Monday, December 24, 2007

Dawn of Intelligence

In a dramatic admission of earlier negligence (although not in so many words), the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a report published by the co-ordination of the 16 intelligence agencies in the United States pronounced that Iran was not proceeding with a nuclear weaponisation programme since 2003. This admission came at a time, when the U.S. Administration was doing all that was necessary to ratchet up confrontation against yet another nation in the USA's perceived “axis of evil”, Iran. Only two years ago, the NIE had concluded differently, insinuating that Iran was a budding nuclear weapon threat, an estimate that ultimately led to the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council by the IAEA board of governors.
The main loser in the aftermath of this report is definitely the neo-conservative group in the United States establishment which has been hell bent upon going on the military path against Iran a la Iraq. The antipathy for the Islamic Republic in Iran in the US is not a secret and the current George Bush establishment has tried every trick in the book to go in for a military confrontation against the country. Making up the case for military intervention has been a series of revelations, insinuations coming about from different “intelligence sources”, and the threats have been built up step by hostile step from unilateral economic sanctions to naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist outfit. President Bush had even mentioned about the threat of World War III in the offing from a “nuclear armed” Iran. Such was the sabre rattling, as the hardline Iranian President's response to such hostility was defiance and a fall back to the tested means of combating international pressure, stronger nationalism, and emphasising Iran's sovereignty.

The Indian response to the unfolding drama involving the United States and Iran since 2003 has been a part of what this author considers a paradigm change in the nation's previously considered independent foreign policy. Ever since the earlier intelligence estimates in the United States had warned of a nuclear armed Iran and the US administration went upon taking the international community on board in an attempt to sideline, censure the Iranian regime and even threatening to impose unilateral military action, the Indian response has been contradictory to the affirmed non-aligned policy. India, in contrast to their public postures on supporting Iran's right to persist with a civilian nuclear programme, under the aegis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT of which Iran was a signatory) and IAEA safeguards, voted against Iran in the IAEA in 2005 in a case that took the Iran nuclear issue to the security council. This act by India, was according to some experts due to coercion by the United States, who wanted Indian co-option as part of a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal agreement which was built in 2005.

This in turn caused bitterness between Iran and India, even as the nations formally affirmed to keep the still continuing talks on the natural gas pipeline through Pakistan going. On the ground, at every behest of the Bush regime to pressurize the Iranians through sanctions and threats, there have been consequences in the Indian relationship with Iran. Recently the State Bank of India stopped issuing Letters of Credit to Iranian companies. There has been a visible impasse in the pipeline talks eventhough conceptually the project is a slam dunk for addressing energy concerns in the country. Although the Indian side claims that there is no pressure on the culmination of the project, the slowdown in the talks point toward a political negligence to address the bottlenecks (mostly in pricing) quickly and move ahead with the implementation of the pipeline project. In the meantime, China and Russia have upped their relationship with Iran, as they sense the necessity for stronger ties to buttress the energy partnership with a fossil fuel rich Iran.

Obviously, the paradigm shift in Indian foreign policy to cohere with a bandwagoning process and closer relationship with the global hegemon, is not paying any dividends for India in the west Asian region. Defenders of this shift had argued that there were shared areas of concern for India and the US about a nuclear armed Iran and hence the coherence in policy. Now that the NIE has said it with “high confidence” that the nuclear weaponisation programme in Iran had been wrapped up in 2003, it brings into question, India's vote against Iran in the IAEA for short term expediency, without any correct assessment of both the international situation as well as Iran's considerations. It must also be pointed out that the “better late than never” dawning of sense in the intelligence agencies in the US was despite the IAEA's repeated mention about the correct nature of Iran's nuclear programme. That it was virtually the very same intelligence community in the US that had decided to build a phony case for a brazen, illegal war and occupation of Iraq, points out to the fact that this community has grown tired of the hawkish neocon establishment in the country.

For the ordinary political watcher, who is not privy to the Kafkaesque dealings of the murky world of spooks, spies, and the security agencies of various countries, it will be difficult to comment upon the technical details and veracity of findings of amorphous intelligence bodies, which have a closed-door way of functioning in a complicated bureaucracy such as the United States'. It would be therefore difficult to say anything for sure about nuclear weaponisation projects in countries such as Iran too, as such projects inevitably involve covert transfers, illicit deals and thick veils of secrecy. Some in India point out that the Indian vote against Iran was driven by the fact that illicit sales of nuclear fuel and components existed between Iran and the A.Q.Khan network, even as it is necessary to mention that Iran voluntarily declared its nuclear enrichment activities to the IAEA in October 2003. But indeed, it is imperative to mention that careful calibration of foreign policy is a must, and this policy making must not be bothered only about short term expediency or hinge only on one point agendas, as the Indo-US nuclear deal seems to be for the current ruling regime (the UPA) in India. By making it a point to bank upon a divisive and hugely unpopular George Bush regime as being the cornerstone for the “new enlightened national interest driven foreign policy”, India has burnt its hands in west Asia vis-a-vis Iran.

India should for a first step, try to mend its relationship with Iran, which has been affected by the events since 2003. The bottlenecks in business relationships in the trading and banking sectors,that have ensued because of the American insistence, must be done away with, immediately. Whatever hurdle that seems to persist in the final culmination of the gas pipeline, has to be addressed with solid political endeavour. And hopefully, India can be resilient enough to demand that the United States give up the path of confrontation, pre-emption and naked hegemony, a legacy of the Bush administration and focus on strengthening the international institutions which are already dime-a-dozen present to prevent nuclear weapon profileration, conclude world peace and transact the business of maintaining world harmony.

The saving grace of the NIE's report is the fact that the war hawks have their wings clipped and hopefully the US administration (even the forthcoming one in 2008) realises that the best way to solve international problems is to use international instruments and institutions. And also the fact that diplomacy still remains a viable, tried, tested method of addressing disputes. Perhaps, the forthcoming US administration will also show the willpower and imagination to engage regimes that are not close to the US, in a way that builds future cooperation through the use of moral norms of mutual respect. Which means that the US can cooperate with Iran and use the stature of the nation in stabilising the environs in west Asia, particularly in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. One hopes that there is further dawning of intelligence among the various decision making structures of different nations' leadership.

Article written for "The Post"

Friday, December 14, 2007

A non violent protest and lessons

December 10th is widely marked across the world as Human Rights Day. On the precise day in Mumbai, a symbolic protest was organised by an umbrella organisation led by the youth federation of the biggest leftist party in India, the CPI(M). The protest involved a boycott of the local municipal train network at some of the most busiest junctions in the western sector of the Mumbai Metropolitan train service. The boycott of the train service was near total with commuters preferring either to stay home on the working day or to use alternative means of transport to go to work. The simple use of a non-violent protest to register the disaffection with the problematic rail service was enough to bring media and authority attention on the strenuous conditions that governed rail-travel in India's most populated, dense and vibrant city, Mumbai. The protestors demanded increased frequency of service to reduce the load in the trains during peak hours in select stations where passenger density was the highest. Officials in charge of the railway functioning responded by promising to act upon assurances made earlier, much more quickly. In effect the registered protest was successful in raising the consciousness of the authorities about the pressing problems of the commuters.

When I arrived in Mumbai to start my journalistic career, I was terribly appalled at the crowded and almost dehumanized travel conditions that one had to experience while getting onto the trains to go to work. Apparently, the trains are the most convenient and the fastest way to travel, because of severe congestion in road transport, owing to near dilapidated traffic conditions as well as the profusion of private transport in the form of cars. The train service strives on manfully connecting arterially nearly every major location within the city and nearly 3/4th of the population uses this facility for commuting. However, the increase in population and no corresponding commensurate increase in facility has meant that trains are extremely crowded featuring heavy densities of commuters packed in stuffy compartments. In the western sector, particularly, the stuffing is so immense that many passengers fall off the train while travel, and there has been a rise in such casualties. Elaborate promise were made to ensure that there would be effective increases in rail services in the form of newer train rakes and lines, but the implementation has been at best ineffective, owing to delays in project fructification and lack of political will to address immediate relief to the harassed commuters. In the meantime, the commuters themselves have become sufficiently dehumanized to accept these conditions as they have adjusted to this packed stuffing experience as a normal routine. I personally would admit to that. Jostling and pushing for space and a tendency to elbow my way through is now a daily routine and I am surprised when I recall much shocked I was initially when I first used the service merely five months ago.

Not that I am not used to crowded trains. A stint in the suburbs of Tokyo for two years was responsible for experiencing similar crowded conditions in train travel. However, the relative comfort of the air conditioned trains and the seeming order displayed by the commuters made travel feel less strenuous, and quite fulfilling, in stark contrast to the experience of similar train travel in Mumbai. Suburban trains play as much an important role as in Mumbai in the extended city complex from Tokyo to Yokohama and the train network is the lifeline for transport for the dense populace within these industrial sectors. The hallmark of transportation in Tokyo is the substantively well maintained train network which include a slew of overground and underground trains and the fact that private transport in the form of cars and motor vehicles is more or less only secondary. In contrast in Mumbai, even though train transport remains the preferred option among the working classes, the proliferation of individual owned private transport has clogged the arteries of the roads in the city.

