New on my other blogs

Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?


18 December, 2017

From Cradle To Saddle   

As Rahul takes over from his mother, the 132-year-old Congress seems to need the dynasty more than the dynasty needs it

Coronation was the word that surfaced naturally in Indian and foreign minds as Sonia Gandhi stepped down after leading the Congress for nearly two decades and installed Rahul Gandhi as party president. The term suggested itself not because the royal pomp on display, but on account of the feudal mindset pervading even modern dem­ocracies. The Americans, more precisely the whites, are still obsessed with British royalty nearly two-and-a-half centuries after they broke away. They seek to make up for the lost royalty  by finding kings and queens—even gods and goddesses—from the worlds of cinema, sports and business.

Much of India is feudal enough to quietly acquiesce in—if not actually rejoice over—dynastic succession in politics. The fiercest critic of the Con­gress’s dynastic politics is ironically the BJP, which reinforces feudal values in the name of Hindu nationalism. It has deplored the dynastic aspect as well as the lack of democratic process in the choice of the new Congress president. Both charges are well grounded, but, coming from the BJP, it’s like a pot calling the kettle black.

The BJP became India’s largest political party by granting membership to every Tarun, Dinesh and Hari who made a missed call. They have no role, however, in the election to any party post as the office-bearers are handpicked by the BJP’s Nagpur-based mentor, the RSS, and its units at different levels. It was at the RSS’s bidding that the BJP’s parliamentary board proclaimed Narendra Modi its PM candidate ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, overlooking former party presidents L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who were waiting in the wings. Then BJP president Rajnath Singh said the parliamentary board had acted “as per the party’s tradition”.

After becoming PM, Modi, with the RSS’s blessings, got Amit Shah elected party president. The party members’ role in the process was limited to hailing the new chief. In contrast, Rahul, who had served as general secretary and vice-president of the party for 10 years, insisted that he be duly elected as president. Accordingly, the Congress, which had not held organisational elections for long, created an electoral college through a process which, while falling short of democratic credibility, represented a marginal improvement in the prevailing situation. Of course, no party leader was ready to take the democratic process farther by contesting against Rahul.

The BJP’s opposition to dynastic succession is artificial. Countless dropouts from Congress dynasties have found refuge in it. Heading the list is Maneka Gandhi, the younger of Indira Gandhi’s daughters-in-law, Sonia being the older one. She was beside husband Sanjay Gandhi as he went on a rampage as extra-constitutional authority during the Emergency, razing parts of Old Delhi and forcibly sterilising poor residents. She has an assured place in every BJP-led government at the Centre and her son, Varun, is a BJP MP. Also in the BJP fold are lesser Congress dynasties, like those of former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, former Congress president and education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and former Uttar Pradesh CM H.N. Bahuguna.

Critics of the Congress have propagated a belief that dynastic rule in the party is the result of a project dating back to Nehru’s time. Soon after a res­ounding victory under his leadership in India’s first general election (1952), Nehru tried to persuade Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and other leaders of the Socialist Party, which, in terms of popular vote, was the second largest, alt­hough the (then undivided) CPI, having won more seats, was the main opposition group in the Lok Sabha. As a hero of the 1942 Quit India movement, JP was a youth idol then, who, had he returned to the Congress, would have naturally emerged as Nehru’s successor. Though paving the way for Indira as his successor could not have been on Nehru’s mind, he did make her Congress president in 1959.

On Nehru’s demise, the Congress picked Shastri, and not Indira, as his successor. She became the favourite on Shastri’s unexpected passing as the syndicate of state party bosses reckoned her a better bet than Morarji Desai when a general election was near. Upsetting their calculations, she walked out of the party with the bulk of the rank and file and settled for ­dynastic succession. The line snapped on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 as Sonia, who was not even a party ­member then, showed no interest in taking her husband’s place. It was only after the Congress steadily declined over the next seven years, first under P.V. Narasimha Rao and then under Sitaram Kesri, and was on the verge of break-up that she became a member and the party made her president. As it happens, the party today needs the dynasty more than the dynasty needs it. It can easily split into many factions if there is no Gandhi at the top to hold it together.

