Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A lesson from Modi to Trump

Chaotic is perhaps a charitable way to describe President Donald Trump's first two months in office. His defeat at the hands of Democrats as well as his own Republicans on the AHCA in the House, as well as his double defeat in court over his EO on travel from certain countries, have severely dented his image as a 'deal maker'. At this point of time, all he seems to be decent at are signing EOs and talking trash to the media (which is a skill in itself). So where does he go from here?

Trump seems to have underestimated the amount of resistance built into the system that he will have to deal with. In that, he has parallels with Prime Minister Modi after his spectacular victory in 2014 and once-in-a-lifetime parliamentary majority. No sooner did the BJP win that majority did the Opposition decide to turn the Rajya Sabha into a veto against a democratically elected government; indeed, the Upper House is so powerful that the government has time and again resorted to the Money Bill route to bypass the reckless opposition there. In Trump's case, the Presidential system makes this even more complicated, for even though his party enjoys a majority in both houses, they are not beholden to the President. Indeed, in the AHCA case, it was the Republican Party itself that sunk the bill, helped in no small measure by Speaker Ryan's odd tactics (hiding the bill in the basement, for example). In Modi's case, the government had to eventually buy peace with the Opposition - or use very creative means to break its unity and thus corner naysayers. Trump will clearly have to do the same thing, but whether Speaker Ryan can do that or not is in question after the AHCA debacle.

But even before the legislative tussles, Prime Minister Modi faced a problem: leaks. In a government that has a permanent bureaucracy that has been leached by the Deep Congress for decades, preventing information from getting out before it was time was going to be very difficult. Indeed, one of Modi's earliest campaign's was to discipline the civil service and end the culture of leaks. And that has largely been successful: in the initial days, all sorts of speculation and information kept leaking out to the media in a case of Sore Loser Syndrome. But by the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, not one journalist knew about Smriti Irani's surprise removal from HRD, which was the biggest headline of that event. Demonetization was another exercise that would've been impossible without a water-tight information system. This is not to say that the media should not have information - it is absolutely essential they should - but there is a difference between information and access. The media has a right to obtain information and pass it on to the public; journalists do not have a right to privileged and exclusive access to information that rightly does not belong in the public sphere (yet).

For President Trump, the task is somewhat more complicated. The US allows for many political appointees who can be removed by a new president, so Trump is not hobbled by a permanent bureaucracy (although there are career bureaucrats in the underbelly of the Beltway). However, the US Government is much larger than the Indian one, and Trump has been extremely slow in replacing political appointees for all sub-Cabinet level positions. His top priority should be replacing all of them - a witch hunt of leak-providers is a sheer waste of time when there is a much more effective solution. On controlling the bureaucracy, President Trump, who has a phone call with Prime Minister Modi on the BJP's victory in UP the other day, can certainly exchange a few notes. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The (very) Fast and Furious

Closing off this round of elections was the tiny coastal state of Goa. For a small state, politics in Goa is highly fragmented, with several small parties that have their local area of influence. In 2012, Manohar Parrikar was to Goa what Narendra Modi eventually became to India in 2014 - the tallest, most respected leader who had the total support of his party. But with Parrikar being moved to Delhi as Minister for Defense (and he did quite a splendid job there), and an ineffectual Laxmikant Parsekar superseding Dy. CM Francisco D'Souza to succeed him. Couple that with the defections in both the Congress (which lost some prominent members to the new formation, Goa Forward) and the BJP (over the medium of education issue), the turncoat MGP, as well as the dramatic entry of AAP in the state, and the water quickly became murky.

Before the elections, the Congress was virtually written off, having lost many members and being ridden with factions, led by a galaxy of leaders who were all short-lived CMs. However, its spectacular comeback under state president Faleiro Luizinho, defeating six sitting Ministers including Chief Minister Parsekar himself, made it the natural choice to lead a coalition. However, that's where the party was held back by its unending factionalism that was simply no match for the new Modi-Shah BJP. Within a few days, the party brought back Parrikar (who has hinted several times that he disliked working in Delhi), negotiated terms with the MGP and surprisingly Goa Forward, and cobbled together a majority. This is an even bigger achievement than in Manipur, where the party also sealed a coalition but with parties that it was already allied with outside the state. The fact that Parrikar was acceptable to Goa Forward speaks volumes of his dominance over the politics of Goa. And while all this was happening, the Congress was left fighting itself, with AICC-in-charge Digvijay Singh being unable to manage the situation. Thus, the Congress was left to lick its wounds and protest in Delhi, while Parrikar once again became Chief Minister in Panaji.

Two interesting and related outcomes from the state. One, with the defeat of so many ministers, a majority of the BJP's MLAs are now Catholics, while the Hindu majority is better represented in the Congress! This is quite a contrast to the party's strength at the national level, where it is the natural voice of Hindus. And two, AAP has once again proved to be all hype - or as the chief of Goa Forward Vijai Sardesai called it, 'Delhi pollution'. The party contested all 40 seats and lost its deposit in 39 of them - with its CM candidate Elvis Gomes finishing third in his constituency (and also losing his deposit). There's nothing more to be said of a party that has a part-time CM and full-time Twitter troll at its helm. 

Dodging a Bullet

In the historic 2014 elections, where the Modi wave decimated the opposition is almost the entire country, Amritsar was the seat that the Deep Congress chose to highlight, for it was there that Arun Jaitley, fighting his first ever Lok Sabha election, was defeated by the Congress. But the Punjab had a bigger story - after making history by returning the SAD-BJP government in 2012, the state not only defeated Jaitley, who is #2 in the Cabinet today, but also gave the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) four MPs, even while its own star, Arvind Kejriwal, was roundly defeated by Modi in Varanasi.

Cut to three years later, with AAP having formed a government in Delhi (again) with a near complete sweep of 67/70 seats, and the party rightly saw Punjab as ripe for the picking, hoping to free itself up from the glorified municipality that is the half-state of Delhi and take control of a full-fledged state. There was reason to be confident, there was vision, and there was determination. The only thing lacking was execution - which ultimately turned its hugely hyped campaign into a fiasco. For, AAP chose to be the most dishonest party of all. Now, all parties resort to lying to sell themselves - they make false promises, they create fake controversies. But few have been as brazen as to fabricate a victory altogether!

For the year preceding the election, the entire country (!) was subject to questionable 'independent' surveys that gave AAP over 100 seats in Punjab, thus another Delhi-like sweep. And this was not by some random party worker - it was by Kejriwal himself. And while these did confuse the electorate, three factors turned the pendulum against AAP:

  1. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) questioning the surgical strikes by the Indian Army in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, going as far as casting aspersions on the Army, in which a sizeable chunk of both jawans and officers come from Punjab itself. 
  2. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) hobnobbing with Khalistani elements in Punjab as well as abroad, which led to sheer panic among the electorate fearing the return of the dark days of militancy. The party was funded largely by Khalistani NRIs, who also made up a sizable portion of its volunteer base there.
  3. The party (i.e., Kejriwal) has performed dismally in Delhi as a government, making tall promises but failing to do much. Kejriwal himself is an absentee Chief Minister, only registering his presence in special Assembly sessions that he calls to hurl abuses at Prime Minister Modi under the protection of Parliamentary immunity. The party has kept its reputation as being one in perpetual protest mode, with nothing beyond that to offer, while also supporting anti-national elements in universities (the party's youth wing, CYSS, has failed to make any inroads in the state's universities). And the state's huge publicity budget has hardly done any good.
That the SAD-BJP government was unpopular was quite well-known, and its 18 seats are probably more than it should've even hoped for. The ailing senior Badal served a good 10 years as Chief Minister, after over half a century in public life, but his time in active politics has come to an end. His son, who has been the de facto CM for the last five years, will have to work to rebuild the party after this huge loss, in which the SAD will not even be the largest opposition party. 

As for the Congress, the clear winner was Capt. Amrinder Singh, who is now is his second stint as CM. That the Gandhi dynasty left him to take care of Punjab, making the right call to sideline Rahul Gandhi's crony Pradeep Bajwa, helped the Congress register its only victory in this election cycle (and the first in two years). He held off against a vicious assault by AAP, and has probably saved the state from a very dark future. 

In all of this, there is the curious case of Navjot Singh Siddhu, the former BJP MP who formed his own outfit but eventually joined the Congress after flirting with AAP for sometime. While he did take the right call to stay away from AAP, his effectiveness as a Minister in the new government is questionable. He is going to continue hosting his TV show, which is really the only thing he is known for now. Whether he won or lost is up in the air. 

New Dawn

Historically, with the exception of Nagaland and Sikkim, India's much neglected Northeast has been the pocket borough of the Congress, as the largest organized political force in the area. And while the planes of Assam have been contested in the past, the hill states there have been more or less forgotten by everyone else. Until Amit Shah became the President of the BJP, that is, when the region finally came up on the political radar. And while the BJP did have a token presence as a junior alliance partner with the NPF in Nagaland, and a small presence in Arunachal Pradesh, it was the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam that seems to have really turned the tide around for the party in the strategic region that was once abandoned by Pandit Nehru after the Chinese invasion.

Of these new territories for the BJP, Manipur perhaps represents the real opportunity that the party has in the region. In 2012, the party did not even exist there - it had zero legislators - and the CM Ibobi Singh had no opposition in the non-Naga districts (where the NPF's writ ran large). Then, almost out of nowhere, the BJP appeared on posters and rallies, with top party leaders campaigning in the state. BJP President Amit Shah himself came after the BJP office in Imphal was attacked to warn Ibobi Singh of consequences in the elections. Still, after all that, the Congress did come within striking distance of its fourth government there, at 28 seats, with 31 needed for a majority. But the genius of the new Modi-Shah BJP, quite unlike the previous Advani-Vajpayee BJP, is to never stop fighting.

With 21 seats and the largest vote share - a radical departure from being non-existent just one election back - the BJP's Ram Madhav (the architect of the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir) and Sarma got the BJP's traditional partners - the NPF (with which it has an alliance in Nagaland), the NPP (whose late founder, Purno Sangma, was the NDA's Presidential candidate in 2012), and the LJP (which is part of the ruling NDA at the Center) - as well as a few independents, to cobble up a majority, thus making N Biren Singh the new CM and inaugurating the first BJP-led government in the state. Quite a riveting finish for a party that once refused to even try to form a government without a majority of its own (which it rarely won)! With this, the BJP is in government in four of seven states in the region, with Pawan Chamling's SDF in Sikkim supporting the NDA, thus leaving only Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Two important developments from this result. First, now that the NPF is in government in Manipur, the endless blockades there have to end. The Union Cabinet has recently approved the construction if a new highway to the state, but till the time that materializes, the BJP both in Imphal and Delhi will have to work to prevent more crippling blockades that are thoroughly inhuman and illegal. How the BJP is going to placate Meiti interests while simultaneously being in a coalition with the NPF will be Biren Singh's biggest headache, and the party is clearly not out of the woods yet.

And second, Irom Shamila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, who broke her fast to contest against Ibobi Singh, came a huge cropper with just 90 votes, less than the NOTA votes. While many in the right wing have panned her for being the darling of the Delhi establishment, the fact is that she was fighting for a just cause - AFSPA in Manipur has been in place for over half a century, and has not worked, and a political solution to the situation there has to be found sooner than later if we are to avoid losing another generation of Indians there. And yet, her defeat at the hustings despite being the icon of the civil society in the state shows just how badly she miscalculated her popularity. All is not lost - she can still spend the next five years doing community work, avoiding the shoot-and-run politics of Arvind Kejriwal. Politics is hard work and not for the faint-hearted. Unfortunately, she seems to have given up already. Still, we wish her luck in whatever she works towards next. Perhaps, she should retreat into her personal life now. She has been through enough for one lifetime. 

A new revolving door?

The tiny hill state of Uttarakhand was created out of the hill districts of UP in 2000, which were seen as being neglected by the leadership from the planes in Lucknow. Since then, the state has seen quite a bit of political instability (although not of the kind that Jharkhand experienced till the BJP's resounding win in 2014), changing CMs every other year. And, far from the hill districts getting their due, the two plane districts of Haridwar and Uddham Singh Nagar have seen their populations swell, while the hill districts continue to depopulate.

It was in this sad state of affairs that the beautiful state entered the 2017 election cycle, with a tainted administration under Harish Rawat. What most people in the Delhi media circle don't realize is that, even though UK has been separate from UP for almost two decades now, the politics of the two are quite interrelated, not least because young men and women still go to UP for work. Therefore, if Narendra Modi was sweeping UP, especially Western UP, then it could only mean that UK was also primed for a BJP sweep. And that's exactly what happened, with the BJP picking up a three-fourths majority in the hills, that too without a CM face. Added to this victory is the fact that many turncoats from the Congress also won on a BJP ticket (including in Roorkee, my home of three years).

