India Insight

Mamata Banerjee: I’ve got Friday on my mind

Mamata Banerjee‘s threat that her ministers would quit on Friday unless the Indian government scrapped its plan to save the economy was her way of giving the government time to consider its options.

I told my colleague Aditya that in reality, it was probably a chance for her to reconsider her move because there was no way that the government would bend to her desires.

That’s not the most auspicious start to an American journalist’s attempt to call outcomes in Indian politics. The government’s reform plan, from which there was to be no retreat, no surrender … is in retreat.

The plot outline is simple: India must take urgent steps to fix its tottering economy, or risk a debt rating downgrade and other economic indignities that could lead to its worst financial crisis since 1991 when it had to ship all its gold to England and Switzerland to secure a loan to stay in business.

The United Progressive Alliance, a coalition government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, dropped a bunch of bombshells last week including:

Mining for votes in the middle of Coalgate

By Shashank Chouhan

It took more than 10 days for the chief of India’s ruling party to react to the ‘Coalgate’ episode that has tainted Manmohan Singh’s government and blocked parliamentary proceedings in the monsoon session that limped to its close on Friday.

But what was the reaction of Sonia Gandhi to alleged irregularities in coal block allocations that might have cost the treasury billions of dollars? Here’s what Gandhi told her party’s lawmakers at a meeting: “Let us stand up and fight, fight with a sense of purpose and fight aggressively.”

Instead of reprimanding her lawmakers over corruption allegations, she goaded them to take the fight to the enemy camp — the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Media reports about her speech said she made it clear that the Congress party must respond to the “negative politics” of the BJP in upcoming state assembly elections.

Congress reshuffling an empty deck?

The clock is ticking for the ruling Congress party. Ever since the national auditor’s report blew the lid off the 2G spectrum scandal, the second term of the UPA government has been clouded by incessant talk of premature general elections or who will lead India in 2014.

As rumours do the rounds of a possible reshuffle of the Congress party after the Budget session, one gets the sense that India’s grand old party is starting to prepare for national elections, even if they are two years away. And rightly so, especially after its disastrous performance in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the largest number of lawmakers to parliament. While no political party is likely to secure majority if national elections were to be held today, regional parties could hold sway.

The Congress’ present situation is a throwback to the 1960s when the party was trying to revitalise its functioning in the face of declining popularity and vote share. Indira Gandhi ruled India for eleven consecutive years, followed by another term later that was cut short by her assassination. After her son Rajiv came to power and his destiny followed his mother’s, the Congress returned to power for only one term until the UPA government came to power in 2004.

Advani’s “withdrawal” may come back to haunt BJP

As soon as former Bharatiya Janata Party president and political veteran Lal Krishna Advani announced that his role in the party and the Sangh Parivar “is much more than the post of prime minister” — he made it pretty clear that he may not be the preferred BJP candidate for the prime minister’s post in the 2014 general elections.

And soon the media and most political analysts made a pretty safe guess that the party would back current Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its next PM candidate. Yet others named Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley as strong contenders.

But a lot may happen between now and 2014. And as things stand currently, our next PM may be a coalition leader from one of the regional parties. Let us examine why.

Anna Hazare: PR superstar?

So it has come to an end for now. A fast by a 74-year-old man sparked nationwide protests against the political class in the world’s largest democracy and forced a government, already suffering from graft charges, even further on the backfoot. While we are on the issue of sporting analogies, let’s ask ourselves, how many of the statements made in media and civil society, about the UPA government scoring own goals and making unforced errors, are justified?

To start from the top, a few days before Anna Hazare started his fast against the government’s reluctance to table his and his team’s version of a key anti-corruption bill, called the Lokpal bill, the government’s PR machinery made one blunder after the other.

It allowed a Congress spokesman to use rather strong language on TV against Hazare. And later statements on record by union ministers Kapil Sibal and Palaniappan Chidambaram did nothing to turn the tide of public opinion increasingly turning against the government at its inability to crack down on rampant corruption.

VIDEO: Reactions to Anna Hazare’s agitation

Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption united tens of thousands of people across India. The social activist is now recovering from the near-two week fast in his home village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra. But the government still faces the challenge of passing the Lokpal Bill. Reuters spoke to a few people on the streets to get a sense of what the common man thinks about the anti-corruption debate.

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.

India’s grand old party in need of young blood

By Annie Banerji

With a cabinet reshuffle seemingly around the corner and the Congress party general secretary saying that Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old son of party chief Sonia Gandhi, had the potential to be a good prime minister, India’s home minister has now entered the fray to call for fresher faces at the highest level of politics.

In a recent interview with an Indian news channel, P. Chidambaram said that he does not consider the sixties to be the age of political prime in Indian politics; rather he feels sexagenarians in politics should step back from their positions, and leave cabinet posts for the young.

“I think we should have younger politicians. I firmly believe that we should have younger leaders. I think we should have ministers, including cabinet ministers, in their late forties and early fifties. I think those over 60, including myself, should step back,” he was quoted as saying.

The dog days of India’s bizarre summer of politics

Perhaps the government’s decision to push back the opening of the upcoming monsoon session of parliament was not the best idea. For as the dog days of the sub-continent’s sweltering summer drag on, the parliament-less politicians sweat from the sublime to the ridiculous in the baking heat.

From the haphazard ensemble of senior ministers that flocked to New Delhi’s airport to greet yoga guru turned social activist Swami Ramdev with more fanfare than is reserved for visiting heads of state, to the current conspiracy swirling New Delhi surrounding espionage chewing gum found in the finance minister’s private chambers, it has been a bizarre summer for politics fuelled by the hungry media in the world’s largest democracy.

Kapil Sibal, as Human Resource and Development minister, could have spent his summer break drawing up plans to overhaul an education sector that looks dangerously inadequate to deal with the demographic dividend of millions of young Indians that New Delhi likes to trumpet. Instead, he spent his days holed up in five-star hotels begging Ramdev not to stop eating, and playing it coy in press conferences after quietly ignoring veteran activist Anna Hazare’s demands for a stronger anti-graft bill.

DMK, Congress to untie the knot?

By Annie Banerji

Cast as the villain in high profile graft cases and reeling from its huge loss in the Tamil Nadu state elections in May, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) appears to be in freefall.

The party has declared an emergency meeting in the state capital to discuss potential strategies regarding the recently incarcerated daughter of the DMK chief, Kanimozhi and the party’s strained ties with the ruling Congress party, itself struggling to shake off its scam-ridden identity  and public resentment for its lack of initiative and inability to tackle corruption.

Controversy has been hovering over the DMK since last year when A. Raja, a key member of the party and then Telecoms Minister, was accused of spectrum allocation at discounted prices causing a loss of $39 billion to the national exchequer.

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