The transition from Sonia to Rahul represents a more striking generational change than that from Advani and Joshi to Modi. Advani was 86 and Joshi 80 when Modi, 63, eased out all leaders above 70. Sonia, 71, has made way for Rahul, who is just 47. This gives him a unique opportunity to give his 132-year-old party a youthful look and earn a demographic dividend—no easy task, though, for a party saddled with many aged veterans. The party does have a crop of young leaders who have proved themselves, but Rahul also has to deal with many who are influenced by Hindutva and cannot, therefore, be reliable defenders of democracy and secularism.

Until recently it looked as though the Congress was needlessly delaying Rahul’s inevitable elevation, giving Modi time to run him down, while the Sangh’s cyberlings caricatured him as Pappu the village idiot. But, just as everybody had written him off as a non-starter, he bounced on to the ­centre-stage as Rahul 2.0, a fighter capable of taking on Modi. The Gujarat ­assembly election gave him the chance to demonstrate that he can match Modi’s fabled campaign skills, wit by wit and scorn by scorn, without des­cending to a plebian level. While Modi relied on bluff and bluster, Gandhi challenged him with facts and reason. In the heat of the campaign, Modi ­forgot his Vikas slogan and talked mostly of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis, prompting Rahul to ask him to talk about Gujarat and its problems. A rattled Modi fired a typical Hindutva weapon: an all­eged conspiracy by Congress leaders to instal Ahmed Patel as CM with Pakistan’s help!
Whatever the Gujarat election outcome, Rahul has est­ablished himself firmly on the political firmament as a leader who is part of his party’s and country’s future. He has to deal with a polity in which Hindutva elements are more powerful than even during the Partition days. He will do well to carefully assess the way his predecessors handled the threats of majority and min­ority communalism and draw app­ropriate lessons. Nehru boldly confronted Hindu communalism, which had taken the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and held it at bay throughout his days and its effect lingered even long afterwards. Indira also confronted the forces of communalism boldly, but her role in the liberation of Bangladesh led Atal Behari Vajpayee to hail her as Durga. She stood up to Sikh communalism and paid with her life for refusing her security experts’ advice to exclude Sikhs from her personal guards.

Rajiv played some dangerous games, relying on advice from sources outside the party and the government. He first compromised with Muslim obscurantism on the Shah Bano issue and then sought to make up for it by compromising with Hindu irredentism on the Ram Mandir issue, leading to aggravation of both brands of communalism. In Sri Lanka, he allowed the Indian peace-keeping force to be drawn into a combat role, causing LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran to plot his assassination.

Rahul can possibly benefit from studying the contrasting ways of Nehru and Indira in negotiating the political minefield. Nehru’s ways, by and large, strengthened the nascent democracy, while Indira Gandhi’s weakened it considerably.

The Congress was in power during 10 of Sonia Gandhi’s 19 years at the helm. She held together the small national and regional parties as UPA chairperson and put together a National Advisory Com­mittee (NAC), whose members included social activists and on whose recomm­endation the National Rural Emp­loy­ment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act were introduced. For reasons still unclear, UPA-2 dispensed with the NAC’s services. Rahul needs to listen to a range of people as he sets out to equip the Congress once again as an upholder of democracy, secularism and social justice.

By getting Patidar leader Hardik Patel, backward class leader Alpesh Tha­kore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani on a common platform with him in the Gujarat campaign, Rahul has shown his skills as a coalition-era team leader. As the Lok Sabha election approaches, the scene will change vastly as he has to deal with a host of small national or regional parties that hold the key. It will then be necessary to look at new issues, inc­luding greater autonomy for states. Will he be able to use the opp­ortunity to work out new equations and confront the BJP, which is sure to play up the nationalist card to foil a Federal Front’s emergence?

By nominating Manmohan Singh as the party’s PM candidate in 2004, Sonia had neatly sidestepped the iss­ues of her Italian origin and Catholic upbringing, which the BJP and some of her own party men were harping on. By offering prayers at temples and appearing as a practising Hindu of the sacred-thread-wearing order, Rahul has consciously chosen a different route. His Hindu card and sacred thread may have stumped the BJP’s top brass, but he is riding a tiger and must figure out how to dismount safely and lead his party and the country back to the path of democracy and secularism.

