Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Modi, Yogi and relay race

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

There is little doubt that the assembly election results in the mega-state of Uttar Pradesh, and the emergence of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister in its aftermath, has left the commentators spellbound! And that includes your faithfully. Two enigmas stand out to be resolved.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

With the courtroom battle for a seminal change in Muslim personal law—that of prohibiting the vile practice of giving divorce with the husband uttering the words ‘talaq’ thrice—now heading for climax, it is clear that the administration led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has at last secured a bridgehead behind enemy lines. For the initiative to bring the matter of ‘triple talaq’, the nikahhalaal (compelling a divorced wife to consummate marriage with some other person and getting divorced by him before being allowed to remarry the first husband), and polygamy has come neither from politicians of any hue nor from the Islamic clergy and scholars. It has come from Muslim women, whose resentment against such misogynism in the name of religion was simmering over decades.

The practice of triple talaq, which is now being conveyed even through WhatsApp and text messages, is alleged by some of the leading Muslim women’s organization to be “un-Quranic”. Under the banner of Bharatiya Muslim MahilaAndolan (BMMA), an Indian Islamic feminist organisation and other bodies, signatures of over one million Muslim women were collected on a petition demanding abolition of triple talaq and nikahhalaal for being un-Islamic. Simultaneously, two women, Shayara Bano and Afreen Rahman, unilaterally divorced by their husbands, approached the Supreme Court with the same request.

The government has become a party as it strongly supports the Muslim women’s demand. “Lives of Muslim women cannot be allowed to be destroyed by triple talaq”, Modi announced at a pre-election rally in Bundelkhand last year. And now the Supreme Court has asked all sides to submit statements, including the government, the Muslim women’s organisations, as well as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) that administers Muslim personal law and is opposed to any change in the existing system. March 30 is fixed as the date for the written submissions. A five-judge Constitution bench will decide issues relating to legal aspects of the practices of triple talaq, nikahhalalaand polygamy among Muslims but will not include in its ambit the overall question of divorce within the Muslim law. The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India JS Khehar, made it clear that it would not deal with the politically thorny issue of Uniform Civil Code, which is now under consideration of the Law Commission of India.

The AIMPLB, on its part, is invoking the divine Sharia laws on one hand and, on the other, drumming up support among opposition political parties for the issue of Muslim divorce to remain under its grips. It held rallies in Kolkata, where Trinamool Congress chief minister Mamata Banerjee, known for her vote-bank politics, sent two of her powerful ministers to be seen on the dais. More recently, during the ‘demonetisation’ furore, she reminded Modi that the difficulty that had been caused to ordinary people due to scrapping of 500 and 1,000-rupee notes would prompt them to “give BJP triple talaq”.

India’s 15 per cent Muslim voters have always been a foil for the BJP; hardly any prominent member of the community is known to support the party that has barely concealed contempt for the Constitution’s secular ideals and its supporters have been involved in communal riots. But the simmering discontent in the Muslim households on the triple talaq issue has given the BJP under Modi a foothold it never dreamt of. In Uttar Pradesh, the 19 per cent Muslim voters have voted in an unexpected way. In most of the state east of Allahabad, Muslim women have reportedly voted against the diktat of the mosque leaders to press the voting button in a tactical way so that the constituency’s winnable ‘secular’ (non-BJP) candidate—be it from SP or BSP—gets the vote. They have voted instead in accordance with their conscience, which has often turned poll strategists’ calculations on their head. On the other hand, in the riot-prone western Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar, with 40 per cent Muslim population, the minority women have either voted for BSP, or have wasted their vote in some way or the other. In Muzaffarnagar, which witnessed horrible riots in 2013, the then ruling SP not only failed to resist the riot but sided with the clerics who were supporting triple talaq. Hence the Muslim women’s support for rival BSP. But what is more important is that they were unmoved by the prospect of the BJP winning by their refusal to obey the mosque’s instruction. In fact the BJP has won all the six assembly constituencies in the district.

