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The dismantling of the idea of India

Instead of focusing on the economy, the Modi government has pushed its divisive agenda

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Migrant workers plight

March 24, 2020, was a watershed moment with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announcing a national lockdown in view of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. This black swan event in the first year of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s second term in office has changed our lives. Prior to that date, the government was pushing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s core agenda with characteristic authoritarianism. But the pandemic has humbled all of us, including those with invincible mindsets.

Two decisions of Modi-1 cast their shadow on the Modi-2 dispensation. First, the ill-thought-out, knee-jerk decision of the PM on November 8, 2016, to demonetise high-value currency notes. The rich were able to exchange their unaccounted cash but it deprived the poor of their hard-earned money. That was a monetary lockdown that destabilised the economy. The second was the establishment and implementation of a multi-layered Goods and Service Tax (GST) regime, which is mired in confusion even today. Its negative economic fallout impacted the free flow of commercial transactions. The result was that India’s economy grew at 4.2% (2019-20), the lowest in 11 years, as against 6.1% (2018-19). Prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate touched its highest watermark in 45 years. Industrial growth suffered, as did key sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, construction, trade, hotels, transportation and communications and financial services. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) warned (in May 2020) about the slackening of private consumption. Economic growth is a continuum subject to occasional hiccups that no one can control. But during Modi-2, these hiccups were man-made. An economy already in decline needed an impetus to revive it. Instead of concentrating on governance issues — including health care, education and the concerns of the poor — Modi-2 tore the nation apart by polarising it with a communal agenda.

In August 2019, Article 370 was recast and President’s rule imposed, with the state of Jammu and Kashmir being converted into two Union territories. This paradigm shift was claimed by Modi as a signal achievement. However, the situation on the ground is far from normal. The communication blackout, detention of political leaders and the imposition of curfew resulted in Kashmir witnessing one of its worst economic crises. Despite the government’s iron grip over the Valley, we have been regularly losing members of India’s security forces. The criminalisation of triple talaq on July 30, 2019 had nothing to do with the pain the BJP felt for Muslim women, especially when it did not shed a tear for the two million Hindu women who are abandoned by or separated from their husbands. The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, under challenge in the Supreme Court, witnessed protests across campuses in the country. In the violence that erupted in Delhi on February 24-25, 53 people lost their lives and hundreds were injured. Instances of police brutality and, on occasion, collaboration with perpetrators of violence, was there for all to see. But the government looked the other way. The possibility of a National Register of Citizens and the announcement of a National Population Register further stoked communal fires. The passing of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2019, though intended to fight terror, has been used against those who have raised their voice against the government, which includes Right to Information activists, research scholars, thinkers, photojournalists and others. The aim was to silence dissent.

Suddenly, on March 24, things changed. But again, Modi made a mistake. He announced a lockdown with just four hours for its implementation. The consequences are there for all to see. An already sliding economy has been hit hard by the lockdown. The fact that all economic activities have been frozen for months will have dire consequences that will push India back for years. The last quarter of 2019-20, with only seven days of the lockdown, brought economic growth down to 3.1%. Economists have predicted that the growth this year will be in negative territory. This has also been endorsed by RBI. That is not all. A 25% reduction in earnings will increase the number of those below the below the poverty line from 21.9% to 46.3%. In the midst of all this, mass migration of hapless victims of the lockdown has resulted in a humanitarian crisis not seen in this country for a long time. Apart from deaths in trains, because of accidents or hunger and thirst, the sheer scale of the misery is captured by the image of a young child lifting his dead mother’s shroud in an effort to wake her up. The government’s initial denial that no migrant was on the road is consistent with its constant denial of the consequences of ill-thought decisions.

Modi-1 symbolised muscle power and a determined PM taking knee-jerk decisions. Modi-2 has dismantled an India that was carefully built by successive governments until 2014. It is time the government realises that its divisive agendas will only jeopardise the future of generations to come. This government must abandon its “let the fire burn and the cauldron bubble” policy and shift gears to address the burning issues of poverty and the marginalisation of those at the bottom of the pyramid.

This article first appeared in the HindustanTimes on June 1, 2020 under the title ‘The dismantling of the idea of India’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister.

