Rahul Gandhi's Last Chance Saloon

Rahul Gandhi Is At The Last Chance Saloon And It’s Not Looking Good

The Economist, the British publication that is often described as a weekly newspaper published in a printed magazine format, appears to have a soft spot for Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that runs that political party. A few days before the first phase of India’s gargantuan parliamentary elections was held, the publication joined Gandhi on his campaign trail and ran a piece that tacitly implied that Gandhi, 53, who holds no official position in his party, had got his mojo back.

The piece did list the main challenges that the Congress faces: the lack of an ideological alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dominant and seemingly unstoppable Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose amalgam of Hindutva and economic development has proved to be a successful electoral recipe; the lack of organisational discipline in the Congress; and Gandhi’s own lack of experience–he has never run a state nor a central ministry.

Yet the Economist’s piece on Gandhi was hopeful–a contrarian view from what many others think of him–and concluded that if the Congress had to reverse its decline, Gandhi would have to step up or step aside. 

Gandhi actually has had more chances than any political leader is usually lucky to get. He has led the party’s defeat in two parliamentary elections, in 2014 and 2019; he has seen the number of seats that his party along with its allies have won plummet to just 52 out of 543; and has seen it lose several state elections–the Congress now rules in just three out of India’s 28 states. 

Yet, it is a silly season that is underway in Indian politics–six more phases of elections will be held and no exit polls will be allowed till the last vote is cast on June 1–and all manner of speculation, some of it nonsensical, abounds. A few days before the first phase of elections was held, the prominent Congress leader, Jairam Ramesh, 70, commenting on a quote of Prime Minister Modi, posted on X: “A pathological liar who plumbs new depths of lies every day. Just two more months, though, of this man as PM.” 

The Congress and its supporters have been circulating various prophecies, including a now-deleted opinion poll that suggests the Congress-led big-tent alliance of 41 opposition pirates would get more seats than the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. On their part, Modi and the NDA have made no bones of their expectation that they would win 400 seats or more in the ongoing elections, which, if it happens, would mean a massive 74% majority.

The BJP’s confidence shows. When the first phase of elections ended last Friday evening, Modi, who with 97.3 million followers is the 7th most popular on X (former US President Barack Obama is the only politician who has more, while another ex-Prez Donald Trump has less), posted: “Getting EXCELLENT feedback from today’s voting. It’s clear that people across India are voting for NDA in record numbers.”

Everyone, including the media in India, political commentators, and international media publications (who are more critical of Modi and his regime than their Indian counterparts), has by and large concluded  that a third term for Modi as Prime Minister and a huge mandate for his party and its allies is all but assured and that the only matter of interest is how many seats they get when the results are declared on June 4–more than the 346 that they now have or less. 

Gandhi And His Team’s Third Test

Let us assume that the prevalent view that Modi will be reelected as Prime Minister for the third time comes true. What about the Congress? After his party’s dismal showing in 2014 and 2019, this year’s election is a crucial test for Gandhi. The Congress could end up with either more seats than the paltry 52 that it currently has in Parliament, or less. What would those scenarios mean for the scion of a party that was once the dominant political organisation in India and one that has its roots in the first nationalist movement to emerge in the British Empire. The Congress was formed in 1885, which makes it 139 years old. For 48 years, or nearly half a century after Independence in 1947, the party has helmed India’s government and for many years it also ruled in most of India’s states.

But its decline has been swift and shocking. In 2014, the Modi-led NDA first dealt it a blow (the Congress that year won just 44 seats); in 2019, it was a repeat. If 2014 was a wake-up call, 2019, was a plaintive cry for survival. 

Yet, on the face of it, the party’s leadership did little. Yes, Gandhi himself sort of took the blame for the electoral debacle, resigning as party president in 2019,  and refusing to remain in any official position in the party. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, continued as interim president of the party before a veteran leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, who is 81, was appointed as president in 2022. 

Publicly Congress leaders would like to describe Kharge’s appointment as a demonstration of non-dynastic meritocracy in the Congress but, in private, they scoff as loudly as Congress’s rivals. For everyone knows that it is still one family, the Nehru-Gandhis, which continues to call the shots in the party. In other words, it is Gandhi, his mother who is 77 and in indifferent health, and his sister, Priyanka, 52, who is a general secretary of the party, who control everything in the party. Every other leader in the party has to be subservient to the family. Or else they have to leave.

Many have. In significant droves. Since 2014, several promising Congress leaders, some of them young, enthusiastic and credited with the potential to turnaround the fortunes of the party have ditched it. Their reasons for leaving are simple: the way the party is controlled by the family. Many of them have joined the BJP, which has become a kind of equal-opportunity recruiter of political talent from across the spectrum of opposition parties. If an opposition politician has the heft to get votes, the BJP’s doors are open for him or her.

The situation is so grave for Congress that besides some old-timers, many of whom are at the terminal stages of their political careers, there are few who remain that can revive the party. When the results of the ongoing elections come out in June, for Gandhi and his family it could be the last chance to do something about an organisation that is sliding in a spectacular political avalanche. Or, would it be too late?

Stepping Aside Could Be the Only Option

A third electoral debacle would be severely humiliating for Gandhi but catastrophic for his party. He is the main challenger to Modi and seen as the real leader of his party–whether or not he has an official post in Congress is irrelevant. 

If, in the first scenario, the Congress ends up with, say, 50-100 seats this time, what should Gandhi do? A charitable suggestion is that he should step aside from all party work and, although it depends on his personal choice, probably from politics altogether. Indians looking at Gandhi’s track record would have had enough of him and even those who support his party would probably not want him around anymore. If he or his party would like him to continue even after another electoral drubbing, he would be a parodistic personality inviting rebuke rather than respect. Not an image that anyone would cherish for himself.

There is, of course, a second scenario. Let’s assume hypothetically that the opposition’s Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) flies in the face of prevailing public perception and wins the elections (caveat: I said “hypothetically”!). 

INDIA is made up of 41 parties but is chaired by the Congress president Kharge. Besides the Congress, the constituent parties in the alliance include smaller national parties, communist parties, and several regional parties from different states, including those representing minorities such as Muslims, discriminated castes, and tribals. 

It is a sort of hodge-podge of parties from across the ideological spectrum that lies outside the bounds of the BJP’s Hindutva plus development plank. Formed less than a year before the ongoing elections began, already some of the original member parties have left, notably Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) led by the original convenor of the alliance, Nitish Kumar, who left to ally with the BJP. 

Nevertheless, let’s assume the INDIA gets to form a government on the strength of a hypothetically higher number of seats than the NDA that it wins. Each of its constituents will wield varying degrees of power on account of the number of seats it wins and brings to the kitty. Some of them are strong in their home states and regions and can dictate terms in the formation of the government. How many of them are likely to agree to a Prime Minister from the Congress party? And even if they do, how many would vote in favour of Gandhi? 

As I said, it is the silly season now, a time when speculation abounds. So let me leave you with those two questions to speculate about, purely hypothetically.

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Guide to Modi’s Win-Win Foreign Policy

A Jargon-Free Guide to Narendra Modi’s (Mostly) Win-Win Foreign Policy

Just two things from last weekend can give you a huge insight into the manner in which India’s foreign policy has undergone a significant transformation under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who completes 10 years at the helm of India’s government and is poised to win another five-year term. But first the two things (spoiler: both have to do with S. Jaishankar, Modi’s foreign minister and close confidant when it comes to anything to do with India’s international policy).

