Over 100
dead in Pakistani
terrorist strike

business in
state of flux

India takes

These are a sampler of several thousand published articles by Minhaz Merchant in The Times of India, The Times, London, DNA, The Economic Times and other newspapers and magazines.


How digital media poses a threat to print and broadcast
In India, total digital advertising amounted to Rs 400 crore in 2007. By 2016, it had grown to Rs 7,700 crore.
Sunday, December 31, 2017

In the West, the carnage has begun. Newspapers are going bust  and digital. The New York Times has retrenched print journalists and beefed up its digital newsroom.

Broadcast television could be the next victim. Millennials dont watch much television. They get their news in real time from social media and news websites.

In India, the figures for news television are stark. The first to feel the pinch is English news. The six leading English news channels have an average combined weekly viewership of just 20 lakh.

Thats barely 1 per cent of the reach of Hindi news channels. English news channels cater largely to the urban elite who have access to the latest digital technology. They are first movers from broadcast television news to digital-sourced news.

We are fast approaching an era when television will serve as a secondary medium of record  newspapers have already been reduced to playing that role  while digital platforms become the primary source of news and entertainment.

In India, digital advertising is growing exponentially, albeit from a low base. In 2007, total digital advertising amounted to a paltry Rs 400 crore. By 2016, digital advertising had grown 19x to Rs7,700 crore.

In 2021, according to, digital media spend will rise a further 4x to Rs 29,500 crore  equal to the amount spent today on television advertising.

The problem news websites in the West face is the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The two behemoths swallow 66 per cent of all digital advertising, leaving online-only news portals and the digital arms of newspapers and broadcasters to fight over the crumbs.

To overcome this, newspapers with strong digital content have built full or partial pay firewalls. Rupert Murdochs The Times and The Sunday Times in Britain were among the first to erect pay firewalls on their digital properties. Several others have followed.

In the United States The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have built successful digital subscriber models. NYT now has more paid digital-only subscribers (2.50 million) than paid print subscribers.

Its digital advertising revenue in the quarter ending September 30, 2017 rose 47 per cent to $86 million, dwarfing the $64 million it received in print advertising in the same quarter, a decline of 20 per cent over the previous quarter.

In India, pay walls and digital subscribers havent yet got off the ground. Internet users have so much free content that digital subscriptions are hard to come by. Some non-news publications, though, like Swarajya and Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), have built robust digital pay models. That is the future of digital publishing  a revenue mix of paid subscriptions and advertising. 

Beyond economics, the relative decline of broadcasting and print media has social and political implications. News often breaks first on digital platforms. Television picks it up hours later and newspapers run with it the next day. That is why print newspapers appear dated: news is a highly perishable commodity. 

For the public, the rapid move to digital is a Godsend. They can react to news in realtime since digital platforms provide a two-way conversation. Editors and writers are regularly called out by readers, making them more accountable. The editorial ivory tower has come tumbling down to earth.

Readers and viewers, for long simply consumers of news and entertainment, can now be producers themselves. YouTube, for example, where 24,000 minutes of new videos are uploaded every minute, has created an entire universe of online entrepreneurs  from comedians and cooks to tipsters on travel and fashion.

Two recent veteran journalists-turned-entrepreneurs have entirely bypassed television and print media to launch their products digitally. Shekhar Gupta, the former editor of The Indian Express, uses Twitter and Facebook among other platforms to disseminate his start-up, The Print.

Barkha Dutt, the former NDTV anchor, uses Periscope, Facebook and Twitter to reach a digital audience for her event-and-content products, MoJo and WeTheWomen.

Both journalists have had long experience in print and television, but are using digital media tactically: its cheaper and though it currently lacks the bandwith of print and broadcast, its the most practical way to get started and create a buzz. Television and print will follow as add-ons, not primary drivers. 

Lagging behind

Politicians generally remain laggards in the digital age. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has begun to use digital media more effectively since he rejigged his social media team.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an early digital convert. Today he makes up for not holding regular press conference by using digital media actively. He is now the most followed Indian on Twitter (38.80 million), though his tweets lack a personal touch.

The biggest problem in digital media is online abuse and fake news. Websites are often created to generate fabricated news which, algorithmically, appears on Facebook or Google, the two largest news aggregators.

Both have recently put special software in place to weed out fake news, but with limited success. Bereft of an editorial filter, the tsunami of text and video overwhelms news aggregators.

Despite its drawbacks, digital media is the future. That doesnt mean the end of print or broadcast media as we know it. Just as television didnt kill radio in America in the 1960s (radio is booming), digital wont kill television and print.

It will, however, replace them as the first and principal source of news and entertainment. Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime are the tip of the digital iceberg.

The digital era will also reinforce the role of writers and content-makers. In a recent interview with Midday, Chris Brancato, creator of Narcos, said that in the US television and film industry, content is king: The only person who has any say on the development (of a series) is the writer. He assumes various positions; ones that only a director or producer would have in another country. 

When digital content in India too becomes king, writers will finally have the last word.

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What Rahul can learn from Feroze Gandhi. And the road ahead for Modi till 2019
The BJP has reacted to Congress president's assertive new political mien in exactly the wrong way.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Has Congress president Rahul Gandhi realised after 13 years in politics that appealing to 80 per cent of the Indian population is a better electoral strategy than appeasing the other 20 per cent?

If so, it marks the first big shift in Congress strategy since 1986 when father Rajiv used his parliamentary majority to overturn the Supreme Court's enlightened verdict on Shah Bano, a Muslim woman divorced by her husband Mohammad Ahmed Khan who pronounced triple talaq and left her homeless and penniless. That single act captured a large demographic of the Muslim vote for the Congress. It subverted real secularism in the name of minoritism and ironically paved the way for the BJP's majoritarian electoral success in the next decade.

Rajiv was in some ways more Parsi than Hindu. His father Feroze Gandhi was a brilliant parliamentarian. Feroze played the role of an Opposition leader in the 1950s when there was very little opposition to the Congress in Parliament. His death following a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 48, when Rajiv was just 16, deprived India of one of its finest but least heralded MPs. If there is a role model Rahul should follow in politics, it should be his grandfather Feroze, a non-Nehru who embodied both inclusive nationalism and real secularism, not the fraudulent variety practised by the Congress today.

The BJP has reacted to Rahul's assertive new political mien in exactly the wrong way. It focused on Rahul throughout the Gujarat campaign, building him up as a threat (which he duly became) rather than on development. Rahul meanwhile has shown a ruthless streak. Not all of it is inherited from mother Sonia, who was dispatched to England at 16 by father Stefano Maino to find work and learn English. She developed her cold, clinical toughness in those difficult years before she met Rajiv at a restaurant in Cambridgeshire.

Rajiv too was tougher than he looked. The manner in which he sacked foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran in 1987 during a press conference is still remembered by IFS veterans as an act of "refined brutality". If a Prime Minister like Narendra Modi were to dismiss and publicly humiliate a foreign secretary (currently the affable S Jaishankar), he would be roasted, and rightly so, by the media.

Rahul has a tricky agenda ahead of him but he could get lucky on two counts. First, of the eight states due for Assembly elections in 2018 (Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram), the Congress has a good chance of holding on to Karnataka and winning back Rajasthan from the BJP. Thus at the end of 2018, the Congress could have three large states - Punjab, Karnataka and Rajasthan - in its fold along with a few in the Northeast. Rahul will claim credit for the Congress' turnaround. No one will begrudge him that.

Rahul's second stroke of good fortune is the mild disarray within the BJP. If rural voters, including farmers, in other states follow Gujarat's lead, the BJP may face a real problem in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The lack of talent in the BJP was cruelly underscored by the CBI court's verdict in the 2G telecom case. If the BJP's law minister (under whom the special public prosecutor functions), home minister (who is responsible for the CBI) and finance minister (under whom the Enforcement Directorate and the directorate of Revenue Intelligence operate) cannot build a coherent prosecution in an open-and-shut case, it's no surprise that it has made tactical errors in other areas.

Much good work though has been done by the Modi government over the last three-and-a-half years. For instance, the Mudra Bank has helped millions of small entrepreneurs and created an army of self-employed.

Other schemes too have quietly transformed the way Indians receive subsidies and transfer money. But the government has made elementary mistakes as well. It hasn't moved ahead on police reforms. Judicial reforms remain stuck in a face-off with the Supreme Court. Bureaucrats continue to mislead, distort and delay. Finance ministry officials, for example, sat on the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) file for five months after then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had cleared it, losing for the BJP goodwill among the armed forces.

This, however, is where Modi too has encountered a stroke of good fortune. He will face a national coalition in 2019 of corrupt, communal, communist and casteist parties. The Congress will lead this ragtag coalition made up of the Left, TMC, SP, BSP, RJD, NCP, AIMIM and NC, among others. The politics of Sitaram Yechury, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad, Asaduddin Owaisi, Sharad Pawar and Omar Abdullah was rejected in 2014 and likely will be in 2019. They form a toxic mix. Their collective odium will not burnish Rahul's chances in 2019. Modi knows this.

That said, he also knows that the clock is ticking. To regain political momentum after Gujarat, the prime minister needs to focus on the pledge of maximum governance and minimum government. Arbitrary tax claims, interference in citizens' lives over matters like food and films that shouldn't concern a progressive government, and allowing fringe elements to impose their perverse idea of India, often violently, are not signs of maximum governance, minimum government.

The prime minister has less than a year to set things right before campaigning for 2019 consumes him.

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The real story behind the 2G scam
Justice OP Saini hints at the culpability of two principal secretaries in the Manmohan Singh PMO - Pulok Chatterjee and TKA Nair.
Friday, December 22, 2017

Congress and DMK leaders, celebrating the acquittal of all 18 individuals accused in the 2G telecom licence case, could soon be in for an unpleasant surprise.

What CBI special judge OP Saini said about the UPA government's PMO is more damaging than the acquittal of mid-level DMK leaders like A Raja and Kanimozhi. The verdict shifts the spotlight to the two principal secretaries in the Manmohan Singh PMO, Pulok Chatterjee and TKA Nair.

Here's the damning part of justice Saini's verdict: "It was not Raja, but Pulok Chatterjee, in consultation with TKA Nair, (who) had suppressed the most relevant and controversial part of the letter of A Raja from the then hon'ble PM. Pulok Chatterjee ought to have taken note of these facts in his earlier note dated January 6, 2008 itself, but did not do so for reasons best known to him and placed only a partial view before the then hon'ble PM.

"It is clear from the record of the case that issue of LOIs (letters of intent) and grant of UAS licence by changed criteria was creating controversy in the country leading to the registration of the instant case. A Raja had justified the changed criteria, as referred to above, but this important issue was not placed before the then hon'ble prime minister at the right time. This was done only when the controversy broke out after issue of LOIs on January 10, 2008."

From the time the 2G scam was exposed nearly a decade ago, the brilliant, painstaking reportage of Shalini Singh (first for The Times of India, then for The Hindu) and J Gopikrishnan (for The Pioneer) pointed out that the real culprits in subverting the 2G telecom licence policy from first-come-first-served to first-pay-first-served were the respective high commands of the Congress and the DMK.

Raja was merely the bagman. He was "instructed" to change the first-come-first-served policy and did so obediently. He wrote three letters in 2007-08 to prime minister Manmohan Singh to inform him of the change. Pulok Chatterjee's role now becomes crucial. Who exactly is Chatterjee? A senior bureaucrat, Chatterjee was a Gandhi family favourite. He was deputy secretary in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO in 1985. He later became officer on special duty (OSD) to Sonia Gandhi. In between he worked at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

When the UPA government took office in 2004, Chatterjee was posted back in the PMO as joint secretary when Manmohan Singh was nominated prime minister by Sonia after her "inner voice" told her not to accept the position herself.

During the 2007-08 2G telecom licence allocations, it was Chatterjee who, as justice Saini observed in his order, held back crucial information from Raja's letter to Manmohan Singh about a drastic change in the licencing policy to first-pay-first served.

It is worth repeating justice Saini's scathing observation: "It was not Raja, but Pulok Chatterjee, in consultation with TKA Nair (who) had suppressed the most relevant and controversial part of the letter of A Raja from the then hon'ble PM."

Manmohan Singh got to know about the controversial, even perverse, change in the licence allocation policy only on January 10, 2008 - after the allocations had already been made. This is why justice Saini observed cryptically: "If (the hon'ble PM's) words, 'I want the PMO to be at arm's length', are read in the context of the case, it is clear that they are aimed at officials of the PMO and not at A Raja."

Clearly therefore, Raja was always the bagman, carrying out instructions from his bosses in the UPA coalition government and through his three letters addressed to the prime minister keeping himself safe from future prosecution. That is what saved him from being indicted in justice Saini's order.

As the Supreme Court observed in February 2012: "The exercise undertaken by the officers of the department of telecom between September 2007 and March 2008, under the leadership of the then minister of communications and information technology (Raja), was wholly arbitrary, capricious and contrary to public interest apart from being violative of the doctrine of equality."

So were bribes not paid to secure out-of-turn telecom licences? The circumstantial evidence indicates they were. The CBI prosecution, begun by the UPA government, deliberately focused on Raja and others who were secondary to the scam. Justice Saini's verdict clearly indicts the Mamohan Singh PMO and its senior officials Pulok Chatterjee and TKA Nair.

Under whose instructions were these officials operating? Who ordered them to show only a part of Raja's letters to Manmohan Singh, effectively misleading the prime minister, in itself a grave offence?

The top leadership of the Congress and DMK in the UPA coalition government were the only functionaries with the power to order Chatterjee and Nair to ensure that the subversion of the telecom licence process did not reach the prime minister eyes.

The question remains: Why did the BJP-led NDA government let the 2G case meander after it took office in 2014? Justice Saini's comment that the prosecution seemed to have lost interest in the case is an indictment of the Narendra Modi government's lax approach. Its law minister, finance minister and home minister stand exposed as both incompetent and ineffective in failing to direct the prosecution to probe Manmohan Singh's PMO and the high command of the Congress and DMK that remote-controlled it.

Unless the Modi government's appeal to a higher court against justice Saini's verdict focuses on the real culprits and not their bagmen, it will not only lose that appeal but also its credibility and future electability.

For the Congress and DMK top leadership though, the unpleasant surprise is this: The spotlight they avoided in the 2G telecom case for a decade is now firmly on them.

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Gujarat shadow over 2019

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Like a Gujarati thali, the 2017 Gujarat assembly election had a little bit for everyone. The BJP retained Gujarat for the sixth successive time, beating strong anti-incumbency and a caste coalition of Dalits, Patidars and OBCs led by Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor. 

The Congress increased its seat tally to its highest level in decades, allowing newly coronated president Rahul Gandhi to take legitimate credit for a hard-fought campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed again that, despite a mini-gathbandhan of Congress and caste leaders ranged against him, he could pull the chestnuts out of the fire when it mattered. 

More critically, how will the Gujarat election outcome affect the eight assembly polls due in 2018? Four northeastern states – Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram – will hold elections next year. Four big states – Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – also go to the polls in 2018. Karnataka is first up in April 2018. The BJP will be wary about its chances of unseating the Congress. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has in recent months consolidated his position. Six months ago, the BJP was confident of winning Karnataka and reducing the Congress to just one large state, Punjab. That no longer looks a certainty. Siddaramaiah has played the Lingayat card, claiming that the community is not a part of Hinduism. BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s main campaigner and a Lingayat, will have to pull out all the stops to win a state where the JD(S), though not a major force, could forge a decisive alliance with the Congress. 

A much bigger problem though awaits the BJP in December 2018 when Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh hold elections. Rajasthan is the most vulnerable of the three. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is an unpopular leader. After a recent visit to the state, one colleague said he had met almost no one in Rajasthan who was likely to vote for Raje. The chief minister’s strained relationship with BJP party president Amit Shah is another complication. Without close synergies between Raje and Shah, running an effective campaign in Rajasthan will be difficult. The Congress could meanwhile benefit from Sachin Pilot’s OBC thrust in Rajasthan. It has a realistic chance of winning back from the NDA another big state after Punjab. 

Madhya Pradesh suffers from strong anti-incumbency and a backlash from the Vyapam scam. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains popular but recent by-election defeats in key constituencies have set alarm bells ringing. Jyotiraditya Scindia will lead the Congress campaign along with veteran leader Kamal Nath. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the two were the only Congress leaders who won their seats in Madhya Pradesh amidst the nationwide Modi tsunami. 

Like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh too could be hit by anti-incumbency. In a  binary contest with the Congress, as the Gujarat poll has shown, the Congress can exploit voter fatigue with an incumbent. Chief Minister Raman Singh has been stolid rather than an inspirational leader though, unlike Pilot in Rajasthan and Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress in Chhattisgarh lacks a charismatic leader. 

More worrying for the BJP is what the Gujarat election result portends for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Congress has shown that it retains the ability to be a robust opponent. Even a relatively small coalition with the Patidars and other caste combinations was enough to run the BJP close in Gujarat. If Modi hadn’t campaigned as vigorously as he did in the state, the BJP could have come perilously close to falling below the 92-seat  mark and ceding its majority for the first time since 1995. While Modi’s vote-catching popularity has not ebbed from the high of 2014, the BJP’s on-ground performance has clearly fallen short. Instead of winning the 150 seats Shah had proclaimed, the party scrambled to a slender majority. 

The biggest worry for the BJP though is the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a major future electoral threat. Rahul campaigned tirelessly in Gujarat, rarely losing focus. He temple-hopped to assert his Hindu roots, realising that in sharply polarised Gujarat being seen as a Muslim appeaser would be an electoral disaster. Rahul’s social media messaging has also become sharper with a young new team. No longer can the BJP or its supporters dismiss Rahul as a lightweight. 

In the end, victory margins do matter. They can influence voting patterns in future elections. They can energise the loser and chasten the winner. By winning the Gujarat poll by a margin narrower than most exit polls had predicted, the BJP has shown vulnerability. In Bihar in 2015, it lost because of the Congress-JD(U)-RJD mahagathbandhan. In Gujarat, it has scraped through after being given a fright by the caste coalition the Congress cobbled together. 

Opposition leaders will learn from the BJP’s underwhelming performance in Gujarat. Coalitions, where possible, are now the likely route in most future state and general elections. For Modi, Gujarat has several lessons. One, he must build a stronger second line of leadership. Two, the BJP must rebuild its NDA coalition: it suffers from neglect and that could cause problems in 2019. Three, the prime minister should re-focus on development and governance. Establish a Lokpal, revive the sclerotic Right To Information (RTI) ecosystem, and overhaul the bureaucracy. Time is running out.

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Electric Car Revolution
Till prices fall and production rises, India will lag behind China, the US and Europe in switching to electric cars

Tuesday, December 19, 20

By 2030, many of us will be driving electric vehicles – cars powered by lithium-ion batteries rather than the century-old internal combustion engine that uses petrol and diesel. The Indian government plans to phase out fuel-engine vehicles over the next 15 years. In the West and China, the pace is even quicker. 

So far the hurdle for electric cars and trucks has been the short distance that can be travelled between charges. That’s changing fast. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk says his latest electric car can go over 600 miles between charges. He plans to get an electric-powered truck on the road within months. All of this has huge implications on the future of the oil industry and the battle over global warming. 

Cars and trucks spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Electric vehicles will reduce pollution as the world gradually shifts from petrol and diesel vehicles to battery-powered cars and trucks. While the aviation and shipping industries will continue to rely on petroleum products for longer than the automotive sector, scientists are already working on short-haul electric-powered passenger aircraft.

In India, the speed breaker for fast-tracking electric cars is the lack of charging station infrastructure. In the United States, charging stations are becoming almost as ubiquitous as petrol pumps. New technology is allowing charging facilities to be set up even outside individual homes. China has treated the move towards electric vehicles as a means to reduce both pollution and reliance on fossil fuels. 

The challenge to convert a century-old technology of petroleum-fuelled vehicles to an electric battery-powered transport universe is enormous. Only one per cent of vehicles worldwide today run on electric charge. China is leading the way. Over two per cent of its annual production of cars is now electric-powered. In 2016, China made more than 3,00,000 electric cars, the highest in the world. By 2025, China plans to increase the ratio of electric cars to 20 per cent of total production. 

An internal combustion engine that runs on petrol or diesel has over 2,000 moving parts. An electric battery-powered car engine has only around 20 moving parts. As a result electric cars need much less maintenance and have longer “shelf lives” than petrol/diesel cars. In India, hybrid cars that can switch between petrol/diesel and electric batteries sell for less than Rs10 lakh. However, cars powered only by electric batteries cost upward of Rs 35 lakh. Till prices fall and production rises, India will lag behind China, the US and Europe in switching to electric cars. China’s ambitious target is to completely end the production of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The Chinese government has imposed penalties on automobile manufacturers who don’t meet phased electric car volume targets incrementally by 2020 and then by 2025. 

In India, Energy Efficiency Services Ltd. has catalysed the move towards electric cars. Its tender was won by Tatas with Mahindra, the second lowest bidder, getting a 30 per cent share of producing 10,000 electric cars in an initial order. 

The numbers remain small and the Indian government must encourage the establishment of an infrastructure of charging stations across the country as the US and China have done. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) was endorsed by the Indian government in 2015. The target is to, like China, end petrol and diesel vehicle manufacturing by 2030 and switch entirely to electric vehicles (EVs). 

The ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre is doing excellent work in battery cell technologies. Chetan Maini’s Reva was India’s first electric car. Maini was a pioneer, ahead even of Tesla’s Elon Musk. The Reva was launched in 2001 but due to the lack of an ecosystem for electric cars in India, volumes didn’t pick up. Mahindra acquired the company in 2010 and is leading the charge to mainstream electric cars. Hyundai makes electric cars in South Korea under the Ioniq brand. It has pledged to begin EV manufacturing in India once the infrastructure for charging stations is in place. ABB India recently bid for a government tender to set up 4,500 charging stations for EVs. 

As Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said in a recent interview: “Already, electric taxis are fully operational in (Nagpur). We have 20 charging stations and we are installing 20 more. Additionally, there are 55 buses running on 100 per cent bioethanol. We are scaling it up to 1,000 electric taxis. So it’s a public transport revolution. Let’s say petrol is Rs 80 (per litre) and diesel is Rs 60 (per litre). In electric, the equivalent cost will be Rs 10. On top of that, it is pollution-free, cost-effective and an import substitute. The problem in making all this (electric vehicles) was that the lithium-ion battery was expensive, but now look how costs are coming down. Even as we speak, I know they have just come down by at least Rs 40-50 further.” 

Once EVs take off globally, crude oil prices are expected to fall below $20 a barrel. That would be a windfall for India which imports 82 per cent of its crude oil, spending nearly $100 billion annually. India will benefit in two ways with EVs: one, lower pollution in cities; two, a lower trade deficit due to reduced crude prices. 

According to a UBS Global Auto Survey citied by Bloomberg: “Almost every sixth car sold in the world will be electric by 2025. By the middle of the next decade, global sales of electric vehicles should hit 16.5 million, analysts led by Patrick Hummel said in the report, a 16 per cent increase from the previous estimate. They predict electric vehicles will make up 16 per cent of all car sales by then, up from a previous estimate of 14 per cent.” Hummel added: “The shift to electric cars will come faster in a more pronounced way fuelled by the diesel demise in Europe, battery technology advancements and regulation in China and Europe.” 

In the 1920s, Henry Ford set off the automobile revolution by establishing the world’s first assembly line production that transformed individual public transportation. A century later, the automotive industry is gearing up for another revolution.

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Trumps controversial Jerusalem decision could rip the veil off Saudi-Israel alliance
For India, the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East presents several challenges and opportunities.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

When Dhirubhai Ambani was 17 years old, he sailed to Aden in search of a job. It was 1949. Yemen was a British colony. Aden, Yemens bustling port, beckoned the adventurous. Dhirubhai worked as a petrol pump attendant in Aden for seven years before returning to India to begin his extraordinary corporate journey.

Six decades later, Yemen faces what the United Nations describes as the worlds worst humanitarian crisis in more than a quarter-century. Nearly 17 million of Yemens 28 million citizens are on the verge of starvation. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition of Islamic states has bombed civilian targets for months. It has not spared hospitals, schools or even mosques.

To compound what could well be considered a war crime, the Saudi coalition (whose armed forces are led by former Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif) has imposed a blockade on food and medical aid reaching Yemen from the UN and human rights bodies. With no electricity or medicines, Yemen is witnessing an outbreak of cholera on an unprecedented scale. Mortified by the inhumane Saudi blockade, the US last week officially asked Saudi Arabia to let essential supplies through.

While Saudi Arabia is the principal culprit in the war on Yemen, the United States and Britain are culpable as well. They backed the Saudi coalition to attack Yemens Houthi rebels in March 2015. Washington and London, veterans of illegal wars in Iraq and Syria, have provided the Saudis (a wealthy client state) with state-of-the-art weapons.

The Houthis, a Shia sub-sect, are supported by Shia Iran, a mortal enemy of Sunni Saudi Arabia. But beyond the Shia-Sunni conflict that today roils the Middle East, the war in Yemen transcends sectarian conflict. The Houthis have long felt marginalised by the Yemen government. They resent the increasing influence of Saudi religious extremism in the country.

Washingtons backing of the Saudi-led assault on Yemen fits into the cynical politics the US has practised in the Middle East for decades. President Donald Trumps pathological opposition to Iran has consummated a US-Saudi-Israel minage-a-trois, bound together by a visceral hatred for Iran. This has led to unintended and curious consequences. Despite not having diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia and Israel are now in effect close allies. Qatar and Turkey, earlier in the Saudi orbit, have been driven into Irans embrace.

Trumps controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israels capital could, however, rip the veil off the covert Saudi-Israel alliance. The Arab and larger Muslim world has erupted in anger over Trumps decision. Saudi Arabia is widely seen as complicit in that decision. If Riyadh had objected strongly to Washington recognising Jerusalem as Israels capital, it might well have been deferred. The US-Saudi-Israel alliance of convenience could be the first casualty of Trumps Jerusalem move.

Saudi Arabia was the earliest supporter of the Islamic State (ISIS). It used the terrorist group to fight the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, an Alawaite (a Shia-affiliated sect). The intervention of Russia, backed by Iranian militias, turned the tide of the war. ISIS was defeated in both Syria and Iraq (a Shia majority country). To Riyadhs horror, this has led to the formation of a crescent of Iranian power from Tehran in the east to Beirut in the west. A rattled Saudi Arabia has reacted in rage-fuelled panic.

United States, the worlds most liberal democracy, and Saudi Arabia, the world most repressive dictatorship, have enjoyed a cosy relationship since the 1930s. America provides protection, Saudi Arabia provides oil. Saudi Arabias callous blockade of Yemen has, however, made it difficult for the US to support the coalition war with the same enthusiasm as before. Riyadh too is in a fix. Humiliated by its inability to defeat the Houthis after nearly three years of war, it cant openly back Trumps Jerusalem decision which has delighted Israel and caused anger across the Middle East.

The Saudis choreographed entente cordiale with Israel could now unravel. Significantly, Americas dependence on Middle East oil will soon end. It produces nearly as much oil (10 million barrels a day) as Saudi Arabia. At over $65 (Rs 4,190) a barrel, US shale oil is again a profitable business and could make America a net oil exporter over the next few years.

For India, the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East presents several challenges and opportunities. One, Indias excellent relations with Arab countries, Palestinians, Iran and Israel have deepened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cementing New Delhis role as a neutral player in the Middle East.

Two, India has stakes across the region: over seven million Indians work in the Middle East. Three, the Iranian port of Chabahar, recently operationalised, gives India for the first time direct access to landlocked Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Four, Israel is a key defence partner. This explains Indias silence as violent protests over Jerusalem explode across the Arab world.

Quietly though, India is deploying two other geopolitical aces it has up its sleeve. The first is the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) which will connect India with central Asia right up to St Petersburg in Russia. The second ace is the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) linking India to resource-rich Africa.

Even as China suspends three China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure projects on grounds of corruption and security, Indias new economic corridors will transform the geopolitics of a volatile region across three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa.

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Dynasty damages democracy
Rahul Gandhis ascension to the post of party president is a deeply regressive move for party democracy

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Nehru-Gandhis have maintained a vice-like grip over the Congress since Indira Gandhi split the party in 1969, sidelining the Syndicate comprising leaders like Kamaraj and Nijalingappa. The Gandhi family has controlled the cash-rich party ever since by electing themselves a president or nominating a loyalist to the post. The grip has never slackened.

Two years after Sonia Gandhi unceremoniously dumped Sitaram Kesri as Congress president in 1998 and appointed herself in his place, Jitendra Prasada (Jitin Prasadas father) stood against her in 2000. He was roundly defeated by Congressmen enraged at his effrontery. Prasada died shortly thereafter, in January 2001, aged just 62.

No one has since challenged Sonia Gandhi who, at 19 years, was the longest-serving Congress president in history. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, was Congress president in independent India for a total of only four years, from 1951-54. Not surprisingly for a party steeped in feudalism, loyalists in the Congress have rallied around Rahul Gandhi. Delegates who backed Rahul in the election for Congress president were handpicked.

Ironically, Jitin Prasada, son of the only Congressman, Jitendra Prasada, who had the gumption to stand for election against Sonia Gandhi 17 years ago, moved a resolution in an Uttar Pradesh meet urging Rahul to take over as Congress president. Such is the sycophancy that courses through the Congress partys feudal veins.

Dynasty is toxic. It damages democracy. In my book, I dealt with a particularly disingenuous myth spread by feudal leaders defending dynasty: An argument advanced in favour of political dynasties in India is superficially seductive: the sons and daughters of lawyers become lawyers. So do doctors, businessmen, and actors. But professionals in medicine and law earn their degrees. Businessmen owe their position to specific financial shareholding. Actors are made and unmade every Friday. The purpose of democracy is to widen voter choice  not narrow it. By choosing dynasts over merit, political parties limit the choice voters have and lower the overall level of competence in Parliament.

Unless the Congress undergoes an internal catharsis, it will remain a feudal family fief. The outcome is bad governance, nepotism and incompetence. Following in the Congress malign footsteps, several political families established the lucrative business of dynastic political parties in the 1980s and 1990s. All without exception have spawned corruption, misgovernance, nepotism and communalism.

The roll call of dynastic parties is evocative: Lalu Prasad Yadavs Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Mulayam Singh Yadavs Samajwadi Party (SP), Sharad Pawars Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Farooq Abdullahs National Conference (NC) to cite just a few. Regional parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana have installed family members in key positions. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) too has its own dynastic parties: Chandrababu Naidus Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Ram Vilas Paswans Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). The BJP has promoted dynasts like Vasundhara Raje as well, though on a much smaller scale than the dynast-infested Congress.

When dynasty takes precedence over merit, the quality of governance suffers. Globally, the evidence is as damning as it is in India. Robert Mugabe, who was president of Zimbabwe for 37 consecutive years during which he devastated the countrys economy, wanted his wife Grace, accused of corruption and despotism, to succeed him as president days before he was removed from office in a choreographed army coup. In Cuba, Fidel Castros brother Raul has tried, with limited success, to reverse the ruinous socialism that has impoverished his island country.

North Korea, Pakistan and the sheikhdoms of the Middle East are other examples of how political families have curtailed their citizens freedoms, supported terrorism and imposed medieval laws to safeguard their dynastic cabals. The most successful democracies worldwide have long rejected dynasty in favour of meritocracy. In 241 years since Independence in 1776, only three families in the United States have produced more than one president: the Adams, Harrisons and Bushes. In Britain, the last dynast to head the government as prime minister was William Pitt the Younger in 1783.

To cleanse public life, dynasty must go. As Rahul becomes the sixth Nehru-Gandhi after Motilal, Jawaharlal, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia to head the Congress, he must reflect on just how regressive his ascension to the party presidency is. Rahul will have to brace himself for what could be bad news from Gujarat. After its rout in the Uttar Pradesh civic polls, including in The Familys pocket borough of Amethi, a defeat in Gujarat will sting. It will also strengthen the hands of the tiny minority in the Congress that has had the courage to speak out against dynastic succession.

Rahuls temple-hopping spree during the Gujarat campaign has meanwhile drawn criticism. Opposition leaders have questioned his faith. Religion should not matter but in public life, as former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said, it unfortunately does. Ambiguity over religion can play on the minds of voters in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh who tend to take matters of faith seriously. On December 18, when votes are counted in Gujarat and Himachal, Rahul will begin his presidency on a grim note a week before inclusive India celebrates Christmas.

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Politics, Like Crime, Pays
Criminal elements and power brokers “invest” in a candidate, financing his campaign. In return they expect favours

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Politics is the first refuge of scoundrels. That piece of conventional wisdom may be contested by the few politicians who regard themselves as serving the public interest. Statistics tell a different tale: 1,581 MPs and MLAs across political parties face criminal prosecution. Nearly 34 per cent of  MPs in the current Lok Sabha have criminal cases against them. 

An alarmed Supreme Court last month directed the Narendra Modi government to set up special courts to hold “exclusive” trials against tainted lawmakers and “decide the cases within a year”. 

The issue is more complicated than even the Supreme Court imagines. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has long published names of parliamentarians and state legislators who face criminal charges. Some of these charges are flimsy and relate to unlawful political morchas, crowd disturbances at campaign rallies and controversial speeches. But some charges are serious enough to warrant the Supreme Court’s intervention. The Election Commission of  India (ECI) prescribes a six-year ban on convicted lawmakers. It wants to convert that into a life ban. Those affected by such a ban would include Lalu Prasad Yadav, chief of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), convicted in the fodder scam.

Politicians frequently claim that cases against them are politically motivated and fabricated. One of the founders of the Association for Democratic Reforms, Jagdeep Chhokhar, a tireless advocate of cleaning up Indian politics, has an answer to such apprehensions: “A simpler, and arguably, more effective step could be to ban all persons from contesting elections who have criminal cases pending against them, but with three safeguards against misuse. Only those cases should be considered (for disqualification from contesting) in which: (a) punishment is two (or three, or five) years or more; (b) the case has been registered at least six months before the announcement of elections; and (c) charges have been framed by a court of law. These are the safeguards that the Supreme Court has specified in 2002 but which have been forgotten in the din.” 

While Chhokhar’s three safeguards deal with most politicians’ misgivings, the problem has far deeper roots. The first is the large amount of money needed to contest an election. Criminal elements and power brokers “invest” in a candidate, financing his campaign. In return they expect favours following their “sponsored” candidate’s election – government contracts, project clearances and high-level access. The cycle of corruption and crony capitalism begins here.
Every recent corruption case, from Coalgate and 2G to AgustaWestland and Aircel-Maxis, resulted from a subversion of due process. Wrongful access was given (Aircel-Maxis), projects were illegally cleared (2G), government contracts wrongfully obtained (AgustaWestland) and natural resources illegitimately auctioned (Coalgate). Till funding of elections becomes more transparent, criminals will continue to subvert the system through the MPs and MLAs whose elections they have financed.

The second root cause of rampant criminality in Indian politics is the judiciary itself. Convicts like Lalu Prasad Yadav know the legal system favours them. He remains free on bail while his appeal crawls through the higher judiciary. Today courts are the best defence for anyone wishing to escape the law. Over three crore cases are pending in courts across the country, some going back to the 1960s. For those in legal trouble, the credo is: go to court. As a strategy it serves politicians and businessmen well. Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi, for example, have adroitly used the courts to delay justice. 

The Supreme Court was being disingenuous in expressing disbelief at the number of criminal cases pending against MPs and MLAs. Were it to, suo motu, set up special courts, promote more arbitration panels headed by retired judges and quicken the pace of justice, criminally charged politicians would begin to fear the courts rather than welcome them as a protective shield. Inconvenient media can meanwhile be silenced by suing for defamation. By the time the case comes up for trial after numerous adjournments, the purpose would have been achieved: gagging the media till the story fades from public memory. 

The third reason why people with criminal backgrounds are attracted to politics is the polarisation of society along caste, regional and religious lines. To commandeer vote blocs, local criminals are deployed. With most political parties functioning as feudal family-run corporations, winning elections is a vital ingredient of a successful business model. 

Voters don’t seem to mind political criminality as a recent research report by the founder-chairman of ADR, Prof. Trilochan Sastry, reveals: “In every type of criminal case, the percentage amongst winners is much more. Civil society and the Election Commission have therefore asked for candidates with serious criminal cases to be barred from contesting elections. The Courts have also been inclined to take this view although they are not empowered to enforce this. A large percentage of candidates with serious criminal charges actually win elections. While only 12 per cent  of candidates with a  ‘clean’ record win on average, 23 per cent of candidates with some kind of criminal record win, and more alarmingly, 23 per cent of all those with serious criminal charges win. Nearly every party shows that a greater percentage of those with a serious criminal record win compared to those without any record. This partly explains the strong tendency of political parties to continue fielding people with badly tainted records.”

The case of Lalu Prasad Yadav again underscores this. Lalu has for years mollycoddled the terrorist Shahabuddin, who is currently in jail, to win Muslim votes. Shahabuddin is accused of throwing political opponents alive in vats of  boiling hot oil. And yet Lalu’s RJD won the highest number of seats in the 2015 Bihar assembly election. The Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh too is notorious for using criminals to subvert the law. In West Bengal and Kerala, thugs doubling up as party workers capture voting booths during elections and murder political rivals with impunity. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has exceeded even the Left’s long record of egregious violence. Here too, voters returned the TMC  to power in 2016 despite its record of anarchy and corruption. 

A fish rots from the head down. The Supreme Court should keep that in mind as it wrestles with the daunting task of cleansing Indian politics.

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Build the Ram Temple, but also build hospitals and schools in Ayodhya
Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath has wisely kept himself out of the controversy, leaving it to the Supreme Court.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I have long argued that the Ram Temple should be built in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid once stood.

Archaeologists have confirmed that an ancient temple lay beneath the Babri Masjid. December 6 marks the 25th anniversary of its demolition. The Supreme Court began hearing the case on the Ram Temple on December 5 and adjourned it to February 8, 2018. An out-of-court settlement between Sunni-led Muslim groups and the Hindu petitioners could yield a quicker result.

The Shia Waqf Board has meanwhile done what every Muslim organisation should have done long ago: given its blessings to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and put an end to a legal, religious and political battle that has distracted India and, in particular, Uttar Pradesh from more urgent tasks: healthcare, education, sanitation and infrastructure.

Uttar Pradesh has a larger population than Pakistan. Its 220 million people have among the worst social and economic indicators in India. Crime is rampant. Casteism remains endemic. Under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, law and order has improved though not as rapidly as it should have. During the Samajwadi Party government, Uttar Pradesh fell into an abyss of criminality. The statistics are stark and tell their own tale.

Research conducted by the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business (ISB) revealed that Uttar Pradesh was safest from 1999 to 2003 when the BJP was in power. According to the report, “Since 2003 when either the BSP or SP have been in power, violent crimes in UP increased significantly at the rate of over seven per cent per annum. In comparison, Bihar which is the closest to UP in its record in crimes, registered an increase in violent crimes at three per cent per annum.”

The report’s author, Krishnamurthy Subramanian, ISB’s associate professor of finance, said that within the category of violent crimes, two particular markers assume critical significance. First, murders, kidnappings and abductions; second, crimes against women. “It is very clear from the above analysis that consecutive governments led by the  BSP and SP have exacerbated the lack of law and order in UP," writes Professor Subramanian. 

Adityanath has been criticised for introducing “Hindutva-plus” in Uttar Pradesh. Contrary to the popular impression that he spends more time on the affairs of his Gorakhnath math than on governing the state, the chief minister has turned out to be a hard taskmaster. 

He begins meetings with bureaucrats at 6 am. The sessions last for several hours. The meetings reconvene at 6 pm and go on till midnight. Bureaucrats unlucky enough to be part of both the early morning and late night meetings are sleep-deprived.

Has this helped Uttar Pradesh repair, for example, its notorious healthcare system? For decades, government hospitals in Uttar Pradesh have been children’s mortuaries. Dozens of newborns fall victim to Japanese encephalitis.

As a five-time MP from Gorakhpur, Adityanath has raised in Parliament for over a decade the issue of vaccinating children against encephalitis. Now that he is chief minister, what is he doing about it? Not much.

Law and order, too, remains a seemingly intractable problem though Adityanath says policing is improving: “More than 1,200 criminals have been sent to jail since the BJP government assumed office in the state in March 2017. Police are working in their own style to establish the rule of law which is a priority of my government. The situation has improved to such an extent that investors are heading towards UP, while criminals are scurrying for cover and leaving the state or preferring to stay in jail."

Cycle of communal violence
The demolition of the Babri Masjid led to a cycle of communal violence that still simmers in pockets of Uttar Pradesh. Soon after the demolition, Muslim mobs attacked Hindu targets. In Mumbai and elsewhere there was quick and vicious retribution.

Hindu mobs roamed the streets of Mumbai (then still Bombay) in January 1993. Over three specific days, January 7-9, 1993, Muslims and their homes were targeted and destroyed. Red crosses appeared on the doors of terrified Muslims targeted by the Shiv Sena.

Two months later, the Muslim underworld took revenge. Serial bomb explosions rocked Mumbai killing over 250 people. Tiger Memon, Chhota Shakeel and Dawood Ibrahim, who plotted the attacks, have remained beyond the reach of Indian justice, protected by Pakistan.

The city has never recovered from the 1992-93 cycle of communal violence. Muslims have retreated further into ghettos in Mumbra, Bhiwandi and Dongri. Celebrities like Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar find it difficult to buy flats of their choice because of the deep distrust that has developed between the two communities.

On a visit to India last week, former United States President Barack Obama remarked that Indian Muslims were well integrated into Indian society unlike in other Muslim-minority countries like France, Belgium and Germany. He said India must “nurture” its Muslims.

Obama is right and wrong. If by “nurture” he means empower Muslims, he is right. If by “nurture” he means placate Muslims with sops, he is wrong. That is the quickest recipe to deepening the schism between Muslims and Hindus who have yet to come to terms with old perceived grievances going back to the brutalities of Aurangzeb and earlier Muslim invaders.

Indian Muslims are woven into India’s social and economic fabric. From the Muslim breadman and auto mechanic to the Bollywood star and iconic cricketer, Indian Muslims know in their heart of hearts that civilisationally they are Indians first. They have nothing in common with the Arabs of the Middle East who give them work but not kinship. That they find only in India.  

This must be the touchstone of a settlement over the Ram Temple. It must be built where the Babri Masjid stood. Muslims must help build it. The Shias have agreed. Sunnis must show similar grace.

Adityanath has wisely kept himself out of the controversy, leaving it to the Supreme Court to deliver its long delayed verdict. He should focus on governance. Uttar Pradesh has over 40 million Muslims. Madrasas in the state, as a recent report discovered, teach very little math and English. That must change.

Ayodhya, a town of 60,000 inhabitants, is decaying. Its Hindus and Muslims live in harmony. But along with the Ram Temple, Ayodhya needs modern schools, hospitals, infrastructure and sanitation. Lord Ram wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Gujarat elections Why it's make or break for Rahul Gandhi
Would it not have been wiser for new to-be Congress president to wait for the Karnataka poll to move up a rung?
Sunday, December 3, 2017

Can Congress president-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi beard the lion in his own den?

Unlikely. But the Congress, out of power in Gujarat since 1995, has set a low bar for measuring Rahuls success. If the BJP can be kept to below 115 seats (its 2012 tally) in the 182-seat Assembly, then it will count as a vindication of Rahuls leadership.

After the Congress dismal performance in the Uttar Pradesh civic polls and a wipe-out in Rahuls Amethi constituency, even the most optimistic ground-level Congress worker in Gujarat expects the party to lose the election. The only question is by how much the BJP will win. There are three scenarios.

First, the BJP runs away with it, winning over 130 seats, using its fearsome booth-level power. That would be an early setback for Rahuls party presidency.

Second, the BJP gets 115-120 seats, matching the 2012 result. Rahuls sassy social media head will spin this as Rahuls win, ignoring that it still gives the BJP nearly two-thirds of the Assemblys seats.

Third, the BJP struggles to get past 100 and ends up with a slim majority of around 105/182. Rahuls team will talk that up as a big win for their new leader, taunting the BJP that the trend proves that this is its last term in office in Gujarat.

Rahul has taken a gamble to time his dynastic ascension so close to the results of the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections. He knows that the Congress faces a rout in Himachal. And Gujarat, for all the damage Hardik Patel may do, is a lost cause as well.

On December 18, counting day, Rahul will be blamed for both the defeats. Would it not have been wiser to wait for the Karnataka poll (where the Congress should do well) in April 2018 to move up a rung in what, since Indira Gandhis internal Congress coup in 1969, has been the Nehru familys ancestral property?

To answer that question, dig deeper into Rahuls personality.

Psychologically singed by grandmother Indiras and father Rajivs assassinations, Rahul is unpredictable. In 2013, he displayed that by publicly tearing prime minister Manmohan Singhs ordinance which would have allowed Lalu Prasad Yadav to contest elections. 

The incident showed Rahul was capable of distinguishing right from wrong but suffered from a dynasts sense of entitlement that allowed him to publicly humiliate his prime minister, and the hapless Ajay Maken, who was present at the press conference where Rahul angrily tore up the ordinance.

So Rahul did the right thing in the wrong way. Not a disqualification for politicians, most of whom do the wrong thing in the wrong way (i.e. surreptitiously).

Rahuls streak of arrogance hides his insecurity. His reluctance to take charge of the Congress since mother Sonia Gandhi signalled years ago that she was ready to step aside sprang at least partly from that feeling of inadequacy.

His differences with the old guard, now largely settled, hark back to the same sense of insecurity that is often disguised in a show of arrogance. That led to the long reluctant Rahul phase. It also caused him to sleepwalk through parliamentary debates and disappear to unknown destinations for weeks together, once famously in 2015 for two months.

Next, look at Rahuls background. Father Rajiv was a reluctant politician, too. He had to be persuaded for months by his mother Indira Gandhi to join politics after younger brother Sanjay Gandhis death in a private plane crash in June 1980.

Rajiv was happy working as a full-time pilot for domestic carrier Indian Airlines from 1968 to 1980, deliberately distancing himself from Indian politics.

He finally, reluctantly, agreed to contest from Amethi, the family pocket borough now held by Rahul, in 1981. Wife Sonia was strongly opposed to him joining politics.

When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Sonia pleaded with Rajiv not to accept the prime ministership. She feared the worst. 

Thus reluctance to be an active politician was ingrained in Rahul. He avoided it till he was 34, the age in which Sanjay Gandhi died after a near-decade in politics. Thirteen years after, he became an MP from Amethi. Rahul at 47 has shed his reluctance but not his sense of entitlement.

It is a dynastic disease. The first germ was transmitted in 1959 when Jawaharlal Nehru appointed daughter Indira as Congress president. She was 41. The infection has since spread to other parties, but the Congress was the pioneer of a feudal system of political inheritance that has damaged the quality of Indian democracy.

By taking head-on the responsibility of near-certain defeats in Himachal and Gujarat, Rahul has shown bravado rather than bravery. Rajiv was brave. He led the computer revolution and tried to modernise the administration. But he had poor advisors, including the late Arun Nehru and a coterie of Italian businessmen, led by Ottavio Quattrocchi.

Eye on 2019
Rahul is positioning himself for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress believes it can cut BJPs parliamentary seat tally in five key states: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. That could slice 60-odd seats from the 282, the BJP won in 2014.

With around 220 seats, Modi would find it difficult to form an NDA government if the Shiv Sena walks out. The only major allies left would be the JD(U) and the TDP. The numbers for the NDA would then fall below 272.

If an Opposition national alliance can put together a government with a working majority, the Congress could support it from outside (as it did in 1996-98). That though is a wishful thinking. The Congress itself is unlikely to improve significantly on its 2014 tally of 44 seats (45 following a by-election). Its alliance partners are all regional. Only the TMC will cross 30 seats in the Lok Sabha. A collection of Opposition Lilliputs could scare off the electorate.

The Modi magic may meanwhile return as the economy recovers. If the Congress trips up with more chaiwala jibes, the NDA could again win over 300 seats.

Its early days yet. Gujarat and Himachal will prove little. Nor will Karnataka. To see which way the political wind is blowing, well have to wait for December 2018 when Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls.

They could decide Rahuls fate in 2019.

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India doesn't stand to gain from Pakistan's shifting equations with US and China
For New Delhi, the Trump presidency has so far been a mixed bag.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hard-line religious groups forced the resignation this week of Pakistan's law minister Zahid Hamid. They had laid siege to cities across Pakistan, enraged by the amendment (later rescinded) to an electoral law they believe diluted the "crime" of blasphemy.

Pakistan has long cultivated religious extremism and terrorism. Both are now slipping out of its control. The backlash is fierce. The Pakistani army has made a fortune out of its decades-old terror factory. That factory is now spewing hard-line fanatics challenging the government's writ across Pakistan.

Since President Donald Trump took office, Pakistani army's top brass has been on tenterhooks. Would the unpredictable Trump actually carry out the threat he made two months ago to bomb terror safe havens on Pakistani soil? Apart from drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, the US has been content to attack terrorist targets along the Af-Pak border. Trump seemed to have upended that policy: if you don't get rid of terror safe havens, we'll do it, Trump said last month. Having watched Trump carefully during the first 10 months of his presidency, Pakistan's blustery generals have come to the conclusion: it's going to be business as usual.

By removing the LeT last week from the list of proscribed terror groups that disqualify US military aid to Pakistan, Trump has proved the generals right: he's no different from former President Barack Obama whom the Pakistanis gamed successfully for eight years. The Trump administration, like the Obama government, has fallen for the line that Pakistan is essential to stability in Afghanistan. Islamabad provides the key supply route for US-Nato forces in landlocked Afghanistan. Besides, Pakistan controls the lever on terror: it can switch on and off terror attacks by the Taliban and uses that to blackmail the US into accepting Pakistan as a partner in the war on terror rather than its principal instigator.

For India, neither Obama's visit to Delhi this week nor Ivanka Trump's trip to Hyderabad for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) will count for much.

Obama is more concerned these days with the Obama Foundation than geopolitical strategy. Ivanka Trump is no longer quite the influential adviser to her father that some imagine. She has recently taken positions contrary to his on several issues. She condemned Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat from Alabama, following allegations of Moore's sexual harassment of minor girls. Trump earlier this week endorsed Moore. Ivanka was unimpressed, saying those who "prey on children have a special place in hell".

For India, the Trump presidency has so far been a mixed bag. Washington continues to appease China despite Beijing not able or willing to restrain North Korea's nuclear missile programme. It has relieved pressure on Pakistan-sponsored terror. The US has "asked" Pakistan to re-arrest Hafiz Saeed and charge him. But for years, Washington did nothing about Saeed despite putting a $10 million (Rs 64 crore) bounty on his head even as the LeT terror head roamed free.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Obama-Ivanka visits come at a time that is a tipping point in his foreign policy formulation.

The victory over Britain in the United Nations to elect an Indian judge at the International Court of Justice shows that a new world order is taking shape. The post-World War II domination of the West is ebbing. What could replace it? Clearly, one pole will be led by China and another by the US. India's growing geostrategic and economic importance has compelled the US to change its Asia-Pacific strategy to an overarching Indo-Pacific doctrine.

China factor
Islamabad is also waking up to the perils of relying on China to solve all its economic problems. Pakistan recently turned down Chinese assistance for the $12-billion (Rs 77,000 crore) Diamer-Bhasha hydel power project in PoK under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to tough Chinese financial terms. The row has caused the first rupture between Beijing and Islamabad over the CPEC.

Interestingly, at around the same time last week, the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, proposed renaming the CPEC to satisfy Indian concerns. He also controversially suggested that the CPEC need not, as originally planned, pass through PoK but could be routed through the parts of J&K not occupied by Pakistan. Beijing reacted swiftly. It refuted its own ambassador's statement and said cryptically that Pakistan remained China's "all-weather ally".

Nonetheless for India, there are signs of growing frustration between Pakistan and China over financial and security concerns involving the CPEC. The realisation too is dawning in Islamabad and Beijing, especially after India's diplomatic victory over Britain in the UN that New Delhi is finally beginning to punch at its true geopolitical weight. By making China back off over Doklam, India demonstrated steely resolve. At the UN, it demonstrated that it has the confidence and ability to defeat the diplomatic machinations of a major if declining world power, Britain.

There is talk now of India pressing forward for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). That is tactically unwise. The UNSC seat will come, if it does, only without a veto which makes it meaningless. India comes across too often as a supplicant, pleading for recognition from world powers, including its keenness for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) when it already has a one-time NSG-waiver, obtained in 2008.

A rising economic and military power does not seek "great power" status. It commands it.


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How BJP's regressive missteps help its critics build myth of 'Hindu Pakistan'
Its reaction to the uproar over the movie Padmavati has been unconscionable.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Every now and then, like little genies popping out of a bottle, emerge dark prognostications of India becoming a mirror image of Pakistan. The clichéd phrase bandied about is “Hindu Pakistan”.

The BJP-led NDA government is doing its bit to give this manufactured lie a life of its own.

Its reaction to the uproar over the movie Padmavati has been unconscionable. The Rajput votes in Rajasthan and the conservative Hindu votes elsewhere have made the BJP a party that places winning elections above doing the right thing. The makers of Padmavati have been forced to defer its release.

Instead of arresting BJP leader Suraj Pal Amu who placed a Rs 10-crore bounty on Deepika Padukone’s head, the government has, by simply issuing him a show-cause notice, emboldened the rabble who pass off as guardians of Indian cultural tradition.

BJP leaders argue: let’s win elections first, then we’ll take care of doing the right thing which is to protect free speech, not protect vandals from fringe groups.

That assessment is wrong. Once you place elections above principle, the habit becomes hard to break.

The reactions of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje to Padmavati feed into a regressive narrative. Suitably garnished, it becomes fodder for those crying wolf over how the BJP is creating a Hindu version of Pakistan where dissent is crushed.

Yet websites, some with dodgy funding, abuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi daily. Politicians on the Left, in the Congress (which is much the same thing), in the Trinamool Congress, RJD and in AAP freely call the prime minister everything from a “demon” to a “fool”.

And that is as it should be. A liberal democracy thrives on combative politics.

So why the periodic clamour that India is spiralling down into the “Hindu Pakistan” abyss? The BJP government is partly to blame. Its messaging is amateurish, infrequent and unimpressive. In contrast, the Congress runs a slick operation. It has many distinguished rabbits it periodically pulls out of a well-endowed hat.

Counter Modi legally? There’s Kapil Sibal, available on call. Trash DeMo in print? P Chidambaram does it every week in his column. Rubbish GST in public? Bank on Manmohan Singh, who’s rediscovered his voice after 10 years of silence.

The BJP’s lack of tactical finesse shows up time and again. Its TV spokespersons are either too timid or too aggressive. The prime minister doesn’t hold press conferences which is counter-productive.

Modi is the government’s most effective public face. A monthly press conference, taking tough questions head-on, is necessary in a liberal democracy. By not communicating regularly with the broader media in a structured two-way conversation, Modi makes the Opposition’s case stronger, not weaker.

Hindu Pakistan?
The comparison between a terrorist state like Pakistan (which condones murders on the grounds of blasphemy, has Constitutionally delegitimised Ahmadis, targets Shias and has driven out most of its post-Partition Hindu population) and an India that protects its Muslim minority scarcely deserves serious attention.

But are Muslims in fact protected in India? In some ways, yes, in others, no.

Madrasas get government grants, Wakf boards enjoy huge land largesse, the devout receive Haj subsidies, personal laws remain untouched.

Muslims are used as vote fodder every five years and packed off to their ghettos once they’ve voted for the Congress, TMC, SP, RJD, AIMIM, IUML and other parties which claim to be secular.

And yet, despite this cosmetic protection, Muslims have over the past 70 years been rendered India’s poorest, most backward group - poorer and more backward than even Dalits. Their sense of alienation has deepened since the BJP government took office.

All this doesn’t add up to India becoming a “Hindu Pakistan”, but it does show up the BJP as a party that needs to up its game.

First, be socially liberal. India is a young country. It is also a deeply religious country. Don’t use religion to promote regressive ideologies. Films, art and literature are the essence of liberal democracies. Any attempt to throttle them - even if they “hurt” the sentiments of a particular community - may win the BJP majoritarian votes but will eventually lose it majoritarian respect.

Second, stay out of people’s lives. Aadhaar is a great idea but to link it to every aspect of a citizen’s life makes the BJP government look like Big Brother.

Third, be more relaxed about people’s eating habits. I’m vegetarian. That  doesn’t mean I impose my views on even my family who (proud Hindus, all) are non-vegetarian.

Fourth, worship cows, but don’t allow a single case of cow vigilantism. It brings out the worst in Hindu extremists. It also allows half-baked commentators to conflate Hindu extremists with Pakistani terrorists and advance their fictitious “Hindu Pakistan” narrative.

That narrative allows congenitally Indiaphobic media like The New York Times to peddle silly innuendos about “Hindu nationalism”. Its recent disgrace of an article on saris and Hindu nationalism is just one example of how Asians writing for foreign media (in this case Asgar Qadri) ingratiate themselves with their Western bosses by upbraiding India at every opportunity. “Hindu Pakistan” trips off the tongues of ex-desi commentators with practised ease. It earns them brownie points and enhances their career prospects.

India has the most pro-Muslim laws of any country where Muslims are not a majority. Britain, which like India also has a strong liberal anti-Islamaphobic movement, does not however hesitate to expel hate-spewing Muslim clerics. India hasn’t dared to do so even with those Maulvis who call for the prime minister’s beheading.

It is this dichotomy that India must overcome. In practice, India protects Muslims with minority-favouring laws. In popular perception, especially among motivated foreign writers, India discriminates against Muslims.

Both are misleading. In practice, the government must empower minorities with non-discriminatory treatment and equal opportunities. Simultaneously, it must stop mollycoddling them with cosmetic sops like quotas, Haj subsidies, unchallenged Waqf land rights and funds for madrasas. Treat Muslims like first-class citizens, not a group at whom you throw secular crumbs.

Muslims must for their part regard themselves as Indians first. If you want to belong to the 21st century, you must leave behind the interpretations of those who lived in the 7th century.

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The Bullet Train Ecosystem
In India, the only sensible way to look at bullet trains is to treat them in parallel with urgent reforms needed in the railways sector

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Is spending rs 1,10,000 crore on a bullet train a waste of money? Worse, does it indicate the government’s flawed sense of priorities? The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train has been criticised on both counts. Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has been especially scathing. How valid is the criticism? Not very. Consider three key ingredients of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project:

One, it is virtually free. Around 80 per cent of its cost is financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) at a nominal annual interest rate of 0.1 per cent. On a staggered JICA loan of Rs 88,000 crore, the interest outgo will be a mere Rs 88 crore per year. More-over, there is a 15-year moratorium on the 50-year repayment period. Adjusted for inflation, the real cost of repaying the principal loan amount beginning in the 2030s would have depreciated to a fraction of the original cost. Repayment over 35 years after the 15-year moratorium would amount to a heavily depreciated Rs 2,500 crore a year. Assuming a modest average GDP growth rate of 6 per cent a year for the next 50 years, India’s economy will double every 12 years. Doubling four times over 48 years, GDP would therefore, at $40 trillion, be 16 times the current level of $2.5 trillion when repayments of a mere Rs 2,500 crore per year end in the 2070s.

Two, a crucial aspect of the bullet train project is the ecosystem that will grow around it. The 508-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad route will generate economic activity, create jobs, promote ancillary industries and boost trade between Mumbai and other key commercial cities along the route: Surat, Vadodara, Bharuch and Ahmedabad.

Three, the bullet train project will introduce next-generation rail technology in a country still largely wedded to creaking colonial-era railways infrastructure. Nearly half of India’s gargantuan railways network is not electrified. New technology is only now slowly seeping into the railways ecosystem with the Rajdhani now completing the Mumbai-Delhi run two hours quicker following technological tweaks.

The introduction of air-conditioned trains early next year in Mumbai’s ramshackle suburban railway system is another innovation. It will not only make a traumatic city commute bearable but sharply cut passenger fatalities caused by overcrowding in open-door suburban trains.

Despite its technological advantages by a process of osmosis, bullet trains are regarded as economically unsound. They rarely make money for their operators. While Japan, France, Germany and, more recently, China have embraced bullet trains, the US and Britain have not. Capital costs are high and ticket prices uneconomical. Bullet trains work best in countries like Japan and France though China has shown that they adapt well to large distances as well.

In India, the only sensible way to look at bullet trains is to treat them in parallel with urgent reforms needed in the railways sector. Indian Railways has, for far too long, been used as a political tool. Former Railway Ministers such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee made the Railway Budget an instrument to curry favour with their constituencies in Bihar and West Bengal, respectively. Uneconomical train routes were inaugurated for political reasons. Corruption in the railways bureaucracy was rife. Catering standards were abysmal. Derailments and accidents became common.

Former Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu tried to reform the ministry but met with limited success. His successor, Piyush Goyal, who revitalised the power sector in his previous assignment, now has the formidable task of wringing change in what is India’s largest employer. Indian Railways carries 23 million passengers every day in 10,000 trains across the country besides freight. That is equivalent to transporting the entire population of Australia — daily. It will need all of Goyal’s ingenuity to fix Indian Railways’ schizophrenic problem: launching a world-class bullet train project while simultaneously lifting a sprawling railway system out of the 19th century and into the 21st century.

Goyal would do well to seek the counsel of Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and minister of state (MoS)-level member of Niti Aayog, who knows more about Indian railways than most. Debroy authored a seminal report on reforming the railways, including privatising railway stations and cutting the bloated railways’ bureaucracy.

The Railway Board constituted a committee, chaired by Debroy, to mobilise resources for major railway projects and restructure both the Railway Ministry and the Railway Board. Here is what the Debroy Committee report recommended: “One of the key reasons for the failure of private participation in Railways is that policy making, the regulatory function, and operations are all vested within the same organisation, that is, the Ministry of Railways. The Committee recommends that the three roles must be separated from each other to have sustained and large scale private participation. Railways’ monopoly discourages private sector entry into the market. Second, schemes for private sector participation are not prepared with the involvement of stakeholders. Third, the schemes are designed such that the risk lies mostly with private parties.

“In order to create a level playing field for private players in the sector, the Committee recommends setting up an independent regulator, the Railways Regulatory Authority. The regulator will be a statutory body, with an independent budget and independent of the Ministry. While it will not determine tariff, it will monitor whether the tariff is market determined and competitive. An independent regulator for Railways is also necessary because of the technical and specialised nature of the sector.

“Financing of Railways is challenge because: (i) Investment is made in projects that do not have traffic and hence do not generate revenue (ii) The unbalanced mix of passenger and freight traffic does not help generate revenue (iii) The efficiency improvements do not result in increasing revenue and (iv) Delays in projects result in cost escalation, which makes it difficult to recover costs. Railways has also been mostly financed through internal resources and budgetary support, and not through external resources. Thus there has been no financial oversight of its projects.”

Goyal is known to be a reformist who works swiftly and transparently. If there is anyone who has a good shot at turning Indian Railways around at bullet train speed, he does.

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Opposition against Bharat Ratna for KM Cariappa is a distraction. The real target is General Bipin Rawat
There is anger among Left-leaning 'intellectuals' against the army chief following his commendation of Major Gogoi.
Friday, November 17, 2017

Farooq Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, likes to make provocative statements. Few take him seriously anymore. His latest remark, "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) belongs to Pakistan", can therefore be summarily dismissed - but only after setting the record straight.

Abdullah said India had "betrayed" the people of J&K by not granting the state autonomy and not implementing its promise of holding a plebiscite. (Note: Not a word meanwhile escaped from the loquacious Abdullah during his press interaction on the betrayal by successive J&K governments of 4,00,000 Pandits driven from their homes by Islamists and separatists towards whom the father-son party, the National Conference, leans.)Abdullah senior, as usual, is muddle-headed over the "promise" of a plebiscite in J&K. Of course, a plebiscite was promised by Jawaharlal Nehru. And of course that promise was formalised in a United Nations resolution in August 1948 even as the India-Pakistan war over Jammu & Kashmir still raged.

The resolution said: First, enforce a ceasefire. On December 31, 1948, a ceasefire was duly enforced. The resolution went on to say: Second, all Pakistani troops and other irregular Pakistani fighters must vacate the whole of Jammu & Kashmir.

Was that done? No. Sixty-nine years later, PoK remains under illegal occupation by Pakistan in defiance of the 1948 UN resolution.

The UN resolution said third and finally: Once all Pakistani troops and other Pakistani irregular tribal fighter vacate the whole of Jammu & Kashmir, a plebiscite in the state will be called. By not complying with the second condition of the UN resolution to vacate PoK, Pakistan forfeits the right to the third condition ? ie, a plebiscite.

Farooq Abdullah knows this perfectly well. And yet every few months, in order to placate the National Conference's communal vote bank, he raises the issue of autonomy, plebiscite and PoK.

He is best ignored but the issues he raises cannot be.

Abdullah's comment contradicts India's position on PoK articulated in an all-party resolution adopted by a Congress-led Parliament in 1994 that PoK is an integral part of India.

Abdullah's scatter-brained remark, however, serves the useful purpose of shining a light on the first war between India and Pakistan in 1947-48 over Jammu & Kashmir spearheaded by Field Marshal KM Cariappa whose "singular distinction", historian Ramachandra Guha recently wrote, "was that he was the first army chief. He was not necessarily the best, either in the field or as a tactician."

Is Guha right?

Consider the facts.

Cariappa was the first Indian army chief, taking over in January 1949 from the last British chief of the Indian army, Lt. General Sir Roy Bucher.

What was Cariappa's role in the long battle in 1947-48 to drive the invading Pakistani army and its tribal forces out of Poonch, Kargil and Uri?

In early-1948, as GOC-in-C of the Western Command, Lt General Cariappa led the force that recaptured Poonch, Kargil, Dras and other areas that the Pakistani army had overrun.

The Indians had been ill-prepared for the war over J&K that erupted weeks after the accession of the state to India. The Pakistani army, helped by irregular tribal fighters, made deep inroads into J&K. General Cariappa appointed Lt General KS Thimayya as GOC of the 19th Division as the war wore on.

By mid-1948, General Cariappa's troops were pushing the Pakistani army back. The tide had turned decisively in India's favour.

Politics now struck. Nehru was "persuaded" by the United States to halt the Indian army's advance. Despite orders from New Delhi to scale back the Indian army's thrust to drive the Pakistani army out of the whole of Jammu & Kashmir, General Cariappa defied the government and continued to push forward, securing Ladakh for India before operations ceased.

Following the UN mandated ceasefire on December 31, 1948, General Cariappa was appointed the first Indian to head the Indian Army. He took over as commander-in-chief of the army from Lt General Sir Roy Bucher on January 15, 1949. The day is celebrated as Army Day.

General Cariappa was conferred the rank of Field Marshal in 1986 by the Rajiv Gandhi government at the age of 87. The only other Indian army officer to be conferred the rank of Field Marshal (by, incidentally, the Indira Gandhi government) was Sam Manekshaw in 1973, when he was only 58.

As a young Major, Manekshaw like General Thimayya had served under General Cariappa in the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war. Manekshaw though never saw action on the J&K battlefront and was posted to MO Directorate. Manekshaw had, however, proved himself on the battlefield in Burma in 1942 during World War 2. He was lauded for bravery, but did not, unlike Cariappa, get to command a battalion.

Whether or not Field Marshal Cariappa deserves a posthumous Bharat Ratna, as army chief General Bipin Rawat has recommended, is not the key issue. The key question is the accuracy of Guha's claim that Field Marshal Cariappa's "singular distinction was that he was the first (Indian) army chief."


The evidence suggests Guha is wrong. There is a deep but unspoken anger among Left-leaning "intellectuals" (I use the word loosely) against General Bipin Rawat following the army chief's commendation of Major Gogoi in the jeep incident amidst stone pelting in the Valley. Anything that General Rawat says will see bile from these sections of Indian society rise to the surface and curdle, trapped in its sourness.

Field Marshal Cariappa's Bharat Ratna is a convenient distraction. The real target is General Bipin Rawat.

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Why India can't bank on Trump to curb Pakistan sponsored terrorism
US president can't back his talk of a new South Asia policy.
Thursday, November 16, 2017

After a flurry of meetings across Asia among world leaders, the question on everyone’s lips is: just what does the United States President Donald Trump stand for? In Beijing, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping who was on his best behaviour. Xi gave Trump red carpet treatment and promised to work together for a terrorism-free South Asia. The loud chuckles from the Generals in Rawalpindi could be heard as far away as in Beijing.

The moment he left Beijing for Vietnam and then Manila for back-to-back summits with the leaders of ASEAN, Trump’s tone changed. He criticised China for unfair trade practices and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for doing an “astounding” job to make India a major global economy. Trump said: “Since India opened its economy it has achieved astounding growth and a new world of opportunities for its expanding middle class. PM (Narendra) Modi has been working to bring that vast country and all of its people as one. And he has been working at it very, very successfully indeed.”

The Trump-Modi meeting in Manila though was long on rhetoric, short on substance. Can Trump back his talk of a new South Asia policy that reins in Pakistan-sponsored terrorism? The short answer: no. There are multiple reasons for this. At home Trump is under enormous pressure. Democratic party victories last week in Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been seized by the anti-Trump US media as a decisive turning point in the Trump presidency.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is meanwhile likely to charge Trump’s former national security advisor (NSA) General Michael Flynn over illegal Russian collusion as well as an alleged $15 million (about Rs 98 crore) payoff deal to forcibly seize Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and hand him over to Ankara which accuses him of masterminding last year’s failed coup in Turkey.

The US media, which hasn’t reconciled to Trump’s electoral victory last November, is circling over him like vultures sighting prey. Last week The Washington Post ran a story on Republican candidate Roy Moore, a former judge, virtually destroying his chances in a Senate race for the Alabama seat vacated by attorney-general Jeff Sessions.

If the Republicans lose their majority in the House of Representatives in the biennial 2018 elections, Trump faces the real prospect of impeachment. Mueller has widened his probe against Trump to include obstruction of justice, a lower bar to prove the Russian collusion in the 2016 Presidential election which requires proof of malicious intent.

Fighting multiple fires at home, Trump is hemmed in abroad as well. After Syria recently signed the Paris accord, the US is now the only country which has refused to ratify the climate change agreement.

All this at least partly explains Trump’s often contradictory positions on China, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and the Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy conflict currently roiling the Middle East. Pakistan, left out of major world summits, is meanwhile chafing at the bit.

Desperate to win back a measure of respectability, it suggested a SAARC meeting to discuss pollution across north India and Pakistan Punjab. India has ruled out a SAARC summit as well as direct talks with Pakistan till terrorism from Islamabad backed jihadis ends.

Trump’s decision to change the narrative from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific deeply worries Islamabad. The US-proposed quadrilateral between the US, India, Japan, and Australia, whose four leaders met in Manila this week, has also unsettled Pakistan.

It sees its options limited to China. In order to keep US trade sanctions at bay following its failure to rein in North Korea, Beijing will be compelled to show it is at least reining in Pakistan. This is part of Xi’s commitment to Trump last week in Beijing to make South Asia terrorism-free.

Complicating matters is the ongoing crisis in Saudi Arabia. Emboldened by Trump’s visit in May 2017 followed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s several under-the-radar trips to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is upending decades of settled Middle East politics. Apparently with Trump’s blessings, Kushner has held long meetings in Riyadh, often past midnight, with Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince who is destabilising the Middle East with his demonic antipathy towards Shia Iran.

On one side are ranged Shia powers Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah-backed Lebanon. On the other side is a powerful Saudi-led Sunni alliance of Gulf states and Riyadh’s covert ally Israel. Trump has unwisely backed the covert Saudi-Israel alliance while Russia’s Valdimir Putin, who helped the Syrian government defeat, US-backed insurgents, fighting to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is firmly behind the Iran-led alliance. These global flashpoints threaten to overturn the balance of regional power in an arc from Lebanon in the west to North Korea in the east.

Right in the middle of this geopolitical theatre lies the longest running war America has fought outside its borders: Afghanistan. Trump knows Pakistan sponsored terrorism is the cancer at the heart of Afghanistan. But he cannot administer chemotherapy because Islamabad controls access to landlocked Afghanistan. Last month, the first Indian shipment of wheat left Chabahar port in Iran for Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.

When Modi exchanged his trademark hug with Trump in Manila, he would have offered him wiser counsel than the American President has received from the silver-tongued hustlers in the ISI. That advice can be summarised thus: if you want a terror-free Afghanistan, treat Pakistan as part of the problem, not as part of the solution.

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Setting the agenda for Asia:
Trump and Modi will need to join hands for a strategy to counter China’s economic heft

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The first time Chinese President Xi Jinping called on US President Donald Trump in April 2017, the two men got along like a house on fire. Never mind that Xi didn’t get a White House dinner but had to settle for a sit-down at Trump’s Florida golf resort. In the midst of that dinner, Trump gleefully announced to a bemused Xi that the US had just launched 59 cruise missiles on Syria.

Much has changed in the intervening seven months. Xi has established himself as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping following last month’s 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Trump, meanwhile, faces impeachment if Special Counsel Robert Mueller can prove that he or his senior staff colluded with Russia during the 2016 US presidential elections. So far Mueller, who started work in May 2017, has come up with smoke but no fire. The first charges approved by the federal grand jury have indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manofort and his aide Rick Gates on misdemeanours committed well before the presidential election.

In sharp contrast, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost a close election to Trump, faces allegations of subverting the Democratic party to rig her nomination at the expense of rival Bernie Sanders. The Clinton campaign is also accused of paying several million dollars for a dossier, now largely discredited, by a former British spy Christopher Steele, aimed at digging up dirt on Trump during the election. The Clintons are in the dock as well over a controversial uranium deal, when Hillary was secretary of state, with a Russian company. At exactly the same time, husband Bill Clinton received a fee of $500,000 from a Russian bank for a speech in Moscow.

Nonetheless, Trump is himself a much-diminished figure. Xi, in contrast, has burnished his reputation after the 19th Congress of the CPC. When the two men meet in Beijing on November 8 and 9, three issues will dominate the conversation: North Korea, trade and sovereignty.

According to US intelligence reports, North Korea is between six and nine months away from making an ICBM capable of launching a small nuclear warhead on the US mainland. Trump has pressed Xi to stop North Korea’s aggressive nuclear missile programme. Xi is playing cat and mouse with Trump. He has tightened sanctions on Pyongyang just enough to stave off criticism from Washington that Beijing is not doing enough to rein in North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

That won’t wash anymore. The only measure that will stop Kim from threatening the US, Japan and South Korea is if China blocks oil and energy supplies. That would cripple North Korea. Current economic sanctions are a pinprick in comparison. China, however, will not cooperate with Washington because it regards North Korea as a buffer state against the heavy deployment of 37,500 US troops in South Korea. If North Korea is crippled, those US troops could move to within sniffing distance of the Chinese border. Just as China can’t afford the disintegration of North Korea with which it shares a 1,420-km border, it does not want a real rapprochement between the two Koreas. If the Korean border melts, it will bring US and South Korean troops at China’s doorstep.

Therefore, what Trump wants from Xi during his two-day visit to China is not what Trump will get. Instead, he will receive a lecture on global peace and how responsible China is in seeking a nuclear-free world, especially in Japan and South Korea, which, to China’s fury, have threatened to develop their own nuclear weapons if China doesn’t de-nuclearise North Korea.

Indian policymakers will be watching the Trump-Xi conversation closely. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to briefly meet Trump on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (EAS) on November 12-14 in Manila. They will have an opportunity to assess the outcome of the Trump-Xi talks held in Beijing days earlier. India is interested in building the emerging Indo-Pacific quadrilateral axis proposed by Washington, comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia.

The quadrilateral is relevant to the other two agendas of the Trump-Xi meeting: Trade and sovereignty. America under Trump is becoming increasingly protectionist. It recently imposed heavy anti-dumping duties (going up to 162.24 per cent) on Chinese aluminium foil. India, too, has a range of issues to sort out with Washington, including immigration, work visas and outsourcing.

But it is on sovereignty that the interests of New Delhi and Washington converge. China is a serial offender in the South China Sea and along India’s long border. The US has meanwhile challenged China’s claims over sovereignty in the South China Sea by sending its warships close to the waters controversially claimed by Beijing. China’s strategy in Asia is to buy out the opposition as it did with the Philippines. It is mending fences with Vietnam. India remains one of the few countries in Asia that has successfully defied China’s hegemonistic ambition.

Following his talks with Xi, Trump will visit Vietnam for the APEC summit on November 10 before he meets Modi shortly thereafter in Manila on the sidelines of the EAS summit. The two leaders will have much food for thought as they sculpt a strategy to live with a China emboldened with economic success and Xi’s total control of the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.

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Kamal Haasan has done a disservice by raising 'saffron' terror bogey
To describe isolated acts of criminal violence or death threats by extremist Hindu groups as organised terror devalues the real fight against terrorism.
Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The incendiary call by Ashok Sharma, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM), following actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan’s remarks on Hindu terror shows how extremist Hindu outfits have reduced themselves to the level of assorted Maulvis routinely issuing death threats to BJP and RSS leaders.

This is what Sharma said: “There is no other way to handle people like Kamal Haasan but to either hang them or shoot them dead.”

It is disappointing that senior leaders in the BJP have not condemned the Hindu Mahasabha and sought Sharma’s prosecution.

The Hindu Mahasabha is a prime example of how ideologically bankrupt extremist Hindu groups have become. Kamal Haasan has every right to express an opinion – in this case on Hindu terror – however provocative and wrong it may be. Debate him but do not hound him.

By filing a complaint against him in a Varanasi court (which will hear the case on November 22), advocate Kamlesh Chandra Tripathi is playing right into the hands of those on the Left who try to conflate Hindu extremists with Islamist terrorism.

To describe isolated acts of criminal violence or death threats by extremist Hindu groups as organised terror devalues the real fight against terrorism.

In India, politicians have trodden a thin line over the issue of “Hindu terror”. The Congress-led UPA needs Muslim votes to stay in power. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, it won just 145 seats and 26.53 per cent voteshare. The minority vote comprised a large chunk of this. Without Muslim votes, the Congress would have been reduced to less than 100 seats in 2004.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the Congress won 206 seats with 28.55 per cent voteshare. Again, the Muslim vote proved crucial.

This explains the Congress’ attempt during UPA-1 and UPA-2 to coin the term “saffron terror”. Rahul Gandhi, then a young MP, told a US envoy in 2005, according to a Wikileaks document which has not been disputed, that saffron terror was a larger threat to India’s national security than Islamic terror.

Those words came to haunt him in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The Congress faced a strong backlash from precisely the Hindu voters Rahul had demeaned by invoking the myth of saffron terror. The party plunged from 206 to 44 seats.

Is saffron terror really a myth? Didn’t the blasts at Malegaon, Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargah and on the Samjhauta Express prove that extremist Hindu groups like Abhinav Bharat were terrorists?

The cases against Colonel Shrikant Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya have collapsed. The Samjhauta Express blast remains unsolved with LeT terrorist Arif Qasmani named by the US Department of Treasury as one of the culprits.

Assuming though that extremist Hindu groups were responsible for these four acts of terror during 2007-08 – and none thereafter – it hardly points to organised “saffron terrorism”.

Even one life taken by terror is unacceptable. Extremist Hindu groups, when found guilty of acts of terror, must be prosecuted, tried and if found guilty punished.

But politicians seeking Muslim votes do Muslims themselves a disservice by conflating isolated incidents of “Hindu terror” with organised widespread Islamist terror perpetrated by ISIS, al-Qaeda, LeT, JeM, Hizbul Mujahideen and the Taliban. Such false narratives inculcate a sense of victimhood in ordinary Muslims. This makes them ever-more clannish, estranged from the mainstream, and vulnerable to radicalisation.

Kamal Haasan speaks of Hindu terror as if it were the biggest threat facing India. It isn’t. The term Hindu terror is oxymoronic. Hindus are by nature a passive (though not necessarily pacifist) people.

If they were not, in a poor country beset with huge social and economic injustices, there would be violent civilian unrest of the kind we see in Catholic South America and the Islamic Middle East.

If anything, Hindus have been silent victims. The incarceration of Colonel Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya for over six years without a charge sheet led to only muted protests from extremist Hindu “terror” groups and silence from the general Hindu majority population.

For Kamal Haasan and his ilk to misuse the oxymoron “Hindu terror” reflects poorly on their judgment.

The Roots
Islamist terrorism is a deadly global scourge. Its most virulent manifestation laid deep institutional roots in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States, mired in a Cold War against the Soviets, saw in the invasion a repeat of the 19th-century great game when the Russian and British Empires contested the region on either side of the Khyber pass. The Afghans, then as now, were the hapless victims.

Between 1979 and 1989, a US CIA-led operation trained and funded jihadis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan was the hired gun. That planted the seed of modern Islamist terrorism.

Two white Christian countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, thus helped create modern Islamist terror. Pakistan, the ever-willing servant of the West, seized the opportunity.

In 1989 when the defeated Soviets withdrew, the US scaled down its jihadi operations in Afghanistan and left it to Pakistan to clean up the debris. Left to themselves, the Pakistani army and the ISI dispatched hardened, out-of-work jihadi fighters to the Kashmir Valley in 1989. The rest is history.

Pakistan had used terrorists in the Khalistani insurgency. But the real target was Kashmir, the unfinished business of Partition.

Benazir Bhutto, then Prime Minister, midwifed the Taliban in the early-1990s. Terror sank deep roots in Pakistan. Afghanistan was the ISI’s laboratory of jihadism. Radicalisation of Kashmiri youth began even as the Valley’s Pandits were brutally driven out of their homeland.

Pakistan realised after its Kargil defeat that winning a conventional war with India was impossible. Terrorism presented a cheaper alternative. Young, impoverished boys from Pakistani villages were given elementary training in terror and sent across the border to kill Indian soldiers and civilians.

It was low-cost, high impact. Families of Pakistani terrorists killed by Indian security forces were given money and land as compensation. The jihadi industry ticked along smoothly. 

Until the jihadis turned on their masters. Pakistan became both the biggest creator of terrorists and their biggest victim.

Those attempting to draw an equivalence between such malignant, institutionalised Islamist terrorism and “Hindu terror” do India great harm.

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The $400 Billion Question
Does India need such a high level of foreign exchange reserves which, parked in us treasury bonds, earn one per cent annual interest? Two, can the reserves be put to more productive use?

Monday, November 6, 2017

India’s foreign exchange reserves recently crossed $400 billion for the first time in history. The increase in forex reserves by nearly 50 per cent in four years demonstrates the underlying strength of India’s balance of payments with robust FDI, FII and NRI investments pouring in, particularly since 2014. 

The spurt in forex reserves has, however, thrown up two questions. One, does India need such a high level of foreign exchange reserves which, parked in US treasury bonds, earn one per cent annual interest? Two, how can the reserves be put to more productive use? 

The current level of reserves cover 10.5 months of imports. In comparison, during the 1991 balance of payments crisis, reserves barely covered a few weeks’ imports. Forex reserves should essentially cover the current account deficit (CAD). In India this is running annually at around $120 billion in FY18 or a little over five per cent of nominal GDP. Clearly, Indian forex reserves are many multiples of this basic requirement. Reserves are also useful to defend the rupee. However, a flexible exchange rate policy followed by India since 1992 allows the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to protect the rupee from big swings by buying or selling dollars. 

It is often pointed out that China, which has a positive CAD, still holds over $3 trillion in forex reserves. Beijing’s reserves have however dipped from a high point of $3.8 trillion to $3.1 trillion. Of these, $800 billion are part of China’s sovereign wealth fund. Chinese foreign exchange reserves are therefore, in effect, $2.2 trillion if a like-for-like comparison is done with India’s reserves — roughly five times greater than India’s and in line with the relative size of the two economies. 
The second question though is more critical: how can India’s forex reserves be put to better use? The one per cent return on US treasury bonds amounts to $4 billion (Rs 26,000 crore) a year, barely enough to pay for MNREGA. Indian policymakers are meanwhile, in a dilemma over whether to kickstart investment with a stimulus or maintain fiscal prudence. The commitment to not breach the 3.20 per cent fiscal deficit figure hangs heavy over the ministry of finance. The government though, needs to spur productive expenditure and set off a virtuous cycle of spending and consumption, supply and demand. Overall investment can then once again climb into the 33-35 per cent range from 30 per cent that it has dipped to. 

Consider now some math: India’s total debt (external and internal) is $1.20 trillion (Rs 75 lakh crore). The annual interest outgo on this debt is Rs 5.23 lakh crore as per the 2017-18 Union Budget. This means India is paying an average interest rate of around 6.5 per cent on its overall debt, including around 7.5 per cent on Indian rupee debt. 

This imposes a large burden on the Budget. The annual interest outflow is larger, for example, than the defence budget (Rs 2.62 lakh crore). Healthcare and education spending is dwarfed by the cost of servicing India’s national debt. It is a travesty that 25 per cent of India’s Rs 21.47 lakh crore annual Budget (2017-18) is spent on servicing debt due to past borrowing profligacy while social sector spending sags. 

There are three specific ways in which the government can mitigate this problem by putting forex reserves to good productive use in building infrastructure, cutting the debt servicing outgo and still retaining the fiscal deficit at 3.20 per cent of GDP.

First: Convert a portion of the $400 billion reserves into a sovereign wealth fund — exactly as China has done. If the sovereign fund has an initial corpus of $100 billion (Rs 6.50 lakh crore), it can invest in infrastructure which will deliver returns of up to 10 per cent a year compared to one per cent from US T-bills. Moreover, the need to use budgetary allocations for infrastructure investment will be obviated. This would keep the fiscal deficit target of 3.20 per cent untouched. Investing Rs 6.50 lakh crore in infrastructure, healthcare and education will kickstart spending, create jobs and spur consumption.  

Second: Cut RBI’s key interest rate by 100 basis points. As the country’s largest rupee borrower, the government will immediately save one per cent on its domestic rupee borrowing of nearly Rs 50 lakh crore. That’s a straight saving of Rs 50,000 crore a year, thereby cutting the fiscal deficit by around 0.3 per cent.

Third: Fast-track PSU disinvestment. There are dozens of PSUs (hotels, airlines, etc.) that can be fully divested along with minority share sales in large, profitable PSUs like ONGC. A recurring target of Rs 1 lakh crore a year is feasible which will release extra funds for social sector spending without affecting the fiscal deficit. 

One reason why the rupee has appreciated by over six per cent against the dollar during the past few months is the desperate search by foreign investors for higher yields. The Japanese and Swiss central banks offer near-zero or negative interest on deposits. The US and European central banks offer between one per cent and 1.5 per cent despite the US Federal Reserve’s determination to increase interest rates as global economic growth stabilises.    

India offers a safe six per cent return on sovereign debt. With the rupee holding firm and inflation moderating, US, European and Japanese investors are queuing up to invest in India. Hence the recent uptick in the balance of payments and the strengthening of the rupee against a basket of currencies. The fact that exports rose 26 per cent in September 2017 (when the rupee was 64 to a dollar) over September 2016 (when the rupee was 68 to a dollar) demolishes the myth that a weak rupee helps exports. Productivity, quality and delivery are more critical to export growth than a weak rupee. 

For Indian policymakers, as the disruptions caused by demonetisation and GST fade, the focus must be on fiscal reform. At the top of the list should be finding a better way to deploy $400 billion in foreign exchange reserves. By 2019, at the current rate of accretion, they could rise to $500 billion. That represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

Xi Jinping How India can handle China’s strongman
Historical errors of judgement have allowed Beijing to control the narrative for decades.
Friday, November 3, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping is now in the august company of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress last week enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the CPC’s Constitution at the end of the week-long conclave. “Mao Thought” and “Deng Theory” are the only two such previous enshrinements.

Some believe that by not appointing an heir at the end of the Congress, Xi is positioning himself for an unprecedented third term in 2022-2027. None of the seven Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members is likely to be eligible to be president in 2022. The unofficial age limit is 68. Xi will be 69 in 2022 but with no other contender in sight, he could well persuade the CPC to give him a third term.

There are dissenting voices though in the CPC and Xi will have to tread carefully. He has alienated many powerful people. In his first five-year term, Xi purged or jailed nearly one million officials on charges of corruption. Several senior army Generals have been sacked. China’s powerful armed forces are now firmly under Xi’s command.

According to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “It appeared from the state-run TV report that two top generals, the former chief of general staff General Fang Fenghui and director of the political work department, General Zhang Yang were absent. Both Fang and Zhang were Central Military Commission (CMC) members in Xi’s first term, but they were left out of the list of PLA delegates to the party Congress. Earlier, the two Generals were taken away on the same day last month as part of a corruption investigation.”

Xi’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea, on the Dalai Lama, over Doklam, and in Arunachal Pradesh as well as his support for Pakistani terrorists like Masood Azhar make him a challenge for Indian foreign policymakers.

China is positioning itself as the world’s leading superpower by 2050, replacing the United States. Its economy is likely to surpass America’s over the next 20 years though its military will take far longer to catch up with America’s formidable armed forces.

Xi’s ascent has worried several countries. The last time a Communist state sought superpower status to challenge the United States was the Soviet Union. The West engaged in a 45-year-long Cold War to counter that threat. An authoritarian China poses similar problems under Xi.

As The Economist wrote of Xi: “His personal powers reflect his exalted sense of mission. He is president, head of the party and in July was referred to by state media as ‘supreme commander’, a title last conferred on Deng. He bestrides the bureaucracy like a colossus, having swept away and replaced almost all the party leaders and local governors in China’s 31 provinces, as well as much of the top brass of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).”

India needs to build a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggression and Xi’s growing hegemonistic ambitions. The Doklam standoff revealed two truths.

One, that Communist China is a land-grabber by instinct. It will continue its creeping acquisition of other countries’ sovereign territory - whether on land or at sea - as long as it can get away with it.

Two, when confronted, China will back down as it did at Doklam. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t try again. It will. That is why army chief General Bipin Rawat has repeatedly stressed India’s preparedness to fight a two-front war. 

China has threatened Taiwan for years with military invasion, but has done nothing. It has clamped down on Hong Kong’s moves towards greater democracy and autonomy, but has backed away in the face of public protests.

Beijing remains prickliest though over the Dalai Lama. In a remarkable display of arrogance, it used the Communist Party’s Congress last week to warn world leaders not to meet the Dalai Lama, saying it would constitute a “major offence”.

Zhang Yijiong, who heads the Communist Party’s Tibet working group, told reporters on the sidelines of the party Congress: “Any country, or any organisation, accepting to meet the Dalai Lama, in our view, is a major offence to the sentiment of the Chinese people.” Zhang is also an executive vice-minister of the United Front Working Department of the Communist Party. Zhang said of the Dalai Lama: “After fleeing China in 1959, he established a so-called government-in-exile (in India), whose goal and core agenda is the independence of Tibet and to separate (from) China…”

Ever since the disastrous 1962 war, India has had a negative reflex action on matters regarding Tibet and China. In this context it is important to note the views of Prasenjit K Basu, a Singapore-based economist whose new book, Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Rages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism, has key insights on Asia’s past, present and future.

In a recent interview with senior journalist Aditi Phadnis in Business Standard, Basu said of India’s Tibet policy: “Nehru was a brilliant historian: his Glimpses of World History is a masterpiece. But his naivete on statecraft was astounding, as if his knowledge of history was somehow utterly separated from his approach to governance and foreign policy. Sardar Patel saw clearly that India’s traditional role as Tibet’s main ally (and the only country with four consulates in Tibet while China had no representation in 1950) was essential to India’s security, (but) Nehru allowed China to invade and occupy Tibet – while doing nothing militarily or diplomatically to thwart this thrust from a rogue Communist regime that most of the world didn’t recognise as legitimate at the time.” 

Such historical errors of judgement have allowed Beijing to control the India-China narrative for decades. That is beginning to change. Doklam was the first sign of a more robust policy to counter Chinese aggression.

India is dealing with an authoritarian country that in effect abets Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India and brazenly builds infrastructure on occupied sovereign Indian territory.

Xi is a leader who will make China even more authoritarian in the future. India must hold the line - and its nerve.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

What we know about who's winning Gujarat Assembly elections
While Congress focuses on disenchanted Dalits, Patidars, OBCs and Muslims, the women of Gujarat could tip the poll in BJP’s favour.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Two recent opinion polls on the Gujarat election gave the BJP, on average, around 120 seats in the 182-seat Assembly. That’s five more than the party won in the 2012 Assembly election. The Congress was projected to win around 55 seats, six fewer than in 2012.

A closer look reveals interesting nuggets. One of the opinion polls concluded that if Patidar leader Hardik Patel enters into a seat arrangement with the Congress, the BJP would lose up to seven seats, bringing its tally down to around the level of the last Assembly election. But with the fiery Patidar leader threatening to cut into Congress votes if it does not extend reservations to all OBCs and not just EBCs (as the Congress has declared), the BJP could gain from vote cannibalisation.

The Congress knows it is unlikely to win Gujarat in 2017 but seeks to chip away at the BJP’s majority. With opinion polls showing a BJP sweep in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is girding itself for bad news on December 18 when counting takes place. Keeping the BJP to below 110 seats in Gujarat would be a balm. It will also be a good omen for Rahul Gandhi’s incipient elevation as president of the party.

What are the Congress’ chances of restricting the BJP to below 110 seats? Slim. The Congress lays great store by its “rainbow coalition” of Dalits, Patidars, OBCs and Muslims (DPOM). Together these groups comprise over 60 per cent of the Gujarat electorate. But there are already fissures among the Patidars. Several mid-level Patel leaders have joined the BJP.

Aplesh Thakor’s OBCs (who make up 40 per cent of Gujarat’s population) could pose a bigger problem for the BJP though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own OBC status will be deployed during the campaigning to stem the flow of OBC votes to the Congress. Dalits, while only 7 per cent of Gujarat’s electorate, could also cause problems for the BJP. There have been frequent atrocities against Dalits in the state in recent months. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani may turn of to be a wild card in the elections.

The BJP has to deal with yet another factor: rising anger among the trading community over GST. Traders are the BJP’s bread-and-butter voters and the Congress hopes to wean enough of them away over the flawed implementation of GST.

The sops offered by the BJP — including the self-serving decision to reduce tax on khakra, a Gujarati snack staple — will not assuage the anger. As one Gujarati computer peripherals trader told me: “We hate GST, especially the cumbersome online filing and complicated tax slabs on different components in a single product like a computer printer.”

So will he vote for the Congress in December? A look of resignation crosses his face. “No, despite all this I will still vote for Narendra bhai.”

That encapsulates the mood of voters across Gujarat. They dislike GST, were hit by demonetisation and suffered during the floods. Farmers are in distress, Dalits angry and Patidars resentful. But when it comes to the crunch, they will vote for Gujarati pride — which means Modi.

On a visit to Surat and Vadodara, this sentiment was starkly evident: “It’s the first Assembly election since Narendra bhai became prime minister and we will stand by him,” was the common refrain. Warning bells though are sounding across the state. Farmer distress is real; so is Dalit alienation.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP rode a Modi wave and swept all 26 parliamentary seats in the state with 59.10 per cent vote share. That was a sharp rise over the 47.90 per cent vote share it received in the 2012 Assembly poll.

The Congress won 38.90 per cent vote share. It has been unable to reduce the 8-10 per cent vote share gap that the BJP has enjoyed since 1995. It is unlikely to do so in 2017, though the BJP is taking no chances. Modi will campaign extensively across the state. So will party leader Amit Shah and for the first time a phalanx of senior non-Gujarati ministers like Sushma Swaraj.

Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive swing through the state has rattled the BJP enough to target him continuously. That could be a tactical mistake. The more the BJP targets Rahul individually, the more he gains in stature. With a sassy new IT and social media head, Rahul’s Gabbar Singh Tax (GST) barb and other bon mots are gaining traction. Alas for the Congress, the average Gujarati remains unmoved by social media one-liners.

Gujaratis are a pragmatic people. They want development. The shower of new projects, including the Narmada dam’s raised height, power plants and the ferry service linking Saurashtra to South Gujarat are what matter to them.

Women are the other invisible ace up the BJP’s sleeve. When he was CM, Modi assiduously wooed women voters with a slew of women-oriented schemes. One of the most popular is the law that exempts women from property registration charges if the property is in their name. Other schemes for girl students have over the years built up a formidable women’s constituency for the BJP, a factor largely overlooked by most observers of state politics.

This December, while the Congress focuses on disenchanted Dalits, Patidars, OBCs and Muslims, the women of Gujarat could be the Y factor that tips the election decisively in the BJP’s favour.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

Why Shashi Tharoor is wrong about Britain's colonial debt to India
The debt to India at today's prices would easily cross #3 trillion and reparations are needed.
Saturday, October 28, 2017

How much does Britain owe India as reparations for its 190-year occupation and depredation of India?

Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, in his book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, quoted American historian and philosopher Will Durant: "The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilisation, utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, overrunning with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and 'legal' plunder which now (1930) has gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years."

Consider the damage Britain did to India. In Tharoor's words: "Taxation (and theft labelled as taxation) became a favourite British form of exaction. India was treated as a cash cow; the revenues that flowed into London's treasury were described by the Earl of Chatham as 'the redemption of a nation a kind of gift from heaven'. The British extracted from India approximately #18,000,000 each year between 1765 and 1815. Taxation - usually at a minimum of 50 per cent of income - was so onerous that two-thirds of the population ruled by the British in the late eighteenth century fled their lands. Durant writes that '(tax) defaulters were confined in cages, and exposed to the burning sun; fathers sold their children to meet the rising rates'. Unpaid taxes meant being tortured to pay up, and the wretched victim's land being confiscated by the British."

While Tharoor's well-researched book has deservedly received wide coverage in India and abroad, an excellent article on the subject by Venu Madhav Govindu in The Wire (August 6, 2015) has passed relatively unnoticed.

Govindu throws light on what Britain owed India from an accounting point of view. These are empirical, official figures. From here we can extrapolate Britain's colonial debt to India, an exercise I first did in an article in The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1988: The Debt and Dishonour of the British Empire.

But first, Govindu's arguments: "In 1931, the debt owed to Britain by India was said to be about Rs 1,000 crore. At that time, the Indian National Congress argued that much of this amount was incurred by Britain in furthering its own interests. Based largely on the work of the Gandhian economic philosopher, JC Kumarappa, the Congress argued that the principle of natural justice would wipe out all of this debt and more. Therefore, it held that the future debt to be borne by a free India had to be subjected to the scrutiny of an impartial tribunal. The British political leadership and press roundly denounced this rather moderate position and treated it as a treacherous 'repudiation' of India's obligations.

"By the end of the Second World War in 1945, Britain had to finally reckon with the problem of its debt to India and other countries. Britain agreed to pay a debt of Rs 1,600 crore but other calculations showed a rather different figure. In 1947, Kumarappa estimated that the Indian share of the costs of deployment of its soldiers was Rs 1,300 crore. A similar amount of Rs 1,200 crore was spent in expenses pertaining to the war. He argued that these and other costs ought to be borne by Britain, which led to a figure of Rs 5,700 crore which was many times larger than the British figure of Rs 1,600 crore. Britain, Kumarappa asserted, should not be allowed to be the debtor as well as the judge and the jury and he lobbied for India to demand an impartial international tribunal on the matter. In the event, India failed to push for such an international settlement and the British view prevailed much to the detriment of independent India."

Let's take the Rs 5,700 crore figure estimated by Kumarappa in 1947 as the starting point of what Britain owed India in purely commercial terms, not taking into account intangibles such as the economic cost of human life caused by British brutality or the egregious strangulation of Indian economic activity and trade.

In 1947, the exchange rate was Rs 13 to one British pound sterling. Thus Rs 5,700 crore in 1947 was equivalent to #4.40 billion. What would that be in today's rupees/sterling?

The value of gold and real estate is an accurate indicator of how money appreciates over long periods of time spanning more than 70 years. In 1947, the price of 10gms of gold was Rs 80. In 2017, the price of 10gms of gold was Rs 31,000 - an increase of nearly 400 times.

The rise in the price of a basket of real estate, commodities and household essentials over the past 70 years gives a similar cost-inflation index of between 400 and 500 times. (The inflation-adjustment in British prices between 1947 and 2017 is around 150 times. But since our calculations are in rupees and a depreciation of the rupee-sterling rate between 1947 and 2017 has been factored in, the multiplier of 400x holds.)

Now to the math: according to Govindu, Britain's official debt to India in 1947 was Rs 5,700 crore (#4.40 billion) at the prevailing exchange rate of Rs 13 to one pound sterling. Multiply that by 400. At today's inflation-adjusted and exchange rate-adjusted figure, the debt is therefore #1.76 trillion.

But this is just the tip of the reparations iceberg. We haven't yet computed the cost of India's near-zero rate of GDP growth during vast time swathes of the 190-year British occupation, nor the cost of lost economic value due to Britain's wilful destruction of Indian mercantile trade.

If these are scientifically calculated, Britain's debt to India at today's prices would easily cross #3 trillion (Rs 270 lakh crore) - more than Britain's current GDP.

Tharoor says reparations aren't needed; an apology and a token payment of one pound sterling a year for 200 years will suffice. He is wrong. Reparations are needed. An apology and tokenism won't suffice. Writes Tharoor in his book: "India should be content with a symbolic reparation of one pound a year, payable for 200 years to atone for 200 years of imperial rule. I felt that atonement was the point - a simple 'sorry' would do as well - rather than cash. Indeed, the attempt by one Indian commentator, Minhaz Merchant, to compute what a fair sum of reparations would amount to, came up with a figure so astronomical - $3 trillion in today's money - that no one could ever reasonably be expected to pay it. (The sum would be larger than Britain's entire GDP in 2015.)"

Obviously #3 trillion (not $3 trillion as Tharoor writes) is a figure that needs to be ratified by an international arbitration panel of economists and technocrats. This mechanism had been demanded by the Congress, based on Kumarappa's work, even before Independence. Let's assume the final figure such a tribunal arrives at today as colonial reparations against Britain's debt to India is #2.50 trillion.

A payment schedule can stretch over 50 years, interest-free at #50 billion (Rs 4,50,000 crore) a year. That's less than 2 per cent of Britain's current GDP (#2.6 trillion) and not much more than the amount Britain intends in future to spend every year on the National Health Service (NHS).

Can Britain afford to pay India reparations of 2 per cent of its GDP for the next 50 years?

That isn't India's problem. It's Britain's.

For nearly 200 years Britain plundered India, committed brutal crimes on Indian civilians and strangulated GDP growth. In the process, it financed its industrial revolution, its Napoleonic wars against France, and built the world's largest economy in the 1800s. That led to the creation of Britain's post-industrial leisure society and the soft power of music, sports and culture that accompanied it.

What about Britain's contribution to India: the railways, unification, English, the ICS/IAS, universities, the rule of law?

Tharoor rightly sets each one in perspective. Consider, for lack of space, just one: the railways: "In this very conception and construction, the Indian Railways was a big British colonial scam. Each mile of Indian Railway construction in the 1850s and 1860s cost an average of #18,000, as against the dollar equivalent of #2,000 at the same time in the US."

In short, what Britain built in India with underpaid Indian labour and overtaxed Indian revenue was ruthlessly repatriated to pave the roads of London, finance British infrastructure and subsidise Britain's imperial wars. India in effect ended up paying for its own colonisation. All the benefits accrued to Britain. All the costs were borne by India.

Last week Virendra Sharma, a long-time British MP of Indian origin, tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the House of Commons seeking a formal apology from the British government for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. That is one of the tips of the reparations iceberg to which no price can be attached.

But to others it can. And Britain must pay.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

The new triangle of power
By 2035, China, the US, and India will be the world’s biggest economies, maintaining the largest militaries

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In geopolitics, there is a certain inevitability of outcomes. Just as the 20th century was dominated by a triangle of great powers — the United States, imperial Britain, and the Soviet Union — the 21st century is set to be dominated by China, the United States and India.

In his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the terms of engagement between these three pivots of power in this unfolding century. Tillerson’s visit to India is part of a swing through South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

In his speech last Wednesday in Washington, Tillerson outlined America’s long-term strategic vision: “The Trump administration is determined to dramatically deepen ways for the United States and India to further this partnership. China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty. China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.”

Three points stood out in Tillerson’s address. One, the US has unveiled an “Indo-Pacific” strategic model to cut a broad swathe from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. That implies a joint India-US-Japan security grid to curtail China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond.

Two, the US sees India playing the role Britain undertook in the 20th century to help contain communism. China is the new Soviet Union, and the tinderbox Korean peninsula the new eastern Europe of the Cold War.

Three, Tillerson accuses China of irresponsible behaviour, “predatory economics” and violating a rules-based world order. In sharp contrast, he lauds India for being a responsible power and a force for regional stability.

Much of Tillerson’s thinking is based on hard economic and military facts. By 2035, China, the United States, and India will be the world’s three largest economies and possess the world’s three largest militaries. China’s economy, currently half as big as America’s, is likely to surpass it well before 2035. With its traditional allies in Western Europe shrinking their militaries and (bar Britain) beset by a declining population, Washington needs India as a counterweight to China more than ever.

India has many advantages to offer: A professional if under-equipped military, a growing economy notwithstanding a temporary slowdown, the rule of law (however cumbersome) and a robust, open democracy not unlike America’s. India’s consumer market is an added asset for US companies. The country’s military, labouring under delayed defence equipment purchases, offers another opportunity for the US defence industry.

Tillerson’s blunt warning to Beijing over its “predatory” investment strategy came at the worst possible time for Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was on the same day delivering his marathon speech (it ran for 205 minutes) to over 2,300 delegates at the opening of the 19th Chinese Communist Party’s Congress in Beijing. Reacting to the unusually harsh criticism by Washington, China responded within hours: “Beijing hopes the US can put China’s development and China’s positive role in the world into perspective, abandon its biased views of China and make concerted efforts with China to focus on cooperation, properly handle differences and maintain the momentum of the steady growth of China-US relations.”

Notably, the Chinese riposte was conciliatory, not confrontational. China pointed out defensively that it has invested $560 billion in over 60 counties in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe, creating wealth and jobs. Yet China knows that a dictatorship cannot deploy money to win respect. Xi believes China will have unparalleled “global influence” by 2035. But Beijing will not have global credibility if it jails dissidents, blocks social media, bars free speech and denies citizens democracy.

All great powers posses exceptionalism. China does not. What Xi fears most, therefore, is a collapse of Chinese communism as it happened in the Soviet Union, leading to chaos and disintegration. His misguided prescription is tighter control, more authoritarianism, and greater hegemonic aggression. Beijing has other problems as well. Its population is ageing rapidly. Taiwan and Hong Kong remain thorns in Beijing’s side. North Korea is an intractable problem that could end in Tokyo and Seoul opting to develop their own nuclear weapons and reversing more than 70 years of a denuclearised Japan and South Korea protected by America’s nuclear umbrella.

For India, as Tillerson leaves New Delhi, the challenge is to make Washington live up to its commitments: First, to bring Pakistan to heel on state-sponsored terrorism; second, to treat Punjab-based terror groups LeT and JeM, who daily attack Indian civilians and security forces in Jammu & Kashmir, as ruthlessly as the Haqqanis and the Taliban; and three, to make good on Washington’s pledge to attack terrorist safe havens on Pakistani soil, not just in the lawless tribal areas, but in Pakistan Punjab and PoK where the LeT and JeM enjoy Pakistani army patronage.

The US has few options in the unfolding geopolitics of the 21st century but to ally with India to counter China’s rise. In return, India must ask and receive full US cooperation to end the scourge of Pakistan-bred terrorism in the region. The fraudulent Bush-Obama doctrine of good and bad terrorists must be given an emphatic burial.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

Putting Economy On Track
No two economists though agree on the key question: Now what? clearly some nuanced thinking is required

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

As the debate rages on how to return the Indian economy to good health, it is clear that there is very little wiggle room for a government stimulus without breaching the 3.20 per cent fiscal deficit target set by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for 2017-18. As on August 31, 2017, the fiscal deficit had already consumed 96 per cent of the full year’s target (Rs 5.25 lakh crore out of Rs 5.46 lakh crore).

So if the government wants to pump in more money into the system to boost investment activity, the full year’s fiscal deficit could well hit 3.50 per cent, alarming fiscal purists and foreign rating agencies.

Nonetheless, the government may have few alternatives to kickstart the economy. As economist Ajit Ranade wrote in Mint: “Fiscal consolidation has been one of the prized achievements of the present government. The gains from falling oil prices did not lead to a spendthrift budget. This year the budgeted fiscal deficit of the Central government is 3.20 per cent, which will fall further to 3 per cent in the following year. The 3 per cent fiscal deficit holy grail number has origins in the number agreed by the European Union in the Maastricht treaty. There is no theoretical basis for this. For a country with a young demography like India, the number of unborn taxpayers far outnumbers the currently alive taxpayers. So passing a lighter per-capita tax burden on future unborn generations, through a higher fiscal deficit, is much more feasible for India than Europe. India is a developing country which is bound to have higher debt and deficits.

“India needs to expand fiscal spending in at least three specific sectors: (a) affordable housing, through interest subventions and assistance to states to acquire contiguous land to provide to developers. This can be potentially a big booster; (b) subsidy to employers, by way of full funding of pension funds or part of wage payment of workers and apprentices; and (c) enhanced fiscal support to manufacturing and services export schemes.”

Ranade rightly suggests that the Indian government can expand fiscal spending on schemes in housing, manufacturing and exports. This is critical since the other three engines of the economy are dormant. Private investment has been stalled by cautious bank lending due to persistently high NPAs. Exports remain weak, well below their 2014 peak. The fourth engine, consumption, has been hobbled by the after-effects of demonetisation and teething problems with GST.

Indian GDP over the last six quarters has declined markedly. In the January-March 2016 quarter, GDP growth was 9.2 per cent. In subsequent quarters it fell to 7.9 per cent, 7.5 per cent, 7.0 per cent, 6.1 per cent and 5.7 per cent.

Let’s analyse these figures more closely. In the quarter just before de-monetisation (July-September 2016) GDP growth, while showing a downward trend, was still a robust 7.5 per cent. It is easy to conclude therefore that demonetisation along with GST destocking in June 2017 clobbered growth as both supply and demand fell sharply. The low inflation rate (including briefly negative inflation) points to a deflationary economy which would normally call for a stimulus.

The government still has an opportunity to spur spending if tax revenue in the second half of the year rises steeply on the back of greater GST compliance. Tax receipts are currently up by around 17 per cent over the same period last year. But as GST settles down and compliance increases, the year’s tax revenue target could well be exceeded. Public sector divestment is another arrow in Jaitley’s quiver with several PSU share sales lined up to boost the national exchequer.

Surjit Singh Bhalla, the newly appointed member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, has a contrarian view on sliding GDP growth. He argues that stalled growth may well be temporary due to the structural disruptions caused by demonetisation and GST. His data shows that the income of the poorest of the poor is rising more than twice as fast after demonetisation than before it. Between December 2015 and September 2016, the wages of “ploughmen and carpenters” (whom Bhalla defines as among the lowest paid daily workers) rose by two per cent. However, in the post-demonetisation period, between November 2016 and July 2017, the growth rate in wages of these workers more than doubled to five per cent.

Obviously these constitute a narrow set of parameters which don’t prove conclusively that demonetisation hasn’t hurt daily wage earners across sectors as much as feared. Bhalla’s coup de grace: “Maybe that is why Modi has been winning elections; maybe that is why the growth slowdown (with a little help from the RBI) will soon reverse.”

No two economists though agree on the key question: now what? Clearly some nuanced thinking is required. A fiscal push may be necessary to revive the animal spirits former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke so longingly about. A combination of surpassing both tax revenue and PSU divestment targets could give the Finance Minister elbow room to pump in around Rs 40,000 crore into the economy without seriously breaching the 3.20 per cent fiscal deficit target. (Remember, every 0.1 per cent increase in the fiscal deficit represents around Rs 18,000 crore.)

The other three engines of growth must simultaneously fire. Overall investment has dipped to around 28 per cent of GDP. The savings ratio has fallen to 30 per cent of GDP. Both were about a third higher in 2013-14. Till corporates begin investing and consumers start saving, GDP growth will remain subdued.

The Finance Minister must meanwhile keep his promise to cut the corporation tax rate to 30 per cent and remove exemptions to improve compliance in a post-GST environment. To boost consumer spending, Jaitley must rationalise direct tax rates. Far too much time and resources are spent by the income-tax department on chasing low-value taxpayers. As GST, which covers large and small businesses, has shown, 95 per cent of tax revenue comes from five per cent of taxpayers, an admission Jaitley himself made publicly on September 28. It is a sobering statistic. India’s economic policymakers are missing the wood for the trees.

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Only in India Suleiman and Anwar celebrate a noisy but legally noise-free Diwali
'We are like that only.'
Friday, October 20, 2017

The flight from Riyadh to Delhi was uneventful. Suleiman Khan glanced impatiently at his Rolex watch as he waited outside the airport. Anwarbhai said he’d be here by 5.00pm, he muttered to himself as he searched for his friend in Delhi’s early-evening haze. He was looking forward to celebrating Diwali.

Just then Anwar Sheikh’s spanking new Mercedes drove up beside him.

“Get in, Suleiman,” said Anwar cheerfully. “I have a surprise for you.”

“What’s that, Anwarbhai,” Suleiman asked, brow knitted as he slid into the front leather bucket seat of his friend’s E-250. He had lately become wary of Anwar’s surprises.

“I’m taking you tonight to your first noise-free Diwali party.”

“Ah, you mean after the Supreme Court ban on the sale of firecrackers in NCR,” said Suleiman knowingly.

“Yes, Suleiman,” said Anwar. “The ban is a great idea. It’s only those right-wing Hindutva types who are upset about it. As if the Supreme Court is trampling on their divine right to pollute the city with smoke and noise.”

Suleiman nodded thoughtfully: “Yes, Anwarbhai, Delhi as winter sets in is polluted enough without all those firecrackers.”

Later that evening, the two friends drove up to quiet colony in south Delhi where Anwar’s friend was hosting a Diwali party.

As they entered the gate of the sprawling two-storied bungalow, Suleiman recognised a high-profile lawyer famous for writing poetry in between charging enormous legal fees to get his wealthy clients out of prison.

“Anwar!” the lawyer exclaimed, bouncing up to the pair and hugging Anwar. “What are you up to these days?”

“Oh, just the usual,” said Anwar, extricating himself from the bear hug. “Met madam the other day. She says the time is ripe for Rahul to take over.”

The stocky, white-mopped lawyer, on a retainer to the Family, nodded in agreement. “Yes, Anwar, it’s about time. Rahul has fire in his belly! He’ll do a great job.”

“While he’s in India,” murmured Suleiman, under his breath.

“Eh, what was that,” the lawyer asked, cocking his ear towards Suleiman, the wide grin on his face vanishing.

“Oh, this is my friend Suleiman from Saudi Arabia,” Anwar said quickly. “He’s here to get a taste of Delhi’s noise-free Diwali after that wonderful Supreme Court order.”

Just then a loud explosion behind them made the three men jump. “What was that,” asked Suleiman. “I thought firecrackers were banned!”

Anwar smiled sheepishly as the sprightly lawyer bounced off to greet a group of men, loudly discussing Modi’s waning popularity. “The Supreme Court, Suleiman, has banned the sale of firecrackers in NCR but not the bursting of firecrackers already sold. And there’s a stock of over one lakh kg of firecrackers in shops around NCR.”

“Ah,” said Suleiman. “So it’s a noise-less Diwali only on paper.” He smiled as Anwar rolled his eyes on hearing multiple crackers going off on the lawn in front of them. “In India, Suleiman, the law can sometimes be an ass.”

“That’s why Indian lawyers are doing so well,” grinned Suleiman. “Like your poet-lawyer friend we met.”

Just then, a kurta-clad man with a shock of thick white hair came up to greet Anwar. “Happy Diwali, Anwar,” he said. “We on the Left look forward to supporting the Congress in 2019. Modi must go! He has killed free speech, his cow vigilantes beat up poor Muslims every other day, Hindutwadis are killing journalists and activists who stand up to him. Modi must go.”

Anwar said soothingly, “Of course, he must go, but as our new young leader said, we don’t want a BJP-mukt Bharat, just a Modi-mukt Bharat.”

Suleiman was puzzled. As the white-haired leader of the Left, still breathing fire, walked away, he asked his friend: “But Anwarbhai, didn’t the Karnataka SIT chief say last Saturday that there was no evidence of right-wing extremists being involved in the left-wing journalist’s murder, contradicting the Karnataka minister?”

Anwar looked crossly at his friend. “Suleiman, don’t fall for all that BJP-RSS propaganda. Of course, she was murdered by right-wing extremists. Even the firearms that killed previous rationalists match the one that killed her.”

Suleiman shook his head. “No Anwarbhai, they don’t. The SIT chief said so specifically at his press conference on Saturday. He said he’s still not ruling anything out, including a Naxal angle.”

Anwar looked at his friend in good-natured exasperation. “Sitting in Riyadh, Suleiman, how on earth do you know all this?”

Suleiman smiled and nudged his friend. “See Anwarbhai, isn’t that bearded gentleman the TV channel tycoon who has run into problems with the I-T department and the enforcement directorate?”

“It’s all vendetta politics Suleiman,” Anwar said gruffly. “His channel is so professional, so fair to the Pakistani point of view. It’s Congress’ favourite channel. It’s such a refreshing change from those nationalist channels where anchors scream for two hours every evening.”

As Anwar and Suleiman walked towards the buffet table groaning under the weight of multiple cuisine stations, another bang went off. “Just kids playing with crackers bought before the ban,” said Anwar nervously. “Don’t give it a second thought.”

Suleiman smiled, thinking to himself, this can only happen in India. A noisy but legally noise-free Diwali.

Dinner over, as they prepared to leave, the two friends were startled to see a small stage with two men performing a skit. One was dressed in a smart sherwani, looking pleased with himself playing the bridegroom. The other was dressed in a simple white kurta, looking coy and demure, playing the bride. They exchanged occasional sideways glances, one smiling confidently the other coquettishly.

Anwar laughed as the two friends walked towards the exit. “It’s a marriage of convenience between the BJP and JD(U),” he chuckled. “Wait for our national mahagathbandan in 2019. That will end this marriage for sure.”

The deafening sound of firecrackers followed them out of the gate. Suleiman shook his head in mock despair. “We are like that only,” he said to himself as they slid into Anwar’s Mercedes and drove down a crowded Delhi street alive with a group of revellers bursting firecrackers led enthusiastically by a man he recognised.

“Isn’t that Chetan, Anwarbhai?” he asked.

“Yes, Suleiman, it is,” Anwar replied, his voice muffled by the sound of firecrackers bursting all around the car.

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Can Rahul Gandhi revive the Congress ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls
Can the party provide the BJP with the contest Indian democracy needs? Not until it changes its dynastic DNA.

Friday, October 19, 2017

The coronation is imminent. In a fixed internal Congress “election”, Rahul Gandhi will soon be chosen unopposed as the next Congress president. That will make him the fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty since 1947 to head the Congress.

If this is not cringe worthy enough in making a mockery of democracy, Congress leaders show no sign of embarrassment. As pioneers of dynastic politics they are actually proud that other families have followed in their footsteps: the Pawars, Thackerays, Abdullahs, Karunanidhis, Yadavs, Patnaiks, and even several NDA allies like the Naidus, Paswans and Muftis.

Congress leaders smugly point to the scattered political dynasts in the BJP itself, ranging from Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje to ministers in the Narendra Modi cabinet whose fathers were ministers or MPs. While the scale and numbers of BJP dynasts are much smaller, the principle applies equally to them: dynastic politics is bad in principle and damaging in practice.

The world’s most advanced countries have long rejected political dynasty. There are no Churchill, de Gaulle, Thatcher or Kennedy dynasties. Two of the most reviled politicians in the United States today, President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are deeply unpopular at least partly because they are either products of a dynasty (Clinton) or brazenly promote assorted members of their family (Trump).

Apologists for dynastic politics argue that India’s dynasts are democratically elected and therefore legitimate, unlike dynasts in dictatorships or feudal sheikhdoms. This argument is disingenuous. India has a longstanding culture of feudalism. Deep-rooted poverty gives family-backed politicians an electoral advantage.

Indian dynasts use this advantage to ruthless effect, severely limiting the democratic choice available to voters. Culture and poverty collide to create a fertile breeding ground for feudalism. Other South Asian countries with similar cultural histories like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal also suffer large economic inequalities — a common feature in dynasty-led countries.

In India even supposedly rational political leaders bow deferentially before dynasty. In former President Pranab Mukherjee’s new book, The Coalition Years: 1996 to 2012, launched last week, he writes, bereft of a trace of embarrassment: “I returned with a vague impression that she (Sonia Gandhi) might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in the Kaushambi Hills.”

Note Mukherjee’s plaintive, hopeful words: “She may choose me as the prime minister.” Sonia Gandhi, who had never held a constitutional office before appointing herself Congress party president in 1998 by railroading Sitaram Kesri, “chose” prime ministers while Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh looked meekly and obediently on.

It is this sycophantic party Rahul Gandhi will inherit in the coming days. The idea is to give Rahul a year to establish his authority over the old guard (many of whom will deservedly be sidelined) and put together a cohesive campaign for the raft of state elections scheduled for 2018 before the Lok Sabha poll in April-May 2019.

Apart from an unscheduled visit to a ladies bathroom, Rahul’s campaign swing across Gujarat last week was largely gaffe-free. Despite the Patidar factor and distress among farmers, the BJP is likely to win the Gujarat assembly election, though it will need hard, no-holds-barred campaigning by Modi himself.

Rahul’s minders know this and are trying to cut the BJP’s victory margin to just over 100 seats in the 182-seat assembly in order to change the mood in the four big states that really matter: Karnataka (which goes to the polls in April 2018) and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (December 2018).

If Rahul can keep the BJP’s victory margin in Gujarat below the 2012 figure of 115, the Congress has a good chance of springing a surprise in, especially, Rajasthan where anti-incumbency against Vasundhara Raje is building.

Rahul must also get credit for a statement he made in Gujarat which has been little noticed. Countering BJP president Amit Shah’s “Congress-mukt Bharat” war cry, Rahul said he doesn’t want a “BJP mukt Bharat” because India needs strong representation for people who support the BJP. He is of course right.

The last thing India needs is a one-party rule. We have had enough of the Congress’ unbroken 30-year rule from 1947 to 1977 (and overall for 55 of India’s 70 independent years) to not want any other party, the BJP included, to create a similar political monopoly in future. In a democracy, the only thing worse than dynasty is a monopoly.

Can the Congress provide the BJP with the two-party contest Indian democracy needs? Not until it changes its dynastic DNA. Rahul may have perfectly good intentions. But if he really cares about his party and his country, he must democratise the Congress and de-link his family from it.

That may alarm party loyalists who regard the Gandhis as the glue that holds the party together and ensures their own political longevity. But parties are resilient. The Congress will recover from a Gandhi-mukt future. With real internal reform, it could pose a challenge to the BJP in 2024.

Despite losing ground in urban India, Modi has enough momentum to carry the NDA to victory in 2019. But 2024 will be an entirely different matter. It will be the most open election in a generation.

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Are Supreme Court judges right in saying social media must be regulated
Adding one more regulatory layer to those that already exist will not achieve balance.
Friday, October 13, 2017

Change is afoot in the Supreme Court. Decisions on how justices are nominated to the apex court by the collegium will soon be made public.

Transparency is obviously good. The highest court in the land should set an example in openness. In the United States, some (though not all) court proceedings are televised. US judges are held to account like any other public servants. In India, if proceedings in Parliament can be televised live, there is no reason why hearings in the Supreme Court shouldn't be televised either.

Indian judges need to drop the cloak of secrecy that surrounds their work. It is good that court verdicts are uploaded on the internet shortly after they are announced in court.

In the US, lower court judges actually have to get elected and take part in the hurly burly of campaigning. That may be taking things too far, but in India judges at all levels are treated with more reverence than needed. Respect, yes, reverence no.

In this context, consider the Supreme Court's "concern" at "accusations" made on social media against their judicial pronouncements. Senior advocates Fali Nariman (whose son Rohinton is a Supreme Court judge) and Harish Salve (whose father NKP Salve was president of the BCCI) said there was a need to "regulate" social media.

But first some context. According to The Times of India: "The Supreme Court expressed concern on Thursday (October 5, 2017) over abusive and derogatory comments on social media and agreed with the contention of senior advocates Fali Nariman and Harish Salve that people doing so should face consequences. The Supreme Court also hit back at those alleging that judges were increasingly becoming 'pro-government', saying such accusations were unfortunate and people should come and sit in courtrooms to see how courts have 'hauled up' the government to protect the rights of citizens."

"The Supreme Court was hearing a plea seeking its direction to restrain ministers and those holding public office from expressing their views in criminal cases which might affect the probe. The issue came up after Samajwadi Party member Azam Khan termed the Bulandshahr gangrape last year as 'an outcome of political conspiracy' and a petition was filed against him in the Supreme Court by the survivor's family. The court referred the matter to a Constitution bench and said the larger bench would be at liberty to frame questions for adjudication, including the issue of social media."

This is when Nariman and Salve stepped in. They asked for "regulation" of social media. Said Salve: "People have to be made accountable. Tweets are posted on a public platform. It is so abusive that I had to close my Twitter account. Consequences must follow for people misusing it."

Added Nariman: "It (social media) is horrible and nobody bothers about it. Some principle has to be evolved."

Justice DY Chandrachud (son of YV Chandrachud, another former chief justice of the Supreme Court), who was hearing the case brought by Azam Khan before the conversation veered around to regulating social media, expressed sympathy for Nariman and Salve's concerns. He recalled how Nariman had been attacked on social media for defending the Rohingya refugees: "I was shocked to see the kind of comments made against Nariman. People feel free to say anything. It is shocking."

So should social media be regulated? Wrong question. It already is. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have robust self-regulation. Abusive posts are flagged and taken down fairly quickly after they're reported.

If the abuse is of a criminal nature (threat to rape or cause bodily harm), Twitter has an accelerated mechanism to suspend such accounts.

Such self-regulation is good but clearly not good enough. But there's a second layer of recourse available through various sections of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to punish threatening or abusive trolls.

Additionally, anyone who's active on an open public platform like Twitter knows there are three antidotes to trolling without even taking recourse to the two layers above. First, ignore. Second, mute. Third, block.

As someone who writes/edits/publishes across print/TV/online media platforms, I believe "regulating" social media as suggested by Nariman and Salve is both impractical and unnecessary.

Even much older media like print and television have failed to police themselves - or be policed. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority, Press Council and Editors Guild of India can't stop the stream of libellous stories that find their way into newspapers, websites and television.

Even the courts have proved ineffective in stopping slander as recent high-profile cases involving finance minister Arun Jaitley and Delhi chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal have shown.

Media, by its very nature, is an untamed beast. Regulating such a beast is condemned to fail.

Social media has actually democratised media. One-way conversations between anchor/author and viewer/reader are now two-way - in realtime. The benefits this brings to transparent, robust journalism far outweighs any collateral damage such a free and at times fiery exchange can cause.

The Supreme Court and its senior counsel have missed the wood for the trees. The solution lies within them: fair, firm and fast justice. That itself will instill fear in those who use media to slander, abuse and threaten. There is no greater deterrence to wilful abuse or criminal behavior, in real or virtual life, than quick justice.

Justice DY Chandrachud has a history of delivering liberal, progressive judgments. He should re-examine his position on finding the right balance between a free media and a fettered media.

Adding one more regulatory layer to those that already exist will not achieve that balance.

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Pak mainstreams its terrorists
It aspires to counter US pressure on terror havens and blur the line between terrorists, army and politicians

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Islamabad will receive two important American visitors over the next few weeks. Neither will be a bearer of good tidings. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis have made no secret of their anger over Pakistan’s long-standing perfidy of harbouring terrorists who have killed over 4,000 US and NATO soldiers since 2001.

Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama gave Pakistan $30 billion over the past 16 years in return for this perfidy. Pakistan’s army not only provides terrorists safe havens on Pakistani soil, but also trains them, funds them, arms them and protects them. Rawalpindi has two objectives. One, to bleed India at little cost to itself through the terrorists it nurtures because it knows it can’t win a conventional war. Two, to intimidate Afghanistan into accepting the Taliban as part of a future Afghan government.

Washington has finally blown the whistle. At a recent US Congressional hearing to the House Armed Services Committee, Mattis was blunt: “We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the President (Donald Trump) is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary.”

Pakistan, though, has two trump cards: First, the land supply route for US/NATO forces in landlocked Afghanistan; second, China. The Pakistan army, famed for its cunning but not its intellect, overestimates the importance of these two key assets. The US has begun developing an alternative land supply route from the north through central Asia. While logistically more complex, it is an antidote to Islamabad’s blackmail over essential NATO supply routes (which Pakistan temporarily blocked after NATO helicopters and fighter jets killed 28 Pakistani troops in northwest Pakistan in November 2011).

China is an even weaker card. Beijing fears Islamist terrorism and has clamped down on its restive Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. China’s investment in Pakistan carries a heavy interest burden which ordinary Pakistanis are only now coming to terms with. Millions of Pakistanis study and live in the US. Very few do so in China. The cultural dissonance with China, along with the economic costs of China’s high interest-bearing loans for new infrastructure will (as Sri Lanka has recently discovered) rapidly erode the idea that China is the all-weather solution to Pakistan’s problems.

As Mattis said at the Congressional hearing: “In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’. One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a diktat.” Mattis (a former Marine commander), who follows Tillerson to Islamabad later this month, says “everything is on the table” in his talks with the Pakistani establishment. That includes cutting all aid, stopping military spares, and ending Pakistan’s status as a non-NATO military ally.

Drone attacks on terror safe havens in Pakistan would be one form of escalated punishment. Sensing the danger, Pakistan’s resourceful generals have begun mainstreaming terrorist organisations into politics as an insurance policy against such attacks. The Milli Muslim League (MML), a “political” party controlled by the terrorist-cum-Islamist evangelist Hafiz Saeed, has the backing of the Pakistani army. The army’s spokesman Asif Ghafoor says: “The government has started some discussion over it, how do we mainstream them, so that they could (make a) constructive contribution.”

Pakistan thus joins the league of chaotic Arab countries like Egypt where quasi-terrorist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood briefly held power and are still a force to reckon with in the Opposition. The Pakistani government has made a show of opposing the MML. The Interior Ministry told the Election Commission of Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League should not have been allowed to participate in a by-election where it won over 5,800 votes. The ministry wrote: “There is evidence to substantiate that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) are affiliates and ideologically of the same hue, and (therefore) the registration of the MML is not supported.”

By mainstreaming terrorist groups into political parties under the army’s patronage, Rawalpindi hopes to kill two birds with one stone. First, counter US pressure on terror safe havens by, in effect, giving them political cover. (Drone attacks on terror groups masquerading as political parties are problematic.) Second, further blur the line between terrorists, the army and politicians. Attack one, you attack all three, thereby checkmating the US. The Generals in Rawalpindi, who spend their evenings sipping Scotch and obsessing over India, will try to spin Mattis and Tillerson exactly as their predecessors did.

The size of Pakistan’s economy is just 11 per cent of India’s. Its population is less than that of Uttar Pradesh. It has ongoing insurgencies in Balochistan (which comprises 44 per cent of Pakistan’s territory), Sindh, and among the Pashtuns, who are evenly spread on either side of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Like Houdini, Pakistan’s Generals have escaped the shackles Washington has in the past put on them. Mattis, who earned the sobriquet “Mad Dog” when he served in the US army, though, is a different kind of US defence secretary. He could be the most difficult visitor Rawalpindi’s Generals have received.

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Good And Simple Tax
The GST should simplify paperwork. This can happen only with a single gst rate for almost all goods and services

Monday, October 9, 2017

Three months after its introduction on July 1, 2017, it is time to take stock of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Tax collections are running ahead of estimates. By pulling in large chunks of the informal sector into the formal economy, the long-term benefits of GST will be a game changer.

In the earlier regime of a plethora of state-level taxes – octroi, VAT, sales and excise – many SMEs operated beneath the radar. Small traders almost never paid any taxes. Now most do. The GST will, in the months and years ahead, dramatically broaden India’s tax base. 

Where GST has failed the test, however, is in its architecture and implementation. The architecture is needlessly complex. There are too many tax slabs, too many exemptions, and too many anomalies. Implementation has inevitably suffered with tortuous paperwork to decipher which tax slab applies to which product. 

As Einstein said apocryphally: “The clever simplify the complicated; the rest complicate the simple.” The GST would have intrigued Einstein. Here’s a great idea, replacing a complex web of state taxes with one national tax. Simplifying the complicated? 

In principle, yes. In practice, no. 

The first infirmity of GST is the multiplicity of tax slabs. The second is the onerous paperwork. The third is differences in tax slabs between components of the same product. A colour printer’s components, for example, have different tax slabs for each sub-product, making the paperwork a nightmare. Book publishers, to cite another example, have to deal with different tax rates for printing presses, designers and authors’ royalties. 

Some of the GST tax slabs descend from the sublime to the ridiculous. Food takeaways from an air-conditioned restaurant are taxed at 18 per cent even if it’s a walk-in customer who takes delivery in a non-airconditioned part of the restaurant. Oddly, a sitar is exempt from GST; a guitar is not. A dhol is exempt, drums are not. This is taking economic nationalism to ludicrous lengths under the guise of encouraging Indian musical instruments at the cost of western ones.

Exporters are especially unhappy with the new system in which taxes have to be paid upfront in place of the earlier waiver. These taxes will be refunded but till then the government increases its cash flow by an estimated Rs 1.50 lakh crore while exporters have an equivalent sum locked up and pay high interest on it. The new Commerce Minister, Suresh Prabhu, will need to sort out this problem in an environment where exports are already under pressure. 

The GST has five rate slabs: 0 per cent, 5 per cent, 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent. But that climbs to seven rates when you add cess on luxury goods (cars, for instance) of different sizes and types. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and his team of bureaucrats in the ministry of finance (MoF) say there will eventually be one GST rate: 18 per cent. But even here there are conflicting views in the MoF which believes there should be at least two rates – 12 per cent and 18 per cent. That actually makes it three rates since the 0 per cent rate on household essentials like food will remain. And if cess on luxury and “sin” goods also remains, that will take a “simplified” GST back to at least four tax slabs. 

The MoF’s intention to move to a single GST rate is therefore clearly utopian. The only sensible way forward is to focus on three rates: 0 per cent for household essentials, 18 per cent for almost everything else, and 28 per cent for a small range of  “sin” goods. 

Exemptions are a bureaucrat’s delight. They give babus discretionary power and a sense of self-importance. Tinkering with tax rates is a time-honoured practice in Union Budgets. The habit has seeped into GST – unsurprisingly because the same set of people write the Budget. The GST should simplify paperwork. This can happen only with a single GST rate for almost all goods and services bar household essentials like food and luxury/sin goods. 

The larger problem that stares the government in the face is that tax revenue is not keeping up with the country’s expenditure. India requires more funds for defence, education, healthcare, railways and infrastructure. 

With private investment moribund and banks shunning new corporate lending due to high NPAs, the burden falls on public spending. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari plans to issue a series of innovative bonds totalling Rs10 lakh crore to raise resources for infrastructure development. Similar creative ideas are needed to attract FDI and domestic investors in healthcare and education. 

India spends Rs 5.23 lakh crore – equal to the entire fiscal deficit – on just servicing interest on old loans. Compare this to the allocation in the 2017-18 Union Budget on agriculture (Rs 0.57 lakh crore), health and family welfare (Rs 0.49 lakh crore), education (Rs 0.80 lakh crore) and energy (Rs 0.37 lakh crore). That adds up to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in four key sectors – less than half the money spent on paying interest on old loans. 

Subsidies (Rs 2.40 lakh crore) and pensions (Rs 1.31 lakh crore) underscore the parlous state of India’s public finances. There is little left over in the Budget for productive investment to boost economic development after salaries are paid (to an over-staffed government), subsidies handed out and interest debited. The United States spends twice as much on just defence (over $600 billion – Rs 38 lakh crore) than India’s entire annual Union Budget of Rs 21.47 lakh crore.  

Part of the reason of course, is that agricultural income (on which 50 per cent of the country’s population lives) is tax-exempt. No political party has the courage to tax agriculture – it is deemed political suicide. But there is a case for taxing rich “farmers” with an annual taxable income (after expenses) of over Rs 10 lakh. When half the country is exempt from paying tax, government revenues will always struggle to keep up with expenditure and investment. 

The GST is a good start. Bolder thinking will be needed in future to fix India’s real problem: too few resources to make a difference to the lives of the country’s teeming millions.

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Lord Ram, not economy, will help Modi win in 2019
To reach the comfort zone of 300-plus Lok Sabha seats, BJP must win big in Uttar Pardesh.
Saturday, October 7, 2017

Bill Clinton famously declared, "It's the economy, stupid", during his presidential campaign against George H Bush in 1992.

Well, it usually is. Not in India though. The Kargil war, not the economy, won Atal Bihari Vajpayee the September 1999 general election. The Bangladesh refugee crisis won Indira Gandhi the March 1971 Lok Sabha poll even though the economy was lumbering along at 3 per cent a year. Rajiv Gandhi's tragic assassination won the Congress the May 1991 general election despite a bankrupt national treasury.

Will building the Ram temple electrify Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vote base, especially in Uttar Pradesh, in 2019?

Modi is India's most astute politician. He knows that the BJP has lost a great deal of goodwill among the middle-class and the business community. Workers have been hit by the economic slowdown and paucity of jobs. Businesses are struggling with the excruciatingly complex Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Farmers are in distress. Students are in revolt. By any statistical yardstick, Modi should lose the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

There are two reasons why he won't. First, Ram. Second, Rahul.

Let's analyse the second factor first. Rahul Gandhi is likely to be the face of the national mahagathbandan (grand alliance) that will present a united alternative to Modi. The united Opposition will be a mishmash of the Congress, the ideas-bereft Left and Islamist-leaning regional parties such as the SP, RJD, TMC, NCP, NC, JD(S), AIMIM and IUML.

Between them, these 10 UPA partners and UPA-leaners such as the DMK won just 108 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

If Rahul is smart (a possibility), he will appoint Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia as chief ministerial candidates for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. The two states are scheduled to hold assembly elections in November-December 2018. Anti-incumbency is growing in both. The Congress has more than a fighting chance in each.

Rajasthan sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha, Madhya Pradesh sends 29. While assembly results are no indicator of Lok Sabha voting trends, the BJP (which won all 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan in 2014 and 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh) should be worried. After Punjab, these two states could be its next Achilles heel.

Rahul may be mocked by BJP supporters but it would be foolish to underestimate either him or the pull of dynasty in a still-feudal India. Modi is clearly aware of this. Rahul's suit-boot sarkar taunt forced Modi to switch his political strategy from pro-industry to pro-poor.

The tired old Congress-led and -fed ecosystem has come roaring back to life. Left-leaning jholawalas are in full voice - candles lit, open letters to the prime minister in the mail, protests underway, petitions on the ready.

That's where Uttar Pradesh and Lord Ram come in. Modi knew way back in March 2017 that the tide was turning. Winning Uttar Pradesh in a landslide did not make him lower his guard. He knows that winning a large chunk of seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 is crucial to retaining power. Hence the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister.

Adityanath wasn't chosen for his administrative brilliance but for the 24/7 messages he sends out as a Hindu mahant. Adityanath's five-day break to preside over his Gorakhnath math is an early indication. His march against "jihadi violence" in Kerala is another.

Modi also knows that if Mayawati's BSP joins the Congress and rival SP (where Shivpal Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav have called a truce) in a united front against the BJP in UP, the numbers in India's make-or-break state could still go awry.

Electoral math
Party president Amit Shah and Modi have done their calculations for 2019 carefully. The BJP obviously needs to win big in Uttar Pradesh - at least 65-70 seats - or the electoral math in 2019 will not add up.

The BJP won 78 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 in Rajasthan (25/25), Madhya Pradesh (27/29) and Gujarat (26/26). These three states will not deliver a similar harvest in 2019.

Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh with 59 Lok Sabha seats between them could be trouble spots too if (in Maharashtra) the Shiv Sena walks out of the NDA before the general election.

All of this explains Shah's tireless efforts in Kerala, the Northeast, Odisha and Bengal. But the numbers here are small except for Assam and Odisha. Bengal and Kerala remain electorally embryonic for the BJP.

The two silver linings are Bihar (where the BJP and JD(U) should sweep over 30 of the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats) and Tamil Nadu (where the AIADMK and Rajinikanth may offer the NDA an electoral cushion).

Will that be enough to give the BJP alone the 350 Lok Sabha seats that Shah has targeted? No.

Will it give the party at least 272 seats? Possibly yes.

Could it fall short of 272? Unlikely, but not impossible.

The must-get NDA (not just BJP) numbers in 2019 are: Uttar Pradesh (65), Bihar (35), Tamil Nadu (AIADMK, 25), Gujarat (20) and Maharashtra (25, excluding Shiv Sena). That totals to 170 in five key states. Add Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh (TDP), Odisha, Karnataka and the Northeast and the NDA's tally could struggle to cross 300. Smaller states such as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and others will chip in but without a big haul in Uttar Pradesh, the going will be tough for the NDA to reach the comfort zone of 300 Lok Sabha seats.

The Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Whichever way the verdict goes, Lord Ram holds the key to 2019.

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Post Doklam standoff India needs to be wary of China
It will take more than mellow op-eds by the Chinese ambassador to India for Beijing to begin acting like a responsible global power.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui is not given to levity. But he dropped his inscrutable mask last week when he said on the 68th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China: “India and China should turn the old page and start a new chapter with the same pace and direction. We should dance together.”

The Chinese ambassador had mostly kept a low profile during the Doklam standoff. How seriously should India take version 2.0 of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai articulated by him? Here’s what else Luo said, with the full concurrence of Beijing which keeps a tight rein on diplomatic statements: “We should make one plus one 11. China is the largest trading partner of India. We have made a lot of progress at the bilateral level, as well as in international and regional affairs.”

Unusually for a Chinese Communist diplomat, Luo wrote an op-ed for an Indian daily (less unusually, he chose the China-friendly The Hindu) to expound on China’s new-found respect for Sino-Indian ties: “In the one year since I assumed my new responsibility in India, I have witnessed ups and downs in China-India relations. Now I am in a better position to understand the common aspirations and potential of our two countries for cooperation and development. I believe that China and India should work towards the same direction and jointly implement the Xiamen consensus reached by our leaders. We should work towards a sound and healthy bilateral relationship by focusing on cooperation, narrowing and resolving differences. Just like Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said, both sides should make sure that China-India relations do not derail, confront, or go out of control, and make the Himalayan region a new highland for Asia’s development.”

Nothing that Chinese diplomats say or write publicly is without sanction from the Communist party’s all-powerful politburo headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Luo had earlier spoken admiringly of his teacher, the Buddhist monk Professor Xu Fancheng who translated the Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads and Abhigyan Shakuntalam from Sanskrit to Chinese. 

Xu lived in Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry from 1945 to 1978. Luo added: “In our bilateral engagement, there have been thousands of prominent persons like Professor Xu Fancheng, Bodhidharma, Faxian (a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to India in the third century) and Rabindranath Tagore.”

So how should the Indian government respond to China’s new charm offensive after the harsh and threatening rhetoric during the Doklam crisis? The answer: with caution. Indian policymakers should keep three facts in mind which explain Beijing’s volte-face.

First, China is under severe diplomatic pressure internationally over its tacit support of North Korea. To mollify the United States, Beijing has barred North Korean-owned businesses from operating in China from January 2018. It has cut energy exports to Pyongyang.

US President Donald Trump will be in Beijing next month as part of a five-nation sweep through East Asia for the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. China will come under increasing pressure from Washington if North Korea continues to test missiles and conduct nuclear tests. Xi’s own authority will be at stake.

China has been named and shamed as the source of illegal transfer of nuclear weapons technology to North Korea and Pakistan, the two rogue nations that are its closest allies. The last thing China needs is to open up at this stage another confrontational front with India.

Second, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold its five-yearly Congress from October 18. The Congress is crucial for Xi Jinping to establish his authority as a global statesman. Xi has ruthlessly sidelined all rivals as the Congress prepares to ratify a second five-year term for him.

On the eve of the Congress in Beijing, the Communist Party, acting on Xi’s instructions, expelled a rising political star, Sun Xhengcai. Only 54, Sun was regarded as a serious challenger to Xi’s coterie in the CPC. Given such internal challenges, Xi has clearly decided not to be distracted by confrontations with India and recalibrate ties — for the present.

The third factor for Beijing’s conciliatory shift is the belated realisation that India is one day likely to be the second largest market (after the United States) for Chinese products. It makes little sense for the pragmatic Chinese to make a permanent enemy of a neighbouring country that is emerging as a major trading partner.

But there is yet another reason for Beijing’s sudden mellowness towards India. It lost serious face over Doklam. It was forced to abandon road building on the Bhutan-Sikkim-China trijunction. India’s political-military resolve surprised a Beijing leadership used to India’s tradition of backing off from military and diplomatic confrontations.

China has understood that it’s no longer business as usual under the Narendra Modi government. Like all pragmatic bullies, China knows when to back down — again for the present.

New Delhi would be making a mistake to take Beijing’s charm offensive entirely at face value. China continues brazenly to: a) protect globally-designated Pakistan terrorist Masood Azhar; b) block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); and c) build infrastructure on Indian sovereign territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

It will take more than mellow op-eds by the Chinese ambassador to India for Beijing to begin acting like a responsible global power and stop protecting rogue states Pakistan and North Korea.

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Seat of power for women
Attempts to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill had been thwarted by the Congress’s allies, SP and RJD

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to “get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in the Lower House” is well timed. As Mrs Gandhi rightly points out in her two-paragraph letter, the Bill was passed by the Upper House in 2010. It has, she writes, since “languished”. What Mrs Gandhi does not, of course, point out is that it has languished for seven years largely because of her Yadav allies — principally Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD) and Mulayam Singh Yadav (SP).

The BJP hasn’t been blameless. A strong undercurrent of opposition runs through sections of the party wary of sacrificing their parliamentary seats to women candidates. After taking office in May 2014, the BJP has made little concerted effort to pilot the Women’s Reservation Bill through the Lok Sabha. With over 330 MPs, the BJP-led NDA could pass the Bill — if it had the will. With Congress support now placed in writing by Mrs Gandhi, the Bill would sail through the Lower House.

Panchayats and other local bodies already have 33 per cent representation for women. Some zilla parishads mandate 50 per cent representation for women. In sharp contrast, the ratio of women in the current Lok Sabha is just 11 per cent. The Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament by the HD Deve Gowda government on September 12, 1996. It has since undergone several textual changes, but the central premise remains unchanged: One-third of the Lok Sabha’s 543 constituencies must be reserved for women.

Sharad Yadav was among the first — and most crass — opponents of the Bill. He infamously said it would ensure the entry of only ‘parkati mahilaen’ (short-haired women) into parliament. The insinuation: Wealthy urban women would corner the 33 per cent women’s quota in Parliament. Lalu Prasad Yadav, a firm Congress ally through the decades, was another vehement opponent. Along with Mulayam Singh Yadav, yet another Congress acolyte, he engineered a poison pill to kill the bill by demanding a quota within 33 per cent for Dalits and OBCs. Whenever attempts were made to table the Bill, the Yadav misogynists stepped in — often violently. An RJD MP once snatched a copy of the Bill from the Speaker and tore it up.

In 2010, the BJP, Congress and the Left, in a rare display of solidarity, managed to get the Bill passed amidst an uproar and scuffles in a chaotic Rajya Sabha chaired by the ineffectual Hamid Ansari. That is where the women’s Reservation bill rests today. There has been little political appetite among the political class, left, right or centre, to push the Bill through the Lok Sabha.

Mrs Gandhi’s letter sets the cat among the pigeons. It’s not enough for the BJP to pour scorn over her timing or intent. The timing may be expedient and the intent suspect. The facts , though, are incontrovertible: The BJP-led NDA has the numbers to finally pass the Bill in the Lok Sabha after its tortuous 21-year journey. Niggling points of contention over the contents of the Bill can be overcome. For example, the Bill recommends constituency reservation by rotation for 15 years after which the Bill would lapse. Critics argue that rotating constituencies every 15 years (three Lok Sabha terms) would reduce the women MPs’ incentive to nurture their constituencies. That ignores the fact that term limitations operate successfully in democracies around the world without affecting lawmakers’ performance.

However, the Bill needs to be amended so that it does not lapse after 15 years (as envisaged in the current version) but be a permanent legislation. Other objections such as “short-haired” urban women dominating the 33 per cent quota can be dismissed. There is, of course, the danger that male politicians will nominate surrogates — wives, daughters, and other female relatives — to undermine the purpose of the Bill: Empowering women in politics. But even without reservations, the scourge of dynasty has for years sent women of uneven quality to Parliament. Reservation would at least democratise the process.

While India has had two women speakers of the Lok Sabha — Meira Kumar and Sumitra Mahajan — in quick succession, neither has proactively sought to place the Women’s Reservation Bill as a centrepiece of parliamentary reform. India has a fine record of women occupying positions of high public office, ranging from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to President Pratibha Patil. That needs to percolate through to the grassroots, bypassing dynasty and tokenism.

The BJP-led NDA has an opportunity to take an important legislative step towards gender equality. Global comparisons aren’t always relevant but in this case it’s worth pointing out that India, at 11 per cent, has among the lowest representation of women lawmakers. In Sweden’s lower house 44 per cent of lawmakers are women. In Britain’s House of Commons 32 per cent are women; and in France 39 per cent of its lawmakers are women. Even in developing counties like Namibia and Mozambique the ratio of women in Parliament is 40 per cent.

It is time Indian women receive the same legislative rights as their counterparts around the democratic world.

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Why is the West soft on radical Islam
More dangerous than radical Islamist clerics in India, however, are politicians using religion to win votes.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

In a cover story on “political Islam” last month (August 24, 2017), The Economist raised important issues – not least the West’s reluctance to confront head-on the dangers of radical Islam.

In this The Economist is itself culpable. The title of its lead editorial, “Islam and Democracy”, is oxymoronic. Its briefing in the same issue is fawningly titled “Muslim Democrats, Inshallah.”

Despite harsh Sharia law that should have no place in civilised society, The Economist writes amelioratively: “But some Islamists are participating in politics, and even leading governments, moderately and effectively.”

It then goes on to deceptively conflate Islamists and their terror-laden philosophy with Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity: “Islamists are hardly alone in attempting to inject religion into public life. In India the ruling BJP espouses a specifically Hindu nationalism. Israel has a range of parties seeking to create a more overtly Jewish state. In Europe many Christian Democrats take both parts of the name seriously. In America the Republican Party’s platform holds that if ‘God-given, natural, inalienable rights’ conflict with ‘government, court, or human-granted rights’, the former must always prevail. ‘They are saying something on which all Islamists could agree’, says Nathan Brown of George Washington University.”   

All of this offers up a broader question: Why is the West, especially Britain, soft on radical Islam? The short, brutal answer: fear and money.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was hauled over the coals during her visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. She booked orders for the sale of British weaponry worth several million pounds sterling to the Saudi kingdom in return for turning a blind eye to the Saudis’ medieval practice of stoning women to death for adultery, among other barbaric laws that govern the country.

Fear is the other reason why the British (and, to an extent, the Germans who have take in a million refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq) genuflect in front of the wealthy but regressive custodians of radical Islam in West Asia.

The Islamic State (ISIS) faces defeat in its last bastions in Raqqa in Syria and a few smaller desert towns it still holds. But many ISIS jihadists have already melted away with fleeing refugees into Europe. Some are planning lone wolf attacks of the kind that recently failed on the London underground. An 18-year-old Iraqi refugee seeking asylum in Britain, Ahmed Hassan, is under arrest for the home-made bomb (assembled with ingredients bought from Amazon).

Britain has faced four major Islamist terror attacks since March 2017, including the horrific bombing at singer Ariana Grande’s concert in the Manchester arena. Many of the dead were Ariana’s teenage fans.

Britain has developed a proactive strategy against such lone wolf attacks. Several London promenades are now protected by “Talon” nets to stop vehicle-borne attacks on pedestrians. Concrete barriers have been installed around pedestrian-heavy squares and bridges.

And yet, as security forces across Europe know, lone wolf attacks are impossible to prevent. A terrorist has to succeed just once out of 100 attempts. The security forces have to succeed every time.

In India, radical Islam has long been a scourge. India though is fortunate that despite the attempt to radicalise Muslims, most remain moderates. ISIS and al Qaeda have made relatively little headway in India.

More dangerous than radical Islamist clerics in India, however, are politicians using religion to win votes. The three states where this is most virulent are West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir and Kerala.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee regularly uses Durga Puja and Muharram (which follow each other this weekend) to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. She is brandishing the current Calcutta High Court order against her (which she fully anticipated) to convey to the state’s 30 per cent Muslim population that she is on their side whatever the courts may say.

The same sort of divisive politics is being practised by the Communist government  in Kerala, now a hotbed of, and recruitment centre for, radical Islam. When you allow politicians like Mamata Banerjee and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to communalise politics, it is difficult to re-secularise the polity.

The Economist offers the grim example of this in Muslim-majority Indonesia: “Indonesia shows how the workings of democracy can magnify the power of an illiberal minority. A survey conducted in 2015 by the Centre of the Study of Islam and Society, a think-tank in Jakarta, found that the proliferation of Sharia-based ordinances was largely the result of local politicians acceding to the demands of conservative Muslim grounds in exchange for votes. Once God’s law is enacted, it proves hard for man to rescind. In Aceh a substantial portion of the public has misgivings about Sharia. But none of the major candidates in the elections last spring challenged the recent Sharia strictures for fear of being ostracised.”

The BJP’s attempts to polarise Hindu majority votes is a direct counter to Muslim polarisation that has been endemic since Mohammad Ali Jinnah floated the two-nation theory. But that doesn’t absolve the BJP. It may win elections as Hindus, despite historically being a divided lot, coalesce to defeat Islamist vote banks.

But it must recognise that the Hindu vote is not only divided by caste and region, but is also notoriously fickle. Nurture it, don’t polarise it.

Leave that, at their peril, to Islamists and their apologists in London and Lutyens'.

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The fault lines in our society
All personal laws must be codified under a uniform national law in keeping with the true spirit of secularism

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The men and women who wrote our Constitution 67 years ago had a clearer idea of secularism than most political leaders do today. To them, secularism meant equal treatment for all religions, preferential treatment for none.

Separate personal religious laws violate this civilised definition of secularism. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar said as far back as in March 1947, when the Constituent Assembly had begun a preliminary drafting of the Constitution, that all citizens should have the right “to claim full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by other subjects regardless of any usage or custom based on religion and be subject to like punishment, pains and penalties and to none other.”

In short, all personal laws — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and others — must be codified under a uniform national law. The argument for ‘one nation, one law’ dates back to several months before Independence. As the Constituent Assembly began deliberating on this contentious issue, the Fundamental Rights Committee made a strong pitch for superseding archaic personal laws, some based on the Sharia, others on antiquated Hindu practices.

Ambedkar and his colleagues in the drafting committee received immediate opposition from Muslims. Hindus and Parsis were more sanguine. The distinguished Parsi libertarian Minoo Masani, a member of the Fundamental Rights Committee, wrote that it was the State’s duty to replace personal religious laws with a universal common code. His colleague on the committee, Kanhaiyalal Munshi, another distinguished lawyer and conservative Hindu leader (who today would be called a Hindutvawadi by ignorant journalists), was even more robust in advocating uniform personal laws for all religions, including Hinduism. He said, “No civil or criminal court shall, in adjudicating any matter or executing any order, recognise any custom or usage imposing any civil disability on any person on the ground of his caste, status, religion, race or language.”

Muslim objections, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah (a Shia Khoja who drank Scotch, ate pork, and never prayed), were endorsed by Jawaharlal Nehru who bought Jinnah’s argument of ‘the dangers of a Hindu Raj’ if Muslim personal law was interfered with. As a result, Ambedkar, Masani and Munshi’s draft on superseding personal religious laws was made voluntary and non-enforceable.

Secularism tasted its first defeat literally days after Independence on August 25, 1947, when this report, making universal personal religious laws voluntary, was submitted to the Constituent Assembly. Mahboob Ali Baig, a member of the assembly, warned darkly, “This contract is enjoined on the Mussalmans by the Quran, and if it is not followed, a marriage is not legal at all. For 1,350 years this law has been practised by Muslims and recognised by all authorities in all states. If today some other method of proving marriage is going to be introduced, we refuse to abide by it because it is not according to our religion. It is not according to the code laid down for us for all times.”

Nehru gave in quickly. Jinnah had undermined Nehru’s confidence to such an extent that the future prime minister did not even heed Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s advice to stay the course. In the 1950s, parts of Hindu personal law were eventually codified, modernised and gender discrimination removed. But Muslim personal law remains stuck in the medieval Middle East of 1,350 years ago that Mahboob Ali Baig rigidly wanted Muslims to adhere to.

Seventy years after Independence, the debate on UCC has reached a decisive moment. The Supreme Court’s judgement outlawing instant triple talaq (talaq-e-bidat) is a small step towards reform in Muslim personal law.

However, then-Chief Justice JS Khehar made a strange observation in his dissenting order, days before retiring, by placing talaq-e-bidat outside the purview of fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution. Justice Khehar’s minority dissenting judgement argued, “Religion is a matter of faith, and not of logic. It is not open to a court to accept an egalitarian approach over a practice which constitutes an integral part of religion. We cannot accept the petitioners’ claim, because the challenge raised is in respect of an issue of ‘personal law’ which has constitutional protection.”

This was triumphantly seized upon by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) to claim its medieval belief that Sharia supersedes the Constitution on Muslim personal laws. Nonetheless, the momentum for UCC is building. The Law Commission has speeded up compiling public opinion on a uniform civil code. It will submit its report to the government for legislative action. The AIMPLB will contest UCC fiercely. It has always opposed Muslim reform. Only by keeping their flock blind can the one-eyed continue to exercise power over their benighted fiefdom.

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How J&K is fighting back against terror
Modi government's 'tough love' is paying dividends with over 150 terrorists killed in the Valley since the beginning of the year.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Is the tide turning in the Kashmir Valley? At first glance, the short answer is no. Ordinary Kashmiris remain opposed to Indian security forces. Beneath the surface though there are signs that the government’s “tough love” policy is paying dividends. Over 150 terrorists have been killed since the beginning of the year, nearly 60 in terror infested south Kashmir alone.

Intelligence sources estimate that there were around 250 hard-core terrorists operating in the Valley. Even with new recruits smuggled in from Pakistan, this year’s death toll of terrorists has significantly weakened the jihadis’ ability to strike in the Valley.

A second key factor is the growing distrust between factions within the terrorists’ ranks. Zakir Musa’s defection from the Hizbul Mujahideen has been seen by some as the trigger for the spate of fatal terrorist encounters with the security forces. Significantly, there were no stone pelters to derail the operation that eliminated Pakistani national Abu Ismail, the terrorist who led the attack on Amarnath yatris in July 2017.

Just a day before his death last week, Hizbul charged Al-Qaeda’s local unit of being subverted by Indian intelligence agencies through payment of large sums of money. Similar accusations, though less credible, have been levelled against Zakir Musa who remains in the crosshairs of the security forces.

Posters have recently sprung up in Shopian accusing Musa of being an Indian agent. One carried the following message in Urdu: “This traitor is creating different outfits in league with the government. Initially, he was part of Hizbul and thereafter he joined hands with the government of India. He even termed Hurriyat wrong. Therefore, wherever you find him, kill him.”

The third key factor helping the security forces salami-slice Pakistani terrorists in the Valley is the increased coordination between the J&K police, the CRPF and the Indian army. Local area human intelligence, painstakingly built up, has helped corner several high-value terrorists, including the Laskhar-e-Taiba’s Abu Dujana.

Alarmed by the denudation of their terror machine in the Valley, the Pakistani army and ISI have redoubled their efforts to increase infiltration across the LoC, aided by cross-border firing to provide cover for terrorists crossing into the Valley. The autumn window though will close shortly. Winter snow will make infiltration harder.

The Modi government’s policy of tough love in the Valley is meanwhile beginning to pay off. Home minister Rajnath Singh’s four-day visit to the Valley was designed to calm frayed nerves. Local leaders like the Abdullahs have cynically used unrest in the Valley to score political points. The controversy over article 35A has proved especially handy.

To counter this, Rajnath Singh has deployed the government’s strategy of playing cat-and-mouse with trouble-makers in the Valley — in the J&K Assembly and outside. His conciliatory, though carefully anodyne statements, on Article 35A have been welcomed by most Kashmiris. Strong measures by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) against the Hurriyat leadership have strangled funding for Pakistani terrorists still active in the Valley.

Islamabad has other worries as well. It was taken aback by the fierce rhetoric from the US administration. Washington has not ruled out the use of drone attacks on terror safe havens on Pakistani soil. That will escalate tensions with Islamabad. So far US airstrikes have been along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Air attacks on Pakistani territory would be a significant escalation, targeting the source of terror in Pakistan.

The recent BRICS declaration, endorsed by China, naming both LeT and JeM, has further unnerved Pakistan. The India-Japan joint declaration, also naming the two Pakistani Punjab-based terror groups, has added to Islamabad’s sense of isolation. It has leapt into the arms of China and is looking for support from a Russia disenchanted with India’s growing closeness to the US.

The India-Japan declaration on infrastructure joint ventures in India’s Northeast has irked China as well. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying warned during an official briefing:

“China and India are working on seeking a fair and reasonable settlement which can be accepted by both sides through negotiations. Under such circumstances, we believe that any third party should respect the efforts made by China and India to settle disputes through negotiations and any third party should not meddle in the disputes between China and India over territorial sovereignty in any form.”

For a country that is building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), brazenly violating Indian sovereignty, Beijing’s position reeks of the brazen duplicity it has consistently displayed in international relations.

While Islamabad frets at its loss of leverage in the Valley, one sentence in the India-Japan joint declaration has worried it the most. The sentence refers to the need to hold accountable countries that have illegally supplied nuclear weapons technology to North Korea. Pakistan knows the finger of guilt points directly at itself.

North Korea’s nuclear capability was built by Pakistan transferring stolen nuclear technology to Pyongyang. This is now a menace to the US, South Korea, Japan and even China. The full weight of Pakistan’s nuclear theft and illegal transfer to North Korea has the potential to impact in the long term its relationship with chief patron China.

That will boost the spirits of India’s security forces as they hunt down the remaining Pakistani terrorists in a Valley where relative peace during the long upcoming winter is now a real prospect.

