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"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
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


20 March, 2018

Realignment bids ahead of poll

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As the parliamentary elections, due next year, draw near, several parties are rethinking their position in the light of their assessment of the current political climate.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi led it to a clear victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party has seized power in several states and established itself firmly as the largest national party, a position previously held by the Congress.

While in the general elections Modi’s campaigns worked wonders in many states, the BJP has not done well in by-elections. In 2014, it won 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. By-election losses have reduced its strength to 274, just two more than is necessary to maintain its majority status.

The Congress, the main opposition party, raised its strength from 44 to 48 during this period.

The BJP suffered its worst by-election reverses in Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party grabbed the seats which Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya vacated following assumption of office in the state. Both of them had won by big margins in 2014.

This time UP’s other major party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, stayed out of the contest and supported the SP candidates. Since the SP draws support mainly from the backward Yadav community and the BSP from the Dalits, the BJP faced the combined onslaught of the lower strata in the byelections. 

The National Democratic Alliance, the coalition led by the BJP, too has suffered erosion of strength. With 14 partners holding 40 seats, the NDA had 322 members when Modi took office. The Telugu Desam party (TDP), the second largest partner with 16 members, quit the alliance last week, accusing Modi of not living up to the promise to give Andhra Pradesh a special status.

TDP boss and AP Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu had earlier pulled out his party’s two members from the Modi government. He followed it up by serving notice of a no-confidence motion against the government in the Lok Sabha. 

The government has the numbers to sail through comfortably but the censure bid will provide an opportunity for a line-up of opposition forces.

The BJP has an uneasy relationship with the Shiv Sena, its largest partner with 19 seats in the Lok Sabha. It is also part of the coalition government in Maharastra. It misses no opportunity to taunt big brother BJP. 

Issues on which the Shiv Sena has taken pot shots at Modi include the Punjab National Bank scam and deterioration of law and order situation. It is not likely to break with the BJP immediately.

Dalit leader and Consimer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s weekend advice to the BJP to become all-inclusive like the Congress is seen by some as a prelude to pullout from the NDA. His Lok Janshakti Party has six members in the Lok Sabha.

Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, hosted a dinner for opposition party leaders a few days ago. As many as 20 leaders attended the event, which the Congress said was meant to promote friendship but was also an occasion to explore possibilities of forging broad unity before the parliamentary elections.

The outcome of the dinner diplomacy will essentially depend upon the parties’ appreciation of ground realities. BSP leader Mayawati’s decision to stay out of the UP byelections and support candidates of traditional rival Samajwadi Party, testifies to a growing realisation among non-BJP parties that they need to pull together. 

The Congress party’s improved performance in the Assembly elections in Gujarat and in the recent by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh has raised its standing among the opposition to some extent. All three are states where the BJP and the Congress are sole contenders for power.

Assembly elections are due later this year in MP and Rajasthan as also Karnataka and Chhattisgarh where, too, the main contest is between the BJP and the Congress. The outcome of these elections may influence the course of negotiations for new alliances.

Chandrababu Naidu and two other regional party leaders who are heading state governments, West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Telangana’s K Chandrasekhara Rao, have favoured the idea of a third front. Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam leader MK Stalin introduced a new element by talking of a southern front against the BJP. 

All this makes for a fluid situation. It may be months before a clear picture of the line-up for the Lok Sabha elections emerges. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 20,2018

16 March, 2018

All That’s Left Behind

There’s no sign of a Left phoenix rising from the ashes

All That’s Left Behind

Within seven years of the rout in West Bengal after a continuous reign of 34 years, the CPI(M) has suffered a similar fate in Tripura, which it had held for an unbroken 25 years. The country’s largest Left party is now left with a stake in power only in Kerala, where a front headed by it has been taking turns with a Congress-led combine to form the government since 1980. The CPI(M)’s fall considerably shrinks the space of the Left in the Indian polity. In terms of known popular base, the CPI is not even one-fourth its size. In the last Lok Sabha election, the CPI(M) fielded 93 candidates—nine won, 50 forfeited their deposits, and the party garnered a 3.28 per cent voteshare. The CPI put up 67 candidates—one won, 57 lost their deposits, and the party got a paltry voteshare of 0.79 per cent.