One. Last Friday, at an event to launch the Marathi version of his book, Jaishankar said: “Whosoever will be the President of America will have good relations with India, because America will always want to have a partnership with Prime Minister Modi.”

Two. At the same event, in an obvious reference to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, he also said: “They (terrorists) should not think; we are this side of the line, so no one could attack us. Terrorists do not play by any rules. The answer to terrorists cannot have any rules.”

Both those statements by India’s foreign minister are accurate. I would amend the first a bit by substituting “partnership with Prime Minister Modi” with “partnership with India” but then we should not mind Jaishankar’s preference for mentioning the name of his boss. 

Indo-US relations and the China factor

Let’s start with the first statement. India’s relationship with the US has pivoted in the past couple of decades and has been warming for several reasons but for the US, the most important of them is the dynamics of China’s rise and its implications for regional stability. US-China relations have been deteriorating ever since the US started worrying about China’s military buildup and its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Then, in 2018, a trade war began under the Trump administration with both countries imposing tariffs on each other’s goods. In 2020, the tension escalated over the handling and origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and issues such as the handling of Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

Strategically, the US supports India’s emergence as a leading global power in the region and sees it as a counterbalance to China’s rise. This strategic interest, coupled with economic interests and shared democratic values, has contributed to the strengthening of the US-India relations. 

The two countries now cooperate in areas such as defence, trade, technology, and climate change. So, to paraphrase Jaishankar, no matter who becomes the next occupant of the White House, the US will always want to have India as a partner, no matter what. When Canada accused India of being involved in the murder of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil, the US was remarkably guarded in its response, simply because it needs India strategically. 

For India, it is a win-win. It follows a policy of strategic autonomy and has avoided becoming a formal ally of the US, which allows it to follow an independent foreign policy that can also sometimes diverge from what the US would ideally expect. Case in point: India’s relations with Russia.

Indo-Russian relations and the economic factor

While the US-led West has imposed heavy sanctions on trade with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, India has maintained its historical bond with Russia. India buys Russian oil, weapons and trade between the two continues to be robust. In the financial year 2024, India bought 35% of its oil imports from Russia. India and China together buy an estimated 80% of Russia’s oil. In 2023, India spent $15.2 billion on Russian oil. For Russia, embroiled as it is in a war in Ukraine since February 2022, such revenue is of critical importance. 

Arguably, those earnings could be financing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine but for India, it is a win-win. Because India has been buying Russian oil at discounted rates. Following the sanctions imposed on Russia, Russian Urals crude has been selling at a discount. For instance, at one point, it was more than $30 a barrel cheaper than Brent crude, the global benchmark.

Indo-Chinese relations and the tension factor

If India’s relations with the US and with Russia can be said to be determined by strategy and economics, respectively, its relations with China are much more complex. It is marked by both cooperation and contention. Continuing border disputes with China have strained ties between the two countries. 

The border disputes over areas in the north-eastern part of India are long-standing. Recently, Prime Minister Modi highlighted the “urgent need to address” the prolonged situation on the borders to resolve the “abnormality in bilateral interactions”. There have been ongoing diplomatic efforts to ease the tensions, but there has been no breakthroughs.

A new controversy has been over China renaming territories by issuing standardised names in Mandarin for places within India’s Arunachal Pradesh, which China refers to as Zangnan. India has strongly condemned this move, with the Indian defence minister questioning the logic behind the renaming and asserting that such actions cannot change the fact that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. The U.S. has also reacted to this development.

These actions by China are seen as attempts to assert its territorial claims over the region, which India rejects. The renaming of territories is part of a broader pattern of assertiveness by China in its border disputes, but India maintains its stance that Arunachal Pradesh is, and will always be, an integral part of its territory. The situation remains sensitive.

India also fears security threats from China. In 2020, it banned 59 Chinese-made apps, including popular ones like TikTok and WeChat, citing them as a danger to the country’s sovereignty, integrity, and national security.

Yet, Indo-Chinese relations aren’t that simple. Despite the border tensions, trade between India and China has not only continued but has reached new heights. In 2022, the trade volume between the two countries was at an all-time high of  $135.98 billion, with India’s trade deficit with China crossing the $100 billion mark for the first time. This was despite India’s efforts to become more self-reliant and reduce its dependence on Chinese imports. However, imports from China have remained strong mainly because they are cheap.

Indo-Pak relations and the big daddy factor

I began this piece by listing two recent statements by India’s foreign minister but tackled only the first. The second too is of significance. When Jaishankar said the “answer to terrorism cannot have rules”, he could have likely been referring to a report in The Guardian, which alleged that India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), conducted operations deep inside Pakistan to neutralise wanted terrorists. That statement reflects the tough stance that India now adopts when it comes to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir. 

Elsewhere, in its South Asian neighborhood, India under Modi has tried to reassert its leadership role. Its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy aims to foster better relations, but challenges persist. India’s influence faces competition from China’s economic clout, as Beijing invests heavily in regional infrastructure projects.

Modi’s global ambitions are also reflected in India’s outreach to Africa and the Middle East. In Africa, India has focused on development partnerships and trade, positioning itself as an alternative to China’s resource-driven approach. In the Middle East, energy security and the welfare of the Indian diaspora (66% of non-resident Indians live in the Middle East) have guided its policies, leading to stronger ties with nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

As Modi likely heads into a third term, what kind of foreign policy should we expect? For sure, the policy of “strategic autonomy” that has now become familiar will continue with India navigating the complex geopolitical web of the world by blending pragmatism with national interest. That strategy will also gain heft from  India’s economic might–it could soon become the third largest economy in the world. To sum up, it would be: Modi’s win-win foreign policy.

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Modi Should Make Equality & Not Growth His Main Target

A crucial and key aspect of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election campaign is the rallies that Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses across India. Modi, 73, is a powerful orator and he has a hectic itinerary, criss-crossing the country to address public rallies, sometimes as many as three or even four in a single day. The rallies are usually huge, with hundreds of thousands of people turning up to hear him deliver his speeches, which resonate regardless of one’s political views. In India’s current political scenario there isn’t anybody else whose public speeches can match up to Modi’s.

Last week, in Cooch Behar a northern district of West Bengal, which will go to the polls on April 19 in the first phase of India’s 44-day parliamentary elections, Modi, in his customary style of exhorting public responses (and sometimes referring to himself in the third person), asked the crowd four rhetorical questions: Should we or should we not make India the world’s third largest economic power? For that do we need a strong government or not? Does Modi provide a strong government or not? Will Modi provide a strong government in future or not? 

The target of making India the world’s third largest economy (measured by GDP) is not only attainable but it may even be low-hanging fruit–not very difficult to pick. Economists and organisations like the World Economic Forum (WEF) believe India’s economy is on track to become the world’s third largest, possibly by the end of this decade. 

India is currently the world’s fifth largest economy with a GDP of around $3.7 trillion. The US and China hold the top two spots, followed by Japan and Germany. 

India’s economic growth rate is expected to be around 6.7% on average over the next seven years, which is higher than most other major economies. This growth is fueled by factors like a large young population, increasing digital adoption, government reforms, growth in domestic consumption, and investment in infrastructure.

