Fires That Can Burn The Nation

The fires burning in the country are increasing and spreading. Assam has been added to the unnecessary and dangerous challenges ignited by our leaders. In the last column by the writer on Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) the concluding paragraph stated “Amit Shah is playing with fire. It is a simmering volcano with which he is playing a dangerous game. It might flare up, and the cost in terms of social division and possible violence and strife will be infinite.”

This a classic and dark irony. Something the world could so transparently witness, was missed by both the home minister and his leader, the prime minister of India. In a party rigidly controlled by the two, with the rest as total loyalists without an identity or voice or opinion, and in a government where the bureaucracy is as Kafkasque and invisible in exercising its power as commanded by the Dear Leader and Great Helmsman from Gujarat, this too is a typically predictable scenario. Now, certain insiders within the party and the government are whispering in murmurs that “this was an error in judgement, a big mistake, that they did not anticipate it”. Despite this, they seem to be confident that the protests will fade away in 24 or 48 hours.

This is exactly what they thought about Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) since February 2016 when the cops arbitrarily entered the campus for the first time since 1983 and picked up the then JNU Students Union president and two brilliant PhD student from the Centre of Historical Studies, and the regime went on a clampdown in a campus which has a great history of peaceful, militant, non-violent intellectual and political dissent.

They went ahead and did the same clampdown in Kashmir, albeit in a scale unprecedented in independent India, as if it is a war against its own people. They arbitrarily abrogated Article 370 and  35Awithout any discussion or debate, put all mainstream ‘nationalist’ political leaders in detention, including three former chief ministers, top businessmen, civil society leaders, lawyers and teachers, including  young children, packed the streets with tens of thousands of armed troops and armoured vehicles at every five feet in Srinagar and in the rest of the Valley, blocked internet and all phone lines, de facto denied the freedom to gather or publish news with government propaganda handouts ruling the roost, stopped opposition leaders, foreign diplomats and foreign journalists at the Srinagar airport, declared an undeclared curfew, and  put the entire valley under a kind of occupation and siege only witnessed in Palestine in recent times. On top of it, they said, routinely: “Everything is normal.”

Both JNU and Kashmir defied this fake state of normalcy in what was clearly an obvious state of ‘state-sponsored abnormalcy’. While eminent academics, writers, celebrities, former student leaders, civil society luminaries from India and abroad debated ‘nationalism and the idea of the nation-state at the Freedom Square in the JNU campus’, universities from across India, from Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jadavpur University (JU), Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, Presidency College, Kolkata and Calcutta University, Allahabad University (AU) to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), itself on a 139 day fast against the takeover of this prestigious institute by a generally considered failed BJP TV actor, among others, including students in Kerala and Pondicherry, united in solidarity and struggle. Students and faculty in Cambridge, Sussex, SOAS, California and Canada held protests in solidarity.

JNU became a national and international issue, and Kanhaiya Kumar, till then, unknown, became a super star and national icon of rebellion and resistance, with millions listening to his speech after his release from jail, while even the sold-out ‘Godi Media’ was forced to relay his speech ‘live’, as that of arrested Ph.D scholars Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya later.

Truly, you have to give the credit to the prime minister, his then illustrious HRD minister, and his loyalist vice-chancellor in JNU, and his strategic thinkers, for creating a volatile issue where there was none. Clearly, the same thing happened with the ‘Kashmir Model’, which they have now overplayed in abject overconfidence and masculine arrogance in delicate and porous border states like Assam and the Northeast, where the ethnic mix, combined with a troubled, restless and unresolved historical legacy between multiple indigenous and other communities, including tribal groups and insurgencies, have made the society a tender tinderbox of sorts; that is, if you rub it the wrong way and push the wrong button, however remote it may seem.

Amit Shah did exactly the same thing and he is now facing the fire which does not seem to be getting extinguished in the near future. Did he not listen to the local leadership, the intelligence bureau, the regional think-tanks? Did they not sense the mood on the ground which was as clear as daylight since they introduced CAB earlier which was vehemently opposed in Assam and the entire Northeast? Can’t they hear any other voice except their own?

Now, the entire Assam is burning and a muscle-flexing Amit Shah does not even have the courage to visit Shillong or Tawang. In an embarrassing move which the world is watching, the Japanese prime minister has cancelled his visit to India and Guwahati, and two top ministers in an angry Bangladeshi government too have refused to come while openly expressing their displeasure over Amit Shah’s comments that minorities are persecuted in Bangladesh (and let us not forget the vicious term of ‘termites’ used by him earlier implying Bangladeshi citizens).  

Several countries have advised their citizens not to visit India—even as beautiful and tragic Kashmir remains out of bound for Indian and foreign tourists for obvious reasons. At least two top US bodies have taken strong note of the discriminatory CAB, and one has gone to the extent of seeking sanctions against Amit Shah. This is embarrassing and shameful, to say the least.

Besides, neither the ‘Gujarat Model’ nor the ‘Kashmir Model’ seems to be working in Assam and its volatile neighbourhood. Even Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have exploded – both drawing tens of thousands in protests on the streets. They have taken troops from Kashmir to Assam, in a perverse show of ‘Unity in Diversity’; they have declared curfew, internet blockades, shuts shops, schools, colleges, airports, bus-stands and streets with flag marches and  barricades, but millions have thronged the street in militant defiance in all parts of Assam. It’s like an endless, unceasing flood of resistance.

The office of RSS was burnt in one place, the homes of MPs and MLAs of the BJP and Asom Gana Parishad are being attacked; BJP and AGP leaders are resigning in protest; and even the Assam chief minister himself was holed up in the Guwahati airport for several hours because he could not face the protesting people on the streets. A press conference he had called was boycotted by the entire press in Assam while a TV channel’s office was attacked by the police. Top artists and citizens, including legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, are returning their awards or withdrawing their work from official functions. If this is not a mass movement, what is?

Several chief ministers of various states have wowed to not implement the National Register of Citizens and CAB in their states. In a landmark departure, the Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front, along with other groups, are holding joint protest in Kerala, while the anti-CAB protests are being taken to the deepest interiors of the districts in the state. In Bengal, both the NRC and CAB have been rejected in toto by the government and the people. In AMU, 30,000 students have gone on fast, defying FIRs and police action. In Jamia, there are pitched battles with the students with several students injured and the police actually doing stone-pelting. Soon, inevitably, other campuses will join.

If this is normalcy, then Amit Shah surely has got his dictionary wrong. Indeed, for him, not only are the chickens coming home to roost, even the ‘termites’ seem to be returning back to demand their fundamental rights. The fact is that a draconian, discredited, discriminatory bill will not be allowed to be pushed into the people’s throats, even by a dictatorial regime camouflaged in democracy. And there are all signs to prove that.

It’s still time to reach out for consensus and become a flexible partner in a secular, plural democracy, instead of muscle-flexing all the time based on the doctrine of ‘my way or the highway’. The prime minister should intervene to stop the fires, withdraw the bill, go for consensus, listen to multiple voices in the Northeast and across India, and not push a socially polarizing and communal agenda which is so brazenly anti-constitutional, and so blatantly xenophobic, that it will surely push the entire country to the brink.

Don’t play with fire, mothers would say to their children. Now that students and youngsters are on the streets, the elders should heed and remember this prophetic childhood doctrine. If you play with fire, your hands too would burn. And, finally, the nation will suffer, the nation will burn.

India’s Last Liberal, Albeit Accidental, Prime Minister

Blessed with the world’s most complex neighbourhood, what would India have been like had it adhered to the “Gujral Doctrine”?

Inder Kumar Gujral, the 12th prime minister and author of the ‘doctrine’ – so named, not by him but by his trusted academic aide, Bhabani Sengupta – had unique perceptions about ties with neighbours. They angered the hawks who dominate the Sub-continental discourse.

Chances are that India would have had six friendly smaller neighbours and carried more weight among the world community as an Asian power. More likely, it would have been bullied by those who, after years of accusing India of playing the “big brother”, are now getting close to China, the ‘bigger’ brother.

Conclusion is difficult as two large adversarial entities, China and Pakistan that work in tandem on most issues, cannot be wished away. There was nothing formal or official about the doctrine, a set of five principles based on unilateral accommodation.

One, with smaller neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith and trust. Two, no South Asian nation will allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region. Three, no one will interfere in the internal affairs of another. Four, respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. And five, settle disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.

He believed that these five principles, scrupulously observed by all – repeat all – could recast the regional relationship, including the tormented India-Pakistan relationship, in a friendly, cooperative way.

Quintessential Nehruvian, Gujral was an idealist, but not a fool. He wrote in his autobiography: “The logic was that since we had to face two hostile neighbours in the north and the west, we had to be at “total peace” with other immediate neighbours in order to contain Pakistan’s and China’s influence in the region.” That has not happened. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is almost defunct.

But Gujral believed that for India to become a global power in sync with its stature, it needs a peaceful neighbourhood.

Sometimes this actually meant offering the proverbial other cheek. The response to his ‘doctrine’ was not always reciprocated. But that did not deter him from engaging all neighbours – benign, indifferent, suspicious or hostile.

His political and personal lives, too, were tempered by this approach. His trademark Punjabi jhappi bypassed the conventional handshake, to the silent annoyance of the bureaucracy, but helped strike an instant rapport. Like millions, India’s 1947 Partition uprooted his family. But he bore no rancour. Pakistanis were among his best friends.

In my last interview with him, he shook his head with disapproval at India nursing any superpower ambitions. “It is more important that we live in peace.” He would have been a hundred this month. He died in 2012. He led India for all of 11 months (April 1997 to March 1998), but is remembered 22 years later, as the most affable and accessible prime minister.

A political lightweight, he was truly an “accidental prime minister” long before Manmohan Singh (2004-2014). Born pre-Partition, in present-day Pakistan, both shared close affinity. Without attaching his doctrinal label, the Singh Government reached out to neighbours with two huge grants to Bangladesh and made imports from all smaller neighbours duty-free.

With Musharraf’s Pakistan, too, cross-border intrusions stopped in Jammu and Kashmir. Discussed through backdoor talks, the Kashmir dispute could have been resolved but for Musharraf’s domestic debacles. Hawks on both sides have to this day dominated after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.        

Gujral was propelled into top post by the quirky uncertainties that govern coalition politics. Other contestants squabbled furiously and pulled each other down. He got it for two reasons: he was the least unacceptable among the contenders, and his good relations with the Nehru-Gandhi clan heading the Congress Party.

Yet, Congress pulled down his government, forced an election, only to lose it badly. As the PM, the sailing was not smooth. He had to cancel Sengupta’s appointment as adviser. His asking the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the government’s external spy agency, to close down a unit dealing with Pakistan hurt intelligence gathering on militancy and terrorism, angering India’s strategic hawks.

As foreign minister, he earned a legion of critics when he hugged Saddam Hussein and visited Saddam-occupied Kuwait. His defence was his concern for the safety of millions of Indian workers in the Gulf region. For them his government organized the world’s largest peacetime airlift.

Along with then premier VP Singh, he ended the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka. Delhi lost the goodwill of both Colombo and the Lankan Tamils, but a bad legacy had to end. His 11-month premiership saw the Ganga water sharing pact with Bangladesh. The Left-leaning liberal resisted signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). That helped the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government to conduct the May 1998 nuclear tests.

Member of Indira Gandhi’s “kitchen cabinet”, Gujral was information minister when she imposed Emergency in 1975, detaining opposition leaders and censoring the media. He quietly disagreed and was replaced. She sent him as envoy to Moscow. Besides growing a Lenin-like beard, he also consolidated Indo-Soviet ties. But he did not mince words while telling then Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko that Moscow had seriously erred in invading Afghanistan. From Moscow, he befriended physically and culturally-close Central Asia that he called India’s “extended neighbourhood”.

During his stint, India became a dialogue partner of ASEAN and a member of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF). He was media’s darling, ready with a thoughtful smile and a coherent answer to most tricky questions. He would candidly admit failures.

A democrat, he always sought to carry others along in that coalition era, displaying, in his own words, “the ability to accommodate, iron out differences and even bear insults.” Gujral and his ‘doctrine’ would not have survived the present times, what with critics being asked to “go to Pakistan” and terror-factor compelling India’s muscular approach.

Although he was an ‘opposition’ premier, the Manmohan Singh Government had accorded him a State funeral. The Modi Government, shunning anything remotely Nehruvian, has shunned any centenary commemoration.

He was India’s last of the liberals who made it to the top howsoever momentarily. Such people don’t make it in public life any more.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill – Amit Shah Is Playing With Fire

Amit Shah’s “termites” are back, along with miscellaneous cockroaches, pests, insects and vermin. They have to be profiled, isolated, ghettoized, imprisoned in detention centres or concentration camps, and, finally, deported or thrown out of the country. That in his fertile imagination “termites” only stand for ‘Muslims’, the Muslims who live in India, and that they can’t even live here as ‘second class citizens’, only reflects the big picture: the RSS dream sequence and cathartic fantasy of the ‘Hindu Rastra’, like the Jewish State of Israel, or the White Supremacist dream of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

This perverse irony only reminds of what the Serbs did to the Muslims in Bosnia etc., in the recent past, the Hindutva fanatics did to innocent Muslim men and women in Gujarat 2002 as a state-sponsored experiment, Congress politicians in Delhi did to Sikh men and women in the winter of Delhi 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards, and what Pakistani army officers and soldiers did to Bengali women en masse in Bangladesh in 1971. Also, what Adolf Hitler did to the six million Jews in Germany, Poland and the rest of Europe during the Holocaust, while the world played blind, deaf and dumb.

It is indeed double irony that the extremist, ultra orthodox and fanatic Rightwing in Israel led by a discredited Benjamin Netanyahu considers the prime minister of India a close buddy, in the same manner that he considers Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as ideological bum chums. Surely, Netanyahu and his ultras would know that the RSS backed Hitler during the mass murder of Jews in Germany and Europe. Also, his infinite hatred for the Palestinian Muslims it is which unites him with his dear white supremacist friends in the contentious international stage.

