Quotas for the poor: All optics, no substance (or, Jumla #420)

by Ritwik on January 10, 2019

photo credit: Press Trust of India


The latest ‘masterstroke’ unleashed by the Narendra Modi government is the decision to grant 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions (these apparently include private colleges) to the economically weaker among communities which currently don’t enjoy the benefits of caste-based reservations (including Hindu ‘upper castes’, Muslims not counted in OBC lists, Christians, etc.).

For the moment, let us set aside whether this is, in principle, the right thing to do. The move simply looks like a non-starter. For the following reasons:

1. The limits of ‘economic backwardness’ as outlined in the legislation are bewildering. An annual income of 8 lakhs or a landholding of 5 acres is not ‘poor’ by Indian standards, especially given the widespread under-reporting of income. This is particularly true of non-professional classes. Indeed the move seems aimed at mollifying the trading communities which are longstanding supporters of the BJP and which have been upset with the implementation of GST.

2. Given the exemption limits drawn, vast numbers of people would be eligible for the 10% quota — thereby making the move redundant since it is extremely likely that more than 10% of the poor by this definition are already in government jobs and colleges!

3. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that extending reservations beyond 50% would constitute a violation of the right to equality. A previous move to fix quotas based on economic backwardness in the early nineties was rejected by a large bench of the Supreme Court. The move is clearly legally suspect, even if the government manages to push a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps even more worryingly, what’s with this government repeatedly introducing major policy measures (demonetization, land acquisition bill, etc.) at the very last moment leaving no time for proper consultation and amendment? Most political parties have supported the move to reserve seats for the economically backward. if proper time had been given, some of the glaring defects (outlined above and by other commentators) could be fixed, and something genuinely worthwhile could be passed. Is this the good governance (acche din) that was promised to the people – cynical political opportunism repeatedly trumping due process and sound policy making practices?

Given the cumulative impact of the above, this decision is likely to become another monument to Modi’s ability to get the optics right and energize his voter base, but not deliver anything substantial. The discerning would have no trouble detecting the pattern – Vibrant Gujarat summits (the vast investments promised have never materialized), the cleaning up of Sabarmati (a sham with about a kilometre of the river and its bank beautified for the sake of cameras), ‘ro-ro’ ferry (since discontinued), bringing black money back (self-confessed jumla), demonetization (the less said the better), GST (one nation, one tax, one common feeling of suffering and confusion), bullet train (turning out to be the most absurd white elephant), Ahmedabad metro (numerous other cities have got metros up and going, Ahmedabad still lagging behind), etc.

The 10% reservation for the economically backward gets the optics right (at least for most Modi voters and many fence-sitters) but like other jumlas, this too will culminate like the evergreen – mandir wahin banayenge, lekin tareekh nahi batayenge – aarakshan lagu karwayenge, lekin fayda nahi pahuchayenge.

Why Government Surveillance of Political Funding Imperils Democracy

by Ritwik on April 27, 2018

This was published in The Quint



The presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is not accidental. Rather, it is one part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

It has been five days since The Quint’s extraordinary exposé which revealed that electoral bonds – allowing individuals to make cashless donations anonymously to political parties – actually have unique codes on them which are visible only under UV light.

The presence of these codes raises the spectre of government monitoring of political funding. Not surprisingly, there has been no reaction from a government that needs a massive national and international push to even respond to graphic cases of rape, murder, or public lynching happening under its watch.

The Government of India today has at its disposal an elaborate architecture of keeping track of its subjects. At the center of this architecture lies the Aadhaar number, which is linked biometrically to each Indian, thus uniquely identifying them and all the services that Aadhaar is linked to, namely details of their bank accounts and transactions, telephone and electronic communication, tax information, details of the government benefits they receive, etc. to anybody who has access to the Aadhaar database.

Given that electoral bonds are to be purchased from banks, and that bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar, it is conceivable and in fact likely that the government can pull up at will the transaction history of each electoral bond, thus linking each donor, howsoever big or small, to the political parties that they donate to. Thus, the government has equipped itself with the power to subtly disrupt even basic health, nutrition, and educational services to political dissidents or the funders of its political opponents. This is also true of any entity, foreign or Indian, private or public, which is given or gains access to the Aadhaar database. It is not whether governments will use this power – the fact remains that modern technology (like Aadhaar), once linked to all aspects of one’s life, gives them this unprecedented power. After all, let us not forget that Nazi Germany would’ve been less efficient at disposing off Jews had they not had access to national lists of Jews prepared by IBM and other companies.

There exists a frustrating level of opacity about the relevant safeguards on the use of the data that the government is collecting on all of us. There is little clarity on the individual’s right to their own data, the period of time for which any bit of data shall be retained, rights-based restrictions to prevent misuse of data, and what parts of data and under what conditions can be shared with private or foreign entities. The opacity on these vital aspects is disturbing and frankly, frightening. Welfare oriented schemes are typically designed with safeguards and objective scrutiny built in. Current government of India actions embody the opposite of such practices.

It is clear from the above that, equipped with the secret codes on electoral bonds, combined with the general architecture of surveillance that now exists, the government can minutely track political funding. But, why is that a bad thing? Couldn’t an argument be made that government surveillance over political funding will make the political process, particular elections, more transparent and less corrupt?