Several financial institutions believe India can achieve its target of becoming the third biggest economy within the next 3-7 years by maintaining a growth rate of around 7-8% This would require surpassing the growth rates of Germany and Japan, and staying competitive with China’s projected growth.

According to S&P, the American credit rating agency, India could achieve this goal by 2030, or, just after the end of term of the next Parliament. Others, including Modi, believe it could happen even earlier. 

Shocking Inequality is Widening

Becoming the third-largest economic power would undoubtedly be a moment of pride for all Indians. Yet, the more important challenge–and one that no one, including Modi, likes talking about–is the deplorable level of economic inequality in India. While India’s policymakers and politicians have professed to make growth inclusive and ensure that the benefits of economic progress reach all segments of society, it has not happened. 

In his speech at Cooch Behar last week, Modi claimed that in the past 10 years, his government had pulled 250 million Indians out of poverty. It is true that during his regime, which began in 2014, India has witnessed a significant decline in multidimensional poverty from 29.17% in 2013-14 to 11.28% in 2022-23. This represents a reduction of 17.89 percentage points. Multidimensional poverty indices break down poverty levels in different areas of a country and among various sub-groups of people, and consider factors besides only income–like education, health, living standards, and other essential aspects of well-being.

Yet, as poverty declines, income inequality in India has widened. According to Oxfam India’s “Survival of the Richest: The India Supplement”, the top 1% in India owned more than 40.5% of total wealth in 2021, while the bottom 50% of the population (700 million people) has around 3% of total wealth. From the beginning of the Covid pandemic till November 2022,  billionaires in India have seen their wealth surge by 121%. That means by a staggering Rs 3608 crore per day in real terms (or Rs 2.5 crore a minute!). 

Take a few moments to digest those numbers and then consider this: The country still has the world’s highest number of poor at 228.9 million. On the flipside of that is the fact that, according to Forbes, the number of billionaires in India rose from 169 last year to 200 this year, making it the world’s third largest concentration of the ultra-rich. 

Additionally, the richest 10% in India collectively own 72.5% of the country’s wealth, further emphasising how acute inequality is in India and the fact that although India’s policymakers can feel proud about making it the world’s fastest growing economy, that pride is superficial. Modi’s avowed target of making India the third largest global economy means little really to the masses of people who gather to hear him speak at his election rallies.

Huge Challenge of Joblessness

According to Oxfam’s index, India ranks 147th out of 157 countries in terms of commitment to reducing inequality. India’s Gini index, which measures income distribution inequality, in 2021 was 35.7. The Gini index measures the extent to which the distribution of income or consumption among individuals or households within an economy deviates from a perfectly equal distribution. A Gini index of 0 represents perfect equality, while an index of 100 implies perfect inequality. 

In a way, India is trapped in the cycle of inequality. Economic disparities hinder India’s poorest from being socially mobile and to move up the ladder. Economic inequality intersects with caste, gender, and background disparities, thus making it even more difficult to break out of that cycle.

Concentration of wealth in the hands of a few can undermine social justice and cohesion and further perpetuate inequality. 

A classic textbook method of redistributing wealth is to tax incomes progressively. Yet, in India despite the concentration of wealth among a few, the number of people who pay taxes is abysmally low. Only 20.9 million people paid income tax in 2021-22. In the same year, there were 943.5 million adults among the population. Unless the income tax net is widened, meaningful redistribution of wealth will be impossible to achieve.

The biggest challenge that policymakers face is youth unemployment. According to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) released this year, youth unemployment (20-34 age group) has been on the rise. In the October-December 2023 quarter, 44.49% of those in the age group of 20-24 were unemployed, while for the 25-29 age-group it was 14.33%, and for  the 30-34 age group it was 2.49%. Breakups of that data show that the problem is particularly acute in rural India where youth unemployment is at record levels. Remember too that the number of Indians that are 15-24 is estimated at 250 million, more than half the population of the European Union.

So when Prime Minister Modi exhorts crowds at his election rallies with slogans about making India one of the world’s most powerful economies, we might need to stop and wonder what power he is talking about.

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Will Kejriwal’s Arrest Make AAP More Powerful

Will Kejriwal’s Arrest Make AAP More Powerful?

Approximately one year from now, when the state of Delhi holds its next assembly elections, how many of the 70 seats do you think the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will get? Here are some facts to help you with your estimate: Last time the Delhi elections took place, in 2020, AAP won 62 of them, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 8; and in the previous elections, in 2015, AAP won 67, while the BJP won 3. So how many seats do you think AAP will win in 2025?

It might seem a bit silly that I’m talking about an election that will probably not happen till February 2025, at a time when everything should really be focused on the big fat Indian elections that begin next month when nearly a billion of us will vote to elect 543 Members of Parliament. Then again, there will likely be few surprises when that long 44-day polling is over and the votes are counted. Unless something totally unforeseen happens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are expected to sweep those elections and the only question is about whether they can get more than the 353 seats they won in 2019 and, if so, how many more.

Delhi’s next assembly election, though, is a more interesting subject to speculate about. As I write this, AAP’s national convenor and Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, is in a Delhi prison after he was arrested on 21 March by the government’s Enforcement Department, which investigates economic crimes such as money laundering offences. The charges against Kejriwal, 55, and some of his senior party colleagues who are also incarcerated pending trial, involve alleged aberrations in the granting of liquor licences to private vendors in the state of Delhi. Even as AAP refutes those allegations and the ED continues its investigations, his arrest coming just before the parliamentary elections start has raised many questions.

Kejriwal’s AAP, a young party formed in 2012 out of a larger mass civil movement against corruption, has already blazed a remarkable political path. In Delhi, it has decisively won elections to the state assembly and Kejriwal has been chief minister since 2015 (also earlier for a year in 2013-14). In Punjab, in 2022, as a newcomer, the party won the state election with 92 of the 117 seats and has been running the state’s government there. It has just one seat in Lok Sabha and has not really fared too well in other states where it has contested elections but Kejriwal’s popularity as a politician and leader has been on the rise and AAP does have ambitions of emerging as a national party.

In recent months, arrests and investigations against opposition leaders by agencies of the government of India have caught the attention of those who follow Indian politics because of their timing and also because of the people that have been targeted. In an interview to Al-Jazeera news channel, the opposition leader and Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal, Derek O’Brien alleged that 96% of the anti-corruption cases against politicians are against those from non-BJP opposition parties. He also alleged that most of these are “trumped-up charges” that miraculously go away when some of those charged defect to the BJP.

It is for the investigators and the judiciary to decide whether the charges against various politicians stick or not but the timing of some arrests may be more than mere coincidence. Kejriwal’s rise and the growing prominence of his party has clearly been a challenge for the BJP as well as the Congress. A first-generation politician from a middle-class family, Kejriwal, who has an engineering degree from one of India’s top technology institutes, quit a government job to join politics. Like Modi he doesn’t come from a political dynasty as many Indian political leaders, notably Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, do.

His Aam Aadmi Party has the avowed mission of being dedicated to the cause of the common man and despite several constraints that his government faces because of Delhi’s special status as a state, its achievements are notable. Here are some of them: In education, the AAP government has focused on improving the quality of education in Delhi. Initiatives like mohalla schools and happiness classes have been implemented to enhance learning outcomes. In healthcare, the Delhi Arogya Kosh scheme provides free treatment to over five lakh citizens. In public transport, the addition of 1,650 electric buses to the public transport fleet aims to reduce pollution and improve mobility.