The surprising selection on Trivendra Singh Rawat as Chief Minister only adds to the fact that this was a vote for PM Modi. That said however, UK seems to be settling in to the revolving door cycle, alternating between BJP and Congress governments in states where only the two are in contention, although in recent years, the BJP seems to be winning most of those contests. While this can be bad news for the current CM, it presents an opportunity for the state to stabilize politically, and hopefully lift itself from the mess it's in. For now though, the CM needs to finish the agenda of 2000 and find a permanent capital - if hat has to be Dehradun, so be it. 

The Modi Wave Part 2

Globally, sub-national elections don't get much thought outside their area of interest. When President Trump won the US elections, few people outside the US also knew that his party had swept a majority of Governor's Houses in the country as well. In Germany, the International media celebrates the defeat of AfD in federal elections, but quickly forgets their increasing clout in the states. And in the last round of assembly elections in India, UP in particular, all the self-declared experts got it wrong. Those who considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity to inevitably decline - quietly hoping for a 2004-style upset in 2019 - also got it wrong.

Ending the BJP's two decade long vanvaas in India's largest state (and also the world's largest sub-national entity by population, at over 200 million people) by leading from the front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off what even his supporter's would've never believed to be possible - a triple century in UP. A victory of such magnitude was not build from a few bastions, but was spread evenly by geography - from the Western UP districts of Saharanpur and Meerut, all the way to the East in Gorakhpur, home of the new CM Yogi Adityanath, and Varanasi, which the BJP swept entirely for the first time in its history. The many myths created by the Deep Congress - a wave in favor of former CM Akhilesh Yadav, the silent majority behind Mayawati, Jat anger against the BJP, the age-old tradition of Muslim consolidation, and more - were in vain, as the revenge of the establishment that was in full wave in Bihar and Delhi in 2015 collapsed without a trace.

For the BJP, this victory sets the stage for another Lok Sabha majority in 2019, giving Modi a second term as Prime Minister. This will not be easy, but it is now realistic. The Prime Minister's hard work and clever politics have registered with the people of India's largest state, without which a Lok Sabha majority is all but impossible. If the new CM, who is a popular leader in his own right, can keep the BJP's flock together in a notoriously faction-ridden state party, and deliver at a minimum on the law and order front by 2019, then the next general elections will be for the BJP to win. Make no mistake, the clock is ticking and the electorate expects performance.

The Congress continued its decline in the state, coming 5th after the BJP's ally, the Apna Dal, possibly its worst performance in history in the state. What's more, the party put everything into it - Rahul Gandhi personally campaigned endlessly while his sister Priyanka Vadra led the backroom negotiations with the SP. Self-proclaimed Chanakya, Prashant Kishore, first roped in former Delhi CM Sheila Dixit, and then unceremoniously dumped her, as the party's CM nominee. In a matter of weeks, it went from #27SaalUpBehaal to #UPkoYehSaathPasandHai! And yet, it made no difference for the Congress. Their real problem is that they've become the Muslim League of this century - seen as being actively anti-Hindu, with no agenda other than 'protecting' Muslims, while keeping them in abject poverty. In the face of an aspiration for a better life and nationalism, they simply have no answer at all, and it doesn't help that their leadership (the Dynasty) does not have the slightest clue as to how to build a party organization, wrongly believing that the Delhi media can substitute for it.

The SP, as the incumbent, did quite badly, but that is not a big surprise. What's more surprising is that the whole drama of the war in the Yadav clan, and Akhilesh Yadav - 'Mr. Clean' - breaking with his corrupt family, came a cropper. Which is not to say that Akhilesh was not popular - he was - but that popularity alone could not translate into votes. It goes back to the fundamental fact of winning elections - you need organization and strategy beyond, and a real message. Akhilesh lacked all of them, and his own personal popularity couldn't make up for that.

If the Congress has been on the decline in UP since the 80s, the BSP's defeat may just spell doom for the party. From winning  simple majority in 2007, Mayawati first lost big time in 2014, and has now lost again in UP. The person who nourished ambitions to be Prime Minister should now really wonder how she can even become the leading opposition in the only state where the party has any sizable presence. This time, she tried to forge a Dalit-Muslim combination, going as far as preceding campaign rallies with Quranic recitations, but the fact is that aside from Jatav voters, who are spread too thin, Dalits themselves are not buying it. Thus, her core constituency is not with her any more, and any attempt to create a larger coalition will fail without a stable nucleus.

Lastly, this election has ramifications for the rest of the country, as well. This is the third consecutive election that has given a clear majority to a single party, firmly ending the coalition era in the state. And while coalitions do exist in many other state, they are clearly not here to stay.