The Left’s decline comes as the BJP-led right-wing forces are rising across the country, while the Congress and other centrist parties are losing ground. This raises questions about the future of plurality in the Indian polity, and also about how Left is what is left of the Indian Left. The Left’s founding fathers were mainly from the class of landlords and social elites, which naturally led to some contradictions. It is said the membership card then party secretary P. Krishna Pillai iss­ued to E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a future ideologue, general secretary and Kerala CM, mentioned that he belonged to the bourgeoisie. When Bihar’s then Congress government moved the Zamindari Abolition Bill, for limited land reforms, Communist legislators, mostly big landlords, opposed it saying it did not go far enough. And the Bengal leadership came from the hallowed Bhadralok ranks.
In 1952, as the largest Opposition party in the first Lok Sabha, the undivided CPI seemed to be the potential alternative to the Congress, which rode to power at the Centre and in the states on the wave of triumphant nat­ionalism. Its seizure of power through the ballot box in Kerala in 1957 reimbursed that impression. The party ret­ained its primacy on the Opposition benches of Parliament in 1962 too, but lost it after the split in 1964—a result of the schism in the international Communist movement, as well as differences on the attitude towards the Congress government. The impact was felt immediately. While the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, inc­reased its voteshare from 6.44 per cent in 1962 to 9.31 per cent in 1967, the Communist votes, which stood at 9.94 per cent in 1962 registered a marginal drop: CPI 5.11 per cent, CPI(M) 4.28 per cent (Total 9.39 per cent).
Later, the CPI(M) emerged as the main Left party, outstripping the parent organisation in the Left strongholds of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. As fronts under its leadership gained power in Bengal in 1977 and Tripura in 1993, retaining it in election after election, while alternating in power with the Congress-led outfit in Kerala, it commanded attention nationally as a player in the power game, although its popular base shrank geographically. In the 1950s, it had been able to grab a few seats from the big industrial cities. When the influence of trade unions dec­lined, its urban pockets vanished.
The Left’s decline, while the Right is rising and centrist parties are losing ground, raises ­questions about the future of ­plurality in India.
When the Emergency generated a backlash and an alternative to the Congress became an urgent necessity in 1977, it was an amalgam of non-Congress, non-Communist parties, which Jayaprakash Narayan helped create, that occupied the spot. That entity did not last long. In 1989, with the elections throwing up a hung Lok Sabha, the question of an alternative came to the fore again. A centrist combination led by V.P. Singh seemed the best bet, and the BJP and the CPI(M), forgetting their differences over secularism, jointly sustained his government by supporting it from outside. BJP president L.K. Advani and CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet met informally with V.P. Singh every week to ensure coordination. Advani’s Rath Yatra on the Ayodhya issue and V.P. Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal report, which had been gathering dust in the PMO for more than a decade, brought the Left-Right tango behind the scenes to an end.
The issue of an alternative government came up again in 1996, when Atal Behari Vajapayee had to bow out barely a fortnight after being sworn in as PM as he could not muster majority support in the Lok Sabha. The quest now was for a non-Congress, non-BJP government. Since the BJP had 161 seats and the Congress 140, the support of one of them was necessary for the government to survive. Surjeet was the prime mover behind the consensus-making effort. What equipped him for the task was not his party’s strength—it had 32 Lok Sabha members, 23 of them from West Bengal—but the Left’s image as a progressive force. He found that the leader most acceptable to the motley gathering of parties was his own colleague, Jyoti Basu, who had been the Bengal CM for nearly two decades.
Basu’s Left Front government had put through land reforms, which successive Congress governments had failed to do, and devoted special attention to rural development. The militant trade union activity, which had helped the CPI(M) establish itself as a revolutionary party in the eyes of the working class, had caused long-established industries to flee the state. He offered incentives to attract domestic industrialists, but that did not meet much success. His clean image was what appealed most to the small national and regional parties looking for a PM under whom they can unite.
The consensus in Basu’s favour posed a dilemma for the CPI(M). The party invariably had a dominant position in the coalitions it formed in the states, but its strength in Parliament did not permit such a luxury at the Centre. The politburo decided that the party should not participate in a government in which it did not have a lead role. The opportunity of a CPI(M) prime minister was lost. Years later, Basu described the party’s decision as a Himalayan blunder. It is, of course, possible to find material in Marxist literature to justify that decision. But, then, how much in accordance with the principles of Marxism has Communist practice been in India (or, for that matter, anywhere else)? The overnight reassessment of the “imperial war” between Britain and Ger­many as “people’s war” after the Soviet Union’s entry and the participation of the CPI in rec­ruitment to the army and other war efforts had certainly not been based on Marx’s teachings.
The Marxist belief that Communists can come to power only through a violent revolution had been disproved when the Centre allowed the CPI to form the Kerala government in 1957. That government’s dismissal two years later could have been interpreted as belated proof, but neither did the CPI take that position, nor the CPI(M), when it came into being. Had they taken such a position, they would have been obliged to abandon the parliamentary path and return to the disastrous Calcutta thesis.
In Bengal and Tripura, the CPI(M) entered into alliances only with other Left parties. But in Kerala, as early as 1967, Namboodiripad, arguably the smartest Indian exponent of Marxism in his time, opened the way for tie-ups with even those who, enraged by the land and educational reform measures, had engineered the mass agitation leading to his first government’s dismissal. The new party line set the stage for dilution of land reform and abandonment of educational reform. A watered-down land reform law, acceptable to all, was eventually enacted by another coalition government. No government dared to implement the educational reform measure, even though the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutionally valid. The new line also led to the party aligning itself with powerful regressive elem­ents for short-term electoral gains and working against the interests of the state’s small, dispossessed adivasi population. Half a century later, the state party still pursues that line.
The Bengal debacle was a direct consequence of the attempt by Jyoti Basu’s successor, Buddhadeb Bhatta­charya, to push neoliberalism down the throats of the people. The violence at Nandigram and Singur alienated not only the masses, but also the intelligentsia. There were no comparable incidents in Tripura, but the electoral verdict points to the possibility that there was discontent, which the party failed to notice.
In Kerala, which has seen a steady erosion in the CPI(M)’s traditional support base among adivasis, Dalits and backward classes, the party has been adopting tactics designed to cover the losses by attracting other sections. Success in this effort will, in all probability, entail further loss of the party’s Left character.
In a book published posthumously in 2015, journalist Praful Bidwai took a critical view of the history of the Indian Left to find out why left-wing politics has not flourished to the extent that might be expected in a society “with a million injustices and growing inequalities, rec­ently worsened by Hindutva and neoliberal capitalism”. Noting that Left politics has shrunk in range and variety, he argued that the Left was facing its phoenix moment and the ability of its national leadership to overcome the grave crisis it confronted was on test. Sadly, there is no sign of a young phoenix rising from the ashes. (Outlook, March 19, 2016)