It’s not easy for the Delhi government to operate within constraints imposed by the special status of the National Capital Territory (NCT), where certain subjects such as policing, law and order, and land matters, fall under the jurisdiction of the central government. In addition, the NCT’s 33.8 million population (with a staggering 22,800 people per sq km) poses challenges related to infrastructure, traffic, and pollution management that are not easy to tackle.

Although AAP is part of an alliance of around 26 opposition parties, the badly-named Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), it is one of the few parties within that fold that can be expected to challenge the BJP’s formidable force in coming years. AAP may still be a small and young party but its leader, Kejriwal, has the charisma and voter-pulling power that few others among India’s opposition parties do. Many such as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have a sway over their own states but have been able to make no headway outside their fiefdoms. Kejriwal, who has led AAP to victory in Punjab, stands out among the others.

In Delhi, because of the state’s special status, Kejriwal and his AAP government have constantly sparred with the Lieutenant Governor of the state, who is, in effect, appointed by the Centre, and has discretionary powers over the subjects outside the state government’s jurisdiction. As a consequence, AAP and Kejriwal have become, from the point of view of the BJP, a thorn in its side.

One of the professed objectives of the Modi regime since it came to power in 2014 was to create an India or Bharat that is “free of the Congress party”. It is an objective that electorally it has achieved. In Parliament, the once powerful Congress party has just 50 of the 543 seats; and of the 28 Indian states, it is in power in only three.

With the Congress out of the way, could the BJP now be training its sights on other rising opposition parties such as AAP? Or could its recent crackdown on Kejriwal and other AAP leaders actually backfire and boost support for them? That brings us back to my earlier question: How many seats in the next Delhi elections do you think AAP will win? Any guesses?

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Expect in Five More Years of Modi

What You Could Expect in Five More Years of Modi

What You Could Expect in Five More Years of Modi

In mid-March, at this year’s annual conclave organised by the India Today group, in his introductory speech before inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak, the group’s chairman Aroon Purie remarked that Modi was not just campaigning for the soon to begin 2024 parliamentary elections but he also seemed to have his sights on the next one to be held in 2029. When Modi rose to speak, he was quick to grab that as a cue. Playfully rebuking Purie, he said, “You stopped with 2029? I am aiming for 2047!”

That repartee may have been in jest. In 2047, Modi, if he is still around, will be 97–an age at which it is not usual to still be active in politics. Yet, 2047, in Modi’s scheme of things, is a significant year. It will be the 100th anniversary of India’s Independence. It is also 

the year for which Modi has envisioned Viksit Bharat @2047, a plan that is all about making India an advanced and developed country by that year. 

Most observers, political analysts, and journalists, including the dwindling few among that third group in India who could still be considered detractors, are quite clear that it is almost a certainty that Modi will get a third term as Prime Minister, and that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies will again win an overwhelming majority of the 543 seats for which the elections will be held in seven phases, beginning April 19. Modi himself is confident that his alliance, the National Democratic Alliance, will get more than 400 seats, beating its 2019 tally of 353. 

The support and popularity that Modi enjoys is quite unprecedented in Indian politics and, as a consequence, his party and its allies are tipped as the clear winners in this year’s elections. Yet when it comes to the number of seats, the math may not be simple. Modi and his party are not very popular in the southern Indian states, which have largely been a bastion of regional parties and the opposition Congress Party. The south (four states and one union territory) has 130 of the 543 parliamentary seats, and in the 2019 elections, while it swept the northern states, the NDA won only 30 of them. How Modi and his alliance fares in the south this time would determine whether their final tally touches or crosses 400.

The Impact of Modi 3.0

That is a minor math conundrum. The larger issue is what a third term for Modi would mean for India and its people. At the India Today Conclave mentioned earlier, Modi ended his speech with his own predictions. In the next five years, he said, India’s infrastructure would reach new heights with significant advancements. For example, he said, Indian Railways would bring transformative changes to transportation. India, which is now the world’s biggest importer of defence equipment, would emerge as an exporter with a much stronger presence in the global defence market. And, in the space sector, after already having launched a successful moon mission, India would set new records in space endeavours.

Economic Growth. On the economic front, Modi has already set some tangible targets to achieve in his third term. Such as becoming the third largest economy in the world after the US and China. India with a GDP estimated at $3.7 trillion is growing the fastest among the world’s big economies and in size it is now the fifth largest economy in the world. To become the third, it would have to overtake Germany (at number 4) and Japan (number 3). With its fast-paced growth that would not seem difficult to achieve.

Reducing Poverty. According to the National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), India has  already made big strides. The MPI captures overlapping deprivations in health, education, and living standards by complementing income-based poverty measurements by directly measuring and comparing deprivations. In the period, 2019-21, 14.96% of India’s population was multi-dimensionally poor, compared to 24.85% in 2015-16. This means that 135 million individuals have escaped multidimensional poverty during the 5-year period. The several schemes implemented by the Modi regime (such as direct transfers of welfare and subsidies; credit assurance to vendors; and support for tribal groups and artisans) will likely lead to further reduction in poverty during a third Modi term.

Other areas where progress could continue includes women’s empowerment. Although violence against women, closing gender gaps, and promoting economic opportunities are ongoing priorities, women have benefited from schemes to increase financial inclusion, subsidies on items such as cooking gas, emphasis on girl child education, and women’s involvement in local government. Gender equality can be expected to be an important objective in Modi’s third term.

An increased emphasis on national security and strengthening India’s security infrastructure, both internal as well as external, will also be a top priority area for the government. ‘

The Worrisome Issues

A third term would also pose other challenges for the Modi regime. One topic of discussion has been the potential downgrading of democracy ratings in India and the independence and autonomy of its institutions such as the judiciary. In 2021, international indices such as the US-based non-profit, Freedom House, downgraded India’s status from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy”. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, which publishes datasets that describe qualities of different governments, classified India as an “electoral autocracy”. The Economist Intelligence Unit described India as a “flawed democracy” pointing to enacted laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Registration of Citizens, and the revocation of Kashmir’s special status.

The past 10 years has seen a rise in majoritarianism in Indian society and increased communal tension, particularly between Muslims who account for 14.2% of the population and Hindus who make up 80%. How minorities will be treated in a third term of the BJP-led government could be an area of concern.

Also, despite the optimism about the Indian economy and its high growth rate, issues like inflation, unemployment, and rural inequality remain pressing challenges that need to be addressed. Youth unemployment because of mismatch of education with employment opportunities are areas that the new government or a Modi 3.0 regime will have to focus on in the next five years. India is still a young country–more than 50% of its population is below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35. While this is often referred to as a demographic dividend, in the absence of opportunities for India’s young, it could backfire horribly.

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Why Is America Scared of TikTok

Why Is America Scared of TikTok, Which Is Owned By US Investors?

In regions where the app, TikTok, is allowed to be used, it has been a runaway success. The social media app dedicated to short-form videos that are user-generated has more than a billion active monthly users and TikTok’s format lends itself to entertainment and comedy. Of late, however, it is increasingly being used for other purposes – news, infotainment, and marketing promotions.

The largest number of TikTok users is in the US where it is estimated to have 170 million users (a sizeable proportion of the country’s population of 332 million). Other countries with significant user bases include Indonesia (110 million), Brazil (82 million), and Mexico (58 million). Last week, however, the US House of Representatives approved and passed a bill that could potentially force TikTok’s parent, the Chinese company, ByteDance, to either sell the app or face a partial ban within the US.

In fact, TikTok is already banned in many countries, including in India where, in 2020, the Indian government banned it along with dozens of other Chinese-made apps. The reasons cited for the ban were concerns related to sovereignty, integrity, defence, security, and public order. At the time of the ban, India had an estimated 200 million active users and was the largest market for the app.

Tik Tok is also banned in Afghanistan where the ruling Islamist regime felt the platform’s content was not in line with Islamic laws. In countries such as Australia, Canada, Belgium, and Denmark, the app is banned on all government-owned or government-issued devices. In the European Union, its three main institutions—the European Parliament, European Commission, and EU Council—have imposed bans on TikTok for staff devices, and the EU remains cautious about the platform’s ties to China.

In the US, legislators’ worries about TikTok have intensified after the tensions between the US and China have escalated. Many legislators believe that TikTok’s addictive algorithm could allow the Chinese government to access user data and potentially influence Americans. The bill aims to cut off Chinese influence by selling TikTok to a “qualified buyer,” likely a Western company. Legislators fear that ByteDance might be secretly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Who Really Owns TikTok?

While ByteDance denies sharing sensitive user data with the Chinese government, concerns persist. China’s history of cracking down on domestic tech firms and its censorship practices raise suspicions. TikTok is popularly described as a Chinese app. And, indeed, it is owned by ByteDance, an internet technology company headquartered in Beijing, China. It was founded by two Chinese entrepreneurs, Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo in 2012. But who really owns ByteDance?

ByteDance is called a Chinese company but 60% of it is beneficially owned by global investors such as the Carlyle Group, General Atlantic, and Susquehanna International Group–all US companies. The Carlyle Group is a global investment firm, founded in the US; General Atlantic is an American growth equity firm providing capital and strategic support for global growth companies; and Susquehanna International Group is a privately held global trading and technology firm, headquartered in the US. So, more than half of ByteDance’s equity is owned by American investment firms.

What about the rest? Roughly 20% is owned by ByteDance employees worldwide; and the remaining 20% is owned by ByteDance’s founders. TikTok’s CEO is Shou Zi Chew, also known as Chew Shou Zi, a Singaporean businessman and entrepreneur, based in the US.

Does China Influence TikTok?

As can be seen from the details of who owns TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, the Chinese government or state agencies do not have control over the company in the traditional sense, that is, through shareholding. However, the rest of the world outside China believes that there is a nuance regarding the Chinese government’s influence over social media and online platforms. While not a direct owner, a small stake (1%) in one of ByteDance’s Chinese subsidiaries is held by entities with ties to the Chinese government. This gives them some influence, but the extent is unclear. 

Then there is the geographic factor. Owing to ByteDance’s Chinese origins, many countries worry the Chinese government could pressure the company to hand over user data. TikTok maintains its US user data is stored outside of China and that its CEO who is based in the US makes key decisions. So, while the Chinese government doesn’t directly own TikTok, the ownership structure and Chinese origins raise concerns about potential government influence over user data.

Interestingly, TikTok has never been available in China, as the country has its own version of the app called Douyin, incidentally, also owned by ByteDance. While TikTok is available internationally, in China, you would find Douyin, which has been described as the country’s domestic alternative to TikTok. It is held on a different server than TikTok, which researchers have attributed to ByteDance complying with internet regulations set by the Chinese government. Douyin is available via the web, and it operates within China, subject to monitoring and censorship by the government.

It is believed that China has strict control over its media environment, both traditional and digital. China’s central government employs a combination of legal regulations, technical control, and proactive manipulation to restrict online freedom of expression.

China’s Great Firewall (officially known as the Golden Shield Project) monitors and filters internet traffic, blocking access to foreign websites and services. Authorities use libel lawsuits, arrests, and other means to force journalists, bloggers, and media organisations to self-censor.

Moreover, China emphasises the concept of “internet sovereignty”, requiring all internet users (including foreigners) to abide by Chinese laws and regulations. Chinese internet companies have to sign a pledge on self-regulation and professional ethics, imposing even stricter rules.

The heat around TikTok is, therefore, generated by concerns that its parent, ByteDance, 60% of which is controlled by investment firms that are really American, will have to comply with Chinese regulations on internet and social media platforms and that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, could access user data for surveillance or influence campaigns. 

Doesn’t Every App Collect User Data? 

Yes, they do. Pretty much all popular apps collect user data. This can include browsing habits, location, purchase history, and even how you interact with the app itself. 

Data collection by apps is becoming more regulated, but it’s a complex issue. Laws like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California give users more control over their data, but enforcement varies. In India, for instance, the government has been actively addressing data privacy and collection through various measures but it is still evolving. When apps collect your data, there are potential risks such as privacy intrusion but also security breaches where data can be stolen and used for malicious purposes. 

Apps and platforms such as Facebook (with a monthly user base of more than 3 billion); X (350 million); and Instagram (1.2 billion) all collect personal data that, potentially, can be used for malicious intent that TikTok is potentially suspected of. The fact is there is no evidence that any of these apps and platforms misuse the data that they collect. Then again, there is neither any evidence that TikTok does that. Ultimately, all major platforms collect a substantial amount of user data. For users, therefore, it is wise to be cautious and review the privacy settings on any app that they may be using. 

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Why India’s Richest Don't Want to Give their Wealth Away

Why India’s Richest Don’t Want to Give their Wealth Away

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and the founder of the financial, software, and data company, Bloomberg L.P., could well be the world’s most exceptional living philanthropist. Over his lifetime, Bloomberg, who is 82, has given away a staggering $17.4 billion to various charitable causes. That sum, in Indian rupees, is 1.44 lakh crore. Bloomberg’s dedication to improving education, public health, and social equality has left an indelible mark, making him one of the most influential philanthropists of our time.

In 2023 alone, Bloomberg contributed $3 billion to support the arts, education, environment, public health, and programs aimed at improving city governments around the world. In the same year, according to a ranking by Hurun, a research, media and investments group, the top 10 Indian philanthropists together donated ₹5,800 crore or $700 million. In Indian media, it was widely described as an impressive contribution that made a significant impact. To put it in perspective, however, the sum that the top 10 Indian philanthropists donated together is a little less than 25% of what Bloomberg donated in the same year.

Bloomberg is not richer than the richest Indian, by the way. He is actually poorer. Bloomberg’s net worth, according to the Forbes real-time ranking of billionaires, is $106.2 billion. The richest Indian, according to the same Forbes list, is Mukesh Ambani, with a net worth assessed at $117.5 billion. Ambani ranked as the ninth richest person in the world. And, in 2023, he and his family, according to the Hurun Philanthropy list (which happens to be the only credible and authentic estimation of Indian philanthropy), made a donation of ₹376 crore or, if you are into comparisons, $45 million. As stated before, in the same year, Bloomberg, who is the 12th richest person in the world, contributed $3 billion.

The number of Indian billionaires has been growing apace every year. According to Forbes, a record number of Indians, 186 in total, have made it to Forbes’ 2024 World’s Billionaires list, an increase from 169 last year. The total number of billionaires in the world is estimated by Forbes to be 2,555, a staggering 19-fold increase since 1987. American billionaires, unsurprisingly, account for the highest number–735 on the Forbes list but for a country that accounts for one of the world’s largest population of poor people (according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index, which considers factors like health and education, 14.96% of Indians are in multidimensional poverty), 186 billionaires is a massive number. 

