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?


30 August, 2016

Kashmir’s shadow over SAARC

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With India-Pakistan relations deteriorating in the wake of violence in Kashmir, now in its eighth week, the fate of the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, scheduled for November 9 and 10, hangs in the balance.

SAARC, which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, together account for 21 per cent of the world’s population but only nine per cent of the global economy.

SAARC members differ vastly in size and economic strength. India with an estimated population of 1,330 million and gross domestic product of $2,073.5 billion is much larger than the other seven countries put together. Pakistan, the second largest country, has an estimated population of 194 million and GDP of $270.0 billion. The Maldives with only 371,000 people is at the bottom of the population table. Bhutan with a GDP of $2 billion has the smallest economy, but it attaches more importance to gross domestic happiness than to gross domestic product.

India-Pakistan differences have held SAARC back from time to time in some areas. A common market is one of SAARC’s objectives but Pakistani fear of Indian economic domination has stalled progress in that direction. In 1995, a ministerial meeting decided on the creation of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) as a first step towards the goal of a common market. It was only in 2006 that an agreement in this regard went into effect. A decade later, intra-SAARC trade is still only a little more than the region’s GDP.

A South Asian motor vehicles agreement was negotiated by SAARC officials ahead of the last summit at Kathmandu in 2014 but Pakistan was not ready to sign it. Believing that it backed out as it now attaches economic integration with China more importance than South Asian economic cooperation, India decided to go ahead without it.

The relations between the two countries took a dive early this month when Laskar-e-Taiba chief called for demonstrations when Rajnath Singh visited Islamabad for a meeting of SARC Home Ministers. Rajnath Singh was flown from the airport to the meeting venue in a helicopter and he flew back immediately after the meeting without joining a lunch from which, curiously, even the host, Pakistan’s Home Minister stayed away.

Arun Jaitley stayed away from the SAARC Finance Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad last week, depriving it of much of its importance. Nevertheless, SAARC Secretary General Arjum Bahadur Thapa of Nepal called upon the group to move from SAFTA to South Asian Economic Union.

With India and Pakistan at loggerheads, speculation is rife over whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the November summit. Reports in a section of the Pakistani media have indicated that he might stay away although so far no one of consequence in India has suggested such a step is contemplated.

Modi made a personal investment in improving relations with India’s immediate neighbours when he invited the leaders of SAARC countries to his swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014 and all, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, promptly turned up. Several setbacks followed but he demonstrated his readiness to walk the talk with an unscheduled stop at Lahore on his way home from Afghanistan to greet Sharif on his birthday.

The current wave of unrest in Kashmir began when protests erupted over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by the security forces. At least 67 persons were killed, over 6,000 injured and more than 100 blinded by pellets as youths defied the curfew. Pakistan launched a campaign against the human rights violations and India responded by raising the issue of rights violations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Baluchistan for the first time.

Even as Modi and Chief Minister Mehmooba Mufti, whose Bharatiya Janata Party and People’s Democratic Party which are partners of the coalition that rules the state, began efforts to restore peace in the troubled valley, Nawaz Sharif deputed 22 diplomats to internationalise the issue. Under the Shimla Pact signed after the 1971 war which resulted in Bangladesh’s formation, the two countries are committed to resolve issues, including Kashmir, bilaterally without outside intervention.

Some course correction may take place sooner or later since Sharif, as the host, and Modi, as the leader of the largest member country and one who began his prime ministerhip with a commitment to friendship in the neighbourhood, have much at stake in the success of the SAARC summit. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 30, 2016.

23 August, 2016

South Asia’s Olympic blues

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As sportspersons from 206 countries put in their best and the medals table at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics started lengthening, three among the world’s most populous nations were experiencing a not-unusual drought.

By the eleventh day of the games, several hundred medals had been given away but India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which with populations currently estimated at 1,382 million, 193 million and 163 million rank second, sixth and eighth respectively in the global chart, did not figure in the medals table.

The closest they came to winning a medal was when Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to enter the Olympics finals, finished fourth in the women’s vault event, missing the bronze by 0.15 points. It was the best Indian performance yet in gymnastics. Indians celebrated the event the way they had done when Milkha Singh missed the bronze narrowly in 400 metres at Rome in 1960 and PT Usha missed it even more narrowly in 400 metres hurdles at Los Angeles in 1984.

It was the time of the year when the Government of India announces awards for sports persons, and the awards committee recommended that Dipa be given the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the nation’s highest sporting honour.

On the 12th day, Sakshi Malik, another young woman, ended India’s medals drought by taking the bronze in the 58 kg category of women’s freestyle wrestling. It certainly was an occasion to celebrate as she is only the fourth Indian woman to climb the Olympics podium and the first to get a wrestling medal.

“Daughter of India made us proud,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. Indians set the social networks ablaze. Haryana, Sakshi’s home state, offered her a job and a cash reward of Rs 25 million.

Mocking the celebration, Pakistani journalist Omar R Quraishi wrote: “Finally one of the 119 competitors that India sent to Rio has won a medal – a bronze – now see how they portray it as if they won 20 golds”.

As he wrote those lines, the seven Pakistani sportspersons in Rio were packing their bags to go home, having failed even to qualify to participate in the finals of their events. Pakistan’s best performance was by a woman shooter who finished 28th among 51 who participated in her event.

In its 69 years, Pakistan has won 10 medals – eight in field hockey and two in individual events. The last one was the hockey bronze of 1992.

Bangladesh, now in its 44th year, is the most populous country which has never won an Olympics medal.

British-ruled India, which included the present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, began its association with modern Olympics at the second games held at Paris in 1900. The lone participant from the country that year was Norman Pritchard, son of a British couple, who competed in four athletic events and won silver medals in two of them. He later became a Hollywood actor under the name Norman Gordon.

There was no Indian participation in the next four games. Small teams sent to the 1920 and 1924 games returned empty-handed. The 21-member contingent which went to Antwerp in 1928 included a 14-member hockey team. It snatched the gold from Britain. Thereafter the hockey gold remained an Indian preserve until 1964 except for one occasion when Pakistan took it.

On Friday, PV Sindhu earned a silver in badminton and became the first Indian woman to win an individual silver. More celebrations and rewards followed.

It was the gritty performance of two young women that saved India from the ignominy of a total washout. With their medals, India was at the 67th place when the games ended.

Why does South Asia, home to about 1.74 billion, fare so poorly when tiny Cuba, with fewer than 12 million people, bagged seven medals, including two gold and two silver? The answer is that this dismal situation is the result of social conservatism, economic constraints and political mismanagement.

Sakshi Malik and Dipa karmakar had received little support from the government and sports organisations as they battled social taboos and took to the supposedly unfeminine sports of wrestling and gymnastics. Sakshi’s first coach, Ishwar Dahiya, recalls that villagers staged protests when he started training her 12 years ago.

In evaluating Olympics performance the size of the population is not quite relevant as sportspersons come from only a small section of South Asian societies. Many disciplines require intense training for long periods, which few can afford. Most sports bodies are controlled by politicians who know little about sports. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 23, 2016.

16 August, 2016

Free country, unfree people

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As India stepped into the 70th year of Independence on Monday, large sections of the population whom the promised freedom has eluded so far served notice that they are not ready to wait any longer.

The Congress, an offshoot of the organisation which spearheaded the freedom movement and dominated the political scene for most of the post-Independence period, is now on the decline. So are other parties of pre-Independence vintage like the Communist Party of India and its offshoots.

Parties whose roots lie in movements which were not part of the freedom struggle now wield power at the Centre and in many states. Topping the list is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. It is now the largest political party.

Since Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the national flag and spoke from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on August 15, 1947, the Prime Minister’s address to the nation from there has been the highlight of Independence Day celebrations. States hold similar events at their capitals.

This year the Centre drew up plans for the fortnight-long celebrations with the stated purpose of rekindling the spirit of patriotism. It sought to link the traditions of the independence movement with those of the army, which the nation inherited from the colonial power.

The celebrations began with events marking the 74th anniversary of the Quit India movement, the last major agitation of the freedom struggle which Gandhi had launched in 1942 with a call to “do or die”. Seventy-five ministers of the Modi government led the events at over 150 places across the country. It was a palpable attempt to appropriate the legacy of the freedom movement in which few Hindutva leaders had participated.

Speaking at a Quit India anniversary function, Modi broke his silence on the situation in Kashmir, many parts of which have been continuously under curfew following protests over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani more than a month ago. Responding to the slogan of “Azaadi” (freedom), which resounds in the valley from time to time, he said people in Kashmir could feel the same azaadi as people in the rest of the country.

While Modi thus tacitly acknowledged that Kashmiri protesters do not have a sense of freedom, he did not go into the reasons behind it. Nor did he indicate how he proposed to create conditions in which they can feel a sense of freedom.

The presumption, implicit in the Prime Minister’s words, that outside Kashmir the people experience a sense of freedom is not entirely true.