It is well known that the absence of transparent funding mechanisms for elections, which are naturally extremely expensive given India’s size and diversity, is one of the major driving forces for corruption. For several decades, in fact, scholars who study Indian politics have examined this trend. Many of those scholars are united, however, in their view that the answer lies in state funding of elections, where parties would be allotted funds based on their performance (in terms of vote share) in previous elections across different levels. The current government of India, on the other hand, claims to be attacking the problem of corruption by introducing electoral bonds. The idea is to outlaw or disincentive cash funding of political parties, and have parties funded entirely by electoral bonds, and then for parties to reveal these details in yearly disclosures to the election commission.

On the face of it, it is difficult to determine how electoral bonds actually get rid of the problem of large scale corruption associated with corporate funding of political parties – because such funding can continue to be under the table as seems to be the practice today. In fact, recently the government removed long-standing caps on the percentage of corporate profits that can be donated to parties, thus opening up the political scene to even more corporate money. It is the relatively smaller (individual or company) donors who would mostly be targeted by electoral bonds. While the government claims that parties are not compelled to reveal the names of these relatively small donors, the Quint has exposed that it has nonetheless armed itself with the machinery to track such funding. It is very worrisome that the government seems to have been caught in an outright lie to the people.

While it is a worldwide practice to require corporations to reveal details about the politicians or parties they fund, since there can be clear conflicts of interest in such cases, we should be a lot more cautious about doing away with anonymity at the level of individuals’ contribution to political causes. Individuals don’t have the power or scale of corporations, nor are there conflicts of interest between parties acquiring small funding from individuals and the policies they will enact once in power.

The electoral bond system doesn’t attack the sources of corruption at its roots, which would be done much better through state funding of elections. It arms the government with yet another tool to monitor the citizenry and the opposition. Troublingly, this is in sync with the government’s push toward ‘cashless’ economy with policies like demonetization. As has been extensively noted, most of the ‘black money’ in the economy is held by high net worth individuals and rich corporations, who have access to elaborate international mechanisms to reroute the money and hence make it ‘clean’. The primary goal of demonetization and ‘cashless’ appears to be to allow the government to monitor individuals’ transactions.

The similarity with other policies like demonization strengthens the idea that the presence of secret numbers on supposedly anonymous electoral bonds is part of an elaborate surveillance network which has been constructed to monitor virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. Unless we take prompt action, our basic political freedoms could be in grave peril.

Rahul missed a trick in his reply to Singapore audience

by Ritwik on March 18, 2018

This article is published in The Quint

While Congress President Rahul Gandhi has greatly improved his political messaging in recent times, he still has some way to go in mastering political psychology.

It’s 2018. In common (mis)understanding socialism has failed. It’s an outdated ideology confined to the dustbin of history. For our shiny happy people [and especially for the shiniest happiest, ie NRIs] everything associated with the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru was a big error.

Non-aligned movement. Pooh. One should have followed Korea, Singapore, etc into the ‘embrace’ of America (curiously, Pakistan is not mentioned as an example in this regard).  Mixed economy. Disaster. Gave us the so-called Hindu rate of growth. Nationalisation of industry and five-year plans. Nonsense. Outdated economics. Ambaniji and Adaniji should’ve set the parameters of economic policy much earlier – the whole country would’ve glittered a la the IPL. And instead of the much derided MTNL we would’ve had ‘Jio’.

For the purveyors of the above ‘understanding’ of Indian history and society, the ideal nation state is represented by tiny Singapore. It’s orderly. It’s clean. It’s glittery. It’s shiny. It’s happy in being a protectorate of America. In short it is Paradise City (probably the name of a gated housing society in Gurgaon, which gets its vast aspirational value precisely in being a micro Singapore).

In Singapore, in 2018, the leader of India’s main Opposition party, the Congress, Rahul Gandhi was recently interacting with upper class members of the Indian diaspora. A fitting spokesperson of the demographic described above, one Prasenjit Basu, a self-described historian of Asia, asked Gandhi why (allegedly) the ‘growth rate’ of India has always been lower when ruled by the Gandhi family than by others.

If true, this statistic would in some ways count as one of the strongest commendations that the Nehru/Gandhi family has received in its storied history.

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From Davos to Padmaavat: The Method in the Madness of Modi’s Politics

by Ritwik on January 29, 2018

This article is published in The Quint.

Contrary to the opinion of many commentators on Twitter and elsewhere, there is no mismatch between the government’s ‘failure’ at handling the violence over Padmaavat and Modi’s red carpet to ‘Big Capital’ at Davos, Switzerland.

Many commentators, on social media and other platforms, have remarked on the ostensible irony of the situation: while Modi harps upon India as an ideal investment destination, his government and the states run by his party seem to be failing at basic law and order. These include pro-Modi commentators like the influential journalist Tavleen Singh. For these commentators, one of the chief negative fallouts of the Padmaavat controversy is that it is hurting India’s global ‘image’ as a stable location for business and industry. As things roll in social media, it has not taken much time for this position to become the close-to-accepted view.

