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

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Not just spectator cricket...

Not just spectator cricket

Aniket Alam in these columns a few months back (‘The discipline of spectator sports’, The Post, March 21, 2007), had commented that spectator sport, by its competitive nature, disciplined viewers (who are not participants) into actions that are not necessarily driven by real political interests, but simulated from the passions toward the sport itself. This is precisely what has happened recently, as news reports tell us that Australian cricket enthusiasts (bloggers) have decided to pay Indian cricketers on the same coin as some Indian spectators who had used racial taunts against Andrew Symonds during the recent ODI series between India and Australia in India. Pictures showing spectators simulating monkey gestures as Andrew Symonds (who happened to be the man of the series for his splendid batting skills and performance) came on to bat in Mumbai and accusations of racist taunting by spectators in Vadodara have dominated news reports.

Racism in spectator sport is not a new or a less debated phenomenon. European football has its hands full with obnoxious racial treatment of African players in Spain, Italy and even in England. Several punitive administrative measures have been taken by the authorities to curb this menace. The current Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Chairman Michel Platini (a former footballing great himself) vowed to act tough against clubs that were lax in punishing spectators indulging in racist behaviour. The racist nuisance is not limited to spectators alone. Spanish coach Luis Aragones used racist vocabulary and taunts against French superstar Thierry Henry in order to ‘inspire’ Spanish player Jose Antonio Reyes (who was a teammate of Henry for the club Arsenal).

Cricket too has had its cup full of such nonsense. Darren Lehmann of Australia was banned for a few matches for his loud vulgar statement against Sri Lankan players. Brian Macmillan of South Africa had to publicly apologise for using a racist term, “coolie creeper” (which was a term widely used in South Africa those days), to describe a bowling delivery. Australian spectators in Perth were guilty of racist comments and noises against Makhaya Ntini of South Africa.

What has surprised cricket watchers is the behaviour of cricket fans in India. A country that was steadfast against apartheid in South Africa and was instrumental in the isolation of apartheid era South Africa from international sport competition, and a nation that was born through a struggle against ‘white’ colonialism, India seemed to be the last place for the existence of racism, especially during sport activities. Contrary to this image, however, the Indian cricket fans are as guilty of racist prejudice as other ‘white’ fans of other nations. West Indian cricketers, including stalwart performers of not-so-long ago, have long complained of racist taunting by Indian fans in cricket grounds. Comments by some West Indian cricketers that they “are not animals” show up the arrogance and venality of those who have shown racist prejudice against these cricketers.

What explains such behaviour toward visiting cricketers of the non-fair skin? Is it mere expression of hatred toward the other, the team that competes against your own? Or is there something more structural to this venality? In this writer’s opinion, there definitely is. Two levels of understanding are required to explain this phenomenon. The first level is that of the discipline of spectator sport itself, as pointed out by Aniket Alam. As spectators inculcate into themselves the ideology of victory and defeat superseding the real meaning of sport (heck, it is just a pastime!), and as spectator sport in countries such as ours invariably involve international competition and also as the dominant political norm is absorbed by the nature of sport watched, passions that drive such spectators take the form of ideologies such as nationalism. Victory or defeat is a matter of pride or shame for the ‘nation’, never mind the quality of play or skills on display. Operating from the unitary of nationalism and from the binary of win or loss, passions ignited in spectator sport always verge on the irrational. Therefore, for the ordinary spectator, the opposite team member is an enemy and he/she deserves contempt. This anger against the adversary is fuelled commercially, witness the commercial campaigns in Neo Sports (the official broadcaster of the recent series) openly featuring intimidating Australian comments about the Indian team.

The next level of understanding obtains from the existing mores of cultural norms that pervade a society. In India, for example, fairness and fair skins are virtues longed for, sustained by the dominant cultural norms. Crass commercialism has venerated this vice. Cosmetics promising ‘fair skin’ are lapped up by the public. Beauty is determined as and from the level of fairness and a certain degree of fitness and form, fairness however being the predeterminer. Drill this dominant cultural norm into the arena of spectator sport and one can notice the perverse form it takes. Players from the opposition teams (‘enemies’) are targeted for dark skins and gruff looks. It does not matter how well they perform with their skills or how elegantly or clinically they display their abilities on the field. Commercialism itself thrives on these tendencies. For a sample, one has to witness the commercial featuring a female cricket enthusiast using a ‘fairness’ cosmetic to gain confidence and rub shoulders with Kris Srikkanth as a fellow commentator. The ideologies inherent in spectator sport, the dominant cultural norms, constituting the two levels, thus work together in harmony to produce this travesty of retrogression.

Punitive measures against select spectators openly seen performing these egregious acts of hooliganism and racism are of course required. Grounds where these incidents reoccur could be threatened with non-staging of matches and it could be hoped that the fear of commercial loss could force organisers to be more stringent against the spectators, and the watchers themselves could be restrained owing to the same reason. Yet such measures are mere palliatives. The structural dimension inherent will not be cured so easily. The value of sport as a competitive pastime and as a spectacle of human abilities has to be restored. This part is not difficult as intra-national competition, encouragement for participative sport through youth development and support for rural activities can achieve it. Such a process has already been addressed conceptually by India’s sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, who also happens to be the local development and Panchayati Raj minister.

