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29 December, 2015

Modi never ceases to marvel

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There were no hysterical crowds of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) chanting slogans and there was no display of histrionics but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to three countries in as many days last week were probably the most productive of the many travels he has undertaken since assuming office 19 months ago. In each country he did or said something to marvel at.

When he set out from New Delhi, only two countries were on the published itinerary: Russia, where he was to meet President Vladimir Putin for the customary bilateral summit, and Afghanistan where he was to open a parliament building, which was India’s gift to that country.

Before leaving the Afghan capital Modi tweeted that on the way back home he would stop at Lahore, Pakistan, to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was celebrating his birthday.

Media reports said when he called Sharif to convey birthday greetings, the latter suggested that he stop over at Lahore and he agreed. However, some analysts believe back channel diplomacy played a part in the development. An Indian businessman who had facilitated a meeting between them when they were both in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit was said to be in Lahore too.

Travelling frequently to promote India’s political and economic interests, Modi has earned a reputation as a globetrotter and invited barbs like “NRI prime minister” and “Salesman-in-Chief”. His domestic and foreign travels are usually plotted in great detail and official and non-official agencies are pressed into service to make sure that everything goes on as planned. Extensive media coverage guarantees political dividends.

Ridiculing Modi’s frequent travels, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi recently said uncharitably, “We don’t know where he goes. Maybe he is travelling so much because earlier he was banned and now he has got the freedom to visit foreign countries.”

However, a study by Sanjay Pulipaka of the Indian Council for Research on International Relations shows that Modi is not as great a traveller as friends and foes imagine. In his first year as Prime Minister he visited 18 countries, which was below the average of 20.4 countries visited by heads of governments of major countries.

France’s Francois Hollande visited 27 countries during the year, Japan’s Shinzo Abe 26, Germany’s Angela Merkel and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma 22 each and Britain’s David Cameron and China’s Xi Jinping 19 each.

Modi took with him to Moscow some top industrialists. While he was there India and Russia signed 16 agreements covering vital areas like defence and energy.

One of the agreements provides for joint manufacture of military helicopters. It enlarges the area of military cooperation between the two countries which are already jointly producing ship-based supersonic Brahmos missiles.

Putin indicated they would soon work together on a multi-role jet fighter and transport aircraft too.

India and Russia developed a close relationship during the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. It gradually evolved into a strategic partnership and was later elevated to the level of “special and privileged strategic partnership” in recognition of their multifaceted bilateral engagement.

Talking to the Russian agency Tass ahead of the visit, Modi traced the origin of Indo-Russian relations to the 17th century when Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich sent an emissary to the court of Moghul emperor Shah Jahan and Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin toured India.

Modi, who is pursuing India’s nuclear energy programme vigorously, may be pleased with the agreement under which Russia will build 12 atomic plants with the involvement of Indian companies. However, there is strong popular resistance to the expansion of nuclear facilities.

Modi’s visit has set the stage for expansion of Indo-Russian relations. Before leaving Moscow, he said, “India and Russia represent two faces of a multipolar world. We want to work with Russia not just for our bilateral interests but also for a peaceful, stable and sustainable world.

The opening of the parliament building in Kabul underscored India’s abiding interest in the future of war-torn Afghanistan.

It is no secret that Indian and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan are at variance. Some analysts have pointed out that by flying directly from Kabul to Nawaz Sherif’s hometown Lahore to personally greet him on his birthday he has helped to remove Pakistani misgivings about India’s Afghan policy.

India-Pakistan relations are once again warming up. There is no indication how the Pakistan army, which reputedly looks over Sherif’s shoulders, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh, which looks over Modi’s, view the two Prime Ministers’ attempt to fast-forward the political process. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 29, 2015

22 December, 2015

Change of master, not of system

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Congress which headed the government at the Centre longer than any other party had come under attack frequently on two grounds: misuse of the institution of Governors and misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation. One and a half years after Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to power there is no sign of change in the situation. If anything, it is getting worse.

Arunachal Pradesh is facing an unprecedented situation with Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa colluding with a group of Congress rebels and the opposition BJP to oust Congress Chief Minister Nabam Tuki.

The bizarre development began with Rajkhowa, a retired bureaucrat, advancing the date of the State Assembly session on his own. Speaker Nabam Rebia suspended 14 rebel Congress members and locked the Assembly premises to prevent the session called by the Governor without the Cabinet’s recommendation.

The Congress rebels and the BJP members met at a community hall, with Deputy Speaker T Norbum Thongdok, who is one of the rebels, in the chair. The Deputy Speaker rescinded the suspension orders issued by the Speaker. Thereafter the rebel assembly adopted a resolution removing the Speaker.

The rebel assembly later voted to remove Chief Minister Tuki and installed dissident Congressman Kalikho Pul as his successor.

On a petition filed by Speaker Rebia, the Gauhati High Court ordered that all decisions of the rebel assembly be held in abeyance. The court will take up the petition for hearing on February 1, 2016.

The Congress party alleged that Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who belongs to Arunachal Pradesh, was behind the Governor’s unconstitutional acts. Denying the charge, Rijiju told a reporter that subversion of the Constitution was not in his blood.

Curiously, while admitting the Constitution was being subverted, Rijiju did not condemn it. He blamed the Congress for the situation.

The gubernatorial shenanigans did not attract much political and media attention as Arunachal Pradesh is a remote border state with a predominantly tribal population. A mischievous move by the CBI around the same time received more attention as the scene was Delhi.

While the UPA was in power, annoyed by the revelation that the CBI had made changes in an affidavit in a corruption case at the instance of a minister, a Supreme Court judge had dubbed the agency a caged parrot.

Responding to the criticism, CBI spokeswoman Dharini Mishra said, The CBI conducts all investigations in a free, fair and impartial manner as per the law. However, Vijay Shanker, who had headed the CBI from 2005 to 2008, admitted that the agency did come under political pressure.

The hollowness of the spokeswoman’s claim was exposed when the agency requested the Supreme Court to grant its Director the status of Government Secretary so as to free him from the government’s administrative and financial control.

The agency clarified that it was not seeking enhancement of its legal powers. Even if the Director was granted the powers of a Secretary, superintendence would vest in the Centre and the minister in charge would remain the final authority, it said.

The Supreme Court made a cursory attempt to secure a measure of professional autonomy for the agency. It sought the government’s views on a law to give the CBI functional autonomy and insulate its investigations against outside interference. The government rejected the idea of such a law.

Six months later, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance replaced the Congress-led UPA in office. The CBI now had a new master but the system remained unchanged.

Soon a change in the CBI’s tune was in evidence. In 2012, it had filed a charge-sheet implicating Amit Shah, who was Home Minister under Modi in Gujarat, along with some senior police officials in two cases of alleged fake encounters. On a petition by Shah, the trial court quashed the charge-sheet last year.

By then Shah had become the BJP’s president. The CBI, which had earlier claimed it had evidence against him, chose not to file an appeal.

Recently the CBI searched the office of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ostensibly in connection with a corruption case against his Secretary, Rajinder Kumar, an IAS officer.

Kejriwal, whose Aam Admi Party had trounced the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections, said the agency was looking for information on movement of files relating to alleged corruption in the Delhi and District Cricket Association when BJP leader and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was its president.

If Kejriwal’s allegation is correct, the caged parrot may be turning into a hunting falcon. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 22, 2015

15 December, 2015

India-Pakistan talks are on again

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi confounded fans and foes alike when he got off the high horse he was riding and gave the nod for resumption of India-Pakistan talks and their elevation to the level of a “comprehensive bilateral dialogue”.

Modi had assumed office a year and a half ago in the presence of heads of governments of all South Asian nations, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, raising hopes of a new era of good neighbourliness in the region. Things went awry when he called off scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries in New Delhi to demonstrate his displeasure at the Pakistan High Commissioner’s confabulations with Kashmir’s dissident Hurriyat leaders.

Thereafter, falling back on the traditional Bharatiya Janata Party position, Modi insisted that the two sides should talk about terrorism first. A statement issued after Modi and Sharif met during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Ufa, Russia, said National Security Advisers of the two countries would meet in New Delhi to discuss terrorism.

Sharif came under heavy attack at home for agreeing to a statement which did not mention Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan considers the core issue. Islamabad called off the meeting after India placed Hurriyat leaders under house arrest to prevent their travelling to New Delhi to meet Pakistan’s NSA, Sartaj Aziz.

With the two sides standing firm on publicly stated positions under domestic compulsions, an early end of the stalemate appeared unlikely. But, then, the NSAs met secretly at Bangkok, along with the Foreign Secretaries, on December 6 and announced they had discussed “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir and other issues, including tranquillity along the line of control”.

The breakthrough followed an unscheduled meeting between Modi and Sharif, who were in Paris for the Climate summit. There they agreed on a formula which accommodated the wishes of both sides. The NSAs met and discussed terrorism and the Foreign Secretaries met and discussed Kashmir, and the stand-off ended.

One-upmanship has been an essential part of India-Pakistan relations in the recent past. Observers on both sides sought an answer to question as to who had blinked first.

