Much the Queen’s man

November 7th, 2011

Of all the international multilateral groupings in the world – EU, WTO, UN, ASEAN, SAARC, and so on - it is the most civilised: all members of the Commonwealth play cricket, drive right hand cars on the left of the road, swear by the values of democracy and education and just love the Queen. Pakistan is now in but Zimbabwe and Fiji are still out, Rwanda is the newest member in, South Sudan wants to join and the Commonwealth’s Geneva office is addressing  the needs of small states in the organisation. This is the body that Kamalesh
Sharma is going to steer for the another four years, as Secretary General.

One could ask, as a plaintive blogger did, (sic) “Can someone explain what’s the point in today’s world of the Commonwealth?

Does the Commonwealth do anything or mean anything or is it just a talking shop”. The grouping does celebrate a sense of common values, though this can detract from the main menu sometimes. Some years ago, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, Uganda, for instance,  a Jamaican journalist said she feared that Pakistan would dominate CHOGM, at the expense of the real issues on Caribbean minds – like financial compensation for the end of sugar regimes, or the unfair demands made on African-Caribbean-Pacific countries in the Economic Partnership Agreements being negotiated with the EU.

But at perth where the Commonewealth conference has just ended, the menu was clear: a strong message against terrorism.

Terrorism has crept into Nigeria. It has also recently happened in member-countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Uganda, Kenya, India, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. Pakistan was very much on the same page on all issues: including the reelection of Sharma.

“Pakistan fully supports the extension in the term of Mr Sharma,” an official Pakistan statement said. India proposed 70-year-old Sharma’s name for a second term at the concluding session of the CHOGM and Pakistan seconded it. The move follows India’s backing of Pakistan in recent elections for a non-permanent slot in the UN Security Council.

But this will be an easy act for Sharma to follow, who, having been  Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Uruguay Round negotiator, Kofi Annan’s Special Representative to East Timor and also the editor of an anthology of poetry, knows a thing or two about reconciling contradictions. In his first term, Sharma replaced the well-loved Don McKinnon, former Foreign Minister of New Zealand who also completed two terms in the post . Mckinnon’s most endearing quality was his sense of humour, and Sharma proved he was not wanting in that department. When a Pakistan journalist asked if a 70 year old would be able to handle the strain of work of a second term Sharma (and not Australian Prime Minister and host Julia Gillard who made the announcement) said: “In life it does not matter how old you are, but how young you think.”

But Sharma will face significant challenges in his second term. At Perth, The Commonwealth has rejected the proposals by its Eminent Persons Group (EPG) advising the Commonwealth to appoint a Commissioner for Human Rights and also refused to publish its controversial report which political observers say is based only on the interests of a few countries.

Instead, the Commonwealth nations empowered their foreign ministers to intervene if member states denied their citizens of human rights or threaten the media or judiciary.
The Commonwealth leaders bowed to pressure from South Africa and Namibia and declined to publish the EPG report, which proposed the creation of a new commissioner on the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The concerns of the African nations, shared by India, feared what one Commonwealth source described as the “imperial overtones” in the report’s 106 recommendations.

Interestingly, Sri Lanka, which, could be argued is guilty of gross human rights vioilations against its minorities, has offered to host the next CHOGM summit due in 2013. Many of the western nations present at CHOGM, Perth are strongly critical of Sri Lanka. They will have to swallow their disapproval of Sri Lanka’s version of multiracial democracy.

The Commonwealth ministerial action group will also be empowered to pressure and condemn nations over cases of election rigging, detention of political leaders or postponement of elections. Australia praised the leaders for agreeing to all 35 reform proposals presented by the action group of nine foreign ministers, which is chaired by Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

“This will enable the Commonwealth to act, when a country has been veering off course in terms of democratic values and the rule of law, rather than waiting until it has gone over the cliff to a grossly unacceptable state, and the leaders would only have the options of suspension or expulsion,” the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Much is being made of the diplomatic triumph India has achieved in Sharma’s selection for another term – for there is no voting for the job. He came to the job with flawless credentials and experience. But now, he belongs, not just to India, but to the 53-member Commonwealth.

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Superhero not quite zero, but getting there

August 11th, 2011

Wildly popular Telugu actor but a spent political force, Chiranjeevi will merge his Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) with the Congress on 14 August. Blessing this union will be Rahul Gandhi.

In the absence of his mother who is recuperating from illness, this will Rahul Gandhi’s first ‘merger and acquisition’, never mind that he did very little work towards it. But more to the point, why is Chiranjeevi so important to the Congress? after all, wasn’t his electoral performance deeply disappointing ?

The answer lies in caste politics.

The problem with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh has always been a rapid turnover of Chief Ministers, but even the two most distinguished ones: PV Narasimha Rao and N Sanjeeva Reddy, who went on to become Prime Minister and President of India, were Brahmin and Reddy respectively. The Congress has never offered the people of Andhra Pradesh a Chief Minister from the  Backward Classes (BC).

