On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of India spoke about a big digital divide in the country that might hinder vaccination drive. The apex court was talking of the rural-urban digital divide while adjudicating on the Covaxin policy of the Union government. It quoted the data of the NSO (National Statistical Office) survey of 2018 that said that only four per cent of rural households and 23 per cent of urban households possessed a computer.
India indeed has to cover a long distance. Internet penetration, availability and use of mobiles, affordability, etc, would be crucial factors that would determine the government policy on vaccination of all adults by the end of 2021. I do not doubt that the government is working overtime to plug the gap and use the huge infrastructure it has to make this Herculean task possible.
Meanwhile, the observation of the apex Court throws up the larger issue of the urban-rural divide which needs to be discussed and studied. The current debate in the media on this divide appears as if they have discovered something new. A narrative is being built that the Co-win app that mandates registration of beneficiaries of vaccination was actually a tool to favour the haves over the have-nots. This is not true. The flip side is that the debate has allowed us to talk of other issues concerning the divide in this country which the government has been trying to bridge.
Nearly, 65 per cent of the Indian population live in rural areas. And migration to cities for better jobs, since agriculture cannot sustain the huge labour force, is happening at a rapid scale. Former President late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam gave the PURA (Providing Urban Facilities in Rural Areas) vision to check this migration and make life more wholesome for people living in rural areas.
Most people in rural areas live a life of deprivation and not glory, contrary to a heavenly picture depicted in movies and folklores. They do not have gainful employment, entertainment, or other systems that make life more meaningful. Every day is not a new day, but the same old dreary drudgery of the previous days.
India has 741 districts and close to 6.64 lakh villages. Some of the villages are very remote and the only way for the government to reach there is the vast network of the administrative structure. This is used to implement any government programme whether it is free ration or other programmes concerning the poverty alleviation.
The delivery system indeed suffered due to corruption and we are all aware of the honest confession of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who said in 1985 that only 15 paisa of the rupee sent by the government reaches the intended beneficiaries. Urban bred cultured people were pocketing the money meant for the poor.
This was happening even for employment provided by the Union Government under MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act). The much-needed JAM (Jan Dhan Yojana account, linking the accounts with Aadhar Card and SMS through Mobile) has ensured that workers get their wages in time and also that they received the messages on their mobiles. Close to 14.17 crore workers are registered in MNREGA and are getting the wages transferred directly into their accounts. Who lost in this process is not difficult to guess- the middlemen.
There was a big divide in terms of access to the banking system. As of March 2021, 42 crore accounts were opened under Jan Dhan Yojana. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced access to the banking system for all, the country had about 40 per cent of people outside the banking system and they depended mostly on money lenders for their needs. More than 80 per cent of Indians are now linked to the banking system.
There was a big divide in the country in terms of access to toilets. Before the Modi government came to power, only about 40 per cent of people had access to a household toilet. In five years, the government built 11 crore toilets and bridged this divide. There was a divide based on the use of cooking gas in the kitchen. More than 80 million gas connections have been provided and an additional 10 million is the target for 2021. This is having a tremendous positive impact on the healthcare of women who suffered due to poisonous smoke. This also polluted the environment and endangered community health.
There is a big divide in terms of access to quality education. Private education is unaffordable and government schools are not efficient. Those educated in English medium schools are becoming part of the ruling elite and those from government schools try to adjust to whatever positions they get in society. The New Education Policy is seeking to redefine the horizon and increase accessibility to quality education.
Setting up of 5,000 Atal Tinkering Labs, seven IITs, seven IIMs, 14 IIITs, one NIT, and four NIDs shows the vision of the Prime Minister. Twenty world-class Universities have been set up besides putting focus on empowering youths through imparting skill based education. Education of girl child has been given priority through incentivisation. The education divide is too big, but the country is moving closer to one syllabus and quality education. Since education comes under respective states, a focused approach is needed to make government schools more enviable and productive.
Let us now try to see the situation on health infrastructure. There is a network of about 200,000 Primacy Health Centres in the country including both urban and rural areas. A full understanding of healthcare facilities is a must to understand this divide.
At the lowest level is the Sub Centre that caters to the population of 5000 in plain areas and 3500 in hilly, tribal or difficult areas. Each centre is manned by one Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) /Female Health Worker (FHW) and one Male Health Worker (MHW). One lady Health Visitor (LHV) supervises six Sub Centres. The Union Government pays the salary of ANM and LHV while the salary of the Male Health Worker is borne by the State governments.
Imagine one ANM catering to a population of 5000 people spread over many villages whose population ranges from 500 to 1500. And these ANMs are not medical experts but know merely to give an injection in times of need, can help in child-birth, and give a few standard medicines.
At the middle level is Primary Health Centre catering to a population of 30,000 in plain areas and 20,000 in tribal, hilly, or difficult areas. This is the first contact between the villagers and a Medical Officer. This is maintained by the state government under the Minimum Needs Programme (MNP).
The Medical Officer is supported by 14 paramedical and other staff. This is a referral unit for six sub centers and has 4-6 beds for patients. The services provided are curative and preventive medical care, and promotive and family welfare services.
The third level is Community Health Centre (CHS) for a population of 120,000 in plain areas and 80,000 in tribal, hilly and difficult areas. This is run by the State Government under the MNP. It serves as a referral Centre for four PHCs. Four medical specialists— Physician, Surgeon, Gynecologist, Pediatrician— supported by 21 paramedical staff. It has 30 beds for patients with one OT, X-Ray, Labour Room, and Laboratory.
