New on my other blogs

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


12 December, 2017

Trust in banks eroding

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 December, 2017

Legend holds society hostage

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 November, 2017

The Quad fails to take off

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

During his recent hectic tour of Asia President Donald Trump made an attempt to push the decade-old idea of inveigling India into a new grouping which will also include Japan and Australia.

Since 2002 the US, Japan and Australia have been involved in security dialogue. In 2007 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mooted turning it into a quadrilateral exercise by drawing India into it.

Although all concerned kept affirming that the Quad, as it was dubbed, was not directed against any nation, it had the making of a gang-up against China, which is on its way to emerging as the second most powerful nation on earth. Lately it has also become increasingly assertive. For historical reasons, this is a matter of greater concern to Japan more than to the other three members of the grouping.

Australia soon started pussyfooting on the Quad out of regard for Chinese susceptibilities. Apparently Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is ready to pick up the thread his predecessor left. But there are no signs of quick progress.

In 2007, the preliminary talks at the level of officials were followed by a ministerial level meeting. This time the exercise did not go beyond the official level at all.

The Manila proceedings were in fact marked by extreme coolness at every stage. India did not favour raising the talks even to the level of Foreign Secretaries. There was no joint statement after the meeting of officials. Instead, spokesmen of the four countries briefed the media separately, each emphasising its own priorities. This showed that they were not on the same page.

The Indian statement was delightfully vague. It said the officials had held consultations. The discussions focussed on cooperation based on their converging vision and values regarding peace, stability and prosperity of the interconnected region. They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region was in the regional and global interest. 

Trump referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific in speech after speech to emphasise the importance the US under him attaches to this country’s role in regional politics and strategic calculations. The documents of the official level meeting also used that term. But India continued to approach the issue cautiously.

In his foreign jaunts Modi has often given the impression that he is willing to go along with the US even if it meant settling down to the role of Washington’s second in command in the region. At Manila he appeared determined to correct that impression.

If India was not keen to become a part of the Quad why did it play along? One explanation is that India does not want to be trapped in a geostrategy bind with the US, Japan and Australia. At the same time, it wants to leave open a certain ambiguity in its approach to the problems of the region.

All four countries have their problems with China but they are not identical. While the US and Australia used the term Quad, India and Japan sought to avoid it.

Since all the four countries have forged strategic relationship and have been participating in naval exercises in the past few years, there is little to be gained by the new grouping. But the US, it appears, is keen to push it as a substitute for the Asia pivot which has been abandoned for all practical purposes.

Indian commentators have noted that the US game is to involve India in its military calculations in the Pacific. While India has issues of its own with China, they are not of the same kind as Washington’s.

In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held a trilateral with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a bid to push the Quad.

Tillerson returned to the theme in a major policy statement last month. He also pursued it when he visited India. A US official told accompanying newsmen that Washington was looking at a working level quadrilateral meeting in the near term. All this suggests that, undeterred by the current setback, the US will continue to make efforts to carry the Quad forward. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 22, 2017

14 November, 2017

Politicking over tax regime

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When a new tax regime introduced after three decades of debate calls for review and revision within four months, it is evident that the authorities did not act with due diligence. That is what happened with the Goods and Services Tax.

A major overhaul of tax on goods was proposed first by former Prime Minister VP Singh in 1986 while serving as Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Liberalisation and globalisation were not under consideration at that time. 

Globalisation put service tax also on the agenda. In 2000, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first Prime Minister belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, proposed a goods and services tax regime and set up a committee to design an appropriate GST model for the country.

The committee was headed by Asim Dasgupta, a US-trained economist who was Finance Minister in West Bengal’s Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government. Before he quit in 2011, following his - and his party’s - defeat in the State Assembly elections, the committee is said to have completed 80 per cent of the work.

Introduction of GST was one of the programmes taken up by the Manmohan Singh government during 2004-2011 as part of the reforms package, and it attempted to enact legislation for the purpose. It could not make much progress because of the stiff opposition from various political parties, including the BJP.

One of the vagaries of India’s democratic system is the propensity of political parties to shift their position on programmes, depending upon whether they are on the treasury benches or on the opposite side. After the change of government at the Centre in 2014, the BJP started pushing the GST project.

The Congress did not turn against it but it raised issues about the structure proposed by the GST committee, leading to further delays. It wanted an 18 per cent cap on GST but this was not acceptable to the government.

Unlike Manmohan Singh, who often shelved reforms, especially when critics pointed out they might hurt the poor, Modi was willing to ram them down. He pushed through the required enactments, including a Constitutional amendment, and ushered in the GST regime on July 1.

While most countries have uniform GST, taking into account the size of the country and the complex ground situation, a three-tier system, comprising a Central GST, a State GST and an Integrated GST, income from which was shared by the Centre and the State, was brought in.

Soon there was an avalanche of complaints from all over, especially about the tax on services, which was new to the country. The high rates of tax which added to the cost of living also came under attack.

