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The Accidental PM: Movie lacks book’s complexities, context

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Ajaz Ashraf

To understand why The Accidental Prime Minister has been dubbed as yet another instance of propaganda against the Congress and the Gandhis, rewind to the book on which the film is based. Compare the book’s structure with that of the film. Note the elements of the book the film chooses to show and the portions it exaggerates. Launched in 2014, journalist Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh sought to tell the story of his stint as media advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) between May 2004 and August 2008.
His account of those years was understandably from his perspective. He did not, for instance, interview political personalities on whom he wrote reams. Yet it was, in some ways, a layered narrative of the larger context in which Manmohan and Baru functioned.
The Accidental Prime Minister, the film, lacks in context and complexities. It does not seek to understand Manmohan, demonises the Gandhis, portrays Rahul Gandhi as a cretin hungry for power, and the Congress a beehive of conspirators for whom the nation is not paramount. The film comes across as a mere propaganda largely because it elides some crucial elements from Baru’s narrative.
For instance, a substantial section of the film revolves around Manmohan’s manoeuvres to win the civilian nuclear deal for India. The Left is portrayed as the principal opponent of the nuclear deal: which they were. Then Congress president Sonia Gandhi is depicted as being extremely reluctant to sacrifice the government for the deal. As the film unspools, the audience is likely to ask: What was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on Manmohan’s decision to enter into a nuclear agreement with the United States of America?
Indeed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was as hostile to the nuclear deal as any party. About it, Baru dwells at some length in his book. He wrote, “The BJP too was a divided house. Moderate leaders like [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and even younger ones like Arun Jaitley were not resolutely opposed to the deal. It was clear that just as [Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash] Karat had used his opposition to the deal as a way of rallying his own party’s cadres behind him, [BJP leader] LK Advani, too, chose to adopt a rigid stance to force his party to abandon the Vajpayee line and accept him as the new leader.”
In the book, Baru wrote how the divisions within the BJP surfaced during Manmohan’s briefing to its leaders on the deal. Advani was absent, but the meeting was attended by Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Brajesh Mishra. Baru noted, “Sinha and Shourie asked the scientists, diplomats and PMO officials many searching questions, expressing their skepticism about what had been secured.” By contrast, former foreign minister Jaswant Singh complimented the officers on their endeavour. Baru quotes Jaswant saying, “Gentlemen, you have done the nation proud!”
During the meeting Vajpayee kept silent. At a point in the briefing, the irrepressible Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor during the National Democratic Alliance-I regime, got up from his chair, walked around the table and handed over a paper to Vajpayee, who looked at it, tucked it into his pocket, and did not say anything. When the BJP luminaries started to troop out of the room, Vajpayee, wrote Baru, “gave Dr Singh a warm smile and the two shook hands… as if to suggest the PM had done a good job…” Manmohan is quoted in the book telling Vajpayee, “I have completed what you began.”
Indeed, it was Vajpayee who initiated what is called the NSSP or Next Step in Strategic Partnership, which paved the way for the India-US nuclear deal. The NSSP was credited to Mishra, who relentlessly attacked the nuclear deal when its contours were first disclosed on 18 July, 2005. The film does not tell us how Manmohan brought Mishra around. In an interview to TV anchor Karan Thapar, Mishra expressed his approval of the deal. Baru wrote, “Mishra told Thapar that if the government were to now back off and not clinch the deal with the US it would be a ‘serious loss of face.’”
Baru’s book makes it amply clear that most major parties were divided over the nuclear deal. This was as true of the Left. There was the hardline stance of Karat, who viewed America as imperialists with whom there ought to be no truck. There was the moderate line represented by Sitaram Yechury, who was of the view that the Left should not withdraw support from the Manmohan government and plunge the nation into a crisis.
Ultimately, Karat’s view prevailed and the Left MPs fell in line. But not Somnath Chatterjee, who defied Karat’s diktat and refused to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker. Chatterjee was summarily expelled from the party. So obsessed is the film in portraying the Gandhis as villains, it ignores little heroes, like Chatterjee, who made the nuclear deal possible: and does not allude to the dubious role the BJP played during the entire brouhaha.
The Left’s withdrawal of support from the government prompted Manmohan to take a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. The film shows how Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh bailed out the government. Yet, it is incredible that the film should have glossed over on what transpired in the Lok Sabha during the confidence vote. It was dramatic: just the stuff film-makers crave. Worse, Baru provided a vivid description of the drama in his book.
Baru wrote, “At 4 pm, some members of the BJP placed wads of rupee notes on the table of the Lok Sabha secretary general and alleged that they had been paid this money in exchange for support to the government. Senior BJP leaders then informed the media that a sting operation had also been conducted by a TV channel and proof of the bribing would be shown on TV.”