Maps change in history. Migrations are ritualistic and compulsive driven by adventure, greed, shelter, economy, social ostracision, genocides and wars. Germany has magnanimously accepted one million refugees from Syria. Similarly, India accepted with a generous heart tens of thousands of Bangladeshi refugees and backed the liberation struggle out there against the Pakistani dictatorship. There was an added five paisa tax on every postcard and inland letter, called the refugee tax, and no one grumbled. People in Bengal and Assam opened their doors and their hearts for the exiled people of Bangadesh,  once part of  the amorphous geographical unity of the subcontinent, emotionally, culturally and socially aligned in terms of food, cuisine, literature, music, and cinema.

So much so, a severe, highly infectious and painful eye inflammation became an epidemic in West Bengal, with red swollen eyes constantly watering. In a spoofy twist, Bengalis called it ‘Joi Bangla’ even as a painful eye drop called ‘Locula’ broke the demand-supply cycle the chemists’ shops. No one really felt bad; couples with red eyes happily married each other unafraid of spreading infection, and both solidarity and bonhomie flourished between the ‘outsiders’ and Indians across the border. No one then thought that they were dealing with “termites”, pests, cockroaches and vermin, unlike  a belligerent Amit Shah these days.

Amit Shah might not be really aware that both the national anthems of India and Bangladesh has been written by Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore, an icon on both sides of  river Padma; that Kazi Nazrul Islam, an iconic revolutionary poet is as popular across the porous borders, like Lallan Fakir, a Bangladeshi, the original source of great Baul songs and poetry.

Surely, Shah would not agree with an internationalist like Tagore’s sharp views on nationalism. Tagore e called it “carnivorous and cannibalistic’. Indeed, Tagore was united with the most refined minds, both male and female, across various maps and beyond borders, and he never chose to ghettoise romantic or human love within the trappings or mappings of nationalism. Indeed, he travelled all the way to Princeton to meet Einstein.  Wrote Tagore in a letter to his friend AM Bose in 1908: “Patriotism can’t be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”

On Monday, December 9, 2019, Amit Shah and his party has tabled a bill in the Lok Sabha which will turn the entire pluralist history of post-Independence secular India decisively upside down. It violates the essence of the Indian Constitution drafted by Bahasaheb Ambedkar and endorsed by the stalwarts of the freedom movement in which the RSS did not participate. It violates the basic premise of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which declares all citizens equal outside caste, sex, creed, religion or status. “Equality before law” is perhaps the most crucial feature of the Indian Constitution. As stated in the famous Keshavananda Bharti case in the Supreme Court, the basic structure of the Indian Constitution just cannot be changed, not even in Parliament by a brute majority. Clearly, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are aware that this contentious bill can be struck down in the apex court. However, their essential purpose is different and diabolical: to create social and political polarisation and consolidate their sinister “termite” politics of hate, targeting one community of Indian citizens.

Clearly, post the abolition of Article 370 in Kashmir, and putting 8 million Kashmir Muslims under siege and military occupation after August 5, 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are the two vicious trumpcards for their next election campaign in 2024 –the Indian economy having totally failed with mass joblessness and the crashing of GDP. Even government data has shown that Swach Bharat is a lot of propaganda and hype, as is Skill India, Start-up India, Digital India etc. Indeed, even women are being raped and burnt alive as a public spectacle in an India where the “good days” have only arrived with a sinister brand of organised hate, polarisation and communal politics disguised as nationalism.

Amit Shah’s termite campaign as much as the NRC has boomeranged. Predictably, the CAB too would fall into the anti-catharsis of a Catch-22  situation. Here is why:

The latest NRC results after spending a few thousand crores shows 19 lakh non-citizens. A large chunk of them constitute Hindus, Bengali Hindus, Gorkhas, Boros, indigenous communities and tribals. So will these “termites” be crushed, deported and jailed? Ironically, the BJP is now opposing NRC in Assam with the cut-off date fixed on August 24, 1971, as per the Assam Accord signed between Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students Union (AASU).

Amit Shah tried to sell the NRC card in West Bengal in the recent bye-elections, targeting the Bengalis who have come to Bengal after 1971 from Bangladesh. The BJP lost all the three elections and there is a virtual divide within the state unit with a section of the BJP leadership saying that the NRC communal polarisation will just not work in West Bengal.

The entire North-east is united in its opposition to CAB, despite the opportunistic amendments in the tribal areas. BJP’s ally, Asom Gono Parishad (AGP) and AASU are vehemently opposed to it. Like in the recent past, there are daily bandhs and mass protests in Assam and its neighbourhood called by several united fronts and civil society groups. Even Arunachal Pradesh, Megahalaya and Manipur are fully against CAB, as is the united front of the North East Students Association.

Amit Shah is playing with fire. It is a simmering volcano with which he is playing a dangerous game. It might flare up, and the cost in terms of social division and possible violence and strife will be infinite.

When Economics Nibbles At Politics

Two of India’s most credible voices spoke as if in unison on November 29 and 30 at events organized by major media houses. Their well-meant, well-timed warnings are that the economy is in bad shape, something the government of the day is doggedly denying.

The oft-repeated phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid!” comes to mind, but it will not suffice. Bad economic management has combined with widespread perceptions of fear in political and social arenas.

The TINA (there is no alternative) factor that had emerged only six months ago after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the alliance he leads won a bigger mandate than 2014 is sliding.  

Both, former premier Manmohan Singh and veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj linked economic governance to a vitiated social climate. Fear, they said, was generated, not by those in power alone, but also by those who draw inspiration and support from them and act with impunity.

Singh’s warning was confirmed the very next day, doubly more than he had expressed last year. India’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen to 4.5 percent, the lowest in over six years, when Singh and his government, accused of policy paralysis, were in office. The GDP growth then was 8.5 percent. It had crossed ten at one time during his tenure.   

When Singh had last year darkly predicted a two percent GDP fall, then Finance Minister, late Arun Jaitley, had hinted at Singh’s going senile. Lawmakers and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been more direct in using harsh words.

Singh has been spared abuses this time – not that anybody in the government is taking his words kindly. The counter-response is only more resolute since the government apparently sees Singh straying into political arena by alleging that a “toxic combination of deep distrust, pervasive fear” is “stifling economic activity and hence economic growth”.  

More ire has been reserved for Bajaj, who has pierced through the bubble of India Inc.’s silence. To be fair, he was in the past critical of Singh’s economic management as well. And Singh, braving doubting Thomas all around in those early years, had been dismissive of that criticism. India’s entrepreneurial class is grateful to Singh, the reforms’ pioneer, whether or not they would admit it.

With formidable ministers Amit Shah (who is also the BJP chief), Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal on stage, Bajaj spoke of corporates afraid to criticize government, of an environment of impunity for phenomena like lynching and of terror-accused Pragya Thakur’s political journey to Parliament with the BJP’s full backing and support.

