New Delhi, Jan 14 (IANS) The US-India strategic partnership is likely to continue on the same upward trajectory, albeit with some millstones under Joe Biden's presidency which will assume office next week on January 20.
Even as outgoing President Donald Trump lost in the November 3, 2020, elections, his broader foreign policy agenda, sans his brashness, has more or less shaped the future agenda for his successors.
Going by Biden's statements and that of crucial members of his nominated team -- Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and William Burns as CIA Director -- India is likely to assume the same significance strategically as it enjoyed during the Trump administration.
While Biden during his election campaign bragged about his instrumental role in the India-US nuclear deal and overall support for the India-US partnership under the former Barack Obama administration, Blinken's view on India is apparent from the positions he assumed through his long career in Washington D.C.
Blinken was National Security Adviser to Biden when he was Vice President and Deputy National Security Advisor to Obama. He also served as Deputy Secretary of State under the same administration.
Widely known to a be a close confidante of Biden, Blinken was his foreign policy adviser to his election campaign. At a Hudson Institute interaction, Blinken last year announced that a Biden presidency would give very high priority to strengthening and deepening relationship with India.
Similarly, in an elaborate article in the Atlantic in February 2020, William Burns supporting this view, acknowledged that the momentum of the US-India strategic partnership "accelerated" under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who "embraced a more confident role for India on the world stage and the revitalization of its domestic modernisation".
However, the foreign policy team of Prime Minister Modi has a job cut out for itself to smoothen the rough edges in its dealings with the Biden presidency on the issues where it is least likely to get the unprecedented concessions which it got under Trump.
In the last four years under Trump, India found itself on an elevated ground in the US scheme of things. From a strong personal rapport between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump to a common vision for the Indo-Pacific region, the US and India saw convergence on many issues. The Trump administration's decisive shift in its foreign policy on China which has aggressively expanded in Asia and now breathing down India's neck along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, offered New Delhi a huge respite.
The Trump-Pompeo team persistently put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through the last two years using several measures from trade war to exploring the formalization of Quad to contain its imperial expansionism. Earlier, when the US-China relationship thrived due to bilateral trade, New Delhi could not afford to antagonize Beijing even if it showed aggression along India's borders. However, with the Trump presidency's open hostility with the CCP and support for India, New Delhi found itself in a stronger position with respect to Beijing.
India also benefited from President Trump's unambigious toughness against Pakistan over cross-border terrorism. Above all, even as President Trump wanted to finalize a trade deal with India during his visit early last year but the Modi government negotiated for more time. Under Biden administration, this dynamic is likely to continue. But what's clear is that the Biden presidency will not extend the same concessions that Trump offered to Modi on domestic issues.
The Modi government escaped pressure from the Trump administration on the nullification of Jammu and Kashmir's special status, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which grants citizenship to persecuted minorities in the three neighbouring Islamic countries, farmers' agitation and other similar internal issues on which the US Democrats have traditionally intervened in.
Both Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, during the election campaign, made it evident that they will hold the BJP government in India accountable for not just the rights of religious and caste minorities but their sentiments too. Harris, an American of Indian descent, particularly took upon herself to question the Modi government over internal matters related to minorities.
Significantly, William Burns, in his article in the Atlantic while acknowledging Modi's role in strengthening India, did not hold back from branding both him and Trump as "part of the problem in a world where democracies are busy undoing themselves".
India will require deft diplomacy to manoeuver its way out of such difficult spots.
There is a WhatsApp message doing the rounds: “Americans recently found out that it’s much easier for them to change presidents in other countries than in their own nation.” So, how does the largest democracy, India, compare with the oldest one, the US, on practising democracy?
All through the presidential campaign, outgoing US President Donald Trump had declared that he would not move out of the White House even if he were defeated. His rival, President-elect Joe Biden, retorted that he (Trump) would be escorted out by the military. But no one expected an attack on the Capitol Hill, which is regarded as the temple of democracy in the US. Trump has spent the last two months refusing to concede defeat and claiming mass voter fraud. But the worst was his instigation of the Capitol Hill riots. According to the US media, Trump began his most infamous Wednesday morning making a last-ditch effort to hold on to power with a tweet, asking his Vice-President Mike Pence to intervene and overturn Joe Biden’s election. Pence publicly issued a letter in the afternoon declaring that he would not illegally intervene in the Congress, minutes before convening the joint session of the US Congress to certify the Electoral College. Trump addressed his supporters about 1 PM and declared: “We will never give up, we will never concede,” and announced “We’re going to the Capitol.” Trump drove his supporters into a frenzy. However, he did not join them in the riots that followed in the Capitol Hill and went back to the White House and watched the destruction on television. At the end of Wednesday, after the US Congress confirmed Biden’s victory, Trump declared: “Even though I disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless, there will be an orderly transition on January 20.”
There are many reasons for Trump’s atrocious behaviour. First of all, he is a bad loser and reluctant to admit defeat. Even in 2016, Trump had declared that he would accept the poll results only if he won or else he would resort to legal action. Second, now that he has lost the presidency, he would lose all federal protection against prosecution. Third, he needs his followers to be his support base in case he makes a presidential bid in 2024. He is also depending on the 73 million who voted for him this time. It is speculated that Trump has made up his mind to contest the next elections and wants to play the role of a martyr. Fourth, he also has to keep the section of Republicans who support him in the party, happy. This contemptible attack on the US democracy makes one compare it to the largest democracy, India, that has gone through many trials and tribulations in the last 73 years. India has seen a smooth transfer of power 17 times. The electorate, too, has become mature over the decades since Independence and has punished authoritarian rulers. Even late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who imposed an Emergency in 1975 worked within the system, which bears little direct parallels to the current situation in the US.
After declaring an Emergency under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Indira blamed the “hidden hand” of the Central Intelligence Agency for internal unrest. The late President Pranab Mukherjee, who had been a Congressman all his life, talked about the Emergency period in his book ‘The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years.’ He described the period thus: “Suspension of fundamental rights and political activity (including trade union activity), large-scale arrests of political leaders and activists, Press censorship and extending the life of legislatures by not conducting elections were some instances of Emergency adversely affecting the interests of the people. Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure.” The Emergency officially ended on March 23, 1977. The Congress came down from 352 seats to just 189 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1977 elections. The Janata Party came to power. However, once the people’s anger subsided a subdued Indira came back to power in 1980 when the Janata Government collapsed. Since then, her successors have confined themselves to the boundaries of the Constitution. Even in States where cult leaders like Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa or RJD leader Lalu Prasad ruled in an authoritarian manner, they did so within the confines of the Constitution. So, to that extent, India has been lucky that democracy survives unhindered.
