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Monday, June 27, 2016

Does Swamy want Jaitley’s job, or is he aiming higher?

The Rajya Sabha MP's recent exertions suggest he has found Modi sarkar's weak spot..

In trying to understand why a highly educated person like Subramanian Swamy would behave like a gadfly, I googled the word "contrarian". It took a little doing but I found "froward" to be the best fit; it refers to being "wilfully contrary".

Swamy is nothing if not a wilful contrarian.

He started out as a pillar of the academic establishment; was elected to both houses of Parliament and remained an MP for 25 years; served as cabinet minister for commerce and law; had a blue-chip upbringing and education and currently has a pedigreed family with two accomplished daughters, one a lawyer, the other a journalist, married to successful professionals from established and well-connected civil service families.

So what happened to turn him into a gadfly? My assessment may be completely misplaced but then so is Swamy’s effort to target two accomplished public intellectuals.

He is himself a highly qualified member of the same club and he surely knows that RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and the government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian are about the only globally recognised assets that Narendra Modi has in his barren government.

Most of his other appointees, whether ministers or bureaucrats, are lacklustre apparatchiks who draw their name and fame from the prime ministerial sceptre he touched them with.

On the other hand, Rajan and Subramanian are internationally renowned scholars who brought gravitas to these heretofore humdrum positions.

So is Swamy simply being peevish and seeking to shoot down the competition? Or he is doing the bidding of this "suit-boot sarkar", beholden as it is to fat-cat cronies?

Could it be Swamy is making a final play for the position that he believes is his destiny? My money is on the third possibility. 

Swamy is probably the seniormost and certainly the most academically qualified person in politics now that Manmohan Singh is gone.

He seems to be convinced he is suited to be primus inter pares in the Union council of ministers. From his resume and list of accomplishments, it is hard to argue with his claim. So let us see how the third scenario might play out.

There is not an iota of doubt that the most credible face of the regime is finance minister Arun Jaitley, willy-nilly the number two in the cabinet.

He is a fine professional and a source of strength for PM Modi. His lack of a political base is probably an important consideration in the assignment to him of the important portfolios of finance, information and broadcasting, and until they found a suitable fall guy, defence.

In targeting the NRI economists, Swamy seemingly seeks to sap Jaitley. Does he want the finance minister’s job? Or is he aiming at a higher target?

From his mercurial tendencies, in which he has targeted people from all across the spectrum, including not just the Congress but the RSS as well, it is easy to conclude that his ego is at least as large as that of Modi.  

He has an impressive resume and a cosmopolitan cachet that is lacking in the current leadership. For example, consider his immediate family in which his son-in-law is Muslim, his brother-in-law is Jewish, his sister-in-law Christian and his wife Parsi. 

His undoubtedly superb academic qualifications, his experience in Parliament plus the familial diversity separate him from the traditional rube leadership that the BJP has on display.

As such, Swamy certainly seems to be better equipped to take the reins of political leadership. There is quite simply no one on the saffron bench that measures up.

The only problem he might confront what many believe is a lack of maturity and somewhat irresponsible behaviour. However, given the outlandish records of various ministers, Swamy is not alone in the bizarre department.

The culture minister, the education minister, the home minister, the defence minister and many others have made some remarkable comments that are not in keeping with the gravitas demanded of a berth in the highest councils of the government of India.

Could it be that Swamy, an acute analyst, has sensed the Modi gravy train is veering off the tracks? It is fairly evident that there is erosion in the lowest-ever 31 per cent vote share to deliver a majority in the lower house of Parliament.

Gujarat-style, Modi and his cohorts may think they have evaded responsibility for Lalitgate, Vyapam and other abuse-of-office scandals.

They may dismiss their abject foreign policy failures as too complicated for the electorate to parse. Or they may believe their loud, whistling-in-the-dark claims on economic growth will drown out the reality of low growth, joblessness, high inflation, collapse of exports, the looming banking crisis.

They may have persuaded themselves that some tokenism on the farm front may alleviate the serious crisis in agriculture.

In the end, the current leadership could lose the perception battle despite the bluff and bluster it relies on, and a media environment that it is confident of influencing to its advantage.

Whatever communications strategies it brings to the table, the leadership cannot be unaware that creating perceptions through hype and hoopla is not a sustainable proposition; unhinged from reality, they can be called out as propaganda.

Swamy’s recent exertions suggest that he may have hit upon the weak spot in the most swaggering regime ever to hold office. Whether his campaign succeeds in destabilising the Modi government depends on a number of factors including just how much disenchantment there is within the party and the parivar at large with the two Gujarati helmsmen.

After all, some 282 members of the BJP have ridden to power on their coat-tails. But if the feeling grows that the government is floundering, the support could disappear like a mist in the morning sun and with it, the bravura claims of re-election with an even bigger majority.

(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, June 27, 2016.)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Modi’s US visit was a joke. That's what it was

Where is India’s minister for external affairs? Why isn’t Sushma Swaraj anywhere in the picture? Shouldn’t she DO something about this bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign policy?

It is true heads of government are not obliged to include their foreign ministers on every trip abroad. Surely, though, she can talk to him on his fleeting stays in the capital and tell him what her elite foreign service staff must surely tell her: foreign trips do not a foreign policy make.

Narendra Modi certainly conveys the impression that this perk is the best in his contract with the Indian Union: take off for foreign destinations like a Gujju on a Thomas Cook tour, farsan, thepla and chhoondo in tow, to posture with the high and mighty for the camera, the better to impress his mindless bhakts: a rubbernecking rube authorised by 31 per cent of India’s voters to strut and fret embarrassingly on the global stage.

Modi's gaffe and hype methods are awkward in that they conflate his own insecure personality with the august office of prime minister.

But that’s the good news about Modi’s foreign-trip policy. When the hurly-burly’s done, his successors will have to put in long hours and summon all their diplomatic capital to restore some amount of credibility to India’s standing in the world.

Rajiv Gandhi, the first Indian prime minister to address a joint session of the US Congress, spoke in 1985 of an "India… in the front ranks of the nations in the world, in the service of mankind." He set a goal that was achieved, not in full measure but substantially, by subsequent governments.

In the ensuing three decades, India became a recognised player with a massive and growing economy to back its standing. Underlining that achievement was a firm conviction that an independent policy is the only surety of a place at the global table.

Though blind anti-Americanism has been a driving force in the conduct of foreign policy, in 2004, the newly-elected Manmohan Singh government embraced a US-led initiative called "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership", chalking out areas of cooperation: civilian nuclear and space programs, high technology and missile defense, with a view eventually to expand it to strategic matters, energy security and trade and commerce.

As it evolved, the partnership became operationalised on what came to be called the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement. For the Americans, it provided ground-floor entry to India’s prospective civilian nuclear power sector and also opened the door to heightened cooperation in bilateral trade and commerce with one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

On the Indian side, it was the realisation of a major foreign-policy goal: to be recognised as a responsible nuclear-weapons power after years in the NPT wilderness, a vindication of a half-century of idealism.

Despite the euphoria of the time, the two sides got stuck on the details. The Indians balked, for example, at the nuclear liability clauses in the fine print, unwilling to go along with American demands without a solid quid pro quo. Another item in discussion was an agreement by India to adhere to the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) without being admitted to membership.

In return, India secured from the US a commitment to push for India’s inclusion in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Even as Modi posed before television cameras and blathered on like a Chauncey Gardner, many thoughtful analysts were disappointed that his need for hype overcame prudence at the negotiating table.

Reports suggest that on the unresolved nuclear liability issue having to do with whether equipment suppliers can be sued in case of an accident, India consented to terms that are far more liberal than those obtaining in the US itself. And this would be fine if it could kick-start the stalled nuclear power generation sector.

But what is the quid pro quo Modi accepted: a pat on the head, a lavish White House reception and a speech to a joint session of Congress? At the very least, he could have put in his thumb and pulled out a plum before orchestrating a media campaign to project what a fantastic guy he is.

Back home, his spear chuckers mindlessly sought to portray the reiterated US support for India’s entry to MTCR as the biggest-ever achievement of any prime minister. That, as the erudite editor Manoj Joshi said, is "an astonishing claim. It is simply part of a deal for which we… agreed to adhere to NSG rules without being members. Among the items of exchange was a US commitment to get us into the technology regime."

Beyond the hype over MTCR, there were serious issues at stake: a discussion of new regime rules on climate change, cyber and regional security, defence. Informed sources say the Indian side was woefully underprepared. For example, in the matter of cyber security, the US led the discussion with a document called "Digital 2 Dozen," an enumeration of 24 obligations that countries that are part of the Trans Pacific Partnership must embrace.

These relate mainly to internet laws, cross-border data flows, intellectual property rights and other issues to facilitate digital trade and commerce (details here). India could have asked what the multilateral document has to do with bilateral ties.

Instead, reports suggest the Indian side got caught up in a discussion on "data localisation," a misbegotten effort to control the global flow of data. It is the kind of knee-jerk control issue that the Modi government has made its signature. In this specific case, any controls on data flow will adversely impact India’s only truly global information technology businesses that are seeking to grow out of outsourcing into product development.

The other issue on the table was the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which dates back to 1995, when the Narasimha Rao government signed the Agreed Minute on Defence Relations.

The Modi government seems to have been fobbed off with four "pathfinder projects" involving "not-so-complex" technologies for co-production including "next generation hand-launched mini drones" with a range of ten kilometres "used by soldiers in the battlefield to keep tabs on enemy formations".

Seriously? In return for buying billions of dollars of weapons?

Similarly, on the logistics agreement, without a clearly articulated policy, it is clear that the US will use Indian bases while the chances of India needing US bases are marginal. Here, the trade-off seems to have been vague agreements under which the US will help India build an aircraft carrier.

In a predominantly asymmetric relationship, securing a meaningful quid pro quo is the best resort of the underdog. Under the present dispensation, it seems that Modi’s image and the BJP’s political prospects are the only criteria.

What an incredible joke this Modi visit has been! Obama will be gone in January 2017 but he and his team will still be laughing at the vainglorious redneck from India.

(An edited version of this post will appear in DailyO.in, June 6, 2016.)