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When soldiers perish under snow

Vijay DardaOf late, while extolling the virtues of nationalism and patriotism, and asking common citizens to make sacrifices for these causes, the valiant soldiers guarding the borders under perhaps the most testing circumstances in the world have been invoked a great deal. It stands beyond every element of doubt that our soldiers are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice whenever they are called upon to join battle against the enemy. It is also understandable when they lay down their lives and achieve martyrdom in combat. But when soldiers perish underan avalanche of snow the situation is not just tragic, it is somehow unacceptable. It causes not just a lot of pain, but leads to a great deal of anguish.

 The two situations may not be comparable, but the same angst prevails when the terrorists from across the border manage to sneak in andattack Army camps. All these unsavoury events raise disturbingquestions, as precious human lives are lost, and we seem to remain  almost helpless. The basic question that haunts is when shall we be free from these tragic incidents? Or will we just keep on regretting and condoling such incidents? It is a question that cast a long shadowon our international image and prestige as a nation. We are seen asweak and vulnerable, and this is unacceptable.

Recently, there have been several incidents of our soldiers getting buried under an avalanche of snow. The biggest incident took place in Gurez were 15 soldiers were killed in two separate avalanches, but seven soldiers were rescued. The other incident came two days later when five soldiers were rescued from under the snow in Kupwara area. As Kashmir witnesses one of the more severe winters with temperatures dropping below minus 7 degree Celsius such episodes are likely to happen but it also signals the failures of the advance warning systems. It is not that there is no mechanism in place for such warnings, in fact a Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) has been functioning under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at Manali since 1969, and it does issue such warnings occasionally. But clearly, this time the warnings were either not there or not effective and soldiers perished under the snow.In fact, the avalanche deaths are a sad commentary on the state of defence preparedness. These show the wide gap that exists between the rhetoric our leadership relishes about the status of our nation vis-a-vis our international rivals and the reality on the ground. Indeed, when it comes to vulnerability from natural disasters there is hardly any difference between the civilian population and the military soldiers. It is worth recalling that when a massive two-day flood paralysed Mumbai city in 2005, and took a heavy toll of life and property a decision was taken to install a Doppler radar and 22 other automatic weather forecasting stations, but so far the BMC has not even allotted the land for the site of installing the Doppler. The most important commercial city in the country thus remains vulnerable.In this era of climate change, every country remains vulnerable to such flash floods, droughts or the type of destruction that was witnessed in Uttarakhand a few years ago. There is no getting away from such onslaughts of the nature. The essence of the national spirit and commitment lies in making sure that we learn the right lessons from such tragedies and are better prepared for the future. Our problem lies in the fact that we remain high on rhetoric and plans but have very little to show in terms of preparations on the ground. This is not a case of playing the blame game, every government has its ownshare of failings.

The only way out of this situation is determined action in which all the state agencies cooperate. As the authority with resources and power it is for the central government to step in and ensure that all the other agencies fall in line. The red tape at every bureaucratic level must be cut mercilessly and decisions must be taken within deadlines. It is the failure to take appropriate decisions on time that is largely responsible for the overall mess that we are in, and it is also one of the main reasons as to why we lag behind in the world index for ease of doing business. When Narendra Modi was promising a change in the run-up to the 2014 elections, the people were anticipating that with his image as a doer in Gujarat, he would usher in this change. But once again, even in office as prime minister he has made promises galore without commensurate action on the ground.Take his latest demonetisation decision that was hailed as the boldest political initiative by any prime minister in independent India and was to unearth black money. We are yet to know as to how much black
money has been recovered and how many persons have faced action on this count.  The nation was in the dark about the roadmap when demonetisation was announced, and even now post-demonetisation it has no idea about the government’s follow-up road map. The point is not about black money. There is the larger national issue. Can we afford to drift from one issue to another without a consistent national agenda?

Our pre-occupation with several sentimental issues that have a tendency to inflame passions is also yet another debilitating factorin our national affairs. For instance, pray what purpose is served bythe play ‘Mi Nathuram boltoy’ in this age and time. We do have respectfor creativity and freedom of expression, but then the overall needsof the society also have to be considered. This problem getsexacerbated when the minds that orchestrate these activities are awarethat the establishment would take a benign view of their activities.It is for the government of the day to take a call on the overall roleof such minds.

Before I conclude

The violence unleashed on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Padmavati’ in Jaipur needs to be condemned without any reservations.The Karni Sena can protest about the film, but it cannot indulge in violence. We have seen that filmmakers are high value soft targets for such senas. However, there is no need to give into their pressure tactics. Bhansali should produce his film as per his own creative understanding of the character and should make no concessions.

