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Looking ahead for smoother ride in 2017

 

 When dealing with events it is best to savour the pleasant moments of the past and hope that time, the great healer, would provide a balm to the wounds. It is with this sentiment that I wish a goodbye to 2016.
As for 2017, I look ahead for smoother ride that would usher us into an era of better overall life, and a world that has fewer tensions, and an immediate neighbourhood that exchanges human warmth and not gun fire. Domestically, we wish that all the promises made about the long-term gains of demonetisation are realised and the people have the satisfaction that the 50-day pain (that shows no sign of subsiding) was worth it.
 
Mind you these are not idle dreams. These are tangible realistic goals that can be achieved given the right kind of leadership and its ability to perform as per its promise. In fact, in any democracy, the people have only one minimal expectation. They want the leaders to deliver what they promise as part of their political rhetoric.
The world would awaken to Right Wing triumphalism in 2017. After Donald Trump’s election as American president, the US has already discovered this phenomena. Now as elections take place in other western countries the emergence of the majoritarian Right Wing could become a regular phenomenon. The ideal of a Western liberal society with established institutions providing the checks and balances could crumble.
 
In this respect though it was not noticed as such then prime minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 heralded the arrival of the first Right Wing majoritarian government in India, and at that time the world. A significant feature of such a government is that the leader considers himself above the party. This endows the leader with an authoritarian streak. This asserts itself more with leaders like Trump and Modi who believe that the mandate is for them personally and not for the party they represent.
Politics is a dominant part of our life, in so far as it not only decides as to what kind of dispensation would govern, but as a consequence also shapes the social milieu around us. The kind of debates that we have witnessed over the last two-and-half years since the advent of the Modi Sarkar tell us a lot about the direction in which the government wants us to go.
 
But there is something called the beauty of democracy. It rests in the freedom of choice that the people exercise at every stage of their life. Democracy does not consist of merely exercising the voting right once in five years. It involves the day-to-day choices that individuals make. When a government imposes its own choices on the people whether it comes to food or spending habits, or the way they transact the business of their daily lives, then it commits an anti-democratic act. Only when the citizen has an unfettered choice in every respect can a democracy have a smooth ride. Let us hope that in 2017 we move in this direction firmly.
 
There is a direct co-relation between development and the degree of freedom of choice enjoyed by the citizens. Development leads to the empowerment of citizens and this grants them a wider freedom of choice. In this respect considering the status of our physical infrastructure, the spread of the optical fibre network as the backbone of digital network, the availability of power in rural and semi-urban areas, we have a long way to go. Propaganda rhetoric may make good media headlines but is no substitute for real substantive work on the ground.
The zest to eliminate black money is almost like the Biblical zeal to root out evil from society. The fact remains, that after everything is said and done, evil still survives. This does not mean that the fight against black money should be given up. It only implies that the black money war has to be an on-going battle and not a one off effort like demonetisation.
 
In a sense, the Right Wing’s emergence as the ruling dispensation also poses a challenge to its lords and masters. From mere propagators of one-sided ideology, they now have to ensure that they provide a governance framework that does not create fear, hatred and despair in the society. The social and political consequences flowing from any dispensation that creates fear, hatred and despair would be too heavy to bear. The right wing dispensation can go all out to correct the wrongs of a liberal rule, but without in the process creating a fresh set of wrongs. The right wing dispensation when it adorns the governance avatar has to make this shift from demagogy to responsible oratory. Or else it shall fail the test of governance in a democracy. This applies equally well to leaders like Trump and Modi.
In some ways politics is like cricket. In the sense that the batting is almost as good as the bowling makes it look. In politics the aura of invincibility around the ruling party has a lot to do with enfeebled status of the opposition. For the last two-and-half years, the Congress has hardly shown the signs of a revival that could pose a serious challenge to the BJP. It has asserted itself in fits and starts but has shown neither the stamina nor the energy to politically upstage the BJP. Hopefully, things would improve in 2017. 
 
Climate change is a global challenge and the unity of purpose shown at Paris needs to be translated into action, and the participating nations have to live up to their promises. There is not much time left to avoid climate related catastrophes that would visit people indiscriminately if the proposed mitigating measures are not taken. The greenhouse effect and the heating of the earth shall continue disastrously if the great polluting powers do not respond to the need of the hour. This could certainly disrupt a smooth ride in 2017.
But at this stage let us be optimistic and step into the New Year with the hope that this will be a smooth ride in time. Here is wishing you all the very best in 2017. Happy New Year.
 
Before I conclude
Elections are the life blood of a democracy. In 2017, we shall see elections in three important states. The border state of Punjab, the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, and the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat. The outcome in each of the states would reverberate far beyond their boundaries. The prime minister is advocating for simultaneous state assembly and parliamentary elections, but till that ideal is achieved, the regular cacophony of state elections adds to the spice of democracy. We look forward to these elections in 2017.

