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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The once-stable ground beneath Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s feet seems to be slipping as public anger at the failings of his government mounts, reports Sanjay Upadhyay

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has developed a fear of the colour black and certainly not without reason. At several recent public events held as part of his ongoing Adhikar Yatra, he has been greeted by incensed protesters waving flags of that dark shade. The Janata Dal (United) leader has now reportedly barred people who so much as sport black shirts from venturing anywhere near his rallies. Clearly, he is not in a particularly bright mood at the moment.

As popular disaffection against him spreads, Nitish is at the receiving end of inimical political moves not only from his opponents but also his long-time ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP leadership in Bihar has sought to distance itself from the failings of the state government that have sparked public anger even in districts where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has the political upper hand. BJP state president CP Thakur has indicated that his party is preparing to contest all the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar in 2014, triggering speculation about a split.

Bihar Health Minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey has asserted that the growing public disillusionment is specifically with the CM's functioning, not with the BJP.

The CM’s Adhikar Yatra kicked off on September 24 from Betiah in West Champaran district. Once a Congress stronghold, the district is now with NDA. All the 13 Assembly seats and three Lok Sabha seats here are in NDA’s kitty. Nitish is known to be very popular among the masses of Champaran.

It is from Champaran that the JD(U) leader built his political fortunes when he broke away from the Rashtriya Janata Dal to form the Samata Party. It was due to his sustained pressure on the government in Delhi that a central university was established in Motihari.

But to his dismay, on the second day of the Adhikar Yatra, Nitish was greeted in Champaran by an angry mob shouting slogans and brandishing slippers at him. A flustered CM beat a hasty retreat only to face a somewhat similar situation in Madhubani, regarded as the hub of the politically conscious Mithilanchal.

The protesters in Madhubani were contractual teachers, who shouted slogans demanding salary parity with regular government teachers. The usually cool Nitish lost his patience and warned the agitated teachers of dire consequences if they did not desist from their protest.

Like Champaran, Madhubani was a Congress bastion until the Nitish magic weaned it away. Of the ten Assembly seats here, seven are with NDA, while the sole parliamentary constituency is represented by the BJP.

Ominously for Nitish, the anger of the masses is beginning to acquire explosive proportions. His convoy was attacked in the Buxar district in May by stone-pelting protesters. The mob was agitated over erratic water and electricity supply in the area.

During his yatra, an irate mob in Khagaria shouted slogans against him and sought to stop his convoy. A local JD(U) worker Ranveer Yadav was seen snatching an automatic rifle from a policeman and firing in the air to disperse the protesters.

The notorious Ranveer was a lieutenant of Lalu Prasad Yadav during RJD rule. He subsequently switched allegiance to the JD(U). During the Khagaria ruckus, the policemen on the spot were mere spectators. The laxity of the CM’s security has come in for sharp criticism from many political quarters in Bihar.

Criticising the conduct of Ranveer, RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui, Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, says: “If Nitish has so much faith in his lumpen worker, then he should be made the director-general of police.”

He echoes state BJP president CP Thakur when he says: “The public anger is against the state government, not the saffron party.” Siddiqui has asked the CM to explain “whether the failure of his government was his alone and that of the JD(U) or a collective failure involving the BJP too”.

Lalu Yadav, on his part, has been silent on Ranveer Yadav’s act of taking the law into his own hands. But the RJD supremo has been scathing in his attacks on Nitish at every meeting organised by his party.

As political temperatures soar in Bihar, speculation is rife over the possibility of JD(U) parting ways with the BJP before the next Lok Sabha elections. CP Thakur and the state health minister have set the cat among the pigeons.

Observers have also taken note of the enthusiastic welcome that Nitish Kumar extended to President Pranab Mukherjee during the latter’s Bihar visit. It is being suggested that the CM is gravitating towards the Congress with an eye on the Muslim vote.

Since winning the 2005 Assembly elections, Nitish has been striving to create a new voter base for his party. In many instances, he has been successful in consolidating support for his party. But the appointment of para teachers on contract, which is seen as one such move to garner goodwill, appears to have backfired.

Teachers are regarded as opinion leaders capable of influencing voters in villages, but the new crop of contractual government school instructors are a disgruntled lot. They have been employed on low salaries and are not eligible for the allowances that regular teachers receive.Recently, eminent educationist Krishna Kumar also commented on the anomalies in salaries for these teachers.