People look for consistency in a leader. If personal appearance is as important as policy position in popular perception, Rahul Gandhi may have already done damage to himself by looking clean-shaven one day and with days-old stubble on other days. Abraham Lincoln is said to have grown a beard after a school-girl wrote to him that it would help hide his ugliness. The handsome Rahul needs no such subterfuge and can possibly raise his credibility by projecting a consistent image all the time.  (Outlook Magazine, December 25, 2017)

12 December, 2017

Trust in banks eroding

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Coming close on the heels of the disastrous and apparently fruitless demonetisation exercise, the Modi government’s plan to enact a law with provision to bail-in banks in distress has set alarm bells ringing among the middle class.

The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, which is before a joint committee of Parliament, ostensibly, seeks to protect the interests of the banks as well as the depositors. Actually it takes away the protection deposits of up to Rs 100,000 now enjoy under a 1960s law enacted following the collapse of a couple of banks.

Considering the erosion in the value of the Rupee over the past few decades, the government should have revised the law to extend protection to deposits of up to Rs 1 million. Instead, it has put in the draft law a clause which empowers a new authority to be known as Resolution Corporation, to modify the nature of the deposit if the bank is in danger of becoming unviable.

As MK Venu, a well-known economic and political analyst, has pointed out, if the government-owned State Bank of India which has deposits of over Rs 20,000 billion becomes vulnerable enough to be referred to the Resolution Corporation, it can order conversion of 10 per cent of all deposits into equity shares or interest-bearing preference shares of the bank. This means use of a part of the deposits to enlarge the bank’s capital base without the depositors’ permission. 

The SBI, already India’s largest bank, became bigger still with the merger of five associate banks with it last April and is now the world’s 45th largest. That doesn’t mean it is strong and depositors need not worry about the safety of their money. 

According to CAREs Ratings, the credit rating agency, as on June 30 this year the SBI topped the list of 38 banks with non-performing assets (NPAs) totalling Rs 8,293.38 billion. Its own share of NPAs was 1,880.68 billion, or 22.7 per cent of the total.

In the financial year that ended on March 31, 2017 the state-owned banks wrote off bad loans totalling Rs 816.83 billion. This was 41 per cent more than the previous year’s figure of Rs 575.86 billion and almost three times the 2012-13 figure of Rs 272.31 billion.

Raghuram Rajan, whom the Modi government eased out of the office of Governor of the Reserve Bank, the country’s central bank, had launched a balance-sheet clean-up drive by bringing out hidden bad loans. This resulted in the SBI’s NPAs shooting up from 4.25 per cent of the total advances in March 2015 to 7.14 per cent in September 2016.

That year the SBI wrote off bad loans of Rs 70.16 billion of 63 of its top 100 wilful defaulters fully and of 31 others partially. Its biggest defaulter at that time was Vijay Mallya, a playboy businessman who owed Rs 69.63 billion to 17 banks, including Rs 12.01 billion to the SBI. He quietly slipped out to London, where he is now facing extradition proceedings.

Under political patronage and managerial profligacy, the banking system has been slipping steadily over the years. Successive governments have attempted to reform it but without addressing the issues of political interference and internal mismanagement. 

In 2002 the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, headed by AB Vajpayee, enacted the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest (SARFAESI) Act which allowed banks to seize collaterals if loans turned out to be NPAs. The banks used the law ruthlessly against micro, small and medium enterprises. 

That law did not cover the big defaulters. Not that there are no laws to deal with them. Their economic clout and proximity to the political rulers put them beyond the reach of the law, unless circumstances compel the authorities to act, as in the case of Vijay Mallya.

Currently at the top of the NPA list is the Reliance ADAG group of Anil Ambani, the younger of the scions of the country’s richest family. Its balance-sheet shows debts of about Rs 1,250 billion. It is followed by metals and mining giant Vedanta group of Anil Agarwal with debts of Rs 1,030 billion and the Essar group of the Ruia brothers with debts of Rs 1,010 billion. 

At the fourth place is the Adani group of Gautam Adani which owes banks Rs 960.31 billion. Adani had made available his personal aircraft for Narendra Modi’s 2014 whirlwind election tour and he accompanied Modi on several foreign trips he undertook as the Prime Minister.