 

 

 

Honouring Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

 
 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has performed the ‘jal-pujan’ for the Rs 3600 crore memorial 1.5 kilometres inside the sea for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. This marks the first step towards the realisation of a dream project that has been on cards since decades. Delays and cost escalation are the norm for such projects and we can be sure that 2022 deadline would not be met, nor would the project be completed in Rs 3600 crores. But these are minor mundane matters. The real thing is that a befitting memorial is coming up for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. This is an ambitious project that would have tallest statue of warrior king who has the status of a divine hero for millions of people in Maharashtra. They revere him like a God. Legendary tales of his bravery are woven into every day life of Maharashtra.
This is a fitting tribute to the Maratha War King, who established his domination against the Mughals, and set high standards of skill and deception in military warfare. He fought with precision, strategy and even used deception to outwit his enemies.
 
Though Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj enjoys such an exalted position in Maharashtra and is adopted by all political parties as an icon, he is actually a national hero, and been handsomely remembered by Swami Vivekananda as: “Shivaji is one of the greatest national saviours who emancipated our society and our Hindu dharma when they were faced with the threat of total destruction. He was a peerless hero, a pious and God-fearing king and verily a manifestation of all the virtues of a born leader of men described in our ancient scriptures. He also embodied the deathless spirit of our land and stood as the light of hope for our future.”
 
If this is the bright side of honouring Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, there is a worrisome aspect related to the legacy of the great warrior king. There are forts and other monuments all over the state that have a bearing with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s history. For example there is the Shivneri fort near Junnar where the Chhatrapati was born in 1630. It is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India but it is hardly preserved with the care deserved for a national icon. As Prime Minister Modi pointed out fort tourism can be an attractive tourist destination, but only if the upkeep of these forts is proper and people can learn about history by seeing these places. There are 300 such forts in the state, and a joint centre-state cooperation in preserving these sites and promoting ecologically safe tourism can bring dividends to both the stake holders. It would also promote employment opportunities. It is not that no action has been taken on this front. Some time ago, the state government’s department of tourism had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Archaeological Survey of India and ministry of culture for various projects to develop tourist facilities and amenities in and around centrally protected monument sites in Maharashtra that included many forts. Through this MoU, the director, tourism, was allowed to arrange festivals like “Fort Festival” or “Diwali in Forts” around the monuments. Raigad fort, Sindhudurg fort, Shivneri fort, Rajgad fort and Pratapgad fort were some of the important festivals proposed, but there has been no further progress on the issue.
 
It is in this respect that apart from revering Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj we need to turn towards action-oriented agenda. It is here that Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis needs to tighten the administration and get the necessary projects implemented. He has shown the ability to work with the central government and cut through the red tape. The forts have to be revived and just as the sea bed memorial would turn into a major international tourist attraction, similarly, these forts with their own history to tell should be another source of tourist attraction. The forts and the memorial should be complementing each other.
 
There is a ticklish question in this euphoric situation about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. This is about translating his ideals into our life. It goes without saying that the real tribute to lend is not a statue, it is at best befitting memorial. But the real tribute is when you imbibe his ideals. He was a Hindu king, who had several Muslim soldiers in his army. He was always for full freedom of religion and did not encourage conversion. He also promulgated other enlightened values and condemned slavery. He also applied a humane and liberal policy to the women of his state.
Now this was his approach to such issues way back in 17th century. Such an approach can come only from an enlightened King who is a secular heart. We are aware of the impact the term secular creates in the minds of the present day torch bearers of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and hence the need for this reminder. It is because of this nationalistic character of these icons that they have been worshipped across generations.
 
In the election season, especially for the high stakes Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation next year, the statue and water memorial shall come into play. We can expect that both the BJP and the Shiv Sena will go to town claiming credit for this achievement, and other parties notably Congress and NCP would not be far behind in recalling that the idea was mooted in their regimes.
 
But we have seen in the past that as yet no one can beat Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this game. He will back claiming credit for this mega project, and in such an atmosphere even the Shiv Sena would have to take back seat. However, this is on the presumption that the two allies would not be fighting the elections jointly. That probability has not ended finally.
 
Before I conclude
 
Even as I fully appreciate the efforts of the state and central governments for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial, I request the state government to revive my proposal that a fitting memorial to Bhagwan Mahavir embodying his message of peace and non-violence be set up along the sea. As the world is engulfed by violence and terrorism, such a memorial (like the statue of Liberty) would inspire the ideal of peace and nonviolence.

When govt disrupts Parliament

I have spent long years in the Parliament, and have witnessed many disruptions in the House. Almost invariably, these are caused by recalcitrant opposition members who want to draw the government’s attention to some issue of pressing concern. But this winter session of the Parliament would go down in the history as the one in which the proceedings were disrupted by the members of the treasury benches. It was for the first time that the proceedings could not take place because the government side was creating disturbance. They came into the House with placards and created a noisy chaos.
 
So, the winter session was a washout. I will concede that if apportioning the blame is an issue then it goes 70-30 in favour of the opposition. For the bulk of the time, the opposition held up the proceedings. But the norm is that once the opposition agrees to run the House, then the government works with alacrity to see that the proceedings run smoothly. After the opposition had agreed for a debate on the demonetisation issue under any rule, then it was for the Union parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar to ensure that the proceedings ran smoothly. The patriarch of the BJP Lal Krishna Advani was anguished when this did not happen. He was clearly blaming Kumar, his one-time protege for the disruption of the House.
 
But then Kumar’s was a command performance in a tit for tat response to the opposition. If the opposition did not allow the demonetisation debate for the bulk of the session then the government was not willing to oblige them with a platform to have a go at the treasury benches at the fag end of the session. The loser in the process was Indian democracy. Imagine that the Parliament remains in session and does not discuss an issue like demonetisation that had disrupted every life in the country.
 
For the first time, the prime minister of India has demonetised 86 per cent of the currency held by the people and he is not held accountable to the Parliament. We have speeches galore from him outside the Parliament, but no structured response to the people’s concerns about the entire demonetisation exercise.
Whether it is demonetisation or the move towards a digital economy, the reality is that the bulk of the people are with the prime minister on this issue as everyone is keen to fight the menace of black money. But the real problem lies elsewhere. With more than 80 per cent of the banned currency back into the banking system, and still a lot of time to go for the December 30 window, the question is where is the huge cache of black money that was to be unearthed through demonetisation? The simple answer is that if demonetisation was to find black money as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his November 8 address to the nation, then the exercise is a failure.
 
We have been told that the return of the money into the banking system would make the people more tax compliant. But this is a feature whose results will take a long time, as the assessment process by the income tax authorities is time consuming. It may help in reducing the fiscal deficit in the next budget.
We all know that in that November 8 address, there was no mention of digital economy or a move towards a cashless or less cash society. Clearly, this is an afterthought. But there is no problem even with this idea, but it needs a caveat. Experience across the world shows that countries like Kenya, Tanzania that have reached high levels of cash less transaction (over 75 per cent) also remain among the top corrupt countries in the world. Going cashless is not an insurance against corruption. So cashless transactions may be in the tax net, but these do nothing to reduce corruption.
 
Besides, going cashless requires a robust high quality telecom network across the country. It requires last mile connectivity through reliable optical fiber network. Where is this technical backbone? Bulk of the country does not have reliable internet connectivity, and the moment you step 20-30 km away from a major city you can see for yourself the decline in the quality of connectivity. For that matter in large parts of the broader National Capital region itself, there are telecom connectivity issues in several areas. So how can the country go digital with such a condition of the telecom networks?
 
Besides, there is the question of freedom of choice. Going digital should be the personal preference of an individual and not a compulsion arising out of cash crunch enforced by the government. The restrictions on withdrawals from ATMs and bank accounts can only be temporary, and once the people have an unfettered access to their cash, then it is for them to decide as to whether they want to use cash or digital payment modes for their transactions. The government then will have very little say in such matters.
 
The prime minister has asked for 50 days of pain and promised huge gains after that. But then the crux of the matter is that for the daily wage earner, the farmer, and worker who have a hand to mouth existence, this is not a short time. Indeed, it is almost like eternity and that is why we are getting to hear stories of distress from all walks of life. People have been forced to reverse migrate because of loss of jobs in various sectors. The point is that those responsible for implementing this decision should have foreseen the plight of the informal sector, the farmers and farm workers, housewives, students and offered specific tailor made solutions. In this case, after taking the demonetisation decision, the government simply decided to leave it to the people to fend for themselves. The government does not do this even in natural calamities. Why did the government adopt this approach?
 
The answers to this and other such questions may have been forthcoming if the Parliament had debated the demonetisation issue. But with the opportunity lost, the atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety that grips the nation in the aftermath of demonetisation would continue.
 
Before I conclude
 
The issue of access to decent public toilets is a matter of serious concern. Studies now reveal that the lack of such facilities in states like Maharashtra are taking a toll of the women’s health in the form of an increase in renal (kidney) problems. The Delhi government has taken a lead in this matter, and the well designed, well maintained public toilets offer an example worthy of emulation. The forward looking Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis could make a beginning in this respect from Nagpur itself.

Note Ban: Banks the weak link

 
 In the one month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency notes, it has become increasingly clear that the banks are the weakest link in the demonetisation chain. We have been told of the hard work that the bank employees have put in beyond the call of their regular duty to manage the surging crowds after the cash crunch. This is praiseworthy. But we cannot overlook the reality that there is a segment of the bank employees that has seen this demonetisation process as an opportunity to make a quick buck.
 
