India Insight

from Breakingviews:

India’s power vacuum needs to be filled

By Jeff Glekin

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi got trapped in the Delhi metro yesterday. If the two leading Indian politicians were indeed victims of the world’s largest electricity blackout ever, they would at least have an excuse for their lack of public response to this clear sign of policy failure. Actually, there was a response, but it was not what might be expected. The power minister was promoted to Home Minister and replaced with a part time substitute.

The promotion was not really a reward for failure; it was part of a planned reshuffle prompted by the move of Pranab Mukherjee from finance minister to the ceremonial role of President. Mukherjee’s tenure in the finance ministry was basically disastrous. He overturned the Supreme Court’s tax ruling in the Vodafone case and tried to retrospectively tax foreign investors. And he appears to have pursued these policies without consulting Singh, the prime minister.

Mukherjee and Singh have been playing mutually destructive power politics for years. The former appointed the latter as Governor of the central bank almost three decades ago, and seems never to have accepted fully that Singh had become his boss. The strained relations between the two politicians were made even more debilitating by the murky role of Sonia Gandhi, who holds no public office but has inherited the leading role in the ruling Congress Party. As they say in New Delhi, Gandhi has power without responsibility and Singh has responsibility without power.

Actually, the new cabinet provides one reason for hope, the re-appointment of Palaniappan Chidambaram as finance minister. In his previous four-year tenure, from 2004, Chidambaram worked well with Singh – and GDP growth averaged about 9 percent. He’s likely to appoint a new team in the Finance Ministry including the highly respected Raghuram Rajan, the ex-chief economist of the International Monetary Fund.

‘Powerful’ Mamata has much to lose

Time Magazine’s decision to name Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee one of the world’s 100 most powerful people couldn’t have been more ironic.

It comes at a time when the “populist woman of action” is drawing criticism from many quarters after some of her fledgling government’s recent decisions sparked public outrage and a media furore.

No doubt Banerjee is still powerful. She’s been instrumental in stalling some of India’s biggest economic reforms and key policy decisions. But the state of West Bengal is now facing the heat of her maverick actions.

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.

M.F. Husain, Swami Ramdev and the world’s largest democracy

M.F. Husain, India’s most famous modern artist, died at the age of 95 this morning, not in Maharashtra, his home state, nor New Delhi, where many of his ground-breaking works were exhibited, but in London, where he lived in exile with Qatari citizenship. The ‘Picasso of India’ has for five years felt unable to live and work in his country of birth.

Husain fled India in 2006, leaving behind court cases and death threats against him, and continued vandalism of his works from right-wing Hindu groups that accused him of insulting their religion by painting deities in the nude.

Husain, a Muslim, felt unsafe and unable to practice his particular art form in the world’s largest democracy. And he’s not the only one. Salman Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai but lives in the UK, saw New Delhi ban his Satanic Verses for its perceived depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Women power triumphs in state polls. What next?

The people’s verdict in the state elections of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu has put Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa in the chief minister’s chair. With Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, India will now have four women chief ministers — no mean feat for a country that usually associates politics with the male gender.

Still, the poll triumphs can’t hide that the road to women’s empowerment in India has plenty of bottlenecks. For one, critics of the Women’s Reservation Bill (which if passed will reserve one-third of parliament and assembly seats for women) have ensured the bill has remained on the table in the lower house of parliament.

And despite the examples of Indian President Pratibha Patil and Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, few can deny that the number of women in Indian politics is not commensurate with the corporate world where several Indian women hold sway over multinational companies.

Disruptive opposition blames government for parliament woes

A lack of accountability from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a failure of consultation by his ruling Congress-led coalition and too few days of legislative business, rather than opposition protests that smothered months of legislative debate, are to blame for the paralysis of India’s parliamentary democracy, the leader of India’s opposition party wrote on Monday.

Arun Jaitley

Making no reference to the weeks of protest by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that saw opposition members shouting, chanting and waving placards in the well of both houses to force the cancellation of an entire legislative session and threaten the passage of the 2011-12 budget, Arun Jaitley called for more “proper conduct” from Indian MPs in an opinion piece in The Indian Express that appeared to lay the blame of parliamentary disruption at the government’s door.

“In the last few decades the participation of prime ministers in parliamentary debates has declined. Their effective intervention is confined to reading written texts prepared by their offices. This is unacceptable… The PM has to be the most accountable in a democracy. His depleting presence in Parliament compels one to suggest (the British system of Prime Minister’s Questions) be successfully replicated in India,” Jaitley wrote.

Manmohan Singh: middle-class darling no more?

For nearly two decades, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the darling of the Indian middle classes, who saw the Oxford- and Cambridge-trained economist as a rare alternative to the stereotype of the uneducated, corrupt and criminal politician.

Prime Minister Manmohan SinghThat love affair had begun to fray at the edges of late, after Singh’s perceived inaction over several corruption scandals that had emerged in his second term as premier, but now, it may finally be over.

As thousands of mostly middle-class Indians across the country demonstrated in support of veteran social activist Anna Hazare’s hunger strike against corruption, the anti-government and anti-Singh mood was very much palpable.

The bitter truth behind BJP’s deafening budget silence

To some, the parliamentary walkout by India’s opposition prior to the vote on the country’s annual budget motion marked the failure of India’s ruling Congress party to engage with its primary adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), over its claims that the Prime Minister had lied to parliament to protect his own reputation.

To others, the sight of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj leading her MPs out of the chamber as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee prepared to deliver the most important parliamentary bill of the year encapsulated the sorry state of India’s increasingly bitter partisan politics that show no signs of repair since trumpeting corruption became the opposition’s raison d’etre.
Lawmakers and leaders of India's main opposition alliance led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) including Sushma Swaraj (front, L) and L.K. Advani (front, R) attend a protest against rising prices wearing aprons with protest slogans inside the premises of the Parliament House in New Delhi REUTERS/Stringer(INDIA)
Swaraj would later tell The Hindu that her walkout was to avoid disrupting the passage of the bill, but the damning point rang out loud and clear: the opposition had decided the corruption drumbeat was more important than the budget.

Mukherjee had earlier pleaded with senior BJP leaders to allow the budget to be debated prior to any discussion on a parliamentary privilege motion submitted against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by Swaraj, promising a two-and-a-half hour debate on the issue after the budget had passed.

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