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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Saturday, April 17, 2021

New formula (The Telegraph)

Asim Ali   

Over the last few years, a lot of media commentary has diagnosed the main political battle raging across India to be one between a secular and a Hindu majoritarian idea of India. In reality, that contestation has long been over. The hegemony of Hindutva in the political and cultural domain is clear from the fact that no recent electoral opponent of the Bharatiya Janata Party — from the Congress to the Aam Aadmi Party to the Trinamul Congress — has dared to launch a frontal attack on the ideas of Hindu nationalism. The political and ideological battle set to define India over the next decade seems to be a different one — one between a federal and a unitarian idea of India. The Bengal election might well be seen in retrospect as its most powerful curtain raiser.

In the midst of the Bengal elections, Mamata Banerjee wrote a strongly-worded letter to 15 Opposition parties, calling for a “united and effective struggle against the BJP’s attacks on democracy and the Constitution”. The letter listed evidence of the BJP’s designs to establish a “one party authoritarian rule in India”. This included the recent move of downgrading the powers of Delhi’s state government, the misuse of investigative agencies against Opposition politicians, and the withholding of funds towards non-BJP governments. Absent in the letter was any mention of communalism, secularism or Hindu nationalism.

The omission is curious because the BJP’s assault on federalism is deeply linked to the ‘one-nation’ ideology of Hindu nationalism. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has long been an opponent of federalism since the days when M.S. Golwalkar opposed the linguistic reorganization of states, claiming that it would hurt national unity. However, Opposition parties (with the exception of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Kashmir-based parties) are loath to make the federal autonomy argument in terms of opposition to Hindutva lest it gives fuel to the communal polarization strategy of the BJP.

Even on the campaign trail, while Mamata Banerjee has been defensive on the issue of Hindu majoritarianism, loudly proclaiming her Hindu identity to blunt the BJP’s attacks, she has been belligerent on the state-Centre divide. In fact, she has sought to make the defence of ‘Bengali identity’ and ‘Bengali pride’ in the face of an authoritarian Centre the fulcrum of her campaign. This strategy has been replicated in the other poll-bound states as well. In Assam, the Congress and the AJP-Raijor Dal regional front have framed the election in terms of protection of ‘Assamese identity’ threatened by a BJP that imposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on Assam. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK has portrayed the AIADMK as a supplicant of the ‘Hindi-Hindu’ BJP, focusing on Tamil nationalism to drive its support. While regional identities have been skilfully used in recent years by Opposition parties to neutralize the BJP’s appeal — in Delhi, Jharkhand and Bihar — these elections still represent a qualitative change, where the state-Centre tussle has progressed to the forefront of electoral competition. This renewed salience of the state-Centre divide in Indian politics, perhaps at its strongest since the early 1970s, is only likely to intensify in the years to come — for two reasons.

First, the increasingly naked authoritarianism of the BJP. When the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, it combined its strategy of repression with the co-option of regional elites. The role of regional parties such as the BJD, TRS and YSRCP in the construction of the authoritarian structure in India is often under-appreciated. The BJD, TRS and YSRCP supported the government on all contentious bills, including the RTI (amendment) bill, the triple talaq bill, the UAPA amendment bill, the Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation bill, and (with the exception of the TRS) the citizenship amendment bill. In exchange for their support in Parliament, the BJP has maintained a cordial relationship with these parties.

However, as the next prized frontier of the BJP’s electoral machine shifts to Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, it won’t be surprising if the hardball tactics of investigative agencies and an over-intrusive governor are unleashed in these states. It must be remembered that the National Democratic Alliance is now just nine short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and victory in Bengal might inch them closer still. The ruthlessness with which the BJP clipped the powers of the state government in Delhi, in contravention of an express Supreme Court judgment, provides enough evidence that neither constitutional propriety nor past instances of support (the AAP had supported the J&K reorganization bill) would be enough to deter the BJP.

India’s federal power structure was greatly strengthened in the 1990s, not out of conviction of the two main national parties — the Congress and the BJP — but as a result of a grudging accommodation of new political realities. No government at the Centre could function without alliances with regional parties that gave the latter enormous leverage with the Centre. The situation has now been completely reversed, with regional parties having few negotiating cards to play against the most powerful Central government since the time of Indira Gandhi. In proportion to its growing power, the centralization drive of the BJP has accelerated in virtually every domain — finance, law and order, education, health and agriculture.

Second, state parties and leaders have been left with little ammunition to build their political support and, therefore, might find in regional pride an increasingly attractive mobilizing mechanism. The increased financial devolution since the 1990s ensured that many chief ministers had the funds to carve out political constituencies based on welfare spending. This financial room, already constricted by the fiscal centralization brought by the GST, has all but disappeared with the fiscal crisis brought on by the pandemic. Matters have been made worse by the aggressive centralization of welfare schemes under the Modi regime with voters more likely to attribute credit to Modi for welfare schemes implemented by state governments. If the leaders of the government of Maharashtra are taking regular pot-shots at the Centre, most recently over the ‘favouring’ of vaccine distribution towards BJP-ruled states, it’s also because they are struggling to implement a positive welfare agenda.

It might be recalled here that one of the main reasons fuelling the anti-Congress, anti-Centre politics among regional parties in the 1970s was not just the authoritarian intervention of Indira Gandhi in non-Congress states but also her use of discretionary funds of welfare programs to favour Congress-ruled states. “The distributive politics (of welfare) under Indira Gandhi was intended to cause the opposition parties who formed state governments to fail both to meet popular expectations and repeat electoral victories,” wrote Chanchal Sharma and Wilfried Swenden in their book, Understanding Contemporary Indian Federalism.  

It wouldn’t be surprising if leaders like Naveen Patnaik, K. Chandrashekar Rao and Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy become less certain of their welfare-based political constituencies and become even more strident in their emphasis on Odia, Telangana and Andhra pride in the next round of state elections. Conversely, the BJP might double down on its welfare centralization and authoritarian tactics to make up for its weak organization in these states, as it has already done in others.

 The long-term threat for the BJP is if most of these state parties come together in an umbrella coalition to face the Modi government in 2024, as Mamata Banerjee called for in her letter. One of the reasons the BJP could command a substantial Lok Sabha majority with a 38 per cent vote share was the fragmentation of the national Opposition, which was at about the same level as 2014, even if there was relatively more Opposition unity in some states such as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. This possibility of an anti-BJP umbrella coalition will depend on two factors. One, the performance of the BJP in these state elections, as any electoral weakness shown by the BJP will precipitate more calls for Opposition unity. And, two, the ability and willingness of the Congress to form a nucleus of a broad anti-BJP front. The growing enthusiasm of the Congress to cede space to regional parties, showcased both in its grand alliances in Bengal and Assam, is an interesting pointer in this regard.

Whether such a broad anti-coalition materializes or not, what is clear is that the most potent resistance to the BJP’s authoritarianism is made not in terms of secularism or even civil liberties, but in terms of regional pride. This will likely be the metaphor grounding the next major battle over the ‘idea of India’.

The author is a political columnist and research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 16, 2021

Open secret (The Telegraph)

T.C.A. Raghavan 

In so adversarial a relationship, there is no sphere of activity left untouched by the impact of India-Pakistan frictions. The recent U-turn by the government of Pakistan on the import of sugar and cotton yarn from India is the obvious example. Trade contestations, however, go back to the founding moments of both countries. Much like the issue of river waters, Kashmir and other territorial issues represented by accession disputes and divergent ideological moorings, trade, too, has been a minefield.

In the late 1940s, amidst the powerful dramas of the Kashmir war, the Partition massacres and disputes over water sharing, numerous tensions over bilateral trade were also seething just below the surface. These erupted into the open in September 1949 when the United Kingdom sharply devalued the pound. Many of its major trading partners and former colonies, including India, followed suit immediately. Curiously, or so it appeared to many in India, Pakistan did not. A major distortion in the exchange rate followed. Raw jute from East Pakistan imported by jute mills in India became much more expensive. Pakistan’s gamble was that it could get additional profits from higher jute prices that India would have to pay. Things did not work out in quite this way, and exports to India fell precipitously along with trade turnover as a whole, with potentially disastrous results for Pakistan’s — especially East Pakistan’s — economy.

However, a quite unrelated factor intervened, almost providentially, to Pakistan’s advantage. The Korean war broke out in June 1950. Jute was suddenly in huge demand, and Pakistan was able to diversify its markets and also make huge profits. The gamble to not devalue had, in effect, paid off because of an unrelated geopolitical event. Perhaps the first but by no means the only time that luck, rather than the right judgment call, had worked in Pakistan’s favour.  