13 March, 2018

Green signal for passive euthanasia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Taking a circuitous route, the Supreme Court has come to the conclusion that the citizen’s fundamental right to live in dignity includes the right to die in dignity. Accordingly it has prepared the ground for permitting passive euthanasia under strict contril.

The issue of euthanasia was brought before the court by Pinki Virani, a journalist and human rights activist, nine years ago, citing the case of Aruna Shanbaug who had been lying in a Mumbai hospital for 36 years in what was described as ‘persistent vegetative state’.

Shanbaug was a 24-year-old nurse at that hospital when a sweeper sexually assaulted and strangulated her, leaving her in a near comatose state. While the assailant was a free man after serving a jail term of seven years, the hapless victim, abandoned by her family, was doomed to spend the rest of her life in a hospital bed. Virani book, “Aruna’s Story: the True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath”, published in 2000, was about her tragic life.

A redeeming aspect of Aruna’s story was the care which successive generations of nurses of the hospital bestowed on her, considering her as one of them, until she died of pneumonia in 2015, aged 66.

Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra, in their 2011 judgment, rejected Virani’s euthanasia plea as a team of doctors reported that Shanbaug was not fully brain-dead and the hospital authorities affirmed their readiness to look after her till her last breath.

The two judges held that passive euthanasia is legal and laid down the procedure to be followed by the hospital and the Bombay High Court in case Aruna Shanbaug’s condition necessitated resort to it. 

They also recommended that Parliament enact legislation for the purpose.

The Centre devoted some attention to the matter but there has been no legislation so far. 