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Column: Prime Minister sets the record straight – Spy’s Eye

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Modi in Leh

It is now clearly conveyed to the nation that India had put China on notice for its recent aggressive conduct on LAC and warned it of serious consequences of any further misadventure it might be planning against this country. Prime Minister Modi in his ”Mann ki Baat” on June 28, which is like an address to the countrymen, talked of India”s strong resolve in dealing with the military face-off with China on the LAC in Ladakh and gave out that ”a befitting reply had been given to those who cast an evil eye on India”s territory”. He added that ”India can handle friendly relations but also knows how to look into the eyes of anyone who challenged its sovereignty”.

Giving an insight into India”s strategy, the Prime Minister informed the people that among other things India was taking measures to become self-reliant in various spheres, including indigenous production of defence hardware to meet ”exigencies of national security and sovereignty”. India has since stepped up border infrastructure development on our side of the LAC as well as mobilisation of troops on the ground — apart from readying our Air Force and Navy for defensive action against any external aggression. The message given to China is loud and clear — stay off from giving any provocation by attempting to encroach on any point of disputed territory along the LAC. Defence of Ladakh is geared up in line with the declared stand of the Modi government that Aksai Chin had been illegally occupied by China and that this matter had to be set right. That India will stretch China on various fronts — economic and geo-political — is emerging as a strategic element of India”s long-term response to the current hostility of this neighbour.

While the situation on the LAC is still evolving, India has from its side confronted China with the demand of return to the status quo ante and engaged that country in border talks at the level of Core Commander on disengagement and deescalation. The government, meanwhile, is keeping up military and foreign policy endeavours to prepare for any aggravation. It is in this background that Prime Minister Modi, in a brief address to the nation on June 30, did not touch on China and confined himself to an announcement of extension of free ration scheme covering nearly 80 crore people for five months — till November end — giving them relief in a difficult time to see through Diwali and Chhat festivals. An added facility of using ration cards on an all- India basis was promised.

The Prime Minister reiterated the need for total caution during the Unlock-2 against corona. He came off as a compassionate leader who appeared to be giving priority to the internal scene relating to people in distress and by not bothering the latter with the issue of India-China tension on the border, also giving a message that his government was fully in control of things on that front. Since the majority of migrants belonged to UP and Bihar, what is the harm if the PM made a mention of the two major festivals of North India in his address to bring some cheer to this distressed lot? Hopefully, the sense of nightmare that crores of migrant labour experienced in the lockdown would be eased substantially — though the crisis of unemployment looming large for them would still confront them. Importantly, the Modi regime remains firm on building the economy indigenously by emphasising the idea of ”be vocal for local” and encouraging entrepreneurship and start-ups. Internal stability in India will be determined by the economic recovery.

Coming back to the issue of China”s aggressiveness on the border, it is clear that three aspects of the situation deserved to be taken note of in framing a long-term strategy of dealing with that country. First is the unmistakable fact that the intensification of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir by Pakistan and the military build-up on LAC started by China in the period following the abrogation of Article 370 by India, showed a new level of meeting of minds between these two allies against India — that was part of their bigger geo-political plan of acquiring a firm hold in the crucial Pak-Afghan-Kashmir tri junction. This territory anchored the superpower rivalry in the Cold War era for control of this region — a lesson China would remember as it positions itself as the other superpower in the present, conscious of the advantage it has of having Pakistan on its side. India has to weaken this alliance by carrying the anti-terror combat into the POK and damaging the CPEC where it would hurt China the most. China can create some more mischief on LAC in support of Pakistan but this is nothing that India”s army would not be able to handle.

Secondly, this is the moment for India to build the opinion of the entire democratic world against the dictatorial Chinese regime that was out to disturb world peace in chasing its blatant plans of dominating the world militarily and economically — as a new superpower. India must make it a point to highlight the role of Sino-Pak axis in fomenting terrorism of the Islamic radicals and using it as an instrument of political advancement through proxy wars and cross-border operations. For securing India”s interests in a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan, we should further strengthen bilateral relations with Russia, Israel and Iran in working for a place in the ”round table” convened to discuss that country”s future — at a time when the US is being expedient about accommodating the Taliban in power there. Fortunately, we have in the NSA and the EAM a very competent, experienced and knowledgable set of people who can achieve the international outreach that India presently needs to counter and override the challenge posed by the China-Pakistan combine.

