We Must Boycott the Fundamentally Discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens

by Ritwik on December 18, 2019

Nation wide protests against the CAA-2019 and the NRC | Image Credit: ABP

Hindi version available here:


Everyone who believes in a pluralistic and inclusive India should boycott the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA 2019) and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Kudos to the state governments (Punjab, WB, Chattisgarh, Kerala, etc.) which have announced that they will not participate in this exercise.

As the UN has said, a naturalization law based on religion (i..e, the CAA 2019) is fundamentally discriminatory. As secularism is a part of the ‘basic structure’ of the constitution as defined by the Supreme Court, it seems that this amendment is blatantly unconstitutional and should be struck down in its entirety.

For those claiming that “this won’t affect Indian Muslims”, there are two points to consider:

  1. It is clearly wrong for a secular democracy to have differentiated criteria for offering asylum and citizenship on religious grounds. Just like it was wrong for the US government, among others, to deny many Jewish people escaping German persecution entry into the US in the late 1930s. This is now correctly regarded as a shameful chapter. Let us learn from history and not repeat terrible mistakes that other democracies have made.
  2. Under the CAA 2019, it is far easier for non-Muslims to stay on in India as full citizens even if they are unable to produce documentation “proving” their citizenship. This means that the CAA 2019 has given the police and the administration a serious threat to dangle over the huge number (200 million) muslims who live in India.

Apart from the sheer inhumanity and unfairness of this (since it treats Muslims differently from all other religious groups), it is a nightmare for social peace, communal harmony, and ultimately stability and economic growth. This makes the CAA 2019 and the associated NRC exercise deeply anti-India and should be resisted by all people who value peace, stability, human rights, and economic growth in India.

Finally, PM Modi wrote about “Indian ethos” on Twitter, referring to protests against the NRC. To have an immigration law which picks and chooses people based on religion is a fundamental betrayal of Indian ethos as well as India’s history.

Stone Cold Donald Trump

by Ritwik on October 21, 2019

Trump with Austin
Donald Trump with Steve Austin

Donald Trump, before becoming President of the United States, made occasional appearances on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) broadcasts. In fact, in storyline terms, he narrowly avoided losing his signature blonde hair in a “hair vs hair” match on a WWE event. He is familiar with the world of professional wrestling and the characters wrestlers employ to connect with the fanbase (“gimmicks”). Linda McMahon, the wife of the promoter of the WWE and herself a former WWE CEO, served as the head of Small Business in Trump’s Administration. Despite these connections, it has generally not been recognized that there exist strong parallels between Trump’s political persona and one of the most enduring characters in professional wrestling.

           The character (“gimmick”) is that of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a blunt, no bullshit, straight-up brawling Texas redneck who has no mind space for the elite and their machinations, preferring instead to settle things with some in your face action. Even in the ring, Austin eschews scientific technical wrestling for arena brawling – laying an “ass whoopin’” -slang and vulgarity is an essential feature of the character – on his opponents. Indeed, most watchers are not aware that Steven Williams, who plays Steve Austin, is a skilled technical wrestler – so totally has he adopted a no-nonsense, brawling-heavy style as Stone Cold.

           During the extremely successful “attitude” era of wrestling (late 90s – early 2000s), the character of “Stone Cold” catapulted Williams to superstardom. Stone Cold became the figurehead of the WWE and one of the most successful wrestling personas of all time. This happened during a storyline with the real-life company founder, Vince McMahon. Austin was the ultimate rebel who would call out the boss for his duplicity and nepotism. Austin would stick for what’s right and very publicly not abide Corporate Bullshit. One of the iconic episodes in this storyline involved Austin having apparently “sold out” by donning a suit and appearing to do the boss’ bidding – in other words, seemingly being a good corporate face. The angle ends with Austin tearing off the suit and laying out the real life boss turned into reel life boss in the middle of the ring, affirming that he will never sell out. Indeed, Austin continues to be a successful podcast host and star attraction on WWE productions long after his retirement, with the same persona unchanged over decades. This is one of the rare wrestling gimmicks which has clicked so well that the real-life Steven Williams is always in character. He has even changed his legal name to Steve Austin.