Within Pakistan, the handling of the devaluation crisis was viewed with satisfaction: cheaper imports marked the beginning of Pakistan’s industrialization process. Moreover, it showed Pakistan exercising its economic sovereignty in not following India into devaluation. But most of all, it demonstrated that trade would never be absent in India-Pakistan contestations.  

For the next half century, trade remained subject to all the vagaries of the India-Pakistan ecosystem restricted by quotas, lists and controls. In Pakistan, limiting trade with India was seen as an essential aspect of cementing its economic sovereignty. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to a nine-year-long trade suspension. The emergence of Bangladesh meant that economic complementarities between India and Pakistan reduced; by the late 1970s, the two economies had drifted apart. There were efforts to expand trade volumes, but the odds were against any substantive increase.

What changed in the 1990s was the new mantra of globalization and the growth spurt the Indian economy began on. As the 50th anniversary of the emergence of sovereign India and Pakistan approached, economic engagement seemed to offer a platform that could help reduce, if not resolve, the enduring political divides. This was certainly the sentiment that was prevalent in India and, to a great extent, there was substantial support for this across party lines. Soon after joining the World Trade Organization, India extended ‘most favoured nation’ treatment to Pakistan — a routine step in international trade at the time, but a significant moment in the evolution of India’s Pakistan policy.

In Pakistan, feelings were more mixed. Some saw the emergent potential of India with its economy opening up. Yet, resistance was fierce, with concerns that larger imports from India would damage Pakistan’s industry and agriculture. Others felt that forward movement on trade unaccompanied by substantial progress on ‘resolving Kashmir’ was a betrayal of Pakistan’s founding principles. Finally, there was a revanchist and ideological position that objected to considering India a ‘most favoured’ nation quite irrespective of the international context in which this technical term was used.

This three-toned alloy of resistance has remained in place for the past quarter-century. It endured in spite of the emergence of the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement, which Pakistan chose not to fully accept. The reluctance to bite the bullet of MFN notwithstanding, trade between India and Pakistan did increase substantially in the first two decades of this century, although it remained far below potential. About eight to nine years ago, there appeared a brief moment when it seemed that Pakistan would finally agree to fully normalize trade with India by treating it the same as other trading partners. This was through the euphemism of ‘non-discriminatory market access’ — MFN treatment without using the ‘most favoured’ word!

Meanwhile, two new grounds of resistance to normalizing trade with India had appeared. The first of these was the growing trade imbalance — Indian exports to Pakistan were six or seven times larger than its imports. For most Pakistanis, this was unfair and reflected market access issues and barriers that their exports faced in India. In this view, in spite of the strong optics that made up the unilateral grant of MFN by India to Pakistan, the fact remained that Indian exports to Pakistan were growing much faster than Indian imports.  

The second objection was a more general one, and greatly influenced by the strength of the then prevalent globalization discourse. Pakistan’s market and its geopolitical location offering access to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia was, in this view, the prize that India sought. In the late 2000s, there was also a real push from the United States of America for the liberalization of India-Pakistan trade and opening up a South Asian market for Afghanistan using Pakistan as transit. The joke at one stage was that the US government had more people working on India-Pakistan trade than the governments of India and Pakistan had, put together. The view gained ground in Pakistan that the ‘wily Indians’ with a western concert to back them were extracting something very valuable, the importance of which ‘simple Pakistan’ was unable to gauge. Highly inflated estimates of the potential of India-Pakistan trade if restrictions were removed added to these concerns. Therefore, for Pakistan to ‘give’ on trade without getting something in return was seen as naïve, and the question became a larger one of the concessions that Pakistan must seek. These new perceptions entered and strengthened the old alloy of resistance further.

In the recent U-turn with regard to the import of sugar and cotton yarn from India, it is possible to see the imprint of these old debates. Nevertheless, the situation has changed a great deal. Pakistan banned all trade with India post August 2019 as a response to the legislative changes in Jammu and Kashmir. India, after the Pulwama terrorist attack, had withdrawn the 1996 MFN treatment given to Pakistan. Yet, there are differences from the trade stoppage of the 1960s and 1970s. Formal channels of trade are now supplemented by others. In spite of the ban, trade through third countries continues and even grows. This ‘open secret’ reveals much of India-Pakistan relations. What it also suggests is that the current setback notwithstanding, with incremental improvement in political atmospherics, the trade agenda will resurface again in some time.

The author is a former high commissioner to Pakistan and is currently Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


The past is present (The Telegraph)

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya   

A dear friend claims that she once had two unfailing landmarks on Fern Road, between Ballygunge Terrace and Kasba bridge: one turn past an istiriwala and the next past a brown-and-white cow.

They worked splendidly, till one day, mysteriously, the landmarks disappeared, never to return again. Maybe, in this city of disappearing landmarks, this was not so mysterious after all. Better known and, one would imagine, less mobile landmarks such as the Parama statue at the Science City crossing or the cannon at the centre of New Market had just disappeared one day. Not to mention entire heritage buildings. They have a habit of disappearing without a trace from the city.

In such circumstances, I am proud to report that I have a personal landmark that has stood by me for years. It does not stand, really. It flies. It is a red flag bearing the CPI(M) symbol.

When I saw it first, more than a decade ago, it was stuck into a shed at the corner of a lane that leads to an apartment block in south Calcutta where my uncle lives. This is one of the new residential areas that have come up off the E.M. Bypass, towards Santoshpur. The neighbourhood has not been planned much and the construction seems haphazard. Moreover, the buildings look very much like each other. They are generally three- or four-storeyed apartment blocks built along one side of a canal in what can be called the contemporary Calcutta style for three- or four-storeyed apartment blocks.

Because the buildings look so similar, it is easy to miss the right turn to arrive at the right one. So I used to look out for the red flag with the sickle, the hammer and the star. I am no supporter of the CPI(M), nor was ever. But its flag became the tool for me to negotiate my way to my uncle’s house. I was told the shed from which it was flying was a CPI(M) party office once.

In 2011, Bengal changed hands. With a new party in power, I wondered what would happen to the flag in that corner. To my surprise, it remained, though no one seemed to be around to protect it. The shed looked lonely, the flag looked forlorn, but it was there, and I reached my uncle’s house without any problem. Since more buildings were coming up every day, the locality was becoming more confusing and the flag was becoming more important for me. I would stress more about missing the right turn, and be relieved on finding the flag again, a little more faded every time, but stoutly there.

Then one day, three or four years ago, after the Trinamul Congress had won its second term, I was overjoyed to see a bright new red flag having replaced the old, worn-out one. By that time the flag had become less a party symbol for me and more like an old acquaintance who, you were afraid, would not be there the next time. It was also that ever-fixed mark in a city where architecture is anarchic and ugly and aggressive, swallowing up every bit of free land or water that is available — and is inevitably a reflection of the changing politics. It was reassuring to see an innocuous bit of red not only not removed, but replenished when much else in the city was being coloured white and blue.

The shed, however, was brought down later and, at the initiative of local residents, a Shiva temple was built in its place. I was astounded to see that the red flag was still there, flying now from the temple wall, almost shining like a beacon and showing me the way. I do not know who is tolerating whom more: the Marxist flag or the Hindu temple. But tolerance it is.

Now that Bengal is voting again, one wonders what is going to happen to the state. I hope the flag stays on, because the past, whatever it was, should not be undone.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Something is rotten in the schools (The Telegraph)


Devi Kar  

My work email inbox often looks like a marketplace where I am exhorted to buy goods or services — supposedly for the betterment of my school. One look at the kind of mail that I receive will convince you of the rot that is setting in in our schools today. I have selected two emails to demonstrate this.

“Dear Sir/Madam,

Amid Covid-19 we are giving a Flat [sic] 50% discount with a nominal sponsorship of 30k+GST for the above benefits. Please do let me know if you are interested in this.”

This is part of an offer made by a “global, educational magazine” after announcing that our school had been placed among “The 10 Best International Schools in India, 2021”. The seven “benefits” that were listed all boiled down to publicity for the school in India and abroad. “We hope you will allow us to serve your organisation and maximise visibility on a global platform,” continued the representative of the said magazine in her email to me. You may well wonder what is so ‘rotten’ about this offer.

The explanation is simple. Our school has just introduced its international programmes. To be precise, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education programme was introduced last year, and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in 2018. One wonders how on earth we can be adjudged ‘One of the 10 Best International Schools in India!’ Far from feeling elated, I felt insulted that those offering the wonderful “benefits” perceive school authorities to be dim-witted, conceited or corrupt, or all three combined.

Another common business strategy is for organizations to hold glittering ceremonies where awards are presented in various categories to institutions and individuals. The event is customarily held in a five-star hotel and to entice people to fill up the nomination forms, the names of those who would grace the occasion are cited in advance. They are usually VVIPs from the ministry of education, with a ‘celebrity’ thrown in for good measure. I quote from an email: “This side [sic] Madhu [name changed]. We had this conversation the other day [false]. Kindly fill up the form free of charge. Last day today.” Invariably, the “last day” is generously extended and a reminder is sent daily — for weeks on end.

It is abundantly clear that the hunger for publicity of certain schools — upcoming or otherwise — is being cannily exploited by the business world. The truth is that this rot has been setting in for a while. Schools have been steadily corporatized and are now almost entirely market-driven. Many believe, however, that there is nothing wrong in regarding a school as a business and education as a product to be bought and sold.

Nonetheless, it upsets many to see schools being marketed like five-star hotels or brands of detergent. The reputation of an educational institution is built over the years as a result of the way it has been run, the way it has attended to the holistic development of every student and the sincerity with which it has carried out its pastoral duties. The well-rounded alumni of such schools contribute in turn to the reputation of their alma mater through their achievements.

No matter how much a school projects itself through paid publicity, it is an established truth that no institution can buy a solid reputation: it has to be backed by genuine credentials. Here I hasten to say that some ‘reputed’ institutions run on momentum and the magic of the ‘old school tie’. Only insiders know how rotten some of these institutions have become in many ways, besides the abandonment of ethics, which have taken a back seat anyway in a commercialized world. The brand continues to yield returns and the ‘old school tie’ undeniably is handy when it comes to building careers and doing business.

The second email from my inbox indicating the rot reads: “Sir/Madam, do you know that we can reduce cheating in exams by 95%? The options offered are live proctoring, auto proctoring, recorded proctoring. It is extremely difficult to cheat in an online proctored exam due to the advancements in online proctoring software.”

It is indeed a sorry state of affairs that we need artificial intelligence to detect cheating. Academic dishonesty is widespread among students and is, shamefully, aided and abetted by adults. A lack of educational understanding in the way students should be assessed has encouraged plagiarism, which has become an all-pervasive practice. I have a strong feeling that this, too, has stemmed from the same origin: the commodification of education. Our consumer society is steeped in materialism; all that parents and schools are interested in is getting their children to obtain dazzling board examination results, never mind the means.

The irony is that when students reproduce answers that have been prepared by others or turn in ‘cut and paste’ jobs, they are rewarded with excellent marks. The concept of plagiarism is non-existent in our learning system. So, when it comes to tests and exams, ‘invigilation’ becomes a heavy-duty job for teachers while sophisticated technology provides efficient policing. Rampant cheating would not happen if we overhauled the assessment system. The need of the hour is to shed cynicism and make a concerted effort to inculcate values in our students. Condemning children is unfair and futile while policing does not touch the root of the problem. Plagiarists and cheats, it is hoped, will eventually find reason to regret their lack of knowledge while schools will realize that ostentatious publicity will not get them far. The money spent can be much better utilized in improving the school itself.

In the ongoing elections, those candidates who have relied only on self-projection and publicity instead of serving the people are unlikely to win. Let us hope that politicians who hoodwink people are taught a lesson. But the rot in politics is too deeply entrenched; we must focus instead on stopping the rot in our schools.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Shadow lengthens (The Telegraph)

Ramachandra Guha  

I have been reading a new book on the Gujarat riots of 2002 titled Undercover: My Journey Into the Darkness of Hindutva. It is written by Ashish Khetan, who did some excellent reporting on the aftermath of the riots, particularly on the process by which the perpetrators went unpunished.

Undercover is an important resource for scholars seeking to understand a bloody pogrom that occurred two decades ago. However, it also speaks directly to the present, since the regime that ruled in that state then is now in power at the Centre. “In Modi’s Gujarat,” writes Khetan, “if a bureaucrat or a police officer wanted to rise up the ranks, he had to implicate himself fully in the system’s deceit.” With Narendra Modi as prime minister and Amit Shah as home minister, this has become true of the Central government as well. And not just of bureaucrats and police officers either. Before 2014, official economic statistics issued by the Government of India were admired the world over for their reliability. Now, scholars don’t trust them anymore. In every sector, whether economics or health or education or electoral funding, deceit and dissembling, rather than truth and transparency, characterize the behaviour of this government.

Another consequence of the Gujarat Model being adopted countrywide has been the shrinkage of space for debate and dissent. To quote Khetan again: “Tools honed and deployed over twelve years in Gujarat are now being used on a national scale to subvert, harass and demonise dissent, with critics of Modi characterised, and often jailed, as opponents of and threats to the nation.”

To suppress peaceful dissent, the Modi-Shah regime has resorted to the arbitrary and excessive use of State power. The police and the intelligence agencies have been set to work to arrest individuals without notice, haul them off to jail, and — once they are safely behind bars — to begin assembling ‘evidence’ against them. Last year, the Delhi Police used the pretext of the February riots to come down with a savage hand on student leaders and feminist activists who had nothing to do with the riots, while refusing even to file FIRs against top BJP leaders who had openly called for violence. Of the police’s partisan handling of the riot cases, Julio Ribeiro wrote: “The patent injustice of Delhi Police’s approach is what riles the conscience of this old policeman.”

The malign intent of the State is manifest in, among other things, the proclivity of the police to make arrests on weekends, when courts are closed and lawyers not at hand. It is also manifest in the regular recourse to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an extraordinary harsh piece of legislation whose offence provisions are (as one legal analyst writes) “criminally overbroad, excessively vague, and nothing short of a legislative carte blanche to state-sponsored violations of fundamental rights.”

The partisanship of the police, at the Centre and in the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, is demonstrated by the differential treatment of citizens according to their political affiliation. A climate activist tweeting in support of non-violent farmers is sent to jail for sedition; a politician calling for dissenters to be shot keeps his cabinet post. In town after town, the police indulgently look on as rowdy young men go from locality to locality, demanding that citizens donate money for a cause that is not their own. Vigilantism in support of the BJP is encouraged by the State even as peaceful expression by independent voices is met with imprisonment.

Senior police officers taking orders from politicians in power is, of course, an old phenomenon in India. And it occurs in states not ruled by the BJP too, as the case of Maharashtra most recently shows. However, what is especially disturbing in the Modi-Shah regime is the communalization of the police force. Again, this is not entirely new — as far back as the 1980s, the police in several states of northern India were seen to be softer on trouble-makers from the majority community than on trouble-makers from the minority community.

Now this majoritarian bias seems to have become more naked and explicit. In an article in The Indian Express, Vibhuti Narain Rai, a retired police officer whose integrity matches that of Julio Ribeiro, writes of a recent series of attacks by Hindutva mobs on Muslim homes in Madhya Pradesh. A video of these attacks caught an “unusual visual of a police inspector, his head hung in shame with two Hindutva zealots carrying saffron flags and a trident”. The inspector was embarrassed and ashamed, writes Rai, because “he and his colleagues were forced to watch hooligans plundering houses, beating hapless men and women and flaunting flags — all before the ashen faces of a large contingent of policemen.”

The visual shocked Rai, who, like Ribeiro, always wore his own khaki uniform with honour, seeking to prevent violence before it occurred regardless of the consequences to his own professional future. Tragically, there are ever fewer officers of such courage and calibre in service anymore. And so, as Rai sadly writes, “a new unwritten Madhya Pradesh Police manual has emerged, where the police are not supposed to resist the lawbreakers. Rather, it facilitates the thugs by making sufferers leave their houses to take refuge.”

In his book, Ashish Khetan writes of Gujarat under Modi that “[n]o government institution, no organ of the state was untouched by communal bias. The Gujarat police fabricated evidence...” The communalism of State agencies at the Central level has intensified since May 2014; and so have bribery and coercion in politics. Money and control of the State apparatus have always had a role in Indian politics; but never, before 2014, such a defining and determining role. The Election Commission’s scheduling of polls in different states is alleged to be influenced by the campaigning preferences of the ruling party. The misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate to harass political opponents was not unknown in Congress times, but the BJP has taken it to a different level altogether. The tiny Union territory of Puducherry was only the latest in a series of states and UTs where Opposition governments were made to fall by the threat of State power and the deep pockets of the BJP working in combination. And as this column was being drafted, the family of a leading Opposition politician in Tamil Nadu was raided, while in Assam a BJP minister threatened a political rival that the National Investigation Agency would be let loose on him. That both states are now witnessing assembly elections is not at all a coincidence.

In their quest for total power in Gujarat, Modi and Shah had three sets of allies: a committed civil service and police force, a pliant and propagandist media, and a submissive judiciary. (Of the courts of Gujarat, Khetan writes of how he experienced at first hand “the nadir of our criminal justice system, a subversion of what justice means and should mean to ordinary citizens”.) In their quest for total power in India, Modi and Shah have taken recourse to the same methods. They have had slightly less success, so far, for three reasons: first, several major states are not ruled by the BJP; second, although the major Hindi newspapers and most English and Hindi TV channels cravenly follow the party line, a few English newspapers and websites are still independent; third, although the courts have been timid and weak (especially on such matters as granting bail), there is the occasional judge standing up for individual rights and freedom of expression.

However, the overall direction of what Modi and Shah want, and where India is currently headed, is clear. To quote Ashish Khetan one last time: “Majoritarian rule untrammelled by law; the veneer of democracy minus the substance of constitutionalism... the constant undermining of minorities, particularly Muslims; the impunity for Hindu right-wing rioters as opposed to the harsh treatment, including unjustified arrests and imprisonment, meted out to those deemed to be on the opposing ideological side; the persecution of activists and human rights organisations; the misuse and abuse of institutional and judicial processes to target political opponents and dissidents—the systematic manner in which Modi exploits the power of the state to crush any opposition, the sheer scale of state persecution... is without precedent in India.”

A society in which one fears rather than trusts the police, where one cannot always expect judges to act fearlessly and without favour, where one’s innocence or guilt can be determined by what religion you belong to or which political party you vote for or fund — such are the consequences of the ‘Gujarat Model’ going national. We are, in institutional terms, farther away from the ideals of the Constitution than at any time since the Emergency of 1975-77 and, in social and moral terms, farther away than any time since the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950 itself.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 9, 2021

Poles apart (The Telegraph)

Prabhat Patnaik 

The Indian government’s rescue and recovery package against the pandemic has been among the most niggardly in the world, amounting, shorn of ‘window-dressing’, to no more than 1 per cent of the gross domestic product. Other third world countries have done better, but not much better. By contrast, advanced countries have unrolled generous rescue packages. The United States of America, even under Donald Trump, released a package of $2 trillion, roughly 10 per cent of its GDP; the Joe Biden administration has announced a further $1.9 trillion, of which about $1 trillion constitutes transfers to the people. Altogether, the US would be spending 20 per cent of its GDP on such packages (although not in a single year). The European Union, too, has had substantial rescue packages during the pandemic.

These packages have meant significant fiscal deficits. The International Monetary Fund encouraged enhanced government expenditures during the pandemic and, hence, implicitly larger fiscal deficits, not just in the advanced countries but even in the third world. This has given rise to a belief that it has abandoned its usual insistence on ‘austerity’ in these special times. Oddly, however, according to an Oxfam study, recent IMF loans to third world countries have almost invariably enjoined ‘austerity’ upon the borrowers. Oxfam found that of the 91 loan agreements signed by the IMF with 81 third world countries after March 2020, as many as 76 encouraged or required ‘austerity’ measures. These included cuts in public expenditure, including public healthcare expenditure and pension payments. They imposed wage-freezes or wage-cuts that would reduce the incomes of doctors, nurses and other workers in public healthcare facilities as well as cuts in unemployment benefits and sick pay. 

Such measures have been standard IMF prescription for decades. Their incorporation into loan agreements even during the pandemic suggests that the IMF not only discriminates between rich and poor countries but also that when it comes to the latter, its pious pronouncements signify nothing.

It is not just the discrimination during the pandemic that is worrying; what is of concern is what happens afterwards. The world capitalist economies have, for long, been saddled with massive unemployment (which was only aggravated by the pandemic), although this fact is camouflaged by reduced worker participation rates because of the ‘discouraged worker effect’. Now, even after the pandemic abates, the advanced countries are unlikely to go back to a regime of fiscal rectitude such as that demanded by finance capital and articulated by the IMF. In fact, Biden’s rescue package has elements that are non-transitory and will endure even after the pandemic. We may be witnessing, in short, a revival of State intervention in demand management in the advanced countries under the cover of the pandemic.

This is excellent news, for otherwise workers suffer through mass unemployment just to satisfy the caprices of finance that is opposed to such State intervention. (Joan Robinson, the renowned economist, had called the view that fiscal deficits should be eschewed or restricted in all circumstances the “humbug of finance”). The problem arises when we have governments stimulating economic activity in the advanced countries while governments in the third world are forced to adopt ‘austerity’.

A growing developed world and a languishing third world, one may think, cannot possibly co-exist as the former is bound to pull up the latter. But Trump has already introduced protectionism in the US (which had started in a small way even under Barack Obama) and other advanced countries are likely to emulate the US. This means that the relocation of activities from the ‘North’ to the ‘South’, exemplified by the shift of manufacturing to China and of services to India, that had characterized neoliberal globalization till recently, could well be coming to an end. A boom in the advanced countries then will not pull up any third world country via this route and income compression imposed on the local population through anti-inflationary policies in the third world would ensure that prices of primary commodities supplied by it do not rise too much and have only limited growth-enhancing effects.

Such a global divide, if it occurs, would break from what we have been witnessing under neoliberalism in two important ways. One, the distress of workers in the advanced countries would be somewhat ameliorated. This is necessary for the system since their restiveness constitutes a threat to it that can no longer be contained by resorting to a diversionary, neo-fascist discourse against the ‘Other’. Two, the big corporates of the third world would shift their activities even more to the global plane away from stagnant local economies without feeling constrained by such stagnation. 

This would mean an end to the recently-achieved de-segmentation of the world economy. During colonial rule, metropolitan capitalism had brought about a segmentation of the world economy: labour from the ‘south’ was not allowed to migrate freely to the ‘north’ (it still is not), and capital from the ‘north, although allowed to migrate freely to the ‘south’, never actually did so, except to areas like mines and plantations that refurbished the colonial pattern of international division of labour; and capital from the ‘south’, hemmed in by racial discrimination and a hostile colonial environment, faced protectionist barriers in the ‘north’. The ‘north’ and the ‘south’, therefore, got segmented.

The ‘north’ developed high-productivity manufacturing; its labour market, made relatively tight by massive migration to the ‘new world’, allowed a rise in workers’ wages. The ‘south’, stuck with producing primary commodities, had its workers earning subsistence wages, placed amidst vast labour reserves created by the destruction of craft production through the ‘drain of surplus’ and through competition from imports.

Neoliberal globalization effected some de-segmentation, as capital from the ‘north’ at long last located plants in the ‘south’ to take advantage of the latter’s low wages for producing for a global market. But, if there is protectionism in the ‘north’ against non-traditional exports from the ‘south’, and if the latter experiences stagnation and, hence, stagnant markets, then we shall see a re-segmentation of the world economy, with the working people of the ‘south’ consigned to acute distress.

Even in the heyday of neoliberal globalization, as the Indian case testifies, there was an increase in the poverty ratio despite extraordinary growth. It does not follow, however, that the cessation of growth would mean a reduction in poverty. The poverty-engendering factors under neoliberalism, namely the undermining of petty production, especially peasant agriculture, will continue to operate even as the growth-rate collapses, which will only aggravate poverty and unemployment further. The three new farm bills in India, introduced in the midst of acute distress, make this clear. 

The IMF’s discriminatory behaviour thus portends great distress for the working people of the ‘south’, not just during the pandemic, but even afterwards. Two counteracting forces may be adduced against the scenario sketched above. One, finance would move ‘south’ en masse if the ‘north’ resorts to any fiscal stimulation of demand; but this, if it happens (and there are limits to the extent to which finance will flow ‘south’), will only mean that the entire world economy would remain submerged in crisis. The other is world-wide protests against the IMF’s discriminatory behaviour. If these do not succeed, then the ‘south’ will have little option except to delink from a globalization that promotes a re-segmentation of the world.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Vision for the future (The Telegraph)

G.N. Devy  

Some three decades ago, I decided to start working with adivasis and nomadic people. My workplace was Tejgadh, a village in eastern Gujarat. It is situated at the foot of a rocky hill and is skirted by the wide bed of the seasonally flooding Orsang river. The hill has hidden in it ancient caves with rock paintings from a period between 12,000 to 15,000 years before our time. The paintings in the caves should remind one of Mahasweta Devi’s classic, Pterodactyl, invoking a mythical bird and the agony of contemporary adivasi life.

