Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Vijayakanth - Is he the right alternative?

About five years ago, when speculations were rife about actor Vijayakanth entering politics, quite a few eyebrows went up in surprise. For it was always the other 'kanth' from the Tamil cineworld, who was expected to take the plunge.

Vijayakanth, who went by the name of Azhagarswami Vijayaraj before his foray into the film world in early 1980s has acted in hundreds of Tamil films, usually targetted at the audience from the rural and semi-urban populace of Tamil Nadu. Unimaginative storyline and very basic presentation in all but a handful of films meant that producers of those movies were still able to make some money at the end of the day, which also meant that Vijayakanth kept churning out films at regular intervals. Most often he would don the role of a village goody standing up for the obvious injustice or a super cop single handedly eradicating the terror menace etc. Vijayakanth's hundredth movie 'Captain Prabhakaran' based on the story of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan was a runaway hit that his fans started calling him 'Captain' since the early 1990s. One does not know for how long Vijayakanth has been nurturing political ambitions in his mind, but it is a fact that for several years now he was steadily building up an image of a philanthropist - donating things of utility value like sewing machines, wheel chair, iron boxes etc to the poor and needy on occasions like his birthday.

Since mid-1990s, whenever the mainstream media in Tamilnadu run out of news stories, they will resort to speculating about actor Rajinikanth's political entry. In the last fifteen years or so, tonnes of newsprint have been spent on the possible political strategies of Rajinikanth that never happened. Rajinikanth's stoic silence only helped to fuel these stories. It was at a time like this in early 2000, Vijayakanth started to do the groundwork for his entry in the political arena. He not only streamlined his fans association spread across the state, but also introduced a flag and emblem for them. Few cryptic one-liners in his movies (Vaanjinathan, Vallarasu, Narasimha etc) were enough for the media to move their attention to this dark complexioned, plumpy man who started to call himself 'Karuppu MGR' (Dark MGR). During this time, Vijayakanth was the President of South Indian Cine Artiste's Association (Nadigar Sangam in Tamil) and he did a good job of making the association debt free, that brought out his organisational skills. Given the kind of political nexus in the Tamil cine world and its own complications, this seemingly easy job is no cake walk.

After a lot of 'Will-he or Wont-he' debates, Vijayakanth floated 'Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam' (DMDK) in September 2005. When he started the party, Tamilnadu was ruled by Jayalalithaa's AIADMK and all the 40 MPs of the state were from Karunanidhi led DMK and its allies that included Congress, Vaiko's MDMK, Ramadoss' PMK etc. Right from the day he started the party, Vijayakanth was sending out a message to the people that he is the best alternative to either of the other 'Kazhagams' (parties). Although Vijayakanth never missed an opportunity to distance himself from both the fronts, but for reasons best known to him, he was landing softer punches on Jayalalithaa than Karunanidhi. Though he didn't say the means, Vijayakanth on many occasions has said that his party will be dead against corruption.

Within a year of forming his party, DMDK had to face the Tamilnadu Assembly elections in 2006. On one side, there was the ruling AIADMK with its allies MDMK and Thol. Thirumavalavan's Vidudhalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). On the other side, there was Karunanidhi's DMK along with Congress, Communists, PMK etc. Vijaykanth's party was the only one in the state to enter the fray without any alliance. They contested in all the 234 constituencies with Vijayakanth himself contesting at Virudachalam, which was considered to be the stronghold of Paataali Makkal Katchi. In all, they secured around 8% of the total votes polled, with Vijayakanth winning by a handsome margin. Although DMDK won only in one constituency, they were close second in handful of constituencies and were responsible for deciding the outcome in few more. This is a significant outcome, given the fact that neither of the bigger players could be anywhere near the half-way mark required to form the government on its own.

Few months after the Assembly elections, Vijayakanth's DMDK contested in Tamilnadu Local Body elections, without joining hands with any other party. It was an election that was a shame to the State Government for the violence the ruling party retorted to. DMDK achieved reasonable success at this time as well. It is to be remembered that the party which earlier contested on 'Murasu' (drum) symbol had to contest on 'Deepam' (lamp) symbol during the civic body elections. In the months that followed, Vijayakanth's party contested in two by-elections for the Assembly elections (Madurai Central and Madurai East) giving a tough run for Jayalalithaa's AIADMK by making them sweat for the second position. Ruling DMK won both the by-elections, but more glaring was the very marginal difference in the number of votes polled by AIADMK and DMDK candidates, who stood second and third respectively. However, in the third by-election held at Thirumangalam constituency couple of months back, DMDK candidate lost his deposit despite the fact that Vijayakanth spent several days during the campaign.

In the meanwhile, performance of the State Government led by Muthuvelar Karunanidhi gave ample opportunities for Vijayakanth to attack the ruling party and their allies. Karunanidhi tried to score a point over Vijayakanth by bulldozing a good part of the marriage hall in Chennai owned by Vijayakanth in the pretext of widening the highway. While Vijayakanth and Karunanidhi were exchanging verbal blows, Jayalalithaa Jayaram didn't want to be left behind. Throwing civility to the winds, she termed him a drunkard provoking Vijayakanth to retort.

Leaving aside the verbal war, DMDK was fast acquiring every characteristic of a typical political party. The party was playing host to several seasoned politicians like Panruti Ramachandran, Ponnusamy, K.P.Krishnan from other parties and even saw few of them leave for greener pastures. It is a different story altogether that few of those who joined DMDK and given organisational responsibilities were convicted of corruption charges. Vijayakanth's party also had allegations of bribery to get party posting, family domination and what not. DMDK opened party offices in far off Mumbai and New Delhi as well. Also, it contested the civic body polls in Mumbai.

While this writer is not very sure about Vijayakanth's performance as legislator in his constituency, there was nothing impressive about his attendance to the Assembly. Being a first time legislator and that too as a leader of party that was growing up, his presence and participation in the house proceedings would have given him umpteen opportunities not only take part in the democratic process but also to officially record his views. For a person who has made no secret of his desire to become the Chief Minister of the state, he didn't come off as a person so keen on learning. Outside of the assembly as well, Vijayakanth never put forward any bright ideas, if he had any in the first place. While he never missed a chance to lambast those in power accusing them of doing little, he never shared his priorities and ideas about good governance. When the entire state was reeling under acute power shortage, Vijayakanth claimed that he has got ideas to solve the problem within five months of being voted to power. Only that he will keep the ideas to himself. When the emotive Srilankan ethnic issue was hotly discussed, Vijayakanth's deafening silence gave further proof about his cluelessness.

Although his strength lies in getting projected as a fresh leader of a young party who should be given a chance, as he has neither been subjected to any corruption charges nor allied with a corrupt party, it is still not clear if it is financially viable for him to run alone every time. In the run up to the 2009 parliamentary elections, all eyes were on Vijayakanth, but he kept his cards close to his chest. One fine morning he will claim that he is the only one who has got the guts to face the electorate all alone, but the same evening he will change tack and say that he will ally only with those who promised that they will do wonders for the state. It was not his plan to confuse others; rather he was a confused man himself. Apart from giving open indications about a possible alliance with Congress, he was seen moving closer to them before drifting apart.

Apart from his well published aim of ruling the state, Vijayakanth will do well to publicise how he plans to govern the state if at all he is given a chance. With about 10% of the popular votes in his kitty, by going it alone in the 2009 parliamentary elections, all he is likely to do is to split the anti-incumbency votes against the DMK-Congress combine, which is likely to favour the ruling party more than anyone else. If that is his intention, then he will be better off making that clear.

DMDK, as a party is very young. Given the nature of Indian politics, it is out of place to talk about second rung leadership in parties that are dependent on an individual's charisma. Yet, if you look inside the party, the only other faces that are visible are that of his better half and her brother. This is hardly any different from DMK's family politics, which he is supposedly against. He claims to have zero tolerance policy against corruption, but does not mind being in the company of Congress, which is an epitome of corruption. Also, he doesn't seem to mind about the kind of people who get enrolled in his party, as there are handful of convicted men in DMDK's party structure. Like every other political party, Vijayakanth appear to be a pseudo-secularist. It didn't take much time for him to declare that Bharatiya Janata Party is communal.

Vijayakanth claims that he is the right alternative and beseech the people to give him a chance. With him being a bundle of contradictions and no different from other parties, it will be good if he can explain in what he is different. Otherwise, people of the state will be better off if he looks at an alternative career.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Now for the Big Fight

The official call for the 15th Lok Sabha Elections have been made. The five-phase election that will be held over a month is undoubtedly the most interesting spectacle of this year in this part of the world. Although it is a widely accepted fact that the country sees very little in terms of governance irrespective of who forms the government, voters in this country never seem to give up hope and always look to churn out some good from the system. However shallow the concept of democracy in India is, this mammoth exercise is one of the rare opportunity for the people, to have their little say on who is likely to occupy the seat of power for the next few years.

India has come a long way from one party keeping a strong foothold on the nation. If that is a good sign, the country has also shied away from the bipolar system. The result is the mushrooming growth of regional, sub-regional, casteist parties - none of whom have any kind of vision beyond the next elections, whenever that is. Whether one likes it or not, the victory factor in the elections is very much linked to the alliances that are formed by the various parties. One thing, perhaps the only thing that is never in short supply in India is the number of political parties - all apparently formed to 'serve' the people. With hundreds of them littered all over the country and with the first phase of elections only about a month away, the next few days will see hectic activity as there are quite a lot of loose ends to be tied up, in terms of the parties that are yet to side with one group or the other.

One good thing about the democratic process in India is that, in the absence of any wave (like the sympathy wave in favour of Congress party in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi or the strong anti-incumbency wave against Jayalalithaa's AIADMK in Tamilnadu in 1996), it is almost impossible gauge the outcome of the polls, especially the one like general elections. One would never know what the people have in mind while pressing the button in favour of a candidate. While there have been instances where people have overwhelmingly voted for parties with development plank (Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat in 2007, Sheila Dikshit's hat-trick in Delhi Union Territory in 2008), there have also been cases where the collective psyche of the electorate have been bought over by the promise of freebies (Muthuvelar Karunanidhi's promise of free colour television in 2006 [Tamilnadu], N.T.Rama Rao's (in)famous offer of rice for Rs 2 per kg in 1994 [Andhra Pradesh]). Also, there are numerous examples where the supposed big stars have fallen when it was supposed to be a cake walk (BJP's Jaswant Singh's loss in Chittorgarh Lok Sabha seat in Rajasthan in 1998 when his party performed well across the country; More recently Shibu Soren's loss in Tamar Assembly constituency in Jharkand). That is the reason why elections after elections, many a pollsters are biting the dust for no big a sample space is good enough for a country of India's size and diversity. If one needs an example, think about Congress led United Progressive Alliance's victory in 2004 elections against BJP led National Democratic Alliance that was widely expected to win.

Coming back to the current elections, it is prudent to state that the electorate has stopped bothering themselves about the way in which parties form alliances. There is no such thing called as 'natural allies' or 'alliance based on ideology'. Alliances are formed for the sake of convenience (of the political parties) and that is it. With few more weeks to go before the term of the incumbent government ends, there are still chances of few political parties jumping to the other side of the fence. Pataali Makkal Katchi led by Dr. Ramadoss is a strong candidate to move out of UPA (Incidentally in 2004, they switched sides at the last minute along with Karunanidhi's DMK after sharing power with BJP, as part of NDA). The break up of 11 year old alliance between Bharatiya Janata Party and Biju Janata Dal in the NDA camp and the divorce between Congress and Samajwadi Party in the UPA camp are a short curtain raiser to what the voters are likely to see across the country.

With the parties busy in sealing the alliances and selecting the candidates for the fray, with the people still confused over which one of the evils to choose, with the pollsters busy dishing out predictions that they badly want people to believe, with the media taking sides according to their convenience, the stage is getting ready for the big fight. As it gets set, these columns would take a closer look at the drama, the way it unfolds. Watch out.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


With less than one hundred days to go for the general elections in India, people who were expecting the usual salvos from the political leaders from one another were quite a bit taken aback when it came from Nirvachan Sadan - the home of Election Commission of India. The Chief Election Commissioner of India N. Gopalaswami wrote to President Pratibha Patil with a recommendation that Navin Chawla, Gopalaswami's colleague at the Election Commission be removed from the post of Election Commissioner, accusing him of bias. Gopalaswami's letter was of 93 pages, detailing the reasons for his recommendation along with 500+ pages of annexure. Gopalaswami's recommendation, coming as it does on the eve of general elections, has plunged the Election Commission in to a crisis, and not just that, it’s also is a litmus test for the government.

The current issue between Gopalaswami and Navin Chawla has its origins beginning more than a year ago. In January 2008, Bharatiya Janata Party submitted a memo against EC Navin Chawla to the CEC Gopalaswami. Their allegation was that Navin Chawla is biased towards the ruling Congress party and also that the Election Commissioner has obtained bribes from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (shortly known as MPLADS) funds from at least five Congress MPs (A.A. Khan, R.P. Goenka, Ambika Soni, Dr Karan Singh and A.R. Kidwai) for a trust (Lala Chamanlal Education Trust) that Navin Chawla ran along with his wife Rupika Chawla. The same trust, which is based in Jaipur was also given land of about six acres by the Government of Rajasthan, then headed by a Congress man Ashok Gehlot (Incidentally, Congress has just returned to power in Rajasthan under the same Ashok Gehlot). Based on the above allegations, the main opposition party petitioned the Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami to remove Election Commissioner Navin Chawla.

When the above memo was submitted, preparations for the Karnataka Assembly elections were already underway. Gopalaswami, after consulting the legal experts on the matter, waited for the Assembly elections to get over and sends a notice to Navin Chawla, along with BJP's memo seeking his answer against the allegations. By this time, Navin Chawla went on a month long leave. As many as eight reminders later, Navin Chawla replied back stating that he is seeking legal help about the matter and writes to the Law Ministry. Finally, on 10th December 2008, Navin Chawla replied with a 150 page letter denying BJP's allegations.

Little over a month later, the CEC writes to the President recommending Chawla's removal. Gopalaswami has detailed 12 specific cases of partisanship and annexed several hundred pages of the Election Commission minutes, internal correspondence, etc in support of the case he has built up against his colleague. Gopalaswami notes that whenever the full bench of the Election Commission was seized of an issue, Chawla will make an excuse of going to the bathroom.

Soon after, invariably, the CEC got phone calls from top Congress functionaries even as the meeting was in progress. The CEC in no uncertain terms has expressed that inside deliberations and details of the meetings were invariably being conveyed to Congress party.

From what is available in the public domain so far, there is no legally tenable evidence to prove that Chawla talked to the Congress leaders and leaked the EC's decisions, but there are numerous cases of circumstantial evidence to prove that Chawla was all the time in touch with Congress leaders.

President Pratibha Patil is understood to have forwarded the CEC's recommendations to the Central Government, which ought to have taken a decision by now. The issue is not just about one bureaucrat acusing the other. It assumes urgency due to the fact that N. Gopalaswami retires as CEC on April 20, 2009. The person who is tipped to succeed him is none other than Navin Chawla. Another reason for the urgent disposal of this matter is because the country will be in the midst of the electoral process when the change of baton takes place at Nirvachan Sadan. Thus the unprecedented step by Gopalaswami just a few weeks before his retirement has raked up a huge political controversy and can lead to a crisis of confidence in the Election Commission especially if Chawla is appointed by the government to the top Constitutional post without addressing the issues raised by the CEC.

When the media got hold of the CEC's recommendation to the President, quite expectedly it opened a can of worms. Most of the political parties, barring the Opposition BJP, blamed Gopalaswami for having precipitated a crisis at the eleventh hour. The fact of the matter was that Chawla was responsible for the inordinate delay by the CEC to make his recommendation. While the reaction of the political parties are very much on the expected lines, surprisingly, most in the mainstream media has chosen to attack the CEC over the timing of the recommendation, notwithstanding the fact that CEC's unprecedented action has only strengthened the democracy. Legal experts and former attorney generals are divided on whether Article 324(5) of the Constitution can be used suo moto by the CEC Gopalaswami.

While N. Gopalaswami's career has remained spotless so far, it will be interesting to look at the history of Navin Chawla. An IAS officer of 1969 batch, Navin Chawla started his career as a Sub-Divisional magistrate in Delhi. At the early stages of his career, Chawla had his loyalty towards the first family of Congress that his actions found detailed mention in the report of Shah Commission, which was formed to probe the excesses committed during the Emergency (1975-77). As a low-ranking bureaucrat during the Emergency (Navin Chawla was private secretary to the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Kishan Chand) Chawla, along with his cohorts in the police at the time, 'exercised enormous powers during the emergency because they had easy access to the then prime minister Indira Gandhi's house. Their approach to the problems of the period relating to the citizens was authoritarian and callous. They grossly misused their position and abused their powers in cynical disregard of the welfare of the citizens, and in the process rendered themselves unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others. The Shah Commission noted that in their relish for power, they completely subverted the normal channels of command and administrative procedures.

Another committee headed by L.P.Singh, that was set up to advise follow-up action on the Shah Committee, opined that Chawla unfit to hold any public office and that he deserved to be summarily dismissed from service without any further inquiry or proceedings. Had it not been for the bureaucratic delays and the subsequent fall of the Janata Party government led by Charan Singh, Navin Chawla would not have been an national embarassment that he is now. Fall of Charan Singh's government and the subsequent return of Indira Gandhi to power resulted in those indicted by Shah Commission including Navin Chawla getting restored to plump positions in the corridors of power.

The Election Commission was envisaged by the Founding Fathers of the Constitution as an independent body and hence cannot and should not be seen to serve any political party. It is vital that this sensitive constitutional body is occupied by person of integrity, impartiality and independence. The Election Commission's claim to neutrality and objectivity should not be allowed to be marred by one controversial bureaucrat. Appointing a person with Navin Chawla's credentials itself is a brazen defiance of norms of accountability in public life. This is very much apart from the allegations related to Chawla's trust receiving land from Rajasthan Government and funds from the MPLADS, as mentioned earlier in this post. At the time of writing, Congress has been vehemently opposing CEC Gopalaswami's recommendation and has been insisting that Navin Chawla would take over as CEC after April 20, 2009.

It is not just the Congress that tries to place its favourite men at sensitive positions. Back in February 2004, just before the eve of the last general elections, when J.M. Lyngdoh retired as CEC, Atal Behari Vajpayee's NDA government was not keen on elevating the senior-most Commissioner, T.S. Krishnamurthy. It had reportedly zeroed in on a former Cabinet Secretary, T.R. Prasad, as the CEC. The government is not duty bound to elevate the senior-most Commissioner as the chief. However, the convention was clear and in favour of T.S. Krishnamurthy. It was only the threat of resignation by the two Commissioners, Krishnamurthy and B.B. Tandon (who later became the CEC upon Krishnamurthy's retirement and who handed over the baton to the incumbent Gopalaswami), that dissuaded the Vajpayee government from taking the precipitous step.

Coming back to the current crisis, moral wisdom demands that Government remove Navin Chawla at once, even if it appears to favour the opposition. But, how practical is it to expect this bit of justice from a party that installed a disgraced person at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan and a puppet at 7 Race Course Road, New Delhi.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

B(u)y Elections

The recently concluded by-election for Thirumangalam assembly constituency is not only one of the interesting political activities in 2009, but also a sort of curtain raiser to upcoming general elections. The by-election for this constituency in Madurai Districts was necessitated by the death of Veera Ilavarasan of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnettra Kazahagam (MDMK) headed by Vaiko. As the general elections to the Parliament is only few months away, it was expected that the by-poll for this assembly cosnstituency will be held along with the Parliamentary elections. However, the Election Commission chose to have it on 9th January 2009.

The announcement by the Election Commission to conduct the by-polls came as a bit of shocker for the ruling Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam. The reason for their discomfiture was obvious - the state was reeling under power outages for several months, one of their allies (Communists) who were with them for the last few years have crossed over to the Jayalalithaa led AIADMK, another one of their allies (Paataali Makkal Katchi) had been shown the door by DMK, the ethnic war in Sri Lanka is at its heights and it was exposing DMK's waning influence at the Centre. To put it simply, DMK was having problems aplenty and a by-election defeat few months before the general elections to the Parliament would spell doom for the party.

On the other hand, Jayalalithaa led All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was sitting pretty. Not only that it was enjoying the sight of its opponent battle the anti-incumbency wave, its alliance got a bit stronger with the inclusion of the Communists. Also, Jayalalithaa managed to convince Vaiko that it will be prudent for AIADMK to contest the by-election rather than MDMK.

Actor-politician Vijayakanth's Desiya Dravida Murpokku Kazhagam (DMDK), that has since its formation in 2005 has been constantly upping its stake by garnering around 8-10% of votes was also in the fray. In 2006 this party's candidate secured 19,970 votes at Thirumangalam, which was 16% of the total votes polled. Despite the fact that the party was not expected to win against its bigger rivals in this constituency, it can't be brushed aside as DMDK was seen grabbing the votes of those who disliked one or both of the major parties.

The internecine rivalry between Muthuvelar Karunanidhi's two sons - Azhagiri and Stalin, compounded the woes for DMK. Azhagiri, being the defacto power centre of the party in the South was peeved at the choice of Latha Adhiyaman as the party's candidate. Although Azhagiri was appointed as DMK's Election Campaign Committee Chairman for this by-election, it required lot of convincing from the party honcho Karunanidhi to get him to hit the ground. Caste dynamics ensured that all the parties (including actor-politician Sarath Kumar's Akila India Samathuva Makkal Katchi) fielded candidates from 'Mukkulathor' community.

The campaigning had every element that one could associate with elections these days. Street violence among the cadres, police high-handedness on opposition, displeasure of the election commission, incentives in cash and kind to the voters, transfer of key officials on charges of bias etc were the order of the day in the run up to the by-election. AIADMK's Jaya TV caught M K Stalin on camera giving cash to the voters during the campaign. Both the ruling and opposition parties spent unlimited amount of cash that it was said that most of the voters in Thirumangalam received around Rs 7000 per vote in addition to gifts like mobile phones, home appliances etc from various parties for casting their holy votes in their favour. It was a fact that people in other parts of the State yearned for by-elections in their constituency. As if these were not enough, people in Thirumangalam were treated to sumptuous feast on several days prior to the D-day. Although it was both DMK and AIADMK who involved in reckless bribing, due to the rich availability of cash resources at its disposal, it is the ruling DMK which is responsible for taking this to unimaginable levels. So confident were they that M K Azhagiri predicted that DMK's candidate will win the elections at a margin of around 40,000 votes.

Reports were rife that registered voters from Thirumangalam, who were living elsewhere were paid transportation charges to commute to Thirumangalam and cast their vote. No wonder that the close to 90% of votes were polled in that constituency. Unverifiable estimates point out that DMK might have spent anywhere around Rs. 100 crores for securing this assembly seat, while AIADMK might have doled out at least half that amount, if not more. Being in the opposition, Jayalalithaa Jayaram's party had very limited means. If the parties were ready to spend cash of such ludicrous proportions to buy the votes that will only secure one more legislative member for their party, think about the cash reserves they have got in their kitty.

When the by-election results were announced, Thirumangalam voters had elected Latha Adhiyaman of Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam as their representative. So overwhelming was their choice that the margin of her victory was 39,200 odd votes - just about the same figure predicted by Azhagiri, well before the elections.

It goes without saying that money and muscle power of Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam won at Thirumangalam. However, that party is not the only one to blame. Jayalalithaa led All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam used the same tactics to win the by-elections held at Kanchipuram and Sathankulam constituencies during the previous regime (2001-06). Only that the scale of corruption has gone up this time. In the past, by-elections were never given undue importance, especially when the ruling party had a comfortable majority in the Assembly. If one cares to look at the history, DMK which was in power in Tamilnadu between 1989-91 lost Marungapuri, Madurai Central and Permanallur by-elections held during its regime. The change of attitude towards by-elections started in early 1990s. That was the time when Jayalalithaa Jayaram was in power and AIADMK considered it a prestige issue to win the by-elections held for Mylapore, Ranipet assembly constituencies and Palani Lok Sabha constituency. The trend followed in Muthuvelar Karunanidhi regime (1996-2001) when DMK fought tooth and nail to win Arupukottai, Coonoor, Trichy-II by-elections.

If this steep climb down of democracy is a shameful trend, it is not just the political parties, who are to take the blame. No voter from Thirumangalam was naive to think that all the hullaballoo was over the political parties' quest to serve the public. People were more than happy to receive the money and goodies that were doled out in exchange for votes, not realising that the money they receive today will in turn be plundered from them tomorrow. Worst thing was that it was considered an acceptable practice to get cash and kind for votes. Perhaps, people wanted to make hay while the sun was out.

In this context, the voters of Tamar constituency in Jharkhand state need to congratulated. Around the same time when Thirumangalam voted to elect its representative, people in Tamar were also queueing up to elect theirs. The only difference was that among the candidates in Tamar was the State's Chief Minister - Shibu Soren, who needed to win that election to stay in office. People in Tamar, despite having a high profile candidate standing in their constituency, chose not to vote for Shibu Soren causing him to resign from the office of Chief Minister. Perhaps, Shibu Soren need to learn a lesson or two in engineering elections from his more illustrious counterparts down south. Shibu would have done that had he listened to the words of N.Gopalaswami, the Chief Election Commissioner of India. While talking about Thirumangalam poll code violations, he said 'Tamil Nadu is on top from bottom.. earlier we were talking about Bihar and now, we are talking about Tamil Nadu'. What a proud moment for the state to be on top, all alone.

Friday, July 25, 2008

(Mis)Trust Vote

The two day special session of the Indian Parliament to discuss the Indo-US Nuclear agreement (not a 'deal', as kindly explained by Pranab Mukherjee in the Parliament) and vote on the trust vote turned out to be more entertaining than was actually expected. The week leading to the trust vote had all elements of drama that one could imagine, except morality - which was not expected in any case.

Ever since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited United States in July 2005, trouble started brewing between the Congress and the Communists. Communists, who oppose anything American, obviously opposed the ‘deal’ tooth and nail. After sitting through several rounds of discussion via various committees formed to resolve the differences between the two parties (Congress and the Left), there was one message that the Left sent out to the country - The dog that barks seldom bites.

Congress on the other hand was getting weaker by the day with multiple assembly election defeats, soaring inflation etc that Left felt that it would be a political suicide to be seen in the company of Congress when the general elections were only few months away. Left needed a reason to breakup and Congress dropped it in their lap when Manmohan Singh declared that India will go ahead with the Nuclear Agreement by moving to the next step. One would be mistaken to think that Congress is taking into account the best interests of the country by even daring the Left to withdraw its support. In a carefully planned move over the last few months, Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav was roped in. Mulayam, who is being hounded by Mayawati in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, dumped the Third Front he was heading and embraced Congress. It was only after his party publicly joined UPA, Manmohan Singh announced that India will proceed with the next steps of the all-important agreement.

At the other side of the political spectrum, Bharatiya Janata Party led NDA was sitting pretty. In the last few months, they had tasted Assembly election victories in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. Steep increase in prices of petrol and food grains was more than enough to create the bitterness among the people against the UPA government. Third front remained a non-starter. Without having to do anything from their end, Congress and the Left were fighting with each other and that would only benefit BJP in the long run. As for the Nuclear agreement is concerned, it was a known secret that BJP would not have done anything different from Congress had it been in power. BJP was fine with the agreement in general and unlike the Communists, BJP was even fine in cosying up with United States. Publicly they were saying that they would like certain clauses of the agreement to be renegotiated, but never openly came out with what their concerns are. The indirect message that could be read by all was that 'We are fine with the agreement, but why should we let the Congress take credit for it?'. Such was the maturity displayed by India's principal opposition party. How healthy would it have been for the democracy to support the Government in this issue and may be move a no-confidence motion on the government citing issues like inflation?

At last, when the Left announced their withdrawal of support, the real drama started to unfold. Manmohan Singh, who was in Japan when the Left pulled the plug met President Pratibha Patil immediately upon his return and said that he would seek a trust vote in the Parliament and prove his majority. Left were supporting the Government with about 60 members, whereas Mulayam's Samajwadi Party had about 39. Although the gap closed down considerably, there was still a narrow gap to fill in. All the smaller parties were chased and cuddled. If the single digit MP parties were ruing their luck at any point in time, Gods were smiling on them as each vote was valuable to the UPA. With due apologies to the horses for the juxtaposition, horse trading was happening openly as MP after MP came out in the open claiming that he/she was offered Rs.25 or 30 crores in exchange for the votes. As the D-day approached, the price tag of the MPs kept increasing. Honourable members like Shibu Shoren openly demanded ministership (Coal Ministry, to be precise) in exchange for support. Lucknow Airport was renamed as 'Charan Singh Airport' in exchange for three votes from Ajit Singh led Rashtriya Lok Dal (for the uninitiated, Ajit Singh is the son of former Prime Minister Charan Singh). H D Devegowda, who had two MPs in his kitty suddenly woke up from his slumber and became an all-important person. He was even said to have demanded Central Ministership for H D Kumaraswamy, who is a MLA in Karnataka Assembly. In the meanwhile, Left hobnobbed with Mayawati led Bahujan Samaj Party and even declared that she will be their Prime Ministerial candidate when Manmohan Singh government falls. Mayawati, who has made no secret of her ambitions to occupy the Prime Minister's chair was doubly elated and did her best in keeping her flock under control.

If Congress had some forethought, it could have avoided few nerve-wracking moments and also some ignominity. After the Left pulled the plug on government, Manmohan Singh rushed to the President and volunteered to seek the trust vote. From his point of view, it was the most ethical thing to do. However, had he not given such an assurance to the President and had the President sat over the issue for few more days (President is not bound by any timeframe), one of the opposition parties would have moved the no-confidence motion and that would have made life easier for Congress led UPA. Dynamics are so complicated that Communists would find it hard to vote in favour of a (no-confidence) motion moved by Bharatiya Janata Party led NDA or vice versa, despite the fact that both the groups (NDA and the Communists) perceive Congress (and the UPA) as their common enemy. Never mind, it was just a flash of thought.

Two days before the trust vote, Congress heaved a sigh of relief and said that they have done their ground work and publicly stated that they will receive support from quite a few quarters including BJP. This writer has a feeling that BJP wanted the Government to win the trust vote, but fell shy of declaring support. While it was speculated that certain MPs from BJP (like Sangliana from Bangalore) would switch sides or abstain during voting, BJP did not appear to do anything to check that. BJP might have wanted the government to last for few more months because if the government fell, Mayawati would get projected as the master strategist and she would steal the limelight.

With all these noble considerations in mind, began the trust vote. MPs made the nation proud with their behaviour in the Parliament, unmindful of the fact that the whole world was watching the debate. On the second day of the debate - hours before the voting, three BJP MPs walked up to the well of the house and displayed wads of currency notes claiming that they were bribed by the ruling coalition to abstain from voting. It had the entire nation shocked in disbelief that it comes to such a pass. The usual mayhem and chaotic scenes, which the Indians have learnt to associate with the Parliamentary sessions of late, followed and the trust vote was held. Thanks to the 'M' power, UPA won the battle with as many as ten abstensions from the Opposition including BJP, Telugu Desam etc. There were abstensions and cross voting from the other side as well (with as many as 6 Samajwadi Party MPs voting against the Government). Only God and few others like Amar Singh, Sonia Gandhi etc would know the net price of this exercise.

The morning after, while the affected parties promptly sacked the erring MPs for defying the whip, some naive Indians were wondering why action shouldn't be taken against the MPs who blatantly took money in exchange for support. For those hopefuls, this writer would like to draw attention to the no-confidence motion against P.V. Narasimha Rao led Congress government in July 1993. Narasimha Rao government faced a crisis (due to Harshad Mehta scam) as it fell short of few MPs and bought over few MPs belonging to Jharkand Mukti Morcha party led by Shibu Shoren for Rs. 1 Crore each (a princely sum those days). The said amount was promptly deposited in the bank accounts of the respective MPs and somehow, it came to light. Chargesheet was filed by the CBI against the MPs who took bribe as well as Narasimha Rao and few others who were involved in the exchange. The case (P.V. Narasimha Rao Vs State (CBI) (1998) 4 SCC 626) was fought over in Supreme Court, that ruled as below - According to Article 105(2) of the Constitution, the Members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from prosecution for any wrongdoing (including bribery) that is connected to the discharge of their duties inside the parliament (voting etc). So, if at all there could be any action against the MPs who crossed over to the other side, it could be taken only by the Speaker of the House and not by the Court of Law. However, the MPs who defied the whip of their own party by abstaining will not enjoy any immunity because their action (abstaining) happened to be outside the Parliament.

When the Constitution provides such immunity, no wonder our honorable representatives don't feel shy about declaring their current worth and make hay while it shines. The funniest paradox in this is that if this unreasonable immunity be waived, the change should be initiated by the MPs themselves. Bet on any of our MPs to initiate such a change?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

RS Elections and Vasanthi Stanley

The Rajya Sabha elections that heated up Tamil Nadu's political scene for the last few weeks ended up in an anti-climax.

Paataali Makkal Katchi (PMK) chief Dr. Ramadoss, who earlier created a big song and dance sequence over non-allocation of seats to his party meekly surrendered by quoting an 'alliance dharma' theory. The very obvious reason for his sudden unfurling of white flag was that his son Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss did not want a premature end to his tenure at the Health Ministry at the Centre. So, curtains came down fairly soon on this episode of 'self respect' drama.

Another interesting aspect of this Rajya Sabha elections is the way it was handled by Jayalalithaa Jayaram's AIADMK. Having observed PMK making lot of noise within the ruling coalition, Jayalalithaa, in a bid to irritate PMK offered her ally Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (MDMK) an opportunity to contest for the possible second seat. It is to be noted that MDMK has in all six MLAs in the current assembly. Jayalalithaa's might have thought that Dr. Ramadoss will catch hold of the fact that if a party with six MLAs (MDMK) can field its candidate for the Rajya Sabha elections, why PMK with eighteen MLAs can’t be given a chance. This will only hasten PMK's exit from DMK led alliance.

Another reason for Jayalalithaa's generosity was the fact that she was fairly certain that a MDMK candidate can't win the elections, unless Vijayakanth casts his vote for MDMK (There was a fair bit of workout on caste equations here. Had Vaiko got himself nominated, speculation was that Vijayakanth might have supported him as both of them belong to Telugu speaking Naidu community. Vijayakanth might not have wanted to vote for Vaiko precisely for this reason as well. This might have been a good opportunity to test the caste equation with Vijayakanth). However, Vaiko who was aware of his party's chances graciously declined the offer, while thanking Jayalalithaa. With AIADMK not choosing to field any second candidate, the elections ended with all the candidates getting elected unopposed.

Out of the six nominees who got elected unopposed, one of them - Vasanthi Stanley of Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam deserves a special mention. In the run up to the announcement of nominees, quite a lot of names within DMK were doing rounds. But the party chief Muthuvelar Karunanidhi in a surprise move hand picked Ameer Ali Jinnah and Vasanthi Stanley as DMK nominees for the Rajya Sabha.

What is interesting about this Vasanthi Stanley is that the litany of cases she has got against her name. It starts with Stanley Rajan (Vasanthi's husband) obtaining a home loan of Rs 40 lakhs from Bank of Baroda - Anna Nagar Branch, placing his apartment in Chennai's Mogappair as collateral. He somehow prepares another set of documents for the same property, places that as collateral with State Bank of India - Mount Road branch and obtains a loan of Rs 25 lakhs. He repeats the above with Life Insurance Corporation of India, State Bank of Travancore, Vijaya Bank, Syndicate Bank, State Bank of Hyderabad, UCO Bank, Dena Bank and what not.

Simply put, Stanley Rajan prepared fake documents for his home and managed to get home loans ranging from Rs 25 lakhs to 40 lakhs from various nationalised and private banks. As he found the above process working smoothly, he purchased few more properties and managed to swindle money from few more branches of various banks. In many of these (illegal) transactions, Vasanthi has either been a co-applicant or has been a guarantor. Some of the above mentioned banks got wind of the fraud and filed complaints with the Crime Branch of Chennai Police. Stanley was arrested and was lodged in prison for few months before being granted bail. As many as fifteen cases are pending against Stanley and his wife Vasanthi on charges of cheating. About a year ago, Syndicate Bank placed adverts in leading news dailies with photographs of Vasanthi and Stanley informing the public about the fraud.

A politician facing cases in the court is a common occurrence in India . Some of the cases could be brushed aside as being politically motivated. Cheating few nationalised banks can not however be considered as a politically motivated case. It is also a fact that unless proven, an accused should be treated as innocent. But, one wonders why of all the persons in DMK, Karunanidhi chose Vasanthi as the party's nominee. May be, these were the qualifications he was looking for. If Vasanthi and Stanley could 'achieve' this much before gaining any level of prominence, think of what they could do after becoming a Member of Parliament.

Worst part in this story is that, none of the other parties including the opposition seemed to care about Vasanthi's background. If at all there were murmurs of protest, it was from within DMK - especially from those who were expecting to get nominated for the Rajya Sabha. Sadly, Vasanthi Stanley is not a sole example of this stink. The nation has a bigger example in the form of Pratibha Patil, who went on to occupy the Rashtrapathi Bhavan despite her shoddy background. Vasanthi will infact feel proud for having emulated the country's president.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

DMK vs PMK Imbroglio

Trust Paataali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder Dr S Ramadoss to spice up the otherwise routine exercise of Rajya Sabha elections and he will.

More often than not, elections to the upper house of the Indian Parliament cease to be interesting after the respective parties announce their nominees. The terms of as many as six Rajya Sabha members from Tamilnadu expires by March 2008 and the elections are all set to be held on 26th March to fill up the vacant seats. To become a member of Rajya Sabha from Tamil Nadu, each candidate has to secure votes from 36 MLAs. According to the current dynamics of the house, the ruling Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) comprising of DMK, Congress, PMK, CPI, CPI(M), Viduthalai Siruthaigal could comfortably send four MPs to the Rajya Sabha. However, they will fall short of 3 votes to send the fifth member from their alliance. On the other hand, the opposition parties comprising of AIADMK and MDMK can send one member to the Rajya Sabha in view of their current strength, but will be falling short of 2 votes to send another member to New Delhi. It is in these context, the vote of one-member party like Vijayakanth - who does not belong to either of the above camps, assumes significance.

Last time around, in June 2007 when a similar situation arose Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam chief Muthuvelar Karunanidhi was unusually generous. In order to avoid any horse trading, he said, DMK led DPA will let the AIADMK led opposition to take away two seats while the ruling coalition will take away four, thus ensuring that there was no contest. The apparent reason for his generosity was that his daughter Kanimozhi Karunanidhi was being nominated to Rajya Sabha on behalf of DMK and he wanted to ensure that her election was smooth and peaceful. Moreover, if DMK was to contest one more seat, they would have had to seek support from DMDK chief Vijayakanth, who in the recent times has emerged as one of the bitter-most critics of Karunanidhi.

This time around, although the situation is similar, the dynamics are slightly different. PMK, which has got 18 MLAs in the current Assembly has been requesting one Rajya Sabha seat for the party. Gradually, the request turned into demand and at one point, PMK strongman Dr S Ramadoss even gave a deadline of March 15 (the last day for nominations) to DMK. However, ending even the remote chance for rapproachement over the Rajya Sabha seat distribution row within the ruling party-led DPA, DMK president Karunanidhi politely said a firm ‘NO’ to the PMK and went ahead in announcing the names of the party nominees. Among the four Rajya Sabha seats and a possible fifth that are up for grabs for the coalition, DMK has chosen to take two and allocated two to Congress and one to CPI(M).

PMK is not part of the government at the State level. However, they are part of the Central Government in New Delhi with Dr. Anbumani Ramadosss (son of PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss) enjoying his stint as Union Health Minister. Although PMK is blowing hot air on DMK over various issues in the last two years, the party's relationship with Congress has been very cordial. Also, PMK does not seem to have any issues with the Communists as well. Ironically, if PMK choses to abstain from voting in the Rajya Sabha elections, it will be the Communists' nominee T K Rangarajan who will miss the bus to Rajya Sabha.

At the time of writing (12th March 2008), there are three possible courses that PMK might take.

1) Support the CPI(M) nominee for the sake of the 'alliance dharma' and also for the need to maintain cordial equation with the Congress and the Left parties, keeping in mind future political permutation and combinations.

2) Walk out of DMK led alliance and cross over to AIADMK camp. PMK will support MDMK's nominee (ally of AIADMK). This will mean that the party will lose its Ministers at the Centre.

3) Remain in DPA and abstain from voting in the Rajya Sabha elections on March 26th. This will mean that PMK will not lose its Ministers at the Centre, but the party could very well enter the bad books of Communists (not that it matters that much). Congress might not be too bothered.

It looks like PMK didn't do its homework properly before firing salvos on DMK. Having antagonised the ruling DMK over getting a seat for the Rajya Sabha election in the State, it has also forced upon itself a certain iciness in its relationship with the other constituents of the DPA. Ramadoss, in response to a query on whether he would move out (of the alliance), said that the question has not risen till now. However by saying, 'We have time till 15 March,' he has opened up the field for speculations. With general elections for the Lok Sabha looming large, every party will want to keep its options open. The only reason that is holding the PMK in the DMK led DPA is the few ministries held by PMK men at the Centre. By jumping out of the alliance, the party will not want to throw away the benefits of power, even if it is for less than a year. Perhaps the time has come for Dr Ramadoss to call Jayalalithaa Jayaram as 'Anbu Sagodhari' (beloved sister). Having observed Dr Ramadoss for the last decade or so, it is not a question of 'whether'. It is just a matter of 'when'.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Primary Lessons

Be it setting a corporate strategy, taking an executive decision, or running an election, there is absolutely nothing wrong in following the better principles practised elsewhere, and thereby, picking up the right lessons from other's experience.

One of the positive aspects of the American system is its primaries - a process in which the party members at the grass root level decide on who their candidate will be for Presidential elections. Neither the party leaders or their high command or their inner voice or the party's parent bodies get to decide that. By letting the very ordinary workers of the party have their say in an important decision is truly extraordinary, very much applying the core decmocratic principles in letter and spirit.

While we in India go around the world proudly proclaiming our democratic values, our score on inner-party democracy is zilch. Could we name any party of relevance in India that has got a bottom-up approach of multi-layered internal elections leading to the election of party chief?

Though the law stipulates that all parties registered with the Election Commission of India must have structured internal polls, every one knows how the law takes its course in this case. In seven out of ten parties in India, there is often a first family who collectively or individually decide and appoint / nominate one of their sychopants as the office bearer or party candidate. In case of the other parties, it is very difficult to effect a change of guard. For instance, Bharatiya Janata Party hasn't got a first family like Congress or DMK or AIADMK. Every year, the office bearers including the party president get elected through the bottom-up method. But does one need to be told about the influence of Advani-Vajpayee duo, irrespective of who the party men elect. There is no doubt that this depressing aspect is one of the many banes of our electoral setup.

Surprisingly enough, this concept of inner party democracy has found takers at certain countries that are least expected to implement. Only last month, the world witnessed African National Congress - South Africa's ruling party elect a new leadership team replacing the incumbent Thabo Mbeki, who also happens to be the country's president. Interesting bit in this is that a good number of Mbeki's cabinet received the boot from party positions and it was no one but the ordinary party workers who made those decisions. After all, South Africa's tryst with democracy has only been for the last fifteen years or so.
South Africa's neighbour in the north - Zimbabwe is certainly not a place that could be juxtaposed with democracy. It is a place where the government uses the police and army regularly to curb anti-government thoughts. Yet, Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has just chosen its candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections through US style primaries. If you care to look at the number of ministers and party seniors, who have been denied party nominations, it will certainly be surprising.

The intention of this post is not to belittle India's democratic values by comparing it with Zimbabwe or any other country. India's democracy has reasonably stood the test of time - especially if you view it in the context of her immediate neighbours. But only when those values are imbibed at every level of the society, the nation could reap the real benefits of democracy. It is on this context that one stresses the need to let go off false pride and learn from others.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Coalition Stories

If you look at Congress led UPA government in New Delhi from outside, you can't be faulted for saying that it is all the more funny.

When 2004 Parliamentary election results were out, Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was surprisingly way ahead of Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. Yet, the numbers were not good enough for the UPA to form the government. It was then the Communists who had about 60 elected members of parliament decided to support the pseudo-secular UPA with the noble intention of keeping the so-called 'communal' NDA at bay. Although Communists and Congress are bitter enemies in Kerala and West Bengal, both the parties pretended as if those states are not part of the country any more.

Communists were clever in the entire setup that they chose to support the government from outside – i.e., they chose to have power, but without any accountability. The game started only after the government was formed. For everything that the government tried to do, Communists would block or threaten to block. Though they never executed any of their threats so far, on several occasions they managed to bring the Congress to its knees, the glaring ones being Indo-US nuclear deal, privatization of Mumbai, Delhi airports etc.

Both the parties wanted another party one out of the government, but in effect, kept governance at bay. This is exactly what happens if parties with little or no common ground between each other form a government. Poor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he has been thrown to the lions quite mercilessly. A political misfit that he is, he must be regretting the day his madam superior chose to listen to her sacred 'inner voice', for within few years of becoming the Prime Minister he managed to lose all of the goodwill he earned throughout his life time.

It is not that we are having such an arrangement for the first time. In 1989, when National Front led by Vishwanath Pratap 'Mr Clean' Singh came to power at the Centre, it was supported by the erstwhile 'untouchable' - Bharatiya Janata Party, who had 81 members of parliament in the ninth Lok Sabha. Like Communists of today, BJP cleverly chose to support the government from outside and wielded power without any responsibility. BJP squeezed the National Front government on various issues like Mandal Commission, Ram Janmabhoomi etc. Thankfully for the nation, due to external as well as internal contradictions, V.P.Singh government collapsed within nine months of formation. Similar fate awaited Chandrasekhar led National Front government, which took 'outside' support from Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress in 1990-91. Country witnessed two short-lived United Front governments during 1996-97 led by H.D. Devegowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, who took outside support from Sitaram Kesri-led Congress.

At the State level, Muthuvelar Karunanidhi led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu is currently facing a similar situation as Congress at the Centre. If Congress had to dance to the tunes of Communists at the Centre, in Tamil Nadu DMK is suffering the same fate with Paataali Makkal Katchi led by Dr. S. Ramadoss. In the 234-seat assembly, DMK is holding 96 seats, way short of the magic figure of 117. It is dependent on the support of Congress (34), PMK (18) and Communists (15). Like many parties who support a government from outside, PMK wants to dissociate from any shortcomings of the DMK government, but wants to reap the benefits of being an ally.

Also, as the rise of actor Vijayakanth's Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK) is sending shivers down the spine of Dr. Ramadoss, that he ideally want to reap the benefits of 'anti-incumbency' wave against DMK government during the next election. Moreover, if he plays his cards well by opposing Karunanidhi, he can raise his stakes by bargaining for more seats if and when he had to ally with Jayalalithaa Jayaram's AIADMK. All of these seems to inspire Dr. Ramadoss a lot that not a day passes by without him holding a press conference blasting the DMK government. Initially, he was opposing the government on certain issues like airport expansion, setting up of satellite township near Chennai, capitation fees in higher education, illegal sand quarrying etc. Gradually, he was seen stepping up the ante by personally targeting State Ministers like Ponmudi, Arcot N Veeraswamy, T R Baalu as well. The funniest bit among this is, after every attack on the State Government, Dr. Ramadoss will never forget to add a disclaimer that he will keep supporting the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government for its full term of five years.

If the readers think that it is always the case with the parties lending outside support to a government, this writer has got an interesting example to share. Way back in 1967, when Indian National Congress was a formidable force in Indian politics, a Congress leader from West Bengal - Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee broke away from the party and formed a new party named Bangla Congress, much like how Govindaswamy Karupiah Moopanar formed Tamil Maanila Congress in 1996. Incidentally, Ajoy Mukherjee's parting of ways with Congress was the first of many splits for the Indian National Congress after Independence. Shortly after West Bengal Legislative Assembly election in 1967, during which Congress was thrown out of power for the first time in the state, a new coalition was formed titled 'United Front' comprising more than dozen parties including Bangla Congress, Commmunists, Forward Bloc, Workers Party and what not. Ajoy Mukherjee became the first non-Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal. The coalition government also had a Deputy Chief Minister from Communist Party of India (Marxist) who also held the Finance portfolio. The Communists, despite being in the government were doing to Ajoy Mukherjee in 1967 what Dr. Ramadoss is doing to Muthuvelar Karunanidhi at present. Cabinet meetings were literally turning into battle grounds. If the Chief Minister announced a programme, the Deputy Chief Minister will soon block it publicly saying that there is no money in the treasury to execute the programme. These incidents went up to the level that one fine day Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee sat on a day-long fast at Writers Building at Kolkatta (Calcutta, then) protesting against his own government. Hilarious it may sound, but quite pathetic it is in reality. It is a different story that United Front government in West Bengal shut shop within two years. It is yet another story that the very same United Front under the leadership (!?) of the very same Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee came back to power in 1969. Thanks to the mathematics of coalition politics, Ajoy Mukherjee even had the same Deputy Chief Minister. Just in case, if you are wondering who that Deputy Chief Minister was, the world knows him by the name of Jyoti Basu.

The writer can't help if you think of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when we talk about Ajoy Mukherjee. The above examples are not all. There are many more such coalition stories in the world's largest democracy, which are equally hilarious and pathetic, if not more. Watch out, some of them might be unfolding right in front of your eyes!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

BJP and AIADMK: Allies Again?

"Food is the way to anyone's heart" goes the adage. No one agrees with the above more than AIADMK Chief Jayalalithaa Jayaram and Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has become a talking point among the political circles for his impressive showing at the hustings recently, was in Chennai to attend the annual day function of Tamil magazine 'Thuglak' and among other things, he got a personal invite for lunch from the indomitable Jayalalithaa Jayaram. Whether or not the 45 course vegetarian meal served by Jayalalithaa to BJP's latest poster boy Narendra Modi and spokesman Ravishankar Prasad will result in a pre-poll alliance between the two parties, speculations are far and wide that the alliance is on and at a higher level this is being seen as the beginning of what one calls 'realignment of forces'.

Thanks to Bharatiya Janata Party's victory at Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh late last year, elections to the Indian Parliament are a good year and half away. Congress appears to be on a sticky wicket with a string of electoral losses at key states and more importantly, the party has to digest the fact that the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul are not fetching those votes as they once thought it will. India's grand old party's allies are not helping them either, with Muthuvelar Karunanidhi led DMK making uncomfortable noises over Lord Ram and with Communists holding the Government to ransom on Nuclear Deal with US while at the same time creating a mess at Nandigram in West Bengal.

BJP was also on a similar state until few months back. Having lost power quite unexpectedly in 2004, it was struggling to come to terms with the reality. With its erstwhile allies like Telugu Desam suddenly discovering the party's communal colours and its once enviable second level leadership fighting with one another for supremacy, uninspiring party leadership, sudden death of potential party hopeful Pramod Mahajan, BJP's own share of electoral defeats etc put the party in an unenviable state. However, politics is a game played with people's poor memory. Most of the voters will only remember the latest series of events leading up to the polls. On that count, with the victories at Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh under its belt, BJP has a slight edge over Congress at this point in time. Though there is a long way to go before the party can realistically dream of being back in the corridors of power, with the announcement of Lal Krishna Advani as the party's Prime Ministerial candidate, BJP has set its poll machinery in motion and in effect can hope to cash in on the first mover advantage.

Focusing on Tamil Nadu, although it is still pre-mature to talk about any alliance between BJP and AIADMK, this writer feels that it is very much on the cards. While it would be suicidal for BJP to align with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Jayalalithaa Jayaram is also shrewd enough not to embrace Congress. It is often said by all and sundry that BJP and AIADMK are 'natural' allies given the fact that both of them shared similar views on Hinduism, national security etc. However, this writer strongly feels that these are mere jargons and has little to do with reality. How then could one explain the fact that BJP had successfully completed five years at the Centre in alliance with the 'unnatural' ally - DMK, while at the same time struggled hard for thirteen months with AIADMK.

Coming to speak of it, BJP - AIADMK alliance is not new for the state. It started way back in 1998, when Bharatiya Janata Party was considered an 'untouchable' by the rest of the pseudo-secular political spectrum. In 1998, while DMK was in power at the State, BJP and AIADMK fought the Lok Sabha polls together (with MDMK). During the course of seat allocation, it appeared that BJP was given a raw deal as AIADMK allocated unfavourable seats to BJP. A case in point being, Jayalalitha ensured that late Rangarajan Kumaramangalam was denied the Salem constituency and allocated that to Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy (who headed Rajiv Indra Congress and was part of BJP led NDA) at that time. A reluctant Rangarajan had to contest at Tiruchchirappalli Lok Sabha constituency. Incidentally, days before the election serial bomb blasts rocked Coimbatore and the expected anti-incumbency factor took effect ensured that the alliance sailed through with BJP opening its account in Tamil Nadu. The alliance won 25 seats (AIADMK - 18, BJP - 3, MDMK - 3, Rajiv Indra Congress - 1) out of 39. Jayalalithaa Jayaram exposed her true colours by dragging her feet on everything related to the government formation at the Centre. At first, she failed to give her letter of support to the President, which was a necessity at that time given the fractured nature of the verdict. All through the 13 month period that the government lasted, she held Atal Behari Vajpayee led NDA government to ransom with her frequent unreasonable demands. Finally, the uneasy alliance ended when Jayalalithaa Jayaram pulled the plug by withdrawing support to the NDA government, which precisely drove DMK into BJP's folds.

BJP emerged stronger in the mid-term polls that were held in 1999. It had a relatively smooth sailing while in power in the company of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. However in 2004, Karunanidhi chose to come out of National Democratic Alliance led by BJP and formed a rainbow coalition with Congress and other parties. AIADMK was in power at that time and anti-incumbency wave was there for everyone to see due to several unpopular steps of governance taken by Jayalalithaa Jayaram. Perhaps, due to TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, BJP and AIADMK came together and fought the elections. Even this time, Jayalalithaa Jayaram had her way in seat allocation. She allocated all of seven seats to BJP and even there she ensured that her bete-noire Thirunavukkarasar did not contest the polls by denying the Pudukkottai seat to BJP. In a similar fashion, she allocated North Chennai constituency (contested by Sukumaran Nambiar) to BJP, where as the national party was relatively stronger in South Chennai. The alliance infamously lost by 0-39 to DMK led Democratic Progressive Alliance. Jayalalithaa Jayaram quickly disowned the defeat by saying that the result was a verdict on Atal Behari Vajpayee led NDA government. In hindsight, the state unit of BJP would have rued the missed opportunity. Had they contested on their won in 2004 polls, there was a good chance that the party could have won at least couple of seats (Nagercoil / Coimbatore / Pudukkottai) or could have been in the close second position.

It has not always been an all-win game for AIADMK and Jayalalithaa Jayaram when it comes to alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party. While her party was in power at the Centre, all she managed to secure was few transfers at the Secretary level (Bezboruah, Chief of the Enforcement Directorate; R.K. Kumar, Counsel for ED; N.K. Singh, Revenue Secretary; etc), which brought her only little joy at such an enormous cost. She and her party suffered embarrassment when AIADMK's Sedapatti R Muthiah was asked to resign from the Cabinet (he was the Union Surface Transport Minister at that time) when charges were framed against him for disproportionate wealth amassment case. To top it all, Jayalalithaa Jayaram would remember well that it was her ill temperament while in alliance with the BJP that caused her sworn rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to inch closer to the saffron party and remain in power at the Centre for five years.

While both the parties have decided (well, almost) to bury the bitterness of the past and progress ahead, it would be prudent to make an assessment of their current position. Despite the fact that AIADMK failed in the 2004 Parliamentary elections so miserably, one must credit Jayalalithaa Jayaram to effect a not-too-bad performance of sorts in the 2006 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. Although it was not good enough for AIADMK to form the government in TN, it must be remembered that she battled against a coalition comprising seven parties headed by DMK. If you look back at the TN Assembly election results for the past 20 years, it has always been a clean sweep for either of the Dravidian parties, while the other party would be wiped out with handful of MLAs. In that context, one must say that AIADMK put up a decent performance by winning 61 seats out of the total 225, despite being in power for the previous five years (there by accruing enough anti-incumbency sentiments). At the same time, with many new entrants to the race (DMDK led by Vijayakanth; All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi led by Sarath Kumar etc) and many of them invoking the legacy of late M.G. Ramachandran, electoral race is not the same as they once were. In the bye-elections to two of the Assembly seats in Tamil Nadu, AIADMK came out at a distant third yielding the first two places to DMK and Vijayakanth's Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam.

As for the BJP is concerned, the party's fortunes have only started to look up in the recent times. It has got a very long way to go before they could see themselves as 'favourites' to win the general election. They need to win quite a few important State Assembly elections (like Karnataka) to maintain the momentum. Seventeen or eighteen months is a long time in politics and anything can happen between now and the elections. The party's immediate priority is to identify its alliance partners carefully and craft out strategic partnerships in the states. It looks like BJP is all set to begin that process from South and move upwards. Though BJP is still a non-entity in Tamil Nadu, if the party has learnt any lessons from the past, it must negotiate the number of seats from a position of strength. BJP by now would have made a list of its 'winnable' constituencies and the negotiators should have the knack and mental resolve not to give in a lot.

All said and done about this prospective alliance, a lot depends on how things turn up in the run up to the elections. Paataali Makkal Katchi led by Dr. Ramadoss is likely to break away from the DMK-Congress alliance. It would be interesting to see where he heads, as there is a talk about a possible tie up between Congress and Vijayakanth's DMDK. There is a possibility that Jayalalithaa might have a rethink about AIADMK-BJP alliance if the latter were to lose ground in Karnataka and few other states before next year. If there is one clear winner in this speculation, it is Narendra Modi. After all, he was the one who was served with a 45-course meal. Wasn't he?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sun vs Son

Until about a year ago, even the bittermost political rivals of Muthuvelar Karunanidhi would not have thought that things would come to such a pass in Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam's (DMK) first family.

For the last three to four decades, the term 'high command' in DMK invariably meant Muthuvelar Karunanidhi and his immediate family. Although from outside, DMK would look like a party with a good intra-party democratic processes, on a closer look it would be clear that those processes would be applicable only for the lower rungs of the organisation. At the higher levels, only one family - that of Karunanidhi would hold the fiefdom. While Karunanidhi had been leading the party as a whole, his nephew late 'Murasoli' Maran had been his pointsman at New Delhi for several years managing the relationship with national parties and regional parties from other states for forming National/United/Third front whenever the need arose. Due to the fact that 'Murasoli' Maran was content with his role as Karunanidhi's ambassador and also due to the close personal relationship and understanding between the two, that arrangement rolled on without any hitch.

At the next level, it was an open secret that Karunanidhi's two sons - M.K. Azhagiri and M.K. Stalin were constantly at loggerheads with each other in the past. Stalin, who was the younger of the two was in the DMK right from his early days and grew up through the ranks holding several party responsibilities on the way. He has been a State Legislator four times, Mayor of Chennai for five years, and for the last one year he is the Minister for Local Administration in his father's cabinet. Over the years, DMK (read Karunanidhi) has been very careful in cultivating Stalin's image and it is a common knowledge that Stalin is being groomed as Karunanidhi's successor. Any potential challengers to Stalin were marginalised within the party and eventually thrown out.

In contrast, Azhagiri who has set up his base in the southern city of Madurai is no stranger to controversies. On many occasions, his name has directly or indirectly figured on many of the violent incidents like the murder of DMK senior Tha. Kiruttinan, murder of CPI councillor Leelavathi, arson at Madurai offices of Tamil daily 'Dinamalar' etc. Although he has been acquitted in some of the cases, he is just out on bail in Tha. Kiruttinan's murder case. Azhagiri has has never held any party/government post till date, yet he holds an iron grip over the party in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu that DMK had to pay a very heavy price in 2001 by losing power for ignoring Azhagiri as he put up rebel candidates at many places thus ensuring a rout of the party. On Karunanidhi's part, he would appear to ignore Azhagiri for most part of the time, but would mollycoddle him whenever elections are round the corner or if there is any crisis for the party in the south. In the recent years, it appears (at least in public) that Muthuvelar Karunanidhi has managed to bring around M.K. Azhagiri and has made him accept the fact that M.K. Stalin would be the heir apparent.

While two of Karunanidhi's sons indulged in politics, Murasoli Maran's sons - Kalanidhi and Dhayanidhi were looking after the business interests of the family. Their flagship business - Sun Network started in 1993 that comprised of television channels in all the four South Indian languages soon became a household name in Tamilnadu and established itself as the number one Tamil channel and maintained a healthy lead ahead of its competitors. In the last three to four years, Sun Network acquired quite a few vernacular dailies and weeklies, thus expanding its foothold in the media industry. Both Sun TV and Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam would like everyone to believe that they are two independent entities, unrelated to each other, Sun TV was widely being considered as DMK's mouthpiece and it truly remained so until about a week ago. In the past 14 years, both Sun TV and DMK have effectively derived mileage out of each other, which if expanded would go beyond the scope of this article.

In March 2004 when 'Murasoli' Maran died after prolonged illness, Parliamentary elections for the country were looming large. Karunanidhi needed a confidant in New Delhi to fill the vaccum created by the demise of Maran and hence dragged Dayanidhi Maran, who was an unknown face until then into politics. All of a sudden, the young Maran was in the limelight when he was fielded as DMK candidate for the Central Chennai constituency, represented by his late father, in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. With his sophisticated looks, he stood apart from the rest of the politicians and presented a new image to the public. After DMK and its allies romped home with all 40 parliamentary seats in TN and Pondicherry, Dayanidhi's political graph saw a meteoric rise. As he took over as Union Minister for IT and Communication, he became the national face of DMK completely marginalising other seniors in the party. In most of the public appearances, Dayanidhi was seen shoulder to shoulder with Karunanidhi. Though there were lot of murmurs within DMK about Dayanidhi's high handedness and conflict of interest allegation during Ratan Tata issue, the power equations between DMK and Congress ensured that Dayanidhi came out unscathed.

In all probability, Karunanidhi might have wanted the power structure in the party to be in such a way that when his son M.K. Stalin took over the reins of DMK, he would have Dayanidhi Maran as a pointsman in New Delhi, much like the way it worked between himself and 'Murasoli' Maran. But it looks like Maran brothers had different ideas. Slowly but steadily, Stalin was blacked out of Sun TV's news reports. Even for a layman, it was clear that another power centre within the DMK was being formed. It is being believed that these developments infuriated M.K. Azhagiri and not surprisingly brought him closer to his younger brother M.K. Stalin.

In the recent times, Maran family owned Tamil daily 'Dinakaran' in association with A.C. Nielsen started publishing daily opinion polls/survey on various topics. Some of these opinion polls caused some flutter within the alliance (especially with Dr. Ramadoss led Paataali Makkal Katchi) as the topic and the results of the survey seem to suggest DMK's big brother attitude towards its alliance partners. While Karunanidhi was busy cooling the tempers, Dinakaran on its issue dated 9th May 2007 published a survey that overwhelmingly projected M.K. Stalin as being the much favoured political heir to Muthuvelar Karunanidhi. Further, the survey said M.K. Azhagiri was favoured by about 2% of the people as against 70% who prefer M.K. Stalin. This provoked the supporters of M.K. Azhagiri in Madurai that they started pelting stones at the buses and indulged in vandalism. A group of highly armed thugs ransacked the 'Dinakaran' office, hurling petrol bombs at the premises and in the process killed three of its employees, all in the full media glare and in the presence of umpteen police personnel. One doesn't need to be an Einstein to know who was calling the shots when it coems to Madurai. As soon as the violence started in Madurai, Sun TV became very aggressive and suddenly discovered the violent face of M.K. Azhagiri. It went to the extent of describing him as 'rowdy' and hurled other innuendos that made Azhagiri to send a letter through his lawyer warning legal action against Sun Network.

Coming as it does few days before the Chief Minister Karunanidhi's golden jubilee felicitation function, it brought into open the shadow boxing that was going on between the second generation members of Karunanidhi and Maran family. The Chief Minister's first reported reaction was to indulge in some hand wringing over whether or not to go ahead with the golden jubilee celebrations. 24 hours later, all that Karunanidhi managed to do is pass the buck by asking for a CBI enquiry on the matter. He also sought to deflect the incident by characterising it as an attack on democracy and freedom of the press. There were at least 50 policemen, including some from the armed reserve police, who were present on the scene of crime as the marauders leisurely firebomed the newspaper's office premises completely unhindered and uninhibited by teh largish presence of the representatives of the law enforcement agencies. What kind of a signal does it send in terms of the Chief Minister's ability, despite the experience of many terms in office, to create an enabling political environment that allows state police to function effectively and impartially? Six days after the incident, there is no report of commencement of any CBI enquiry and even the few DMK activists including the spouse of the Madurai's mayor who were arrested in relation to the violence have been let out on bail.

Amidst all this, the function for felicitating Karunanidhi's 50 years as legislator went ahead in Chennai, graced by the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. For the first time in the last three years, Dayanidhi Maran was no where to be seen in the function venue, though he was at the airport to welcome Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Interestingly, M.K. Azhagiri was present in the front row among the audience at the felicitation function. For the first time in 14 years, Sun TV was denied the live telecast rights of the function presided over by Karunanidhi. Two days later, DMK's Administrative Committee was convened at the party headquaraters and the participants unanimously recommended Dayanidhi Maran's removal from the Union Cabinet. The Administrative committee also decided to send show cause notice to Dayanidhi Maran asking why he shouldn't be expelled from the primary membership of the party. Hours after the meeting, Dayanidhi Maran submitted his resignation as a Minister to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Although there are lot of speculations about the ire of Karunanidhi towards Maran brothers, there is no official word from DMK as to what kind of anti-party activities Dayanidhi indulged in. Also, there is not a word from the government or from the party about any possible action against the DMK activists who indulged in violence at Madurai. The Police officials who were watching the burning spectacle even as three people were dying have not been pulled up either. This writer does not believe that Dayanidhi Maran is a saint and no-sinner. In fact, in these very columns it was argued last year that he be dropped from the Union Cabinet until his name is cleared in the Ratan Tata issue. But the timing and the reason for which his resignation has been secured doesn't do well for the image of the Government. Also, the clash between Maran brothers and Karunanidhi family is an internal power struggle within DMK. But, when that spills over and affects the public, governmental action is necessary and sadly that is missing in this episode.

In the case of battle between Sun vs Son, Karunanidhi has clearly shown whom his priorities are with. As DMK's chief, he might be right in doing so. But as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he has miserably failed in his duty to protect the people. Pointing out similar incidents in previous regime hardly helps to instill confidence in the minds of the people. It would only be fitting for the seniormost politician of the country to summon all his experience, put his foot down and bring the perpetrators of heinous crimes to justice. Will he?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Afzal Ugliness - Easy Way Out

When the Parliament of India was attacked on 13 December 2001, it was not just an attack on a building, it was an attack on the very seat of democracy.

And not just that. Twenty-two human lives, including that of the security men were lost in the attack. In short, they were the ones who prevented a blood bath inside the parliament. Any society worth its salt, regardless of how laid back the attitude is, will ensure that the killers and those aided them are brought to justice. It is not often that justice gets delivered on time in India. It is a common knowledge across the nation that the backlog of court cases runs into thousands. Even in cases like 1993 Mumbai Blasts, it took 13 long years for the legal system to take the case to its logical conclusion.

It is a wonder when a Delhi Court heard the case on a daily basis and awarded the judgement exactly one year and five days (Dec 18, 2002) after the Parliament was attacked. The jist of the judgement delivered by the Delhi Court was that three persons were awarded death sentence in the case. The appeal process followed up in the Delhi High Court and less than a year later (October 2003), one among the three who were awarded the death sentence were acquitted and the other two were destined to face the gallows. When the two persons appealed against the Delhi HC verdict at Supreme Court, SC in August 2005 confirmed the death of one Afzal Guru and reduced the death sentence of the other person to life time imprisonment. Thus, with in a matter of four years, the case went through three rounds of judicial scrutiny and every judge who had heard the case didn't have any doubt about the role played by Mohammed Afzal Guru in the Parliament attack and the death sentence awarded to him.

