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.

Religion and rabbitholes

THE big “news” while I was away was Rahul Gandhi announcing that he would contest the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, in addition to Amethi.

Analysts went into paroxysms of outrage, most of it on the lines of ‘Et tu Brutus? Then fall Opposition unity’. Their angst apparently stems from the fact that RG, by choosing Wayanad, is contesting directly against the Left, rather than against the BJP, and this is such a betrayal at a time when all good opposition parties should be working together towards a common goal.

This point of view has been promoted by the likes of Prakash Karat, who screamed “betrayal”. Which is rich, coming from Karat, who during UPA II was the lightning rod for anti-Manmohan angst, and even voted with the BJP against the Congress-led government.

But never mind that – we are talking of Kerala. Where, historically, elections both at the state and national level has been a straight contest between two groups: The Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. Guess who’s who? And that is the essential idiocy of this “opposition unity” comment: Kerala is always a straight Left versus Congress contest, so how is Rahul Gandhi contesting against the Left an anomaly?

And then there is Narendra Modi who, campaigning today in Wardha, Maharashtra, seized on this news as his latest talking point — his spin being:

Firstly, this is a flat-out lie. (And I’d love to hear him repeat this in any part of Kerala, when he campaigns there next — they’ll laugh him out of the state. ) The Wayanad constituency has been held, since its inception in 2009, by the Congress. It’s component parts are Sultan’s Battery, Mananthavady and Kalpetta in the Western Ghats, both of which have sizeable Christian and Muslim populations but are dominated by Hindus; Thiruvambadi, which was earlier part of Kozhikode; Nilambur, Wandoor and Eranad, carved out of Malapurram. Of these, Eranad alone is predominantly Muslim; the rest are all Hindu-majority regions.

The “Hindu minority” charge, which has already been picked up and amplified by various members of the Modi Cabinet (and which, I’ll bet my bottom dollar, will drive debates on the friendly channels for the next day or two), is however the least of it — what is truly dangerous is the insidious way Modi linked that up with another trope — “Hindu anger”. (ADDED AT 9.15 PM: I wrote this bit at about 5 PM. Here you go: TimesNow, now. And Republic with its hashtag. It’s not that I am good at reading the signs; it is just that the propaganda play is a template, and the likes of TN, Republic and Zee News to name the three key players, plus ANI, follow it religiously.)

Why Hindu anger? Because, according to Modi, the Congress tried to paint Hindus as terrorists in the eyes of the world. How? Samjhauta blasts, remember? That is the narrative arc in full: The Congress tried to paint Hindus as terrorists. The court has cleared the accused. Hindus are angry. Ergo, Rahul Gandhi fled to a Muslim-dominated area.

This is Modi giving his official imprimatur to a narrative his minions have already floated, and friendly TV channels amplified. As for example, Amit Shah; Arun Jaitley, repeatedly.

Against that, read what special court judge Jagdeep Saini, who acquitted the accused, had to say. Also here. And here. Then read the coverage of the Samjhauta investigations in Caravan: How the blasts were planned; the role of the RSS; detailed transcripts of interviews with main accused Aseemanand (which, by the way, no one has refuted).

See how this works? Sections of the Hindutva brigade — Hindutva, not Hindu — create incidents in order to foment communal tensions. Friendly governments get the cases dragged on endlessly; friendly investigative agencies and prosecutors make sure that when the case is presented in court, vital evidence is either lost, or obfuscated, or not presented which in turn leads to the release of the accused; which in turn is used by Modi and the propaganda machine to target the opposition and further foment communal tensions.

In this connection, see what else happened in course of the last couple of days of campaigning: Those accused in the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri were featured in marquee seats at a rally addressed by Yogi Adityanath. Remember Ravi Sisodia, main accused in the lynching, who died in jail and who was “honoured” — illegally — with the national flag draping his coffin? Remember how, at his funeral, the speeches were about how the community would be “revenged” for his death? Back to where we started:

So in the above tweet — one statement of Modi, spanning 13 words — how many lies can you count? Now think about the nature of these lies, and ask yourself this: Just how dangerous is this man who will say anything for the sake of a couple of votes?