The sting operation was supposedly conducted by Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN. “[Union minister] Prithviraj Chavan called… Sardesai … and warned him of legal consequences if the channel televised the visuals,” wrote Baru.
The nation never learnt the truth about the notes-for-vote scam. Was it a conspiracy to bring down the government and nix the nuclear deal? Was the BJP willing to sacrifice the nuclear deal to derive a political advantage a year or so before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections? Did the filmmaker deliberately elide the dramatic story of confidence vote because it does not suit the BJP three or four months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
Obviously, the film’s writers will argue that their intention was to portray how Manmohan was unmade by the Gandhis, whose unmistakable preference was to save the government rather than the nuclear deal. They and the Congress are made to appear as an exception in this regard. This is untrue: every party heading a coalition has to compromise on its agenda. For instance, the BJP chose not to pursue the Ayodhya issue, Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code when it headed the NDA-I, which comprised a medley of disparate parties, between 1999 and 2004.
Before the interval, the film is at least based on Baru’s account, regardless of his own prejudices and subjectivity. The second part is mostly fiction. Baru quit the PMO in October 2008. He did not have a ringside view of the happenings the film portrays. For instance, he could not have known whether Sonia Gandhi refused to accept Manmohan’s resignation because she did not think the time was opportune for Rahul Gandhi to succeed him. His government, Sonia is imperiously shown telling Manmohan in the film, is buffeted by scams and high inflation.
But even if it is assumed that this incident did indeed occur, the audience is not provided a reason why Manmohan acceded to Sonia. Perhaps it is not in Manmohan’s personality to defy authority. Why? In the book, Baru links Manmohan’s self-effacing, shy personality to his childhood experiences.
As Baru wrote, “I always wondered how much of this ‘shyness’ was a defence mechanism acquired during a difficult childhood when, after his mother’s death, he had to live with an uncle’s family because his father was rarely at home. Since his uncle and aunt had their own children to take care of, the young Manmohan was left to his own devices. Dr Singh had happy memories of his student and teaching life in Amritsar but I noticed that he rarely spoke about his childhood…”
Thus, it became Manmohan’s habit to take the path of least resistance, or at least what Baru seems to imply. It was a survival tactic. The film does not seek to understand Manmohan, but focuses on disparaging him. The film has, obviously, dramatised and fictionalised the scenes in which Sonia refuses to accept Manmohan’s resignation. In such a scenario, it raises pertinent questions regarding the extent to which a filmmaker can push the right to free speech. Both Manmohan and Sonia are alive. This portion is not incidental; it is not a mild exaggeration of what happened.
These scenes have been created to show that Sonia merely wants to vest power in her family, is shockingly selfish, and has no regard for the prime minister. It also shows Manmohan lacking courage and self-esteem. Though the Congress is best advised not to go to court, it is hard to see how a judge would not perceive the film as anything less than calumny.
In case Manmohan did indeed offer to resign, it is quite possible he withdrew it because he did not wish to show ingratitude to Sonia for choosing him as prime minister. Yes, she perhaps made Manmohan PM not only because she judged him to possess skills for running the government, but also because he did not seem like a person who would betray her. Manmohan owed his prominence to the Congress. His decision to remain loyal to the person was and is a personal one.
Baru, however, did not want Manmohan to be fettered by a sense of loyalty and gratitude to the Gandhis. Indeed, gratitude did not deter Baru from embarrassing Manmohan by disclosing their private conversations. Baru even calls him “spineless” in his book. And to think, the love Manmohan and his family showered on Baru. For instance, after Manmohan underwent heart surgery in 2009, Baru was allowed to meet him even before Sonia and then president Pratibha Patil. There is a poignant account of that meeting in Baru’s book.
Dr Srinath Reddy, who headed the team of doctors that looked after Manmohan, told Baru in the book: “He [Manmohan] is not eating enough and need to get up and walk. So when Mrs Kaur [Manmohan’s wife] heard you were here [in Delhi from Singapore, where Baru was on a teaching assignment], she wondered whether meeting you might help revive his spirits. I can see it has. He has not spoken for an entire day. Whatever he said to you were his first words today.”
The film shows Baru meeting a convalescing Manmohan, but excises what Dr Reddy told Baru. Instead, in the film, Baru is beset with nostalgia: there is a series of flashbacks. Did the film’s writers omit Dr Reddy because it would have established Manmohan’s deep affection for Baru, who plays the narrator’s role in the film, and made him appear treacherous? A treacherous narrator, without suffering from remorse, is never a credible and reliable one.
This is why The Accidental Prime Minister comes across as a vicious attack on the Gandhis and Manmohan. Any doubts on this score are removed in the concluding parts of the film: Rahul is shown talking about the chowkidar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the dynast and his mother. True, these are snatches from the 2014 election campaign. But given that both have remained stuck in the 2014 groove, the film can only be construed as providing the BJP a helping hand to demolish the Gandhis.

 
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Opinion

Brazen statements on job shortage

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Mihir Swarup Sharma

Back when Narendra Modi was just a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, he seemed to understand what India’s biggest problem was: jobs. He promised tens of millions of jobs would be created if he were voted to power – India’s unemployed young people would be transformed, he promised, into an army for development.

Four years later, this promise has turned into a weapon for the opposition. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, pointed out last year that young Indians were “desperately waiting for the jobs that they were promised.”

 

The Modi government’s response has been typical: not harder work, not economic reform, but bluster. Two recent statements from senior ministers who should know better stand out. Piyush Goyal said that the large number of people who are lining up for jobs in the Railways that he oversees – over 15 million applied recently for a minuscule number of vacancies – did not in any way mean that there is a shortage of jobs in India. And Human Resources Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose job is indeed to prepare the Indian workforce for employment, has insisted that each and every sector in India has witnessed job opportunities. “We have to find out why people with post-graduate degrees apply for sweeper jobs in the government,” he said.

Well, minister, the answer is staring us all in the face: that there simply aren’t enough high-quality jobs available. Yes, even low-skilled government jobs provide security; but in a growing economy, the private sector should also be creating enough and better-paid jobs in such a way that security would be rendered irrelevant.

The fact is that when millions of Indians turn up for jobs that they are manifestly overqualified for, it cannot be seen as anything other than a failure of economic management on a massive scale.

There was not even the slightest remorse expressed by the ministers for whatever combination of circumstances may have arisen in the economy to cause this sort of desperation on the part of job-seekers. Nor was there an iota of compassion for these young job-seekers or a comprehension of the lack of choices they face.

Mr Javadekar even said that “people who do not work out of choice cannot be called unemployed”. Is it possible that Modi Sarkar imagines that everyone without employment prefers to watch things on their Jio phone rather than earn a living? It is impossible to overstate how out of touch that sentiment is. Even in the best case scenario, which is that the minister was referring only to the worrying decrease in the labour participation rate of women – fewer women in India are working, while in the test of the world more women worked as development progressed – it still reveals an inability to understand the real problems faced by job-seekers. If women are not going out to work, it is not out of “choice”. It is because neither law and order nor their social relations in their community have allowed them to do so. Is this not something a government should be concerned about – if, that is, it values half of India? Or should it just dismiss the crushing of womens’ aspirations as “their choice”?

The ministers complained that there was not enough data to prove that jobs were not being created. This seems to undercut various other claims made by government apologists that jobs are indeed being created – on the basis of the pension records kept by the provident funds, for example. Many economists have poked clear holes in this theory. At best, that reveals that under pressure from demonetization and the GST, some jobs are coming into the formal sector – but it does not reveal whether or not jobs are being created overall. While it is amusing to discover that not even the Modi government ministers believe its own propagandists, the politicians’ statements are still important. Their complaint about the lack of official data is shared by many.

Yet data is scarce, of course, for a very specific reason: the survey of unemployment in the country, conducted by the Labour Bureau every year from 2010 to 2016, was discontinued by the Union Labour Ministry – in a strange coincidence, the Survey showed sharp job losses after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. So when the ministers – and earlier the Prime Minister himself – complain that there is no data on employment, what they should instead explain is why the government chose to stop collecting data on employment.

The reason, of course, is that this government does not want the release of any data that would reveal the true state of the economy. The manipulation of the backseries of GDP data revealed exactly how desperate it is to whitewash its unusually poor record.

The Modi government seems to believe that voters are comically stupid. That they will not only believe that jobs are being created, but also that mobs of people applying for a few government jobs is a sign of how many other jobs there are. That they will also believe that a lack of data that the government has itself organised can be replaced by earnest assurances from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet that large numbers of jobs have indeed been created.

The most reliable independent source for jobs data are the reports from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, or CMIE. Their latest report, issued earlier this month, indicated that 11 million jobs had been lost in 2018. Think about that – 11 million jobs were lost, not created. This comes at a time when most economists believe that we need to create between 6 and 12 million jobs a year just to keep pace with the number of people entering the job market. Nor were previous years better – demonetization in particular wreaked havoc, costing millions of jobs.

There is little doubt, therefore, that Modi has failed to keep the promises that he made before being elected. The question is whether he will be held accountable for those promises. Perhaps if the Prime Minister or his colleagues had been open about their failures and accepted that they understood where they had gone wrong and how more jobs could be created going forward, they might have been able to retain some credibility. Instead, they have chosen to deny that a problem even exists and to pretend instead that the promises have been fulfilled. This is brazen even by the standards of Indian politics.

There are good reasons for greater urgency. India’s window to create high-quality manufacturing jobs – the sort that helped countries like China move up the income ladder – is closing. More and more processes are being automated, and the scope for mass manufacturing that takes in lower-skilled workers and gives them solid secure employment is narrowing. But the World Bank has insisted in a recent report that there is still enough time. Given its vast numbers of young people, it is India that should be benefiting from these last decades in which manufacturing will matter. But instead the government has failed to undertake genuine economic reform, relying instead on adulatory press handouts and ministerial statements – managing the headlines and not the economy, as Arun Shourie put it. India’s young people, lining up in their lakhs in the hope even of a job as a government sweeper, deserve better than this callous indifference to their fate.

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Opinion

Is Rahul Gandhi emerging as a reliable brand?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Shuchi Bansal

The Congress’s recent victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have put the spotlight on its president Rahul Gandhi.

While an earlier column spoke of brand Modi and whether he has lost some of its sheen, little has been said on Rahul Gandhi and if he, as a brand, has come of age. Or whether, despite his party’s recent wins, it is too early to think of him as a dependable brand.

 

Interestingly, the resurgence of the Congress and that of Rahul Gandhi in particular seems to represent an almost textbook example of a challenger brand.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unexpected poor performance is also perhaps a classic case of what a market leader should avoid—complacence, overconfidence and petty-mindedness being on top of the list.

“While it’s true that Rahul Gandhi has a long way to go before he can match the perceived stature and the personal popularity of Narendra Modi, he has certainly been able to narrow the gap between them. I would say this is an outcome of some of his bold initiatives helped to a great extent by the missteps of the latter,” says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

Dheeraj Sinha, managing director (India) and chief strategy officer (Asia) at Leo Burnett, agreed that Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a viable challenger with the recent wins in the Assembly elections.

