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Congress gropes for answers to saffron surge

 

If the results of the local body elections in Maharashtra and the parliamentary and assembly by-elections that preceded these polls are to be taken as an indication of the political state of affairs, then the BJP’s dominating trend that began in the 2014 general elections is firmly on the ascendant. It is not getting tripped by road blocks like demonetisation.

In Maharashtra, almost two years of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ regime and the two and half years of Modi Sarkar have done nothing adverse to dent this popularity. Even the obviously painful decision of demonetisation has not had an adverse impact on the BJP’s electoral fortunes. Quite simply, the Congress that has been a dominating force in state politics for long, has been groping for answers to this saffron surge. The same holds true for the Nationalist Congress Party, a one-time partner of the Congress.

In the process of its ascendance, the BJP has been giving enough reasons to its one time senior saffron ally the Shiv Sena to worry about the future. Specially in the light of the Mumbai Municipal Council elections that are not far away. With its new-found confidence, the BJP would surely want to rewrite the terms of the alliance for sharing the 227 seats, with leaders already indicating that they would not settle for anything less than 115 seats. This means a loss of primacy for the sulking Shiv Sena bosses, even in Mumbai. If they do accept BJP’s terms, then it would be a bitter pill for their egos to swallow. Or else, the fun would begin.

But this is the time for some serious introspection by the Congress. After all, in both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections in 2014, the people did not vote for the BJP because they had discovered a sudden fountain of love for the saffron party. On the contrary, they had opted for a change because of the strong disaffection for the Congress leaders, and such a sentiment does not spring overnight. It is the cumulative impact of practising dynastic politics from the village level upwards. This is an embodiment of the Congress culture of ensuring that every available position right from the Lok Sabha seat downwards remains within one family. It is this singular feature that is responsible for the mortal decline of the Congress party and is prompting historians to write its epitaph. But then the 2014 polls are history, and it is the present that matters.

In this respect, it has to be asserted that for the people in rural areas, the Congress is still the party that remains close to their hearts. But the ground reality is that even in the rural areas, there is no connect between the voters and the leaders and activists of the Congress, for the umbilical cord that binds the two has been snapped.

Or else, there is no reason as to why the discontent among the of masses that have been deprived of their basic life blood of existence - money in hard notes - could not have been tapped in these elections.

It is not as if the pain caused by the demonetisation is the only sore point in the lives of the common masses. There is the state government’s continued apathy towards the farmers’ suicides, and the series of scams that keep surfacing with sickening regularity.

However, the critical element is that the Congress lacks the connect with the people at the ground level that would translate these sentiments into a political message. Its senior leadership remains content with ensuring that those related to them or belonging to their closed coterie should get past the post in the elections, and the others are left to fend for themselves.

This malaise that affects the party in Maharashtra is also in evidence in other states like Madhya Pradesh, where in the recent by-elections the party could not get its act together despite a fresh face in Himadri Singh (hand-picked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her deputy Rahul) putting up a valiant fight against an entrenched BJP nominee in the tribal Shahdol Lok Sabha constituency. That she managed to shave off 2 lakh votes from the victory margin of the 2014 polls is a tribute to her candidacy. But the main problem is the failure of the leadership in the state to put in place a winning strategy in the face of a well-coordinated ,well-managed and well-executed campaign by the BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. He ensured victory in the face of the dominant anti-demonetisation trend.

This of course is not the end of the road for the Congress. But there is one thing when it comes to electioneering. It is the realisation that times have changed, and with it the people’s aspirations have been transformed. The era when the people would vote for the Congress on the basis of its past - the sacrifices of leaders beginning from Mahatma Gandhi and going down up to Sonia Gandhi - is over. This is a rich history of which the party is justifiably proud of. But then youth of the country are living in the present, and have no connect with this glorious past. Their mantra is perform or perish. So, the Congress has to reinvent itself in sync with the present times. In this era, mere Modi bashing is not enough. After all, no election can be won on the basis of past strategy.