For the BJP, it was a Trafalgar moment. For the first time, the Muslim society seemed open to negotiations. It was so much different from the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985, when it lacked the courage to give effect to the Supreme Court judgment on the Shah Bano case (giving proper alimony to divorced wife); instead it brought about a clearly illogical amendment to an existing law to leave the Muslim divorce norms as patriarchal as ever.

The difference between Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 and Narendra Modi in 2017 is not only the long span of 32 years that separate them. The years have brought about drastic changes in the Muslim mindset, with a new generation of lawyers, doctors, accountants and other professionals among women in the community now crying for attention as a class demanding gender equity. The BMMA is a prism onto it.

Will the male chauvinist AIMPLB give way? Much depends on how the Supreme Court frames its judgment. If the apex court focuses on triple talaq, it is unlikely that the legal opposition to it will hold. And its credit will go to Narendra Modi and emergence of a new BJP. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

'Luv and Kush' winning battles

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the inseparable duos from Modi’s years as Gujarat chief minister. Like Luv and Kush, the warrior brothers, their partnership is mainly forged on (electoral) battlegrounds. But it has matured over the decades, with their voyage from Sabarmati to Ganga. Just how much power they pack in their punch came to light, for the second time after the 2014 general election, along the entire upper stretch of the Ganga last week, with the BJP campaign steered by the duo. They captured 379 of the 473 seats in the two assemblies of Uttarakhand (70) and Uttar Pradesh (403). That’s more than half the land washed by the “sacred river”.

Like Luv and Kush, they have issues to settle. The fighter brothers of mythology longed to right the wrong done to their mother, Sita, by their father, Ram. Modi and Shah are on a mission to establish their BJP as the next national alternative, after crushing the earlier one, Congress, and squelching its single binding factor, the Gandhi dynasty. During the earlier NDA rule, BJP’s efforts to do it was half-hearted, at best, and the end of A.B.Vajpayee’s government in 2004 put the Congress and the dynasty again at the top for a whole decade. Before taking charge of the BJP’s 2014 combat, Modi had put Shah in charge of the party in UP, as the two could not fight separately indeed. They must draw their bow backwards at once and release the arrows together.

After the phenomenal victory in 2014, in which the Congress was humbled to only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, Luv and Kush had to catch a breath as they faced reversal in the 2015 assembly election in Bihar. It’s not that Modi and Shah had run out of their magic. Modi’s oratory was grand as ever and Shah picked up candidates and party workers from caste groups with the alacrity of the pelican snatching a fish from the lake’s surface. But nothing worked as the opposition had buried their historic internal feuds to form a Chinese wall against BJP.

This time round, the Modi-Shah team was meticulous and lucky. They left nothing to chances and learnt from the humiliating defeat in Bihar. In Bihar, the BJP worked hard to woo the Yadavs thinking that they will be angry with Nitish Kumar being projected as Chief Ministerial candidate. In the process, it ignored the other OBCs in Bihar and the Congress-RJD-JD(U) alliance proved fatal. The Luv-Kush duo knew the consequences of BJP losing UP and left nothing to chances. The strategy was in place from April last year when an insignificant OBC leader Keshav Prasad Maurya was appointed as UP BJP Chief. Three months later in July several OBC first timers MPs from UP were inducted in the Modi Council of Ministers. The luck favoured Luv-Kush duo again when some behind the scenes efforts to form a Bihar-type Mahagathbandhan (umbrella alliance of anti-BJP parties) in Uttar Pradesh failed. Then came the generational conflict raging between Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister. This left the carefully crafted alignment between OBC groups and Muslims all but defunct. Besides, Mayawati, supremo of BSP, the party of Dalits, carried such long and bitter record of enmity with Mulayam Yadav that a BSP-SP coalition was out of the question. 

This left Mayawati with her 11% Jatavs and truncated Muslims. Shah began to work on the non-Jatavs in a big way. Despite an alliance between Congress and SP in the state, hammered out between Akhilesh and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, the portly BJP chief tapped its backward constituents for lines of fissure. The Modi-Shah duo re-established the OBC link that BJP had lost with the political eclipse of former chief minister Kalyan Singh (he is now Rajasthan Governor). Shah ensured that Kalyan Singh’s grandson gets the Assembly ticket and any OBC leader worth a salt given primacy.