The US democracy got a major jolt on Wednesday and it is not over yet as Trump might make some more attempts to subvert democracy till January 20, when Biden takes over. The framers of the US Constitution would never have expected such shameful behaviour by a sitting President. In the words of Bob Woodward: “When history is written, Trump’s failure to heed the warnings he was given is going to be probably the story of the failure of the American presidency and the American system to nominate and elect someone who responsibly would carry out the duties of President.”
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)
The Govt needs to pursue disinvestment, including privatisation, as an objective by itself instead of linking it to revenue receipts and meeting the fiscal target
The Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) is in a war of words with the Ministry of Finance (MoF) over the proceeds of disinvestment of the Government’s shareholding in Central Public Sector Undertakings (CPSUs) during 2020-21. The point raised by the DIPAM is that out of the Rs 2,10,000 crore target fixed in the Union Budget, a big slice of Rs 90,000 crore, was thrust upon it by the MoF as being the projected proceeds from the sale of 10 per cent shares in the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and its residual stake in IDBI bank (during 2018-19, LIC acquired 51 per cent stake in IDBI Bank even as the balance 49 per cent remained with the Centre).
Leave aside Rs 90,000 crore, even the balance Rs 1,20,000 crore is nowhere within reach as the proceeds so far are a meagre Rs 14,000 crore. The Narendra Modi Government’s strategy of disinvestment pursued during the last seven years has not worked. This is because barring two years i.e. 2017-18 and 2018-19 — when the actual proceeds from divestment exceeded the goal — in the remaining five years the target fell short. Even during those two exceptional years, the good performance was made possible primarily due to two big ticket sales of the Union Government’s shares in one CPSU to another. This was the sale of its 51.11 per cent shareholding in Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) to the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) during 2017-18 yielding Rs 37,000 crore and the sale of its 52.63 per cent stake in the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) to the Power Finance Corporation (PFC) 2018-19 that brought in Rs 13,000 crore. But, for these, even during 2017-18 and 2018-19, actual proceeds would have fallen short.
These trends point towards bad handling of the disinvestment process. At the root of this is the faulty approach of the Union Government to treat CPSUs as an appendage to the administrative Ministry under which the PSU concerned falls and by extension, treating proceeds from divestment of its shareholding in them as a source of revenue (albeit non-tax) while preparing its Budget.
Unlike tax revenue which can be projected with a degree of certainty (the crucial determinants being the prevailing tax rate as per the law of the land and the value of economic activity), the same can’t be said about the proceeds from disinvestment. In this case, a lot depends on the market scenario and, in particular, the perception of investors about the PSU in which share sale is contemplated. It is even more relevant in cases where strategic disinvestment is mooted. Under such a sale, the shareholding of the Union Government is brought down to below 50 per cent or even zero. For instance, the sale of its entire shareholding of 51.11 per cent in HPCL or sale of its entire 53.29 per cent shareholding in Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) that was initiated in 2019-20 and has not yet happened. In such cases, if you don’t get a buyer, the sale won’t materialise. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
As per the original plan, the 51.11 per cent shares of the Union Government in HPCL were to be sold to a private investor. But things did not pan out as planned and towards the fag end of that year i.e. January 2018, the Government had to ask ONGC to pick up the entire stake, as it desperately needed money to meet the fiscal deficit target (in the process, ONGC suffered a collateral damage as it had to borrow Rs 35,000 crore to fund the purchase). The second flaw has to do with the Government’s reluctance to transfer rights proportionate to shares sold to private parties.
Even in cases where strategic disinvestment is proposed, it wants to remain in the driver’s seat. To get an idea, look at what Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her Budget speech for 2019-20. She had stated that the intent was to change the extant policy of the Government "directly" holding 51 per cent or above in a CPSU to one whereby its total holding, "direct" plus "indirect", is maintained at 51 per cent.
Such a stingy approach and the unwillingness of the political establishment to relinquish control even after divestment of majority ownership is far from conducive to eliciting interest from potential investors.
Third, the Government spends too much time on policy formulation — a process that goes on ad infinitum. In early 2016, the NITI Aayog had recommended a strategic sale of over two dozen CPSUs. But, the powers that be didn’t act on those recommendations.
Meanwhile, early this year, Sitharaman announced broad contours of the Government’s plans on privatisation, delineating different approaches to “strategic” (16 such sectors have been identified) and “non-strategic” sectors. Reportedly, a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) will be held shortly to approve the policy.
Allowing for about a year for the NITI Aayog to come up with its recommendations, it has been more than five years and the policy on strategic disinvestment has not been finalised yet. Till that happens, the Ministries concerned won’t gain the necessary momentum to push the sale process. Even after a divestment plan for a PSU is finalised, the Government remains in a flip-flop mode. For instance, in the case of Air India (AI), in its initial sale plan (2018-19), it had insisted on retaining 26 per cent stake, three years’ lock-in period on disposition of shares by the acquirer, leaving a big slice of debt on the balance sheet, retention of employees and so on. Since then several changes have been made. The offer plan currently under execution includes divestment of all of the Government’s shareholding, requiring the suitor to bid for the “enterprise value” (put simply, it means, he will be free from any debt burden), relaxation in other riders such as lock-in period, retention of employees and so on.
These flip-flops result in avoidable delays and erosion in the sale proceeds. If, only the Government had gone for sale of its 100 per cent stake in its 2018-19 offer and not insisted on the suitor to pick up a big slice of the debt on the AI’s books, further erosion in the realisable value from sales could have been avoided. Fourth, notwithstanding much trumpeting about governance reforms, bureaucratic red tape rules the roost. Almost all processes starting from conception, getting approvals, appointment of transaction advisor, inviting an Expression of Interest, financial bids, selection of bidder and so on, crucial to successful completion of disinvestment are hamstrung by it. Add to this, the reluctance of bureaucrats to take timely decisions fearing they might be questioned after retirement.
This leads to delay in processes and by the time, all approvals are in place, the market scenario has undergone a drastic change. For instance, the sale of BPCL was planned during 2019-20. Then, the projected realisation from sale was over Rs 60,000 crore. But, the officials were not ready. Even as they exuded confidence that the sale would go through during the current year, the pandemic has spoilt the party. The chances of the sale getting completed by March 31 this year are dim. Meanwhile, there has been significant value erosion, even as the proceeds on current valuation may not exceed Rs 45,000 crore.
To conclude, the present approach of the Government to link divestment of its shareholding in CPSUs to using receipts (non-tax) therefrom to meet the fiscal deficit target is flawed. It should be abandoned. Instead, the Government should pursue share sale including strategic disinvestment (or privatisation) as an objective by itself.