It was here that I decided to create the Adivasi Academy. I chanced upon Mahasweta Devi a few years later, and she accepted my invitation to visit the Adivasi Academy. After having a dip in the stream of the Orsang river and visiting the caves with the rock paintings — like the ones she had visualized in Pterodactyl — the first thing she said to me was that she would like to breathe her last at Tejgadh. In my long years of work with her, she would often repeat this desire. A decade and a half later she passed away in her son’s house in Calcutta. In order to respect her wish, I brought her ashes to Tejgadh and created a modest memorial, made of interwoven arches positioned on a red-brick pedestal with an inscription which reads, “Every dream has the right to live” (picture). In physical height, this memorial may be the shortest among memorials one has seen. In a sharp contrast — about 70 kilometres south as the crow flies — is the Statue of Unity installed to remember Sardar Patel.

A few weeks ago, I had called young activists from many parts of India to meet at the Adivasi Academy. The purpose was to understand the situation in every state, going beyond reports one receives through the media. When all of us were seated around the Mahasweta memorial, I asked them to read the inscription and enquired what their unfulfilled dreams were. Those who came from Uttarakhand mentioned the melting glaciers, the fragile environment, its continuous degradation, the outward migration of the jobless hill people and the devastated social fabric. The friends from Nagaland complained about the lack of understanding among mainland Indians of the complex Naga history and society and about an increasing alienation. A friend from Meghalaya angrily added that unceasing mining has destroyed the legendary beauty of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills alike. Kashmiri friends spoke with voices heavy with emotion about the complete disruption of normal liberties. Adivasi friends from the central states spoke about the plunder of their forests and rivers by big companies and the pauperization of folks going to cities in hordes in search of employment. Friends from Uttar Pradesh brought in the question of a deep social discord and the lack of opportunities. The Punjabi friends had a lot to say about the woes of farmers. Those from Maharashtra mentioned how the progressive ideas of Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar had all been forgotten. The Tamil Nadu folks added that Periyar’s dream of an equal society has been entirely put in cold storage and big money and towering celluloid images have been dominating public life. The Karnataka friends highlighted nepotism, casteism and the decline of the egalitarian thoughts of Basavanna and Akkama. A Dalit leader from Gujarat said that he would like to collect small bits of brass and copper from every Dalit in India, mint a large coin out of them with Dr Ambedkar’s imprint and gift it to the president of India for laying at the foundation of the new Parliament building. Women present there spoke with great anxiety about how terrified they feel while expressing themselves in thought, emotion or costume. What Muslims and Christians said was not much different in tenor.

Our discussion continued for several hours. My simple question had resulted in unpacking a wide array of historical deceptions and injustices, a longing for creating a society with at least minimum decency and a sense of justice. The seemingly artless words of the inscription had opened up so many wounds. The yearning of my friends in that discussion made it difficult for me to have normal sleep that night. During it, I dreamt, and I am not sure if they were dreams, delusions or debates in my mind. I saw things not so easily to be seen in real life in our time: newly constructed shelters, all clean and with good toilets and drinking water for migrant labourers; ministers and government officials mourning for the dead among the agitating farmers, and farmers celebrating the repeal of the Acts; home ministry officials telling migrants in Assam that no certificate proving their religion is required for asylum and citizenship. In one part of the dream sequence, I saw lynch mobs asking for forgiveness from all the men and women they had ever lynched, and the police accepting FIRs from victims as per the law book. The courtrooms in my dream had entrances adorned with the words, “Justice shall be given equally to all”.

In another part of my long dream, I noticed religious fanatics of all shades drowning some books in the Arabian Sea. On asking them what those books contained, they said in many languages, “Oh, these were our books of hate words”. I also saw other books that probably were hospital registers, which showed no deaths of children for want of food or medicine. The National Crime Records Bureau records showed no new incidents of farmers’ suicide or the molestation and rape of women. I also saw a large gathering of mediapersons, but none of them looked scared and intimidated. Strange dream, indeed! I could see in it images, posters, statues and just empty shadows of martyrs who died for India’s freedom — scientists, thinkers, saints, artists, industrialists, sportspersons and mass leaders who made India a free and modern nation.

When I opened my eyes, I tried hard to recall if one of the statues I had seen was actually of Rabindranath. Or was it someone else trying to look like him? I concluded that it indeed was Gurudev, for the words inscribed on the pedestal were, “Where the mind is without fear...” These words would sound so hollow if said by any deliberately made-up look-alike. And I said, almost spontaneously, “Khela hobe”.

I am sure Mahasweta would have understood my dream. Her deep Bangla compassion for all lives and celebration of freedom, echoed by many Indians in an adivasi village in Gandhi’s Gujarat, are what the idea of India is all about. It has the right to live.


The author is a literary scholar and cultural activist;

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The air’s changing (The Telegraph)

Sankarshan Thakur 

One afternoon three or so years ago, I stepped out of our Calcutta offices for a smoke and a shot of bhaanr (earthen cup) coffee. Within earshot from where I stood is a small shrine to Hanuman that hugs the corpulent trunk of a banyan. The neighbourhood is a busy wholesale warren, scores pay obeisance to the deity as they pass by. That afternoon, a quite unusual devotee had arrived below the banyan. He wore a saffron shirt and a tilak emblazoned across his temple. There was a swagger to his manner. He hadn’t arrived to pray, he was hectoring the mahant of the shrine, a quiet, wizened man always turned out in dhoti and kurta. He sat there, in his implacable little space, hearing out what sounded more and more like a burst of bluster. Paraphrased, this is what the mahant was being told: the colour of the shrine is all wrong, it needs to be saffron, not white; it needs ornate lighting and it needs a loudspeaker which can drown out the azaan call that routinely rings out from a nearby mosque; it needs activity, bhajan and kirtan, some action. This was no way to run the affairs of a temple, help was required to assert its presence and help was at hand; “Panditji, kaho to log bhijwaaben? (Should I send men, Panditji?)” At this point, the elder could take it no more. He shed his calm and barked back: “Yeh Bangaal hai, aur yeh pracheen mandir aisehi rahega jaise rahaa hai, yahan tumahara hukmarani nahin chalega! Prasad lo aur badho aage!” (This is Bengal, and this is an old temple, it will run as it has run in the past. Your diktat will not work here, receive your prasad and carry on!) The visitor, most likely a sangh apparatchik out to push his authority, hovered a moment on the dare, then turned and picked his way.

Three weeks ago, I was in central Calcutta again, in the vicinity of the Hanuman shrine, in a similarly busy lane opening on Dharmatala. I saw a febrile chant stampede across the streets: ‘Jai Shri Ram! Jai Shri Ram!’ There was nothing like a prayer to the intonation of it; it was the bellicose outcry of assertion and arrival. It reminded me instantly of that afternoon three years ago, and it made me wonder if the mahant under the banyan would still be able to bark back in the face of the new refrain strutting the streets: “Yeh Bangaal hai!” If at all iterated, his riposte would sooner be drowned than heard in today’s Bengal.

Bengal is changing, or it already has; it isn’t the Bangaal the old mahant was invoking. We shouldn’t have to wait for the outcome of the assembly elections to acknowledge or understand that change. If Dharmatala is ready to echo the sectarian rabble-rousing of the northern heartland, something has changed, and it is not a fleeting change that will arrive and depart with election season. There is an unspoken, but probably well and widely understood, code to the ‘asol poribartan’ being promised — ‘real change’. It’s akin to the promise of ‘achchhe din’ whose distillation we all now know is unalloyed bigotry. Bengal is in the throes of it. It is a change that will leave much more than merely the banyan tree mahant censored.

I hope Bengal understands the meaning of it; I fear that it may not. I fear, even more deeply and despairingly, that it actually does. That a securely buried demon seed from the past has been watered, and coaxed to sprout. And that such sprouting has become, tragically, a vociferously celebrated thing. Do more Partitions await Bengal? Or, to put it more bluntly, are Bengalis happy to build welcome arches to another one? And if so, where do they intend to sow the walls? And how many?

I am not a Bengali, and I must seek pardon for affecting familiarity. I belong to a benighted neighbourhood called Bihar. Biharis have bestowed upon themselves the extreme poverty of pride, we are perhaps to Bengal what Sudama was to Krishna. But one of the things I did for the longest time take pride in was that Biharis were not sectarian about the daily conduct of their lives. There were flaming hiccups of infamy, of course — Bihar Sharif, Nawada, Bhagalpur. It cannot be said faith does not turn Biharis to bigotry; it often does, but the bouts came, most often, with a post-script of shame and apology. I come from a north Bihar village called Singhwara, which is twin to Paigambarpur. My grandfather’s most fulfilled afternoons were the afternoons on which he and Bachcha Mian from Paigambarpur would share a sip of tea and savories. Our rides home from the nearest railhead would always be on Wajib Mian’s open Willys. Singhwara households, even to this day, fetch their mutton from Daroga Mian and Ghafoor and Saddam, who have succeeded their father in the trade. But none of that is to suggest that cracks haven’t opened on either side of which we whisper unspeakable things and bear dark mistrusts. There were always walls, but there existed conversation across them. They shuddered when bricks began to be prised away for a project of ‘nationalist sentiment’. A few years down the line, all came asunder, but because it was patently a thing of sectarian pathology and hatred, it was no thing of pride.

When I arrived in Calcutta to work more than a quarter of a century ago, I discovered my world, shattered and shaken by what had befallen Bhagalpur in 1989, suddenly rejuvenated. The Calcutta street was the reconjuring of home. I discovered a city willing to embrace beyond distinction of class, creed, and tongue. Perhaps I was wrong even then, perhaps what I perceived was a delusional invention of desire. But it was real and tactile too, make no mistake. The lordly rested in their mansions, north and south of Park Street, but the lungi-clad daily wager looked no less lordly snoozing away a sweltering afternoon on the back of his cart, or bathing with abandon on the many hydrants that gurgle along the city’s streets. They earned a half a penny worth but they were afforded to believe themselves no less worthy. I hope I don’t sound like I am patronizing poverty; I merely wish to say pelf isn’t a precondition to pride, and Calcutta breathed that almost surreal egalitarianism. Perhaps it still does, but it is no longer possible to be sure. Can it be said for certain that the impulse convulsing across Bengal is an impulse that answers to humanity? Is it an impulse that sings the song Bengal’s great sons have bequeathed mankind? Is it not an impulse amplifying the chasm between shei samay and ei samay? Can anybody be certain that in the run-up to these elections the humanity that was Calcutta has remained a living thing, or not come under assault?

I wonder, and I have spoken from the heart; I am told that requires, in New India, an apology.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Common concerns (The Telegraph)

Luv Puri  

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal arrangement among the United States of America, India, Australia and Japan, has gained prominent space in the larger public domain. On March 12, the US president, Joe Biden, hosted the first-ever summit-level meeting of the Quad that was attended by the executive heads of all four democracies.

In their joint statement, an attempt was made by the four leaders to signal that the arrangement has multi-dimensional functionality. The statement reflects an ambition in terms of defining security and areas of cooperation broadly by including “shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. The potential of the arrangement has excited the public at large, particularly keen observers of and practitioners in the Indo-Pacific region. In this respect, moving away from the rhetorical pitch of the four leaders that accompanies such formal summits with the concomitant public relations exercise, the overall scope of the arrangement should be examined objectively. In this regard, the often neglected domestic impulses over foreign policy and informal international arrangements should also be factored in as these could be both an enabler of as well as an impediment to the goals and objectives.

In all the four countries, there is public goodwill attached with the Quad in contrast to other fora established recently in Asia. The reasons are not hard to decipher. The four are established democracies and the already existing people-to-people contact among the four countries acts as an incentive for the democratically elected political elite in each one of these nations to engage with one another with ease. China’s political, economic and military heft has given the forum an additional weight in popularizing the group in the larger public space. Each of the four countries has been at the receiving end of China’s hyper-nationalist economic or militaristic designs.

In Australia’s case, the present political elite, which was earlier sensitive not to annoy China, particularly during the rule of the Labor party, has now come out openly to join the Quad. Australia’s criticism of China’s handling of Covid-19 led to Beijing’s retaliatory policy of imposing high tariffs on Australian beef and wine exports. Indian public opinion is still raging against China’s military aggression along the Line of Actual Control on Ladakh’s frontier. The perennial highs and lows of the Japan-China antagonism rooted in World War II continue on account of various factors, including territorial contestations over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. The US-China relationship is a subject of enormous and voluminous details. In brief, the economic relationship continues to be tarred by China’s alleged currency manipulation, unfair trade practices, the charges of hacking of government and corporate data, among other aspects. Although the Biden administration has given diplomacy and corralling of allies in Asia precedence over the polemical impulses of the Trump era, the de-facto reality is that the new US administration will continue to play hardball with China. All four Quad countries have strong economic interests in the ethnically and religiously diverse group of Southeast Asian nations, a vibrant economic region with varying political systems and a population of over 655 million.

In each of the four countries of the Quad, there are domestic factors that need to be considered in terms of realizing the long-term potential of this group. First, the ability of the US, which is the prime anchor in this arrangement owing to its unrivalled economic and military strength, hinges on the ability of the Biden administration to strike a balance between domestic protectionist impulses and an ambition to restore the country’s leadership in the globalized economy, particularly in Asia. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, has reiterated that the Biden government wants a foreign policy that seeks to strongly factor in the interest of middle-class America. In a highly polarized US, the blue collar workers, particularly in the mid-West, are nearly evenly split in the swing states between the two parties. This may constrain Biden’s ability to support economic policies that are aimed at diversifying the supply chains based on the logic of comparative advantage in the area of manufacturing.

Coming to Asia, Japan’s participation in international coalitions to maintain peace and security has been constrained on account of Article 9 of its Constitution. The provision forbids Japan to exercise the use of force as a means of settling international disputes. The earlier reluctance had been shunned by the Japanese political establishment and the provision has been creatively reinterpreted in the recent past. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces had started participating in UN peacekeeping operations since the 1990s. However, there is still internal resistance on the question of completely giving up Article 9. The internal debate on its abolishment will leave its imprint on the broader scope of the Quad’s future role. Australia has excitedly tied its fate with the Quad but the return of the Labor party in the upcoming elections may influence its future engagement with the grouping.

India may prove to be crucial, just as it has during the Covid-19 crisis, with its manufacturing capacity because of labour surplus. Diversifying supply chains is at the heart of ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Support to development of India’s infrastructure would be crucial to any strategy in this regard. Many in India have urged for a cautious approach that is predicated upon maintaining strategic autonomy. Indian’s participation in the Quad’s potential should certainly not be at the cost of its role in other fora, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS where China is a co-member. The frequency of Sino-India territorial contestations along the LAC flared up in 2013, 2017 and 2020 just as India’s role in the SCO was increasing. India joined the SCO as a full-fledged member in 2017 after becoming an observer in 2005. A forum like the SCO, much like the Quad, is not a guarantor of peace between India and China along the LAC. However, the Quad’s multi-dimensional potential is much higher compared to other fora because of various factors.

On top of it, each country within the Quad will continue to trade and engage with China. Apart from being a member of the P5, it is the world’s largest economy when measured by Purchasing Power Parity. On issues of global importance such as climate change, China’s participation is pivotal as it reportedly emits 28 per cent of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

To sum up, the Quad provides a platform for four democracies to discuss and formulate strategies in meeting the prevailing common set of security and economic challenges. But to continue the momentum in the future and to create a connection between ambition and execution, the Quad requires a detailed blueprint by factoring in the local realities of all its constituent members.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Wolf Warrior’s day (The Telegraph)

Mukul Kesavan 

In 1962, the same year as the Sino-Indian war, Chalmers A. Johnson, an American scholar, wrote a great book — Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1937-1945. The book set the agenda for Chinese studies for a decade and more and its central argument was succinctly summarized in its preface: “The object of this study is to establish a basis upon which contemporary Communism in China may be understood as a particularly virulent form of nationalism.” 

Johnson’s insight is a useful corrective to the current Western view, which maintains that Xi Jinping broke with his predecessors to lead China in a belligerently nationalistic direction. The Western narrative, which saw the path charted by Deng Xiaoping and his successors as a non-ideological pragmatism destined to assimilate China into a world order defined by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, was based on a simple misreading of Deng’s policy choices. For China’s leadership, communism and capitalism weren’t ideological choices; they were alternative means to a single ideological end: the restoration of Chinese supremacy.