Above this level are the First Referral Units (FRUs). A District Hospital, Sub-Divisional Hospital, CHC can be declared FRU if it meets criteria such as round-the-clock services for Emergency Obstetric Care, including surgical interventions like caesarean sections, New Born Care, and Blood Storage, Facility on a 24-hour basis.
In 2011, when India had a population of 121 crores, of which 68.84% lived in rural areas, the Sub Centres numbered 148,124, 23887PHCs, and 4809CHSs. A look at the availability of specialists spoke volumes about the system. There was a shortfall of 75% of Surgeons, 65.9% of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 80.1% of Physicians, and 74.4% of Pediatricians. As of 31 March 2019, these numbers were 30,045 PHCs, 157,541 Sub Centres, 5335 CHCs, and 3204 FRUs respectively.
One can easily make out that the situation is not inspiring for anyone. Many critical ailments go untreated and many districts don’t have enough human resources to deliver healthcare services. The recent observation of the Supreme Court’s observation that even after 70 years of Independence the healthcare infrastructure of the country was not enough to cope with the present crisis should be seen in this context. The exact wordings were “the healthcare infrastructure inherited over past 70 years was not sufficient and the situation was grim.”
It is in this context that the Modi government launched the Ayushman Bharat Programme in 2018 that sought to strengthen the medical system and also provide insurance cover of Rs 5 lakh per year for free treatment to 50 crore poor people or 10 crore poor families that cannot afford critical medical care. By the beginning of 2021, more than 1.8 crore people had used the scheme.
Besides this, the government has already launched the process of establishing Health and Wellness Centres (HWCs) to give primary healthcare facilities to the entire population. The target is to make the existing 150,000 primary healthcare facilities in rural areas fully functional and responsive. By March 2021, already 70,000 HWCs had achieved this feat and more than 410 million people had utilised the facilities.
We must not forget that the decision to have six more AIIMS was taken by the first BJP government at the Centre under late Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The United Progressive Alliance under the Congress added just one more to this number, and the Modi Government decided to open 14 more. The Modi Government also decided to open 157 Medical colleges to handle the huge shortage of MBBS doctors. More than 30,000 seats for MBBS and 24,000 for MDs have been added already.
The WHO norm is one MBBS doctor per 1000 population. Even in national capital Delhi, this ration is one doctor for 2203 people. The situation in other states is: Bihar 1:28,392, Uttar Pradesh (19,962) and Jharkhand (18,518).
The focus on AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani. Siddha, and Homeopathy) should be seen in this context. Never before such a comprehensive thought was given to strengthen healthcare. The focus here in Ayush ministry is keeping people healthy and fit so that they do not need medical treatment. The traditional Indian system of treating ailments has proved its worth and hence must be strengthened not despised. Many of these doctors are much better trained than the quacks operating in the name of doctors.
The Covid-19 crisis exposed the inabilities of the system and the government focused on working faster on this. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced 137 per cent increase in the health budget of 2021-2022 presented in February. The new allocation was Rs 2,23,846 crore in place of Rs 94,000 crore in the budgetary estimate of the previous year. This includes Rs 35,000 crore earmarked for Covid vaccination.
Considering that India spends just over one per cent of the GDP on healthcare, the Modi government has aimed to increase this expense to at least 2.5 per cent by 2025, which means almost double. This would pale in comparison to what other countries spend on their healthcare such as the United States (16%), UK, Australia (9 per cent), and France, Germany, and Japan (close to 10 per cent). Even Pakistan and Bangladesh spent close to 3 per cent. A direction to set right the mistakes of the past is being set in motion now.
It is in this context that the talk of the digital divide and correct assessment should be made on the abilities of the Government to achieve the vaccination target. As per the statement of Union Minister Sanjay Dhotre in Lok Sabha on 10 February 2021, 37,439 villages (as per the 2011 census) in India did not have internet coverage. This figure was based on data from Telecom Service providers in 2020. Also, about 33 per cent villages of these fell in just two States- Odisha (8,947) and Arunachal Pradesh (3,343).
The number of smartphone users in India was expected to touch 76 crore in 2021. Even in rural areas, people are often seen using smartphones. Those beneficiaries of Government schemes are definitely connected through JAM. Hence the situation is not as dismal as it may appear. Four people can register through a mobile number. And there is administration, local elected representatives, and NGOs too keen to be a part of the programme.
And it goes without saying that where registration through mobile is not possible the traditional system would be used. The existing infrastructure of manpower that exists would be useful to educate as well as assist in this vaccination drive. The divide is there but the Government has the mechanism to implement any such policy whether SBA or Ujjwala Mission or vaccination.
The writer is convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.
