Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Aadhar Has You On The Grid

Aadhar Has You On The Grid

The Supreme Court is due to take a final call on the limitations to be imposed on Aadhar in the light of its earlier ruling on Privacy as a fundamental right. And, of course, its interim ruling, permitting it to carry on doing its job.

It seems improbable, given the pace of the Judiciary, that this important judgement will be handed down in the next few days during the remaining tenure of the present Chief Justice Dipak Mishra.

This is pertinent only because CJI Mishra is perceived to be inclined to the ruling government view that Aadhar is an important means to put every legitimate citizen on the grid, and should be allowed wide-licence to operate.

However, his designated successor, Justice Gogoi, due to take over after October 2nd, is expected to take a more nuanced view, given his reportedly left- liberal leanings. He was one of the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court that rebelled against the  current Chief Justice, and held an unprecedented  press conference at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, challenging the CJI’s right to allocate cases to “junior judges” as the “Master of the Roster”.

Being a constitutional matter, it will, of course, be decided by a fairly large bench, hopefully allowing for different views to be expressed and considered, as part of its composition and process towards a final judgement.

Of course, parliament has been made supreme since the Emergency in the Seventies, and will, if necessary, have the legislative last word.

There is a considerable clamour from the Opposition, sections of the media, and the Left-Liberal element at large, that Aadhar should be revoked, or failing this, made voluntary in all cases. This, rather than mandatory in given instances, or indeed universally, as is demanded by some others.

Given that the same Left-Liberal element supports the case for “Urban Naxals” out to murder the Prime Minister being referred to as “Freedom of Expression/Human Rights Activists”. And refers to Islamic terrorist organization members, such as those in Hizb Mujahideen, as mere “workers”; not a lot of support can be expected from such quarters.
Aadhar is more or less essential today to access most goods and services, make investments, buy assets, or file taxes.

This will remain as a “voluntary” requirement no matter what the judiciary pronounces, short of scrapping and undoing the enormously expensive exercise that has already been completed. This, going by the interim  judgement, and the national interest, is extremely unlikely.

It is therefore a mystery why the vilification campaign against Aadhar persists with dark innuendoes of a fascist, “big-brother-is- watching” intent. Will the government use Aadhar to target dissidents or just the terrorists and illegals? Will it use it to monitor everyone’s financial dealings to catch malfeasance, or blackmail those it wishes to intimidate?

It could, of course, well do all these things, and other governments, including Democratic ones, have been known to do so, and more. But nevertheless, isn’t it necessary, this kind of threat, at least in part, to keep the good, law abiding citizen safe and secure? Hasn’t the crooked element, the gamer of the system, the criminal, the cheats, forgers, thugs, terrorists, illegals, seditionists, spies, the treasonous, and so on, got away with impunity, despite being in plain sight, and for much too long?

The government, in the interim, has more or less assumed that it can make Aadhar mandatory and ubiquitous, though there is a preceding, if perfunctory, “voluntary acceptance” clause.

There are a lot of illegal aliens, the subjects of the NCR mappings, however imperfect, conducted in Assam so far. That illegal aliens also have Aadhar cards is a worry, but  not a problem that cannot be solved via adequate cross-referencing of other data like ancestry and settled domicile to establish citizenship.

The dimensions of the illegal aliens problem is large, at an estimated 5 crore people, and poses a substantial security and demographic risk/threat. Particularly when they are also allowed to vote on the strength of their genuine identity papers but obtained by questionable means.

This commonsense argument against, outweighs the so-called humanitarian angle towards illegal “refugees”. It outweighs also the economic argument, from those who would have soft borders, as if we were a budding EU, rather than a country besieged with two hostile neighbors. The biggest of them, in fact, in cahoots with each other, and growing their influence with other minnows in the area as well.

This despite a more or less constant subversion and terrorism, sometimes using networks of illegal aliens, many of whom are from the minority community, hard to ferret out from minority ghettos, and easily radicalized to boot.

And then there is the more cynical aiding and abetting of illegal aliens to bolster vote banks in border states such as Bengal, alter demographics altogether, as in  Assam and other North Eastern States, and even plant Rohingyas all the way across, in Jammu.
But quite apart from the fate of Aadhar, the electronic and digital mapping of individuals and their secrets, in the age of nearly a billion smart phones in use, is so widespread, that the Privacy argument, in practical terms, is already dead in the water.

The biggest tangible success using Aadhar so far has been in the direct disbursement of subsidies via authenticated bank accounts of the poor. Because it has rooted out many false identities, middle men, and duplications from the system, thereby saving the exchequer crores of rupees, it does not agree with those who were milking the earlier system.

It is necessary to note however, that the data on Aadhar apart, the government is within its constitutional rights to conduct  various forms of surveillance to protect its   integrity in terms of National Security.  

Biometric data is the incontrovertible proof of individual identity. This has long been known and applied in the issuance of a number of European visas as well as in other sophisticated security systems gateways.

The United States, the oldest Democracy, even as India is the most populous one, has long collected and used  Aadhar style data via its Social Security numbering system. It also has covered almost every square inch of its territory via satellite and terrestrial surveillance cameras. Things on the move are tracked too via GPS and other systems. Even facilities underground, or in the deep sea, are monitored today. There is therefore nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Similar methods and devices are used all over the world in all kinds of political systems.

Despite this, there are security breaches, electronic data hackings and subversion, while ever more sophisticated anti-hacking and anti-data theft systems are being constantly developed.

India has little choice, in a globalised world, but to follow suit. This is a Digital Age and the analog argument cannot hold water any more.

Of course, it is understandable that the stripping away of the erstwhile power to manipulate data to suit oneself is a massive change in the game that is hard to digest for some. Wanting to go back to paper ballots is part of this longing. As is the attempt via outfits like Cambridge Analytica to use personal data clandestinely to influence elections. 
International hackings into military hardware, banking systems and political data banks is also potent enough to develop crack units to conduct Cyber Warfare in turn.

The Digital Age is throwing up its own challenges, to be sure, but there is literally no going back.

Possibly, the only way to stay anonymous today is to never use anything with electronics in it. But is this at all feasible for any length of time?

(1, 267 words)
For: My Nation
September 13th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Oil On Fire: The Open-Market Illusion In Statist Fetters

Oil On Fire: The Open-Market Illusion In Statist Fetters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to be reminded that when he personally made the call for removing the remaining fuel subsidies, at the beginning of his tenure, he made no mention of imposing fresh indirect taxes on fuel.

Of course,   even in the erstwhile subsidized regime on fuel, the tax collections on sale of fuel far outweighed the outgoings.

The impression given by Modi however was that he was encouraging the free-market, and that Indians would henceforth pay whatever the international prices dictated. Tickers at the pump would be revised daily or more often, and it would be a two way street.

But did the Prime Minister think the whole matter through? Because what the public got is its fuel, no longer subsidized, and at twice the international prices!

This is proven by the rates at which our exports of refined fuel  are effected, before the imposition of a plethora of Central and State taxes! The public has been made the victim of a statist confidence trick in which the Finance Minister raised excise duty 9 times in the 50 months of this government, followed by State imposed ad valorem VAT, additional taxes et al.

And the State on its part, has done absolutely nothing, for over a quarter century since liberalization, when fuel demand began to grow as the stifling controls of the Licence-Permit Raj were dismantled.

Nothing at all, to develop a strategy to manage contingencies and unforeseen exigencies of international oil prices. This even though oil is the country’s largest import, at over 80% of its ever expanding requirement. An import that involves an estimated $87.7 billion till March 31st 2018,  up 25% on the year before, and likely to go up another $30 billion this current fiscal. We are currently the 3rd largest global importer of crude, importing over 220 million MT annually.

The Modi government, which the public was hoping would be a departure from the lackadaisical strategic planning of the past, has unfortunately been a let-down too.

Where was the attempt to create a contingency Oil Import Fund when this government enjoyed two years of low crude prices? Did its think-tanks conclude that international crude prices would henceforth always be low?

For the military, and as a host for other countries, India has begun to stockpile crude in underground reservoirs. But for itself, as an economy, and for the public, it has no strategic vision, apart from attempted sourcing at better prices,  and bagging oil exploration contracts abroad.

Why are there no bio-fuel refineries even though bumper sugarcane harvests struggle to find takers and need massive government subsidy and support prices? Other estimates conclude 58% of our vegetables and fruit spoil for lack of modern cold chain facilities and this waste too could also become biofuel.

India could meet perhaps 20% of its present needs for crude if not more if it had the right policies in place, implementing them with a will.

America has found its own way via high-tech shale-cracking, to become crude self sufficient and a net exporter. India, on the other hand, has been left behind by countries like Thailand, which has plenty of biofuel availability at its pumps. Union Minister Gadkari recently promised Indian biofuel by that magic year 2022, India’s 75th as a free country. A date which appears to serve this government’s future wish-list in all matters!

Also consider that when it comes to the over 7% fall in the rupee and counting, against the dollar, the Thai Baht has fallen only 1.24%, by reducing its linkages with the US dollar. 

The government tries to justify holding the line on these rapacious fuel prices by saying the taxes raised are going into infrastructure development etc. without once being either transparent or specific. It also says it has repaid the oil bond borrowings of the UPA to pay for the erstwhile subsidies.

