Ramnath Kovind and BJP: Politics first, always.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are clear about one thing – all major decisions are first and foremost, political. The latest example is the nomination of Ramnath Kovind as the National Democratic Alliance’s Presidential candidate.

In this government of “two and a half men” (as Arun Shourie called them), a Presidential candidate has to meet certain first-order criteria. They have to be people who nobody would have thought of as a hopeful, and it follows naturally that they are insignificant in national politics. They would thus be a candidate who would be beholden to the party and specifically, to the leader for being rewarded with this nomination. It goes without saying then, that such a candidate if elected President, would not pose the slightest threat to the Prime Minister’s personal authority by questioning or even asking for a review of any government decision.

These are the pre-requisites. (Yes, UPA and Sonia Gandhi did more or less exactly this with Pratibha Patil, but note that Pranab Mukherjee by no means fit that mould).

The facetious Dalit politics of it all

The choice of Presidential candidate needs to serve a political goal. Ramnath Kovind is Dalit, and as many have pointed out, his nomination is an effort by the BJP to varnish its pro-Dalit credentials. BJP has been under fire from the media and the Opposition over the anti-Dalit factions that have taken wing under their tutelage. The violence in Saharanpur and Una, and numerous lynch mobs later, this is how BJP responds. The electoral calculation is clear too. Those opposing Ramnath Kovind’s candidature are essentially anti-Dalit.

“This is an historic decision. The Opposition should support the NDA candidate, rising above politics. If they don’t support, it would mean they are anti-dalits,” 

Ram Vilas Paswan

On social media, BJP supporters are already asking why those agitated by Rohith Vemula’s suicide are now opposing Ramnath Kovind’s nomination.

The silly season of false equivalence never ends in India. Rohith Vemula was a Dalit student who was driven to suicide by campus politics, where his rival faction, the ABVP had the active support of both the Hyderabad Central University authorities and their political patrons, the BJP. Rallying behind Vemula was natural – he was victimised, and the violence wreaked upon him was because of his caste identity. Remember his letter that should have shaken the collective conscience of this nation?

“May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

On the other hand, Ramnath Kovind’s contribution as a Dalit-warrior is marginal, which is entirely his personal choice at one level. Kovind’s decision to shun radical politics is his personal choice, and arguably, has been instrumental in his getting to the highest constitutional office in India. In his column, Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprastha  concludes:

…given Kovind’s views on social justice and empowerment, choosing a loyal, conformist leader like him was much more of a natural choice for the Sangh parivar than any radical shift in its traditional position on the caste system.

Dalit activists will not be satisfied, but it is hard to argue that everyone must be a radical activist. But when one sees the laughable efforts made by news channels who are ‘more loyal than the king himself’, one has to wonder about the kind of spin this government and its cheerleaders want to give to Ramnath Kovind’s track record.

The numbers game

Finally, for BJP, losing is not an option. Their desire to expand their political footprint, and killer instinct in contests, is unmatched. In fact, the Opposition parties would do well to learn some lessons from the Modi-Shah duo. The BJP is well aware of how they are positioned in the electoral college that would vote for the President. This is where Ramnath Kovind’s final set of attributes come in handy. Kovind is the Governor of Bihar, and he hails from Uttar Pradesh. Prominent political parties of Uttar Pradesh (or whatever is left of them in any case) are unlikely to oppose a son of their soil. It would also have been very difficult for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to oppose his candidature. With Nitish Kumar’s declaration of support, the BJP’s calculations have been proven right. Breaking Nitish Kumar is particularly critical, since he is one of the few alternate poles around which there could have been a consensus candidate from the Opposition.

Thus, the nomination of Ramnath Kovind does not alter the template. The selection of Pratibha Patil set the precedent in recent years, and looked particularly bad as it followed the popular APJ Abdul Kalam. BJP, as is its wont, has carried forward some of the worst aspects of India’s ruling parties in the past, as demonstrated by it’s recent Chief Ministers and appointments to several important institutions (including the Reserve bank of India). BJP’s contribution to this trend has been to give primacy to political and electoral calculations. Ramnath Kovind is merely a manifestation of this phenomenon.

#Modi@3: Three years in, dark days ahead

In many ways, Narendra Modi’s celebration of three years in power represents what the man and his government stands for.

He inaugurated the Dhola-Sadiya bridge in Assam, which is immediately spun as a great achievement of his, with hints laid out in good measure, that it also means some sort of a challenge to China on our north-eastern borders. As he did at the inauguration of the Chenani – Nashri tunnel, this provided Modi with an opportunity to stride around alone purposefully on the bridge, looking down at the river below, beckoning people from afar, etc, while cameras clicked away. This bridge was someone else’s vision. You know what Modi’s vision is? To spin colourful expansions of the two letters – N and E – New Energy, New Economy, New Engine, New Empowerment, etc. The man can ramble, I will give him that.

Meanwhile, the full-page newspaper advertisements that greeted the nation today curiously do not have even a single woman, in spite of the Ujjwala Yojana (of providing new LPG connections to households) being one of this government’s most far-reaching achievements. Neither did it have a message dedicated to the poor who stood by Modi even after he had sucked out cash from their pockets. The messaging from the government was only about an astonishingly narcissistically named MODI Fest, where we are supposed to believe that MODI just stands for Making of Developed India.

Part of this MODI Fest seems to have taken place at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, where Modi’s monthly monologues were released as a book. I am willing to bet that soon, the book will pop up at a classroom near you as compulsory reading. Amidst all this, BJP President Amit Shah stepped in and explained to a befuddled nation that it was impossible to provide jobs for all, and hence, the government was creating self-employment opportunities – thus proving that even the ‘jobs promise’ was chunaavi jumla. Finally, as is its wont, the government ended the day with a bit of gau seva by declaring a ban on sale of cattle for slaughter.

These events marked three years of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership. At the end of three years, Demonetisation stands out as the symbol of the both the deceit and incompetence that this government represents – that it will inflict havoc on its own people in the pursuit of electoral advantage, and that schemes are spun from harebrained ideas that have no scientific basis. Propaganda trumps all, as concerns of minorities, and political, media and civil society opponents are brushed aside and labelled anti-national.

Meanwhile, the rest of it – lynchings, harassment of critics, crony capitalism, listing fake achievements, dodgy national statistics, using the military for propaganda – continues unabated, and should come as no surprise to supporters and critics alike. These three years have shown us yet again that our institutions are perhaps not capable of withstanding a determined attack by a populist demagogue. These institutions work reasonably effectively when there is a weak government, by propping up the basic structures and ensuring a level of service delivery. But faced with a Modi, our institutions are suddenly found helpless – the press is not free or frank, the Parliament does not function as it should, the investigative agencies are completely state-controlled, the judiciary is soft, the bureaucracy is terrified, the central bank has lost its autonomy, and so on…

Given the corroding institutional safeguards, a thoroughly propagandist government, and an incoherent and weakened opposition, it is hard to imagine that any #AccheDin are round the corner for India. Dark days ahead.

Amidst the euphoria of the French elections

The current crop of populist leaders who deploy the language of political aggression, mock their opponents, and show impatience with the time-consuming procedures of institutionalised democracy, cannot be typed as anti-democratic. But they have, as contemporary history shows us, revealed scant respect for the rights of minorities, for civil liberties, and for civil society. Democracy has been reduced in country after country to a system of transfer of power. The political party system is once again in crisis, and this time the alternative to the ‘crisis of representation’ is not a democratic civil society, but populist leaders. It is time that political parties suspend their preoccupation with winning elections and work towards building up a powerful support base for democracy. Reliance on a single leader truncates imaginations, cultivates dependence, and devalues solidarity. It is only when parties begin to instil, particularly in young people, the importance of participation, respect for civil liberties and rights of minorities, democratisation of social relationships, and the development of shared meaning through debate and dialogue, that the democratic spirit can be reignited and political parties rehabilitated in the public eye. At stake here is not only the continuation of the party system, but democracy itself.

This is Prof Neera Chandoke, writing in The Hindu. This is a really critical point

This is a really critical point – it may often seem that the only answer to a populist leader is to find a polar opposite. But eventually, this weakens the democratic framework.  The French election is good news, but only if it strengthens the democratic processes in France – not if it results in the emergence of another one-man messiah, irrespective of which side of the political divide one may be on.

The vigilantes are here. How do we fight them?

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath continues to inspire service-minded citizens to lead the fight against illegal slaughterhouses. Some other men have also ganged up to combat the menace of eve-teasing “Romeos,” but expanded their scope to harassing couples in consensual relationships.

Those accused of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 defiantly declare that their actions are as pious as that of the brave men who fought for the country’s independence from the British.

India has finally got the vigilantes it always wanted – those who protect our honour, fight against corruption, and restore pride to the country. Cattle traders are thrashed in the heart of Delhi, even as the police vacillate between booking the culprits and charging the victims with ‘animal cruelty’. As expected, superstar vigilantes inspire several more in their mould, and we have at hand a spate of incidents. So we have videos surfacing on social media of a man threatening to kill Muslims while brandishing a gun, and public hoardings in Uttar Pradesh threatening Kashmiris with dire consequences unless they leave immediately. Meanwhile, a has-been Bollywood singer, Abhijit, raves and rants on TV and on Twitter, threatening violence against Muslims. Also, some men in our armed forces in Kashmir think its fun to slap around some young men and force them to shout “Pakistan murdabad” slogans.

And do not forget the events from the recent past:

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly announced a decision to revoke the legal tender status of 86% of currency notes circulating in the economy.

And this year, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Finance Bill 2017 sneakily included 33 (yes, thirty three) amendments that were hardly discussed in Parliament.

These are other forms of vigilantism, barely sanctioned by law (usually exploiting every possible loophole and a complete disregard for propriety). A government that will push through a faulty universal identification system and will amend political party financing rules with impunity to make them less transparent.

Tales are spun to justify these acts of vigilantism. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election threw up its own set of post-facto theories, most of which sought to assert that Modi’s demonetisation was a great success, that caste and religion-based voting was a thing of the past, that the voters in UP wanted Adityanath for better ‘law and order’. All of this happened just as Dalits and Muslims started being targeted across the state.

The vigilantes are taking over everywhere, and the constitution is slowly taking a backseat. In the cacophony of a reactive news cycle, it is difficult to maintain a consistent battle against an increasingly communal and authoritarian government. In a country beset with serious socio-economic problems, where job creation is at a record low, and farm distress shows no signs of relenting, we are busy debating cows, statues, and couples in love. On the one hand, this reflects the absolute failure of the political opposition, which have lurched from poll to poll, failing to counter the government’s divisive narrative. On the other hand, this is an indictment of our own inability as citizens to hold on to values of morality and empathy. We have allowed lunatics to set the agenda, as we sat back to ‘consume’ (and occasionally react) via traditional and social media.

Some people are of the view that as a country we went too far with constitutional principles (especially secularism, welfare and equity) even as the masses were not ready for it. While that argument itself is elitist, they go on to argue that what the ‘intelligentsia’ (another derogatory label these days) see as progress has always been opposed by a voiceless majority who felt their glorious culture and traditions were being taken away from them. The moral voice on Kashmir, for instance, is now seen as a weakness and a failure to assert our territorial sovereignty. Progressive voices on protecting minorities is now widely derided as appeasement. Support for equity through affirmative action is brutally criticised as being anti-merit. A free press that questions those in power is suddenly anti-national. A kind of free-wheeling vigilantism is seen as the answer.

Last week though, former Delhi high court chief justice A.P Shah delivered a stinging indictment of the current state of affairs in India, asking what nationalism really meant and questioning whether the state’s tendency to interfere with people’s food habits, film censorship and the wider curbs on freedom of expression behoves a country that aspires to greatness. I quote:

At the end of the day, it is important to question, what is the defining characteristic of a nation – is it the territorial boundary or the collection of people that is a country’s defining feature. Our constitution starts with a solemn declaration of “We, the people of India…” In this context, is being anti-national equivalent to being anti-Government or is the hallmark of an anti-national that they are against the interest of the people, especially the minorities and the depressed classes? Can an entire University and its student body be branded “anti-national”?

It is heartening to read this in these depressing times – a voice of moral authority that is in contrast to our elected leaders and most public voices. If we are to win the battles against these vigilantes, it is moral voices like these that we have to amplify – not just from eminent jurists and other public figures, but from the ordinary man on the street.

A firm adherence to constitutional principles by elected leaders can set the tone for citizens. But it can also work the other way around. A country benefits from a large majority of its citizens adhering to a core moral code, and willing to rely on the constitution to iron out differences. Can a movement for change begin with them? This is not a case against the utility of political parties. But there is a need to mobilise people around issues that extend beyond immediate electoral cycles. Civil society has to lead this effort.

This might sound like asking for too much, but when you see the vigour with which this government has cracked down on dissent in academic institutions, it gives you a clue as to what they fear the most. Remember how vehemently artists and writers who opposed the government’s intolerance were attacked and even partly blamed for the BJP’s loss in the Bihar elections? Could the voices of students, farmers, artists, writers and army veterans come together and challenge the government’s narrative? Even if they don’t win, imagine how spectacular the fight would be.

I live in hope.

**

This column was first published on The Wire

Where is the promised windfall from demonetisation?

The Economic Survey 2016/17 was striking not only for its literary references, but also for its circumspect nature. One of major the drivers of this circumspection (which is not a trait one associates with the Narendra Modi government) was the yet-to-be-ascertained impact of demonetisation. The Economic Survey was cautious in saying that it would take long for us to accurately calculate the gains and losses from demonetisation, but ventured to claim that it would result in at most, a 0.5 percentage point fall in the GDP growth rate.

Of all the benefits of demonetisation that the government has been at great pains to sell, the simplest one is a spike in direct tax collections in the form of both taxes and penalties (on black money declared). The second, is an assurance that banks that are now flush with deposits will significantly lower lending rates to spur consumption. Both these do find mention in the Finance Minister’s budget speech, along with a host of benefits that have repeatedly been promised to us — a war on black money, corruption, counterfeit currency and terror funding.

But the government failed to make good these promises in its own budget, and at the moment, we are forced to conclude that the promised gains from demonetisation have just not materialised. Total Tax Revenue of the government in 2016–17 increased by 17% over the previous year. Next year, the government anticipates a 12% increase. Similarly, income tax receipts in 2016–17 went up by 23% over the previous year, and is budgeted to increase by a further 25% next year.

Chief Economic Advisor the Government of India, Arvind Subramanian in an interview yesterday named service tax receipts as one of the four measures of the impact of demonetisation. He did also admit that because of the impending Goods and Services Tax regime, it would be hard to isolate the impact of demonetisation. Here too, the numbers suggest that the Finance Minister is not expecting a great deal of change. Service tax receipts, after having increased by 17% this year, are expected to go up by only 11% next year.

In none of these collections, or projections, can one see a tangible increase in tax receipts as a result of demonetisation. An important caveat is that for the current year, the figures are based on the government’s Revised Estimates, which may well change by the time the Actual figures are recorded once data from the last two months are accounted for. But the surge that one expected from demonetisation is missing — especially when you consider that the difference in Total Tax Revenue between the Revised Estimates and the Budget Estimates for 2016–17 is only 4%. It does appear that on the revenue side, the government was lucky to receive an unexpected additional Rs. 23,167 crores of non-tax revenue in the form of dividends public sector enterprises.

It is not surprising then, that the Finance Minister has little to no room to give away post-demonetisation bonanzas. Neither are there any significant increase in allocations to welfare schemes, nor are there any big bang announcements that would help the government actually implement some of its high-decibel rhetoric. For instance, the allocation for Smart Cities of Rs. 9,000 crore is actually lower than the Revised Estimates of this year at Rs. 9,559 crore. The record allocation of Rs. 48,000 crores for MGNREGS is impressive only until you realise that the estimated expenditure this year is Rs. 47,499 crore. To take another example, the Start-up India Aspiration Fund, after having used Rs. 100 crore out of its allocation of Rs. 600 crore this year has disappeared from next year’s budget.

In many ways, today’s union budget was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s moment of truth. With a budget speech that had to shun rhetoric, Jaitley was forced to admit — in deeds, if not just through words — that several glamorous schemes announced by the government have struggled to match up to their rhetoric. In a way, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley may have presented his most honest budget so far. As they say, numbers don’t lie.

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This column first appeared on Catch News

An important transfer of power in Ghana

Ghana has been different from many of its contemporary African nations especially in terms of its ability to see through peaceful transitions of power since 1992. Often, the credit for this is given to former President JJ Rawlings, who after being responsible for two military coups (1979, 1981), stood for democratic elections in 1992, and organised the next presidential election in 2000. But greater credit must go to the Ghanaian people who cherish this ‘difference’ enough to ensure that in every subsequent election, the outcome was democratically determined, and acknowledged by the main contenders to power.

Over the last two decades, the NDC and NPP have established themselves as the chief contenders in what is essentially a two-party system in Ghana. Prof. John Atta Mills (NDC) took power in 2008, passed away just before he was up for re-election in 2012. John Mahama, then the Vice President, took over the office and later, won the 2012 presidential race over Nana Akufo Addo (NPP). Anyway…the tale of presidential contenders in Ghana is slightly repetitive one, as you can see below.

gh

Having lived in Ghana for two years from 2009 to 2011, I have a massive soft corner for the country and its people. In 2009, buoyed by the promise of oil revenues, Ghana was seen to be doing quite well. Although experts cautioned Ghana against the pitfalls of over-reliance on oil revenues and that infamous ‘Dutch disease’, there was hope all around that continued into 2012.

In 2016, Ghana was clearly in trouble. The exchange rate stood at about 4 GH Cedis to 1 US$, down from 1.7 in 2011. Corruption scandals had erupted in recent years, and while the opposition’s campaign had been relatively muted (primarily because they were starved of resources), public discontent was reportedly widespread.

While Ghana has witnessed tightly contested elections, with both principal political parties respecting the popular mandate, this system is prone to other forms of mal-governance – the most prominent of which is a tacit consensus between the main contenders regarding the appropriation of state power (and resources). There is indeed very little that is different in the stated policies of the two parties, and the popular experience of the functioning of the two governments led by them respectively (2000 – 2008 and 2008 – 2016).

However, the NPP has been out of power for two terms and in terms of its economy and resource revenue potential, Ghana is finds itself in 2016/17 in a vastly different from the situation from that in the 2000s. Having come back to power after eight years in the wilderness, hopes are high from President-elect Nana Akufo Addo and the NPP. 2016 has been a depressing year if you try to frame the narrative in terms of elections around the world.

As Ghana voted on 7th December, it was an opportunity for Ghanaians to usher in their version of ‘change’ and they have succeeded in effecting a transfer of power. Unsurprisingly, Nana has two major promises: Jobs and an anti-corruption drive. We will be watching.

 

The battle against corruption should not end here

Since the 8th of November when the government declared that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender, there has been much talk about the need for ordinary citizens to join the battle against corruption. Rather dramatically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too announced from the pulpit, his resolve to continue battling corruption even if he is destroyed, or burnt alive. While failing to fathom why the Prime Minister must fan conspiracy theories about sinister enemies waiting to hurt him, I do think that we must respect the overall sentiment he has expressed, and support the government in taking forward this battle against corruption.

More importantly, now that crores of Indian citizens have borne the “minor inconveniences” towards this cause by waiting up in bank queues and rationing consumption, we need to make sure those sacrifices count for something. This battle against corruption should be a fight to the finish. Surely, no one can argue that a battle against corruption is the sole preserve of a conservative right-wing party – it is something in which we all must take part.

So here, I suggest seven steps that will irrefutably signal that India’s fight against corruption is one with serious long-term intent:

  1. Scrutinise all large transactions, including bank deposits: Tax authorities should be routinely checking all large cash transactions or bank deposits made by individuals, businesses and political parties. Since we expect large transactions to take place through inter-bank transactions, outliers must be investigated. This tax scrutiny should be prompted by a standing policy at the banks where information is shared regularly with tax authorities. Alongside, tough consumer protection laws should apply that punish any tax authority that unduly harasses an innocent citizen. As a follow-up to the current currency swap scheme (misleadingly now known in popular parlance as ‘demonetisation’), all large bank deposits in the large six months must be immediately scrutinised. We already know of the land purchases by the BJP in Bihar, and the large deposits in West Bengal. Could the Income Tax officials raid those establishments?
  2. Go after the big fish next: Starting from the biggest defaulters to our public sector banks, to tax offenders who have illegal assets stashed away abroad, the big fish are still out there, almost completely untouched by this ongoing demonetisation drive. In order to demonstrate its seriousness, Government of India must go after them, irrespective of how powerful they may be. Getting Vijay Mallya back would be a good start. The trails from those Panama papers and the HSBC accounts that seem to have gone cold need to be revived, pronto. The Prime Minister should prove that he means business.
  3. Strengthen the Right to Information (RTI) and Whistle blower Protection acts: In a fight against corruption, as was amply demonstrated during UPA 2, the RTI is absolutely critical. Prime Minister Modi must act to strengthen these acts. The RTI compels governments to be transparent, by putting responses to questions from citizens in the public domain. Whistle blowers do the same, from within government and outside, and their government must step up to protect them from the dangers they face. The Government of India should consider making a start to this with the Vyapam disclosures in Madhya Pradesh. Needless to say, political parties should not be exempt from RTI for even one more day. A midnight announcement to that effect would be best, so that culprits don’t have a chance to make amends before the deadline.
  4. Make data on natural resource deals public: Following a Supreme Court order, the new government was forced to conduct open auctions for the allocation of national resources – minerals, spectrum, etc. In order to take forward the emphasis on transparency, governments – both at the centre and the states – should make public, in an easy to understand format, all deals involving natural resources. This would also be the natural and well-intentioned follow-up to the Supreme Court’s orders to conduct open auctions for allocating natural resources that offer potential for extractive rents. These disclosures should start from the deals involving coastal lands in Gujarat, and extend to the mining contracts in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
  5. Make election finances transparent and strictly regulated: All cash contributions to political parties should be considered contributions to the Consolidated Fund of India. Any contribution above INR 2,000 should be made by cheque, bank transfer, or a mobile wallet. If this threshold is considered acceptable for daily ATM withdrawals, and since many Indians just don’t have 500/1000 rupee notes in their possession, mass contributions of those amounts are bound to be a miniscule portion of the total contributions anyway. The BJP and Congress could do well to open up their books for independent audits of their massive election finances.
  6. Disqualify election candidates with pending corruption cases: This would be the most path-breaking step of them all. Prime Minister Modi is committed to cleaning corruption from India, and his party should be ready to embody the message. My humble suggestion is that starting with the upcoming state assembly polls, BJP should set an example and not nominate for party tickets, anyone with a pending corruption case. This might lead to some electoral setbacks, but will be widely lauded as the greatest act of self-sacrifice by a political party in seventy years of independent India.
  7. Investigate income declarations of politicians and prosecute rapidly: Extending the effort to clean up the electoral process, all pre-election affidavit declarations must be investigated by a national investigative agency. One often laments that the affidavits mean little unless the data is used beyond generating infographics for the media. Candidates must face legal consequences if they indulge in under-reporting income or assets. Any unexplained spike from one election year to the other should attract the investigator’s attention.

I am confident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not stop in his mission to eliminate corruption. There is another huge advantage – they will give people a chance to take genuine pride in being honest, without having to endure the public chaos and personal inconvenience caused schemes such as the ongoing currency mop-up drive. Not only will people – especially the poor – bless the government, but also the brave men guarding our borders will be proud of us.