India Insight

India’s Telangana fight explores new frontiers in political attack ads

(Note to readers: contains slightly graphic language and an aggressively provocative image.)

Dear American political consultants: you might think you know how to produce negative political attack ads, but you have much to learn. Caravan magazine’s senior editor Jonathan Shainin on Sunday shared on Twitter what he called “Unquestionably the greatest political poster of all time.” I admit that I have made no broad study, but this ad, coming from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, seems to me to break some kind of sound barrier in the business. (Correction: I cannot confirm that this ad appeared in Hyderabad. A readers whose comment appears below tells  me that the ad appears in Tanuku in West Godavari District)

The Telugu-language ad features a local politician scolding Lok Sabha parliamentarian K Chandrasekhar Rao, a proponent of splitting Andhra Pradesh into two states. Reuters explains why creating a new state, Telangana, is controversial:

The ruling Congress party approved on Tuesday the creation of a new Telangana state, a move that has revived deep political divisions and raised fears of violence in the area, home to global firms including Google.

The decision to break up Andhra Pradesh and establish Telangana comes ahead of elections next year and critics say the ruling party is seeking to shore up its political fortunes after dragging its feet over the explosive issue for four decades.

State elections loom in Karnataka, a state split wide open

With legislative assembly elections in the state of Karnataka just weeks away, politicians are preparing for an ugly battle for a state whose political future looks wide open.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be hard pressed to hang on to its lead in the state after its once tight-knit leadership ranks frayed under corruption charges and infighting. Given their recent poor performance in the urban local body elections, they might have much to worry about.

“Infighting cost us. KJP (Karnataka Janata Paksha) and BSR Congress also took away our votes,” said state Higher Education Minister C.T. Ravi. But they don’t appear to be too unhappy because only about 30 percent of the state electorate was eligible to vote in the local polls.

When did Narendra Modi become a “poster boy?”

(This commentary reflects the thoughts of the author. It does not reflect anyone else’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Thomson Reuters Corp.)

I’ve encountered some interesting descriptions in the press of India’s political leaders. My favorite is “supremo,” which I’ve heard comes from British English. “Honcho” and “strongman” are common too. The one that catches my attention, primarily because I disapprove of it, is “poster boy.”

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was today’s poster boy, according to the Times of India print edition (I also see the article here). I’ve seen many more examples in recent weeks and months. Perhaps that’s understandable. Wherever you live, you will read a lot more about Modi in the next year because many people say that he will be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s selection for prime minister. As the most likely chief rival to the Gandhi family dynasty and its scion Rahul, Modi has captured the nation’s attention in a way that few other politicians have.

Women voters in India want to stand up and be counted

Several years ago, a dinner-table conversation about state elections in Himachal Pradesh veered towards a candidate who gave away pressure cookers to woo women voters. Of course, bribing voters is illegal, but I remember wondering whether all I wanted as a woman was a pressure cooker.

The Delhi rape case and the molestation of a young girl in Guwahati in Assam last year have underscored the place that women often occupy in Indian society. These incidents have made me wonder to what extent our country’s political parties will focus on gender inequality as they look forward to the 2014 general elections. How will they vie for the women’s vote?

Until now, political parties and their largely male leadership focussed on the ‘aam aadmi’, or the common man, a phrase which subsumes women. Politicians and other public figures don’t make much hay of gender inequality and many of the attitudes toward women that hurt a large portion of our society — and when they do, they’re often lacking. The best attitude that politicians often apply to women is a patronising one. Instead of focusing on women’s empowerment through education and awareness, politicians distribute saris, cookers and sanitary napkins.

