Ambiguity on Telangana may hurt Congress

Hyderabad: As elections approach, Congress workers in Andhra Pradesh’s Telangana area find themselves in a spot because their party is the only one that doesn’t have a strong position on the demand for a separate state to be carved out of the region.

Andhra Pradesh will see both state and general elections simultaneously.

Telangana is one of the three regions the state is divided into. It comprises 10 districts, including state capital Hyderabad. The region accounts for 119 of the state’s 294 assembly seats and 17 of 42 Lok Sabha seats. The demand for statehood is often used by regional, and even national parties, as a political issue. There is a widespread belief that statehood guarantees development.

Actor-politician Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam took the lead in supporting the demand for Telangana’s statehood in August. In October, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the state’s main opposition party that had opposed the demand for statehood, did a volte-face.

Then came a chorus of similar voices. In November, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, promised it would carve out a separate state within 100 days of coming to power.

It was in January 2008, that the Communist Party of India (CPI) had backed the demand for Telangana state. However, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, is firm on its stand against smaller states.

Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), spearheading the movement for statehood, has joined the TDP, CPI and CPM to form a so-called Grand Alliance (Maha Kootami) against the ruling Congress. The TRS, which was an ally of Congress in 2004, won 26 assembly and five Lok Sabha seats. It joined the Congress-led coalition governments both in the state and centre. However, it subsequently accused the Congress of going back on its promise for a separate state and pulled out of both governments.

Even the Congress would appear to be blinking. Last month, chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy suggested the creation of a constitutional body to assess the backwardness of Telangana region and take measures to improve it, but analysts see this as a move to calm dissidents within the party who support the case for Telangana’s statehood.

Uppunuthula Purushottam Reddy, a member of the Congress and chairman of the Telangana Planning and Development Board formed by the government in May 2007, said statehood is a prerequisite for development.

Chief minister Reddy had repeatedly said his government is keen to develop the region. Insisting that the constitutional committee would deliberate on the issues and concerns, he said further steps could be taken after the committee submitted its report.

“Absence of clarity on the demand for statehood to Telangana is definitely a cause of concern among Congress cadres in the region, especially when all the other parties in the state are supporting Telangana now, including TDP,” said B. Kamalakar Rao, member of legislative council and spokesperson for the Congress in the state.
However, he claimed the lack of unity among the members of Grand Alliance on seat sharing in the ensuing elections and the fact that CPM is opposed to formation of small states would only work in favour of the Congress. “There should be no problem for at least 50 Congress contestants out of 119 assembly seats in the Telangana region, who have been known as strong protagonists for the cause of Telangana. Same is the case with candidates from other parties. Irrespective of which party they belong to, only those known for their sincerity towards statehood to Telangana will get elected,” said Rao.

One analyst isn’t convinced. “Telangana is just one of many issues over which Congress cadres are finding difficult to face (the) public, the other issues being allegations of rampant corruption, rising prices of essential commodities, poor medical and education facilities in rural areas and lack of connectivity to villages,” said C. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst.

C.R. Sukumar

With an eye on national stage, BSP may field 500 candidates

New Delhi: The party that fields the most candidates in the coming general election may not be the Congress party or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which sees this as a long-term strategy to build a national presence—a move dismissed by the party’s political opponents.

BSP plans to contest in 500 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in the five-phase general election that starts on 16 April.

To be sure, a similar approach in 2004 didn’t help the party much in terms of the number of representatives it sent to Parliament. That year, it won 19 of the 435 seats it contested, all in Uttar Pradesh, the same state where the party was elected to power three years later, in 2007.

“In the beginning, there was a similar situation in Uttar Pradesh, wherein many people taunted the party saying that it could not win a single seat despite fielding so many candidates. But then through the years, the party gained and now has a sizeable vote share,” said Chander Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist.

The BJP plans to field candidates in 430 constituencies. The Congress didn’t comment specifically on whether it would field more than 500 candidates. “As of now, we are fielding around 400 candidates. But the final lists are yet to be released,” said Tom Vadakkan, secretary, All India Congress Committee (AICC).

A BJP spokesperson said that in a democracy, “every party has a right to field as many number of candidates that they want to. While our allies and friends will be contesting on around 100 seats, BJP will be fielding candidates on the remaining seats”.

