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.

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:

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.

Building a nation of chowkidars

WHILE the commentariat chases after slogans and dives down the he-said, she-said rabbit hole that substitutes for political analysis, indications are that employment – or the lack thereof – is likely to be a key factor in determining the outcome of the upcoming elections. (While on this, 70 organisations plan to protest against the BJP government on the subject of jobs).

That the government deep-sixed the NSSO report, tried to replace it with MUDRA data, realized that there was no good news to be had there either has been touched upon in an earlier post. What is topically interesting is that the NSSO report keeps resurfacing, like Barbra Streisand’s Malibu house, and each fresh iteration only makes matters worse. Indian Express brought the NSSO’s Periodic Labour Force Survey back to the front pages yesterday, and it paints a very grim picture:

  • For the first time since 1993-94, the male workforce has shrunk
  • The decline is across both rural and urban areas, though it is far steeper in the rural segment (which is where the majority of voters in any election come from)
  • In rural areas, women are the worst sufferers of employment decline while in urban areas, it is the male workforce that is harder hit.
  • The grim picture of women’s unemployment is exacerbated by the fact that literacy levels are rising. In other words, more women are studying, becoming literate in the hope of finding employment – and finding none.
  • Since 2011-’12, India’s national workforce has shrunk by 4.7 crore, which is more than the total population of Saudi Arabia.

Read the above in conjunction with a few stories that made headlines over the past 48 hours:

  • Maruti Suzuki cut production by over 8% in February and expects to cut down further in March.
  • Hero MotoCorp, Honda Motorcycle and Royal Enfield are all cutting back monthly production, by around 15%. The companies expect these cuts to continue at least until May (In other words, the companies are suffering from a slowdown now, and their sights are set on the next government)
  • From the above story, an equally worrying stat: The three two-wheeler companies are carrying inventory dating 80-90 days, against the baseline level of 20-30 days on average.

The obvious takeaway from the above is that there is a significant tightening in purchasing power (and, as the story makes clear, this phenomenon has been visible since September last). But the more important point is this: Cuts in production equals cuts in jobs and a further slowdown in job creation – and none of this was factored into the already grim PLF Survey referred to earlier. Meanwhile, elsewhere:

Jet Airways is in big trouble. Its operational fleet of 41 craft is under a third of its original; 100s of flights have been cancelled; it is in debt of over $1 billion; it has not been able to pay its staff or its vendors, who have begun to cancel their contracts; and the government is now trying to get banks to step in and bail the embattled airline out (in other words, use taxpayer money to bail out an underperforming private company)

That all this equals a further loss of jobs, tightens the already bad investment scenario even further, potentially locks in more of the money available in banks which means there is less for those seeking loans to start small and medium businesses… all of this and more should be obvious.

Meanwhile, for the third successive day our commentariat is still discussing the “chowkidar” issue in its many ramifications, in great depth and detail. PM Narendra Modi is addressing over 25 lakh chowkidars via audio today (Update at 5.30 PM: Done, here it is). And on March 31, he will interact with people who have pledged their support to his #MainBhiChowkidar campaign. File this under #JustSaying

ELSEWHERE: The Central Election Committee of the BJP met on March 16 to finalize the party’s list of candidates. Three days later, the meetings continue, and the list is yet to emerge – read what you will into those tea leaves. Meanwhile, one decision the CEC has confirmed is that it is dumping every one of the ten sitting MPs in Chattisgarh, including Abhishek, son of former Chief Minister Raman Singh whose son-in-law Puneet Gupta has been charged with financial irregularities to the tune of Rs 50 crore.

That the BJP is having to scramble to hold on to its flock together was further evidenced by the 2 AM swearing in of Pramod Sawant as Chief Minister of Goa – a move, reports suggest, necessitated by the fact that Sawant’ as “consensus choice” did not meet with the approval of some of its allies.

NIRAV Modi, principal in the PNB scam (Hindu has a graphical walkthrough for those who came in late) has been arrested, and will be produced in court in London later today. Republic TV is reporting live from London “where Modi was arrested”. The channel also asks whether Mallya will be next. TimesNow — Republic’s main rival, though united by a common political leaning — asks the BIG QUESTION (caps theirs, not mine): Has this arrested reiterated the diplomatic clout of the Modi sarkar? And an informed commentator says the BJP plans to bring Mallya and Modi back to India so it can during this election cycle beat the drum about its anti-corruption credentials.

*sigh* Okay, I’ll make this easy for everyone: Modi will be brought before the court. He will be given the opportunity to seek bail — and a time limit within which he must make the application. He will file the motion in time. And he will be given bail. And we will forget all about this, till the next time it becomes an issue.

How do I know? A basic — very basic — knowledge of how court proceedings work. And precedent. Vijay Mallya was arrested, also in London, in October 2017. A little over a year and a half later, he is still in London, still on bail, and no nearer being extradited to India.

But never mind. Modi has been arrested (that his presence was known thanks to the efforts of a journalist, and not the Indian government, is neither here nor there). And this will give politicians, and their friendly media outlets, sufficient scope to beat the drum at deafening decibel levels for a day or two. By then, some other rabbit hole will materialise for everyone to dive into.

SINCE alliances are a big thing (Even Pritish Nandy has begun asking what is going on): The Congress and the National Congress have allied in Kashmir. This adds to Congress alliances in Tamil Nadu (39 seats on offer), Maharashtra (48 seats), Bihar (40 seats), and Jharkhand (14 seats), besides the long-running UDF alliance in Kerala (20 seats). Additionally, the Congress is in power in Rajasthan (25), Punjab (13), Chattisgarh (11) and Madhya Pradesh (29). And talks are, I understand, on in Assam and the north east (where there is a steady exodus from the BJP).

EARLIER in this post I had talked of the stresses on the employment sector, and why that could be one of the key issues of the election cycle (Arun Jaitley disagrees). A Reuters report I just read looks at the issue specifically from women in the workforce. There is much here worth noting, but the point that jumped out me is this:

Indian women, especially those working in precarious informal sectors, are at the sharp end of what economists and opposition politicians describe as a jobs crisis in India. According to the private Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), 90 percent of around 10 million jobs lost last year were held by women.

Related, Paul Krugman warns that the job crisis could escalate badly, to the detriment of the nation’s prospects.

HARKING momentarily back to the earlier theme of the BJP and its allies, this just in from the Shiv Sena:

In a sharp attack on the political drama that played out between between the BJP and its allies in Goa after Manohar Parrikar’s death, the Shiv Sena on Wednesday dubbed it as a “terrible state of democracy”, saying they did not even wait for the chief minister’s ashes to cool down.

The “shameless game of power” started even before Mr Parrikar’s ashes could merge with the land of Gomantak, the Sena said in an editorial in party mouthpiece “Saamana”.

It claimed that had the BJP waited till Tuesday, its government in Goa would have fallen and one of the two deputy chief ministers would have joined the Congress and got the desired post, it claimed.

Oh well, never mind, at least the BJP did brilliantly to have an alliance, no?

RIP Manohar Parikkar

I’VE never met Mr Manohar Parikkar. By all accounts — and there are plenty of accounts on the net (here is a particularly nuanced one), written by journalists and public figures who say they knew him well and counted him a friend — he was a decent human being and an able administrator. I wish him a safe passage to wherever we all go when we are done here, and I wish his family, and his friends, the strength to bear the loss.

I wish, too, that I could get these images out of my head. Images of a man in extremis, a man who knows the sand is rapidly running out in the hourglass, and who is yet forced to go through the motions of working, of leading a party and heading a government.

If, or rather when, my time comes, I wish I will be allowed to spend those last few grains of sand making peace with my life, smoothing out the little details those who remain behind will have to deal with, reaching out to those that matter to me to tell them the things I have long bottled up… I wish that my last few grains of sand are mine alone, to spend as I chose.

Mr Parikkar was never granted those last moments of grace. Ever since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer his party, desperate to hold on to a state government it had suborned its way into, propped him up as the functioning figurehead. It tells me two things: One, that there is a dearth of charismatic, popular leaders within the ranks. And two, that the party is willing to sacrifice everything — up to, and including, basic human decency — in its hunger for power. It is illuminating that even as his health was deteriorating and it became evident that the end was hours away, the BJP began scrambling to save its government.

I wish Mr Parikkar finds in the afterlife that peace he was not granted in his last few weeks on earth. RIP.

