Friday, February 28, 2014

Even Five Star Audience Reserved Its Applause For Kejriwal

Even Five Star Audience Reserved Its Applause For Kejriwal
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi
Aamir Raza Husain’s timely play at the ITC theatre would by itself have made for a satisfactory evening. But, the appearance of L.K. Advani, Arvind Kejriwal and some Delhi Congress leaders at the event, added an interesting diversion. This, obviously, because we are in the thick of a historic election season.

The packed hall did not quite notice Advani as he walked past Kejriwal, ignoring him altogether, to take his seat well beyond the AAP leader’s whispering range. Kejriwal had earlier taken up his seat with his usual modesty, unnoticed by the throng.

The manager of the hotel introduced the play, steering clear of any political affiliations. Aamir could not resist the temptation of introducing Advani, a gesture noticed by the audience in silence. But when he announced Kejriwal’s presence in their midst, the audience burst into applause.

Ofcourse there is a considerable novelty factor in operation. But the danger for all stakeholders in the political bazaar is that they are, by contrast, beginning to look stale and out of date. A foretaste of it was available at the President’s Republic Day Reception.

When that audience at the play picked up the next morning’s newspapers, what do you think went on inside their heads? Did they leap with joy when they saw the BJP President, Rajnath Singh hold a laddoo in his fingers and deposit it deep inside Ram Vilas Paswan’s wide open mouth, virtually on his tonsils? With this ritual act, Paswan the “secular” had become Paswan the “communal”.

Paswan is an exceptional politician whose status in public life is in inverse proportion to his address in Lutyen’s Delhi. The bungalow, abutting Sonia Gandhi’s, has been his residence ever since he joined V.P. Singh’s cabinet in 1989. His career has gone downhill since then, but he knows the tricks to stay in play.

In 2009 he was given twelve seats by Lalu Prasad Yadav which he lost. Unhappy with the five seats Lalu and Congress combine were giving him this time, he has turned to the BJP. His great ambition in life is to launch his son, Chirag Paswan, from a safe seat. Chirag is a failed film actor.

For a thick skinned opportunist like Paswan, the impending brickbats do not matter. But will Modi’s victory chariot also not be mired in the slush? All the senior BJP leaders from UP and Bihar were in attendance to welcome a politician who has nothing to show for himself except an impressive bungalow in New Delhi and his own solitary membership of the Rajya Sabha.

What is one to make of this desperation on the part of Modi’s cohorts? Coalition, NDA, flexibility – these terms had no currency with Modi’s team for the eight months he was named the election chief and then Prime Ministerial candidate.

What has punctured that cocky certitude? Chasing a discredited turncoat is surely not symptomatic of a party blazing a trail?

One knows that in politics one plus one sometimes equal eleven or that Paswan does influence six percent of the vote in Bihar.

It is also possible that Modi, after floating in cloud nine, is being brought down to earth. It is not a secret that a Modi Prime Ministership is possible only in the event of a landslide. Since a landslide appears elusive on current showing, Sudheendra Kulkarni may be right. He wrote some months ago that an NDA-II requires another Vajpayee like figure. Modi, surely, is not that figure.

Before other BJP busybodies start scouting for alternative candidates, it would be helpful for Modi supporters to start weaving an NDA which is not confined to the Akali Dal in Punjab and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Are a Paswan in Bihar and Vaiko’s MDMK in Tamil Nadu being roped in to give the NDA’s image the required width?

Supposing Paswan had just said that his “Lok Janashakti Party is now part of NDA”, he would have left room for speculation: who is the PM candidate in the NDA of his perception. But he has been asked to put his imprimatur on an unambiguous statement. “LJP is now part of NDA, and Modi is its PM candidate”. The irony, ofcourse, is that Paswan had quit the NDA in 2002 blaming Modi for the Gujarat riots.

Paswan once marketed himself as a “secularist”; he would probably consider himself a “realist” now. The difficulty with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam SinghYadav is that he persists in wearing his secular cloak as if Muzaffarnagar did not happen on his watch. The past year when his son Akhilesh Yadav has been the Chief Minister, there have been countless communal riots.

So keen is the CPM in keeping afloat the eleven member non-BJP, non-Congress Front of reasonably muscular regional parties, that in this grouping Mulayam Singh with his dismal record is being feted as God’s gift to Indian secularism. Meanwhile which glory are the Congress leaders covering themselves with? On this, more later.

These then, are the leaders on our shelves. Over decades we have grown accustomed to them. It is the singular contribution of AAP that the public no longer feels hemmed in and suffocated by a restriction on choice. There is now either growing revulsion or, at best, indifference towards the traditional politician. If this variety of politician were to turn up at the theatre I mentioned at the outset, he would be ignored. It does not require rocket science to guess who would invite the loudest applause if Kejriwal too were in the audience.

