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12 May 2015

Government Is Directionless: Govindacharya

But it has such educated advisers that it seems unlikely that its silence on critical issues is a result of ignorance; it must be part of its strategy, the right wing ideologue says

Govindacharya addressing the press conference
Seizing the opportunity to assess the NDA government’s performance over the past one year before other political observers do, founder of Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan (RSA) and former RSS ideologue KN Govindacharya covered a host of issues of governance, addressing a press conference today.

Govindacharya began by saying that the government at the Centre was Modi government. “It would be improper to call it a BJP or NDA government; the party and the alliance are just playing assisting roles,” he said. The Lok Sabha campaign of the BJP headed by Narendra Modi had raised a lot of hope among the people at large, but no change is visible at the ground level. “I still see poor children loitering around at railway platforms and people sleeping beneath flyovers,” Govindacharya said.

Perhaps remembering his association with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late 1980s and early 90s, he chose to react to the recent statement by Home Minister Rajnath Singh that the government was unable to move further to ensure the building of a Ram temple at the (disputed) site of Ayodhya because it did not have adequate numbers in the Rajya Sabha, Govindacharya said that he would reserve his comment till the Vishwa Hindu Parishad reacted to it. However, he did criticise Singh’s lack of will to resolve the issue.

The RSA founder then moved to the issue of Jammu & Kashmir and wondered what circumstances might have led to the BJP-PDP coalition when the latter’s softness for separatist elements was established. Expressing concern over burning of the National Flag and hoisting of Pakistani Flag in the Valley, Govindacharya said he feared the issue of Kashmir could get internationalised.

Raising the foreign interference bogey, Govindacharya then referred to the Land Acquisition Bill and accused the government of accepting advices of the World Bank and some “so-called economists”. He said while the country was being advised to move 40 crore people out of the vocation of agriculture, there was no clarity as to where these people would be rehabilitated. “Should they be uprooted from villages and made to work as daily-wage labourers in cities?” he asked.

He wondered what the plan of ‘smart cities’ would look like. “But whatever I have learnt from media sources makes me feel they are trying to ‘Brazil-ise’ India. Remember, such plans have left 8 crore people in Brazil homeless; those in Africa have now reduced to ghost cities and the few cities in China that have been built on this model have no takers,” Govindacharya said.

“In India,” he continued, “it is ironical that there are about 1 crore built houses that are not getting buyers while more than 5 crores go around homeless.”

“But since the government has itself not said how it plans to build these cities, I will reserve commenting on it further,” he said, adding that this silence appeared less a result of ignorance and more a sinister plan to suddenly impose a fait accompli on the country. “This government has so many educated people working in it that I refuse to believe they do not know what they are doing. Silence must be a part of their strategy,” Govindacharya opined.

No result of ‘Make in India’ is visible on ground either, he said, explaining that he is not impressed by the foreign tours of the prime minister. “Well-publicised events hosting potential investors used to be organised by the UPA government, too, but there was little progress beyond MoUs,” he said, adding, “So far, I see nothing beyond MoUs in ‘Make in India’ either.”


Talking further on Modi’s foreign visits, Govindacharya asked if we were opening up our market to foreigners what we were getting in return. He took exception to parliamentary ratification of the 1974 bilateral treaty between India and Bangladesh where he feels we have got more people to take care of while Bangladesh has got more land in the deal*. Since Bangladeshis infiltrate into our territory, their country should have compensated us with more land, he quipped.
This assertion by Govindacharya is factually incorrect. The full agreement may be found in this Ministry of External Affairs document. A simplified version appears in this Indian Express report. India has got more land and given back less to Bangladesh as per the Land Border Agreement.
On the issue of recovery of black money from tax havens abroad, Govindacharya accused the government of “dragging its feet”. He said the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement was a bad excuse to not reveal the names of black money hoarders. “The government must at least implement the recommendations of the task force it has formed for the purpose,” he demanded.

When the press conference was thrown open to questions, it seemed the videshi ghost does not bother Govindacharya in case of donations to NGOs. When I asked him to react to the government’s clampdown on Ford Foundation and Greenpeace, among an assortment of FCRA-violating civil society organisations, he dismissed the measure by saying several nationalist causes like Ekal Vidyalayas are funded by agencies like the Ford Foundation, too.

Readers may note that PV Rajagopal, head of Ekta Parishad and a comrade in arms with Govindacharya, is a Ford Foundation beneficiary. Govindacharya has also shared stage with AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal on quite a few occasions before the latter became Delhi Chief Minister. Kejriwal had begun his career in activism with his NGOs Sampoorna Parivartan and Kabir (jointly officiated by Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia) funded by Ford Foundation.

Govindacharya’s own organisation RSA was established in 2004 following the ouster of the first NDA government when speculations were rife that Congress president Sonia Gandhi could become the country’s prime minister. The outfit was floated in a jiffy but it led successful demonstrations in New Delhi and other parts of the country where activists questioned why India’s oldest party was unable to get a person of Indian origin to be its chief political executive.

Thereafter, however, the organisation went adrift, looking for issues that would strike a chord with the masses. I asked Govindacharya on this occasion why he was seen sometimes with Kejriwal and sometimes with Sitaram Yechury [now CPI(M) general secretary] and when his own outfit would find a firm footing. He avoided the first question and said about the second that it has been able to reach 80 districts of the country and it plans to reach another 115 in near future. The RSA is organising a meeting of like-minded activists in Varanasi in the period 15-17 May (ref: adjoining picture, click to enlarge).

Govindacharya finally said that he would have been welcomed back to the BJP or found some work in the RSS but “both have limitations”. After his ‘study leave’ was over — he was asked to leave the party following his alleged comment that then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was his government’s mukhauta (mask) — he embarked upon a journey of intellectual activism, Govindacharya said. “It involves attacking the government if necessary, which I cannot do as a party member,” he explained and added that even the RSS’s discipline wouldn’t allow espousing the different causes he takes up from time to time.

Throughout the interaction with journalists, Govindacharya kept saying that the people of this nation were the biggest agents of development and change, and not any government or organisation. On being asked whether his activism has the Sangh’s support, he said, “Our society is bigger than everything else including the RSS.”

