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Monday, January 28, 2013

For victory, both Rahul and Modi need an image makeover, if not an attitudinal change

With the general elections almost two years away speculation is rife. The favourite question doing the rounds is whether the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi will be able to defeat a NDA alliance led by Narendra Modi?

There are many ifs and buts. A major blow for Modi was the recent conviction of his minister Maya Kodnani in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi’s claim that no evidence had been found of the Sangh Parivar’s involvement in the anti-Muslim riots has been severely dented. Rahul has a different set of problems, particularly economic.

Inflation has risen steadily and the recent hike in petrol, diesel, and LPG products together with the widely controversial Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade may create a difficult situation for the Congress in time for the general elections.

Rahul’s problems are not just the Opposition (NDA) but also his own allies. Mulayam Singh Yadav is obviously trying all sorts of political combinations. As he put it, he is not a saint and has a legitimate right to be the prime minister. Rahul’s electioneering has been sporadic. There has been no sustained campaign by him for a long period excluding those for the UP elections in which the Congress was trounced.

The problem with the Congress is that it is largely a collection of coteries, caste groups and dynasties. Its organisational structure is loose. On the other hand, the Sangh parivar has the solid bedrock of the RSS at its core together with the VHP, BMS, ABVP and other fronts. However, the famous wave factor may come into account. But one can speculate on that only much closer to the elections.

Modi has serious organisational problems. Many of his senior party colleagues disapprove of his attitude and consider him brash and temperamental. For example: he talks of his contribution to Gujarat’s growth. But he does not refer adequately to his predecessors like Chimanbhai Patel. Not to speak of the major contribution by Madhavsinh Solanki to the development of the state.

Amongst older Sangh activists this must rankle. The massacre in Gujarat 2002 has still polarised the state. By and large, the secular vote, including the Muslims, will be stridently against Modi in the next elections in Gujarat. But the moot point is how the events in Gujarat will affect other constituencies in the country where the NDA will try and project a more neutral and much less communal image.

The real problem for Modi would therefore depend on the decision of the RSS on whether he will be anointed the prime ministerial candidate or not. In some senses, Modi has been his own worst enemy. A false poster showing him together with Nitish Kumar enraged the latter and he demanded the withdrawal of the poster, which was duly done.

These are the kind of antics that get Modi into trouble. But there is another deeper problem that Modi will have to face. In a country where minorities are more than 20 per cent, Modi will have to refashion his image into that of a more secular, tolerant and open-minded politician. In a general election, the yet unexplained burning of the Sabarmati Express and the new questions raised by the recent court verdict which went against the Sangh Parivar, including the conviction of ministers like Maya Kodnani, is a potentially dangerous blow. If some more of these verdicts are arrived at it will be very difficult for Modi to do a makeover of his political image.

Rahul in contrast has a much cleaner image and has much less to answer for. His main problem is the lack of a sustained campaign well before the elections when economic decisions have tarnished the Congress image. There is no indication of any galvanising by the Congress of its dormant organisations to take on the formidable Sangh Parivar.

Of course Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a brief explanation of the price hikes and the bringing of FDI into the sensitive retail sector which employs some 44 million families. Whatever the PM may say, many will still have doubts until the coming months show otherwise. In any case the farmers and transporters will find the diesel hike increasing their costs.

Talking of reforms as a panacea will only convert the converted. For the majority Indians prices will go up even more sharply. And the allusions the Prime Minister made about bringing the economy out of a morass in 1991 will have few takers.

Therefore, the Rahul vs Modi struggle will operate on two different planes. For Rahul, it is largely the economy and to a lesser extent dynasty. For Modi, it is his national and international image as the overseer of the communal holocaust of 2002. Both will find the going tough. 

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

On World Tourism Day, Angshuman Paul reminisces on a trip to the queen of hill stations, Darjeeling, where every view is worth toasting, With tea, of course...

It was a dripping-fresh monsoon afternoon when we reached the pristine town of Darjeeling, and we set about to explore this evergreen fantasy of a hill-town that is possibly still convalescing from political unrest but manages to remain an elegant enough destination to deserve the befitting ‘Queen of hill stations’ title.

Our first stopover was the delightful Gymkhana Club, and as evenings turn up quite early at any hill town, we quickly made our way to the epicentre of Darjeeling – the Mall Road, which as it turns out is a fantastic and fun location for watching the perfect sunset. The thoroughly tree shaded street is a stroller’s and jogger’s delight, offering panoramic views of the luscious mountain slopes all around. Then there’s this new crop of tea cafes, as yet another manifestation of Darjeeling’s tea tourism initiatives. “The zest of Darjeeling lies in tea and many tea-caf├ęs have come up in this city recently. This is adding to the beauty of this town; the confluence of tea and tourism is making Darjeeling more charming,” feels Deep Kalra, Founder and CEO of MakeMyTrip (India) Pvt Ltd. Be it in the time-tested Glenary’s Bakery or the many contemporary ‘tea junctions’ that have sprouted everywhere, you obviously cannot not taste tea when in Darjeeling.