The ministers, particularly Shah, denied or defended it all. He compared his government’s record with that of the Singh Government, of all things, on cases of lynching of Muslims and Dalits by vigilantes belonging to his party or its affiliates. Official figures prove his claim hollow. Shah has got to deny this since RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat who guides his party has decried the very term ‘lynching’ as something alien to Indian culture.  

While building its industrial base, the Bajaj family has a history of speaking up against the government of the day, especially that of the Congress. Rahul B. dared fellow-captains of trade and industry at the conclave to speak up, but none responded. Only leading woman entrepreneur Kiran Shaw Majumdar has taken the cue from Bajaj.

Come to think of it, India Inc. hails most Budgets and praises most finance ministers, as long as its purpose is swerved. It has always moved cautiously, sensing the political climate before speaking out on economic issues. In recent memory, the year 2013 was one such time when the Singh Government was besieged with political protests.

Behind this new churning, unmistakably, there is the Maharashtra factor. Sharad Pawar has sewn together government of an unlikely alliance of known ideological adversaries united to keep the BJP out of the richest state. His emergence, like Bajaj (incidentally, both have their respective bases in Pune) has confounded many calculations and put some life into a beleaguered Opposition.

New Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has taken some decisions responding to public concerns like environmentalists’ pleas against felling trees in Mumbai’s wooded area and has announced withdrawal of cases against the Maoists imprisoned under stringent anti-terror laws. The controversial Indo-Japanese Bullet train project, half-way through, is slated to slow down, if not ended. The latter two issues are bound to cause friction with New Delhi.

But he has compulsions. By reinforcing continued adherence to Hindutva that he shares with the BJP, Thackeray has had to keep future political options open. He cannot afford to shed his ideological moorings strengthened along with the BJP over the last three decades. Friction with secular allies is in store.             

Significantly, the BJP slide in recent elections is not because of, but despite, a weak Opposition. It remains divided and has nothing to offer to the people. The recent months have witnessed the rise of regional forces, Pawar being the best and the most promising of the lot. 

The Congress remains in deep slumber, as if running on autopilot. It merely reacts to events, unsure at times about its stand, only to be bashed back by the BJP and its voluble social media supporters. The Gandhis are seen as doing a holding operation, ineffective in office and indecisive about their own role, even as the party gets reduced to third or fourth position.

There are other fears surrounding enforcement of law to detect ‘outsiders’ or ‘infiltrators’. Everyone but the die-hard BJP supporters (read Shah supporters) think this would open the Pandora’s Box. Potentially, just about anyone among the millions who migrate for work or due to a natural calamity can come under suspicion for lack of documents that prove his/her domicile status.

The Modi Government faces long-term decline in economic growth. The latest GDP numbers merely certify what has been experienced on the ground for a long time now. What is striking about the slowdown this time is that it hits the most vulnerable sections of the population. Agricultural distress combined with the disastrous demonetization experiment, has hurt those that serve as the real economic engine.

How far the Singh-Bajaj-Majumdar observations reflect and impact the public mood remains uncertain. It would be premature, if not naïve, to expect anything radical. It is a long grind.

Truth be told, Modi remains popular among large sections and his government/party wield greater money and muscle power than all opponents combined.    

But message is clear: National pride and religion certainly have their own place. But people want jobs and basic necessities first, over everything else. To revive the economy, Modi will have to review the social and political ethos and philosophy. Nothing less will help him and the country.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Gospel Behind ‘The Giving Pledge’

For a good spell of years, Andrew Carnegie was ahead of John D Rockefeller in terms of individual wealth. This happened following Carnegie’s disposal of Pittsburgh Carnegie Steel Company, which he built in a rare display of vision of a strong industrial America, with the money he made from his investments in a wide range of businesses. But not that much for his pioneering business and industrial activities, the Scottish-American migrant who died in August 1919 at the ripe age of 83 will continue to be gratefully remembered for using most of his wealth to promote education, scientific research and art and culture. Not only is his philanthropy at today’s value worth over $65 billion, benefiting a large number of prestigious institutions, mostly in the US, but also outside Carnegie benefaction is not to be overshadowed by the humanitarian work sans borders by the greatest Samaritans of our times Melinda and Bill Gates.

Carnegie’s vision is written all over in Carnegie Hall in New York, Carnegie Institution of Science and also notably Carnegie Mellon University, which proves beneficial for many south Asians. Andrew Carnegie of his times or a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett of modern times creates waves of philanthropy inspiring others to part with their wealth for betterment of society. What precisely Gates-Buffett do with their money is to work particularly in areas of health (including fighting of diseases such as AIDs,) education and sanitation that remain beyond the capacity of governments in least developed and developing countries to attend well.

Carnegie’s famous “The Gospel of Wealth” inspired many in the US to follow in his footsteps to do good to society using most of their wealth in a variety of ways. “The Giving Pledge” campaign launched by Melida and Bill Gates is universal in that it has secured commitments from over 200 individuals/couples living in different countries that major portions of their wealth will be used for philanthropic causes. We have only four Indians – Azim Premzi of Wipro, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocom, Rohini and Nandan Nilekani (one of Infosys founders) and real estate tycoon PNC Menon – to have signed The Giving Pledge. Definitely not an inspiring show when the number of Indian billionaires was 141 in 2018, according to the German statistics portal Statista.

Thankfully, though not a signatory to the pledge, billionaire and chairman of HCL Shiv Nadar is committed to spend $1 billion through his foundation with the focus on building a strong infrastructure for education. What is globally known is besides the declared income, many Indians have undeclared enormous wealth, both within and also stacked outside the country but for reasons, which can only be guessed the owners of such wealth shy away from doing philanthropy. What a waste of wealth from which the country and its people don’t benefit.

But then Rohini Nielkani talks about exercising the Indian “philanthropic muscle” a great degree more breaking the “trust deficit” that exists. She says: “There is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to do, largely because of the trust deficit. How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves. I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors (read super wealthy) find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves.” Not every super wealthy is a Melind or Bill Gates with the intent and capacity to build an organisation to do philanthropic work. Warren Buffett certainly believes that his wealth when channelled through Gates Foundation will yield better results than anything that he might himself attempt. Rohini finds the Indian philanthropy at an exciting stage with the development of an ecosystem for philanthropy along with the idea of giving.

Whatever Rohini may have to say on the subject, the fact remains while wealth levels of Indian elite – businessmen and professionals – are making impressive advances, this has not been matched by commensurate charitable giving. The sad fact is while members of India elite here have never been as well exposed to Western education and way of living as they are now, their philanthropic quotient are way below their peers in the West.

In discussions on philanthropy, generally only the rich will figure. Individuals ordinary in terms of wealth but extraordinary in disposition in charitable giving of almost everything that they have saved diligently over lifetime are not small in numbers in India. The rich have a tendency to build hospitals and educational institutions, which they will name after themselves or their parents under the guise of charitable cause but ensure at the same time that these are run for profit. A branch of the once second richest family in India runs their schools, colleges and hospitals strictly as business. In contrast, you have this 71 year old Chitralekha Mallik, a retired professor, who driven by the joy of giving has so far donated Rs97 lakh to support several causes dear to her heart.