Modi used Congress bashing to win the 2014 elections, so this is a used-up approach and cannot be recycled. There has to be a proven viable alternative both in terms of policies and leadership at all levels. The Congress has to work out this riddle for itself, and it cannot hope that deliverance would come from above, and certain power would one day emerge and solve all their problems magically. The sooner this reality is internalised by the party at all levels the better it would be for health of the polity. The current one-sided discourse is not healthy for our democracy.

 

Before I conclude

 

The deadlock in the Parliament does not augur well. For the polityNor does the high decibel war of words between the Opposition and treasury benches serve the cause of democracy well.

The prime minister is the leader of the Lok Sabha. He has the initiative to set the tone of the proceedings not only in the Lower House but also in the Upper House by his personal approach. It would not be idle to presume that all parliamentary tensions would vanish in thin air, should prime minister Narendra Modi simply step up and make a few decisive interventions. Both the cause of the Parliament, the winter session in particular and democracy would then be served well..

 

 

 

Critical economists, silent PM

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise `500 and `1000 currency notes has literally stunned the country. It is his declared intent that the decision has been taken to unearth the black money that is eating into the vitals of the economy. The reality is that there is no reason to oppose the decision on the issue of black money. But even the prime minister acknowledges that the decision would cause some pain and the people should bear it for 50 days. He has promised that the gain then would outweigh the pain. It is here that the difference of opinion between Prime Minister Modi’s claims and the assessments of notable economists come into play. Some of them have used very colourful language to describe the effect of demonetisation on the economy. “The economy has had a heart attack,” said Indranil Sen Gupta, chief India economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.

Another economist Jean Dreze who specialises in development economy, said: “Demonetisation in a booming economy is like shooting at the tyres of a racing car.” As Dreze explained the idea that demonetisation would flush out the black money from the economy is based on the hoard theory. “These claims are based on what might be called the hoard theory of black money. In this view, black money is a gigantic hoard of illegal income that keeps growing and needs to be flushed out. This is wrong. Crooks know better than to keep their illegal income in suitcases of cash. Instead, they spend, invest, launder or convert it in one way or another,” he observed. These are not the only voices from the economists who are critical of the demonetisation decision.

Bharat Ratna and Nobel laureate economist, Prof. Amartya Sen has said that both, the idea and the way it was implemented, were akin to a “despotic action” and betrayed the “authoritarian nature of the government”. He too criticised the assumption of flushing out the black money through demonetisation. “Telling the public suddenly that the promissory notes you have, do not promise anything with certainty, is a more complex manifestation of authoritarianism, allegedly justified — or so the government claims — because some of these notes, held by some crooked people, involve black money. At one stroke the move declares all Indians — indeed all holders of Indian currency — as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not,” he said.

Justifying his description of the government as ‘authoritarian’, Prof. Sen who is the author of the concept of development as freedom, said: “Only an authoritarian government can calmly cause such misery to the people — with millions of innocent people being deprived of their money and being subjected to suffering, inconvenience and indignity in trying to get their own money back.”

This criticism outside the Parliament is matched by the rare intervention of the former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in the Rajya Sabha. Dr Singh spoke hardly for seven minutes but then brought in his entire experience gathered through his different assignments in the country’s financial system and tore into the government’s implementation of the decision. He described the implementation of the decision as a “monumental mismanagement that has been undertaken about which today there is no two opinion in the country as a whole”. He also asked the prime minister to give the “names of any countries he may think where people have deposited their money in banks but are not allowed to withdraw their money. This alone, I think, is enough to condemn what has been done in the name of greater good of the people of the country.”

The former prime minister’s Rajya Sabha intervention has provided Prime Minister Narendra Modi to silence all the critics of his demonetisation policy by rebutting each of the arguments on the basis of the facts that have led the government to the demonetisation decision. He can also spell out the roadmap through which his government plans to ease the suffering of the people in the remaining period of the 50 days of promised pain. But so far Prime Minister Modi does not seem inclined to follow this path. He has opted for silence in the Parliament and aggressive eloquence outside it. He has been addressing public meetings and has been targeting the critics of the demonetisation describing them as “holders and backers of black money”.

