Samvaad: A Conversation
Speak Your Voice! We'd love to hear your thoughts. Click on the "Comments" link at the end of each posting to make your voice heard!
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
The new Indian Cabinet
It is hard to provide detailed information about all the different ministers but we have chosen the top-spots for analysis. You can view this information on our Indian Cabinet page. Most of these spots have gone to the Congress Party members, the largest contingent in the United Progressive Alliance government.
The cabinet formation process wasn't a particularly smooth one. With each partner of the coalition demanding the most important portfolios they could get. Mrs.Gandhi's political engineering came into play here and the issues with the DMK (ally from Tamil Nadu) and RJD (from Bihar) were resolved. I do not foresee any other activity on this front for a while. All parties seem to be satisfied.
The cabinet could have and should have had some younger faces. That is what I think is the only mistake the Congress has made so far. It would have given them a real boost with the urban youth. I hope that they will keep this in mind when the cabinet composition is up for change next. It is critical for the fastest growing section of the Indian population to have serious representation.
The new government has to be vigilant of divisive forces. It must develop policies and enforce laws to completely marginalize the use of religion in the political process. Most recently these divisions have been deepened by creating social tension leading to riots. These forces have achieved under the garb of a "political struggle" or sometimes under the "auspices" of democratically elected politicians. These riots have driven fear into the hearts of innocent citizens. This MUST stop. Be it Kashmir or Gujarat. I am not comparing the two situations as equal but there is no denying that in both places innocent lives have been targeted by hate-mongerers. These individuals and groups MUST be brought to justice. There can be no two ways about it. The responsibility to make this happen will fall on the shoulders of India's Home Minister, Mr.Shivraj Patil.
Education must be a top priority for the new government. Its decision to increase education spending to 6% of GDP from 3% is very heartening. Of course, with the hope that the government will be keenly aware of the fiscal burden thereby incurred. The Human Resource Development ministry under Mr.Arjun Singh MUST now focus its attention on the curriculum. Let us not forget that 70% of India's school-going children drop out after 8th grade! You can read more of our education proposals.
Mahatma Gandhi when asked to detail the India of his dreams once said that he dreamt of an India where every Indian felt that his/her efforts were going towards building his/her own nation. That sense of participation and belonging still eludes us and it is the moral imperative of this new government to make such participation a reality. Anything less will be unacceptable.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
As and when the announcements are made I will provide some insight into the choices. I'll talk about the people chosen, their records, their views and their aspirations. In parliamentary democracy a lot can be learned from looking at a cabinet's composition. A note of caution here. The process of portfolio determination is getting tricky with coalition partners deciding to join the government and in return seeking strategic positions. A balancing act that the Congress must master as it will have to exercise it many times over its tenure in power.
It must be said that the respect and admiration that has come Mrs.Sonia Gandhi's way will definitely strengthen the Congress's bargaining position in the event of an unreasonable request being made. For example, if the leader of a 6-7 member parliamentary delegation starts threatening to not support the government unless granted a key ministry Mrs.Sonia Gandhi's current popularity will desist them from making too much of a fuss. Hence, by not accepting the Prime Ministership she has really strengthened her political position. Critical for the leader of a party that only has a 7-seat lead over its chief rival - the BJP.
That is what's in store for the Congress and its allies. What I am interested in seeing is how the BJP and more importantly the RSS responds to this new reality. Their platform has been rejected and the only thing they could have claimed any credit for - the reforms - are being carried out anyways. With the foreign origin issue even further eroding their stature they are out of sorts. May be this will force them to be a more responsible opposition in the legislative sense.
I feel for the BJP to survive the moderates have to make a clear break from the extremists. The "Hindutva" (which is a linguistically wrong word for "Hindu-ness"!) forces within the party MUST be isolated. The BJP may be the progeny of the RSS but it may be time to move out for its own good. Something for them to think about.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Who is Dr.Manmohan Singh?