Shah’s long hunt for non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav yielded a handpicked army that could bypass the caste silos that Congress, SP or BSP could occupy. Though community-wise voting behaviour reports are not available yet, there is little doubt that BJP could make deep inroads into non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBC groups. There was little hope, though, that Muslims would press the EVM button in favour of BJP. But Modi succeeded in created a ray of hope amongst the Muslim women by telling them that he would end the regressive Triple Talaq. Secondly, Modi’s campaign speeches remained refreshingly ‘development-oriented’ in the early phases of the seven-phase poll. But as polling moved eastward, Modi invoked his trademark divisive rhetoric while leaders like Yogi Adityanath did the rest to consolidate non-Muslim votes.

For Shah, revenge tasted best when served cold. His swagger, though muted, hit the jackpot as he said that in the first two stages of the poll, in which 125 seats were at stake, his party had won 115, against his own claim of 90 and rout predicted by the Opposition & the media. The BJP’s social engineering paid rich dividends in UP where BSP is routed, RLD wiped out and Congress decimated. The situation is so pitiable that Mayawati will be out of even Rajya Sabha in April 2018 when her term ends.

Though Congress has retained Punjab, a Sikh (non-Hindu) majority state. But the entire BJP leadership was praying for its win as it never wanted AAP to win the border state. The AAP’s rout in Goa has also gladdened the Duo’s hearts. In Manipur, inhabited by tribal people, it is facing extinction from the mainline states where Hindu identity can be political currency. Modi and Shah, the ‘Luv-Kush’ duo of BJP seems unstoppable in the 2019 general election.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Parlt panel to probe EVM tampering in Maha civil polls

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Parlt panel to probe EVM tampering in Maha civil polls


Complaints from Pune Nashik, Dhule

Harish Gupta
New Delhi, March 14

The Parliament's Standing committee of Home & Personnel has decided to look into the complaints of EVM tampering during Maharashtra Zilla Parishad and Municipal Committee elections. It is pertinent to mention that earlier the Election Commission had dismissed the petition of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati's allegations of EVM tampering in recently held Assembly polls including Uttar Pradesh where Mayawati had made serious allegation of EVM tampering in the recently held Maharashtra Zilla Parishad and Municipal Committee elections.

In an exclusive chat with Lokmat on Tuesday the chairman of Parliament's Standing Committee of Home Affairs, Anand Sharma said, "The committee has received compliants from various cities & districts of Maharashtra giving evidence of tampering of EVM machines."

When ask to elaborate, Sharma said, "We haveWe have received complaints from Pune, Nashik, Dhule and other places of EVM tampering. One candidate alleged that he and his 28 family members cast their votes in the Zila Parishad polls. But the EVM showed zero votes in his favour.” Sharma said that the committee is now seized o these complaints and information is being verified. The Election Commission officials are in touch with the Committee officials and we are going to look into it.”

The standing committee will also look into the Supreme Court order which had said that paper trail must be kept he said. Previously, Mayawati had dismissed the Uttar Pradesh assembly election results and called for fresh polls after BSP's crushing defeat. Mayawati also accused the BJP of murdering democracy saying, "Either the EVMs did not accept votes other than the BJP, or the votes of other parties have gone to BJP through these EVMs."

However the standing committee probing the EVM tampering allegations in itself is set to give a new dimension to the whole issue. The standing commission would also summon electronic engineers, suppliers and experts to look into the matter.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why Priyanka Gandhi is out of action ?

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Lokmat News Network

New Delhi, Feb 23:

Priyanka Gandhi who was considered as the prime architect of the Congress-SP alliance in UP and billed as a star campaigner, is suddenly out of action.

Barring the lone poll rally appearance last week in the family bastion of Rae Bareli, Priyanka Gandhi’s No-Show has set tongues wagging. The party workers and candidates in these two Lok Sabha constituencies and neighbouring areas were desperately looking for Priyanka Gandhi. But she was no where around.

Highly placed sources in the Gandhi family say that the reasons for Priyanka Gandhi’s absence from the poll scene are personal. While Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been out of action due to medical advice, Priyanka Gandhi has been forced to stay back in the Capital due to serious injury in the left eye of her son Rehan.

Presently admitted at Capital’s prestigious Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Rehan’s eye ailment has been a cause of serious worry for the entire family and virtually incapacitated her movement.

While the family sources confirmed the injury to Rehan’s eye when it was hit by a cricket ball. It transpires that Rehan was first taken to AIIMS and then to Hyderabad and now admitted at the Ganga Ram hospital.

Achchhe Din for Mallikarjun Kharge !

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Achchhe Din for Mallikarjun Kharge !

Harish Gupta

New Delhi, Feb.24

A move is afoot to replace the current chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), P C Chacko. If sources within the Congress Party are to be believed, Chacko is unlikely to be given the fourth term. He is completing his third term on April 30 and there are reasons for Leader of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha  Mallikarjun Kharge to smile.

Though Chacko’s axing is being attributed to his remarks recently wherein he said as chairman of the PAC that the committee can summon Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his role in demonetization. Chacko had to beat a hasty retreat when BJP MPs Nishikant Dubey and Ajay Sancheti raised the issue at the PAC meeting saying that the statement was unwarranted and even illegal. The PAC has no right to summon the PM and the matter never came up before the committee either.

But the reasons for bringing in Mallikarjun Kharge in place of Chacko are political. Kharge is without a room in Parliament House though he is Leader of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha. The Modi Government decided not to bestow upon him a favour by giving him the status of the Leader of Opposition. Only a Leader of the Opposition is entitled to a room and staff. Kharge has been asking for a room inside the Parliament House to work effectively as the Leader of the Party. The Congress Party has only one room in the Parliament House which is occupied by Sonia Gandhi. But the PAC chairman he may have a room and stain Karnataka and giving Kharge another powerful committee, the Congress will send a message to the voters there.

The PAC chairman’s post goes to the main Opposition party. While Thomas has completed three consecutive terms as PAC chairman, there is no bar on the number of terms. BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi was PAC chairman for five terms, although under different Lok Sabha.

Strategic sale of AI, ITDC on cards

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Strategic sale of AI, ITDC on cards

22 sick PSUs to be shut down

AI failed to revive itself even after a ballout package of  Rs.20,000 crores.
PSUs suffer One lakh crores annual loss

Harish Gupta

New Delhi, Feb 28

The Modi government has served an ultimatum to country’s 45 loss-making Public Sector Undertakings including Air India, India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) etc to perform or perish.

Highly placed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office and NITI Aayog say that the PM is determined to cut down Rs one lakh crores annual losses incurred by these PSUs year after year and there is no accountability.

One of the proposals gathering pace is to find a strategic partner for Air India. The PM felt at a recent review meeting with AI Chairman Ashwani Lohani that the flagship airlines failed to revive itself even after a bailout package of Rs 20000 crores. Modi made it clear that the government would not waste tax payers money anymore and gave three more months to him to tone up.

Similarly, the NITI Aayog came to the conclusion that the government should not have any business to be in the hotel business and barring the Ashok in the Lutyen’s Delhi, the government should exit them.

failed to turn around the loss making national carrier, people with knowledge of the matter said.
It now transpires that several presentations have been made to the finance ministry and the PMO by experts and stake holders in the recent past.

The NITI Aayog, tasked with preparing a roadmap for ailing PSUs, had submitted a list of 74 companies, had suggested the closure of 26 companies. With regard to remaining 54, the Aayog suggested status quo in case of two PSUs, strategic disinvestment of 10, revival with option for strategic disinvestment for 22, transfer of ownership of six, merger of three and long term lease of five.

Finally, the government has decided to shut down 15 loss-making public sector units, of which at least five have been cleared by the cabinet, while opting to go against internal advice and revive three state-run companies.

The Centre also has to meet its disinvestment target of Rs 56,500 crore. On the list are large state-run companies such as Container Corporation of India, Bharat Earthmovers, as many as three plants of the Steel Authority of India and unlisted entities like Cement Corporation of India. The government has also exited from stocks held by SUUTI in some of the private sector companies like ITC, L&T and others. SUUTI is an arm of the central government which held stocks running into thousands of crores.

Telecom war take its first toll

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

     Telecom war take its first toll

*    Midnight coup at Sanchar Bhavan 
*    J S Deepak shunted out

Harish Gupta

New Delhi, March 2

A bitter corporate battle in the telecom sector between Reliance Jio and  rival telecom operators seems to have taken its first toll. In a late evening order, the Prime Minister shunted out Chairman Telecom Commission & Secretary Telecom J S Deepak and sent him to the Commerce Ministry as OSD. Three months later, Deepak will go to Geneva to take over as India’s Ambassador at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Normally, the posting at Geneva is for three year period as it requires tough negotiations and hard bargaining at the world forum. The posting at Geneva had always been there for three years. A careful reading of the transfer order reveals that Deepak will remain in Geneva for a period of 14 months only. It seems the government was in such a tearing hurry to show him the door that it did not wait for his return from a telecom conference abroad. Deepak was attending the World Mobile Conference at Barcelona when the marching orders out of Sanchar Bhawan were issued.

Surprisingly, the government did not name Deepak’s successor at the Telecom Commission which is now headless. The Telecom Ministry doesn’t have a secretary either.

It seems the PMO was angry with Deepak when the Telecom Commission, the highest decision-making body for the sector, wrote to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) urgently review its tariff orders and directions. The Telecom Commission met on February 23 and issued the letter and also made it public.

The letter assumes significance in the backdrop of bitter battle between Reliance Jio and other operators like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular.
Since the launch of its free voice and data services in September 2016, Reliance Jio forced incumbents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular to bring down tariffs leading to a price war in the industry.

The tariff war, according to DoT, has adversely impacted government’s collections from Rs 3975 crore in the first quarter of FY17 to Rs 3584 crore in Q2, and further down to Rs 3186 crore in the quarter ended December 31, 2016.

The main reason for the downward trend appears to be a tariff war in the industry triggered by free promotional offers, the DoT secretary said. However, the letter did not name any of the companies.

What made government angry was that when the matter was before the superior judiciary as Vodafone and other players had moved Delhi High Court alleging that TRAI had failed to prohibit violation of its tariff orders, why the DOT jumped the gun.

Delhi-DC, Economy Class

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

In Indo-US relations after Donald Trump's entry in White House, the noticeable change is in somewhat  diminution of relative stature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his September 2014 visit to America, his first after being elected prime minister of India, there was a buoyancy in his movement that reflected in his triumphal address to his diaspora supporters at Madison Square Garden. Erstwhile US President Barack Obama, though apprehensive about Modi's alleged communally divisive inclinations, treated him with care as India remained important in his world view in the context of his pledge to withdraw American soldiers from Afghanistan. He thought Kabul might gain from Delhi's help to rebuild the country ravaged by decades of terrorism. India's importance in his scheme of things added to Modi's stature in America. This was an important platform for popularity in a country with a middle class hooked on the American dream.

Since Trump's election, however, Modi has lost his perkiness. The new US president’s world view is different. He seems non-committal on India but that only prolongs the anxiety of unpredictability. It came to the fore with the killing of Indian techie Srinivas Kuchivotla in Kansas on February 22 by a Navy veteran in a racist outburst. Had it been in the Obama days, the balmy touch of White House would have been promptly extended. But Trump remained silent for almost a whole week. He finally mentioned it in his address to a joint session of the US congress. Clubbing it with hate crimes on the Jewish communities, and couching it in lofty prose, he said it "reminded us that...we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms".

Two things related to President Trump's belated condemnation of the seemingly racist murder stand out, though. First, far from coming easily, it required quiet and high level palavering by India, led by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, who was camping in Washington DC. Besides, the President's florid words neither include the name of the victim nor his nationality. On the other hand, the death in action of an American army officer in Yemen became, rightly, the subject of high-decibel presidential commiserations, with the slain soldier's widow among guests.

