Sunday, November 29, 2009

El Dorado runs out of gold

In glittering, glimmering, gleaming Dubai the temperature would never be high enough to suspend work at construction sites or stop partying in night clubs with exotic names. The merciless desert Sun would often make it impossible for labourers, many if not most of them from India, to continue work, but contractors had impossible deadlines to meet and their virtual slave labour had families waiting for the monthly remittance back home. The unbearable heat, of course, would never scorch Dubai’s well-heeled elite — high-flying executives with fantastic expense accounts, investment bankers spoilt for a choice of lucrative deals, sheikhs who casually gifted Rolex watches as tips to waiters, playboys who thought nothing of cavorting with million-dollar-escorts flown in for the night on their $ 60 million-dollar-Gulfstreams — as they raced from home to office to nightclubs in their Bugatti Veyrons.

Meanwhile, this once-upon-a-time Bedouin outpost with a creek from where dhows laden with contraband gold would sail forth for Mahim on India’s western shore (a trade immortalised by innumerable Bollywood films and on which Mumbai’s Mafia thrived till protection became a more lucrative business) transmogrified itself into an amazing city of skyscrapers, chrome-and-glass malls, fabulous office blocks and breath-taking hotels. The Maktoum family, breaking ranks with other Arab rulers, decided to aim high and create a modern Emirate which would emerge as the commercial hub of West Asia: Towards this end, everything had to be the biggest, the tallest, the largest, the swankiest — and, the most expensive. As Dubai ran out of oil, the Government’s focus shifted on grafting on the barren sands of the emirate a service-and-tourism based economy that would flourish as nowhere else.

The Maktoum family almost succeeded in achieving that goal. The decade-long boom was nothing like the world had seen before. Dubai was the new El Dorado and investors rushed in with open cheque books. Where else in the world would Tiger Woods be paid a million dollars for inaugurating a hotel, as he was when he teed off from the helipad of Burj Al Arab Hotel in March 2004? Those were heady days when giddy with success, the Government would announce a new project every day, each more fantastic than the one before, as investors clamoured for a stake in them. With the construction boom came job opportunities and Indians jostled with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others for a slice of the pie which just kept expanding. Land was sold, houses were mortgaged, jewellery was pawned, money was borrowed at exorbitant rates of interest to grab a job and buy a one-way ticket: Dubai was the happening place.

Dubai World was floated as an investment company by the Government to oversee the emirate’s super-speed transition; its corporate slogan encapsulated the ruler’s megalomania: “The Sun Never Sets on Dubai World”. Nakheel, a fully-owned subsidiary of Dubai World, became the envy of every real estate developer across the world as it went about reclaiming land from the sea and creating magnificent housing destinations like its awe-inspiring palm-shaped chain of islands called Palm Jumeirah off Dubai’s coast. Exclusive villas with manicured lawns came up on these islands of reclaimed land — not anybody who could afford the price tag buy them; ownership was by invitation and only power celebrities figured on the list of those who qualified. Among them were Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, footballer David Beckham, Hollywood megastars Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington, super model Naomi Campbell, business barons, tech billionaires and, hold your breath, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

If Palm Jumeirah dazzled human imagination, Burj Dubai was meant to defy it: The world’s tallest building would be at the centre of 30,000 exclusive homes, nine drop-dead luxury hotels, nearly eight acres of rolling, lush green parkland, a 30-acre manmade Burj Dubai Lake, the amazing Dubai Mall and 19 residential towers. Burj Dubai would be more than just the world’s tallest building. It would showcase the world’s first Armani Hotel, “designed by Giorgio Armani himself”, with “160 guestrooms and suites, a luxurious Armani Spa, a private club, two gourmet restaurants and a nightclub” spread over 40,000 square metres. All this and more by way of “144 exquisite Armani Residences all furnished in the designer’s ‘homes brand’, Armani Casa”. But Burj Dubai was not meant to be just a profitable business venture worth thousands of millions of dollars; the world’s tallest building would also restore Arab pride that was lost in 1311 when Lincoln Cathedral loomed taller than the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Burj Dubai, which was designed as the towering symbol of Dubai’s heady rise, could well become the symbol of its equally dizzying decline. The building’s scheduled opening in early-2010 now seems unlikely. All of a sudden, Dubai seems to have gone broke. The economy of the emirate had begun to flounder soon after the American sub-prime crisis heralded the global financial meltdown: All construction activity came to a halt (59 unfinished buildings in which $ 50 million had already been invested now dot the cityscape), property prices crashed by a whopping 50 per cent, jobs disappeared and expatriates began fleeing Dubai in droves, abandoning their apartments and dumping their cars in the airport parking lot, unable to pay the mortgage on either. El Dorado had run out of gold. The Government insisted the downturn was a minor hiccup, and Dubai would rise and shine again.