In this regard, formulation of an appropriate strategy and preparation of a PSU-specific plan should come from the management (it is best equipped to do the job) instead of being thrust on it by the concerned administrative Ministry under a typical top-down approach.
However, the Government may constitute a panel of eminent professionals (sans bureaucrats) for providing guidance on macro-economic issues that have a bearing on the disinvestment process and can be helpful in maximising realisation from the sale.
In the current scenario, wherein the Government is encouraging private companies to invest even in sensitive areas such as defence, space and so on, there is no point in getting bogged down in drawing a line between strategic and non-strategic sectors. Any decision to privatise a PSU should be taken on the merit of each case.
This will give the much-needed flexibility to the management to decide the contours and timing of the divestment, taking into account market conditions. This will help in maximising proceeds from sales and improve the Centre’s budgetary position, too.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based policy analyst. The views expressed are personal.)
Cricket, they say, is a gentleman’s game. But the disgrace which occurred on the fourth day of the ongoing third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) doesn’t bear witness to this adage at all. Team India pacer Mohammed Siraj was subjected to abuse by a section of racist Australian supporters who called him “Brown dog” and “Big monkey” before being evicted from the stands by security officials when the bowler complained to his captain Ajinkya Rahane, who was quick to take up the matter with the on-field umpires. What is worse is that such shameful indiscretion, nonchalance and mindset of the Aussie spectators is a recurring theme, given that even the previous day Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah were on the receiving end of racial abuse. According to a media report, the Australian fans had been drunk. “Bumrah and Siraj were called monkeys, w**ker and mo**er by the people almost throughout the time they were fielding at the boundary,” it claimed. What lends more currency to the two Indian bowlers’ allegation is the fact that a number of cricketers — including Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin and Virat Kohli — have come out to counter the New South Wales Police’s claim that the six fans were only “welcoming Siraj to Sydney” by unequivocally stating that they had had also undergone many incidents where “really pathetic things were said” near the boundary rope.
But it has been an issue in Australian sport stretching back decades, on and off the field. Aficionados would vividly remember the Monkeygate scandal involving Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds during the second India-Australia Test in Sydney in 2008-2009, and Kohli’s flipping response — yes, to the Sydney crowd, again — in the 2011-12 series. Then, Cricket Australia was forced to lodge an investigation when England cricketer Moeen Ali accused an Australian player of name-calling him during the 2015 Ashes series. In his autobiography, Ali had revealed that he was called “Osama” by an Australian player. As per an extract, an Australian player had turned to him on the field and said: “Take that, Osama.” The Englishman had asserted that he “could not believe” what he had heard at the time. Similarly, former Australian Test star Usman Khawaja has previously said he was abused so much growing up that he refused to support the national side, and claimed racism once even played a role in selections for the team. Even off the field, several attacks on Indian students across different Australian cities have been ascribed to “racism” and “racial overtones” and, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians were targeted by linking them to the likely origin of the disease in China. The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) “anti-racism code” clearly banishes “engaging in any conduct (whether through the use of language, gestures or otherwise) which is likely to offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, threaten, disparage or vilify any reasonable person in the position of a player, player support personnel, umpire, match referee, umpire support personnel or any other person (including a spectator) on the basis of their race, religion, culture, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin”. It is high time, therefore, that Cricket Australia, in tandem with the police authorities, take expeditious and strict action against the racist bigots and make an example of them so that their, and that of others like them, perfidiousness comes to a permanent halt. The ongoing series is currently locked 1-1 and the finale is scheduled in Brisbane from January 15.
Court wants farm laws paused till the deadlock with farmers can be resolved through dialogue, not judicial intervention
It has happened again; the Supreme Court reminding the Executive to carry out its functions rather than relying on legal intervention on matters that it is perfectly equipped to handle. Except, this time, it was an admonishment of sorts, exasperation even, with the Government for not heeding past counsel and passing the buck to escape its share of the blame. So the top court reminded the Government, which washed its hands of the impasse with farmers over new agricultural laws, that it could not ignore its role in what was essentially a matter of policy. In a stinging rap, the judges re-emphasised the need for a consultative process to resolve the vexed issue, asking the Government whether it would pause the implementation of the farm laws, or else the court would. It further drew attention to dialogue as the only way out, asking “What’s the ego here?” and if the Government was “part of the problem or solution?” Considering that it had earlier highlighted the importance of setting up a mediatory committee, the court rightly took umbrage at the Government’s ignorance of such recommendation and its rigidity. By calling out the Government on its stubbornness, the court clearly laid out the virtues of democratic discourse. Besides, it kept the Centre accountable to farmers, a task that the latter was hoping to tie up in legalities. The court, hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the farm laws and farmer agitations at the Delhi border, was also deeply concerned about the human dimension, raising questions about suicides and even old men and women holding out in the harsh weather. Clearly, it didn’t want a civil movement to get out of hand because of the Government’s intransigence and, at the same time, warned against a crackdown, with Chief Justice of India SA Bobde saying: “We do not want blood on our hands.” By suggesting that the protests could continue even after the laws’ implementation was stayed, the court made it clear that dissent needed its space. Nor could the Centre “blame the previous Governments” for it, it added, an indictment of its tendency to attribute anything antithetical as the Opposition’s conspiracy.
It would be easy to describe the court’s stern stand as a win for the farmers’ unions but the fact of the matter is that it is a denunciation of the Government’s political failure. Had the Government preferred the Standing Committee’s scrutiny over pushing the law unceremoniously with a voice vote in the Upper House, things would not have come to such a pass. A GST-like consensus involving the Centre and States would have helped, since agriculture-related issues come under the State List in Schedule VII of the Constitution. The laws may sound well-intended, reformist and help farmers in the long run but shouldn’t the Government then have hand-held them through the transition? What stopped it from considering amendments or a “clause by clause” analysis while the laws were on the drawing board? In that sense, the Government is solely responsible for fomenting protests in the first place. The farmers are not against market economics but simply want a level playing field. Experts may argue that the protest is being led by cultivators from Punjab and Haryana, who have benefited because of the Government’s guaranteed pickup of volumes and fixed rates, namely the Minimum Support Price (MSP). But with the MSP itself becoming unremunerative given the rising input costs, with the farmers forced to sell at lower rates, they are but naturally wary of competitive prices in the open market. The small and marginal farmers, the lot of whom the Acts intend to improve, would not gain that much either, given their limited resources to transport their goods to the local mandis, leave alone to bigger markets . Besides, without proper warehousing and processing, they would anyway be dependent on the food majors. With most of them not literate enough to exercise their rights, dispute resolution could also end up being loaded against them. The farmers need to be legally protected in what is still an unequal deal.
