Monday, December 28, 2015

Can Modi afford to dump Jaitley ?

By attacking Arun Jaitley, Modi opponents trying to isolate him

Article first published in +DailyO India Today (Click here to read)

Delhi was rife with rumours about Arun Jaitley's imminent shift from the finance ministry before Budget making starts. Post the Bihar debacle as talks of a Cabinet reshuffle subsided - the chances of Jaitley's removal also receded. After all, with Amit Shah cut to size he remained the prime minister's strongest ally both in the party and the government. It is, perhaps, for this very same reason - Modi's detractors and Jaitley's foes took it upon themselves to do what Modi himself couldn't afford to at this juncture.

Much is being made of the prime minister's "will come out in flying colours" remark comparing Jaitley with Advani. Whether it was a subtle hint at resignation or not - it is significant that the PM broke his customary reticence on such matters. He has reasons to be worried - because the attackers were coming too close for comfort. After Shah and Jaitley, they could next take on Modi directly - as with these two strong lieutenants politically neutered - he would be quite lonely in Delhi. For all his moral grandstanding, Jaitley himself looked rather rattled - knowing he was directly in the line of fire. This is apparent not just in his filing the defamation suit against Kejriwal, but also in his accusation that Kirti Azad met Sonia Gandhi.

Although the ire of the BJP "old guard" and the "fallen-by-the-wayside" was at the collective entity that Arun Shourie called the "Trimurti" - it was Jaitley who they thought was the illegitimate usurper - even after losing his maiden Lok Sabha bid from Amritsar. It was a view that found support even from Modi supporters who felt Jaitley was the Lutyens' surrogate in NDA coming in the way of bold actions. Now, with Amit Shah having been eliminated by his own self-goal in Bihar, Jaitley was easy for the picking.

It may not be a coincidence that the three major scandals to rock the Modi government - that put Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and, now, Jaitley, in the life of fire - had something to do with cricket. Vasundhara and Sushma could have been targeted on many issues, but for Jaitley, cricket is, perhaps, the Achilles Heel that opponents were smart enough to latch onto.

The rivalry between Jaitley and Swaraj is one of Delhi's worst kept secrets and has been well documented by some senior journalists. Many, therefore, believed "Lalit-gate" could have been inspired by the Jaitley camp to put Swaraj and Raje on the mat. Lalit Modi didn't pull his punches even then.

Like many in the BJP today Jaitley owed his rise in BJP to Advani - who had appointed him party spokesperson that gave him a national profile. However, post Advani's Jinnah faux pas, he was quick to jettison him and also one of the early Delhi entrants into the Modi camp. While Advani's protégée - Sushma Swaraj - was dithering to accept Modi as PM candidate, Jaitley had decidedly crossed the Rubicon.

The interesting pattern that is emerging now is the anti-Jaitley axis, which seems to be cutting across party lines in reverse trajectory from AAP to Congress and now finally coming home to Advani's residence. It's easy to dismiss this as transient opportunism, though irony dies when Congress spokespersons and Kejriwal accuse BJP of lacking inner-party democracy and shooting the messenger. The truth could run deeper. The "enemy" may have penetrated the inner ranks of the BJP. By eliminating Jaitley and Shah they are hoping to isolate Modi, forcing him to fend for himself. This may be a high-risk strategy - as one can't predict how Modi will react.

So one is waiting with bated breath to see what Modi does on his return from Russia and Afghanistan - whether he'll choose to cut his losses by jettisoning Jaitley or declare war by consolidating his ranks for a fight to finish.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Breakthrough in Nepal's Madhesi Crisis

Article first published in +ABPLIVE Read here

A former Indian Ambassador to Nepal  – who had also been a High Commissioner in Bangladesh – told me once, he found it much easier to operate in Dhaka than in Kathmandu because there he didn’t have to contend with the “feudacracy” in India, who constantly try to meddle in Nepal’s affairs. By “feudacracy” he meant – the clique of erstwhile “Rajas and Maharajas” in Indian politics (especially in the Congress) who have links with Nepal by marriage. I suspect if asked now he would have also added “media-cracy”  – the dozens of op-ed writers who know what the Indian government should do in Nepal – more than South-Block and the Intelligence agencies combined.  It’s no coincidence many of them are alumni of JNU (“Marxo-cracy”).

India baiting and playing the “China Card” are the favourite pastime of the Kathmandu elite – Nepal’s version of Lutyens’ and, therefore, easily resonates  in the India International Centre circuit (which is where visiting Nepali politicians and intellectuals usually put up – unless they are state guests, when they enjoy Indian hospitality at one of the 5 star hotels). Burning effigies of Indian Prime Ministers and Ambassadors are akin to unseasonal mini-Diwali in the valley. In the current vitiated political atmosphere – one area  Modi critics were slightly short of pegs to hang him was Foreign Policy (except for his frequent foreign sojourns).  For this, the Nepal Crisis came in handy. Blame was equally apportioned between the NSA and Foreign Secretary, who it was alleged were too busy arranging the foreign trips of the PM and took their eyes off goings-on in the immediate neighbourhood.

