Thursday, August 24, 2017

Didi may challenge Modi in 2019

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Since Narendra Modi bulldozed the parliament in May 2014, and repeated the feat three years later in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, the opposition is overwrought with frustration. With the chances of its electoral recovery rather distant, it is unable to paper over the lengthening, and deepening, lines of its internal fissures. Like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s exit from its camp; his JD(U) facing an existential crisis; or the CPI(M), which is convulsing with internal dissensions so deep that its general secretary Sitaram Yechury fails to get his party’s nod for returning to the Rajya Sabha with Congress support.

The opposition is hamstrung for other reasons too. Faced with BJP, RSS and their ideological challenge, the traditional ‘secular’ politician seems to have lost the plot. His response to incidents of serious cultural onslaught is feeble, at best. For example, no opposition party has worked out a coherent strategy to combat the Hindutva groups nursing their private militia in the name of cow vigilantes. They attack cow vigilantism as though it were the handiwork of extreme bigots sheltered by the Hindutva groups. But they have failed to present it as an integral part of an agenda to turn the religious minorities into second class citizens. Their bankruptcy surfaced when Congress workers attacked a BJP leader in Chhattisgarh responsible for cows death. On the rare occasions that Congress president Sonia Gandhi, or Rahul Gandhi, the vice president, comment on contemporary issues, they fail to strike a chord. While Rahul shoots and scoots, his mother has limited grasp of India’s social and civilizational issues. BSP supremo Mayawati, always shy to venture beyond Dalit issues has become even more tongue-tied. Down south in Tamil Nadu, ruling AIADMK and two other factions are getting sucked into the BJP rather than trying to redefine themselves in India’s political landscape after the end of multi-party rule. In Maharashtra, so total is the hold of BJP that Shiv Sena, its ideological sibling and local rival for power, outshines other opposition parties. In the states where the Congress is ensconced, such as Karnataka, there is not much certainty about its continuance.

In such bleak scenario for the opposition, two things are missing—leadership and strategy. Some of the opposition parties assumed that, in fighting BJP, the best strategy would be to forget past differences with the Congress and tie up with it. In Uttar Pradesh, former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav tried it, and paid heavily for that mistake. In West Bengal, the CPI(M), by fighting the 2016 assembly election jointly with the Congress, fell into the same trap.

With the passing of years, if there is a single opposition leader to cobble up a strategy against BJP’s divisive politics, she is Mamata Banerjee. The West Bengal chief minister is a master player of the caste and sub-caste cards. In 2011, she succeeded in putting the 34-year-old CPI(M) rule to an end my mobilising the subalterns against a party which, though highly regimented, had only higher castes in its upper echelons.

Her Bengal is in BJP’s crosshairs for a long time. During CPI(M) rule, there was no entry for the Hindutva politics as the state’s poor were entirely identified with the hammer-and-sickle. BJP thought that, following the Marxists’ exit, it may be able to polarize votes.

But the BJP’s strategy against Mamata Banerjee has not succeeded so far. It brought limited dividend in 2014 with BJP getting 16 per cent votes (only two seats). But the BJP share came down to 10 per cent in the assembly elections two years later. Banerjee ruled the roost as her deft ‘salami slicing’ of the state’s huge OBC and dalit population did not allow the BJP to herd all non-Hindus under the saffron shamiana. It is a strategy that has worked.

In India, with ‘forward caste’ population estimated to be around 25 per cent (that leaves three-quarters of the population comprising the entire panoply of OBC and dalit, plus minorities), it is tough for BJP, to win elections without support from a large section of non-caste Hindus. That explains why Modi, and party president Amit Shah, have been reaching out to those on the lower rungs of the caste ladder, with a Dalit being made the President of India. Ram Vilas Paswan, a Dalit, heads the LJSP, an important partner in the ruling NDA. During his tours aimed at the 2019 general election, Shah makes it a point to have lunch (well publicised) one day in a dalit home.

In India’s social fabric of mixed hue, it is not possible to win elections on the support of one or two castes. Mayawati, for example, won elections in Uttar Pradesh whenever she could broaden her appeal beyond the jatav community of dalits to which she belongs. But Mamata Banerjee’s appeal is subtler. It works on the ‘class animosity’ among castes, thus posing a challenge to the BJP strategy of appealing to an all-embracing Hindu identity. Last year, as there were minor skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims at Dhulagarh in Howrah district, BJP bent over backwards to give it a communal tinge but the Trinamool leader used a mix of her understanding of subaltern politics, and executive power, to deny BJP any leeway.

The answer to religious identity politics is the politics of subaltern identity. Nitish Kumar realised it as he introduced the mahadalit concept and re-embraced Lalu Yadav. But he has hung up his boots in opposition politics. In today’s scenario, if Modi’s BJP can face a serious contender in 2019, it has to be from Mamata Banerjee.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why Sonia kept her Cool on NCP !

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Why Sonia kept her Cool on NCP !

When Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad telephoned Praful Patel Friday morning inviting NCP to join the Opposition conclave, an angry Patel put a condition: Issue a statement that NCP did not betray Congress candidate Ahmad Patel in Gujrat and one of its two MLAs voted for the Congress.” Ghulam Nabi rushed to Sonia Gandhi who went into a huddle with other senior party leaders. The outcome: No statement came as none of the two NCP MLAs voted for the Congress. Secondly, the NCP is already hob-nobbing with Shankar Sinh Vaghela to float a “third Front” in Gujrat to weaken the Congress further. Vaghela revolted against the Congress and tried every trick to defeat Ahmad Patel. He himself didn’t join the BJP and pondering whether to join it or float a party and become part of the third front to cut into anti-BJP votes. Thus, the Congress is in no hurry to placate the NCP in Gujrat. The Congress believes that the NCP leaders are under extreme pressure ever since the CBI formally registered an FIR in the purchase of aircraft when Praful Patel was Civil Aviation Minister.
Medical colleges' scam shocks SC, & BJP too

The detaining of a Lucknow based journalist of a leading Hindi TV channel whose name was linked to a deal to get recognition for a medical college by the CBI recently came as a shocker to the ruling BJP. Even the Supreme Court was also shocked as recognition to the medical college was granted as it happened during the time when high-powered SC committee looked after the affairs of Medical Council of India. The CBI started probing the corruption in granting recognition to 34 medical colleges in May-June last year after reports surfaced that massive corruption took place in such cases. Surprisingly, the charges surfaced when Medical Council of India was superseded and its affairs were entrusted to three-member committee appointed by the Supreme Court. So disturbed was the Supreme Court was with the revelations of CBI's probe report, that it allowed the government to immediately de-recognize 32 out of 34 medical colleges. It also allowed the government to reconstitute another Over-site Committee (OC) to look after the affairs of the Medical Council of India. The new 5-member OC superseded the 3-member high-powered committee comprising of a former Chief Justice of SC and an eminent former top IAS officer. Incidentally, the former IAS officer is a favourite of the Modi government. The government pleaded with the SC that 5-member committee of reputed professionals associated with the medical profession will be able to handle the affairs better. The SC reluctantly agreed. The CBI which is probing the matter has informed the government that at least three kinds of middlemen were operating in securing recognition to these 32 medical colleges. Though the journalist was not formally arrested because it would have created a big political ruckus in the country as he is considered very very close to the leadership. But the TV channel sacked him. The fate of 4000 students who were admitted by these 32 medical colleges hangs in the balance until the 5-member OC reviews their cases afresh. But the medical colleges scandal is set to take a heavy toll. 

Amit Shah’s Phulpur waterloo

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath quit his Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat immediately after voting in the Vice Presidential poll on August 5. It was expected that his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya will also quit his Phulpur Lok Sabha seat the same day. But to the surprise of political observers it didn’t happen. Why ? It transpires that BJP Chief Amit Shah directed Maurya to wait as Phulpur bye-election cannot be a cake-walk. While Gorakhpur is considered safe, Phulpur may see the fielding of a common Opposition candidate. One proposal is Mayawati who quit her Rajya Sabha seat may be fielded and other Opposition parties may support her. Amit Shah wants to assess the situation as it may be his another waterloo after losing face in Gujrat Rajya Sabha biennial polls. There is already a talk that Keshav Prasad Maurya may be brought into the Union Cabinet. The Fly is waiting on the wall to hear the final word.

The Ajmer Headache

Phulpur is not the only headache for Amit Shah. The new problem has arisen in Ajmer (Rajasthan) where sitting BJP Lok Sabha MP Sanwar Lal Jat died recently. Jat had shocked Congress’ Sachin Pilot in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But winds of change are blowing in Rajasthan and it’s a new problem for Amit Shah.

