Monday, September 6, 2010

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘sipahi’ syndrome

The Adivasis, who had flocked Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s Lanjigarh rally in thousands, cheered joyfully when he announced, “This is your victory. You saved your own land.” Adding further that he is just a sipahi (foot soldier) who have represented them in Delhi, the dimpled faced fourth-generation scion of India’s most famous political family explained to the Adivasi crowd that “whether it is rich or poor, Dalits or Adivasis,” in his religion, “all are equal”. Rahul’s flamboyant speech came two days after the Central Ministry of Environments and Forests (MoEF) has denied permission to the mining group Vedanta Resources Plc’s $1.7 billion bauxite mining project at the Niyamgiri Hills for “serious violations of Environment Protection Acts, the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act”. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) recommended withdrawing the environmental clearance for the mega project. “Since August 2008, a lot of new information has come to light,” said Jairam Ramesh, the Minister for Environment and Forests. “It is on the basis of this incriminating new evidence that the decision has been taken,” the minister has asserted. The FAC accepted the findings of a four-member panel headed by N.C. Saxena which was formed after the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) instructed the Environment Ministry to address concerns related to the impact of the project on the local Adivasi community, the wildlife and biodiversity in the surrounding areas and clear the project only “after a thorough scrutiny and due consideration of all aspects.” The panel has found that the state government of Orissa has failed to implement the Forest Rights Act, which protects the community rights of forest-dweller Adivasis but instead “colluded with the firm in question, Vedanta, to allow blatant and widespread violations of forest and environmental laws.” The panel has also found that the mining group has “illegally occupied at least 26 hectres of village forest land within its refinery”.

The Environments and Forests minister has promptly clarified that the decision was taken in a purely legal approach and there is “no emotion, no politics, no prejudice” behind it. For time being let us trust the minister’s good words and ignore the speculation that the 39-year old heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party and the Indian throne may have influenced government policy on this particular project. For now we also do not want to remark on this rather strange sequence of events and the fantastic speed, exceptional compared to Indian standards, in which the Saxena panel has submitted its report and the government took this landmark decision.

The Vedanta controversy

Vedanta’s plan to mine bauxite on the Niyamgiri hilltop plateau for its alumina refinery plant constructed in Lanjigarh town at the foot of the hills was marred with controversy from the day its first-stage clearance was granted by the MoEF in September 2004. Three separate petitions of deliberate environmental violations by Vedanta has caused the Supreme Court of India to constitute a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2005 which found that “M/s Vedanta has deliberately and consciously concealed the involvement of the forest land in the project” and further observed that the MoEF was “fully aware that the use of the forest land for the mining at Niyamgiri hills is absolutely necessary if the alumina refinery is to be established at Lanjigarh, the environmental clearance to the alumina refinery has been accorded by the MoEF by overlooking these facts”. Strangely, the Supreme Court did not accept the CEC findings which had clearly recommended against Vedanta’s mining plan but allowed a go ahead.

In an open letter on May 2009, the Amnesty International had asked the authorities to “refuse environmental clearance until ongoing human rights concerns in relation to the operations of the refinery are effectively addressed and for an independent and impartial human rights and environmental impact assessment of the proposal.” Survival International, the human rights organization which works worldwide for tribal peoples’ rights has campaigned against the project. Another NGO, the ActionAid International which claims for working for the poorest people of the world has also vigorously campaigned in support of the indigenous Dongrias and demanded halt for all mining and refining activities in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri hills. The principal objection of the international rights organizations against the project was that it will wipe out the 1,453 endangered Dongria Kondh, an endangered Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) who live on the upper slopes of the hills and protected under the Fifth Schedule of Indian Constitution. The mining project will also destroy the “pristine ecosystem of great significance” that exists in the Niyamgiri hills, also protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act. The rights groups were quite apprehensive that the project will cause detrimental impact on the environment due to massive deforestation on the slopes and disruption of key water resources affecting the Kutia Khond, another Adivasi group who live near the foothills.

The Niyamgiri hills are situated in Western Orissa's Kalahandi district, one of the most economically backward and poverty stricken districts of India. Niyamgiri literally means the mountain of Niyam Raja Penu, the god of the animistic Dongria Kondh. The hills are therefore a sacred place to them who have lived in the green forests of Niyamgiri for generations depending upon the rich forest resources for their livelihoods. They have a profound spiritual, emotional and cultural affiliation with the hills and worship it as their living god and king. For the same reason they do not cultivate on the hilltop. Though during the recently held annual general meeting, Vedanta Resources chairman Anil Agarwal has said that the company is “committed and sensitive to the social and cultural aspects of the region” and the planned site for the mine and the alumina refinery plant will “play an important role in lifting the poor in the Kalahandi district out of poverty,” his claims has failed to impress the local Adivasis who has always viewed the project as “an enemy, a foreign monster that has come here to destroy us”. Vedanta has also denied “any allegations of pollution of the environment in Lanjigarh or of any violation of human rights” and stated that there is “no proof that the mountain is sacred”.

The tale of a glorified sipahi

No one has entered the Indian political showground with the advantage and privileges of Rahul Gandhi who grew up, as one commentator has observed “in a sterilized security bubble”. After spending three years in Doon School and a year in Delhi’s posh St Stephen’s College, he had enrolled in economic courses at Trinity College, Cambridge and earned the M.Phil in Development Studies. He later worked for a short time with a financial consultancy firm in London. His deliberate entry into Indian politics was in the year 2004 when he was elected as a Member of Parliament from Gandhi family’s ancestral constituency Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The young and handsome Rahul then took a “concealed” course on politics and governance from social scientists, civil servants and veteran party spin doctors, visited Assam to take first hand lesson on the insurgency problem, interacted with Professor Sudha Pai of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to understand Dalit politics, sat through a JNU seminar to get enlightened on the political scenario of Uttar Pradesh and received green lessons on Adivasi issues from N.C. Saxena, a former National Advisory Council member. It was this retired bureaucrat who will later be appointed as head of a government panel that will eventually axe Vedanta’s mining plan on the Niyamgiri hills.

In 2007, Rahul Gandhi was promoted as general secretary of All India Congress Committee (AICC). Surrounded by loyal Congress sycophants who cannot envision the party without a Gandhi at the helm and an ever-projecting, ever-protecting and receptive Indian media which was eagerly waiting since 1991 for the messiah to arrive, Rahul Gandhi declared that he will primarily concentrate on making the party more democratic and inclusive with an aim to dismantle the dynastic political system which will subsequently “change the politics of the country”. Refusing a ministerial berth in the Dr. Manmohan Singh government he announced that his area of operation will be among the impoverished and downtrodden because, “India's powerhouse is not in the cities, not in the metros. It lies in the villages.” The crafty rhetoric of wisdom, at once, opened a floodgate for tail-wagging supplicants to enter the scene and prophesize him as “the most refreshing arrival on the political block since decades”. A young leader with a phenomenal memory, wrote a columnist in The Times of India, Crest – sincere, generous, genuinely interested and concerned. The mystique messiah has finally arrived to shoulder the divine right to rule the country and inherit his family-run business – the Congress Inc.

Carefully shaping a low profile image, this humble sipahi started a country-wide discover India tour on March 2008 from the infamous Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) region of Orissa known for its acute poverty, worst famines and starvation deaths. To burnish his image, the media created a huge publicity fanfare even before the tour has actually started, emphasizing that Rahul is “driven by the need to know and internalise the strengths and weaknesses, genius and handicaps, naivete and guile of a people he is expected to lead.” At Lanjigarh’s Ijurpa village, the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Khond Adivasi men and women who were opposing the acquisition of their bauxite-rich hills got a chance to interact with him inside a specially-built hut while elite Special Protection Group (SPG) commandoes stood guard outside. Displaying his eternal love for the Adivasis and extending support to their fight against Vedanta, Rahul assured them during the close-door discussion that he will take up their problems with his dear mother, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi. “One cannot stop industrialization but people’s voices are just being brushed aside,” he told to the nagging pressmen. “They must be heard. They must be accommodated. A middle way has to be found.” Later addressing a Save Forest rally at the district headquarters town Bhawanipatna, he fondly reminded the crowd how his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi loved them – how he also yearns for keeping the mantle alive. “Kalahandi ka, aur adivasiyon ka Delhi mein ek sipahi hai; uska naam Rahul Gandhi Hai” (For Kalahandi and the tribals, there is a soldier in New Delhi; His name is Rahul Gandhi),” he declared amid loud cheers.

On the third day of his “nothing political” Orissa tour, he had visited a residential school run for tribal children and discovered that “many of them were extremely talented”. Later while speaking in a rally the cute leader said, “I assure you that there in enough money in India, but the money is not reaching you.” He accused the Orissa government for handing over agricultural land to multinational companies and also criticized them for their failure to properly implement Central government schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). In July, on the second leg of his pan India ride, he landed at Vidarbha and met a Dalit woman Kalavati Bandurkar, widow of one of the several cotton farmers who have committed suicide in this rural cotton belt of Maharashtra. Narrating her tale in the parliament during the trust vote debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal and describing energy insecurity as the cause of her plight, the young MP concluded that “Poverty is directly connected to energy security.” The Indian media went gaga over this speech but did not ever reveal how the devious Enron deal signed by governments led by Rahul’s own party were primarily responsible for switching off lights from the life of Kalavati. What an awful history lesson his teachers have taught him!

There are many pivotal reasons other than the power crisis that has triggered off the series of farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha. Crop failure, falling market price of cotton, weakening and withdrawal of the Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme, elimination of quantitative import restrictions, lowering of import duties leading to cheap imports of cotton, declining public investment in agricultural extension in context to a sharp rise of input costs like electricity, fertilizers, diesel and transportation, a breakdown of institutional support structures in rural areas and finally the total failure of the much hyped Vidarbha Relief Package are the main causes that has prompted cotton farmers like Kalawati’s husband Parashuram Bandurkar to take the extreme step by consuming pesticide. The policy and administrative gaffes of the Congress party led governments (with ingredients contributed by the 1995-99 Shiv Sena-BJP government) has played a central role to steer rural Maharashtra towards this fatal agrarian crisis.

What happened to Kalavati afterwards? The international non-governmental organization Greenpeace installed a cost-effective solar panel in her village above the expensive and environmentally destructive nuclear energy. The crown prince and his party have conveniently forgotten about her after Greenpeace made her a brand ambassador for the renewable energy project to “challenge the political class”.

A purity of intent!

His party workers have pasted his face on billboards all over the country. His followers talk of him as the savior who has relentlessly campaigned for the party in the past few years. Why, asks another scribe, that the man who, at a nod, “have the entire pantheon of Congress leaders lined up outside his door,” takes so much stress to travel all over the country? The answer is not as complicated as it seems. The young Gandhi who is on a learning curve, travels to get a feel of the two India: “One that lives in the cities and belongs to the rich… the other India is that of the poor.” To connect these two, he often visits rural Adivasi hamlets where his chopper descends among vast crowds of curious Adivasi people that have gathered for a glimpse of a ready-made god and his flying machine landing from the skies. When he travels by road in a luxury car, he occasionally allows the poor villagers to touch his hand. The Midas touch at once wins over the elated folks and prepares them to die for his party. To connect with the poor, he is seen scooping up soil in metal and plastic pans under a baking sun, drawing water from a hand pump, bathing out in the open, sitting on the mud floor of a village hut to eat dal-roti, stopping for a cup of tea at a roadside shop and disappearing one night into the forest to meet with the Adivasis. Make no mistake; all these activities grew from a profound duty sense “to listen and learn” the voices of the poor, “to understand the economic linkage between the rural and the urban”! It’s nothing but a “purity of intent, which itself is a rarity in Indian politics today,” exclaims the servile scribe.