Yet, the number of Indians among the world’s biggest philanthropists is appallingly small. In fact, the biggest philanthropists in India aren’t the richest, and even as the number of Indian billionaires burgeons, the amount that they give away remains paltry. Interestingly, one of the greatest philanthropists of all time was an Indian pioneer industrialist and founder of the Tata group, Sir Jamsetji Tata who passed away more than a century ago. Tata began his endowments in 1892 and his lifetime donations are estimated to be worth $102.4 billion, which is many times what today’s India’s richest businessmen together donate.

The Indians that do lead in philanthropy are ones that keep a far lower profile than their headline-grabbing richer peers. The two biggest philanthropists in India today are Shiv Nadar, 78, and Azim Premji, also 78. Both built their fortunes primarily in technology. Premji started with his father’s cooking oil and soap making business and founded Wipro, a multinational corporation that provides information technology, consultant and business process services. Nadar is a first-generation entrepreneur who started HCL, a technology multinational similar to Wipro.

Last year, Nadar and his family donated ₹2,042 crore mainly to arts, culture, and heritage; and Premji donated ₹1,774 crore primarily to education. In dollar terms, their contributions, $214 million and $246 million, respectively, hardly match what the world’s billionaire philanthropists donate but in India, they are far bigger philanthropists than their richer peers who control bigger Indian business conglomerates.

Why don’t India’s Rich Give Away their Money?

One easy answer is that they probably fear the taxman. Many Indian businessmen own their businesses (and, ergo, their wealth) through intricate webs of holding companies that help them minimise the taxes they have to pay on their incomes and wealth. To be seen to be forking out large sums to good causes could attract unwanted attention. Indeed, many rich Indians do like to donate and when they do, they prefer to be anonymous.

Some of the available figures of corporate or individual donations may also not be accurate. The relationship between wealth and philanthropy in India is complex. While some wealthy individuals actively engage in charitable giving, others may not contribute as significantly. Then there are traditional and historical factors. India has a strong tradition of religious giving. Many affluent individuals donate to temples, religious institutions, and festivals. This form of charity is deeply ingrained in Indian culture and may not show up on philanthropy lists and rankings.

The emergence of wealthy and super-rich Indians is also a new phenomenon. Many among India’s growing breed of new rich have built first- or second-generation wealth and are not yet secure enough to donate part of that. It could take a couple more generations before philanthropy becomes a more widespread practice. Thus, wealthy Indians often prioritise supporting their extended families, including education, healthcare, and other needs. This familial responsibility can sometimes take precedence over broader philanthropic efforts.

India wants to be a global economic superpower. Many believe it is on its way to becoming one. In the last quarter, the Indian economy, according to official figures, grew at 8.4%, which is far higher than most of the world’s big economies, and last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “with this speed, India will become the world’s third-largest economy.” At the same time, India grapples with extreme income inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is stark, and the country’s developmental needs are huge. That is why India’s rich ought to take philanthropy more seriously, and that is why individuals such as Premji and Nadar are exceptions who should become examples to follow.

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Narendra Modi’s Southern Discomfort

Narendra Modi’s Southern Discomfort 

If you go by the media, both Indian and international, the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the yet to happen parliamentary elections in India is already baked in, which is to say that it is a conclusion that has preceded the actual event. With a degree of certainty that view does not vary much, as most political sages, whether in the media or in the wise environment of every Indian living room, are sanguine that Modi and his party will win a third term in government when the elections are held and the results come out in mid-May this year.

They are probably right. Modi himself has been quoted as saying that he could “gauge the mood of the nation”, and that voters “will definitely give the NDA (the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) more than 400 seats and the BJP at least 370 seats.” In 2019, the NDA won 353 seats, 303 of them won by the BJP on its own. That is an impressive tally but still not as massive as the 404 seats that the Congress party, led by Rajiv Gandhi, won back in 1984, after the assassination of his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Can the BJP and its allies match that feat in this year’s elections? Modi’s regime enjoys very high approval ratings. He himself is among the most popular leaders that post-Independent India has had. In fact, according to one global survey, he continues to hold the title of the world’s most popular leader, with an impressive approval rating of 76%. His regime will obviously benefit from a number of factors at this year’s polls, which are expected to begin in April.

For one, the Indian economy’s performance has been outstanding, at least in terms of macroeconomic numbers. Not only has India been the fastest growing among the world’s largest economies (its GDP of $3.2 trillion makes it the world’s fifth-largest economy), according to official figures released last week, its GDP surged 8.4% in the last three months of 2023 compared with the previous year, up from a growth of 7.6% in the June-to-September period. India has overtaken countries such as the UK, France, Italy, Canada, and Brazil, and despite challenges like demonetisation, GST reforms, and the COVID pandemic, the economy has shown remarkable resilience. Inequality and job creation remain problematic but overall the Indian economy has fared well.

Besides, the Modi government has accelerated infrastructure projects, such as impressive new highways. On average, 36 km of highways are built daily, more than triple the earlier pace. It has also doubled the capacity of solar and wind-powered energy in the past five years. The average Indian citizen has also benefited from initiatives such as Swachh Bharat (a cleanliness drive), digitisation of subsidy and social welfare benefits, as also housing for the poor, and piped water supply. The Modi regime’s foreign policy stance has improved India’s global standing and its rising stature has rubbed off on people’s national pride. 

BJP also finds support among large proportions of India’s majority community of Hindus, and actions such as the recent lavish inauguration of a temple in Ayodhya on a site where a mosque was demolished three decades ago have only strengthened that support. 

Discordant notes from the South

Still, such positive factors for the Modi government could be dampened by some disharmony. In southern India, the BJP has not fared well. Continued efforts by the BJP and its allies to increase their influence in the south have not been successful. In southern states, the BJP faces strong opposition from regional parties and the opposition’s Congress party.

In Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, the BJP’s attempts to make political inroads have not worked out. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling party is the regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK); in Kerala, it is the Left Democratic Front (LDF); in Andhra Pradesh, the government is led by the regional Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP); and in Telangana, it is a Congress-led government that is in power since December 2023. In Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP made significant inroads and ruled during 2018-2023 (save a short interruption by the Janata Party), it was dislodged last year by the Congress. 

Let’s do a bit of math. The BJP’s tally from the south in national elections has not been heartening for it either. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka, and Puducherry together have 130 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 elections, while BJP and its allies swept the northern states, in the southern states, they managed to win only 30 seats, 25 of them from Karnataka. In contrast, of the 91 seats that the Congress-led UPA won in 2019 Lok Sabha, 58 were from the southern states. The BJP’s foothold in the south is clearly weak.

There are non-political disparities between India’s northern and southern states as well. Data shows that southern Indian states consistently outperform the rest of the country in health, education, and economic opportunities. There is enough evidence to suggest that a child born in southern India is more likely to live a healthier, wealthier, and more socially impactful life compared to a child born in the north. 

Interestingly, at India’s independence in 1947, southern states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh) were mostly in the middle or bottom in terms of development. However, since the 1980s, southern states have diverged positively compared to the rest of India, with accelerated progress.

The combined population of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Puducherry is estimated at 250 million, representing approximately 18% of India’s population, but Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, alone has an estimated population of more than 240 million. A lower population has its advantages.