Let us examine what this position would entail were it true. Either, Modi means well and his government is trying but unable to control the situation. Or, Modi is unable to appreciate that the continued violence and destruction is hurting India’s ‘image’ and nullifying his efforts at attracting investment.

Both these hypotheses are unwarranted.

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So Near Yet So Far in Gujarat: Lack of Local Leaders and Agenda Setting Campaign Cost Congress A Historic Win

by Ritwik on December 18, 2017

Image credit: NDTV

The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election results are out. As expected, but not hoped for, the BJP under PM Modi has managed to win both states – retaining Gujarat and wresting Himachal from the Congress. Himachal Pradesh has a history of oscillating between the two parties, and one senses that the Congress had pretty much given up in this state, concentrating its attention and (reportedly) meager resources on Gujarat. The Congress has still performed better in HP than predicted, suggesting that with a bit more attention the contest could have been a lot tighter.

The Congress has performed very creditably in Gujarat, winning around 80 of the 182 seats and bringing the BJP down to double digits. This is the Congress’ best performance in Gujarat in decades, and comes on the back of the entire union cabinet led by the PM camping in Gujarat for weeks. Not to talk of the vast resources the BJP commands from big businessmen, particularly in Gujarat. Gujarat is BJP’s ultimate citadel, and it is significant that it has been shaken in this election. There are some important takeaways from the Gujarat result which the Congress would be wise to heed for  state assembly elections in 2018, and the national elections in 2019:

  1. Congress mounted an excellent campaign in Gujarat. Its positives were Rahul Gandhi’s combative and issue oriented leadership, astute political diplomacy in bringing together 3 dynamic young leaders (Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh) under the Congress umbrella, a vastly improved and proactive social media campaign (critical for elections today), and the excellent political management provided by Ahmed Patel and Ashok Gehlot. These factors must be codified and repeated in successive elections in all other states and at the centre too.
  2. However, the Congress campaign lacked in two critical areas, which proved to be its undoing. First, the Congress lacks credible state level leadership in Gujarat. This is proven by the defeats suffered by a number of prominent state party leaders. Election after election (Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab) shows that strong regional leaders are critical in taking on the Modi-Shah election machinery. Importing Hardik et al countervailed this deficiency to an extent, but the Congress MUST avoid the mistake of centering its entire campaign around Rahul Gandhi. Rahul should be the force multiplier and coordinator who works over and above strong and charismatic state level leaders. This is a critical lesson going forward.
  3. The second error made by the Congress was that large parts of its campaign have been reactive. If the BJP has botched up GST (which it has), what is the Congress’ alternative? What is Congress’ alternative for BJP’s crony politics and resulting model of ‘development’ ? As I have suggested earlier, the opposition’s response to demonetization too had to be nuanced along these lines rather than being just negative.
  4. As an example of the above,  note that in Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad provided strong state level leadership, and Nitish’s “7 promises for Bihar” allowed the Mahagatbandhan to set the agenda of the campaign. Neutralizing Modi’s  rhetoric is crucial ( Nitish and Lalu did this brilliantly) but it is more important to have a positive campaign of one’s own.
  5. Personal attacks on Modi do not work. This has been shown time and again. Modi is a past master of turning personal attacks around by painting himself as a crusading outsider being obstructed by entrenched interests. As far as possible, talk about issues, nail Modi’s rhetoric on particular issues, but don’t make elections about him.
  6. The BJP has mastered the art of controlling the news cycle. As soon as Modi was on the backfoot as his allegations against Manmohan Singh and others began to unravel, the gruesome Rajasthan hacking and burning incident took place to shift the topic of conversation. Having a pliable media certainly helps. However, given that the Congress has now set its social media in order, it must be relentless in pursuing and pinning down the BJP, rather than allowing the latter to set the terms of discourse.
  7. Rahul Gandhi has, at long last, rebooted his image. He needs to persist with the focus, fire and wit he has shown during the Gujarat election. His image is still a work in progress, but is today far better than what it was even six months ago. The momentum  must not be lost. The immediate ground for Rahul Gandhi to continue showing his mettle is the ongoing winter session of Parliament. RG must drop his reticence and lead the Congress from the front in Parliament.
  8. The Congress should put the BJP under pressure on Modi’s outrageous comments about former PM Manmohan Singh (virtually accusing him of high treason by conspiring with Pakistan to influence the Gujarat election), and consistently raise rural distress, the botched GST implementation and rampant unemployment in Parliament.
  9. The Congress would’ve performed significantly worse without the alliances it stitched together with Hardik, Alpesh, and Jignesh. Going forward, the Congress needs to be proactive in finding and nurturing allies.

 

The Gujarat election remained a tale of so near yet so far. However, post 2011-12 when the Anna movement was orchestrated to discredit the UPA-2 regime, the Congress once again has some momentum on its side. It should not be squandered. Vast tracts of India (the 69% who didn’t vote for Modi in 2014) have pinned their hopes for 2019. They must not be let down.

 

Don’t be surprised at Yogi Adityanath’s elevation

by Ritwik on March 21, 2017

The elevation of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically crucial state has unnerved political observers. Several journalists and political commentators, including eminent ones, appear to be shocked that the BJP leadership, which nowadays is a euphemism for the high command of PM Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, has brazenly appointed a known rabble-rouser like Adityanath to such a sensitive post. Their shock suggests that at least implicitly, they’ve bought into Modi’s “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas” (participation and development of all communities) propaganda. This is naiveté at best, and I for one am happy that the appointment of Adityanath might serve as a wake-up call to these commentators.

