Elections in India are always an interesting time for me. No matter what I think of the state of affairs in the country, the state of my favourite party and my political opinions, this has been the best way for me to understand the country. This is the time when all the media outlets go out and try to cover each and every constituency and try to make sense of its demography, development, political players and how are the parties trying to engage with the voters.  I get to understand the issue of the illegal migrants in Bangladesh and some of them are actually Hindus or how the Tamil Nadu chief minister is going for the jugular of the DMK party which is besotted by corruption scandals and family strife. It is a pulse taking of my country like nothing else. If it was left to me the elections would happen once every two years, although I am not quite sure what that would do to the already weak financials of the media organisations.  The elections results are due tomorrow and this post has been a long time coming and if I don’t write it today then I might as well not write it all!

As much as I am interested in the politics of it all, it is hard even for me not to begin this post by not talking about the incumbent government and the state of affairs in India. I remember the first time I heard of the term ‘demographic dividend’ was during an alcohol fuelled conversation with a senior bureaucrat in 2005. The gentleman was clearly drunk but was still giving out pearls of wisdom, one of which was that the decade of 2010-20 will define India’s long term future and her place in the world as her demographic dividend will be at its most favourable in the decade and it is extremely important that India gets the right governance in that decade.  It is with this thought in mind that I welcomed the UPA 2 back in 2009. I thought to myself that this is a centre left government, headed by an economist prime minister who now has 5 years of experience of learning on the job, no Left parties in the coalition and he doesn’t even have to bother with the politics as that is managed by Sonia Gandhi.  Five years on and not only is the economy is in tatters, but from an economic perspective I feel we have regressed as a nation. The citizens of the country who expect a decent life, jobs and public servants who work for their benefit are disappointed and frustrated. A lot of them have either travelled abroad, or have family and friends outside or have access to international media now understand that to have these basic things is not rocket science and a lot of countries around the world have delivered this to their citizens. It is increasingly unclear to them why the government is unable to do it in India. It is in this context that I see the national players setting out their stalls to attract voters.

First of the blocks was Narendra Modi. Ever since his nomination about a year ago as the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP he has run this election on an anti-corruption and development agenda. In response to his agenda, the Congress sets its agenda to be a secular agenda and development in woolly terms such as a women’s empowerment and other social issues. I say women’s empowerment is a woolly issue because the Congress has no agenda of advancing issues – like passing the women’s reservation bill, having a strong women’s minister, giving more seats to women candidates or even a competent national commission for women. The congress stall is an anti-bjp stall. The BJP is saying that we are going to do this and that, the Congress is instead saying that we are not going to do that but not really spelling out what it is going to do. In my mind the Congress lost the election last year when it failed to put up a strong candidate and its best hope was that Modi would collapse under his own ambition through either a riots conviction or some other controversy. The government spent its energy trying to get foreign governments to deny a visa to Narendra Modi a policy that has so much backfired that the US ambassador to India has left her position. The other controversies happened and Congress is staring down the barrel of a shot gun. They have lost touch with the common man and the Gandhi family, quite like the British royal family, looks increasingly out of touch with the Indian electorate. I personally despise the temerity of Rahul Gandhi to stand up and take credit on behalf of his party for the independence movement.

As things stand now, BJP alliance will be the single largest party tomorrow and will look to form the government. Its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has sold himself and his party as a pro-development and anti –corruption party. He is as much anti-corruption as Congress is secular which is not much.  Indians look up again to a new government in the hope that he will give the country a sensible and credible government that they deserve.  The stock market is at a record high on those expectations even though the economy continues to stagnate and there are forecasts of a below average monsoon.

India has one final shot for getting something out of her demographic dividend. I wouldn’t bet on a BJP government doing that but I have been wrong before and I sincerely hope that I am wrong again. But it is hard not to agree with The Economist – Barring a few exceptions, India deserves better than the current crop of leaders.

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As an Indian and as a keen follower of India’s foreign policy the past decade has been very depressing. India with all her soft power and some hard power is consistently absent at the high table of world affairs. Even when India’s interests are directly impacted (eg- Iranian sanctions) , India doesn’t have a stated position. A typical position is usually vague and non-committal. Even when there is a stated position it is hard to understand the logic behind it. It is hard to believe that this is the same country that was one of the main founders of the Non Aligned Movement. In the past few years I can think of two major incidents that I thought would make India get out of her funk and take a stand.

