01 July 2015

Lessons For India From Greece

Hopefully, readers won’t find the comparisons Greek. The European country is a typical example of the ultimate fate socialism and populism meet. India, beware!

In terms of economics, this is the chronology that unfolded in Greece, which the whole news media is talking about today.
  • Greece enters Eurozone in 2001.
  • Unfortunately Europe goes into recession around 2008. Greece being poor, suffers more with 28 per cent unemployment.
  • Being part of Eurozone, Greece can’t print more drachma to reduce its value in international market and make Greek exports attractive.
  • The German-dominated European Central Bank is right for a robust Germany, does not work for a weak Greece.
  • Debt burden on Greece today: 177 per cent of its GDP.
  • Greece must come up with a loan payment of $1.8 billion to the IMF by yesterday, literally — 30 June — to avoid a default.
  • Constant government borrowing to fund promises by politicians causes Greece’s cash crunch.
  • Early retirement age of 57 years adds to the government’s pension burden. In 2012, “when the minimum wage of €751 was slashed by 22 per cent (or 32 per cent for under 25s), the government cut the basic rate of unemployment benefits back from €460 to €360 a month,” reported The Irish Times.
  • “The wage bill of the Greek public sector doubles in 12-odd years, in real terms — and that number does not take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of €100 million against an annual wage bill of €400 million, plus €300 million in other expenses,” says a book and an article by Michael Lewis, and a book by John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper.
  • “It’s said that the Greek railway network is so underused and oversubsidised that it would be cheaper to put the train passengers into taxis. A cab from Thessaloniki to Athens would cost €700 — that’s about €1.20 a kilometre, double the amount being paid to send people by train, if there is only one person in the taxi. The average state railroad employee earns €65,000 a year,” BBC reported. And it’s public money that runs the railways.
  • The government led by Lukas Papademos that begins its innings in November 2011 has to enter a €130-billion loan agreement to meet public demand. The Greek central bank flies more than €5 billion in new bills into the country from the central banks of Italy and Austria in order to cover outstanding demand. All local banks go bust by early 2012.
  • The European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF (referred, sometimes pejoratively by Greece’s socialist populace, as the “Troika”) finally offer Greece loan under the condition of steep hike in taxes and cuts in spending; Greece accepts the conditions and gets €240 billion ($268.8 billion); but this leads to domestic resentment; the people bring a leftist government to get more government aid.
  • Choices before Greece now: accept more austerity as demanded by the Troika, or exit the Eurozone; referendum on 5 July.
  • Defaulting on repayment is almost certain because most of the bailout money Greece receives is used to repay loans from its creditors. “It is virtually impossible for Greece to pay down its enormous debt when the economy is under-performing,” believes Adam Shell, columnist with USA Today.
  • With the possibility of Greek deposits in Euro soon turning into devalued drachmas, Greeks rush to ATMs to withdraw Euros for more value for their money; reacting to the development, its government shuts down banks.
  • ECB is likely to cut off its emergency cash infusions to Greek banks. Greece won’t get loans on palatable terms, forcing immediate and severe adjustments; Greek banks are likely to collapse, crippling whatever is left of the economy.
  • However, the Eurozone economy has left the bad times behind, thanks mainly to the ECB’s government bond-buying programme which was designed to boost the economy by keeping rates low and heightening economic activity; the 19-country Eurozone has emerged from recession and is growing at 0.4 per cent.
But how did things come to such a pass in Greece?
Greeks demonstrating against austerity and loan repayment yesterday
Courtesy: Business Insider
Populism began in Greece in the 1970s after a brief flirt with liberal economics. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement’s (PASOK’s) Andreas Papandreou promised the moon in this decade and, winning on that promise in 1981, began implementing the promises. The first of those was increasing people’s income through state employment and pensions; the total public sector employment in Greece increased during the 1980s at an average annual rate of about 4 per cent — around four times as fast as in the private sector. This is a lesson for India’s inflationary and exchequer-draining Pay Commissions.
Then, successive PASOK governments turned less and less liberal and either ignored institutions or subverted them in the name of “people’s rule”. And it helped the party win several elections. This is a warning call for those who vote for a rabble-rousing party that promises “Swaraj”: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The fascination with “rule and economy by the people” never went out of favour of the Greeks.
“For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 per cent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans, either,” Michael Lewis wrote in Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.
A liberal Constantine Mitsotakis won in 1990 but lost power to Papandreou again in 1993. You may compare this with Narendra Modi’s win across India in 2014, which was a vote against the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government’s bad economics, and its subsequent loss in Delhi in 2015, where people reposed faith in and voted for populist promises of freebies.
Take a free ride, AAP: Delhi is Greece!
By now, the Greek society had gotten used to the doles and was expecting more. Reform had turned into a suicidal idea for the country’s political parties. Entitlements were offered for votes. The scale of Greek tax cheating is at least as incredible as its scope. Lewis reported in Vanity Fair that “an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors report incomes under €12,000 a year because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, which means that even plastic surgeons making millions a year pay no tax at all”. The law made it a jailable offence to cheat the government out of more than €150,000 alright, but no ruling party enforced it. Else, every doctor in Greece would be in jail!
Politicians obliged; they gave the people the foolish policies they asked for. And on occasions where they desperately turned bold, they were punished at the polls. Remember how the AAP demanded in 2013 that those who participated in their “civil disobedience movement” by not paying their electricity bills be given amnesty by law?
The AAP promise that is yet to be fulfilled  — fortunately or unfortunately
The court ruled out selective application of law, but politically the AAP reaped the benefits in 2015, getting slum dwellers’ votes en masse. They also lapped up the promise of free water in a state where thirsty pockets had no pipelines, and electric supply at half the tariff with the other half being subsidised. This meant bribing us with our own money, but the lowest common denominator couldn’t care less for this brazen, immoral economics. And the BJP’s offer of electric service portability, like mobile telephony portability, had no takers in this year’s Delhi election.
Gauging a similar public mood in Greece, two new kids on the block — leftist Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI) under former PASOK minister of Finance, Dimitris Tsovolas and rightist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), which was founded in 2000 by George Karatzaferis, a former National Democracy (ND) deputy — competed in demanding more populist measures in their respective ways from the government.
Domestic populism apart, the Greeks also wanted to grow big and be in international reckoning. For that, they needed entry into the Eurozone. The countries running it said they would let Greece into the club if it could tame its wild budgetary deficit and bring it down to 3 per cent of the GDP. By 2000, Greece managed it with statistical manipulation.
The manipulation continued after Greece’s entry into the Eurozone. Miranda Xafa, a former IMF official turned economic adviser to former Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis-turned-Salomon Brothers analyst, pointed out in 1998 that if you added up all the Greek budget deficits over the previous 15 years, they amounted to only half the Greek debt. That is, the amount of money the Greek government had borrowed to fund its operations was twice its declared shortfalls. “At Salomon we used to call him (the then head of the Greek National Statistical Service) ‘the Magician,’” says Xafa, “because of his ability to magically make inflation, the deficit, and the debt disappear”, wrote Lewis in the essay cited above.
The minority question
Now we come to studying the political right wing in that country and ours — especially what they do to develop their own vote banks in reaction to the vote banks developed through entitlements and appeasement politics. Patriotism, which is a noble philosophy, turns into supremacist nationalism in order to cultivate the fringe elements as votaries of one’s party (but they stop short of demanding full re-establishment of the ancient world).
The way the extreme Hindu right-wing demands Akhand Bharat (meaning annexation of Pakistan and Bangladesh), the Greek right wing Golden Dawn has been demanding annexation of Albania and Turkey including the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Izmir (but not the full territory under the ancient Greek civilisation). Another right wing party LAOS is anti-American and anti-Semitist.
At the other end, while minorities are adequately represented in Greece —  currently represented in Parliament by the PASOK’s Çetin Mandacı and Ahmet Hacıosman — they do not stop complaining. It’s not new. During the 2002 local elections, approximately 250 Muslim municipal and prefectural councillors and mayors were elected, and the Vice-Prefect of Rhodope is a Muslim, too. Yet, look at their grievance mongering. Muslims don’t object when the Turkish state appoints muftis, but they disagree when the Greek state does so. Importantly, these muftis perform several judicial functions and, hence, cannot be let loose by the State. But as is seen in the Human Rights Watch’s pro-minority tilt in India, it is pro-minority in Greece, too.
And comparable to our problem of Bangladeshi infiltrators, Greeks have a problem in identifying who all sneaked in. So they developed an Article 19 of the Greek Citizenship Code, which allowed the government to revoke the citizenship of non-ethnic Greeks who left the country. Finally this law had to be scrapped in 1998 under domestic pressure from minorities and international pressure exerted by bleeding-heart human rights activists and countries supportive of them.
All this irks the ethnic Greek majority in the country. They hit back with orthodoxy and branding.
Activists of the Greek right wing Anexartitoi Ellines (ANEL) uphold family values and promote Greek orthodox religion. They don’t care for the liberal philosophy that a citizen’s family is no business of the State or a political party. ANEL’s second agenda has an Indian parallel: the attempt to regiment Hindus along the lines of radical Islam. If moderate and extremist Muslims are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim  — or ‘true’ Muslims or un-Islamic apostates — depending on who the accuser and the accused are, if you do not agree with the Hindu right, you are a traitor or Jaichand (who betrayed Prithviraj Chauhan to Mohammad Ghori) in popular parlance.
How to pander and ruin a country
The political right wing in any country is often found leftist in economics. In India, they demand that FDI in retail and GM crops in agriculture should not be allowed. In Greece, they demand that only ‘pure Greeks’ be allowed into “poor people’s kitchens” — a programme of the Golden Dawn like Amma’s Kitchens started by J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. To hell with competition and inclusion!
While some grievances of the majority in both India and Greece are legitimate, they forget a political theory proven historically right always: The rich turn averse to politics because activism does not suit business. If the minorities turn rabid in their demands every now and then, the best way to tackle them is to see them flourish economically.
An Azim Premji, for example, will never join a demonstration at the Jama Masjid to demand that the Indian Parliament condemn Israel’s actions in Palestine like a poor Muslim barber, cobbler, manual scavenger or craftsman would, just as a Mukesh Ambani or Gautam Adani won’t demand a Ram temple — like an unemployed Hindu youth of Uttar Pradesh would, ferociously. Business, employment and income growth of citizens are the most effective antidotes to people’s communal and other sectarian tendencies.
Now let’s study the socialist parallels. In October 2009, like Arvind Kejriwal’s leitmotifs Ambani and Adani, PASOK’s leader George Papandreou, son of the party founder, won by a landslide after a bitter campaign dominated by his slogan, “The money exists; it is only that [the ND government] prefers to give it to the few and powerful.” Any hope of revival of Greece died thereafter. The news we are getting from that country’s government and people today also is of defiance in the face of inevitable disaster.
Comparable to India Against Corruption and the Aam Aadmi Party’s “sab chor hain”/ “all parties and politicians are corrupt” campaign beginning 2011-12 —  but violent in manifestation unlike the Indian counterpart — Greeks went berserk with strikes, picketing, sloganeering, sit-ins and attacks on public and private properties. MPs were assaulted and Parliament was assailed. Hate crimes against immigrants rose during the period beginning with the first bailout (May 2010) and ending with the general elections of June 2012.
The radicalisation of the Greek electorate culminated with the advent of the Greek indignados — literally, “the outraged”. They were a bunch of activists who hogged the country’s city squares for many weeks in the turbulent summer of 2011. Like the activists in India that year, the Greeks had problems not only with the old ruling parties but also with the whole political class. They all demanded “sovereignty of the people”. In the parallel movement in Delhi, Kejriwal declared Anna Hazare was greater than Parliament of India!
There is another lesson Kejriwal must have taken from Greece. On the organisational side, Panos Kammenos never misses a chance to claim that ANEL is a movement, rather than a party, born from within the popular mobilisations of 2011 and organised through Facebook and Twitter. Yet, the party remains a personality cult. ANEL’s leader employs rhetoric that is broadly based on two mail pillars: anti-corruption and the conspiracy of the New World Order.
As an MP of ND, he conducted extensive researches to establish conspiracies or mishandling of public finances. Kammenos was also litigious. And he branded whoever disagreed with him as sycophants of his political adversaries. He found the governing coalitions after 2011 collaborators in misappropriations [Takis S Pappas and Paris Aslanidis].
In the meantime, another India-like event happened in Greek politics. In the manner in which the AAP drew its initial campaigners from the BJP and voters from Congress vote banks, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) in Greece, most popular with wage earners, the unemployed and university students, drew 39 per cent of its votes from PASOK, 12 per cent from ND and 26 per cent from other sources [ibid].
Reforms vs populism
Now go back to India of 1991-92 and compare the Troika’s demands on Greece for a loan extension with the IMF and the World Bank’s  conditions for loans imposed on the P.V. Narasimha Rao government following India’s balance of payment and gold mortgage crises, which the then prime minister accepted, unleashing liberalization, but then losing in the 1996 elections, when the people find allegations of corruption against his government more significant than the lakhs of Indians he helped turn rich. [Few, if any, of those allegations stood the scrutiny of courts of law.]
But populism is so mad that it can topple the greatest of populists. Like MGNREGA and Food Security Act couldn’t save the Sonia-Manmohan government, in Greece it couldn’t save Papandreou either. He resigned in November 2011.
Whereas the ND regained some votes from its abysmal performance in May 2012, its score was below 30 per cent. Will populism deal a similar blow to India’s NDA? Like the present government here refuses to scrap the schemes launched by the Congress though it had campaigned against them, ND first campaigned against bailouts while in the opposition, but later supported the Papademos Cabinet. The way the ND’s followers dumped the party for this U-turn, will the BJP’s dump theirs in 2019?
Why we’re doing better than Greece
If despite such astonishing parallels between Greece and India, we are not collapsing, it is because we are a much larger and varied society and economy, which does not earn from international sources from tourism alone, unlike the poor European country. But socialism and misplaced right wing jingoism are certainly holding us back from what we could achieve. If India had been Delhi, the country would have gone to the dogs by now — with a Congress-Janata-AAP combine’s freebies, entitlements, goonda rajand appeasement politics gaining popularity, forcing the BJP-Shiv Sena-Akali Dal combine to take recourse to Hindu-Marathi-Sikh sub-nationalism, phobia of competition in the market and aversion to scholarly science and history in education.
Thank God, India is too big to fall for such petty political games. But God does not and will not stand by idiots and cowards always. If the right wing believes the left wing is wrong, it is stupid to try matching the rival’s populism with one’s own. The party that can deliver us from the gloom is one which does something unique, something none dares to adopt: right-wing economics — a pro-consumer, money-generating, poverty-alleviating, booming, vibrant India.
Following Greece’s apparently inevitable ouster from the Eurozone, the remaining, robust economies of the continent are likely to slash lending rates in trying to make themselves an attractive investment destination. India’s Finance Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi has said that the economic crisis in Greece may trigger capital outflows from India. Engineering exports from India may be impacted as the European Union is the largest destination for such shipments. There could be some temporary volatility in the financial market and if a Greece exit happens, then rupee might depreciate.
Robust forex reserves, which are at an all-time high of $355 billion, may cushion any possible impact of the crisis, and growth in India is anyway driven by domestic demand. Besides, the Greek situation has been developing for some time now, which has given our policy makers time to prepare contingency measures [The Times of India]. But we know from the 2008-09 American subprime mortgage crisis that these factors could not prevent a slowdown in India. There is no alternative to fast second-generation reforms. One hopes that Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley will rise to the occasion.

Further references

Political developments in Greece:
  • Greek Populism: A Political Drama in Five Acts by Takis S Pappas and Paris Aslanidis;
  • National populism and xenophobia in Greece by Aristos Doxiadis and Manos Matsaganis;
  • Parties and Elections in Europe – Greece by Wolfram Nordsieck;
  • The European Union beyond the Crisis: Evolving Governance, Contested Policies, and Disenchanted Publics by
    Boyka M Stefanova, page 261, Lexington Books, 2014;
  • Political Handbook of the World edited by Tom Lansford, page 549, CQ Press.
Demography of Greece:
  • Concise History of Greece (Second edition) by Richard Clogg, Chapter 7, page 238 Cambridge 2002;
  • Vestiges of the Ottoman Past: Muslims Under Siege in Contemporary Greek Thrace by A Karakasidou;
  • “Human Rights Watch”;
  • Μuslim Minority of Thrace by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Economic chronology in Greece:
Voice of America, CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Irish Times.
Indian reaction to developments in Greece as of 30 June 2015:  The Times of India.

06 June 2015

Muslim, Christian Grievances Are Bogus

But the NDA government entertains them because of a chequered history of the BJP and India's own inability to appreciate genuine secularism

A Sikh youth challenges another to prove the latter’s commitment to Sikhism. How? ‘Vandalise that church!’ the first guy allegedly provokes his friend. The excitable friend obliges. “Narendra Modi to blame!”

Burglars steal Rs 12,000 from a convent’s kitty, leaving religious symbols of Christianity untouched. “RSS is responsible!”

Antisocial elements who infiltrated the country from Bangladesh ‘rape’ an elderly nun. “BJP’s ‘saffron’ agenda!”

The last sentence in each paragraph above does not obviously reflect this columnist’s opinion. During the reported incidents, such was the tenor of headlines in a large section of the media that has been betraying acute discomfiture since the BJP-led NDA government took charge of the country last year.
Unfortunately, the government is buying it — no questions asked! In February, Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued an assurance to Christians. In May, Finance and Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley met with a delegation of Christian clerics to hear out their ‘grievances’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presented a bouquet during a meeting with a delegation from the Muslim community led by Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
And on 2 June Prime Minister Modi offered a semblance of an apology to the Muslim community. Of course, Modi’s statement was as secular as possible, which he had repeated ad nauseam during the Lok Sabha election campaign, and which he shared with me in our first meeting, 12 December 2013: “I will never make a policy separately for any community.” As the then Gujarat Chief Minister, he spoke of 6 crore Gujaratis; as the Prime Minister of India now, he speaks of 125 crore Indians. He reiterated his stand yesterday. My objection is to his government’s act of entertaining bunches of grievance mongers time and again, as if he were suffering from a guilty conscience.

Christian leaders meet finance minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi
Christian leaders meet finance minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi

Jaitley did say to his Christian visitors that there were mutually unrelated crimes by unaffiliated people happening all around, but the message did not go across loud and clear.

Clearly, the government needs to address a special press conference to shut the yapping mouths up in a manner that the distraction, which looks deliberate on the part of these delegations, does not move our focus away from its foremost work and duty: economic and structural reforms.

The Muslim whinge is less far-fetched, it is wrong nonetheless: that this government is promoting ghar wapsi. The term, as is now well known, refers to the act of converting Indian Muslims and Christians — who, activists affiliated to the Sangh believe, rightly to a great extent, were Hindus once upon a time — back to Hinduism.

If converting people from one religion to another cannot be an act of a secular State that India is (at least on paper), re-converting them back to the old faith is none of its business either. Neither is the ruling party involved in this act. So, why are Muslims knocking at the wrong door? Let them approach RSS sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat who, they must know, does not report to the Prime Minister of India.
Strict secularism would mean that if there are non-state outfits carrying out such activities, the secular state cannot intervene. It is a legally untenable proposition to suggest that the BJP government is liable because it draws most of its personnel from the Sangh ‘parivar’. Can you drag a person to a court of law if a member of his household commits a crime?

And then, is it a crime after all? Without inducements or violence (or threat thereof), conversion is not illegal in India. In fact, I believe banning conversion even of the variety caused by money or sword is silly. If money can lure somebody, a greater deal of money can entice him back to his previous fold. It is nobody’s case that the right wing is suffering from cash crunch. Also, bribing in itself is an offence — whether for conversion or for, say, a government contract. As for violence, the same logic applies; hurting somebody physically is not permissible by law in any event. Why does the State need to specify the cause of religion separately? The treasury benches’ challenge to the opposition to accept an anti-conversion law at the Centre is rationally unsound.

Sociologically, when there is neither lure nor threat involved, the person converting is either not educated in his original faith adequately or he is convinced his present faith is antithetical to his progress. Nobody else has the right to complain in such an event, not in the least the State.

Now, why shouldn’t the same argument apply when some people convert from Christianity or Islam to Hinduism? The RSS denies the organisation has ever officiated over a ghar wapsi. But can the State deny an NGO a right to convert people? And when the activity is of a swayamsevak, not acting in the capacity of a representative of the Sangh, the government’s case for intervention turns even weaker.
Strangely, the concept of ‘non-State actors’ does not seem to have crossed the minds of this government. This term has never been used by anyone from Modi in Parliament to the BJP’s inarticulate spokespersons on television. Is it because Pakistan turned the terminology infamous by using it to describe Ajmal Qasab and his nine accomplices in 26/11? This is not to compare swayamsevaks with terrorists; this is to state that there indeed can be actors whose actions the government is not responsible for. Islamabad’s usage was faulty also for the reason that its ISI is known to manage terrorists. Swayamsevaks serving society, and no way comparable to militants, are not managed by any government including those run by the BJP. Personal opinions of ministers, some people and political commentators about the nature of the RSS apart — and even if one is opposed to the idea of conversion and re-conversion — nothing statutory can be done to stop a swayamsevak from following a religion and seeking to expand his community just as government can do nothing to another citizen for doing neither.
This rationale may not suit the ‘aggrieved’ communities. The answer to the question as to why it does not suit Modi is rooted in his party’s history.

No entity in India is secular
While Modi can insist he never did anything separately for a community either as Gujarat’s CM or India’s PM, his party’s participation in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement would defy the claim. Only a party that has never been pro-Hindu to the extent of being anti-Muslim can tell a Muslim delegation bluntly that it refuses to be pro-Muslim either.

The movement for the temple on the disputed land in Ayodhya had a social and a political reason. Socially, many Hindus needed an object to vent their frustration against decades of appeasement politics. The poor Babri structure, which archaeological studies of Ayodhya do not establish to have stood on a razed Ram temple, bore the brunt of it — while more brazen mosques stand on indisputably proven Hindu territory in Mathura and Varanasi. I am not provoking people to demolish these mosques; my argument is that the Babri Masjid was never the strongest reason for Hindu resentment.

Politically, VP Singh needed to neutralise Devi Lal’s kisan rally with Mandal Commission and LK Advani had the urge to keep the Hindu community intact. So the BJP patriarch appropriated the movement of sadhus and the VHP.

Nevertheless, the Election Commission debars all recognised parties from espousing such causes. If the BJP was not derecognised in 1993 following a complaint by the Congress to the commission, it was because its lawyer Amitabh Sinha exposed the pro-Christian manifesto of the Congress in the court; the then ruling party had appealed to the community to vote for it in the name of the Gospel! The litigation was on the verge of threatening all political parties of extinction, as none qualified as a genuinely secular party. A petrified PV Narasimha Rao government hurriedly withdrew its complaint from the EC.
So that is where we are: living in a theoretically secular State officiating over an overtly religious society and trying to ward off an opportunistically communal polity.

It is in this cultural scenario that Modi meets with an Islamist delegation. It is this reality of Indian politics that makes him include mosques and mausoleums in his itinerary. The first is tolerance, the second multiculturalism and neither is secularism. But can Modi dare to be secular?

The tightrope walk of inclusion may appear safe politically, but it is fraught with the risk of raising undue expectations of different communities that, next, it would be their turn to be pampered. Today a temple, tomorrow a mosque, the day after a church, a gurudwara three days hence, a pagoda four days later, a synagogue after five days… ! This is reducing the job of a political executive to a joke.

The farce had turned crude under Rajiv Gandhi when he overturned the Supreme Court verdict on Shah Bano divorce case through legislation to appease Islamic fundamentalists and then sanctioned the shilanyas on the controversial plot of Ayodhya, thuse seeking to balance the act by pampering Hindu fanatics. Hope Modi never reaches that extreme.

I do not propose the other extreme either: French secularism. France’s current practice of proscribing religious symbols in its landscape and people’s clothing is a distortion of the dictionary definition of secularism. A ban is as much an act of interference as is multiculturalism practised by the State.
Nobody is asking the Government of India to emulate its French counterpart in banning turbans. Yet, one can’t help pointing out that no granthi objects to a Harbhajan Singh wearing a helmet in the cricket ground, but a Sikh riding a motorcycle or scooter is exempted from the helmet rule under pressure from Sikh clerics! Non-recognition of religion is not the same as prohibition on religions, but stop being funny.

Ours is a society where one fine day executives working in small private firms and living in unauthorised colonies cannot leave home because some believer among their neighbours decides to erect a pandal right in front of their doorsteps for Satyanarayan Puja. We have cities where municipal land is encroached wantonly by temples and mosques. We have terribly disturbed cardiac patients and students preparing for exams smarting from five salahs (namaz) in the daytime and Mata ka Jagaran in the night — all blaring through loudspeakers. Vehicular traffic is blocked by some religious procession every month, and the undeclared parking space around places of worship shrink public property at will even as nobody complains. 

People no longer outrage over the existence of separate civic laws for separate religions; a Uniform Civil Code receives a customary mention in debates and is almost a forgotten idea for the BJP. In such a bizarre society with a party that remotely looks pro-Hindu ruling at the Centre and some states and pro-Muslim parties ruling in the rest, no government dares to put its foot down. India must learn real secularism before Modi learns to say “no” to communal delegations.
Published first in Swarajya with a portion edited out.

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.