India Insight

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.

The incident provoked widespread protests in India, and the government withdrew many privileges accorded to American diplomats.  Some, such as a suspension of the right to import liquor, are inconveniences.  Others, like the removal of security barriers outside the embassy in New Delhi, and issuing officials with ID cards noting that their bearers are subject to arrest for many offenses, could put U.S. diplomats in physical danger.  Indian officials have demanded an apology, but the United States has offered only a statement of “regret.”  The federal prosecutor who launched the case, said, “Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond” those to which she was entitled.

Why are Indians more outraged by a diplomat stripped naked than by a maid (also Indian) allegedly stripped of her pay?  For starters, there is a deep strain in Indian society that sees the forcible disrobing of a woman as an unspeakable humiliation. One of the most famous episodes in the ancient epic Mahabharata describes the heroine Draupadi being hauled before a hostile mob, and saved only when her sari becomes infinitely long as her assailants try to rip it from her body.  Modern-day India is wrestling with a rash of vicious gang rapes, and trying to deal with sexual humiliation of women that had traditionally been kept secret.  In this context, many were shocked by the spectacle of a government official denuded in a foreign holding-cell.

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.

India’s political parties pump up the radio volume

Anyone who keeps a radio turned on in India’s National Capital Region knows that election fever has settled on Delhi ahead of the Dec. 4 state polls. The ruling Congress party, main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and newcomer Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are betting big on radio campaigning — a medium that reaches millions of people across economic classes and backgrounds.

Overall, about 250 million to 500 million rupees ($4 million to $8 million) have been spent on radio advertising in this year’s assembly election in Delhi – at least 200 percent more than during the 2008 state elections, Sunil Kumar of radio consulting firm Big River Radio estimated.

The AAP, or “common man party,” led by Arvind Kejriwal, has allocated 20 million to 30 million rupees ($320,000 to $480,000) for advertising, with 60 to 70 percent for radio and phone calls, said Dilip K. Pandey, an AAP secretary responsible for their communication strategy.

Stan Lee bets on India for latest superhero success

Legendary comic book writer Stan Lee has someone in mind that he would like to popularize as much as his 1960s co-creation “Spider-Man”: “Chakra, the invincible!” said the 90-year-old Lee, his voice booming with the excitement of a freshman working on his first project.

The American comics veteran, who collaborated on the creation of superheroes such as Thor and Iron Man, helped create an Indian superhero in partnership with Graphic India. Chakra will make his debut as an animated feature on Cartoon Network in India later this month.

The teenaged character Raju Rai, who lives in Mumbai, will tap into the ancient Hindu belief of chakras or centres of energy in a human body. He and a scientist develop a suit that activates these mystic wheels, giving superpowers to Raju, who fights crime in India’s financial capital.

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