Following a public uproar, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has offered to take a fresh look at the FRDI bill after the report of the Parliament committee is received. That is a virtual admission that, as with demonetisation and the goods and services tax, his ministry has acted without due diligence. -- Gulf Today, December 12, 2017.

05 December, 2017

Legend holds society hostage

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Home for many millennia to countless communities, each with a host of colourful legends of its own, the subcontinent is arguably the world’s biggest treasure house of folktales.

Over the centuries the legends of many communities have got incorporated into the belief systems of the people and found their way into religious texts. Some legends have been carried across land and sea borders and have got incorporated into the cultural traditions of other peoples. 

Whether pure myths or embellishments of actual events of yore, legends generally play a useful role in a community’s life. They help communities nurture pride in their past and sustain themselves in times of adversity. But if they get out of hand, they can evolve into potential threats to others, and even to themselves.

Currently the country is facing a challenge with the powerful Rajput community rising in revolt against Padmavati, a film by National Award-winning Hindi film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the life of a legendary queen whom Rajputs - and other Indians too - adore as a symbol of honour.

Rajputs, spread across the Hindi-speaking northern states, are said to number about 43.35 million.

When Bhansali announced plans for the film last year, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, a Jaipur-based caste group of the Hindutva school held out open threats against him and Deepika Padukone, who was to play the role of Padmavati, alleging the movie distorted history and hurt Rajput sentiments. At that time no details of the script were available in the public domain.

Founded in 2006, the Sena already had a history of violent attacks on movies and television serials which it considered unacceptable because of their depiction of Rajput characters. Incidentally, all those characters had figured in several earlier movies without inviting any opposition.

The rise of Hindutva as a major political force and the emergence of various caste and religious organisations to protect or promote sectarian interests explain the change that has come about. The rising tendency among such groups to take the law into their hands makes the situation worse.

Bhansali later revealed his script is based on the epic poem by 16th century Sufi poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi, and said it was a tribute to the sacrifice, valour and honour of Rani Padmavati. 

Jayasi’s is the earliest available account of the story of Padmavati, an exceptionally beautiful princess whom Chittor’s Rajput ruler Ratan Sen wooed and won. Others enchanted by her beauty included Delhi Sultan Alaudun Khilji and Kumbhalner ruler Devpal.

In Jayasi’s work, Devpal kills Ratan Sen in a duel. Khilji lays siege to Chittor, and Padmavati and other women fight bravely before immolating themselves to avoid falling into enemy hands.

Jayasi wrote his epic in Awadhi, a language spoken in parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh. It is evidently a piece of fiction, not a work of history. In it, Padmavati (in some extant versions of the story the name is Padmini) is the daughter of the King of Simhala Dweepa (Sri Lanka). Ratan Sen hears of her beauty from Hiraman, a talking parrot. 

Khilji ruled over Delhi from 1296 to 1316. Jayasi composed his Padmavati in 1540, some 224 years after Khilji’s death. 

Bhansali has made highly successful films which go well with the Hindutva ideal. But that did not save him from Rajput fury over the imagined affront to the community’s honour. When he started shooting at Jaipur the Sena vandalised the sets and assaulted him. It, however, showed the good sense not to carry out the threat to chop off Deepika Padukone’s nose.

Padukone had said earlier, “As a woman, I feel proud to be a part of this film, and to tell this story which needs to be told now.”

The film is now ready for exhibition, but as Rajput anger remains unabated no date has been set for its release.

When film producers ran into such situations in the past, they were left to fend for themselves. In a marked departure from that tradition, the film fraternity has rallied behind Bhansali.

On November 26, in response to a call by a score of organisations, the Hindi film and television industry observed a 15-minute blackout, in a demonstration of solidarity with Bhansali, with the slogan “Main azaad hoon” (I am free). Two days later the Bengali industry followed suit.

As legend holds the society hostage, the government and the political parties, unwilling to antagonise a powerful community, remains in a virtual state of paralysis.

22 November, 2017

The Quad fails to take off

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

During his recent hectic tour of Asia President Donald Trump made an attempt to push the decade-old idea of inveigling India into a new grouping which will also include Japan and Australia.

Since 2002 the US, Japan and Australia have been involved in security dialogue. In 2007 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mooted turning it into a quadrilateral exercise by drawing India into it.

Although all concerned kept affirming that the Quad, as it was dubbed, was not directed against any nation, it had the making of a gang-up against China, which is on its way to emerging as the second most powerful nation on earth. Lately it has also become increasingly assertive. For historical reasons, this is a matter of greater concern to Japan more than to the other three members of the grouping.

Australia soon started pussyfooting on the Quad out of regard for Chinese susceptibilities. Apparently Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is ready to pick up the thread his predecessor left. But there are no signs of quick progress.

In 2007, the preliminary talks at the level of officials were followed by a ministerial level meeting. This time the exercise did not go beyond the official level at all.

The Manila proceedings were in fact marked by extreme coolness at every stage. India did not favour raising the talks even to the level of Foreign Secretaries. There was no joint statement after the meeting of officials. Instead, spokesmen of the four countries briefed the media separately, each emphasising its own priorities. This showed that they were not on the same page.

The Indian statement was delightfully vague. It said the officials had held consultations. The discussions focussed on cooperation based on their converging vision and values regarding peace, stability and prosperity of the interconnected region. They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region was in the regional and global interest. 

Trump referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific in speech after speech to emphasise the importance the US under him attaches to this country’s role in regional politics and strategic calculations. The documents of the official level meeting also used that term. But India continued to approach the issue cautiously.

In his foreign jaunts Modi has often given the impression that he is willing to go along with the US even if it meant settling down to the role of Washington’s second in command in the region. At Manila he appeared determined to correct that impression.

If India was not keen to become a part of the Quad why did it play along? One explanation is that India does not want to be trapped in a geostrategy bind with the US, Japan and Australia. At the same time, it wants to leave open a certain ambiguity in its approach to the problems of the region.

All four countries have their problems with China but they are not identical. While the US and Australia used the term Quad, India and Japan sought to avoid it.

Since all the four countries have forged strategic relationship and have been participating in naval exercises in the past few years, there is little to be gained by the new grouping. But the US, it appears, is keen to push it as a substitute for the Asia pivot which has been abandoned for all practical purposes.

Indian commentators have noted that the US game is to involve India in its military calculations in the Pacific. While India has issues of its own with China, they are not of the same kind as Washington’s.

In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held a trilateral with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a bid to push the Quad.

Tillerson returned to the theme in a major policy statement last month. He also pursued it when he visited India. A US official told accompanying newsmen that Washington was looking at a working level quadrilateral meeting in the near term. All this suggests that, undeterred by the current setback, the US will continue to make efforts to carry the Quad forward. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 22, 2017

14 November, 2017

Politicking over tax regime

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When a new tax regime introduced after three decades of debate calls for review and revision within four months, it is evident that the authorities did not act with due diligence. That is what happened with the Goods and Services Tax.

A major overhaul of tax on goods was proposed first by former Prime Minister VP Singh in 1986 while serving as Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Liberalisation and globalisation were not under consideration at that time. 

Globalisation put service tax also on the agenda. In 2000, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first Prime Minister belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, proposed a goods and services tax regime and set up a committee to design an appropriate GST model for the country.

The committee was headed by Asim Dasgupta, a US-trained economist who was Finance Minister in West Bengal’s Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government. Before he quit in 2011, following his - and his party’s - defeat in the State Assembly elections, the committee is said to have completed 80 per cent of the work.

Introduction of GST was one of the programmes taken up by the Manmohan Singh government during 2004-2011 as part of the reforms package, and it attempted to enact legislation for the purpose. It could not make much progress because of the stiff opposition from various political parties, including the BJP.

One of the vagaries of India’s democratic system is the propensity of political parties to shift their position on programmes, depending upon whether they are on the treasury benches or on the opposite side. After the change of government at the Centre in 2014, the BJP started pushing the GST project.

The Congress did not turn against it but it raised issues about the structure proposed by the GST committee, leading to further delays. It wanted an 18 per cent cap on GST but this was not acceptable to the government.

Unlike Manmohan Singh, who often shelved reforms, especially when critics pointed out they might hurt the poor, Modi was willing to ram them down. He pushed through the required enactments, including a Constitutional amendment, and ushered in the GST regime on July 1.

While most countries have uniform GST, taking into account the size of the country and the complex ground situation, a three-tier system, comprising a Central GST, a State GST and an Integrated GST, income from which was shared by the Centre and the State, was brought in.