However, he argues that challengers don’t win the game in India, leaders do. “Will Rahul be able to position himself as a viable leader of the country is the question. Just being a challenger won’t make it happen for the Congress,” he says.

Advertising veteran Sandeep Goyal who has done his doctorate in human brands, says that a challenger brand is defined by a mindset. It has ambitions larger than its conventional pool of resources and is prepared to do something bold. The most common narrative associated with the challenger brand is that of the underdog.

However, challenger brands are today more often focused on “what” they are challenging rather than “who” they are challenging.

“Rahul Gandhi is, therefore, by definition, truly a challenger brand. The important thing that everyone seems to be missing out on is that he is cleverly not really challenging Mr Modi but challenging incumbency, unfulfilled promises, growth agenda, and the performance of the current government, ‘mistakes’ like demonetization and GST (goods and service tax). In politics, these are really the ‘category drivers’. Rahul is also focusing on disenchantment/ unhappiness with jobs/economy, which is really challenging the ‘user experience’ with the current government,” says Goyal.

Sinha feels that Rahul’s underdog image helps him. He began his political career as a fumbling novice, which earned him the Pappu sobriquet.

“It’s because not much was expected of him is why his stock goes up every time he exceeds expectations, even for accomplishments that are less than extraordinary. On the other hand, his rival suffers a huge disadvantage for having set unrealistically high expectations, and whatever be his achievements, they are bound to fall short of the promise. This has no doubt negatively impacted both his credibility as well as popularity, which has helped Rahul Gandhi seize the narrative. When one starts at the bottom, the only way is up. The converse is equally true,” points out Sinha.

Brand Rahul seems to be gaining some traction. “His speeches have improved both in form and content. He is more consistent, more combative.

The hesitant, reluctant brand Rahul of yore is slowly but surely transforming into an astute leader who has pedigree and lineage,” feels Goyal.

Of course, none of this guarantees a defeat for the BJP, or a victory for the Congress, in this year’s general elections. Goyal says that as of now, brand Modi is stronger and better resourced, but beginning to fray at the edges.

Also, a bit hurt, if not bruised. In 2014, brand Modi epitomized “hope” and “progress.”

“In 2019, he cannot stand for Hindutva or Ram Temple or The Cow. That would be a big mistake. In 2014, brand Rahul was untested and nascent. In 2019, he is portraying himself as progressive, secular, empathetic and pedigreed… Both brands have their own appeal,” he says.

As Leo Burnett’s Sinha says, leadership brands need to appeal to the whole market.

Will brand Rahul be able to cover this distance from being a challenger brand to the leader brand in the next few months remains to be seen.

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Opinion

Your waste: someone’s taste

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Zeeshan Rasool Khan,

While we every other day listen to boastful claims that the country India is developing fast. It has become very difficult for most of us to accept the brute reality that here the people die because of hunger. Yes, death due to starvation is the unthinkable, reality of India. According to sources, about 14.9% of the Indian population is undernourished. Half of the world’s hungry live in India. Thousands are those who do not know if the next meal would be availed or not. Reports say, everyday 20 crore people have to hit the sack with an empty tummy. In the year 2018, many cases of hunger-death were reported in India. This bitter truth is being cloaked with bragging. Global Hunger Index 2018, which has placed India at a 103rd place out of 119 qualifying countries, is a testimony to this fact that India is not what media shows i.e., all is not well within the nation with respect to common masses. Howbeit, it is not any matter of berating the nation. There is no question of cutting anyone to size in connection with this issue. Instead, it demands serious contemplation from everyone irrespective of our positions in society.

One of the root causes of hunger is poverty that has been challenging to every developing country and India is no exception. Despite the reports of GHI, which says, the poverty level has reduced by 0.9 % since 2011 we must accept that our efforts have been too meagre to achieve any feat in this direction. Let us accept we have failed in defeating poverty. But, that does not mean we will rest on our laurels and let poverty-stricken die. If we cannot eradicate the gigantic issue of poverty but we have immense potential to secure poor. If we cannot build palaces for indigents, however, we can provide them shelter to hide at least. If we cannot raise their standard of living but there is no doubt that, we can mitigate their problems. Likewise, if we cannot provide them with sumptuous food, at least we can make sure that they will not sleep hungry, die due to hunger and starvation.

 

There is no dearth of food. Credible reports suggest that India produces sufficient food to feed its population. However, access to the available food is lacking. And this inaccessibility is partly due to low income of people and mostly due to our behaviour of wasting food. It has been estimated that nearly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted every year. This wastage starts from processing continues up to packing, supply management, and consumption.Due to imperfect packaging methods and inefficient supplying system, a considerable amount of food is lost. According to one estimate, about 40 percent of fruits and vegetables and 30 percent of cereals are wasted and do not reach the consumers because of improper packaging and supplying techniques. Prevalent ways of processing and subsequent supplying of paddy and other grains result into wastage of a part of it. Common Fruit growers know it better, while packaging, what quantity of fruits is wasted. Fully ripened fruit is often discarded as ‘rotten’ because of apprehensions about its transportation. Same is the case with vegetables and other foodstuffs.

These squandered grains, discarded fruit and vegetables make a large part of wasted food. Imagine if these grains, ripe fruit, and vegetable reach any poor, how great it would be. At the consumption stage, significant levels of food wastage occur. The gluttony, most people are indulged in is itself a form of wastage. Some people eat like a horse without thinking about health risks that overeating leads to. They keep on inviting ailments rather than getting any benefit but never cogitate, how by exercising moderation in eating we can help others. The excessive food that we take can easily become a morsel for a destitute.

Our weddings, events, restaurants, hostels, and houses are a major source of food wastage. At weddings, a huge amount of food is wasted. A large amount of food including multiple dishes are served, which results in leftovers that finally finds a place in trash bins. It would have been far better to have control mechanism at our weddings for prevention of food-wastage. However, even in absence of a mechanism, we can play a significant role in reducing wastage of food by best use of leftovers. Leftovers from weddings and even from our homes, restaurants, hostels, and hotels are often thrown away. But there is an option for us to make better use of it. We can recycle leftovers. We can make many other dishes from it, which can be used for the next meal. Massimo Botturra of Italy – the world’s best chef has come up with this innovative idea. He has founded the association namely ‘Food for Soul’ with the motive to fight food waste. He uses surplus food /leftovers productively to tackle food wastage and nourish poorest people of the city. Most of Hoteliers and restaurateur, across the world particularly India, have followed suit that is a good sign. Others, who are not aware of this idea, should imitate the same .So that more and more necessitous are benefited. In fact, using leftovers to feed the poor living in our vicinity would be one of the finest uses of leftovers. By this way the uneaten edibles from our homes, restaurants, etc. can fill the bellies of many and eliminate their hunger.

Efforts are on throughout India and fortunately, in our state too, to reach out the hunger struck population. No doubt, some NGO’s are working to utilize extra cooked food and give it to needier. But, the challenge is big and efforts are small. Broad-gauge efforts are required that must be started from the individual level. While processing, packaging, supplying, and consuming, utmost care needs to be taken to check the frittering. Through this mindfulness, we can preserve lot of food and can make it available to the poor. In addition, if everyone would refrain from wasting food and take care of penurious people of respective communities, we can ensure food availability for a maximum number of deprived people.

It is worth to mention, feeding hungry cannot obliterate hunger as it is related to several problems. However, we cannot deny the fact that hunger itself is the root of various other troubles. Hunger deprives a person from growth. It increases the vulnerability of a person to a myriad of complications, which can have an adverse impact on social, behavioural, emotional, and physical health of a person. Satisfying one’s hunger can make him eligible to earn livelihood otherwise his destiny is elimination. So, we must think logically to gain the best of both worlds.

(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])

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