India Insight

Interview: Congress session will lead to changes – Sachin Pilot

After years in the shadows as a reluctant heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi is set for his own tryst with destiny, to lead the ruling Congress party in elections due by May that it has only a slim chance of winning.

Reuters spoke to Sachin Pilot, the country’s corporate affairs minister, on the Congress party’s strategy for the 2014 election, Rahul Gandhi’s style of working and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What is the Congress party doing wrong?
We have within ourselves perhaps far superior elements to take on conventional challenges today. But what we are not doing tremendously well is in the perception battle. Somehow, we have not been able to position ourselves as an alternative to most political forces operating today. What the Congress party needs to do now, I think what Rahul Gandhi wants to do, is to create an institutionalized mechanism for the party because this ad-hocism is not bearing fruit.

What does this institutionalized mechanism mean?
The idea is to empower the workers of the Congress party in ways that it doesn’t depend on individual dispensation. It becomes a structure, you are getting fresh ideas, fresh people and they are lured in not because of patronage from individuals but because the party offers that.

How would you be involved?
Every seat is different, every constituency is different. So yes, there will be some campaigning. Mr Modi feels that he can swing the eight states where the BJP has presence but don’t forget there are 14 states where BJP has no presence. So how many seats in parliament Mr Modi can get in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland Mizoram, Kashmir, I don’t know. The strike rate has to be 90 percent where they have presence.

In pursuit of the perfect lehenga in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk

Each evening, after pulling their shutters down, sari salesmen in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market sit down for three hours to fold their wares: embroidered, embellished saris and lehengas that customers browsed all day.

Lehengas, embroidered and pleated long skirts, are serious business in Chandni Chowk, a busy Mughal-era market whose name means “moonlit square”. Despite numerous boutiques and malls opening across New Delhi, the old wedding market has kept its charm, its customers and its business.

“If I have a design in my mind I can get it tailor-made, custom-make any designer, whatever it is, I can get that replica made. It might not be an original of Sabyasachi or one of the fancy designers, but it’s very close, you can easily pull it off as one of those designer pieces,” said Reena Bhardwaj, a 29-year-old journalist who recently bought a lehenga priced at 50,000 rupees (about $800) to attend a wedding.

from Expert Zone:

U.S.-India dispute: A diplomat and a double-standard laid bare

(The following essay is commentary. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Reuters)

Relations between the United States and India have crashed to their lowest ebb since the last millennium, something many Americans might have missed during the holiday buzz.  A spat over the treatment of a diplomat and her maid threatens the foundations of a key international partnership, and the implications extend far beyond foreign policy. This case could endanger American diplomats, businesspeople and tourists travelling abroad.

The fight began with the December arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul in New York.  Khobragade, a young mother accused of under-paying her maid and making a false statement on a visa form, says she was hand-cuffed, strip-searched, and thrown in a holding facility with violent criminals.  India regards her arrest as a violation of diplomatic immunity.  The United States argues that such immunity does not extend to consular officials.

Interview: BJP’s Harsh Vardhan slams AAP-Congress alliance in Delhi

By Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal

India’s Congress party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) entered an “unholy alliance” to share power in Delhi following state elections in the national capital, the chief ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in an interview on Dec. 31.

Harsh Vardhan, who lost the race for chief minister of the capital region to AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal, said he thinks that the Congress party and the AAP had “some sort of understanding” before the elections. He offered no proof. Spokesmen for the AAP and the Congress party denied these charges.

Kejriwal, 45, was sworn in as the youngest chief minister of Delhi on Dec. 28. The anti-corruption activist and former civil servant surprised India with his strong showing and is likely to create uncertainty over how the 2014 general elections and race for the prime minister’s seat will turn out.

Equity funds underperform Sensex for first time since 2008

India’s diversified equity mutual funds rose in 2013 but underperformed the broader markets for the first time in five years, as returns were dampened by the losses in the mid- and small-cap shares as well as financial companies.

These funds gained 4.8 percent on average in 2013, according to data from fund tracker Lipper, delivering lesser annual returns than the benchmark BSE Sensex after 2008.  The Sensex touched life highs in 2013 and ended 9 percent higher, boosted by foreign inflows of more than $20 billion.

Shares of smaller companies, however, underperformed, with the BSE mid-cap index falling 5.7 percent and the small-cap index sliding 11.2 percent. Waqar Naqvi, chief executive at Taurus Mutual Fund, said the sharp fall in mid- and small-cap stocks came as a surprise in 2013.

Business of new and worn banknotes thriving in Delhi

Rakesh Kumar is not like most of the street vendors in Old Delhi. The hand-painted sign on his wooden counter, “exchange damaged, old notes,” reveals a different story. He sells money.

For the past 40 years, Kumar has offered customers new banknotes for soiled or damaged ones for a fee that earns him about 100,000 rupees ($1,600) a year. It has also helped him pay for the marriages of his three children.

“We charge commission depending on the condition of the note,” the 58-year-old Kumar said while examining some 1,000-rupee notes nibbled by rats. “Around 30-40 people come to us daily.”

Reactions from India to the death of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in apartheid prisons to help guide South Africa to democracy, died on Thursday.

Mandela had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s decades-long non-violent resistance to British rule. India’s revered independence leader had also spent some of his early political years in South Africa, where he was involved in the struggle against racial discrimination.

The Indian government, which in 1990 honoured Mandela with its highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, declared five days of official mourning on Friday. Both houses of parliament were adjourned for the day.

India state elections: Exit polls give BJP the upper hand

By Aditya Kalra and Shashank Chouhan

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to win in four of the five states that went to polls over the past month, exit poll surveys conducted by Cvoter and the India Today-ORG group showed. Such a victory will be a boost for the party and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 general elections.

The results for all the states, except Mizoram, will be announced on Sunday. Here’s what the exit polls forecast:

MADHYA PRADESH: The BJP has been ruling the state for 10 years, and exit polls indicate the party will retain power in the 230-member assembly. The Congress party’s campaign, led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, helped it improve its tally as compared to 2008, but the BJP still has the upper hand, polls showed.

Connecting borrowers and lenders: Indians try peer-to-peer model

Srinivas Porika tried for months to get a loan of 250,000 rupees ($4,000) to pay for his sister’s wedding, but every bank he tried turned him down. The problem: Porika’s employer, a tech start-up company, was not on the banks’ lists of pre-approved companies.

“They were ready to give me a credit card, but were not ready to give me a loan,” said the 28-year-old from Hyderabad, who met several bank managers and officials to plead his case.

The wedding went ahead in 2012, but only after Porika dipped into his savings and borrowed from friends. With an insufficient bonus at work and pressure mounting to pay off his debts this year, Porika turned to a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending website.

Equity funds outperform in November; smaller shares rise

India’s diversified equity funds bucked the trend in the broader markets to eke out gains in November, as a strong performance by mid- and small-cap shares and sectors such as capital goods supported unit values.

Data from fund tracker Lipper, a Thomson Reuters company, showed that such funds rose only 0.21 percent on average in the month, but outperformed the 30-share BSE Sensex that fell 1.8 percent.

Mahesh Patil of Birla Sun Life Asset Management cited the outperformance of mid- and small-cap stocks as the “main reason” for positive returns generated by diversified equity funds in November.

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