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Castro: In lieu of a tribute

It was August first week, 1985. Strictly speaking, this my first foreign trip. Earlier, in late 1960s, I had been to Nepal in a school tour, but that was hardly foreign. I was sent to Havana by my bosses in “Patriot”, the former Delhi-based pro-Soviet daily, to cover world indebtedness conference, called by Cuba’s supreme leader Fidel Castro. This was my first assignment; the effort, apparently, was to ascertain if I could be transferred to the news bureau from the desk.
A semi-communist then, I held Castro in high esteem, and I was actually quite excited. Hardly a photographer, I even carried with me to Havana a heavy Nikon SLR, which my maternal uncle, settled in US – Bharat Kinariwala, 90, professor-emeritus at Hawaii University – had given me. I had hardly put to it any use till then. I was sure, I would be able to click some photographs of Castro, which I proudly did, after borrowing a zoom lens from a reluctant photographer in the press gallery.
Castro threw a huge party for hundr…

How Gujarat government refused to make public inquiry commission report on corruption

It was February 2011. I was in the Gujarat state assembly, covering routine House proceedings. Mostly boring, as after sitting for the whole day, I wouldn’t get a story worth reporting, except for the usual BJP-Congress duels, which seemed to be happening more according to a written script. On one of these days, a good friend, Mahinder Jethmlani, running Pathey Budget Centre, a small state budget analysis centre in Ahmedabad, reached up to me with a colourful four-page folder.
It was the summary of a report prepared by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), Delhi, which qualified Gujarat as the most transparent of the 10 states had it surveyed. Titled “Transparency in State Budgets in India”, it gave a score of 61.7 to Gujarat for budget transparency, as against the average of 51.6 for the 10 states it surveyed. The score of other state was Madhya Pradesh (60.2), Andhra Pradesh (51.8), Chhattisgarh (56.1), Odisha (52.6), Assam (51.1), Jharkhand (48.4), Maharashtra …

Land allocation to Dalits: A feasible option to end oppression?

A major plank of young Jignesh Mevani, widely projected as the new Dalit icon of Gujarat, is that the state government should provide five acres of land to each Dalit family, and it should part of the solution to rehabilitate those doing the despicable job of manually scavenging of dead cattle. The view apparently stems from the understanding that agriculture is a respectable profession, and can certainly provide a good livelihood option. Mevani has threatened, in case five acres land is not offered by September 15, he would launch a “rail roko” agitation.
Trained as a lawyer under late Mukul Sinha, a well-known Gujarat High Court advocate who shot into prominence for his tough counter-questions to those who appeared before the Nanavati-Shah Commission of inquiry into Gujarat riots, Mevani’s “passion” for land is not new. It existed five years ago, too, when I first met him in the Times of India office in Gandhinagar. He had told me how most of the land, which had been rendered surplus…

Why the pledge to give up scavenging dead cattle may face roadblock

The year was 1993. I had just joined the Times of India, Ahmedabad. With very little knowledge of Gujarat then, as part of my frantic effort to know the state, its people, culture, society and politics, I would meet as many people as I could –experts, activists, politicians, others. One person whom I would often visit was Achyut Yagnik, considered then – as now –the main contact point for journalists landing up in Ahmedabad. As friend, philosopher and guide, Yagnik would also help researchers, Indian and foreign, in every possible way, sending them to Gujarat’s different parts to interact with knowledgeable individuals.
One such researcher was Shalini Randeria. An ethnic Gujarati settled in Germany, Prof Randeria is currently rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. There was a special reason why I could connect myself with her –we were in the same class in Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi, in 1960s. Yagnik handed me over a photocopy of her PhD thesis which she had just compl…

Rupani is a better choice as Gujarat CM, but is that enough?

You can be a frank and an approachable leader, but is that enough for you to solve social issues which bog society? Soon after Vijay Rupani became Gujarat chief minister on August 5 evening, a top Sachivalaya insider, whom I have known for more than a decade, phoned me up to know what people thought of “the new incumbent”. Hesitant, I told him that he knew Rupani for quite some time, in fact ever since Rupani was in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, hence he should know better. Refusing to be named, he didn’t mince words, “Rupani is frank, approachable, dynamic”, adding, “It has always been a boon to work with him.”
I have known Rupani a little bit, though certainly not as much as this insider, who keeps a close tab of what’s goings on in the nerve centre of Gujarat politics. Without any doubt, Rupani is “approachable”. Off and on, while covering Sachivalaya, I would consult him about political goings on around Modi, and though he was frank and approachable, he never crossed the BJP’s …

Dalit outrage? BJP in Gujarat appears “relaxed”

Amidst the recent Dalit agitation in Gujarat in the wake of the July 11 attack on four Dalit youths belonging to the Rohit (chamar) community off Una for skinning a dead cow, I decided to find out what would be the impact of the incident, already a national issue, on Gujarat politics. Apart from immediately getting in touch with some senior Dalit rights activists, I contacted a few senior BJP and Congress leaders, too. The reason I did this was, one of my friends, who happens to be a senior activist, Ashok Shrimali, a Dalit, would always tell me how, over the years, and especially after the 2002 riots, “80 per cent of the Dalits have moved away from the Congress to the BJP”.
While a few other non-political Dalit activists would vehemently deny this, I decided to go by the observation of Teesta Setalvad, who said in a recent article, “Dalits and the Hindu Rashtra: A Close Look at the Gujarat Model”: “As we saw in 2002, it is Dalits who have been used and abused to carry out the filthy d…

Swamy “used and abandoned”? This is what happened in Gujarat

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have “cleared” his views on BJP’s maverick politician Subramaniam Swamy. However, whatever I know of Modi as chief minister of Gujarat during my nearly 15 year stint in Gandhinagar as the Times of India correspondent, it wasn’t at all surprising the way he reacted. His “critique” of Swamy, if it all it can be called that, came after Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan had decided to quit and return to the academia in Chicago. So, was Swamy “used and abandoned”, to quote a phrase used by Gujarat’s top cop GL Singhal in the “Gujarat Files”, a book based on stings by journalist Rana Ayyub to “expose” government role in 2002 riots and fake encounters?
In fact, any reference of Swamy as a “maverick” would remind me of a Gujarat-based maverick politician, with whom I had, I must admit, an uneasy relationship. Looking back, I sometimes feel it was perhaps a mistake on my part to be ill at ease with this IPS-turned-politician, who had been a Cabinet minister u…

Nothing Gandhian about prohibition in Gujarat; it’s a British legacy

I lived in Moscow for seven long years from 1986 to 1993 as Patriot correspondent, and travelled almost all corners of the ex-Soviet Union – from its Far-Eastern cities to its northern most port Arkhangelsk, many of the Central Asian towns which were later ravaged by internecine ethnic clashes and, of course, the cultural capital, St Petersburg. Yet, what surprises many of my acquaintances and friends is, how couldn’t I “learn” to give up my essentially teetotal characteristic?
Even the doyen of Indian diplomats, TN Kaul, couldn’t change me during his ambassadorship in Moscow. At embassy parties, not once, but several times over he would approach me, saying, “This is bad, Rajiv! You must at least hold a glass of wine!” I would obey, hold the glass till the toast was over, and abandon it immediately thereafter.
Not that I haven’t ever sipped alcohol. During informal gatherings in Moscow, I did indeed taste home-made wine, as also Georgian and Moldavian wine, rated pretty high. I have als…

“Wasted” waters of two re-profiled rivers — Narmada and Sabarmati

I have in my hand a new book, “Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis”, edited by two scholar-activists whom I have known for a little while for their insightful reports on ground-level environmental issues and their implications – Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon.
While I found most of the papers published in the book (published by Sage) too theoretical, hence would possibly require expert reaction, two of them interesting me. The first one is a paper by Shripad Dharmadhikary, a passionate expert on river systems, once associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. What interested me in Dharmadhikary’s paper is his strong, perhaps unique, argument on how the Narmada project was conceived to put into practice the “flawed” notion that water should not be allowed to go waste into the sea, and how this concept has ruined ecological systems.
The second paper that interested me is by Himanshu Burte, faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Burte deals with Ahmedabad’s Saba…

Modi’s educational qualifications — An unnecessary controversy

Ever since the controversy – if can be called that – broke out last year about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BA and MA degrees, I had been informally telling some of those involved in questioning his educational qualifications, including Ahmedabad-based political activist Roshan Shah and a few scribes, that, what I know for sure is, he was an MA student in Gujarat University. I am naming Roshan – whom I have found to be a fine person with good insights into local Gujarat issues, and a keen campaigner against Modi and Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel on social media (something Modi’s opponents utterly lack) – because he was a kingpin in raising this and similar such controversies, citing RTI pleas and complaints.
Not that doubts about Modi’s educational qualifications did not exist earlier. They did exist even in my mind after he became Gujarat chief minister. Yet, these doubts seemed to have got cleared, when during an informal gathering, I asked Dinesh Shukla, a veteran retired…

An alternative to reservation

Last evening, I was a little put off for a while. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, and new Gujarat BJP chief Vijay Rupani (whom I had known as a relatively more suave politician among many of his ilk) told media that the Gujarat government would provide 10 percent reservation to dominant castes having income less than Rs 6 lakh.
It wasn’t reservation, already a contentious issue, which seemed to bother me immediately, as much as the figure, Rs 6 lakh. I wondered: Does it mean that a tax payer should be allowed reservation?
As expected, in his one-upmanship, Congress’ opposition leader Shankarsinh Vaghela, an ex-BJP man, came up with the demand to raise the reservation limit to 20 per cent, and the income limit to Rs 12 lakh! What he was demanding was simply amazing. Many class one officers of the Gujarat government, except a few in the IAS, would be “allowed” reservation.
I desperately searched for reaction. A scribe, who passionately covered the reservation roll…

Trump an American Modi? No way, say NRIs

A tweet the other day by a well-known America-based political scientist, Milan Vaishnav, amused me. Associated with the think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has research centres in Beijing, Beirut, Brussels, Moscow, and Washington, he quantified what I had witnessed during my recent US visit: Though he has been called “American Modi” by many in India, Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump isn’t quite liked by NRI Modi supporters.
Impossible to dub him a “left liberal” by any stretch of imagination (he supports market reforms), Vaishnav’s tweet said, “Reminder: Upwards of 80% of Indian-Americans vote Democratic.” That was in response to a story in “The Hindu”, “Indian-Americans for Trump? Only a handful”.
Though I haven’t ever met or interacted with Vaishnav except through Twitter, his commentaries have interested me. In one of the latest ones, published in “Foreign Affairs”, he says, “The challenge for Modi is to use his considerable political capital to …