protests. The reports originated not in the national or state capital but in Nagpur, where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of Hindutva’s hate politics, has its headquarters. A rare, formal RSS statement attributed the troubles to a Breaking India Brigade which “wants to divide the country on religious and caste lines”. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained studied silence on the incidents. It remains to be seen whether he and the RSS will draw an appropriate lesson from the events and restrain their supporters. --Gulf Today, January 9, 2018

02 January, 2018

Limits of personal camaraderie

BRP Bhaskar

For seven decades leaders of India and the United States have harped on the common interests of the two countries as the world’s largest democracies but the affinity between their political systems has not manifested itself in bilateral relations. This is not surprising since political, economic and other factors play a far greater role in shaping relations between nations than forms of government.

In the Cold War era, India’s refusal to align itself with either of the power blocs was the main stumbling block. The Soviet Union proved smarter in negotiating around it and the resulting close relations with it only added to US suspicions about non-alignment. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the way was clear for re-setting relations with the US, the sole superpower, but at that time India was passing through an uncertain phase under coalition governments headed by weak Prime Ministers. 

One of the first acts of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee on coming to power in 1998 was to order a nuclear test. India had conducted a test when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and was quietly working on a weaponisation programme for some years. The nuclear establishment took just two months to carry out Vajpayee’s order. 

On the 15th day of the second Indian test, Pakistan, which too had been pursuing a nuclear programme secretly, conducted its own test and achieved parity of status as a nuclear power. 

The US responded to India’s blasting its way into the nuclear club by imposing sanctions. It took four years of negotiations by the Manmohan Singh government with the US and international agencies to shake off the sanctions. India undertook to separate its civil and military nuclear programes and place the former under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. 

Thereafter the US and India began earnest efforts to improve bilateral relations. An early outcome of the exercise was an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. The US was keenly interested in it as it would open up the Indian market to its nuclear equipment suppliers. But several factors continued to inhibit the growth of bilateral relations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave high priority to improvement of relations with the US, which had earlier denied him visa on account of the anti-Muslim riots that took place in Gujarat under his watch. At the end of their first meeting in Washington he and President Barack Obama released a roadmap to raise bilateral relations to a higher level. 

After the change of government in the US, Modi went to Washington again, declaring “the logic of our strategic relationship is incontrovertible.” He established an even warmer friendship with President Donald Trump than he had with Obama. 

Trump and his administration laid it on thick to draw India into the US plans to contain China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held out the tantalising prospects of a 100-year alliance against China. Trump while travelling in the region repeatedly referred to Asia Pacific as Indo-Pacific to underline the importance he attaches to this country. His National Security Strategy (NSS) proclaimed India a “global power”.

That was a big promotion. In George W Bush’s 2006 NSS India was a regional and global “engine of growth”, in Obama’s 2010 NSS a “21st century centre of influence” and 2015 NSS a “regional provider of security”. 

Those who consider a US testimonial the very last word exulted. But some serious observers cautioned Modi against walking into Washington’s trap. They pointed out that India has had long-standing good relations with Russia and Iran, two countries the US has identified as enemies, the others being China and North Korea. 

The NSS, they added, was designed to safeguard and promote US interests, and Indian interests did not necessarily coincide with them. 

The limits of a common commitment to democracy and personal camaraderie between leaders in determining foreign policy issues became evident within a few days of the motivated US overtures to India as the United Nations considered Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

After the US vetoed the Security Council resolution disapproving Trump’s action more than 100 countries came together in the General Assembly under the unite-for-peace rule. India did not join the group that sponsored the General Assembly resolution, but voted for it despite dire warnings that the US would penalise those who voted against it. Modi’s friendship with Trump and the BJP’s fondness for Israel’s hardline could not override the considerations that have made India a long-time supporter of Palestine. -- Gulf Today, January 2, 2018.

27 December, 2017

A scam vanishes into thin air

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It can only be likened to the fabled Indian rope trick. As the nation stood transfixed by the 2G scam, billed as the biggest of its kind, it vanished into thin air. 

The scam broke seven years ago even as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh began its second five-year term. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Vinod Rai, in a report placed before Parliament, estimated that the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum by the first UPA government had resulted in a presumptive loss of Rs1.76 trillion to the exchequer. 

The supposedly irregular allocations were made by A. Raja, of the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, who was Minister of Communication and Information Technology in UPA 1. He had announced that the government had decided to allocate spectrum on a ‘first-come first-served’ basis, instead of auctioning. By the stipulated date the Department of Telecommunications received 575 applications from 46 firms. 

When the CAG report came Raja was minister in UPA 2. The opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, disrupted the proceedings of Parliament day after day demanding his resignation. After consultations with DMK chief M Karunanidhi in Chennai, he announced his resignation “to avoid embarrassment to the government” and to facilitate smooth functioning of Parliament. “I will prove that I did everything according to the norms,” he added. 

Criminal investigation of the 2G allocations had begun a year before the CAG report with the Central Vigilance Commissioner, acting on a complaint by a non-government organisation alleging irregularities, ordering a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. 

Soon the courts entered the scene. The Delhi High Court ruled that the setting of cut-off date for spectrum applications was illegal. In March 2011, the Centre, on the orders of the Supreme Court, set up a special court to try the accused in the spectrum cases.  

The special court heard three cases, two filed by the CBI and one by the Enforcement Directorate, against Raja, Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter and DMK MP, and top officials of the government and of telecom companies.

Even as the special court was hearing the cases, the Supreme Court, in separate legal proceedings, cancelled all the 122 spectrum licences issued by Raja and ordered that fresh allocations be made through auctions. 

The widely publicised spectrum cases and the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare badly tarnished the image of the Manmohan Singh government and paved the way for the BJP’s spectacular success in 2014 under Narendra Modi’s leadership.  

Last week Special Judge OP Saini, in a 1,552-page judgment, took the prosecution cases to pieces and threw them out lock, stock and barrel. He said the CBI’s “well-choreographed chargesheet” was based “mainly on misreading, selective reading, non-reading and out-of-context reading” of the official record. There was no evidence to indicate criminality in the acts of the accused. 

The CBI and the ED had cited a loan of Rs2 billion provided to a Tamil television channel controlled by Karunanidhi’s family by a beneficiary of 2G allocation as evidence of corruption and money laundering. However, the judge said, the prosecution put no question to any witness to establish that the loan was illegal gratification. 

The judge added that he had sat in the courtroom for seven years but not a soul turned up to provide evidence to establish corruption. 

In the circumstances he concluded that some people had created a scam where there was none by “artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels”. 

Judge Saini’s is not the last word on the subject. The CBI and the ED have said they would appeal to the High Court against his judgment. Above the High Court, there is the Supreme Court.  

The CBI had once enjoyed a high reputation as an investigating agency but it is now generally seen as a tool in the hands of its political masters. Some time ago the Supreme Court dubbed it as a caged parrot. 

There have been insinuations that the Modi government may have allowed the 2G cases to collapse to prepare the ground for an alliance between the BJP and the DMK in Tamil Nadu for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.   

The CBI has failed miserably in several high-profile cases in the recent past. Maybe, in the light of experience, there is a need to redefine ‘scam’ in the Indian context as a political scandal, real or imaginary, which offers immense scope for partisan warfare, helps bureaucrats attain celebrity status, enables investigative journalists to earn reporting laurels before subliming into history. 

The saddest part of the story of the scams is the erosion of people’s faith in the institutions to which they look up to sustain the democratic system. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 27, 2017.

19 December, 2017

A Pyrrhic victory for Modi

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has reinforced its position as the country’s largest political party by retaining its grip on Gujarat and snatching control of Himachal Pradesh from the Congress in the State Assembly elections, the results of which were announced on Monday.

Modi had to pay a high price, in personal as well as political terms, for the party’s sixth successive win in Gujarat, which is his home state, albeit with a reduced margin. 

Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are among half a dozen states where there is a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress for power. While Gujarat has been under the BJP’s belt continuously since 1995, in Himachal the two parties have been alternating in power since 1990.

The Congress having won the last elections in Himachal, going by the established pattern, it was the BJP’s turn this time. It had little difficulty in beating the Congress as the outgoing government had invited serious charges of corruption. 

The situation in Gujarat was quite different. The anti-Muslim riots that took place soon after Modi became the Chief Minister of the state in December 2001 had led to a Hindu consolidation and created an impression that the BJP was now unbeatable.

According to official figures, 1,044 persons were killed and about 2,500 injured in the riots, and 223 persons were reported missing. Of the dead, 790 were Muslims. In one of the worst incidents, a Hindu mob armed with machetes attacked and killed Ehsan Jaffri, a former Congress member of Parliament, at his residence where many Muslim women had taken refuge.

The rise of Hindu communalism alarmed the state Congress leadership and it pusillanimously settled for a soft Hindutva line. 

Anandiben Patel, whom Modi had chosen as his successor when he became the Prime Minister, proved unequal to the task. She was therefore removed, and Vijay Rupani appointed as chief minister. He didn’t fare any better. 

An agitation by the Patidar community seeking reservation in the services and a movement by Dalits against the violence unleashed on members of the community on false charges of killing cows threw up leaders who were ready to challenge Hindutva frontally. 

Ahead of the elections, Rahul Gandhi personally took charge of the Congress party’s campaign. He dented the Hindutva facade by bringing Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor together on the side of the Congress. 

Displaying a degree of gravitas not seen before, Rahul Gandhi took on Modi, plying him with questions and challenging his claims about what he had done in Gujarat as Chief Minister for 12 years and at the Centre for the last three and a half years. Modi responded by stepping up his attacks on Rahul and the Nehru-Gandhis. Talk about Gujarat, not about me, Rahul told him sharply.

Modi drafted the services of many of his Cabinet colleagues and Hindutva’s new crop of Chief Ministers to supplement his efforts.

The contrast between the dignified manner in which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had campaigned in the first three general elections, treating rival party leaders with respect, and the way Modi runs down leaders of other parties is too stark to be missed. 

The level to which Modi stooped to keep his home state with his party makes the Gujarat outcome a Pyrrhic victory. As early as last October he had started unabashedly pandering to parochial sentiments, telling a party rally the Nehru-Gandhis had always disliked Gujarat and the Gujaratis. 

The campaign touched the nadir when Modi accused Congress of seeking Pakistan’s help to install Amed Patel, a Muslim, as Gujarat’s Chief Minister. He alleged that a conspiracy in this regard was held at the residence of a former Congress minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.

What actually happened was that Aiyar, who was a career diplomat before joining politics, held a dinner party in honour of former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a friend since their days together at Cambridge. Among the guests were former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who too is a former diplomat, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, two former Army chiefs and a host of other ex-diplomats.

In a palpable attempt to give a communal colour to the alleged conspiracy Modi mentioned the names of just two of the dinner guests: Ansari, a Muslim, and Manmohan Singh, a Sikh. 

A win is a win, whatever the circumstances surrounding it. Modi and the BJP can derive satisfaction from the fact that they have snatched one more state from the Congress. However, the lesson to be drawn from the outcome of the elections in the two states is that, as of now, their hope of a Congress-free India is a pipe dream. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 19, 2017.

18 December, 2017

From Cradle To Saddle   

As Rahul takes over from his mother, the 132-year-old Congress seems to need the dynasty more than the dynasty needs it

Coronation was the word that surfaced naturally in Indian and foreign minds as Sonia Gandhi stepped down after leading the Congress for nearly two decades and installed Rahul Gandhi as party president. The term suggested itself not because the royal pomp on display, but on account of the feudal mindset pervading even modern dem­ocracies. The Americans, more precisely the whites, are still obsessed with British royalty nearly two-and-a-half centuries after they broke away. They seek to make up for the lost royalty  by finding kings and queens—even gods and goddesses—from the worlds of cinema, sports and business.

