Friday, January 11, 2008

Kenya erupts in violence

Editorial written for Economic & Political Weekly

Rival tribes engage in killings over presidential election results.

Incidents of internecine killings and violence have rocked the east African nation Kenya ever since the results of the December 27th presidential elections had been announced. The decision of the election commission in Kenya to declare the victory of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) has been the spur for these incidents, in which around 600 people have been reported to be killed.

It was widely believed that the results to the elections would have been extremely close with the opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) mounting a strong challenge to Kibaki's rule. However with reports of rigging and electoral malpractices coming in, the declared victory of Kibaki is seen to a dubious one by several independent observers. The fact that the prominent candidates belong to different tribes; Odinga from the Luo tribe and Kibaki from the Kiyuki tribe is mentioned as the reason for violence against the Kiyuki tribe members by disenchanted voters belonging to the Luo and other tribes. The most prominent incident of violence involved the burning of a church which had provided refuge to Kikuyu tribe members in a small town about 185 miles away from the capital, Nairobi, in the process, killing a number of people trapped inside.

It is however too simplistic to term this violence as motivated by just another case of inter-tribe rivalry in Africa. The political rivalry between Kibaki and Raila has been very intense and both accuse the other of personal corruption. During the Kibaki regime, formed since the demise of the Daniel Arap Moi dictatorship, Kenya has seen significant foreign investment led economic growth (about 6 percent according to latest figures) but concurrently widening regional and economic disparities in the predominantly agriculture based country. While prosperity has been accrued to sections in and around central Kenya (Nairobi and some other urban centres), regions in the west has seen continuation and accentuation of poverty (a national average of 79 percent) that has characterised the nation for quite long. Raila Odinga derives a lot of support from these regions, while the Kikuyu tribe dominated central Kenyan regions have affirmed support to Mwai Kibaki.

Mwai Kibaki, when first elected to power in 2002 was able to defeat Arap Moi's designated nominee Uhuru Kenyatta of the Kenya African National Unity (KANU) with the support of Raila Odinga. Kibaki's legacy was to devolve power in a federated system for Kenya, but the problems of corruption had continued to plague his regime. Odinga, a prosperous industrialist became part of the ODM along with other politicians and launched a movement to oppose Kibaki's rule. A much touted move for a new constitutional draft through a referendum by the government in 2005 was defeated resoundingly by the opposition, particularly because of a powerful grass roots mobilisation by Odinga. Odinga therefore emerged as a powerful candidate to replace Kibaki in the recent December 2007 elections and opinion polls pointed out that he would win by a narrow margin over the incumbent president.

Fundamentally however, Raila Odinga does not offer any substantial change in the economic policy (Odinga belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party faction of the ODM) and his elevation would have been yet another case of circulation of elites, common to African post-colonial nations. As it is however, the doubts raised over the legitimacy of the election verdict, fuelled the current spate of violence as Odinga refused to accept the verdict and called for a re-count and resignation of the new government.

Supporters of Kibaki have alleged that rigging occurred in ODM strongholds as well and Kibaki has refused an official recount or resignation, conceding however that the allegations about the election verdict have to be fought in the courts. Kibaki has also suggested a national unity government with portfolios for members from the opposition; the idea having been refused by Odinga however. A presidential candidate Kalonzo Musyoka who came third in the elections (also from the ODM), has been named as the vice president in the newly installed government.

Representatives of the African Union have offered to mediate between the warring politicians in Kenya to bring about a conciliation, which could stop the internecine violence. An official and accurate recount seems to be the best way out of the impasse. But the prevention of internecine violence of this nature in the future can only happen if the structural problems of the Kenyan political economy are sufficiently addressed by a democratically elected non-corrupt government.

Full Blown Conflict -I

The island republic of Sri Lanka is now officially engulfed by civil war. With the breaking up of the farcical ceasefire agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government has now acknowledged that it has plunged headlong into a full fledged war against insurgents in control of territory in the northern parts of the country. A series of articles will therefore focus on the current situation in the country, a background of the grievances that have created this quagmire and perhaps work out a way out of the impasse. The first part of the series will focus on the events as they stand.

The CFA was signed in 2002 between the two parties, brokered by a group of international monitors led by Norway. The agreement was welcomed widely as it had laid down the possibility of a lasting solution to the ethnic crisis in the nation, torn as it was by years of civil war and strife between the majority Sinhala and the Tamil communities. The Sri Lankan Tamil community's grouse was that they were denied basic rights for years by the Sinhala dominated central government and were at the receiving end of countless massacres led by the federal government. The Sri Lankan government on the other hand had deplored the insurgent tactics used by the LTTE, and claimed that the adoption of political assassinations, suicide bombings and Machiavellian tactics by the LTTE to retain military power was what that led to the impasse between both the parties.