For a teacher coming from a humble family – her father taught at a school – making charity of this scale means she has scrupulously avoided spending any money on herself. Chitralekha lives spartanly in a single room apartment on the outskirts of Calcutta. Though she has difficulty in walking following meeting with an accident in 1994, she is brave enough to travel by bus to Jadavpur University where she gave Rs50 lakh for institution of a research scholarship in memory of her late teacher and PhD guide Pandit Bidhubhusan Bhattacharya and another Rs6 lakh to support a student scholarship in the name of Bhattacharya’s wife. These two besides, Chitralekha has supported some other worthy causes.

Chitralekha, who has made a vow to “give all that I have,” told The Telegraph of Calcutta: “There are two ways through which you can be content. One is by spending on yourself. The other is by distributing what you have among the needy. The latter has been my guiding principle. This is also the lesson of Upanishad.” Her life is an outstanding example of selflessness.

Britain On Verge Of A Revolution

Whichever way the forthcoming election in United Kingdom goes, Britain is going to change fundamentally and so might quite a few countries around the world. Even possibly India. Brexit is now a sideshow. One way or the other it will be decided after the election. The real choice before Britain is between reviving a hard socialist future or revival of an extreme right wing capitalist economy. The British election is important because what happens in UK may start to become a trend elsewhere. Besides its fading power and its slide in the economic hierarchy, Britain still influences the intellectual political discourse in the world.

Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a socialist revolution is in the Labour manifesto and for all to see. It is open to criticism, to critique and to support. Voters know exactly what they will get whether they vote to stay in Europe or come out. Boris Johnson’s Conservative manifesto on the other hand is a hall of mirrors giving away little but bouncing a number of reflections without revealing where reality lies. Behind this is suspected to be a lurch towards American capitalist model, even more than Thatcherism

Corbyn’s socialist dream is coming under tremendous media attack. Apart from the tax threat being felt by millionaires and billionaires, many media people also fear their take home pay will be down since their earnings are a lot higher than the £80000 threshold at which high taxation will come in.

Ever since Thatcher started the low taxation drive in UK reaching a current low corporation tax of around 20% and maximum 45% income tax for millionaires, capitalism has dominated economic policies not only in United Kingdom but most of the world. Before the Thatcher revolution, taxation had gone up to 83% in 1974 for high earners and 45% for corporations in UK.  In India, highest tax rates were an eye watering 97.5% at one time (1973) but remained around 85% for a long time.

Corbyn is attempting a sort of root and branch overhaul of Thatcherism. Higher taxation to pay for more social welfare, better NHS and elderly care have become part of the public debate. Corbyn’s Labour is promising to reverse another Thatcherite policy that started a trend around the world, of privatisation of public utilities. Labour will renationalize the Railways, water and even start a State provided free fast internet service.

Privatisation of public utilities and other major State services  became the economic model of late twentieth century around the world. Even India adopted it under Dr Manmohan Singh’s stewardship of economic policy. If Labour wins, it will be interesting if Thatcherism will begin to be dismantled in other parts of the world as Labour’s main message is ‘Austerity does not work, Privatisation does not work’.

On the other hand if Conservatives win with Boris at the helm, most pundits predict that Britain will swing even further to the right than it is at the moment. This will begin the Americanisation of Britain’s public policy and economy.

Any remaining public utilities and services will probably see further private ownership and left to the market to determine their success or failure. The two big areas that are likely to see significant departure from the past will be the National Health Service (NHS), a flag ship of Britain’s soft power around the world and a pride of Britain’s socialist history. The second will be the standards on agriculture produce and food. Currently Britain has very high standards imposed by its membership of the European Union. After Brexit, a Boris Britain is likely to seek greater trade with United States, which in turn is asking waiving of these standards.

It is the further privatization of the NHS which is worrying a lot of people. Boris Johnson has made promises that the NHS will not only be safe under him but will get further cash. However the majority of British people do not trust him. He has gained a reputation for being a politician who rarely keeps his word. Yet Boris Johnson’s remarkable feat is that he has continued to mesmerize the same public that does not trust any of his promises to be kept!

The Trump administration has already had meetings with the Johnson Government on letting American Health giants to gain ownership of NHS sectors. Further the Drug companies in USA will also likely be given freedom to increase charges for medicines sold by them. The NHS is an institution that continues to attract awe around the world for its free from cradle to grave free health care. There are serious attempts in India to attract NHS expertise to introduce similar models. However many fear that under Boris Johnson government, the NHS will start to crumble, a loss to Britain and to the world.

Food and agriculture produce standards will be lowered under a future Conservative Government. This effectively means that UK will become like many developing countries with poor food and agriculture quality. The items that alarm most British are steroid fed meat and other agriculture products from USA that will become common, whereas currently they are banned.

Social welfare will most likely be further cut. Many elderly and poor people will suffer even more. An environment similar to USA is being prophesised by many a political commentator. This means people hungry on the streets, increase in poverty and poor health. The rich are likely to become richer.

Britain under conservatives will become a land with little of its manufacturing or financial sector in indigenous ownership. Many of current British manufacturing is owned by international companies, including from China. This is likely to increase. Britain will effectively be owned by the non British, oligarchs and State enterprises from countries such as china, France and Germany even more than currently. It is likely to become the world’s market State. At one time Britain only had market towns, now the entire country could become a market hub.

The third major party in Britain is the Lib Dems. Their single agenda seems to be to reverse Brexit.  If they become the King makers, they will insist on a referendum which in turn may put an end to Brexit Britain with UK remaining in Europe. A number of opinion polls predict that another referendum will produce a majority in favour of remaining in EU.

Whether Labour forms the next Government or Conservatives do, the most likely tectonic shift after this elections will be unravelling of Great Britain or United Kingdom. The Scottish National party (SNP) is widely predicted to win in Scotland. SNP will insist on another Scottish referendum. Again polls predict that this time Scotland will vote to leave the Union, first formed in 1707, having been treated as an irrelevancy in the Brexit talks with Europe. This has angered a number of the Scottish.

The other land likely to drift away from United Kingdom is Northern Ireland. In a Boris Brexit Britain, the Northern Irish are likely to call for a referendum of their own. Boris Johnson has negotiated a deal with EU that requires a border between Norther Ireland (a British territory) and the rest of Britain to avoid goods being smuggled into Europe through Republic of Ireland (Southern Ireland). Polls are showing that a majority of Northern Irish feel betrayed by Conservatives and see no reason not to join Southern Ireland and become one country.

The 2019 election, called in a hurry, will not be insignificant. Instead it will have profound ramifications, changing the history, politics and economics of United Kingdom and to some extent rest of the world. Britain will have a revolution of either the left or the right which will influence public policies around the world. And regardless of which side it starts sailing, Britain is likely to start breaking up, bringing an end to the once mighty British Empire. Finally 300 years of British Empire will shrink back to start, into a small territorial land called England with Wales attached for a while.

