DEPARTMENT OF INVESTMENT and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey seems to be an ‘Act of God’ all by himself. He has honed building roadblocks into an art form and several in the Narendra Modi Government are now directly blaming him for the slow progress of decisions in key departments at his door. The Government had budgeted an ambitious disinvestment target of Rs 2.1 lakh crore for FY2021, hoping to garner a substantial chunk of the non-tax revenue to partly make up for lower-than-estimated numbers in tax collection—and Pandey, as the Secretary, was expected to play a crucial role in facilitating this. But the expectations have flopped. Pandey’s career track record should have provided clues as to why his department is showing such disappointing lack of progress. There’s this story from his stint as the Officer-in-Charge of the Planning Commission during Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Singh was in the US, negotiating a grant with the World Bank and he wanted some key documents to be made available for the purpose. C Rangarajan was Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) at the time, with the status of a Minister of State (MoS). Singh, therefore, urgently contacted Rangarajan. Time was of the essence. But when he did not get the required papers on that day, he contacted the PMEAC chief the next day. Rangarajan told the Prime Minister that he had readied the papers, urgently as requested, but could not fax or email them because he had neither internet nor fax at home. A
baffled, and very irritated, Manmohan Singh then directed his officers to figure out why the chairman of the PMEAC did not have either internet or fax at his residence. It turned out that Pandey had clipped on a note signed by him to the file saying that since Rangarajan had only the status of an MoS, he was ineligible for internet and fax at home. It took a mere 24 hours for Pandey—the high priest of red tape—to be shunted out of the Planning Commission.
Scribe in Distress
THERE’S A LOT OF ‘You scratch my back, I scratch yours’ going on between ‘friendly’ mediapersons suddenly turned entrepreneurial and the Congress leadership. One well-known journalist secured the financial backing of a senior Congress leader for a TV news channel that lasted a few months before most, except the journalist in question, were laid off, with little or no compensation. Another well-known senior newsperson got a high-profile former UPA minister to put his money into a ‘left-liberal’ news website that pushes an anti-Modi agenda. Now, a former defence correspondent is reportedly trying to launch his own venture with funds from the Congress. The senior ex-staffer of a national newspaper—he wrote profusely on defence deals and kept the Congress’ top leadership (read a certain family) supplied steadily with information to bank on in the 2019 General Election—was keen on launching a new online portal. No matter what the precedents, he may have found out the hard way that throwing around lakhs of crores of rupees in a news report is very different from laying hands on desperately needed funds for a new venture. Especially in the Modi era when it has proved difficult, nay, impossible, for anyone flush with unexplained funds to escape the official scanner. Our scribe, hoping for a quid pro quo after the elections for all the help he had rendered the party leadership, recently approached the Congress’ top honcho for badly needed funding—and was directed to the party’s well-known ‘Money Bags Central’ from Modi’s home state. But the leader and his family are already under the scanner for alleged financial chicanery. So now, the scribe is apparently biting his nails to the quick in distress, wondering if at all his venture could get those funds without falling foul of government agencies.
Facebook’s Hidden Hand
FOR EVERY ANKHI DAS, there may be a dozen Congress backers in the Facebook administration pushing the party’s agenda. Last month, a big controversy broke out over Das’ alleged intervention at an internal meeting to stop Facebook from blocking the BJP’s sole representative in the Telangana Assembly, T Raja Singh. Das reportedly contended that blocking accounts of BJP leaders could ricochet badly on Facebook’s business prospects. Led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress promptly tore into the BJP, accusing it of arm-twisting the social media platform. Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad retorted with a missive last month to Mark Zuckerberg calling the platform out for its double standards, accusing it of a ‘concerted campaign’ against accounts subscribing to his party’s ideology. There were documented cases of Facebook, he said, allowing those with radical views, even repeat offenders who even called Prime Minister Modi names, to thrive on the platform, which was evidently biased against those who supported a right-of-centre ideology. Facebook even selectively blocked them, preventing a level playing field for all schools of thought. The Congress then came out, all guns firing, against the BJP, alleging that the ruling party was ducking a parliamentary probe into the issue because it was arm-twisting Zuckerberg and Facebook. Evidence, however, points to the contrary. Here’s an abridged list of Congress heavies with close pals in the Facebook administration:
Ajit Mohan, Managing Director of Facebook India. Mohan is a friend of Rahul Gandhi man Kanishka Singh and studied with him at Wharton. Mohan was appointed to the Urban Governance Committee during the UPA years. Then there is Siddharth Mazumdar, Politics and Government Manager at Facebook, also former OSD to Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s pointman Ahmed Patel. He joined Facebook in January 2019. Varun Reddy, Content Policy Manager at Facebook, was a member of the Congress’ 2014 election committee and had worked at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. He joined Facebook in 2016-2017. Former Congress social media team member Vijaya Moorthy is now Politics and Government Manager at Facebook. His colleague Devika Malik regulates the hate speech programme for Facebook. Malik worked with Congress leader Naveen Jindal. And then there is Kavitha K, who worked for TMC leader Derek O’Brien, until she joined Facebook in 2017. All of them seem to be on Rahul Gandhi’s PLU list for social media. n
It Was Sibal
IT WASN’T AT Shashi Tharoor’s lunch that senior Congress leaders decided to finally poison-pen the letter attacking the Nehru-Gandhi family, its alleged arrogance and unilateral decision-making on key issues. Au contraire. It was at the residence of a more down-to-earth Punjabi leader and a sharp, aggressive advocate by profession—Kapil Sibal. The scion of the family, Rahul Gandhi, and his coterie were to be the prime targets of the exercise, via that now famous letter to the party’s interim chief, Sonia Gandhi. The decision to spell out that dissent was made at a lunch organised by Sibal at his residence, way back on February 16th. The topic of discussion was not just the brashness of Rahul Gandhi in increasingly rare interactions with senior party leaders but also a concerted effort by the Wayanad MP to isolate and sideline practically every leader of experience in favour of his own cabal. Many at the lunch reportedly frothed at the mouth over how long they had to wait in order to just meet the Congress-President-Who-Was-Not-President, the de facto leader acting as de jure. And then suffer utter contempt at the meeting, if and when it transpired. Most were convinced that under Rahul Gandhi’s baton, none of them had any political future. Rahul had already bypassed them in decision-making, refusing to even consider their inputs on core issues, faulting them for not supporting him in 2019 and later in his attacks on Modi, and leaving him in the lurch. Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma were rarely consulted. Shiv Shankar Menon had taken Sharma’s place in Rahul Gandhi’s scheme of things. Kapil Sibal’s brief had been reduced to that of a mere family lawyer, tasked with handling cases against the party’s first family. The younger dissenters had begun to increasingly despair and chafe at the bit, given the feeling that the party was rudderless and absent on the ground on key issues, across India. Meanwhile, Rahul’s own coterie was being allowed a free hand to attack the elders. It appears that Rahul Gandhi has earned his spurs only as the man who forced an implosion within the Congress through all of these months. Perhaps nobody told him that to reinforce his position as leader, he has to keep his friends close and his opponents closer.