The first incident was related to the Mumbai attacks . When it became public knowledge that an American citizen, David Headley, was one of the key conspirators behind the Mumbai attack I thought India would take a stand against the US and demand for Headley to be tried for his charges in India or at the very minimum come to India and answer questions. This was after all India’s 9/11 and all bets were off. But nothing of that sort happened and Indian investigators were grateful for the access they got to Headley in the US. I find it hard to believe if any major power would have been so easily satisfied. The second incident is more recent and is related to Edward Snowden’s NSA allegations where it seems that the NSA was snooping not only on Indian missions abroad but also on India’s domestic politics and the country’s strategic and commercial interests. Maybe they also tried to snoop on Manhoman’s phone but gave up when they didn’t hear anything for long periods. But jokes apart, I  thought that this was a perfect opportunity for India take a stand like some other allied world leaders (Merkel and Dilma) and at the very least use it to extract some benefit out of this huge embarrassment to their American friends. Maybe they did extract something behind closed doors, but I doubt it. Add to this the fact that as an Indian living abroad I consider it to be my worst day to ever approach the Indian consulate for any assistance. I have approached them in the past for urgent personal reasons and was swatted out like a fly by a junior bureaucrat after he figured out that I didn’t have any influence. So I could be forgiven for thinking exactly what does this ministry of external affairs do when it doesn’t stand up for India’s strategic interests and doesn’t deem fit to provide a decent consular service.

In this context I find the whole incident of the Indian government throwing a tantrum over a diplomat being mistreated as really funny. It’s a case of a toddler throwing his toys out of his pram because his mother refuses to buy him an ice cream. This screams of incompetence at all levels. India didn’t see it coming and was not able to sort it out behind closed doors especially when it was obvious that the diplomat had given false information. Then as a reaction Indian government discovered that the American diplomats in India got more privileges than their Indian counterparts in the US and that family members of diplomats are working in India without a valid work permit. The press is even worse, no one is even questioning the Indian government of why American diplomats had been assigned privileges that go over and above what is required and whose was benefiting by giving out these privileges.

In India’s defence , India is only doing what any other country would do if their diplomat was caught in a similar situation. America should also be careful that if it starts to impose the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law to foreign diplomats then its diplomats , who travel like international royalty, have the most to lose. Without getting into the merits of the case, both sides are now looking desperately for a face-saving measure which lets both fulfill the spirit of the law and the diplomat is allowed to go back to India.

Maybe, this is the beginning of where India finally takes a stand on international affairs, but if that is the case then expect to hear a lot of shrill screaming first.

Living in London I have now begun to take some things for granted. Like I always assume that a public art gallery will always be reasonably busy on any given day and I will have to jostle for space like I would in a shopping mall. On a busy day, like a weekend or a holiday, it is best to avoid unless I have a slot booking which means that there is controlled entry. I visited two galleries in the past two months which made realise that it is not the same everywhere.

I first went to Louvre which on an average day feels like the Kumbh Mela for art. Of course, the crowd flocking to these galleries get to immerse themselves in an ocean of art and the gallery itself is beautifully designed. I only spent half a day going around the Asian, Middle Eastern, Louis XiV room among others and everything I saw was absolutely magnificent. Everything was well curated and interesting use of technology to bring together various disparate themes which go beyond visual art. Walking through the gallery is like a round trip of around the world and across different centuries and civilisation. But for me the gallery is really too large for my comfort and it is hard for me to connect with . If I was living in Paris I don’t think I would be visiting the Louvre too often. It is often called the ‘museum of museums’ which doesn’t make much sense to me. I would be happy going to different museums rather than one museum of museums. 

My next visit to a public gallery was in Delhi at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). I must have visited NGMA many years ago and the only thing I remembered was the sculptures in the front garden. Even though both Louvre and NGMA are national galleries they couldn’t be more different. NGMA has a more humble brief to display art from India and about India and even in that limited brief I couldn’t help but think about what also should have been here. I went on a weekend afternoon and the gallery was mostly quiet except for a few tourists, a foreign delegation and a couple of locals. One of the locals, I later found out, was an artist who I saw wiping off the dust from his own painting in an exhibition of his works. 

Looking through the paintings I felt a sense of calm and rootedness. Maybe its because some of the art works and themes are known to me. The paintings were very diverse as it would be if they were representing a land like India. It was a quick jog through the history of India from the mid-19th century onwards. The gallery even though it is housed in a beautiful building doesn’t have any pretensions and only aims ‘to acquire and preserve works of modern art from 1850s onwards’. The NGMA is so much old-world to the bustling private art galleries of Delhi where even the art on display is so different. In some ways I am glad that it has not changed over the past few decades as it helps me to connect with a Delhi that I grew up in. 

At first glance there is so much to like about the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – Narendra Modi. He is an outsider to the system, he doesn’t come from an established political family or a system of political patronage, his upbringing has been far removed from any form of privilege and he clearly understands that he has no birth right to lead the country or even his party and he is surrounded by equally ambitious peers who keep him honest and will lose no opportunity to pull him down should they sense a weakness. All he has is a belief in his abilities to motivate an electorate to vote for him and then to provide a decent administration once in power and hope to win the elections again and use that as a step to get to Delhi and win a general election with enough votes. He has come through the ranks of cut and thrust politics and is an aggressive leader that is an attractive change from the last 10 years of a demure leadership at its best and the promise of the scion who has never had to dirty his manicured hands. 

But it is the nature of cut and thrust politics that in your eagerness to move forward, you can just as easily cut yourself and that is exactly what Modi has done by mis-managing the riots in his state in 2002. While, as things stand now, he may never be convicted but he will always have to live with these accusations. I think Modi miscalculated the political gain to be had by not clamping down on the rioters. He now finds himself in a sticky situation where he has to do a lot of heavy lifting on all other areas i.e. he has to be best in all other areas, to somehow diminish some of the political stain. That is not to say that he can’t get out of this self-created mess. But that requires a more Rajiv Gandhi style of suavity which is not taught in the cut and thrust school and his ability to extricate himself from this situation may make the difference between 150 and 200+ seats. 

But the bigger question is for the BJP – the party now has a much wider pool when it comes to choosing prime ministerial candidates. Some of them are relatively uncorrupt, have a political base, are good public speakers and are committed to the nation’s development.  Have they been considered ? The party doesn’t even seem to support Modi whole heartedly and seem to have left him exposed on economics and foreign affairs.

Watching Mandela’s memorial service I couldn’t help but wonder if he was the last of the great leaders who fought for freedom and equality and then went on to be a moral force for not only their country but for the rest of the world. The only current leader who is in his league is probably Aung San Su Kyi but she is yet to be tested as a democratically elected leader and on the push and pull of daily politics. The other possible candidate, and Nobel prize winner, is Dalai Lama and he is destined to live his life in exile without overcoming the Chinese resistance to Tibetan self-rule. The galaxy of leaders who showed up at Mandela’s service was as eclectic as the Obama-Cameron selfie was self-indulgent.

I wonder what Mandela would have made of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and their better than expected showing at the Delhi elections. The two main political parties pretend to be surprised because if they really foresaw the rise of the AAP then the question would be why they did leave that much political space that the AAP has gratefully occupied. The media, which apparently, has his figure on the pulse and claims to understand its readers/viewers mostly didn’t foresee the rise of the AAP. The pollsters, barring one or two, couldn’t forecast accurately the number of seats that AAP would get.  The only people who saw AAP coming were the voters who live the daily grind and jumped on the only credible alternative to the big two parties. They must be really desperate or really irritated of the big 2 or both that they chose a party that has no track record of governance and frankly there is no way of knowing that it would exist even two years from now. I am not sure if the AAP will end up forming the government, but even by getting to this stage they have changed the rules of politics for the better. More power to them.

Which gets me nicely to the Gandhi family that has mostly set the rules of politics in India since independence. It is not often one gets an insight into the family members but a few incidents over the last year stand out for me. One was the son-in-law Robert Vadra, breaking his silence, and  calling the AAP as mango people in a banana republic. I would really want to hear from him again now. The second, was Sonia Gandhi going to the US for medical treatment and no media outlet was willing to talk about her medical condition, how bad it is and where is she being treated. The third, was the scion Rahul Gandhi tearing up an ordinance in a press conference which the Congress spokesman had been defending only minutes ago and after he said what he had to say it was clear to everyone that the ordinance was effectively dead. It was in these and some other moments that it dawned upon me that the Gandhi family live a life which brings together privilege, public respect and privacy and they would happily appoint a prime minister and control him from behind the scenes rather than thrust themselves to the front. This is exactly why the Congress doesn’t have a PM candidate and will probably go into general elections without one.

This is exactly why the Congress will also lose the next general election. Because the family keeps itself aloof and is not open to scrutiny that the other parties are subject to, because the scion has been selected for his name rather than any qualification or experience and no one quite knows where he stands on major issues facing the country and even worse he behaves as if it is his birth right to govern the country. If the party doesn’t mend its ways quickly and choose a better leader it will find itself losing more ground to the opposition.

It is August and I have my first proper summer in London since I moved here. That is some wait for some sunshine !  While August brings sun shine , it also leads to a mass exodus of people going on leave and a weak news agenda. The magazines and the weekend supplements are thin on quality and quantity and I find myself getting through more reading than usual. My attention then turns to the Indian scene and two main issues have been in my thoughts. 

India – Pakistan : it is too bad that there isn’t much of a betting market on these things, because the moment the new government came to power in Pakistan and noises of a back channel diplomacy were being made that I wanted to put my bet on either some fresh confrontation on the LOC or some daring militant attack in India or some infringement of airspace by either side. This trick is so old and yet the governments on both sides, who are quite adept at politics otherwise, seem to be outmaneuvered every time. Although, I have to admit that whoever is behind this incident has timed it very well to coincide with the monsoon session of the Parliament. I wonder what will it take to come out of the cycle of promising peace talks, border skirmish by ‘non state actors’ and then everyone goes back to where they started.