BSP’s numbers game would seem to be working if recent state elections are any indication.

According to a study by Marketing and Development Associates (MDRA), a New Delhi-based research consultancy, the party’s vote share rose from 4.5% to 6.5% in Chhattisgarh; 4.8% to 11% in Madhya Pradesh; 2.5% to 14% in Delhi; and from 3.2% to 7.6% in Rajasthan. While the later figures are based on the November 2008 assembly elections in these states, the earlier ones are based on the 2004 general election.

Praveen Rai, a psephologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the BSP could be a significant player in these states. “They may be able to influence 10-15 seats in all, from constituencies based in these states.”

According to Prasad, the BSP spent most of the past decade focusing on its growth within Uttar Pradesh. “Now this really is the time for the party to spread its wings.”

“The idea is to make our presence felt and make an impact in as many constituencies as possible,” said a senior leader of BSP, who did not want to be identified.

That will start happening now, but the real difference will be in the next election, said a psephologist.

According to Mahesh Rangarajan, BSP’s aim is to take its vote share to around 10%. “It is very likely that they will substantially raise their vote share and there is a good chance that BSP will emerge as the third largest party in the coming elections.” The real election for the party, however, “would be the next one”, he added.

However, political opponents do not think BSP’s strategy will work.
“They will not be able to make any significant impact in any state outside Uttar Pradesh. Fielding a large number of candidates is something that any party can do,” said B.K. Hariprasad, a general secretary with AICC, and Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari added that the number of candidates fielded by a political party is no measure of its prospects.

A BSP leader from Kerala, A. Neela Lohithadasan Nadar, said that the main message the party plans to take to the people is the projection of Mayawati, the party’s chief and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as India’s prime minister. “We are also telling the people that both the Congress as well as the Left have failed to bring development to the state. We hope to win more than one seat,” added Nadar.

However, the party’s expansion drive has also raised questions about how it is able to fund election campaigns across the country.
“There is absolutely no transparency on how the political parties, including BSP, are funding the elections. When you ask the parties as to how they are able to support their campaigns with just voluntary contributions, they say that the candidates also share the burden. But it is impossible to trace the expenditure on the field to the money raised by the parties,” said Jagdish Chokker of activist group Association for Democratic Reforms.

K.P. Narayana Kumar

Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.

Apex court turns down Dutt’s plea

New Delhi: In a precedent-setting judgement against criminalization of politics, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to stay the conviction of Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate and Bollywood film star Sanjay Dutt in connection with the 1993 Mumbai blasts. A stay would have allowed him to contest the general election.

According to legal experts, the apex court’s order is significant and could deny convicted politicians the opportunity to seek temporary stays from courts, enabling them to contest elections. This is because the existing law prohibits convicted criminals with a minimum sentence of two years from contesting elections.

The focus will now shift to candidates who have been convicted and are yet to serve their sentence because they are appealing their punishment in one court or another. Mint couldn’t immediately ascertain the number of such candidates contesting the general election that begins on 16 April.

People who have been convicted and have served their sentence, however, are free to contest the election six years after their release. Still, the court’s ruling on Monday will affect the electoral aspirations of some.

Senior counsel Sushil Kumar said similar cases could also be rejected by courts on the same principle. “People who are involved in criminal cases should have their cases decided first and then rush to do public service with a clean image.”

He added that the disqualification clause applies only to those who have been convicted by courts’ orders. “There is no limitation on undertrials who can contest from jail,” he said.

Senior counsel Majid Memon said the order “sends a signal to the Indian democracy that we need a cleaner Parliament and minimization of criminalization”.

Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member, Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organization that works towards improving and strengthening democracy and governance in India, said, “Barring any candidate convicted by law from fighting elections is a good step. One cannot predict what courts in future would do in the context of the Supreme Court verdict on Sanjay Dutt. However, any law declared by the Supreme Court is the law of the land and should be binding on other courts. But even then, at this point, one cannot say whether this is really it (the beginning of the end of criminalization in Indian politics).”