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GOVERNANCE WILL BE THE KEY IN 2024
The havoc wreaked by the second wave of the coronavirus has kindled hopes in Opposition hearts of coming to power three years hence, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. They hope that people’s suffering and a broken economy will tip the scales against the incumbent government. Add to that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s inability to snatch power from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and many a dream has started being woven about which Opposition leader will occupy the Prime Minister’s chair in 2024. Needless to say, much of the push is coming from the Bengal Chief Minister, who has major Prime Ministerial ambitions—the first Bengali Prime Minister is how her party-men and women are trying to create the buzz in Bengal—and whose emissary Prashant Kishor is knocking on different doors. Hence the meeting convened by Sharad Pawar of Opposition parties this week is significant, even though the attendance was limited to those who have a paltry 30-odd MPs in a 543-member Lok Sabha. The Congress did not attend, nor did regional parties from the South, such as the DMK, TRS or the YSR Congress, all controlling states with a substantial number of seats. As expected, Odisha’s BJD too was nowhere to be seen. Of interest was the attendance of the Left parties in a meeting where the TMC was one of the main movers. This is in keeping with the buzz of the Left joining hands with the TMC in the Lok Sabha elections of 2024. There was already some push from both the Left and the TMC ahead of the elections in Bengal that the two should join hands to stop the rise of what they describe as “communal forces”. In fact, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Left transferred a large chunk of its votes to the TMC in the Bengal elections, thus boosting TMC’s performance. It’s a different matter though that in the process, the Left disappeared from Bengal’s political firmament, but then what’s a little existential crisis when the goal is to make India truly “secular” and “liberal”? So, Bengal will not be an easy battle for BJP in 2024, although preparations for the elections seem to have already started, as evident from Suvendu Adhikari’s regular visits to New Delhi, where he spends considerable time with the BJP’s top brass, including even with the Prime Minister. But whether he can grow into another Himanta Biswa Sarma is speculation at best, especially because Bengal with its 42 Lok Sabha seats is increasingly becoming “unscalable” for BJP for reasons of demography.
Meanwhile, in all the talk about alliances and counter alliances, the small issue of track record and governance is perhaps taking a back seat. And this applies to all parties, including BJP, whose Central government has been accused of taking its eye off the ball because of the elections in Bengal and thus allowing the second wave of the pandemic to turn into a tsunami. But serious questions are being asked about Mamata Banerjee’s functioning too, for instance. The political violence that erupted in the state post the election results on 2 May is continuing, with horror stories of rape, murder, arson and loot coming to light every day. Sadly, not much of this is being highlighted by the national media, with the only saving grace being the Calcutta High Court refusing to pay heed to the state government, which wanted a stay on the National Human Rights Commission examining the allegations of violence that have come to it. If the Bengal Chief Minister has national ambitions, she should not make the mistake of thinking that these will not come back to haunt her. These incidents will be right at the heart of the BJP’s campaign against her, apart from her perceived tilt to a certain community.
It’s governance that will ultimately count for voters when deciding who will come to power in 2024. As it is a handful of leaders from diverse parties united in apparent self-interest do not make a pretty picture, and can scare away voters with the prospect of “instability”. As we have seen over the last few elections, voters have been going for clear mandates and stable governments. And then of course there is the Narendra Modi factor, which the Opposition will find hard to counter. The bottom line is, governance, apart from track record, will be the key for anyone making a bid for power in 2024.
Policy implementation and political expediency in Covid times
Governments cannot escape implementing their policies. Implementation is not just getting it done, but letting it happen.
Governance in Covid-19 times has shown that implementation is the toughest task for any government. Those who violate laws with impunity, escalate both the costs and hazards of policy implementation? State machinery in most situations is not robust enough to prevent it whether it’s Nizamuddin Markaz or the Kumbh Mela, election rallies in India or the compulsive Spring Breakers at Florida and Miami beaches in the US, or even the 17th March crowding around Irish pubs in the UK to raise a glass to the patron saint.
Sometimes politicians scramble to bond with defiance as the Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand and UP threw public invitations for the Kumbh fair, akin to Governor Ron DeSantis wholeheartedly welcoming cheering Spring Breakers with assurance that “there are no lockdowns in Florida… it’s not gonna happen”. How would an implementer deal with such situations when even in the midst of a pandemic the ‘no mask & no helmet’ braveheart pass-by with flirtatious impunity. Violations such as those against pandemic-lockdowns are strengthened by beliefs of chivalry, protest or community ethics and become powerful weapons against virus control measures. Yet, governments cannot escape implementing their policies. Implementation is not just getting it done but letting it happen. It involves a number of tangible and intangible inputs which are built over time and not created simply by invoking a law through a television announcement. Laws constitute the weakest stilt in the implementation process while for others one can look into our history of administrative reforms.
An expert panel in a recent Lancet paper has recommended eight “urgent’ steps for the Central and state governments to prepare against a more ferocious third wave of the virus. The Kappa (B.1.617.1), Delta (B.1.617.2) and increasing numbers of Delta Plus (AY.1) variants of coronavirus with the latter most likely to escape even the immune system of a person is burdening implementing agencies. So, what should the government do? The suggested eight urgent steps for the implementation of pandemic control policies include decentralised decision making, need to cap cost of essential health services, dissemination of clear information, optimum utilisation of human and other resources, vaccine procurement by Central government, public participation, transparency in government data collection and lastly provision in cash transfers. With a seven-year record of implementation of various flagship policies it would be interesting to assess if the government has a will, capacity and philosophy to implement these suggested eight steps.
That most policy slippages occur at an implementation level has been a traditional worry amongst senior officers heading the Department of Administrative Reforms and Personnel Grievances (DARPG). When the UPA government announced the Second Administrative Reforms Commission within one year of its taking over in 2005, it focused on compiling and evaluating innovations and best practices from the panchayat level to the district and the state levels. The DARPG reached out to the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for conducting evaluation of a large number of best practices submitted as ‘success stories’ by district magistrates and secretaries at the states and Central ministries. This was the first such self-evaluation drive undertaken since Independence by the government for identifying both cogs and lubricants in the complicated implementation process.
The Fifth Pay Commission raised its head the same year with a placard of performance as a key criterion for promotions, voluntary retirement and also a golden handshake. It triggered ample turbulence amongst younger district magistrates to show performance and with an institution like JNU known for its scathing analytical acumen being in a driver’s seat for evaluation, this nervousness became more intense in states like Haryana where almost every policy was rated as a best practice or like UP where they skeptically asked ‘best out of what?’. Evaluation teams were most welcome in the Northeastern states where humble district administration and ward councillors found this as an opportunity to come under the watchful eyes of Delhi for the many cost-effective, innovative measures they have been undertaking for years without even being noticed. Most of their so-called ‘good’ micro practices were never marketed the way Haryana, Tamil Nadu and MP could do. I recollected the Hawthorne experiments of the 1920s which brought out ‘supervision and being watched’ as an underlying push for women teams to have scored better than men. For the Northeastern states, evaluation teams became a medium before which they could showcase their innovative community participatory approaches in implementation. This approach which engages with Community Based Organisations (CBOs), Self-help Groups (SHGs) and other forms of non-government organisations (NGOs) provided sustainability and cost-effectiveness to implementation in contrast to Haryana’s personality driven, capital intensive and short shelf-life policies.
Digvijaya Singh as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh invoked Citizens’ Charters (CCs) within the e-governance frame. As our research team travelled during peak summer through the terrain of Jhansi from UP to Orchha town in MP, we encountered a world of difference. The youngsters of around 3,000 Brahmin families on the right side of the town who were mostly educated but poor, had cement houses but no livelihood, found it feasible to cross over to the side of tribal communities having rich craftsmanship, art, theatre and music but no access to benefits of governance and therefore remained uneducated and marginalised. Under many governance schemes the unemployed youngsters got an opportunity to educate and synchronise marketing of tribal forest usufruct and their art to the outside world. We saw caste and religious barriers waning fast in the process, love flourished and implementation strengthened. The DMs office almost 100 km away from Orchha with a run-down road and almost an immobilising drive through a narrow five-feet broad shaky bridge over Betwa river, dying and dead animals on either side of the road due to lack of water was a story of another world. No-one ever heard them but an e-governance initiative of Taara-Haat mobilised CCs to support developmental work undertaken at some of the most interior places.
The Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) had organised a discussion on Citizens Charters with the country›s senior administrators sometime in 2007-08 in which the Additional Secretary D.V. Singh representing DARPG had made an important but pathbreaking note to the government, that not much can be left in the hands of administrators as citizens should share some burden of implementation. A prudent government would rather focus on creating platforms of government-citizen collaboration at various levels of policy implementation than treat policy declarations as self-programmed softwares to achieve ends. This project of evaluation had been a wholesome experience when the unassuming Manmohan Singh kept directing Prithvi Raj Chavan, Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, on what to do next. He never stood on a dais to thunder as it appeared, he knew that implementation cannot be a whip on the horse as a good racing horse always needs a warmup.
Within the first two years of attaining power at the Centre, the NDA government announced its five flagship schemes and countrywide campaigns such as Digital India, Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao or Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, Make in India, etc.The first flagship programme ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana’ to provide financial inclusiveness and support to the marginalised classes rushed with opening of basic savings bank deposit (BSBD) account with minimal paperwork, relaxed KYC, e-KYC, account opening in camp mode, zero balance and zero charges. The country’s banking systems which did not have a matching number of personnel and capital to address this new challenge soon started showing signs of collapse. The result was the merger of banks. During the second UPA most merging banks failed to open new accounts as their problem of collating and merging extensive databases consumed their time and resources. Moreover, with new regulations the UPA switched from ‘no paper work’ to a ‘longer paperwork and more number of documents’ as a precondition to open a bank account. Centralisation in decision making once again lost the poor in public financial institutions.
Atal Pension Yojana (APY), the second flagship social security scheme of the Modi government, was made to deliver old age income security, particularly to the workers of the unorganised sector. The stringent policy decisions against NGOs and other community-based organisations combined with demonetisation and new FCRA rules almost crushed the unorganised sector. Third flagship programme, Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY) stands for Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd; it is a financial institution being set-up by Government of India for development and refinancing micro unit enterprises. With stressed out banks, manpower shortages and unorganised sector annihilated there is little to talk about for micro units. Fourth flagship programme, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) with an aim to provide 8 crore deposit free LPG connections to poor households in the country could not continue the zeal beyond the first 2-3 years as purchasing power decreased and cylinder cost skyrocketed. Lastly, the Modi government’s fifth flagship programme of Gold Monetisation Scheme provided different options for people to monetize the gold lying waste in their houses. Ironically, the government itself revealed that the scheme has led to only 6.4 tons of gold deposits till date which is even less than 2% of the annual imports of gold in those years. Temples and people had little trust in the government to hand over their gold to the scheme.
The NDA campaigns definitely stirred people with much energising Digital India and the progressive Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. How could the implementation fatigue set in so fast in them? People’s engagement into collaborative partnerships to achieve any such campaign could not be picked up as most non-government platforms for achieving these ends stood demolished after demonetisation. Implementation is an incremental activity and if a new government wrecks institutions raised by previous incumbents it also lays waste a huge amount of trust and faith from the past. An instant call for defeating everything setup by the previous government with slogans such as the ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ generated insecurity amongst a large majority, impelling violations, rebellion while not sparing the new regime with a lack of legitimacy tag. Mature and experienced governments avoid such situations as they try to or even pretend to walk with people.
A standard principle for implementing any policy is the implementer’s own demonstrable firm belief and apparent trust in its success. The second Covid wave policy derailment across the country is being seen and rightly so as a result of leaders who after storming the Markaz justify the Kumbh, after shedding Covid norms in election rallies return home to impose fines and talk of accountability when they demonstrate most opaque distributive policies towards state governments and talk of democracy at G7. Implementation is a culture of ethics which does not come from laws alone but from a sense of belongingness that a government generates in people that they have a role to play. So, go ahead to create democratic platforms and not stay divided.
