Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Today's newspaper articles

Today’s articles come from a number of sources: “The Diplomat”, “The Guardian” and the Foreign Policy” website.


They discuss a number of issues including: the perks of an Indian minister; corruption and the legacy of the out-going Prime minister,  Manmohan Singh.




Indian Politics: Get Rid of the Vampires

India’s politicians enjoy some astonishing perks for occasionally dubious contributions.

By Romi Jain for The Diplomat
January 13, 2014

We want all corrupt to be jailed and get severe most punishment.
- Arvind Kejriwal, activist-turned Chief Minister of Delhi

This statement echoes both the explicit and unexpressed desire and anguish of the common man in India. Although corruption extends to political, bureaucratic, corporate and other aspects of national life, cleansing the polity, the authoritative wielder of national destiny, is imperative. In fact, the magnitude of political corruption and the prevailing VIP culture that surrounds politics underscore the charm that public office holds for unscrupulous individuals. Moreover, indulging in corrupt practices is close to being a risk-free exercise. The loopholes in anti-corruption laws, overburdened judiciaries, vicious camaraderie among top to bottom officers and their nexuses with political bosses – all create a fertile ground for corruption. It is thus vital to rid Indian politics of the lure that tempts and places vampires feeding themselves at the cost of public exchequer.

Pays, Perks and Profligacy

In 2010, the members of Parliament (MPs) hiked their own salaries and allowances in a legislative amendment, unmoved by the contrasting grim plight of the common man. As a consequence, their monthly salary is Rs. 50,000 ($813), while monthly office and constituency allowances are Rs. 40,000 each. Members are also entitled to a daily allowance of Rs. 2,000 for each day of residence at a place where a parliamentary session is being held – a reward for attendance. But the story doesn’t end here. Their yearly amenities include 50,000 units of free electricity, 4,000 kiloliters of free water, three phone lines and 50,000 free local phone calls per line, and one free first-class air-conditioned or executive class train pass, in addition to access to medical facilities. MPs also benefit from such amenities as washing of sofa covers and curtains and an entitlement to furniture worth Rs.60,000 in respect of durable furniture and Rs.15,000 for non-durable furniture. According to the Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development, 2013, authored by National Social Watch, in terms of absolute amount, the value of Indian MP’s pays and perks is 68 times higher than the nation’s per capita income, and is also higher than that of their counterparts in Singapore, Japan and Italy.

Members of state legislative assemblies enjoy more or less similar comforts.

Meanwhile, as they enjoy their luxurious lifestyles, legislative members are reluctant to work. Revealing their abominable level of productivity, the National Social Watch Report states: “In 2010-12, Lok Sabha [House of the People] worked an average of less than four hours per day during 227 sittings in 852 hours…. The Rajya Sabha [Council of States] worked for 744 hours in 228 sittings. It functioned for three hours per day in each sitting instead of scheduled five hours, causing loss of about 442 hours in interruptions and forced adjournments.”

Consider the travel expenses of political elites. Between 2007 and 2012, Pratibha Patil, then president of India, a ceremonial post, spent Rs. 2.23 billion ($36.2 million) on overseas travel. No worthwhile national cause was served. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is perhaps less well known for his fondness for foreign travel. Yet since Singh’s assumption of office in 2004, Rs. 6.42 billion have been incurred on his 67 trips abroad, again with dubious benefits for India. The travel expenses of other political elites such as central ministers meanwhile surged from Rs. 0.56 billion in 2010-11 to Rs. 6.78 billion in 2011-12.

Media Vigilance and Public Activism

The recently passed Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013, aimed at creating anti-corruption watchdogs at the national and state levels, is expected to take on corruption. In fact, more reforms such as judicial streamlining and an electorate right to recall have been proposed from time to time. The key thing is that the reforms to check both corruption and profligacy need to be catalyzed by the trio of media, public and activists, as evidenced by the political triumph of anti-corruption movement (which evolved into the Aam Admi Party-AAP) in Delhi. AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s publicized statement that he is an Aam Admi or common man and his refusal to use escort vehicles have created media headlines, prompting political leaders in several other states to announce more or less similar measures. For example, Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav has decided to reduce the number of cars in his convoy. Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje, known for her “upscale lifestyle,” has halved her security details, decided to stop at red lights as do “common commuters,” and has chosen to reside in a small government residence rather than a luxurious bungalow. Though these are piecemeal measures, what is striking is that these governments and the parties they represent have become apprehensive of public fury. A somewhat similar example can be seen in China, where one of the purposes of the central leadership’s anti-graft campaigns is to assuage smoldering public anger over corruption-bred inequality while stifling the public interest in governance that can possibly be aroused by a temptation to share in the national treasure.

Of course, there are non-corrupt and humble leaders in India such as West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Tripura CM Manik Sarkar (known for “legendary honesty”), but they constitute a tiny percentage of the nation’s political class. Moreover, they are too humble to publicize their distinctiveness. Consequently, their clean record has failed to exert moral pressure on their thick-skinned counterparts. As such, public pressure, media vigilance, and determined activism appear essential for almost any political reform.

India needs to purge its political offices of unreasonable perks and privileges, promote a work culture, and above all make corruption a lethally risky exercise. Get rid of the vampires, in other words.

Romi Jain is Vice President of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, a bi-annual, peer-reviewed journal.


Dial C for corruption: Delhi's anti-graft hotline deluged with calls on first day

Alarm bells ring for corrupt officials across Indian capital as thousands of citizens join AAP's anti-corruption crusade

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi party, wants citizens to participate in sting operations against corrupt officials. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP

An anti-corruption helpline launched in Delhi on Thursday by the new city government received thousands of calls and more than 30 useful leads on its first day, the government has said.

The helpline, which can be reached on 011-27357169, was created as a top priority by the Aam Aadmi party (AAP). It aims to empower the public to become anti-graft inspectors by giving them advice on how to expose officials who demand bribes.

"People should understand that this is not a complaint number but a helpline, and an official will advise and explain to the public how to conduct a sting operation," AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told a news conference.

"After carrying out a sting operation, members of the public should contact the same adviser, following which a trap will be laid to nab the accused."
Kejriwal said on Thursday 3,904 calls were received by 3pm, and that 38 serious cases of graft had been reported. The helpline was found to be constantly engaged, despite repeated calls by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kejriwal, 45, a former tax official and social activist, said the hotline would be open from 8am to 10pm daily and would enable every Delhi citizen to become an anti-corruption crusader by helping to record evidence – audio or visual – against bribe takers.

"The purpose of launching this helpline is to create fear in the mind of every corrupt individual. Such people should fear they could be under surveillance at any time," he said, adding the vigilance department would look into corruption allegations.

The government will place advertisements in newspapers and on radio stations and put up hoardings in the city streets with the helpline number.

Tackling corruption was the AAP's main policy in the runup to the Delhi assembly elections last month, and a dedicated anti-graft helpline was one of the main priorities in the party's manifesto.

The party was formed in late 2012 after a two-year nationwide anti-corruption drive led by Kejriwal's former mentor, Gandhian activist Anna Hazare.

The fledgling party stunned many – including the ruling Congress and Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the main opposition – in the polls last month, winning 28 of the 70 seats and forming a new city government with outside support from the Congress Party.

Political analysts say the party has tapped into growing middle-class anger with Indian politicians, who are often perceived to be siphoning off public funds instead of providing public services.

Its success in Delhi rang alarm bells for the Congress and the BJP in the runup to a national election due by May, underlining that an increasingly young and urban electorate is fed up with the established parties.

The AAP promised in its manifesto to send corrupt city legislators to jail within a year. Nationally, almost a third of India's lawmakers face criminal charges, but many are shielded by the slow-moving legal system.

The AAP plans to convert the growing public anger over corruption into votes in the national elections.

  • © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


How the technocrat economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left India's economy in tatters.

As news flashes go, Manmohan Singh's Jan. 3 announcement that he intends to "hand over the baton to a new prime minister" was hardly earth shattering. Given his unpopularity after nearly a decade in office -- Singh's favorability rating hovers at about 5percent -- the 81-year-old already looked as likely to snag a third term as to win India a medal for skiing at the Sochi Olympics.

Nonetheless, his formal announcement -- at only his third press conference since he took office in 2004 -- sets the stage for an epic election showdown, most likely in April and May. Later this month, the ruling Congress Party is likely to name 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion, as its candidate to replace Singh as prime minister. Gandhi's main rival, 63-year-old Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has been crisscrossing the nation since the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anointed him their candidate in September. Polls show Gandhi trailing the pro-business Hindu nationalist; in December, the BJP pulverized Congress in four important state elections. And some pundits also expect a strong showing by the year-old Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by anticorruption activist Arvind Kejriwal.

Amid the battle to elect a new prime minister -- who will almost certainly be more charismatic and effective than the incumbent -- it sometimes seems as though Singh has already faded into retirement. But his lackluster record will frame the upcoming election.

On Jan. 3, Singh tried to put his best foot forward. He spoke of his government achieving the country's highest growth "for any nine-year period," delivering "a New Deal for rural India" by raising incomes, and pulling 138 million people out of poverty.

He touted new legislation to check corruption, and older efforts to boost government transparency. For good measure, he warned that electing Modi -- on whose watch in 2002 Gujarat witnessed anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people -- would prove "disastrous" for India. (Modi denies wrongdoing, and in December a lower court
up held a Supreme Court-ordered investigation that cleared him of complicity in the riots.)

Unfortunately for Singh, many people view his legacy in less charitable terms. The Oxford-educated economist inherited a nation filled with hope and leaves it filled with doubt and despair. He entered the prime minister's office as a widely-respected former finance minister, known for probity and quiet dignity, and will exit it as a byword for weakness and ineffectual governance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates India's economy grew at 3.8 percent in 2013, about a third of its all-time high of 10.6 percent in 2010. Despite his best efforts, Singh failed to produce a breakthrough in relations with neighboring Pakistan or consolidate ties with the United States. And the staggering scale of corruption under Singh will likely linger in memory longer than his reputation for personal honesty.

The scandals that stained Singh's once spotless reputation underscore the futility of expecting a prime minister's personal integrity to curb graft. In the 2G scam, the government lost the country as much as $40 billion by selling mobile licenses at throwaway prices to favored companies. Reports of padded contracts-- $80 toilet rolls and $19,500 treadmills, and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate -- tainted the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Of what use is a leader who keeps his own hand out of the cookie jar, ask critics, if he can't stop others from emptying it before his eyes?

Singh's inability to assert himself highlights the importance of electing a prime minister by popular vote. In hindsight, Singh -- a technocrat with no mass following, whom Italian-born Congress President Sonia Gandhi propped up to sidestep controversy over her foreign origins -- always lacked the authority to lead effectively. To make matters worse, the media-shy Singh refused to seize the bully pulpit his office offered. In the age of 24/7 television news and social media, nobody can hope to run India as a recluse. As in most major democracies, a degree of accessibility to the public and the press needs to become part of the prime minister's job description. (Both Modi and Kejriwal deliver powerful speeches and possess an instinctive understanding of television.)

For the United States, the end of the Singh era also offers an opportunity for reflection. Before India's economy turned south sharply in 2012, conventional wisdom in Washington was to take for granted India's rise as a peaceful, democratic, counterbalance to China. During his November 2010 visit, President Barack Obama declared, "India is not just a rising power, it has already risen." Now it appears that those words may have been spoken prematurely, especially in relation to the economy.

Indeed, an assessment of India's first economist prime minister must focus on the economy. As the finance minister who implemented important reforms in 1991, Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import duties and ended government monopolies in much of the economy. As prime minister, however, instead of deepening reform Singh presided over a government that lurched to the left by plumping for redistribution over growth.

Among Singh's first acts in office in 2004 was to scrap the Ministry of Disinvestment that had begun privatizing loss-making state-owned companies. (Taxpayers continue to subsidize staggeringly inefficient firms like Air India and Scooters India.) The flagship economic initiative of Singh's first term -- an unwieldy "employment guarantee" scheme promising 100 days of work for the rural poor -- distorted labor markets, boosted corruption and helped inflate the fiscal deficit.

The technocratic Singh also showed that he could pander to voters just as nakedly as any old-fashioned populist. In 2008, a $15 billion loan waiver forgiving the debts of small farmers placed the Congress Party's re-election above fiscal responsibility and fostering a responsible culture of credit. Along with lending by state-owned banks to politically well-connected firms, the waiver weakened the banking system. In 2013, Morgan Stanley estimated problem loans accounted for 9 percent of India's total compared to less than 5 percent five years ago.