Indian analysts were of the view that New Delhi showed more flexibility than Islamabad. A report quoted former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh as saying India had given up the stand that it would only talk terrorism and nothing else. Modi wanted to take a tough line on terrorism and at the same time prove to the world that he was more pragmatic than dogmatic, and in the process he was sending confusing signals to the Indian public, he said.

Alluding to the way the BJP, while in the opposition, had obstructed efforts at normalisation of relations with Pakistan, former ambassador MK Bhadrakumar observed it was some natural justice that the party was forced to eat its own vomit, ironically, with Modi as the master of ceremonies.

Another former ambassador TP Sreenivasan wrote that Pakistan had won this round. Modi fans attacked him in the social media.

The fact is that Pakistan, too, took a step or two backward. It went back on the repeatedly articulated position that Kashmir is the primary issue and agreed to resumption of talks at the level of NSAs.

A host of factors, including some whose roots lie beyond the subcontinent, appears to have contributed to the softening of the attitudes of the Indian and Pakistani governments which made the breakthrough possible.Sushma Swaraj

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad on December 10 for the annual meeting of the 14-member Heart of Asia conference on regional cooperation in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad next year. Strained relationship with Pakistan does not bar Indian leaders from attending regional meetings held in that country, but it is sure to limit their interactions.

Observers believe the United States exerted pressure on India and Pakistan to start talking as good relations between the two countries is critical to its plans for Afghanistan.

Some link Islamabad’s changed stance also to the emergence of Army chief General Raheel Sharif as a key player in Pakistan’s foreign relations. An army officer close to him, Lt-Gen Nasir Khan Janjua, replaced Sartaj Aziz as NSA recently.

While resumption of dialogue is a welcome development, optimism over its outcome has to be tempered by the fact that the peace process is in the hands of security experts with limited diplomatic experience.-Gulf Today, December 15, 2015.

08 December, 2015

Tragedies waiting to happen

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It was a tragedy waiting to happen. A torrential downpour, the heaviest in a century, submerged large areas of India’s fourth largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), a week ago, snapping power and water supply as well as transport and communication facilities.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Chennai has become an island,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament. After an aerial survey of the flooded city, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the devastation pained him and announced a relief package of Rs10 billion in addition to Rs9.40 billion sanctioned earlier.

The city, with a population of nine million, had received 490 mm of rain on December 1. Low-lying areas were inundated and hundreds of thousands of poor rendered homeless. As swelling lakes and rivers breached their banks, floodwaters rose up to the second floor of apartment buildings in newly developed suburbs, trapping an equally large number of flat-dwellers.

At least 325 persons died and about 1,000 were seriously injured.

In mid-October, a month before the northeast monsoon set in, the Meteorological department had forecast unprecedented rainfall this season. If the authorities had immediately cleaned up the clogged drains the flood might not have been so severe.

Not that the devastation was avoidable. Its primary cause was not the clogged drains but the unregulated and unscientific urban development of the recent past.

Chennai is the country’s fastest growing urban agglomeration. During 2001-2011, it recorded a growth of 32.5 per cent, as against 20.3 per cent during the previous decade. The three larger cities had witnessed a decline in the growth rate during the period: Mumbai’s fell from 30.5 per cent to 12.1 per cent, Delhi’s from 52.2 per cent to 26.7 per cent and Kolkata’s from 19.6 per cent to 7.0 per cent.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar blamed the deluge on global warming caused by the industrial activity of the developed world over the past century and a half. Environmental activists said the role of climate change was yet to be established through studies but there was enough material to establish the role of unplanned urban development.

Sunita Narain, Director-General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), pointed out that intense construction activity had destroyed water bodies in all cities, including Chennai. Professor Saswat Bandopadhyay of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad, attributed the devastation to “complete disrespect of basic urban planning and hydrological cycle”.

Chennai had become an information technology hub at the turn of the century. The rapid expansion that followed led to fourfold growth of the city area. According to the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, built-up and paved areas increased from 29.5 per cent in 1991 to 64.4 per cent in 2013, resulting in drastic curtailment of open areas. The city with 2,847 km of road has only 855 km of stormwater drain.

A CSE study found that only a fraction of the more than 600 water bodies which existed in 1980 were in a healthy condition in 2008. The area of 19 major lakes shrank from 1,130 hectares to 645 hectares during the period. The drains that carried surplus water from tanks to wetlands were encroached upon.

Builders find it easy to get around legal restrictions. City officials identified more than 150,000 illegal structures during a survey but there was no action.

The state itself is guilty of ignoring environmental regulations. Some important institutions stand on marshlands which were allotted to them by the government. The extended runway of the Chennai airport, the country’s fourth busiest, traverses the Adyar river.