Last Thursday, Dubai World let it be known to creditors that it was not in a position to service its $ 59 billion debt and needed time till May next year. Simultaneously, Nakheel declared it was in no position to honour $ 4.05 billion in sukuk or Islamic bonds that it held as investment in its real estate projects. A frantic Government could rustle up $ 2.5 billion in long term bonds from two UAE banks, but that was clearly not sufficient to shore up investor confidence: Markets across the world felt the tremor as reality sank in on Friday morning. What has come as a stunner is Dubai’s inability to pay $ 3.5 billion, its immediate debt-servicing commitment, which even a couple of years ago would be considered loose change by Dubai World.

Such are the pitfalls of state-controlled capitalism. What was real yesterday could turn out to be no more than a mirage today. Dubai may yet recover, but it won’t ever be the same again. The Government of India says our economy won’t be impacted. That’s bunkum. We can look forward to Indian workers returning in hordes from Dubai and a sharp dip in remittances. Is anybody planning for the fallout? Or is our Government living in denial as usual.

(This originally appeared in The Pioneer as my Sunday column, 'Coffee Break'.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Visa no problem for terrorists

Apart from my responsibilities as Director of the Maulana Azad Centre in Cairo, I was given the task of dealing with the Egyptian media and intelligentsia, which turned out to be an enriching experience. There were pro-establishment journalists, writers, musicians and artists who would passionately defend the Government and each of its decisions and actions, even when they were patently wrong. They almost convinced me that democracy and development can’t go hand-in-hand, that development must precede democracy.

There were liberals and leftists who could see nothing right about the Government or its policies and, sprawled out on the rattan chairs in the balcony of my apartment overlooking the Nile, they would pour their hearts out late into the night over extra-large measures of whiskey. The next day they would nurse a hangover at work, meekly toe the editorial line laid down by the Government, and call my secretary to check with him when was the next party.

Then there were the sour and dour closet Islamists who worked for small newspapers and magazines that were barely tolerated by the Government. The sods were not only amazingly ill-informed about the world beyond Saudi Arabia (which they would stylishly refer to as ‘KSA’) but nursed a deep grievance against everybody, beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser and ending with Mr George W Bush. But these members of the Mohammed Atta Fan Club had two redeeming qualities: They were extremely well-networked with the Muslim Brotherhood and, therefore, could effortlessly set up meetings with those whom the Government didn’t want you to meet.

The Government’s local intelligence wing, popularly known as ‘Mukhabarat’, would keep a close watch on all journalists and intellectuals, and monitor their movements. Through an old employee, who had been around since Nasser’s time when the centre was called India Tea House and kept a faded photo of his (he insisted the gawky teenager in the frame was him) shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru in his wallet, I met a young officer of the Mukhabarat who became quite a good friend. He occasionally dropped in for a chat and chai at the centre, was an unabashed admirer of Mithun Chakraborty, and had a huge collection of pirated copies of Bollywood blockbusters, including Disco Dancer, which he offered to share with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Mithun was no longer in the business of swinging his hips to Bappi Lahiri’s music.

I can’t recall the exact date, but sometime in either late-2003 or early-2004, the Indian Union Muslim League sent an invitation to one of the closet Islamists who used to work for an Arabic rag and posed as an ‘intellectual’ to attend a youth conference in Kerala. He applied for his visa along with a copy of the invitation letter. An alert local employee in the visa section informed me about the invitation that had been extended to this man with particularly rancid views on India and his track record as an India-baiter. I checked with my friend in the Mukhabarat and he told me how this journalist was a frequent visitor to the Pakistani Embassy and would often be spotted hanging around with a chap called Babar who we all thought was a low-level ISI agent and for whom the Pakistani Ambassador had utter and unhidden contempt.

Meanwhile, the Counsellor in charge of consular affairs asked me about the background of this ‘intellectual’ and I sent him a rather long note, giving all details and arguing why he should not be granted a visa, but nor should his application be rejected outright lest he gets to know that we know about him and his activities or asks the organisers of the IUML conference to intercede on his behalf. The Counsellor did precisely that — he kept the application pending. A couple of days before the man was scheduled to travel, the private secretary of a Minister of State in the then NDA Government called the Ambassador and wanted to know why the Embassy was delaying the visa. The Ambassador asked him to speak to the Counsellor, who in turn was told that Mr E Ahmad of the IUML was repeatedly calling the Minister and getting increasingly aggressive. Could he please expeditiously issue the visa? The Counsellor promised to do his best, did nothing, and the man could not attend the IUML conference.

I had almost forgotten about this incident till I read news reports this past week how the Consulate General of India in Chicago had issued multiple entry visas in October 2008 to a suspected Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorist and Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, and his wife, Samraz Rana Akhthar, in what appears to be blatant violation of standing instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs — that all visa applications received from people of Pakistani origin must be forwarded to the Ministry for its clearance. Amazingly, the Consul General issued the visa under his ‘discretionary quota’.

Irrespective of whether the FBI is able to substantiate its charges against Tahawwur Hussain Rana and his accomplice, David Coleman Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was christened Daood Gilani and is the son of a ‘prominent’ Pakistani diplomat, who have been accused of plotting terrorist strikes in India, we need to know how were they able to secure visas without any trouble. Who took the decision? On what basis? Was a background check done? Were rules violated? And, more importantly, will officials who were sufficiently careless about their job to facilitate the entry of potential terrorists into India be punished? Or will the Brotherhood of Babus get into the act and ensure that no action is taken?

This week, on November 26 we will observe the first anniversary of the fidayeen attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai, in which at least 173 people were killed and more than 300 wounded, that were planned and executed by the LeT from its base in Pakistan. The Government of India claims that several measures have been initiated to make it difficult, if not impossible, for terrorists to enter India. That would mean loopholes have been plugged and barriers raised to keep out unwanted and undesirable visitors. Yet, we are now told that a Consul General of India issued visas from his ‘discretionary quota’ to a man who was plotting terrorist attacks on high profile targets in this country. Did he use his ‘discretion’ and exercise his judgement? Or was he asked to issue the visas? Did he by any chance get a call from someone in New Delhi? As my experience in Cairo shows, this cannot be ruled out entirely.

Instead of lighting candles, we should be asking these questions and demanding replies from the Government. That would be a fitting tribute to the victims of 26/11.

(This originally appeared in The Pioneer as my Sunday column, 'Coffee Break'.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Still waiting for Koda’s arrest!

Last Sunday (November 8) officials of the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate were waiting to arrest Madhu Koda as soon as he was through with his ‘loose motion’. Newspapers and news channels breathlessly informed us that “Koda’s arrest is imminent”. Seven days later, Koda remains a free man, unrestrained by either the Income Tax Department or the Enforcement Directorate. Meanwhile, stories about how the former Chief Minister and his associates looted Jharkhand, invested the money in real estate, hotels and mines at home and abroad, and lived the high life — designer jeans, SUVs, holidays at exotic locations — have disappeared, first from the front page and prime time news bulletins, and then altogether.