The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.
HOW CAN POLITICAL PARTIES STOP THE PAN-INDIA MODI JUGGERNAUT?
Can the Opposition form a bloc without the Congress? NCP chief Sharad Pawar is said to be exploring this option, with or without Prashant Kishor’s blessings. It’s not too difficult to see the rationale behind such an exercise for the Congress party’s track record in taking on the BJP electorally has not been very good. Take a look at the recently concluded five Assembly seats—the one state where it was a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, the latter lost even though the BJP was facing an anti-incumbency in Assam. And in states where the BJP faced a non-Congress party, it lost — West Bengal. It’s not that the BJP cannot be defeated but an electoral battle led by Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Uddhav Thackeray, Navin Patnaik, or even Nitish Kumar has a better success rate than a lone Congress campaign.
And as many analysts have pointed out that once the election is a national level one, then the fight naturally becomes one of Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi. And we all know how that one ends. Hence it makes sense to form a non-Congress, non-BJP front with two or three strong faces to take on the BJP and keep the Congress as a post-election option. Since Narendra Modi still retains his edge over any other leader pan-India, it makes sense not to put one face against him as that face will always fall short. However, the coalition has to be clear about its message. It is not enough to criticise the BJP but the Opposition also needs to be clear as to what alternative it is offering the voter.
Moreover, it will not be that easy to take the Congress out of the equation for there are around 195 seats where the Congress is pitted directly against the BJP; and this is the Achilles’ heel in any fight against the saffron party. As Sanjay Jha, former Congress spokesman, told me, the Congress needs to win at least 100 of these seats. If it doesn’t then the BJP’s number will be too huge for the regional (Opposition) parties to measure up to. Jha has a solution pointing out that all Congress needs to do is to focus on the low-hanging fruit instead of wasting its energies on Uttar Pradesh, a state which Rahul Gandhi has been focusing his energies on ever since he debuted in 2004. “In the last elections, the BJP won 175 seats of the 195 where Cong and BJP in a direct fight,” says Jha.
However, to be fair to Rahul Gandhi, he will probably be quite happy supporting any coalition that will take on the BJP without insisting on leading it. After all, if he is reluctant to lead his own party, then why would he insist on leading a coalition? One way to check this would be to insist that a non-Congress leader taking over as Chairperson of the UPA. Currently, Sonia Gandhi holds this post, but given the fact that she wants to step back from active politics, perhaps the post should go to another more active leader. Such as Mamata Banerjee? It is also clear that the fiery leader from West Bengal harbours national ambitions. And to be fair, from all the opposition leaders, her track record in taking on the BJP cannot be questioned.
While the general elections are still three years away, the focus is on the semi-finals which will be fought in Uttar Pradesh early next year and then Gujarat. In the first, the onus lies on another regional leader, Akhilesh Yadav to try and stop the BJP juggernaut while Gujarat has usually been a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress, but of late, the Aam Admi Party has expressed an interest in the state. With Kejriwal himself making routine appearances in Modi’s ‘karma bhoomi’, this will be an interesting battle to watch. And the results of both UP and Gujarat will bring with them markers for the 2024 general elections.
Recalling unsung legacy of Syama Prasad Mookerjee
Today, a day after Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s 68th martyrdom anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a meeting with political parties from Jammu and Kashmir to chart out the future electoral map and trajectory for the region. It’s a fitting tribute to the great patriot.
It is deeply symbolic and profoundly significant that on 24th June, a day after Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s 68th martyrdom anniversary—Balidan Divas—Prime Minister Narendra Modi will confabulate with political parties from Jammu and Kashmir to chart out the future electoral map and trajectory for the region.
Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a new Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh had been spelt out immediately after the defanging of Article 370. He had spoken of a new beginning for the region, a beginning that is inclusive and equitable for everyone. The last two years have been a phase of multi-dimensional development for the region. Dr. Mookerjee’s original demand for the removal of 370 was made with the sole aim of cementing India’s unity and integrity and of depriving no region or section of the benefits of the Constitution.
To anyone who has gone through Dr Mookerjee’s interventions in Parliament and his correspondences, this aspect becomes clear. It is only the Congress ‘family’ historians and Communist propagandists who have deftly blanketed that dimension of his demand. It was a demand made and debated within the ambit of Parliament, it was a demand that was articulated and argued for by Dr Mookerjee through a sustained and copious correspondence with two of the principal personalities whose decision mattered the most– Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. When his persuasions failed, Dr. Mookerjee resorted to a democratic non-violent movement within the democratic framework of the new Republic. In fact, it was Nehru who cracked down on the movement across the country and it was Sheikh Abdullah’s police who fired on the demonstrators, tortured and imprisoned them.
It has served and continues to serve a section of the commentariat to paint Dr. Mookerjee’s demand as a narrow, politically expedient majoritarian demand. It is this same section that branded, as fascist, the Modi government’s historic step to disable Article 370. Discussing the situation in Jammu-Kashmir, in Parliament on 26th June 1952, a year before his death in detention in Kashmir, Dr. Mookerjee, for instance, argued that, “In a democratic federal state, the fundamental rights of the citizens of one constituent unit cannot vary vis-a-vis the citizens of another unit. Are not the people of Jammu and Kashmir entitled to the fundamental rights that we have given to the people of India minus Jammu and Kashmir? There is no scope for varied constitutional patterns, disparities as between one federating unit and another… All citizens of India…must enjoy the same fundamental rights and the same legal remedies to enforce them… But the fundamental question is that the fundamental rights of the citizen must apply to Jammu and Kashmir. There could be no compromise on that issue. The Supreme Court must function as the highest court or tribunal in the whole of India, Jammu, and Kashmir including. The Auditor-General’s writ must function in the whole of India including Jammu and Kashmir. These are important issues, which should be conceded… Let us discuss the whole question.” Dr Mookerjee also cautioned Nehru on the floor of the House, that he “must firmly assert that we do not want this ‘sovereign Kashmir’ idea. If you start doing it in Kashmir, others also will demand it.”
To Nehru’s fulmination and incoherent outbursts that the Jana Sangh, Dr Mookerjee and the demand for setting aside Article 370 was driven by a communal and sectarian motive, Dr Mookerjee’s rejoinder was unequivocal, ‘do not regard that, whenever an attack is made on certain matters of policy, some narrow, sectarian communal motive is prompting us. Rather it is the fear that history may repeat itself. It is the fear that what you are going to do may lead to the ‘Balkanisation’ of India, may lead to the strengthening of the hands of those who do not want to see a strong United India.’ The principle motive of Dr. Mookerjee’s demand was to arrest, expose and dissolve those forces who did not want to see a newly freed India remain united and integrated. Decades after these words were spoken, when read in the backdrop of the present, they seem so clear and so amazingly prescient.
In February 1953, a few months before his sudden death in Srinagar, Dr Mookerjee making his interventions in Lok Sabha in the motion on the Address by the President. Candidly making a sort of a final appeal, he said, “The suggestion is: accept the Indian Constitution. This is a Constitution framed by a Constituent Assembly which was dominated by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru himself. This is a Constitution that is based on secular considerations. It is not a Constitution dictated by any communal motives. If it is good enough for four crores of Muslims in India why can it not be good for the people of Jammu and Kashmir?”
Can anyone who believes in the virtues of the Indian Constitution, in our democratic fabric, and has a deep and abiding commitment to and faith in India’s unity and freedom join issues with this position? It is only the advocates of separatism, who ‘do not want to see a strong United India’, who have functioned within India as satellites of extraneous forces and ideologies who oppose it. These elements have, over decades, painted the demand for abrogating Art 370 as detrimental to Kashmiri interests, as communally motivated, a sectarian demand made with the motive of clamping on the rights of the people of the region and of foisting on them a majoritarian rule to exploit and enslave them.
This is the narrative that was and has been pushed across the world with the help of disintegrate-India cartels, both political and academic, which function in various institutions abroad or operate through various disguised forums in the name of human rights.
These cartels are mainly supported by the Pakistani establishment and their benefactors in the West and it has been their principal objective, since the summer of 2014, to try and ensure that India remains stymied in adversities, delaying her emergence as a leading power. That hope was permanently damaged and destroyed when Article 370 was abrogated on 5th August 2019.
In his Independence Day address on 15th August 2020, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, with the entire country riveted on him, Prime Minister Modi had said, “The delimitation exercise is going on in Jammu-Kashmir under the leadership of retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. We want early completion of the delimitation exercise so that there are early elections; there should be Jammu-Kashmir MLAs, its own cabinet, its Chief Minister so that it can march towards development with new vigour. India is committed to it and is making all efforts in this regard.” His intentions were clear then, the roadmap and its aims were also evident. Those who rejoice by saying that Modi has extended the invitation under pressure, ignore those public articulations of his.
With the electoral and political process, Jammu and Kashmir will be on an unalterable trajectory towards complete integration. Its status will be like any other State of the Union, a state firmly within the ambit of the Constitution and a robust participant in the march for ‘New India.’ It is a fitting tribute to Dr Mookerjee’s vision and sacrifice.
The writer is the director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are the writer’s personal.
IMRAN IS JUST A SYMPTOM, REAL PROBLEM IS THE IDEA OF PAKISTAN
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is a perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with his country today. A leader who was in his youth known as much for his cricketing exploits on field as for off-the-field glamorous lifestyle, is today the brand ambassador of the Taliban. Last year, he infamously called Al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden a “martyr”, a statement which his Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi preferred to duck in a recent interview to an Afghan TV channel, saying the PM was quoted “well, uh, again, out of context”. When the journalist persisted with the question: “Is he (Osama bin Laden) a martyr? You disagree (with Imran Khan)? On Osama bin Laden?” Qureshi said, “I will let that pass.” How can a minister go against his own master?
If in 2020 he called Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001, a ‘martyr’ while addressing the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, this year, he blamed women for the rising sexual violence in Pakistan. In an interview, which aired on 20 June, the Pakistan PM said, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. It’s common sense.” Blaming “fahashi” (vulgarity) for the rise of rape and sexual violence in the country, he invoked the importance of religion and the concept of ‘purdah’ in Islam. It is to remove “temptation” from society because “not everyone has willpower”, he emphasised.
Interestingly, and of course ironically, the same Imran Khan, according to his biographer Christopher Sandford, was in his youth known for his popularity among women and his frequenting of night clubs. Sandford writes in his book, Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician, that Imran Khan visited all the famous nightclubs in the UK and Australia, and would love to meet and court women. He would not drink alcohol, but wouldn’t have a problem with others doing the same.
Unfortunately, for Pakistan, this has been its tragedy all through its brief history as a nation-state. It got leaders who were overtly non-religious but never dithered in using the worst form fundamentalism for benefits, personal or otherwise. Just look at Mohammed Ali Jinnah: He used to drink alcohol, eat pork, smoke 50 cigarettes a day, and dress like an English gentleman. Yet, it was he who created Pakistan in the name of Islam! In the early 1970s, it was a socialist in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who introduced radical Islam in the country—a trend which gained momentum under Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Then there was Benazir Bhutto, one of the most ‘liberal’ Prime Ministers in the history of Pakistan, who presided over the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan. Gen Pervez Musharraf “did not blanch at whiskey, danced when the mood was upon him”, as Steve Coll describes him in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Ghost Wars, and yet he believed firmly in the necessity of the Taliban.
So, what does this phenomenon tell India and Indians, who would historically go weak-kneed whenever a “democratically elected” government comes to power in Pakistan—till the Modi government decided to give it up after the Uri and Pathankot attacks? We would be told by our peaceniks and so-called experts to reach out to the newly elected rulers of Pakistan, to make a grand concessionary gesture to help strengthen their hold in the fledgling democratic setup. This explains some of our excessively indulgent moves—from the one-sided concessions being granted by Mrs Indira Gandhi to Zulfikar Bhutto, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee making an earnest but naïve peace overtures to Islamabad via the Lahore bus diplomacy, which ironically ended up at the treacherous Kargil heights at the loss of hundreds of young soldiers.
As the transformation of Imran Khan from a suave, charismatic playboy to a hardened Islamist—and also other Pakistan leaders in the past from Jinnah to Nawaz Sharif—suggests, secularism and liberal values are sacrificed first at the altar of power in Islamabad. Anyone ruling that country will have to seek legitimacy from Islam and Islamists, especially those who are seen as suspects. And this, unfortunately, may be the reason why there may not be any redemption for democracy in our immediate western neighbourhood in the near future at least. And so is the case with good neighbourly relations with India.
In fact, India must be prepared for a perpetual state of warfare, overt or covert, with Pakistan, for its very raison d’etre is based on anti-India sentiments. It sees its existence as a state constantly in fight with India. Pakistan sees itself as an antithesis to the very idea of India, which invariably threatens the ‘3Ms’ that define Pakistan—Mullah, Military and Militant. Imran Khan is just a symptom. The real problem is the idea of Pakistan.
TIME TO MAKE CHINA PAY FOR WUHAN VIRUS
Beijing has paid in terms of its reputation. Now it will pay with money.
The world is a funny place. In May 2021, that pucca British-accent fellow who masquerades as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister claims that his country’s priorities have changed. In June 2021, Virus Pong, realising how isolated his country is, asked his officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for China! Wolf warriors, please go back to your lairs, your aggression has backfired.
“Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” lamented Lady Macbeth, possessed by the guilt of regicide.
After converting our planet into a gas chamber, Virus Xi tries to morally reinvent himself as a great humanitarian, out to save humankind through his fake vaccine. Ask the Tibetans and Uighurs and Kazakhs and Manchurians if his concept of innate Han superiority has been abandoned. I wonder if Hitler ever knelt beside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination centres to seek forgiveness from his Jewish victims, and loudly lamented German eugenics. China plays the victim and aggressor card at the same time.
Following the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the humiliating Boxer Protocol, which imposed backbreaking compensation obligations. Remembering that, and lamenting its humiliation every year, China decides to become aggressive.
Its global image takes a severe beating. China’s coming-out party with the impressive 2008 Beijing Olympics won universal admiration. But the world’s suspicion intensified when China boasted about the superiority of its system versus liberal democracy. The global focus on the 2013 ill-fated trillion-dollar Bilk and Rob Initiative has mutated like the virus from appreciation to angst.
The anti-China ire is even more vehement, now that there is credible evidence that the virus is a Chinese pathogen-based bioweapon that the Chinese military wanted to win a war without fighting it by crippling the adversary’s medical system. Even the god of viruses, Dr Anthony Fauci, is no longer sure that it is a natural phenomenon.
Atom bombs are a passe; they have been around since 1945 and many countries have them. A nuclear bomb has to be physically delivered and the delivery vehicle can be traced. A bioweapon is totally anonymous and gives its user total deniability, not just plausible deniability.
As its mask slips, China flails about desperately, following its template of economic blandishments, abuse and subterfuge. It claims that the deadly virus originated in America, in Italy, in France, in India, in Africa, on the moon, anywhere but in Wuhan. Even their media first called it the Wuhan virus, and then, on orders, blamed the United States’ military, but China’s Ambassador to the US confirmed in an interview in March 2020 that Covid-19 was not developed in a United States military laboratory.
There is no doubt among the senior Chinese leadership about the origin and lethality of the virus, so obfuscation and lies were imperative. China’s wolf warriors quickly launched a massive “infodemic” of denial and disinformation on Virus Pong’s instructions with one clear message: The truth must never get out.
China restricted internal travel but encouraged its diaspora in early 2020 to go back to their countries of residence. It ordered its Sancho Panza in the World Health Organization (WHO) to ask countries not to suspend flights to China, to create the impression that all was well. He said “Yesss Sirrrr”.
No credible epidemiologist in the world has shown evidence that the virus originated anywhere but China. A smart criminal, after committing his act, first destroys fingerprints, footprints and bloodstains.
When the US government shut the Chinese Consulate in Houston last year, a pall of smoke hung over the compound for several days as the staff burnt the copious files they kept on Chinese-Americans working in that hi-tech region.
But even the sharpest felon cannot eliminate circumstantial evidence such as chronology of events, movement, injury on the victim’s body, witnesses. Chinese officials claimed that the virus might have been discovered in China, but did not originate there, but instead of permitting research into the origins of the virus, vital to prevent the next pandemic, China tried to focus on who should be blamed.
The WHO team did not get approval for a year to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When they did, the most important data was not shared with them.
Do not link political issues with economic ones, China tells India. But it does just that when Australia asks for an international inquiry into the origins of the Chinese virus and imposes economic costs on Australia.
So, in a strange symbiotic way, the global anger and Chinese vituperation overfeed on each other. In April 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: China’s Communist Party will pay the price for not sharing information they had about the coronavirus pandemic and thus causing a “huge challenge” for economies.
The actual damage to the global economy now being talked about is several trillion dollars. Two Harvard professors have termed the pandemic among the greatest calamities in modern US history, the greatest threat to prosperity and wellbeing since the Great Depression of 1928. They estimate that the cost of the pandemic to America will be at least $16 trillion (more than the amount spent on all the wars—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria since 9/11) provided the pandemic ends by 2021, which is optimistic.
The long-term effects of the Chinese virus, even on mildly-infected people infection, is far worse than was originally anticipated, according to researchers and doctors in northern Italy, and confirmed by American and Indian doctors. Since the virus attacks every human organ, psychosis, cardiovascular trauma, insomnia, renal and hepatic disease, spinal and biliary infections, strokes, chronic tiredness, and mobility issues are being identified in former coronavirus patients in Lombardy, the worst-affected region in the country. A recent US study confirms that 4/5 Chinese virus patients developed encephalopathy ranging from short-term memory loss and difficulty with multitasking to confusion, stupor, and coma.
India is second only to the US in infections. The cost to India would be enormous, with its economy contracting over 7% in 2020 and likely to shrink again in 2021. Based on a regression analysis using dependent and independent variables of economic output lost, human lives destroyed, material damage costs, diversion of resources, medical costs, and recovery costs, I estimate the cost to India to be $3 trillion from 2020-25.
Many countries went into months of lockdown in 2020 in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19, which reduced cross-border travel and accelerated job losses. Governments increased spending to cushion the economic damage, but are now left with a huge debt pile. Meanwhile, central banks around the world slashed interest rates and purchased more assets to inject more money into the financial system. The pandemic has sent the global economy into one of its worst recessions ever, and it isn’t yet clear when a full recovery will be in place.
A slow rollout of vaccines across developing economies could hamper the return of activity to pre-pandemic levels. Even among advanced economies, renewed lockdowns in Europe in a bid to stave off a resurgence will push back economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast the global economy could shrink 4.4% in 2020, before bouncing back, but warned that the return to pre-pandemic levels will be “long, uneven, and uncertain”. Globally, government measures to cushion the pandemic’s economic blow totaled $12 trillion, the IMF said in October last
But that was before the second wave hit. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that in some countries, the early effects of Covid-19 on labor markets were “ten times larger than that observed in the first months of the 2008 global financial crisis”.
Will China pay when reputed experts estimate China’s debt to be over USD $40 trillion, three times its GDP? Much of law is based on precedent. Making the defeated party pay war compensation has a long history. It is intended to cover damage or injury inflicted. War reparations refers to money or goods changing hands, but not to the annexation of land. Rome imposed large indemnities on Carthage after the First and Second Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE. The 1815 Treaty of Paris ended the Napoleonic wars. France was ordered to pay 700 million francs in indemnities. In proportion to its GDP, it is the most expensive war reparation ever paid by a country. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the 1921 London Schedule of Payments required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks ($33 billion). The final payment was made in 2010.
After World War II, according to the July 1945 Potsdam conference, Germany was to pay the Allies $23 billion mainly in machinery and manufacturing plants, while its wartime ally Italy agreed to pay $400 million. Finland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Japan, Hungary too agreed to pay. Japan had to pay $600 million to several countries, among which India (and some others) declined to accept any reparations. After the Gulf War, Iraq’s financial liability for damage caused in its invasion of Kuwait was assessed at $350 billion. So, the precedent exists. So does the will.
We call the present situation “war” against the virus. Even if Xi PingPong changes course and decides to come clean, it may be too late. Realising that it is too expensive to be the sole Rambo of the world, America is repairing its relations with traditional allies and friends in Europe and Asia, and even worse from Beijing’s perspective, is pushing an international coalition to take on China. It has closed off space for China, by rejoining the WHO and the Paris climate accord. In May 2021, the top American diplomat for Asia said that the era of engagement with China was over and henceforth it would be a competition. The Quad is being strengthened by the day.
In October 2020, India, South Africa and 100 developing nations asked the WTO for temporary patent waivers for vaccines. Nine months later, in a carefully crafted statement, China said that it supported the appeal. But is this vaccine diplomacy or vaccine hypocrisy?
Why did China wait so long? China suffers from an acute identity crisis. Is it a struggling developing country, or is it the world’s reigning superpower in every which way? It also suffers from an acute superiority complex, and wants to be the leader in the vaccine stakes, but always thinks of its own commercial interests. If many countries start making virus vaccines (an unlikely scenario), who will buy the Chinese fakes?
Over 100 Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI) countries have renegotiated their debt to China. As demands grow for China to pay for the devastation it has caused, many poor nations will scream for compensation. All of China’s soft power attempts are unravelling.
We are seeing the green shoots of an alliance of nations that will refuse to do business with China. The perfect storm has hit China: Massive food shortages; endless floods from May 2020; several million displaced; banks in huge debt; and foreign exchange at its lowest. In addition, even the PLA is disgruntled, while PingPong has lost the trust of his people.
“We’re going to be back in the game,” promises Joe Biden, and asks his intelligence fellows to quickly prepare a consolidated report on the origin of the virus. China has paid in terms of its reputation. Now it will pay with money.
Ambassador Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau; and a Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil. The views expressed are personal.
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