Added to the above fact is that expanding roads and constructing new ones has become a even more difficult proposition because of the encroachment problems. Lack of very effective urban planning has meant that every effort toward a consolidated model of comfortable urban transportation is complicated by the automatic but unplanned increase in pressure on services because of population increase or shrinkage of spaces. Thus infrastructure is one of the major constraints in building an effective transportation facility in quick time. There are plans aplenty to introduce newer services ranging from underground “metros” or “tube rails” to overhanging “skybuses” to cater to the burgeoning population and the Mumbai Urban Transport Project is co-ordinating the implementation of these plans. Land-sea links are being constructed to emulate similar mega projects that have been attempted in other cities such as Shanghai. High profile underground rail projects are being envisioned in line with the implementation of similar projects in other metros such as Delhi and Kolkata in India. Some amount of scepticism however remains vis-a-vis the burgeoning cost of such projects and whether at all the returns will be generated quickly and is commensurate with the costs.

That lack of enough will in quick implementation as well as a co-ordinated strategy to address the reasons for the same is what plagues Mumbai, is understood by nearly all stakeholders in the city. The problems of congestion and high burden is a complicated one. Apart from the slow implementation initiatives, there are other complex factors of increased migration to the city from the hinterlands in the country. Migration due to lack of sufficient rural economic growth and lopsided development is just another story. Yet, even these problems could be much mitigated if the city planners are responsive enough to spread out the developing locations away from the main metropolis, another area which requires concerted effort by the government which unfortunately leaves this duty in the hands of profit minded entrepreneurs and private bodies.

The suggestions to improve the functioning of the city in the age of globalisation and liberalisation veer down to “corporate solutions” such as naming of CEOs for the city and leaving the job of managing the city to an elite group of technocrats serviced by private corporations. Such suggestions do not consider the import of the necessity of assuring that citizens' democratic bodies capable of self regulation and participatory decision making are more efficient in conjunction with dedicated government action. But these are long term solutions. Short term effective solutions should consider that elaborate mechanisms such as queuing before boarding in stations, presence of services to be activated for accident casualties, and proper boards and signals to prevent passengers from using rail lines to cross platforms be assured. This would help reduce the dehumanisation that plagues commuting today in the city.

The non-violent protest undertaken on December 10th tells us a few things. The people in Mumbai who have been using the train services and have experienced near tortuous conditions of travel have had it enough. They want the promises made to be delivered quickly. The form of protest and the near unanimous participation also points out to the fact that the people want to get on with their lives in peace and do not want a confrontational attitude with the establishment, but only want them to be responsive to their needs and be sympathetic to their travails. Affordable, safe and comfortable travel is a minimum guarantee that blue collar workers, toilers, employees in the vast service industry, etc in Mumbai need. That means a responsive establishment, concerned for the plight of it's fellow citizens who are the lifeline of the vibrant economy that Mumbai projects itself to be, is the need of the hour. Which in turn means that this establishment must re-orient its efforts to take steps to handle the problem itself and not leave it for speculators and large corporations to take them up. This also means that citizens who have shown restraint in their ways of protest and hence responsibility, should show the same concern for the fellow passenger while alighting the clogged trains. A concerted effort therefore requires all sections of the society to act socially in help overcoming the beleaguered problems in urban transport.

Article written for The Post

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Bolivarian revolution is still “ON”

A referendum conducted in Venezuela to endorse a set of constitutional changes promoted by the current president Hugo Chavez and the country's National Assembly answered with a “No”. The margin was very close; nearly 51% of the voting populace saying “No”, while 49% replied with “Si” (Yes). This vote has captured analyst imagination. The constitutional changes proposed contained 69 amendments which included abolition of term limits, control over the central bank, greater grassroots democracy and planning, provisions for powers during emergencies, more social security, and rights for marginalised sections.

For nearly 9 years, Hugo Chavez's popularity has ensured that he has won almost every endorsement and every poll since his first stab at democratic power. This loss, according to analysts and people sceptical of Chavez's “populist” rule, signifies a trend away from a radical course that Chavez had embarked on for Venezuela against what is called the “Washington Consensus”. The US media in particular has been quite jubilant, as they see this vote as an indicator of decline in Chavez's rousing popularity in the Latin American state. The joy is however misplaced, in this writer's opinion.

Hugo Chavez is seen as the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”, a broad term that encapsulates a viable alternative path to “neoliberal development” in Venezuela. This “revolution” seeks inspiration from democratic ideals, a vision for an egalitarian society, a co-operative unity for Latin America and a rejection of profit/pelf generating capitalism. Obviously, such a vision therefore finds itself closer to a new socialism and the call for egalitarianism and social justice makes Venezuela invoke pride in the presence of alternative systems such as that in Cuba. Hence, the constant evocation to Fidel Castro's Cuba and the close economic and international ties with the socialist state.

This pitch to America's “prime enemy”, Fidel's Cuba, and the call for socialism, is a huge problem for Chavez's antagonists, mostly those from privileged sections opposed in toto to the pro-poor turn in Venezuela's political economy enunciated by Chavez. A broad section of such antagonists were the prime movers for the “No” vote in the referendum, helped as usual by the domineering agent provocateurs from the north in the USA. The US has a history of sabotage and notorious meddling in Latin American affairs. It's avowed endeavor to bring about regime changes and disrupting any move to bring about radical change in Latin American countries, through crass means of assassination of leaders, sabotage, engineered coups, covert support is legion. The Venezuelan security agencies published yet another account of such an operation planned by covert operatives of the US secret agencies to sabotage and create an atmosphere for the “No” vote, just before the referendum. This operation involved wide usage of the mass media, groups opposed to Chavez (who had earlier participated in the aborted 2002 presidential coup) and others.

Yet, it would be futile to suggest that the “No” vote was won through external meddling. There are deep structural reasons for the narrow loss. A very significant section of the populace who have incessantly voted for Chavez, this time, either did not vote or switched sides. The western critics' opposition to Chavez's proposed amendments were to the ones that proposed dismantling of limited number of presidential tenures. The critics cried that this was proof of Chavez wanting to “rule for life”. At best, this was a nonsensical critique. There was no call for such tenures to go on for ever without democratic approval, meaning, the president would still have to fight elections to get re-elected. It is a standard practise in democratic third world countries that ensures that leaders are subject to re-election. Just because in presidential systems such as in the US, there is a limit on the number of tenures, does not make it necessary that this must be the practice everywhere else. The insinuation that Hugo Chavez intended to stay in power “forever” is therefore a mischievous and obfuscatory critique.

The rejection of the constitutional changes was more to do with the problems that were affecting Venezuelan economy now. There has been a serious food shortage and inflation problem affecting the state now. A significant section of voters identified as “Chavistas” or Chavez supporters, particularly those who were poor and were in the informal economy were disillusioned because of these economic troubles. Conversely though, the constitutional changes were to be made in place precisely to mitigate these economic problems. The Venezuelan planners were not talking of a statist socialism (despite the evocation of Cuban success in social justice) but were asking for a “new socialism” that considered the importance of grassroots democracy, self-planning by local “communal councils”, more or less commensurate with a mixed economy that privileged empowerment of workers and poorer sections.

Chavez and his supporters, who gracefully accepted the verdict and vowed to fight on to bring these qualitative changes, however must realise the gravity of the results. The prime reasons for the “no” vote is got to do with the fact that despite high emphasis on empowerment and social justice, government mechanisms have not been sufficiently geared to bring amelioration of economic troubles. The antipathy showed by the sections of “big capital” and those who preferred the privileges for the rich in the agro-businesses and corporates indeed has affected macroeconomic processes, such as reduced distribution and decreased production as opposed to the relative increase in purchasing power of the general public in the recent past. The solution to address these problems would have been greater democratic mobilisation and more focussed regulation of the mixed market economy. The Venezuelan economy is fuelled by an over-dependence on the proceeds of crude sales, which has helped significant spending without particularly having to tax big capital and richer sections for the same. It however indeed is a very difficult job to proceed without a definite class favour, as has been the case with erstwhile socialist systems.

The “Bolivarian socialists” in Venezuela therefore are embarking upon a new path, which tries to balance the radical rhetoric with innovative action on the ground. This “new socialism” is widely seen as a “new praxis” in a changed world, an affirmation for a democratic socialism. Hugo Chavez should not get distracted by reducing this democratic process for change into a battle for merely emphasising personal charisma. Over the past few months, Chavez has tried to use his charisma to be the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”. This personalised approach has meant that energies to put for a positive mobilisation is wasted on creating a maverick image. Witness, for e.g., the drama following the spat with the Spanish king and the Colombian hostage situation, in which Chavez wanted to act as a mediator. The image of a warrior against imperialism and of a messiah for redistribution can generate massive popularity, but without collective leadership and continued dynamic action, social change as a process will be slowed down only giving impetus to forces inimical to such progression.

