Sunday, April 19, 2015

This Lotus will not wilt as it hasn’t bloomed

BJP needs a new gardener in Bengal

Today Kolkatans are voting for their Municipal Elections. One needn’t be a political pundit or pollster to predict – it’ll be a clean sweep for Trinamool Congress – probably as impressive as AAP’s win in Delhi Assembly elections. BJP would be lucky to finish a distant (and, most probably, insignificant) second.

This is surprising since only a few months ago ‘Saffron’ was being hailed as the new ‘Red’ in Bengal and BJP was seen as a serious threat to ‘Didi’ (Mamata Banerjee). BJP’s membership in the state crossed the 10 lakh mark. Simultaneously, trouble was brewing within Trinamool – caught on a sticky wicket over ‘Saradha-Scam’ - there was also talk of internal dissension within the party, with a section ready to jump the boat  with Mukul Roy -  the General Secretary, ‘Master Strategist’ and organisation strong-man of TMC  (whom many, including this columnist, referred to as Mamata’s Amit Shah).

Buoyed by the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections – when BJP increased its vote-share to 16.8 % (from a measly 6.2 % in 2009) in the state and whopping 25% in Kolkata proper -  winning 2 and securing second position in 3 seats (and a clear lead in 23 assembly segments including Mamata Banerjee own  constituency, second in 40 others) the party’s state leadership declared Mission 150 + for 2016 Assembly Elections. At the famous – ‘Utthan Divas’ Rally in Kolkata on November 30th – held after a major tussle with the state government – Siddharth Nath Singh, BJP’s National Secretary – in charge of West Bengal – made that audacious call of ‘Bhaag Mamata Bhaag’.

The momentum continued for another 3 months or so giving people an impression that at last a credible challenger to Mamata was emerging. But, a sudden denouement followed Amit Shah’s Burdwan Rally on January 20th. First, there was an announcement of number of top TMC leaders crossing over to BJP on that day – which didn’t happen. Claims were made that around 40 TMC MLAs were ready to join BJP and simply waiting for a call. By way of explanation of the  “no show”, BJP functionaries said they had postponed the ‘welcome ceremony’’ to a later date as they didn’t wish to divert attention from the main purpose of the event. But, a certain loss of steam was apparent even in the bye-elections that followed in February – which TMC won with ease.

Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee – the street-smart fighter that she is – started to put her house in order. Making truce with some disgruntled elements – who were wielding veiled threats of en-masse defection – and craftily isolating Mukul Roy without expelling him from the party. Once again proving the old adage – a party is bigger than an individual.
Simultaneously, there were a few other developments – which many people refuse to dismiss as mere coincidence. One couldn’t but notice a slow-down in the pace of the Saradha Scam probe by CBI. 3 of the 4 main protagonists arrested were let out on bail – including a young Rajya Sabha MP (from a well known Stevedoring family also owning a pro-TMC media group) – who resigned from the party as well as his parliament seat the very next day. Mukul Roy – though called for interrogation after allowing him a long leash – was not taken into custody unlike the others who had been summoned before him by CBI. Thereafter, the spotlight of the investigation seemed to shift to another accused – political wheeler-dealer - Matang Sinh.

Perhaps, the most significant event was Mamata Benerjee’s meeting with Narendra Modi – the first in nearly 10 months after his assuming office as Prime Minister. Though the body language on camera was distinctly stiff – one doesn’t know what exactly transpired in the one-on-one interaction or subsequent off-line engagements with key members of Modi cabinet like Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari. While the shenanigans continued in Parliament and Trinamool refused to budge on the Land Acquisition Bill – some other Bills were quietly allowed passage by tactical ‘walk-out’ by TMC MPs during voting. The Centre too showed a great deal of grace and generosity in the budgetary allocations for West Bengal – keeping aside political differences.

But, the biggest challenge facing BJP in Bengal’s is the quality and calibre of State level leadership. There is not a single leader of stature, charisma or mass-base. Since the elections in May 2014 – all the leaders who had been para-dropped  from Delhi to contest like Chandan Mitra or even an S. S. Ahluwalia who won from Darjeeling – have been missing in action – with the sole exception of Babul Supriyo, who has little political standing or appeal beyond his Bollywood Rock-Star image. The few others – who are considered to be men of substance like Tathagata Toy or Dr Subhash Sarkar of Bankura have been sidelined and maintain a low profile. Siddharth Nath Singh – who was supposed to be the Central “Prabhari” of the state ( whose claim to fame is he is a ‘son-in-law’’ of Bengal by virtue of  having his ‘sasural’ in Kolkata) has become scarce – one doesn’t know whether due to party or –in-law issues. It was reported that – Nirmala Sitharaman has been given charge of looking after West Bengal affairs. But, perhaps, she too has been busy organising the Hannover Messe.

With the result – the ticket distribution for the KMC election turned out to be an embarrassing  mess – with in-fighting breaking out in public – seriously denting the party’s image. Rahul Sinha – the State Secretary appeared totally out of depth and control. In any case, he does not inspire either confidence or respect. People question his political credentials and even integrity. There are also insinuations of clandestine side-deals struck by the senior local leadership with TMC – hinting at possibilities of deliberate sabotage.  But, all this is here say – what is clear: BJP in Bengal is rudderless and leaderless. By frittering away the chances of scoring an impressive tally in Kolkata – where probably the anti-incumbency of Trinamool was the highest – they have dashed the hopes raised after the Lok-Sabha elections.

Now, only a strong leader can salvage the party from the dump it has dug for itself in less than a year, but none can be seen on the horizon. If Modi’s really wants to expand BJP’s presence in the East – he and Amit Shah might be better off going shopping outside the party and for that Mukul Roy is a prime prospect in waiting 

A party without a leader is as ineffective as a leader without a part. That probably makes a good – even if expedient – fit for Roy and BJP. But, will Modi-Shah bite the bullet ?

Artcle first published in the @DailyO_  Click here to read

#Bengal #BJP #BengalBJP #Trinamool #MamataBanerjee #MukulRoy #Kolkata Municipal Election #WestBengal #AmitShah #NarendraModi


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Book Review - The Great Indian Rope Trick: Complexity of Indian Democracy

The great Indian Rope Trick – does the future of democracy lie with India
Roderick Matthews
Pages 378; Price Rs 599
Hachette India

At the start one should make a disclosure. Roderick Matthews’ great grand-father was the private tutor of Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife the Governess of his sisters.  But, this is not to mean Matthews’ views are coloured by his connections with the Nehru family.  His is essentially a student of modern history specialising on India and if one may still use the old term “sub-continent’’.

It was important to set that background to give an idea of the author’s approach to the book. This is not yet another glib commentary on India’s post-independence history leading up to the epic elections of 2014. He takes a much a longer view and starts not just with the ‘’colonial beginnings’’ of Indian democracy but even its philosophical roots in “Dharma, Injustice and Pragmatism’’.  He takes in his sweep the evolution of Democracy in entire South Asia – Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The essential thesis of Matthews’ work is – Democracy in India has survived 67 years but is not a ‘’done deal’’.  In this time – it has witnessed a series of extraordinary events which has ‘’conferred a certain wisdom’’ – but could enfeeblement, retirement or senility be on the horizon, he asks? In doing so he has tried to examine the various threats to Indian Democracy : social (sexual violence, Khaps and the inevitable caste and religion) , political (Maoists, Separatist and Secessionist Movements) and Security (Terrorism), Economic disparities  and Corruption  and even Judiciary (backlog of cases  and  compromise by the senior judiciary).  But in doing so, he gets mired in the sheer complexity that is India.

In the ultimate analysis Matthews feels – like most do – Indian democracy for all its shortcomings is a success, even a triumph – discounting any concerns about creeping dictatorship. India is a country that has lived (and experimented) with democracy while retaining great many of its traditional social features.  The deficiencies if any are more of ‘’practice’’ (in certain specific areas – touched upon before ) but not of ‘’principle’’. He concludes – democracy contains (and even relies on) a large element of positive illusion – which he compares with the “The Great Indian Rope-trick’’.

Roderick Matthews is no Simone Denyer or Edward Luce. This is a work not of a political journalist but a scholar. Therefore, the book might be a bit out of reach for a lay reader but, perhaps, a little short of depth for a seasoned political scientist.

Review first published in Business Today Magazine, issue of April 26, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bihar Examination Mass Cheating Scandal - Root Cause is Underdevelopment of the State

Before you curse those caught cheating in the state’s matriculation examination, delve into the cause of the malaise.

Even as the Bihar government continues to crackdown on the cheats involved in the copying scandal during matriculation examination by arresting more than 300 across the state and realising penalty of Rs 4.16 lakh, I begin with an anecdote. I was on a work trip to Patna when a stockist of our company from Darbhanga happened to drop by at the office. On enquiring what brought him there, he told me he had come to enrol his 8-year old son at a boarding school. I went on to offer him some unsolicited advice — as is the wont of Bengalis — asking him why he was not looking at a well-known school in Varanasi belonging to the same group of institutions (Krishnamurti Foundation, Rajghat, a sister school of Rishi Valley) where my daughter had studied.
He flummoxed me by saying, “Wahan toh admission already mil chuka hai; lekin woh school sahi ‘competitive’ nahin hai… is (Patna) school se zyada IAS nikalte hain” (My son has got admission in that school already, but it is not that ‘competitive’; this one produces more IAS officer). On being asked why he was so keen that his son became an IAS, he frankly said, “Bahut izzat hai, kamai hai aur power bhi hai… aur,” he said after a little pause, somewhat coyly, “IAS ladke ka liye dahez bhi accha milta hai” (the job earns one social respect, a lot of income, power and… gets you a good amount of dowry when he is married off). I was stumped.
That is not to mean all those climbing the walls of the school were trying to help potential IAS, IFS or IPS officers. But they and their families do betray a collective societal aspiration. In a state that is economically backwards with no industry worth its name, the two primary options for employment remain kheti (farming) and naukri (jobs). As Prime Minister Narendra Modi perceptively points out, with increasingly diminishing land-holdings in villages, it is not viable to accommodate all children in the family farm. So, some are sent out in search of alternative employment. The uneducated migrate to other prosperous cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. And, for those who stay back, and have an educational qualification, a sarkari naukri (government sector job) appears to be a low hanging fruit — either ‘purchasable’ or obtainable with some sifarish (recommendation of an influential person).
The meritorious (not just those coming from affluent families) head out for higher education outside, many getting into IITs, top engineering and medical colleges, and others gunning for MBA, going abroad or joining ‘Mission UPSC’ — from Delhi’s Hindu College Hostel or one of the many barsatis and tenements around IIT and the Munirka neighbourhood of Delhi. But, for the great many who stay back, a government job remains the only ray of hope.
This is not a phenomenon limited to Bihar alone. This is true for other BIMARU states like Madhya Pradesh (where there was the infamous employment scam, Vyapam) or West Bengal that witnesses stampede to collect application forms for government School Teachers’ Examination and that have thriving tutorial centres to prepare students for lower level government jobs. Madhya Pradesh may be relatively better off with greater industrialisation and private job creation; West Bengal has seen a massive exodus of young people both educated and ‘non-literate’ though the situation may not be as acute as in Bihar.
Put all this against the background of the poor quality of education in government schools, with truant teachers and unhygienic mid-day meals. What is the level of special assistance provided to the slow learners or students with learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyscalculia? Back-ended incentive like cash rewards for every girl-child passing the matriculation examination can, unless supported by an efficient primary and secondary education system, only aggravate the problem.
All this is not a convoluted argument to justify mass-cheating, the shameful incident that came to light last week. There is, of course, culpability of the students and parents. There is also a responsibility of the state of not providing for invigilation and security at the exam centres. Surely this is not a one-time phenomenon caught so graphically on camera this time. It must have been going on for years. But there is also a need to look beyond the symptoms. One can’t raise the bar without building the capability to cross it. Otherwise, those put under test will, in desperation, use unfair means to cross the seemingly insurmountable hurdle.
The answer, unfortunately, can’t be instantly given. Value systems won’t change overnight, especially if it requires a major social transformation. The long-term solution is economic development of Bihar, for which industry, infrastructure and wealth-generation activities have to come along with improved governance.Nitish Kumar had come to power with the promise of “Surakshit Bihar” (safe Bihar) and “Vikas” (development). Sadly, he has now strayed from that path and set the clock back by at least a decade.
To restart the wheels of progress, he has to swallow some of his ego and prejudices. He did that partly by tying up with old political Lalu, but for a misguided intent and with a wrong person. Nitish Kumar must eschew caste politics, establish law and order and curb corruption with the sincerity and determination he had displayed in his earlier two terms as chief minister.
Another positive step would be not to act a spoilsport on the Land Acquisition Bill, which, if anything, is required to kick-start growth in states like Bihar. Not as he has been asking for — more central dole to dig deeper holes of MGNREGA, jeopardising the future of a self-sufficient and progressive Bihar.
Article first published in Swarajya Magazine (Click here to read)

Friday, March 27, 2015

How to help an Elephant Make a U-Turn

Book Review

How to help an Elephant Make A U-turn – a new approach to leadership and transformational change, G.K. Jayaram, Maven / Rupa, 258 pages

Dear Jaya,

I am taking the liberty of calling you by your first name – since in the ‘’author’s note’’ you invited the reader to ‘talk to you’ (over a mellow drink, at that) rather than simply ‘read’ the book.  Actually – that’s a novel (pun intended) way to have a lesson on leadership and I quite like your style.

I picked you up (no pun intended there) at the Higginbotham’s in Chennai Airport during a long layover between flights.  Over the years I have become a bit wary of books on leadership – with practically every other superannuated executive turning into a leadership coach and writing a book. Much of what they write –  to twist one of your quotes – works neither in practice nor in theory.  But, the green jacket held my attention and what caught my eye were the words “Transformational Change”.  Flipping the pages I found myself being seduced by another term “transcendental leadership’’. So, is this guy talking of personal transformation as a key to change and leadership? – I asked myself and there you got me hooked.

I was fascinated by the concept of RORE – ‘revolution of rising expectation’. What could be more relevant for a country of young people like ours waiting to break free in the world. It is truly an empowered generation with a mind of their own, who believe in their abilities and think they are not less than equal to anyone – what you call PROBE ( Promise in and Belief of Equality). The challenge, therefore, is as much for the business or corporate leader  - as it is for the societal and political leadership – in how to harness this energy, transcend the past as also the immediate and practical (pragmatic) to create transformational change.

I am glad that you have taken the concept beyond the narrow and limited framework of corporate organisation to society at large – because the issues facing leaders dealing with a young restless professionals who see sky as the limit or the small town graduate coming from an humble homes  - no longer recognise any sense of ‘’entitlement” and want to reach the top solely on merit and by dint of their hard work.

Today’s leaders must recognise this tectonic shift (to use a cliché) in attitude and aspirations – otherwise they risk losing talent in organisations just as the old world politicians will find themselves hopelessly disconnected from the ‘gen-next’ voters.
Frankly – I don’t care much for the testimonials and interviews you have laced the book with. To be blunt – they came across to me as your ‘’Infy’’ Groupies or the Bangalore Club cronies – who intrude into our quiet chat at the Bar. Over-laden with the quotes and excerpts from other leadership and management classics the so called “Leader-Speak”  were a distraction. But, I thought it was a great idea to bring in contemporary examples of the Anna movement and the infamous fall of the Indian ‘poster-boy’ of corporate America to bring home the importance of integrity, intensity and imagination in your  3 + 5 Model of Transcendental Leadership.

It’s easy to understand – why Narayana Murthy calls you the “quintessential, friend, philosopher and guide”. I can relate to you as one – virtually – even not having met you in person.



PS: Hope you have gifted an autographed copy to the Prime Minister. The subject would be right up his street. And, even young Arvind Kejriwal – could do with one so that he can “transcend’’  the past mistakes of his own and that of his former mentor  – that you so graphically describe in the book – and move on to a higher order of transformational leadership.

Article first published in Business Today issue April 12, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Is the Modi-Shah juggernaut losing steam?

Let’s start closer to (my) home –Kolkata.

Since Amit Shah’s Burdwan Rally on January  20th there is visible slow down in BJP’s aggression in West Bengal.  The announcement of big names crossing over from Trinamool and Congress to BJP has  been put on indefinite hold.  Even accepting – the government in Delhi has no control over the affairs of the CBI – the investigation seems to have cooled off a little with the release of one MP and the “non-arrest” of  Mukul Roy. It is quite likely that Madan Mitra, the other minister in custody, will also be soon out on bail – taking the heat off Mamata Banerjee.  The BJP has also been studiously cautious in associating with Roy or responding to his overtures.

Although the TMC MP’s have been belligerent in Parliament, BJP’s response to their shenanigans  have been somewhat muted with at least one instance of Modi trying to reach out to the Trinamool MPs during his reply to the debate on the President’s Address in Rajya Sabha.  The Mamata – Modi meeting that followed – despite the stiff body-language  caught on camera – was also significant. It’s possible that –  strategy has been recalibrated keeping in mind the challenges of the Budget Session – with several key legislations on the anvil.  But, it also can’t be ruled out that the moderation is also an outcome of a more realistic assessment of BJP’s immediate prospects in West Bengal after the recent Lok-Sabha and Assembly By-polls  (further corroborated by Opinion Polls for the forthcoming Kolkata Municipality Elections – where BJP is finding it difficult to even mobilise candidates). Now one hears PM  Modi may be visiting Kolkata soon to follow through on his meeting with Mamata Banerjee in Delhi.

In next door Bihar – one observes a similar slackening of tempo. First, the Manjhi experiment went horribly wrong. Although the Nitish – Lalu flirtation has fallen just short of consummation – it has brought both of them back to the centre-stage commanding greater share of voice and TRP.  At the same time – BJP leaders like Sushil Modi seem to have gone into hibernation. Other than an occasional sound-byte from  Shahnawaz Hussain  (Ravi Shankar Prasad usually speaks on  other issues – in any case his mass base in the state is questionable), Rajiv Rudy or Giriraj Singh – rest of BJP stalwarts from Bihar are deafeningly silent and happy to listen to Sharad Yadav holding forth on the relative physical attributes of women on  either side of the Vindhyas.

While it is undeniable that the Delhi rout was a major jolt for  Modi-Shah leadership – mercifully AAP’s own internecine war has shifted the focus from it and hopefully the initial embarrassment in Jammu and Kashmir has been – at least for the time being  – contained.  The news from old BJP ruled states like Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are not much to write home about – with both Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan under the shadow of scams (PDS and Recruitment) in their respective states.  The newly formed ministries in Jharkhand and Maharshtra are still settling down with their own set of challenges.  With Naveen Patnaik still going strong  Odisha remains largely out of bound for BJP at the moment.

It is conceivable that Modi-Shah have tactically decided to save the powder for another day while fighting more important battles in Parliament.  But, the overwhelming impression is their juggernaut has been stalled on its track.  While Modi can definitely chose his battles in a 5 year race – to win the war he would need to get the economy moving quickly.

PS: Since the article was published - the Government managed to get the crucial Coal and Mining Reforms Bills passed in the Rajya Sabha with the support of most major political parties - except Congress, the Left (CPIM + CPI) with the JDU and RJD staging a walk-out. However, the fate of the Land Acquisition Bill still hangs in balance.

Article first published in Swarajya Magazine (click here for original link)