#CHOWKIDARChorHai. Rahul Gandhi appears to have gotten under the BJP’s skin with that poll slogan.

Weeks after he debuted it, the BJP finally came up with its response. Narendra Modi “launched” a #MainBhiChowkidar “movement”, and exhorted his followers to prefix “chowkidar” to their names. And face met palm, hard. I mean, the answer to being called a thief is to suggest that everyone should add ‘thief’ to their names? And I thought Aesop’s fable about the fox that lost its tail was just that: a fable.

In monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, Modi’s ministers, party members and those members of the public eager to “show their support” began prefixing their names with ‘Chowkidar‘ — and thus, for the first time in recorded history, we had an instance of rogues voluntarily adding their names and images to the gallery.

One of the first to jump on the bandwagon was Pankaja Gopinath Munde, BJP leader and Maharashtra’s Minister for Rural Development, Women and Child Welfare. She first hit the national headlines with the Rs 206 crore “chikki scam“, and wriggled out of it with the obligatory “clean chit” that has become one of the unstated perks of high office. More recently, the Supreme Court struck down Rs 6,300 crore worth of tenders issued by her ministry towards supplying Take Home Rations (THR) at daycare centres and anganwadis in Maharashtra. Worth noting is that the modus operandi is exactly similar to the one used in the chikki scam, only on a much larger scale (the trouble with these clean chits so liberally handed out is that the recipient develops a sense of infallibility, of immunity). Also worth noticing is another distressingly frequent occurrence under this dispensation: When the matter came up for hearing, the state government “misrepresented” facts — which is to say, it lied, and was caught out.

Another early adopter of the ‘chowkidar‘ prefix was Federal Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani — who, per a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, has been accused of fraud and favouritism in the allocation of the MP Local Area Development funds. Currently, the Gujarat High Court is hearing a PIL and has sought details from the state government about recovery of the funds. (Journalist and author Sujata Anandan in a piece this weekend emphatically underlined the hubristic nature of the motormouth minister’s career)

(In passing, the BJP’s biggest fear is beginning to materialise — stories of scams are beginning to pop up all over the place. Another recent instance relates to Puneet Gupta, son in law of former Chattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, who has now been charged in a Rs 50 crore scam pertaining to his tenure as superintendent of a state government hospital in Raipur. Meanwhile, a Special Investigation Team is probing the long-running scandal that is known as the PDS scam, and a report is expected before the end of polling for the 17th Lok Sabha. This is the problem with losing power — wrongdoings that get swept under the carpet when you control the levers of office get exhumed and aired once you are out of office. Also by way of aside this post, written when the BJP was yet to lose its crusading sheen, is a short list of scams under the ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga‘ regime. )

While the BJP’s scams continue to mount, the basic poll premise of the 2014 edition of the NDA and its leader — that it will end corruption in the country — is taking a beating on another front. If you recall that election campaign, the main thrust was that there was sufficient evidence to proceed against a whole Rolodex of Congress leaders and their relatives, and that within six months of assuming office the scamsters will find themselves behind bars.

A Swati Chaturvedi piece for The Wire undercuts that premise. Briefly:

  • The PMO has not ordered any action against the list of defaulters submitted by then governor of the RBI Raghuram Rajan. And BJP members of the Parliamentary Committee have been absenting from meetings to ensure that there is no quorum, and hence the committee’s report will not be adopted, which in turn means that it won’t see the light of day. “Worse, after Rajan replied to the committee revealing the list as Joshi is finalising his report, BJP MPs in the committee have refused to attend recent meetings.
  • The much-hype 2G scam collapsed in court with all 17 accused being acquitted. Further, the government has been allowing the hearing of the appeal to drag on through an endless series of adjournments.
  • The government systematically ignored requests by the Serious Fraud Office to arrest Nirav Modi. British authorities have since said that requests sent to the Indian government for information that could help Britain arrest and deport Modi met with no response from New Delhi.

In other words, not only has Modi’s supposed USP, of running a scam-free government, collapsed over time, his intent to probe and punish alleged scamsters from the previous regime has also proved a non-starter — not exactly the sort of CV that could land you the ‘chowkidar‘ job in any decently run housing society, let alone that of the pradhan chowkidar of the country. And meanwhile, his government continues to launch punitive corruption probes against political opponents — until they join the BJP, at which point everything is forgiven and forgotten.

To return to the “main bhi chowkidar” story, that badly conceived ploy (which seems to have left the BJP’s allies cold) further shot itself in the foot when the BJP IT Cell decided to automate responses to those responding to Modi’s Main Bhi Chowkidar call out. The result — messages going out under the official handle thanking parody accounts of loan defaulters and scamsters, notably Nirav Modi, further compounded the confusion and provided the opposition (and social media) a gratuitous stick to beat the BJP with.

In the midst of all this “gotcha” gimmickry by the two sides, the tone-deaf nature of Modi’s latest brainwave was totally ignored. A few news stories illustrate the point I’m driving at:

  • In August 2018, 3,700 PhD holders, 50,000 graduates and 28,000 Post Graduates applied for 62 posts of messengers in the Uttar Pradesh police force, the minimum qualification for which is a pass in Class V.
  • In April of the same year, nearly 2 lakh candidates applied for 1,137 vacancies for constables in the Mumbai police force. Applicants for a post requiring a minimum Class 12 pass included 167 MBAs, 423 engineers, 543 Post Graduates, 28 BEd degree holders, 34 Masters in Computer Science, 159 MSc degree holders, three qualified lawyers, and 167 graduates in Business Administration, among others.
  • In January this year, over 59 lakh applications were received for the post of constable in the Railway Protection Force — where the total number of vacancies is 8619.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Also note that I have picked out only jobs relating to vacancies for security personnel of various types — chowkidars, in other words. (In my previous post, there is more on the unemployment situation, for those looking to dig deeper).

So just how insensitive, how tone deaf, do you have to be, given the prevailing employment solution, to come up with main bhi chowkidar as a meme when unemployment is, according to all available polling, one of the top three issues in the upcoming polls?

BACK in 1962 the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo-event” to refer to political theatre and the way stage-managed events are created to drive narratives. (An earlier, extended post on Boorstin’s book here). In that connection, consider:

A few manual scavengers were hand-picked; the event organisers ensured they were bathed and dressed in clean clothes so the PM could, on the sidelines of the Kumbh Mela, ritually wash their already clean feet.

That became the subject for much debate and discussion, at least some of it revolving around how the PM had struck a blow against the entrenched caste system. At a subsequent political event, a carefully planted question set up the PM to say that he did not do this for votes but because it is part of his sanskar. Mission accomplished: TV had some visuals to run with, talking heads had a non-issue to “debate” in prime time, and the PM and his party got oodles of free PR.

On the ground, the objects of Modi’s attentions were clearly unimpressed. A group of manual scavengers protested in Delhi a day later, and their leader asked: ““What is the point of washing feet when his government has failed to stop those feet from entering sewers? When it has failed to give even one paisa in compensation to those who have died in the sewers?”

Recall that the BJP had promised to end manual scavenging by 2016.

“Taking forward the Prime Minister’s policy for the upliftment of the poor and everyone’s development, the party has pledged to work towards ending manual scavenging by 2016,” BJP president Amit Shah said in a statement.

Party workers will go to far-flung villages to ensure that no poor and deprived family is forced to do manual scavenging, he said, noting that over 23 lakh families are still compelled to do so even after 68 years of Independence.

Three years after that deadline, in February 2019, there were still sufficient manual scavengers around for Modi to find a few for a photo/video opportunity. A week later — and one day after the PM attributed his act to his sanskartwo more manual scavengers died in course of their work. In Varanasi, the PM’s own constituency. And on that same day, the Delhi government inaugurated 200 sewer cleaning machines, which were handed over to 200 scavengers.

I’ll leave you for the day with this Bloomberg deep dive into the opaque nature of electoral funding — a must-read because this is going to ramify as the poll season kicks into high gear. And in this connection, an illuminative Twitter thread. And from the evergreen work of RK Laxman, this:

Chinese Checkers and other stories

AP photo by Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via Outlook magazine

THE most important item of news to come out of the last 24 hours is this: China, yet again, stalled India’s move to get the UN Security Council to list Masood Azhar and his terrorist outfit.

“We are disappointed by this outcome,” an MEA statement said. “This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a proscribed and active terrorist organization which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on 14 February 2019.”

Disappointed, perhaps, but the MEA could hardly be surprised. Despite at least four meetings between Xi and Modi in 2018 including the “agenda-less” meeting in Wuhan in April last year (puffed up by the PM, much ballyhooed in India as a masterstroke of diplomacy, and almost entirely ignored in China whose press did not even bother to showcase the visit on its front pages), China has consistently taken Pakistan’s side on the issue of terrorism in general, and the Pulwama attacks and the Balakot retaliation in particular.

What merits focus — by those with bone-deep understanding of how foreign policy ramifies, in which group I don’t belong — is how the hunger for photo-ops and propaganda wins has led to a situation where India’s diplomatic relations are a shambles. Two tweets by Shekhar Gupta and Sonali Ranade throw some light on the basic problem; I’m hoping that foreign policy wonks with cred and expertise will weigh in soon with more detailed analysis, for the issue is simply too important, and its ramifications extend well beyond the question of Masood Azhar’s status.

In passing, a note: Chest-thumping rhetoric works on the campaign trail, particularly with easily-aroused believers. Governance, however, is a whole other ball game. Just one instance among many:

Deja view: Modi the tub-thumping campaigner

In this context, a thread by journalist/commentator Kanchan Gupta is worth reading. Also, related, what is India’s current policy vis a vis Pakistan? No contact at all? Contact limited to maintaining pressure on Pakistan to act against terrorism? Total contact (with the exception of cricket and Bollywood)? Asking, because delegations from the two countries are currently meeting to discuss modalities related to the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, across various governments: We kick up a fuss about Pakistan and terrorism, declaim before all sorts of international bodies, and then Pakistan turns around and says what tensions is India talking about, everything is normal, see, we are even discussing whatever-it-is.

TODAY, the Supreme Court resumes consideration of a petition to review its own ruling that no probe was required in the Rafale scam. Very briefly, the SC ruling was based on papers the government submitted in a sealed cover; subsequent to the judgment, it was found that key portions of the government submission were false.

The petitions now being heard were filed by BJP apostates and former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and advocate/activist Prashant Bhushan, who contend that the government lied when it said details of the Rafale pricing had been submitted to MP Sanjay Singh – contend that the court should to re-consider its judgment, which relies on a “non-existent” CAG report to uphold the Rafale deal.

A story dating back to December 2018, a Wire round-up of the main issues, the full text of the review petition that sets out the central issues, and this piece in the Deccan Herald today provide most of the background you need to follow the play in the Supreme Court today. And it is an important hearing, because the government has been claiming a “clean chit” on the Rafale issue — if the SC now takes issue with the government for misleading it, and reverses its earlier judgment in part or in full, the chowkidar chor hai war-cry will resume, and the Rafale issue will become front and centre of the Opposition campaign.

UPDATE 5.15 PM: The SC has reserved judgment on the objections raised by the government about the maintainability of the review petition. This is a good resource for a snapshot view of what happened in court today.

WHAT happens south of the Vindhyas remains south of the Vindhyas, at least as far as mainstream media is concerned. The Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, sexual abuse case is the latest instance in point. While the case is still unravelling, even preliminary investigations confirm that four men, over a period of two years, abused in excess of 50 women — including teachers and students from schools and colleges, as also housewives — who they befriended through social media. These are the bare bones details. More women have been coming forward in the wake of the abuse coming to light.

What followed was almost predictable: Area students took to the streets in protest, and the police responded with force. Protests snowballed, with schools and colleges across the state joining in; civil society joined in as well and last evening, Chennai saw a large turnout of people demanding justice.

Amidst rumours that the four alleged perpetrators had ties to the ruling AIADMK, the political opposition entered the fray, with DMK leaders MK Stalin and M Kanimozhi at the forefront.

Slamming the Superintendent of Police Pandiarajan for revealing the name of the survivor in the case during a press-meet, Kanimozhi said that the law strictly prohibits revealing the identity of the affected child or woman. “The name of the survivor in this case was revealed only to silence the other women and prevent them from coming out in the open and complaining,” she said.

The rally organised by the district DMK unit in Pollachi, saw massive participation from DMK cadres from in and around the town and also from cadres of its allies like the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Communist Party of India (CPI), Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Congress etc.

The already beleaguered police, facing ire for dragging their feet on the investigation, faced an additional problem caused by the identity of the officers leading the probe:

Her references were about an incident during a protest against TASMAC a few years ago, when SP Pandiarajan had slapped a women protester and the photos of the act went viral. The DSP in this case, R Jeyaram was also caught on camera, touching a woman colleague in uniform, during a NEET-related protest in Coimbatore.

With the protests escalating and the lead officers under fire, the TN government has transferred the case to the CBI. Meanwhile here is the bit that should give you pause:

The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on Tuesday slammed the mainstream media for not covering the Pollachi sex scandal as they did with the case of Nirbhaya, who was brutally raped by a group of men on the streets of Delhi in 2012.

The judges said that national media houses do not pay enough attention to grievous crimes in rural areas. They also opined that the mainstream media “deliberately avoids”  Tamil Nadu. 

DATA is a theme I touched on in a post yesterday, am returning to now, and will likely be a constant theme over the next few weeks. For why? Because it is what informs — or should inform — our understanding of governmental functioning, of the state of the economy, of the wellbeing of the state. The more authentic the data we have, the more informed our decisions; the more opaque data becomes, the less informed we are. (And that is me stating the obvious.)

So adding on to yesterday, a few more stories worth your attention: 1.76 lakh employees of BSNL have not been paid salaries for the month of February. In January HAL, another state-run enterprise, had to borrow Rs 1000 crore to pay salaries. Air India, also state-owned, has been defaulting on salary payments in successive months. Security personnel, gardeners, cleaning staff, lift operators, ticket vendors and others working at the much-hyped Statue of Unity are on strike, protesting that their wages have not been paid for over three months.

Here’s the bit I don’t get: In the last week of each month, my wife lists the salaries we have to make (driver, the boy who maintains our home, the other gent who comes to cook, our contribution to the wages of the building’s security staff) and has me draw out the money from the bank. She provides for these payments when drawing up the monthly budget — it not as if she wakes up one morning and goes uh oh, we forgot we have payments to make; these are recurring, foreseeable expenses. So what beats me is this: how does the government repeatedly miss such bills? Aren’t such recurring payments provided for in budgets? If not, why not? If yes, what happened to all that money? As they say in the world of social media, #genuinequestion

UNEMPLOYMENT emerged as a critical election issue in several recent surveys. So: In January PC Mohanan, acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission, resigned in protest after the government suppressed the release of the latest unemployment survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office.

Business Standard scooped the blocked report, which showed that the unemployment rate of 6.1% was the highest in the last four decades. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy rang the alarm bells even louder: the unemployment rate had risen to 7.2% in February, CMIE reported, following on from a report it had released in January which said that an estimated 11 million people had lost their jobs in 2018 as a result of the continued fallout of the November 8, 2016 demonetisation and the launch of the GST regime in 2017.

Government ministers, party spokespersons and friendly media outlets either ignored these reports, or dismissed them as unapproved “drafts”. In March, the Confederation of Indian Industry produced its own report, which claimed that the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector created between 13.5 to 14.9 million new jobs over a four year period, and that the sector had registered a jobs growth rate of 13.9%.

Ministers, spokespersons and sections of the media used the report to claim that India was “surging”. Only, says this detailed report, maybe not.

To further compound the confusion, the government first instructed its spokespersons to confine all employment-related discussions to the Labour Ministry statistics collected under the Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency (MUDRA) scheme and now, in an abrupt u-turn, has announced that these figures will only be released after the elections as “anomalies” had been discovered. Which makes it the third employment-related report to be deep-sixed in this election year. What a tangled web we weave, Shakespeare once lamented…

Related, Indian Express reports that at 3.8% year on year, the rural wage growth is the lowest ever for the month of December. Further:

The country’s farm sector output may have grown by just 2.7 per cent year-on-year in October-December 2018, the lowest in 11 quarters. But what should worry the NDA government more than the low increase in “real” terms (i.e. at constant prices) is the growth in “nominal” terms (at current prices unadjusted for inflation).

The latter number, at 2.04 per cent, is the lowest for any quarter as per the Central Statistics Office’s new 2011-12 base year series and also the worst since the minus 1.1 per cent rate recorded way back in October-December 2004 (based on the then 1999-2000 GDP series).

PS: This is a post being updated through the day, so come on back.