Highly educated apologists of the government try to keep their finger in the dyke by invoking all kinds of macro-economic scaremongering, hinting darkly at a stock market and economic collapse if the government does not hold the line.

The fact is, the stock market has lost over 2% in just two days, obviously unimpressed by the government’s policy actions, and interest rates are likely to go up too.

The suspicion remains that at least a proportion of the fuel taxes goes to pay for a bloated political and bureaucratic apparatus, that has never once, in the 50 odd months of this government, attempted any form of cost-cutting or austerity.

Instead, there have been salary and pension enhancements for itself with metronomic regularity, not once but several times- pay commission revisions, MP and MLA emolument revisions, allowance and perquisite revisions and so on.

It is time to hold the Modi government to account for ignoring the wishes of most, if not all of urban India, most affected by unprecedented fuel prices.

The CAD and fiscal deficit, the inflationary effect on everything via fuel as a vital input cost, is to be ignored only at this government’s peril. Rating agencies are already downgrading India and foreign capital is fleeing.

To be so obtuse about this matter in an election season, is inexplicable, unless the Modi government is banking heavily on the TINA factor .  

But apart from the shocking lack of anticipation, evident in  the government’s bumbling responses under attack, this vexed issue of retail fuel pricing has quite a policy history. Diesel in particular, along with its cousin Kerosene, were long thought to be a poor man’s fuel, even though heavy transport and trains used Diesel too. And so, they was highly subsidized. The limited Kerosene in use today continues to be so.

Petrol came next, but in the old Swadeshi/Socialist days, there were only a restricted number of cars and two-wheelers produced, and waiting lists for new ones ran into years.
Aviation fuel and aircraft parking charges, were, and still are, outrageously priced in India. It is still treated as a luxury item that facilitates air travel by the rich.

Gradually, over a decade after liberalisation, people could not only buy freely and “off-the-shelf”, from a wide selection of transport options, but banks eagerly financed them with affordable EMIs.

As cars, motorcycles, scooters, grew in number alongside trucks and buses and expansion of the rail, metro, road, waterways, aviation, port sectors - the subsidies on fuel started to burgeon. Successive governments struggled to finance the fuel subsidies, and increasingly on LPG for the poor, as the gas finds off-shore made it available. The LPG direct subsidy to the poor is the largest remaining chunk still operative.

As the predecessor governments started to both raise prices and take subsidies off in miniscule doses, the consuming public was not unduly upset. It started with the more elite petrol and aviation fuel, and then expanded gingerly to diesel, kerosene and LPG too.

International crude prices raged high through most of UPA I & II, and prices of fuel in India crept up steadily.  But it is only now that the free-floating pricing from the oil marketing companies and not the Petroleum Ministry, plus choke inducing government taxes, have resulted in hefty, daily upward price revisions!

Today, the Central and State governments do occasionally tinker with fuel prices by up to 3-4 rupees, fearful of public anger, but this is far from adequate to control the Frankenstein monster a lack of foresight has created.

To sacrifice the micro in favour of confusion over macro economics, is an old BJP failing. It resulted in ending the tenure of AB Vajpayee, despite his failed “India Shining” re-election campaign in 2004.

And now, seeking approbation from FIIs, WB, IMF, international rating agencies like Moody and Fitch, is seemingly being given priority over working for the relief of the Indian people.

There is, in addition, probably a confused socialism at play. The BJP seems content to ignore the aspirations of the urban masses and classes, even though it forms almost half the electorate, in favour of a mythic solidarity with the rural hinterland. Is this not over confidence gone horribly wrong?

The BJP, says its Party President Amit Shah, expects to win handsomely in 2019, and rule for another “fifty years”.

But how does clubbing an opportunistic Opposition agitation for a cut in fuel prices, with the genuine demand for relief from the hurting, angry masses, help in the reelection endeavour?

(1,397 words)
For:  The Sunday Guardian
September 12th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Sunday, September 9, 2018




A White Knight For The Endangered Asian Elephant

Mark Shand, overflowing with an endearing, if aristocratic, noblesse oblige, British upper-class, was the late brother of  Camilla, Duchess  of Cornwall, the future queen of England.

After an epic journey through rural Odisha, as newly trained White mahout, atop his female Indian elephant, christened Tara, he wrote this wonderful book that captivated the world.

It was published first in 1991, became an iconic bestseller, won Shand the Travel Writer of the Year Award. It became the purpose, via his Charity, “Elephant Family” which evolved from this journey, of the rest of his relatively short life.

It is however a toss-up between being a book about travel, camping, rivers, ponds and architectural monuments on the way, and the relationship between Shand, his educated Marathi companion Aditya, his frequently drunk mahout teacher Bhim, a couple or three other assistants, Gokul, Idrajit, Khusto, and the very expressive thirty odd year old elephant.