#          #          #          #

Friday, February 21, 2014

Saudi And Iranian Leaders Involve India In Regional Peace

Saudi And Iranian Leaders Involve India In Regional Peace
                                                                              Saeed Naqvi
Visits to New Delhi by leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran in quick succession would seem to suggest something new is happening in West Asia to which Indian attention is required.

Some historic changes have already placed the region on a path of hope: the election of President Hassan Rouhani, his historic telephonic “hullo” with President Barack Obama, positive movement of the Geneva process on Iran’s nuclear programme, etcetera.

Negative propaganda was not sticking on Teheran which, with every passing week, looked more statesmanlike, above the mess in the rest of the Middle East.

Well, the Saudis are on their way to restoring the balance. When Saudi king Abdullah returned from hospital in February 2011 and saw his friends Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis toppled, he swore to arrest the so called Arab Spring. The message rang out of Riyadh: “No monarchies or Sheikhdoms will be allowed to fall.” They were not allowed to fall. Libya was a different tragedy and it ended in a mess. But we shall let that pass.

The unholy mess in Syria was dragged on and on by multiple Salafist groups under the supervision of Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He turned up in Moscow and told Vladimir Putin that he could ensure incident-free Sochi Winter Olympics if only Moscow would pull back from its support to President Bashar al Assad in Damascus. How would he guarantee that, pray? He said he controlled the extremists in the Caucasus. Putin said we have known for ten years you control the militants. It sounds like a parody on outlandish diplomacy. All of this was actually leaked to the Russian media.

Well, Prince Bandar has been relieved of his duties to arm and fund Syrian rebels. The change holds promise of slow descent of peace on the war torn country. The change also promises a return to smoother relations between Riyadh and Washington. With Bandar’s theatrical diplomacy now in the past, Riyadh can settle down to sketching a comprehensive agenda for the visit next month of President Barack Obama. Bandar is being replaced by Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. The world’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al Faisal too is being asked to go. His slot will be filled by the King’s son, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah.

It is against this elaborate background that the Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s visit to New Delhi is being assessed.

Even though, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s one day visit to Kandahar had been arranged well in advance, he must have taken into account the themes that his Saudi and Iranian guests will dwell on.

US Deputy Secretary of State, William J Burns has reiterated something that generally causes missed heartbeats in Riyadh. He said “US is likely to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer in the next five years or so, and with the prospect of genuine energy independence in the next twenty years or so, it’s also natural for Americans to wonder if we really need to pay so much attention to the Middle East.”

Therefore, these visits provide an opportunity to New Delhi to become part of the mapping process for a new architecture in the region and the Middle East. The Saudis will, in muted terms echo Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s concerns about involvement of India in Afghanistan. This is what the Saudi delegation will have picked up in Islamabad. They would also have been acquainted with Pakistan’s query: “who will foot the bill of about five billion annually for the Afghan Armed Forces?”

What role for the regional players in Afghanistan to enable the US to withdraw by the end of the year? What chances of Indo-Pak movement towards normalcy. Look, there is some movement even on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Will Kashmir remain an eternal question mark?

In Lebanon, Saudis have scaled down their demands and accommodated Hezbullah in the government. An explosive situation with the Shia Huthis in Southern Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen has been defused.

The Syrian situation is at an interesting stage because Bashar al Assad’s presidency comes to an end in 2014 until new elections are held.

The Iranians, New Delhi will find are on the same page. Indeed, some sort of a Teheran-Riyadh crawl towards an entente is not unthinkable. Remember, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was invited for Haj by King Abdullah. He could not go. Rafsanjani has always maintained that the ruling family in Riyadh are best bet for everybody. The alternative could well mean more power to Salafi groups.

#          #          #          #

Friday, February 14, 2014

Will Modi Make It As The First Low Caste PM?

Will Modi Make It As The First Low Caste PM?
                                                                      Saeed Naqvi
Should Narendra Modi actually be crowned Prime Minister in May, the post Mandal social justice political platform will finally have prevailed at the centre too. Egalitarianism will have trumped the caste/class stranglehold on Delhi Durbar. The “chaiwala” jibe will reverberate with great irony, but only if “Modi has the numbers to obstruct the concert of regional leaders.

A gradual erosion of the caste or feudal hierarchies has been taking place since independence in South, West and Eastern India. After Narayan Dutt Tewari and Jagannath Mishra surrendered their Chief Ministerial bungalows in Lucknow and Patna respectively in 1989, these stations too are firmly with backward caste and dalit leaders.

The Gaddi at Delhi has so far been insulated from the winds of change. Of the 66 years since Independence, Delhi has been ruled by Brahmin Prime Ministers for 51 years, including spells of six years by BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee and two and half year of Janta Party’s Morarji Desai.

Manmohan Singh’s ten years must be considered unique because it is unlikely that there will be a Congress President as powerful as Sonia Gandhi was in 2004 when she nominated him Prime Minister. Sonia did have a nebulous, Brahmin afflation but Manmohan Singh was totally outside the caste framework.

Lal Bahadur Shastri, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and Inder Gujaral together account for about four years.

The evidence so far shows that it has not been possible to forge a durable consensus on a caste other than the Brahmin for the job of Prime Minister of India. A Kayastha, two Rajputs, a Jat, a Vokaligga and a Khatri became Prime Ministers but did not last beyond a year or two. Every Brahmin Prime Minister completed his term.

The question of a non Brahmin alternative at the centre never arose for the 38 or so years that the Nehru-Gandhi family lasted at the helm. Dynasty ensured continuity.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was the first Congress Prime Minister who faced, with great anxiety, the prospect of Brahmins losing political power. He himself came on top under unusual circumstances.

Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated half way through the 1991 General elections, he would probably have had to sit in the opposition. A wave of sympathy after Rajiv’s death gave Narasimha Rao just the number of seats from the South to be able to hold onto power with his cunning and craft. He never allowed a rival power centre in the Hindi belt to emerge. Arjun Singh was assiduously kept out. This made room for the BJP to grow.

The 1991 verdict taught the Congress a lesson: the electorate was discarding Brahmin candidates. Satish Sharma, Sheila Kaul, Mani Shankar Aiyer and Vidya Charan Shukla were the only winners.

This trend was not confined to the Congress. If stalwarts like Vasant Sathe and V.N. Gadgil lost in Maharashtra, so did the opposition’s Madhu Dandwate and Rama Krishna Hegde lose, the latter from Karnataka.

Narasimha Rao was quite transparent with his preferences. Three of the four Brahmins who won elections were slotted in the cabinet. Others like Pranab Mukherjee, Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, V.N. Gadgil, Nawal Kishore Sharma and Jitendra Prasad were accommodated variously, in the planning commission, Rajya Sabha and as Party General Secretaries and spokesmen of the party.

Traditionally, the Vice President became Chairman of the Indian Council of Cultural Relation. Narasimha Rao bypassed K.R. Narayanan and handed the job to Vasant Sathe who had lost from Maharashtra. For similar consideration, Gen. V.K. Krishna Rao was retained as governor of Jammu and Kashmir for an exceptionally long tenure despite the controversies attending him.

I am citing these details not as proof of the Brahmin’s assertiveness but as evidence of his tenuous hold on political power and general nervousness that even this was receding from him.

Narasimha Rao would have been quite content when Atal Behari Vajpayee ascended the Prime Ministership in May 1996 but this government lasted just 16 days. After a turbulent two years of Deve Gowda and Inder Gujaral, Vajpayee came back as leader of the National Democratic Alliance for full six years, an extra year on account of the circumstances in 1998-1999.

The 2004 election results were a shock, in different ways, for Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. The act of renouncing power raised Sonia Gandhi’s stature sky high even though, it must be added in parenthesis, she did not have much of an option. If she had listened to the wailing, weeping party loyalists and yielded to the temptations of Prime Ministership, the issue of her “foreign origin” would have plagued her.

Much the most capable Congress leader available to her for the top was Pranab Mukherjee. But he would have had considerable political potential beyond her control. Manmohan Singh was a tried economist, well in tune with the “sole” superpower, and would not be a political threat just in case Rahul Gandhi readied himself for battle.

Assuming that Rahul has his eyes set on a vague future beyond 2014, the only certainty in the coming elections is that the BJP will be the largest single party.

Unlike the Congress, the BJP has shown greater foresight in opening the option of a Social Justice route to power. Kalyan Singh, Bangaru Laxman, Uma Bharti are some examples. There clearly are in the Sangh Parivar lobbies for and against this trend. Hence the periodical waxing and waning of these stars. But nothing succeeds like success and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan is an example of the Parivar’s endorsement of the trend.

Prime Ministership is a different level of play. Should the party win an adequate number of Lok Sabha seats, the RSS-BJP leadership’s commitment to Social Justice will also be seriously on test.

#          #          #          #

Friday, February 7, 2014

UPA Recedes, But NDA or Third Front Not Sure Either

UPA Recedes, But NDA or Third Front Not Sure Either
                                                                               Saeed Naqvi
At this time of the year, Delhites like to host Sunday lunches on their terraces and lawns where the fare ranges from indifferent kebabs to superb makke di roti and sarson da saag, with gur or jaggery and pure ghee. After the initial unpleasantries about pollution, (wheezing and coughing) they like to settle down, to politics, and, this year, to the coming elections.