           Trump’s political persona bears a striking resemblance to “Stone Cold”. Trump interacts directly with the public, bypassing and frequently attacking the mainstream media. Trump bypasses not only the platform of the mainstream media, but also the social graces widely expected of public figures in their public and diplomatic dealings. The latest demonstration of this is provided by the phrasing employed in Trump’s letter to President Erdogan of Turkey. This is not a one-off. There have been numerous instances of Trump behaving rudely and undiplomatically, e.g., with the Queen of England, calling some countries “shitholes”, frequently deploying offensive words on Twitter, and even in incorrect spelling and bad grammar in his tweets. Besides stratagems like claiming his favorite food is KFC fried chicken, which parallels, for the audience, Stone Cold Steve Austin’s beer guzzling.  Of course, the real life Trump is a born 1 percenter. He has lived in Manhattan in incredible wealth his entire life and received an ivy league education. That’s as Establishment as it gets, but Trump’s careful, and persistent, political messaging manages to portray him as a well-meaning, straight talking outsider to the world of high politics and intrigue. In other words, he portrays himself as Stone Cold Donald Trump.

            The general consensus amongst the commentariat, when evaluating Trump’s behavior, converges on a view of him as uncouth or possibly even deranged. While Trump’s behavior is certainly unusual, I argue that it is part of a consciously adopted and carefully crafted strategy of appearing one with the people, strikingly different from the well-spoken, polished and politically correct Establishment that supposedly runs things (“the swamp”). In other words, much in the spirit of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Trump is out to tell the truth, stick with the people, not embarrassed to exercise America’s great power, show other countries and leaders their place when necessary, and providing simple solutions (“wall”) to complex problems.

           Disaffection with the results of the late neoliberal world order, championed by technocrats, “philanthropist” billionaires, Fortune 500 corporations as well as by the power elites of both the major parties, can be observed all over middle America. On one hand this has revived interest in Democratic Socialism – witness the widespread grassroots support enjoyed by Bernie Sanders’ campaigns in 2016 as well as this year. The same disaffection, when mixed with doses of xenophobia and a nostalgia for a great past, leads to revisionist nationalism of the sort championed by Trump. Since the masses are disillusioned by the elites, it is relatively easy for a canny operator like Trump to adopt a mass-friendly, non-polished, salt of the earth persona to tap into the prevailing economic and cultural discontent, for his own political ends.

           The upshot of this is that any nuanced assessment of Trump needs to consider his smart political messaging. We must avoid lazily pigeon holing him as ill-mannered, out of control, crazy, etc. He knows what he is doing much more than he lets on. While his policies may have something to do with his enduring popularity, a big part is played by his canny political communication.


There is a relative paucity of content connecting tropes and storylines of professional wrestling with wider popular culture and patterns of media production and consumption. This talk by former World Championship Wrestling President and well known wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff partly removes the veil: https://www.si.com/wrestling/2018/12/07/eric-bischoff-ted-talk-interview-wcw-nitro

Quotas for the poor: All optics, no substance (or, Jumla #420)

by Ritwik on January 10, 2019

photo credit: Press Trust of India

The latest ‘masterstroke’ unleashed by the Narendra Modi government is the decision to grant 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions (these apparently include private colleges) to the economically weaker among communities which currently don’t enjoy the benefits of caste-based reservations (including Hindu ‘upper castes’, Muslims not counted in OBC lists, Christians, etc.).

For the moment, let us set aside whether this is, in principle, the right thing to do. The move simply looks like a non-starter. For the following reasons:

1. The limits of ‘economic backwardness’ as outlined in the legislation are bewildering. An annual income of 8 lakhs or a landholding of 5 acres is not ‘poor’ by Indian standards, especially given the widespread under-reporting of income. This is particularly true of non-professional classes. Indeed the move seems aimed at mollifying the trading communities which are longstanding supporters of the BJP and which have been upset with the implementation of GST.

2. Given the exemption limits drawn, vast numbers of people would be eligible for the 10% quota — thereby making the move redundant since it is extremely likely that more than 10% of the poor by this definition are already in government jobs and colleges!

3. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that extending reservations beyond 50% would constitute a violation of the right to equality. A previous move to fix quotas based on economic backwardness in the early nineties was rejected by a large bench of the Supreme Court. The move is clearly legally suspect, even if the government manages to push a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps even more worryingly, what’s with this government repeatedly introducing major policy measures (demonetization, land acquisition bill, etc.) at the very last moment leaving no time for proper consultation and amendment? Most political parties have supported the move to reserve seats for the economically backward. if proper time had been given, some of the glaring defects (outlined above and by other commentators) could be fixed, and something genuinely worthwhile could be passed. Is this the good governance (acche din) that was promised to the people – cynical political opportunism repeatedly trumping due process and sound policy making practices?