In 2006, Dutt was convicted under the Arm’s Act and sentenced to six years imprisonment by a special court. He appealed to the Supreme Court in 2007 and sought a suspension of his sentence. In March, he approached the court for further relief seeking a stay on his conviction so he could contest the polls as an SP candidate.
Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act bars individuals convicted for crimes that attract sentences that are more than two years from contesting elections. Its sub-section 4, however, says that for incumbent members of Parliament the disqualification starts three months from the date of conviction to allow them to file an appeal. After filing an appeal, the sitting representative is not disqualified from contesting elections till the case is decided by the court.

In 2007, the Supreme Court stayed the conviction of former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is now a member of Parliament representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The bench mentioned that the same principle could not be applied in this case as unlike Dutt, Sidhu was a sitting member of Parliament when he was convicted. It added that Section 389 of the Criminal Procedure Code under which courts can grant stays on criminal conviction, can only be applied “under rare circumstances” .

“We do not think this is a fit case for suspension of conviction,” said Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan who delivered the verdict on behalf of a three-judge bench.

Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan said while the Dutt judgement is “significant”, “the Sidhu judgement has to be explained” by the courts. “There should be clarity on what sort of cases are rarest of rare cases so courts can suspend convictions. Sometimes innocent people are prosecuted due to a mistake of fact or law and later an appellate court says he is innocent. Whatever it is, the election process must be uniform and predictable. If a conviction cannot be suspended in any situation it needs to be explained.”

Both the Congress and the BJP welcomed the apex court decision. “Our decision not to field a candidate was solely due to our respect to his late father (Sunil Dutt),” Congress spokesperson Ashwini Kumar said.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley said: “We believe that the popular confidence in democracy and electoral system will be strengthened as a result of this judgement.”

Liz Mathew and Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.

Malathi Nayak

Candidates look to win battle of the ballot on their mask appeal

Bangalore: Narendra Modi’s mask became popular in the 2007 Gujarat elections; Barack Obama’s in the 2008 US presidential polls.

Now, in the run-up to India’s general election that starts in two weeks, a company based in the city is looking to make money by selling masks of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), president H.D. Deve Gowda.

Events House, possibly the only national supplier of cardboard masks of various political leaders, claims to have received orders from the Congress, the BJP and the JD(S). “Even the Bahujan Samaj Party and independents have expressed interest,” said S. Yeshwanth, business head, Events House. News of the company’s growing business from the sale of masks of politicians was first reported by The Hindu on 25 March.

Each mask costs around Rs5-6 and is made from thick recycled paper. “Since this is worn on the face and touches the skin, we use good quality recycled paper which is both environment friendly and also skin-friendly” said Yeshwanth. Some masks sport a string; others have an elastic band (these are marginally expensive).

On Saturday, K. Siddalingiah, a BJP party worker sporting an Atal Bihari Vajpayee mask, said the mask was a good way to remind people about India’s former prime minister and BJP leader who isn’t campaigning because of ill health.

Workers of at least three political parties also say that with some constituencies having become larger, it might be difficult for politicians to meet every voter. Masks are a good way to reach out, said Putta Swamy Gowda who works for the Congress. “Who reads those dense manifestoes? At the end of the day it is the leaders and candidates who matter.”

A recent rally of Sonia Gandhi at Davanagere in Karnataka saw brisk sales of her masks. According to Yeshwanth, masks of politicians such as Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Advani, Deve Gowda and Vajpayee are likely to be perennial favourites and best-sellers unlike those of lesser-known candidates. Still, several such candidates have also ordered masks. For instance, the JD(S) candidate N. Cheluvaraswamy, who is contesting from Mandya, has ordered a few thousand masks.
Yeshwanth said the Election Commission’s guidelines has crimped the amount parties and candidates could spend.

Events House itself, Yeshwanth added, doesn’t have any political affiliations. It sells pamphlets, booklets, flags, party symbols, and even offers “standard A3 size printed cards with slogans”.
None of these, he said, guarantees success at the polls. “Ultimately, the people decide.”

Venkatesha Babu

‘I am nobody’s stooge; I will not prostitute myself’

Bangalore: Popularly known as Captain, G.R. Gopinath is into his fourth business and second political venture. Last week, he announced that he would contest the general election from the Bangalore South constituency as an independent candidate.