The other cultural aspect is a difficult problem to solve. Mindsets favouring irrational concepts such as fairness of skin will not vanish quickly, but there are enough counterexamples of pride in one’s self to disprove the credence of such concepts. Political movements privileging the under-class and subaltern culture have effectively countered dominant norms that set hierarchies based on irrational prejudices.

The day is not far off, hopefully, when participative sports devoid of dominance of regressive cultural norms rule the roost.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On the Ladies Special

This nice piece has been written by my colleague in a Women special issue of a journal named, "Agenda". The article tells a heartwarming account of "train friends" in Mumbai. Read on....
On the ‘Ladies Special’

By Lina Mathias
The women-only compartments on Mumbai’s locals and ‘Ladies Special’ trains are unique spaces for the city’s working women, who have converted the benefits of this reservation to even greater effect. For many, the compartment itself is transformed into a workplace to sell anything from shelled peas to lingerie Neither Hallmark Cards nor Archie's have scheduled a day for ‘Train Friends' or come out with sentimental cards to mark such a day. But for many of Mumbai's 5 million daily train commuters, this category of friendship provides a strong antidote to the unbearable stress of commuting, and the effects it has on their lives.

‘Train friends' travel by the same local at the beginning of the working day and often on the return journey too, share family news, gossip, food, vacation and wedding photographs, and even sing together to the entertainment/chagrin of other commuters. More than men (the only group activity they seem to engage in on trains is playing cards), it is women who take this form of friendship to a different dimension altogether.

These are women who travel long arduous hours every day on the local trains of Mumbai to and from work; women who often use the train itself as a workspace, either to sell food items and other products or to complete household tasks such as cutting vegetables; women who have transformed a daunting daily commute into a social sphere of comfort and sharing.

Local trains in Mumbai, as any commuter would know, have compartments only for women, as well as scheduled ‘Ladies Special' trains. While the women-only compartments have existed for decades, Western Railways introduced the Specials in 1992. On May 5 that year, the first ‘Ladies Special' left Virar station at 7.39 am for Churchgate. The return Churchgate-Virar journey started at 6.13 pm. Central Railways started its own train only for women on July 1 of the same year. It leaves at 8.15 am from Kalyan for CST, and from CST in the evenings at 6.05. Western Railways now has another north-south ‘Ladies Special' from Bhayander to Churchgate, and one in the evening between Churchgate and Borivali.

The benefits of such reservations are immense, but even with the reservations the local Mumbai train is an intensely crowded space. The women-only compartments and trains are the location of harassed squabbling for the ‘fourth seat' (the edge of a three-seat bench, which accommodates an extra person), crying children (who invariably accompany the female relative), an unending stream of hawkers and beggars, catcalls and lewd remarks called out by male passengers from passing trains or platforms, occasional stones hurled by miscreants, and a recent series of attacks by drug-users. All of this can ensure that many women commuters are in a state of irritation and anxiety when they reach their workplace and return home in the evenings or at night.

Over the years, women commuters have converted the benefit of having reserved spaces to even greater effect. The women-only compartments and ‘Ladies Special' have become a microcosm of the socio-economic patterns of the world outside. So vibrant is the ‘Ladies Special', with its multiplicity of activities, that it has been the subject of more than one documentary film. Women-only compartments and trains are not just spaces where some of the irritants recede, but sources of positive work and play that relieve some of the stress of commuting.

The camaraderie and banter between women ‘train friends' may seem spontaneous to an onlooker, but it is usually the eventual outcome of tentative beginnings. Mira Madhavan's group of train friends also began slowly. Mira, a former nurse who works as a teacher trainer, would travel with a friend who boarded the train at Thane, rushed to her favourite window seat and promptly went to sleep until their destination at Dadar. So when Mira heard two young strangers, Shilpa and Phalguni, animatedly talking about health and children's education, she joined the discussion. Soon, another passenger, Karen, also fond of going off to sleep, began joining in the conversations, at a time when she was upset with her son's school and teachers. At Bhandup, Bindu and Chandra would join the group (the two were acquaintances of Shilpa and Phalguni). They began bringing batata wadas from a well-known stall for the group's breakfast on the train, while Mira made ribbon sandwiches. After a while, Chitra and Pooja also joined the group. Chitra's mother-in-law made crochet pieces and the others in the group began asking her to make gift items for their family and friends. Soon they began celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, husbands' and children's birthdays, all on the train. A high point of this friendship came when one of the group members, a bank employee, played matchmaker to one of the single women in the group. Today, the match-made couple has a two-year-old daughter.

“We are still in touch,” Mira says, “but the group split because two of us changed jobs, one had a baby and decided to work from home, and another's husband got a job offer in Dubai and she accompanied him there. None of us has forgotten the good times on the train -- the eating, the laughter, the few dinners we went to, a day picnic to Karjat. But more importantly, the journey put us in an excellent frame of mind to face the working day and the commute. My train friends were wonderful.”

No study in India has specifically measured the effect of the stress of commuting on work and productivity. However, psychologists Richard Wener and Gary Evans at Cornell University in the US have studied how travelling by mass transit can affect the stress level of commuters. When compared with men, they found, women with children are more susceptible to commuter stress and are more likely to carry that stress into the workplace. Women commuters, they write, experienced more stress in the workplace and that stress was exacerbated by the commute; if the women had children at home, they had the equivalent of a second job and hence additional stress.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has studied the impact of commuting on the health and safety of workers. People who travelled for more than 45 minutes from home to work (as do most of Mumbai's train commuters) reported higher psychological stress scores, more health complaints (essentially psychosomatic), and greater absenteeism from work due to sickness. Women commuters bore the brunt and had more family difficulties, more travelling complaints, and higher absenteeism.