Last week a five-member Constitution Bench of the court, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, while disposing of a public interest litigation on, went one step further and outlined a detailed scheme for administration of euthanasia which will remain in force until Parliament enacts a law for the purpose.

In this PIL, filed in 2005 — four years before Pinki Virani’s petition — Common Cause, a civil society organisation, had urged that “right to die with dignity” be declared a fundamental right and terminally ill persons be allowed to execute a living will for passive euthanasia.

The government’s stand on the issue was equivocal. It said it agreed in principle to passive euthanasia but was against a living will as it was liable to be misused.

The five judges wrote four concurrent judgments which recognises a person’s right to write a living will or advance directives, while mentally competent to do so, specifically instructing next of kin or medical personnel to allow passive euthanasia if he or she is in a vegetative state or terminally ill with no chance of recovery or revival.

The individual’s right to die with dignity takes precedence over the interest of the state in preserving the sanctity of life, the court said.

The scheme drawn up by the court permits a person to nominate a kin to provide consent for passive euthanasia and to revoke the living will before it is put into effect.

It contains several built-in safeguards. The living will must be signed and witnessed by at least two persons. A Judicial Magistrate (First Class) must sign it after satisfying himself that all requirements had been fulfilled. Doctors are required to verify the authenticity of the living will before acting upon it.

The hospital where the person is admitted is required to constitute a medical board to decide the issue of passive euthanasia. If it decides to act upon the living will, the District Collector must be informed and he must constitute another medical board. If this board too recommends passive euthanasia, the matter should be referred to the Judicial Magistrate who must visit the patient and give his approval.

Will the scheme work well? Considering the heavy preoccupations of the Collector and the Judicial Magistrate and the history of administrative and judicial delays, there can be doubts on this score. 

Voluntary extinction of life through indefinite fast has been a part of the Jain tradition and Tarun Sagar, a leading monk of the community, hailed the Supreme Court verdict.

Differing notes came from two minority community leaders. All India Sunni Jamiat-ul-ulema Generaal Secretary AP Aboobaker Musaliyar said only God who gave life had the right to take it back. Kerala Catholic Bishops Cinference President Archbishop Susaipakiam said killing an old or sick person due to sympathy was not acceptable. 

06 March, 2018

What BJP’s NE win means

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Making a dramatic sweep, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party seized power in Tripura, one of the three small states in the predominantly tribal northeastern region which went to the polls last month. In the other two, Nagaland and Meghalaya, it is poised to share power under the leadership of regional parties.

It was a big leap forward for the party. In the outgoing Tripura and Meghalaya assemblies it was unrepresented. In Nagaland, it had a lone legislator. Its 2013 vote share was only 1.54 per cent in Tripura, 1.75 per cent in Nagaland and 1.27 per cent in Meghalaya. It soared to about 43 per cent in Tripura, 14.4 per cent in Nagaland and 9.6 per cent in Meghalaya.

The differing social and religious composition of the northeastern states marks them out from the rest of the country. Tripura has a Hindu majority but tribal communities constitute 30 per cent of its population. Thanks to early missionary activity among the tribes, 87.93 per cent of Nagaland’s population and 74.59 per cent of Meghalaya’s are Christian.

Mindful of the local sentiments, BJP campaigners affirmed the people’s right to eat beef. They also offered the minority community subsidy to undertake pilgrimage to Herusalem.

In a campaign speech Modi recalled his government had rescued Christian nurses from India who were trapped in a Middle East conflict zone. 

The BJP’s victory in Tripura, where it had an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), put to an end a quarter century of uninterrupted Left rule. The only state where the Left now has a stake in power is Kerala in the south. A front headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and another headed by the Congress have been alternating in power in the state since 1980. 

The Naga People’s Front, which had been in power in Nagaland continuously since 2003, barring a short spell of President’s rule, was an ally of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance. Sensing that the NPF was losing ground, the BJP dumped it on the eve of the election and aligned itself with the National Democratic Progressive Party, a newly formed regional outfit.

The NPF lost its majority, but with 27 seats in the new house it is still the largest party. The NDPP bagged 17 seats and the BJP 11, leaving the combine also short of the half-way mark. The outgoiung NPF Chief Minister TR Zeliang is making a bid to stay on but the BJP is sticking with the NDPP and it has sraked a claim to form the government. 

In Meghalaya, which has been under Congress rule since 2008, the BJP was not able to make much headway. It won only two seats there.

Although the Congress lost ground, with 21 seats in the 60-member house, it remains the largest single party. The National People’s Party is close behind with 19 sears. Smaller parties and Independents hold the remaining 17 sears.

The situation in the state is similar to that in Goa and Manipur after last year’s assembly elections. The Congress was the largest party but it was beaten in the race for power by the BJP which quickly mobilised enough outside support and chalked up a majority. 

Regional parties aspiring for power in sensitive border states find it prudent to go with the party ruling at the Centre. The BJP, therefore, experienced little difficulty in bringing Nagaland and Meghalaya under its belt. 

Since it is not very familiar with the political landscape of the northeastern region, the BJP took the gyudance of serving and retired Intelligence officers to deal with the regional party leaders.

In view of the special characteristics of the northeastern states, it will be risky to make any prophecy about how the outcome of these elections will impact the assembly elections in the southern state of Karnataka and the Hindi states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which go to the polls later this year, or the Lok Sabha elections due next year.

The BJP made a heavy investment in these small states for two reasons. It deemed it necessary to win or at least make inroads into the northeastern region, which had been inaccessible to it so far, to reinforce its credentials as a national party. The sparsely populated region has 25 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Any gains the party can make here will go some way to offset the losses it expects in the heartland states. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 6, 2018

27 February, 2018

Banks fail to check fraud

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Two bank frauds that came to light in the past month have exposed the weaknesses of multiple regulatory mechanisms which make it easy for unscrupulous businessmen to take state-owned institutions for a ride.

The central figure in one of the two fraud cases which the Central Bureau of Investigation is pursuing is “Diamond King” Nirav Modi (no relation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi), who has been on the Forbes list of billionaires since 2013. He slipped out of India with his family and his uncle Mehul Choksi, also a diamond merchant, in January before the public sector Punjab National Bank (PNB) lodged a complaint against them to the CBI.

He, however, turned up at Davos, Switzerland, to join the large delegation of businessmen which was with the Prime Minister at the World Economic Forum. 

The other businessman in the spotlight is Vikram Kothari, promoter of a firm that makes a well-known brand of pens. The complaint against him was filed by the Bank of Baroda (BoB), which too is state-owned.

Vipul Ambani, president of one of Modi’s diamond firms, and Kapil Khandewal, CFO of a diamond firm owned by Choksi, and serving and retired PNB officials are among those whom the CBI has arrested. Vikram Kothari and his son Rahul are in custody in connection with the BoB case.

The PNB puts the amount involved in the dubious Modi transactions at Rs114 billion ($1.8 billion), making it the biggest bank fraud. The amount involved in Kothari’s allegedly fraudulent BoB deals is said to be about Rs 37 billion.

A farmer seeking a loan for agricultural purposes or a parent seeking a loan for his son’s higher education in India or abroad will be required to provide collateral security to cover the loan amount. On the basis of the bank’s assessment of the borrowers’ credit-worthiness, limits are set on the borrowing.

A billionaire seeking a loan to make business deals abroad has an easier route. He gets the bank to issue a guarantee, in the form of a letter of understanding (LoU), for cheap short-term foreign currency loans from banks abroad. Ordinarily the bank providing the guarantee secures from the borrower a fixed deposit, the return from which will be higher than the amount of the foreign loan.

Nirav Modi is reported to have secured loans from about 35 foreign branches of various Indian banks using PNB’s LoUs in the last seven years. As the guarantor, PNB has to reimburse the lending banks in case the borrower defaults.

PNB officials issued LoUs to Modi’s firms without obtaining collateral in some form. Ignoring the Reserve Bank of India’s directive to limit the validity of LoUs to 90 days PNB issued documents with a year’s validity.

The investigations so far indicate that Modi used an LoU of 2011 to raise money from banks abroad to buy diamonds. On selling the diamonds, he was required to remit to PNB the money he owed to the lending banks. He did not do so. Instead he siphoned it off the money to build assets and obtained a fresh LoU and raised more loans with it. Part of the money so raised was used to pay off the old loans.