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With Gujarat around the corner, Modi's countdown to 2019 Lok Sabha elections begins
Elections are won on a combination of arithmetic and chemistry. The BJP has the former but needs to reignite the latter.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s coast-to-coast outreach in the United States has raised the party’s hopes: can Rahul do the impossible and revive the comatose Congress? We’ll soon know.

Beginning November 2017, the next 18 months are packed with eleven elections: Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Chhattisgarh in 2018, and the big one, the Lok Sabha poll, in April-May 2019.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, each of these elections calls for a different strategy. Gujarat is first off the blocks. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had decided not to contest in Gujarat after humiliating defeats in Goa, Punjab and the MCD. But buoyed by the Bawana bypoll win in Delhi, it is scrambling to again play spoiler in Gujarat.

That will upset the Congress’ Ahmed Patel more than Amit Shah. If AAP contests, it will cannibalise Congress, not BJP, votes – as it did in Goa.

Despite over 20 years of potential anti-incumbency, Gujarat is likely to vote decisively for the BJP for three reasons.

First, it’s the state’s first Assembly election since Narendra Modi became prime minster. His appeal to Gujarati pride remains strong. Second, Hardik Patel’s Patidar agitation has fizzled out amidst factional fights and Patel’s own problems with a multitude of criminal cases.

Third, the Congress is in disarray. Ahmed Patel’s knife-edge victory in the Rajya Sabha poll last month showed how former Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela’s rebel MLAs could hurt the Congress in the Assembly election.

The 2012 Gujarat Assembly poll propelled Modi to the national stage. In the 2002 poll, he had won on polarisation following the Godhra riots; in 2007, he won on development; in 2012, he won on a rapidly expanding national profile.

In the 2017 election, no longer chief minister, Modi is determined to orchestrate a BJP sweep in Gujarat. Of the state’s 182 seats, the BJP won 117 in 2012 with 64.28 per cent vote share. That figure could rise in 2017.

The Gujarat Assembly election is also likely to be the first major poll fought after Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as president of the Congress, widely expected in October.  It will be a trial by fire for Rahul in a state where in 2012 the Congress won just 32.42 per cent vote share and 59 seats.  

After Gujarat, attention will turn to the hill state of Himachal Pradesh in December 2017. With chief minister Virbhadra Singh embroiled in corruption cases, the BJP is likely to wrench power back in what will be a straight Congress-BJP contest.

The next large state that will test the BJP and the Congress in April 2018 is Karnataka. The state units of both the BJP and the Congress are riven by factionalism. The Congress is desperate to cling on to Karnataka, the only major state, apart from Punjab, where it is currently in power.

The JD(S) could be the joker in the pack. If it forms an alliance with the Congress, the BJP will find it difficult to unseat chief minister Siddaramaiah despite the fact that law and order have deteriorated in Karnataka under his watch.

The murder of the scholar MM Kalburgi remains unsolved after over two years. The probe into the assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh has made little progress except to link the similarity in the weapon used in both Gauri’s and Kalburgi’s murders. 

Bengaluru, once one of India’s prettiest and greenest cities, is today polluted and congested. Yet the BJP has much work to do if it wants to return to power in Karnataka. In 2013, the Congress won 36.6 per cent vote share (and 122 of the Assembly’s 223 seats). The BJP won 19.9 per cent (40 seats) and the JD(S) 20.2 per cent (also 40 seats). Factionalism within the BJP could help the Congress retain the state in what could come down to a caste-led contest between Siddaramaiah (a Kuruba Gowda) and BS Yeddyurappa (a Lingayat).

Four Northeastern states – Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram – also go to the polls in 2018. With the BJP ascendant in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Amit Shah is devoting time and resources to make further inroads into the Northeast.

The most crucial test, however, awaits the BJP in November 2018 when Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh elect new state assemblies. All three face strong anti-incumbency. All three are Congress-BJP binary contests. And two of the three have credible state-level Congress leaders: Sachin Pilot (Rajasthan) and Jyotiraditya Scindia (Madhya Pradesh). 

Winning these three states is key for the BJP because together they send 65 MPs to the Lok Sabha. With the Lok Sabha election looming in April 2019, the outcome in these three states could be decisive.  Along with Uttar Pradesh (80 Lok Sabha seats), Bihar (40) and Maharashtra (48), these 65 seats add up to 233 seats in just six states and will shape the 2019 Lok Sabha. 

The electoral math of the 2019 general election will also depend on the performance and fidelity of three big BJP allies in the NDA – JD(U), TDP and Shiv Sena – and one likely future ally, AIADMK. But for the moment it is Modi’s home state of Gujarat that all eyes are focused on.

When Rahul returns from his US tour later this week, it is to Gujarat he will first turn. A win here for the Congress is all but ruled out. Avoiding a landslide defeat though is essential to boost party morale as it prepares for a packed electoral calendar in 2018.

The Congress leadership perceives growing middle-class disenchantment with the Modi government’s economic and tax policies. It is a vulnerability the Congress will seek to exploit in the slew of eleven elections that lie ahead.

The BJP would be unwise to underestimate the Congress-led Opposition, however dysfunctional it may seem today. Elections are won on a combination of arithmetic and chemistry. The BJP has the former but needs to reignite the latter.

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Reforming India’s Healthcare System
The problems in government hospitals are of a different dimension entirely... sanitary conditions and infrastructure

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Healthcare is India’s most distressed sector. In cities, private hospitals over-charge patients at will. In villages, healthcare facilities are rudimentary. In towns, government hospitals provide appalling patient care: unsanitary operating theatres (OTs), poorly trained staff and crumbling infrastructure.   
Corruption is rife. The deaths of dozens of children from encephalitis in Gorakhpur and other towns in Uttar Pradesh is just one indication of the urgent need for healthcare reform in India. There are several others, cutting across the urban-rural divide.

The government has started tackling one end of the problem: exorbitant prices of medical equipment and essential drugs. The total value of medical devices used in Indian hospitals is $4.9 billion (Rs 31,600 crore). Most are manufactured by multinational companies. The margins are huge. Take the example of cardiac stents. The cost of drug-eluting and bio-degradable stents has now been capped at Rs 29,600. Till the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) stepped in, patients were charged up to Rs 1,50,000 per stent. Mark-ups occur at every stage: wholesale distributors, retail stockists and (steepest of all) hospitals.

Despite the caps, private hospitals will always find a way to protect their profits. Specialist doctors make the rounds of patients in hospital rooms every morning. Two minutes of a cursory examination (and often not even that) leads to a bill of several thousand rupees in some upscale private Mumbai and Delhi hospitals. Doctors and hospitals have a pre-set sharing formula for the “visiting” fee. To counter price caps on medical equipment and essential branded drugs, private hospitals are also charging more for laboratory tests (many wholly unnecessary), operating theatre fees and surgery. There’s little a patient, vulnerable as he or she is, can do about it.

The problems in government hospitals are of a different dimension entirely. Treatment is inexpensive and essential drugs are subsidised but sanitary conditions and infrastructure remain appalling. To prevent more tragedies like those that are endemic in Gorakhpur, the government must increase investment in public healthcare. India’s total annual budget on healthcare is barely 2.5 per cent of GDP.

In contrast in Britain, for example, the budget of the National Health Service (NHS) is ringfenced from cuts. At £150 billion (Rs 13 lakh crore) it is eight per cent of Britain’s GDP. In the United States though, the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as Obamacare), despite its large budgetary allocation, is falling apart at the seams, placing millions of poor Americans (mostly blacks and Hispanics) in dire straits without access to affordable medical insurance.

A new pharmaceutical policy is meanwhile under planning in India. The idea is to make essential drugs affordable in a country where purchasing power is low. A draft of the policy reads thus: “The issue of unreasonable trade margins and bonus offers by various stockists, distributors and retailers has been adversely affecting both the industry as well as consumer interest. After detailed stakeholder consultations, the level of trade margins will be prescribed to create a level playing field for the industry and to bring down the prices.”

The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) is in the process of deciding trade margins for not only essential drugs but medical devices like orthopaedic knee implants. The powerful pharmaceutical lobby, comprising mainly MNCs, argues that price controls go against the spirit of free markets, limit innovation, reduce investment in R&D, and militate against the ease of doing business.

And yet indigenous companies like Cipla have developed inexpensive vaccines that are used globally. Its AIDS vaccine for Africans that was sold at just $1 a shot won it plaudits worldwide. US companies were selling similar AIDS vaccines for several times that price.

According to Dr Devi Shetty of Narayana Health, “There are three main problems with Indian public health, and none of them have to do with lack of money. The problems are: (i) acute shortage of medical specialists; (ii) lack of career progression for nurses; and (iii) accountability. Shortage of medical specialists is evident even in a state like Karnataka which has the largest number of medical colleges. Yet there are over 1,200 vacancies for specialists in government hospitals.  Unlike in the past, an MBBS doctor with adequate training but without a postgraduate degree is legally barred today from performing a caesarean section, an anaesthetic procedure, an ultrasound or interpreting a chest X-ray.

“The top 10 causes of death in India cannot be treated by an MBBS doctor. In simple terms, even a brilliant MBBS doctor cannot do anything more legally than what a housewife is permitted to do. These rigid regulations were created by the Medical Council and upheld by the Supreme Court for patient safety. Unfortunately, we also have an acute shortage of postgraduate seats needed to convert the existing two lakh MBBS doctors into specialists. Because of the shortage of specialists, Indian maternal and infant mortality rates are worse than some sub-Saharan African countries.

“Ten years ago, maternal mortality rate (MMR) of Maharashtra was as bad as in the rest of the (otherwise) prosperous south Indian states. In 2009, Maharashtra’s health ministry recognised diplomas from the then 96-year-old College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPS) to convert MBBS doctors into specialists. Today, nearly a thousand specialist medical officers working for the Maharashtra health service are not MD or MS but diploma holders from CPS. By 2013, these diploma holders had produced a Maharashtra miracle: they dramatically reduced its MMR from 144 to 68, half of Karnataka’s MMR. Very soon, Maharashtra will be challenging Kerala for the number one spot. Fortunately, the Union health ministry is considering recognising CPS diplomas across India. The National Board of Examinations is also converting large government hospitals as teaching institutes to train medical specialists. With trained and certified gynaecologists, paediatricians, anaesthetists and radiologists, community health centres and taluka and district hospitals will become the most vibrant hospitals.”

India clearly has many advantages in terms of innovation, generic formulations and talented doctors. But unless healthcare receives a greater allocation of resources from the government and investment from the private sector, Indian patients, rich and poor, urban and rural, will remain at the mercy of a broken system.

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Liberals should stop complaining about dissent being stifled under Modi's India
There is more vigorous editorial dissent, more public debate, and more online vitriol against Hindutva today than there ever was under Congress.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Who is a liberal? Let's first rule out who isn't.

Anyone who believes in violence is not a liberal. That rules out Naxals who believe in unleashing violence on the state.

Anyone who discriminates based on religion, race, caste, gender or sexual orientation isn't a liberal. That rules out the RSS which frowns on the LGBT community — a group comprising some of the country's most creative, interesting and non violent people.

Anyone who is intolerant of opposing political views is not a liberal. That rules out most politicians, including those from the BJP, Congress and the Left.

Anyone who opposes gender equality is not a liberal. That rules out Muslim clerics and Hindu priests who discriminate against women entering places of worship.

Anyone who curtails free speech is not a liberal. That rules out the leaders of dictatorships such as China and Saudi Arabia where dissent can get you a life term in prison.

Who then is a liberal? You need to pass these six tests of liberalism:

Test one: You must believe in the right to criticise religion. No religion is exempt: neither Islam, nor Hinduism, nor Christianity. Blasphemy is not a taboo.

Test two: You must shun violence. Argue with words, not guns. As one famous leader said, the answer to a book is another book, not a fatwa.

Test three: You must embrace gender equality. Women should be able to head an organisation such as the RSS. The idea of a woman sarsanghchalak should not cause consternation. It should cause celebration.

Test four: You must reject political dynasty. Feudalism and liberalism operate at opposite ends of the spectrum of progressive, liberal democracy.

Test five: You must not divide people on the basis of religion or caste. Whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, you are Indian first, Hindu or Muslim second. The idea of a Hindu Rashtra is illiberal. The idea of a Bharat Rashtra is liberal. Similarly, Muslims must abandon the illiberal idea of being Muslim first, Indian second.

Test six: A liberal is tolerant. Even those on the hard Right and the hard Left must engage each other in civil debate. Words, not bullets, are the weapons of choice for liberals.

The big liberal myth

Dissent has been stifled in Modi's India. A cursory look at the headlines of newspapers such as The Telegraph, The Hindu and The Indian Express reveal how dissent against the Modi government is in fact alive and kicking — as it should be in a vibrant democracy.

Surf through TV channels, English, Hindi and regional. You'll see enough vitriol against the BJP in general and Modi in particular to prove how free speech thrives in India.

Online news sites are even more robust: From The Wire and Scroll to CatchNews and even our own DailyO, the "resistance" to Modi is strong if at times highly strung.

Those who complain about dissent being stifled under Modi should speak to Raghuram Rajan and Amartya Sen who sell their books with anti-Modi barbs of the kind they never dared employ for Congress president Sonia Gandhi even at the height of the UPA government's serial corruption scams.

Sonia Gandhi wasn't — as we all know — fond of dissent. She even remote-controlled her own Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh into 10 years of silence. If Dr Singh felt humiliated by Rahul Gandhi publicly tearing up his ordinance on allowing convicted lawmakers to contest elections, he didn't show it. Dissent was silenced without a murmur of protest.

The Bengaluru-based writer Shashi Deshpande wrote in The Indian Express last week: "Are we now living in a country where people are killed because of their ideology, their beliefs? Are we living in a country where dissent is silenced by a bullet?"

It is this empty, misplaced rhetoric that does a disservice to the quality of intellectual public discourse. There is more vigorous editorial dissent, more public debate, and more online vitriol against Hindutva today under a "Hindutva" government than there ever was under

Congress governments of the past. And yet those who profess to be sensible, intelligent and liberal claim the opposite. That says much about them.

The Modi government, however, has much to answer for too. Right-wing fringe elements have threatened journalists with the same fate that befell Gauri Lankesh. Kerala Hindu Aikyavedi leader KP Sasikala, in an inflammatory speech at a meeting in Ernakulam on September 10, issued the latest such warning. Her speech must be condemned by the BJP and she is rightly being prosecuted by the police.

Violence against journalists has been rising steadily since the beginning of the decade: In 2011 three journalists were murdered; in 2012 five were killed; in 2013 and 2014 the number spiked to eight journalists killed in each year; in 2015 the number rose to nine before declining in 2016 to five.

But to claim publicly, as historian Ramachandra Guha has done without evidence, that the murderers of Gauri Lankesh "very likely came from the Sangh Parivar", reveals a prejudiced, not liberal, mind.

At the other end of the communal spectrum, a newly married Muslim woman, Nagma Praveen, was assaulted last week by her husband Pervez Khan and five other men. She was thrown out of her marital home because she had painted a portrait of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

Intolerance is the antithesis of liberalism. A true liberal is non-judgmental, tolerant and accepts different viewpoints. That's a test few, posing as liberals, will pass.

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India Hones ‘Act-East’ Policy
Modi has also sent a powerful message to China which has disputes with several asean member-nations

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a point to use the Republic Day to underpin a specific foreign policy initiative. In January 2015, Barack Obama became the first United States president to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day. The move signalled Modi’s desire to forge a closer strategic partnership with the US. In 2016, French President François Hollande was chief guest as India focused on building deeper economic ties with the European Union (EU). 

The chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2017 was Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Modi had made the Middle East a focal point for his foreign policy by nuancing the outreach to Israel (a significant defence partner) as well as to the Gulf kingdoms (where several million Indians, including minorities, work).

All three past Republic Day chief guests have therefore served a particular geopolitical objective. So what should we read into the decision to invite all ten leaders of ASEAN as joint chief guests on January 26, 2018, India’s 69th Republic Day? 

There are in fact several messages with nuanced subtexts. First, it is an extension of  India’s Act-East policy. For decades India has followed a Look-East policy. ASEAN, the world’s second most powerful trading bloc after the EU, had showed scant interest in India’s paternalistic vision which emphasised geopolitical priorities to its west rather than to its east. 

Modi has changed that perception. He has spent considerable political capital on boosting ties with East Asian countries. By inviting ASEAN’s ten leaders Modi has also sent a powerful message to China which has disputes with several ASEAN member-nations, including the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam. ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia have large ethnic Indian populations, especially from Tamil Nadu. Many have strong cultural links with Indian Buddhism. All this gives Indian soft power an edge in an Asia increasingly dominated by China’s hegemonic ambitions. 

Beijing has been deeply upset by India’s refusal to be a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China knows that possessing the world’s largest economy in the future will not be enough to replace the United States as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. It has few friends in Asia, bar Pakistan and North Korea. Smaller littoral countries pay lip service to Chinese global leadership but few regard it as a model of good public governance. 

India needs to play its geopolitical cards astutely in South Asia as well. China has already replaced India as Nepal’s largest investor. And yet the Chinese haven’t won hearts and minds in Kathmandu. Nepalese shopkeepers complain about wealthy Chinese tourists driving up real estate prices, edging locals out of the market. 

Meanwhile, India has begun countering China’s economic thrust into Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government proposes to hand over to India the management of Hambantota airport, ironically near a deep-sea port to be run by China. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Hambantota was built by China. It is a loss-making white elephant like many of China’s infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa built with high interest-bearing loans from Beijing. India’s takeover of the airport will help Sri Lanka pay back part of the loan, though resentment in Colombo with China will hardly abate. 

India needs to react to China’s growing influence in India’s backyard (from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka) with its own alliances among the littoral states of the South China Sea. The need to combat terrorism and safeguard regional security resonates well with the mercantile, pragmatic members of ASEAN. The ASEAN leaders’ presence at Republic Day will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN and the 25th anniversary of India’s partnership with ASEAN launched in 1992 by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s new ‘Look-East’ policy. It has taken 25 years to transform Look-East to Act-East. Meanwhile, ASEAN’s ten member-nations (Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines) have become influential in world trade. 

Modi is likely to take part in the India-ASEAN summit in November 2017 in Manila. The combined GDPs of the ten ASEAN nations are now roughly equal to India’s nominal (non-PPP) GDP of $2.50 trillion. India and ASEAN upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership in 2012. Defence ties are set to take precedence along with trade. India has already firmed up deals to sell fast interceptor boats and BrahMos missiles to Vietnam in a direct snub to China. 

As General D.S. Hooda, who retired as general officer commanding-in-chief of the Indian Army’s northern command wrote in The Indian Express: “The Chinese influence in Southeast Asia looks extremely strong but there are signs of cracks due to a rising anti-China sentiment. Ethnic tensions have led to the Chinese leaving Malaysia. According to the home minister of Malaysia, of the 56,576 Malaysians who renounced their citizenship between 2006 and 2016, 49,864 were Chinese. Tiny Singapore, fearful of Chinese domination, has the highest military expenditure in ASEAN. Infrastructure projects in Myanmar and Thailand have been stalled or delayed on environment concerns. 

“There are maritime disputes in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The ASEAN countries are going to look towards India and Japan to provide a counter-weight to China. However, to be considered a serious player in this region, India must enhance its credibility. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, conceived in 2002, has already missed its scheduled date and is now expected to be completed by 2020.” 

The sharp contours of India’s foreign policy though are now visible. In South Asia, Pakistan has been ostracised by SAARC, a forum India will increasingly use for trade and regional security. The BIMSTEC forum will strengthen India’s relationship with the nations in the Bay of Bengal region. India’s strategic partnership with the US will form a key trilateral axis with Japan.

In the Middle East, India has built strategic partnerships with the Sunni (Saudi) and Shia (Iran) Muslim worlds as well as with Israel. Russia remains an ally though not as reliable as it once was. By engaging more deeply with ASEAN, Modi’s Act-East policy will serve as the final piece in completing India’s complex geopolitical jigsaw.

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How Modi cut China to size at BRICS summit
PM was right to ignore President Xi’s advice to not raise terrorism at the summit.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

This week’s BRICS summit was an unalloyed success for India. Despite China’s serious misgivings, terror was placed firmly on the table. The joint declaration adopted by the five BRICS nations condemned for the first time Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

Before the summit began, Chinese President Xi Jinping had made it clear that BRICS was not the right forum to discuss terrorism. He spoke vaguely about a “holistic” approach to address the “root causes” of terrorism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, buoyed by his successful strategy over Doklam, was equally determined to not only discuss terrorism but also make it one of the centrepieces of the summit. In the end, the summit declaration devoted seven paragraphs to terrorism, naming the terrorist organisations that Pakistan sponsors and China protects from international sanctions.

China has long wanted to use BRICS to counter Western influence projected through organisations like NATO, OECD and G7. China’s economy is larger than the other four BRICS nations — India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa — put together. That has enabled it to arrogate to itself de facto leadership of BRICS. There’s a hitch though: India, the second largest economic power in BRICS, isn’t playing along. The Doklam standoff may have ended — partly to ensure a trouble free BRICS in Xiamen — but the fact that China had to back down on road building (the only reason Indian troops entered Doklam in the first place) has caused it loss of face.

For the Chinese, losing face is intolerable. It emboldens smaller Asian countries it has so far successfully bullied to defy it in future. It also sends a signal to the United States, the superpower China wants to supplant, that Beijing has an Achilles Heel.

For China, BRICS suffers from another problem: Brazil and South Africa face serious economic downturns. Russia’s economy too has been hit by Western sanctions and falling oil and gas prices. With three of the five nations in relative decline, that leaves BRICS a largely bipolar forum — China and India. That’s an equivalence the hubristic leadership in Beijing does not relish. India’s success at staring down China over Doklam has further angered Beijing. To counter this, China put forward a proposal to expand BRICS by inviting more emerging economies. A big fish in a small pond (as Beijing views BRICS) does not satisfy China’s global ambitions. Expanding BRICS does.

India thwarted Beijing’s proposal, decisively ruling out an expansion of BRICS. For the time being, New Delhi strategically prefers the India-China binary that BRICS has in effect developed into. As a face-saving sop, China then invited five countries — Mexico, Thailand, Guinea, Tajikistan and Egypt — to the BRICS summit in Xiamen earlier this week as part of an “outreach”. Pakistan was carefully omitted.

For India, BRICS serves a more nuanced purpose. India is the big fish in the BIMSTEC and SAARC ponds. BIMSTEC brings together countries in the Bay of Bengal region and significantly includes Myanmar (to where Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew straight from the BRICS summit on the evening of September 5). Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee problem meanwhile needs to be dealt with swiftly and sensitively. As the biggest member of BIMSTEC, India can use the forum which, apart from Myanmar, includes Bangladesh (to where over 80,000 Rohingyas have fled) in order to resolve border issues with both countries.

For China, BRICS in its present form does not advance its global objectives. It is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are a part, that Beijing wishes to use to achieve economic and geopolitical clout in an arc sweeping from the South China Sea to Europe and Africa. India’s opposition to the BRI and OBOR rankles with the Chinese almost as much as the Dalai Lama’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing cavils at its impotence to do anything about either.

More annoyance lies in store for China. On September 13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in India for a three-day visit to launch the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), widely seen as a direct counter to OBOR. AAGC will link Asia and Africa across trade, infrastructure and people-to-people contacts. In conjunction with the north-south corridor that India is planning with Iran and Russia to more closely link Asia with Europe, the contours of New Delhi’s geopolitical ambitions are now sharply etched.

Beijing has noticed these developments and is not pleased. It also sees the emerging India-US-Japan tri-lateral alliance as a threat to the hegemony it seeks. But no country that supports — and protects — terror-sponsoring states like Pakistan and North Korea can earn the respect of the rest of the world. North Korea’s provocative hydrogen bomb test has placed its mentor China in direct confrontation with the US, which has threatened sweeping trade sanctions against Beijing.

Modi was right to ignore President Xi’s advice to not raise terrorism at the BRICS summit. China does not like to listen to home truths. This week it learnt to do just that. As a pragmatist, Modi regards BRICS as only one arrow in his quiver. BIMSTEC, SAARC (with Pakistan largely sidelined), SCO and the two new corridors linking India to Africa and Europe are the other instruments he has. As the BRICS summit in Xiamen proved, in Modi, Xi — China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong — has met his match.

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Cabinet reshuffle Highs and lows, and other takeaways
In 'New India', it is teamwork that will win elections.
Monday, September 4, 2017

Three distinct threads run through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Union Cabinet reshuffle.

First, it’s not a reshuffle so much as a shake-up. Surprises abound. Second, there’s an attempt to induct lateral talent in light of limited in-house resources among the BJP’s 280 Lok Sabha and 58 Rajya Sabha MPs. Third, non-performers have been ruthlessly cast aside, giving them the fig leaf of party work (Rajiv Pratap Rudy) or smaller ministries (Uma Bharti shunted to drinking water and sanitation).

No allies have been inducted. This will especially disappoint the JD(U). A mini-reshuffle therefore is on the cards when the JD(U) and (after its internal problems are sorted out) the AIADMK will get a look-in. The irascible Shiv Sena though is likely to be kept out.

The appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister (effective Wednesday, September 6, when Arun Jaitley returns from a defence dialogue in Japan) is an out-of-the-box selection. Sitharaman brings integrity to the table, a prerequisite in a ministry bedevilled by corrupt weapons deals.

Defence ministry sources confirm that Manohar Parrikar, now chief minister of Goa, was an outstanding defence minister. “As an IIT man, he understood weapons technology,” says the source. “He was a fast decision-maker and files moved quickly under him.”

Sitharaman will face a challenge handling the ministry of defence (MoD) bureaucracy as well as India’s fraught border disputes with China and Pakistan. Several big-ticket defence deals are also in the pipeline. She will have to be tough with the entrenched MoD ecosystem and move rapidly to enhance the potency of India’s military hardware that suffered a decade of neglect and corruption in 2004-14 followed by frequent changes in the defence portfolio in 2014-17.

The presence of two women – Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj – in the powerful four-member Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is a sign of how, at least at a symbolic level, gender equality and women’s empowerment have received a boost. But till the women’s reservation bill is not passed in parliament, real empowerment of women in public life will remain a work-in-progress.

High performing transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s additional charge of Ganga rejuvenation is a snub to Uma Bharti who has done little of note in Modi’s pet project of revitalising India’s most revered but also most polluted river.

Piyush Goyal’s move to railways is welcome. Goyal has been successful in turning around India’s power sector with 78 per cent of all Indian villages now electrified. Railways though will pose a huge challenge. More than 14,000 trains run daily on India’s antiquated rail network carrying an astonishing 23 million passengers every day.

In an insightful article, Niti Aayog member Bibek Debroy – who holds MoS rank and has done much work on railways reform – including privatisation, wrote:

Most services on trains and stations (cleaning, catering and maintenance) are already privatised. There is little IR does departmentally. Wagons are produced by the private sector. So, increasingly, are coaches and locomotives. What most people mean by private entry is the private sector running trains. On this, will we contemplate locomotive drivers from the private sector and safety (not to be confused with security) handled by the private sector? That’s worth thinking about. On privately run trains, most people don’t know policy already allows that. Why don’t we see them?

There have been private luxury trains. On mainstream trains, there are two reasons. First, there has to minor tweaking of legislation to permit the private sector to charge fares and those fares, after the regulator has been set up, have to be reasonable. Second, any train, public or private, requires a path, from point A to point B. Today, capacity constraints are such that it is impossible to provide that path, for both passenger and goods trains. Sure, after freight corridors, capacity constraints will ease a bit. But fundamentally, easing requires huge investments, which IR’s present financial woes don’t allow.

Goyal will have to meet these challenges head-on and at the same time look to the future: on September 13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in India to lay the foundation for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, financed by a soft Japanese loan of Rs 98,000 crore.

Critics of Modi’s emphasis on bullet trains, when ordinary train passengers struggle with issues of safety, sanitation and punctuality, will prove a handful for Goyal, who though is both a good communicator and a workaholic.

Lateral moves
The induction of a slew of former bureaucrats, diplomats and police officers (RK Singh, Hardeep Puri, KJ Alphons and Dr. Satyapal Singh) broadbases the cabinet’s talent pool. The appointment of politicians like Anantkumar Hegde has an eye on the clutch of upcoming state elections (including Karnataka in 2018) and the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

Other winners in the reshuffle?

Smriti Irani who gets permanent charge of I&B (retaining textiles) and Dharmendra Pradhan (additional charge of skill development apart from oil and natural gas). Suresh Prabhu, a chartered accountant, will welcome the relative quiet of the commerce ministry after a torrid time as Railways Minister.

There are flaws though, as well, in the reshuffle. Hardeep Puri’s 40-year diplomatic experience abroad could have been better deployed in the MEA (rather than urban development and housing) with VK Singh shifted as MoS defence.

Alphons, a former commissioner of DDA, would be better suited to urban development and housing rather than tourism and IT. Former Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh, with extensive counter-insurgency experience, could have been a better fit as MoS, Home

The Congress and other Opposition parties have reacted with caution to the Cabinet reshuffle. A word of advice to them: if the Opposition is serious about mounting a challenge in 2019, it should set up a formal shadow cabinet as is routinely done in Britain, allocate shadow portfolios and track each NDA minister’s performance.

That may cut into the bountiful legal work of Messrs P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, but it will serve an important national purpose: cogent articulation of alternative Opposition policies across different sectors rather than fulminations during television debate.

For the BJP some advice too: The next mini-reshuffle should bring in the JD(U) and other current and future allies. In “New India”, it is teamwork that will win elections.

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Pandering to religion, Maharashtra government checkmated by judge
Noise pollution, whether from deafening Ganpati processions or the pre-dawn azaan on loudspeakers, must end.
Saturday, September 2, 2017

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is regarded as upright and approachable. His wife Amruta, vice-president of a bank, is a modern working woman. She refused to give up her job despite in effect being Maharashtra’s “first lady”. Mrs Fadnavis displayed her independent spirit by shooting a music video with Amitabh Bachchan.

Handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah to run Maharashtra, Fadnavis has tackled the state’s Byzantine politics with finesse. The BJP’s lumpen alliance partner Shiv Sena has been muted, the NCP neutralised and the Congress marginalised.

In recent weeks though, Fadnavis has stumbled badly. Corruption charges against senior ministers in his cabinet have been brushed aside pending an inquiry. But the most extraordinary mistake of Fadnavis’ tenure occurred last week.

A senior judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Abhay Oka, was heading a division bench hearing a PIL against the Maharashtra government for diluting the law on silence zones around Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra.

This followed a sudden amendment by the Fadnavis government on August 10, 2017 that effectively removed all earlier restrictions on noise decibel levels in the vicinity of hospitals, schools, colleges, courts, and institutions of religious worship. The Bombay High Court, in a progressive judgment in August 2016, had ordered that all such sensitive locations be regarded as silence zones within a radius of 100metres.

Under pressure from religious groups – principally those celebrating the Ganpati festival which began on August 25 and ends on September 5 – the Fadnavis government amended the Noise Pollution Rules 2000 on August 10, 2017, just 15 days before the Ganpati festival began. The link did not escape the Bombay High Court.

Hearing a clutch of petitions against the government’s sudden amendment, the court said its earlier order of August 2016 on silence zones would stand. It rejected the government’s amendment of the Noise Pollution Rules 2000. The amendment was also widely criticised by activists as regressive and pandering to religious sentiment.

If the government’s egregious amendment of August 10, 2017, is allowed to stand – as it currently does – the entire city would be stripped off all its silence zones. In an unprecedented move, the government last week, citing bias, sought the recusal of Justice Abhay Oka who had stood firm against accepting the government’s amendment diluting the Noise Pollution Rules 2000.

Even the state’s attorney-general, Ashutosh Khumbhakhoni, conceded in open court when seeking Justice Oka’s recusal: “If it was personally up to me, I would have taken a different stand.”

Justice Oka then told the attorney-general that he would not recuse himself, in effect challenging the government to force his recusal through the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Manjula Chellur.

Chellur immediately obliged the state government and transferred the case to another bench, leaving citizens’ groups aghast. Senior lawyers pointed out that this was possibly the first time in the Bombay High Court’s history that the state government had sought the recusal of a judge.

The division bench hearing the case led by Justice Oka was replaced by a new division bench comprising Justice Anoop Mehta and Justice Girish Kulkarni.

Lawyers representing citizens’ PILs against the government’s amendment on silence zones were scathing in their indictment of the government’s motives. Birendra Saraf, counsel for the NGO Awaaz Foundation, said: “This is nothing but to make the Ganpati festival a fait accompli. This is done because the government wants to get popularity by playing loud music during Ganpati.”

On August 26, the Advocates Association of Western India (AAWI) passed a resolution: “The managing committee strongly condemns the government of Maharashtra’s tactic in alleging bias against Justice Abhay Oka at a point of time where the matter was substantially heard.” The Bombay Bar Association weighed in with its own strong condemnation of the government’s action.

Chief Justice Manjula Chellur, confronted by growing public anger, reversed her decision on August 27 (a Sunday). She reinstated Justice Oka and reconstituted a larger three-judge bench headed by him which will now hear the case on an urgent basis. The government meanwhile apologised to Justice Oka and unconditionally withdrew its allegation of bias against him.

On Friday, September 1, the new larger bench led by Justice Oka held the government's amendment of Noise Pollution Rules 2000 unconstitutional and restored all original silence zones in a stinging rebuke to the Fadnavis government.

Religious sentiment vs. public interest

The Maharashtra government’s failed attempt to bully the judiciary is part of a larger attempt to place religious sentiment ahead of public interest. The cattle slaughter ban, for example, plays to religious sentiment but eventually results in animal cruelty. It is unlikely to survive ongoing legal scrutiny.

The mismanagement of arson and violence following the arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in Haryana revealed how even religious cults exercise political influence. The CBI court proved both the strengths and limitations of the judiciary: it ordered the arrest of Ram Rahim but could not prevent the jail administration from initially providing him with a VVIP room and a personal lady companion described ingeniously as the Dera leader’s “adopted daughter”. His sentencing to 20 years in jail underscores how the judiciary, for all its faults, serves as a guarantor of last resort.

In Mumbai an upright judge like Justice Abhay Oka, who stood up to the government and upheld the public interest, found his chief justice succumbing to government pressure to force his recusal before submitting to public pressure and reinstating him.

Fadnavis is travelling down a slippery slope. Once you give in to religious “sentiment” there will be no end to claimants seeking exemptions and favours that allow private interests to override the larger public good.

Noise pollution is a serious issue. The Maharashtra government’s amendment of Noise Pollution Rules 2000 will embolden religious organisations to flout long standing norms. The move, for example, to lower the volume of the daily pre-dawn azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, will suffer a setback. Mosques use loudspeakers every morning at 4.45am in thickly populated residential areas. Most Islamic countries have banned the use of loudspeakers for the daily azaan. India must do so too.

China’s Hualong Hui Autonomous County in Qinghai province recently removed loudspeakers used for azaan in over 300 mosques. China may not set a good example in most areas but this is one move which India should emulate.

However, with the state government caving into Hindu sentiment over ear-splitting noise levels during the Ganpati festival, taking action on muting azaan volumes is unlikely.

Noise pollution, whether from deafening Ganpati processions or the pre-dawn azaan on loudspeakers, must end.

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Ahmed Patel?s defeat is Sonia Gandhi's defeat
Sonia Gandhi will pull out all stops to ensure Ahmed Patel's RS victory since her political credibility is at stake now.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Congress party?s determination to ensure victory for Sonia Gandhi?s political secretary Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha election on August 8 has a sub-text: defeat for Patel will be a defeat for Sonia.

As parliamentary secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, Patel ? who earlier served Indira Gandhi ? absorbed lessons in political court craft that have stood him in good stead as Sonia?s back room courtier. Patel is today as close to the Gandhis as any non-family member. In the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal, the initials AP in middleman Guido Haschke?s scribbled notes on bribes paid were widely alleged to refer to Patel. He has vigorously denied the allegation, but there?s little doubt that in the past ten years he has assumed a critically important position in the Congress hierarchy. Sonia consults him on all sensitive political decisions.

Patel rarely speaks in the Rajya Sabha. The exception was when Dr Subramanian Swamy named him in the AgustaWestland case. Patel defended himself with a ferocity few even in the Congress had suspected him of possessing. Patel?s low-key style enabled him to operate beneath the media radar for years till the AgustaWestland scam exploded in Parliament in July 2016.

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi had expected Patel to play a pivotal role in the Gujarat assembly election to be held this November. Hardik Patel had been carefully set up to divide the powerful Patel community vote. AAP, a malign Congress progeny (like the Shiv Sena five decades ago), was expected to weaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi further on his home turf.

All that changed after the Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur elections in March 2017. AAP?s Arvind Kejriwal has since imploded. Ahmed Patel was the first to recognise that AAP could divide the Congress vote in Gujarat as it did in Goa. That would lead to a BJP landslide in a state where party president Amit Shah has targeted winning 150 seats in the 182-seat assembly. Within weeks, a chastened Kejriwal announced AAP would not contest the Gujarat elections. It was a sea change in tone from a winter afternoon in January 2014 when an aggressive Kejriwal tried to barge into then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi?s residence but was stopped on the Ahmedabad highway by the Gujarat police. I happened to be in Gandhinagar that afternoon on work and Kejriwal?s swagger defied description. Modi remained unmoved and Kejriwal?s convoy was turned back. Kejriwal today is a cipher, fighting for political survival in Delhi. Hardik Patel, like Kejriwal, too is a spent force.

As Ahmed Patel faces his toughest test next week in a quest for an eighth parliamentary term (his fifth in the Rajya Sabha), Sonia has pulled out all the stops to ensure Patel wins. A loss for Patel will have several consequences. Most critically, it will undermine Sonia?s authority within the party. Till now, Congress leaders and workers have been content to blame Rahul Gandhi for the party?s steep electoral decline. Not one has had the gumption to criticise Sonia.

That could change after August 8. The BJP has deliberately converted the Rajya Sabha poll into a Sonia Vs Shah contest, dehyphenating Sonia from Modi. The change in her stature will not please the Congress president.

Moreover, she faces a stern test in Raebareli in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. If Patel loses his Rajya Sabha seat, it will embolden the BJP to put up a strong candidate in Raebareli. Rahul already faces a challenge in Amethi from newly minted I&B minister Smriti Irani.

The Gandhis are meanwhile in a dilemma over Priyanka Gandhi?s electoral debut. Priyanka opted out of pan-Uttar Pradesh campaigning in the February-March 2017 Assembly election. The plan is for Sonia to ?bequeath? her Raebareli seat to Priyanka in 2019. With the Congress in disarray, and Priyanka?s own sheen dimming, that plan too could now become a casualty.

Rahul?s ascension to the presidency of the Congress has been delayed for nearly two years. With his political acumen drawing criticism from even within the Congress following the collapse of the RJD-JD(U)-Congress Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, Rahul is increasingly being seen as a liability rather than an asset.

Two pieces of glue have for decades bound Congress leaders and workers to the Gandhis. The first is the enduring feudal appeal in rural India of dynasty. That appeal for young, aspirational Indians is gradually fading. The second is the resources the Gandhis have access to. Out of power in all but one ?ATM? state (Karnataka), that advantage too is receding.

The success or failure of Ahmed Patel?s election bid next Tuesday could determine how quickly the glue will come unstuck.

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Smart Cities Need Smart Governing
Mumbai is poorly served not only in its roads the BMC builds but also in traffic management

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Way back in the 1980s, M.J. Akbar, then founding-editor of The Telegraph, said only half in jest that Indians might soon need a visa to travel to Bombay. Akbar is now Minister of State for External Affairs and Bombay is Mumbai. But the sentiment he expressed then still holds: Mumbai contributes around 35 per cent of tax revenue to the Indian treasury but gets a fraction of it in return to develop the city?s infrastructure. The problem of course isn?t just money. It?s governance. 

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is India?s wealthiest municipality with an annual budget larger than that of some states. And yet the city?s 22 million inhabitants receive appalling civic services from the BMC. The recent deaths of citizens due to potholes on Mumbai?s roads, building collapses and falling trees have brought into sharp focus the corruption that has made the BMC one of India?s most irresponsible municipalities. 

It is run by the Shiv Sena but all local parties, including the BJP, NCP and Congress, are complicit. As a recent Times Now investigation revealed, road contractors pay up to 30 per cent of the price of road tenders as a bribe to a pyramid-like structure comprising BMC workers, corporators, MLAs and ? at the top ? senior party leaders. All get a cut, in ascending order.

Most cities across India suffer from similar problems though not on the same scale as Mumbai. Delhi is fortunate in having a city government with a large budget. An elected chief minister like Arvind Kejriwal, however unpopular he may be, ensures a modicum of accountability. Sheila Dikshit in her 15-year tenure as chief minister vastly improved Delhi?s infrastructure, including giving the city its excellent metro network.   

In Mumbai, as in other Indian cities, the head of the municipal corporation is a bureaucrat. However well-intentioned, an IAS officer in a transferrable, short-term job has no stake in the city?s future. Mumbai?s municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta, for example, has limited power while corporators have limited accountability. The city falls into the deep crevice between the two.

Every major city in the world has an elected mayor who functions as a chief executive. With him or her vests both power and accountability in the city?s daily management. It took tough-as-nails Rudy Giuliani, New York?s former mayor, to clean up a city that had fallen victim to crime, drugs and sleaze. Another mayor Michael Bloomberg, who served three terms from 2002 to 2013, restored New York?s reputation as the world?s financial centre after the 9/11 terror attack. 

In London former mayor Boris Johnson, now Britain?s Foreign Secretary, backed the congestion charge introduced by his predecessor Ken Livingstone in 2003 to decongest traffic in central London. His successor Sadiq Khan, London?s first Asian-origin mayor, has been proactive in the city?s fight against recent incidents of Islamist terrorism. Both London and New York have benefitted from having directly elected, accountable mayors. 

In sharp contrast, Mumbai?s mayor is a figurehead. The current mayor, Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, has no powers, no accountability and no visibility. It is time urban centres across India are run by elected officials voted directly to office, as the London and New York mayors are, with both power and accountability. An elected, empowered mayor will mitigate corruption and run the city with a degree of professionalism.

Why don?t large infrastructure companies like HCC (which built the outstanding Worli-Bandra sea link), Gammon India or Larsen & Toubro bid for Mumbai?s roads? They build super-smooth highways in the Gulf and even excellent national highways across India but will not touch roads in Mumbai. The contractors? cartel which underbids for the city?s roads has a deep nexus with Mumbai?s politicians. The result is roads built at rock-bottom prices with sub-standard materials to take care of  bribes paid out from within the low bids. Potholes that claim lives are a lethal outcome.

Mumbai is poorly served not only in its roads the BMC builds but also in traffic management, sanitation, housing and healthcare. A local municipality cannot be a law unto itself ? left unsupervised or controlled by corrupt politicians lining their pockets. Mandating elected heads to run a city is the only way to transform urban India?s crumbling infrastructure. 

City mayors can seek direct election for a five-year term and contest from a political party or as independents. The BMC is a colonial creature headed by a civil servant who before Independence was answerable to British parliament, not Indian citizens. 

The current quasi-colonial system suits the BMC. Its officials, apart from having virtually no accountability for Mumbai?s infrastructure, are largely immune to prosecution when badly maintained buildings (which the BMC is supposed to periodically check for structural safety) collapse causing death and injury.

One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?s key schemes is Smart Cities. While communications, Wi-Fi technology, water management and sanitation are part of the scheme, it ignores governance of India?s cities. No amount of  high-tech embellishments will make ?smart? cities livable urban centres unless they are accompanied by governance reforms. 

This is how the government defines a smart city: ?A smart city is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents. 

?There are many technological platforms involved, including but not limited to automated sensor networks and data centres. In a smart city, economic development and activity is sustainable and rationally incremental by virtue of being based on success-oriented market drivers such as supply and demand. They benefit everybody, including citizens, businesses, the government and the environment. Many of these cities will include special investment regions or special economic zones with modified regulations and tax structures to make them attractive for foreign investment. This is essential because much of the funding for these projects will have to come from private developers and from abroad.?

But smart cities need smart governance. That implies a mayoral-chief executive directly elected by citizens and accountable to them. It is an urban reform the Prime Minister should place at the top of his priorities. 

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Modi government must keep its promise and break Hurriyat
As the PDP-BJP alliance government completes 18 months in J&K, campaign to neutralise terrorists like Abu Dujana must be intensified.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Hurriyat has been given a long rope by successive governments in Jammu & Kashmir. That rope is about to become a noose. Hurriyat separatists are Pakistan's Trojan Horse in the Valley. They perform three tasks for their handlers in the Pakistani army and ISI. One, to subvert and indoctrinate Kashmiri youth in jihad against India.

Two, to serve as financial conduits for terrorists infiltrating across the Line of Control (LoC) from Pakistan. Three, to engage with Indian civil society and journalists to alter the narrative of terrorists in the Valley as homegrown freedom fighters, absolving Pakistan of complicity.

Kid gloves

For years the UPA and NDA governments have treated Hurriyat separatists with kid gloves. They were given Z+ security, covert payments to moderate their rhetoric, and even government jobs to mollify their family members. In this self-defeating exercise, every state government has been complicit.

The Omar Abdullah-led National Conference presided over one of the most violent summers in 2010 as a result of its dilatory approach to the Hurriyat. The PDP-BJP alliance government hasn't been much better. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is as much of a closet separatist sympathiser as Abdullah. The BJP has played the role of junior partner in the J&K government with inexplicable timidity.

It took a major policy change by the Centre to end soft-pedalling the Hurriyat. Since the crackdown on separatists by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), several Hurriyat leaders are in jail. The NIA estimates that the family of the head of the Hurriyat's hardline faction, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, owns 14 properties in Kashmir and Delhi valued at over Rs 150 crore. These include a prime seven-acre land in Sopore, Baramulla.

The Geelani family has done well out of terror financing through hawala and benami transactions from Pakistan. The properties owned by the Geelanis include an educational institution, residences and agricultural land in Kashmir and flats in Delhi. These are allegedly owned by Geelani, his two sons, Naseem and Nayeem, and four daughters (from two marriages) Anisha, Farhat, Zamshida and Chamshida.

The NIA's crackdown on the Hurriyat caught the terrorist-enablers by surprise. The arrested Hurriyat foot soldiers (six from Srinagar, one from Delhi) include Altaf Ahmad Shah, Funtoosh Geelani, Ayaz Akbar Khandey, Raja Mehrajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah, Aftab Hilali Shah (alias Shahid-ul-Islam), Nayeem Khan and Farooq Ahmad Dar (alias Bitta Karate).

Does this mean the end of the Hurriyat in the Valley? Clearly not. The "leaders" arrested are mid-level operators. Terror financing carries on as before. Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq continue to flit between house arrest and medical treatment at Delhi's best hospitals. They retain India's tax-paid security, albeit downgraded. India remains a soft state, Kashmir its soft underbelly.

In chief minister Mehbooba the Hurriyat has a long-standing champion. She has opposed the NIA's jurisdiction in J&K. She also opposes a central government proposal to block cross-LoC trade. Valued at over Rs 2,200 crore, the "trade" is rife with corruption. Elements in the Border Security Force at border crossings are alleged to have struck deals with Pakistan's Rangers. Some of the money and goods smuggled across the border are used by the Hurriyat's operatives to foment unrest in the Valley.


If the NDA government wants to end this debilitating charade, it must follow up the NIA arrests with three sets of concrete actions. First, make sure the arrested Hurriyat members stay in jail. The Hurriyat has already hired top Indian lawyers (always available to the highest bidder) to defend them in court. Meanwhile, strip all senior Hurriyat leaders of security, perks and government jobs for family members.

Second, continue the high-intensity campaign by the security forces (the army, CRPF and J&K police) to eliminate terrorists Pakistan infiltrates into the Valley. The Hurriyat supports them with paid stone-pelters to distract the security forces whenever an encounter takes place. There are around 250 active terrorists currently in the Valley. An estimated 124 have been killed since January 2017. There must be no let-up by the security forces either in the Valley or at the LoC.


Third, focus on development in the Valley. Only five major districts in Kashmir are hotbeds of terrorism. The rest of the Valley has not yet been Wahhabised. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, stones, not bombs, are Kashmir's weapons of choice. It is now vitally important that the full funds promised by the NDA government for flood relief and all-round infrastructure development are released quickly. Kashmiri youth want the same things other Indian youths seek: education, jobs, family, and peace.

The PDP-BJP alliance government will complete 18 months under Mehbooba's leadership in October 2017. It has not been a successful partnership of two opposite ideological poles. The options though are limited. Governor's rule would imply the battle against terror in the Valley is not being won. Dissolving the PDP-BJP alliance and calling for fresh elections three years before they are due (in December 2020) would be another admission of failure.

The campaign to neutralise Pakistani terrorists like Abu Dujana must be intensified. As summer fades into autumn next month, the security forces will have an advantage. The long winter months ahead will give them the opportunity to finish the job. Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi government must seize the moment to deliver on its promise of development and remove the Hurriyat permanently as a factor in the Valley.

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Trashing India sells better for Western audiences
The three unwritten rules for getting published abroad.
Saturday, August 12, 2017

If you want to get your book published abroad, there are three unwritten rules.

Rule one, slam India.

Rule two, slam India.

Rule three, slam India.

These rules apply to movies as well. Satyajit Ray showcased Indian poverty to Western audiences with his film Pather Panchali in 1955. He was lionised globally.

More contemporaneously, Slumdog Millionaire by British director Danny Boyle was a rage abroad. The one stomach-churning scene in the movie starring Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor and Dev Patel where a child falls into an excreta-filled sewer was played and replayed on foreign television networks with feigned horror. (The excreta was, in fact, a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate sauce.)

Books receive the same treatment. Katherine Boo?s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity which retells her experiences living in a Mumbai slum for three years, sparing no gory detail, was published to international acclaim in 2012.

Arundhati Roy?s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness received an equally rapturous welcome abroad as it wended its laborious way through India?s graveyard of troubles: Kashmir, Maoism, poverty, communalism, violence. Roy?s sense of bitter hopelessness about India enthrals foreign publishers.

Now a book by Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, is the latest toast of the West. A Dalit Christian, Gidla tells the story of her uncle Satyamurthy, a Maoist leader who fought the Indian state from the jungles of central India.

In a gushing review, The Economist (July 29, 2017) described Gidla as heralding the ?arrival of a formidable new writer.? The magazine added: ?Ants among Elephants is an interesting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.?

The names trip of the tongue nicely: Ray, Roy, Boo, Gidla. Of course The Economist wouldn?t dare review Shashi Tharoor?s excellent book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India which exposes Britain?s horrific crimes during its colonial occupation of India.

Even the British edition of Tharoor?s book was re-titled to make it less offensive to the British. An Era of Darkness became the anodyne An Inglorious Empire: What the British Did To India. In an interview with the BBC for the book?s British launch earlier this year, one of the panelists was dismissive of Tharoor?s evocative and detailed description of the brutalities of the British Empire and the financial ruination it brought upon India.

In contrast, Arundhati Roy?s dark vision of India has been lapped up by newspapers like The New York Times and television channels in Europe and America. Should all of this matter? Emphatically not. India has many flaws ? violence, poverty, rape, corruption, casteism. It is right for journalists and authors, Indian and foreign, to write about them.

It is equally right for filmmakers to show the underbelly of India ? from the coal mines of Dhanbad to the slums of Mumbai. Sunlight is a disinfectant. Shine it mercilessly on our imperfections. Only then will change take place. The problem though is balance. 

Where are the films on the brilliant ?Team Indus? in Bengaluru making a robotic spacecraft to land on the moon?s surface as part of a $30 million global competition sponsored by Google? Team Indus is one of only five teams, including those from Japan and Israel, left in the contest that ends on December 31, 2017. These stories too need to be told by Indian (and foreign) writers and filmmakers.

Indians are over-sensitive about how India is portrayed globally. Americans didn?t care how their country was portrayed through the decade-long Vietnam war, the illegal invasion of Iraq and the historical crimes of slave trading and lynchings of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan as recently as in the twentieth century.

The British didn?t care how their country was portrayed when it fought to retake the Falkland (Malvina) islands from Argentina, sinking in the process the cruiser Belgrano, killing 323 Argentine sailors.

The Chinese don?t care that their country is projected as an international law- breaker by most of the world in its dispute with the Philippines over the South Chinese Sea adjudicated in Manila?s favour by The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

The Western media, so critical of impoverished, upstart India, gives China a free pass on its human rights violations, having co-opted it into the global financial ecosystems.

Few Western journalists ask about the fate of Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died last month after years of incarceration and possibly torture in a Chinese prison. She has not been seen since July 15 and is believed to be under unlawful detention in an undisclosed location in China.

Had such an event occurred in India, the editorial board of The New York Times would have been apoplectic. With China, which holds $500 billion in US treasury bonds, the media treads softly, softly.

There has been criticism of Liu Xia?s ?enforced disappearance? but global human rights groups like Amnesty International, quick to excoriate India, have been relatively muted.

In its review of Gidla?s book, The Economist gives its Western readers a detailed tutorial on India?s caste system: ?One in six Indians is a Dalit, which means 'oppressed' in Sanskrit. That is to say, 200 million Indians belong to a community deemed so impure by the scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system and are commonly called ?untouchable?. Upper-caste Hindus traditionally treated untouchables as agents of pollution. To come into contact with them was to be defiled, they believed. Indian villages depended on untouchables to provide field labour and clear away human waste. Yet untouchables were excluded from village life.

They could not ? and often still cannot ? enter Hindu temples, drew water from common wells, touch caste Hindus or even live inside the village. Punishments for breaching caste boundaries are severe. As a young girl, in Andhra Pradesh, Sujatha Gidla remembers adult members of her educated Christian untouchable family ?scrambling to their feet? whenever a Hindu materalised before them.?

Like Ray, Roy and Boo, Gidla?s India interests the West much more than the fate of Liu Xia.

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India at 70 Why the Right isn't always right
The more we segregate minorities, the more we make them feel cut off from the mainstream.
Monday, August 14, 2017

On the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, the Right and Left must rise above minorityism.

Treat Muslims as Indians first. Extricate Muslims from a false persecution complex. Muslims in India are safer than anywhere else in the world as I wrote here two years ago.

Former vice-president Hamid Ansari doesn't think so. In one interview (not surprisingly on Rajya Sabha TV), Ansari warned of "Muslim unease".

That's nonsense. Muslims in India are a self-confident, privileged lot with their own personal laws, Wakf board land, a full ministry to look after them and a liberal, secular media to guard against the slightest injustice done to them. The cult of minorityism does them a disservice.

The Left has meanwhile been a resounding failure in India and worldwide. But the Right in India should not repeat the same mistakes the Indian Left has historically made: appeasing Hindus just as the Left appeased Muslims.

Appease none. Empower all. It's time the Right put those words into action.

Stop segregating
India is never going to be a "Hindu Pakistan" as some warn darkly. In order to be truly secular, we need to stop segregating Muslims and treating them as mere minorities. Integrate them and don't fret over how many or how few Muslims there are in the Union Cabinet (Naqvi, Akbar, etc). The more we segregate minorities, the more we make them feel cut off from the mainstream.

The paranoia about majoritarianism is ill-founded. India is a Hindu-majority country despite which Muslims have occupied virtually every constitutional post: president, vice-president, speaker, governor.

Except one: prime minister.
Now whose fault might that be? The Congress was in office for 54 years: 1947-77, 1980-89, 1991-96 and 2004-14. It reserved largely ceremonial posts (president, vice-president and governor) for Muslims and the really important post of prime minister for the Nehru-Gandhis (Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv) and their co-opted loyalists (Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh).

Rao turned mildly rogue only when safely out of power and was duly punished with ostracism by the Gandhis for his temerity.

The Right, marginalised for decades, finally has its day in the sun. There have been false dawns before: the right-wing Swatantra Party, made up of business-minded and impeccably liberal leaders like Minoo Masani, flashed briefly into prominence in the 1960s.

Thirty years later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee endowed the Right with a patina of Nehruvian respectability. He spoke warmly of Pakistan, made Abdul Kalam president and invoked insaniyat in Kashmir.

That was the soft Right. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi we now have the hard Right.

Modi has a brutally single-minded vision for India: no Indian should go to sleep hungry; there must be equality of opportunity; technology will enable India to become a middle-income country in a decade.

These of course aren't right-wing objectives. They are universal objectives. The problem is the left-wing, led by the Congress, has for over half-a-century failed to achieve any of these objectives.

Neither so far has the Right.

So where has the Right gone wrong?

First, it is far too obsessed with petty issues. The beef and cattle slaughter ban (the latter has been challenged in the Supreme Court) are distractions. They have nothing to do with governance. You can be vegetarian but must defend every Indian's lawful right to eat what he or she wants.

The Maharashtra government's latest appeal in the Supreme Court to overturn a Bombay High Court stay on police entering peoples' homes to check if they have illegally stored beef is mindlessly regressive and a violation of privacy.

The Supreme Court is certain to uphold the Bombay High Court's stay, making the Devendra Fadnavis government look both foolish and illiberal.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's directive to madrassas to record on video whether they played Vande Mataram on Independence Day is equally absurd. Vande Mataram is a magnificent ode to India and every Indian should sing it. But those who don't want to - be they Muslim, Hindu or Martian - should be defended on the principle that lawful individual choice supersedes state diktat.

Instead of wasting the government's time on such directives meant to polarise votes, Yogi Adityanath should focus on governance. The tragic deaths of 63 children in his constituency Gorakhpur and the appalling state of hospitals in Uttar Pradesh should occupy his attention. Leave madrassas, however regressive, to their devices.

Modi's single-mindedness has two separate compartments: development and elections. His incremental economic reforms fall into the first silo. Tolerating the polarising diktats of Adityanath and Fadnavis fall into the second.

For Modi winning a second term is crucial. He found a hollowed-out economy when he took office in 2014. The bureaucratic detritus, the old power brokers in Delhi, the media's entrenched vested interests - all had to be overcome.

Three years down the line, only half the job is done. He needs two more years to remove the remaining debris. The next five years, 2019-2024, could then see real development.

But to win in 2019, Modi needs votes. That is why to him the means justify the end.

It is not an ideal situation. Modi could do better if he had more talent among his 280 Lok Sabha and 58 Rajya Sabha MPs. Alas, he doesn't.

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Hit China where it hurts most
Policymakers must leverage Beijing?s geopolitical pressure points to New Delhi?s advantage

Thursday, August 17, 2017

It?s understandable that India prefers quiet diplomacy to China?s war-mongering bluster. But Indian strategists must realise that the Doklam stand-off has three dimensions: Military, geopolitical and economic. So far, foreign ministry officials have been focusing on the military dimension. Several hundred troops confront a roughly equal number of Chinese soldiers on the Dolam plateau in the Doklam region.

The Chinese have moved reinforcements closer to the disputed plateau. Two Indian brigades are operationally ready not far behind the small contingent of Indian troops on the plateau. The Indian Air Force is combat-ready. Its fighter jets can fly with a full fuel payload from plateau airfields while Chinese jets taking off from high altitude Tibetan bases can at most take off with 50 per cent payloads, severely restricting manoeuvrability. Indian military planners have taken into account that China may open up new fronts along the long India-China border where it does not suffer the handicap of the Doklam terrain.

Amidst the military-strategic planning, the geopolitical and economic dimensions of the confrontation with China have been underplayed. China is under enormous pressure over the spiralling confrontation between its rogue ally North Korea and the United States. US President Donald Trump has promised ?fire and fury? if North Korea carries out its threat to launch missiles in US territorial waters off Guam island, which has a large US military base.

Trump is furious with Chinese President Xi Jinping for not restraining North Korea. American anger over China?s complicity with North Korea?s nuclear weapons programme can have geopolitical consequences. When Xi visited the US in April, he was feted by Trump at his Florida resort. The threat to declare China a currency manipulator and impose trade sanctions on Beijing were put aside. That?s water under the bridge. The threat of trade sanctions is back on the table. US naval ships have, meanwhile, sailed threateningly close to China?s territorial waters, defying Beijing?s warnings.

For India, all this is good news. Multiple pressure points have forced China on the defensive. The BRICS summit in the southeastern Chinese coastal city of Xiamen on September 3-5 looms. The United Nations General Assembly session follows later that month. In November, the all-important Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will shape Xi?s own position as he begins his second (and last) five-year term. Xi has ruthlessly sidelined or jailed rivals and hopes to defy convention by looking at a third term in 2022. If the crises in North Korea and Doklam escalate, his position could be compromised. Indian policymakers, while rightly focusing on military preparedness on the India-China border, must leverage Beijing?s geopolitical pressure points to New Delhi?s advantage.

The third dimension in the India-China paradigm is economic. China is a large investor in India. Its hardware companies are deeply embedded in the Indian telecom ecosystem. Less well known is the aggressive push by Chinese companies into infrastructure projects like the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway and even local projects in Mumbai such as the redevelopment of BDD chawls. Of the three construction companies that bid for this project, all were foreign firms in joint venture partnerships with Indian companies. Two of these three joint ventures involve Chinese companies.

While Chinese companies are well placed to win the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway contract, ironically, all Chinese firms were disqualified by the Indian government from bidding for the Rs 18,000-crore Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link project due to its critical strategic importance.

China imposes stiff barriers on foreign companies wishing to invest in the mainland while seeking generous terms for its companies investing in countries like the US, India and those in Europe. This lack of reciprocity has upset the US which, like India, runs a large trade deficit with China.

India has been, as usual, more forgiving than the US. However, with tensions rising on the border, India must play its economic cards well. India is the world?s third largest consumer market after the US and China. For all its bluster, China recognises this. It should take a hard look at imposing tough new conditions on Chinese companies bidding for infrastructure projects.

The Doklam standoff is a wake-up call for Indian diplomacy. As the Chinese say, talk softly but carry a big stick, India talks softly but leaves its big stick at home. With the US-North Korea standoff set to roil relations between China and the West, it?s time India used all three weapons in its armoury ? military, geopolitical and economic.

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To reboot Infosys, Narayana Murthy must walk away
Whoever takes over from Vishal Sikka as CEO, and it probably will be an Infosys insider, will have to restore the company?s credibility.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Founders aren?t keepers. That?s the stark message to NR Narayana Murthy, one of the seven entrepreneurs who founded Infosys in a tiny Mumbai home-office in 1981.

Infosys is now a world-class infotech company but there?s no getting away from the fact that it started life as a body-shopping firm. It placed software engineers onsite at US corporate campuses at one-third the salary of an American software engineer.

The cost benefit was shared by the US client and Infosys. As a collateral benefit, the onsite Indian engineer received a salary many times he or she would have in India and, despite higher living costs in the US, had enough to send money home.

It was a nice business model, more sophisticated than the one practised by Indian migrant workers in the Gulf, where the skill sets were different, but with the same objective.

Infosys was hardly alone in employing this lucrative business strategy. TCS was an early mover. So was Wipro. Others followed. US clients lapped it up. They got great service, onsite and offsite, at competitive rates. Outsourcing IT from India strengthened their bottom line.

Indian IT services companies such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro clocked net margins of well over 25 per cent, double those of manufacturing firms and even FMCG majors. Not surprisingly, they became darlings of the stock market. After the Y2K IT revenue bonanza in 1999-2000, there was no looking back.

TCS became the Tatas? cash cow. It was the gushing cash flow of TCS and its large dividends to Tata Sons that helped the Tatas make aggressive overseas acquisitions, starting with Tetley (by Tata Tea, later renamed Tata Global Beverages) in 2000 and peaking in 2006-08 with steelmaker Corus and automotive major Jaguar Land Rover.

At Infosys, meanwhile, things were changing rapidly. The founders each had a turn at being CEO. But as global outsourcing competition hotted up, margins began to fall. The move up the value chain was slow.

Infosys was criticised for two infirmities: first, for sitting on its pile of cash (over $6 billion) rather than making astute acquisitions that could diversify its IT portfolio; and second, for not creating a major IT product with great IPR potential, as Korean, Chinese and Japanese companies had done.

Services can be replicated. IPR properties in contrast have significant monetisable upside. The failure to create world-class IPR properties cuts across India?s IT services sector.

To make amends, Infosys and its peers went up the services value chain after 2010, offering complex IT solutions rather than plain-vanilla outsourcing where rates were dropping.

When Murthy stepped down as CEO in 2011, Infosys was at a fork in the road. Margins were down. The IT services story had been challenged by cheaper outsourced workforces in the Philippines and elsewhere.  

Murthy made an ill-advised one-year return to Infosys in 2013, to put the house in order. His son Rohan, engagingly, came in as his executive assistant. The experiment got Infosys nowhere. By the time Murthy?s one-year intervention was over, Infosys?s net margins had slipped further.

Sensibly, the board decided to hire the company?s first professional CEO, Vishal Sikka, a SAP executive with great tech credentials. Sikka focused on developing new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and fast-tracking acquisitions. In three years, Infosys? margins had improved significantly. Based out of California, Sikka recognised that offering high-end technologies like AI was the future. The old IT back-office model was broken.

Unfortunately, by 2016 trust between Murthy and Sikka had also broken down. Murthy who had played mother hen to Infosys since stepping aside for the second time in 2014, constantly carped about falling corporate governance standards.

After several months of intrigue and ?media attacks?, as the Infosys board termed Murthy?s angry personal outbursts at Sikka, the die was cast. Sikka quit.

Did he do a bad job in his three years as CEO? Here are the figures: in May 2014, Infosys? market capitalisation was Rs 1,68,768 crore. On August 17, 2017, the day before Sikka resigned, it was Rs 2,34,549 crore, a rise of 38.98 per cent.

During the same three-year period, the market cap of TCS rose just 13.98 per cent. Wipro?s market cap during that three-year period actually fell by 5.29 per cent.

On the issue of corporate governance, the Infosys board refuted the serious charges Murthy had levelled with unprecedented bluntness:

"Mr Murthy?s continuous assault is the primary reason that the CEO, Dr Vishal Sikka, has resigned despite strong board support. Mr Murthy?s campaign against the board and the company has had the unfortunate effect to undermine the company?s efforts to transform itself. Infosys has continued to maintain the highest standards of corporate governance that the company is known for. 

Mr Murthy has repeatedly made inappropriate demands which are inconsistent with his stated desire for stronger governance. Mr Murthy has demanded that the board adopt certain changes in policy else he will attack board members in public, which threat was carried out when the board did not acquiesce; he has demanded operational and management changes under the threat of media attacks."

This was strong stuff. Murthy said he would reply to the Infosys board?s allegations in the "right manner, in the right forum and at the appropriate time".

Whoever takes over from Sikka as CEO ? and it probably will be an Infosys insider ? will have to restore the company?s credibility with shareholders and clients.

Global investors are already seeking legal redress for Infosys? volatile stock price following the battle between Murthy and the company?s board.

The best thing Murthy can now do is to let the professional board do its job without a founder, who holds barely 3 per cent equity in the company, constantly looking over its shoulder.

Corporate governance is important and the forensic report on the $200 million Israel-based Panaya acquisition should be placed in the public domain to ensure transparency. The larger issue though is future growth. Sikka pulled Infosys back from a declining growth trajectory across profit and revenue by focusing on AI and the company?s "Nia" proprietary software product.

The future for Infosys ? and the entire IT software industry ? lies in developing machine automation software, AI and high-end engineering solutions. In a looming era of driverless electric cars and automation, the old business model that depended on body count will no longer work. Sikka?s successor will have to deal with a rapidly changing global tech economy.

Narayana Murthy and his co-founders built a great company. It can become even greater if they leave it to their professional successors to take it to the next level.

The objective now should be to transform Infosys into a marquee global brand like so many Korean, Chinese and Japanese companies have successfully done.

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The Next 30 Years
In the lives of nations, as in the lives of men, come points of inflection. .

August 23, 2017

At 70, India is on the cusp of one such transformation. The first seventy years of Independence have been tumultuous. The British left India with a literacy rate of 12 per cent. Today it is 75 per cent. In 1947, India had few industries, rudimentary infrastructure and snail-like GDP growth. Today India is the world?s fastest growing major economy.

To realise how slow India?s economic growth was before Independence, consider economist-historian Angus Maddison?s data based on a hypothetical Geary-Khamis (GK) dollar. The GK dollar has the equivalent purchasing power the US dollar had in the US in 1990. It is a useful device to compare GDP growth rates across historically long time spans and different geographies. 

In 1884, colonial India?s effective per capita income was GK $551. By 1947, it had crawled to GK $618 ? an overall growth of 12 per cent in 63 years at a miserly rate of 0.2 per cent a year. That is what British ?rule? wrought on India.

Since 1947, India?s economy has undergone four distinct phases of growth. The first was during Jawaharlal Nehru?s prime ministership from 1947 to 1964 when public sector institutions ? the temples of industry as Nehru called them ? took on the burden of building post-colonial India. It was during Nehru?s premiership that large public sector units (PSUs) as well as the IITs and IIMs, and AIIMS, BARC and ISRO?s predecessor INCOSPAR were set up. Nehru laid the foundation of modern India. His foreign policy decisions on China and Pakistan were questionable but Nehru?s contribution in building institutions of governance was exemplary. 

The second phase of growth was under Indira Gandhi?s socialist leadership from 1966-1977 and then again briefly from 1980-1984. Annual GDP growth in East Asia?s ?tiger economies? during this crucial period spurted to seven per cent while India?s economy dawdled at three per cent. India suffered nearly a generation of low growth between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s till the third phase kicked in ? ironically by Indira?s son Rajiv. 

Prime Minister at 40 (by comparision son Rahul is already 47), Rajiv Gandhi ushered in the computer and telecom revolution but didn?t live long enough to see the fourth phase of economic reforms ? the most dramatic and far-reaching so far. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh did between 1991 and 1996 what much of East Asia had done 25 years ago. China too had liberalised its economy under Deng Xiaoping in 1979. India was the laggard and is still paying the price for being a late starter. For example, while foodgrain production in India in 2016-17 has hit a record 276 million tonnes, a sharp rise of 8.8 per cent over the previous year, it is still less than half of China?s foodgrain production of over 620 million tonnes. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the fifth phase of economic growth is still incipient. 

Nehru was a conscientious parliamentarian, encouraged robust debate in the Lok Sabha (even with his estranged son-in-law Feroze Gandhi) and was widely respected in India and abroad. His daughter Indira was the opposite. During the 1975-77 Emergency, she subverted the judiciary, the Press and the Constitution. 

As India turns 70, building trust in our institutions of governance is critical. Prime Minister Modi has spent much of his first three years in office on incremental reforms in the bureaucracy, state-Centre relations and delivering on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But he has been tardy in setting up a Lokpal and bringing lateral talent into the Union Cabinet. Nearly a dozen of Modi?s schemes, ranging from the ?Make in India? initiative to the Mudra Bank for rural finance, have gained traction. With job creation slowing, Modi?s focus has shifted to financing small self-employed entrepreneurs, creating job-givers rather than just job-seekers.

Recognising that at 70 India is at an inflection point in its history, Modi has set 2022 as a target for bringing to fruition several of the schemes launched over the past three years. The ?New India? project has become the prime minister?s key initiative, coalescing all the incremental reforms begun in 2014 into a big bang outcome in 2022 ? the 75th anniversary of India?s independence. 

There?s a clever political strategy at play here too. To get to 2022, Modi has to get past 2019. Given the state of the Opposition, that seems a fair bet. But it can?t hurt psychologically if you aim at 2022 assuming 2019 is a given. It demoralises the Opposition and energises the BJP voter base. 

Onwards to 100
In the following pages, some of India?s most distinguished experts examine various facets of India on the 70th anniversary of its Independence and what we might expect not just by 2022 but by 2047 ? the year Independent India turns 100. 

Let?s do the math. The computations that follow are taken from International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Citibank projections. They have been extrapolated by taking into account a basket of variables. We will use purchasing power parity (PPP) norms, now routinely employed by the World Bank and the IMF. The PPP computations adjust for labour and other costs that vary between countries. A basket of goods and services in the United States, for example, costs approximately 2.7 times the same basket in India. Purchasing Power Parity is especially useful for per capita income comparisions but also captures GDP numbers more accurately than nominal GDP measurements at current exchange rates.  

According to the World Bank?s latest data, India?s GDP (PPP) in 2016 was $8.7 trillion. The IMF projects Indian GDP will grow at an average of 7.7 per cent a year between 2017 and 2025. This would lift Indian GDP to $13.5 trillion in 2025. We need to look further than that ? to 2047. 

As India?s economic base grows, GDP growth will inevitably slow as it has in China. However, India?s youthful demographics will spur a major consumption boom, boosting GDP over the next 30 years at an accelerated rate. This assumes two caveats: first, an emphasis on skill development for India?s burgeoning youth so that they can get productive jobs; and second, far greater investment in education and healthcare without which India?s demographic advantage will be frittered away.
Taking these factors into consideration, an average GDP growth rate of 6.5 per cent from 2025-2047 appears feasible. If Indian GDP has reached $13.5 trillion by 2025 as per the IMF?s projections, Indian GDP over the next 22 years, growing at an average annual rate of 6.5 per cent, will rise to roughly $52 trillion in 2047. China?s GDP (PPP) is currently $21.4 trillion. At the IMF?s projected growth rate of 4.4 per cent, China?s GDP would rise to around $80 trillion in 2047, larger than India?s by just 1.5 times compared to today?s gap of five times. 

The United States? GDP, currently $18.6 trillion, is estimated to grow at an average annual rate of three per cent. By 2047, it would increase to $44 trillion ? lower than India?s. However, in per capita terms, with an estimated population of 400 million in 2047 compared to India?s 1.60 billion, every American would still be over three times wealthier than every average Indian. Today the PPP-based per capita gap between India and the US is 1:10. In 2047, it could drop to 1:3. So here are the probable GDP numbers of the world?s three largest economies when India celebrates the 100th anniversary of its Independence: China: $80 trillion; India: $52 trillion; US: $44 trillion.

New World Order
The geopolitical and social consequences of the new global economic pecking order will be tectonic. India, the US and Japan will form one alliance comprising three of the world?s four largest economies. China, Russia and Pakistan will form a second alliance. The differences between them would be glaring. The first alliance is made up of democracies, the second of totalitarian regimes. 

To strengthen India?s plural social texture, Modi must now urgently help build institutions of good governance at every level ? from panchayat to parliament. For Modi 2019 is a pit stop. He is looking at 2022 ? the third year of his putative second term ? to meet ambitious social, economic and foreign policy targets. Then will come 2024. If the 2022 project of New India is successfully accomplished, a third term could beckon. But we must exercise caution here. After ten years, anti-incumbency can be strong. A new leader can emerge, as Modi himself did in 2012, from relative obscurity. Few in 2012 thought Modi had a ghost of a chance to be Prime Minister. 

The moral of the story: never be complacent, remain ever-vigilant. The BJP needs to build a second line of leadership. Behind Modi and party president Amit Shah lies a wide gulf. Mentoring new leaders must start now. Modi?s Union Cabinet has hard-working ministers but more domain experts need to be inducted as ministers. There are precedents: Nehru?s first Cabinet had several technocrats, including the economist, John Mathai, who served as India?s first Railway Minister and later as Finance Minister.

In 2047, many of us will be gone. Modi himself would be 97 years old and in quiet retirement in Gandhinagar, looking back at these 30 eventful years. By digitising the economy and using technology to deliver its benefits to the poor, Modi has begun a socio-economic transformation. On these pages we analyse the state of the nation at 70 and what it might be when India makes its tryst with the centenary of its Independence.  

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Dealing With Militant China
Three years later the relationship lies in tatters. The signs were ominous at that September meeting itself .

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

As they sat side-by-side on a swing near Ahmedabad?s Sabarmati riverfront in September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed set to open a new chapter in the complex Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. 

Three years later the relationship lies in tatters. The signs were ominous at that September meeting itself: soldiers from the People?s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded into Indian territory at the Arunachal Pradesh border even as Modi and Xi, accompanied by his glamorous singer-wife Peng Liyuan, appeared to have established a close rapport. It took a firmly worded request by Modi for Xi to order Chinese troops back to their territory. 

Over the next three years China turned increasingly hostile towards India. It blocked India?s bid to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It prevented the United Nations from designating Masood Azhar a global terrorist. It began illegally building infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, violating Indian sovereignty. 

On 16 June, 2017, China upped the ante. Furious at the Modi government for allowing the Dalai Lama in March 2017 to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh which Beijing claims as its territory, Chinese soldiers occupied the trijunction on the Dolam plateau at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet border which lies 30 km from the Doklam plateau within Bhutanese territory. 

The standoff between Chinese and Indian troops is now in its third month. China?s state-owned mouthpiece Global Times and assorted state-run think tanks have threatened a military operation to oust Indian troops from the Doklam region. China?s argument is based on a series of deliberate untruths. These rely on a convention signed between colonial Britain and China in 1890 on Sikkim and Tibet. The key infirmity in Beijing?s stand is that Bhutan was not a signatory to the 1890 convention. Its validity in the dispute over Doklam, where Bhutanese territory is directly involved, is therefore questionable.

What next? Will China carry out its threat of a limited military operation? Will India blink and withdraw its troops, replacing them with Bhutanese troops followed by a pledged withdrawal of Chinese troops to restore the status quo ante? 

Whichever way the Doklam standoff ends, the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi will never be the same again. China is used to getting its way in Asia. It has bullied the Philippines, rejected the United Nations verdict against it, threatened Japan and Taiwan, and challenged the United States over free naval movement in the South China Sea. Beijing?s tensions with Washington over North Korea are also set to rise.

Beijing is meanwhile building bridges with Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka in an attempt to surround India with a string of thistles in South Asia. China regards India as a serious future rival. India?s strategic partnership with Washington and Tokyo irks it. China is also developing closer ties with India?s longtime ally Russia. It has just held a large military exercise with the Russian Navy in the Baltic Sea in NATO?s backyard ? a message not lost on either the Americans or Europeans. 
Why does India worry China so much? Border disputes between the two countries are hardly new. Not a shot has been fired on the over 4,050-km border between the two countries for over 40 years, as Modi publicly noted. 

China knows that the India-US axis is a powerful force for the future. It could severely dent China?s hegemonic ambitions in the arc from East Asia curving upwards through the Indian Ocean, across West Asia and Africa. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be jeopardised if  India is not a part of it. India and Bhutan, significantly, are the only two Asian countries which have rejected the BRI. The fact that India is building an alternative north-south corridor through Iran, central Asia and Russia, along with the Chabahar port in Iran with direct access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan, too worries China. But above all, it is India?s medium-term economic growth numbers Beijing frets over.

Recent projections by the IMF predict that China?s economic growth will slow to 4.4 per cent a year from 2017 to 2025. China?s population is rapidly ageing. Mao?s one-child policy of the 1960s has caused the rapid greying of China. As pensions balloon, younger workers will have to pay more taxes from their salaries to support the elderly. Social tensions could rise in what is a society tightly controlled by the totalitarian Chinese Communist party. 

In contrast, the IMF projects that India?s GDP will grow at around 8 per cent a year. When the full effect of GST kicks in, annual growth could accelerate to 9-10 per cent, especially given India?s productive youthful demographics ?in stark opposition to ageing China. 

If the IMF?s projections prove correct, India?s GDP, growing at a GST-turbo-charged 9-10 per cent annually, will in a span of 20 years mathematically double itself thrice ? roughly once every seven years. Thus India?s GDP in 2037 would be 2x2x2 or eight times the current $2.50 trillion ? viz, $20 trillion. That?s nearly double China?s current GDP of $11 trillion. During these 20 years, if China grows at the IMF?s projected 4.4 per cent a year, its GDP in 2037 would be $24 trillion ? just a shade above India?s. 

Geopolitical power has three key components: economic strength, military capability and soft power. On the first, India will possibly achieve near-parity with China in less than a generation. On the second, India?s new defence policy should reverse years of stagnation as the navy, army and airforce are beefed up with nuclear submarines, high-tech howitzers and several squadrons of fifth-generation fighter jets. 

On the third front ? soft power ? India has a big edge over China. It is a democracy. It guarantees citizens? freedoms. It has a globally respected legal system, English as the language of  business ? and Bollywood which transcends language as Dangal?s record-breaking performance in China demonstrates.

Unlike India, China thinks decades ahead. It has seen the future, even if New Delhi?s squabbling politicians yet haven?t, and India?s growing ascent worries it. The Doklam crisis will eventually be resolved. But India must learn to punch at its full geopolitical weight to counter Beijing?s attempt to slow its rise.

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Kerala love jihad case Did the court err
Just as India?s commitment to individual rights is inviolate, so must be our commitment to confront and defeat terrorism.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The case surrounding Akhila, renamed Hadiya, has two conflicting dimensions: liberty and terrorism. The backstory in brief: Akhila is a 24-year-old homeopath from Kottayam in Kerala. Her father KM Ashokan is a former serviceman. During her studies, Akhila drew close to radical Islamic groups. Her parents petitioned the Kerala High Court to restore her to their custody.

The petition was rejected by the court in January 2016. The court rightly held that, as an adult, Akhila was free to choose where and with whom to live. In August 2016, Akhila?s parents moved the Kerala High Court with a new petition, again seeking their daughter?s custody, claiming she was being indoctrinated by radical Islamic groups with terror links.

Parental demand
During the pendency of the case, Akhila appeared in court and declared she had married a 27-year-old man named Shefin Jehan who had earlier worked in the Gulf. She said she had converted voluntarily to Islam and her name was now Hadiya.

Days later, her parents filed an affidavit in the Kerala High Court claiming that Shefin Jehan was a member of a radical Islamic group and had been involved in three criminal cases. The affidavit said their daughter?s indoctrination and marriage to Jehan was part of a larger plot to send her to Syria (as 21 other young Indian women had earlier been) to serve the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS).

The Kerala High Court ordered a police inquiry into the allegations and counter-allegations. On receiving the police report, the court on May 24, 2017, annulled the Hadiya-Jehan marriage and sent her back to her parents? home. In July 2017, Jehan filed a petition in the Supreme Court to re-establish his ?conjugal rights? with Hadiya, calling the Kerala High Court order a serious human rights violation.

On August 16, 2017, the day after India celebrated 70 years of Independence, the Supreme Court ordered the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe whether there was a ?love jihad? dimension to the Hadiya case. The NIA?s investigation is to be conducted under the supervision of retired Supreme Court Justice RV Raveendran. That is where the case rests today, a week after the Supreme Court?s order.

Human rights groups have questioned the Supreme Court?s intervention, terming it as one more example of judicial overreach. As an adult, they argue, Hadiya has every right to lead the life she chooses and with whoever she chooses. In principle, this argument is faultless. Inter-faith marriages are not the court?s business. Personal liberty supersedes parental demand for custody. The court must always protect the free choice of an adult against forcible custody by his or her guardians.

That thought is true if there is no larger public interest involved which, in exceptional circumstances, could supersede private interest. Hadiya?s case, her parents allege, is precisely one such case. The Kerala police concur. The Kerala High Court has endorsed the police report on Jehan?s alleged links with radical Islamic groups in India serving as a conduit for recruiting women to serve ISIS in Syria.

Sleeper cells
In the emotional reaction to the Hadiya-Jehan case ? exacerbated by the Supreme Court wondering if it is a case of ?love jihad? ? the larger issue has been lost: the proliferation of sleeper terrorist cells that operate under the radar in Kerala. In normal circumstances, the Kerala High Court should not have annulled an inter-faith marriage.

In Hadiya?s case, it is important the Supreme Court decides on Jehan?s petition as swiftly as possible. If Justice Reveendran?s inquiry report points to an organised conspiracy to radicalise Indians and export them to medieval terrorist groups like ISIS in Syria ?or enlist them in proscribed Indian terror outfits like the banned Islamist group SIMI and Indian Mujahideen ? the case assumes an entirely different dimension.

India must have zero tolerance to terrorism. That includes stopping radicalisation by sleeper Islamist cells across the country. India must also have zero tolerance to the government infringing on individual rights and freedoms. The courts must protect those rights, not erode them.

Terror links
Whether or not the Hadiya case is the exception that merits court intervention will be decided by the Justice Raveendran-monitored NIA probe into the specific circumstances of Shefin Jehan and Hadiya. The case must not be turned into a proxy for communal, political or ideological arguments. The use of the term ?love jihad? by the Supreme Court was unfortunate because it feeds into established prejudice on both sides of the ideological fence.

The only operative word should be jihad. Individual liberty is sacrosanct. Inter-faith marriages (I have one myself) are nobody?s business but the couple?s. However, when the Kerala police and a Kerala High Court bench, neither known for a majoritarian bias, provide prima facie evidence of terror links involved in the Hadiya-Jehan case, we must hold our judgment till the full facts are determined by the Supreme Court-appointed investigation. Just as India?s commitment to individual rights is inviolate, so must be our commitment to confront and defeat terrorism.

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Trump sees through Pakistan design
Unlike George W Bush & Barack Obama, the new US President has already called Islamabad?s bluff

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Pakistan is used to hard talk from Presidents of the United States. After the 9/11 terror attack on the US, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was confronted by an angry Geroge W Bush. The usually laid-back Bush told Musharraf that if he didn?t cooperate with America?s war on terror, the US would ?bomb Pakistan into the stone age?.

That was in 2001. Sixteen years later, Pakistan has pretended to cooperate with the US, sucked in over $30 billion in US funds, and used the money to build a terror infrastructure aimed squarely at India.

The US-led NATO alliance has lost over 4,000 soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past 16 years. Nurtured by the Pakistani army, the Taliban has meanwhile grown in power and confidence. The US has witnessed Pakistan?s double dealing during this period but done little concrete about it.

To Pakistan?s delight, President Bush switched his attention from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003. The Taliban, pressure relieved, regrouped. President Barack Obama pleased the Pakistanis even more during his 2009-17 tenure by drawing down 1,00,000 US troops in Afghanistan to 8,900 soldiers, largely in an advisory and training capacity. He further pleased the Taliban and its Pakistani army mentors by announcing the withdrawals several years in advance.

The ruthless terrorists who comprise the Taliban and their Pakistani army handlers couldn?t believe their luck. They hunkered down in 2012, waiting for US troops to leave which they, as promised, did in 2014. The Taliban soon re-emerged as a political force, asking for and getting a seat on the ?peacemakers? table? ? one of the first cases of terrorists discussing an increase in their own power with those tasked to eliminate them.

Having run rings around two US presidents, Bush and Obama, for 16 years the Pakistani army was confident it could do the same with President Donald Trump. The early signs were propitious. In a phone conversation with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump called Pakistanis a ?fantastic people? and pledged to work together with Islamabad to fight terrorism in Af-Pak. He seemed to have swallowed the well-worn Pakistani lie that it was the victim of terrorism, rather than its perpetrator.

Was Trump going to be as gullible as Bush and Obama? The answer was delivered in his speech last week outlining a new Afghanistan policy. Trump identified Pakistan as the principal source of terrorism. In the strongest language used by a US president against Pakistan, Trump said coldly: ?We?re not into nation-building in Afghanistan. We?re into killing terrorists wherever they are.? That, Trump said, included Pakistan.

But will anything change on the ground? The Pakistani army, whose livelihood depends on using terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India, is confident nothing will. It has already distorted Trump?s call to India to ?help more? in Afghanistan as a request for military assistance, knowing full well that Trump had referred only to ?economic assistance?. Pakistan is paranoid about India?s growing influence in Afghanistan where India has built hospitals, schools, roads and government infrastructure. Over 12,000 Afghans study in India. Nearly 4,000 Indians work in Afghanistan.

Trump and his tough-as-nails Defence Secretary General James (?Mad Dog?) Mattis plan to send 4,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. NATO is set to send several thousand coalition troops as well, taking the US-led force to 20,000 in short order. There?s more bad news for the Pakistani army and its prot?g?, the Taliban. Trump and Mattis haven?t ruled out using American air power on terror safe havens in Pakistan itself. Though occasional drone attacks on terror targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border have been carried out in the past, US missile and air attacks on terror sanctuaries on Pakistani soil have been rare. In Syria and Iraq, US air power has turned the tide against the Islamic State (ISIS). Trump and Mattis are confident that the use of US air power on Pakistan?s terror safe havens will make a big difference in the war to defeat the Taliban.

For India, the key question is: What about the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) which are sponsored by the Pakistani army-ISI to attack India in Kashmir and elsewhere? Trump was notably silent on these Punjab-based terror groups. But if he seeks a greater Indian role to develop Afghanistan?s economy, he knows America?s new war on terror can?t ignore the LeT and JeM.

To make a difference, the US will have to attack the source of terrorism: Pakistan. President Trump and General Mattis know this. If the new Trump-Mattis doctrine in Af-Pak of attacking terrorists ?wherever they are? is to succeed, US air power holds the key.

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Has China overplayed its hand
Beijing has disputes with virtually every neighbouring country over territorial or maritime sovereignty

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A raft of bad news followed Chinese President Xi Jinping as he returned to Beijing from Hong Kong where he was confronted by angry demonstrators seeking more democracy in the Chinese territory on the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain.

While Xi was still in Hong Kong, the United States, to Beijing’s fury, announced arms sales of $1.42 billion to Taiwan, the breakaway island China claims sovereignty over. Meanwhile, the border dispute with India and Bhutan flared up, making Beijing look both bellicose and ineffectual. Bhutan, in an unusually aggressive move, issued a demarche to China through the Indian embassy in Delhi (Bhutan and China don’t maintain diplomatic relations).

Almost on cue, the US government imposed sanctions on China’s Bank of Dandong, accusing it of being “a conduit for illicit North Korean activity.” Alleging that the Chinese bank was engaged in “money laundering”, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said it had been blacklisted, barring it from the US financial system through which most of the global finance operates.

For India, the diplomatic and financial rebuffs to China couldn’t have come at a better time. Close on the heels of his successful meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 6 completes his historic three-day visit to Israel, the first by an Indian PM. On July 7, Modi flies to Hamburg for the G20 summit where he will run into Xi. Their last meeting in Kazakhstan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit was congenial with India deciding to tone down the rhetoric over Beijing blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Positions have hardened since. India has toughened its stand over China’s ongoing border incursions. In response, China’s jingoistic state-owned media has reminded India of the 1962 Sino-India war, drawing a sharp counter from Defence Minister Arun Jaitley.

Meanwhile, the Americans, increasingly upset over Beijing’s reluctance to rein in North Korea’s missile programme, have accused it of “disregard for international law.” US Defence Secretary James Mattis signalled Washington’s aggressive new stance during a visit to Sydney last month. He also condemned China’s construction of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea saying it showed “contempt for other nations’ interests.”

The slew of criticism will rankle with Beijing, considering it comes from a broad swathe of countries: the US, India, Bhutan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. China has disputes with virtually every neighbouring country over either territory or maritime sovereignty. Its closest allies now are Pakistan and North Korea which speaks for itself.

India has been right to highlight Pakistan’s illicit role in supplying nuclear weapons technology to North Korea whose nuclear-armed missile programme is regarded by Washington as a clear and present danger. US policy on both North Korea and Pakistan is currently under review. Islamabad’s role in nuclearising North Korea has resonated badly both on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

All of this presents an opportunity for India at the G20 summit in Hamburg beginning tomorrow. A planned Modi-Xi bilateral has been cancelled following rising border tension and Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s remark that the Indian Army was ready to fight a two-and-a-half front war. The half referred to the Maoist insurgency.

A belligerent China needs to be constantly reminded of two events: one, its defeat by tiny Vietnam in a short, sharp border war in 1979; and two, the fact that as recently as 2007 its GDP ($2.6 trillion) was nearly the same as India’s today ($2.5 trillion). In ten years India’s economy, if it grows at a conservative annual average of 7 per cent, would double to $5 trillion — half of China’s current GDP even as China’s own economy slows and its population ages.

With the US, the European Union and much of Asia ranged against it, China could, meanwhile, feel increasingly isolated diplomatically. Its infrastructure investments in Africa are already drawing complaints from local workers of ill-treatment and racism. Having rogue nations like Pakistan and North Korea as its closest allies and much of the rest of the democratic world pitted against it is not the best way for China to seek the mantle of global leadership.

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Sonia Gandhi helped create the toxicity of Congress party
The greatest disservice the party did was to set back by decades the cause of bona fide secularism.
Friday, July 7, 2017

Without quite realising it, the Congress under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi has become a toxic force in Indian politics.

The 1975-77 Emergency, during which more than one lakh journalists, Opposition leaders and civil society activists were jailed (including LK Advani and Arun Jaitley), exposed the first autocratic gene in the Congress. Indians' fundamental rights were suspended for nearly two years. The Constitution was subverted.

The attempt by the Congress to censor Madhur Bhandarkar's new film on the Emergency, Indu Sarkar, underscores how keenly aware the Congress is of the human rights violations it committed during the Emergency.

In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi - an essentially decent man whose career was impaled by bad advisors - planted the seed of communalism in mainstream politics by overturning through parliamentary legislation a 1985 Supreme Court order that had granted maintenance to an elderly divorced Muslim woman Shah Bano.

But it wasn't till 1998, when Sonia Gandhi took over the presidency of the Congress, that the full toxicity of the party would become evident. The crude, thoughtless overnight eviction of then Congress president Sitaram Kesri was an early sign.

When the Congress took power at the Centre in 2004 after a hiatus of six years, it showed its true colours. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the gentle, erudite face of the Congress-led UPA government for ten years, Sonia called the shots behind the scenes.

The party had four organisational layers. The first comprised senior lawyer-ministers P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and Veerappa Moily. The second was made up of senior loyalists Jairam Ramesh, Kamal Nath and Anand Sharma.

The third layer was led by ground-level operators Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad. The fouth layer comprised Rahul's young turks - Jyotiraditya Scinda, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Deepender Hooda and Jitin Prasada - all dynasts.

Working seamlessly, monitored closely by a stentorian Sonia, the four-tiered Congress team presided over the UPA's two terms from 2004-14, widely regarded as India's decade of scams and sectarian politics.

The communal seed planted after the Shah Bano case in 1985-86 had by now grown into a forest of trees with "saffron terror" carved on the bark of each tree trunk by the Congress' slick four-layered operation.

The greatest disservice the Congress did was to set back by decades the cause of bona fide secularism. As I wrote in the article, "The Ayatollahs of Secularism", in The Times of India: "The two real enemies of the Muslim - communal politicians masquerading as secular politicians to win votes and Mullahs deliberately misinterpreting the holy book to retain power over their flock - form a natural alliance. Together they have enriched themselves but impoverished India's Muslims, materially and intellectually, in the name of secularism. Influential sections of especially the electronic media, suffused with hearts bleeding from the wrong ventricle, are part of this great fraud played on India's poor Muslims: communalism dressed up as secularism. The token Muslim is lionised - from business to literature - but the common Muslim languishes in his ghetto."

Scams meanwhile profilerated. Three years after the Congress plunged from 206 MPs to 44 in May 2014, most though inexplicably remain unresolved - to the NDA government's and the judicial system's discredit. But each one - AgustaWestland, 2G, Scorpene, CWG, Coalgate - is a reminder of how corruption became the new normal in 2004-14.

Cut to the present. The Congress clearly hasn't learnt its lesson. KC Tyagi, a Rajya Sabha MP from the JD(U), the party on whom rests the Opposition's hope of stitching together a credible mahagathbandhan in 2019, had this to say of the Congress: "We are very upset at the behavior of the Congress. The character assassination of our leader, Nitish Kumar, has also happened. The Congress today is not the Congress party of 1952, 1962 or 1984. It is not even a legitimate Congress party."

When even a chronic Modi-baiter like Tyagi berates the Congress as not "legitimate", Indian politics has clearly reached a point of inflection.

Borewell of toxicity

The Congress today is in real danger of immersing itself in a self-made borewell of toxicity. Its decision to boycott the special session of Parliament on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is only the latest in a series of self-destructive moves.

Note the other parties which joined the Congress' GST boycott: RJD, DMK, TMC and the Left. What do they have in common? Serious charges of corruption.

1. The RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav is looking at fresh jail time in the fodder scam. He is meanwhile battling charges of undeclared assets against his two sons, daughter and wife.

2. The DMK's A Raja, in and out of jail since the 2G scam broke, has implicated senior Congress ministers in the telecom license corruption case.

3. The TMC's top leadership faces charges in the Saradha, Rose Valley and Narada scams which have singed Mamata Banerjee's reputation for probity, quite apart from her inaction over communal riots in West Bengal.

4. The Left has been implicated in a slew of brutal communal killings in Kerala where its government is accused of complicity.

Virtually every other Opposition party, including the SP, BSP, JD(U), NCP and the JD(S), was represented at the special midnight GST parliamentary session. The four holdouts - RJD, DMK, TMC and the Left - who joined the Congress boycott spoke volumes for the party's diminished reputation.

Sonia has over the 19 years of her presidency converted the Congress into a family business ruled with an iron fist. Rahul has been inheritor-in-waiting for three years. It is an indictment of Indian democracy that India's second largest political party continues to operate like a feudal family firm.

India deserves better.

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An Arab Tightrope For India
India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East

Monday, July 10, 2017

The blockade of Qatar by a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia puts India in a piquant situation. New Delhi enjoys cordial relations with all the protagonists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made successful visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the two most aggressive members of the anti-Qatar coalition.

India has an excellent relationship with Qatar, the world’s largest producer of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). It is also India’s biggest supplier of natural gas. Prime Minister Modi’s high-profile visit to Israel on July 4 - 6, 2017 (the first by an Indian Prime Minister) was carefully followed by Tel Aviv’s Arab neighbours.

The elephant in the room in the Saudi-Qatar stand-off is Iran. While Riyadh and its Gulf allies claim that Qatar’s support for Islamist terrorists is the principal cause of the blockade, the real reason is Qatar’s growing closeness to Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s sworn Shia enemy.

Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field (named North Dome on the Qatari side and South Pars in Iranian waters). Tehran has gleefully stepped into the intra-Arab breach by sending to Qatar ships loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables. It has allowed Qatari aircraft to use Iranian air space, bypassing Arab states which have blocked Qatari flights.

Turkey, which like Iran is a non-Arab country, has also backed Qatar. It has already dispatched a small contingent of troops to Doha with tanks rolling through the Qatari capital last week. Unlike Shia Iran though, Sunni Turkey has good relations with the Saudis. It has the largest, most powerful army in the Middle East and maintains a military base in Qatar.

In a strong statement Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Arab blockage of Qatar an attack on its sovereignty and “against international law”. He added: “To ask Turkey to pull out its troops from Qatar is firstly disrespectful behaviour towards us. We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners. We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stance towards the 13 demands. It’s a very, very ugly approach to try to interfere with our agreement.” The United States, after initially intemperate comments by President Donald Trump backing Saudi Arabia, has now taken a neutral position. Qatar hosts the biggest US military base, Al Udeid, in the Middle East. The air base lies just 20 km south of Doha. Washington can scarcely afford to antagonise Qatar given the endgame battle the US is waging against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa.

Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries with a per capita income higher than Switzerland. Its Al Jazeera TV channel is the most viewed across the region and often supports the lslamist Muslim Brotherhood. But in the pecking order of terrorist groups, the Brotherhood ranks way down a list that is led by the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Ironically, Saudi Arabia was an early sponsor of ISIS. Riyadh planned to use it to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (a Shia affiliate) who is backed by Iran and Iraq.

In essence, this is a proxy war between Sunnis and Shias that dates back over 1,300 years, soon after the death of Prophet Mohammad. Sunnis regard Shias as heretics. The Shia axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria poses a threat to the paranoid Saudis. Hit by collapsing oil prices, Saudi Arabia is trying to reduce its reliance on petroleum products. One of the reasons for the abrupt elevation in June 2017 of 31-year-old deputy crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman as heir to the Saudi kingdom is that he is a leading proponent of “Saudi Vision 2030”. The plan aims to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy by diversifying it into telecom, health, education and infrastructure. Mohammed bin-Salman is also the driving force behind Qatar’s blockade.

How does the rift within the Arab world affect India? To begin with it puts pressure on Sunni-majority Pakistan to take sides. Islamabad doesn’t want to antagonise Iran with which it shares a long, porous and troubled western border. Yet it can’t afford to ignore Saudi Arabia’s veiled warning to support the action against Qatar. In order not to offend Iran, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declined to send Pakistani troops to join the 39-nation Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) which has been fighting tiny Yemen’s Houthi rebels (Shia affiliates backed by Iran) for over two years with spectacular lack of success. Sharif mollified Saudi Arabia by allowing former Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif to head the IMA which has shown itself to be an incompetent, blundering fighting force. India has friendly relations with all the players in the Middle East — but with no strings attached. Modi’s historic Israel visit completes the circle. Indian foreign policy, though sound in theory, has often been leaden-footed in practice. India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East geography.

There are three clear power centres competing for salience in the Middle East. The first is the Saudi-led Sunni Gulf coalition, wealthy but militarily feeble. The second is the Iran-Iraq-Syria Shia axis, relatively poor but with strong fighting ability. Iran’s nuclear programme, though hamstrung by the US-Iran nuclear deal, could change the balance of Sunni-Shia power dramatically if Tehran is successful, despite the deal, in assembling a nuclear weapon. The third power centre comprises three wild cards: Turkey, Israel and Qatar. If the Saudi-Qatar dispute is not resolved quickly, the Saudi-led coalition will lose ground as it has in Yemen.

India can leverage this fluid situation to tackle several issues: counter-terrorism, extradition of militants from the Gulf and building the delayed Chabahar port infrastructure in Iran to provide land-locked Afghanistan a trade route bypassing Pakistan.

The geopolitical dividends could be significant and give India a major strategic advantage in Af-Pak. Due to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s poor health after her kidney transplant last December, India has lacked diplomatic direction. The absence of a permanent defence minister compounds the problem. The Prime Minister must address both issues urgently if India has to play a full role in the rapidly shifting sands of the Middle East.

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Basirhat riots Mamata Banerjee can end up helping BJP in Bengal
Didi may rue the electoral cost of her communal politics.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

It takes a lot of effort to make the Left look good. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has done just that. The Left ruined West Bengal in a 34-year-long nightmare that drove industry from the state, allowed the India-Bangladesh border to become porous, and created deep social divisions.

Mamata has topped that. When she stormed to power in 2011, she promised change. Her first and most sensible step was appointing economist Amit Mitra, a former secretary-general of FICCI, as West Bengal’s finance minister. Mitra has turned the state’s finances around with major tax reforms and efficient revenue collection. The rest of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has proved an unmitigated disaster. Mamata’s communal brand of politics has converted West Bengal into a tinderbox.

The week-long Basirhat riots were the culmination of years of Muslim appeasement which have emboldened radicalised Muslims to unleash violence on Hindus unhindered by a communalised and impotent police force. The Calcutta High Court has thrice upbraided the Mamata government for Muslim appeasement that damages the state’s social fabric.

Consider this stinging order Justice Dipankar Dutta passed on October 6, 2016: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the state government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification. The reason is, however, not far to seek. To put it curtly, the state government has been irresponsibly brazen in its conduct of being partial to one community.”

Biswas has denied his role in the communal violence but another witness Piyali Haldar claimed last week: “For the last three days, we have been enduring attacks by Muslims… Our shops have been looted. My family lost goods worth Rs 2.5 lakh… The police are raiding our homes to look for arms. Let them raid Muslim homes and see the cache of arms they bring from across the border.”

Yet another local resident, Sumanto Sarkar, added: “We have never ever seen anything like this before… If it wasn’t for us, Dipendu Biswas would never have become an MLA. And now he is picking up our boys, siding with the Muslims… I voted for the Trinamool in the last election. But never again.”

Mamata appears not to fear the law. She fears only electoral defeat. As long as she locks in the 28 per cent Muslim bloc vote and a small percentage of the floating Hindu vote, she is assured of a vote share of over 40 per cent.

In a multi-cornered fight that the 2021 Assembly election will be, a 40 per cent vote share guarantees a landslide. The Left, the Congress, and the BJP will divide the rest of the vote, giving the TMC a disproportionate number of Assembly seats as it did in 2016.

The BJP hopes to stop the TMC juggernaut in 2021 — but can it? A pro-Muslim Mamata didn’t swing enough Hindu votes towards the BJP in 2016 when it won just 10.3 per cent vote share and three seats. The TMC received 44.9 per cent vote share and 211 seats in the 294-seat state Assembly. But more Muslim-instigated riots like Basirhat and the growing fear that West Bengal is falling under the influence of Islamist radicalism could alter the electoral math in 2021.

The BJP’s cynical strategy is reverse-polarisation. The BJP succeeded in reverse-polarising Hindus against Akhilesh Yadav’s Muslim-Yadav coalition in Uttar Pradesh and won by a landslide. The party knows West Bengal is very different. But its growing focus on eastern India — the Northeast, Odisha and Bengal — shows where its strategy is heading.

The BJP is largely a party of the north and the west. To make inroads in the east and the south it has to target a vulnerable Karnataka in 2018, plug away in Kerala and Telangana, back Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu, use the NDA-backed North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to embrace the rest of the Northeast, and challenge the BJD in Odisha.

The holdout? West Bengal. However, Mamata could be walking into a mousetrap here. She can’t rein in Muslim radicals because her electoral base might collapse. But if she doesn’t, and communal riots targeting Hindus spread, reverse polarisation in favour of the BJP is inevitable. The losers? The Left and the Congress.

The former has little but Marxist obscurantism to offer Bengal’s youth. The latter has even less to offer under a dysfunctional dynasty. If West Bengal’s electoral politics becomes semi binary with the TMC and the BJP at two opposite poles and the Left and the Congress relatively marginalised, Mamata’s 45 per cent vote share could dip.

Given West Bengal’s demographics and the Left’s strong cadre-based presence, the change though may take place far more slowly than it has in, for example, Uttar Pradesh. The long-term math, however, spells danger for the TMC. As the embers of Basirhat continue to smoulder, she may rue the electoral cost of her communal politics.

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Expect thunder and storm this monsoon session of Parliament
With debates on Amarnath Yatra attack, GST, presidential election, there will be lots of turbulence ahead.
Friday, July 14, 2017

The monsoon session of Parliament, which begins on July 17, promises to be turbulent.

The terror attack on Amarnath Yatris should concentrate on MPs’ minds. An all-party resolution condemning the attack and holding Pakistan-sponsored terrorists accountable would signal political unity and maturity.

The BJP postponed commencement of the monsoon session to July 17 to coincide with the day MPs are scheduled to cast their votes in the presidential election. The sight of the JD(U)’s MPs crossing the floor of the House to vote with the BJP will not be a pleasant one for the Congress-led Opposition striving to build a united front against the NDA.

The Opposition though will come well armed. While the battle for President is lost (the election of Ram Nath Kovind is a foregone conclusion with well over 65 per cent votes likely to be cast in his favour), the Opposition will have several opportunities to put the BJP on the mat during the session.

The vice-presidential election is due on August 5, shortly before Parliament recesses. But here too the BJP’s candidate, to be announced soon, will sail through since voting is by MPs of both Houses.

The NDA has over 430 MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha out of a combined strength of around 790 MPs in the two Houses.

By picking Gopalkrishna Gandhi as its vice-presidential candidate, the 18-party Opposition led by the Congress will use the contest to gauge the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

All eyes will be on the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar.

Nitish is a wily politician. Sitting on the fence suits him. It keeps his truculent Bihar partner Lalu Prasad Yadav in check, the BJP on tenterhooks, and the Congress in three minds: will he, won’t he, and when.

All the while, Nitish will calmly stay put in Patna, watching Lalu and his deputy chief minister-son, Tejashwi, slowly self-destruct, and teasing the BJP with the occasional promise of what might be, come 2019.

In this parlour game, politics will prevail over policy. Parliament will be disrupted next week by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC storm troopers trying to stop debates on the Basirhat riots.

The image of a red-faced Derek O’Brien shouting himself hoarse in the well of the Rajya Sabha will be an indictment of the way the House has been run by the outgoing vice-president Hamid Ansari.

GST focus
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) will be the other focus of the Opposition’s attack. While GST’s rollout has been relatively smooth, glaring inconsistencies remain.

For instance, in the majority of the 17 Police Acts passed since 2006, state governments have given themselves the sole discretion to appoint police chiefs instead of choosing from a panel recommended by the UPSC. In many of the nine operational Police Complaints Authorities currently in place, their design has been subverted by appointing serving police officers as judges in their own cause. Elsewhere, their functioning has been hobbled by the lack of independent investigators."

Bibek Debroy, himself a part of the government as a member of Niti Aayog with minister of state (MoS) rank, in a recent article in The Indian Express pointed out key infirmities:

“Across goods and services, there should be a single rate for everything and no items should be outside the tax net. You do not leave out liquor, petroleum products, electricity or legal services. Why create an artificial threshold of Rs 1,000 between hotels that have higher room tariffs and lower? There is another threshold at Rs 7,500. For garments, there is a threshold of Rs 1,000 and for footwear, one of Rs 500. Is shampoo a demerit good that it should be taxed at 28 per cent?

“Sure, there is hope that in the long run, there will be no more than two or three rates — a standard one, a merit (lower) and a demerit one (higher). There is the Keynes quote and let me give you all of it, not just the bit that is usually quoted. ‘The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.’ ”

The GST is a work in progress, as Debroy points out, and the five principal rates of 5,12,18, 28 and 43 per cent may in time be collapsed to three as he suggests: 18 per cent for almost everything, 12 per cent for merit (essential) goods and 28 per cent for demerit (luxury) goods. The zero per cent rate will continue for most food and other items of daily consumption.

The anomaly over taxing branded (read: MNC) sanitary pads at 12 per cent and imposing rates of between five per cent and 18 per cent for devices for the differently-abled must, however, be removed right away. It is simply wrong to penalise women on the spurious grounds of helping unbranded sanitary pads compete with branded MNC products.

The argument for taxing wheelchairs, braille devices, and hearing aids because their ingredients are taxed is equally disingenuous. The tax involved is so small that in both cases – sanitary pads and devices for the disabled – the hand of thoughtless bureaucrats in the ministry of finance is apparent.

Both taxes must be rolled back. The Opposition will be fully justified in making a meal of it in Parliament next week if they aren’t.

Traders are meanwhile unhappy with GST because their monthly turnover will now be captured through the returns they need to file. They will have to get used to it. In the long term it will professionalise their operations.

The government, after losing part of the argument on demonetisation, is keen to put a shine on the parts that have worked. While it certainly hasn’t wiped out black money, demonetisation has increased the tax base significantly.

Most of the one crore new tax assesses (on a four crore base) in 2016-17 came in after November 2016. Digital payments have leapt by over 300 per cent, easing the way towards transforming India from a cash-dominant economy to a semi-cashless economy over the next few years.

The bickering over demonetisation and GST in Parliament next week will, however, distract from the real gains made since the last Budget session, especially in foreign policy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rapid-fire visits to the United States, Kazakhstan (for the SCO summit), Israel and Germany (G20) have significantly advanced India’s global strategy.

With a new vice-president (and Rajya Sabha chair) in place soon, the Upper House can look forward to receiving more robust and less partisan leadership than it has in the past ten years of Hamid Ansari’s tenure.

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Rise in lynching and rape India’s criminal justice system needs fixing
The law and order machinery across states is often corrupt and complicit, allowing criminals free rein.
Saturday, July 22, 2017

Eleven years ago, the distinguished former director-general of police (DGP) Prakash Singh wrung a landmark order from the Supreme Court on sweeping police reforms. The SC order, issued in September 2006, followed Singh's petition aimed at reforming India's corrupt and dysfunctional police which lies at the heart of virtually every law and order problem.

Incidents of violence involving gau rakshaks and the spate of lynchings, rapes and political murders can be traced back at least partially to ineffective policing. The law and order machinery across states is often corrupt and complicit, allowing criminals free rein. Most soon get bail. Their cases linger on for years. Fear of punishment is absent. The judicial system remains fatally clogged.

Shockingly but not surprisingly, the Supreme Court's seven-point directive on police reforms has been subverted by every government - the Congress-led UPA from 2006, when the order was issued, to 2014, the BJP-led NDA from 2014-17 and most state governments.

Law and order is a state subject, point out central ministers, passing the buck. The Supreme Court has been content to let the matter drag on for over a decade. In 2013 it hauled up four state governments (Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) for contempt of court. Chief secretaries of the states were summoned and warned they could be jailed if the SC's 2006 seven-point directive was not implemented.

Predictably, nothing of the sort happened.
This vicious cycle of bad policing and a broken criminal justice system are closely interlinked. Singh's petition sought to attack the root of the problem. The Supreme Court delivered one of its most enlightened orders but then failed in its duty to enforce that order.

Here's what its seven-point judgment ordered:

1) Constitute a State Security Commission (SSC) to:

(i) Ensure that the state government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the police; (ii) Lay down broad policy guidelines and; (iii) Evaluate the performance of the state police.

2) Ensure that the DGP is appointed through a merit-based transparent process and has a secured minimum tenure of two years. 3) Ensure that other police officers on operational duties (including superintendents of police in-charge of a district and station house officers in-charge of a police station) are also provided a minimum tenure of two years.

4) Separate the investigation and law and order functions of the police.

5) Set up a Police Establishment Board (PEB) to decide transfers, postings, promotions and other service related matters of police officers of and below the rank of deputy superintendent of police and make recommendations on postings and transfers above the rank of deputy superintendent of police.

6) Set up a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) at state level to inquire into public complaints against police officers of and above the rank of deputy superintendent of police in cases of serious misconduct, including custodial death, grievous hurt, or rape in police custody and at district levels to inquire into public complaints against police personnel below the rank of deputy superintendent of police in cases of serious misconduct.

7. Set up a National Security Commission (NSC) at the union level to prepare a panel for selection and placement of Chiefs of the Central Police Organisations (CPO) with a minimum tenure of two years.

Had these seven Supreme Court directives been implemented, criminal violence would not have disappeared but it would certainly have been mitigated. When the police conspire with - or are seen to conspire with - criminals, public faith in the law and order machinery is rapidly eroded.

Cow vigilantes exploit this to bully, beat and murder. Political parties in states like Kerala and West Bengal use police laxity or complicity to kill political opponents. Common criminals are emboldened to rape, knowing fully well that the dysfunctional criminal justice system will shield, not punish, them.

For this sorry state of affairs, the courts and the government must share the blame. An especially shocking outcome of their lethargy is jails that are overcrowded with undertrials. Many prisoners have already spent more time in jail than the maximum sentences they would have served had they been convicted.

The shoddy work of the CBI, ED and EOW, all staffed by IPS officers, has allowed several high-profile absconders accused of financial fraud to escape punishment. Investors and employees of the companies they have defrauded have little recourse in a clogged judicial system.

Senior lawyers, some of whom charge over Rs. 10 lakh for a single hearing even if it is adjourned, have colluded to make India's criminal justice system among the world's slowest and most corrupt.

Judicial reforms should clearly now form the Narendra Modi government's top priority along with economic reforms. The judiciary is the third pillar on which democracy rests. But without first implementing a pre-existing Supreme Court order on police reforms, unclogging the judiciary will remain utopian.

Governments use the police to guard their interests, not the public's. As Maja Daruwala, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, observed: "States have chosen four approaches: Actively resist the Supreme Court's order; lie doggo and do nothing; do something but do it wrong; and finally, get out from under the Supreme Court's orders by passing laws which not only do not conform to the court's orders but actually give statutory sanction to bad practices.

For instance, in the majority of the 17 Police Acts passed since 2006, state governments have given themselves the sole discretion to appoint police chiefs instead of choosing from a panel recommended by the UPSC. In many of the nine operational Police Complaints Authorities currently in place, their design has been subverted by appointing serving police officers as judges in their own cause. Elsewhere, their functioning has been hobbled by the lack of independent investigators."

The Supreme Court has been quick to haul up minor offenders for contempt. It must now hold state governments and the Centre to the same standard for being in contempt of one of the most important reforms in Indian governance.

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Crafting a new world order The shift from the West to Asia will have India as its focus
The shift from the West to Asia will have India as its focus since China’s economy is slowing down

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The world order is still largely white, Anglo-Saxon and male. Examples abound. The president of the World Bank has always been a white American man since its founding in 1944. This bad habit was only partially broken in 2012 when an American of South Korean descent, Jim Yong Kim, became the bank’s first non-white president. The change was cosmetic since Kim is a US citizen. No non-American has served as World Bank president in 73 years.

The other powerful global organisation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has always been headed by a white European male — though, like the World Bank’s Kim, in a token change the fund appointed its first woman managing director, Christine Lagarde, in 2011. It was a baby step.

Western unilateralism has a long history. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, during which Europe dragged much of the rest of the world into its parochial continental conflict that claimed over 50 million lives, the United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 in New York. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — gave themselves a veto and have blocked attempts ever since, using artifice and dilatory tactics, to democratise the UNSC

China’s case is especially curious. It was given a permanent seat (and veto) in the UNSC at inception in 1945 by virtue of being on the winning side of WW2 against the Japanese in the Asian theatre. Its seat, however, was in the name of the Republic of China (RoC) — today’s Taiwan. Following their defeat to the Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Chinese nationalists fled to Taiwan. The Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 but it wasn’t till 1971 that Beijing took the RoC’s permanent seat in the UNSC.

By the 1980s, the ‘Asian Century’ was a well-worn cliché but it is only now that a fundamental change in the balance of world power is measurable. For the first time in over two centuries, the combined GDPs of Asia’s three largest economies measured by purchasing power parity (PPP) are larger than the combined GDPs of the US, Britain, France and Russia — the four European members of the permanent, veto-carrying UNSC.

According to the latest figures from the IMF, China’s GDP (by PPP) is $21.41 trillion, India’s is $8.70 trillion and Japan’s $5.26 trillion. That’s a combined GDP of $ 35.37 trillion. In contrast, US GDP (again by PPP) is $18.56 trillion, Britain $2.79 trillion, France $2.77 trillion and Russia $3.39 trillion. Their combined GDP: $27.51 trillion.

This shift in the balance of global economic power will take time to have a significant geopolitical impact. Colonial Britain was the world’s largest economy through the 1800s. It was overtaken by the US in the late-1800s. China overtook the US economy in PPP terms, now routinely used by global financial institutions, only in 2014. It is following in Britain’s and America’s expansionist, militaristic footsteps.

Britain in the 1700s and 1800s was a rapacious colonial invader and the world’s biggest trader and transporter of African slaves to North America. The US, taking its cue from Britain, invaded Mexico in the 1800s, colonised the Philippines and through the 1900s fought brutal wars in Vietnam, Korea, South America and the Middle East.

Both Britain and America are today in economic and social decline — one of the reasons why Donald Trump rode to the presidency on a wave of middle-class, white American angst. There are plenty of lessons here for China which threatens and bullies many of the 14 countries it shares borders with. Unlike Britain and the US, China is not a democracy but a brutal dictatorship. The death of its Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo last week after years of incarceration throws doubt on whether China is ready for global leadership.

As The Economist wrote in its latest issue: “The aim of Mr Xi’s repression is no longer just to protect the party from challenge but also to control information. The party faces no direct challenge from political movements or organised ethnic groups. What worries its leaders more is that China’s many social problems might one day generate such a challenge.”

China’s long-term economic growth, according to a new Harvard study, is meanwhile likely to fall to 4.4 per cent a year while India’s will rise to nearly 8 per cent. The gap today between India’s GDP ($8.70 trillion) and China’s GDP ($21.41 trillion) has narrowed. If the Harvard study is right, the gap is set to narrow further by 2025. Over the medium term, that will have consequences Beijing will not relish.

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How To Privatise Air India
It’s time India reversed the post-independence decision to nationalise Tata Airlines and rename it Air India

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Privatising Air India could turn out to be one of the smartest decisions of the Narendra Modi government. Laden with a huge debt, shrunken routes, reduced landing rights and deteriorating service, selling Air India is clearly the wisest option.

Air India was effectively ruined by the UPA government from 2007 onwards. Civil aviation minister Praful Patel disastrously merged it with Indian Airlines and gave away the merged entity’s most profitable domestic and international routes to Emirates, Etihad, Jet and other airlines. From being India’s national carrier, accounting for a third of the total passenger traffic, Air India today has just under 14 per cent market share.

If ever there was a wilful destruction of India’s two airlines — Air India and Indian Airlines — the Congress-led UPA government and its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), did an efficient hatchet job.

Handled well, privatisation could make the airline the Tatas founded in 1932 rise like a Phoenix from the ashes. The key question: are private sector buyers interested in Air India? Apart from Indigo Airlines, which has already officially expressed interest in a letter to the civil aviation ministry, there are several Indian and global airlines and private equity players who would be keen to own Air India.

With oil prices low, the economic fundamentals of the aviation industry have improved greatly since 2015. Air India too has cut its annual losses and is operationally profitable. With staff rationalisation and better route utilisation its balance sheet could improve further.

Many buyers are put off by Air India’s humungous debt burden of Rs 52,000 crore. But that isn’t as big a worry as it seems. As Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said recently in an interview to a financial daily, “If the government continues to run Air India, a vast amount of resources will be required immediately. The airline can’t go on like this. We calculated that Air India would need an investment of about Rs 30,000 crore. After very detailed examination, it was felt that, given a choice between the government’s investment on infrastructure vis-à-vis social sectors and given that Air India has just 14 per cent market share, it’s best that the private sector runs and manages Air India in a far more efficient and cost-effective manner. I think the damage was done when Air India and Indian Airlines were merged in 2007. The systems were not properly laid out; there were a number of staff issues; and when all this continued for years, it led to the airline’s declining performance. Air India is sitting on a number of very good routes. It does not have excessive staff. It has very good planes. It has good landing rights, and many other assets. So from any investor’s viewpoint, Air India is a very good asset.”

So how do you arrive at a valuation for Air India? For starters, look at the valuation of its global peers. At the top of the totem pole is Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, the world’s most valuable airline with a market capitalisation of $41 billion (Rs 2.70 lakh crore). In the middle lies Singapore Airlines with a market cap of $12 billion (Rs 80,000 crore).

Given its fleet size and legacy landing rights at airports like London Heathrow and New York JFK (which cost over $75 million — Rs 500 crore — each), Air India could justifiably be valued at between Rs 90,000 crore and Rs 1,00,000 crore. Its real estate, which should be part of the deal, is worth around Rs 10,000 crore at today’s market rates. The 23-storey Air India building in Mumbai’s Nariman Point has an area of 2,20,000 square feet and is alone valued at over Rs 3,000 crore. Besides, Air India remains the country’s largest international airline with 16.9 per cent market share on overseas routes, ahead of Jet Airways (14.5 per cent).

One of its three profit making subsidiaries, Air India Express (the low-cost, short-range international carrier), recorded a net profit of Rs 297 crore in 2016-17.

Anyone buying Air India — be it an airline, a private equity player or a combination of the two — would need to consider three issues:

* One, who will take on the Rs 52,000 crore debt — the government through a haircut or the buyer with the final purchase price discounted by factoring in the debt?
* Two, will the buyer be satisfied with a 49 per cent stake or will it insist on a Maruti model and a majority stake?
* Three, will the Air India unions stop the sale as they have threatened to do, fearing staff layoffs by a new private sector

Taking all these factors into account, a 100 per cent sale of Air India, along with its subsidiaries and real estate to an Indian buyer with a foreign partner (the Tatas and Singapore Airlines are said to be particularly interested) could fetch the government up to Rs 50,000 crore after deducting Air India’s debt. That’s equal to its entire divestment budget for fiscal 2017-18. Moreover, the Centre won’t have to make good anymore the annual losses of Air India or invest in new aircraft and ground handling facilities.

In a desperate move to cut costs, Air India recently announced it would no longer serve non-vegetarian meals in economy class. Resorting to such small cost-cutting measures reveals the decline of a once-proud airline, run into the ground by the UPA government’s appalling decision to merge it with Indian Airlines and gift its best routes to a few favoured carriers.

Around the world, countries have privatised their airlines. Only the Gulf sheikhdoms keep a tight rein on their national flag carriers. It’s time India reversed the post-Independence decision to nationalise Tata Airlines and rename it Air India.

Air India could, sooner than we think, return to its original name and owner.

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Doklam standoff How India should handle China
The Chinese may not understand English, but they certainly understand military and economic strength.
Thursday, July 27, 2017

National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, in Beijing today for the BRICS security conference beginning July 27, will have to mix toughness with tact. The standoff near the Doklam plateau at the tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China is now in its second month. Doval has no illusions about China. It jails dissidents. It has no press freedom. It props up international pariah North Korea. It protects Pakistan-sponsored terrorist Masood Azhar.

China's state-controlled media is malevolent. By calling external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj a liar, Global Times, the Chinese government's English-language mouthpiece, has crossed the red line into yellow journalism. But make no mistake: Global Times and newspapers like The People's Daily as well as the Chinese news agency Xinhua reflect Beijing's official policy.

Swaraj was right to call China's bluff in her statement to Parliament last week. Till then the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) had used timid bureaucratese in the face of war-mongering rhetoric by China's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.”

Global Times was cruder: "India's invasion of Chinese territory is a plain fact. New Delhi's impetuous action stuns the international community. No other country will support India's aggression. Second, India's military strength is far behind that of China. If the conflict between China and India escalates to the intensity where their row has to be resolved through military means, India will surely lose."

In sharp contrast, India's timorous MEA establishment, citing the sensitivity of the Doklam standoff, spoke as if treading on eggshells. It took Swaraj - who is no pushover as her strong riposte to Sartaj Aziz, the de facto foreign minister of Pakistan, on PoK showed - to put the Chinese in their place.

Used to dealing with the supine Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government, Beijing expected India to stay silent after its troops occupied Bhutanese territory at the key tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China. The tri-junction overlooks Chicken's Neck, the narrow Siliguri corridor in West Bengal that connects India with its northeastern states. Doklam is, therefore, critical to India's security interests.

China's foreign ministry has lied about three pieces of "evidence" that Beijing says it produced before the international community. Doval will have to counter these untruths while keeping open the door for negotiations. The first evidence presented is the 1890 treaty between the British colonial government and China on Sikkim and Tibet. Bhutan is not a signatory to this Sino-British agreement. Its validity in the current dispute over Doklam is questionable, a fact Beijing hid in its presentation to diplomats of over 20 countries in the Chinese capital.

The second piece of evidence Beijing proffered to stake its claim on Doklam was the exchange of letters between then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959. Again China did not disclose that Nehru had in that correspondence expressed reservations over the 1890 Sino-British treaty on Sikkim and Tibet, saying the matter was far from settled.

Nehru, in fact, wrote that the 1890 treaty "defined only the northern part of the Sikkim border and not the tri-junction area" encompassing Bhutan. This is what Nehru wrote in his two letters to Zhou: "Rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is, therefore, a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector."

The third sleight of hand by the Chinese while placing its evidence over the Doklam standoff in public was ignoring the 2012 agreement between India and China to not unilaterally change tri-junction points at borders with third countries without full consultation with all parties concerned. By moving troops near the Doklam plateau in disputed Bhutanese-Chinese territory to build roads and infrastructure which tanks and artillery could later use, China has violated the 2012 agreement.

Despite being on the right side of history, India's MEA has not been able to make its case on Doklam with the same force as China - an old MEA failing disguised as "sensitive diplomacy". It is nothing of the sort. It is pusillanimous diplomacy that has long been India's bane.

By openly threatening to "interfere" in PoK, China is now additionally complicit in Pakistan's policy of using terror as state policy. If a state harbours terrorists, as Pakistan does, it needs to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. If another state is complicit with a state sponsor of terrorism - as China now clearly is with Pakistan - it too must fall within the same definition. Abetting terrorism is as serious a crime as terrorism. China's complicity will carry a heavy cost.

Will China attack India militarily over Doklam? No. Indian troops have the mountain heights, the equipment, and the numbers. Besides, the Chinese don't want to get sucked into a war which could end in a bloody nose of the kind tiny Vietnam gave it in 1979 when Beijing attacked its southern neighbour. Recognising reality, Xinhua put out this conciliatory release on the eve of Doval's visit to Beijing: "India and China need to enhance communication and nurture trust between them."

India's diplomacy with China must now be both robust and rational. India must focus on building its economic strength and conventional military capability. It has already established a nuclear triad - air, sea, and land. The Chinese may not understand English, but they certainly understand military and economic strength.

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Saif, Kangana, Tejaswi - Suleiman and Anwar discuss nepotism in India
'Sure, nepotism and dynasty have their downside but see how well it works in Indian politics.'
Saturday, July 29, 2017

Suleiman Khan was super-excited. He phoned his close friend Anwar Shaikh. ”I’m in Qatar,” he exclaimed.

Anwar was taken aback. “Qatar? I thought Saudi Arabia had closed its land border and air space to Qatar.”

“No, no, Anwarbhai,” said Suleiman. “I flew from Riyadh to Islamabad to meet my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law and from there came to Qatar. Now I’m planning to fly from Doha to Delhi to meet you and catch up with all this talk of nepotism that’s creating such a stir in India.”

“Ah, you mean all that buzz about Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi still supporting Lalu Yadav’s son Tejashwi Yadav - ”

Suleiman cut Anwar off mid-sentence. “No, Anwarbhai, I meant the open letters by Saif Ali Khan and Kangana Ranaut over nepotism in Bollywood.”

Anwar laughed. “Oh, that. Look, Saif, Karan Johar and Varun Dhawan were right about it being a storm in a tea cup. It was just a joke at a film awards function. Don’t make an issue of it. Anyway, Saif and Kareena are now on holiday in Gstaad in Switzerland. Let them be.”

Suleiman rolled his eyes as he replied: “Anwarbhai, I thought Kangana’s open letter to Saifbhai was quite an eye-opener. She made some pretty strong points. I especially liked the bit about being the flagbearers of hope rather than the flagbearers of nepotism.”

“Come now, Suleiman,” Anwar said, “You’re over-reacting. Just like Kangana was. Karan, Saif and Varun were just poking fun at themselves when they said nepotism rocks. It wasn’t aimed at Kangana who we know has come up the hard way.”

Suleiman waited till his friend had finished before saying softly, “She really has come up the hard way, Anwarbhai. She arrived in Mumbai from a small pahadi town in Himachal. People in Bollywood mocked her accent, made fun of her behind her back, not unlike Saif, Karan and Varun did in New York - behind her back.”

“Suleiman,” Anwar said tersely, “Saif and Karan are great guys – ”

Suleiman again cut him off. “Yes Anwarbhai, I’m sure they are and that they know how Kangana looked after her sister Rangoli after an acid attack on her by a stalker that disfigured her. She had to go through 57 surgeries and it was Kangana who stood by her throughout – ”

It was Anwar’s turn to interrupt Suleiman. “My, my Suleiman, you know more about Bollywood than I could have ever imagined.”

Suleiman smiled. He tucked his mobile phone closer to his ear as he replied, looking over his shoulder at the stream of cars passing by beneath his hotel room on Doha’s scrubbed streets: “You know, Anwarbhai, I’ve become used to nepotism here in the Gulf. In Saudi, there are 500 princes who think their power is a god-given right. See how they’re bullying little Qatar which too is ruled by fellow-dynasts. So I’ve seen how nepotism works first hand. The lashings, the lack of freedoms, the arrogance. That’s why I thought Karan, Saif and Varun were so out of line.”

Anwar was silent for a moment. “Sure, Suleiman, nepotism and dynasty have their downside but see how well it works in Indian politics. Where would we be without the Gandhis, the Yadavs, the Pawars, the Hoodas, the Scindias, the Abdullahs, the Patnaiks – ”

Suleiman again cut him short. There was an unusual edge to his voice: “We’d have been a developed country without them by now, Anwarbhai, 70 years after Independence, not one of the poorest nations on earth after seven decades of being ruled by political dynasties.”

Anwar tried to calm his agitated friend. “Now, now, Suleiman, dynasty’s not all that bad. Why, even the BJP has its dynasts. Look at Vasundhara Raje, Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj, and a few others.”

Those are exceptions, not the rule,” said Suleiman. “But Anwarbhai, this isn’t about politics. I’m no fan of the BJP and the illiberal social ideas of the Sangh Parivar. But what Kangana meant is that we must oppose this overbearing sense of entitlement, whether it’s in Bollywood or politics - anywhere.”

Just then the news anchor on the TV set in Suleiman’s hotel room announced breaking news from India.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had met the JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav who was unhappy about Nitish Kumar’s return to the NDA fold and had wanted but failed to wean away Muslim and Yadav MLAs from the JD(U). Rahul was in constant touch with Lalu’s son Tejaswi.

“See Anwarbhai,” said Suleiman, as he told his friend about the news. “These dynasts always stick together. Just like all of Bollywood’s dynasts are speaking up for Saif and Karan and boycotting Kangana.”

Anwar said wearily, “Suleiman, the news about Rahul and Tejashwi and the Gandhi-Yadav family bond is old news, they’re just recycling it for Indians living in Qatar.”

As the phone fell silent at the other end, Anwar added solicitously, “When you fly into Delhi, I’ll introduce you to my new friend just to cheer you up.”

“And who’s that,” asked Suleiman suspiciously
“His name’s Robert. And I promise you he’ll tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about nepotism.”

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Why international media still attacks Narendra Modi
Like The New York Times, much of the US media has become disoriented since Trump’s unexpected victory.
Friday, June 30, 2017

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi not a reformer but simply a good administrator? The Economist wrote last week: “India’s prime minister is not the radical reformer he is cracked up to be. He is more energetic than his predecessor, the stately Manmohan Singh, launching glitzy initiatives on everything from manufacturing to toilet construction. But he has not come up with many big new ideas of his own.”

While there’s much that’s wrongheaded in its analysis, The Economist is capable of occasionally getting some things right. The GST framework, as it says in its editorial, is unnecessarily complex.

The multitude of tax slabs smacks of classical babudom: complicate the simple rather than simplify the complicated. By doing so, bureaucrats in the ministry of finance can keep the rest of the country captive to their caprice.

The imposition of GST slabs between 5 per cent and 18 per cent on devices for the differently abled (wheelchairs, Braille paper and hearing aids) which were previously exempt from excise and customs duty is a particularly distasteful example of government insensitivity.

A 12 per cent GST on individual artists is another avoidable blunder. It will stifle India’s art fraternity already struggling with poor sales.

China, in contrast, encourages its artists with a 10-year tax holiday. The result: over 3,000 new auction houses and hundreds of art galleries have sprouted in China over the last few years. Chinese art is booming. Top Chinese artists now command prices that are 500 per cent higher than those received by India’s best selling artists like Souza, Gaitonde, Raza and Husain.

Perversely, lawyers are exempt from GST. Finance minister Arun Jaitlety, a lawyer, should have been less kind to his fraternity whose members earn more in a day in court than most artists do in a year.

By boycotting the special parliamentary session to mark the introduction of GST at midnight on Friday the Congress has meanwhile shown itself to be small-minded. It participated fully in GST discussions over the past year. Its state finance ministers were part of the GST Council. The boycott reveals the petty level Opposition politics in India has sunk to.

There are a number of issues on which the Modi government can be and should be criticised. The prime minister has often said he welcomes criticism. But the sort of invective he receives is frequently based on ideology not facts.

The RSS, for example, should be fair game for criticism: it is socially and economically ultra-conservative. India needs to be, on the one hand, socially and culturally liberal and, on the other, economically market-oriented. The RSS is neither.

But to demonise the RSS as being the fount of “Hindu extremism” shows how little Western media, in particular, understands the complexity of Indian society. And if the lack of understanding is not the cause, the conclusion is worse: deliberate disinformation.

US media and Modi
It was entirely expected that Modi’s visit to the United States would, therefore, unleash the demons that reside within America’s left-leaning media. The New York Times has long used vitriol rather than editorial common sense when writing about Modi. The one leader it dislikes even more than Modi is, of course, US President Donald Trump.

When the opportunity arises to pour invective over both at the same time as it did this week, the Times draws upon its full arsenal of acid. Here’s what it wrote:

“Mr Modi and Mr Trump have much in common, including a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, a nationalist focus on homegrown manufacturing, a fraught relationship with the news media, and electoral campaigns that benefited from the proliferation of fake news.

In Mr Modi’s case, supporters of his party circulated fake videos in 2013 of two Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob. The videos led to rioting that killed 44 people, displaced 42,000 others and split a historical voting alliance between lower-caste Hindus and Muslims. That helped give Mr Modi a substantial majority in the lower house of Parliament.”

Like The New York Times, much of the US media has become disoriented since Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election last November. It has discarded professionalism in favour of bias. It frequently quotes “anonymous” sources to concoct false stories and has lost the trust of large sections of the American people.

Last week, CNN fired three senior journalists for fabricating a story on alleged Trump-Russia collusion. CNN was forced to issue this official statement:

“The story did not meet CNN's editorial standards and has been retracted. Links to the story have been disabled. CNN apologizes. CNN has accepted the resignations of the employees involved in the story’s publication.”

The overall lack of judgement by Western media is underscored by this editorial in The Economist just before the 2014 Lok Sabha election:

“If Mr Modi were to explain his role in the violence (in Gujarat) and show genuine remorse, we would consider backing him, but he never has; it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India. We do not find the prospect of a government led by Congress under Mr (Rahul) Gandhi an inspiring one. But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.”

It would be interesting to know if The Economist today stands by its endorsement of Rahul Gandhi as India’s prime minister having witnessed his parliamentary and electoral performance over the past three years.

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Nitish Kumar will soon have to choose between Lalu, the convict, and Modi, the prime minister
The decision to end the JD(U)’s alliance with the RJD, despite such daily aggravations, will not be easy.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How long can a marriage of convenience last? In politics, often longer than it should. The oddest political couple today is Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad. Has the countdown to their divorce begun? Nitish, one of India’s shrewdest politicians, has seethed for months over a series of barbs directed at him by Lalu’s family.

He knows that the alliance is no longer viable. But a break-up at this stage would launch him straight into the warm embrace of the BJP, a prospect he doesn’t relish. Yet the relationship between Nitish and Lalu has clearly passed the point of no return. Lalu’s conviction and jail time in the fodder scam could earlier be dismissed as an old (1996) CBI case.

But his recent contacts with jailed underworld criminal Shahabuddin, who has Islamist terrorist links, crosses several red lines.

The benami property allegations by the income-tax department against Lalu’s family couldn’t have come at a worse time, just before the presidential election. The income-tax department is investigating benami properties valued at over Rs 1,000 crore belonging to Lalu’s two sons, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap, daughter Misa Bharti and wife Rabri Devi.

Lalu believes the file containing details of the properties, on which the CBI and income-tax department based their raids on his family, were vetted by the Nitish government. The BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi has virtually confirmed this.

Nitish’s decision to back the BJP’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, despite Lalu pleading with him not to make “a historical blunder” and instead support the Opposition’s candidate Meira Kumar, drew a bitter response from Lalu’s 27-year-old son and deputy chief minister Tejashwi:

“With our opportunistic behaviour or political manipulations, we may score a few goals and make or break governments, but history, unlike television anchors, shall bear witness to the fact that when people needed us to strengthen the cause of progressive and people-centred politics, we decided to look the other way.”

Nitish has not restrained his party from hitting back. Sanjay Singh, the JD(U)’s spokesperson, said: “We are not wearing bangles and are capable of giving replies, but it will only weaken the alliance.”

KC Tyagi, the JD(U)’s Rajya Sabha MP, went further. He declared that the JD(U) was “far more comfortable with the BJP” and that “the alliance cannot be saved”. Alarmed, Lalu is trying to appease the JD(U), recognising that a break in the alliance would leave his family members even more vulnerable to the corruption cases against them.

It is difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional family than Lalu’s. He installed his wife as chief minister in 1997 after being forced to resign when an arrest warrant was issued against him on corruption charges.

He promoted ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar. He befriended underworld don Shahabuddin in order to win misguided Muslim votes. He inducted his two sons, both in their twenties, into the Bihar cabinet, including making one of them deputy chief minister.

Nitish cringed at all of this but, in the country’s febrile political environment, held his peace. How long can he do so?

For every day that he continues his alliance with Lalu, Nitish loses one more sliver of credibility. Lalu’s family is meanwhile giving him reasons daily to break this ill-fated and ill-advisedalliance.

His son Tej Pratap, health minister in Nitish’s cabinet, was accused of beating up his own RJD member during an iftar party at Lalu’s residence last Friday. Tej Pratap abused and assaulted Sanoj Yadav who had spoken ill of Lalu in a television news channel debate.

The decision to end the JD(U)’s alliance with the RJD, despite such daily aggravations, will not be easy for Nitish. He is nearly half-way through his term as chief minister. The JD(U) has 71 seats in the 243-seat Bihar assembly. The RJD has 80 seats and the BJP 53. A JD(U)-BJP alliance government would have 124 seats — a working majority.

Reviving a JD(U)-BJP alliance could help Nitish in three ways. First, he would free himself of the taint of Lalu. Second, like the Biju Janta Dal (BJD), the JD(U) can play a quasi-neutral role in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Third, as a state-level ally of the BJP, Bihar can expect generous fund allocations for the state. If anything, Nitish is as cautious as he is shrewd.

Sensing the popular mood in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he made his first tentative move by supporting demonetisation even as every other Opposition party eviscerated.

By supporting the BJP’s presidential candidate Kovind over the Opposition’s Bihar ki beti Meira Kumar, Nitish has moved a step closer to the political realignments that will inevitably take place before 2019. Nitish is canny enough to do the electoral math for 2019. The Northeast, Tamil Nadu and Odisha are all in play.

Rajinikanth’s political debut could be a major swing factor. It may, therefore, be arithmetically impossible for the Congress-led Opposition mahagathbandan to stop an expanded NDA from forming a government under Modi in 2019.

The BJP, meanwhile, needs to induct fresh talent into the NDA cabinet with defence, external affairs and environment calling out for special attention.

Nitish and BJD rebels-in-the-making would be welcome additions to the 2019 Modi cabinet. Given these facts, Nitish will soon have to choose between Lalu, the convict, and Modi, the prime minister

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When Modi Met Trump
The US, faced with a rising China, needs India as much as India, faced with two difficult borders, needs the US

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In their first face-to-face meeting on Monday, June 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump had plenty to say to each other. India and the US have drifted apart in recent years.

The drift began in former President Barack Obama’s second term. Obama, in his first term, had continued predecessor George W. Bush’s policy to posit India as a geopolitical counter to China.

In his second term, though Obama and Modi met several times, the chemistry was tepid. The India-US strategic partnership became transactional with New Delhi buying US military equipment and encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI).

But the Obama Administration’s decision to draw-down US troops in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban, created and nourished by the Pakistani army, to regroup. The recent terror attacks in Kabul are an outcome of Obama’s failed Af-Pak policy that has affected India’s interests in the region.

Trump’s win in the 2016 US presidential election was initially welcomed by the BJP-led NDA government. Trump had campaigned on an anti-Islamist terror plank and named Pakistan as one of the countries that provided a safe haven for terrorists.

On taking office, Trump changed tack. His protectionist ‘America First’ doctrine targeted India which accounts for the bulk of H-1B visas. A crackdown on onsite software engineers from India who “snatch” jobs from Americans remains one of the contentious points during the Modi-Trump meet.

More worrying has been Trump’s Middle East policy. He picked Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit. He signed deals worth nearly $400 billion for military equipment and infrastructure. The Saudis will spend this money over ten years to buy US weapons and invest in crumbling US infrastructure which Trump is keen to rebuild.

Emboldened by Trump’s support, the Saudis orchestrated a virtual blockade of Qatar, throwing the Gulf region into chaos. The real reason for the punishment of tiny Qatar (which has a population of 2.7 million) is not that it sponsors Islamist terrorism (Saudi Arabia does that on a far bigger scale) but that it is close to Shia Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy.

Instead of focusing on Afghanistan, Trump has thoughtlessly helped roil the Gulf. India’s interest lies in mitigating Pakistan-abetted terrorism in Af-Pak and Jammu & Kashmir.

The third key issue between Modi and Trump is America’s abandonment of the Paris climate change accord. As I wrote last fortnight (‘Trump goes Toxic’, BW 24 June), the US decision will harm the world’s concerted effort to tackle what is a serious ecological problem — one though Trump describes as a hoax.

Modi, however, is a firm advocate of tackling global warming. Few know   that as chief minister of Gujarat, he wrote a book on the subject titled Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Challenges of Climate Change, published by Macmillan Publishers India  in 2011.

Well before global warming became a major issue, this is what Modi wrote: “I remember, a few years ago, I used to read a lot of sceptical views on climate change, whether or not it was actually happening. Having been in public life I am aware of  behind-the-scene lobbying by vested interests that normally accompany any such carefully orchestrated campaigns. But even in those days of uncertainty and confusion, I based the formulation of public policy on my conviction of the complementary relationship between man and nature.

“This book, therefore, is only a humble attempt to document initiatives and innovations that we have undertaken and experimented during the last eight years in Gujarat that have directly or indirectly but significantly, contributed and will continue to contribute, to the adaptation and mitigation of Climate Change.”

How can the India-US relationship — described by both Bush and Obama as the “defining partnership of the 21st century” — be put back on track? Modi and Trump are pragmatic, business-minded leaders.

The US, faced with a rising China, needs India as much as India, faced with two difficult borders, needs the US. In an inevitable emergence of a “triangle of power” in the next ten years, India, China and the US will be the world’s three largest economic and military powers.

They will have to find a way to co-exist in an increasingly unstable world with at least four flashpoints: the spread of Islamist terrorism; the Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle-East, North Korea’s nuclear belligerence; and terror-stricken Af-Pak.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan on June 8-9, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, pointedly refused a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This was to show Chinese displeasure at the abduction and murder of two Chinese nationals in Balochistan by Islamist terrorists.

The Modi-Xi bilateral at the SCO summit meanwhile, signalled a softening of positions on both sides. While China continues to irresponsibly block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and irrationally object to the Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh, it has realised that India’s economy and military are now too large to ignore.

Beijing is also coming to terms with the reality that its investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be severely jeopardised by both the insurgency in Balochistan and the growing threat of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan.

All of this means a reordering of the world’s geopolitical pivots. India and the US with their democracies and open markets are natural allies and, along with Europe, form one pivot of power.

China is the second pivot with Pakistan as its commercial colony and Russia as a wild card. Between these two poles lie a swathe of countries and blocs: the Middle East; Japan and East Asia; and the growing economies of Africa and Latin America.

In the US, Trump is being attacked on an hourly basis by a Left-leaning media which backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. It wants to delegitimise Trump and impeach him.

Trump may have been born a billionaire but as a real estate developer is as much an outsider among the Washington-New York elite as Modi is among Lutyens’ Delhi.

The two men need to find common ground on fighting Islamist terrorism, re-enforcing the India-US strategic partnership, and putting both America and India first

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Armed Forces A difficult job in a hostile milieu
Narrow, selfish designs motivate Left-wing academics and foreign think tanks to pummel the Armed Forces

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An untruth, however well wrapped, doesn’t travel far. Historians and academics, most of them tucked safely away in the West, say the Indian army isn’t above criticism.

Of course it isn’t. No one said it was. It’s an old verbal trick: discredit a claim that was never made. The argument that was actually made was this: criticise, but don’t vilify, the army. The historians and academics deftly sidestepped this because it’s far harder to discredit.

Partha Chatterjee is an honorary professor at New York’s Columbia University. His comparison of chief of army staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat with British General Reginald Dyer, who ordered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, has already been dismissed by several analysts. We can discount his poorly argued article in The Wire.

Turn to more contemporary vilification, masquerading as criticism, of the Indian army by Alok Rai and Ravi Nair in The Indian Express. Rai is a former professor of English at Delhi University, Nair is the executive director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre.

Here’s what Rai wrote: “The army is a killing machine, it is trained to mete out lethal violence — and one should not be surprised if that is what it does. Just don’t use it against your own people. Unless, perish the thought, they are, after all, not your own people? Was the army deployed to quell the Jat violence in Haryana? Did they use pellet guns in Rohtak?”

Note the sly insinuation: “Unless, perish the thought, Kashmiris are not your own people?” It exposes Rai’s real intent: questioning India’s sovereignty over the Valley. And here’s what Nair wrote: “While self-defence is an exception under criminal law, the right of private defence does not extend to the use of disproportionate force — it does not permit the strapping of a person to a jeep with a placard labelling him a stone-pelter and parading him. Further, the burden of proving that the circumstances fall within the general exceptions are on the accused. Despite this, the Indian army chief has stated that Major Gogoi will face no action even if the military investigations find him guilty, and in fact, went on to award him the Chief of Army Staff’s commendation card.”

It took a serving Air Vice Marshal, Arjun Subramaniam, a respected military historian with a PhD in defence and strategic studies, to set the record straight: “Modern armies are trained to fight; to kill and win wars. But they are also empowered by the Constitution to ensure peace, save lives and bring succour to areas ravaged by natural disasters. No chief in his right mind would, as Alok Rai says, be ‘straining for a fight.’ I wonder how many times Rai has acted as a pall-bearer when the last rites of officers and soldiers, who have lost their lives in Kashmir, are performed across India. While law-abiding citizens have no reason to fear their own army, those who engage in arson, stone-throwing, supporting terrorism and aiding a state-sponsored ‘proxy’ war must be fearful of an army that they know will come after them. After all, it is not for nothing that armies are considered the ‘last bastion’ of a democratic state.”

Ravi Nair’s argument is as disingenuous as Rai’s. The Indian army has over 3,25,000 soldiers in Jammu & Kashmir doing a thankless job. They save lives in floods and earthquakes despite the discredited politicians of J&K like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti undermining them while terrorists and stone pelting mobs sponsored by the Pakistani army take a heavy toll of soldiers’ and policemen’s lives.

The army has a swift, fair mechanism to punish officers and jawans who act unlawfully. Enough has been said and written about the Gogoi incident. It is important, however, to examine the underlying cause of why so many Indian scholars take vicarious pleasure in demeaning India’s armed forces despite the difficult job they do in a hostile environment.

Left-wing academics see the Indian army as the final bulwark of Indian unity. It stands between India’s rise as a global economic and military power and the anarchy Naxal-leaning Marxists favour. Foreign think tanks are often deeply embedded in their country’s intelligence services. They seek constantly to undermine rising regional or global powers. Foreign-funded NGOs and Indian academics and journalists serve as willing pawns.

India, growing rapidly, threatens declining Western financial, economic and military hegemony. By vilifying India’s most respected institution, journalists and academics serve their puppeteers’ interests, not India’s.

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What can come in the way of Modi winning 2019 polls
Fellow MPs obviously haven't been paying attention to the pradhan sevak. They continue to behave like feudal lords.
Thursday, June 22, 2017

Following the nomination of Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate, most believe the BJP has the 2019 Lok Sabha poll in the bag.

As a respected Dalit from a farmer's family in a small village in Derapur tehsil of Kanpur's Dehat district in Uttar Pradesh, Kovind ticks all three electoral boxes: farmers, Dalits and UP.

Nitish Kumar's JD(U) has decided to vote for Kovind. Others could follow suit leaving the Congress, the Left, TMC and RJD cutting a sorry figure. Meanwhile, the BJP is making inroads into the northeast, into West Bengal, into the south.

Hindu polarisation too is a reality. The poor moreover are now the BJP's captive constituency. Kovind's humble background is an incremental asset. How can you lose elections if upper caste Hindus, Dalits, OBCs, farmers and the poor support you? The answer: you can, if disenchantment sets in.

So far, the disenchantment with the BJP has been confined to the quasi-liberal elite and sections of the middle-class. They disapprove of intrusive tax laws, a still slothful bureaucracy, an inconsistent policy on Pakistan and China, state dictats on beef, cases of cow vigilantism, and illiberalism over censorship and LGBT rights.

These are not issues that win or lose elections in India's heartland. But with 2019 bearing down on him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to guard against over-confidence.

After three years in office, and with 281 MPs, the BJP shows a worrying trend: where it should be firm — as with misbehaving MPs — it is not; where it should be conciliatory — on, for instance, intrusive tax laws, beef bans, revisionist text books stressing mythology above science — it is not.

When Modi took office he said he would not be a pradhan mantri but a pradhan sevak. Members of parliament, he added, are not VIPs. They are servants of the people.

His fellow MPs obviously haven't been paying attention. They continue to behave like feudal lords.

The obnoxious behaviour of the Shiv Sena's Ravindra Gaikwad and the TDP's Diwakar Reddy with airline crew underlines how MPs have misunderstood their role. The common citizen who flies in an aircraft pays for his ticket. An MP does not. He (or she) gets free tickets as part of an MP's perks.

Indian MPs are among the world's least productive and most pampered. British MPs, for example, have to find their own accommodation and pay for it themselves. Most Indian MPs get two-acre Lutyens' zone bungalows with a market rent of between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh per month.

Assuming only 500 out of a total of nearly 800 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs live in Lutyens' zone bungalows, the collective market rent of their accommodation would amount to Rs 100 crore a month (500 MPs x Rs 20 lakh rent per month). That's Rs 1,200 crore a year — the cost to the Indian taxpayer of keeping 500 public servants in Lutyens' colonial luxury.

The real cost to the taxpayer is of course far higher when you compute the other perks that go with this expensive free accommodation: free security guards, free telephones, free electricity, free cars, free petrol, free airline travel, and free secretarial and domestic staff.

In return what does the Indian citizen get? If you're an airline passenger, the worst nightmare is a co-passenger who is an MP, arrives late, delays the flight, complains about the food and (like the Shiv Sena's Ravindra Gaikwad) assaults an elderly airline staffer.

What's the solution? It's quite simple really. The party to which an offending MP belongs must take punitive action against him (it's never a her). That though is the last thing the Shiv Sena and the TDP will do.

So it's up to the BJP to crack the whip. But it won't either because it is consumed with winning elections. It took no concrete action against Ravindra Gaikwad because it didn't want the Shiv Sena to pull out of the Maharashtra government. It won't take action against Diwakar Reddy because it is afraid of antagonisng the TDP ahead of the presidential election.

Both fears are unfounded. The BJP should welcome a Shiv Sena walk-out. It would win a mid-term poll in Maharashtra handily on its own and rid itself of the baggage of a lumpen party.

Similarly, the BJP already has more than 60 per cent of the votes needed to get Kovind elected as president. A TDP abstention would have made no difference.

By not censuring the two NDA MPs, the BJP has given the impression of a party that puts power ahead of principle. Winning elections is the main purpose of fighting them — but not at the cost of fundamental principles that uphold decency and the public interest.

In the life of every government comes a point of inflection. For the UPA government it was the horrific rape of Jyoti Singh (Nirbhaya) in December 2012.

Already reeling under scams, the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government never recovered. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement had already weakened it. The Nirbhaya assault broke the back of the UPA. In less than 17 months, it was evicted from power.

No similar point of inflection has yet appeared for the Modi government. The presidential election will in fact strengthen its vote base.

But there are troubling signs for the BJP which it would be wise to not ignore. The tsunamic wins in Uttar Pradesh and the MCD have lulled it into complacency. The BJP leadership should remember that the electoral tide can turn suddenly, and without warning.

At a time when vested interests are using every device to demoralise the army doing a thankless job in Kashmir amidst Pakistani army instigated terrorism, the last thing Modi needs is unnecessary distractions. His focus must remain on the economy and jobs. The Opposition will be delighted if it can distract him from that agenda in the run up to 2019.

False intolerance campaigns are designed to do just that. In the past they have failed. They will gain fresh legs and currency if the prime minister does not rein in his MPs and tell them their job is to serve not rule.

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Comey calls out NYT, CNN sacks hosts and NDTV is raided – A bad week for media
The CBI raid on NDTV has placed under scrutiny an issue that has festered since the go-go, scam-filled days of UPA-I.
Friday, June 16, 2017

When CNN sacks two TV hosts in four days, a New York Times story is dubbed “false” by former FBI director James Comey and NDTV gets raided by the CBI, you could safely say the media hasn’t had a good week.

CNN’s biased coverage of US President Donald Trump has left even the most Clintonian Democrats red-faced with embarrassment. Here’s what Ben Domenech of The Federalist wrote last week about CNN’s reportage: “Since the new administration arrived in Washington, CNN has continued this war (on Trump) at a fever pitch. Daily they roll out eight-person panels where not one person defending the administration is represented. They have offered the most biased coverage of the Trump administration by far, to the point that Republicans on Capitol Hill openly mock their lack of balance. A network that once strove to be centrist in its approach is now openly antagonistic, and will run with the thinnest of scoops for hours at a time in order to make their case against President Trump.

“This has led them to be sloppier journalists than we’ve ever seen before. Consider their worst performance this week: CNN didn’t get anywhere near enough flack for their ridiculous story that ran on Tuesday night, which they talked about for hours, saying that James Comey would refute Trump’s claim that he was cleared three times.

The four-person byline included Gloria Borger, Eric Lichtblau, Jake Tapper, and Brian Rokus. They have since changed the headline on the piece from "Comey expected to refute Trump" to "Comey unlikely to judge on obstruction".

“At some point, CNN is going to have to decide what they are willing to do in this war on the president and his administration, and whether they are willing to sacrifice even a semblance of balance and centrism in their quest against him, transforming themselves from a news network into an agenda-driven propaganda unit, complete with their useful idiots, their organs of the past administration, and their collection of invented sources who pass along useful lies.”

So have CNN’s Jake Tapper and his three colleagues been sacked? Not yet. But if they continue to ignore basic journalism (like being factual), they might join Kathy Griffin and Reza Aslan.

Both CNN hosts have recently lost their shows.

Griffin, who co-hosted a show with the storied Anderson Cooper (son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt), posted a photo of a bloodied, decapitated head of Trump. The blowback from both the Left and Right was fast and furious. For once, polarised America agreed: Griffin must go. Under pressure, CNN announced her termination.

Days later, another CNN host Reza Aslan, who fronted the Believer series, was sacked for a series of profane tweets and, at first, lying that he hadn’t sent them.

Again Trump was the trigger. Aslan tweeted: “This piece of sh-t is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency, he’s an embarrassment to humankind.”

Aslan deleted the tweet the next day but not before it was widely shared. Reluctantly, and belatedly, he apologised for it.

It was too late to save his job. Again CNN was forced by public pressure to axe his show’s second season.

Indians will remember Aslan from the controversial programme he did on cannibalism among certain religious sects in India.

Meanwhile, The New York Times, which like CNN has fought a running battle with Trump since his election as president, was called out by, of all people, James Comey, the FBI director whom Trump fired last month and who is the toast of the left-liberal US media.

Comey testified under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee last Thursday (June 8). Trump-baiters were ecstatic. Here was a man who could finally bring Trump down.

In the event, Comey indicted himself and ended up exonerating Trump. But that’s not the story you’ll read or see in the US mainstream media, now scraping the bottom of the journalistic barrel. 

Spinning the story, The New York Times wrote: “Mr Comey’s testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee sharpened obstruction-of-justice questions. Specifically, according to Mr Comey’s testimony, after he met that day with Mr Trump and others in the Oval Office, Mr Trump ordered all the other officials out of the room — twice reiterating to lingerers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mr Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, that they were to leave. Then, Mr Comey said, Mr Trump brought up Mr Flynn, calling him a ‘good guy and saying, ‘I hope you can let this go’. ”

The real takeaways from Comey’s testimony were:

1) Comey himself (yes, himself) leaked privileged memos to The New York Times through a friend who is a law professor at Columbia University. That’s against FBI employment rules and could lead to criminal prosecution of Comey.

2) Comey testified under oath that he told Trump he was not under investigation for alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election.

3) Comey, again under oath, confirmed that Trump did not seek to impede the investigation into Russian collusion but, in fact, encouraged him to get to the truth (“it would be good to find out if there were some ‘satellite’ associates who did something wrong”, were Trump’s exact words, according to Comey’s sworn testimony at the Senate hearing). 

In short, Comey pretty much demolished both the “collusion with Russia” and “obstruction of justice” cases that the Democrats and mainstream US media were hoping to build to impeach Trump. Comey was their man – and he blew it.  

But that’s not the story the US media is spinning.

It is notably silent too on the fact that Comey, at the Senate hearing last Thursday under oath, damaged the credibility of The New York Times by calling its story on Russian collusion of the elections “false”.

Jim Stinson of wrote: “In a major blow to The New York Times and the prevailing narrative on the president, James Comey testified that a Times story on collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Russian hackers was flat-out false. The February 14 story, Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence, ran the day after Trump dismissed Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Times reporters Michael S Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo wrote the story. Comey, whom President Donald Trump fired on May 9, said he knew the story was false, but he double-checked with his agents after The Times published it. ‘In the main, it was not true,’ Comey said (in his sworn testimony).” 

Indian media too

It’s been an equally bad week for the Indian media. The CBI raid on NDTV has placed under scrutiny an issue that has festered since the go-go, scam-filled days of UPA-I. 

The truth is hidden under several layers. The CBI is investigating an alleged Rs 48-crore loss caused to ICICI Bank due to NDTV reportedly underpaying a loan. The real investigation, which began nearly a decade ago under the UPA government, was about dozens of foreign-domiciled NDTV-linked companies and what role they played in the UPA’s roller-coaster decade.

The reaction of the Indian media has been apoplectic. Senior journalists like Kuldip Nayar, who should know better, have compared the situation to the Emergency when Opposition politicians, activists and journalists were jailed. 

Nayar himself was jailed during the Emergency. Today Nayar is free to condemn in the harshest terms the government, the CBI, and the prime minister – as indeed he should be.

The problem with the Indian media isn’t that it’s not free. It’s that it pretends it isn’t

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What Mahatma Gandhi would've advised Rahul on his 47th birthday
Were the Mahatma alive, the first piece of advice he would have offered the Congress VP would be to find another job.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi turns 47 next Monday (June 19) in Italy where he is on holiday. Father Rajiv Gandhi, after being prime minister for five years and Opposition leader for 18 months, was tragically assassinated, three months before he turned 47, in Sriperumbudur, near Chennai.

Rahul has had a slower ascent to power. The route though has been similar: dynasty.

Rajiv became prime minister because younger brother Sanjay died at 34 in June 1980 and mother Indira Gandhi in October 1984. Rajiv, rather than Manmohan Singh, was the first accidental prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi has acted as caretaker to the family’s political fiefdom ever since that tragic May day in 1991. But now it is finally time to pass on the baton. Rahul is likely to be anointed (note: not appointed) president of the Indian National Congress in October. Those who initially gave Rahul the benefit of the doubt as an essentially decent man trapped in the wrong profession have changed their minds.

His refusal to expel Sandeep Dikshit form the Congress for calling Army chief General Bipin Rawat a “street thug” makes him complicit in the outrage. Rahul’s evolution as a leader has stalled since the Congress’ decimation in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. His cynical reaction to the September 29, 2016 surgical strike on Pakistani terror launch pads was especially disappointing.

Father Rajiv, for all his faults, protected the national interest. It is difficult to see Rahul doing that. Since his dynastic political debut in Amethi in 2004, Rahul has been a reluctant leader. In 13 years he has contributed little to parliamentary debate, asked few questions, dozed periodically and remained incognito during key debates.

Since the party’s crushing defeat in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, however, Rahul has shifted gear. He knows that defeat for the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha election is likely. It is 2024 that he is banking on. The thinking in the Congress too is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma will sweep the BJP-led NDA back to power in 2019. But by 2024, antiincumbency could set in.

Modi in mid-2024 will be approaching 74. Rahul will be only 54. He would have completed 20 years in Parliament: 2024, therefore, could be his moment. If real changes — economic and social — have not set in by then, disillusionment with the BJP is a real possibility. Competing Opposition leaders may also have run out of steam.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar would be in his mid-70s. Arvind Kejriwal might well lose the Delhi Assembly elections in 2020 and sink into political oblivion. The others, including Mamata Banerjee, are regional leaders with limited national appeal. The Congress strategy is, therefore, to prepare Rahul for a marathon while continuing to chip away at Modi’s credibility.

The ploy began with the “suit boot ki sarkar” jibe. Modi responded with demonetisation — in one stroke morphing himself from an industrialist-friendly PM to a man of the masses. His wardrobe, body language and rhetoric underwent a smooth transformation. In part at least, that helped the BJP sweep UP, Delhi’s municipalities and a slew of other smaller polls.

The Congress “hand” in the Mandsaur violence in Madhya Pradesh is central to the party’s strategy to erode Modi’s pro-poor image which has helped the BJP win election after election. What better way to damage the BJP than by instigating farmers against one of the party’s longest-serving chief ministers, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who will face a tough Assembly election in 2018?

To underscore that bad habits die hard, Congress’ national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, when confronted by the video of party MLA Shakuntala Khatik, booked earlier this week for inciting her party workers to set police stations on fire, ignored that criminal act but instead focused on Khatik’s Dalit identity.

With Sonia increasingly in poor health, the future of the Congress rests with Rahul and Priyanka who will assume Sonia’s role as back-end support. Robert Vadra though looms ominously in the background. Is this the kind of Congress India will vote for in 2024? Will young leaders like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia (both dynasts as well) remain subalterns even in their 50s?

In a rapidly modernising India, is such a feudal family set-up likely to resonate with millennial voters?

The answer clearly is no. For the Congress to have any chance to serve as an effective Opposition — much less win office — it must abandon dynasty. Let leaders rise from within to rejuvenate the party. India needs a credible left-of-centre party that is professionally run.

Eventually, India will have two poles — the BJP on the centre-right and another party to occupy the Congress’ centre-left vacuum. Mahatma Gandhi wanted the Congress to be dissolved after Independence because he knew dynasty could impoverish the party. Instead dynasty has impoverished India but done rather well for itself.

Were the Mahatma alive, the first piece of advice he would have offered Rahul on his 47th birthday next Monday would be to find another job — one that he enjoys and is good at.

Meanwhile, the BJP needs to up its game. Don’t take electoral victories for granted. Rein in fringe groups. Introduce more talent at every level. Communicate better. Focus on governance. Appoint a Lokpal.

In the long run, good economic governance and institution building will win elections more effectively than votebanks of farmers and the poor.

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Trump Goes Toxic
The West has polluted the world for over 200 years since the industrial revolution in the 1770S... through the 1900S

Monday, June 12, 2017

President Donald Trump has overplayed his hand. Elected against the odds, Trump has made three potentially fatal errors in his young presidency. 

First, by walking out of the Paris climate agreement, he has abandoned America’s claim to global leadership – an unchallenged position it has held since the end of the Second World War. Trump’s meandering speech decrying the dangers of global warming as a pretext to walk out of the Paris accord was strong on rhetoric, weak on fact.

Second, by mollycoddling Saudi Arabia Trump has weakened the fight against Islamist terrorism. The Saudis are the fount of Wahhabism, the toxic religious philosophy that spurs radical terror groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and the Taliban. 

Third, by taking his travel ban to the Supreme Court, he has doubled down on his anti-immigration stand. If the Supreme Court either refuses to hear the matter – or finds against the ban – Trump’s presidency will be severely damaged.
Consider each of these three missteps. By pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord, Trump has backed America’s traditional polluters: petrol cars, coal mines and smokestack manufacturing industries that belong to the 20th Century. 
Forward-looking business leaders like Elon Musk, CEO of  Tesla, resigned from the President’s advisory council within 12 hours of Trump’s announcement to withdraw from Paris. Musk makes electric cars so his resignation has an element of self-interest: Trump’s move will slow the switch to electric cars by lowering the bar on carbon emissions. 

Most business leaders, however, have criticised Trump’s regressive policy to dismiss the real threat of global warming. To add insult to injury, Trump accuses India of seeking billions of dollars in aid to meet its carbon emission targets. That’s simply untrue. India has legitimately sought funds from developed countries to upgrade technology in order to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement. 

The West has polluted the world for over 200 years since the industrial revolution in the 1770s. It has grown rich off colonialism, the African slave trade and invasive settlements in North America and Australasia – while continuing to pollute copiously as it developed industrially through the1900s.

America remains the world’s second largest polluter after China. It spews 15 per cent of the world’s total carbon emissions into the atmosphere compared to India’s 6.3 per cent. On a per capita basis, an American emits ten times the carbon pollutants of an Indian. China, the world’s largest polluter, emits 29 per cent of the world’s pollutants. On a per capita basis, a Chinese emits more than four times the greenhouse gases than an Indian. 

These historical and contemporary facts have not eluded Trump. He has chosen to ignore them in order to tell his voter demographic – old, white, under-employed men – that their smokestack industry jobs are safe. 

The second big misstep which will return to haunt Trump as his presidency unfolds is his Saudi tilt. Saudi Arabia was an early sponsor of ISIS along with Qatar (with which it has cut diplomatic ties, ironically, over Doha’s terror links) and the United Arab Emirates. These Sunni kingdoms wanted to use ISIS to help evict Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shia Iran, Riyadh’s sworn enemy. 

Assad is an Alawite, a Shia-affiliated sect. Shia-majority Iraq, Iran and Syria along with Lebanon’s Shia militia Hezbollah form a wall against Saudi-led Wahhabism in the Middle East. Before the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdad was one of the Arab world’s most secular cities, albeit ruled by a brutal Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, who nonetheless kept Sunni-Shia tensions at bay for three decades. 

By siding with the more fanatical interpreters of Islam like Saudi Arabia, Trump has backed the wrong horse. He is right in reversing former President Barack Obama’s policy of regime change in Syria and identifying ISIS as the real threat, not Assad. But the Saudis are playing a double game. As the defeat of ISIS in Syria (Raqqa) and Iraq (Mosul) nears, the Saudi royals have turned against their progeny. Riyadh’s unhinged enmity with Tehran will roil the Middle East for years to come. Trump’s visceral dislike for Iran has drawn him closer to the Saudis, a decision he will come to regret.  

The third policy error of the Trump presidency is its anti-immigration stand. The White House-led travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries, defeated multiple times by lower courts, is now with the US Supreme Court. It is unlikely to make it through a court that traditionally frowns on issues which violate Constitutional guarantees against religion-based discrimination. If the Supreme Court does not allow the travel ban to go through, the Trump presidency will be shorn of the little credibility it has left. 

Instead of cosying up with the backward and brutal Islamists who rule Saudi Arabia, Trump should by now have launched a concerted assault on the Taliban in Af-Pak. The truck bomb that killed over 90 people in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave was the handiwork of the Pakistani Army. Afghanistan should be the focus area for Trump. Pakistan’s terror factories that attack Afghanistan are a global menace on par with ISIS.

America’s defence secretary, James (‘Mad Dog’) Mattis, has grasped the problem quicker than his boss Trump. He said recently that the US had switched tactics from driving ISIS out of Raqqa and Mosul, to “annihilating” them there. The logic: if the ISIS freelance fighters get out alive, they will be tomorrow’s lone wolf suicide bombers in London, Paris or Orlando.

It is the same policy of annihilation – no escape, no surrender – that must be employed against the Taliban in Af-Pak and proscribed Punjab-based terror groups like the Lashkar-e -Taiba whom the ISI deploys in Jammu & Kashmir. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet Trump later in June. Modi shouldn’t mince words. Trump is a dealmaker by profession. Modi has much to offer, including the world’s second largest consumer market.

The magic word for Trump is jobs. India, far from taking away infotech jobs from Americans, can create millions of new jobs in the US with deals across defence equipment, infrastructure, telecom, retail and technology.  

Trump may err on climate change, Saudi Arabia and immigration. But he knows a good deal when he sees one. Modi must give it to him.

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Pakistan's road to perdition
The country could go the Sri Lankan way as the latter's economy is now beholden to Beijing's interests

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Chinese leaders are inscrutable. Their reaction to Moody's first downgrade since 1989 of China's credit rating from Aa3 to A1 was typically dismissive. They attacked Moody's methodology, calling it “inappropriate”. Moody's though was clinical in its assessment: “The downgrade reflects Moody's expectation that China's financial strength will erode somewhat over the coming years, with economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows.” 

Riled, China's foreign ministry responded coldly: “Moody's views that China's non-financial debt will rise rapidly and the government would continue to maintain growth via stimulus measures are exaggerating difficulties facing the Chinese economy and underestimating the Chinese government's ability to deepen supply-side structural reform and appropriately expand aggregate demand.” More bad news for Beijing, however, was to follow. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Study (UNESCAP) issued a dire warning over Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature project, One Belt, One Road (OBOR). The study warned that the large investments China was planning in countries like Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were unsustainable given the small size of these countries' economies. For example, the $15 billion China-Uzbekistan investment agreement represents 25 per cent of Uzbekistan's economy. Executing it would effectively make Uzbekistan a Chinese commercial colony. 

In Kazakhstan, China has pledged an investment of $37 billion, around 20 per cent of the country's GDP. Pakistan represents the worst case scenario. Beijing's $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is fully one-fifth of Pakistan's GDP. The investment pledged in the CPEC has in fact now bloated to $62 billion - a quarter of Pakistan's small economy, making it an effective Chinese possession. Even Bangladesh has been caught in China's financial vortex. Beijing plans to invest $24 billion in Bangladesh, again a fifth of the country's economy. The new UNESCAP report is scathing in its assessment of China's pledges: “External account indicators for some of these economies are relatively weak. In Kazakhstan, the current account deficit amounted to about 6 per cent of GDP in 2016, while external debt stood at over 80 per cent of GDP in 2015. In Pakistan, foreign external reserves are rather small at about four months of imports in early 2017.” A debt trap looms large. Sri Lanka has already fallen into it. Colombo has a total debt of $60 billion. Of that over $6 billion is owed to China. 

For a relatively small economy like Sri Lanka's, debt repayment has become a serious problem. China's communist dictators are free market capitalists but their authoritarianism has a downside. What Morgan Stanley's Ruchir Sharma wrote perceptively in The New York Times exactly a year ago could soon be reality: “Paradoxically, the authoritarian form of government that helped guide China to those years of economic growth may now be undermining its economic stability. My research suggests that compared with democracies, autocracies generate far more unstable growth, and that's the risk in China now. Looking at the available records going back to 1950 shows that extreme swings between fast and slow growth are much more common under autocratic regimes. On a list of 36 countries that have been whipsawed between rapid growth and recession throughout the postwar era, three out of four were autocracies.” 

When in debt, convert to equity is the maxim for companies – or countries - overburdened by loans. Sri Lanka has done exactly that. The downside? Creditors turn shareholders and you lose control of your asset. That is precisely what is happening to China-financed infrastructure in Sri Lanka, now effectively owned by Beijing. If Sri Lanka's experience with the Chinese is replicated in Pakistan, the CPEC could become a liability rather than an asset. Consider what repaying $62 billion (25 per cent of Pakistan's GDP) plus interest would mean for Islamabad. India's GDP, for example, is $2.50 trillion. If a quarter of that was additional commercial debt, it would amount to over $600 billion (Rs 40 lakh crore). That's nearly double India's entire foreign exchange reserves, more than India's annual exports and imports combined, and equivalent to four years' direct and indirect tax collections. 

Such a debt mountain would cripple India's economy. Pakistan's economy, a tenth of India's, could face a similar predicament if Chinese investments of $62 billion in the CPEC cannot be repaid or the interest on it serviced. The joke about a generation of Pakistani children growing up speaking Mandarin may not sound quite so funny anymore. The writer is author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century

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How Pakistani army feeds off the Kashmir dispute
The longer the conflict over the Valley continues, the more money the Pakistani army makes.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Pakistanis have been fed on a diet that the core dispute with India is Kashmir. It isn’t.

The last thing Pakistan’s shrewd army generals want is a solution to the Kashmir dispute. It is their bread, butter and jam. The Pakistani army lives off the Kashmir dispute. Take that away and the Pakistani army would lose the enormous fortune that a low intensity, low-cost conflict in Kashmir brings it.

Consider the facts. Pakistan’s GDP is around 10 per cent of India’s. Yet its defence budget is nearly 25 per cent of India’s. Much of the surplus funding is siphoned off by the army’s top brass. On retirement senior army officers get large land holdings as a send-off gratuity.

The best business in Pakistan is the business of the Pakistani army. Even junior officers are well looked after. The Pakistani army is an outsized entity for a relatively small country. It has a total strength of 6,50,000 soldiers with another 5,10,000 reservists.

The Pakistani army functions like an illicit business organisation. Less polite descriptions would call it a well-oiled mafia operation.

It beheads Indian soldiers, kidnaps local business tycoons for ransom, murders journalists, commits genocide in Balochistan, trains, arms and funds suicide bombers in Afghanistan, provides safe havens for the Taliban, extorts money from the United States, and rents vast swathes of its territory to China.

While it does all this, it keeps one beady eye on India. The longer the conflict over Kashmir continues, the more money the Pakistani army makes.

No one in the Pakistan government can question the country’s dubiously large defence budget. The civil society in Pakistan treated former chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif like a hero. The army has succeeded in making the majority of Pakistanis believe in its indispensability. Without an “enemy” (India) and without a “core dispute” (Kashmir), that indispensability would fade rapidly. 

An all-out war with India’s superior conventional forces would shatter the Pakistani army’s carefully nurtured image among ordinary Pakistanis of its invincibility. Rawalpindi doesn’t want a repeat of 1971 or 1999.

A slow-burning insurgency in Kashmir suits it far better. Unemployed young men from poor families are used as terrorist cannon fodder. When killed by the Indian army or the Border Security Force (BSF), their families are generously rewarded with land and money. It is a classic mafia operation: money for blood.

Unfortunately, like all mafia operations, this one too is beginning to run into a wall.

The recent truck bomb attack in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave near the German embassy that killed 150 people is an inflection point in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani declared at the opening session of the multilateral Kabul peace conference on June 6.

The Afghans could prove the Pakistan army’s nemesis.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh (especially Karachi) and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan) are in ferment. Punjab, which comprises 55 per cent of Pakistan’s population but less than 25 per cent of its territory, is deeply resented by these provinces. They see key resources – water, power, infrastructure – being monopolised by Punjab. 

Kashmir is a business opportunity for Pakistan’s Indian minions as well. Raids by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Srinagar, Delhi and Haryana last week unmasked how the Pakistan terror-funding network operates.

The Hurriyat is a longtime front created by the ISI. Its separatist “leaders” are paid handsomely. Hizbul Mujahideen, as the recent raids by the NIA revealed, works closely with the separatists. Like the mafia, each tentacle in the network has its uses and functions.

Separatists instigate stone-pelters. The Hizbul conducts terror attacks in the Valley. Subverted Indian journalists in Delhi and Srinagar provide amelioratory editorial cover. Indian NGOs and activists organise seminars, calling for an end to the “occupation of Kashmir”.

The Pakistani army, flush with funds, privately refers to these Indians as “useful idiots”. They serve a purpose: keeping Kashmir simmering but not boiling over.

Note that unlike Afghanistan, there has rarely been a suicide bomb terror attack in the Valley. Insurgents pelt stone, not bombs. Hizbul terrorists use guns not suicide vests.

The ISI is shrewd enough to recognise what will work in Kashmir’s essentially Sufi culture and what won’t. Despite its efforts to convert the Valley into an Islamist state, only a fraction of Kashmiri youth have bought into the radical Wahhabi ideology. Even the Hizbul is at odds with the Hurriyat on whether Kashmir is a political or religious struggle.

Money for nothing

In the Valley, everybody is on the take. Money trumps ideology. The separatists happily took money from RAW for years before being busted. Pakistan’s generals similarly, but on a larger scale, have taken billions off the Americans and are doing the same with the Chinese.

How long can the shrewd generals in Rawalpindi continue their terror-as-business scam? Till India calls its bluff.

Fortunately, the Indian army under General Bipin Rawat has begun imposing a cost on the Pakistani army along the Line of Control (LoC). When casualties among Pakistani soldiers rise beyond a threshold level, dissatisfaction among the ranks can set in.

Water is another weapon. Hydro-electric projects in the Valley have been fast-tracked. Under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), India is legally entitled to a higher quota than it has, bafflingly, been using for decades. Less water to Pakistan as a result of the new hydro projects in Kashmir will impose a cost on Pakistani agriculture.

The proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will, meanwhile, soon recommence, focusing international attention on the Pakistani army’s propensity to kidnap and torture as exemplified by the abduction of Kulbhushan Jadhav.

The generals in Rawalpindi are accountants. Only when the cost of abetting terrorism becomes unaffordable will they be compelled to change their behaviour — behavior that is driven not by concern for Kashmir, but the commerce it delivers.

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When Modi meets Putin, fixing India-Russia ties is top priority
Following Russia’s growing closeness to Pakistan and China, India needs to reboot its decades-old relationship with Moscow.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pursue two key objectives during his visit to Russia that begins today (June 1). First, resetting India’s relationship with Moscow. Second, establishing a counter to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

High on the agenda is the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), which will give India faster access to central Asia, Eurasia and Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin and PM Modi will flag off a motor rally from St Petersburg on June 1 to showcase the INSTC.

Following Russia’s growing closeness to Pakistan and China, India needs to reboot its decades-old relationship with Moscow. Russia has been unhappy at India’s increasing proximity to the United States, especially in buying defence equipment at the cost of Russian suppliers. A recent example was the disqualification of a Russian tank-mounted howitzer gun for operation on the Line of Control (LoC) against Pakistan. The order for 100 howitzers valued at over Rs 4,300 crore instead went to an Indian- Korean joint venture two weeks ago.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has been worried about a growing convergence of interests between Russia, China and Pakistan. Modi’s emphasis on fast-tracking INSTC is an attempt to wean Russia away from this OBOR-led triangle of convenience and back into India’s orbit. Iran will play a key role. INSTC passes through Iran’s Bandar Abbas port. It could later be linked to Iran’s Chabahar port where India is setting up major infrastructure projects.

INSTC has broader aims, well beyond Russian and Iranian geographies. It could connect India with five central Asian countries and sweep upwards to the Eurasian land mass. India’s trade with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could grow significantly. Crucially, the INSTC corridor could align with the Trans-Afghan rail line. This nascent project is being developed by India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. India is also exploring the possibility of building a 700-km railway line between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat in Afghanistan. This would link central Asia with Chabahar port. India plans to use Chabahar in a manner similar to China’s deployment of infrastructure in Gwadar port in Balochistan which lies just 72 km east of Chabahar port. Chabahar has the advantage of not being roiled by an insurgency as in Gwadar.

The INSTC plan, which lay dormant for years, has acquired a new sense of urgency. Its advantages are compelling for Indian exports. Indian goods can go through St Petersburg to Western Europe, rather than using the long sea route. Transportation savings for Indian exporters could be as high as 40 per cent. Delivery times will be cut significantly. Later, by linking Chabahar port to INSTC, Indian shipments will benefit further. While INSTC opens up the whole European and Asian land mass to faster, cheaper Indian trade, its geopolitical advantages are equally potent.

It posits India as a major regional player. India is already using SAARC (minus Pakistan) for satellite links and infrastructure collaborations in South Asia. The BIMSTEC forum comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal is another regional hub to assert India’s role in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

INSTC will be a key part of this evolving strategy in a fast-changing world. Last week’s G7 and NATO summits in Italy and Belgium respectively highlighted the fissures between the US and its European allies. US President Donald Trump has laid down three new rules of engagement with NATO and Europe: NATO must focus on fighting terrorism rather than conventional wars; NATO members must raise their defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP (only five NATO nations do so currently); and NATO countries should not expect the US to automatically come to their aid when attacked as Article 5 of the NATO charter mandates.

One man listening to all of this last week would have been especially pleased: Vladimir Putin, who regards NATO as an existential threat. Russia was expelled from the G8 following its invasion of eastern Ukraine.

For India, Trump is a conundrum. On the one hand, he said in Saudi Arabia last week that India was a victim of terror and that no country should be allowed to provide terrorists a safe haven — a clear allusion to Pakistan. But, Trump’s visceral anti-Iran stand is a complication. Under relentless attack by the biased US media for his ties with Russia, Trump has been forced to pivot against Moscow to prove the opposite. That too is a complication for Indian policymakers who seek an US-India-Russia-Iran alliance against an aggressive China and its vendor state Pakistan.

Modi’s St Petersburg visit today for the 18th India-Russian Annual Summit and the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, where he is the guest of honour, will be closely watched. Putin, like Trump, is a transactional leader. Both see value in India as the world’s second largest market as well as a counterweight to rising China.

A week after his St Petersburg visit, Modi will run into Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 8-9. Putin will be there too. So will Chinese President Xi Jinping. Modi will find it interesting to brief him on India’s plans for the INSTC corridor which, like OBOR, will rewrite the rules of the game in Asia.

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Why Modi government desperately needs an Opposition
The Indian democracy is dwarfed without one.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Democracy is dwarfed without a vibrant Opposition. Such an Opposition must fulfil three critieria.

One, it should be constructively adversarial to the government, not merely disruptive. Two, it must articulate cogent alternative polices to those the government is currently pursuing. And three, it must have the numbers to present voters with a real alternative at  the next general election.

Last Friday (May 26), Congress President Sonia Gandhi hosted a lunch to stitch together an Opposition front. Here’s who attended: Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Sharad Pawar (NCP), Sitaram Yechury (Left), Deve Gowda (JDS), Sharad Yadav (JDU), Mayawati (BSP), Akhilesh Yadav (SP), Omar Abdullah (NC) and Kanimohzi (DMK).

A less impressive guest list would be difficult to invent. Several have criminal cases against them. That apart, they have neither cogent alternative policies nor the numbers to challenge the NDA in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

That may be good news for the BJP-led NDA. It’s not good news for democracy. Without a strong, coherent Opposition, democracy is diminished.

Both policies and numbers matter.

Let’s look at the empirical possibility of a non-NDA government taking office after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. How do the numbers stack up for a national mahagathbandan that Sonia’s lunch was exploring?

Consider the total number of Lok Sabha seats the main attendees at Sonia’s lunch won in the 2014 Lok Sabha election:

Congress 45

TMC 34




SP 5

Left Front 9

JD(S) 2

NC 1


Total 106

What about the JD(U)?

Nitish Kumar’s lunch meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi one day after Sonia’s lunch may mean nothing – or everything.

The lunch was in honour of the visiting prime minister of Mauritius. Nitish skipped Sonia’s anti-NDA lunch on Friday (sending Sharad Yadav instead) but made time for a diplomatic engagement that hardly ranks as top-tier.

Nitish himself was typically coy: “If any chief minister meets the prime minister, you make a political interpretation. This (the apparently increasing closeness with former alliance partner BJP) is your interpretation, and it is far from the truth. Where is the comparison between the two meetings? One of them was a political meeting. I had already met honourable Soniaji on April 30 at her invitation. We had already discussed the issues of Opposition unity and the Presidential election. This (the Opposition meeting hosted by Sonia) was a lunch meeting and it was decided five days in advance that Sharad Yadavji will attend from our party. Today it was an invitation to a chief minister, not to the president of the JD(U). That (Friday’s invitation) was to the president of the party. Making a comparison between the two is misinterpretation.”

Nitish has also dismissed speculation of an imminent break-up with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar. But with Lalu fatally tainted by his association with co-convict Shahabuddin who has terrorist links, Nitish is finding it increasingly hard to hide his discomfort. The antics of Lalu’s two minister-sons are an added aggravation.

Even if a JD(U)-RJD split in Bihar is not imminent, it is unlikely Nitish will join a Congress-led anti-BJP front. His term as chief minister ends in 2020. A modus vivendi with Modi to increase central assistance to Bihar is a more attractive option than political suicide by allying with a Congress-led front.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the UPA won just 60 seats. It is now hoping to beef up the numbers with regional parties. The biggest contribution to a UPA-led national mahagathbandan is Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. It already has 34 out of 42 seats in West Bengal. The headroom for further growth is therefore limited.

Other UPA partners and leaners like the NCP, SP, BSP, the Left and RJD are in poor electoral shape. The 10 main attendees at Sonia’s lunch might be hard pressed to match their collective 2014 tally of 106 parliamentary seats reflected in our chart above. 

What about the fence-sitters? The BJD and YSR Congress lean towards the BJP. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress has publicly announced support for the BJP’s presidential candidate – whoever he or she may be. The BJD may follow suit.

The TRS is trickier but will probably hew to a neutral line. Other UPA leaners like Ajit Singh’s RLD and Assaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM are too small to matter.

Grim truth

Beyond the sagging numbers lies a grimmer truth: the lack of coherent policies. A putative UPA mahagathbandhan has parties with sharply conflicting ideologies and vote banks: TMC and the Left; BSP and SP.

The Congress, as leader of this inchoate pack, has not articulated coherent policies except to excoriate the BJP – which as the principal Opposition it is entitled to do.

But neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi has proposed a single constructive policy on economic, tax and labour reforms, tackling China’s bellicosity, neutralising Pakistan’s proxy terror war, fighting Maoism and improving law and order.

A responsible Opposition party should have constructed a shadow cabinet immediately after the May 2014 general election. Every shadow minister – from home and defence to external affairs and environment – should be proposing domain-specific policies on a regular basis instead of disruptive, ad hoc criticism.

The failure to do this belongs to the Gandhis. They have exhibited mediocre leadership. Most of their former ministers are busy in the Supreme Court fighting lucrative private cases instead of constructing specific policies within a shadow cabinet framework.

Just as democracy needs a good government, it equally needs a good Opposition. India’s Opposition has two years to redeem itself.

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Modi: The Next Two Years
Modi will have an opportunity to reset the India-Russia relationship when he travels to St. Petersburg

Monday, May 29, 2017

In my last column (‘Narendra Modi at Three’), I looked at the hits and misses of the Prime Minister’s first three years in office. It’s time now to look ahead. What do the next two years hold? What should be the Prime Minister’s priorities? 

After a rousing six months at home capped by stunning election victories in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and elsewhere, Modi returns in June to back-to-back foreign diplomacy. First up is a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on 1 June. 

A key Indian worry has been the drift in relations with Russia. Moscow’s growing affinity for the China-Pakistan axis is based on pragmatism. Western sanctions and low oil prices have hit Russia’s economy. Moscow also views with suspicion India’s strategic defence partnership with Washington. Modi will have an opportunity to reset the India-Russia relationship when he travels to St. Petersburg. Modi and Putin will flag off a motor rally that highlights India’s connectivity effort in the region: the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC). 

The INSTC is a counter to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. It will connect India, Iran and Russia and set up Chabahar port in Iran as a rival to Gwadar port in Balochistan where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) begins. Later, INSTC can link up with connectivity projects in Central Asia and Eurasia to expand India’s economic and geopolitical footprint. 

Modi will then attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on June 8-9. He will run into Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is mired in deep trouble at home. The Panama Papers case is closing in on him. The Army is furious with Sharif following Islamabad’s defeat at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Beyond a handshake, a Modi-Sharif meeting in Kazakhstan is unlikely. The shadow of Kulbhushan Jadhav and frequent Pakistan-instigated terrorist strikes across the LoC hangs over India-Pakistan relations. For Modi the bigger question is: what next with Pakistan? He has tried diplomacy by inviting Sharif to his inauguration on 26 May 2014 and dropping in at Sharif’s opulent home in Lahore on his birthday on 25 December 2015. The Pakistani Army killed both overtures. 

The Pakistani Army needs permanent low-intensity conflict with India in order to preserve its primacy within Pakistan. It does so by invoking the (false) fear of an Indian threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani Army controls nearly 35 per cent of the country’s GDP with Benami business and land holdings. It does not want war with India (that would disrupt business), just low-cost, low-intensity terrorism. Indian policymakers have not fully understood the Pakistani Army’s psyche and regard relations in black and white, ignoring the several shades of grey. That is why every Indian Prime Minister — and especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh — have misread Pakistan. The result: tough talk, timid action. 

Modi must reset his Pakistan policy. Taking the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to the ICJ was the right decision. As the case wends its way through the judicial process, it will focus international attention on Pakistan’s appalling human rights record and jihadi mindset. Legal action alone on a rogue State though, is not enough. Retaliation on the LoC, surgical strikes (including the use of the Airforce to hit terror launch pads inside Pakistan), as well as tough economic and diplomatic measures are necessary. 

India should take a leaf out of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s playbook. Xi will be at the SCO in Kazakhstan, watching benignly over Sharif and Modi. Behind the half-smile lies an implacable mind. Xi has clamped down so hard on Islamist terrorists in Xinjiang that new-born babies are not allowed to be even named Mohammad. A month after the tense meetings at the SCO, Modi will gather with world leaders on July 7-8 at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. It will be an opportunity to refresh the Prime Minister’s global strategy to put India at the centre of international economic and security concerns. That strategy has stalled in 2017. 

New leaders in Europe provide new challenges — and opportunities. Modi will meet France’s centrist Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron for the first time. The British snap general election will meanwhile, be held on 8 June 2017. Modi will therefore, re-engage with Centre-Right Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party currently has a lead (though a diminishing one) over the Labour Party, led by the hard-Left ideologue Jeremy Corbyn. Donald Trump will be the elephant in the room at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. He has much on his mind. The Washington establishment has him in its crosshairs. Trump will be too distracted to strike up a meaningful relationship with Modi — a relationship soured by the H1B visa controversy and tightening immigration. Yet America remains India’s most important long-term ally to counter the China-Pakistan axis in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Apart from re-energising India’s foreign policy, Modi’s priorities over the next two critical years should focus on implementing the multiple schemes initiated over the past three years. The NDA government must also bring to closure UPA-era corruption cases which have meandered for years. The Karti Chidambaram and Robert Vadra cases will be litmus tests of the government’s intent and sense of purpose. 

Governance reforms are crucial. The judiciary needs more judges and better infrastructure. A Lokpal must be appointed soon. Healthcare and education both require greater resources and priority. The government’s proactive measures to control the price of medical equipment and branded drugs is welcome. But the quality of academics heading educational institutions clearly must improve. Some recent appointments have been based on ideology, not merit. They do the government no credit and harm Indian scholarship. 

For a Prime Minister who is a consummate communicator, it is unfathomable why the government’s messaging is so poor. Without a daily media briefing by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that takes issues of the day head-on, disinformation fills the vacuum. A structured daily media briefing protocol should be established by the PMO comprising one minister (by rotation), one bureaucrat (again by rotation), and a professional media officer. They can provide details of the government’s schemes, tackle current issues in real-time and refute media distortions as soon as they occur.  

Information is power. The government needs to recognise this now as it moves into the final two-year stretch ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.  

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China's silent debt bomb for Pak
Excessive liquidity making its way from Chinese banks to Pakistan does not bode well for its modest economy

DNA, New Delhi
Thursday, May 25, 2017

History shows that when a country's debt-to-GDP ratio climbs above 200 per cent, a red flag goes up. China's total debt at $27 trillion is now 277 per cent of its GDP. At first glance, the principal worry for China is its over-leveraged state sector. Local governments have used cheap credit for years to fuel infrastructure growth. Many gleaming new Chinese cities built during the boom period are today ghost towns with unoccupied residential towers and empty streets. Chinese GDP has slowed significantly from its breakneck speed of 10 per cent a year in the mid-2000s. China's economic statistics are not entirely reliable and the official GDP growth rate of 6.8 per cent for fiscal 2017 can be discounted to around 5.5 per cent. 

State and local government debt is a concern because most state enterprises have borrowed heavily from banks. Defaults could set off a banking crisis that will be difficult to contain. Li Yang, a senior researcher with the leading government think-tank, the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said: “The gravity of China's non-financial corporate debt is that if problems occur with it, China's financial system will have problems immediately. It's a fatal issue in China. Because of such a link, it is probably more urgent for China than other countries to resolve the debt problem.” China's debt bomb has not yet exploded and is not about to explode any time soon, for two reasons. One, the government is cash-rich and stands guarantee for most of the non-financial corporate debt owned by state enterprises who might default to banks - which again are state-owned and can, therefore, be bailed out. Two, China's debt is largely funded by its high rate of domestic savings. This tends to make debt more stable than debt in countries whose borrowing is in foreign currencies. And yet, China's ballooning debt could have geopolitical consequences. Following last week's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit in Beijing, China is preparing to widen its arc of influence well beyond Asia. Some of its grandiose projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of the BRI, have begun to cause uneasiness even in Pakistan. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn last week published ‘secret' details of what China intends to do in the CPEC: “The main thrust of the plan actually lies in agriculture, contrary to the image of CPEC as a massive industrial and transport undertaking, involving power plants and highways. 

The plan acquires its greatest specificity, and lays out the largest number of projects and plans for their facilitation, in agriculture. In any plan, the question of financial resources is always crucial. The long-term plan drawn up by the China Development Bank is at its sharpest when discussing Pakistan's financial sector, government debt market, depth of commercial banking, and the overall health of the financial system. It is at its most unsentimental when drawing up the risks faced by long-term investments in Pakistan's economy. The chief risk the plan identifies is politics and security. ‘There are various factors affecting Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention,' the authors write. ‘The security situation is the worst in recent years.'” Thoughtful Pakistani commentators have started to question the CPEC on three grounds. First, that it focuses on agriculture rather than infrastructure and industry. Second, that it is based on high levels of debt that could be difficult for Pakistan to repay. And third, that it will use cheap Pakistani labour and raw materials for China's benefit. As the Dawn wrote: “Relying on the assessments of the IMF, World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Pakistan's economy cannot absorb FDI much above $2 billion per year without giving rise to stresses in its economy. ‘It is recommended that China's maximum annual direct investment in Pakistan should be around US$1 billion.' 

Likewise, it concludes that Pakistan's ceiling for preferential loans should be $1 billion, and for non-preferential loans no more than $1.5 billion per year.” For India, the CPEC is an egregious violation of sovereignty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan on June 8-9. Knowing your adversaries' weaknesses, financial or otherwise, in advance is crucial, as the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu would have advised. Modi will be well prepared. The writer is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India, and Islam Will Shape Our Century.

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Nationalism is good, jingoism is bad - don’t conflate the two
Vigilantism isn’t nationalism. It crosses the red line. Those who cross it damage their cause.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A steely-eyed, bearded TV anchor growled the other night: nationalism is bad. It’s jingoism. Jingoism is bad.

He’s right and wrong. Right: jingoism is bad. Wrong: nationalism is not jingoism.

It’s a common error journalists of a certain stripe make: conflating nationalism with hyper-nationalism/ultra-nationalism/jingoism.

Some do it deliberately to advance a political agenda though they know their definitions are mixed up. Some do it because they simply don’t know better.

When former Test cricketer Mohammad Kaif tweeted his congratulations to India after its legal stand on Kulbhushan Jadhav was endorsed by the International Court of Justice’s interim verdict, trolls from Pakistan (and a few from India) descended upon him.

Most questioned his religious identity. How could a man with a name like Mohammad support India over Pakistan?

Kaif, who played a stellar role in India’s famous ODI victory over England at Lord’s in 2002 (the one where skipper Sourav Ganguly ripped his shirt off), gave it back to his trolls. He tweeted that he was proud to be Indian and that “India is by far the most inclusive and tolerant country”.

Hidden in plain sight in Kaif’s riposte is the real definition of nationalism. No, it’s not jingoism, ultra-nationalism or hyper-nationalism, the various labels steely-eyed, growling TV anchors fabricate to deceive viewers. 

In plain English: nationalism is good. Jingoism is bad. Don’t conflate the two.

Kaif is a nationalist because he puts India above religious identity. India to him, a devout Muslim, is inclusive and tolerant. 

So what is jingoism/ultra-nationalism/hyper-nationalism? How is it different from nationalism?

Jingoism is not about putting India first, it’s about putting others last. In contrast, nationalism celebrates unity and diversity but also stands up for the national interest. That’s what Kaif was doing.

Nationalism isn’t even just about patriotism. It goes beyond that. It’s about doing the right thing - always.

Vigilantism isn’t nationalism. It crosses the red line. Those who cross it damage their cause.

The glowering illiberal-Left delights in such a transgression. It dovetails with its fraudulent narrative that vigilantism and violence have spiked after May 2014.

But of course the most horrific violence - communal, caste and gender - took place between 1947 and 2014.

Law and order
Major Nitin Gogoi’s decision to use a street protester as a human shield tied to an Army jeep when faced with a 1,000-strong mob of stone-pelters in Kashmir had nothing to do with nationalism or jingoism.

It had to do with law and order. The Army has a protocol to deal with violent mobs. First, disperse with non-lethal means (tear gas, water cannons). As a last resort, shoot.

Major Gogoi had the authority to make a split-second decision based on the threat perception to his convoy.

The Army, after a thorough review of Major Gogoi’s record of counter-insurgency operations over the years, awarded him the Army Chief’s commendation medal. The review included his action to save his convoy from a violent mob.

Whatever the merits of Major Gogoi’s action, it had to do with Army protocol in a lethal life-and-death situation - not jingoism. Again, don’t conflate the two.

What India’s illiberal, Left-leaning media does is mimic the Pakistani version of nationalism, which is not nationalism at all but, yes, jingoism. You could call it by its two synonyms: hyper-nationalism and ultra-nationalism.

By deciding to defy the International Court of Justice verdict, filing an application for a review of the judgment, not allowing consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav, not confirming his state of health or location, Pakistan is behaving like the country it is: a terrorist state driven by the demons that reside in jingoists.

India should expect no better from Pakistan given its decades-long record of terror attacks on Indian soil. But India’s illiberal, Left-leaning subversive media gives Pakistan the benefit of doubt because it regards Pakistan’s jingoism as nationalism and India’s nationalism as jingoism. 

That is the perverse narrative every responsible, liberal, secular journalist must challenge and change.

If Pakistan defies the ICJ and executes Jadhav, the matter will go to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC could impose economic and military sanctions on Pakistan. China, which has no notion of right and wrong and runs a dictatorship, will veto the sanctions.

But it can’t veto the international disgrace that will attach itself to Pakistan.

Islamabad may not care. It is used to international disgrace. But given the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, it needs global cooperation from countries other than China. That may dry up if the UNSC sanctions it.

China too will face opprobrium if it casts its veto. Again it may not care. As a serial offender, it has treated the verdict against it by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its dispute with the Philippines with contempt.

China blocks Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media. Its citizens can’t vote. Its economy faces a debt trap which few, apart from Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma, have analysed in detail.

Define it right
If we are to define nationalism and jingoism accurately, Mohammad Kaif reinforces the principle of nationalism: inclusive, liberal, tolerant and protective of national interest.

Pakistan and China in contrast reflect jingoism: militaristic, intolerant, illiberal and expansionist. They encroach on others’ national interest.

As the Jadhav case unfolds, both nationalism and jingoism will be on display. Kaif’s brave and timely intervention should be widely applauded.

Those who have maintained a tactical silence on Kulbhushan Jadhav so far - ranging from Shah Rukh Khan to Sachin Tendulkar - should use their wide follower base to speak up as well.

It is time to expose the deception of those who conflate nationalism with jingoism and bury that particular post-truth for good.

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Pakistan army's two fatal blunders - murdering Lt Fayaz and kidnapping Jadhav - will cost it heavily
It presents India with an opportunity to turn the situation around in Kashmir.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

No one has ever accused the Pakistani army of intellectual brilliance. But no one expected it to make two tactical blunders in the space of a few days.

The first error was the cold-blooded murder of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists, armed, funded and trained by the Pakistani army. This egregious stupidity will alienate Kashmiri youth whom Rawalpindi has spent years and crores to subvert into stone-pelting India-baiters.

The brutal torture and murder of 22-year-old Fayaz, a Kashmiri and proud Indian Army officer, rips the mask off Pakistan. Young Kashmiris now see, if they hadn’t already, the face of a nation so immersed in its enmity towards India that it will treat Kashmiri youth as collateral damage. Local Kashmiris’ support for Pakistan will never be quite the same again.

The second tactical error committed by the Pakistani Army was to kidnap Kulbhushan Jadhav from the Iran-Balochistan border, put him on trial in a military kangaroo court, find him guilty of espionage, and sentence him to death. Several consequences will now follow.

First, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), after its initial hearing, will adjudicate on the matter. In the meantime, the Pakistani Army will use the fig leaf of its amendment restricting the ICJ’s jurisdiction on national security. The amendment was rushed through on April 29, 2017, by Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, after India sought consular access to Jadhav an unprecedented 16 times.

By internationalising its dispute with Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 reference to the ICJ, India has broken away from the stubborn insistence on bilateralism in its relations with Pakistan. I have long argued that there are key strategies India must adopt to defeat Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir and support the freedom movement in Balochistan.

As I wrote: “Pakistan craves equivalence with India. It recognises it can’t claim parity economically, militarily or diplomatically. The only way it can do so is to engage India in a permanent, low-intensity conflict. A part of this strategy is plausible deniability while inflicting damage on Indian soldiers, police and civilians. Pakistan’s rehearsed script: attack, deny, engage. Now is an opportunity for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a strong public statement on Pakistan-abetted terrorism and take questions from the media. This is the time to assert his leadership. The statement must spell out the government’s broad intent and strategy on Pakistan. It need not disclose details of any covert operations on Pakistani soil that may or may not be under planning. But unless Pakistan is made to pay, it will not stop.”

The incarceration of Jadhav and the murder of Lt Fayaz present India with an opportunity to turn the situation around in the Valley, where anger against the Indian security forces is real but where Pakistan’s role is now seen with increasing suspicion.


The Indian government must move quickly across three fronts. First, deliver in full the flood relief funds promised three years ago. A government that doesn’t keep its word to its own people is not a government that deserves to be trusted. The Modi government must not fall into this trap. Bridge the trust deficit, don’t widen it.

Second, focus on the Kashmir economy. Today the state lives off the annual subsidy of over Rs 25,000 crore the Centre gives it. Much of this goes into the wrong hands. Development in the Valley is abysmal. The government must invest in the Valley, first through public sector units and then incentivise private sector companies to invest, provide jobs to youth and refurbish infrastructure.

Holding the final GST Council meeting of 32 state and Union Territory finance ministers in Srinagar this Saturday is exactly the kind of confidence-building measure the Valley needs to integrate itself with the rest of India’s economy.


Just four days after the murder of Lt Fayaz, 2,000 Kashmiri boys and girls (yes, girls) turned up for a physical and written exam for the post of sub-inspectors in the Jammu & Kashmir police. The desire for a better life is strong among Kashmiri youth. Pakistan-paid stone-pelters are in the minority. But the PDP-BJP government’s ham-handedness has allowed a narrative to gain currency that implies the opposite.

Now that the Pakistan army has shown the Kashmiri people its real terrorist face by torturing and murdering an unarmed young Kashmiri army officer, public opinion in the Valley will shift. India must seize the moment.

Third, use this opportunity to change the narrative. The horrors of life in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) must be highlighted. Is that the alternative home Kashmiris seek?

In conversations with ordinary Kashmiris, the common refrain is they want neither India nor Pakistan, just independence. On digging deeper, Kashmiri youth concede that greater autonomy within India is actually their preferred choice.

The lessons for the Indian government from the Jadhav and Fayaz tragedies are several. Focus on two.

First, don’t hesitate to internationalise disputes with Pakistan. As a terror sponsor, it is Pakistan which has most to lose when global adjudication forces the world to condemn it. Second, keep your promise to the Valley: funds, investments, jobs.

Kashmiri stone-pelters are paid by the ISI by the day. Wean them away into real jobs by investing in the Valley’s atrophied economy.

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India rightly boycotted OBOR, must use Balochistan to tackle Pakistan
China pressed India to join the One Belt, One Road project knowing fully well it violates Indian sovereignty in PoK.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017

As 29 heads of government and diplomats return home from the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) summit in Beijing which concluded on Monday, May 15, two questions arise.

One, what next for India which boycotted the summit? Two, how will OBOR change the geopolitical dynamic in the arc that sweeps from China through the Eurasian land mass?

India was right to boycott the OBOR summit. Its key component, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is patently illegal. It passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on its way to Xinjiang in northwest China. 

PoK is not only illegally occupied by Pakistan; its people live under virtual dictatorship. Unrest is rising. CPEC infrastructure in PoK is increasingly vulnerable to terror attacks. The presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Pakistan is now well established. It killed 25 people last Friday (May 12) in Balochistan. Top leaders in the Pakistan Senate barely escaped from the suicide bomb attack on their convoy.

As ISIS is driven out of Iraq and Syria, its fighters (Arabs, Chechians and Uzbeks among others) will drift towards Pakistan, the safest haven worldwide for terrorists. Many will step up attacks in Balochistan where the CPEC begins in the port of Gwadar.

For India, Balochistan is the key. New Delhi has dragged its feet over granting permission for setting up a Balochistan government-in-exile in India, similar to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government-in-exile (now known as the Central Tibetan Administration).

Kulbhushan Jadhav was kidnapped from the Iran-Balochistan border. His case, under adjudication at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, will focus international attention on the Pakistan army’s brutalities in Balochistan.

On Saturday, May 13, a day before the OBOR summit began in Beijing, 10 Pakistani labourers working on a CPEC link road were shot dead just 20 km from Balochistan’s Gwadar port, which is China’s signature project within the CPEC. The Baloch Liberation Army has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Baloch uprising has added to the incendiary mix in violence-torn Pakistan. The Pakistani army has brutalised Balochistan for years. Resistance is now rising rapidly. Attacks by Baloch freedom fighters on Pakistani soldiers are increasingly common. 

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province. It occupies 44 per cent of the country’s area but has only 6 per cent of its population. The rest of Pakistan - Sindh, Punjab, FATA and Khyber Pakthunkhwa - is a thin, densely populated wedge. Its agriculture is dependent on water from India’s rivers.

Over 10,000 Chinese working on the CPEC in Balochistan are being protected by 12,000 Pakistani security personnel. But the Chinese are unpopular with the local Baloch. As in Africa, where China is investing heavily in infrastructure, there are reports of racism and ill-treatment of locals by the Chinese.

China is selling OBOR as a $500 billion global project (with an initial corpus of $124 billion) that will transform the economies of the countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. It has pledged large infrastructure investments in India’s neighbourhood: $57 billion to Pakistan, $25 billion to Bangladesh and $1.5 billion to Sri Lanka.

China has pressed India to join the OBOR project knowing fully well it violates Indian sovereignty in PoK. Contrarian voices have meanwhile emerged in China itself, warning the Chinese leadership of the growing threat of terrorism from ISIS in Balochistan and PoK.

OBOR would be acceptable to India provided it does not pass through PoK and Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. Sensing danger, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the last minute barred the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan from attending the Beijing summit.

China itself, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not as all-powerful as it poses. In recent weeks, there has been a major crackdown on Chinese dissidents and even business tycoons. Guo Wengui, a property billionaire, now in exile in the US, has levelled sensational charges of corruption against senior Chinese leaders.

Some of the charges go right to the top in the tight circle of mandarins around Chinese president Xi Jinping, the driving force behind OBOR.

As The Economist reported last week: “Chinese leaders are clearly rattled. The foreign ministry said Interpol had issued a red (corner) notice to members that Mr Guo is a wanted man. He has reportedly been accused by China of bribing a spy chief, Ma Jian (who has been dismissed and is now in custody). A video, purporting to show Mr Ma admitting to wrongdoing and denouncing Mr Guo, has circulated on the internet in recent days, apparently with official blessing. Mr Guo has denied bribing Mr Ma. He says eight members of his own family have been detained and that 120 billion yuan ($17 billion) of his assets have been frozen. Several executives from his property company have been detained by police. Mr Guo’s outburst comes at a sensitive time for the president, Xi Jinping, who is preparing for a party congress late this year - a hugely important opportunity for him to install his allies into the most important jobs. He doesn’t want his efforts to be impeded by anything that could undermine his authority.”

For Pakistan, the $57-billion CPEC is a lifeline for a country torn apart by terrorism. Sharif returned to Islamabad from the OBOR summit in Beijing hoping OBOR and the CPEC will give Pakistan the lift its economy needs. But with ISIS migrating to Pakistan and Balochistan on fire, foreign investors, barring China, are wary of committing large funds to Pakistan.

Pakistan is a country beyond the pale. Talking to it, as Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh did from 1999 to 2014, has resulted in greater, not lesser, Pakistan-abetted terrorism, including the Parliament and 26/11 Mumbai attacks. 

India must hold back no longer. As the increasing terror attacks by Pakistan-sponsored jihadis in the Kashmir Valley have shown following the brutal murder of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz, holding back carries a heavy cost. That cost must now be imposed on Pakistan, starting with Balochistan.

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It’s the economy, gentlemen
He knows the West's real security lies in defeating Islamist terror groups in Syria, not ousting Assad.

Minhaz Merchant
Friday, May 05, 2017

When former United States President Bill Clinton coined the famous phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”, little did he know how right he would prove to be, however impolite his choice of words. A quarter century later, it’s still the economy that drives the world order.

China derives its quasi-superpower status from its economy that has grown eight-fold to $11 trillion since Clinton made that remark in the early-1990s. It is a lesson India must learn. China’s economy is now so powerful that countries like Vietnam, which fought and won a short, sharp war against Beijing in 1979, are mending ties with it despite a festering dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea. The Philippines sued China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). It won the case but has now dropped the idea of enforcing the verdict which China has anyway dismissed with contempt.

Even the United States, with an economy nearly twice the size of China’s, has backed away from confronting Beijing over the South China Sea and North Korea. China’s belligerence against India, raised a couple of notches after the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, derives from its belief that with an economy five times India’s and a defence budget three times India’s, New Delhi has few options but to swallow its pride.

India must counter this with an economic resurgence of its own. There is empirical evidence that this is entirely feasible. A new report by the United States Department for Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA), based on data collated by the World Bank and the IMF, projects the Indian economy will be the world’s third largest by 2030 with a GDP of $6.84 trillion. The USDA report assumes an average annual Indian GDP growth rate of 7.4 per cent which is a conservative estimate. Keep in mind too that the estimate of $6.84 trillion is at current exchange rates (not purchasing power parity – PPP) and thus undercounts India’s low-cost, rupee-based GDP. So a $6.84 trillion GDP in 2030 would be equivalent in PPP terms to nearly $15 trillion – in the same range as China’s or America’s GDP (again in PPP terms) today.

To put these figures in perspective, consider the USDA’s projection of the GDPs in 2030 of the following developed countries: Japan ($6.37 trillion), Germany ($4.38 trillion), Britain ($3.60 trillion) and France ($3.44 trillion). India’s GDP (undercounted in non-PPP terms) will in 2030 therefore be nearly double Britain’s and France’s, far larger than Germany’s and ahead of Japan’s.

The key assumption is 7.4 per cent growth of Indian GDP over 17 years – eminently within reach if sensible economic policies are followed, beginning with the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), FDI liberalisation, labour reforms and a thrust on infrastructure, healthcare and education.

The geopolitical ramifications of a $6.84 trillion GDP are far-reaching. Pakistan strives for equivalence with India at every turn though its GDP today is merely 11 per cent of India’s. By 2030, at even a heightened annual growth rate of 4 per cent, Pakistan’s GDP will be around $500 billion – barely 7 per cent of India’s. Critically, the 5:1 gap in GDP between China and India will narrow to less than 3:1 in 2030 as China’s GDP grows more slowly to $19.20 trillion, according to the USDA’s projections. Equally critically, the gap between India’s and Pakistan’s GDPs will widen from the current 9:1 to 14:1.

All this doesn’t mean Pakistan’s proxy terrorism against India will disappear. But if an economically powerful India simultaneously strengthens its military and diplomatic strategy against Islamabad, a change in Pakistan’s criminal behavior can’t be ruled out. China’s stance too could change. Islamist pockets in Xinjiang are already causing anxiety in Beijing. Chinese academics are beginning to question the wisdom of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). They are stressing a closer dialogue with India over disputed PoK which could disrupt CPEC infrastructure there as it has in Balochistan.

These are yet mere straws in the wind. But the Chinese, despite their rhetoric over Arunachal Pradesh, see the future with greater clarity than most others. They have studied the USDA’s 2030 projections for India. Dealing with a country with the world’s third largest economy and the second largest armed forces is a sobering thought for the farsighted Chinese.

The problem is while clear-headed analysts in Beijing have begun to realise India’s potential the mandarins in New Delhi, docile as ever in matters of foreign policy, have not. That must change if India is to punch at, not below, its geopolitical weight.

The writer is author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century.

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How India can bleed Pakistan over Kabul-Islamabad tensions
The clashes along the Af-Pak border drew a worried response from China.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The verdict by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague staying the execution of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Indian naval officer kidnapped by the Pakistan Army in Balochistan, is only the latest setback in Islamabad’s unhinged strategy against India.

For decades, Pakistan has sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. That policy is in danger of coming off the rails. Afghanistan is no longer willing to offer its real estate to a country, Pakistan, that its people and government detest.

Trouble on Pakistan’s western border with Iran has complicated matters. Last month Sunni terrorists based in Pakistan fired long-range guns to kill ten Iranian border guards. Tehran has warned Islamabad that it will strike at terror safe havens within Pakistan unless the terrorists are arrested and their bases shut down.

Iran’s army chief General Mohammad Baqeri specifically threatened “surgical strikes” on the Sunni terror group Jaish-al-Adi in Pakistan which has attacked Shia Iran with increasing frequency.

Simmering tension has meanwhile boiled over between Kabul and Islamabad. A series of terror attacks by Pakistan-sponsored groups on Afghanistan’s police and army camps last month killed over 200 Afghan officers and civilians. The most vicious attack took place on April 21 at an Afghan army command centre a few miles from Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province.

It could prove an inflection point in the fraught relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last week Afghan troops killed ten Pakistani paramilitary and census officials near the Chaman border crossing in southwestern Balochistan. The Pakistani census team was escorted by the Frontier Corps (FC).

Afghan troops opened fire on the Pakistanis after the FC initiated the gun battle, according to General Abdul Raziq, police chief in Kandahar province. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has subsequently declined Islamabad’s invitation to visit Pakistan.

“I will not go to Pakistan,” he said. “until the perpetrators behind the attacks on Mazar-e-Sharif, the American University in Kabul, and Kandahar, are handed over to Afghanistan.”   

An unrepentant Pakistan Army claimed to have killed 50 Afghan soldiers in retaliation for the attack on the Pakistani census team. Afghanistan denied the claim, saying it had lost two soldiers in the attack.

The border clashes on the Afghan-Pakistan border drew a worried response from China, concerned over the growing impact of terrorism on the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). “As a close neighbour of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China hopes that both sides can properly settle this incident and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” said Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Landlocked Afghanistan has been the target of the Great Powers for centuries. In the 19th century, Russia and Britain engaged in the Great Game, as it was dubbed, to gain influence in south and central Asia.

In 1979, the Soviet Union spent a fruitless decade to subvert Afghanistan during the Cold War. America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded, armed and trained Islamist terrorists to fight the occupying Soviet army. When the weary Soviets left after a decade in 1989, two unintended consequences flowed.

One, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev unravelled. Two, an armed, trained and hardened force of Islamist terrorists created by the CIA with Pakistani help was now available on hire.

Islamabad seized the opportunity. It poured the Islamist terrorists into the Kashmir Valley. Following the rigged 1987 Jammu and Kashmir election, anger was already rising in the Valley. Terror struck the land of the Sufis in 1989. The Islamisation of the Kashmir Valley had begun.

By 1990, 4,00,000 Kashmiri pandits, who had lived in peace with their Muslim neighbours for centuries, had been driven out of their homes and out of their land.

It was the biggest ethnic cleansing of a minority community since the exodus of Jews before, during and after the Second World War. The 1990s were among the Valley’s most traumatic and violent years.

After the terror attack by al-Qaeda on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, President George W Bush threatened then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that the US would bomb Pakistan “into the stone age” if it didn’t cooperate in America’s war on al-Qaeda.

With over 1,30,000 US and NATO troops stationed in Af-Pak for the next decade, violence in the Kashmir Valley moderated.

The venal ISI had other things on its mind, gaming the Americans as Pakistan chased with the US hounds and ran with the Taliban hares, extracting meanwhile $33 billion (Rs. 2.30 lakh crore) from the Americans.

After 2014, with US and NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan falling from 1,30,000 to 13,300, Pakistan again began strengthening the Taliban. The objective is to put a Taliban-friendly government in place in Kabul so that Afghanistan can once again provide Pakistan strategic depth in its jihad against India.

Islamabad has long tried to include the Taliban in “peace talks” to legitimise its role in a future government-sharing formula. That is akin to asking Dawood Ibrahim to tutor the Mumbai police (which ironically he did, metaphorically, for a while in the 1980s while Maharashtrian politicians looked benignly on).

The problem for Islamabad is that the Afghan people and the Ashraf Ghani government despise Pakistan as much as they despise the Taliban.

For India, the priority now must be to greatly increase its presence in and support of Afghanistan: infrastructure, diplomacy and covert operations. An Afghan-India axis will undermine Rawalpindi’s strategy in the region, including Kashmir, even as it struggles to pacify an angry Iranian government and battles multiple insurgencies within Pakistan.

With unrest simmering in Balochistan, protests rising in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), hostilities spiking with Afghanistan and tension growing with Iran, Pakistan’s strategic depth theory could fall apart.

China is watching these developments closely. Its two biggest allies are Pakistan and North Korea, both renegade nations with stolen nuclear technology. That is an indictment of all three countries, one the abettor, the other two the abetted.

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Narendra Modi At Three
Winning elections is a science; good governance is an art. Modi has mastered the first in the past three years...

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Prime Minister Naren-dra Modi completes three years in office in May 2017. With just two years of his term left and 2018 likely to be a populist-driven pre-general election year, time is running out to complete the agenda he has set for the BJP-led NDA government. 

The outcomes over the past three years can be placed into two silos: good and indifferent. Start with good outcomes. 

The successful navigation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through choppy Opposition waters has been a stand-out triumph. The proof of this particular pudding will lie in its implementation on 1 July or 1 September, depending on last-minute back-end technicalities and state Assembly approvals. However, once GST is in place, trade efficiencies of a one-nation-one-market system will kick in. Over the next two years, the incremental impact on GDP growth could be between 1.5 per cent and two per cent, lifting India’s economic growth trend line to around 8.5 per cent to 9.0 per cent. This impact will be long term and result in a significant reduction in poverty. 

The second good outcome of Modi’s prime ministership so far, is the absence of government corruption. There is transparency in handing out contracts in civil and defence projects. Corruption at the individual and state level remains endemic. But that is a function of a deep-rooted culture of “speed money” across public institutions. That will need a social revolution, not a Modi, to root out. 

The third positive result the Modi government has wrung out of India’s soporific polity is the plethora of schemes for a cleaner, more hygienic India, financial inclusion, Aadhaar unique identity biometrics, skill development and digitisation. Some of the schemes have been uneven in implementation but the direction has been set. 

The fourth achievement in Modi’s first three years has been in specific areas of foreign policy. He has deftly balanced India’s interests in the Middle East with mutually antagonistic Arabs, Iranians and Israelis. The momentum in the India-US strategic partnership, built up during the Obama presidency, may have slowed with the advent of the unpredictable Donald Trump. However, a Modi-Trump summit, likely to take place in the next two months, should restore the India-US relationship as both confront an increasingly assertive China. Meanwhile, Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy has brought Japan, Vietnam and littoral states of the South China Sea into India’s expanding orbit of maritime influence. 

Finally, Modi’s emphasis on federalism and reviving Inter-State Council meetings has enhanced Centre-state cooperation. This was best reflected in the passage of the complex GST Bill which needed the assent of the states who feared loss of control over decades-old streams of tax revenue. 

The Modi government has, however, faltered on several other counts. Its Pakistan and China policies have vacillated over the past three years. Modi made strenuous efforts to woo both Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first year of his tenure. The former was invited to Modi’s inauguration, the latter to a walkabout summit on the Narmada river front in Ahmedabad. Both relationships have since soured. India’s inconsistent blow hot, blow cold strategy — oscillating between a surgical strike on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) last September to an effete response to incessant Pakistan-abetted terror attacks in J&K — has emboldened Islamabad. 

China has, meanwhile, used every tactic to push India into a geopolitical corner. It has blocked India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and hectored New Delhi over the Dalai Lama’s perfectly legitimate visit to Arunachal Pradesh last month. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is understaffed and overwhelmed. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), stretched across several ministerial jurisdictions, has not been able to impose a coherent policy on India’s two difficult neighbours. Rectifying that must be Modi’s priority in the next two years of his prime ministership. 

Equally serious is the drift in strengthening the institutions of governance. The courts are short of judges. The Army at the Line of Control (LoC) is short of ammunition. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) lacks modern weaponry to stun, not maim, protestors in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). These shortcomings are damaging the morale of our security forces as well as slowing down our criminal justice system. 

The second disappointment in the last three Modi years is the failure to sanitise the old corrupt ecosystem within the bureaucracy. Its tentacles have a long reach. They have not been neutralised. As a result, an internal speed-breaker stymies corruption cases against former UPA leaders. Old habits die hard and old loyalties die harder still. The vacuum cleaning of the old ecosystem must top Modi’s priorities over the next 24 months. 

Not all of this government’s weaknesses can be blamed on the past. The government’s attempt to balance electoral winnability with good governance has led to polarisation, vigilantism and intrusiveness. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has shown how, once you win an election, you must switch to governance. He has been ruthless in enforcing law and order, kick starting moribund infrastructure projects, and being pointedly inclusive by displaying the communal amity that pervades his Gorakhpur mutt.

There are several things Modi must now focus on in the final two-year stretch leading to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. First, appoint a new defence minister. The job cannot be done on a part-time basis by the finance minister. The decapitation of two jawans by the Pakistan Army underscores the need for a more proactive defence posture on the LoC. 

Second, ensure execution of current schemes rather than creating new ones. Modi will be judged on outcomes, not ideas and schemes, however well-intentioned. Third, stick to an assertive policy on China. It will pay dividends. Prevaricating won’t. Finally, strengthen institutions. Appoint a Lokpal, implement long-delayed judicial and police reforms, give our paramilitaries the weapons and self-respect they lack to fight insurgencies by Maoists, jihadi-backed stone pelters in Kashmir and the rogue Pakistani Army. 

Winning elections is a science; good governance is an art. Modi has mastered the first in the past three years. In the next two, he must master the second.

Follow@minhazmerchant on twitter

An incompetent BCCI can't allow an imperial ICC to take India for a ride
Without cricketers like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, Indian TV viewership will plummet.
Thursday, May 4, 2017

When the Supreme Court-appointed Lodha Panel tore apart BCCI’s opaque, clubby structure, the idea was to clean up the world’s wealthiest cricket board, make its administration transparent and professionalise its operations. So far so good.

The Committee of Administrators (CoA) appointed by the Supreme Court was meant to take stock, suggest the way forward and install a new board within the Supreme Court’s clearly articulated parameters.

Meanwhile, a Machiavellian uprising was bubbling in Dubai, the headquarters of the International Cricket Council (ICC) which administers the game globally while the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) frames the rules. It’s all very democratic but the underlying ethos is imperial.

For over half a century, the ICC was called the Imperial Cricket Conference. England and Australia made the rules. Their players sledged and abused but were rarely called to account. Indians and other non-white cricketers were punished for the slightest misdemeanour. All that changed 20 years ago.

Indian cricket began to generate large streams of television revenue. Jagmohan Dalmiya became the first Indian to head the ICC. Its name had meanwhile been quietly changed to the non-colonial International Cricket Council. The Anglo-Saxon countries (led by England and Australia) bided their time.

With the mountain of TV revenue generated by the IPL from 2008, India had become the superpower of world cricket. It accounted for 70 per cent of global revenue. All cricket-playing countries benefited from the largesse with India justifiably, as the main fount of revenue, getting the lion’s share.

A “Big Three” formula comprising India, England and Australia was set up to co-opt the old Anglo-Saxon powers in the new India-centric governance structure of international cricket and the preferential sharing of revenue. It was always a bad idea. The English and Australians have more practice in co-option than Indians.

They co-opted former BCCI president Shashank Manohar. It’s always better to get a native to put other natives in their place. (That’s how the British ran their Raj in India, co-opting Indian sepoys and princes with the lure of money and the threat of cannon.)

With Manohar established as the ICC’s first ever “independent” chairman — not nominated by any one country — the Machiavellian plan was in place. Manohar promptly reduced India’s share of global revenue from $570 million (Rs 3,700 crore) to $293 million (Rs 1,950 crore). The Big Three formulation was scrapped.

The BCCI, decapitated by the Supreme Court and harrangued by an effete CoA, was at its most vulnerable. The Anglo-Saxons had chosen the moment wisely. Their Indian import, Manohar, had done an exemplary job, even offering with an air of innocent, injured pride to resign last month as ICC chairman, an offer that was naturally turned down by the ICC board.

The BCCI has proved not only to be opaque but incompetent as well. Its representative at last week’s ICC meeting in Dubai, Amitabh Chaudhary, was comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Manohar. India lost the voting 9-1 (on revenue sharing) and 8-2 (on governance). Manohar deliberately disallowed a discussion on India’s counter-revenue sharing proposal.

Instead he tabled, as if he was doing India a favour, an additional $100 million (Rs 640 crore) to take India’s total revenue share to $393 million (Rs 2,500 crore; over eight years).

That’s still less than 40 per cent of ICC’s global revenue. India’s rightful share should be between 60 and 70 per cent. BCCI has hired a British law firm and drafted a notice to the ICC for violating the Members Participation Agreement (MPA) by making revenue sharing and governance changes without BCCI’s consent.

What next? The BCCI has called for a special general meeting (SGM) on May 7. The option to withdraw from the Champions Trophy, which begins on June 1 in England, will be debated. Run as a personal fief by politicians for decades, the BCCI now has to show both spine and tactical intelligence. It must get the tournament’s lead broadcaster for the Champions Trophy, Star Sports, onside.

Without cricketers like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, Indian TV viewership will plummet. So will sponsorship revenue.

The global cricket audience is predominantly Indian. The lead broadcaster can’t make money if Indians don’t watch. And if it doesn’t make money, neither will the ICC’s other member-nations who live off Indian sponsors. Cricket boards like Pakistan’s are starved of funds. The new sharing revenue agreed by the ICC — which still needs final approval — will provide Pakistan a financial lifeline.

Money made from Indian viewers will in effect be used to save the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) from bankruptcy. The BCCI must stand firm (even if the clueless CoA doesn’t) and call the ICC’s bluff. The ICC has threatened India that if it boycotts the Champions Trophy, it could be disqualified from other ICC tournaments like the World Cup.

That’s an empty threat. The ICC is desperate that India play in the Champions Trophy. It also knows future disqualification of India would be legally challenged — and meanwhile cost member-nations heavily as sponsors flee in the absence of India. The IPL is a financial success because hundreds of millions of Indians watch it. The world’s best cricketers like Steve Smith put aside their arrogance to play in it for the money it earns them.

India has the financial muscle to sculpt a fair world order in cricket. It now needs a firm spine to stand up to, and defeat, the Machiavellis — both foreign and home-grown.

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Banning red VIP beacon is not enough - what about growing nepotism in BJP
If culture of merit gives way to a culture of entitlement, it could spell electoral trouble for the party in the future.
Saturday, April 29, 2017

In feudal societies, politics is often the first refuge of scoundrels. Eliminating “lal battis” from May 1, 2017, on all except emergency vehicles is a good first step by the government to combat India’s culture of entitlement. It shouldn’t be the last.

The behaviour of Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad underpins a deeper malaise: the belief among politicians that they are rulers. They are not. They are servants. Or, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said countless times, sevaks. It is fitting that the son of a tea-seller and a homemaker who washed others’ utensils to make ends meet has sought to put an end to the culture of VIPism.

But has he? The Indian political class is notorious for finding a way to seek privileges denied to citizens whose taxes pay their salaries and perks.

It is almost obscene to witness Mulayam Singh Yadav flanked by a human convoy of automatic weapon-wielding commandos when the threat perception against him lies somewhere between low and non-existent.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was right last week to reduce the security cover of Mulayam, his son Akhilesh and several other state leaders who regard security as a status symbol - redolent of a feudal mind.

The threat perception level for the prime minister is probably as high today as it has ever been. Despite that, Modi recently did away with his security detail to greet Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at Delhi airport. Days later, he led a road-show in Surat on foot with negligible security cover amid surging crowds.

Can other political leaders similarly abandon their feudal instincts? Unlikely. The culture of entitlement is far too deeply rooted. Its other manifestation is dynasty.

For long, the BJP prided itself on being a party that rejected dynastic politics. The relatives of senior leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani set an example. Neither has a family member in active politics.

Modi himself, a harsh critic of dynasty, decreed that not more than one member of a family could be given a ticket to fight elections or join the cabinet. That was the ostensible reason why Varun Gandhi did not find a place in the Union Cabinet in 2014, in which his mother Maneka Gandhi was a minister.

But Varun suffers from precisely the culture of entitlement Modi abhors. Gandhi, 37, expected to be nominated as the chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh as a matter of right. When denied, he sulked.

By not campaigning in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, Gandhi - never a favourite of no-nonsense party president Amit Shah - has probably written his political obituary in the BJP. The Congress is unlikely to welcome him, given the deep animosity between sisters-in-law Sonia Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi.

Modi though has bigger problems to worry about than Varun Gandhi: the creeping feudal culture infiltrating the BJP.

By giving Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj a ticket to fight the UP election, the BJP opened itself up to the charge of nepotism. Sensibly, Adityanath has kept Pankaj out of the UP cabinet. But the signs from elsewhere are ominous: the BJP seems to be falling into the dynastic trap.

In a devastating indictment of the BJP’s flirtation with dynasty, Chaitanya Marpakwar wrote in a daily newspaper:

“For BJP it’s family first. There seem to be no takers for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-nepotism plea as the party has filled the posts in its youth wing with children and relatives of senior party leaders, many of whom defected to it only recently. The Bharatiya Janta Yuva Morcha’s (BJYM) new executive features over a dozen officebearers who are sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of senior BJP netas. Several of these people couldn’t be given tickets for contesting the BMC election and have been compensated with posts in the youth morcha.

“Among them are corporator Sagar Singh Thakur, son of the Congressman turncoat Ramesh Thakur, former Sena leader Suresh Gambhir’s daughter Sheetal, BJP legislator Ameet Satam’s brother-in-law Rohan Rathod, BJP leader Shailaja Gikrar’s son Yogesh, BJP leader Bhargav Patel’s son Harsh and senior BJP functionary Raghunath Kulkarni’s daughter Shayli. All have been made vice-presidents. Ankita, daughter of BJP MLA Manisha Chaudhary, heads the BJYM women’s wing, while housing minister Prakash Mehta’s son Harsh was made general secretary. Tajinder Singh Tiwana, son of BJP corporator Jaya Satnamsingh Tiwana, is also a general sectary. Varun, son of BJP leader Suman Ghaisas, has been appointed a secretary.”

If the youth wing of the BJP is packed with dynasts like these, many will graduate to key positions in the party over the years, making the BJP indistinguishable from the Congress and other feudal parties. The process may take time but once the polluting seed of feudalism is planted, it can in time become a full grown weed. 

Modi’s cabinet is largely free of dynasts - Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Nirmala Sitharaman, for example, rose through the ranks. So did Vajpayee, Advani and Modi. If that culture of merit gives way to a culture of entitlement, it could spell electoral trouble for the BJP in the future.

By 2022, which will mark the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, a large chunk of Generation Z (the generation following today’s millennials) will have come of age. They will seek the New India Modi has promised.

If instead they are served feudalism, they could be quickly disillusioned. Banishing lal battis is not enough. Every vestige of feudalism and entitlement must be banished from India’s political ecosystem. The BJP can ignore that at its peril.

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The unholy Saudi-Israel nexus
An Iran-Iraq-Syria axis backed by Russia could be the worst nightmare for the covert allies

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It is the best kept secret in West Asia. The two most important partners of the United States in that region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are covert allies. Officially, they despise each other. They don’t have diplomatic relations.

Israeli citizens are banned from entering Saudi Arabia. But scratch beneath the surface and a different picture emerges. The two countries have long arrived at a modus vivendi. Contacts between Saudi and Israeli officials are increasingly common.

Saudi Arabia was an early backer of the Islamic State (ISIS) before the jihadists turned on the Saudi royals. Israel, so ruthless against Hezbollah (one of the Shia militias fighting ISIS in Syria), has been notably quiescent about the Islamic State. There were virtually no direct clashes between the strong Israeli army or air force and ISIS even as the jihadists rampaged across Syria and Iraq in 2014-16. ISIS too has been careful not to attack Israel or Israeli citizens.

Washington pumps US$4 billion in aid every year to Israel, a country with a population of 8 million (around the same as Chennai). That works out to $500 per Israeli, the highest per capita aid the US gives to any country. If, for example, every Indian received $500 in US aid, Washington’s annual aid bill to India would amount to $640 billion — nearly 25 per cent of India’s GDP.

Saudi Arabia gets US aid too but is rich enough to look after itself. The Saudis, however, as its ill-fated two-year invasion of Yemen has proved, are not very good fighters. They rely on US military protection and mercenaries drawn from other Arab countries. Riyadh has hired Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s former army chief, to lead a 39-country coalition to fight the Houthi-Shia rebels in Yemen. The Saudis and Israelis have meanwhile stuck to an unwritten arrangement not to step on each other’s toes even if it means giving the jihadists of ISIS free rein.

Washington backs this self-serving arrangement. It cares more about maintaining its geopolitical monopoly over West Asia, with the Saudis and Israelis acting as its two sentries across the region. The reason, of course, is a common enemy: Iran. It is the dominant Shia power. Once ISIS is driven out of Syria and Iraq, Iran’s influence will grow. Iraq too is Shia-majority. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a Shia-affiliated sect.

Sunni Saudi Arabia regards an Iran-Iraq-Syria axis with great anxiety. Russia’s backing of the Shia triumvirate has further unnerved Riyadh. The US, since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, has backed the Sunni Arabs barring a brief flirtation with the Shah of Iran, who was Washington’s puppet. After he was deposed in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, the enraged US manufactured in 1980 an eight-year war between its (then) other puppet Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Khomeini’s Iran. (Saddam turned rogue for the US only in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, another US protectorate.)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes his historic visit to Israel in July, he will bear all these facts in mind. Like the Americans, he has balanced India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel while keeping the country’s historical ties with Shia Iran on an even keel. Saudi Arabia has suffered the most (along with Russia) from the oil price crash from $125 per barrel three years ago to $55 today. It has been forced to impose municipal taxes for the first time. Unemployment has risen. Budgets are being cut. The Yemen war is sucking cash. Meanwhile, its mortal enemy Iran is enjoying renewed backing from Russia. Its Shia militias are taking active part in the fight against ISIS despite American misgivings.

The biggest losers in this ruthless chess game being played out in the Middle East are the Palestinians. Their independent state is now a distant dream. The Saudis and its Arab allies have mothballed the problem. Israel couldn’t be happier. When its right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts PM Modi, Palestine will be off the table. Terrorism from ISIS and the lethal Taliban resurgence in Af-Pak will dominate talks. Israel is now one of India’s key weapons suppliers. And as Netanyahu will doubtless remind Modi, it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.

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India needs to first recognise the real problem in Kashmir – Islamisation
It’s only when the source of this poison is removed will the Valley return to its historical plurality.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

You can’t solve a problem unless you look it straight in the eye. In the Kashmir Valley, as summer approaches, Indian politicians and the media have failed to do that. The real problem in Kashmir is the Islamisation of the Valley. Unless that infection is treated, Kashmir will fall victim to political septicemia. Jihadists seek precisely this outcome at the bidding of Pakistan which pays, arms and instigates them.

Indian policymakers are unable or unwilling to fix the real problem because they refuse to acknowledge what the real problem is. A classical case of dissimulation is an op-ed on April 15 by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in a national newspaper. It is distinguished by a refusal to look the problem in the eye. He merely states the obvious when he writes that Indian democracy has failed Kashmir over the decades.

But facts must be faced squarely. It is widely acknowledged that the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election was rigged by the Congress-National Conference (NC) alliance led by Farooq Abdullah. Till 1987, the Valley was free of Islamists. Sufism prevailed. Muslims had Hindu names (Bhat, Shah) as indeed they still do.

When I first visited Kashmir in the summer of 1978, Srinagar still had cinema halls. It doesn’t now. I stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake. The shikaras were rowed by young Kashmiris with smiling not sullen faces as now. My two companions, Norwegian and British, wanted desperately to see a Hindi movie. We strolled along Srinagar’s flower-fringed roads to a cinema hall which in that glorious summer of 1978 was showing Kabhie Kabhie, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor.

The two girls were thrilled. In Norway and even in Britain, they said, Hindi films were still a rarity. Both enjoyed the songs and all the prancing around that passes for acting in Indian cinema. The point is there was a cinema hall in the heart of Srinagar and several dozens across the Valley. They were shut down by jihadists, one by one. None remain today.

Years later, in 2005, I was in Srinagar to interview then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. There was a strong military presence on the road to the CM’s residence. The rigged election of 1987 lit the spark that led to the insurgency of 1989, fuelled by Pakistan when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. After a decade of fighting the Soviets, the CIA-funded mujahideen needed a new enemy. The Islamist warlords of post-Soviet Afghanistan found that enemy in Kashmir.

Pakistan, still smarting from being broken into two after the Bangladesh war and radicalised through the Zia-ul-Haq years, had long sought revenge. It saw its opportunity in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The year 1989 was a watershed year in Kashmir’s history.

The Pandit exodus began, driven by violence and arson. The brutal ethnic cleansing of an entire religious group would end with the exile of over 4,00,000 Pandits who had given Kashmir its intellectual vibrancy, its literature, poetry and plural culture. What was left was a rump: the Kashmiri Muslim — genetically more akin to his Pandit brothers than the jihadists who infiltrated the Valley — was subverted. Pakistan moved quickly to Islamise the Valley.

The events of last week when CRPF jawans were kicked and manhandled by Kashmiri youth, followed by the Army using a Kashmiri tied to its jeep as a shield against a rampaging mob, underscore how successful Pakistan’s venal project in the Valley had been. Yet Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article mentions Pakistan only in the last paragraph and jihadism not at all. Mehta naturally offers no solutions, only despair.

But there, of course, are solutions to Kashmir. Three to begin with: First, extern the Hurriyat separatists from the Valley. They are the poison that kept voter turnout to a dismal seven per cent in the recent by-polls. India has indulged the Hurriyat far too much for far too long with farcical house arrests and hush payments in the hope that such bribes can buy peace. They can’t, they haven’t, and they won’t.

Second, re-establish the standard operating procedure (SoP) for the army and paramilitaries. Be tough with stone-pelting mobs but use non-lethal force. For the paramilitaries, discard pellet guns. There are better weapons available to control mobs including old-fashioned tear gas and modern plastic bullets and water cannons.

Finally, the PDP-BJP government must keep its promises on distributing funds for flood relief, investing in the Valley and rehabilitating Pandits — first in secured colonies, later spread across the Valley. That will bring a semblance of balance back to Kashmir’s fractured demographics.

None of these solutions guarantee success. But bemoaning the failure of Indian democracy does not guarantee it either. Pakistan is the only beneficiary of violence in the Valley. It craves equivalence with India — an equivalence that is as much a myth as the myth that Burhan Wani was a freedom fighter.

Till the dynastic families who have ruined Kashmir over the decades, and still refuse to call Burhan a terrorist, control the political narrative in the Valley, Kashmir will burn at Islamabad’s command.

Hillary Clinton famously compared Pakistan-sponsored terrorists with keeping poisonous rattlesnakes in the backyard. It’s only when the source of that poison in Kashmir is removed will the Valley return to its historical plurality.

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Has Modi's India turned into a 'nanny state' Two friends discuss
Anwar smiled. 'Finally, Suleiman, you are seeing the real side of this control-obsessed government.'
Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Suleiman Khan wiped his brow. It's even hotter here than in Riyadh, he thought to himself. As the Uber cab sped him to his friend Anwar Sheikh's south Delhi home, he mentally planned his schedule over the next two days. In Delhi for a short Easter break, he wanted to catch up with all the news.

Anwar greeted him of the door. "Suleiman, you look great," he said patting his friend on the shoulder. "Riyadh seems to suit you."

Suleiman grimaced at the thought of life in the Saudi capital but said nothing. As they sat down to a home-made lunch of chicken biryani, Sulieman asked casually: "Anwarbhai, what's all this I hear about India becoming a nanny state? I thought Saudi was a nanny state. You should see all those Filipino nannies that have taken over from our Kerala girls. They are hired to look after the children of rich Arab sheikhs. There's now a surplus of nannies in Riyadh."

Anwar looked at his friend indulgently. "Suleiman," he said, "by nanny state we mean a government which wants to control everything, including how much we eat in restaurants and what we can and cannot eat in different states like Goa and Maharashtra. We can't even file our income-tax returns without an Aadhaar card. We're fast becoming a nanny state."

Suleiman was taken aback. He reflected for a moment on what he'd just heard. "Anwarbhai," he said finally, "let's go out to dinner tonight. Let's see if the restaurant tells us what and how much to eat."

Anwar smiled. "There's a new place in South Extension. We'll go there."


The two friends drove up to the restaurant at eight o'clock that evening. A valet offered to park Anwar's new Audi 3. Suleiman wondered silently: the last time he had a BMW. Now this. Where does he get the money? Anwar seemed to read his thoughts as he handed the car key to the valet. "The perks of Delhi politics, Suleiman," he grinned.

Suleiman nodded silently as they walked into the bustling eatery. They took a corner table and ordered a Lebanese kibbeh bil sanieh.

"You'll love it, Suleiman," said Anwar. "It's made with tender lamb and has a terrific Arab flavour."

Suleiman smiled. He looked around the restaurant. It was filled with families enjoying a night out. The kibbeh bil sanieh arrived within minutes covered in a silver bowl.

"Quick service," said Suleiman, looking at Anwar. "In Riyadh you can't drink, you can't drive if you're a woman, and they take your passport away if you've got a job. Seems nice here in comparison."

He lifted the silver cover on the plate the waiter had placed in front of him. A look of astonishment came over his face. In the plate was a tiny portion of the kibbeh.

He looked quizzically at Anwar who was busy on his mobile phone cutting a deal with a candidate contesting the MCD election on Sunday.

After finishing his conversation, Anwar too lifted the silver cover on his plate. He looked at Suleiman with a startled expression "Paswanji had asked restaurants to limit portions served to customers," he said, "but I had no idea anyone took that seriously. It's just a suggestion Paswanji made to avoid food wastage."

He signalled to the waiter. "Why such a tiny portion?" he asked. "My friend from Riyadh is shocked. This portion is so small it won't feed a ten-year-old."

The waiter said apologetically, "Orders from the top sir. We have been told to serve only small portions as per the government's suggestion."

Anwar slapped his forehead in mock exasperation. He looked at the waiter. "Okay, at least get us two idlis each. That should be enough for tonight."

The waiter looked distraught. "Sir, I can serve only one idli each. Orders from the top."

Anwar groaned. "See what I told you about a nanny state," he said to Suleiman who had been listening to the waiter with a look of disbelief on his face.

"It wants to control not only what we eat like beef but how much we eat, what our biometrics are and whether we can drink or not. State after state is planning prohibition. It's getting to be intolerable!"

Suleiman nodded slowly. "True, Anwarbhai, I hope Modiji realises that in this wonderful democracy that you have, which people like us living in Saudi or in dictatorships like China really admire, it's better not to control peoples' lives too much. The more you control people, the less they'll like you and listen to you."

Anwar smiled. "Finally, Suleiman, you are seeing the real side of this control-obsessed government. One day, like me, you might even join the Congress."

As they left the restaurant, still relatively hungry after being served a tiny portion of the kibbeh and a single idli, Suleiman nudged his friend good-naturedly: "Join the Congress? You mean the party with the remote control?"

Anwar rolled his eyes. "You'll never change, Suleiman," he said with a half smile as they slid into his brand new gifted Audi 3. "Let's get home quickly. I have to be up early tomorrow morning to stand in a queue and get my Aadhaar card so that I can file my IT return."

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Trump’s Left Turn
By bombing Syria, upbraiding Vladimir Putin’s client Bashar al-Assad and threatening Russia with sanctions, Donald Trump has taken the sting out of the Democrats’ campaign

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Has the Washington establishment finally checkmated United States President Donald Trump? Consider the events of the past few weeks. First, Trump did a volte-face on Syria after the chemical attack that killed over 85 people in rebel-held areas. He has publicly called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad an “animal”, a “butcher” and in private worse. A month ago, Trump was the only Western leader who supported al-Assad. Regime change in Syria was off the table. Now it’s back on. 

Second, Trump has turned against Russia. Till a month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “good guy”, a man America could do business with. After the Syrian chemical attack, over which Putin has backed al-Assad, Trump is considering harsh new sanctions on Russia. 

The third about-turn is on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Trump till a month ago said NATO was “obsolete”. He complained that other NATO members were not paying their fair share and that NATO must focus more on fighting terrorism. In a recent speech, however, Trump praised NATO as a bulwark of Western defence, saying it was no longer obsolete. 

Trump’s mood changes have become something of a parlour joke in Washington DC. For months, the crusty old DC elite had fretted over how they could control Trump who had promised during the presidential campaign to end Washington’s cosy political-business nexus. They seem to have found a way – and the man who’s most likely to have turned Trump-the-abrasive-campaigner into Trump-the-affable-president is his son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

Kushner is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. The two are part of New York’s social set. An observant Jew, Kushner is a moderate. Ivanka went through a rigorous ritualised procedure to convert to Judaism when she married Kushner in 2009. She learnt Hebrew and today practises all Jewish rituals. 

As Trump’s senior advisor, Kushner has built a team of likeminded moderates in the West Wing of the White House from where he operates in a room next to President Trump’s Oval office. They include economic czar Gary Cohn and National Security Advisor (NSA) General H.R. McMaster. Trump relies increasingly on Kushner. He once said to him, “If you can’t solve the Israel and Palestine problem, who can?” Kushner was a surprise visitor to Iraq several weeks ago along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford. 

Kushner comes from a background similar to Trump’s. His family has built a real estate empire with $7 billion (Rs. 46,000 crore) in leveraged assets and a net worth of $1.8 billion (Rs. 12,000 core). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then US attorney, played a role in sending Kushner’s father Charles to prison in 2005 on tax evasion and witness tampering charges. Kushner junior hasn’t forgotten – or forgiven. Once a key member of Trump’s transition team, Christie finds himself now on the fringes. 

In a New York magazine profile of Kushner, Andrew Rice wrote: “Kushner’s business dealings, like Trump’s, involve numerous partners and lenders from around the globe. Trump doesn’t really appear to listen to anyone, but he likes to hear a lot of advice. During the campaign, Trump hired and fired many aides, but Kushner was frequently the last person he consulted before making major decisions. Trump and Kushner have more in common than surface appearances might suggest. As a developer, Trump took big risks in the 1980s and faced bankruptcy in the 1990s; Kushner took big risks before the 2008 financial crash and flirted with losing his family’s flagship building, 666 Fifth Avenue. Both came back. Kushner is often called ‘soft-spoken’, in contrast to his bombastic father-in-law, but people who have worked with him say that’s deceiving: His voice is just literally soft. His opinions are anything but deferential. Above all, he and Trump share a clannish outlook on life, business, and politics. Trump prizes loyalty, especially when it flows upward, and no defender has been more steadfast during his turbulent struggle than Kushner. Neither forgets when he’s been wronged. They both appear to enjoy the metallic taste of payback, although of the two, Trump may be the more forgiving.”

The Washington establishment, like New Delhi’s Lutyens’ elite, despises outsiders who rock the boat. Vested interests, power brokers and fixers are as much part of the Washington-New York beltway as they are in Lutyens’ Delhi. 

But there is more than meets the eye to Trump’s abrupt policy changes. Left-leaning Democrats have, ever since he became president, intensified a campaign to excoriate him on his Russian links. They say Trump is soft on Putin. By bombing Syria, upbraiding Putin’s client al-Assad and threatening Russia with sanctions, Trump has taken the sting out of the Democrats’ campaign. 

Trump is proving to be as unpredictable a president as he was a campaigner. He criticised China on trade during the early days of his presidency. But the moment Chinese President Xi Jinping and his glamorous singer wife Peng Liyuan arrived in Trump’s Florida resort for a 25-hour summit, Trump changed his tune. He said China and the US could be “great friends” and, true to style, complimented Xi’s wife as being “very nice”. 

The missile attack on Syria took place just as Xi and Trump were finishing dinner. They were eating a dessert of chocolate cake which Trump said Xi is very fond of. As he received news from his Generals about the missile strike, Trump casually told a startled Xi about it. Xi understands English perfectly well but was so taken aback by the news that he asked his interpreter to translate it once again. Trump recounted this story to an American TV journalist with a chortle but seemed more taken in by the elegant Peng Liyuan. 

By unleashing the mother of all bombs (MOAB) on Islamic State (ISIS) tunnels in Afghanistan and reiterating that US policy on Syria has not changed after the missile strike, Trump is using his unpredictability to keep the fretful Washington establishment guessing as he completes an eventful if chaotic 100 days as president on April 30.

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Hindu Rashtra or Bharat Rashtra
Why not call Hindutva Bharatiyata? AB Vajpayee famously did that, saying the terms were interchangeable

DNA, New Delhi
Thursday, April 13, 2017

When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath spoke of making India a Hindu Rashtra, he touched a raw nerve. For seven decades, India has been weaned on the concept of Bharat Rashtra. The “idea of India” is religion-neutral. Secularism has been central to this idea. The problem of course lies with the definition of secularism. My idea of secularism (empower all, appease none) is not Sitaram Yechury’s or Rahul Gandhi’s idea of secularism (empower none, appease some). The problem with Hindu Rashtra is not its underlying concept of national unity within religious diversity which has been India’s civilisational ethos for 5,000 years but the way the word Hindu is misinterpreted. A Hindu Rashtra does not mean, and certainly should not mean, a Hindu-centric Rashtra where Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews are treated as second-class citizens. It simply means an all-encompassing civilisational unity that transcends religion.

There is, to put it bluntly, a Hindu in every Indian – whatever his or her private faith. That kernel of Hinduism is not religious but civilisational. A Tamil Hindu, for example, has more in common with a Tamil Muslim than with a Punjabi Hindu. In India’s complex geography and a history dotted with invasions by Christians from Britain and Muslims from Central Asia, religion became a lightning rod for politicians ranging from Jinnah and Gowalkar to today’s leaders who use their counterfeit versions of secularism to divide, not unite.

The problem is exacerbated by two other factors. First, India is one of the most innately religious countries in the world. Research has shown that well over 90 per cent of Indians of all faiths believe in God and pray regularly. In Britain, in contrast, regular Church-goers have dropped by nearly 50 per cent over the past 20 years. The second complicating factor is that India’s Muslims are civilisationally and culturally more “Hindu” then they care to admit. This causes several dichotomies. The call by the head of the Ajmer Dargah, Syed Zainul Abedin, to support a ban on eating beef underscores the growing divisions within the Muslim community. Shias, Sufis and Bohras are more akin to India’s civilisational ethos than Sunnis. It is the former’s syncretic Muslim culture rather than the Wahhabi-influenced Sunni fundamentalism that India needs.

Despite the efforts of Pakistan to radicalise India’s Muslims, they remain largely immune to the currents of Islamist fundamentalism sweeping other parts of the world. If not, 180 million Muslims could have converted India into the world’s suicide bomb capital. Even in Jammu & Kashmir, where Pakistan has tried since 1989 to Islamise the Valley, Kashmiri Muslims, while sullen and resentful, use stones, not suicide bombs, as their weapons of choice, again demonstrating the residual influence of Sufism in Kashmir’s plural history.

So is Adityanath wrong about Hindu Rashtra? Should he not instead have said Bharat Rashtra? It is much the same argument as the one between Hindutva and Bhartiyata. This is what I wrote in another newspaper in October 2014: “India is a nation of plural and parallel identities: within its fold lie all religions – equal, separate, but bound by a common thread of Bharatiyata. So why not call Hindutva Bharatiyata? Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously did just that, saying the terms were interchangeable: Hindutva is Bharatiyata, he said, and Bharatiyata is Hindutva.”

The murder of Pehlu Khan by a cow protection group is a vile criminal act and the culprits, even if they have political connections with the BJP, must be swiftly brought to justice. There is, though, the counter-narrative of a dairy farmer, Mohammed Yunus of Mewat, who escaped Pehlu Khan’s fate and looks after cows and their calves with a tenderness that is in stark contrast to the violence of the VHP goons who killed Khan. Yunus represents Bharat Rashtra and, one suspects, as he tends to his cows, wouldn’t mind a bit if it were called Hindu Rashtra. Just as Hindus must rise above religion and accept Bharatiyata’s plural embrace, Adityanath should regard a plural Bharat Rashtra as his guiding force. Votes may come by invoking religion but vikas will come only when all Indians rise above their religion.

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Why Trump's U-turn on Syria is no victory for ISIS
He knows the West's real security lies in defeating Islamist terror groups in Syria, not ousting Assad.
Monday, April 10, 2017

United States President Donald Trump, a former reality TV star, likes theatrical flourishes.

By attacking the Syrian al-Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles following a horrific chemical attack that killed more than 80 men, women and children in the rebel-occupied town of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump has achieved the impossible: grudging praise from the Washington establishment that since he took office on January 20, 2017, has tried to discredit, demean and delegitimise his presidency.

No one yet knows for sure who launched the chemical attack. Those who have been trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad since 2011 claimed within hours of the attack that it was the handiwork of the Syrian army.

Regime change in Syria has been the stated policy of the Western establishment: the US, Britain, France and the rest of NATO. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which despise Assad, are fully on board. So are the Gulf states, some of whom were the early financiers of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Till last week, Trump had dismissed criticism of Assad. He was a "bad hombre" but the West's real fight was with ISIS.

Syria was fighting ISIS. Russia was fighting ISIS. Iran was fighting ISIS. Trump's policy put the US firmly on the side of Syria, Russia and Iran despite deep differences with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran.

The Washington establishment is packed with regime-change hawks. It wants Assad out at any cost even if it means weakening the fight against ISIS. Trump opposed this strategy, drawing the fury of Washington's elite. The media and Democratic politicians have since Trump's election sought to change his views on Assad. They had failed - till last Thursday night.

So what changed Trump's mind? And what does it bode for the fight to defeat ISIS in Syria?

Trump said it was the heart-rending photos of "beautiful babies" dying after the chemical attack. The visuals sickened the world.

Trump being Trump, however, also saw an opportunity. He seized it.

Ever since he became president, Washington's political, military and media elite has eviscerated him for being soft on Vladimir Putin's Russia which it claimed "interfered" with the US presidential election.

House Intelligence and Ethics Committees are probing the interference for which no evidence has so far emerged.

However, the relentless campaign by the establishment media led by The New York Times and The Washington Post has forced House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes to recuse himself. Nunes has discovered evidence of Obama-era intelligence surveillance of Trump's transition team by Susan Rice, President Obama's National Security Advisor (NSA). The surveillance, if proved, could lead to criminal charges against Rice and tarnish Obama's presidency.

So while Russian collusion in Trump's election remains unproved, there is mounting evidence of Obama officials' surveillance of Trump's campaign team designed to help the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, under-fire Trump has suffered two defeats. The courts twice stopped his travel ban from Muslim countries. His bid to repeal Obamacare - a key Trump campaign promise - was defeated by ideological infighting within his own party.

The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is an isolated Trump triumph. With his popularity ratings lower than that of any US president this early in his term, Trump needed a "home run" win. Syria gave him one.

In hours, the establishment media hailed his "decisive and forceful" action. More crucially, the charge of Trump being cosy with Putin and Russia crumbled. Syria is Russia's client state. Moscow's only Middle East base is in Syria. Putin, on cue, ordered an immediate end to coordination with US forces in Syria following the US missile strike.

Trump has promised further action against Syria if Moscow doesn't "contain" Assad. So is regime change in Syria back on the table? The West and its embedded media would like to think so. They would like the US to do in Assad's Syria what it did in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2003 and in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya in 2011.

In both vacuums, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda stepped in. It has taken several years and several thousand lives to drive Islamists out of the areas they occupied in Syria, Iraq and Libya, beheading men, raping women and killing children. The barbaric assault on the Yazidis and their children by ISIS remains a haunting reminder of the real enemy the world faces in the Middle East: Islamists.

Assad is a brutal dictator. He may or may not have been responsible for last week's chemical attack: no hard evidence has yet been proferred. But it is up to the Syrian people, not the West and its embedded media, to judge him and overthrow him.

His replacements, whom the West has for six years armed and funded, are brutal Islamists like those who ran amok in Iraq and Libya once Saddam and Gaddafi had been killed by Western special forces.

If the same happens in Syria, it is the long-suffering Syrians who will continue to suffer the most. The Islamist rebel groups fighting Assad have Western arms and money. Post-Assad, they will turn Syria into another Libya or Yemen, fertile ground for a rejuvenated ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Trump might be a better TV reality star than a president. But even he knows the West's real security lies in defeating Islamist terror groups in Syria, not ousting Assad.

By attacking Assad with Tomahawk missiles and defying Russia, Trump has given himself elbow room and quietened criticism from the Washington establishment.

His next target should be Raqqa and west Mosul where ISIS, under siege, is busy celebrating the US missile strike on Assad.

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Why China is more touchy about this visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang
In a rapidly changing world order, Donald Trump has introduced a mix of unpredictability and truculence.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh has upset Beijing. Since this is not the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Arunachal or Tawang, Beijing’s anger could be passed off as diplomatic bluster. But this time around the global environment is markedly different.

Three factors are playing on China’s mind. First, the two-day summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump begins on April 6. Hard talk on trade is inevitable. The summit is being held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, not the White House. While seemingly innocuous, that’s a minor snub: no state dinner, just a walkabout in the sprawling 20-acre property.

In a rapidly changing world order, Trump has introduced a mix of unpredictability and truculence. He has kept China in the dark about how tough he intends to be on trade, currency, North Korea and the South China Sea. The Chinese don’t like uncertainty. Trump unsettles them.

The second cause of Beijing’s touchiness is that Xinjiang, the country’s northwest province which has a large Muslim Uighur population, is simmering. A new Reuters report draws a grim picture of communal tension and Beijing’s nervous, heavy-handed response:

“China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in Xinjiang. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority there of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority and plotting attacks elsewhere in China. A Chinese security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new security measures in Xinjiang were not politically motivated, but based on fresh developments and intelligence. The Communist Party has vowed to continue what it terms a ‘war on terror’ against spreading Islamist extremism. In Xinjiang, this can also be seen at weekly flag-raising ceremonies that Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who once formed the majority in Xinjiang, are required to attend to denounce religious extremism and pledge fealty under the Chinese flag.”

The third reason for China’s anxiety is its slowing economy. The government projects GDP growth in 2016-17 at 6.5 per cent. International estimates place real, non-fudged growth at a slower 5.5 per cent. In 2017-18, a further decline in growth is likely. Dissent is likely to grow as people, lulled for years by rising incomes, feel the pain of an ageing, greying society.

The abandonment of Mao Zedong’s one-child policy, which caused China to age dramatically, shows how seriously Beijing takes disaffection among citizens who have bartered freedom and democracy for prosperity and security.

It is against this grim backdrop that Beijing views the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang. The Dalai Lama sought and received exile in India in 1959. Less well known is that he fled to India via Tawang to set up the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

As Dipanjan Roy Chaudhary wrote in The Economic Times: “The Tawang monastery, known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery in Tibet, was founded by Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1680-81 according to the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. It is also the seat of the Karma-Kargyu sect. The Chinese Communist party has been of the opinion that without controlling Tawang it cannot have legitimacy over Tibet.”

For India, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang presents an opportunity to reset the relationship with China. Significantly, the Dalai Lama’s high-profile trip to Arunachal Pradesh will last for nine days, including two days in Tawang.

An agitated China has continued to issue statements opposing the visit: “China and India are two major developing countries and we are close neighbours,” the foreign ministry said. “It is very important for the two peoples to maintain sound and steady China-India relations. But such a relationship has to be built on certain foundations. Such visits will have deep damage on China-India relations. We have asked India to stick to its political pledges and not to hurt China-India relations. It’ll come down to India to make a choice.”

In the past India has made that choice: sit on the fence. It allows the Dalai Lama freedom to travel anywhere in India but not make political statements. The policy of placating China must now end. Beijing thumbs its nose at India over illegal construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s policy of appeasing China over the Dalai Lama has given India little geopolitical leverage.

Beijing treats India’s objections over the CPEC in PoK with thinly disguised contempt. India should return the compliment over Tawang. There’s no better time to do this. A growing China-Russia-Pakistan axis threatens India’s interests in the region. As a counter, India must develop a strong pole with the US, Japan and Afghanistan.

The Trump-Xi summit in Florida starting today will show how committed the US is to confront China on both trade and Beijing’s bullying of littoral states in the South China Sea. New Delhi must use all the cards it has, including Tibet, to keep China guessing.

Speaking to Beijing in the dulcet tones of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) won’t do. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must take the dragon head-on and reset India’s China policy at a time when Beijing is plagued by Islamist unrest in Xinjiang, a slowing economy and a truculent US President.

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Why Arun Jaitley must amend regressive Finance Act 2017
The public his government serves will be shortchanged of the most basic commodity it deserves: transparency.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Union finance minister Arun Jaitley has asked for suggestions to improve key amendments to the Income-Tax Act in the Finance Bill 2017 passed into the Finance Act 2017 by the Lok Sabha last week.

Here are four.

First, remove clause 50 that amends Section 132 of the Income-Tax Act and allows search and seizure by the Income-Tax department without disclosing to the assessee being searched why he or she is being searched. This is tax terrorism.

There is no euphemistic way to describe this draconian, anti-democratic clause. It flies in the face of natural justice. Its retrospective effect makes it even worse, if that were possible.

It's clear now why Jaitley hasn't repealed Pranab Mukherjee's regressive retrospective law that has mired firms like Vodafone and Cairn India in endless litigation to the delight of lawyers.

The mindset that such laws reveal does not belong to a ministry charged with serving taxpayers, not intimidating them. After all, their taxes pay the salaries of the finance minister and his bureaucrats.

The search and seizure clause, without disclosing cause to anyone, including the tax appellate tribunal, makes a mockery of justice. It must be deleted.

Second, where disclosure is necessary Jaitley has removed it. An amendment in the Finance Bill 2017 ended the obligation of corporate donors to reveal in their balance sheets the name of the political party they have donated to. A more appalling amendment is hard to imagine. Jaitley's weak justification: corporates complain that if they reveal which party they've donated to, other political parties pressurise them to donate to them as well.

A more undergraduate explanation could barely have been contrived.

The public's right to know who donates how much to whom supersedes corporate donors' delicate sensitivity to pressure from political parties. This amended clause in the Income-Tax Act 1961 too must be deleted from the Finance Act 2017.

The third affront to transparency and commonsense is the concept of electoral bonds. This amendment allows companies to buy bonds from banks of any amount. The bonds are like a bank draft. They can be donated to a political party which receives immediate credit of the amount in its bank account. No one but the bank knows who the donor is, how much was donated, and to which political party.

The public certainly won't know. In a democracy, the public should be the first to know. This clause too must be scrapped. Electoral bonds are a naked device to hide corporate donations, including those from foreign entities, to political parties. They put the business-politics nexus behind a purdah.

The fourth anti-democratic and anti-people amendment is this: by replacing some tribunals and merging others, Jaitley has struck a blow against fairness and justice.

There is a case for merging some tribunals with overlapping functions to create efficiencies. But to merge an airports tribunal with a telecom tribunal, as the amendment does, defies logic. Moreover, placing tribunal members' appointments and removal under the government's control compromises them and constitutes an assault on their independence.

It reflects poorly on the government that it has allowed Jaitley and his bureaucrats in the finance ministry to pass such amendments, which will escape neither the scrutiny of the law nor of public opinion.

Jaitley says he can't think of better alternatives to make electoral funding transparent. His amendments in fact make it more opaque. There are, of course, genuine ways to make political funding more open.

To begin with, reveal donors' names. If companies are honest, they will set up electoral funding trusts as the Tatas and Birlas have long done. Instead of encouraging other corporates to follow their transparent example, Jaitley's amendments encourage them to operate behind a veil. Nothing could be more regressive.

The end result of all this chicanery? Companies which want tax deductions under Section 80GGC of the Income-Tax Act will donate anonymously by cheque. No disclosure of the donor is required in their balance sheet.

Those companies which want even greater anonymity will donate through electoral bonds - which, however, are not eligible for tax deductions. Foreign companies will be especially delighted by this new artifice.

Jaitley, of course, will save tax for the exchequer on electoral bond donations but the public he serves will be shortchanged of the most basic commodity it deserves: transparency.

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Endgame for Islamic State
With ISIS crumbling in Iraq and Syria, a new phase of geopolitics is beginning. India must be prepared

DNA, New Delhi
Friday, March 31, 2017

The noose is tightening around the Islamic State (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. American and Russian army units are working in tandem with Turkish and Syrian government forces and a motley crew of rebels to launch a pincer attack on ISIS’ caliphate headquarters in Raqqa. Meanwhile, in Iraq, ISIS’ last major bastion of Mosul is likely to fall within weeks: eastern Mosul was liberated in January; western Mosul is now under siege from the rejuvenated Iraqi army aided by US special forces. However, even after the ISIS caliphate is dismembered, the problem of Islamist terrorism will not disappear. The ISIS “franchise” will live on. Last week’s London attack by ISIS sympathiser Khalid Masood is symbolic of the lone wolf Islamist threat the world faces.

This has geopolitical consequences. The United States, Russia, China, Europe and India have a common interest in defeating Islamist terrorism. This could lead to realignments in the world order unthinkable even five years ago. During the Barack Obama era, the US made several tactical errors. It withdrew ground troops prematurely from Afghanistan, emboldening and strengthening the Taliban. It mishandled Libya, killing Muammar Gaddafi and leaving the north African country vulnerable to Islamist terror groups. Obama compounded these errors by wavering over rapid ground action to quell ISIS in 2014 shortly after it declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine revived hostilities between Moscow and Washington, followed by US sanctions on Russia. Moscow’s intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015, changed the geopolitics of the Middle East. Since Russia’s entry into the conflict, ISIS has been in retreat. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been strengthened. America’s policy of ousting al-Assad (in the same way it killed Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, throwing both countries into sectarian chaos) lies in tatters. The Obama doctrine rested on a single pivot: al-Assad must go even if that meant turning Syria over to jihadist terror groups like the al-Nusra Front. Russia’s intervention has ended that prospect, bringing America’s geopolitical re-engineering in the Middle East to a grinding halt.

Into this febrile environment US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine introduces an unpredictable element. Trump has reversed Obama’s oust-Assad-at-all-costs Syrian strategy. He has doubled US special forces in Syria as the push to evict ISIS from Raqqa intensifies. In Trump’s doctrine, in stark contrast to Obama’s, ISIS terrorism poses a greater threat to the world than Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

China is watching these developments closely. It has largely kept out of the Middle East conflict but has economic interests in the energy-rich region. Beijing is building an increasingly transactional relationship with Russia. Beijing buys large quantities of Russian oil and gas. Moscow recently replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, cranking out over 10 million barrels a day. Russia though is an unreliable power. It has been eyeing Afghanistan as US and NATO influence wanes. Moscow’s recent tilt towards Pakistan, including joint military exercises, is part of this strategy.

Islamabad is desperate to ensure Trump does not charge Washington’s policy of turning a blind eye to its sponsorship of terrorism. As ISIS retreats from Syria and Iraq, it will need to find new fertile soil to plant its Sunni jihadist flag. Shia Iran is a sworn enemy. Further east, Pakistan and the landlocked state it holds to ransom, Afghanistan, are obvious targets. Pakistan has nurtured jihadists for decades. An unwelcome visitor, ISIS has now come calling. The timing couldn’t be worse. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is already under threat in Balochistan. ISIS will add a grim layer to that security threat.

As an Indian official said: “CPEC will be a bleeding artery for Pakistan and China. The gains to Pakistan are considerable but even now, it is being threatened by elements in Balochistan and frontier areas.” Last week, British parliament passed a motion calling the CPEC “illegal”. It said the CPEC passes through” Gilgit-Baltistan, a legal and constitutional part of Jammu & Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan.”

Indian diplomacy has to be both robust and nimble to meet the multiple challenges that ISIS’ impending defeat in the Middle East will throw up nearer home.

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Mrs Jinnah's love jihad in Mahatma Gandhi's time
Religion is a cross most nations have to bear. India is no exception.
Friday, March 31, 2017

In today's charged atmosphere of heightened Hindutva, the views of Mahatma Gandhi on the Hindu-Muslim relationship are riveting. They are not quite what most Left-illiberal historians have portrayed them.

In her excellent book Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Sheela Reddy sheds light on not only those incendiary views but also on the two Jinnahs who were the toast of Bombay society before Independence.

But first, the Mahatma. Ruttie, daughter of the Parsi baronet Sir Dinshaw Petit, was a free-spirited 18-year-old girl. She proposed to the strait-laced 42-year-old Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rather than the other way around. Sir Dinshaw filed charges against Jinnah of kidnapping his daughter. In court, the fiesty Ruttie told the judge, "Mr Jinnah has not abducted me; in fact I have abducted him."

All this happened just as the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was gathering steam. As Fatima Bhutto writes in her engaging piece in Mint: "The true pull of this book is Ruttie Petit. It is impossible not to adore a woman who refused to stand to greet the viceroy during the summer assembly sessions in Shimla though her parents were loyal subjects of the British.

"She refused to curtsy to another viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, instead greeting him with a Namaste. The viceroy snapped at Petit that if she didn't want to 'spoil' her husband's political future, she should do as the Romans do in Rome. 'That's exactly what I did,' Petit replied. 'In India I greeted you in the Indian way.' She was not invited back to meet Lord Chelmsford a second time, though one imagines this hardly upset Petit."

The book reveals the Nehru family's extreme conservativeness a century ago. Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal's lawyer-father, was the principal culprit. He went to extreme lengths to stop the romance between his older daughter Nan (Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit) and a dashing Oxford-educated young Muslim journalist Syud Hossain.

"Part of the persuasion," Reddy writes, "includes packing the two now-separated lovers off to Gandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad. Getting Syud there was the easy part. Although Gandhi was not yet the supreme leader of the Congress that he was soon to become, Syud's admiration for the Mahatma bordered on reverence; but winning over Nan was another matter altogether."

"It took the combined efforts of Gandhi - who happened to pay a visit to Anand Bhavan around that time and was naturally told of the domestic disaster that had recently erupted - and her parents for her to take up temporary residence in the ashram."

Like Ruttie, Nan was a spirited girl. The spartan life at Gandhi's ashram did not dishearten her though she had to clean and wash her own clothes, sleep on a bedding roll next to Gandhi's outside his hut and eat food without "salt, spice or butter."

It was a change from life at Anand Bhavan where brother Jawaharlal, back from Cambridge, lived a life of understated luxury.

What surprised Nan most though was the Mahatma's communal views on Muslims. A century later, those views would be regarded as belonging to the extremist Hindu fringe.

According to one of the letters Nan wrote, quoted by Reddy, Gandhi admonished her on her romance with Syud Hossain: "How could you regard Syud in any other light but that of a brother - what right had you to allow yourself, even for a minute, to look with love at a Mussalman. Out of nearly twenty crores of Hindus couldn't you find a single one who came up to your ideals - but you must pass then all over and throw yourself into the arms of a Mohammedan!!!"

"Sarup (Nan's given name before her marriage), had I been in your place I would never have allowed myself to have any feelings but those of friendliness towards Syud Hossain. Then supposing Syud had ever attempted to show admiration for me or had professed love for me, I would have told him gently but very firmly - Syud, what you are saying is not right. You are a Mussalman and I am a Hindu. It is not right that there should be anything between us. You shall be my brother but as a husband I cannot ever look at you."

This is love jihad, a century before it reappeared on the plains of northern India. Of course, as the Independence movement progressed, so did the Mahatma's views on Muslims. He supported the Khalifat movement after World War I and in later years was accused by Hindus of being pro-Muslim.

In contemporary India, the politics of religion has changed dramatically since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

70 years of counterfeit secularism sculpted by the Nehruvian consensus are over. The real definition of secularism is to empower all, appease none. Governance must be religion-neutral.

And yet, say critics, how can governance be religion-neutral when a Hindu priest is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh?

In the United States, Christian evangelists who abhor abortion, immigrants and gays set the legislative agenda. In Europe political parties have long employed the word "Christian" in their names (Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in Germany, for example). In Britain, only a Protestant Christian can be monarch - not a Catholic and certainly not a Muslim.

Religion is a cross most nations have to bear. India is no exception. That is both a reality and a pity. If we had more Ruttie Petits, religion would be the last thing on our minds.

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Politics Of Faith
he New York Times is horrified that a Hindu monk can lead a state. It should look inwards. The inflammatory, ultra-conservative rhetoric of some of America's Christian evangelists in the Republican party make Adityanath look positively secular in contrast

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ruffled several precocious feathers in India and abroad. The New York Times, for example, was apoplectic: "Emboldened by a landslide victory in recent elections in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, (Mr. Modi's) party named a firebrand Hindu cleric, Yogi Adityanath, as the state's leader. The move is a shocking rebuke to religious minorities, and a sign that cold political calculations ahead of national elections in 2019 have led Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party to believe that nothing stands in the way of realizing its long-held dream of transforming a secular republic into a Hindu state.

"Mr. Adityanath has made a political career of demonizing Muslims, thundering against such imaginary plots as 'love jihad': the notion that Muslim men connive to water down the overwhelming Hindu majority by seducing Hindu women. Mr. Modi's economic policies have delivered growth, but not jobs. India needs to generate a million new jobs every month to meet employment demand. Should Mr. Adityanath fail to deliver, there is every fear that he - and Mr. Modi's party - will resort to deadly Muslim-baiting to stay in power, turning Mr. Modi's dreamland into a nightmare for India's minorities, and threatening the progress that Mr. Modi has promised to all of its citizens."

While the foreign media hyperventilates, in India, the stunned Opposition is still coming to terms with its historic defeat in Uttar Pradesh. Ramgopal Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav's canny uncle, said he wouldn't speak a word against Adityanath for six months. "The robe he wears is sacred," Ramgopal said. "I respect it." 

Meanwhile Adityanath has got down to business. He made an unannounced visit to Lucknow's Hazratganj police station, checked its registers and gave a pep talk to police officers used more to receiving bribes than visits by chief ministers. Over-enthusiastic "anti-Romeo" squads have been warned not to harass couples. Tobacco and pan have been banned in government offices. Their pan-stained walls are being scrubbed clean. Illegal slaughterhouses are being shut down. Police across the state have been instructed to be unsparing on law breakers. 

But Adityanath's real test will come over how he tackles Uttar Pradesh's chronic underdevelopment. Critics have been quick to fault his hard Hindutva mien. Can a monk, a lifelong sanyasi, run a state as complex and diverse as UP? Clearly, the foreign media thinks not. Much of India's Left-leaning media thinks not. The Indian Opposition thinks not. Fortunately for Adityanath, the only people who matter think otherwise: the electorate. 

Adityanath's caste-less appeal frightens the Opposition. The state's 80 Lok Sabha constituencies suddenly look set to succumb again to the sweep of 2014 when the BJP and its allies won 73 seats. To combat the juggernaut created by a confluence of Adityanath's caste arithmetic and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's development agenda, the Opposition is scampering to put together a Bihar-like mahagathbandhan. 

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who sees himself as a potential prime minister, and the NCP's Sharad Pawar are leading the charge. They point to the electoral math: even with Adityanath's Hindu vote consolidation and Modi's national image along with party President Amit Shah's ground operation, the BJP-led NDA can at best win 42-43 per cent of the diverse national vote in 2019, a slight increase over the NDA's 39 per cent vote share in 2014. The math would therefore seem to suggest that, if all the Opposition parties unite in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, they can stop Modi's steamroller. 

They could be grievously wrong. Arithmetic is only one factor in an election. Equally important is chemistry. 

Chemistry cuts both ways. First, the Opposition has to reconcile sharp ideological differences between its own constituents. The Left and Trinamool Congress are unlikely to join the same grand alliance whatever their rhetoric today. Similarly, Mayawati's BSP and the Yadav family's SP have too many competing and overlapping vote catchment areas, especially among Muslims, to be part of the same national coalition. The DMK and AIADMK likewise cannot coexist in a mahagathbandan.

The SP-Congress alliance demonstrated the frailty of electoral arithmetic when confronted with the chemistry generated by Modi's relentless campaigning in Uttar Pradesh and Amit Shah's rainbow coalition of castes in an arc from Brahmins and Thakurs to OBCs and MBCs. The SP won 21.8 per cent of the UP vote; the Congress won 6.2 per cent. Their collective voteshare of 28 per cent, however, translated into just 54 out of 403 assembly seats - a mere 13 per cent. To rely entirely on coalition math is thus a folly in an environment charged with a combustible mix of caste and community that the 2019 Lok Sabha poll will inevitably be. 

This doesn't mean the 2019 general election will be a cakewalk for the BJP. Far from it. If Adityanath's administration fails to show visible improvements in law and order, infrastructure and social harmony, disenchantment will set in. The Gujarat assembly election later this year will throw up some clues. AAP, stung by defeats in Punjab and Goa, knows Gujarat will make or break its national ambitions. It has no stake in the other four state elections before 2019 (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh). 

But AAP's Gujarat gamble is ill-advised and almost pre-programmed to fail. AAP hoped to piggyback on Hardik Patel. That now seems a washout. Patel's stock has steadily declined. A triangular fight between the BJP, Congress and AAP will help the BJP secure a majority with AAP cannibalising Congress votes. As in Goa, AAP could end up with a blank score sheet. 

The New York Times is horrified that a Hindu monk can lead a state. It should look inwards. The inflammatory, ultra-conservative rhetoric of some of America's Christian evangelists in the Republican party make Adityanath look positively secular in contrast. The rise of far-right, racist politicians in France (Marine Le Pen) and Holland (Geert Wilders) show how well India has handled its plural agglomeration of communities, castes, regions, languages and ethnicities. 

Foreign media like The New York Times and their colonial-minded Indian derivatives are quick to judgement but too often slow to comprehend India's complexity.

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The glue that binds the Congress - Gandhi family - is coming unstuck
The first family’s electoral equity is actually negative as the recent Uttar Pradesh polls underscored.

Friday, March 24, 2017

What binds the Congress to the Gandhi family? Conventional wisdom provides three explanations.

First, the century-old history of the Nehru-Gandhi family: its role in the freedom movement and the sacrifice of two Gandhi prime ministers, Indira and Rajiv. That, party courtiers say, is the emotional glue.

Second, the Gandhis win elections. Despite recent reverses, members of the Gandhi family are democratically elected leaders from their constituencies. They have brand recall and charisma that cuts across caste, religion and class.

Finally, the Gandhis are a unifying force. As party leaders, they hold the Congress together, keep rival factions in check, and run the high command with a firm but fair hand in the manner of feudal lords. All three explanations for the Gandhis’ vice-like grip over the Congress are out of date.

One, the family’s historical and emotional connect no longer impresses young Indians. Two, the Gandhis’ contemporary brand recall and charisma are fading rapidly. In many ways the family’s electoral equity is actually negative as the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll underscored.

The Congress won seven seats of the 105 it contested, a historic low, despite Rahul’s aggressive, high-decibel campaign which Priyanka, reading the tea leaves, wisely eschewed.

The third reason advanced for the Gandhi family’s hold over the Congress — cementing unity among otherwise fractious tier-2 party leaders — may no longer be true either. The party has lost its most powerful leaders over the years, including Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar.

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh defied Rahul through much of the Assembly campaign (where Rahul’s presence was far less visible than in Uttar Pradesh) and got away with it. In Goa, Congress MLAs have openly and vocally criticised the high command’s ham-handed strategy which extracted defeat from the jaws of victory.

An incident after the Goa disaster demonstrates why Rahul’s reliance on family retainers like Digvijaya Singh is deeply flawed and has enfeebled the Congress. On Saturday night, when the Goa election results were declared, Vijai Sardesai of the Goa Forward Party (GFP), which won three seats, spoke to Rahul.

It was just after midnight. Digvijaya Singh, in charge of Goa, was present during Sardesai’s call to Rahul. Sardesai reportedly agreed to back the Congress with GFP’s three MLAs and one independent, taking its tally to 21 and a clear majority.

Within hours, early on Sunday morning, the BJP struck. Its Goa-in-charge Nitin Gadkari “persuaded” Sardesai to switch sides. By late Sunday morning the BJP had stitched together a 22-seat majority and sailed through the floor test four days later.

If Rahul can be betrayed in a matter of hours by a Congress-leaning MLA like Sardesai in the presence of Digvijaya Singh, the writing is on the wall. The glue that once bound the Congress was cash. Though the party had a depleted treasury after the 2014 Lok Sabha defeat, the Gandhis’ personal fortunes could always be banked on.

The family earns humongous rent from its properties and other assets. Like careful but wealthy promoters of a private limited company, the Gandhi family and its loyalists know what to do and where to go when the party runs short on liquidity.

However, just as the Family’s grip over strong but independent-minded leaders like Amarinder Singh is loosening, the Gandhis’ financial machine too is slowing. Business houses in cash-rich states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana used to keep the Congress’ election machinery well-lubricated during the UPA decade in the roaring 2000s.

That pipeline has now largely run dry. By 2018, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh will likely fall, leaving the Congress with just Meghalaya, Mizoram and Punjab. The Congress now finds itself in a serious bind. Senior leaders are getting restless.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election looms. Till the Uttar Pradesh results, 2017 and 2018 seemed promising. In Gujarat, which goes to the polls in November-December 2017, the BJP appeared vulnerable. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, beset either by anti-incumbency or corruption, seemed ripe for the picking as well.

The party’s decimination in UP has dashed those hopes. AAP’s failure in Punjab and Goa has meanwhile removed it as a threat in Gujarat. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will witness a binary battle between the BJP and the Congress.

With no mahagathbandan possible in these states, the Congress could be looking at another round of Assembly defeats in the run-up to 2019.

With resources depleting and dissent growing, Rahul has an existential problem. He didn’t ask for this job. He doesn’t enjoy it. And yet, it’s the only one he’s had for over 15 years. Retiring from politics, as some commentators have naively suggested, is not an option.

With Sonia Gandhi unwell and Priyanka preoccupied, Rahul is stuck in a job he has neither time, inclination nor talent for. But like his initially reluctant father, Rajiv Gandhi, he’ll stick with it.

The job though won’t get any easier. Rebellion in the Congress ranks is bubbling. Few in the past had the gumption to speak out. Those who did were quickly silenced and made to retract their criticism by family factotums like Ahmed Patel.

That is no longer the case. The glue that binds the Congress is slowly, but surely, coming unstuck.

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Modi’s UP Challenge
By choosing 44-year-old, five-time Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur) as Chief Minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put politics first: if anyone can deliver UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 it is Adityanath

Monday, March 20, 2017

Large mandates come with large responsibilities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that the next two years of his tenure pose an even greater challenge than the last three. The newest challenge is to manage expectations in Uttar Pradesh. By appointing a polarising Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, Modi has decided to take UP’s festering communal cauldron head-on. 

For decades, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress and the BSP used religion and caste to divide UP. It worked. With captive vote banks of Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits, the SP and the BSP dominated UP’s electoral politics for 15 years. 

By choosing 44-year-old, five-time Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur) as Chief Minister, Modi has put politics first: if anyone can deliver UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 it is Adityanath. As one BJP leader said wryly: “When you pick Yogi Adityanath to lead the biggest state, you do not have to scream from the top of the roof that you stand with the Hindus.” 

By picking two deputy chief ministers from opposite sides of the caste spectrum, Modi has continued to place faith in the rainbow coalition that helped the BJP deliver an extraordinary mandate in the UP state assembly election. Dinesh Sharma, a Brahmin, will consolidate the upper caste vote leading up to 2019. Brahmins anyway vote for the BJP but Sharma as deputy chief minister will allay any fears that OBCs would dominate the administration. Keshav Prasad Maurya, the other deputy chief minister, is an OBC. As state party president, he led the BJP campaign in UP and delivered. He completes the rainbow coalition for the BJP, straddling the entire spectrum from upper castes to most backward castes (MBCs)

As a sanyasin, Adityanath’s appeal cuts across castes. He has a large following among Muslims as well. Some of his views, especially on women’s reservation in Parliament, are regressive. As chief minister, he must moderate those views. To his credit he said, after he was sworn in, that he will be chief minister for all and treat every community equally. The fact that such a pledge had to be made in the first place reflects UP’s long slide into communalism and casteism. 

In this unfortunate preponderance of caste and religion in UP, one of India’s most backward states, where does development figure? It must be at the top of Modi’s agenda. A rainbow coalition of caste with Sharma and Maurya as deputy CMs and a ‘virat Hindu’ chief minister Yogi Adityanath closes the electoral circle around community and caste. But Modi knows that without development over the next two years the strategy will backfire. 

The BJP has adopted in Uttar Pradesh the Congress’ much reviled, decades-long country-wide vote bank political model. What the Congress didn’t do, fatally, is follow it up with good governance and economic development. In the fullness of time, that backfired on the Congress. After 55 years in power out of India’s first 67 post-independent years, the Congress now faces several years of banishment at the Centre. 

The BJP will, however, again in the fullness of time, meet the same fate if it fails to overlay its rainbow coalition of caste with development. In politics, the tide can turn quickly and without warning. What then should Modi’s priorities be – both in Uttar Pradesh and India – as the two-year countdown to the 2019 Lok Sabha election begins this summer? 

Start with UP. Under the SP, goonda raj — squashed temporarily by then chief minister Mayawati in 2007-12 — returned with a vengeance over the last five years. On a road trip to Surat and Baroda last week, I asked my taxi driver, who was from UP, what he expected from the new government in Uttar Pradesh. His answer was succinct: end the Yadav-Muslim goonda raj which flourished under the SP. He said he was a Vishwakarma (an artist and carpenter caste) and craved law and order above all else. Next came infrastructure. He praised the new Lucknow-Agra expressway but bemoaned the state of UP’s rural roads, the lack of manufacturing activity, poor healthcare facilities, and an appalling educational system. 

Can Yogi Adityanath and his two deputy CMs place development above deity? Modi has placed the following bet: consolidate the Hindu vote nationally in 2019 and in a dual strategy focus simultaneously on development. With both the Centre and India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in its hands, the BJP will have no excuse if development lags in the next two years. The importance of “infrastructure” ministers like Piyush Goyal, Nitin Gadkari and Suresh Prabhu will rise. Power, roads and railways modernisation will receive laser-like focus from Modi. 

Healthcare and education are the state’s other priorities. Both are in shambles after 15 years of SP and BSP misgovernance during 2002-2017. They must be fixed. Jobs and law and order are the most visible signs of a state’s progress. Here the prime minister’s various schemes for the poor and farmers will need special attention. A guardian minister for UP from Modi’s cabinet would be a good idea to monitor progress in the state. 

The political impact of the tsunamic UP electoral verdict can hardly be overstated. It has guaranteed the NDA a large chunk of seats in the Rajya Sabha in 2018 when over 65 seats fall vacant. The victory has demoralised the Opposition and silenced Modi’s fiercest critics Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. 

The spectre of a nationwide mahagathbandhan in 2019 has receded. Only Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has the gravitas to lead a combined Opposition but he too is on slippery ground, tarred by the odious company of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s two sons Tej and Tejashwi, one a minister, the other a deputy chief minister. The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) has slipped along with dynasts like the Gandhis and Yadavs. 

Post-victory Uttar Pradesh could be Modi’s sternest test. Finding a fine balance between development and deity in UP will decide the winners and losers in 2019.

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Indian government must not let Pakistan off the hook
Islamabad knows that memories in India are short. The Indian government must not let Pakistan off the hook

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows better than anyone else that Pakistan cannot be trusted. There will, however, be calls for him to play global statesman, especially after his “New India” speech last Sunday, and offer Pakistan a renewed hand in friendship. Modi risked personal political capital by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration on May 26, 2014 and then making an impromptu visit to Lahore on Sharif’s birthday on December 25, 2015. He got Pathankot and Uri in return. Modi toughened his stance with Islamabad in two calculated phases. First, he ordered the Indian army to conduct massive retaliatory fire against Pakistani Rangers and soldiers across the Line of Control (LoC). Within days, ceasefire violations by Pakistan, which had become nearly daily occurrences causing civilian and army causalties, fell significantly. Islamabad lost scores of Rangers and soldiers to intense Indian artillery and mortar.

Terror attacks by Pakistan-sponsored jihadis, however, continued. They are an inexpensive way for the Pakistani military-ISIS establishment to cause Indian fatalities. The surgical strike on September 29, 2016, which killed dozens of Pakistani terrorists and soldiers 2 kilometres inside Pakistani territory, was the second phase in the strategic shift in India’s Pakistan policy. It imposed for the first time a finite cost on Islamabad for using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Over the past five months, since the late-September surgical strike, terror attacks have declined but not stopped. Clearly, India’s follow-up actions have been inadequate. In the immediate aftermath of the surgical strikes, Modi had asked for a report on how India’s use of water under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) could be optimised as part of several options to rein in Pakistan-funded-proxy terrorism. Power projects in Jammu & Kashmir have been starved of power for decades because India has not drawn water it was legally entitled to under the IWT.

Armed with India’s enhanced (but entirely legal) use of water under the IWT, New Delhi must now show grater firmness when negotiating its new power projects under the IWT with Pakistan and the World Bank. The 1960 IWT, midwifed by the World Bank, is heavily loaded in Pakistan’s favour. Water commissioners from India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet in Lahore on March 19-20 to deliberate on India’s concerns. The World Bank’s pro-Pakistan tilt, however, continues unabated. Islamabad knows that memories in India are short. The ministry of external affairs (MEA) is not known for displaying strong resolve on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. An MEA statement in Parliament last week ruled out declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism because “India has diplomatic relations with Pakistan and such a declaration would be contrary to international law.”

A more supine statement is hard to imagine. Unless Pakistan is treated as an outlaw nation – and diplomatic relations downgraded – its proxy terrorists will keep on killing Indian soldiers and civilians on Indian soil. Last week’s LoC violations and terrorist attack in J&K underscore Pakistan’s intent to continue using terrorism as a lever to bring India to the negotiating table. American senators have shown greater resolve in tackling the threat Pakistan poses. Ted Poe, who heads the House of Representatives’ sub-committee on terrorism and non-proliferation, co-wrote an op-ed last week: “Something must change in our dealings with a terrorist-supporting, irresponsible nuclear-weapons state (Pakistan), and it must change soon.”

For India that change must begin by showing far greater firmness with Pakistan (and the World Bank) on the IWT in Lahore later this week. Other diplomatic, economic and military measures to punish Pakistan for its undeclared war on India must follow. If they don’t, Indian soldiers and civilians will continue to die at the hands of Pakistan-funded terrorists. A team of Indian parliamentarians, led by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, is currently attending a 40-nation Asian Parliamentary Assembly in Murree, 30 km from Islamabad. Does this represent a thaw? It should not. Murree was the same picturesque resort where India’s top security officials were deliberately rendered incommunicado in “no-network” Murree on November 26, 2008, by the ISI during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. Tharoor and his co-delegates Swapan Dasgupta and Meenakshi Lekhi, in Murree this week, should keep Pakistan’s perfidy firmly in mind.

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Modi's historic win shows India is rising above caste and communal politics
The BJP's massive mandate in Uttar Pradesh is a double-edged sword.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Two years ago, the Indian Express frontpaged Yakub Memon's hanging with this headline: "And They hanged Yakub Memon."

Who were "They"? Clearly the heartless State and the amorphous Indian who thought Memon (a terrorist convicted by the Supreme Court, after several years of hearings, witness testimonies, forensic evidence and repeated appeals, for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial terror attack which killed 257 people) was guilty as charged.

The headline and the story that followed implied that the State had erred grievously. Memon was a victim, not a terrorist.

"They" were the majority. The "others", who defended Memon, even forcing an unprecedented post-midnight Supreme Court hearing to appeal against Memon's hanging, were the conscientious minority: many of them routinely defend Maoists, call for Kashmir's independence from India and contest Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of a "New India" following his historic Uttar Pradesh election victory.

The defenders of Memon form a disparate cabal: high-minded public intellectuals with ideas mired in the Fabian 1930s; Left-leaning NGOs who outrage selectively, rarely standing up, for example, for the rights of Kashmiri pandits; Islamist clerics who issue fatwas against Muslim women's long battle to outlaw the medieval practice of triple talaq; and journalists who have long fed off crumbs of Lutyens' Delhi tables.

It is this hoary cabal that is most devastated by Modi's rout of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.

Just as they did not read the public anger against Yakub Memon, this cabal has misread Modi for three years.

But what of Modi himself?

After his historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, he spoke on Sunday, March 12, of a "new India", of an inclusive society and being a government for all, not just for those who voted for the BJP.

And yet there is not a single Muslim from the BJP in UP's new state Assembly. But then it's only when such religious distinctions are consigned to history that UP and India will be truly secular.

In a modern society only merit, not religion, caste, gender or lineage, should matter.

Hindu hyper-nationalism, too, needs to be damped down. Building a Ram temple based on the long-pending Supreme Court verdict is fine. Establishing a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is fine.

Fighting alongside Muslim women to outlaw triple talaq is fine.

What isn't fine is scaremongering about Muslims in India becoming the largest majority in the world. A recent international research report on this has been mangled in its interpretation.

Social media has gone viral with "statistics" claiming that by 2040 Hindus will be a minority in India.

Here are the facts:

According to the 2011 Indian Census, Muslims comprise 17.22 crore of India's 121-crore population. Christians constitute 2.78 crore and Hindus 96.62 crore.

The rest are Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and others.

In 2040 India's population, according to credible global and Indian projections, is estimated to be 150 crore.

It will have the following break-up: Hindus: 114 crore; Muslims: 28 crore; Christians: 3 crore; the rest: 5 crore.

This assumes a net Hindu birth rate-death rate differential of 1 per cent (2 per cent birth rate minus 1 per cent death rate) and a double net Muslim birth rate-death rate differential of 2 per cent (3 per cent birth rate minus 1 per cent death rate).

Despite the scaremongering, and Muslims' much higher birth rate, 28 crore Muslims will still comprise only 18.50 per cent of India's population of 150 crore in 2040 while 114 crore Hindus (excluding Jains) will constitute 76 per cent and 3 crore Christians 2 per cent.

However, if Muslim education levels improve by 2040, birth rates in the community will fall.

The number of Muslims in 2040 too could decline from an estimated 28 crore to around 26 crore - 17 per cent of India's total population in 2040.

Those who circulate false projections of Muslim population ratios by 2040 to alarm Hindus are promoting communalism by fear, not secularism - real secularism seeks to integrate, not segregate.

Modi has understood this as his "New India" speech clearly demonstrated. Many of his followers have not.

Modi is already looking at 2022, independent India's 75th anniversary, sending a subliminal message that the 2019 Lok Sabha election is a done deal.

It isn't of course.

Two years is an eternity in politics. The BJP's massive mandate in Uttar Pradesh is a double-edged sword.

If its state government doesn't perform on law and order, jobs, power, infrastructure, and rural distress, it will have no one but itself to blame. 2019 will suddenly look more challenging than it does today.

Apart from the communal SP and Congress who have made a career of appeasing but not empowering Muslims, the biggest losers in the UP election were large sections of the mainstream media.

Ground reportage predicting a BJP rout due to demonetisation was inaccurate and biased. Some famous bylines will find it hard to recover what is left of their reputations.

Credibility is the only currency a journalist has. Once lost, it never comes back.

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Why India's 'basket of deplorables' loves to hate Modi
The real target of DU students protests against 'stifling of dissent' is the growing ascendancy of BJP that threatens the established order.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech in Kochi last week was twisted out of shape by the media. Primetime news anchors, eyes glinting ominously, said the president had warned against growing intolerance.

They highlighted this part of the president’s long speech: “I do not consider a society or state to be civilised if its citizens’ behaviour towards women is uncivilised. When we brutalise a woman, we wound the soul of our civilisation. Not only does our Constitution guarantee equal rights to women but our culture and tradition also celebrate the feminine as divine. Protection and safety of our women and children must be a nationwide priority. The acid test of any society is its attitude towards women and children. India should not fail this test.”

Every word of this rings true. But most sections of the media did not highlight the rest of what the President said: “Universities must engage in reasoned discussion and debate rather than propagate a culture of unrest.”

President Mukherjee was telling the protesting students of Delhi University (DU) to stop turning universities into hotbeds of anarchy. The cabal of quasi-intellectuals though again raised the war cry: India has become intolerant; there is no room for dissent; freedom of speech is under threat; democracy is being subverted; nationalists are jingoists; nationalism is the pathway to fascism.

Students of DU, led by the Left, AAP and Congress, marched raucously against curtailment of their freedoms. They did not realise that their march contradicted everything they were protesting against. They spoke freely against the government. They exercised all the freedoms citizens in democracies enjoy. And yet they protested angrily that India was an intolerant, unfree country. The irony escaped them entirely.

The real target of the Left-AAP-Congress protests against “intolerance and the stifling of dissent” is the growing ascendancy of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government that threatens the established order. For nearly 70 years, politicians, journalists, intellectuals and industrialists formed a cosy clique. They called themselves the elite. There was little dissent.

How could there be? Members of the clique, despite cosmetic ideological differences, were cut from the same cloth. The British had gone, but their worst habits stayed: classism, snobbery, elitism. Emergency came and went. Indira Gandhi sent thousands of journalists, activists and Opposition leaders to jail without trial.

But as one of the founder-members of the crony elite, Mrs Gandhi is today regarded by some as India’s best ever prime minister, not the subverter of Indian democracy during 21 months of the fascist Emergency.

As the years rolled by, governments too came and went. The BJP took office in 1998. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was cut in a Nehruvian mould. He admired dynasty. He was not the man to rock the boat. The Congress nodded in satisfaction. The crony elite was safe: out of office, but in power.

Then it all changed. The son of a mother who washed others’ utensils, and of a father who sold tea, became the prime minister. Worse, Narendra Modi had the effrorentry to mock the crony elite and especially its reigning family, the Gandhis. That was intolerable.

Students of history and media will notice that India became an intolerant society suddenly on May 16, 2014. Not during Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency. Not during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Not during the banning by Rajiv Gandhi of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. India became intolerant only after Modi became PM.

So intolerant that he allowed Arvind Kejriwal to call him a psychopath and coward without a word in recrimination. Mullahs issued fatwas to behead Modi. They did so freely, again and again, without fear or fetter. And yet the crony elite, furious with Modi for usurping their decades-old power, parroted the fiction that freedom in India was being threatened, dissent stifled, democracy endangered.

Large swathes of media, corrupt and intellectually lazy, amplified this fraudulent message. They picked stray cases to prove it: first, Kanhaiya Kumar, now Gurmehar Kaur. In Gurmehar’s case, the media cynically conflated the unacceptable online abuse and threats of violence against a martyr’s daughter with alarmist warnings of a general breakdown of law and order across India which of course was nonsense.

Gurmehar’s case has two elements. Both need to be treated separately. The first is online threats of rape. It doesn’t matter who the culprit is (his identity is still under investigation). Online abuse and threats of violence are a criminal offence. Punish them under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The second element in Gurmehar’s case, unconnected with the first, is whether as an alleged AAP supporter she was politically motivated to target the BJP’s often hopelessly witless student wing, ABVP. But even if she was, she is only guilty of deception by not making full disclosure of her political affiliation while appearing to be apolitical during her protest.

That’s not a crime. The threat to rape is.

Meanwhile, the death of Lance Naik Roy Mathew after a sting operation by a journalist for a website, designed to entrap him, shows how standards in Indian journalism have fallen. That’s what being handmaidens to a crony elite — India’s “basket of deplorables” — does to journalism: it sucks away both intelligence and integrity.

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Why Akhilesh Yadav may have paved the way for BJP to win UP polls
The chief minister has already done much of the BJP’s work to alienate non-Yadav and non-Dalit Hindus.
Wednesday, March 01, 2017

In an otherwise impeccable electoral campaign, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has possibly made two "fatal" errors.

The first was to over-emphasise the Samajwadi Party’s traditional appeal to Muslims. This has set off a counter-polarisaition backlash.

Non-Yadav Hindu voters are increasingly disillusioned with the SP’s pro-Muslim tilt. Most people admire the development work Akhilesh Yadav has done, especially in the past two years. The roads in urban Uttar Pradesh are smoother, many villages get 18 hours of electricity, thuggish SP MLAs have been refused tickets, and anti-incumbency has been deftly off-loaded on uncle Shivpal Yadav.

And yet, across UP’s caste and religion fault lines, barring Yadavs and Muslims, the feeling in these elections, as the homestretch approaches, is that a “Hindu backlash” could upend Akhilesh.

The BJP has been accused of polarising the UP elections. And it has. But critics forget that UP was first polarised by the SP and the Congress.

Muslim polarisation is not what the middle-class English-language media likes to dwell on. The 1985-86 Shah Bano case was the Congress’ contribution to creating a communal divide in Hindu-Muslim relations, leading to a revival of the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya and culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

The polarisation the Congress set into motion in 1985 was gleefully grasped by the BJP, then only a five-year-old party.

Hindu polarisation followed.
In Uttar Pradesh today, the same sequence is playing out. For decades the SP has used Muslim polarisation to supplement its Yadav vote bank and secure a voteshare above 30 per cent. Without the Muslim vote, the SP would get less than 75 seats in the UP assembly.

But just as the Congress went too far nationally as a party that appeased the Muslims, losing vast swathes of Hindu votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the SP has flogged its Muslim vote bank so hard for so long that fierce Hindu polarisation has set in.

The BJP only had to promise a ban on slaughter houses to deepen the Hindu-Muslim divide. The SP had already done much of the BJP’s work to alienate non-Yadav and non-Dalit Hindus.

A rainbow coalition of Hindus has now emerged in an arc from the non-Yadav OBCs and MBCs to Thakurs and Brahmins. Mayawati’s Dalit-Muslim vote base may not be enough to change the electoral math.

Writing in the Indian Express, Deeptiman Tiwary points out perceptively: “Brahmins, Vaishyas, Thakurs, Rajputs, Shakya-Kushwahas, Koeris, Dhobis, Mallahs and even Jatavs, all may agree that Akhilesh has brought in development, that he is a good man, But that may not translate into a vote for the Samajwadi Party. Instead, many of them say they will vote for the Samajwadi Party candidate only if they think he will deliver on local needs and expectations.

“It is a nuanced difference but a vital one. In effect it means that all Akhilesh has achieved after his very public spat with the party old guard, and rebranding himself, is to dent the anti-incumbency among his core voters. On the ground, there is little evidence to show that he has been able to swing the fence-sitters to his side in any significant way.  So a 26-year-old Ishan Bajpayee in Kanpur says he admires the work done by Akhilesh and is impressed by his dynamism. But the young hotel management graduate and cruise bike enthusiast doesn’t like the SP-BSP’s consistent Muslim pitch. He says he will vote for the BJP.” 

As always, in UP nothing can be taken at face value, writes Tiwary: “At an Etawah tea shop, a Lodh Rajput voter says that it used to take more than three hours to reach Kanpur but now it takes just over two due to the roads built by Akhilesh. Jeetendra Yadav says that’s why all are voting for SP and despite the family feud the party will win. But when Yadav leaves, Rajput says his community has decided to vote for the BJP.”

Tactical error
The second error Akhilesh made was to allocate to the Congress as many as 105 seats. The original polariser, the Congress, now falls between two stools. Its erstwhile Muslim vote bank has lost faith in it and defected to the SP. Hindus, deeply resentful of its pro-Muslim bias, have deserted it for the BJP.   

The Congress’ strike rate in these elections is therefore unlikely to be much higher than 25 per cent. Sensing this, Priyanka Gandhi has stayed away from active campaigning, confining herself to two token appearances in her family’s pocket borough of Amethi lest defeat tarnish her image as the Congress’ last trump card in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

If the Congress ends up with just 25 seats, Akhilesh will need to win over 175 seats of the 298 the SP is contesting to secure a majority in the assembly. That represents a strike rate of nearly 60 per cent (175/298) and is improbable given the strong communal polarisation the SP-Congress ironically foisted on UP over the decades and which the BJP has cynically deepened during this election. 

Even if the SP achieves a strike rate of 50 per cent in its 298 seats, it will end up with around 150 seats. Add the Congress’ 25 seats and the alliance’s tally of 175 will fall tantalisingly short of a simple majority.

Had Akhilesh held firm and allocated around 60-70 seats to the Congress, as he originally intended, leaving 340-odd seats for the SP, the alliance could still have scraped through. It might still do so, though the odds have turned against it in the second half of the UP campaign.

The dangers of excessive "minorityism" was underscored last week by the results of civic elections across Maharashtra. The Congress and the NCP’s Muslim vote bank has been split by small Muslim-only parties like the AIMIM.

In Mumbai, the BJP and the Shiv Sena collectively accounted for an extraordinary near-75 per cent (166/227) of the seats in the BMC, wiping out the NCP and marginalising the Congress — both victims of pro-minority polarisation that backfired on them with the majority coalescing around the BJP and the Shiv Sena. 

The echo from Mumbai — and the rest of Maharashtra where the BJP last week swept the Opposition aside — may carry all the way into the heartland of Uttar Pradesh.

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Physician, Heal Thyself
Stents represent the tip of the iceberg: over-charging has become endemic in private hospitals

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In global surveys to rank professionals that the public trusts most, doctors and teachers top the list. Politicians and journalists rank at the bottom – but that’s another story. 

Scratch beneath the surface though and a different picture emerges. Over the years, medicine has become commercialised. Big pharma is big business. In the United States, some high-priced essential drugs are beyond the means of middle-class Americans. 

In India too, a storm is brewing. Over the past year, several key drugs have been placed under price control. But what has drawn battlelines between the government and the paying public on one side and pharma companies, hospitals and doctors on the other is the new price controls imposed on medical stents. 

Anyone who has had the misfortune of needing heart surgery knows that the price of medical stents was extortionist. Depending on quality, stents (which are used to unblock vascular arteries) cost up to Rs. 2 lakh. Few patients were aware that their actual cost was a fraction of this. 

The mark-up begins with the distributor. But it is hospitals that make a killing, marking up stent prices by as much as 600 per cent. 

As the Indian Express noted on February 22, 2017: “After analysing the margins or profit of various players involved in the stents trade, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has found that they were ‘exorbitant and irrational’, indicating ‘vulgar profiteering’ by every player but mainly by hospitals. While the average maximum margin for manufactures on a commonly used drug-eluting stent (DES) was 27 per cent, the distributors and hospitals were earning an average maximum margin of 196 per cent and 654 per cent on it, respectively.” 

The government has moved swiftly to end this daylight robbery. The NPPA has capped the price of bare metal stents (BMS) at Rs. 7,260 and of drug-eluting stents and biodegradable stents at Rs. 29,600. 

In future too, hospitals have been instructed to itemise separately the price charged to patients for stents. Hospitals and doctors have been reluctant to follow the new guidelines which substantially reduce their bottomlines. But the recent filing of an FIR against several well-known hospitals for non-compliance (many are continuing to over-charge patients) seems to have brought prices down in most medical institutes. 

Stents represent the tip of the iceberg: over-charging has become endemic in private hospitals. Every time a specialist visits a patient, upscale hospitals add up to Rs. 5,000 for a one-minute chat and cursory examination. 

Worse, doctors often recommend far more laboratory tests than a patient requires. On each over-charged test (MRI, ECG, blood, thyroid, liver function, etc), doctors, labs and hospitals share hefty margins. 

Pharma companies add to the mix by sponsoring doctors’ foreign trips to medical conferences while pitching their own formulations. Some doctors feel obliged to prescribe expensive brands over generic drugs that retail at a fraction of the price. The government last week said it planned to end this practice as well. 

Not all doctors and not all hospitals are guilty. Sadly though, many are. The new NPPA order on stents is only the first step to reform our health sector. India won global admiration when local pharma companies like Cipla sold AIDS medicines in Africa at $1 a shot, a fraction of the price Western pharma firms were charging the poor in Africa. The Serum Institute of India too has done outstanding work in providing inexpensive vaccines in developing counties. 

These are the examples India’s healthcare industry needs to draw inspiration from by putting patients above profit.

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Why I fear Kashmir will see its deadliest summer in 2017
Stone-pelters have already employed a lethal new tactic to help Pakistan-sponsored jihadis.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

As the snow melts along the mountain ridges that lead into the Kashmir Valley, the summer of 2017 could be the troubled state’s deadliest yet. Stone-pelters have already employed a lethal new tactic to help Pakistan-sponsored jihadis. Last week several jawans and a major were killed by terrorists even as stone-pelters harried the army’s counter-terrorism operation, allowing militants to escape into safe havens across the border.

Chief of army staff General Bipin Rawat said Kashmiri youths creating hurdles in counter-terrorism operations or displaying Pakistani or ISIS flags would be treated as anti-national: “Those supporting terror activities are being given an opportunity to join the national mainstream but if they continue with their acts, security forces will come down hard on them.”

On cue, the Opposition undermined the army. Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad warned Gen Rawat instead of warning the stone-pelters or their paymasters in Islamabad: “To threaten Kashmiri youth like this is unjustified. The government is to be blamed for the situation in Kashmir.”

 As winter gives way to spring in April and then to summer, the stone-pelters will be out in full force. They will again confront the Indian army. The failure to control the Pakistan-sponsored mobs last summer rests at least partly with Jammu and Kashmir’s PDP-BJP government. The opposite poles in the coalition do not agree on how to deal with the violent stone pelters. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti favours an accommodative line while the BJP wants tougher measures. But with an anaemic deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh, it has been unable to impose its will.

An under-prepared army last summer used pellet guns on mobs which attacked army bunkers, severely wounding and blinding many protesters. The subsequent invective of Opposition politicians, especially from the National Conference, against Indian security forces played into the narrative of Pakistan’s ISI which choreographs violent protests in the Valley.

According to the Indian army, “at least 25 terrorist have escaped the army dragnet during a dozen anti-terror operations over the last one year due to direct interference from stone-pelting mobs.” A senior army officer added: “They include the encounters at Frisal and Hajan on February 12 and 14, in which, though five terrorists were killed, four managed to escape. Six soldiers, including a major, were also martyred in Frisal, Hajan and another encounter at Handwara.”

Gen Rawat was chosen as army chief, superseding Gen Praveen Bakshi, largely due to his experience in counter-terrorism operations in Kashmir and along the Line of Control (LoC). In his first two months as army chief, Gen Rawat says he tried to adopt a “people-friendly manner”. Stonepelting mobs helping terrorists escape by using diversionary tactics have, however, led to a spike in fatalities among jawans. In a change of tactics Gen Rawat has vowed to “pursue them relentlessly”.

The PDP-BJP government’s handling of the violence in the Valley has been disappointing but entirely predictable. The two parties are ideological foes. The PDP is a soft separatist party, the BJP a nationalist party but with deeply polarizing elements in its hierarchy. An alliance between the two is a misfit in governing a complex state like J&K.

As I wrote previously: “Will the PDPBJP marriage of convenience survive Mehbooba’s pro-separatist ideology? In the long-term, a Mehbooba-led PDPBJP government is unlikely to overcome its constituent parties’ inherent ideological contradictions.”

The Centre is not blameless either. The funds promised after Kashmir’s devastating floods have still not been released. Since Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died in January 2016, governance in J&K has meandered. Mehbooba continues to play a double game. Her government has finally proposed a scheme (which amounts to no more than a pilot project) to resettle around 40,000 Kashmiri Pandits on designated lands in the Valley.

Even if the scheme takes off — and separatist violence will ensure it won’t — the sheer number of Kashmiri Pandits displaced since 1989 (well over 4,00,000) makes resettlement plausible only when the Valley’s creeping Islamisation is reversed.

Pakistan, beset with resurgent terrorism on its own soil, and uncertain about the Trump administration’s stand on terrorism in south-central Asia, will use J&K to befuddle the Trump White House as it did the Obama and Bush administrations.

Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, has been lobbying furiously with the White House to soften its perceived anti-Pakistan bias. She has predictably blamed violence in J&K as a destabilising force in the region, tracing the root cause to the “failure of India to hold a plebiscite in the Valley as the UN requires it to.”

As Lodhi knows perfectly well, the UN does not require India to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir till every last Pakistani soldier vacates Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. She is hoping the Trump administration will ignore this pre-condition at the core of the August 1948 UN resolution.

It is the Modi government’s job to make sure Washington takes cognizance not only of the August 1948 UN resolution on J&K but also Pakistan’s terror factories that continue to churn out jihadis. The US has called Pakistan “the most dangerous country for the world”. That is a fine distinction from calling it the “most dangerous country in the world” along with several others in the Middle East. It is time to put Pakistan, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s phrase, in the same basket of deplorables.

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Why Pakistan is under siege on four fronts
India has the best opportunity to reset its foreign policy.
Wednesday, Februay 22, 2017

Pakistan is under siege on four fronts. First, the terrorists it has for decades bred to attack India are coming home to roost. Over the past 10 days assorted jihadi groups have struck Pakistan as many as eight times.

Second, the Islamic State (ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the devastating attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Sufi shrine in Sindh, now poses a real threat to Pakistan.

Third, the Trump White House has emitted mixed signals on its future Af-Pak strategy. The state department announced last week that it would support Pakistan’s “fight against terrorism”, parroting the post-9/11 Bush-Obama line that treats Islamabad as a victim of terror rather that a perpetrator. The bad news for Islamabad though is that the White House is set to favour a much tougher line overall on Pakistan, stopping short of designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The fourth and most worrying problem for Islamabad is the near-complete breakdown in its fraught relationship with Afghanistan. Following the ISIS terror attack on the Sufi shrine, which Pakistan blames on ISIS safe havens in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army for the first time launched strikes on militant bases on Afghan soil last Friday (February 17). The strikes are continuing with heavy artillery and mortar being deployed.

According to reports from Islamabad, “Four camps of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar terror group were targeted in the strikes across the border of Pakistan’s Khyber and Mohmand tribal agencies. An official said the security forces used heavy weapons and mortar shells to hit several training centres of Omar Khalid Khorasani, the head of the Jamaat-ul Ahrar group. People living near Landikotal in Khyber Agency were asked to vacate their houses to avoid collateral damage. Some reports (since disputed) said that several militants, including the deputy commander of Jamaat-ul Ahrar, Adil Bacha, were killed in the strikes.”  

Pakistan is now beset by terror groups on all sides. The recent attack on senior police personnel in the centre of Lahore killed over a dozen people. The strike on the Sufi shrine was even deadlier, killing 88 people. Other terror attacks in the past 10 days have been carried out by jihadi groups which are affiliates of ISIS, Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and several breakaway terrorist factions.

Pakistan which since 1989 had converted itself into a factory exporting terror has created an enabling and self-perpetuating ecosystem of terrorism. If you want to learn how to wage jihad, Pakistan is your university of choice.

The irony of the Pakistan army’s strike on terror safe havens in Afghanistan cannot have been lost on Islamabad. For years it has given sanctuary, arms, money and training to jihadi groups attacking Afghanistan. Its objective: browbeat Afghanistan into being its vassal state to give Islamabad strategic depth in its proxy terror war against India.  

The tables have turned. Afghanistan is now giving sanctuary to terror groups attacking Pakistan. Islamabad has accused Kabul of doing exactly what it has done to Afghanistan and India for decades: providing safe havens to terrorists.

After the terror attack on the Sufi shrine in Sindh, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan were “testing our current policy of cross-border restraint.”

The words could have been taken straight out of Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat’s mouth.

Pak policy reset
With Islamabad under pressure from multiple sources — Kabul, Washington and a mélange of terror groups — India has the opportunity to reset its Pakistan policy. National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s recent under-the-radar meeting with the Russian leadership in Moscow got India included in the regional peace conference on Afghanistan hosted by Russia last week.

In an insightful piece in Forbes on February 17, 2017, Anders Corr wrote: “Russia barred the US from the Afghanistan peace conference held in Moscow on Wednesday (February 17), much to the consternation of Afghanistan. The peace conference was surrounded with public recriminations. Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are on one side, and Afghanistan and India are on the other. Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have supported the Taliban. China had direct talks with the Taliban last year, and its military vehicles have recently been spotted in Afghanistan. Russia says support of the Taliban will counter the Islamic State, which is the more dangerous foe. But such support will really just weaken the current elected government of Afghanistan.

“The citizens of Afghanistan will (then) lose their relatively secular government in exchange for more violence, the old fundamentalist Islamic government of the Taliban, or both. It will also be a very public failure of the US and NATO. The Taliban are known for their opium trade, harsh laws against women, and blowing up of massive ancient Buddhist statues during their rule from 1996 to 2001. It is unfortunate that Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan prefer to side with the Taliban, rather than support the elected Afghan government.”

It was Russia (then the Soviet Union) that laid the foundation for militancy in Afghanistan by invading the country in 1979. It withdrew in 1989, beaten by CIA-trained Afghan militants who later formed the nucleus of the Taliban in the early 1990s under the watchful gaze of prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Afghanistan has been benighted ever since.

The Russia-China-Iran-Pakistan convergence of mala fide interests in Afghanistan can be countered only if the US, NATO, India and Afghanistan form a counter strategy. Once ISIS is evicted from Syria and Iraq, it will move lock, stock and barrel into Pakistan which, like a magnet, attracts jihadis of all stripes.

Pakistan propagates the fiction, with the help of China (and increasingly Russia and Iran), that the Taliban is an antidote to ISIS and should therefore be part of the Afghan government. Because of their rivalry with the US and NATO, Russia, China and Iran swallow this fiction.

Indian foreign policy faces its sternest test in Af-Pak. It must not blink. Nor should the US. And, most of all, nor should the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani.

Also read: Why Pakistan fails to eliminate terrorism in its backyard

Also read: Why Pakistan fails to eliminate terrorism in its backyard

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Melting pot to molten pot In Trump, US has got just the president it deserves
America's treatment of its original inhabitants (indigenous Indians) and the wars it has waged in Asia, Middle East and South America deserve a volume of its own.
Friday, February 17, 2017

Former United States ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith famously called New York the world’s melting pot. “Never before in history,” Galbraith declared, “had so many people of such varied languages, customs, colours and culinary habits lived so amicably together.”

New York is a microcosm of the United States, the world’s melting pot. Every American is essentially an immigrant. The only exceptions are indigenous Indians who have been in North America for several thousand years and now lead deprived lives in reservations across the country.

President Donald Trump himself is of British-German descent. His father Frederick was from a German family in Bavaria, originally called Trumpf, which immigrated to America in 1885. The irony couldn’t be richer.

Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod, came from a Scottish island. Mary immigrated to the US in 1930 to find work as a nanny. She met and married co-émigré Frederick Trump six years later.

Being anti-immigrant is never a good political strategy in America. Trump won the presidential election not on an anti-immigration plank but on an anti-refugee plank. His “Muslim” travel ban, dismissed by an appeals court, was poorly thought out and abysmally executed.

Trump is planning to issue a new executive order for a less over-arching travel ban. The courts will come into play once again, distracting attention from an issue that has been clouded by Trump’s recklessness.

That issue of course is terrorism. Terrorists claiming refugee status have poured into Europe, especially Germany which has taken in one million refugees fleeing the brutal sectarian wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Trump was lifted to victory in the presidential election by a tide of anger among whites (including, contrary to popular fiction, educated whites and white women) against what they saw as “reverse racism”.

Their jobs were being outsourced, black and Hispanic crime was driving them away from urban centres, school violence had spiked, civic standards were falling and infrastructure was crumbling. Trump, however, made the classical mistake of believing that inflammatory campaign rhetoric can morph into presidential governance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (to whom Trump is erroneously compared) did not make that mistake. He did not let his election rhetoric seep into governance.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, Modi threatened to jail the Gandhis and Robert Vadra. As prime minister he has done nothing except repeat the rhetoric during the current Assembly elections (“Congress should hold its tongue, I have its entire janam patri”). Rhetoric in India remains confined to electioneering.

On Pakistan too, Modi breathed fire and brimstone during the 2014 general election. And yet his first move after winning the election was to invite Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony.

In contrast, Trump has behaved like a bull in a China shop, making America a molten pot of seething internal conflicts. The sacking of National Security Adviser (NSA) General Michael Flynn over sensitive pre-inauguration discussions with the Russians exposes cleavages within Trump’s cabinet and White House staff over a raft of issues, including immigration, the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and relations with Russia.

In an extraordinary and combative press conference at the White House on Thursday, February 16, Trump again accused the US media of being “dishonest”. He said it had a political agenda: to make it difficult for America to repair its relationship with Russia by publishing leaks from mid-level intelligence officials (holdovers from the Obama administration) on General Flynn’s contacts with the Russians.

Strength in diversity
America’s greatest strength is its diversity (as is India’s). In an interesting article in Business Standard, Farhad Manjoo embellishes this point well: “If you want to understand why tech employees went to the mat against Mr Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, you need to first understand the crucial role that America’s relatively open immigration policies play in the tech business. And you need to understand why people in tech see something cataclysmic in Trump’s executive order, and in the other immigration crackdowns waiting in the wings: the end of America’s standing as a beacon for the world’s best inventors.”

Silicon Valley attracts the brightest minds because it welcomes people from all over the world. Religion does not matter. Colour does not matter. Nationality does not matter. Sexual orientation does not matter. Gender does not matter.

What does matter is grey matter. Merit is the official religion of Silicon Valley. America’s diversity was built over centuries by defying discrimination.

Catholic immigrants suffered great prejudice at the hands of the Protestant majority. The sectarian intra-Christian prejudice was so deeply embedded that America elected its first Catholic president only in 1960: John F Kennedy. Immigrants of Irish descent (like President Kennedy) were discriminated against through the 19th century.

The waves of Italian immigrants (all Catholic) during that period too were subjected to prejudice and name calling. Blacks of course had neither the right to vote nor in the deep south, even liberty.

It took the civil rights movement in the 1960s to give African-Americans the same rights the high-minded American Constitution guaranteed all Americans.

America’s treatment of its original inhabitants (indigenous Indians) and the wars it has waged in Asia, the Middle East and South America deserve a historical volume of its own.

A new book by Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, reveals the gory details of how the US has killed millions of civilians around the world.

In a review of the book, The Economist writes: “The bombing of Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s always used to be referred to as America’s ‘secret war’. This was not just a mistake or even a misunderstanding: it was a terrible misnomer. For the Laotians who cowered in caves to escape what is considered the heaviest bombardment in history, the campaign was certainly not a secret. The American air force unleashed an average of one attack every eight minutes for nearly ten years. By 1970 tens of thousands of American-backed fighters were involved, at an annual cost of $3.1 billion in today’s dollars. By the time the campaign ended in 1973, a tenth of Laos’ population had been killed. Thousands more accidental deaths would follow from unexploded bombs left in the soil.” 

Given its violent past, America has perhaps, in Anglo-German Trump, got just the president it deserves.  

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The Post-Truth Budget
There are two arrows left in the finance minister’s quiver... the huge amount of black money deposited... (and) the goods and services tax

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Like most post-truths, Union Budgets tend to hide more than they reveal. The 2017-18 Budget was no exception. Since its strengths and weaknesses have been debated ad nauseam over the past fortnight, I’ll stick to interesting micro-numbers that once extrapolated, can provide clues to this government’s political and economic priorities. 

First, the bad news. The government spends 25 per cent of its annual Budget outlay on interest payments. In 2017-18, out of the Budget’s total size of Rs 21.47 lakh crore (up from last year’s Rs 19.78 lakh crore), Rs 5.23 lakh crore will be eaten up by servicing India’s domestic and external debt. 

Defence, meanwhile, gets Rs 2.62 lakh crore, a little more than last year. This though, is still barely two per cent of India’s GDP (Rs 150 lakh crore). But the bigger worry is that a major chunk of the defence budget goes into salaries and overheads, leaving little for modernising weapons systems across the Army, Navy and Air Force. 

Health and family welfare fare worse. They have been allocated Rs 0.49 lakh crore. Subsidies continue to receive nearly 12 per cent of the Budget at 
Rs 2.40 lakh crore. 

Agriculture gets Rs 0.57 lakh crore, while rural development receives Rs 1.29 lakh crore. The Rs 48,000 crore allocation for MGNREGA too, in real inflation-adjusted terms, is only a smidgen above allocations made in 2008-09. 

On the receipt side, there is a welcome surge in personal income tax revenue (Rs 4.41 lakh crore), a rise of 25 per cent over last year’s revenue of Rs 3.53 lakh crore. Corporation tax though, has only edged up by nine per cent from Rs 4.93 lakh crore to Rs 5.39 lakh crore, indicating a slow pick-up in corporate earnings — a worrying sign for the government. Service tax has risen more smartly — by 20 per cent — from Rs 2.31 lakh crore to Rs 2.75 lakh crore, while customs and excise revenue have ticked along at a growth of nearly 18 per cent. 

Beyond numbers though, lies a fundamental question: what is the broad economic philosophy of this government? We have already had four Budgets from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, including the interim Budget in July 2014, two months after the BJP-led NDA government took office. 

Several clues have since emerged. First, Jaitley is a cautious finance minister who believes in incremental, not big-bang, reforms. The only big-bang fiscal event in the past 33 months of the government’s tenure has been demonetisation — a move spearheaded by the Prime Minister, not the Finance Minister. 

The second clue is that Jaitley has a lawyerly approach to economic and tax policy. He has not yet repealed former finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee’s noxious retrospective tax because there are ongoing legal arbitrations which, he says, must wind their way through the judicial process. Such a tortuous, counterfactual defence of retrospective tax will please few except its author, President Mukherjee. 

Even the UPA’s former finance minister, P. Chidambaram (Mukherjee’s predecessor and successor as finance minister) has called for the abolition of retrospective taxation. This piece of draconian legislation only helps lawyers as cases wind their way interminably through the rusted legal machinery. Meanwhile, the retro tax greatly damages India’s global reputation as an investment destination with coherent tax laws. 

The third clue the 2017-18 Union Budget has thrown up is that many ministries are poorly administered. The defence ministry hasn’t spent its entire budget designated for weapons acquisitions, leading to a Rs 7,000 crore unspent corpus. Shockingly, too, the small Rs 1,000 crore Nirbhaya fund for women’s safety, remains largely unspent. 

The good news is that pilferage in the public distribution system (PDS) has reduced with the widespread use of Aadhaar’s biometrics technology. The government has meanwhile, kept the fiscal deficit to 3.2 per cent, balancing increased public expenditure with fiscal prudence. The current account deficit (CAD) is down to 1.9 per cent, largely on account of soft oil prices (though they are on the rise again) and lower gold imports.

Since the Railway Budget was subsumed in the Union Budget for the first time, it has received little attention. There is a 22 per cent rise in budgetary allocation, much of it devoted to building new railway infrastructure and enhancing safety, given the recent spate of train accidents. 
The construction of bio-toilets sits well with the government’s Swachh Bharat initiative. The proposed listing of IRCTC, IRFC and IRCON will unlock further resources to fund Indian Railways’ shambolic infrastructure.

The damage done to economic growth by demonetisation has been largely contained, though industrial production has declined and FMCG and retail sales have been hit. This negatively impacts tax revenue, but there are two arrows left in the Finance Minister’s quiver. 

The first is the huge amount of black money deposited between November 9 and December 30 last year. In the Budget, Jaitley put the amount at Rs 10.38 lakh crore out of demonetised notes valued at Rs 15.44 lakh crore, a fact that was under-reported in the media. It is estimated that around Rs 5 lakh crore of these cash deposits represent unaccounted income. 

If Rs 5 lakh crore comes into the formal economy on a recurring basis, India’s abysmally low tax base will grow significantly. Personal income tax revenue in 2017-18 could well beat estimates by Rs 1 lakh crore, shaving up to 0.5 per cent of the targeted fiscal deficit. 

The second arrow in Jaitley’s quiver is the Goods and Services Tax (GST). If GST is implemented as expected in July 2017, there will be a rise in overall indirect tax collections after a short time lag.

Jaitley though has only one more Budget (in February 2018) left. In February 2019, with the Lok Sabha election due in April-May 2019, there will be a vote-on-account Budget rather than a full Budget. 

Jaitley needs to use his last opportunity next February to put GST on an even keel and reduce corporation tax for all companies to 25 per cent as he had pledged two years ago. 

If promises once made are broken, the credibility of the government can erode quickly even in a post-truth world.

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Don't trust Pakistan when it comes to sending terror towards India
Ceasefire violations have reduced significantly since General Bajwa took charge as Pakistan Army chief on November 29, 2016.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Two recent signals have led analysts to believe that Pakistan is rethinking its decades-old strategy of using terrorism against India as an instrument of state policy.

First, the new Pakistan chief of army staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, unlike his India-obsessed predecessor General Raheel Sharif, is seen as less confrontational. Ceasefire violations have reduced significantly since General Bajwa took charge on November 29, 2016.

Snow, however, rather than any dovish policy change is the key factor. Terror infiltration has not reduced significantly, leading credence to the belief that Pakistan’s policy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts remains unaltered.

The second signal comes from the White House: Pakistan was warned through diplomatic channels last month that it could be subjected to international sanctions aimed at stopping terror financing. A rattled Islamabad placed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) founder and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) mentor Hafiz Saeed under house arrest to mollify the Trump administration.

The JuD meanwhile quickly changed its name to Tehreek Azadi Jammu & Kashmir (TAJK) to escape sanctions. Pakistan is mortally afraid of being sanctioned by the US and its allies under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). That would cut terror financing vital to terrorist groups like the LeT. Islamabad may not be in imminent danger of being put on the FATF blacklist (from which it emerged only two years ago) but another terrorist attack on Indian soil traced back to the ISI could tip the balance.

Leopards though don’t change their spots. Pakistan’s interior ministry said defiantly: “Pakistan does not need any certification or endorsement from India over the recent actions it has taken in relation to Hafiz Saeed. India has constantly been using Saeed’s political activities as a tool to malign Pakistan. The international community should take note and understand that Pakistan is a democratic society where the judiciary takes free, independent and transparent decisions.”

Saeed’s arrest (which only amounts to protective custody in a safe house) citied an old UNSC resolution (1267 of December 2008), adopted following the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai. The Bush and Obama administrations turned a blind eye to the UN’s $10 million (Rs 67 crore) bounty on Saeed’s head. Pakistan hopes the Trump administration will do the same. It might be right.

Defence secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis last week in Tokyo called Iran the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Pakistan was not mentioned. That would have pleased Islamabad which has run circles around successive US administrations for nearly 20 years.

Shia Iran is locked in a battle with Sunni Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Middle East. The Islamic State (ISIS) received early funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar before ISIS turned on the Saudi royals, vowing to unseat them.

Pakistan is part of the Saudi orbit. General Raheel Sharif heads the proposed 39-country Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) to fight Islamist terror. Shia Iran, Syria and Iraq are notably absent from the coalition.

By targeting Iran as the principal source of terror, the US defence secretary has given Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both founts of global terror, a free pass. Islamabad’s relief though could be shortlived. While James Mattis is Iran-focused, others in the Trump administration, including National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, know the danger Pakistan poses.

On Tuesday, February 7, the US moved a proposal in the UN to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist. China again blocked it. A concerted bid to name Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism floundered under the Obama White House which flatly refused to consider it.

Congressman Ted Poe, chairman of the sub-committee on terrorism, tabled a bill in September 2016 to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. The bill got nowhere. That could now change. Trump is serious about Islamist terrorism and especially defeating ISIS. The recapture of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto headquarters in Syria, is taking longer than expected. The battle for Mosul in Iraq too is stuck in a quagmire.

As the Trump administration turns its attention east of Iran, it will have to deal with Pakistan’s terror role in Afghanistan and India. Sensing the danger to its transactional friend, China has sent vice foreign minister Cheng Guoping, in charge of external security and terrorism, to Islamabad. Beijing has finally recognised that Pakistan’s terror factory poses a threat to its Muslim province Xinjiang in the northwest as well as to work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Balochistan.

With pressure mounting from Washington and Beijing, Pakistan will be forced to recalibrate its strategy on India. It may reduce terror attacks outside Jammu & Kashmir but continue funding and arming militants in the Valley under the umbrella of freedom fighters. The JuD’s new name, Tehreek Azadi Jammu & Kashmir, is a clear indication of this new strategy.

For India, three responses are necessary. First, liaise closely with the White House to sanction Pakistan. Second, improve the armed forces’ and paramilitaries’ working conditions and equipment. Third, do not be seduced into an early resumption of talks following a few cosmetic arrests of Hafiz Saeed and other JuD/LeT terrorists.

There may be a brief lull in terror attacks against India but for the Pakistani army old habits die hard. Do not trust. Verify.

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Arun Jaitley's 2017 Union Budget raises a cause for worry
Tax terrorism will be BJP’s Waterloo.
Monday, February 6, 2017

A good Union Budget can easily turn sour if, in the name of culling the black economy, the cure becomes worse than the disease.

The proposed cure by the finance ministry involves new search and seizure rules for the Income Tax department that are straight out of Orwellian dystopia.

The fine print of the Finance Bill 2017 that lays out details of the 2017-18 Union Budget does not make for pleasant reading.

First, in search and seizure cases, the assessing officer does not have to provide a reason for the operation.

Worse, the officer can search charitable organisations, again without seeking permission from the principal commissioner as was the case earlier.

The fine print in the Finance Bill 2017, which will be tabled in Parliament, has more such incendiary proposals.

For example, one particularly draconian proposed amendment in the I-T Act permits the assessing officer to order attachment of the assessee’s property for six months after obtaining sanction from a senior officer.

Such wide discretionary powers can – and will – beget abuse.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is instinctively against such abuse that amounts to tax terrorism and defeats the principle of maximum governance, minimum government. His officials in the finance ministry, however, are clearly playing to a different tune and a different conductor.

The prime minister must step in and remove these tax amendments – or accept responsibility for them along with the opprobrium.

Last year’s Union Budget had numerous rollbacks on pension funds, interest rates and EPF withdrawls. The finance ministry hasn’t learnt from those setbacks, which were deeply unpopular with the middle class.

The proposed amendments in the Finance Bill 2017, if enshrined in law, will - like Pranab Mukherjee’s retrospective tax law of 2012 - remain a blot on India’s tax legislation.

On February 4, revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia made a startling admission. He said finance minister Arun Jaitley’s pledge in the 2015-16 Union Budget to cut corporate tax in stages, from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, depended on how much additional revenue was obtained from personal income tax in future. Each one per cent reduction in corporate tax, he said, meant a loss in revenue of around Rs 19,000 crore.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs: the finance minister pledges a tax cut in a Budget speech and two days later his ministry introduces a conditionality. Trust in government is the first casualty.

A conservative Budget
The Union Budget for 2017-18 was a cautious effort to consolidate the economy after the pain of demonetisation. But the return of the Inspector Raj is not an outcome the government needs.

The prime minister has just one year to reset his economic goals. In 2018, he will be immersed in winning difficult elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. All three will encounter strong anti-incumbency headwinds.

Together, the three states account for 65 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 62 of those seats which, along with its performance in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, swept it to a comfortable majority.

With the 2019 Lok Sabha election looming and reverses likely in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2017, the 2018-19 Union Budget next February will be intensely “political”. There will be giveaways, farmer loan waivers and other populist measures.

Elections can sometimes be won on such populism but the economy needs a healthy dose of liberal reform to overcome anti-incumbency. The quality of leadership in the finance ministry has been ambivalent. Several bureaucrats from the UPA regime continue to call the shots.

The implementation of demonetisation was botched by bureaucrats in the finance ministry as well as some in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Thankfully, some of these officials are retiring shortly.

They should have been transferred out of the finance ministry as soon as prime minister Modi took office. An invisible hand has protected them.

The appointment of economist and historian Sanjeev Sanyal as principal economic advisor is a positive indication that Modi has decided, albeit belatedly, to induct top-notch technocrats from the private sector (Sanyal was managing director of Deutsche Bank in Singapore).

After two similar appointments early in his tenure – Arvind Panagariya and Bibek Debroy in Niti Aayog – Modi has relied on political appointees.

That must change. For example, the induction of former editor MJ Akbar as minister of state for external affairs has paid rich dividends. Akbar has made successful trips to the Middle East, met Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad and taken over some of the burden from external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, recovering from a kidney transplant.

Politics vs governance
While politics is about winning elections with the likes of Yogi Adityanath, governance needs domain expertise. The Modi Cabinet lacks it.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has been a disappointment. He is straining at the leash to return to Goa as chief minister (if the BJP wins the Assembly election). Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley have been workmanlike at best. Rajnath Singh as home minister has not brought the robustness his office needs.

In the rest of the Cabinet, those who have shone possess a technocratic or professional background. For example, power minister Piyush Goyal was a Mumbai-based investment advisor and entrepreneur. Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a JNU alumna, was a senior manager in PriceWaterhouseCoopers and worked for the BBC World Service.

The finance ministry needs more specialists like Sanjeev Sanyal. With Arvind Subramanian, the anodyne chief economic advisor (CEA), likely to leave when his term expires in October 2017, Sanyal (who reports to Subramanian) could move up.

More such talented men and women drawn from academia, the professions and the private sector should be inducted in government as it completes three years in office in May 2017.

The de-bureaucratisation of decision-making will make issues like tax terrorism a distant memory as India prepares for the next two intensely political years.

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Modi's moment of truth
There are state polls in 2018... the road to Delhi in 2019 will thus pass through not only Lucknow but Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Raipur and Jaipur

Friday, February 3, 2017

Punjab and Goa go to polls on 4 February. Both have single-phase voting. Attention will then turn to Uttar Pradesh, where voting extends over seven phases from 11 February to 8 March. 

The cliché is that the path to Delhi passes through Lucknow. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not win Uttar Pradesh, according to conventional wisdom, the road to Delhi in 2019 will be blocked. 

Like all nuggets of conventional wisdom, the truth is more complicated. Winning Uttar Pradesh is vital for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two reasons. 

First, it is a quasi-referendum on demonetisation. Uttar Pradesh is a microcosm of India with high levels of rural poverty. Victory in UP will be a vindication of demonetisation, which has been positioned as pro-poor and anti-corruption. Second, UP will test whether the Modi electoral tidal wave, which lifted the BJP to an unprecedented 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State in 2014, has ebbed or not. 

The alliance between Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress could coalesce minority votes around the two dynasts. 11 March, when votes in all five States are counted, will be a moment of truth not only for the Prime Minister but also for the Opposition. Opinion polls project the BJP winning in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa, and the Congress winning in Punjab. Manipur, battling a blockage and an unsettled voting environment, is too close to call. Defections in the Manipur Assembly are rife, even though the State Congress is unlikely to meet the fate of Arunachal Pradesh. 

By projecting himself as a man of the masses, Modi has switched seamlessly from suit-boot sarkar to pro-poor messiah. The makeover has worked so far. Opinion polls show an average of 74 per cent of people across Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa in diverse age and income demographics back demonetisation. 

There is an element of schadenfreude in this: if the rich are suffering, the poor conclude, Modi must be doing something right. This Robin Hood reaction is an indictment of decades of misgovernance that has made the inequality of incomes between rich and poor in India among the highest in the world. 

In 1971 the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi coined the slogan ‘garibi hatao’ to project herself as pro-poor and anti-rich. It worked like a tonic. She won the March 1971 general election in a near-landslide with 352 seats, riding the wave of populism. India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh war later that year enhanced her popularity.

What happened three years later, in 1974 should, however, interest Modi. He was then a 24-year-old pracharak in the RSS. Indira Gandhi, in the eighth year of her prime ministership, was seemingly invincible — but cracks had begun to show. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sarvodaya movement had eroded her credibility. Within a year, it would be destroyed when she declared an Emergency that has historically diminished her stature as a leader. 

Is there an analogy to be drawn with Modi? The short answer: no. 

The non-Congress Opposition has tried to project a similarity between Modi of 2017 and Indira Gandhi of 1975. There is none. When Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, there was little opposition in parliament or within the Congress. Modi in contrast has to deal with a vituperative Opposition that taunts him daily. Elements in his own party, and some even in RSS-affiliated groups, oppose him behind closed doors on a range of issues. 

In Indira Gandhi’s time, especially during the Emergency, the media was a lapdog. Today a broad swathe of the media is (as indeed it should be) a watchdog. It misses no opportunity to mock or eviscerate Modi. 

Indira Gandhi locked up thousands of Opposition leaders, journalists and activists in 1975. Modi has done little to even pursue strong cases of alleged corruption against the Gandhis, Robert Vadra, P. Chidambaram and a host of others in the UPA government, instead allowing the investigations and cases to grind their way through the tortuously slow judicial system. 

However, Modi has proved himself to be the classical disrupter. He has disrupted the cosy consensus in New Delhi’s political establishment where leaders across party lines duelled theatrically in parliament during the day and networked collegially after dusk.

Modi is a loner. He often dines alone at his sprawling three-bungalow residence, briefed daily by a close group of advisors, some drawn from his days as Gujarat chief minister. 

Modi spent the first half of his term resetting India’s foreign policy. He has strengthened defence and strategic cooperation with the United States, befriended the Arab world, used surgical strikes to increase the cost to Pakistan of terrorism and followed an act-East policy with Japan, Vietnam and littoral States in the South China Sea as both an economic strategy as well as a lever against an increasingly bellicose China. 

Modi is set to spend the second half of his first term — and make no mistake, he does not wish to be a single-term Prime Minister — on domestic policy. Demonetisation is the first, disruptive step. 

The election results in five States on 11 March will reveal how the Prime Minister will further reset policy. The Gujarat Assembly election looms in December 2017. There are three vital State elections in 2018: Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. 

The road to Delhi in 2019 will thus pass through not only Lucknow but Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Raipur and Jaipur. 

Indira Gandhi destroyed the powerful Congress syndicate in 1969, her third year as Prime Minister, and ended up wielding absolute power. Modi, in his third year as Prime Minister, confronts no internal party threat of the magnitude Indira Gandhi faced. Whatever the outcome in Uttar Pradesh, none is likely to emerge contrary to what gnarled Lutyens commentators, still co-opted by the old ecosystem, wishfully think. 

The threat, if any, lies in economic reforms being derailed by lack of focus. After this Union Budget, the Prime Minister must take ownership of economic policy. It is his real pathway to victory in 2019.

This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated 'Feb. 23, 2017' with cover story titled 'INDIA’S PRIVATE EQUITY RAINMAKERS'

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BJP is walking into Uttar Pradesh’s dynasty trap
Run by dynasts for decades, the state's backwardness couldn’t offer a more compelling argument against dynastic politics.
Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is dynasty back? In America, there are little Trumps popping up everywhere — Donald junior, Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner (Ivanka Trump’s husband and president Donald Trump’s newly appointed senior advisor).

In Uttar Pradesh it’s even worse. Nine members of Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav’s clan are contesting the 2017 assembly election, including 26-year-old Aparna Yadav, wife of Mulayam’s younger son Prateek.

The Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav “Ganga-Yamuna” alliance, as Rahul pertly put it, symbolises the dynastic fervour spreading across India.

Priyanka Gandhi is, meanwhile, laying the ground work for her putative electoral debut from Rae Bareli in the 2019 general elections when she is likely to inherit the constituency from mother Sonia Gandhi.

The BJP, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stern warning against family members of serving politicians contesting elections, is pressing ahead with its own dynastic debutants. Home minister Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj Singh will contest from Noida while senior leader Kalyan Singh’s grandson Sandeep will stand from Atrauli.

In Uttarakhand, the BJP’s Ritu Khanduri Bhushan, former chief minister BC Khanduri’s daughter, will contest from Yamkeshwar constituency.

A Banerjee dynasty is, meanwhile, being seeded in West Bengal: Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s ambitious and wealthy nephew, a Lok Sabha MP, is firmly in charge of Trinamool Congress (TMC) affairs.

Mayawati’s brother Anand Kumar, currently under criminal investigation, has allegedly amassed huge wealth though a complex web of companies during his sister’s four terms as UP chief minister. He is proving again, if further proof was needed, how profitable dynastic politics can be.

Political dynasties are not restricted to India. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, has emerged as a populist without some of her father’s racist rhetoric. She is though unlikely to win the 2017 French presidential election, where Francois Fillon is the right-of-centre favourite.

So is political dynasty really back? Yes and no. In Asia and the Middle East it never went away. But in Europe and America, it is still the exception, not the rule.

For example, despite having a father (George H Bush) and a brother (George W Bush) as past presidents, Jeb Bush was clobbered in the 2016 Republican primaries. Hillary Clinton, despite being married to a former president, lost to a man who had never held elected office: Donald Trump.

What about Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s charismatic son? Doesn’t he prove that dynasty works even in the West?

No, it doesn’t. Canada has had 23 prime ministers since 1867. Justin Trudeau is the first Canadian prime ministerial dynast in 150 years.

Ditto America. Since 1789 when George Washington became the first US president, there have been just three dynastic American presidents in 228 years (the Adams, Harrisons and Bushes). Of these, the Adams and Harrisons lived in the 19th century. George W Bush is the only US dynast-president in over a century (the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, were fifth cousins and don’t count).

No de Gaulle or Churchill dynasty exists. The children of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher are not remotely connected with politics.

In the US, the farthest Caroline Kennedy’s career went was her appointment as ambassador to Japan. Daughter of president John F Kennedy, she declined an opportunity to contest the New York senate seat.

Priyanka, the next dynast?
In India, the Congress is betting on Priyanka to revive its fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Sonia is likely to hand over Rae Bareli (like a family heirloom, never mind the constituency’s debilitating poverty) to Priyanka just as Rahul inherited Amethi from father Rajiv (who in turn had taken it over from brother Sanjay).

The real reason Priyanka will not campaign outside Rae Bareli and Amethi in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections is that her “brand” could be tarnished if the Congress fails, despite her UP-wide campaign, to win more than 25-odd seats. If the SP-Congress alliance does well, Priyanka and Rahul will share the credit. If it does badly, Priyanka will be protected from the blame.

It is vital for the Congress to ensure that Priyanka’s vote-getting charisma — so far untested and only part of Congress lore — is not prematurely damaged. The 2019 general election is when Priyanka will be formally launched. Any over-exposure before that could do more harm than good.

Priyanka’s relatively low-key campaigning will also serve another key purpose: Rahul’s primacy in the Congress, once Sonia steps aside as president, will not be undermined by those clamouring for a larger role for Priyanka.

Rahul and Priyanka share a close bond. Priyanka will do nothing to upset her brother’s political applecart (he is of course perfectly capable of doing it himself without outside help).

In the end, political dynasts have to be judged by performance. In the Congress, the Scindias, Deoras, Prasadas, Hoodas and Gandhis have done little to inspire confidence. The exception is Sachin Pilot but again that tends to prove the rule: dynasty rarely works.

In fields where only performance counts — for example, sport — dynasty has long been discounted. None of the sporting greats — Rod Laver, Donald Bradman, Pelé, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi – have produced dynastic champions. In sport, there are no second chances, no fiefdoms to fall back on.

Public life should be the same. Dynastic politics narrows the choice voters have in a democracy. When nine members of Mulayam’s family stand for election on the strength of a family name, they deprive nine others who can claim merit but not family.

Run by dynasts for decades — from the Bahugunas to the Yadavs — UP’s continuing poverty and backwardness couldn’t offer a more compelling argument against dynastic politics. It’s a lesson the BJP’s UP dynasts may learn the hard way.

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Is India Back In Business
Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh's assessment of the economic impact of withdrawal of high denomination bank notes was wrong

Monday, January 30, 2017

In the days and weeks following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement withdrawing Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 bank notes, prophets of doom rose in chorus: the end, they said, is nigh. 

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in parliament that India’s GDP in fiscal 2017 would plunge by 2 per cent. He added darkly that the implementation of demonetisation reflected “monumental mismanagement ”. 

Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was even more scathing. He appeared on a series of television shows to warn that bank liquidity would take “seven months” to normalise. 

Dr. Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram have, for the better part of two decades, run the Indian economy in one capacity or the other. How accurate has their assessment of the impact of demonetisation proved? 

Not very. To be fair, both Dr. Singh and Chidambaram were right to describe the implementation of demonetisation and remonetisation as deeply flawed. But their assessment of the economic impact of withdrawal of high denomination bank notes was wrong.

Here’s why. Aditya Puri, Managing Director and CEO of HDFC Bank, is the epitome of rectitude. He runs one of the most successful and professional banks in the country. His views on the after-effects of demonetisation are thoughtful and precise: 

“The transitory and long-term effect should be viewed separately. The transitory pain is largely behind us. Increase in deposits has brought down interest rates. The process of digitisation has been speeded up by three to five years. This will increase transparency, reduce rent seeking, improve financial inclusion and reduce costs. Now, we have 4 lakh point of sales (PoS) terminals, compared with 2.9 lakh pre-demonitisation. Card swipes have gone up by 300 per cent. We feel excessive pessimism is not warranted. We spoke to top executives across industry from Reliance and Mahindra Finance to Birla Finance, ITC, HUL, Pidilife, Marico and even Jaguar. The response was the same – recovery has been far more V-shaped than they expected. Activity is close to normal and there is general expectation of recovery in this quarter.” 

Other CEOs are equally sanguine. True, they say, the implementation was botched. The flip-flops could have been avoided with better planning. But now that we are in a post-remonetisation phase, the digital thrust will begin to pay rich dividends.

As Mint wrote on January 30, 2017: “The impact of demonetisation on corporate earnings may have been overestimated, December quarter earnings data shows. More than 58 per cent of the top firms that have reported their financial results for the three months ended 31 December exceeded or met analysts’ estimates. A Mint analysis of 94 of the BSE 500 companies shows that 55 have reported earnings that met or beat estimates.” 

Parliamentary committees – and especially the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) –have interrogated RBI Governor Urjit Patel numerous times in the past few weeks. Three key points have emerged from the RBI governor’s verbal and written statements: 

One, discussions between the government and the RBI on demonetisation began in early 2016 when Raghuram Rajan was still governor (and seeking a second term); 

Two, work on the design of the new 500 rupee note began in January 2016, again when Rajan was in charge. 

Three, around 75 per cent (in value) of demonetised notes are expected to be replaced by new notes by end-February. The slack of about 25 per cent would be taken up by the surge in digital transactions. It would be unnecessary to replace the full value of bank notes withdrawn so as to achieve a “less-cash” economy. 

With the Budget session set to be stormy, what two Rajya Sabha MPs in particular, Dr. Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram, have to say in parliament about the post-demonetised economy and their predictions two months ago will prove interesting.

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Why the killing fields of Kerala only draw collective silence (even from BJP)
The rising tide of political, communal violence diminishes the reputation of a state that has led the country across a swathe of parameters.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The murder of a BJP worker named Santhosh in Kannur last week is the latest in a symphony of orchestrated political violence that has made Kerala a tinderbox of religious fundamentalism.

Over 44 per cent of Keralites are minorities  the highest ratio in India after Jammu & Kashmir. Over 25 per cent are Muslims. Another 19 per cent are Christians.

Kannur is a symbol of the inflammatory potential of mixing politics with religion. An ancient trading city with deep links to the Arabs and Persians, Kannur was ruled by a Muslim dynasty, the Arakkal Sultanate. Along historically with imports of Arab spices and timbre, it has in recent years imported strains of Wahabism from the Middle East.

Santhosh was allegedly killed by CPI(M) activists in his own house at Andaloor in Dharmadam which ironically is Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayans own constituency. Kannur has given Kerala two chief ministers  K Karunakaran and EK. ayanar. It is a politically volatile district. Muslims comprise 38 per cent of its population. Five out of 20 ministers in the Kerala cabinet are from Kannur  including the chief minister.

Kerala is no stranger to communal and political murders. Though the Left and the Congress have dominated the states politics since Independence, the RSS set up base in the 1940s. Its rally in 1948 addressed by Sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar was attacked by Communist workers in Thiruvanthuparam.

The killings havent stopped since. Kerala has a literacy rate of 98 per cent for men and 96 per cent for women, among the highest in India. Yet it ranks among states with the countrys most violent communal incidents. In May 2003, eight Hindus were killed by a Muslim mob in Marad. A judicial commission found the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) guilty of being involved in both the conspiracy and the massacre. Other districts and towns in Kerala have witnessed similar outbreaks of communal violence.

With the growing influence of the RSS and the BJP nationally, fundamentalism in Kerala has spiked. Conversions are rife. Abductions and kidnapping have increased. In several districts minorities are now the majority. For example, in Malappuram and Kottyam, Muslims comprise the majority. In Ernakulam, Christians are in the majority.

Communal violence is not restricted to Hindu-Muslim clashes. Muslims and Christians have rioted as well. In May 2009, the two communities clashed in Cheriyathura. Five Muslims were killed. Most communal clashes in recent years though have been between Muslims and Hindus. State leaders claim the RSS and the BJP are deliberately polarising the communal atmosphere to expand their political footprint.

Of south Indias five states, the BJP has a solid presence only in Karnataka (which it could win in the next Assembly poll in 2018) and, through ally TDP, in Andhra Pradesh. It has tried to make headway, with little success, in Telangana.

In Tamil Nadu, following Jayalalithaas death, it senses an opportunity. Hence the central governments quick decision to bow to Tamil sentiment and issue an ordinance allowing Jallikattu. However, the AIADMKs internal power struggles between Sasikala and Deepa Jayakumar (Jayalalithaas lookalike niece) has muddied the waters.

That leaves Kerala where the BJP picked up 10.3 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election (up from 6.4 per cent in 2009) and 15 per cent vote share in the 2016 Assembly election (up from 6.3 per cent in 2011). Threatened by the BJPs rising numbers, the CPI(M) and the Congress have made Kerala a communal hotbed.

The silence of the media over Keralas descent into a communal abyss typifies how biased the Indian mainstream media has become. Excessive police action in Jammu & Kashmir against stone-pelters is (rightly) excoriated by the media. The death in random violence of Muslims and Dalits is (again rightly) headlined, often with week-long protests by NGOs and activists. But political murders in Gods own country draw collective silence.

Members of Parliament from Kerala have been equally remiss. They are quick to denounce communal violence in Gujarat or Jammu & Kashmir (rightly so) but feign amnesia about communal murders in their own backyard, often instigated by cadres of the CPI(M) and the Congress.

The silence meanwhile of the BJP-led NDA government is astonishing. Though law and order is a state subject, Union home minister Rajnath Singh has done little to reprimand the Left government in Kerala.

The rising tide of communal violence diminishes the reputation of a state that has led the country across a swathe of parameters: literacy, womens rights, education, culture and the arts. Keralas matriarchal tradition too is one of Indias most progressive. Yet when it comes to politics and religion, Kerala has succumbed to a virulent form of Wahabism from the Middle East where so many Keralites work.

Evangelical Christians regard conversion as their birthright. In the end, Hindus have themselves to blame. The disgraceful treatment of Dalits by upper castes has allowed conversions to take place either through inducement or coercion. Caste disunity has similarly let Muslims wage an undeclared communal war in sensitive districts of Kerala with Islamist undertones.

Last weeks murder of Santhosh in Kannur is an indictment of a state that has dangerously lowered the secular standard it once set for the rest of India.

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Liberals protesting against Donald Trump are being most illiberal
Protest his presidency for the next four years by all means. But do it with civility
Monday, January 23, 2017

“I’d like to punch Donald Trump in the face.”

Guess who said that? A fascist? A right-wing extremist? A white supremacist?

None of the above. The words belong to Robert de Niro, the storied if rapidly ageing actor and a lifelong defender of liberal values — tolerance, democracy and non-violence.

Now, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. I’ve called him a braggart and worse.

There’s plenty not to like in Trump. His protectionist trade policies are counter-productive. Appointing son-in-law Jared Kushner as senior advisor is nepotism of the kind we have long condemned in Indian politics. And Trump’s misogyny is beyond the pale.

As they say, Trump will make America grate again.

All of this doesn’t excuse Robert de Niro’s outburst or Michael Moore, the filmmaker, saying just after Trump’s inauguration as president last Friday: “We will stop this man. He will not last four years.”

And then Moore delivered his coup de grace to an adoring crowd of protesters on inauguration day, sneeringly calling Trump a “sociopath”.

Sounds familiar? It’s not unlike the “psychopath” abuse Arvind Kejriwal likes to direct at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The comparison between Trump and Modi has of course been overstated. Both are outsiders but have arrived at the top of the political totem pole from vastly different places.

One was born into wealth, the other into poverty. One served as chief minister of a state for over 12 years before becoming prime minister, the other served no elected office before leapfrogging into the presidential race. One believes in open markets and free trade, the other in trade protectionism. One backs rapprochement, the other confrontation, with China.

The one thing Trump and Modi do have in common is the abuse they attract from tolerant, liberal people like de Niro, Moore and, in India, from a hoary cabal of those who think they are liberal, but flout every rule of liberalism. 

The first rule is civility. Anyone who uses profanities to describe a person holding an opposing point of view is not liberal. Trump himself fails the test along with his abusive critics. In India, abusers in politics and media on the Left and the Right (and a few in the centre) fail the test too.

The second rule of liberalism is tolerance. Self-declared liberals like actor Shah Rukh Khan, who was banned by the Wankhede Stadium management in Mumbai for abusing a guard, are not role models of tolerance.

The third rule of liberalism is respecting the will of the people. You may loathe Trump – and there are good reasons to do so – but to say he is “an illegitimate president” puts you in the same “basket of deplorables”, to quote Hillary Clinton, as Trump.

Protesters continue to claim that Trump is an illegitimate president because he got 2.1 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton though he won the electoral college comfortably 306-232.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Clinton won the popular vote  almost entirely because of the way California voted, giving Hillary a 2.5 million vote win in that state alone. Take California out of the equation (and keeping even a heavily Democratic state like New York in) and Clinton’s 2.1 million national vote lead vanishes.

Protest Trump’s presidency for the next four years by all means. But do it with civility, non violence and respect for the will of the people, also known as democracy.

The final rule of liberalism of course is non-violence. Many protests in America since Trump’s inauguration have been violent, even vicious. Dozens of people and police have been injured. That places the protesters firmly in the same basket of deplorables to which, they believe, Trump belongs.

The Women’s March across 400 US cities and several others worldwide began as a renewed call for women’s rights and gender equality. They quickly morphed into massive anti-Trump rallies addressed by “liberal” celebrities like Madonna who declared on live television that she would like to “blow up the White House”.

Meanwhile in Davos
While Trump was bashing the US media after his inauguration and was in turn being bashed by it, the rich and the restless in Davos at their annual talking shop were served an unexpected piece of parody.

President Xi Jinping presented China as the “liberal” leader of the new world order, a position the US had held since World War II but, with Trump as an unpredictable president, was about to relinquish.

The humour was not lost on all. China, which blocks Facebook, Twitter and Google, which bullies its neighbours, which doesn’t hold democratic elections, which imprisons dissidents, was in all seriousness setting itself up as a leader of the “free world”.

Such though is the manic despondency among the global "liberalati" at the rightwards lurch of countries, ranging from America and Britain to India and Japan, that they half-believed Xi's fiction.

Meanwhile, the discourse in India has been increasingly illiberal. As a senior journalist wrote in The Hindustan Times on January 20: “The Opposition this time instead is sharply personal, driven by a deep fear and mistrust of the prime minister’s individualistic attitude. Indeed, the language used against Modi is abusive and hate-filled. A senior Trinamool MP went ballistic in describing the prime minister as a ‘son of a rat’. Arvind Kejrival has already call the Prime Minister a ‘psychopath’, but now even Rahul Gandhi has attacked Modi as someone who lies about his yoga skills. The coarse and offensive discourse suggests that the Opposition has run out of fresh ideas to mount an effective challenge to Modi.”

In the US, the Clintons and Bushes have given dynasty a bad name. Barack Obama came as a breath of fresh air, but America’s first black president has ironically left race relations in the US worse off than when he took office eight years ago.

That in the end is what cleared the way for a Trump presidency in 2017 with the aggrieved white vote titling in his favour.

As with Modi, the media – in hock to a discredited, putrefied ecosystem – will criticise Trump’s every move. And it should. That’s what we do in a liberal, tolerant democracy. Without resorting to abuse

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Modi cannot rely on Trump to tackle the threat Pakistan and China pose
New Delhi must be prepared to act alone.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

All eyes will be peeled on President-elect Donald Trump's showbiz-style inauguration on Friday, January 20.

The real action though begins on Monday, January 23 when Trump has pledged to hit the ground running and "sign lots of notifications", some undoing policies of the Obama administration. Obamacare, the controversial medical insurance scheme for low-income Americans, could be the first casualty.

Rex Tillerson, the incoming secretary of state, has meanwhile already roiled China by telling it to stop monopolising the South China Sea.

Tillerson, the former chairman of ExxonMobil, directed his ire at China's aggressive moves to build artificial islands in the South China Sea: "First the island building (must) stop and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed."

Beijing reacted with customary fury through its official mouthpiece Global Times:

"China has enough determination and strength to make sure that (Tillerson's) rabble rousing will not succeed. Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish. Tillerson's statements regarding islands in the South China Sea are far from professional. If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better be prepared for a military clash."

Behind Beijing's bluster lies a deep sense of insecurity. China's annual military budget at $146 billion is less than one-fourth America's ($614 billion). Its navy is hopelessly outgunned.

America has 19 aircraft carriers and 68 battleships. China has just one aircraft carrier and 32 battleships. The last war China fought was in 1979 when tiny Vietnam gave it a bloody nose in a short, sharp battle that left Beijing humiliated.

That was the year President Deng Xiaoping launched China's ambitious economic reforms which have transformed the country from an impoverished behemoth to the world's second largest economy in little over a generation.

China's economy slows
And yet China still has many vulnerabilities. Public and private debt is unsustainably high. Banks are over-leveraged. Exports have declined for two consecutive years. Last week, the official export numbers were released for calendar 2016: exports fell by 7.7 per cent over 2015, the year exports had first begun slipping.

Chinese GDP growth is slowing as well. China's official position is that it is comfortable with the current GDP growth rate of 6.5 per cent. In reality, GDP growth - without fudged numbers - is nearer 5 per cent as the economy cools.

For India, America's bellicosity towards China is welcome. Incoming defence secretary General James Mattis said at his confirmation hearing last week that US ties with India are of "utmost importance".

General Mattis, who takes over from outgoing defence secretary Ashton Carter, added: "US policy should continue to pursue a long-term strategic relationship with India based on convergence of our interests and our shared democratic values."

General Mattis was blunt about confronting China, saying Washington should not tolerate "inappropriate" Chinese behaviour and deepen its partnership with India.

He added: "We have a strong interest in ensuring safe and secure access to maritime routes there, and to a stable, peaceful and prosperous region. India, Australia, Japan, and several of the Gulf Cooperation Council states are key partners for addressing the security challenges in this region, and it is my view that increasing our security assistance and military-to-military engagement with strategically positioned nations such as these is essential."

General Mattis' remarks are being closely followed in Pakistan which since 2001 has successfully "gamed" two successive American administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That could be about to change.

Untrustworthy Pakistan
General Mattis, nicknamed "Mag Dog Mattis", says coldly: "Sanctuaries and freedom of movement for the Afghan Taliban and associated militant networks inside Pakistani territory is a key operational issue faced by the Afghan security forces. I will examine efforts to deny sanctuary to the extremist forces undermining the stability and security of Afghanistan. We have long faced a lack of trust within the Pakistani military and government about our goals in the region."

Cynics say they've heard it all before. America under Trump will continue to be gamed by the shrewd, ruthless generals in Rawalpindi GHQ who use their country's geostrategic location and in-house terror groups to remain indispensable to the three great powers: America, Russia and China.

New Delhi cannot rely on a Trump presidency or Mattis-Tillerson rhetoric to tackle the threat Pakistan and China pose to India. Pakistan believes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) makes it indispensable to China as well as Russia which needs to sell to China a large portion of its oil and gas that is currently under severe sanctions from the US following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

But there are increasing signs that the CPEC may not be quite the lottery Pakistan thinks it has won. Apart from growing violence in Balochistan where the CPEC begins, problems have surfaced in Gilgit-Baltistan through which it passes on the way to Xinjiang.

China has reportedly closed part of its border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to stem the flow of terrorists who pose a long-term threat to the CPEC. The blunt message from Beijing to Islamabad: you can have either the CPEC or terrorists, not both.

For India, the challenge as the Trump administration takes office this week is to make clear to Washington that, as far as Pakistan and China are concerned, it can't be business as usual.

In the end though India must be prepared to act alone. The new chief of army staff, General Bipin Rawat, was right to assert last week that India wants peace with Pakistan. However, if Islamabad does not reciprocate, he said future surgical strikes on Pakistani soil cannot be ruled out.

Peace is a priceless commodity. But it needs strength to win it

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Decoding Team Trump
How good, Bad or neutral will a Trump presidency be for India? New Delhi’s main fear revolves around Trump’s intent to cut H-IB visas

Friday, January 13, 2017

President-elect Donald Trump will formally take office on January 20, 2017. He brings with him the whitest, oldest, richest Cabinet in decades. 

There are token women (Betsy deVos as Education Secretary) and token Blacks (Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development Secretary). But the overwhelming majority of Trump’s Cabinet is cast in his image: old, white, wealthy private sector bosses and tough-talking retired army generals. 

There are two former Goldman Sachs senior executives (Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn), a billionaire investor (Wilbur Ross) and one of the world’s highest paid CEOs (Rex Tillerson). This collection of alpha males includes three army generals (John “Mad Dog” Mattis, John Kelly and Michael Flynn). It dovetails with Trump’s stated policy priorities: trade and terrorism. 

Trump has largely ignored establishment technocrats that his predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, inducted. There are no lawyers, academics, think-tankers or career bureaucrats in the Trump Cabinet. 

The most intriguing choice is the man who will hold the top-ranking Cabinet post of secretary of state: Rex Tillerson. As boss of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company (and the third largest firm in the world), with an annual turnover of over $280 billion (Rs 19 lakh crore) and a market cap of $390 billion (Rs 26 lakh crore), Tillerson is a hard-charging boss. He is personally close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. ExxonMobil has major interests in Russian oil and gas. 
Could this cause a geopolitical conflict of interest? When Tillerson is negotiating with Moscow on Syria and Iraq, will US foreign policy be compromised? Under President Obama’s two secretaries of state – Hillary Clinton in 2009-13 and John Kerry in 2013-17 – US Middle East policy had a single-minded objective: oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) suffered as a consequence. The CIA armed, funded and trained a rag-tag group of Syrian rebels fighting to depose Assad.

Under a Trump presidency the focus will shift decisively to defeating ISIS. The new defence secretary, General John “Mad Dog” Mattis, has a reputation for being a no-nonsense advocate of proportionate force. A former head of US Central Command overseeing US military operations in the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Central Asia, General Mattis calls President Obama’s policy on ISIS “strategy-free”. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US needs to “come out from our reactive crouch and take a firm, strategic stance in defence of our values.” 

General Michael Flynn, nominated as national security advisor (NSA), is if anything even more hawkish than General Mattis. He has called radical Islamic terrorism a threat to America. General Flynn served combat missions in Afghanistan and has a strong intelligence background. Obama promoted him as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). As Trump’s NSA, Flynn will be a vital cog in America’s war against Islamist terrorism. 

Clues to Trump’s economic policies were scattered all over the long presidential campaign: reduce outsourcing, protect American jobs, retaliate against China’s high trade tariffs on US goods, bring manufacturing industry back to America, and rebuild the country’s “crumbling” infrastructure. 

Trump’s pick as treasury secretary is an old Wall Street hand, Steve Mnuchin. A former Goldman Sachs partner, Mnuchin will be expected to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises on the economy. He will also have to wrestle with a national debt of $20 trillion and soaring budget deficits. 

Trump wants to increase military spending (which has declined during the Obama years) to preserve America’s global footprint. Mnuchin will have to balance that objective with the tax cuts Trump has also promised. He’ll need all the ingenuity he acquired at Goldman Sachs and later as a hedge fund investor. 

Trump’s choice as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, has drawn sharp criticism. Zinke is a pro-coal advocate. Trump himself is a climate change-denier. While he has moderated his rhetoric (he frequently called global warming a “hoax” during the election campaign), there’s little doubt that Trump will revive America’s fossil fuel industry to the dismay of environmentalists. 

Trump’s critics are worried that with oilman Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and a global warming sceptic like Ryan Zinke as interior secretary, America will turn its back on its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. That’s unlikely. The Paris climate deal has been ratified by most countries, including the US, China and India. But Trump will back a surge in investment in fracking now that oil prices are climbing. (Fracking is profitable at prices of $50-plus per barrel.) 

Trump has also promised coal miners in Pennsylvania and other industrial states that he will protect their mining jobs – jobs that Hillary Clinton during the election campaign had pledged to eliminate. That alone could have cost her the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (with their 46 Electoral College votes), all of which Trump won by narrow margins. Had Hillary won those traditionally Democratic states, she would have been US president-elect today with 278 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 260 rather than the 306-232 margin by which Trump won. 

How good, bad or neutral will a Trump presidency be for India? New Delhi’s main fear revolves around Trump’s intent to cut H-IB visas. However, Trump is a pragmatist. He is unlikely to make drastic cuts in a scheme that has served both India and the US well for decades. 

On Pakistan and China, India will welcome Trump’s overall strategy. Despite the faintly ridiculous telephone conversation with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which he allegedly called Pakistanis “fantastic people”, Trump has a deep antipathy for Islamabad’s duplicitous policy on terrorism of chasing with the hounds and running with the hares. The India-US strategic partnership, with Trump-friendly Russia and Japan on board, will be an effective counter to the toxic China-Pakistan axis. 

The involvement of Trump’s family (Donald Jr, Eric, Ivanka and Jared) in the administration though, is worrying. Trump says he will dissociate himself from the Trump Organisation, his holding company. But with his family so closely entwined in business and politics, conflict of interest is inevitable. For the moment, Trump is enjoying an extended honeymoon with voters. Too many Trumps though, may spoil the broth.

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SC ban on using religion for votes is secular, liberal - those opposing it aren't By using religion and caste in elections, political parties have divided Indians for years. That must stop.
Thursday, January 12, 2017

It is both amusing and telling that the sharpest criticism of the Supreme Court order barring invocation of religion, caste, creed and language during electioneering has come from card-carrying secular-liberals. The order is in fact both secular and liberal. Those who oppose it — and as many on the Right as on the Left do — are neither.

One of the arguments advanced against the Supreme Court order is that it is impractical to enforce. How on earth, this earnest argument goes, can the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) possibly monitor all the inflammatory speeches politicians often make during election campaigns.

This argument was given legs within 24 hours by Mayawati asking Muslims not to “waste” their votes on the Samajwadi Party followed by the BJP’s Sakshi Maharaj decrying Muslim women’s propensity to have multiple children. Both denied they had invoked caste or religion. The CEC, Nasim Zaidi, busy with the Opposition’s demand to delay the Union Budget, meanwhile, said nothing. The Supreme Court kept its counsel — for the moment.

And yet, the argument on enforceability is utterly flawed. Laws are made because they serve public interest not because they are easily enforceable. The Supreme Court order barring politicians from using religion, caste, creed and language to influence votes is right in principle and, with effort, can be made to work in practice. The larger, subterranean, argument against the Supreme Court’s “secular” verdict is that it isn’t actually secular at all.

After all, Muslims must retain their right to be swayed by religion-based sops during electioneering. The same argument is advanced for Dalits. Why bar the BSP from invoking Dalit pride by pointing to the grand statues built for Mayawati even while Dalits pine for social justice and economic mobility?

By using religion and caste in elections, parties like the Congress, Samajwadi Party, BSP, RJD, BJP, Shiv Sena, NC, PDP, NC and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have divided Indians for years. That must stop. The Supreme Court’s order is only the first step. Strict enforcement by the Election Commission’s large machinery is necessary.

The court order backs the EC which can now disqualify a candidate for using religion, caste, creed or language to influence voters. The EC has been given legal teeth by the Supreme Court. It must use them. Campaigning for the five state Assembly elections will be its first severe test.

The most unworthy argument against the Supreme Court’s order is sub-textual: that the order somehow violates the freedom of politicians to campaign using all the tools at their disposal — including religion and caste. This argument transports the issue from the sublime to the ridiculous. It cites the example of parties with a religion named within it (the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, for example) being potentially disqualified on account of the Supreme Court order.

This, of course, is nonsense. The apex court order targets — and rightly bars — the invocation of religion in electioneering. Parties with a religious or caste affiliation within their name, as long as they campaign without inflaming religious or caste passions, do not violate the Supreme Court order in letter or spirit.

The BJP should welcome the order as well. It has a long and dodgy record of using religion to win votes. LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990 was designed to garner Hindu votes after the party (founded in December 1980) had been reduced to two Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 general election. By using religion at every subsequent opportunity, the BJP by 1998 had clambered up to 182 Lok Sabha seats. The Ram temple in Ayodhya is still a centrepiece of its manifesto, though the party says it will do nothing till the Supreme Court delivers its final verdict in the case.

The Supreme Court judgment seeks to sever the umbilical cord between politics and religion in India. No amount of intellectual sophistry can discredit that objective or the legal means the count has chosen to achieve it. There are good reasons though why the Congress, SP, Trinamool Congress and other parties that dress themselves up in fabricated secular clothes are more worried about the Supreme Court’s order than parties like the BJP which have traditionally been regarded as communal.

The most important reason is that the BJP has moved on (or at least parts of its have) from its rath yatra days. It still attempts to polarise Hindu votes but most of its polarising work these days is done gratis by “secular” parties like the Congress, SP, NCP, Trinamool Congress and AAP. They are perceived as being so anti-Hindu that the BJP now wins resentful Hindu votes by default. That explains its sanguine reaction to the Supreme Court verdict.

The BJP has changed gears from religion to development while the Congress and its fellow travellers are still bogged down in the old politics of minority appeasement that the minorities themselves, seeking empowerment instead, have grown tired of.

The Supreme Court order gives the BJP an opportunity to move even further away from the politics of religion. Polarisation has reached its sell-by date. The BJP must shed its old clothes and put its best development foot forward.

Sakshi Maharaj and others will harm the party if they think invoking religion will help win Uttar Pradesh. Development is India’s new religion. And no Supreme Court order bars its invocation.

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2017 UP assembly election rests on a knife edge
Rasputin-like Amar Singh could be the X-factor in the unfolding Yadav saga.
Monday, January 9, 2017

As the farcical war between father and son plays out in Lucknow, replete with an evil uncle lurking in the background, Uttar Pradesh awaits liberation from caste and religion. Next months seven-phase election is unlikely to provide it.

Whether or not the Samajwadi Partys Mulayam Singh Yadav and his suddenly clean-as-a-whistle son Akhilesh fight the UP Assembly election together, its outcome will shape the narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

According to the recent India Today-Axis opinion poll, the BJP is currently the front-runner. It is projected to win 206-216 seats in the 403-seat UP Assembly (excluding one seat reserved for an Anglo-Indian member nominated by the governor). That would bring the party back to power in Indias largest state for the first time since March 2002.

But things can change rapidly in a state charged with communal and caste tension.

Akhilesh has tried to erase his governments anti-incumbency disadvantage by shifting the blame of UPs lawlessness and corruption over the past five years to the old guard. That includes his father Mulayam, his uncle Shivpal and the Rasputin-like Amar Singh.

The India Today-Axis poll was conducted from December 12 to 24. It captures the demonetisation effect (76 per cent in UP, according to the poll, back it) but crucially does not capture Akhileshs post-Christmas revolt. 

There are three factors at play here. First, by distancing himself from the SPs five-year misrule, Akhileshs SP Version 2.0 may get the benefit of doubt from voters. That though will be negated following a split among the Yadav and Muslim vote, a part of which will stay with the Mulayam-led SP Version 1.0 - if father and son dont patch up and the divided partys election symbol of a cycle is frozen by the Election Commission (EC).  

Second, if the Akhilesh and Mulayam factions do make up and the SP fights the poll jointly, but with Akhilesh choosing candidates who get tickets, theres a possibility of internal sabotage by those promised tickets by Mulayam and Shivpal. They could stand as Independents, splitting the Yadav-Muslim vote once again.

Third, there is the Rahul Gandhi factor. If Akhilesh has his way and the SP and the Congress fight the election together, will the math change? 

Examine the vote-share projected in the India Today-Axis poll. The BJP gets 33 per cent, the SP and BSP get 26 per cent each and the Congress gets six per cent.

In an SP-Congress alliance, not all of Congress's vote-share will transfer seamlessly to the SP given the states complex caste and religious faultlines. Voters in both parties opposed to the alliance could switch their allegiance to the BSP or BJP. The math of an SP-Congress alliance is therefore not linear.

Four-cornered battle
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the shrewdest politicians India has produced in three decades, saw the dangers early. That is why he has been addressing rallies with growing intensity in Uttar Pradesh since last year.

BJP president Amit Shah has meanwhile been laying the booth-level groundwork for the UP elections for over two years.

In a four-cornered battle with the SP and the Congress contesting independently, the BJP is likely to emerge, according to the India Today poll, as the largest party with a narrow majority.

In a three-cornered fight, with the SP and the Congress coming together, the math changes - but not by as much as Rahul and Akhilesh would hope. Heres why.

In an SP-Congress alliance, the SP will allot the Congress not much more than 75 seats. Of these, the Congress is unlikely to win, despite the charged alliance arithmetic, more than 20 seats. Thats more than it would win fighting alone, but not decisively more.

The SP meanwhile could increase its tally in the 325 seats it contests to around 110, giving the alliance 130 seats compared to the combined total of 100-odd seats the IndiaToday poll projects for them if they fight separately.

Thats probably not enough to deny the BJP a wafer-thin majority though a hung Assembly becomes a distinct possibility.

All of this explains Rahuls keenness to ally with Akhilesh - and vice versa. Both dynasts know the only way to have a sliver of a chance to keep the BJP out of Lucknow is to fight the election together. The Congress doesnt mind being a bit player in UP as long as the BJP is thwarted.

Where does all this leave Mayawati? She has distributed tickets liberally to Muslims to inveigle those disenchanted with the internecine Yadav family feud. But her resources have dwindled since demonetisation.

Family matters
For Akhilesh, there is the additional matter of family. His mother Malti Devi died in 2003. His step-mother Sadhna Gupta, who is close to Amar Singh, had ambitions for her own son Prateek, Akhileshs step-brother.

But 28-year-old Prateek, who runs a real estate business and plans a chain of gyms, says politics doesnt interest him. It does, however, interest his 26-year-old wife Aparna. She has been given a ticket to fight the 2017 UP Assembly election from the Lucknow Cantt constituency.

Akhileshs wife Dimple - Aparnas step sister-in-law - is the MP from Kannauj, Akhileshs old parliamentary seat.

And in this family game of thistles, the peripatetic uncle, Amar Singh, slides in and out of the frame. He could still be the X-factor in the unfolding Yadav saga in Uttar Pradesh.

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2017 UP assembly election rests on a knife edge
Rasputin-like Amar Singh could be the X-factor in the unfolding Yadav saga.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The first major political interview I did ended badly. AR Antulay, then chief minister of Maharashtra, became progressively more annoyed at my line of questioning.

Antulay was at the centre of a controversy in the early-1980s over "donations" made by industrialists to the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan, a trust set up in the prime minister's name.

Arun Shourie, in lacerating prose in The Indian Express, headlined the scam on the front page, titling his series of investigative reports "Indira as Commerce".

When I pressed Antulay on his alleged role in the scam, he lost his temper.

"Out," he shouted, ending the interview 10 minutes after it started. His minders shook with fright. Antulay in high dudgeon was a sight to behold: nostrils flaring, eyes bloodshot, body tensed.

It would have been comic were it not for the chief minister's aides scampering around to escort me out of Antulay's office.

It was the age of entitlement. Chief ministers like Antulay epitomised what was wrong with India in the 1980s: elitism.

The entitled elite thought it could do and say what it wanted. The public was a distraction, taken for granted. During the first relatively sedate minutes of our interview, I reminded Antulay that the word minister was derived from Latin and meant servant.

He couldn't believe his ears. "Servant? We are doing public service but do not call us servants," he said in his colourful English. As the conversation moved to corruption in the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan, the interview ended abruptly. The entitled don't like to be called out.

Has anything changed in 35 years? Is the elite still an entitled species, taking the public for granted?

In a developing country it's inevitable that entitlement won't be easily extinguished. The old elite is a hardy animal. It guards its turf fiercely.

Entitled elites traverse sectors: politics, media, bureaucracy, business and the professions. They resent the rise of merit. They worship at the feet of dynasty.

The socialism of the Indira Gandhi years hid entitlement under a povertarian cloak. It demoted the old elite - India's 600-plus royals - by banishing privy purses and titles. But it did nothing to curtail its own entitlement.

Politicians became the new royalty. Rajiv Gandhi, though born to entitlement, tried to be different. For 12 years, from 1968 to 1980, he flew old Dakota planes to small towns for Indian Airlines, eschewing most of the trappings of elitism before two accidents of history (brother Sanjay and mother Indira's deaths) plunged him into precisely the sort of entitlement he had tried to escape.

When societies become more equal, the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality in countries based on the gap between the highest and lowest incomes) falls. That's when income disparities reduce. So does entitlement.

Sweden has among the world's lowest differentials between rich and poor. Its prime ministers often cycle to work. Elitism, as we know it, is extinct in Sweden. India has among the world's worst Gini coefficients: inequality has declined in recent years but remains high.

The most glaring example of entitlement is political dynasty. Of India's 10 largest political parties, eight are family owned where entitlement is an article of faith (Congress, Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, RJD, LJP, NC, PDP and NCP). This list is selective, not exhaustive.

India has a long history of bowing to self-declared nouveau elites. The country was subjugated by ragtag hordes of Mongol warriors and later Turko warlords led by the Mughal Babur who had been driven out of central Asia.

The Mughals entitled themselves at India's expense till they were replaced by British mercenaries of the East India Company. Self-declared entitlement again followed. India continued to suffer.

As Shashi Tharoor in his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, writes: "In 1930, a young American historian and philosopher, Will Durant, stepped onto the shores of India for the first time. He had embarked on a journey around the world to write what became the magnificent eleven-volume The Story of Civilization. But he was, in his own words, so 'filled with astonishment and indignation' at what he saw and read of Britain's 'conscious and deliberate bleeding of India' that he set aside his research into the past to write a passionate denunciation of this 'greatest crime in all history'. His short book, The Case of India, remains a classic, a profoundly empathetic world of compassion and outrage that tore apart the self-serving justifications of the British for their long and shameless record of rapacity in India.

"As Durant wrote: 'The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilisation by a trading company (the British East India Company) utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and 'legal' plunder which has now (1930) gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.'"

And yet, the displaced Indian elite - maharajas and the landed - slipped effortlessly into subservience. At Independence, a colonial-minded Nehruvian ecosystem produced a new form of entitlement - political dynasts, Left-leaning historians and Westernised intellectuals whose lack of self-belief made them craven caricatures whom the post-imperial West mocked behind their backs.

But as India becomes a more egalitarian society, where a chaiwala can become prime minister and a petrol pump attendant the founder of India's second largest business empire, the era of entitlement will gradually pass into history.

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How Mamata Banerjee has converted West Bengal into a communal cauldron
Dhulagarh is only the latest symptom.
Thursday, December 29, 2016

I first visited Kolkata as a teenager to watch a Davis Cup tennis match between Australia and India. As we sat in packed stands to cheer a young Vijay Amritraj lead India to a 3-2 win over favourites Australia, a friend spoke to me with awe about a 17-year-old Swedish prodigy called Bjorn Borg who was taking the European tennis circuit by storm: Mark my words, hell win Wimbledon. Borg duly did two years later at the age of 19 in 1976.


Kolkata was then a pleasant city. The Communists had not yet inflicted their cruel depredations on the state. Mamata Banerjee was still a young student leader of the Congress (I). The subject she chose for her masters degree at the University of Calcutta was Islamic history.

40 years later, in her sixth year as chief minister of West Bengal, Banerjee has tightened her grip over the state. She has done so by polarising West Bengal along communal lines in a manner unprecedented in the states history.

To consolidate power, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has torn the secular fabric of Bengal into shreds. Ironically, Banerjee poses as a secular leader while she systematically practises the most cynical and egregious form of communal politics.

West Bengals Muslims form 27 per cent of the states population. Counting Bangladeshi refugees and non-Census citizens, the actual percentage of Muslims in West Bengal today is closer to 30 per cent. Banerjee has collared this vote-bank. She gives it no development but hands it generous sops  ranging from job quotas to hard cash for madarsas.

Muslims in Banerjees Bengal remain desperately poor and backward. But they vote en masse for her. This 30 per cent vote bloc, along with a smattering of divided Hindus, gives Banerjee a vice-like grip over the electorate.

It is hardly surprising that she won the last Assembly election with a landslide. Poverty and communalism are her calling cards.

Few outside Bengal had heard of Dhulagarh till two weeks ago. This small industrial and business hub in Howrah district has acquired infamy after Muslim mobs attacked Hindus and burnt their homes. The attack was triggered by a group of Hindus verbally objecting to a procession by Muslim groups on Eid-e-Milad, the Prophets birthday.

The mainstream media has typically under-reported the Dhulagarh violence. Swarajya magazine recorded the events leading up to the violence: Muslims brought out a procession complete with loudspeakers blaring Hindi film music on 13 December to celebrate Eid-e-Milad which actually fell on December 12 and was a public holiday. On December 13, Hindus at Dhulagarh village, like in the rest of the country, were observing Margashirsha Purnima. Hindus at the village requested those in the procession to lower the volume of the loudspeaker since the music was interfering with some rituals.


"This incensed a section of those in the procession and they started attacking Hindu homes and shops. According to local people, the attackers were non-local Muslims. Hindu houses and shops were looted and then set ablaze while police who reached the village were attacked by bombs and prevented from stopping the rioters.

If such communal violence had broken out in a BJP-governed state, the media would have front-paged it  and justifiably so  for days. In the case of Dhulagarh, coverage by the media was sparse. It took an outpouring of scorn on social media to spur television anchors and newspaper editors to run stories on the Dhulagarh riot which resulted in horrific arson on dozens of Hindu homes.

Dhulagarh is only the latest symptom of West Bengals descent into a communal cauldron instigated by violent TMC cadres. If the thuggishness of the CPI(M) was notionally secular, the viciousness of the TMC is unabashedly communal. Riots are its preferred way of life.


As the website CatchNews reported earlier this year: West Bengal has witnessed a spike in communal violence during Mamata Banerjees tenure. There have been the infamous Canning and Deganga riots and communal incidents increased to 106 in 2013. The previous five years witnessed about 12-40 communal incidents. Many attribute the recent belligerence of Muslim hardliners in West Bengal to the politics of appeasement played by Mamata ever since she came to power.

Following demonetisation, Banerjee has become increasingly shrill in her criticism of PM Narendra Modi. Last Thursday (December 22), she told the media shortly after a core committee meeting of the TMC: Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao is our key slogan now. A person who lost credibility has no moral right to rule the country. He and four of his men are practically running the country and ruining the nation. The Narendra Modi government has lost credibility and had no moral right to remain in office. A person who started his career with riots cannot govern the county.

Banerjee sees herself as a national leader. Like Arvind Kejriwal, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Pawar earlier, her misbegotten route to the top has been through Muslim appeasement. None of these leaders of straw pause for a moment to think how they could empower, rather than appease, Muslims.

NGOs and human rights activists, so quick (again rightly so) to condemn communal violence elsewhere in India, have remained largely silent on Dhulagarh. Bengal deserves their attention.

Above all, Bengal deserves a secular chief minister.

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Suleiman and Anwar discover demonetisation is not a failure, liberals are Criticism of government policies by Left-leaning liberals may woo the studio audience, but at the grassroots, the BJP is still winning.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Suleiman!” Anwar’s voice boomed over the phone. “I’ve been invited to a post-Christmas adda by a friend who’s a true-blue liberal. The place will be full of clever liberals. None of these silly right-wingers.”

Suleiman was delighted. After spending over a decade in illiberal Saudi Arabia he always looked forward to meeting liberals in India on his visits home. “That’s great, Anwarbhai,” he said, glancing around his sparsely furnished room in Delhi. He was in India for a few days and was keen to learn about all the frenetic things that were going on in the country. It’ll be nice to listen to liberal, open-minded people, he thought to himself.

Anwar picked Suleiman up just after 6.00pm on the day after Christmas from his modest rented home. “Nice car, Anwarbhai,” Suleiman said as he slid into the front leather seat of his friend’s black 5 Series BMW. “When did you get it?”

“Oh, just a few weeks ago, Suleiman,” Anwar replied with a slightly embarrassed smile. “It’s a gift, actually. I couldn’t afford the Rs 60 lakh price tag myself.”

“A gift from a liberal friend?” Suleiman asked quizzically. “They seem to be the ones caught with black money in all those raids after demonetisation.”

Anwar changed the subject. “Ah, here we are, Suleiman,” he said as he eased his BMW into a parking slot just outside an imposing building in south Delhi. “My media friend is a great organiser of these idea addas.”

As the two friends entered the large hall with theatre-style seating, a bespectacled man with a neat moustache who used to edit a newspaper greeted them. “Anwar, Merry Christmas, so nice to see you. You’ll meet lots of your friends here. And we have a great line-up of speakers today.”

As Suleiman and Anwar settled down in their seats towards the front of the room, the first speaker on stage was just getting into his stride. “The liberal, democratic ethos of our country is under attack,” he thundered. “First, the failed demonetisation experiment. Then the banning of all those secular NGOs. Now these nasty right-wingers are even telling people what not to name their child. We are heading towards fascism.”

Suleiman nudged Anwar. He whispered in his friend’s ear: “But Anwarbhai, if India was heading towards fascism, how come these people call Prime Minister Narendra Modi psycho, madman, coward, fool, Hitler and yet nothing happens to them? ”

Anwar shot him a warning glance but Suleiman continued: “Anwarbhai, I read in a Saudi newspaper that Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal had warned of riots because of demonetisation. Have there been any riots?”

“No, there haven’t, Suleiman,” Anwar said crossly. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any. My liberal friends says there’s still hope –” Anwar stopped mid-sentence, biting his tongue. “I didn’t mean it to sound like that Suleiman. You know, liberals like us hoping for riots…”

Suleiman interrupted him with a grin: “So that we can blame it on Modi, Anwarbhai? The only riots I’ve read about are in West Bengal and Mamata, not Modi, is in charge there.”

A second speaker had meanwhile taken the stage to applause. Suleiman recognised him as a renowned historian with a withering contempt for right-wing intellectuals.

“He mumbles,” Suleiman said, nudging Anwar. “He’s as incoherent a speaker as he is a writer.” Anwar looked at his friend with a shocked expression. “Suleiman, that’s our pre-eminent historian! Sure, he swallows his words but he’s right, the Right hasn’t produced an intellectual since Arun Shourie.

“And the Left has produced Rahul Gandhi,” said Suleiman mischievously.

“Shhh…” Anwar gestured to the stage as yet another speaker arrived at the lectern. “That’s the famous op-ed columnist who heads a think tank,” Anwar said to Suleiman softly. “Listen carefully. He’s a fount of wisdom.”

Suleiman spent the next half-hour in rapt attention as the columnist waxed eloquent about the “renegade attempt to destablise an economic sub-system with a mendacious strategy unencumbered by rational thought.”

Suleiman looked sideways at Anwar. “I think, in English, he means demonetisation was a bad idea.”

Anwar grinned sheepishly. “Yes, he does rather get carried away with words. But he’s right, you know. Demonetisation is an utter failure.”

“Really Anwarbhai,” Suleiman asked, puzzled. “If it’s so bad, why did the BJP sweep the Chandigarh municipal election last week? I heard they won 21 out of 26 seats along with their alliance partner SAD. And of those the BJP won 20, SAD just 1 and the incumbent Congress 4. Looks like voters don’t agree that demonetisation’s a failure.”

Anwar rolled his eyes. “Suleiman, you’ve incorrigible. Anyway, here’s the panel discussion. Listen!”

On stage, a group of three grim-faced men were discussing the rise of right-wing fascism. When it was question time, a woman at the back of the hall asked: “Would you call the Left, with its record of bloody violence in Bengal and Kerala, fascist as well?”

There was a short silence before one of the panelists, an aman ki asha veteran, launched a defence of why Left-wing fascism was part of a people’s movement while Right-wing fascism was imposed by fringe Hindutva elements. He was met with liberal applause from the audience.

Suleiman shook his head in mock despair. “Anwarbhai, the RSS and the Left are two sides of the same coin. Both are conservative on economic policy. And liberals on the Left still worship Marx!”

Anwar sighed. His friend would never change, he thought to himself. “You’ve been away from India for too long Suleiman,” he said good-naturedly.

After the adda was over, Anwar and Suleiman walked slowly back to their car. Both were lost in deep thought. Suleiman broke the silence.

“You know, Anwarbhai, if what we just heard was an example of clever liberals, I’m not sure they’re either clever or liberal. They seem intolerant to other views. And that’s not liberal. Nor were their ideas particularly original or clever.”

Anwar patted his friend on the back. “Forget it, Suleiman. Maybe it was just their off-day. They’re usually better than this.”

Suleiman smiled to himself as they slid into Anwar’s gifted new BMW. That’s why, he mused, liberals are called gifted people

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Demonetisation Gain After Pain
By January 31, new notes valued at around Rs 11.50 lakh crore are likely to be in circulation. Cash shortages and bank queues would have begun to ease well before that

Monday, December 26, 2016

December 30, 2016 marks the end of the "short-term" pain caused by the withdrawal of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 currency notes as legal tender. Or does it?

It's estimated that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) would have remonetised around Rs. 7.50 lakh crore in new notes by December 30. That would be roughly 50 per cent of the value of old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes in circulation before November 8, 2016.

The government's move towards digital payment means that the RBI will not remonetise the full value of old notes, estimated at just over Rs. 15 lakh crore (though an RTI query to the RBI has, oddly enough, revealed a higher figure). 

Nonetheless, by January 31, new notes valued at around Rs. 11.50 lakh crore are likely to be in circulation. Cash shortages and bank queues would have begun to ease well before that.

So much for the short-term pain. What about the gain? 

There are two kinds of likely medium-term gains and one clear long-term gain. In the medium term (six months) a rapid shift to digital payments will make the economy more efficient. The move from cash to online payments has been faster than many expected. In a cash-dominated society like India's the change to a digitised economy will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary but the benefits to consumers in transparency, speed and efficiency will soon be clearly visible.

The second medium-term gain is for the treasury. The country's low tax base will expand significantly. The audit trail left by redepositing old notes valued at close to Rs. 15 lakh crore into the banking system will create new assessees. Apart from the one-time penal tax on disclosed black income, personal income-tax post-demonetisation will rise substantially on a recurring basis.

The long-term benefit will flow to both citizens and the government. An economy less dependent on cash is likely to cut the scope for siphoning off funds by middlemen to farmers, contract labourers and other workers in the unorganised sector.

The cash-to-GDP ratio should reduce to below 10 per cent, making the economy more efficient. In 2015, currency with the Indian public as a ratio of GDP was 13.01 per cent. In Sri Lanka it was 3.47 per cent. Even Pakistan had a lower cash/GDP ratio than India: 9.29 per cent.

Once the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is introduced, digitisation will be further spurred. Indirect tax collection will become seamless. Revenue is likely to rise significantly in a one-nation, one-tax formulation.

It's crucial in this environment that the Finance Minister cuts both personal and corporate tax rates in the Union Budget on 1 February 2017. He had pledged to reduce corporate tax to 25 per cent by 2018-19 so that leaves a narrow time window to implement that commitment. Personal income-tax, given a broader tax base following demonetisation, is set to be reduced by raising tax slabs

Demonetisation has considerable political implications. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that the pain of demonetisation can turn into a political liability if normalcy is not re-established soon. 

So far the poor, especially in small towns and villages, have reacted with stoicism to the cash crunch and loss of income. Support for Modi remains strong. Local body electoral results in Maharashtra and Chandigarh underscore that. But public support cannot be taken for granted.

Modi has planned a major rally in Lucknow on 2 January 2017 when he is expected to announce a post-demonitisation road map. With the model code of conduct set to kick in early next year (2017) once the dates for the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Goa assembly elections are known, the prime minister will have to move rapidly to turn the demonitisation narrative around into both an electoral and on-ground winner.

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Why Taiwan is China’s soft underbelly — and that's good news for India
With Trump dialling Taipei, it's the right time for Modi to reach out to Beijing’s single greatest adversary.
Monday, December 19, 2016

China regards itself as heir to the United States’ status as the world’s leading superpower. Last week it flexed its maritime muscles, capturing an American sea drone in international waters of the South China Sea.

Washington, busy with the Obama-Trump transition, has taken its eye off the ball. President Barack Obama, who hands over office to president-elect Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, is busy accusing Russia of “interfering” with last month’s US presidential election.

The White House issued a brief statement on the underwater drone, saying Beijing had agreed to return it. China said it would do so after deleting the intelligence the drone’s software had collected.

Obama has weightier concerns. His own eight-year legacy is under serious threat. Obamacare, which has given 20 million uninsured poor (mainly black and Hispanic) Americans access to medical insurance, is likely to be repealed or at least drastically modified under a Trump administration.

Obama’s Middle East policy, meanwhile, lies in tatters. The Syrian government has recaptured most of Aleppo which was under the control of US-supported rebels opposed to president Bashar al-Assad since 2012. The siege of Mosul in Iraq and the retaking of the Islamic State’s de facto capital Raqqa are progressing more slowly than anticipated despite US air power. 

But Obama’s biggest failure is not fixing America’s complex geopolitical relationship with China. Beijing has snubbed Washington across a range of issues. It has imposed its sovereignty in the South China Sea and challenged US sea power in an arc from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea near Japan.

It is Taiwan, however, which could be the litmus test in 2017 of the edgy Washington-Beijing relationship. Trump’s controversial 10-minute conversation with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen was part of a choreographed strategy. Trump knows that the two issues China is most sensitive to are Tibet and Taiwan, the breakaway island-nation Beijing regards as sovereign Chinese territory.

The US embraced the “one-China” policy in 1979. Since then the Taiwan issue has lain dormant. Taiwanese leaders over the past 37 years tactically accepted the one-China policy. Since 1979 no US president or president-elect has spoken to a Taiwanese president  — until Trump this month.

Tsai Ing-wen won the 2016 presidential election to become Taiwan’s first woman president. She has since diluted Taiwan’s commitment to a one-China policy, refusing to accept it on principle after she formally took office on 20 May 2016.

Trump has long indentified China’s hegemonistic ambitions as a threat to world peace. He recognises that military or economic confrontation with China is impractical. Hence, the Taiwan card.

After winning the US presidential election, among the world leaders Trump spoke to was Tsai. The conversation had been carefully planned. The Trump campaign team asked the Taiwanese leader to make the call. The message was directed at China: Taiwan was no longer taboo for the US.

This reverses decades of US foreign policy which recognises the one-China framework. Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan under president Jimmy Carter in 1979. Tsai, however, has been careful not to antagonise Beijing beyond a point. After her call to Trump, Tsai has maintained a diplomatic silence.

Not Trump though. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy,” he grumbled, “unless we make a deal with China over other things like trade.” It was typical “transactional” Trumpspeak.

Playing Hardball
Trump’s hardball tactics with China are of course neither new nor unexpected. He has called Beijing a currency manipulator and threatened to impose penal duties on Chinese imports unless Beijing gives equal tariff treatment to US exports to China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely watching the Taiwan issue closely. With a mildly anti-China government now in power after decades of pro-Beijing Taiwanese governments, Taiwan presents India an interesting opportunity.

Since India and the US have established a close strategic partnership, there are several options India can now pursue on Taiwan. Establishing closer economic and trade ties is one. Remember: Taiwan makes 80 per cent of the world’s computer networks. It is an emerging technology powerhouse.

While diplomatic relations may not be feasible, Taiwan is also emerging as an attractive destination for tourists. A recent advertisement for Taiwan’s increasingly active tourism bureau in New Delhi targeting Indians said breathlessly: “No trip to Taiwan is complete without its hot springs experience. Ranked among the world’s top 15 hot spring destinations, Taiwan has a great variety of natural springs, including hot springs, cold springs, mud springs and seabed hot springs. Interestingly, a number of resorts offer you the experience in your room itself with hot spring water flowing straight into your bathtub!”

All of this irritates Beijing which barely tolerates the international attention Taiwan has been receiving since the feisty Tsai, a former university professor, took office seven months ago.

The Modi government has very few sharp weapons to combat China’s aggressive position on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar, India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and illegal Chinese-built infrastructure on Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Taiwan is China’s soft underbelly. With Trump likely to ratchet up economic and diplomatic pressure on Beijing, this is the right time for Modi too to play the Taiwan card.

China has shown no remorse in abetting Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. By blocking the United Nations’ declaration of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, Beijing has displayed mala fide intent.

China has consistently ignored New Delhi’s warnings on violating Indian sovereignty in PoK. There is no reason India should hesitate to build closer economic and cultural ties with Taiwan.

Meanwhile, those who believe Russia’s recent closeness to Pakistan, including its interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), presages an inimical Russia-China-Pakistan axis are mistaken. Given Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea, Russia may be dependent on China buying its oil and gas. However, a Putin-friendly Trump presidency will repair US ties with the Kremlin to keep it out of China’s bear hug.

If Modi recalibrates his China diplomacy, using Taiwan judiciously, Beijing will be forced to rethink its cavalier disregard for India’s national interests in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan.

China is a geopolitical bully. Like all bullies, it will back down only when you stand up to it

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VVIP chopper scam: Does the buck stop at PMO?
Tyagi says every decision on AgustaWestland was vetted and approved by Dr Manmohan Singh’s PMO

Friday, December 16, 2016

How high up the political tree did the bribes in the Rs. 3,564 crore AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal travel? The short answer: likely to the very top.

Former Air Force Chief, Shashindra Pal Tyagi, currently in CBI custody, has said as much following his arrest. His counsel told the court: “It was not an individual decision. It was a collective decision of which the PMO was also a part. The file moved along so many officers – none of them have been arraigned (in the case) as accused.”

The CBI says Tyagi was appointed chief of air staff on October 31, 2004. He took charge officially on December 31, 2004. These were the early months of the Congress-led UPA government, back in power after a gap of eight years.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) under Dr Manmohan Singh was bustling with energy and ideas. Defence deals, infrastructure projects, work on the Commonwealth Games, planning for a big telecom spectrum sale, coal mine allocations — all jostled for attention.

Ministers, bureaucrats, and Armed Forces officers soon cast a beady eye on the new VVIP chopper deal. The technical specifications for the 12 helicopters were changed to suit one company: AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of the Italian firm Finmeccanica.

The CBI told the court earlier this week: “In a meeting held on April 1, 2005 in which the defence secretary and other stakeholders took part, it was laid down that helicopters should be twin-engine. Later, at the insistence of SP Tyagi, when the OR (operational requirement) was put up, ‘at least’ was added before ‘twin engine’ by the IAF. It got approved. To make the entry possible, ‘at least’ was added. Otherwise AgustaWestland was not eligible to participate.”

No large defence deal in India moves an inch without a nod from the top. There are four tiers of decision-making that make up this pyramid: the armed forces; the bureaucracy in the ministry of defence (MoD); the PMO; and the High Command.

Tyagi says every decision on AgustaWestland was vetted and approved by Dr Manmohan Singh’s PMO. The buck stopped at the PMO after ricocheting off 10 Janpath where UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi sits imperiously. Little escapes her notice. AgustaWestland, whose choppers were being bought to ferry VVIPs like her, would not have.

When reducing the operational flying height ceiling requirement for the helicopters from 6,000 metres to 4,500 metres, the PMO would have been fully in the loop. The Indian Air Force has a longstanding requirement that such helicopters must be able to fly up to 6,000 metres. Reducing the height to 4,500 metres should have raised an immediate red flag in the PMO.

The CBI is now likely to question Dr Manmohan Singh and former PMO officials, including Dr Singh’s principal secretary TKA Nair and then National Security Advisor (NSA) M.K. Narayanan. The CBI should add Shashi Kant Sharma to the list of those it will interrogate. Sharma was director-general (acquisitions) in the defence ministry during the crucial 2007-10 period when the AgustaWestland deal was finalised. Interestingly, he was given the plum post of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) by the UPA government in 2013.

Those who follow the media closely would have noticed a rash of articles and television debates on the AgustaWestland deal. These mushroomed when Italian prosecutors levelled allegations of bribe-giving against senior executives of Finmeccanica in the Indian VVIP chopper deal by its subsidiary AgustaWestland.

When the prosecution of senior executives in Italy became public, the CBI was compelled to register an FIR in 2013 to probe the allegations. These pointed to corruption at the highest levels in India’s political, bureaucratic and military establishment.

The sudden spate of newspaper reports and television debates in April 2016 after an Italian court found top Finmeccanica officials guilty of bribery drew attention to the six million euro (Rs. 45 crore) “media management” budget run by middleman Christian Michel. The money was allegedly used to pay Indian journalists – the infamous “Agusta Patrakars” – to write airbrushed PR-driven stories about the AgustaWestland deal.

Meanwhile what of Dr Manmohan Singh? Whether or not his questioning by the CBI indicts the UPA’s PMO, moral culpability clearly rests with him and the High Command to which he paid obeisance.

“Leaders and governments at no point can abdicate responsibility. Most policy decisions carry risks of unintended consequences. It is important to deftly balance these risks with the potential benefits of such decisions.”

The author of those stirring words? Dr Manmohan Singh in an article in The Hindu last Friday (December 9) criticising the handling of demonetization by his successor, Narendra Modi.

The same words — “Leaders at no point can abdicate responsibility” — will echo loudly in his ears when he negotiates, in silence, with his conscience

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Rajya Sabha is a drain on treasury and needs to be downsized
Like Parliament itself, reforms can no longer be stalled.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi announced at a news conference on December 14 that he has “explosive” information of personal corruption against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Why did Rahul not reveal that information publicly at the press conference yesterday? Because he wants the legal protection parliamentary privilege affords him. This sums up all that’s wrong with our parliamentary system: too much privilege, too little accountability. The rot runs deep. Last Friday the Rajya Sabha was adjourned for lack of quorum. Only 23 MPs were present — 18 from the government and five from the Opposition.

Several MPs were seen chatting outside parliament. Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien rang the quorum alarm twice. A few indolent MP “peeped inside the House”, as one observer reported, but refused to enter the chamber. Kurien finally adjourned the House under the rule that requires a minimum quorum of 10 per cent of the strength of the House (250).

So why does India need the Rajya Sabha? It doesn’t — certainly not without sweeping reforms.

Those reforms should begin with the Lok Sabha. In a country with a population of 125 crore, the Lok Sabha’s 545 MPs (including two nominated MPs) are grossly inadequate. The ratio works out to one MP for roughly 23 lakh citizens. In 1952, when India’s population was just over 38 crore, the Lok Sabha had a strength of 489 — a much better average of one MP for around seven lakh citizens. Britain with a population (6.5 crore) that’s one-20th India’s, has 650 MPs in the House of Commons — an average of one MP for one lakh citizens.

The average size of a constituency in England is 72,000. In Scotland it is 69,000 and in Wales 56,000. In India, constituencies run into tens of lakhs, making them unwieldy and increasingly untenable.

Clearly, several large constituencies need to be broken into smaller bits. Delimitation has changed the contours of some constituencies but sizes have not changed significantly. The key is to increase the number of MPs in the Lok Sabha. After careful constituency-wise evaluation, the number of constituencies can be increased in the first phase to around 700. That would still leave each Lok Sabha MP to deal with an average of over 18 lakh citizens.

Simultaneously, the strength of the Rajya Sabha must be downsized from the present 250 to 100. Unelected MPs are a drain on the treasury. Their increasingly irresponsible behaviour has lowered the image of the Upper House and disrupted legislative business.

The Rajya Sabha enables state assemblies to elect MPs and represent the federal character of the House. But a downsized Rajya Sabha with 100 members can still reflect the plural views of the Union’s states and territories.

Downsizing the number of Rajya Sabha MPs is a necessary but not sufficient reform. The Upper House has far too often been used to stall legislation. It cannot, under present rules, hold up money bills. It should in fact not be allowed to stop legislation of any kind. Like the House of Lords in Britain, it should only be permitted to delay legislation, not reject it. For example, once the House of Commons passes a bill the House of Lords can delay it for a maximum of one year.

The rules governing the conduct of the two Houses need reform as well. While the Lok Sabha can suspend unruly MPs and even marshall them out, the Rajya Sabha cannot. Given the behaviour we have witnessed from MPs in the Upper House in recent weeks that exemption must be removed. If you disrupt either House, you belong outside, not inside, parliament.

In the House of Commons the slightest disruption is dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly by the Speaker. Since 1900 Britain has had less than 50 disruptions, each lasting, on average, less than one hour before the Speaker ensures the House resumes normal business.

In contrast, Indian Speakers are both weak and partisan. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has proved particularly ineffectual. Despite senior BJP leader LK Advani’s reprimand directed at her last week, and President Pranab Mukherjee’s admonition of MPs’ conduct (“For God’s Sake, do your job,” he told them, implying the Speaker wasn’t doing hers), Mahajan has failed to control the House.

The chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Vice- President Hamid Ansari, has been equally disappointing. He established his partisan credentials by stalling a vote on the Lokpal bill at the stroke of midnight on December 30, 2011 and adjourning the House sine die. Ever since, his stewardship of the Rajya Sabha has been partisan and anaemic. The Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, PJ Kurien, has been equally ineffective, though he does make an attempt to appear impartial and firm. He is neither. While the number of Rajya Sabha MPs and their influence over legislation are cut down to size, the really big-ticket reform involves the Lok Sabha: more MPs, smaller constituencies, stricter rules of conduct, and stronger Speakers.

Indian parliamentarians work for fewer days than lawmakers in, for example, the United States. The US Senate (100 members) and the House of Representatives (435) serve a population one-fourth India’s and work 140 days a year. India’s parliamentarians in comparison work only 80 days a year across the winter, Budget and monsoon sessions. And that includes the countless days Parliament is adjourned following disruptions.

Like Parliament itself, reforms can no longer be stalled.

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Women leaders are ultimate heirs to the future
They will be judged on their merit, not gender.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016

If you were a woman and lived in France in 1944, you wouldn't have been allowed to vote. France, the land of Voltaire and liberté, egalité, fraternité, was among the last European countries to give women the right to vote.

Britain wasn't any better: British women got the full vote only in 1928. South America was worse. Women in Chile were not allowed to vote till 1961.

How things have changed. In 2016, 49 countries have elected women heads of government (not counting women monarchs). Since British women won the right to vote 88 years ago, the country has elected two women as prime minister - Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Theresa May in 2016 (though May was elected through an internal Conservative party poll).

At first glance, South Asia seems a feminist haven: every major country in the region has had an elected woman head of government: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and, in Bangladesh, both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. Sri Lanka in fact holds the distinction of being the first country in the world to elect a woman leader - Sirimavo Bandarnaike - in 1960.

The apparent progressiveness is of course illusory. All four South Asian women leaders have been dynasts, inheriting the position from their father or husband, albeit through democratic elections. The winner here is feudalism not feminism.

And it is the same feudalism we have seen at work in recent days after the death of J Jayalalithaa. She won the mantle from mentor MGR after a bitter tussle with his wife Janaki. In that sense at least, she earned her stripes. Her successor Sasikala, however, by stepping into her shoes, is set to propagate the cult of feudal politics.

Most other state-level women leaders in India owe their positions to family or a male mentor. The BSP's Mayawati and the PDP's Mehbooba Mufti are stereotypical examples though Mayawati to her credit has significantly built on the political base she inherited from her mentor Kanshi Ram.

Interestingly, the United States remains one of the few major western countries to have never elected a woman head of government though Hillary Clinton came close last month.

America has a curious puritanical streak that puts it at odds with countries in Europe and South America where women leaders are now common. The oddly regressive impulse in the US ensured that blacks (men and women) were not allowed to vote in some southern states till as late as 1965 - two years after the death of the moderniser-president John F Kennedy.

President-elect Donald Trump was expected - especially after his outrageous comments on women throughout the presidential campaign - to stuff his cabinet and administration with alpha males. And with the choice of three retired Generals (Michael Flynn, James "Mad Dog" Mattis and John Kelly) he's done just that. But he's also revealed a softer side: nearly 30 per cent of his cabinet and key administration picks so far (six out of 22) are women: Nikki Haley, Betsy deVos, Elaine Chao, Kathleen McFarland, Seema Verma and Linda McMahon.

Interestingly, two of the six women are of Indian origin: Nikki Haley (nominated as US ambassador to the UN) and Seema Verma (picked as head of Medicare and Medicaid). Elain Chao, nominated as transportation secretary, a senior cabinet position, is also of Asian descent.

True to his TV reality-style persona, however, Trump has nominated Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration (SBA) department. McMahon is co-founder and ex-CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) which, among other things, features bouts between women dressed in lingerie.

Glass ceiling
So where do women leaders go from here? The political glass ceiling may not have been shattered, but it certainly has developed cracks.

In India, while feudal dynasts like Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje have an easier path to the top, others like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee have risen on merit - if that is the right word for her rise.

There is in fact a sobering lesson in Mamata's ascendancy. With no mentor or family previously engaged in politics, Mamata has used precisely those tactics to win elections that she decried in male rivals: appeasing minorities, unleashing a cult of violence on political opponents, building a thuggish cadre, and co-opting corrupt legislators.

To get to the top, Mamata has behaved just like the CPM which ruled (and ruined) West Bengal for over three decades.

Jayalalithaa too was a ruthless leader during her four terms as chief minister beginning in 1991 when she was still only 43. In 2004, when she was arguably at the peak of her career, I travelled to Chennai to interview her. We met at the chief minister's office.

I had been warned by my Chennai bureau chief that she preferred a namaste as a greeting. Out of force of habit, however, I proferred by hand as we met and she shook it warmly.

After our hour-long interview was over, as we drove back to the hotel, my Chennai bureau chief said conspiratorially "She rarely shakes journalists' hands, especially after her recent interview with a television anchor."

With us though, Jayalalithaa was both pleasant and professional, answering questions across a range of issues without the aid of notes.

In a patriarchal society like India's, women leaders are increasingly beating men at their own game: politicking.

While Sonia Gandhi, Vasundhara Raje, Mayawati and Mehbooba have overcome patriarchy through family or feudalism, others like Jayalalithaa, Mamata and former Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel have risen on the back of performance and, in the case of Anandiben, been sidelined when performance lags.  

As education, demographics and technology level the playing field, women leaders will increasingly be judged on merit, not gender. They represent the future

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Empire Of Babus
Much of the usurious corruption has sprung from the ministry of defence and the ministry of finance. The former controls large defence purchase budget

Thursday, December 8, 2016

When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, he took two immediate key decisions. One, he disbanded the Groups of Ministers (GoMs) that had mushroomed to more than 20 during the UPA government. Two, he called a meeting of more than 75 senior bureaucrats cutting across ministries.

The message: you now have direct access to me. Work hard and work fast. The intent: to replace India’s notorious red tape with a red carpet — a Modi campaign promise. The outcome: the babus worked hard and fast for several months. Without tedious, interminable and often infructuous GoM meetings the bureaucracy became energised.

It didn’t last. The Indian bureaucracy is a unique animal. Created as the Indian Civil Service (ICS) by the British, it formed what Jawaharlal Nehru called India’s “steel grid”. The ICS morphed after Independence into the IAS but the change in alphabet hid the fact that real changes did not occur. The ICS had served an exploitative empire. The nomenclature it gave its officers gave the game away: for example, District Collectors were principally tasked to collect taxes from the districts.

After Independence, the IAS should have changed not only such honorifics (69 years later, it still hasn’t) but also its mission: to serve, not rule. The steel grid of the civil service has long rusted. Worse, it has been co-opted by unsavoury politicians. Most of the serial corruption scandals since Bofors in 1987 have had a political-bureaucratic nexus.

Much of this usurious corruption has sprung from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Finance (MoF). The former controls large defence purchase budgets. Bureaucrats with negligible knowledge of defence technology decide billion-dollar deals.

Extraordinarily, no officer from the army, air force or navy is attached to the MoD. Under a weak defence minister such as A.K. Antony, bureaucrats ruled the roost. The outcome was appalling on two fronts. First, kickbacks. Second, delayed decisions on fighter jets, battleships and even ammunition.

With a virtual war raging on the India-Pakistan border, the lack of ammunition was especially serious. India had to make emergency off-the-shelf purchases of ammunition, firearms, and other defence equipment from Israel and Russia worth over Rs 5,000 crore in September 2016 with delivery schedules ranging from immediate to three months.

Clearly, defence minister Manohar Parrikar must shoulder some responsibility for this appalling state of affairs. He has been in the job for two years and blaming Antony for all such lapses will no longer do.

Worse, MoD bureaucrats have continuously sought to sabotage relations with the armed forces. The latest ploy to downgrade military officer ranks with relation to civil service officers through a letter dated 18 October 2016 was nipped in the bud due to media pressure. The matter is now being resolved by Parrikar whose good intent is often stymied by slow reactions to events in his ministry.

Parrikar was proactive during the OROP imbroglio and passed the file in early 2015 over the heads of MoD officers. However, their colleagues in the MoF sat on the file for four months, fetching the government bad press — and the entirely avoidable distrust of the armed forces. Much the same bureaucrat-inspired shenanigans muddied the waters over rank-linked increments to the armed forces under the Seventh Pay Commission as well as disability compensation.

In each case, Parrikar — with Modi’s full support — had to firefight before righting babu-manufactured wrongs. The suicide of a jawan, Subedar Ramkishan Grewal, over OROP pension payments was quickly seized upon by opposition politicians Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal.

The MoF has been a particularly malignant breeding ground for bureaucratic malfeasance. Apart from its role in OROP, disability compensation and the Seventh Pay Commission controversies, it has succeeded in keeping the worst legislation of the UPA government on the statute books: retrospective tax. Like Parrikar, finance minister Arun Jaitley must accept responsibility for not repealing this egregious tax that has diminished India’s global reputation. He has had three Budget opportunities to do so and has fluffed all three. Another Budget arrives in early February 2017. Jaitley should seize the opportunity or shoulder the opprobrium that accompanies the retro tax.

Modi is meanwhile trying to combat the bureaucratic inertia by setting up 10 Groups of Secretaries to conduct a mid-term review in December 2016 of the state of major projects ahead of the Union Budget.

Bureaucrats, of course, aren’t all inert. Some like Amitabh Kant, the CEO of Niti Aayog, have been agents of transformation. Many young IAS officers, posted in Maoist-infested areas, are brave, committed and selfless. The problem arises when Central postings beckon. The lure of the entrenched political-bureaucratic nexus with easy pickings, can tempt the best. Clearly, IAS reforms are essential. Modi’s attempts towards this end have been focused and patient but borne limited results. More drastic reforms must now be his priority as he enters the second half of his five-year term as prime minister.

This is what I wrote on IAS reform: “The second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), headed by former law minister Veerappa Moily, has not been implemented. The second ARC’s report is an outstanding document with over 15 closely argued, well-written chapters on reforming the bureaucracy. If implemented, it would transform the IAS and the quality of public services in India. “In the spring of 1964, shortly before his death, Jawaharlal Nehru was asked in private by his closest colleagues what he regarded as his greatest failure as India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru replied: ‘I could not change the administration. It is still a colonial administration and one of the main causes of India’s inability to solve the problem of poverty.’”

One of the reasons India moved up just one place to 130 in the World Bank’s latest index of ease of doing business is the intransigence of the Permit Raj. Despite Modi’s efforts to cut red tape, India is ranked at 185 on getting “construction permits” and at 155 on “starting a business”. In the World Bank survey India does best on three parameters: “protecting minority investors” (13), “getting electricity” (26) and “getting credit” (44). Notably, all three have minimal inputs from bureaucrats. The moral of the story couldn’t be clearer

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Supreme Court must know liberty is supreme, not patriotism
National anthem judgment has taken the law back by a century.
Monday, December 5, 2016

The Supreme Court has once again displayed a poor understanding of individual liberty. As I’ve said before - and it’s worth repeating - your freedom ends where my nose begins.

Individual liberty, within reasonable bounds, lies at the heart of democracy. Compelling citizens to stand up when cinema halls play the national anthem will have precisely the opposite effect from what the Supreme Court intended.

Many will justifiably resent being told by the state what to do, where, and when. It will certainly not engender nationalism. Patriotism can’t be force-fed. 

Most Indians anyway stand up when the national anthem is played. But to play it in cinema halls before every film is itself excessive: the anthem loses its soaring emotive appeal. To further compel people to stand up for the anthem violates individual liberty. And to prevent them from leaving the theatre by locking the exit gates before the anthem begins compounds the folly.

Apart from delivering a judgment that is flawed in principle and impractical to implement, the Supreme Court has taken the law back by a century. This is what the operative part of the judgment says: “It is the sacred obligation of every citizen to abide by the ideals engrafted in the Constitution. And one such ideal is to show respect for the National Anthem and the National Flag.

“Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty-bound to show respect to the National Anthem which is the symbol of Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights. The idea is constitutionally impermissible. All the cinema halls in India shall play the National Anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the National Anthem.”

Note these words in particular: “Constitutional patriotism... does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights.”

This must be among the most regressive sentences in a Supreme Court judgment in decades. “Individual rights” are sacrosanct - with only reasonable restrictions. Not standing up during a national anthem may be distasteful but compelling citizens to do so is an unreasonable restriction on individual rights. Being a boor is not a crime.

The phrase “constitutional patriotism…does not allow any different notions or perceptions…” is equally regressive. Democracy is founded on precisely “different notions and perceptions.” Take those differences away and you take away the essence of liberty.

The Supreme Court exists to guarantee fairness and justice and to protect the weak from the strong. This judgment, like several others in recent months, does neither.

The Supreme Court has erred far too frequently in recent years on key issues. It has fought a running battle with the government on the collegium system of picking judges. As Justice Chelameswar, a member of the collegium, said: “I have written a letter (to the CJI) informing him that I will not be participating in the collegium's meetings henceforth. The system of selection of judges is not at all transparent. No reason, no opinion is recorded. Just two people decide the names and come back to the meeting and ask for a yes or no. Can a judge of the SC or HC be selected in such a manner?"

The Supreme Court meanwhile has ducked several important issues: it has not constituted a seven-member bench, as it had pledged, to review its 1995 judgment defining Hindutva as a way of life.

It has not meaningfully pursued contempt proceedings against the Centre and states for defying its 10-year-old order on police reforms that lie at the heart of improving India’s criminal justice system.

The Supreme Court was unable to force its writ on Karnataka in its dispute with Tamil Nadu over sharing an additional allocation of Cauvery waters.

The apex court also mothballed the controversial Ram temple issue for years. It has now finally agreed to schedule day-to-day hearings on Dr Subramanian Swamy’s petition. 

The court though has been justifiably proactive in cleaning up the BCCI. But while it delivered its verdict in July 2016, the BCCI defied the apex court for months before being reined in.

In the US, Supreme Court justices are nominated by the executive branch. The American President chooses judges based on ideology. This is clearly an unacceptable system for India. The executive branch cannot be the sole arbiter: that flies in the face of balance of power between the executive, judiciary and legislature.

But India’s collegium system for selecting judges in the higher judiciary remains deeply flawed. Justice Chelameswar has been unusually blunt about the defects in the collegium. Meanwhile, the stand-off between the government and the Supreme Court continues.

Unless the latest draft of the government’s Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) for selecting judges is accepted by the Supreme Court (which has sat on it for four months), the government is unlikely to relent on clearing the names of judges sent to it by the apex court.

The criminal justice system has failed Indians. It has in particular failed those most needing its protection: the poor. Countless undertrial prisoners rot in jail far beyond the maximum sentence they would have received had they been convicted.

Instead of remedying these injustices, the Supreme Court is intruding into matters that should not be its concern: the national anthem.

Wiser counsel must prevail and the order reviewed. India has many more pressing judicial matters that need the Supreme Court’s undivided attention.

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E-commerce Firms Bleed In Price War
Bigger e-commerce marketplaces like Flipkart and Snapdeal are bleeding far more. In 2015-16, Flipkart recorded a loss or Rs 2,306 crore

Monday, December 5, 2016

Consumers have never had it so good. Online marketplaces, vying for volume, are offering mouth-watering discounts. 

From smartphones to white goods, discounts range all the way down to 50 per cent. Debit and credit card usage has spiked; e-wallets are becoming ubiquitous; even public sector utilities are turning digital-savvy. 

In a curious way, demonetisation has catalysed cashless transactions. Account-linked FASTag stickers on vehicle windscreens using RFID technology are already in use in around half of the countrys 375 toll highways. More toll plazas are expected to go digital with RFID-enabled FASTags and other e-payment options to allow vehicles to drive through without stopping. In the West, nobody pays cash at toll checkpoints. 

A recent survey revealed that due to delays at cash toll booths, Indian truckers cover just 300 km compared to Western truckers who cover 700 km in the same time period.

But while consumers  still struggling with Rs 2,000 denomination notes and limits on cash withdrawals  are enjoying unprecedented online discounts across product categories, e-commerce retailers are bleeding. 

Pepperfry, the online furniture marketplace, doubled its annual loss from Rs 88 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 156 crore in 2015-16. For a relatively small firm that basically aggregates furniture sellers, thats a big hit. 

Even bigger is the loss reported by Quikr, the online classifieds major. In 2014-15, it lost Rs 446 crore. This fiscal its losses have mounted to Rs 534 crore with no daylight in sight at the end of the tunnel. 

Both Pepperfry and Quickr have grown revenue over the previous year  Pepperfry by 400 per cent and Quickr by 60 per cent  but that is cold comfort. 

The more e-commerce firms sell, the greater the loss. Besides, if Quickr, for example, hadnt earned Rs 53 crore from excess venture capital funds it placed in treasury operations (bonds, debentures and mutual funds), its annual balance sheet would have looked even worse with non-treasury annual losses at Rs. 587 crore. 

Bigger e-commerce marketplaces like Flipkart and Snapdeal are bleeding far more. In 2015-16, Flipkart recorded a loss or Rs 2,306 crore. Online retailers make up these humongous losses  which would have long put brick-and-mortar firms out of business  through newer and newer rounds of fund raising. 

That window though is narrowing as valuations dip. Morgan Stanley recently reduced Flipkarts valuation to $5.60 billion  a third of its valuation of $15.2 billion in July 2015. Fighting deep-pocketed US rival Amazon becomes more difficult if liquidity is strained. 

If you lose Rs. 2,306 crore a year by selling goods to happy consumers at way below MRP, youll need funding to match that. At current valuations, that means substantially diluting promoters equity. At a $15.2 billion valuation, Flipkart could dilute 10 per cent equity to investors for $1.5 billion (Rs. 10,000 crore). Today it will have to dilute 30 per cent (of already diluted equity after several funding rounds) to raise the same amount. 

And if losses mount to Rs. 3,000 crore or more a year, the level of dilution can become unsustainable over a three-year period. 

The solution? Cut discounts. Easier said than done. Volumes could drop vertically. Traffic could flee. For e-commerce vendors, their only asset is traffic volume. Lose that, you lose everything. 

The key then is to nudge discounts down and nudge valuations up. How? 

Financial surgery to cauterise the balance sheet is the only way to stop the bleeding. Unless cash discounts fall, losses will climb. Thats not a sustainable business model for what is now essentially a commoditised click-and-deliver logistical play

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Nagrota attack India must make Pakistan cry
Islamabad will be on the mat at Heart of Asia meet in Amritsar following the atrocity on the Indian Army.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The terror attack in Nagrota calls for a clinical response. Retribution from the Indian Army will follow.

The scale could exceed the surgical strike conducted by special forces after the Uri terror attack. This is necessary but not sufficient.

Parliament must now rapidly pass Rajeev Chandrasekhar's private member's bill to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

Other steps - diplomatic, economic and military - will flow from Parliament's declaration of intent.


Meanwhile, the government must look inwards. Why are our Army camps vulnerable to terror attack after terror attack?

Why did combing operations to flush out the remaining terrorists who struck Nagrota not continue through the night of the attack?

The lack of night vision technology underscores the chronic failure of the defence ministry to equip our forces for counterterrorism operations.

Counterterrorism, ironically, is the principal theme of the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference that begins in Amritsar on December 3.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani are co-hosts of the conference. Forty high-level ministerial delegations from around the world will attend.

The HoA initiative, begun in 2011, is Afghanistan-focused. The HoA is a platform to encourage cooperation on security, economic and political concerns that affect Afghanistan and its neighbours.

Pakistan, as the epicentre of regional terrorism - including its decades-long role in creating and nurturing the Taliban in Afghanistan - will be on the mat in Amritsar following the Nagrota atrocity.

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's de facto foreign minister, despite Islamabad's pariah status, will be a keen participant in the conference. He has two assets: a thick skin and China.

Pakistan has developed a brazen response to critics of its terror factories: "We too are the victims of terrorism."

It ignores the obvious fact that Pakistan is the victim of home-grown terrorists nurtured over decades.

Like rattlesnakes, some will inevitably turn on their creator. Pakistan's other asset is China. In Amritsar, Beijing can be counted on to provide Islamabad cover with sniper fire.

As it did at the BRICS summit in Goa in October, China will find alibis for Pakistan's terror machine. But Beijing's complicity in jihadi terror is coming under increasing global scrutiny.

The US is a "supporting" member of the HoA process. So are several other Western countries with a security stake in Afghanistan, including NATO member-nations such as Britain and Germany.

China's obstructionist behaviour to defend Pakistan-origin terror finds no sympathisers among them.


Afghanistan, which along with India has borne the brunt of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, will be keen not to spare Islamabad in Amritsar. President Ghani began his term sympathetic to Pakistan.

After a year in office, he turned a fierce critic. Because it is landlocked and poor, Afghanistan is geostrategically dependent on Pakistan.

The HoA process is designed, at least in principle, to reduce that dependency. India has a crucial role in this.

It already spends billions of dollars in building schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure in Afghanistan.

The Afghan people are as deeply grateful to India as they are deeply resentful of Pakistan. As one observer said bluntly, "Send a Pakistani military officer alone to any bazaar in Kabul, Kandahar or Herat and he'll be lynched."

For India, the HoA conference on December 3-4 is an opportunity to turn the global spotlight on Pakistan's terror machine.

The beheading of two Indian soldiers in the space of a month underscores the fact that the Pakistani army increasingly behaves like a jihadi army.

It has abandoned all pretence of professional soldiering. India's military response then was strong and swift, forcing the Pakistani DGMO to sue for peace last week by calling the Indian DGMO.

This metaphorical white flag was shown after Indian artillery destroyed Pakistani army posts around Machil where the latest mutilation of an Indian jawan took place.

Beyond retaliatory military strikes, PM Modi has warned Islamabad that India will use its legal rights under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) to divert water to Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.

Six hydroelectric power projects in J&K have already been fast-tracked. Together, Punjab and J&K will now get the share of Indus water they are entitled to under the IWT - a legal allocation India has for decades inexplicably not fully used.

The consequences of India using its legal quota of IWT water will not be pleasant for Pakistan's Punjab.

Under the IWT, India has been allocated water which can potentially generate 18,500MW of power compared to the current 3,500MW. This legally allocated water flow can irrigate 13.4 lakh acres.

Today, a mere eight lakh acres are being irrigated. The PM has given the central electricity authority a December 2016 deadline to finalise a techno-economic appraisal of these plans, including completing several hydroelectric projects on the Chenab.

Speaking at a rally in Bathinda, Modi declared last week: "India has the right to Indus water. It flows into Pakistan. Flowing through Pakistan, the water goes into the sea. That water belongs to Indian farmers. We will do whatever we can to give enough water to our farmers."

Sartaj Aziz will receive a formal but cold reception when he arrives in India on December 4.

What will be more chilling is his realisation that Pakistan after Nagrota is about to pay a heavy price for being a state sponsor of terrorism

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How long will the coalition of the corrupt stand united against Modi
The deadlock will eventually be broken by backroom talks in the well-practised Indian art of jugaad.
Monday, November 28, 2016

With the exception of the JD(U), the cash-deprived Opposition has come together in what some cruelly call a coalition of the corrupt.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has meanwhile seized the moral high ground in a Them vs. Us binary: you are either corrupt (and oppose demonetisation) or you are clean (and support demonetisation).

The message resonates politically. It is as powerful a message as Indira Gandhi's Garibi Hatao slogan in the early-1970s.

To avoid losing the long-term political battle, as Mrs Gandhi did in the late-1970s, Modi will now have to win the economic and social argument.

First, he will have to quickly - and the timeframe for this is measured in days not weeks - sort out the cash shortage in the unorganised sector where many of the poor work.

High denomination notes valued at around Rs 8 lakh crore out of a total corpus of old Rs 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes valued at Rs 15 lakh crore have so far been deposited into the banking system.

However, only around Rs 4 lakh crore of new notes have been re-circulated (mostly in unwieldy Rs 2,000 denomination).

The resultant cash shortage is causing distress among daily wage labourers, small cash-and-carry retailers and unbanked tribals.

Most are stoic. Independent opinion polls show 80 per cent-plus support for Modi's move against black money. The support cuts across age and income demographics.

But patience can wear thin. Hence the urgency of printing enough new notes (especially of Rs 500 denomination) to replenish liquidity in the unorganised sector.

The Opposition has responded with barely contained fury. Its "bandh" on November 28 disrupted life in cities like Kolkata where Mamata Banerjee's TMC holds sway. It left Mumbai, India's financial capital, unmoved.

Notes with benefits
The economic benefits of demonetisation fall into two categories. First, the value of unclaimed old notes is expected to be nearly Rs 4 lakh crore out of the Rs 15 lakh crore worth of notes rendered illegal tender.

This will allow the government to receive a special dividend from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The money can be used to recapitalise banks as well as build infrastructure and enhance public investment in education and health.

The second economic benefit is the increase in the tax base as a large part of black money turns white. If Finance Minister Arun Jaitley delivers a bold Union Budget on February 1, 2017, the economy could rebound from the April-June 2017 quarter onwards.

Armed with a treasury flush with cash, Jaitley can afford deep cuts in personal income tax. This will be politically popular with the middle-class just as the campaign against black money has been popular with the poor.

A cut in personal income tax along with the implementation of GST to replace indirect taxes (service, VAT, excise and customs) could drive a consumption-led boom by mid-2017.

Economic growth, which in the November 2016-March 2017 period may fall from a pre-demonetisation estimate of 7.70 per cent to around 6.80 per cent, could well spurt to over 8 per cent in 2017-18.

This is critical for Modi. If the economy recovers sharply, black transactions reduce, private investment recovers, and consumption through greater digitisation picks up, Modi will be in pole position to win three battles: economic, moral and political.

With several state assembly polls looming in 2017-18, and the Lok Sabha election due in 2019, it is a battle the Opposition knows it cannot afford to lose. Hence the coalition of convenience that makes a Mamata Banerjee offer an electoral alliance to a sworn enemy like the CPM.

Meanwhile, Parliament remains paralysed. The prime minister will not speak in either House till the debate on demonetisation begins. The Opposition will not begin the debate till he speaks.

The deadlock will eventually be broken by backroom talks in the well-practised Indian art of jugaad.

Cashless and witless, the Opposition will pray that Modi trips up on executing demonetisation in the next crucial 30 days of December.

If he doesn't, they should get used to seven-and-a-half more years of PM Modi.

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After Demonetisation, Big Bang Budget
Post-demonetisation, the government must focus its resources (manpower and technology) on higher tax slabs to optimise results and make the tax-collection machinery more cost-efficient

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Out of a stock of Rs. 14.95 lakh crore in old currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 denomination, approximately Rs. 10 lakh crore are expected to be turned into banks by December 30, 2016. A trickle will flow into the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) with a declaration form up to March 31, 2017. 

It is estimated that around Rs. 4 lakh crore worth of demonetised notes will end up dead. Their holders prefer to write them off rather than open themselves up to scrutiny by the income-tax department. 

Consider the fiscal impact of these developments. First, the RBIs liabilities on its balance sheet will reduce by Rs. 4 lakh crore on account of the dead notes. This allows it two options: one, increase its dividend to the government; and two, help recapitalise stressed banks. 

The second consequence of demonetisation will be felt on the fiscal deficit. Depending on their provenance, a portion of the Rs. 10 lakh crore expected to be deposited in banks by December 30, 2016 (and into the RBI by March 31, 2017) will be taxable. 

Assuming an average tax rate of 15 per cent across the Rs. 10 lakh corpus (since some of it will not be taxable due to various exemptions), the government will receive a one-time windfall of about Rs. 1.50 lakh crore. 

Total personal income tax collection in 2015-16 was just over Rs. 3 lakh crore so this represents a significant increase of 50 per cent over the base. 

The key lies in ensuring the tax gains recur every year. Conservative estimates put this at a mere Rs. 50,000 crore a year from old and new assessees. More optimistic estimates place the incremental recurring annual figure at Rs. 1 lakh crore. 

Whatever the final number, the fiscal deficit is set to fall. This years gains include 45 per cent tax on Rs. 65,250 crore received from the Income Declaration Scheme (IDS), unbudgeted funds from the incomplete 700 MHz telecom spectrum auction, and now the likely Rs. 1.50 lakh crore tax windfall from demonetisation. 

All these will help reduce the fiscal deficit to well below 3 per cent of GDP even if the gains are spread over two accounting years. Since banks are flush with cash deposits, the RBI is almost certain to cut interest rates by a significant amount in December. Inflation too will remain soft.

More importantly, it gives finance Minister Arun Jaitley elbow room to go for big bang reforms in the next Union Budget due on February 1, 2017. Both income-tax and long-term capital gains tax rates should be key targets. 

A simple, effective personal income tax regime would look like this: 

Zero tax up to Rs. 5 lakh net taxable income; 

Flat 10 per cent tax on taxable income between Rs. 5 lakh and Rs. 10 lakh. No exemptions; 

Flat 20 per cent tax on taxable income above Rs. 10 lakh. No exemptions; 

Corporate tax: flat 25 per cent. No exemptions. 

Such a simplified low-tax structure would actually increase compliance and revenue in the long term.

Post-demonetisation, the government must focus its resources (manpower and technology) on higher tax slabs to optimise results and make the tax-collection machinery more cost-efficient. 

Theres one more tax reform Jaitley can implement in the next Union Budget. Remove long-term capital gains tax on residential premises. The tax garners less than Rs. 100 crore a year. By scrapping it, the housing market, where sentiment and funds have been hit by demonetisation, will receive a fillip. It could also be an election winner. 

A caveat here: the last thing the demonetisation exercise  which has cost many innocent people days of trauma and some their very lives  should end up doing is give tax officers excessive discretionary powers. That would hamper Indias rise in the global index of the Ease of Doing Business. 

The cure would be worse than the disease.

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Suleiman and Anwar join bank queue
Things can’t be that bad if even the cab driver seems happy, Suleiman reflected.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Suleiman Khan blinked in the early morning Delhi sun. He took a deep breath. The smog hit him like a dense blanket of smoke.

Anwarbhai was right, he thought to himself, as he maneouvred his luggage trolley out of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Delhi can be injurious to health.

His mobile rang. It was Anwar Sheikh. “Suleiman! Welcome to Delhi. I would have come to pick you up from the airport, but I’m stuck standing in a queue at my bank.” 

“So early in the morning, Anwarbhai?” Suleiman glanced at the imitation Rolex watch he’d bought during his last visit to India. It was 7.45am. “Do banks open this early in India?”

Anwar’s voice crackled hoarsely over the phone. “Suleiman, I’ve queued up at my bank since 6 this morning. The surgical strike our Prime Minister has launched on black money is killing us.”

Suleiman was surprised. "But I heard your finance minister Arun Jaitley saying on TV the other day that the queues were shortening, everything was under control.”

Anwar groaned over the phone: “Look Suleiman, just grab a cab and go over to my place. I’ll join you as soon as I can deposit my old Rs 1,000 notes into my bank account.”

“Okay, Anwarbhai, I’ll go to your house and fix myself a cup of tea. Come soon.”

Suleiman waved a taxi down. He was in India on his annual winter holiday. He had heard back home in Saudi Arabia about the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes. At the airport foreign exchange counter he was careful to exchange his Saudi riyals for the new Rs 2,000 notes.

The cab fare to Anwar’s house in south Delhi came to Rs 400. Luckily, the driver had change in 100 rupee notes which he offered Suleiman with a smile.

Things can’t be that bad if even the cab driver seems happy, Suleiman reflected as he settled down in Anwar’s living room, waiting for his friend to arrive. 

Two hours later Anwar walked in, looking careworn. The two friends hugged and then Anwar launched into a bitter tirade.

“I tell you, Suleiman, this time (Narendra) Modi has gone too far! He’s ruined us!”

“How so, Anwarbhai?” asked Suleiman, bewildered by the mixture of anger, bitterness and weariness in his friend’s voice. “I thought the demonetisation scheme is a success. Bill Gates has praised it. So has Deepak Parekh. Even Narayana Murthy! Short-term pain for long-term gain...”

Anwar cut him off mid-sentence. “That’s all rubbish, Suleiman. Do you know how much my political friends have lost in black? Crores! All gone. Overnight! Some political parties in Delhi, Punjab and Bengal don’t have enough cash to pay voters in state elections and by-polls due very soon.”

“Pay voters?” Suleiman asked, puzzled. “Why would they need to do that?”

Anwar shook his head in mock exasperation. “My dear Suleiman, you’ve been away in Saudi for too long. In India every political party pays voters in cash or kind.”

Suleiman smiled as he thought to himself: in Saudi we don’t have elections so no worries about paying voters.

To Anwar he said aloud: “I hear Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee want a rollback and Arun Jaitley has refused point blank.”

Anwar’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, Kejriwal and Mamata are right. This move has hurt the poor and brought the cash economy to a standstill.”

Suleiman turned thoughtful. “I hear though that Pakistan is as upset as some Congress, TMC and AAP leaders seem to be. Their counterfeit notes, which were used to pay stone-pelters in Kashmir, have become worthless overnight.”

Anwar looked quizzically at Suleiman who was now hitting his stride. “I also saw Ghulam Nabi Azad on TV comparing demonetisation to the Pakistani terror strike on Uri which killed 20 of our jawans. The Pakistani media reported Ghulambhai’s statement, made in Parliament, with the same glee they had reported Kejriwal’s doubts over India’s surgical strike on Pakistan’s terror launchpads on September 29.”

Anwar shook his head wearily. “Okay Suleiman, let’s go to my bank tomorrow morning, I need to deposit some more old notes. You’ll see the chaos for yourself. Even our very upright Chief Justice of India has warned of riots if the government doesn’t get its act together.”

Joining the queue
Early next morning, the two friends drove down to Anwar’s bank. Expecting a wait of a few hours in a serpentine queue, both had packed a box of biscuits and a bottle of mineral water.

As they entered the bank, Suleiman nudged Anwar, pointing ahead. “Look Anwarbhai, there’s the queue.”

“It had around ten depositors standing in an orderly line. Within 20 minutes Anwar was at the counter. He deposited Rs 20,000 in old 1,000 rupee notes and turned to look at Suleiman with a trace of embarrassment.

“Today seems an exception,” he said sheepishly. “I believe the queues in villages and small towns are huge. And ATMs routinely run out of cash. Dozens have died waiting for their own money. This move will spell the end of Modi.”

Just then a TV camera crew walked into the bank. The reporter thrust a mike aggressively under the nose of a simply dressed senior citizen standing quietly in the queue: “Sir, do you think the surgical strike on black money is actually a surgical strike on the poor?”

The senior citizen levelled an even gaze at the TV reporter. “Most of the people here in the queue seem happy. They support the move. I don’t know about the villages. There is a problem in implementation despite what the finance minister says. But things are improving gradually.”

The TV reporter seemed disappointed at the response. He spotted Suleiman and thrust the mike towards him. “What do you think , sir?”

Suleiman glanced at Anwar who stood by impassively. “Well, I’m from Saudi Arabia,” Suleiman began tentatively. “If I criticised the ruler there I’d be in jail or get 100 lashes. Here everyone condemns the prime minister, Kejriwal even calls him awful names. If he did that to the ruler in Saudi, he’d lose his head - literally.”

The TV reporter was livid. "Don’t compare us to Saudi. Just tell me what you think of the government’s handling of this so-called war on black money.”

Suleiman looked around the bank. The queue had since shortened to just five people, two of them women. They seemed relaxed. He shrugged at the TV reporter: “It looks as if the war on black money is being won.”

The TV reporter managed a forced smile. It wasn’t what his producer back at the studio wanted to hear.

Anwar put his arm around Suleiman’s shoulder and led him to the bank’s exit door. “You’ll never improve, Suleiman, never,” he smiled good-naturedly. “By the way, that TV reporter is a well-known, highly respected anchor.”

As they left the bank, the smog outside hit them. “Anwarbhai,” Suleiman said, “this is what Kejriwal should fix first.”

Anwar coughed in agreement as the dark haze enveloped them.

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Condemn Islamophobia, accept Hinduphobia Meet India's 'secular' Hindus
They completely misread what real secularism means.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Despite the chilling brutality of the Islamic State (ISIS), the harsh laws of Sunni Saudi Arabia and the hate speeches of mullahs from Tehran to Islamabad, the more extremist strains of radical Islam receive less criticism than they deserve.

Few want to meet the fate of the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, murdered by Islamist terrorists, or Kamlesh Tiwari, still languishing in jail nearly a year after his allegedly derogatory comments on the Prophet.

Islamophobia is rightly condemned. Hinduphobia though is acceptable in living rooms across upper middle-class urban India where secular poseurs are thick on the ground.

In India it's kosher, even fashionable among the nouveau elite, to be anti-Hindu.

We'll come to the pathology of this curious phenomenon in a bit but first a look at The Economist's story on Muslims in India whom it calls "An Uncertain Community".

The magazine grudgingly concedes that "India's Muslims have not, it is true, been officially persecuted, hounded into exile or systematically targeted by terrorists, as have minorities in other parts of the subcontinent, such as the Ahmadi sect in Pakistan."

The Economist has displayed poor editorial judgment so often (it backed the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and endorsed Rahul Gandhi as prime minister in 2014) that its insight on secularism in India is predictably myopic.

And yet, the patronising, all-knowing tone it adopts towards India's secular ethos echoes the position of India's Hinduphobes.

Most Indian Hinduphobes are, strangely, Hindus. They call themselves secular but are often not.

Secularism requires religion-neutrality. They lack that. Bias colours their views.

So why are sophisticated, educated Hindus who aspire to be secular so Hinduphobic? Because they misread completely what real secularism means.

As I wrote in my book The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century, "Influential sections of especially the electronic media, suffused with hearts bleeding from the wrong ventricle, are part of this great fraud played on India's poverty-stricken Muslims - communalism with an engaging secular mask.

The token Muslim is lionised - from business to literature - but the common Muslim languishes in his 69-year-old ghetto.

It is from such ghettos that raw recruits to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujaheedin (IM) are most easily found.

"India's religious diversity though is deeply embedded. Six of India's highest constitutional functionaries have recently been Sikh (prime minister), Christian (UPA chairperson), Muslim (chief election commissioner), Parsi (chief justice of India), Dalit (speaker of the Lok Sabha) and Hindu (president).

"There is no other country in the world with such breathtaking plurality at the highest level of leadership.

"Consider Britain: only Protestant (not Catholic) Christians can be monarch. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, minorities (including Muslim Ahmadis) have severely restricted rights.

"Unlike burqa banning Western democracies such as France and Belgium, Indian secularism does not separate church from state. It allows them to swim together in a common, if sometimes, chaotic pool."

Politicians are the worst offenders. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee turns a blind eye to atrocities by Muslims against Hindus.

In a brazen exhibition of communal politics, she does so in order to secure Bengal's 27 per cent Muslim electorate that, along with a small slice of the Hindu majority, can guarantee her over 40 per cent of the vote share and a near-landslide in a four-cornered contest with the Left, BJP and frenemy Congress.

This sort of communal polarisation suits the BJP. The rise of majoritarianism has underpinned its success in states like Assam.

The biggest loser has been the Congress, the original communal polariser in the 1985 Shah Bano case. It is now reaping the ill wind.

The rise of Hindu extremist fringe elements is a direct consequence of decades of political parties pandering to minorities in the name of a fraudulent secularism.

Meanwhile, the "mild", everyday Hindu, inured to caste stratification, fatalism, karma and centuries of Islamic and Christian-British subjugation, is an easy target for Hinduphobes.

The Economist's piece on Indian Muslims - "An Uncertain Community" - ends with a quote by a veteran Muslim voice: "'They called it a secular state, which is why many who had a choice at Partition wanted to stay here,' says Saeed Naqvi, a journalist whose recent book, Being The Other, chronicles the growing alienation of India's Muslims. 'But what really happened was that we seamlessly glided from British Raj to Hindu Raj.'"

This is misleading for two reasons. First, it is of course a misnomer to call the British occupation of India the British Raj. That connotes a benign presence which the occupation was not.

Second, India is hardly a "Hindu Raj" given the fact that Muslims, Christians, Parsis and others have their own personal laws and, bar isolated incidents, are safer in India than virtually anywhere else in the world.

While Hinduphobia is a psychological affliction, countering it with Hinduphilia is hardly the answer. The RSS is wrong to call for a Hindu Rashtra.

It should instead work for a Bharat Rashtra. Confine religion to your home. It has no place in public discourse.

Secularism is not top-down but bottom-up. No number of laws can guarantee religious tolerance as the examples of France, Belgium and the United States demonstrate.

It is the inborn secularism of Hindus that makes India secular.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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How Donald Trump's America can create a new global power axis
The US-India-Russia-Japan alliance could emerge as the world's most powerful if its components play their cards well.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

It is easy to misread Donald Trump's victory in the United States presidential election as a win for nativist forces. Brexit was similarly misread.

Neither presages anti-globalisation. Post Brexit Britain will emerge a stronger international player, not an isolationist island. Initial fears over the British economy sliding into recession have already been allayed by strong growth numbers in the July-September quarter. The pound is recovering.

In America, paranoia over a Trump presidency heralding economic isolationism and racial armageddon has been fed by a discredited, out-of-touch media.

The real takeaway from Trump's win is that it could fashion a new global power axis.

One pivot of that axis will be a burgeoning partnership between the US, India, Japan and Russia on nuclear security, counterterrorism, trade and technology.

The second pivot in this emerging quadrilateral world order is China with its rogue allies North Korea and Pakistan.

The third pivot is Western Europe, sclerotic and ageing but economically advanced and, with the NATO, militarily powerful.

The fourth and most unstable pivot is the Middle East, a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism and despotic governments.

The outcome of the geopolitical contest between these four pivots will determine the winners and losers in the second quarter of this century.

The US-India-Russia-Japan alliance could emerge as the world's most powerful if its components play their cards well.

The Narendra Modi-Shinzo Abe bilateral summit in Tokyo over the weekend is a pointer in this direction. It was reported that "India and Japan agreed to explore the possibility of cooperation in developing the strategic Chabahar port in Iran that will help India access Afghanistan and Central Asia by bypassing Pakistan.

"The Chabahar project's strategic importance is also enhanced by it being seen as a counter to China's development of Gwadar port in Pakistan which is to be linked to the Chinese province of Xinjiang by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

"The decision by India and Japan to deepen their strategic cooperation despite China's unease was further reflected by the reiteration that international law should prevail in settled claims and disputes in the South China Sea.

The reference, which reflects Japan's concerns over China's muscle-flexing, was reciprocated by direct reference to Pakistan in the context of the 26/11 and Pathankot terror attacks.

"Despite China warning India and Japan against any dalliance over the South China Sea, the subject found specific mention in the joint statement issued after PM Narendra Modi's summit meeting with his counterpart Shinzo Abe."

War on ISIS
Trump's major foreign policy challenge meanwhile is the war on ISIS, now entering its decisive phase in Mosul and Raqqa. Mosul is the last major Iraqi city held by ISIS. Its fall will turn US and Russian attention to Raqqa in Syria.

Raqqa is the de facto capital of ISIS. Most of its senior commanders have gathered there to defend the pincer assault from the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, from the south and the surge of Syrian rebels, backed by American air power and Kurdish Peshmerga, from the north.

The other major Syrian city Aleppo, partially held by ISIS, is under attack by the Syrian army and Russian forces. It could fall any day.

According to the Barack Obama doctrine, which Hillary Clinton co-authored as secretary of state in 2011, the priority in Syria was to evict President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Towards this end Syrian rebels fighting Assad were trained, armed and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in flagrant violation of Syria's sovereignty.

By 2014, ISIS had seized a third of Syrian and Iraqi territory, taking advantage of a Syrian army weakened by US air strikes and an Iraqi army similarly devastated by the earlier US invasion of that country.

When Obama's legacy is examined by history, his role in Syria will be seen as among the most pernicious aspects of his eight-year presidency.

Not only did Obama's obsession with removing Assad from power in Syria create space for ISIS, it turned the Middle East into a cauldron of sectarian strife.

Even when ISIS is finally defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, its last two major territorial possessions, Syria will likely never fully regain its sovereignty. The Kurds will carve out the north. The Turks have already occupied a broad swathe of Syrian territory on the border.

New world order
The US-Russian relationship is at its worst since the early phase of the Cold War in the 1950s. The key reason is not only Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine but conflicting interests in Syria.

Vladimir Putin's Russia backs Assad. Obama's America despises him. That is about to change.

Trump's America will not seek Assad's ouster. The real enemy, as Trump said throughout the presidential campaign, is the Islamic State caliphate of terror, not Assad.

The chances of the US and Russia working together in Syria to defeat ISIS have brightened. It will be Trump's first foreign policy test when he takes office in January 2017.

Where do India and Japan fit in? As a rising regional power, India has excellent relations with the US, Russia and Japan. It now has civil nuclear deals with all three.

Japan is protected by America's nuclear umbrella. Trump may ask Tokyo to bear some of that cost.

But with China emerging as Washington's principal rival, Trump will be careful to keep Tokyo on his side, given Japan's ongoing dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea.

Western Europe, the weakest of the four pivots in an emerging new world order, has been paralysed by its Arab refugee crisis, slow economic growth, ageing population and the threat of lone wolf terror attacks on its cities even after ISIS is evicted from Syria and Iraq.

Next year could prove a geopolitical inflection point. Four of the world's largest economies (the US, Japan, Russia and India) with strong leaders are poised to form a new power axis that could reorder the world in 2017.

Trump, Putin, Modi and Abe form a formidable quartet to take on the threat of Islamist terror on the one hand and the rise of an aggressive China on the other.

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PM Modi is a liberal equaliser
Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the United States presidential election has been seen through an ideological prism: Right beats Left. 

It’s more complicated than that. Trump is a closet social liberal but had to wear a mask of a conservative evangelical through the election. That’s where the vote catchment in middle-class, rural and semi-urban white America lies: belief in God, Church, country and family. 

Race, not gender, defined the election. Belying the assumption that misogyny slayed Hillary Clinton, 53 per cent of white women voted for Trump. It was the African-American and Hispanic vote, male and female, that backed Clinton. In the end, they were outnumbered by angry, gender-neutral whites, including many Left-leaning Democrats who had voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries. 

The “liberal elite” that protested violently across America after Clinton’s defeat is neither liberal nor elite. The same can be said of India’s self-declared Left-liberals. A true-blue liberal is both socially and economically liberal. Leftists are not the latter though they pose as the former. 

An economic liberal believes in free markets, globalisation, privatisation and merit-based employment. That means no opposition to foreign direct investment (FDI), no subsidies to sick public sector units (PSUs), and no quota-based employment. The Left rejects all three. It therefore fails the litmus test of liberalism. 

The Right unfortunately fails the test too. The RSS opposes globalisation and regards foreign direct investment (FDI) as detrimental to Indian industry. That logic would have passed muster in the 1950s. It is as dated as the hula hoop and Ginger Roger movies.  

On social liberalism, the Right fails even more abysmally. It opposes consensual gay relationships (worryingly, so does the Supreme Court which has declined to decriminalise gays by striking down Section 377). It opposes gender equality (the RSS does not admit women and has a separate mahila wing which is a terrible cop-out).

The Right tilts towards swadeshi on education, language and science which would be fine if it weren’t self-defeating. Take the best the world has to offer, don’t close yourself in a delusional ivory tower based on mythology. 

India needs to build an intellectual ecosystem that combines social liberalism with economic liberalism. As I once wrote on these pages: “In India, the BJP regards itself as a right wing party. So do most Indians. They are wrong. A classically right wing party — like the American Republicans or the British Tories — believe in free markets. The BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS, does not. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an economic liberaliser by instinct. He hews to the right of the ideologues in the RSS on economic reforms. Some in the RSS in fact have more in common with the Left on economic issues. They instinctively distrust FDI. For instance, they oppose FDI in multi-brand retail, arguing that it will kill kirana stores. Successful modern societies globally tend to be those that lean rightwards economically (free markets, open trade) and lean leftwards socially (LGBT rights, gender equality). Many right wing parties do the opposite. They oppose free trade and economic reforms — positions the Neanderthal Left holds. Socially, they abhor gay rights and resist giving women absolute equality in, for example, access to places of worship.”

The Left ecosystem that has dominated India’s intellectual discourse since the Nehruvian era is vastly overrated. Its leading lights expound in turgid, 1,600-word op-eds the equivalent of the fact that the sun rises in the East. 

Brevity and clarity lie at the heart of good writing. In much the same way, they define the liberal intellect.  An ordinary leader makes simple things complicated; a great leader makes complicated things simple.

That’s a lesson for the Right and the Left: the real intellectual centre of gravity lies at the liberal-Centre.

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PM Modi is a liberal equaliser
Overall, a Trump presidency will be better for India than a Clinton presidency. She would have followed Obama’s policy of preaching religious tolerance to India and mollycoddling Pakistan over its two-faced approach to “good” and “bad” terrorists

Monday, November 14, 2016

Donald Trump didn’t win the US presidential election. Hillary Clinton lost it. 

Against a less disliked and distrusted Democratic rival than Clinton (such as Bernie Sanders), Trump would have lost.

The verdict against Hillary had nothing to do with her gender. It had to do with Hillary’s thirty-year record in public life – first as a high-profile lawyer, then as a tough-as-nails First Lady, and finally as a two-term New York senator and one-term secretary of state. 

Through these years of public service, the Clintons amassed extraordinary wealth. The corpus of the Clinton Foundation swelled to $2 billion, much of it during Hillary’s term as secretary of state. 

Conflict of interest lurked around every corner, especially with donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other radical Islamic states. 

As secretary of state, Clinton’s decision to house a private email server in the basement of her residence was a fatal mistake. Clinton’s sense of entitlement in what is still a country founded on the principle of “one law for all” sealed her fate. 

How should India work with a Trump presidency? Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump. India-US relations will benefit in several ways from a Trump presidency. The two leaders have similar approaches to combating terrorism. Trump will be far less accommodating of Pakistan’s state-sponsored jihadi machine than Barack Obama was. 

On trade, Trump will be a pragmatic deal-maker. He has tasted business success as a real estate franchise partner in projects in Mumbai, Pune and Gurgaon. These projects are currently valued at $1.50 billion and will now be handled by his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr, and daughter Ivanka as well as son-in-law Jared Kushner, a budding media entrepreneur. 

Trump will put his business empire in a blind trust. But with his family running it, the arrangement has a distinctly desi feel. No wonder Trump gets India. 

Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric alarms some Indians. Will he cut down on outsourced jobs as he promised during the election campaign? Unlikely. Trump was appealing to his blue-collar base who have lost jobs to China and other countries. But while Trump will go after China, whom he has called a trade and currency manipulator, he will not target the Indian IT outsourcing industry which helps US Fortune 500 companies cut costs. Trump, if anything, is a realist. 

Overall, a Trump presidency will be better for India than a Clinton presidency. She would have followed Obama’s policy of preaching religious tolerance to India and mollycoddling Pakistan over its two-faced approach to “good” and “bad” terrorists. 

With Clinton, it would have been business as usual. With Trump, it will be just business.

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India must use Dalai Lama's Tawang visit to rattle China
New Delhi must not curtail such peaceful demonstrations against Beijing's depredations in Tibet.
Monday, November 7, 2016

The Indian government's announcement that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will travel to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in March 2017 has infuriated Beijing. This will not be the Dalai Lama's first visit to Tawang which China claims as its territory. What is different this time is the timing of the announcement.

India and China are locked in a dispute over designating Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. The two countries' NSAs met last week to discuss a way forward on this and the other contentious issue of India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that China has blocked as well.

China's 90-day block in the United Nations on Azhar comes to an end shortly. Beijing knows that being seen on the same side as a designated terrorist in order to protect Pakistan diminishes its international reputation. Beyond a point, such grandstanding becomes counter-productive. Beijing, with superpower ambitions, is keenly aware of this.

The Dalai Lama's Arunachal visit therefore comes at an awkward time for the Chinese. Tibet is one of the most sensitive international problems that Beijing wants to put a lid on. It has pressurised global leaders like former British prime minister David Cameron to boycott a meeting with the Dalai Lama by threatening to hold back Chinese investments in the UK.

US President Barack Obama though has shown courage in hosting the Dalai Lama more than once in Washington. Most other world leaders have succumbed to Chinese pressure.

India enraged China in 1959 when it granted asylum to the Dalai Lama who set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, now called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)). Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's brave decision ended India's entente cordiale with China. Nehru's subsequent aggressive "forward policy" on the India-China border, however, was an unnecessary provocation which led to the 1962 war.

New China policy
It is time to refashion India's China policy. Beijing has a self-centred image as the Middle Kingdom. When Indians were succumbing to rapacious colonial invasions by first the Mughals and then the British, China remained fiercely independent despite the shortlived Japanese invasion of Manchuria. It took the brutal opium wars by the British against nineteenth-century China to colonise tiny Hong Kong in 1842.

Despite its growing economic and military strength, China today has several weaknesses which Indian policymakers can exploit. Tibet is one of the biggest. The Dalai Lama makes no political statements on Indian soil but there is a vibrant community of Free Tibet Chinese activists in India. Give them untrammelled freedom to press their case with seminars and peaceful protests. Global celebrities will join the cause. Many have expressed open support for the Free Tibet movement.

As a democracy, India cannot, and should not, curtail such peaceful demonstrations against China's depredations in Tibet.

Tibet has a long history as an independent nation. In 1950, the People's Republic of China assumed sovereignty over Tibet. It granted the 14th and current Dalai Lama limited autonomy. The Dalai Lama fled to India nine years later, rejecting the sovereignty agreement with China.

An oppressive state
China is a totalitarian and oppressive state. It blocks Facebook, Twitter, Google and other internet sites. Its citizens have few freedoms. Its economy is slowing, its population ageing. Many "wonder towns" built during the boom years are ghost cities with empty buildings and empty roads.

In the northwest province of Xinjiang, China has ruthlessly changed its Muslim-majority demographics over the years by resettling ethnic Hans. Islamist terror attacks - ironically originating in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) - have become common.

The Chinese media, which is strictly censored, not only blocks such news but disallows foreign journalists from independent visits to the province. Newspapers like Global Times and the Xinhua news network are shoddily-produced government mouthpieces.

In many ways China's totalitarian government is akin to Pakistan's. The close links between the two countries are therefore not surprising. With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects, Pakistan has become China's vassal state. Beijing is gradually replacing the United States as Islamabad's principal rent-payer.

Will India's robust stand on Tibet aggravate matters? When China brazenly (and illegally) builds infrastructure in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan for the CPEC despite Indian protests, New Delhi should certainly not worry about upsetting Beijing. The Chinese government has the mindset of a hegemon: stand up to it and it will back down. Appease it and it will climb all over you.

India and China have not exchanged a single bullet along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) since 1987. Beijing does not send terrorists to kill Indians as Pakistan does. But by shielding Pakistani terrorists like Azhar, it is complicit in encouraging terrorism on Indian soil.

The prime minister has embarked on a calibrated policy on China. It is time to ratchet it up. The Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit to Tawang should be widely hailed. The recent visit to Tawang by US ambassador to India Richard Verma was another pointed signal to Beijing.

Free Tibet activists should be allowed to voice their protests around the country in greater numbers even as trade and diplomatic channels with China remain open and robust.

India has good trading links with Taiwan as well. Expand them. Bilateral India-Taiwan trade is now over $6 billion. A visit by Taiwan's first woman prime minister, Tsai ing-Wen, is not untenable despite the lack of official diplomatic relations.

Closer links with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea, all of whom have disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, should form part of India's new China strategy.

Japan especially wants India to be more assertive with China. "We are encouraging India to speak up on issues related to the South China Sea because maritime security is important," says Yuki Tamura, deputy director of Japan foreign ministry's regional policy division which handles the South China Sea.

Those fond of quoting the legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu should remember what he said: "All warfare is based on deception. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

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Creative intolerance over Modi at Ramnath Goenka awards ceremony
By boycotting the Indian Express event because of the prime minister, Akshaya Mukul has sacrificed journalistic neutrality.
Friday, November 4, 2016

Intolerance has no ideological parent. It infects people across class, culture, gender and nationality. The Left accused the Narendra Modi government of intolerance last year. Dozens of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers returned their awards during the "award wapsi" season. (Most announced they would but in the end didn’t. Few, if any, returned the cash prize that went with the award.)

Creative people worldwide are Left-leaning. Being anti-Establishment is a badge of honour – as indeed it should be. The right reaction to such protests – however synthetic their intent and ulterior their motive – is to accept them as a part of freedom of expression in a vibrant democracy.

As I’ve often written, you should be free to say and do what you want so long as you don’t break the law.  

At the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism on November 2, 2016, one awardee, Akshaya Mukul – boycotted the event. The chief guest was Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This is why Mukul did not accept the award in person: “I cannot live with the idea of Modi and me in the same frame, smiling at the camera even as he hands over the award to me.”

Mukul was being honoured by the Indian Express for his book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. The book criticises the “rise” of right-wing Hindu militancy.   

So far so good. In a democracy everyone should be free to criticise everyone else, the prime minister included. Mukul himself can be called a mediocre author and a biased journalist. He shouldn’t mind. Only the intolerant dislike criticism directed at them.

Modi himself has been the target of not just criticism but vilification by Left-leaning people of Mukul’s ilk. They have called him a murderer, a goon and other impolite things. They have of course rarely criticised the depredations of the Left in West Bengal or the serial corruption of dynastic parties like the Congress SP, RJD and others. But the right to be biased is also a part of democracy.

At the height of the manufactured "award wapsi" campaign in 2015, this is the statement issued by six artists, one photographer and one art critic (Geeta Kapur, Vivan Sundaram, Ram Rahman, Sharmila Samant, Tushar Joag, Atul Bhalla, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh):

“The remit of social violence and fatal assaults on ordinary citizens (as in Dadri, UP; Udhampur, Jammu & Kashmir) is multiplying. There are numerous incidents of repression by Hindutva forces operating through their goon brigades. The warnings and regrets issued by ruling party ideologues are merely expedient.

“The Sangh Parivar and its cohorts, who form its support base, and the government itself, are complicit in their attempts to impose conformity of thought, belief and practice. And ‘fringe’ elements are in fact the other face of this government’s developmental rhetoric.

“The ideology of the ruling party has revealed its contempt for creative and intellectual work; bigotry and censorship will only grow. As in the past, we must challenge the divisive forces through varied forms of appeal and protest, articulation and refusal. Our demand can be nothing less than that the entire range of constitutional rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country – freedom of expression and speech, right to dissent and exert difference in life choices including culture and religion – be endured.”

I wrote on these pages at the time: “The language used by the artists is instructive: ‘goon brigades’, ‘cohorts’, ‘repression’, ‘contempt’, ‘bigotry’, and ‘social violence’. These sentiments were conspicuously absent during the incidents of communal violence and brazen corruption under the Congress-led UPA government in 2004-14.”

Mukul’s protest of boycotting the Indian Express event because of Modi’s presence is essentially a political statement. And as an individual journalist he has every right to make such a statement. By doing so though, he sacrifices journalistic neutrality – the gold standard of good journalism. But nobody should grudge Mukul the right to diminish himself professionally.

What’s more worrying is the report that senior editors at the Indian Express were unhappy at the choice of Modi being chief guest at the awards ceremony and sought to reverse the decision.

That constitutes institutionalised journalistic bias. It does the Indian Express’ hard-won reputation for fair and fearless journalism no good at all.

Ramnath Goenka, in whose name the awards for excellence in journalism were instituted, would not be pleased.

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Why America gives Pakistan special treatment
The war on terror in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terror attack dramatically changed the Washington-Islamabad dynamic.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Since 1947, Pakistan has served the US-led West as a geostrategic asset.

Over the decades it has degenerated into a terrorist state. Pakistan's army is an Islamist force that fights in the manner of jihadis.

It ambushes and beheads Indian soldiers instead of fighting them on the battlefield.

The West has suffered enormous casualties as a result of the war on terror by the US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan since 2001. Why then does the West still back Pakistan with money, arms and diplomatic cover?

The US imposed harsh sanctions on Iran for daring to even attempt building a nuclear device.

It imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine, both with strong Russian ethnic ties.

It has designated Sudan, Syria and Iran as "state sponsors of terrorism" for crimes a fraction as malignant as Pakistan's.

Why then does Pakistan receive special treatment? The conventional wisdom is that Pakistan's geostrategic location makes it indispensible.

It is the gateway to both Central Asia and West Asia and controls access to landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan, moreover, is a bulwark against Russian expansionism from the Caucasus.

These Cold War arguments still carry weight in Washington and London. But they are wearing thin.

The real reason the West continues to back Pakistan is hidden beneath self-serving clichis.

The US foreign policy has long been driven by the military-industrial complex (MIC). America emerged from its decade-long Great Depression in 1939 following World War II.

American factory production, mired in recession, began humming again.

It is war that has sustained US manufacturing growth ever since - Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1965-75), Iran-Iraq (1980-88), Kuwait (1990-91), the Balkans (1999), Afghanistan (2001-16), Iraq (2003-16) and Syria (2011-16). America thrives on war.

Its defence budget ($570 billion) is larger than the combined defence budgets of China, Russia, France and Britain (the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council).

This does not mean the US goes to war merely to feed its military-industrial complex. It does so to preserve its global hegemony.

Washington spent more than 40 years in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the then Soviet Union.

The US-led NATO forces and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact powers were locked for decades at flashpoints across Eastern Europe.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, the Cold War against communism has been replaced in US strategic thinking by a battle against two implacable enemies: Islamist terrorism and the rise of China.

America sees Islamist terrorism as the biggest threat to global security. It is the principal reason it tolerates a terrorist state like Pakistan.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton came within a hair's breadth of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state. Islamabad, which hires the most expensive lobbying firms in Washington, escaped unscathed.

The war on terror in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terror attack dramatically changed the US-Pakistan dynamic.

After President George W Bush threatened President Pervez Musharraf to "bomb Pakistan into the stone age" if it didn't cooperate in hunting down the terrorists who had killed nearly 3,000 Americans in the September 11, 2001, terror attack, Islamabad slipped effortlessly into its new role as a "partner in the war on terror" rather than the perpetrator of terror that it clearly was.

The subterfuge has served both Pakistan and the West. Islamabad's single-point agenda is gaining assymetrical parity with India through proxy terrorism.

Pakistan's economy, just a tenth of India's, won't give it parity: the chasm is too wide and growing. Its overstretched military won't give it parity either. Hence, the periodic nuclear bluster by Pakistani policymakers to feign equivalence.

Pakistan's self-created terror infrastructure has forged a failed state. Its army, like ISIS, has a business model that uses terror to extract revenue.

ISIS extorts taxes and steals oil in the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria. The Pakistani army runs benami businesses in real estate, mining, manufacturing and smuggling.

It uses criminals like Dawood Ibrahim to run some of these illegal businesses and protects them in return.

It allows terrorists like Hafiz Saeed to front charities and schools as a cover while he plans terror strikes in India through Punjab-based jihadi groups.

Despite the fact that the West has lost over 4,000 soldiers in the war on terror in AfPak since 2001 - many to attacks by terrorist groups sponsored by Islamabad - Washington continues to back Pakistan.

Islamabad is the classic example of a renegade gambler holding three aces:

One, Islamist terrorists whom it controls and directs; two, China, whom the West fears will replace it if it antagonises Pakistan; and three, a geostrategic location that keeps a resurgent Russia, Washington's increasingly volatile rival, at bay.

Besides, if Pakistan breaks up into Balochistan, Pashtunistan and Sindh (as it eventually might), leaving the rump of Punjabistan as the new Pakistan with a population of 110 million (half of Uttar Pradesh), Islamist terrorists will be freed from Islamabad's protective embrace.

That, Washington feels, is a cure worse that the disease. Pakistan plays on America's paranoia.

It is confident it can continue chasing with the Haqqani terror hounds and running with the Punjab-based terror hares.

The West though has read the sectarian writing on the walls of Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi.

Pakistan is damaged goods but for the present serves the West's limited purpose as a frontline state to quarantine terror.

The West also knows that when you unleash the terror genie, it's impossible to push it back into the bottle. In the end, it consumes you. Pakistan is nearing that moment.

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Modi At Mid-point
The Government’s recent outreach to the muslim community in Haryana and elsewhere underscores the priority that Modi attaches to communal harmony.

Monday, 31.10.2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the mid-point of his five-year tenure in November. It is a good time to assess the PM and his cabinet’s performance on key parameters across various sectors. 

Foreign policy: This has been the Prime Minister’s strongest suit. He has established a viable strategic partnership with the United States. Whatever the outcome of the US presidential election on November 8, the India-US relationship is set to strengthen. 

Modi has meanwhile reached out to the Middle East in an effort to ringfence India’s vital national interest on terrorism. His visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular have tempered the support Pakistan receives. As a result of this ringfencing, Modi has been able to counter the “Islamic card” Pakistan has played for decades to garner support at the United Nations and in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That support has been noticeably absent from a broad swathe of countries in the Middle East during the recent stand-off with Islamabad.

The Prime Minister has forged close trade links with the European Union (EU) and at the same time pursued a vigorous “Act East” policy in an arc from Myanmar to Vietnam. But the PM’s greatest policy success lies in coalescing South Asia into an India-centric bloc. Following the Uri terror attack and India’s surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on September 29, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives joined India’s boycott of SAARC which was scheduled to be held in November 2016. Summit chair Nepal too issued a strong statement condemning terrorism after announcing the cancellation of the summit. 

This unprecedented display of solidarity has succeeded in isolating Pakistan in the subcontinent. It presents Modi an opportunity to press ahead with BIMSTEC, a grouping comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan as an alternative to SAARC which Pakistan has reduced to a farce with its anti-India posturing. 

In the area of foreign policy, Pakistan and China remain Modi’s most serious challenges. The PM’s implacable response to the Uri terror attack with surgical strikes in PoK has rattled Pakistan. Islamabad has turned to China, its toxic ally, and Beijing — despite President Xi Jinping’s relatively cordial relationship with Modi — has revelled in being India’s bête noir. 

In the second half of his term, Modi will need to recalibrate his China policy with a more robust approach. Beijing respects strength. India must display it in its dealings with the Middle Kingdom in the various global fora the two countries share and where Pakistan is absent — especially BRICS and the G-20. 

Economic Policy: Despite three disappointing Union budgets that lacked coherence and vision, India’s economy has turned the corner. The global economy remains soporific but India’s inherent strengths — youthful demographics, a strong services sector and a big, consuming middle class — will ensure GDP growth of 7.5 per cent in 2016-17. 

The success of the black money disclosure scheme, key fiscal reforms and renewed public sector divestment are set to give the economy a fillip. The PM says he spent the first two years of his term fixing the broken economy he inherited from the UPA government. Now though it is his government which will be judged over the next 30 months on how the economy performs. 

Modi’s reputation in rapid project implementation was cemented during his over 12-year tenure as chief minister of Gujarat. This report in a leading daily on 4 October 2016 explains how the PM is replicating the Gujarat model of project execution across the country: “Nearly one and a half years after its launch, Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation or Pragati is turning out to be quite a help for the Modi government as it tries to speed up development schemes. Official figures show that the mechanism rolled out on 25 March 2015 has pushed 136 projects involving investments of around Rs 8 lakh crore. While the focus is on infrastructure at a time when the private sector continues to be reluctant to invest, the ambit of Pragati is not limited to power, roads or railways alone.

“Every project or issue taken up at Pragati meetings comes with a deadline, which government agencies have to adhere to. Officials said that with the Prime Minister personally involved, even state governments were complying with the deadline set for projects involving them. There are projects such as the Nangal Dam-Talwara railway line, which has been pending since 1981-82, where the Punjab government has now been advised to speed up handing over the remaining land besides giving forest clearance ‘immediately’. 

“Over the past 18 months, 136 issues have been discussed at the level of the Prime Minister with several projects being of strategic importance such as a transmission system in the Kargil-Drass-Leh area. At times, projects funded by the Indian government in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Bhutan have been discussed. For instance, the parliament project in Afghanistan and hydro-power project in Bhutan were on Pragati’s agenda.” 

Social policy: Modi’s most acute challenge lies in the social sector: health, sanitation, education, skills and community relations. India’s education sector remains moribund. Though new IITs and IIMs are being built, primary education suffers from lack of resources and infrastructure. The government’s ambitious schemes on sanitation and health are meanwhile making a difference but progress is slow. Even the plan to clean the Ganga has moved glacially. 

When the government took office in May 2014, doomsayers predicted “riot after riot”. Despite isolated communal incidents, that prophecy has not been fulfilled. And yet Modi more than anyone else knows that his government will be judged as much on how the country’s secular fabric has fared under a right-of-centre government as on economic and foreign policy successes. The government’s recent outreach to the Muslim community in Haryana and elsewhere underscores the priority that Modi attaches to communal harmony. And yet, sensibly, he has eschewed the old Congress policy of appeasement for the sake of minority votes, stressing rightly the need to empower Muslims.

Encouragingly, Muslims have largely rallied around Modi following his strong response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. With elections in key states around the corner, the Prime Minister will soon have to go back to playing a double role: a star campaigner for his party as well as the custodian of a government that in the second half of its tenure must justify the faith the electorate reposed in it by handing it 282 Lok Sabha seats.

In a fractious democracy like India’s, such electoral opportunities don’t knock twice.

This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated 'Oct. 31, 2016' with cover story titled 'THE YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR AWARDS 2016

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Dangers of confusing nationalism with national interest
Interpret the former liberally and protect the latter uncompromisingly.
Tuesday, October 25.10.2016

Every now and again, the question pops up: is nationalism a bad thing?

It was asked during the Award Wapsi campaign, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) agitation, and now after the imbroglio over director Karan Johar’s film.

The same question came up during a panel debate at an awards ceremony celebrating excellence in journalism. “Can nationalism have different meanings,” I was asked by the moderator.

Yes, it can, I replied. You can interpret nationalism in different ways. For example, criticising the government doesn’t compromise your nationalism. Being left wing doesn’t. Being right wing doesn’t. Not standing up in a cinema hall when the national anthem is being played doesn’t. (It makes you an insensitive cretin but that’s still not enough to make you anti-national.)

The real issue isn’t nationalism or patriotism which have (and should have) liberal, flexible definitions for different people. In a democracy such differences are not only acceptable but desirable. Plurality of opinion defines a civilised, evolved society.

While nationalism has many perfectly acceptable interpretative definitions, national interest does not. You can still be a patriot and a nationalist when questioning or even condemning the government.

National interest, however, is an entirely different matter. It differs from nationalism in one critical way. National interest is absolute. It has a singular interpretation unlike the plurality afforded by nationalism.

Right to dissent

Dissent is the placebo of democracy. Without it, democracy dies. But when you convert dissent into subversion, national interest can be compromised.

For example, Kanhaiya Kumar, the former JNU president, crossed the line from dissent to subversion. We see that line being crossed in Jammu & Kashmir as well where civilians and soldiers are killed because separatists instigated by Pakistan have subverted the state.

This endangers national security, causes death and destruction, and must obviously be dealt with by the law.

As I’ve written before, however, even subversion must not be conflated with sedition. So the government was wrong to charge Kanhaiya Kumar under the colonial-era Section 124A (which though modified after Independence is still often misused) but right to suspend him. Let the punishment fit the crime or you create a victim out of a culprit.

National interest is intimately tied up with national security and must be protected. Unlike nationalism, it does not have interpretative flexibility.

Left-leaning liberals (whose hectoring is often illiberal) confuse nationalism with national interest. Their narrative thus gets distorted. They deliberately conflate national interest with jingoism. Such ultra-nationalism has nothing to do with national interest.

Because India has had a troubled colonial history, national interest occupies a more central role than it does in other countries. It’s important therefore in India to separate the practical imperative of national interest from the ideological component of nationalism.

Those like Santosh Desai who in The Times of India (October 24) called the recent surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) a manifestation of “an angry nationalism” miss the point. The strike in PoK, after years of timorous strategic restraint that cost innumerable Indian lives, was a manifestation not of nationalism, angry or otherwise, but an act in preventive counter-terrorism.

It is such woolly-headed logic that allows countries like Pakistan and China to divide the nation’s voice by giving credence to a false equivalence between nationalism and national interest.

In countries like the United States and Britain, the two often get merged because of their particular histories. British Prime Minister Theresa May has signalled that post-Brexit Britain will follow a hard right-wing anti-immigration policy. Governments across Europe, deluged by Middle East refugees, are turning Right on security issues. To them nationalism is a prerequisite to protect national interest.

Nowhere is this more sharply evident than in the US. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has based his entire campaign on an anti-immigration plank.

Nationalism in America and Europe, long reviled as an ideology associated with Nazi fascism after World War II, has become respectable again because it is so clearly in these societies’ interest to combat Islamist terrorism.

In India nationalism, embraced during the freedom movement, has in sharp contrast come to acquire negative connotations. It is associated with right-wing majoritarianism. The RSS has fallen into this ideological trap by placing religion at the centre of its discourse. That gives religious bigots of all stripes an opportunity to dissemble.

The RSS must stop its anti-English language drive, admit women to the main organisation (not just the mahila wing) and recognise that Vedic science, whatever its accomplishments (and it is right to acknowledge these) cannot replace modern science.

National interest in the end can only be protected by a modern, forward-looking society in which neither jingoism nor appeasement has a place.

The best way to safeguard and advance national interest is by building a strong economy, rapidly improving the military’s capability with modern weaponry neglected for decades, and harmonising social tensions. Peace comes from strength. India has for too long been a weak state which Pakistan and China have fully exploited. That must end.

The importance of advancing the national interest is lost in the counterfeit argument over nationalism.

The criticism recently levelled by the “liberalati” is that Pakistani actors, writers and artistes are soft targets. But so are Indian women and children targeted daily by Pakistani mortar shelling on border villages.

The same liberalati doesn’t say a word when Indian films like Phantom are banned in Pakistan. This of course still doesn’t make them anti-national – nationalism is a broad tent which accommodates all views, however quasi-liberal, as long as national interest is not compromised.

A country’s security and unity is best protected by allowing widely different interpretations of nationalism within the purview of the law. Plurality of opinion is the best antidote to the real anti-nationals. They seek to subvert the national interest by raising the bogey of nationalism-as-jingoism.

To defeat these anti-nationals, who often hide behind a liberal-secular veil, call their bluff. Draw a distinction between nationalism and national interest. Interpret the former liberally and protect the latter uncompromisingly

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Britain’s Economic Left Turn
The most worrying aspect of Theresa May’s philosophy is the combination of a hard Left turn on the economy and a hard Right turn on social issues. In a liberal society, it should be the exact opposite: Right economically, Left socially

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Theresa May took over as British Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation over the Brexit referendum result, few knew her economic philosophy.

As Cameron’s Home Secretary from 2010-2016, she had worked mostly under the radar. During the fevered Brexit campaign, she voted to “Remain” though her personal campaign appearances were few and low key. 

May won a shortlived Tory party internal selection contest to become party leader and Prime Minister without facing the electorate. 

It didn’t take her long to reveal her hand: “Brexit is Brexit,” she declared coldly. Those who had expected May, following her pro-Remain stance, to opt for a delayed exit for Britain from the European Union (EU) or at least favour a “soft Brexit” were disappointed. 

May has pointed clearly to a “hard Brexit” which means sacrificing Britain’s privileged trading access to the EU in return for blocking a free flow of immigrants from the EU’s open borders policy. The consequences for the British economy could be severe. The pound has already lost nearly 20 per cent of its value against the dollar. 

Those who have followed May’s six-year record as Home Secretary will, howev