Less tangible, but arguably no less damaging, was the Congress Party's popularization of the term "inclusive growth," which implies that somehow growth is not a good thing in itself. As commentator Clive Crook points out, Chinese policymakers would see this ambivalence "as a form of derangement." In India, it portended a slide back toward the old socialist habit of viewing private enterprise with mistrust.

Besides a burst of trade liberalization, India achieved precious little from Singh's first term (2004-2009). Nonetheless, growth received a boost from a strong global economy awash with surplus cash, and the effect of a flurry of reforms in taxation, telecom, infrastructure, and aviation that Singh's predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee had initiated. Meanwhile, government spending helped India emerge from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed on the surface. But the stage for the country's dramatic slowdown had already been set.

Only after Singh's comfortable reelection in 2009 did investors begin to lose confidence in India. They expected the prime minister, no longer dependent on support from Communist parties as in his first term, to unleash long-delayed reform in banking, insurance, and retail. Instead, India began to backslide. The Environment Ministry quickly turned into an immovable roadblock for large steel, aluminum, and real estate projects. In 2012, then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee amended the law to introduce retroactive taxation after the government lost a $2.2 billion tax dispute with telecom firm Vodafone. Needing to increase revenue collection to pay for expansive welfare programs, tax authorities began aggressively targeting private firms, including foreign ones such as Nokia,Cadbury, and Royal Dutch Shell. Meanwhile, heavy-handed regulations requiring a greater proportion of technology products sold domestically to be made in India angered firms such as IBM.

Unsurprisingly, GDP growth plummeted. In the first six years of Singh's tenure, it averaged a robust 8.6 percent; in the final four, 4.6 percent, according to IMF estimates.

That's below par for a country at India's stage of development, and not nearly fast enough to create the 15 million new jobs the country needs annually to employ a youthful population. And yet India remains one of the world's toughest large markets in which to do business. It slipped three places to number 134 on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings in 2014, behind such icons of market friendliness as Ukraine, Paraguay, and Ethiopia. As for corruption, which Singh claims his government has worked hard to combat, Transparency International ranks India 94 out of 177 countries worldwide, marginally worse than the 88th place it held in 2005. Nor has India's economic slowdown forced a serious rethink. In 2013, Singh's government passed a law promising subsidized food grains to 800 million people, and a land acquisition law that businessmen say will halt industrialization by making it exceedingly difficult to buy land for factories.

Businesses have got the message: In the first seven months of the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, foreign direct investment declined 13 percent to $18.9 billion compared to the same period the previous year. Morgan Stanley economist Ruchir Sharma blames Singh for India's swift metamorphosis "from breakout to breakdown nation."

Singh epitomized the complacency and hubris of India, Sharma said, which mistook a buoyant global economy for evidence that it could continue to grow rapidly while focusing on redistribution rather than reform.

Singh could easily be criticized for more than just corruption scandals and mishandling the economy. In terms of foreign policy, the prime minister's most cherished achievement, the landmark 2008 civil nuclear agreement with the United States, has stalled: Not a single new reactor has been built in India under its auspices after a tough liability law passed by India's parliament in 2010 made projects commercially unviable.

And the recent drama over the arrest and de facto expulsion of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade -- over charges of visa fraud and making false statements about a domestic employee -- was preceded by a longer period of drift between the two nations.

In judging the prime minister's legacy, though, these are mere asides. Singh first built his global reputation as an economic reformer, and it is that record that will be scrutinized most carefully. In hindsight, Singh was not an economic visionary, but a technocrat who managed to scurry up the greasy pole of power by keeping his head down and his voice low. When he served the reformist Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96), Singh delivered reform. When he served the populist Sonia Gandhi, he pursued "inclusive" growth.

Either way, it's not much of a legacy. Whoever is sworn in as prime minister later this year will struggle to return India to the path of high growth and rising global stature that so many Indians had begun to take for granted. And they will remain aware that the man who once kindled hope that India would be the next Asian tiger left behind the plodding elephant of old.


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