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The Michel gambit

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By Manini Chatterjee

Narendra Modi is the biggest vote catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its most indefatigable election campaigner. But in his zeal to perform these roles, he sometimes forgets that he is also the prime minister of India.

A particularly egregious instance of this memory lapse was on display last week. Addressing an election rally at Sumerpur in Rajasthan on December 5, Modi made headlines with his reference to the extradition from Dubai of Christian Michel — the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal.

 

In his trademark theatrical style, the prime minister said, “Brothers and sisters, you must have heard of the VVIP helicopter scam of thousands of crores… you must know about the letter, Madame Soniaji’s letter… After we came to power, we kept searching for it in the files and finally found a raazdar [keeper of secrets] who served powerful people. He was a dalal [middleman]… He was a citizen of England and lived in Dubai where he served the friends of the naamdar [dynast — Modi’s latest epithet for Rahul Gandhi]…”

The government of India had brought him from Dubai, Modi said, and added with a snigger: “Abhiraazdarraazkholega, patanahinbaatkahantakpahunchegi, kitni door takpahunchegi(Now the keeper of secrets will spill the beans and who knows how far it will reach).”

Political mud-slinging is par for the course during elections. But rarely, if ever, has the head of a government resorted to such a pastiche of lies, half-truths, innuendoes and insinuations on a complex matter with international ramifications which is still under investigation. His speech prompted many to suspect that the extradition — just before the final day of campaigning in Rajasthan and Telangana — was timed to suit the ruling party’s political agenda. Worse, it cast a shadow on the entire process of investigation and delivered a further blow to the already tattered credibility of agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI.

Modi may think that he managed to fool the villagers of Rajasthan (and the millions who saw the speech on their TVs or mobiles) into believing that he was the sole crusader against corruption who had unearthed a massive scam. But anyone who has even cursorily followed the chopper scam knows that it broke and was dealt with before Modi came to power.

It was in 1999, during the Vajpayee regime, that the Indian Air Force first made a proposal to buy 12 high-end helicopters for the use of the president, prime minister and other VVIPs. AgustaWestland, the British arm of the Italian firm, Finmeccanica, secured the deal for Rs 3,600 crores in 2010. Soon after, investigations in Italy led to the arrest of the chairman of the Finmeccanica group, Giuseppe Orsi, and the CEO of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnolini, on charges that they bribed middlemen to secure the deal.

The Manmohan Singh government put the deal on hold in February 2013 and cancelled it in 2014 on the grounds that it had violated the integrity pact. It also recovered most of the money that had been paid for the choppers. The CBI investigation into the deal also began in February 2013 — leading to the naming and eventual arrest of former IAF chief, S.P. Tyagi, his businessman cousin, Julie Tyagi, and Delhi based lawyer, GautamKhaitan, on charges of receiving bribes.

Apart from members of the Tyagi family, the FIR filed by the CBI in March 2013 also named three middlemen — Carlo Gerosa, Guido Haschke and Christian Michel. The Enforcement Directorate too started investigations to track the kickbacks that were allegedly paid through a network of companies floated by the middlemen. According to the Indian agencies, while Gerosa and Haschke dealt with the Tyagi family, Michel — an old India hand — dealt with bureaucrats and politicians.

During the trial in Italian courts, Haschke turned approver. It is Haschke’s dairies and notes — which he claimed to have written under the instructions of Michel — that form the basis of the allegations levelled at the Congress leadership by Narendra Modi. Haschke’s notes included a “Budget Sheet” in which abbreviations such as AP and FAM figure — referring, according to the BJP, to Ahmed Patel and the Gandhi “Family.”

In interviews to the Indian media from his Dubai residence, Michel has repeatedly dismissed the notes and papers as fake. Michel has said he never got along with Haschke and that is the reason why Haschke sought to falsely implicate him. Haschke, he has alleged, used the Tyagis as a front to siphon off most of the kickback money back to Italy. “The real problem lies in Italy,” Michel told an Indian TV channel in May 2016.

But it is not Italy but an Indian of Italian origin that has obsessed the Modi regime — and her name is Sonia Gandhi. In July this year, after Christian Michel was arrested in Dubai at India’s request, his lawyer, Rosemary Patrizi, and his sister, Sasha Ozeman, gave interviews to India Today alleging that Indian investigators wanted him to name the then Congress president in the chopper deal.

Michel, his lawyer said, was being coerced to make false claims that he knew Sonia Gandhi. “This year, they (investigators) went to Dubai to interview him. What they wanted really was a signature. They wanted that he corroborated telling things that were not true. He said no, I am not going to sign. After that the people went back to India and he was arrested.”

His sister said much the same thing. “They want him to admit that he knows Sonia Gandhi, but he doesn’t. They want him to admit that he is helping these people, these very big politicians, but he’s not. He is just trying to clear his own name,” she said.

Earlier, in 2016, Michel himself had alleged that the Modi government had offered to free the two Italian marines in Indian custody in exchange for evidence linking Sonia Gandhi to the chopper scam. Michel had made these allegations in letters to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague where India and Italy were arguing the marines issue. Michel’s claim that Modi had made this offer at a “brush by” meeting with his Italian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in September 2015 had been dismissed as ridiculous by the foreign ministry in India. But subsequent developments on the marines issue as well as the chopper scam case in Italy makes those claims seem less outlandish in retrospect.

In January this year, an Italian appeals court acquitted both Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini of all charges. The other two middlemen hold little interest for India. The focus has only been on Christian Michel. The Modi government has doggedly pursued his case — first with the Italian government and then with the UAE. In its eagerness to please the UAE leadership, India even helped “abduct” — according to a UN body — the princess, SheikhaLatifa, from a boat off the Goa coast and return her to Dubai. She was said to be fleeing from her repressive father who happens to be the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the UAE.

So important was the extradition of Michel that the National Security Adviser, AjitDoval, skipped the G 20 summit and went to Dubai instead — and triumphantly brought the fugitive to India just in time for Modi’s campaign-end flourish.

But Modi’s speech gave the game away. Everything Michel and his lawyer had alleged in the past, and which Indian authorities had vociferously denied, was vindicated by that speech. Modi, in fact, went much further than any CBI or ED charge sheet has by claiming the existence of “Madame Soniaji’s letter” and that Michel provided services to friends of the naamdar. Even before the CBI could begin its interrogation of Michel, Modi was already sure that many “secrets” would tumble out.

Yet regardless of the damage his speech has caused to the credibility of India’s investigators and diplomats, the prime minister is unlikely to retreat. Whatever be the “semi-final” results tomorrow, Modi is readying himself for an even more belligerent battle in 2019. The “confessions” of Christian Michel, he thinks, will provide him just the weapon he needs to tarnish the Congress again and make the people forget the debris of broken promises they are mired in today. There’s a hint of desperation in that hope…


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Opinion

Indian elections, South Asian concerns

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By Kanak Mani Dixit

The staggering scale of the election that is under way in India with just under a billion voters is hard for the mind to grapple with, even in this densely populated neighbourhood that includes Bangladesh and Pakistan. The level of worry is also at a pitch, for India should be the bulwark against weakening democracy in a world of Bolsonaro (Brazil), Duterte (the Philippines), Erdogan (Turkey), Putin (Russia) and Trump (the U.S.) not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

Modern India, created by M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and their cohort, should be raising the standard for social justice and grass-roots democracy, and against destructive right-wing populism. This has not quite been Prime Minister NarendraModi’s record, and hence the concern that another five years would redefine the very idea of India.

 

Already, the term ‘world’s largest democracy’ is achieving banality as India gains majoritarian momentum. Centralised control of society would never be possible in such a vast and variegated society of sub-nationalities, we were told, but look at what is happening.

The high principle and probity of India’s political class, bureaucracy, academia and civil society are now exceptions rather than the rule. India’s Ambassadors are no longer the self-confident professionals we knew for decades, they act today like timid note-takers. Higher education is directed by those who insist that the achievements of Vedic era science included flying machines and organ transplants. Meanwhile, the adventurism that marked economic management, including immiseration through demonetisation, has been ‘managed’ through loyal social and corporate media.

Intellectual toadyism and crony capitalism have overtaken New Delhi on a subcontinental scale, but sooner than later this drift towards regimented society and whispered dissent must be reversed. Too much is at stake for too many citizens — India must revert to the true, messy and contested democracy we have known and appreciated.

Parliamentary democracy is the governance procedure adopted by each and every country of South Asia, and the Indian practice has always been held up as the example.

The precedents set by India’s courts are studied elsewhere, the professionalism of the civil service is regarded as the benchmark, and everyone else seeks the aspirational welfare state set in motion in India in the middle of the 20th century. This is why we watch worried as Indian democracy weakens in step with its economy, as inter-community relationships within India descend to one-sided animus, and as New Delhi’s global clout decreases in inverse proportion to Beijing’s.

To cover weaknesses in governance and promises undelivered, Mr.Modi as the solo electoral face of the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) has whipped up a tornado of militarised nationalism that projects Pakistan as the exclusive enemy. No one dares remind the Indian voters that Pakistan is the far weaker power; its people are battling fanatical demons more than are Indian citizens; Pakistan is a large potential market for India’s goods and services; and the future of Kashmir must be based on Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Meanwhile, Lahore intellectuals watch with apprehension as India copies the excesses of Pakistan’s theocratic state. Dhaka observers are numbed into silence with New Delhi’s vigorous backing of Prime Minister Sheikh HasinaWajed as she constructs an intolerant one-party regime. Colombo rides a geopolitical see-saw as New Delhi shadow-boxes Beijing. And Kathmandu wonders whether New Delhi has it in itself to concede that the amplified Chinese involvement in Nepal is the result of the Great Blockade of 2015-16.

India has been reduced to a giant nervously finger-counting friends made or lost to China. The media triumphalism that greets even modest shifts in India’s favour — be it in Male or Thimphu — marks unnecessarily low self-esteem. New Delhi seems preoccupied with ‘managing’ South Asian countries when it should be commanding the global platforms on climate alteration, protection of pluralism and correcting imbalances in global wealth.

Few note the incongruity of a New Delhi loudly daring Islamabad while acting coy on Beijing, which one would have thought was the real adversary or competitor. Meanwhile India’s celebrated soft power wilts even as the Chinese work to wipe out their English deficit, and Beijing places Confucius Institutes in far corners. Chinese goods flood the Indian market, Chinese research and development gallops ahead of India’s, and Beijing convincingly moves to tackle environmental degradation.

India seems drowsy and lethargic in contrast. South Asia as a whole — much of it the historical ‘India’ — roots for Indian democracy even while welcoming Chinese investment, infrastructure loans and tourists. Also because it has the largest population in the Subcontinent, India is expected to lead South Asia on myriad issues including the death-dealing Indo-Gangetic smog, fertilizer and pesticide use, cross-border vectors, arsenic poisoning, regional commerce and economic rationalisation, social inclusion and the Human Development Index and so on. But leadership requires humility, to study, for example, how adjacent societies have successfully tackled great challenges — look at Bangladesh surging towards middle income country status.

Nepal has long been regarded by exasperated New Delhi policy-makers as the South Asian basket case sending out migrant labour to India. This much is true, but it also emerges that the Nepal economy is the seventh largest sender of remittance to India after the UAE, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Bangladesh and Canada. Unlike these others, Nepal’s remittances go to India’s poorest parts, in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

We switch on India’s news channels and find an abysmal common denominator in terms of civility and rationality. The national intelligentsia seems intimidated, unable to challenge the rigid, dangerously populist narrative of the BJP/RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS). We watch as the National Register of Citizens propels statelessness, as the refoulement of Rohingyarefugees points to a reckless disregard for fundamental humanitarian principles, and as majoritarianism weakens the pillar of representative democracy that is the protection of minorities.

India is indeed large and important, but the chest size of a country does not translate into equity, social justice or international standing. Because nearly 20% of humanity lives within its boundaries, when India falters, the pit of despair and the potential for violence open up wide and deep.

The South Asia that New Delhi’s policy and opinion-makers should consider is not the centralised Jambudvipa mega-state of the RSS imagination. Instead, the ideal South Asian regionalism is all about limiting the power of the national capitals, devolving power to federal units and strengthening local democracy.

Modi’s own idea of regionalism is one where he calls the shots. The start of his current term was marked by an attempt to dictate to the neighbours, after which the pendulum swung to the other extreme. The freeze put by India on the inter-governmental South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is only a cynical means to keep Pakistan out of the club.

The sabotaging of SAARC can hardly be considered a victory, for that feather-light geopolitical stratagem fails to consider that regionalism is a potent means to bring economic growth and social justice to India’s own poverty-stricken ‘peripheral regions’ from Assam to Purvanchal to Rajasthan. For its own security and prosperity as well as that of the rest of us, India must re-connect with South Asia.

Sub continental regionalism is also important to achieve New Delhi’s ambitions on the world stage, including that coveted seat at the UN Security Council. India’s global comeback will start the day New Delhi think tanks begin questioning South and North Block rather than serving as purveyors of spin. On South Asian matters, they should pull out a copy of the Gujral Doctrine from the archives, to be dusted and re-examined.

We seek an India that is prosperous and advancing at double digit growth, not only because what this would mean for its 1.35 billion citizens, but to the other 500 million South Asians. For its own selfish interests, the rest of South Asia wants India to succeed in the world.

(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is the founding editor of the Colombo-based magazine, ‘HimalSouthasian’. Source: The Hindu)

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Witnessing the political tamasha in Kashmir

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By Meer Abass

At the onset of election fever, political parties belonging to exploiting ruling class use all kinds of tricks to lure voters on their side and grab power. Politicians resort to anything under the sky to woo voters and counter their rival parties. It’s obvious that in this cut-throat scheme of promises, hardly any political party has a programme or policy that genuinely aims well-being of the people of the state.

Every party claims that their leader is the ‘lion’ of the political jungle as tamashaof the hectic assembly poll campaign in Jammu and Kashmir reaches its culmination.
Getting elected should be very easy. If for five years you work for your voters without fear or favour then getting elected should not cost a dime. So why getting elected costs so much and takes so much effort?

 

The answer lies in the party system and the political illiteracy that our state suffers from.

Our political illiteracy levels are near 95% or more. Even the educated among us are politically illiterate. They stopped getting any education after they clear the class 10 during which they had Civics as a subject (of course this does not include people who did their BA and MA in Political Science).

Our political party system ensures that no representative of the people is able to do anything for the people that elect him/her. He has to follow the diktat of the party. And the party is driven by lobbies that want to get laws and rules made that benefit them. Thus even if there is a lawmaker who wants to work for his constituents, he can’t. Thus at the end of the tenure, if his party has something to show (which they usually don’t have), he can expect to get elected again otherwise he has to depend on the bluff of the party and its ability to convince the people that it has done well for them. Or fake them with the bluster of a fake leader.

And if the representative has been doing good work then his constituents will not even want to see him or hear him during election time. They would have been in touch with him all through the five years and would know what he/she has done and delivered. Thus the cost of getting elected would be very negligible.

Now that is the kind of politics that we should all aspire and work for.

And for a politician that is connected to the people, his/her formal education would not matter as much as his/her understanding of the pain points of his voters and his/her ability to solve their problems.

Therefore, there are two things you can do, one is to get a political education and second is to choose a representative that does work for you and not blindly toe the party line. Best would be to have a representative that represents you and not a political party.

“Walayvasie, aslisherhayy, aaaway (come, my friend. The original lion has come),” sing Kashmiri women folk in traditional ‘rauf’ dance at political rallies.

“Naklishera vatu daira, aslisheraaagaya (it’s time for fake lions to pack bags as the original lion has arrived at the scene,” is a common slogan witnessed in the campaigns right now in the Kashmir valley.

While every party has its own share of slogans but it is the “Sher” which is the common thread in their campaigns in the politically charged atmosphere in the Valley. Kashmir wildlife does not include lions.

The name of ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’ has been prefixed with a prestigious medical institute in the Valley, an agriculture university, gallantry medals for police, employment scheme and the only cricket ground in the Valley.

PDP also invoked ‘sher’ besides its slogans like “SabzukAlam chum aathskyath, aasiydeetaarParvardighar (The green flag is in my hand and God will help me crossing all hurdles)” besides the ‘Sher’ slogan. The flag of PDP party is green.

National Conference has some more to offer their voters like “aapkimushkilkabaaetbarhul, sirfhalhalhal (the only way for a honourable solution to your problems is plough). Plough is the symbol of National Conference.

There are multiple dimensions to how Kashmiris interpret elections. Some call it political maturity and see it as a befitting strategy to avoid having a party in power that has no sensibilities about Kashmir. Those who vote believe that if Kashmiris don’t vote, then the elected representatives will go down the same way as the previous ones have. Many see it as political leverage in negotiating for issues such as an immediate and urgent repeal of draconian laws in force in Kashmir and the release of youth who have been booked under these laws. Some consider it important for a long-term political solution to the conflict, which they think is only possible through consistent dialogue and negotiation with New Delhi, Islamabad and Kashmir.

BJP, besides its “abkibaarModisarkar” slogans, has banners hanging at various traffic cross sections “aaobadle Jammu Kashmir kehaalat, aaochaleModikesaath (let’s change Jammu and Kashmir’s destiny, let’s walk with Modi).”

It is said that in Kashmir nothing is straight except poplar trees, and it reflects the general persona of the biotic of Kashmir. Do we actually qualify to be humans, well what’s happening on the ground and has happened in the past, are contesting this prerogative. So the question arises, who is a common Kashmiri? And what are the aspirations, responsibilities and expectations out of common Kashmiri?

(Author is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Govt Degree College Handwara. Feedback at meerabas32@gmail.com)

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Running on fear in 2019

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By Barkha Dutt

NarendraModi, India’s powerful prime minister, is seeking a second term. But in 2019, he is sounding less like the man who campaigned in 2014 and much more like his previous avatar — the abrasive, vitriolic and inflammatory chief minister of Gujarat.

His first national election five years ago was built on aspiration. Then he used to proclaim that the country’s constitution was his only holy book; he promised “achhe din” (good days) and “vikas” (development).