Trump deserves a fair chance in office

Now that Donald John Trump has been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America, the least he deserves is a fair chance in office. He is the elected leader of the world’s richest democracy and the unelected leader of the free world. Besides, the office of the American President is an institution by itself and has a role assigned by history. Irrespective of his party and personal ideology, the 45th US President has a historical role to perform. So, let us see how he performs this role.

At 70, he is the oldest leader to come to this office and with his Trump business empire he is the richest American to be elected to the White House. His decision to convert the business into trusts and to leave it to his two sons has not satisfied the legal eagles from the conflict of inflicting ethical debate. But for President Trump this is immaterial. He never cared for such criticism in the campaign stage, and now at least for the next four years, he is above all such concerns. It is on par with his response to the criticism about not filing the Income-Tax returns and being brazen about it.

In a campaign mode 16-minute inaugural address, President Trump dug out the central arguments of his candidacy and harshly condemned the condition of the country he now commands. Not for him the usual presidential optimism about the state of the nation, but he focused on his assessment that communities had fallen into disrepair with rampant crime, chronic poverty, broken schools, stolen wealth and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones”. He then set out his governance mantra: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

With four past presidents from both the parties sitting behind him, Trump issued a strong unequivocal condemnation of their time in office. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action,” he said while talking about his presidency.
The presidential inauguration, however, is not only about the incoming victor’s agenda. A lot of it has to do with formal lunches, dinners, the pomp and show of democracy, and while President Trump may have been unconventional about the content of his inaugural show, he was completely formal when dealing with the outgoing president Barack Obama and his first lady Michelle or for that matter his defeated democratic rival Hillary Clinton and her husband former president Bill Clinton. Quite clearly, the ‘jail her’ phrase from the campaign is now a forgotten element.

But other hot button campaign issues like job losses to Mexico are not forgotten especially as Trump sees his election as part of a global movement that includes Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and wants the vocal champions of globalisation to imbibe his core message that henceforth his focus will be entirely on rebuilding America and promoting its interests. “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he asserted while making it clear at the outset that he was addressing “fellow Americans and people of the world.”

It is in this context that his foreign policy responses would matter more for the world. Even otherwise, the rest of the world believes that America with the highest GDP in the world is the most powerful nation on earth and its domestic issues are taken care of by the domestic politicians leaving the president free to tackle global issues. So, it is welcome statement when President Trump asserts that he would finish the problem of Islamic terrorism and IS.

But his foreign policy approach is not a straight line journey and depending on its twists and turns would cause uncertainties and anxieties in countries like Mexico, China, Japan, France, Germany and above all Russia. He seems to convey an initial impression that with him as the president of America, the Russian President Vladimir Putin will have a better time negotiating contentious issues. This warming up to Putin has to be seen in the context of the scepticism that he had about the Russian spy agencies influencing the US presidential election against Hillary Clinton.

All the other countries have their own reasons to be wary of a Trump presidency based on possible policy statements coming out from Washington in the transition period between the November 8 elections and the inauguration of the presidency. But the real show has begun now, and the recalibration of attitudes, nuances and policies will now start taking shape in global capitals.
In so far as India is concerned, things would have to wait till the first summit meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Given the fact that Prime Minister Modi conducts his diplomacy largely in first person singular the contours of his personal equation with President Trump would be watched eagerly. Of course, there would be comparisons between the Modi-Obama bonhomie, but now these just have an academic value. The business end of the things will matter more especially the impact of the America first mantra on India’s IT business. Similarly, the developments on strategic issues including the nuclear sector would weigh heavily on the minds of the diplomatic bureaucracy. New Delhi would be of course watching closely as to where does Islamabad stand vis-a-vis Washington in Donald Trump’s presidency? This is an equation that would sharply test the change between rhetoric and policy in Washington.

Before I conclude
All outgoing US presidents leave a letter for their successor so that it may serve as a guidance for some future occasion. President Obama first expressed his gratitude for the American people for making him a better man. “Because all that I have learned from my term in office, I’ve learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.” Then he observed: “America is not the project of a single person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is ‘we’. We the people. We shall overcome. 




