Romelu Lukaku: A £75m gamble

Is the Belgian striker the right man to fire Manchester United to glory?

 

Manchester United splashed £75m on Everton forward Romelu Lukaku after growing frustrated in their chase to sign Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.

That is a significant outlay on a player who has not yet played for a big club and, at 24, will most certainly be expected to fire on all cylinders as United look to mount a challenge for the Premier League.

Chelsea signed him from Anderlecht for £18m as an 18-year-old in 2011, but except a handful of appearances, he has spent much of his senior career at mid-table also-rans West Bromwich Albion and Everton. These are big clubs, but Manchester United is bigger, perhaps the biggest in the world, and that comes with its own unique pressures.

It’s also interesting that Jose Mourinho, who sanctioned Lukaku’s sale to Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell the previous year, questioned his attitude.

“He wanted to play for Chelsea, but clearly only as first-choice striker — and at a club of our dimension it’s very difficult to promise a player that status. We want to be inside financial fair play rules, you have to analyse these situations,” the United boss said at that time.

The Belgian has since gone on to score 71 goals in 133 matches for the Merseyside club. At Everton, he played with a lot of freedom than what Mourinho will afford him at Old Trafford. He was the big star there; at United, he is one among a plethora.

While United snapping him up from under Chelsea’ noses was a coup, a report in The Liverpool Echo will make the situation uncomfortable for the player, manager, and the fans. The report says Mourinho insisted on Chelsea not inserting a buy-back clause during Lukaku’s sale, suggesting that he did not believe the Belgian would develop sufficiently, and that such an option would be worthless in the long run. As a result, Chelsea took the £28m that Everton offered instead of selling him for a lower value with a buyout clause.

Lukaku, as a player, lacks the finesse and the class that traditional strikers who have played in the famous red had. He is a flat-track bully and a target man who can be used a battering ram. At Everton and West Brom, he played with freedom. At United, he’ll be expected to break down teams that camp outside their own penalty box. In this respect, Morata would have been a better player, having played for two of Europe’s biggest clubs in Juventus and Real Madrid. Real wanted £79m for him, but United chose to pay £75m for Lukaku.

Reports, however, suggest that the fee could rise even further with £15m in add-ons and a £10m waiver of Wayne Rooney’s transfer fee ahead of his return to his boyhood club. A potential world record fee is a huge show of faith to a player who has no UEFA Champions League experience. As United return to the competition after a year’s absence, Lukaku will need to quickly delivering. Here, too, Morata, who has led the line for Juventus and Real Madrid, would have been the better option.

Even for the national team, bristling with the talents of Eden Hazard, Dries Martens and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Lukaku is not seen as the real goal threat despite scoring his fair share of goals (20 goals in 57 caps). That speaks volumes about a player who wants to return United to their days of dominance.

His record against last season’s top six makes grim reading for anyone who thinks £75m plus add-ons represent a transfer coup for Manchester United. Lukaku has scored only 16 times in 57 matches against the sextet. Although he scored in both the matches against Manchester City last season, his impact against the other teams does not offer too much hope, at least for the time being.

The Belgian’s prowess in the air is a positive, especially with United losing the physicality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that got them a lot of goals last season.

His arrival will also add to Mourinho’s problems of finding an attacking focal point. Lukaku is not someone who will track back and start off moves if things are not going his way. He is more traditional that way and relies on his physicality to bully his way through. That may work sporadically against teams in the Premier League’s bottom half. Time will tell whether he is able to unlock Chelsea, Liverpool or Tottenham with that kind of play.

Lukaku will need to adapt and the test will begin from the first time he pulls on the red shirt, even if it’s in a pre-season tournament in the United States.

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The fake news invasion

Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth — Joseph Goebbels

 

On March 5, 2015, an outraged mob of 7,000-8,000 stormed into Dimapur jail, dragged out a rape accused, and lynched him. A government report to the Centre following that event said “it appeared to be a case of consensual sex”. It also said the victim had paid the woman Rs 5,000 after they twice had sex.

The spark behind the attack was a Facebook post that claimed that the man, a Muslim, was an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. In reality, Syed Farid Khan was a 35-year-old used car businessman. Originally from Karimganj district in Assam, Khan had been living in Nagaland for eight years.

That was the first real instance of fake news being directly responsible for the loss of a life in India. Since then, the “industry” has only exploded, and India can thank its ruling dispensation for that. The BJP has become pioneers in unleashing its massive army of Twitter trolls on both voices of dissent against the party and the government as well as Opposition leaders. The phenomenon first began after the party anointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; since then, it has only got worse. There have been attempts to falsify facts to either glorify the government and the party or undermine the Opposition, including celebrities who hold an opposing view.

The BJP’s massive information-technology cell uses photo editing software, source images from other countries — positive and negative — and use those to further their goals. But the phenomenon is not entirely Indian.

Long before Modi even considered running for India’s premiership, a burgeoning fake news industry existed in Nazi Germany, and, after its fall, the Soviet Union. The powers that be in these two countries used the lack of alternative information sources to further their agenda by using propaganda machinery.

Robert Darnton traces this history even further, going back, through the Roman “pasquinade”, French “canards”, and English “paragraphs”, to the sixth century AD.

George Orwell was the first to identify the problem of fake news in Politics and the English Language where he explained that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful” through the use of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. Donald J. Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” has its roots in this theory.

The explosion of the Internet and its easy availability coincided with the growth and expansion of fake news to become what it is now — and social media, especially Facebook, has been blamed for its role in that expansion. The New York Times, in an editorial, even went as far as calling it the “digital virus”.

The term itself first caught on after Trump accused CNN of being “fake news” during his first press conference as president-elect. In fact, Trump was perhaps the biggest winner of the fake news industry that has made Facebook its home.

Max Read went as far as crediting the social media giant for Trump’s rise. “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news,” he wrote in Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.

When people were still reliant on newspapers and television and radio for information, editors and reporters had the nous to suppress conspiracy theories or stories that could potentially cause harm. Although these would slip out at times, such occurrences were rare thanks to the “gatekeepers” (editors, reporters) of the news industry. But the explosion of the Internet have made them redundant.

Several surveys have put the percentage of people whose primary source of news as social media significantly higher than those that depend on mainstream sources. The results of a 2016 YouGov survey of 50,000 people across 26 countries and published by the BBC put social media ahead of television as the main source of news for people in the 18-to-24 age bracket. The results also showed that of the people surveyed, 28 per cent of the youth cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24 per cent for television. The study also found that Facebook was the most common source — used by 44 per cent of the respondents, followed by YouTube on 19 per cent and Twitter on 10 per cent.

A Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research showed 51 per cent of people with online access used social media as a news source. It also showed that more than half of all online users across the 36 countries (54 per cent) it surveyed said they used social media as a source of news each week, ranging from 76 per cent in Chile to 29 per cent in Japan and Germany. It said that more than one in 10 (14 per cent) were now dependent on social media as their main source.

It’s not only the consumers who depend on social media for news. A survey of 275 people, including 239 journalists and 36 from related professions such as PR and brand consultants, communication managers, content writers, journalism students, ex-journalists, conducted by The Hoot, an Indian website that monitors media in the subcontinent, found how the advent of social media has changed news-gathering as well. It showed that among the journalists who professionally used social media, 69 per cent (190 out of 275) for Twitter and 61 per cent (169 out of 275) for Facebook, used the two forums as a news source, including to find leads for their stories.

Facebook’s pre-eminence as a source of dissemination of news, while getting a lot more people in the know, also has its downside. In the run-up to the presidential elections in the United States, Gizmodo published a story where a former news curator at the social media giant said they routinely suppressed stories of interest to conservative readers from its Trending section. The former journalist, who worked on the project, said they prevented conservative topics from appearing in the section despite organically trending among the site’s users.

This caused furore across the country and there were calls on Facebook to investigate. Three days later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company “found no evidence that this report is true.” Another two days later, Facebook announced automating Trending Topics, fired the section’s editorial team and replaced them with engineers. While many thought that would curtail the problem of fake news, a Washington Post experiment dispelled that myth with Facebook Has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing Its Human Editors.

Perhaps the greatest view of the inner workings of Facebook came from John Herrman in The New York Times Magazine. His Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine highlighted “how a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds”.