Given the cumulative impact of the above, this decision is likely to become another monument to Modi’s ability to get the optics right and energize his voter base, but not deliver anything substantial. The discerning would have no trouble detecting the pattern – Vibrant Gujarat summits (the vast investments promised have never materialized), the cleaning up of Sabarmati (a sham with about a kilometre of the river and its bank beautified for the sake of cameras), ‘ro-ro’ ferry (since discontinued), bringing black money back (self-confessed jumla), demonetization (the less said the better), GST (one nation, one tax, one common feeling of suffering and confusion), bullet train (turning out to be the most absurd white elephant), Ahmedabad metro (numerous other cities have got metros up and going, Ahmedabad still lagging behind), etc.

The 10% reservation for the economically backward gets the optics right (at least for most Modi voters and many fence-sitters) but like other jumlas, this too will culminate like the evergreen – mandir wahin banayenge, lekin tareekh nahi batayenge – aarakshan lagu karwayenge, lekin fayda nahi pahuchayenge.

Why Government Surveillance of Political Funding Imperils Democracy

by Ritwik on April 27, 2018

This was published in The Quint

The presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is not accidental. Rather, it is one part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

It has been five days since The Quint’s extraordinary exposé which revealed that electoral bonds – allowing individuals to make cashless donations anonymously to political parties – actually have unique codes on them which are visible only under UV light.

The presence of these codes raises the spectre of government monitoring of political funding. Not surprisingly, there has been no reaction from a government that needs a massive national and international push to even respond to graphic cases of rape, murder, or public lynching happening under its watch.

The Government of India today has at its disposal an elaborate architecture of keeping track of its subjects. At the center of this architecture lies the Aadhaar number, which is linked biometrically to each Indian, thus uniquely identifying them and all the services that Aadhaar is linked to, namely details of their bank accounts and transactions, telephone and electronic communication, tax information, details of the government benefits they receive, etc. to anybody who has access to the Aadhaar database.

Given that electoral bonds are to be purchased from banks, and that bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar, it is conceivable and in fact likely that the government can pull up at will the transaction history of each electoral bond, thus linking each donor, howsoever big or small, to the political parties that they donate to. Thus, the government has equipped itself with the power to subtly disrupt even basic health, nutrition, and educational services to political dissidents or the funders of its political opponents. This is also true of any entity, foreign or Indian, private or public, which is given or gains access to the Aadhaar database. It is not whether governments will use this power – the fact remains that modern technology (like Aadhaar), once linked to all aspects of one’s life, gives them this unprecedented power. After all, let us not forget that Nazi Germany would’ve been less efficient at disposing off Jews had they not had access to national lists of Jews prepared by IBM and other companies.

There exists a frustrating level of opacity about the relevant safeguards on the use of the data that the government is collecting on all of us. There is little clarity on the individual’s right to their own data, the period of time for which any bit of data shall be retained, rights-based restrictions to prevent misuse of data, and what parts of data and under what conditions can be shared with private or foreign entities. The opacity on these vital aspects is disturbing and frankly, frightening. Welfare oriented schemes are typically designed with safeguards and objective scrutiny built in. Current government of India actions embody the opposite of such practices.

It is clear from the above that, equipped with the secret codes on electoral bonds, combined with the general architecture of surveillance that now exists, the government can minutely track political funding. But, why is that a bad thing? Couldn’t an argument be made that government surveillance over political funding will make the political process, particular elections, more transparent and less corrupt?

It is well known that the absence of transparent funding mechanisms for elections, which are naturally extremely expensive given India’s size and diversity, is one of the major driving forces for corruption. For several decades, in fact, scholars who study Indian politics have examined this trend. Many of those scholars are united, however, in their view that the answer lies in state funding of elections, where parties would be allotted funds based on their performance (in terms of vote share) in previous elections across different levels. The current government of India, on the other hand, claims to be attacking the problem of corruption by introducing electoral bonds. The idea is to outlaw or disincentive cash funding of political parties, and have parties funded entirely by electoral bonds, and then for parties to reveal these details in yearly disclosures to the election commission.

On the face of it, it is difficult to determine how electoral bonds actually get rid of the problem of large scale corruption associated with corporate funding of political parties – because such funding can continue to be under the table as seems to be the practice today. In fact, recently the government removed long-standing caps on the percentage of corporate profits that can be donated to parties, thus opening up the political scene to even more corporate money. It is the relatively smaller (individual or company) donors who would mostly be targeted by electoral bonds. While the government claims that parties are not compelled to reveal the names of these relatively small donors, the Quint has exposed that it has nonetheless armed itself with the machinery to track such funding. It is very worrisome that the government seems to have been caught in an outright lie to the people.