PS: Another part of this “Rahul ran to Wayanad” thing, that has been popping up in various parts of the echo chamber, is best exemplified in this tweet by RS Prasad:

Let’s see: At the height of the Modi wave, when the BJP and its allies swept 78 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, how did the BJP do in Amethi?

Rahul Gandhi won 46.71% of the votes cast (408,651 votes). His nearest opponent, Smriti Zubin Irani, won 34.38% (300,748 votes). Repeat: this, at the height of the Modi wave. Predicting elections is a mug’s game but chalo, I’ll play: What odds Irani loses by a bigger margin this time?

Point being, there are many reasons why RG would have opted to contest from the south — but fear of defeat in his home constituency is not one of them, just as it wasn’t the reason Modi decided to contest Varanasi as his second constituency in 2014.

Postscript: It is not just that Modi’s religious gaslighting is obnoxious. It is also that it is illegal. Here is the 2017 Supreme Court judgment. Analysis by Alok Prasanna Kumar. And an NYT piece by Karuna Nundy that looks at what the judgment says, and also what it doesn’t.

Odds, trends

  • IndiaSpend, which has been doing some very good data-driven work around the elections, does a deep dive on voter priorities. The findings are eye-opening in themselves; they are even more of a revelation if you compare the concerns of the voter with what is being discussed on the stump. The top three priorities: Employment opportunities (46.8%), healthcare (34.6%) and drinking water (30.5%). This last is, as far as I can recall, a new entry in the list of voter concerns, and it speaks to the increasing stress, in both urban and rural areas, on water resources. But I’ll revert to the theme of water later — for now, stay with employment, the number one concern today.
  • The government knows this. It knows that the concern is widespread, that it spans geographies, and demographics, and it has been trying, as best it can, to defuse the angst. The official message (as in this example) seems to be that the government has created jobs by the millions, but it is just that the data is not available. Modi had previewed this argument earlier, when the job scarcity hit the limelight; he elaborated on that in yesterday’s “interview” with Arnab Goswami, and somehow made it the opposition’s fault.
  • The argument is specious. The first question that occurs is: When all these years we have had unemployment data updated annually, how did this big information hole materialise now? And related, what does it say about a government that has done nothing, if you take the no-data argument at face value, to measure such a crucial aspect of the economy, despite admitting that it is aware of the lacuna? (As Raghuram Rajan pointed out recently, jobs data is not only important in itself, but it casts light on the overall health of the economy.)
  • The thing though is, it is not a lacuna — the data exists, and has been systematically suppressed, as I’d pointed out in an earlier post. (This Twitter thread is interesting, in context). So this desperation to hide data, and to keep repeating the claim that jobs are available in plenty, merely understands the bind the government is in: It knows this is a crucial issue; it knows that this will resonate (more particularly with the young, with first time voters who in 2014 formed a sizeable chunk of BJP voters); it knows its record on this issue is abysmal — but short of Modi’s theatrics and the talking heads parroting the line about lack of data, it has no idea how to deal with this.
  • What is further underlining the BJP’s dilemma is that Rahul Gandhi appears to have shrewdly seized on this as a critical issue. In every interaction, he talks of jobs — starting, as far as I can see, with the townhall in Chennai’s Stella Maris College where he spoke of abolishing the angel tax in order to encourage young entrepreneurs, to as late as yesterday, when he drilled down further into the subject in course of his speeches, and put this out on his Twitter feed. Yogendra Yadav called unemployment a “silent killer” in elections and clearly, its shadow is now beginning to worry the ruling party.
  • In passing, a friend and I were discussing politics, and ex-RBI governor Rajan’s name came up. My friend’s argument was that Rajan’s recent vocal interventions were proof positive that he had been inclined towards the Congress all along; that this inclination had coloured his RBI stint and that, therefore, the BJP was right to be wary about him. As proof of his assertion, he pointed me to this story in Scroll, where Rajan says he had consulted with the Congress on the recently announced minimum income guarantee scheme. I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you had to pick between a guy who ignores all advice, doesn’t consult even bodies specifically set up for the purpose, overrides the RBI and announces demonetisation on a whim, or another guy who, according to reports, has been working on this income guarantee scheme for over two months, has consulted widely, and drawn on the expertise of acknowledged experts before deciding on a policy, which would you pick?

For personal reasons, this blog is on a break till Sunday. Have a nice weekend, folks. Meanwhile, go back to that IndiaSpend deep dive I began this post with — there is much in there that is of interest. And here is a telling cartoon to end this post with:

Politics as theatre

VERY funny. Also very indicative of a sad state of affairs.

The head of government announces that he will address the nation on a matter of national importance – and the first reaction is on the lines of ‘Oh my god what fresh hell is this?!’

It was not confined to the Twitter bubble. I quit my family WA group a long time ago because I was weary of fact-checking a bunch of educated, literate people, and repeatedly finding out that the facts didn’t matter. Today, I had assorted uncles and cousins calling: “Do you know what this is about?” “Should we worry?”

What does it say about a government, and about the trust people repose in it, when the first reaction even among those prone to supporting it is “oh shit what now”?

It turned out to be no big deal after all. And before you go all “What?! Don’t you have any respect for our scientists who…?”, let me explain.

I am no expert, but I understand enough to know that the ability to shoot down an enemy satellite could be a bit of a big deal strategically. How exactly, is for the experts and the scientists to explain, and hopefully that explanation will be forthcoming. But I also know that India acquired the capability way back in 2012 – or more accurately, announced that it had the capability back in 2012, which likely means we had it even earlier, because unlike publicity-hungry governments, scientists are prone to announcing some breakthrough only after rounds of rigorous testing. All that has happened today is that the capability was tested in actual conditions.

Which is not a bad thing at all. It is one thing to say we have a certain capability; it is quite another to demonstrate that capability in public. That said, the DRDO tests weapons systems all the time – it is kind of the agency’s day job. What therefore was unusual about this latest test is that the Prime Minister decided to use it as an excuse to make a speech to the nation.

Prima facie, there is nothing “wrong” with it, nor is there any identifiable violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Nothing about the MCC stops scientists from doing what they do; equally, nothing stops the prime minister from telling the nation about a breakthrough, assuming it is one of national significance.

In actual fact, though, this is a roundabout way of doing what the MCC prevents you from doing. The PM got a solid hour of air time – first the announcement that there will be an announcement that got everyone tuning in, then the delay from the scheduled 11.45-12 noon, which prolonged the airtime (risibly, it was put down to the need to videotape and to edit the message – no major address is scheduled for a particular time until everything has been readied), then the announcement itself, then various Cabinet worthies taking up more telecast time to tom-tom the achievement…

It is a propaganda play, pure and simple. How effective it proves to be depends on what exactly the BJP sought to accomplish with this.

Clearly, the attempt here is to reclaim the narrative — which raises the question of what problem the ruling party hoped to solve.

The reason Modi was successful in 2014 was that he constantly set the agenda, forcing the opposition into a passive, reactive mode. The reason the BJP is struggling now, and is forced to resort to such gimmickry, is that the shoe is now on the other foot, and it is pinching: it is the opposition, particularly the Congress, that has succeeded in setting the narrative, and it is Modi and the BJP that has been forced into reactive mode.

It has been brewing for a while, but it really began with the Main Bhi Chowkidar slogan Rahul Gandhi raised, and which seems to have stuck like a burr in the government’s notoriously thin skin.

Even a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a slogan denigrating Modi would be raised by spectators at an IPL ground – but times have changed, and namumkin bhi mumkin hai, to quote one of the BJP’s lame slogans of recent vintage. And in passing, it is also food for thought for the analysts who have been whining about the failure of the opposition/Congress to come up with a catchy slogan – it appears not to have occurred to them that the opposition already has one, and that it has the legs to last the duration of this election cycle.