Gandhi's idea of Swaraj was admittedly shaped by his Hindu ethos. But can it be overlooked that he sacrificed Hindu interests for Pan-Islamism?
In 2003, the trio of JK Bajaj, Professor MD Srinivas and AP Joshi came out with a path-breaking work, ‘Religious Demography of India’. It revealed the changing share of different religious communities in India, based on the Census figures between 1881 and 1991. The Partition was a watershed moment in India’s inter-communal relations. The study, however, suggests that it was far from the culmination. Muslims are still the fastest growing community in India, particularly in certain pockets close to the frontiers or coastline. Numerous districts of India, often contiguous, betrayed a significantly higher growth rate of the Muslim population. A belt of Muslim concentration districts spans Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), western Uttar Pradesh (UP), north-eastern Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, running almost into Bangladesh.
Way back in 1912, Colonel UN Mukherji (based on his study of Censuses 1881 to 1911) had stated that the Hindus were a “dying” race. Bajaj’s team — through a more exhaustive analysis of the Census figures — concluded that the changes on the ground were far too serious in independent India than those in the colonial era. These developments could not be without severe consequences for India.
It was a book about India’s future, or rather challenges to it, which those in power should have taken note of. However, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government soon lost power in May 2004. The UPA-1 Government attuned its policies to the growing Muslim clout. It set up the Sachar Committee to study Muslim underdevelopment, created an independent Ministry of Minority Affairs permanently headed by a Muslim Minister and announced lakhs of scholarships for the minorities, where the lion’s share went to Muslims. It was in a sense Bajaj’s predictions coming true; Muslim demographic heft was moulding State policies.
However, those with whom he shared his ideological affinity also did not seem to realise the importance of his work. They would hardly read or quote from his laborious work. Though Bajaj’s Centre for Policy Studies continued to function and even secured its own building in Central Delhi (which apparently meant that it was able to monetise its projects, or obtain funding), his path-breaking work was not sufficiently appreciated by those on whom he had pinned his hopes the most.
Since 2014, India seems to have come under a divinely-ordained Prime Minister. The Hindu nationalists have reasons to be upbeat. However, the pro-minority (read Muslim) policies of the Government have only got bigger and better. New schemes like Nai Manzil, USTTAD and Gharib Nawaz have been started by the Modi Government. Almost Rs 2,082 crore were disbursed towards pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means-based scholarships during financial year (FY) 2019-20, marking a definite improvement over the Rs 1,739 crore worth of scholarships during FY 2013-14. The ambit of Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram (previously called multi-sectoral development programme for the minorities) has been expanded to 308 districts from mere 90 under the UPA Government. What was previously alleged as “appeasement” is now being re-interpreted as “empowerment”. All the Congress-era institutions catering to religious minorities are functioning well. However, this Government never appointed a Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities, though it is a constitutional post.
Bajaj and Prof Srinivas recently sprang a surprise with a 1,000-page tome on Gandhi. The book, titled ‘Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj’, is based mostly on Gandhi’s own correspondences and conversations. As evident, it deals with the period prior to 1908, when the Hind Swaraj was published. Gandhi spent 24 years in South Africa before returning to India in January 1915. This columnist, though he is yet to see the book, is in no doubt that the authors would have done a thorough job. However, was the subject really worth the massive labour the two authors put up? Further, does this really contribute something to India’s future as their previous work on religious demography did?
The crux of the authors’ argument is that Gandhi’s political outlook was shaped by profound Hindu convictions. Those having read the speeches and correspondences of Gandhi would know that this is correct. Expressions like “I speak as a Hindu” and “our Hindu scriptures say that…” frequently appear in his literature. He mainstreamed the concepts like satyagraha, ashram, brahmacharya, Ram rajya, upvaas (fast), maun (silence), Daridra Narayan, Harijan and suchlike in a bid to de-colonise the Indian mind. However, why would such a person, with deep formative influence of Hinduism, zealously take up the Khilafat Movement to restore the deposed Sultan of Turkey on his throne? Gandhi made Hindu-Muslim unity a precondition for any political action. He went to the extent of distorting the bhajan “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” to include words like Allah, Rahim and Karim. Gandhi described the marauding Moplahs in Malabar as “God-fearing people” and (at the Guwahati Congress, 1926) refused to censure Abdul Rashid, the assassin of Swami Shraddhanand, but rather called him a “brother” who had done no wrong.
BR Ambedkar — in his landmark book Pakistan, or the Partition of India — wondered whether any sane man could go to the extent that Gandhi went for the sake of Hindu-Muslim unity. However, while Gandhi harmed the Hindu interests, he failed to impress the Muslims either. They dissociated themselves from the leadership of Gandhi soon as the Khilafat Non-Cooperation Movement ended in a fiasco. Rather, the Muslims turned upon the Hindus as though they were responsible for Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s abolition of the Caliphate. Gandhi had to acknowledge that every Muslim was a bully, and every Hindu a coward.
Gandhi fraternised with Husyen Shaheed Suhrawardy (1884-1963), the evil genius of Great Calcutta Killings (August 1946) to the extent that the latter could attend Gandhi’s prayers at Birla House in New Delhi (September 1947) as Subimal Dutt (later India’s Foreign Secretary) found him (With Nehru in Foreign Office, P18). Is this how a “Hindu patriot” should act?
One wonders what purpose will be served by identifying a “Hindu patriot” in Gandhi in South Africa. In South Africa, the Hindu-Muslim question was either non-existent or subservient to the question of colonial policy. The immigrant Indians were a small minority among the huge native black population and tiny White rulers. Gandhi’s test of Hinduism was in the India between the years of Khilafat Movement to the Muslim League’s campaign for Pakistan. He failed the test miserably.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat launching the book is perhaps an indication of “Gandhi-tisation of the RSS” even though the Hindus might continue to put its faith in the organisation as their saviour. If Gandhi were really a “Hindu patriot”, KB Hedgewar need not have founded the RSS in 1925. Moreover, the Gandhi that one comes across in the Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (1908) is a person who wants to disengage with all forms of modernism and industrialism, viz; railways, machinery, law courts, Parliament and so on. Is it the way forward for the much-touted “New India”?
(The writer is an author and independent researcher based in New Delhi. The opinions expressed are personal.)