Just when one thought that the wheels of justice had started moving faster, at least in this case, certain elements are out to derail it completely. When the court fixed Oct 20, 2006 as the date for hanging Mohammed Afzal Guru, all hell broke loose. First, there were heavy protests against the judgement in the Kashmir Valley - from where Mohammed Afzal Guru hails. The protestors 'demanded' that Afzal be pardoned. It is worth noting that the man who was facing the gallows was not interested in seeking clemency from the President as he has lost his confidence on the system. The protests were turned so violent in Kashmir that it lasted several days and that is when our holy politicians started to intervene.

Farooq Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir and currently a member of Rajya Sabha, was the first one to stoke the fire. He wholeheartedly threw his weight behind the demands for clemency and announced that he would personally meet the President of India to respect the sentiments of Kashmiris and request him to pardon Mohammed Afzal Guru. Farooq was the one who said that India would be on flames, if Afzal was to be hanged. Inspired by the reception that Farooq received for his statement, all politicians who matter started demanding clemency for Afzal Guru.

To top it all, Ghulam Nabi Azad - the Chief Minister of J&K from the Congress Party, apparently 'spoke' to the Prime Minister about the case and requested him to do the needful. His view is that Afzal's hanging would scuttle the peace process between India and Pakistan, that is currently underway. Holy crap! All the political parties in J&K thus united to save Afzal from the noose. It may not be the first time when politicians battle for a criminal, but, as far as this writer is aware, this is the first time, a person who has taken the oath as Chief Minister under the Indian Constitution is openly backing a killer who in legal terms waged a war against India. Vote bank politics based on religion is making the politicians stoop down to unimaginable levels. Funnily enough, Congress Party conveniently brushed that aside as a conversation between the State Government and the Central Government.

The action didn't end at Kashmir alone. Human rights activists, who are conspicious by their absence during the terror attacks that happen every now and then, suddenly sprung up from no where and demanded that Afzal be pardoned. Leading the pack was the Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, who says that she strongly disagrees with the judgement. This writer wonders how many of the protestors had actually read the judgement in full and which part of the judgement they disagree with. In the mean time, the family of the Mohammed Afzal Guru met the President and submitted the clemency petition on his behalf. In a bid to whip up emotions, the protestors made the seven year old son of Afzal Guru to sit in the protest demonstrations and said that at least for the boy, the father should be pardoned. Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Pakistan Government says that they are closely watching the situation.

If we look at the reason for demands for clemency, they provide a good variety. While the Kashmir protestors feel that Afzal had done nothing wrong, his family feels that he hasn't been given a fair trial. The likes of Yaseen Malik, who hops from studio to studio in the national capital dishing out sound bytes, opine that the situation in the ground will change for the worse if Afzal is hanged, as if the valley is now a paradise on earth, true to its name. None of the above are bothered about the fact that Mohammed Afzal Guru is one of the prime accused in the Parliament attack. None of these persons are bothered that his actions directly contributed to the death of so many people. None of these people care that Mohamed Afzal Guru and his cohorts brought the country closer to war with Pakistan. All they want is to have Afzal pardoned because - he has got a son, who has got dreams - the Muslim sentiments would be hurt and every possible crap.

Away from the limelight are the families of the police men/women who lost their lives foiling the design of the terrorists on that fateful day. They have appealed to the President not to grant clemency to Afzal. Further, they have said that if Afzal is pardoned, the families will return the medals of bravery presented to their slain kin. Following the due legal process, President has forwarded the clemency petition to the Union Home Ministry, who will examine the petition and pass on its recommendation to the Cabinet, which would then advice the President. However, the President of India is not bound to act by the advice of the cabinet on this clemency issue. So, the final decision on Mohammed Afzal Guru, rests with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, which gives some hope of a sensible decision being taken at the highest level. However, there is a catch here. Neither the Home Ministry, nor the Cabinet has got any deadline to take a decision or make a recommendation. The Home Ministry and /or the Cabinet are well within their rights to sit over the petition indefinitely and duck the whole issue. This will be an easy way out for all those in the position of taking a decision as on one hand they can claim that they did not ride over the Court's judgement and on the other hand, they will have their Muslim vote bank intact.

India has already paid and still paying a very heavy price by being soft on terrorism and their sponsors. Had Vishwanath Pratap Singh government been strong enough to say NO to the demands of the terrorists during the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnap case in 1989, Kashmir might not have become a flashpoint, as it is now. This time around, the demands are from our own people to pardon Afzal Guru. It is true that in any problem, bigger picture must be considered. But, this is an open and shut case, which has been examined by the judiciary not once, but thrice. There shouldn't be any hesitation in rejecting the clemency petition submitted on behalf of Mohammed Afzal Guru and put to rest the ugliness, for once.

The Government's sincerity and intention have been put to test on this issue. If Manmohan Singh government succumbs to Kashmiri vote bank politics and grants clemency, the entire nation would soon become a laughing stock. Worse still, in a few years' time, Mohamed Afzal Guru himself will come out and laugh at the Government. Remember, in India, life sentence is just fourteen years.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The 'Foot in the Mouth' Expertise Amongst Politicians

Recently, two ministers from different countries visiting the Indian sub-continent were afflicted by the 'Foot in the Mouth' disease. These people have made no attempts to realize that as ministers, their words are bound to get sancicity as the voice of their government, and not as a silly personal opinion.

So, when Anura Bandaranaike, the bachelor brother of former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga referred to the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Ms.Nirupama Rao as "the pretty envoy" during the course of his speech in the Lankan Parliament and asked her "to look after the Indian embassy and not to interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs", the rest of the 224 members present in the parliament squirmed in embarassment. Raising voices against another country's envoy is nothing new in politics, however, making an unwarranted comment like 'pretty envoy' will not be taken as a compliment. Anura's sudden volte face against India caught everyone by surprise and before there was any adverse reaction, President Mahinda Rajapakshe called up Nirupama Rao and clarified that the government does not stand by his Minister's remark.

If that incident created just a mild flutter, it was because of another comment by an Indian Minister that created quite a few ripples.

There is this India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) forum that was started when Vajpayee led NDA Government was in power. It is a trilateral forum aimed at increasing cooperation between the three countries in certain identified areas. It is being said that cooperation among the forum members were getting better each year and the three nations stood to gain from the collective hobnobbing. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to visit Brazil this month to participate in the next round of meetings in the IBSA forum. Prior to his visit, some ground work was being done and India's Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh was in Brazil as part of the same.

It was at this time that the devil caught Jairam's tongue. In an interview to a Brazilian newspaper, Jairam Ramesh reportedly ridiculed the very idea of IBSA. Throwing diplomacy to the winds, he further said that the idea of India and Brazil being 'natural allies' was 'naive'. Those statements kicked off a diplomatic firestorm with Brazil asking India to 'correct' the picture before the Prime Minister arrives for the IBSA summit.

Brazilians are extra sensitive about the issue because they have their Presidential elections in three weeks' time and any such views, even by a junior minster are bound to make President Lula Da Silva's position more vulnerable. Brazilian Foreign and Trade Minister let his strong disappointment known through Indian High Commissioner in Brasilia that made PMO in India issuing a statement that Jairam Ramesh was not authroised to speak on the issue. Further, to cool down the tempers, Jairam's senior Kamal Nath advanced his own trip by a day to the South American nation.

What Jairam was thinking before making such remarks would forever remain a mystery. Until last week Jairam Ramesh, has been creating an impression that he is one of the promising crop of young ministers at the helm. Commerce Ministry is one of the important ministries in India that requires the incumbent minister to be savvy and tough, particularly in the light of the fact that it is the Commerce Minister who needs to negotiate for the country with the super powers at WTO. In view of its importance, this ministry would traditionally go to heavy weights in the cabinet. The recent occupants of this ministry were Murasoli Maran, Arun Jaitely and now Kamal Nath. With such super influential minister's towering presence at the ministry, it is not easy for a Minister of State to make any impression on the job. In other words, it is a common view that Minister of State in Commerce is nothing but a dummy post. Jairam Ramesh did a good job in breaking that myth by negotiating with his senior minister Kamal Nath and got some independence in some areas of work. In short, Jairam got himself some work to do and did some good work in those areas.

But whatever his thoughts were and however true they may have been, when on a mission to represent the country, it is always interpreted he was speaking for the country and not as an individual. Sadly, he failed to remember that.

Jairam Ramesh is not the first Indian Minister to make such out of turn undiplomatic comments. In the previous government, there was a gentleman by name George Fernandes, who is the grand daddy of all such gaffes. In 1998, when India tested its nuclear devices to the world's dismay, George - who was India's Defence Minister that time had dragons on his mouth to say that China is India's enemy number one. This was at a time when Indian and China were slowly trying to forget the bitterness of the 1960s and were trying to build bridges. That statement was factually correct, but politically stupid.

Although, this particular statement made George Fernandes appear like a fool in front of the media, it was a common knowledge that it is very easy to provoke the then Defence Minister. If newspapers went thirsty without controversial stories, they could put a microphone in front of George to generate one. Exactly a year later in 1999, when Indian Army was busy flushing out mercenaries from the heights of Kargil, there used to be a daily review of strategy and action plan at the Prime Minister's House. In order to avoid George Fernandes from making out of turn statements to the media and kick off another diplomatic duel, he was asked to use a special gate at Vajpayee's residence where he wouldn't run into media persons even by accident.

However, such undiplomatic statements are not the exclusive domain of the Asian Ministers alone. Every country will definitely have got one such character to give comic relief (Heard of George Bush?). But listing all of them here would take the shine away from Jairam and Anura. They have duly earned the title "Superstars of the Week". Its only fair that we let them keep it for a while.