Anyway. The BJP had to react, and the best the party could come up with is the weak “Main bhi chowkidar” comeback – but despite a bunch of party worthies and the band of monkey-see, monkey-do followers, the original “chor hai” slogan continues to resonate forcefully.

Even as the BJP was figuring out how to cope with that (an “address” to chowkidars around the country turned out to be a canned event where Modi spoke to security personnel from a company owned by one of his own party members; the next instalment of the response is supposed to be on March 31 with some event), Rahul switched the focus to the NYAY scheme, and painted the BJP into a tight corner – what is the party to do, say that giving the poorest of the poor a safety net is wrong?

So now the BJP is stuck with responses on the lines of “fiscal responsibility” – fodder for the talking heads on TV (who, by the way, seem unconcerned about where the money to pay an estimated Rs 19000 crore to farmers before the election is coming from, and how it maps to the notion of “fiscal responsibility”), but not the sort of macro economics you can sell on the stump.

What compounds Modi’s problem is Balakot – widely expected at least by pollsters and the commentariat to be a game changer, that narrative seems to have run its course: even the BJP campaigners have not been referring to it much in recent days. Couple that with the various polls that have been floating around and which, irrespective of the leaning of the media house in question, has been unanimous that farmer distress and unemployment are being identified as the key issues in this election cycle, while Balakot/national security scores in the low single digits. In this connection, I came across this perceptive tweet:

To my mind, this is what explains Modi’s address to the nation today – a desperate need to change the narrative, coupled with the paucity of actual achievements that can be talked up. And how lame the PM’s speech was today in terms of setting the agenda can be gauged by the gales of laughter – I wonder how much of that was sheer relief? – that greeted this latest performance. Laughter, by the way, that Rahul Gandhi did his best to help along with this:

WHY is the BJP so paranoid about black attire? Sometime back, I came across this post from Tamil Nadu, and had to check to make sure it wasn’t satire:

And then, earlier today, I read this long piece by Athar Khan, one of TimesNow’s late evening anchors, and not by any means a talking head known for any anti-BJP bias. An extended clip about what happened when Khan wore black to a BJP rally:

A group of seven to eight cops from the larger posse of about 15-20 practically surrounded me and asked me to leave immediately. I tried my best to reason with the senior cop and his associate.’ I am a TV journalist. With Times Now, same group as Times of India, I am on TV every day. I can show you on my mobile. I have met your MP last night.’


Nothing seemed to convince them and with every word that came out of my mouth the hostility and aggression in the cops shot up. It was here that the associate cop asked for my ID and again I showed it to him.


At this point, the crowd to my right had started taking an interest in the commotion and I could feel thousands of eyes on me. Anyone who has ever been in such a situation will tell you, it is a chilling feeling, and I knew I was in danger.


The senior cop told me to either change my shirt or leave the spot because the crowd might not like it. ‘Like what?’’ The fact that you are dressed in black’, he replied. At this point, I had been literally boxed in between the bamboo dividers that separated the media aisle from the other end of the crown and I realised that the cops had literally gheraoed me and were insisting that I leave.


Before I could say anything, an extremely tall cop in uniform with a huge lathi in his hand, came from nowhere and started frisking me from the back without my consent. This happened as I was speaking to his superior. I immediately put my hands up and asked him… ‘aap kya kar rahe hain?’ What do you think you are doing? He ignored me and continued to pat me down and frisk me and check my pockets and lifting my kurta.


A member of the crowd tried to scale the bamboo divider and started tugging at my kurta. It ripped a little at the right pocket. Somebody in the crowd started pointing to my back belt, a spinal corrective orthopaedic belt that I wear because of my lower back disc problem and I realised the people on the stage were not holding the attention of the crowd anymore.