Historically, it has been seen in case of tension with Nepal – usually the sleuths prevail over the diplomats. This is, perhaps, one instance when both establishments worked in tandem with Sushma Swaraj’s quiet backstage diplomacy. They all stuck to strategy – ignoring both political and media pressure. Gradually voices of reason started surfacing even in Nepal – just as Kathmandu high-society got busy with their winter lunches and or took off for holidays to more comfortable climes abroad and the new political top brass (Nepal has 6 Deputy PM’s) got over the initial euphoria and began to understand the futility of posturing.

It is common knowledge that the people in the valley look down upon the Madhesis with disdain and a touch of contempt – considering them to be encroachers and “half-Indians”. But, yet Nepal knows without Madhes, it can’t be a viable economic and political entity (as most industry and agriculture is concentrated in the plains, which also serves to connect different regions of the hilly terrain, which are otherwise not easily accessible). While the bogey of “Sikkimisation” of Nepal by India is routinely raised – in their hearts the wise Nepali understands the risks of “Tibetisation” are greater – if they were indulge in unmindful flirting with China.   Finally, it would be naive of them to believe India (and, indeed, other international interests) would remain aloof to what’s happening in this very strategic stretch of land.

Relations between Nepal and India will always remain “complicated”. It is said Nepalis love everything Indian except Indians.  While India can’t afford to treat Nepal as another state of India, Nepal too can’t forget the 2 countries are joined at the hips and can’t do without each other – sibling sentimentality.

Parallels are drawn with another alleged “blockade” in the late 80s – which people simplistically believe was a consequence of the spouse of a late Minister not being allowed entry in Pashupatinath Temple. This time around it was a game of ‘brinkmanship’ of who blinks first. Probably, there would have been a much earlier resolution of the impasse – had it not been such a young government with a motley leadership at the helm still trying to find their equilibrium. India did well to stay its course – with an outcome that will hopefully be remembered in the long run in a more positive light  – if not by all – a large section of Nepali people.

Also Read: It's not India Vs Nepal but Kathmandu Elite Vs Madhesis (Click here

                 Nepal isn't the most beautiful state of India (Click here)

Friday, December 11, 2015

If you wish to jay-drive or get frisky in elevators - make sure you are rich, famous and a celebrity

Salman Khan's acquittal demonstrates the well-heeled have access to fairer trials

First published in +ABP NEWS (Click here to read)

Salman's lawyer Amit Desai after his acquittal (via ANI

Two news items dominated the lunchtime airwaves and social media today: Salman Khan's acquittal by Bombay HC and the conviction of 5 accused of the Park Street Rape Case by a Kolkata Sessions Court. First of all, let me make it clear I hold no grudge against Salman Khan (except that he gets the best girls) nor do I hold any brief for the Calcutta scoundrels. And, I have no pretensions of being a made-for-media "2 minute instant" legal expert to comment on the merits of the cases. But, questions do arise in one's mind about the legal system in our country that swears by the rule of law and justice for all.

It was said in the case of Rajat Gupta and Rajaratnam - one fundamental mistake they made was to think the US was India where the rich and famous eventually manage to slip out of a legal noose. Think of Ramalinga Raju or a business tycoon who has a reputation as much for his habitual philandering  as for being a wilful defaulter of bank loans. Sanjiv Nanda of Delhi BMW fame got away with a truncated sentence and 2 years of community service. Another high profile guest of Tihar is reported to lead a cushy lifestyle inside the jail when he is not out on parole just like the famous "Khalnayak" from Bollywood who is given a month's recess to go home for daughter's tonsil surgery. The list can go on endlessly.  But, how many real cases of conviction of the high and mighty do we know of in India over the last 60 years ?

The story is not much different in cases of sexual offence or rape. While it is a welcome and reassuring development that alleged culprits of Nirbhaya and Mumbai Shakti Mills rape cases were so quickly brought to book - we still have a celebrity journalist rake merrily doing the rounds of Delhi's Page 3 circuit hopping in and out of elevators and a climate scientist  freely travelling  around the world presumably for a change of weather.
For every such case that we know of - there are probably 100s that are languishing in jail just because they didn't have or couldn't afford competent lawyers. Many are not able to move an appeal to a higher court and some can't get basic legal help to defend them even at the first stage. Had it not been for books and movies based on real stories - as in the Arushi case - the public would not know how the prosecution can swing a criminal case either way at their will.

Talk to senior lawyers and they will tell you about the breakdown of the criminal justice system at the lower courts - which, therefore, make it necessary for trials to come up before the higher courts for review. Granted that may be so, but it would take years to fix the structural flaws. Till then we can't continue with a situation where hundreds of innocent people get convicted and many guilty ones - who have fortune, fame and resources - escape scot free - after delaying trials for years.

