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India: Congress bets on economic reform to revamp party's future

At huge weekend rally, Gandhis finally back PM on need for economic reforms.
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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2L) and Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi (R) join Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi (C) as she waves towards supporters during a party rally at The Ram Lila Grounds in New Delhi on November 4, 2012. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

At a huge weekend rally, Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi finally put their full might behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's push for economic reforms, in what was widely seen as the party's new election strategy.

The Congress party leaders addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters on Sunday, attempting to reclaim lost political ground after being battered by a series of corruption scandals, the Associated Press reported.

The rally comes as Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat head to the polls, and as the party begins preparations for national elections to be held in 2014.

According to the Times of India, both Sonia and Rahul delivered a "ringing endorsement" of the PM's reform policies in their speeches, suggesting that the party has realized that its former populist stance has been damaged by the anti-corruption campaign led by activist Arvind Kejriwal. (Previously, the Congress attempted to own the "aam admi" or "common man" slogan, but Kejriwal has co-opted that territory with his attacks on the alleged cosy relationship between Congress leaders and business tycoons).

In his speech, Rahul hit out at the BJP and the Left for criticizing FDI in retail, saying the claim that it would drive small stores out of business was false, the Times of India said. "The truth is that food processing will help farmers," the paper quoted the Congress Party general secretary as saying.

"With Sonia also voicing support, Congress may have fully shed its squeamishness over unabashedly pursuing the growth mantra," the paper suggested.


India: Singh calls for $1 trillion in infrastructure investments "at any cost"

Target of $1 trillion investments in infrastructure over the next five years “must be met at any cost," Indian PM tells cabinet.
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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his newly inducted cabinet that the government's target of $1 trillion investments in infrastructure over the next five years “must be met at any cost" -- implying that neither concerns about corruption or the environment should be allowed to slow the Indian juggernaut any longer.


India: Pity the girls who work for the Indian Playboy

Playboy plans PG-13 clubs and cafes for an India that can't handle cheerleaders.
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In this photograph taken on July 23, 2012, Indian Bollywood film actress Sherlyn Chopra poses during a press event for the first Indian woman to pose nude for 'Playboy' magazine in Mumbai. (STDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Pity the girls who work at India's upcoming Playboy Clubs--if they ever come to fruition.

According to India's Hindustan Times newspaper, Playboy plans to open eight Playboy clubs in India over a period of three years, and ramp up to 120 clubs, bars and cafes in 10 years.

Good luck with that. 

For several years now, Playboy has been talking about launching the magazine in India--which already has Maxim and the like--without full nudity. And this year Bollywood wannabe Sherlyn Chopra became the first Indian-Indian to pose naked for Hef (see here).  But despite the Indian male's desperation--or perhaps because of it--the brand will face a long haul here, in my humble opinion.

Over the past four years since its beginning in 2008, the intercity Indian Premier League (IPL) has repeatedly drawn fire for importing scantily clad cheerleaders to perform during matches. Finger-wagging editorials have lamented the demise of Indian culture--not to mention cricket. Several teams have been compelled to revamp their cheerleaders as dowdy, traditional Indian dancers, in an odd mix of "culture" and sport that was not well received by the louts in the bleachers. And there have been more than a few tell-all reports from the cheerleaders themselves of the nightmare gauntlet of lechers they're forced to endure for the chance to high-kick for cash.


India: Anti-corruption crusader takes aim at Reliance's Ambani

Indian anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal alleges billionaire Mukesh Ambani routinely manipulates government policy for his company's profit.
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n a file picture taken on October 13, 2012, India Against Corruption (IAC) activist Arvind Kejriwal delivers a speech at Jantar Mantar after he was released from Bawana Jail in New Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal chuckles as he considers how his all-out assault on corruption has united India's political elite in outrage. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

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India: Anti-corruption crew targets India Inc

After politicians, anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal takes aim at India's tycoons
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Indian anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal -- who has emerged as this country's version of Julian Assange or its Joseph McCarthy, depending on who you ask -- now aims to take on some of the country's biggest industrialists.

Already, Kejriwal has sent serious shock waves through the establishment by leveling accusations against political figures like Robert Vadra (married to Sonia Gandhi's daughter), Salman Khursheed (leader of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh) and Nitin Gadkari (president of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party). But now observers are beginning to question what comes next, and whether India's largely impotent court system can follow these allegations through with legitimate prosecutions.

So the next step is.... Go after the company big wigs.


India: Supreme Court asks where Yamuna river cleanup money disappeared

India has spent $2 billion to clean up Delhi's Yamuna River over the past 20 years. And it's dirtier than ever.
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It's tempting to conclude that the Indian government simply threw $2 billion intended for the cleanup of Delhi's Yamuna River into the drink with the rest of the trash and sewage.  But the truth is that nobody's too sure where the money went, according to India's Supreme Court.

