Surely it is time to put aside the debate about Narendra Modi and his accountability for the 2002 Godhra riots and focus on the more immediate issue of whether he is capable of being a competent prime minister. Could he rebuild an effective government machine and deliver economic growth, or is he too autocratic and abrasive to be the politically competent prime minister that India needs? That is the real issue that matters now, but 2002 hogs the headlines and the minds of campaigners.

I’m in the UK for a few days where there’s an angry debate between members of the Indian intelligentsia, focussed in The Guardian, over Modi and 2002. On one side is Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge who condemns Modi for links with the RSS as well as Godhra. On the other side is Lord (Meghnad) Desai more rationally arguing that Modi is not the first political leader to have presided at a time of riots, but that others have not hounded for years.

Modi - Econ cover April 5 '14The Economist magazine was also blinded by 2002 when it ran one of its more irrational editorials two weeks ago and, because of Godhra, opted for Rahul Gandhi, the unsuitable dynastic heir to Congress Party leadership, as the “less disturbing option” for prime minister without examining Modi’s prime ministerial abilities. My old newspaper, The Financial Times, tied itself up in knots on the subject a day or two later, but at least did not come to such a weak conclusion. Both allowed post-Godhra emotions to colour their usually more savvy judgements.

The real issue now is whether Modi could run a government in three key ways – picking top people to run the Prime Minister’s Office with him, picking and working with senior ministers and bureaucrats to run major departments, and working with chief ministers in the states so that policies can be implemented.

India suffers today not from a lack of new laws, policies or ideas, but from appalling implementation of government decisions. That is caused by cumbersome outdated laws and regulations, bloated bureaucracies, political infighting, and endemic corruption. It is unlikely that Modi will do much to curb crony capitalism, but what he does need to be able to do is to make the PMO, the major government departments, and the states work in unison.

His autocratic record in Gujarat does not indicate he has the ability to do this. Nor, to be fair, does it show that he cannot because he has not needed to do so as chief minister. No-one therefore knows how he perform as prime minister and that is the issue that should be debated now, not whether or not he was guilty at Godhra.

The problem is that most people – including the liberal media – have been in denial for the past decade or so about his potential rise. They have never believed he would get so far and are now reacting with shock and horror when it is almost certainly too late to dislodge him over 2002. Even last year many were dismissing the idea of him becoming the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate as being beyond belief.

I saw Modi in 2002 and 2008 as a future national leader

I first wrote 12 years ago in July 2002 that Modi was a potential national leader. I suggested in a column for India’s Business Standard that, unlike most politicians, he was arguing as Gujarat chief minister passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some called it ego). This was not an endorsement but, to a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.

“Friends and contacts told me that I was wrong and asked how a man who had presided in the state as chief minister during such ghastly bloody carnage could ever win popular respect and a wide following,” I wrote. “Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence, and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners”.

I returned to the subject on this blog in 2008 when, after the horror of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on the Taj and Oberoi hotels and other targets, people questioned how India could recover from appalling governance and inefficient security services. I wrote that I had heard two extreme ideas. One was to have a state of emergency or even military rule, which was surely unthinkable. The other was that the country needed tough rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its highly controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. “I wonder how long it will be before the failings of more acceptable politicians leads to Modi becoming prime minister?”, I asked.

Mumbai vote for NModiA couple of days later, an opinion poll published by Mumbai’s DNA daily newspaper (left) showed a majority of respondents in the city favoured Modi as most likely “to provide the kind of leadership required to bring about real change” following the terror attacks. Modi led with a dramatic 47% while Advani, Singh, and Gandhi got 10-13% each.  That was significant because, since then Mumbai’s business community has promoted Modi as the leader needed to restore leadership and effective government.

These points are worth reiterating because the time to stop Modi’s rise was up to about two years ago, but all that most people did was to refuse to believe he could succeed. Congress leaders similarly thought that they had a good chance of winning this year’s general election – first because the BJP was leaderless, and then because they would be able to frighten voters into rejecting such an abrasive, controversial, dictatorial and potentially socially dangerous politician such as Modi once he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last September.

All those adjectives are correct. He is abrasive, controversial and dictatorial. With him as prime minister, the more extremist wings of the BJP-RSS movement known as the Sangh Parivar would potentially become socially dangerous. Activists would feel free to stir up communal unrest, as Pravin Togadia, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an arch-Hindu nationalist organisation within Sangh, has just been accused of doing with an alleged hate speech against Muslims.

But I would argue that there is little point now in returning constantly to the Godhra and other extremist issues, though rabble rousers like Togadia do of course need to be restrained. Some people might be frightened at the last minute into voting against the BJP, but opinion polls have been indicating a continuing slide by the Congress Party and support for the BJP in most parts of the country.

This shows that Modi’s record at Godhra in 2002 is not stopping people swinging to him and the BJP, hoping they would be electing a strong effective prime minister. The question that needs to be examined in the final weeks of polling that ends on May 12 is surely whether he has the character and capacity to fulfil that role.

My new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US , from the UK , in India , and Pakistan

As the Congress Party stumbles towards what looks like a massive general election defeat, one candidate is performing with the conviction of a potential winner who believes he can help implement change in the way that India works. Nandan Nilekani, the Congress Party candidate in Bangalore South is well aware that he has only a 50-50, or maybe 60-40 chance, of defeating the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Ananth Kumar, but there is no doubt that he is bringing a practical approach and confidence that his party leadership lacks.

A founder and former chairman of Infosys, the iconic information technology company where he worked for 27 years till 2009, Nilekani recently headed the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India that is setting up a countrywide biometric database with personal identity numbers called aadhaar (foundation stone). Bureaucratic and political hassles that hit him building that database have led him to want to enter active politics as an elected MP.

Three evenings ago, I stood with Nilekani on a jeep driving through his constituency’s lower middle class crowded lanes and streets at the head of a motorcade of 200 or so cheering flag-waving scooter and motorbike riders. Nilekani waved and namasted to the crowds, nudged occasionally by the local Congress legislative assembly member to acknowledge those eager for eye contact.

photo 3-001The most enthusiastic leapt up on the jeep to garland Nilekani and the MLA and anyone else within arms reach (including me, twice). He had been out and about since 5.30am when he canvassed early-morning walkers in parks, and he said during a tv interview on the jeep that he found his new role tough and exhausting.

What is this 58-year old IT tycoon, who has officially declared his and his wife’s wealth at Rs7,700 crore ($1.28bn), doing seeking mass votes alongside old-style Congress power brokers in street-level politics when doors are open for him in boardrooms, universities and think-tanks across the world?

When I first heard he was becoming a candidate some months ago, I said that I thought he was crazy, firstly to want to become a Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) MP, and then to choose to do so with the discredited Congress Party. I had just written about him and his identity scheme in my book “IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality” to show how India’s projects can be executed effectively when one person is put in charge and is given top-level political backing.

I thought he ought to be looking to apply his IT knowledge, administrative acumen and personal team-leading skills to other poorly performing areas such as health and education services, food distribution, and urban planning. Surely becoming an MP would take him away from the front line of such implementation.

I put the question to him again as we drove in his car way from the canvassing area late in the evening, and he admitted that becoming an MP was not his first preference for tackling the areas I had mentioned. “If I had a choice, I would stay a technocrat and take sophisticated challenges – that’s what I’d like to do,” he said. “Solutions have to be found with out-of-the-box thinking and I would have faced blockages…..Changing any system is difficult, so I need political legitimacy to drive the change that is needed”. Only membership of the Lok Sabha would give that legitimacy.



He is reluctant to discuss the future, but I pressed him because I still could not understand why he was so sure being an MP was the answer – though, if he was determined to do so, it was clearly right for him to go for the Lok Sabha rather than the more honorific Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where tycoons seeking prestige and government contacts have paid crores of rupees in political bribes to obtain a seat.

He prefers only to say his first task is to win the election. His constituency votes on the 17th. His chances have been boosted by massive corruption when the BJP was in power in the state till May last year, and by his opponent Ananth Kumar’s declining reputation. The Congress Party has better prospects in the state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is the capital, than most other areas of the country. It is putting a lot of effort into Nilekani’s constituency and has united the party machine behind him

He then opened up a little, carefully avoiding saying he wanted to become a government minister. “If Congress forms part of the next government, I hope to play a role in that government”. If Congress was not part of he government, he would try to create a coalition of MPs from about 100 predominantly urban constituencies to look at reforming urbanisation. Overall, his aim would be to tackle “anything where there’s a problem to be solved…taking charge of something and seeing it through”, driving change and finding people who could manage and implement what was needed.

Businessmen rarely succeed when brought in at a top level as ministers in countries with the Indian (and British) sort of parliamentary system, so maybe Nilekani is right to want to begin just as an MP. Another technocrat, US-based Sam Pitroda was a high-level technology adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, especially on rural telecommunications, and he continued to advise the current Congress government. Nilekani presumably wants to be a more effective Pitroda with a base in parliament to strengthen top-level political patronage. Some people in Bangalore gossip that he will perform, for Rahul Gandhi, the prime ministerial role that Manmohan Singh has done for Sonia Gandhi. Unsurprisingly he denies that – and it is scarcely a relationship to be emulated  (as Sanjaya Baru shows in his new book Accidental Prime Minister).

If he wants to make a difference quickly, joining Congress seems illogical just as it is probably about to go into opposition, but Nilekani says he does not choose his politics according to who is going to win, adding that he was brought up and remains rooted in Nehruvian politics. The BJP clearly would not be the home for him, and he dismisses the Aam Aadmi Party as “incoherent on strategy, policy and ideology”. He acknowledges it has played a role in attacking corruption and says its “ideas will outlive the party”.

With his wealth and Congress connections, he’s an easy target for critics, and there are plenty of those in Bangalore and elsewhere. Many carp about the identity scheme’s record and its achievements, though Nilekani proudly states that he reached his target of enrolling 600m people with identity cards before he left to campaign in the election, and he rejects ideas that the cards will not be widely used. Critics persist however, saying he should have set the scheme on a firmer base and even questioning lack of vocal support from old Infosys colleagues.

Beyond all this, Nilekani’s entry into politics is significant at a time when India’s middle class increasingly wants to change the way the country is run. That was evident on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere with mass protests over corruption, rape, and the behaviour of the police that began three years ago with what was known as the Hazare movement and later by the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal.

91-V-BalakrishnanThe street protests have faded away, and I have been asked in recent weeks (when discussing my book) whether I think that middle class demand for change will fade away once economic growth returns to near the 8% levels of a few years ago and a feel-good factor returns. There may be something in that, but Nilekani’s wish for “transformative” (as he puts it) policies shows how the mood can be carried forward – as do other initiatives in Bangalore.

V.Balakrishnan (left), another former Infosys director, is standing as an AAP candidate and told me, when I walked with him in his Bangalore Central constituency, that he is backed by the middle class who “want an honest system”. Observers give him little chance of winning, but he says the AAP gets support from “people on the ground while businessmen want the BJP”.

There are also voluntary organisations trying to lead to change. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder chairman of Biocon, a leading biotech company, and Mohandas Pai, another former Infosys director, have set up B.PAC that works with bureaucrats to improve road schemes and other infrastructure projects and has staged debates for general election candidates.

It is fashionable in Indian election campaigns to focus not on urban issue but on rural areas where 65% of India’s population live, often in desperate poverty and lacking health education and other services.

In this election however, urban areas are significant because it is here that India’s aspirational youth live. The urban young do not relate to the sops and entitlement politics of Congress’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that are aimed at winning rural votes, but instead go for those who offer positive opportunities. Many will vote BJP for quick growth, and some will back the AAP for anti-corruption and other longer-term reforms. Nilekani’s challenge is to buck that trend and win support on the basis that he offers not sops but both growth and improvements in the way the country is run.

Posted by: John Elliott | April 6, 2014

The mystery of Rahul Gandhi’s unpredictable beard

This article appears in the current issue of Newsweek magazine

RAHUL_GANDHI_with_beardHow much does it tell you about a man if he cannot decide whether he wants to have a beard or not? What does it indicate if he appears clean shaven for a few days, then sports a stubble, then is clean shaven again, then appears with a full black beard till it vanishes again?

This is not a youngster hanging out with buddies or backpacking across America but instead a top member of India’s leading political dynasty who is nearing his 44th birthday and is photographed and filmed every time he appears in public.

He is Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old heir apparent to the prime ministership of India—or so it seemed until it became apparent he did not want the job but then seemed to be working toward it, though he would never confirm his ultimate ambitions or intentions.

Confused? So are the people of India.

Although Gandhi is being promoted by his mother and lauded by supporters, Indian voters do not seem to want him, and he and the dynasty are facing a massive defeat when the results of a general election are announced in May.

Rahul manifestoThe vanishing beard is significant. It illustrates the quandary that this obviously reluctant politician has in terms of what he is and what he wants to be and do, having been born into the dynasty that has headed India’s Congress Party for all but nine years since the country’s independence in 1947.

The party has been out of power for only about 13 of those years, and the family has provided three prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India into independence; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was shot by her Sikh security guards in 1984; and her son Rajiv, who was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber in 1991. Adding to the family’s tragedies, Rajiv’s younger brother Sanjay, who played a leading role in Indira Gandhi’s undemocratic and sometimes brutal 1975-77 state of emergency, died when a light plane he was piloting crashed in 1980.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has remained at the top since Rajiv’s death. After a few years in the shadows, his widow, Italian-born Sonia, became the chairperson of Congress in 1998 and led the party to election victories in 2004 and 2009. The daughter of a builder from northern Italy, she met Rajiv at a Cambridge, England, restaurant where she was working while studying at one of the city’s language schools and had no interest in politics until after he died.

Now she is recognized as a top politician, although respect is tempered with wariness among Indians because she is a foreigner. In 2011 she was believed to have had a cancer operation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, though the nature of her illness has not been confirmed.

For the past 10 years, she has headed India’s United Progressive Alliance coalition, having cleverly handed the prime minister’s job, at the head of the government, to an aging bureaucrat-economist-turned-politician, Manmohan Singh, now 81, who has failed to wield real power because of her dominance and the Machiavellian maneuverings of her courtiers and sycophants.

Rahul stubbleThe government they headed became increasingly ineffective, plagued by corruption scandals and coalition problems. Economic growth plummeted from around 9 percent to under 5 percent. This has paved the way for Narendra Modi, a controversial and egotistical politician, to win what is becoming a presidential-style election at the head of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Indian subcontinent is swamped with dynasties that have rarely contributed much to their country’s well-being or development. More than a third of the Congress Party’s members of parliament in the 2009 government came into politics through a family link, as did more than two-thirds of the MPs from all parties.

Political parties gain from dynasties because, as with film stars and sports stars, family candidates are instantly recognizable and so have less difficulty selling themselves in huge political arenas like India. Brand Gandhi generates instant recognition, and there is also the convenient association with Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s independence campaign of peaceful protest, who was no relation.

Indira Gandhi, born a Nehru, married Feroze Gandhy who changed the spelling of his main name, thus giving the family an association with the stronger Mahatma brand, which still causes helpful confusion today. No one knows how many of the poor, who have instinctively voted for the Congress Party in past general elections, believe the Gandhis are descendants of the nation’s founding father, but there must be many. (Foreigners who do not know India well also assume there are direct family links.)

This is the world in which Rahul Gandhi is trying to find his way. He has been unable to escape his legacy and has been put on a public pedestal that he would rather avoid. He has talked publicly about the trauma of assassination. At a Congress Party convention where he became the party’s vice president in January last year, he explained how two of his grandmother’s police security guards had taught him how to play badminton. “They were my friends. Then one day they killed my grandmother…. I felt pain like I had never felt before. My father was in Bengal, and he came back. The hospital was dark, green and dirty. There was a huge screaming crowd outside as I entered. It was the first time in my life that I saw my father crying. He was the bravest person I knew.” Rahul was then 14.

His mother, Sonia, has seen herself as a dynastic bridge between her late husband and their son, just as Manmohan Singh has always said he would step aside as soon as Rahul decided to become prime minister. When he was first elected an MP in 2004, Rahul seemed to have some of the promise of his father, who was dragged into politics by his mother from a career as an airline pilot after Sanjay died. Though an inexperienced politician, Rajiv launched India on a path of long-term economic reforms in the 1980s.

I travelled with him in 2004

Rahul Gandhi is good at mixing informally when he is on tour. “I come as a son and as a brother, and as a friend. Elections come and go, but I’ll stay,” he said while I was with him on the 2004 election trail in the family’s traditional constituency of Amethi, a scruffy, underdeveloped town in the vast north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

He relaxed with crowds of desperately poor villagers, listening attentively, and they seemed to believe he cared and would help them. This was not just because he looked young and honest and sounded sincere, but because he looked and sounded like his father, who had been Amethi’s MP.

For them, Rajiv had returned, 13 years after he was assassinated, and life might be good again. Like the villagers, I was struck by the similarities with his father. It wasn’t just his looks—tallish, open-faced, good-looking, with short cropped hair and dressed in a traditional white kurta pajama that got crumpled as the day’s heat wore on. It wasn’t just that he spoke in the same quiet way, making brief remarks at election meetings because he had yet to master the rabble-rousing speeches that he now delivers. Like his father, he seemed to have the same passion to be of service to the country (a rare trait among modern politicians) and the same simple wish to try to help India change for the better.

Confirming that he was in politics for life, he told me, “What drives me in a big way is the need to tackle bigotry in India, bigotry that divides one caste and class from another…. I would like one day for everyone to perceive themselves as equal, not just upper castes seeing lower castes as equal but lower castes feeling that too…. I don’t understand how we can talk about democracy when people don’t see each other as equal.”

Little progress

That was 10 years ago, and he has not really progressed, though he has tried to reform some of the Congress Party’s organization. The villagers in Amethi do not feel that he has stayed to help them. He is still their member of parliament, but he did little in the years after 2004, and his more astute and approachable sister, Priyanka, is now managing the constituency. He has spoken in similar terms in villages he has visited across the country, but he rarely if ever returns to check progress.

Rahul dropped in on the remote tribal people in the hills of Orissa, in eastern India; they were threatened by a bauxite mining project, and he promised to support their case. The project was stopped, but not because of his visit. A year later, he jumped on a motorbike at 3:30 one morning and rode to Delhi’s satellite city of Greater Noida to join villagers in a “sit-in” protest against real estate land acquisition. There, he got some of his facts wrong and was briefly arrested, but achieved nothing.

He has never married, though there have been girlfriends, and for years he has frequently disappeared from public view—sometimes, it is believed, with friends in India, often abroad and always shrouded in secrecy. He has failed to lead his party to victory in state election campaigns and shirked taking a top job until last year, when he became the party vice president.

Since then, he has applied himself more consistently to politics, but he continues to refuse to acknowledge that he will be prime minister if the Congress Party were to confound the forecasters and opinion polls and win the election. His face is the most prominent on the party’s election manifesto, though, significantly, Sonia stepped in to lead at the launch press conference to try to add more strength and credibility to the party’s message than her son would have managed.

In the past year, Rahul has been airing all the right ideas about the changes that India needs, but he does not add nuts and bolts of policy to give his words credibility. His aim, he said in a recent TV interview (his first since 2004), was to change the way the political system was structured, end rule by dynasties, introduce real democracy in the Congress Party, empower women and youth, punish the corrupt and build an internationally significant manufacturing industry. No one could write a better shopping list. But Rahul failed to add substance. When pushed by the TV interviewer, he merely repeated the list.

He has indicated before that he wants to end dynastic rule. This logically means he could be the last in the Nehru Gandhi dynasty’s line, though he has never spelled that out. He has, however, woken up too late to save his party from what looks like a crushing defeat.

My book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is now available internationally in hard cover and as an e-book – from the US , from the UK , in India , and Pakistan

Posted by: John Elliott | March 30, 2014

Democracy a fig leaf that obscures India’s failures

This column appeared today on the Edit Page of the Times of India Sunday edition.

India has been in a state of denial for years. It is rightly proud of its vibrant and chaotic democracy which is on show in the current general election and has survived and been accepted almost without question since Independence. But it is in denial because it has not been prepared to recognize that the vagaries of democracy are providing smokescreens that obfuscate many of the negative aspects of how the country works.

Consequently, democracy has become an unchallengeable fig leaf covering what is not achieved. It allows the negative and under-performing aspects of Indian life to flourish. It blocks change and acts as an excuse for ineffective government.

This helps to explain why India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it could and should be doing with the vast potential of a billion-plus people and abundant natural resources. It constantly disappoints admirers and validates the views of critics. Most recently, with declining economic performance, poor governance and endemic corruption, people have begun to ask, ‘Why is India proving such a failure?’

Modi lotusNarendra Modi’s (left) answer to that question is of course to vote for him to lead the country to growth and glory. Progress, he implies, will automatically follow.

The Gandhis offer repetitive sops and promises, which show that the Congress, and the family, need a time in opposition.

Arvind Kejriwal and his collection of broom-wielding Aam Aadmi volunteers (below) offer the basic political upheaval that India surely needs if it is to shake itself free of widespread corruption, crony capitalism, and poor governance – but that is a long-term play with all the risks inherent in necessary but unpredictable disruption.

Modi does not have anywhere near all the answers, and in particular will not dig deep into crony capitalism and political and bureaucratic corruption, though he will presumably have a “cleaner” cabinet than Sonia Gandhi has allowed Manmohan Singh to appoint. He will also do more to project an incorruptible image.

After a time, however, Modi too will no doubt follow the general line and blame democracy for India’s shortcomings. Manmohan Singh has attempted to pass off prime ministerial vacillation in policy and questionable decision-making as the inevitable result of the democratic compulsions of coalition government, and has allowed opposition from other parties to become an excuse for years of policy delays. A strong prime minister, supported by adept top ministers and a powerful and persuasive PMO, would do better but coalitions are here to stay.

AAP_broom_launch_295Democracy has also provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalization of politics that has been allowed to grow for decades to such an extent that election campaigns are distorted, large bribes are paid when coalitions are being formed, and many members of parliament and state assemblies have criminal charges pending against them.

Democracy is also a drag on development because, while it has rightly opened the way for dissent and opposition to changes in land use and environmental concerns, no effort has been made to curb its misuse by vested interests who corruptly manipulate not only policies but their implementation. This has contributed to India becoming an increasingly unpredictable, unreliable, uncompetitive and difficult place to live and do business.

Because of all that, India has given up trying to compete with China’s far faster economic development, shrugging its metaphorical shoulders and saying that of course China is ahead, it is not a democracy! The excuse allows lessons that could be learned about China’s administrative systems, technological abilities and other pluses to be ignored.

Democracy also creates an environment where jugaad fixes are easy, and where the failures of the system in terms of poor governance and weakened institutions make the fatalism of chalta hai a welcome safe haven. A system that relies on an ability to fix things and then assumes that all will be eventually well whatever is or is not done, surely cannot be a success.

This is not an argument for doing away with democracy, but to recognize and change the negative way in which it operates. Democracy has helped to hold India together since Independence, providing an outlet for people’s frustrations and anger, ousting prime ministers, chief ministers and their governments. Though far from perfect, it has given the great mass of the electorate the feeling that they have a say in how the country is run, however faint and rare that may be, and however much they are cheated and maltreated by those they elect.

It is not democracy that is at fault but a lack of leadership and a failure to shape clean transparent systems and procedures that operate effectively without being manipulated and hijacked by vested interests and those who resist change. That is the challenge for the next government.

Posted by: John Elliott | March 24, 2014

Kejriwal’s AAP offers India much-needed political disruption

Indian voters have three basic choices in the coming general election. The bravest would be to vote for the Aam Aadmi (common man) Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal (below), in order to create the disruption that the operations of India’s political system and government machine desperately needs.

13kejri1 - March 14 '14-001Most voters of course will not do that. It looks as if they will instead vote overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, its prime ministerial candidate, in order to get what they hope will be instant change in terms of economic growth and business confidence, while leaving unchanged most of the existing corrupt basic system of political power, graft and patronage.

Others will vote despairingly for Congress led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia because they fear Modi’s controversial reputation as Gujarat chief minister and the BJP’s creeping Hindu nationalism that will insinuate its way divisively into people’s daily lives.

This means that the key unknowns in the election are not whether the BJP will win – it will – but whether the AAP will surprise critics and win support, and maybe even seats, across the country, not just in and around its power centre of Delhi. The other unknown is whether Congress will do so badly that it falls below 100 seats in the 543 seat elected legislature.

Critics like to call Kejriwal, the 45-year old former tax official who founded the AAP, an anarchist. Arun Jaitley, a top BJP politician, has dubbed him an  “Urban Maoists”, a phrase that has been gleefully repeated by BJP supporters – notably on a chat show on CNN-IBN, a tv channel financially controlled by Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance (RIL) group who is a keen Modi supporter (seen together below).

Narendra Modi in Arunachal Pradesh  wearing a the traditional dumluk headgear of the local Adi tribe

Narendra Modi in Arunachal Pradesh wearing a the traditional dumluk headgear of the local Adi tribe

Kejriwal and his people do show some aspects of anarchy because, expanding from their original anti-corruption base, they want to overthrow the current political order that they regard as immoral. Kejriwal says the AAP is “not in this for electoral politics but to change the system”.

And they do behave as agitators rather than conventional politicians.

They are however neither anarchists nor Maoists because they want to reform the parliamentary system from within, not overthrow it (which is the aim of India’s more rural Maoists, usually known as Naxalites).

Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani journalist and regional analyst, who heard Kejriwal speak at the India Today Conclave earlier this month, told me that the AAP leader was what Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of a Pakistan political party, should have been. Imran wasn’t what was needed “because he doesn’t know the country”, whereas there was “no other politician like Kejriwal in South Asia because of his mastery of facts and figures on poverty and deprivation”. (Rashid could have added that Imran is widely regarded as intellectually “dim”, which Kejriwal is not).

The system certainly needs reforming if India is to avoid the gradual implosion of institutions that I describe in my recently published best-selling book ( click here and see below). Crony capitalism involving corrupt extortionist politicians and bureaucrats in league with business at all levels, together with corrupt judges and cruel and often corrupt police, are gradually whittling away at institutions and are crippling India’s economic and social base.

Modi can change some of that – dramatically compared with the way that the government has been run by prime minister Manmohan Singh and his political bosses Sonia and (recently) Rahul Gandhi. He can gradually introduce growth-oriented policies and, if he appoints competent ministers and strong top bureaucrats, can transform India’s short-term image. More on that nearer the elections

modi_ambani- AFPHe is reputed to run a basically clean government in Gujarat where he has been chief minister since 2002, but there are nevertheless widespread hints of crony capitalism.

Kejriwal has done the country a service by mentioning two groups in particular – Reliance, whose Ambani family originated in Gujarat, and the Gujarat-based Adani group that has grown exponentially in infrastructure and allied industries during the past ten or so years.

Politicians – and most other opinion formers – rarely dare to attack Reliance. Kejriwal’s allegations of Ambani holding hidden bank accounts abroad and  receiving business favours in Modi’s Gujarat were sensitive enough for Reliance to issue denials on social media with U-Tube videos.

Such disruptive allegations are not welcomed by India’s establishment, and indeed the AAP’s message of wider disruption is not welcomed by many Indian voters who habitually resist change and tolerate their lot. People grumble about corruption and bad governance and took to the streets three years ago in mass country-wide protests that led to the creation of the AAP. Now, however, most want Modi to produce growth and stop the more outrageous top-level corruption practised by the current government.

The way that the AAP behaved during the 49 days from last December that it ran the government of Delhi, with Kejriwal as chief minister, is widely criticised. Kejriwal and his ministers hit the headlines more for staging street-level demonstrations and other visible protests than for sitting in their offices taking conventional decisions. The law minister clashed with police when he tried to take over their job and ordered them around on the streets. But AAP spokesman, Rahul Mehra, lists the successes as tackling low-level corruption, especially in the police, and producing short-term solutions on electricity and water supplies.

Kejriwal resigned after the 49 days because the AAP’s anti-corruption (Lok Pal ombudsman) legalisation was blocked  by the central government, which now temporarily runs Delhi under what is know as president’s rule till new elections are held later in the year.

That failure to perform as a rational and conventional government has dismayed middle class supporters, though many of them are still prepared to give the AAP continued support. It also looks as if Kejriwal has expanded his base among the poorer groups, who recognise the value for them of what the AAP was trying to do in Delhi and have none of the middle-class aversion to the Kejriwal style of upheaval.

Kejriwal combines being an astute street-level performer with a serious side that he displays when he meets people in calmer situations.  I watched him impress the India Today Conclave audience when, apart from some probably valid but also over-egged criticisms of Modi’s Gujarat (where he had just made a high profile visit), he produced sound facts and reason to support his criticisms and claims. With smaller groups, he talks knowledgably about policies – for example on foreign investment in supermarkets, which the AAP blocked in Delhi but which Kejriwal is prepared to support if positive evidence is produced.

Neither he nor his party is however yet ready for government, not in Delhi and obviously not nationally. Their main value is that they are affecting the way parties think and speak – Rahul Gandhi in particular voices Kejriwal’s line about devolving power to the people and their local representatives.

The next few weeks will show how far the AAP can go. It has announced 350 candidates and there are more to come.

Kejriwal has sharpened the contest with Modi by announcing [March 25] that he is  standing against him in the key Uttar Pradesh constituency of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, which could generate violent clashes.

The candidates are an odd medley of activists, teachers, journalists, ex-bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians defecting from other parties. Inevitably, for such a new and rapidly growing party, there are multiple egos and little cohesion.

If the AAP only wins a few of Delhi’s seven parliamentary constituencies, it will be seen as locally significant but little more. It will be able to declare moderate success if it wins ten seats or more in other constituencies, maybe some adjacent to Delhi and others further away. Its success nationally will depend partly on whether it manages to draw voters away from regional parties, which logically it should be able to do in places like UP, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu where locally based parties are even more corrupt that the Congress and BJP.

Kejriwal claims – almost certainly unrealistically – that the AAP will win 100 seats, and that Congress will get below that number. That would make the party a leading opposition force, but the figure is regarded by almost all observers as unlikely. India, they say, is not yet ready for such a Tryst with Reality, or is it?

Photograph of Arvind Kejriwal courtesy: Uttam Ghosh/

Details of where my best-selling book IMPLOSION – India’s Tryst with Reality can be bought:


INDIA – in all major bookshops and at  

PAKISTAN – available on pre-order from Liberty Books

SRI LANKA – available soon

INTERNATIONALLY – despatch by Amazon UK and US within a few weeks


INDIA AND INTERNATIONALLY – available on-line later this week

 E-SINGLE of SCAM ANDHRA in HARPER21 pre-election series

Harper Collins has issued a chapter from the book on Andhra Pradesh’s crony capitalism titled SCAM ANDHRA in a pre-election series of ten politics and governance e-singles – available from Rs16 and $0.77

INDIA – on Flipkart for Rs16

            – on Google on-line store for Rs21   

INTERNATIONALLY – at $0.77 or equivalent

A few days after May 16, India’s Congress Party and the Gandhi family that heads it will have been swept from power and a new government led quite probably by Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist driven and feared Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Gujarat, will take office. This will, if the BJP has a sufficiently large mandate, lead to significant changes across a wide range of policies, and will give the business community and financial markets a surge of optimism

The dates for the polls, which were announced by the Election Commission this morning, run from April 7 to May 12 and involve 814m voter (100m more than in 2009), and 930,000 voting stations (up 12%). The count will take place on May 16, and the results will be announced quickly on that day throughIndia’s electronic voting system. How quickly a government is formed will depend on how clear the result is, and whether the BJP needs to win support from more parties to add to its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition total.

PG-indian-political-02-26-2014-01 It is of course impossible to forecast the result but, judging by recent polls,   (left and below) Congress and its underachieving leader Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia are heading for a catastrophic defeat. So great is the expected drubbing that some commentators are wondering whether Congress will survive till the next election, or whether it will splinter and reform in some way with a new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that did astonishingly well in Delhi state assembly elections at the end of last year

That is a rather extreme theory and whether it has any prospect of happening depends on the number of seats that Congress wins. If it manages 100, then Rahul Gandhi will surely be given a chance to fight another election, but if it were under say 40 or 50, all bets would be off.

Polls indicate that Modi is gaining broad support across the country, including areas in the south (see map below) where the BJP has never had a base, as well as in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh where Modi seems to be rebuilding the BJP’s former appeal. The question is whether that leads the BJP and its allies in the NDA to win 200 or more seats, and whether Modi would then be able to gain enough others parties’ support to reach the 272 needed for a majority in the Lok Sabha.

modi1_jpg_1583447gSuch a result seems probable following extensive campaigning by Modi who is establishing his potential as a national economic growth-oriented leader and, in the process, is reducing the negative effect of Gujarat’s 2002 riots for which he is widely held responsible, despite exoneration by the courts

The unknown here is the AAP, which ruled Delhi for just 45 days and then resigned because an anti-corruption Lok Pal (ombudsman) bill that it wanted to introduce was not allowed under the constitution.

During those 45 days, it ruled unconventionally and chaotically with its leader Arvind Kejriwal staging sit-ins and other street level demonstrations instead of conventional office and state assembly activities.

That has led the middle class, which formed Kejriwal’s original anti-corruption support base, to despair. But he has, reports suggest, increased his appeal among the less well off and the AAP is likely to do well in Delhi’s general election constituencies. It seems unlikely but not impossible that it will manage to repeat its Delhi type of surprise result elsewhere and win enough seats to become a significant player after the election.

Modi supporter Lucknow - Reuters-PawanKumar March 2 '14-001If Modi fails to do as well as polls currently suggest, regional parties will become significant,  some of whom  last week formed what is termed a “third front”, raising the possibility of a muddled directionless coalition.

Various ambitious regional leaders are developing prime ministerial ambitions – they range from the erratic unpredictable Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal and the more middle class but unreliable J.Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu, to Nitish Kumar of Bihar, whose political fortunes have slipped in recent months.

As a journalist I have often been queried on my use of the words ‘Hindu nationalist’ for the BJP, but Modi has disposed of that problem because he described himself as one in an interview last year with Reuters. “I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu,” he told Reuters news agency in an interview in his official Gujarat residence in Gandhinagar.

So watch out for a nationalist Hindu-inclined surge across the country if the election produces the result that, on present indications, seems likely.

My book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality has today topped Asian Age’s non-fiction sales for the second week running -  buy it at 


Posted by: John Elliott | February 26, 2014

My IMPLOSION book tops Best Seller list in Delhi!

My book  IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is top of the Asian Age New Delhi non-fiction best seller list !

Asian Age New Delhi bestseller list April 26 '14

Posted by: John Elliott | February 23, 2014

MPs joke and laugh as the workings of parliament implode

Government ministers, leaders of other political parties and MPs laughed and joked their way though the final session of India’s five year parliament even though it has been the worst ever in terms of achievements and performance, and has been marked more by protests and demonstrations than by debate and decisions.

Disruptions stopped parliament working for 37% of allotted time. More than 70 of the 289 bills introduced were not dealt with and lapsed and 20 were passed with debates lasting less than five minutes Violent attacks peaked when a pepper spray was used last week. That led to three Congress MPs acting as bouncers, standing close to Palaniappan Chidambaram, the finance minister, when he presented his pre-election mini-budget to ward off anyone who tried to assault him and grab his papers, as had happened to other speakers in recent months.



Such is the depths to which this pillar of India’s democratic institutions has sunk.

This illustrates the collapse of respect for institutions – and the gradual imploding of the institutions themselves – that is one of the themes of my new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality that was published this week and is now available in bookshops and on-line sales across India.

Yet MPs complimented and fawned on each other in the closing session last Friday. Sonia was “a graceful leader”, said Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s leader of the opposition. The BJP veteran leader, L.K. Advani, was “seen with moist eyes” according to the Hindustan Times . Sushilkumar Shinde, the ineffectual Home Minister, told ” Swaraj your tone is sweet, sweeter than sweets “, even though she is better known for screeching. Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party, thanked Sonia  Gandhi, saying she had always acted “whenever I passed on slips requesting something” – better slips than suitcases, or were they promissory notes, one might wonder!

The MPs have reason to be pleased with themselves because they know that India’s traditional tolerance of non-performance and corruption will enable them to return after the general election that is due in April-May and behave just as badly again. Though the BJP disrupted parliament for months during this parliament, the precedent was set by the Congress when it was in opposition during the 1998-2004 BJP government’s time. The MPs know that India is too large and diverse a society for them to be ousted in a coup or by Arab Spring type mass demonstrations, and many revel in the weakening of institutions because it increases their powers of patronage and opportunity for corrupt fixes.



In my book, I argue that the role of politics, democracy, governments, institutions, laws and regulations, which were lauded 20 to 30 years ago as India’s special strengths, have been progressively undermined. They have been replaced by arbitrary powers wielded by individuals, be they ministers, bureaucrats, policemen, or regional politicians and gang bosses.

Democracy, which provides for MPs and their equivalents in state assemblies to run riot instead of debating and passing laws, does India damage in other ways. In my book, the conclusions chapter says:

“India has been in a state of denial for years. It is rightly proud of its vibrant and chaotic democracy that has survived and been accepted almost without question across this vast and diverse country for over 65 years. But it is in denial because it has not been prepared to recognise that the vagaries of democracy are providing smokescreens that obfuscate many of the negative aspects of how the country works.

Democracy is a fig leaf

Democracy creates an environment where jugaad fixes are easy, and where the failures of the system in terms of poor governance and weakened institutions make the fatalism of chalta hai a welcome safe haven. Democracy has therefore become an unchallengeable fig leaf covering what is not achieved. It allows the negative and underperforming aspects of Indian life to flourish, and it blocks changes and acts as an excuse for what is not being achieved.

“The country can no longer afford to allow this to continue. If it does, systems will deteriorate further, possibly leading to implosions as the functioning of institutions is undermined and destroyed. India is far too large and diverse for a revolution to gain hold and dramatically change the way that it is run, but implosion, where  government authority crumbles, systems break down, society becomes more lawless, and investment and growth slumps, can
already be seen.

“This is not an argument for doing away with democracy, but to recognise and change the negative way in which it operates. Democracy has helped to hold India together since independence, providing an outlet for people’s frustrations and anger, sometimes ousting prime ministers, chief ministers and their governments.

“Though far from perfect, it has given the great mass of the population a feeling that they have a say in how the country is run, however faint and rare that may be and however much they are cheated and maltreated by those they elect.

“But it has also provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalisation of politics that has been allowed to grow for decades to such an extent that election campaigns are distorted, large bribes are paid when coalitions are being formed, and many members of parliament and state assemblies have criminal charges pending against them, often for serious offences.

“Democracy is also used as an excuse for ineffective government…..But, while the recent years have been bad, the problems are deeper and will not be solved simply by switching to another prime minister or political party that carries the baggage of the past.

“The mission of legitimate governments should be to create inclusive economic development with a sharing of wealth and governance by strong, impartial institutions. On that count, India has failed as corruption and bad governance have facilitated the emergence of a self-serving political system, a politicised bureaucracy, an unprofessionaljudiciary, and mindless and often cruel policing.”

My book  IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality now at 30% discount on Flipkart …


British Council launch Feb 18 '14

IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality was launched with great success at the British Council in Delhi earlier this week and is now on saleIndia Today has put up on the internet a copy of a five-page spread that appeared in the magazine last weekend – here’s a report and excerpts:

‘The Inheritance of Loss – John Elliott describes Congress descent into chaos’ by Sharla Bazliel 

“John Elliott is an old India hand who belongs to that delightful breed of Englishmen for whom India became home without any obvious forethought or design. “I didn’t stay, I just never left. There is a difference,” Elliott is quick to emphasise…

book-mos_021514020242“Much like its subject itself, Implosion is a large, sprawling book, an excellent primer of sorts for anyone interested in learning why India has come to this impasse. Elliott goes to great lengths to examine how and why the nation has squandered its massive potential and fallen prey to greed, wastage and arrogant displays of wealth.

“Implosion is a refreshingly clear-eyed look at a society ridden by corruption and made ineffectual by an overwhelming dependence on the ‘national approach’ of jugaad and a chalta hai attitude. ‘I didn’t set out to write a negative book. It grew into one. India was a country which greatly appealed to me in the 1980s when I first came here. I once thought of it as a country that would only get better with time,’ Elliott says. But then it didn’t”


“We have got to get rid of the cobwebs,’ Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao told top officials on 21 June 1991, the day he formed his new Congress government. Go away to your office, he said to Manmohan Singh, and work out some details.

Thus was born, with a classic understatement, India’s biggest burst of economic liberalization that, over the past 25 years, has touched almost every corner of this vast country and affected the lives of virtually everyone in the billion plus population. Chalta hai had been pushed aside by a dire financial crisis, but none of the officials in Rao’s office that morning could have dreamed of the long-term effects of the measures they would be launching, and nor could he. They knew they were about to remove industrial, trade and financial controls that would help to solve the crisis by freeing up economic activity and generating international trade.

What happened, however, was far more dramatic. The moves they initiated gradually unleashed previously repressed entrepreneurial drive, skills and aspirations. This was accelerated by unpredictably rapid expansion of information technology and the internet, plus India’s growing involvement in international business and trade. Manmohan Singh was at the meeting because he was about to be named finance minister-he was sworn in later in the day with the rest of the cabinet…

The ‘M’ document

The 1991 reforms first appeared publicly on 11 July 1990 as an unsigned article headed ‘Towards a restructuring of industrial, trade & fiscal policies’ that was spread across a page and a half of the Financial Express newspaper. A note by the editor (A.M. Khusro) said that there had been ‘some controversy’ over a government policy paper that was being considered by a committee of secretaries, so the Express was publishing it ‘to generate a public debate on matters raised in the document’.

No one knew for sure who wrote the document, but Montek Singh Ahluwalia, one of India’s leading economic policy makers who now runs the Planning Commission as deputy chairman, has revealed to me that he was the author. Who leaked what was later dubbed the ‘M’ document-with the title page removed to hide its source-remains a mystery. Maybe it was Ahluwalia himself!

I tracked down the article because I was convinced that Manmohan Singh was not the architect of the reforms and had heard that Ahluwalia was said to have written something called ‘What’s left to be done’ at the end of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984-89 government. I followed the trail till Ahluwalia told me in June 2013 about the ‘M’ document and admitted authorship, though he did not have a copy.

The Indian Express then searched its Chandigarh archives and later in the year found it and I passed a photostat to Ahluwalia, who said, ‘it takes me really down memory lane’. Ahluwalia confirmed that he initially wrote the ideas as an overview of ‘what needed to be done’ late in Gandhi’s government when he was an economic adviser in the prime minister’s office… The ideas were discussed by a high-level committee of secretaries (the top level of the civil service) and that became the Financial Express leak… Ahluwalia says that the paper was specially significant because it pulled together a comprehensive approach for tackling India’s economic problems and set out a five-year plan with firm objectives though it acknowledged it was bound to create more controversy.

Sonia and Rahul

Sonia Gandhi’s central political importance was demonstrated by the UPA government’s erratic behaviour while she was away ill…

Did the disarray while she was away develop because the government was missing her and her advisers’ sure touch, and had she developed a little-known sense of what needed to be done politically? Or were ministers and officials scared to make decisions that might arouse her (or Rahul’s) wrath later? Or was it because the Gandhi dynasty dominated government channels of authority and decision-making to such an extent that the cabinet and administration could not function without her? Whatever the answer-and maybe it was a mixture of all three-it certainly demonstrated how lost the government was without her.

Rahul played little part ……His appearances in parliament were rare, and he made only three important speeches and interventions in his ten years as an MP….

I noticed his lack of presence in an informal atmosphere one afternoon in August 2012 at Delhi’s Visual Arts gallery where he and Sonia Gandhi had gone (with impressively minimal security) to see works by Devangana Kumar, daughter of the Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar. Although she looked tired and unwell, Sonia had a presence, but what struck me most was how unimpressive Rahul looked on an occasion when he was not performing publicly.

He dutifully followed his mother around the exhibition but he showed scant curiosity while she asked questions about the socially significant works (photographs of servants of the British Raj reproduced as large prints on velvet). He did not have any of the presence and charisma that one would expect from a 42-year old leader.

This reticence made me wonder whether he could ever grow into the top role……..That Saturday afternoon, he looked as if he just wanted to fade away.”

From the left, Vikram Chandra and Pramod Bhasin. Right, Swapan Dasgupta

From the left, Vikram Chandra and Pramod Bhasin. Right, Swapan Dasgupta

My book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality is being launched this evening and is now in bookshops in Delhi and on line – soon it will be across India – sales abroad will come later

BN-BO316_implos_G_20140217225726This morning the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time news website has run an except with the headline above – see below and click here for the full spread. In the foreign policy chapters, I question India’s limited role abroad and its reluctance to emerge as an international player:

“India has learned that it can say ‘no’ to the US…and the US has learned – maybe with some surprise – that India is not prepared to become an obedient ally, and that it will not dutifully follow American wishes on foreign policy or on quickly opening up foreign investment regulations to hungry US companies….

There are however sceptics about the relationship in India, as well as those in the US who strongly believe India should be more docile and subservient. There will always be headlines about differences. Usually these will be on issues such as Iran and there is also concern in India about how determined the US is to support Asian countries against the sort of Chinese aggression seen in the East China Sea.

There will also be unexpected rows, as happened in December 2013 when US law officers suddenly arrested Devyani Khobragade, India’s 39-year-old deputy consul general in New York, just as she was dropping her daughter at school…..

The sharp reaction – and media frenzy – in India flushed out a latent anti-America feeling born of resentment of the way the US threw its weight around. As Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington was reported saying in the Financial Times, ‘we have created a myth that India is pro-America and that is not the case’..

Before this row broke out, the relationship had been drifting because of a lack of care in both countries with a weakly-led Indian embassy in the US and an American ambassador in Delhi who, though able, could not excite political support back home. There were few, if any, committed supporters in the Obama administration, and there were many officials and commentators in India who enjoyed taking a more aggressive stance.

The drift had increased as the Indian government and the country’s economy became weaker. The strategic dialogue was continuing but no top leader in either country was consistently pushing it ahead…….

Much has however been achieved, and a lasting ‘strategic partnership, not an alliance’ (as Menon [national security advisor Shivshankar Menon] put it) is in place after a decade of work. How it develops will depend largely on how America’s initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region play out, especially with China.

India’s role will depend on its reactions as those events unfold, and whether it has the will – and maybe one day the economic strength – to play a leading role in world affairs. Either way, the new relationship with the US has to be seen as a positive development, provided India maintains its independence as a friend and occasional partner but not an ally.

Follow India Real Time on Twitter @WSJIndia

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