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Will gods take centrestage in the 2019 polls in Uttar Pradesh?

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Uttar Pradesh 2019 Polls

If you thought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections would be fought by politicians on issues concerning the common citizen, think again! For, the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 220 million people, is all set to see a keen contest of affection for Hindu gods in the mother of all battles in 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a second term for himself. Yes, you got it right, read on.

This time, it is Lord Ram yet again for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lord Shiva for the Congress and Lord Vishnu for the Samajwadi Party (SP) who will spearhead elections in the interesting times that lie ahead of the general elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) too is not averse to drumming up support by taking names of Hindu gods and positioning itself beyond the cliched image of being just a party of Dalits.

And so it’s not just the saffron camp which is sharpening its armory with the name of Lord Ram for 2019. All parties relevant to the contest are on the drawing board trying their best to project themselves as the champions of soft Hindutva and trying to wash away the image of being “pro-Muslim”, something that hit their image hard in 2014, when Modi, riding on this perception, romped home with a big mandate in the state.

While the BJP has once again started the drum-beating on its commitment to the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and has set its eyes on the team of holy men to help it sail through once again, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliate units like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) are working on the ground to ensure a “repeat of the Hindu wave of the 90s” when the Ram temple issue was at its peak, paying political and electoral dividends to the BJP.

The Congress, which was hurt the most by being portrayed as a party of Muslims, this time is trying very hard to shrug off its image. And so the prefixes of “Thakur, Pandit, Hindu Hriday Samraat” can be seen against names of its political stalwarts in hoardings and posters. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, thanks to his many visits to temples in recent times, is now being portrayed by the party cadres as a “Shiv Bhakt” who has just returned from the divine abode of the deity — Kailash Mansarovar.

During a recent visit, the Gandhi scion was welcomed in his Amethi parliamentary constituency with hundreds of posters showing him as a Shiv Bhakt. Small-time party workers and leaders can be seen delivering speeches on how great a Hindu Rahul is and how much he follows the rituals of the religion he belongs to but does not flaunt it on his sleeve. Overzealous Congress supporters seem to be going overboard as well.

This week, the Congress president looked annoyed when he was greeted by party men at the Bamrauli airport in Allahabad with slogans of “Bum, Bum Bhole” (glory to Lord Mahadev). Last time these slogans became part of campaigning were in Varanasi in 2014 when Modi began his campaign in the holy town. Rahul Gandhi was greeted with slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” at Chitrakoot when he visited a temple recently.

The BSP has in the past dabbled with slogans like the “Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu Mahesh hai” (It is not just an elephant [the party symbol] but the trinity of Hindu Gods). This is part of the BSP’s effort to break the image of being a Dalit-run dispensation and of working for the “sarv samaj” (entire society).

“We will certainly use this slogan again to our benefit,” a senior party strategist averred.

Surprisingly, and interestingly, the SP this time is trying the hardest to maintain its distance, at least overtly, from the Muslim community and not come across as their champions at the cost of Hindus.

“We were wrongly portrayed as a Muslim-appeasing party. This time we are careful and will reply to the rumors of the BJP deftly,” a senior party leader told IANS. SP chief and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has publicly announced that he is getting a temple of Lord Vishnu constructed at his native village Saifai.

Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya of the BJP chuckled at this “change of heart”.

“I am happy that he missed no opportunity to appease Muslims but is now chanting the name of Hindu gods… it shows the power of the Hindus,” he said. Rajya Sabha member and former SP general secretary Amar Singh, however, trashed the “hriday parivartan” (change of heart) of the SP president and dubbed it a “drama for votes”.

Whom the gods will side with and who will get the blessings of the voters is for time to tell but, for now, the gods are going to be busy in the election season as everybody is wooing and propitiating them for electoral and political dividends.

(Mohit Dubey can be contacted at [email protected])

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Antecedents of anti Muslim bias in media including Sudarshan TV

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.

