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Indian caste politics: stage set for regional elections

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At the outset one crucial issue should be stressed right here. The caste factor among Hindu voters still plays key in Indian politics and this would play out fully in regional polls, more than the national parliamentary election. Indian elections are mind-bogglingly complex. Economic class, ethnicity, regional identity, religion – sometimes even politics – all play a role. But the key factor is still caste.

Each political party, national, regional and local, has over years built up vote banks to rely on for votes during the polls. Traditionally the Congress party holds the major chunks of vote banks, Hindu castes, Muslims, Christian, Sikh, and all other communities. Of late, projecting Hindutva as the only legitimate Indian ideology BJP has captured many vote banks of Congress and other parties at national and regional levels by misusing Hinduism as Hindutva. Earlier, Congress party promoted the Hindutva parties like BJP in order to contain and silence Indian Muslims and also corner their vote banks by using the Hindutva forces as serious threats. BJP made full use of Congress help and alter defeating it and replacing it in many states and winning majority in parliament it made Congress almost irrelevant in Indian politics.

Muslims who used to vote for Congress party enmasse have for the first time in Indian political history, like Hindus voted against both Congress and BJP in Delhi assembly poll which brought the new AAP of Arvind Kejriwal to power with a massive mandate.   While the then ruling Congress could not win even one seat in Delhi assembly, the former ruler BJP somehow managed scrap through in three constituencies.

The Modi government at the centre as well as BJP party in the country is not as comfortable as both did last year when the BJP swept the poll taking full advantage of anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal that targeted the hopelessly corrupt Congress led UPA government,.

The caste-based politicians have learnt that by ruthlessly targeting their message at the narrow slice of the population they represent they can win state elections. The BJP and its national rival the Congress party, meanwhile, have to water its message down to attempt to appeal from select castes to almost everyone.

In Bihar polls held last year, the Grand Alliance of Nitish-Lalu defeated BJP alliance. Lalu or Laloo as he is universally known in India is a very shrewd politician who ruled Bihar for 15 years thanks to the seemingly impregnable electoral alliance he forged between the state’s Muslims and the large, traditionally cow-herding, Yadav caste that delivered 30% of the vote at every election. But the appeal to caste identity tends to be linked to appeasement in India: politics becomes almost exclusively about what you can deliver – jobs, housing, subsidies – for your fellow caste members.

Nitish Kumar built his support in Bihar by cleverly picking off disaffected lower caste voters and Muslim voters from Congress vote bank. Like Laloo he styles himself a socialist, but unlike him, also a champion of law and order who would put development first. And Bihar did begin to improve under Kumar. He got rid of the caste-cronyism that marred Laloo’s rule and has made the state more law abiding and more prosperous. And, until very recently, Kumar was a strong supporter of the BJP. But he didn’t think Modi was fit to be prime minister and cut his ties with the party. Instead Kumar formed with his sworn enemy, Laloo. The idea is that together they can unite lower caste voters against Modi.

Modi has been widely criticised for waiting so long to speak out against the lynching of a Muslim man by a mob of his Hindu neighbours for allegedly slaughtering a cow, a supposed “sacred animal” to Hindutva forces. The issue was exactly what Modi needed to drive a wedge between the lower caste Hindus and the Muslims that are the electoral bedrock of third front like the Grand Alliance.

Now the BJP requires increasing its MPs tally in Upper House of parliament in order to pass all bills easily and state elections would give the main parties wining seats would gain MPs in the Hose. Indian states like Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry (Pondicherry) are getting ready for elections to elect assemblies and the Indian election commission has already notified the dates for these states. However, BJP may not gain much from the elections.

Around 17 crore voters will cast their vote in assembly elections in the five states. 824 constituencies will go on poll when Assembly Elections will be held in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. Election Commission declares model code of conduct in five states with immediate effects. Central police forces will be deployed in all the five states to ensure fair elections.

Accordingly, assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will be held in April and May, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi announced on Friday. While Assam will have a two-phase election on April 4 and 11, West Bengal will see balloting on seven dates despite a six-phase election: April 4, 11, 17, 21, 25 and 30 and May 5. In contrast, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will see election on a single day: May 16. Votes polled in all five states will be counted on May 19. Elections will be held in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.

The results of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal and Puducherry Assembly elections will be declared on May 19. Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Assembly Elections will take place in one phase. Kerala Assembly Elections will take place in one phase. The polling will be held on May 16. The West Bengal Assembly Elections will take place in six phases. Notification will be issued on March 11 for the first phase. Polling for the first phase will be on two dates that are 4 April and 11 April. The voting for the fourth phase of WB Assembly election will take place on April 25. Date of fifth phase polling is 30 April. The polling for the last phase will be held on May 5 in WB. The polling for the second phase of the West Bengal Assembly Election will be held on April 17. Date of third phase polling is 21 April. Assam Assembly Election will be held in two phases. First phase will include 65 constituencies. The notification will be issued on March 11. Last date of withdraw of candidature is March 21. First phase election will be held on 4 April. Second phase of the Assam Assembly Election will be held on April 11.

Electronic voting machine (EVM) will be used for polls. GPS system will be installed in flying squad to track their movement. The Election Commission will keep 5 central observers in each district. Special polling stations will be set up for disabled persons. 1.98 crore electorates will practice their voting right in Assam.

Dates for Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry were announced on Friday. The elections in Assam will be held in two phases. The dates of polling are April 4 and April 11. The elections in West Bengal will be held in six phases. In the first phase, voting will take place on two dates April 4 and April 11 as the seats fall under the Naxal affected areas. The elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will be held in one phase on May 16. Counting of votes for the elections will be on May 19

Tamil Nadu, where AIADMK is currently in power, has 234 assembly constituencies. 5.68 crore people will be eligible for voting in Tamil Nadu. CM Jayalalithaa is likely to face a tough fight in the state from Karnunanidhi-led DMK-Congress alliance if it joins hands with actor-turned-politician Vijaykanth-led DMDK. In 2011, with 28 seats Vijaykanth became the leader of opposition in the state assembly. AIADMK has got into an alliance with Congress rebel leader GK Vasan.

West Bengal has 294 assembly constituencies. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has maintained that she is confident of winning the elections despite CPI (M) joining hands with it arch foe the Congress in the state for the polls. TMC contested the last assembly elections in the state in alliance with the Congress and swept the state. However, Congress is forging an electoral-arrangement with the Left to challenge Mamata Banerjee in the upcoming polls. Left-Congress will not hold joint elections rallies but may not field candidates against one other to consolidate anti-TMC votes. BJP which somehow managed two LS seats in WB in 2014 is attempting to make inroads in the Left bastion.

In Kerala, CPI (M) is preparing to forge an alliance with “all democratic forces”, including possibly the ruling Congress but that, many communist leaders feel, could end the Communist rule in the state once for all. Kerala has 140 assembly constituencies. Traditionally, Kerala has seen straight contest between Congress-led UDF and CPM-led LDF. Congress led UDF had just scraped past the CPM led LDF by a slender margin in 2011 elections. The UDF government led by Ooman Chandy has been rocked by allegations of corruption including the solar panel scam. Left which is pushing for an understanding with the Congress in West Bengal faces cong led UDF as its main adversary in Kerala. BJP has been for years has tried and failed to make its presence in the state assembly but this time around it hopes to win a seat and has stitched an electoral alliance with the newly formed Bhartiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS). The BDJS is led by Eazhava outfit Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogamt, though it denied that. BJP is trying to bring in some important persons and make alliance with small parties.

In Assam, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has tied up with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and as BJP has hopes. In fact, BJP has stitched together a larger alliance with AGP and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The “foreigners” issue helps the BJP. They have claimed that the assembly election in the key north eastern state will be a contest between “all indigenous people” led by it on one side and Congress and the UDF on the other. Assam has 126 assembly constituencies. CM Tarun Gogoi fights 15 years of anti-incumbency. AGP which once ruled the state under PK Mahanta has agreed to play second fiddle to the BJP in Assam. BJP won 7 seats out of 14 in Assam in general elections 2014. All India United Democratic Front (AUDF) won 18 seats in the last elections has emerged as the main opposition party in the assembly.

Puducherry has 30 assembly constituencies.

Modi faces a crucial electoral test right now. Traditionally his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has drawn support from upper caste Hindus – not a big enough base for a national party.

Indeed, Modi’s genius – or good fortune – has been that he has managed to lift himself and the party he leads above the narrow appeal of caste. Modi won a landslide a year and a half ago by hugely widening the party’s appeal, persuading hundreds of millions of Indians that only he could make India shine and knock the economy into shape and deliver growth and prosperity to the nation. However, after assuming power, Modi began his world tour. In fact Modi is fond of spending more time abroad than in India.

The problem is Modi’s “reform agenda” has been blocked in the upper house of parliament. He needs to win every state election from now to the next general election to get anywhere near the majority he needs. That’s why he invested so much in the election in Bihar, India’s poorest and third most populous state. He appeared at so many rallies but his magic did not work there as “Grand Alliance” by Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav still had upper hand in Bihar. BJP depended exclusively on Modi to win Bihar as he was even accused of “carpet bombing” the state and because the party hasn’t named a candidate for chief minister – the top job in the state – he’s the only figurehead. And on balance they have the edge over the BJP.

The state polls now are massively raising the stakes for Modi. Another loss now will be a huge blow to his reputation of “winner” and will embolden opposition parties across India.

The polls say the ballot is too close to call and Mr Modi is up against two of the most seasoned – and successful – players of caste politics in all India.

This being India even state elections are democratic contests on a truly staggering scale.

Perhaps, it is too early to forecast eh poll results of the 5 states going to polls in May. However, as it stands today, the ruling AIADMK has the advantage over other parties, including DMK-Congress combination. Tamils appear to be unhappy to replace corrupt AIADMK with corrupt DMK. BJP is obviously nervous that it might lose the seats it has in the assembly now. Yes, not only BJP but even parties of Vijayakanth and Sarath Kumar are deeply worried about retaining their seats. BJP having declared to come to power in Tamil Nadu this time not having found either DMK or AIADMK to support it, now tries to win as many seat as possible with alliance and thus it woos both Sarath and Vijayakanth to come for alliance with it. Parties of Dr. Ramadoss and Vaiko, having got considerable vote banks, are individually on the lookout now for more partners and their success depends on the alliances they make. Both want to be CM after the poll and do not seek proper understanding as the basis for realpolitics.

Political parties with their narrow-minded line of thinking, and do not allow credible alternatives for the people of India to choose from for better governance. That goes against principles of democracy.

In Kerala, where the Congress led UDF rules, the left parties are trying to catch up with it but an emerging congress-communist alliance in West Bengal against the ruling TMC of Mamata Banerjee confuses Kerala voters. Not being able to identify their allies and real opponents and not knowing what to do next, the Communists today are the most confused politicians India can boast of. While Communists and Congress leaders do not expect people to think, voters themselves are not impressed by their own alliance against logic of Indian politics.

Yes, not only Keralites, Indian voters at large stand confused at the possible Congress-communist alliance, mainly because it would lead to even an illogical Congress-BJP alliance in the near future.

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South Asia

Post-UNGA: Kashmir is somewhere between abyss and fear

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Hailed as a hero for calling out New Delhi’s draconian measures in occupied Kashmir, Imran Khan warned the world of a “bloodbath” once India lifts its lockdown of Jammu and Kashmir. He persuaded global leaders to denounce the brutalities and human rights violations unleashed on Kashmiris ever since the disruption of the decades old status quo, which had been granted by the symbolic autonomy of Articles 370 and 35(A) within the Indian constitution. The constitutional coup d état ensures the alienation of Kashmiris in IOK beyond the point of redemption with massive spillover effects across the LOC. Pakistan is home to 4,045,366 self-governed and independent Kashmiris as per the 2017 census, who are desired of more than a political and diplomatic support for their brothers in IOK. India and Pakistan have already fought three wars on the Kashmir issue.

Focusing on the brazen denial of core human values, Imran Khan prognosticated a more radicalized world as the scourge of radicalism finds more fodder in a discriminated society. If climate change is ignored, the clichés of religious affiliation continues and the inherent right of self-determination remains disregarded, violent reaction is inevitable. He said, “we all know that marginalisation leads to radicalization”… “No one did research that before 9-11, the majority of suicide bombers in the world were Tamil Tigers. They were Hindus”, but Hindus rightly escaped the blame since belief and religion has nothing to do with desperation.

Imran Khan talked more like Gandhi than the nation of Gandhi itself. He reminded the world of the reincarnation of the progrom and racial ridden medieval periods when religion and state were inseparable .It has reshaped and now resides more in inter-state relations while negatively stirring regional cooperation and globalization. Already enwrapped in a world of deprivation, the fifth largest population of South Asia is fearfully seen at the brink of a nuclear war with there being very few options left for a seven times smaller nuclear state of Pakistan, which has been already driven to the wall. The speech was well received and touched a chord with many Kashmiris reeling under the unprecedented communications blackout and travel restrictions in place since August 5.

“It felt like there is someone to watch our back. It felt that someone is talking for us, that we are not alone”, was the feeling commonly displayed. Hundreds of affected Kashmiri stakeholders came out of their homes, shouting slogans in support of Imran Khan and calling for the independence of Kashmir despite the movement restrictions and deployment of additional force by India in Srinagar.A fresh charge sheet has also been filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India against the chief of Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, (JKLF) Yasin Malik, and other leaders including Asiya Andrabi, and Masarat Alam on October 4, 2019.

Conjuring up his dystopian vision, Prime Minister Modi made no mention of the disputed region of Kashmir in his read-out speech at the UN along the lines of diplomatically bureaucratic explanation. He only ticked the fanciful boxes of development, progress, and world peace, annihilation of terrorism and protection of environment. This speech however, was soon followed by a threat from his own government’s defence minister calling for the liberation of Pakistani Administered Kashmir as the next step in India’s quest for regional dominance.

Moreover, Imran Khan has also expressed his fears in his erstwhile meetings with Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the General Assembly session. Trump has offered mediation, but only if both Pakistan and India agree. A senior US diplomat for South Asia called for a lowering of rhetoric between India and Pakistan, while saying that Washington hoped to see rapid action by India to lift restrictions it has imposed in Kashmir and the release of detainees there. Similarly, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, in his address to the General Assembly on 27 September stated that,;”The Kashmir issue, a dispute left from the past, should be peacefully and properly addressed in accordance with the UN Charter, Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.”

Nonetheless, an arrogant denial by India to the support of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir by Turkey and Malaysia is more of an inept understanding of diplomacy and international commitment. India needs to step out of the skeptical comprehension of the role of the UN that was pronounced by Ms. Vidisha Maitra India’s Permanent Mission to the UN. The sway of diplomatic terms espoused with preconceived historical interpretations could be misguiding for political leaders. Modi needs to keep his ears close to the ground to save his political future. It is an extensional battle for Kashmiris. No concertina wire can blur the contradiction in his approach to the issue, “when they are in India they say it is an internal issue and when they are on the international forums, they consider it a bilateral issue,” said one of the residents of Srinagar. Confusion exacerbates the fear, which consequently becomes a forerunner to terrorism. Same goes for the US whose mediator’s role gets paradoxical by Trump’s close alliance with Modi in his perusal of Asia-Pacific policy. Though, Imran Khan is perpetually using his political and diplomatic influence proactively, to mobilize both the international community and his own people, the anti-India feeling, the pro-militancy sensitivity and the general sense of despair — is stronger than before in Kashmir.

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Kashmir Issue at the UNGA and the Nuclear Discourse

Haris Bilal Malik

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The Kashmir issue has more significance in view of the nuclearization of South Asia as many security experts around the world consider Kashmir a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan. The revocation of the special constitutional status of Kashmir by the BJP government on August 5, 2019, also referred to as Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 and the subsequent lockdown in Kashmir has since considerably increased political and diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. India’s recent moves and actions in Kashmir have once again internationalized the Kashmir dispute. This was evident during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session, where the Kashmir issue remained a crucial agenda item for several countries.

During this year’s session prominent leaders of the world condemned Indian brutalities in Kashmir. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the international community for failing to pay attention to the Kashmir conflict and called for dialogue to end this dispute. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said that Kashmir “has been invaded and occupied” by India despite the UN resolution on the issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also discussed the issue and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute based on the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions. Based on the grave importance of Kashmir as a potential ‘nuclear flashpoint’ between India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the UNGA warned the world community about the dangers of a nuclear war that according to him might break out over Kashmir due to Indian atrocities. The current situation appears to be the most critical time for both the countries and the region as both countries are nuclear-armed.

However, unfortunately, the Indian leaders and media perceived Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning as a nuclear threat and termed it as ‘brinkmanship’. Contrary to this perspective, it is worth mentioning here that the Indian leadership itself is involved in negative nuclear signaling and war hysteria against Pakistan in recent months. For instance, the 2019 Indian General Election campaign of Prime Minister Modi was largely based on negative nuclear signaling comprising of several threats referring to the possible use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Furthermore, as an apparent shift from India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, on August 16, 2019Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while on a visit to the Pokhran nuclear test site paid tribute to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that India might review its NFU policy. He stated that a change in future circumstances would likely define the status of India’s NFU policy. Since then there is no official denial of this assertion from India which indicates that India might abandon its NFU policy.

Moreover, India’s offensive missile development programs and its growing nuclear arsenal which include; hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, enhanced space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance and the induction of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-capable submarines clearly indicate that India’s nuclear weapons modernization is aimed at continuously enhancing its deterrence framework including its second-strike capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is also evident from India’s military preparations under its more recent doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD)which are also based upon more proactive offensive strategies and indirect threats of pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan.

As evident from the above-mentioned developments, it seems likely that India aspires to increasingly project itself as a regional hegemon and a potential superpower. The BJP government under Prime Minister Modi inspired by the Hindutva ideology is taking offensive measures under the notions of ‘a more Muscular or Modern India’ based on strong military preparedness. In such circumstances, Pakistan’s threat perception would likely remain increasingly inclined towards its eastern border. Pakistan due to its economic constraints would also likely face considerable difficulties in competing with India toe to toe with respect to its military modernization plans. Pakistan is already punching well above its weight, and nuclear deterrence would be the only way through which Pakistan can maintain a precise balance of power to preserve its security. This could only be carried out by deterring India with the employment of both minimum credible deterrence and full-spectrum deterrence capabilities. This posture clearly asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression.

Hence, at the present India’s forceful annexation of occupied Kashmir and the resultant nuclear discourse at the UNGA has further intensified Pakistan-India tensions. Under present circumstances, the situation could easily trigger another politico-military escalation between India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi has bet his political reputation on his move to annex the region and his political career is on the line. The same way Pakistan’s politico-military establishment is equally unlikely back down from its stance on Kashmir. It would be difficult for both countries to come down from the escalation ladder because politico-military reputations would be at stake at both ends. Consequently, Pakistan might be forced to take action before India’s modernization plans get ahead and might respond even sooner.

The nuclear discourse in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech against the backdrop of the Kashmir crisis at such a high forum like UNGA would likely keep the issue internationalized. The situation demands the UN fulfill its responsibility of ensuring peace and to prevent billions of people from the dangers of a nuclear war. However, Indian blame game, aggressive behavior and offensive nuclear signaling against Pakistan all present a clear warning of nuclear war. It would greatly limit the prospects for international mediation especially by the United Nations whose resolutions on Kashmir clearly provide a right of self-determination to decide Kashmir’s future.  

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1.2 trillion rupees on the move: Modi’s greatest piece of purchase yet

Sisir Devkota

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Last week, the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) was taken aback by more than a surprise. Just when it was dealing with the uncomfortable series of events that led to the transfer of surplus 1.2 trillion rupees into the government of India; social media erupted. It quickly realized that losing the battle regarding the transfer would only add fuel to the hoax of closing down nine commercial banks. RBI enjoys considerable amount of autonomy and independence in the largest democracy, and still, it had to kneel down to Modi’s alleged quick fix.

The RBI would have to vouch for the government in times of need, it is primarily what is expected of the institution; but there was a great deal of discomfort in how the government justified it. A committee set up under the ex-governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, cited how central banks would not need so much of surplus to carry out their affairs. Effectively, it was an order, not a request, which became the underlying discomfort behind RBI’s hesitancy in adhering to the views of capital transfer committee. Not that anyone expected the central lender to protest longer, it did however, request Mr Jalan to reconsider the decision at the face of various consequences. To say the least, it was embarrassing for a premier financial institution to be put under the public eye. The social media hoax was another ridicule of the sickly RBI. In the tales of grand conquests, the victorious army steals the wealth from the losing party. Similarly, the BJP led government in India are redefining all forms of state tools in favour of their interests.

Stolen wealth is most often than not used to correct economic blunders. Just like in the tales of grand conquests, the decision to transfer national wealth from the reserve bank is nothing new. It is nevertheless baffling, that the money transfer is looping in the same direction. While the BJP government in India were imposing a comprehensive GST (Goods and Service Tax) policy, they would not have anticipated complaints from large industries over decreased consumer consumption. For a party that is now known to redefine the legitimacy of governance, falling prey to NBFC’s (Non-bank Financial Companies) incompetence or bankruptcy is a visible defeat. Unlike many other soaring economies, there are large group of subsidiary lenders operating in India. On hindsight, economic policies are barely creating tunnels through which the capital is getting recycled in the same loop. Revenues are not generating further revenues. It is merely closing down on its self-inflicted gap.

The Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) almost played with fire. Uncharacteristically, it proposed a framework to work together with the RBI in order to claim outstanding defaults from high value clients. The RBI was never going to agree with a defaming offer as such but the incident did fuel the argument of capital shuffling. It only makes the bluff look more real. A strategic plan to counter all measures that would have blocked the transfer of trillions. As Mr Jalan sheepishly implied how the importance of central bank and what is does is only limited to the public perception, RBI fought a fix in between larger or rather dangerous political agendas. Consolidating requests from SEBI to only fall into the whims of the government shows the lack lustre personality of the central funding institution. For the time being, Narendra Modi has his way, a theft of national treasure-like his opposition colleague Rajiv Gandhi expressed in the media. However, there will also be a far-fetched evaluation of Modi’s actions. A move of 1.2 trillion rupees in the same pot. Not by any means, a cunning cover up.

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