The Wener-Evans study also found that women benefited the most when transport services improved, which directly resulted in less stress at the workplace. Until the year 2000, women commuters in Japan faced such extensive sexual harassment that the railroad companies decided to provide sections only for women. The first women-only carriages started in Japan in 2000, on the Keio Line. By 2005, train services in all of Japan 's major cities had women-only carriages for at least the morning rush hour.

A few years ago women commuters got the first women-only (and pink-striped!) subway cars in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro as part of a scheme to curtail groping and other forms of sexual harassment. When buses exclusively meant for women were introduced for the first time in Pakistan by the Karachi Green Bus Company, women were relieved. Students and working women had complained that the unwanted male attention was affecting their academic and job performance. Clearly, sexual harassment that occurs even outside the workplace greatly affects women's psychological health and ability to work.

The importance of reserving compartments only for women and having exclusive ‘Ladies Special' trains in Mumbai thus cannot be over-emphasised. This system of reservation, which Indian women rail commuters have had for decades, remains uncommon in other countries. When the bulk of the transport is in private hands, this is not a right that can be demanded. Mumbai might in fact be the only city in the world that reserves an entire 12-coach train for women during peak hours.

To return to our ‘train friends' on Mumbai's locals, like the crochet gifts that the group members bought from Chitra's mother-in-law, many women commuters tap into each other's contacts and hobbies to ease their familial and social obligations and to form supportive networks. The other day, in the Kalyan-VT ‘Ladies Special' a woman realised that her friend's ‘train friend', hastily introduced, was a children's counsellor. A visiting card was hurriedly thrust out; her neighbour was worried about the erratic behaviour of her child and this commuter wanted to help.

A jatra- like atmosphere prevails in the women's second class as well as first class compartments in the ‘Ladies Special' trains. It is a marketplace -- and thereby a workplace -- for many women and children, who sell hair pins, flowers, gajras, cheap Chinese pens that double as torches, toys, colouring books with crayons, magazines, cosmetics, and even lingerie -- the list is inexhaustible. Others sell vaatas (shares) of vegetables like bhindi , beans, shelled peas (these vendors only travel in the evenings), fruits and homemade snacks. Often, the women who sell small packets of dry snacks uniformly priced at Rs 5, give away a packet or two for the children of some of the regular women commuters. Many women commuters prefer to complete their purchases on the train, which enables them to straightaway dash to the bus or autorickshaw queue to get home without wasting precious time.

Asha Sarangi, who travels by the ‘Ladies Special' from Mira Road in the morning, often buys idli-chatni or mini medu wadas from a woman who makes them at home and sells them on the train. “They are hot and fresh and tasty. And the price is very reasonable. Her stuff simply vanishes within minutes,” she says. This vendor, like many others, services ladies' compartments in other trains too, and, along with her husband who looks after the purchase of the raw material and the packaging, depends on the sales for her livelihood. She also takes ‘orders' during festivals for special snacks for women who do not have the luxury of time to make these snacks.

Another category of sellers is somewhat discreet because vending is their ‘second' job -- women who sell saris, salwar-kameez pieces and artificial jewellery, often only in the first class compartment because their prices are steep. Their ‘regular' clients get the first viewing when the new stuff arrives. It is common to hear women commuters placing ‘orders' for a particular colour or texture to give to friends and family members, and disappointed wails when a deadline is not honoured.

Deepali Bhalerao, who travels to Thane in the ‘Ladies Special' from CST in the evening, sometimes likes to travel in the luggage compartment. “Most of the women here have finished selling their wares and have bought vegetables to make for dinner,” she says. “They keep their baskets close by, sit on the floor of the compartment in companionable circles and clean and cut while talking and laughing all the time.”

Deepali treasures the experience of travelling on the Kalyan-bound ‘Ladies Special' a few months ago. A group of 12 women were composing ukhane (couplets that Maharashtrian brides playfully put together with the husband's name in one of the lines). Each woman was given a small note with one word on it and she had to compose an ukhane on the spot that would include this word and her husband's name. It got so exciting, says Deepali, that other commuters joined in and women from the first class compartment next door, who usually do not give the second class commuters a second glance, began prompting words and phrases. “I would have even forgotten to get off at Thane if it was not such an ingrained habit,” she laughed.

Women and work takes on a new colour altogether on Mumbai's locals. Here, the ‘train friends' go on from day to day, from track to track, easing each other's journey as women have been doing down the centuries.

Lina Mathias is Senior Assistant Editor at the Economic and Political Weekly

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Unprincipled Politics in Karnataka

Editorial to be published in Economic and Political Weekly
Unprincipled Politics

President's rule in Karnataka has been declared after the breakdown of the alliance between the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The coalition government formed was on the basis of a power-sharing arrangement which envisaged a handing over of the reins of the chief minister's post from the JD(S) to the BJP after 20 months of rule. This arrangement also involved elaborate division of ministries among both the parties. The JD(S) breaking the covenant, refused to hand over the post of chief minister to the BJP, whose nominee, deputy chief minister B.S.Yediyurappa was supposed to replace the current incumbent from the JD(S), H.D.Kumaraswamy, chief minister since January 2006.