While one can't agree with Mallikarjun Kharge that there are separate sets of laws for different classes of people - it can't be denied varying standards are applied for people depending on their standing in society and the "face-value" of their lawyers. So we have star counsels getting cases admitted in the top court over a phone-call (apocryphal, may be) - while others languish in custody for months till their appeals are even listed. No wonder - the top-notch legal-eagles charge mind-blowing  that makes even judges wince with envy.

In contrast, the state is hardly able to get any lawyers of consequence to appear for them - barring, perhaps, the top law officers (AG, SG and state Advocate Generals) - who take up the assignment as a matter of status rather than fees. Only the dregs of the profession are willing to work for the pittance that government pays in comparison to those who have independent practice and naturally end up compromising on their ethics and integrity. Thus, it's no surprise that the Government prosecutors are not able to stand up to private counsels.

Therefore, what can - perhaps - be done in the short term is to find a system by which those who can't afford to pay have high quality legal support made available to them free or at a nominal cost. Here - I know rules exist for state support  for the needy - but the operative word "quality". This can be done by making it mandatory for senior counsels to take a up a certain number of pro-bono cases or put a cap on their fees for criminal suits (difficult to implement) while they are free to charge the moon for commercial matters. This is a matter that politicians should seriously ponder over. Hopefully, the Salman Khan verdict will trigger such a debate in the country.

The only saving grace - or poetic justice - is - those who manage to give the prosecution the slip - lose an arm and a leg in lawyers' fees.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What does Sonia Gandhi's Mother-in-Law fixation "Herald" for the "Nation"

Kyun ki Saas bhi Kabhi Dictator Hoti thi

Article first published in +DailyO India Today (click here to read)

Sonia Gandhi’s words – “I’m Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law” – are ominous. We all know what the nation had to go through when a single judge of the Allahabad High Court had indicted Indira. Then, as the Lutyens’ folklore goes, she went by the personal advise of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, more a friend and confidante than a lawyer – waking up the President late at night to sign on the dotted line of the Emergency ordinance. Though the Congress wasn’t short of legal luminaries even then – none came out pouncing on the Allahabad High Court judgment nor did MPs create pandemonium in Parliament.

But, now a mere order for personal appearance in court – has all the legal eagles of Congress hyperventilating in public – making insinuations of political vendetta – that borders precariously on the edge of contempt of court. One also doesn’t recall either of Indira Gandhi’s two sons holding out threats akin to “I shall reply in the Parliament” – though the younger one, Sanjay, did emerge from behind the curtains much later when the Emergency was well under way (so, there may be some merit in the view that Rahul is cast more in the mould of his uncle than the father).

Congress MP’s, loyal subjects of the Queen as they are, brought both houses of Parliament to a halt – with cries of political conspiracy and witch-hunt - putting at stake the already fragile fate of the Winter Session.

One shudders to think – if this is happening when the Congress is out of power and down with 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha – what would the worthy “Bahu” have done following her revered Sasu-Ma’s footsteps if the UPA were ruling today.

Yet, this is the same Congress that swears by the independence of the judiciary and asserts authorship rights over the Constitution. “Let the law take its own course” and “the guilty be punished” are pet phrases of Congress leaders – when it comes to people other than their own royalty. Thus even the redoubtable Lalu Prasad Yadav had to spend a few days tending to the gardens of Ranchi Jail – not to forget lesser allies like A Raja and Kanimozhi who were long-stay house-guests at Tihar. Of course, Narendra Modi is considered convicted without any court having pronounced him so and Amit Shah’s sentence – only reinforced people’s faith in the country’s judicial system.

It can be argued that – such exaggerated reaction of the Congress and its first family – only points towards guilt and real fear of exposure. If the Gandhis and the many star lawyers in the Congress’ fold are so supremely confident of their case – why should they be afraid of going through the due process of law? But, that is going into the realms of speculation of a matter that is still sub-judice.

Similarly, It would be disingenuous to suggest that this entire development is a ploy by Narendra Modi’s detractors in and outside the BJP to derail his “truce” efforts for getting the GST Bill passed and make his position even more vulnerable post the Bihar election set-back.

What is most worrying, however, is how easily the anti-BJP political spectrum and a large section of the media have bought into the “vendetta” theory – totally ignoring the implication on the stature of the judiciary. They don’t seem to be a wee-bit worried that it reveals an imperialist mindset of a dynasty that considers itself to be the natural rulers of this country and, therefore, by definition above the law. So, anything from allegations of land-grab against the son-in-law or bending state government laws for construction of summer retreats in the hills to misappropriation of trust funds are turned on its head by a single-point counter-accusation of political vengeance.

People who are constantly crying wolf about the spectre of Emergency being imposed again, would do well to pause and reflect – for all his perceived flaws Narendra Modi has never run away from the law. He has faced trials – albeit with the best of legal defence as anyone is entitled to – and come out acquitted. Nor has Modi – tried to bypass the judiciary to get even with his political adversaries. Even assuming – the BJP  (like many other governments before him) has used investigating agencies for political ends it has always deferred to the courts (Teesta Setalvad being a case in point).

