Switch off TV & get moving

By NEERAJ BAJPAI
Be cautious! If you are spending too much time watching TV, you are at risk of developing of potentially fatal blood clots.

These clots are known as venous thrombosis. Even trying to counterbalance hours of TV watching through adequate exercise is not effective warns Yasuhiko Kubota of the University of Minnesota in the US. Kubota is the lead author of a study in Springer’s Journal of Thrombosis and Thrombolysis.

Prolonged sitting can in some cases lead to blood clots because the normal circulation of blood through the legs and feet is impaired. This study focuses on the risk of developing a common and potentially fatal blood clot in the vein called venous thromboembolism (VTE). One type of VTE is known as deep vein thrombosis, where the blood clots form in the deep veins of the legs. Another serious problem is when a VTE becomes dislodged and travels through the blood stream to block off another vein somewhere else in the body. If a VTE ends up in the lungs, it can cause blood clots in the lungs known as pulmonary embolism (PE).

Watching television is the most common sedentary behavior around the world, and findings from a 2016 study in Japan highlighted the increased risk of suffering a VTE related to the hours spent in front of the TV. This latest study is the first to focus on a Western population, who are known to be more prone to blood clotting conditions than people of Asian descent.

Kubota and his colleagues analyzed data from 15,158 Americans aged between 45 and 64 when the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study (ARIC) started in 1987. ARIC is an ongoing population-based prospective study of blood-flow related diseases in the US. Participants were initially asked about their health status, whether they exercised or smoked, and whether they were overweight or not. Since then, ARIC team members have been in regular contact with participants, to ask about any hospital treatment they might have received. Through the analyses of hospital records and, where relevant, imaging tests, 691 incidences of VTEs were noted among the participants up to 2011.

The findings show that participants who watched television very often had more than 1.7 times the risk of suffering from a VTE compared to those who never or seldom watched TV. This risk still remained high even when factors such a person’s weight or levels of exercise were taken into account.

“These results suggest that even individuals who regularly engage in physical activity should not ignore the potential harms of prolonged sedentary behaviors such as TV viewing,” adds Kubota. “Avoiding frequent TV viewing, increasing physical activity and controlling body weight might be beneficial to prevent VTE.”

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Uttarakhand Pilgrims deserve a better deal

Uttarakhand has something for everyone – the tourist, nature lover and the pilgrim, whether one is a Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. Over the past seventy years, the authorities have gone out of their way to present the region as the thrilling vacation hotspot with compelling landscapes, teeming wildlife, and adventure zones. The same diligence has not been shown to present its shrines, particularly Hindu shrines, as I noticed during my Char Dham yatra.

By all accounts, Uttarakhand is the abode of Gods. Hinduism’s most important pilgrimage centres are here amidst stunning snow-covered peaks and verdant valleys, and some of the holiest rivers — the Ganga, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and the Yamuna. There is nothing more rewarding than a bath at Yamunotri and a dip at Gangotri.

Reaching Yamunotri is a nightmare even in these days when India is sending ISRO missions to the Moon and Mars. One has to trek for about five- six kilometres along a hill track.

Well, the trek has cement steps but walking on them is no pleasure. People can mount a horse or take a doli –a makeshift palanquin which is carried by four-five people.Both rides make you angry and scared in equal measure with devotion taking a backseat. Also while returning after worshipping Yamuna Maa with the Banderpoonch Mountain ranges in the background!

Well, man and beast (horses) share the same route, which is not wide. So does the incoming and outgoing traffic.

At several places, one runs the risk of hitting the roof literally since the hill side comes out jetting into the pilgrims’ path-way. The horses are said to be well looked after; nonetheless these animals deserve a visit from the likes of Maneka Gandhi, who are only worried about the welfare of stray dogs, and who stand in the way of testing medicines on animals.

SUN RISE AT BADRINATH

From what I have seen and experienced, the pilgrims too deserve a better deal. Taking shelter under the good old adage that God can be found only after a great effort is neither here nor there.

A rope way, like the one to Mansa Devi temple in Haridwar will elevate the spirits of an estimated five thousand people who undertake the arduous trek to Yamunotri every day during the pilgrimage season. Also at Kedarnath.

The government has planned a 3,833-metre ropeway some eight years ago to link the Yamunotri shrine with Jankichatti, the base camp, which is accessible by all-weather road. All clearances – environmental et al were secured by 2014. Yet the ropeway remains, as a local wag puts, PUC – paper under consideration.

I could spot a mobile tower near Yamunotri but did not find anyone speaking on a mobile phone. The standard refrain, not only here but also in most of Chardam Yatra route, is same – mobiles do not work. The situation is not much different in Kedarnath; it is better in Badrinath and Gangotri, though.

Even Uttarkashi, one of the most developed parts of Uttarakhand, makes you believe that you are in pre – mobile age. Only two service provides are active in the city and their phones come alive at their sweet will, as the receptionist at the hotel, where I stayed, told me. Early June (2018) the BJP-government announced plans to connect remote villages with Wi-Fi with balloon-based internet. Another Alnaskar dream in the making!

All this has not come in the way of satellite TV antenna becoming ubiquitous. Which again proves that where there is a will there is a way. And certainly, the will is lacking in Uttarakhand, even with the self-anointed Hindu champion, BJP in power, to make the pilgrims progress a pleasant one.

The demand, indeed the urgency, is for some material comfort – not for a gift like Surya Kund – the hot spring- God has gifted in the cold environs of Yamunotri.

The trek to Kedarnath on the bank of Mandakini River is also very demanding. Before 2013 floods, the situation was better since the route from Gaurikund to Rambara and to Kedarnath was a nicely built pavement with fences, shelters, shops and public conveniences.

The new route is longer (16-17km), and passes through Rambara Bridge and Linchauli. From 2016, two more trek routes have been opened. These are Chaumasi – Kham – Rambara – Kedarnath (18 kms), and Trijuginarayan – Kedarnath (15 kms).

A helicopter service is available to Kedarnath (also to Hemkund Saheb and Yamunotri base camp). Pawan Hans, Heritage, Pinnacle, and Himalayan Heli are among five-six companies that airlift pilgrims whenever the sky is clear. And charge extra from persons with extra kilos (80 kg plus) I found Heritage to be a friendly service with a smile.

MISSING MODI TOUCH

Frankly I did not find the much talked about Modi touch to the Kedarnath yatra though the local know-alls credit the cemented road to the shrine from the helipad and few shelters (that offer protection from wind and rain for a price) to the Prime Minister.

I was surprised not to find Modi photos, and Modi banners in abundance in the BJP – ruled state. It looks like a calibrated effort to insulate the Hindu Hrudaya Samrat from the wrath of pilgrims.

Yatra to Badrinath and Gangotri is, indeed, a pleasant experience.

The trip involves no trekking. And the vehicle takes you to heart of both places. Also to the cave where the sage Vyasa is believed to have scripted the epic Mahabharata. This place is a short distance from Badrinath, beyond Mana, the last village on the way to the border with China.

On the way to Badrinath is the Shakti Peeth, Dhari Devi, considered to be the guardian deity of the entire state of Uttarakhand. The temple priest attributes the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand to the then government’s plans to shift the deity from its abode to facilitate a project on Alaknanda at the very same place.

It is difficult to imagine how Adi Guru Shankaracharya had visited Kedarnath and Badrinath in the 7th Century. Equally impossible is to visualise how a priest daily visited Kedarnath to offer puja and then arrived at Badrinath to conduct regular worship?

My guide, Sanjay from Southern Travels, tells me that the present day priests do not undertake such missions. “Nobody knows what route the old priest took in the mountains?”