As Modi walked up the steps at Red Fort to address the nation, several thousand Dalits converged in the small town of Una in his home state of Gujarat where on July 11 foot soldiers of Hindutva, posing as protectors of Cow the Mother, had stripped and flogged four members of the community engaged in their traditional occupation of skinning dead animals.

Worried that the Una attack and similar incidents reported from other places would harm its prospects in the forthcoming elections in the states, the BJP replaced Anandiben Patel whom Modi had installed as chief minister when he moved to Delhi.

Modi said most of the cow protectors were anti-socials. His remark angered a section of the Hindutva leadership but it did not impress the protesting Dalits. Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit activist, organised the march to Una from Ahmedabad, styled as “Azaadi kooch” (Towards Freedom).

In the troubled tribal region of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist who had suffered physical and sexual torture at the hands of the security forces, was leading a week-long march which began on August 9, the UN-designated International Day of the Indigenous People. She carried the national flag, ignoring warnings by Maoist insurgents who are active in the area.

Dalits and Adivasis together constitute one-fourth of India’s population of 1.2 billion. Outside these backward communities, too, there are large sections of marginalised people who are yet to reap the fruits of freedom. In fact, even among the rest of the population many remain unempowered. The only gift of freedom they enjoy is the right to vote in the elections.

That explains why the slogan “Azaadi” was raised by students of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University early this year. The Hindutva establishment dubbed the students traitors. JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar explained that they wanted azaadi, not from India but in India. “We want freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from the caste system, all of that,” he said.

A free country with unfree citizens is not entirely unusual. The lack of social mobility adds a new dimension to the problem in India.

On the completion of the framing of free India’s Constitution, its chief architect and Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had pointed out that it only granted political democracy. It should be backed by social democracy, which meant recognising liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life, he said.  -- Gulf Today, August 16, 2016

09 August, 2016

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Since the fledgling Aam Admi Party first came to power in the National Capital Territory of Delhi three years ago, its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has been playing a high-stake game, leading to skirmishes.

In 2013, the AAP put an end to the Congress party’s 15-year-long rule in Delhi state and blocked its traditional rival, Bharatiya Janata Party, from returning to power. In the hung state assembly, it held 28 of the 70 seats, against the BJP’s 31 and the Congress party’s eight. To keep the BJP out of power, the Congress offered to back an AAP government, and Kejriwal became the chief minister.

A bureaucrat turned social activist, Kejriwal was part of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. Breaking with Hazare who was opposed to entry into electoral politics, he formed the AAP and mobilised support for it across the country using social media.

Taking a leaf from the Hazare movement for a national anti-corruption machinery, to be known as Jan Lokpal, Kejriwal drew up a bill to set up a Jan Lokpal for Delhi. The BJP and the Congress joined hands and blocked its introduction in the state assembly. Kejriwal who had been in office for only 48 days resigned.

He called for fresh elections to the assembly along with the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The authorities did not concede the demand. In retrospect, he must be glad they rejected the demand.

Thanks to Narendra Modi’s vigorous, no-holds-barred campaign, the BJP made a clean sweep of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats.

When fresh assembly elections were held in 2015, the Modi magic did not work. The AAP bagged 67 of the 70 seats, leaving just three for the BJP. The Congress was washed out.

Since then Kejriwal has been projecting himself as a potential challenger to Modi at the national level. On his part, Modi has not been able to forget the humiliation his party in the assembly elections. Delhi’s ambiguous constitutional status offers tremendous scope for both to act in furtherance of their personal and party interests.

Delhi, which served as the capital of many kingdoms, suffered a decline after the collapse of the Moghul regime. The British ruled the subcontinent initially from Calcutta (now Kolkata). They shifted the capital to Delhi in 1911. Twenty years later New Delhi, designed and constructed by British architect Edwin Lutyens, became the capital. 

In popular parlance, Delhi is a state, but under the Constitution it is one of seven Union Territories. Of the seven, two, Delhi and Puduchery, have elected assemblies with power to make laws applicable to their respective areas on certain subjects. With an area of 1,484 square kilometres and a population of about 25 million, Delhi is now India’s most populous city and the world’s second largest urban conglomeration.

Delhi’s unique status is based on the provisions of Articles 239AA and 239AB, which were introduced by the 69th Constitutional amendment, which was enacted in 1991, the National Capital Territory of Delhi Act of 1992 and the Transaction of Business of the Government of NCT of Delhi Rules of 1993.