The ‘virulence’ that Johnson wrote about sixty years ago has been on display in recent times. China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy has flabbergasted its critics in Western foreign policy establishments. The Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has described French critics of Chinese policy in Xinjiang and Taiwan as “mad dogs”, “crazed hyenas” and “ideological trolls”. Summoned by France’s foreign ministry for his comments, Lu Shaye didn’t turn up, saying he had a “scheduling conflict”.

It’s useful to remember that Lu Shaye’s previous posting was as ambassador to Canada when Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was arrested in Canada at the behest of the United States of America. Lu Shaye had then achieved notoriety by accusing Canada of “Western egotism” and “white supremacy” for its extradition proceedings against Meng. 

Lu Shaye isn’t the only Chinese diplomat on a roll. The Chinese consul-general in Rio de Janeiro chose to address the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, in this way: “Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the US.” Addressing a head of government as “boy’ isn’t normal, and the Western response to Wolf Warrior diplomacy is to see it as an outbreak of mad hubris sanctioned by Xi Jinping.

In fact, China’s position on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang has been remarkably consistent. All of these issues are ‘internal issues’ for China to sort out and foreign commentary and criticism are unacceptable interference. This is not just boilerplate about sovereignty: this is a viscerally felt, historically conditioned reflex: China was attacked, defeated, exploited, balkanized and pillaged by predatory colonial States, from the Opium War to the savage Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s. The idea that a country like Great Britain can haul China over the coals for its treatment of dissent in Hong Kong, a port that it held as a colonial possession in living memory, is seen as an outrage. It’s how India might respond to Portuguese criticism of the integration of Goa into the rest of the country.

Outside the West, no one sees the arrest of Meng Wanzhou as anything but hostage-taking. The fact that John Bolton could press Canada into arresting her for Huawei’s alleged breach of US sanctions against Iran is generally understood as a bid by the US to both marginalize Huawei (and, by implication, China) in the 5G wars and to bring China to heel in America’s long-standing bid to isolate Iran.

America’s military power, its economic clout and its control over the global financial system have allowed it to legislate sanctions that bind the whole world. The Anglosphere’s intellectual achievement has been to pass off post-war American hegemony as a rules-based world order. China, rightly or wrongly, believes it now has the clout to call the West’s bluff. So China has done two things in response, one little, one large.

In a tit-for-tat move, it has taken hostages of its own: two Canadian businessmen who are perfunctorily accused of spying. It is China’s way of saying to America that it can send proxy messages too. For China, this is an invaluable opportunity to argue that the rule of law that the West sets such store by is an elaborate rationalization of ruthless realpolitik. The larger response to the Canadian contretemps is China’s recently unveiled deal with Iran where it has agreed to invest massively in that beleaguered and broken country in return for cheap oil. At a stroke, it declared its intention to systematically subvert American sanctions against Iran and announced its presence as a major player in West Asia, even declaring that it would try to host an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Beijing.

For many years, China’s attitude towards the wider world was seen to be pragmatically focused on markets and raw materials. Its Belt and Road Initiative was seen as an ambitious but charmless bid to expand its economic sphere of influence. The provocative aggression of its recent foreign policy, though, suggests that it plans to challenge America for the world hegemon championship and it believes it is a contender. 

It has chosen this moment for two reasons. One, the Trump administration’s bid to create a concert of anti-Chinese nations over the past four years forced China’s leadership to abandon a more calibrated assertion of China’s growing clout. Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated for China, in the most dramatic way possible, the decline of the West. There is an unmistakable contempt built into Wolf Warrior diplomacy and this is, in large part, a contempt born of the ineptness and perceived decadence of Western countries, particularly the US, when confronted with the challenge of the coronavirus. The ongoing shambles in the US and Europe stand in such stark contrast to China’s success in taming the pandemic that this year of the plague has clearly been internalized in Chinese strategic thinking as a tipping point in the world’s balance of power.

To have this behemoth of a country flexing its muscles in the most provocative way possible is bad news for the world. China is unlikely to be as militarily adventurist as the West but the danger that its hegemony presents to the rest of the world is of a different sort. As Johnson saw years ago, China is the uber nationalist State. China’s subordination of Tibet and its ethnic cleansing of Xinjiang aren’t national socialism in the classic German sense; it is, however, a sinister kind of majoritarianism.

Chinese majoritarianism isn’t driven by a dominant religious community. It is, instead, fuelled by a suspicion of all religious identities as potential subverters of the only identity a Chinese citizen should have — a national identity. This is the French notion of laicité, taken to its logical and lunatic conclusion. Recently Macron’s government went to some lengths to limit the influence of foreign imams and Muslim organizations on French Muslims. China’s nationalism is similarly marked by a paranoia about extraterritorial loyalties. If Xi’s nation state is fascist, it is, ironically, a fascism with secular characteristics.

2021 marks a hundred years of the Chinese Communist Party. If the State it founded becomes the world’s hegemon, China will become, willy-nilly, a nation state model to be emulated. We should all pray that the Wolf Warriors don’t win.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Different departures (The Telegraph)

 A. Raghuramaraju 

One decision can sometimes be followed by another. The intervening time between the two can be short or extended, invariant or transformational. How important is this time and can it affect the final decision? This provides the framework for the following discussion. Dr B.R. Ambedkar was a modern liberal. Inspired by modern ideas of rationality, equality, freedom and liberty, he fought against inequality and untouchability in the caste system. His unique approach to modernity is examined here, in the context of the temporal framework.

Modernity in the West distanced itself from all that is pre-modern, including Greek metaphysics and Christian theology, both of which justified the practice of inequality. René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, lays down a clear-cut terrain of modernity in his Discourse on Method, by totally disinheriting everything from the pre-modern. This disinheriting included history, oratory, poetry (as it was considered a gift of the mind rather than the fruit of study), moral writings of pagans, customs and the evolutionary growth of societies. He rejects childhood as it is controlled not by reason but by appetite and teachers. Descartes also rejects classical logic and mathematics for their association with the pre-modern.

Like Descartes, Ambedkar, too, embraced modern ideals. He used modern liberal ideas to critique Hinduism. This led him to move away from Hinduism, distancing him from leaders like M.K. Gandhi. Ambedkar felt that Hindu society is “devoid of humanity”. It does not “recognise the importance of an individual” and specifically does not respect Dalits as individuals. Untouchability — which is “nothing but concrete inequality” — pervades Hinduism. The only alternative for Dalits, according to Ambedkar, is to leave Hinduism.

Thus there is an underlying thread connecting Descartes and Ambedkar — their desire to distance themselves from the societies that practice inequality in the pre-modern. This similarity is, however, confined to the domain of departure. There is a need to closely examine the other aspects involved in the process, especially the time between departure from the pre-modern and arrival at the destination, as also the nature of the place of arrival. Descartes, who finds nothing from the pre-modern to be acceptable, takes no time to decide between leaving the pre-modern and arriving in the modern. The modern that he wants to arrive at is governed by cognition which follows rationality, especially instrumental rationality, where there is a direct relationship between cause and effect.

 However, there are differences between Descartes and Ambedkar on two accounts. One is concerning Ambedkar’s choice of an alternative path from the past to ease the transition to modernity. The other is about the duration between their departure from the pre-modern and arrival at the modern. Interestingly, Ambedkar made the unique choice to consider alternatives from the pre-modern instead of toeing the Cartesian path of modernity. This was not acceptable to Descartes. Options from the pre-modern in any form are not permitted in modernity or to Descartes. This was also contested by B.K. Roy Burman. Here I would like to draw attention to the intervening time between Ambedkar’s decision to depart from Hinduism and his final arrival at Buddhism. A study of this interim period will throw a different light on how he arrived at this decision. 

There were about 21 long years — from 1935 to 1956 — between his decision to leave Hinduism and finally convert to Buddhism. During this time, he weighed various options — Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. He finally settled on Buddhism as it rejected the deeply entrenched hierarchy and inequality in Hinduism. Though modernity was a readily available option, Ambedkar did not feel that an immediate move to modernity would be a suitable path for the Dalits. Here I would like to highlight the significance of the time taken by Ambedkar between these two decisions. This eluded the attention of those like Burman. The long process of weighing different options before he arrived at the decision to convert to Buddhism should not be ignored.

Ambedkar’s decision seems to have been governed more by the ethics of care than by radical politics. He felt that after being oppressed for so long, Dalits were not in a position to immediately embrace the ideals of abstract Cartesian individualism. This required long preparation, including education, literacy and learning to live a modern life. Ambedkar realized this and chose Buddhism as he felt that it provided both relief from oppression and opportunities for Dalits.

Ambedkar used the analogy of a sailor who plans and makes the necessary arrangements before embarking on a voyage to explain the process of conversion and the need for prior preparation. Descartes, on the other hand, used the metaphor of demolishing an old house and living in an interim place while the new home was built. He envisaged the transitory phase to be brief whereas Ambedkar rightly predicted that it could be quite long. Hence, his decision to first convert from Hinduism to Buddhism instead of embracing modernity right away.

The merits of the path taken by Ambedkar are apparent when compared with the activities of other Indian academics educated in the West. They, too, inherited the path of Descartes and modernity. However, unlike Ambedkar, they did not pay sufficient attention to calibrating their modern views for India. Not surprisingly, their attempts to forcibly fit modern ideas into Indian society remained unsuccessful. Ambedkar, on the other hand, turned his gaze away from the Cartesian path to critique Hinduism and liberate Dalits, and seriously deliberate on the suitability of modern ideas to the Indian situation. What distinguishes those like Ambedkar from Indian academics is turning towards or returning to India after learning political ideas from the West. This is reminiscent of the failed return of Pahom in Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” or Abhimanyu’s failure to return from padmavyuham.

In this context, the works of Ambedkar and other Indian thinkers will be an immense academic contribution in understanding different aspects of Indian society, particularly those that overlap with modern Western political ideas. A detailed reading of them will help us understand not only the similarities and differences with contemporary philosophers from the West but also enable us to appreciate the unique Indian approach to time and temporality.

The author teaches philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Building bridges (The Telegraph)

Sudheendra Kulkarni

For a non-Bengali like me who loves Bengal deeply and has been staying in Calcutta for nearly a month to study the society and the politics in the state, the immediate question of interest is, of course, the same as what every Indian wants to know: will the prime minister, Narendra Modi, defeat the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, in the ongoing assembly elections? The answer — ‘no’ — is by now clear to every knowledgeable poll observer. What interests me no less is how the party of Modi and Amit Shah has been bringing Bangladesh into its election campaign, with the sole purpose of polarizing the electorate and, thereby, aggressively expanding its Hindu vote-bank.

How the Bharatiya Janata Party uses Pakistan for the same purpose is well-known. Pakistan-bashing and showing Indian Muslims as the not-to-be-trusted ‘Other’ are the two sides of its same strategic coin. However, when it comes to Bangladesh-bashing in West Bengal (also in Assam), the BJP finds itself on a complex and slippery territory. Most BJP leaders outside Bengal, being prisoners of the ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ mindset, simply cannot understand the salience of the commonalities of language, religion, culture and the subaltern identities of communities on both sides of the border. Nor can they seamlessly incorporate into their ‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’ narrative the uncomfortable history of Bengal’s Partition in 1947 (which S.P. Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh, demanded) and the later history of how the other Bengal seceded itself from Pakistan in 1971 but didn’t merge with India.

Two recent examples suffice to show the conundrums the BJP is facing. First, since taking office in 2014, the Modi government has projected ‘infiltration’ from Bangladesh as a big threat to India’s unity and security. To counter this threat, it introduced the blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional Citizenship (Amendment) Act, whose real intent is to appease the Hindu electorate in West Bengal and Assam. While releasing his party’s manifesto in Calcutta, Shah said, “[If] you vote for the BJP, leave alone illegal immigrants, not even a bird from across the border will be allowed to enter the state.” What he meant was that only Muslim birds would be stopped at the border, whereas Hindu birds would be granted free entry! This is because the CAA regards only Bangladeshi Muslims as “infiltrators” whereas all Bangladeshi Hindus (including those coming for economic reasons) are “religiously persecuted refugees” and, hence, automatically eligible for Indian citizenship.

Sensible people in the BJP know that their party will never be able to implement the CAA and the National Register of Citizens in West Bengal where Muslims constitute 27 per cent of the population, an overwhelming majority of whom are Bengali-speaking and indistinguishable from Muslims in Bangladesh. Any attempt to ‘detect, delete, de-franchise and deport’ all “illegal immigrants” (only Muslims) would create a combustible situation that no government can control. It will also severely strain India’s relations with Bangladesh where both politicians and citizens are already infuriated by Shah’s smearing of Muslim ‘infiltrators’ as “termites”.

The BJP faces an additional complexity in deporting ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam because lakhs of them have been detected to be Hindus in the NRC published in 2019. For many Assamese, Hindu Bangladeshis are as much a threat to their identity as their Muslim counterparts. Therefore, hypocritically, the BJP’s election manifesto for Assam makes no mention of implementing the CAA in the state, while promising a new “corrected NRC”.

The BJP’s second conundrum also reveals its opportunism. Even as it accuses Bangladesh of mounting a Muslim ‘demographic invasion’ of India, it has sought help from the same country for electoral gains in West Bengal. This is evident from Modi’s visit to the shrine of Harichand Thakur, the revered founder of the Matua community, at Orakandi in Bangladesh on March 27. Modi went to Dhaka to participate in the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. But he has cleverly used the visit to woo Matua voters in West Bengal, who are influential in at least 35 assembly seats. Never has an Indian prime minister been accused of so blatantly violating the model code of conduct and the ethics of democracy by campaigning for his party from foreign soil.

Modi’s unbecoming conduct stands in sharp contrast to the visit to Bangladesh in June 1999 by the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when I had accompanied him. The occasion was the inauguration of the Calcutta-Dhaka bus service. Vajpayee made it a point to take with him West Bengal’s then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, whose party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is the BJP’s staunch opponent. The 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence and the birth centenary of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, are, from West Bengal’s perspective, far more significant events. After all, West Bengal played a crucial role in Bangladesh’s liberation movement. Modi ought to have emulated Vajpayee’s statesmanlike example and asked Banerjee to accompany him not only to Dhaka but also to Orakandi. It would have raised the stature of India’s democracy in the entire South Asian region, especially among Bangladeshis. Instead, in an obvious act of political partisanship, he took Shantanu Thakur, a BJP MP and a Matua community leader from West Bengal, for the programme in Orakandi. But what is the point in expecting such enlightened behaviour from a leader who is busy accelerating India’s democratic descent and tearing apart India’s secular fabric.

Clearly, the time has come for intellectuals and socio-political leaders in West Bengal and the rest of India to see through the BJP’s flawed, devious and divisive policy towards Bangladesh. It is a pity that in the current election season in West Bengal, even non-BJP parties have not articulated a bold new vision for reviving the age-old, socio-cultural and economic bonds between the two Bengals within the larger framework of mutually beneficial cooperative relations between India and Bangladesh. In both New Delhi and Calcutta, there is grossly inadequate commitment to removing all the hurdles in two-way trade, business and investment relations with Bangladesh which is so necessary for creating prosperity and employment for Bengalis on both sides of the border. Look at these comparative numbers. India-Bangladesh trade is barely $10 billion. China, despite not having a land border with Bangladesh, has a bilateral trade of over $20 billion. West Bengal’s own share in India’s exports of $8.24 billion to Bangladesh is estimated to be less than $4 billion. Another example: Vietnam (whose population is nearly the same as West Bengal’s) exports $40 billion worth of largely hi-tech goods to China, with which it, despite strained political ties, has a bilateral trade of over $100 billion. These numbers convey a clear message to West Bengal: reindustrialize rapidly and reform your politics to pursue this goal.

West Bengal’s non-BJP politicians also need to better grasp their state’s excellent locational advantage for India’s connectivity with Bangladesh and beyond, which is critical for the success of India’s much-publicized ‘Act East’ policy. The state will get smooth access through Bangladesh to Myanmar, China, and countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Thus, instead of remaining confined in a less developed corner of India, West Bengal and the Northeastern states, along with Bangladesh, can occupy the centre of a new, interconnected and economically vibrant Asian landmass. However, none of these transformative changes can be achieved with barbed-wire fencing, the poisonous politics of CAA and NRC, ill-treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh and of Muslims in India, and New Delhi’s counter-productive outlook of making geo-economic and human development priorities subservient to its geo-strategic considerations.

The two parts of the Bengal of the ages together suffered three Partitions in the 20th century — 1905, 1947 and 1971. The two parts cannot become one nation again. But they can — and should — certainly forge a new, win-win partnership in the 21st century. I hope this idea energizes the non-BJP parties at least in the next Lok Sabha and assembly elections.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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