Seldom have generally well informed people been so short on hard information. So, they liven their conversation with gossip which they pass on as information. There is no pundit around with a sure enough touch. This state of affairs is almost surreal and for an obvious reason.

Kafka’s Castle is inaccessible and the coteries, themselves short on information, dissemble. Others, with the self assurance of the informed, are closer to business and industry which, in turn, is plugged into a coterie here, a coterie there.

Therefore, a hundred days from the elections, what does one make of Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, AAP and the rising stock of the regional parties?

Narendra Modi became the BJP’s election chief at the Party’s conclave in Goa last June.

In electoral politics, as in sports, a formation or an individual must peak weeks before the finals. Why was Modi boosted up into the stratosphere a full year before the elections? Would he have the stamina to hold the nation’s attention for so long? Might he not trip over the several cases plaguing him in Gujarat? He has walked around the minefields so far, but Snoopgate continues to threaten. It is an incredible narrative of surveillance systems in three states monitoring the movements of a young woman on behalf of “Sahib”.

Why is the UPA dragging its feet on Snoopgate? Is it true that a Judge is not available who can look into this case? Or has there been a deal? Who in the establishment is so important that protecting him supersede concerns about Modi?

Congress General Secretary, Janardhan Dwivedi has more or less announced that his party would like to sit in the opposition after the elections. What else does one make of his statement that the Congress should have occupied the opposition benches after the 2009 elections. That year the party won 209 seats, its highest score since 1991.

Rahul Gandhi has made it quite explicit in his TV interview that he has no fire in his belly for political power. But the Congress party is splurging hundreds of crores of rupees on a publicity blitz to boost his image. Is the party embarked on this media blitz despite the party Vice President or is all of it happening under his supervision?

Why these confusing signals? Has the party calculated that in India, renunciation is deified? Is this why they are sending a prime ministerial candidate into electoral combat when he is demonstrably disinterested. Or is it something more simple: heads I win, tails you lose. If the party does well the story will be: the people were aching to bring their reluctant crown prince to power. If the voters do not turn to him this time, he can shrug his shoulders and say he never wanted it.

The media’s dream to set up a Modi versus Rahul duel upto the elections should have ended in April 2013 when Rahul told the Confederation of Indian industry that he was busy building grassroots democracy in the party, to bring in more transparency.

He brought in distinguished election Commissioner K.J. Rao to organize a system of primaries for election in Youth Congress and National Students Union of India. Even as I write Rahul has invited retired and respected Election Commissioners to wean out tainted Lok Sabha candidates. Also he is busy selecting sixteen candidates to Parliament as a pilot project. When will he be ready with his 543 Lok Sabha candidates and thousands for Assemblies and Panchayats? In two, five or ten years? Or is he, like Sisyphus, embarked on a longer project.

In the absence of information, rumours are rife. The current political scene does not promise a stable government post 2014. Fresh elections, in other words, may take place in, say, 2016. By which time, Rahul may be ready with his broad based system of candidate selection. The seasoned leaders who have seen the writing on the wall are sprinting towards the Upper House.

AAP’s entry has created another uncertainty for the principal parties. On December 7, who knew what results recent elections would throw up the next day? The Congress was trounced in four states. The nation rubbed its eyes with disbelief as the AAP emerged in Delhi as the new, historic political happening.

When AAP tossed a handful of seed in the field of Delhi, who would have expected the spectacular harvest? Likewise, until the 2014 results, AAP will remain an unquantifiable electoral phenomena. AAP’s impact will be two fold. First, they have thrown a huge boulder in the political pond. The reverberations will affect political fortunes for a long time. Secondly what we must wait for, in nail biting suspense, is the prospect of its vertical growth in places it proposes to contest the coming elections.

Folks keeping a steady gaze only on the BJP, Congress and AAP, will miss out on the concert developing in the states. In the situation – comedy scripted by Jayalalitha, CPI’s A.B. Bardhan and Sudhakar Reddy had barely said good bye to her when Prakash Karat of the CPM walked in with roses. After the elections, she can take her pick: either with the secular front or with Modi or, whoever it is who leads the BJP into a possible National Democratic Alliance. Poor Mamata Banerjee can neither go with the Left nor the BJP. Will there be enough of a Congress left to need her with any sense of purpose? Or, will the Left have to be off loaded, unless, of course, they score enough to check Mamata. Even as these games progress, that enigmatic smile stretches along Mayawati’s line of mouth.

#          #          #          #