As if his own country’s endemic, barefaced poverty was not sufficiently enough to fulfill his scholastic quest about the poor, in August the same year, the crown prince also went for a five day “poverty tour” in Bangladesh to understand the social activities of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and micro-finance projects of Grameen Bank among the underprivileged. In January 2009, he took along his friend British foreign secretary David Miliband for a fairy tale visit to co-discover rural poverty at a Dalit settlement in a village near his parliamentary constituency Amethi. The crown prince thought that “it would be quite interesting for the foreign secretary to come to rural India.” The two spent their well-publicized night in the huts of two Dalit women Karma Devi and Shivkumari Kori. All arrangements including the mattresses and pillows for the “quite interesting” night stay of the two future prime ministers were made by the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust (RGCT) – a NGO formed with Gandhi family’s personal initiative. “I have to say it was a pretty rough night,” Miliband said describing his experience. “The cows kept me up a bit”. An uneasy Shivkumari later told The Indian Express reporter “Except poverty, I had nothing to share with them.” She also said that though about a year back she had received a job card under the NREGA, “I could not get any work”. In May 2010, Microsoft chairman turned philanthropist Bill Gates was ferried by him in a chartered aircraft at Rae Bareli and Amethi which elects the mother and son in the parliament “for a close look at social development”. Bill Gates has committed Rs 250 crore worth of health programmes for Uttar Pradesh.

Looking at all these acting & posturing, an engulfed columnist could not resist himself to comment in The Wall Street Journal that Rahul Gandhi “will make a great prime minister”. But when in an election campaign in Uttar Pradesh the young leader with a “refreshing ring of honesty” outrageously says “when any member of my family decides to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century” or when he declares that if a Nehru-Gandhi had been in power, the Babri Masjid would not have fallen, the mask of shallow showmanship of India's prime minister-in-waiting gets totally exposed. We get the real feel of a feudal brat who, according to social historian Ramachandra Guha, along with his family and close associates shares the assumption “that the top job in party and government is his for the asking.”

Running with the hares, hunting with the hounds

What’s wrong if the country’s most powerful new generation leader takes personal initiatives to stall a project which is supposedly looting and profiting over India’s natural resources? Why can’t we simply trust his well-intentioned political convictions? Why can’t we celebrate the big victory over a gluttonous corporate group just like the environmentalists, human rights and anti-mine activist groups, Indian-foreign NGO wallas, bleeding-heart intellectuals and media columnists are doing now? Why can’t we share the joy with the Adivasis who have fought and achieved success in saving their own land? There are indeed a lot to read between the many mixed messages that have surfaced from the controversy. There are also valid reasons to be skeptical about the honesty of our crown prince and the “positive consequences” of the government decision.

As many observers have rightly noted, the fictitious leftist stance displayed by Rahul Gandhi and sections of the Congress party leadership is not a new phenomenon in Congress politics but a continuation of history. From its basic right-of-centre nature, the party has shown many instances of turning towards leftist populism in the past. Recently, the leftist mood has become a predominant political rhetoric among Indian politicians of dubious color and creed. From Rahul Gandhi to Digvijay Singh to Mamata Banerjee, there is a visible urge to impress the masses – not with deeds but with words of leftist hue. Showing compassion for the Adivasi cause has almost become a benchmark of populism. The Congress party’s bend towards the left is fascinating in another aspect. While it has successfully pushed back the mainstream political Left after stealing most of their durable agenda, the party has allowed the avant-garde and intellectual Left to conveniently seep in and place their impulsive agenda right into a vacated space created within the party. The occupants are then allowed to extend their authority into a wider world – in various government advisory committees and prestigious academic-cultural institutions.

In his recent The Times of India column, veteran journalist M. J. Akbar has pointed out that to maintain the “delicious bipolar ability to occupy both government and opposition space,” the Congress party, in an extremely shrewd approach has “set out to be the party of the poor in daytime, and of the rich at night”. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s stern neo-liberal policies are cleverly balanced by Prime ministerial prospect Rahul Gandhi’s empathy for the poor showmanship. To complement Rahul Gandhi’s “two India” theory, the Prime Minister needs to tell the nation that, “Environmental concerns must be addressed, but it can’t be done by perpetuating poverty.” He further explains that the gap between the “two India” can only be filled if people make a move from agriculture to industry since per capita income from agriculture is much lower than the income generated by the industrial sectors. It is the same deceiving strategy that drives Digvijay Singh to fire salvo at Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s counter-Maoist strategy. Singh’s criticism, which accuses the Home Minister for “ignoring the hopes and aspirations of the people living in these areas” and opting for a “narrow sectarian view” on the issue is clearly endorsed by the crown prince. As a complimentary performance, Chidambaram then raises the “saffron terror” issue from a desperate attempt to handle the contradiction. An influential section of the Congress party leadership seems to have rediscovered the “value” of poverty and is showing a fixated attitude with government programs like the NREGA while food grains that could feed millions of hungry people continues to rot in government storages. This intentional chaos and sly division-of-labor strategy was developed and imposed in a highly programmed manner to balance between the elite and the masses, between the right and the avant-garde left. Whether it functions in practice or not is a different matter.

If viewed from this perspective, the Vedanta story will suggest an altogether different interpretation. It will also provide plenty of clues why the prevalent speculation among political observers that Rahul Gandhi is influencing government policy on this project for pure political gains is essentially true. Why Vedanta has been singularized when according to the 2009-10 annual report of the ministry of mines, there are 30,551 illegal mines in the country, several of which are in Congress-ruled states? Why out of the 30,551 cases, just 1,255 first investigation reports were registered and 3,306 cases filed? Why Rahul is silent and blasé about illegal iron ore mining in the notified tribal areas of Khammam and Warangal districts in Andhra Pradesh involving former chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s evangelist son-in-law and brother-in-law? Is it because here the fingers are pointed towards people close to the Congress party? The government’s sudden sensitivity on Vedanta is also suspicious. Do we have to believe that the government became aware about the destructive ecological impact of the project only after receiving Rahul Gandhi’s private teacher N. C. Saxena’s mandate? Why was the government sleeping for all these years? The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa has therefore valid reasons to suspect that the central government and Rahul Gandhi’s actions are motivated not by any real concern for the poor and backward Adivasis but by sheer vote bank politics – to make inroads for the Congress party in lost Adivasi dominated states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, to win over the Adivasi minds and ensure political success. The BJD has also rightly argued that while creating road-blocks on large scale industrial projects in the state for violating forest rights, the Central environment ministry on 28th July 2010 has conveniently given a final clearance to the Indira Sagar (Polavaram) irrigation project on Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh – apparently in complete violation to the same Forest Rights Act. About 3731.07 hectares of forest land has been released for the project which will affect a large number of people including members of the “Primitive Tribal Group”.

Instead of playing to the gallery at the foothills of the Niyamgiri hills, it would have been better if Rahul Gandhi had expounded his plans and vision that could bring economic progress to the region and its people. It would have been better if he had demonstrated the magic wand in public which he thinks will be able to uplift the condition of a startlingly underdeveloped region which accounts for 72 per cent of Orissa’s below the poverty line population and an abysmal 43.3 per cent literacy rate – even after 60 plus years of Independence. Does he also believe like his high pitched foreign NGO and celebrity friends that promoting eco-tourism on the hills will generate the essential socio-economic growth and bring the required infrastructures like roads, schools and hospitals to this region? Instead of delivering empty populist jargon to capture the Adivasi imagination and romanticizing the pristine Adivasi ways of life, it would have been better if he had enlightened them with a clear sense of direction.

Lessons from the past history of independent India has proved time and again that Rahul Gandhi’s family and the party the family runs like a microcosmic monarchy, never had the convictions or alacrity to rise above anything other than grabbing and staying in power. His sipahi syndrome is nothing but a convenient myth, shaped to keep continuity with the past. The people of India should stop expecting too much out of him.