The process went on for seven years without being detected. Since all previous loans were repaid with interest when new loans were raised, on the PNB’s books he looked like a good customer who promptly paid the dues. It did not get wise to his modus operandi until the loan amount reached the whopping figure of Rs114 billion.

Ten days ago, the Enforcement Directorate said it had seized diamonds and other valuables worth more than Rs57 billion in raids on firms owned by Modi and Choksi. The raids were said to be continuing at that time but no figures of seizures have been released since then.

In fleeing the country Nirav Modi followed a path shown by businessmen like liquor baron Vijay Mallya who had skipped to London two years ago as a consortium of banks initiated steps to recover more than $1 billion he owed them. He is now facing extradition proceedings there.

Bank accounts are audited at three levels — first by the bank itself, then by its external auditors and finally by the Reserve Bank of India. The failure of the triple audit system to check frauds points to collusion between bankers and businessmen. 

The RBI’s immediate response to the PNB fraud, which some have dubbed Niravgate, has been to set up a committee to study the issue of frauds and bad loans dogging the banking sector. It is headed by Yezdi Hirhi Malegam, an octogenarian chartered accountant who was a member of the RBI board for many years. While his credentials are sound, critics point out that his connection with certain rating and auditing firms raises issues of conflict of interest. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, Febriary 27, 2018

20 February, 2018

Towards cleaner politics

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Supreme Court last week enlarged the scope of the legal framework, much of it designed by itself, to reduce the scope for political corruption. 

Money power and muscle power have been identified since long as the bane of electoral politics in this country, which, by virtue of its population, is the world’s largest democracy.

The Representation of the People Act, enacted in 1951, ahead of the first general elections, provides that persons convicted of certain charges, including corruption, will incur certain disqualifications. The law has undergone some revision since it was first enacted but undesirable persons continue to be elected. 

In 1999, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), set up by a group of professors of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, initiated public interest litigation which resulted in a Supreme Court judgment directing all candidates to file affidavits disclosing information relating to their educational qualifications, involvement in criminal cases, if any, and the family’s assets. 

Since then all candidates have been filing affidavits on the lines mentioned by the court and the authorities have been promptly posting them on the web. But there has been no improvement in the quality of the elected representatives. On the comtrary, there are indications of deterioration.

After analysing the affidavits filed by those elected in the last three elections, the ADR reported that the number of Lok Sabha members with criminal cases had gone up from 24 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2009 and to 34 per cent in 2014. 

Over one-third of the 282 members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party were accused in criminal cases when the party picked them to contest the elections, and over one-fifth were facing serious charges. Of the 18 members of BJP ally Shiv Sena 15 were involved in criminal cases.

All four members of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal and four of the five of the Nationalist Congress Party were facing criminal charges. Congress MPs had a comparatively low criminal record: 18 per cent were involved in cases, and those facing serious charges were only seven per cent. 

Another ADR report said comparison of affidavits showed that the assets of 165 MPs who won re-election in 2014 had risen, on an average, by 137 per cent in their previous term. 

In 2013, The Supreme Court, modifying a disqualification clause, ruled that a member of Parliament or of a state legislature will lose his seat immediately if convicted and sentenced to a jail term of two years or more.

Parliament had earlier provided for keeping disqualification in abeyance until the member exhausted the avenues of appeal. The Manmohan Singh government planned to enact legislation to nullify the court verdict but dropped it as Rahul Gandhi was against it.

On Friday the apex court ruled that a member of Parliament or of a State legislature will lose his seat if found to be in possession of assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. It wanted the candidates’ affidavits to include the assets of their dependents, besides those of the spouses.

“If assets of a legislator and his/her associates (spouses and dependents) increase without bearing and relationship to their known sources of income, the only logical inference that can be drawn is that there is some abuse of the legislator’s constitutional office,” it said. 

The court passed the order on a petition filed by Lok Prahari, a non-governmental organisation. It had alleged there has been an increase in the assets of 26 members of the Lok Sabha, 11 of the Rajya Sabha and 257 of state legislatures. 

The Central Board of Direct Taxes, which scrutinised the affidavits of some of the elected members, informed the court that there were discrepancies in the statements of seven Lok Sabha members and 98 MLAs. There was prima facie evidence of huge increase in their assets and the matter needed to be probed further.