Triple Talaq judgement soon

Before Chief Justice of India J S Khehar demits office on August 27, the Triple Talaq verdict is likely to be delivered. If the whispers in the corridors of the SC are to be believed, the verdict will come after August 22. The verdict will deal only with the legal issues relating to Triple Talaq rather than the whole gamut. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Whom to Trust and When

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Restraint surely has a “bottom line”, as the Chinese government spokesman reminded India. And that too after seven weeks of persistent effort by India to end, through negotiations, the standoff with the Chinese military in the Doklam plateau, a stone’s throw from the point where the boundaries of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan meet. India sent National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to Beijing to talk the matter over, but he came back empty-handed as China would not relent until hell freezes over.

China’s is typical bully’s logic. It questions India’s right to send troops, through a third country, Bhutan, into Doklam. But the ownership of the area is contested between Bhutan and China; it is anything but trespass by India to China’s territory. Further, the Indian action was in response to China constructing metal road that could bring artillery and tanks close to the thin land mass, the ‘chicken’s neck’, that connects the Indian plains with the eight north-eastern states. In 1962, when China and India went to war, the Chinese targeted that very spot as it moved its troops across Nathu La in Sikkim. Imagine how will China respond if India builds a string of missile bases that threaten the security of Tibet, or beyond?

While China says India must move back “with no strings”, and raises the pitch of its megaphone diplomacy, India’s policy-makers are in a double bind. On one hand, China is a goliath with GDP (in PPP terms) nearly three times that of India, and four times the southern neighbour’s military budget. On the other hand, India is saddled with a rather chaotic democracy in which the opposition turns even a foreign aggression into an opportunity to find fault with the government. China’s one-party rule doesn’t entertain the liability of gaining public support for its war efforts. In China, such leader’s accountability, if at all, may lie behind the closed doors at the forthcoming national congress of the communist party of China. There, President Xi Jinping’s return as chief of the party for another term is taken as given.  

The Indian opposition criticism of the Modi administration’s handling of the Doklam standoff has three layers, all of which have supposedly originated from the Congress. At one level, it cribs about Modi’s public displeasure with Beijing about President Xi’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) policy by not attending a widely attended meeting of the OBOR invitees earlier this year (Bhutan, India’s friend, was the other absentee). At another level, the opposition brushes aside the government version of the standoff. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi dramatized his personal spite for Modi when he stayed away from an External Affairs Ministry briefing of the opposition leaders but had a well-publicised meeting with the Chinese envoy in India, as though he were hearing the truth from the horse’s mouth. Moreover, the opposition would put down the Modi government’s foreign policy per se and present the imbroglio in the north-east Himalayas as part of a general policy dislocation.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in a robust speech in the Rajya Sabha last week, addressed most of these issues with clarity. She rightly expressed her dismay at some opposition politicians in India—a Congress member in this case—questioning India abstaining from the OBOR summit. “The OBOR link to Gwadar port in Baluchistan goes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), which India considers as an integral part of our country. How does an Indian political party expect us to attend the OBOR summit?” Swaraj crafted a credible defence of Modi’s foreign policy—“for most of its terms, India under the Congress had Russia as ally and the US as enemy but, under Modi, both Russia and the US are friends”—and went all out against Rahul for his offensive gesture.

However, the opposition efforts to pin down Modi on the China issue can lead to a self-goal as public opinion generally turns red hot on patriotism during military confrontations with foreign countries, as it was evident in the 1962 war with China, the 1971 Bangladesh war with Pakistan or the 1999 Kargil war. Unless India gets a bloody nose in a decisive war with China, there is little chance of Modi’s popularity hurtling down (it happened to Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 defeat but there was plenty of public support during the war). Besides, much water has flown down the Brahmaputra between 1962 and 2017; there may still be a huge mismatch between the military prowess of the two countries but both have increased their power to wreak havoc on each other. That has minimised the chances of a full-scale war.

Still, there is little chance of India being able to clinch a deal with China anytime soon for peaceful resolution of the existing, and future, problems. Future, because China is known for shifting goal posts to cause unexpected problems. Like it is doing in South China Sea by rewriting history to lay claims on newer islands dotting it, or in twisting past agreements along the 4,000-km border with India and Bhutan. Beijing does not accept the McMahon line as it was an “imperialist legacy” but now swears by the 1890 Calcutta treaty between British India and China under the Quing government because it allows the country’s present rulers to move troops close to the Indian border.

China is in a hurry to establish its hegemony across Asia and fill up as much of the power vacuum caused by the US lowering its global profile. For India, it is a long-term diplomatic challenge. It is not a diplomatic chin wag for aspiring political amateurs to pompously show off their legacy connections.