Exotic flora and fauna await you in the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, most notably the red pandas and the snow leopards, apart from access to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The final resting place of Tenzing Norgay, this training centre and museum celebrates the first ascent of the Everest accomplished by Norgay and Edmund Hillary, and is a treasure trove of mountaineering equipment, souvenirs and information. A true blue climbers’ galaxy, if you will.

A tour of the picture-perfect tea-gardens on the second day of our itinerary was up next. We chose Makaibari specifically for being the oldest of all Indian tea-gardens in northern India; it has been in continuous operation since 1859. Makaibari makes use of holistic practices that include Steiner’s bio-dynamics (a technique used in tea-cultivation ensuring optimum and sustainable utilisation of all natural resources) and a unique six-tiered permaculture, which has helped develop the habitat for an astonishing three hundred species of birds. “We offer hospitality to European tourists who have recently started visiting Darejeeling again looking to explore the environment of a tea-estate. The holistic synergy of tea-gardens in India is exclusively felt in Darjeeling,” claims Rajah Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari Tea Estates. Not a hollow boast that, as Darjeeling tea gardens are the only gardens in Asia which are known to have inspired 800 million marginalised farmers to become grassroot entrepreneurs.

Below the serene surface of this quaint Himalayan city are political fault lines that have flared up once in a while, leading to an enormous drop in footfalls. The clamour for autonomy by the local Gurkha community ushered some very dark days between 2007 and 2009, but hopefully the gorgeous town will survive it all including the looming urbanisation, and tourism-related overcrowding and sanitation issues.

A heartening aspect of the tea industry, we learn at Makaibari, is that the premium earned through fair trade tea sales contributes to the welfare and development of the community.

To accommodate the constant flow of visitors to Makaibari, there are now homestay options too, made available by local folks. “Tea tourism and eco-tourism would be the next big attraction in Darjeeling and we are a pioneer in this. The whole world knows Darjeeling as a tea-destination, then why not use it for tourism purpose?” says Banerjee.

On our way to Tiger Hill thereafter, there lay expanses of lush-green teak forests, the other capital ‘T’ associated with Darjeeling. Little wonder director Anurag Basu referred to Darjeeling as the town of 6 Ts: tea, tourism, teak, the toy train, Tiger Hill and trekking. In his recently released movie, Barfi, his adoration of the hill town has been clearly revealed in crystalline frames.

It was our last day in Darjeeling when we visited Tiger Hill, the perfect vantage point to land a sighting of the highest peaks in the world. Particularly at times of sunrise and sunset, the divine canvas around you comes alive in colours that take your breath away. Even though it was the monsoon season, we were made privy to a clear view of the Kanchenjunga (altitude 28,968 ft) as the sun came out. If you are lucky enough to get a crystal clear sky, Mount Everest is also visible. The monsoon months of August-September are fun but if the peaks’ peek-a-boo is high on your must-dos, then this is not the time.

The former summer capital of the British Empire, Darjeeling’s misty milieu has a befitting motif in the steam-spouting toy train chugging gently along – just like the days around here. Choose the season depending on what you wish to experience, but go you must to know Mother Nature at her motherly best.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Laws with respect to dual citizenship must be more straightforward

Time and again, the debate over possessing dual citizenship has come to the fore across the globe. The debate has once again resurfaced as the Pakistani Supreme Court has debarred 12 federal and provincial lawmakers, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, on September 20, 2012, for breaching provisions of the Constitution by holding dual nationality. The primary concern for those who oppose dual citizenship is how can an individual be really loyal to two different nations at the same time, especially if one is politically associated or working for the government in one of the nations?

On the one hand, there are countries like China, India, Philippines, Germany, to name a few, which completely forbid dual nationality, on the other hand, countries like Canada, Israel, United Kingdom, United States and Australia allow dual citizenship. However, the process of issuing dual citizenship has not gone through a smooth transition. Dual citizenship was regarded as an 'evil' just like statelessness till 1960s. Then, the concept of dual citizenship became acceptable by several nations due to numerous reasons like enhancement of multicultural toleration, strict regulations against gender discrimination, development of international relations under global peace and changing perceptions of state interests in migration. As per media reports, 573,324 dual citizenships were issued in 91 countries by the end of March, 2010. Somehow, it has come under the scanner in the light of an alarming rise of terrorist activities. 

However, the Pakistani Supreme Court's verdict is not the first of its kind. In fact, dual citizenship remains a hotly contested issue in several Caribbean nations, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Guyana. The debate over allowing dual citizens to participate in general election has intensified ahead of Jamaica’s each and every electoral poll since 2007. Even in the Netherlands, dual nationality has become a hot issue in politics after the assassination of Pim Fortuyn just nine days before the general election of 2002.
In this light, the dual citizenship law in countries like Pakistan, Jamaica and Netherlands should immediately be amended to either completely ban dual nationality, especially for politicians and government officials or adopt an approach in the lines of the US and UK. The country's sovereignty must be protected at any cost. A "my way or the highway" approach would not do any good in that aspect.

IIPM Mumbai Campus

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Our democracy has been kidnapped

His rumpled white shirt, soft demeanor and graying beard will defy the stereotype, but the last few months have seen SP UdayAkumar lead the adrenalin pumping life, straight out of an action thriller. Spearheading the anti-Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) agitation on the ground, he has gone from being a simple village school teacher to a rebel-on-the-run over the last four hundred days of the protest. He has hundreds of cases registered against him - including charges of sedition and waging a war against the nation. Tamil Nadu police believes that he has criminalised the protests and instigated people to violence. But it is these same people that are hiding Udayakumar these days deep inside their village and protecting him with their lives. A few days ago, Udayakumar even offered to surrender but was dramatically whisked away by his supporters at the last moment. Meanwhile, the government and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) are racing ahead with their plans and fuelling has begun in Unit-I of the project. Aditi Prasad speaks to SP Udayakumar on the future of the struggle. Edited excerpts:

There is huge controversy over the volte face on your proposed surrender. Should you have surrendered?
The reason why we decided to surrender was to protect our people from more police violence. On September 11, we heard that the police were spreading rumours about five officers being wounded. We were told that they will undertake door to door search. We knew how Kudankulam had been earlier ransacked by the police and were concerned that other villages would face similar trauma. We panicked and said we would surrender. But villagers reacted very emotionally to our decision. They said they will commit self-immolation if I surrender. That scared the hell out of me. By the time, some other leaders also called and asked us not to surrender. So we changed our decision.

But now there is a non-bailable warrant against you.
The warrant is an exercise to intimidate me. There are more than 30 people whose names were included in the FIR, but the court has summoned only me and my wife. And my wife has never even been a part of the struggle; she has never participated in any agitation. I was amazed that her name was included. I could not go for obvious reasons and I asked her to attend the court's proceedings, which she did. Our lawyers tried to present our case, but in vain.

But loading of the uranium fuel rods was started in the first reactor a few days ago, despite your protests.
The AERB gave the go ahead to fuel loading despite our protests. The central government is not talking to us. Obviously, they do not give a damn about us. They want to put the well-being of foreign countries and MNCs ahead of the well-being of Indian citizens.

So what is your strategy now?
I will take this fight to the finish but in a democratic manner. This is a non-violent protest. We are not armed. They have started fuelling despite our protests, and I am forced to say that our democracy has been kidnapped. If so many people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala are protesting, yet they are loading the fuel, then we do not matter anymore. MNCs and foreign countries matter more to our leaders, bureaucrats and nuclear scientists.

What is your primary grouse against the Kudankulam power plant?
This project is literally being pushed down the throat of people here. The government’s expert committee has declared the plant safe. But if the reactors are so safe, why is the Russian company not accepting the liability? Our government has agreed that if there is an accident we will pay from our own pockets – that is, pay from the taxpayers money. That is not fair. Also, there are a lot of geological issues with the Kudankulam site. The plant itself is situated on a fault line. People are saying that there will be no tsunami because the plant is 1600 kilometers away from the tsunami line. But did we expect tsunami to strike the Indian coast in 2004? There are two major slumps near the plant which can trigger a massive tsunami if there is an earthquake.

Why is that the anti-Kudankulam protests have swelled only post 2011?
Protests have been happening for a long time but they were small protests. It is only after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan that the people in this region were really taken aback. They understood how dangerous the project was. PILs and SLPs were filed in court after that. But these things cannot be solved in the parliament or the court of law. They have to done in the people's court.

The government says foreign agencies and vested interests are fuelling the Kudankulam agitation.
Just because I have studied in the US, it does not make me an American stooge, spy or agent. If you have any concrete evidence, show it to the public. Our Prime Minister said that we were receiving money from American and Scandinavian agencies. If these biggies want to stop the Kudankulam plant, would they make a call to the PMO or look for a nameless, faceless, stranger like me, and ask me to go fight on the streets? I am not a sports hero, nor a cinema star; I am not even good to look at, so how can I convince people to fight for 400 days? I am willing to accept death penalty if it's proved that I received even a single penny from any international agency, any foreign country or even any Indian NGO for this struggle.

Many believe that nuclear power can solve India's power shortage woes.
India produces 2.7 per cent of electricity from the nuclear sector. Even countries like Germany and Japan are moving away from nuclear power, so why drag us into the mess. We need power and development, we want India to be a world power but not at the cost of our peoples’ livelihood. If we install nuclear power plants all along the coastline as planned, these power pots will drastically affect our food security. They will send affluent and gallons of radioactive hard coolant water into the sea, which will have an irreparable impact on sea food, on our nutrition and thousands of people will fall sick because of the radiation from sea and air. These hidden costs are never talked about by people like our former President APJ Abdul Kalam. They all talk about making the country a super power. They forget that this same country has 400 million people who don’t have access to toilets and 42 per cent of our children are suffering from malnutrition.

IIPM Mumbai Campus