India unwrapped: PM Modi’s silence on rape cases speaks loudest as protests mount
Narendra Modi | Photo Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came under intense attack this week over their deafening silence and inaction over two separate rape cases that brought back gory memories of the infamous ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case in 2012.

The two rape cases—in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, two states the BJP rules—were reminiscent of the indifference of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government six years ago and prompted sections of the media and the opposition parties to step up their criticism of Modi and his cabinet colleagues.

In the rape case at Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, the Central Bureau of Investigation finally took the case over and began questioning the BJP legislator who allegedly assaulted a minor last year. But it was the case in Jammu’s Kathua town that horrified the nation as chilling details emerged of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl. Events in Kathua took a communal turn after at least two BJP state ministers, along with local lawyers and right-wing groups, marched in support of the alleged rapists, who are said to have brutalised the girl for a week in a Hindu temple, before killing and burying her.

Modi also faced heat during a visit to Tamil Nadu, where protesters were demanding action on the Cauvery water distribution issue. The protesters in state capital Chennai held up black flags and shouted “Go Back Modi” slogans; even on Twitter the hashtag #GoBackModi became the top trend globally.

Few takers for Air India, plenty for Fortis

Even as the government faced political heat, its plans to sell the loss-making Air India seem to hit a dead end after several airlines, including IndiGo, the Tata Group and Jet Airways—said they would not be interested in bidding for the beleaguered national carrier. In fact, even two Gulf carriers—Emirates and Qatar Airways—too reportedly denied that they were interested in buying Air India, prompting calls for the government to rework the divestment plan it had approved just last week.

The complex structure of the entity being sold isn’t the only hurdle. The major problem seems to be the Rs 33,392 crore debt the new buyer will have to take on, of which Rs 16,500 will be interest bearing, which no suitors seems to be willing to do.

While the government struggles with the Air India sale, it can take some heart from the fact that Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, will pick up a 50% stake in the proposed $44 billion oil refinery that will be set up at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, along with Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum.

The new facility, which will have the capacity to produce 60 million tonnes of oil and 18 million tonnes of petrochemical products a year, is likely to come up by 2025. Currently, Reliance Industries’ refinery at Jamnagar in Gujarat, with a capacity of 68 million tonnes per annum, is the world’s largest.

Aramco is the latest among global oil giants that have entered India. British oil major BP Plc had previously invested $7 billion in Reliance while Russia’s Rosneft had bought out the oil business of the Essar Group in 2017 for $13 billion.

As things looked up for India’s oil and gas sector, the country’s marquee private sector banks—ICICI Bank and Axis Bank—haven’t seen much good news lately. ICICI Bank chief executive officer Chanda Kochhar seemed to be in deeper trouble as details emerged that her husband, Deepak, may have had business links with the promoters of Videocon group going as far back as the 1990s.

This, even as the CBI continues to probe Deepak and his brother Rajiv, who is separately said to have advised borrowers who had restructured foreign currency loans taken from ICICI Bank. These allegations of quid-pro-quo and nepotism have meant that several commentators and market regulators have said that Kochhar should step down from her position, at least pending the probe.

Meanwhile, Axis Bank chief Shikha Sharma sought an early retirement and will demit office by the end of December. This, after the Reserve Bank of India raised red flags, asking the bank’s board to reconsider its decision to give Sharma a fourth term at the helm.

Meanwhile, analysts at Japanese brokerage Nomura said that, given its current valuations, Axis Bank could be a juicy acquisition target for Kotak Mahindra Bank’s Uday Kotak. Not only is Axis Bank’s loan book twice as big as Kotak Mahindra’s, an acquisition at a swap ratio of 2.15 at current market prices, could see Kotak reduce his stake in the combined entity from 30% at present to 17.5%, allowing him to meet the RBI’s targets on stake reduction by December 2018.

The week also saw a bidding war for the acquisition of Fortis Healthcare. The TPG Capital-Manipal Hospitals combine sweetened its offer for the company’s hospitals business while Malaysia’s IHH Healthcare threw in another offer. Separately, two minority investors, two-wheeler maker Hero group’s Sunil Munjal and consumer goods maker Dabur’s Burman Family Office, offered to invest Rs 1,250 crore in Fortis, potentially throwing a spanner in the attempts by outside investors to gain control of the hospital chain.

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