Friday, May 22, 2015

India after AAP

The year 2014 was, perhaps, the second major watershed in post-independence India’s political history after 1977. For many political scribes of the current generation it will probably remain as the most memorable year of their career. That many of them would, therefore,  feel the urge to chronicle it as ‘instant history’ – spawning a new “Read My Book’’ genre of Indian journalism – is quite understandable. Both Ashutosh’ and Saba Naqvi’s books can be broadly classified under this category.

The first, by Ashutosh – the journalist turned activist-politician and AAP leader - has a wider sweep covering Narendra Modi’s incredible run to the Prime Minister’s office and the parallel narrative on the rise of AAP and Arvind Kejriwal. It is a flash-back or recap of events as they unfolded over 15 odd months – filling in the missing bits from his reporter’s diary supplemented with insights of an experienced political journalist.

Ashutosh is candid in admitting, he conceived the book as a journalist but by the time he finished it he had became a politician. Not surprisingly, the lines do get blurred in-between.  Thus, in a way, it is also Ashutosh’ own journey from the sets of TV Studios to the amphitheatre of politics. To his credit, Ashutosh doesn’t try to hide his political leanings and the fact that he became personally close to Arvind Kejriwal and some of his colleagues much before he joined AAP. On occasions he would even advise them on how to tackle tricky media issues (revealing Kejriwal’s high degree of dependence on and feeling of vulnerability to media). This, of course, raises the question of how Ashutosh was able to maintain his objectivity and the troubling issue of journalists consciously or unconsciously crossing the professional line and becoming a part of the political game.
Ashutosh’ description and analysis of the transformation Chief Minister Modi to Prime Minister Modi is riveting. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect a totally balanced perspective once he takes the plunge into real politics – but it is for us readers to take it with, as they say in recipe books, a measure of salt as per one’s (political) taste.

Ashutosh clearly believes the outcome of the 2014 elections could have been very different hadn’t Kejriwal scored a ‘self-goal’ by resigning as Chief Minister. Indeed, as Ashutosh points out, many thought had Kejriwal continued as CM of Delhi – AAP might have garnered enough seats in the Lok Sabha to play ‘King-Maker’ after the elections.
Ashutosh’ explanation of why he chose to leave journalism to join AAP is not very convincing, He too repeats AAP’s favourite allegation about Modi’s nexus with big business. But, by his own admission, there was no overt pressure from the owners of the network he worked for to toe any particular political line. Therefore, one cannot quite fathom why he was apprehensive about loss of editorial freedom (any more or less than what he enjoyed through his career till then).

If Ashutosh’ was an ‘inside-out’ account of how AAP evolved within the larger political churn in the country - Saba Naqvi could have easily named her book “The Short Official History of AAP” or, by a stretch ‘’The Authorised Political Biography of Arvind Kejriwal’’.  Right from the start it is abundantly clear that the ‘idea of AAP’ had captured her imagination as did the charismatic (what some others may have found ‘enigmatic’’) leadership of Arvind Kejriwal. At the same time, she makes no secret of her deep distaste for whatever BJP under Narendra Modi stood for. The Congress in any case had lost steam and direction. Even fringe parties like BSP no longer had even a marginal utility in Delhi circa 2015. Therefore, for her AAP was not just the best choice – but, perhaps, the only choice. Therein lies the rub.

Ms Naqvi calls it a ‘’Reporter’s Book’’ and no doubt she assiduously followed AAP’s evolution at every stage and each step – right from the days of Anna and IAC (Indian Against Corruption)  Rally in Jantar Mantar.  Through this journey she developed strong links with members of AAP’s core-team –  from whom she could glean intimate details of the party’s inner workings.  But, in doing so it might appear – she dropped her guard and has been too uncritical and unquestioning in her assessment. Outside, of AAP she plays-back very few voices of other political denominations – certainly none which are critical of AAP or Kejriwal. She does quote a few anonymous sources (mostly) of BJP but only to buttress her own views.

Ms Naqvi’s original proposition at the beginning of the book is ‘’AAP...moved on principle of income groups, its focus clearly on class and not castes or communities’’. Such a strategy is not borne out by AAP’s subsequent electoral tactics. She attributes BJP’s success to getting ‘’first past the post’’ – appealing to the middle class, richer sections of society and ‘’then getting a small section of the poor’’ to vote for it – while AAP worked with a bottom up the pyramid approach. However, many analysts felt AAP’s resounding success in the 2015 Delhi Polls – at least partly - came from their mastering the electoral arithmetic well.

Like many – Ms Naqvi was impressed by AAP’s initial promise of ‘’No Lal Batti (VIP)’’ culture. However, she doesn’t comment on the subtle change in position - in their second term – when AAP Ministers are not averse to accepting the frills and perks of office. She is easily touched by tokenism such as Kejriwal breaking out into a song at his ‘swearing in’ or bringing his wife to the AAP HQ, but is silent about Arvind Kejriwal’s perceived shift in style from being ‘’consultative’’ and ‘first among equals’ to the unquestioned leader (perhaps, not ‘autocratic’ or a ‘supremo’ as some of his detractors accuse him of) leader. In talking of AAP’s various innovative ideas of governance – such as ‘Participative Budget’ she doesn’t mention how Kejriwal went through the motions of ‘Moholla Referendums’ before forming government in Delhi but forgot to have similar public consultations before resigning.

Ms Naqvi is happy to accept AAP is a ‘volunteer’ based party (not very different from the cadres of Left parties or RSS Pracharaks) but workers also need to be paid. One would have expected a conscientious reporter to dig a little deeper into the controversies surrounding the funding of AAP. Equally, like Ashutosh, her  accusations of collusion between big business (alleged to own half of India media) and BJP/Modi are a bit sweeping. She talks about Kejriwal taking on the rich and the powerful (read Ambani and Adani) but is silent about the lack of follow-through, which gives the impression of a ‘shoot and scoot’ strategy.

Ms Naqvi very discerning in observing how Kejriwal changed the backdrop from Bharat Mata to Gandhi between Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila Maidan – as he began to distance himself from Anna. However, does not see a pattern (of using people as props and then discarding them) in which Kejriwal jettisons Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan as dead-weight. On the latter show-down, Ms Naqvi clearly sides with Kejriwal, though to be fair she produces verbatim the exchange of correspondence between the 2 camps. In her judgement – “Kejriwal’s critics within the party would have been comfortable with..” a narrower win or even a defeat as ‘’that would have given them greater leverage’. Ms Naqvi believes it will be a minor blip in the history of AAP. She may well be correct.
Though a tad bit too generous in saying Kejriwal combines ‘Gandhian piety’ with ‘pragmatic solutions’, she concludes - not having an ideological baggage (and intellectual arrogance) liberates Arvind Kejriwal. She reminds us of the dialogue from Sholay - ‘Loha lohe ko kaatta hai’ Only time will tell if AAP, which she says is still ‘Work in Progress’ can redeem its promise of alternative politics. – just like Ashutosh’ question, with a little bit of temerity, which very few would dare ask – ‘how long will Modi last in his Chair ?’

PS: The review would be incomplete without commenting about the brilliant writing style of both the authors and excellent editing. In particular, Ashutosh’ book makes a very gripping and racy read – showing he’s perhaps more comfortable with long-form writing than 140 character tweets.

#Kejriwal #Aam Aadmi party #AAP #Saba Naqvi #Ashutosh #Modi #Narendra Modi

 First Published in Business Today India @BT_India *

Thursday, April 30, 2015

TMC Sweeps Kolkata: Tale of Didi, Dada and Bhai

Didi Rules Bengal

The results of Kolkata and other Municipality Elections shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. This columnist may be tempted to say "I told you so" (Read previous DailyO article  BJP needs a new gardener in West Bengal) but truth be said, the results were a forgone conclusion. What may come as a jolt to many is BJP's total rout - which the Trinamool spokesperson rather unkindly - but not entirely without justification - called "a balloon gone Phoos !!".

That Congress couldn't put up a respectable show will not bother many. More significant is the total decimation of the Left with no signs of the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes.

Trinamool didn't need to indulge in any rigging or violence to achieve these results. Many political observers believe - the violence happened either out of local rivalries among lumpen elements or an "over-kill" following Mukul Roy's disengagement and fear of internal sabotage.The slogan #DidiRules, therefore, is meant as much for the opposition as it is for inner party constituents.

Congress is all but a spent force in Bengal. Even assuming the new improved RaGa 2.0 is able to breathe fresh life into the party - it will be a long time before it touches Bengal. In the coming Assembly Elections - therefore, it'll desperately seek alliance with either the Left or Trinamool - but both have little reason or incentive to grant it space. The coming months will no doubt see a a queue of dejected Congressmen outside Mamata Banerjee's Kalighat residence. In the longer term,  it would be reasonable to expect - the Left of Centre space in Bengal will be occupied by Trinamool or one of its off-shoots if it were to arise.

The just elected CPIM supremo Sitaram Yechury - who knows Bengal (and Bengali) well - has rightly placed the finger on the pulse - when he said the main challenge of the Left is get back the youth to its fold. But, he doesn't spell out what does the Left have to offer today's youth - who are looking for jobs and gainful employment - given Left's dismal track record on that economic front in Bengal. At least to that extent - though the jury is still out - Mamata Banerjee still holds out the promise of getting industry to invest in Bengal, create jobs and development of the state. Any such claims by CPIM  is bound to sound hollow.

The bigger issue for CPIM is it has lost its cadre base entirely. The dividends of Land Reform and Operation Barga have been milked dry. With fragmented land- holdings villagers prefer to move out to cities or other states for employment and the actual work of tilling the land left for non-agricultural farm-labourers.  With hardly any industries left in the state - the trade unions have also moved out of its ranks. The educated youth no longer want to stay back in the state - and the chatter of latest movies and TV serials dominate the air of Coffee Houses and College Canteens rather than talk of Marx and Lenin.

BJP's failure in these elections is not only that it could not mobilise even a "work in progress" organisation - losing the plot even before it got started with infighting and anarchy -  but the way it frittered away in less than a year the goodwill generated at the time of the Lok Sabha elections. It also can't be denied - however much one may argue local body elections are decided on local issues - the NDA governments performance so far has failed to inspire the Bengalis. It is, perhaps, also a commentary on people's increasing agnosticism towards scams and coruuption - that all the noise over Saradha and other Ponzi frauds didn't have any visible impact on the poll outcome. While it is certainly true - Mamata Banerjee and TrInamool have mastered the art of "election management" first perfected by the Left (perhaps, better than even her own "art") - it would be futile for BJP to seek an excuse in that - as some of their national leaders have already begun to do. instead, it is time for the party to look for a new leader and a central manager who can build the organisation from the grassroots and re engineer its image.

Till then - probably - the best bet for Bengal would be to live by the formula which Narendra Modi had suggested in his first election rally in Kolkata in February 2014 - "Didi in the State, Dada (Pranab Mukherjee) in Rashtrapati Bhavan and (Narendra) Bhai at the PMO.  It could well be a winning formula - at least in the short term - if Didi and Bhai can establish a working relationship may be with a little help from the Dada.

#BengalVerdict #Trinamool #DidiRules #BJPBengal #KolkataMunicipalCorporation #WestBengal

Article first published in DailyO_ Click here to read 

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)