What social media has done is made news “social”. Instead of verifying the truth or logic behind the link to a news being shared on Facebook or Twitter, people tend to be driven by the number of “likes” and/or “retweets” the item has as well as the potential number of “likes” and/or “retweets” it will get them. The user interface and options available on social media have also made people dependent on social media, and, as a result, susceptible to fall prey to fake news. There is also the question of crediblity, and having been a credible source for new for a long time, any post or news shared on Facebook and Twitter are naturally accepted at face value.

Writing on the US presidential election coverage, Hermann found that “a brighter media narrative was unfolding in the growing importance of online social networks — the real new mass media. On Facebook and Twitter, election coverage could be consumed on a large scale, and readers were promised a restructuring of the news media that put them in a position of greater power”.

Twitter allows users to post photos and videos, making news delivery livelier. Facebook, with its 1.5 billion users worldwide, has the capacity to reach more people than all media organisations in the world, combined. Millions of people are on the platform throughout the day or updating news and articles on what they believe their friends might also be interested in.

The dangerous thing, however, according to the YouGov survey, is that consumers are happy to have their news selected by algorithms. Thirty-six per cent of the respondents said they would like news chosen based on what they had read before and 22 per cent were happy for their news agenda to be based on what their friends had read. “People like the convenience of algorithms choosing their news but are worried about whether that would mean they were missing out on key points or challenging viewpoints,” said lead author of the report Nic Newman.

This system has one drawback — instead of the users looking for the right content, it has revered to content looking for the right users.

So, why do people fall for fake news? Dr Michael Shermer links it to four factors — cognitive simplicity, cognitive dissonance, backfire effect and tribal unity. Some others have suggested that confirmation bias — the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs — was the root of the problem. There is also the factor of the casual reader’s relative inattentiveness towards the credibility of the news source.

Then, there are the people who willfully consume and share falsehood through fake news. During the recent communal clashes in Bengal’s Basirhat-Baduria towns, leaders and spokespersons of the BJP spread misinformation, even sharing images of the Gujarat riots as those of that in Bengal.

The recent lynchings in Jharkhand are another example of how misinformation has spread its roots and the manner in which it incites violence is a clear indicator of the dangers of social media, especially WhatsApp. “WhatsApp has become the most popular form of rich messaging, better than SMS and MMS,” said anti-fake news crusader Pratik Sinha, whose AltNews has taken up the mantle of busting online myths.

“The conditions under which messages circulate often tend to act as triggers. In an already charged environment, false pieces of information could be interpreted in ways that contribute to enhancing pre-existing prejudice, rumours or intent,” said Vibodh Parthasarthy, faculty member at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

Half-truths and misinformation are regularly circulated on these mass media platforms and many regularly forward these to their friends, peers and colleagues without even verifying the truth. India is teeming with journalism schools which lay emphasis on two very important aspects of the profession — the 5Ws&H (who, when, what, where, why and how of an incident) and verifying a piece of news from multiple sources.

Despite the efforts of these premier journalism institutes, even corporate media houses fall victim to fake propaganda in their haste to get a story on air or print.

Sinha’s AtlNews is one of several websites that have taken up the task of debunking fake news and misinformation. Others, including Boomlive and SMHoaxSlayer, have taken the fight to the spread of misinformation, but founders of all these websites agree that more such portals are needed to tackle the menace. “On social media, the manpower behind the pushing of the propaganda plays an important role. And the Right-wingers have the numbers,” Sinha said.

Fake news is not, however, just the forte of the Right-wing; Left-wing websites have also started spreading misinformation against Trump on several websites.

“We realised there was a huge gap in what the media was trying to say and what people were believing, so we decided to use Boom to break down every such story,” Boomlive’s managing editor Jency Jacob said.

“While 230 million people have WhatsApp, they do not always have access to newspapers to verify what was sent to them,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV India, and founder of Boomlive. “What also comes as a surprise to us is how politicians and powerful public figures cite numbers or share pictures which are clearly fake,” he said.

However, the instances of political leaders spreading misinformation shows that not everyone who fall victim to fake news do so unknowingly. Many do it on purpose to achieve some political goal, making that old adage of ends justifying the means ring true.