It’s almost as if a decision has been taken — and such decisions can be taken only at the ‘highest level’ — not to pursue investigations into the mind-boggling cash-and-carry plunder that kept Koda busy during the two years he was Chief Minister of Jharkhand — or, at least, to go easy with the inquiry. Nothing else explains the sudden dip in the enthusiasm with which officials were raiding various premises (76 establishments in eight cities were raided in a matter of days), following up on leads and briefing mediapersons.

If there were popular expectations that Koda would be arrested (as is usually done with great fanfare in cases involving financial fraud and corruption of far lesser magnitude) they have been belied. Officials of the Enforcement Directorate have tamely handed over a ‘sealed’ brown paper envelope to Koda while repeating meaningless warnings to his two absconding associates, Binod Sinha and Sanjay Chaudhary, that they should behave like model citizens and turn up for a tete-a-tete.

A week ago we were being told how Koda and his associates had amassed anything between Rs 2,000 crore and Rs 4,000 crore in ill-gotten wealth; how nearly Rs 1,000 crore was taken out of the country through the hawala route to Dubai; how as Chief Minister he never allowed files related to granting leases for mines to accumulate in his office; and, how huge sums of money were paid to Bollywood starlets, ostensibly for the onerous task of ‘promoting’ Jharkhand. Koena Mitra probably wouldn’t be able to point out the State on the map of India. There are no more such delightful tidbits about the life and times of Madhu Koda to break the monotony of everyday news.

There are various stories doing the rounds as to why the official agencies are now dragging their feet. One story has it that the Congress, which thought exposing corruption in high places would help varnish its tattered image in Jharkhand, which goes to the polls beginning later this month to elect a new Assembly, discovered to its horror that Koda was not the only one partaking of the tainted lolly. Ranchi is awash with rumours that brakes were applied after investigators stumbled upon evidence that suggests Koda shared his riches with certain senior Congress leaders of the State. According to another story, officials had seized a diary in which Koda had made meticulous entries about whom he had paid how much and whose details, if they came to light, would embarrass the Congress leadership.

A senior journalist based in Ranchi told me that Koda, while recovering from ‘loose motion’ in the hospital where he had checked in immediately after the raids began, had called up certain Congress leaders in Delhi and told them bluntly that he would tell all if push came to shove. That did the trick and push never came to shove. Rather than risk a blowback before the coming election, the Congress appears to have decided that discretion is the better part of valour. In a country of a million scams, people would soon forget about Jharkhand’s latest plunder. Others caught with their snouts in the trough have settled their accounts by paying income tax, so too can Koda at an opportune moment.

Having sufficiently recovered from his tummy ache and ‘loose motion’, on Friday Koda left Ranchi halfway through his chat with Income Tax Department officials to participate in the election campaign. He was last spotted at Patahatu, his home base, where he shall remain for the time being. Officials of the Enforcement Directorate, who were scheduled to ‘interrogate’ him today, have rescheduled it for November 19. Seven days is a long time in politics.

Sensing that he has the Congress by the short and curly, Koda is now playing the victim of a conspiracy to harass and humiliate a tribal leader who has worked his way up the ladder and who is popular enough to be re-elected more than once as a legislator and as an honourable member of Parliament in last summer’s general election. Faced with arrest after being held guilty of committing murder, Shibu Soren, the hugely corrupt JMM leader, had tried the same trick: “I am being punished for fighting for Jharkhand and standing up for the rights of tribals.”

Koda used the same tribal card on Friday when he said, “There is a threat to my life. There is a conspiracy to annihilate me. I know who are doing all this. Whatever is published in the media is baseless. And, I am being harassed as I am a tribal belonging to a poor family.” Who is to tell him that it is he who has cheated the poor families of Jharkhand where 54 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line? That those whom he favoured with mining licences which allowed them to denude the State of its natural resources so long as they paid him a ‘fee’, that those who were given contracts to build roads and facilities which were never built, the Binod Sinhas and Sanjay Chaudharys of Jharkhand, have nothing but contempt for tribals living in gut-wrenching poverty?

Fed on relentless propaganda of the diku as the exploiter, Jharkhand’s moolvasis, the tribals whose interests Soren, Koda and their corrupt-to-the-core ilk claim to represent and protect, have become blind to the enemy within. Tribal loyalties invariably get precedence over better judgement and that explains why the tainted are elected time and again. Good governance and integrity are at a discount; if it’s caste preference in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it’s tribal kinship in Jharkhand that plays a significant role in elections. That is the tragic reality of this wondrous land of ours.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised if the six ‘Independent’ candidates who will be contesting the Assembly election from Kolhan region with Koda’s support are elected. And if it is a fractured mandate, Koda’s MLAs, among them possibly his wife Geeta, will play an important role in Government formation. After all, that’s how he became Chief Minister. Politics, as PV Narasimha Rao was fond of repeating, is the art of the possible.

[This appeared as my regular Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 15.]

Monday, November 09, 2009

Proud to sing Vande Mataram

There is understandable disquiet over the resolution adopted by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind during its 30th general session at Deoband from November 1-3. “The grand session of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind while expressing concern over communal hatred and violence exploiting the issue of Vande Mataram, condemns the provocative activities in this connection,” the resolution says, “We can love and serve our country, but cannot elevate it to the status of Allah, the only one worshipped by Muslims… The fatwa of Darul Uloom (Deoband) is correct… This house demands that the issue of Vande Mataram not be deliberately raised for causing communal discord and threat to law and order.”

Not be deliberately raised? This is truly astounding. Without any provocation whatsoever, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind adopts a resolution endorsing a fatwa against Vande Mataram issued by Darul Uloom, Deoband, and urging India’s Muslims not to sing the National Song lest it defile Islam. Yet it wants the resolution to be seen as a warning to those “causing communal discord and threat to law and order” — a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Hindus — by “deliberately” raising the “issue of Vande Mataram”.

The resolution apparently refers to a fatwa reportedly issued in 2006 by Darul Uloom, Deoband, instructing Muslims not to participate in the celebrations planned by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to mark the centenary of Congress adopting Vande Mataram as the National Song on September 7, 1906, as it would require the singing of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s soul-stirring immortal lines. The mullahs of Deoband need not have worried. Whoever had given the idea to Mr Arjun Singh had got his date wrong. The planned celebrations turned into a fiasco after historians pointed out that the Congress never met in September 1906, so it could not have possibly adopted Vande Mataram as the National Song on that date.

On that occasion, too, Indians, including Muslims, were outraged by the Deobandi fatwa reported by media. But was there really a fatwa? On September 4, CNN-IBN reported that no such fatwa had been issued by Darul Uloom, Deoband. According to this news channel, the seminary wanted to “steer clear of the issue” and insisted that it had no “role to play” in the controversy. Darul Uloom, Deoband “categorically stated it had not issued any fatwa on Vande Mataram, nor had it directed Muslim children to skip classes on September 7”. After the mandatory finger-pointing at “communal forces”, Mohatamim Maulana Margoobur Rehman told CNN-IBN, “Darul Uloom is being unnecessarily dragged into the Vande Mataram controversy.”

The official website of Darul Uloom, Deoband, does not list the edict instructing Muslims not to sing Vande Mataram which has been cited by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. But the website of Darul Ifta, the fatwa division of Darul Uloom, Deoband, lists a fatwa (385/358-B/1430) dated April 7, 2009, which says Muslim children “should avoid hymning it (Vande Mataram)” as it is “against our creed of tauheed”. A classic example of taqiya? Was the April 7, 2009 fatwa meant to set the stage for the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s November resolution? Why was it issued after Deoband vigorously distanced itself from the “Vande Mataram controversy”? And, what prompted Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind to revive the rancid debate over whether it’s haram for Muslims to sing Vande Mataram? Was the purpose to provoke a backlash and then claim victimhood?

In a sense, any discussion on the repudiation of Indian nationhood by Islamic fanatics who view India’s National Song not as a celebration of the concept of motherland as defined by our civilisational ethos but as Hindu idolatory is meaningless. There’s nothing startlingly new about the vitriolic denunciation of Vande Mataram by Maulana Mahmood Madani and his ilk who believe “bringing women into the mainstream will create social problems and issues including their security”, want India’s Muslims to “don their Islamic identity”, say salam instead of namaste and live in a joyless, dark world of ignorance where sharia’h will apply to girls as young as 10 years old.