Everyone was looking directly at me and cops were becoming extremely and increasingly hostile towards me, ordering me to leave immediately.
Where will I go?’ I asked the officer …. I don’t have a change of clothes.’ He ordered me to go my car which in the parking lot, around a kilometre from the rally ground.  In an effort to calm the crowd down and allay whatever their suspicions regarding me might have been, I lifted my kurta, voluntarily this time, and showed them the belt I was wearing trying to explain that I wear it to ease my back pain.

So that is what it feels like. Khan ends his piece with questions for all and sundry: he asks politicians whether they now also decide what a person can wear, and where; he asks the police since when journalists became security threats; he asks his fellow journalists why they never spoke up when these things happened to them; he asks lawyers whether this is legal.

The one group he did not question was his own: TimesNow. Which, along with Republic, has spent months, years, gaslighting all and sundry; selling the trope that if you protest against Modi and the BJP you are somehow anti-national, part of the ‘tukde tukde gang’; that journalists are part of some vaguely defined “lobby” that has joined forces with others inimical to Modi and therefore to the nation; ignoring and at times actively encouraging politicians who presume to decide what we can where and where we can go and who we can go with…

Poison is like that. You can help sow it, you can actively disseminate it — but you cannot guarantee that one day, you won’t end up on the receiving end. So yeah, Khan, welcome to the world so many of us live in.

MEANWHILE, harking back to the DRDO test of this morning — within an hour, Republic and TimesNow were doing variants on “Opposition politicising DRDO Test” lines. And now I notice that ANI has gotten a former DRDO chief to say that the previous Congress regime showed no interest in conducting tests to prove this capability.

This Saraswat would be that Saraswat? The one who back in 2011 said this?:

Dr. Saraswat said the next test would be done later this year to intercept a 2000-km-range incoming missile at an altitude of 150 km. India’s plans for putting in place the first phase of the two-layered ballistic missile defence shield by 2012 and the second phase by 2016 were on course. This would be done by integrating it with the Air Defence System of the Indian Air Force and the Army.

A couple of points you might want to think about: First, this capability had already been tested and proved. (What is new about today’s test is basically the range). Second, Saraswat is talking of a schedule of tests that had been planned to be carried out, and a timeline. How does that resonate with his comment now that he was getting no joy from the UPA?

  • Remember why Abhisar Sharma quit the ABP group? Here is the story of how he is — again, via a carefully cut video — being accused of bribing villagers to speak ill of Modi. Goes to my earlier point about what happens to journalists who don’t toe the official line.
  • Arun Jaitley has been going to town about how dramatically the tax base has increased, and how somehow this is a win for demonetisation. Oops — it turns out the the revenue from direct taxes is set to fall well short of projections.
  • What Model Code of Conduct?
  • And while on Adityanath:

One model code of conduct. Two farmer support schemes. Two different standards. At least that is what the Biju Janata Dal, the party that is in power in Odisha, is arguing. The party claims that the Election Commission in Odisha has ordered the state government not to release any additional money under its Kalia scheme, an income support programme for small farmers. Yet the Central Election Commission has permitted the Union government to release as much as Rs 19,000 crore under the PM-Kisan scheme, in the middle of election season.

  • 107 crore worth of cash and booze have been seized in Tamil Nadu. Significant amounts from other states as well. In a corruption-free India, where is this money coming from, does anyone know?
  • Back to the MCC, tangentially: The wife of the judge hearing the Kathua rape case got a nice sinecure from the government. Thing is, no one even bothers to hide these acts anymore.

One thought to round off today with: Recent days have brought a slew of stories on the lines of Jayaprada joins BJP, Urmila Matondkar joins Congress… and of course, these newbies get tickets to contest virtually within minutes of joining. What does it say about political parties that they are forced to rely on Bollywood stars — using the word star loosely, since the two I named, and others understood to be in queue, are anachronisms — to win elections? Here is Hema Malini, MP from Mathura, telling you she has done a lot for her constituency, only, afsos, she doesn’t quite remember the details:

And that is my cue to remind you to check out the performance of your Parliamentarian before you decide whether to reelect him, or her. Here is where you can do this.

