India Insight

Amid parliamentary impasse, MPs cheer more perks

By Annie Banerji

On the way to New Delhi’s international airport, three armed men lean out of the windows of a jeep, furiously waving at the steady stream of traffic to pull over.

As the cars swerve to the dusty edge of the highway, a convoy of a dozen sleek sedans zips past in a blaze of whining sirens and flashing red beacons, breaking all traffic regulations and leaving behind a tangle of vehicles in its wake.

A local politician is late for his flight.

Such situations are likely to become even more commonplace in Asia’s third-largest economy, thanks to a committee that this week submitted a report calling for all MPs to have flashing lights put on their cars to allow them to speed through the country’s clogged streets.

While India’s lawmakers cannot reach a consensus on key economic reforms in parliament (thanks to party infighting) due to shouting across the aisles and drowning out of the speaker, they unanimously rooted for a status upgrade on a list of India’s VIPs.

“MPs have zero work to show on their report card & yet have no hesitation in demanding increase in official status! Earn your increment Mr MP,” tweeted Rahul Kanwal, the executive director of Indian news channel Headlines Today, while “MPs” trended on micro-blogging site Twitter.

Swami Agnivesh turns to Bigg Boss in publicity quest

By Annie Banerji

India, touted as a land of mysticism and spirituality, boasts a large number of TV channels devoted to religion and faith. But for self-avowed Hindu reformist Swami Agnivesh, a former member of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare’s core team, the limelight of primetime reality TV was just too tempting.

Agnivesh sees it as an important medium to fight against exploitation, violence against women and the killing of unborn baby girls. But some have scorned a perceived publicity stunt gone too far.

Agnivesh, who controversially split from Hazare’s cadre of anti-graft warriors that mobilised millions against India’s corruption-smeared government, will on Tuesday appear on reality show Bigg Boss, India’s version of primetime hit Big Brother, in which contestants are under house arrest for three months with round-the-clock camera surveillance.

“Mother Monster” Lady Gaga set to surprise India with F1 show

By Annie Banerji

Curiosity peaked as international pop icon Lady Gaga kept the media waiting before her press conference In New Delhi. Would she don cow-like headgear (to commemorate her visit to India) or would she be wearing a dress made of stuffed animals again?

Usually known for her artistic public appearances coupled with an outlandish fashion statement, the “Born This Way” singer, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta, kept it safe — wearing a rather conservative Indian-designer dress and her hair dyed in the tricolours of the Indian flag, perhaps keeping in mind India’s conservative and religious social fabric.

The multi-Grammy award winner is in New Delhi on a four-day trip to perform for India’s maiden Formula 1 Grand Prix at an invitation-only show in a five-star hotel after the final race on Sunday.

India’s rich, richer than the French. Its poor, much poorer

By Annie Banerji

As India’s politicians struggle to manage an outcry over the definition of poverty — does earning more than $0.65 a day really mean you are not poor? — a new report shows the country’s rich doing very nicely from fast economic growth.

Rubbing shoulders with Singapore and Hong Kong, India appears in the top five countries where the affluent now have more than $1 million investable assets on average, according to the Global Affluent Investor study conducted by research company TNS.

“India and China have already surpassed major European markets like Germany and France. It’s interesting to see that the entrepreneurial spirit of people in these markets is already paying off in terms of personal wealth,” Reg van Steen, Director of Business and Finance, TNS, said.

Civil servants start following in Anna Hazare’s footsteps

By Annie Banerji

He came, he saw and he took the Congress-led government by storm with his 12-day fast against corruption at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi that became the epicentre of a national crusade.

But just a few days later, Hazare’s plea to hundreds of thousands of supporters to do more than just cheer him on and instead change their attitude to corruption looks to be bearing fruit.

Sipping coconut water and honey, 74-year-old Anna Hazare ended a hunger strike on its 13th day on Sunday when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government caved in to the demands of the veteran social reformer as parliament backed anti-graft legislation that met many of his demands.

Graft charges bite as Mayawati eyes polls

By Annie Banerji

While the government of India announced austerity measures in July to rationalise its expenditure in an attempt to meet its fiscal deficit target, the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh didn’t seem to get the message.

Mayawati, popularly known as the “untouchables’ queen” for her championing of poor, lower-caste Indians, has spent over $4 million from the state’s contingency fund without budgetary approval on renovation and new construction at her bungalow.

This year, her government will spend more for her house, personal security and comfort.

Despite Mumbai attacks, India’s coastal security caught off guard

By Annie Banerji

India’s western coastline remains vulnerable in spite of the triple bomb blasts in financial capital Mumbai in July which had raised questions about the failure of security services in preventing the attacks.

The abandoned merchant vessel MT Pavit, breaking the multi-layered coastal security, ran aground on the shore of Mumbai on July 30. The Panama-registered vessel began to drift towards the city shore after its engines failed near the coast of Oman.

India’s coastal security is an elaborate affair — the proficiency of maritime security comprising the Coast Guard, marine police and various other agencies including the Mumbai police is laudable on paper.

Is the world’s largest democracy yielding to politicians before its citizens?

By Annie Banerji

One would think India would be able to have a parliament worthy of its name to represent the world’s largest democracy.

But for many civil society activists, who have championed an anti-corruption campaign for months in the wake of government scandals, the Congress party’s ruling coalition is doing its best to water down a potentially game-changing anti-corruption bill which is slated to be brought to parliament during the ongoing monsoon session.

The Jan Lokpal Bill (citizens’ ombudsman bill), propagated by septuagenarian Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare, aims to form an independent, powerful institution to prevent corruption by prosecuting top officials.