Conversion politics: Citizens are not fools

conversionIt all started with the ‘conversion’ of dozens of Muslim slum dwellers in Agra, followed by BJP MP Yogi Adityanath’s declaration of attending a conversion camp in Aligarh – and the issue of ‘communal tensions’ in the country paralysed Parliament for days. The Opposition took up arms in the Rajya Sabha alleging that their worst fears have come true, accusing the BJP of dividing the country on religious lines through ‘forced conversions’. For days, news studios boomed with apocalyptic tones as Opposition members portended the end of secularism, trying to make it a political Achilles heel for the BJP like corruption and mis-governance was for them.

But beyond the political skirmishes, I feel we have ignored the legal tenets of all of these cases. If the nation’s secular fabric is being threatened, then clearly legal and police action must be being taken to protect it. But the issue of conversion per say is not illegal in these cases, for the simple reason they are not being done or there is no evidence of them being done at gunpoint. The ‘issue’ of ‘forced conversion’ is simply the product of the loudest and the most news worthy voices in the political narrative surrounding these cases.

Let’s take the Agra case. The main accused was arrested after two FIRs were filed for ‘creating enmity between communities’ and ‘fraud’. The main accused promised the Muslim slum dwellers BPL cards if they converted to Hinduism. Legally, there was no case of forced conversion and those who said they had been cheated reverted to their original faith. Even though the visuals of those slum dwellers reading the namaz were all over the news, the ‘forced conversion’ narrative persevered. In the Aligarh case, the UP government banned the conversion camp citing Section 144 or the threat of a law and order situation. That same order was slapped across Chennai in 2013 when Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ was set for release, after some Muslim groups protested saying the film’s concept was offensive. The same Section was slapped in New Delhi in 2011 when Ramdev lead the Black money protests. There is no difference between these cases as none of the people who were organising the conversion camp have been arrested on any charges let alone accused of forced conversion. Meanwhile, the VHP and RSS are conducting conversion camps in others parts of the country – most recently in the Alappuzha district in Kerala, where the VHP converted 30 Christians to Hinduism, without any arrests or legal action.

The ‘forced conversion’ narrative is simply a political move emerging from a cacophony of Opposition voices. It was a move to stall the government’s reform agenda to prevent the Modi government from living up to its pro-development promise. At the same time, the age-old ‘communal’ narrative has come to haunt the BJP government once again, and the news media to a great extent relishes that very narrative, especially when the Opposition props it up.

There are three basic commonsensical reactions which emerge when parties make the communal argument. Firstly, do they think Indian citizens are fools that conversions, and random statements by politicians will make them take up arms against each other? Secondly, no party has the moral high ground to launch a communal-secular argument. It is a convenient political attack or defence, but history has shown that ideology becomes null and void when political opportunity presents itself. Thirdly, it is very clear that there is a focus on cases where people are being converted to Hinduism, as it gives Opposition parties the license to attack the BJP, wherever it is in power. Politically and even from the media’s side, there is a selectiveness over conversion cases.

rajya sabhaOpposition parties must realise that corruption and poor governance are giant killers. These are issues which cut across communal and economic lines and are more pertinent to the common man than an extremely ambiguous notion of ‘secularism under threat’. Corruption and poor governance are the reasons the Congress has been ousted from the Centre and many states, and there seems to be no reprieve for them. Those very issues have made the SP, BSP, INLD, CPI(M) and TMC fringe players in the Lok Sabha. These parties should attack the Centre on very such issues to draw blood. If they seek to derail Parliament and block key economic reforms for a statement from the PM over their notion of a threat to secularism, then they will pay the same political price again. The ruckus has been seen by everyone in the nation and India Inc will speak out against these parties.

Moreover, after going the ordinance route for the economic policies, PM Modi will use this issue to target these parties in subsequent elections. Similar to the Lok Sabha polls, the secular-communal argument will not be able to stand up to it. These parties should realise that their argument reveals two things – either they feel that post BJP victories the whole nation is becoming communal or they are blind to the fact that the people are not buying their stale arguments any more.

Unless it is a serious criminal case, conversion cases should be left alone. Just like people shift political parties for money, grants and position, they will do the same for religion. Those who struggle to make ends meet will definitely switch politics and religion just to secure their next meal. Yet, they are as likely to hold on to their ideology and practices after benefitting from a ‘switch’. At the end of the day, it is their right under the Constitution, and the courts will protect that right. Let people shift religions, for those who truly value faith will never truly give up the tenets of their religion for money and grants. History has taught us that secularism in India perseveres no matter what politicians say or do. But when it comes to governance and reform, the nation is at the mercy of politicians. That reality must be clear to us at all times.

Peshawar: The cost of managing terror

peshThe killing of over 130 children in Peshawar  by the Tehreek-e-Taliban has sent shockwaves across the world. It is a gruesome escalation of the war against terror and we all lament the loss of life. But isn’t it time for the Pakistani state to introspect?

It is true that Pakistan has suffered greatly due to terrorism, but it is also true that terror groups have been used by the Pakistani state as instruments of war. It is true that the Pakistan army has engaged terrorists in the North Western Frontier Province and Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been a success in crippling the terror infrastructure, but it is also true that the state is harbouring, even felicitating those declared internationally as terrorists – namely Hafiz Saeed. Even though Saeed has been linked to the 26/11 attacks, he has a bounty on his head and has even been declared as an international terrorist by the UN, he freely operates his organisation, the Jamaat-ud Dawa in Pakistan, and gets government support to hold massive rallies where he calls for jihad against India.

pesh 3Pakistan has seen strong citizen driven campaigns against injustice in the past. This year, Imran Khan and Tariq Qadri lead major protests against the Nawaz Sharif government calling for his resignation on charges on corruption and vote rigging. The protests did not succeed, but thousands rallied behind a campaign against mis-governance. In 2007, Pakistani citizens protested against former President Musharraf’s declaration of Emergency, which spearheaded the fall of the former army chief’s regime. The Pakistan media also ran a widely popular PR campaign in 2008 called ‘Yeh Hum Nahin’ which tried to de-mystify the misconceptions surrounding Islam and terrorism. This same vigour, this same level of urgency needs to permeate the Pakistan citizenry once again to tackle the threat of terrorism head on. Citizens need to develop a no tolerance stance against leaders of Islamic extremist groups, who are established terrorists and continue to propagate war, as well as political parties who patronise them.

pesh 2While the US is Pakistan’s prime ally on the anti-terror and economic front, it has also urged the state for self-reflection. When Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State, she stated that “Islamabad could not keep snakes in its backyard to strike its neighbours.” Even in November, the Pentagon issued an assessment report stating Pakistan was harbouring terrorist sanctuaries. Such statements are met with stiff opposition within Pakistan, however can this issue be sidelined as completely untrue? Is there no credence to the international image Pakistan has got today? Given the extent of the violence in the nation, it is high time the state realises that terror cannot be managed, it cannot be controlled. But even as state policy has persevered such attacks, it is time once again for the citizenry to rally against it. The sacrifice of those Pakistan soldiers who have fought against terrorism and the memories of those civilians killed in attacks cannot be honoured unless there is an unequivocal stand against every element of terrorism. The state cannot engage the enemy on one end and tolerate the activities and expansion of known terrorists and extremist organisations at the same time. The shift in such a stance has to come from the citizenry as successive Pakistan governments have done nothing to amend state policy.

No holy war can be waged over the blood of innocent children. There is no legitimate goal or a better world that the terrorists are set out to create. Terrorism is a cancer that has to be cut out, it cannot be negotiated with and it is clearly suicidal to be selective with it. In the eyes of the world, Pakistan must actively take an unequivocal stance against terror and this can only be driven by the citizenry who have suffered for too long, but possess the will and the fortitude to fight back and eliminate this scourge once and for all.

Modi Effect: Are CMs the prime contenders for 7 Race Course Road?

newofficePrime Minister Narendra Modi’s thumping victory in the Lok Sabha polls, has set a new political narrative of a presidential style of election. In this race – successful chief ministers are now the strongest contenders for India’s top post. As the narrative for politics settles firmly around good governance and development – it has become essential for candidates to have a strong administrative record and be powerful political campaigners. The post of chief minister allows political leaders the chance develop a strong resume.

Chief Ministers in India are mini-PMs who are the key decision makers in each and every state. They get credit for good governance and flak for administrative lapses and law and order problems. While decision making in the Centre may be tempered by various factors – CMs mostly run their own ships. With successful tenures they develop the image of strong, decisive leaders. With this resume, they lead their parties in election campaigns in the state, and are prime contributors to their parties at the Centre. Their actions in their respective states, including their heading of political campaigns, gives them extensive media coverage far more than many Union ministers.

A successful chief minister thus has a lot to offer when pitching for the PM office. He or she can almost exclusively talk about the work done within the confines of the state to pitch a strong administrative record. Then comes the issue of marketability. PM Modi extensively unleashed his rags to political glory story – the story of a tea sellers child achieving political success gave him significant traction among people of all economic classes during the Lok Sabha election campaign. Many could relate to the narrative, while others were swayed by the Cinderella nature of the story. Moreover, the narrative was much more appetizing when compared to Modi’s contender Rahul Gandhi. In addition, oratory skills, and a clean, industrious, corruption free image are essential to market a strong administrative record and even hit out at the Opposition.

In this scenario – with more and more BJP governments in the states – two CM’s from the party could be strong candidates for the PM’s post.

VASUNDHARA RAJERajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje

  • 2 time Chief Minister of Rajasthan (2003 – 2008, 2013- Present)
  • Strong political campaigner. Ensured a unanimous majority in both tenures as CM, winning 163 of 200 Assembly seats in 2013 state elections
  • Delivered all 25 Lok Sabha seats to the Centre including 22 first timers
  • Big female leader in the BJP, will grant political capital to a Prime ministerial campaign
  • Agenda for economic reform and development. State Assembly passed Bills to amend the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, the Apprenticeship Act and the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act to open up the Rajasthan market to greater investment
  • Raje’s government restarted the Bhamshah Financial Empowerment Scheme conceptualized by her in 2007 to provide financial assistance to female bank account holders in rural areas. The Congress government in 2008 blocked the scheme.
  • In 2013, the state government signed MoUs with 40 companies for providing skill development training to 1.7 lakh young people.

50x50_2014_07_30$1235Former Goa CM & Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar

  • 3 time chief minister of Goa (2000 – 2002, 2002 – 2005, 2012 – 2014)
  • Lead BJP to a major victory in the Goa state elections in 2013 winning 21 out of 40 seats
  • Everyday man, IIT Graduate and clean, non-corrupt image
  • Anti-Corruption crusader – Served as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in the Goa Assembly, brought to fore the issue of illegal mining in the state
  • Agenda for economic development – Reduced VAT in key infrastructure sectors including aviation to boost demand and investment
  • Gave a significant boost to road, transport and healthcare infrastructure in Goa during tenure as CM
  • Credited with economic assistance policies including:
  • Dayannand Samajik Suraksha Yojana – provides monthly pensions to senior citizens, widows and specially abled persons
  • Interest Free Loans to students
  • CM Rozgaar Yojana – provides low interest loans to individuals to start their own enterprises
  • In 2013, a report by RBI Chief Raghuram Rajan said Goa along with Kerala is one of the most advanced states in the country

No political leader will have a foolproof campaign, especially for the PM’s post. Even though there will be some sticking points to Raje and Parrikar’s pitch for PM, they would likely be overshadowed by their capabilities, image and track record. Narendra Modi’s ascent has showed that India wants CEO Prime Ministers. General elections may now be like interviews where candidates have to list their credentials and vision for India – and Indian citizens are shareholders who want their stock prices to rise. The responsibilities of a CM can prepare a political leader and help him or her develop a resume to pitch for the top job.

The J&K attacks: No intention for peace

attackIt was a dark day for Jammu and Kashmir – 4 coordinated strikes in Soura, Pulwama, Uri and Shopian as polling in the state elections are underway. Eleven brave security personnel died defending an army camp in Uri – 8 terrorists were gunned down and 2 Kashmiri citizens were killed in a grenade attack. The target was clear – the terrorists aimed to undermine the elections after high voter turnout was recorded in the first two phases. Overwhelming evidence has been gathered – in terms of arms, ammunition and personal effects, which point to the fact that these terrorists came from Pakistan.

At the same time, on the other side of the border, 26/11 mastermind and UN declared terrorist Hafiz Saeed held a rally in Lahore and threatened India saying that unless the Kashmir dispute was resolved – ‘jihad’ against India will continue. Saeed’s rally was in fact widely advertised across Pakistan and the government even provided special trains for people to attend the event.

attack 2How can peace be achieved in such a scenario? How will anyone believe Nawaz Sharif next time when he says he wants peace with India? With almost no cooperation on anti-terrorism, Pakistan has repeatedly breached the red lines set by the Indian government. It escalated ceasefire violations and even tried to legitimise Kashmiri separatists a few months back – with its envoy holding talks with them in Delhi – despite opposition from the Indian government. India rightly called off the Secretary level talks as Pakistan dared to engage parties who are no longer stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute – their calls for boycotting the elections falling on deaf ears, while they don’t even have the gumption to prove their political mettle in the polls.

The attacks in J&K are clearly a campaign against democracy – an attempt to deter the citizenry from owning and embracing it. The Pakistan government is clearly uninterested in allowing it to succeed – as instability in the state allows it to maintain the Kashmir issue as a ‘dispute’ on the international stage. But even keeping Pakistan out of the equation – these attacks are an open challenge to India.

The question before us is – How strong is our devotion to democracy?

Indian democracy is the cornerstone of the nation’s identity – it is what defines us as a free and pluralistic society and sets us apart from theocracies where the façade of democracy is practiced. As Indians we are taught this and as we grow up we understand it and value it. I am confident – Indian citizens in J&K will face this challenge head on and show the same valour our brave soldiers displayed, defending Indian democracy by coming out and voting.

Bruised and bloodied our faith will endure. We will not cower – we will not forget – we will not forgive.

Article 370: Facade of Kashmiri politics

Mehbooba-MuftiWith the polling phase for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir underway – the BJP aims to continue its winning streak, pitching the development mantra once again. J&K is ripe for that political pitch as the Congress, PDP and the National Conference seem to have done no favours to the state on the development front despite being in power for decades. Once again – these parties are countering the BJP on the same ‘communal’ and ‘divisive’ narratives. We all know how that worked out in the general elections. The only challenge the BJP will face is in the valley, as the party has never had a strong cadre base there.

Moreover, the party’s history will make it challenging for it to gain traction in the Muslim-dominated valley. The BJP campaign optimistically hopes the development message will be able to transcend all of this.

Article 370 has now become the latest salvo the Congress, PDP and the National Conference have launched against the BJP – after the party toned down its earlier stance of scrapping the Article, calling for a debate on the issue. The party has not mentioned anything about Article 370 in its manifesto for J&K – but many party leaders in the Jammu region are still campaigning for abrogating it. This is nothing more than political expediency as the Kashmiri parties have over decades made the Article a political issue – linking it with the honour and sovereignty of the Kashmiri people. These parties have touted Article 370 as the ‘special status’ of the state, creating a romanticised campaign against abrogation. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah even went to the extent of tweeting that, “either J&K won’t be part of India or Art 370 will still exist.”

Let’s first understand what is Article 370. Under the Article, Parliament needs the state government’s concurrence for the application of all laws except for defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications. The state’s residents live under a separate set of laws, including those related to citizenship, ownership of property, and fundamental rights, as compared to other Indians. As a result, Indian citizens from other states cannot purchase land or property in Jammu & Kashmir. Hence there are major restrictions to private enterprise and the state’s economy is completely dependent on the public sector.

The UPA government set up a task force to prepare a report on the development of Jammu and Kashmir. The report released in 2006 stated –

“The private sector, which should be the engine of growth, has not taken off in part because of low supply and demand linkages and in part because of inhibition of the private sector on account of restrictive legislations. Consequently, the burden of generating economic activity has had to be borne almost exclusively by the public sector. The virtual absence of the private sector has meant a low tax base. Excessive and prolonged dependence on central assistance has led to a complacent attitude towards resource generation, fiscal responsibility and accountability for results.”

Thus, what ‘honour’ or benefit has Article 370 provided Jammu and Kashmir? The state has registered poor economic growth – not only due to the restrictive drawbacks of the Article, but also despite the administrative sovereignty provided by it. According to the task force report, the state is one of the worst performing states in the key power, transport and agriculture sectors:

–        J&K has one of the highest percentages of transmission and distribution losses among the Northern region states. The aggregated transmission and commercial losses during 2003-04 and 2004-05 were as high as 67% and 68% respectively.

–        Power theft is a serious problem in the state. In 2006, the state power sector registered an outstanding penalty amount of more than 494 crore net payable to the Centre

–        At 13%, the road density (road length per 100 square kilometres) in J&K is amongst the lowest in the country.

–        With an annual turnover of fruits and dry fruits of the order of 2000 crore, horticulture plays a significant role in the economy of Jammu and Kashmir. An estimated 25-lakh people are connected directly or indirectly with the horticulture sector. However, the report suggests that given the potential of the sector – “it is locked in a sub optimal cycle of low productivity and low investment.”

The BJP’s call for a debate on Article 370 is to expose these very problems. However, the party is being cautious as the ‘special status’ notion surrounding 370 is very politically entrenched in the state.

The BJP is trying to pitch a two-pronged narrative showing how by barring extensive private enterprise, the Article has stifled the development and integration of the state with the rest of the country, while the Kashmiri parties have squandered the administrative sovereignty the Article offers. The people of Jammu and Kashmir are not oblivious to the growth and development the rest of the country is enjoying and know their state is lagging behind. While there is consensus in the Jammu region for scrapping Article 370- the BJP aims that greater political presence in the state will allow them to achieve support for abrogation in the Kashmir valley.

AAP’s fall from grace

arvind kejriwal wallpaper for desktopIn the epic series ‘Game of Thrones’, Stannis Baratheon, the leader of the Baratheon clan reminisces about his battle against the people of the Iron islands. Stannis recalls how he crushed them in a naval battle, which ended their violent conquest of his territory. He says that the Iron Islanders where brave, skilled, driven warriors and sailors, unmatched throughout the seven kingdoms, but remembers that he managed to defeat them because they were not soldiers. According to Stannis, they lacked discipline and possessed a genuine disregard for leadership and strategy. Their ranks comprised of people who only sought fame, riches and glory for themselves, who cut and run in the face of defeat.

The recent fissures in the Aam Aadmi Party sparked off by the different resignations and infighting between notable members seems to fit this description. The party garnered a mere 4 seats in the Lok Sabha polls and scored a duck in Delhi where it once ran the government. Despite its expectations and the hopes of all those who sought their 15 minutes of fame in politics, the party’s decision to quit the Delhi government drove its support base towards the BJP. It was evidently a major snub to all those who voted for AAP. These voters did not want grand ideas or policies like the Jan Lokpal Bill.

These people wanted standard issues of housing, healthcare, water, electricity, and corruption to be addressed, and the party had all the powers and the mechanisms to do so. But they quit and handed their voters to the BJP on a silver platter.

The fact is that the Congress is down and out and the AAP has no political space to capitalise on any more. In this scenario, notable leaders like Shazia Ilmi, and Captain Gopinath have jumped ship, while Anjali Damania and Yogendra Yadav are hinting of doing the same, probably knowing that they don’t have a political future with the party. Arvind Kejriwal is to the AAP what Modi is to the BJP, and most of the BJP MPs in Parliament are there because of the ‘Modi wave’ in the Lok Sabha polls. These disgruntled leaders banked on Kejriwal, and their national arithmetic did not work. Their resignation and the disappearance of the Gul Panags and the Jaaved Jaaferis is not ideological – its just business. Their investment did not deliver and now they’re withdrawing. This development has the potential of spreading further disillusionment among the party cadres, if not creating factions within the party.

In the face of defeat, AAP leaders are now trying to justify their exodus and frustration with the party. Shazia Ilmi accused Arvind Kejriwal of being disconnected from the masses, of being cut off by a section of opportunists within the party. Yogendra Yadav just yesterday accused the AAP chief of being ‘dictatorial’; expressing worry that the party’s internal democracy is under threat.

Unfortunately for them, the reality is that none of these explanations has any pull with the voters. At the end, the party looks divided and weak. If one looks at the nature of politics in general, then one finds that no party has ever gained political traction for internal democracy. The BJP, Congress, the Bahujan Samajwadi party, and the Samajwadi Party are not democratic parties and yet are major players in national politics. The promise of good governance trumps all because all that the citizen votes for is leadership, the best person for the job on the faith of deliverance.

The current problem for AAP may be that they do not have a common cause to rally behind anymore, something that can take their mind off their internal squabbles. The party needs to get out of this retrospective mood, as now is as good a time as any to rebuild. There are many causes AAP can rally behind, because Modi’s ‘acche din’ are still far away and the voter has a habit of being impatient. They still have a presence in Delhi, and can work towards regaining lost ground. They have 4 MPs in Parliament from Punjab who can focus on their constituencies, consolidate their support in their seats, and even expand their influence in the state. The party has realised by now that for them there is no substitute to good governance to expand their support base. AAP must also come to terms with the fact that Arvind Kejriwal is their only political trump card, and must galvanise the party behind the clout his personality holds among the voters. It was evident in the Delhi polls, that it was only his image and campaigning that delivered the party success. The resignations may come as a blessing in disguise, as AAP now may be able to cull out voices of dissent and over-bearing personality figures from the ranks.

The party may be down, but they are not out. It still has the potential to grow and succeed in politics. Stannis may have defeated the Iron islanders, but the Iron born have a saying – ‘What is dead may never die, but comes back harder and stronger’.