Monday, August 16, 2021

Fly on the Wall | A New Rahul Emerges

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Media Group

A New Rahul Emerges 
The Parliament's Monsoon session may be witnessing a storm since July 19 amidst unprecedented Opposition unity. But the session saw the emergence of a New Rahul. Though scion of the Gandhi dynasty has been around in politics for nearly two decades and in Lok Sabha since 2004, things didn’t work well. There was a complete disconnect between his thinking and what was happening on the ground. His image also took a beating when he tore the bill presented by his own government in parliament relating to criminals. The end result was the Congress’ historic low of 44 seats in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP’s star campaigner Navjot Singh Sidhu called him names and it gelled well with the audience during the polls campaign. The worst came in 2019 when he lost his traditional Amethi Lok Sabha seat. But come July 2021 and it saw the emergence of a New Rahul Gandhi. The political analysts are surprised over his ‘image makeover’ during the Monsoon session. This makeover has taken place so silently that only those in close circuit have noticed it. The first sign came when Rahul Gandhi played the role of a conductor of the bus that ferried leaders of Opposition parties from Parliament House to Jantar Mantar to express solidarity with the agitating farmers. Rahul stood at the boarding gate to receive them and was the last to board himself, de-boarded first once the bus reached Jantar Mantar and stood at the gate to ensure that every leader was attended too. The drill was repeated on the way back to Parliament House. Earlier, he hosted a breakfast for Opposition leaders which was his another first. For a change, Rahul Gandhi listened to them rather than talking solo. Rahul Gandhi stood in solidarity with the protesting Opposition MPs on the Pegasus hacking scandal throughout compared to his earlier approach of being always busy with his mobile phone. Those days have gone.

When Rahul met Sanjay Raut
Rahul Gandhi is in a new orbit and holding parleys individually these days. He meets them in the lobby, goes to their residences and invites them to his house. He invited Shiv Sena senior leader Sanjay Raut at his 12 Tughlaq Road residence and held talks for 110 minutes, to be precise. While the functioning of Maharashtra government, Shiv Sena and the shape of things to come were on the agenda, the two also shared their vision for the future of the Opposition politics. Later, the two leaders also met twice. It was a new experience for Sanjay Raut too. The Opposition leaders also noticed another change in Rahul these days; he is attentive and engaged in group meetings rather than keeping busy with himself.

Antony has reservations about PK plan
All members of the Congress Working Committee in small groups have discussed at length a detailed plan of action submitted by poll strategist Prashant Kishore. Sonia Gandhi wanted to solicit opinions of each CWC member PK’s plan of action. K C Venugopal was present in all groups to take notes and submit the same to Sonia Gandhi. PK suggested that the Congress should have a small decision making body like the Parliamentary Board for faster decisions at a short notice rather than an omnibus CWC body. The Congress should create a permanent structure to formulate poll strategies which differ from state to state culminating in 2024 LS polls. It transpires that some seniors including A K Antony have reservations about PK being named as 136 years’ old party’s official poll strategist. Many feel an individual shouldn’t be allowed to play the role of a ‘Super Man.’ But Antony seems to be in a hopeless minority as the party has been in his own home state of Kerala, two LS polls and states after states. Therefore, no party can keep basking in its old glory without delivering. Interestingly, Ghulam Nabi Azad is in favour of PK’s plan.

Kamal Nath new Working president!
If all goes as per plans being finalized by Congress Interim president Sonia Gandhi, the entire organizational structure may be over-hauled sooner than expected. The grapevine has it that former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath may be brought in as party’s vice president. He is the senior-most in the party and Sonia seems to have decided to go with the tested family loyalist. He desperately needs someone to help her after the untimely demise of Ahmad Patel. The Congress may have four vice presidents including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The reshuffle is part of Mission-2024.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

NHAI debt at a record high of Rs 3.07 lakh crores

But toll collection rose during lock down, asserts Gadkari

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group
New Delhi, Aug 9

The Road Transport & Highway Minister Nitin Gadkari may have been making headlines for setting one record after the other in building highways in the country. But he was stumped in the Rajya Sabha by his own party leader Sushil Kumar Modi.

The Rajya Sabha MP and former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar asked Gadkari whether the debt of National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) had touched a record high of Rs 3.17 lakh crores in March 2021 from Rs 73385 crores in March 2017.

Gadkari responded saying that the NHAI debt had risen to Rs 3.07 lakh crores from ₹ 2.49 lakh crores in March 2020.

Further, total borrowing of National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) increased from Rs 74,742 crore outstanding as on March 2017 to ₹ 3,06,704 crore in March 2021.

Since 2017, NHAI has availed external borrowing to the tune of ₹ 3,000 crore.

When Modi asked if the toll revenue decreased by 4 per cent to around ₹ 26,000 Crores between April 2020 to March 31, 2021, Gadkari emphatically denied it.

Gadkari said, “On the contrary, toll collection has increased by approximately 3.3 %.

He also informed Sushil Modi that there are 140 Arbitration Cases pending before various Arbitration Tribunals wherein amount of Rs 91,875.70 Crore of the Contractors/Concessionaires claims are involved in adjudication. In addition, Rs 44,600 Crore of NHAI’s Counter Claims is also involved for adjudication.

Further, 240 cases are pending before various courts wherein Rs 21,601 Crore is involved.

