Thursday, October 29, 2015

The importance of being Arun Jaitley

Or How Arun Jaitley could be Modi's Pranab Mukherjee

Only those could have doubted Arun Jaitley's emergence as the foremost ally of Modi in the government - despite his own defeat in Amritsar - who thought after leading the party to such a stupendous victory Modi would hand-over the Prime Minister-ship on a platter to Advani or some other leader of RSS' choice. Jaitley is one national BJP leader who stood by Modi unwaveringly even when others had their moments of doubt or difference. He was the only one who had publicly predicted that the groundswell of grass-root workers will force the hand of the RSS leadership to accept Modi as the PM candidate. He was never seen to hedge his bets for a 'what if' (BJP fell short of the magic number and needed support of former NDA allies like JDU) scenario -unlike some others as Rajnath Singh. Therefore, Jaitley's rise to the unofficial No 2 in Modi's cabinet shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

Modi being new to Lutyens' Delhi (and Parliament itself - being a first time MP) - by his own admission - needed someone to chaperone him through the labyrinths of power corridors and bureaucracy. None could have been better suited than Jaitley for that role. A true blue Delhiite - urbane and moderate face of the BJP with friends across parties and media. His credibility quotient was high nationally and integrity untainted to the public eye. Arun Jaitley could easily have been Narendra Modi's Pranab Mukherjee (whom, Arun Shourie had once called the fulcrum of the UPA government) - a man for all seasons, trouble shooter, negotiator and interface with the opposition.

But, the acute talent shortage in Modi's cabinet (some of it self-imposed one may argue) - got Jaitley too embroiled in the running of the government as Modi's principal strategist. This gave rise to the now famous "Trimurti", as they are sometimes called, of Modi, Jaitley and  Amit Shah. While Shah was, understandably, entrusted with all party affairs, Jaitley became Modi's principal sounding board and advisor on policy matters, especially economic issues. (There is, of course, the invisible 4th pillar - the PMO - where the other triumvirate of Doval, Nripen Mishra and Jaishankar rule - focusing on National Security and foreign affairs – though Arun Shourie calls it the ‘weakest ever PMO’).

Even without even going into a critical evaluation of Jaitley's performance as a Minister - essentially Finance, which has been his primary charge - it may be said that being involved too closely both with strategy and implementation has come in the way of his delivery. This is characterized by a number of avoidable confrontations and stand-offs (such as with the RBI Governor), climb-downs or roll backs (MNC Retrospective Taxation) and U-turns (new IT Returns form). The mother of all setbacks was, of course, the Land Acquisition Bill and the GST could be awaiting a similar fate. Being too close to these decisions - and in some cases the owner or author himself - didn't allow him the much required maneuvering space to find a political solution - which, ironically, is supposed to be his forte.

Though not exactly in the league of his bĂȘte-noire Kapil Sibal's "zero loss" theories - much of his explanation and defense on the Black Money issue (arguably, the biggest credibility sucker of the Modi government – that earned it the tag of a “Jumla Sarkar’’) was seen to be bordering on sophistry and glib talk.

Though Jaitley is not officially handling the Law Ministry – he is generally known to be the Government’s principal legal advisor. The choice of Mukul Rohatgi – his close friend of many years – as the Attorney General is credited to him.  Between the 2 of them – they have to share the burden of the Governments loss of face in the NJAC issue – which even a lay observer of the court proceeding had seen coming from the hostile stance of the bench right from the beginning of the hearing compounded by the very aggressive stand of the government. Further, Jaitley’s reactions to the order made it appear like a personal defeat – which may not have helped to soothe the raw nerves of the judiciary and given fodder his detractors.  Further, as suggested by one respected commentator, it indicates the judiciary will not fight shy of taking head-on a government elected by a huge popular mandate.

Though they would all be loathe to admit it in public – friends of Jaitley (and, he has many) from the industry have been disappointed with him more than even the PM for the slow pace of reforms – because it was on him they had counted most to kick start the economy. Both, his budgets were underwhelming – but that would easily have been overlooked if reforms took off. Instead – the Prime Minister has had to lean on populist social welfare schemes like Jan Dhan Yojna,  Atal Pension Yojna and Insurance Schemes the results of which will take years to be palpably perceived. Whereas delays in release of MNREGA payments and agricultural subsidies – no doubt necessitated by prudent fiscal management – felt immediately and also exploited by the opposition. The Foreign Black Money amnesty scheme (netting only Rs 3700 crores) was a damp squib. Threats of dire action and reinvigorated ED raids may have lost him a few admirers in the business community.