Char Dham Yatra, by tradition, begins from Yamunotri (altitude 3235M) in the west and heads eastward to Gangotri (altitude 3200M) and Kedarnath (altitude 3581 M). It terminates at Badrinath (altitude 3133M) where a bath in the Tapt Kund (hot water spring) is an experience with no parallels.

How God created a hot spring on the banks of Alaknanda that flows like a torrent inspiring fear and awe in equal measure is beyond an average mind. Even if one is a rationalist. It is for nothing faith has been dubbed as the opium of masses.

ZIG ZAG MOUNTAINS
As one drives through the zigzag mountainous paths that “remind us of the trajectories of life that are never straight,” a question begins to haunt you. And it is that why successive governments have not bothered to give a makeover to the Char Dham Yatra, which is undertaken mostly by people in their sixties, if not seventies.

China has been able to lay a rail link to Tibet from Beijing through what is no more than a snow desert. Russia is running a train service through Siberia. Not so rich Peru, Bolivia and Argentina are home to the highest (mountain) railways. Yet, we have done precious little to improve journey through our very own Uttarakhand hills taking shelter under the plea that it is a landslide prone belt.

Funnily, this alibi has not stood in the way of the thirst for hydel power. It is turning the hill state into multiple Koyanas (Koyana dam on the Krishna has made the Deccan more prone to earthquakes).

Debris from hydro projects, and road projects is being dumped near the rivers, impeding their flow and causing damage to environment that has witnessed several natural disasters over the last three decades. Mercifully the High Court has just ordered a stay on construction of all hydro-power plants in the state

GAS CHAMBER

More alarmingly the hill state is fast becoming a gas chamber of sorts. Registered commercial cars and jeeps are already more than 10,000. The number of buses – state owned, is put at 1000 plus (on 35 nationalized routes) while private buses are another 3000, if not more. In addition are the tourist buses loaded with pilgrims. Their number is also substantial. There is no thought whether the Uttarakhand roads can take so much load.

Police are seen checking driver’s’ licenses at several places; no such concern is visible to check the diesel fumes the vehicles are spewing. Helmet wearing is a habit that is still to catch up with the youth of the region. In Deva Bhoomi such mundane concerns are not for the man, probably!

Now to the question that rankles one on a visit to Uttarakhand. Why this neglect of treasures of Deva Bhoomi?

As diplomat- politician, Pawan Verma, in his engrossing magnum opus on Adi Shankaracharya, says, “Most Hindus, while practicing their faith in their own way, are often largely uniformed about the remarkable philosophical foundations of their religion. If Hindus are adrift from the deep philosophical moorings of the religion they practice, they are deliberately choosing the shell for the great treasure that lives within. When religions are largely reduced to rituals, there is always the danger that form will become more important than the substance.”

This, like the great neglect of Deva Bhoomi, is a great disservice to Hinduism itself!


The author and his wife Vani at Uttarkashi

(* The author is a Delhi based senior journalist and commentator. A version of this article has appeared in the July 2018 issue of Power Politics, a leading English monthly)
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Why the Indian system hounds the upright….?

By Malladi Rama Rao
It was billed as a Rs. 96 crore scam in the Food Corporation of India, (FCI). Minister Akhilesh Prasad Singh was furious. “Heads must roll,” he thundered. Out went a diktat to the CBI to probe. That was fourteen years ago in 2004-05, when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was slowly getting embroiled in scams of all hues. Now, after so many years, the politician has egg on his face. The CBI has redoubled its image as the caged parrot.

Chuckles Siva Prasad, the Punjab cadre IAS officer at the turn of events notwithstanding the harrowing time he had under UPA-1.

Is he any wiser now?

“I did my job (then) – when the storm rocked the Food Corporation of India (FCI) operations from Chandigarh to Hyderabad. I do the same now – doing the job given to me,” he says nonchalantly.

How it all started?

Prasad, presently Punjab Government’s pointsman in Lyuten’s Delhi, as Resident Commissioner, is not very forthcoming.
“We, civil servants, are not head-line hunters”, he remarks.

His quest for justice to clear his name was long, and tiring, indeed.

Well, justice came finally.

Neither the dissent of his boss against hauling him up on coals nor the clean record – “there is no complaint against the integrity of Prasad,” helped the beleaguered man from Andhra Pradesh when the chips were down. In fact, his troubles started from his home state; the local Minister for Food complained to Union Minister of State (MoS) for Food, Akhilesh Prasad Singh about poor quality of PDS (public distribution scheme) rice supplied by the FCI.

Akhilesh Prasad was just waiting for some such complaint to teach a lesson to Siva Prasad, who was working as the Senior Regional Manager (SRM) of FCI in Punjab. The Telugu Prasad incurred his wrath quite a while ago.

The Babu had the audacity to refuse to oblige the Netaji, who represented Motihari (Bihar) constituency on the RJD ticket in the 14th Lok Saba. (Akhilesh Prasad Singh is at present a Congress law maker in the Rajya Sabha).
Siva Prasad was relieved from FCI on August 5, 2005 “without the approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, ACC. (The panel decides appointments to several top posts under the Government of India; Prime Minister heads it). He was not suspended; that was no small mercy.

“A question in this case is natural that if there are complaints etc received every year, why did the Govt. take extraordinary interest in this year? The answer to this is that Punjab being the largest single procurement state has over the years acquired the negative reputation of being a ‘money spinner’ state for the farmers, millers, middlemen, FCI staff and even officers. I was given to understand that the then MOS (Food) sought favours from Punjab and elsewhere at all levels, which when refused at least by the senior levels led to the action that was taken. A note from him indicating irregularities at various places and dated 22-7-2005 is on record, which when countered effectively led to the escalation of the whole matter against the charged officer (Siva Prasad) and others. This is corroborated by the speed with which action was taken, in a highly irregular manner bypassing all rules and regulations of disciplinary proceedings and natural justice,” V K Malhotra, who was Prasad’s boss as the FCI Chairman cum Managing Director (CMD) told the vigilance inquiry.

He could not provide a safety net to his officer. No doubt. But the consolation to Malhotra is that his dissent on the whole Govt process was “accepted and acknowledged” by the Punjab & Haryana High Court, while quashing three CBI cases against Siva Prasad.

The case file offers interesting insights into the working of India’s premier investigation agency. Once it was brought into picture, the CBI did what it knows and does best – invented evidence, found conspiracies by the dozen and slapped charges under various sections of Prevention of Corruption Act.

Not for the CBI Siva Prasad’s innovation that saved crores for FCI and kept tabs on the movement of rice bags – right from the procurement stage in Punjab to the fair price shop anywhere in the country. The High Court commended his efforts, though.

“It was because of the image of the petitioner (Siva Prasad) to fight against corruption and evolve a system for removing corruption that the Central Government appointed him as Senior Regional Manager (SRM), Food Corporation of India (for short ‘FCI’), Punjab region, as a large scale corruption was in vogue in the matter of procurement of food grains. The prevailing system, when the petitioner joined FCI, was lacking transparency in acceptance of food grains which resulted in encouraging nefarious elements both the private individuals and public servants, i.e. employees of FCI and State procuring agencies. The petitioner introduced a system which could keep a constant check on such elements,” noted the High Court.

Termed as “empower the bag” system, it provided for a raxin tag at the mouth of the bag, which was machine stitched. It gave the name of rice miller, crop year, code number, net weight, and lot number. So, whatever be the destination of the rice bag across India, it became easy to track down the supplier (the miller, the procuring agency, the accepting officials of FCI) and fix responsibility. Siva Prasad did some such thing in the Punjab Registration Department as well when he was posted there – firstly to check impersonation and secondly to detect evasion of stamp duty.

