Weekly Update: Why Agnipath is A Good Path; How Oppn is BJP’s Strongest Suit

In the first four days after registration opened for recruitment to the Indian armed services, the Indian Air Force (IAF) alone received 94,281 applications. That volume of applications will, in all probability, grow manifold as the days go by and as the other services, the Indian Army and the Indian Navy, tot up the applications they receive.

The announcement of the number of applications that the air force received has done two things. First, it has almost instantly silenced critics of the scheme who were calling it discriminatory and undemocratic. And second, more importantly, it has highlighted what is probably the Indian economy’s toughest challenge: frighteningly large levels of unemployment among the country’s youth.

The Indian government introduced the Agnipath Scheme as a new way of recruiting youth into the armed services at ranks lower than that of commissioned officers. Inducted cadets will get a four-year tenure with a stipend paid to them and at the end of the tenure, 25% of them will be inducted into the services while the rest will get a golden handshake–a sum of ₹12 lakh to start entrepreneurial ventures as well as preference if they want to join police or other state security services.

The background to the scheme is important. The armed services incur a huge outflow of money that goes to pay pensions, salaries and other personnel-related expenses. By some estimates they account for a quarter of India’s defence budget. The Agnipath scheme would alleviate some of those recurring expenses and allow the defence ministry to deploy more funds into critical areas like augmenting defence equipment and modernisation.

However, opposition parties, including the Congress and some other regional parties vehemently opposed the scheme, mainly on the grounds that they felt a more consensual approach ought to have been adopted but also that it discriminated and curbed the rights of new recruits, 75% of whom would leave service after the four-year tenure. But as initial data show, the scheme could turn out to be a hit.

The reason for its appeal is simple and stark. Youth unemployment in India has reached staggering proportions. According to the Times of India, “Youth unemployment in urban areas across India rose sharply to 25.5% in the April-June quarter of 2021 and remained in the double digits thereafter as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic battered economic activities and dealt a severe impact on jobs.”

Do the maths. Nearly 40% of the Indian population is aged 13 to 35 years (defined as youth in the National Youth Policy). Forty per cent of the population is roughly 560 million people. If we look at the minimum employment age in India, which is 14, we are still talking about at least 500 million employable youth. If 25% of them are unemployed, how serious do you think the problem is?

It is small wonder that the Agnipath Scheme has found growing appeal among young Indians. Jobs in the public sector have not been growing; and in the private sector the emphasis is on automation and leaner workforce with lower wage costs. In scenario such as that if young people have an opportunity to earn and get training for four years and then have a shot at either becoming soldiers, airmen or sailors or, if they aren’t inducted, entrepreneurs, is that not an appealing alternative, say, to driving an auto rickshaw or delivering food from restaurants to people’s homes?

Some more numbers to mull. In the first year, an Agnipath recruit would earn (in-hand) ₹21,000 a month and by the fourth year that would go up to ₹28,000. Not really a bad deal, is it?

India’s Opposition Needs a Plan

Some years ago when the Congress party had started what has now become its free-fall journey into oblivion, one newspaper had written that Rahul Gandhi was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strongest trump card. Gandhi was then messing up in all possible ways: losing election after election for his party; lacking coherent strategies about any issue that he addressed; and losing the support and respect of his party’s other leaders and functionaries.

Now, one could expand on that cheeky comment and probably say that the BJP’s strongest suit is the Opposition. Besides opposing anything that is proposed or done by the government–the misplaced opposition to Agnipath is a case in point–India’s Opposition parties have little else to get active about. The situation is the same in the states as it is in the Centre.

When was the last time we heard a constructive critique of the Union Budget from any Opposition party? When was the last time an Opposition party leader appraised India’s handling of the Covid pandemic (which, considering the number of people that live in India, has been quite commendable)? Have we ever seen a whitepaper from the Opposition on how India’s unemployment problem ought to be tackled? Or a strategy that addresses our government’s bewildering stance when it comes to international issues such as the Russian aggression in Ukraine? Sadly, India’s Opposition is bankrupt of ideas. And that is why it is the strongest suit in BJP’s hand.

Three Quick Takeaways From Assembly Poll Results

If you distil down the results of the five states that held assembly elections recently, there are three conclusions that could describe them best. These three facts are what will shape the future of politics and governance in India. The same three conclusions will also impact the future of three political parties.

First, it is the unabated surge of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Winning Uttar Pradesh decisively by getting 255 of the 403 seats and, thus, retaining India’s most populous state does two things. It underlines how strong the party is in the northern belt, which in turn could be a pointer to its fortunes when parliamentary elections are held in 2024. It also silences critics who thought that the stock of UP’s hardliner chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, was falling. Already speculation has begun on whether Adityanath, 49, could succeed Narendra Modi, 71, as Prime Minister in the coming years.

There was a time before 2014 that many people ruled out that Modi (whose tenure as chief minister of Gujarat was controversial) could become India’s Prime Minister. As it happened, the doubters were put paid and Modi’s popularity continues to soar. Could Adityanath be waiting in the wings to succeed him? In Indian politics, as they say, anything can happen.

The second conclusion is the spectacular surge of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). There is possibly no precedent to what the party, led by Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, has pulled off by winning Punjab. No small regional party such as AAP has done that before. AAP won 92 of the 177 seats in Punjab, thereby reducing the traditional contenders — Shiromani Akali Dal, BJP, and Congress — to mere also rans. This has many ramifications.

ALSO READ: Cong Leadership Will Never Learn: Capt

It establishes that small regional parties, if they play their strategies well, can expand to other regions outside their strongholds and can prove to be formidable opponents to bigger traditional parties in their own bastion. AAP’s victory in Punjab does just that but it also catapults the party and its leader Kejriwal to the central stage. AAP will now be a force to contend with and we ought not to be surprised if prominent leaders from parties such as the Congress leave to join the AAP.

The third and least surprising conclusion is the complete rout of the Congress party, a political organisation that once reigned supreme in the country. Indeed, looking at the party’s current state, it is difficult to believe that it had ever been so strong, powerful, and at the top of India’s political pack. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress won just two seats of the 403; in Punjab it managed 18; in Goa 11 (the BJP won 20) of the 40; in Uttarakhand 19 (BJP won 47) out of 70; and in Manipur it got five (BJP won 32) of the 60 seats. The writing on the wall is clear.

The Congress, run by the Gandhi family, is facing a serious leadership crisis. This has not only meant that that the party is rudderless but it has continued to be dynastic — Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant heir to his mother and the party’s current head, Sonia Gandhi, has proved himself to be a failure several times over and yet the party’s leaders do not try to infuse new blood or revamp the way the party is run. By the time 2024 rolls in and the Lok Sabha elections are held, the Congress could get diminished even further. Its fate in the recent five-state assembly polls shows that clearly.

Kanhaiya Is No Lord Krishna To Save Cong

One swallow does not a summer make. Not even two, or twenty, if it is India’s Grand Old Party that, by all indications, is in its autumn, not summer.  Stronger branches of this old banyan are being weakened from within, while its leaves, the young ones with green lives ahead, are falling off and falling out.

Two young leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar and Gujarat’s independent legislator Jignesh Mewani, joined the Congress party, bringing happy tidings after long. Along with Gujarat’s Hardik Patel, who joined earlier, theirs has been leadership in the making for five, tumultuous years.

Both are young, ideologically committed, and are clear about what they want. They are worried, like millions across the country, that if the Congress sinks, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will find it easy to overwhelm the smaller parties. This would be bad for democracy. Mewani echoed Kumar’s description of the Congress as “a ship that should not be allowed to sink.” They called for ‘saving’ the party and with that, “the idea of India.” That they spoke in these terms, from the Congress platform is   significant. The party needs to be rescued from itself.

This concern for the party’s survival was neither their entry-pitch nor altruistic. It is closely linked to long-felt need for forging an opposition phalanx to contain the BJP. Despite deep differences and past political baggage of mutual mistrust, the role of the Congress as a key member of that entity is being increasingly felt under the present circumstances. Differences, as of now are on whether or not the party should lead it and if yes, under an ailing Sonia Gandhi or anyone else. Rahul and sister Priyanka are not considered senior and experienced enough. And they have proved their critics right with their recent handling of the party’s affairs.    

Both Kumar and Mewani have a good track record so far, enough for their critics to also take note. Kumar has been greeted with bitter/sour trolls on the social media. He was charged, thrashed in full courtroom, jailed and tortured five years ago for wrecking the country to pieces — “tukde-tukde”.  Forty samples of his speeches of that period were examined, including the controversial one that he delivered at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as its students’ union president. They were officially subjected to forensic and legal examinations. Kumar’s voice did not match with those heard shouting anti-India slogans, India Today later reported. The charge did not stick.

That “tukde-tukde” has returned, especially on the social media, now that Kumar has joined the Congress. It signals the long battle ahead. That battle will need opposition clarity and unity of purpose. For instance, Kumar lost badly to BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Bihar, as no party was willing to accommodate him. In Bihar’s murky turf war, Kumar could face rejection by Laloo’s party that already has a young Tejashwi Yadav and hierarchical problems in Bihar Congress.

Kumar, who quotes Marx and Lenin along with Gandhi, Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha, is a communist. Indeed, the Congress has in the past infused communists in the 1970s, when Mohan Kumaramangalam was a central minister and Chandrajeet Yadav was a key party general secretary. But that was in the cold war era. The post-Soviet world and an India post-economic reforms, (launched by a Congress government) have discarded the socialist model. Will the left-of-centre political plank work against the BJP’s avowed right-wing political, economic and social agenda that openly plays on religion? Which Kanhaiya will people vote for?

Without surprise, Kanhaiya’s entry has unnerved many Congressmen and corporate circles uneasy with anything ‘leftist’ and has given an added weapon to the BJP and its front organisations.

ALSO READ: ‘Kanhaiya An Opportunist, Not A Communist’

The Congress shed its secular USP, first by pandering to Muslim conservatives vote in the Shah Bano case and to match L K Advani-led Rath Yatra in the late 1980s, climbed the Ram temple bandwagon. It is now openly trying to match, unsuccessfully, – the BJP’s electoral tactics. They include opening gaushalas and marketing gaumutra (cow urine). A party committee headed by A K Antony, a Christian, attributed repeated election losses to the perception that the party was pro-minorities. Along with socialism, secularism is also gone.

Under BJP ‘threat’, the Congress has discarded the minority constituency. No longer setting the agenda, the party reacts to others.    

No party can prosper without a clear direction and without ground support. No party can survive merely by infusion from outside, like polls strategist Prashant Kishore. (Some quarters attribute replacing of a well-regarded Captain Amrinder Singh with Navjot Singh Sidhu, a ma maverick showman and little else, to his counsel).

While noting the Kumar-Mewani entry as a harbinger of likely change, it is risky to read too much into their joining the Congress, when Jyotiraditya Scindia (although he had “access to Rahul’s bedroom”), Jitin Prasada and Sushmita Dev, besides others relatively low-profile, have quit.  The party has failed to renew itself before the people. If the young are disenchanted, the older guard is clueless, yet clinging to it. Imagine ex-Goa chief minister L. Faleiro flying across the peninsula to join Mamata Banerjee’s party in Kolkata!

The Congress is run at the top by a single family. The Gandhis used to be the glue that kept it ticking and united, but no longer. They gave winning slogans. This, too, was long ago. By all available accounts, Sonia Gandhi, the ‘interim’ president is ailing, and decisions are being taken by her children. They are all good and decent. But that is not enough in politics. From hugging to hissing at Prime Minister Modi, Rahul’s is a personalized approach. But that can’t be party strategy. Against the wily orator, Rahul comes across poorly. The brand name does not sell against Modi’s high octane campaign fuelled by men, money and media. 

ALSO READ: Is The Congress Really Rudderless?

Sadly, the party has for long shown signs of the last days of Mughal Empire.  Imposing fledgling central authority failed in Madhya Pradesh, narrowly saved Rajasthan and has yielded disastrous results in Punjab. A coterie surrounding the Gandhis counsels destabilising those seniors found growing roots in the states.  

On the day Kumar-Mewani entry, the squabbling Congressmen in Punjab were decimating their own fort with the assembly elections just five months away. They had the best chance of being re-elected a third time. It has been frittered away, to utter surprise of friends and foes alike. Angry Amrinder is set to launch a new party. With a multi-polar scene emerging, the battle for Punjab is now wide open.

This fiasco is unlikely to calm rumblings in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where Congress is riven by factions. The steep decline in central authority is thanks to opaque decision-making that is often delayed, encourages more discontent and proves disastrous.  The party needs internal discussion, organisational elections and “a full-time president” – not an ailing interim matriarch. It needs, by implication, an inclusive leadership that does not function with one or more remote controls. Dissent is out in the open. The leadership – whoever thought and did it – has responded by sending goons to vandalise the house of Kapil Sibal, one of the dissenters. Notably, none has condemned the incident.

Is it any surprise that the BJP juggernaut, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its command, continues to roll?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Can Amarinder Singh Save Congress?

Insinuations about the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ‘Muslim’ past, made by their cultural/political foes, are old. But for the first time, during a very toxic campaign for Delhi Assembly elections, Firoze Gandhi was called “Firoze Khan”. None from the Congress party that the family heads, objected, ostensibly out of fear that the issue would get communal hue. Congress is politically frozen. It needs a new leader.

It’s delicate. Criticizing Congress leaders/cadres for this is difficult when Nehru-bashing even by union ministers is the in-thing and when lawmakers question Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement. But all this, besides weakening of secular ethos for which India is known, underscores the decline that the party has suffered over the recent years.

Assessing this decline is also not easy, indeed, difficult to define, when the party still has three scores of Members in Parliament (out of 800-plus) and rules, singly or jointly, in major states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

The other, more important, aspect of this political reality is declining vote share, of its leaders and activists, young and old, jumping off the ship and turning vocal critics, overnight as it were, to get accepted in their new parties. But most important, over a long period now, is the low reached in the vote-catching influence of its top leadership.

ALSO READ: Is Congress Really Rudderless?

More glaring are the inertia within and directionless approach, of losing states – Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana – despite numbers and being outsmarted by rivals. The worst is the public ridicule to which the party and its leaders are subjected to in social media-driven information explosion and a low-level public discourse.

The latest instance of all these is the Delhi polls that saw the Congress drawing a blank, yet again, cementing its vote-share loss during the parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019. Sixty-three of its 66 candidates lost deposits, after ruling for 15 years straight in this small but politically important national capital.  

Newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has almost entirely hijacked the Congress’ support base. Elsewhere, across the North – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, much of the North-East and the South – it has long ago lost out to regional parties.

Placed in similar dire stress after losing in 2004 and 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recovered. It held on to states where it wielded power with strong chief ministers and eventually, found its national leader and vote-getter in Narendra Modi. Mounting this process was its larger cultural/political family. The Congress does not have this, even as its mass base is eroding.

ALSO READ: Nation Rising Up, Opposition Holed Up

India’s oldest party is stuck with the Gandhis, who are neither able to deliver, nor able/willing to give up. A ‘temporary’ president, Sonia Gandhi, had headed it the longest, for 19 years, earlier. She is known to be ailing and keen to retire. Her reticent son Rahul, resigned after a disastrous performance last summer and asked for selecting a “non-Gandhi” to lead. But nearly five decades of the family rule has totally benumbed the party, at all levels, into not even looking for a new leader or a set of people who can provide coherent, collective leadership. For want of a better word, the party is in coma.

The Delhi debacle and prospects of Rahul returning to lead, likely next month, if only to relieve his mother, have brought the prolonged crisis to the fore. Reports indicate a silent demand, a muffled one so far, for a “non-Gandhi.”

Reports also indicate deep discord and disarray within the family. Sonia wants Rahul to return, but does not seem to trust his choice of aides and his decisions – and not without reason. The “old guard” around her clashes with the ‘new’ one close to Rahul. The difference between the two is that the ‘old’ is really old and now rootless, while the ‘new’, by and large of young techies and managers, never struck roots.

Much was made of Priyanka and her resemblance to grandma Indira Gandhi. But repeated electoral outcomes show that the present-day voter’s memory is too short for that. If Priyanka is the alternative to Rahul, she is also the sitting duck for a government that is vigorously pursuing cases against husband Robert Wadra.

Rahul tried, with limited success last year, to by-pass his 24X7 ridicule. His ill-advised choice of campaign issues and gaffe-prone performance went against him and the party.  

To be fair, the Gandhis are a decent lot. Rajiv, the last Gandhi to rule was extremely decent, too. But that is not enough in politics. They are expected to deliver each time, often as the lone rangers. Absence or internal elections leaves them with leaders, but no workers.

The Congress’ shrinking cadres need leader(s) who actually perform full-time and not during the elections; who can rub shoulders, literally, with the crowds. Past sacrifices, charisma and token reach-outs with photo-ops, without support on the ground have not worked, and will not in future.

This is not the Congress of the Mahatma and Nehru who were relatively tolerant of dissent. Indira ended it, appointing leaders from the top and turning the party into a family estate. Although the Gandhi family was not active from 1991 to 1998, Narasimha Rao could not be without its overcast shadows. Ditto Manmohan Singh who had no base, no say in the party.  She lacks understanding of Indian social and psychological traditions. She must be credited, though, for forging alliances that earned the Congress power in 2004.

When Sonia entered politics in 1998, some left, dubbing her a ‘foreigner’. Today, some Congressmen clamour for the return of one: Sharad Pawar. Conventional wisdom still places Congress as the Opposition’s rallying point – only if it strives to organize and act.

The party is unsure of its ideological direction. Adopting “Soft Hindutva” has failed. The task of countering the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is extremely daunting when secularism means being pro-Muslim and thus, “anti-national.”        

The Gandhi-centric working has marginalized strong and credible Congress chief ministers Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh). Decision-making by a weak leadership and anxiety to hold everyone together have left these older satraps fighting with younger rivals.

Generational changes have been most painful in Congress whose Treasurer is 92. None retires in India, anyway, irrespective of age and health.

The Gandhis need to take political sabbatical, completely, if not quit. Let Amarinder Singh head the organization, with young, strong support from the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Lok Sabha needs an articulate Shashi Tharoor.

But naming names is futile till the party that is wedded to only one name acts. There is still time, last chance, perhaps, to stem the rot.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Nation Is Rising Up, Where Is Opposition Holed Up?

From the langar cooked by Sikh farmers from Punjab at Shaheen Bagh to children shouting azaadi slogans from balconies and car windows, the anti-CAA mass movement has struck a chord across the country. So why is the Opposition missing the nation’s heartbeat?

Be it dusty and arid inner village lanes, or claustrophobic and packed road shows in small Uttar Pradesh town, an effervescent Priyanka Gandhi has always been a ‘natural’ among Indian people. Even Indira Gandhi seems stiff when compared to her organic relationship with people on the ground, especially ordinary women. Perhaps she comes closest to Jawaharlal Nehru in the family tree in the natural bonding with the teeming masses.

ALSO READ: Deconstructing India’s New Citizenship Law

They seem to love her young, smiling and easy demeanor, as if a daughter has returned home after exile in a big town. During the CAA protests recently, at India Gate in a cold bone-chilling night, Priyanka seemed totally at ease, comfortable amidst the rising tide of anger against the ruthless atrocities on Jamia students in Delhi by the police. She seemed equally confortable taking on the bullies in uniform in Yogi Adityanath’s UP, as she broke the police barricades in trying to reach out to the family of the highly respected and gentle former Inspector General of Police in UP, SR Darapuri, who was arbitrarily picked up by the cops as he protested peacefully in Lucknow.

He was picked up with outspoken spokesperson of the Congress Sadaf Jafar, also an actor in a forthcoming Mira Nair film and a social media celebrity. There was national outrage because Sadaf was manhandled, abused, kicked and allegedly told to go to Pakistan by the male cops at the police station.

To break the police barricades imposed using Section 144, Priyanka rode pillion on a scooter with a Congress worker, both without helmets, the ride on the streets of Lucknow becoming television’s ‘breaking news’. However, the scooter driver was later fined by an overzealous and revengeful UP police for driving without a helmet!

ALSO READ: Oppn Must Seize The Anti-CAA Moment

Indeed, even as she upped the ante against the Yogi regime, or, earlier, against the Jamia atrocities, or, with her perceptive and aggressive tweets, there always seemed to be a ‘missing link’ in the political conduct and body language of the Congress General Secretary in-charge of UP. It seemed abjectly transparent that she is just about holding herself back, not moving into the floods of the crowd like an effortless mass leader, not taking on the ‘enemy’ or the police and the government with an organic confidence which only she could carry off. Surely, she is a million times better and combative among crowds than her staunchly secular brother, who continues to remain a ‘reluctant inheritor’.

Indeed, while she still stood up with Jamia and activists in UP, Rahul, yet again, simply disappeared from the turbulent scene. Did he not realize that this was a non-violent mass movement which has struck a chord all across the country, perhaps for the first time after the freedom movement and the ‘total revolution’ called by JP post-Emergency?

Did he fail to see the young, brutalized, beaten up and assaulted, both girls and boys, in JNU, Jamia, AMU, refusing to succumb, blood dripping from their heads and faces, their hands in plaster, taking on the brutish, nasty and cold-blooded repressive state apparatus of Narendra Modi and his number two: Union Home Minister Amit Shah, under whom the Delhi Police played along tacitly with masked ABVP armed goons in JNU? Did Rahul not see and hear the mothers, sisters and daughters of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, in tens of thousands, holding forth for more than a month in this freezing cold, even as the movement led by most ordinary women have moved into new zones of peaceful resistance?

ALSO READ: Deepika Chose Conscience Over Caution

In Delhi alone, the Shaheen Bagh model has been successfully recreated at Khureji in East Delhi, Inderlok in Northwest Delhi, Turkman Gate in Old Delhi and Rani Garden in Northwest Delhi. Across the country the epicenter of the circle of resistance is Shaheen Bagh with its songs, graffiti, wall paintings, work of art, speeches, poetry and theatre, even as a tribute to the Kashmir Pandits who had to forcibly leave their beloved homeland.

So there we have Park Circus in Kolkata, Ghanta Ghar in Old Lucknow, Sabji Bagh in Patna, and at least 120 such Shaheen Baghs all over the country. Add to this the tens of thousands coming out routinely and everyday across the big metros and small towns, including in places like Malerkotla in Punjab, Kota in Rajasthan, Gaya in Bihar, Ranchi in Jharkhand, Nagpur in Maharashtra and Mangalore in Karnataka. This circle of resistance is moving like a whirlwind, unarmed with slogans resonating of azaadi, and riding on that immortal revolutionary song written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which he first wrote challenging the army general dictator in Pakistan, General Zia ul Haq, and which was so famously rendered by singer Iqbal Bano: Hum Dekhenge.

Even children are shouting azaadi slogans in their balconies, in classrooms and through car windows, and there are multiple versions of Hum Dekhenge floating in public spaces, including in Bhojpuri and Kannadiga. Even Faiz and Iqbal Bano could never have imagined that this song will become so popular in India in the winter of 2020. Surely, if this is not a national freedom movement, then what is it?

One sublime moment of great magnanimity, love and compassion which was celebrated in Shaheen Bagh and all over the social media was the arrival of Sikh farmers from Punjab. Many with long white beards, accompanied by little boys and girls, they arrived in trucks and buses with huge utensils, foodgrains and 10 quintals of milk. So that is how they started their ‘Guru Nanak Langar’ in solidarity.

Delicious ‘kheer’ cooked with milk from Punjab and wholesome meals were distributed to thousands of protesters with a simplicity and lucidity which only the big-hearted Sikhs would know. Truly, they stole the heart of the people out there, and those who saw them from a distance on social media.

So where is the Opposition in this golden moment of living history and incredible humanity when the movement is reclaiming both the Indian tricolor and the Constitution, with the Preamble of the Indian Constitution being repeated in campuses and streets? At Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Preamble was read by thousands in Urdu, which is Hindustani’s original and indigenous gift to the nation.

So where is the Opposition, as history marks a paradigm shift and the ‘superman double’ of Modi and Amit Shah find themselves vulnerable despite their belligerent rhetoric and doublespeak?

Barring Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, they seem to be still looking for trees amidst the wood. This was exactly what the message came from Priyanka Gandhi and the Congress, despite the politically correct and well-intentioned messages coming from the leadership. Surely, Amarinder Singh has shown his strength in Punjab with a categorical clarity, but will the party showcase him as a national leader to take on Modi? Surely, both Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot have led massive marches in their state capitals, but did it capture the national imagination?

Between the Congress ruled states, except Punjab, it seems all hunky dory. Indeed, they should learn a few lessons from both Pinarayi Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee. In both Bengal and Kerala, the majority are vehemently against the NRC/CAA, and yet the ruling leadership has never been complacent. So much so, Pinarayi took the Congress by surprise by asking the party to join the Left in joint opposition protests.

Indeed, Mamata has done the same in Bengal by asking the Left and Congress to unanimously join her in the assembly in rejecting CAA. If politics is about public perception and timing, both of them have been on the dot. So much so, every hoarding in Kolkata is testimony to Mamata’s resolve: “They can only pass NRC and CAA in Bengal over my dead body.”

Making the reading of the Preamble of the Constitution in schools in Maharashtra compulsory is a good move in the celebration of a national movement which has reclaimed the Constitution from the hands of those who do not really have great faith in it, or in its founder Dr BR Ambedkar; but the campaign demands more commitment, resolve and backing from the Opposition.

Already, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have lost their credibility in the eyes of the protesters. The Congress and the Opposition must remember how Anna Hazare’s movement, tacitly backed by the RSS/BJP, was like a ‘putsch’ which pushed UPA2 to the brink, and led to the rise of a Frankenstein Monster in India backed by the industrialists and the middle class. In the same vein, the call of the times is to translate this mass angst and anger into a creative and unceasing flow which will once again break sectarian and communal divisions, unite people, celebrate the secular synthesis and pluralist democracy of India, and restore the content and spirit of democracy.

Or else it will be too late for the Opposition. As for the women and protesters in Shaheen Bagh, on the streets and in the campuses, they are still waiting and singing: Hum Dekhenge…

Rafale Remark: Rahul Says Sorry To SC

Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Monday expressed regret before the Supreme Court over his “chowkidar chor hai” remark in connection with the apex court order of April 10 in the Rafale case, saying it was made during “hectic political campaigning without seeing, reading or analysing the order”.

He made the submission in his response to a contempt plea filed by BJP leader Meenakshi Lekhi for “misquoting’ the apex court order by saying that the court had accepted “chowkidar” (a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi), is a “chor'(thief).

The Chief chief said his statement was used and misused by political opponents and that he made the remark in the “heat of political campaigning”.

“It was made on the basis of a bonafide belief and general understanding of the order as being talked about in electronic and social media reportage and by several workers and activists,” Gandhi said in his affidavit.

He said that there was “no attempt too wilfully misinterpret” the court order.

The court had on April 10 dismissed the Centre’s preliminary objections claiming “privilege” over three Rafale documents cited in petitions seeking review of the December 14 verdict on the fighter jet deal.

In a unanimous judgement, the court had allowed the admissibility of the three documents and said the review pleas will be heard on merits.

Talking to the media in Amethi on April 10 after the apex court order, Gandhi said, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that “chowkidar” allowed “theft and that it had accepted that some sort of corruption had taken place in the Rafale deal”.

Thereafter, Lekhi filed the contempt plea against the Congress leader.

On April 15, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi decided to consider the petition.

It had asked the Congress president to file his response to the plea on or before April 22 and posted the hearing to April 23.

The court had said that it did not record any view or finding or made any observation as allegedly attributed to the court by the respondent (Gandhi).


Manju Garg Dhingra On NYAY

NYAY – ‘Easy Money Makes People Lazy’

Manju Garg Dhingra, 65, a retired banker in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, says Congress’ proposed Nyuntam Aay (NYAY) Scheme, which promises 6,000 a month to the poorest of the poor, may not work. She would prefer MNREGA scheme over NYAY so that people work for money and not live on dole.

I have been a banker with a nationalised bank and understand money pretty well. To my understanding the Nyuntam Aay (NYAY) Scheme plans to give ₹6,000 every month to the poorest families in India which is about five crore families or 25 crore individuals, constituting 20 percent of India’s population.

I feel such schemes ultimately don’t work in the long run in a democracy like India. In my many years of working as a banker I have realised that many of the poor people have what you call a ‘poverty mindset’. Yes, poverty is brought upon by terrible circumstances. But there are many people who are rather lazy and if you pay them say ₹6,000 per month, they would try and fit all their monthly expenses in that amount rather than use it as an investment to earn more money.

What we need is financial literacy in our country. People should be taught how to manage money. Earning money is often not that hard, managing money is. Remember the urban poor story that created quite an uproar in 2016?

This plan is different than what the Universal Basic Income (UBI) Schemes that are already in place in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. As per UBI, a small amount of money is paid every month to every citizen of a country, without any terms and conditions. This  basic income varies with age, but with no other conditions, so everyone of the same age would receive the same Basic Income, whatever their gender, employment status, family structure, contribution to society, housing costs, or anything else.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi said he would bring back black money from overseas and ₹15 lakh would be transferred into every individual’s account, I was less circumspect. The money would not have come from the taxpayer’s pocket, but schemes like NYAY will put the burden on the taxpayers. Many people would not want to go to work if money came easy. At the starting of my career, I often saw very poor women get peanuts in the name of pension. Out of empathy, I started giving them cash from my own pocket. Later those old women started behaving as if I owed them money and they were entitled to the extra cash I gave them. This is human nature, so I have my doubts about the NYAY scheme.

Rahul Gandhi has suggested that the money will be transferred to the account of women so that the chances of men drinking or gambling away the money is minimized. However, I think it would be better if the money was directly spent on improving the women’s lives directly by training them to earn money. Give me MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) any day over NYAY scheme. It is more important to teach people to fish.

Even if the NYAY scheme were to be implemented, it should be bound by a fixed tenure, say only one year, so that the women don’t become completely dependent on the money. The money anyway doesn’t reach the intended beneficiaries without middlemen eating away the money (as Rajiv Gandhi had famously mentioned in 1985 that only 15 paise of a rupee reaches the intended beneficiaries, while the rest is eaten away by middlemen).

As far as my vote is concerned, I would like to reinvest my faith in Narendra Modi. I live in Ghaziabad and for us true nyay (justice) lies in the fact that the crime rate has reduced, cleanliness and waste management are being taken very seriously and most importantly NH-24 is being maintained pretty well. Now evenings feel safer in Ghaziabad. I don’t find Rahul Gandhi as effective a leader as Modiji. Power commands respect. And sadly I don’t feel that respect for Rahul Gandhi. In the next five years, I would want Narendra Modi to do away with the many subsidies and schemes. He should let the respective state governments and then local area MLAs and MPs and ward members and councillors decide on the best way to bring out groups of people out of poverty. Let the grassroots leaders help the grassroots people. Delegation of duties and powers to local leaders and trusting them is very important if we really want to help the poor.


NYAY – ‘The Scheme Holds Promise’

Jai Kishore Singh, 72 a retired HR professional, sees a lot of promise in Congress’ proposed Nyunatam Aay (NYAY) scheme and hopes it is implemented well.

All those years in the HR department of a PSU have taught me to understand the fine print. Thus, if I had to give my opinion on Congress’s proposed NYAY scheme, I would say it is a much-needed step for the poorest of the poor, who don’t have the resources to improve their lives, despite having the willpower for it. But there is a hitch — the implementation.

The scheme has tremendous potential to successfully bail out the poorest of the poor sections. But if not implemented well, the scheme can end up exploiting the poor. Rahul Gandhi’s heart seems to be in the right place – he mean well. However, neeyat acchi hone se sirf kam nahi chalega, neeti bhi utni hi acchi honi chahiye. Aur neeti ka implementation bhi. Tabhi desh ki niyati badlegi. (just meaning well for the poor won’t work here, the policy and its implementation are equally important, then only can the fortunes of our country turn)

ALSO READ: ‘Create Jobs, Avoid Freebies’

The implementation will be carried out in phases and not in one fell swoop like demonetization. Rahul seems to have this well-planned. The Congress manifesto says that the scheme will be tested properly for six to nine months before running it. Implementing policies in a phased manner gives you the opportunity to learn from mistakes and carry out rectifications, if required. The janta can give valuable inputs too.

Here’s what happens if you rush in with policies that look good but haven’t been fine-tuned properly. I recently read about the BJP’s Ujjwala Yojana.  The beneficiary of the Ujjwala Yojana were only given gas cylinders and not cooking stoves. One of the most popular stove brand in villages and small towns is Sunflame Pride 2 burner stove, which costs around ₹2,249. To reduce the burden, the beneficiaries could pay for the stove and the first refill in monthly installments. However, the cost of all subsequent refills has to be borne by the beneficiary household. And this is where the scheme is failing. As per reports, poor people don’t have the money to get a 14 kg cylinder filled or even pay installments for the stove and are ultimately resorting back to traditional cooking methods.

ALSO READ: ‘Easy Money Makes People Lazy’

Rahul Gandhi has also talked about how he wouldn’t burden the exchequer for the implementation of this plan. Many people say that the NYAY scheme will put a burden on the honest taxpayer. Didn’t it put a burden on the honest taxpayer when the statues costing ₹3,600 crore and ₹ 2,989 crores were built? NYAY scheme is expected to cost ₹3.6 trillion and is supposed to benefit 2,500 crore ‘humans’, the majority of whom will then further contribute to the economy. The Congress has said that it would be doing away with some subsidies as well as sharing the cost with the state governments. So it’s a thumbs up for the NYAY scheme for me. Though at the national level I support Congress and its policies, at the local level I am very happy with the work done for our constituency by our MP Nishikant Dubey, who belongs  to BJP. He has worked extensively on broadening our roads, plus the waste management inside the town is good. He has streamlined Deoghar’s famous Saawan mela for kanwariyas (Deoghar is one of the only 12 jyotirlingas in the country) and the town’s economy is improving steadily under him. The best part, he is working on bringing back the town’s green cover. I like the man, not the party he belongs to.


NYAY – ‘Create Jobs, Avoid Freebies'

Arup Chatterjee, 34, a business development consultant from Bhopal, who worked in the UK for four years, believes India can learn from the British social security schemes. He warns that handing out freebies like NYAY will only make them dependent on the state; the solution lies in creating more jobs.

I lived and worked for almost four years in the United Kingdom and came back in 2015. In these few years, I have been able to observe how both the countries help their poor. Unlike the UK, India took a long time to cope with the after-effects of colonization. As a result, both socially and financially, India remains backwards. However, now it is time to put an end to this, and that can be brought about only through a change in mindset.  

In case of populist schemes like Congress’ Nyuntam Aay (NYAY), I feel they are a way of giving handouts to people, which in turn, makes them lazy. India has a huge population of beggars, who would remain beggars and will have no motivation to work if they get money from the government. Thus, I don’t have high hopes from the as of now.

ALSO READ: Easy Money Makes People Lazy

The people who could benefit from such a scheme are the ones who work in India’s unorganised sector. Demonetization dealt a severe blow to these people and rendered them jobless. But I guess they won’t be covered under the NYAY scheme as they don’t belong to the poorest 20% of the population. Rahul Gandhi should look at addressing the problem of the unorganised sector as a whole. I have heard that he has talked about filling up 22 lakh government job vacancies within a year, if voted to power. 

Social security schemes for all sections of society in the UK are well-structured and India can learn a lot from it. However, I have seen many people turn lazy in the UK because the government supports them so well. We Indians generally don’t follow discipline, for e.g. standing in lines, but when it comes to freebies, ‘mamla air bigad jata hai aur log uspe toot padte hain’ (things get worse and people will go up to any extent to avail them). We need a social change where people understand that the government is there to help you only after you have tried to help yourself — himmat-e-mard madadan khuda (God helps those who help themselves).  

Whichever government comes to power, it must think about job creation and addressing unemployment. Women are more financially astute and they should more involved in such policy that would require large sums of money to be taken out from the exchequer.

The BJP government had also launched the PM-KISAN Samman Nidhi Scheme, which gives ₹2,000 every quarter to farmers owning agricultural land of less than two hectares. This is quite low in comparison to ₹6,000 per month, but BJP knows how to advertise its schemes better, while Congress/Opposition doesn’t. 

I also read that NYAY is expected to cost the exchequer ₹3.6 trillion or around 1.7% of the forecasted gross domestic product (GDP) for 2019-20. However, former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has said that the cost will never cross 2% of the GDP. 

To put less burden on taxpayers, Congress is thinking about doing away with some subsidies as well as sharing the cost with state governments. Let’s see if it works, though I don’t have high hopes. 

Last time if I had got the chance to vote (because I was in the UK then) I would have voted for the BJP. However, this time despite seeing the tremendous infrastructural development around me, I am still to make up my mind whether to vote for it or not.

I am doing a lot of research before casting my precious vote and taking note of all facts and figures related to socio-economic development. Our city, Bhopal is known for communal harmony, but BJP is known for its divisive tactics and that is disturbing. I have seen people from all cultures coexisting peacefully during my stint in the UK and we need to bring back the thought of ‘unity in diversity’ in the mainstream to be happy as a country.

Generation Shift In Indian Politics

Election 2019 Will Witness Generational Change

This Lok Sabha elections, 500 million young people will vote in the country, 15 million of them for the first time

This had to happen, sooner than later. India is used to politicians furthering their social and economic clout while professing to be “in service of the people.” Now, several private institutions are producing professionally trained politicians. “Serving public” may soon be like “customer care.”

Khadi, the homespun cotton that Indian politicians generally don is optional for the young wannabe with varying political beliefs prescribed kurta –pajama-jacket uniforms. They are attending training courses that will fetch them degrees, diplomas and certificates at convocation ceremonies.

The Parliament’s Bureau of Parliamentary Research and Studies runs an internship course for the young. But now a plethora of private institutions has come up to train the young to ‘connect’ and ‘engage’ with the people. Concept of “public service” may not be prominent in the syllabi, but thankfully, the Indian Constitution is.

They charge between Rs 300,000 to Rs 1.6 million per course, promising to make “better leaders.” The corporate touch is inescapable and so is the nudge from some of the political parties who want to “catch them young.”

It is not difficult to see that besides electoral politics, the graduate can become a lobbyist, a counselor, a PR man or an analyst. These are among the areas of interest for business houses, investors, visiting suppliers and deal-makers and foreign embassies. Or, join a NGO.

Whether this kind of education and training could produce a politician willing to get hands dirty, dine with the poor in their homes and join the rough and tumble of party affairs would seem seriously doubtful to an old-timer. But if there are cyber warriors, why not have cyber politicians? Haven’t harnessing knowledge, skill and technology, and using sociology and psephology, produced strategy room analyses, surveys and Exit polls for nearly four decades now?

This has not ended, but has slashed the role of the hands-on reporter who hits the election trail, talking to the tea vendor or interviewing a bus and rail rider to fathom the ‘ground’.  As this reporter gets tech-savvy the interviewees, too, are getting smart, saying what the TV cameras want. The current campaign is hugely being driven by the social media.  

This is inevitable as India urbanizes, educates and acquires economic heft. Political activity has evolved although it requires moving out in the blazing sun to a rough rural terrain. The cyber-boys and girls would need that at least during elections and when mass movements are launched.

Going by past experience, with each Lok Sabha election, roughly a third of the 543 lawmakers are replaced or are defeated and new ones ring in. Besides growing use of technology, the current run-up to the elections is a hugely transformational exercise. To assess it, one has to jostle with personal views, political preferences and professional objectivity required of a scribe.  

Out, at least from the LoK Sabha elections are  Lal Krishna Advani and  Murli Manohar Joshi two of the founders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Appointed ‘margadarshaks’ (advisors) five years ago, they are now, as a television debater tellingly put it, ‘darshaks’, just onlookers.

Three other Ram temple movement leaders who witnessed demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhya city in 1992 – Uma Bharati, Kalyan Singh (now Rajasthan Governor) and Vinay Katiar — are not among the contestants. The tumultuous event they led and much that happened in its aftermath have seriously challenged the idea of an inclusive India. How these five will face prolonged court trial for their role is best left to the future.

Three scores of BJP lawmakers have been changed. The process began in 2014 with an age bar of 75. Modi denied ministerial berths to Advani and Joshi. Now the generational shift in the party has reached the next level.

Sentiments apart and even discounting speculation over lack of personal equations among other reasons for their exclusion, the BJP needs to fight incumbency. All this is inevitable in India that is seen with justification as a gerontocracy.

This is also true of other parties. Elders have been forced to be flexible as they tackle pressures from young aspirants, many of them family members – even grandchildren. Former premier H D Deve Gowda and Sharad Pawar have had to change their Lok Sabha constituencies to accommodate young wards. Her retirement plans well-known, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has returned to the election arena.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, having lost control of Samajwadi Party to son Akhilesh, has accepted the same party nomination. This is after the perennial prime minister-in-waiting bid farewell to parliament and surprised everyone by wishing a victorious return to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Times are changing.

Part of this change is the idea of crowd-funding of election, not exactly new, is attracting the young. Kanhaiya Kumar, former leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has adopted it. Parties and their nominees unlikely to be funded by moneybags may follow him now and in future. This ensures public participation.   

Young leaders are emerging even as ‘win-ability’ compulsions force them to field the old. While Akhilesh has won the family turf war, acrimony has surfaced in the other Yadav clan in Bihar between two sons of jailed Lalu Prasad. The two northern states are crucial for the Opposition alliances to challenge Modi/BJP.

Rahul has found state satraps scuttling Congress’ alliances with other parties in Delhi, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. His gambit of contesting a second seat in Kerala, while boosting his party in the South where he hopes to do better than the BJP, has antagonized the communists, already angry with him for failure to align in West Bengal.

It is difficult to blame any single party. But many have seriously wondered if the Congress as the biggest opposition entity has frittered away the opportunity to show accommodation to others, thus conceding space to the ruling alliance.

The once-reticent Rahul’s in-your-face attacks on Modi have won him admirers and expectedly, counter-attacks from BJP and its social media acolytes.  In contrast, sister Priyanka’s striking presence and a conversational style appeal to listeners.

Some issues are out from the BJP’s armour. At his rallies, Modi doesn’t promise to build Ram temple anymore; nor does he defend government’s policies. It’s all hyperbole.

And some issues are passé for both sides. None talks of corruption, Rupee’s demonetization, triple talaq for Muslim women and lynching of Muslims by cow-protecting vigilantes. The opposition is silent on the Rafale aircraft deal. Call it prioritizing – or opportunism.

Overall, the opposition has fallen short in forging credible state level alliances, leave alone a national one. It is a difficult task given conflicting ambitions and support bases when transfer of votes from one party to another is not easy. The opposition does not have a tall leader who can parley across the parties.  It is advantage BJP.

With opposition alliances in many states gone awry, analysts say there is lack of clarity in opposition strategy and eventually, too much will depend on post-polls give-and-take. In 2004, that had helped the Congress race past a shocked BJP. But now, BJP is the predominant force led by the most formidable team of Modi and party chief Amit Shah, geared 24×7 into poll-mode, with full intent to retain power at any cost.

But with incumbency factor looming large, the numbers may elude Modi as of now. To get the numbers, Modi is trying hard to build sentiment, hoping to trigger a wave.

This explains his below-the-belt rhetoric. When critics are called “anti-national” and asked to “go to Pakistan” and the neighbour itself, accorded undue, exaggerated place in domestic discourse and is predicted to “die its own death,” one wonders what message electioneering in the world’s largest democracy is giving to others.

(The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com )