Saturday (April 13) scratchpad

Call Them By Their True Names is the title of one of Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful collections of essays. In the foreword, Solnit reminds us of the fable of Rumpelstiltskin, and uses it to set up this thought:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or the heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it is a key step.

With that thought front and centre, here are a few news items. Sakshi ‘Maharaj’, whose chequered past includes everything from corruption, to rape and murder with a leavening of naked political opportunism, says that he will curse those who do not vote for him. Maneka Gandhi tells Muslims to vote for her; failing that, she says, don’t expect her help in future. (In an election season where notices are flying in every direction, Maneka has gotten one for this statement). Amit Shah says “illegal immigrants” are “termites” and says the BJP will throw them all out if it comes back to power — barring, of course, Hindus and Buddhists. Shah also says that it is hard to make out whether Wayanad is in India or Pakistan. Narendra Modi repeats the tired lie of a “break India” gang, and says the Karnataka government has money for a “festival for Sultan” but not for Hampi. Oh, and Modi then goes to Kerala and says that the BJP is “an inclusive, democratic, compassionate alternative” to the LDF and UDF.

What the right names for such? In passing, note: One person was beaten to death and three others were injured by a mob which suspected them of slaughtering a cow and cutting its flesh in Jharkhand’s Gumla district. “Suspected them”, note. That is all it takes.

WHY, though, are the leading lights of the ruling party going around the country fanning hate? Because what else is there? The ‘Gujarat Model’ of prosperity is in shambles, as is the economy. Here is the latest bad news on that front: Industrial production has slowed to a 20-month low of 0.1%. Yeah, that is zero point one per cent. And that is not all: The claimed IIP for November 2018, not too hot to begin with, has been further revised downwards. Capital goods output is down 8.8 per cent. Consider the implications on GDP, on employment. In the quarter ending December, the Indian economy grew at its lowest pace across the last five quarters. Oh, and inflation hit a five-month high. And there is more: Remember FDI? Which, thanks to Modi’s globetrotting, was supposed to be pouring into India?

Meanwhile, banks have in the last five years written off Rs five lakh fifty-five thousand, six hundred and three crore in bad loans. Do we know who the “beneficiaries” are? No. What we know is that banks have been handing out loans without proper due diligence; the loans go bad; the banks get in financial trouble; the government recapitalises them using taxpayer money; rinse, repeat. And then there is MUDRA — Modi’s famous self-employment scheme. Modi claimed that millions were getting jobs under Mudra. Where is the data? Oops — no, you don’t need to know that until voting is over, says the government as it deep-sixes the report. But we do know this: thanks to Modi pushing his “scheme” hard, bad loans registered a 53% jump in just the first nine months of the current financial year.

Why do the BJP bigwigs go around peddling hate? Because inflammatory rhetoric — which invariably gets the “liberal media” steamed up, which in turn is the cue for “right wing media” to use its prime time to “debate” and normalise the behaviour — distracts from all of this. And at the rate bad news is piling up, the BJP needs all the distractions it can get.

SPEAKING of prime time normalisation: Smriti Irani lied about her educational qualifications. Nothing to see here, we’ve known this all along. Lying under oath, which is what an affidavit is, is a punishable offence — but then again, her boss Modi was going around touting his degree in “entire political science”, and both Modi and Irani have used their government clout to ensure that copies of their actual certificates are not revealed to public scrutiny. Here’s the thing, though: Republic TV, which along with Times Now has taken on the onus for shielding the government, deflecting from its wrongdoing, and turning everything around into an attack on the opposition, came up with this bizarre spin:

Prime time last evening was devoted to selling this narrative: Irani is being mocked because she is a self-made woman; her candidature is sending shivers down the Gandhi spines; the Gandhis are scared; that is why they raising such issues; now she is more determined to fight for Amethi

Anything at all about her lying in an affidavit? Yeah, sure, this one line:

Yes the website is public, as are her affidavits, and that is exactly why she is being accused of lying under oath. Talk of non-responsive responses! And while we are on normalising, remember the Maneka Gandhi speech I linked to earlier? Republic, again, to the rescue:

There was lots more, on the lines of ‘No, Maneka did not say what you actually saw her open her mouth and say on video’, but I’ll spare you. And leave you with some reads for the weekend:

  • Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma has made available for free his award-winning documentary on Godhra, The Final Solution. Watch it here.
  • Around the time the Rafale deal was being negotiated, the French government waived approximately Rs 1,125 crore in taxes owed by an Anil Ambani subsidiary. Why? One logical answer that suggests itself is, Dassault could not have entered into an agreement with Ambani if his company was a tax defaulter.
  • Prem Shankar Jha sees parallels between Godhra 2002 and Pulwama 2019.
  • On a Muslim-majority village in Kerala that grows the lotuses used in Hindu temples.
  • Vice has a longish read on the BJP’s troll army.
  • A BJP candidate seeking votes says he is God. Makes sense — why waste time being a middleman, the sants and the maharajs and yogis and such?
  • On a Kerala potter who distributes for free mud pots worth Rs six lakh so birds can get water to drink.
  • Shiv Sena advises its ally the BJP to shut the hell up about Rafale, because the motormouth defence minister and others are only increasing the problems for the party with their statements. I wonder what the ground troops make of all this: The Sena, even after signing up for the alliance, has been sniping more at the BJP than at the opposition. And to add to the fun, Raj Thackeray has hit the campaign trail with a vengeance. Here is his Gudi Padwa speech, with English subtitles; yesterday he was in Nanded addressing a full house, and Marathi channels carried the event live.
  • Around the time the Rafale deal was being negotiated, the French government waived approximately Rs 1,125 crore in taxes owed by an Anil Ambani subsidiary. Why? One logical answer that suggests itself is, Dassault could not have entered into an agreement with Ambani if his company was a tax defaulter.
  • Prem Shankar Jha sees parallels between Godhra 2002 and Pulwama 2019.
  • On a Muslim-majority village in Kerala that grows the lotuses used in Hindu temples.
  • Vice has a longish read on the BJP’s troll army.
  • A BJP candidate seeking votes says he is God. Makes sense — why waste time being a middleman, the sants and the maharajs and yogis and such?
  • On a Kerala potter who distributes for free mud pots worth Rs six lakh so birds can get water to drink.
  • Shiv Sena advises its ally the BJP to shut the hell up about Rafale, because the motormouth defence minister and others are only increasing the problems for the party with their statements. I wonder what the ground troops make of all this: The Sena, even after signing up for the alliance, has been sniping more at the BJP than at the opposition. And to add to the fun, Raj Thackeray has hit the campaign trail with a vengeance. Here is his Gudi Padwa speech, with English subtitles; yesterday he was in Nanded addressing a full house, and Marathi channels carried the event live.

Scratchpad: April 12 edition

  • Round one of voting, covering 91 Lok Sabha seats, is over. Last evening, TV channels struggled, on prime time, to make sense of the voting percentages and what those numbers were telling us. So, as PSA, here is my favourite data journalist, Rukmini S, explaining how to read between the cliches. And while on Rukmini and data analysis, read her piece on how the “news media” is going out of its way to help Narendra Modi. In passing, one trend seen in the first phase of voting is not a happy sign: In AP, hundreds of EVMs did not work, needing hundreds of engineers to be summoned to fix them. Begs the question, somewhat: Aren’t EVMs tested before they are deployed? Why not? It is not as if the EC did not have sufficient time to prep.
  • Every time you think the BJP has sunk as low as it is possible to get, one of the party’s bigwigs reaches for a spade. And none so adept at digging down to previously unplumbed depths as Modi himself. While campaigning in Maharashtra, he asked first time voters to dedicate their votes to the ‘Balakot strike’ and to the victims of the Pulwama terrorist attacks. In how many ways is this egregious? Modi and his government are yet to address the question of the security lapses that led to Pulwama. Modi and his party continue to ignore the EC directive that the armed forces cannot be used for propaganda — the same directive Adityanath flouted the other day, and drew a “please be careful” caution from the EC. As an aside, 150 former serving officers (including four former chiefs of the Navy, three former Army chiefs and one former Air Force Chief) wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking that he direct “all political parties” to refrain from using the Indian Armed Forces for political propaganda. File this under #FWIW — there is nothing Kovind can do, and there is no reason why Modi, in the midst of a tough election where the party via its manifesto has clearly indicated that “national security” is the only appeal it has to peg its hopes on, would five a flying fish for any direction the President might give, assuming he gives it.
  • But why this desperation, that makes the BJP propel the conversation into the realm of bigotry, of hatred? Because what else is there? The BJP knows that unemployment is a burning issue. Every so often, one or the other minister claims that a very large number of jobs have been created. (Modi told a friendly media house that the problem was not lack of jobs, merely lack of data; earlier posts had looked at how various datasets produced by official agencies have been systematically suppressed because the news is not good.) So the latest in this lineup is Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who claimed that 100 million jobs have been created. He was lying.
  • Speaking of lying, there is this beautiful Rohini Mohan profile of Smriti Irani which, among other things, dwells on the controversy over her educational qualifications. Was reminded of that because Irani’s affidavit went up yesterday, and — it was as if everyone was waiting for this — political twitter pounced on the fact that there was no mention of any degree she had earned. (How underconfident, unsure of yourself, do you have to be to lie blatantly about something that is so easily verifiable?)
  • Five years ago we got “good governance” and the “Gujarat Model” that will create previously unimagined economic prosperity. After five years of that, what are we left with? A ruling party whose president promises that the National Register of Citizens will be implemented all over the country. And “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country. And all the Hindu and Buddhist refugees…we will find each of them, give them Indian citizenship and make them residents here.” Read those words carefully. Adityanath, meanwhile, reverts to his line from the UP assembly elections, framing this as a battle between believers of Ali versus believers in Bajrang Bali; he says the Congress is infected with a “green virus“… It is pointless to even invoke the EC here. But in this connection I was reading this Gurcharan Das column in Foreign Affairs. Das was among the earliest of the “liberals” to toot the Modi-for-PM horn back in 2013-’14; he said then and says now that he was aware of Modi’s complicity — which is the most benign words you can find for his actions — in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but… “There was no denying that Modi was a sectarian and authoritarian figure,” says Das. But I knew that India’s democratic institutions were strong enough to prevail over those tendencies.” That is exactly what the wooly-headed section of the liberals keep repeating — we know he is a bigot, we know he is a thug, but… But what? India’s institutions will rise to the challenge? As must be abundantly clear by now, our institutions were not engineered to protect us from naked, open bigotry; for flagrant contempt of our courts; for wilful misuse of the law enforcement agencies, for the host of other sins that Modi and his minions have committed over the past five years. Which is why we need to think carefully, during this election cycle — not about Modi, or about the alternatives, but about ourselves, our sense of values. What do we stand for? Where do we draw our individual red lines? What does our moral North Star point to, and how far from true North are we prepared to veer and still live with ourselves? I’ll leave these questions with you; answer them as you will, and see if you are willing to live with your answers.
  • Still staying with Modi, a scandal — minor, compared with some other recent ones (more on this later) — during this election cycle relates to his inauguration spree — 157 projects inaugurated in 30 days — in the weeks before the election schedule was announced. Some of them were downright bizarre; all of them were excuses to conduct political propaganda under the guise of official business. Now this: Responding to an RTI query, the PMO says it does not maintain a record of the PM’s internal trips and the money spent on these. Make of this what you will.
  • It was a news channel. Then it was an advertising channel. Both claims were made, about NaMo TV, by the government and its affiliates. In either case, it was publicised by Modi, Shah and various government ministers. Why the ambiguity? Because it was a clear end run around rules and regulations government broadcast content. (It never even applied for a broadcast license; TataSky called it a “special service” for which no license is required, which raises the pertinent question: Can I then book a channel, call it a “special service” and air whatever I like, without going through the licensing and regulatory procedures?) The questions kept proliferating to the point where the BJP finally admitted that the channel was run by the party’s IT Cell — and that has opened up a whole new can of worms with legal consequences, quite apart from the EC’s directive that all content going up on the channel has to be vetted and approved. The larger question in my mind is this: You are the government. You know the rules. You have an entire ministry devoted to regulating and enforcing these rules. So how did you imagine you could get away with flouting every single regulation? The only answer that comes back is: Because you have. Many times, in many ways. With impunity. And that in turn has bred a collective sense that the rules don’t apply to this one party.
  • While on the EC putting its foot down on the Modi channel (and also ordering that the Modi biopic cannot be released till after the elections — which almost guarantees that the movie will top the list of box office duds, by the way), it’s in the midst of a little showdown with the Department of Revenue, which comes under Arun Jaitley’s bailiwick. The last couple of weeks has seen a proliferation of IT raids, all of them targeting the BJP’s political opposition. (Noticeably, despite instances of BJP leaders being caught with cash, no raids appear to ever target them; a case in point is Hyderabad, where the police seized Rs 8 crore in cash, withdrawn in the name of the state president of the BJP). Anyway, the EC asked the Revenue Department to refrain from using raids to intimidate politicians, and said it should be kept informed before any raids are carried out. The department — which is basically Jaitley’s stick — blew a raspberry, and now the EC is distinctly unamused. And again, the question is: But what can the EC actually do? If it is the body mandated to ensure free and fair elections, should it not have the teeth to enforce its edicts? Think of this and of the many other instances of the government machinery being blatantly used by the government for partisan ends. Then, this: Do you remember a case where a person’s election was set aside for, among other things, carrying out campaign activities while being on the payroll of the government? Here it is. Might make you nostalgic for a time when rules could actually be enforced.
  • In the growing list of stories about economic distress, here is one more about the sugarcane farmers of UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka — just picture that for a moment, by the way, and try to wrap your head around how wide this swathe of misery is — and of the sugar mills that collectively owe these farmers $4.38 billion in arrears. Farming in India is a hand to mouth existence at the best of times — you farm, you hope nature doesn’t mess up the cycle, you harvest, sell, and what you get is what you feed your family with besides buying all you need for the next harvest cycle. Think of the number of farmers involved here; the numbers of families living in misery, getting deeper into debt with each passing season… and then think of what the media tells you are the “real issues” of this election.
  • The other day in Gurugram, a bunch of thugs walked the streets in broad daylight, armed with sticks and swords, and forced shopkeepers to shut down meat shops because, Hindu festival. Then we were told they were part of a “fringe” Hindu group. While on which, just how much of the Hindutva brigade is “fringe”? Here is a short post you might find interesting. To get back to Gurugram, it turns out that the man who led this particular has an interesting history: “Assistant commissioner of police (ACP), Udyog Vihar, Birem Singh told the national daily that Rakesh is a history-sheeter with several criminal cases against him. A member of the Hindu Sena, Rakesh has 19 cases against him, including murder and attempt to murder. The ACP also added that Rakesh has been convicted in some cases and is out on bail in others.” One question: How does a history-sheeter who has been convicted on charges of murder and attempt to murder get to wander the streets on bail? (Then again, I keep forgetting that the country is governed by a party whose president is out on bail on charges of murder.)
  • A few pieces you might like to read, beginning with this one by Mihir Sharma on India’s “developed nation” fantasy.
  • A Forbes investigation into India’s most gerrymandered constituencies.
  • A story on the six election officials who traveled for two days to set up a polling booth just so one person could vote.
  • Rape charges have been filed against Franco Mulackal. And the court has ordered police protection for the main witness, Sister Lissy. Independent Kerala MLA PC George was among the “leading lights” who had accused the nun of being a prostitute. The news is, he has now joined the BJP. Make what you will of a party that seems to have space, in its tent, for every kind of thief, rapist, scamster, murderer, misogynist and other undesirable it can find and lure away.
  • Is Modi turning India into a superpower? Um, not so much.

And finally Rafale, the “gift” that goes on giving. For those who came in late, here is a roundup of the events leading to the Supreme Court judgment of December 14, which the government touted as a “clean chit”. That judgment was based on documents submitted by the government in a sealed envelope. It then turned out that the documents — unsigned — contained many misrepresentations. This led to a review petition being filed, and heard in the Supreme Court — in course of which, the petitioners produced various documents that gave the lie to the government’s assertions. AG KK Venugopal said the documents could not be considered because they had been “stolen” from the defence ministry. The government realised only ipso facto that “stolen” was not a good claim to make, since it called into question the security of the key Indian ministry, so KKV went back to court and said the documents had merely been “photocopied”, not stolen — though how that makes anything better is best left to KKV’s imagination.

The question the SC had to answer, before it could get to the Rafale deal itself, was whether these “leaked” documents could be accepted as evidence. Yes they can, said the SC, which deserves three rousing cheers. Indira Jaising explains why this is a landmark judgment (Hint: Freedom of the press).

Arun Jaitley said the decision is no big deal — “a matter of procedure”, he called it. But it is, really — quite a big deal. Because now that the bar on the documents is lifted, the SC will begin hearing the original case, which is: Were there procedural lapses in the way the Modi government negotiated the Rafale deal? And this time, no sealed covers, no unsigned notes, no obfuscation, because the original documents are part of the case. Be interesting to see how that plays out, now that the government has run out of fig leafs.

For those interested, the best resource to follow the Rafale developments, and examine the documents in question, is via the Hindu’s comprehensive coverage, here.

And finally: This is long, but it is worth reading: The Carnegie Endowment’s deep dive, edited by Milan Vaishnav, into the BJP government and religious nationalism is now out in full.

More tomorrow.

Scratchpad: April 9 edition

FLASHBACK to Adityanath’s recent speech wherein he spoke of Modiji ki sena, directly contravening an Election Commission directive that the armed forces cannot be invoked in political campaigning. The EC, you hopefully recall, warned Adityanath to be more “careful”. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was recently asked about that incident:

True, that — things just pop out, you know how it can happen even to the best of us. For example:

This is Modi in a nutshell — a man with his middle finger constantly raised against every single institution in the country; one who will do anything, say anything, be anything if it means getting one single vote more. (In passing, note that we are yet to hear one word from the PM, or anyone in government, about the intelligence failure that led to Pulwama.) And while on saying anything, this:

There it is again, the mythical ‘tukde tukde gang‘. Every single election, Modi creates a strawman he can rail against. Remember the ‘pink revolution’ that he concocted for the 2014 general elections? How about that conspiracy involving Manmohan Singh and a Pakistani army officer — a reckless, irresponsible allegation that, the government said later in response to an RTI, had no factual basis?

But here is the question worth asking, even if we know the answer already: What exactly does the Election Commission intend to do about this flagrant, calculated violation of its directive? Rules work only if we respect rules and the institutions that make them — what can you do against a man who respects nothing, will allow nothing to stand in the way of his lust for power?

EVER wondered why ministers have such meltdowns whenever they are asked questions outside the confines of Republic TV and Times Now? Ever wondered why they are so defensive?

WATER is a recurrent theme of this blog, and with good reason: It is a life and death issue that is getting insufficient attention this election season (and in general, come to think of it). Here are two more stories from the last 24 hours: Chennai’s six lakes are near empty; the metro is staring at a massive water shortage. Remember, the monsoon there is at least seven months away. Elsewhere, drought and the resulting farm distress is impacting on the BJP’s prospects in Vidharba — where the state government has been pretending there is neither drought, nor distress.

THE economy is in free-fall. Earlier posts had chronicled the fall in auto sales and the resulting move by manufacturers to cut down production; a more recent post spoke of the fall in direct taxes. Here is the latest bit of bad news:

In proportion to the gross domestic product (GDP), household savings declined to 17.2 per cent in 2017-18, the lowest rate since 1997-98. According to the Reserve Bank of India’s data, as household savings have declined, these – not corporate demand – have pulled down investments by 10 basis points during 2012 to 2018.

THE latest in the Hindu’s ongoing series of investigative reporting into the Rafale deal is out, and it deals with the unprecedented offset waivers Modi worked into the contract — all of which, coincidentally, favour Anil Ambani.

THE Election Commission recently told enforcement agencies to be careful when conducting raids during the poll season; it said it had to be kept informed before such action was taken. This was in connection with the massive raids carried out on premises across states linked to Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath. The exercise smacked of the deliberate use of enforcement officials to put pressure on Nath and hamper him and the Congress in a state crucial to the BJP’s prospects — a suspicion furthered by the fact that hours before the Income Tax department, which carried out the raids, put out a statement on the outcome, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvarghiya had already tweeted the exact amount that would appear in the IT statement.

Apologies, this is a truncated edition because work calls. More tomorrow.

News, views: April 8 edition

Kalpana Sharma, readers’ editor of Scroll.in, asks the media to go beyond the usual ‘Who will you vote for?’ type questions when out in the field. A clip from Sharma’s piece:

Elections give journalists a great chance to step outside their usual beats and get a sense of what is going on in the country. In the days before the internet, 24-hour television news and polls, print journalists were sent out to cover key constituencies as also the poorer regions of India, where politicians only appear before elections.


The exchanges with ordinary people recharged our batteries, gave us precious insights into and understanding about how people live and survive, and provided us the tools to separate the reality from the political bombast. Not all that we gathered featured in our stories. But we came back from our election journeys wiser and better informed about the state of the nation.

These epiphanies are becoming more frequent — and I suspect that one reason is the growing realisation that the view from the media bubbles of Delhi and Mumbai are not indicative of the thinking of the vast majority of the population. Here is Shekhar Gupta striking a similar note:

You have to get out of Delhi often if you want to understand that there are two ways of looking at India: Inside-out, that is, from Delhi and the heartland at the rest of the country; or outside-in, which is, looking at the heartland from beyond.


Essentially, when you look inside-out, it brainwashes you into seeing the picture purely in national party-national leader terms. If you give yourselves the gift of distance and an open mind, you might see the change in this new India. 

Well, duh!

To this, I’d add a couple of suggestions: One, don’t wait for elections to go out in the field — a periodic trip outside the confines of the newsroom will alter the way you see the events unfolding around you. And two, don’t go flashing the paraphernalia of the journalist: the car and driver, the fixer, the translator, the recording equipment, the notebook… If you go festooned with those appurtenances, you get canned answers; you never get to have free-wheeling conversations with the people you meet.

Around this time last year, I happened to spend some time in Punjab, then Rajasthan, as part of two-time Pulitzer-winner Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk. Early days, I did exactly what I just cautioned against: The moment I met someone I took out my notebook and pen, opened up a fresh page… I was the stereotypical journalist. It took a while before I caught on; once I did, I learned to put the notebook away, to relax, to chat, to let the people I was meeting guide the conversation, and suddenly a whole new way of seeing opened up.

Kalpana’s piece came apropos: During my time on the road I was reading as much of election coverage as I could find, and was appalled by how much of it was framed from a Delhi-centric point of view. It is all about alliances, and caste equations, and whose zinger/slogan/poll promise is better… I am not saying these and similar factors won’t make any difference: Of course they will, they always have. But there is a whole lot more to how India votes than just these transactional elements, and barring a few honourable exceptions (Scroll is one such), there is lamentably little effort to get beneath the skin of the electorate.

If the results of elections both at the national and state level constantly surprise us, this is a large part of the reason why: Every result tells us that what we thought were the issues that would determine the outcome has no co-relation with what the actual voters are thinking about when they step into that booth and hit that button.

I’VE been collating and posting water-related links fairly frequently, because to my mind this is going to be the critical issue, affecting all segments of the population, in the years to come. On that note, a story in ToI says that water in the seven lakes supplying to the city is down to just 26% of capacity.

In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP promised to provide safe drinking water for all rural households. However, says this story in LiveMint, the BJP government has not only slashed funding for the scheme, it has also reduced the amounts actually released.

Now, in its 2019 manifesto, Modi has provided for a Jal Shakti Ministry to deal with the problem. That seems to be the go-to solution for any issue the BJP faces and doesn’t know how to deal with: create a ministry. (While on which, I heard Rahul Gandhi the other day say that he would create a ministry just for fishermen — and that is equally pointless). And while on this, we do have a ministry for water resources. It is currently headed by Nitin Gadkari. What exactly is another ministry going to accomplish, that this one couldn’t? (It creates a few more posts that can be given as reward to those outfits that cross the floor, certainly). Modi also had some boilerplate about ‘Jal se nal’ – but bottomline, the manifesto is as vague on the subject this time as it was last time.

Water, like employment, is a political tripwire lying in wait for the government during this election cycle. While pundits endlessly handicap elections in terms of personalities, alliances, slogans and such, people outside of the metros and cities vote on gut issues – and lack of water hits as close to the gut as it is possible to get.

Here is an incident that should serve as a warning: In Maharashtra’s gathering when a boy yelled out that water had come – and the crowd emptied at once leaving the party, which has been trying to downplay the severe drought conditions in the state, red-faced. Elsewhere, in Marathwada, the situation is equally dire.

Related, in 2014 the BJP had promised 99 new irrigation projects.

Keep an eye on this: The extended election season takes us into peak summer, and things are only going to get worse. Five years later, “74 are still waiting for the construction of field canals and command area development. Other targets are also unachieved; the budget allocations, too, are less than originally planned.”

I’VE only glanced through the BJP manifesto (I need to find the time to read it in detail, and to compare it with its 2014 antecedent), released this morning in typical BJP fashion: Lots of breathless television coverage, lots of speeches by the top leadership, but not a single leader willing to take questions. Later this evening and in the days to come, various BJP worthies will appear on the usual channels to talk up the manifesto and respond to prefabricated questions — but the party leadership consistently ducks anything in the nature of unscripted interactions, and today was no exception.

But – admittedly based on that cursory speed-read — the impression I got was that the BJP doesn’t really take the exercise seriously. There is a palpable lack of thought; the document feels like the work of a kid rushing through his homework so he can go out and play. Not kidding — back in the day, one of the things we quickly figured out was that the more pages we filled in our ‘essays’ notebook for each assignment, the happier our teachers were. So we took to writing something on page one that we would repeat verbatim on page three and five and… Here is the BJP’s version of padding:

In its manifesto, the BJP says the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (PM-KISAN), initially supposed to benefit 12 crore farming families, has been extended to all farmers. Clearly, the Congress party’s NYAY scheme is resonating, forcing the BJP to up the ante.

Here’s the thing, though: when Congress announced its scheme for the poorest of farmers the BJP, led by Arun Jaitley, and the friendly channels became economists overnight, angrily asking where the money would come from. The original PM-KISAN was budgeted at Rs 75,000 crore. To cover all farmers – almost half the population – will take at least four times that amount. Where is the money going to come from?

And while speaking of friendly channels and comments about the Congress manifesto, I happened to come across this earlier today:

This is a classic example of what is happening to those tasked with toeing the BJP line: You merely repeat anything that emanates from Modi, without pause for thought. Seriously, what does this even mean? How is the “common Indian”, whose plight occupied Modi’s sleepless nights these past five years, different from the “average Indian”, whose aspirations Modi hopes to fulfil in the next five? File this under #kuchbhi

IF you haven’t heard of the Kuki National Army, it is time you did. The armed insurgent group has threatened wholesale violence if 90% of the votes in the state don’t go to the BJP. Also:

Previously, two Manipur insurgent groups— Zomi Re-unification Organisation (ZRO) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) (KNA is the armed wing of KNO) — in separate letters had requested the BJP party president Amit Shah to give its tickets to the insurgents’ favoured candidate HS Benjamin Mate for the outer Manipur parliamentary seat. The BJP had obliged the request, News18 reported.

Begs the question: Is the BJP ok with working hand in glove with insurgents, even as it accuses everyone else of tukde tukde intentions? Speaking of which (there is more on the tukde tukde gang in my previous post), even when participating in the release of the party manifesto Arun Jaitley — who, frankly, is becoming a total bore — couldn’t resist invoking that strawman:

I’ll likely have more thoughts on the BJP manifesto in the coming days (Mandir kab banaoge? Oh, and whatever happened to the 100 smart cities idea so grandly touted in 2014?) Meanwhile, some reading material, in no particular order:

THE Election Commission Sunday “strongly advised” the Finance Ministry that any action by its enforcement agencies during election time should be “neutral” and “non-discriminatory” and officials of the poll panel should be kept in loop about such actions. The EC’s advice came against the backdrop of Income Tax Department’s raids in Madhya Pradesh Sunday and in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the recent past on politicians and people connected to them. That would be this EC, right? That shining model of impartiality? I mean, how bad does something — in this case, the government’s use of enforcement agencies to bully its political opponents — have to be for even the EC to express concern?

WHILE the EC is issue its “strong” advisory, the Supreme Court has asked it to take strict action against political party representatives and spokespersons who make speeches or remarks on religious or caste lines. Good luck with that — what is the EC supposed to do to, say, the poisonous Adityanath? Or Modi, for that matter?

IN the ongoing series of links to schemes that Modi and his minions talk up on the stump, but which when examined appear to have no substance, here is one more:

A new study from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e) shows that 85% of Ujjwala beneficiaries in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still use solid fuels for cooking, due to financial reasons as well as gender inequalities. The resultant indoor air pollution can lead to infant deaths and harm child development, as well as contribute to heart and lung disease among adults, especially the women, cooking on these chulhas.

MUKUL Kesavan is one of our sharpest, most eloquent columnists — a delight to read, on any subject he choses to write about. Here he is, on Advani’s recent epiphany:

No, the real lesson of Advani’s post and his political career isn’t his hypocrisy about civility and diversity, the real lesson is twofold. First, that there is no floor to the pit of majoritarian politics: there are lower depths to its lower depths.

CARAVAN does a deep dive into the violence that has roiled Kerala politics. It resonates — and goes deep into — a problem I had pointed to in this post. And this follow up.

SCHEMES“, redux: Remember One District One Product? Chittoor, in AP, was one of the districts picked for this project. The situation on the ground is not good.

IF you are looking for a metaphor for government (actually, any government), here it is: The PM Matru Vandana Yojana spent about five times more money distributing largesse to the beneficiaries, than the actual beneficiaries got.

I happened to read this piece in LiveMint, and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s on Modi’s poetry.

In one of his poems, Narendra Modi is a kite, who is soaring with “the grace of the sky”, towards the sun, held back “only by the string”. In another poem, he is a honeybee who is very busy, joyful, free, and his life a burst of colours. In his poems, he is often happy and in good places. Also, he is an energetic lover, “an ocean that leaps with energy”, a man who is as “upright as a mountain” and as “pure as the river”.

It set my mind wandering through promising fields of speculation, until I got to the point where I wondered how Modi, who according to all accounts abandoned his wife without ever consummating their marriage, and has spent his lifetime in a kind of sanyas, discovered his energetic properties as a lover. ‘Upright as a mountain…’ — at that point, I had to disengage my mind from its wanderings, and call it back to order.

Update, 10.00 PM: That point I was making earlier, about there being a kid-rushing-homework feel to this BJP manifesto? Here you go (emphasis mine):

“We have constituted the Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and have made strict provisions for transferring the laws in order to commit crimes against women.”

On the surface, one of those ha-ha moments, and social media is having the predictable ball at the BJP’s expense. But what bugs me is how very lackadaisical the BJP is about its manifestos, both for state and national level elections. Like it is just one of those formalities to be completed, not the one single document that allows the voter to know what they are getting in terms of governance.

…and the clocks were striking thirteen.

There are times when I suspect that more people cite Orwell than have actually read Orwell. (One of those times occurred during my recent trip, which is what put me in mind of this). Anyway. Consider this post the Cliffs Notes edition of Orwell’s 1984. And it begins with an extended passage that should remind you of a bitter, angry old man and his myriad minions currently going around the country making sulphurous speeches.

On a scarlet-draped platform an orator of the Inner Party, a small lean man with disproportionately long arms and a large bald skull over which a few lank locks straggled, was haranguing the crowd. A little Rumpeltstiltskin figure, contorted with hatred, he gripped the neck of the microphone with one hand while the other, enormous at the end of a bony arm, clawed the air menacingly above his head.

His voice, made metallic by the amplifiers, boomed forth an endless catalog of atrocities, massacres, deportations, lootings, rapings, torture of prisoners, bombing of civilians, lying propaganda, unjust aggressions, broken treaties.

It was almost impossible to listen to him without being first convinced and then maddened. At every few moments the fury of the crowd boiled over and the voice of the speaker was drowned by a wild beast-like roaring that rose uncontrollably from thousands of throats. The most savage yells of all came from the schoolchildren. The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand.

He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous confusion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work!

There was a riotous interlude while posters were ripped from the walls, banners torn to shreds and trampled underfoot. The Spies performed prodigies of activity in clambering over the rooftops and cutting the streamers that fluttered from the chimneys. But within two or three minutes it was all over. The orator, still gripping the neck of the microphone, his shoulders hunched forward, his free hand clawing at the air, had gone straight on with his speech. One minute more, and the feral roars of rage were again bursting from the crowd. The Hate continued exactly as before, except that the target had been changed.

That is a detailed description of the climax of Hate WeekOn March 13, 2019, what the Election Commission of India announced was not an election schedule, but a 72-day-long Hate Week led by a man who, five years ago, sold a message of hope, of rejuvenation, of regeneration and today, after five years in office, has nothing left to sell but hate; a man who has no snake oil left to offer, only distilled venom.

I met with a few folks during my travels. It was supposed to be down-time, after a hectic schedule and very little sleep: Just a group of friendly acquaintances drawn from diverse backgrounds, getting together over chilled beer in a cool, dark bar while outside, Bombay baked. And for about 20 minutes, that is exactly what it was: a refreshing interlude, a chance to catch up, to exchange notes on what we each had been up to. And then one asked, “So what do you make of the elections? Who do you think will win?” And with that, the evening turned poisonous.

The horrible thing abut the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion that could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

In the earlier segment from 1984, note the reference to Goldstein? Orwell created, in Emmanuel Goldstein, the prototypical, infinitely malleable strawman for all seasons, for all reasons. Here he is:

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed onto the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding place in Oceania itself.

We have our ‘Party’ — it is called Hindutva. We have our Two Minutes Hate — the speeches of Modi and Shah and the channels that relentlessly broadcast them; the ‘Prime Time’ hate fest underwritten by members of the ‘Party’ and carried out by the loyal foot soldiers.

And we have our own Emmanuel Goldstein, plural — a revolving cast of characters who sometimes wear the Muslim skull cap and at other times the ‘Nehru cap’; who are rumoured to be lurking in ‘Lutyens’ and at other times can be found in the ‘lobby’. They shape-shift endlessly, sometimes appearing on your screens during prime Hate Hour as pseudo-intellectuals, sometimes as ‘sickulars’ or ‘urban naxals’, and when passion needs to be raised to fever pitch, as anti-nationals, traitors, the award wapsi gang, intolerance brigade,tukde-tukde gang…

Here is the Prime Minister suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Wayanad because? Muslims. Here is Adityanath talking of the green flags waving in Wayanad. Here is one of the many tone-deaf, brain-dead amplifiers of the PM’s ‘message’, suggesting that Pakistan flags were waved at the constituency when Rahul Gandhi went there to file his nomination papers.

The ‘master’ will not tell you what, if anything, is wrong with contesting from a constituency with a particular demographic, assuming that is true and also assuming that is the intent. His ‘voice’ is ignorant that the flags in the image are those of the Indian Union Muslim League, an officially recognised party that spun off from the All India Muslim League at the time of Partition, and has existed as IUML since 1947. Who cares for facts, when the intent is to throw petrol and strike a match?

Here is Adityanath, a few days after the EC asked him to be “careful”, saying that a vote for TRS is a vote for the MIM and a vote for Congress is a vote for terrorists. Here is Modi saying the Congress is fighting this election in order to give a free hand to terrorists. Here is the PM suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is trying to wash away the sins of his father. Here he is again, suggesting that the Congress manifesto will benefit Pakistan, not India. Here, Modi again, saying Mamta Bannerjee sided with the mythical ‘bharat ke tukde’ gang.

The Indian Express asked Arun Jaitley about hateful remarks by a BJP minister. This is what he had to say:

Was he referring to Modi, to Adityanath, when he regretted people speaking “out of turn”?

An aside on this ‘tukde tukde gang‘. Just in time for the election cycle, the Delhi police filed an FIR naming Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid etc in the JNU incident. That FIR was “accessed” by Republic TV which, it is no secret, is just another version of NaMo TV, and splattered all over Hate Hour. Now the Delhi government tells the court that the chargesheet has been filed in “a hasty and secretive manner” without taking proper sanctions. And here are former ABVP office bearers from JNU saying what has been whispered around for a long time: that the whole thing was a set up, that the slogans were shouted by ABVP members in order to cause a controversy that would distract from the Rohit Vemula suicide. No surprise really, when you consider that it was Smriti Irani at the centre of the Vemula case, and that an aide of Irani’s was found sharing fake videos of the JNU incident. Also consider that Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, then with TimesNow, was the one who first aired the fake videos and gave it the oxygen of publicity.

See how it works? You create the JNU version of Goldstein; conspire to make it appear as though they had asked for the dismemberment of the country, use state machinery to hound them with charges, use the publicity machinery to amplify those charges, and then the PM and his henchmen use those fake charges to smear anyone and everyone as being part of this mythical, seditionist, gang. The Delhi government meanwhile has sought a month’s time to decide on whether to file charges; it says it needs to determine whether the speeches were in fact seditious. If even that basic determination has not yet been made, then why is the charge of sedition hanging over the heads of those students? What tukde-tukde gang, when the government is not even sure whether anything happened? The incident happened in 2016 — why does it take more time? Because that is one more month they can extend this fake story, and provide ammunition for Modi and his cohort to continue rabble-rousing in the name of a case they know is a fake.

To return to that list of the PM and his henchmen going around with a forked tongue, here is the PM listing the many scams of the TMC regime in Bengal. Then TMC leader Mukul Roy, under CBI investigation in the Saradha scam, joined the BJP and the investigation eased off. Himanta Biswa Sarma, accused in the Saradha Chit Fund case, joined the BJP and, presto, the probe eased off.

Here is the PM… no, never mind. Roughly six months ago, as an experiment, I began saving string from the Twitter accounts of Modi, Jaitley, Irani and other prominent members of this government, as also from TimesNow, the Republic, ANI and suchlike amplifiers of government propaganda. Try it for yourself. Start now. Do it for just a week. Then step back and see what you have collected, what picture it forms.

We’ve had contentious, polarising, deeply divisive elections before — but we’ve never had one like this: an election where pretenders to high office go around the country spreading poison with a flamethrower. Yeah, I know, the imagery is a bit garbled — but then, we never needed a word for the mass dissemination of poison, before, so the vocabulary tends to be a bit handicapped.

I’ll leave these thoughts here for now, and be back later in the day. In passing, I have an image to leave you with:

Scratch pad, Sunday April 7 edition

THE Election Commission of India is an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for administering state and national elections. It says so right there on its website.

The EC has removed the Police Commissioner of Kolkata and other senior officers from their posts, with immediate effect. The EC has transferred the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh for not complying with its orders to remove three police officers. The EC has filed an FIR against Prakash Ambedkar for threatening to send the EC to jail for two days if his government came to power. The EC has objected to the lyrics of the campaign song of the Congress party. All of this happened during the three days I was away from this blog.

That is how you expect the Election Commission to behave: alert and vigilant in the cause of ensuring free and fair elections. Tough. Proactive. No nonsense. Zero tolerance for any violation of the Model Code of Conduct… But then again….

The Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog violates the MCC. The EC “conveys its displeasure” and advises “caution in the future”. Kalyan Singh, Governor of Rajasthan, shills for the BJP. The EC asks for a report. It finds that Singh has violated the MCC, and forwards its report to the President of India. Who in turn forwards it to the Home Ministry for “action” — and that is the last we have heard of that. Adityanath refers to “Modiji ka sena“, a clear violation of the EC’s order that the armed forces cannot be used for poll propaganda. The EC suggests that Adityanath should be “more careful in future“. A BJP MP is caught on candid camera talking of how much it costs to bribe voters. The EC has asked for an explanation. The EC says an earlier Modi program flogging Operation Shakti did not violate the letter of the Model Code of conduct, “but we can’t say it about the spirit of the code.” (Emphasis mine)

So what happens when the EC so blatantly plays favourites? Transgressions multiply. Adityanath says the Congress is infected with the “Muslim virus” — another violation. Varun Gandhi promises voters in Sultanpur that his envelope will reach them, even if he doesn’t — another clear violation. (Besides, the ED and IT authorities who have been raiding opposition leaders from Kanyakumari to Kashmir should be interested in finding out what money this is and where it came from — but don’t hold your breath.) Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi uses the same “Modiji ki sena” trope the EC asked Adityanath to be “careful” about. It doesn’t even cause a ripple. Oh and while on this, a TN anti-corruption crusader filed an affidavit with the EC that he has 1.76 lakh crore in cash — and the affidavit was accepted, proving just how much scrutiny there is, or isn’t.

That is how you do it, folks — just keep piling abuse on abuse, safe in the knowledge that the watchdog body — the “chowkidars” of the election process — will let you get away with murder while doing all it can to target your opponents. And while on the EC, and abuse:

Money was seized from the convoy of the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, one day before Modi was to campaign in the state. A Business Standard report says that on average, Rs 67 crore is being seized every single day from various parts of the country; a total of Rs 1460 crore worth of money, liquor and drugs has been seized as of April 1, and a bulk of that from the dry state of Gujarat, world famous as the birthplace of the ‘Gujarat Model’.

If demonetisation was intended to rid the country of unaccounted money, where is all this cash coming from? Just one of the many questions that arise from this flood of illicit cash corrupting the election system; another is electoral bonds, but I’ll get to that another day.

HARKING back to Adityanath’s comment about Modi’s army for a moment, MoS for Home Affairs VK Singh had one of those rare moments when the better angels of his nature prompted him to protest the UP CM’s comment.

“Which army are we talking about?” Singh told BBC in an apparent reference to Adityanath’s remarks. “Are we talking about the Indian Army, or the army of political workers [of the BJP]? I do not know the reference here. If somebody says the Indian Army is the army of Modi, he is not only wrong, but a traitor. The Indian Army belongs to India, not to any political party.”

Give the former army man a round of applause. A very brief round of applause, because no sooner were the words out of his mouth than wisdom dawned. In the BJP, you don’t go against the official party line — which is that Modi personally led the Indian strike on Balakot (Modi ne ghar mein ghuske maara, the PM keeps parroting on the stump, pompously referring to himself in the third person). And so Singh backtracked rapidly:

“BBC Hindi has done just that for which I had coined the word ‘presstitute’. I have a record of what I said. It appears the reporter was asleep or he deliberately cut and paste to frame a false statement. Well done, …. (journalist’s name) — how much money did you get??”

Firstly, he didn’t coin the word. Secondly, he uses the pejorative to slur a reporter doing his job, and adds libel to injury by suggesting that the reporter took money to twist the minister’s words.

How do you say this politely?: The former army officer is a coward, without the courage of even his brief convictions. He is also an idiot who hasn’t figured out that you cannot claim to be “misquoted” in a video interview.

Adding an unnecessary coat of irony, there is this: TimesNow reports that VK Singh, in his capacity as MoS for Home Affairs, has dismissed the EC notice against Adityanath.

THE Enforcement Directorate has asked the CBI Court to issue notice to Republic TV in connection with the alleged leak (Or, to use Republic-speak, “accessed”) of a chargesheet filed in the Augusta Westland case. To what point? Republic is funded by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar and backed by other BJP worthies; the PM and every member of the Cabinet treats it like their personal mouthpiece. The “leak” is clearly calculated to provide the BJP campaigners something to talk about, another “issue” to flog, a deflection from issues relating to their own governance.

Is there a scam? Most likely. But there is also a scandal: the BJP raises this, and other scams, when campaigning for elections and drags its feet when it comes to investigations and prosecution — clearly because they would rather have the issue, than produce a resolution.

I JUST got back after some fairly intensive travel, and am still catching up, making sense of all that’s been going on while I was on the road. So for now, I’ll leave you with a few links in no particular order, and pick up regular service tomorrow.

  • 88 lakh taxpayers did not file returns in the financial year 2016-2017 — the year of demonetisation. It was just 8.56 lakh the previous fiscal. This is the highest increase in almost two decades since 2000-01, tax officials said.
  • Various official agencies have come up with grim figures about the employment situation in the country, and these reports have been consistently suppressed by the government (an earlier post goes into details). The government, in a bid to cover up for its failures, said that MUDRA was the preferred source for employment data, and claimed that crores of new jobs had been created under the scheme. Turns out even that does not have good news for the government, so now the MUDRA numbers won’t be released either, at least not until after the polls.
  • In Satna, three-time BJP MP Ganesh Singh is questioned about employment. He leaves the venue, rather than answer. Think of this in connection with another fact: Narendra Modi is the only PM in living memory to never address a press conference, or let himself in for the kind of town-hall format where he could face unscripted questions.
  • On the stump, Modi claims that because of his chowkidari, there have been no terrorist attacks during the last five years. He is, as always, lying.
  • The Allahabad High Court asks the UP government whether it intends to arrest those accused in the Unnao rape case. Props to the court for asking tough questions, but are you kidding me? Elections round the corner, and the UP government — the Adityanath government — is going to arrest a BJP thug? Good luck with that.
  • You read stories of how there is a Modi wave, and a Priyanka power surge, and how this politician joining that party has changed the balance in this or that state, and so on. And on. Spare a moment of your time to this: 42% of India is now officially drought-hit; close to 500 million people are affected. Do you suppose these people care a flying fuck for waves and tsunamis and the rubbish the commentariat carries on about endlessly?
  • LK Advani recently wrote a blogpost — and sections of the liberals had a collective orgasm. Not because his comments could be seen as a mild rebuke of Modi, but because that is where we are: desperate for any voice to validate our own criticisms of the BJP and its leader, and if these voices belong to the BJP’s senior leaders now turned apostate, so much the better. Not all are so enamoured though — Ruchir Joshi’s comments on ‘leaders who ignited a deadly fire’, and Ramachandra Guha on Advani’s bitter legacy, are worth reading for perspective.
  • In Rajasthan, a BJP candidate says he will ensure that there will be no police interference in cases of child marriage. In other words, a BJP candidate promises that there will be no consequences to committing a crime.
  • Subramanian Swamy says Rahul Gandhi has four passports; that one of his names is Raul Vinci, and that he has a chapel at home. #justsaying
  • Arun Jaitley gets into the debate on the denial of tickets to Advani, MM Joshi, and Speaker of the Lok Sabha Sumitra Mahajan, and justifies it in terms of the party’s policy that no tickets will be given to those over 75. Fair enough. Except that in 2014, when both were given tickets to contest for the BJP, Advani was 87 and Joshi, 80.

Reading Material:

  • A TN Ninan column celebrates the fact that the Congress manifesto comes down clearly in favour of individual liberties.
  • Mihir Sharma on how, against the odds, it is the Congress that has come up with thoughtful proposals while the BJP indulges in blatant communal rhetoric, and what this means for Elections 2019.
  • I’ve been saying this for ever (or at least since I restarted this blog and began focussing on the elections). Here is Shekhar Gupta on the game board of Elections 2019, making the point that this time, Modi is going up against 20 strong regional leaders. The point Gupta misses out on is that Modi has been doing his damndest to get out of this trap, and failing — and the reason for this desperation is that Modi’s best chance of winning is if he can convert this election into him versus one opponent he can demonise and vilify, rather than get sucked into a series of sapping skirmishes across the length and breadth of the country.
  • Remember an earlier post where I had discussed the meaning of the word “scheme”? Here is another one on the same theme — Modi’s grand ‘adopt a village’ scheme for MPs. Announced as a gamechanger, forgotten once it had been milked for publicity.
  • And to end where I began, here is Mitali Saran on the role of the EC in this election cycle.

Some news, some views

HERE is what is known to a fair degree of certainty: For over a year now, the RSS has been using its deep network to carry out periodic surveys designed to gauge the mood of the electorate.

In this time, various thoughts were floated, and tested: Simultaneous assembly and LS polls to make the election truly presidential and thus play to Modi’s strengths; bringing the election dates forward if the conditions were found favorable, etc.

The rest is rumor. Persistent rumor, coming in from various quarters unconnected to and in some cases unknown to each other, but rumor nonetheless. And rumor said that one of the first such surveys, conducted early last year, gave the BJP around 120 seats if the election were held then, and the NDA around 160 in total. (Keep in mind that the contours of the alliance were not known then). Subsequent surveys, all of which kept the Delhi media circles buzzing (and which several journalists hinted at, but never wrote about, because obviously…) didn’t move the needle significantly in the direction of the ruling party.

The last such survey was conducted in early/mid-March and again, the results were believed to be far from encouraging. Again, multiple journalists and media houses had the results, courtesy leaks from within the RSS (sections of which are, to put it mildly, upset with the autocratic behavior of Modi and Shah); some hints were thrown around on social media but again, no one published it till Nagpur Today, a daily that comes from the RSS’ backyard, the other day.

Here is the published survey. It gives the NDA – not the BJP, the NDA – a mere 182 seats.

In common with several other journalists, I’ve been hearing of these surveys and occasionally getting toplines via whispers on phone – but absent seeing the actual survey, there is no credible way of verifying any of this. Even this published one, though the outcome roughly maps to what I’d heard, is not authenticated – and for obvious reasons, mainstream media has steered well clear of either publication, or even references to this on social media.

So why deal in unauthenticated rumor? Because, this: I’ve been following the various political moves the BJP has been making, including the notion of holding simultaneous polls which at one point the party pushed for very hard. And I’ve been connecting those up with the evolution of the BJP’s campaign through its various tropes: Sabka saath…, Namumkin bhi…, Sahi niyat… and all the variants that have at various times been floated and withdrawn. And a few things make sense – most particularly the virulently communal, hardline turn the campaign has taken in recent weeks, which maps on a timeline to when pollsters (not merely those of the RSS/BJP internal surveys) began noticing that the Pulwama/Balakot bump – which, even at its peak, was not seen as moving the needle significantly – had begun to fade.

Net net, one thing has become very clear: The BJP is getting zero traction on the stump for its various “development schemes” and its attempts to sell itself as the party of progress. Its other electoral pillar, anti-corruption, has been taking a beating, not just because of the opacity surrounding Rafale but also the various scams – or, at least, allegations — that have been surfacing every other day. They now have nothing left but to stoke the same fires, prey on the same manufactured fears and, like a tired, aging, increasingly querulous Don Quixote, tilting with an old, broken lance against the same enemies from five years ago. Most recent case in point: Modi, yesterday in Maharashtra, on how it was Sharad Pawar and not the BJP-led state government that was responsible for the woes of the farmers in the state.

Take the survey with a pinch, or even a bagful, of salt – but equally, keep an eye on the increasing shrillness of the campaign, and see what you make of it.

One more thought on surveys and election coverage – try doing your own. On a piece of paper, list the states from biggest (in terms of seats on offer) to smallest. Alongside that, list the number of seats the NDA won in 2014. And next to that, put down your most optimistic assessment, based on the state of play, of how many seats you think the alliance can win in each state this time around. Tally it up, and see what the results tell you. And on that note, a few stories that caught my eye:

UTTAR PRADESH Chief Minister Adityanath (while on this, I personally refuse to use the honorific ‘Yogi’ to describe a rabble-rousing thug who today roams free only because he used the powers of his office to wipe out dozens of cases of mayhem and murder filed against him) previewed his campaign tropes the other day when he contrasted the Congress, which “fed biriyani to terrorists”, with the Modi government, which gives terrorists a “muh tod jawab”. Inter alia, he referred to the Indian armed forces as “Modiji ki sena,” in violation of EC norms that prohibit the use of the armed forces during electioneering.  

On the latter point, the Election Commission has “asked for a report”. And then what? A week or so after the damage is done, the EC will likely come up with a waffling statement that no rule was broken. Such violations have been common ever since the Model Code of Conduct came into force – and the deliberate strategy behind this stems from the realization that nothing much can be done anyway. How do you unring a bell?

In this connection, remember what happened with the ‘chowkidar’ tea cups? The Air India boarding passes with the images of Modi and Shah? It’s such a transparent trick: Do anything you can to push the propaganda a notch higher; if someone makes a fuss, quickly undo what has been done, move on to the next ploy, and the next.

As to the “biriyani for terrorists” charge against the Congress, this again is a classic BJP ploy – just keep repeating a lie; as long as you spew enough of them, the fact-checking machinery will never catch up with you. Also essential to this strategy, the knowledge that public memory is short. Remember the “biriyani for terrorists” story and its origins in the Kasab case? Here you go. (Also an AltNews breakdown here.)

NASA is pissed with India’s recent testing of the capability to shoot down low flying satellites — which Modi has been referring to as “chowkidari in space”.

The Indian satellite was destroyed at a relatively low altitude of 300km (180 miles), well below the ISS and most satellites in orbit.

But 24 of the pieces were going above the apogee of the ISS, said Bridenstine. “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” he said, adding: “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”

“It’s unacceptable and Nasa needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is.”

But hey, that is NASA and we all know the US is jealous of our progress, so we can discount this. Only, there is this statement from 2012 (emphasis added):

A little fine tuning may be required but we will do that electronically. We will not do a physical test because of the risk of space debris affecting other satellites.

Which is to say, it was a known risk. The man quoted above, from this 2012 article, is VK Saraswat, then chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and scientific advisor to the defence ministry of India.

The man who knew the risks that NASA is worried about now, the man who led the program, is the same man who after India carried out the test said that the tests could have been conducted earlier, but the UPA did not give permission, and then went into a rhapsody about Modi and his decisiveness. That Saraswat, now a member in good standing of the BJP/RSS family who has been rewarded with the post of Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a seat on NITI Ayog, was lying is clear from his own words of 2012. Then there is this:

Serving and retired officials working with the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) have criticised former DRDO chief Vijay Kumar Saraswat, who is now the member of the NITI Aayog, for making DRDO a topic of political slugfest.

And this:

Refuting reports that the Manmohan Singh government refused to allow the Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) to conduct a test of its anti-satellite capabilities, former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon told The Wire, “This is the first I have ever heard of it. Saraswat never asked me for permission for an ASAT test.”

The thing is, it is not a he-said/the-other-guy-said issue — it is easy to prove, or disprove, Saraswat’s allegation against the Congress. Presentations at such high levels are not made off the cuff, nor are they made by a single individual. Thus, if such a presentation had in fact been made, DRDO would have sent a team; there would be official records of the meeting; both could be accessed and revealed by the government. Evidently, no such official meeting was conducted, nor was any presentation made. We know this how? Because after being challenged on his lie, Saraswat has changed his tune. He now says he made an “informal presentation”.

So that is where we are now: We tested a capability we knew we had; we did that knowing the risk involved and the fact that such an act was highly irresponsible; those chickens have now come home to roost. And all this so Modi would have something fresh to talk about — because he has nothing constructive to talk about.

A word in passing about NITI Ayog, which seems to exist simply in order to talk up Modi’s achievements, and to deflect all criticism related to the economy, jobs, etc. In one of his recent policy announcements, Rahul Gandhi had said that if the opposition comes to power, NITI will be abolished, and replaced with a less clunky, more streamlined advisory mechanism. In that connection, this:

The fifth floor of NITI Aayog is making waves in bureaucratic circles. Amitabh Kant, the CEO of the think tank, along with his key aides, checked into the fifth floor—whose renovation cost Rs 9.26 crore—early this year. 

Said to be a workplace for “New India”, which has no parallel even in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Rs 34 lakh was spent on greening the office space alone, with exotic indoor plants dotting the place. But Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar and the four members— V K Saraswat, Ramesh Chand, Bibek Debroy and V K Paul—are still holed up in their modest offices on the first floor.


NITI Aayog, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query filed by this newspaper, admitted a sum of Rs 8.4 crore was allocated for renovation, refurbishment and re-development of the building’s fifth floor. “Besides, a sum of `34 lakh was approved for horticulture; Rs 52 lakh has been incurred on networking and telephone cabling,” the RTI reply stated.

Your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.

TALKING about things to talk about: So we did a surgical strike after Uri to ensure that Pakistan knew the cost of cross-border terrorism; then we did Balakot after Pulwama so Pakistan would learn there is a cost to transgression, right? So now all is well in Kashmir, yes?

  • A Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trooper was injured after militants hurled a grenade on CRPF bunker near SBI Branch in Pulwama town in Pulwama District on March 30, reports Daily Excelsior. Militants attacked a bunker of paramilitary CRPF 182 Battalion guarding the SBI branch Pulwama. “In the blast, one CRPF man suffered injuries. The injured have been evacuated to hospital for treatment where his condition is said to be stable.”
  • Pakistan Army violated ceasefire and pounded civilian areas with long range mortar shells and artillery fire in several sectors along the Line of Control (LoC) in Poonch District… Two houses were damaged at Mankote in which a civilian, identified as Mohammad Mushtaq a resident of Mankote was seriously injured.
  • A group of militants fled from the security cordon after a brief exchange of fire in Tangpawa village of Kokernag area in Anantnag District
  • The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) claimed responsibility for the blast that took place at Banihal near the Jawahar Tunnel on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway (NH) in Ramban District…. SATP had earlier reported that a car hit a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, and exploded at Banihal near the Jawahar Tunnel on the Jammu-Srinagar NH in Ramban District… According to the reports, militants attempted to repeat February 14-like Pulwama terror attack in Banihal, but failed as LPG cylinder Improvised Explosive Device (IED) along with explosive material, inside a Hyundai Santro car was blasted off by a militant, who was driving the car, few yards short of CRPF convoy and the troops had narrow escape as the car caught fire and was gutted.

All this, and more, happened on just one day: March 30. And this from yesterday:

And it is not as if nothing happened between March 30 and April 1. Here is a resource that helps you track the goings on in the Valley. You can go by year, and by month. Take a walk around, see for yourself how grim things are, and ask yourself this: Do you hear a single peep out of Modi, his government, his NSA, his Kashmir-in-charge Ram Madhav, or anyone else in authority about any of this? Any tears being shed, crocodile or otherwise? Anyone have any comment on what is becoming increasingly evident — that in the post Pulwama Balakot operation personally monitored by Modi, who if you recall neither ate nor slept, we shot down one of our own helicopters, leading to the deaths of seven military personnel? But yeah, we have a strong government in charge, one that does not feed biriyani to terrorists.

  • Remember the kids who were playing cricket on Holi, and how that led to a gang of armed men attacking not just the kids, but also breaking into the home of a Muslim family and beating everyone up? The police have now filed an FIR against the victims on a charge of attempted murder. There is a video of the incident, but hey, who cares? The truth, today, is what thugs and their allies in a thoroughly compromised, communalised police force say it is.
  • Apropos the points made earlier about the BJP’s increasing communal rhetoric on the campaign trail, do read this archival piece by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of our sharper political commentators.
  • Have you heard of the World Book of Records? You should — it is an organisation of dubious provenance that exists solely to provide the BJP with “world records” to talk about. Here, read.
  • Amit Shah famously used “jumla” to describe Modi’s ‘Rs 15 lakh in every account’ poll promise from 2014. Here is his latest: We said we will jail all corrupt people. Robert Vadra is a corrupt person. We did not say we will jail Robert Vadra. Make sense of this, if you can.
  • And finally, a Snigdha Poonam/Samarth Bansal piece for The Atlantic on how misinformation is playing havoc with India’s electoral process.

Update: Manifestos are important — it is through these, rather than stump speeches of politicians, that we get some idea of what the various political parties hope to do if they attain power. The Congress has just released its manifesto. Here are the main points, for your information:

To ensure a life of dignity to all Indians, Congress will introduce the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) under which Rs. 72,000/year will be transferred to the poorest 20 per cent house- holds in India. It will be transferred to the woman in the household, as far as possible.

To the youth of India, Congress pledges to make jobs our no.1 priority, both in the public and private sector. We will ensure 34 lakh jobs in the public sector by;

  1. Filling all 4 lakh central government vacancies before March 2020.
  2. Persuading the state governments to fill their 20 lakh vacancies.
  3. Creating an estimated 10 lakh new Seva Mitra positions in every gram panchayat and urban local body.

We will also provide a fillip to private sector jobs by;

  1. Rewarding businesses for job creation and employing more women,
  2. Requiring businesses with over 100 employees to implement an apprentice programme.

Farmers and farm labour: For farmers, Congress promises to put them on the path from “Karz Maafi”, to “Karz Mukti”. This will be done through remunerative prices, lower input costs, and assured access to institutional credit. We will present a separate “Kisan Budget” every year. We will also establish a permanent National Commission on Agricultural Development and Planning.

Universal healthcare: Congress promises to enact the Right to Healthcare Act and guarantee every citizen free diagnostics, out-patient care, free medicines and hospitalisation, through a network of public hospitals and enlisted private hospitals. We will double expenditure on healthcare to 3 per cent of GDP by 2023-24.

GST 2.0: Congress will radically simplify the GST regime with a single moderate rate of tax, zero rating of exports, and exemption for essential goods and services. We also promise panchayats and municipalities a share of GST revenues.

Armed Forces and Paramilitary Forces: Congress will reverse the trend of declining defence spending under the NDA govern- ment, and increase it to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces. We will expedite all modernisation programmes of the Armed Forces in a transparent manner. We will improve social security, education and health facilities for our Paramilitary Forces and families.

Quality education for every child: Congress promises that school education from Class I to Class XII in public schools shall be compulsory and free. We will especially focus on learning outcomes. Schools will have ad- equate infrastructure and qualified teachers. To achieve this, we will double the allocation for Education to 6 per cent of GDP by 2023-24.

Gender Justice: Congress promises to pass in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha the Women’s Reser- vation Bill reserving 33 percent of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the State Legisla- tive Assemblies. Congress will also reserve 33 percent of all posts/vacancies in the Central Government for women.

Adivasis: We will implement, in letter and spirit, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and secure for the Scheduled Tribes the rights guaranteed under the Act. No forest dweller will be unjustly evicted. We will establish a National Commission for Non-Timber Forest Produce. To im- prove the livelihood and income of Adivasis, we will offer Minimum Support Prices for NTFP.

Right to Homestead: We will pass the Right to Homestead Act to provide a piece of land for every rural house- hold that does not own a home or own land on which a house may be built.

End to Hate Crimes: In the last 5 years under the NDA Government, hate crimes and atrocities against vulner- able sections of the people have increased manifold. Congress promises to end the sense of impunity, stamp out mob violence and lynching, and prevent atrocities and hate crimes against the SC, ST, women and minorities. Congress will hold accountable the police and district administration for proven negligence in the case of riots, mob violence and hate crimes.

Celebrating freedom: Congress promises to uphold the values enshrined in the Constitution of India and pro- tect their freedoms, including the freedom to dissent. Congress will pass a law on privacy; restrict the use of Aadhaar to the original purposes of the Aadhaar Act; protect the rights of every citizen especially students, journalists, academics, artists, civil society activists and NGOs. Congress will review all laws and repeal those that are outdated, unjust or unreasonably restrict the freedom of the people.

Protecting our institutions: Congress promises to revitalise the institutions that were brazenly undermined in the last 5 years such as RBI, ECI, CIC, CBI, etc. Congress will restore their dignity, authority and autonomy while making them accountable to Parliament. In order to ensure free and fair elections, we will abolish the opaque electoral bonds introduced by the NDA government and set up a National Election Fund that will be allocated at the time of elections to rec- ognised political parties.

Cities and Urban Governance: Congress promises a comprehensive policy on urbanisation to address issues concerning our towns and cities, including city governance, livelihoods, housing, habitat, pollution, climate change, urban transport and disaster management. For the urban poor, we promise the Right to Housing and protection from arbitrary eviction, and a Slum Upgradation and Transformation Scheme. We will introduce a new model of governance for towns and cities through directly elected mayors. We will transform cities into engines of economic growth.

Environment and Climate Change: Congress promises an action agenda that will place India at the forefront of the battle against global warming and environmental protection. We recognise that air pollution is a national public health emergency and will significantly strengthen the National Clean Air Programme. Forests, wildlife, water bodies, rivers, clean air and coastal zones are precious natural resources that belong to the people and we will protect them. We will set up an independent, empowered and transparent Environment Protection Authority, redefine the role of the Forest Departments and increase our forest cover.

Once the BJP releases its manifesto, I’ll do a compare and contrast, and also look back at the manifestos the two parties released in 2014 to see what has changed and how thinking has evolved, if in fact it has.

I will be traveling this afternoon with a cramped schedule, so this blog is on a break until Saturday, when I am back at base. Be well, all.