In the last decade the country has witnessed several disasters which are rude reminders of the dangers of unregulated development. However, there has been no effective measure to prevent such tragedies.

About 500 persons died in Mumbai in July 2005 in the deluge caused by heavy rainfall. Following this, the authorities drew up a plan to widen drains, clean waterways and build pumping stations. It is yet to be implemented.

More than 5,700 people were presumed dead in floods and landslides in Uttarakhand after a cloudburst in 2013. A Utah State University study team linked the heavy precipitation to climate change.

Environmentalists said the heavy loss of lives and property was the result of obstruction to flow of water caused by debris left after construction of dams upstream and of mushrooming of resorts in the Himalayan pilgrim centres.

Last year floods in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, took a toll of more than 200 lives.

The authorities have failed to rethink policies despite recurrent disasters. What’s worse, they are ready to relax the rules further to speed up developmental activity.

With the Centre planning to build 100 “smart” cities across the country, environmentalists fear more tragedies are waiting to happen. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 8, 2015.

01 December, 2015

Modi in tactical mode

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Parliament, which could not transact much business at its sessions earlier this year due to the acute hostility between the government and the opposition, began its winter session last week with both sides coming together to hail the Constitution and pay homage to its chief architect, BR Ambedkar.

The occasion was a two-in-one celebration: the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, and the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar, who rose from the ranks of the so-called untouchables to be revered by the nation as the Father of the Constitution.

The debate revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the National Democratic Alliance government, is trapped in the inherent contradiction between the core constitutional values, which it is sworn to uphold as the ruling party, and the Hindu Rashtra (nation) concept of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In an attempt to dispel doubts about his party’s commitment to the constitutional ideals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the nation would only be run according to the Constitution. India was a diverse nation, and the sanctity of the Constitution which bound together all the citizens had to be maintained, he said.

He alluded to the bitter controversies in which the ruling front and the opposition parties are involved and made a pointed reference to the way the great leaders of an earlier era had worked together to frame the Constitution.

Waving an olive branch to the opposition, which has stalled his reform programmes in Parliament, Modi offered to address its concerns. “The government is ready to debate all issues,” he said.

Modi made no reference to the bitter national debate on the issue of growing intolerance, which assumed ugly proportions when Hindutva hordes began hounding celebrated film star Amir Khan who had spoken of the growing sense of fear, insecurity and despondency in the country and disclosed that his wife, film-maker Kiran Rao, a Hindu, had wondered whether the family should think of re-locating elsewhere.

He said they should focus on how the Constitution could help the Dalits, the marginalised and the poor. This appeared to be an image makeover attempt, prompted by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s refrain that he was anti-Dalit and anti-poor.

Modi, who habitually adopts a highly partisan tone, tried to sound statesmanlike, but there was no condemnation of the scattered acts of violence by Hindutva elements across the country and the public statements by governors, central and state ministers and MPs which run counter to the ideals of the Constitution.

Two quick steps that followed conveyed the impression that the government may be willing to turn a new leaf. One was the decision to accept the opposition demand for a debate in Parliament on the issue of growing intolerance. The other was Modi’s invitation to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for talks to sort out the differences on the Goods and Services Tax Bill, a reform measure which the opposition has held up in the upper house of Parliament in which the NDA is in a minority.

However, it soon became evident that Modi’s new stance is tactical and does not signify any change in the government’s basic approach.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who spoke immediately after him, reiterated the BJP’s traditional positions on several issues.

He said secularism was a much misused word and claimed its misuse was creating problems in ensuring social harmony. Secularism should mean not neutrality towards religions but neutrality towards sects, he added.

This was a throwback to the position articulated by the RSS all along, which equates Hinduism with India and treats other faiths as sects.

Both Modi and Rajnath Singh, in their speeches, recalled that Ambedkar, who, as a Dalit, had suffered much humiliation in his lifetime had harboured no grudge against the country. They both conveniently ignored the fact that shortly before his death he had left the caste-ridden Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism.

The BJP’s new-found love for Ambedkar is suspect. Ambedkar’s legacy was almost forgotten by all but the Dalits, who look upon him as their liberator, until the VP Singh government (1989-1990), organised nationwide celebrations to mark his birth centenary and bestowed on him the nation’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, posthumously. A few years later, Arun Shourie, who was a minister in the first BJP-led government, wrote a whole book to denigrate him.

In the book, titled “Worshipping False God: Ambedkar and the Facts that have been Erased”, Shourie portrayed him as a self-centred, unpatriotic, power-hungry, anti-national and a stooge of the British. He even sought to belittle Ambedkar’s contribution as the chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 1, 2015.