What this has also ensured is that this government has pretty much lost its final chance to bring about any major changes in relationship with Pakistan. Although, keeping a ceasefire going for all these years isn’t a bad achievement by itself but more could have been done and when will India next get a PM as committed to making peace with Pakistan. 

The great Indian economic debate:  I have been trying my best to follow the debate between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen based on the differing economic paths as laid out in their books with co-authors. I wish I had paid more attention to my college economics lectures rather than plotting on how to get my next date. Continuing with that theme, this debate reminds me on how my friends used to beat each other up for the right to woo some girl without the girl even getting to know the amount of heat that was being generated because of her and obviously no one sought the girl’s opinion.  

The ‘poor people’ of India whose futures are being debated so passionately by these two economic worthies have no idea of the heat being generated in their name while they really want in the immediate future is for the ration shop to stock their sugar, the mid day scheme in the school to be poison free and a working public health center. I wonder what would they make of these two books and if someone would translate this in their language and ask for their opinion. I want to know their answer ! 

I haven’t read any of these books, but from their many recent articles it seems to me that both these economists have missed the political element. They seem to forget that these policies need to go through the political process which sometimes means that the final bill has no resemblance to the first draft. They could focus their brilliant minds to making sure that their policies are attractive to the politician who sees a potential election victory should he adhere to their prescriptions. This view is reinforced by the political reactions to this debate, where no one has taken any sides.

It is only by chance that the 1991 policies are more closer to Bhagwati’s views and the recent food security bill is closer to Sen’s view. In reality, they are closest to the political view and the reference to a certain economic thinking is convenient. 

Indians take a lot of pride in the democratic history of independent India especially given some of the shenanigans that go on in the wider region. We don’t think there are any political examples in the region that  could be of any use to India. Pakistan is the main butt of jokes and even while the recent elections were the first democratic transition since its independence, the talk was more about honour among thieves and one gang of crooks was being replaced by another gang of crooks. This may all be partly true but I think Indians have missed the importance of the rise of Imran Khan and similarities with the rise of Aam Admi Party (AAP) and other similar contenders. 

On the face of it, there isn’t much in common with Imran Khan and Arvind Kejriwal and other senior members of the AAP. Imran has a seriously privileged background, he went to the best colleges and married into even more privilege. He even looks privileged ! I rarely concede that anyone apart from me can be called handsome, but I think that attribute sits well in Imran. On the face of it he is a privileged upper class who is muddying his hands in the daily grind of politics. Arvind Kejriwal on the other hand has all the qualities of a street fighter. He comes from a middle class wealthy background, but that could hardly be called privileged and has had no influence in his political life. He is the commoner who is starting from the bottom and fighting his way up the political ladder. Considering that the Jan Lokpal bill agitation was only 2 years ago and the AAP was founded less than a year ago, Kejriwal’s ascent into politics has been, to put it mildly, mercurial. Kejriwal is the guy I want on my side when I am getting into a scrap. I don’t think he understands the word defeat. 

Imran Khan founded his political party and it is fair to say that he remained a non-player until the recent elections where the party is now the third largest in the lower house and now represents a viable alternative to the two major national parties. He also represents the anti-establishment view in Pakistani political mainstream. His views from everything from drone attacks to tax evasion in Pakistan are well thought through and he seems more capable and willing to stand up for Pakistan more than the leaders of the other 2 parties. He is a true patriot of his country and it shows. 

He gives me immense hope in the context of the Indian political scene that there is space for a viable third alternative like the AAP as long as it is prepared to invest time and resources. The political scene in India leading up to the elections next year has hit absolute rock bottom what with the scandals in the Congress and BJP and no one seems to challenge the government on important issues. Symptomatic of this malaise is that someone like Narendra Modi can be considered as a serious alternative to the Congress !

In some years from now, I hope AAP can present a credible alternative to the brand of politics that Narendra Modi seems to espouse and it has the potential to uproot Congress from its centre left ground. Its first challenge is to make a decent showing in the Delhi state elections this year. This is a wisely chosen target. The Chief minister’s position in Delhi has less power compared to counterparts in other states so it doesn’t attract the political heavyweights from the 2 national parties and so more ground can be made quickly. On the other hand, this position has maximum nuisance value for the central government and getting power in Delhi is sure to get noticed around the country as compared to say Bangalore, not least because of the concentration of media channels in Delhi. 

As a start, I suggest that AAP invites Imran to canvass for them in the next elections. This would open a new channel in India-Pakistan relations, Imran can teach a thing or two to AAP about perseverance and if nothing else works it will ensure a good turnout of women at their rallies.