Yet, the CBI had come up with the allegation that Siva Prasad had colluded with the millers and the FCI officials for procurement of sub-standard rice. The charge did not stand scrutiny of the High Court. Also of the Supreme Court when the Attorney General (AG) took the case to a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dutta in August 2015.
Since the wheels of justice move slowly in this country, the Punjab IAS officer had to wait for one more year till October 3, 2016 when the Competent Authority (ministry of personnel under Prime Minister Modi) decided to “drop the major penalty proceedings” against him. And the matter has just become the talk of the town as he has begun to move around again with his head held high, to the great relief of his friends and colleagues.

The way CBI went around to “fix” Siva Prasad, however, illustrates the rot in the system. The agency built it case on the premise that the official did not carry out inspection of procurement ops and that he had allowed procurement of poor quality rice – ‘beyond rejection limit (BRL) in FCI jargon and the limits set under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA).

There were witnesses to assert that Siva Prasad had, indeed, carried out inspections and took action against as many as 430 guilty employees notwithstanding shortage of staff. This narrative was accepted by the Central Vigilance Commission’s inquiry but the CBI paid attention to what it wanted to see and hear from the disgruntled – an occupational hazard of any upright officer.

The sleuths of the caged parrot ignored raxin tags that could have exposed the faceless guilty who had dumped substandard rice in the fair price shops of Andhra Pradesh. Instead, samples were collected at random with no representative of Punjab FCI in attendance, and the testing was done at Central Grain Analysis Laboratory (CGAL) of the Agriculture Ministry at Krishi Bhawan in New Delhi. This lab is not an officially designated Public Analysist by Health Ministry. Only Public Analysist is competent to declare food grain as beyond PFA limits. One more hard lesson to the caged parrot in perpetual hurry to please the master.

The message from Siva Prasad saga is loud and clear: it is not enough to be upright. Bureaucrats particularly from the IAS cadre should cultivate the habit of recording the reasons for taking a particular decision. Only a reasoned order can sustain scrutiny by investigating agencies and judiciary alike. And when decisions are questioned once circumstances change.

(*This article appeared in Power Politics, June 2018)

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DESTINY OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL NUCLEAR STATE

By Malladi Rama Rao

Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (Second Edition)
by Ayesha Siddiqa
Penguin Random House, 2017
Price: Rs. 499; Pages: 382

Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming A Dysfunctional Nuclear State
By Husain Haqqani
Published by HarperCollins India, 2018
Price Rs 699, pages 336

Ayesha Siddiqa and Hussain Haqqani need no introduction; both are familiar names to Indian readers. The two have taken on the mighty military establishment of Pakistan – well, in their own way. While Ayesha is still at the job on the home soil, Haqqani has migrated to the El Dorado to avoid the consequences of Memogate and to live in exile doing what he is best – penning commentaries on the state of affairs at home.

When Ayesha came up with her magnum opus, “Military Inc,” in 2007, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who was in the driver’s seat then, dubbed her a traitor to her nation; the book’s launch was blocked in Pakistan. It took a while for her to find an audience.

Critical acclaim came her way for the answer she had tried to find out for the most absorbing question facing the Pakistanis: “Why the military became a key player in the country’s power politics and economy alike”. Her rough estimate (in 2006) is that Milbus – military business is worth some $20 billion covering not just security-related businesses, but also hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms and vast real estate. Today, the Pak Milbus must be worth much more.

Ayesha has since brought out the second edition of her book. Published in India, it is not for sale in her home country, according to the publisher, Penguin Random House. No reasons are given for the restriction. It could be because of business considerations; it could be because of the new contents this edition carries. We don’t know.

But the fact remains that the 2017 edition has a post script in the form of Chapter -11 (From military domination to military governance and expansion of Milbus – 2007-16) and Chapter 12 (from Military Inc to Media Inc). It provides insights into how the military has become a hegemonic power and has put in place an image management infrastructure.

That structural lacunae in Pakistan’s political system right from the time of its birth in 1947 has helped the Generals to do what they have done is a matter of undisputed public record. Civilian leaders with feet of clay, and their failure to let democracy take roots by promoting socio- economic development of the country helped the generals to present themselves as the darlings of the masses. You cannot help but sympathise with the author when she laments that the civilian elite had an active role to play in propelling the military to prominence, and that they used it as a political force multiplier without realizing that “the military would gain wings of its own”.

Pakistan’s military’s economic empire encompasses agriculture, manufacturing and services; it is active at three levels – through direct involvement of the military, (for example, Frontier Works Organisation); securing unfair economic advantage for its subsidiaries and obtaining direct favours for top generals – serving and their families. Fauji Foundation, Army Welfare Trust, Shaheen Foundation, and Bahria Foundation are the Milbus subsidiaries, headed by top serving brass.

Pak army made big forays into urban real estate during the reigns of General Zia and General Musharraf; the ostensible purpose of urban land acquisition was housing schemes for retired army personnel. How was the land acquired? By means foul. All sorts of “questionable” means were adopted to acquire private land, according to Ayesha.

Her assessment is that the Military has become stronger in the post-Musharraf era. “In post 2007 Pakistan, military power is more intensely entrenched,” she says. The consequence is what is being witnessed today: “a military led government was replaced by a military led governance system in which the Army GHQ controlled strategic affairs”.

The civilian government has become a mere adjunct of GHQ while the army is seen as the only credible national institution that guards national security, fights terrorism and saves the nation from “the corrupt, unaccountable and inefficient political class”. Naturally this has boosted the army’s image before the bar of the people even as “all political, religious and ethnic parties have developed a dependency on the military”.

While on Pakistan Army’s media management, what Ayesha Siddiqa says is not new in a manner of speaking. The same ground has been covered by several commentators over the years and they have more or less drawn the same conclusion: “The military’s image management exercise enforced certain red lines that the media is not supposed to cross.”
Scant news reporting from Gilgit-Baltistan in Pak media is a consequence of this unwritten rule.

The protests by Pashtun youth following an encounter killing of aspiring fashion model, Naqibullah Mehsud, became ‘news’ for local media only after the international media turned its gaze on the Pashtun scene, and hailed it as “Pashtun Awakening 3.0: The Power of Non-Violence”. And portrayed the 26-year-old veterinary student at the helm of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, PTM (Pashtun Protection Movement), Manzoor Pashteen, as the new Frontier Gandhi.

Turning to Pakistan Army’s new obsession –cyber space, Ayesha has an interesting take. As a part of larger agenda to capture discourse formulation, the ISI and its office cadre take an interest in engaging with young students and scholars at national and foreign universities from Pakistan.

“For instance, in the UK, which is a major hub of Pakistani students both from the country and the diaspora, the ISI officer in the High Commission was observed influencing student activities in the University. In 2009/10, the agency even tried to plant a conglomerate of Pakistan student societies around British universities. In another instance in 2014, the Pakistan Society at Oxford University was forced to invite military friendly journalists to its event. In similar fashion, its (ISI’s) sister organisation, the ISPR sought out non-Pakistani, usually Anglo-Saxon scholars to write military friendly books. Furthermore, during Kayani’s era, the ISI allegedly established a fund to finance scholars in American think-tanks. This was to generate sympathy for Pakistan amongst American policy makers and opinion makers”. (Page: 331-332).

All this is good fodder to Indian egg-heads, certainly! More so as the Generals appear to believe in enforcing a soft martial law in the country. Islamisation of Pakistan and a strong authoritarian political structure that is dominated by the armed forces are their recipes to fight Modi’s India.

The Islamisation of Pakistan’s politics did not begin with General Zia, as Hussain Haqqani argues in his spirited advocacy of image nirvana for Pakistan. Pakistan has been going down the road of religious nationalism and a state of permanent antagonism with India right from Day One.

In 1955, Arnold Toynbee had warned that ‘it would be a calamity if Pakistan were ever to become a Muslim State in an exclusive and intolerant way’. But this is what Pakistan has become today. If Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder the country, and a Shia Muslim himself would be appalled to find that a large group of clerics wants the Shias to be declared non-Muslims for legal purpose. Already Pakistan has declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims.

Will Pakistan ever fall under the rule of extremist Islamists? Well, the currently defined ideology of Pakistan nurtures extremist Islamism and obstructs Pakistan’s evolution as a normally functioning state.

Haqqani grapples with the question and arrives at the conclusion that dismissing such a possibility is ‘erroneous’.
So what is his remedy?

“The first step in reimagining Pakistan would be to abandon the narrow ideological paradigm of Pakistani nationalism. If Pakistan is here to stay, its leaders must free its people of the burden of believing that it is constantly besieged and under threat”.

Haqqani makes out a strong case for Pakistan learning from the experience of Belgium, and adopting a new course ‘just as Germany and Japan did after 1945 and China after 1989’.

For this the need is freedom for discussions of alternatives not bound by narrow ideological parameters. Who will bell the cat? Journalist-turned diplomat wants the Pakistani military officers to take the lead to do “greatest rethinking”.

He is at his persuasive best saying “their institution (military) has played a significant role in defining Pakistan as it stands. A younger generation of soldiers is having to fight jihadi militants attacking the Pakistani state, after an earlier team of generals nurtured the jihadis. Instead of mainstreaming groups deemed terrorists by the rest of the world, Pakistan would do better by allowing secular advocates of ethnic nationalism and supporters of normal relations with Afghanistan and India into the national mainstream”.

Haqqani is hope-personified. Wishful thinking comes naturally to him.

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Selling Dreams – Modi, Rahul Way

By Malladi Rama Rao

A 15- minute debate is what Congress President Rahul Gandhi wants to have with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why 15-minutes? Why not 25 minutes or 30 minutes? He has not explained why he has hit upon the 15- minute slot. It is his calling. But why is he daring the Prime Minister of the day for a debate? Obviously, he considers himself as the only rightful challenger to Modi, who, he says, is “crushing Supreme Court”, “has shut Parliament” and “is only interested in being the PM, not about attacks on women or Dalits”. He is convinced or made to be convinced by his acolytes that he is better equipped than what his critics think of him in taking on single-handedly the Modi demon. No problem. Everyone is an Alnaskar and there is no dearth of Alnaskars in India.

Frankly, there is nothing new in Rahul’s challenge, which he had thrown up while launching in New Delhi on 23 April his year-long ‘Save the Constitution’ campaign. Narendra Modi is no stranger to such challenges either; he himself had dared the Prime Minister of the day in 2014 for an open debate. His one-time mentor, Lal Krishna Advani, Lalji to admirers, and to the dwindling number of followers, too had asked, during his time, Manmohan Singh or whoever was willing and ready in the GOP to join him in a live-TV debate. Both offers were greeted by deafening silence. Like Rahul’s call now. Between Modi and Rahul, who is a better debater or orator is not the issue here. The issue is: Should we copy the American practice of televised debates by Presidential candidates locked in the race to the White House?

For quite a while, we have reduced governance in the country – at the federal level and also at the provincial level to one –man (woman) show. The regional parties – which are family driven are as much responsible for this development as the Grand Old Party (GOP), which had ruled the country since Independence though with some brief interruptions. Indira Gandhi had even toyed with the idea of a formal switch to Presidential form of government. Why she had left the exercise undone is a different issue altogether. Her grandson is determined to accomplish that mission, if we go by his tweet- a- day asking answers from the Prime Minister for everything that is wrong with today’s India.

“Why are you not speaking up Prime Minister” – is the taunt that goes out from Rahul’s twitter handle the moment his backroom boys and girls are woken up by the Breaking News on the LCD TV screen. A rape in Kathua or Unnao, an atrocity on Dalits, a farmer’s suicide, water shortage in a Delhi mohalla, a tragedy in faraway Assam – the list is long; for them no issue is untouchable. Even a Modi advisory to the pracharak – lawmakers on “no masala” to the media becomes an open attempt to gag the BJP netas!

What matters to Rahulites is the potential to hit at the man reeling with self-inflicted wounds. Will the issue get resolved if PM Modi speaks up, issues a statement condemning the atrocity? This thought does not appear to cross their mind. The scion of the Nehru-Indira dynasty wants an answer – nothing short of an instant nirvana for the country from the ills plaguing it under the Modi dispensation. The 48-year-old young man is the self-anointed Angry Young Man of Indian politics today.

Rahul Gandhi is not alone in demanding accountability of the Prime Minister. He has good company in Arvind Kejriwal, the muffler-man, who goes around as the anarchist on the prowl. There is one big difference between them. AK has slowed down post- Punjab and Delhi poll reverses; RG has smelt blood after Gujarat and Gorakhpur. Mayawati, Mamata and Yechury are giving them company. There is something else common to them. All are regional satraps – well Rahul and Yechury too though they operate from sprawling Bhavans in the nation’s capital. CPI-M has not grown beyond its three backyards – Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Elsewhere in the country, it depends on the local winning horses for making a mark. Congress is in no different position today; its footprint is limited to Punjab, Puducherry, Mizoram, and, of course, Karnataka where it may be forced to knock at the doors of the Humble Farmer, Deve Gowda, for survival with a photo-finish forecast in the May election.

Modi’s BJP is no national party either. The Hindu Hrudaya Samrat has helped the party to extend its sway to a large swath of the country. So what? There is no change in its core complexion. Like in all regional parties, in the BJP too, leaders take the cue to speak up only when the Boss speaks up. His Man Ki Bath should have set the national agenda for good governance. It has not. Reason? The absence of good governance at the ground level. Also the lack of transparency and punctured invincibility myth. The free run the saffron shirts have been enjoying to the dismay of blue shirts and red and white caps has devalued the much talked about Moditva.

Modi has to carry the cross for the distortions in the parliamentary system – not Rahuls, Arvinds and Mamatas alone. They are only giving currency to Modiism and are trying to cash-in on Modiism. They are the distorted versions of Moditva. This is the harsh reality of India under NDA-II as the Modi-raj entered the slog overs of its rule. Rhetoric is good but it is no substitute for dialogue, which appears to have been consigned to Naimi??ra?ya (Naimisha Forest) on the banks of River Gomti, where the pantheon of 33 Hindu Gods and Goddesses are said to reside.

People are fed up with promises and speeches and doles and dreams. They want action. Not fights. Not fake angry bouts. Delivery is what the aspirational Indian wants today. Modi has still time to correct his stride. Will he before others catch up? Or will he slog along merrily in the belief that Rahul’s race for 7 RCR is stymied by the strides of Mamata and Mayawati? Politics is a funny game. And looking beyond the nose is not the art of Indian politicians. Amen!

( This article appeared in Power Politics, May 2018)

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TALKING SHOPS BECOME SHOUTING SHOPS

By Malladi Rama Rao

“Parliament is a talking shop,” said socialist leader Raj Narain, who became the nemesis of Indira Gandhi, and made her take recourse to emergency for survival in the mid-seventies. He was given to display of tantrums on the floor of the House. So much so, he rarely walked out. Marshals used to scoop him up and carry him out on their shoulders. Raj Narain enjoyed every bit of the attention he got in those pre-television days.

These days, Speaker in the Lok Sabha and Chairman in the Rajya Sabha appear reluctant to invoke the grand old rule to discipline members, who, as if emulating Raj Narain, have turned the floor of Parliament into a zone of protests –– shouting and holding placards. In our parliamentary lexicon, both shouting and displaying placards are non-parliamentary acts. Yet, marshals are not summoned to clear the floor. Instead, the House has adjourned the moment some members walk into the well with banners in hand.

Two questions arise. One, of course, is why the presiding officers are unwilling to invoke the rule book. Two, what purpose the shouting from the well serves a member keen on articulating a public concern? There are no ready answers for both questions. One thing is clear though. Today, no political party is in a position to take the high moral ground. And presiding officers are a content delivering homilies before an unreceptive audience.

Long years ago, the BJP, even when it had two members, had a strict code of conduct; its MPs were forbidden from entering the well whatever be the provocation.

I witnessed L K Advani et al refusing the call of other opposition leaders to join them in the well during the days Parliament was rocked by Bofors scam. The “party with a difference” gave up this “difference” during the UPA era and led the charge against the Manmohan Singh government from the well of the House. Now it is the Congress party’s turn to pay back in full measure.

Surprisingly, more than the Congress it is the so-called allies of the BJP- namely the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and the AIADMK, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) which have come to monopolise the well – as was seen during the second part of the Budget session – 2018, that opened on 5th March and was designed to last till 6th April.
A prospective ally, YSR Congress Party, (YSRCP), – a breakaway Congress in Andhra Pradesh was locked in a contest to share the honors with the TDP.

The two Telugu parties have a common issue – Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh as promised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while piloting the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Law 2014 on the floor of Rajya Sabha. TDP wants to go down as the sole champion of the issue. So does the YSRCP.

In effect, a state-level one-upmanship game virtually paralyzed the proceedings of Parliament. Both gave notice of a “No Confidence Motion”. And claim to have mustered enough support to get the motion admitted. Under Lok Sabha rules, at least fifty members should stand up in support of the motion, when it is tabled. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan could not take headcount. Reason: “My vision is obstructed by placards”. She has a point. The chair could have got the well cleared by marshals. But this was not done. Result: the House had lost precious time

The Congress and other opposition parties, notably Trinamool Congress, are no less guilty of trooping into the well of the House, particularly in the Rajya Sabha. A Congress veteran was heard telling the chair (16 March) in so many words that they were following a precedent.

Should a Grand Old Party (GOP) under a youthful leader disrupt the proceedings just to settle scores? Are there no rules and conventions to put the government on the mat as the saying goes? Yes, it is futile to expect the Opposition to invoke the rule book to assert their rights when the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry is unwilling or unprepared to move a motion to censure an unruly member.

Over the years, the conference of presiding officers has grappled with the issue of disruptions and unanimously recommended that the unruly members should be shown no leniency. Only the Telangana Assembly has heeded this advisory. It has shown the door to two Congress members, who had hurled earphones at the podium when Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan was addressing the joint sitting of the State Legislature in early March. The missile had hit the Legislative Council Chairman K. Swamy Goud. By all accounts, expulsion is an extreme step. What impact it will have is to be seen.

To make Parliament function properly, the strategy adopted by Rabi Ray merits attention.

To this old guard socialist goes the credit of making the Zero Hour a noise-free hour. Before him, the zero hours was the monopoly of the front-ranking Opposition leaders with most of them speaking simultaneously and it was generally over in a few minutes. With Rabi Ray, the Zero Hour became a prolonged affair, sometimes of over two hours. It was because he allowed backbenchers to raise issues of their concern, of course, with advance notice to the Chair. The well was rarely crowded when he was in the chair. Whoever came into the well, was gently ticked off and asked to speak from his seat. The “aggrieved” members listened to him, and, he, in turn, ensured that they had their full say.
Ray used the same approach – “You talk, I listen”, to turn the demand for adjournment of the Question Hour into an impromptu debate. As the allotted one hour for the Question Hour ended, the adjournment motion used to yield place to regular zero hour to the relief of treasury benches without bruising the Opposition egos in any way.

The short point is that adjournment is not a solution to pull curtains down on the show in the well of the House. Members have come to make a point in whatever way possible. So why not compel them to speak.

It is absurd to talk about the principle of “Dies Non” – no work, no pay in respect of Parliamentarians seen indulging in unruly scenes on the floor of the House or whenever parliament is adjourned without transacting any business.

Lawmakers are not daily wage earners or government employees notwithstanding their perks like monthly salary and retirement benefits.

Most legislative work and scrutiny of government functioning take place beyond the pale of TV cameras in the committees. In fact, to quote Congress veteran, V N Gadgil, real parliamentary work is carried out in the committees in a bipartisan spirit and as a bipartisan team.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee system introduced during PV Narasimha Rao regime has made the government and its officers accountable to Parliament as never before. Well, the general public is unaware of this real side; they only see the flip-side on the idiot box. And our TV anchors lament that the Lok Sabha has let down democracy if the budget is passed without debate as happened on March 16, 2018. For them the fact that parliamentary committees closely scrutinize the budget is a non-news.

Ignorance is a bliss for the know-alls!

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Fresh Lease To Third Front Politics

By Malladi Rama Rao
Spurred by the recent by-poll reverses the BJP has suffered, the old practioners of third Front politics are back in action. For a change, the Marxists appear to be in no mood for pre-poll alliances. Post –poll alliance is ok, says Sitaram Yechury, the CPI-M supremo. His reluctance to test alliance waters is stemmed by the opposition from the Karat school, which has pooh-poohed his plans for a tie-up with the Congress during the Tripura polls. Moreover, the Bengal experience shows that the Congress stands to benefit from an alliance with the Comrades to the glee of Didi.
Akhilesh Yadav has reaped the benefits of aligning with “aunty” Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. And he wants to extend the alliance to next Lok Sabha poll. But the BSP supremo has not opened her cards. Her aligning with the Samajwadi party appears limited in scope. She wanted a berth in the Rajya Sabha from UP. It was possible if SP votes for her nominee. The LS by-poll support was the bait, and the Yadav scion fell flat for it. Remember Mayawati and BSP never fight by-elections. So transferring BSP vote to SP was no big deal. It is this reality check that puts a question mark over the Alnaskar dreams of Akhilesh – of roping in the RJD as well. The Rahul Congress too may like to jump on the emerging bandwagon but it is no more than a small player in UP politics.

As Shantanu Gupta, the biographer of Yogi Adityanath says, over-reading Gorakhpur result will be a mistake; the BJP may have lost Gorakhpur and; there is not much of a dent in the Yogi’s image as “the new poster boy of BJP”.
Yet the Yogi camp cannot ignore the growing anger amongst allies like Om Prakash Rajbhar of the Suheldev Bahujan Samaj Party, who had stayed away from the celebrations of one year of Adityanath rule.

