Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Green Shoots or Lotus Bloom in Bengal

[A PTI report says BJP’s membership drive has touched the 10 lakh mark in West Bengal]

In a recent Bengali film “Buno-Haansh”, a young boy from a middle-class home, that had seen better times – gets embroiled with a cross-border counterfeit currency smuggling ring.  In one scene, his Bangladeshi counterpart says:  “Had it not been for corruption on both sides of the border (Bangladesh and West Bengal) ordinary Bengalis like you and me would have starved to death”.  A telling comment on the economic condition of Bengal – lack of industry, employment and income opportunity.

A couple of weeks back I was travelling on the Darjeeling Mail to Siliguri. In the coupe were 2 young BSF (Border Security Force) Officers. One of them received a call from his base-station - reporting a skirmish at the border post the night before that could potentially flare-up. The train was running 5 hours late and he was troubled about not being able to reach the spot early. Even I was feeling holed up and bored. So we got chatting.

The young officers lamented – coming to the Eastern borders for them was like a “punishment” posting. In the Western frontiers the terms of engagement are clear and there is rarely any political interference or fall-out of actions taken in the regular course of duty. But, in the East everything is politically charged and “sensitive”. The high population density, close proximity of the settlements and diffused boundaries add to the complexity.  And, the buck stops with the security forces, which are always at the receiving end from all quarters – whether their administrative bosses in Delhi or local political goons.

In the cross-border transactions  that takes place – the locals are but small pawns. They act as couriers, herdsmen (for cattle) or mere facilitators – but their livelihood depends almost entirely on such illegal activities. The real people behind these operations are big fishes – businessmen and politicians who live many miles away - may be even in other parts of the country. For example, from the breed of the cattle one can easily make out  they are not local and transported from distant  Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in trucks across several inter-state borders – where they could have been easily intercepted – but no one does so  because it’s part of a large inter-state racket. The stakes in the cattle trade itself would be valued in millions of rupees. as imported cattle from India contribute significantly to Bangladesh’ GDP -  in  meat and leather trade both for domestic consumption and exports. Therefore,  any attempts to stop it is going to have huge economic,  political and even diplomatic repercussions and it is unlikely to change irrespective of whichever party is in power.

On illegal immigration – apparently agents have rack rates – from mere ration or election cards (now, probably Aadhar) to Passports. So much so, some ‘think-tanks’ believe it might be a better idea to issue “work-permits” to Bangladeshis to curb illegal immigration. But, either way they put further pressure on the already strained resources of the state – spawning more illicit business and, as some suspect, even terror conduits.

In the backdrop of such dire economic conditions – where there is very little value creation, if a Saradha did not happen it would probably have been invented. With rising cost of living and depleting income – the urban middle class and poor villagers were forced to liquidate inherited property and land.  Chit fund companies dipped into this fund – with the lure of unrealistic returns - duping them of their little remaining savings.

It is hard to believe two Finance Ministers of successive Governments - Ashim Dasgupta of the Left Front and Amit Mitra of Trinamool - both highly qualified Economists - didn’t see these scams taking place under their watch.  Young marketing executives travelling in rural areas were amazed to see army of collection agents employed by these Chit Fund companies to mobilize ‘deposits’.  Sucheta Dalal’s Money Life had carried a series of articles way back in – which was cited even in this humble blog.  (Read here

I agree with Mamata Banerjee on one count – that is, it’s not political parties alone that have benefited from the Saradhas of the world.  These Chit-Fund companies couldn’t have thrived without Media support and they were the main-stay of advertising for many local newspapers and TV channels.  For several years they were major sponsors of Durga Puja and Kali Puja in the state. So much so – they even reached out to the NRI Bengali community in overseas cultural festivals. Many ventured into film production as well.
But, undoubtedly most of the money went into political funding. If there are no Adanis or Ambanis – you needed a Sudipta Sen.  

So where does one go from here? Does the BJPs 10 lakh membership signify a new ray of hope? In ushering in Trinamool people also voted for change. But, after 5 years despondency has set in at least in urban Bengal.

When there is overall decline and decay – it’s difficult to isolate or insulate a few sections of the society from the rot.  Therefore, all institutions are beginning to fail. Once a centre of medical excellence – today a Bengali prefers to travel to Chennai, Vellore or Mumbai for treatment. Calcutta has long lost it pre-eminence in education and special trains are run to Bangalore and Pune in the college admissions season. The population of Bengali white-collar job-seekers has exponentially increased in other cities. One hears much more of Bengali on flights and shopping malls all over the country. Even in art and culture Bengal has long ceased to be in the forefront. The primary market for Bengal artists is also outside the state and abroad.

Calcutta has become a city of senior citizens. Youngsters who are left behind are wallowing in frustration and despair – many sinking into depression. Others either fall prey to nefarious activities like the protagonist in Buno-Haansh or join the gang of “tola-baaz” and local “syndicates” (hafta-collectors).

But, these very young  people when they  visit family members living outside Bengal or travel on vacations -  see how much the rest of India has moved ahead and long for a better life.  It is this sense of aspiration – especially of the younger generation – that Modi and BJP is trying to tap into.  But, whether this too turns out to be a chimera only time can tell.

For 40 years Bengal has chased a mirage. A senior journalist friend says Bengal politics has always been ruled by lumpens.  They only change their team “jerseys” from Red to Green and, which may probably turn to saffron in future.  In the 70s– when the “New Congress (Indira)” was on the ascendant there was a slogan  - “Chilam Naxal Holam, Nabo – Chakri Na Pele Abar Hobo “ (From Naxals – we have turned to Congress. But, if we don’t get the promised jobs – we will go back to our roots again).  So Green may change to Saffron – but only for a while if there is no economic regeneration. But, this time there will not be any more change in colour – the flower will just wither away and Bengal shall become a basket case beyond recovery.

Also read : Vote Bank Politics has come to stay in West Bengal

Article first published in @DailyO_ (click for link)


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Making haste slowly - 200 days of Modi Sarkar

I was unapologetic about rooting for Narendra Modi  through his Prime Ministerial campaign – though I don’t consider myself to be either a ‘Bhakt’ , as Modi fans are snidely called, or a "Hindutva" die-hard.  Now even after 7 months of his Premiership I still believe he is the best  we could have had.  However, in the same vein, I am not an unqualified supporter of the BJP. In fact, one of the reason for my admiring Modi is that he has been trying to reinvent and re-engineer the BJP for the 21st century – while the Congress and other regional parties have been regressing under the pressure of pseudo socialism, dynastic and identity politics.

Looking back,  I am not at all disappointed with what the Modi government has achieved in 200 days.   Modi’s foreign policy initiatives were well calibrated, as he realized establishing his profile globally would be essential for him to be the leader of an aspiring super-power.  Besides, he needed to build personal rapport and strike a chemistry with his international peers – given the negative image over-hand  he was burdened with (unfairly, I believe).  The criticism about his foreign tours, I think – were more out of envy and for outsmarting both his predecessors and the self-appointed foreign policy specialists of the country.

Also I don’t think much more could have been achieved on the internal front. The quiet progress made on governance – improvement in the government’s work culture, empowerment of the bureaucracy and building of business confidence have gone largely unnoticed by the domestic constituency obsessed with big ticket reforms.  Far from being cynical, I see merit in his ‘making haste slowly’ and even appreciate the so called “U-turns” in policy – which only shows his courage to accept mistakes and eschew election rhetoric  to do what is right for the country and the economy.

Contrary to what popular commentators (for whom there is only Left or Right and nothing in-between) and the opposition still recovering from psychological trauma after their total rout would like us to believe – those who voted for Modi – do not necessarily see him as a Messiah with a magic wand. Credit them with the minimum intelligence to differentiate between election rhetoric and what is practical in a real politik. Therefore,  much to their disappointment,  #Modi is still high on the ratings in post-poll satisfaction surveys.  If further proof were needed, look at the by-poll results of Jharkhand and even J&K.  On the global front – he has made his mark - and  world leaders are falling over each other trying  to woo him. Successive studies have placed him at the top or near the top of the pecking order of high performing leaders in the world today.

Difficult decisions have also been taken keeping them below the radar.  Be it rise in railway fare or neutralizing some of the reduction in oil bills through additional excise duty. His critics have in hindsight seen merit in the way the WTO negotiations were handled. After a lot of deft maneuvering through choppy political waters - the government seems close to passing GST and Insurance sector reforms. Private sector participation in Defence equipment Manufacture and PPP in Railways already cleared. 

While leading foreign policy from the front (as any Prime Minister ought to do) – he has been making good use of Sushma Swaraj in opening parallel fronts (eg with Vietnam and SAARC Countries) and even co-opting the President in Diplomacy. Though not exactly in the realm of "external affairs", holding elections in J & K was hugely significant from a strategic perspective.

The lot getting restless are the industrialists and businessmen who expected quick returns and  the large Lutyens’ Delhi community of media folks and self-styled left-lib intellectuals – feeling ignored by the new dispensation. The latter especially should realize – governments aren’t made or unmade at the India International Centre. Even foreign investors and governments are more patient and willing to give the new regime to settle down and get over the carry-forward legacies of the UPA as well as the present political dynamics before pumping  gas on  the accelerator.

But, my disappointment with Modi lies elsewhere.  Before, the elections – he had loftily said : to win elections you need a majority but to run the country you need everyone’s support. This indicated that he would seek a more inclusive and bipartisan approach to governance. Then came his famous – act of touching  the ground before entering parliament for the first time - calling it the temple of democracy. But,  this spirit has been less evident  in the style he has displayed so far.

Let’s start with the Government first. The unseemly rush to replace UPA appointed Governors was avoidable – especially where professionals (retired bureaucrats or intelligence officers)  with proven track-record were holding the posts and had just a few months of their terms left.  This was followed by the LOP (Leader of Opposition) controversy – where certainly Modi could have shown more grace and a spirit of accommodation. Similarly, one might ask if they really needed to rush through the judicial reforms bill ?

One can always argue these are minor dots in the life of a regime, which are easily forgotten. But, it does sully the atmosphere and made the Prime Minister lose some of the initial goodwill with which he could have started his Parliamentary innings. But, perhaps, it was necessary to send out some early signals that this government won’t be a push-over.

Next was the stand-off with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Surely the Thackerays had to be shown their place but the snub was too hard and for far too long. Abject humiliation – even of an enemy doesn’t help – even if the old adage of grace in victory is now passé.

Obviously, Modi and Amit Shah are working with a road-map and blue-print – which only the 2 of them know and even the RSS can only guess. Part of the plan must be to take advantage of this neo-Hindutva wave and establish a pan-India presence for BJP. Therefore, the vengeance with which the Modi-Shah duo is going into hitherto uncharted territories like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, North East and even J & K – shows they want to free themselves from the clutches of a handful of regional satraps and opportunistic allies.  

Personally, I don’t worry too much about the antics of the so-called “fringe elements”. It’s only a matter of time before Modi brings them under control, like he did with Togadia in Gujarat, as he settles his equations with the RSS. Therefore, winning these states with low RSS presence would also be key to his establishing an unquestionable supremacy. For me – the bigger irritants and distractions are Modi’s own trusted Ministers like Smriti Irani making news for the wrong reasons such as declaring Christmas as “Good Governance Day”. And, I wish he didn’t have to yield to RSS and party pressure in making some patently inappropriate choice of ministers. But, concerns voiced by the self-appointed guardians of democracy – that “secularism” and India’s plurality is at stake are both exaggerated and alarmist.

I would argue that – even if it were not for these ‘red-herrings’ , a recalcitrant opposition would find other excuses for disrupting governance. But, they can continue to do only for a sort while more till BJP populates the Rajya Sabha with their own members from the newly ‘conquered’ provinces.

Till then the government needs to stay its course and carry on with the development agenda – steadily, even if a bit slowly.