This display of breach of trust has been widely berated, for the reasons offered by the JD(S) for their actions amount to nothing. The sudden discovery by the JD(S) of the communal character of the BJP (even as no such classification was made in the first place during the formation of the coalition) will not convince anyone. Simply put, this action by the JD(S) amounts to petty politics.

This form of power sharing arrangement which lays impetus to ministerial posts and executive positions is not new and neither is the drama that follows the breakdown of such arrangements. In the recent past (in 1997), the BJP had a similar arrangement with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose nominee Mayawati as chief minister was supposed to hand over reins to the BJP nominee after a specified period. The transfer of power never happened, resulting in the collapse of the arrangement and declaration of president's rule. A similar situation occurred with the People's Democratic Party (PDP)- Congress arrangement in Jammu and Kashmir, however, after some wrangling, smooth transfer of power did in fact take place.

Most of these arrangements have been made necessary (or atleast such is the reason provided by the parties involved) because of the fragmented nature of the verdicts in the assembly elections. Owing to no decisive victories for any parties in many states, such short-lived and expedient arrangements have been attempted. The sad state of such arrangements is the fact that alliances thus formed, despite the peoples' verdicts, do not coalesce and function according to common policy prerogatives or programmes. The bottomline that governs the formation of such alliances is not a give-and-take on issues or on specific programmatic outlines from the parties that partake in such alliances. It is more to do with the trappings and perks of ministerial power as these posts are seen as avenues to extend patronage to sections and to win over newer segments. Contradictions between the parties are swept under the carpet and the emphasis is on somehow latching on to ministries. The period of early bonhomie invariably vanishes as the alliance enters into a zone of problems, as has proven in the recent case in Karnataka.

The formal alliance between the JD(S) and the BJP was achieved after a segment of the JD(S) which was dissatisfied with the ruling coalition with the Congress (Dharam Singh was the chief minister and JD(S) leader Siddaramaiah was the deputy chief minister in this arrangement after the 2004 assembly elections which lasted till January 2006), broke away to align with the BJP, which had won the single largest number of seats in the elections. The new chief minister Kumaraswamy had justified this unprincipled move by saying that he was keen on a programme of economic development “more important than abstract notions of secularism”. By invoking secularism again as the main reason for the non-transfer of power now, it is clear that alliance was founded upon opportunistic basis in the first instance itself.

The fragmented nature of the polity, with several parties appealing to core sections of the populace has resulted in fractured verdicts, which in turn has meant political arrangements made out of expediency. However fickle a verdict might be, it does not mean that opportunist alliances can be formed without a commonly agreed policy outlook. There is every possibility of instability because of disagreements on various policy positions, but this arrangement is certainly more principled and respectful to the peoples' verdict as compared to a mere portfolio sharing agreement involving rotation of seats of power.

A champion batsman departs..

A champion cricketer bids farewell

Yesterday marked the swansong for one of cricket’s most dominating batsmen, Inzamam-ul-Haq. A colossus of a batsman (and not just because of his burly stature), Inzi – as he is popularly known – can stake claim to being one of the best batsmen of this generation. Inzi’s career has been a jolly rollercoaster ride, with elements from the sublime and the supreme to the tragic and the bizarre. All along, however, he has maintained a silent dignity of a champion who has been one of the most dependable bats in the world.

Starting off as an unknown youngster plucked from anonymity, as most Pakistani cricketers were, Inzi’s first stab at greatness was his stellar performances in the 1992 World Cup when his superlative batting catapulted Pakistan to the finals, before contemporary Wasim Akram assured a championship triumph. His potential was highlighted when Imran Khan, the then captain announced that Inzi was the best player of fast bowling in the world. Imran was not far off the mark. Inning after solid inning confirmed this praise.

His batting was an ideal combination of power mingled with finesse. For a man of that bulk, subtlety came surprisingly easy. A good eye, capability to read the seam and swing early and tremendous timing ability characterised his batting all through his career. Added to this strong technical ability was his stubbornness on protecting his wicket and an unflappable attitude. No wonder, his fortitude generally rubbed on his teammates as he shared some excellent partnerships with even tailenders, often trusting their abilities without having to shield them. A recent example was his 92, not out, against South Africa, where he had to bat at number eight and enjoyed a partnership with unheralded tailender Mohammad Asif. The 184, not out, against India in Bangalore was another example of solid batting under immense pressure. Such innings were characteristic of Inzamam, batting was an art made easy.

This easy attitude perhaps was both his strength and weakness, as his cavalier approach to facing the delivery could not be sustained on other aspects of batsmanship, particularly running between the wickets. In this area, Inzi was a perennial malefactor, responsible for scores of run-out mishaps involving himself or his partners. His running foibles resulted in the public caricaturing this aspect of his cricket. Surprisingly, he was a robust fielder, with a canon arm from the outfield and quick reflexes at slips, showing no bit of sloth alleged by many as defining him.