Colonial-Era Sedition Law Must Go

India’s Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta, in his speech on freedom of expression two months back, said that criticism of an executive, bureaucracy, judiciary or even the armed forces did not amount to sedition and Indian Constitution has given every citizen, the right to dissent.

His words hold significance at a time when the government’s own stand is to make the colonial era law more stringent. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, now a union minister, said that the law will be made so stern that it would send “shivers down the spine of anti-nationals”.

Section 124 A of the Indian Pena Code (IPC) pertaining to sedition make liable individuals or groups, who attempt to bring hatred or contempt or excite or attempt to excite dissatisfaction towards the government through words – spoken or written, signs or visible representation.

Sections 121 (pertaining to waging a war or attempting to wage a war against the state), 121A (conspiring to commit offences under 121), 122 (collecting arms and ammunition to wage a war), 123 (concealing with intent, design to wage a war) are other sections which are usually slapped against individuals charged with sedition.

The ambit of controlling free speech or dissent can go further to other sections like 153B (assertions prejudicial to national integration), 290 (public nuisance), 297 (trespass to wound religious feelings), 504 (intentional insults) of the IPC as was seen in cases recently filed against 49 celebrities in a Bihar court for writing to the PM to bring his attention to the growing incidences of mob lynching.

A recently released data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggests high rate of acquittals in sedition cases at 80% for 2017. It is clear that the cases slapped against individuals were used as a tool to harass them and force them into submission, curb criticism and dissent.

The same data also points to a 46% rise in sedition cases in 2017 over the previous year. Overall, 51 cases of seditions were filed during the year with Assam (19), Haryana (13) and Himachal Pradesh (5) recording highest number of sedition cases. Around 109 cases under Sections 121, 121A, 122 and 123 were also filed.

This is despite the fact that the Supreme Court in 1962 Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar spelled out clear instructions on what constituted sedition. Though the five-judge bench ruled the provisions to be constitutional.

Since the judgement, various governments at the centre and states have used the law to curb freedom of speech and dissent, at will. Of late, university students, celebrated cinema personalities, writers, political leaders, public figures and even adivasis have been facing cases of sedition filed against them.

There are umpteen cases where criticism has led to sedition being slapped against individuals. JNU student Shehla Rashid’s twitter post criticising the Army landed her on the wrong side of the law, apart from the case related to 49 intellectuals who merely wrote a letter to the Prime Minister laying stress that intolerance in society was on the rise.

News portal scroll.in recently reported how the Jharkhand government booked over 10,000 adivasis for invoking constitution to protect their land rights. Several journalist were booked for their posts against political leaders in June this year.

In another case, First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed for criticising the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This week, former chief ministers HD Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah were booked under the sedition law for protesting Income Tax raids on their premises, in addition to the charge of obstructing a government official from discharging his duties.

Cases like these are clearly motivated and may lead to mental and physical agony. Fighting a case is arduous and expensive in India; in the cases where these charges are filed against people belonging to poor or middle class, the accused often lose their livelihoods; their passports get revoked and there is harassment at the hands of society.

This raises the question if the state should be allowed to have a sweeping discretion to exercise its powers under the law without any accountability.

Shouldn’t there be safeguards for citizens to exercise their right to express their opinion or dissent, however uncomfortable they could be to the ruling dispensation? Shouldn’t the law be made non-cognizable and bailable to ensure rule of law and justice? Above all, should accountability not be fixed on authorities if in court’s wisdom there was non-application of the mind or the exercise being arbitrary, only to harass people.

In times, when it has become easy for a person to get branded as an anti-national for his views, only courts could stop this madness by fixing the accountability of the police and the state.

It should also consider referring the matter to a larger bench to decide if the law still has a relevance in a vibrant democracy like India and if the provisions making the offence cognizable and non-bailable needs to be revoked. Cognisable offences do not mandate the police to take permission from the magistrate before making an arrest.

India’s top court has on several occasions ruled to uphold the rights of the citizens including the land mark judgements on right to privacy or decriminalising homosexuality.

While the BJP-led government has clarified its stand, Congress has also played its part in demonising the law. The protest against nuclear power plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu or the case against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for drawing caricatures depicting the corruption during its tenure, are some of the incidents that point to government excesses during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure.

Also, it was during former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government that the law was made more draconian by making the offence cognizable and non-bailable. The original law under the British era was a non-cognizable offence.

Though in its manifesto for this year’s election, the grand old party promised to revoke Section 124A, it is unlikely to be a possibility anytime soon.

It is ironical that India still continues to follow the law when UK discontinued it a decade back. It is even more ironical that the Indian politicians who invoke Mahatma Gandhi for all political purposes have scant regard towards his belief for freedom of speech and dissent. The Mahatma had himself agitated against Section 124A after he came out of the prison, in 1922.   

To critique government policy, or satirise a politicians, or express an unpopular opinion is the right given to the citizens under Article 19(1) (a).

The law has prescribed some clearly defined exceptions to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India and its federal structure, public order, security, incitement to violence, contempt of court, public decency and morality and defamation.

The court has been intervening to ensure the legality and assess the application of mind in such exercises, but a higher intervention is now required.

Unless that happens, different governments will continue to enforce the law arbitrarily at different points in time.

Justice Gupta, during his speech also said that “New thinkers are born when they disagree with well-accepted norms of the society” and “If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created and no new vistas of the mind will be found.”

Is the Supreme Court listening to one of its own? Politicians may call it a judicial overreach, to protect their turf, but the rights of the citizens are supreme.

Mahabharata In Maharashtra

Associated with Realpolitik that sets pragmatism over ideological goals, the phrase “politics is the art of the possible” entails that “it’s not about what’s right, or what’s best. It’s about the attainable.”

Nineteenth-century German politician Otto Von Bismarck who coined it couldn’t have foreseen events in present-day India, or in Maharashtra. He would have been flummoxed by the way even Realpolitik is played.

It is difficult to say who won in Maharashtra that saw a government ushered in by subterfuge that had to quit within three days. Besides greed for power that comes natural to all contenders, this happened because of abdication by institutions established under the Constitution.

To begin with, the President signed a proclamation revoking the governor’s rule at an unearthly 5.43 AM. The Union Cabinet did not meet to recommend it. (This was justified by the Law Minister, of all days, on the Constitution Day).

Next, the state governor, obviously on New Delhi’s diktats, hastily swore in by 8 AM Devendra Fadnavis and as his new deputy, Ajit Pawar. He did not verify the claim of majority support from among the newly-elected legislators. Even after the dust settles, his conduct shall be debated.

The Supreme Court heard the matter on a Sunday morning, an official holiday. But three honourable judges reserved their ruling when they could have issued clear directions for floor test in the legislature citing well-established precedents. That allowed contenders and their cronies — carpetbaggers all – to abuse all democratic norms in activities from swank hotels and resorts to the streets.

The apex court finally controlled the damage with clear-cut rulings, but after 48 hours. It not only gave the Fadnavis government just one day to get the assembly’s confidence vote but also stipulated that the proceedings should be telecast ‘live’, conducted by a pro-tem Speaker and held by an open ballot.