While the measures devised by the court may help to remove some corrupt elements, they do not offer a solution to political corruption, which is a systemic problem. When Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu were forced to step down they retained their hold on the administration through handpicked chief ministers. While Jayalalithaa chose a trusted colleague to hold the fort for her, Lalu Prasad’s choice was his wife, Rabri Devi. She came to office with no political experience and served as chief minister for six and a half years. 

The public have evinced little interest in verifying claims made by candidates in affidavits. Modi and his Cabinet colleague Smriti Irani have dodged efforts to check their educational qualifications. 

There can be no clean politics while elections are an expensive affair and the voters are not ready to take a close look at the antecedents of candidates seeking election. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 20, 2018.

14 February, 2018

High on promise

BRP Bhaskar

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley unveiled in this year’s Central budget an ambitious programme which, he claimed, is the world’s biggest health care project. Critics have found it high on promise and low on deliverables.

The programme, labelled the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS), will cover 100 million poor families —or about 500 million people — with an allocation of Rs 500,000 per family, he said.

Essentially it is a medical insurance scheme of which the premium will be paid by the government. The Centre and the states are to share the cost on 60:40 basis.

According to the UN Development Programe, India has cut poverty by half since 1990 but nearly 300 million people in the country still live in extreme poverty. There is, therefore, a felt need for schemes to help the vulnerable sections of the society. 

Ruling party members dutifully welcomed Jaitley’s announcement in the Lok Sabha with thumping of desks. Many of them were probably unaware that they had cheered him at two previous budget sessions for making similar announcements. 

In the 2016 speech, he said the government would launch a new health protection scheme which would give medical cover of up to Rs 100,000 per family to one-third of the population. Although an allocation of Rs 15 billion was made for the programme, the actual spend was less than Rs 5 billion and the extent of cover per formally was only Rs 30,000.

Last year, Jaitley fixed the outlay for the programme at Rs 7.5 billion. This year it has been raised to Rs 20 billion. The experience of the last two years leaves no room to believe the new scheme will fare any better.

One of the measures proposed in the budget to raise resources for new projects is the levy of a 4% health and education cess in place of the present 3% education cess. This is estimated to yield additional revenue of Rs 110 billion. Yet the budgetary allocation for NHPS is only Rs 20 billion. This raises the question how serious the government is about this grand scheme.

According to Alok Kumar, an adviser to Niti Ayog, the Centre’s policy think tank, the NHPS will cost Rs 100 to 120 billion annually.

Mita Choudhary, an assistant professor of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, says the resource requirements will be much higher. In a paper, she points out that even if one assumes a conservative 2% premium on the insured sum, the scheme will cost about Rs 1,000 billion a year. Under the proposed cost sharing formula, the Centre will need to find Rs 600 billion for the scheme.

At present, the combined allocation for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Ayush, which deals with systems other than modern medicine, is only Rs 550 billion.

Other health programmes in the budget have also been drawn up with no sense of realism. An example is the proposal to create 150,000 health and wellness centres. This is also a scheme which was first announced last year. 

The budgetary allocation for this scheme is Rs 12 billion. This works out to Rs 80,000 a year, or less than Rs 7,000 a month, for a centre. What kind of service can the centre provide with such a paltry amount?

Both the minister and Niti Ayog spokesmen dismiss questions about the low allocation of funds, and blandly assert that there is no money constraint.

Apparently all the schemes rolled out in the three budgets have come out of a proposal placed before the Prime Minister in 2016 by a committee of officials, including the Secretaries of the Ministries of Health and Ayush. It envisaged universal health cover, free of cost to 100 million deprived families and on payment basis to the rest of the population.

The committee estimated that the scheme, to be implemented through empanelled private and public health service providers, would cost about Rs 100 billion and suggested that the Centre and the states should bear the expenditure in the 60:40 ratio. 

Critics are of the view that the scheme has been introduced without making adequate financial provisions in the hope that it will yield electoral dividends when Modi goes to the people next year for a fresh mandate.

Studies have shown that the various insurance-based schemes run by the Centre and the state governments have not helped to reduce the out-of-pocket expenses incurred during hospitalisation. Against this background, some critics argue that NHPS will actually be more beneficial to private hospitals than to the poor.