Assault on RBI’s autonomy

On November 8th, last year when prime minister Narendra Modi announced his bold political initiative to withdraw 86 per cent of the currency in circulation from the economy, there was no doubt that the Reserve Bank of India which is tasked with the responsibility of currency management operations was made to sign on the dotted line. We have been told that secrecy of the decision was a prime consideration for its success, and thus only a few people knew about it.
After the demonetisation decision, several former RBI governors including former prime minister Manmohan Singh and ex-RBI governor Bimal Jalan have been critical of the manner in which the government has treated the RBI. It needs to be mentioned that among the global central banks for the last 88 years, the RBI has assiduously built a reputation for independence and professionalism. It is also abundantly clear that the Modi Sarkar would not have been able to implement the demonetisation policy under the most outspoken previous RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. At the 20th Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture on “Finance and Opportunity in India,” Rajan had said: “It (demonetisation) is often cited as a solution to get black money out of circulation. Unfortunately, my sense is the clever find ways around it, and it is not that easy to flush out the black money. They (people) find ways to divide their hoard into so many small pieces. You do find that people who haven’t thought of a way to convert black into white, throw it into Hundi in some temples. I think that there are ways around demonetisation.” 
But this time around the problem is that the RBI does not have to do with the lack of prior consultation by the Modi Sarkar before taking the decision. On the contrary, it is a move by the finance minister to send a joint secretary to the RBI for the currency chest operations that has the unions up in arms. Protesting against the move and calling upon the RBI governor Urijit Patel to protect the 88-year-old institution’s autonomy and operational jurisdiction, the unions that have been pained by these developments have said: “The finance ministry's move to send its official to the central bank was ‘most unfortunate’ and government interference was ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and ‘deplorable’. The central bank has been managing its duty of currency management efficiently since 1935 and the RBI staff had done an excellent job managing withdrawal of old notes. But it was “painful to note that RBI is being criticised from many quarters, for its ‘operational mismanagement’, by the press and many important personalities. Its autonomy and image have been dented beyond repair. Such critics include even former RBI governors. An image of efficiency and independence that RBI assiduously built up over decades, by the strenuous efforts of its staff and judicious policy-making, has gone into smithereens in no time.”
There has been an interesting disclosure from the Sena leader Suryakant Mahadik who heads the United Forum. He said, “Our employees were never consulted on the demonetisation issue. There is a department of cash management headed by Deputy Governor R Gandhi and he was told about this only five hours before demonetisation decision was taken. We are not against Narendra Modi or his decision, we don't want dictatorship. India is a democracy. The PM never consulted anyone.” He said that if there had been adequate notice then things like printing of new notes could have been done properly. Perhaps, it was this mismanagement on the part of the Modi Sarkar that led to 60 circulars (often contradictory) being issued in 50 days.
The slow pace of currency replacement by the RBI is one of the main reasons for the public criticism faced by it. After the government’s decision to withdraw Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes from circulation on November 8, it pulled out 86 per cent of the currency in circulation the regulator and the banking sector has been working to replace this currency. According to media reports, the value of new notes in circulation stood at Rs 9.14 lakh crore as on December 30 which is just 52 per cent of the Rs 17.54 lakh crore in notes in circulation as on October 28 before the demonetisation was announced.
On its part, the finance ministry has said that it respects the independence and autonomy of the RBI and asserted that consultations between the government and the RBI are undertaken on various matters of public importance, and these are either mandated by law or evolved as a practice and “such consultations should not be taken as infringement of the RBI’s autonomy.” But the point is when a joint secretary of the finance ministry goes to the RBI to coordinate operations, there is no way interference can be denied.
In fact, whichever way the government may try to cover up, the demonetisation exercise has only succeeded in damaging the RBI’s reputation for independence and autonomy. The low profile persona of the RBI governor Urijit Patel has added to the perception that the institution is willing to play second fiddle to the finance ministry. In the initial days of demonetisation the public face of the decision was a finance ministry official and not a functionary of the RBI. This furthered the impression of interference.
Going forward, if the RBI asserts itself in monetary policy matters and operational decisions like restrictions on the withdrawals of cash from banks, then it can probably retrieve some of the lost ground in the matter of functional independence. Besides, now that the government has several policy options including the forthcoming general budget it does not really have to depend on the RBI to manage the situation.
The RBI should also now come out with credible data on the post-demonetisation money that has come into the banking system and the manner in which it intends to use this huge influx of cash. Even if some of the facts do not favour the optics of the government, the RBI has a responsibility to go public with such information.
Before I conclude
To say that I am appalled at the way some BJP functionaries have made comments about Mahatma Gandhi is to make a genuine understatement. How can they dare to make such observations? Similarly, it is shocking to see some international companies being totally insensitive to India’s national icons. Freedom or creativity like a dance rap based on a sacred religious hymn can be offensive. Freedom can be absolute, but with a caveat that it ends where my nose begins.
The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.