We have heard similar denunciation of Vande Mataram with the explicit purpose of hurting the sensitivities of India’s majority Hindu community and rejecting India as a nation earlier too. And the attack has not been restricted to our National Song. Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (better known as Ali Mian) of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, the other famous Islamic seminary, was unrestrained by such considerations as Hindu sentiments.

“Cow-slaughter in India is a ‘great Islamic practice’, said Mujaddid Alaf Saani II. This was his farsightedness that he described cow-slaughter in India as a ‘great Islamic practice’. It may not be so in other places. But it is definitely a great Islamic act in India because the cow is worshipped in India,” Ali Mian said in an address to a congregation of Indian and Pakistani ulema in Jeddah on April 3, 1986. Ali Mian and his fellow ulema on the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which lacks legitimacy yet holds Muslims in thraldom, were to later issue a fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram by Muslims.

Issuing fatwas against Vande Mataram can be traced to Congress’s willing capitulation in the face of opposition by those who place faith over nation. In 1923, the Congress met at Kakinada and Maulana Mohamed Ali was brought to the venue in a procession led by a raucous band. As was the practice, the session was scheduled to begin with a rendition of Vande Mataram by Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. When Pandit Paluskar rose to sing what had by then become the anthem of India’s freedom movement, Maulana Mohamed Ali protested, saying music was a “taboo in Islam” and, therefore, singing Vande Mataram would “hurt” his religious sensitiveness. Pandit Paluskar retorted that the Congress session was an open gathering and not a religious congregation; and since Maulana Mohamed Ali had not found the band that led his procession as “taboo in Islam”, he could not object to the singing of Vande Mataram. He then went on to sing Bankim’s composition which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi associated with “the purest national spirit”.

It is this national spirit which bothers those among us who are loath to see their identity linked to the identity of India. At the far end we have the likes of Maulana Mahmood Madani with their separatist agenda, but that does not mean every Muslim is persuaded by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s bunkum. My respect for Mr Shahid Siddiqui has gone up by leaps and bounds for thumbing his nose at the mullahs and declaring that he not only sings Vande Mataram but sings it with pride. Mr Siddiqui is not in a minority of one — there are many Muslims who will lend their voice to him because they are proud to be Indian.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Loot of Jharkhand: Blame it on koyla?

The former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Mr Madhu Koda, who these days represents Chaibasa constituency in the Lok Sabha, has done what others who have been caught with their snouts in the trough have been known to do: He has checked into a hospital where obliging doctors have found a bed for him in the intensive care unit. According to a health bulletin issued late Tuesday evening by Abur Razzak Memorial Weavers’ Hospital, whose doctors obviously hold the Hippocratic Oath in utter contempt, Mr Koda is suffering from a stomach-ache. Cynics would gleefully point out that it’s a case of indigestion caused by Mr Koda stuffing himself with too much lolly, but such frivolity need not distract us from the offences he has been accused of committing.

Nor should we hold Mr Koda’s humble beginnings — he was a welder and before that a mine worker till the late-1990s — against him. Others have risen from rags to riches by doing ‘social service’, which is how politicians describe their profession in their bio-profiles, and not all of them went to the right school, college and university. Indeed, politics offers a level playing field for those who have no compunctions about acquiring ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps that’s the way it should be — after all, there is no reason why those from the ‘masses’ should be at a disadvantage compared to those from the ‘classes’ when it comes to sharing the proverbial loaves and fishes of office.

Yet, Mr Koda’s alleged transgressions, ranging from illegal mining operations to kickbacks to money-laundering, are stunning because of the scale of the loot and the speed with which it was conducted. They also show that with the right determination and cunning, a nondescript milkman and the son of a chewing tobacco vendor can become the ‘business associates’ of a Chief Minister and front for him while negotiating ‘investment deals’ in places as far and wide as Dubai, Liberia and South Africa. But for their association with Mr Koda, neither Mr Vinod Sinha, who used to supply milk at homes in Ranchi, nor Mr Sanjay Chaudhary, whose father would hawk chewing tobacco (better known as khaini) from the carrier of his ramshackle bicycle, would have been among India’s most-wanted men today.

Mr Koda and his associates who are on the run would tell you that it’s all about seizing the right opportunity when it comes knocking on your door and not turning it away. For Mr Koda, who had contested and won the Assembly election on a BJP ticket, it came with the creation of Jharkhand in November 2000, a State carved out of Bihar ostensibly to ensure better governance and development for what was then considered a neglected tribal-dominated region. Statehood was considered fulfilment of the long-standing demand to protect tribal interests by delinking their fortunes from those of Bihar.

Mr Koda became Minister in the first Government of Jharkhand headed by Mr Babulal Marandi; he retained both his job and portfolio — Mines and Rural Engineering Organisation — after Mr Arjun Munda took over as Chief Minister. In 2005, Mr Koda was denied a BJP ticket, but that did not deter him from contesting the election as an ‘Independent’; he won with a handsome margin from Jagannathpur.

In a hung Assembly, Mr Koda and four other ‘Independent’ MLAs played a crucial role, first in helping the BJP to form a Government (in which they became Ministers) and later in pulling it down at the behest of the Congress, the RJD and the JMM. That was Mr Koda’s second opportunity: He manoeuvred himself into the Chief Minister’s office in September 2006 and remained in power till August 2008, when Mr Shibu Soren pulled the plug on him.

Apocryphal stories abound in Ranchi about how Mr Koda acquired huge wealth and clout in less than a decade. His iron ore-rich constituency became the hub of illegal mining: Trucks would be loaded and despatched across the border with Orissa to Paradip Port from where the ore would be shipped out to foreign destinations. A senior journalist in Ranchi recounted how industrialists were delighted when Mr Koda became the Chief Minister: He ran a ‘single window operation’ whereby those wanting to short-circuit the tedious process of submitting tenders and competing with others would pay him directly. Apparently, he had fixed ‘fees’ for favours — for example, he would charge Rs 1 lakh for every acre of mines being leased out; whoever paid the ‘fee’ got the lease.

It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have amassed assets worth Rs 4,000 crore, which is almost a fifth of Jharkhand’s annual budget, as is being claimed by the Income Tax Department. What is, however, surprising is that he should have thought of investing the slush funds in diverse businesses, including hotels, apartment blocks and shopping malls across nine cities. It is also a measure of the ingenuity of his two close associates, Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, that they should have set up a bogus investment firm, Balaji Bullion and Retailers, in Mumbai, which funnelled money — according to one estimate, as much as Rs 990 crore — to a Dubai-based ‘investor’ called Abdul Bhai.

Was Mr Koda operating all by himself? Or was there somebody else, apart from Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, who was advising him how to salt away the money he had looted? A former mine worker may be sufficiently brazen to demand bribes for favours and run an illegal mining operation, but would he be clever enough to invest in Liberian and South African mines? Recall how Mr Shibu Soren, far more crafty than Mr Koda, went and deposited the money he got for voting with the Treasury Benches so that PV Narasimha Rao’s Government would not fall, in a bank from where it was later seized and used to implicate him and his party MPs.

We could, of course, ignore the possibility of a larger conspiracy to mint millions by defrauding the people of Jharkhand, whom Mr Koda and tribal leaders of his ilk insist they represent, and blame it all on coal which has proved to be a boon to the unscrupulous few and a bane to the many who still wait for deliverance from gruelling poverty in one of India’s richest States.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

No end to crisis: Reddys want BSY out

[Update: The so-called 'resolution' of the crisis in Karnataka is at best a temporary truce between the Reddy Brothers and Yeddyurappa. Shettar resigning from Speaker's office to join the Cabinet is only the first step; it's a matter of time before he decides to make a renewed dash for the Chief Minister's chair. The Reddy Brothers will not be satiated by sops like greater say in policy-framing, transfer-postings of bureaucrats (which speaks a lot about our babus and their links with 'businessmen') and easing of cases against them. By the way, since when has the BJP decided to short-circuit the law of the land to remain in power? And with what face will the party now criticise the Congress for short-circuiting the law to favour its own? I think it's a terrible idea to have two central leaders minding Karnataka affairs as it will lead to further groupism in both party and Government. But we will now have Arun Jaitley managing party affairs and Sushma Swaraj minding the Reddy Brothers -- the 'coordination committee' is so much hogwash and no more. The 'resolution' of the crisis only strengthens my contention that organisation now means nothing for those who have the clout to thumb their nose at the party's national leadership, such as it is with its moral authority lying in tatters. Why else would the Reddy Brothers have been allowed to set the terms of engagement via one individual over the party organisation?]

It’s been a week since the ‘Reddy Brothers’ of Bellary rocked the BS Yeddyurappa Government. Not much progress seems to have been made by those working on resolving the crisis and preventing the BJP’s first Government in a southern State from collapsing on account of infighting within its ranks and more than a gentle nudge from those who contested and won the last Assembly election on the BJP symbol but owe no allegiance to either the party or the RSS.

Some points that merit attention:

. Official denials notwithstanding, few are willing to discount media reports (confirmed by unnamed sources within the party) that a national leader of the BJP from Karnataka is involved in fomenting trouble for Yeddyurappa. Details of his reported meeting with the ‘Reddy Brothers’ and travel by a Congress legislator’s plane to meet leading dissident Jagadish Shettar, who is the Assembly Speaker and aspires to become Chief Minister, have not strengthened the image of the party’s central leadership.

. Yeddyurappa no doubt enjoys tremendous support among the people and his popularity is unquestionable. But this alone may not see the BJP through in a mid-term election. In the past, the BJP has lost mid-term elections despite the popularity of leaders like Kalyan Singh and Sunderlal Patwa; Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was barely able to scrape through. The BJP has lost in Himachal Pradesh despite excellent policies and programmes initiated by Shanta Kumar. This was more than a decade ago when the party’s organisation was strong, its central leadership carried credibility and its overall rating was high. None of these three factors obtains today.

. On Tuesday Yeddyurappa held out the proverbial olive branch to the ‘Reddy Brothers’ on their home turf by ‘acknowledging’ their ‘contribution’. But this has not cut any ice with the 'Reddy Brothers' -- till late Tuesday night, they were adamant that Yeddyurappa must go. If by 'acknowledging' the 'contribution' of the 'Reddy Brothers' Yeddyurappa was being pragmatic, he might as well have avoided a flash-point situation. I am no admirer of the ‘Reddy Brothers’, but having supped with them, perhaps Yeddyurappa needed to be more tactful if only to ensure stability of his Government.

. I am intrigued by the importance given to industrialist/entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar by the BJP Government. What exactly has been his contribution to the party? Does he subscribe to the Sangh’s ideology? Who are his backers? Raising these questions does not amount to questioning his abilities to supervise ‘Operation Lotus’ (the post-flood rehabilitation programme). But why is it that the BJP needs an ‘outsider’ to head a flagship programme?

. Some readers of this blog have outright rejected a Congress hand in the Karnataka shenanigans. I think there have been sufficient revelations since October 29 to bear out the contention that the Congress has been involved. The ‘Reddy Brothers’ are under pressure from the Congress on their mining operations in Andhra Pradesh. Let us not forget that they are businessmen first and politicians second; if push comes to shove they will gladly abandon Yeddyurappa if not the BJP.

. It is entirely possible that a power-sharing formula of sorts will be hammered out after Yeddyurappa arrives in Delhi on Wednesday and the Government will survive this crisis. But that is unlikely to ensure long-term stability. Cabals and groups will not be easily tamed. Having hugely damaged the party at the national level and lost when the stakes were high, these cabals and groups are now busy damaging what remains of the party in the States.Dilli4 is relentless!

As Henry Kissinger famously commented, when the stakes are low, the politics is high.