The elephant, in particular, scrawny, under-fed, injured from ill-fitting leg irons, is rescued by Shand when he buys her for Rs.1,01,000 when that meant 4,000 pounds sterling.

There is also some of an Englishman’s musings over the onward progress of a beloved former colony, a patchwork of social and cultural history, and amusing anecdotes and conversations with the people Shand met along the way. Of course, he keeps saying how well everyone, particularly in officialdom, treats him and his entourage. And well they might, given his own eminence, that of his exalted friends, and the officials, including the police, tasked to help him along the way.

Through it all, there is a genuine eagerness to learn, contribute, and share, that sparkles through the narrative. This was one “Raja-Sahab” who wasn’t afraid of laughing at himself and the sight he presented.

There he was, stripped to the waist, bandanna on head, rocking on his cushioned howdah,  callused and bleeding bare toes used to steer the elephant from behind its ears. Shouting out bravely, doing the best he could with Hindustani mahout commands.

From a life of begging and party tricks, going largely hungry for half the year when it wasn’t being used at weddings, Tara gradually develops an unmistakable mischievousness, dignity, and grace under the ministrations of Shand and party.

Time and again Tara escapes, particularly when being given a bath, and has to be coaxed back with the intuitive moves suggested by Bhim the senior mahout, sometimes, even after going AWOL for a night or two. And so, they travel, at a pace of perhaps 4 miles an hour.

Mark Shand, died in 2014, at the age of 63.  But before he passed on, he had already raised more than 10 million pounds sterling to help the survival of the Asian elephant, under pressure from growing urbanization and destruction of  its habitat.

The money has been used, mostly in India, to relocate and resettle people living in the jungle and to facilitate the creation of elephant corridors so that the pachyderms can move about freely from one protected forest to another.

It all began with the journey described most engagingly in this book. A progress through rural Odisha, from near the Sun Temple at Konarak, facilitated by current Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, a personal friend of  Shand’s, to the elephant fair at Sonepur, in Bihar.

At the Sonepur Mela, both master Shand, and Tara the elephant, by now deeply loved by Shand, are terrified at the prospect of selling Tara. Providentially however, Shand is able to gift Tara to the Wrights, old India hands, of Tollygunge Club fame, who were at the fair because they needed an elephant for their resort and reserve, Kipling Camp, in Madhya Pradesh.

Shand kept tabs, and went, more than once, to visit Tara, whom he credited with saving his “life”, presumably from the pursuit of non-stop hedonism. He is recognized by the elephant and finds her well looked after, content, every bit the pampered princess. “She wakes up, eats, sleeps, swims, has a massage, eats and then goes back to bed-day in, day out”.

It is not as if Mark Shand did not try his hand at various adventures. He went to Bali to sail a yacht to retrace an old romance starring a WWII pilot called Tyler, who settled with many apsara like local wives on an island called Renill - but unfortunately in the face of a typhoon. And then, there were travels on the moody Brahmaputra.

But in retrospect, it is animal conservation- mainly the Asian elephant, that became the nub of Mark Shand’s lasting contribution.

The relevance of this book, even 23 years after it was first published, was brought home by a recent news report on six elephants rescued by the authorities, two of them quite ill, being used illegally in Delhi by people who rent them out for weddings.  

It is, as if, nothing has changed for elephants ever since heavy machinery and tanks put them out of their primary business. Gone are the days when they moved logs, though they still might be doing so in Asia Pacific rain forests. But certainly, the days of Hannibal and Porus and their war elephants is long gone.

Now elephants are used in temple processions in South India, weddings all over the country to symbolize the God of new beginnings, and to amuse tourists.

Taking in elephants out of such servitude however, is easier said than done. Each elephant needs at least 1.25 acres of space, and lakhs of rupees to look after. They need specialised feed and care to thrive. To send such urban elephants back to the wild, apart from posing transport problems, needs a period of gradual psychological rehabilitation as well. Still, there is work that must be done, and urgently.

And yet, one can’t help thinking, here is a man like Mark Shand, sent down by Lord Ganesha himself, to make a case for the gentle giants, finding it hard to survive amongst India’s teeming millions.

(989 words)
For: The Sunday Pioneer AGENDA, BOOKS
September 9th 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

India Is Under Tear Down Renovation

India Is Under Tear Down Renovation

It is a strange time of elections when the President of the Congress Party embraces not only every anti-national gun and bomb toting fringe element in the country, but also most terrorist organizations abroad.

He heaves with sympathy for these dangerous elements, and muses aloud in seeming innocence, about legitimate causes of what may have led them to their revolutionary positions.

The bloodthirsty are given open licence. Scandals of corruption against the present government are created where none exist. There are shrill denouncement of the government’s Rafale purchase of 36 fly away aircraft to provide cover for the myriad corrupt deals of the UPA. Allegations of crony capitalism and heartless indifference towards the poor are propagated, ignoring all facts to the contrary.

Other shockers include the airbrushing of facts from 1984, when the Congress Party led by Rajiv Gandhi organized a pogrom against ordinary Sikhs that left thousands dead in the streets. Congress, said its current president, had nothing to do with the Sikh riots.

Even his handlers, embarrassed by the enormity of the lie, said Rahul Gandhi was too young to be held responsible for the goings on at the time. But, not yet satisfied in his strange projections, Rahul Gandhi spoke on the now defunct LTTE that murdered Rajiv Gandhi and thousands of others. He said he (and his sister) felt bad when its ruthless and double crossing chief was finally killed in his lair.

These recent pronouncements are beyond Rahul Gandhi’s periodic relaunches and reinventions. These are twisted tales and fictions in a magic realism universe designed to create an alternate reality shorn of the usual moorings in propriety and fact. These are signals to everyone who wants to bring the Modi government down, for its alleged fascism, that anything goes in the endeavour. Truth can substitute for lie, and fiction for fact, in an almost Shakespearian tragedy of word play. Later, there is the multiplier of national outrage and consternation playing out in the TV studios as a bonus. But isn’t all this messing about very remote from the booth level where the voters are?  

But putting these antics in perspective, it is a truism that what some old civilizations can do by way of ignoring the relatively immediate past, is not a luxury that the new ones can afford. If  the very new US, or reformulated  countries like Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and the like, throw out its meagre contemporary history, its precedents of freshly minted traditions, what will they have left?

Some have barely had the tumult of their births, actually rebirths, fading from earshot, and others actually know that there was nothing they could make a meal of before they came, except animist Red Indians and prairies full of bison.

Their sense of being and possession could almost blow away like chaff in the wind if they uproot the tent pegs. Its not for nothing that Margaret Mitchell’s great classic is so compelling, despite Rhett Butler immortalizing giving a “damn” or Scarlett O’ Hara looking forward to a new day.

Sometimes, when a once resplendent monarchy is overthrown, as in the Russian Revolution, there is a haunting classic like Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago to mark the transition.  

In everyday life, when the ground is shifting under one’s feet, it is often difficult to see the drama of it, but it is there nevertheless, even if it becomes evident only with the perspective of time.

A monsoon visit to North Goa at the end of August leaves one wondering how long the whole of the tiny state has, before it becomes a seamless city with some green bits plus a little old world leftover Goan cheer as relief.

It will soon have a spanking new airport at Mopa in the North, to add to the Military cum Civilian airport of Dabolim in the South.

Bridges and flyovers, a BJP speciality, are going to connect the raucuous razzmatazz of the North to the quiet villages of South Goa, the sprawling expanse of Vasco Da Gama notwithstanding.

A new state-of-the-art connector, San Francisco style suspension bridges, across the Mandovi and Zuari rivers, will reportedly cut the commute down time from  over an hour to just thirty minutes.

This could well be completed by 2020, and the work done already makes this assertion quite plausible, particularly if the BJP wins another term both at the Centre and in this State.

The Gatbandhan, should it come in however, will have a large number of other fish to fry, and development of the country may have to take a seat at the extreme back of the bus.

How long then before Goa becomes a full-fledged all season destination? The roads do not flood here after downpours that sometimes last all night, because of clean guttering alongside, though the surface takes a beating in parts. And the mangroves have so far been left alone.

Locals tell us things are more alive these days compared to recent years past, with boisterous if low budget tourists from nearby Hubli and Dharwar flocking in, plus the usual full flights of fly-ins from Delhi and Mumbai. A large contingent of six charter flights of Russians are expected in October to break the jinx of a Russkie absence over the last few seasons.

But reviving business or not, the quaintness of Goa is fast vanishing, with  an unprecedented real estate boom and buildings that are pointedly modern. It is as if they want to ignore the crumbling edifices of colonial Goa, even its lovely white washed churches, its embedded Portuguese/Konkani  influences.

Prices too are no longer cheap, and there is a great deal of Bhangra music booming out of eateries via oversized amplifiers in place of what went before.

Change is inevitable, of course. And this little state is saying bring on the growing opportunities of 21st century India. Is this chronicling of an unabashed maturing of a tourist state cum its per capita pride a metaphor for what is happening nationally?  One for how India itself is moving towards its future with an unsentimental jettisoning of its economic, political, and even immediate cultural past?

In some things, we find, like it or not, continuity is not as important as relevance to the here and now.

It is this cleaving to relevance by the current dispensation that is unnerving the Congress Party into making desperate manouevres. Modi speaks constantly of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas, a slogan and substance that is making a mess of vote bank politics. This particularly with its various adjuncts of dismantling the Nehruvian “Idea of India”, in favour of Modi’s “New India”, with only a small mention of the Nehru-Gandhi contribution. 

It has become a do-or-die mission of survival for the Congress even as other elements of the Opposition watch mutely from the sidelines speaking up only when it suits their purpose. But The Congress seems to be saying that if you don’t want our version of India, built by us over decades of promoting a certain narrative, we will work for the destruction of this country rather than let the BJP recreate it in its own image. The bugles have been sounded. It is now up to the ever wise electorate to settle the issue in 2019.

(1,206 words)
August 30th 2018
For: My Nation
Gautam Mukherjee

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Vajpayee Legacy And Modi

The Vajpayee Legacy And Modi

 Amongst the deluge of eulogies and hosannas on the passing of former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee last week, few rose above the sentimentality that is something of a national hallmark. It was, besides, a veritable week of high profile deaths – of stalwarts, icons, colossuses and titans.

But why, if Vajpayee was thought to be quite so universally wonderful, was he virtually forgotten for over a decade by all except his fellow travelers in the BJP/RSS?

And why, this latter day attempt to co-opt him into the left-liberal lexicon? Is it as innocent as a spontaneous national outpouring of grief and affection?

There he was, an invalid, at his bungalow on the Krishna Menon Marg, almost invisible if not disappeared. Until, then President Pranab Mukherjee,  was persuaded to break precedent, and trundle off to bestow a Bharat Ratna on him in 2015. Strike one certainly, but only at the behest of a stern Modi Government aware of its debt of gratitude.  

Vajpayee has been fortunate in his death as in life. He has been honored fulsomely, by an incumbent BJP/NDA government. One that is carrying his staff and rod, forward again, after a decade in the wilderness.

That this is so, has been glossed over by many, in a frenzy of bizarre Nehruvian comparison. They would have it that AB Vajpayee was the Hindi- speaking Nehru, minus the rose in his lapel, and a dhoti in place of a sherwani, but nothing like that provincial upstart Modi.

The world of left-liberal commentators, languishing mostly on the shelf these days, gnashing their teeth to a stub, seized upon Vajpayee’s suddenly politicised legacy, with extraordinary ambulance chasing vigour.  

Never mind the contra-indications, the passage of circumstance, and time, that has changed everything. It became a nostalgia-soaked farewell, as if Vajpayee was the Nehru that BJP manifested in one shining moment that was its Camelot.

Indians do this kind of thing. It was similar for Karunanidhi, with his heirs lamenting his passing alongside the rank and file of the DMK, accompanied by full blast praise in the media for the departed leader. And there was the drama over his burial at the Marina Beach, over the objections of the AIADMK.

And again, though already receding into the mists of time, the eruption of emotion for India’s first cine superstar Rajesh Khanna, when he checked out of Aashirwad for the last time.

Fact is, Vajpayee followed on, as politicians must, not so much from Jawaharlal Nehru as someone else in the Congress. He actually had nothing in common with Nehru, beyond parliamentary etiquette, albeit gone AWOL these days.

Nehru himself was no inclusivist when it came to his political opponents, as the record well shows - though he pretended, British-fashion, to collaborate on the surface. He quite specialized instead in sending them on to oblivion even as he set his own dynastic stage.

And Vajpayee, being in the Opposition for most of his political life, had no choice but to make himself endearing, at least in parliament, if he was going to be heard at all.  

No, it was the Congress’ own but mostly disowned Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, the first radical modernizer of India along with his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh - to faithfully carry out orders,  that Vajpayee had more in common with.

Some commentary did touch on this, but mostly to contrast the way they were each treated in death by their respective political parties. Together though, the Telegu Bidda and his successor, the Gwalior School Master’s son, put the first nine inch nails into the coffin of Nehru-Gandhi hegemony.  

One was awarded a Bharat Ratna and accorded a full-dress national farewell. The other was sent back to his family at Hyderabad, despite over 25 years in high office at New Delhi, to do with what they would.

The price of ignoring the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, if you are a Congressman is indeed steep, despite the fraudulent inclusivist propaganda. This has  stretched now to saccharine  and proxy pieces on Vajpayee the family man, the humanist, the poet, ad nauseam, to imply how he was almost a Nehruvian Congressman.  

The short-lived Janata Government, ostensibly tried to put the hegemonists into the political dustbin. This was post the JP Narayan movement, post the Emergency, in the late seventies.

But its internal jealousies, echoed in the would-be mahagatbandhan of today, even if the shoe is on the other foot, ruined the day.

The ire was pointed at the 93 seat winning Jan Sangh, out of 298 for the Janata, painted then as “communal untouchables”. And this by others in the Janata Party too. That is how the baton got handed back.  

Vajpayee, one of just three Jan Sangh origin ministers, faced internal pressure from the prudish  Prime Minister Morarji Desai, erstwhile of Congress himself. As for external pressure, there was the extensive Nehruvian narrative to contend with, in a largely left-liberal world. The silver-tongued poet cum Hindu/Hindutva hard-liner, who was India’s Foreign Minister, had quite a tightrope to walk.

Still, the collapse of the Janata Party coalition, also birthed the Bharatiya Janata Party, with Vajpayee, if not at the helm, certainly on the dais. 

Later, after LK Advani’s Rath Yatra, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, this erstwhile set of “untouchables”, emerged as the unapologetic Hindu nationalist alternative.

Vajpayee’s carefully nurtured if unwieldy coalition, held together over 6 years, and three oath takings, not only ended the curse of unstable, short-lived non-Congress governments, but laid the very foundations of  the BJP/NDA majority government to come.

But Vajpayee’s stability in government was not so much because he was following a path of Nehruvian inclusiveness, myth though it was, but the “compulsions”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used to cry, of coalition politics.

Still, Vajpayee built the Golden Quadrilateral, and took India nuclear weaponised through it all. Evidently, he wasn’t carrying people along to no purpose!

 The next ten years went to a spectacularly corrupt UPA. And then we have had the first majority NDA government, after Rajiv Gandhi’s, exactly 30 years before. Conversely, Congress saw itself reduced to just 44 seats in parliament.

Is Bharatmala a progression of the Golden Quadrilateral? Are Railway freight corridors, bullet trains, metro mass transportation systems in every large city, the linking of rivers, all extensions of Vajpayee’s vision?  

Wasn’t it Vajpayee who first tilted India’s foreign policy towards the United States? Didn’t Manmohan Singh, and now Modi, consolidate that relationship since?

But naturally, Modi, with a similar RSS Pracharak background to Vajpayee’s, has a few reformist ideas of his own. And so we have Swacch Bharat, Make in India, manned flight into space, GST, demonetization, Aadhar,  health insurance, mudra,  the fugitive offenders bill, OROP, digital India, universal housing and electricity, bringing the North East into the mainstream, the bankruptcy and insolvency codes,  doubling of MSP to farmers, boring tunnels into Ladakh, and so on.

There is, it is seen, via Narendra Modi’s excellent relationship with Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS, no contradiction between “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas” and promotion of an ethos that is more even-handed towards the Hindu majority.

Perhaps Vajpayee did not quite enjoy the same level of concordat with Sudarshan of the RSS in his time.  But did it cost him the 2004 election? Or did the electorate simply revert to what Rahul Gandhi calls the “default” position?

Both Vajpayee with his coalition, and Modi, lacking a majority in the Rajya Sabha have not had it easy. But both moved forward despite this, to make far reaching policy changes.

Has the Nehruvian “Idea of India”, which supported the promotion of the minorities as its badge of secularism, already changed into Modi’s “New India”?
Is the bid for “cultural dominance”, since 2014, protested bitterly by the Congress, nevertheless well on its way?

It seems very likely. And no attempt to drive a wedge between an imaginary “soft BJP” from the Vajpayee era, and the artificial construct of a so-called “hard BJP” under the Modi-Shah dispensation, will amount to anything.

There is, in fact, no contradiction, no appreciable shift in ideology or vision, since the Vajpayee years.

What has changed substantially is the attitude of  a large part of the voting public, fed up with “pseudo-secularism”. It is these people who will see Modi through to victory in 2019.

(1,383 words)
For: The Sunday Guardian
August 22, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


TITLE: THE UNENDING GAME-A Former R&AW Chief’s Insights Into Espionage
PRICE: Rs. 599/-

Spying For Your Country

Intelligence gathering these days is not all careful-not-to-squeak “gum shoe”. The old style “private detective”, overcoat and hat pulled down low over the brow, has acquired a lot of supplementaries.

The two world wars ushered in the breaking of secret-code Ciphers, and monitoring of Ham Radio frequencies. Spying became as much a HQ Expert feature as the Agent in the Field.

 Speed is of the essence now to thwart threats, increasingly from Islamic Terrorism with a nuclear overhang.

The tools at hand have multiplied. There is HUMINT- Human Intelligence; received from both trans-border and undercover resources, and still, in 2018, probably the best way for qualified professionals good at finding nuggets amongst “unprocessed intelligence”.

There is also OSINT- that which comes through third countries who have access to target countries. TECHINT, meaning technical intelligence gathered from snooping devices, voice transcripts, recordings, and increasingly the social media.

 There is satellite and photo surveillance/reconnaissance – IMINT.  COMINT- from monitoring communications and conversations. ELINT-  radar and electronic intelligence-intercepts, decrypted cipher messages, topographical information.

Is there just too much information being generated to afford timely analysis? The author of this book, Vikram Sood, former R&AW Chief who retired in 2003 after 31 years in intelligence, thinks it is best suited to developing and executing medium to long term strategies. This book, written in a rich anecdotal style, certainly affords an insight, particularly on the operability of the process in a democracy.

Intelligence plays a more inward-looking and repressive role in totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. The history of organizations such as the KGB in the erstwhile USSR, the STASI in the former East Germany, SAVAK in pre-revolutionary Iran, Egypt’s Mukhabarat, all point to “the midnight knock”  purpose of intelligence gathering. “Enemies of the State”, a code phrase for dissidence, had such unfortunates jailed, tortured and eliminated.

In terms of international espionage, the most extensive and well-funded is certainly the CIA. Other admired and dreaded Intelligence organizations such as Israel’s Mossad and Pakistan’s ISI are partially CIA trained. Of course, the fanatical dedication to ideology and country, observed in the Mossad and ISI, make them very much harder to infiltrate.

In India, the true mother of external intelligence was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her legendary R&AW Chief RN Kao. Subsequent administrations took a less supportive view, making for neglect, stagnation and stunting. Prime Minister Morarji Desai actively cut R&AW down-to-size. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi revived its fortunes somewhat; even as Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao more or less ignored it.

Prime Minister Modi has a healthy respect for intelligence and has demonstrated it with the prominence given to the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, a former spy himself. Prime Minister Modi has gone out of his way to arrange for international intelligence sharing particularly to prevent Islamic terrorism and economic offences and absconders. Intelligence, it appears, is almost invariably run from the top echelons of the political pile.

Vikram Sood’s book takes the reader on a tour of the world’s intelligence services and their modus operandi, using an elegant prose to do it.

For example, Sood describes the American collaboration with the Pakistanis in his chapter on the ‘Asian Playing Fields’: “Apart from the money generated by the Americans and the Saudis, opium cultivation in Afghanistan and the processing of opium into heroin in Pakistan was encouraged to finance the war…. By 1990 the region accounted for 70 per cent of the total global production….The CIA would deliver weapons at Karachi and the ISI would carry them inland in their transport company, the National Logistics Cell. The vehicles on their return to Karachi from the NWFP would carry processed heroin for global shipment.” Other stringent American laws crack down on drugs, but so what?

The Soviets were no slouches in the espionage game either. In the days of the Cold War, they put money and effort into India to try and expose “the CIA hand”.
The much talked about second volume of The Mitrokhin Papers has nearly 17,000 stories planted in the Indian media between 1972 and 1975.

Citizen and Minister Morarji Desai, was said to be a very productive and paid CIA informer, says Seymour Hersh in one of his books!

But of course, as India has changed and grown into an emerging economic power, and the USSR has collapsed into history, the chess pieces have had to be rearranged.

The Chinese too have become increasingly important players in the world intelligence community. According to Sood: “They freely use diplomatic cover in missions abroad, deploy their defence attaches and use journalists.” They also infiltrate academia, defence manufacturers and even the CIA itself, using their ethnic Chinese employees whose sympathies can be aroused. Chinese Intelligence sponsors a number of Think Tanks in China via its Ministry of State Security (MSS), most useful in reciprocal interchanges with other Think Tanks and in the ever popular “Track II Diplomacy”. Since everything is state owned however,all roads in China do lead to Beijing.

And today, the Chinese classic Art of War by Sun Tzu which advocates defeating the enemy without firing a shot, is an international and universal aspiration, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons that guarantee Armageddon if used.

But, with international cooperation, specifically with ideas transmitted by a French Intelligence Chief to Ronald Reagan, then in his first term as US President, the Soviet Union was eventually brought down.

Comte Alexandre de Marenches suggested that Reagan should frequently refer to the USSR as  an ‘Evil Empire’ in order to encourage its fissiparous tendencies. He  further suggested that the US frame the Soviet Union, by purchasing Soviet  armaments in the black market and shipping them to battles against Soviet allies so that they became confused. Lastly Marenches suggested that the US should encourage the Islamists and promote the Koran to make the Turkmen, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Kazakhs and the Kyrghyz- all restive.

Vikram Sood narrates tale after tale of string-pulling and shadow-boxing  around the rich and inflential secret societies of the world, with profound effects on the future course of events.

A background in espionage has produced many heads of government including current Russian President Putin. However, it takes great nerve and patience, and is certainly not a career choice for the faint-hearted.

(1,038 words)
August 14, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee