At least three states headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party have indicated that they would be initiating steps to implement the demand for a Uniform Civil Code in order to ensure equal development opportunities for all sections of society. It is evident that the clamour for Uniform Civil Code would increase once the 2024 Lok Sabha polls draw nearer and could be the next polarizing issue.
Although the insistence for implementation of the Uniform Civil Code is consistent with the long-standing promise made in the manifestos of the Saffron party since the days of the Jana Sangh, it is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution. Therefore, even if such a law is brought about any of the states, it shall be struck down by the apex court. In other words, the talk about this matter has more to do with the elections and divisive politics rather than with the legal correctness.
Uttar Pradesh deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya was the first to speak about the need to have a Uniform Civil Code and his sentiments were echoed by the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Nudged by these polarizing views, Himachal Chief Minister Jairam Thakur also seemed to endorse this issue.
However, in Himachal, where the Assembly elections are due later this year, this may not become a major factor, given that the number of Muslims and other minorities is not sufficient to influence the overall outcome of the polls, which is basically determined by several other things. Himachal has by and large provided an opportunity to the Congress and the BJP every five years and if this pattern has to be replicated, it should bring back the Congress to power. But the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party and the indecisions or flawed decisions of the Congress High Command could make the contest wide open and it should not come as a surprise if the BJP government gets repeated.
BJP president J P Nadda, who also belongs to the state, has made it clear that the next polls would be contested under the overall leadership of Jai Ram Thakur, thus putting to rest all speculation regarding his being changed on the eve of the polls.
Nevertheless, the BJP is actively considering bringing about a change in Karnataka which shall be having the Assembly polls next year, since current Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has not proved to be a successful leader and the demand is to have a powerful Lingayat leader such as Jagadish Shettar as the CM. The right-wing elements have already polarized the politics in the state and if the demand for a Uniform Civil Code gains momentum, the society shall be further divided.
Major opposition parties and opponents of the BJP feel that by raising divisive issues, the ruling dispensation was not strengthening democracy but eroding it. The emphasis should be on creation of jobs, rising prices and improving the parametres which measure growth and development. What they fail to see is that the BJP picks up issues in order to send a strong Hindutva message down the line and galvanise its cadres. This demand is likely to be made by other states administered by the BJP as well and Gujarat which also goes to polls later this year, may also join the chorus. Politics up to a certain level is right but it has to be within the framework of what the Constitution permits.
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RED LINES IN THE AGE OF TECH
Last week the India Foundation held a conclave on the MetaVerse. Speaking at the event which had a robot as a co-compere, Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Minister of Civil Aviation quipped that soon they would not be needing him to come and address the gathering, as there will come a time when a robot could come and deliver his speech. Taking up this train of thought, RSS leader Ram Madhav commented that since we are heading towards a world of Artificial General Intelligence there is a cause for worry as there is one crucial difference between robots and humans and this is intelligence with a heart. He commented that already there are cases of AI outguessing human intelligence, citing the example of Alpha Zero a chess engine developed by Deep Mind & Google search engines, that claims to defeat any chess player that ever lived. Hence there is a need to put checks and balances in place and draw some red lines. Madhav is right otherwise we could well be living in a world where we are shaped by tech instead of the other way around. (In fact, some would say, we are already halfway there).
Also speaking at the India Foundation conclave K Ananth Krishnan (TCS) pointed out that there are more smartphone owners in India than toothbrush owners. We are already in a dependent and needy (toxic is a better word) relationship with technology. In their book, The Art of Bitfulness, Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani, quote a December 2020 survey of 2000 smartphone users revealed that on an average users spent 6.9 hours on their phones every day; and most (46 %) pick up their phones at least five times in an hour-long conversation with friends. 84 % say they check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up.
It would be fair to state that the digital world has our undivided attention. And beckoning from the horizon is the Metaverse, a collective virtual shared space that we can inhabit by creating avatars or our virtual counterparts. By inhabit, they mean everything, from socialising to attending business meetings to even shopping. You can even experience the physical intimacy of a virtual hug or a handshake. You can also buy land and space on this metaverse that is being cultivated by tech giants such as FaceBook and Microsoft (only the latter calls its metaverse Mesh).
All this is very well but where does that leave our human avatars? What kind of discourse will we have where all our conversation will be governed by algorithms. Already with twitter replacing the physical townhall as the preferred forum for debate, we are in the danger of living in an algorithm bubble where we are shown only those posts that match our ideological beliefs. Facebook and Twitter have us wrapped in a bubble where we are shown only those posts that the algorithm thinks are best suited for us. We have already outsourced our search engine to them. Any further dependence will only be detrimental to our capacity for independent and free-thinking.