The progressiveness of the southern states and their economic performance is demonstrated by their per capita GDPs and how those stack up with the rest of India’s states and Union Territories. While, small states such as Goa, Sikkim and Delhi understandably top the list of per capita GDP rankings in India, it is significant that some of the southern states such as Telangana (at the fifth spot), Karnataka (at the sixth), Tamil Nadu (at the ninth), and Kerala (at the 11th) are way higher than, say, northern states such as Uttar Pradesh (at 32), Bihar at (33), and Madhya Pradesh (at 25).

India is likely one of the most complex countries in the world with a degree of heterogeneity across regions that is unparalleled elsewhere. The differences are sharpest between the north and the south. Besides linguistic, cultural, and traditional differences with the north, the southern states have never really accepted some aspects of the BJP’s nationalistic stance. The party is still viewed as a northern party from the Hindi belt and Hindi has never really become a part of linguistic array in the south. Not surprisingly, the BJP’s efforts to spread its influence in the southern states have largely failed.

So if we come back to the math and consider the BJP’s aim of getting 400 plus seats in the elections this year, the numbers, as the idiom says, might just not add up.

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How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

Frequent gaffes by the two main contenders for the 47th presidency of the United States has brought the focus sharply on whether age is more than just a number when it comes to politics. Unless something unforeseen happens, the US presidential elections in November this year will be a face-off between the incumbent Democratic US President Joe Biden, who is 81, and his challenger and former Republican President Donald Trump, who is 77.

Both gentlemen have been grabbing the headlines recently with what would seem like instances of memory lapses or cognitive failure. A few weeks back, while delivering a speech, President Biden mistakenly referred to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the leader of Mexico. Earlier this year, Trump confused his main Republican rival Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and former speaker of the US House of Representatives. Ironically, Biden made his confused remarks when he was defending his position after a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents that had referred to his memory as “poor”.

Both Biden and Trump have committed other similar gaffes that point to memory lapses but their aides insist that the two are not mentally infirm and that they do not suffer from age-related mental conditions that could interfere with a job that is arguably one of the most important and impactful in international geopolitics. The US is the most powerful country in the world–economically and politically–and the US President is highly empowered to take decisions that could affect the rest of the world in profound ways. 

How old is too old in politics?

The focus on their age, however, can raise questions about whether age should be a factor determining eligibility for top political jobs. Should there, for instance, be an age limit for those who aspire for top political jobs? Many company boards have retirement ages for their directors who have to step down, say, when they reach 70 or 75. Should governments have similar rules on retirement? 

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, the average age of current national leaders is 62 years. When grouped by decade, the largest share of global leaders today (35%) are in their 60s. Roughly a quarter (22%) are in their 50s, while 18% each are in their 40s or 70s. Measured against those statistics, both Biden and Trump are much older than the average. 

Yet, both of them are younger than many heads of state in the world today. For instance, the oldest currently serving head of state is Paul Biya, who at 91 has been the president of the Central African country of Cameroon since 1982. There are others too who are older than Biden and Trump. Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas is 86; Cuba’s Raoul Castro is 85; and Namibia’s president Hage Geingob served till he died early this month at 82. 

In India, surprisingly, heads of state (and I refer here to Prime Ministers and not Presidents) have been relatively young. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India in 1947 he was 57; Indira Gandhi was 48 when she became Prime Minister; Rajiv Gandhi was 40; and Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, was 63 in 2014 when he began his first term. He’s 73 now. 

India has also had its share of older Prime Ministers, though. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister in 2004, he was 71, the same age at which the late Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. And, in 1977 when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister he was 81. His successor Charan Singh was 76 when he got the top job; and when I.K. Gujral became Prime Minister in 1977, he was 77. 

There aren’t really many instances of cognitive failures or memory lapses by Indian Prime Ministers or other senior ministers–at least, they haven’t been reported in the media (although I once attended an Indian foreign minister’s press conference in 2010 where he repeatedly referred to Russia as the Soviet Union but I guess we can pardon that slip!). 

In fact, some anecdotal accounts of Indian Prime Ministers showing signs of exhaustion or tiredness are lapses that might not have anything to do with age. One of them famously concerns H.D. Deve Gowda, who became Prime Minister quite unexpectedly in 1996 when a short-lived coalition of regional parties won the elections. Deve Gowda was only 63 when he got that job but he soon earned an unenviable reputation for falling asleep during official meetings. His nodding off probably had nothing to do with his age. After all, who doesn’t like to sneak in a cheeky siesta or a power nap?

Lifestyle choices can make a difference

Indian politicians, particularly those who have taken up powerful positions in government often enjoy and edge over others when it comes to health and mental well-being. Many of them follow healthy lifestyle routines that keep them in good stead. At 73, Prime Minister Modi is pretty fit, both physically and mentally. A keen adherent of yoga, he practices the discipline daily and has been doing so for years; he walks regularly; and is a vegetarian who also fasts intermittently. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, now 91, was also known for his spartan eating habits and healthy lifestyle. Neither Modi nor Singh (during his two terms as Prime Minister) has ever shown signs of mental confusion or committed gaffes such as ones by Biden or Trump.

Historically, India’s prime ministers have led disciplined lives that have been healthy and abstemious. Forty-six years ago, when Morari Desai became Prime Minister at 81, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Desai forswears many pleasures of life. Not only is he a teetotaler, he is also a rigorous vegetarian, living on a diet of fruits, nuts and milk and fasting frequently. He renounced sex after he and his wife had five children.”

Zooming back to the two most likely candidates for the US presidential election, the question is whether having an age limit is a guarantee for having someone who is sound of mind to run a country or should it be something else. Earlier this month, in a guest column for the Economist, David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and Member of Parliament, waded into the Biden-Trump age controversy and argued that no one above the age of 70 should be considered for the job of head of state. Lord Owen, who is also a former neurologist, argued that in humans aged 60-70, the brain’s frontal lobe and an area called the hippocampus begins shrinking and this affects how the brain processes information. Because of that memory and cognitive functions can get affected.

Extrapolating from that and with examples from history (examples involving the US President Franklin Roosevelt and his decision to stand for elections in 1944), Lord Owens recommends that Biden should voluntarily step aside in favour of a younger nominee from the Democratic Party during this spring’s national convention of the party.

Lord Owen’s suggestion of an age limit is one point of view. The problem with it is that not everyone ages in the same way. There are enough examples that one can draw from different fields to show that some individuals continues to demonstrate mental acuity well into their eighties and even nineties. The list of notable people who have continued to work well into their senior years is too long to list out here. 

Why not tests instead of an age limit?

Rather than an age limit to ensure that only people with sound minds get to govern countries, would it not be more scientific to test the brain functions of an ageing person, depending on the purpose and the level of cognitive abilities that are needed for a job? There are different ways of assessing the brain function of an aging person, depending on the purpose and the level of detail needed. Some methods that could be adopted are:

Cognitive screening tests: Short, quick tests that check how well your brain is processing thoughts. They involve answering simple questions and performing simple tasks, such as recalling a list of items, spelling words, or drawing a clock. These tests do not diagnose specific diseases, but they can identify a problem with cognition and the need for more in-depth testing.

Brain imaging techniques: These are methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans or electroencephalogram (EEG) that can help detect changes in the brain due to aging, disease, or injury.

Neuropsychological assessment: This is a comprehensive evaluation of the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions of the brain. It involves a series of tests that measure memory, attention, language, reasoning, problem-solving, and other skills. This assessment can help diagnose specific conditions, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or brain injury.

Instead of an age limit, scientific tests and assessments such as those listed above could be a better way of ensuring that an aging candidate retains the mental capabilities that the job of, say, the head of state would require. However, there is a catch. Will such tests be acceptable for politicians, political parties, and the interest groups that they represent? My guess is that they probably won’t. At least not in the foreseeable future. Till then, we will have to amuse ourselves as some senior citizen politicians make their occasional gaffes, suffer memory lapses or just nod off to sleep. 

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Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again

The Anatomy of an Agitation: Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again?

The irony is dark. It has been barely two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Kisan Drone Scheme in India. In the beginning, the scheme, which assists farmers to deploy drones for spraying fertilisers, nutrients and pesticides more efficiently on their farmlands, was launched in 100 places across the country, and later, expanded to more areas. Last week, however, drones were deployed against farmers for an altogether different purpose. They were used to bombard them with tear gas as thousands of farmers converged upon Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in what is seen as a reprisal of the protests in 2020 and 2021 against the government’s policies.

Back then, in what became one of the biggest and longest mass movements in India’s history, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mainly from the agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana, had agitated for around a year against three new farm laws of the government. That movement had coincided with one of the worst phases of Covid that had hit India and it was a period of tumult. In the end, the Modi government had to repeal the three laws and accede to the farmers’ demands.

What then is the fresh wave of agitation all about? To understand that we need some recapitulation.

The farm laws and why they were repealed

The three laws that were passed in 2021 and then repealed after the protests were aimed at first, giving farmers more freedom to sell their produce outside the regulated markets or mandis; second, they enabled contract farming when farmers and buyers could pre-agree on pricing and other terms; and third, they relaxed the restrictions on storage and movement of some farm commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseed, onions, and potatoes.

The laws led to massive agitations and clashes with the government’s security forces and police. Farmer leaders said over 700 people died during the year-long protests but the government did not confirm any deaths. The farmers opposed these laws because they feared that they would lose the protection of the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, which guarantees a fixed price for certain crops, and that they would be exploited by big corporations. They demanded that the government repeal the laws, withdraw the criminal cases against the protesters, provide compensation to the families of the farmers who died during the protest, and ensure a legal guarantee for MSP. They also had other demands, such as pensions, debt waivers, and stricter regulation of fake seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers.

In December 2021, Prime Minister Modi announced the repeal of the laws after which the farmers temporarily suspended their protests. Why then has the agitation begun afresh and what are the issues this time round?

What do farmers want now?

Last week farmers renewed their protests as hundreds of them, mainly from the two northern states, Punjab and Haryana, marched towards the capital and the NCR. The timing of the protest was significant as it came only a few months before parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held and in which the Modi regime that is completing its second term is keen to win a third.

This time the authorities were more prepared as they barricaded the capital and adjoining areas. Delhi and the urban sprawl that makes up the NCR has an urban population of around 30 million people and the farmers’ march can drastically disrupt the functioning of the area. This time local and central police had ramped up their efforts to stop that from happening by barricading highways, pouring concrete and stacking shipping containers to halt the advancing tractors and masses of protesters.

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At the core of the provocation for the renewed protests is the farmers’ demand for a guaranteed implementation of the minimum support price (MSP) for all crops so that they get what they consider fair prices and protect them from exploitation by private companies. The repealed farm bills were aimed at increasing market access and competition, but farmers had feared they would weaken existing structures and leave them vulnerable to corporate control.

About 58% of Indians depend on farming for their livelihood and as much as 68.8% of them live in the rural areas. Considering India’s estimated population of 1.4 billion, those translate into huge numbers. Many farmers are burdened by debt and demand loan waivers to alleviate their financial hardships. They also think that rising costs of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs put further pressure on their livelihoods.

Among their list of demands is also a call for repealing the electricity amendment bill, which was enacted in 2022, to change electricity distribution rules. Farmers fear that it will increase their costs and further increase their dependence on private companies. 

Government’s view on farmers’ demands

To begin with, although the three farm laws have been repealed, the Indian government still maintains that they were beneficial for farmers and were needed to modernise the farm sector. The contribution of agriculture in GDP of India is 18.3% as per the second advance estimates of national income for 2022-23. This share has been declining over the years as the economy diversifies and grows.

However, the growth rate of agriculture in India is low. In 2022-23, it was 3.3%, which is lower than the previous two years, which recorded 4.1% and 3.5%, respectively. The growth rate varies depending on the monsoon, crop prices, and other factors.

India’s farm productivity, measured by the gross value added (GVA) per worker, which was Rs. 1,00,000 in 2022-23, is much lower than the global average of Rs. 3,60,000. India’s farm productivity is constrained by factors such as small and fragmented land holdings, lack of irrigation, low use of technology, and poor market linkages. According to the government, many of these problems were sought to be tackled by the laws that the Indian government had proposed in 2021.

After the previous round of protests and the repealing of the farm laws, the government has offered what it considers alternative solutions such as MSP for select crops and increased procurement efforts. It has also held multiple rounds of talks with farmers but has not been able to agree on some of the demands such as MSP for all crops. One of the main constraints is the lack of resources to be able to do that.

The problem is compounded by the fact that with a few exceptions, agricultural income is generally exempt from income tax in India. Under the existing laws, even rich farmers with large holdings can be exempt from tax, and this often creates a loophole for tax evasion and inequality.

Is there a solution to the farmers vs. government impasse?

While farm union leaders are demanding guarantees, backed by law, of greater state support or a minimum purchase price for all crops, the government is unable to acquiesce. The central government announces support prices for more than 20 crops every year. However, agriculture falls under the jurisdiction of individual states and their buying agencies can usually buy only rice and wheat at the support level, which benefits only an estimated 7% of farmers.

The procurement of rice and wheat, the two staple foodgrains, is aimed at building a food bank to supply to a massive food welfare system in India that entitles more than half of India’s population (or 800 million people) to subsidised (essentially, free) rice and wheat through the public distribution system. In 2024-25, this food subsidy bill is estimated at Rs 2.05 lakh crore ($24.7 billion). The government has extended its flagship free food welfare scheme, which was announced during the Covid-19 pandemic, for the next five years.

Given the magnitude of the food subsidy bill, the government will find it difficult to extend the MSP to all crops as the farmers are demanding. That is why it is not able to guarantee by law the state support for procurement as demanded by the farmers. The government had, while repealing the three farm laws in 2021, said that it would form a panel of farmers and government representatives to find viable solutions to the issue. Farmers are now accusing the government of going slow on that assurance.

What to expect in the future?

The renewed protests are smaller than the massive agitations that marked the 2020-21 movement but the farmers remain persistent. The government has said it is willing to engage in dialogue but is hesitant in meeting the core demands of legally guaranteed MSP and loan waivers.

The government stresses that alternative solutions and a focus on long-term reforms are the only way to resolve the impasse but farmers are not convinced. The outcome would depend on the government’s willingness to address core demands and farmers’ ability to sustain the movement.

There is, obviously, also a political aspect to it, which is heightened by the coming elections. Further escalation of protests or a deadlock could impact agricultural production and political stability, both highly undesirable outcomes for the ruling regime that is keenly looking to be re-elected for a third term in May.