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.

Exit polls have the last laugh

Exit Polls are "Satta-Bazee" for the thinking individuals


(first published on the eve of Bihar Election Results in +DailyO India Today )

The "Ed Honcho" (as he likes to call himself) of this fine publication very perceptively tweeted - the only winners in "Exit Polls" are the pollsters themselves (paraphrased). I say, Exit Polls are 'thinking' people's Satta-Bazee. Or voyeuristic foreplay before the final results come in (no pun in that). For, Media, of course, it is a TRP generating machine - that makes armchair psephologists with 3 days shelf-life. Having burnt their fingers many times - many channels and newspapers now resort to quoting multiple surveys (including those of competitors) to hedge their bets (Heads I win, Tails you lose formula).

It has been written - how difficult it is to predict election outcomes in a country like India by polling a few thousand voters (even if techniques and methodologies have vastly improved over time). Then - there are always allegations of "fixed" polls (though the utility of it has been eliminated with the Election Commission banning polls in between phases of the election). But, in a nation hooked on to political reality shows Exit Polls still remain a draw - even if the final results turn out to be quite different.

Yet, Exit Polls can have a utility of their own if viewers and analysts don't get too obsessed with predictions. The final results can be a function of many collateral factors in our "first past the post" electoral system. These could range from last mile and last day voter mobilisation and "booth management" (often an euphemism for "booth capturing" or "rigging" as it is referred to in some parts of the country). It is here that Exit Polls can throw up insights that aren't apparent even in pre-poll surveys. Therefore, TV studio political pundits would do well not to get too carried away with the projections and instead dwell a little more on underlying messages and trends. 

It is for this the Bihar Election Exit Polls are significant - irrespective of which alliance wins and finally forms the government. There are several key lessons and learning to be taken out of the current elections - some of which can become standards for future elections in the country.

Notwithstanding how many polls predict victory of which party - it is quite clear the contest at the ground level was intensely fierce even if the final tally is wider (which may indeed be the case) than what people generally expect. Contrary to popular theory, it was BJP that started with a disadvantage if not as an underdog. Amit Shah and the BJP election strategists could not have been oblivious about the  "anti-incumbency" that had begun to weigh down Modi Government's credibility.  

BJP strategy was, therefore, based primarily on micro-planning and geo-mapping voter mobilisation by RSS cadres. The trump card was obviously Modi's star appeal. While BJP would surely have done their caste arithmetic - even after Lalu and Nitish joining hands (and with Mulayam - leaving the alliance) - they probably hoped that Lalu's "Yadav" votes won't automatically move en-masse to Nitish. Simultaneously - they would have been confident of their traditional vote bank of the Upper Castes remaining intact and Most Backward Castes (MBCs) swinging towards them aided by allies as Manjhi and Paswan.

The intention here is not to lapse into another electoral prediction. But, challenge a few premises - based on some of the trends that are coming to light. If voters went purely by caste considerations - Modi could never have made such a clean sweep in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And, if indeed, there is some basis to the exit polls indicating traditional BJP voters have been lukewarm (especially in the 3rd phase - which was supposed to be BJP strongholds) - it does raise the question are voters willing to assert their voice and choice if not rising above but going beyond caste. So for the new discerning voter "Arhar (Daal)" prices take precedence over "Har-Har".

That despite the underlying rivalry and not sharing the dais in any rally - Lalu and Nitish didn't under-cut each other is because their respective constituents acted as the real glue.

In the same vein one begins to wonder - has the rural voter become much sharper not to be distracted by "manufactured" pre-poll controversies of cows and religion or promises of quotas and reservation. They have become much more realistic and wary of promises of development and governance - going by proven track record discounted for reasonable under-delivery and shortfall (2014 was perhaps - the lowest point in people's cynicism - when Modi arrived as a Messiah to sweep them of their feet. But, since then sanity has been restored). 

With improved security and better electoral administration (including holding polls in staggered phases to allow redeployment of forces) rigging has become less rampant - even if not fully eliminated - in most parts of the country to majorly affect state level results. 

Finally, technology, research and analytics have come to stay. Increasingly parties will become more sophisticate in using media - especially Social and Digital Media, Viral Word-of-Mouth campaigns and ambush strategies. BJP might have had a first mover advantage in 2014 - but such competitive edge don't last for more than one election as professionals like Prashant Kishore don't have any political loyalties and in no time many more PeeKays will be born.

As a political wise-crack remarked - elections mean "Gol-Maal". Let's take the "Maal" (or essence) from the surveys and leave the "gol" for the losers. To mildly twist the quote of the Prime Minister - "Elections Ayega, jayega" - aur Exit Polls be galat nikalte rahega".


Exit Polls are 'thinking people's' satta-bazee

The "Ed Honcho" (as he likes to call himself) of this fine publication very perceptively tweeted - the only winners in "Exit Polls" are the pollsters themselves (paraphrased). I say, Exit Polls are 'thinking' people's Satta-Bazee. Or voyeuristic foreplay before the final results come in (no pun in that). For, Media, of course, it is a TRP generating machine - that makes armchair psephologists with 3 days shelf-life. Having burnt their fingers many times - many channels and newspapers now resort to quoting multiple surveys (including those of competitors) to hedge their bets (Heads I win, Tails you lose formula).

It has been written - how difficult it is to predict election outcomes in a country like India by polling a few thousand voters (even if techniques and methodologies have vastly improved over time). Then - there are always allegations of "fixed" polls (though the utility of it has been eliminated with the Election Commission banning polls in between phases of the election). But, in a nation hooked on to political reality shows Exit Polls still remain a draw - even if the final results turn out to be quite different.

Yet, Exit Polls can have a utility of their own if viewers and analysts don't get too obsessed with predictions. The final results can be a function of many collateral factors in our "first past the post" electoral system. These could range from last mile and last day voter mobilisation and "booth management" (often an euphemism for "booth capturing" or "rigging" as it is referred to in some parts of the country). It is here that Exit Polls can throw up insights that aren't apparent even in pre-poll surveys. Therefore, TV studio political pundits would do well not to get too carried away with the projections and instead dwell a little more on underlying messages and trends. 

It is for this the Bihar Election Exit Polls are significant - irrespective of which alliance wins and finally forms the government. There are several key lessons and learning to be taken out of the current elections - some of which can become standards for future elections in the country.

Notwithstanding how many polls predict victory of which party - it is quite clear the contest at the ground level was intensely fierce even if the final tally is wider (which may indeed be the case) than what people generally expect. Contrary to popular theory, it was BJP that started with a disadvantage if not as an underdog. Amit Shah and the BJP election strategists could not have been oblivious about the  "anti-incumbency" that had begun to weigh down Modi Government's credibility.  

BJP strategy was, therefore, based primarily on micro-planning and geo-mapping voter mobilisation by RSS cadres. The trump card was obviously Modi's star appeal. While BJP would surely have done their caste arithmetic - even after Lalu and Nitish joining hands (and with Mulayam - leaving the alliance) - they probably hoped that Lalu's "Yadav" votes won't automatically move en-masse to Nitish. Simultaneously - they would have been confident of their traditional vote bank of the Upper Castes remaining intact and Most Backward Castes (MBCs) swinging towards them aided by allies as Manjhi and Paswan.

The intention here is not to lapse into another electoral prediction. But, challenge a few premises - based on some of the trends that are coming to light. If voters went purely by caste considerations - Modi could never have made such a clean sweep in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And, if indeed, there is some basis to the exit polls indicating traditional BJP voters have been lukewarm (especially in the 3rd phase - which was supposed to be BJP strongholds) - it does raise the question are voters willing to assert their voice and choice if not rising above but going beyond caste. So for the new discerning voter "Arhar (Daal)" prices take precedence over "Har-Har".

That despite the underlying rivalry and not sharing the dais in any rally - Lalu and Nitish didn't under-cut each other is because their respective constituents acted as the real glue.

In the same vein one begins to wonder - has the rural voter become much sharper not to be distracted by "manufactured" pre-poll controversies of cows and religion or promises of quotas and reservation. They have become much more realistic and wary of promises of development and governance - going by proven track record discounted for reasonable under-delivery and shortfall (2014 was perhaps - the lowest point in people's cynicism - when Modi arrived as a Messiah to sweep them of their feet. But, since then sanity has been restored). 

With improved security and better electoral administration (including holding polls in staggered phases to allow redeployment of forces) rigging has become less rampant - even if not fully eliminated - in most parts of the country to majorly affect state level results. 

Finally, technology, research and analytics have come to stay. Increasingly parties will become more sophisticate in using media - especially Social and Digital Media, Viral Word-of-Mouth campaigns and ambush strategies. BJP might have had a first mover advantage in 2014 - but such competitive edge don't last for more than one election as professionals like Prashant Kishore don't have any political loyalties and in no time many more PeeKays will be born.


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

Saturday, November 07, 2015

It's not Nepal Vs India but Kathmandu Elite Vs Madhesis

Kathmandu can ignore Madhes at its own peril


One of the most striking element of the recent change of guard in Nepal, after the promulgation of the new Constitution, is once arch enemies - the 'Royalist' (RPP-N) and Maoists (UCPN-M) joined forces to elect K P Oli of CPN-UML as Prime Minister trouncing Sushil Koirala of Nepali Congress - the latter generally perceived to be "India Friendly" and sympathetic towards the Madhesi cause. It is ironical - to say the least - RPP-N went to the elections with Pro-Hindu and Pro-Monarchy slogans the very principles that Maoists had fought against. Power they say is the ultimate glue - but here the prime motivation seems to have been keeping Indian influence at bay.

Thus India appeared   outmanoeuvred and its  concerns on the new constitution - especially the interests of the Madhesis (the inhabitants of the southern plains of Terai adjoining India) were ignored.  The last ditch effort of the Foreign Secretary to salvage the situation were rebuffed and the Constituent Assembly went ahead to promulgate the new Constitution as per the original draft. The rearguard actions that many believe India prompted - resignation  of  Baburam Bhattarai, the second most important leader and principal ideologue of the Maoists  and Sushil Koirala's hurried introduction of Constitution amendment proposals before the Constituent Assembly was dissolved - were seen as too little too late.

Critics at home and abroad were quick to view this as a snub to the Modi Government. Hasty judgements were pronounced on Modi governments faltering neighbourhood strategy following the initial hope and hype. The recently strained relationship with Maldives was cited as a parallel.

India's equation with Nepal has been and will always be - different and cannot be compared with that of any other neighbour. While they can't be called 'frenemies' - India is a neighbour Nepalis love to hate. And, India - to use the clich├ęd 'elder brother' analogy  - likes to  believe it knows what's best for Nepal.  This relationship of sibling sentimentality is age old and cannot be easily changed.

There is too much at stake for both countries  - geographically, emotionally (socially), economically and diplomatically - to remain disengaged for long. So if both the countries have an open border and a linked fixed conversion rate currency - it is not as a matter of choice but one of logical necessity. Apart from everything else, India will always remain Nepal's largest market for employment as well for products manufactured in or routed through Nepal (via official or unofficial channels).

Nepalese understand this well even while playing the "China Card'. Therefore, notwithstanding their public posturing and grand-standing in media - Nepali politicians  rush to Delhi at the slightest sign of tension.

But, that does not stop them from periodically raising the bogey of the ''Indian Hand" and the scary spectre of Sikkim-isation of Nepal (however, improbable). Burning of Indian Flag or effigies of Indian Prime Ministers is par for the course. This many see as a clever way of ensuring that Nepal's engagement with India is at their convenience.

All major political movements of Nepal in recent years have been at least partly hosted - by default or otherwise - in India. Both the ''Jan-Andolan I'' of 1990 (which replaced  absolute Monarchy with Constitutional Monarchy) and ''Jan-Andolan 2'' of 2006 -  that overthrew Gyanendra's brief tryst with ''Direct Rule'' (staging a "Royal Coup" as it were - taking advantage of the political instability caused by the Maoist War) were ''mid-wifed'' by India. Similarly, it is no state secret that, the Maoist movement underwent a surrogate pregnancy in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains and many Maosist leaders frequently operated out of Indian "safe-houses".