Fixed ideas

IN 2003 Joan Didion – who I have quoted before, and will likely quote many more times during this election cycle because there are few more insightful essayists on politics and propaganda – wrote an essay titled ‘Fixed Ideas’. It dealt with how the national narrative was shaped after the fall of 9/11, how the administration sold an entire nation the Kool Aid of a “patriotism” that equated the administration with the country and created a mindset where to question the former was to betray the latter.

That essay is now available in book form, with a preface (available here for NYRB subscribers) by New York Magazine’s writer-at-large Frank Rich, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone looking to navigate the smoke and mirrors world of contemporary politics. I wish I could just cut-paste the whole thing; since I can’t, here are a couple of clips I keep revisiting when the noise threatens to overwhelm me (The ellipses indicate where I have skipped paras to compress the point):

The movement to marginalize or mock any quibbles, however slight, with administration wisdom, to minimize unwanted news that might reflect ill on the competence or motives of its leaders, was the nearly spontaneous reaction of the press and television, needing only a nudge from the White House.

Meanwhile, the administration’s law enforcement excesses and failures – the roundup of thousands of immigrants who had nothing to do with al Qaeda, the inability to discover the source of the anthrax attacks – disappeared into the journalistic memory hole even faster than the White House’s bogus assertion that a credible threat against Air Force One had precipitated George W Bush’s disappearing act on September 11.
….
It (the administration) knows the power of narrative, especially a single narrative with clear-cut heroes and evildoers, and it knows how to drown out any distracting subplots before they undermine the main story.

The above are excerpts from Rich’s extensive preface. Read it slowly and think: What does it remind you of?

Think of Pathankot. Uri. Pulwama. Then read this clip from Didion’s essay:

As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the vent itself. We now had “the loved ones”, we had “the families”, we had the “heroes”.
 
In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity”, it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

There are few differences – aside from increased decibel levels – between post-9/11 United States and the India we live in today. The one significant change is that there, the government actively stage-managed the narrative and the media went along – sections of it willingly, the others willy-nilly because it was deemed “unpatriotic” to ask questions. In India today, the media – or sections thereof – have taken on themselves the onus of framing and amplifying the narrative; the establishment mouthpieces allow, even actively encourage, the media’s activities, and play the role of amplifiers, appearing constantly on friendly channels for stage-managed interactions and avoiding any forum where awkward, unscripted questions are likely to be raised.

You have to admit, a friend said to me, that it is “brilliant political strategy”. I have to admit nothing of the kind, because governance is not about winning elections; national security is not a mise en scene to frame a leader’s aura, to add layers to his mythos. National security is measured not in votes gained and lost, but in coffins. And from that point of view:

We don’t know what led to the repeated intelligence failures that form the unexplored backstory to these repeated terrorist strikes (and by the way, this collective ignorance dates back even prior to NDA-II). We don’t know because we cannot ask; we cannot ask because no one in government allows such questioning.

Absent such knowledge, we can only speculate: That there are broken links in the chain between the formulation of hard intelligence and the acting on it. That Pathankot’s lessons were not learned, because the same storyline played out in Uri. That Uri’s lessons weren’t learned, because Pulwama. Logically, therefore, an establishment busy selling a flattened narrative of the all-powerful hero versus the perfidious villains both without and within is an establishment with neither the inclination, nor the ability, to set things right.

What does that lead to? Or to borrow from Bob Dylan, “How many deaths will it take…?”

THIS Twitter thread by Nikhil Mehra, a Supreme Court advocate and by no stretch a “left liberal” with an anti-Modi bias — is worth a read.

Here is the full thread. And the reason it caught my eye is that it is a far more nuanced take on possibilities than either the manufactured Modi-wave propagated by the likes of TimesNow and Republic, or the breast-beating “What is the Congress doing, oh my god our feature” chorus of the soi disant ‘balanced analyst’, a tribe whose increased querulousness stems from a discomfort that the Congress is not following the script the analyst community had written for them.

I agree with Nikhil’s take to a very large extent. I also, like him, am very wary of forecasts — lessons learnt from covering five major national elections and a few assembly polls. That said, I like political strategy, I’ve been carefully monitoring the game board and everything else being equal between now and the last date of polling, I think this election will play out almost exactly as Nikhil said, ending with (remember the “all else being equal” caveat) the NDA (not the BJP, the entire 39-member alliance) will end up around the 210 (+- 10) mark and therefore unable to buy up enough elected MPs to make up the deficit. Equally, I think the Congress gameplan is to end up as the party with the most seats from among the opposition. The key part of Nikhil’s analysis (which happens to resonate somewhat with the way I see it too) is laid out in these three tweets in the middle of his thread:

Whether by accident or design, the opposition (I use the term loosely, because for all the artificial attempts to create a “Mahagatbandhan” strongman, the only maha alliance this time round is the NDA) has figured out that the BJP’s only game is to create the atmosphere of a presidential-style contest that pits Modi against a singular figure from the other side.

Such a contest makes it possible for the NDA to sideslip issues, to harp on the ‘TINA factor’, and to make it about personalities — a strategy that is right in their wheelhouse. By sidestepping such a gladiatorial contest and setting up 2019 as a series of battles against different individuals and/or partnerships on different fronts, and also by shifting the conversation from the emotive, but largely meaningless, tropes of “patriotism” and “international stature” and suchlike shibboleths, to actual bread and butter issues pertaining to each region, the opposition is seeking to shift the focus from the Modi mythos to the NDA’s fairly pathetic track record.

Net net, Nikhil nails it — for all the best efforts of the naysayers, I think the Congress knows what it is doing. I also think, FWIW, that there are the odd glitches and missteps — but that has been true for every party and grouping thus far.

SPEAKING of manufactured narratives, a particularly egregious example caught my eye recently. Here is how this story opens:

Chaos in Malda ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s rally, Republic headlined. So did the rally actually take place? How did it go? If you followed that channel, or TimesNow, you would never know. In contrast, there is this:

Priyanka is a Congress spokesperson, and the image could be massaged, who knows? But there is also this, via one of the BJP’s most important allies:

Who knew? Elsewhere, I saw this — one of many such; I picked this example because the poster is not known for any anti-Congress bias, and hence for me is an exemplar of how even the bystander is seduced by the massaged narrative doing the rounds:

Good point. So: Rahul Gandhi and demonetisation. On GST, in West Bengal, in the very same rally on the sidelines of which the interview Chowdhury cites took place; and elsewhere. (And this on Angel Tax).

I could go on, but the point should be self-evident: There is what is actually happening, and then there is what we are led to believe is happening, by a noisy section of the media that blanks out every speech, every press conference, not merely of Rahul Gandhi but of every single opposition leader, even as the same channels cover live, then discuss at length, every rally and speech of Modi, Shah, Adityanath et al, while various members of the Cabinet such as Irani, Jaitley and Rajnath Singh spend more time in these studios than in their respective ministries. The fault, dear Brutus…

Odds and trends: March 21 edition

RAVISH Kumar of NDTV reports that Modi’s “massive outreach” to chowkidars via an audio bridge (the point of which is not clear to me) was a bit of a sham – the people he was addressing were security staff drawn from the firm of RK Sinha, a BJP MLA. Meanwhile in Jharkhand, 10,000 actual chowkidars have not been paid:

For the past four months, these chowkidars across 24 districts — each of who monitors 10 villagers under one thana — have not been paid their salaries. Each chowkidar gets a salary of Rs 20,000.

The Wire, by the way, has been monitoring how our media treats various issues. Here is the roundup of how the “chowkidar” non-issue was covered. And here is Modi playing an oft-used, tired card: Pretending that the opposition wasn’t questioning him, but in actual fact questioning the integrity of actual security guards.