The future years will show how robust would the “Bolivarian revolution” be in handling the many contradictions that permeate a process for achieving egalitarianism using instruments of liberal democracy. Continued empowerment, increased co-operative formations ,collective leadership, dedicated grassroots mobilisation and action can still sustain the “Bolivarian revolution”. Chavistas who were disillusioned and switched sides can still be won over, through the force of logic and action on the ground. The defeat in the referendum must remind Hugo Chavez and his vast supporters,of the old cliché, the battle might be lost, but the war is still there to be won.

Article written for The Post, Lahore

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Down the Spiral in Sri Lanka

Editorial to be published in the EPW next week.

There is a a full fledged civil war in Sri Lanka, with no end in sight

The spate of air attacks by the Sri Lankan air force and the bombings in Colombo and its environs (clearly the work of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) is one more sign of the spiral of violence that Sri Lanka has once again descended into.

S.P.Tamilchelvan, the leader of the political wing of the Tamil insurgent organisation, was killed in an air attack by the Sri Lankan air force in Killinocchi in northern Sri Lanka. This is seen as retaliation to the earlier LTTE suicide squad and air attack on the Anuradhapura airbase that resulted in a considerable loss of face for the government. Ever since the coming to power of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa with the support of the left nationalist Janatha Vimukhta Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist monk party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), both fiercely committed to an “unitary” solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the government has taken a hawkish position against the insurgents. The military campaign against the LTTE has intensified every passing day with several attacks on targets in Tamil strongholds as well as gradual weakening of the LTTE's support structure in the diaspora because of the international crackdown against any form of terrorist activity.

The Sri Lankan government's thinking is that a major military victory over the LTTE and its near annihilation is both feasible and desirable. The political arrangement after the military victory would then involve a federal devolution of power to the linguistic minorities, so goes the thinking. On the other hand, the LTTE perceives the relentless campaign against it by the government as an opportunity to get international sympathy and legitimacy for their cause. This web of violence has been pointed out by scholars (Jayadeva Uyangoda, “Back to Square One”, October 27, EPW) as having thought out by both the antagonists to advance strategic goals suited to their ultimate objectives, the establishment of Eelam for the LTTE and maintaining the integrity of the Sri Lankan nation for the Sri Lankan government.

A thaw between the principal Sinhala political parties, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP), which resulted in a MoU between the parties was short lived, owing to petty reasons of bickering that has characterised relations between these parties for quite some time now. An All Parties Representative Conference (APRC) set up to evolve consensus on the ethnic question also ran into teething troubles, because of the intransigence of the coalition partners of the SLFP government. All this has shown that the talk of a genuine devolution of power to the Tamil minorities basically remains unfulfilled and, in the context of the drawing of daggers by both the government and the LTTE, it seems a far fetched possibility. The LTTE has, on the other hand, arrogated itself the role of the sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils by decimating any viable alternative Tamil opposition as the killings of leaders from the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and other Tamil organisations prove.

Experts suggest that the Sri Lankan government's more or less easy victory in the east over the LTTE was possible, because of a tactical retreat by the rebels into the Vanni jungles in north Sri Lanka and that the latter still retain a potent guerilla force. The killing of Tamilchelvan is significant, as he was the political representative and chief negotiator of the LTTE, who was involved in talks with the Sri Lankan government and other participants in the peace process that followed the ceasefire agreement in 2002. The return to high levels of hostilities, Tamilchelvan's killing and the existing political circumstances in Colombo, suggest that no immediate rapprochement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE seems possible and the plight of the Tamils in the north is bound to worsen as the attacks and retaliations are bound to continue. Meanwhile passions for support to the Eelam cause are again being whipped up in Tamil Nadu, where Tamilchelvan's death has been termed as martyrdom by pro-Eelam political parties such as the Vaiko-led Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and fringe groups. Even the Tamil Nadu chief minister M.Karunanidhi had written a poem in the memory of Tamilchelvan, an act which had drawn criticism from the opposition and the Congress party.

The narrowing of options in Sri Lanka means that sane voices that argue for peace and pitch for innovative solutions involving devolution of power to the minorities, who have long suffered their “second class status” in Sri Lanka, are drowned out in the thirst for military victories.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hope for South Asia

A friend of mine based in the US asked me what was happening in the news scene in South Asia. While preparing myself to answer, it struck me that today’s South Asia is in a state of utter turmoil. In Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict had reached a point of no return, with both the antagonists — the government and the insurgent LTTE – upping the ante to a full scale civil war. In Nepal, a much-awaited path to genuine elections has been derailed, raising dangerous omens of a return to strife that had engulfed the nation not long ago. In Pakistan, emergency has been declared even as extremist violence has reared its head. In Myanmar, the military junta has reacted ruthlessly to peaceful demonstrations by monks demanding the overthrow of autocracy. In Bangladesh, the premier political parties’ leaders are in prison as the democratic process has been suspended. The embers of violence in Afghanistan are still burning and there seems no end to internecine conflict. In India, there have been incidents of turmoil that are a dime-a-dozen in areas where the state has failed in its constitutional duties.

The question that one must ask is what explains this high degree of political turmoil? To a large extent, democracy has also not stabilised in most of the South Asian countries as one would want it to. India and Sri Lanka are exceptions, where the formal process of democracy has been pretty much intact and stable, while it is debatable if the substantive outcomes of such a liberal democracy have been robust enough.

Political scientists and theorists who have worked on liberal democracy have tried to link this up with the concept of economic development as they try to find answers to the dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy as related to the economic situation in a particular nation. One of the more comprehensive works in this regard was done by a group of political scientists, prominently Adam Przeworski from Columbia University, who used statistical techniques to delineate the relationship between democracy and economic development. Is it the case that democracy thrives only in countries that have reached stages of modernised development? This is the question that they ask and try to answer. This question is very much related to South Asia, as this region remains markedly part of the underdeveloped Third World.

Przeworski, et al, through the means of holistic statistical analysis of the type of political governance in nations in the past century, make a remarkable finding. They find that there is no linear relationship between democracy and economic development (in contrast to what modernisation theorists would aver) and that dictatorship can also thrive in economically developed countries, while democracy is seen to be more stable in more economically developed countries. In essence, Przeworski points out that it is very difficult for the less economically developed countries to have democratic institutions that tend to mature only when economic development has reached a sufficient level. They also analyse this finding with respect to other variables of development apart from growth, such as inequality.

While these findings seem relevant to South Asia, there is a major problem. India is a major “outlier” in this statistic-based finding. Using the same tools of measurement of economic development, the theorists find that the presence of democratic institutions and governance in India, despite its rather poor economic performance, is a major surprise because it is very rare to find such a thing in other places across the world. This admission is startling, for one cannot just ignore India as one outlier in the comity of nations. After all, India is the second most populous country in the world and hosts nearly one-sixth of the world’s populace, who cannot be ignored in totality as an “outlier”.

So, one would be tempted to reject the entire methodology of statistically determining theorisations, but personally this writer finds one grain of truth in what the theorists are saying, when weighing the findings with what is happening in South Asia and elsewhere. The case of India has to be understood thoroughly for construing the relative stability of democratic institutions in the country’s existence since independence. A frontal reason for such stability is the agency that drove India’s national movement for self-determination. This national movement privileged the presence of democratic norms and liberal values and instituted these norms in the Constitution after a full-fledged debate in a Constituent Assembly that was formed just before independence. There were problems, the result of which was the partition of the Indian nation, but otherwise, the robustness of democracy since independence owes to this privileging of democratic norms that set the stage for the birth of the Indian nation.

These norms ensured that despite low levels of economic development and growth, values such as political liberty and the ability to choose its political representatives have been institutionalised in India’s populace. The sheer numbers of the poor who vote and demand their political privileges is testimony of the same. One would have argued that the substantive norms of democratic functioning has not quite percolated into this consciousness for political liberties, but as decentralisation of power is being established owing to new constitutional norms, such an enabling is in the process of happening. India, therefore, perforce becomes a beacon for other class-divided, diverse nations where democracy has failed to develop because of the sheer diversity and division that persists and which is utilised by the elites to retain power or foment turmoil.

Yet, the failure of the presence of substantial democratic institutions to arrest the weak trends of economic development, i.e., the presence of poverty, vast gaps in economic indicators between different sections of society does not mean that these institutions are to be discarded. It means that these institutions have to be further strengthened and transformed as vehicles of carrying out substantial economic and equitable development.

In other countries of South Asia, therefore, a strong agency must be present that privileges the use of democratic norms for functioning and that counters the ideology of the elites and those in autocratic positions. These norms should be universal and progressive and must privilege enduring justice over temporary political gain. Can we see such an agency developing in countries affected by serious turmoil?

In Sri Lanka, the ethnic violence is sustained because of lack of appeal to universal human rights and due to the recourse to narrow sectarian ends. An agency that privileges universal norms for all Sri Lankans, which means providing autonomous and federal rights to minorities and, which is directed at preserving the integrity of the nation needs to be encouraged and developed. In Myanmar, democratic groups have been suppressed because of non-committal support to these sections by regional powers — India and China — that see economic relations with the junta as more profitable rather than engaging with the democratic struggles. In Nepal, the hurdles are minor, as the stakeholders have realised the necessity to raise questions of universal human values is very important to keep away feudal autocracy, and the room for hope still remains. In Pakistan, it is the duty of civil society to pressurise the political class to avoid quests for narrow political gain and to unite for the establishment of a democratic order committed to progressive values. In essence, there is hope for South Asia provided there emerges a progressive agency. It is the duty of the people to provide this agency in the days to come to get out of the constant turmoil.