Every country with a democratic system has found it necessary to devise methods to ensure that an elected body at a lower level is not able to create hurdles in the way of the federal authorities. The legislative measures of the 1990s were steps in that direction. Two factors have contributed to the present situation. One is that these are among the country’s worst drafted laws. The other is that both the BJP and the AAP are driven by political motives.

Kejriwal, who views Delhi as a springboard, is pursuing a two-fold strategy to build up a national image. He has taken some populist measures to endear himself to the people and initiated steps against some big business houses to project himself as a ruler who can act tough against the corporates. In the process, he has disregarded some of his constitutional limits.

Determined to foil Kejriwal’s plans, the Centre has used its legitimate overriding authority, exercisable through the state’s Lieutenant Governor, and sometimes even stepped beyond it. The Delhi high court recently quashed one of several cases registered by the police against AAP MLAs as the allegation was found to be false.

Kejriwal is mounting a big campaign to seize power in Punjab, where the Akali Dal-BJP government completes its term next year. The alliance and the Congress have been alternating in power in the state for decades. -- Gulf Today, August 9, 2016. 

02 August, 2016

A quarter century of reforms

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The 25th anniversary of economic reforms passed unnoticed last month. A strong votary of economic liberalisation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to carry the reform process forward. There was, however, no official celebration of the jubilee.

The reform process was initiated by a Congress government. Some give Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi credit for taking the first steps in this regard. However, if the process is to be assigned a date of birth it must be July 24, 1991. On that day Dr Manmohan Singh, as Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government, presented his first budget in which he outlined proposals to move away from the path charted by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s.

Nehru, who set before the nation the ideal of a socialist pattern of society, envisaged a mixed economy in which the private sector will have an assured place but the public sector will occupy the commanding heights. The attempt to establish a regulated private sector led to the evolution of a corrupt system which critics dubbed licence raj.

Narasimha Rao did not formally repudiate the socialist ideal, but acute economic distress compelled him to change the course. A sharp fall in the foreign exchange level had forced the country to raise money from the Bank of England by mortgaging a part of its gold reserves. Later the International Monetary Fund provided a loan to tide over balance of payments difficulties.

The reforms comprised three elements: liberalisation or freeing the economy from bureaucratic control, privatisation or divesting of state undertakings and globalisation or integration of the domestic economy with the world economy. The Left and some sections within the Congress party opposed them on ideological grounds. Businessmen who had prospered under the licence raj were not keen on changes.

In the circumstances, the Rao government and its successors chose to hasten slowly, much to the chagrin of global promoters of the new international order. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh too moved cautiously. Ground realities have impeded Modi’s efforts to accelerate the pace of progress in the past two years.

India began globalisation more than 12 years after China did. Today, in terms of exchange rates, China is the world’s second largest economy with a gross domestic product of $10,983 billion, after the United States with a GDP of $17,947 billion. India stands seventh with $2,091 billion. Purchasing power parity valuation puts China above the US with a GDP of $19,392 billion and India in the third position with $7,965 billion.

Manmohan Singh recalled recently that the economy had recovered faster than he had expected. Inflation came down. The balance of payments position improved.

Just as the economic progress achieved during the Mao regime stood China in good stead as it opened up, the foundations laid by Nehru provided the ballast as India ventured into choppy seas. Information Technology units’ earnings from software exports and Non-Resident Indians’ remittances helped the country stabilise the foreign exchange situation quickly after the rupee was effectively devalued.

The service sector is now the main driver of the economy. It contributed as much as 69 per cent to the GDP last year. The manufacturing sector is almost stagnant, despite Modi’s vigorous pursuit of foreign investments under his Make in India programme. Agriculture which is still the mainstay of a large section of the population recorded a meagre 1.1 per cent growth.

The flip side of the economic success story is the heavy price the poor is called upon to pay. Tribes are being dislocated from their traditional homelands to make room for industries. While the rich get away defaulting on bank loans, small and marginal farmers are driven to suicide. The Centre’s slashing of expenditure on health and education adds to the misery of the poor.

A feature of the recent economic growth is that it is not accompanied by job creation. According to the latest census report, the unemployment rate rose from 6.8 per cent to 9.6 per cent during 2001-2011. The trend continues.

What marks the post-liberalisation era apart from the past is the emergence of a middle class pleased with easy availability of consumer goods. Its seeming prosperity deflects attention from the sharp rise in inequality.
In a lecture two years ago International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde said the net worth of India’s billionaire community had increased 12-fold in 15 years, “enough to eliminate the absolute poverty in this country twice over.” --Gulf Today, August 2, 2016.