Dr.Singh's official parliamentary website is the best source to learn more about this tremendously accomplished man. Most memorably he is seen as the father of the modern Indian economic resurgence. It was under his leadership as the finance minister that in 1991 faced with difficult economic choices Dr.Singh led the charge to open the Indian economy. It was a bold move.
Last year when I met with him along with my Young India Board of Directors in his parliament office he was reflective about the reforms. Not regretful but aware how they had not touched millions. He was also concerned about the unexpected social ramifications of rampant consumerism. I expect him to propose policies that broaden the economic gameplan and at the same time sustain the growth that India has seen over the last decade.
His positions on HOT political issues are unknown. Atleast to me. What does he think about Kashmir? What are his views of the war in Iraq? How should the temple-issue in Ayodhya be resolved? What specific proposals does he have to improve primary and secondary education? The list goes on. I am conjecturing he is pretty much aligned with the official party positions of the Congress on these matters.
The man has unparalleled experience in public policy. India could not have asked for a better administrator. BUT... he lacks political capital and people are supporting him because of Sonia Gandhi. Atleast for now but I am confident that this man is so decent and sincere that he will create a following amongst all sections of Indian society. Gentlemen of such a breed are very rare.
All the best, Mr.Prime Minister. All the best, India.
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
THE Decision... Part I
As of midnight Eastern Standard Time she is "reconsidering" her decision. At this stage it will be foolish to speculate anything. Her words so far have suggested that there is almost NO chance of her changing her mind. Her speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party leaves little doubt. But I have heard that Congress workers/leaders from across the country are on their way to New Delhi to convince her. This is a delicate situation. The emotionalism could get out of hand. Sonia Gandhi needs to be careful here. She cannot let these people down too hard. She has to pick the right words and the right approach to make them understand her decision of not taking the PM position - if that stays. Her personal decision will have wide consequences.
In the long-run her decision to not take the PM post may be seen as beneficial. She seems to be focussed on defeating the BJP. She knows that an 8-seat lead (145 vs 138) isn't anything to sit on. Her single-mindedness on this front will definitely make the Congress strong. But in the short-run, as I have stated above, she needs to contain the disappointment of the party cadre. They hold her in the highest esteem. And I can say that from personal experience.
Various Indian editorials from leading dailies like THE HINDU and TIMES OF INDIA have paid Sonia Gandhi glowing tributes. From a political standpoint I think this situation is going to require some serious political skill. The way she has energized the party will require her to find ways to maintain it. As she herself has said that the Congress has only won a battle... not the war.
Another political reality to contend with will be the lack of political capital of any other Prime Ministerial candidate. Dr.Manmohan Singh, an outstanding academic and an epitome of decency, lacks any real political or mass support. It is, however, interesting to read reports that the Left parties have indicated their support for him. That's huge. May be the bifurcation of administration and political evolution is the best way to go for the Congress. With its star player leading the strategic battle to create more space for the party in the political context things can only get better. But the effectiveness of the administration will remain suspect. It will be interesting to see how the allies come around.
One thing is for sure that the BJP has been exposed by all this. Some of its prominent leaders being openly racist and talking of shaving their heads and wearing white clothes and stuff just shows how maturity has completely missed them. Worse is the silence of leaders like Mr.Vajpayee at such a tawdry and childish display by his party-folk. Very disappointing. And I must say that a part of India's liberal class too has not been emphatic enough in its denunciation of the opposition Mrs.Gandhi has faced on account of her Italian-origin. When it was time to be counted... these folks were nowhere to be found.
In the end we MUST respect the sentiments of Mrs.Gandhi. And I am sure that her party workers will. In any event, an angry and energized Congress Party is bad news for the BJP, who will now be scrambling to find more issues to create noise. Their old ones have been thoroughly rejected. May be and just may be tackling some real issues that confront the masses... will be helpful to them and India. I am sure there are some smart folks sitting there behind the Sushma Swarajs and Uma Bharati's. I can atleast hope.
May sanity prevail and the new government have a chance to get off the ground. We ALL must support it now that the election is OVER.
Monday, May 17, 2004
Sonia Gandhi's Foreign Origin
Let's get one thing clear before we proceed. Who is qualified to be Prime Minister? According for the Constitution, for which the BJP-Alliance is showing scant regard, Sonia Gandhi is a citizen of India. And according to the same constitution ANY citizen of India over the age of 35 can become Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi is 57 and thus meets both criteria. The BJP-Alliance was desperate to amend the constitution while they were in power to prohibit someone of foreign-origin aka Sonia Gandhi to be eligible for the Prime Ministerial post. They failed to gain any serious political traction on the issue. They then made this issue a part of their campaign platform and we all know how they fared there. Even after the people of India have let their wishes known the BJP-alliance is in denial and is pushing for what I can only term as a racist campaign by sore losers. This racism will resonate with people in the diaspora, who can easily relate to this situation through the personal challenges in assimilating into societies different from their countries of origin.
This is not about whether I have any personal admiration for Sonia Gandhi or the Congress. The Congress too has done ridiculous things in the past but such a blatant disregard for the outcome of democratic elections is shameful. The founders of the Indian nation knew what they were doing. The current protestations do not have ANY legal basis. They are regretably prejudicial. I am aware that the protestors also include people who don't even consider Mother Teresa an Indian. Just a Christian zealot out to convert people. How tragic is that? I am hoping that a parliamentarian and statesman of Mr.Vajpayee's stature will show leadership and guide his colleagues.
Last week a friend of mine, who is dear to me, asked how I would feel if George W.Bush became India's Prime Minister. I told her that IF George W.Bush-
1. moved to India and raised his kids there
2. spent 36 straight years even after his wife is blown to pieces by extremists.. fully having the option to return to the US!
3. became a citizen of india, learnt the language and the customs and wore kurta-pyjama or even better the traditional dhoti!
4. resurrected a dead political entity
5. connected with his constituents
6. led his party to a national victory
I would be glad to see him have the chance to be India's Prime Minister as he will have outdone many of those who have come to regard democracy as an entitlement. I say this with great thought and conviction that democracy is not about entitlement but about participation. And Sonia Gandhi HAS participated.
If the BJP-alliance ever came up with a leader who was born outside India and dedicated his/her own and family's life to live and grow in India. Had the desire to serve India then I will be the first person to defend him or her against ANY and ALL attacks. Because to attack such a person is wholly un-Indian! The fact that a naturalized citizen can become the Prime Minister of India shows how much more emancipated Indian democracy is compared to its counterparts in the other parts of the globe. Sonia Gandhi's becoming Prime Minister doesn't diminish my pride in my country... but only enhances it.
My faith in India is not based on who's at the helm and what their first name or last name is. My faith in India is based on its incredible ability to assimilate. That is why all religions have found a great home in India. How could the founders of a nation that fought discrimination create a discriminating constitution?? They couldn't and they didn't. It's a fine constitution for a great nation!
ps. remember Al Gore being present at George W.Bush's inauguration. i hope the BJP revises its stand and does the right thing.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
To Join or Not to Join
I am by no means an expert on parliamentary democracy but here's what I think.
I guess this issue is coming up as the Left parties have almost (formal announcements awaited) decided NOT to join the Congress-led coalition government in India. Their rationale seems to be that such a move would ideologically dilute them. They are bitter rivals of the Congress in some states as well. The divergence of economic viewpoints is perhaps the greatest reason why the Left will sit out and in their own words prevent the BJP from "usurping" the opposition's agenda. So, the Left will strategically vote with the Congress to maintain a non-BJP govt. On specific bills they seem to want to have the option to freely vote their mind. And they believe that given the gap in economic thinking they will not be doing justice to the faith placed in them by their constituents if they join the govt.