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There have been many but let me cite just two reactions from the family to Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K.M. Joseph’s utterances restraining Sudarshan TV from telecasting its ‘UPSC Jihad’ show. A relative mailed a couplet comprehensive in its simplicity:

‘Door insaan ke sar se yeh musibat kar do

Aag dozakh ki bujha do, use jannat kar do’

(Remove this menace hovering over our heads,

Douse the leaping flames of hell; make it a paradise)

“Leaping flames of hell”: that is how a majority of Indian TV shows register with petrified Muslims. TV news is daily mortification; lynchings happen outdoors. The Supreme Court’s quest for “some mechanism” for self regulation of the media brings her hope. “Cricket will be played within a well measured boundary?” Not too much to expect.

The other reaction, from a younger relative is more cynical: if the Supreme Court had sharp instincts, it would have taken suo motu note of the outrage, before Sudarshan TV was able to telecast even one episode.

Incipient communalism was part of the Republic from the very beginning. Contentious issues on that score, however, did not come up when the electronic media consisted only of Doordarshan. DD, launched in the mid-70s, faced roadblocks too — as in the screening of Tamas, based on a novel by Bhishm Sahni, directed by Govind Nihalani. Centered on Partition, the director pulls no punches on exposing communalism on all sides. Since Hindu communalism had never been placed under the scanner with such candour in independent India, there was a furore. Screening was stopped. Only when Justices Bakhtawar Lentin and Sujata Manohar of Bombay High Court cleared the serial was it screened.

The Sudarshan TV’s “UPSC Jihad” is, in the words of Justice Chandrachud, a “rabid” vilification of Muslims. The channel felt encouraged to cross the red line because this particular line is considered Kosher in the current political atmosphere by mainstream channels as well as fly-by-night media operators.

An anti Muslim edge is a perceived requirement of Modi’s march towards Hindu Rashtra. But an anti Muslim edge in the media has antecedents which predate Modi. Four apparently disparate events stirred the cauldron of communalism. In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed. The disappearance of a column in the international system on which India had depended, plus an unprecedented economic crisis, caused Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to lurch towards Washington and swiftly embark on liberal economic policies.

With the new market economy came consumerism and the need for multiple TV channels to accommodate the burgeoning advertising. Remember, when the Babri Masjid fell in December 1992, there was only Doordarshan to televise the news. About this time, Mandal versus Kamandal, caste versus communalism spiraled out of control. It is pointless speculating whether a mushroom growth of channels went some distance in amplifying the new, energetic, communal politics. Market and identity politics is a separate study. Internal politics, however communal, would have been amenable to management. The real problem arose when globalization, spurred on by unbridled capitalism caused even Barack Obama to ask in retrospect: “Did we mishandle globalization?” I have often wondered if Ghalib’s imagery is applicable:

‘Rau mein hai rakhsh e umr kahaan dekhiye thamey,

Nay haath bag par hain, na pa hai rakab mein.”

(The steed is in full flight; I know not where it will halt;

I have lost control of the reins and, feet are not in the stirrups.)

That was globalization.

All prime ministers of India, from 1947 to the mid-90s, depended on traditional forms of mass mobilization, prior to the TV era. A more media savvy Prime Minister than Narendra Modi there has not been. He played all the strings to arrange for himself a saturation coverage of the 2014 and 2019 elections with expert ease. Crony capitalism was essential and it was easily managed.

Having brought down the Soviet Union, the US put its imprimatur on a Unipolar World Order by embarking on operation Desert Storm in February 1992. In some ways, Desert Storm bared the plans the US had for the future. The most important of these, pertinent to our narrative, was the inauguration of the Global Electronic Media which the Pentagon planned with such stealth that even an arch ally like the UK found itself flat footed. BBC’s senior correspondent, John Simpson walked around Baghdad with a lowly satellite telephone while Peter Arnett of the CNN launched the New World Information order from the terrace of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed hotel. For the first time in history, a war was brought live into our drawing rooms.

