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Multiple groups plan hot summer for Modi

Domestic players are planning to generate an atmosphere of agitation because of the challenge the PM and BJP are posing to other political parties.

MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 7th Feb 2015

enior officials concerned with national security warn that multiple groups, most with strong connects abroad, are working to ensure that the months after the 28 February presentation of the 2015 Union Budget see demonstrations and protests on a scale last seen during 2011-12, when the Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption peaked. While the domestic players active in such efforts are working on the plan to generate an atmosphere of agitation because of the challenge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are posing to other political parties, interests based abroad seek to derail Modi's reform agenda before a renovated economy reaches takeoff speed, i.e., expands at a double digit rate. Since taking charge on 26 May 2014, the Narendra Modi government is putting into place transformational changes in policy and procedures designed to accelerate growth, although as yet, such moves have been given little publicity, the focus being on Modi's foreign policy forays.

Food grain price inflation has been abating over the past five months as a consequence of the government making hoarding a non-bailable offence, besides creating a Rs 500 crore price stabilisation fund. Other steps initiated by the Prime Minister's Office include moderating the UPA-era Minimum Support Prices of food grains and ensuring timely offloading of excess food stocks, unlike during 2004-14, when stocks piled up and wastage reached unprecedented levels. Also, because the UPA got passed a land acquisition law that made the setting up of large-scale enterprises almost impossible, Modi (through the LAAR ordinance) has exempted rural and other infra; industrial corridors; defence; and finally affordable housing from the chokehold of the social impact study and consent clause of the UPA land legislation. To promote production within the country, 100% FDI has been approved for railway infrastructure, while the limit for defence industry has been raised from 26% to 49%, with further boosts under consideration. Corruption is being reduced by ensuring that several classes of transactions went online, such as environment and forest clearance.

Other steps to make the setting up of job-giving units easier is an e-auction process of 24 coal mines, as well as the creation of a single online portal for the filing of returns of 16 labour laws through Shram Suvidha. Labour inspections have been made more transparent, with a 72-hour time limit for the uploading of reports, while reporting requirements under the Labour Act have been simplified. Diesel prices have been de-regulated, with other petro-products likely to follow. Finally, changes in the Factories Act have reduced the "inspector raj" in industrial units, thereby making industrial investment in India more attractive. The aim of Prime Minister Modi is to make the entire process of government non-discriminatory and transparent through the adoption of online systems, which do away with the need to constantly appear before officials to get issues cleared.

However, in other fields, the record of the Modi government has been less spectacular, such as in the bringing to book of high-level perpetrators of corruption during the Manmohan Singh years, and in ensuring that the estimated $112 billion of moneys siphoned off to overseas banking havens during the previous decade be brought back both by punitive means as well as via an amnesty. Senior officials say that thus far, only baby steps have been taken to ensure accountability at the higher levels of the machinery of the state, and that those political leaders in the UPA known to have enriched themselves and their families seem as yet beyond scrutiny. Interestingly, it is precisely these tainted elements, who are now mobilising various groups against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aware that a strengthening of his position may lead to tough times for them, as "a PM empowered by high growth will better fulfil his agenda of change through green and clean governance".

These officials point out that there has been deliberate retention by successive regimes of colonial-era laws and the sharp contra-liberal boost in state powers (a change directed by Sonia Gandhi and loyally implemented by Manmohan Singh). Such bloated bureaucratic discretion has created a substantial vested interest whose financial interests mandate a rollback of the reforms planned by Modi during his five-year term. They say that vested interests eager to derail reform are working energetically to, (a) slow down reforms already announced, and (b) short-circuit decision-making by tardiness in the clearing of files, despite having been explicitly empowered to do so by Modi. What they are working towards is a "summer of discontent" directed against Prime Minister Modi and his policies. Select NGOs (several of whom have employed the children and other dependents of policymakers) have been working silently across the country mobilising farmers, fisher folk and the rural and urban poor to active protests against economic measures that within a few years would in fact benefit these very groups substantially.

Officials tracking funding and operations of groups active in mobilising social groups across the country say that a key prong of the strategy of specific NGOs headquartered abroad is to seek to block the development of the economy, the preferred way of doing this being to use the legal and political system to block projects (on the Niyamagiri and Nandigram patterns), as also to block extraction of raw materials such as coal, iron ore and uranium from sources within India, thereby forcing domestic users to import such resources at huge cost from developed economies, whose nationals are coincidentally very active in the management levels of such NGOs. Such large-scale imports depress the value of the Indian rupee, thereby giving a financial advantage to groups based in developed countries.

Interestingly, the RBI under Raghuram Rajan is understood to be focused on keeping the value of the rupee low by the purchase of dollars and turning a Nelson's eye to such massive forex drains as "royalty payments" by foreign-owned subsidiaries in India to their principals abroad, payments made without any substantive business benefit to the domestic branches of such MNCs. These branches are being drained of their cash surpluses by such payouts, as also by having to fund salary and overhead expenses of large numbers of high-priced international staff of dubious value to the domestic unit. Another signature policy of RBI Governor Rajan is sky-high interest rates, which are hobbling domestic industry and preventing jobs from being created. Despite the ill effects of such Wall Street-oriented medicine, the UPA-appointed RBI Governor is being given repeated kudos by North Block, which apparently believes that the best talent comes from universities in the US rather than in India, and which in effect prefer the interests of Wall Street to this country's Main Street.

Groups working for ensuring a climate of unrest during the following months are relying on rumours of a reduction in the retirement age of staff from 60 to 58 years. This is being harnessed to motivate unions to seek a fresh 1974-style railway strike, with railway union leaders being courted for the purpose. Other sectors where a general stoppage of work is being planned for the summer are coal and banking, and here too union leaders are being contacted to get them on board for large-scale industrial action by the middle of the year.

Prior to that and independently of foreign players, Anna Hazare is scheduled to reach Delhi on 21 March for an indefinite fast on the black money issue. Also, both the National Alliance of People's Movements and the Ekta Parishad have scheduled major protest meetings and movements within the next ten weeks, all of which are planned to converge on the National Capital Region. The revision in the land acquisition laws, which are deemed to be essential for ensuring investment in India on the scale needed to create millions of jobs each year, is the target of the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, who is planning to launch a mass agitation against the land acquisition changes in selected districts of Uttar Pradesh in the first instance, expanding this to BJP-ruled states such as Rajasthan and Haryana later.

Internationally, well-funded NGOs with strong branches and contacts within the country are planning a large-scale campaign that alleges major violations in human rights as well as suppression of religious freedom in India, which is expected to begin in April and peak by September 2015. The European Union has already designated India as a country of concern where religious freedom is concerned, and the US is expected to follow in April this year with a similar indictment. Interestingly, unknown perpetrators have been selectively targeting Christian houses of worship in some locations, and are working hard on placing the needle of suspicion on the BJP leadership, despite evidence from Mangalore and other locations that many of such incidents have been carried out by groups opposed to Prime Minister Modi, so as to defame him despite his focus on development. It does not take much organisation for communal incidents to get initiated in sensitive parts of India, and those behind the ongoing preparations for the "Summer of Discontent" campaign are known to be identifying locations where tensions can get stoked, thereby reinforcing those seeking to create an the international perception of India as being a communal cauldron, when in reality, overall conditions are peaceful.

As yet, these officials warn, the national security machinery in India has yet to upgrade its capabilities in order to fully counter the threat of widespread social disruption through the utilisation of fault-lines such as unemployment and occasional tensions between groups. While acts of terror are overt and spectacular, such a "digging under the foundations of governance (in the words of a top official) usually passes under the radar until it is too late", the example given by them being Ukraine, where the elected President Viktor Yanukovich was taken by surprise at carefully-scripted and funded protests and almost lost his life as a consequence.

The reach of social media platforms controlled from foreign countries and the absence of any domestic alternatives are adding to such a vulnerability, these officials warn, adding that the months ahead are likely to witness efforts at disruption of normal life in key cities and economic sectors on a significant scale. They say that an acceleration of growth and the return of confidence are the best antidotes to the game plan of those seeking to derail the Modi reforms, which is why an anti-reform climate is being sought to get whipped up during the budget session of Parliament.

 
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