 

Bengal: A tinderbox of communalism waiting to explode

The Basirhat-Baduria violence lays bare the faultlines in Bengal’s communal harmony

 

The clashes in Basirhat and Baduria, two towns with sizable Muslim populations, have caught many by surprise, especially the social elite who thought Bengal was insulated from what is, generally, a north Indian phenomenon.

As border states, Bengal and Assam have had to deal with mass immigration in two waves — 1947 and 1971. While Assam has suffered sectarian violence over the years, the influx of mainly Muslims from Bangladesh did not change the demographics or the balance of power in Bengal.

Police records from 2014 revealed the state’s rural parts registered 12 incidents of communal violence in 2008, while that number went up to 106 in 2013. While Bengal has always had a reputation for being a peaceful state, it has previously struggled with communalism.

The Left Front, during its 34-year rule, managed to stem such incidents. However, politics of appeasement and polarisation since then have taken its toll.

The riots in Basirhat are just the tip of the iceberg. A Facebook post sparked the riots, and Facebook is used to fan emotions on both sides. BJP leaders and its vast troll army on Twitter have resorted to using fake images to spread rumours about slaughter of Hindus, while the ruling dispensation is trying to shield perpetrators of vandalism.

Bengal has a historic association with civil resistance, and persistence in the face of severe hardships — it survived the famine, Calcutta Killings, two partitions and Naxalism.

But this time, it’s different. Political parties are stoking the fires of communalism for electoral gains, while religious people are falling prey to that trap and resorting to mass vandalism. Mobilisation of public opinion against such efforts is the need of the hour. However, depending on political forces to do that is a far-fetched dream, peace-loving Bengalis need to take up the mantle themselves.

The battle ahead is long and difficult and Bengal needs to find its spirit of resistance to survive.

The unravelling of Mamata Banerjee

Once hailed as Bengal’s messiah, the chief minister has set it off on a path to destruction

 

The last couple of years of Left Front rule in Bengal was unique. The power centre was, unofficially, almost divided into two — an elected government at Writers’ Building and a people’s one at Harish Chatterjee Street, the location of Mamata Banerjee’s ancestral home.

The loosening of the iron fist with which the Left had ruled Bengal for 32 years (at that time) coincided with Mamata riding high on a “wind of change”. She was being seen as the chief minister in-waiting, the unifying force who would deliver the once-great state to the promised land. The intellectuals, anti-Left voters and the media all lapped up her Badla Noy, Bodol Chai (no vengeance, only change) rhetoric; after all, she was the self-proclaimed “symbol of honesty”.

Bengal had seen an unprecedented “brain drain” during the Left Front rule — education and healthcare were in a mess, industrialisation hit a record low, dissent muffled — Mamata promised corrective measures. Gripped by the passion in her speeches and drawing from her long history of struggle against the Communists, Bengal slowly began to take her seriously. She also found support among the state’s intellectuals.

But then she made deals with the devils — the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Maoist insurgents. Bimal Gurung and his Morcha had set the Darjeeling hills on fire, demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas — Gorkhaland. The hill town was burning, administration was non-existant and tourism suffered. Mamata promised to return peace to the hills.

Although there was no formal alliance with the Morcha, Gurung backed the Trinamul-Congress alliance in the 2011 Assembly polls. She repaid him in kind after the elections, creating the Gorkha Territorial Administration and signing a treaty that included, among other things, a loophole for further unrest on the demand for Gorkhaland.

Then there was the backing from the Maoists in the state’s disturbed western belt, collectively called Junglemahal, where the rebels killed over a hundred CPI(M) and Left workers between 2007 and 2011. Mamata and her party’s leaders shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, a local resident, who liaised between the Maoists under its leader Kishenji and the Trinamul.

Former Trinamul MP Kabir Suman confirmed that the Maoists had supported Trinamul during the Nandigram violence, corroborating the Left Front government’s allegation that Mamata used them to fan violence in the area.

But Mamata’s overwhelming charisma drowned those allegations. She played the Muslim card and began to court imams for their support. Being a border state and with a 28 per cent Muslim population, Bengal was always sitting on a tinderbox of communal violence. One of the greatest legacies of the Left Front government was restricting the outbreak of communal violence in the state. But it never tried to emancipate the traditionally backward Muslim community, even after publication of the Sachar Commitee report, and Mamata used this to her advantage.