The most prominent BCs are the Kapus: some sub-castes are considered backward while others are counted among the forward castes (in itself a conspiracy to divide them, but that’s another issue). Chiranjeevi is a Munnuru Kapu – from the forward among the backward. United, Kapus and other backward sub-castes can represent a politically electrifying force in Andhra Pradesh politics.

BC disempowerment has lain dormant but festering. Successive Congress governments tried to balance the politically dominant and economically prosperous Kamma and Reddy castes with a judicious combination of BCs but this left everyone dissatisfied.

Caste consolidation as a means of politics was first achieved by the Reddy community that dominated the politics of the south India. It is the wealthiest, most powerful caste and highly educated, although, the sixth President of India, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and some of the chief ministers of the State of Andhra Pradesh and many notable Reddy personalities come from middle class and very poor families.

Dr. Bejawada Gopalareddy served as chief minister of Andhra State from March 1955 to October 1956. Ten of the twenty elected Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh including Kiran Kumar Reddy, the present incumbent and son of the late Dr. Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy, are from the Reddy community. Though in Andhra Pradesh the population of Reddys is 11 per cent, the community  occupies 40 per cent  of the state legislative assembly seats. The community is very divided along sub case and even religious lines. For example, YS Rajasekhar Reddy was Christian, Chenna reddy belonged to the Kapu community and Anjaiah belonged to the Gone sub-caste. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy belonged to the Pakanati sub-caste.

Reddy dominance was challenged by the Kamma community, also rich and politically powerful, from the coastal Andhra districts who joined up behind NT Rama Rao in the early 1980s. The rallying cry was Telugu atma gouravam (pride) but the Telugu Desam Party actually represented Kamma empowerment.

Things got so bad for other castes that in 1988, Vangaveeti Ranga – a politician who was from the Backward Castes (BC) - sat on a hunger strike citing a threat to his life from the TDP and was actually murdered. But even this did not really result in BC consolidation for want of leadership.

When Chiranjeevi arrived on the scene, everyone thought a new force had been born. But caste or no caste, some traits don’t change. In the highly feudal politics of AP, Chiranjeevi let his family and subcaste followers establish a stranglehold over him. The result  was a a huge electoral disappointment. The party won just 18 out of 294 assembly seats in the 2009 elections.

All parties have recognized the importance of theBackward Castes. Before the 2009 assmebly elections, Congress Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy announced that 33 per cent of the
seats would be given to BCs. TDP bettered this: it said it will give 40 per cent seats to BCs. This is clearly in anticipation of the Chiranjeevi factor.

But the consolidation of the Munnuru Kapus and BCs  turned out to be a dream. Chiranjeevi’s
Praja Rajyam was not the runaway hit it was expected to be. Now, he is joining the Congress.
How will this impact that party? First, it will act as an electoral bulwark against the onslaught of Jagan Mohan Reddy, YSR’s son. It will stabilise the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh.

Second, it might defuse at least part of the demand for Telangana. PRP was strongly for Telangana and said so at the all party meeting held in december last year. Now when he is joining the Congress, the actor will have to tweak his demand somewhat.

Any way, Chiranjeevi’s entry into the Congress will liven up things a bit. Watch out for him.

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The Afghan enigma

July 21st, 2011

Within days of the visit of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan religious leader who heads the High Council for Peace, US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton is in India. So business, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan are very much on the agenda as the first set of troops from the multi-national military force to keep Afghanistan stable, exit from the country.

What exactly is happening in Afghanistan? The Afghans say they are victims of foreign forces as well as sitting ducks in the feuds between the Taliban and anti-Taliban groups. The principal one among the latter is Hikmatyar group. But on his last meeting with Hamid Karzai, Qutbuddin Hilal, deputy in the Hikmatyar group put new demands: fresh elections and withdrawal of all foreign forces. This is impossible for any regime in Kabul to accept at this point.

There is little clarity about the aims and motivations of the Taliban itself.  It is most definitely not homogenous and does not have the support of all or most Afghans. The problem of course is, there are so many forces in Afghanistan - the Taliban, Mullah Omar, Hikmatyar, Wahabis, Pakistan Taliban, the drug mafia, Al Qaeda, ISI … Whom should the world negotiate with? Moreover, when dealing with Taliban how does anyone know they are negotiating with the right set of people and not imposters?

The US’s view of Taliban is – it is an extension of Al Qaeda. But those who live in South Asia know this is not the only Taliban.

from their point of view the Taliban are in a sweet spot. When they are in the ascendance, why should they talk to anybody? They already know that the military conditions will start changing now, as first set of western troops begin their departure from July 2011.

Reintegration of the Taliban is possible. Many have reintegrated. But two things have to be borne in mind: one - most of the suicide attacks have been carried out by reintegrated Taliban; and a US report says Taliban come from training, join the police force, get a gun, sell it and buy more weapons. The rate of desertion in the Army – which is one avenue for reintegrated Taliban – is very high.

The Taliban is disciplined and well organized. Diversity of opinion cannot lead to a split in their ranks. Mullah Omar’s personal prestige remains unchallenged. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is irrelevant. It is the Taliban and the Haqqani network which are central. Taliban can neither be defeated nor reconciled and only marginally integrated.