Asked about his opinion on Rahul Gandhi, Govindacharya quipped that the Congress scion was too much to be commented upon, as the journalists gathered at the Press Club burst into derisive laughter. In the end, Govindacharya said the opposition lacked credibility because when the Congress was in power, the situation was worse. "This is not good for democracy," he said.

05 March 2015

Yadav, Bhushan Shouldn't Be Complaining

They did everything to subvert internal democracy in the Aam Aadmi Party until the tables turned against them. In all likelihood, the party chief tolerated them for his own intellectual shortcoming and the fear that the duo would be dangerous as dissenters.

Their story of subterfuge is long. While one of them was initially admired within the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for disarming other panellists on television talk shows with a modulated intonation of voice, the other was hailed for his public interest litigations (PILs) against perceived corrupt people. But neither Yogendra Yadav nor Prashant Bhushan is popular in the party, not at least in the national council — the third line of command of which this writer was a part till 21 November 2013, when I resigned due to a manifesto of freebies and doles. In the ultimate analysis, such a manifesto that has persisted till 2015 would not have been possible if there was internal democracy in the AAP right from the time of its inception. Read on to know how.

Act I: The making of the AAP up to 24 November 2012
Political observers were asking a question about Arvind Kejriwal and others who hogged the stage throughout the Jan Lokpal movement. How could a band of people, howsoever well-meaning, who had a single-point agenda of getting rid of corruption using an ombudsman, run a party that needed to have a say in all matters of the state?

Kejriwal & Co must have been aware of this intellectual limitation of the band. So, eminent psephologist and member of a little known Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP) Yogendra Yadav, who was watching the proceedings of the movement from the sidelines, made a lateral entry into the group.

In the desperation to fill the policy void of the group, Kejriwal ignored the paradox that Yadav’s ideas were quite antithetical to the general sentiment of the kind of people who had poured into the streets responding to the appeal of the mascot of the JLP movement, a simpleton, likeable Anna (Kisan Baburao) Hazare. That class of society was middle to upper middle. They loved the good salaries they got from the corporate sector, but did not want the likes of Suresh Kalmadi and A Raja to thrive. That is, they wanted a regulated but free market and not a control freak state of a socialist’s dreams. Of course, inviting a free market advocate for guidance was hardly an option. Such thinkers in our country do not add up as astute politicians.

Importantly, these supporters were also fiercely nationalistic, with none having any love lost for Bhushan’s plebiscite-in-Kashmir fixation.

If such people had made the AAP, neither Yadav nor Bhushan could win an election in it. But they did not. A fast expanding party notwithstanding, the organisation was always top-heavy — not only in decision-making, but also in involving people in discussions and debates.

Act II: Humiliation of activists, back-door parleys of Yadav, Bhushan and Kejriwal’s coterie
Scores of activists were pouring in from all parts of the country in a hope to reform governance using the instrument of a new party that Kejriwal had promised after his hunger strike in July-August 2012 failed to elicit the then UPA government’s reaction. These activists, each with years of experience and hundreds of followers, were slighted by instructions to do menial jobs like maintaining registers for visitors, attending phone calls and arranging for guests’ accommodation in the nights of 24-26 November.

Kejriwal, Bhushan, Manish Sisodia, Gopal Rai, Kumar Vishwas, Sanjay Singh et al were busy in some political activity all this while. Whereas none of these ‘stars’ complained there was no democracy in the party in the making, none of the enthusiastic activists were allowed a peep into that world.

Sudesh Verma (now a Swarajya columnist and founder of the Debating India Foundation) and I, who had joined the party in the making on 8 October 2012, were a bit privileged. On 29-30 October, we were invited to a policy determining meet that was being held at the Indian Social Institute, Lodi Road. During the lunch hour of the first day, Kejriwal requested us to attend a meeting at Bhushan’s residence that evening to give a final shape to the proposals that would emerge from some 60-odd ideologically driven activists who were brainstorming at the institute the whole day.

At Bhushan’s place that evening, Verma proposed a huge structure with vice presidents and general secretaries at least equal to the number of states of the country to channel people’s energy for reforms. He kept on insisting on a large number of office bearers the next day. But Kejriwal was fixated with the idea of a mere three posts: a convener, a secretary and a treasurer (till today, these are the only three posts in the party that the Election Commission has been notified about).

For the next few days, as we concentrated on drafting the party constitution at Kaushambi, we learnt that hectic parleys were still going on at Bhushan’s residence in Noida. Obviously, we were not invited. Back in Kaushambi when we raised the issue of organisational structure, Sisodia would say, “Yeh sab baad men tay kar lenge” (we will decide that later). Did Bhushan make news then, complaining that the party was undemocratic?

Kejriwal would sit in the presiding chair those evenings at the Kaushambi office, visibly distracted. Whenever between the debates, Sisodia, Singh, Rai, Verma or I would seek his consent to a certain part of the constitution others had just agreed upon, he would just mutter, “Yogendra Yadav bahut naaraaz hain mujh se” (Yadav is not happy with me at all).”

When we said individuals were not important, the party’s future head replied, while all were equal, some were more equal than the rest!

But why was Yadav upset? At the end of the 30 October policy meet, the JLP lot had cold shouldered his plan to turn into a national hero. He had proposed that, after the launch of the party, he would go on a nationwide yatra (walk) to propagate its message to the people. That plan of his to turn a poster boy was not sanctioned.

Finally, in the morning of 24 November when the party’s national convention was to be held and the party constitution adopted by it, more than a hundred activists who had come from faraway states were not let inside the venue: Constitution Club, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg, New Delhi. Fuming with rage, they declared they were going back to Anna. Some 300 activists, Verma and I included, entered the Speaker Hall, the venue.

In course of the meeting with 60 ideologues on 29-30 October, I had repeatedly urged the group to follow a proper process of internal democracy in the party. I had said only the secret ballot would be a fair process, as people did not like to be identified as dissenters when they wished to object to a decision. My apprehension proved right on the national convention day.

Twenty-three nominated members of the national executive (NE) were paraded on stage, and we, the set of rest of the founding members to be known thereon as the national council (NC), were told we could raise our hand to object to any nomination. Boos and hoots from unidentifiable persons could be heard in the hall. But who would like to be identified as a dissenter on the very first day of the party? None raised a hand.

Some people stood up in protest only when the names of Ilyas Azmi and Prem Singh Pahari were called out. Their record of having hopped from one party to another made all of us frown. Azmi was in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Welfare Party of India (WPI) and Rashtriya Inquilab Party (RIP). He had also extended support to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once. Pahari had arrived from the BJP, too.

Composition of the rest of the NE showed how Kejriwal had managed to pacify Yadav. The wily former psephologist pushed his friends from the virtually dysfunctional SJP into the NE so that he could leverage their support during debates on policy. Many others in the NE were insignificant politically; if an Ajit Jha would be Yadav’s ‘yes man’, supported by Prof Anand Kumar, entrants like Christina Samy of Women’s Front, Tamil Nadu, and Habung Pyang, past information commissioner in Arunachal Pradesh, have so far not been noticed contributing either to the party’s policy or mass mobilisation campaign.

Yadav concluded the national convention perhaps with an inkling that the NC had not taken to his nominees kindly. In a bid to pacify the 300-odd members, he said the NC had the power to recall the NE if it turned out in a year that the latter could not perform. How he dishonoured that promise is part of Act IV.
Sudesh Verma seen with Arvind Kejriwal's then media manager Bibhav Kumar (now the Delhi Chief Minister's personal assistant) during an election campaign in August 2013.
Sudesh Verma seen with Arvind Kejriwal’s then media manager Bibhav Kumar (now the Delhi Chief Minister’s personal assistant) during an election campaign in August 2013.

About two months later, after attending the party office every day but finding no work to do, Verma returned to journalism. He was eager to campaign for the party again in August 2013, but could find no work other than following Kejriwal’s convoy.

Act III: Shalini Gupta, who?
Yesterday, former journalist and present member of the AAP Ashish Khetan tweeted:
Father son daughter trio of Shanti Prashant & Shalini wanted to have a vice-like grip on all party wings, from PAC to policy committee to NE.
It’s equally true, Kejriwal pampered the Bhushan family. Besides important meetings being held at the Bhushans’ houses in Sector 14 and Sector 43 of Noida — where Shanti Bhushan would pass strictures like a chaudhry of a khap panchayat — instead of the party office, the family enjoyed another privilege.
AAP's policy meeting at Shalini Gupta's residence in Sector 43, Noida, 11-13 January 2013.
AAP’s policy meeting at Shalini Gupta’s residence in Sector 43, Noida, 11-13 January 2013.

In almost the whole of 2013 when I was a hyperactive member of the AAP, a non-member woman used to be among the first to respond to my mails. I generally questioned the leaders on economic policy and secularism. When the Vyapar Udyog Mandal was formed, I questioned whether it would play a role like the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, lobbying for local traders. When Kejriwal paraded Muslim and Christian clerics on stage, and they announced that their respective communities would vote en masse for the AAP, I protested again.
pic 3
My Facebook post after a disgruntled element of the party blackened  Yadav’s face in March 2014. Shalini Gupta is seen behind Yadav.

In all such cases, Shalini Gupta would be among the first to react. Her locus standi was that she was Bhushan Senior‘s daughter and Bhushan Junior’s sister. Gupta was not a member of the party. Yet, she would poke her nose in the party affairs because Kejriwal entertained her intrusion. She was introduced to the party as an “expert in organisational matters”.

And till the time such indulgence was on, the Bhushans never complained the AAP was being run by Kejriwal’s “personality cult” and that the organisation had no inner democracy.

Act IV: Charade of democracy on 31 January 2014
Yadav’s worst assault on the spirit of democracy surfaced this day.

The AAP’s constitution makes it mandatory for its NC to meet twice a year whereas the meeting was not held until 31 January 2014. The party high command was actually apprehensive of a ruckus, as the majority comprised right-of-centre thinkers while the heads were making all sorts of leftist, casteist, populist and communal gestures.

I had resigned from the party more than two months before that, but the founding members had not removed me from their mailing list. I was privy to every development inside the party also due to their phone calls full of grievances.

Media told the world after that day that former IFS officer Madhu Bhaduri had left the NC meeting in a huff for having been denied the opportunity to move a resolution condemning Somnath Bharti’s ‘raid’ on African women at Khirki Extension, Malviya Nagar. It did not report that the whole house barring the 23 privileged NE members had burst in frustration.

Beginning that day, NC members vented their frustration via emails, and some even washed dirty linen in public. Quoting just one such mail should suffice. It had three PDF attachments describing discrepancies in voting procedure in the meeting.

A motion to amend the powers of the national executive had been moved. “Amendment no. 6 and 7 were then put to vote — by raising hands to register objection — that was reportedly passed by 136 to 59 votes,” read the mail by NC member Shimla Shri who alleged that the numbers were fudged. Such a motion required 2/3 majority to be passed. That meant if those opposing the motion equalled or exceeded 69, the motion should have stood defeated. The deponent alleged that the actual number of votes against the motion was more than 69, but the counting was manipulated to bring down the figure to 59. The letter bore signature of Allahabad High Court Bar Association’s spokesman Salil Srivastava as a witness.

“Even the count of 136 was reached in a dubious manner. It was originally 121. Staring at an imminent defeat of the motion, 15 members of the NE were rushed from the stage to add to the total,” informed then party spokesman from Uttarakhand, Satish Sharma.
pic 4
Screenshot of Shimla Shri’s letter

Yadav allegedly stopped voting midway, making the whole exercise farcical. The NC members were asked to raise their hands for objection and not for support. Supreme Court lawyer Changez Khan and High Court lawyer Arvind Tripathi were given the charge of counting the votes. When the dissent count reached 72, Yadav reportedly intervened to declare the figure was actually 59 and pronounced that the motion had passed. More hands were still in the raised position. On hearing Yadav’s pronouncement, they yielded.