Without dwelling on the background details that are too many, problems for the BJP ruling at the Centre, always resorting to the jugular to extend sway across the country, began with falling short of majority in both states that went to the polls last month.

It roped in a rival party in Haryana co-opting its chief as the deputy chief minister. But in Maharashtra it reneged on a fifty-fifty pre-poll pact with its oldest ally Shiv Sena (at least Sena insists so).

Despite winning half of the seats than the BJP, Sena, fearing future marginalization from a marauding BJP in the only state it has political base, insisted on the chief minister’s post.

After a month’s stand-off, it broke with the BJP and aligned with old rivals, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress. The latter prevaricated, unwilling to align with an untrustworthy ideological adversary when NCP chief Sharad Pawar emerged as the catalyst. To his credit, he insisted, and secured, Sena’s formal parting from the BJP-led ruling alliance.

The BJP prime movers, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah grabbed the weakest link in the Opposition chain – Ajit Pawar, NCP chief’s controversial nephew. He succumbed, to escape probe for graft charges worth billions instituted by the Fadnavis Government-1.

Having got him, the short-lived Fadnavis-2 withdrew nine of the 20 charges. But the next day, Ajit quit, under severe family pressures. Stripped of perceived majority minus Ajit, in no position to face the floor-test, Fadnavis resigned, with egg on his and the BJP’s face.  

Now, some noteworthy points on the way polity functions. Split verdicts in an election have been creating conditions when political mores and constitutional norms are wrecked. Money flows — the going price of a Maharashtra legislator this time was, reportedly, a staggering Rupees 50 crores.

The “Aya Ram, Gaya Ram” political culture of trading in legislators that goes back to the 1960s has burgeoned. People have got used to seeing those they vote changing party labels and loyalty for power and pelf. Come to think of it, all four parties were brazen and shameless, but BJP behaved with maximum impunity.

No popular movement has been unleashed to protest this trend. India’s middle class scoffs at corruption in general, but is selective on political corruption. The venerable Anna Hazare, the anti-graft movement hero six years ago, hailing from the same Maharashtra, is today silent and ignored.

Maharashtra’s changed political line-up has blurred the secular-communal divide. An aggressive “Hindu nationalist” Shiv Sena is being embraced by the NCP, the Congress, the Samajwadi and others. Keen to beat back a marauding BJP, the secularists (this term is getting blurred) have embraced Sena despite its record of regional chauvinism and its avowed “Hindu nationalism” that is more aggressive and regressive than the BJP.

The BJP-Sena split has raised new worries in influential quarters. The caste factor has always kept a pluralist Hindu society divided. Lord Meghnad Desai, the British peer and an avid Modi fan, laments: “If two Hindu nationalist parties cannot agree on a power-sharing coalition because of the Brahmin/non-Brahmin difference, what hope is there for a Hindu Rashtra?”

The Maharashtra events are a resounding slap on the faces of Modi and Shah. Their template of being the modern-day Chanakyas has taken a hit. Their ‘nationalism’ platform aggressively selling their Kashmir initiative and labeling its critics ‘traitors’ did not bring enough seats. Local issues and regional parties mattered. Besides unemployment, farm distress is a serious issue in Maharashtra.  

The Pawars are a dynasty, the reason why Ajit the rebel, turned prodigal. Now Pawar sups with another dynasty, the Thackerays and the oldest dynasty of them all, the Congress’ Gandhis.

This is Pawar’s moment, thanks to the BJP’s Maharashtra folly. India’s increasingly one-sided political discourse has been seriously breached with Pawar’s emergence. Although ageing and ailing, he has a stature around whom a leader-less Opposition, particularly the Congress, can build its future campaign against the BJP. That is, provided they sink their egos — a big ‘if’ in Indian context.

Road for this has been paved in Maharashtra, the second-largest state that elects 48 Lok Sabha members, next only to Uttar Pradesh. Equally important is the fact that the state, despite numerous flaws, remains India’s richest and its capital is also India’s principal financial/ commercial hub. Losing Maharashtra is the biggest blow the BJP has suffered since 2014.

Maharashtra has a chief minister in Uddhav Thackeray, 59, who has had zero experience in governance. He has remained under the shadow of his father, late Balasaheb, who founded and built a party with a chauvinistic agenda and resorts to strong-arm tactics. India Inc. couldn’t be happy by this development fearing political instability and the resultant damage to an already slowdown-hit economy. 

The new combine will have to battle and rein in their several inner contradictions and with Pawar playing the ‘Pitamaha’, ensure that they do not overwhelm governance.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Modi Govt Has Lowered The Stature Of Upper House

Addressing the start of the 250th session of the Rajya Sabha last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the Upper House as the “soul of India’s federal structure” and that it is about checks and balance but went on to add that there is a “difference between checking and clogging, balance and blocking.”

Modi’s statement, underlining the importance of the Rajya Sabha, had a touch of irony to it. That’s because ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, it has made systematic attempts to undermine the Upper House where it was in a minority. His ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders often referred to the Rajya Sabha as a stumbling block, stating angrily out that the Opposition should not stall the government’s legislative agenda as their party had got the people’s mandate to rule.

Modi’s remarks also revived an old debate about the relevance and importance of the Upper House and India’s decision to settle for a bicameral system of legislature. This was a subject of animated debate in the Constituent assembly which drew up the country’s Constitution.

As was to be expected, opinion on this was divided with those arguing against the need for a second chamber, saying it would  “act as a clog in the wheel of governance” and that it would be undemocratic since it would have the powers to veto the decisions of an elected House. On the other hand, those who were in its favour stressed that decisions taken hurriedly and due to political pressures can be deliberated upon in detail without any such compulsions in the second chamber. Not only can such an exercise improve the quality of legislation but also act as a check on any rushed move by a government.

The debate in the Constituent Assembly was based on a report of the Union Constitution Committee submitted by Jawaharlal Nehru. This document provided details about the composition, role and functioning of the second chamber. The debate eventually ended with the Constituent Assembly deciding in favour of a second chamber on the ground that it would reflect the country’s pluralistic character and provide a forum for the states to put across their views as the second chamber was proposed to be a council of states.

Over the past years, the Modi government has not just attempted to thwart the functioning of the Rajya Sabha but this attitude has also been extended to the Lok Sabha where it has the advantage of a stronger bench strength. It, therefore, tends to rush through it is business by stonewalling the opposition’s demands to refer important Bills to Parliamentary standing committees for detailed scrutiny.

The opposition-dominated Rajya Sabha has been an irritant for the Modi government since 2014 and it is only recently that the BJP and its allies have inched closer to the majority mark. While the BJP improved its tally after it won a bulk of state elections, it also engineered defections from other parties to ensure that numbers in the Upper House did not come in its way in pushing ahead with the government’s legislative agenda. For instance, it was only after it was certain that the opposition no longer enjoyed an edge in the Rajya Sabha that the Modi government brought the triple talaq bill and the bills stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcating the state into two Union Territories.