He said the interest paid on loans amounted to Rs 18,840 Crore. and a mechanism by which NHAI will do debt servicing and repayment is as under:

The NHAI has been creating valuable road assets which are financially viable. Since 2017, NHAI has constructed a total of 17,042 km of public funded roads, with an expenditure of about Rs.4.08 lac crore. The completed public funded road assets are being tolled. Since 2017, NHAI has serviced its Debt amounting to Rs 74,337 cr, Gadkari said.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Fly On the Wall | A battle royal between two Chankyas

Fly On the Wall
by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

A battle royal between two Chankyas
If all goes as per plans, the country may soon be on the cusp of a battle royal between BJP's Chankya Amit Shah and Opposition’s poll strategist Prashant Kishore, “PK”. Both were key strategists for Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial campaign in 2014 and fell out later. The Congress is on the verge of picking PK as its key poll strategist until the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. A decision is likely anytime next week. PK will not charge any fee for his services as he will be formally joining the Congress. He has told the three Gandhis that if inducted, he will oversee the party's poll strategies in all the elections leading up to 2024. He said the situation can be retrieved in Punjab and Uttarakhand is winnable if the right kind of strategy is adopted. But he would like to make a big beginning with Gujarat and Karnataka where Assembly polls will be held in November 2022. The BJP and Congress are in direct contest in these states. The BJP can be defeated in its home turf in Gujarat after 27 years of being in power. Before inducting PK, Sonia Gandhi wants the stamp of approval of all CWC members. The party men are happy that finally Rahul Gandhi is listening to somebody and may act on his advice.

Why PK fell out with Shah
Though 'PK' was part of Modi’s core team in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Modi was so impressed by PK’s skills that he was allotted a place on the top floor of the CM's residence itself. PK had also given Modi a blueprint to overhaul the bureaucracy on the US pattern where thousands of officers come and go with the new Presidents. When Modi asked PK what role he would like to play, the latter wanted to be named as BJP's Poll Strategist. If there could be a general secretary (organization), why not general secretary (poll strategy)? Modi was willing to consider but Amit Shah nixed it soon after taking over as BJP Chief. Modi dithered and PK moved out. Amit Shah and PK were face to face for the first time in Bihar and Delhi Assembly polls in 2015 and BJP was decisively defeated. But PK didn't get the desired credit. The victories in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh were discounted as BJP was a junior partner in these states. PK also tasted failure in 2017 in UP. His golden moment came seven years later when he trounced Amit Shah in West Bengal in 2021 in a big way. It was a huge setback for Shah and a beaming PK claimed “he is BJP’s overrated Poll Manager.”

Disquiet in RSS
There is disquiet in the RSS these days. A top RSS leader put it very aptly: “Aajkal prasannta ka vatavaran nahin Hai.” (Nowadays, the atmosphere is not pleasant). He did not elaborate but the disconnect between the BJP and the RSS is clearly visible. The RSS was not happy with the way the government handled CAA and three Farm Acts and the talks should have been held. The recent Cabinet reshuffle widened the gulf as wings of Nitin Gadkari were further clipped when the MSME ministry was taken away.

As if this was not enough, most of the recommendations of the RSS for new inductions were ignored. The RSS Chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that the government and Society, both, have to understand and learn lessons from the Covid pandemic, was seen as an oblique criticism of the government.

But the Pegasus telephone tapping scandal that rocked governments world over, created a major disconnect. It has surfaced now that telephone numbers of many RSS functionaries including a senior one were under watch. It is learnt that a top-most officer of the Modi dispensation visited Chitrakoot where Pratinidhi Sabha was being held in the second week of July. The meet was significant as it came much before the Pegasus snooping scandal officially surfaced on July 18. He had a long chat with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat. What transpired between them is not known. But many say that the tweet of Subramanian Swamy on July 18 morning that tapping the phones of PM Modi’s cabinet ministers, RSS leaders and others will be disclosed soon. Obviously, this person was sent to Chitrakoot on a fire-fighting mission as the government knew beforehand that such a scandal may surface. An insider said, “the gulf has widened since then.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Amarjit Sinha quits PMO prematurely as Adviser

Major Bureaucratic reshuffle in offing

Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group
New Delhi, Aug 2

With the premature resignation of Amarjeet Sinha as Adviser, Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), speculation is rife that Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba may be brought in. Gauba’s two year tenure as Cabinet Secretary is ending on August 30 this year. The PMO is already faced with the exit of P K Sinha who quit as Principal Adviser, PMO a few months ago prematurely.

Sinha was Modi’s favourite officer who was appointed Cabinet Secretary by the Modi government in May 2015 and continued in the post for four years. P K Sinha was brought in the PMO in August 2019 but opted out earlier this year.

Amarjit Sinha too was appointed as Adviser, PMO, quit prematurely on July 31, 2021 though he had seven more months to go. Sinha is a retired IAS officer of 1983 batch of Bihar cadre.

It may be mentioned that Bhaskar Khulbe and Amarjeet Sinha were appointed as Advisors to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a contractual basis initially for a period of two years on February 20 last year. Kulbe, however, will continue to stay put. Sinha was handling social sectors like education and rural development. Kulbe is looking into Infrastructure and whatever tasks assigned by the Principal Secretary to the PM, P K Mishra.

There is considerable speculation that Rajiv Gauba, a 1982 Jharkhand batch of the IAS, may move to PMO and Urban Development Secretary D S Mishra (1984 batch, UP cadre) may replace him. But many in the bureaucracy say that Gauba may get an extension as Cabinet secretaries get at least one extension in tenure.

There are reports that a major bureaucratic reshuffle may take place as many secretaries are retiring this month end. Home Secretary Anil Bhalla is also retiring this month and may get a key post as extension is unlikely.