Several such emails accused the AAP national executive of hatching a conspiracy by convening the NC meeting to put a stamp of democracy on the NE’s act of usurping the NC’s powers. The NE had also feared the NC would veto many of the party’s Lok Sabha election nominees. That veto power was snatched from the third ring of command, too, using the amendment.

A big section of the NC had been contemplating recalling the NE. They complained Yadav manipulated the proceedings of the 31 January meeting in such a manner that this proposal by the majority of NC members could not be moved amid much furore.

Where on earth was Yadav’s love for democracy that day: 31 January 2014?

Epilogue
Having thus rode roughshod over the party’s workers, Yadav and Bhushan now come across as rank hypocrites, crying foul over a prevailing ‘personality cult’ in the party that threatens to marginalise them. Where was their belief in democracy when they were establishing their position in the party not through elections but by prevailing upon Kejriwal behind closed doors?

Has Kejriwal been quiet all this while because of Shanti Bhushan’s ostentatiously donated Rs 2 crore? Or, does he feel angering a litigious Prashant and a lobbyist Yogendra would be dangerous for his party, particularly because they are rich with insider information?

Even if they patch up, the bitter aftertaste of (a) Yadav planting stories in the media — which the whole journalistic fraternity knows him for — and (b) Kejriwal’s assistant Bibhav Kumar recording a conversation with a Hindu correspondent (now with The Indian Express) where she reveals that Yadav was her source, have ensured that feuds will resurface and recur in the future. But that is not important. The point is hypocrisy of both the sides of the dispute.


Kejriwal is wary of building a large organisation with hundreds of office bearers whereas Yadav and Bhushan know well they can neither win elections inside the party, nor make the party win elections conducted by the EC at the states or the Centre. All this lamentation over lack of democracy is baloney.

21 February 2015

Who Is Surprised By Corporate Espionage?

This has been happening for donkey’s decades, with many dubious incidents having unfolded before journalists of the present generation. What is reassuring, the NDA government has antecedents to inspire this confidence among the people that it will not spare anybody who is guilty.

After serving for a few months on the Science & Technology beat, I was given the Petroleum Ministry and Ministry for Telecommunications additionally by the then Statesman bureau head. Till then — and even till this day — I have had friendly relationships with my colleagues in that office. However, for about a month following the expansion of my portfolio, the correspondent who was previously working on petroleum and telecommunication beats sulked and spread canards about me in the office. In turn, colleagues close to me spread the conspiracy theory around that the journalist was upset with me because I had snatched his ‘plum’ posting away.

I have no proof of his indulgence in unscrupulous parleys with the industry. What I do know, he is profoundly knowledgeable about the petroleum sector in particular, but his published stories (reports) never reflect the knowledge that he shared with me during our informal chats. I can also seize the opportunity to complain that a damning article I had filed against Anil Ambani’s apparent nexus with then Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran — who had helped the industrialist’s Reliance Infocomm get away with pittance as penalty for passing off International Subscribers’ Dialling calls as local calls — never saw the light of the day [The Ambani brothers had not parted ways till then, and this business was with the younger brother at the time of my filing the article; now Reliance Communications Limited is under Anil Ambani while Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited is a subsidiary of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited].

For days on end, I was told that the piece would be published on a “lean” day when the newspaper had no other “scoop” to print. That day never came. After I resigned from that media house for an unrelated development — the office had moved from the posh Statesman building in central Delhi to a decrepit warehouse in Noida from where commuting in the peak traffic hours in the evening and being able to file stories in time was near impossible — I passed on the information I had gathered to journalists working in media houses not in awe of the Ambanis. Thanks to the story being published in various forms in different newspapers and magazines in 2005, the story of cronyism mentioned above is now common knowledge.

Do they fish in troubled waters or are plain unlucky to turn into usual suspects every time?
In that course of a few months, an unhealthy aspect of journalist-industry nexus unfolded before me through Press Club gossips. I was told several journalists in the petroleum beat were on the payroll of Mukesh Ambani. There were rumours that a news channel had commissioned a journalist to carry out a sting operation on the industrialist’s Jamnagar facility. The journalist went into the refinery disguised as a truck driver and came out with sensational recording of adulteration, the gossiping journalists said. The owner of the channel refused to play the tapes for some days and then suddenly sacked the journalist, they said. The poor scribe was refused a job by all media houses thereafter for about a decade, a former colleague alleged.

Given this backdrop that the whole media is aware of, the story of former journalist Shantanu Saikia’s arrest for alleged involvement in the corporate espionage scandal comes as no surprise to the journalistic fraternity. It may but be disgusting for the lay people for whom the fourth estate has long lost all credibility. The disconcerting aspect for ethical scribes is that even their reports and articles, filed with due diligence and utmost honesty, will be taken with a pinch of salt.

But this is beyond journalists, whose position is not much different from actors of the tinsel town who receive extortionist calls from the ‘D Company’ based in Karachi and Dubai and spread across the country in general and rooted in Mumbai’s film industry in particular. You can speak openly against the big indigenous companies — ranting against the Coca Cola Company or Monsanto is easy; it does not cost you your job — only if you are in a media house inimical to those businessmen, a newspaper office with a strong legal cell that can stand by your story, or a media office that is funded by rival companies. Or, you have to be a comic book hero detached from family with no fear for life, or Prashant Bhushan whose diatribes against the Ambanis was one of the prime attractions of Indian against Corruption and the Aam Aadmi Party for this journalist (me) who had, for some years, turned into an activist.

Even the chief editors are helpless. In an interaction with fresh graduates from a school of journalism about a decade ago, the editor of one of the two well-read monthlies — they are both weeklies now — boasted how his magazine never dithered from publishing anti-Coke stories (for groundwater contamination). A fresher asked why he was not as brave in exposing Indian companies. “Mujhe apni dukān band karwāni hai kyā? (You want the magazine to shut shop?)” the editor quipped.

That is not to say that no foreigner could be guilty in the espionage case. They could be much bigger than Reliance who were after the leaked information. India imports about 80 per cent of the fuel it consumes. If an international supplier comes to know that a particular state-run refinery is about to purchase a certain grade of crude oil before others in the trade, the information is worth billions of dollars.

