Friday, 28 February 2014

Pre-poll alliance: BJP and Congress should go it alone

Narendra Modi (left) and Rahul Gandhi
The experience has not been encouraging. Coalition governments that have been around since the 1990s have not really brought the representative democracy or stability that people had hoped for. The Congress’ waning presence in different states and the BJP failing to become a pan-India party have given regional parties more political space in New Delhi. Pulled in opposite directions by coalition partners, the principal party — either the Congress or the BJP — has not been able to live up to the expectations of the people. In this scenario, it would be prudent for the two national parties to not enter into pre-poll alliances with regional parties and rather contest the maximum number of seats in the coming Lok Sabha elections.
Ram Vilas Paswan with his son
In that vein, it is not good news that the BJP might strike an alliance with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, much against the will of the local party unit. Pre-poll alliances with regional heavyweights are safer bets for the national parties. But by doing so they are reducing their chances of reaching the half-way mark of 272 seats on their own. They are also opening the field for regional parties to have a greater clout at the Centre in a coalition government. This clout or bargaining power often works against the stability of a government. A sign of this is seen in KT Rama Rao’s statement that his party, the TRS, was under “no compulsion to either merge or ink a pre-poll pact with the Congress” and LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan aligning with the BJP but keeping his ‘options open’. Regional parties seldom view issues through the prism of national importance, as was seen when TMC leader Mamata Banerjee scuttled the Teesta water-sharing agreement and when the DMK walked out of the UPA over the Lankan Tamil issue.
KT Rama Rao
If there is one lesson that can be learnt from the UPA 1 and UPA 2 governments, it is that the greater the presence of regional parties in a coalition at the Centre, the greater the chances of a gridlocked, dysfunctional government. Thus for increasing the chances of a stable government at the Centre, it is important that the national parties go it alone at the hustings. If the national parties fail to learn from past mistakes the 16th Lok Sabha will also succumb to ‘coalition compulsions’ and have an amorphous existence.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Aashiq Abu’s Idukki Gold: A good joint but where’s the high?

Idukki Gold is a 2013 Malayalam movie by Aashiq Abu. Idukki Gold has got its moments and is not as bad as some friends warned me — nor is it as good as many promised. Unlike his earlier films Abu seems to have rolled an average joint — using ‘nostalgia’. Idukki Gold's story has a natural flow which is interrupted with arduous background settings for the characters, especially for Antony, played by Babu Antony. The best lines, undoubtedly, are by ‘Mlechan’ Ravi played by Raveendran. There is an effortless flow Raveendran brings to the ‘free-bird’ Ravi. He steals the show, no doubt.
Writers Shyam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair have captured the essence of friendships struck during childhood: No matter how big or small you become in life, you’re always seen as that old friend. The four friends in Idukki Gold are on different planes— financially, socially and geographically — and the only thing that binds them is their memories of school days. That is why when Madan (Maniyanpilla Raju), Michael (Pratap Pothan) and Ravi catch up after decades and gloss over the social niceties of meeting, they go onto doing what they enjoyed the most —smoking-up. Soon, the Czech (and Slovakia) returnee Michael, the just-divorced planter Madan and the unsuccessful photographer Ravi come on to the same plane.
For a movie that is essentially a journey down memory lane, the director makes sure that the cliché of ‘good old days’ is kept aside. There have been many films on ‘memories’ and Idukki Gold could have easily fallen into such a mould. But Abu not only stays away from it, but he also ridicules ‘nostalgia’ at least twice in the movie. Even the character of Sadanandan, played by Ravi Vallathol, who chases Ravi for his wedding album, is a mocking at nostalgia at one level.
The smoking-up scenes are pretty explicit. I was surprised that the censor board’s scissors left it intact and that Idukki Gold came through with a ‘U/A’ certificate. That said, one of my personal favourite scene is the way John (Joy Mathew) describes marijuana grown in Idukki. His coffee-brewing baritone and the equally good camera shots make it really tempting.
The voiceover at the end of the movie, saying that ‘it’s not about drugs but about friendship’ could have been avoided. It comes across as though the filmmakers are justifying their choice of story and its treatment. A ‘message’ is not what one expects in a movie like Idukki Gold. However, there is an amount of boldness on the part of the director for choosing to do a movie like Idukki Gold — it’s not a ‘family entertainer’ (a phrase that has been abused by our film-makers).
You don’t have to roll a joint to understand or enjoy this movie and don’t expect to be floating among the clouds after seeing this. Idukki Gold gives the satisfaction of smoking up but disappoints as you won’t feel ‘high’.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Enrica Lexie case: Italy's got a point as India mismanages the marines' case

