Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Verdict against Autocracy

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Voters in Pakistan have rejected the forces of autocracy, but will Washington and the military acquiesce?

Real News Network Videos featuring commentaries on the Pakistan election:

The Pakistani electorate has given a decisive verdict against the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) – PML(Q) – the party which supported president Pervez Musharraf and his duplicitous rule. Although the overall mandate for the national assembly is fractured with no party winning an absolute majority, the emergence of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the single largest party and the marginalisation of Musharraf’s supporters is the telling story of the elections.

It was widely expected that with a sympathy wave after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP would win a large number of seats, perhaps close to a majority. But, boosted by a strong showing in Punjab province, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – PML(N) – led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was able to notch up 66 seats, not much behind the 88 won by the PPP. The manner in which the PML(Q) lost, with several of its prominent leaders, such as former prime minister Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, biting the dust revealed the resentment against Musharraf’s rule. Another aspect of the verdict was the comprehensive rejection of extremist religious forces with secular parties such as the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) winning a substantial number of seats.

The elections were held against the backdrop of militant violence and voting had been postponed after the assassination of Bhutto. A positive aspect was the non-interference from the military following a professional order by the chief of army staff, Ashfaq Kayani. By delivering a verdict against both pro-Musharraf forces as well as the radical religious right, the Pakistani people have taken forward the surge of democratic activity and activism that began with the movement for the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Choudhury. Musharraf was “re-elected” to the post of president by the legislature in October 2007 by invoking an amendment to the Constitution. This election was later validated by a pliant judiciary after the incumbent chief justice and other judges were removed during a declared emergency.

Hanging in the balance now is the president’s future, as Nawaz Sharif has called for his impeachment and also for the reinstatement of the ousted members of the judiciary. The PPP led by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari has remained non-committal but the overall electoral verdict necessitates an understanding between the PPP and the PML(N), which means that these issues will have to be discussed by the two parties. A two-thirds majority is required to impeach Musharraf, to realise which the PPP-PML(N) combine would have to seek support from other smaller parties.

At the end of the week talks were under way between these parties and the ANP, and from all indications it is now a matter of not if but when Musharraf will be eased out of power. In the past, democratic rule in Pakistan has seen the tenures of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto marred by corruption and politics of clientalism and patronage. The resultant instability had given the powerful military an excuse to intervene in politics. Ever since Musharraf’s coup in 1998, constitutional rules have been re-written or bent to prolong his presidency, helped particularly by the writ of the military in Pakistan. A big question is if the current position of the military under Kayani to stay out of politics will continue. Entrenched as the military is in all areas of Pakistani economy and society, outsiders can only hope democracy and civilian rule will be strong enough to keep out the men in uniform.

Another important imponderable is the role that will be played by the west, particularly the United States, which has always meddled in the internal affairs of Pakistan. The US had considered Musharraf an ally and had hoped to continue its relationship with a troika of Musharraf, Kayani and the next prime minister in order to prosecute the so-called war on terror with Pakistan’s help. With the high weightage provided in the mandate to anti-Musharraf forces, such an arrangement now seems difficult to sustain.

Apart from extremism in regions such as Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and violence in the main cities, Pakistan is also faced with economic troubles with high prices of essential items and shortages of important commodities. The previous government had built growth on privatisation, overseas remittances and US aid. Both the PPP and PML(N) are expected to adopt centrist policies but the question is if the post-election alliance will be able to address the pressing economic issues of the day and prevent instability. The next government’s ability to honour the mandate will ultimately depend upon whether the democratic environment created in the elections can remain free from yet another spell of military interference and US influence.

Friday, February 22, 2008

As skewed as the system

Article written for The Post

In these columns a few weeks ago, we had tracked the story of cricket from a political-economy perspective. It was established that cricket traversed a path that reflected the dominant political economy of the environs where it flourished. So, if the game was a hang over from the colonial past, treated as leisure activity for the wealthier sections in its initial days of establishment in erstwhile British colonies, it later on adapted to political economy of these various countries becoming a national sport in some, particularly in the subcontinent. This article builds upon that story to evaluate the latest hot topic on the cricket front: the institution of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

India, over the years since 1991 has established a thorough going liberalisation and privatisation process which has put paid to state planning. The impetus on nation building through creating an equitable society and to mainstream marginalised sections has given way to letting the market get the preponderance over questions of economy while the state plays the role of a facilitator to the process. In other words, nation building remains the overhanging project but the builders have changed the story to one of growth rather than equity. Now, this process over the years has gone on in leaps and bounds anarchically without fetters as opposed to the gradual establishment of a liberal democratic free market environment and a nation state in other developed countries.

The sudden leap to a laissez faire in matters of economy has created new opportunities and at the same time plentiful distortions and it is only bound to happen that sport with its malleability could affirm to the new system in the same terms as set by the system. So, indeed just as corporate bodies in India control pretty much the nature of growth and the pulse of nation-building, cricket has passed in to their hands too. The Indian Premier League, an assortment of eight city-teams (franchises) playing Twenty-20 cricket is a form of commodity market, where the commodities are players, owners are the corporates, and the value of the commodity is determined by a set of rules that play itself out on a maidan with tools called bats, balls and stumps, and on the television screen in the form of commercials.

The establishment of this commodity market was kicked off by an auction system that instituted market value for the players through a valuation process. This valuation process considered not just the skill levels of the players (their use value) but also their brand building capabilities (say their exchange value). So it meant that Ishant Sharma, a tyro who has promised a great future through some inspiring performances in Australia for the Indian team was valued at $950,000 as compared to the established Umar Gul (valued at $150,000), who took the most wickets for Pakistan in the World Twenty-20 tournament. Sharma's exchange value as a representative for brand building for the franchise, owing to his Indian nationality trumped over the real value of Umar Gul.

Obviously the corporates were looking ahead at great returns for their investment. India had just won the Twenty-20 World Cup some months ago and this form of the game had captured the imagination of the masses. Added to the buzz was the glitz from yet another weakness of the Indian public: the entertainment industry (Mumbai film stars) plus the new consumerism of the middle classes. Now this potent mix was bound to churn out golden eggs from the cricket goose and the Indian cricket board only had to release it's employees to partake in the process. The Indian board had the advantage of running the game in the second largest populace in the world and it was only natural that it could influence other boards in releasing its own players for the jamboree that the IPL was. Ergo, the league got an international flavour adding more golden eggs and more value.

This bonanza for cricketers in a formal sense is a huge progressive step. Earlier, players were stuck in an atmosphere where the board decided their allowances and pay which were commensurate with the semi-egalitarian economic environment of the past. So, a cricketer despite his performance and the attention that he got, was paid a pittance and the only recompense he had was that he was playing for “national pride” that sat well with the overhanging politico-economic story after independence. But it is also necessary to take a perspective that is not merely nominal but substantive.

It is indeed true that commercialisation of sport is a reality that cannot be done away with. Be it the Major Leagues in the US or the football leagues in Europe or the professional leagues in Japan, sport has increasingly become corporate driven in these advanced capitalist nations. But the question remains if this form of sport activity cuts away from the larger logic of nation building at all and if it is purely market driven activity? Lets compare the case of IPL in India with what's happening in other sports.

In the US, for example, major leagues have been established for four main sports- baseball,basketball, American football and ice hockey (a league exists for soccer too). These sports are played seasonally as a well integrated market that cohabits a state supported structure. Participation is guaranteed for interested sections through feeder units in colleges and schools and infrastructure is established through city planning administrations. In other words, a full fledged sport environment with corporate ownership and state support exists that transacts action in the various leagues.

In Japan, professional baseball leagues involve corporate owned city-based teams too. Sports persons are fed to these leagues from the school and college levels (the Koshien school baseball tournament is perhaps the most important amateur sporting event in the country) and athlete development programmes are coalesced with youth development activity driven by the state. In other words, yet another example of co-ordination between the state and the market. In Europe too, the case is similar. In Spain, for example, club football acts as an avenue for passionate local nationalism (Spain is a composite country with different autonomous regions) to be channelised into sporting competition. So Barcelona vs Real Madrid is a way of pitting Catalonian and Castillian nationalisms against each other. Both the local governments play an important role in youth and skill development initiatives. The clubs and cities have also diversified into other sports such as basketball and tennis thus opening avenues for sports persons who are not footballers alone. Market driven competition has not diluted the essence of the sport either. Football remains a 90 minute game without any tinkering done to bring in instant gratification just because the market runs the sport and demands it.

In contrast to this well oiled structures that exist in the developed world, Indian cricket predominates because of its market value and state ignorance of other sports. Virtually no emphasis on youth and skill development ensures that the process of bringing up talent remains anarchic and only cricket with it's established feeder systems of age group tournaments, clubs and state boards remains the dominant form of sport activity. Even here, the game restricts itself to urban environs as the rural masses hardly have any hope of getting through to such tournaments without state intervention in grooming talent in these areas.

The anarchic nature of market driven sport also ensures that only a small coterie of readily recognisable talent gets attention and therefore the moolah. Those slogging it out in domestic cricket with skill levels say suited more for the more rigorous test cricket would pale in comparison to the slammer banger batsman in the IPL Twenty-20s. The IPL is bound to skew and distort cricket as it is today into a jamboree that is not so much balanced in it's recognition of skills and use values as much as it effects brands and exchange values. It is symptomatic of the system that Ishant Sharma will be paid $950,000 for bowling 4 overs a game in about 10 games and for showing his gleaming teeth for a brand while persevering hockey players play at shoddy stadiums and get pittances for their effort. It is the same system that generates a handful of multibillionaires and thousands of farmer suicides in a decade.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hasta La Victoria Siempre, Campanero Fidel

Article written by Comrade Aniket Alam for The Post

This line, which was supposedly spoken by Ernesto Che Guevara before his departure for Africa to fight with the anti-colonial revolutionaries there, is a fitting slogan to bid adieu to one of the greatest revolutionaries and Marxists of our times. This line would roughly translate as "Until [we achieve] victory forever! Comrade Fidel". Yesterday, Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, announced his decision to step down from the top post bringing to an end an entire era which he straddled like a colossus.

Clichés often belittle a person's contribution but it would not be incorrect to state that Fidel Castro is among those few world historical individuals whose contribution to human history will resonate long after the writer and the readers of these words have turned to dust.

Even when it happened, the Cuban revolution was a near impossibility. Situated just 90 miles from the mightiest superpower of the world – the United States of America – very few people expected Cuba's socialist experiment to survive under the hostile gaze of its dominant northern neighbour. Over the years, in a manner strangely reminiscent of the treatment meted out to its eastern neighbour – Haiti, Cuba has been sought to be economically strangled by one of the most stringent economic and political embargoes by the USA. Not only that, the US Government has tried to destabilise the Cuban Government every which way including sponsoring "invasions" by disgruntled Cuban expatriates living in Florida. The CIA's attempts to kill Fidel have taken on legendary proportions with 638 assassination attempts (you read that right!) having being documented over the past five decades.

One of the reasons Cuba managed to survive the economic blockade and the hostile attacks was the support given to it by the erstwhile Socialist State system led by the USSR. Close to 90 per cent of Cuba's foreign trade was with the Socialist states and almost all its fuel supplies came from there. But, ironically, even though the mighty superpower that was the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own mistakes and shortcomings, Cuba – which seemed to be dependent on the USSR for its survival – survived the collapse of the Socialist State system and continues to be the sole example of a mature socialist system of our times. This column had previously discussed the manner in which Cuba had managed to survive the collapse of the Socialist States in the last century ("The Anti-Growth Manifesto", 31 October 2007). There is one more, significantly more important, reason for Cuba's ability to not only survive economic blockade and political terror from the USA but to survive as a thriving socialist system.

Previously, this column spoke about how Cuban doctors have spread out all over the world, including in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, providing relief and medical aid to poor people free of cost. The fact that these Cuban doctors, considered among the most capable of their profession in the world, have not "sought asylum" in America or European countries and become rich doctors, but continued to work in poor countries indicates that simple idealism is a reality in Cuban society. For someone living in a country where every second teenager "dreams" of migrating to the developed West, it is surely surprising that an overwhelming majority of Cubans do not leave their country even when they have a choice. But Cuban idealism does not end here.

Last year, Cuban doctors working in field clinics in rural Bolivia performed a free operation on a retired soldier of the Bolivian army who had lost his eyesight to cataract. A simple event, but for the fact that this soldier was the one who had shot Ernesto Che Guevara dead in 1967! Where does such generosity of spirit come from?

One of the founding principles of the Cuban communist party has been sacrifice. Cuban communist party members are expected to sacrifice and set an example to other citizens. Unfortunately, this word has been such a favourite of spin-doctors that it is normal for the readers' eye to glaze over with cynicism at seeing it here. In Cuba this translates into real practical steps. In all matters of benefits, communist party members are last in the queue while in matters of contributing labour and life, communist party members are first in the list. So if there are a certain number of heart surgeries which can be performed in a particular month in a given district, communist party members will be last in the queue for that and non-party members will be operated upon first. Similarly when food was rationed in the 1990s, communist party members would get food only after the non-members have gotten their share.

Not only this, Communist party members in Cuba are held to a higher level of personal morality and probity. I remember reading about a gang of four drug smugglers who were caught in the mid-1990s and found guilty of the charge. Three of them, who were not communist party members, were sentenced to life-imprisonment, while the one who was a communist party member was sentenced to death. This principle has led to a natural barrier to all sorts of opportunists and careerists joining the communist party for their benefit, as happened in all other socialist states.

But the Cuban Communist Party did not confine this simple, yet pathbreaking, principle to their party but worked to broadcast it widely in Cuban society in general.

In the early 1960s, when Cuba was grappling with the challenge of increasing its industrial and agricultural productivity it was counselled by its Soviet advisors that one way of getting people to work harder and produce more was by providing material incentives. So, for example, the best workers would be given salary bonuses or the best farmers given better shares of their produce. Che Guevara, with the support of the Cuban communist party, opposed this method, arguing that to promise material rewards for good work was to sow the seeds of a anti-communist ideology inside society and its individuals. It would encourage people to look at their self-interest and foster competition between workers and farmers, rather than encouraging people to foreground the common good and fostering collaboration and cooperation.

In a somewhat bitter argument, Che and the Cuban party stood their ground over Soviet and East German advice. Che argued that good workers should be honoured publically rather than given material goods for working well. If people start working well in anticipation of material goods then it would lay the material foundation for the entry of bourgeois ideas of self-interest driven individualism. He argued that this would be the mortal enemy of socialist reconstruction of society. The demise of the Socialist State system of the twentieth century into a cesspool of renegade capitalism and the continued existence of Cuba as a standard bearer of Socialism probably is the greatest living proof of the correctness of this principle.

Today, when Fidel Castro – the leader of the Cuban revolution and Che's close associate – retires from the leadership of Cuba, it is a good occasion to salute these principles of the Cuban revolution which show the way ahead for socialists all over the world. The flame which was lit by the slave army of Haiti in 1804 has been kept alive by their compañeros in Cuba. Emancipation of the human being remains a practical possibility, a living reality.

Friday, February 15, 2008

First among “differentials”

Article written for The Post
First among “differentials”

The presidential primaries in the United States' two major parties, the Republican and the Democratic parties have reached a decisive phase. While senator John McCain has become the presumptive nominee from the Republican side, senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are fighting a close battle to clinch the Democratic nomination; Obama seemingly having his nose in front in the photo-finish race so far.

A few weeks ago, we did a profile of all the candidates on foreign policy, from the eye of a third world watcher and found that none of the candidates from both parties had a vision that could be accepted with glee by the majority of the developing world. Yet this lack of substantive choice based on foreign policy does not mean that the candidates are figures cut from an one-dimensional block. There exists serial differences in approach and vision between not just the parties but also among the candidates in the Democratic party that should interest a political observer enough to make prognostications about what kind of administration would be in offer if these candidates are nominated.

Hillary Clinton, if elected would be the first woman president of the United States. While that is a great and long due prospect, it is another first that worries the observer: the pioneering “first gentleman” in office: Bill Clinton. The Bill Clinton administration during the 1990s was definitely a more appetising government compared to the disastrous George W Bush administration. It presided over a economic boom and left a fiscal surplus but did not offer a substantive difference from the earlier Republican administrations in foreign policy or even on the question of removing poverty through welfare measures in the capitalist American system. This is seen as a legacy of the “third-way” movement led in the Democratic party by a section belonging to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC promotes a mixture of right-wing corporate friendly policies and welfare concepts while retaining hawkish positions on foreign policy.

The Bill Clinton administration, akin to the Labour Party under Tony Blair was the hallmark of the “third way” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to the centre-right in the political spectrum. Bill Clinton is expected to play a guiding role in a future Clinton administration under Hillary. Hillary Clinton has not disavowed the positions of the DLC or the Clinton administration and does not correspond to the more populist slogans in the party's progressive sections of rejecting corporate lobbying and special interests. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has taken bold measures on domestic economic policies such as a mandated health insurance programme to help get nearly 50 million uninsured Americans insured. On foreign policy, however, the unilaterist streak in the DLC's thinking is reflected in Hillary Clinton's positions on Iraq and Iran (whatever she might say about her withdrawal plans from Iraq). Despite centrism and non-radicalism being the governing principle of the Clinton politics and campaign, there exists a vast area of confrontation between the right wing Republicans and the Clintons owing to the partisan politics in the '90s involving the Clintons' personal life which was attacked with vigour by the Republican opposition.

This reliance on centrist and entrenched interests is exactly that has drawn attack from Barack Obama. Obama, a relatively new political entrant (he has merely two years on his resume as a senator) plays to the large American gallery which is distrustful of the special interest based Washington politics. He promises change, hinting at overturning the cynical and lobbying based politics that has characterised the American federal centre. However, in contrast to John Edwards (the withdrawn Democratic candidate), who stood on a platform of confrontation against special interests and the right wing forces (read Republicans), Obama has a different perspective on how to enact change. He rejects the reductionist approach of straitjacketing politics within the “left-right” divide and wants to engage in drawing in on commonalities while holding on to liberal, progressive values. This, he believes can be achieved through raising the pitch of value based politics through inspiration and non-partisanship. He refrains in confronting even his worst political enemies trying to draw positives out of his rivals and trying to build bridges while enacting progressive policies. Critics and observers would point out that such a formal approach will hardly bring about substantive change as this understanding goes against the ordained system of class differences that characterises society. But Obama's answer is that his reliance on his diverse personal background and on refreshing consistency in policy positions would inspire more participants in the democratic process and bring about “change”. A grain of truth exists in this argument, as the record breaking high turnouts in the primaries have pointed out, as also the support to Obama from Republicans who call themselves, “Obamacans”.

From a virtual underdog, Obama has risen to be a stronger candidate, overcoming Hillary Clinton's established machine in many of the states that have completed their primaries. The contest is still on, even as Clinton has attacked the deliberate “poetic” nature of Obama's appeal of “change” as opposed to her substantive policy positioning based on “experience”. Obama's vision of a non-mandated health insurance programme is criticised as a compromise by the Clinton campaign. More or less though, the battle among the Democrats is one of image and aura and not ideological.

John McCain, on the other hand is an intriguing candidate, who has brought in scorn from the far-right sections of the conservative Republican Party. It is a reflection of the great right-ward shift in American politics that John McCain, who holds a conservative record on foreign policy (bullish is the right term), pro-business record in economics and who is a decorated war veteran is termed not to be conservative enough by his own partymen. Part of this suspicion is the fact that McCain holds on to old conservative values of American patriotism (imperialism for the developing world) that is still based on agreed international norms. In contrast, the neo-conservative Bush administration has used folly and deception to go to war and has recidivist views on torture and internationalism. McCain rejected the nonsensical tax-cuts to the super-rich (one reason for the super-fiscal deficit of the non-performing American government). This has drawn the ire of the influential far-right Republicans who see McCain's moves on a bipartisan approach to illegal immigration and his disavowal of torture as signs of him being “liberal”, a bad word in the conservative lexicon.

Conversely, the dismal failure of far-right conservatism which has resulted in misery for great numbers of Americans who are disillusioned with the state of health care, housing and fiscal misery, not to mention the disastrous invasion of Iraq, has meant the demise of any viable far-right candidate in the primaries. John McCain, despite his “maverick” credentials, therefore becomes the Republican nominee by attracting independent and moderate voters. It remains to be seen how McCain could defeat Obama or Clinton without the entrenched far-right support. It also explains the courting of the far-right by McCain in the recent past (he has now promised to make the tax-cuts for the rich permanent) and has avowed the continuation of a bullish foreign policy in west Asia to defeat “jihadism”, even if means bombing Iran and continuing to stay put in Iraq. For the far-right in the US, any regime in west Asia opposed to American imperialism is jihadist (note the repeated pronouncement of the largely secular Ba'ath regime in Iraq as being close to Al Qaeda). McCain re-affirms this nonsensical understanding of west Asian nations.

For an observer, the American primary process is a reflection of the dominant political discourses in the nation. The American media, though, channelises this discourse through the formal route of image and aura, which destroys the larger substantive idea of representation of all political streams. It is a great weakness of the American system that vox populi lacks adequate representation in ideas, but only in images.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sporting Parallels

An Article I wrote about 4 years ago when in Infosys, Hyderabad

A Feature by V.R.Srinivasan

The advent of ESPN-Star into the Indian television arena has not only wrought in a lot of excitement among sport lovers but has opened up frontiers to view an eclectic mix of the best sporting action occurring across the planet. Today, the "buffet" served for the sport viewers have veritably increased with a lot more players in the sports telecast arena". We have been able to relish and appreciate the best of sports, and this article will focus on the several similarities between different sportspersons across different sports and cricket specifically.

Sachin Tendulkar and Ichiro Suzuki:

When Yours Truly was in Japan for nearly two years, he was struck by the ebullience of an iconic sportsman named Ichiro Suzuki, who plays for Seattle Mariners in Major League Baseball. Ichiro is as much a superstar in Japan as is Sachin Tendulkar in India. However what was striking was his very close resemblance in style, substance and character to Sachin.

IchiroThe six-lettered Ichiro is a five-star person in Japan, not merely because he is referred to by the first name, which is very uncommon, but also because of the dint of his performances when he consistently averaged the highest among all batters while playing for Orix Blue Wave in the non-descript Pacific League in the NPB (Japanese Professional Baseball). He moved over to the superior Major League in 2001 and didn't miss a beat averaging 0.350 in his first season as a Mariner leadoff hitter. He still plays as the most consistent hitter for the Mariners constantly in tune to win the batting title in the American League. Now that’s uncannily similar to what’s been done by Sachin throughout his batting career.

What’s very common to him and Tendulkar is the way both handle themselves on the field and away from it. His picture-perfect batting technique mirrors that of Sachin in many respects. His all-round hitting ability across different areas in the park parallels Sachin's 360-degree dominance of the wagon wheel during batting. Ichiro has a fierce arm from right field constantly threatening runners on bases, similar to Sachin's ability to give the ball a rip from the boundary line while fielding deep. And the most common attribute to these superstars is how they handle their private lives: free of controversy, fully dignified and absolutely mature. They have another common feature; they give really bland and boring interviews, reserving their insight to while playing the game rather than talk about it. Both are hence laconic but special sportsmen who deserve every bit of the adulation they receive.

Zinedine Zidane and VVS Laxman:

Zinedine ZidaneAnyone who has seen Zidane play would affirm to the magical abilities and the gazelle-like play that are so part and parcel of "Zizou"'s game. Zidane is a genius who mixes elegance with innate talent in the right proportions while delivering consistently for both country France and club Real Madrid, who are both the top teams in the football world owing a lot to this maestro. The telling feature of Zidane's play is how he seems to be from a different planet with his shimmies, flicks, dribbles and cuts amidst a crowd of defenders, making his counterparts and colleagues on the same field look like mere mortals. This feature is what brings into focus, India's panache-batsman VVS Laxman. When Laxman is on song, the sound of the ball hitting the meat of his bat sounds mellifluous, the flow of his blade is as smooth as the note that emanates from a Beethoven symphony, the ball is caressed across the field as if no friction exists on the ground and the timing of the shot is as perfect as the jump from one note to another in an Ilayaraja song. Both these sportsmen aren't exactly muscularly endowed, nor are they versions of Adonis, it's the way they play that draws the choicest eulogies and hosannas from the sport watching public.

Laxman has a long way to parallel Zidane's standing as the best footballer on the planet, in cricket. Yet for sheer elegance and wizardry with the bat, his name pops up immediately when similar players in different sport are thought about in the same "style" league as Zidane.

Brian Lara & Kobe Bryant:

Kobe BryantBefore venturing into the similarities, it’s the dissimilarities that have to be pondered about between these two players. Brian Lara plays in a Lone-Star team whose winning/losing is dependent on his performance more often than not. Kobe Bryant plays in a team which is consisted of four future Hall of Famers, the strongman Shaquille O'Neal at Center, "The Glove" Gary Payton at Point Guard and the second highest scorer in the NBA ever, "The Mailman" Karl Malone at Power Forward. With such a robust and strong squad, the pressure is not solely on Kobe's shoulders to take his team to glory.

However, both these players have an uncanny knack of playing the best with their backs to the wall. Kobe, who has been mired in an alleged sexual harassment trial all season long, has endured a sore shoulder, played all season with hardly any pre-season training and has still performed when he was least expected to. His 36-point outburst against Houston in the fourth and decisive playoff game came right after a court attendance in Colorado. The two outrageous three pointers at the brink of the buzzer against Portland in a late-season game were testimony to his crunch-shooting prowess. Game after game, he has re-affirmed that he is among the best who "perform-when-it-matters-the-most". This is precisely what Brian Lara is renowned for. His knocks of 153* (which included a fervent partnership with Courtney Walsh for the 10th wicket), 213 against Australia in 1999,the "bring-the-smile-back" 400* were all innings that showed tremendous grit in times of utmost peril. When the game is on the line, Brian Lara and Kobe Bryant's numbers are invariably dialed and most surely their teams are obliged with a saving/winning performance.

Muttiah Muralitharan & Sohail Abbas:

Sohail AbbasSport is full of surprises. Sport is full of the inconceivable. Happenings in Sport are mostly unpredictable. There are a few very "Sure-Fires" in sport, very few "take-it-to-the-bank" stories. Muttiah Muralitharan, the controversial but extremely effective and most deadly spinner from Sri Lanka is a sure-fire performer though. With lots of 5-fers and lots of 10-fers in test cricket in his pocket, there seems to be no one as consistent as this wily off spinner in world cricket. We can always expect at least one 5-wicket haul in a test match from him and invariably our faith and Sri Lanka will be rewarded.

Such consistency has a parallel in Sohail Abbas in Field Hockey. The Drag-flick specialist is a constant threat to the opposition when a penalty corner cometh. His success rate in the penalty corner zone is the highest in international hockey and Pakistan have won a slew of matches due only to the sheer brilliance of Abbas. He has a variety of flicks in his armory and he constantly befuddles the opposition in penalty corner positions with a great sense of direction and a wondrous ability to punch in the requisite power in the shot. A nonpareil target hitter, Sohail Abbas along with Muttiah Muralitharan make up paragons of consistency.

Thanks to the dedicated sports channels, one gets to study the nuances that are common to different sportspersons playing different fiddles and under the ambit of different rules. Three cheers for the globalization of sport!

Article originally written for an amateur site: cricketfundas.com

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Candidates as Salespersons

Editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly

Candidates as Salespersons

Image and aura predominate over policy options in voter choice of candidates.

Candidates in the two major American political parties, the Democratic and the Republican parties, continue to fight for the respective parties' presidential candidate nomination for the elections in November this year. Expectations that the primaries in a number of states on February 4 would yield a defining result have not been proven correct.

About 30 states have concluded their primaries and caucuses. Among the Republicans, senator John McCain has emerged as the front-runner, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to engage in a close tussle. Trends have indicated that there has been a huge surge in the number of voters who have identified themselves as Democrats, clearly affirming to the unpopularity of the current Republican regime headed by president George Bush. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama promise a break from the right wing policies of the current government, in the economic arena as well as on the foreign policy front. If the Democratic candidate wins, the US would have either a woman or an African American president for the first time.

As voters have identified the continuing occupation of Iraq and a sagging economy as primary concerns, these have dominated the speeches and political positions of the candidates. On the Democratic side, both the candidates have promised to withdraw troops from Iraq, but only gradually and in a phased manner. They also insist that they will be “pro-active” in areas such as Afghanistan and take appropriate diplomatic measures against Iran to counteract its supposed nuclearisation. Both candidates do not rule out military action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan if there is sufficient information on the presence of Osama Bin Laden or against Iran either, but Barack Obama, who spoke against the invasion of Iraq in 2002 as an Illinois state senator, promises to engage in talks with the heads of Iran, Syria and other regimes supposedly “hostile” to the US.

Hillary Clinton, who voted as a senator for both the invasion of Iraq as well as the consideration of a military action against Iran, while harping on international diplomacy, retains hawkish positions on policies in west Asia, and supports the continuation of the economic embargo against Cuba. The Republican candidates want a continuation of the Bush policy of unilateralism and pre-emption and show no remorse for the erroneous war. John McCain is even more hawkish on Iraq as he had supported a “troops surge” and has ruled out any timetables for their withdrawal from Iraqi soil.

The Democratic party candidates more or less affirm to centrist policies on economy. The crucial difference between Clinton's and Obama's positions lies in the issue of health care. Nearly 50 million American residents lack health insurance and this is a pressing issue in the elections. While Clinton argues for a mandated insurance coverage that could eventually lead to a form of universal care, Obama rules out a mandated programme (except for children).

For the Republican party candidates, social issues (abortion, gay rights) and illegal immigration are the primary issues of contention. John McCain, a former Vietnam war prisoner-of-war and veteran, is seen to be a moderate as compared to the arch-conservative Bush and leads the race over fiscal conservative Mitt Romney, social conservative and former Baptist preacher, Michael Huckabee, and libertarian, anti-war long-shot candidate Ron Paul. Except for Paul, all of them share a hawkish foreign policy, oriented toward a militarist position against “jihadist” forces in west Asia. McCain's wins in the primaries have come through support from moderate sections of the Republican party and independent voters, a fact that has made arch-conservatives in the party jittery about his possible nomination.

The format of the primaries, ensures that more than the issues, it is the image and aura of the candidates that determine their vote getting ability. Omnipresent media networks emphasise body language, image and personality as talking points in the campaign. Barack Obama, for example, has campaigned on the slogan of “change” from the years of right-wing rule under the Republicans and the “third way” policies of Bill Clinton, in contrast to Hillary Clinton's harping on her “experience” as a two-term senator and as the wife of a former president. Candidates such as John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich, who offered substantially different policy positions closer to the progressive and populist ethos of the party, have had to withdraw from the race. They did not enjoy the same media coverage and public presence owing to fewer campaign funds in comparison to the frontrunners, who have raised and spent millions of dollars on advertisements and campaigning.

There is virtually no media coverage of primaries of other smaller parties such as the Green Party or of independents who have comprehensive differences with the policies of the centre-right space straddled by the two big parties in the US. One could argue that the nature of primary elections in the US, owing to the undue emphasis on campaign resources and candidate image, is devoid of substantive differentiation in the political spectrum as compared to other democracies in Europe or even India.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -IV

Final part of the Series on Sri Lanka from The Post

Civil wars, especially those arising cantankerously from ethnic divides, create impasses from which the process of extricating peace is the most difficult. The Sri Lankan problem involving the ethnic Sinhalese and minority Tamils is not a one-off case without precedent or parallel in the world. Kurds spread across Turkey and Iraq have fought for an independent Kurdistan; Basques in Spain speaking Euskadi have demanded a separate Basque state carved out of Spain and France; the Portuguese speaking East Timorese achieved independence after a protracted and bloody phase in a fight for independence; and the intra-tribal rivalries that has engulfed Africa are legion.

The formation of a nation is to be determined not merely on the basis of simple identity demarcation, but through the lens of imagination of the constituent masses. In other words, the question to be asked is whether the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese have a common imagination of their histories and shared interests within a geographical limit. The presence of substantial intermingling among these communities despite linguistic differences and shared common interests in the form of common professions mean that there indeed is a shared history for the ethnic Sinhalese and the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is definitely true that there are regions where ethnicities predominate in their numbers; as in the East and the North that are dominated by the Tamils and the inner parts of the island as well as the south that are constituted mainly of the Sinhalese. But there is also a wide scattering of other minorities as well as the intermingling of either community.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claims a separate nation out of the north and the east on the basis of the incompatibility of the Tamils in a Sri Lankan nation dominated by the Sinhalese. LTTE chief Prabhakaran makes this evocative statement to his followers often that a homeland for the Tamils, which co-exists with a Sinhala state, is due. Central to the argument is that the LTTE imagines a Tamil nation distinct culturally and ethnically from that of the existing Sri Lankan state. The behaviour of the LTTE in negotiations over the past few years has tended to emphasise that they are the sole representatives of not just the Tamil community, but a de facto Tamil state, dealing with the Sri Lankan government. Tamil nationalism for the LTTE is no longer about ‘sharing the Sri Lankan state pie’, but carving a new pie for the community. The LTTE envisages the Eelam to be the homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils in the island and demarcates the geography to cover the north and the east parts of the country. These areas are also home to Muslims who are uncomfortable with the narrow Tamil nationalism and who have been at the receiving end of governance in areas controlled by the LTTE.

Therefore, as such there exists three forms of nationalism in the conflict: Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. The substantial Muslim population in the east and the north have been lukewarm to the separatist struggle of the Tamils and this lack of enthusiasm has even gone on to take the form of hostility, particularly towards the LTTE. Essentially, the LTTE project of a separate territorial nation-state for the Tamils is hindered by this emphasis on a narrow linguistic nationalism that does not accord the space to minorities such as the Muslims. More or less, this nationalism suffers from the same majoritarian impulses that created enough grievances for the Tamil community to estrange itself substantially from the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan political system.

Added to this is the question of how would the Tamil plantation workers (migrants from India in the 20th century) fit within the scheme of Eelam. These workers, based in interior and mainland Sri Lanka, have won political and economic rights after years of trade union struggle represented by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) whose deceased leader S. Thondaman is regarded as one of the strongest working class leaders in the country. This section of the Tamils has participated in the political processes of the Sri Lankan state and has not acceded to the principle of separatism for all Sri Lankan Tamils. Again this means that the narrow Tamil nationalism project envisaged by the likes of the LTTE for an Eelam would not include the Tamils of recent Indian origin, thereby complicating the claims for statehood for all Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Again, it is essentially clear that basing the idea of a new Tamil nation merely on ‘ethnic nationalism’ obscures the real problem in Sri Lanka: the absence of a legitimate civic nationalism that accords a sharing principle to all minorities and is not tied to the interests of the majority. Added to this problem is the fact that there exists a federal state for the Tamils in India in the north. Despite initial demands for an independent ‘Dravida-nadu’ in the early 1950s, the integration of Tamils within India under the principle of linguistic reorganisation of units (states) in a federal union is complete. The Tamilian identity is sufficiently subsumed and integrated within a civic Indian identity. The Tamilians have been successful in instituting their native tongue as one of the nationally official languages and the federal system of governance has ensured that Tamils have equal rights as much as any other linguistic group within the nation. The Indian government is very chary, therefore, about the prospect of an independent Eelam carved out of Sri Lanka based on linguistic ethnic nationalism.

In essence, this author repudiates the fact that the Tamils in Sri Lanka are better off with their own nation-state. The very basis of this nation-state is the same rationale that drove the ethnic conflict in the first place: chauvinist nationalism that was and is still being espoused by many sections of the Sinhala majority. It is, therefore, imperative that the political centre in Sri Lanka makes all efforts to ensure federal rights for the minority Tamils and provide them with large doses of autonomy in several aspects of governance to assure a “shared political future” (as analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda points out). In other words, the plurality of the Sri Lankan state must not only be token, but be real, vibrant and inclusive.

The trouble is to incorporate this rationale in the current political miasma that Sri Lanka is in. As seen in the preceding sections, both the sides in the conflict have now taken intractable positions and hardened military stances ruling out the possibility of reasoned opinion pointing toward a solution to the conflict on the lines argued above. The civil war that has re-erupted with increased hostilities (bombings by the government, guerrilla attacks by the LTTE) has dashed all hopes for a protracted political solution. The government is being naïve in assuming that the LTTE can be destroyed militarily and then peace can be established followed by a political settlement, without considering the psychological impact on the Tamils of the military process. With the absence of a realisation of an inclusive nationalism that does not peter down to a ‘unitary’ state among the Sinhala polity, it is impossible to create an environment for a lasting settlement, even if the LTTE is demolished completely.

The LTTE on the other hand holds on quixotically to a one-point agenda of complete secession, trying to rely upon eventual international sympathy to their project. The political praxis adopted by the LTTE (suicide bombings, terror attacks, political assassinations) is not going to allot it any legitimacy in an increasingly terror-weary international political order. This organisation must give up its irrational emphasis on a one-point agenda and return to talks and ceasefire and agree to a political settlement by involving other sections of the Tamil polity as well. The LTTE can use the internal differences among the Sinhala polity to argue for a civic, shared and integrated nationhood as a first priority and it could take a leaf from the book of the political methods used of late in Nepal by the ex-insurgent Maoists.

To the extent of pushing the Lankan government to stop the military attacks and assure a federal settlement, convincing the Tamil representatives to eschew rebel violence, the international community, especially India can play a pressure group/facilitating role. For the sake of humanity in Sri Lanka and in South Asia, one hopes that such a culmination takes place sooner rather than later.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -III

Article written for The Post, Lahore

The previous sections dealt with the events as they have happened in Sri Lanka in the recent past. One would be clear that the situation in Sri Lanka is very much a civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) based in Kilinocchi in north east Sri Lanka and the central government in Colombo. The motivation for the conflict is the claim made by the LTTE that the Tamil population deserve an independent nation carved out of the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is quite clear that no carving out is possible and the united nationhood of the Sri Lankan island is not going to be compromised.

The question that would be asked first is why at all has this problem erupted between the ethnic communities in the country, even as these communities have been living together for centuries in the island? Clearly the disaffection of the Tamils with the national system has grown out of alienation and maltreatment ever since the formation of an independent Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) from imperialist clutches. One has to understand the dynamics of ethnic troubles more thoroughly by studying both the colonial as well as the post-colonial period to answer the question of reasons for disaffection.

One thing is however clear – ethnic hatred between the communities is not a legacy of the ancient past as it is made out to be. The incompatibility of nationalism in countries with high concentrations of multiple ethnicity is a myth that has been a legacy of colonial understanding. That these myths have been used to buttress the idea of ethnic nationalism as the basis of nationhood today is a tragedy of post-colonial history. In fact, some of the biases and distinctions on ethnic basis were itself made by colonialists in Sri Lanka in the form of ethnic censuses that bracketed Tamils, Muslims and ethnic Sinhalese into boxes for bureaucratic purposes. Such a boxing in of myriad people within categories was a case in point in India too, where censuses were done on the basis of caste and religion.

It suited the colonial agenda to create these categories ostensibly to help the policy of ‘divide and rule’, as well as the fact that it reflected the imperialists’ understanding of their colonies and their people, that it was impossible for the colonised to rule themselves because of the myriad differentiations among them. Such thinking was prevalent even among the academicians. Prominent anthropologists for example maintain that primordial identity (caste, creed, religion or language) is a primary problem in the non-coalescing of a nation-state in countries such as India and obviously such logic applied to Sri Lanka as well. The fact that India has survived as a federal nation with its multiplicities of identities puts paid to such theories. The question remains why Sri Lanka has failed to emulate the Indian model effectively.

The ruling class in Sri Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon), just after the decline of the British empire, was represented by forces such as the United National Party, a right wing party leading the interests of the Lankan elite (landed gentry and business classes) that were satisfied with a dominion status under the British empire instead of complete independence. As these forces were pro-market and right wing, vast levels of disenchantment among labour (mostly plantation workers and agricultural labourers) was tried to be warded off by using means to pander to ethnic sentiments, particularly by fuelling the language divide. Widespread anger among the populace on the fact that plantations were still owned by British corporations and that there existed no national bourgeoisie representing the interests of the newly independent nation, was channelled into mobilisations on ethnic lines, due to skillful manipulation of this divide by the ruling elite. Since independence, essentially, the ruling classes pandered to Sinhala nationalism off and on, to exploit the disenchantment with the fact that the Tamils enjoyed a high share of urban government employment and had a high degree of literacy and education as compared to the much high numbers of unemployed among the ethnic Sinhalese.

The emergence of a centre-left, national bourgeois party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) in the power centre did not change things drastically, as this party nurtured Sinhala nationalism even further. Under the leadership of SWRD Bandaranaike, a Sinhala Only Act was passed that laid the first seeds for the growth of a militant Tamil consolidation. This Act meant that many Tamils in the civil service, for example, were forced to quit their jobs owing to the Sinhala-only policy and ethnic lingual prejudice created a strident rift between the communities. As such therefore, the ruling parties, despite their commitment to varying economic ideologies, worked on ethnic fault lines to buttress their strengths. It is not as if there was no opposition to this opportunism. There existed a strong Leftist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a Trotskyite party that envisaged equal rights for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese in a socialist Lankan republic. The party was successful in forcing the ruling elite to declare Sri Lanka as an independent republic and was able to get the foreign owned plantations nationalised. It was also involved in several trade union movements and struggles. However, the party, having compromised itself in deals with the ruling parties (particularly the SLFP) owing to the inevitable pulls of parliamentarism, gradually weakened, a process that was accentuated by the international split in the Left movement. The disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamil plantation workers was a major blow to the support base of the LSSP too.

In essence the weakening of the Left in Sri Lanka, the only major force to support a political system that accorded equal rights to the minorities, left the political arena to openly ethnic parties. The Janatha Vimuktha Peramuna, an adventurist Leftist party that tried many insurrections to get to power, also based itself on a strong Sinhala nationalism. The continuing Sinhala-only policy and the repeated incidences of extreme violence against Tamil groups saw the rapid militarisation of Tamil outfits and the birth of radical forces such as the LTTE. The deep-seated anger against such lopsided policies by the Lankan government resulted in the marginalisation of even moderate groups such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The LTTE took to deadly attacks on the Sri Lankan military forces in an attempt to fuel support for the formation of a separate Tamil Eelam and these sporadic actions took the shape of a full-scale civil war since 1983. Organised pogroms in Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan government and guerrilla attacks by the LTTE marked the start of a prolonged conflict. Many Tamil militants also enjoyed support from covert agencies of the Indian government, as also from the political parties in Tamil Nadu, the south Indian state. The LTTE, through its policy of eliminating internal opposition among the various Tamil militant groups, emerged as the largest militant organisation, particularly in the Tamil dominated city in North Sri Lanka, Jaffna.

Indian intervention to broker peace between the warring sections in Sri Lanka only exacerbated the ethnic differences. While the nationalist elements in Sri Lanka were angered by the intrusion of Indian forces on Lankan soil, the Sri Lankan Tamils found the Indian interventionist action against the LTTE galling. The entire operation was thus a fiasco despite some initial gains and culminated eventually in the LTTE’s assassination of Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, who had sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. The notorious assassination (just a few years after IPKF withdrawal) started the international isolation process of the LTTE.

Essentially, the story of conflict in Sri Lanka is a complex one, which involves the failure of the elite as well as the subaltern in evolving a consensual republic that based itself on respect to ethnic differences. The success of India to overcome such differences in comparison to the Lankans owe to the largely progressive character of the Indian national movement and the assertion of sovereignty fairly early after independence. Can such a consensus evolve in the future in Lanka, is the question to be answered in the next section.

(to be continued)

Justice for Bilkis Bano

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

A sessions court verdict ends a harrowing six-year wait for justice by pogrom victim Bilkis Bano.

A measure of justice was finally provided to Bilkis Bano, one of many victims of gruesome incidents of hate crime during the Gujarat violence of 2002. Bano (who was pregnant at the time) was gang raped while 14 member of her family were massacred in the post-Godhra violence in Dahod (or Dahot?) district in Gujarat. The special court in Mumbai, to which the Supreme Court had transferred the case , awarded life imprisonment to 11 who were found guilty, while a police officer was given three years rigorous imprisonment for colluding with the perpetrators of the crime. Seven of the accused, including five police officers and a doctor were acquitted. While Bilkis Bano has welcomed the verdict, she has said that her struggle to bring the acquitted to book will continue.

Bilkis Bano's case is just one example of a score of heinous crimes that were perpetrated in Gujarat as part of the Godhra and post-Godhra violence that are still being heard in courts. The special court's judgement is significant as justice was awarded despite the active efforts to subvert it in Gujarat. The subversion of justice and the active role of the Narendra Modi government in abetting the planned violence against the minority community is a known fact.

Bano's case went through quite a few tribulations, as her case was initially ordered to be closed by a magistrate in Limkheda taluka in Dahot district in Gujarat. The Supreme Court then stepped in and ordered the transfer of the case to Mumbai, after taking into cognisance Bano's fear that witnesses were being intimidated and evidence was being tampered with in Gujarat. She must be commended for her brave determination in fighting the case by petitioning the highest judiciary, with the help of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), for an impartial hearing outside Gujarat. The case was one of a few which were referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) by the Supreme Court. The Best Bakery trial, where again a guilty verdict was handed down, was another such case. Other prominent ones such as the Naroda Patiya and the Gulbarg Society massacres (the latter involving the killing of former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jaffri) are still awaiting a conclusion. Meticulous investigative work by the CBI to present evidence on the massacre of many of the family of Bilkis Bano helped the sessions court in Mumbai reach its verdict.

The Bilkis Bano judgement should be a precedent for the scores of cases relating to the Gujarat crime that are still being heard, though with the passage of time it would be much more difficult to present convincing evidence in court. Revelations through media exposes have shown that the justice system in Gujarat has been wilfully thwarted by entrenched sections in government who have gone to the extent of even protecting the guilty. The CBI must quickly conclude its investigations and file charges against the perpetrators in the cases that have been assigned to it by the Supreme Court.

Question marks have been raised over the judiciary's handling of cases where the members of the religious minorities comprise the larger number of victims. While the prosecution and the courts have moved to deliver justice in cases where the members of the minority community have been the guilty, it is perceived that there has not been a similar intent in cases involving riots instigated by members of (or acting in the name of) the majority religious community. The most disturbing example of this is the determination with which the Bombay Blasts case was investigated and tried in court while the crimes of the Bombay riots of 1992-93 have been largely ignored.

The Bilkis Bano case verdict is therefore one that would go some way in dispelling such misgivings about the willingness of the state and the judiciary to prosecute the guilty irrespective of their religious denomination. The role of civil society in ensuring support to the carriage of justice must be commended as well. An end to further delays in the trials in many cases (more than 1600) that were reopened by the Supreme Court in 2004 should re-establish confidence in the legal-political system in the country, even if the political class in Gujarat continues to victimise the riot victims in the state.

Full Blown Conflict -II

Article written for The Post, Lahore.

The preceding section of the series focused on the recent events in Sri Lanka that have created the impasse between the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government in Colombo. The escalating crisis in Sri Lanka has reached a point of no return from a full-scaled civil war as more bombings and civilian killings have already taken place in the interim since the previous column. This article in the series tries to elucidate the reasons for the escalation of the conflict over the past few years and shows how the efforts made to bring a solution to the impasse have obviously failed.

The ceasefire agreement signed in February 2002 gave legitimacy to the LTTE as a frontal organisation representing minority Sri Lankan Tamils in a war of attrition against the Sinhala majority-led Sri Lankan government. Even though there were other agreements that failed in fructification of peace, the CFA of 2002 was encouraging as it laid out the basis of a comprehensive dialogue between the warring sections. A truce was brokered by a group of co-chairs from the US, Japan, Norway and the European Union (EU) between the Lankan government and the LTTE leadership, based in Kilinochchi city in northern Sri Lanka. The LTTE leadership (chief V. Prabhakaran and the now deceased Anton Balasingham, the chief strategist) negotiated a settlement for peace with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party. Wickremasinghe himself was elected on an agenda of peace in the parliamentary elections concluded in 2001 after the Lankan forces had suffered several military losses and the state had experienced economic pressures during the Kumaratunga-Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) rule. Wickremasinghe’s peace plan and the response by the LTTE had the effect of ending open and hostile war for a period of time and was also responsible for a negotiated dialogue process through a series of talks between both the parties. The LTTE now also enjoyed legitimacy as a sovereign player in Sri Lankan politics, feted by international missions for multiple talks. Despite such formal privileges, the LTTE retained its covert abilities, and used the detente to target military intelligence personnel in the Sri Lankan government, as well as to assassinate people among the Tamil community inimical to the organisation (TULF leader, Neelan Thiruchelvam, was killed allegedly by the LTTE and so was Kethesh Loganathan, a Tamil human rights activist).

The CFA was thus being violated with impunity by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The latter, which was supposed to cease hostilities and to recognise LTTE-held territories and to desist from military activities in these areas, did not pay heed to the CFA while capturing LTTE-held areas in the north-east region. One has, however, got to raise the question why the CFA turned out to be a dead-letter agreement without an actual proper implementation and an answer can be found by taking recourse to understanding the Byzantine world of Sri Lankan democratic politics.

The CFA, as mentioned earlier, was signed by the then Prime Minister Wickremasinghe of the UNP when President Chandrika Kumaratunga belonged to the SLFP. Several sections of the Sri Lankan populace, as well as the polity, were upset that the agreement acknowledged the LTTE as a legal and legitimate player, thereby weakening the case for the sovereign hold of the Sri Lankan state on areas in the north and north-east. Political players such as the nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Buddhist parties that favoured a unitary Sri Lankan state were dead against any leeway given to the LTTE or indeed any Tamil nationalist outfit, let alone a separatist force. These sections were strengthened when they became part of a government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa (the current president) of the SLFP after a coalition was formed to defeat the UNP in 2004. The Rajapaksa coalition was able to form a government because Tamils (many of whom were sympathetic toward the UNP for its role in the ceasefire) were prevented from voting in the parliamentary elections in areas controlled by the LTTE. The hawkish coalition, from day one, ratcheted up the confrontation with the LTTE, which simultaneously was engaging in overt violation of the CFA through its own actions. Increasing the hostility between the two sides was the fact that the Lankan government was providing covert support to the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE in the eastern regions.

The LTTE, weakened by the breaking away of the Karuna faction was also seriously hurt by growing international isolation. Even as the monitors of the peace mission were deploring the violations of the agreement, a growing international consensus against “any form of terrorism” was hurting the LTTE. The death of chief strategist Anton Balasingham was a big blow, as Balasingham was seen as a moderating influence enjoying wide international access as a representative of the LTTE in the international fora.

Several representatives of the LTTE in various countries such as in the US, the EU and Australia were arrested for involvement in covert arms deals, money extraction from the diaspora and for other reasons. This dealt a serious blow to the LTTE internationally. The Sri Lankan government on the other hand increased its defence budget, and started buying weapons and defence material from various nations such as China and even India. Despite the presence of a Sea Tigers unit and even the use of light aircraft vehicles by the LTTE, the increasing bombing operations by the government targeted at the LTTE strongholds resulted in the death of at least one prominent LTTE leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan.

The strategies adopted by the two parties in the conflict were quite clear: the Lankan government wanted to weaken and destroy the LTTE militarily even as it kept the option of a federal solution to the minority problem open. The LTTE on the other hand, wanted to use the humanitarian crisis generated by the military operation undertaken by the Lankan government to highlight the improbability of a coexistence of the two communities under one sovereign, by alleging that the Lankan state was a majoritarian terrorist state bent upon “genocide”.

The Sri Lankan government’s formal rejection of the CFA now seems to be a political response to the growing demands by the ultra-nationalist segments supporting the government, to annihilate opposition by the LTTE militarily. These sections such as the JVP have for quite some time demanded a ban on the LTTE, as well as the abrogation of the CFA signed by the UNP. The JVP has even rejected a federal solution, retaining its notion of a unitary Sri Lanka rejecting the claims of the ethnic minority to get any respectable share in power. Even though the Sri Lankan government’s military actions against the LTTE in the north and the north-east have not been addressed very negatively by the international community owing to the tactics and actions of the LTTE, the tearing up of the CFA by the government is only bound to loosen the international shackles over the LTTE. The international community including the important neighbour, India, is not pleased with the open civil war that the Lankan government has embarked on, disheartened by the government’s response to the humanitarian problem caused as well as the measures taken against Tamil minorities in the capital city in the name of security.

It is clear that both the government and the LTTE’s visions of a protracted military driven conflict is only bound to obscure the real issues that entail the differences between the minority and the majority community, as well as to belie any hopes of a negotiated settlement of the problem. The LTTE’s reliance on a single point agenda of the formation of a separate state for Sri Lankan Tamils stems from an extremist viewpoint that suggests that a nation can only be formed out of a single communitarian identity, while the Sri Lankan state’s repeated failure in bringing about a political consensus for a federal solution to the problem highlights the entrenched presence of a majoritarian consciousness among the Sinhala polity. The reasons for this entrenchment, as well as the demand for a separate state, can only be explained by a review of the history of the island republic, which should be done in the next segment of this series.