Therefore, those concerned about the fate of democracy in India need to seriously ponder – whether the nation is safer in the hands of a democratically elected homegrown chai-wallah who may have graduated to wearing monogrammed suits or a lady who has devolved from Sable Coats to Cotton Sarees  – but whose natural upbringing makes her genetically coded to fiercely protecting the family’s existence – perhaps, the very same quality she so admired in her Mother-in-Law.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Modi Outreach or Out of Reach ?

Article first published in +ABP NEWS (click here to read)

Narendra Modi is one politician – who can never do anything right – at least as far as the media is concerned. Last week after his stirring speech in the Parliament on Constitution Day (which itself became a subject of controversy) Op-ed pundits strenuously analyzed how the speech was high on rhetoric but short on authenticity. When PM Modi invited Sonia Gandhi and Man Mohan Singh for tea prior to the start of the Parliament Winter Session – his critics could barely conceal their glee. The suggestion being – the PM had to get off his high horse to taste the dust of Bihar.

But, to cut the chase – is PM Modi really trying to reach out ? Has he come to a belated realization that confrontation can only get him thus far and from here on the journey could well be down-hill with Congress’ Lion King-in-waiting having drawn his first blood and the rest of the opposition discovered the magic tape to hold together a disparate bunch, at least in the short run.

The post-Diwali Milan at the BJP HQ – almost a month after the festival seemed like an afterthought. At least going by the photographs of the now customary ‘selfie’ session with the PM published in the media, the big guns of the media and stars of News TV gave it a miss this year – probably having got their selfies clicked last Diwali and knowing it will be just a social ritual sans any “Breaking News” moment.

Beside this – one has seen little evidence so far of the PM trying to offer the olive branch to his detractors. He has carried on with his official business as usual and gone ahead with his overseas travel schedule ignoring expected digs from the opposition, media and Twitter chaterati (albeit everyone knows these foreign engagements are committed months in advance). So, is there any reason to believe Narendra Modi will drastically change his style – stoop a little to conquer – to overcome odds that might otherwise derail him prematurely after a dream start just18 months ago? Or, putting it plainly is he even capable of such a radical transformation – even for a brief period?

The answer to both those questions is a resounding “NO”. First, he is too proud (call him an irredeemable egotist or the man’s hubris if you like) to climb down – at anyone’s threats or bullying. He would rather break – and fight to finish – than bend. Second, he is acutely aware that being seen to compromise publicly would not only be totally out of sync with his character and brand personality – but come across as even less genuine. Above all, he is too sharp and politically savvy not to realize – that any number of “Chai pe Charcha” or backroom deals are going to assuage the Gandhis – who see him as the single biggest threat to the survival of the dynasty.

One remembers – in the latter part of the campaign – when he was surer of his victory – Modi told some interviewers: “to win an election you need votes, but to run a country you need the support of the entire country”. He repeated this again in Parliament and was seen extending courtesies to Sonia Gandhi in the opening session. But, it ended there. Many believe, with some justification, the initial show of grace and desire to be seen as inclusive was more for effect than real. But, one could also argue conversely, Modi had already sensed it was just a matter of time before the ‘dynasty’ struck back with vengeance and, therefore, it would be futile to try and build bridges with them.

Going forward – therefore, it is unlikely that we would see greater bonhomie between Modi and the Congress. Both are stuck with their own existential compulsions. While the Gandhis have little option but to fight for existence, Modi can’t give up – or even temporarily set aside – his mission of demolishing the Nehru-Gandhi legacy for good. He can’t do this by simply tripping them on legal chinks in the family – be it Vadra land deals, black-money or National Herald case – as many of his lay supporters naively suggest – but by systematically dismantling the aura and myths created around them over six decades. And, that is going to be long drawn war of wits.

What we might definitely see in the coming days is Modi and his aides more actively reaching out to the non-Congress opposition and regional parties – luring them with sops and reprieves as indeed more concerted direct contact with his core constituents – while he puts his governance and reforms agenda into high gear. But, for this he has to fix his communication and media strategy double quick as has been widely commented and start relying more on experienced colleagues – like Nitin Gadkari  - and put CMs of BJP ruled states  to better use – rather than just a handful of trusted lieutenants. One redeeming feature – of the current crisis – is how some hitherto ignored young articulate MPs like Meenakshi Lekhi have risen to his defense in Parliament. He would need to press many more like her into action.

Finally – despite criticisms if PM Modi is continuing with his peripatetic foreign policy it is not without a purpose. He wants to build on the equity he has acquired among the global leaders – with whom he finds much easier to communicate and establish rapport than with a few cussed septuagenarian regional chieftains. He knows – as long as the international power bloc sees him as their best bet in India – he has a better chance to counter external forces that Congress will no doubt try to enlist in their insidious campaign to unseat him – as was apparent from recent utterances of Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khurshid.

There is no doubt whatsoever it will be a bumpy road ahead till 2019. But, Modi has enough tenacity to weather the storm and come out a winner.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Why I shall still vote for Mamata in the coming Bengal elections !!

Diary of a reformed "Bhakt"

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here to read

Like many Bengalis, I was hugely hopeful when Mamata Banerjee stormed into the Red Bastille, as it were, ending over 30 years of Left hegemony in Bengal. Disillusionment and cynicism set in quickly as it appeared to be the same old local "Bangla" brew  being poured out of a green instead of red decanter. Then, came the light whiff of the Modi Tsunami of 2014 - raising right-wing expectations of a saffron surge in Bengal (incidentally, the birth-place of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee) to wash off the remnants of its Leftist past. I belonged to the last lot.

The enthusiasm was further fueled with BJP upping the ante post Lok Sabha elections and the Mamata government getting mired in scandals like Chit-Fund scams with heavy-weights like Mukul Roy threatening revolt. Though far from a revival of any sort - with a change of guard both at the centre and state CPIM was beginning to show some signs of recovery. But, soon the local bodies and Municipal polls - proved (allegations of violence and rigging notwithstanding) Mamata still held complete control of the state's political nerve-strings.

The biggest disappointment was, of course, the BJP. In any case, one expected little from a truncated Congress with its band of diminutive leaders and very few would like a return to the cadre-raj of CPIM. Besides, even the new CPIM leadership in the state - was well past their sell by date -  hopelessly caught in a time-warp -  both in their thinking and ideas. BJP's fizzled out in no time - for reasons that were a mystery to most. Whatever might have been the consideration of Modi-Shah leadership to go easy on the Trinamool government in West Bengal (perhaps, the need for support to get crucial legislation passed in Parliament) - the current BJP leadership in West Bengal cannot inspire any 'right-thinking' individual to vote for them. In these 2 years - no attempt has been made to build an organization or attract fresh talent into the party. 

The less said about the current state leadership the better. Sensible central minders like Siddharth Nath Singh have been pulled out and replaced with absentee land-lords of dubious distinction like Kailash Vijavargiya. For all practical purposes, BJP has given up West Bengal not just for the present but the foreseeable future. For now, Mamata looks invincible - straddling from the constituency abandoned by the Left across the "secular" divide to minorities vote-bank a la Lalu and Mulayam in the "cow-belt".

But, my vote for Mamata won't be a default option  for the lack of other alternatives. Truth be told - for the first time in perhaps 50 years - Bengal has a Chief Minister - who displays a sense of 'ownership' (not entitlement) and in her own way cares for the development of the state and its people - which is something that couldn't be said even for Jyoti Basu. Popular sops have become the order of the day and it would be unrealistic to expect any government to get out it in a hurry. But, when she takes up fights or drives a hard political bargain with the centre for funds - it is not solely to channelize it for party cadres like the CPIM. True, she hasn't turned Kolkata to London - but she must be credited with some sense of aesthetics for her well-meaning efforts at giving the city (and some other parts of the state) a facelift and makeover in the last 4 years. And, I would venture as far as to say - there is a soft glow of pride beginning to show on Bengalis, who were slipping into an identity crisis of sorts a few years ago. 

The primary criticism against Mamata would, of course, still be her failure to attract any sizeable industry to the state. This is a much more complex problem than one of land acquisition alone that would have thwarted any other government as well. The biggest issue is work culture that was systematically destroyed by the Left Front over 50 years (starting with the first United Front Government in the 60s) resulting in pathetic productivity of both white and grey collared workforce - that makes investors to shy away from Bengal. A workaholic and woman of action that she is, Mamata is not one to tolerate lethargy. But, it will take time to reengineer the DNA that has degenerated over half a decade.

However, industry alone can't be a solution in such a densely populated state with pressure on land further increasing with influx of population from across its eastern border. The days of labour intensive factories are long one. Today's automated production processes will create little direct employment. The challenge of re-skilling farm labour in other vocations is often glossed over. Given the work averse nature of the Bengalis - at least in the short term the ancillary employment opportunities will be taken over by migrant workers from neighbouring states - that will further compound the problem of agriculture displacement. This is a conundrum that successive governments will have to deal with. If at all, Mamata will be best placed to bite the bullet and take a tough call in her second term  - than either the BJP or CPIM if it were to return to power by any quirk of fate.

There is a lot of talk - much of it true - about the deteriorating law and order in the state and rise in corruption.  Those who have some first-hand idea of the Left rule - when the police was subservient  to the party command structure,  know it is as much of an exaggeration as reports on communal violence and intolerance  on the rise since BJP came to power.  I for one don't believe Mamata - being a stern disciplinarian -will allow the situation to get out of hand. Corruption has become a corollary of electoral politics. CPIM with its large cadre base  had a "low-cost model" of running the party and fighting elections. The same cannot be replicated by others - not even CPIM now that their cadre base has dissipated.  The scale of corruption is many times larger in states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. But, it doesn't  show  - as there is simultaneous "value-creation". In West Bengal and other less affluent states of the East it hurts  - as the 'rent seekers' have to draw upon the already dwindling resources of the people. 

Above all this, Mamata is - arguably - the first Bengal CM who has made a place for herself on the national political scene on her own merits. Jyoti Basu owed his position largely to his stature in the party and S S Ray to the benevolence of Indira Gandhi. B C Roy was content to be a Bengali icon. Apart from arousing  Bengali sub-national pride -  people trust her as the only one capable - more than any other party's leader - of extracting a rightful share for Bengal - a state, they feel with some justification, that has been given the short-shrift by successive governments in Delhi since Independence.

That's why my vote will go to Mamata in the coming elections - with an apology note to Modi and Amit Shah.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Life after Bihar for Modi Bhakts

Bhakts flummoxed as BJP leadership goes MIA

Article first published in +ABPLIVE Click here to read

If 2014 was the best of times, undoubtedly this is the worst of times for Modi "Bhakts". I define "Bhakts" - as people who had unconditionally reposed their faith in Narendra Modi to pull the country out of the woods. It's not that the more rational ones among them (an I would like to include myself among them)  - weren't apprehensive of a setback in Bihar. But they hadn't bargained for a total rout. The so called "revolt of the elders" came as an under the  radar missile - which took everyone by surprise - even as the BJP Parliamentary Board was in a huddle trying to find its feet after the drubbing. It was palpable the leadership was flummoxed and didn't know how to react.

At this crucial juncture, Prime Minister Modi hopped onto Air India One for his London and Turkey outing. The 'narrative' was left pretty much for the media to run - with top leaders withdrawing almost into a shell. It wasn't clear who was in-charge in the PM's absence both in the government and party - except for a few feeble interventions by Jaitley and low key public appearances by the now chastised Shah. If there were backroom parleys happening for damage control - there were no signs of it outside.

Opposition as stunned as BJP

Meanwhile, among news on the process of government formation in Bihar and stories about how Nitish with his come-on-the-rebound whizkid Prashant Kishore had pulled off the impossible - one could sense a new surge of energy in Congress - as was visible in Sonia Gandhi's scathing attack on Modi in her Nehru Anniversary speeches. The rest of the opposition seemed to be in an equal state of shock (albeit, a pleasant one) trying to unravel the potential ramification - of both the Bihar Verdict and BJP's internal "mutiny" - on future political configurations. In short, the Bihar outcome had stunned the entire political system of the country.

Throughout "Bhakts" remained steadfastly committed to Modi even as a large section of his core constituency had begun to either show signs of disenchantment or beginning to slide from frustration to anger  (not just those who had bought the dream of "Acche Din" - but also the middle-class and business community that had en-bloc shifted their weight towards BJP in the expectation of economic revival and development). The "believers" continued to bet on Modi - delivering despite odds and possible setbacks in elections. As the writing on the electoral bill-boards began to light-up - they still hoped against hope - it won't be a wash-out for the BJP. But, that was not to be. Till the Bihar results  - many were expediently shifting blame on some of Modi's colleagues - like Jaitley - and a reluctant bureaucracy for the government's inability to match its words with delivery. But, suddenly they find themselves at a loss on who to hold accountable - except the "Supreme Duo".

Mixed Signals

Meanwhile, mixed signals continue to emanate from different echelons of the party and the RSS. It is anybody's guess as to where the RSS stands on the "Old Guard Revolt" - just as one doesn't know if there has been any plain-speaking with Mohan Bhagwat on his ill-timed anti-reservation "bomb-shell" that was undoubtedly the tipping point of the polls. Then there is also this intriguing silence over Shatrughan Sinha and other disgruntled elements, who have been berating the leadership with impunity. One is not sure how the Sangh leadership  is viewing Amit Shah - though Nitin Gadkari - Nagpur's blue-eyed boy - has risen to his defence. The dynamics at play inside the "parivaar" are far too complex for the simple-minded "Bhakt" to fathom.

Hardik and Prashant the new kids on the block 

Reams are being written offering suggestions on how Modi needs to reboot the party and  government - if he wants at least a fighting chance for the remaining 3 and half-year of tenure without dreaming of a second term at this stage. But, for the ordinary Bhakt the calculations have gone awry. If Bihar was a disaster it is unlikely that UP and West Bengal can be any better. Everyone is skeptical about the prospects in Punjab - where BJP has to carry the dead-weight of the Badals. The pessimists are also worried about the outcome of the Gujarat Municipal Polls - with the wild-card entry of Hardik Patel in Big Boss' house.  So, Modi-Shah's plan of reducing dependence on problematic allies like Shiv-Sena will have to wait and they will have to continue to do off-line trade-offs with NDA fence-sitters like NCP and Samajwadi Party. 

Having tasted blood as it were - the Opposition, especially the Congress, will become more strident inside and outside the Parliament. With their disruptive mindset - it is unlikely they will get down to deal making on important legislations even if Modi were to descend from his high horse. If Sonia Gandhi can have her way - she would like to see Modi dislodged much earlier than 2019. We are already seeing the new darling on the block Prashant Kishore doing his own round of "Chai-pe-Charcha" with leaders of non-BJP parties including the Congress and Arun Shourie - the self-appointed representative of BJP's Club of Octogenarians.