 

This campaign, by contrast, has been built on fear and on the othering of his political opposition as anti-national, anti-Hindu and, in antithesis to Modi’s own projected machismo, wimpish.

There is little or no conversation about the performance of his government, the economy or jobs. A leaked report from the National Statistical Commission (which the government contested) placed unemployment numbers at a four-decade high; a certain amount of deflection and changing the subject is political compulsion.

But the Modi-led BharatiyaJanata Party campaign has descended from spin to brazen coarseness, fear-mongering and Islamophobia.

In the 2019 production, Modi has cast himself as the “chowkidar,” or watchman — the guardian at the gate who will defend the country against predators and terrorists. The decision to order an airstrike inside Pakistan as retaliation for the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed 40 paramilitary police officers has become a major element in his narrative.

Modi even delivered a speech with photographs of the men who were killed in the Kashmir strike forming the stage backdrop; he also asked young voters to dedicate their ballot to the military personnel who led the assault inside Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state, added insult to injury by describing the military as Modi’s “sena” — or Modi’s army, comments for which he has been censured by the Election Commission.

The BJP has defended this by arguing that because the prime minister took a great risk by sanctioning the Pakistan strike — in contrast to the Congress, which took no military action even after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 — the party has every right to politically own the decision. But given the flamboyant nationalism the party claims as its defining characteristic, this debasement of India’s armed forces is, frankly, impossible to justify.

The young daughter of a soldier killed in the Pulwama terrorist attack called out the bluff. “My father did not die for NarendraModi or Rahul Gandhi. He died for India,” ApoorvaRawat, 20, told me. “Can’t you run a campaign without using our families to win votes?”

Using soldiers as political fodder is bad enough. But even worse is the Modi campaign’s message to India’s 172 million Muslims. In the past few years, Muslim cattle traders have been repeatedly targeted by right-wing mobs on fabricated charges of trading in beef. During this campaign, the men charged with the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri, were given front-row seats at a BJP election rally.

A prominent government minister has warned Muslims to vote for her or face the consequences. And in one of the worst election speeches of the season, the prime minister taunted Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, for running away from Hindu voters to a constituency in the south where “the majority is a minority.” His comments were about Gandhi’s decision to fight from two seats, Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in addition to his long-standing parliamentary seat in the north. Attacking the Congress is fair but implicit in this particular attack was the suggestion that a parliamentary seat dominated by Muslims is something to be embarrassed of.

Every single day, the marginalization and humiliation of India’s Muslim citizens are being reinforced.

The final blow came from the BJP president, Amit Shah, Modi’s second in command and said to be the only person the prime minister trusts. Shah has vowed to create a national citizens’ registry that will “remove every single infiltrator from the country” unless they happen to be Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. The official sanction of crude religious majoritarianism did not even bother to disguise its anti-Muslim bigotry. It was tweeted out by the party handle with the hashtag #NaMoForNewIndia — a model of “New India” eroding the very basis of old India: constitutionally protected pluralism.

So far, despite the virulence of the campaign he is steering, Modi seems to be comfortably ahead. There is no visible backlash to even his most divisive words. His persona as a spartan, non-corrupt bachelor, who is “not in politics for himself” — this I’ve heard repeatedly from voters — and his reputation as a decisive leader seem to offset the flaws voters now concede he has.

Admittedly, there is no euphoria of the kind that India witnessed in 2014. But nor is there any widespread anger. And when it comes down to it, voters often add “who else is there” to their criticism of Modi’s first term. It’s like the post-romance phase of a personal relationship — you’re no longer smitten, the sheen has worn off, but until a better option comes along, in your mind he or she is as good as it gets, with all of the flaws. You tell yourself that the relationship is better than being single.

For this, India’s opposition must take the blame. Crude and sexist language by leaders from within their own ranks — such as Azam Khan, the regional leader who commented on the underpants of his female adversary — have somewhat blunted the moral force of their attack on the BJP.

The opposition also remains fragmented and divided. It has been too slow to produce a counter-narrative, and this has only bolstered Modi’s chances. It suits Modi to make himself the central issue of this election and ask, Modi vs. who?

The answer to that would be Modi vs. math.

In the absence of any other national persona to take on the tough-as-nails, ruthless and charismatic Modi, the opposition’s best bet is to bury its differences and work on a series of local alliances. Modi wants a presidential-style election. The opposition can only counter that with regional coalitions of varied caste groups and communities.

For the moment, in one of India’s ugliest election campaigns, the advantage is with Modi.

Chances are that he will be prime minister again. But there has been absolutely nothing prime ministerial about his campaign.

(washingtonpost.com)

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