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

The Real Reason Why State Of Indian Media Is ‘Pliable’

Disclosure: this author landed one of the first interviews with Mr Modi a year after he became prime minister for a leading Indian newspaper in English; and Mr Modi’s answers to questions in person over breakfast at his official residence were supplemented by detailed printed copies of the responses). Such an arrangement for interviews (as most Indian journalists and editors are aware) isn’t something that is exclusive to Mr Modi. Prime ministers who have preceded Mr Modi, including Dr Manmohan Singh, have, in the past, agreed to be interviewed only via email. Editors of publications usually agree to print such responses, and, in most cases, mention the fact that it is based on written or e-mailed responses to questions, letting readers know the format that was followed. Obviously, such interviews tend to skirt controversial issues: I can’t recall an interview in which Dr Singh was asked whether he was in any way constrained in his decisions as prime minister by the president of the Congress party (in the circumstances, it would have been a legitimate question to ask him). The issue of interviewing India’s chief executive or prime minister was recently in the news after the Congress’ current president Rahul Gandhi critiqued an interview of Mr Modi by the editor of a news agency. Mr Gandhi implied that the interviewer was “pliable” and that “she was questioning and also giving the prime minister’s answers”. His comments set off a maelstrom of protests. The ruling alliance’s spokespersons attacked him and invoked memories of his grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi, who as prime minister had promulgated Emergency in 1975 during which the media was gagged, censored and controlled by her government. Journalists too were angered. The Editors Guild of India, an organisation comprising leading Indian editors that aims to protect press freedom and raise the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines, issued a statement in which it said Mr Gandhi’s criticism of the interviewer was offensive. The Congress party responded by defending its president’s statement and said: “Pliable isn’t offensive; it is the state of the Indian media today.” There are two issues that derive from this latest controversy involving India’s media and its politicians. The first is specific to the Congress president himself. For much of the 14 years since 2004 when Mr Gandhi, now 48, formally entered politics, he has largely been leery of the media, rarely agreeing to interactions with journalists and nearly never agreeing to grant interviews. In one-on-one interactions, which have almost always been off the record, his responses to controversial or uncomfortable questions have attempted to obfuscate the issues, and in the extremely rare on-the-record interviews that he has granted he has often seemed baffling. It is only now after his party suffered a humiliating loss in the general elections of 2014 that Mr Gandhi has seemed to have come into his own, speaking more coherently about things such as Mr Modi, his government, and now, the media. But has he agreed to free, no-holds-barred media interviews where questions aren’t previously vetted or the journalist or the publication not screened? You’ll be hard put to recall any. That takes care of issue No. 1. But it is the second issue that is more disturbing. In India, senior politicians, particularly those occupying high offices such as the prime minister or senior leaders of the Opposition, unless they are accused, charged or convicted of high crimes, are usually given the kid glove treatment by traditional media publications. It is common to find publications and the journalists working for them treating India’s politicians with a sort of polite submission and respect. Such is the deference that, unlike in the UK or other western markets, it is rare to find even “tabloid” publications trying to unearth scandals, salacious or otherwise, about Indian politicians—although it won’t be wrong to assume that such peccadillos, involving Indian politicians, exist in abundance. But the bigger issue is the reason why India’s mainstream (or traditional) journalists go soft on its politicians, leaders, and ministers. The real answers lie in the way India’s publications are owned and managed. Most of India’s big newspapers—in English or other languages—are proprietorial establishments. It is not uncommon to find that some of these proprietors also have other large business interests. It is also not uncommon to find links between some of these owners and political parties. In many large newsrooms, the professional, hired editor may seem to call the shots but the interests of the publication’s owner always influences the decisions. Sometimes it is a simple case of advertising revenues. Like everywhere in the world, India’s print publications are facing a squeeze on revenues—print ads from erstwhile mainstay sectors are fast migrating online—and the dependence on advertising from government agencies has increased. Or it is about vested interests. The owners of a media group may need the approval of the government of the day to set up a new business, acquire land in a state for expansion or diversification purposes, or just stave off prying governmental investigations into their own business discrepancies. Much is made of the existence of crony capitalism in India—the nexus between the business class and the political class.  The thing is India’s mainstream media business is not outside such a nexus. With very few exceptions, India’s media barons are pretty much linked to the political class—and instances of media owners crossing over to the other side are not uncommon. If pliable is the state of the Indian media as the Congress party and its president have alleged, then it may be time to take a close hard look, not at those who work in the newsrooms but at those who own them.]]>