The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Nandigram And Beyond

The recent events in Nandigram and it's coverage by a section of media as well as the response by sections of civil society (wrongly mentioned as intellectuals) point out to a grotesque dysfunction of bourgeois democracy, but that is not the concern of this article. This piece will be concerned more about the whys and wherefores of the problem that erupted in West Bengal over the past year, a problem that has not been studied well enough and that has been deliberately misrepresented by voices that professedly speak for variegated ideologies.

West Bengal: It's different!

The state of West Bengal remains apart from any other in India, as politically, this state remains the only one where there has been no anti-incumbency for the past 30 years, ruled as it is by a political entity, the Left Front, that remains the only effective one which has fulfilled a vital directive of state policy of the liberal Indian constitution, land reforms. This measure has ensured enduring political support from a section of society that pervades the demography in India, small and medium peasantry. Apart from this piece of economic reform, the Left Front ensured that political reform should also be carried out to benefit the same sections, hence, the adoption of the Panchayati Raj system. At the same time however, these pieces of bourgeois reform was not revolutionary or transformatory, and led by a Marxist party the government only willed to improve livelihoods further by undertaking what every civilised power unit was doing everywhere else in the world, industrialisation. As the Indian state took a turn toward neoliberalism after wide ranging economic reform, West Bengal, as one of the states embarked upon industrialisation through private investment as a sine qua non for change: from a peasant dominated economy to a more modern industrial economy.

It was only bound to happen that the excesses and problems of neoliberalism were going to affect West Bengal too. The focus of the regime was to portray West Bengal as investment friendly state owing to a populace that was seen to be largely progressive, and which had good social development indicators, as well as an ideal geographic location for setting up export oriented industries. In this process of competitive wooing of investment (against other potential destinations in other states), the state embarked upon a few measures that were, at least, controversial, coming as they were, from a leftist regime. A controversial SEZ Act was passed in the WB Assembly in the earlier tenure and provisions of this act was used to determine the contours of land acquisition from villagers in Nandigram for a chemical hub project.

What happened in Nandigram?

Obviously learning that the WB government was determined to forge ahead with this model of industrialisation through land acquisition (from the Singur experience), villagers in Nandigram took up a violent means of protest, spurred on in the meantime by elements who had spread doomsday rumours playing upon the fears of land loss for the peasants. The means of protest included throwing away CPI(M) supporters from the village and forcing them to stay as refugees in a nearby area (Khejuri). Most of the confusion was spawned after a notice of land acquisition was pasted by a Haldia Development Authority (HDA) official, himself a CPI(M) leader, who was not authorised to take this move. Clarifications followed from the chief minister that no land acquisition would take place without due consultation, but the fire was already lit.

No amount of political cajoling through meetings or talks could create an atmosphere of peace and what followed was state action to mitigate the violent takeover of the Nandigram village by partisan villagers, now assembled under a motley grouping titled, Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh committee (BUPC), led by Trinamul Congress (TMC) leaders. The state action, involving police personnel on March 14th resulted in a police firing that saw the deaths of 14 villagers. Widely berated for this move, the Chief Minister regretted the firing and held himself responsible for the deaths and resolved to find a solution to the impasse through further political meetings and talks with opposition members at the local level as well as the state level in Nandigram. At the same time, a CBI inquiry was ordered into the incident which is still pending, even as the government has at long last announced relief compensations to the casualties of the firing, recently.

Political meeting after political meeting was called to find a solution for this problem of lawlessness that had been instigated by the TMC and a section of Naxalite and Maoist sympathisers in the Nandigram area. None of these were attended by the very stakeholders in the opposition: the TMC-Maoists. One meeting was attended by Mamata Bannerjee; however, she left the meeting even before it started. Essentially CPI(M) supporters were made to stay as refugees for a full 11 months, before these villagers took it upon themselves to return back.Admittedly, at the same time, no action was taken against the officers involved in the firing, a concern raised by civil society groups who also question the fact that the turbulent area was not visited by the Chief Minister.

The state government asked for CRPF personnel from the centre, knowing very well that any state action would only be assessed as failure in this volatile area. CRPF personnel were late in coming, ostensibly because of the centre's apathy, even as the state government was coy at intervening between the villagers again caught up in conflict. The opposition and civil society were now back to berating the state government for its inaction and for letting the circle of violence go on allegedly for retribution by the displaced CPI(M) supporting villagers. No longer is the SEZ tune played now, however, as everyone now realises that it is a turf war.

The incidents in Nandigram are a repeat of what happened in Panskura (Keshpur-Garbeta story) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Knowing fully well that there is a large chunk of support base for the Left entrenched among rural segments, the opposition realised that the only way out for wresting control was physically removing these sections from their strongholds. Hence, in a bye-election held after Geeta Mukherjee (of the CPI)'s death, the Panskura Lok Sabha seat was lost by a huge margin, which surprised many. The TMC cadre and leadership had gone on marches hailing the Panskura line in 2001. It took a concerted effort by the CPI(M) cadre to drive back the occupiers in Keshpur (yet another bloody culmination) to wrest back control over Keshpur and other areas. No wonder, Gurudas Dasgupta (the present CPI Lok Sabha member) won by a good margin in the next conducted elections, in the area.

A thorough understanding

To observers who have a liberal bent, the situation would not be understood using the mechanisms of liberal democratic principles that cloud their opinions. What requires is a more correct understanding of the class and rural settings in West Bengal to get the picture as to what exactly entails these violent political conflicts that have erupted in an otherwise progressive state.

Land reform in West Bengal has not only created entrenched support bases for the Left but it has also created several entrenched antagonists. A cursory look at the percentages that have voted for both the Left and the TMC-Congress will provide a better understanding. The absentee-landlords and rent-seeking sections supporting the same as well as middle class absentee landowners are all antagonistic to the Left in mofussil towns, because of the alienation of their owned land which was registered to the tillers and share-croppers. In one swoop, these sections lost their statuses as owners of land which they never tilled and their ability to play poker with their holding i.e. for example, if someone has a large piece of land on which some sharecroppers work, the owner has the prerogative to sell the piece of land to some other sharecropper or small peasant as he might will. This ability was gone after land reforms were undertaken.

No wonder, these segments of the population have gone on to become supporters of the Congress and its likes, who later on manifested as the regional Trinamul Congress. The problem is that, these sections do not have committed political workers, as a peasant or a worker supporting the left would be. Apart from electoral work and some other mobilisations, political work is not quite a vocation for these people, in comparison to trade unionists, peasant organisations, for whom political activity is 24/7. This explains the grooming of musclemen and henchmen from lumpen sections, for the purpose of doing the hatchet political jobs. Yet, even this will not explain how sections of the Trinamul could take up causes for sections of the poor peasantry alienated from the Left, either. One would have to bring in the role of the political outfits from the radical and ultra left in here.

The ultra-left (Naxalites and parties such as SUCI fall into this category) are primarily sections which have protested that the land reform measures enacted by the Left Front government have not been taken to the next “logical” extent- further distribution of land to landless labourers. This opinion is drawn from their theoretical understanding that places the peasantry in the vanguard of an agrarian revolution, a model that is termed, “Maoist”. In essence, the ultra left have tried to play upon the concerns of the landless peasants and labourers and held the Left responsible for only part-bourgeois and moderate land reforms.

A greater Mahajot

Since the support base for the Left Front in rural areas is still intact, obviously due to the measures of land reform and popular mobilisation as well as the institution of Panchayati Raj and local governance, the oppositional space has been considerably narrowed. This space therefore saw the formation of one opportunist alliance after another by the bourgeois parties, termed, a mahajot. In the case of Nandigram, this mahajot received a new entrant, sections of the Naxalites and the Maoists, as the issue of a SEZ was harped as a move inimical to the small peasantry. The leaders in this mahajot, the BUPC, however had no qualms in having disparate sections from the ultra-left to the petty bourgeoisie right (the Trinamul), including sections which were representative of partisan communal elements such as the Jamaat-e-Ulema Hind.

Apart from this motley political crowd in the opposition, Neo-Gandhian groups from civil society, including voices such as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (a non-governmental entity, which does not participate in elections) also ranged themselves against the government. For these sections, the problematic was not merely the allegation of excesses committed in the name of development, but the whole concept of development in itself. That industrialisation is seen as a sine qua non by the state government and the CPI(M) for development, is not a vision that is shared by these neo-Gandhian sections, for whom no imperative to disturb “idyllic” peasant life can be justified. One could call these sections reminiscent of the Narodniks or even the anti-industry Luddites in the political spectrum.

Thus even though ostensibly, the likes of Medha Patkar articulated their concerns about the non-democratic means of functioning of the state government, the fundamental problem for these sections as has been evinced from their “politics” across the country, is a serial opposition for the concept of industrial development inasmuch. A better term for such outfits led by Medha Patkar, could be “post-modern”.