It appears from this course of action that Prime Minister Modi is not overtly worried if the Parliament session is washed out due to his refusal to attend the proceedings and respond to the concerns of the members of the Parliament. His ministers too have not been very conciliatory towards the opposition leaders, and this has vitiated the atmosphere in the Parliament.

His appeal to the people to go cash less and to use digital money may make some sense in the long term, but in the short term with millions of people involved in the informal sector depending on cash transactions, the process of going cash less is easier said than done. In fact, before undertaking the process of demonetisation, it would have been better if the government had ensured that the people have gone cash less in huge numbers. But demonetising before achieving this change is like putting the cart before the horse.

With large parts of rural areas not being served by the banking system and the ATMs, their problems due to the demonetisation would surely result in the 2 per cent decline of the GDP as analysed by Dr Singh. All rating agencies have concurred this view, and observed that the impact of demonetisation would not be restricted to this quarter, but could extend into 2017-18. The whole thing boils down to one simple question - is the pain of demonetisation far greater than the promised gain? Right now, the answer seems to be in the affirmative, in the opinion of several economists.

Before I conclude

There has been a shocking jailbreak in Punjab wherein the Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) chief has escaped along with five other criminals. Coming a few months ahead of the state Assembly elections, this incident raises questions about the law and order situation in this sensitive border state. The politicking that has followed this jailbreak incident also shows the divisive nature of the polity on this issue. It appears that spectre of the return of militancy does not appear to unite the politicians and there lies the greater danger.

 

 

 

 

 

Ignoring Indira and other icons

 

 

We are very well aware that when it comes to icons, every regime has two lists - a negative list that it plans to ignore and a positive list that it wishes to promote. The current NDA regime has its preferences well-defined and the logic is also pretty uncomplicated. It is guided by the approach of the previous Congress governments. As the NDA regime is diametrically opposed to the Congress in ideological terms, the mantra with regard to the icons follows a simple rule - ignore the ones promoted by the previous Congress regimes, and promote the ones ignored by them.

For instance, the Congress regimes did not ignore Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But those interested in continuing the Patel-Nehru conflict long after the demise of these two tall leaders, can argue that the Sardar was overshadowed by the prominence given to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. They can also attribute this to the fact that Congress regimes have been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family. But this is all mythical. The fact remains that Patel has been treated as a respected national icon by successive Congress regimes. Moreover, the differences between Nehru and Patel were real, but then these did not interfere in the discharge of their national responsibilities. Each one of them was fully aware of his national role. However, when it is claimed by the Sangh Parivar that Patel (though he banned the Sangh after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder) was a taller leader compared to Nehru it does serve the political narrative of the day. This is for a simple reason. One of the political objectives of the NDA regime is to run down the Nehru narrative in the trajectory of growth path since independence in 1947. The theme that ‘nothing was done in the last 60 years and everything is happening for the first time after 2014’ has everything to do with this objective. The Sangh Parivar is deeply invested in this anti-Nehru narrative. So promoting Patel vis-a-vis Nehru helps.

But we all know one thing. Icons are beyond any damage. Any amount of chipping away at their glory does not help. More importantly, such acts hardly help in creating a counter-narrative. Take for instance, the Niti Aayog. Well, the dismantling of the Planning Commission, could be said to have brought the end of a Nehru era institution, but then what is the counter-narrative that is being offered by the Niti Aayog. It may mean a good bye to the era of five-year plans, but the moot question is what is the replacement? Some amorphous idea, that perhaps is clear only to its proponents.