I must say that this is a rarity given the opportunistic nature of multi-party democracy, of which India is perhaps the best example. Rarely does ideology triumph over opportunism. We may be seeing an instance of that.
Before I close this should be a welcome sign for the economic reforms lobby which has been freaking out (the Indian Stock market reporting heavy losses) since the news of a Congress-Left govt hit the wires. The Congress will now have a greater say on matters of economic reforms. They will still need to take the Left into confidence to get things passed but precipitous situations like Left ministers resigning and stuff will be avoided now. Anyways, with Dr.Manmohan Singh (the father of the economic liberalization process) at the financial helm there should be few worries on the market and progressive sides of the political fence. I am sure that the Congress and he himself have learnt many lessons in the 8 years that they filled the benches of the opposition. These lessons will enable him to make more inclusive yet forward looking policy.
Friday, May 14, 2004
Panchayati Raj is something which the Congress Party can surely build a foundation upon. Just as IT has given power to many formerly powerless city-dwellers (and helped them to become business owners, CEOs, and yuppies), the village-based Panchayati Raj gives power to a much lower level and creates a self-governance. The challenge for the Congress Party lies in determining the best way to empower village leaders to improve their own lots in life. Tying this into the agricultural economy can indeed sustain GDP numbers while spreading the wealth and benefits to a much larger set of people.
There are certainly many other things which Congress et al need to think about, but if the government can help a village stand on its own, it has in effect, given those villagers the ability to vote everyday instead of just when national elections are called. While I'm a cynic when it comes to politicians and their seedy ways, I do believe that a sincere leadership at the center can minimize the effect of self-serving politicians and empower villagers to govern themselves.
The People's Verdict
With 536 of the 539 seats where elections were held reporting the Congress and their allies are at 219 with the BJP and their allies at 186 (Source: NDTV). No poll anywhere had predicted the Congress alliance overtaking the BJP alliance. None. The people have proven all of them dead wrong. The Congress coalition will be bolstered by the support of the Left parties of India, who are close to 50 in strength. Their combined strength will be sufficient to form the government. Something unimaginable based on the pre-election reporting. If the US TV networks were embarrased by the Florida outcome confusion then this verdict delivers a body blow to the Indian media's forecasting credentials.
But enough of chastising the media. There is no one who could have predicted this. And this most certainly includes the Indian National Congress aka the Congress Party. I can say from a personal standpoint and based on my experience with the leadership of the party that their optimism was far more modest than what the results finally show. That cautious optimism was once again evident just an hour before the counting began. I had called up a senior leader to get his take and he said that it was going to be a very close call. Well, it wasn't that close after all.
So, what happened? I'm sure this election analysis will go on for years. Such a monumental shift in the political circumstances of all involved was beyond everybody's expectations. But there are some high-level conclusions that can be drawn:
1. This is a verdict that rejected the BJP-alliance. As much as the Congress wants to believe that this is a vote for them it is a vote against the incumbent. But you have to give it to the Congress for capitalizing on that discontent. Perhaps something the Kerry campaign may be interested in learning more about? Politics is so similar now across the globe.
2. Contrary to what THE ECONOMIST is heralding as the begining of an unstable era in Indian politics this is actually a stabilizing development. My prediction was that the Congress Party's raw strength would be between 130 and 150. The closer to 150 the better their chances to form a stable coalition. They are at 141 with 528 seats reporting (Source: Election Commission of India). Up from 114 in 1999. What makes this result surprising to me is how well their alliance partners have done. They picked the right allies at the right time. And the big thing is that none of their allies has won that many number of seats to challenge the Congress' leadership in the coalition. With the Left parties ideologically committed to an anti-BJP front the stability of this government leaves no doubt in my mind. The Congress strategy team did a great job. All credit to their coalition building prior to the elections.
3. The BJP itself has been siginificantly weakened. With 528 seats reporting they are down to 136 from 182. Given their pre-election popularity on "paper" this is a thrashing. What is even more devastating for the BJP is the defeat of some of their most prominent leaders like Dr.Murli Manohar Joshi and Mr.Yashwant Sinha. The Education and Finance ministers respectively. The BJP is at the crossroads. They need to decide on a hardline or the line of moderation that they were trying to portray if not follow. Time for some serious soul-searching. The hawkish and fundamentalist elements will undoubtedly get stronger as they pint the blame on the leadership that did not force Hindu nationalism onto the campaign platform.
The subtler conclusions in the next post. After all why did the incumbents face the wrath of the people. Some intriguing stuff awaiting us there. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
How to get the latest election results?
The tension is growing as the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Our analysis will begin as soon as trends and results are made available.
Dispatches from India during Election Time
There is a new post everyday but here are the links for the first three days:
- An Unabashedly Capitalist India Goes to the Polls
- The Process Is More Important Than the Outcome
- India May Be Shining, But Not in the Countryside
If there are any readers who are currently in India and wouldn't mind relating some of their thoughts about the environment there right now, we'd very much appreciate your insight.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
And there it is... the Andhra rout
I have detailed in previous entries my views on why this rout was in the making. The anti-incumbency characteristic of Indian politics too is a factor but such a decisive rout (only 49 seats out of 294!) is a resounding vote of no-confidence. Now the Congress and its allies MUST respond to the challenges that the hard-working people of Andhra Pradesh face. They need the government's help to help themselves. The free electricity campaign slogan for farmers may or may not pan out. The Congress will have to take steps that provide a more holistic response to the problems of development. It must prioritize employment generation in all areas of the state. It MUST also continue to support the IT sector to which Mr.Naidu devoted most of his time. A great opportunity has befallen the Congress.
For a while I was counting on Andhra Pradesh producing the most gains for the Congress on the national level (counting to begin on May 13). Tamil Nadu is another state where they can do well with their allies the DMK. Elsewhere they may not gain much.
In closing, this is a very rude awakening for the BJP led NDA coalition. This is bad news but since the parliamentary election these losses may not be that big. In any case the Congress could not have asked for a better start. 226 out of 294 isn't bad at all!
Monday, May 10, 2004
The counting begins...
These results have a bearing on the national outcome as well. The performance of the Telegu Desam Party, a key coalition member of the outgoing BJP-alliance at the central level, will be a good indicator what its new strength is going to be when the parliamentary counting gets underway. A loss in numbers will directly mean a weakening of the BJP front. To be noted here is also the expectation of a dismal showing of the BJP in Tamil Nadu (another south Indian state)where it got together with AIADMK.
If these losses do materialize than the hung parliament prediction will definitely gain weight. The latest NDTV poll does put the BJP alliance about 30 seats short of the majority mark and the Congress alliance another 30 or so behind the BJP. But the Congress alliance does not count the outside support the Left parties have already consented to. The Left's final strenth will be between 40 and 50. So, the final numbers will determine everything. It's like a basketball game in the 4th quarter with 30 seconds remaining and one team has a 2 point advantage. In basketball terms its a one possession game. If the other team scores they could tie or win the game. The Congress is clearly trailing but a late surge could see them through or force overtime, which would mean hectic coalition parleys for both alliances.
Before I close it is important to look at the Andhra Pradesh results in another light. The Telegu Desam Party leader Chandra Babu Naidu had made it into a priority to make Hyderabad, the state capital, into a global hub for technology and backoffice work a.k.a outsourcing. Many of his critics said he put too much emphasis on that and ignored the rural areas where farmers committed suicide because of the extreme poverty they found their families in. They blamed it on the negligence of a government that they badly needed to help in times of natural calamities like droughts. These results, if they hold up, will be a vote of clear dissatisfaction with a policy-maker with a unidimensional approach to development. He may have made the upper middle-class proud and the free-market fundamentalists happy but the ones that counted most for him... are showing him the door. It is important to point here that there is a serious move for the Telengana region in Andhra Pradesh to become a new state. That separatist sentiment gave the Congress a key ally in these elections - the separatist flag carrying party, Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS).
The excitement has just begun. More to follow....
Friday, May 07, 2004
In a comment to my last posting one reader disagreed with my prediction of a hung parliament. There is surely a chance that that precise scenario may not arise but the scenario that does will be one where the mandate of the eventual government will barely clear the majority mark. Technically that is sufficient. But the volatile nature of Indian politics will make it quite insufficient. As important as the need for political stability is I hope that some qualitative changes too be a focus of the citizenry and the representatives alike. A more holistic approach to social, economic and political issues will help India become a great nation. In my opinion India's potential is being contained by myopic approaches to development and other policy matters as well. This lack of understanding the interplay of various policy matters and their effect on the nation cannot be blamed on any one party. It is the collective failure of the political system. I am not ranting against the "system" but sharing with you some ideas as to how this situation of political apathy and incoherence can be improved.
I've already shifted to the policy side of things so might as well continue. I don't see much change in the economic policies of India after these elections results are known. Both the Congress and the BJP will continue the process of liberalization. One can, however, hope that this process is reviewed and modified to address some of the basic weaknesses of the Indian economy. The education system must be seen as an integral part of India's economic gameplan. Just yesterday there was a piece in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/06/international/asia/06indi.html?hp) that talked of how the IT boom had not led to any significant change in the employment scene. It remains a huge issue for millions of people in India. And as the social disparity will increase as service sector jobs, as lucrative as they may be, will not be able to keep pace with the number of graduates mass unemployment is NOT a distant possibility. It is a REAL situation with REAL social and political consequences too.
India's internal social situation too is on the line in some sense. The horrendous violence in Gujarat was an abberation. But its repitition elsewhere is not totally out of the question. The resurgence of separatist violence in the North-East is also a matter of serious concern. Let's not forget Kashmir. The Indian electorate fully realizes the sanctity of the secularism clause of its constitution. It is in sync with the ethos of the Indian nationhood. But that clause and that ethos is definitely under attack from the right-wing and opportunists elsewhere. All parties will have to be absolutely united in confronting this menace of communalism. Moderates within their parties will either have to weed out the extremists or lose moral credibility. There can be no two ways about it. Trying to fool the public with high-flying rhetoric based on "history" is cheating the nation of the time and energy it needs to invest in feeding and clothing millions. There are that many without it!
The election results will change the fortune of some in the political class but it will do little for the people of India if there is not a persistent effort to address some of the most fundamental problems. This does not require blind quotas and favors handed out BUT enabling people to help themselves. As long as government sees itself as a provider and thus master of the people NOTHING much will be achieved. Can the government of India move into the position of a facilitator is the real question.
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Indian Elections - How does it look on May 4th, 2004
Latest polls so far are projecting the BJP and allies mustering 245-265 seats. Falling short of the 272 majority mark. The Congress and its allies are expected end up very close to the 200 mark. May pass it. But exit polls have been the real story of these elections and they have greatly corrected blanket speculations. The exit polls from tomorrow's polling will be significant and if this stays a close race the pressure on the last phase is going to be immense.
The seats up for grabs in tomorrow's phase have the potential of determining the national outcome. They are in crucial states. States where the BJP did well last time and this time will be struggling to maintain that performance. The Congress and its allies will be hoping to make serious gains. If they do then they will have a fighting chance at the national level. UP will be most important of them all. The Congress was decimated last time winning only 10 seats out of 85. I expect them to do better than that. The bottomline in tomorrow's contest is how decisive will the shift be? If there is a minor adjustment in seat distribution then not much is going to change at the national level. But if the BJP (currently 29) loses double-digit seats in UP and suffers losses in Rajasthan, MP and Bihar then no outcome is certain at the national level.
Much focus, as expected, is currently on the statistical outcome of this election. In my next post I will talk about what I feel will be the policy impact of some possible outcomes. Read on...
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