The Hot Seat
The head that is most uneasy in India right now belongs to RBI Governor Urjit Patel. His differences with the Modi government and the finance ministry headed by Arun Jaitley appear to have reached breaking point. The government and the RBI have been at loggerheads for over a month now over the question of the central bank’s autonomy. It surfaced when one of the RBI deputy governors said in a speech that undermining the central bank independence could be “potentially catastrophic” and has gone downhill since with the government, in poll mode, pressing for a relaxation of curbs on lending and also wanting access to a large chunk of the RBI’s surplus reserves. Now, the buzz in the corridors of North Block is that Patel will announce his resignation at the next board meeting of the central bank later this month, and the government is shortlisting an IAS officer to replace him. Two names are doing the rounds—Shaktikanta Das and SEBI chief Ajay Tyagi. Das seems to have the edge, having served as Economic Affairs Secretary and Revenue Secretary. He is a member of the 15th Finance Commission of India and India’s Sherpa to the G-20. If Urjit steps down, it will be history’s lessons unlearnt —Patel’s predecessor Raghuram Rajan also fought for RBI autonomy and paid the price.
Taking a Tough Stand
The week gone by saw a rare swiftness on the part of the Centre in issuing the notification for appointment of four judges to the Supreme Court—just 48 hours after the Collegium had recommended these elevations. The urgency with which the appointment of Justices Hemant Gupta, Ajay Rastogi, MR Shah and R Subhash Reddy to the top court was cleared even left Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi “very shocked and in awe”. While the government was brisk with the Supreme Court appointments, it harked back to its stalling tactics when it came to almost simultaneously made recommendations for appointing judges to various high courts. There are two instances that have created a buzz in the power corridors—both of which prove that Chief Justice Gogoi hasn’t compromised his rebellious streak since assuming office.
The first concerns the centre’s decision of notifying the elevation of Justice AS Dave as acting Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, on November 1, after its chief justice, R Subhash Reddy, was moved to the Supreme Court. Justice Dave was second in seniority among the puisne judges of the court and, as per tradition, the second senior-most judge, Justice AA Kureshi, should have taken over from Justice Reddy. Sources say, CJI Gogoi promptly wrote to the Union law ministry making it clear that the government’s “highly arbitrary decision” was against conventions of the judiciary. In an informal interaction with the media the next morning, CJI Gogoi termed the notification about Justice Dave “a mistake”. Hours later, the Centre issued a fresh notification naming Justice Kureshi as acting chief justice of the Gujarat High Court. The CJI has now reportedly sent a letter to the centre making his displeasure known over the increasing trend of the government splitting up recommendations made by the Collegium—approving certain names while withholding others.
All ministers routinely send out Diwali greeting cards, nowadays on social media, to all and sundry and it is usually done by a member of their staff. The one that stood out this time was because of the politically incorrect nature and the office of the sender. It was sent out by Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and the bottom half of the image had visuals of rockets while the badly worded greeting itself mentioned: “Presents to share success, firecrackers to burn evils (sic), Sweets to sweeten success…” Considering that it is the Supreme Court which is clamping down on the use of firecrackers in NCR in the light of dangerously high pollution levels, and he is the Law Minister, such encouragement on the use of firecrackers is both crass and insensitive, not to mention in defiance of the stand taken by the apex court.
In all probability, the electronic card was chosen by one of his staff, but if it was sent without the minister getting a preview, the blame is equally his.
Back in Favour
After a fairly long spell in comparative political obscurity, former union minister Jairam Ramesh seems to have been restored to favour in the ever-changing Congress hierarchy. Being Ramesh, he had used his period of exile to work on a book on Mrs Gandhi (Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi), and it has done his prospects no harm. His return is to a position of pre-eminence—he has been put in charge of coordination for the team preparing for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. His return has already created waves and some controversy. The fact that the role of Divya Spandana who was heading the party’s social media cell, was downgraded shortly after Ramesh’s elevation, is no coincidence. He is said to be behind Nikhil Alva, son of veteran Congress Karnataka leader Margaret Alva, being put in charge of Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter handle, a job Spandana was doing earlier. Ramesh is also from Karnataka and is said to have joined hands with the party’s media in charge, Randeep Surjewala, who wants the social media cell to be part of the overall media division and not a separate unit. It may be recalled that Ramesh fell out of Sonia Gandhi’s favour after his injudicious remark about the Congress facing an existential crisis. In politics, there are no permanent exits.
Financing the Sardar
Much is being made of the Sardar Patel statue inaugurated last week by the prime minister and the world record breaking height. Now, the controversy around the approximately Rs 3,000 crore cost is starting to emerge. First, a Conservative Party British MP objected to the UK giving India loans. “To take 1.1 billion pounds in aid from us, and then spend 330 million pounds on a statue is total nonsense. It is the sort of thing that drives people mad,” MP Peter Bone said, referring to Britain’s donation of over 1.17 billion pounds (around Rs 9,492 crore) to India as foreign aid in the last five years. In India, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has questioned the decision of using CSR funds of PSUs to finance the statue. The CAG report mentions that the Gujarat government organisation responsible for the project approached Indian Oil Corporation, ONGC, Bharat Petroleum, Oil India Corporation, GAIL, which, according to CAG, contributed close to Rs 150 crore (other estimates are much higher), and added that “contribution to this project does not qualify as CSR activity”.
A crucial factor in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls will be the political alignments in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. Despite Amit Shah’s bluster, current indications are that if Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party join hands, it could reduce the BJP’s numbers to single digits (it currently holds 73 seats out of 80). The two former rivals have been negotiating quietly and a late night meeting at the farmhouse of a businessman known to both, on the outskirts of Lucknow, seems to have firmed up the alliance. The meeting was ultra secret, so much so that both Akhilesh and Mayawati left their security behind. Mayawati wanted more seats than Akhilesh was willing to concede but at the end of the three-hour meeting, a deal was reached, with a core group representing both sides assigned to hammer out the final tally. The duo also agreed not to put up candidates in Rae Bareli and Amethi. The alliance agreement will be announced once the final seat share is agreed upon, but it is now a matter of time, not ego.