At present, Bihar has 2.5 lakh para teachers. By January, 1.5 lakh more are to be appointed. With the existing para teachers on the warpath, the question is, can the CM afford to add to his own woes by augmenting their numerical strength? But that is only one of the many challenges that Nitish Kumar is up against in a scenario in which his sway over the masses is palpably waning.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The bold decisions on economic policy reflect the growing clout of the Congress Core Committee, reports Pramod Kumar

The Congress, on the defensive over a spate of scandals, has suddenly got second wind. Ostensibly to boost the economy, the UPA is in the process of initiating a series of radical measures: the prime minister does not want to go down in history as a weak leader and what better way to demonstrate his strength than preside over the execution of economic reforms Part 2?

That Singh continues in office for a second term is a demonstration that the party is comfortable with him and his government's policies. The government is also persuading ministries that deal with social welfare issues tobegin programmes that benefit the 'last man standing' – at least in the run up to General Elections 2014.

The party's good news comes from president Sonia Gandhi's health bulletin.After being cleared by doctors, she is now fully in command and according to party sources, raring to go. Sources say indication of it has come in the growing clout of the party's Core Committee and the declining importance of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), when it comes to taking important policy decisions.

The power of the Core Committee flows from its attendees: Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Defence Minister AK Anthony, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Ahmed Patel, political aide to the Congress president and special invitees Rahul Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad. It cannot get higher in the party and with an economist Prime Minister at the helm, the mood is to initiate reforms at a breakneck pace –as if to catch up on all that was left undone in the last three years or so.

Party leaders say that in recent months the prime minister has not been in the best of spirits. The constant opposition attacks on him personally and the government have left him exhausted. The current Core Committee of the Congress, despite its heavyweight attendance, misses the presence of its heaviest member, Pranab Mukerjee, the party's most important trouble shooter.

The prime minister, along with others, miss his experience and sage advice, mostly on how best to deal with a noisy opposition. Pranab, as the man who presided over most high-level committees of the government, was eminently suited to tackle thorny issues. "His advice (when he was here) to the prime minister was to ignore the opposition and continue to do good work," says a Core Committee member.

In his absence, the Committee which meets every Thursday, now has a carefully calibrated agenda in which agenda papers, in the manner of a Union Cabinet meeting, are circulated before the meeting begins.

Sonia's instructions are categorical: all those who attend should be well briefed on the agenda. Hence, say observers, the last four Core Committee meetings have seen key decisions: FDI in retail, discussions on Coalgate and hikes in petroleum and railway prices.

According to a member who attended, the discussions have been quite detailed. For instance, in the case of FDI in Retail, the political fallout of introducing it was discussed threadbare before the actual announcement. The committee mulled over all aspects, from the reaction of opposition parties to what its allies may do. In the end, they decided to take a calculated risk and it appears to have worked.

The party's calculation is indeed the right mix of pragmatism and opportunism. The way Congress sees it, in a bad scenario, the FDI bills would be defeated in the Rajya Sabha in the winter session of the Parliament. Worse, if the bills are defeated in the Lok Sabha and the government falls, it would continue to remain a care taker government, which would then seek to introduce provisions with the help of special ordnances.

Both Singh and Finance Minister P Chidambaram believe that the rupee has to be strengthened and if that means taking harsh decisions, then so be it. Party general secretary Digvijay Singh, told TSI, "The government is only interested in pushing through economic reforms so that the common man gets succour.''

Interestingly, after the Core Committee meetings were more or less unanimous that hard decisions were the need of the hour, new member Rahul Gandhi suggested that hard decisions needed to be pushed through with some sweeteners.

Soon after, social welfare ministries were issued instructions for inducing a little bit of populism to ease the impact of tough decisions.

One of the important outcomes of this calculated populism is relief to the country'sforest population. Honey, a major forest produce, will be brought under the category of agriculture products and a minimum support price, like in crops, would be paid. The Planning Commission is expected to give its final recommendations on the subject.

Likewise, attempts would be made to hasten the pace of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Development Programme in cities, prioritise low cost housing for the poor and a revision of rates for daily wage earners. The bugle for the elections have clearly been blown.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jaya Jaitly has been one of George Fernandes's closest aides for many years.