And in a facepalm moment there is this (just one example of the many such comments by journalists and opinion makers I could spam you with). Modi points to a rabbithole marked ‘chowkidar’; the entire media dives down it and can talk of nothing else; and the same media says Modi has succeeded in setting the agenda and the opposition is helpless to change it.  (And while on rabbitholes, TimesNow spent a precious half hour of prime time yesterday with this high-decibel “coverage”, complete with flashing graphics and pointing arrows, of how Priyanka Gandhi supposedly insulted Lal Bahadur Shastri.

ALL accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case have been acquitted. And the noise-making is well underway: the right wing argues that the charges were part of a bogus “Hindu terror” allegation floated by the Congress; the opposition’s line is that the acquittal is part of the BJP’s protective shield thrown over its own. And in the process, the real issue is given a go-by. To my mind, the question we should be asking is this:

A terrorist attack occurred in 2007. Twelve years down the line, we are back where we started; we are saying we have no idea who committed the terrorist act. What does this say to the world about our own will, and ability, to take action on terrorism on our soil? Now that we are back to square one in a case that involved the death of 60-plus Pakistan citizens twelve years ago, how do we insist that Pakistan carry out investigations and follow up action on terrorist acts committed on India by their nationals? (Predictably, Pakistan has already gone to town on the “travesty of justice”, and the volume will only increase. Why should we worry what Pakistan says? Because it weakens our case in international forums.)

From the archives of Caravan, this profile of main accused Aseemanand is mandatory reading – if only to understand what “travesty of justice” means.

EMPLOYMENT has been a recurring theme of these posts – and it will continue to be, through the elections and beyond. For reasons that should be obvious: the much-hyped demographic dividend is India’s opportunity to take its economy to the next level – and that “dividend” means nothing if (a) We are not providing proper education to our young and (b) If there are no jobs for those who are fortunate enough to actually get to study.

On that front, stories worth noting from the last 24 hours:

  • Hindustan Lever has begun to feel the heat of the GDP slowdown (which, potentially, translates into reduced investment, which in turn impacts on job creation).
  • Over 82 lakh people, a large majority of them hugely overqualified, have applied for 62,907 jobs as track maintenance staff and helpers in the Indian Railways.
  • IndiaSpend, one of the very few media outlets that seem to understand that coverage of issues, to be meaningful, cannot be a mile wide and a millimetre deep, is in the middle of a series on employment. Their stories thus far: On post demonetisation slow-down and how it affects Kerala’s labour hub; the growing death of jobs in Jaipur’s informal economy; the steadily worsening job crisis in Indore; the crippling lack of jobs in Ahmedabad. Read, because other than our growing scarcity of water, there is no issue as likely to impact our medium/long term future. Oh, and it matters from the point of view of the imminent elections, too: An opinion piece in The Print points to why employment is the silent killer of electoral prospects.

Reading List:

  • Rukmini S, one of the very few journalists in India capable of doing nuanced data-driven pieces, on why a prolonged, multi-phase election hurts the Congress
  • A recent report spoke of the Modi government’s proposed overhaul of the Indian Forest Act of 1927, and how the proposal will strip the commons of the very few protections that still remain. In that connection, IndiaSpend’s analysis of how tribal voters can affect electoral outcomes in 133 constituencies is worth reading.
  • Predictably, television channels toed the line that Nirav Modi’s arrest in London yesterday is tantamount to India getting him back and hopefully, recovering the money he looted. Not so fast, though – if Modi has applied for asylum, as is the understanding, then the extradition process, already long drawn out, is likely to be further delayed.
  • A story on how UIADI’s plan to link voter IDs and Aadhar likely cost millions their right to vote.
  • The NDA has firmed up its seat sharing agreements in Kerala, where there are 20 seats on offer.

NB: To be updated as and when something comes up. Happy Holi, everybody, play safe.