While it is a worldwide practice to require corporations to reveal details about the politicians or parties they fund, since there can be clear conflicts of interest in such cases, we should be a lot more cautious about doing away with anonymity at the level of individuals’ contribution to political causes. Individuals don’t have the power or scale of corporations, nor are there conflicts of interest between parties acquiring small funding from individuals and the policies they will enact once in power.

The electoral bond system doesn’t attack the sources of corruption at its roots, which would be done much better through state funding of elections. It arms the government with yet another tool to monitor the citizenry and the opposition. Troublingly, this is in sync with the government’s push toward ‘cashless’ economy with policies like demonetization. As has been extensively noted, most of the ‘black money’ in the economy is held by high net worth individuals and rich corporations, who have access to elaborate international mechanisms to reroute the money and hence make it ‘clean’. The primary goal of demonetization and ‘cashless’ appears to be to allow the government to monitor individuals’ transactions.

The similarity with other policies like demonization strengthens the idea that the presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

Rahul missed a trick in his reply to Singapore audience

by Ritwik on March 18, 2018

This article is published in The Quint

While Congress President Rahul Gandhi has greatly improved his political messaging in recent times, he still has some way to go in mastering political psychology.

It’s 2018. In common (mis)understanding socialism has failed. It’s an outdated ideology confined to the dustbin of history. For our shiny happy people [and especially for the shiniest happiest, ie NRIs] everything associated with the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru was a big error.

Non-aligned movement. Pooh. One should have followed Korea, Singapore, etc into the ‘embrace’ of America (curiously, Pakistan is not mentioned as an example in this regard).  Mixed economy. Disaster. Gave us the so-called Hindu rate of growth. Nationalisation of industry and five-year plans. Nonsense. Outdated economics. Ambaniji and Adaniji should’ve set the parameters of economic policy much earlier – the whole country would’ve glittered a la the IPL. And instead of the much derided MTNL we would’ve had ‘Jio’.

For the purveyors of the above ‘understanding’ of Indian history and society, the ideal nation state is represented by tiny Singapore. It’s orderly. It’s clean. It’s glittery. It’s shiny. It’s happy in being a protectorate of America. In short it is Paradise City (probably the name of a gated housing society in Gurgaon, which gets its vast aspirational value precisely in being a micro Singapore).

In Singapore, in 2018, the leader of India’s main Opposition party, the Congress, Rahul Gandhi was recently interacting with upper class members of the Indian diaspora. A fitting spokesperson of the demographic described above, one Prasenjit Basu, a self-described historian of Asia, asked Gandhi why (allegedly) the ‘growth rate’ of India has always been lower when ruled by the Gandhi family than by others.

If true, this statistic would in some ways count as one of the strongest commendations that the Nehru/Gandhi family has received in its storied history.

Continue reading

From Davos to Padmaavat: The Method in the Madness of Modi’s Politics

by Ritwik on January 29, 2018

This article is published in The Quint.

Contrary to the opinion of many commentators on Twitter and elsewhere, there is no mismatch between the government’s ‘failure’ at handling the violence over Padmaavat and Modi’s red carpet to ‘Big Capital’ at Davos, Switzerland.

Many commentators, on social media and other platforms, have remarked on the ostensible irony of the situation: while Modi harps upon India as an ideal investment destination, his government and the states run by his party seem to be failing at basic law and order. These include pro-Modi commentators like the influential journalist Tavleen Singh. For these commentators, one of the chief negative fallouts of the Padmaavat controversy is that it is hurting India’s global ‘image’ as a stable location for business and industry. As things roll in social media, it has not taken much time for this position to become the close-to-accepted view.

Let us examine what this position would entail were it true. Either, Modi means well and his government is trying but unable to control the situation. Or, Modi is unable to appreciate that the continued violence and destruction is hurting India’s ‘image’ and nullifying his efforts at attracting investment.

Both these hypotheses are unwarranted.

Read full article

So Near Yet So Far in Gujarat: Lack of Local Leaders and Agenda Setting Campaign Cost Congress A Historic Win

by Ritwik on December 18, 2017

Image credit: NDTV

The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election results are out. As expected, but not hoped for, the BJP under PM Modi has managed to win both states – retaining Gujarat and wresting Himachal from the Congress. Himachal Pradesh has a history of oscillating between the two parties, and one senses that the Congress had pretty much given up in this state, concentrating its attention and (reportedly) meager resources on Gujarat. The Congress has still performed better in HP than predicted, suggesting that with a bit more attention the contest could have been a lot tighter.

The Congress has performed very creditably in Gujarat, winning around 80 of the 182 seats and bringing the BJP down to double digits. This is the Congress’ best performance in Gujarat in decades, and comes on the back of the entire union cabinet led by the PM camping in Gujarat for weeks. Not to talk of the vast resources the BJP commands from big businessmen, particularly in Gujarat. Gujarat is BJP’s ultimate citadel, and it is significant that it has been shaken in this election. There are some important takeaways from the Gujarat result which the Congress would be wise to heed for  state assembly elections in 2018, and the national elections in 2019:

  1. Congress mounted an excellent campaign in Gujarat. Its positives were Rahul Gandhi’s combative and issue oriented leadership, astute political diplomacy in bringing together 3 dynamic young leaders (Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh) under the Congress umbrella, a vastly improved and proactive social media campaign (critical for elections today), and the excellent political management provided by Ahmed Patel and Ashok Gehlot. These factors must be codified and repeated in successive elections in all other states and at the centre too.
  2. However, the Congress campaign lacked in two critical areas, which proved to be its undoing. First, the Congress lacks credible state level leadership in Gujarat. This is proven by the defeats suffered by a number of prominent state party leaders. Election after election (Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab) shows that strong regional leaders are critical in taking on the Modi-Shah election machinery. Importing Hardik et al countervailed this deficiency to an extent, but the Congress MUST avoid the mistake of centering its entire campaign around Rahul Gandhi. Rahul should be the force multiplier and coordinator who works over and above strong and charismatic state level leaders. This is a critical lesson going forward.
  3. The second error made by the Congress was that large parts of its campaign have been reactive. If the BJP has botched up GST (which it has), what is the Congress’ alternative? What is Congress’ alternative for BJP’s crony politics and resulting model of ‘development’ ? As I have suggested earlier, the opposition’s response to demonetization too had to be nuanced along these lines rather than being just negative.
  4. As an example of the above,  note that in Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad provided strong state level leadership, and Nitish’s “7 promises for Bihar” allowed the Mahagatbandhan to set the agenda of the campaign. Neutralizing Modi’s  rhetoric is crucial ( Nitish and Lalu did this brilliantly) but it is more important to have a positive campaign of one’s own.
  5. Personal attacks on Modi do not work. This has been shown time and again. Modi is a past master of turning personal attacks around by painting himself as a crusading outsider being obstructed by entrenched interests. As far as possible, talk about issues, nail Modi’s rhetoric on particular issues, but don’t make elections about him.
  6. The BJP has mastered the art of controlling the news cycle. As soon as Modi was on the backfoot as his allegations against Manmohan Singh and others began to unravel, the gruesome Rajasthan hacking and burning incident took place to shift the topic of conversation. Having a pliable media certainly helps. However, given that the Congress has now set its social media in order, it must be relentless in pursuing and pinning down the BJP, rather than allowing the latter to set the terms of discourse.
  7. Rahul Gandhi has, at long last, rebooted his image. He needs to persist with the focus, fire and wit he has shown during the Gujarat election. His image is still a work in progress, but is today far better than what it was even six months ago. The momentum  must not be lost. The immediate ground for Rahul Gandhi to continue showing his mettle is the ongoing winter session of Parliament. RG must drop his reticence and lead the Congress from the front in Parliament.
  8. The Congress should put the BJP under pressure on Modi’s outrageous comments about former PM Manmohan Singh (virtually accusing him of high treason by conspiring with Pakistan to influence the Gujarat election), and consistently raise rural distress, the botched GST implementation and rampant unemployment in Parliament.
  9. The Congress would’ve performed significantly worse without the alliances it stitched together with Hardik, Alpesh, and Jignesh. Going forward, the Congress needs to be proactive in finding and nurturing allies.


The Gujarat election remained a tale of so near yet so far. However, post 2011-12 when the Anna movement was orchestrated to discredit the UPA-2 regime, the Congress once again has some momentum on its side. It should not be squandered. Vast tracts of India (the 69% who didn’t vote for Modi in 2014) have pinned their hopes for 2019. They must not be let down.


Don’t be surprised at Yogi Adityanath’s elevation

by Ritwik on March 21, 2017

The elevation of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically crucial state has unnerved political observers. Several journalists and political commentators, including eminent ones, appear to be shocked that the BJP leadership, which nowadays is a euphemism for the high command of PM Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, has brazenly appointed a known rabble-rouser like Adityanath to such a sensitive post. Their shock suggests that at least implicitly, they’ve bought into Modi’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas” (participation and development of all communities) propaganda. This is naiveté at best, and I for one am happy that the appointment of Adityanath might serve as a wake-up call to these commentators.

Make no mistake, pretty much the *only* reason why the BJP  has not implemented the full scale of its neoliberal + Hindutva agenda is because it has not been able to. Both during the previous BJP-led regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and during the current regime of Narendra Modi, progressive elements have retained control of crucial instruments of power, such as the Rajya Sabha, Supreme Court and critical state governments, therefore thwarting the BJP’s attempts to change the political economy of the country in a decisively right wing manner. There are numerous examples, but to take only a recent one – the excellent work by the united opposition to thwart the amendments to the land acquisition act, which were aimed at taking over farm land across the country and giving it at throwaway prices to crony capitalists both in the country and those based abroad. BJP’s inability to ever command a majority in the Rajya Sabha has meant that it has not been able to implement large parts of its cultural, educational and economic agenda.

This explains the keen-ness of the Modi-Shah combine to install, by hook or by crook, BJP governments in every state, including where it is not even the single largest party in the legislature, such as in Goa and Manipur. They are following a differentiated strategy to win as many states as possible, which involves poaching opposition leaders who will deliver a component of the electorate, which combined with BJP’s “catchment” hindutva vote (100% consolidated behind Modi and Adityanath sort of figures), will almost always deliver victory in a first past the post electoral system. To gain power in states, BJP is even willing to let go of ministerial posts (Manipur, Goa) because the larger ideological goal is clearly perceived by Modi-Shah.

This sense of purpose doesn’t come only from a desire to maximally extend their patronage network (although that is part of it) but from an ideological desire at total domination with a view to rewrite the political economic structure of the country. This needs to be clearly understood by all who are troubled with recent political events. Any action can only proceed from a clear understanding of the situation.

The BJP’s string of electoral successes since 2013 (state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh), dampened only by the heavy defeats in Bihar and Delhi and to some extent in Bengal, mean that for the first time ever, the Sangh Parivar is close to exerting control over both houses of parliament, including a full majority in the Lok Sabha and a virtually sure-shot victory in the Presidential polls, due this year once Pranab Mukherji retires. The peril this poses to democracy and progressive values in India can hardly be overstated. India has entered the darkest phase in its continued survival as a broadly democratic and plural nation striving to march into modernity.

To re-emphasize, these values won’t survive if we, the citizens, blithely believe that pressure from the media or intellectuals (especially those based abroad) will prevent the Modi government from making wholesale changes to the economic and political structure of the country. Far more organized, tactically conscious and purposive resistance is the need of the hour, starting with opposition unity in the House and for future elections. But this unity needs to extend much beyond just electoral politics, involving a common minimum program outlining economic, educational and cultural policy, and smart marketing which will counter and defeat the sophisticated and all pervasive propaganda of the Sangh Parivar, particularly on social media like Whatsapp. None of this is exceedingly difficult once progressive elements decide to come together, and there are some pointers to be had from countries like France, where parties ranging from the communists to the socialists to the centrists have repeatedly come together on common platforms to keep the fascists from power.

The elevation of Adityanath has some troubling portends. And this is apart from his record at instigating communal hatred and rioting, and his long criminal record, which have received attention in the media once his name was announced as CM-designate. More troublingly by my lights, it signals BJP’s continued tactical nous under Modi and Shah. For the BJP, Adityanath is an excellent choice for the following reasons:

1. He’s a young and charismatic mass leader.
2. He’s from an “upper” caste but serves as the head of a body which has numerous “lower” caste devotees, and that combined with his Hindutva and ascetic image, makes his appeal cut across caste divides in UP’s fractured polity.
3. BJP’s crushing victory in UP automatically means that the Ram Mandir crowd would be emboldened, and by making Adityanath CM, the party has ensured that he would have to act with a certain minimal responsibility, which was not guaranteed with him out of power.
4. He’s known to have been be at odds with the RSS and BJP leadership in the past, due to his individualistic streak. The fact that Modi and Shah are willing to empower such individuals shows a certain ideological commitment as well as organizational strength and confidence.
5. Adityanath belongs to the Hindu Mahasabha tradition, which has been partly at odds with the RSS/BJP tradition in the politics of the Hindu Right. His elevation signals a growing confluence of these streams, and the RSS’ ability to co-opt various strands of the Hindu Right (including such apparently benign ones as demonstrated by Indian ‘techies’ based abroad) within its broader fold.
6. Notwithstanding (4) and (5), the move to make Adityanath CM provides Modi and Shah an escape hatch if the party doesn’t do as well in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in UP, if the opposition does unite and the electoral arithmetic doesn’t favour the BJP. The appointment of a quiet figure like telecom minister Manoj Sinha would’ve kept the responsibility of delivering UP in 2019 solely upon Modi, but now Adityanath will have to shoulder part of the burden (and the blame, should things not go well).

The Political Calculus of Demonetization

by Ritwik on November 13, 2016

The Government of India’s recent decision to demonetize high denomination notes has resulted in widespread controversy. Most people seemed to welcome the move in the beginning, buying the government’s rhetoric that it will punish those with ‘black’ (untaxed) money, disrupt the flow of money to terrorists and prove a major step against counterfeit currency. As time goes by, there is rising frustration as it becomes increasingly apparent that the government hasn’t done its homework on this – the whole operation has been set in motion in a hasty and unplanned manner, with banks running out of (valid) notes, ATMs unable to dispense the redesigned high denomination notes, etc.

This is quite apart from the matter that this move is like a sledgehammer being used to kill a fly – at the cost of a load of inconvenience for virtually everyone in the country, the move might unearth some black money hoarded in the form of cash by small and medium traders, as the salaried do not have ‘black’ money and the very rich exercise the various options available to not keep it in the form of cash. As explained by Prabhat Patnaik, it is naive to think of black money in terms of a hoard of cash under the mattress – the corrupt are much more sophisticated, especially with the options unlocked by today’s globalized economy.

Nevertheless, it will prove to be an error for the opposition to walk into PM Modi’s trap by appearing to be wholly against this initiative. Modi is a consummate politician (that description exhausts his skill set) and it would be folly for the opposition to imagine that by attacking demonetization wholesale, they can cause a significant dent to his popularity:

1. If (most of) the opposition criticizes demonetization, they can easily be branded as being upset as their black money has become unusable. This has already begun.

2. The common people will put up with a considerable amount of (temporary) inconvenience if they feel that it is for the end of punishing violators, and toward nation building in general. Modi knows this, and is cynically using this sentiment for his own political ends.

3. Modi revels in painting himself as a lone crusader against the established order. This is ironical from a career politician, but he has successfully used this tactic multiple times in Gujarat, and against the old guard (Advani, etc.) in the BJP. If the opposition unitedly attacks demonetization, Modi is going to pretend that they want to stop him from doing good for the country, but he won’t be deterred etc etc. Like all demagogues, he pulls this off due to the personal connection which he establishes with voters through his fiery speeches – it is Modi that addresses them, not the PM and not a BJP politician.

4. In the absence of any real economic reforms or any real growth in employment, the people want ‘big ticket’ moves. They want to feel that something is being done, and would go to quite extraordinary lengths to believe that things like demonetization and ‘surgical strikes’ have been effective, far beyond their actual impact. This is a deep issue, and is not unique to India, with reverberations being seen across the globe. The people are tired of incrementalism, and want flashy moves, hence Modi, Trump, Brexit – phenomena that play upon this sentiment and repackage routine action (surgical strike) and desperation (demonetization, fencing the border with Mexico) as once-in-a-lifetime initiatives.

In light of the above, the opposition’s response to demonetization has to be nuanced. As the Congress and AAP are doing, party volunteers must visibly and proactively help the common people standing in queues. The intent of the move must be warmly and very publicly welcomed. It needs to be hammered home that while common people are suffering, rich friends of the BJP/Modi are getting away, as this action does not touch them in any way. Kerjiwal, one of the smartest politicians around, seems to have grasped this and is responding accordingly.

It must be understood that Modi’s (and BJP’s) political strategy is usually one of blitzkrieg – keep moving fast, create one controversy after another (in just the last few months – Bhopal encounter, JNU (Najeeb), booking Nandini Sundar and others for ‘murder’, NDTV ban), to keep the opposition guessing and busy, and at all times engage in ceaseless self publicity. Effective response needs to be along similar lines, and must rupture the notion that Modi’s actions are in the ‘national’ interest, since they are not.

Odd/Even rule and fighting Delhi’s air pollution

by Ritwik on December 7, 2015

The Delhi Government’s announcement that odd and even numbered private cars will be allowed to ply only on alternate days on Delhi roads from January 2016 has attracted much commentary, more or less evenly divided between those who want to give the proposal a shot and those who believe it is unworkable given Delhi’s creaky public transport system.

I briefly examine some political dimensions of the decision as well as some other policy measures which need to be put in place as part of a concerted plan to fight air pollution in Delhi, which is today far in excess of levels considered dangerous for human populations.

Political Dimensions

The Delhi government move is sharply political and is consistent with party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s ostensible long term plan (in 2024?) to portray himself as the most viable alternative to Narendra Modi and other national leaders.

(1) It makes the Delhi Government look decisive and creative. Everybody agrees that Delhi’s pollution levels, having gone off the charts, need to be controlled but there has been no action on this front in the last several years (the last significant initiative was mandatory conversion of buses to CNG which happened not because of government initiative but due to court order.)

This decisiveness makes for a nice contrast with the dithering (charitably called ‘creative incrementalism’) of the Modi government on every significant issue. Quite simply the Modi government at the centre has so far shown no ability to take and stick to tough decisions, of whatever variety.

Kejriwal, in contrast, is showing the guts to stick his neck out on a decision which can potentially backfire. Voters like political leaders who are seen to be taking risks when necessary.

(2) The move helps Kejriwal’s main constituency of the poor, especially his solid support base among auto and taxi drivers in Delhi.

More importantly, at an emotional level, the poor are sure to be happy that for once the onus of development and ecological protection is not entirely on their shoulders but has been done in a manner which hurts middle class interests most of all.

Rather than the economic benefit, which is not likely to be large, which this move will lend the poor by creating greater demand for cheap privately operated last mile transport facilities, it is this emotional dimension which will help shore up Kerjiwal’s already high stock among the poor

(3) Any failure to implement the policy at the ground level will at least partially be due to the understaffed Delhi Police, which is under the control of the central government and with which Kejriwal already has a perpetual running feud. It will give another handle for Kejriwal to convince his voters that his genuine intentions and creative solutions are being frustrated by the Delhi police at the behest of an uncaring central government.

(4) Given that one of the ‘reforms’ ushered in by the Modi government is abolition of most environmental laws and policies, in a bid to boost manufacturing and mining activity, this move positions Kejriwal and AAP as entities that are concerned about the environmental impact of ‘development’ and who are willing to do something about it.

Other policy measures are required

Whether or not the odd/even car rule succeeds on the ground, a range of other measures are required to fight air pollution in Delhi.

Some suggestions which the government could look into:

(1) Massive upgrade of the bus system. This is already on the government’s agenda. Apart from increasing the size of the DTC bus fleet, the efficiency of its operations needs to be greatly improved. In recent years it is not unusual to wait half an hour for a bus on a specific route, only to be greeted by three buses on that route arriving simultaneously. I am not sure why this level of inefficiency has become standard in DTC but it needs to go.

(2) Private bus operators will probably need to be brought back to augment the government bus system. To address security concerns the government can consider appointing bus marshals (mentioned in AAP’s election manifesto) on private buses as well.

(3) Delhi has an abysmally low number of autos as compared to other metro cities of the country due to a broken permit system. That needs to be fixed asap and lakhs of new autos need to be introduced. While this may temporarily anger AAP’s auto driver constituency, creating lakhs of new earning opportunities in the city can only be a good thing.

(4) A comprehensive action plan needs to put in place to completely phase out diesel – at least from the transportation sector – over a number of years. Penal taxes should be imposed on all diesel vehicles, especially new ones. Heavy incentives should be provided to convert as many vehicles as possible to CNG.

(5) Heavy incentives should be provided to the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles. It was mentioned somewhere on Twitter that one such incentive could be to waive the odd/even rule for electric and hybrid vehicles.

(6) Diesel gensets, which cause both noxious fumes and noise, need to be totally phased out. Government needs to augment the power generation capacity and incentivise alternative means of private electricity generation/storage, along with introducing heavy taxation on the sale of diesel gensets.

(7) Large parts of the city, especially the trans-Yamuna area, still have abysmally low number of trees. This needs to be redressed urgently.

(8) Finally, to improve air quality in Delhi the government must act in concert with the governments of the various NCR territories like NOIDA, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Manesar, Neemarana etc. As many as possible of the above steps should be encouraged in the NCR too, including the odd/even rule if it shows signs of success in Delhi.

There is a political opportunity in this for Kejriwal. In trying to take other state governments along, he will present himself as a contrast to Modi’s go it alone approach (which has been a spectacular failure thus far). In addition, he can try and work with Akhilesh Yadav’s government in UP for appreciable improvements in NOIDA and Greater NOIDA, and can politically capitalise on any hesitation on the part of the BJP government in Haryana.


Note: 1. edited 8 Dec 2o15 to include electric “and hybrid” vehicles as the earlier formulation seemed to exclude the class of hybrid vehicles.