She has been with him through thick and thin, but just when he needs her the most, she was denied access to meet him when his estranged wife Laila Fernandes took him under her care. The Supreme Court later allowed Jaya to meet him once in a fortnight for 15 minutes. In this exclusive and wide ranging interview, she bares her heart out to Onkareshwar Pandey, the trials and tribulations and her attempts to 'rescue' George from his comatose existence.  

What has the Delhi High Court said about your plea to meet George when he is so ill?
The High Court ruled that sentiments and politics have no legal relationship. This is strange because not everything is legal. The other point is more important. Emotional relationships are not ignored by law. That is why I have appealed to the Supreme Court and notices have been issued to Mrs George Fernandes and finally the Supreme Court allowed me to meet George Saheb once in a fortnight for 15 minutes.

SC decision which came in your favour was based on the UN Convention. What does it say?
India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Human Rights. According to this law, if a person is unable to put forward his point of view for whatever reason, then a professional person can come to his help so that his exact views can be ascertained. Even if this does not work, what he had said earlier becomes applicable. George saheb has written many letters to me saying that he always improves under my care, that I provide courage and strength to him. When he was hit by Alzheimer's, he was looking towards me as a child would towards his mother to alleviate his difficulties.

How old are these letters?
They are very old letters. I was sitting with him just an hour before his family returned. A party worker from Muzaffarpur was also there. When I started to leave, George saheb stopped me but I said tomorrow is Sunday and I will spend the whole day with you.

How many times did George's wife come to see him?
Hardly ever for the last 15 years. He visited her on her birthday. George saheb's son Sushanto (he now calls himself by Amer, the penname of Sean Sawn) was married about 10 years ago to a Japanese girl in Tokyo. Then both he and his wife had gone to the wedding even though they travelled separately. She never came to meet George saheb, it was usually the other way round. When he fell ill, she came with a photograph of his grandson.

In other words, George and his wife were separated?
Absolutely, even though it was not legal.

How did George react to the meetings?
George saheb is a gentleman. But there are occasions when he got angry. Seeing Leila's attitude, he felt that the only thing she is interested in is his wealth. George saheb says she is only interested in money. For example, he told me that Leila keeps on asking him what he was leaving for his grandson.

Why did George and Leila separate?
George saheb was very busy, he never had a private life. Except politics, struggle and agitation. He would barely spend two hours at home. This lifestyle did not suit Leila and she left him. She used to live abroad for most of the time and in Panchsheel Enclave when she was in Delhi. But even while in Delhi, she never once came to meet him. When she needed anything, she used to call up.

Today, Leila does not let anyone meet George. Is this a fight for property or legacy?
George saheb has no money. He and his brothers had a 22-acre land given by his mother which he wanted to sell and donate proceeds to hospitals and social service organisations. This land is now valued at something like Rs 11 crore. The signing authority for his routine transactions, not land matters, lay with me and an associate of his from Mumbai, but Leila wanted to lay her hands on this money because she thought we were stealing it.

Apart from this property, does George have anything else?
No, nothing. He would probably have an amount of Rs 6 lakh in the bank as money saved from his parliamentary work. No house or car.

So the fight is over property?
Yes. George saheb has been operated many times but she never once came to see her. There is a lot of confusion in Alzheimer's and the patient needs sympathy but Leila has come along with people who George saheb disliked immensely.

What do you want? Are you claiming any rights on him?
To sympathise with a person who is seriously ill, you don't need to claim any rights on him. It should not be seen merely as an issue which involves rights.

What is your view on his property?
Leila has full rights over his property; she did so yesterday and she does today. I do not want anything. I came to George saheb because of his political work and integrity. I have no interest in his property.

When did you first meet George?
When he was the Union Industry Minister in the Janata Party government, his relations with my husband Ashok Jaitly were good. I used to work on handicrafts in the Gujarat emporium. I never visited him because I was not interested in politics and George saheb was my husband's boss. There was Emergency in the country and we were posted in Kashmir, which was also the only state in India which opposed the Emergency. Hence, we were relatively free there. When the Emergency was over,people generally believed that Indira Gandhi had been wrong in imposing it. I met him only a couple of times when he was minister and not before that. After the Janata Party lost power, me and my husband moved back to Kashmir and George saheb's wife had gone to the US. Then I used to go look after his child. It is my habit to help friends and their children. I never looked at him like a political icon. He was so busy that he never had time for his child or house so I chipped in. George saheb saw that while friendships in politics are often need based and opportunistic, here I was, working and helping selflessly. He was impressed and began to depend a lot on me. All this is around 1979 or so. In 1984, during the Delhi anti-Sikh riots, I set up a camp for 3,000 victims. After that, George saheb, Chandrashekhar and Farooq Abdullah set up a committee to assist the Sikhs and I was made in charge. I worked under adverse circumstances but the desire to do social work was very high. Then I felt that the best way to do social work would be to join politics.