An enigma called Modi

The answer to these conundrums can come only from one man - an enigma called Modi. So, far he has been keeping a brave front. He spiritedly campaigned in Bihar till the last day - when he would have surely known from internal  assessments that the party was heading for a defeat. In Britain and the G20 summit - he did not betray any erosion of confidence or frayed nerves in his body language - that was being keenly watched with a telescope by all. Can he turn the tables again on his opponents - the next few months running up to the Budget Session should tell. Till then - the Bhakts will have to make do with far fewer hours of sleep just like their "Dear Leader" - who reportedly sleeps for only 4 hours in a day.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

BJP Old Guard Revolt

In this rebellion do we have the seeds of a BJP (M) in the making - a la Congress (I) of Indira - when she took on the "syndicate"

Article first published in +DailyO India Today  Click here to read reproduced here

On last Sunday evening in Delhi, I was the solitary "mourner" at an impromptu bash in the house of a senior journalists in Delhi, who were celebrating their accurate prediction of the Bihar results. I agreed to be included since alcohol helps as much to uplift the spirit as it does to dissolve sorrow. Somewhere down a few pegs - an easy equilibrium is struck - when both sets hit the same wavelength. So after a few drinks - we were discussing how knives will soon be out in BJP. Leading commentators also wrote to the same effect ("Modi to face the heat" or "the bumpy road to 2019") But, little did one expect such quick "viagra-fication" of the old guard (average age 82).

Of course, as expected Shourie was the first to get off the block. While it may have been clear he was being the spokesman of a certain section - who from "sour grapes" turned into the "we told you so" rabbis - few did anticipate that he was the forerunner for the octogenarian band to follow. Whether planned or coincidental - the timing couldn't have been more opportune with Modi taking off to the UK - a visit if cancelled he would appear like a tin-pot dictator who had to return home to quell a rebellion.

Though irony may die a thousand deaths - Congress would be naive not to capitalize on the developments - whether with Chidambaram talking of fireworks before Diwali ( though Tamil Diwali was over this morning) or Surjewalla complimenting the BJP "elders" for speaking out what the nation already knew but was afraid to say. One cannot also grudge the "liberal" detractors of BJP rejoicing over what could potentially be the fall of the pin-striped chaiwallah.

Without taking off on "conspiracy theories" - which may not be entirely unfounded - that would have required a master scriptwriter with multiple producers, directors and actors - it may be said there was a well laid out plan to waylay Modi - which he and Amit Shah (under Jaitley's ill-advised counsel) naively walked into. If Advani & Co were genuine well-wishers of the party - they wouldn't have taken the battle public even while building pressure internally for some heads to roll. But, to seek the replacement of a General immediately after a defeat or a Captain after losing a series - smacks of malice and destructive intentions.

Hopefully, a person as astute as Modi - with his own network of intelligence - would not have been unaware of the forces working against him - though he might have erred on the timing and intensity of the strike. So, what are the options before him ? I would appear that so far - in the last 18 months he has tried to balance and accommodate various interest groups within the "Parivar" hoping that they would sort themselves out over time. It doesn't require supra-mental powers to decipher Modi would have banked heavily on the Bihar results for putting to rest opposition both outside and within the part - a miscalculation that tragically backfired for which he has only himself, Amit Shah and, perhaps to some extent, Jaitley to blame. So what are the options ahead of him ? Seeking a compromise - and coming to an understanding with RSS and other hostile groups within the party may not be a solution. 

Modi one reckons is a "lambe daur ka ghoda". He has bided his time to become the PM and he isn't a politician in a hurry. So, in the short term, he has to play for high stakes - like an Indira Gandhi who took on the "syndicate" and gambled with splitting the party. This might mean his going back to the people - even with the possibility of losing the polls to a hurriedly cobbled-up Mahagathbandhan. But, then he would every chance of making a comeback with a vengeance - having purged the BJP of its baggage and dead-weight (be it of RSS or the "Old-Guard") - building from scratch a true Right wing party tailored for modern times and modern challenges.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Bihar Verdict - a Business Manager's view of what went wrong in Modi-Shah's game-plan

Never wear a suit more expensive than your boss'

(first published in +ABP NEWS )

Called up my Dad - recently turned 85 - to check his reaction on Bihar results. He quoted from Browning's Patriot "It was Roses, Roses all the way.....18 months ago...........". So, how did Modi and Amit Shah manage to fritter away a historic mandate in such a short time ? In the coming 24 hours and over the next several days there will be saturation analysis of what went wrong for BJP and worked in favour of the Mahagathbandhan - with many "I told you so pieces", as indeed epitaphs for Modi. Therefore, leaving the politics aside for the pundits let us spend a few minutes on the faulty mechanics and management of the BJP campaign.

There is no way Modi and Amit Shah could have underestimated the importance and challenge of Bihar. In fact, it is believed that lot of decisions of the government were taken (or hard calls and aggressive reforms were withheld for that matter) with the Bihar elections in mind - not just the Rs 1.25 lakh crore package declared just before the polls. It was apparent that, the government was banking on the Bihar Polls (followed by UP and Bengal next year) to shore up its strength in the Rajya Sabha for getting many crucial legislation through.

It may be argued that, the media and chattering classes had turned comprehensively against Modi and rooting for it to bite dust - but that was something Modi-Shah duo should have anticipated. They had successfully countered a more hostile media in the run up to the Lok sabha Polls - so where did their act fall apart this time around. It is easy to cook up conspiracy theories (and some of it may not be entirely unfounded) but again that is the job of seasoned campaigners - especially if they are from the ruling establishment - to tackle. How - therefore - did they lose the Midas touch ?

Right from day one - Modi government's handling of the media has been callous. What appeared deliberately calibrated (for reasons inexplicable - except, perhaps, for past grudges and arrogance  of winning the election 'despite them') at the start soon turned out to be plain incompetence. Last year - exactly at this time - one may recall, Modi made a feeble attempt to thaw the ice at BJP's "Diwali Party" - which was a heady selfie "kiss and make-up" moment for journalists - even those who had been critical of him in the past. But, that's where it ended. Somewhere, due to the "We know best" syndrome that afflicts this government - they seem to have dispensed with the professional help, that Modi-Shah were rumoured to have used for the Lok Sabha polls, just like they jettisoned Shah's own discovery - Prashant Kishor, whom Nitish was quick to pick up. Instead, Media Relations were left largely to someone like Arun Jaitley - who may be friendly with certain sections of the media (largely in the English speaking Lutyens' circuit - but an outsider for the vernacular and regional sphere) but isn't exactly a "media manager" - in the way, say an Ahmed Patel, of the Congress is.

In a recent piece in another publication, the author had discussed how "fist mover advantage" is short-lived in a competitive world - where people are quick to "copy with pride". Therefore, what has worked in the past - whether in Gujarat or the Lok Sabha Polls - loses its edge over time unless re-sharpened and re-engineered periodically.

But, the bigger task for any leader or manager is to manage expectations of stakeholders. here, Modi seems to have developed a disconnect between what he considered important for the electorate and what they had expected to see on the ground. Any new leader, need some quick wins to establish his or her credibility. This is where Modi failed miserably - partly due to the opposition tripping him in Parliament (like the Land Acquisition Bill and GST) but mainly due to his own misplaced priorities. Social welfare schemes like Jan Dhan Yojna and Atal Pension Yojna may be good talking points in the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day - but doesn't cut much ice with people who have been spoilt by doles. So no amount of Neem quoting of Urea can take away the sting of Rs 200 /kg Arhar Daal, cut in agricultural subsidies and withholding release of MNREGA payments for fiscal prudence. Today, not only the masses expect immediate gratification - but even the young blue collared workers and business honchos are more concerned about the "here and now" rather than a handsome superannuation scheme.

Finally, as more and more professional Managers start working for Family Owned Enterprises, business schools are teaching how to balance the priorities of owners with that of the external stakeholders. Here Man Mohan Singh's job was easy - as he worked for a sole proprietor. Modi - on the other hand - has to work with a traditional HUF (Hindu United Family). A cardinal rule in business is never to wear a suit more expensive than your boss' and travel first-class when your austere malik flies "Cattle Class". Modi erred on both counts. MMS had no problem with the first - wearing the same blue turban for 10 years. Though it is alright for a Prime Minister to dress well - the blue suit everyone agrees was a little over the top.

Modi's foreign policy forays were no doubt phenomenal. But, not only that was a cause of envy for his opponents at home but also, one suspects, made some other nations wary of his meteoric rise in the international scene from being a pariah just 18 months ago. The bigger issue, however, this was the most visible part of his tenure so far - even if he was working 20 hours a day on all other fronts - which opposition could easily taunt with a rural electorate.

It is a dangerous thing - when the 'Malik - Parivaar' begins to lose confidence in the CEO - feeling he is not acting in their best interest. Since, he can't be sacked immediately - some of the family stalwarts - who want to see him fail start pulling the rug silently from under the feet. That to a large extent explains the reluctance of RSS to reign in their fringe elements or Mohan Bhagwat making irresponsible statements on the eve of crucial phases of the election. Even other members on the team - confused by mixed signals - of which way the wind is blowing begin to get disengaged though may appear to maintain a brave front outside. 

In what was always expected to be a polarised contest - driven by caste arithmetic - BJP's salvation rested on the last mile and last minute booth management by RSS cadres. It is questionable - if RSS was sincere about throwing their full weight behind Modi. Though they may not have wished to see him defeated - but perhaps a little mauled. It's another story - once the grip is loosened - the rope can slip much more than one had bargained for.

Modi and Shah need to seriously revisit their strategy going forward - if they don't want an encore of Browning's Patriot - "Thus I entered and thus I go" - not only to ensure a return in 2019 but, though harsh as it may sound, salvage the remaining 3 and half years of the current term.