Make no mistake, pretty much the *only* reason why the BJP  has not implemented the full scale of its neoliberal + Hindutva agenda is because it has not been able to. Both during the previous BJP-led regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and during the current regime of Narendra Modi, progressive elements have retained control of crucial instruments of power, such as the Rajya Sabha, Supreme Court and critical state governments, therefore thwarting the BJP’s attempts to change the political economy of the country in a decisively right wing manner. There are numerous examples, but to take only a recent one – the excellent work by the united opposition to thwart the amendments to the land acquisition act, which were aimed at taking over farm land across the country and giving it at throwaway prices to crony capitalists both in the country and those based abroad. BJP’s inability to ever command a majority in the Rajya Sabha has meant that it has not been able to implement large parts of its cultural, educational and economic agenda.

This explains the keen-ness of the Modi-Shah combine to install, by hook or by crook, BJP governments in every state, including where it is not even the single largest party in the legislature, such as in Goa and Manipur. They are following a differentiated strategy to win as many states as possible, which involves poaching opposition leaders who will deliver a component of the electorate, which combined with BJP’s “catchment” hindutva vote (100% consolidated behind Modi and Adityanath sort of figures), will almost always deliver victory in a first past the post electoral system. To gain power in states, BJP is even willing to let go of ministerial posts (Manipur, Goa) because the larger ideological goal is clearly perceived by Modi-Shah.

This sense of purpose doesn’t come only from a desire to maximally extend their patronage network (although that is part of it) but from an ideological desire at total domination with a view to rewrite the political economic structure of the country. This needs to be clearly understood by all who are troubled with recent political events. Any action can only proceed from a clear understanding of the situation.

The BJP’s string of electoral successes since 2013 (state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh), dampened only by the heavy defeats in Bihar and Delhi and to some extent in Bengal, mean that for the first time ever, the Sangh Parivar is close to exerting control over both houses of parliament, including a full majority in the Lok Sabha and a virtually sure-shot victory in the Presidential polls, due this year once Pranab Mukherji retires. The peril this poses to democracy and progressive values in India can hardly be overstated. India has entered the darkest phase in its continued survival as a broadly democratic and plural nation striving to march into modernity.

To re-emphasize, these values won’t survive if we, the citizens, blithely believe that pressure from the media or intellectuals (especially those based abroad) will prevent the Modi government from making wholesale changes to the economic and political structure of the country. Far more organized, tactically conscious and purposive resistance is the need of the hour, starting with opposition unity in the House and for future elections. But this unity needs to extend much beyond just electoral politics, involving a common minimum program outlining economic, educational and cultural policy, and smart marketing which will counter and defeat the sophisticated and all pervasive propaganda of the Sangh Parivar, particularly on social media like Whatsapp. None of this is exceedingly difficult once progressive elements decide to come together, and there are some pointers to be had from countries like France, where parties ranging from the communists to the socialists to the centrists have repeatedly come together on common platforms to keep the fascists from power.

The elevation of Adityanath has some troubling portends. And this is apart from his record at instigating communal hatred and rioting, and his long criminal record, which have received attention in the media once his name was announced as CM-designate. More troublingly by my lights, it signals BJP’s continued tactical nous under Modi and Shah. For the BJP, Adityanath is an excellent choice for the following reasons:

1. He’s a young and charismatic mass leader.
2. He’s from an “upper” caste but serves as the head of a body which has numerous “lower” caste devotees, and that combined with his Hindutva and ascetic image, makes his appeal cut across caste divides in UP’s fractured polity.
3. BJP’s crushing victory in UP automatically means that the Ram Mandir crowd would be emboldened, and by making Adityanath CM, the party has ensured that he would have to act with a certain minimal responsibility, which was not guaranteed with him out of power.
4. He’s known to have been be at odds with the RSS and BJP leadership in the past, due to his individualistic streak. The fact that Modi and Shah are willing to empower such individuals shows a certain ideological commitment as well as organizational strength and confidence.
5. Adityanath belongs to the Hindu Mahasabha tradition, which has been partly at odds with the RSS/BJP tradition in the politics of the Hindu Right. His elevation signals a growing confluence of these streams, and the RSS’ ability to co-opt various strands of the Hindu Right (including such apparently benign ones as demonstrated by Indian ‘techies’ based abroad) within its broader fold.
6. Notwithstanding (4) and (5), the move to make Adityanath CM provides Modi and Shah an escape hatch if the party doesn’t do as well in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in UP, if the opposition does unite and the electoral arithmetic doesn’t favour the BJP. The appointment of a quiet figure like telecom minister Manoj Sinha would’ve kept the responsibility of delivering UP in 2019 solely upon Modi, but now Adityanath will have to shoulder part of the burden (and the blame, should things not go well).

The Political Calculus of Demonetization

by Ritwik on November 13, 2016

The Government of India’s recent decision to demonetize high denomination notes has resulted in widespread controversy. Most people seemed to welcome the move in the beginning, buying the government’s rhetoric that it will punish those with ‘black’ (untaxed) money, disrupt the flow of money to terrorists and prove a major step against counterfeit currency. As time goes by, there is rising frustration as it becomes increasingly apparent that the government hasn’t done its homework on this – the whole operation has been set in motion in a hasty and unplanned manner, with banks running out of (valid) notes, ATMs unable to dispense the redesigned high denomination notes, etc.

This is quite apart from the matter that this move is like a sledgehammer being used to kill a fly – at the cost of a load of inconvenience for virtually everyone in the country, the move might unearth some black money hoarded in the form of cash by small and medium traders, as the salaried do not have ‘black’ money and the very rich exercise the various options available to not keep it in the form of cash. As explained by Prabhat Patnaik, it is naive to think of black money in terms of a hoard of cash under the mattress – the corrupt are much more sophisticated, especially with the options unlocked by today’s globalized economy.

Nevertheless, it will prove to be an error for the opposition to walk into PM Modi’s trap by appearing to be wholly against this initiative. Modi is a consummate politician (that description exhausts his skill set) and it would be folly for the opposition to imagine that by attacking demonetization wholesale, they can cause a significant dent to his popularity:

1. If (most of) the opposition criticizes demonetization, they can easily be branded as being upset as their black money has become unusable. This has already begun.

2. The common people will put up with a considerable amount of (temporary) inconvenience if they feel that it is for the end of punishing violators, and toward nation building in general. Modi knows this, and is cynically using this sentiment for his own political ends.

3. Modi revels in painting himself as a lone crusader against the established order. This is ironical from a career politician, but he has successfully used this tactic multiple times in Gujarat, and against the old guard (Advani, etc.) in the BJP. If the opposition unitedly attacks demonetization, Modi is going to pretend that they want to stop him from doing good for the country, but he won’t be deterred etc etc. Like all demagogues, he pulls this off due to the personal connection which he establishes with voters through his fiery speeches – it is Modi that addresses them, not the PM and not a BJP politician.

4. In the absence of any real economic reforms or any real growth in employment, the people want ‘big ticket’ moves. They want to feel that something is being done, and would go to quite extraordinary lengths to believe that things like demonetization and ‘surgical strikes’ have been effective, far beyond their actual impact. This is a deep issue, and is not unique to India, with reverberations being seen across the globe. The people are tired of incrementalism, and want flashy moves, hence Modi, Trump, Brexit – phenomena that play upon this sentiment and repackage routine action (surgical strike) and desperation (demonetization, fencing the border with Mexico) as once-in-a-lifetime initiatives.

In light of the above, the opposition’s response to demonetization has to be nuanced. As the Congress and AAP are doing, party volunteers must visibly and proactively help the common people standing in queues. The intent of the move must be warmly and very publicly welcomed. It needs to be hammered home that while common people are suffering, rich friends of the BJP/Modi are getting away, as this action does not touch them in any way. Kerjiwal, one of the smartest politicians around, seems to have grasped this and is responding accordingly.

It must be understood that Modi’s (and BJP’s) political strategy is usually one of blitzkrieg – keep moving fast, create one controversy after another (in just the last few months – Bhopal encounter, JNU (Najeeb), booking Nandini Sundar and others for ‘murder’, NDTV ban), to keep the opposition guessing and busy, and at all times engage in ceaseless self publicity. Effective response needs to be along similar lines, and must rupture the notion that Modi’s actions are in the ‘national’ interest, since they are not.

Odd/Even rule and fighting Delhi’s air pollution

by Ritwik on December 7, 2015

The Delhi Government’s announcement that odd and even numbered private cars will be allowed to ply only on alternate days on Delhi roads from January 2016 has attracted much commentary, more or less evenly divided between those who want to give the proposal a shot and those who believe it is unworkable given Delhi’s creaky public transport system.

I briefly examine some political dimensions of the decision as well as some other policy measures which need to be put in place as part of a concerted plan to fight air pollution in Delhi, which is today far in excess of levels considered dangerous for human populations.

Political Dimensions

The Delhi government move is sharply political and is consistent with party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s ostensible long term plan (in 2024?) to portray himself as the most viable alternative to Narendra Modi and other national leaders.

(1) It makes the Delhi Government look decisive and creative. Everybody agrees that Delhi’s pollution levels, having gone off the charts, need to be controlled but there has been no action on this front in the last several years (the last significant initiative was mandatory conversion of buses to CNG which happened not because of government initiative but due to court order.)

This decisiveness makes for a nice contrast with the dithering (charitably called ‘creative incrementalism’) of the Modi government on every significant issue. Quite simply the Modi government at the centre has so far shown no ability to take and stick to tough decisions, of whatever variety.

Kejriwal, in contrast, is showing the guts to stick his neck out on a decision which can potentially backfire. Voters like political leaders who are seen to be taking risks when necessary.

(2) The move helps Kejriwal’s main constituency of the poor, especially his solid support base among auto and taxi drivers in Delhi.

More importantly, at an emotional level, the poor are sure to be happy that for once the onus of development and ecological protection is not entirely on their shoulders but has been done in a manner which hurts middle class interests most of all.