Soon there was an avalanche of complaints from all over, especially about the tax on services, which was new to the country. The high rates of tax which added to the cost of living also came under attack.

Complaints poured in not only from consumers but also from business houses who found the system of filing returns too cumbersome. Evidently the official machinery had not paid adequate attention to the details.

Last week the GST Council, comprising Finance Ministers of several states, reviewed the tax structure and decided to revise the tax rates drastically. It also agreed to simplify the filing procedures.

Under the original scheme, as many as 228 goods and services attracted the highest rate of 28 per cent. The Council brought down the rate on most of them to 18 per cent, leaving only 50, mostly luxury items, beverages and tobacco products, in the highest slab. The rate on many items which attracted 18 per cent was lowered to 12 per cent. 

The biggest relief for consumers was slashing of the tax on bills of restaurants other than those in five-star hotels from 28 per cent to just five per cent. The tax on five-star restaurant bills was also reduced, but to 18 per cent only. 

For the governments at the Centre and in the states, the GST is a major source of revenue. They stand to lose an estimated Rs 200 billion a year as a result of the rate revision.

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi said it was his party’s campaign that led to the rate cuts. Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram claimed the upcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, had forced the Centre to give in.

Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who heads the GST Council, dismissed Chidamabaram’s claim as childish. He said the 28 per cent slab would be phased out. 

In the prevailing political climate, it is idle to hope that politicians will stop making GST a partisan issue. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 14, 2017.

07 November, 2017

Poll reforms are an urgent need

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Election Commission, which has endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, has said it will be logically equipped to conduct such an exercise by September next year.

In the first national elections under the Constitution, held in 1951-52, polling was spread over several days but voters in all the states chose their representatives to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly at the same time. 

However, stand-alone Assembly elections became necessary in Travancore-Cochin and Patiala and East Punjab States Union (Pepsu) in 1954 as the governments of the two states lost majority in the old houses and alternative governments could not be formed. 

Before the second national elections in 1957 Travancore-Cochin and Pepsu became parts of Kerala and Punjab respectively following reorganisation of states in 1956. Once again, elections to the Lok Sabha and the assemblies were held simultaneously all over the country. Kerala created a sensation by voting the Communist Party of India to power.

In 1959 the Centre dismissed the Communist government and dissolved the Kerala Assembly. After a spell of President’s rule, fresh elections were held in the state in 1960. Since the new Assembly’s tenure would run until 1965, Kerala only voted for the Lok Sabha in the third national elections in 1962. 

In 1965 Kerala threw up an Assembly which was too fractured to permit the formation of a government. It was, therefore, dissolved and the state placed under President’s rule. It voted for a new Assembly again at the time of the fourth national elections in 1967. 

No party commanded a majority in several of the Assemblies elected that year. Most of the coalition governments that emerged collapsed soon, leading to dissolution of Assemblies and holding of fresh elections. As a result Assembly elections in many states got delinked from the Lok Sabha elections.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had to rely on the support of some small parties after the Congress party split in the late 1960s, dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered elections in 1971. Later, too, on a few occasions loss of majority by the government of the day led to premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha and holding of fresh elections.

As is clear from this narration, decoupling of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections was a consequence of the practice of parliamentary democracy. The system calls for a government which commands majority support in the legislature. Return to simultaneous elections will mean grant of a fixed tenure to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. This may negate the constitutional principle of a council of ministers responsible to the legislature.

The only argument Modi has advanced in support of simultaneous polls is that it will reduce expenditure on elections. Cutting costs is certainly a good objective but the issue of elections is one in which democratic considerations must have precedence over financial factors. 

The slogan “One nation, One election” raised by Modi’s supporters suggests that they view simultaneous elections as a means of promoting further centralisation of the polity in the guise of fostering national unity.

There is reason to suspect that Modi’s simultaneous elections project is a surreptitious attempt to switch from the parliamentary system to the presidential system which does not require the Executive to be responsible to the Legislature. The Constitution, as it now stands, does not permit such a switch.

The Election Commission’s claim of readiness to hold simultaneous elections is based simply on the availability of enough electronic voting machines. That cannot be a major consideration in a vital matter with a direct bearing on the future of the democratic system.

The parliamentary system has served the country fairly well in the past 66 years. It has provided for smooth changes of government both at the Centre and in the States. It has permitted parties of the Right, Left and the centre to come to power, alone or in alliance with others.

The gravest weakness of the system is the role of money and muscle power in elections. While in the opposition Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was a strong advocate of poll reforms. Now that it is the biggest beneficiary of corporate donations, it remains silent on the issue.

Poll reforms remain an urgent necessity. Modi should address that issue instead of attempting to tinker with the parliamentary system. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 7, 2017

31 October, 2017

Quest for peace in Kashmir

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Narendra Modi government took a major initiative when it appointed former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma last week as interlocutor for dialogue with all stakeholders to restore peace in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Kashmir had witnessed recurrent violence after security forces killed young Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last year. Parliament was told that at least 88 civilians joined militancy in the valley in 2016, the highest number in six years.

The year also saw an increase in exchange of fire across the Line of Control. Truce violations are generally linked to attempts at infiltration by Pakistan-based militants and efforts by Indian forces to foil them. 

The first hint of a softening in the government’s approach came in August when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in his Independence Day address that “neither by bullets nor by abuses but by hugging can we solve the problem of Kashmir.”

In September, even as the National Investigation Agency was tracking flow of funds to separatist groups, Home Minister Rajnath Singh spent four days in the valley to assess the ground situation and affirm the government’s readiness to meet anyone willing to help in finding solutions to the state’s problems.

The interlocutor’s appointment was a source of relief to Chief Minister Mehmooda Mufti whose regional People’s Democratic Party rules the state with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as a junior partner. She had been watching helplessly as central forces dealt with stone-throwing youths with a heavy hand through most of 2016, one of the bloodiest years for both militants and security personnel.

Official sources put the number of militants killed during the year at 165, the highest in six years, and the number of security personnel killed at 87, the highest in eight years.

The PDP-BJP alliance was dictated by electoral arithmetic. With 28 seats the PDP had emerged as the largest party in the Assembly in the 2014 elections. A near-sweep in the Hindu-majority Jammu region made the BJP a close second with 25 seats. Overlooking ideological differences, the two parties came together to provide the state a stable government. 

Thereafter the BJP stopped talking about abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status and the PDP stopped demanding withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which grants impunity to security personnel deployed in the state.

The coalition has an Agenda for Alliance hammered out in talks spread over three months. Mehmooda Mufti has been unhappy over the tardy progress in its implementation.

Developments in Kashmir often have an external dimension too. The current peace effort is taking place as the United States pressures Pakistan to check militants operating from its soil and seeks to draw India into its plans for Afghanistan and the Asia-Pacific region.

Both the PDP and BJP welcomed the appointment of the interlocutor. So did the state’s main opposition party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, whose leader Omar Abdullah viewed it as a sign of recognition of the political nature of the Kashmir issue and a resounding defeat of the idea that it could be solved by use of force. 

The Congress party dismissed the Centre’s action as a publicity move. When P Chidambaram, who was Home Minister in the last Congress-led government, suggested greater autonomy for the state might be a solution to its problems, the party quickly distanced itself from the idea, fearing the BJP would use it against it.

Nevertheless Modi interpreted Chidambaram’s words to mean that the Congress is talking the language of Pakistan, lending support to separatists and insulting India’s brave soldiers.

Dineshwar Sharma has a mandate to talk to all stakeholders. Interest, therefore, centres on the response of the Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella under which those who want merger with Pakistan and those who harbour hopes of an independent Kashmir are gathered.

A spokesman of its hardline faction, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, said the organisation’s executive committee would formulate its position. Moulvi Umar Farooq, who is identified with its moderate faction, and Yasin Malik, leader of the pro-independence J and K Liberation Front, offered no comment.

Sharma is embarking upon a project of a kind the state has gone through before with nothing to show on the ground. As a flag-waving Hindu nationalist, Modi is in a better position than anyone around to push for a settlement of both the internal and external aspects of the Kashmir problem. However, his misinterpretation of Chidambaram’s reference to autonomy raises the question whether he can display the level of statesmanship it calls for. Modi’s mind is on the next election, not on the next generation. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 31, 2017.