Holding dual charge of Finance and Defence must have been taxing – taking away focus from both (and, that was also the time, Jaitley was not keeping good health requiring surgery). Delays in some crucial appointments (Chief Economic Advisor, Chairman Niti Aayog) would not have helped Jaitley to fast-forward the government’s economic agenda.  Induction of Jayant Sinha as MOS Finance could – perhaps – have happened earlier to relieve him of some load.

But, perhaps, Jaitley’s toughest challenge has been managing the communication strategy of the government. Though he took on the I&B portfolio and by default the role of the principal spokesperson of the government - presumably to prevent motor-mouth ministers and MPs – he has been less than successful in handling the media. Jaitley enjoys excellent personal rapport with the Lutyen’s media – particularly the English TV channel star anchors. But, this doesn’t extend to the vernacular and regional media. Besides, good media relationship does not always make for effective media management. His junior ministers in I&B are inexperienced. He for one should have insisted that the PM doesn’t keep the Media Advisor’s office vacant and, if necessary, brought in the international agency who had reportedly handled Modi’s election campaign as a consultant.

As someone – whom obviously the Prime Minister not only trusts but also, presumably, listens to _ Jaitley should counsel him to increase both the width and depth of talent by inducting more technocrats and competent but savvy politicians (like Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal) into his team. The latter are necessary not only to manage the external environment but also work with the bureaucratic red-tape – that can otherwise trip the best of Ministers as Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar are learning at their own cost. This would give Jaitley the time, space and – most importantly – distance to do what he likes best – strategize and back channel management – a la Pranab Babu – preparing himself for the coveted role of being the logical successor of Modi in good time.

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here to read

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Are sections of the media colluding to sabotage BJP's prospects in Bihar ?

Chanakya Vs Sun Tzu in Bihar

Is Bihar going to be Delhi Redux for Modi-Amit Shah duo? Suddenly, this question has gained currency after Round 2 of Bihar polls on October 16 - much of it in Maoist infested areas, where NDA was actually expected to do better. Some media stalwarts are going to the extent of predicting a ''total rout'' for BJP.  I have been travelling widely across Bihar over the last few months - my work often taking me to villages in the interiors.

The general feedback from South east region was BJP’s showing was on expected lines barring areas like Bhagalpur where wrong choice of candidates or in-fighting has been problematic. To balance, BJP seemed to have done well in erstwhile Communist bastions like Samastipur. Depending on who was asked about the final outcome, the answer was either a comfortable majority for NDA or a “tight fight”.

But on October 17 the Social Media went viral with speculation about BJP's certain defeat. Inferences were drawn from cancellation of Modi's rallies with the hash-tag #ModiQuitsBiharBattle trending on Twitter.  Newspapers published reports, quoting unnamed sources within the party, about BJP revising its strategy - bringing local leaders to the fore and the star duo of Modi-Shah taking a back-seat.  News of Amit Shah summoning Manohar Lal Khattar, Mahesh Sharma and Sakshi Maharaj to reprimand them for their 'beef' remarks was played up as a sign of BJP leadership's nervousness. Shatrughan Sinha's sly tweets about inner party dissensions added fuel to the fire.

What has caused this dramatic change of mood? Are these genuine reports or rumour mongering by well-oiled anti-Modi propaganda machine? I for one wouldn't rule out the latter and I think it will still be a close call. This might well change and we may witness a landslide one way or the other. But it will require an exceptionally high order of clairvoyance to write off the NDA altogether at this early juncture with 3 more rounds of polling still to go. That so many journalists and Social Media pundits are staking reputations – despite going wrong in the past - to join the chorus, smacks of a pickled agenda.

Only the politically gullible would believe that a master strategist like Amit Shah could have underestimated the challenge or importance for winning Bihar for Modi and his own political survival. If he cracked UP & Bihar so phenomenally in 2014 - he can't be one to make simplistic assumptions about Bihar's complex caste arithmetic. Yet, that does not make him infallible.

There are many parameters on which Amit Shah's strategy may have been off the mark. First, over obsession with 'win-ability' of candidates can create disaffection within. Murmurs of this were heard in the early days from people like R K Singh. Secondly, not projecting local leaders and naming a CM candidate and instead relying on one star campaigner can always be a double-edged sword. The law of diminishing returns was also bound to catch up with Modi's popularity but to what extent declaration a Bihar special package could neutralise this is a matter of conjecture. Similarly, induction of Jiten Ram Manjhi was always a gamble.

However, the bigger variable was the transferability of votes between Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. There was never any doubt about the Muslim votes - but questions remain if they would split or be cast en-bloc in favour of the strongest non-NDA candidate. BJP clearly banked heavily on the positive Development and negative Jungle Raj plans.
BJP has been working on a 3 level top-down strategy. While Modi was supposed to set the agenda and create the ''wave'' at the state level - the message was expected to be carried forward by state and local leaders to the blocks and panchayats. Finally, "Booth Committees" were entrusted with the last mile mobilisation. Till a few days back - learned analysts argued how Modi had totally hijacked the discourse and Nitish was left defending his position. By all accounts, Modi's rallies were a huge draw compared to the modest crowds at Nitish' rally and at times, embarrassingly sparse gatherings of Lalu. The BJP state and local leadership were intensely campaigning in districts and blocks.

True that BJP's calculations may have gone awry. Firstly, there has been no dent in Nitish’ personal brand-equity and there is no real "anti-incumbency'' against him. Relatively, Lalu may have been discredited but for the Yadavs - Lalu may be a ''chara-chor'' but he's still one of us. ''Jungle Raj'' may be a big concern among the upper and more affluent classes - but not as much for the poor. For the overall improvement in law and order people credit Nitish. In contrast, while the impact of Mohan Bhagwat's remark, Dadri or Lalu's comment on beef eating practices is difficult to assess, these have the potential of snowballing into major factors.

A seasoned general always factors for a margin of error in strategy and is adept at doing mid-course corrections. It would be if Amit Shah doesn’t tweak his game-plan for the slog-overs. It indeed makes eminent sense not to exhaust Modi's fire-power so far ahead of the remaining 3 phases and hold the final salvos till the end - while allowing local leaders and cadres to do the ground work and build the tempo as it were. It would be prudent to do damage control and control irresponsible statements by sections within the party. But to read too much in this will be immature or motivated.

War-room managers of Nitish Kumar are entitled to deploy all legitimate means at their disposal to improve their prospects. It would indeed be a smart move if a few leaves have been taken from Sun Tzu's Book of War to spread panic among enemy ranks and outwitting the Chanakya or Amit Shah. Large sections of the mainstream media have to guard against becoming instruments of such strategy.

Article first published in +ABPLIVE Click here to read

Sunday, October 18, 2015

notes from the road

Article first published in The Outlook Magazine, October 20, 2015 issue (click on this)

Also read : the Durga-Puja Index of Bengal Economy (click-here)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Dadri, please give truth (and, facts) a chance !!

I don't have any first hand information of the #Dadri incident nor do I think most of the people commenting on it over Social Media or MSM know any better. Many are relying on TV and newspaper reports or sound-bytes of politicians descending on the scene (almost like coffin chasers) for their 2 minutes of face-time on camera. The police have - understandably - gone silent after muddying the scene with their premature ejaculation. Going by the volume of Twitter outrage and call for "Je Suis BeefEater" - the demand for Beef should have shot up across the country. Till the time of writing - there are no reports of black-marketing of Beef and Onion prices are still trending.

Mob lynching and murder for any reason - not just religious intolerance - is definitely condemnable. But, does it call for a statement from the Prime Minister until the facts are fully established ? Not that mob violence is common-place in our country - but it is not unknown either. I don't recall people demanding the PM to speak on every such incident. Indeed, if the murder was for as ridiculous a reason as eating beef - then the PM's silence can't be justified. Comparisons are being made with Obama's call after the US school killings. But, here the facts are yet to be established. Just because a Kavitha Krishnan or Sagarika Ghose say so - doesn't make it an open and shut case.

What was required here - is regular briefing of the investigation by the District Administration or State Government. But, the story has already been hijacked by the media and politicians fishing in troubled waters. Therefore, its prudent of them not to invite further controversy and get caught in the cross-fire - as, in any case, it is the local administration that has to usually bear the cross and become scapegoats. What was avoidable though is the sporadic leakage of information - on various theories about the incident and alleged involvement different groups or individuals with certain (religious or political) antecedents - providing unhealthy Vanaspati  that others used to fry the Beef.  But, then - in our country - the police or administration are not trained to handle crisis communication - whether after a terror attack or communal violence.

Is it not conceivable that truth - as often - may lie somewhere in between ? Even those among our glamorous set - socialite activists, public intellectual, guardians of secularism and star journalists,  who have never stayed in a village - should only recall the Azam Khan's missing Buffalo story to realise what an emotive issue milch animals can be in the traditional "cow-belt". I recall my personal Jeeves from Bihar - offering "Mannat" at Kalighat temple when the Cow at his home (back in Sitamarhi) took ill.

So one can't rule out the alternate theory of Cattle-theft with the villagers suspecting beef eating families of stealing them for slaughter. Not for a moment am I suggesting even if that can be condoned. But, it is quite another thing to give it a religious twist and say it tantamount to people interfering with the food habits of people.

It would be unrealistic to expect restraint from our TRP warriors of the electronic media or the valiant upholders of national conscience on Social Media. But, aren't there any old fashioned hard-nosed journalists left in the country - who still believe in first hand ground investigation -'even though that might turn "Dadri Live" to "Dateline Dadri".

As for me - I love both Beef and Beefeater (Gin).

An edited version of this article appeared in Swarajya Magazine ( To read article and comments pls click here

Monday, October 05, 2015

No, Nepal isn't the most beautiful state of India

A leading Bollywood actress of the 90s (still a Diva on the small screen) – famously said on a FM Channel live interview in Kathmandu: “Nepal is the most beautiful state of India’’. She had to be escorted out through the back gate of the hotel in Lazimpat and put on the next flight to Delhi. Then there was  Sahib Singh Verma, who in trying to elaborate on his close ties with the people of Nepal  said - both my cook and watchman are from Nepal. After the so-called Hrithik Roshan riots - the actor was quoted as saying - how can I say anything abusive about Nepalis ? I was brought up by a Nepali Nanny. Anecdotes of such insensitive gaffes by Indians abound – which are unpardonable and not funny even in retrospect.

I have a special affinity for Nepal having lived there for some years during its most tumultuous period between the late 90s and early 200s – that saw Maoists insurgency at its peak, the Royal Massacre, IC-814 hijacking and the anti-India riots.  There is a long-standing joke among expatriates  in Nepal – “You cry twice. Once when you arrive in Kathmandu and next  only when you are leaving’’ – in between you spend, what could probably be, some of the best years of your life. So, when we moved back to India – we carried with us precious memories and left behind many good friends – who have graciously made us a part of their extended family.  Thanks to Social Media –  a virtual cosy club has emerged with an eclectic band of members - ranging from corporate executives, business honchos, bankers ,  diplomats, journalists  and quite a few embassy officials (from the ‘’other side’’ as they were discreetly referred to) who later went onto occupy very senior positions in their ‘’parent’’ services back home. Then there is always the common watering hole in Delhi – the IIC Bar – where one regularly runs into visiting Nepali politicians and journalists.

Here I must hasten to add – before I’m branded as an honorary member of the “Kathmandu Elite’’ – my experience and network wasn’t limited to the “Valley’’ alone.  Unlike – most Indians who seldom venture beyond Pokhara and Dhulikhel  - as a friend who later rose to the highest office in Delhi’s CGO Complex  off Lodi Road used to joke – being an itinerant  salesman I had to cover (sometimes on foot)  regions from distant Baglung in the West, remote Palpa in the middle  to Dhankuta in the  East. - My factory was plonk in the heart of Terai – in the Maoists infested belt of Makwanpur District bordering Chitwan.  So – though I don’t claim to be a ‘Nepal expert’ – my connections with the erstwhile “Himalayan Kingdom’’ still run quite deep.

My first lesson upon landing in Kathmandu came from a peer in a multi-national company. “Nepalis love everything Indian except Indians’’, he told me. At the ground level I saw that in my business itself. Our company products that poured across the border from India sold at a premium. Whereas, same brands manufactured in Nepal - with identical formulation and packaging - by subsidiaries of Indian companies were not preferred. (We were able to overcome this marketing challenge over a period – but that’s a different story.) As one drives into town from the Kathmandu  airport – it is impossible to miss the grand Birendra International Convention Centre (now turned into a make-shift Constitutional Assembly House)  – “gifted to the People of Nepal’’ – by their northern neighbours (China).  Adding to the chaotic traffic are LPG operated eco-friendly mini public transport vehicles – another visible example of Chinese generosity. The Nepalis are football fanatics.  The Earth-quake resistant Kathmandu Stadium which China helped build originally for the SAARC games but now used mostly for Soccer – still stands firm even after many adjoining structures were damaged by the recent quakes. Intelligent interventions, that helps China get huge PR bang for its yuans. In contrast, one would be hard put to find any prominent landmark of Indian make – though I am sure India outspends China by many times over in Nepal by way of aid and financial assistance.

Raising this with the Indian establishment would always elicit a defensive response - such as ''do you know every 2 Rupees out of 3 in Nepal come from India ?" and rattle out statistics about how much is doled out by way of Gorkha pension alone. Therein lies the rub of big-brotherly arrogance (and, a sense of entitlement). Also there is the mandatory reference to the famous East-West between Kankarbhitta in the East to Banbasa (Uttarkhand) in the West - undoubtedly an excellent road. Ask the Nepali - who'd tell you how India exercised its veto power to keep out all foreign bidders (including China) - on the plea of the strategic significance of the road so close to the
border - and then took years to complete job using out-dated construction practices of Indian CPWD contractors. The underlying sub-text being the Chinese would have done a faster and better - it was a deliberate attempt to delay the project as India doesn't really care for Nepal's development.

I once asked an Indian Ambassador - why are the Nepalese so anti-Indians when most of their leaders have studied and even lived in India for long periods. He chuckled at my naiveté and said - ''You know all the Afghans who went to study in Soviet Russia came back as anti-Russian''. That notwithstanding still there's a queue at the Indian Embassy to secure admission in Indian colleges. Many candidates are taken at the recommendation of politicians - as favour (while there are also rumours about ''selling'' of seats by junior embassy staff). But, that doesn't help soften either the politicians or the students towards India - after their return from India.

The general attitude of Nepali-s is - whatever India does for us is in their own interest ( a small price for securing its borders) and is our birth-right. This was manifest during the recent Earthquake Relief Mission. But, what China and other countries do - is ''without strings attached'' and, therefore, deserves of recognition and reciprocation in kind.

Indian diplomats are the most sought after set for politicians in Kathmandu. The ''Minister'' of the Consular Section is an all season favourite, especially so before elections - for reasons not difficult to understand. It is said, Nepal is - perhaps - the only country where the Indian Ambassador can feel like the US Ambassador in a 3rd world country. But, how much clout they actually wield is matter of debate.

One Ambassador - who had served in neighbouring SAARC countries told me - it's most difficult to operate in Nepal because there is no clear and consistent (and, often, not coherent)  policy towards Nepal. Too many interest groups try to influence India's position in Nepal. Apart from politicians (of them the strongest lobby is, obviously from Bihar and UP) - within the government itself 4 channels operate simultaneously - namely MEA, MHA (IB) and PMO (read R&AW) and Army (Military Intelligence - not necessarily on the same wavelength. But, the most meddlesome he thought was a group - which he called the ''Feudacracy''. These were the so called ''Royals'' from India - who had strong links in Nepal through marriage ties. Therefore, one Station Head of R&AW - with an earthy sense of humour would often quip - ''We, of course, always act in India's best interest''. But, does India know what are its interests ?''.

Till now - if one asked a Nepali friend - which was the biggest flashpoint - in the history of Indo-Nepal relationship - most would say the 1989-90 blockade - the trigger for which they believe was the alleged incident of the then Indian PM's Christian Wife (Italian) refused entry into the Pashupatinath temple. Now, there will be a new ''blockade'' to talk about for years to come - unintentionally wiping out not just the memories of the Congress era but also the goodwill generated by Narendra Modi's  - "Nepal ka Dard, Hamara Dard'' - visit.