Complaints poured in not only from consumers but also from business houses who found the system of filing returns too cumbersome. Evidently the official machinery had not paid adequate attention to the details.

Last week the GST Council, comprising Finance Ministers of several states, reviewed the tax structure and decided to revise the tax rates drastically. It also agreed to simplify the filing procedures.

Under the original scheme, as many as 228 goods and services attracted the highest rate of 28 per cent. The Council brought down the rate on most of them to 18 per cent, leaving only 50, mostly luxury items, beverages and tobacco products, in the highest slab. The rate on many items which attracted 18 per cent was lowered to 12 per cent. 

The biggest relief for consumers was slashing of the tax on bills of restaurants other than those in five-star hotels from 28 per cent to just five per cent. The tax on five-star restaurant bills was also reduced, but to 18 per cent only. 

For the governments at the Centre and in the states, the GST is a major source of revenue. They stand to lose an estimated Rs 200 billion a year as a result of the rate revision.

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi said it was his party’s campaign that led to the rate cuts. Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram claimed the upcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, had forced the Centre to give in.

Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who heads the GST Council, dismissed Chidamabaram’s claim as childish. He said the 28 per cent slab would be phased out. 

In the prevailing political climate, it is idle to hope that politicians will stop making GST a partisan issue. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 14, 2017.

07 November, 2017

Poll reforms are an urgent need

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Election Commission, which has endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, has said it will be logically equipped to conduct such an exercise by September next year.

In the first national elections under the Constitution, held in 1951-52, polling was spread over several days but voters in all the states chose their representatives to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly at the same time. 

However, stand-alone Assembly elections became necessary in Travancore-Cochin and Patiala and East Punjab States Union (Pepsu) in 1954 as the governments of the two states lost majority in the old houses and alternative governments could not be formed. 

Before the second national elections in 1957 Travancore-Cochin and Pepsu became parts of Kerala and Punjab respectively following reorganisation of states in 1956. Once again, elections to the Lok Sabha and the assemblies were held simultaneously all over the country. Kerala created a sensation by voting the Communist Party of India to power.

In 1959 the Centre dismissed the Communist government and dissolved the Kerala Assembly. After a spell of President’s rule, fresh elections were held in the state in 1960. Since the new Assembly’s tenure would run until 1965, Kerala only voted for the Lok Sabha in the third national elections in 1962. 

In 1965 Kerala threw up an Assembly which was too fractured to permit the formation of a government. It was, therefore, dissolved and the state placed under President’s rule. It voted for a new Assembly again at the time of the fourth national elections in 1967. 

No party commanded a majority in several of the Assemblies elected that year. Most of the coalition governments that emerged collapsed soon, leading to dissolution of Assemblies and holding of fresh elections. As a result Assembly elections in many states got delinked from the Lok Sabha elections.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had to rely on the support of some small parties after the Congress party split in the late 1960s, dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered elections in 1971. Later, too, on a few occasions loss of majority by the government of the day led to premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha and holding of fresh elections.

As is clear from this narration, decoupling of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections was a consequence of the practice of parliamentary democracy. The system calls for a government which commands majority support in the legislature. Return to simultaneous elections will mean grant of a fixed tenure to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. This may negate the constitutional principle of a council of ministers responsible to the legislature.

The only argument Modi has advanced in support of simultaneous polls is that it will reduce expenditure on elections. Cutting costs is certainly a good objective but the issue of elections is one in which democratic considerations must have precedence over financial factors. 

The slogan “One nation, One election” raised by Modi’s supporters suggests that they view simultaneous elections as a means of promoting further centralisation of the polity in the guise of fostering national unity.

There is reason to suspect that Modi’s simultaneous elections project is a surreptitious attempt to switch from the parliamentary system to the presidential system which does not require the Executive to be responsible to the Legislature. The Constitution, as it now stands, does not permit such a switch.

The Election Commission’s claim of readiness to hold simultaneous elections is based simply on the availability of enough electronic voting machines. That cannot be a major consideration in a vital matter with a direct bearing on the future of the democratic system.

The parliamentary system has served the country fairly well in the past 66 years. It has provided for smooth changes of government both at the Centre and in the States. It has permitted parties of the Right, Left and the centre to come to power, alone or in alliance with others.

The gravest weakness of the system is the role of money and muscle power in elections. While in the opposition Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was a strong advocate of poll reforms. Now that it is the biggest beneficiary of corporate donations, it remains silent on the issue.

Poll reforms remain an urgent necessity. Modi should address that issue instead of attempting to tinker with the parliamentary system. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 7, 2017

31 October, 2017

Quest for peace in Kashmir

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Narendra Modi government took a major initiative when it appointed former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma last week as interlocutor for dialogue with all stakeholders to restore peace in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Kashmir had witnessed recurrent violence after security forces killed young Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last year. Parliament was told that at least 88 civilians joined militancy in the valley in 2016, the highest number in six years.