#MyVote2019 – ‘Youth Connects With Modi’

Vibhum Srivastava, 20, an undergraduate in Uttar Pradesh and a first time voter   Last year was the first time when I actually got to seen an EVM and the electoral process during Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. I am excited about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as this will be the first time I shall cast my vote for Parliament. Ever since I got my election ID made, I see myself as an active participant in choosing our own destiny by lending our support for a party or policy. I am a member of various social media groups and keep abreast with political developments. I debate and take part in several political discussion on my Facebook account and on Twitter. I respect valid arguments of all kind and keep my sanity while placing my views on these forum. I consider myself an aware youth with respectable knowledge about political parties, leaders, policies, etc. Even though I am still studying, I have my views on jobs, infrastructure, road connectivity, safety, women empowerment etc. These are the issues that I believe concern first-time voters like me. I am proud of our country’s growing ranking and image on global platform. This feeling of pride and recognition is what makes me look towards our current leadership with respect. My choice for the next prime minister is definitely Narendra Modi. I cannot see a better option at least till the time I get to cast my vote again (after five years). The reason is: ever since I have started following the political course of our country, I have seen only two leaders – Manmohan Singh and Modi. I find Modi a far more energetic, interactive and effective leader of the two. Critics say it is about his media management but I counter that projection of your image is also a key factor for a leader. As Nehru said, a government not only be doing the right things but also must be seen as doing the right things. When I look around myself, I see the change is taking place gradually. For example, I often hear my uncle (a government employee) murmuring that ever since Modi came to power, he has reach office on time, work more etc. But even he is a Modi supporter. I faced little difficulty due to GST or rising petrol prices as I am still dependent on my father. However, I think, these issues are not permanent. When the dust settles down, they will eventually be of some benefit for us in the long run. Rahul Gandhi is hopeless; he will take at least 10-15 years to have the aura of Modi. My views are not based on the memes and jokes circulating on the social media – that is BJP media cell’s job – but what few speeches of his I have seen and heard. He lacks depth. In spite of being younger than Modi, he does not connect with the youth today. In my view, there should be a live debate between political leaders running for a particular post, like they have in many western countries and also in some of our universities, on the eve of election. This will give the voter a clear chance to make up his mind, especially the young voter, and the country will give a decisive mandate.  ]]>