One could therefore say that, the turf war in Nandigram is very much a class-war, except that the State government and the Left have to be bound by the liberal instruments of the Constitutional processes, while the petty bourgeois right wing opposition willfully rejects these instruments and performs foul play, aided and abetted tactically by sections disillusioned with what they call, “reformist” leftism. At best, such an alliance is incredibly opportunist, and even more critically, this alliance does not subject itself to the norms by which the state government is judged. One therefore cannot better explain the months of anarchy and egregious behaviour of the BUPC, which was bent upon declaring Nandigram as a “liberated zone” despite the shifting of the SEZ project. If the Trinamul Congress considered itself as a parliamentary party, subject to liberal norms, it should have declared victory at the precise time that the government backed off from the SEZ moves and should have used this as a platform to garner and win support in forthcoming elections. Instead, the Trinamul thought it apt to emulate the Keshpur model, of using Nandigram as a platform for a “military victory” which could be used to enthuse sections opposed to the Left. It was even more easier for the Naxalites and other ultra-left elements to acquiesce in this plan, partly because such “liberation” was part of their understood praxis and partly also because of the fact that there was no other means to dislodge the well entrenched CPI(M) and it's partners from rural Bengal.

Meanwhile, the government in the centre, favorable to the big bourgeoisie classes has been very silent about the problems that have developed in Nandigram. It is essential to understand that the big bourgeoisie sees land acquisition for mega-projects as favourable and insists upon incentive after incentive (social bribe in correct terms, as put by Prabhat Patnaik) to be provided by the state for involving this class in development. Therefore it is not surprising that the big bourgeoisie have continued to repose their faith in the “reforming ways” of “Brand Buddha”, and have been gung ho about the mode of industrialisation that they have envisaged for West Bengal.

State Government's role, the Left Front and its problems

This is however not to absolve the role of the state government and the ruling party in the mess either. Yet, one needs a thorough understanding of the turn toward adopting the same policies, that are derided by the CPI(M) as neoliberalism, in the state (the SEZ is a culmination of which).The main problem that the Left Front government faces is how to industrialise, with limited power in a liberal bourgeois federal set-up. Land reform, the chief achievement was still a bourgeois measure helping in securing of property and land for small peasantry, giving them security and purchasing power. Yet the CPI(M), just as any avowed Marxist party wanted to continue the process of further release of productive forces, inevitably industrialisation.

Hampered by fiscal constraints, and other factors (labour militancy is incorrectly termed as the main problem) such as the national measure of freight equalisation and antipathy of the big bourgeoisie to a leftist regime, the state perforce had to embark upon an industrial policy that had to be private-investment led, even as it took up measures to protect and revive sets of sick public sector industries. Owing to the dominant economic ideology prevalent in the nation of which West Bengal was a part, and from whose problems of crisis the state could not escape and added to that the burden of increased pressure on agriculture due to diminishing holdings and consequently lower increases in productivity, the state government was squeezed into adopting the goal of private investment led growth. The origin of the saga at Nandigram is but a symptom of this goal.

Added to this assessment, is the fact that 30 years of “parliamentarism” and state rule has created a new dialectic that governs the class character of the largest left party, the CPI(M). The party is seen to be mostly supported by sections of the small peasantry, the state government workers, teachers and that one could term that the support base was quite “petty bourgeois” and not quite “revolutionary working class”. The emphasis on the middle peasantry to play a transformatory role, can rest on the theoretical understanding that since this class is exposed to capitalism in contrast to the rural proletariat, they can act as allies of the working class and tenurial reforms ensured this alliance. However, if whether this was truly the case in West Bengal is what is debatable.

But primarily, the need of the hour is to pitchfork the debate on industrialisation back on to the leftist mainstream. What exactly is the mode and tenor of release of productive forces in this new situation of a globalised world and a certain system of federalism, where federal state power seems drastically reduced? It is for the economists and Marxists to articulate necessarily and immediately a path of industrialisation learning from the lessons in Nandigram. A viable alternative (to that practised by other state governments in the country) than just being “a better state government” is what the CPI(M) must offer in West Bengal. The entire left constituency today is looking at this party to deliver and hopefully the incidents of Nandigram will act as a spur to rejuvenate the party to the level that it functioned when it first came to power.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sporting Vision

Under the direction of Union sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, the sports ministry in India has emphasised the need for transforming India into a leading sporting nation in quick time, by combining sport development along with youth development. This vision, which has the handiwork of Mr. Aiyar, who happens also to be the Panchayati Raj (Local Government and institutions) minister, was made into a drafted sports policy document. Whether or not such a draft policy would be implemented sincerely, it must be acknowledged at least that such a vision was long needed to be arrived at, and thankfully it has been articulated now.

India's record as a sporting nation in international competition, or for that matter the internal record for sport development is in one word, abysmal. For despite being the second most populous nation in the world, the country has been simply pathetic as a performer in the Olympics or in other international competition. Sport in India today is monopolised by one game: cricket, the reasons for whose success are diverse. Other sports lack the organising strength and monetising power that cricket has, both dialectically linked to the popularity of this particular game.

Unfortunately people have tended to link up the emergence of cricket as the only monopoly popular sport as a chief reason for lack of patronage for other hitherto well liked sport, such as hockey. This way of looking at things is flawed, as the success of cricket has been due to a interlinking of various factors, primarily got to do with the organisation that goes into running the sport itself. While the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is criticised (and rightly) incessantly for being a non-transparent organisation, greedy to make more and more money, it is not well understood that despite these obvious flaws, the BCCI has created a wholesome structure for the sport of cricket to be played in the country. From school to club to age group to state to regional levels, regular perennial tournaments are played. Presence of urban infrastructure for cricket in the form of maidans and grounds is of an order much better than compared to other sports. While India's success in cricket took a while in consolidating, much has got to do with the organising strength of the sport. It also helped that India won a tournament (the World Cup of 1983) unexpectedly and despite being an underdog, which gave the popularity of the sport a major boost, in turn helping fuelling further success leveraged through the organising power. It is no wonder that cricket remains the most marketed sport in the country and it has benefitted from the economic reforms too simultaneously.

Much of the blame that is being laid on cricket for its monopolising power is based on the fact that cricket receives stupendous marketing and corporate support, something that is denied to other sport in the country. This angst is misplaced, as it is based incorrectly on the expectation that sport thrives only through corporate recognition and support. At best, in this author's opinion, corporate support would only be an add-on, for primarily such support kicks in only after the platform for the popularity of the sport has already been laid. This platform has to come from the state alone. Emphasis (as the draft document shows clearly) on state support and investment in sporting facilities and competition was already made in a 1984 vision document, but which failed to fructify simply because of the incorrect approach.

The approach previously put in was top-down and ad hoc (a stigma that was linked to dirigiste India), with little or no leeway for involvement of local institutions in development of sport. The presence of several sporting federations, each headed by bureaucratic mandarins in charge of running the particular sport without laying any grassroot emphasis on inculcating enthusiasm for sport through mass mobilisation and for sport facilities across the country, didn't help much at all. Sporting federations in India are run by unaccountable bureaucratic officials who keep retaining their posts year after year despite no sufficient accrual to the popularity or even health of the particular sport. In contrast to countries such as Cuba, where sport federations are run by ex-sportspersons and purveyors of excellence, in India, sporting federations are cash cows run by ex-bureaucrats, politicians whose knowledge and relation to the particular sport is at best insignificant. From football to badminton, sporting federations in India have been run by politicians and bureaucrats who have led these associations for years without a break either in their tenure or in the string of unimpressive growth of these sports.

It was no wonder that for example in badminton, a seasoned hero, Prakash Padukone took up cudgels against the BAI (Badminton Authority of India) chief for serious inaction and mal-efficiency in promoting the sport, a few years back. The result of such action by Padukone was dramatic. In a few months time, the structure for badminton playing and promotion was so altered that many new youngsters were getting to become international class, and badminton organisation in the country started gaining a certain degree of stability of order of functioning when a sportsperson such as Padukone was involved in authoritative running.

Yet even this correction of an anamoly is not enough. As Mani Shankar Aiyar emphasises, a whole change in vision for sport is needed. Sport has long been seen as mere amusement in the country in contrast to the emphasis that it has enjoyed across the world for centuries as an important tool and arena for development and community building. And the sports minister has been wise to redirect the vision to inculcate the essence of such emphasis in the grassroots level, at village panchayats for example. The sport ministry has decided to give large impetus to local sports in India, hitherto completely neglected. A bottom-up approach, aided by the Centre and State Governments (sports is now being considered to be part of the Concurrent List in the Constitution), apart from linking up sports development to youth development from the local institutions' level seems much more sanguine.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has rightly found the correct model to emulate, that of the socialist structures in China and Cuba, where state involvement has played a major role in sport development, as is clearly seen in the medal output of these nations in international competition. Even a capitalist society such as the United States, relies heavily on regulatory associations at the grassroots levels (in schools and colleges) for sport promotion, even as this structure is buttressed by corporate and media support in the higher levels. Sport as envisaged in the vision document, is taken up as a means to achieve wider goals of community building within the nation.

Aiyar has also pointed very correctly that the belief that conducting major tournaments and competitions (Asian Games/ Commonwealth Games) and concurrent heavy investment to build facilities for the same (nearly 500 crore of public money is spent for the 2010 Commonwealth games in Delhi) would spur on popularity and recognition for the nation is fairly inadequate a means for promoting sport. It is necessary to build sportsmanship and competitive sportspersons and not just look at short term benefits of conducting competitions and building short term sport infrastructure. Unfortunately not all share this well elucidated opinion, within the ruling party in India.

Many a youngster friend of mine, which whom I grew up, who had outstanding potential for taking up sport as a career, gave up owing to lack of support and encouragement. Hopefully this vision articulated by the sports ministry in India would create more opportunities for the huge chunk of younger generation people in the country, which could be a templar for other third world nations too.
Article to be published in The Post

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Re-Crossing the Rubicon-III

The third and concluding part in series of articles on "Independent Foreign Policy" published in The Post.

In the preceding sections, we had established the debate on foreign policy vis-à-vis the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was made clear that the context of India’s new paradigm shift in foreign policy toward a more pro-unipolar world is what has raised hassles in the culmination of the nuclear deal. The third edition of the series shall focus on the vision of ‘independent foreign policy’, for the Indian nation.

As such, this vision is only an updated continuation of what Jawaharlal Nehru had envisaged for India after its independence, the policy of ‘non-alignment’. Non-alignment as a term was significant in the bipolar world, and some may question its relevance today. But indeed, as a unipolar hegemon (the US) sets about protecting its interests such as energy security and geo-strategic control of vital regions across the world, non-alignment still has a resonant significance. It is another matter that India abides by non-alignment today only as a symbolic gesture for an avowed policy of the past and there has been a near unbridled thrust toward ‘bandwagoning’ – a term in international relations theory that suggests getting into coalition with a stronger power to realise benefits of such a subordinate relationship.

What would therefore be the alternative? There are two ways to look at them. One way would be to reject the whole concept of recognising the division of the world into powers and work toward a moral imperative, i.e. affirmation toward disarmament, supporting humanitarian positions across the world with respect to conflicts, etc. The other way is to recognise that no amount of unilateral moral imperative can reap dividends in a hard world that dances to the tunes of the logic of power alone. In other words, where the world is organised into units of self-interest, each trying to maximise its benefits (power or security) in an unorderly organisation of power, it is better to mimic such impulses and base foreign policy on a cost-benefit analysis. The latter way would mean that India’s interests as a nation are not rewarding if bandwagoning alone is considered a policy and that there are limits to the same. The former approach would conversely suggest that India’s core capacities as a normative democratic unit can be used for salutary benefits across the world. This writer argues that India’s historical foreign policy was a combination of both these approaches and that this mix should be reaffirmed. This would mean turning back to the paradigm shift made in the late 1990s and updating the historical approach with capabilities acquired lately.

Once we have established the contours, it is not quite difficult to formulate policy within this broad approach. This means that India should be bold enough to articulate its renewed support for progressive movements of self-determination against neo-imperialism. And there must be as much commitment to raising confidence in the neighbourhood and across the world of India’s normative philosophy. Support for the Palestine movement and a peaceful resolution to the conflict in this region must not be confined to verbal statements alone, but broader diplomatic relations with the Palestinian authority has to be established. In the neighbourhood, political differences such as border problems should be given primacy of attention and their resolution must be hastened by both a commitment to give-and-take, as also by privileging economic ties to mitigate these irritants. Thus better cross-border trade with China and intensive border talks are the need of hour, while innovative solutions to the vexed Kashmir problem by involving the people themselves must be contemplated. A hands-off policy on internal issues that are being resolved through various sections of society in countries such as Nepal (where moves are afoot to establish a constitutional republic) while at the same time, positively intervening in areas torn by environmental disasters (the post-Tsunami relief operations in Sri Lanka or the perennial flood-related problems in Bangladesh) through humanitarian aid are other sanguine steps. At the same time, where the nations in the neighbourhood are suffering because of internecine conflict, India must act positively to ensure not only humanitarian relief, but also supporting progressive steps that ensure a democratic environment for addressing grievances at various levels within that nation. For example, in Sri Lanka, India would be better off not to meddle in the ethnic conflict whose resolution must be decided by the ethnic communities involved, yet whenever approached for facilitation of dialogue or peace building, India should not shirk its responsibilities. In essence, a nuanced policy of non-interference, yet progressive assistance must guide India’s policies in the neighbourhood.

Internationally, the emphasis on disarmament must be renewed and this cannot be done by trying to cohabit in the same institutions that create a caste system of differentiation of power such as the UN Security Council (UNSC) or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the unofficial Nuclear Weapons club. On issues that determine immediate ‘national interest’, such as energy security and scouring for energy resources across the world, India would do fine without indulging in debilitating competition, but mutual cooperation. The Chinese-Indian joint cooperation in energy in countries such as Syria and Sudan is one such example. The creation of a pan-Asian energy grid through the ‘peace pipeline’ and cooperative energy sharing based on mutual benefits is another necessary step.

For being able to achieve all the above, India would have to break off the shackles imposed by the binding relationship with the US. India’s neo-liberal model of growth has helped itself become a outsourcing and service providing partner to several American corporates and this closeness of business ties is forcing elites in the country to accept that a strategic bond with the US is a necessity. Unfortunately, India’s vital interests in regions such as West Asia will be drastically undercut because of the strategic bond and India would be well off not trying to reduce its options of energy ties with Iran or moral support to the Palestine cause, both of which are problematic for the US and its chief strategic ally, Israel.

At the same time, the liberal institutions of the US, its universities, its technology laboratories and its new economy companies offer very progressive avenues for India’s ambitions to become a ‘knowledge power’ and therefore, a growing relationship with such institutions should not be discouraged. In essence a line should be drawn between a strategic bond and a mutually cooperative progressive relationship. Too many strategic commentators and obsequious media pundits have not been able to distinguish between a bond and a relationship, which pretty much explains the gung-ho reaction to the nuclear deal despite the strategic caveats in contrast to the near non-enthusiasm to the even more fecund energy tie up through the ‘peace pipeline’.

India can play an even more vital role in humanitarian and civil society building moves across the world. India’s experience in conducting a stable democratic and civic order in its environs can be leveraged in other areas around the world, where such exemplars could be emulated. Recently for example, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took inputs on local institutions and governance from the experience of Panchayati Raj in the Left-ruled Indian state of West Bengal. The splendid efforts of the Election Commission in India, which has played a yeoman role in ensuring free and fair elections in inhospitable terrains, can be used in countries in Latin America and Africa where democracy has been a hesitant starter because of the underdevelopment of impartial institutions. Innovative policy should govern bilateral relationships with the countries in the Latin American and African regions, without recourse to narrow national interests.

The above is not quite a blueprint, but it establishes in an ad hoc manner, the broad contours of the meaning of ‘independent foreign policy’. It would, however, require to be seen how much the policymakers in India will divorce themselves from being attached to elite interests alone and adhere to the vision that came about after independence.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Indian Express: Ace Liar

The Indian Express is known to be a pro-libertarian bourgeois paper. One need not find fault with this. Every paper has an agenda building role, apart from a critical-investigative and an credible-informational role, as N.Ram once wrote in an article in The Hindu .

In other words, the paper must play a truthful role even if it has a particular position to take. The Indian Express is renowed for a strong critical investigative role that it adopts as its motto of journalism. However, being a pro-bourgeois paper, it has been so dishonest and blatant in its apathy and hatred for working class agitations, working class based political parties and working class issues, that it has forgotten its credible-informational duty.

Two instances suffice to explicate this matter:

a) The most recent of this shameful agenda building at the cost of truth by the Indian Express was vis-a-vis indigenous nuclear energy generation. The Indian Express carried an article on it's front page quoting a letter from the NPCIL Chairman, SK Jain that there was a huge shortage of fuel for the indigenous power plants and they were running at a hugely reduced capacity and that the only way out of this morass was for the culmination of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.

Thankfully the Indian Express' bluff was called by CITU leader, Tapan Sen, who wrote to Dr. S.K.Jain seeking clarifications. Here is verbatim the report from People's Democracy:

Dear Dr Jain,
Kindly refer to the leading news item appearing in the Indian Express today quoting you on the fuel shortage crippling India’s nuclear power plants which are currently running at half capacity. The news item also goes to the extent of stating that “there has been a steady decline in operating capacity of reactor over the years”.

Unfortunately, in the Annual Reports (2006-2007) of Department of Atomic Energy and NPCIL which have been placed in Parliament such critical constraint, as enumerated in the Indian Express, has not been highlighted at all. As a matter of fact in your statement in the 20th Annual General Meeting of your company on 03.08.2007 you had assured that the capacity factor of 63 per cent would improve further by September 2007. In the Annual Report of DAE, power generation till December 2006 had been shown more than targeted generation.

Will you please clarify at the earliest?

Dr S K Jain's Reply:

This has reference to your letter dated October 29, 2007, regarding the news item appeared in the Indian Express of October 29, 2007.

I would like to clarify that I have not spoken to the reporter in recent past, who has contributed to the news item appeared in the Indian Express edition of today. As such the news item quoted me is totally incorrect I have taken up the above matter of misquoting with the Editor of Indian Express.

I would like to inform you that NPCIL today has 17 reactors, two of Light Water type and 15 of pressurized Heavy Water type which are in operations. Out of these reactors two light water units and 11 pressurized heavy water units are operating the remaining three have been taken out of operation for renovation, upgradation and maintenance works, 13 units are operating at various power levels to match the current uranium production.

I would like to bring out that the country has enough resources of natural uranium to support the operation of 10,000 MWe PHWR type units.

The mining and milling of the above resources are being taken up by the Department of Atomic Energy to match the progress on nuclear power plants. Work on additional mines and mills at Jaduguda was started around 2002 and is in final stages in the meantime three units of 1080 MWe, which were under construction, got completed faster before schedule Early completion of 3 units and certain delays in completion of additional mining/milling project created a mismatch between the demand (increase) and supplies of uranium to meet the situation innovative operating strategy has been worked out in order to keep maximum stations running and getting maximum possible power output.

I am happy to inform you that the mines have been commissioned and the processing mill has started trial production which will increase the production of the uranium and is expected to take care of the mismatch in the demand and supply.

For supporting the future expansion programme works on mining at Chitrial in Andhra Pradesh and Gogi in Karnatka has been take up. For further implementation of uranium supply, action has been initiated to start minning at Lambapur in Andhra Pradesh, Domiyasath in Meghalaya.

I hope the above gives the correct situation as it exists.

The above is enough to incriminate the Indian Express for not only shoddy reporting, but also for deliberate and malicious misquoting of a technocrat-official to suit its agenda. This is however, not the only instance or an exception in the game of duplicity that the Indian Express has played to follow its nefarious ends. There existed another such report, as shown below.

b) On May 6, 2005, Indian Express carried a report titled, "Dear Comrade Prakash...", ostensibly to highlight that a public official from Sewa Bank had written a sarcastic and stinging letter to Prakash Karat asking him to understand the necessity for pension reform. Only, the official, Ms. Jayshree Vyas, later confirmed to People's Democracy, that she never wrote such a letter, but had only sent a piece with her views on pension reforms to the Indian Express, which had duly added masala , distorted her views, added its own lines on Prakash Karat's supposed quotes on the pension bill, and changed the tone and tenor of the piece to suit its ill guided agenda.Subhashini Ali in the People's Democracy was stinging with her critique of the Indian Express' immoral methods of building its agenda, and rightly so.

In essence, media outlets such as the Indian Express deserve the highest opprobium for peddling falsehoods in trying to set its agenda of anti-Left polemics and politics. The vigilant readership and masses who read newspapers should be alert to such tactics of manipulation adopted by Shekhar Gupta and his cohorts at Indian Express.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Inhumanity revisited

Editorial to be published in EPW next week.

Revelations by Tehelka can only shame us more about the 2002 Gujarat murders

Even as assembly elections in Gujarat draw near, a “sting” operation conducted by the magazine, Tehelka has thrown more light on the subversion of justice and how the state administration aided the horrific pogrom in 2002 in the aftermath of the Godhra deaths. The frank comments made to the Tehelka undercover reporter by perpetrators as well as some of those arguing the government's case in judicial bodies to the reporter expose the degree of state complicity in the crimes against humanity that were perpetrated five years ago. Even allowing for a degree of ugly bragging on camera on the part of the functionaries of the various Sangh parivar outfits such as the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is no doubt, if ever there was one, of the extent to which the state is complicit in those mass killings.

We can only be shamed when we watch and hear one political activist after another, one state official after another and one lumpen after another boast about their roles in the pogrom (from providing logistics for the rioting to taking part in the killings) and recount the support the state silently gave to the rioters. The accused describe in detail how they had participated in incidents such as the killing of former member of parliament, Ehsan Jafri, how they were shielded by senior government officials and even got help from the police while committing those horrifying acts.

The reaction of the political parties in Gujarat has been on predictable lines. While the BJP has dismissed the operation as being politically motivated, the Congress has been cautious, fearing that the Tehelka operation would actually benefit chief minister Narendra Modi in his bid for re-election. The BJP is riven with dissent and internal conflict in the state ahead of the elections. Senior leaders such as Gordhan Zadaphia (the former home minister, who held this ministry during the killings), Keshubhai Patel and former chief minister Suresh Mehta are some of the people who are identified among the dissidents. Civil society organisations, however, have reacted quickly and have asked for the tapes to be admitted as proof of involvement of the accused in the various cases being tried. Already the Nanavati-Shah commission inquiring into the riots has affirmed that the Tehelka tapes will be verified as part of the allegations made against the accused.

The survivors of the pogrom meanwhile still live in horrific conditions with little sympathy and support from government institutions (EPW, October27). They have been herded into resettlement areas with little support in terms of facilities and far removed from their means of livelihood. For all the talk of a “Vibrant Gujarat”, a vision promised by the current chief minister, the state of existence of people displaced (often forcibly by the rioters, in order to grab their land) makes one feel appalled by the insensitivity of the administration. Several incidents in the past few years confirm the acute communalisation of governance and the tearing up of the secular fabric in the state.

Against this background, the Tehelka revelations cry out not only for justice to be dispensed and not to be delayed any further, but also for drastic measures to be undertaken to reverse the communalisation of society in Gujarat. A first step would be to rehabilitate the victims justly and to ensure basic means of livelihood to those who have been living as internal refugees, virtually ghettoised, in their own state. The role of the judiciary in ensuring punishment to the perpetrators of the crimes has to be re-emphasised. Several cases are still pending following applications to transfer them outside Gujarat. The findings of the sting operation have to be taken cognisance of by the courts that are trying the cases related to the post-Godhra violence, especially the Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society incidents referred to in the sting operation.

The BJP is pinning its hopes on Narendra Modi leading the party back to power in the December elections. The chief minister is projecting a different image and is offering a vision of development in contrast to the communal rhetoric that was used to get back to power in 2002. Irrespective of the verdict, justice must be ensured for the victims of the pogrom. It is necessary that the Supreme Court takes cognisance of the fact that the state institutions in Gujarat are thoroughly communalised and offer little hope for both the victims as well as survivors, most of whom are from the minority community, and that the government in power has shown no inclination to better the lives of the victims.

Re-crossing the rubicon-II

The previous column set the stage for understanding the differences that were causing political opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal. The assertion was that the opposition was primarily based on the aspect of “independent foreign policy”. While the protagonists are suggesting that the deal would in fact ensure that the “independent foreign policy” of India would have more leeway through the culmination of the deal, the antagonists suggest that the strategic embrace by America would essentially make India a subordinate ally to the hegemon, drastically reducing the width of independence in foreign policy matters. We shall try to work a bit more on these arguments, trying to establish the rationale for the same, in the course of this essay.

The shift in foreign policy toward closeness with the US over the past few years in India, has been justified by the protagonists as being necessitated because of a convergence of interests and not because of a quid pro quo or pressure from the hegemon. The nuclear deal is seen as a logical culmination of this shift. Thus, in the updated world order (since the collapse of the socialist bloc), it was in India's interests to play the balance of power game in Asia, work upon to neutralise the growing hard power capability of China, continue to have the leverage to act unilaterally in the environs of the south Asian region to confront terror (which has sympathy and support from other nations) and so on. For these strategic thinkers, who have thrived on this understanding of neo-realism, the shift of an even closer relationship with the United States is no leap from moralpolitik to realpolitik, but mere updation of realist needs. Getting the nuclear deal done, would place India in the high table of powers, being recognised as a responsible nuclear power, and provide it with an ability to partake on decisions that affect the world. With a booming economy (notwithstanding the appalling degree of inequality and continuing poverty), India could now have a decisive say on affairs of regulating international issues, is the argument made by the pro-deal enthusiasts. A new ability to use “soft power”, i.e economic aid and humanitarian missions, to suit the national interests, would be guaranteed now, such is the opinion.
The strategic closeness between India and the United States is asked to be necessitated because of the immediate threat that supposedly faces both these nations- radical pan-international terror. Realists see this as a threat to the liberal international order of states and ask for closer state co-ordination in order to eliminate this threat, termed as 'jihad'. The engagement and military balance against China is seen to re-order the balance of power both in the region and internationally.

How do the antagonists to this deal react on the same area of contestation - strategic affairs? They argue that the so-called convergence of interests doesn't really exist. India's historical foreign policy, even if moored in realism, has a priority that is not quite shared by American hegemonic interests. The American emphasis on unilaterism and on concepts such as pre-emption in use of military power as well as the new strong ideological impetus on hard power capabilities to continue to establish the American empire (as articulated by the Vulcans in the neo-conservative US establishment) is in odds with Indian interests. No amount of cohabition with American interests will help solve India's cross border problems and interests in maintaining peace in the near-environs. Long standing engagement with China is a must not just for the region, but also to establish a genuine trading order beneficial to the citizenry in both the nations. And threats to India's security cannot be merely tackled by tactics such as pre-emption or big-brotherliness in the neighbourhood, but by creating enough avenues of positive engagement, as shown by the Gujral doctrine in the mid-nineties (fruits of which are already seen in relations with countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal).

