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.

So what’s your beef?

IF Kerala has a focal point for the Hindu faith it has to be Thrissur — home to the Vadukkunathan temple complex that hosts the annual Pooram; to other storied temples such as Thiruvambady, Paramekavu, Koodalmanikyam, Arattupuzha, Kodungalur, and Ponkunnam to name just the most obvious of dozens of pilgrim centres, and a way station for Guruvayur and for Sabarimala, epicentre of the women’s entry storm earlier this year and, in the minds of political pundits, the wedge the BJP will use to prise open the hitherto inhospitable state. With that background, read this news report:

The Thrissur district unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party has launched a co-operative society to produce, process and market meat and fish. The venture – Thrissur, Fish and Meat Producing, Processing and Marketing Society – had received approval from the registrar of co-operative societies six months ago.


The bylaw of the society said it will rear and sell cattle and fish products. “We haven’t started processing or selling of meat,” BJP Thrissur district president A Nagesh, who has also been elected the president of the society, told Scroll.in. “But I cannot say whether we will venture into the meat processing market or not.”

But then there is this: In the 2017 Assembly elections, a BJP candidate promised to set up quality abattoirs and ensure good quality beef if he was elected. Elsewhere, RSS and BJP functionaries formed a cooperative to sell beef. On his first day as a BJP minister, KJ Alphons said:

On the first day in his new office as tourism minister, bureaucrat-turned-politician Alphons Kannanthanam touched upon the controversial issue of beef, saying it would continue to be consumed in Kerala.

“The BJP does not mandate that beef cannot be eaten. We don’t dictate food habits in any place. It is for the people to decide,” he said.

The various affiliates of the BJP also said that Kerala should receive no help in the aftermath of the the 2018 floods; that the flood was a sign of god punishing Kerala because the state consumes beef; a ‘sadhvi’ called for the killing of those who kill cows and eat beef and, to crown the hypocrisy, Modi — who has the right wing leader’s habit of accusing others of exactly what he is guilty of — said this:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday said cheating was in the blood of the Congress party.

….

“Is it the same Congress which praises the cow in Madhya Pradesh and mentions some schemes in its poll manifesto, but slaughters calves on the streets of Kerala and eats beef?” Modi asked the crowd.

It is a different matter that for all of Modi’s gaslighting, the voters of MP dumped the BJP in the Assembly elections. To go back to the point of the BJP’s hypocrisy when it comes to its signature issue: In 2017, then Goa CM Manohar Parikkar was assuring the state assembly that he will ensure there is no shortage of beef in the state; said that over 2000 kg of beef was being slaughtered in the state’s legal abattoir and that any shortfall would be made up by importing beef from Karnataka; and in January 2018, warned that anyone interfering with the import of beef would be punished. (Here’s a detailed, and more recent, story on the ongoing tug of war between gau rakshaks and the beef industry in the state).

Also in 2017 ahead of Assembly polls in the north-east, the BJP not only asserted that there would be no beef ban in Meghalaya if the party came to power, beef would actually be cheaper under the BJP rule. Last year the CM of Manipur was assuring his people that the BJP had never asked for a beef ban and never would, and that the BJP had no problem with the people eating beef. A senior BJP leader last year said there would be no beef ban in Tripura or any of the other states in the north-east.

That is the BJP. Led by the man who, during the 2014 campaign, repeatedly raised the bogey of a “pink revolution” if the Congress came to power. The man, and the party, that has stood by and, by their silence, given the nod to “cow vigilantes” — murderers, to call things as they are — to run riot across the Hindi heartland and, where necessary, to actively provide aid and comfort to the murderers; a party whose minister garlanded accused lynchers who were let out on bail and senior leaders condoled the death of a jailed lyncher, promised compensation to the family of the dead man, and stood by as, in violation of all norms, the coffin was draped with the national flag… And, in areas where they know their “gaumata” BS won’t work, a party that will, without the slightest twitch of hesitation, guarantee you the very beef they talk of banning.

I believe that people should have the right to eat what they want; that it is not the business of polity or the government to interfere in an individual’s private life. That said, I’d appreciate a party that, at the least, had the courage of its own convictions. The BJP — and this is true for the entirety of its existence — is a party of, and for, hypocrites who will do anything, say anything, be anything as long as it leads to power.

It’s Sunday. For reasons of work, I have to watch, and make notes on, the two IPL games scheduled today. So I’ll leave you with this post — and this topical, timely musical comment:

News clips: Feb 13 edition

With the model code of conduct kicking in, attention turns to enforcement-related questions: Does the EC have the manpower to monitor the various parties and their proxies and detect violations? If it does detect something that is not kosher, what can it do about it if anything? On that note, the EC advised all political parties to desist from using images of serving army personnel in propaganda material; a day later, it has asked Facebook to delete two posts bearing images of Wing Commander Abhinandan posted by a BJP MLA from Delhi.

In order to make the process of spotting violations easier, the EC has launched a cVigil app that enables the lay citizen to report violations. ToI has a list of 15 types of violations that the citizen can report, and how; more details via The Hindu. So, since this service is now available, a hypothetical for you: Would you report this?

The Index of Industrial Production has bad news for the government just as it was beginning to talk up productivity and employment as major achievements of the last five years: Manufacturing plummeted from 8.7 in January 2018 to 1.3 in January 2019. The Telegraph story details those areas that are doing well, and those that are showing signs of being on life support.

The government’s attempts to suppress, or obfuscate, data that does not fit with its narrative will form the subject for a larger essay later. But for now, a few recent pieces are worth reading/re-visiting in context of the IIP figures: RTI Venkatesh Nayak, in HuffPost, talks of his efforts to use RTI to get behind the scenes of the key RBI board meeting where the demonetisation decision was supposedly taken (Hint: It wasn’t). The article links profusely to the actual minutes of the board meeting, and related stories.

While on demonetisation, here’s a link from the past: Modi’s smoke and mirrors act

Economic growth for the period October-December 2018 fell to its lowest mark across the last six quarters, and early indications are that the first quarter of 2019 continues to see decline. Author and commentator Vivek Kaul explains, via four charts, the key indicators that point at this slowdown. Elsewhere Scroll, also through charts, has more bad news: GDP is down, the government is unable to rein in the fiscal deficit, there is decline in investments in new projects, foreign investors are leaving the country and inevitably, as corollary to all of the above, the unemployment rate continues to climb. And to round it all off (for now), there’s this from HuffPost:

Desperate to show progress in the poorly defined, but much-ballyhooed, Digital India initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government inflated e-governance data by designating previously uncategorized services such as railway bookings, debit card and credit card transactions, NEFT, RTGS bank transfers, Aadhar authentication and e-KYC transactions with private vendors as “e-governance”.
 
The government also massively ramped up the weather and crop updates delivered over SMS to millions of farmers in a bid to show rural Indians were embracing so-called digital services.

In political news the AGP, which had earlier cut ties with the NDA over the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, has returned to the government fold. In Kerala, the Left Front has announced candidates for all 20 Lok Sabha seats, while the Congress and the BJP are still sharpening their pencils.

Arvind Kejriwal, meanwhile, wants an alliance with the Congress in Haryana. The commentariat was all sneer-y when the Congress “contemptuously” turned down an alliance with AAP in Delhi — and I am not sure I get why. AAP came into being on the wings of the Anna Hazare/Kejriwal-led agitation against Congress corruption; that agitation in turn provided the BJP the talking points, and the oxygen, for the 2014 campaign. Why would the Congress go out of its way to ally with the AAP now? If it did, both parties would have their previous accusations about each other hanging around their neck. (Not that such considerations have stopped various parties allying with erstwhile enemies, but still.)

The LDF has named only two women, however, with its spokespersons arguing that the focus was on winnability rather than gender. The Front has made a big punt with CPM state executive member C Divakaran named for the Thiruvananthapuram seat against, in all likelihood, Shashi Tharoor for the Congress and whoever the BJP choses to name. Equally, it has named film actor and sitting MP Innocent to the Chalakudy  seat – which, as Scroll points out, is problematic.

NB: As elections kick into high gear, the clips will become more comprehensive and be updated more frequently. Meanwhile, readers, help: Ping links to interesting news stories/analysis via comments, please?

Addendum: One reason I like to collate links whenever I blog is that over time, isolated stories begin to add up, linkages become visible and bigger pictures emerge.

On that note, a story that caught my eye during a surf-break just now:

On March 8, the government approved a Bulk Data Sharing policy, enabling it to monetise a database of vehicle registration certificates, citing benefits to the “transport and automobile industry”, even as the issue of privacy and data protection looms large over such sharing.

Basically, the government here finds another way of making money off of your personal data, never mind consent.

The data shared will be the vehicle’s registration number and other details (including financing and insurance), and will not have the owner’s name. In all, 28 fields of data for each vehicle will be shared.

That’s all right, then — your name, and therefore details linked to your name, is not being sold. But then again:

However, the policy itself admits that “there is a possibility of triangulation” or matching the data with other publicly available databases to identify. That’s because the Vahan app, also run by the ministry, maps registration details against names.

I’ll leave this here for now and link it up in a subsequent post.

Elsewhere, the Times of India confidently says Twitter executives could face jail time, forcing the government to scramble to clarify.

The report, as published, appears to be exaggerated, stemming from a misunderstanding of the established legal procedure.

Double, double, toil and trouble…

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

2018 is likely to be one long round of electioneering — besides the north-eastern states, assembly elections are due in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan where the BJP is incumbent, and in Karnataka that the BJP is trying to wrest from the ruling Congress party. And it is all shaping up into the sort of witches’ brew that Shakespeare provided the recipe for.

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Yes, Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is unhappy, and he has good reason to be. No one responds to my ‘good morning’ messages, he cribbed at a meeting of party lawmakers the other day.

That’s fair. It is not about sycophancy, or the social media analog of kids jumping up and going ‘good morning Miss’ when the teacher walks into the room. It is about common courtesy, about basic good behavior. And decency, good behavior, these are important, yes, in any civilized society, in any culture?

Right. Meanwhile, in Parliament, Mr Arun Jaitley made an important intervention:

On Wednesday, making a statement in the Rajya Sabha, leader of the house and finance minister Arun Jaitley said: “The PM in his speeches did not question, nor did he mean to question the commitment to this nation of either former PM Manmohan Singh or former VP Hamid Ansari. Any such perception is erroneous. We hold these leaders in high esteem, as well as their commitment to India.”

Any such perception that Modi was attacking both his predecessor and a former vice president of India was “erroneous”, Jaitley said.

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“Not proven”

In Scotland, courts have the option of picking from three possible verdicts: Guilty, Not Guilty, and Not Proven.

It is this third verdict that the CBI special court actually pronounced today at the conclusion of the prolonged hearings into the 2G scam, some seven years after a report by then Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai rocked Parliament, gave wings to the BJP’s anti-corruption plank, and led to the then UPA government fighting a losing battle at the polls.

Only, since it does not have the third option available to it, the court acquitted.

Special judge O.P. Saini said, “I have no hesitation in holding that record is not sufficient and the prosecution has miserably failed in proving charges. All accused are acquitted.”

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The U-turn sarkar

May 25, 2014: The then Delhi BJP chief Harsh Vardhan says that the first issue he will take up with the prime minister, if his party won the Lok Sabha polls, was the cause of granting full statehood to the capital city. The move, he said, would solve the problem of multiple authorities; he said the NDA had earlier tabled a relevant bill in Parliament but the successor UPA government had not followed up.

Harsh Vardhan’s predecessor Madan Lal Khurana had made a similar demand in 2003, coincidentally, again, just ahead of assembly elections. “The BJP leadership at the Centre says it is drafting a new Delhi Statehood Bill,” the article points out. “This is something it had done in 1998 as well, a few months before the assembly elections in November that year.”

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