A man of utter calm on the crease, on and off the field, Inzamam’s one black mark was the incident in a match against India in Toronto. Taunted by a raucous spectator on his girth, Inzi lost his nerve and chased the offender with a bat, a scene that was totally against his character. This incident apart, Inzi presented a pious image, nonchalant and gracious in victory and defeat. This cool attitude rubbed on the perennially tempestuous and mercurial Pakistan side, as his captaincy marked a period of unity and integrity in his teams that he led. His was a captaincy by example, as his courageous batting reflected leadership more than vocal admonition or handling of players.

The incident that catapulted Inzamam from being known as a calm, composed and mild-mannered captain to a no-nonsense indignant leader was the Oval Test match spat with umpire Darrell Hair, with the match being forfeited, an occurrence without precedent in Test Cricket. His team accused of ball tampering, Inzamam refused to bite the allegation and preferred dignity over defeat. His stout defence of his team and his standing up to an official, who had a history of controversial decisions against players from the Subcontinent, won him a lot of respect among several cricket lovers, particularly those who believed that cricket was still blighted by racial preference for the stiff upper lip and the white man. His actions, however, invited a four match ban, a censure that did not diminish his forthright rejection of imposed disrepute.

Inzamam’s actions were reminiscent of Arjuna Ranatunga’s stout decision to defend Muttiah Muralitharan after he was called for throwing by umpire Ross Emerson in Australia. While it would not be worthwhile to extrapolate this issue by calling it an act of standing up to colonial attitude, it is not far from the mark to say that Inzamam stood steadfastly for the pride of his team, unfairly accused of malpractice without sufficient proof.

The end to Inzi’s career, however, has been tragic. His captaincy and batting failed to help Pakistan march on to knockout stages of the 2007 World Cup, particularly because of a shocking defeat against Ireland (one of the biggest shocks ever in sport in this author’s opinion). The subsequent death of Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer and a tearful retirement for Inzi marked a dark end to his One-Day International (ODI) career. As Pakistan went on a rebuilding mode, Inzi declared that he was playing his last Test match against South Africa in Lahore. He missed breaking the highest runs scored by a Pakistani (a record held by Javed Miandad) exactly by three runs. International cricket’s loss is perhaps the Indian Cricket League’s (ICL’s) gain. Inzamam has signed a contract to play in the much touted Twenty20 league in India.

An eventful career thus marked Inzamam’s international cricket enterprise. From unique displays of sublime batsmanship under conditions of immense pressure to singular and bizarre ways of getting out (he was one of the few batsmen ever to have been given out obstructing the field, and he once fell over the stumps while attempting a sweep shot), from spectacular heights (the 1992 World Cup victory) to abyss (a complete non-show in the 2003 World Cup), Inzamam-ul-Haq has seen it all and experienced it all. He would, however, take immense pride and satisfaction from the fact that he carved a niche for himself among a generation of splendid batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. He will remain an inspiration for future generation of Pakistani players, as well as for batsmen from the Subcontinent. Pakistan and the Subcontinent owe him a glowing tribute.

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On the Nepal turmoil..

...An editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly

A Curious Twist

The recent withdrawal of the representatives of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN (M)) from the government has precipitated a crisis of governance and created an impasse for the “seven party alliance” (itself a misnomer, since one of its members, the United Left Front is an alliance in itself) that had taken over power from the king in November 2006. Since the formation of this government, based on a mutual pact between the representatives of the seven political parties/groups and the Maoists, several steps had been taken to steer the political process in Nepal towards the formation of a democratic republic. The institution of monarchy has lost its legitimacy; most political observers now believe that Nepal is bound to become a republic if the elections to the constituent assembly are indeed “free and fair”.

The withdrawal of the CPN(M) from the government at a time when, as is being claimed, some of the key issues raised by them were being addressed, has aroused widespread curiosity. A series of dramatic moves, such as the withdrawal of several of the powers and privileges of the monarch and the adoption of a part “majoritarian”, part proportional representation system of elections, had been initiated by the present government.

Recent events in Nepal, particularly the happenings in the Terai region, suggest a set of clues to disentangle the reasons for the political impasse. The anarchic violence in the plain regions of Nepal, led by a diverse set of groups, whose claims range from madhesi inclusion in the political mainstream and government to independence for the Terai region, has not been contained. The Maoists, who had included marginalised sections such as dalits, madhesis and minorities in their contingent of members of the interim parliament, have not been able to assuage the raging discontent in the Terai. Neither could the government, of which the Maoists were a part, relying as it did on same old patterns of containment and selective appeasement as a response to madhesi demands.

Essentially, the madhesi problem is a cauldron that involves fissures on several axes such as caste and language and not just the differences between the dominant “pahadi” and the madhesi identity. The Maoists had lent support to a madhesi regional front, the Madhesi Rashtriya Mukti Morcha, but the internal fissures in the Terai region have meant that this forum no longer commands predominant support. The Gaur incident of March 21, in which several Maoist sympathisers were massacred by other madhesi partisans, is indicative of the sharp divisions on the ground. The Maoists have blamed the forces backing the royals and foreign interference (India and the US) for this situation and have therefore demanded the declaration of a republic even before the elections to the constituent assembly.

The rapidly deteriorating support for the Maoists in the Terai region and their inability to retain their support base despite commitment to genuine devolution of power and radical economic reforms has in turn created pressures within the party, linking the setback to the party’s participation in government. In a recent party plenum, apparently dissatisfied with the performance of the Maoists in government, many members demanded a reorientation to the goals of revolution. As such, the Maoists had accepted minor ministries in the interim government, perhaps contributing to this dissatisfaction.