The menace of the “Radical Democrats!” That’s what US President Donald Trump contended in a rally a few days back in order to spark a storm of protest by GOP supporters and voters in order to substantiate his claim over the notion of fake voters. Trump has been insisting on the voter fraud in his umpteen narratives in the aftermath of around one-fifty lawsuits being rendered useless and termed fiction-infested by the lower courts and twice through the seminal decisions of the US Supreme Court, surprisingly by the judges appointed by President Trump himself. Thus, the way the US Capitol Hill was attacked and violated on January 6, it comes as no surprise that the finger is being pointed at the intent and stature of President Trump. The elections in the state of Georgia to decide about the senators from the state will have a long-winding impact on the manner in which the Joe Biden team performs and scuttles the diatribe of the GOP in the days to come.
The vitiation of the grandiose Capitol Hill, a symbol of American power, pelf and larger hyper puissance, sheds meaningful light on what the American cornucopia is going through in the contemporary context in these vitriolic times. There was a kind of electoral siege which was imposed on the Congressmen and women who were besieged in the heady portals of the Capitol Hill. An extraordinary emergency call has emanated from the Pentagon officials to President Trump to desist from involving military in the elections in the homeland, a first in the entire electoral history of the United States of America.
The extraordinary scene unfolded as police personnel were outnumbered by the maskless protesters who breached security and entered the Capitol building, where members of the Congress were going through the process of counting and certifying the Electoral College votes.
“It was one of many shocking moments that played out on television screens across the world as the seat of the world’s greatest democracy came under assault from hundreds of protesters angered by Trump’s loss to his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in the November presidential election,” it was reported.
Capitol is the symbol of American democracy in whose context a French political scientist has gone on to contend famously that bipartisanship ought to be the order of the day in the body politic of US democracy. He stated that the contours and the ideal functioning of the grid of American democracy is such that the mortar and the liquid concrete in a building construction are enmeshed together and grounded in order to prepare a workable and smoothened out paste of creation and establishment in the quintessential American tradition of democracy, constitution, rule of law and unanarchic order of the day.
Still, one can gauge the nature of the dystopian pandemonium, going by the pictures as they beamed to the global audience as pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol building, Mt Sinai and the citadel on the high ground. It, at the onset, appears as another cantankerous catastrophe and political mess on the lines of September 11 attacks. It is a bad omen. The Capitol Hill is akin to the Statue of Liberty and the White House and all these historically proud and imposing landmarks along with the star-studded walkways in LA have always been associated with the awe and respect of the hoi polloi all across the panoply of nations and the larger international system. The siege is a fervent reminder of the nature of crass political debate which the nations have sunk into but on the flip side of it, there’s nothing wrong with the nationalistic and patriotic fervour of the American denizens and not much ought to be read out of it in connection to the much tomm-tommed “American Decline”. Still, the raucous rabidity of the political discourse and now the unfolding protests and the attendant siege pinpoint towards an unstable and shaky future for the American politics.
An Indian national daily reported that, “The trigger for these protest was a speech given by Trump, who asked his supporters to ‘fight’ to stop the ‘steal’ of the election and march on the Capitol where a ceremony is being held to certify the Electoral College votes that will formalise President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. The scenes that Americans are accustomed to watching in distant lands, played out in their own backyard as the protesters pushed through police barricades and broke windows. The violence also included gunshots fired in the Capitol, which led to the death of a woman.”
Thus the American democratic tradition has taken a severe beating with the onslaught on the Capitol Hill which is associated with the glib debates, intense rigmarole of lobbying and the green lighted lamps in the chambers of the US Congress. Do we need to complacently reconcile with the dictum that, “Violence is as American as a cherry pie”. Such a sloganeering and maxims might be more attuned to and at home with the Black Rights movement but not with the stellar and unbesmirched role model of American electoral and political culture.
Still, it might be a futile exercise to ascribe and juxtapose the Capitol Hill with the anti-slavery movement and the racist violence and the Black Rights movement of the red summer of 1919 immediately in the aftermath of World War I. The violence on the American street and largely reflected in the American Classic, “Ragtime,” does shed light on the theme of American protest movements but the rage encountered in the seat of the larger than life American seat of power and posterity is unparalleled in the narrative of the American history. Black Rights movements had a palpable justifiability and a staple raison d’être associated with them which these raucous crowds do not espouse. The violence and negative political rhetoric associated with MAGA (Make America Great Again) needs to be corrected if the American zeitgeist is not to lose its “currency and sheen” in the larger global firmament. Places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Mississippi need not be relegated to the backburner as being associated with turmoil and vicious political vacillation but incidents which honed America into becoming what bit has turned out to be. Incidents such as those at Capitol Hill might be read as reflecting the larger decay but lest it not to be forgotten that there are seismic Sudans, horrific Haities and astute Azerbaijan’s struggling for their sanity in the nether regions of the larger international system. American democracy is not a tinder box that can be destroyed by a single violent incident, but it definitely renders a blow to the ideal of American liberty and freedom fief which is something the proud American nation has always stood for.
(The writer teaches at International Relations and International Organisations, IIPA, New Delhi)
Jack Ma or Ma Yun, a famous Chinese billionaire and the co-founder of Alibaba Group, is considered one of the top tech tycoons of Asia today. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Jack’s current net worth is estimated at $63.1 billion. However, the investigation by the Chinese Government triggered a sharp fall in Alibaba’s shares, by a quarter since its peak period. This all has literally wiped off $10 billion from his asset value.
Jack suddenly came in the red book of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its leadership when he criticised the country’s regulatory system in October 2020. He referred to the Chinese regulatory system having a “pawnshop mentality” and his company AliPay is not suitable for such regressive tactics. He also blamed the current regulatory structure for stifling innovation in the country. Jack openly claimed that China’s banking regulatory system is nothing more than an “old people’s club”. Coincidentally, Jack’s public criticism came days before his company Ant Group was about to launch one of the world’s biggest IPOs worth $37 billion in Shanghai and Hong Kong. And after all these big plans, Jack has been missing since November 2020. People and his fans were surprised when he did not appear in his popular TV talent show named “Africa’s Business Heroes”. This show is made to offer an opportunity to win an award of $1.5 million by budding African entrepreneurs. In fact, the origin of the show goes back to the year 2017 when Jack was touring African continent as a Special Adviser to UNCTAD Secretary General Mukhisa and saw the potential of entrepreneurs. In the year 2018, he announced the establishment of the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI) with an initial grant of $10 million to identify and award 100 Africa’s Business Heroes over the next 10 years. And the first Africa Business Heroes competition took place in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, in November 2019. And the recent one when Jack did not appear was only the second one that took place in November 2020. It’s no wonder that the Chinese authorities were not able to come to terms with the power, influence and popularity that Jack Ma enjoyed much beyond the Chinese borders.