In fact, Modi’s first brush with the Rajya Sabha came after he first rode to power five years ago. Euphoric over the BJP’s impressive win, Modi soon realized that despite the ruling alliance’s big majority in the Lok Sabha, his plans to enact legislation was not possible as it was in a minority in the Upper House. His government hit a wall in the Rajya Sabha which did not allow the passage of its initial two reform legislation, the Land Acquisition Bill and the Goods and Services Tax Bill. The opposition had then forced the government to refer them to a Parliamentary panel. While the GST Bill was eventually passed after several rounds of meetings with opposition parties, the land Bill was eventually abandoned.

This had led furious BJP ministers to rail against the functioning of the Rajya Sabha  with Arun Jaitley, then finance  minister, to declare that the Indian democracy faced a serious challenge as an “indirectly elected” Upper House was questioning the wisdom of the “directly elected” Lower House.

Instead of reaching out to the Opposition and opening channels of communication with members on the other side of the political divide, the Modi government started circumventing the Rajya Sabha by converting bills into money bills. The Upper House does not have the authority to vote out a money bill.

It was left to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to refer to these moves by the  government when he spoke after Modi’s address on the first day of the Rajya Sabha’s 250th session. “In the recent past, we have seen instances of misuse of the Money Bill provision by the Executive leading to bypassing the Rajya Sabha on crucial legislation of national importance without any deliberation. Those in treasury benches must ensure that such instances are avoided,” Singh remarked.

Singh also made a valid point when he drew attention to the hurried manner in which the Modi government pushed through the Bills on Jammu and Kashmir by giving MPs no time to study the legislation, which was tantamount to belittling the Upper House.

“This House should be given greater respect by the Executive than is the case now,” Singh stressed, adding that far-reaching proposals like abolishing certain states and converting them into Union Territories must be discussed at greater length in the Rajya Sabha as it is a Council of States. In fact, he went a step further saying the Upper House must be given greater powers to deal with issues like these.

This debate on the role and functioning of the Rajya Sabha will continue as long as a ruling party does not enjoy a majority in both Houses. It is only then that political leaders find merit in opting for a bicameral system of legislature.

India-Sri Lanka: Off To A Fresh Start

Sri Lanka’s presidential election has thrown up the Rajapaksa brothers once more to the centre-stage of the island’s politics. And in keeping with family loyalties, three of the brothers are now part of the cabinet. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Minister, while Chamal the eldest of the siblings is a cabinet minister. Thus, the Rajapaksa stamp will define this government.

Will Gotabaya play the China card, as his brother did during his second term in office? Does Delhi need to worry that China will spread itself out in an island which is literally in India’s backyard? With the Chinese Navy now regularly plying the Indian Ocean waters, will it become a security concern for New Delhi? In short what does the return of the Rajapaksa brothers mean for India and Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem?

For one there is “gotaphobia” among many in the island nation, including minorities and liberals. Tamils, who accuse Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa of large scale human rights abuse during the last days of military campaign against the LTTE, would want both to be tried as war criminals. The powerful Tamil diaspora is likely to get active again. For a while, when the unity government was ruling and the Rajapaksa was not in power, the move to drag them to the International Court of Justice took a back seat. India, US and other European nations also did not bother much. For the moment, it seems that New Delhi is ready for a fresh start.

India has been on the ball on Sri Lanka. The return of the Rajapaksa family was expected and alarm bells did not go off in India. Instead, New Delhi played its cards smartly. As soon as Gotabaya was announced as the winner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost no time in greeting and congratulating him. Modi was the first foreign leader to do so.

Once Gotabaya was sworn in, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar flew in to Colombo to personally convey Prime Minister Modi’s message to the new President. An invitation to visit Delhi has been given an expected. It sent the message that India was ready to forget the past and build a healthy relationship with the new power centre in Colombo.

Jaishankar is familiar with Sri Lanka and had served there at a critical period when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed in the north and east of the island country. He understands the workings of its political system and knows all sections of political leaders. The Tamil National Alliance leaders will be delighted as they know the minister personally. As foreign secretary too, Jaishankar had visited Sri Lanka several times and knows its politics.

So far Gotabaya has made all the right noises. He has stressed that he will follow a neutral foreign policy. During Rajapaksa’s second term in office he had tilted towards China in a big way. China built the Humbantota port, a white elephant to many, in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home town, and was awarded the modernization plan of the Colombo port project and building of a swanky new business district from reclaimed land at a cost $1.4 billion (China is an expert on that. Remember how it churned sand from the ocean floor in the South China Sea). President Xi Jinping oversaw the foundation laying ceremony in 2014. Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa was becoming a staunch ally of China while India worried the growing dragon’s influence in its backyard.

While this was a sore point with India, more worrying was a Chinese submarine docking in Colombo harbour for refueling, rest and recreation in September 2014. The island nation is literally a stone’s throw away from the Indian coastline. Concerns on the PLA’s naval wing, going in and out of the island was regarded as impinging on India’s security interests. Even after India expressed its concern when the submarine came back to dock in Colombo in November, Lanka said it was on a routine visit on its way to the port of Aden. So when Rajapaksa was trounced by Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, New Delhi heaved a sigh of relief.

In fact, the Rajapaksas were bitter about the role of India during the elections. Gotabaya himself had said at that time that India, US and other foreign powers worked indirectly to defeat the ruling regime. But the quintessential politician that his brother is, Mahinda never said a word in public. He made it point to meet up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi whenever he came to India on private visits and to reassure Delhi that he was a friend. So much of the heavy lifting had already been done by Mahinda when the brothers were not in power.

India has smelt the coffee. It was clear from the beginning that the unity government made up of traditional rivals Sri Lanka Freedom Party and a section of the United National Party were not up to delivering good governance. The mood of the people was clear when the regional party headed by Rajapaksa clean swept the local council elections. India knows it has to do business with the Rajapaksa clan and it will do so.

Delhi has also to come to terms with the fact that Chinese influence in its periphery will continue. It does not matter which government is in power in Colombo. Sri Lanka is already in debt to the Chinese. Despite all the noise made by the opposition over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to give China the business city project over environmental norms not being followed, the Srisena-Ranil Wickremasinghe combine, got China back on the project. China has the money and all developing nations are looking for cash to finance infrastructure projects. Sulking about this will be of no help. It is important to get Colombo on India’s side by continuing to strengthen ties. India and Sri Lanka have more in common – culture and religion — than Colombo can ever have with Beijing.

At the same time, it is important that the new government carry forward the national reconciliation process. Jaishankar conveyed this to President Gotabaya when he met him last week. This will certainly be on the agenda when the President visits India next week. India had made the first move in reaching out to Gotabaya, and he has reciprocated. It is a good start. The coming months and days will show how the relationship works. Now is too early to make an assessment.

My personal view is that ties will improve dramatically. If Gotabaya plays the China card, India can also hit back by encouraging the Tamil diaspora to rake up the human rights abuse during the LTTE campaign. But with Pakistan and other countries now raising the Kashmir issue, Delhi would rather not take that path. Both sides have learnt from past mistakes and Colombo would rather have good relations with its immediate neighbour. This does not mean that Gotabaya will not play ball with China. But, possibly, it will not be at India’s expense.