#Election2019 – Gear Up For The Tamasha

Deepak Pant   Is it any wonder that ever more actors are moving to the political stage in India in recent years and decades? The phenomenon is not unique to India – remember Ronald Reagan – but there is something distinctive about politics and powerplay in India. Think about the cliché: change and continuity. The change is the all-pervasive efflorescence of the media since the early 1990s and the continuity is something rooted in the Indian psyche: ‘tamasha’, or spectacle. Put the two together and you get a semblance of understanding contemporary Indian politics. To be a successful ‘neta’ (leader), you have to be something of an ‘abhineta’ (actor). If elections can be won by tapping into the age-old attraction of ‘tamasha’ (remember 2014), the corollary is that the opposition can also play the same game and win an election using counter-‘tamasha’. The environment today is such that only those who can play the performance game through the media can hope to survive and thrive in electoral politics, and who better than actors to do this: Kamal Haasan, Smriti Irani, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Jaya Prada, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalitha…the list goes on. In other words, the situation in India resembles what an academic might call ‘the politics of permanent performance’; you need to be constantly seen to perform, even if you don’t actually do so in work, to sustain support of the people. It works for some time, until another – better? – ‘tamasha’ takes over. Those who gain power by and through the ‘tamasha’ route in the media face the prospect of losing by the same route. It was Neil Postman, who tellingly argued in 1985 that television has transformed culture into one vast arena for show business in which all public affairs – politics, religion, news, education, journalism, commerce – have been turned into a form of entertainment, or ‘tamasha’. His main contention is that the form of the media includes or excludes the quality of content: rational argument has long been central to print typography, but the form of television and television news excludes rationality since it is essentially a form, medium, devised for entertainment programming. Thus, politics and religion are diluted, and ‘news’ becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate. ‘Tamasha’ has long been one of the defining principles of political communication in India. It took various forms: such as staged satire and poetry in ‘mushairas’ and ‘kavi sammelans’, gossip, ballads, announcements of visits by leaders, processions (perfected by L K Advani’s ‘rath yatra’), street theatre, puppet shows, political verse set to popular Bollywood songs. These forms gained exponential reach and power with the proliferation of the media, including the internet and social media. Claims and counter-claims were equally able to disseminate quickly. Thus, it is no surprise that the opposition Congress also takes to similar idioms to attack the BJP in power: for example, Rahul Gandhi’s description of GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ after the popular villain from ‘Sholay’, as well as his amusing, funny and entertaining quick-on-the-uptake posts on Twitter on issues of the day. During the 2014 elections, the Narendra Modi act – or, ‘tamasha’ – was highly effective. Here was a leader who spoke very well (compared to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh), promised the moon, seemed confident of cutting through bureaucratic and political cobwebs, was immensely entertaining, had tremendous confidence in his abilities to transform India, which the youth found attractive. It was a stellar performance across various media forms: radio, mobile, television, print, newspapers as well as holograms that enabled him to appear at public meetings at various locations simultaneously. Cut to end-2018 and the attraction of his ‘tamasha’ has waned. There are already reports of BJP candidates during recent elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan complaining that people no longer come to his rallies in large numbers. The same confident television appearances that attracted many in 2014 don’t seem to have the same pull now, if not a put-off. The key question now is: is the opposition capable of putting up a bigger, better ‘tamasha’ than the BJP during the 2019 elections? In 2014, it was claimed that the taciturn Manmohan Singh was ‘Modi’s most effective election agent’; the former’s persona was a contrast reference point that helped sell the Modi brand. In 2019, will Modi be ‘Rahul’s most effective election agent’? Rahul Gandhi’s stall of an inclusive, less-charged and less-divisive India will be pitted against the polarizing and polarized India symbolized by Modi and the BJP. The Nehru-Gandhi has long exploited the ‘tamasha’ in an India where feudal impulses are still influential. The outcome of the elections remains to be seen, but it is certain that ‘tamasha’ in various forms and media will reach a new high.  ]]>

#AccidentalPrimeMinister riles Congress

The Accidental Prime Minister, starring Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh, is BJP’s propaganda against their party, Congress leaders said on Friday as the former PM evaded comment on the growing controversy over the film on him. Congress leaders said propaganda against the party would not work and the truth shall prevail. The trailer of the film, based on the book of the same name by Sanjaya Baru who served as Singh’s media advisor from 2004 to 2008, was released in Mumbai on Thursday. The trailer shows Singh as a victim of the Congress’ internal politics ahead of the the 2014 general elections. Riveting tale of how a family held the country to ransom for 10 long years. Was Dr Singh just a regent who was holding on to the PM’s chair till the time heir was ready? Watch the official trailer of ‘TheAccidentalPrimeMinister’, based on an insider’s account, releasing on 11 January,” the BJP said on Thursday night.

Responding to the BJP, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said on Twitter that such fake propaganda by the party would not stop it from asking the Modi government questions on “rural distress, rampant unemployment, demonetisation disaster, flawed GST, failed Modinomics, all pervading corruption . Asked by journalists to comment on the film at the Congress’ foundation day function at the party headquarters on Friday, Singh walked away without saying anything. Congress leader and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said propaganda against the Congress and its leaders would not work and the truth shall prevail. His colleague, Congress leader PL Punia, accused the BJP of evading answers on its misgovernance after having failed on all fronts. This is the handiwork of the BJP. They know that time has come to give answers after completion of five years and they are now trying to divert attention by raising such issues and evade answering to the public after its government failed on all fronts, he said. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah also tweeted on the film, saying, “Can’t wait for when they make The Insensitive Prime Minister. So much worse than being the accidental one.” Directed by Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, the film stars Kher as Manmohan Singh and Akshaye Khanna as Baru. (PTI)]]>

Who Will Put Up A Bigger Tamasha In 2019 Elections?