Finally, it is in the realm of economic relations that India has to find ways and means of scuttling the economic power that China had tried to wield against its opponents, including India. In fact, the tough response of President Donald Trump on the US-China trade imbalance and the more recent US-led campaign against China”s alleged culpability in hiding information relating to corona pandemic from the world — India being on the side of the US in these matters — substantially accounted for the precipitate hostility of China towards India. India”s rightful offer to the businesses seeking to shift away from China, to relocate here added to the Chinese desperation which was reflected in the aggression on LAC. Tension on the borders was intended to project India as a land of conflict and distract global investors from this country. As important as the marshalling of defence preparedness against China, therefore, are the moves of India to battle with the latter on the economic turf. India has set the ball rolling by banning some 59 Apps of Chinese origin and linking it with the call for development of indigenous products and services to make India self reliant in all fields, including defence production.

Prime Minister Modi has clearly embarked on a comprehensive strategy of military consolidation, economic recovery and deeper collaboration with friendly powers to deal with the emerging challenges — particularly the threat posed by China in the immediate and long range. India”s relations with China of Xi Jinping can become irreversibly antipathetic unless China strikes a peace chord by retracing its steps in Galwan valley. People must rally behind the effort of Modi regime to safeguard national security and integrity — at a time when the corona pandemic has compounded the problems of the common Indian at home. Prime Minister Modi in his address on June 30 acknowledged the silent contribution of the farmer and the tax payer to the well-being of the nation. It is a matter of satisfaction for the nation that the Prime Minister has shown a rare capability of handling multiple crises with calm and confidence.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)

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50 hours and police still searching for Vikas Dubey

Ram Kumar Dubey, father fo Vikas, who was interrogated by the STF till late on Saturday night, maintained that his son was not present in the village when the incident took place.

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Vikas Dubey.

Lucknow: It has been more than 50 hours since gangster Vikas Dubey went missing after killing eight police personnel in an ambush in Kanpur, but the state police still has no clue about the whereabouts of the criminal.

All the phones of Vikas, his associates and relatives have been put on surveillance but the gangster has not used any communication tool so far.

The Yogi Adityanath government, on Saturday night, increased the reward on Vikas to Rs one lakh. A reward of Rs 25,000 each has been announced for his 18 accomplices.

Sixty police team are frantically searching for the man, who is now ‘most wanted’ in Uttar Pradesh.

On Saturday, the police razed the house of Vikas in Bikru village where he had killed the policemen in the early hours of Friday. Two SUVs and two tractors parked in the premises were also trampled upon by the same earthmover that had been sued to block the police team’s path when the incident took place.

The station house officer of Chaubeypur police station, Vinay Tiwari, was suspended on Saturday after a 12-hour grilling at the Special Task Force. Tiwari was found to have fled from the site when the encounter began. He is also suspected to have tipped-off Vikas about police action.

Ram Kumar Dubey, father fo Vikas, who was interrogated by the STF till late on Saturday night, maintained that his son was not present in the village when the incident took place.

“My son is innocent and I will fight for him right up to the Supreme Court. He is being framed for political reasons,” the father told reporters.

It has also been found that a phone call was allegedly made from the Chaubeypur police station to the local power sub station, asking them to disconnect the power supply in the village. The police team could not find an escape route when Vikas and his men fire at them because the area was plunged into darkness.

Two personnel of the sub-station have been detained for interrogation.

Meanwhile, in a related development, the police seized two cars and a motorcycle from Vikas’ Lucknow residence in Krishna Nagar area. An ambassador car seized from the house is said to belong to the UP Estate department and was earlier allotted to a principal secretary.

Vikas’ family claimed that it had purchased the vehicle in an auction but could not produce the papers to substantiate its claim.

The Lucknow Development Authority (LDA) is preparing to serve a notice to Deep Prakash, brother of Vikas who lives in Krishna Nagar and is presently absconding. LDA officials said that the map of the house was not passed as per records and if the owner failed to produce the relevant documents, the house would be razed.

Meanwhile, sources said that there was a strong possibility that Vikas had fled to Nepal or to some other state and would surrender in court when the furore over the incident subsides.

The state police have stepped up vigil around the courts to pre-empt any move by Vikas to surrender in court.