Digital platforms can also be misused to propagate a certain kind of narrative. If Facebook doesn’t want you to read a particular article it will simply set its algorithm in a way that will make the article harder to find on its search engine. Ditto for YouTube. Twitter can simply ban your account. So for better or (meta) worse, one must approach technology with all the trepidation and enthusiasm of handling a two-edged sword.
Gyanvapi sets Indian politics on a new course
It may be the beginning of a new judicial process that unravels the murky medieval Indian history marked by many demolitions of temples, atrocities, and killings.
A chance test case for Shringar Gauri puja outside, the survey for it, and the surprise discovery of Shivalinga— supposedly the creator and destructor at the old temple of Lord Vishwanath or Gyanvapi— is changing the political scenario with a religious fervor possibly giving a boost to the preparation for 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Would it make the Congress effort at Udaipur futile and boost up the votary of Hindutva for a new stretch of political success? It definitely would firm up the religious thrust of Indian politics.
Varanasi is the city of Shiv. Adages are there that Shiv used to visit this city from his Himalayan home every year. None possibly expected that he would be found in the ablution tank in all his manifestation to energise his devotees. Nobody yet knows whether it is the lingam or not, but it has charged up the political atmosphere.
It may be the beginning of a new judicial process that unravels the murky medieval Indian history marked by many demolitions of temples, atrocities, and killings. The Gyanvapi can have an impact on at least ten different places, where the medieval rulers had taken recourse to the extreme brutality of converting religious structures and killing thousands. These are: Kashi Vishvanath (Gyanvapi) in the oldest living city of Varanasi; Krishna Janmabhoomi (Shahi Idgah); Rudra Mahalay in Patan, Gujarat; Bhojshala Saraswati Mandir (Kamal Maula mosque) at Bhoshala in MP; Adinath Temple (Adina mosque) at Pandua, West Bengal; Bhadra Kali Temple (Jama Masjid) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat; Vijay Temple (Bijamandal mosque) at Vidisha, MP; 27 Hindu and Jain temples (Quawwatal- ul- Islam) Qutb Minar complex; and Somnath and Ramjanmabhoomi temples that are now restored.
The Gyanvapi re-ignites the issue of what was supposed to have been settled with the judgment of the Ramjanmabhoomi temple by the Supreme Court. The five Supreme Court judges took note of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 that laid down that all shrines will be preserved as inherited by independent India on 15 August 1947. The law made an exception for Ayodhya as it was already an ongoing dispute. Nothing else was deserving of an exception, nor was it legally or constitutionally possible, the judges wrote.
The quick scenario change in the Gyanvapi incident may raise the question of the validity of the enactment of the Places of Worship Act by the Narasimha Rao government. Sentiments are high not only in Varanasi but all over. Seeming non-partisan people like PK Roy, former executive director, Airports authority of India in Kolkata; Lalima Aneja Dang, a senior radio producer; Priyadarshi Dutt, author, commentator; former editor of Doordarshan Prabhat Dabral are all charged and advising that it is prudent to settle and not react on this emotive issue. Former Vice Chancellor of Nagpur University SN Pathan and another Vice Chancellor Firoz Bakht Ahmed have appealed to the minorities to correct the steps and maintain harmony. Left-leaning Dabral says minorities must rethink despots like Aurangjeb and instead have consideration for the nation and sort it out.
The one common question the non-political elite ask is how could someone treat the revered Shivlinga with such contempt that they established the wash-tank above that. It is difficult to say whether it would have the same manifestation and feelings till elections or not. The sentiments expressed speak volumes of the hurt feelings.
The nation may recall that since 1949, the Babri structure in all purposes was a Ram temple. Emotive issues are not forgotten. That led to the demolition of the structure in 1992. The way now the Gyanvapi is flaring up with a non-issue on the plea for the right to worship Shringar Gauri images sculpted on the outer wall of the Gyanvapi, to the appointment of commissioners to the survey of the premises, and discovery of Shivlinga indicates that the issue of demolition by Aurangzeb on Sept 2, 1669, can widely impact the course of Indian politics.
The Hindutva-oriented parties will have ease in accessing the voters. Those not would have to find out the new political peg to remain relevant and vibrant.
It may start with Hyderabad’s Bhagyalakshmi temple. The TRS Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao may have to take a stand on the crucial Bhagyalakshmi temple in the Charminar complex. Rao facing a pincer attack by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Home Minister Amit Shah will have to steer with deftness. The others and even MIM may pitch in to make the Telangana assembly elections interesting.
Whether Gujarat would like to rake up the Bhadrakali and Rudra Mahalaya issues, Madhya Pradesh ignites Vidisha and Bhojshala or not the development of the ensuing days would reveal. Maybe in MP and Gujarat, BJP might try to keep it on low fire but the opposition, also keen on proving loyalty to Hindus, can try sailing on it as BJP may look for a chance in Bengal to peg on Adinath, Pandua.
Alok Kumar, president of VHP, an eminent lawyer, is categorical: “There has been no change in the status of the religious structure since 1947, and Hindus have always performed puja at the site” calling it Gyanvyapi Mandir. VHP national spokesperson Vinod Bansal said the faces of those who were trying to “hide the truth” have been “painted black” with the “finding”.
The Congress two days back at the Udaipur Chintan meet supported the 1947 law regarding Gyanvapi. So far it has not come out with a similar supportive statement.
In the BJP only, Sangeet Som has threatened a replay of the 1992 ‘Babri demolition’. But the BJP is happy with the Varanasi court developments giving it time, to extend the restrictions at the Gyan Vapi. They being the rulers in UP are acting with caution so that the gains take them to the logical conclusion. Chief Minister Yogi Aditynath is personally observing each of the developments.
J&K PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti slammed the BJP for stoking the fire. It is simple. MIM leader Owaisi says he is ‘pained’.
The Gyanvapi will decide the religious fervor of Indian politics. The parties not aligned with BJP’s views have the challenge to tailor new strategies. The minorities are in dilemma. They are not keen on sailing with it or giving up but the voices within are advising not to get into another confrontation and solve it prudently.
Howsoever it develops, it would keep the Indian politics warm and parties would have to stir cautiously to chart their way to 2024 Lok Sabha and many assembly elections before that.
The churning continues and the nation hopes that solution would emerge for a prosperous, peaceful country.
It may start with Hyderabad’s Bhagyalakshmi temple. The Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao may have to take a stand on the crucial Bhagyalakshmi temple in the Charminar complex. Rao, facing a pincer attack by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Home Minister Amit Shah, will have to steer with deftness.
RAHUL’S IDEAS FOR INDIA ARE NOT WELL FORMED
Among the many comments that Rahul Gandhi made about India’s socio-political situation at a conclave called “Ideas for India” in England recently, a few shook up the political, media and social media space, particularly when he said that “India is not in a good place”, that it has been soaked in kerosene by the BJP and all it needs is a spark to ignite the whole country. Another gem was about how the Indian foreign policy establishment has become arrogant and does not listen to the Europeans—something apparently a European bureaucrat had complained to him. Then there was the reiteration of one of his pet theories, which he has voiced in India as well: that India is not a nation but a union of states; that “India didn’t develop top down but almost emerged bottom up”, with the model being developed by Mahatma Gandhi. “All these states—Maharashtra, Assam, Tamil Nadu—they got together and created a negotiated peace,” Mr Gandhi said. Apparently, the Constitution does not mention India as a nation. He also said that in India there was an attack on institutions, on the election system, and that states were no longer able to negotiate and talk. He used the term “negotiation” repeatedly in the speech. Then he talked about waging a “national ideological battle” where India has to be rescued from “the deep state” that is “chewing the Indian state, much like what happened in Pakistan”. Supporting the concern of a section in the US and the West about the apparent slide of democracy in India, Rahul Gandhi added that “Democracy in India is a global public good… If it collapses it will cause a problem for planet and that is what USA is realising.” His oft repeated charge that the BJP caters to only a handful of the rich was also mentioned. He also said his party will have to launch mass movements on unemployment and state level issues in coordination with “opposition friends”. He pitched his party as the first among equals, by saying that the fight is actually between “the national vision of the RSS and the national vision of the Congress”. When asked why the Congress was not winning elections when the country’s ruling party was so bad, Rahul’s answer was, it’s because of “polarization and the total control of the media”. Apparently, the media does not allow any Opposition voices to be heard. He also confidently predicted a massive level of social problem, and a mass upsurge, something like in Sri Lanka, unless the Opposition handled the situation. He also seemed suitably impressed by China’s “vision”, while saying that both India and the US lacked a vision.
It is not known which history book the former president of the Congress party has studied, but the books that the rest of the country has studied do not mention Maharashtra, Assam or Tamil Nadu negotiating peace with the Centre to form India. Last read, Maharashtra came into existence in 1960 and Tamil Nadu in 1969 and all these divisions were linguistic in nature and decided by the Centre. In fact, not only does the Preamble of the Indian Constitution mention the word nation, B.R. Ambedkar in 1948 was categorical about the drafting of the Constitution: “The Drafting Committee wanted to make it clear that though India was to be a federation, the Federation was not the result of an agreement by the States to join in a Federation and that the Federation not being the result of an agreement no State has the right to secede from it. The Federation is a Union because it is indestructible.” In other words, India’s nationhood is non-negotiable. So to suggest that there is some sort of a contract between the Centre and the states, which may get frayed over a period of time is dangerous. It is almost as if Rahul Gandhi has been schooled into India’s “non nationhood” by the ultra-left. And therein lies the problem. It is difficult to dismiss such statements as stemming from ignorance; instead it seems to have stemmed from a belief system that has spread a lot of anarchy globally through the decades. If the idea is to pander to some sort of sub-nationalism in the name of federalism, then it amounts to stoking a very divisive fire. This is already happening in states such as Bengal and Tamil Nadu, among others. “Federalism” is being used as an excuse by some state governments to run their own writ, sometimes in defiance of Central rules. As a result, every decision taken by the state government is being challenged in court and then overturned, West Bengal being a case in point.
Also, it is but natural that Opposition parties will criticise the ruling party. A strong Opposition is the hallmark of a strong democracy. But Opposition must be constructive too. Portraying India as a cauldron of hatred, where things are about to go up in flames, comes across as an obvious attempt to scare foreign investors away; and feeding into the confirmation bias of the West about India. Does Rahul Gandhi seriously not understand that such statements end up hurting his own country? Also, why blame the Indian media—which thrives on the cacophony of the Indian political space—and India’s institutions for your lack of electoral success, when your own party members, some of your closest colleagues, are deserting you accusing you of being non-serious about your party’s political future?
As for his views on Indian diplomacy, it is bizarre that a man who wants to be Prime Minister of a sovereign nation, thinks being subservient to Western interests is great foreign policy.
And now we hear that Rahul Gandhi is hobnobbing with leftist groups in Britain and holding closed door meetings in Cambridge to devise means and ways to dislodge the Central government. It is not known how Rahul Gandhi can devise a strategy to win India sitting in Britain, unless the grand plan emerging from such sessions is to ensure that India hurts as much as Sri Lanka has, so that the streets rise up in protest to get rid of the government.
PM Modi’s Jaipur challenge to Opposition
The Prime Minister knows that the BJP’s biggest asset is its dedicated workers who have been trained with the vision of a strong country. It’s only when they become lethargic or disinterested that the party would lose its shine.
By panning out its strategy to stay in power for a long time, the Jaipur meet of the BJP has thrown a very big challenge to the opposition. The only challenge before the party is to keep its cadre and support base in tact by telling them the work the Government has been able to do for the poor and the needy and the fact that the Government has lived up to the mandate.
A corollary to that is an embarrassing question before the opposition, mainly the Congress. Can they rediscover themselves, give an alternative to the BJP by a more trustworthy nationalist ideology inspired by development and good governance, an ideology to fight corruption and jettison the baggage of the dynasty?
Unless the Congress and the opposition mend their ways and resort to constructive politics, they would become irrelevant in Indian politics at least for the near future. The disintegration of the Congress is on auto-mode and other parties cannot match a pan-India party like the BJP since they are inspired more by regional aspirations and may not have the desire or wherewithal to play a larger national role.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the BJP office bearers’ meeting in Jaipur was significant in many ways. While Modi spoke of the vision and work of the Government to fill party leaders and workers with confidence, he also threw a big challenge to the opposition. The message was: the BJP is in power for a long haul. He urged party workers to work as per a 25-year vision without bothering much about opposition criticisms. “Har ghar Bhajpa, har Garib ka Kalyan” (BJP in every house and welfare of every poor) is the new guiding mantra.
As casteist, communal and corrupt forces are trying to join hands to put up some semblance of challenge to the BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the prime most question the country would consider is whether people would forget and forgive these forces for their acts of omissions and commissions. Lutyens’ Delhi and vested media is, perhaps, ready since they were the beneficiaries of the rot in the system and they would like to throw out any government that does not co-opt them. But they have been grossly outnumbered by those who want to see Modi come back again and again to deliver good governance the country has witnessed after a long time. No media manipulation or divisive agenda can derail the Government’s performance.
These opposition parties have failed to identify even one instance of corruption associated with the Government. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tried to make a big issue out of Rafale deal but he got eggs on his face since facts proved that the Modi government had worked exclusively for national interest in getting such a fantastic deal. Transparency and accountability are the hallmarks of this Government that has used Information Technology to make these possible.
A strange phenomenon has been witnessed. Opposition leaders are making a lot of hue and cry about the economic situation in the country and the media is trying to complement that without looking into the basics. But this is not finding traction among people who have been cushioned by Modi’s welfare measures to absorb the temporary disruptions.
War in Ukraine has caused lots of disturbances in the supply chain and economic life of even many advanced countries have suffered. The US, the UK, Germany and many other countries are facing the brunt according to former chief economic advisor KV Subramaniam. But critics here are ready to lynch the Modi government for saving the country. India’s record on the inflation front is much better. Despite hiccups the Modi Government is doing well and people appreciate this. We are a robust economy and we would pass this period with remarkable success.
When opposition is bereft of substantial issues, they raise issues that can disrupt the life of the nation. But people are mature and do not support disruptive agendas. We have seen what happened during the anti-CAA protest all across the country. We have seen how farmers were given spurious arguments to oppose the three farm bills. At times they have raised the issue of language issue and at times the issue of Hindu-Muslim divide.
When the Prime Minister was talking to BJP leaders in Jaipur, he was precisely referring to these debates where opposition would try to provoke the BJP and engage into a meaningless interaction. The verbal war and the divisive debates lead to waste of constructive energy. Instead of that there is a need for party workers to address more serious issues.
Modi has given a higher vision to the party for the country and that is to work on developmental road map for the next 25 years. This needs that party workers must work assiduously at the ground level, associate with problems of people and use the platform of the party and the Government to get them addressed. All ministries of the government have been instructed to work with a missionary zeal to work for development and transform society.
The loss of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2004 to a weak Congress was beyond anyone’s belief. The opposition may be hoping this would repeat and catch Modi unaware. But they should not commit the mistake of underestimating Modi. There would be no complacency in 2024 because he has been the Prime Minister for two consecutive terms. He knows exactly what would find favour with the people who are happy at the fast pace of development in all spheres of economic activities. Such unprecedented development efforts at such a fast pace was never undertaken before.
Modi knows the tricks opposition would apply during elections. He knows the answers to their barbs but would reply only during elections. He had said once that the Government would be in functioning mode for four and a half years. It is only during the last six months that the functionaries of the Government would come into election mode.
The Prime Minister knows that the BJP’s biggest asset is its dedicated workers who have been trained with the vision of a strong country. It’s only when they become lethargic or disinterested that the party would lose its shine. There is, therefore, a need to keep party’s ideological spine upfront and bind them with one thread.
A case in point is the last assembly elections in Jharkhand. The party lost not because the opposition was strong. It lost because some party workers had become disinterested and did not campaign enough or worked harder to bring voters out on the voting day. Despite undertaking massive development initiatives by the Raghubar Das Government, the party lost.
It is in this context that Modi’s message to party’s workers on working for welfare of people should be seen. He reminded that when the Jan Sangh was formed, workers used to get inspired by the vision of a strong country. At that time none had imagined that the party would one day come to power on its own strength and implement the vision they lived by.
Now that the party is in power, the task of workers is to ensure that the work of the Government reaches every section of the society. The welfare measures taken by the Government must reach the beneficiaries. People must know their rights and how to access government schemes. Party workers play a very significant role here since bureaucracy has limitations.
The Jaipur meeting was a resolve that people would develop stakes in this Government’s continuation if they know that it is working for them. As for example the Ayushman Bharat scheme has provided free medical care to even common people but even now not all are aware. The farmers are getting the benefits in terms of regular money from the Government, reliable and controlled inputs such as health of soil, hybrid seeds, neem coated urea etc. Schemes meant for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Women are reaching them directly. The challenge is 100 per cent coverage and the Government is planning just that.
If the party is able to just make people aware of the tasks undertaken by the Government to take care of the poor and the needy and the way the country is marching forward on the development roadmap, the task would not be tough. The Opposition would refuse to listen since they can’t imagine that empowerment can be biggest vote mobiliser. They would harp on caste and communal divide and would not be able to match up to the challenge thrown by Modi.
The writer is the author of “Narendra Modi: the GameChanger”. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.
PERARIVALAN’S RELEASE LEADS TO FRESH DEBATE IN RAJIV GANDHI CASE
Thirty-one years after his arrest in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, AG Perarivalan, amongst more than half a dozen other convicts, was released by the Supreme Court which while invoking its special powers under Article 142 of the Constitution set him free. The Apex court order has been criticised by the families of some of the other victims of the incident that took place on 21 May 1991, at Sriperumbudur when Dhanu, a human bomb blew herself up while killing the former Prime Minister instantaneously.
The tragedy and its aftermath changed the course of Indian politics and though the Special Investigation Team constituted by the then government and headed by D.R. Karthekeyan had held the LTTE responsible for the gory act, till this day, the dreaded terrorist organisation never claimed that it was its operative who was behind the killing. The case continues to be shrouded in mystery as several unanswered questions remain. The role of Sivarasan, one-eyed Jack, and his other woman associate who were with Dhanu on the night of the killing remains unclear. There are theories that suggest that Sivrasan and the two women were rogue LTTE operatives who were engaged by some international agency to assassinate the former Prime Minister, who was poised to return to power after the ongoing elections at that time.
This theory is supported by the fact that if Sivarasan indeed was an LTTE operative, why did he not go back to Jaffna and remained as a fugitive in India till his suicide three months later in Bangalore. There are also many who believe that the photographs taken by Hari Babu, who was also killed in the incident were used by the police to make firm conclusions regarding the case when those photos could have been deception tactics used by the conspirators to cover their tracks. It is well known that whenever major conspiracies are planned, the cover-up is the most essential part and this was perhaps also done in the Rajiv Gandhi case as well. In other major assassinations around the world including those of the Kennedy brothers in the US, there are still many puzzles that could never be put together by the authorities.
Even in the Indira Gandhi case, no one knows why the ITBP commandoes shot Beant Singh, one of the assassins when he could have yielded vital information regarding the entire plot. There are certain aspects of the Rajiv case that also need to be ascertained like who for instance included Sriperumbudur in the itinerary while it was not there in the first instance. Fingers had been pointed at some Congress leaders but their roles were never properly examined by the detectives. Many officials who should have been charged with dereliction of duty on that day, were later rewarded and given important positions in the government subsequently. Rajiv Gandhi was a visionary whose life was cut short by a conspiracy, probably facilitated by some of the people in his own party. Now that Perarivalan has been released, the debate over the various dimensions of the killing may commence once again.
Inflation and food security: Facts versus propaganda
India is not mired alone in the shooting inflation. Today’s inflationary surge is global in nature and is being felt by most advanced economies (AEs), emerging markets, and developing economies (EMDEs).
India’s retail inflation measured by the consumer price index (CPI) soared to 7.79%, for April 2022. In March 2022, the figure for Consumer price-based inflation was 6.95% and 4.21% in April 2021. The recent spike in CPI is mainly on account of costlier food items. Despite perception to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that the Modi government has reined in inflation pretty well in the last eight years and even the surge in the last few months is largely due to a confluence of global factors, including the Russia-Ukraine War, that is a Black Swan event, that no economist or geopolitical strategist, predicted or bargained for. Also, after two years of a debilitating global pandemic, there has been a sudden demand resurrection, while the supply chain constraints have failed to keep pace with the rise in demand globally. So for armchair economists to single out India and allege that the rise in inflation is only India specific, is a lot of hogwash. Supply bottlenecks take time to get resolved.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a slew of measures on Saturday that are supposed to provide a safety net for India’s poor, who are struggling to keep up with growing prices. ANI
For instance, if an industry was working at 40% or 50% capacity during Covid in 2020 and 2021, for it to work at 70% or 80% capacity in 2022, will take time. Scaling up takes time. Any industrial unit will not automatically switch from 40% to 80% in a jiffy. Alternative suppliers come with pricier freight, longer transits or differing quality, further accelerating food inflation. World supplies were already reeling from droughts in Canada and Brazil and transportation blockages in parts of the world, from rail logjams in the US to trucker strikes across Spain.
The added shock from the Ukraine-Russia war earlier this year sent most prices of most commodities to new record highs with corn and wheat futures in Chicago up more than 30% since the beginning of 2022, after having already risen by over 40-50% in 2021! The United Nations has that warned food prices already at an all-time high could rise as much as 22% more. A severe drop in Black Sea exports could leave as many as 13.1 million additional people undernourished, it said, deepening the rise in global hunger in a world still recovering from the effects of the pandemic. Collectively, Russia and Ukraine are responsible for more than 25% of global Wheat exports and for around 80% of the world’s supply of Sunflower Oil. Russia along with its ally, Belarus is also a huge source of fertilisers, accounting for around 15% globally. The war in Ukraine will undoubtedly have a major impact on its agricultural production and exports, putting even more pressure on a system already in crisis. Ukraine does indeed control Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas, almost 80% of which are located east of the Dnipro river. While Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer accounting for 10% of the global Oil production, Ukraine has total gas reserves of 5.4 trillion cubic metres (TCM), with proven reserves of 1.1 trillion cubic metres.
Hence, to cut to the chase, the moot point is, the Russia-Ukraine War has affected the prices of Oil and natural gas, with some estimates saying gasoline prices in the US could skyrocket to as high as US$ 6.2 per gallon by the end of this year. Today’s inflationary surge is global in nature and is being felt by most advanced economies (AEs), emerging markets, and developing economies (EMDEs). During the last two years, most Central banks followed easy money policies, with most governments announcing massive stimulus packages to repair the ravages unleashed by a debilitating pandemic, in the form of Covid-19. In 15 of the 34 countries classified as AEs by the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook, 12-month inflation through December 2021 was running above 5%. 2022 has only seen the inflationary tide rising further globally. While other countries have been reeling from pandemic-induced inflation, India has been keeping inflation largely under control. To put things in perspective, one must note that Wheat prices hit a high of US$ 13 per bushel from US$ 5 a bushel in the last two years, a massive 160% jump. Corn prices globally rose by a steep 45% year-on-year (YoY) in 2021 and have risen by another 37% in the first four months of 2022. Soybean prices rose from US$ 9 to over US$ 17 per unit in the last 18 months, a whopping 89% jump.
Inflation in the US continued to surge to a massive 8.5% and 8.3% in March and April 2022, after an equally steep rise of 7.9% and 7.5% in February and January 2022 respectively. That is the biggest year-on-year leap since 1981. The US’s fuel inflation rose by a whopping 32% YoY in March 2022 while food inflation went up by 8.8% YoY in March. The price of beef rose by 16%, flour by 14.2%, citrus fruits by 19.5%, and milk by 13.3% in March 2022 in the US. The annual inflation rate in the Euro Area rose to a record high of 7.5% in April 2022, up from 5.8% in February 2022 and 5.1% in January. The United Kingdom’s annual inflation rate rose in April 2022 to a steep 7%, up from 5.4% in January 2022, the highest level since March 1992, while Germany saw inflation at 7.4% in April 2022, the highest ever, in almost three decades. The Netherlands with inflation of 9.7% Spain with inflation at 9.8%, Turkey at 70% and Sri Lanka at 30%, have seen the highest inflation print in over 45 years. In Canada, property prices have hit their highest in decades, rising by over 50% in the last two years, due to which the Canadian government has banned outsiders from purchasing properties. Inflation as measured by the producer price index (PPI)increased 8.3% year-on-year in March 2022 after an equally steep rise of 8.8% in February 2022 in China.
78 out of 109 EMDEs are today confronting annual inflation rates well above 5%. In India, in contrast, the Modi government has fared much better and has indeed done a very commendable job in containing inflation. While retail inflation was 5.66%, 6.01%, 6.07%, and 6.95% in December 2021, January 2022, February 2022 and March 2022 respectively, one should not forget that for the better part of 2021, inflation was below 5%. For example, in September, October, and November 2021, retail inflation in India as measured by the consumer price index (CPI) was reined in at 4.35%,4.48%, and 4.91%. More importantly, food inflation in these months was minuscule at 0.68%,0.85%, and 1.87%. One must not forget that food inflation as measured by the FAO food price index (FFPI), hit its highest level globally in 2021, the highest ever since 1970. But India has reined in food inflation, pretty well, relatively speaking.
Under the inept Congress -led UPA, the highest food production achieved was about 257 million tonnes in FY13. The estimated foodgrains production for the agricultural year 2021-22 (July-June) is expected to be 316.06 million tonnes, which is an all-time record and higher than the 310.74 million tonnes recorded in 2020-21, which itself was a record. Wheat production is also expected to reach the highest ever level of 111.32 million tonnes during 2021-22, higher than the 109.59 million tonnes recorded last year. The total production of Rice (Kharif and Rabi both) is also expected to reach a record high of 127.93 million tonnes, higher than the last year’s Rice output of 124.37 million tonnes, which again was a pathbreaking record.
Why has global food inflation hit multi-decade highs? Droughts, floods, and inclement weather in large parts of the world’s food bowls and in Central America, Latin America, and some major oilseed-producing countries, are the reason for soaring food prices. For example, Ukraine, Argentina, China and Russia, the largest sunflower oil-producing nations, faced inclement weather in the last two years. Ditto was the case with Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Canada, among the big Safflower Oil-producing nations. As for Palm Oil, over 84% is produced by Indonesia and Malaysia combined and besides bad weather which hampered production, both these countries imposed many export restrictions during Covid, further distorting the demand-supply dynamics for Palm Oil importing countries like India. Things in Indonesia are so bad that police have been deployed for 24-hour surveillance of cooking oil production and distribution as rising food prices become a key political issue in the country. The Indonesian police task force, intelligence agents, and government employees are making sure companies are producing bulk cooking Oil as targeted and selling it for below the 14000 rupiahs (98 cents) a litre price cap. The less said about Sri Lanka’s traumatising economic crisis, the better. Fuel stations have run dry and even posh neighbourhoods have no electricity for almost 18 hours a day, with rural hinterland suffering from 24-hour power cuts. There is no diesel to run diesel generator sets either.
A few months back, the United Kingdom faced a situation where its gas stations ran almost dry. Whichever way one looks at it, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed the economy very well, sidestepping geopolitical upheavals and violent price gyrations in the fuel and food economy that many other countries have been grappling with, unsuccessfully.
In fact, India is even being the good Samaritan and has agreed to extend a one billion dollar credit line to Sri Lanka, so that it can procure essential items, food, and medicines. In February this year, India provided US$ 500mn via a loan facility to Sri Lanka for procuring Petroleum products and tackling its energy crisis. Sri Lanka has forex reserves of barely US$ 2 billion whereas India with almost US$ 600bn, has the 4th largest forex reserves globally, after China, Japan and Switzerland. Hence for ignoramuses to compare India with Sri Lanka, is plain hogwash. Be it Nepal, Afghanistan Myanmar or Sri Lanka, it is India under the Modi government that has come to the rescue of its neighbours by exporting food grains and other essentials to these countries.
Coming back to inflation, it is pertinent to ask, which two places in India have had the highest fuel price? Well, it is Parbhani in Maharashtra, where in early April 2022, petrol cost Rs 121.38 per litre and diesel, Rs 103.97 per litre. In Sriganganagar in Rajasthan, petrol shot up to Rs 120.73 and Diesel Rs 103.30 per litre, in April. In both the aforesaid states, Congress is in power, either directly or via an alliance.
In the Congress-ruled States, the average Petrol price is higher by Rs 18-21 per litre, compared to many BJP governed States. The reason for this difference is nothing but pure greed on the part of Congress regimes, whereby they refuse to cut VAT on Petrol and Diesel. So while Rahul Gandhi and his sundry bunch of protesters are crying wolf over rising fuel prices in India, the harsh truth is that Congress-ruled States are milking their taxpayers dry by refusing to cut VAT in any meaningful measure. So much for Rahul Gandhi’s hypocrisy!
Weather-related reasons apart, the pandemic-induced sharp bust-and-recovery patterns produced unpredictable and prolonged supply-side disruptions, leading to supply-side deficits, which, in turn, led to cost-push inflation. True, as the pandemic receded, demand saw a resurgence but more than “demand pull”, it was “cost push” inflation that wreaked havoc globally. That Central bankers kept buying bonds indiscriminately and governments kept pumping money into their economies to “pump prime” and resurrect them, only led to more speculative money finding its way into just about everything—gold, oil, bonds, commodities, wheat futures, corn futures, so on and so forth. Inflationary pressures globally, among other things, have been driven also by overheating in the aftermath of significant policy stimulus. Here again, the Modi government’s cautiously calibrated approach to infusing stimulus at the height of the Covid wave has been very effective.
In sharp contrast, some of the (AEs), the US included, unleashed gigantic fiscal stimulus packages, which were not focused and eventually ended up creating asset bubbles and soaring inflation, with very little attendant benefits.
The writer is an Economist, National Spokesperson of the BJP, and the Bestselling Author of ‘The Modi Gambit’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal. Parts II & III will be published later.
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