Congress is willing to catch any straw to remain relevant, and therefore made grand statements about alliance politics from its Plenary in Delhi. The sound and fury of the Rahul show are neither here nor there since the Grand Old Party (GOP) is keen on leading from the front. Sharad Pawar’s efforts on the other hand appear more convincing. And he has begun his effort from home ground where he met Raj Thackeray of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). And Raj fell for the Maratha’s bait and called for a “Modi-mukt Bharat” (Modi-free India). “It is high time we achieved our third independence in 2019,” he said during his Gudi Padwa rally, and appealed to like-minded parties to forge a united opposition against BJP for the 2019 election. Unlike cousin Uddhav, who is heading Shiv Sena, Raj is not a big player outside Mumbai. And Uddhav is not yet ready to desert the BJP though their alliance forged on Hindutva looks as good as wrecked.

A surprise entrant into the Third Front dreams is K Chandrasekhar Rao, the Telangana Chief Minister.

Known as KCR, he sees no challenger to his TRS party on his home turf, where his son, K Taraka Rama Rao (KTR) is enjoying a good run as an able minister and as a youth icon. He is not known to have national aspirations; so much so his plan to cobble up like minded parties as an alternative to BJP and Congress has taken observers by surprise. He appears to have spurred into alliance overdrive by two factors. One the plans of his bete noire, Chandrababu Naidu to desert NDA and realign with the Left. Second the growing impression that Rahul Congress has feet of clay. His visit to Kolkata with daughter Kavita, a MP, in tow is to be seen in this light. KCR-Mamata talks are exploratory in nature. Like KCR, Mamata is an old Congress hand; her priorities are not in synch with the Telangana Chief Minister. This means Hooghly- Musi sangmam offers no alliance nirvana. At least in the near to medium term.

This brings into reckoning, Nara Chandrababu Naidu (NCN), the Telugu Desam supremo, who has just ditched the BJP and left NDA. He did so once in the past in 2009 after being its main outside prop for five years during Vajpayee regime. Well, he is a familiar face on the national scene; he was the convenor of the short-lived United Front. So it is natural for the likes of Shard Yadav, who are adrift, to welcome Naidu’s moves with enthusiasm. But they will do well to do a NCN brand check.

NCN attempted a ‘Mahakutami’ (Grand Alliance) prior to 2009 elections. On 28 May 2011, he was at his vocal best in pouring vitriolic against the BJP and even Narendra Modi, stating “It was a mistake aligning with the BJP. I am expressing my regret to anyone who was troubled by that (alliance). I am apologizing to the Muslims for making that mistake. There will not be any alliance with any communal forces in future.” On 27 September 2012 at a minorities’ convention organized by the TDP, NCN again stated “The alliance with the BJP (1999-2004) was the biggest mistake of my life”. He pledged that such a situation “would never arise again.”

Again in 2013, NCN called Narendra Modi as “Nara Hantakudu” (Human Killer or Butcher).” He replied to media question that “We will not have an alliance with the BJP. Asked about Modi’s leadership, he said, “Modi has done nothing new in Gujarat. He has only replicated what I did when I was chief minister”. He attempted to forge the “Third Front” in alliance with Mulayam Singh Yadav and other so called secular parties against the BJP-led communal forces.
Chandrababu’s dramatic shifts in political posturing leave even his followers and sympathizers non-plussed. During the heydays of Telangana agitation, his critics in both regions accused him of providing an opportunity to the Congress Party to divide the state; he also stood accused of not closing ranks with all other parties opposing bifurcation.

In 2014, the strong Modi sentiment resulted in TDP aligning with the BJP for electoral gains to win against the YSRCP led by Jaganmohan Reddy. Modi and the BJP factor helped the TDP to sweep the polls. With Modi charisma appearing to be waning now, the wily politician, is back to what he is best at. And “Special Category Status” demand has become his manna.

None should also rule out the possibility of the self-styled ‘kingmaker’ at the national level nurturing dreams of becoming another Deva Gowda or Inder Gujral given his “Machiavellian” skills in ruthless pursuit of power. Will he succeed? Doubtful since there is a no Harkishan Singh Surjeet to advice and lead him to the Raisina Hill.
There is no denying that the Modi- Shah combine is faltering in adhering to what is called the ‘coalition dharma’ while running the multi-party NDA. As an analyst puts it, from the manner in which the BJP has dealt with problems from its NDA allies it will seem that it roped in partners not only to come to power but also to fulfill its burning desire to increase its footprints in the country—at their expense. Now, with its electoral base showing signs of erosion, some of its allies in Bihar and UP also are threatening to go their own way.

Jiten Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awami Party, has just walked into RJD fold in Bihar. There is an undercurrent of discontent in BJP –JD (U) alliance with brazen communal speeches by some BJP leaders to the dismay of Nitish Kumar, who still stands by his secular credentials long after ditching the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ he had formed with the Congress and the RJD. Is the BJP testing Nitish’s patience? Well, it appears so.

If this remains the trend, the BJP will be sweating before the 2019 polls.
(With inputs from MS Shanker in Hyderabad)

(This commentary appeared in Power Politics in 2018)

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Debt-ridden China Living On Borrowed Time

By Malladi Rama Rao

In the run up to heralding the Chinese New Year of Dog on 16th February, there was little room for cheer for the Chinese leadership and their state-controlled economy. At Davos, the Mecca of world’s finance and capital, President Xi Jinping’s top economic aide, Liu He, failed to inspire, and whatever he promised in terms of reform sounded like hackneyed rhetoric. This was in sharp contrast to the reception President Jinping received a year ago at the very same venue, the World Economic Forum.

Liu did tout China’s economic success registered in the past one year and promised to open up and reform China’s markets “beyond expectations” in 2018. Yet he failed to impress; it was largely his own fault. He avoided any reference to the deep tensions between China’s rhetoric in support of free trade and globalization, and its highly interventionist industrial policy system and policies, according to Washington based Scott Kennedy, who directs a project on Chinese business and political economy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Another contributory factor for the tepid response Liu received was the reality check that showed China in poor light. The gross domestic product (GDP) may have registered a 6.9 percent growth in 2017 and exceeded 80 trillion yuan ($12.5 trillion) for the first time since 2010.

Important macroeconomic data also shows a robust trend but the growth has come at a high price: “rising borrowing that has triggered downgrades of China’s sovereign debt rating by credit rating agencies; severe pollution of China’s air, water and soil; and persistent social problems associated with lack of job opportunities in the countryside that have forced tens of millions of workers to move to cities leaving their families at home towns.

Poverty and pollution have emerged as the main threats to the Chinese economy, and from the investors’ point of view, the risk to investment in China has come to compound matters.

On his part, President Xi Jinping is fully aware of the malaise. At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last October, he declared that the country should no longer emphasize maximizing economic growth at almost any cost. He also signaled his resolve to address some of these chronic problems.

Xinhua news agency has struck an optimistic note nevertheless on January 19. It said China’s economy could hit its sweet spot in 2018 but conceded that the growth rate is partly credited to cyclical factors and an improved global economy.

The old economy — heavy industries and property sectors are slowing. The new economy — services and part of the manufacturing sector such as high tech is not yet strong enough to overwhelm the old economy. Analysts believe the Chinese economy is going through a phase of “creative destruction” as lively new sectors coexist with still-dominant old sectors, Xinhua report published in Global Times said.

Official data shows that just four cities, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou generated nearly an eighth of the country’s economic output ( $ 1.56 trillion in all) last year. This clearly shows that Jinping regime is not spreading out resources and is depending on the big four for growth. It is not a healthy trend since China lives in its villages, and semi-urban pockets.

Communist China may not believe in God but its citizens do believe in the Goddess of wealth. Pyramid schemes are growing disguised as rebates, online games, charity or poverty relief. Speculation is ripe in the housing sector, which according to the New York Times, is a casino today.