In the circumstances, what should the strategy in Afghanistan be?

First there is no unanimity about what the war is about and what the Western powers want to achieve. Some say it is a civil war. Some say tribal warfare. Other descriptions are that it is a global war against terror, that it is an energy related conflict, that it is a clash of two sets of Islamic fundamentalists and there is even a suggestion that it is an India-Pak war by proxy.

As long as there is no consensus on the definition, the conflict will continue.

Of all the global players in Afghanistan, the US and its allies are currently the most important. But the US is inconsistent about who its friends and enemies are in this region. One day, Pakistan is a strategic partner. The next day, it is a failing state.

And then, there are signs that management of Afghanistan could become a domestic political issue in the US with the forthcoming elections. This is worrying for although there is bipartisan support for the Afghan strategy, domestic politics could influences choices being made in Afghanistan.

There is also lack of clarity on US exit strategy. They are going out from Afghanistan but not leaving.Will they have permanent bases in Afghanistan or withdraw totally? All this not clear.

Post-exit also there are many questions: are they for reconciliation or not? What is their vision of a political solution? Currently there is a disconnect between the present government in Afghanistan and the US, especially on reconciliation.

Unfortunately even Pakistan doesn’t have too much faith in the US any more.The US is unable to put a stop to Arab nations’ funding of the Taliban.

But one thing is clear: There is cautious optimism in the Afghan military that the surge is working. The military surge has been successful in some places including North East, North and the North West. But it has been most successful in the Northern Areas. There was a time when it was not possible to travel in the Northern Areas because the Taliban were everywhere. Now things are better.
Obviously the US and others will not be in  Afghanistan forever. How can Afghanistan be trained to look after itself?

Two thirds of Afghan national police does not have a roof over its head. What is the incentive for it to fight? This represents an unbelievable failure on part of international community. Large sums of money were allocated to give equipment and create infrastructure for the Afghan security forces. Where has that money gone?

Not enough thought has been given to the kind of training in policing Afghanistan needs. Does it need normal police or a counterinsurgency force? What about the ethnic composition of the security forces?

All these are questions on the worrying Af-Pak discussions that Clinton and Krishna should focus attention on.

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A reluctant politician

July 15th, 2011

When Prithviraj Chavan learnt that it was he who had been chosen to succeed Ashok Chavan as Chief Minister of Maharashtra, his voice reflected dismay rather than joy.

“Oh no” he told this reporter. “Can you check again? Are you sure?”

Certainly not the ecstatic response of a man with ambition.

When he returned to Delhi to consult the high command on his cabinet, he looked tired and depressed. Soon after landing in Mumbai, before getting out of the VIP lounge to face reporters and TV cameras, he thought he would comb his hair. Immediately one dozen flash bulbs went off and his picture, comb in his hand, disconcerted smile on his face, appeared in the papers the next day with clever captions like ‘Combing Operation’, etc.

“It’s like living in a fishbowl. You are under scrutiny all the time, innocent remarks are twisted and the vested interests….!’ he had sighed.

Now, Chavan mild-mannered and polite no matter how much pressure he was under, has had to show his teeth when the BJP clamour for his resignation has begun in the wake of the bomb blasts in Mumbai. “I was under pressure in Delhi also, when I was Minister of State. But this is pressure of an entirely different quantum” he confided.

In Delhi, Chavan had a very different profile. His job was being an underling to a man he admires deeply. But the nature of the job is such that that no MoS (PMO) has ever lasted his (or her) full term with the exception of Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi in P V Narasimha Rao’s PMO.

Sheila Dikshit found herself jobless within a year of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure and Vasundhara Raje was given specific charges instead of an overall grandiose portfolio of junior minister in the PMO and then packed off to Jaipur after serving a short spell in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government.

The job is what you make of it, and experience suggests that most incumbents tend to make too much of it.

But Chavan, an egghead politician, if there is such a thing, was young, idealistic, and a professional who shares Singh’s world view in respect of intellectual honesty and Calvinist ethics.

Although Chavan belongs to a political family — both his parents were MPs from Karad in Maharashtra and his father a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet — he studied at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and having qualified as a design engineer, got a Unesco fellowship to study in Germany.

From there, he went to the University of California in Berkeley in 1967-68 in the thick of the student revolt. Having grown up with politics at home, Chavan was enchanted by Joan Baez and long hair, but power politics was passé.

Having graduated, he joined Aerospace Industries and worked there for three years. Electronic design fascinated him and he returned to India to set up an R&D and design lab for information technology in 1974.

Chavan had his first brush with politics as a grown-up in 1983-84 when he met Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi had quit his job and joined politics. He wanted to develop a database for computing in Indian languages, so that land revenue records could be computerised. Chavan was developing a programme along precisely those lines.

The two clicked instantly and Chavan was given a ticket to contest from Karad in the 1984 election as a ‘direct entrant’. He won the election despite warning Gandhi that he would be resented by the existing satraps.

Gandhi waved aside all his objections: “There must be thousands of engineers better than you, but they can’t win an election,” Gandhi told him. Karad fell in Sharad Pawar’s sphere of influence in Maharashtra politics, so it was by no means a ’safe’ constituency. But Chavan won that election and all the following ones, increasing his margin each time, except in 1999, when the Congress split and he elected to stay with the Congress rather than go with Pawar.

In this, Chavan only did what his parents had done before him. Through the splits in the Congress in 1969 and 1978, his parents stayed with Indira Gandhi believing the Congress had to be supported as a mainstream political alternative, not a regional outfit. Chavan agreed with this view.

It was widely expected that he would become a minister in Narasimha Rao’s government. But he was identified with Pawar, an impression that couldn’t have been further from the truth. But Chavan got on well with Manmohan Singh and tried to learn from him, recognising that he was in the company of a visionary.

There were many ministers in that Parliament, but few MPs who tried to defend Singh’s reforms. Chavan understood Singh’s grand plan and liaised closely with him to give political underpinnings to reform.

Chavan lost the 1999 election because of Pawar. He came to the Rajya Sabha in 2002. He would have contested the Lok Sabha election this time, but the Nationalist Congress Party bagged the seat.

Chavan was Congress spokesman and has had a long innings in Parliament. He is quiet, intense, and efficient. He has already shown his mettle in Mumbai. A couple of bomb blasts are not going to hold him back.

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Plodders, not racehorses, on the podium

June 29th, 2011

Two important bureaucratic appointments this month suggested it was back to the rule of the ‘seniormost’ principle. Ajit Kumar Seth, a strictly middle-of-the-road bureaucrat was appointed Cabinet Secretary and  Ranjan Mathai, efficient, competent but by no means brilliant, was appointed Foreign Secretary. The two men have two things in common: they are the seniormost in their batch; and in their careers, they’ve been plodders, rather than racehorses.

These appointments are something of a revolution, given the way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has handled such postings in the past. The UPA superseded 12 (or is it 16) bureaucrats to appoint Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary in 2006. This meant that when he became National Security Advisor (NSA) in 2010, he was the juniormost officer in the hierarchy – Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar was 1970 batch; Defence Secretary pradeep kumar and outgoing home secretary GK Pillai were batchmates (1972 batch). In the past the NSA has concurrently been Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (Brajesh Mishra) or such a senior diplomat that no jury of his peers could come close to judging him (JN Dixit).

In the case of the cabinet secretary the pendulum swung to the other end. The outgoing Cabinet secretary was on serial extension leading to the impression that no bureaucrat in successive batches was good enough to be considered for the job. K M Chandrasekhar was appointed in 2007 and retired in 2011, which makes him the cabinet secretary with the third longest tenure of service after BD Pande (1972-1977) and CR Krishnaswamy Rao (1981-85).

This time, the government has opted to play safe. Uncontroversial, low-key officers not prone to rocking boats will man key posts. This could mean two things: no turf will be touched and there will be no hurricanes in Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen, any way); and the dream of the Performance Management division in the Cabinet Secretariat, that  the Indian bureaucrat will be one who will rise in the service in direct proportion to his performance and not merely on the basis of seniority, will continue to be what it is – a dream.

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Tale of rising Sun and falling Maran

June 7th, 2011

Dayanidhi Maran is in the news again for the wrong reasons but not because of family politics this time: although the proximate cause is Sun TV, the primary business run by Marans.

Sun TV was given space in Anna Arivalayam, the headquarters of the DMK, as a propaganda channel for the party. It was seen as an offshoot for the DMK newspaper, Murasoli, first edited by Karunanidhi but later handed over to his elder sister’s son who came to be known as ‘Murasoli’ Maran —- a lawyer also engaged in journalism, cinema and politics, like his maternal uncle. In 1967, for the first time, Murasoli Maran became MP for south Chennai in the Lok Sabha. While Karunanidhi stayed in the state legislature from 1957, Maran became his uncle’s ears and eyes in Delhi. This is probably why Dayanidhi Maran, who inherited his Lok Sabha seat, also thought he had inherited the political role of his uncle. The difference, of course, was Maran knew the party structure and workers personally. Let alone identifying workers individually, Dayanidhi often did not recognise or accord importance to ministers and party elders. So the disquiet began here.
 
Sun TV, which was managed by brother Kalanidhi grew to become a huge commercial success. Being located where it was, it never had any pretensions to being anything other than a propaganda channel. But in Tamil Nadu, propaganda is much more sophisticated than in other states — the subliminal message is delivered more skilfully. Sun TV’s editorial content was closely vetted but also afforded a certain amount of autonomy.
 
When Sun TV was set up, about 20 per cent of the shares were held by one of Karunanidhi’s wives. Just before the IPO, the Marans offered to buy out the shares. Karunanidhi thought he had made a killing. His children, when they came to know of the sale, knew otherwise.
 
Misdemeanours mounted. Although the heir apparent in the DMK has been Stalin, it took him four terms in the assembly to become a minister. He went through the mill. Not so Dayanidhi, Harvard educated and responsible for bringing investment in telecommunications and IT to Tamil Nadu. But with his brother’s fortune — Kalanidhi Maran is counted as one of India’s 25 richest individuals with a personal fortune in excess of $1.5 billion — many saw for the Marans a bright political future. Today the family owns 19 TV and cable networks and also seven FM stations all over the south. In Tamil Nadu the “Sun” has a monopoly in the cable TV domain. Soon this family too began to believe it could control the DMK and saw no reason to kow-tow to the second generation of the extended Karunanidhi family — his four sons and two daughters from three wives. Stalin is his second son from wife Dayalu.
 
Karunanidhi has done five term as party leader and chief minister. The DMK’s founder C N Annadurai died in 1969 and Karunanidhi amended the party constitution and became President for the first time in the same year. He had four terms as CM: 1969, 1971, 1989 and 1996. With Murasoli Maran in Delhi and Karunanidhi in the state, the party had a strong ideological base — Maran was responsible for ideation. But Dayanidhi?
 
However, the Maran family believed it could use its media clout to build up Dayanidhi. Hence the opinion polls conducted by Sun TV and Dinakaran citing Dayanidhi as the most efficient cabinet minister from Tamil Nadu in New Delhi. The first to object was the PMK whose representative Anbumani Ramdoss was health minister. But the DMK also found Maran’s image-building objectionable, so Karunanidhi told Dayanidhi to suspend the opinion polls. When violence broke out in Madhurai resulting in the loss of three lives and serious damage to machinery, the Marans demanded action against Azhagiri, Karunanidhi’s eldest son who has charge of the DMK in the city. The Marans stayed away from the function felicitating Karunanidhi for completing 50 years in the legislature. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi attended the meeting.
 
Recognising they had a crisis on their hands, Karunanidhi called a meeting of the DMK’s general council. A resolution censuring the Sun group and calling for the removal of Dayanidhi Maran as cabinet minister was passed unanimously. Not one member of the party defended Maran.
 
Maran went to see his uncle to hand in his resignation. He was first kept waiting. Then his uncle asked him to send it to the Prime Minister. That was the end of Maran. All the posters of Dayanidhi Maran which had plastered Chennai and other cities vanished overnight. He was an untouchable, and all it took was one week.
 
Now it transpires that one of the most important industrialists of Tamil Nadu, C Sivasankaran was asked by Dayanidhi Maran to invest in Sun TV, in return for telecom licences. Maran is denying this hotly. The bigger question is: Did Karunanidhi know about this deal?

With all the hullabaloo over Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi probably doesn’t want to worry his head about Maran. But where is it all going? 

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All-in-one President’s man

June 1st, 2011

It’s that time of the year again. Ahmad Patel is out, meeting people, networking, assessing, evaluating. A Cabinet reshuffle is nigh. And who else will manage it if not the political advisor to the Congress President?

Background

Ahmad Patel has been a constant in the Congress through all these years, although many other ambitious Muslims in the party have deserted it. When the rest of India fell to a wave of anti-Congressism and the Janata Party came to power after the 1977 general election it was Gujarat that saved the day for the Congress, sending to the Lok Sabha a handful of MPs. Then under 30, Patel was elected from his native Bharuch district, a region that still swears by him though it may not elect him from there any more.

Today, when younger politicians question Patel’s political antecedents (he has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1993) they are probably unaware that he was not a member of the sixth but also the seventh and eighth Lok Sabha and was president of the Gujarat unit of the Youth Congress from 1977 to 82.

While his election to the sixth Lok Sabha established him as a political leader of promise, it was during his second term in the Lok Sabha –- 1980-84 -– that Patel really came into his own. Rajiv Gandhi was being groomed to take over and the young, slightly shy Patel found favour with the young leader. Eyewitnesses recall that whenever Gandhi visited Gujarat, Ahmed Patel would rush toward his aircraft carrying a plastic bag containing sev bhusa, chura and peanuts, Gujarati delicacies that Gandhi was particularly fond of. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv came to power in 1984 with a brute 400 plus majority in the Lok Sabha, Patel was promoted rapidly as party apparatchik: he was made joint secretary of the Congress, briefly appointed parliamentary secretary and made general secretary of the Congress in addition to handling his responsibilities as an MP.

At this time, Gandhi had as his closest advisors, a team of three -– known as the Amar Akbar Anthony of the party. Arun Singh, his Doon School friend became Amar; Oscar Fernandes, the man with a penchant for Indian classical dance, became Anthony; and Ahmad Patel become Akbar.

By 1986, Gandhi had formalised his plan to substitute the older Congress leaders with his own boys. Patel was sent back to Gujarat as the president of the party unit in the state. The more flamboyant Muslim leaders of the time, like Tariq Anwar, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and Arif Mohammad Khan found themselves eclipsed. Slow and steady Patel plodded on in the race, eventually to win it.

This is partly because of Patel’s reputation for personal integrity. After Gandhi’s death, there were blandishments aplenty: Narasimha Rao beckoned to offer him a ministership, for he could have done with a credible Muslim face in his council of ministers. Patel rejected all of it.

He had lost the Lok Sabha election. A friend, Najma Heptullah, got his guest accommodation in Delhi’s Meena Bagh. Rao was having none of that. His son and daughter were both taking board exams. In the middle of the exam season, Patel was told he had three days to vacate the house or face action. He hasn’t forgotten that to this day. “Accept something from that man?” his supporters said scornfully later.

What he did accept however, was the secretaryship of the Jawahar Bhavan Trust, a project begun by Rajiv Gandhi, visualised as a think-tank for the Congress, but pushed in real earnest by his widow Sonia in the years after his assassination. In fact, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, housed in the Jawahar Bhavan premises was offered –- in the first budget presented by then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh -– an outlay of Rs 20 crore which was rejected with dignity and becoming grace by Gandhi. It was Patel who worked tirelessly to raise money and drove contractors and others to finish the project. Since its inception, the Foundation has undertaken work that has been non-partisan and free from party affiliations. Patel has been a trustee of the Jawahar Bhavan and the RGF ever since.

The appointment, as can be imagined, gave him a unique opportunity denied to other congressmen -– access to Sonia Gandhi. Unlike Shiela Dikshit, equally close to Rajiv Gandhi during his days in power, or ND Tewari, he did not join the group that tried to break from the Congress during the Rao regime, although personally and politically he got little from the Rao years of the Congress except membership of the Congress Working Committee, the penultimate political decisionmaking authority in the party. While he was unfailingly polite to Rao, he never accepted his authority. He never forgave Rao for allowing the Babri Masjid to be demolished and campaigned overtime for his removal when it became clear that there were alternatives to him.

But for Patel those were lonely years, mitigated only by the vast network he has created as a result of holding so many party positions. This was demonstrated most clearly during the party conference in Tirupathi in 1993 where after years, elections were held to the CWC. He got the third highest number of votes, presumably a result of past favours.

The period from 1996 to 2000 was a period of great instability in Indian politics, but it was nothing compared to the instability in the Congress. Much of the politics in the Congress was dictated by the governments it had been supporting. When Sitaram Kesri was elected Congress President, Ahmad Patel lobbied strongly for Kesri against Sharad Pawar, one of Narasimha Rao’s ministers who was also in the running for the same job.

After more than seven years of widowhood and silence, Sonia Gandhi couldn’t take the decimation of the Congress any more and decided to jump into the fray herself. In 1999, Jitendra Prasad, for a while Political Advisor to Narasimha Rao, decided to take on Sonia Gandhi. He wasn’t serious about the contest: he just wanted Sonia Gandhi to tell him to retire. Patel told him she would invite him to tea. He kept waiting. The invitation never came. This was Patel to Gandhi, telling her it was better to win the presidentship and then invite Prasada to call on her.

Popularity in the party is a double-edged sword. Kesri used to say: “the Gandhi family is like the sun. You are in danger of getting burnt by it if you get too close to it; but you can’t do without its warmth, either”. Patel’s closeness to the Gandhi family is undeniable. But unlike others, he resisted the temptation to use it to leverage personal business. Those who have seen him in action say he can raise Rs 30 crore in Gujarat in 30 minutes by making a few phone calls. Reporters have been witness to sackfulls of currency notes going through his office to ‘facilitate’ this or that election. And yet, till today, there has never been a single charge of financial malfeascence against Ahmad Patel even after he was appointed treasurer of the party (1996-2000).

This largely because he is personally a man of austere habits. He is not one to wine and dine or have kabab and biryani parties to win friends and influence people. There are two occasions when corruption charges were voiced against him: and he announced that if they were proved he would quit politics. One was by former Mizoram Governor Swaraj Kaushal some decades ago; and the other, more recently was his role in funding an operation to secure the support of some BJP MPs to get them to quit their party and vote in favour of the ruling coalition, during the final confidence motion against the Manmohan Singh government after the Left parties pulled out. Patel was exonerated by a parliamentary committee that went into the incident.

It is not that Patel is a particularly prosperous man. His money belongs to his wife whose family owns large tracts of land in Bharuch and were local zamindars. He himself is fondly referred to as “Babu” in his village Piraman in Ankaleshwar, Bharuch. It was he who encouraged the chemical industry development at Ankleshwar and especially the Jamnagar refinery, something that brought him extremely close to the Ambani family, both father Dhirubhai and son Mukesh. Patel was also instrumental in bringing IPCL’s Gandhar project to Bharuch in the early 1990s which was initially planned in Andhra Pradesh. The project created huge employment  opportunities for the locals.  But it was Patel who sat on a one-day fast in November 1994, to call attention to the environmental dangers of additional chemical industry development in the area.

But Patel’s links with Bharuch began to break when he lost the Lok Sabha election in 1989. Since 1993, he has been taking the Rajya Sabha route to politics.

Patel is deeply religious. And yet, he doesn’t keep the beard and the shervani, symbols associated with religion. For, like Kamlapati Tripathi the doyen of the Congress who said that those who wanted to break the Babri Masjid would first have to break their pickaxes on his head, Patel too understands and is accepting of other religions including Hinduism, in the best Congress tradition.

But equally, in the best Congress tradition, he is not a particularly profound or inspiring politician. His speeches are pedestrian, his interventions are sensible rather than brilliant and he is a middle-of-the-road politician, an ordinary man of simple habits. Neither his children nor their spouses have embarrassed him  by showing any inclination to join politics. He handles money –- a lot of it -– but it leaves him unmoved.

The key to his politics is knowing key persons on first name basis. Congressmen who have never been heard of, know Ahmad Patel. The party is his party. He knows everyone, can anticipate how they will react, knows their backgrounds, knows what they will say. This makes him an institution in the Congress, a walking talking repository of institutional memory.

Patel has some peculiar traits. He works late in the night and Congressmen deep in the land of Nod are woken up by his call at 2 am, asking them to do this or that. He is extremely organised in the way he works: one mobile telephone is kept free all the time for calls from 10 Janpath. He never gossips, there is no loose talk and he has a thorough understanding of the bureaucracy and whom to deploy where.

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Strange bedfellows

January 22nd, 2011

It’s tough to be a Congressman in Tamil Nadu.

Just consider. First, it is the Congress which is shoring up the government in the state, but it is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam which has all the ministers and the veto power at the centre.

Why isn’t the Congress part of the ruling establishment in the state? Because the party doesn’t want to be tainted by association.

OK, so the party has to both defend and criticise the DMK.

Now consider: A Raja used to be a nondescript lawyer until he became environment minister and then telecommunications minister.

Suddenly he acquired a palatial home, his family began to look prosperous, he acquired new friends…

Then there were all these stories of corruption.

And who defended Raja ?

Obviously the DMK, because he was a member of their party. But most vociferously? the Congress.

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal attacked those who were critical of Raja including the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). That refrain was taken up by party general secretary Manish Tiwari.

And what did the CAG say? He said the government had suffered a presumptive loss and pointed out that there were four ways in which spectrum could have been auctioned.

Oddly enough, the CAG’s criticism was also voiced by all those who were sympathetic to Niira Radia, a big player in appointing Raja.

So what should the Congress in Tamil Nadu say or do? One of their most senior ministers in Delhi is attacking those who are criticisng Raja’s conduct. Raja is not from their party.

Difficult position to defend? You bet. That’s why, it is hard to be a Congressman from Tamil Nadu….

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‘No one is going to vote in Bihar’

September 18th, 2010

A conversation with an autorickshaw driver in delhi was revealing.

“You are from Bihar,” I stated, rather than asked him.

“How did you know?” he asked with a grin but answered the question himself: “I know. It must because of the way I speak”

“… and a very sweet lilt it is,” said I, anxious not to be misunderstood.

He was from Madhubani, the district that Jagannath Mishra belongs to and the heartland of fedualism. “There’s a drought there,’ he said.

I asked him what the political news from his village was.

“Well, no one is going to vote. They would like to vote for Nitish, but Lalu Prasad will win…” he said.

I pointed out the contradictions. “They won’t vote because of a drought? That’s silly. And how can Lalu Prasad win if the people vote for Nitish?”

“Ah, you don’t know Bihar,” he said. I confessed I didn’t.

“Nothing happens in Bihar because the people will it. Everything happens on directions from the bahubali (mafia). Nitish has done really good work. We think he should be given another five years – the roads, power, jobs…The way people talk about Bihar now…? They will have to eat their words if the state can have Nitish for another five years,” he said.

“So what’s the problem?” I saked a trifle impatiently.

“In Madhubani, people don’t have enough to eat. The government is making grain available but it is not available freely. You have to take somebody’s obligation to get ration. And then when the elections come, that obligation has to be repaid…” he explained.

What if Lalu came back?

“Then there is no hope,” he shook his head. “Gangs, criminals…”

Once he started talking about the paddy fields of Madhubani, it was like a breach in a dam. Words flowed out in a torrent.

“I haven’t lived there for 17 years. There is no safety, no regard for life. I’d like to go back, till the small plot of land my family has, set up a cottage industry… but what’s the point. People demand money even to let you exist. So I live here, in a slum but dream of the emerald fields of Madhubani..”

I had tears in my eyes when I got off the rickshaw.

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Mother of all conspiracy theories

August 22nd, 2010

I’m speechless. Reproduced below is a piece by Zaid Hamid, a Pakistani security analyst, and he says India is responsible for floods in Pakistan. This has to be the mother of all conspiracy theories.

the tone of the article is matched only by Indian analysts who predicted Pakistan would never accept flood relief from India because it was Indian. All wrong! Anyway here’s the piece. what do you think ?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—There is a very sinister aspect to the floods in Pakistan that no one is discussing in the media. While there were rains and flooding in some rivers of the country, the size, scale and the gush of water suddenly pumped into these rivers defies logic. This is especially true considering that rains have slowed down since the breakout of the floods on 29 July.