Nine miracles Congress might expect from Rahul Gandhi

Now that Rahul Gandhi has assumed what many would say was his rightful place, expectations from him would be high. These will be all the more pressing within the Congress party, which will look to its new vice president to help it retain power. Here is a list of those possible expectations: Hook the young ones: Gandhi is widely presented as the youthful face of the 128-year-old Congress party. At 42, he is the youngest leader in the highest ranks. With 70 percent of India’s population below the age of 35, today’s young people form an irresistible voting bloc to court. Target Dalits and “backward” classes: Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the homes of Dalits and so-called backward classes, in particular in rural India, have been well recorded. You could say that it’s just politics and public relations, but Congress needs to show more support for groups that often gravitate toward smaller regional parties. Duplicate NSUI and Youth Wing experiments: This means tackling what federal minister Jairam Ramesh called “structural problems” within Congress. Gandhi has brought about vital electoral and membership reforms in the Congress’s Youth Wing as well as its National Students Union of India, providing a wider gateway for people to enter politics. Many Congress delegates at the party’s meeting in Jaipur demanded similar progress. At the moment, members in the top Congress body are nominated, and candidates for election are usually hand picked by the party high command. Image makeover: Congress needs an image makeover in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2014. Rahul Gandhi’s relatively clean image and straight-talk against graft could be the party’s hope at a time when corruption scandals threaten to end its 10-year rule at the center. New alliances, preserving old friends: Who knew that lacking political experience would be a job qualification? Gandhi, with this important note on his CV, can forge new alliances and nurture old friendships that are prone to developing cracks. The “Gandhi” name: The name and the party have been intertwined since India’s independence. Whether the brand value behind the name is good or bad is sometimes hard to say. Rahul Gandhi has a chance to eliminate the need to ask the question. If he can eliminate or minimize fighting among party members, this will help. Ground realities: Congress has been accused of being out of touch with reality. Gandhi will need to project a friendly face and speak realistic words to help the party’s image. Speaking of which… speak up: Though Rahul has been a politician for nine years, public speaking has not been his forte. He has rarely expressed his opinion on various burning topics. This has emboldened the opposition and given the media evidence to say that he is not ready for senior management. It’s time to share. Lead India into the new century: A thumping victory in the 2014 elections with Gandhi as vice president and leader of the party’s campaign committee for the elections would be nice. Congress workers will hope that he will be the party’s prime ministerial candidate as well, a trump card in the face of regional and hostile forces such as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister (and former Congress ally) Mamata Banerjee. That said, some dreams may be a little too unrealistic for now.

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.

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.

Has India lost its ‘cartoon’ humour?

The Indian government’s decision to withdraw a controversial cartoon from a political science textbook this week couldn’t have been more ironic. Just a day earlier, India had observed the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of its parliament, seen as one of the pillars of the world’s largest democracy.

While it is best left to our imagination as to why the cartoon, roughly as old as the Indian republic itself, created the controversy now, the government’s reaction to the row is alarming and sets a dangerous precedent. The cartoon shows India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, holding a whip as the father of the Indian constitution, B R Ambedkar, is seated on a snail. It was first published in 1949, and was reprinted in a textbook a few years ago – without anyone batting an eyelid. The cartoonist’s intent was to caricature the slow pace at which the constitution was being finalised.

The government’s decision now to withdraw the cartoon and subsequently review all textbooks could be perceived as an attempt to pacify a certain section of society. Ambedkar is an icon for the cause of the Dalits — India’s former “untouchables” – and is deeply revered by millions in the country today.

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.

Wikileaks cash for votes allegations implicate India’s Congress

India’s ruling Congress party offered cash for votes to pass a crucial 2008 confidence vote in parliament, a secret U.S. state cable released on Thursday said, embroiling Manmohan Singh’s beleaguered government in yet another corruption scandal that risks further opposition attacks on the graft-smeared coalition. File photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking to the media after his government won a vote of confidence in parliament in New Delhi July 22, 2008. REUTERS/B Mathur

File photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking to the media after his government won a vote of confidence in parliament in New Delhi July 22, 2008. REUTERS/B Mathur

The secret U.S. state department cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The Hindu newspaper on Thursday details a conversation between a senior Congress party member and a U.S. Embassy official surrounding the payment of almost $9 million by a government facing a crucial confidence vote to members of a regional political party to secure their support.

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