The facts speak for themselves. The weekly limit of withdrawal from a savings account is Rs. 24,000 and even this amount is often refused by banks on the basis of the argument that they have to ration cash withdrawals to serve all the customers. Small businesses can withdraw Rs. 50,000 per week from their current accounts. But since November 10, there have been 44 cases in which a sum of Rs. 64.97 crores has been recovered in the new Rs. 2000 currency notes from corrupt officials and hawala dealers. The new currency is being channelled through banks. Obviously, these amounts in crores have not come to these corrupt officials after standing in serpentine queues in front of banks. There is a widespread connivance of bank officials in allowing such a huge amount get into the hands of corrupt people, who have been caught with their hand in the till.
 
The raids by the Enforcement Directorate in 50 branches across 10 banks in one city Kolkata to uncover the money laundering activities that have taken place in the post-demonetisation days, tell their own story. All these branches have received huge deposits, in some cases even touching up to Rs. 3 crores. Another raid by the Income Tax department in one of the branches of one of the country’s largest private sector bank Axis found that Rs. 100 crores had been deposited in 44 fake accounts. The bank had to suspend 19 officials linked with this fraud.
According to market sources, the going rate for converting the unaccounted banned currency into a legitimate bank account is about 20-30 per cent. For those whose black money hoarding is not above Rs. 10 crores - like doctors, professionals (who have to accept a part of their fees in cash as a matter of necessity) - this kind of money laundering is possible only with the help of friendly bank officials. Indeed, this is the only segment of the population that is thrilled by the note ban decision, as it has got an opportunity to convert its unaccounted money at such a low cost.
But this aspect of the exercise defeats the second purpose of demonetisation - ending corruption, as there is strong evidence that within less than a month itself the authorities could uncover unaccounted cash in new currency worth Rs. 65 crores. This also proves the contention of the critics of demonetisation that holding black money in Rs. 2000 notes is easier than the old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes.
 
With regard to banks, it has to be emphasised that they are not only the repository of our money, but also our trust. In each of the cases where the bank officials have agreed to be part of deals that have seen huge amounts of cash in new currency get into the hands of their partners in crime, they have not only violated the law but also betrayed the trusts of the thousands of their customers who queued up at their doorsteps.
Even as the nation grapples with the aftermath of the note ban decision, it is surprising to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that he is not being allowed to speak in the Parliament. Indeed, it is a shocker coming from a prime minister who commands an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Even without the kind of numbers the government has, the prime minister can speak at any time of his choosing in any House. This is also applicable to the Rajya Sabha, even though the government does not have a majority in this House. It is clear that if the prime minister has not spoken in the Parliament so far, then it is his decision, the Opposition can hardly be blamed for it.
 
The logjam in the winter session of Parliament is likely to ensure a complete washout. The daily spectacle of noisy disruptions on the television screens presents an unwelcome picture of our democracy and it has rightly riled two senior statesmen  - President Pranab Mukherjee and the BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani. They have made rich contributions to the parliamentary traditions and their anguish is genuine and understandable.
 
In Advani’s case his grievance appeared to be directed against the speaker and the parliamentary affairs minister - the two people whose job is to see that the House functions. For Pranabda, the opposition has to shoulder a larger share of the blame. But the problem in this case relates to a political reality. After all, the Parliament is the place where the extended political battle is fought and in this respect both the Congress and the BJP have adopted the same disruptive tactics when in opposition. For ten years during the UPA-I and UPA-II rule from 2004 to 2014, parliamentary disruption was the norm rather than the exception. Now the Congress seems to be returning the compliment to the BJP in full measure. In both situations, the nation is the loser.
 
But just as the prime minister’s claim about not being allowed to speak in Parliament is shocking, similarly, it is interesting to hear Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi assert that there would be tremors that would rock the nation when he speaks in the Parliament. The underlying assumption in the Congress vice-president’s comment is that he has some explosive material about demonetisation. The point is like the prime minister, the Congress vice-president too could have spoken in the Lok Sabha long ago. He need not have issued this threat, instead he should have taken the initiative to restore order in the House and then delivered his speech. Such a move would have enriched parliamentary democracy.
 
Before I conclude
 
There is a critical issue related to the pre-demonetisation phase. It relates to the surge in the bank deposits to the extent of Rs. 3.25 lakh crores in the month of September 2016. Neither the finance ministry nor the RBI authorities have been able to explain this surge, and the only explanation that has been forthcoming is that the period coincides with the payment of arrears of the 7th Pay Commission to the government. But the payout on this account is estimated at Rs. 50,000 crores. This still is a huge unexplained amount of Rs. 2.75 lakh crores. So did someone have a hint about the forthcoming demonetisation? Such questions will liner unless the RBI or the finance ministry comes with a convincing explanation.
 
The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.