The year also saw an increase in exchange of fire across the Line of Control. Truce violations are generally linked to attempts at infiltration by Pakistan-based militants and efforts by Indian forces to foil them. 

The first hint of a softening in the government’s approach came in August when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in his Independence Day address that “neither by bullets nor by abuses but by hugging can we solve the problem of Kashmir.”

In September, even as the National Investigation Agency was tracking flow of funds to separatist groups, Home Minister Rajnath Singh spent four days in the valley to assess the ground situation and affirm the government’s readiness to meet anyone willing to help in finding solutions to the state’s problems.

The interlocutor’s appointment was a source of relief to Chief Minister Mehmooda Mufti whose regional People’s Democratic Party rules the state with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as a junior partner. She had been watching helplessly as central forces dealt with stone-throwing youths with a heavy hand through most of 2016, one of the bloodiest years for both militants and security personnel.

Official sources put the number of militants killed during the year at 165, the highest in six years, and the number of security personnel killed at 87, the highest in eight years.

The PDP-BJP alliance was dictated by electoral arithmetic. With 28 seats the PDP had emerged as the largest party in the Assembly in the 2014 elections. A near-sweep in the Hindu-majority Jammu region made the BJP a close second with 25 seats. Overlooking ideological differences, the two parties came together to provide the state a stable government. 

Thereafter the BJP stopped talking about abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status and the PDP stopped demanding withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which grants impunity to security personnel deployed in the state.

The coalition has an Agenda for Alliance hammered out in talks spread over three months. Mehmooda Mufti has been unhappy over the tardy progress in its implementation.

Developments in Kashmir often have an external dimension too. The current peace effort is taking place as the United States pressures Pakistan to check militants operating from its soil and seeks to draw India into its plans for Afghanistan and the Asia-Pacific region.

Both the PDP and BJP welcomed the appointment of the interlocutor. So did the state’s main opposition party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, whose leader Omar Abdullah viewed it as a sign of recognition of the political nature of the Kashmir issue and a resounding defeat of the idea that it could be solved by use of force. 

The Congress party dismissed the Centre’s action as a publicity move. When P Chidambaram, who was Home Minister in the last Congress-led government, suggested greater autonomy for the state might be a solution to its problems, the party quickly distanced itself from the idea, fearing the BJP would use it against it.

Nevertheless Modi interpreted Chidambaram’s words to mean that the Congress is talking the language of Pakistan, lending support to separatists and insulting India’s brave soldiers.

Dineshwar Sharma has a mandate to talk to all stakeholders. Interest, therefore, centres on the response of the Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella under which those who want merger with Pakistan and those who harbour hopes of an independent Kashmir are gathered.

A spokesman of its hardline faction, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, said the organisation’s executive committee would formulate its position. Moulvi Umar Farooq, who is identified with its moderate faction, and Yasin Malik, leader of the pro-independence J and K Liberation Front, offered no comment.

Sharma is embarking upon a project of a kind the state has gone through before with nothing to show on the ground. As a flag-waving Hindu nationalist, Modi is in a better position than anyone around to push for a settlement of both the internal and external aspects of the Kashmir problem. However, his misinterpretation of Chidambaram’s reference to autonomy raises the question whether he can display the level of statesmanship it calls for. Modi’s mind is on the next election, not on the next generation. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 31, 2017.

24 October, 2017

Congress readying for battle

BRP Bhaskar

When Narendra Modi rode to power on a wave of anger against corruption under the Manmohan Singh government and went on to bring most of the states under his Bharatiya Janata Party, it looked as though the future of the Congress party which had spearheaded the freedom struggle and ruled India for most of the past seven decades was bleak.

Modi had run a vigorous campaign, said to be the largest mass outreach in electoral history. Over a seven-month period, he travelled to 25 of the 28 states (now there are 29 following the bifurcation Andhra Pradesh), logging 300,000 kilometres and addressing more than 5,800 rallies. The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, deployed about 100,000 cadres at booths in selected states to ensure that its votes are delivered.

Though the BJP secured only 31 per cent of the votes polled, it bagged 282 seats which gave it a simple majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Its partners in the National Democratic Alliance picked up 54 seats, raising the coalition’s tally to 336. The Congress party’s vote was a low 19 per cent and it got just 44 seats, its lowest tally ever.

Modi’s devout followers declared he was in for a long innings. Congressmen were despondent. The lack of a leader who could match Modi’s campaign skills and the poor state of the organisation at the grassroots appeared to inhibit its ability to stage a comeback. Modi’s dream of a Congress-less India appeared to be realisable.

A vibrant social media campaign played a big role in the BJP’s climb to the top. Its cyber force not only boosted Modi’s image as a superman with a 56-inch chest but also ran down Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son and presumptive heir Rahul Gandhi as a dimwit named Pappu. The campaign was so successful that even a regional Congress leader publicly referred to Rahul Gandhi by the nickname.

