Brexit Britain, The Boris Touch

Brexit seems to be one of those long Broadway plays that the Brits like, with pointless intrigues, family feuds and an ending that could be predicted at the beginning. A confined theatre is a British temple, Brexit is now being played in the boundaries of Britain with the whole world as spectator and Europe in the demonic role.  A new twist has been introduced to what was becoming the Brexit writer’s block. It has been spiced up with an unexpected Eastern flavour, the Boris touch, with the ending become ever more exciting, dramatic and cliff hanger. Boris has brought a new dimension into British politics, so far missing.

The West and particularly the English, like to be seen to be playing fair by the rules. Rule of law is the official religion of the United Kingdom. Like all religions, it is a fairy tale idealism which works for most things with some degree of hypocrisy but gets stuck when real life gets tough. When the ‘rule of law’ is not working for the English or comes to a dead end, the English scuttle around to find a loophole in the small print, divide the opposition, and transfer the blame. Usually it moves on with a deviant combination of creative energising of the almost hidden small print, confounding the opposition and aided by the lack of a constitution which enables flexibility in interpretation of ‘convention’. The history of the Empire is full of this tactic.

Unfortunately for the English, the Europeans are also immersed in this skewed game of rule of law and are familiar with the British tactic. Hence attempts at dividing the EU, at making the Europeans the scapegoat for refusing to accept a ‘messy and fantasy solution’, and failing to treat the Brits on par with the gods, has all failed. Remember, ‘gods’ are usually above the everyday laws of mortals. Along comes Boris Johnson to save a play repeating scenes under Theresa May. The public attention was waning.

Boris has a Turkish ancestry, on the great grandfather, so a percentage of him brings an Eastern approach now to the Brexit game. The East generally sees rule of law as a utilitarian tool used by the politically powerful while they remain above it. It is no wonder ‘rule of law’ does not appear to work as ‘equitably’ in most countries east of Greece as it seems in the west. Perhaps the difference is that in the west there is craft, pretence and play when rule of law is bent, whereas in the East, power dispenses with the drama and gets to the desired outcome unashamedly.

The UK has now brought in the ‘curry’ option. With the Brexit stasis becoming deeply sclerotic as Parliament could not find any road, lane or even a rope to pull itself through the self-imposed barriers, in came Boris with his eastern temperament woken.

He first warned the Brits of the great Turkish migrant invasion for which only Brexit was a defence. In April 2016, Mr Johnson warned: “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad – that won’t work.” Now with his Turkish roots he is Prime Minister. Talk about ironic prophecy.

He has dismissed the sacrament of every convention and unwritten rule that has prevented the Crown to institute a proper Constitution and which defined the mystery of Britain. He found the greatest loophole. There is no written constitution so why not open the gaping hole that had so far been covered with customised verbal straw, that is convention. He has driven a bulldozer through propriety of office and government.

Extraordinarily, he is the leader of Britain that every politician and commentator who can say so does say so without embarrassment that he cannot be trusted! Imagine, a country being asked to live by rule of law, have integrity but its leader unashamedly is considered a pathological liar in office! Brexit has brought politics to this level. A new for the office of Her Majesty’s Prime Minister.

Boris prorogued Parliament (suspended now) for long period against convention until courts reversed it: and then against ‘traditional wisdom’ threw out the most staunch members of the Conservative Party who were considered its pillars if not foundation, including grandees and Churchill’s son; has says anything to anyone as they want to hear and then denies he said it; exploited the Queen in his machinations and even called Parliament to sit on an emergency war footing on a Saturday. The unwritten constitution has been exposed by him as the infamous Emperor’s non-existent clothes.

Like leaders in some eastern countries, Boris is pushing as far as is possible, breaking convention as far is possible and ignoring etiquette as far is possible until people go to the courts to stop him. If he carries on, sooner or later the courts will be in a knot.

Brexit has not been done yet but it has taken its toll. It is a war come home and grown into a multidimensional civil war. It is almost the Middle East without the violence. The different camps range from no Brexit, to a Brexit with no Deal to a Brexit with any Deal to a Brexit with a Deal with Customs Union with Europe (meaning obeying EU regulations) and a Brexit with labour laws aligned with Europe and so on.

The British parliament itself is a spectacle. No party can command complete loyalty, (except perhaps Scottish Nationalists). Parties dominating England and Wales all have conspirators galore now.

Britain, or at least England has changed and will change for ever after this. This is a tectonic phase in modern Britain. Calls for a proper written constitution are growing. Some are even predicting the end of the Monarchy on whom convention depended. Some are predicting a move away from the simple majority democracy that UK has and some are predicting a new phase in which smaller parties will reign, perhaps a proportional representation model of some European countries.

The end of United Kingdom is prophesised by many a pundit and politician now. Few think that the country can be united after three years of bitter differences. Scotland is gearing up for another referendum. Northern Ireland’s nationalists are muting a referendum to separate from Britain in near future. That leaves Wales and England.

It is also interesting that this country which ran a racist Empire once, now has its four most important positions in Government run by children of migrant families. The PM has Turkish roots, born in New York. The Foreign Minister is son of a Czechoslovakian Jewish father, The Home Minister is daughter of East African Gujratis and the Chancellor is a son of Pakistani immigrants. It shows how far Britain has come in being a real multicultural and multiracial country. With Brexit, a new Britain is rising as Imperial Britain is dying.

As for Brexit, Boris Johnson is likely to favour a Brexit Deal where Northern Ireland is ditched. The majority of English see Norther Ireland as a burden. He may even stitch up with Scottish nationalists and offer them a referendum. He is likely to get support from some Labour MPs so he can ignore the Northern Irish Unionists (those who want to remain within UK, DUP) who have been a major obstacle to any agreement on Brexit.

After all this real life and often humorous grand Brexit theatre which has made Comic halls irrelevant in London at the moment, and which has made West End plays appear as Children’s entertainment, the end game may still be another referendum and back into EU after a short Brexit. But Brexit Britain will have undergone fundamental change in these three years of internal trauma. It is already being seen very differently by the rest of the world but will be even more after the Boris touch at the heart of an Imperial power that made ceremony, pomp, convention and tradition the sacred unwritten constitution of Great Britain. All that is being blown away by Boris the Turk.

Bhagat Singh Practised Patriotism, Not Nationalism

The freedom fighter’s vision of a global federation of the future is still relevant today

Seven decades after the British left, a young Indian donning a hat uncharacteristically continues to stride on South Asia’s mental landscape, ruffling up the political discourse and occasionally questioning the conscience of the former colonial masters.

Overshadowing his Sikh identity, Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s ‘Western’ image emerged when he was on the run from the British Indian police. His is among the most recognized face in the pantheon of freedom fighters.

He practised and preached patriotism, and not narrow nationalism as understood today; and socialism, not what goes in the name of social and economic reforms today.

Eighty-eight years after he was hanged, at all of 23 years, he would be perplexed today to be termed a ‘terrorist’ by some contemporary British historians, and at his legacy becoming a bone of contention among India’s warring political forces.

September 28th was Bhagat Singh’s 112th birth anniversary. Not many observed it. That Mahatma Gandhi’s landmark 150th birth anniversary soon followed may have something to do with it. Whether the people have fully understood the content and spirit of what the two said and did is a different matter.

Bhagat Singh’s anniversary was preceded by a stealthy, overnight, unauthorized installation of his bust in the Delhi University. The problem was that it was one of the three, with Subhas Chandra Bose and Hindutva pioneer V D Savarkar. Credit for it was taken by the students’ affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The university authorities played footsy till Savarkar’s face was blackened by students of the opposition Congress. Removing all three busts became inevitable.

The three represent differing ideologies. Savarkar’s followers in power today have sought to appropriate along with Gandhi the others as part of their establishment’s efforts to re-write history, especially of the freedom struggle. This is despite the fact that these lives are well documented.

Bhagat Singh’s records show that for a 23 year-old, some spent in jail, and as one who spent a year in college, he was highly committed, well-read, well-informed, knew several languages and left behind a body of work.

The narrative so far remains one of his being wedded to socialist and revolutionary ideas. But who knows, the process of appropriating him may never end, given, as analysts say, the “tussle between Bhagat and Bhagat Singh.”

In a new edited 638-page volume, historian and academic Chaman Lal says the process of Bhagat Singh developing as a Marxist revolutionary began with the setting up of Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the later rechristening of HRA (Hindustan Republican Army) as Hindustan Socialist Republican Army/Association. Founded in 1924, the HRA galaxy included Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaquallah.   

Politically, he and his associates respected Mahatma Gandhi for the impact his ideas and actions created on the masses. But they did not believe that non-violence would yield the country freedom from the British.  

Bhagat Singh and his comrades shot dead British policeman John Saunders. But they also smuggled a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi and exploded it to create a noisy impact, without hurting anyone. If the first act was to send a stern message to the British, the latter was to arouse mass awareness for the same.  Along with Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Rajguru, he courted arrest, was tried on both counts and the three were eventually hanged.

The dual act separates him and his group from other revolutionaries who, in their own belief of no less significance, sacrificed their lives. He had evolved from his belief in the Ghadar Party’s adherence to violence to people-oriented activism based on socialist ideas.

Their hunger strike in jail added to mass awareness. From Gandhi to Jinnah to Nehru and Bose, all spoke in support. Some criticized them for their violent means to seek freedom. Chaman Lal says there was “not a word” from Hindutva adherents. 

A controversy developed over Gandhi’s attitude to the death sentence on the three. Could he have bargained their exoneration before signing the Gandhi-Irwin Pact?

Chaman Lal told The Times of India: “Even if Gandhi had made it a point not to have the Gandhi-Irwin Pact without the commutation of their death sentences, the revolutionaries would not have accepted any compromise at their end. They had a clear perception that they had to sacrifice their lives to arouse the Indian masses for the freedom struggle. Yet one can say that Gandhi did make efforts but not with the passion of Nehru and Bose. Gandhi did not assert his moral position that he is against death sentence, whatever may be the crime. In the revolutionaries’ case, Gandhi should not have compromised on his principled position of opposition to capital punishment.”

Bose said that Bhagat Singh had become “the symbol of the new awakening among the youths.” Nehru acknowledged that Singh’s popularity was “leading to a new national awakening,”

Prof. Vinay Lal, Professor of History at UCLA quotes Nehru who thought “he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi. He found that amazing.”

Singh and his comrades had rattled the British rulers. The three were hanged before the stipulated time to avoid mass protests.

In present times, his mystic endures. He is discussed by scholars and historians irrespective of their political credo. Numerous books have been written. At least seven films have been made between 1931 and 2002. Bhagat Singh’s role enacted by Shammi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Ajay Devgan and Bobby Deol has furthered the popular discourse.

At the political level, there is an unmistakable irony about Bhagat Singh’s portrayal as a socialist when socialism and indeed, Marxism, are on the back-foot in much of the world, even as caste considerations divide India’s socialists and the Marxists are being electorally vanquished.

Across South Asia, the Bhagat Singh mystique remains deeply embedded among the educated and discerning. Late Madeeha Gauhar of Pakistan’s Ajoka Theatre Group told this writer of several stage performances. To avoid any divisiveness, she said, the preferred image of Bhagat Singh is one of the clean-shaven man with thin moustache and fedora. The same endures in India.

Two bodies in Pakistan, Bhagat Singh Foundation and Bhagat Singh Memorial Foundation want a memorial in Banga, his birthplace in Lyallpur and a road named after him in Lahore, where he was hanged. One of them wants the British Queen to publicly apologize for the brutal treatment to him before he was hanged.          

From Bangladesh, Farooque Chowdhury recalls that the slogan that Bhagat Singh introduced during the freedom struggle turned into a war cry of the exploited people across the Subcontinent seeking their rights: Inqilab Zindabad – Long Live Revolution.”

In a 1924 essay, Bhagat Singh embraced the ancient Indian idea of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the world as family) and visualized a global federation of the future. If only a dream, it is still relevant today in a world that is witnessing barriers built in the name of nationalism.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Modi-Yogi Doublespeak On Renewable Energy

The Uttar Pradesh government is working at cross purposes with the Centre’s policy to promote non-fossil fuels based energy

‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride’ is an old Scottish proverb dating back to the 17th century which looks to have gone down well with our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Achievable or not, Modi keeps on making promises not necessarily supported by ground reality. But he has the advantage of people trusting him. Modi won many hearts, specially of the environmentalists, when at the recent United Nations climate action summit in New York he announced India ambitiously resetting the renewable energy (RE) target at 450 gigawatt even while the country is losing steam in its march towards the 2022 RE capacity goal of 175 GW.

A combination of factors, including policy deficit, state governments insisting on low tariffs for electricity derived from renewable sources and they not always honouring power purchase agreements (PPAs) or revising PPAs arbitrarily marks the Indian RE power scene. No wonder then solar power capacity addition here last year was down to 6.5 GW from 9.4 GW in 2017-18 and in the first quarter of 2019-20, it was a disappointing 1.4 GW.

US President Donald Trump had reasons to demur when Modi said that the world was not doing enough to overcome the challenge of climate change. Therefore, he bravely announced at the summit that “India is here not just to talk about the seriousness of this issue, but to present a practical approach and a road map. We believe an ounce of practice is worth more than a tonne of preaching.” But back home, Modi has to contend with the fact that India is a Republic where the states have full powers on many subjects, including agriculture and there is also a concurrent list, leaving room for serious disagreements on issues.

Apparently, it should work to the advantage of Modi that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as it has a formidable majority at the centre, it runs the government in 21 states either on its own or in partnership with other parties. Uttar Pradesh happens to be India’s largest state, which, according to Modi himself, suffers from development indicators of sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in Asia. UP remains among the least preferred investment destinations because of poor law and order situation, religious strife, governance deficit and power shortages. The UP scene has not improved at all in the last couple of years though BJP has 312 of 403 Assembly seats.

BJP being in absolute power both at the Centre and in Lucknow, it should be a given that the latter will faithfully dispose what the prime minister may be proposing. Unfortunately, this is not happening in the case of promotion of green energy. Considering the fact that the state happens to be the country’s largest producer of sugarcane and sugar, it has the potential to produce more green energy in the form of ethanol for blending with petrol and also produce clean electricity by burning bagasse. Om Prakash Dhanuka, a former president of Indian Sugar Mills Association, says: “The sugar industry presents the unique example of converting by-products of sugarcane, namely, molasses and bagasse into wealth in the form of renewable green energy. The carbon footprint of ethanol and bagasse fired electricity is considerably less than energy derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal. Moreover, the higher the supply of renewable green energy, more will the country save on cost of imports of oil and coal.”

Even while India has estimated geological coal resources of 319.02bn tonnes and its 2018-19 production was 731m tonnes, up 8.1 per cent from 675.40m tonnes in 2017-18, India still had to import as much as 236m tonnes last year against 209m tonnes in the previous year. Perhaps more worrisome is the country’s oil import dependence going up from 80.6 per cent in 2015-16 to 83.7 per cent in 2018-19 with oil consumption during this period growing from 184.7m tonnes to 211.6m tonnes. The country’s oil import bill ominously rose from ₹171,702 crore in 2005-06 to ₹881,282 crore in 2018-19. “We need to give a push to rapid development of green energy capacity by making optimal use of sustainable resources such as sunlight abundantly available in most parts of the country, wind and biomass in the context of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) forecast that India would record the fastest annual average oil demand growth in the world at 3.7 per cent through 2040. We also have reasons to be greatly concerned about our hosting 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities,” says Dhanuka. Rapid growth in oil demand has to be seen against the background of the country declaring an ambition to become a $5 trillion economy in the next five to six years from the present $2.8 trillion.

The compulsion to have cleaner air in our cities and also to relieve the pressure that oil imports leave on our balance of payments, New Delhi has recently given some major incentives to sugar mills for stepping up production of ethanol, which should progressively raise the rate of its blending with petrol. Traditionally, here ethanol is made from what is called C heavy molasses, that is, after most juice is extracted from cane for sugar making. Going a step forward and in order also to counter the sugar industry’ viability being compromised under the weight of overproduction of the sweetener for two seasons in a row, New Delhi last year wisely allowed the industry to use B heavy molasses, which retains a good amount of juice. Going even a step forward, the government has cleared cane crushing factories to produce ethanol directly from cane juice. Prices for ethanol to be made from all three categories have been revised upwards to the industry’s satisfaction. A major relief came its way with goods & services tax reset at 5 per cent from the earlier 18 per cent.

But the Yogi Adityanath administration in disregard to what the centre is trying to do has given an order that sugar mills in UP will have to reserve 16 per cent of their C heavy molasses for units engaged in making country made liquor (CML) against 12.5 per cent earlier. The state government excuse for the unjustified move is since molasses production in the 2018-19 sugar season (October to September) is down to 4.7m tonnes from 5.5m tonnes expected earlier, CML producers in the state need to be compensated by raising the percentage of their molasses entitlement. While sugar factories will be parting with the 16 per cent quota of C heavy molasses at ₹75 a quintal, if they are to buy it from the market the cost will be anything between ₹450 and ₹500 a quintal. CML and India made foreign liquor (IMFL) happen to be the two most important sources of excise revenue for the state. It is precisely for the sake of revenue that the interest of the sugar industry has been sacrificed.

Then again the arbitrary decision by the UP Electricity Regulatory Commission that henceforward sugar factories will get ₹2.89 a unit against the earlier ₹4.88 a unit for their cogenerated electricity derived by way of burning bagasse has come as a disincentive for sugar factories on green energy mission. The Commission has arrived at the lower electricity rate by assuming without any justification the cost of bagasse at ₹1,000 a tonne from the earlier ₹1,600 a tonne. The current UP market rate for bagasse is, however, ₹1,800 a tonne. The two instances show beyond doubt that the UP government is working at cross purposes with the centre’s policy to promote non-fossil fuels based energy.

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Plan For A Rajpath Revamp Is Fraught With Risks

Modi Govt’s idea to restructure the stretch from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan is an attempt to bulldoze over things that do not conform with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Partys world view

Earlier this month, the Modi government announced an ambitious plan to redevelop, reinvent and rebuild the area around the four-kilometre stretch from the India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the Indian Capital. Also known as the Central vista, the wide lawns in the heart of Delhi, are flanked by a host of buildings which house various Central government offices.

Besides the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, which rests on the Raisina Hill, the North and South Block as well as the circular Parliament House are among the well-known buildings providing a befitting backdrop to the sprawling India Gate lawns which were constructed between 1911 and 1931 when the British shifted the Capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The other buildings like Shastri Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan and Nirman Bhavan were constructed in the sixties to provide accommodation for government officers attached to various ministries.  

Dating back to the colonial era, the entire area represents a slice of history as it provides a glimpse of Delhi’s growth and evolution from a colony to an independent nation. Often compared to The Mall in Washington D.C, India Gate lawns are a favourite haunt of Delhi citizens for a leisurely stroll or an evening out with the family for ice-creams.

However, there is fear and concern in Delhi that its residents may be denied access to the Capital’s largest public space  while the skyline along the majestic Rajpath would be drastically altered  as the Modi government gets set to “build a new Capital”  by the year 2022 when India celebrates its 75th Independence Day. These fears have been fuelled, following the government’s recent announcement inviting proposals to redevelop the Central Vista, to construct a new common secretariat for all ministries and to build a new Parliament building. Alternatively, the present Parliament House could be revamped and modernised. A final call on this is yet to be taken but bids for the new mammoth project have already been floated.

Describing the proposed plan for a new Capital as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, Union housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Puri justified the mega scheme, stating that several buildings in the Central Vista reflect the “colonial ethos that the country was subjected to” and that many buildings which were constructed in the sixties and seventies should have been torn down years ago.

Puri explained that the move had been necessitated as the present office buildings did not have sufficient space to accommodate the vast army of government officers. He proffered the same argument for the construction of a new Parliament building though he denied that the present one will be demolished. However, it could be converted into a museum along with the North and South Block buildings which currently house the prestigious Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of defence, external affairs, home affairs, and finance.   

The government’s decision has led to serious concern among architects, urban planners and conservationists in the Capital in view of Modi’s known passion for constructing grand towering structures. More importantly, everyone is convinced that this mega project is an attempt to erase the past so that Modi can leave behind his own personal legacy. It fits in with the BJP’s moves to remove or downgrade buildings associated with the old regimes, especially the Nehruvian period. For instance, both the South Block building, as well as the Parliament House, serve as a constant reminder about the role played by the country’s first Prime Minister and other senior Congress leaders in the nationalist movement and building a modern India. Sadly, the BJP has no such icons to showcase and so the urgency to leave behind its own imprint.

Puri’s reference to the building reflecting “colonial ethos” has everyone particularly worried as it would appear that the Modi government wants to change the character of Central Vista and its surrounding areas which are dotted with heritage buildings. This is being viewed as a dangerous trend as it could set a precedent for designating Hindu and Mughal-style architecture and justifying the destruction of what does not conform with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s world view.

Though there is agreement that some of the latter-day government buildings do need to be revamped, there are strong reservations about the manner in which the government is rushing ahead with its plans. No proper guidelines have been laid down for the project though it has far-reaching implications for the Capital’s heritage zone.

No heritage assessment has been conducted about the state of the buildings to identify structures which need to be demolished or others which can be modernized without razing them. There has also been no consultation with various stakeholders and no public discussion on this massive project. The unilateral announcement came as surprise when the government, without giving any inkling about its intentions, invited bids for the redevelopment of the Central Vista.

While questioning the unseemly haste with which the government is proceeding with this project, architects and conservationists, including AGK Menon, Raj Rewal, and Gautam Bhatia have been at pains to point out that heritage buildings like the Parliament House and North and South Blocks should not be razed and instead these should be modernized while retaining the outer façade. They cite the examples of the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and the British Parliament (Westminster) in London in this regard as these have been upgraded over the years but the outward look has remained unchanged.      

As the debate on this project rages on, the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has drawn attention to specific issues in connection with this project. AGK Menon, chief consultant INTACH, pointed to the bid document laying down that guidelines must be followed for the redevelopment of the Central Vista. But there is no clarity on what these guidelines are as these have not been spelt out. “There are no objectively defined parameters in place to guide future development,” the INTACH statement added

Referring to the haste with which the government intends to carry out its plan, INTACH has pointed out, “The bid document states that the government wants to build a legacy for the next 150 years, but the timeline proposed to complete the project does not support this objective.”

Menon further pointed out that the financial terms set to identify potential bidders were designed in such a way to exclude the country’s best architects and planners. Seeking changes in the terms, Menon maintained that the financial terms for the bid “appear to be an open call to foreign players or large multinational Indian entities.”

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Recalling ‘Aradhana’ In Its Golden Jubilee Year

There are films that set box office records and there are some that script history. Shakti Samanta’s masterpiece creation Aradhana did both

Anniversary recalls of films are reserved for classics. Many may argue, but Aradhana, released on 27th this month, fifty years ago, was not one.

But it was much else. There are films that set box office records. There are some that script history. Aradhana did both. It made money, selling across India, in the erstwhile Soviet Union and elsewhere.

It refurbished romance as a popular theme and survived those that celebrated violence and the “angry young man”, invariably ending in tragedy.

Aradhana was essentially producer-director Shakti Samanta’s creation. Bengali literature provides numerous themes that can be made into films. Many have been first made into that language before being re-made in Hindi. But Aradhana was straight out of Hollywood, based on To Each His Own (1946).

Besides a gripping story, obvious inspiration was the Oscar-winning performance by Olivia de Havilland, the role that Sharmila Tagore enacted. Retaining the air force pilot bit but relocating it in scenic North Bengal, the Indianization by writer Sachin Bhoumick left little trace of the original.

This family drama spread over two generations was the launching pad for Rajesh Khanna’s twinkly-eyed superstardom. He had four flops before. With Aradhana began his journey of 17 consecutive hits at the box office between 1969 and 1974. 

I met him at a party during that period, dressed in gaudy silk kurta and tehemat, basking in success that few before him had enjoyed.

But his superstardom was short-lived. Undoubtedly charming and even successful, he lacked the physique and the mind to bear its burden.

Samanta had switched from his long-time favourite Shammi Kapoor who had given him two hits (Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening in Paris) to this fresh-faced newcomer. Pairing him against Sharmila, his senior by a decade, was a gamble that paid off. 

Aradhana was a great musical. Samanta had replaced his long-time favourites Shankar Jaikishan. See any collection of old songs today – Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar or S D Burman – practically all Aradhana songs are there.

With S D Burman’s advent preference for male singers changed. The film cemented Kishore Kumar’s position as India’s most popular playback singer (Kora Kaagaz tha and Roop Tera Mastana) at the expense of Mohammed Rafi (Gunguna Rahe Hain). Kishored’s versatile but untrained voice, lost among those trained by Ustads of Hindustani Classical of that era, had remained on the periphery for 22 long years.

As in Guide (1965), both Rafi and Kishore had given outstanding songs to composer Sachin Dev Burman. But Kishore burst the popularity charts the second time over in Aradhana, never to look back. Common to both films, of course, were voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Burman’s own, in title songs.

Burman fell sick while composing for Aradhana. Son Rahul Dev Burman took up the baton. Kishore, too, shared the music credit. Once out of the father’s banyan tree shadow, RD’s musical genius came into its own.

Sharmila Tagore had by then done 22 films. Launched by Satyajit Ray (Apur Sansar in 1959), she had paired opposite Bengal’s superstar Uttam Kumar (Nayak in 19660. For Samanta, she had done Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Sawan Ki Ghata (1966) and An Evening in Paris (1967). But her Aradhana performance was vastly different.    

Precisely three months after Aradhana’s release, when she married Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the cricketer, it is said, the Nawab’s mother faced the dilemma of having to choose between a bikini-wearing bahu (first Indian actress to do so in An Evening in Paris) and a self-sacrificing unwed mother of Aradhana and of her earlier film, Satyakam (1966).

The sensitive unwed mother theme was not new. At least two films, B R Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Dharmaputra (1961) with both roles enacted by Mala Sinha had preceded Aradhana. But in Sharmila’s two performances, neither the mother nor the child, aroused pity or disdain.      

After Aradhana, Rajesh-Sharmila became the hit pair of the 1970s. Samanta repeated them with similar success in Amar Prem (1972). It was located in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for which R D Burman lent that rare Bengal folk lilt. No fan of Rafi, RD took Kishore all the way. Today, it would be difficult to judge which of the two films is better, popular.   

Indeed, the first half of the 1970s belonged to Rajesh-Sharmila. Other directors starred them together in Safar (1970), Daag (1973), Maalik (1972), Chhoti Bahu, Raja Rani and Avishkaar – seven in all.

Sujit Kumar, who drives the jeep riding which Rajesh croons “mere sapnon ki rani” acquired huge fan following. After being the leading man’s sidekick, he leap-frogged to play lead roles in Bhojpuri films.

Shakti Samanta did many more films later, including Kati Patang (1971), pairing Rajesh with another senior, Asha Parekh. It had great music by RD. But arguably, that film is not so lasting in public memory as Aradhana and Amar Prem. 

Half-a-century hence, Samanta and his story-teller Bhowmick are gone. Rajesh Khanna passed away in 2012, to be posthumously awarded Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award.

He won four Filmfare Awards for performances and two special awards for lifetime achievements. Long past his superstardom, he remained popular, though, and was elected to Parliament (1992-1996). The generation he mesmerized has faded.

Sharmila, gracefully aged, looks the same — pretty and petite. Her children have taken to films and she had a long stint as the Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification.   

Both the Burmans are gone, none to replace them — none to replace Kishore Kumar either.

One of the few survivors, Farida Jalal, the bubbly muse of Suraj, the pilot-son who sang Baaghon mein bahar hai, trade-marked that kind of role for years. Even as she plays the mother today, she remains a happy combination of wit and wisdom.  

For Samanta, Aradhana won the Filmfare Award for Best Film. At the 17th Filmfare Awards, Sharmila won her first Filmfare Best Actress Award. The song “Roop Tera Mastana” fetched the Best Male Playback Singer for Kishore Kumar.

Originally released in Hindi-Urdu and dubbed in Bengali, Aradhana’s huge success led to two remakes, with Tagore’s role being enacted by Vanishri. The Tamil film Sivagamiyin Selvan and the Telugu film Kannavari Kalalu were both released in 1974.

Old records say that Aradhana made a large impact on Indians in general. Wearing kurta over trousers became fashionable, and so was Khanna’s hairstyle, with parting in the middle, ears covered.    

It inspired many to take up films as a vocation. One of them was the popular American actor Tom Alter, who had made India his home and Bollywood his artistic arena.

He confessed in an interview that impressed watching Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana, he had headed to Film and Television Institute of India to train as an actor.  

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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India Has Placed Scientific Temperament In Orbit

Modi deserves credit for bringing out space science from its bureaucratic halo of the past and creating a mass following through an approving media

Science is one of those disciplines where even a failure can leave much to explore, learn and correct. This is the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s immediate task after the last-minute debacle of its moon mission Chandrayaan-2.

It might have failed in one of its objectives, but the mission itself is not a failure. The ISRO came tantalizingly close to creating history in the early hours of September 7 when the robotic lander Vikram followed the predetermined descent trajectory and came just within 350 meter of the lunar surface before contact was lost.

Vikram was located a day later. But mystery surrounds whether it landed ‘softly’ as its fall was slowed or crash-landed and its condition after the fall. The orbiter and other systems, however, continue with their assigned tasks.

If successes have their stories, so do failures on which future successes are hopefully built. This writer, although not equipped with science studies, had meant to dwell here on India’s numerous achievements in the field of science. Now, it must be a solemn narrative, admitting the obvious that there have been both failures amid successes.

ISRO deserves applause for its maiden effort at moon landing. Only three other nations, the United States, Russia and China have done it, after multiple efforts “soft landing” on the moon’s South Pole. Someone calculated the cost of Indian mission at a measly Rs 9.78 per capita — peanuts when compared to what others have spent.

To put it in perspective, there have been 38 attempts so far by other countries to land a rover on the moon and have succeeded only a little more than half the time. This April, Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander crashed to the lunar surface. Early January this year, China’s Chang’e-4 touched down on the lunar far side and deployed the Yutu-2 rover to explore the South Pole-Aitken basin.

A significant and positive change lies in the way the world has viewed the mission. Support and sympathy came from NASA and space agencies of advanced nations most of whom are cooperating/ collaborating. The foreign media in general applauded the effort. Gone are the days when the West viewed Indian efforts condescendingly, advising against putting money on expensive ventures and instead, feed and educate the poor.

Or, when there was unwillingness to give credit. When late APJ Abdul Kalam became the President of India, sections of Western media had sought to project the home-grown scientist as one who had ‘borrowed’ knowledge. Much was made of the brief visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) he had paid as a practicing scientist. An economically strong India is in different league today.  

At home, applause is due for this scientific mission capturing the imagination of a whole nation when the ruling political dispensation and its myriad ideological affiliates pursue a revisionist agenda that encourages obscurantism.

Whatever critics may say, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to go back to the grieving scientists who lost by a whisker and offer his shoulder, literally, to their emotional leader. The heart-felt consolation was also a morale booster for the scientists and calmed the millions who had anxiously watched the wee-hour aborted touch-down. 

Undoubtedly, Modi deserves credit for bringing out space science from its bureaucratic halo of the past and creating a mass following through an approving media. But his critics complain with some justification that even space is not the limit for his personal political branding.

It contradicts and mercifully, corrects the prevailing ethos to which he has contributed. It was Modi who initiated at the Indian Science Congress in 2014 the trend of mixing up science with religion, beliefs, tradition. To be fair, he has not got the science wrong since. But the trend he set has encouraged his many ministers and partymen and women to question, among other things, the Darwin Theory. Recent deaths of ailing ruling party stalwarts were blamed on “destructive magic” of opposition parties that are already in a political coma.

India survives, even thrives on such contradictions. They have always been there, even when Jawaharlal Nehru, the first premier after two centuries of slavery, laid the foundations of modern science and technology, including this space programme. He had then advocated that a tradition-bound people should develop “scientific temper.” He is a political untouchable today. Even this expression is shunned and history is sought to be selectively rewritten.         

All of India expressed solidarity with ISRO and its scientists. But disregarding Modi’s morale-booster to the scientists, some of his acolytes dragged in “Pakistan and its Indian supporters” (read the Modi’s political opponents) for “planning celebrations.” Select TV channels also chimed in with this cacophony. To think that their consumers and purveyors are educated middle class people.

They offer the mirror image to their adversarial neighbour. Over there, too, predictably, amidst the current tiff over the changes India has made in Kashmir, the narrative was one of India’s ‘hopes dashed” and its space agency experiencing “lunar moment of truth.”

Pakistan’s minister for science and technology Fawad Chaudhary tweeted his glee at the failure of the mission and advised India not to ‘waste’ money in trying to reach the moon. He was rightly pulled up by saner compatriots who said it was ‘childish’ to attack India when Pakistan’s own achievement in space science was largely borrowed and miles behind.

Leaving domestic and sub-continental shenanigans behind, one must return to Chandrayaan 2. The orbiter is safe in the intended orbit around the moon. And with the “precise launch and mission management”, its life span will extend to almost seven years. Carrying eight of the 13 payloads, the orbiter will spend the next nearly seven years making high-resolution maps of the lunar surface, mapping the minerals, understanding the moon’s evolution, and most importantly looking for water molecules in the polar regions. Some of the impact craters in the South Pole are permanently shadowed from sunlight and could be ideal candidate sites to harbour water.

With the U.S. wanting to send astronauts to the South Pole by 2024, NASA, in particular, will be keen on data from the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter. The ISRO’s Moon Impact Probe and NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on board Chandrayaan 1 had already provided evidence of the presence of water in the thin atmosphere of the moon, on the surface and below. A NASA study last year found regions, within 20° of each pole in general and within 10° in particular, showed signs of water. The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter will now possibly reconfirm the presence of water on the moon.

For ISRO, there is vast scope beyond the moon. It wants to go to Venus, and send up a manned space mission. France is a partner. Time was when France launched Indian satellites in the Pacific. Then, India launched French and other satellites in the Indian Ocean region, The two have agreed to send up almost 12 satellites to enhance maritime domain awareness.

Didn’t poet Muhammad Iqbal say, exhorting the mankind’s never-ending quest: “Sitaraon se agey, jahan aur bhi hain”?  

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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Muzzling Political Dissent Is The New Normal Now

Not just the Narendra Modi-led Centre, even state regimes are targeting their opponents through various means of intimidation, and this phenomenon is not limited to the BJP-ruled governments

Each time Bharatiya Janata Party leaders get on to a podium they never fail to mention the suffering endured by their senior colleagues who were thrown into jail by Indira Gandhi in 1975 when she declared a national Emergency.

These references are invariably peppered with strong critical comments about how dissenting voices were suppressed during those dark days, the media muzzled and democratic norms crushed by wielding the proverbial stick.

While recalling the BJP’s struggles, its leaders cite their experience during the Emergency to pledge their party’s commitment to the freedom of the press and citizen’s rights. They vow to uphold democratic values and Parliamentary norms and promise never to silence their critics by going down the road traversed by Indira Gandhi.

However, all these promises and declarations have a false ring to them today. Ever since the Modi government came to power five years ago, it has systematically targeted its opponents, whether they are political leaders, human rights activists or journalists, by arresting them, filing police cases against them and embroiling them in prolonged legal battles. With the Centre taking the lead, it is not surprising that the states have been quick to follow suit and this phenomenon is not confined to BJP-led governments alone.

And all this is happening without declaring a national emergency. Little wonder then that this government’s detractors these days often remark that the country is witnessing an undeclared emergency. There is, however, a difference between 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared an emergency and the present situation. Indira Gandhi’s move met with strong public disapproval and this anger was reflected in the 1977 Lok Sabha election when the Congress was routed. But today, the Modi government’s decisions enjoy wide popular support and are actually cheered on by the people.

Or alternatively, the people are plain indifferent to these daily occurrences. All those who would normally be expected to raise their voices against these developments are silent. The opposition parties are battling for survival, civil society has been crushed and the media has been successfully co-opted.

Take the case of the detention of mainstream political leaders, activists, lawyers, other professionals and students in Kashmir since August 5 when the Modi government moved quickly to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories. Three former chief ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – are under house arrest while their party colleagues have also been detained. On September 16, Farooq Abdullah, a sitting Lok Sabha member, was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act which allows the state to detain a person for up to two years without a trial.  

There have been some murmurs of protest against the government’s latest move to slap the stringent Public Safety Act against the three-time former chief minister by opposition parties but it is too early to say if it will be followed up with any concrete action. So far, there has been virtually no protest or any sign of a public outcry over the large-scale “arrests” undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir even as BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav shrugged these off, saying that “preventive arrests are a part of political activity.”

The August 5 developments have since been emulated by state leaders. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, lost no time in placing his predecessor and political rival Telugu Desam Party chief N.Chandrababu Naidu and his son under house arrest. The chief minister resorted to this extreme measure when Naidu staged a protest against the YSR Congress for its mishandling of TDP workers.

At the same time, the Congress-led Chhattisgarh government arrested Amit Jogi, the son of former chief minister Ajit Jogi, on charges of cheating and forgery for giving false information in his election affidavit. He has been denied bail. Ajit Jogi himself is in the dock after a case was registered against him for falsely claiming in his election affidavit that he is a tribal.

In both these instances, the actions of the incumbent chief ministers are driven by a personal agenda to settle scores with a rival. While Reddy and Naidu have been locked in a prolonged political slugfest for the past several years, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s rivalry with his former Congress colleague Ajit Jogi is also well known.

It is the same story in the case of former finance minister P.Chidambaram who has been arrested in the INX Media case. Home minister Amit Shah was similarly arrested in an alleged false encounter case when Chidambaram was heading the same ministry. A host of other opposition leaders have also been slapped with various charges of financial impropriety, cheating and money laundering. The list is long – it includes former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Karnataka Congress leader D.K.Shivkumar, Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel, former Congress treasurer Motilal Vora, even Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s party colleagues are also facing the heat from the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The Modi government’s ire is not confined to political leaders alone. Social activists, lawyers and renowned academics like Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, who work for the rights of the rural poor and tribals, have been booked for inciting caste-violence and for being sympathetic to Maoists. None of them have got any respite from the judiciary though it is over a year since they were detained.

Among others, journalists have also been at the receiving end. Only recently, a spate of cases have been reported from Uttar Pradesh where local media persons were picked up by the police for showing the administration in poor light. Journalist Pawan Jaiswal was booked for circulating a video showing children being served roti and salt in their midday meals in a school in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur.  Five reporters were arrested in Bijnore when they ran a story that a Dalit family had put their house on sale after they were denied access to the village water pump. Then there is the case of another journalist in Azamgarh who was booked by the Uttar Pradesh police for reporting how children were mopping floors in their school.

But all these incidents have left people unmoved. Because it is the new normal in India.

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Recycle Old Vehicles: Curb Pollution, Create Business

The government must motivate people to give up 15-year-old vehicles by incentivising the process. Next, it must draft a sound scrappage policy and build a chain of recycling units across the country

We don’t expect our leaders to be aware of the works of the two world’s leading environmental economists Martin Weitzman, the recluse who passed away on August 27 and the Nobel laureate William Nordhaus. Even then they, specially the ones living in Delhi who are exposed to inhaling toxic air, should be well aware that the millions of end of life vehicles (ELVs) are the principal culprits for fouling the city environment.

As early as 2000, New Delhi drawing lessons from the standards in the US where the focus is on emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) and the European Union where the concern is more about carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) formulated Bharat Stage Emission Standards (BSES). In phases, the norms were made more stringent and once a new stage is set, all new vehicles will have to compulsorily conform to it.

Now the government in an attempt to ensure that all new vehicles still do less harm to air quality is leapfrogging Bharat Stage V to BS-VI to be effective from April 1, 2020. This definitely is an environment positive move, though introduction of improved technology will mean higher prices for vehicles. Definitely a small price to pay for air quality improvement. The automobile industry’s concern is that this is to happen when it is facing the worst demand slump in two decades.

Sales of cars and SUVs fell for ten months in a row till August 2019. Every manufacturer, except for new entrants like South Korean Kia and Morris Garages (popularly known as MG) owned by Chinese state enterprise SAIC, has been forced by sharp demand collapse to cut production and shut factories and showrooms. But in the process countless number of workers had to be laid off. Unfortunately our finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman instead of acknowledging what is happening in the automobile industry is one manifestation of the economy being gripped in a deep economic crisis wanted us to believe that shared mobility and young people using Ola and Uber services are the cause.

No doubt lowering of Goods & Services Tax (GST) from the peak slab 28 per cent to 18 per cent could prove to be an effective stimulus for demand revival. Many states with their finances in a bad shape are expectedly demurring. But as the situation is, the GST Council should be able to reach a consensus that cars up to a value of say Rs10 lakh will attract 18 per cent GST to encourage middle class to own vehicles. The empirical evidence through all economic crises here and elsewhere is that buying by the rich and the very rich are immune to market swings. Therefore, let the exchequer continue to get the maximum from sales of the likes of BMW, Benz, Aston Martin, Porsche and Bugatti, all recession proof.

To return to ELVs from the current automobile crisis. We have on the registers of regional transport authorities, a disturbingly large number of 28 million ELVs, predating introduction of BSES seriously compromising air quality, particularly in our principal cities. Ideally, 15 year old vehicles should be sent to scrap yard. This is based on global experience that emission level of old cars is ten times more than the ones in ideal condition. In the case of ageing trucks, their emissions are at least eight times higher than the new ones. The question is why ELVs in such numbers are still running in already highly polluted cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata without the authorities taking action against the owners? Obviously, the authorities don’t want to offend the urban middle class and transport companies in which many politicians have a stake.

Even while a vehicle scrappage policy is under consideration for quite some time, the lawmakers are not able to decide whether the owners will be forced to surrender more than 15 year old vehicles for dismantling or the scheme will be principally voluntary but with such built-in incentives that will motivate people to surrender ELVs. Back in 2016, the government was toying with a voluntary vehicle fleet modernisation programme. But nothing came out of that. In recent weeks minister for highways and transport Nitin Gadkari and Sitharaman have spoken of the need for a well considered scrappage policy.

They will do well to heed the advice of industry veteran Pawan Kr. Goenka, managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra. He says in our kind of situation the scrappage policy cannot be mandatory but has to be motivational for ELVs surrender. “People who are doing with old vehicles belong to the lowest economic bracket among vehicle owners. You should not force them to give up their vehicles. That will not be right. It has to be voluntary and incentivised. It’s also important to offer a considerable incentive to motivate people to send ELVs for scrapping,” Goenka says.

Environment and replacement of scrapped vehicles by new ones using the vehicle surrender linked incentive money are not the only issues involved in the scrappage programme. Apply the circular economy concept, you will find in ELVs sent for ‘depollution. dismantling, baling and shredding’ have a lot of wealth in the form recovered metals, specially steel, which is an important feedstock for steelmakers using electric arc furnaces (EAFs) and induction furnaces (IFs).

The thriving unorganised vehicle recycling units through their highly unscientific and environment compromising process are annually generating around 28m tonnes of steel scrap against requirements of 35m tonnes by the steel industry. Therefore the deficit of 7m tonnes are imported from the European Union, UAE, the US, Japan, etcetera, at considerable outgo of foreign exchange. The steel ministry has estimated that EAFs and IFs here will need 55m tonnes of scrap by 2030-31.

Ministry officials say considering the large local ELV population, India is well placed to generate enough scrap to meet the steel industry’s future demand for this raw material and imports could be eliminated. But for this to happen, the country must build a chain of authorised recycling units in different parts of the country equipped with automated plant and machinery. Why only self-reliance, there is potential to create modern recycling units close to ports which will facilitate import of ELVs from south and south-east Asia and the Far East and then export steel scrap. Unlike India, many countries in this part of the world do not have blast furnaces (where iron ore is used) and make all their steel through EAFs and IFs. They will be ready buyers of any surplus steel scrap that this country may generate in future.

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Is India Giving The Devil A Foothold In Kashmir?

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. But with the lockdown in the Valley, murmurs on human rights have begun and are likely to gather momentum

India’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s special status and bifurcate the state has been a shot in the arm for Prime Minister Imran Khan. It has given Pakistan the perfect opportunity to exploit Delhi’s action to its advantage.

India-Pakistan ties will continue to deteriorate. It could go out of hand if there is a major terror strike in Kashmir. Delhi is bound to retaliate and the world community would scramble to restraint the two nuclear armed neighbours. In such a case US President Donald Trump will certainly try to weight in. He has been waiting in the wings nudging both sides to talk.

China is likely to bat for “all weather friend” Pakistan in such an event. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is at the centre of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The two countries are now bound not just by strategic ties but vital economic considerations.

Indian and Chinese troops have got into a scuffle in Ladakh this week and is a hint of more aggressive patrolling by China on the border. It possibly has nothing to do with Ladakh becoming a union territory, but China had objected to the Indian move soon after March 5. China already occupies 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin as well as 5,800 sq km in Shaksgam Valley of J&K. India has constantly made the point that the CPEC runs through Indian territory which Pakistan occupied illegally in 1947.

It was mainly due to China’s efforts that the United Nationals Security Council held a closed door discussion on Kashmir last month. At the end of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Wang Yi’s recent visit to Pakistan, Kashmir was part of the joint statement. All this is not surprising. It will be interesting to see how far China is willing to go in support of Pakistan on Kashmir. Much will also depend on how the second informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping pans out later this year. As of now Xi is scheduled to come in October, tentative dates are 11-14, though a formal announcement.

There is no silver lining in sight for India and Pakistan for now. India’s talks and terror cannot go hand in hand, now has Pakistan’s insisting on no dialogue unless Kashmir’s former status is restored. There is no way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will do so. Abolishing article 370, is part of the BJP’s ideological commitment.

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. Some in India are crowing that Pakistan has been unable to get the world community to condemn India. That is correct. But human rights issues are looming over the government and despite claims that the internet and mobile services are partially lifted and the curfew like situation will eventually end, the ground reality is different. The murmur on human rights has already begun, and is likely to gather momentum.

Islamabad has been on the backfoot for nearly a decade trying to deflect accusations about the terror networks operating from its soil. Islamabad efforts to hammer the point that it has borne the brunt of terror strikes on its people and security forces did not get much traction. This is mainly because it is well known that Rawalpindi has used terror outfits against both India and Afghanistan. Also both the US and NATO forces had first-hand experience of Pakistan’s double dealing.

Now Islamabad is getting a chance to point fingers at India’s action in Kashmir. For once the world is willing to listen, as Pakistan’s foreign minister as well as its diplomats are putting across their views on Kashmir in America, US and the Gulf to expose India.

At the UN, Pakistan will hope to catch the world’s eye on Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing UNGA on the 27th of this month. Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan will speak after Modi’s address. He will certainly talk forcefully on the past UN resolutions in Kashmir, and point to flagrant violations of people’s rights in Kashmir. Much of Indian diplomacy must now necessarily be centred on defending its position on Kashmir.

India and Pakistan are back to square one, with each country attacking the other in international forums. This week it was at the Human Rights Council in Geneva where India and Pakistan clashed. Pakistan claims it got 50 countries to support a joint statement at the Human Rights Council Chief, calling for respect and protection of fundamental human rights of the people of Kashmir, lifting of curfew and ending the communication shutdown and released of those detained. It is a throwback to the late 80s and 90s when Kashmir was a constant presence in all bilateral meets in Europe and US. Indian diplomats will have to work overtime to counter Pakistan. Balochistan will be highlighted by India. It will be a grueling few months for foreign minister Jaishankar and his team.

Not that any of this matters in the long run. What is important is for the Modi government to begin talking to the people of Kashmir. Muscular policy and a strong nation is part of the BJPs ethos. But needs to be tempered with concern for their well being. The sooner the government begins to reach out with compassion to the people of Kashmir the better.

The current partial lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. The main aim of the government was to be able to tell the world that there was no major loss of life. That’s commendable, but people’s voices also need to be heard. India is still a democracy and while the rest of the country, as well the Jammu area have welcomed the government move, the voices of the valley need to be heard.

Home Minister Amit Shah has said the removal of article 370, would help the authorities to fight terrorism effectively. He plans to rid Kashmir off terrorism and bring development back to the state. At the same time the Centre hopes to introduce new faces in politics. But for this government needs to begin a dialogue with people. The sooner India begins to take some corrective measures the better it will be able to manage the diplomatic fall out over Kashmir. There is no need for the government to waste energy on convincing the people of the country. Most Indians support Prime Minister Modi’s decision. The first move was meticulously planned but what next, is a legitimate question to ask the government.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval claims that the majority of Kashmiris are happy with the removal of special status. Who are these people? Possibly, the Hindus of the state who are ardent supporters of the BJP. But they don’t represent the views of the entire population.

Prime Minister Modi needs to take a leaf out of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book. The PM is a great orator and should try to convince Kashmiris that India cares for them. Winning hearts and minds of Kashmiris is vital unless Delhi wants to give Kashmir in a platter to Pakistan.

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How To Pull Indian Economy Up By The Bootstraps

Boosting consumer spending; incentivising investment in manufacturing; and pro-active wooing of foreign capital are three things crucial to jump-starting India’s economy

When former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made some dire observations on the state of the Indian economy recently in a video statement, it wasn’t surprising that a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson would quickly label him as being “a puppet” who was being used by people behind the scenes (read: Congress leaders). Such facetiousness is not unexpected of BJP spokespersons whose flippant one-liners serve little purpose than to make a mockery of the very people who utter them. Dr Singh is an accomplished economist with a distinguished career—besides being prime minister for two terms, he has been India’s finance minister, governor of India’s central bank (the Reserve Bank of India) and has headed the erstwhile planning commission. When Dr Singh speaks (and he rarely does) on the economy, it would be wise to listen.

In his statement, released to the press and aired on news TV channels, Dr Singh attributed the Indian economy’s travails—slow growth; lack of investment; demand, and jobs—to an “all-round mismanagement” by the Modi government. In the last quarter, GDP growth had sputtered to 5%; the manufacturing sector’s growth had dropped to an abysmal 0.6%; and companies had to resort to large-scale lay-offs (in the auto sector alone, an estimated 350,000 people are estimated to have lost jobs).

Dr Singh called the poor state of the Indian economy a manmade phenomenon and blamed a number of decisions that were taken by the Modi regime during 2014-2019 for the economic debacle, particularly actions such as demonetisation and a haphazardly-implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime.

While the Modi government, now into its fourth month in power after it was re-elected should heed voices such as Dr Singh’s, here is a road-map that could significantly help in getting the economy back on tracks.

Reviving consumer demand. There are no sure-fire quick-fix solutions to boosting consumer spending but a number of factors can be made to act together, complementarily, to increase consumer confidence (currently at a low level in India) and make people fork out for consumer products. Chief among them is the interest rate. India’s monetary policy has in the past six years been weighted towards tackling inflation, which spiralled out of control in 2013. However, inflation rates in recent years have been moderate—and they now hover at levels lower than the 4% that the central bank thinks are normal. This could be a cue to reduce interest rates in order to boost demand and consumer buying.

Selective tax cuts on goods and services, property, and other indirect forms of taxation could also help in boosting spending and, thereby, mitigating the resulting loss in revenue from tax cuts by the increased volume of transactions.

Increased government spending is yet another factor that can have a multiplier effect on the economy and lead to a rise in overall spending. The government has recently been handed a windfall of Rs 1.76 lakh crore by the Reserve Bank of India but as of now there is little public awareness of what it plans to do with that. Could it not be channelled into government spending and, therefore, create ripples of upbeat consumer confidence all-round?

Increasing domestic investment. One of the Indian economy’s biggest problems is that its manufacturing sector has remained sluggish for a prolonged period. Industry contributes less than 30% of India’s GDP, while the services sector contributes nearly 55%. During the Modi regime 1.0 several big plans, including the “Make In India” scheme, were flagged off. But this has led to little in terms of outcome. Partly the decline in the manufacturing sector’s growth is on account of the travails of small and medium sized enterprises, which were hit hard by demonetisation and the complexities of the new GST system. While demonetisation cannot be reversed, it is possible for the government to take a close look at GST and see whether it can be further simplified.

Lower interest rates too will obviously boost manufacturing as will the measures to increase consumer demand. The central government could also work with states to see how each of them could incentivise domestic investment in manufacturing—either by proffering tax reliefs or other incentives. Japan’s manufacturing boom in the post-World War II era was catalysed by its powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), which worked closely with different Japanese industries to grow markets for Japanese products—both domestically as well as globally. India has the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Ayog. It replaced the earlier Planning Commission and works mainly as an advisory think tank. It may not be a bad idea to make NITI work like MITI did in Japan during the 1960s and 70s.

Encouraging foreign investment. India liberalised its policies on foreign direct investment (FDI) in 1991 and since then, in absolute terms, FDI has increased year-on-year. But in recent years, despite the government’s attempts to attract more foreign investment—both direct as well as through equity infusions—the growth rate of FDI has faltered. A good measure of FDI growth is by looking at foreign investments as a percentage of gross fixed capital formation (GFCF). And here’s the bad news. Gross FDI as a proportion of GFCF has actually dropped sharply in India: from over 32% in 2008-09 to a little over 8% in 2018-19. The government may tom-tom the “success” of its Make In India and other incentives but the numbers speak volumes.

Recently, foreign investment was opened up for the coal sector. And foreign investment limits were relaxed for retail businesses and for online media. However, those may not be enough to boost FDI significantly. India’s coal has lower calorific value than in many other countries; besides, although India has the world’s fifth largest coal deposits, global concerns about fossil fuel and its environmental effect have dampened the enthusiasm of multinational energy giants in expanding their coal businesses.

The need of the hour could be to actually form industry-government alliances in India that could target specific groups of foreign investors by way of roadshows where the objective should be to seal deals and hammer out incentives such as tax rebates. What India needs now is more than a flurry of announcements. The government-industry alliances could be sector-wise, or even as initiatives by separate state governments with leading businesses in their respective states. What India needs now to boost the economy is not a flurry of announcements at hyped-up press conferences, but focused and single-minded action.

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