“Housing is also the source of some of the country’s biggest booms and busts. Local investors — many of whom do not trust the country’s stock markets and are forbidden by Beijing to move most of their wealth abroad — simply throw money at housing. Real estate broker fees, often as low as 1 percent, are a small fraction of the typical 6 percent in the United States,” Keith Bradsher wrote in a recent dispatch to The New York Times from Beijing.

It is difficult to believe that the Chinese President and his brains trusts are not aware of the turbulence that is round the corner as a consequence. Or the reality that vast numbers of apartments in many cities lie empty, “either because the buyers have no intention of moving in or renting out, or because speculators built homes that nobody wants”. Real estate makes up nearly three-quarters of the assets of Chinese households.

At the party Congress, President Jinping gave a stirring call against real estate speculation. “Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation,” he told the party faithful but his appeal has no visible impact as yet. The buying spree is prompted by the state in a manner of speaking. Local government services like admission to good schools are assured for owners of apartments in Shanghai, for instance.

Household debt, mainly in the form of mortgage loans, is growing as a result. At the end of June last year, its ratio to gross domestic product was 46.5 percent, up from 37.3 percent at the same point in 2015 and 18.6 percent in 2008. The value of medium – and long-term loans to households rose to 5.3 trillion yuan ($823.27 billion) in 2017, accounting for 39 percent of all new loans, according to data released by China’s apex bank.

Chinese numbers whether related to GDP or jobless are always suspect – “implausibly smooth and steady” as an American daily says while on the health of the world’s second-largest economy.

Problem is despite all the talk of liberalization and opening up, the Chinese economy is still largely behind a bamboo curtain. From reports in local and Hong Kong media, it is clear that doubts over Chinese official data are justified.

Over the past several months, many Chinese local governments have admitted that they have faked economic data. Nikkei Asian Review attributes this rush of confessions to “Central government subsidies for coming clean”. A growing number of Chinese local governments are owning up to having faked economic data and are moving to correct their doctored numbers, responding to a major shift in Beijing’s economic policy toward the quality of growth, it says.

Future thus may become rosy for number crunching. But what about today. Can we take the Chinese growth data on face value? My answer is a resounding no!

Consider these facts. Liaoning, the northeastern Chinese province bordering North Korea, reported an unusual 2.5 percent drop in gross domestic product last year; it admitted cooking its books between 2011 and 2014 through transaction items, forgery, tax refunds, and taxation calendar adjustments; these admissions followed probe against Wang Min, the provincial party boss.

Wangcheng district in Changsha, the capital of the central province of Hunan, faked the ownership transfer of local government buildings to increase local fees revenue by 1.2 billion yuan ($181 million). Six counties in Jilin province listed 110 million yuan in project funding and hospital revenue as revenue from administrative fees.
On Dec 8, 2017, China’s National Audit Office (NAO) said five city or county governments in Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Hunan and Hainan provinces had incurred 6.4 billion yuan of debt through financial guarantees – a practice that has been banned by country’s Finance Managers.

The Chinese authorities estimate the local government debt at around 16.47 trillion Yuans ($2.56 trillion). “The problem is controllable and these debts can be repaid by existing assets”, says the Central government in Beijing.
There are few takers for optimism. Certainly, the rating agencies are not convinced. Otherwise, Moody’s and S&P would not have downgraded China’s sovereign credit rating!

A clear warning that debt-ridden China is living on borrowed time!

(* This comment first appeared in Power Politics)

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Rahul Bangaya Gentleman

By Malladi Rama Rao

Whether you like him or not and whether he succeeds or not, you cannot deny, the reluctant crown prince has won the perception war to herald the Rahul era in the Congress as 2017 was drawing to a close. This is no mean achievement for one who relished the image of an angry outsider while the world outside 10 Janpath and 24 Akbar Road saw him as the Pappu. He has no Amethi Model to show case but has managed to pour scorn on the Modi Model from Gujarat by smartly tapping into public anger over acche din’s failure to materialise even after a three-year wait.

What next? Will Rahul Gandhi sustain the spring in his Berkeley stride? There are no clear answers as yet. What is clear, however, is that he has no challenger to stymie his stride – well, in the Congress. Shehzad Poonawalla was a non-starter despite all the promise he had held out with his critique of the dynasty and its ‘rigged’ election. In fact, what prompted him to say what he had said in the public remains a Sudoku? The first impression was that the Secretary of the Maharashtra Congress, who appears on television for the party, was fighting someone else’s war. Who is that someone else? One needle of suspicion pointed at a member of the First Family of the Congress itself; because he is known as Gandhi family relative in political circles; his brother, Tehseen, also a Congress leader, is married to Robert Vadhera’s cousin, Monika. Both Tehseen and Monika have quickly disowned Shehzad to the great relief of some, and to the utter disbelief of some others.

The other suspect in the Poonawalla show is the BJP. Look at the way the party’s mascot had jumped on the Poonawalla bandwagon with glee. The saffaronites gave up on him once he himself gave up his headline quest. Well, as long as the focus remained on him, Shehzad Poonawalla raised questions. And the Congress ducked for cover.

Organizational elections in Indian political parties are a big farce except in the two mainline Communist parties. The BJP regularly holds elections right from the booth level but as anyone on the party beat knows, elections for the state and national level posts are ‘fixed’ by consensus amongst the seniors and the pracharak- supervisors on loan from the saffron fountainhead in Nagpur. Congress is not known for holding elections unless it is compelled to save its registration with the Election Commission of India (ECI). The Rahul –election is one such compulsion for the party that has gifted high command culture to Indian politics.

There are no satraps who could pose a threat to the high command. Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law pampered loyalists and entertained courtiers as their recipe for a complete grip over the party. Indira had split the party when she faced a threat to her position; Sonia adopted a different strategy to achieve the same goal when the going became tough in the early nineties. Tiwaris, Natwars, and Arjun Singhs staged the strange spectacle of splitting the party only to be accommodated in positions of favour once the dust settled down.

Like Indira during her time, Sonia during her unchallenged 19-year-long reign was the glue that the Congress needed to stick together as a party without roots. Today elections in India have become a two-party (with allies in tow, of course) race for power. Foot-soldiers at the booth-level are a must for victory. The days of ‘hawa’ politics are passé as the BJP’s surge under Narendra Modi shows. Amit Shah, the BJP president, began his innings as a booth level worker.

So, in a sense, Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant crown prince of yesterday, has become a general without an army. Loyalists, whom Shehzad Poonawalla has attacked as “handpicked,” may help to transport crowds for rallies but cannot help in converting the crowd into votes. Anyhow barring a few honorable exceptions, the loyalists are not vote-getters. It is tempting to compare Rahul army to his great grandfather’s Army that faced the Chinese in the Northeast. This comparison is patently unfair; indeed, may be uncalled for but it helps to drive home the enormity of the task that awaits the Cambridge and Harvard educated Nehru-Gandhi scion.

Shehzad Poonawalla likes to term the process of elevation of Rahul Gandhi as “coronation” because that fits into his narrative on dynastic politics. Congressmen and women see it differently. For them, Rahul represents the time tested dynasty and therefore a sure ticket to return to the theatre of power politics.

From Delhi and Haryana to Uttar Pradesh, and from Bihar to Bengal, the Congress organization has become weak. It has leaders no doubt but the many of the cadres have migrated to the local power centers for their survival. The situation is no different in other states too – from Madhya Pradesh to Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and Orissa. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress that matters today is the YSR Congress floated by the son of late satrap, YS Rajshekhar Reddy.