Is one or more of the world's 10 largest petrochemical companies involved in the espionage?
Elsewhere, equipped with this leaked information on how much subsidy is to be paid to state refiners for sale of some fuels below market rates, and how much ONGC will have to contribute, stock market operators can anticipate share price movement and earn easy money.

I said this was beyond journalists because Saikia, who runs an energy portal named indianpetro.com, and his accomplice Prayas Jain, who runs an oil and gas firm based in Delhi and Melbourne, are mere go-betweens. If they were selling insider information to petro bigwigs, the latter must first have approached them with both monetary allurements and threat to life. For, in an industry that employs thousands of executives, the officials who strike unscrupulous deals on behalf of their bosses are difficult to detect while business journalists mostly talk to CEOs and corporate communication heads, neither of whom is likely to take chances with the media.

If Lalta Prasad, Rakesh Kumar (both temporary government employees assisted by Asharam and Ishwar Singh) and Raj Kumar Chaubey were involved in procuring, obtaining and stealing official documents by trespassing into the offices of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas at Shastri Bhawan, New Delhi, Shailesh Saxena from Reliance Industries Limited, Vinay Kumar from Essar, KK Naik from Cairns, Subhash Chandra from Jubilant Energy and Rishi Anand from ADAG Reliance must have approached them. And why would these low ranking private sector executives, holding designations no higher than managers, take the risk of violating law unless they had been prompted by the owners of these companies?

Saxena is manager, corporate affairs, RIL; Chandra is senior executive, Jubilant Energy; Anand is deputy general manager, Reliance ADAG; Vinay is that of Essar and Naik is general manager, Cairns India. In the rat race for money and better lifestyle, a middle class executive may make false promises to the companies’ clients at the most; he does not barge into the private corridors of the state unless paid extra for the unlawful job. The obvious question is: When will the law catch up with the big fish?

The current dispensation can. First, the infamy of Pramod Mahajan notwithstanding, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did not oblige the filthy rich businessmen to the extent promised to them after the Bharatiya Janata Party accepted money from them for its campaign before 1998, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s top-ranking volunteers who are now in the party inform me. A famous former pracharak, who had fallen out of favour of Vajpayee and who the media now looks up to for regular anti-BJP sound-bytes, had revealed in the course of a roundtable I had attended on 9 October 2011 that this was the way to manage money for activism: Promise the businessmen favours when in opposition; break the promise when in government! No matter how dangerous a private company is, it cannot be more powerful than the government of the day, the party strategists reckon. That is how the BJP had dealt with the Ambanis in the period 1998-2004, the former pracharak told us.

After losing power in the 2004 election, a much weaker BJP in the opposition could ward off some allegedly sponsored attacks on its leadership. Any sensible person can tell that LK Advani’s relationship with his estranged daughter-in-law is not a matter of national interest. Then why was the issue raised in Parliament? Will then Railways Minister Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal come clean on the affair? Importantly, Lalu Prasad was not speaking about Gauri’s deposition before the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, which, involving the Babri Masjid demolition, was a matter of public interest. Bihar’s former Chief Minister thought the Lower House would be interested in what was happening inside the Advani household!

Cut to the present: Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government was not found guilty by the courts for favouring some of the industries named above, as was alleged by the then Comproller and Auditor General. A PIL was filed in the High Court of Gujarat in 2013 based on the CAG report that questioned the allotment. The court rejected the PIL and refused to interfere in the matter. The petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the PIL, too [original orders of the High Court of Gujarat, PIL No. 97 of 2013 order 8 October 23013, and The Supreme Court of India in SLP (C) No. 32507 of 2013, order 22 November 2013]. The apex court held that the decision taken by the state government was “transparent” and that “non-floating of tenders or absence of public auction or invitation alone is not sufficient reason to characterise the auction of a public authority as either arbitrary or unreasonable or amounted to mala fide (sic) or improper exercise of power.”

Further, the AAP’s assertion that the Gujarat government supplied coal to Gautam Adani’s company was found false. Adani Power as well as Tata Power fought against the state government for not providing coal blocks, yet supplying power at cheap rates.

As for the latest developments, the Intelligence Bureau that reports to the Union Home Ministry had been monitoring the whereabouts of some government employees for some time. If the NDA government were to be complicit in the crime, this tip off to the agency by the very government would be unthinkable. And the allegation of government-industry connivance made by the opposition is even less impressive because it is this government that told us such fishy activities had been happening in its premises since the time of the reign of the United Progressive Alliance.

Finally, with a barrage of raids on premises of the companies found prima facie guilty in the corporate espionage case, this government is rubbing in the fact that its rivals’ allegation of Modi’s “crony capitalism” is politically motivated. Delegates at the meeting of Dr Jayaprakash Narayan’s Foundation for Democratic Reforms — all of them liberal economists and some of them now working with the government — that I attended on 1 November 2014 shared with others that Modi is, in fact, desperate to shed his pro-business image and refuses to differentiate between the pro-business and pro-market concepts.

Whereas that is a matter of concern for liberals like us, the Prime Minister only has to sound the final death knell for socialist rumour mongers: Catch the players, not the pawns.

An abridged version of this article has appeared on Swarajya. The said magazine is responsible only for the part it has published. Writer/blogger Surajit Dasgupta is solely responsible for this original draft.

05 January 2015

NDA's Intent Of Transforming India

The establishment of NITI Aayog is a clear message that the government is committed to reforms, decentralization and a cooperative federalism that advocates involving states in the Centre’s decision making.

In what can be seen as the greatest policy shift by the new dispensation, the NDA government has begun the year 2015 with scrapping of the Soviet-modelled Planning Commission with NITI Aayog. While “niti” sounds like the Sanskrit-origin word implying “policy” and “ethics”, it’s actually an acronym for National Institution for Transforming India. 
Swarajya was the first media outlet to forecast the change rather than speculate what it would be like: “…the Planning Commission will soon morph into a body that facilitates coordination between the Centre and the states.It will certainly not be a planning organ by another name, and it will not be a typical think-tank as is being speculated in the media,” read our 23 October article on the issue. And that is precisely what the new body has turned out to be. This writer had broken the story on 25 August on Facebook.
This change had been in the offing since the Narendra Modi government assumed office in May last year. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was voted to power with the expectation of structural changes in governance, the antiquated Planning Commission had to face the axe before everything.
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Besides the accompanying cartoon, the Nehruvian agency was famously ridiculed for getting its ‘plans’ and targets all wrong by legendary cartoonist RK Laxman; he showed a shooter in a firing range missing the bull’s eye repeatedly, with the trainer asking, “Where do you think you are? Planning Commission?”
Even the Congress, which is emotionally attached to the body since it was an essential part of Nehruvian socialism, had some prominent agents of change post-1991, who conceded in private circles that the commission was no more than a shibboleth.
It’s not that the Planning Commission stayed unchanged since it was established on 15 March 1950 following a history of proposals for such a governing body by astrophysicist Meghnad Saha and revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938. The British, acceding to the demand, made a planning board that worked between 1944 and 1946.
It was also not that it was against the market; industrialists and economists had independently formulated at least three development plans for it in 1944 to bridge the gap between the ideologies of MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. However, since the body was formed under the aegis of the first prime minister, who was trained in British socialism, two years after the assassination of Gandhi, it lost much of the decentralising measures suggested by the original proposers.
The authority for creation of the Planning Commission was not derived from the Constitution of India or statute; it was an arm of the central Government of India.
The first Five-Year Plan was launched in 1951, with dictations from the Centre as to how the agricultural sector must be managed. Two subsequent Five-Year Plans were formulated before 1965 when there was a break because of the India-Pakistan war. Two successive years of drought, devaluation of the Indian Rupee, a general rise in prices and erosion of resources disrupted the planning process and, after three Annual Plans between 1966 and 1969, the fourth Five-Year Plan was started in 1969.
A Planning Commission Meeting
A meeting of the first Planning Commission
The Eighth Plan could not take off in 1990 due to the fast changing political situation at the Centre, and the years 1990–91 and 1991–92 were treated as Annual Plans. The Eighth Plan was finally launched in 1992 after the initiation of structural adjustment policies. This chequered history showed that central planning was subject vagaries of the Central government.
The first eight Plans were Keynesian at best and Marxist at worst. The emphasis was on a growing public sector with massive investments in basic and heavy industries; since the launch of the Ninth Plan in 1997, the emphasis on the public sector became less pronounced—six years after liberalisation was unleashed by the prime minister of the 1991-96 period, PV Narasimha Rao.
While the Planning Commission went through quite a few operational makeovers over the years — ranging from being a simple planning body to a powerful ‘control commission’ to a fiscal decentralisation instrument to an official think tank — voices had begun to grow louder for an overhaul even before the new government took charge.
Subsequently, a consultation process was launched for suggestions on the structure and role of the new body and there was a strong view that this should play the role of a catalyst and provide a platform to the Centre, states and experts to discuss issues and arrive at the best solutions.
But then, as the Congress spent the last seven months criticising the Modi government of doing nothing but furthering the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s policies, the displeasure it is betraying once NITI has replaced the archaism is ironical. The declared intent to empower states has played well as non-NDA chief ministers have also supported the dissolution of Planning Commission.
However, on the day of the announcement, without knowing what the changes would be, socialists Manish Tewari of the Congress, Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), KC Tyagi of the Janata Dal (United) and Yogendra Yadav of the Aam Aadmi Party disapproved of the change, much as they had all been championing the cause of decentralisation for years and decades.
Besides making themselves objects of loathing to Hindus for frowning only when conversion into the Hindu fold occur while turning a blind eye to conversions out of Hinduism, these socialists have begun appearing as a monolith also in their commentaries on economic policies.
This beats electoral reason because their mutual indistinguishability is making it a Modi-versus-the-rest contest for the voters, which spells a clear advantage for the BJP.
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Nevertheless, NITI per se does not have an electoral message. It is only a statement of intent, which is reassuring for the people, who voted for Modi for better governance and not for reasons of Hindutva that the BJP’s  far-right campaigners love to espouse.
For pragmatists among the advocates of free market — for whom Swarajya stands — government cannot disappear from every sphere of work; it needs to minimise its presence, for which decentralisation is an imperative.
For the ‘people like us’ (PLU) — borrowing from a Rajiv Gandhi-era coinage whose PLU were not like us — it is all the more reassuring that economist and professor at Columbia University, Arvind Panagariya has been appointed as the first Vice-Chairman of the NITI Aayog.(We are delighted to see Bibek Debroy,an editorial advisory board member of Swarajya appointed as a full time member of NITI Aayog)
For the bureaucrats, however, it is more than intent; it’s an order. The Yojana Bhawan staff began hectic preparations to welcome new Vice-Chairman of Niti Aayog and other members.
The landmark sign board in front of Yojana Bhawan has been repainted as NITI Aayog and rooms to seat the senior functionaries have been decked up.
But in the office, there is chaos, albeit of the teething variety. First, the name NITI Aayog has mutually conflicting “institution” and “commission” in it. The new board in Hindi translates to the body being a policy commission while the ‘I’ stands for institution.
So, is it an institutionalised commission? That’s hardly a change; the Planning Commission was an institution, too. Or, is it a commissioned institution? So was the Planning Commission!
Jokes apart, an official at the commission says, although all preparations are on to welcome the vice-chairman and members, they would have preferred if there was some clarity on the functions and the role of the new body.
The post of Minister of State for Planning (independent charge) Rao Inderjit Singh needs to be clarified. Officials with the project appraisal and management division in the former commission need to know about their role, too.
Finally, the babus have not signed any cabinet note which has been sent to the Planning Commission for vetting, as the commission does not exist, while the role of NITI Aayog is still not clearly defined.
For the ordinary citizens, there should be relief once these teething problems are overcome. To address their quotidian needs with the state, it will be easier to deal with a smaller local government than an overbearing but remote New Delhi that is difficult to move.
Here, NITI will, instead of moving funds to the states through a tortuous process after the chief minister goes running to New Delhi like a courtier to beg for funds, only advise the local administration how the emerging demand is to be met through meetings between representatives of the body and the region’s government.
Unlike the Nehruvian plan panel, NITI will not have the power to disburse funds to central ministries and state governments with strings attached. These riders were funny to say the least.
They could be best exemplified with instances where a state had enough money in its treasury, sent from the Centre, for drought relief (say) in a year when it was facing a severe drought, but it could not spend it because the fund had arrived with qualification that it could only be spent on flood relief! The Centre had sent this money with the said rider because historically the state used to face floods and not droughts. It was, therefore, a welcome statement from Prime Minister Modi that NITI marked the end of a one-size-fits-all approach of the Union government.
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The changes
NITI Aayog “aims to foster cooperative federalism through structured support initiatives and mechanisms with the states on a continuous basis, recognizing that strong states make a strong nation.”
The Cabinet resolution released by the government through the Press Information Bureau says, the states will continue to receive support for removing bottlenecks and will be able to approach the new institution for consulting and capacity building. Further, the states will also tailor their plans to suit their needs under more than 40 centrally sponsored schemes.
Instead of the top-down approach of the Planning Commission, the new body will adopt a bottom-up approach, where decisions will be taken at the local level and then endorsed at the Central level. This also reflects the new government’s approach to develop mechanisms to formulate credible plans at the village level and aggregate these progressively at higher levels of Government.
NITI Aayog will also serve as a think tank of the government and provide the Centre and States with relevant strategic and technical advice across the spectrum of key elements of policy.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief Ministers and Governors of various States at the retreat at Race Course Road, following the meeting on Planning Commission revamp, in New Delhi on 7 December 2014. Photo: PTI

The article must end with a message to the PLU. The establishment of NITI announces in no uncertain terms that this government is committed to reforms. It does have some status quoists, though. A judicious manner of making it work as per our expectations will, therefore, involve sustaining our pressure on it for decentralisation as well as further liberalisation rather than dismissing the NDA II as a UPA III avatar.

25 October 2014

Politically Feasible Market Economics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pro-market, but he wouldn't rush liberalisation without calculating the political implications of every capitalist measure proposed by economists.



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ar better than the Congress, much less than liberal economics, but an urge to push it within the confines of political realism — that is how the Modi government’s performance can be summarised. Liberals who supported the Bharatiya janata Party’s campaign in the hope of a revival of the national economy, but who are not in touch with functionaries of the government, have had occasions of despair. Why so many foreign trips? Why has one minister been entrusted with two of the most important portfolios, both of which demand full-time involvement? Why no thrust on Hindutva? These are some of the FAQs the government must live with.
After meeting some economists the prime minister trusts, I sought to allay concerns of the Right-of-Centre supporters of the party on Facebook. In the group Youth for democracy, I wrote, “… the new dispensation is severely short of intellectuals, one of whom can replace him (Arun Jaitley) in the Finance Ministry. It is not politically feasible to bring someone from outside and abruptly place him on top. However, economists who have campaigned intellectually for the party will be acknowledged, if not rewarded. ‘Reward’ has been ruled out because
  • Many of them have said they did not do it for rewards;
  • They have said they are too independent by temperament to be part of a government, or
  • Some have been too demanding for the government’s comfort.”
Arvind Panagariya

Two names can be revealed in this article. Modi found Arvind Panagariya too demanding, say my sources, and hence asked him to restrict himself to the role of a consultant who would keep operating from overseas. When Surjit S Bhalla was contacted, he excused himself saying he was too fiercely independent to be part of a government, another finance ministry economist under the condition of anonymity confided in me.
To the above, if one added the clause that MPs aged above 75 wouldn’t be made ministers, one can reason why an economic stalwart in the right wing camp such as Arun Shourie couldn’t be invited to join the government. Shourie’s personal reasons wouldn’t have impeded his way into the dispensation, had the age restriction not been in place. The tacit rule also explains the exclusion of another crusader against corruption from the Cabinet: Subramanian Swamy stepped on 75 two months ago. In fact, Modi is so serious and sincere about this self-imposed discipline that he is reported to have told his confidantes he would retire after leading the party in the 2024 elections (he would be 74-year-old then). Lending credibility to this insider information, he told a child who had asked him what the qualifications of a prime minister were on the Teachers’ Day, “Prepare yourself for the 2024 elections!” If you thought that was a mere quip, you were mistaken.
Surjit S Bhalla
Further explaining the pace of change, I wrote subsequently, “Modi is also not happy with the top 10 bureaucrats who were picked up by the UPA regime, but he does not wish to stir a political storm by removing them all in one stroke. They will go in phases.”
“Big-ticket reforms will begin post-November after the prime minister’s trip to Japan. They will get a renewed thrust in the next Budget. Modi will calibrate his steps based on the levels of patience of different sections of population. He is believed to have divided the people into three broad sections: the most impatient media, which he has decided not to pay much attention to; the moderately patient poor, whom he will constantly work on, and the most patient middle class that has to wait till the end of next year for “achchhey din”. Modi is reported to believe that the middle class’s honeymoon with him will last one-and-a-half years after which he will take more measures to please them,” I wrote.
Bibek Debroy
As predicted in the post dated 25 August, reforms have begun right after the first phase of the prime minister’s foreign trips. Easing off the burden on a recuperating Jaitley, pro-market Arvind Subramanian and Rajiv Mehrishi have been brought into the government’s scheme of things. Barely a few weeks after returning from his US trip, Modi appointed Subramanian as the Chief Economic Advisor and shunted Finance Secretary Arvind Mayaram out of the Finance Ministry. Mehrishi, an IAS officer of the same batch and State cadre as Mayaram, was appointed Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs in the Ministry of Finance. Mehrishi is believed to be the chief architect of Rajasthan’s labour reforms initiatives. Bibek Debroy, the economist other than Bhalla whose pre-April 2014 articles used to clear the air about Gujarat economy, has already been working on reform of the Indian Railways.
Arvind Subramanian (L) and Rajiv Mehrishi
On 20 October, television was enthralled by Jaitley’s announcements pertaining to the coal sector. The Cabinet has recommended ordinance for reallocation of coal blocks; the reallocation will be completed in 4 months; there will be e-auction of coal mines for private firms’ end use. Now comes the policy’s political management. To pacify regional rivals, the government has decided that the revenue from mines will to go to the States. To keep breast-beating socialists at bay, Jaitley has assured Coal India’s future won’t be affected, even though the government is set to undertake restructuring of the public sector behemoth and world’s largest coal miner, Coal India Ltd (CIL), by creating multiple mega coal companies in line with the recommendations of a government-commissioned study by global consulting firm Deloitte. The jholawala brigade’s expected rants in response are not likely to receive public support when the reforms boost manufacturing and create millions of jobs. On the other hand, liberal economists who are lamenting the government’s act of stopping short of complete de-nationalisation of the coal sector have no more than academic importance on the political scene. Former secretaries at the Power Ministry EAS Sarma and Anil Razdan, for example, want an independent statutory regulator to de-politicise coal mine allotments and coal pricing. This is hardly a soul-stirring issue for activists.
NDTV's coverage of Arun Jaitley's announcement of a slew of reforms in the coal sector
Television missed three headlines that some newspapers caught on the 21 October: One, 88 infrastructureand industrial projects, involving investment of nearly Rs 3 lakh crore — which is more than the Centre’s budgeted income tax collections for the current financial year — have become operational over the past few months. This will help in adding jobs and easing pressure on banks, which had lent to the projects that got stuck due to lack of government clearances. Two, the government last Monday initiated a series of measures to make iteasier for companies to do business in the country by streamlining the processfor granting industrial licences as well as setting up a committee to look intoissues of corporate bankruptcy. At present, there is no bankruptcy law in India. Such a law will enable entrepreneurs to close down unviable businesses. The move will primarily help small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) contribute about 8% to India’s GDP. The government has earmarked Rs. 24,000 crore towards the sector under the 12th Plan against Rs. 11,000 crore in the 11th Plan. All public sector banks are expected to allocate at least 55% of credit to MSMEs, register a 10% annual growth in the number of micro enterprises and raise their credit growth to the sector by 20%.
Three, the content of bankruptcy law was perhaps too much to deliberate upon for cerebrally challenged television channels, but why did they miss the effort to sell off stakes in the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation? The administration’s top privatisation official met bankers on Monday in the financial capital, Mumbai, to discuss the sale of a stake of 5% in ONGC. The finance ministry hopes to raise up to $3 billion from the sale, almost a quarter of its target for asset sales for this financial year.
Earlier, it was announced on the day of launch of Shrameva Jayate that all 1,800 labour inspectors will be disallowed from swooping down on companies. Instead, a computerised system will randomly send them on inspections, based on data trends and objective criteria. Following inspections, they will have to upload their reports within 72 hours and cannot modify them thereafter. This was a low-hanging fruit to pluck.
Readers of Swarajya will get to hear another announcement sooner than the above, which I had foretold on 25 August: “The replacement of the Planning Commission will be a body to coordinate between the Centre and the States. It will certainly not be a planning organ by another name, and it will not be a typical think-tank as is being speculated in the media.”
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he huge social media support that the BJP enjoys has also been revealing a less-than-charitable outlook for its government. Most of them don’t like Jaitley. Conspiracy theorists find him a Congressman in Modi’s team! More measured commentators call him status quoist. Whatever be the truth in these allegations — fuelled by the new Finance Ministry’s act of taking the same DTAA route as the UPA Government to bring back Indian black money from overseas, refusal to make the Henderson-Brooks’ report public and affidavit censuring Gen VK Singh — the prime minister is not banking on the finance minister fully. At the same time, the two will remain friends.
In a more recent post on Facebook, I explained on 17October: “When Narendra Modi was being vilified by political rivals and NDA constituents alike for the 2002 Gujarat riots, Arun Jaitley, then a Central minister, stood rock solid as a pillar of strength of the then Gujarat Chief Minister. Before that, when the tussle between Hajurias and Khajurias in Gujarat politics had cornered Modi, it was a room in the backyard of Jaitley’s 9 Ashoka Road bungalow where he spent his years of ‘exile’. Now that a large section of BJP supporters suspect the finance minister’s good offices with Congress functionaries to be responsible for the confidentiality of information on black money, of the Henderson-Brooks report and for a Budget that funded UPA Government’s pet projects all the more, the prime minister is in an unenviable position of having to balance between friendship, national interest and his core constituency’s perception. A seasoned politician that he is, Modi is delivering on the financial front by filling all economic wings of the government with advocates of free-market who will together steer policy rather than saddling the onus on the finance minister alone. Even as shifting Jaitley to some other ministry is ruled out, his relevance is reducing. This morning’s newspapers declare the first steps towards labour reforms in all their front page headlines as I had foretold some months ago on Facebook. Supporters of the government who don’t have access to insider information must repose their trust in the politics of Modi.”
“Actually, here is a leader who has no friend, no social circle, nobody to wine and dine with, unlike all of us. He is obsessed with a mission called India, and even his family and wife couldn’t come in his way. The equation with Jaitley is more of indebtedness and recognition of his connections in the political and industrial circles (the second was necessary for revival of the ‘India story’) than of friendship. This is pragmatism. Have faith in his patriotism. He will deliver on all the issues: Black money, rejection of obsolete laws, declassification of state archives (that will inter alia unravel the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose mystery), making the country a free-er market as well as a manufacturing hub etc. If the information I shared about the government’s calibrated economic measures has come true today, what is written in this post will certainly hold good some day.”

Finally, why is there no thrust on Hindutva? Well, who made Modi a “Hindu Hriday Samrat”? Following the 2002 Gujarat riots, not only did his detractors slam him for going soft on rioters, many who thought the gory incidents were Muslim society’s comeuppance began believing in the myth. In other words, Modi is hated and loved by two sets of incorrigible people: leftists and the far right. He is under no obligation to live up to the impression of their own creation. He is a true secular, who does not distribute fake smiles equally among all communities as is expected in Indian secularism; his focus is development irrespective of our communal identities. He talked of 6 crore Gujaratis as their chief minister; now all of 1.25 billion Indians are his constituency.