Gopinath has been a military man, an award-winning farmer and a pioneer in Indian civil aviation. He launched a helicopter company called Deccan Aviation Ltd in 1996, Air Deccan in 2003 that introduced low-cost flying in the country and is now managing a cargo carrier.

Gopinath contested and lost elections in 1994 on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket from Ghandsi in Hassan district of Karnataka. This time, he will pit himself against the BJP’s Ananth Kumar, a former civil aviation minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet and four-time member of Parliament from Bangalore South.

The day Mint met him in his colonial bungalow adjoining UB Group chairman Vijay Mallya’s house, it was buzzing with activity. Amid all the preparations for the poll battle, Gopinath spoke about the reasons that made him contest. Edited excerpts:

What was the trigger (for jumping into the contest)?
I was in Mumbai when the dastardly terrorist attack took place. I also saw the attacks on churches and minorities in Karnataka and how the administration failed to act. The recent attack on women in pubs at Mangalore was the final trigger… When a clerk in my office told me that instead of complaining, we should act, I decided.

You were earlier with the BJP. Why as an independent now?
Even this time around the BJP offered me a ticket, though from a different constituency. Other parties, too, approached me to contest. But I feel that the (political) parties have failed the people. All of them state lofty ideals but none of them sticks to it. In 1994, I was a progressive farmer when the BJP, which didn’t have much presence (here), approached and convinced me to contest elections. I toured 410 villages in a short time but lost elections. Eventually, I became disillusioned with the party and quit in the same year.
We have to change the political system. We want our children to be engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs—anything but politicians. We have to change that.

There is talk that you are being propped up by Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to defeat his internal party rival Ananth Kumar.
(Angrily) I am nobody’s stooge; I will not prostitute myself.

Why Lok Sabha? Karnataka has sent several industrialists such as M.A.M. Ramaswamy, Vijay Mallya and Rajeev Chandrasekhar to the Upper House. Wouldn’t that have been the easy route ?
Let us be clear. It is no secret that most of them bought their seats either by funding parties or selling their souls. I want the people to elect me.

How do you intend to fund your campaign?
With my own money. I will spend Rs25 lakh. The interesting thing is that young and old people across caste, class, community barriers are volunteering their time and money for the campaign.

Have you got support from your fellow entrepreneurs?
NRN (N.R. Narayana Murthy, non-executive chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd) is travelling but has expressed support. Others such as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (chairman and managing director of Biocon Ltd), Ramesh Ramanathan (co-founder of non-profit institution Janaagraha and a Mint columnist), T.V. Mohandas Pai (human resources head of Infosys), Pradeep Kar (chairman and managing director of Microland Ltd) and Prasad Bidappa (fashion designer) are actively participating and brainstorming for the campaign.

What impact would it have on your business interests?
None. In fact, I am expecting to take deliveries of planes for my cargo venture next month. I am sure all of us are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.

Venkatesha Babu

National Agenda Debates: India’s Foreign Policy

Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth installment in Mint’s National Agenda Debates series. This week we ask “What should India choose: A muscular foreign policy or coercive diplomacy?” As always our views team personnel will be jumping in to respond to your questions and comments so keep coming back! To participate, click on the link below:

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Where college is the first step towards a bigger political role

Amit Singh and Harshavardhan Shyam exchange repartee at a wayside eatery outside Tapti hostel at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a 1,000-acre campus with 6,000 students on its rolls.

There’s no hint of hostility in the banter, but that could well have been deceptive.

Shyam and his team, activists of the Congress party’s students wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), had spent the previous day plastering campus walls with leaflets.

The leaflets condemn Varun Gandhi, 29, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is in the news for allegedly delivering a hate speech targeting the Muslim community at a rally in Uttar Pradesh.

There is a footnote: NSUI is also critical of a physical skirmish in one of the university hostels where, it claims, a rival students’ grouping of which Singh is a member, beat up a Muslim student.
This is how student politics is practised across India. Campus issues merge with topics of national importance for activists who treat the time they spend in college as the first step towards a bigger political role—perhaps as a member of Parliament, perhaps as a minister.

As the April-May general election approaches, the pitch of on-campus political rhetoric is rising as student politicians try their skills at oratory and vote garnering, and attempt to get noticed by senior party leaders who may groom them for that bigger role.