The antagonists say that those who support the closeness with American hegemony to tackle terror, do not understand the structural reasons for the rise of terror in itself. The US has always strived to control energy resources across the world and while doing so, has created vast swathes of disenchantment in areas of west Asia, for e.g. The disenchantment has given rise to radical tendencies and more US pressure and unilateral action has actually been the reason for the sustenance of forces such as the Al Qaeda. Today, the US-Israeli power axis is moving toward creating more problems in the region by adopting a hard stance against the Iranian state, least bothered about the problem that it will only force Iran to act even more hostile. India cannot and must not ignore the threats to its own security if the US plays on notions such as the “clash of civilisations” thesis to underline its hegemonic actions across the world. India has vital energy and strategic interests in Iran, which will be wrecked if the US has its way as it had done in Iraq.

The whole balance of power game against China also has its shortcomings. China affirms to move toward a peaceful development programme, and to concentrate on mitigating its own internal problems effectively. The unnecessary ratcheting up of notions of the Chinese threat would only invite hostility at a time, when the scope of improvement of relations has been never better before. Russia, a time tested ally has also expressed serious disappointment with the way India has steadily eroded it's ties of friendship. A senior ex-diplomat and specialist in the Russian-Central Asian region, M.K.Bhadrakumar pointed out how India was losing out on a stable partnership with the Russians by embarking on a path of gradual erosion of ties, through lack of people-to-people contact, etc. A strategic embrace of relations with the United States would further undercut this problem.

More importantly, a critique is made of the “coming together of democracies”argument. Despite the formal similarity in the processes that determine formation of leadership and power in both the nations (i.e regular elections and democratic processes), a substantive evaluation would belie this understanding. The US is still ruled by elite interests, which regulate the distribution of power internally, and whose interests (i.e. Big capital interests) in the world require the perpetuation of hegemony and control over other sovereigns through various forms of pressure. It is the interest of “big capital” that has overseen the machinations in west Asia and the current quagmire in Iraq. It is indeed the interests of this section that has dictated structural adjustment economic policies of post-colonial nations, and obviously it is this interest that ultimately suggests a concert of closeness with India. One cannot divorce class interests from determining how the power game in the world plays out. The opposition in India, particularly the left, is aware of this and has articulated its opposition to the nuclear deal and the strategic partnership with the United States acutely opposed to such interests.

Is “independent foreign policy” in a world dominated by hegemonic interests of an unilateral superpower a chimera? Is there just one way of running a nation (the American “free market” way or the highway) and just one way of determining foreign policy prerogatives (contain and repel any force that is working against the logic of free markets)? These are the primary questions that have been pitched onto the debating circles as India embarks on its decision whether or not to sign a caveat-loaded nuclear deal with the United States. We will explore as to what indeed are the options and policies that would drive India's “independent” foreign policy in the forthcoming sections.

(To be continued).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Re-crossing the rubicon – I

A known strategic commentator in India termed the growing nexus with the US and overt nuclear weaponisation as undertaken by successive Indian governments since the early and mid-1990s as akin to “Crossing the rubicon”. The paradigm shift in the Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to adjustment to a new world dominated by a hegemon was welcomed in a sense by this commentator, whose views in turn were lapped up and rejoiced in the elite strategic circle, most of them beholden to the ruling classes’ and elite interests. A roadblock to the flowing currents across the rubicon toward an all encompassing strategic embrace of the US was, however, placed recently by a much maligned section of the Indian polity, the Left. Using its modicum strength to the fullest potential, the Left used the political circumstances to enforce a firm pause on the process of strategic alignment with the US, as defined by the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Why and how this had to be achieved are questions that this writer will delve with, in the course of a few articles in these columns.

The nuclear deal, popularly known as the 123 Agreement signed between the US and India is in doldrums. As no operationalisation of the deal has taken place (the next step was the negotiation of a safeguards agreement with the IAEA), because of political expediency, and since experts believe that the next steps in the operationalisation would require to be completed within an all-important timeline that suits the Bush presidency’s tenure, and because the Left is steadfast in its opposition to the implementation of the next step, a denouement favouring the completion of the deal seems not in the offing. If indeed this is the case, it would mark a major policy triumph for the Left in the country, who have protested against the deal, primarily because of the context which connotes the agreement. Remarkably this context is invoked only by the Left in India, while it is explicitly stated by the US government too. The context involves the building up of a strong strategic partnership between the US and India, involving collaboration between the respective militaries on security, logistics and strategic interoperability, investment and business ties in agriculture, retail and high technology, as well as increased congruence in foreign policy as determined by the US’ worldview of “spreading democracy”. The context is specified out even explicitly in the US legislature’s Hyde Act, which enabled the signing of the civilian nuclear 123 Agreement between the US and India. The Hyde Act has provisions that clearly mention that India must conform to what the US considers are policies that are in congruence of its own, related to countries such as Iran.

It is this worldview and strategic foreign policy context that is opposed tooth and nail by the Left, which wants the continued affirmation of the policy of non-alignment that drove India’s external relations since independence. Basically the concept of non-alignment was very much moored in realism (contrary to its critics’ opinion) as the policy helped India steer clear of alignment with ideology-driven ‘polar’ powers in the world while getting benefits from both the regimes (the US and the USSR). Attached to this utilitarian policy was a strong normative advocation of support to nations fighting for freedom from colonialism and solidarity toward other third world nations. The ideology that drove the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was development, as these countries privileged self-development over the causes of supporting the West or building socialism beholden to Moscow or Beijing.

Today, since the end of the Cold War, the changed world has made it imperative for India to reconsider its priorities and the choices are very clear: align with the interests of the unilateral superpower, the US, or promote the cause of a multipolar world by striving to build strategic alliances with other big nations (Russia and China particularly), or work toward balancing the superpower taking confrontationist positions. The last choice would be foolhardy for a country that is striving to continue development, albeit with a greater role for the market in a globalised world. Therefore, the primary debate in the foreign affairs for the country is what to do, i.e. between the first two choices.

This is where the policy followed by successive Indian governments since 1995 must be emphasised. After overt nuclear weaponisation, the orientation of the NDA-led regime and the UPA regime has been to strive to settle differences with neighbours and at the same time, move closer to the US. The NDA regime particularly was gung ho on a strategic partnership with the US, calling the hegemon, a “natural ally”. India was over-enthusiastic in trying to affirm support to even those policies of the US that were considered pigheaded and dangerous to world peace, such as the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme, during the NDA rule. The current nuclear deal is a culmination of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), a sequence of steps agreed upon by the Republican-led US and the NDA-led India. Other initiatives include treaties that will allow for checking proliferation in waters close to the Subcontinent through joint patrols (the Proliferation Security Initiative), inter-operability between the militaries and logistics support (Logistics support Initiative) through a defence framework agreement.

The above ties are justified by its proponents who suggest that such close ties with the US will help India attain great power status, as its inclusion into the ‘nuclear mainstream’ through the legitimacy accorded by the US, its ‘hard power’ capabilities and economic growth numbers would enable India to sit at the high table of power in the comity of nations. The proponents also mention that a closer alliance with the US is mandated to balance China, whose superlative growth as a power in the Asian region is seen as a threat. Building on the already paranoid opinions of China in India, bolstered by select hostile events of the past and present, the proponents have made a case for “bandwagoning with the US”. They also affirm to the fact that leverage in issues (such as Kashmir) that have plagued the south Asian region can be obtained if closer ties with the US are maintained.

The opponents (mostly the sections of the Left supported by others who prefer a continuation of the independent foreign policy) are however clear: any movement for a strategic embrace with the US is fraught with dangers. Apart from being drawn into the whirlpool of American interests, which want to retain hegemony in the Asian region through various subtle means (from containment of rising powers such as Russia and China to engagement), India would lose its ability to secure its own interests vis-à-vis established ties with nations such as Iran in west Asia, the critics argue. The cost of ‘balancing China’ is high too, as it would cut badly into the improving ties with the neighbour. As the US tries to hitch India on to its march for maintaining global superpower status, India risks becoming yet another battleground pitting US interests against those who oppose the same, say the critics. Examples of Pakistan and South Korea are pointed out for negative influence of US strategic interests. The critics also argue that if at all a balance of power is needed, it is at the global level to deter conflicts such as the unjust war in Iraq, born out of unilateral moves by the US to control the resource-rich regions in the world. As the US ratchets up its rhetoric for confrontation against Iran, the critics feel that India would also be drawn into such moves to favour the US, as a quid pro quo for the Indo-US deals. Ambitious programmes that would help India address its energy security, as well as help create a pan-Asia energy grid, such as the peace pipeline between Iran, Pakistan and India would be in doldrums as the US expresses its displeasure at losing its strategic lever in the region. The undercutting of better relations with neighbours is yet another reason offered by the critics.

In essence, the above forms the raison d’être for the Left to oppose the culmination of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left has thus brought foreign policy into the core of political contestation in the country and has made it now imperative for the declaration of a blueprint of future Indian foreign policy. What would the contours of such an independent foreign policy be? This will be explored in future sections.

(to be continued)

The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts