Business and Bollywood vote in India’s election

Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, his wife Nita Ambani and their son Akash Ambani arrive to cast their votes at a polling station during the fifth phase of India’s general election, in Mumbai, India, May 20, 2024. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 May 2024

Business and Bollywood vote in India’s election

  • Big conglomerates have bestowed upon Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a campaign war chest that dwarfs its rivals
  • Bollywood stars have backed its ideological commitment to more closely align with the country’s majority religion and politics

MUMBAI: A parade of India’s business and entertainment elite — many of them supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — went to the polls Monday as the financial capital Mumbai voted in the latest round of the country’s six-week election.

Modi, 73, is widely expected to win a third term when the election concludes early next month, thanks in large part to his aggressive championing of India’s majority Hindu faith.

“My vote is for the BJP and Modi,” said Deepak MaHajjan, 42, who works in banking. “There is no other choice if you care about the future of the economy and business. I have always voted this way.”

Big conglomerates have bestowed upon Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a campaign war chest that dwarfs its rivals, while Bollywood stars have backed its ideological commitment to more closely align with the country’s majority religion and its politics.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (R) with daughter Suhana Khan (L) arrives to cast his ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting of India's general election. (AFP)

Latest data shows that the BJP was by far the single biggest beneficiary of electoral bonds, a contentious political donation tool since ruled illegal by India’s top court.

Leading companies and wealthy businesspeople gave the party $730 million, accounting for just under half of all donations made under the scheme in the past five years.

Conglomerate owners support Modi’s government because it caters to the needs of India’s “existing oligarchic business elite,” Deepanshu Mohan of OP Jindal Global University told AFP.

Lower corporate tax rates, less red tape and a reduction in “municipal regulatory corruption” have also helped Modi win the affection of corporate titans, he said.

N. Chandrasekaran, the chairman of Tata Sons, a sprawling Indian conglomerate with interests ranging from cars and software to salt and tea, cast his ballot at a polling station in an upper-class Mumbai neighborhood.

Natarajan Chandrasekaran (C) Chairman of the Board at Tata Sons with his wife Lalitha Chandrasekaran (L) shows his inked finger after casting his ballot to vote outside a polling booth in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting of India's general election. (AFP)

“It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to vote,” he told reporters.

Asia’s richest man, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, also voted at the same polling station, accompanied by his wife, son, and a media scrum, posing to show his ink-stained finger.

Anand Mahindra, chairman of the eponymous automaker, told news agency PTI after voting: “If you look at the world around us, there is so much uncertainty, there is such instability, there’s terror, there’s war.

“And we are in the middle of a stable democracy where we get a chance to vote peacefully, to decide what kind of government we want. It’s a blessing.”

Modi’s cultivated image as a champion of the Hindu faith is the foundation of his enduring popularity, rather than an economy still characterised by widespread unemployment and income inequality.

A Sadhu or a Hindu holy man shows his ink-marked finger after voting, outside a polling station during the fifth phase of India's general election, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 20, 2024. (Reuters)

This year he presided over the inauguration of a grand temple to the deity Ram, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya razed by Hindu zealots in 1992.

Construction of the temple fulfilled a longstanding demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated across the country with back-to-back television coverage and street parties.

The ceremony was attended by hundreds of eminent Indians including Ambani, whose family donated $300,000 to the temple’s trust.

Also present were cricket star and Mumbai native Sachin Tendulkar along with actor Amitabh Bachchan — the single most famous product of Bollywood, as the financial hub’s film industry is known.

Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan casts his ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting in India's general election. (AFP)

Numerous screen stars have established themselves as vocal champions of Modi’s administration since he was swept to office a decade ago.

Former soap actor Smriti Irani is one of the government’s most recognized ministers and beat India’s most prominent opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in the contest for her current parliamentary seat in 2019.

Filmmakers have also produced several provocative and ideologically charged films to match the ruling party’s sectarian messaging, which critics say deliberately maligns India’s 200-million-plus Muslim minority.

Last year’s “Kerala Story” was heavily promoted by the BJP but condemned elsewhere for falsely claiming thousands of Hindu women had been brainwashed by Muslims to join the Daesh group.

But some in Mumbai, like delivery driver Sunil Kirti voted for the opposition Congress party.

“In the past year I am earning less, but prices of basic essentials... food and vegetables have gone up,” said Kirti, 29. “Who is to blame for that?“

Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (R) shows her inked finger after casting her ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting in India's general election. (AFP)

India’s election is conducted in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging the democratic exercise in the world’s most populous country, with more than 968 million eligible voters.

The fifth round is taking place as parts of India endure their second heatwave in three weeks.

Scientific research shows climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

Turnout is down several percentage points from the last national poll in 2019, with analysts blaming widespread expectations of a Modi victory as well as the heat.

Temperatures reached 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states where tens of millions of people voted on Monday.

4 members of a billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers

Updated 5 sec ago

4 members of a billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers


GENEVA: An Indian-born billionaire and three family members were sentenced to prison on Friday for exploiting domestic workers at their lakeside villa in Switzerland by seizing their passports, barring them from going out and making them work up to 18 hours a day.

A Swiss court dismissed more serious charges of human trafficking against 79-year-old tycoon Prakash Hinduja; his wife, Kamal; son Ajay and daughter-in-law Namrata on the grounds that the workers understood what they were getting into, at least in part. The four received between four and 4 1/2 years in prison.

A fifth defendant — Najib Ziazi, the family’s business manager — received an 18-month suspended sentence.

Lawyers for the members of the Swiss-Indian family — who were not present in court — said they would appeal the verdict.

The workers were mostly illiterate Indians who were paid not in Swiss francs but in Indian rupees, deposited in banks back home that they couldn’t access.

The four were convicted of “usury” for having taken advantage of their vulnerable immigrant staff to pay them a pittance.

“The employees’ inexperience was exploited,” judge Sabina Mascotto said in her judgment. “They had little education or none at all and had no knowledge of their rights.

“The defendants’ motives were selfish,” she said, adding that the Hindujas were motivated “by the desire for gain.”

The court acquitted them of the more serious charge of human trafficking, on the grounds that the workers had traveled to Switzerland willingly.

Dogs treated better

During the trial the family were accused of bringing servants from their native India and confiscating their passports once they got to Switzerland.
Prosecutor Yves Bertossa accused the Hindujas of spending “more on their dog than on their domestic employees.”
The family paid the household staff about 325 francs ($363) a month, up to 90 percent less than the going rate, the judge said.
“The four Hinduja defendants knew the weak position their employees were in and knew the law in Switzerland,” Mascotto said.
The family denied the allegations, claiming the prosecutors wanted to “do in the Hindujas.”
They had reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with the three employees who made the accusations against them, leading them to drop their legal action, said the defense.
Despite this, the prosecution had decided to pursue the case due to the seriousness of the charges.
Following the verdict, Bertossa requested an immediate detention order for Ajay and Namrata Hinduja, claiming a flight risk.
The judged denied it, accepting the defense argument that the family had ties to Switzerland. It noted that Kamal Hinduja was hospitalized in Monaco and the three other family members were at her bedside.
Both the elder Hindujas had been absent since the start of the trial for health reasons.
A statement from the defense lawyers announcing the appeal said they were “appalled and disappointment” at the court’s ruling.
But it added: “The family has full faith in the judicial process and remains confident that the truth will prevail.”

The defense had argued that the three employees received ample benefits, were not kept in isolation and were free to leave the villa.
“We are not dealing with mistreated slaves,” Nicolas Jeandin told the court.
Indeed, the employees “were grateful to the Hindujas for offering them a better life,” his fellow lawyer Robert Assael argued.
Representing Ajay Hinduja, lawyer Yael Hayat had slammed the “excessive” indictment, arguing the trial should be a question of “justice, not social justice.”
Namrata Hinduja’s lawyer Romain Jordan had also pleaded for acquittal, claiming the prosecutors were aiming to make an example of the family.
He argued the prosecution had failed to mention extra payments made to staff on top of their cash salaries.
“No employee was cheated out of his or her salary,” Assael added.
With interests in oil and gas, banking and health care, the Hinduja Group is present in 38 countries and employs around 200,000 people.

Excessie sentence?

Robert Assael, a lawyer for Kamal Hinduja, said he was “relieved” that the court threw out the trafficking charges but called the sentence excessive.
“The health of our clients is very poor, they are elderly people,” he said, explaining why the family was not in court. He said Hinduja’s 75-year-old wife was in intensive care and the family was with her.
Last week, it emerged in court that the family had reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs. Swiss authorities have seized diamonds, rubies, a platinum necklace and other jewelry and assets in anticipation that they could be used to pay for legal fees and possible penalties.
Along with three brothers, Prakash Hinduja leads an industrial conglomerate in sectors including information technology, media, power, real estate and health care. Forbes magazine has put the Hinduja family’s net worth at some $20 billion.
The family set up residence in Switzerland in the 1980s, and Hinduja was convicted in 2007 on similar charges. A separate tax case brought by Swiss authorities is pending against Hinduja, who obtained Swiss citizenship in 2000.
In this case, the court said the four were guilty of exploiting the workers and providing unauthorized employment, giving meager if any health benefits and paying wages that were less than one-tenth the pay for such jobs in Switzerland.
Prosecutors said workers described a “climate of fear” instituted by Kamal Hinduja. They were forced to work with little or no vacation time, and worked even later hours for receptions. They slept in the basement, sometimes on a mattress on the floor.


How does heat kill a person?

Updated 29 min 32 sec ago

How does heat kill a person?

  • Much of United States, Mexico, India and Middle East continue to suffer blistering heat waves 
  • Severe heat can cause people to suffer from strokes, cardiac arrests and dehydration, say doctors

As temperatures and humidity soar outside, what’s happening inside the human body can become a life-or-death battle decided by just a few degrees.
The critical danger point outdoors for illness and death from relentless heat is several degrees lower than experts once thought, say researchers who put people in hot boxes to see what happens to them.
With much of the United States, Mexico, India and the Middle East suffering through blistering heat waves, worsened by human-caused climate change, several doctors, physiologists and other experts explained to The Associated Press what happens to the human body in such heat.
Key body temperature
The body’s resting core temperature is typically about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).
That’s only 7 degrees (4 Celsius) away from catastrophe in the form of heatstroke, said Ollie Jay, a professor of heat and health at the University of Sydney in Australia, where he runs the thermoergonomics laboratory.
Dr. Neil Gandhi, emergency medicine director at Houston Methodist Hospital, said during heat waves anyone who comes in with a fever of 102 or higher and no clear source of infection will be looked at for heat exhaustion or the more severe heatstroke.
“We routinely will see core temperatures greater than 104, 105 degrees during some of the heat episodes,” Gandhi said. Another degree or three and such a patient is at high risk of death, he said.
How heat kills
Heat kills in three main ways, Jay said. The usual first suspect is heatstroke — critical increases in body temperature that cause organs to fail.
When inner body temperature gets too hot, the body redirects blood flow toward the skin to cool down, Jay said. But that diverts blood and oxygen away from the stomach and intestines, and can allow toxins normally confined to the gut area to leak into circulation.
“That sets off a cascade of effects,” Jay said. “Clotting around the body and multiple organ failure and, ultimately, death.”
But the bigger killer in heat is the strain on the heart, especially for people who have cardiovascular disease, Jay said.
It again starts with blood rushing to the skin to help shed core heat. That causes blood pressure to drop. The heart responds by trying to pump more blood to keep you from passing out.
“You’re asking the heart to do a lot more work than it usually has to do,” Jay said. For someone with a heart condition “it’s like running for a bus with dodgy (hamstring). Something’s going to give.”
The third main way is dangerous dehydration. As people sweat, they lose liquids to a point that can severely stress kidneys, Jay said.
Many people may not realize their danger, Houston’s Gandhi said.
Dehydration can progress into shock, causing organs to shut down from lack of blood, oxygen and nutrients, leading to seizures and death, said Dr. Renee Salas, a Harvard University professor of public health and an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Dehydration can be very dangerous and even deadly for everyone if it gets bad enough — but it is especially dangerous for those with medical conditions and on certain medications,” Salas said.
Dehydration also reduces blood flow and magnifies cardiac problems, Jay said.
Attacking the brain
Heat also affects the brain. It can cause a person to have confusion, or trouble thinking, several doctors said.
“One of the first symptoms you’re getting into trouble with the heat is if you get confused,” said University of Washington public health and climate professor Kris Ebi. That’s little help as a symptom because the person suffering from the heat is unlikely to recognize it, she said. And it becomes a bigger problem as people age.
One of the classic definitions of heat stroke is a core body temperature of 104 degrees “coupled with cognitive dysfunction,” said Pennsylvania State University physiology professor W. Larry Kenney.
Humidity matters
Some scientists use a complicated outside temperature measurement called wet bulb globe temperature, which takes into account humidity, solar radiation and wind. In the past, it was thought that a wet-bulb reading of 95 Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) was the point when the body started having trouble, said Kenney, who also runs a hot box lab and has done nearly 600 tests with volunteers.
His tests show the wet-bulb danger point is closer to 87 (30.5 Celsius). That’s a figure that has started to appear in the Middle East, he said.
And that’s just for young healthy people. For older people, the danger point is a wet bulb temperature of 82 (28 degrees Celsius), he said.
“Humid heat waves kill a lot more people than dry heat waves,” Kenney said.
When Kenney tested young and old people in dry heat, young volunteers could function until 125.6 degrees (52 degrees Celsius), while the elderly had to stop at 109.4 (43 degrees Celsius). With high or moderate humidity, the people could not function at nearly as high a temperature, he said.
“Humidity impacts the ability of sweat to evaporate,” Jay said.
Rushing to make patients cool
Heatstroke is an emergency, and medical workers try to cool a victim down within 30 minutes, Salas said.
The best way: Cold water immersion. Basically, “you drop them in a water bucket,” Salas said.
But those aren’t always around. So emergency rooms pump patients with cool fluids intravenously, spray them with misters, put ice packs in armpits and groins and place them on a chilling mat with cold water running inside it.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
“We call it the silent killer because it’s not this kind of visually dramatic event,” Jay said. “It’s insidious. It’s hidden.”

Biden’s 2 steps on immigration could reframe how US voters see a major political problem for him

Updated 21 June 2024

Biden’s 2 steps on immigration could reframe how US voters see a major political problem for him

  • Trump and top Republicans have ripped Biden for record-high numbers of encounters at the border

TEMPE, Arizona: Over the course of two weeks, President Joe Biden has imposed significant restrictions on immigrants seeking asylum in the US while also offering potential citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people without legal status already living in the country.
The tandem actions — the first to help immigrants illegally in the US, the second to prevent others from entering at the border — give the president a chance to address one of the biggest vulnerabilities for his reelection campaign.
Americans give Biden poor marks for his handling of immigration and favor the approach of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose administration imposed hard-line policies such as separating immigrant families and who now has proposed the largest deportation operation in US history if elected again.
While the White House said its most recent actions aren’t meant to counterbalance each other, the election-year policy changes offer something both for voters who think border enforcement is too lenient and for those who support helping immigrants who live in the US illegally. They echo the White House’s overall approach since Biden took office, using a mix of policies to restrict illegal immigration and offer help to people already in the country.
Trump and top Republicans have ripped Biden for record-high numbers of encounters at the border, with some suggesting without evidence that Biden is abetting a so-called “invasion” to affect the election. Tightening asylum rules as Biden did could reduce border crossings.
Helping people long established in the country obtain citizenship, meanwhile, might defuse criticism of immigration advocates and liberal parts of Biden’s Democratic coalition who opposed the new border restrictions unveiled earlier this month.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in March found that only about 3 in 10 Americans approved of Biden’s handling of immigration. A similar share approved of his handling of border security. In the same poll, about half of US adults said that Biden is extremely or very responsible for the current situation at the US-Mexico border, compared to about one-third who said Trump was extremely or very responsible.
Biden’s latest action was endorsed by Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, a moderate Democrat who won a special election in February to replace expelled former Republican Rep. George Santos. Suozzi’s race centered heavily on immigration and New York City’s struggles to accommodate thousands of immigrants bused there from the US-Mexico border.
Suozzi described first being elected mayor of Glen Cove, New York, in 1994 and helping organize centers to assist groups of immigrants waiting on street corners for day-laborer jobs, which he said still informs how he sees the issue.
“The reality is, those same guys that were on the street corners in 1994, today own their own businesses, own their own homes and their kids went to school with my kids,” Suozzi said on a call with reporters. “We’ve got to take action. People are sick of this.”
Van Callaway, a hairstylist from Mesa, Arizona, who uses they/them pronouns, voted for Biden four years ago but was disappointed to hear the president was making it harder to claim asylum. But they were also skeptical whether the president’s plan to help legalize spouses who are married to US citizens would actually come to fruition.
“I wish that it was an easier process so people who need to be here could be here,” said Callaway, 29. “And I wish that there was more love and acceptance about it. And more empathy. I feel like if there was a lot empathy on immigration as a whole, the world would be a lot better.”
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that around 500,000 spouses of US citizens will be protected under Biden’s latest action, as will 50,000 children of a noncitizen parent. The White House said those benefiting have been in the US for an average of 23 years.
That won’t be the case for most of the new arrivals to the US-Mexico border who find themselves unable to apply because of Biden’s other executive action. The White House notes, however, that it has taken several other actions to make it easier for new immigrants to enter the country.
With congressional Republicans “refusing to address our broken immigration system,” the administration “has taken action to secure our border and to keep American families together in the United States,” said Angelo Fernández Hernández, a White House spokesman.
That includes creating a program last year allowing people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to come to the US if they have a financial sponsor, pass a background check and fly into a US airport — which nearly 435,000 people had used by the end of April. The administration also expanded H-2 temporary work visa programs, and established processing centers away from the US border, in countries including Guatemala and Columbia.
Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson nonetheless accused Biden of “trying to play both sides.”
And Trump dismissed Biden’s action on asylum as “all for show,” suggesting the president is “giving mass amnesty and citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegals who he knows will ultimately vote for him.”
Callaway said deciding whom to vote for this year will be excruciating, “a real hard conundrum.” They’re worried about Trump’s second-term agenda but also furious about Biden’s approach to Israel’s war in Gaza, and not excited to support a third-party candidate who probably can’t win. More harsh border policies would be another knock against Biden, they said.
“They’ll tell you what you want to hear, but they’re not often going to follow through on it,” Callaway said. “It feels like the things they follow through on are fueled by prejudice and this weird sense of victimhood.”

ICC unveils arrest warrant for top Sahel militant leader

Updated 21 June 2024

ICC unveils arrest warrant for top Sahel militant leader

  • Iyad Ag Ghaly is said to be the undisputed leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, which operates in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger
  • Ag Ghaly previously led the Ansar Dine militant group that invaded the city known as the “Pearl of the Desert” more than a decade ago

THE HAGUE: International Criminal Court judges on Friday made public an arrest warrant for one of the Sahel’s top militant leaders over alleged atrocities in the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu from 2012 to 2013.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, age not given, is said to be the undisputed leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which operates in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The JNIM is accused of numerous attacks against national forces and atrocities against civilian populations.
Ag Ghaly previously led the Ansar Dine militant group that invaded the city known as the “Pearl of the Desert” more than a decade ago.
Also known as “Abou Fadl,” Ag Ghaly is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Timbuktu, the ICC said.
These included murder, rape and sexual slavery and attacks on buildings dedicated as religious and historic monuments.
Judges issued the warrant against Ag Ghaly in mid-2017, but the document has been kept under wraps for the past seven years because of “potential risks to witnesses and victims.”
The ICC “at the request of the Prosecutor, made public an arrest warrant against Iyad Ag Ghaly for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in northern Mali between January 2012 and January 2013,” the Hague-based tribunal said in a statement.
“Mr Ghaly is not detained by the ICC,” the court said.
Ansar Dine occupied Timbuktu in 2012, taking pickaxes to 14 of the city’s famous mausoleums of Muslim saints. The group also conducted a reign of terror among the local population.
Ag Ghaly is a veteran of Mali’s internecine conflicts.
An ethnic Tuareg from northern Mali, he first leapt onto the stage during a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s.
After it subsided, he went into business, before publicly returning to militancy again in 2012, with the newly created group called Ansar Dine.
That year, Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion in northern Mali, which was quickly commandeered by militants.
The event triggered a bloody conflict, which has now spread to the center of the country, and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Opening its doors in 2002, the ICC is the only independent court that investigates and prosecutes the world’s worst crimes.
However, the court does not have the capacity to apprehend suspects and relies on member states to carry out arrests.

One dead in Greek wildfires fanned by gale-force winds

Updated 21 June 2024

One dead in Greek wildfires fanned by gale-force winds

  • The man, 55, was injured in a blaze in the region of Ilia on the Peloponnese peninsula
  • Dozens of firefighters assisted by aircraft were deployed to tame forest fires in Ilia

ATHENS: A man died on Friday as several forest fires fanned by gale-force winds battered Greece's southern tip and forced evacuations, the fire brigade said.
The man, 55, was injured in a blaze in the region of Ilia on the Peloponnese peninsula and died at a hospital, said a fire service official.
Dozens of firefighters assisted by aircraft were deployed to tame forest fires in Ilia, the nearby Achaia region and near the town of Kranidi, also in Peloponnese.
Residents of several villages in those areas were told to flee their homes as blazes approached.
Wildfires are common in the Mediterranean country, but they have become more devastating as summers have become hotter and drier, which scientists relate to climate change.
Winds of up to 95 kph (60 mph) were hampering operations of firefighting aircraft, Greek fire brigade spokesperson Vasilis Vathrakogiannis said.
"All civil protection forces have been on alert today," he told a televised briefing, as around 45 wildfires broke out in the country within a few hours.
One forest fire that briefly threatened houses at a coastal town close to the capital Athens was contained earlier on Friday, the fire brigade said.