Jack’s sudden disappearance has fuelled speculation across the world. It is feared that he could have been arrested or kept under house arrest if he has not been “missing”. The successive Chinese administrations have a long record of keeping such big personalities under “supervision”, which may mean Jack Ma is in an undisclosed jail. Thus, the Hong Kong-based The Asia Times has quoted Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily and stated that Jack Ma is embracing supervision. Already China’s official media outlets have started a vitriolic campaign against the business tycoon. As per the reports appearing in the People’s Daily, it is assumed that Jack’s very questioning of the Chinese system is not appreciated by the CPC bosses. In a November edition of the People’s Daily, it has been said that Jack could not have elevated his Alibaba to a global conglomerate without the support from the Government. The People’s Daily said in one of its posts: “Ma Yun is savvy but without the support of national policies, Alibaba will not be able to become a trillion-business empire”. Therefore, it is well understood that Jack Ma is expected to toe the red lines earmarked by Beijing and its subsidiaries.
Of course, business and trade are activities performed within the four walls of the society. And state being the most powerful entity of any society will always have a major role in making and remaking of business enterprises. Perhaps, Jack Ma was trying to break the CPC stronghold on business houses.
The authoritarian Chinese state is up against its own homegrown billionaire. But the moot point is why China is afraid of an individual who has throughout been there in the country? Is he capable of usurping the mighty Communist Party of China (CPC) or the state run by its leaders? Has he gone to such an extent that he could simply derail China’s financial system? There could be many more such questions which may create a ripple of unease among the power brokers of Beijing for years. China is afraid of Jack Ma because he has amassed lots of wealth and through wealth he has become very powerful. That is why he has been able to question the existing systems in China. Of course, he is not capable of overthrowing the Communist state or the CPC, because these two are all powerful and they are omnipotent.
Jack Ma’s extent of power is not sufficient enough to derail or destabilise the current financial structure in China. Still, the Chinese leaders are taking all precautionary measures so as to counter or simply stop Jack from moving beyond the party and the state.
The bullying tactics employed by Chinese President Xi Jinping is an open secret. His all-out agenda to assert his power, authority and position is not only damaging the country’s image abroad, it also heralds a disturbing signal particularly for its domestic tech giants. For Beijing, Jack’s company is displaying monopolistic behaviour. That is why the Government has launched an anti-trust investigation into Alibaba and is stepping up the scrutiny of the country’s rapidly growing internet firms. Meanwhile, China’s top market regulator called State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) has started a probe against alleged monopolistic behaviour by Alibaba, the online shopping portal and cloud computing giant.
The SAMR gave few details but clearly said that it would investigate the company’s practice of requiring the merchants to sign agreements that prevent them from selling products on rival platforms known as “choosing one from two”. At the same time, the People’s Bank of China stated that the country’s four financial regulators are summoning the Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial affiliate, to an emergency meeting. It is learnt that the SAMR has summoned six internet giants of China — Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com, Meituan, Pinduoduo and Didi Chuxing. And all of them were reportedly told that the agency is tightening the regulation of business practice that allows groups of people in the same community to buy bulk goods at a very low price.
In fact, this kind of a group buying business model has become very popular in the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic as millions relied on only online shopping. As per the official release of the Ant Group, it is already cooperating with the Government regulators and claimed that it will comply with all the regulatory requirements.
Today what Beijing is doing is leveraging its economic and military juggernaut to seriously redraw the contours of world trade, security and more prominently diplomacy. And frankly speaking, it is posing a direct threat to the current status quo long established by democratic nations led by America since the end of the Second World War.
Jack Ma’s current fate will soon become as an epic tale for the international community. But for China and its leaders, it’s business as usual. These Communists are practising such regressive policies for decades now, whether it comes to capitalists, journalists, doctors, academics or even Nobel Peace laureates such as Liu Xiaobo who suffered till the last day of his life in 2017. This demonstrates how Xi Jinping and his team are marshalling all their efforts to re-establish the supremacy of the CPC and extending its clout outside China’s national frontiers. And in this process of power grab and display, many like Jack Ma might be sacrificed. After centuries of isolation and weakness, China is undoubtedly reclaiming its power and position. And to advance its goal, it is exploiting the country’s formidable economic clout to expand its geopolitical influence and maintain its iron grip on the domestic development around the country.
Finally, we need to be clear that what China is doing to Jack Ma is nothing but to have a complete control over both his assets and economic prowess. The party bosses fear that such trade czars might overthrow them and may change the power calculus in higher echelons of the country. They don’t want a corporate giant to either question or pose a challenge to their status quo at any cost.
(The writer is an expert on international affairs)
The real achievement of the farmers’ agitation is that it has united the people who were till now divided on caste and communal lines
There was no progress in the eighth round of talks between protesting farmers’ unions and the Government on the three farm laws on Friday. So what will be the next move of the growers? The farmers have besieged Delhi for over a month now and one of their leaders, Rakesh Tikait, had earlier announced that they would join the Republic Day parade on Rajpath with their tractors on January 26. They are already taking out tractor rallies on the outskirts of Delhi. But when they try to enter Delhi from outside, it is very likely that the growers will be stopped by the police. By force if need be. To allow a mob of protesting farmers to storm Delhi and join the Republic Day parade means surrendering authority and losing face. And no Government will allow that. So, a violent confrontation on the borders is likely. However, one hopes that things will not come to such a pass.
By their long-drawn agitation, the farmers have ensured that the three laws, though in the statute book, cannot be implemented on the ground, because the atmosphere is so emotionally surcharged in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh (UP) and some other States. One would not be surprised if the grain silos built by some corporates are soon attacked, like the 1,500 mobile towers in Punjab. About 800 million of India’s 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on agriculture and almost all have sympathy with the agitating farmers. Also, many industrial workers, lawyers, intellectuals, sportsmen, Bollywood actors, ex-servicemen and so on are supporting the stir. Even soldiers and policemen would largely be sympathetic, as a jawan or a policeman is a peasant in uniform, or the son of a peasant. Though being a member of a disciplined force he cannot express his sympathy openly.
And what about the farmers’ votes? Till now our politicians had been successful in keeping growers divided on the basis of caste and religion, but this agitation has united them. So how will that affect the next elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam this year and in UP, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat next year? Most of the voters in these States are farmers. This is the real nightmare for the ruling party today.
The real achievement of the farmers’ agitation is that it has united the people of India who were till now divided on caste and communal lines. This was exploited by our crafty politicians. Our people were so divided and polarised on the basis of caste and religion, that unity was missing and we were often fighting each other. Till of late, most of the stirs in India were either religion based e.g. the Ram Mandir movement, or caste-based like the Gujjar, Jat or Dalit agitations. The anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest was perceived by many as a predominantly Muslim agitation. Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption soon fizzled out too. This disunity was a problem to which Indian thinkers could not find a solution for decades and it had become a dilemma for the country. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the farmers of India, one of the most neglected sections of our society, have resolved the problem which was plaguing the nation for long. By using their creativity they have forged a unity among our masses which was missing for decades. Their agitation has smashed the barriers of caste and religion and people have risen above them. Also, they have kept at a distance our politicians, who have no genuine love for the country, but are only interested in power and pelf, for which they polarise Indian society by manipulating and spreading caste and communal hatred, only for creating vote banks.
The farmers’ agitation is on a real economic issue because the growers were not getting adequate remuneration for their produce. It is not on an emotional and sentient issue like building a temple. The farmers’ agitation is a milestone in our country’s history. It will result in creating a political and social order under which India rapidly industrialises, gets totally transformed from an underdeveloped to a highly developed, prosperous country, which ensures a high standard of living and decent lives for all our citizens. As a great Asian leader said: “When hundreds of millions of peasants rise like a typhoon or tornado, it will be a force so powerful and so swift that no power on Earth will be able to resist it.” The national aim of the united citizens must be to transform India from an underdeveloped to a developed, industrialised country, for only then can we get rid of our poverty, backwardness, massive unemployment, appalling level of child malnourishment, almost total lack of proper healthcare and good education for the masses and other social evils. Such a transformation is only possible by sweeping away all the filth of feudal thinking and practices (in the form of casteism, communalism, superstitions and so on) which had gathered over centuries in India. The farmers’ stir is a step towards that national unity.
(The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.)
However, riding roughshod on the rights of people is not done in a democracy. Raising awareness and counselling are a better way to achieve results
The Centre recently released draft changes to its tobacco control law. The proposal aims to ban smoking zones in hotels, restaurants, airports and calls for raising the minimum legal smoking age from 18 to 21. The draft changes have also tightened existing provisions to ban advertising at kiosks and prohibit sale of loose cigarette sticks, which form the bulk of the sales. If implemented, the plan will hit the sales of companies such as ITC, Godfrey Phillips India and a unit of Philip Morris International which operate in the $12 billion cigarette market in India. Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry is opposed to these new proposals and will take it up with the Government and the companies will raise concerns before the public consultation period of the proposal ends on January 31. To its credit, India has over the years introduced tobacco controls and launched campaigns to deter its use, but the enforcement of law has been a challenge.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) nearly 1.35 million people die each year in India due to tobacco use. Worldwide, tobacco use causes more than seven million deaths per year and if the pattern of smoking globally doesn’t change, more than eight million people annually will die from diseases related to tobacco use by 2030. The WHO has been at the forefront of the fight against tobacco and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) was the first coordinated global effort to reduce its use. The WHO FCTC entered into force on February 27, 2005, and requires signatories to implement evidence-based measures to reduce tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. When effectively implemented, the WHO FCTC is a fundamental tool to reduce the devastating global consequences of tobacco products on health, lives, economies and environments. With 182 parties as of May 2020, the WHO FCTC is one of the most widely-adopted treaties in the United Nations (UN) system. India was one of the founding parties to the treaty, signing it in June 2003 and ratifying it in June 2004.
The treaty contains a broad framework of obligations and rights and requires parties to implement effective tobacco control measures beyond those required by it. To date, parties to the FCTC have adopted implementing guidelines for several Treaty Articles and the Protocol on Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products to increase international cooperation to fight tobacco smuggling and better control the legal tobacco trade.
India introduced a more comprehensive anti-tobacco legislation based on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation, 1995. Accordingly, the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003, (COTPA) came into force on May 2004. The preamble of this COTPA is to prohibit the advertisement of and to provide for the regulation of trade and commerce in, and production, supply and distribution of, cigarettes and other tobacco products and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
The COTPA was adopted over 15 years ago and was developed before the coming into force of the global, evidence-based treaty on tobacco control, the WHO FCTC and the Guidelines for Implementation.Though COTPA is intended as a comprehensive law on tobacco control — providing protection from involuntary tobacco smoke and misleading advertisements, with focus on protecting minors from the influence/hazards of tobacco — with the passage of time and a greater understanding of the full range of measures necessary to combat the tobacco epidemic and the industry, lacunas and gaps in the Act have become apparent and proved to be a major challenge in its effective enforcement.
Drawing from best international practices, it is imperative to fix the existing loopholes in the Indian legal framework on regulation of tobacco. For this purpose, the following recommendations are suggested for amending the COTPA 2003 by experts on consumer law. Currently, Section four of the COTPA Act states: “No person shall smoke in any public place. Provided that in a hotel having 30 rooms or a restaurant having seating capacity of 30 people or more and at the airports, a separate provision for smoking area or space may be made.”
It is recommended that the proviso be deleted as it provides exemptions contrary to the WHO FCTC to which India is a signatory. It is also contrary to the Supreme Court judgement in the Murli Deora vs Union of India case 2001 and thus needs to be done away with.
Section five of the COTPA prohibits direct, indirect advertisement, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco. It needs to be amended for it to comprehensively ban advertisement, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco, by all persons and through all mediums of communication, including mobile, internet and so on.
Not only would this bring India in compliance with the WHO FCTC, it would also be in conformity with the apex court’s guidelines delivered in the Health for Millions vs Union of India and others case. A similar clause in this same section allowing for advertisement at points of sale and on tobacco packs needs to be deleted.
Sections 20, 21, 22 and 24 of the COTPA prescribe penal provisions. It is recommended that the said penalties be substantially increased to ensure deterrence against violation of the law. The aim of these recommendations is to make the Indian legal framework on regulation of tobacco more robust and more effective in achieving its goals. For proper implementation and to give effect to the spirit of the law, it is necessary that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India and other Government bodies should take appropriate measures for the same. Plus, it is vital to ensure proper implementation of the rules on the ground.
However, just riding roughshod on the rights of people is not the way for any democracy to go. The Government and all stakeholders must raise awareness regarding the detrimental effects of tobacco use. They must be counselled so that they can give up the habit eventually. Till then the Government must come up with ways to allow people to smoke without harming the health of non-smokers. Persuasion, counselling and awareness will help more in the long run than rigid provisions that force people to break the law. Also, the Government must look at providing an alternative to tobacco farmers so that their livelihood is not snatched away from them. Tobacco use is a social malaise and a health hazard and the Government will do well to involve all stakeholders in its elimination.
(The writer is Professor at NLSIU, Bengaluru; Fellow, Asian Law Institute. The views expressed are personal.)
The social responsibility agenda now has a wider role in pandemic management, with the Govt expanding the scope of spending to include firms engaged in R&D of vaccines
Sustainability has been on the agenda for us for a while but it never piqued our minds so aggressively. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of sustainable practices as never before. It has taught companies that there can no longer be business as usual. We have been provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to heal the environmental damage caused by overexploitation and unsustainable business practices. It is time now to press the reset button, build resilience and create long term value that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
We are seeing a growing realisation that businesses should play an active role in changing the world for the better. Hence, a great deal of money has been flowing into the social sector. Like individual citizens who have moral and social responsibilities, businesses are being perceived as corporate citizens who need to commit a part of their time, talent and resources for the welfare of society as they draw their sustenance from it. Corporate Social Responsibility better known by its acronym CSR is a business approach that aims at managing an organisation in a way that it contributes towards sustainable development by delivering social, economic and environmental benefits to all its stakeholders.
Corporate altruism in India has found a new purpose since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the nationwide lockdown upending economic activity on the one hand and disrupting lives, especially of the poor, on the other, companies have not only opened their purse strings but also rolled up their sleeves to respond proactively to the pandemic. Over the past few months, corporates have been using all or most of their CSR kitty to combat the outbreak, be it through contribution to the PM CARES Fund, other relief funds, distribution of food, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits or relief material to the needy.
The CSR agenda now has a wider role in pandemic management, with the Government expanding the scope of CSR spending to include companies engaged in research and development (R&D) of new vaccines, drugs and medical devices. These amendments to the CSR rules permit such companies to categorise as CSR activity any Covid-related R&D activity even if it is undertaken as part of its normal course of business.
There have been two more policy changes; the first was to allow all donations for COVID-related efforts to be eligible for 100 per cent tax deduction. The second allows firms who contribute over and above the minimum prescribed amount, to later offset the excess against the CSR obligation arising in subsequent years, if they so desire.
Corporate India has already suggested that the Indian Government approve use of CSR funds for vaccinating their employees. The recommendation came from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) and Ernst & Young (EY), in a study titled ‘Protecting India: Public Private Partnership for vaccinating against COVID-19.’ The report avers that in order to have 1.3-1.4 lakh centres for inoculation, about 60 per cent of India’s existing public healthcare infrastructure will have to be converted into vaccination centres. The report also mentions how the public sector can potentially provide just about 60,000-70,000 healthcare inoculators, as against the minimum one lakh professionals needed.
CSR is the umbrella term for how a business relates to the broader cultural, economic and political environment in which it operates. It is one of the biggest buzzes in a corporate business, signalling that a company cares; and that it allies profit with principle. It addresses many areas such as corporate governance, human rights, health and safety, the environment, work conditions and contributions towards economic development. The overarching goal of CSR is to drive a change towards sustainability.
This phenomenon has given rise to a new crop of mega donors who are upending long-established norms in the staid world of big philanthropy. Not only are they increasingly willing to take on hot-button social and political issues, they also have a problem-solving and impact-making mindset rather than one focused on publicity.
The CSR movement began as a response to the prevailing opinion that businesses should play a role in ameliorating social problems due to their vast economic resources and overarching influence in the daily lives of people. Steel tycoon and one of the greatest philanthropists, Andrew Carnegie, whose business ethos was “to do well in order to do good” was one of the earliest advocates of the concept of CSR.
Businesses are powerful social entities and the most respected among them feel the need to do much more than making money. They believe in using the power of a business for solving tough problems that plague society. They are involved in a wide variety of causes, such as education, healthcare, skills training, entrepreneurship, women empowerment, food security, livelihoods and supporting services for the differently-abled.
India has a unique law — the Companies Act, 2013 and the CSR Rules — which came into effect on April 1, 2014. It is the first country to stipulate that the companies expend their resources on effective CSR programmes. The approved activities under Schedule VII of CSR include eradicating extreme hunger, poverty and promotion of education, gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating diseases. Ensuring environmental sustainability and prompting employment enhancing vocational skills are other activities approved under CSR.
However, there is a crucial difference between CSR as understood in western countries and the way it is implemented in India. A generally accepted gold standard for CSR in the western world is that it must be closely integrated with a firm’s business strategy so that the programmes create a shared value for the company’s shareholders and its stakeholders. In India, that linkage is explicitly prohibited for CSR, focusing solely on its role of contributing towards societal welfare.
CSR could, however, be more socially relevant when it is driven by altruistic motives rather than a mandated policy obligating charitable actions. It is very difficult to legislate moral obligations. Laws set the minimum standards, but they do not create an impetus or ambience for a philanthropic mentality.
There are, unfortunately, marked aberrations in the CSR agenda which need a course correction. Many businesses harbour a variety of secondary aims and often use CSR for enhancing their social profile and boosting their business markets. Charity leaders have a geographic bias with corporations funding projects closer to their headquarters. Consequently, more remote regions where development aid is acutely needed are being bypassed by this new social revolution.
Politics can also skew priorities, with companies looking to gain goodwill by backing Government-led projects rather than initiating more socially relevant initiatives.
Despite all the hyperbole, the great economist Milton Friedman argued in the year 1970: “The doctrine of social responsibility is frequently a cloak for actions that are justified on other grounds rather than a reason for those actions.” There can be the subtle use of CSR to brush off a bad reputation as well as to camouflage any dark acts.
CSR has usually been peripheral in most organisations and it is not woven into the texture of the business. Even as annual CSR expenditure is on the rise, the impact on the ground remains a matter of debate. Further, it is not always necessarily transparent or mission oriented. Sometimes, it is driven by a need to improve the brand reputation and even worse, to act as a moral counter-balance for unethical practices.
However, a significant amount of any CSR expenditure comes with some strings attached — terms that dictate exactly where and how it must be used. While this may be appropriate in some cases fundamentally it reflects a serious lack of trust in the non-profit entities and hinders their ability to operate effectively.
When donors insist that their money should go exclusively to the people served, there is not enough money left for the non-profit entities to focus on building their own organisations. They are, therefore, unable to invest in talent, technology, systems or reporting. Reporting requirements are often an onerous administrative burden for voluntary organisations which have to devote their scarce skills to educated, English-speaking personnel for writing reports for the donors rather than running programmes.
A sincerely and honestly run charity always delivers rich dividends in the long run. That is the lesson we learn from both philosophers and business leaders. It is wise to remind ourselves of the advice of Henry Ford: “A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits: They will be embarrassingly large.”
(The writer is a well-known development professional of international repute. The views expressed are personal.)