Deepak Pant   Is it any wonder that ever more actors are moving to the political stage in India in recent years and decades? The phenomenon is not unique to India – remember Ronald Reagan – but there is something distinctive about politics and powerplay in India. Think about the cliché: change and continuity. The change is the all-pervasive efflorescence of the media since the early 1990s and the continuity is something rooted in the Indian psyche: ‘tamasha’, or spectacle. Put the two together and you get a semblance of understanding contemporary Indian politics. To be a successful ‘neta’ (leader), you have to be something of an ‘abhineta’ (actor). If elections can be won by tapping into the age-old attraction of ‘tamasha’ (remember 2014), the corollary is that the opposition can also play the same game and win an election using counter-‘tamasha’. The environment today is such that only those who can play the performance game through the media can hope to survive and thrive in electoral politics, and who better than actors to do this: Kamal Haasan, Smriti Irani, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Jaya Prada, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalitha…the list goes on. In other words, the situation in India resembles what an academic might call ‘the politics of permanent performance’; you need to be constantly seen to perform, even if you don’t actually do so in work, to sustain support of the people. It works for some time, until another – better? – ‘tamasha’ takes over. Those who gain power by and through the ‘tamasha’ route in the media face the prospect of losing by the same route. It was Neil Postman, who tellingly argued in 1985 that television has transformed culture into one vast arena for show business in which all public affairs – politics, religion, news, education, journalism, commerce – have been turned into a form of entertainment, or ‘tamasha’. His main contention is that the form of the media includes or excludes the quality of content: rational argument has long been central to print typography, but the form of television and television news excludes rationality since it is essentially a form, medium, devised for entertainment programming. Thus, politics and religion are diluted, and ‘news’ becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate. ‘Tamasha’ has long been one of the defining principles of political communication in India. It took various forms: such as staged satire and poetry in ‘mushairas’ and ‘kavi sammelans’, gossip, ballads, announcements of visits by leaders, processions (perfected by L K Advani’s ‘rath yatra’), street theatre, puppet shows, political verse set to popular Bollywood songs. These forms gained exponential reach and power with the proliferation of the media, including the internet and social media. Claims and counter-claims were equally able to disseminate quickly. Thus, it is no surprise that the opposition Congress also takes to similar idioms to attack the BJP in power: for example, Rahul Gandhi’s description of GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ after the popular villain from ‘Sholay’, as well as his amusing, funny and entertaining quick-on-the-uptake posts on Twitter on issues of the day. During the 2014 elections, the Narendra Modi act – or, ‘tamasha’ – was highly effective. Here was a leader who spoke very well (compared to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh), promised the moon, seemed confident of cutting through bureaucratic and political cobwebs, was immensely entertaining, had tremendous confidence in his abilities to transform India, which the youth found attractive. It was a stellar performance across various media forms: radio, mobile, television, print, newspapers as well as holograms that enabled him to appear at public meetings at various locations simultaneously. Cut to end-2018 and the attraction of his ‘tamasha’ has waned. There are already reports of BJP candidates during recent elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan complaining that people no longer come to his rallies in large numbers. The same confident television appearances that attracted many in 2014 don’t seem to have the same pull now, if not a put-off. The key question now is: is the opposition capable of putting up a bigger, better ‘tamasha’ than the BJP during the 2019 elections? In 2014, it was claimed that the taciturn Manmohan Singh was ‘Modi’s most effective election agent’; the former’s persona was a contrast reference point that helped sell the Modi brand. In 2019, will Modi be ‘Rahul’s most effective election agent’? Rahul Gandhi’s stall of an inclusive, less-charged and less-divisive India will be pitted against the polarizing and polarized India symbolized by Modi and the BJP. The Nehru-Gandhi has long exploited the ‘tamasha’ in an India where feudal impulses are still influential. The outcome of the elections remains to be seen, but it is certain that ‘tamasha’ in various forms and media will reach a new high.  ]]>