The ceasefire agreement raised the possibility of a federal solution to the conflict and had also provided the first instance of the LTTE's acceptance of such a solution to the vexed ethnic nationality problem. It also gave official recognition to the LTTE's claim of representing the Tamilians. The LTTE was just one of a myriad set of groups fighting for various goals for the Tamil minority, from autonomy to complete independence. Groups such as the Tamil Union Liberation Front (TULF) which had existed for a longer time had advanced moderate methods of achieving goals such as federal autonomy and was endorsed by older and intellectual sections among the Tamils, while the LTTE and other paramilitary groups advocating the creation of a separate Tamil state, Eelam, found favour among younger sections. The LTTE over a period of time had been involved in internecine conflict among the various Tamil groups itself and after a period of attrition had emerged as the undisputed, strong and armed militant organisation. It had simultaneously cultivated an international backing through ties with the vast Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and had also been supported by several sections of the Tamil polity in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan crisis in the late 1980s had created disenchantment among both the Tamils and the Sinhala sections and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had to leave the Sri Lankan soil without tangible gains in bringing about an end to the conflict. The outcome of the IPKF saga led to the LTTE assassinating Rajiv Gandhi through a suicide bomber, as Gandhi was identified for having been responsible for the intervention in Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination however had the effect of alienating the LTTE from support in India, as the organisation was banned and its leader V. Prabhakaran was made the prime accused for the Indian leader's brutal murder.

After long periods of civil strife in the 1990s, the Sri Lankan government under then prime minister Chandrika Kumaratunga came forward with a devolution package which was rejected by the insurgents even as killings continued as the Sinhala government wrested back control over strategically important regions such as the Jaffna peninsula in north Sri Lanka. The LTTE had then decided to go in for a detente not just to recoup from its military losses but also to gain legitimacy by setting up governing institutions, thus graduating from a guerilla outfit into a governing authority in some areas in the North and East Sri Lankan regions, after the ceasefire agreement. The LTTE set up policing and revenue collecting organs, as well as judicial courts, even as the tenuous peace held with the reduction in hostilities between the two parties.

The peace however was not to last, as political assassinations and violations of the CFA started with impunity. A big blow to the LTTE was the breaking away of a major commander of the outfit, Vinayagamurthy Muralidharan a.k.a “Col”. Karuna who started his own outfit consisted of disgruntled Tamil extremist elements from the east Sri Lankan region. This group was later to be tacitly supported by the Sri Lankan government forces. The defection of Karuna weakened the LTTE in the eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

The decisive blow to the CFA was the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Kadirgamar, who was an ethnic Tamil was an articulate minister who had ideas for not just the solving of the ethnic problem but also for increased economic and diplomatic co-operation between different countries in South Asia. Kadirgamar was however a marked man for the LTTE for having tried to convince the case against the insurgents in the international community and his brutal killing by a bullet of an assassin suspected to be from the LTTE, put paid to any hopes of the CFA holding up for longer. The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which was set up to monitor incidents that violated the CFA, was now flush with innumerable complaints and violations. Nearly 90% of the violations were from the LTTE side themselves.

The coming to power of a hawkish coalition led by president Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) (supported by left nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist religious conservative Jathila Hela Urumaya) put paid to any hopes of reviving the CFA to workable levels. The Rajapaksa administration paid lip service to the question of granting federal autonomy to the Tamil minorities while going in for a full scale military offensive which included targeted air bombings. There were great hopes for a consensus on federal autonomy and an emulation of the Indian model of federalism in Sri Lanka through an agreement between the chief political actors in the Sinhala polity (the SLFP and the opposition United National Party), but it was prevented by petty politicking. An All Party Representative Conference called upon to evaluate a solution through the involvement of the mainstream parties was to become a cropper because of insistence of hardline positions by the JVP.

In the meantime, the military conflict achieved some victories for the Sri Lankan government as top LTTE leaders, political commisar S.P.Tamilchelvan and intelligence deputy “Col.” Charles were killed. But the conflict has escalated the humanitarian crisis in the region, affecting the already traumatised Tamil population greatly. More and more people have been forced to stay in decampments after severe aerial bombing and even the Tamils in cities such as Colombo have been harassed by security agencies ostensibly as a security measure. The LTTE has promised to retaliate in kind, meaning more bombings, suicide killings, and terror attacks in the Sri Lankan capital and other cities are in the offing.

After the tearing up of the CFA, the government has declared its intentions for a full scale assault on LTTE lines in the Wanni region in north Sri Lanka, saying no federal solution is possible without demolishing the LTTE. The LTTE is expected to revert to its time tested guerilla strategy of “hit and runs” and tactical retreats into jungles and many analysts say that the assault would be a long drawn one as the LTTE has withdrawn its cadre from the eastern belt to protect the northern strongholds. The humanitarian crisis is only bound to worsen as this conflict continues to escalate. All hopes raised in 2002 during the ceasefire are shattered and an interminable military confrontation looms large but very near. Future sections of this series will explore the historical basis for the conflict and would try to work out a viable solution, if at all possible.

Article written for The Post, Lahore

BJP wins in Himachal Pradesh

Editorial written for Economic & Political Weekly

Himachal Pradesh keeps faith with its voting history by ejecting the incumbent government

Since the creation of Himachal Pradesh in 1971, assembly elections in the state have usually followed the pattern of removal of incumbent governments from power. The recent elections conformed to the trend with the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), winning a comfortable majority (41 out of 68 seats), defeating the incumbent Congress Party. The BJP's victory was significant as it followed up its success in Gujarat.

The BJP has gone on to claim that the national mood was turning in the party's favour and against the ruling coalition in the centre. The Congress, on the other hand, has dismissed the electoral loss as having no impact at the national level and has blamed the anti-incumbency factor for the loss. The party had hoped to break this trend by trying to announce welfare schemes in the later stages of the Virbhadra Singh-led government just before the election schedule was to be announced. That game plan came a cropper with the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule ahead of the expected date due to reasons of logistics.

The primary reason for anti-incumbency voting in the recent elections was the non-fulfilment of promises the Congress government had made after its victory in the 2002 assembly elections. The party had promised one job for every family in the state just after coming to power. Himachal Pradesh remains a state where agriculture, outside the apple orchards, is mostly subsistence based and the primary means of employment outside agriculture has traditionally been government provided. The problem of unemployment is chronic and the downsizing of government in this state too, a characteristic of neo-liberal reforms across India, has meant that newer jobs were left to be created primarily in the private sector through private investment. The Congress government had formulated that 70 per cent of all new jobs created in the private sector must be for Himachal residents, but this was not properly implemented on the ground. Unemployment therefore remained a burning issue that turned the voter mood against the Congress. Perennial issues such as corruption and patronage were other reasons for the grouse against the Congress as much as these were reasons that militated against the BJP in earlier elections.

The BJP victory in this election was qualitatively different from its earlier victories in the state. It was for the first time that the BJP won an overwhelming majority without help from parties such as the erstwhile Himachal Vikas Congress. This points to the effective management of the regional contradictions in Himachal Pradesh. The BJP, seen as strong in the Kangra region (termed New Himachal, as it merged into the old Himachal formed in 1966), was able to win substantially in the seats in the old Himachal region too. The BJP was also able to neutralise earlier perceptions and misgivings about the party on the issues of corruption and mismanagement as the electorate held the Congress government guilty of the same phenomena. The large margins of victory and the increase in vote percentage for the BJP are testimony to the disenchantment with the Congress government. Unlike Gujarat and other states, the politics of “hindutva” and communalism have mattered little in Himachal Pradesh, a state that has a very low concentration of religious minorities.

Another factor that was talked about in this election was the presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which contested most of the seats and threatened to make an impact by bringing disgruntled elements from the BJP and the Congress into its fold. The presence of a sizeable dalit population and the resounding success of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh raised hopes of the party making an impact in Himachal, but that was not to be. The BSP won only one seat, won by a Congress dissident and could only act as a spoiler in some constituencies.

Himachal Pradesh has always seen high levels of political participation, reflected in good voter turnouts. The fact that the politics of patronage, bad governance and the presence of corruption have ruled the roost in the state has forced the electorate to reject incumbent governments. The recently concluded election is validation of this pattern. Can the new Prem Kumar Dhumal-led BJP government buck the trend by providing an alternative to such politics?

Friday, January 04, 2008

A primer about the Primaries

To be published in The Post

The American primaries, elections which decide the presidential candidates of the two dominant political parties in the country, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have begun. The Iowa caucus is the first state poll followed by a sequence of polls in other states which decide the party candidate for president through a “winner take all” basis. Which means that the candidate who wins the most number of states is taken to be the presidential representative for the parties. For a interested south Asian, the presidential election process in the United States is important because one gets to see the various positions on foreign policy and worldview of the different candidates for the most powerful executive post in the world today.

In the predominant two party system that drives American democracy, the presidential candidate nomination process follows a set routine; the candidates get heavy duty funding from various sources and use expensive campaigns to get support for themselves. Numerous public debates are also conducted where the various candidates' positions on different issues come to the fore. The upcoming elections would widely decide if a change is brought about in the the decidedly right wing world view that has dominated the Bush presidency in the US. As such therefore, a perusal of the various policy positions of the different presidential candidates would serve a teaser preview of the possibility of such change.

The Democratic Party candidates, primary of whom are Hillary Clinton (former first lady in the Bill Clinton administration), Barack Obama (the only African American senator in the US senate) and John Edwards, attest to formulating and implementing a change in the disastrous foreign policy followed by the Bush administration. The prominent Republican party candidates, however, more or less affirm to the direction in the foreign policy brought about by the Bush administration and suggest a continuum of the unilateral measures adopted by the incumbent administration.

Yet for the outside observer, this difference hardly matters much. The prominent Democratic candidates with the exception of Barack Obama endorsed the war in Iraq by approving the measure to invade Iraq. John Edwards apologises for having done this basing his opinion on faulty intelligence in 2003, while Hillary Clinton refuses to acknowledge her mistake. Obama on the other hand has voted for increases in the war fund in Iraq. Even though he emphasises that his vision would envisage a change in the foreign policy discourse and that he would hold talks with regimes opposed to the US, he has betrayed the same unilateralist tendency as others in the Democratic fray by suggesting that he would keep the options open for a military initiative in Iran and even in Pakistan, disspelling any doubts on his respecting national sovereignty. Overall, the Democratic position on foreign policy seems nuantically different from the Bush course but in essence on overall policy, does not envisage any change in the American hegemonist positions on world affairs. And this is despite the near overwhelming opposition to the war among Americans, one reason for the strong Democrat performance in the 2006 Congressional elections.

The only Democrat candidate who has rejected “war as an instrument of foreign policy” and has opposed American unilateralism, including the Iraq invasion consistently is Dennis Kucinich, a Congressman who has promised a “Department of Peace” once elected to power. Yet, Kucinich seems to be a fringe candidate with very little funding and destined only to win a marginal number of votes of support. The record of other Democrat candidates does not inspire much confidence in them for a resident of the developing world, who sees hegemonic action by the United States as violation of all international norms and institutions, and as being dangerous to the citizens of the developing world.

The Republican candidates' positions are even more dreadful. Leading candidate Mike Huckabee has practically little knowledge about foreign policy and his social conservative and religious views reflect a warped understanding of the East. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney not only endorse the war on Iraq but want to continue the unilateral course of action on other nations even if it amounts to invasion, bombing or violations of sovereignty, all in the name of “war on terror”. No remorse is shown for the near three quarters of a million Iraqi deaths since the American occupation, or for the fraudulent reasons that were advocated for the illegal occupation. Among the Republicans however, there is one candidate, Ron Paul who happens to be a libertarian and sees no place for a interventionist foreign policy, as it violates the constitutional principles of the United States and as it is a huge drain on the exchequer. Ron Paul, who has become some sort of a internet favourite in the US however remains as much a fringe candidate among the Republicans as much as Kucinich is among the Democrats.

The battle among the Democrats therefore seems to be as to who would occupy the liberal imperialist mantle and among the Republicans as to who would inherit the neoconservative hardline imperial position on foreign policy. The virtual non-existence of a recognition to strengthen liberal international institutions in regulating world affairs and to reverse the disastrous geopolitical course in west Asia is common to both the Republicans and the Democrats. As such therefore, none of the purported successors to George Bush inspire much confidence to the inhabitants of the third world, even as one would be relieved that the likes of George Bush and Dick Cheney would finally be out of power.

Noam Chomsky when once asked as to how different he would have acted if he was hypothetically in presidential power in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks in New York, replied sarcastically that he would have perhaps done the same thing as George Bush. Chomsky mentioned that whoever the president is in the United States, the foreign policy establishment and the policy making circles, driven by nationalism and interests of the elite have circumscribed decision making to a set of policies that tend to emphasise American hegemony. The current positions of the different candidates for president in the US among the two parties is reflective of Chomsky's understanding.

The future presidency in the United States would be exposed to a world that has been rendered dangerous because of disastrous foreign policy decisions by the Bush administration. West and south Asia are the spots where the effects of American intervention have been the most turmoil-ridden. In Afghanistan, there is virtual anarchy beyond Kabul as the NATO presence has not helped resist the return and rise of the Taliban. Iraq remains a nightmarish quagmire of ethnic, sectarian and internecine divisions which have been exacerbated by American rule. Years of meddling in Pakistan's internal affairs and covert links between the American establishment and the Pakistani military and ruling classes have resulted in a situation where extremism has reared its head, after having been nourished by covert support for quite sometime. The Palestinian greivances against Israeli expansionism continue to remain and the US' continued emphasis on rejecting a just solution to the Palestinian cause by favouring Israeli hegemony has resulted in tearing up of the peace process in the region. Renewed threats of bombing and military action by the US has been played upon by radical sections all across west Asia. Even if military action has virtually decimated Al Qaeda, the terrorist organisation's oxygen has been sustained by acts of American unilateralism in the region.

All these point out to the need for a radical change in American policy from unilateralism and from an urge to control natural resource rich regions in the world to winning the confidence of the peoples of this reason by strengthening international institutions. Except for fringe candidates in the presidential fray, none of the frontrunners have shown the wherewithal to bring about this much needed change.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Modi’s Victory

Editorial dated december 29, 2007 in the Economic & Political Weekly

Narendra Modi spearheads another triumph in Gujarat for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

For the second consecutive time, Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a massive victory in the Gujarat assembly elections, making it the fourth time in a row since 1995 for the party. In every assembly election, the BJP has pitched a campaign theme; while it was the issue of anti-corruption in 1995 and an aggressive pitch for Hindutva in 2002, it was development of a “vibrant Gujarat” in 2007.

The victory in 2007 is different from the earlier assembly triumphs. The strings of BJP leadership in Gujarat had virtually passed on to Narendra Modi, with the gradual sidelining of other senior leaders who have either broken ranks or have remained dissidents. From former ministers (including ex-chief ministers) in the BJP government to other leaders in the Sangh parivar, an array of people who were in the forefront during the communally polarised elections in 2002 were this time ranged against Narendra Modi. Numerous exit polls and media surveys predicted that the outcome would be a close call between the Congress and the BJP. Yet, the prognosticators were proved completely wrong.

This was Narendra Modi’s election and this was his personal triumph, even if many had hoped that the Gujarat electorate would hold him accountable for the crimes of 2002, for which there has neither been atonement nor justice for the victims. The continued dominance of the BJP in 2007 points to the failure of the Congress in effectively countering the seeping in of communal consciousness that has been a fallout of uninterrupted BJP rule in the state. At the same time, the emphasis on “development” in the 2007 elections by the BJP suggested that Narendra Modi wanted to be judged by the voters on his government’s record in issues such as industrialisation, irrigation support, rural electrification, and economic growth. The agenda of “cultural nationalism” and Hindutva, which dominated the 2002 elections, was missing, even as, during the later stages of the election campaign, Narendra Modi started stirring up such issues again.

The Congress had hoped to mobilise support from disenchanted sections among dalits, tribals and particularly the minorities who have continued to live in fear and neglect in the BJP regime. It was expected that the “caste arithmetic” success formula in the 1980s for the Congress, the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim (KHAM) alliance would be again forged, this time with the help of sections in the Patidar community led by BJP rebels. However, the inability of the Congress to address the ideology of Hindutva head on or to provide alternate solutions to the development paradigm followed by the BJP, as well as the absence of a viable charismatic leadership to take on Narendra Modi has resulted in yet another defeat for that party. Narendra Modi’s image as a chief minister with a direct style of governance, bypassing patronage networks and his being seen as responsible for services such as irrigation facilities, power systems, and investment for industry, was cultivated into a personality based propaganda campaign by the BJP’s. Modi’s tenure has been marked by a penchant for breaking away from party structures and pressure groups in favour of direct hands on management based on personal charisma. This personalised emphasis – which won him widespread popularity within the state – and the BJP’s aggressive “regional identity” message was manifest in the party’s campaign theme, “Jeetega Gujarat” (Gujarat will win).

The BJP has been clever in setting an agenda around communalism and majoritarianism during every assembly poll, while the Congress has always played second fiddle, unsure in its criticism and in its rejection of Hindutva as well as in the formulation of a more inclusive economic policy. The BJP’s victory in Gujarat despite the horrors of the state-led pogrom in 2002 and the continuing denial, subversion of justice and relief to the victims and survivors of the riots does point out to the weaknesses of liberal democratic institutions. It questions the ability of formal democracy to ensure that those who are guilty of violating constitutional duties and norms are held responsible for their actions.

Irrespective of the massive verdict in favour of Narendra Modi in the assembly elections, we must continue to work to ensure justice for the victims of 2002. And if the ideology of hatred that has taken root has to be defeated politically, all efforts must be made to project a viable alternative that wins the support of the Gujarati people. Only this can provide a strong counter to the charisma that Narendra Modi wields in Gujarat.