Her slogan of “Maa, Mati, Manush” reverberated with the people and she won the 2011 polls in a landslide.

The story from then is one of decline, her carefully hatched strategies coming undone at every step of the way.

First, she got into a confrontation with the Maoists, culminating in the assassination of Kishenji. Although a decisive victory against the Maoists won her plaudits, allegations of human rights violations were also levelled at her.

The relationship with Bimal Gurung and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also did not take long to sour.

Mamata’s hankering for more power and an Opposition-less state led to drove her into registering cases against the Left, Congress, the Morcha, et al. The plan was to scare them into joining the Trinamul. If that didn’t work, money was thrown at them.

The chit fund scam and the arrests of proprieters of many Ponzi forms exposed how the ruling party used fear tactics into exploiting them for money. This money was then used for horse trading of MLAs and Opposition leaders.

Election after election saw the government use brute force and even the police to strengthen the ruling dispensation — be it the panchayat, municipal, Lok Sabha or Assembly polls. Such atrocities were not even seen at the height of “red tyranny”. Former Trinamul leaders had accused her of being a dictator, Mamata was living up to that allegation.

The first instance of this dictatorial trait coming to the fore was when she decided to ban all newspapers apart from those friendly to her government and party from public libraries. She even ordered the Opposition to sit silently for 10 years as she went about pandering to the lumpen elements in her party. The recent spurt in violence in Darjeeling was a direct fallout of this dictatorial trait. All of a sudden, Mamata imposed Bengali as a mandatory language in schools across the state, sparking resentment among the linguistic and ethnic minorities.

With industries unwilling to set up shop, and the existing ones shutting down, she offered tacit support to the syndicate raj that began to run amok in Kolkata and other parts of the state. Most of these syndicates are controlled by the Trinamul and consist of anti-social elements that come in handy to scare voters during elections.

As chief minister, Mamata has constantly blamed the previous government of saddling the state with a huge debt. Yet, she always found money to pay to local clubs, most of which are the breeding grounds for anti-social elements associated with the Trinamul. This diversion of public funds to local goons came at the cost of infrastructure development.

In order to keep the support of the Muslim community, she announced an imam bhata (stipends for imams), sparking widespread condemnation among leaders of other religious communities for such polarising tactics. There have been allegations of Mamata overlooking crimes committed by members of the community, inevitably giving rise to a sense of invincibility among their members. The ongoing communal riots in Basirhat, a town close to the Bangladesh border with a huge Muslim population, also has its roots in Mamata’s attempt to appease and the BJP’s plan to polarise. There have also been allegations that the local MLA tried to shield Muslims who had taken part in the vandalism of government property.

Instead of trying to increase literacy rates in Muslim dominated villages in the state’s backward areas, introducing them to secular studies or creating employment opportunities for them, she adopted a policy of appeasement, as many have claimed.

But the Hindus in Bengal are also not as secular as they are known to be. The Left Front had suppressed all kinds of communal polarisation during its 34-year tenure, but allegations of Mamata appeasing the Muslims have given rise to a new Hindutva brand of politics in Bengal. The chief minister’s desire to purge the threat to her government from the Congress and the Left led her to leave an open playing field for the BJP to flourish in the state, and that has sparked tensions even further.

The BJP’s agenda is simple — appeal to the upper-caste Hindu majority through fear mongering. The BJP began to hark back to times when the Bengali Hindus ruled as overlords. Its Ram Navami celebrations, armed with swords, was clearly aimed at fanning the communal divide, which Mamata began in the state, and use it to its advantage. This sets a dangerous precedent, the Calcutta Killings of 1946 still haunts many survivors from those times and the last thing that the state, already struggling with lack of jobs and infrastructure, needs is another communal violence.

If that happens, that will be the end of Bengal as we know it and Mamata and the BJP will both have to share the blame. It will be the unfortunate end of a cycle of events begun by Mamata, but brought to its natural conclusion by the BJP.

#NotInMyName: Hashtags don’t work, mass mobilisation does

Protests like “Not In My Name” only strengthen RSS resolve against liberal values

 

Several cities across India reverberated with slogans of “Not In My Name” on June 28 as thousands thronged the streets to protest the spurt in lynching of innocents in the name of gau bhakti (cow reverence).