UP’s mid-term test for PM Modi

The poll schedule for the all important Uttar Pradesh elections has been announced and the D-Day is March 11 when all the results would be known. With almost 20 per cent of the country, this can be seen as a mini-national referendum. At stake is prime minister Narendra Modi’s personal reputation as the chief vote-getter for the ruling BJP. With his demonetisation gambit, Modi has redoubled his personal stakes in these elections. Besides, this is the mid-term of his five-year tenure in office, and the people would deliver their verdict on his performance as well. So, this is in a sense ‘make or break’ election for Modi and neither he nor the BJP can take cover under any other explanation for the verdict that would be out on March 11. Either Modi wins or he loses.
Now given the amount of votes the BJP polled in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 - almost 42 per cent, it would require a hefty swing of anything between 12 and 15 per cent for the BJP to lose the elections. So, the BJP has to merely hold on to its previous vote share to win Uttar Pradesh. It is here that the election management style of the BJP president Amit Shah comes into play. The responsibility to deliver on the ground rests with him. The prime minister would of course address those massive rallies that are his trademark and together the duo would be spearheading the campaign.
It is interesting that the big data from the demonetisation drive shows that 97 per cent of the currency outlawed by prime minister Narendra Modi on the night of November 8, 2016 has come back into the banking system. The RBI is yet to confirm this figure as it is collating data with all the currency chests, but then any figure above 90 per cent is a conclusive proof of the failure of the demonetisation drive. When prime minister Modi had announced the note ban, an impression was created that something like 3 to 4 lakh crore of black money would not come back into the system as the hoarders of this amount would not have the courage to face the Income Tax department, Enforcement Directorate and the banking officials when questioned about the black money. But now the people have come forward with all their money and this shows that they have nothing to hide. This also reinforces the concept that the Indian economy is largely a cash economy and when starved of cash it crumbles.
Yet, there is a lot of good news on the demonetisation front for prime minister and the BJP. In terms of the economy the scheme may be a flop, but in political and perception terms it is a winner. The people by and large are not concerned with the failure of this drive to unearth black money, but they support the scheme as a good initiative by the prime minister and they would benefit from it in the longer run. This should be good enough for the prime minister and the BJP in the context of the UP elections.
The BJP can also draw cheer from the divided state of opposition in Uttar Pradesh where the dispute in the Samajwadi Party between the father and son is yet to be settled. There is no doubt that the bulk of the elected representatives in the party have sided with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, but in any election you cannot really write off a seasoned campaigner and a clever strategist like Mulayam Singh Yadav. His faction would also be in the fray, and there is no way to assess the damage he would be inflicting on Akhilesh’s chances. On his part, the chief minister would try to minimise the damage by teaming up with the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. In a four-way fight, the additional contribution from these parties has the potential of making a big difference to the final outcome of the elections.
The other major contender for power in the state - the Bahujan Samaj Party - is also keenly watching the developments in the SP. The BSP chief Mayawati has been working on the Dalit-Muslim combination as a route to power in Lucknow. She has always been assured of the 20 per cent Dalit vote, and is now eyeing a big chunk of the 18 per cent Muslim vote. Should this happen, then she would cross the 30 per cent mark in a four-way contest and should be in reckoning for power in the state.However, the Muslim voter is a SP loyalist and is not expected to switch sides easily because of a split in the SP. This is a politically astute voter with a single minded strategy to vote for a candidate who has the ability to defeat the BJP. As a result of this, the Muslim voter could have a constituency specific strategy, and this may deflate the BSP’s ambition of pulling away this chunk of voters due to a split in the SP.
The campaign itself is going to be a high decibel one and pretty controversial at that with the first signs coming from the volatile BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj with his comments about ‘4 wives and 40 children’ being responsible for the population growth in the country. The party spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi did promptly issue a statement disassociating the party from such statements. But everyone knows the damage has been done and the tone has been set. The BJP has never shown the inclination to rein in these voices and with the top leadership even endorsing some of these statements, these leaders have a prominent position in the saffron set-up. Such divisive tactics is very much a part of the BJP’s strategy.
So far prime minister Modi has profited from a weak opposition, in that sense the UP polls also offer the opportunity for the opposition to redeem itself and show that it can also offer a challenge to the personal popularity of the prime minister and the BJP’s organisational ability.
Before I conclude
The Supreme Court has done well to ban the use of religion, language, caste and race for the purposes of seeking votes. This would go a long way in removing one of the most vitiating factors in our elections. The promptness with which the district administration of Meerut has acted against the BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj and registered an FIR for violating the model code of conduct shows the long felt need for such a law. Habitual offenders may not be deterred but in general the law would act as a check and reduce the incidence of violation of the law.
The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.