Weekly Update: Why Agnipath is A Good Path; How Oppn is BJP’s Strongest Suit

In the first four days after registration opened for recruitment to the Indian armed services, the Indian Air Force (IAF) alone received 94,281 applications. That volume of applications will, in all probability, grow manifold as the days go by and as the other services, the Indian Army and the Indian Navy, tot up the applications they receive.

The announcement of the number of applications that the air force received has done two things. First, it has almost instantly silenced critics of the scheme who were calling it discriminatory and undemocratic. And second, more importantly, it has highlighted what is probably the Indian economy’s toughest challenge: frighteningly large levels of unemployment among the country’s youth.

The Indian government introduced the Agnipath Scheme as a new way of recruiting youth into the armed services at ranks lower than that of commissioned officers. Inducted cadets will get a four-year tenure with a stipend paid to them and at the end of the tenure, 25% of them will be inducted into the services while the rest will get a golden handshake–a sum of ₹12 lakh to start entrepreneurial ventures as well as preference if they want to join police or other state security services.

The background to the scheme is important. The armed services incur a huge outflow of money that goes to pay pensions, salaries and other personnel-related expenses. By some estimates they account for a quarter of India’s defence budget. The Agnipath scheme would alleviate some of those recurring expenses and allow the defence ministry to deploy more funds into critical areas like augmenting defence equipment and modernisation.

However, opposition parties, including the Congress and some other regional parties vehemently opposed the scheme, mainly on the grounds that they felt a more consensual approach ought to have been adopted but also that it discriminated and curbed the rights of new recruits, 75% of whom would leave service after the four-year tenure. But as initial data show, the scheme could turn out to be a hit.

The reason for its appeal is simple and stark. Youth unemployment in India has reached staggering proportions. According to the Times of India, “Youth unemployment in urban areas across India rose sharply to 25.5% in the April-June quarter of 2021 and remained in the double digits thereafter as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic battered economic activities and dealt a severe impact on jobs.”

Do the maths. Nearly 40% of the Indian population is aged 13 to 35 years (defined as youth in the National Youth Policy). Forty per cent of the population is roughly 560 million people. If we look at the minimum employment age in India, which is 14, we are still talking about at least 500 million employable youth. If 25% of them are unemployed, how serious do you think the problem is?

It is small wonder that the Agnipath Scheme has found growing appeal among young Indians. Jobs in the public sector have not been growing; and in the private sector the emphasis is on automation and leaner workforce with lower wage costs. In scenario such as that if young people have an opportunity to earn and get training for four years and then have a shot at either becoming soldiers, airmen or sailors or, if they aren’t inducted, entrepreneurs, is that not an appealing alternative, say, to driving an auto rickshaw or delivering food from restaurants to people’s homes?

Some more numbers to mull. In the first year, an Agnipath recruit would earn (in-hand) ₹21,000 a month and by the fourth year that would go up to ₹28,000. Not really a bad deal, is it?

India’s Opposition Needs a Plan

Some years ago when the Congress party had started what has now become its free-fall journey into oblivion, one newspaper had written that Rahul Gandhi was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strongest trump card. Gandhi was then messing up in all possible ways: losing election after election for his party; lacking coherent strategies about any issue that he addressed; and losing the support and respect of his party’s other leaders and functionaries.

Now, one could expand on that cheeky comment and probably say that the BJP’s strongest suit is the Opposition. Besides opposing anything that is proposed or done by the government–the misplaced opposition to Agnipath is a case in point–India’s Opposition parties have little else to get active about. The situation is the same in the states as it is in the Centre.

When was the last time we heard a constructive critique of the Union Budget from any Opposition party? When was the last time an Opposition party leader appraised India’s handling of the Covid pandemic (which, considering the number of people that live in India, has been quite commendable)? Have we ever seen a whitepaper from the Opposition on how India’s unemployment problem ought to be tackled? Or a strategy that addresses our government’s bewildering stance when it comes to international issues such as the Russian aggression in Ukraine? Sadly, India’s Opposition is bankrupt of ideas. And that is why it is the strongest suit in BJP’s hand.

Weekly Update: Barbarian Politics of Bulldozers; Rupee in Free Fall

In India’s socio-political lexicon, lamentably, a new phrase has made an entry: bulldozer politics. In Uttar Pradesh, where the hardline Hindu chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been in power for more than five years, communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims has been countered by his government by the use of bulldozers to raze the homes and settlements of so-called criminals allegedly responsible for rioting and other acts of violence. No prizes for guessing the religious community that is predominantly targeted by the bulldozers. 

There is a certain barbaric aspect to the sort of action the Uttar Pradesh government has sponsored. Bulldozers are routinely used in India to take down illegal construction. That procedure is usually legal. Official orders are obtained from the authorities such as courts and demolitions are carried out. Nothing wrong with that. However, what is fast becoming a trend, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is extra-judicial and should be considered illegal: where the targets of demolition are owned or inhabited by criminals, rioters or other accused persons. 

The point is a simple one. If a person is accused of a crime, he has the right to be tried within the judicial system and the framework of the laws of the land. Is it legal for a government to raze settlements because alleged criminals inhabit them? But even as the debate rages about the bulldozer action initiated by the Uttar Pradesh government, it has emerged as a political tool. Last week the chief minister instructed officials to continue with bulldozer action ostensibly to quell the waves of violence that have erupted in parts of his state, notably in the Lucknow area.

But bulldozer action is one of the many consequences of the deeply dangerous brand of politics that has been unleashed by the Bharatiya Janata Party led governments in various parts of India. Since the party came topower at the Centre and began winning mandates in many other states, minority communities, particularly Muslims, have never felt more insecure. What was in the past latent majoritarianism now seems to be legitimised. And when mobs attack minorities and riots break out, authorities even at the highest levels turn a blind eye. And often when action is taken, the targeted “miscreants” belong to–you guessed right–the minority community.

Is India turning into a Hindu state? Many believe it already has. In growing parts of the country, discrimination and violence against minority communities have become routine. People have no option but to live with it. In some cases, such as in Uttar Pradesh, this has obviously and inevitably led to a backlash where the minority community strikes back. Whether these acts are perpetrated by criminals or not, the action that is adopted–of bulldozing areas–reeks of an uncivilised era, primitive, barbaric, and illegal. 

Why is Rupee Continuing to Lose Value?

Since January, in barely six months, the Indian rupee has dropped 5%. That is a sharp fall. One US dollar is equivalent now to nearly 80 rupees. Many expect the rate to worsen. What is going on?

The main reason for the rupee’s decline is the rise in prices of oil. India buys 85% of the oil it needs through imports. And for a variety of reasons, including the Russian attacks against Ukraine, the crude oil barrel price has risen to US$120. As recently as in March it was $90. When fuel prices soar, for India the demand for dollars increases and consequently, the rupee’s value declines. 

But there are other reasons too for the rupee’s fall. Global funds and investors are faced with a sentiment that urges them to reduce risks and withdraw investments in emerging markets such as India. Outflow of dollars has been constant since the beginning of this year. Since January, according to official estimates, as much as $24 billion has flowed out of India.

Besides this, there is the worrying trend in the US economy where retail inflation has been rising (as it has in Europe) and other developed markets. The US Fed Reserve (the central bank) is expected to hike interest rates in a monetary policy strategy to limit spending and curb inflation. This means returns on dollar assets will be higher than returns on, say, investments in financial assets in India. This means the outflow of funds will increase further. In money markets, anticipation of moves such as the one expected from the Fed is what turns the sentiment. And right now that anticipation is driving the value of the rupee down.

Global commodity prices have been rising steadily and even sharply. This means for India, its import bills go up and the deficit widens. To finance the deficit, India has to buy dollars and this puts further pressure on the rupee.

So it is a number of factors that have combined to make the rupee weaker. For the ordinary citizen it means that his money doesn’t stretch as much as it did before as prices rise and the economy bears the brunt of rising oil prices and the exodus of dollars. In plain terms, it is bad news.

Weekly Update: Silver Lining in Indian Economy? And Explosive Rise of Adani

It is easy to find negative things to discuss about India. About how the pandemic wreaked havoc in a country with a population of 1.4 billion, killing anywhere between 5 to 9 million people, displacing millions of migrant workers, and dealing a body blow to its economy. It is easy also to focus on a regime of intolerance against minority communities, particularly Muslims who have probably never felt as insecure and apprehensive about their lives in a country whose Constitution, in its Preamble, declares India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic.

It is easy also to find fault with the way crony capitalism continues to be nurtured in India and with the unfettered and often monopolistic dominance by a handful of business conglomerates over vast swathes of industry. And, on a more mundane level it is easy to find fault with India’s chaotic cities, its inability to check air pollution, which in some metropolises reaches poisonous levels, and scores of other things. 

But it is also possible to seek out the positives, however, small those may be. The Economist, in a recent leader titled, “The Indian economy is being rewired. The opportunity is immense”, attempted to do just that. It listed out several things that hold good tidings for India. Foremost among them is the emphasis on and the spurt of activities on the technology front. India has rolled out what The Economist calls a national “tech stack”, which attempts to make life easier for Indians to connect digitally their social identity, tax records, bank accounts, and so on. In the past three years, because of the adoption of technology there have been slow but steady steps towards moving from a cash-driven, informal economy towards a more modern, digital system.

The Economist also notes that India could attract investment in the manufacturing sector as well–partly because of big global firms looking for alternatives to China but also because of incentives and simplifications in Indian policies for the sector. But that could still be some distance away. India has not been able to match the pace of manufacturing that economies such as China or Korea have been able to achieve. And the gap between them and India is still vast.

What has happened in India, however, is the tech-driven spurt in services, particularly in the business-to-consumer (B2C) area. In Indian cities, app-driven services have proliferated. You can order food from restaurants, groceries, and almost anything else. Covid-related isolation and social distancing have provided a boost to these services, which deliver what you need straight to your door and in no time. One service actually allows you to order and receive items of daily use in 10 minutes. Another offers you the service of a motorcycle courier who can deliver anything you want to anyone in your city. 

Elsewhere, India has taken quiet strides in green energy and has already emerged as the third biggest installer of solar energy systems. That, coupled with the app-led services, including taxi and autorickshaw services has led to paradigm shifts in the way people shop, commute, or lead their daily lives. 

Such non-conventional businesses have created jobs in sizeable numbers, albeit jobs that are low-end and low-paid. Thus, these are in no way comparable to the sort of jobs that a manufacturing boom can create such as they did in China or Korea. There lies the crux, really. If India wants to create jobs that can ease the pressure on its overcrowded and less productive farm sector and its burgeoning population of youth (the average age of an Indian was 29 compared to 37 in China; and 65% of Indians are below the age of 35), it will have to count on massive doses of investment in sectors that create jobs in millions. Will that become a reality? India’s policy makers have to look for an answer.

Breathtaking Rise of Adani’s Fortunes

In the upper echelons of India’s corporate world, there have always been instances of competitive rivalry. In the early decades after Independence, the Tatas and Birlas were often pitted against each other, sometimes when it came to getting big contracts or licences or at other times when it came to acquiring other companies. The intense corporate rivalry between the late founder of the Reliance group, Dhirubhai Ambani and Bombay Dyeing’s Nusli Wadia provided fodder for many a business journalist in the 1990s. 

More recently it is a rivalry of a different kind that has pitted Dhirubhai’s son, Mukesh Ambani, 65, against another industrialist, Gautam Adani, 60. According to a recent column in Business Standard by Bloomberg’s Andy Mukherjee, “Adani, the world’s sixth-richest person, has added almost $30 billion to his wealth this year, more than any other billionaire. His net worth of $106 billion is only about half of Tesla Inc. co-founder Elon Musk’s, but $10 billion more than Ambani’s.”

Adani’s rise has been breathtaking. Started around 30 years ago, his group based in Ahmedabad has interests across a sprawling range of businesses–power, ports, roads, construction, green energy, and food products to mention just a few. A few weeks back, Adani bought a majority stake in two of India’s biggest cement companies, ACC and Ambuja Cement. 

Adani has been embroiled in controversy too. Some years ago, when he got the permission to mine coal in Australia, activists opposed the move and, for a while, it seemed that the deal would get scuttled. But as of last December, his project, which includes mining and a rail system, seemed to be back on track.

Many link Adani’s rise to his close proximity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom he has had a rapport since Modi was chief minister of Gujarat. Others speculate about how Adani manages to raise huge amounts of funds to finance his rapidfire acquisitions. But the fact is that in India’s corporate scene, he is the man in the spotlight, outshining all the other big names.

Weekly Update: High-risk Lives of Food Delivery Men; Where Are All The Judges?

Last weekend, in north Delhi, a food delivery man zipping on his motorcycle to meet a deadline crashed into a car. The gory accident led to at least three deaths. Anyone who has been commuting or driving on the roads in India’s big cities would have seen the sheer number of food delivery people on their bikes, weaving in and out of traffic, often breaking traffic rules, in their quest to deliver food from restaurants and other outlets to consumers. They operate on tight schedules, and what they earn depends largely on the number of deliveries they can complete each day.

On paper, in India, where the per capita income per month is a measly ₹1,025, a delivery person for the more popular app-based food delivery platforms can earn up to ₹50,000 a month. In addition, many of them can get cash incentives linked to their performance. But all of these come at a cost. It is hard work, involving bike rides through India’s notoriously frenetic traffic and carrying huge loads on their backs. 

Besides the risks of driving against tight deadlines and carrying loads, delivery persons for services such as Zomato and Swiggy often have to put in 12-14 hours a day in order to earn enough to make ends meet. Last year, a couple of them took to social media anonymously to talk about the conditions under which they work. One of them compared their status to that of slaves.

India’s urban middle class and richer strata of households have got used to the convenience of ordering food that can be delivered to their homes, sometimes even round-the-clock. But behind the ease of clicking an app and getting what you want–the platform has also led to a mushrooming for food outlets in most cities–is the darker reality of the risks that those who work in food delivery face. The north Delhi incident took place soon after a leading food delivery company offered deliveries within 10 minutes after a customer placed an order. The market has turned competitive and companies are pushing the limits to offer an edge over their rivals.

The employment opportunities that such Business-to-Consumer (B2C) services offer to India’s burgeoning youth is certainly welcome but it is also necessary for the players in the business to ensure that basic safety, health and other work-related conditions are protected. Delivery persons are usually not employees; they work on contracts that provide little in terms of health insurance or other safety nets; and often the pressure on them can force them to take risks as happened when the delivery person in Delhi lost his life.

Where Are All The Judges?

India’s chief justice N.V. Ramana recently revealed that there are more than 40 million cases pending in lower courts. That is a mind-boggling number that could take decades, if not longer to be disposed of.

What that huge backlog signifies is the acute shortage of judges in the Indian judicial system. Take the situation in high courts alone. In India’s 25 high courts, the number of total judges sanctioned is 1,104 of which 833 judges are permanent and remaining 271 sanctioned for additional judges. But as on date, 35% of these posts are vacant because there are no candidates available. In lower courts, the situation is worse.

India’s judicial system is hugely inadequate when it comes to judges. India’s ratio of judges to population is ridiculously low. For every million people there are just 20 judges. In the US it is 107; and in the UK, 51.

At the same time the volume of litigation is on the rise in India. Delays are commonplace and legal relief, particularly for the poor, is often fraught with years of waiting and incurring high costs. If India has to reduce the backlog of pending cases, the crucial thing would be to attract more judges to the judicial system. For obvious reasons, legal professionals prefer to work as advocates and lawyers rather than as judges. Judges in India, particularly in the lower courts, get salaries that are low compared to what a lawyer can earn. The starting basic salary of a district judge is ₹26,000. This has meant that in lower courts it is difficult to attract competent judges to fill posts.

It is time for a major reform of the judicial system. And if India has to tackle the growing backlog of legal cases that are pending, it must start by attracting more judges to head its courts.

Weekly Update: When India’s Hapless Media Turns to Bollywood; AAP’s Fresh Ambitions

When a Bollywood actor gets married, the Indian mainstream media goes bananas. And if both the parties getting hitched are Bollywood actors, the media frenzy can reach ludicrous proportions. So last week when Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, both actors of some repute, got married in Mumbai, the paparazzi and reporters got so wild at the venue of the wedding–at Kapoor’s residence in a tony Mumbai locality in Bandra–that neighbours had to complain to the authorities to quell the crowds and the disturbing activity.

Indians’ craze over anything Bollywood is well known. The entertainment sections of newspapers and other publications in India are almost solely devoted to covering the Indian film industry, which easily produces the largest number of films in the world. Every year, there are at least 800 films produced in Bollywood and the number of box office tickets sold exceeds four billion. These are mind-boggling statistics but Bollywood’s influence and dominance in India’s culture looms larger than anything else.

Nothing wrong with that. But it is when the media-created hyperbole reaches frenzied levels that everything gets puzzlingly out of control. Last week, anyone trying to read or watch the news in India would have been assailed by stories related to the celebrity wedding. Besides the one about how the media activity disturbed the peace in the neighbourhood of the wedding’s venue, there were other more ridiculous stories. One that particularly stood out was about how Bhatt’s chauffeur was so emotionally moved by his employer’s wedding that he declared that he would be “there for her” always. 

In case you thought such stories got published in tabloids and gossip blogs alone, think again. Some of India’s leading newspapers found space on the front pages of their publications or high up on their websites to splash such stories. So we learnt that when the bride dropped the kaleera on the heads of her bridesmaid and it fell on the groom’s cousin, Karishma Kapoor’s head, the 47-year-old, who is also an actor, was ecstatic. These and other trivial details about the wedding (example: the size of the blouse that actor Priyanka Chopra wore when she came to the ceremony) were provided eagerly by Indian media.

One reason for the media’s hell-for-leather approach to cover celebrity events, particularly weddings of the rich and famous, is probably frustration. Even though India prides itself as a large and diverse democracy, the media, no matter what anyone says, is as good as being muzzled. According to a ranking by Reporters without Borders, India ranked at 142 out of 180 countries that the survey covered. And it was judged as one of the “world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly”.

The thing is that most media publications and their journalists are not really affected by the dangers of working in India. That is because they choose not to do their jobs properly. It is difficult to find stories or coverage in Indian media that is even mildly critical of the authorities and the government. Blatant violations of human rights, alarmingly growing incidents of communal, caste, or religion based discrimination, which is often marked by horrendous violence, are reported but rarely do the influential publications take a stance of condemning them. 

The reason why India’s media has turned into wimpish lap dogs is not rooted in ideology, ethics or morals. It is squarely economics that has turned large and influential media houses into lackeys of those in power. First, there is the revenue angle. India’s publications, particularly those that are printed, depend highly on advertising revenues to survive. With e-commerce and online transactions fast replacing traditional forms of selling and buying, a large chunk of advertising revenues have disappeared as companies, particularly those that market consumer products, seek online channels to promote, advertise and sell their products more effectively and cheaply. This has meant that much of the conventional advertising that media groups survive on is government advertising: appointment ads, statutory tenders, notices, and advertising by public sector entities that are remotely controlled by government ministries.

It is not difficult for strong governments–India’s current regime at the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is probably one of the most powerful in the country’s independent history–to control or get the media to toe the line. There is another reason for that. Most large media organisations in India are owned by business families or entrepreneurs. Some have other business interests. Many have political ambitions. Staying on the right side of powerful authorities often makes sense for them.

If you talk to the average Indian–poor or middle-class–the constant refrain you will hear about today is how inflation is hurting their budgets. In the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by successive waves of Covid, prices of almost everything have soared: petrol, diesel, food, everything. But it is curious that in-depth coverage of this inflationary trend and its impact on the overwhelming majority of 1.4 billion Indians are few and far between when it comes to the mainstream media. 

This is just one example of media apathy. When majoritarian violence is directed against minorities, or there is a controversy as there was recently about Muslim women wearing hijabs, or regarding the sale of halal foods, the media does cover it of course but besides poker-faced reporting of the facts there is little attempt to point fingers or hold a mirror to the authorities who are often hapless or neglectful in their actions related to these incidents. India’s media is failing Indians.

AAP Now Eyes Other States

After the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) impressive victory in Punjab’s state elections, it is now eyeing two more states–Gujarat, which goes to polls in December, and Himachal Pradesh, which will hold elections in November. In both states, it is a BJP government that is in power. And while Himachal Pradesh is a smaller state with 68 seats than Gujarat, which has 182 seats, it is unlikely that either of the contests is going to be easy for AAP.

But early-stage campaigning has begun in earnest. AAP’s supremo and Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, and his colleague and Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann, have been making visits to these states, particularly Gujarat, which is considered a powerful base for the BJP and has had Narendra Modi as its longest-serving chief minister for more than 12 years.

The two state elections will be watched keenly. If AAP can make an inroad into either of the states it will be a huge victory for the party. But more than that, it could change the dynamics of politics in the country. That is because it would be the stepping stone for a regional or small party such as AAP towards becoming a national player. It is too early to place bets on what is likely to be the outcome of these elections. However, one thing is fairly certain: the main fight in both states would be between AAP, the challenger, and the reigning champion, the BJP. In case you are thinking about the Congress, the sad truth is that its story is nearly over.

Weekly Update: Why Our Post-Covid Lives Must Change; India’s Russian Dilemma

A compelling visual that has stuck in my mind is what I saw on one of Gurgaon’s traffic packed streets one recent weekday afternoon. One of the modes of road transport on that city’s crowded roads is something called an auto taxi. It’s bigger than a regular auto rickshaw and can pack 10 or even more people, sitting huddled together, squeezed as in a tin of sardines, only worse. This particular afternoon I was in a cab and next to us was one of those smoke-spewing modes of transport, packed to the gills with workers on their commute. Everyone was wearing a mask but, also, everyone was stuck so close to each other that, mask or not, the pernicious Covid virus, which is still at large, could easily be transmitted among the commuters.

Shortly after India’s Covid infection rate declined, people have thrown caution to the wind. You see crowds gathering at malls; bars and restaurants are full once again; and people are moving around as if everything is normal. In big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, most restrictions imposed during the height of the pandemic’s consecutive phases have been lifted. And, in fact, it is true that the number of Covid infections being reported has plummeted. As recently as on January 20, the number of daily cases officially reported was nearly 350,000. On April 2, it was 1,260. 

Yet, that does not mean things are back to normal. After each of the three main phases of Covid, including the deadly second wave, caution has usually been abandoned, restrictions quickly lifted, and people have tried to go back to normal life as quickly as they can. This could be a mistake with serious consequences. 

India is among the countries that were hit by Covid hardest: 43 million cases; and more than 521,000 deaths were officially reported. Many believe the real numbers are much higher. India is socio-economically diverse and high levels of poverty, low levels of education and awareness, and systemic inadequacies plague the processes for collection of accurate statistics. High density of population–most of the 1.4 billion Indians live and work in close proximity with each other, which makes the fast spread of viruses such as Covid easier. 

The simple truth is that Covid is not over. While the dynamics and causes of the virus are still being researched at a preliminary level, early findings suggest that mutations will continue and the virus could be resurgent for a very long time–no one really knows how long. 

So what does this mean for India? Does it imply that the country should go back into lockdown and halt normal life like it did a couple of years ago? Or does it mean we wait for another wave and then decide what to do? The answer lies somewhere in between. The tendency thus far among people in India as well as among various government authorities is to swing back into “normal” life the moment the spread of the virus is perceived to be abating. India cannot wish away its large population and its density. Neither can it be in denial about the fact that most Indians work to earn daily wages. And often such work requires them to be in close proximity with others. And, already there are indications that another wave of Covid could emerge as early as in June.

In such circumstances, prolonged strict restrictions on movement, on businesses, and on normal life can be unrealistic and have serious economic and other consequences. The solution could be to find a sensible norm or code for living. For instance, restrictions should be relaxed only gradually. Take gatherings of people for public events. In such cases, it may be prudent to start by restricting the number of people that can attend such events. Take the use of masks. Masks have been proven to protect against the transmission of the virus. The current rules in many Indian cities is that the wearing of masks is a recommendation and not a rule. Perhaps it is too early to lift the stipulation for wearing masks. For now, at least, the use of masks should remain compulsory. 

But the bigger issue is one that is voluntary. It is in human nature to forget past events, however immediate they might have been. One of the social learnings from the Covid pandemic is probably all about how people lead their lives. Crowded gatherings; sprawling religious and political rallies; overcrowded marketplaces and shopping areas…. These are all part of the average Indian’s life. Unfortunately, they are also not compatible with life in a post-Covid world. Every citizen needs to be aware that this is a virus that is still a work-in-progress. It can erupt and spread anytime. The need of the hour, therefore, is to have a new code for how we lead our daily lives: how we commute; how we work; how we entertain ourselves; and so on.

In a vast country like India, this is easier said than done. But as the recent past has shown, if the pandemic has taught us a lesson it is this: Our lifestyles and what we knew as normal life must change. Perhaps forever.

Why India needs Russia

The western world has been intrigued by India’s official silence about the Russian attack in Ukraine. While the west has been vociferous in its condemnation of the attack, orchestrated by Vladimir Putin, India has remained a fence-sitter on the issue. Why? That is a question that the west seems to ask of India. 

There are a few reasons for that but chiefly they are economic. The Russian foreign minister who visited India recently called India a friend of Russia and pledged his country’s commitment to relations with India. Mainly it is all about selling oil at a discount to India and bypassing any west-sponsored sanctions to continue trade between the two countries. 

India’s relations with Russia have a long history, going back to the Soviet era when Indian power plants, other heavy industries, and defence equipment were created using Russian help. Russia was India’s largest supplier of arms in both 2012-16 and 2017-21. Much of India’s defence equipment needs Russian knowhow for servicing and maintenance. India imports more than 80% of its oil requirement but only 2% of those imports are from Russia. Now with an easier rouble-rupee trade system that is being discussed, that volume can be ramped up. 

When Russia attacked Ukraine, alarm bells rang in the western world because it was seen as an aggression towards Europe. Geographically, it is an arena that is remote for India. Unlike in the west, anxiety about the Ukraine attack has not spread to India. The problem is whether India can find the balance between a stand on humanitarian grounds (such as Russia’s attacks on civilian areas and cities in Ukraine and the exodus of people) and its own economic interests (trade with Russia and dependence on weapons). But, in fact, the two issues are not connected. Or, at least they shouldn’t be. If India wants to secure its position as a major player on the international diplomatic arena, it must look beyond its own interests and assume a more statesmanlike approach on wars and violence. It is not easy to do that but it is necessary.

Weekly Update: Rise And Rise Of Kejriwal & What Makes Nations Happy

At 53, by the standards of Indian politics, Arvind Kejriwal has a lifetime ahead of him for his political career. But already he has made impressive strides. Currently serving his third term as chief minister of Delhi, Kejriwal and his party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) recently swept the elections in Punjab, recording a historic event in Indian politics by a relatively small regional party, long confined to only Delhi, to spread its wings to another much bigger state.

Under Kejriwal’s leadership, AAP’s trajectory in Indian politics has been controversial. A civil servant with an engineering degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Kejriwal turned to political activism and then joined a nationwide movement against corruption. Then, in 2012 he formed the AAP to contest elections in Delhi. AAP won the Delhi elections three times and Kejriwal has since then established his party’s dominance in that state.

The victory in Punjab, however, marks his party’s move to other states and can be considered as a stepping stone to establish the party on the map of national politics. What works for AAP is the party’s demonstrated commitment to clean politics and accountability. Unlike other national parties that have traditionally formed governments in the state of Delhi–the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–AAP has provided citizens with tangible results. Delhi’s schools, mohalla clinics, water and electricity supplies, especially for the poorest, have all significantly improved during AAP’s tenure.

Not surprisingly, such focus on the “aam aadmi” or common man has ensured that his party gets the mass support that it has consistently in Delhi and now in Punjab. AAP contests elections by talking about promising improvements on basic local issues. Its rivals such as the Congress and the BJP, on the other hand, either push personality-driven campaigns or ones that are less granular when it comes to improving people’s lives. 

As the AAP victory in Punjab shows, the ordinary voter is tired and sometimes even fed up with so-called career politicians that lead the older, national parties. To many of them, AAP represents a breath of fresh air–a political party that identifies with their real needs. The question, however, is whether Kejriwal and his party can leverage this image to make a mark on national politics. Could Kejriwal become an alternative to, say, a national leader such as Narendra Modi?

You could say it is too early to pitch Kejriwal as an alternative to Modi but in Indian politics, nothing is impossible. Nothing can be ruled out. AAP’s storming of Punjab bears testimony to that. The next parliamentary elections are due in May 2024, which is barely two years away. Before that, later this year there will be elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Next year, there will be many other states where elections will be held, notably Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (but also in Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, Mizoram, and Telangana).

If AAP has a gameplan to spread its wings wider, it could, at least in theory, surely focus on states such as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. These are in a manner of speaking low hanging fruit that the party could focus on. All three are states where the majority of the population is poor and under-privileged, which is quite clearly the groups that AAP targets not only in its campaigns, but also by way of the policies that it adopts–its achievements in Delhi are evidence of that. If AAP can make inroads in these three states (and it already has Delhi and Punjab), could it not be a force to reckon with when the parliamentary elections are held?

You could call it wishful thinking but consider this: on the horizon of national politics in India, there is a dearth of alternatives to the BJP and to the towering image of Modi. The Congress is a faltering shadow of its past, unable to win elections, either in the states or nationally. The other regional parties, be it those that run states in the south such as the DMK in Tamil Nadu, or in the east such as the Trinamool Congress, may have charismatic leaders such as M.K. Stalin and Mamata Banerjee, respectively, but till date they have not demonstrated the prowess required to spread their electoral wins beyond their regional fiefs. Against that background, could Kejriwal and his party stand apart as a future alternative to the BJP at the Centre? It could be a point to ponder.

Happiest Nations Of The World

For five years, a popular survey has ranked the tiny Nordic country of Finland (population 5.5 million) as the happiest country in the world. Finland, along with other Nordic countries are at the top of that ranking list consistently. What makes people in nations such as that feel “happy” is a bunch of things but mainly these: a robust social welfare system, low crime rates, an abundance of natural beauty, an emphasis on community and co-operation, universal health care, and very few people living in poverty. These factors are taken so much for granted in, say, Finland that people living in that country are often bewildered why their nation is ranked as being the happiest! 

At the other end of the ranking, the picture is grim. Afghanistan ranked the lowest among the 149 countries surveyed. Ravaged by wars and the recent return of the Taliban regime, its performance in the survey should not come as a surprise. 

But it is India’s performance that should be of grave concern. India hasn’t fared much better than Afghanistan. It ranks at 136 among the 149 countries. China with which India likes to compare itself ranks at 82. The USA is at 19. And even Pakistan at 103, and Bangladesh at 99 are higher than India. 

Surveys come with caveats such as small sample sizes, biases, and other inaccuracies, but if the people of a country perceive themselves as being so unhappy, isn’t it time for the government to take note and address the problem?

Weekly Update: India’s Intriguing Reaction To Ukraine Crisis; Time For Poll Results

When it comes to what is happening in Ukraine, the discourse in Indian media, among its politicians and in the noisy environment of social media is all about one thing: how the 20,000 Indians, mostly students, were being evacuated back to India as the Russian military attack there gained momentum. If your news sources were solely Indian, you’d be bombarded with information on what the government was doing to get back its citizens from what was becoming a war zone. 

The political capital to be gained from making a huge fanfare of the evacuation is obvious. Prime Minister Modi has had widely publicised interactions with Indian students who have come back home. His ministerial colleagues have chanted slogans that portray him as a sort of saviour. 

Some of his ministerial colleagues have also provided us with a bit of comic relief. The civil aviation minister, who is known more for his sense of entitlement than any modicum of humility, went to Romania where Indians fleeing Ukraine had been sheltered. The minister was ostensibly overseeing their evacuation to India but true to his traits, he launched into a bombastic speech. It was interrupted by the Romanian mayor of the city who pithily told him that it was he who had provided the fleeing Indians with food and shelter and not the minister whose job it is to take them home. The entire episode, caught on video, went viral much to the chagrin of the Indian government. 

It is not anybody’s case that during crisis situations such as the one in Ukraine governments should not put in every effort to evacuate its stranded citizens. It is their duty to do so and they should. But to use such attempts to boost the popularity of a political leader or to squeeze political benefits from such moves is in pretty poor taste. But then taste or finesse has not been the hallmark of India’s ruling regime. Instead, it has usually appalled us with its reactions and responses to developments such as the one in Ukraine. When the focus was on the evacuation project, hubristically named Operation Ganga, some political leaders criticised Indian students for going abroad to study and not stay in India.

Such loonies abound in Indian politics and public life–recently a well-known TV host who had two foreign guests on his show carried on berating one of them not realising that he was mistaking him for the other person on the show. Instead of directing his rant at the American foreign policy commentator, he aimed his high-decibel rant at an Ukrainian journalist and carried on doing it till the hapless journo could protest and set things right.

The more intriguing question about how India, its government, its political leaders and its media are handling the Ukraine crisis is about why the Indian official reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been so muted. Last week, the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, colloquially the Quad or QUAD, which is a strategic security dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, urged India to join the rest of the group in condemning the aggression in Ukraine. But India hasn’t complied yet. It is among the 35 nations that have abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution against the Russian attack. 

As the world’s most populous democracy, India needs to be a bit more assertive on the global stage. In recent times, the country’s leadership has demonstrated episodic reactions to global developments. With Russia India has enjoyed favourable trade and investment relationships that date back to the Soviet era. And Russia continues to be the largest supplier of defence equipment and arms to India. But when a country like Russia is aggressive towards another, much smaller nation, is it not time for India to condemn such a move? Or is it that in the new world order, India has begun to take sides and align with a new superpower? If that is the case, there could be another corollary question: If another powerful neighbour of India–China–decides to get a bit aggressive on India’s eastern border, what kind of support does the country expect from other nations, including Russia? India should ponder that.

Time for poll results

Be prepared to be assailed by a barrage of exit polls, some of which will undoubtedly be wide of the mark. After March 7 when the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections are completed, marking an end of elections in five states–Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur–the speculation about who will win in these states will be swirling around in discussions in social media and mainstream media, of course, but also among India’s ordinary citizens. Elections are the most secular festivals in India, even as the other “real” festivals get more and more communalised. 

While it will be foolhardy to predict who is going to win in these states–even seasoned analysts quite often get their predictions wrong–it may be worth the while to keep in mind a few issues that could be important. First, in Uttar Pradesh, would the BJP win again? And if it does, would it scrape through or have a decisive victory? Also, would the highly divisive hardcore Hindutva proponent, Yogi Adityanath, get another term as chief minister? In Punjab would a relatively newcomer party, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party manage to top the scale when the results are out? That could mark a breakthrough for its leader, Arvind Kejriwal? And then, of course, it would be interesting to see whether Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress, makes any headway in Goa.  On March 10, we will know it all.

Weekly Update: Healthcare & Growth Are Two Things Modi Must Focus On

The big bang statement that India’s budget could have made wasn’t made. I am talking about healthcare. India spends under 1.8% of its GDP on healthcare, an amount that is far lower than what it should be ideally. The inadequacy of India’s healthcare infrastructure could not have been demonstrated better than it was during the waves of the Coronavirus pandemic that swept across the country. Millions of people suffered as hospital beds and oxygen tanks were in short supply. Much of the havoc that got created and was reported about in the media centred around India’s larger cities but the fact is that the situation was far worse in rural and semi-urban India.

The latest budget could have addressed the healthcare crisis with more focus. For example, moves to educate, train and deploy more medical and paramedical service providers, particularly in rural India. As well as measures to ensure that there is more investment in expanding the number of beds that are available for patients. According to World Bank data, for every 1000 people there is just 0.5 hospital bed available in India and that compares rather badly to even other developing countries. 

Some analysts have commended the budget for its growth-orientation. Primarily this centres on the indication of the government’s willingness to trade off higher inflation rates (at least in the short term) with higher investments. A policy that accommodates higher inflation rates for future growth potential can be non-populist and in a year that will be marked by several important state elections that can be a risk for a regime (the Bharatiya Janata Party-led ruling alliance) that has an avowed objective to rule in every state. But the government appears to have taken that risk. Now, it is to be seen whether investment and, therefore, growth is spurred.

Economic growth has become an area of serious concern in India. A statistical analysis shows that between 2011 and 2020, India’s growth slowed down while inflation soared. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised that by 2025, India’s GDP would reach $5 trillion. That is most unlikely to happen. Pre-Covid estimates showed that it could be far lower, say, at $2.5-2.6 trillion.

Independent pre-Covid estimates for 2025 had touched $2.6 trillion at best. The pandemic has shaved off another $200-300bn. Post-Covid, it could be lower by another $200-300 billion.

Covid, however, has not been the only dampener for the Indian economy. Hasty policy decisions such as the rush to roll out the GST tax regime and sudden decision to demonetise the rupee hit the economy hard. India’s GDP growth was at 7-8% when the ruling regime came to power in 2014. By the fourth quarter of 2019-20, it was down to 3.1%. 

The situation is far worse on the employment side. Given the Indian population’s relatively young demographics, India needs 20 million jobs to be created annually. Under the ruling regime, the number has been much lower. In 2017-18, according to official estimates, unemployment was at a nearly 50-year low: 6.1%. Since then, a Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) estimate suggests that it might have doubled. Also, according to Pew Research, an estimated 25 million people have lost their jobs since early 2021 and nearly 80 million people might have gone back into poverty. 

India likes to compare itself with China, where the economy grew exponentially primarily because of a huge thrust on manufacturing and marketing. When the Modi government came to power, it unveiled the ‘Make in India’ policy to emulate the Chinese experience. By simplifying procedures and introducing manufacturing hubs where tax and other incentives were to boost manufacturing, the regime hoped that manufacturing would comprise 25% of the GDP. But nearly seven years later, manufacturing’s share remains at a paltry 15%. And the number of people employed in the manufacturing sector is down by half.

Consequently, exports have stagnated at $300 billion for the past 10 years with India losing market share to other developing countries, including tiny Bangladesh whose export growth, driven by the garments industry, has been significantly impressive.

Not all is bad, though. In basic infrastructure there have been strides. Under the Modi regime, India has been building 36 km of highways and roads every day. Under the previous government, it was barely 8-10 km. Installed capacity of non-conventional energy, mainly solar and wind, has doubled in the past five years and India will likely achieve the 2023 target of175 gigawatts.

More Indians have joined the formal sector for employment, although still too many (half of the nation’s workforce) are employed in agriculture, where productivity is low and where very little growth has taken place over the past 10 years.

There are many complex problems that policy makers attempting to boost India’s economy face. But if they were to focus on two of the most important ones they ought to be these: First, healthcare because India spends far too little on that sector. And second, boosting growth by encouraging investments. India’s latest budget attempts to do the latter. But will that be enough?

On a recent Sunday morning, the economist Kaushik Basu, a professor at Cornell University, tweeted tellingly:

“2016-17: 8.2%

2017-18: 7.2%

2018-19: 6.1%

2019-20: 4.2%

2020-21: -7.3%

These are India’s growth rates. 5 years, with each year’s growth less than previous has never happened after 1947. Sad. Let us not live in data denial, reducing everything to politics.”

Weekly Update: Time to Scrap Anti-Defection Laws; A Netaji Redux

The mockery of India’s anti-defection law for political parties is never as pronounced as it is before elections–whether they are at the state level for assemblies or for Parliament. Defections by elected political representatives, other leaders, and even sitting ministers have become so common that people are so accustomed to them that they take the phenomenon as given, a political vagary that has become almost intrinsic to the electoral process. It has become like an accepted culture of changing stripes for political opportunism.

The anti-defection law itself, passed first in 1985, could seem porous. For instance, mergers of a group of members of one political party to another is not considered a defection. However, individuals switching parties before elections could fall under its purview. Even so, punitive or other actions against such defections have been few and far between. And political parties, before, during, and after elections, commonly indulge in what has come to be known as “horse-trading” in which political parties entice members of other parties either through pecuniary incentives or the promise of power and position to switch sides, mainly with the intention of shoring up their support in assembly or in Parliament.

Thus, in India, the practice has become a norm. This year seven states, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Goa, will hold elections and already there has been a spate of defections–some high profile and others not so. The lines between inter-party ideologies and beliefs seem to be getting blurred and it is not rare to find politicians crossing over to parties that they hitherto opposed on grounds of ideology. Congress leaders have hopped across to what was till the other day an arch rival, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party; in Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party (known for its inclusiveness of minorities) members have jumped ship to the BJP. In Bengal, Leftist party members have joined arch rivals, the Trinamool Congress, and so on.

Defections have become so rife that it probably doesn’t make sense for an anti-defection law to exist any longer, at least not in its current form. The other trend emerging in India is the rise of individual personality based politics over that of party-dominant politics. The trend really began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014 when he won the parliamentary elections with a distinctly presidential sort of campaign. The BJP’s win then (and subsequently, in 2019) can be construed as victory not so much by the party but that of a powerfully projected leader, Modi.

In the wake of that, strong personality led politics is becoming a trend in the states as well. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee who is serving her third term is one such personality. In Kerala, M.K. Stalin is emerging as one; and in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, who has been chief minister since 2000, is one. So is Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. As regional politicians begin spreading their wings–Bengal’s Banerjee is eyeing other states such as Goa; Kejriwal has tried making forays in Punjab and other northern states–more such strong individual-driven political strategies could emerge. In such a scenario, the anti-defection law really makes little sense because politics in India is becoming less ideology driven and more powerful individual led.

The Enigma of Subhash Chandra Bose

For anyone who has lived in Bengal, the reverence bestowed by Bengalis towards Subhash Chandra Bose will be familiar. Every year on January 23, which is Bose’s birth anniversary (he was born in 1897) there is near religious fervour in the celebrations on that day. Besides official functions, on nearly every street corner there are shrine-like installations–of Bose’s portraits and busts. The national flag is hoisted and loudspeakers blare patriotic songs. In fact, the days, starting with January 23 and ending with Republic Day on January 26, are like an extended period of celebration.

Bose, who defied India’s erstwhile British rulers, is a hero among many Indians but nationally, at least officially, many believe that he has not got his due respect. This year, which happens to be his 125th birth anniversary, the chief minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has demanded that the Centre should declare it as a national holiday. And Prime Minister Modi has announced that a new statue of Bose will be installed at India Gate. Till that happens, there will be a hologram installation of Bose’s likeness.

The controversy over Bose owes its genesis to the early 1940s when he fell out with Mahatma Gandhi and, later, reached out to Nazi Germany in his quest to obtain funding and support for a Free India movement. He also collaborated with the then fascist Japan, using Japanese help to revamp the Indian National Army (INA). It is the connections with Germany and Japan of that era that have been problematic in the legacy of Bose.

Back in Bengal though, Bose has a deity-like status and while the Modi government’s decision to install his statue has been welcomed, the Bengal government’s view is that much more should be done to give their hero his due. Some even believe that the statue proposal may be a kind of political overture directed at Bengalis by the BJP-led central government–which strongly opposed by the Trinamool led Bengal government.