So this was the first step towards politics and social work?
I joined the Janata Dal (JD) as an ordinary worker. Then SR Bommai was the president of JD. I organised a big meeting of handicraft workers in which Bommai and other senior leaders were invited. After the success of the meeting, I was appointed national general secretary of the JD.

And you have been politically active since. How did your name figure in the Tehelka case and what stage has it reached?
The case is in trial. We have questioned some witnesses. There are more than 10 to 15 witnesses who will be presented. We do not know how many people would be summoned by the CBI.

You have maintained that the Tehelka scam was pre-meditated.
Of course. If you see the footage, you will realise that far from indulging in corrupt practices, I was very open and people who are open, are not afraid. If you see the tape, some people just walk in and say 'they have brought something', to which I say 'send it to Mysore', because there was a party convention taking place there. To collect funds, we go house to house. The so-called Tehelka investigation was sponsored by the Congress and some defence sector middlemen. Tehelka was just a front. It was an attempt to pull down the NDA government by the Congress and the Hindujas. When they could not reachGeorge saheb, they targeted me.

After the Kargil War, there were several charges levelled against George: amongthem, the case of coffin purchases andCongress's vitriolic and belligerent tone.
The Congress raised a shindig over coffins but the CBI probe found nothing. There is no allegation on George saheb and there is no question of a case. But I have been implicated in the other matter. It is an attempt to insinuate that George saheb made money through me. The government does not have the moral courage to apologise for their mistakes when the CBI did not come up with anything against him.

You do not have the support of any political party in these days of struggle?
I am not associated with any political party. I believe in team work and that is why I had joined politics to bring about change for which people could launch joint struggles. I had helped a lot of people when I was president of the Samata Party. But since Tehelka broke out, no one has once come and asked me how I am managing things in the situation I am in. And ofcourse, there is no question of any help coming in from anywhere.

You got no help from JD (U) leaders?
JD (U) leaders now no longer remember George saheb. His pictures do not appear in their party posters. Like you will find Vajpayee's photographs even today.

Who are these people?
There are many. Like Sharad Yadav, for whom George saheb and Madhu Limaye had once organised funds to fight elections. Also Nitish Kumar. He has helped many people who ditched him when the time came. Advani is the only one who keeps in touch.

Had George helped Nitish Kumar?
George saheb worked very hard to turn the political situation to his advantage. He travelled through Bihar and organised rallies. It was only then that Nitish Kumar became the Chief Minister.

Does he remember Nitish?
Not at all. George had great understanding of character but Nitish Kumar was the only person about whom he used to say 'I can never understand what is going on in this man's mind'. You can figure out how far George saheb had drifted from Nitish. The party is meant to decide everything but Nitish Kumar would never attend any meeting and would later issue statements against it. And he used to pressurise George saheb.

A little personal aside. For a fiery leader like George, what did he do in his spare time?
He never had any spare time. He was always surrounded by people. When he did get time, he would read and listen to Konkani and Western classical music.

When the NDA government went in for nuclear tests, what did George as defence minister think?
As far as I know, this was a collective decision of the NDA government, the final nod coming from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, George saheb and Jaswant Singh. And George saheb despite being a votary of destroying nuclear stockpiles, was a party to the decision because it was in national interest.

George supported peoples' struggles, from Nepal to Myanmar.
He always backed such popular uprisings. Students who were leading the struggle in Myanmar were often present at his official residence at Krishna Menon Marg.

He categorised China as the enemy number one.
Not enemy number 1 but as the biggest threat.

Now that George is on his last legs, what are your plans?
I will continue to take forward his views; I have always worked to improve the conditions of handicraft workers. I will work to create more models along the lines of the Delhi haat. I am pressing the government to set up a Hast Kala academy. The magazine earlier edited by George saheb, The Other Side, is now in my hands since 2006 and I continue to publish it regularly as he would have wished. 

IIPM Mumbai Campus

Monday, February 04, 2013

Veteran journalist and activist Ram Bahadur Rai has had a ring side view of contemporary Indian politics.

In this exclusive insider account, he talks about how governments came into being in the corridors of power, from Morarji Desai to Atal Behari Vajpayee

In fact, Janata Party had fought the post-Emergency elections on the slogan of restoring democracy. Indira Gandhi was a symbol of dictatorship and her son Sanjay Gandhi had become an eyesore for the people of India.

Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan, who was the most popular leader among the masses, played a pivotal role during the elections. Second in line was J B Kripalani. Everyone knew that neither did not care for prime ministership.

In fact, the agitation was ideological and not personality based. It was not easy to decide the top post as Jagjivan Ram enjoyed the confidence of the Jan Sangh. The Jan Sangh believed that only he could complete a full tenure. But the Dalit leader could not succeed because as a cabinet colleague of Indira Gandhi, he had supported the decision to impose Emergency. Since mass opinion and Janata Party workers favoured Morarji Desai, he became the prime minister.

Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980. It was clear that after the election, she would be sworn in as prime minister as the polls had been fought in her name. In fact, since 1971, there was no one in the Congress coterie for the top job except Indira herself.

She was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Rajiv Gandhi was not in Delhi that time and President Zail Singh was on a tour. Both of them rushed back. Rajiv Gandhi reached the Rashtrapati Bhawan where he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. There were no formalities by the Congress Parliamentary Board for proposing Rajiv's name and everything worked as it would in a dynastic succession.

After the 1989 elections, VP Singh, as symbol of the Bofors' anti-corruption campaign, was the natural leader. Both the BJP and Left Front accepted his leadership and joined their efforts to oust the ruling Congress. Political parties of two opposite poles extended their support from outside.

But the selection of VP Singh to the top post was a tricky affair. In the years to come, Singh told me he was unaware of the episode. That might be true because I was present in the Central Hall at that time.

Though only MPs were allowed to enter Parliament, I could make it in with my kurta-pyjama that day. The security, luckily for me, took me to be another MP.

Madhu Dandavate played the election officer. VP Singh proposed Devi Lal as the leader and Chandrashekhar supported the proposal. Devi Lal was elected leader. In the mean time, the Haryana patriach took off his turban and put it on VP Singh's head. Now, it was clear that the selection had been preplanned. As the election procedure concluded, Chandrashekhar stormed out saying he had been betrayed and it would have been better to adopt the fair procedure of selecting a leader.

Later, Chandrashekhar did become Prime Minister but his route to reach there was the same taken by Charan Singh. The only difference between them was that Charan Singh could not face the Parliament as PM while Chandrashekhar’s roar on the floor of the house finished his government.

Living in Hyderabad, PV Narsimha Rao was secluded from active politics and lived a semi-retired life. Suddenly and out of the blue, he was summoned. Some veteran Congress leaders like Sitaram Kesri addressed his first press conference.

The Congress Working Committee (CWC) elected him president of the party before a formal claim was made before the Rashtrapati. The president invited Rao to form the government; indeed it was his sheer luck and good fortune that took him to the top post.

In 1996, the BJP emerged as the largest party in the Lok Sabha. President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the government. I spent nearly two-and-a-half hours with Vajpayee on the day when he was going to meet the President.

We had a long chat, but Vajpayee was not in a mood to give an interview – even though he appeared unhurried. He kept reiterating: why would the president invite him to form a government when he did not have the numbers? He was worried about managing a majority. He went to the president along with Lal Krishna Advani where Shankar Dayal Sharma asked them to form a government. It was surprising that they accepted the invitation without consulting party leaders.

Vajpayee remained PM for 13 days when the search for a new candidate started. VP Singh was consulted but he declined. Then came in highly respected journalist and author Nikhil Chakravarti. He forwarded Congress's condition: the person for the PM's post should have a Congress background, in addition to serving as a chief minister of a state in south India. Hence, HD Deve Gowda's name surfaced.

But Deve Gowda could not hold on for too long. Congress supremo Sitaram Kesri had ambitions and in the ensuing tussle, IK Gujral became prime minister.

BJP was decided from the beginning that whenever they form a government next, Vajpayee would head it. That opportunity came in 1998 and a truly popular leader finally came to head the government.

In 2004, BJP's magic formula did not work. The wave was in the favour of the Congress, who did not get a clear mandate either. Congress leaders clamoured for Sonia Gandhi to become PM but that was not to be. She could not become PM because of the political circumstances in the country.

IIPM Mumbai Campus