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Sagging electoral prospects behind Trump’s H-1B action

The real impact of the presidential proclamation, therefore, will be two-fold. First, as long as Trump is President, it will undoubtedly cause many international students, who are looking at the US as a potential destination for higher studies to reconsider their decisions.

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On June 22, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending the entry of a number of non-immigrant work visa holders into the US till the end of the year. The visa categories affected include, most notably, H-1B, which has been used by more than a million Indian information technology professionals since the 1990s and L1 visa used by US companies to bring in workers from their Indian offices.

During his campaign for President four years ago, candidate Trump consistently railed against the H-1B programme. However, after he moved into the White House, Trump left the visa programme untouched in the first 43 months of his presidency, even as he delivered on most of his controversial campaign promises, such as the Muslim ban and dumping of multilateral treaties like NAFTA and Paris Agreement, through executive actions.

There were two compelling reasons Trump didn”t act on the visa programme until now. The US economy had been doing very well until Coronavirus hit the American shores early this year. And, the tech industry, which employs three-fourths of the H-1B visa holders, has been doing even better.

The second reason is the formidable lobbying power of the industry. The four most valuable companies in the world, Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft, and Facebook have historically used the H-1B workforce to augment their profits. They were not going to let it go without a fight.

The influence these organizations wield was evident when Trump spared H-1B in his first executive order to curb nonimmigrant work visa holders issued on April 22. According to reports, H-1B was to be part of that proclamation but the White House was talked out of it by the industry.

So, what has changed between late April and today?

A number of things, but primarily it is Trump”s dimming re-election prospects. A steady stream of polls in the past few weeks has shown that the incumbent is trailing badly in the race against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The President”s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — his initial refusal to see it as a threat and then his inability to provide the leadership to contain it — has shaken people”s confidence in Trump”s presidency.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, Trump was banking on making the election a referendum on his stewardship of the economy. But the pandemic, which has claimed more than 125,000 American lives, has also eliminated up to 40 million jobs.

Although some of the jobs have come back thanks to the multitrillion dollar stimulus package, the re-opening plans promoted by Trump have not produced substantial results. Now, with parts of the country closing down again, and the deadly virus spreading in southern and western states, there”s no sign of the economy turning the corner before the November election.

Consequently, Trump needs to be seen as doing something to save the economy and American jobs. H-1B, which has been a bogeyman for the protectionists and economic nationalists, is an easy target during this downturn, even though study after study has documented that the visa programme actually helps create jobs. The administration claims that the executive order is going to save more than half a million American jobs without giving details.

It should be noted that the order mainly impacts petitioners who are outside of the US who have not gotten their visas stamped on their passports yet. As a result, it will only have little impact in the short term on those seeking work in the US.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service issues roughly 85,000 new H-1B visas annually of which 20,000 are for those with US master”s degrees. Most petitioners in this category are already in the US and they will not have any problem in starting their jobs in October, typically the time new visa holders enter the work force.

According to immigration attorneys, a significant percentage of the remaining 65,000 visas are claimed by dependents of H-1B and L-1 visa holders, as well as foreign students who have graduated from US schools, but did not get the visa under the master”s degree quota. These groups will also not come under the purview of the executive order, as they are already in the country.

The real impact of the presidential proclamation, therefore, will be two-fold. First, as long as Trump is President, it will undoubtedly cause many international students, who are looking at the US as a potential destination for higher studies to reconsider their decisions. During the Trump era, the US has already been losing potential students to nations such as Canada, Britain and Australia.

Second, despite the massive job losses in the broader economy, there are still vacancies in the tech industry that will have to be filled to move its economy forward. The US tech sector has said for years that the country doesn”t produce enough skilled workers and the industry will suffer without the intake of manpower through H-1B and L1 visa programmes. If it becomes more difficult for these companies to hire foreign workers, they would probably outsource more and more of these jobs to foreign destinations, including India.

It is an irony that, while Trump is trying to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, his nonimmigrant worker visa policy could force more high-paying service jobs offshore. What makes it doubly ironic is that this action which Trump has taken to try to save his job as President will not do so.

Given the current state of affairs, it is likely that on election day November 4, the American people will fire Donald Trump. After that, the decision on what to do with information technology visas in 2021 and going forward will be in someone else”s hands. And, Trump will have to find a new place of employment for himself.

The good news is Biden has already stated that his administration will lift the H-1B ban.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)

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