JNU has fostered a culture of political debate and discussion, giving rise to politicians who have occupied the national stage. Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, Left leaders who broke away from the current Manmohan Singh government over differences on the India-US nuclear deal, fought and won university elections.
The student community at JNU is aware of this, but some say they resent the campus being used for political gain not often translated into benefits for the university.

They want their leaders not to lose focus of college issues, such as a recent strike by students against allowing ad films to be shot at Parthasarthy Rock, an on-campus romantic idyll, or the more serious proposed fee for use of electricity by students who pay Rs300 as hostel fees every semester.

“Many students use laptops for a lot of their work, they cannot pay for electricity,” said Munni Bharti, a master’s student of Hindi, who, along with her peers, is sitting outside one of the ubiquitous dhabas (wayside eateries) for an in-between-classes break.

Some of the students’ demands, which they want their leaders to pursue, seem simply a resistance to change, change which they term a commercialization of the campus such as putting up concrete benches outside dhabas.

But deeper concerns—the preservation of the university’s open debate culture—also prevail, which students say gets affected if political parties take too direct an interest on-campus or if student leaders use campus incidents for political gain.

“Politics (at JNU) till now was without outside interference. Now that has changed,” said Vishesh Rai, a master’s student of Hindi, who says he leans left in ideology.

The outside influence that Rai is referring to is political party activists, who are not students, living on campus at the time of political rallies. He said he has twice talked to political party workers living in campus hostels.

Rai and Bharti see this off-campus influence as translating into violence, typified by the hostel skirmish or a fight at a dhaba earlier.
“JNU was never known for any physical fights, but fights of ideology. Now physical fights have started on campus,” said Rai.

Student leaders such as Roshan Kishore, expelled from campus earlier this month for opposing an increase in the price of the JNU prospectus and then reinstated, say aspiring for the national stage is a natural progression.

Campus politics, they say, is one of the ways young people can get attracted to politics as a career.

“Among young politicians, there is a large section who were born in politicians’ families and got politics as an inheritance,” said Kishore, a member of the Students Federation of India, the students’ unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “If instead of Rahul Gandhi, you or I were born in Sonia Gandhi’s family, we would be politicians. That’s a wrong trend; politicians should come up by practising politics among people.”

Kishore, who is hanging out at his party’s central office in New Delhi, slits open a bundle of pamphlets which take on the present government’s policies on education. The pamphlets will be distributed on campuses. The on-campus student leaders will canvass for votes in the general election for candidates fielded by their parent organizations.

NSUI’s Shyam, who helped paste the anti-Varun Gandhi posters on the campus, says he will campaign for the Congress party.
“I am personally going to Bulandshahar (in Uttar Pradesh). There is a retired IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer, his name is Devi Dayal. He is contesting from there. I will be going and canvassing for him,” said Shyam, who did his post-graduation from the Delhi School of Economics and is a research scholar at JNU.

Almost in a two-way process, political parties are reaching out to campuses to swing young voters their way.

The BJP launched an ambitious “Advani@Campus” programme last month, beginning at JNU, where volunteers will spread prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani’s message in 500 colleges.

National leaders who trace their roots to student politics say they don’t forget their alma mater on the national stage.

“We never forget college problems, the shortfalls of educational institutions. (From) time to time we raise these problems,” said Vijay Goel, a BJP member who fought and won elections of Delhi University in his student days, and is contesting for the New Delhi constituency in the general election.

Though the various student factions are bitter rivals, they have been known to drop their ideologies on a few college issues such as opposition to the Lyngdoh committee on campus elections.
Singh, who belongs to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, allied to the BJP, said students united to oppose a stipulation that a candidate cannot contest elections twice, and an age limit on candidates. The case is now in the Supreme Court.

“It is an attempt not to let experienced leaders come up. Experienced leaders know how to deal with (college) administration,” said Singh, who did his master’s in international relations at JNU and is now a research scholar.

Singh is dismissive of the brouhaha over Varun Gandhi. “Sometimes during a speech, two or four aggressive words are used,” said Singh, who calls the reaction to the speech a “mountain made out of a molehill”.

Aparna Kalra