From the North to North-east and the South, the survival of the Congress depends as much on the vision of Rahul Gandhi and his ability to shed deadwood as his willingness to co-opt local players and share power with them. The choices before him in poll bound MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are limited. These states are waiting to see the Congress to put its act together, and it can do so only if it sheds the soft Hindutva brand.

Secularism does not stand for appeasement of minorities, particularly Muslims. And, Congress has very little to show case that pleases the Muslims. No surprise Narenedra Modi is able to get away repeating his “atkana-latkana-bhatkana” jibe for the Congress, and accusing the party of only offering “lollipops” to Muslims for years. “Every election, you (Congress) lied to Muslims and promised them reservation. My Muslim brothers here should tell me, didn’t they ‘maaro gappa’ about reservations,” he told an appreciative audience near Surat during his Gujarat poll campaign.

India is a country that will never wish away religion and yet Indian ethos will continue to give respect and place for all religions. Gandhiism is a living example of this Indian spirit. Both in his public speeches and writing, Gandhiji always used religious symbols, and harped on Ram Rajya, the land of happiness and bliss for all. This he did not because he was “a clever bania”, as Amit Shah wants the world to believe but because of two factors. One religious symbolism was a way to reach out to his audience; two despite abundance of religious rituals, and multiple religions, catholicity is all pervading in India. India needs to reinvent the Gandhian wheel of religious tolerance and Nehruvian model of secularism in these days of love jihad, cow vigilantism, and blatant communalism – all tailor-made to power politics.

The coming days will test Rahul Gandhi’s mettle, undoubtedly. The Gujarat campaign presented him as a temple -hopping, sacred- thread wearing Shiv Bhakt. The number of temples he had visited was an election-time record for a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

“Whenever I went to a temple I just prayed for a ‘Sunehra Bhavishya’ (golden future) for the people of Gujarat, a better development here. Is it wrong to go to a temple?” he asked a questioner at a press briefing after visiting the Jagannath temple in Ahmedabad. “Jahan mauka milta hai vahan mandir jaata hoon, Kedarnath bhi gaya tha, vo kya Gujarat mein hai?” This Rahul-speak may be misplaced sarcasm. It can be utterly butterly naivety too. Well it can be both of a 47-year-old, who has failed to nurse the family pocket borough, Amethi despite being its darling for fifteen years.

Rahul has recovered some ground by his quick punishment to garrulous Mani Shankar Aiyar for his “neech kism ka aadmi” barb targeted at Modi. This one act has made him stand apart from his arch rival, who shows scant respect to the established rules of the political discourse. This act also has showed that he has travelled quite a distance from the theatrics he used to stage against his very own party- led government to the dismay of the accidental Prime Minister of the day.

Admittedly, Rahul has come a long way over the past four-four years. When in January 2013, he was named Congress vice president in Jaipur, he stood before a receptive audience and said his mother told him that “power is like poison”. Now he is taking over the reins of the century-old party as the President – the sixth from the Gandhi-Nehru ‘dynasty’ to do so, continuing a chain beginning with Motilal Nehru. Whether he likes or not, politics is in his blood.
From what was on display in recent months, the BJP is taking him seriously as Rahul moves around with his sleeves rolled up and his social media spruced up. The giveaway was fielding of a host of ministers to counter his charge against demonetization, and critique of GST as Gabbar Singh Tax. And Modi did one up on them in his Gujarat rallies, speaking for 60-70 percent of the time belittling him and lampooning him. What a compliment Sirji for a “clueless” politician –bachelor saddled with a party in “hopeless and pitiable condition”.

(*This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Power Politics)

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The killing of Lt. Ummer Fayaz

By ASHOK HANDOO*

May 10, 2017 will go down in the history of Jammu and Kashmir as yet another dark day. On this day terrorists kidnapped and killed a 22- year- old Lt. Ummer Fayaz Parrey when he had come to Kulgam in Shopian district to attend the marriage of his cousin. Fayaz was commissioned into the Rajputana Rifles of the India army recently and was posted at Akhnoor in Jammu.

Intelligence agencies believe that a group of six-terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) are responsible for his killing. The terrorists have been identified and a hunt has been launched in the entire Shopian district to nab them. Their sketches have also been released to facilitate their arrest.

The killing of Ummer Fayaz has given rise to many questions. Why has this particular killing caused so much of rage in the entire country when many, more senior officers, get killed by the terrorists so often? Was he killed because he was an officer of the Indian Army and the terrorists are routinely targeting the army men in the valley? Or was he killed because a Muslim of Kashmir joined the Army which went against the ideology of the terrorists who preach secession or the establishment of an Islamic state?

To the first question the answer is simple. The country feels enraged at the killing of any army jawan and the officers by the terrorists in the valley. But this time this anger is more palpable because of the manner in which this young officer was killed. He was not on a military mission and had nothing to do with anti- terrorist activities in the valley. He had come to attend a social function- a wedding that too – taking leave from his official duties for the first time long months after joining the military service.

It is quite possible that Ummer Fayaz was targeted because the terrorists wanted to send a signal to the youth of Kashmir not to join the Indian Armed Forces. If that was the intention it may not be served. That is because thousands of young Kashmiris throng the recruitment rallies of the Indian Army in every district of the valley whenever these are held and only the most suitable are taken in. There, of course, may be a temporary impact on this out of fear but the youth of Kashmir have withstood earlier threats by terrorists in this regard and will continue to do so. The latest recruitment drive for 300 posts has seen hundreds stand in line.

More alarming, of course, is the deafening silence by the intelligentsia of the valley on the issue. While the newspapers in Kashmir reported prominently the killing of the army officer, no newspaper wrote an editorial or published an opinion piece. The purpose obviously was to avoid any comment on the issue.

If anything a National Conference MLA Abdul Majeed Bhat refused to even admit that the killing was done by the terrorists. His party president and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah firmly distanced himself from Bhat and said he should not have made such a statement.

The people of Kashmir seem to have been caught in a dilemma. If they condemn the killing they would attract the wrath of the terrorists and if they support it, that would be inhuman more so when a son of the soil was involved. To an extent this is a genuine problem but the bigger question is how long can the people of the valley remain silent when something blatantly wrong takes place? Will the valley continue to suffer the way it has been for the last three decades? Do they feel that they are well protected when they rise against the Indian state in any shape or form because of the image New Delhi has created for itself in the valley? As against this do they think that even a word against terrorists would prove costly for them. If that is the case is it time for New Delhi to take positive steps to change this mindset?

Government of India has been liberal in many ways as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned. But there have been mistakes too. Otherwise, why should the people who fought against armed Pakistani raiders in 1947 with sticks or even bare hands, rise against the Indian state? How can we forget the sacrifices of Shaheed Sherwani, Master Abdul Aziz and scores of others who laid down their lives in 1947 but did not allow Pakistani raiders to reach Srinagar city until the Indian Army arrived to fight back the raiders. As late as 1965 when Pakistan made its first bid to infiltrate terrorists into the Valley, Kashmiri people promptly informed the security agencies and got them arrested.

There must be an honest introspection and mistakes identified and corrected in time. There are certain things which the Indian government has to admit as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned. At the same time the people of Kashmir must realize that by supporting the path adopted by the terrorists in any form which includes remaining silent on their misdeeds, leads only to destruction. No sane person would advise anybody to follow such a path.

It is a tragedy that the heaven on earth has been converted into a killing ground. This must stop in the interest of every stakeholder, more so the people of Kashmir. No politics need be played on this issue. But can that happen the way our political parties behave? That is a billion dollar question and contains the seeds of the answer to how to deal with the Kashmir problem.

(* The writer is a former special correspondent of All India Radio)

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