The unprecedented fire power which I saw from the 14th floor of Al Mansour hotel, remained a nightmare for months. This frightful exhibition, let it always be remembered, divided the world in perpetuity into two hostile sets of audience — the triumphant West and the defeated Muslim world, humiliated yet again. Had multiple channels been operational in India (they were not in 1991-92), would they have been cheering Western victory or Muslim defeat? It would have been bad form to pose this query then? Please note how times have changed and why the Supreme Court’s intervention is timely.

The Post 9/11 war on terror transformed itself into a crusade against Islam. Journalistic restraint became a casualty. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News flourished a revolver in front of a TV camera in October 2001 in Afghanistan. “Should I see Osama bin Laden anywhere, I shall finish him off with this,” said he, his finger on the trigger. The copycat Indian media, now in a phase of rapid expansion, picked up every inflection.

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Muslim education in India: Need for private and public sector investment

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?

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Muslim education in India

Muslim education in India: Eminent columnist Swaminathan A. Aiyar called upon Wakf boards and wealthy Muslims to finance the development of “a string of world-class education institutions” that would attract foreign students and Indian Hindus as well. His article was written in response to Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi’s recommendation for “government scholarships for all” to deal with the “literacy and attendance gaps” of Muslims and other communities.

The proposal was driven by his opinion that “the quality of government schools is so poor that giving more government scholarships will do little for Muslims or any other community”. And, that “Christians have long created their own educational institutions of excellence”.

There is no argument that Christians have created good educational institutions — as have Muslims and others I might add — and that government-supported schools need to be improved. But, a programme of the scope and nature that the article suggests would do nothing to address the very real problem that Owaisi has identified.

That problem is that Muslims and others in the weaker sections still lag far behind those in other religious groups in terms of their development. The development deficit occurs at points all along the educational continuum from pre-school through higher education.

The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 disclosed this “development deficit” for minorities in many areas. The report resulted in the creation of an across the board programme for the development of minorities in India.

Some progress has been made since then but much remains to be done:

  • In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5 per cent from 59.1 per cent in 2001. The rate for Muslim females was much lower at not quite 52 per cent.
  • A study released by the US India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 states that since 2006, “… the literacy level and the quantum of improvements for Muslims were modest compared to other populations.”
  • That same study showed that only 11 per cent of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19 per cent and that participation in the “general category of Muslims in higher education” had actually declined by 1.5 per cent for the period studied.
  • The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 75th round report cited by MP Owaisi showed that 22 per cent of Muslim girls aged 3 to 35 have never enrolled in a formal educational course.

These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?

In my opinion, the answer must be a comprehensive and collaborative effort financed and supported through public and private sector investment.

That effort should improve educational opportunity and quality at all levels. Educational literacy should be the starting line and higher education of some form should be the finish line.

For students at the primary and secondary levels, the Indian government needs to continue to upgrade its educational improvement initiatives to ensure basic knowledge, skills and abilities in language, science, mathematics and technology. Although madarasas educate only between 2-4 per cent of Muslim children and youth, they need to modernize their curriculum and move away from Islam centric or Islamic-only education to a holistic approach that enables these students to integrate fully into Indian society.

Higher education should not be solely the province of four-year colleges or universities. It should include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Education in those areas provides avenues for participation in 21st-century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting Muslims and those in the weaker sections out of poverty and deprivation.

I know from my personal involvement that Muslims are already making commitments to assist in providing educational opportunities for Muslims at all these levels. For example, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian origin supports hundreds of schools and scholarships for underprivileged Muslims and others throughout India.

The Duty Society of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has numerous members who have focused on educational development for those in the weaker sections and placed an intensified organizational focus there in 2016, its 125th anniversary year.

I myself have supported AMU with initiatives that enhance higher educational opportunities for Muslims and others including the funding of a new Management Complex, an Entrepreneurship Center, and an auditorium for the Mass Communications Department. At the dedication of the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex, I said, “From this Management Complex will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”

I have had a lifelong passion and commitment to improving girls’ access to and participation in meaningful education. If we empower girls through education, they are most likely to control their own destiny. Education prepares the girl to become a change agent. Too many families are trapped in poverty because of lack of education. With her own education, the girl who becomes a woman and a mother can educate and equip her children to escape that trap. This is why my wife Debbie and I have also committed to support the development of a technical school for women in Azamgarh UP. Those women graduates will make invaluable contributions to making India and the world a better place as well.