Chief Master Sergeant Massimiliano Latorre (centre) and Sergeant Salvatore Girone (right)

The Enrica Lexie incident, in which two Italian marines on-board the Italian oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie fired and killed two fishermen from Kerala in the Indian contiguous zone in 2012 is a text-book example of how not to handle a case. The case has seen far too many twists and turns for comfort: The marines going home twice, once for Christmas and once to cast their vote in the elections; Italy showing great reluctance to send them back, and; finally the Italian foreign minister talking about urging the Nato allies, the European Union and even the Commonwealth to press New Delhi into action. Rome has recalled its ambassador to India protesting the “unacceptable, deliberate delay” by the court in coming to a decision in the case. There is little doubt that the Centre has fumbled in handling this case. India has given Italy an assurance that the marines would not face the death penalty but if the anti-piracy law is slapped on them, it is for the court to decide whether or not to award the maximum punishment. The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to make up its mind as to which law would it want to try the marines under and reply by today.
The case highlights the larger issue of guarding merchant vessels on our high seas. India has refused the idea of armed personnel aboard ships stating that ‘floating armies’ in the seas around India can pose an immense security threat. While this fear is not entirely unfounded, New Delhi cannot ignore the reality: Sea piracy — though it has come down recently — has not been wiped out and it is still probably the greatest threat ships face today. With almost 50% of the world’s container traffic and 66% of the world’s oil trade through the seas passing through the Indian Ocean, and with a majority of trade in India, especially oil imports, through sea routes, maritime disputes are expected to rise and there should be mechanisms in place to fast-track such cases.
The indecisiveness of the government has led to a diplomatic standoff with even the EU raising concerns. Nothing but an expeditious trial is what all the people involved in this case want. But for the moment, India seems to be completely at sea on this issue.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

From death to life: Supreme Court does it right, AIADMK politicises it

The right to life is sacrosanct. This is the message from the Supreme Court which on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of three convicts — Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The court rightly stated that an “inordinate and unreasonable” delay in the disposal of the mercy petitions of the convicts rendered the “process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, inexecutable”. The verdict is also proof that the judiciary’s outlook is in keeping with the international call for doing away with the death sentence or awarding it only in the ‘rarest of rare cases’ where there is irrefutable evidence.
After the Tamil Nadu governor had rejected the trio’s mercy petitions in April 2000, the ministry of home affairs submitted the mercy petitions for the President’s consideration in July 2005 — after a delay of more than five years. Finally, in September 2011 the President rejected their mercy petitions but by then the convicts had waited for agonising 11 long years. The apex court’s observation that a “mercy plea can be decided at much faster speed than what is being done now” is spot on and has been proved by the Centre, as in the hanging to death of Afzal Guru. Guru was convicted for the 2001 Parliament attack and in 2002 he was sentenced to death. In February 9, 2013, six days after the President rejected his mercy plea, Guru was hanged to death in a stealthy manner. Here all the systems came in to place and a decision was taken within a ‘reasonable time’.
While the apex court’s decision to commute the death sentence of the three to life is understandable, the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to seek the release all the seven convicts in the case is questionable. The AIADMK government, in its hurry to score a political point over its rivals, should not overlook the gravity of the crime. These seven people have been convicted for murder — in this case no less than the assassination of a former prime minister. Political parties should refrain from trying to make capital out of this issue to reap benefits in an election year. This sends a wrong signal and obscures the laudable objective of setting aside the death penalty.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Protest benefits: AAP's idea to reward lawbreakers is bad

Shocking decision
Break the law and we will reward you — this seems to be the message from the AAP government in Delhi to the people. Its decision to foot 50% of the electricity bills of consumers who defaulted on their payment between October 2012 and December 2013 and to waive any penalty on these bills is unviable at best and unfair at worst. The government has identified 24,036 such defaulters who will be rewarded and this move will cost the state exchequer `6 crore. The Arvind Kejriwal government has already subsidised water and electricity tariffs at a cost of `200 crore. Cabinet minister Manish Sisodia’s statement that “the people who supported us during the andolan….should benefit now” puts the government’s move in perspective — `6 crore of the taxpayers’ money is being used to ‘benefit’ a few party supporters.
In Indian politics there is nothing new in a political party or government announcing sops in the hope that the intended group of beneficiaries would vote for the party. From cycles, televisions, mixies to laptops and even regularisation of illegal settlements, political parties, both at the central and state level, have tried to outdo the other. However, AAP’s move takes populism to a new level.
The AAP government in Delhi is in a tearing hurry, and in eagerness to sprint ahead it does not seem to ponder too much about the consequences of the statements and decisions it is taking. The subsidy can only be seen as a move to ‘reward’ those who stood by the party in its ‘bijli-paani andolan’ days. It sends out a covert message to AAP supporters that ‘if you stick by the party in all its decisions, you will be rewarded’. This move mocks the consumers who stuck to the law and did not heed Mr Kejriwal’s call to default on bill payments. This also sends out a wrong message to political parties like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is on a protest against toll taxes in Maharashtra, that they can break the law and also to the people that if they go against the law they will be rewarded, not punished.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Modi-Powell meeting: Does Modi need the United States?

For anyone who has been following the campaign by political parties in India leading to the general elections this summer, the Hindustan Times report that United States ambassador to India Nancy Powell has got permission from the Centre to meet Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi does not come as a surprise.
If opinion polls are anything to go by, Washington will soon have to do business with a government in New Delhi headed by Modi. For the US, which holds the adage 'there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests' as the bedrock of its diplomatic relations with foreign nations, it was natural to warm up to Modi. Clearly, both the US and Modi have come a long way since 2005 when the Gujarat CM was denied a US visa.
However, there are two points to take away from this US climb-down. The first: Is Washington trying to 'influence', albeit covertly, the political scenario in India? Citing this, many political parties have taken objection to Ms Powell's move. This is also because the US has a checkered past when it comes to 'influencing' elections (a recent example being the admission by former US defence secretary Robert Gates in his memoir that the US tried to delay and manipulate the 2009 Afghan presidential election outcome). Given this, the US embassy statement that the meeting was "part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and economic leaders which began in November to highlight the US-India relationship" can be taken with a pinch of salt.
The second: Is it really a victory for Modi? The party has rightly refrained from speaking about this proposed meeting in a shrill pitch and will do well to overcome the temptation to go to town tom-toming this as Modi's 'achievement'. If the BJP was to highlight this as an achievement, it can be accused of doublespeak and of being opportunistic.
Modi has grown in stature over the years despite the US and to a certain extent the US boycott has helped further his image as a 'desi' leader who 'is-not-a-American-stooge'.
In the crystal ball of Indian politics, Washington's retraction is a clear shot in the arm for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. It does not require clairvoyance to see that countries, like the UK, the EU and now the US, are reacting after witnessing the 'Modi wave'.
When the political and diplomatic dust settles one thing is evident: This is a victory for Narendra Modi. But the question to be asked, in true 'NaMonomic' style is: Does Modi require the US or its endorsement at this point of time?
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on February 11)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Telangana-Seemandhra divide stalls Parliament

The second day of the last session of the present Lok Sabha saw a ruckus in Parliament over the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh — into Telangana and Seemandhra. Scenes of MPs walking into the well of the House, shouting slogans and stalling its proceedings have now become par for the course, they were a constant feature in the previous sessions as well. Congress leader and Andhra Pradesh chief minister N  Kiran Kumar Reddy sat in protest against the Centre’s bifurcation move in Delhi and met President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday to request him to stop it. If this was not embarrassing enough, some Congress MPs even gave a notice of no-confidence against the prime minister. The political atmosphere has been so badly vitiated  that the Union Cabinet’s review on the proposal will not be of much help to the Congress. If the party were to drop the issue at this juncture, it would show the central leadership in poor light and would further antagonise the Seemandhra region. However, the political dividends of pressing ahead with the bifurcation are minimal, especially after the Andhra Pradesh assembly rejected the Centre’s bifurcation Bill.
Jaganmohan Reddy
For a party that has been in power in Andhra Pradesh since 2004, the Congress has shown an alarming lack of skill in addressing the Telangana issue. This last-minute enthusiasm suggests that the party is more interested in the poll arithmetic than the welfare of the people from both the regions. If the party thought that the bifurcation would improve its chances of winning the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the Seemandhra region, the protests from the region and its MPs have cast doubts on that. The Congress’ dilly-dallying has given a new lease of life to K Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi. The Congress also underestimated the support base of YSR Congress (YSRC) chief Jaganmohan Reddy. In 2009, Andhra Pradesh, by voting in 33 of the 42 MPs, played a crucial role in the giving the requisite numbers to the Congress-led UPA to form the government at the Centre. With the YSRC, the TRS and Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP gaining momentum, and the revolt within the state Congress unit, the party’s prospects in the assembly and general elections don’t look too bright at the moment.
If the discussion on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh has reached this state, the blame is squarely on the Congress’ poor political management. Gone are the days when Delhi would decide and the states would nod in approval. The Congress has sown the wind by ignoring the sentiments of the people of Andhra Pradesh, and it is now reaping the whirlwind of discontent and protest.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Parliament: Congress' plans for a last hurrah hit the Telangana hurdle

The last session of the 15th Lok Sabha, which starts today, will be the Congress-led UPA 2 government’s final attempt to make sure that the term doesn’t come to an end with the dubious distinction of being the worst-performing House since Independence. To ensure this, the government is keen to pass more than 35 Bills during the two-week session. The Vote-on-Account, the interim rail budget and the interim general budget would be the session’s important financial transactions. The prominent Bills on the agenda before the House are: the six anti-corruption Bills; the Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008 (which has been passed by the Rajya Sabha); the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill; the Telangana Bill; the Insurance law (Amendment) Bill, 2008; the Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011; the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, which will focus on research and innovation at the university level, and the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill 2011. Two other Bills, the 120th Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which will pave the way for setting up a Judicial Appointments Council replacing the collegiums system for appointing judges to higher courts and the Whistle-blowers Protection Bill, 2011, are pending in the Upper House. While these last two Bills will not lapse even if they are not passed this session, the current backlog of 54 Bills in the Rajya Sabha cannot be ignored.
Protest by Congress MPs  (file pic from The Hindu)
While the Opposition parties have accused the UPA government of ‘rushing’ through key Bills because the elections are round the corner, the Congress has much more to worry than them thanks to the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill, 2013. The party is likely to face opposition from within its ranks in Parliament on the Bill. The UPA floor managers have a tough job at hand: they have to ensure that the session is not washout like the winter session when the Lok Sabha worked for just 6% of the actual hours scheduled.
Every government that has completed its term till date has passed more than 210 Bills and less than 45 Bills have lapsed during their tenures. The UPA 2 has passed only about 165 Bills and if this session is non-productive around 70 Bills will lapse. In an election year such a track record will reflect poorly on the UPA. On its part, the Opposition should also act in a responsible manner and refrain from frequent disruptions. It should ensure that order is maintained and productive debates are held on the Bills.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

ISC 2014: Lack of resolve cripples India's science vision

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh                               (AFP photo)
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s inaugural speech at the Indian Science Congress (ISC) in Jammu reflected India’s research and development (R&D) storyline: big on hope and promises with little to show as results. This numbing monotony was evident in Mr Singh’s speech: as in the past few addresses Mr Singh stressed on the need for affordable innovations in healthcare, sustainable agriculture, clean energy, and more investment from the corporate sector in R&D. This poor show should be attributed to the government’s commitment or lack of it towards basic sciences and R&D in science and technology. In 2003, the government had set a target of increasing its investment in R&D from under 1% to at least 2% by 2007. Seven years later, Mr Singh repeated the same target. Compare this with China, which spends 1.7% of its GDP on R&D, and it is evident why India lags behind.
Mr Singh highlighted the successful launch of the Mars mission and the GSLV, with an indigenous cryogenic engine, and the achievements in the field of atomic energy and high-energy physics, with the effort to develop a Fast Breeder Reactor, a prototype of it under construction in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. He announced a National Mission on High Performance Computing, at the cost of Rs 4,500 crore and a Rs 1,450-crore neutrino-based observatory in Tamil Nadu. While this is a step forward one expected the PM to give concrete plans to promote basic sciences at the school and college level. This, especially after he stressed on the need to improve the ‘quality’ of education. If a majority of Indians think of science only when ISRO launches a satellite, it is because the government has failed to attract young minds to study basic sciences and pursue a career in it. Mr Singh rightly said “we need to ensure that the best among our young people take up science as a career”. Sadly, he made a similar observation in his first speech to the ISC as PM in 2005 when he said “…our best minds are not turning to science, and those who do, do not remain in science”. Almost a decade later the concerns remain.
Mr Singh was spot on when he observed that “science has not yet got its proper due in our value system”. For this it is essential that a conducive environment, with world-class facilities and attractive incentives, is provided. Steps should also be taken to improve and attract science streams of education and research. Unless such steps are taken, India’s ‘superpower’ dreams coupled with a robust economic base will not be fulfilled.