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False hopes on economy

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By Yogi Aggarwal

The GST was controversial because of the high and multiple rates imposed on the businesses and the consumers, but the hope was that it would make tax collection easier and evasion more difficult.

The GST was controversial because of the high and multiple rates imposed on the businesses and the consumers, but the hope was that it would make tax collection easier and evasion more difficult.

Many of the steps taken by the government to give the impression that it has stabilised the economy, in fact, show its desperation to conceal its weaknesses. Its implementation of GST is flawed and has led to an increase in cash transaction and fall in government income. The government has proposed that the LIC take over the IDBI bank, (having huge bad loans) to help keep the fiscal deficit down. The ONGC has bought government’s entire stake in oil refiner HPCL, to help meet disinvestment targets. A massive flow of money into the stock market by domestic mutual funds at the pressure of the administration to give an optimistic view of the economy has created a bubble that could crash at any time. How far these factors have led to the abrupt resignation of chief economic adviser Arvind Subramaniam will only be known later. The government’s actions are around creating a feel good tactic rather than a serious economic effort. It normally wins the approval of international aid agencies because it is pursuing their strategy of more privatisation of public resources.

The GST was controversial because of the high and multiple rates imposed on the businesses and the consumers, but the hope was that it would make tax collection easier and evasion more difficult.

British brokerage HSBC said in a recent report that the glitches in the tax have increased the demand for cash. “The GST regime was originally associated with formality. But so far, in our view, it has not been able to live up to that promise. It has not brought down the demand for cash which has, in fact, only gone up,” the report said.

The RBI, in its latest “money supply” data puts the “currency with the public” at over Rs 18.5 lakh crore as on May 25, 2018 — up 31 per cent from the year-ago level. The World Bank, which was earlier supportive of the GST, has been revising its stand. A recent report put out by the World Bank noted “India’s GST is among the most complex taxation systems in the world. India has the highest tax rates in Asia and also largest number of tax slabs”.

While the GST was an attempt to put into practice a major economic policy that would change the way the country would be administered and taxed, other recent measures have more limited goals. Take for instance the selling of the IDBI Bank to LIC. The IDBI is one of the worst performing banks in the country with bad debts or non-performing assets of Rs 55,000 crore.

Last year, the government had put on Rs 10,600 crore to reapitalise the bank but it clearly wasn’t enough. The LIC already has a 10.6 per cent share in the equity of the IDBI Bank like it does in many others and will have to put in another Rs 12,000 crore to get a majority stake as an investor.

This will put LIC policy holders at greater risk as the LIC is being made to take over a bank it cannot hope to turn around. The risk will increase manifold if they are made to open accounts there as has been suggested.

The government is clearly evading its responsibility in an effort to cut down its fiscal deficit by making a profitable enterprise like LIC take on a loss-making one. The price will, of course, be paid by the policy holders who will get lower returns, and will have to pay the for the government’s incompetence.

 

Another takeover, though not as shameful as the one involving LIC and IDBI Bank, is the proposed takeover of petroleum refiner HPCL by the oil exploration giant ONGC. This has been touted as the amalgamation of two companies to form a larger one. Earlier this year, the state-owned ONGC bought government’s entire majority stake in oil refiner HPCL for Rs 36,915 crore.

They are both profitable companies, and the sale does not have any financial bearing, other than help the government meet its disinvestment target without having to go through the political minefield of finding an external buyer. Yet the step can only be understood by seeing it as a ploy to meet its difficult disinvestment target by making an existing public sector company pay for it. The existing work cultures at the ONGC and the HPCL are different, much like Air India and Indian Airlines, which led to a disastrous merger. At the same time the merger will deplete funds available to the ONGC to increase production.

The government is also encouraging Indian mutual funds to push up the stock market to unsustainable levels. This is happening against a more realistic view of the Indian stocks by foreign funds. Since the beginning of the year, foreign investors have pulled out Rs 65,787 crore (roughly $10 billion) from the Indian stocks. At the same time, Indian mutual funds have put in Rs 659,267 crore (roughly $100billion) into the stock market causing it to go up 12.9 per cent in the past year with price/earnings ratio of over 24.

This points to a bubble in the stock market that could burst any time, once the mutual funds decide they can no longer bear the risk. It must be remembered that the stock market has been rising continuously for over four years, an unprecedented factor in financial history if not followed by a fall.

The government is building up a false sense of hope to show the economy is doing well. If one follows a sense of reality rather than believe in fables such as this government propagates, it is not difficult to see the mess we are in.

 

 

 


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Opinion

A world of meaning in the name Ashok

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By Gopa lkrishna Gandhi

We bear the names we bear forever. They are us, our identity. And yet they are the one thing about us we are not responsible for. They have, after all, been thought of, chosen for us by those who have named us — our guardians, parents, grandparents. In fact, by our generations.

And they have been determined by current trends, styles, preferences.

Ashok, as a name, is now passé. This is not said statistically but impressionistically. The school in New Delhi where I studied in the 1950s had many Ashoks in it. My own class of some thirty had three, one of them, Ashok Dilwali, being one of India’s greatest photographers today. In the class of a hundred where I teach today, there is not one Ashok. Nor, for that matter, in the university itself — of 1,400 students.

It could be just a ‘vogue’ thing. Ashoka as a name does not appeal any more.

But, first, to look at the naming of the first Ashoka.

The rock inscription at Maski in Raichur, Karnataka, discovered in 1915 by C. Beadon, a British gold-digger, that first shone a light on his name and honorifics, calls him: Devanamapiyasa Ashokasa. The one in Gujjara, Datia, Madhya Pradesh gives it more fully: Devanamapiya Piyadasi Ashokalaja.

Devanamapiya (Beloved to the Gods) and Piyadasi (Dear to Behold) are obviously names that he acquired during his regnal years. But Ashoka, meaning ‘One Without Sorrow’, obviously, was given to him by his family. Legend says, by his mother.

Generations of Indians named their sons and daughters after him.

Daughters? The ‘a’ ending in Ashoka when pronounced ‘aa’ acquires the feminine gender as in the case of the noble Ashoka Gupta (1912-2008). And she certainly did more than anyone can to stem sorrow. Born to the writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and Kiron Chandra Sen, Ashokadi was a freedom fighter and rescuer of women victims of the genocide in Noakhali. Later, she did more than any woman I know in our times to alleviate sorrow and distress among neglected and exploited women and girls through the Mahila Seva Samity that she founded. Jawaharlal Nehru was a student of history before he was a maker of his destiny. His daughter, Indira Priyadarshini, known to history as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), invokes the Mauryan’s title. I do not think her father could have conjured that name without the Ashokan nomenclature in his mind.

Until a few decades ago, boys in Gujarat used to be quite frequently named Ashok. The first ‘Gujarati Ashok’ who comes to my mind is Asoka Mehta (1911-1984). The great socialist was born to the distinguished thinker, historical-novelist and writer, the short-lived Ranjitram Vavabhai Mehta (1881-1917), who is specially remembered for his as yet untranslated Gujarati novel, Ahmed Rupande, about a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy. And as the Gujarati litterateur, Tridip Suhrud, has unravelled, this Asoka’s mother was Shanta. Perhaps she it is who named him. A founding member of the Congress Socialist Party, Asoka Mehta kept a certain distance from Jawaharlal Nehru but accepted, curiously, a rather light ministerial office under Indira Gandhi. The other eminent ‘Gujarati Ashok’ is Ashok Desai (b. 1942), the distinguished barrister and former attorney general of India, whose appearance in Sakharam Binder famously led to the striking down of State pre-censorship of dramatic performances.

More recently, his advocacy in Nandini Sundar led the court to pass defining orders on the dilemma that surrounds the crossfire between violent Naxalites and vigilante groups supported by the State.

India’s other end, Bengal, has also had notable Ashoks.

Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), the great film star, was not Ashok to start with. His lawyer father, Kunjlal Ganguly, and mother, Gauridebi, named him Kumudlal but Bollywood renamed him Ashok. Not a bad idea that, for Kumudlal and Devika Rani would not have quite clicked as a pair in Achhut Kanya (1936). Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), a pre-eminent Marxist economist and political leader, was Indira Gandhi’s chief economic adviser, being succeeded there by Manmohan Singh, and then Jyoti Basu’s finance minister for 10 years. Ashokbabu’s acuity was matched only by his acerbic tongue, be it in explaining a nuance of economic policy or analysing recent history.

We are fortunate to have amidst us today, another ‘Bengali Ashok’, the theoretical physicist, Ashoke Sen FRS (b. 1956). His parents, Anil Kumar Sen (himself a former professor of physics), and Gauridebi, chose for their son a name from history over another from the world of science. Working in the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad and recipient, in 2012, of the world’s biggest science award, the Fundamental Physics Prize (three million dollars), Ashoke Sen is working on the ‘string theory’. I do not know and (given my cerebral limitations) can never know what the ‘string theory’ means.

But I am sure Ashoke Sen knows that in the city — Allahabad — where he and his wife, the physicist Sumathi Rao, live, is situated one of Emperor Ashoka’s most famous pillar edicts. And the life-career of this pillar contains what may be called its own ‘string theory’ — about a string of historic vandalisms.

The Ashoka pillar at Allahabad was used as a writing slate in the 4th century CE by Samudragupta of the Gupta Empire to write his own panegyrics in Sanskrit, describing himself as ‘Parakrama’ and the owner of a body which (in D.R. Bhandarkar’s English rendering) was “most charming, being covered over by the plenteous beauty of the marks of hundreds of promiscuous scars, caused by battle-axes, arrows, spikes… and many other weapons” received during his wars and conquests, including those of the south of India. The Great Gupta’s space-snatch was followed by that of the Grand Moghul, Jahangir. In beautiful Persian, this one was carved — jabbed, one should say — by the then Prince Salim’s favourite calligrapher, Qalam, to describe, in vainglory, Moghul lineage and a visit in 1575 to the sangam, of Akbar’s minister, Birbal. Actually, it does worse than Samudragupta’s engraver. It superscribes this right onto Ashoka’s text. It overwrites, by cutting its usurping text with cynical contempt on the Ashokan Edicts III and IV in the original Ashokan Brahmi. Qalam did not know — could not have known — what that Pillar Edict III says in Magadhi Prakrit. It says: “The following lead to sin — fierceness (candiye), harshness (nithuliye), anger (kodhe), pride (mane), envy (isya).” But if Jahangir had come to know it, he is unlikely to have been impressed.

Ashoka’s pillar in Allahabad became just a surface for others to try to immortalise themselves on.

And now, not on the pillar but on the city that hosts it comes the latest ‘bead’ on the ‘string’ of gratuitous replacements, displacements — the re-naming of Allahabad as Prayagraj. No one contested the place of Prayagraj in our psyche, least of all Allahabad. But there it is: Allahabad out, scratched out. Prayagraj scratched in.

This is not how it used to be.

The Republic of India adopted Ashoka’s lion capital for its national emblem. It adopted his ‘chakra’ for the central motif of its national flag. Its first president, Rajendra Prasad, renamed the Ball Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan as Ashok Hall. And the nation’s ‘peacetime equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra, awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice other than in the face of the enemy’ is named the Ashoka Chakra — hugely imaginative!
The future of Ashoka’s heritage in India calls for concern.

For a certain kind of politician the Pillar Edict III quoted above will have no effect. And the following edicts of Ashoka would be a no-go: “It is verily concord of all religions that is meritorious (shamavaye va shadhu).” (Rock Edict XII)

“King Priyadarsin reverences persons of all sects… But the one root is the guarding of one’s speech so as to avoid the extolling of one’s own religion to the decrying of the religion of the other.” (Rock Edict XII)

“For upholding the dhamma I shall send once in every five years a class of officers who are not harsh (akhakhase), not cruel (achande), and are of gentle disposition (sakhinalambhe).” (Kalinga Edict I)

And he is most unlikely to name his son Ashok.

Vikramaditya, yes, or Harsha, Kanishka, Ranjit, Pratap.

But Ashoka?

As one may say in Tamil-English — chance-ay-ille.

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Amit Shah more powerful than Advani ever was

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By D.K. SINGH

“Who is Amit Shah?” ran the headlines when he was appointed BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh on 19 May 2013. Then-BJP president Rajnath Singh was on the defensive, arguing that it was “not a crime” to appoint Shah, an accused in an alleged fake encounter case at that time.

Two thousand days later – the landmark reached last Sunday – the rise of Amit Shah in Indian politics has been phenomenal, one of the rare instances of a political non-entity (outside the home state) making it so big on the national political scene in such a short time. Not many BJP presidents could claim to have the kind of aura and clout across the country that he has. Union ministers start shivering when they are called for a meeting with Shah ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. In the past, many of them got news of their sacking from him only.

After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the only BJP president who is in so much demand among party candidates for campaigning in their constituencies is Amit Shah.

It’s quite an achievement for a leader who had been in jail for three months – in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – and who got out on bail in 2010 only to be told by the Supreme Court to stay out of Gujarat and given time till the next morning to leave the state. Few noticed him when he would get in and out of the Gujarat Bhawan where he stayed in the national capital.

Arun Jaitley, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha at that time, was chatting with a few journalists in his chamber in Parliament one afternoon in 2013 when a bearded man entered and touched his feet. He had got relief from the apex court in one of the cases. The journalists present there recognised Shah but he wasn’t important enough for them to digress from an interesting conversation with the senior opposition leader.

Shah has come a long way since then. The last 2000 days have been a period of metamorphosis for him: from a reticent, seemingly unambitious state minister whose personal and political life appeared doomed after his incarceration in connection with fake encounter cases into a confident and outspoken BJP president who is now seen as the alter ego of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another Vajpayee-Advani jodi is in the making as Modi makes a conscious attempt to model himself on the former prime minister, an RSS pracharak who rose over divisive ideology and politics to become a darling of the people as a ‘vikas purush’ or development man. Whether by design or default, Amit Shah is also taking after Advani of yore, a ‘loh purush’ who takes the hard line on issues perceived to be dear to Hindus.

When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue in Delhi on 19 September, Shah ignited a debate on the same subject the next day at a book launch in the national capital. The BJP president has described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as termites and made Assam’s National Register of Citizens a testimony of the party’s stance against illegal immigrants (read Muslims).

Soon, there will be a BJP government in Bengal and no one will dare stop Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja, he roared in West Bengal, referring to the Trinamool Congress government’s restrictions on idol immersion last year. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, he promised to ban slaughterhouses and liberate people “from the fear of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari”. There are instances galore of how Shah doesn’t miss an opportunity to project himself as a hardline Hindutva proponent a la L.K. Advani.

Those who knew Shah in his early days in Gujarat say that he always held strong views although he didn’t articulate them publicly. He was a votary of a powerful state. Those old-timers also recall how difficult it was for the Congress to open its election office in Sarkhej assembly constituency from where Shah contested 2007 assembly election. He used to be a soft-spoken leader then, without any tinge of bitterness in his voice.

He is a changed man now. The ruling party he heads has perfected the art of using the instruments of the state while he has become unapologetic about his and his party’s pro-Hindu credentials. Opposition candidates find it more challenging to stay in the electoral game.

Shah is arguably more powerful today than what Advani was during the Vajpayee regime. Much of Advani’s larger public persona could be attributed to his image as a hardline Hindu leader and a Ram Mandir crusader. Shah can’t reach that status now even if he travels down that path. But the times are different now. Shah doesn’t need to.

(theprint.in)

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Pakistan-A state in denial

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By Saad Hafiz

Pakistan living in a state of denial of its extremist problem is old news. Religious extremists who are in the ascendancy hold the country by the jugular. They are allowed freedom to dictate their regressive agenda and demonise the most vulnerable in society on the back of black laws. This state of affairs seems evident to everyone, but to Pakistanis themselves.

The reaction of the state to extremist provocations now follows a predictable pattern. Initially with fierce rhetoric on ensuring the writ of the state, then meek surrender to extremist demands. We saw this absurd approach during the recent standoff on the Aasia Bibi acquittal. The state, through its defeatist response, essentially rewarded the extremists for their belligerence and intransigence.

The highly inflammatory, anti-army and anti-judiciary statements from radical clerics that incited the people to violence — uttered by anyone else — would have invited the full wrath of the state. Calling for the removal of the army chief and threats to judges of the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are treasonable offenses. The army brass and intelligence apparatus are very tough with persons who question state policies. Non-Punjabi nationalist politicians, members of the press and civil society have found this out to their cost.

The coddling of religious extremists is an insane policy. It has plagued Pakistan from very early in its creation. The country has already paid a high price for using extremists as assets and proxies. The army, but also desperate politicians are guilty of this self-serving and myopic policy. It has contributed to a general lack of respect for law and order, domestic terrorism and poor relations with neighbours.

The extremists are adept at exploiting the divide between state and society. Their simple solution to complex social, economic and political problems is music to many. An effective extremist tactic is to accuse state institutions and individuals to religious and moral corruption. They demand the purification of Islam from corrupt western practices adopted by the ruling elite. And harping on about foreign conspiracies and agendas is part of their strategy.

Overall, Islamist political parties continue to perform moderately in elections, most recently in 2018, garnering around 10 percent of the national vote. However, the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — led by clerics of the Barelvi sect — emerged as the top fifth religious party by vote bank in Sind and Punjab. The TLP is prominent in confronting the state on multiple occasions to further their extremist agenda.

The nexus of religion and politics has picked up a quick pace in Pakistan. The Islamist lobby is imposing their hard line views on religious freedoms and civil liberties. As a result, we can see the curtailing of personal freedoms and subordination of the role of women and minorities.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has also impacted the nature of politics in the country. Pakistan is being transformed into a hard-line Sunni Muslim state. Left on its own, the country’s small but vibrant civil society, active media, and established political parties are unable to halt the extremist advance on their own.

A chilling fact is that extremist ranks include young people from all social, economic and educational backgrounds. Endemic corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam for salvation. The youth is particularly affected as the public debate is far removed from rationality and justice and more to the acceptance of a linear ideology.

It is too easy to equate the worldwide phenomenon of extremism to the rise of extremism in Pakistan. Firstly, Pakistani extremism has enjoyed state connivance to grow into a Frankenstein monster it is today. Secondly, unlike most stable democracies, the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions are arguably not strong enough to withstand the extremist onslaught. Thirdly, the extremists want to capture state power, which will have dire consequences.

Pakistan is losing the battle to balance religious tradition with the social, economic and political demands of the modern world. There is little support for a separation between religion and the state. Even fewer people see value in the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter.

Every country is entitled to create its favoured methods of governance. But Pakistan should allow its young people the opportunity to study the merits of liberal democracy and secularism. Just harking back for solutions from the golden age of Islam isn’t enough for a well-rounded education.

Perhaps the best antidote to extremism is to encourage free thinking and open inquiry. This progression seems the only way forward to pull Pakistanis out of the powerful grip of religious extremism.

It isn’t clear whether the generals and the civilian apparatus will ever find the will to turn back the extremist wave. They are perhaps afraid that dealing harshly with religious extremists could engulf the country as a whole. But to do nothing and stay a state in denial could mean the end of Pakistan itself.

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