Addressing the development needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections is a strategic investment. It is a hand-up and not a hand-out. Those who get that hand-up will extend their hands to help others up. As a result, the return on these public and private investments will be exponential for the Indian economy and society.

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

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Column: Helping Indian SMEs to achieve scale – Behind Infra Lines

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As the Indian economy deals with the economic impact of the Corona induced slowdown, an opportunity to make constructive changes to the economic policies has arisen.

India needs a long hard look at ways to deregulate the economy and businesses. Deregulation pertains to not just the legal frameworks at play but the overarching tax, law and business frameworks that drive business decisions and policies. Changes that can help reduce the regulatory burdens and hindrances to business will help businesses in India achieve the elixir of “creating scale” to help them take advantage of economies of scale.

In a recent article, Paula Mariwala refers to the fact that if Adam Smith or Napoleon who referred to England as “a nation of shopkeepers” were to stereotype India, they would arguably refer to us as “a nation of entrepreneurs”. The article further goes on to state that 80 per cent of Indians find livelihoods in the informal sector. The two biggest takeaways from the article are both the importance of small businesses to the Indian economy and the need to help support small businesses.

While a lot is written and said about helping SMEs and MSMEs, the critical point that needs attention is how to assist businesses in India to scale to a larger size. Taking advantage of the concept of ‘economies of scale’ is probably the most significant need for companies across the spectrum in India. While lack of access to credit has been a large contributing factor to the hindrances faced by small businesses in India, a more effective and less complicated regulatory regime is equally important, if not more.

A closer look at the issue will show that a lack of access to credit and complex regulatory ecosystem that hampers the growth of small businesses are closely interlinked. As has been oft-repeated, Indian businesses suffer from the vicious cycle of not being able to formalise due to the complexity of the regulatory regime and, therefore, lacking access to credit and thereby remaining small are unable to achieve economies of scale.

Essentially, the inability to achieve scale today inhibits the ability to achieve scale in the future. Therefore, the critical question is how does the government turn this vicious cycle to a virtuous one in which small businesses are incentivised to formalise, access credit more easily, achieve scale and generate returns and get the ever-important tax revenue that is needed? Essentially, when making policy changes, one question that policymakers must keep in mind is whether the policy change will assist small businesses to achieve scale. While achieving ‘economies of scale’ cannot be the only determinant of policy decisions, it must surely be a major one.

For instance, for smaller businesses the concept of ‘job work’ whereby a larger business outsources some of its work to a smaller unit or a small unit outsources parts of the product creation to another small unit sounds routine but is of prime importance. Job work allows for economies of scale through specialisation. As India moves ahead, especially intending to boost manufacturing, the ability of small businesses to achieve scale will be driven through their ability to specialise that will allow them to scale and add technology. In this case, compliances around concepts such as ‘job work’ must get more attention in terms of ease and compliance burdens on businesses.

While the concept of jobwork and related regulation at the surface seems standard, a searching look on how Indian small businesses will grow will reveal the importance of rules around concepts such as jobwork. As mentioned earlier, scale is needed for businesses to thrive as the classic economic theory dictates. It is only after a threshold of scale is achieved that businesses can start enjoying the fruits of lower costs, greater profits, formalisation and access to credit, thereby further boosting growth. Indian SMEs have historically struggled for scale and the concomitant advantages that scale brings.

Therefore, as India emerges from the economic slowdown, significant attention must be paid towards the need of businesses to achieve scale. Capital flows, job creation and demand creation are all factors that revolve around the success and scalability of millions of businesses in India. Policy creation and changes that keep a close eye on assisting Indian businesses to scale amongst other factors will have a significant contribution to putting the wheels back on India’s growth story.

(The author heads Development Tracks, an advisory firm. You can contact him at [email protected] The views expressed in this article are personal and that of the author)

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