Crimes against Muslims have gone up leaps and bounds since the Hindu nationalist government of the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership came to power in 2014. Most of these crimes have strategically targeted Muslims, either in the name of the holy cow, or on the pretext of child trafficking (as in Jharkhand). But Muslims are not the only victims.

Last July, Modi and Amit Shah’s home state, Gujarat, erupted in an uprising after seven Dailt men in Una were publicly flogged by gau rakashaks (cow vigilantes) for skinning a dead cow.

Moreover, atrocities are not just limited to north India, the so-called cow belt, or states ruled by the BJP — the murder of a Dalit man for marrying an upper caste woman in broad daylight in Chennai highlights this.

If the attacks in Una exposed India’s gruesome underbelly of cow vigilantism, the Chennai murder shone light on the impact that caste still holds in a so-called progressive society.

To disregard these attacks would be to undermine the progressive polity that a majority of the educated Indian hope would dictate the discourse. Looked at from this point of view, the “Not In My Name” protests across India does more harm than good — it highlights selective outrage of the Indian elite. Moreover, Modi’s statement against attacks by cow vigilantes a few days after the protests should also not be taken as a victory. Modi has a habit of uttering a customary rebuke against vigilantism — he did it after the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015, he did it again at the height of the protests in Una, and he did it now.

Modi, very calculatedly, used the term “gau bhakti”, highlighting that there was nothing wrong in worshipping the cow and using it as a political tool. He even invoked Vinobha Bhave to drive home his point. It could be argued that Modi’s remarks about “Kabristan-Shamshan” in the run-up to the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh gives tacit support to these fringe elements, his silence provides further encouragement to them.

The Modi government’s tenure has been blighted by attacks on civil liberties, educational institutes, liberal and free thinking, press, to just name a few. Sporadic protests against the government will not yield dividends. It only works to further widen the already-existing divide between those who see Modi as the messiah and those who see him as the demon, responsible for all the atrocities that have occurred since his ascension to power.

There were no hashtags on Twitter and Facebook over the death of five farmers in Madhya Pradesh, allegedly in police firing. Several other farmers have since committed suicide, both in Madhya Pradesh and other states. Over 100 people died in queues while waiting to get their old notes exchanged following demonetisation. It may be true that the brutal murder of a 16-year-old for allegedly being a beef-eater sparked the protests, but India has been here before over the past three years.

India has not become communal all of a sudden because Modi is the prime minister, he is the prime minister because India is inherently communal. Protests like “Not In My Name” fan the communal hatred even further, especially in RSS sakhas. These protests consolidate the BJP’s hold on the upper caste. The RSS highlights these protests as a liberal conspiracy against the Hindus, and the liberals are playing into their hands. A standalone protest for the murder of a Muslim boy will not change anything, it needs to filter through to the absolute bottom layer if it wants to make an impact on the populace. The issues need to be broader, long-term policies and targets need to be fixed. Moreover, the protests need to be organised and cannot be selective.

The BJP wants to divide and conquer, the best way to defeat them is use the same policy against them. They don’t necessarily care about the Muslims, but they need the Dalits. The protests should include atrocities against the Dalits as well, they should not be left to fend for themselves, like what happened to them after Una and Saharanpur. This is a fight for the idea of India and all Indians must be included in the fight — the farmer and banker, Dalit and upper caste, Hindus and Muslims, the educated and the illiterate, the Malayali and the Gujarati.

Civil rights movements at the height of the Arab Spring brought down dictatorships inTunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, forced changes in Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman, and constitutional reforms in Morocco and Jordan. India, for the time being, still remains a democracy. And actions must be taken to preserve the values of that democratic, socialist, secular republic before it’s too late.

A few roaring protests, coverage in the international media will scare the government and its ruling party. And that will be the ideal moment to strike.

Volte-face: Modi’s default policy position

Modi-BJP’s habitual u-turns dent an already flimsy credibility

 

The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre launched the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the “most ambitious” tax reform in India’s history, from July 1 amid much fanfare and mobilisation of the party machinery.

Behind the scenes, however, it represents yet another BJP volte-face on reform. The party, which swept into power in 2014, can best be described as overseeing a bungling and blundering policy regime. Its periodic flip-flops, both on issues it had opposed during the earlier UPA government and turnarounds on its own policy decisions, have become the norm rather than the exception.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his stint as Gujarat chief minister, was one of the staunchest critics of the GST, citing infringement of the states’ freedom and strike on its coffers. His vehement opposition to the GST, ironically approved for planning by the first BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, forced erstwhile finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to fly down to Ahmedabad in 2010 to seek his support. The Gujarat government opposed the UPA’s plans to implement the GST in 2011, 2012 and even October 2013. It had claimed that India lacked the infrastructure to push through the reform programme.

The first flip-flop on this issue came just before the general elections, in February 2014, when Modi was grilled by a group of industrialists while canvassing for votes. After he assumed the prime minister’s chair in May 2014, Modi, all of a sudden, began to pursue quick passage of the GST bill, claiming that the information-technology infrastructure was now in place to implement the reform. This raises a simple question — how did the country develop its infrastructure within just eight months to undertake such a big reform.

It was just the first in a series of policy u-turns that have punctuated this government’s tenure. Last year, the venerable Wall Street Journal annoyed right-wing commentators and Modi bhakts with its list of Modi’s Greatest Misses: New Delhi’s Top Policy Flip Flops.

This government has also made shifting goalposts a habit whenever things don’t go its way. The purpose of the demonetisation exercise is a case in point. When Modi announced his “landmark” decision to scrap all currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, he said it was to weed out funding for terror outfits and curb the circulation of black money and fake currency. Eight months and more than a hundred deaths later, the Reserve Bank of India is yet to formally come up with the data showing how much black money it has retrieved from the “parallel economy”. As soon as things started going south, Modi, and his finance minister Arun Jaitley, moved to claim that the exercise was meant to promote digital transactions and e-wallets as part of the government’s Digital India programme through the Lucky Grahak Yojana and the Digi Dhan Vyapaar Yojana. That claim looks flimsy considering the negligible Internet connectivity in rural and semi-urban areas.

The shifting of goalposts is also down to Modi’s tendency to lob half-truths into the public discourse and his love for playing to the galleries when announcing policy decisions.

Modi and the BJP were swift to volte-face on several UPA-era policies such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), once referred to as the “living monument of failures” of the government. They now believe it to be the “nation’s pride”.

Modi has also backtracked on issues such as FDI, Aadhaar and the civil nuclear deal.

The government’s tenure has also been highlighted by ironies. As the prime minister talked up a cashless society, it was expected that digital transactions would benefit following demonetisation. However, the GST has taxed all bank transactions, including digital, at 18 per cent. The government has pumped a lot of money into its JAM programme (Jan Dhan for banking and Direct Benefit Transfer, Aadhaar, mobile phone). However, telecom services have been hit with an 18 per cent tax rate, compared to 15 per cent earlier.

Twitter user @AnandRM_ conducted an estimate of GST rates on some items, bringing into focus the government’s double-speak on issues they claim to support and those they actually do. Temples and prasad are tax exempted, while schoolbags and notebooks are taxed at 18 and 12 per cent, respectively. Despite a pet programme like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, bindi and bangles have been exempted, while sanitary napkins have been put in the 12 per cent slab.

Environment policy has also suffered because of Modi’s hurry to push through the GST. While as a signatory of the Paris Agreement, India did not agree to cap its emissions outright, it did pledge to greatly increase the use of green energy. It has pledged to get 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, which will include building about 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022. India is set to pass Japan this year to become the world’s third largest market for solar (after China and the US).

However, the GST has reduced coal tax from 12 per cent to just 5 per cent. Solar cells were initially to be taxed 18 per cent. Later, public pressure forced the government to backtrack and tax it at 5 per cent. Another Twitter user, @ramdasrocks, highlighted Modi’s u-turn in promoting clean energy. Despite the plans to go green by 2030, the government has slotted hybrid cars in the highest tax bracket (28 per cent GST + 15 per cent cess).

But the BJP’s biggest volte-face came in Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 has always been a core issue of the party, even during its Jana Sangh days. Less than 48 hours since Modi swept into power, Udhampur MP Jitender Singh Rana boasted to the media that the time was ripe to look into Article 370.

The junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office told a news channel: “We are speaking to the stakeholders. Article 370 has done more harm than good.”