With Modi’s image rising and Rahul’s tumbling, many presumed the BJP will have a walkover in the parliamentary elections due in 2019. The last few weeks have made them sit up and think. The Congress, waking up from stupor, was seen getting ready to take on the BJP.

It all started with Rahul Gandhi flying out of the country for what appeared to be just another of his periodical foreign jaunts, which draw derisive comments from BJP trolls. A few days later reports came in from Berkeley, USA, of a pleasant interaction between Gandhi and a young audience at the University of California campus there.

Gandhi, who answered a wide range of questions, took Narendra Modi head-on, accusing him of operating a machine with 1,000 guys sitting at computers all day abusing him, saying he is stupid and a reluctant politician.

He responded to a question about dynastic succession in the Congress disarmingly. “Most of the country runs like this, so don’t go after me,” he said and reeled out names of a number of other dynasts – in politics, in business and in cinema.

Gandhi, who is now Vice-President of the party, declared he was ready to take over the presidentship from his mother but this had to be done through organisational elections. For decades the organisation has been run with nominated leaders at various levels. An electoral college to choose the President is expected to be formed in a few days.

Rahul Gandhi said good words about Modi’s Make in India initiative. He also gave him credit for his communication skills. “He knows how to give a message to three or four different groups in a crowd,” he said.

As reports of the Berkeley encounter came in, Smriti Irani who has been assigned to cover Gandhi’s tracks since 2014 when she contested against him and lost, Arun Jaitley and other ministers mounted attacks on him. The BJP’s cyber army also went to work. But he also received words of appreciation from many quarters.

There was a consensus among observers that Gandhi had acquitted himself well and was now ready to lead the Congress charge against the Modi establishment. Some Congressmen viewed the spectacular performance of the party’s student body in the Delhi University Students Union elections, in which the BJP affiliate had the upper hand for decades, to the favourable impression he created on young minds through the Berkeley event.

Last week Rahul Gandhi toured Modi’s home state of Gujarat where the BJP is making a bid for an unprecedented sixth consecutive victory in the Assembly elections. When Modi campaigned in the state subsequently his tone was decidedly defensive and he whipped up parochial feelings.

It will be wrong to see a pro-Congress swing in the changing national mood, which is essentially the result of the growing feeling that Modi has failed to deliver on the promise of 2014. He still has a year and a half to set things right. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 24, 2017.

17 October, 2017

Budget cuts hit war on hunger

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Global Hunger Index report, released last week, came as a shock to India as it indicated a steep fall in its rank during the past three years.

The GHI rank had improved continuously under the Manmohan Singh government. From 67 in 2011 it moved up to 66 in 2012, to 63 in 2013 and to 55 in 2014, the year Narendra Modi came to power. Then it fell –to 80 in 2015, to 97 in 2016 and to 100 this year.

GHI is a multidimensional statistical tool developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, and has been in use since 2006 to measure the extent of progress in the fight against hunger.

The IFPRI figures led to a storm of criticism in the social media against the Modi administration. The government’s supporters questioned the claim that there had been a steep fall in India’s rank.

Pratik Sinha of Alt News, which specialises in fact-checking of media reports, found substance in their arguments. Until a few years ago, IFPRI had prepared the global chart after dropping from the list countries whose GHI was less than five. When these countries are also included, India’s rank during the last six years was as follows: 2012 – 106 out of 120; 2013 – 105 out of 120; 2014 – 99 out of 120; 2015 – 93 out of 117; 2016 – 97 out of 118; and 2017 – 100 out of 119.

While these figures dispel the impression of a huge setback in the fight against hunger, they confirm that there has been a reversal in the trend since Modi came to power, promising the people achche din (good days).

What’s more, India’s GHI rank is worse than that of North Korea (93) and Iraq (78). Its GHI score of 31.4 puts it at the top of the countries with a “serious” hunger situation.

India’s poor record has made South Asia, where all countries with the exception of Pakistan (106) rank higher than it, the worst performing region.

Ironically, India, which is the world’s second largest producer of food, also has the world’s second highest undernourished population. “A high GDP growth rate alone is no guarantee of food and nutrition security for India’s vast majority,” Nivedita Varshneya, a co-author of the GHI report said.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s 2017 report also showed India in a poor light. It said 1.45 billion people in the 103 countries it surveyed are multidimensionally poor, and of them 689 million (48 per cent) are children. India accounted for 31 per cent of these children.

The reason why India, which was making slow gains in the fight against hunger, started losing two years ago is easy to explain. For a long time, spending on health has hovered around one per cent of the GDP. In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP promised to raise spending to three per cent. But allocation for health shrank under the Modi regime.

In 2015, in his first full budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reduced the Health Ministry’s allocation by about Rs 59 billion. Spending on public health was cut by eight per cent and the outlay on the National Health Mission slashed by 20 per cent.

