India Insight

Out of the DMK frying pan and into Mamata’s fire for Congress

Fresh from negotiating the continued support of one key coalition ally, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party heavyweights must now tackle the demands of the more politically canny and locally powerful Mamata Banerjee.

India's Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee speaks before giving the final touches to the annual budget for the railways in New Delhi February 24, 2011. REUTERS/B Mathur

As the bleary eyes of Congress negotiators turned over the morning papers on Wednesday after almost two days of political horse-trading with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the relief of front page headlines declaring the Tamil Nadu party’s climbdown will have been cut short by the ominous presence of Banerjee and her own seat-sharing demands in the political minefield of West Bengal.

Banerjee, Railways Minister and leader of the opposition in West Bengal, is commonly referred to as “Didi” – Hindi for elder sister – and can often appear to be spearheading a one-woman party.

Negotiations with the Trinamool Congress, with the savvy Banerjee courting a burning desire to end 34 years of Left Front rule in the state, and sensing a weakened Congress party that needs to balance a continued parliamentary majority with a strong performance in the state elections, may make the talks with the DMK look like a cakewalk.

As with the Tamil Nadu party, the simmering feud with Trinamool, which contributes 19 seats to the Congress-led coalition, comes down to seat-sharing in April’s state election. Banerjee has reportedly rejected demands from Congress to allow it to contest more seats than she is currently offering.

Does Swaraj hint at a more politically sharp future for the BJP?

India’s main opposition party, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have had much to crow about in recent months.

From the minute that the much vaunted Commonwealth Games began to – literally – crumble despite the hundreds of millions of rupees spent by the central government, a seemingly endless run of corruption scams linked to the ruling Congress party has seen much chest-beating and finger pointing from across the parliamentary aisles.
Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition

Riding high on damning headlines, and egged on by a lacklustre defence from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the BJP have trained both barrels on Congress, with party leaders Arun Jaitley, L.K. Advani and Nitin Gadkari missing no opportunity to squeeze government and corruption into each and every soundbite.

Where has India’s hawkish stance on China gone?

India’s complex diplomacy with China became further muddled on Friday as the chief of the Indian army categorically denied any troop build-up on either side of the Asian giants’ shared border in response to recent reports of Chinese military incursions into Indian territory.

India’s civil government and army officials strike a delicate balancing act in their position on the country’s powerful neighbour, with a hawkish military stance traditionally tempered by more reserved – but domestically unpopular – rhetoric from New Delhi.

A soldier of the Indian army stands guard in Medo village, an insurgency affected area, on the road to India-China border in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh September 6, 2007. Picture taken September 6, 2007. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

However that appeared to be out of date on Friday as General V.K. Singh, Chief of Army staff said neither side was bolstering its border troops, four days after trashing media reports of potential acts of Chinese aggression on Indian soil last September.

Is Congress digging its own corrupt grave?

Telecom Minister Kabil Sibal’s attack on the competency of India’s independent state auditor appears to show Congress’s growing desperation at its inability to silence corruption charges, and the inevitable backfire may illustrate just how out of touch India’s ruling party has become with the current political climate.

Kapil Sibal, Indian Minister of Telecoms attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 31, 2009. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

Last week’s allegations by Sibal of the “utterly erroneous” calculations in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) estimating a $39 billion loss to the exchequer during the 2008 2G spectrum sale have led to a barrage of criticism from opposition politicians and the CAG, and appear to have only resulted in increased pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is reportedly mulling a breach of privilege motion against Sibal – a Congress heavyweight – for his insinuation of “serious errors” in the independent investigation, the CAG has suggested his remarks were “in contempt of the House” and the opposition, already riding high on the ruling party’s seemingly endless list of corruption-related woes, accused the minister of attempting to “overreach the Parliamentary process.”

Forget journalistic ethics. The Radia tapes have wider implications

British press magnate Lord Northcliffe once stated: “News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising”.
Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group, attends the annual general meeting of Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai July 2, 2010 REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/Files
It’s interesting, then, that in a season of multi-billion dollar scandals that has seen India’s 24/7 news machine at its probing, questioning, investigative best, one — perhaps bigger and more serious than all the rest — has failed to make the hourly bulletins.

Taped conversations involving corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, anonymously leaked from a reported set of around 5,000 recordings made by India’s Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities, appear to reveal the unholy nexus between India’s business leaders and the political policymaking machine.

But due to the embarrassing proximity that the Indian media elite have to the most controversial dialogues amongst her web of business, political and journalism sources, full-blown coverage has not been seen.

Could Obama’s loss be India’s gain?

As the pundits predicted, India will have the inauspicious honour of being the first country to host U.S. President Barack Obama following the largest shift in public support away from an incumbent President’s party in over 60 years.
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a DNC Moving America Forward Rally at Cleveland State University in Ohio, October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

But if the results show a clear message of dissatisfaction at Washington from U.S. voters, the fallout once the dust settles on Capitol Hill could well result in good news for India.

Here are three ways that a shift in Washington politics could play into India’s interests:

Lauding defeat of US anti-outsourcing bill premature

The Senate might have quashed Democrat plans to force U.S. firms to produce jobs and profits at home, rather than overseas, but India Inc is wrong to think the danger has passed.Indian employees at a call centre provide service support to international customers in Bangalore March 17, 2004. REUTERS/Sherwin Crasto/Files

Over the past few weeks, India’s newspapers have been littered with stories surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on curbing outsourcing, and India Inc’s gross indignation at the White House’s intentions.

No surprise, then, to see bullish headlines following the Senate vote that effectively ended legislation dubbed the Creating American Jobs and End Offshoring Act. ‘India Inc cheers defeat of anti-outsourcing bill in US‘, ran one leading daily, while another led with ‘Anti-outsourcing Bill dies a quiet death in the US‘. Death is wide of the mark.

Tony Blair says India to be ‘one of the key leading powers of the world’

Forced to cancel book-signing events in his own country due to the threat of being pelted by eggs by anti-war protestors, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the publicity tour for his newly-released memoirs to India with an interview with the Times of India on Saturday.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a joint news conference in New Delhi, September 8, 2005. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore

In A Journey, which has caused a great deal of interest and controversy in the UK, Blair writes: “India remains , still developing, that manages to be genuinely democratic,” and this sentiment continues in the interview:

“I was very keen to move beyond the old-fashioned relationship… My view was India was going to be one of the key leading powers of the world in the times to come. The west in the 21st century, including countries like mine will have to get used to the fact that we’re going to have partners who will be equals, sometimes more than equals,” he says.

Are there too many sacred topics in India?

Protests and television debates on the apex court’s decision to OK  the publication of a book on Maratha ruler Shivaji, banned in 2004 by the Maharashtra government, has put India back in the spotlight on the question of freedom of expression.

India is secular and a democracy but a country with a billon-plus population — consisting of hundreds of tribes, clans and castes following myriad beliefs — can be pretty fickle when it comes to defining ‘sensitive’ topics and easily susceptible to parochial politics.

Bookstore

The list of subjects considered “sacred” in the country include the extended Gandhi family, Ambedkar, Periyar, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Veer Savarkar and maybe a few thousand more people, said an editorial in the ‘Mint’ daily.

Environmentalists cheer news of scrapping of power project

INDIA-VEDANTAEnvironmentalists are hailing news that India’s ministry of environment and forests has scrapped a proposed power plant by Larsen & Toubro in eastern India close to a nesting ground for endangered Olive Ridley turtles.

But Greenpeace is quick to point out that there are ports proposed near all of Orissa’s mass nesting areas, and that these should be denied permission, as well.

It is a tough fight, one that is pitting environmentalists, tribals and villagers against large companies and government agencies keen on tapping resources and building infrastructure to keep pace with India’s robust growth.

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