India's imprint was unmistakable in the interim Constitution that of 2007 - after the elimination of Monarchy and establishment of the Republic, It was widely considered a progressive and inclusive document - which the incumbent Constituent Assembly would  only improve upon.

In the protracted exercise that followed lasting almost 7 - the new Nepali lawmakers came up with a document that was good in parts, but conspicuously short-changing the 'plains people' - Madhesis, Jan-jatis and Tharus - virtually dismembering of the region by a vertical dissection of the provinces dramatically reducing their 'Direct Representation' in Parliament.

The political intent of such a retrograde move was not difficult to gauge.  Historically  the hills people (especially the Royalty, Ranas and Upper Classes of Kathmandu) have been scornful towards the Madhesis - viewing them as "half-Indians" much like illegal immigrants. However, over time Madhesis have emerged as a very large constituency and  at the end of the "Maoist War"  - which they had solidly backed - and a political force that could at some stage challenge the dominance of the Kathmandu political nobility.  Cutting the Madhesis to size would, therefore, mean limiting India's influence as well.

This is where probably the Nepali politicians overplayed their hand or as some would go to the extent of saying - tried to be "clever by half". As should have been anticipated, this set the Terai ablaze in an agitation that has already claimed many lives. Then there is the infamous blockade - which Nepalis believes has been imposed (or, at least, inspired) by India to choke them of essential supplies.

The Kathmandu political and intellectual elite (yes, Nepal has its own version of Lutyens' power figures) are pitching this as a 'Nepal Vs India' stand-off. Luckily not everyone in Nepal are inclined to take such a blinkered position. Many respected voices - who can't be dismissed as Indian ''agents'', are speaking up on the inequities of the new constitution and also for the cause of the plains people.

While fingers are being pointed at recent ''mismanagement'' - alleging India had got its eye off the ball temporarily from its backyard - given other global diplomatic distractions. - I would venture to suggest the damage  was already done in the 2013 elections - which fractured the Madhesi mandate with various splinter groups emerging in the region. The Indian establishment could have engaged more proactively at that stage and use its considerable influencing and persuasion powers  to see the Madhesi block remained intact to have adequate representation in the new Constituent Assembly. India failed to chaperone to its logical end the journey it was privileged to flag-off in 2006.

It is debatable whether an earlier intervention would have had an impact given the fact that the major political parties were moving as per a well aligned plan. Whether India is tacitly supporting or silently stoking these protests is a subject for another day's debate. But, this strategy of passive stand-off - is, perhaps, the best India could do in the present circumstances without taking any other precipitating steps.

Obviously, a lot of posturing taking place - with the Madhesi leadership threatening an extended battle. While I do not subscribe to the extreme position that the contempt of the erstwhile Royalty and the post-democracy political nobility for Madhesis - as that of West Pakistanis towards the erstwhile East-Pakistanis, Madhes is definitely a distinct and sizeable ethno-geographic entity that can be alienated only at Nepal's own peril.

Without the Terai, Nepal can't be a viable economic entity. It is the most productive region of the country with the majority of the country's industries. Agriculture . The main trade corridor of the country stretches from Biratnagar in the East to Nepalgunj. Whether - Tourism, Gorkha pensions and remittances of Nepalis working abroad and, of course, Foreign Aid will be able to sustain the hills economy is a question only Lord Pashupati may be able to answer. Without access through the Terai - the rest of Nepal would become only more 'land-locked' - as many areas of the hills can be accesses only by air, arduous treks or via Terai.

As a very senior retired Nepal hand  of the Indian government - who must remain unnamed - wrote to me in a private response to another article::


"While unfortunate, it may have provided the bahun leadership of the three parties a reality check - even as they were all set to ride roughshod over the Madhesis- women, Janjatis and Tharus. History may well judge that at the cost of some popularity, India acted as a welcome catalyst". 

In the same vein, Nepali Congress' decision to contest - albeit unsuccessfully - both the posts of  Prime Minister and President is significant - as it signals there is an alternative viewpoint within the Parliament.

It would be a major political miscalculation by Nepal to believe India can remain aloof or staved off from  developments in a strategically important stretch contiguous with its heartland. It would also be disingenuous to term India's interest in ensuring a fair-deal for the people in the Terai planes as 'hegemonic,' interference. 

In that direction, Nepal's new Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa's visit to Delhi - without waiting for ''who blinks first'' - has at least opened up a window for breaking the impasse. Even after Monday's unfortunate denouement at Raxaul - when one person of Indian origin was killed and several injured in police action - Thapa's reactions were encouraging. He is one person in the ruling establishment who has roots in the Terai - being an MP from Makwanpur.  Hopefully, all stakeholders will soon get back to the table to rewrite a solution that will stand the test of time. Years down the line - the blockade will probably be remembered only as a minor blip in an old familial affair.

Article originally published in +Swarajya  Click here to read


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Rising 12 points in the Ease of Doing Business is like Air-India claiming improvement in OTP

India rising 12 places from 142 to 130 in the World bank's Ease of Doing Business Index,  sounds almost like Air-India revising its OTP ('On-time Performance') statistics by 12 points (may be from 70 - 80%). Makes little difference to a business traveler waiting at the airport with no signs of a flight already delayed by over 4 hours and the airline staff equally clueless. It also doesn't help when a co-passenger (obviously used to the vagaries of the national carrier) recalls how it used to be even worse till some years back - when flights would be routinely cancelled without notice and the airline put passengers up at 5 Star hotels at its cost. Some may actually long to go back to those days of free layovers.

Businessmen live in the present. Their points of reference would be current benchmark with other countries. Those who were dealing with India years ago may either gone or dead. When Gujarat scored high on ease of doing business it was in comparison to other Indian states. Modi had achieved this by creating a business friendly environment riding on the enterprising Gujarati spirit - but above all by creating a responsive and efficient bureaucracy.

No matter how many how many Dream-liners Air India buys - the dream of turning around the airline won't fructify till the attitude and work-culture of the staff change. The command structures are different at the state level - where the writ of the Chief Minister runs. Delhi has its own laws of the jungle which can't be managed out of a CCR (Central Control Room) in South Block. Introducing bio-metric attendance systems or curtailing Golf sessions of senior bureaucrats - don't automatically make for an efficient administration (as an aside, in many other Asian countries - it is in fact par for the course - to discuss business over Golf with Ministers and Bureaucrats).

Many foreign business honchos will say - how difficult it is to obtain audience with senior secretaries. Very often they don't get past the PAs or at best the Joint Secretaries. There is a story - perhaps, apocryphal, about the visiting CEO of a large MNC who with great difficulty managed to get an appointment with a senior minister. It seems the Minister - a cricket enthusiast - was busy watching an ODI match on the TV in his office - throughout the meeting - commenting on the game and educating the foreigners (obviously not British) on the nuances of cricket. Finally, said good-bye to them after 10 minutes with a polite "I shall look into it" assurance that really meant nothing.

In contrast, Indian businessmen find access much easier - given their old relationships and the tacit acknowledgement of "The current environment may change and we would need each other again"). This makes many MNCs to look for local partners who will help 'facilitate' entry and many even miss the old 'liaison' experts who helped open doors.

Contrary to popular perception - as revelations of several scams across the world would show - not all investors are lily white. They are willing to do "business" with the powers-that-be of whichever country keeping their own hands clean. But, what they seek is transparent policy and regulatory clarity, fewer window and doors to negotiate and time-bound decisions (like airline OTP, as it were). Above all they require access to people who are in a position to "deliver". On the last, they are quite agnostic about who to deal with - as long as the individual's word counts. That could be the Crown Prince in one country, the ruling Party President's assistant in another. Rest - by and large - they are willing and capable of managing or working-around given their vast experience across the world.

Once that is done - the states, starved for investment, will lap it up - and the best among them, who are able to get their act together, will be the winners. But, in a final analysis - it is the hydra headed monster of Indian bureaucracy which the British left behind and the Congress fed and 'fatted' - that Narendra Modi and his Ministers will have to tame if he is serious about "Make In India".

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here to read