The following year the Economic Survey called for increased investment on child nutrition programmes in order to capitalise on the demographic advantage offered by the young population. Yet in the 2016 budget Jaitley cut the provision for child health intervention from Rs 154.8 billion to Rs 140 billion. The allocation for the mid-day meal scheme for school children was also reduced.

Jaitley has defended the lower allocations on health and education, saying the states lack the capacity to spend and the funds provided in the past were not fully utilised.

Some states have found money from their own revenues to make up for the shortfall in Central allocations. This is not an option open to the poor states.

In March, the government placed before Parliament a national health policy, which Health Minister JP Nadda described as a milestone. It sets 2025 as target date for increasing state expenditure on health to 2.5 per cent of the GDP and reducing the number of households facing “catastrophic health expenditure” which now stands at 25 per cent.

Raising nutrition level does not figure among the priority areas identified in the policy document. This betrays lack of appreciation of the role of a healthy citizenry in achieving the nation’s development goals. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 17, 2017.

10 October, 2017

Self-perpetuating judiciary

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Supreme Court last week opened the door a wee bit to make known to the public how judges are appointed and transferred but the basic weakness of the process remains unaddressed.

The Constitution which came into force in 1950 empowered the President to appoint the Chief Justices and judges of the superior courts after consultations with such judges as he may deem necessary. Since he is required to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers, the Executive had primacy in the process.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that the recommendation of the Chief Justice of India to the President will have primacy but conceded it could be refused for “cogent reasons”.

Through a 1993 judgment it brought into being institutions called collegiums of judges, comprising the Chief Justice and the seniormost judges, to formulate recommendations with regard to appointments and transfers of judges.

In 1998 AB Vajpayee’s government, through a presidential reference, sought reconsideration of the matter by the court. If it expected the court to moderate its position, that didn’t happen.

The three Court decisions upset the constitutional system of mutual checks and balances and made India’s Judiciary the only one in the world with the authority to choose its personnel. The Executive’s role in the appointment of judges was reduced to that of a postman through whom the CJI conveyed the collegium’s decisions to the President.

The changes came about when the Executive was patently weak.

The issue was debated in public forums and a political consensus emerged over the creation of a National Judicial Appointments Commission in which both the Executive and Judiciary will be represented. The Manmohan Singh government drafted a bill to set up the NJAC but was voted out before it could be taken up in Parliament.

Within three months of assumption of office Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed through both houses of Parliament a constitutional amendment as well as a regular law. They provided for a six-member NJAC, comprising the CJI and his two seniormost colleagues, the Union Law Minister and two eminent persons to be nominated by a committee comprising the CJI, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Although the Judiciary had an edge over the Executive in the NJAC the CJI blocked its formation by declining to serve on it as also to join the PM and the Opposition leader in the selection of its two independent members. A five-judge bench presided over by the CJI struck down the new enactments as unconstitutional and restored the collegium system.

It soon came to light that the collegium was not working the way it was supposed to work. Justice J Chelameswar, a member of the Supreme Court collegium, said successive CJIs had treated collegium members as supplicants and judges had been selected on personal requests of collegium members. He refused to attend collegium meetings and limited his participation in the process of selection of judges to submitting written comments on circulated minutes of its meetings.

Fresh questions about the working of the collegium arose last month when High Court judge Jayant Patel resigned after he was transferred twice, denying him the opportunity of becoming the Chief Justice. While at the Gujarat High Court he had ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the encounter killing of a teenage girl Ishrat Jahan and three others.

It was against this background that the collegium headed by Dipak Misra, who became the CJI last August, decided to go public with its decisions. Accordingly a statement was uploaded on the court’s website outlining the reasons why the collegium rejected three names and deferred decision on one while selecting six new judges for the Madras High Court.

The post indicated that there were adverse Intelligence Bureau reports on the professional and personal image of two candidates and that the third was facing an inquiry. All three are members of the subordinate judiciary and the published information raises the question whether they are fit to hold their present jobs. It is not known if those rejected on the basis of intelligence reports were given the opportunity to counter them.

The legal fraternity welcomed the development but some of them felt it did not go far enough. “What is the transparency here?” asked former Law Commission Chairman Justice AP Shah. He wanted the names of prospective judges to be revealed before the collegium took decisions.

The collegium system suffers from weaknesses which cosmetic measures cannot cure. If it is not democratic for a bunch of ministers or parliamentarians to pick the next lot to be entrusted with their responsibilities, how can it be democratic for a bunch of judges to do so? A closed system cannot ensure diversity and democratic accountability. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 10, 2017.

03 October, 2017

Worrisome economic portents

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lifted the Indian economy up, making it more competitive than it has ever been, the World Economic Forum said in a report last week. Ironically, the testimonial came as he was coping with the adverse effects of demonetisation of high-value currency notes and introduction of goods and service tax (GST).

Cheer leaders at home, aided by the quiescent media, were working overtime to create the impression that all was hunky-dory. A senior leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Yashwant Sinha, pricked the bubble. “The economy is on the downward spiral, is poised for a hard landing,” he said. “Many in the BJP know it but do not say it out of fear.”

In a long, clumsy sentence, Sinha gave a worrisome picture of the economy: “Private investment has shrunk as never before in two decades, industrial production has all but collapsed, agriculture is in distress, construction, a big employer of the work force, is in the doldrums, the rest of the service is also in the slow lane, exports have dwindled, sector after sector is in distress, demonetisation has proved to be an unmitigated disaster, a badly conceived and poorly implemented GST has played havoc with businesses and sunk many of them and countless millions have lost their jobs with hardly any new opportunities coming the way of the new entrants to the labour market.”

Sinha, who had resigned from the Indian Administrative Service and entered politics in 1984, was Finance Minister in Janata Dal leader Chandra Shekhar’s government. Later he joined the BJP and served in AB Vajpayee’s government first as Finance Minister and then as External Affairs Minister.

Modi did not respond to Sinha’s criticism. He assigned the task to Sinha’s son and Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, who claimed the government had created a robust new economy which would power long-term growth and job creation.

Sensing that the son’s defence was weak, three senior members of the government, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal joined the fray. Jaitley insinuated that Yashwant Sinha, who is 80, was wangling for his job.

Before Sinha, two other BJP leaders, Subramanian Swamy and Arun Shourie, had criticised the government’s handling of the economy but few took them seriously as they are disgruntled elements.

More often than not, an economic decline is the result of factors beyond the government’s control like a bad monsoon which ruins agriculture or external developments which push up oil prices. There has been no such development in the recent past.

What has brought about the present situation is Modi’s attempt to replicate the reforms with which he had supposedly transformed Gujarat’s economy as its chief minister. Within three months of assumption of office he wound up the Planning Commission and brought into being a think tank named National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Ayog, modelled after China’s National Development and Reforms Commission. He also abolished the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, a body of experts which had helped his predecessors by providing independent advice.

Under the new dispensation, sectors like education and health suffered. Much of the money allocated for these sectors went into institution building, resulting in a shortfall in the funds available for improving the lot of the people, especially the poor.

In an insightful analysis, Professor Maitresh Ghatak of the London School of Economics said Modi did not have on Gujarat’s economy the transformative effect he was touted to have. His centralised style of governance might have worked in Gujarat but was unsuited for running the economy of a country as large and diverse as India.

Ghatak welcomed the revival of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. “We do need experts,” he said, adding: “We also need a government that listens to them.”

Making a pointed reference to the exit of Raghuram Rajan, who was Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Arvind Panagariya, who was Vice-Chairman of NITI Ayog, he wished the new group of experts would have a long tenure and freedom to pursue policies that would lead to course correction.

The immediate challenge before Modi, who has to face the electorate in 2019, is to create jobs to absorb the one million people entering the workforce each month. According to government figures, currently job creation stands at just over 10,000 a month. -Gulf Today, October 3, 2017

26 September, 2017

Grave threat to free media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India is turning out to be an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. Even as a wave of protests over the gruesome murder of Gauri Lankesh, a gutsy journalist, at Bangalore early this month was sweeping the country, two more were done to death, one in Tripura and the other in Punjab.

Gauri Lankesh, a bilingual journalist who edited a Kannada weekly which bore her name and wrote for English publications, was shot dead at her residence on Sept.5. The killers remain unidentified.

Shantanu Bhowmik, a reporter of Din-Raat, a television channel, was beaten to death while recording a clash between the police and workers of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) at Mandai in Tripura in the northeast. Police made two arrests the same day.

Karan Jeet Singh, 66, a veteran journalist who was working for online media after quitting mainstream publications, was found dead in his house at Mohali in Punjab with his throat slit and several stab injuries on his body. The unknown assailants also strangled to death his 92-year-old mother.

The three journalists are believed to have been silenced by groups annoyed by their professional work.

Gauri Lankesh was a trenchant critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva plank. The needle of suspicion, therefore, pointed to groups associated with its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. She was killed in circumstances similar to those attending the unresolved murder of Narenra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare of Maharashtra and MM Kalburgi of Karnataka, all of them scholars whose writings had angered the Hindutva camp.

Pro-RSS cyber campaigners sought to deflect suspicion away from the Hindutva elements by drawing attention to Gauri Lankesh’s writings critical of Karnataka’s Congress government and her role in persuading a group of Naxalites to abandon the path of violence.

The Tripura police said IPFT men might have targeted Bhowmik as he was a member of the CPI(M).

KJ Singh’s assailants took away his car and a television set but the Punjab police ruled out theft as the motive of the crime since they had left other valuables behind.

The number of media persons killed since 2014 now stands at 13. With attacks on the rise and authorities failing to bring the culprits to book the safety of journalists and the state of press freedom have emerged as matters of grave concern.

In a report released early this year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had said 42 journalists were killed in India in the last 25 years. This was the fourth highest number of murder of journalists for reasons connected with their work, after Mexico and Russia (38 each) and Brazil (37).

Parliament was told last July that the National Crime Records Bureau, which began collating data relating to attacks on journalists in 2014, had reported 142 instances of assault during two years and 73 persons were arrested in connection with them.

Three large Hindi-speaking states accounted for most of the cases: Uttar Pradesh 64, Madhya Pradesh 26, Bihar 22. Madhya Pradesh accounted for 42 of the 73 arrests.

It is rare that journalists working for the large English-language newspapers, who know which side of the bread is buttered, are targeted. Most of the victims are low-paid reporters working for the regional media. For this reason the attacks did not attract national attention until recently. 

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed India at the 136th position among 180 countries. Outlining the situation in the country, it said, “Journalists are increasingly the target of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

The government dismissed the RWB report, saying “it does not portray a proper and comprehensive picture of freedom of the press in India”.

The recent cases of attacks on journalists have to be viewed against the growing climate of intolerance and the attempts by the ruling Establishment to emasculate the media.

According to Sohini Chattopadhyay, a columnist, what is going on is not just murder of journalists but murder of journalism itself. She writes: “The attacks are relentless – an editor fired here, a legal notice there, a TV show cancelled abruptly, a blackout of a TV channel. The majority of legacy media outlets, owned by corporate entities, have aligned themselves to toe the government line.”

Most of the journalists who came under attack were covering politics and corruption. The state’s poor record in handling cases of attacks on media persons contributes directly to the impunity with which those who dislike a free press operate. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 26, 2017.

19 September, 2017

A Bullet train at high cost

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The launch of the 508-kilometre high-speed railway project, which will link Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s industrial hub, with Mumbai, India’s financial capital, is sure to boost the prospects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly elections in his home state but there is much scepticism across the country over its intrinsic worth.

Modi and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jointly inaugurated work on the mammoth project last week at Sabarmati, the Ahmedabad suburb where Gandhi had set up an ashram on his return from South Africa 102 years ago. Assembly elections are due in the state in December and the Opposition dubbed the event as inauguration of the BJP’s poll campaign.

Many view the proposed railway with Japanese style bullet trains moving at 320 kmph, which will cut travel time between the two cities from eight hours at present to a mere two hours, as a symbol of the New India that Modi is talking about.

Modi made an attempt to make the gullible believe that Abe is giving the Rs 1,100 billion project virtually free. The claim is based on Japan’s grant of a loan of Rs 880 billion, repayable over 50 years with an annual interest of 0.1 per cent, for this project.

Only two per cent of the high-speed line will run on the ground. As much as 92 per cent will be elevated and six per cent in a tunnel. Seven kilometres of the 21-km tunnel will be under the sea.

If the project is completed on schedule, the first bullet train will run in 2023. Modi is urging officials to advance it by a year. The project will be viable only if 40,000 passengers use it daily, paying Rs 3,000 to travel one way.

It remains to be seen how many people will switch from plane or night train to the bullet. In the 1960’s, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space science, travelled each week from his Ahmedabad base to Delhi on Monday, from Delhi to Mumbai on Wednesday and from Mumbai to Ahmedabad on Friday. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad journey was always by a night train. He said that helped him save daytime for work.

It will, of course, be wrong to draw a general lesson from one person’s experience. However, the proposed fare does appear to be a factor which may limit the bullet train’s appeal.

Japan has had a good deal. A pioneer of bullet train technology with large idle capacity it has been looking for foreign customers for years. The only one it could find so far was Taiwan. The United States did not show interest in its offers. Two years ago Indonesia picked China to execute its $5.5 billion bullet train project.

From India’s point of view, the crucial question is whether the project, as now conceived, is in its best interest.

Critics pooh-pooh Modi’s claim that the project comes virtually free of cost. Japan, they say, has done no favour in providing loan to cover more than 80 per cent of the cost of the project at a low rate of interest. In view of stiff competition with Chinese and European conglomerates, in the past 10 years it has offered loans at near-zero and even negative rates of interest.

They also point out that the interest payable by India may actually work out to three per cent or more as over the 50 years of the loan period the rupee is likely to depreciate against the yen. Besides, the agreement binds India down to use 35 per cent of the money to buy overpriced Japanese technology.

The strongest criticism of the project came from Jawed Usmani, a retired bureaucrat who was involved in the discussions with the Japanese by the Manmohan Singh government 12 years ago. He insinuated that the Japanese had tricked India into buying an expensive toy. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bulletin train would need to be subsidised forever as the operations would not be economical, he said.

India’s rail system is one of the world’s largest. It runs 12,000 passenger trains which transport 23 million people and 7,000 freight trains which carry 2.65 million tonnes of goods each day. Its finances are in a bad shape, forcing it to look up to government for assistance and to delay investments in maintenance of tracks and rolling stock.

The government has shown poor judgment in giving priority to the high-cost bullet train project over measures to ensure rail safety such as filling posts of maintenance and signalling staff and doing away with unmanned level crossings. Nearly 60 major rail accidents have occurred since 2010 and more than 25,000 were killed while crossing railway lines last year. -gulf Today, Sharjah, September 19, 2017.

13 September, 2017

Journo Murder: Outlook article

A Life Defined By Fierce Agitations

A Hindutva surge that is end angering democracy worried Gauri. Her end highlights the risks serious journalism faces.


Gauri Lankesh belonged to a generation of young people who came into journalism in the 1980s when the press, mostly under a new crop of editors, was celebrating its freedom re-won after the Emergency that had forced it to go into subservience. She honed her skills, reporting on Karnataka developments for the English-language media. In the fullness of time, as most of her contemporaries settled down comfortably as upholders of the Establishment, Gauri metamorphosed into a restless, doughty anti-Establishment warrior.

The transformation of the scribe into an activist came into full view as Gauri switched to Kannada journalism on the death of her father, P. Lankesh, in 2000. He was a multifaceted personality and the founder-editor of the popular weekly Lankesh Patrike, whose conduct as a fighting paper blazed a new trail in Kannada journalism. Without leaving room for advertisers to dictate his agenda, Lankesh carved a niche role for his 1980-founded journal by vigorously championing the cause of the weak and the downtrodden, particularly the Dalits, peasants and women. Gauri carried forward the tradition with fresh vigour. Under her, the Lankesh brand acquired a new life. Five years later, she floated a new journal, appropriately styled as Gauri Lankesh Patrike.
Human rights issues were a major concern of hers and they started claiming much of Gauri’s energy and time. All the same, there was no weakening of her commitment to investigative journalism. She reportedly assured friends that she would continue to publish exposes as that was what a journalist was meant to do. Gauri made all causes that she considered just and legitimate and brought to bear a deep sense of commitment to them. She began reaching out beyond Karnataka, and identified herself, in the immediate past, with the struggles of the students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Dalits of Gujarat and the youths of Kashmir. Agitations became a part of Gauri’s life and agitators became even members of her extended family.
She was an agitator with a problem-solving mind. At one stage, Gauri bent her energies towards dissuading the Maoists and the predatory state from continuing along the path of violence. Her efforts led to a few persons giving up arms and resettling to lead peaceful lives.
The rise of Hindutva worried Gauri. For, she saw it as a grave danger to India’s fragile democracy and a severe threat to its age-old secular fabric. As lawless elements enjoying the patronage of the Hindutva establishment unleas­hed terror across the country, hers was one of the loudest voices against it.
Gauri was disturbed by Karnataka dev­elopments that indicated attempts to convert the state into the Gujarat of the South. When the state was under President’s rule in November 2007 after a spell under a Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition, she cited specific instances to show that much of the media had been saffronised. The varsities were being coerced to accept Sangh Parivar’s demands, she alleged, adding that Muslims, Dalits and backward classes were coming under attack, and the police were playing a partisan role. Late last year, a court found her guilty in a case of defamation filed by two BJP leaders. Gauri was sentenced to six months’ impr­isonment and fined too. She was immediately granted bail, pending appeal, but the BJP’s IT cell allegedly used the conviction to threaten other journalists who did not toe its line.
Dwelling on the situation in the state at the time, Gauri said, “In Karnataka today we are living in such times that Modi bhakts and the Hindutva brigade welcome killings, as in the case of Dr M.M. Kalburgi, and celebrate deaths, as in the case of U.R. Ananthamurthy, of those who oppose their ideology, their party and their supreme leader, Narendra Modi.” She added, “They are keen to somehow shut me up too. A jail stint for me would have warmed the cockles of their hearts”.
This September 5, they somehow did it. That evening as Gauri returned from work, three armed men intruded into Gauri’s house and shot her at point-blank range, killing her instantly. Gauri certainly was not unaware that she was living a dangerous life. Personal safety was not an issue that bothered her unduly. Individuals or inst­itutions were never her prim­ary concern. She was primarily concerned about the state of her society and polity.  
Gauri’s martyrdom momentarily highlighted the risks that serious journalism faces today. September 6 saw a spontan­eous display of solidarity by not only journalists but civil society country-­wide. But the total silence of the only two men who matter in the Establi­sh­ment and the gleeful celebration of her murder by Hindutards (incidentally reminiscent of the distribution of sweets by Hindu communalists after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948) remind us that there is a battle ahead that needs to be fought to make safe our democracy and its institutions, including the media. That is a battle to be fought not in the studios of corporate television but in the citadels of democracy, and perhaps even in the streets where Gandhi had fought his battles.