Rather than the economic benefit, which is not likely to be large, which this move will lend the poor by creating greater demand for cheap privately operated last mile transport facilities, it is this emotional dimension which will help shore up Kerjiwal’s already high stock among the poor

(3) Any failure to implement the policy at the ground level will at least partially be due to the understaffed Delhi Police, which is under the control of the central government and with which Kejriwal already has a perpetual running feud. It will give another handle for Kejriwal to convince his voters that his genuine intentions and creative solutions are being frustrated by the Delhi police at the behest of an uncaring central government.

(4) Given that one of the ‘reforms’ ushered in by the Modi government is abolition of most environmental laws and policies, in a bid to boost manufacturing and mining activity, this move positions Kejriwal and AAP as entities that are concerned about the environmental impact of ‘development’ and who are willing to do something about it.

Other policy measures are required

Whether or not the odd/even car rule succeeds on the ground, a range of other measures are required to fight air pollution in Delhi.

Some suggestions which the government could look into:

(1) Massive upgrade of the bus system. This is already on the government’s agenda. Apart from increasing the size of the DTC bus fleet, the efficiency of its operations needs to be greatly improved. In recent years it is not unusual to wait half an hour for a bus on a specific route, only to be greeted by three buses on that route arriving simultaneously. I am not sure why this level of inefficiency has become standard in DTC but it needs to go.

(2) Private bus operators will probably need to be brought back to augment the government bus system. To address security concerns the government can consider appointing bus marshals (mentioned in AAP’s election manifesto) on private buses as well.

(3) Delhi has an abysmally low number of autos as compared to other metro cities of the country due to a broken permit system. That needs to be fixed asap and lakhs of new autos need to be introduced. While this may temporarily anger AAP’s auto driver constituency, creating lakhs of new earning opportunities in the city can only be a good thing.

(4) A comprehensive action plan needs to put in place to completely phase out diesel – at least from the transportation sector – over a number of years. Penal taxes should be imposed on all diesel vehicles, especially new ones. Heavy incentives should be provided to convert as many vehicles as possible to CNG.

(5) Heavy incentives should be provided to the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles. It was mentioned somewhere on Twitter that one such incentive could be to waive the odd/even rule for electric and hybrid vehicles.

(6) Diesel gensets, which cause both noxious fumes and noise, need to be totally phased out. Government needs to augment the power generation capacity and incentivise alternative means of private electricity generation/storage, along with introducing heavy taxation on the sale of diesel gensets.

(7) Large parts of the city, especially the trans-Yamuna area, still have abysmally low number of trees. This needs to be redressed urgently.

(8) Finally, to improve air quality in Delhi the government must act in concert with the governments of the various NCR territories like NOIDA, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Manesar, Neemarana etc. As many as possible of the above steps should be encouraged in the NCR too, including the odd/even rule if it shows signs of success in Delhi.

There is a political opportunity in this for Kejriwal. In trying to take other state governments along, he will present himself as a contrast to Modi’s go it alone approach (which has been a spectacular failure thus far). In addition, he can try and work with Akhilesh Yadav’s government in UP for appreciable improvements in NOIDA and Greater NOIDA, and can politically capitalise on any hesitation on the part of the BJP government in Haryana.

 

Note: 1. edited 8 Dec 2o15 to include electric “and hybrid” vehicles as the earlier formulation seemed to exclude the class of hybrid vehicles.

NDTV discussion on suspension of Uber and other taxi aggregators

by Ritwik on December 10, 2014

NDTV discussion hosted by Ravish Kumar in which I participated. The topic was the suspension of services of Uber and other taxi aggregators in light of allegations that an Uber driver raped a passenger.

The points that I made on the show are similar to the ones I made here

NDTV discussion

NDTV discussion

NDTV Discussion(screengrabs by Neelakshi Tewari)

Link to the full video

Suspending Uber’s Services is Politically a Good Decision

by Ritwik on December 8, 2014

The decision of the Government of Delhi (currently administered by the Central Government) to suspend the services of taxi aggregator Uber, in light of one of the company’s drivers allegedly raping a passenger, notwithstanding the company’s declaration of providing ‘the safest ride on the road’, has been heavily criticized on sections of the social media. The decision has been called knee-jerk, we have been informed how it doesn’t deal with the ‘real’ issues connected to rape, and one well known writer went to the extent of saying that banning Uber is analogous to banning elevators after the Tarun Tejpal molestation case.

A prominent right-wing columnist believes suspension of Uber’s services is on the same logical plane as suspending all cars … buses … women stepping out … police … army … men and women.

It is interesting to note that those calling for ‘real action’ on this matter, loudly proclaiming that suspending Uber won’t help, cut across the political (but not economic and social) spectrum.

The fact that Uber’s defense consists of saying “we are technically not a taxi company so the rules don’t apply to us”, or that its control room for the entire city is manned by three people, and that it had no verification mechanisms in place  for checking the antecedents of its drivers, seems to carry no weight with the social media elite. They seem similarly deaf to its bad safety and corporate record worldwide (if nothing else one hopes the ‘extreme’ nature of the government’s action will cause Uber to shed some of its legendary arrogance and listen, or risk losing a potentially huge market).

Irrespective of the administrative and legal merits of the ban/suspension (which seem to be fairly persuasive), I want to focus on the political implications of this decision.

Everybody with even a passing familiarity with my past writing knows that I can hardly be called a fan of PM Narendra Modi and his government. My ideological differences with the BJP/RSS run deep, but it doesn’t stop me from acknowledging that the Government has handled a potentially very embarrassing situation (and in the midst of poll season) very well. Strong action has been seen to be taken, not only against the driver who was responsible but a big, multi billion dollar MNC headquartered in Silicon Valley. The government has effectively sent out the message that it means business on women’s security , and simultaneously sought to counter the rising perception that its priorities unduly benefit crony capitalists and global capital (eg: Make in India campaign, SBI loan to Adani coal, see this article for more)

Strictly in terms of ‘good governance’, where governance is understood in a purely technocratic sense (eg: Manmohan Singh’s regime), the outright ban (even if temporary) on Uber is perhaps excessive. Even if not, it follows that similar restrictions be placed on other taxi aggregators, IF their practices are as odious as Uber’s.

But politics is not only about strictly observing ‘good governance’. That is the job of the  bureaucracy. A political government’s response should not be the same as a typical bureaucratic or technocratic response. Perceptions are vital. And as far as perceptions are concerned, women in India are fed up with the general lack of safety all around.

When a woman takes a premium cab, operated by a multi-billion dollar company which loudly toots its horn on safety, she believes she is cordoning herself off from the generally unsafe conditions which prevail in society. That is the implicit and explicit promise made by the company, which causes that woman to take a fancy and expensive cab, and not a public bus or an auto.

When that company is caught sleeping at the wheel, not having performed preliminary checks, then people do want to see it punished. Tooting ‘good governance’, meaningless and exaggerated analogies (banning elevators, banning husbands, banning men) and the like only shows just how disconnected the elite of social media are from every day concerns.

Troublingly, these analysts seem dangerously cut off from political actions and the art of creating winning political perceptions.

For the last few years, one has seen the Congress party become increasingly dependent upon the opinions of this particular caste of people, who are loud, authoritative, articulate but quite isolated from not only the reality on the ground but any kind of political thought process. Such worthies have increasingly got air time as Congress spokespersons, and their ‘input’ has come to dominate much of decision making in the top echeleons of the party.

The results are there for all to see.

Delhi Kiss of Love Event: Q & A

by Ritwik on November 8, 2014

Kiss of Love Delhi chapter

As many of you will know, a ‘Kiss of Love’ event has been planned in Delhi today. It starts at 4pm at Jhandewalaan, at the Delhi headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP and other organizations such as ABVP and VHP which collectively comprise the so called ‘sangh parivar’.

This has been organized in light of the  similar event in Kochi, Kerala, which was organized against ‘moral policing’ that has seen a sharp increase with the victory of the Narendra Modi led BJP in the general elections in the country held in May.

A journalist with DNA newspaper, Mumbai asked me a series of questions about the event, and I think putting up the questions along with my answers might serve some purpose, as these questions are by no means unique and regularly come up in the public discourse in India over matters of love, sex and free expression in general. Of course, I am not attributing these views to the journalist in question – she was only doing her job in articulating precisely the concerns which many have with respect to such demonstrations.

Q. Do you support the ‘kiss of love’ event? and if so, why?

Absolutely. It has my wholehearted support. I believe it is an excellent initiative and many more such initiatives should be taken up, all across the country and particularly in areas where such things as choosing one’s own partner, which are  taken for granted in any modern society, are still huge battles (i.e., almost every Indian family, totally including almost the entire upwardly mobile, ‘educated’ middle class)

To me one of the most important measures of the health and happiness of a society is the freedom accorded to people to love freely, and choose their partners freely (of whatever gender and sexual persuasion).

Recently we have had a setback in India when the Supreme Court struck down the forward looking judgement of the Delhi High Court de-criminalizing Homosexuality. Many who had felt empowered to come out of the closet in light of the HC verdict have now had to face oppression after the SC verdict re-criminalized a completely natural sexual impulse. This battle has now been taken up again in the Supreme Court, and one hopes the Court will set aside its earlier verdict.

Q. Do you think this demonstration will serve some purpose, or it is only being organized by Delhi youth to be ‘cool’ after similar demonstrations were organized in Kochi and Calcutta?

I think it is crucial for people, especially the young, all over the country to assert their right to their bodies, to choosing their own partners and their sexual orientation. it is deeply shameful that we still witness ‘honour killings’ where the ‘crime’ is nothing but cohabiting with the person you love.

It is crucial in light of the fact that the ruling national party, the BJP, made ‘love jihad’ its main campaign slogan in recent by-elections. Love Jihad is the notion that members of the Muslim community are ‘luring’ Hindu women to marry them so as to change the latter’s religion and produce Muslim children, ultimately culminating the ‘islamization’ of India.

The fact that such absurd fears have become mainstream enough to be taken up by major national parties shows how close India is to slipping into an even more un-free, almost theocratic condition not dissimilar to the situation that exists in Pakistan after the rule of the dictator Zia ul Haq.

Q. Aren’t there ‘more important’ things that should engage the attention of the youth?

As I say above, all those who value freedom, and wish for India to remain a free society (a society in which enclaves of freedom – such as universities and some urban spaces – have been created and there has historically been the push, since independence, of modernizing more spaces) must support initiatives like Kiss of Love, to counter the poisonous, socially divisive propaganda of the Love Jihad variety.

As the experience of countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others demonstrates, societies which had become relatively free and open in the Sixties and the early Seventies, have slipped into soul crushing fanaticism and un-freedom after the religious Right (of which the RSS is a prime example in India) engineered a massive reaction against all kinds of progressive tendencies.

These societies, and others like them, have consequently seen the obliteration of liberal, leftist and socialist thought and social practice, all in the name of ‘pride’, ‘hurt sentiments’, ‘authentic traditions’ etc. India seems to be on the brink of something similar, where the historically open and plural nature of the society is being sought to be radically re-engineered from within.

In a nutshell, one can’t be complacent about freedoms and rights. These must be fought for and vigorously defended.

Q. Many who support the idea of freedom of choice – in abstraction – are saying that this is the wrong way to protest. India is a conservative country which frowns upon ‘public displays of affection’. Why choose such a mode of protest which may be offensive to many?

The modes of protest chosen by movements like ‘Kiss of Love’ are very useful in that they are exposing the structural hypocrisies of the authorities and political parties. It is notable that the Kiss of Love event in Kerala was not allowed to go on by the police, who have historically shown little inclination to act against violent thugs who have raided bars, night clubs, hotels and other such establishments where ‘immoral activities’, i.e., people indulging in sexual acts out of choice, rather than our glorious, animal-trading ‘arranged marriage’ tradition, have been going on.

Violent activists who have attacked couples on Valentines Day, often in a well orchestrated manner with television cameras in tow, have acted with impunity with no regard for the law or its consequences.

However those deciding to kiss on the streets, were apprehended in advance. This in a state (Kerala) ruled by the Congress, which claims to inherit a liberal tradition!

In light of this, the mode of protest chosen for ‘kiss of love’ is effective, and it exposes hypocrisies which we as a society are highly comfortable with.

 

Kiss of Love Delhi Facebook Page 

Are all forms of ‘questioning’ of the same importance?

by Ritwik on November 2, 2014

This post is prompted by the points made by Mario Da Penha (Twitter handle: @mlechchha) in a series of tweets, now compiled here, critiquing historian Romila Thapar’s approach to the notion of questioning of authority in a recent speech entitled “To question or not to question: that is the question”.

De Penha is troubled that Thapar basically turns the idea of questioning those in authority into an academic exercise, and in his tweets cites the case of the sufi Sarmad, who, as per De Penha, was an authentic and vital challenger to authority without taking recourse to the Enlightenment tradition.

De Penha believes that he is pointing out a major flaw in the discourse of intellectuals, who as per him, privilege the ‘lettered’, ‘Rational’ (with a capital R) enlightenment discourse over other modes of protest and interrogation.

These points, as far as I am concerned, appear to be (largely) trivially true, but where they are substantive, they are false and dangerous.

That is, it is undoubtedly true that there are many different modes and styles of interrogation of established authority and social structures. It is also undoubtedly true that different such modes have been used through the ages, in different societies, to highlight the need for social change.

However, De Penha (and many others today) seem to think that all such different modes of protest can be usefully bunched together on one plane. The idea that different types of questioning can be analyzed and graded for effectiveness is disclaimed.

The intentions of questioners, whatever these might be and howsoever they might be determined, are applauded. But their methods are not subjected to sufficient critical scrutiny, barring a consequentialist analysis in terms of “success”.

It is my submission that a ‘Rational’ critique is more substantive, powerful and effective, than other modes of critique. I doubt Romila Thapar, or other intellectuals, would deny that mystics and poets have usefully critiqued social ills. However, by definition, a rational critique offers up three features that may be missing in other critiques –

– a framework for analysis: on what grounds, precisely, is a present system being challenged? This requires an idea of what is desirable, and why that is so.

– a replicable, universalizable, systematic approach: based upon the framework of analysis, actions can be subjected to critical scrutiny irrespective of the contingent factors (of time and space and personality)  that surround them. This is in contrast to all protest and questioning getting restricted to the local and the temporally instant.

– an alternative: a rational critique, being framework based, requires and facilitates the articulation of alternative systems and in this sense, gives a path of progress, a sense of purpose to those who want change.

Some further points:

I see no reason why such a rational approach as outlined above needs to be particularly identified with the European Enlightenment or with European or Western or modern discourse as such. There are very important and particular things about the Enlightenment and modern scientific rationality, such as individualism and the idea of disenchantment, but analytic discourse per se is not a monopoly of the European Enlightenment.

It has often happened that the critical ideas brought out poetically by mystics such as Sarmad, who De Penha refers to, are taken up later by systematic philosophers and theorists. When this happens, the ideas of poets and mystics and other ‘alternative’ styles of protest are invested with the features I have outlined above and thus acquire greater potentiality. That is to be lauded, but we may miss out on such things if we, knowingly or unknowingly, insist that all criticality is on the same plane.

 

PS. I am indebted to Aaditya Dar (@AadityaDar) for bringing Da Penha’s tweets to my attention.