It is in this context that we have to look at the NDA regime’s decision to ignore the birth centenary of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi that begins this year from November 19th. True, the BJP and its earlier incarnation the Bharatiya Jana Sangh have some bitter memories of their struggle with her regimes. A lot of the leaders may also have their own personal stories to tell. But all said and done, Indiraji was the prime minister of India, and steered the country through several trying periods since independence with success. As a country, we owe it to her to celebrate her achievements. There is nothing partisan about her success in ushering the green revolution, demonstrating the country’s nuclear prowess, fighting the East Pakistan refugee crisis in the face of the famous pro-Pakistan tilt by the United States of America, that finally led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh (when she was compared to the demon slaying Goddess Durga by the then opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee). Her fight against terrorism ultimately took her life, but as long as she lived her faith in secularism was not shaken. She did not change her Sikh security guards, even when there were security warnings, and lost her life. We must celebrate such courage. We cannot be partisan about such things. Indeed, by ignoring such acts of courage we belittle our own traditions.

Whether we like it or not, leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi have all shaped the various elements of our national life. Their contributions in different walks of life are the foundations on which we continue to build the edifice of our modern 21st century India. This is not to say that others have not contributed to the task of nation building, but only to emphasise the primacy of the efforts of these leaders. Besides, we cannot forget that two of them - Indiraji and Rajiivji - made the supreme sacrifice of their lives in the service of the nation. It would be rare in the annals of the history to find a mother-son duo sacrificing their lives in the fight against terror. It need not be over-stressed that when a terror group assassinates a leader of the calibre of a prime minister, it is axiomatic that it finds that leader as a major obstacle in the path to achieve its goals.

Regime changes are a normal phenomenon in a democracy. But the moot question is whether national icons should also change with every new government that takes office? A clear bipartisan approach towards national icons has to emerge so that there is no tinkering with the national narrative. If a new narrative is to emerge with every change in government, the nation would lose its credibility with the people and the outside world. For instance, we have witnessed the discomfort of the leaders from the African world visiting us, when they find that Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi are ignored by the current regime.

Understandably, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have a difficult problem in creating their own national narrative with their iconic figures. They have tried to appropriate the other Gandhi - the Mahatma - in a superficial sort of way through the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. But then they still remain tentative about other aspects of his ideological baggage like communal harmony. The same dilemma prevails about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. But these are the problems of the positive list. Ideally, a regime should have no negative lists, and it should whole-heartedly celebrate the achievements of all the icons. This is the only way forward in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, diverse and plural country like India.

Before I conclude

The train tragedy involving the Indore Patna Express near Kanpur is a grim reminder of the gaps in railway safety. With more than 126 lives lost, it marks a human tragedy of unacceptable dimensions. At 3 am in the morning, the passengers of the S1 and S2 second class three tier sleeper coaches that bore the brunt of the derailment would be usually asleep. So, for them death came in their sleep, giving them little time to seek escape. The initial reports attribute the accident to cracks in the rail track. This is more than cautionary as the Indian Railways have plans to introduce the high speed bullet trains in some sections. Whereas the bullet trains would come with Japanese safety standards, it is also incumbent upon the Indian Railways to upgrade the safety standards so as to ensure that such mishaps are not repeated.

 

The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.

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Uncertainty after Trump’s triumph

 

 
The American establishment and by its extension the rest of the world was preparing for an era where a woman would be the president of the oldest democracy. This was supposed to be a natural transition in a modern country that had elected a ‘black’ Barack Obama for two terms. There is a feeling of regret that this historic opportunity to make this big change has been lost. The pollsters and pundits were all predicting her victory, although the FBI announcement over fresh emails did dent Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. But on polling day she was still in the lead.
 
Well, the pundits can now chew on the reasons for Hillary’s defeat and the surprise win for Donald Trump who ran an utterly divisive and vitriolic campaign. In terms of lows, he touched two marks - one when he said that he would lock-up Clinton for the email scandal, and two when he said that he would accept the results only if he wins, otherwise he would maintain a suspense.But now is the time to forget all those negatives and accept Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America. This is the people’s verdict, and never mind that it has been delivered by an electoral system, that Trump had described as ‘rigged’ during the campaign.
The entire world is waiting with bated breath as to what would be Trump’s stance on divisive issues that brought him electoral victory but have huge consequences for millions of people and can cause untold sufferings. For instance, during the campaign he promised to deport all illegal migrants. Now there are 11 million illegal migrants in America; will he fulfill that electoral promise at a huge cost in terms of human misery that will result due to deportation? Or will he soften his stance?
 
