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.