But this is not the only incident that highlights India's shrinking profile on the American radar. In the same speech in Capitol Hill, Trump had an indirect swipe at India for over-taxing the Harley-Davidson US luxury motorcycles. "In one country, they (HD executives who recently met the President) said another country taxed their motorcycle at 100 per cent". The fact is, Harley-Davidson enjoys 50% market share in India of the luxury range of motorcycles with above 800 cc engines. The issue of import duty does not arise for what its Indian subsidiary produces. But 100 per cent import duty is charged for its Completely Built Units (CBU) that account for only 20 per cent of its India sales. If India brings it down to 25 per cent, or so, it will not only pose an existential threat to India's buzzing two-wheeler industry but push the market towards using guzzlers, which is both expensive and polluting. The company's India unit, on the other hand, is flush with cash as its vehicles, mostly in the Rs 5-10 lakh range (the 1,600-cc bike costs 45 lakh rupees)  have enough buyers among the new affluent class.

Trump was obviously bullying. With time, such bullying may not remain low key. Indeed it may assume larger dimensions, just as he is doing with China. The saving grace for Modi is that India is, for America, a buyer's nation with little to sell except those who walk on a pair of legs, or the trained and educated Indians joining the American work force. In his speech, Trump spoke about how much he preferred merit-based immigration. But there is no clarity yet on how his administration will review terms of the crucial H1B visa going forward. Will it come with an unrealistically high wage stipulation (more than average domestic wage in the same category)? Can there be additional conditionalities about spouses accompanying?

There are 2.5 million Indian Americans, of whom more than half migrated after 2000. The future safety and prospects of the Indian diaspora in the US holds the key to India's attitude to that country. Earlier, Modi rode on a friendly tailwind that had actually begun much earlier, from the past decade, with large-scale exodus of Indian computer engineers to America. The famous personal rapport between former PM Dr Manmohan Singh and ex-President George W. Bush was an outcome of America's enlarging profile in India's public life, and consequently that of the people of America getting to know the Indians from close quarters, and in large numbers.

But the hand-shake at the people's level may be cut short by the wave of protectionism lashing most Western economies, of which Trump is a symbol. The strategic ties, which were of great value to all post-Second World War US presidents, do not seem to be of much consequence to Trump who looks upon security alliances as "cost" and expects partners to pay for the "help". In Trump's world, all global relations are purely transactional.

It is difficult to guess how India can retain its perceived relevance in America. Most other large nations still have resources that America cannot ignore. But bereft of China's industrial base, Japan's skill and Germany's technological mastery, India may suddenly discover it has to do a lot of hard work to remain a player in the game. India graduated to US’ strategic partner. But Trump has different ideas and there is a danger of India losing the plot. That's quite a bother for Modi who is used to grand reception in Washington. But Modi is not known for putting his foot in the mouth like Trump. He is in no hurry to visit Washington DC either and waiting for his moment to strike. He sees a silver lining in Trump’s battle against “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

India 2019, via Lucknow

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

For Narendra Modi, who stormed the Lok Sabha in 2014 with more than half the seats for his BJP, the ongoing state assembly elections--particularly that in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh--have come as a mid-term confirmation of his popular acceptance. His leadership style, however muscular, is fraught with controversy. His individual popularity may still be very high but what has dented is the general belief is his ability to be the harbinger of change in India's growth story. With economic growth stagnating and the social indices none too peppy either, it is not only that Modi's 2014 promise of 'achhe din' has become a popular joke. More significantly, doubts are being cast on his horse sense to choose the right administrative tool or select the right personnel in taking course-changing decisions. Recent scrapping of 1,000 and 500-rupee currency notes is an example. Its supposedly positive effect not clear to anyone so far, though Modi bragged at a recent poll rally that he took the great risk knowing fully well the consequences. But  the fact is that it has destroyed income streams of the poor, at least for first two quarters, if not for a whole year. The government has itself acknowledged its negative impact on GDP and the global community of economists and economic journals have expressed their strong disapproval. The latest is a thumbs-down by Financial Times’s Martin Wolf who called demonetization a “brutal tool” and said it got him “puzzled”. It’s a different matter that some in the government feel that Wolf has praised the step.

The decision, like many of Modi’s perplexing moves, may have explanations that he alone knows. But opposition parties argue that these are typical of a person who doesn’t to saner voices. Modi reads in every small election result a popular endorsement of his actions, like BJP claimed that its impressive tallies in the recent civic elections across Maharashtra denoted popular support of demonetization. The claim is obviously fanciful because the Congress collapsed in Maharashtra long ago and NCP became Modi’s pillion rider.  However, the election in Uttar Pradesh, a state the size of France and comprising a sixth of India’s population, offers large enough a sample to test the mood of the nation as far as the Prime Minister is concerned.

Besides, Uttar Pradesh is Modi’s electoral laboratory. Being Hindi-speaking, it offers an audience that best captures the nuances of his speeches. The state is a cauldron of the politics of communal polarization which is the trademark of BJP. It is now ruled by Samajwadi Party, a group known for its close nexus with the minority community. SP is now in electoral alliance with the Congress, which is Modi’s arch rival (despite Congress’ dwindling strength). It is true that BJP swept 73 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, but that election was about who’d rule India, Modi or the Congress. In the 2012 assembly election, the contest was about whether Akhilesh Yadav, the young son of SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, should lead the state government against “corrupt” Behanji. BJP fared miserably in that election.

As the present election results get announced on March 11, fingers are tightly crossed in both Modi and SP-Congress camps. It’s an intense poker game in which all bets are placed development. SP’s track record is somewhat deceptive as all development efforts seem to have focused on Akhilesh’s showcase project, the Lucknow-Agra Expressway, whereas the state is a goner on three counts: law and order, infrastructure and power. Expectations from Akhilesh are still high because, emerging as victor from a contest with his father and his cohorts, the Chief Minister’s campaign carries the implicit subtext. The subtext is that he has been ‘unshackled’ from his seniors’ spell and, if returned to power, would ‘modernize’ the state. But voters in general are skeptical and they understand how little a chief minister can perform without the Centre’s friendly pat and helping hand. And that’s where BJP’s hope lies in Uttar Pradesh.

For Modi, however, the road to Lucknow constitutes the first leg of his march for a second term in 2019. He tasted big-time assembly defeats earlier, in Bihar and Delhi, and the chances of BJP-Akali alliance  in Punjab are doomed. Even in Goa, Uttrakhand and Manipur, none is sure of BJP win. But Uttar Pradesh is a different kettle of fish. It is vast and complex; it is a mini-India in many respects. Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh will not only cramp the style of his rivals, who are used to blocking every move by him at the upper House, but recharge him with the courage to take unconventional steps in fixing some of India’s endemic problems. These problems, which are economic, political and diplomatic, are big and had been pushed under the carpet for too long. His war against corruption may be aimed at opening the Janampatris (horoscope) of his political rivals. But he believes that if corruption is curtailed, it will help improving the GDP growth. The Note ban move will fill government coffers and fear factor will force people to pay taxes.  

The most urgent economic problem is to find a solution to possible unemployment of highly educated Indians due to expected changes in the US visa regime as well as rise of big data analytics and Artificial Intelligence. The answer is to upgrade use of IT in India so that engineers returning from the US can lend their hand in a spectacular rise in productivity at home. But it calls for bipartisan efforts to make the necessary changes in labour and other laws. Politically, the biggest reform will come with simultaneous holding of parliamentary and assembly elections. It is a reform to which the BJP is committed but lacked the nerve. On the diplomatic front, Modi, like Atal Bihari Vajpayee before him, can leave his mark as the architect of a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem. At any rate, it requires Modi’s unquestioned authority to mould India’s foreign relations freely to suit the extremely volatile diplomatic atmosphere.

In other words, Modi needs authority to stand up to the next general elections. A victory in Uttar Pradesh may revitalize his authority. He must reach Lucknow if he can hope to return to Delhi.