Saturday, June 28, 2008

The right deal over the wrong

If energy was the prime problem in the country today, the IPI pipeline was the no-brainer deal to go for, not the nuclear deal, for which the incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh is willing to sacrifice his government, that too at a time, when inflation is a major problem facing Indians.

As articulated over and over again, one of the chief reasons for the US dangling of the nuclear deal to India was to tuck India into a strategic partnership to suit the geopolitical aims of the global hegemon. And that of course meant that India could be used in a web of relationships that would be positioned in opposition to whomever the US sees as a threat in the Asian region. And it does not take too much brainpower to realise that rising economic powers China in east/ s
outhern Asia and Iran in west Asia are seen as the primary poles of opposition to American hegemony in the continent.

As such, the Americans have an intertwined relationship with the Chinese, with the latter’s manufacturing base dependent upon the purchasing power of the former and the former servicing its economy despite huge fiscal deficits through Chinese holding of US treasury bonds. With Iran too, there is an indirect relationship. Having been bogged down in Iraq and having been responsible for the ethnic polarisation mess up, the Americans have relied upon Iran indirectly to curb radical Shia elements from creating headaches for the occupation forces in the country.

But despite such dependencies with both China and Iran, the US administration finds threat perceptions from both the countries (apart from Russia in the Eurasian region). No wonder, there have been several strategic moves to both threaten (in the case of Iran) and contain (in the case of China and Russia) that have been adopted by the Americans. The US in particular has used the nuclear enrichment process in Iran as a card to play up fears of a very hostile Iranian threat. That Israel, the staunchest ally of the US considers Iran as its primary enemy in the region, has only added to American hard talk as well as tightening of sanctioning regimes on Iran. Indeed sections of the US administration, especially the current Vice President Dick Cheney, have tried to create a situation that would demand full scale war against the Shia clergy state.

It is on this canvas that the nuclear deal between the US and India has been painted. No wonder, the Hyde Act which enables the Indo-US nuclear deal clearly states that the US would aim to persuade India to work with the country to isolate and sanction Iran and to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. By sanction, the US of course intends to isolate the country and from there flows the logic that any development of natural resources in the country which could be used for export is also anathema. No wonder, the US has expressed its dissatisfaction with the idea of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) natural gas pipeline. And it is no mystery why there has been scarce dedication to get over the bottlenecks that have crept up in the implementation of the pipeline deal by the Indians themselves, embroiled as they are in still trying to get the nuclear deal with the US operationalised.

Recent statements by the US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, as well as US congressmen in charge of drafting foreign policy decisions, such as Gary Ackermann have clearly established the US opposition to the pipeline deal. The dubious understanding of US of the west Asian situation apart, the fact that a civil nuclear energy pact which would establish a supplier-buyer relationship between the US and India could be used to corner a sovereign nation’s foreign policy to be subordinate to a particular world view of the US, would be one reason to oppose the single agenda nuclear deal. Far from mitigating doubts on this strategic aspect of the nuclear deal, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has seen it fit to sometimes deny the implication, sometimes suggest that the strategic issues overhanging the deal are not “binding” on India and have even tried to question the viability of the pipeline project (the PM stated in the US that it was “difficult” to get a financial institution to under-write the pipeline project).

It is another no-brainer to anyone familiar with sources of energy that civil nuclear energy can be used for electrification purposes and nothing else, whereas fossil fuels are not just used for power supply (a minuscule amount) but also as transportation fuel. At a time, when crude prices are so high to create hitches for the macroeconomic management of general commodity prices in the country, it is incumbent upon the Indian government to finalise the pipeline deal to quickly mitigate their various problems in the energy consumption area. Instead, the government is prioritising the nuclear deal as a sine qua non even as every optimistic estimate establishes that the nuclear reactors sourced through the deal would be operational about a decade from now and could contribute merely 7-10 percent of India’s overall energy needs. And there is this obsession, with pushing this deal through despite the strategic caveats and the wide ranging opposition to the features of the deal from majority sections of Indian polity. It has reached a point where the prime minister is keen on even letting the government fall if required, that too when inflation is in double digits and agrarian distress is still a menace.

Why exactly is this obsessive rush to operationalise the nuclear deal even with its misgivings? The official reason given is that the deal would open up commercial transfers of nuclear technology and fuel not just from the US but from other countries. The American help could be used to influence the members of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) cartel to exempt India from various provisions that prevent nuclear fuel transfer to a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is argued. And such a help can only be possible in the tenure of the current George Bush administration, supporters of the deal suggest, as any future administration cannot be relied on to adhere to the broad tenets of the agreement signed between George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh in 2005.

What is not answered is whether any future administration will evoke the provisions in the Hyde Act to terminate the nuclear commerce terms with India or if Indians themselves would find such a culmination so unfavourable and would be forced to toe the provisions of the Hyde Act itself. No wonder, opponents of the deal are not keen on operationalising this deal during the tenure of the current Bush administration as they find objectionable clauses that could tie down strategic options. For the Left parties in particular, the intent of the present government to fully establish the broad parameters of a strategic and military partnership that the US has drawn up for India along with the nuclear deal is even more problematic, as it not only goes against the grain of independent foreign policy for the country, but also militates against the parties’ stated aim to oppose imperialism, particularly that derives from the policies of the US administration.

If the government was keen on addressing energy requirements in both the short and the long term, it would have gone ahead with clearing the hurdles for the pipeline deal, easing the fuel cost burdens on the Indian consumer as quickly as possible. It could have prepared a long term strategy for energy usage in the country and could have fit the nuclear energy option within this framework. Instead, the government has willed itself to throw all caution to the wind in pursuing the nuclear deal at all costs. Admittedly, it had worked hard to reach even this point of having a 123 Agreement with the US which was devoid of many of the misgivings with the Hyde Act in the agreed text. But the implications of the Hyde Act still remain as well as the intent statements of the US administration. There is no hurry in waiting till a new administration is in power to operationalise the nuclear agreement, even as there is alacrity needed in getting the pipeline deal implemented. Besides, the government would not lose power if it did the latter and could concentrate on other pressing issues of the day, inflation in particular, till it has to face the electorate at the end of the mandated five years in power.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In the Name of Justice

Immigrants from Bangladesh become fodder for the police after the Jaipur terror killings.

The bomb blasts in Jaipur on May 13 are still under investigation, yet in the minds of the police the perpetrators are already known – from among the Bangladeshi immigrants in the city. Immediately after the blasts, the state government officials and particularly the union minister of state for home, Jaiprakash Jaiswal, came out in front of the media and made some assertive comments on the purported culprits of the blasts and pointed the needle of suspicion to neighbouring countries, without any concrete proof. With claims of possessing evidence linking the blasts to the terrorist outfit Harkat- ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJIB), the state government has gone about identifying “Bangladeshi immigrants” as the actual culprits.

Many Bangladeshi immigrants have since been rounded up for detention in Rajasthan. The state police has used strong arm tactics in detaining Bengali Muslims by terming them as “illegal settlers” in the state. In the name of investigation, a large number of people mostly from extremely poor backgrounds have been subjected to traumatic interrogation methods of the state police. They include migrants from West Bengal, Bihar and others (as a recent People’s Union for Civil Liberties report points out). Even those with voter identity and ration cards and other identification papers have been rounded up and subjected to police harassment. There have even been newspaper reports about lawyers of the bar in Jaipur passing resolutions to not plead for those who have been detained in the blasts case.

Many of those who were rounded up for detention were brought in from ghettos, termed “transit camps” for such migrants. People in these camps have been living in abysmal conditions with hardly any facility such as water supply or safe shelter. Many in these camps say they have migrated to India a long time ago or have moved from some other states. The blasts case has been used as a ruse by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government to raise the bogey of “swarming immigrants” from Bangladesh into the state. It is well understood that large numbers of Bangladeshis cross the Indian border to seek livelihood due to extreme poverty and because of the frequent occurrence of disasters such as floods at home. There have also been reports linking extremist organisations such as the HuJIB with infiltration across the border.

But the BJP has seen it necessary to carp on the immigration problem as a major issue everywhere. In the name of stopping “illegal migration” into the states where the party has been in power, the BJP has been callous in its approach towards people belonging to the minority communities and those speaking Bengali. The current actions by the BJP government in Rajasthan remind us of similar moves by the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra against Muslim workers in Mumbai city, branding many of them as illegal settlers and forcing them to be deported, before a high court in Kolkata stayed deportations.

The complete disregard of human rights and the lack of a due judicial overview of the process of identifying immigrants is one part of the problem. The other issue pertains to the callousness involved in investigation of a crime of the nature of the Jaipur blasts. A large number of poor labourers and unorganised workers have been targeted and subjected to harassment by linking them to the Jaipur blasts case. The statements made by the Rajasthan chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, have also hinted at enactment of new legislation, similar to the rescinded Prevention of Terrorism Act, which would further preclude any due process of law, and which has always been misused by parties such as the BJP when in power. As it is, the BJP has already tried to link the Jaipur blasts with the allegation that it has continually harped upon – that the central government has been lax on “national security”, thus preparing the grounds for using this as a major issue for the forthcoming state assembly elections in Rajasthan.

A humanitarian way of handling the migration issue would involve the governments of both India and Bangladesh, with sufficient judicial safeguards to be provided to those whose residency is in question. The BJP’s indiscriminate linking of the issue of immigration with terrorist attacks and the subsequent harassment of various people on the suspicion that they are “illegal immigrants” goes against the grain of such a humanitarian approach.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nepal Political Diary - II

A visit to the hilly areas of the mid-west and the west is an eye-opener to what the Maoists have done to revive the fortunes of the left. This is the second of a three-part diary of the author’s travels in Nepal.

One of the remarkable features about the constituent assembly elections in Nepal was the sheer number of communist parties in the fray and the cumulative gains made by them. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of the “end of history” notwithstanding, the idea of communism is alive and well over here. For observers from outside Nepal, a visit to the hilly areas of the mid-west and the west is an eye-opener to what the Maoists have done to revive the fortunes of the left in today's world. The districts of Rolpa and Rukum in mid-west Nepal are the strongholds of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN (M)].

In the Dang Valley

We travelled over the east-west highway to the Dang valley from Nepalgunj taking one of the popular modes of transport, the “micro-bus” or the kia (named after the KIA brand). Dang is located in the inner-Terai, sandwiched between the Shivalik and the Mahabharat ranges. The east-west highway criss-crosses the hills between Nepalgunj and the Dang valley; as the bus goes along its path, the beautiful and picturesque landscape is a treat to one’s eyes. Along the roadside, there were wall paintings, murals, and posters calling upon the people to vote for the Maoists. Clearly, we were entering an area which had voted overwhelmingly for the Maoists.

On entering the Dang valley, we travelled to Ghorahi, a town bordering Rolpa district. We started our day in conversation with Hiramani Dukhi, a regional bureau member of the CPN (M) in the Magarat region. He had been involved in organising the janajatis, besides his work as a journalist before the emergency. During the emergency he had taken shelter in India to escape repression. He briefed us about the Magarat region and the reasons why it was considered a stronghold of the Maoists. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the CPN (M) had launched their first attack on an army garrison (in Dang) in this region and had also set up a “base area” over here. Rolpa also had a history of support for communists with some of the earliest communist victories in elections being recorded in this district. The voters had elected the Maoists because they had led the struggle
against the “feudal elements” (absentee landlords in particular). The carving of a “janajati identity-based autonomous region was also welcomed by the people”, he asserted.

PLA Camp
With guards to the PLA camp

We decided to spend some time in the nearby Dang barracks of the PLA. We were guided by two members of the PLA; one of them, Anand was the public relations officer of the battalion. The PLA fighters were ecstatic at the Maoist victory and talked eloquently about the task of building a “naya Nepal”. As we walked through pathways between pine trees and picturesque village houses, the PLA cadre told us about the local natural resource base of the region – “herbs, coal, granite, water, etc which could be harnessed to the benefit of the people”.

The PLA cantonment was elaborately organised. There were about three battalions of the fifth division in the cantonment and each battalion was sub-divided into a few brigades. The entry to the battalion camp was marked by elaborate insignia of the “communist pantheon”: pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Make-shift tents for residence and offices dotted the hilly cantonment. Women constituted 30 percent of the soldiers in the camp. Even as we entered, a group of women were being interviewed by the local press.

We interviewed some of the PLA cadre, including women. Melina was a section commander had participated in the Dang barrack attacks in 2001. We asked her as to whether she sees a future for women as senior commanders in the unified Nepal army under Maoist rule and she promptly answered that it was this dream that motivated her to join the PLA itself. She emphasised that women in the PLA were on par with their male counterparts and there were many who had risen to the ranks of battalion commanders.

Nirman, a 22 year old health worker in the PLA, trained in para-medics and well-versed in the treatment of wounds and internal injuries, had performed a key role in the battalion. A keen poet, he had been given a “cultural award” for his poetry. On being asked about his future role, Nirman was clear that he would play his part in rural healthcare.

We were taken on a tour of the battalion quarters. Most PLA cadre in the camp understood that they would have to play paramilitary roles or even roles in the development sector once the new republic was formed. They had regular political education classes, scheduled early in the day, apart from physical training. From our interaction, it was clear that from the leaders to the ordinary cadre, all of them were imbued with proletarian consciousness. They were living spartan lives but did not quite begrudge their paltry allowances from the government.

In Rolpa

We took their leave the next morning and returned to Ghorahi, from where we set out on an arduous bus ride to Dahaban, site of the PLA divisional headquarters. Dahaban was high in the hills and there was only a recently constructed kuccha (unpaved) road for our vehicle to ply on. Driving up the hills was one bumpy experience, and yet, the buses had made life easier for the hill dwellers who used the service to transport essential items instead of using mules as they did not long ago. Plying the bus across the treacherously sloping road was a difficult experience and hence the buses ran their services (both to and fro) only in the mornings. After a bumpy, dusty and scary ride, we made it to Dahaban. All along the way, wherever there were bunches of households, we could see Maoist insignia on the walls. We were now in what use to be one of the main “base areas” in the people's war.

Dahaban was part of Rolpa-II, the constituency where Prachanda, the general secretary of the party, had won by a huge margin. Here we met two senior vice commanders, Bibek and Avinash, from the strategically important fifth division of the PLA. The fifth division was one of the most important strategic units of the PLA, having participated in several pitched battles both with the police and the army. We asked them about the prospects of integration with the Nepali army. We also asked them to elaborate on the promise of security sector reforms in the CPN (M)’s manifesto, where the Maoists had promised “professionalization” of the PLA and “democratisation” of the Nepali army. The Nepali army's democratisation was a must, as it was an army subordinate to feudal forces and it had to be restructured to serve the people. Integration with the Nepali army was bound to problematic in a few areas – for instance, in the new division of labour when the two armies are integrated, in the totally different political consciousness of the two armies, and on the question of maintaining only a compact army instead of the current bloated numbers, they said. What was encouraging for the commanders was the fact that many members of the Nepali army (25 percent, we were told) had voted for the Maoists in the proportional representation based elections held in the army to the constituent assembly.

Vice commander of the PLA, Bibek and Nabina, battalion commander
After our interactions with the two senior commanders of the PLA, we met battalion commander Nabina who had been in the PLA for 8 years, having lost her first husband in one of the military operations. She was now married to a member of the cultural troupe of the Maoists. She related her experiences, her elevation in the ranks in the PLA to become a battalion commander. We were then given a tour of the headquarters where we came upon a sub-camp of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) where arms and ammunition belonging to the Maoists had been locked up. Bibek mentioned that the keys were with the PLA commanders and “in any expediency, the weapons could be taken out”.

Up in the Hills

Our next stop was Tila, further up the hills in Rolpa district, close to where the Maoists had set up a hospital, a cooperative bank and also a model commune. Tila is right up in the hills and is connected to Dahaban by a long and winding stretch of kuchcha road, built by the Maoists and appropriately designated “Shahid path” (martyr's road).

View of "Shahid Path"

Our first meeting in Tila was with Rajan, the chief political activist of the Maoists in the area. The very same day, he was in negotiations with transport operators for reducing the fares for travelling on the road built by the Maoists. He gave us an overview of the work done by the Maoists in their base area up here. Over the last year, in keeping with the 12 point agreement, the Maoists had to return the land appropriated from absentee landowners and distributed among the peasants, and had to wind up their parallel justice institutions, he said, but “they were still sought after to adjudicate on issues at the local level”. Apart from the road which was built by mobilising the PLA as well as ordinary village folk, the Maoists had also made provisions for drinking water by drawing it upstream. It was such “selfless work” that won the Maoists huge support, he asserted.

Dalit Lohar family in Tila

We could sense the support enjoyed by the Maoists as we went around the village. The Magar community and the dalits had voted for the Maoists. The dalits had been at the worst end of repression during the days of the emergency, one family recounted to us. They now expected the Maoists to make life better for them, but were clear that only by “education and hard work” could their situation improve. Many youth from the village had spent some time working in India, particularly in Chandigarh.

Terrace farming in the hills in Tila, Rolpa

The land in Tila was fragmented, reflecting the patterns of ownership in the hills of Nepal. Brahmin and Chettri families owned most of the land. Absentee landownership was abolished by the Maoists, who had snatched such land and distributed it among the peasantry. But the 12 point agreement signed in 2005 had forced them to return this land back to some of the big landowners. The support base for the Maoists in the village ranged from shopkeepers to small peasants and dalits, in essence, a multi-class alliance. The royalty was scorned upon and everyone whom we met in the village was a republican.

Back to Ghorahi

Minister Krishna Prasad Mahara in a public meeting

We returned back to Ghorahi in the Dang valley after spending a day in Tila, where fortuitously we met the national information and broadcasting minister and central committee member, Krishna Bahadur Mahara who had been visiting villages close by to thank voters for electing him. Women, village elders and youngsters were listening with rapt attention to what the minister was telling them about the future goals of the Maoists. We had a quick conversation with the minister at the end of the meeting. Mahara singled out the identity issue and “people's high immediate expectations” to be the major challenges. Over the Madhesi question, he was confident that they “would go to the people, and take them along”, a refrain we heard from every senior Maoist leader on this trip. Will the CPN (M) pursue policies a la the West Bengal government, i e, encouraging private investment in industry while pursuing land reform? “Maybe”, Mahara said, even as he went on to emphasise the unique structural features of Nepal's economy.

One of the major features of Nepal's topography is the east-west highway. The arterial road travels the entire breadth of Nepal. It practically criss-crosses the entire Terai, strategically positioned a few kilometres away from its main cities. Traversing the east-west highway, one gets a glimpse of the natural beauty endowed in the many foothills of Nepal.

In the Terai Again

Butwal, a four hour drive away from Ghorahi, lies in the Awadhi speaking area of the Terai and is close to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. Upon enquiring about the election verdict there, we gathered that every major party, the CPN (Maoist), the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML] and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) had won at least a seat each in the seven seats in the region surrounding Butwal and Bhairahawa. This clearly showed that in the plains, where the population was ethnically more diverse, there had been a mixed verdict. A journalist we met explained that the Maoists had won in areas where there were substantial rural and working class populations. But, their support base that came from the multi-class alliance forged in the hills was not quite there in the plains. The NC and UML could barely retain their support of yore, losing out to the Madhesi parties who had received a groundswell of support on the identity issue.

River on the way to Kathmandu

Armed with an understanding of the support base of the main political parties in the hills and the plains, we now made our way to Kathmandu. The capital was buzzing with political activity; practically all the elected representatives to the constituent assembly had gathered. We were distracted by the breathtaking splendour of the Narayani river flowing parallel to our course of the journey.

Article written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Between Ego and Pragmatism

Nearly eight months have passed since a coordination committee was set up between the ruling coalition (the United Progressive Alliance – UPA) and its Left allies in India to negotiate the operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Things seem to finally have come to a point where the substantial differences between them seem to be beyond bridging.

As such, this culmination was bound to happen, as the Left allies had never hinted about any movement away from their original position on the 123 agreement signed between India and the US. The Left parties had maintained consistently that the agreement’s text, the pretext for the deal and the subtext of strategic relations with the US was unacceptable to them. However, after prolonged negotiations, the UPA was able to wrest a concession from the Left parties to let the government negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prepare a safeguards agreement. This agreement was mandatory for the nuclear deal to go ahead, as it provided the Indian government approval from the IAEA to get fuel for the civilian nuclear reactors. The concession from the Left parties came along with the rider that the government was supposed to let text of the safeguards agreement to be presented to the coordination committee, which would then decide upon the next course of action, the decision to let the agreement to be taken to the IAEA board of governors for sealing.

After months of hard negotiations with the IAEA, the government was finally able to ‘freeze’ the safeguards agreement with the multilateral body. However, the subsequent step, i.e. discussion in the committee about the frozen text never materialised, as the Left parties complained that they were not shown the complete text, but only a summary of the agreement. At the same time, the Left parties maintained that it had agreed for the safeguards agreement to be finalised with the IAEA, because this was merely a technical step that enabled nuclear cooperation with various nuclear reactor and fuel suppliers in the world. The Left parties, however, maintained that they still had various problems with the strategic dimensions inherent in the nuclear deal as well as with other provisions of the 123 agreement.

The government has now reconciled to the fact that no matter how much it could try, it would not be able to persuade its Left allies to budge from their stated positions on various issues linked with the deal. The necessity, therefore, arose to ensure that all its partners in government (other political parties in alliance within government) were in line with the government’s decision to go ahead with the deal, Left support or not. This was not forthcoming to the ruling Congress party eight months ago, when the allies had argued that losing the Left parties’ support would have meant immediate elections and were not willing to risk the government in going ahead with the deal. But this time, the allies have hinted that they support the decision (if made) to go ahead with the nuclear deal, even if the Left parties do not come aboard. This change in stance has therefore meant that speculations have heightened about early elections, particularly in the winter (November/December).

Several problems still exist in a scenario where the Left parties withdraw support and the government tries to push through the deal by letting the safeguards agreement to be given to the IAEA board of governors. Firstly, if the Left parties withdraw support, the government is reduced to a numerical minority entailing a vote of confidence once the president gives a go ahead for such a vote. If the government goes ahead with the next step in the finalisation of the nuclear deal, it would mean that a minority government had taken this step, surely a dubious course of action. Already in numerous discussions in parliament on the issue of the nuclear deal, it has been clear that the majority of parliamentarians are against the present form of the nuclear deal, be it the major opposition party, the BJP or other parties outside the UPA and the Left, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Telugu Desam Party (regional outfits restricted to support in stats such as Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh).

The Congress-led government’s calculations would therefore mean that in order to escape from the fact of being a minority government, they would have to take support from the SP. Or it would believe that it would not mind facing an early election despite the troubled waters that the government has been wading through over quite some time now, with a raging inflation problem, continuing agrarian distress and no significant dent in poverty or livelihood as yet.

Considering that the Congress party has faced reverses in many a state election (the latest of which was in a southern state, Karnataka where the BJP came to power for the first time in its history), there is no guarantee that it could impress the voting populace with the slew of populist moves that it’s government has undertaken of late, particularly the farmers’ loan waiver scheme. The Congress believes that some of the welfare measures that the government had undertaken such as the extension of the Employment guarantee act (NREGA) to all districts in the country, other rural infrastructure projects such as the Bharat Nirman programme would keep it in good stead. Evidence, however, points out to the contrary. The opposition BJP has stolen a march in implementation of the NREGA and has handled regional contradictions better.

Keeping the above in mind, it seems that the new dogged approach of the government to go ahead with the nuclear deal even at the cost of losing power, would be quite quixotic. Supporters of such a move, particularly the mainstream media, have argued that domestic considerations should not curtail an important move such as the nuclear deal, which according to them, legitimises India’s nuclear energy programme without curtailing its strategic programme and recognises the country as a valid nuclear power. The costs of imported nuclear power, the problems of handling nuclear waste, the strategic implications of dovetailing into a cosy relationship with a unipolar hegemon and other such arguments have not cut much ice with the powerful supporters of the deal. The mainstream media for example has pretty much hidden the simple fact that the deal does not enjoy popular support in the parliament. Hence, we read editorial after editorial exhorting the government to commit suicide, but let the nuclear deal go through and care two hoots about the naysayers, including the Left. The ruling coalition therefore seems stuck in a cleft between honouring ego – after all, the government had considered the nuclear deal to be a grand achievement and a prestige issue – and remaining pragmatic. Eight months ago, it veered toward the latter, sensing that any rupture within the coalition would only benefit the BJP but today, driven by the exuberance of its prime minister, the coalition seems to be dithering toward the former. The fact that the US has done its all in setting a timetable for the deal to go through, made statements suggesting that it is willing to deal with a minority government and has used various kinds of soft power to harness support for the deal in the country, only increases the pressure on the government to push the deal through at the cost of popular legislative support.

This writer has pointed out that there are other means of harnessing energy to meet immediate needs. From the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to securing hydro power contracts with the newly formed secular democratic republic of Nepal, the opportunities for attaining sustainable energy are plenty. The nuclear deal does have its pros in terms of assuring uranium supply to fuel-starved Indian nuclear reactors but it also comes with a host of cons that militate against making the deal a sine qua non. It is hence advisable for the government to not convert the imperative of improving energy availability into a matter of prestige involving the operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal at the cost of losing power itself. There is still time to evolve a way out for maximising options for energy without having to rely on the one-horse nuclear deal issue.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nepal Political Diary -I

What are the reasons for the Maoist victory in the constitutional assembly elections in Nepal? What motivated the Nepali people to vote for such a decisive change? Having voted for the Maoists in such large numbers, endorsing their vision of a “naya Nepal”, what are the hopes and aspirations of the Nepali people? What are the main structural features of this most underdeveloped country in the world? To find out, the author, along with three friends, travelled through the hills and plains of Nepal over a fortnight in April-May after the CA elections. This is the first of a three-part diary of the visit.

Nepal is in the midst of a political revolution. After years of rule by the anachronistic institution of monarchy, a jan andolan in 1990-91 resulting in legal political parties, elections, and a parliament within the framework of constitutional monarchy, more than a decade long people's war, a second jan andolan and the restoration of parliament with the Maoists on board, the constituent assembly (CA) elections held recently marked a distinct break with the past, soon to usher in a republic [Nepal was declared a republic by the CA on May 28] and promising a “new Nepal”. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)'s [CPN(M)’s] emphatic victory in the CA elections marked a historic first: the election of an avowedly Maoist party to power, (soon to be) at the helm of a coalition government.

It is in these interesting times in Nepal when the country’s future is being crafted that I was motivated to commence a fortnight long visit to the hinterlands and urban areas of Nepal. I wanted to unravel the reasons for the Maoist victory, learn about what motivated the Nepali people to vote for such a decisive change, and be educated about the structural features of one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. In hindsight after my return, all of these quests have been fulfilled and I bring back the immense hopes shared by the citizens of this new republic in the making, their aspirations for a truly sovereign, self-sustainable, just and respectable life for themselves.

This writer was accompanied by friends, Aparajay, Caesar Basu and Moggallan Bharti who were research scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). All of us shared one common understanding: alleviation of the plight of the teeming masses of the third world is possible only by concerted people's agency and the experience of Nepal corroborated this view. We decided to travel the width of Nepal from west to east and follow the path of learning by interacting with the people first and their leaders/representatives later in Kathmandu and craft a political diary wrought out of these experiences.

Owing to reasons of logistics, we entered Nepal through different routes. While my friends from the JNU decided to enter Nepal from the west through Mahendranagar and reach Nepalgunj, I ventured to enter Nepal through the Rupaidiha border post in Uttar Pradesh leading to Nepalgunj, on April 28. From Rupaidiha, I used a cycle rickshaw to enter Nepalgunj through the main Surkhet road which seemed to be the arterial road in the town. My first impressions were that Nepalgunj was like any other town in India. On the trip in the rickshaw to the hotel, there were three chowks. Each of these had a statue right in the middle of the road; the first one was that of BP Koirala, the second was that of Pushpa Lal Shrestha (a prominent communist leader of the past) and the third one was a mere podium. A little asking and I was told that the king's statue had been broken off the podium during the days of the emergency. It was a nice introduction to the republic-in-the-making. Nepalgunj was home to four CA constituencies, two of which were won by the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and the rest were won by the Maoists.

The first of a series of meetings with various individuals was with a civil society representative and advocate, Shalikram Sapkota. From the look of the posters stuck on the walls of his office, one could gather that he was close to and somehow associated with the Maoists. Two posters dated in the early 2000s pointed out starkly that the Indian army's meddling in Nepal must be resisted. He explained that he had been a civil society activist against the royalty since the days of the emergency and had also been incarcerated and tortured by the police during the time. He was currently pleading a case for a bank manager, involving bad loans to rich individuals who had siphoned off the money and for which the bank employee was being blamed. The fact that both the bank manager and the advocate were supporters of the Maoists was important to me, as it explained that there indeed was a multi-class backing for the leftists.

Shalikram then led me to meet up with Narayan Jung 'Peter', a regional bureau member of the Maoists in Nepalgunj. Peter was having a talk with a Madhesi (dwellers of the Terai) activist, before we joined the conversation. The first question I asked Peter was how were they going to manage the Madhesi identity issue (Nepalgunj was very much part of the Terai) and implement radical economic reform (land reform, in particular) when the Madhesi elite has been elected in such large numbers through the MJF in the Terai? Peter asserted that political and other forms of representation for the Madhesi identities was ab initio a Maoist demand and that they were glad that this would be coming to fruition even if the leadership of many of the Madhesis in the constituent assembly were from the MJF and the Terai Madhesi Loktantrik Party (TMLP). He however was not forthcoming about the reform question and was also quite defensive about the clashes with Madhesi parties in the past (including in Nepalgunj), saying that there were some mistakes committed. Sensing that Peter perhaps was giving too many diplomatic answers on the Madhesi issue (due to the presence of the activist), I asked for a separate meeting the next day and he agreed to the same.

I then interacted with a member of the UN mission in Nepalgunj, Anuraj Jha. Anuraj had a degree in conflict management and had been deployed as a United Nations monitor during the elections (the roads in Nepalgunj were dotted with United National Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) and aid agency vehicles, suggesting the substantial presence of international organisations). The first question to him was about the reports of intimidation and malpractices by the Maoists during the elections. Anuraj however refused to accept that this was the primary reason for the Maoists' victory, saying that the sheer electoral dominance of the Maoists across the breadth of Nepal meant that there were other factors at play. The electoral strategy of alliances with different sections of the population, the reach of the electoral campaign machinery and the wide support of the poorest for the Maoists were the significant reasons for their victory, he emphasised. At the same time, he did not foresee the Maoists implementing “radical” policies and was convinced that they were sufficiently contained by the electoral process and by the game of power sharing in the mainstream polity. Anuraj himself had been touched by the experience of witnessing poverty in the remote areas during the few chopper trips he had made and was not surprised by the electoral result.

Confident Maoists

A free flowing conversation with Peter followed the next day, where he suggested in no uncertain terms that the Madhesi issue was being raked up by provocateurs from India and that the major challenge for the Maoists when in power would be the issue of federalism. He mentioned that it was not true that the Maoists did not enjoy support in the Terai, as a significant number of people in the mid-west (to which Nepalgunj belonged), including dalits and landless labourers had voted for the Maoists. The MJF's claim of a single Madhes federal state constituted of plain areas adjoining India (ek Madhes ek Prades) was not feasible as the tharu community preferred their own sub-federal unit as did others in the east. He also asserted that the Maoists will mobilise Madhesis not just on the basis of ethnic identity, but as communists and convince them on the necessity of a left ruled naya (new) Nepal. Peter's answers to every question were long drawn and drew a lot from history. When I suggested that the identity issue would be a hindrance to them in attempting radical land reform in the Madhesi areas, he emphatically said that such challenges were but to be expected and that the Maoists were committed to address them from within the system of multi-party democracy and federal republicanism. Peter asserted that the Maoists had seen bigger challenges during the people’s war and that their ideological commitment to multi-party democracy had evolved from a wide ranging discussion among themselves about the failures of other communist movements across the world. The Maoists therefore were better prepared to develop the correct praxis for the 21st century and would capably handle the identity issue by presenting their agenda to the people and mobilising them based on sound political consciousness, he said.

Madhesi Angst

After wrapping up my conversation with Peter, I sought to meet the local MJF leadership in the region. The MJF had won 2 out of the 4 seats in the area and one of the winners was Sarvadev Ojha, a former bureaucrat. On being asked about the agenda of the MJF, Ojha pointed out the disparity between the people of pahadi and madhesi origins. From politics to bureaucracy, the army and other institutions, madhesi representation was much lower in comparison to the overweening influence of people of pahadi origins, he said. It was therefore necessary to constitute a separate federal unit for the “long suffering” madhesis and hence the demand for a single Madhes, an autonomous state in a federal Nepal. To the question as to what kind of autonomous state and federal system was being demanded by the MJF, Ojha replied that the party had studied three different federal systems, the Swiss, US and the Indian models. They decided to demand a model on the lines of US federalism with external relations and defence as the only areas under central jurisdiction.

When asked as to how different their conception of autonomy was from that of Maoists, Ojha went on a tirade against communism and emphasised that the MJF wanted a liberal model of governance. On the question of welfare and land reform, Ojha was non-committal. Land reform was “not necessary”; the development of agriculture through scientific means and through investment was sufficient, he argued. He said that the MJF will not accept anything less than a “single autonomous unit for the Madhesis” and dismissed the Maoist claim that significant sections of people within the Terai (such as the tharus) were opposed to the MJF's version of federalism.

It was quite clear that the confrontation between the MJF and the Maoists in the constituent assembly will be on the appropriate model of federalism, and on the question of land refrom. It would require a complicated struggle to win over sections among Madhesis to implement basic land reform measures, let alone “land to the tiller”, considering that the MJF represented the interests of the big landowners.

Mainstream Parties Sidelined

As I strolled around the streets of Nepalgunj, one thing was palpably clear. The underclass and blue collar working sections of the city had more or less voted for the Maoists. From rickshaw pullers to street vendors, the Maobadi triumph was the common refrain. The striking aspect of this refrain was the enormous expectations of the Maoists by these people. Voters from these sections clearly had aspirations of education for their children, jobs that provide a decent living, and dignity. They had voted for decisive change as they were unimpressed with the mainstream parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML]. How was it that the NC, an established party that had virtually decided the course of Nepali democracy and had acted as a stabilising and guiding force, performed so poorly in these areas? This was the question that I had to put to the NC leadership in Nepalgunj.

The NC office was right adjacent to the branch office of the Nepali Chambers of Commerce in Nepalgunj. Krishna Man Shrestha was their district chief, but I got to talk more to other local leaders of the party at the party office. A senior leader of the party in Nepalgunj explained, in flawless English, the reasons for the NC's defeat. They were indeed defeated, but their role as the “premier” party in Nepal will not change, he emphasised. When prodded to explain the reasons for their local defeat, he mentioned that the Maoists had used extra-legal means and that the choice of candidates by the NC was incorrect. I asked about the NC's stance on the monarchy and the leader was evasive, as were others in the office. They emphasised that they merely wanted a ceremonial role for the monarch similar to the position held by the Indian president, but were non-committal about the future role of the discredited king. It was obvious that this pro-king stance of theirs had gone against them at the hustings. The NC would also ensure that no section is discriminated against in the new constitution. When asked as to how they would counter the radical policies of the Maoists and leftists (the UML), the leaders mentioned that the NC itself was a “democratic socialist” party but would want to manage industry-labour and landowner-land tiller relations rather than take sides. Sensing that the leader's answers betrayed a reformist, conservative orientation, one of the party members sitting close by asserted that the NC was also part of militant struggles for democracy in the past and its legacy as a party for democracy would endure no matter who was the ruling party in Nepal. It was a fair comment that underlined the seeping in of democratic consciousness among Nepal's political parties even at the local level.

No “left” love lost

The next stop was at the UML party office. This party was touted as the winner in the elections, but did poorly, coming third. I met a losing candidate, Shamsuddin Siddiqui, at the party's sprawling office (it was the most posh of all the party offices in the town). I expected Siddiqui to be optimistic of a leftist consolidation of power in Nepal and my first question was related to this. Siddiqui on the contrary turned out to be the most virulent critic of the Maoists among all political figures whom I met in Nepalgunj. He went on and on about the “unruly lumpens” of the Young Communist League (YCL) and how the election victory was “robbed” by the Maoists. He had nothing but scorn for the Maoists and ruled out any understanding between the UML and the Maoists. As regards local level politics in Nepalgunj, he affirmed that the loss that he had suffered was due to extra-legal tactics used by the Maoists and unscrupulous campaigning by the Madhesi parties. He rejected both the Maoist and the Madhesi version of federalism suggesting that the Maoists were playing identity politics despite being leftists and that it was impossible to accept the one Madhes demand, for there was nothing much in common between groups such as the Muslims in Nepalgunj and other plains dwellers, say in Birgunj. There was such bitterness in the UML leaders in Nepalgunj that it was indeed going to be difficult for any leftist consolidation in the country, I surmised.

Roaming Around Nepalgunj

On the streets of Nepalgunj, it is difficult to find many motorised vehicles and any kind of efficient public transport. Indian currency, as in other parts of Nepal, is used widely and the shopkeepers could instantly convert any amount of Nepali currency into Indian rupees and vice versa. Despite being part of the Terai, Nepalgunj was home to a diverse population with significant numbers of Muslims, tharus and other national minorities. Symbols of royalty were seen only on the currency notes; even better off hotels and restaurants were not displaying any kind of royal insignia (either of the deceased former monarch or the current one).

In the meantime, my friends had arrived after an arduous journey through Mahendranagar in the far west. Mid-way through their bus trip, they were asked to board another vehicle, because the bus operators felt that there were not many people to make the trip viable. From somewhere in the far-west region to Nepalgunj, they had to travel in a make-shift transport vehicle, with goats for company. What struck them about the far-west region alongside the east-west highway (an arterial highway built by the Indian government that connects the western and eastern parts of Nepal and runs parallel to the Terai region) was the stark nature of underdevelopment in these areas. We had read somewhere that the major political strongholds of the Maoists were in the hilly western areas of Nepal and here is where we needed to understand the reasons for the entrenched support that the CPN(M) enjoyed, as well as the yearnings of the citizens of these areas. Our next stop was in Rolpa district, considered to be the strongest support base of the Maoists, and where most of the major advances in the people’s war took place. Rolpa was also where the Maoists had built parallel institutions in “base areas” high in the hills.

Nepalgunj was an unremarkable town, and we did not particularly get a feel of being in a different nation. It was only after venturing outside Nepalgunj, into the inner Terai, and from there, to the heights of the hilly villages of Rolpa did we sense a new experience of the Nepal we had set out to see: hilly, beautiful, rugged and bristling with hope of change.

(To be continued)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Vive la République of Nepal

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

The monarchy is dead; long live the secular, federal democratic republic of Nepal.

As expected, right at the first sitting of the newly elected constituent assembly (CA), on May 28 Nepal was declared “an independent, indivisible, secular, inclusive, federal democratic republic with sovereignty and state authority vested in the people”. The proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by the CA -- 560 legislators voted for and 4 against the resolution. This marked the demise of 240 years of rule by the Shah dynasty. True to their promise made before the elections, the main political actors, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN (UML)] fulfilled the demand for a republic as soon as the CA was convened.

After having establishing a parliamentary form of democracy in 1990 through a people's movement, it took years of political uncertainty and instability, a people's war, and a peace initiative uniting mainstream and radical forces to overthrow the remnants of monarchical rule in the country. The formation of the eight party alliance – comprising the mainstream political actors and the Maoists -- was the first step in the isolation of the monarchy. Over a period of three years, following the people's movement to restore democratic rule in the aftermath of the complete usurpation of power by Gyanendra (the last king), a gradual shift of power away from the monarchy took place. This involved steps such as shifting ceremonial and cultural privileges, as also, importantly, control of the army to the democratic head (the prime minister), declaration of a secular character for the nation in the interim constitution and building a consensus among the eight party alliance to convert Nepal into a republic once the CA was convened.

Much credit has to go to the winners of the CA polls, the Maoists, who identified the monarchy as the fountain-head of a feudal order at the root of many a misery in the under-developed nation. Gradually, other prominent political parties also accepted the inevitable transition to a republic, due to the force of public opinion, moving away from their original endorsement of Nepal as a constitutional monarchy. Relentless public mobilisation by the Maoists and republican sections of the mainstream parties, as well as the notoriety and unpopularity of Gyanendra, ensured that nearly all political parties fell in line on the demand for a republic. The lone dissenting voice in the CA came from legislators belonging to the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) – a group representing ruling class elements from the erstwhile panchayat era and which was part of the dubious government propped up by the disgraced Gyanendra after he had dissolved parliament.

The remarkable aspect about this transition was the way in which the road to a republic virtually became a fait accompli once the Maoists were integrated into the mainstream of the polity. Yet, significant challenges still remain for the polity in Nepal in laying the foundations of the secular, federal democratic republic. Even as the constituent assembly was convened, problems were engulfing the process of formation of a new government, with the mainstream parties unable to accept the preponderant position of the Maoists. Concerns still remain about the maintenance of consensus among the eight party alliance along with the Madhesi parties over the nature of the constitution that would have to be written within two years through the deliberations of the constituent assembly.

A primary sticking point would be the nature of the “federal” component of the republic. While the Maoists have envisioned Nepal to be confederated into autonomous regions delineated on the basis of ethnic and linguistic identity, the Madhesi parties have demanded an autonomous state carved out within Nepal based on geographical difference (Madhes state in the Terai plains). The NC and CPN(UML) have however not spelt out their bases for federal re-alignment even as they have expressed opposition to both the Maoist and Madhesi parties' formulations on federalism. Writing an inclusive constitution would also be a challenge, but the mandating of consensus by the election verdict which was arrived at through a semi-proportional representation process has ensured that the era of exclusionary politics dominated by the monarchy has ended. Other bottlenecks remain as well, but over time, with the inevitable bargaining over posts, an accommodation over some issues is expected to resolve the remaining impediments to formation of the new government. At the same time, a historic opportunity exists for left and progressive forces in Nepal to underwrite a pro-poor constitution, owing to the sheer strength of the left in the CA.

All the challenges in government formation and constitution formulation notwithstanding, the achievement of a secular, federal democratic republic in a predominantly Hindu and underdeveloped nation is truly remarkable. The Nepali polity and the public have demonstrated that concerted peoples' agency could ultimately overcome the huge challenges posed by the feudal monarchy which was entrenched through appeals to so-called “divine rights” as well as international support. The imperative of establishing a progressive political and economic system with sovereignty and state authority vested in the people still remains as the constitution writing process for the republic commences.

Real change needed for Obama victory

Article written for The Post

After a long drawn out struggle through the primary process for the nomination of the presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, Barack Obama finally ended up with a majority of pledged delegates and super-delegates to overcome his powerful rival Hillary Clinton and thus clinched the nomination. The campaign saw unprecedented mobilisation of newer voters to the primary process, with both the candidates offering something new on their part: the ability to create history. Hillary Clinton enthused millions of women voters to turn up and put their hands together to anoint the first woman presidential candidate in the US, while Barack Obama’s magnetic campaign based on “change” and a charismatic call for rising above partisanship, plus his rich racial and cultural family background, saw a surfeit of young people, African-American voters and liberal graduates flock to vote for him in droves.

The unprecedented show of support by people in the Democratic primaries mirrored the popular dissatisfaction with the current Republican regime led by George W. Bush, whose reign as president over a nation in war has brought about an astonishing fiscal deficit, a financial crisis wrought out of sub-prime loaning schemes, unprecedented war budgets, hundreds of lost American lives, lakhs of Iraqi deaths and a destabilised energy and food environment that has threatened to wreck the world.

It would have been a no-brainer for a change from this apocalypse of a Republican administration to a fresh and energetic Democratic administration led by Barack Obama who has defeated his formidable opponent, Mrs. Clinton. More tellingly, the Republican nominee John McCain has promised to continue in an even more hawkish manner the pigheaded foreign policies of the Bush government, and has offered no substantial change from the completely flawed and pro-rich economic policy of the incumbent government. Anyone who would have watched the political and economic story of the US from outside would have been convinced of a smooth and easy change in government. Surprisingly, neither is Barack Obama’s becoming a president a slam dunk surety nor is the hope of substantial change in the US’ overall foreign and economic policy a guarantee. Why is this so?

The answer to the above question lies in some objective and some subjective issues in the US. Let us look at the latter first. The long drawn out primary battle involving Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has hurt the Democratic Party more than creating any chance of a strong party. Clinton, in particular, was guilty of using underhanded and perverse tactics to try to capture the nomination that was virtually awarded to Obama after his string of victories in state after state in February. In desperation, Clinton started using the woe begotten but effective cards of race and class, as she pitched a theme that “hard working Americans, white Americans” was uncomfortable with Barack Obama’s candidature. Obama’s strength of a composite cultural background was pitched forward to threaten an already paranoid American public with fears being created about his immediate forefathers’ religion in subtle manners.

Then there was the issue of questioning his faith as well as his guide toward Christianity, his pastor. As videos surfaced of his pastor’s remarks about the deep fears and insecurities of the African Americans toward both the US’ foreign as well as domestic policies, Obama was forced to answer for the utterances of his pastor mentor. In a stellar speech, that addressed the race issue in the US frontally, Obama managed to link his message of non-partisanship and inspired leadership with the contents of the fears expressed in his pastor’s speech even as he distanced himself from the beliefs that were expressed in the same. Obama, in the end, came out of the controversy scathed but his honour and message intact. Clinton could not pounce on this predicament of her opponent’s but she sure was able to arrest the landslide that was threatening to pitchfork Obama as not only the sure-fire nominee but also the presumptive President in the forthcoming elections.

With the race dragging on, the latent insecurities of the rural and working class American voters were out in the fore and this decided that Obama could not win decisively once these voters gravitated toward Clinton. But the saving grace for Obama was the fact that the Democratic Party establishment never gave up on him and support trickled down to him slowly, and later in droves as it became more and more clear that he was not going to be surmounted by Clinton. On the other hand, Clinton did not quite give in either as she twisted and turned the mandate to create a spin that she had the popular vote. The result of all this intense politicking is that there has been a significant polarisation of voters among both the Clinton and Obama supporters, who affirm that they would only vote for their preferred candidate or none at all. No wonder, John McCain has benefited out of this subjective fight within the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen how Hillary Clinton would endeavour to unite the Democratic Party and enthuse her supporters to vote for Obama, even after this prolonged slugfest.

This alone does not explain the relevance of John McCain’s candidature as a formidable one. Objective conditions in the US also form important reasons. There exists a deep right wing shift in American polity that was affected by fear-mongering about the world outside and because of the strong wedding of corporate power and politics. Add to this the heady mix, the strength of the corporate media that refuses to look at the issues from the perspective of the under-privileged, be it the coverage of US’ imperialism in West Asia or even domestic economic battles. Accrued to this is the presence of significant hold of the religious, evangelical trend over peoples’ lives, particularly in the predominantly rural and traditionally conservative areas of the south in the US. All this has explained that the coalition that was forged out of religious conservatives, corporate right wingers, neo-conservatives and which has supported the Republican Party has remained formidable even now.

Barack Obama’s answer to this strength of the Republican Party has been to dilute his own inspirational message of change, by papering over the conservatism with small doses of political correctness. Witness his position on West Asia and militarism for example. A just position for the US would be to stop its interventionist policies and eschew its policy of rejecting multilateral bodies, such as the UN, from playing the primary role in world affairs. But Barack Obama does not promise a clean break from unilateralism or militarism. He offers only to privilege dialogue as a necessary means but refuses to rule out the above. On economic policies, he tries to shake hands both with corporate power and labour by being selectively protective. He promises to strive for universal healthcare for example, but refuses a fully mandated insurance programme, ostensibly not wanting to displease corporate medical insurance vendors. No wonder, such dilly-dallying on coming up with a fully progressive agenda to overcome the right wing polity has meant that despite the inspirational message of Barack Obama, candidates such as Ralph Nader are also in the fray for the presidential elections. Nader, with his impeccable record as a consumer rights activist and articulations on public policy, which are staunchly pro-consumer, pro-people and progressive, is bound to cut into Obama’s vote share unless Obama re-invents himself as the original progressive candidate. Subjectively, if Obama could somehow change his domestic agenda to incorporate Clinton’s and John Edwards’ ideas for mandated health care insurance, it would be easier for him to get the former’s undiluted support for his candidacy.

Thus, latest opinion polls suggest that despite the overwhelming freshness in Obama’s campaign and the unprecedented voter turnouts for the Democratic Party, Obama and McCain are neck and neck in popular support. Obama has to not only continue his refrain that McCain offers no substantive change from the Bush years and is cut from the same old conservative mould, but also use his inspirational message of change to formulate a thorough break from the conservatism and forge a new progressive consciousness that would encourage the American voters to vote directly for him.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Deepening the Social Divide

editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

The BJP’s discordant and opportunistic politics is only deepening the social divide in Rajasthan.

Hardly did the trauma of the tragic blasts in Jaipur abate when Rajasthan was up in flames following militant protests by the gurjars being put down with a heavy hand by resort to largely unwarranted and excessive police firing, leading to a death toll higher than during a similar agitation a year ago. There is a clear lack of will on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led state government, despite the party’s election promise in 2003, to recommend the provision of scheduled tribe (ST) status to the community. Police firing against agitators have killed 39 people (as we go to press) and injured many more, provoking an escalation of the agitation and its spread to the national capital region and other parts of north India. The agitators are now demanding nothing less than the immediate implementation of their demand for the state government to recommend the bestowal of ST status to the gurjars.

Last year, the Rajasthan government led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia had found a way to mitigate the crisis by constituting a committee to address the issue. The justice Chopra committee recommended an economic package worth Rs 280 crore to address the question of the backwardness of the gurjars, but their leaders (representing organisations such as the Gurjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, led by Kirori Singh Bainsla) have rejected the same and have reiterated their demand for the declaration of ST status for the community in Rajasthan. Currently Gurjars are categorised as other backward classes (OBCs) in the state. They justify their demand to be provided reservations as a ST owing to associations of sections of the community (“van gurjars”) with pastoral work and as semi-nomadic cattle herders. Another reason is the fact that gurjars in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are already categorised under the ST category. However, the inclusion of gurjars in Rajasthan as scheduled tribes is problematic as the ST category as mentioned in the Constitution's fifth schedule is defined by certain specific and identifiable characteristics such as lifestyle, culture, inaccessibility and backwardness, and not just economic underdevelopment.

Another motivation for their demand has been the fact that the BJP led National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had deemed the jat community in Rajasthan as OBCs. Inclusion of jats in the OBC category crowded out representation for the gurjars from the reservation pie. As mentioned, the BJP had also promised ST status for the gurjars before the Rajasthan assembly elections in 2003, but its subsequent lack of will to implement this electoral promise has fuelled militant protests by the community. The protests last year were muddied when the party diabolically provoked the meena community (who were provided ST status in 1954) to fight the gurjars. Given this background, the Rajasthan government’s conciliatory proposition to provide 4 to 6 percent reservations by classifying the gurjars as denotified tribes has predictably been rejected by the gurjar leadership.

The high death toll in police firing has only aggravated the problem, and has induced the gurjar leadership to adopt a maximalist position. Offers of talks by the chief minister have been rebuffed, but latest indications are that the gurjar leaders will come to the table. The offer of an economic package can be a starting point but the state government must take pro-active measures in addressing the problems of people traditionally relying on occupations such as pastoral work and dairy farming (many of whom belong to the gurjar community).

Obviously, use of the policy of reservations as a tool for alleviating economic backwardness as well as enhancing representation has proven to be difficult in states like Rajasthan. The garnering of support across various castes by political parties such as the BJP in Rajasthan and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, who have promised reservations for the poor from the upper castes too, has created conditions for competitive caste politics fanning inter-caste clashes and demands for further reservation for other caste groups. It is incumbent upon political parties to reverse this dangerous trend by revisiting the basis on which reservations were formalised as a policy. Reservations cannot be on the basis of the criterion of economic backwardness alone. The policy has to be targeted towards gradually rendering the caste hierarchy redundant. At the same time, states need to formulate and work upon welfare measures for socio-economic development through policies that are for the betterment of sections across castes so that the incentives for specific groups to make claims for exceptional treatment through reservation do not exist. But where is the progressive democratic movement to bring this about? The BJP’s discordant and opportunistic politics is only deepening the social divide in Rajasthan.