The Maoists’ demands for immediate declaration of a constitutional republic in Nepal and a full proportional representation system have therefore to be seen in this context. This “shifting of goalposts” (so termed because the Maoists originally insisted on the question of the republic being decided by the constituent assembly) and withdrawal from government had precipitated the present crisis. In hindsight, the Maoists should have insisted on a full PR system to be incorporated in the interim constitution itself.

The “return to open politics” by the Maoists has necessitated renewed mobilisation and readdressing of demands (as mentioned in the 22-point charter prepared by them before the formation of the government), even as they realise that the containment policy followed by the other parties towards them is limiting their influence. The Maoists still appear committed to the elections to the constituent assembly and there seems no threat of a return to “people’s war”. The political uncertainty suggests unfolding political alignments among the left in Nepal to counter the reunited and strengthened Nepali Congress. Meanwhile, as we go to press, the government has requested the Election Commission to suspend the elections to the constituent assembly (that were slated for November 22) pending a special session of the interim Parliament to consider an amendment to the interim constitution to meet the Maoists’ demands.

Independent Foreign Policy and Indo-US Strategic Partnership

An article published in Economic and Political Weekly

The debate on the nuclear deal with the United States (US) has brought foreign policy into the maelstrom of public contestation in India. While it is debatable as to how many are really interested in the nitty gritty details of the 123 Agreement, which is the next to penultimate step in the culmination of the deal, the fact that the agreement has upped the political ante, with the ruling coalition sticking to this deal while others in opposition and in outside support opposing the same, has made this issue a point of discussion among many in the public space. The left parties oppose the deal on the basis that the features of the agreement as well as the overall context, suggest a paradigm shift in India’s independent foreign policy toward bandwagoning with American hegemonic interests. It is this argument that shall be studied in detail in this essay.

While non-alignment is termed by many as having a moral basis that derived from a normative perspective of the world, the truth is that it was very much moored in realism. India, as a fledgling developing state, made it a point to inform the world that it was not ready to be caught in the battle of systems that the world was involved in. The idea was to keep development

as the primary ideology with redistribution a constitutional imperative. As for foreign policy, the fledgling post-colonial state adopted a mixture of utilitarian and normative approaches. What was affirmed in the latter approach was to uphold the right to sovereignty of third world nationalities which were trying to escape the last few clutches of territorial colonialism. This foreign policy yielded significant dividends and at the same time got dialectically interspersed with the dynamics of the cold war. Thus while the US helped India rejuvenate its food production with support for the country’s green revolution, there also developed a wedge between these countries when the US extended its influence to the south Asian region by expanding its alliance with India’s neighbours through the South and East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), which was ostensibly aimed at balancing growing Soviet interests in the region. India’s strategic closeness to the Soviet Union was cemented with the 1971 friendship treaty signed with the Soviets. Yet, the story of power relations in the world took a significant turn with the relentless degradation and withering away of the Sino-Soviet partnership and China drawing itself closer to the US. The policy of containment of the Soviet Union and the later tacit tie-up with China by the US eventually saw the destruction of the “second world”, which culminated with the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Since 1991, however, the ground realities in the world have changed. The end of the cold war has not seen the dismantling of cold war alliance groups such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The project for American hegemony has been reinstated with a vigour that has been taken to new heights by the current neoconservative George Bush presidency. While NATO has been used to extend American geopolitical interests in eastern Europe, a drive for controlling energy-rich regions of west Asia and central Asia, Latin America and eastern Africa was launched through several incursions, the latest being the invasion of Iraq. Apart from this aggressive foreign policy zeal, there has also been a long-standing attempt to dictate developmental paradigms to the developing country societies. Through the aegis of the Bretton Woods institutions the emphasis has been to reduce the state orientation of economic policy in these nations, while increasing the scope for the market and prospective investment from the developed world in these regions.

Intriguingly though, globalisation has also entailed a intertwining relationship between powers such as China and the US into a mutual complex framework. China holds large amount of American currency in the form of bonds which are used to fund the huge US deficit. This intricate relationship has resulted in a nuantic policy of the US toward China, which involves at one level engagement over several issues, such as the denuclearisation of North Korea and seeing it as a long-term strategic threat on the other.

India’s Adaptation

It is in this context that India’s changes both in broad economic policy as well as foreign policy since the beginning of the aforementioned period need detailed explanation. Since 1991, India’s economic policy has been a story of adoption of neoliberalism through the means of liberalisation, privatisation and engagement with globalisation, while gradually reducing government intervention in redistribution and welfare schemes. On the foreign policy front, India’s primary choices had been to create thaws in the hostile neighbourhood by gradual reduction of tension and hostility with Pakistan and China. The nuclear tests of 1998 and Pakistan’s incursions into the Kargil sector in Kashmir were flashpoints that highlighted the discomfort between these countries. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government specifically mentioned the presence of a nuclear power (China) as a threat which compelled India to go for overt nuclear weaponisation. Following this test onwards, the NDA government tried its best to hitch onto the American bandwagon in world politics (remember, India was the only nation to support the National Missile Defence programme of the US). In essence, the NDA regime clearly tried to project India unilaterally as an avowed ally of the US.

The terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, signalled another opportunity for the NDA regime to get closer to the Americans, when the regime offered facilities for the Americans to act against obscurantist terrorist elements in Afghanistan. The NDA regime then provided hints to help the American endeavour in Iraq (clearly a denouement of the neoconservative policy framework in the George Bush regime) but was prevented from doing so by overwhelming opposition in the country.

However after several crisis points during these years, the relations with the neighbours, Pakistan and China began to be mended. Border talks and affirmations of stronger economic ties with China, along with a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan on various issues (including Kashmir) signalled a thaw in the long-term hostile relationships with these nations. On the world arena, buoyed by the new emphasis on market-led growth, India ventured into reaffirming new partnerships and liaisons with several countries in central Asia, Africa and Latin America to boost ties based on compulsions of energy security and finding new markets. This brought India into competition with China, which had also embarked on a similar trajectory. Interestingly, the thaw in bilateral relations created an environment where increasing cooperation could be noticed in projects such as exploration for oil. The proposed pipeline between Iran and India, through Pakistan also promised to establish a new strategic endeavour between these countries to forge economic ties to help energy requirements as well as creating a chance to overcome political troubles through the sheer force of economic rationality.

Indo-US Strategic Partnership

In essence, since the end of the cold war, the broad contours of Indian foreign policy have been propelled by the same realist interests that existed before albeit with updated priorities. Development as an ideology has been retained. However, this has been redefined in the terms of market-led growth and subsequently has delineated relations with other developing countries. Yet, even as this paradigm was playing itself out, a new turn occurred with the offering of a strategic partnership relationship from the US. From the signing of a defence framework agreement to American affirmations to help India become a “global superpower”, the working of a deal for civilian nuclear energy transfer; these events trigger a new shift from India’s studied disengagement from aligning strategically with the superpower. Two kinds of arguments are heard from those who defend this shift; one which emphasises that such a bandwagoning is mandated by the changed nature of the world and to balance rising China that is still seen as a competitive power, and the second that argues that this strategic tie-up with the US does not reduce foreign policy manoeuvrability, as autonomy of decision-making is still retained even as benefits are accrued from the ties. The first argument is futile as the balance of power, i e, taking a confronting position against China would undercut the growing bilateral relationship and would further fuel instability in India’s environs. Also, if at all a balancing is mandated in this predominantly unipolar world, it must be done at the global level. The global balance of power (through soft power and bargaining, not confrontation) by emphasising a multipolar world could help prevent disasters such as the US invasion of Iraq or at least mitigate the ill-effects of unilateral action by the hegemon. The role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (a strategic tie-up between Russia, China and a host of central Asian nations) in articulating energy tie-ups between these powers and in collaborating against menaces such as terrorism, is to be seen in this regard. India has been invited as an observer to this forum of nations, who affirm that the formation is not a military front against the US but a strategic tie-up concerned with issues particular to the Asian region. Such a position is understandable in light of the individual nations’ trading and economic relations with the US. The bandwagoning argument runs into problems for such a position is considerate only of the fact that China’s policies are driven by realpolitik alone. It is true that China privileges nationalist interest, but the energies of the current Chinese regime is devoted primarily to sustain their growing economy. Conversely,

the balancing game is bound to run into problems, considering India’s own internal difficulties in the north-east region. The second argument is also on flimsy ground. While it is argued that the growing economic clout of India (despite dark internal problems such as inequality and sustained poverty) ensures that a modicum of autonomy can be retained in a strategic partnership with the US, the actions of the Indian government in recent international fora suggest the opposite. Despite claims by Indian officials to the contrary, it has made clear by an ex-US official that India’s votes against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency issue were “coerced”. Even the economic ties with the US, attached as they are with strings that constrain the role of the state in orchestrating pro-poor development policies in the country, are to be strictly regulated.

The defence agreement, formation of a regional grouping in conducting naval exercises, the affirmed joint plan to “spread democracy”, and the nuclear deal fall into a pattern that militates against the upgraded foreign policy paradigm of independent India. The twin realist and idealist notions of non-alignment and third world solidarity, which heralded newly independent India’s foreign policy, have gravitated to regional harmony, multipolarity and robust economic relationships with other developing countries in a changed world. Strategic alignment with the US will lessen the benefits of this studied gravitation. Essentially, it does not make sense to put all the eggs in the American basket alone.

The nuclear deal between India and the US, as cited by many, is not a stand-alone bilateral deal, but is a move that has to be seen in the context of the changed world that we inhabit in as well as the priorities that have been advanced by both nations. Even from a realist perspective that sees national interest as one whole without considering internal class divides, one could argue that an independent foreign policy governed by affirmations toward multipolarity is best suited for the Indian nation. Any switch from this in favour of a strategic alliance with an unipolar hegemon will be at the expense of stability in India’s environs and will hurt India’s bouquet of choices.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pipeline of Peace..

What better way of commemorating Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary than to make further strides in peace and diplomacy among nations in South Asia? That is the question that strikes someone who is inspired by Bhagat Singh’s enduring legacy in the Subcontinent. Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary who envisaged a different world, and it is a different world indeed where conflict, violence and the ruling classes’ writ alone does not determine the contours of the toiling and common people’s economic choices.