However, all that was just noise. The BJP held no qualms in joining forces with the PDP, known for its staunch support for Article 370, when the opportunity presented itself, to become a junior partner in a coalition government in the state. In fact, the BJP’s opposition to Article 370 stems from a lack of understanding of its powers — the only party its abrogation benefits are the separatists.

It may have come as a disappointment to the followers of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and the RSS, the benefits of Article 370 to the Centre, and by extension, the BJP, explains its u-turn on the issue.

Amid all this, India’s foreign policy offers some level of consistency, but much of it is down to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and the foreign office bureaucrats who tirelessly worked to secure India’s standing as a global force.

But that doesn’t paper over the cracks that Modi’s government, and the BJP, are showing when it comes to formulating policy decisions. The man with the 56” chest would do well to cut out the rhetoric and turn his attention to properly planning the policies that he wants to implement.

 

Jeremy Corbyn and lessons for the Indian Left

Labour leader’s lessons for winning over Indian youth

 

The turnaround by a beleaguered Labour Party, almost written off under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, in the general election in the United Kingdom earlier this month has come as a breath of fresh air for Leftist sensibility across the world, especially in India.

Labour’s success, apart from being attributable to a manifesto that promised re-nationalisation of the railways and postal services and investment in the National Health Service, was down to a surge in popular support among the youth. A post-election report showed that 60 per cent of voters in the 18–24 bracket voted for Labour, while the Tories secured a majority (61 per cent) in the over-64 bracket. In the 2015 general election, Labour received 40 per cent of the 18–24 vote.

This rise in youth support, unarguably, was down to one man — Jeremy Corbyn — who showed immense maturity in understanding the problems plaguing British society, especially post Brexit, and addressing those problems. Much of the policies outlined in Labour’s manifesto stemmed from Corbyn’s growing influence in formulating party policies since taking charge in mid-2015.

This popularity among the young electorate, when looked at from an Indian perspective, undermines the big media and centrist and liberal commentators’ practice of questioning the lack of young faces in the Indian Left. Political and policy debates, these days, are driven by faux nationalism, vitriolic utterances and post-truth rhetoric instead of ideology and beliefs. The prominence of social media has made it easier to shape public opinion — US president Donald J. Trump stands testament to that.

Indian politics boasts of a different dynamic compared to the system in the United States or the United Kingdom — it is driven by staunch allegiances to political parties than ideologies. However, daily issues still play a big part in the formulating policies. Had age been proportional to popular support, Rahul Gandhi, at 47, would have been the Prime Minister of India in 66-year-old Narendra Modi’s stead.

Here lies the inconsistency of the Indian commentary. While the Indian media would highlight and debate policies of Corbyn, Trump, et al, they would only talk about the age of the Indian Left leadership.

Corbyn is 68. Bernie Sanders, who shook the American political establishment in the run-up to the US presidential election while mounting a bid to become the Democratic candidate, is 75. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s firebrand Communist leader who received 19.58 per cent of the votes in the presidential elections, is 65. The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, whose Socialist Party formed the first majority socialist government in the country since the fall of Communism, is 52.

All of them appealed to the core issues of the youth — education, health care, opportunities for growth — and succeeded in mobilising millions. The leader’s age was not a key factor here, the issues were, the promise of a better future was.

In his column on DailyO, noted economist and former Communist Party of India (Marxist) member Prasenjit Bose wrote: “Clearly, upright personalities and upfront politics matter more to the youth than age. There is no reason to believe that the Indian youth would fail to respond to a fresh dose of new Left ideas.”

Corbyn appealed to the British youth and promised them a transformational system — a marked departure from the status quo of seven years of Tory rule. The appeal of candidates and political parties that offer a departure from the status quo has grown markedly in the past three years — Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Trump and his agenda-driven Republican Party, and Corbyn. The electorate also looks at the consistency of the leader and his party over a wide range of issues before voting — it’s easier to win them over if the values are shared.

In the end, Corbyn’s positive message of hope achieved the impact that he was looking for. It may have been too little, too late but he left a definite mark on the system. The Indian Left, with its vibrant history and influential presence in intellectual and social circles is in a prime position to learn from Corbyn’s message and go all out with its own message.