Much of India is feudal enough to quietly acquiesce in—if not actually rejoice over—dynastic succession in politics. The fiercest critic of the Con­gress’s dynastic politics is ironically the BJP, which reinforces feudal values in the name of Hindu nationalism. It has deplored the dynastic aspect as well as the lack of democratic process in the choice of the new Congress president. Both charges are well grounded, but, coming from the BJP, it’s like a pot calling the kettle black.

The BJP became India’s largest political party by granting membership to every Tarun, Dinesh and Hari who made a missed call. They have no role, however, in the election to any party post as the office-bearers are handpicked by the BJP’s Nagpur-based mentor, the RSS, and its units at different levels. It was at the RSS’s bidding that the BJP’s parliamentary board proclaimed Narendra Modi its PM candidate ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, overlooking former party presidents L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who were waiting in the wings. Then BJP president Rajnath Singh said the parliamentary board had acted “as per the party’s tradition”.

After becoming PM, Modi, with the RSS’s blessings, got Amit Shah elected party president. The party members’ role in the process was limited to hailing the new chief. In contrast, Rahul, who had served as general secretary and vice-president of the party for 10 years, insisted that he be duly elected as president. Accordingly, the Congress, which had not held organisational elections for long, created an electoral college through a process which, while falling short of democratic credibility, represented a marginal improvement in the prevailing situation. Of course, no party leader was ready to take the democratic process farther by contesting against Rahul.

The BJP’s opposition to dynastic succession is artificial. Countless dropouts from Congress dynasties have found refuge in it. Heading the list is Maneka Gandhi, the younger of Indira Gandhi’s daughters-in-law, Sonia being the older one. She was beside husband Sanjay Gandhi as he went on a rampage as extra-constitutional authority during the Emergency, razing parts of Old Delhi and forcibly sterilising poor residents. She has an assured place in every BJP-led government at the Centre and her son, Varun, is a BJP MP. Also in the BJP fold are lesser Congress dynasties, like those of former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, former Congress president and education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and former Uttar Pradesh CM H.N. Bahuguna.

Critics of the Congress have propagated a belief that dynastic rule in the party is the result of a project dating back to Nehru’s time. Soon after a res­ounding victory under his leadership in India’s first general election (1952), Nehru tried to persuade Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and other leaders of the Socialist Party, which, in terms of popular vote, was the second largest, alt­hough the (then undivided) CPI, having won more seats, was the main opposition group in the Lok Sabha. As a hero of the 1942 Quit India movement, JP was a youth idol then, who, had he returned to the Congress, would have naturally emerged as Nehru’s successor. Though paving the way for Indira as his successor could not have been on Nehru’s mind, he did make her Congress president in 1959.

On Nehru’s demise, the Congress picked Shastri, and not Indira, as his successor. She became the favourite on Shastri’s unexpected passing as the syndicate of state party bosses reckoned her a better bet than Morarji Desai when a general election was near. Upsetting their calculations, she walked out of the party with the bulk of the rank and file and settled for ­dynastic succession. The line snapped on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 as Sonia, who was not even a party ­member then, showed no interest in taking her husband’s place. It was only after the Congress steadily declined over the next seven years, first under P.V. Narasimha Rao and then under Sitaram Kesri, and was on the verge of break-up that she became a member and the party made her president. As it happens, the party today needs the dynasty more than the dynasty needs it. It can easily split into many factions if there is no Gandhi at the top to hold it together.

The transition from Sonia to Rahul represents a more striking generational change than that from Advani and Joshi to Modi. Advani was 86 and Joshi 80 when Modi, 63, eased out all leaders above 70. Sonia, 71, has made way for Rahul, who is just 47. This gives him a unique opportunity to give his 132-year-old party a youthful look and earn a demographic dividend—no easy task, though, for a party saddled with many aged veterans. The party does have a crop of young leaders who have proved themselves, but Rahul also has to deal with many who are influenced by Hindutva and cannot, therefore, be reliable defenders of democracy and secularism.

Until recently it looked as though the Congress was needlessly delaying Rahul’s inevitable elevation, giving Modi time to run him down, while the Sangh’s cyberlings caricatured him as Pappu the village idiot. But, just as everybody had written him off as a non-starter, he bounced on to the ­centre-stage as Rahul 2.0, a fighter capable of taking on Modi. The Gujarat ­assembly election gave him the chance to demonstrate that he can match Modi’s fabled campaign skills, wit by wit and scorn by scorn, without des­cending to a plebian level. While Modi relied on bluff and bluster, Gandhi challenged him with facts and reason. In the heat of the campaign, Modi ­forgot his Vikas slogan and talked mostly of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis, prompting Rahul to ask him to talk about Gujarat and its problems. A rattled Modi fired a typical Hindutva weapon: an all­eged conspiracy by Congress leaders to instal Ahmed Patel as CM with Pakistan’s help!
Whatever the Gujarat election outcome, Rahul has est­ablished himself firmly on the political firmament as a leader who is part of his party’s and country’s future. He has to deal with a polity in which Hindutva elements are more powerful than even during the Partition days. He will do well to carefully assess the way his predecessors handled the threats of majority and min­ority communalism and draw app­ropriate lessons. Nehru boldly confronted Hindu communalism, which had taken the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and held it at bay throughout his days and its effect lingered even long afterwards. Indira also confronted the forces of communalism boldly, but her role in the liberation of Bangladesh led Atal Behari Vajpayee to hail her as Durga. She stood up to Sikh communalism and paid with her life for refusing her security experts’ advice to exclude Sikhs from her personal guards.

Rajiv played some dangerous games, relying on advice from sources outside the party and the government. He first compromised with Muslim obscurantism on the Shah Bano issue and then sought to make up for it by compromising with Hindu irredentism on the Ram Mandir issue, leading to aggravation of both brands of communalism. In Sri Lanka, he allowed the Indian peace-keeping force to be drawn into a combat role, causing LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran to plot his assassination.

Rahul can possibly benefit from studying the contrasting ways of Nehru and Indira in negotiating the political minefield. Nehru’s ways, by and large, strengthened the nascent democracy, while Indira Gandhi’s weakened it considerably.

The Congress was in power during 10 of Sonia Gandhi’s 19 years at the helm. She held together the small national and regional parties as UPA chairperson and put together a National Advisory Com­mittee (NAC), whose members included social activists and on whose recomm­endation the National Rural Emp­loy­ment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act were introduced. For reasons still unclear, UPA-2 dispensed with the NAC’s services. Rahul needs to listen to a range of people as he sets out to equip the Congress once again as an upholder of democracy, secularism and social justice.

By getting Patidar leader Hardik Patel, backward class leader Alpesh Tha­kore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani on a common platform with him in the Gujarat campaign, Rahul has shown his skills as a coalition-era team leader. As the Lok Sabha election approaches, the scene will change vastly as he has to deal with a host of small national or regional parties that hold the key. It will then be necessary to look at new issues, inc­luding greater autonomy for states. Will he be able to use the opp­ortunity to work out new equations and confront the BJP, which is sure to play up the nationalist card to foil a Federal Front’s emergence?

By nominating Manmohan Singh as the party’s PM candidate in 2004, Sonia had neatly sidestepped the iss­ues of her Italian origin and Catholic upbringing, which the BJP and some of her own party men were harping on. By offering prayers at temples and appearing as a practising Hindu of the sacred-thread-wearing order, Rahul has consciously chosen a different route. His Hindu card and sacred thread may have stumped the BJP’s top brass, but he is riding a tiger and must figure out how to dismount safely and lead his party and the country back to the path of democracy and secularism.

People look for consistency in a leader. If personal appearance is as important as policy position in popular perception, Rahul Gandhi may have already done damage to himself by looking clean-shaven one day and with days-old stubble on other days. Abraham Lincoln is said to have grown a beard after a school-girl wrote to him that it would help hide his ugliness. The handsome Rahul needs no such subterfuge and can possibly raise his credibility by projecting a consistent image all the time.  (Outlook Magazine, December 25, 2017)

12 December, 2017

Trust in banks eroding

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Coming close on the heels of the disastrous and apparently fruitless demonetisation exercise, the Modi government’s plan to enact a law with provision to bail-in banks in distress has set alarm bells ringing among the middle class.

The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, which is before a joint committee of Parliament, ostensibly, seeks to protect the interests of the banks as well as the depositors. Actually it takes away the protection deposits of up to Rs 100,000 now enjoy under a 1960s law enacted following the collapse of a couple of banks.

Considering the erosion in the value of the Rupee over the past few decades, the government should have revised the law to extend protection to deposits of up to Rs 1 million. Instead, it has put in the draft law a clause which empowers a new authority to be known as Resolution Corporation, to modify the nature of the deposit if the bank is in danger of becoming unviable.

As MK Venu, a well-known economic and political analyst, has pointed out, if the government-owned State Bank of India which has deposits of over Rs 20,000 billion becomes vulnerable enough to be referred to the Resolution Corporation, it can order conversion of 10 per cent of all deposits into equity shares or interest-bearing preference shares of the bank. This means use of a part of the deposits to enlarge the bank’s capital base without the depositors’ permission. 

The SBI, already India’s largest bank, became bigger still with the merger of five associate banks with it last April and is now the world’s 45th largest. That doesn’t mean it is strong and depositors need not worry about the safety of their money. 

According to CAREs Ratings, the credit rating agency, as on June 30 this year the SBI topped the list of 38 banks with non-performing assets (NPAs) totalling Rs 8,293.38 billion. Its own share of NPAs was 1,880.68 billion, or 22.7 per cent of the total.

In the financial year that ended on March 31, 2017 the state-owned banks wrote off bad loans totalling Rs 816.83 billion. This was 41 per cent more than the previous year’s figure of Rs 575.86 billion and almost three times the 2012-13 figure of Rs 272.31 billion.

Raghuram Rajan, whom the Modi government eased out of the office of Governor of the Reserve Bank, the country’s central bank, had launched a balance-sheet clean-up drive by bringing out hidden bad loans. This resulted in the SBI’s NPAs shooting up from 4.25 per cent of the total advances in March 2015 to 7.14 per cent in September 2016.

That year the SBI wrote off bad loans of Rs 70.16 billion of 63 of its top 100 wilful defaulters fully and of 31 others partially. Its biggest defaulter at that time was Vijay Mallya, a playboy businessman who owed Rs 69.63 billion to 17 banks, including Rs 12.01 billion to the SBI. He quietly slipped out to London, where he is now facing extradition proceedings.

Under political patronage and managerial profligacy, the banking system has been slipping steadily over the years. Successive governments have attempted to reform it but without addressing the issues of political interference and internal mismanagement. 

In 2002 the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, headed by AB Vajpayee, enacted the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest (SARFAESI) Act which allowed banks to seize collaterals if loans turned out to be NPAs. The banks used the law ruthlessly against micro, small and medium enterprises. 

That law did not cover the big defaulters. Not that there are no laws to deal with them. Their economic clout and proximity to the political rulers put them beyond the reach of the law, unless circumstances compel the authorities to act, as in the case of Vijay Mallya.

Currently at the top of the NPA list is the Reliance ADAG group of Anil Ambani, the younger of the scions of the country’s richest family. Its balance-sheet shows debts of about Rs 1,250 billion. It is followed by metals and mining giant Vedanta group of Anil Agarwal with debts of Rs 1,030 billion and the Essar group of the Ruia brothers with debts of Rs 1,010 billion. 

At the fourth place is the Adani group of Gautam Adani which owes banks Rs 960.31 billion. Adani had made available his personal aircraft for Narendra Modi’s 2014 whirlwind election tour and he accompanied Modi on several foreign trips he undertook as the Prime Minister.

Following a public uproar, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has offered to take a fresh look at the FRDI bill after the report of the Parliament committee is received. That is a virtual admission that, as with demonetisation and the goods and services tax, his ministry has acted without due diligence. -- Gulf Today, December 12, 2017.

05 December, 2017

Legend holds society hostage

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Home for many millennia to countless communities, each with a host of colourful legends of its own, the subcontinent is arguably the world’s biggest treasure house of folktales.

Over the centuries the legends of many communities have got incorporated into the belief systems of the people and found their way into religious texts. Some legends have been carried across land and sea borders and have got incorporated into the cultural traditions of other peoples. 

Whether pure myths or embellishments of actual events of yore, legends generally play a useful role in a community’s life. They help communities nurture pride in their past and sustain themselves in times of adversity. But if they get out of hand, they can evolve into potential threats to others, and even to themselves.

Currently the country is facing a challenge with the powerful Rajput community rising in revolt against Padmavati, a film by National Award-winning Hindi film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the life of a legendary queen whom Rajputs - and other Indians too - adore as a symbol of honour.

Rajputs, spread across the Hindi-speaking northern states, are said to number about 43.35 million.

When Bhansali announced plans for the film last year, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, a Jaipur-based caste group of the Hindutva school held out open threats against him and Deepika Padukone, who was to play the role of Padmavati, alleging the movie distorted history and hurt Rajput sentiments. At that time no details of the script were available in the public domain.

Founded in 2006, the Sena already had a history of violent attacks on movies and television serials which it considered unacceptable because of their depiction of Rajput characters. Incidentally, all those characters had figured in several earlier movies without inviting any opposition.

The rise of Hindutva as a major political force and the emergence of various caste and religious organisations to protect or promote sectarian interests explain the change that has come about. The rising tendency among such groups to take the law into their hands makes the situation worse.

Bhansali later revealed his script is based on the epic poem by 16th century Sufi poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi, and said it was a tribute to the sacrifice, valour and honour of Rani Padmavati. 

Jayasi’s is the earliest available account of the story of Padmavati, an exceptionally beautiful princess whom Chittor’s Rajput ruler Ratan Sen wooed and won. Others enchanted by her beauty included Delhi Sultan Alaudun Khilji and Kumbhalner ruler Devpal.

In Jayasi’s work, Devpal kills Ratan Sen in a duel. Khilji lays siege to Chittor, and Padmavati and other women fight bravely before immolating themselves to avoid falling into enemy hands.

Jayasi wrote his epic in Awadhi, a language spoken in parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh. It is evidently a piece of fiction, not a work of history. In it, Padmavati (in some extant versions of the story the name is Padmini) is the daughter of the King of Simhala Dweepa (Sri Lanka). Ratan Sen hears of her beauty from Hiraman, a talking parrot. 

Khilji ruled over Delhi from 1296 to 1316. Jayasi composed his Padmavati in 1540, some 224 years after Khilji’s death. 

Bhansali has made highly successful films which go well with the Hindutva ideal. But that did not save him from Rajput fury over the imagined affront to the community’s honour. When he started shooting at Jaipur the Sena vandalised the sets and assaulted him. It, however, showed the good sense not to carry out the threat to chop off Deepika Padukone’s nose.

Padukone had said earlier, “As a woman, I feel proud to be a part of this film, and to tell this story which needs to be told now.”

The film is now ready for exhibition, but as Rajput anger remains unabated no date has been set for its release.

When film producers ran into such situations in the past, they were left to fend for themselves. In a marked departure from that tradition, the film fraternity has rallied behind Bhansali.

On November 26, in response to a call by a score of organisations, the Hindi film and television industry observed a 15-minute blackout, in a demonstration of solidarity with Bhansali, with the slogan “Main azaad hoon” (I am free). Two days later the Bengali industry followed suit.

As legend holds the society hostage, the government and the political parties, unwilling to antagonise a powerful community, remains in a virtual state of paralysis.