Then there is the issue of health care reforms, the spiking of the nuclear deal with Iran, the pronouncement that the entry of the Muslims would be banned, and of course the issue of prosecuting Hillary Clinton and locking her up in jail? Besides, there is the promise of building a wall along the border with Mexico and making Mexico pay for it.
Let us not forget that these are the promises which brought him to power and drew millions of Americans to vote for him. Although going back on electoral promises is nothing new for politicians, Trump’s USP in this election has been that as a complete outsider in the corridors of power he stood for a change in the way Washington works. In fact, he blamed career politicians like Hillary Clinton and others for all the woes of America and promised to change all that. The people believed in this promise.
 
Indeed, this high-pitched rhetoric that appeals to the sentiment of a large number of people has often been chosen as the route to power by politicians. They make such promises to woo voters, with the realisation that the voters also know that such radical moves cannot be implemented without causing costly disruption. This rhetoric is seen by the people as a proof of the politician’s desire to be different and unconventional.
 
In so far as these ‘hot button’ poll promises are concerned, in the short span of time that has passed since his election as president, his advisers and to some extent Trump himself have been suggesting that they have no intention of following up on some of the more radical moves. But the clarity on these issues would emerge only after January 20 when Trump takes over as president and his cabinet is in place.
 
From an Indian standpoint, a Trump presidency could see a further up-swing in the India-America strategic partnership as he tries to keep China in check. His strong stance against Islamic jihad should see that he reins in Pakistan. But the most important aspect of this relationship would be the convergence of ideas between president Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as both belong to the rightist spectrum. If Modi shared a personal chemistry with the outgoing president Obama, he would quickly develop an ideological affinity with president Trump. The Indian-origin Americans who campaigned vigorously for Trump would also act as catalysts in strengthening this bond.
 
This prevails notwithstanding, the view held by policy experts on both the sides that over the past decade beginning with president Clinton’s visit to India and the role he played in taming Pakistan over the Kargil episode, all presidents - Democrats (Obama) or Republicans (Bush), have built upon the progress that has been achieved by their predecessors. So, it is expected that a Trump presidency would also carry the momentum forward.
 
There are some concerns about Trump pronouncements regarding limiting of scrapping H1B visas that allow Indian professionals to go to work in America. This is in the context of his remark that described “Indians and Chinese as job stealers”. It is hoped that this was just a part of the campaign rhetoric as he also said that he would welcome Indian investors and students. Now investors do not come without the people who work for them. So, his policies would have to change.
 
The world expects a leadership role for America in almost every walk of life. Its idea of the sanctity of individual freedom and the rule of law coupled with its liberal ethos is a cherished ideal for the rest of the world. It is hoped that whatever be his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump as president would live up to this ideal. He may have trashed women in his campaign, but he cannot afford to forget as president that women constitute an important segment of the society and have to be given their due.
 
The same holds true for immigrants. It cannot be forgotten that America is a country built by immigrants. It is the willingness and openness of the American society and its people to absorb and assimilate the immigrants that makes the country a melting pot of everything that is divisive. For someone elected on the promise of making America great again, Trump has to internalise these features into his presidency.
 
Before I conclude
 
Laudable as the Modi sarkar’s move is to demonetise the `500 and `1000 notes in the attempt to end the menace of black money, it is also incumbent upon the government to ensure that common masses are not put to too much discomfort in the process of exchanging their old notes for the new ones. The first few days after the demonetisation have left much to be desired from the banking system, and it is hoped that this is just a temporary phase, and after a few days (not weeks) the normal system would be back.
 
The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.