New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
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?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

20 June, 2017

Privacy concerns over ID card

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Over the past eight years the Indian government has gone ahead with a scheme to issue a unique identity card to all citizens, brushing aside widespread concerns over their right to privacy. On more than one occasion the Supreme Court said it cannot be made mandatory but the authorities are pushing ahead with it.

The United Progressive Alliance government created the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009 and charged it with the task of issuing unique identification numbers, to be known as Aadhaar, to all residents of India. It said Aadhaar would help check leakage in various welfare measures resulting from the prevalence of fake ID cards.

Several civil society organisations objected to the scheme, fearing it would lead to surveillance of citizens. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in the opposition, shared their concern. It called the scheme a fraud and blocked the passage of a law to give the UIDAI statutory backing.

Nevertheless, the UPA government went ahead with the scheme. Not many people applied for Aadhaar. The government got over the problem by deciding to issue Aadhaar to all those who had provided personal particulars and biometric data for preparation of the National Population Register under the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The process was going on when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power. Reversing the position his party had taken earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to go ahead with the Aadhaar scheme.

He gave the UIDAI statutory status by pushing through Parliament a measure styled as Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act. To overcome the disability resulting from the NDA’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the measure was labelled as a money bill. The upper house has no power to make changes in a money bill.

As the government linked Aadhaar with various welfare schemes, citizens sought intervention by the courts. So far there has been no conclusive court ruling.

On several occasions the Supreme Court said Aadhaar should not be made mandatory. Once it asked the government to advertise widely that it is not mandatory to obtain an Aadhaar card. At the same time it let the government link various schemes with Aadhaar.

In 2015, the apex court said the Aadhaar scheme is purely voluntary and “cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or another”. It has set up a constitution bench to take that final decision but it is yet to hear the matter.

Early this month the government issued a notification making linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts and the permanent account number cards issued by the Income Tax department mandatory. It also made Aadhaar mandatory for making bank deposits of more than Rs 50,000.

The government claimed these steps would help weed out fake and fraudulent transactions.

The Supreme Court let the notification stand but ruled that it would not be applicable to those who do not have an Aadhaar card or have not applied for one until the constitution bench decides the privacy question.

The Aadhaar Act prohibits sharing, publishing, displaying or public posting of the core biometric information collected under the project except in the interest of “national security”, which remains undefined. However, some recent reports have raised doubts about the way the government handles the information in its possession.

The Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit interdisciplinary research organisation, recently revealed a few instances in which agencies under the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government published on their websites data which could potentially compromise the interest of more than 130 million Aadhaar cardholders and 100 million bank account holders.

According to media reports, the Jharkhand government has made public personal details of 1.4 million persons who have linked their Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts to facilitate direct transfer of their monthly pensions. A private and two firms are currently facing charges of cyber crime for hacking and breaching the privacy of Aadhaar data.

Aadhaar may not spell the end of fake identities. India’s population, which stood at 1,210 million at the time of the 2011 census, is currently estimated at close to 1,342 million. UIDAI has issued more than 1,155 million Aadhaar cards so far. By March 2015 as many as 13 states and union territories had already issued cards in excess of the 2011 population. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 20, 2017

13 June, 2017

A chilling message to media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press.” The weeks that followed revealed the wide gulf between this pious wish and his administration’s practice.

A few days before that tweet, the Central Bureau of Investigation had received a complaint alleging fraud in a transaction between NDTV, a leading media organisation, and the ICICI Bank, both private companies. The complainant, Sanjay Dutt, was a shareholder of both the companies and had been pursuing allegations against the media company and its promoters, Prannoy Roy and his wife, Radhika, in various forums for four years with little success.

On June 2 the CBI registered an 88-page first information report on the basis of Dutt’s complaint and two days later it conducted searches at four places belonging to the Roys. It was not the first time that an investigating agency had acted against media owners but the attendant circumstances suggested that this one was intended to send a chilling message to the entire media.

NDTV is one of the earliest private news television companies and played a major role in bringing to national attention the enormity of the anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat in 2002 soon after Modi became the state chief minister. Just a few days ago, one of its anchors, Nidhi Razdan, had asked Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra to apologise or leave her show as he alleged the channel had an agenda.

Two central government agencies, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department, had started looking into NDTV’s finances soon after Modi became the Prime Minister. They served notices on the Roys in connection with certain transactions, and they moved the courts with regard to some of them.

Last November the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the group’s Hindi channel, NDTV India, to go off the air for a day for revealing sensitive information in its coverage of the attack on the Pathankot airbase in violation of the rules regarding reporting of terror incidents. Media organisations had protested against singling out the channel for action sparing others who, too, had shown similar visuals.

Last week, at a largely attended meeting of journalists in New Delhi to demonstrate solidarity with the Roys, eminent jurist Fali S Nariman pointed to infirmities in the CBI conduct. It had acted not on the basis of any crime-related discovery but on a lone private complaint. The criminal conspiracy and cheating alleged in the complaint had taken place during 2008-09 and it did not say why the matter was not brought to the agency’s attention earlier.

Instead of instituting a criminal inquiry and conducting raids, the CBI should have asked Dutt to file a complaint in a criminal court, Nariman said.

Veteran journalists who spoke at the meeting likened the current situation to what prevailed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime and called upon the media fraternity to stand together to safeguard press freedom. Prannoy Roy asserted he and his wife had done no wrong, and the action against them was a signal to the media that the government could get them even if they had done nothing.

A majority of the media has been uncritical of the government and there is in the electronic media a group of fawning fans ready to fight Modi’s and his party’s battles as if they were their own. But Modi remains distrustful of the media and avoids press conferences.

The CBI’s uncalled-for action on a private complaint with regard to transactions involving private companies has once again turned the focus on the functioning of that agency.

Set up by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in 1963, the CBI established an early reputation as a competent investigative agency. That reputation now lies in ruins. After reviewing the way it handled a scandal of the United Progressive Alliance government, a Supreme Court judge had dubbed it a caged parrot repeating its master’s voice.

Ranjit Sinha who headed the CBI at that time said the court’s assessment was correct. The agency later appealed to the court to free it from governmental interference but nothing came of it.

The BJP, then in the opposition, had lambasted the UPA government using the judge’s remarks about the CBI. Last month leading lawyer and former Congress minister, Kapil Sibal said the CBI was now the long arm of the Modi government and it was holding out threats to people to secure favourable statements. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 13, 2017. 

11 June, 2017

Former civil servants decry hyper-nationalism and religious intolerance

A group of retired civil servants has questioned the idea that “those in authority should not be questioned”, and expressed concern over “growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national”.
The following is the text of an open letter bearing signatures of more than 50 of them:
We are a group of retired officers of All India and Central Services of different batches, who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. We should make it clear that as a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in the credo of impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Indian Constitution. A sense of deep disquiet at what has been happening in India has prompted uFormer s to write this open letter to chronicle our reservations and misgivings about recent developments in the body politic. What has gone wrong?
It appears as if there is a growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals. All this without any basis in fact or evidence. The banning of slaughter-houses targets the minorities and affects their livelihoods as well. Such intolerance breeds violence in a communally charged atmosphere - even to the extent of a local leader in UP provoking an attack upon the residence of a Superintendent of Police, whose family was terrorized.
Vigilantism has become widespread. An Aklaq is killed on the basis of a suspicion that the meat he has is beef and a Pehlu Khan is lynched while transporting to his place two cows he had bought and for which he had the necessary papers. Nomadic shepherds are attacked in J and K on some suspicion as they practice their age-old occupation of moving from one place to another along with their cattle and belongings. Gaurakshaks function with impunity and seem to be doing so with the tacit complicity or active encouragement of State machinery. Punitive action against the perpetrators of violence does not take place promptly but cruelly, the victims have FIRs registered against them. The behaviour of vigilantes – who act as if they are prosecutor, judge and executioner rolled into one – flies in the face of law and jurisprudence. These actions undermine the rule of law and the Indian Constitution since only the State – through its various organs and institutions - has the power to enforce the law.
Vigilantism has become popular as ‘anti-Romeo’ squads threaten young couples who go out together, hold hands and are perhaps in love with each other. A thinly-veiled effort to prevent a Hindu-Muslim relationship or marriage, there is no justification in law to harass these couples, particularly when there is no complaint from the woman of being ill-treated.
Student groups and faculty members on campuses like Hyderabad and JNU, who raise troubling questions about equality, social justice and freedom are subject to attack by the administration, with a supportive government to back them. In Jodhpur, a planned lecture by a renowned academic was cancelled under pressure and the faculty that organized the event subjected to disciplinary action. What happened in Jodhpur has happened at other institutions as well.
Argumentation and discussion about different perspectives – the life-blood not only of institutions of learning but of democracy itself – are being throttled. Disagreement and dissent are considered seditious and anti-national. Such attitudes have a chilling impact on free speech and thought.
Several reputed NGOs and civil society organisations are being charged with violating the provisions of the FCRA and the Income Tax Act. While we agree that genuine violators should be identified and penalised, we note with dismay that several of the targeted groups are those who have taken stands against government policies, expressed dissent or supported communities in cases against the state.
We are also seeing an ugly trend of trolling, threats and online intimidation of activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals who disagree with the dominant ideology. How does this square with free speech?
There is a growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national. Those in authority should not be questioned – that is the clear message.
In the face of a rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent, we appeal to all public authorities, public institutions and Constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action. We have to reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers.
Signatories:
1) Dr.N.C.Saxena, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Planning Commission, Government of India (GoI)
2) Ardhendu Sen, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
3) KeshavDesiraju, IAS (Retd.), former Health Secretary, GoI
4) J.Hari Narayan, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, Insurance Regulatory Authority, GoI
5) G.Balagopal, IAS (Retd.), former Resident Representative, UNICEF, North Korea
6) AnupMukerji, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Bihar
7) Sundar Burra, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
8) VibhaPuri Das, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI
9) AmitabhaPande, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
10) K.K. Jaswal, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
11) Aruna Roy, IAS (Resigned)
12) Niranjan Pant, IA&AS (Retd.), former Deputy Comptroller and Accountant General of India
13) UmraoSalodia, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, Rajasthan State Roadways Transport Corporation, Govt. of Rajasthan
14) E.A.S. Sarma, IAS, (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, GoI
15) Arun Kumar, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, GoI
16) Brijesh Kumar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
17) WajahatHabibullah, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, GoI, and Chief Information Commissioner
18) LalitMathur, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, National Institute of Rural Development, GoI
19) Surjit K. Das, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Uttarakhand
20) S.N.Kakar, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Surface Transport, GoI
21) Sayeed Rizvi, IAS (Retd.), former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI
22) R.Chandramohan, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary, Urban Development and Transport, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
23) PranabMukhopadhyay, IAS (Retd.), former Director, Institute of Port Management, GoI
24) K.P.Fabian, IFS (Retd.), former Ambassador, GoI
25) Kalyani Chaudhuri, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
26) Meena Gupta, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI
27) M.G. Devasahayam, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary to Govt. of Haryana
28) SonaliniMirchandani, IFS (Resigned)
29) Deepak Sanan, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Adviser (AR) to the Chief Minister of the Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
30) Harsh Mander, IAS (Retd.), Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
31) Dhirendra Krishna, IA&AS (Retd.), former Financial Controller, Irrigation Department, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
32) SudershanK.Sudhakar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Govt. of Punjab
33) RuchiraMukerjee, P&T Finance Accounts Service (Retd.), former Adviser, Telecom Commission, GoI
34) K. John Koshy, IAS (Retd.), former State Chief Information Commissioner, West Bengal
35) Sunil Mitra, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Finance, GoI
36) C.Babu Rajeev, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, GoI
37) JawaharSircar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI, and CEO, PrasarBharati
38) VivekAgnihotri, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary General, Rajya Sabha
39) BhaskarGhose, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GoI
40) Dr.K.R.Punia, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary, Govt. of Haryana
41) Lalit Mehta, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, GoI
42) Ishrat Aziz, IFS (Retd.), former Ambassador to Brazil, GoI
43) Manab Roy, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
44) S.K.Guha, IAS (Retd.), Chief, Institutional Development and Planning and Programme Guidance, UN Women
45) V.Ramani, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra
46) Anna Dani, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
47) Dr. Raju Sharma, IAS (Retd.), former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
48) HarMander Singh, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, ESI Corporation, GoI
49) Ajai Kumar, Indian Forest Service (Resigned), former Director, Ministry of Agriculture, GoI
50) GeethaThoopal, IRAS (Retd.), former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
51) N.Balachandran, IPS (Retd.),former Director General of Police and Chairman, Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation
52) Deepa Hari, IRS (Resigned)
53) Hirak Ghosh, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary to the Govt. of West Bengal.

06 June, 2017

A tale of judicial misadventures

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Eighteenth century Swiss political theorist Jean-Louis de Lolme said Britain’s Parliament “can do everything except make a woman a man and a man a woman”. If any limb of the Indian state can be attributed such wide powers it is the Judiciary.

The Constitution provides for a system of mutual checks and balances, but over the years the Judiciary, exercising its exclusive right to interpret the provisions of the statute, has enlarged its powers to a point where virtually it is answerable only to itself.

Under the Constitution, a judge of the superior courts can be removed for misbehaviour or incapacity, but only through a cumbersome process of impeachment in which one house of Parliament acts as prosecutor and the other as judge. Neither the Judiciary nor the Legislature has devised a scheme to deal with infractions that may not amount to misbehaviour.

In 1991, the Bombay High Court Bar Association dubbed four judges as corrupt and its members refused to appear before them. Parliament and the Supreme Court did nothing, and the judges stayed put until retirement without hearing any case.

Since early this year the Supreme Court has been seized of an unusual problem: a serving high court judge, a Dalit, was accusing some of his colleagues of being corrupt and casteist.

The constitutional provisions which permit reservation for the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and other backward classes have never been extended to superior court appointments. As a result, they are grossly under-represented in the judiciary.

KG Balakrishnan, a Dalit from the educationally advanced state of Kerala, became the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in 2007. That was an exceptional case. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Department of Justice keeps a count of persons belonging to the socially and educationally backward classes inducted into the judiciary. At present there is no Dalit in the apex court, and it is believed not more than five per cent of the high court judges, numbering about 650, are Dalits. The community has 15 per cent reservation in the Central services.

CS Karnan, who was appointed a judge of the Madras high court in 2009, became a thorn in the flesh of the establishment when he started complaining that some fellow judges are discriminating against him since he is a Dalit. In 2011, he took his complaint to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There was no action.

Stung by the bee of caste prejudice he encountered, Karnan has been on a judicially incorrect path since 2015. He initiated contempt proceedings against the chief justice of the Madras high court for allegedly belittling him since was a Dalit. When the Supreme Court decided to shift him to the Calcutta high court he stayed the order for his transfer. However, he later apologised for his conduct and took up the new assignment.

The apex court was infuriated when Karnan sent to the Prime Minister last January an “initial list of corrupt judges” which contained 20 names. It initiated contempt proceedings against him, found him guilty and gave him a six-month jail term, the maximum prescribed under the law.

The court ordered the West Bengal police to arrest Karnan forthwith. But he had moved to his home state of Tamil Nadu by then. After a brief meeting with media persons in Chennai he vanished.

A Bengal police party is camping in Chennai to implement the court order but Karan remains untraceable. According to a media report, he is under the protection of a Dalit politician.

Karnan is due to retire on June 12. Retirement will make no difference to his status as a convict. By staying out of sight until then he can spare the nation, which has already witnessed some judicial misadventures, the unedifying spectacle of a serving judge being hauled to jail.

The directives by the Supreme Court and the rebel judge cancelling each other’s orders could have been dismissed as a comic interlude but for the grave damage they have caused to the Judiciary’s image. That Karnan acted without regard for judicial propriety is evident. But, then, so did the seven-judge bench which tried him.

Both were acting as complainant, prosecutor and judge at the same time. While native crudity exposed Karnan’s infirmities, cultivated sophistry effectively hid the other side’s.

Alok Prasanna Kumar, a Fellow of the think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, described the court order in the contempt case as an “unconscionable disgrace”. The court had caused much more damage to its dignity and reputation than Karnan could ever manage, he wrote. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 6, 2017.

30 May, 2017

Stage set for more social strife

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Narendra Modi government’s attempt to regulate cattle markets across the country appears to be a thinly disguised project to promote the Hindutva agenda of cow slaughter ban through the back door.

Last week the Environment Ministry, which oversees animal welfare, issued a notification imposing stringent conditions on the sale of cattle. While it does not prohibit cow slaughter, it forbids sale of cows, bulls, steers, heifers, buffaloes and camels at animal markets for slaughter.

India had edged past Brazil two years ago to become the world’s largest meat exporter. Last year meat production exceeded Rs 1,300 billion, and beef exports totalled Rs 263 billion.

Since the meat industry gets 90 per cent of its requirements from animal markets the regulations are bound to hit the farmers as well as the meat sellers.

Orthodox Hindus of the Vedic school profess to vegetarianism but the Vedas and other early texts testify that their ancestors ate different kinds of meat, including beef.

Hindus constitute 79.80 per cent of India’s population. However, according to the findings of a recent official survey, only 28 per cent of Indians are vegetarians.

Since some sections venerate the animal, cow slaughter became an issue of contention in the closing stages of the colonial period. In a concession to them, a provision was included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution permitting the state governments to take steps to prohibit the slaughter of milch and draught cattle.

Most states have already enacted legislation to prohibit slaughter of milch cows. However, Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states have not done so.

Since Modi became the Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party started picking hard-core Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activists as chief ministers, cow vigilantes have gone on the rampage in several states, attacking and killing Muslims and Dalits.

Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and Pahlu Khan, a dairy farmer of Alwar in Rajasthan were lynched to death. Dalit youths were thrashed at Una in Gujarat while skinning a dead cow. In all these instances, the BJP protected the criminals and pressured the police into instituting false cases against the victims and their families.

Under the newly notified rules, which are to be enforced within three months, only farmland owners can buy or sell cattle at animal markets. Both the seller and the buyer have to prove their identities and establish their status as farm owners. The seller has to obtain an understanding from the buyer that the animals are not for slaughter.

The rules have laid down cumbersome procedures which farmland owners with little education cannot easily cope with.

The government claimed that the rules had been prepared in compliance with a directive the Supreme Court had given in a recent judgement to improve the condition of animals in the markets. Political observers believe it used the opportunity to extend the Hindutva’s cow agenda and fear it may lead to more attacks on Muslims and Dalits.

While most opposition parties and state governments under their control were muted in their response to the Centre’s action, Kerala Chief Minister and Communist Party of India-Marxist Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan roundly condemned it as an attempt to implement the RSS agenda. In a letter to the Prime Minister he said the rules were impractical.

Youth wings of the CPI-M and the Congress conducted beef festivals at many places in the state to demonstrate their resolve to resist interference in the people’s food habits.

The constitutional validity of the new Central rules is bound to be challenged in the courts. Many legal experts are of the view that the courts are liable to strike them down as they go beyond the purview of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act under which they have been issued.

The economic and social consequences of the rules may be more disastrous than the political fallout. Inability to sell cattle which have outlived their utility will upset the fragile economy of farming families which is already driving them to suicide in large numbers.

Some critics feel the government’s real objective is to put an end to the traditional cattle markets and clear the path for big business interests to enter the trade.

The new rules may embolden Hindutva elements to intensify attacks on the minorities and the Dalits, leading to increased social strife. The emergence of the Bhim Army at Saharanpur in UP is a sign of growing Dalit resistance to Hindutva violence. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 30, 2017.

23 May, 2017

Modi’s three-year balance sheet

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his third year in office on Friday, going by official statistics, the economy is doing well and the stock market is at an all-time high.

Preparations to publicise the government’s achievements began last month with Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu writing to each ministerial colleagues to furnish data about five major achievements of his or her department to be included in a booklet to be published this week.

Earlier Naidu had asked ministers and top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders to communicate to the people the positive changes brought about by the Modi government. Be ready with facts and figures to propagate the government’s achievements in a big way, he told them.

Three party men with experience in mainstream journalism were assigned specific tasks. Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar was asked to prepare a note on the outcome of Modi’s foreign tours. Swapan Dasgupta and Chandan Mitra, both nominated members of the Rajya Sabha, were urged to collect material to counter criticism of the government on such grounds as poor record in employment generation and threats to freedom of expression.

Typical of the claims resulting from the planned publicity drive is Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitaraman’s assertion that the government took about 7,000 measures – big, small, medium and nano – to promote ease of doing business. She said the measures included fixing timeline for clearance of applications, de-licensing manufacture of many defence products and introducing e-biz project.

The changing global scenario had made India an attractive destination for foreign investors even before Modi came on the scene. He went all out to create an investor-friendly atmosphere and can claim credit for the rise of foreign direct investment to a record level. But India still hovers around the 130th place among 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2017 Ease of Doing Business report.

The other issues proposed to he highlighted include control of inflation, reduction in corruption and initiatives in areas such as road building, rural electrification and cooking gas distribution which, the government believes, have helped improve the quality of life of people. But critics have raised questions about some of the claims.

In an open letter to Modi, Sadhavi Khosla, a social activist, who identified herself as one among the 31 per cent who had voted for the BJP believing in his promise of achhe din (good days), pointed out that food inflation remains unchecked.

Experts have voiced doubts about the methods employed by the government to project an optimistic picture of the economy. Some of them have accused it of fudging figures and tinkering with the methodology of calculating the gross domestic product and the inflation rate.

Six months after Modi demonetised high-value currency notes, the government and the central bank are unable or unwilling to state clearly the motives behind the step and the actual achievements. Claims that demonetisation put an end to cross-border terrorism and unrest in Kashmir valley stand exposed as hogwash.

Detractors have dug out Modi’s old tweets and video clips of his campaign speeches to prove he has not lived up to his promises. But there is nothing to indicate that his personal popularity has been dented. At the moment no opposition party, including the Congress, has a leader who can be an effective foil to him.

But the Hindutva brigade on whose shoulders Modi rode to victory is turning out to be a liability. With hard-core Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders in power in states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the rank and file felt emboldened to take the law into their hands and let loose a reign of terror on minorities and Dalits raising specious issues. At least 15 persons have been lynched in the name of cow protection or meat eating.

There are signs of a backlash, which Modi cannot afford to ignore. Dalits from different states converged on Delhi last week to protest against the atrocities on the members of the community at Saharanpur in UP. There are also threats of mass conversion to Islam.

A section of Modi’s supporters who style themselves as the ‘liberal right’ are peeved that he is unable to get the BJP governments in the states to rein in the fringe elements. If he is not able to retain the loyalty of this section, he may lose his image as a Man of Development and stand exposed as the chief of rustic elements who want to drag the country back to the feudal past. 

16 May, 2017

Waiting for a new president

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s next President will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal choice, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party or, more importantly, its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, bungles badly.

Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term as President ends on July 24. The Election Commission will soon set in motion the process of choosing his successor shortly.

As constitutional head of state, the President is required to act on the advice of the council of ministers at all times. But at some critical junctures, as, for instance, when a new Prime Minister has to be inducted, the President has to act on his own.

The President is elected by an electoral college comprising elected members of the two houses of Parliament and of the Assemblies of the states and Union Territories.

The 776 MPs and 4,120 MLAs each command half of the electoral college votes. The value of an MP’s vote is 708 but that of MLAs varies from seven in Sikkim to 208 in Uttar Pradesh, as it is pegged to the state’s population.

In the early years of Independence, the Congress could get its nominee elected as President with a comfortable margin as it dominated Parliament and the State Assemblies. As it declined, and a fragmented national polity emerged, the Congress has to choose its candidate after wide consultations to ensure smooth election.

When the Janata Party, which was cobbled together to take on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, held sway at the Centre and in the northern states, it was able to get its nominee, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, elected as President. Eight years earlier Mrs Gandhi had blocked his election as the Congress candidate by switching her support to VV Giri who was contesting as an independent.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance which was in power at the Centre at the time of the 2002 election was in a hopeless minority in the electoral college. The BJP and the Congress both backed retired missile scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, and he became the President. 

The Congress and its United Progressive Alliance partners commanded only 33 per cent of the electoral college votes when it picked Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate in 2012. The NDA, which was close behind with a vote share of 28 per cent, fielded former Congressman and Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma. Mukherjee collected almost twice as many electoral college votes as Sangma, thanks to the support of a host of smaller parties.

Having won 282 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha in the 2014 poll and 312 seats in the 403-member UP Assembly in this year’s elections, the BJP is now way ahead of the Congress. With its NDA partners it commands about 47.5 per cent of the electoral votes valued at about 1.1 million.

But the non-BJP parties are in no mood to give up without a fight. Congress President Sonia Gandhi has been in talks with other opposition parties to pick a consensus candidate. Those under consideration include former Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Janata Dal (United) President Sharad Yadav and National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar.

Even if Shiv Sena, an NDA partner which revels in giving Modi occasional pinpricks refuses to back its nominee, as in the last two presidential elections, the BJP is in a position to cover the small shortfall in its electoral college majority with the help of regional parties.

Three southern parties, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (vote share about 5.5 per cent), YSR Congress (vote share about two per cent) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (vote share 1.5 per cent) and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal (vote share 3.5 per cent) are believed to be ready to go with Modi.

Some of them may want to know who the BJP’s candidate for the office is before committing themselves. Few expect Modi to favour party veterans Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi whom he has sidelined. Other names doing the rounds include those of three women, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Union Minister Uma Bharti and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu, who is an Adivasi.

In the last three years the RSS has tightened its grip on the BJP and placed its hard core leaders in constitutional positions in several states. It is, therefore, time to ask if the next President will be an organisation man from that outfit.

RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s name was proposed by Shiv Sena for the office of President. Oddly enough it was endorsed by a Muslim Congress leader from the south. Bhagwat said he was not interested in the post. That only means he prefers to be king-maker rather than the king.

One hopes Modi and Bhagwat do not lose sight of the fact that the President, who symbolises the majesty of the republic, needs to be a unifying figure. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 16, 2017.