For years, the South Asian region has gone through ferment, even as its inhabitants have yearned for better people-to-people contact, transcending of boundaries and for the ability to make their own choices over their destiny. But political differences have sustained and endured, creating complication after complication, making peace a cul de sac.

International relations theory, however, has an answer, groomed and tested in empiricism and history. The use of liberal institutionalism and the predominance of economics over politics has had sanguinary effects more often than less, and has brought order in times of pell-mell. Thus if one uses the value of economic relations, it makes it much easier to overcome political differences and the flickering light at the end of the tunnel seems much brighter.
It is in this regard that the proposed gas pipeline between Iran and India, transited through Pakistan, has a potential that transcends mere commercial value and emphasises a change in geo-strategic relations. Unsurprisingly, the force that resists this deal and its legitimising value for the nations involved is the US, which sees any leeway to and inter-state engagement with Iran, even for simple commercial value, as anathema to its grand plan for west Asia.

The gas pipeline from Iran to India was a proposal mooted by the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) director, Dr R K Pachauri and former Iran deputy foreign minister Ali Shams Ardekani. The snowball of a proposal rolled on, took shape and soon the concept was welcomed by many for the benefits were huge. Iran was conscious that a new supply route from its gas fields could open up not only economic vistas, but also greater geostrategic potential. India and Pakistan, having high domestic demand for energy, have a relatively cheap and enduring source. The South Asian watchers are thrilled, because at last there is the strength of economic rationality weighing heavy over political units.

What is the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline all about? It is a 2,700 km long gas transport pipeline from the gas-surplus Iran fields, through Pakistan, and eventually to India through the western corridor. Natural gas is a cheap and a relatively clean source of energy as compared to other fossil fuel-based sources. Several project estimates and feasibility studies have pointed out that the project has tremendous commercial value, once implemented. These studies envisage that the costs of implementation are reasonable, and that the project itself is extremely viable.

As such, a few bottlenecks have cropped up vis-à-vis the project. Some have got to do with the feasibility levels, some to do with minor pricing irritants, but the major one has got to do with the geo-political nature of the deal. At the feasibility level, analysts are worried about disruption of the pipeline by extremist activity and the usage of the pipeline as a tool for making terrorist political statements. The financial worry of sabotage is alleviated by the fact that several modes of risk underwriting by international financial consortiums exist, any of which can provide money-back guarantees in case of sabotage. The political worry is addressed through a counterpoint: here is a chance to act on extremism more decisively, as rational choice determines that financial losses cannot be tolerated. Therefore, there is a strong financial incentive to act on extremism, even as the extremists themselves would realise that demand-fulfilling projects such as these cannot be a target for sabotage, as the stakeholders are common people.

The current phase of negotiations between Iran, India and Pakistan have been meandering into price irritants territory off and on. India and Pakistan are yet to resolve the transit fee issue, Iran is yet to accept the price review timeline that Pakistan and India favourably agree on and so on. Recently, India refused to take part in a tripartite meeting in Tehran, citing the non-resolution of the transit fee issue. However, these irritants are not deal-breakers and the advanced nature of financial economics can deal with these suitably. Important steps such as the determination of where would each country’s responsibility lie for the pipeline constructions, etc., have been made.

The overweening concern is geo-political. The US has stated its displeasure with the project and has advised India to prefer the Turkmenistan sourced pipeline. The US realises that the gas pipeline has a potential that could enhance the geo-strategic strength of Iran commensurately in the region. The Russian example of ‘gas diplomacy’ is there for all to see and the US realises as much as the others how gas supply can strengthen the influence and power of a country in the comity of nations. Russia’s influence in the European region has been greatly increased due to its gas supply and the dependence of downstream European countries on Russian gas.

The US insists on isolating Iran, as it brackets Iran into the “axis of evil” and it clearly does not want Iran to get out of the rut that it wants the country to be squeezed into. Simply put, the pipeline cuts into the hegemonic interests of the US in the region. Some would affirm that the Indo-US nuclear deal was a carrot dangled to India to drop the pipeline project, as the US re-enacts new scenarios in its great South-Central Asian game to retain hegemony. India’s relatively lukewarm reaction to the pipeline deal has instigated experts to argue that there is a heavy pressure from the US to scuttle the deal. In 2005, during a visit to the US, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rather curiously attributed a problem with risk underwriting of the project to international bankers, even while the project was in its concept stage. There have been statements from the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, suggesting nuclear energy to be more viable as compared to natural gas sourcing. Long time politics-watchers of the Subcontinent have suggested that the US does not quite look at the deal positively, as it sees a reduced “offshore balancing” role for itself if the deal is consummated.

It is here that Bhagat Singh’s legacy needs to be readdressed. Seen in the people’s interests, the deal is a clincher, as it affirms a cheap source of fuel and has the potential to revitalise people-to-people contacts in the region by wrecking the boulders of political differences that stand between the nations, particularly India and Pakistan. Hegemonic interests of a distant imperia cannot and must not impose their will over such a project and these impositions must be resisted. India, Pakistan and Iran must continue to work hard to overcome the minor irritants that have popped up on the pricing issues. The people of the Subcontinent owe it to themselves to ensure that the pipeline project is through and is implemented. They owe it to Bhagat Singh on his birth centenary and to his personal sacrifice that he made as a statement against imperialism.

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