Podcast | Editor’s Pick of the Day – A few stories that shook the country this year

Even if sometimes it doesn’t seem so.

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Even if dissent becomes dangerous at times, as in the case of Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem who was held on November 27 after he allegedly uploaded videos criticising the BJP-led Manipur and Central governments and has been detained for 12 months under the National Security Act (NSA).

Kishorechand Wangkhem is in a way emblematic of every Indian citizen who takes the right to dissent seriously regardless of who is in power. And  the crackdown on them by the powers that be is old news too right from the times of Emergency, that dark 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when civil liberties  saw unprecedented suppression.

And continues to date with TOI reporting on December 21, “In a scary Orwellian move that should give all citizens pause, the Ministry of Home Affairs has granted sweeping powers to 10 central agencies to track, monitor and intercept data on every computer in the country. For the first time ever the government has given the power to scan data on a computer — and not just in transit between two computers — to investigating agencies, according to reports.”

The sign of a healthy democracy is that the citizens always feel empowered, free and fearless to not just to opine but to share their opinions.

On this episode in our series of year-end roundup podcasts, we look back at the year that was and see how the power pendulum swung between citizenry and the policymakers at the helm of the nation.

When silence said, “Me too”

Silence enforced by entrenched power imbalances often results in suppression of truth and the emboldening of the oppressors. That it is an unequal world socially and economically for women is a given but the year, a cathartic outpouring of festering stories of pain and abuse, gave Indian women a semblance of their power back under a sheltering hashtag called Me Too. A movement that should have arrived in India’s corporate , entertainment, literary and artistic spaces a long time ago.

It all began with a few women who decided that the time had come to tell their stories. Like actor Tanushree Dutta who related a 10-year-old story of an on set abuse of power by Nana Patekar and his supporters who even damaged the car that  had Dutta and her parents in it.

Like  writer, director Vinta Nanda who narrated a two decade old horrific experience of rape, work related persecution and psychological trauma caused by actor Alok Nath.

And advertisement professional Mahima Kukreja who accused popular comedian Utsav Chakraborty with a tweet that unleashed a storm and  had Utsav offering an apology not just to her but several women while blaming painkillers for impairing his senses!

Freelance journalist Sandhya Menon did not just tweet instances of harassment she had suffered in her career but also became a mouthpiece for several survivors who sent their stories to her and shared their long suppressed anger.

Multiple accusations emerged against the likes of  Sajid Khan and Vikas Bahl, director and actor Rajat Kapoor, journalist and political heavyweight MJ Akbar, journalist Prashant Jha, powerful media personalities like Gautam Adhikari, editor KR Sreenivas, Mayank Jain, Vinod Dua and CP Surendran, busy body and media consultant Suhel Seth, author Chetan Bhagat, artists Jatin Das and Subodh Gupta, musicians Kailash Kher and Raghu Dixit among many others.

The important realisation that emerged from these cascading stories is that abuse is not relegated to one space or to one category of men. It spans the so called safe spaces too like homes, educational institutions and expands to public spaces, work spaces and even virtual spaces that are violated when famous authors send flirtatious notes to women despite claims of being happily married, or when men with even a smidgen of power, real or imagined, send unsolicited images of their anatomy to women.

What is also significant is that social media platforms that are usually hunting grounds of trolls turned out to be the most effective purveyors of personal accounts in India.

As  Alka Kurian, a professor at the University of Washington, who studies feminist politics in South Asia told Bloomberg.com, “The freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, makes it possible for investigative journalists to publish stories on #MeToo, but in developing countries, state censorship laws, threats to job or even life, cultural taboos, or a broken justice system, hamper investigative journalism. In such a situation, social media has played a powerful role.”

As we said in the beginning of the piece, when one or many parts of citizenry decide to wrest power back, they find a way.

Still, it hasn’t been easy for women who have risked professional impediments and legal backlash to tell their stories. Akbar for instance is flexing all the legal muscle he can muster. Subhash Ghai has been given a clean chit by the Mumbai police and Annu Malik has received public support from colleagues and Alok Nath is gearing up for a long battle to counter what he says is a Alice in Wonderland story.

Actresses like Preity Zinta have trivialised the movement by cracking WhatsApp forward worthy jokes like “Aaj ka Sweetu, kal ka Me Too ban sakti hai”. And the most powerful men in Bollywood remain protected still by an unwritten code of conduct in the industry that isolates and blacklists anybody who threatens the big guns.

Still, the movement has led  production houses to be more vigilant and companies are waking up to the need to adhere to sexual harassment laws. The National Commission For Women has also set up a dedicated email to receive such complaints. The Producers Guild of India (PGI), the Screen Writers Association (SWA), IFTDA (Indian Film and Television Director’s Association) and the Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA), have set up committees to probe allegations of sexual harassment.

The careers of Sajid Khan, Subhash Kapoor, Vikas Bahl and Alok Nath are under a cloud.

Will there be an easy legal recourse available to those who are targeted by predatory behavior is a story that only time will tell but a beginning has been made.  Though stories of custodial rapes, assault on rural, underprivileged and tribal women and a case study like the Kathua rape will tell you that most sexual crimes are crimes of entitlement and privilege. And till we distribute power equally to all sections of society, things will change but only marginally and only for a small section of people.

State election results

That no political party in India can afford to take invincibility for granted was demonstrated when this year the ruling BJP lost all the recent assembly elections, even those held in the three Hindi heartland states.

We will leave the trend reading  to political analysts but this was a thumping and categorical assertion of power by voters who stated unequivocally with their votes that more than divisive rhetoric, what they want is employment, loan waivers for farmers, and politics that includes rather than excludes.

The ruling party’s  defeat in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram is an opportunity to the frenzied campaigners of the party to pause and take stock of just where they could have gone wrong.

The staunch supporters of the party attribute the losses to an anti-incumbency wave and cite BJP’s clean sweep at the first direct mayoral elections in Haryana to emphasise its ability to bounce back but compared to the invincibility brand BJP has exuded in the recent past, these are slim pickings.

As Kumar Shakti Shekhar put in an India Today piece, “In most of his speeches during campaigning for the five assembly elections, BJP president Amit Shah took pride in stating that the party was ruling in 19 of the states and covering about 70 per cent of India’s area.In a breathless and fast-paced commentary, he would enumerate how the Congress or any other opposition party lost in a state and the BJP won.

He would say: “Maharashtra mein Congress gayi, Bhajapa (BJP) aayi, Haryana mein Congress gayi, Bhajapa aayi, Jammu Kashmir mein National Conference gayi, Bhajapa aayi, Jharkhand mein Congress gayi, Bhajapa aayi…” So on and so forth

However, a distinct trend, says the piece, can be seen since the Gujarat assembly election held in December 2017. We quote, “The BJP’s comfort zone ended with the Gujarat election. In PM Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s home state, the party scraped through the election. It bagged 99 seats, just seven seats more than the magic figure. The BJP got 16 seats less than its 2012 tally in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly.”

Was it a vote against the big government policies?

As any ruling party discovers at the time of an election, it is easier to attack an incumbent government from the ranks of the opposition than to defend its own failures to live up to the expectations of the voters.

As  the second anniversary of demonetisation demonstrated, the government has yet to account for the aftershocks of pulling out more than 85 percent of the total value of the currency from  circulation that caused over 115 deaths, acute inconvenience to the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor.

As is well-known, the government didn’t take into account that India’s economy is based mostly on cash and the oversight affected small businesses the most.  A sufficient amount of the new bills were not printed and they were also a different size than the old ones, creating a huge problem with ATMs.

As Forbes put it, “Not since India’s short-lived forced-sterilization program in the 1970s–this bout of Nazi-like eugenics was instituted to deal with the country’s “overpopulation”–has the government engaged in something so immoral. It claims the move will fight corruption and tax evasion by allegedly flushing out illegal cash, crippling criminal enterprises and terrorists and force-marching India into a digitized credit system.”

The country is still coming to terms with a steep drop in  GDP growth numbers after demonetisation, faltering employment rates, volatile  financial markets, liquidity crisis and the toll on infrastructure lenders and non-bank financial services firms.

And as we reported before, the demand for a white paper on the move has been made not just  by the opposition parties but media observers but as of now, the government shows no signs of acknowledging that the move did not yield all that it had promised.

Governor Raghuram Rajan has also stated that demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are the two major headwinds that held back India’s economic growth last year. He also  said, that the current seven per cent growth rate is not enough to meet the country’s needs.

We also cite a previous report we had done,  where Bloomberg.com reported that India’s growth has bounced back to reach 8.2 per cent last quarter, the fastest pace of any major economy. The World Bank in April stated as well in a welcome statement that the  Indian economy appeared to have recovered from the temporary disruptions caused by demonetisation and the introduction of the GST.

But despite projections of a 7.3 per cent growth in 2018 and 7.5 per cent in 2019,  there is concern over the fact that the country is not creating enough jobs. Data provided by a private research firm, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt., shows that 1.5 million jobs were lost immediately after the ban on large-denominated money notes in November 2016.

This should worry the government because one of  campaign promises was to add 10 million jobs each year.

And in the end, it is not the media or the political analysts but the people of the country who will give their verdict about the government’s many policies including demonetisation and GST in 2019.

GST: Persisting problems

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been another contentious issue ever since  it was first implemented in July 2017.

Filing returns has not been easy and the opposition’s suggestion that  the standard rate of GST should be a single rate has caused much heartburn to the financial think tank of the ruling party.

With labels like Gabbar Singh Tax, the opposition has been targeting the GST structure and finally the central government seems willing to reconsider its stance.

As NDTV reported on December 20, days after the BJP’s electoral setback in the three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, PM Modi announced a plan yesterday to simplify the one tax, which with its four slabs, has hugely confused traders.

You will also remember that just before the Gujarat elections last year, much dirt had been raked both by the central government and the opposition over GST and some name calling had ensued as well.

And as NDTV says, soon after the Prime Minister’s announcement about an 18 per cent cap, Congress’s former finance minister P Chidambaram was the first to hit back with a tweet and quote, “Government says 99 percent of goods will be at 18 per cent GST. Belated wisdom. We should have started with 18 per cent as the standard rate. Having scrambled the egg needlessly when GST was introduced, Government is trying to unscramble it! Typical of NDA.”

To refresh your memory once again,  multiple media reports had stated on December 18, that the government had indicated that Goods and Services Tax (GST) will be reduced from the present 28 per cent to 18 per cent or to even less on 25-30 items including air conditioners, dishwashers and digital cameras.There is no official announcement, but the decision is likely to be taken in the GST Council which will meet on the coming weekend in New Delhi.

But as Newsclick reported this week, there is no word about changes for the vast informal sector which overlaps with the MSME sector which was devastated by GST creating recessionary conditions in this sector. We quote, “Output plummeted, credit growth stagnated, bad loans mounted, and lakhs lost their jobs. The sector has still not recovered from the blow.”The wrath of the small traders incidentally has been cited as one of the reasons for the government’s recent electoral losses.

As Newsclick put it, “As output declined, a recessionary condition enveloped the sector. The most damaging effect was on jobs, with lakhs of informal sector jobs lost. The MSME sector has still not recovered from this shock and a recent report by the All India Manufacturers Organisation estimates that total job losses are around 35 lakhs, in the past few years.”

Newsclick further says the government’s recent tinkering with the GST structure is a typical reaction to the losses  it has suffered in the recent assembly elections and losing considerable ground in even the urban segments, once considered bastions of the party. We quote, “The BJP seems to be thinking that reducing tax rates on consumer durables used by the upwardly mobile middle class will mollify some of these sections before the forthcoming general elections in 2019.

But, perhaps the larger factor behind this is that manufacturers’ lobbies have been pursuing the government assiduously to reduce GST on these, and similar other high-end goods. And, these are not the pesky little MSME-sector types. These are the big guys who carry much heft in political circles.

But the most damning thing is this: there is no rethinking on GST after its all-round damaging impact on the small traders and manufacturers has been revealed in all its dimensions.”

Government vs RBI

Another subject that has engaged the attention of voters and analysts is the haze of controversy surrounding the autonomy of RBI.

With two central bank governors leaving in just over two years, a slew of controversies has plagued the  monetary authority.

As The Economic Times reported, “ State-run lenders control 70 percent of India’s banking system assets, and 11 out of 21 of them are facing regulatory lending curbs. That’s not good for winning polls, which must take place by May. If nothing else, banks can use their excess deposits to buy loan portfolios of shadow lenders. These financiers, which don’t have deposits of their own, are playing an increasingly crucial role in ensuring the country’s ongoing banking crisis doesn’t freeze credit.

That’s why the government picked a fight with the RBI for, among other things, putting so much of the formal banking industry in the doghouse and not offering a liquidity line to shadow lenders that were filling the gap. To complete the assault on the central bank’s autonomy, New Delhi even planned a raid on the RBI’s “excess” capital to recapitalize the state-run lenders. The confrontation ended with the resignation of RBI Governor Urjit Patel.”

The piece cites S&P Global Ratings that has warned about the increasing involvement of the government in the central bank’s affairs, and how this could “undermine the hard-fought improvements in the banking system over the past few years.

We quote, “But who cares? Since markets will cheer a new credit party, an emboldened New Delhi will push for more concessions from the monetary authority. Former bureaucrat Shaktikanta Das, who’s now heading the RBI, is unlikely to resist. Letting weak, unreformed banks back into the lending game will be just the start of a steady erosion of the central bank’s disciplining power. The ultimate goal is elsewhere. At the end of the day, nobody (except the employees) cares much about smaller state-run banks. It’s the defaulting corporate debtors – and their political clout – that matter.

“The last two RBI governors, economists Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel, stared down these powerful corporate interests, responsible for $210 billion in stressed banking system assets. If the asset-quality review that Rajan ordered in 2015 helped unearth the true scale of bad loans in the system, it was Patel’s February move to give delinquent large debtors 180 days to have loans restructured (or face insolvency tribunals) that made businesses panic.”

As the piece further puts it, “The inconvenient governors are out, but the errant borrowers will only succeed when they have won a permanent reprieve from bankruptcy. Once the businessmen are given a new, debtor-friendly “settlement” regime for bad debt, one that takes away the threat of their losing prized assets, Indian capitalists will be back to their old ways. Then, the unwinding of the RBI’s independent streak will be complete.”

The saga continues to unspool and its impact on the ruling party’s staunch vote banks and on the performance of the opposition will be measured only in 2019.

Banking sector troubles

This year had the financial sector in a tumult.  As another piece in The Economic Times states, “The year leading up to the 2019 general elections was defined by a slowdown in investment, slackening growth, falling GST revenues, the biggest bank fraud and a credit crunch that provoked the most significant crisis in government-RBI relations.

It was topped up by the abrupt resignation of Urjit Patel as the RBI Governor, a rare phenomenon in the banking world. He was immediately replaced by former Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das the man who was the vocal face during demonetisation and seen as a ‘yes’ man of the government.”

The year also witnessed the biggest fraud in Indian banking history with the Rs 14,000 crore scam on state-run Punjab National Bank (PNB) committed over a number of years and reported in February. The fraud was committed from 2011 till 2017 by illegally issuing letters of undertaking and rolling over foreign letters of credit to diamantaire Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi from PNB’s Brady House branch in Mumbai.

Both are currently absconding and Interpol has issued red corner notices against them.

Other developments that affected consumers directly were rising fuel prices and a spiralling  rupee that touched new lows against the US dollar largely due to the US-China trade war, along with high crude oil prices.

Revisionist economics? GDP back data

Another development that created some ripples was NITI Aayog and the Central Statistics Office’s (CSO) release of the ‘back-series’ of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) data from 2005-06 using a new methodology which changed the base year to 2011-12.

The result? The new data released on November 28, downgraded UPA years’ GDP growth rates  by shaving off the previous estimates by a few percentage points in several years.

At the heart of the controversy, as we reported earlier,  was the debunking of a previous estimate that India had clocked double digit growth of 10.3 percent in 2010-11. The new estimate has revised this to 8.5 percent. And as Money Control reported, the  revision has reduced GDP growth rates of 9.3 percent, 9.3 percent and 9.8 percent in 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08 respectively, to 9.9 percent, 8.1 percent and 7.7 percent respectively. As mentioned in the Money Control report, in 2008-09, growth declined to 3.9 percent due to the global financial crisis. However, new estimates show that the growth rate was overestimated and economy actually grew 3.1 percent.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also stepped in to defend the revised GDP numbers for UPA era and said CSO was a credible organisation. He said, “I don’t think any service is being rendered by people who choose to discredit a highly credible organisation like the CSO because its data is based on facts and the revised formulations which is a continuous exercise because every time you try and improve upon the formulations to make them more representative of the real state of economy”. Unquote.

MoneyControl had also cited government officials involved in the compiling of the new data who say that the earlier series did not capture financial services value addition in its entirety. It captured only a few mutual funds (primarily UTI) and estimates for the Non-Government Non-Banking Finance Companies as compiled by RBI, apart from banking and insurance activity.

But the recalibration of the previous government’s economic report card just before elections had its share of critics and the opposition, primarily Congress has accused the government of manipulating the GDP data of previous years for political gain and in a desperate attempt to undermine India’s growth story over the last 15 years.

The new calibration was done, says TOI  after disregarding an August discussion paper by the National Statistical Commission — the autonomous body that helps in collection of data by India’s statistical agencies — calculating the back series that put the growth in the UPA years using the new base year at much higher than previous figures had shown, breaching even the 10 percent mark in two years. This was hurriedly rejected by the government as being inaccurate.

But finally as we have said before, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the voters have given the verdict in the recent elections and whether larger numbers will vote for or against the incumbent powers will unfold in time.

For now, let us remember that the Indian voters always course correct when they are swayed by reasons other than good or bad governance and it is they who with their dissent, approval, votes and foresight keep the democratic machinery running even if a few institutions are undermined under their watch.