It is two weeks since the rains stopped but water continues to rise in the rivers Indus and Chenab. There was no flooding in India or in Afghanistan. Never before have rivers in all the provinces of Pakistan flooded at the same time without a similar act affecting the upstream, the source. While some parts of the country, like some areas of Khyber Pakhtun Khwa saw flooding in 1929, the simultaneous floods covering all of Pakistan and in all of the rivers flowing in from Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir is something truly unprecedented.

This speed and quantity of the gushing water and the short span of time in which it picked momentum preclude the possibility that water from melting glaciers are solely responsible for the floods.

There is no evidence that suggests that glaciers decided to melt at a faster speed just in time for the heavy monsoon rains.

There is every likelihood that what we are seeing today is that the Indians and the US-backed regime in Kabul are using water as a weapon for the first time to deluge Pakistan. There is no doubt about it.

From an initial look at the data, it seems that a natural spill of heavy rain was exploited by releasing water reservoirs in Indian-occupied Kashmir and on river Kabul. Let’s remember that the Met Office in Pakistan had already forecast heavy rains almost ten days before the first downpour. Different people received this news in different ways. Pakistani politicians, inept and incompetent as usual, slept over it. The anti-Pakistan terrorists based on Afghan soil and supported by several countries used this information to exacerbate terror against Pakistani citizens in the southwestern province of Balochistan, knowing that the State machinery would be distracted.

Interestingly, even when it comes to water, it is Indians where are sitting to the left and right of Pakistan’s borders. The dam on Kabul river is handled by Indian personnel, while tens of dams choke Pakistan from the side of occupied Kashmir.

RIVER KABUL

In February, the Obama administration organized a meeting for senior government officials in Kabul and Islamabad who handle agricultural issues. The meeting was strangely held in Doha, Qatar, on US request. The agenda was to force the Pakistanis to grant agricultural concessions to the US-propped government in Kabul, without Pakistan getting anything in return.

But in the meeting, Mr. Zahoor Malik, a senior Pakistani bureaucrat leading the Pakistani delegation, raised the issue of an Indian company with close links to the Indian government building a dam on river Kabul near the border with Pakistan. It is not clear what the Americans and Karzai’s officials had to say about this. There is a track record, however, that the incumbent pro-US government in Islamabad has often swept such issues under the carpet in order not to jeopardize Washington’s support for the Zardari government.

All major rivers flowing into Pakistan including the Indus are blocked by Indian-built dams.

US and British officials often defend India and dismiss Pakistani concerns as ‘conspiracy theories.’ Some Pakistani analysts accuse elements within US government and intelligence of using Afghan soil against Pakistan.

But imagine this: India, a country that faces a debilitating conflict over Kashmir with Pakistan, goes to build tens of small and medium sized dams on all the rivers flowing down to Pakistan, and everything is supposed to work out smoothly? Not possible, even theoretically. But luckily Indian actions on the ground more than strengthen Pakistani concerns.

After the first wave of floods, the other rivers were flowing normally and no extraordinary rains followed. But suddenly Chenab and Indus Rivers overflowed and the flow picked up speed, turning into a flood. India’s Baghliar Dam in occupied Kashmir opened its flood gates to cause a tragedy in the plains of Pakistan [Sindh and Punjab]. While Sarobi Dam – the Indian-maintained dam near Kabul – controls the flow of Kabul River entering Pakistan.  The same thing happened here. Monsoons did not lash Afghanistan and there was no flooding there of any magnitude. But again, strangely, water flowing from river Kabul into Pakistan dramatically picked up speed as water levels increased turning into a flood. The speed with which this transformation occurred could have happened only because of one of two reasons: massive rains in Afghanistan or because Sarobi Dam released large amounts of water over a sustainable period of time.

PAKISTANI POLITICIANS

ANP, a US-allied party with strong links to Kabul and New Delhi and ruling the Pakistani northwestern province, has always opposed the construction of the Kalabagh Dam which would have saved thousands of lives and property had it been there. The ANP has argued that building the dam would drown the city of Nowshehra. Ironically, ANP’s lie was exposed when not only Nowshehra but also Charsadda drowned without the Kalabagh Dam being there and thanks to the artificial floods created in Kabul River by ANP’s Indian and Afghan patrons.

[Earlier this year, Washington and New Delhi came to ANP’s defense on the Kalabagh Dam project by lobbying the World Bank to refuse Islamabad’s request for funding the dam. The Bank obliged and said it can’t fund the project due to Indian objections.]

OUR RESPONSE

 How Pakistan responds to this latest Indian water war and aggression is something that remains to be seen. What is confirmed is that the incumbent pro-US government in Islamabad is useless when it comes to defending the Pakistani interest. To be fair to this government, this unusual situation in Islamabad started under former President Musharraf and continues with the current ‘elected’ government with amazing continuity. This water aggression has proved more lethal than the TTP [so-called Pakistani Taliban] and the BLA insurgencies, both of which were started from the Afghan springboard to punish Pakistan.

Pakistan has taken another serious hit, more from its corrupt rulers than external enemies. These Indian Dams now need to be destroyed. India has declared war on us by exploiting and orchestrating these floods.

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