“Where has all this money gone? We don’t see any improvement in the water of the river... what is the use of this money,” asked the bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and Madan B Lokur, according to the Indian Express.

Nearly $2 billion has been spent in the last 18 years by the central government and the governments of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and their civic bodies, the court noted.

The bench asked Additional Solicitor General P P Malhotra to place before it by November 9 the Yamuna River Action Plan and any other plan, if formulated, to clean the river by resorting to correctional and preventive measures, the paper said.

As I wrote for Newsweek some years ago, India's horrendously polluted rivers are among the reasons why it routinely scores miserably on Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index. 

"If anybody needed a reminder of how crippling bureaucracy can be, consider the campaign to clean up the sacred Yamuna River in Delhi," I wrote at the time. "The river oozes through town like a putrid ribbon of black sludge. Its level of fecal bacteria is 10,000 times higher than what's deemed safe for bathing. After a half-billion-dollar, 15-year program to build 17 sewage treatment plants, raw sewage still spills into the river at the rate of 3.6 billion liters a day."

And as the Supreme Court irascibly points out, nothing has changed since 2008.... At least not for the better.


India: Why some graft allegations spark swift investigations...

Allegations against government allies are too laughable to investigate, naturally. But when an opposition leader comes under the lens, they unleash the sniffer dogs.
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As usual, the biting wits at have summed up the meaning of the tit-for-tat corruption allegations against various Congress Party bigwigs and Bharatiya Janata Party President Nitin Gadkari:

"The investigative mills of the government grind slowly – but only when allegations of corruption are levelled against one of its own," writes Venky Vembu. "When the charges relate to a leader of the principal Opposition party, the same leaden-footed investigative agencies begin to show extraraordinary agility and earnestness of purpose."

So true.

When anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal leveled accusations at Robert Vadra--the husband of Sonia Gandhi's daughter--there was no question of a probe being launched by the Central Bureau of Investigation. And some Congress wallah or another had the nerve to argue that there was no need to bother about Vadra's affairs at all, since he's a "private citizen."  When Kejriwal accused Uttar Pradesh Congress Party leader Salman Khurshid of dipping into the funds intended for a charitable trust run by his wife, the politician's outrage was deemed proof enough that the strong smell of fish was purely a coincidence.


India: Forbes unveils rich list

Reliance honcho Mukesh Ambani remains richest Indian, with a net worth of $21 billion, mostly from the oil and gas business.
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As all India reflects on corruption allegations leveled against top politicians from every major party, Forbes unveiled its latest list of the country's richest tycoons. Reliance Industries' Mukesh Ambani remains on top, with a net worth of $21 billion, mostly from the oil and gas business.

Here's the rankings:

1. Mukesh Ambani, Reliance Industries: $21 billion. (Oil and gas)

2. Lakshmi Mittal, Mittal Steel: $16 billion. (Steel)

3. Azim Premji, Wipro: $12.2 billion. (IT services / outsourcing)

4. Pallonji Mistry, Shapoorji Pallonji Group: $9.8 billion. (Construction)

5. Dilip Shanghvi, Sun Pharmaceutical: $14 billion. (Pharma)

6. Adi Godrej, Godrej Group: $9 billion. (Consumer goods)

7. Savitri Jindal, OP Jindal Group: $8.2 billion. (Steel and power)

8. Brothers Shashi and Ravi Ruia, Essar Group: $8.1 billion. (Various industries, from mining to power)

9. Hinduja brothers (Prakash, Srichand, Gopichand and Ashok), Hinduja Group: $8 billion. (Commercial vehicles, oil, wealth management et al). 

10. Kumar Mangalam Birla, Aditya Birla Group: $7.8 billion. (Retail to mining and media).


India: Growth and graft prompt comparisons to US "Gilded Age"

Stories of the days of Morgan and Carnegie sound "eerily familiar" in India, writes Brown University's Ashutosh Varshney
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Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney has argued that India's current climate of high growth and rampant graft mirrors America's "Gilded Age," when so-called Robber Barons built untold fortunes through sweetheart deals related to the construction of the transcontinental railroad and other government projects. But there are some salient differences, too, Varshney writes in Friday's Indian Express.


India: A nation's bad health reflects worst of rich and poor

About 37% of Indian deaths are still caused by "poor country" diseases like TB and malaria, while 53% stem from "rich country" problems like heart failure and diabetes.
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An Indian boy receives anti-polio vaccination drops by an Indian Health worker as part of a Polio vaccination campaign in Amritsar on January 23, 2011. (NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

With an abysmal record on health care spending and one of the world's poorest populations, you'd expect India to be a sick country. But what's surprising is that the situation is arguably getting worse faster than it's getting better.

Consider this: