Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Interview with Prakash Karat

Prakash Karat, general secretary of the CPI(M) gave his responses to an emailed set of questions on the current political situation in the aftermath of the government winning the trust vote. Cross-posted from www.pragoti.org :

[Exclusive interview with Prakash Karat, General Secretary CPI(M) on the current political situation]

Q: The UPA government considers the victory in the trust vote as a mandate for going ahead with the nuclear deal. Given that the deal is now on an 'autopilot' mode, what is the future of the struggle against the nuclear deal?

Prakash Karat (PK): The manner in which the trust vote has been won has exposed the government and the Congress leadership. 16 MPs of the opposition were bribed or intimidated to support the government. How can this vote be interpreted, in any way, as a seal of approval for the nuclear deal? The Indo-US nuclear deal has to go through various stages for its operationalisation. At present, the IAEA Board is to consider the draft Safeguards Agreement. With the text being made public, it is clear that the government has not got what it had claimed. Till the US Congress adopts the 123 agreement and the final steps are taken by the Indian government to operationalise the deal, such as finally signing the Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol, the intervening period should be utilized to further mobilise opposition to the deal. The government will find it difficult to sustain itself on the basis of defectors and bribe takers. We will continue to mount pressure on the government not to proceed with the deal. Already the Left, alongwith other secular opposition parties, have decided to campaign against the deal.

Q: Following the Left parties’ withdrawal of support, the government seems to have decided to push for neoliberal reforms in the final few months of its tenure. Do you think the government will get the green signal for these reforms in parliament?

PK: If the Manmohan Singh government decides to push forward with legislation such as the Pension Bill and allowing more FDI in other sectors like insurance and banking, the Left parties, trade unions and other mass organisations will mobilise people and there will be bigger struggles against such measures. Inside Parliament too, the government will face stiff opposition. It will not be easy for them to muster a majority in both the Houses of Parliament given the unstable nature of the motley crowd which they mustered for the trust vote. We will work hard to see that such legislations are defeated in the floor of the House.

Q: We have seen a coming together of the BSP in a broad alliance involving the Left parties and the UNPA. Has this alliance been formed only to oppose the nuclear deal or is it a new coalition in the making for the forthcoming elections?

PK: We have not formed any coalition or alliance. The Left parties have decided to launch a campaign alongwith parties belonging to the UNPA, the BSP, Janata Dal (Secular) and the RLD. This campaign will be on price rise, nuclear deal, farmers’ issues and so on. It is premature to talk about any alliance.

Q: Has there been a miscalculation on the part of the Left to rely upon the Samajwadi Party, which has been so closely identified with sectional and industrial interests? Has the Left overestimated the potential for a third alternative? Isn't there risk of such volte-face from the BSP, TDP and other regional allies?

PK: It was the Left which opposed the nuclear deal. It was our consistent opposition which rallied others and made them take a stand. We did not rely on the Samajwadi Party. The SP earlier decided to oppose the nuclear deal on its own and later changed its position. Therefore, there is no question of any miscalculation on our part on that count. As far as the regional parties are concerned, we know their character. Most of them are, in terms of class character, bourgeois parties and they can take opportunist positions. That is why our Party Congress has explained that our concept of a third alternative should not be reduced to elections. We have maintained that the UNPA, of which the Samajwadi Party was a part, is not our idea of a third alternative. We are working for a more durable alternative based on a common policy platform. As far as parties like the TDP and other parties are concerned, we are trying to evolve some common platform of issues to work together for. We know that till the independent strength of the Left increases, many of these parties will come and go.

Q: Critics have argued that by withdrawing support to the UPA government, the Left parties have strengthened the chances of the BJP’s victory in the next elections. In case the BJP comes to power, how would it help in the struggle against the strategic alliance with the United States? How do you justify your voting alongwith the BJP in the trust vote?

PK: As far as the CPI (M) and the Left are concerned, for the last three years, we have been opposing the strategic alliance with the United States and the nuclear deal. We had clearly stated a year ago that we will withdraw support if the government goes ahead with the deal. This was a basic issue for us. The Left could not have supported a government, which goes into such a strategic alliance. So, our withdrawal of support and voting against the Manmohan Singh government was a fundamental issue for us. If other parties like the BJP also voted against the government, that cannot be interpreted as the Left joining hands with the BJP. As I said, it is inconceivable that the CPI (M) would facilitate India becoming a strategic ally of the United States. The Manmohan Singh government was following precisely what the previous BJP government attempted to do. If any other government seeks to pursue this path in the future, we will fight them too.

Q: Over the past few years, we have seen a broad understanding between the secular parties at the national level in order to defeat the BJP. This was the basis for the UPA-Left alliance after the 2004 elections. Now that the Left has broken away from the Congress over the strategic alliance with US imperialism, how will the fight against the BJP be taken forward?

PK: As far as the CPI (M) is concerned, we had no understanding or alliance with the Congress party. When the BJP was in power, we gave a call to defeat the BJP. But we did not form any alliance with the Congress. We had differentiated between the BJP and the Congress on the issue of the communal character of the BJP. Our efforts would be to gather non-BJP, non-Congress parties to fight against both the BJP and the Congress in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. While we will oppose BJP’s communal agenda, we will also oppose the Congress for its anti-people economic policies and for forging a strategic alliance with the United States.

Q: Apart from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the state units of the CPI (M) that have registered political strength – Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan – have undertaken various movements on class issues. A third front at the national level may require alliances with regional parties based in those States, which may be in direct class opposition to the CPI (M). How would your party handle this contradiction at the state and national levels and will an alliance at the national level have a bearing on the state level movements?

PK: We have an all-India political tactical line and that will be implemented in all states. We don’t foresee any problems in the states that you mentioned. Relations with the regional bourgeois parties will be determined by our all-India political line and the role they are playing in the respective states. Any electoral understanding with a regional party will not hamper our independent role and the struggles that we conduct of the basic classes.

Q: Coming back to the nuclear deal issue, what is your opinion about the nature of the debate that has been generated? How far has the Left's enunciation of independent foreign policy and energy policy been appreciated?

PK: The CPI (M) and the Left have succeeded in bringing foreign policy and strategic issues to the centrestage of national politics. The arguments that we have set out against the nuclear deal have met with a big response in political and intellectual circles. We have published the notes exchanged between the UPA and the Left in the nine rounds of negotiations. That should give a fair idea of the intense work we have put in and the seriousness of the debate.

Q: Your views on Somnath Chatterjee’s expulsion from the party…

PK: As far as we are concerned, the person who becomes the Speaker does not become a non-party person. He should not indulge in party politics when occupying the post of the Speaker. When the CPI (M) withdrew support to the government, the situation changed. How can a member of the Party preside over the trust vote and protect the interests of the government? It is unfortunate we had to take a decision to remove him from the Party. But when he refused to step down, there was no other option.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Deadly Cocktail

Alienation and communal fissures make Kashmir a tinderbox that can explode with a spark.

The fissures of communalism run deep in Jammu and Kashmir and there are enough groups among both Hindus and Muslims who are quick to take advantage of a situation. This is the message from the conflagration that swept across the state in June. An order by the forest department of the Jammu and Kashmir state government to transfer to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) less than 40 hectares of forest land to construct temporary sites for pilgrims visiting the Amarnath shrine near Pahalgam in the Kashmir valley triggered the outbursts that ultimately resulted in the fall of the Congress-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) coalition government and the imposition of governor’s rule.

The scrapping of the order by the state government did not end the controversy. It only triggered protests on the other side – by Hindutva groups in Jammu. Four people were killed and many injured in the valley in police action over many weeks.

Some of the logic used to justify the protests against the transfer was mind-boggling: the separatists – who included a section of hardline communal elements such as the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH) – claimed that the transfer of forest land to the board for constructing restrooms and other facilities for pilgrims would result in a demographic invasion by outsiders. The ridiculous follow-up protests led by the BJP and its fraternal organisations, once the order was cancelled, included calls for blockading food supplies to the valley.

Part of the reason for the fury of June had to do with the simmering discontent that has remained in the valley. The alienation of decades has not disappeared with the return of a semblance of peace since 2005. Human rights violations by the armed forces stationed in the valley and the lack of a sense of participation by the Kashmiris in the various political processes in the state have only served to keep alive the feeling of hurt and anger. The snail’s pace of progress of the peace dialogue with moderate separatist outfits (such as the Mirwaiz Farooq faction of the Hurriyat conference) has not helped matters. Fears of a state-orchestrated change in the demographic profile of the state have always simmered under the surface. In this situation all that is required for an eruption is a spark like the land transfer of 40 ha.

The valley’s political outfits, be they Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s TeH or other moderate separatist groups of the Hurriyat conference, or the “mainstream” National Conference and the PDP, all took up radical positions, in this case communal positions on the SASB issue. All factions of the divided Hurriyat have called for a boycott of the upcoming state elections and even though the subsequent cancellation of the order by the government saw a reduction in tension in the valley, they have not withdrawn their boycott call, hoping to further delegitimise the Indian State in the valley. The halting steps made in the direction of peace in the valley now seem to have been reversed.
The SASB which is headed by the Jammu and Kashmir governor was established in 2001. The previous governor, S K Sinha, whose tenure ended in June this year, was an appointee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in the centre at that time and was known for championing Hindu chauvinist interests. It is a mystery why the United Progressive Alliance government continued with him until the end of his tenure.

The BJP along with other organisations of the Sangh parivar were naturally quick to take advantage of the situation and called for a “Bharat bandh” to protest the cancellation order. Trying to use the volatile situation to reap communal votes, the BJP conveniently ignored the fact that the J&K government had not withdrawn any facilities to the pilgrims. Instead of using the forest department land, it has given the tourist department the responsibility of providing facilities for the pilgrims, whose numbers have soared every year since the mid-1990s.

Years of conservative indoctrination and the communalisation of the insurgency movement have threatened to wipe out the tolerance inherent to the syncretic Kashmiri culture. No wonder an order ensuring provision of facilities for pilgrims turned out to be an emotive issue exploited almost without exception by the various political groups in the region. Competitive communalism now thrives in Jammu and Kashmir as the separatist as well as extremist political organisations in the Kashmir valley on the one hand and the BJP and the members of the Sangh parivar on the other have used the same mechanisms of fomenting communal hatred to further their expedient causes.

An EPW editorial

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nuclear deal and dealing leaders

In perhaps the darkest day in Indian parliamentary “democracy”, the UPA government used the maxim, “if not by hook, we will win by crook” to win a trust vote that was necessitated owing to the withdrawal of left support to the government. Allegations were already flowing thick and fast about how the support was won off certain legislators in the opposition through the means of graft and bribery, even as crony capitalist manoeuvring and naked dispersal of pelf and patronage in the form of ministries was indulged in, in the open by the government, just to get a dubious nuclear deal with the United States passed through. In the end of it all, the “technocrat prime minister” Dr. Manmohan Singh was beaming unabashedly, shedding no sense of remorse over the sheer duplicity of the Pyrrhic victory won by his ruling party and its coalition allies, even as the bourgeois press went gaga over the Machiavellian triumph.

The image of the day from the Lok Sabha was that of three BJP legislators pouring out wads of thousand rupee notes and alleging that they had been paid to vote against the government by representatives of the Samajwadi Party, whose sudden volte-face in supporting the nuclear deal was itself dubious. The BJP legislators had named Amar Singh, the voluble general secretary of the Samajwadi Party and Ahmed Patel, the behind-the-scenes political secretary of the Congress party as the lynchpins in the entire bribery scandal.

Even more damning was the fact that there existed video footage (a sting operation done by the private channel CNN-IBN) which insinuated in clear as to what was transpiring beyond the public eye in the way legislators were being bought for their votes. But the channel, perhaps wishing not to embarrass the government and thereby jeopardise the nuclear deal, thought it wise not to air the contents to the public.

In essence, everything about the manner the Manmohan Singh government went ahead with getting legislative approval for the deal, was dubious. An opera that begin with a slew of lies made by the representatives of the government to its erstwhile left allies, continued with the addition of new partners (Amar Singh, Mulayam Yadav and his cohorts) who had their own shady self serving agenda. It has now culminated with a dark flourish as nearly 11 members of parliament went “Aya Ram, Gaya Ram” and endorsed the government, while at the same time, ensuring that their wallets were sure to be bursting out of the seams with hard money. Others took the “higher road” to patronage by negotiating ministries (the JMM for example).

In the midst of it all, the sutradar and the opera conductor, the United States administration was laughing all the way to the bank. Here was the Indian government, which had now forsworn its commitment to a better, progressive and a multipolar world, to embark upon a notorious nuclear deal with the unilaterist Americans and heck, they had even gone one step ahead of the guru of graft and chicanery, George Bush, in getting the all powerful legislative approval for the deal.

The nuclear deal has still some steps to be negotiated. The IAEA board of governors meets in a while to signal its decision on the initialled safeguards agreement negotiated by the Indians. What follows is then the deliberations by the representatives of the Nuclear Suppliers Group cartel to give a clean chit to the Indian government, which will then in turn take up the deal to be endorsed in the American legislature through an up-down vote.

Thus the genie is now out of the India's legislature's bottle. The deal is on autopilot. The dealers however, will not be spared. They have shamelessly justified their means by pointing out to their utilitarian understanding of the benefits of the ends met by the deal. The public will not be convinced. As the shameful image of legislators pouring out 1000 Rs notes with Mahatma Gandhi's face etched on it, onto the well of the parliament, is painted on the television day in and day out, so much will the anger with the charade, followed by the Manmohan Singh government in getting a dubious deal passed, pour out eventually into the ballot boxes. The Congress(I) and the Samajwadi Party are thereby served notice. The people might have forgotten the earlier pathetic episode of graft in the JMM parliamentarians' bribery scandal involving the Narasimha Rao led Congress government (of which Manmohan Singh was the finance minister). But this memory would last till at least March 2009. The dealers will be dealt appropriately.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

No Trust Left Anymore

The polity in India is set to take a precipitous turn into the unknown as a trust vote awaits the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the country. Virtually reduced to a dependence on bit players to swing their support for survival, the UPA government has now resorted to various methods of alluring disparate members of parliament (MPs) to vote for the government during the trust motion. Methods such as dangling cabinet berths to hearing out crony capitalist demands to naming public property such as airports in the memory of a politician’s father to curry his support to plain old transfer of money are being touted as the ways to win the support of legislators over to the UPA’s side.

And all this for getting the nuclear deal to get a stamp of approval from the parliament, nipping in the bud, once and for all the widespread understanding that the deal does not enjoy majority legislative support. This kind of inducement led bartering of morality in governance and in politics, has been justified as imperative decision making in a fractured polity, by the unabashed spokespersons of the ruling coalition. They must know better, for such bribing of legislators was practised as a honed art by the Congress party, which went about this dubious charade in 1994 by paying off legislators belonging to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) to defeat a no-confidence motion. The then prime minister Narasimha Rao, his trusted lieutenant Buta Singh and the JMM MPs were later let off from the criminal case on this issue, owing to a ruling that provided immunity to legislators from criminal prosecution. History is now repeating itself as yet another farce with the same party, the JMM’s legislators led by its convicted chief Shibu Soren demanding favours in order to curry support for the nuclear deal. Soren ostensibly has categorically asked for a cabinet berth or at least the chief minister’s post in the Jharkhand state. Such is the level of murkiness that Indian polity has been reduced to, in the aftermath of the Left parties withdrawing support to the UPA government.

Criminality in politics is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something unexpected for a third world nation like India. But the very fact that such criminality happens in broad daylight, and at the highest decision making centres such as the parliamentary level on crucial issues of national importance makes a mockery of the entire procedure of formal democracy embodied by the parliamentary system. What is even more galling is that the government of the day has deigned it fit to carry public advertisements in the name of a government ministry (the petroleum and natural gas ministry) to tout the virtues of the nuclear deal. One such advertisement carries among its bullet points, a blatant lie, that nuclear energy would offer a viable and important substitute to fossil fuels at a time when crude oil prices are high. Nothing can be a more ridiculous an argument than this.

Nearly all of crude oil goes into creating refinery products that fuel transportation and other facilities such as cooking. None of the above functions can be provided by using nuclear energy. A very minuscule component of the crude oil imported is used for power generation. Plus there is no assurance that the nuclear energy that would be imported would add up to a strategically important component of the entire energy basket or if the imported reactors and fuel would arrive at a cost that would eventually translate into a reasonable user fee (from some estimates, the user fees charged would be much higher than electrical power generated through other sources such as from burning coal).

It therefore reeks of a dubious intent to publish advertisements that make a mockery of energy policy. Manmohan Singh and his party have not only thrown caution to the wind as they embark upon the ‘my way is the “George Bush is the friend” way or no way’, but have given the short shrift to any or whatever ethical norms of executive functioning that characterises the parliamentary system. Manmohan Singh even made the outrageous statement the other day in the ramparts of the G8 summit that “India and the US should work shoulder-to-shoulder together” to solve pressing issues of the world. When one realises that the US’ pig-headed aggressive and murderous foreign policy in west Asia for example is part of the great set of problems that the world faces today, it shames the “thinking Indian” when her/his prime minister says this at a summit with glowing reference to one of the biggest warmongering criminal heads of state today, despised by not only the majority of the world’s population but by his own countrymen (with historically low approval ratings hovering in the late 20s and early 30 percent points).

Some of the justifications made by the Indian establishment include a bizarre enunciation of national interest over-riding all other concerns about the US’ unilateralism. Since the purported benefits of the nuclear deal (which is supposed to recognise India as a nuclear power despite it not signing the NPT and accord it with privileges deserving of the nuclear-haves) are overwhelming for these folks, they are ready to ride roughshod over any argument against having any kind of strategic hug with the global hegemon, that too ruled by someone who sincerely believes in neo-conservatism and hostile militarism. As argued repeatedly, the purported benefits of signing the deal have been exaggerated, while the risks, which include burning bridges with already semi-hostile neighbours and other historical relationships in west Asia (read Iran), are played down and hidden away from the argumentative Indian’s ears.

What is left is therefore a rump of an argument that favours the nuclear deal, no matter what and tries to establish support from disparate sections with promise of power, pelf and patronage, with the scantiest regard for ethics in public life. The UPA for example broke a promise it made in writing to its erstwhile Left allies that it would not go ahead with operationalising the deal without getting the safeguards agreement initialled at the IAEA, being discussed threadbare at a co-ordination committee set up for that purpose. Shockingly, it also found it prudent to lie about putting off the step of approaching the IAEA board of governors till it won the confidence vote, by doing the same the very next day after it made this promise.

Then there is the saga of hiding the IAEA safeguards agreement text from public view, before it was leaked out onto the news websites and blogs, and after which the external affairs ministry was forced to carry the text on its website.

All of these shenanigans have added to a shrill negative image of the Congress-led government, which has deemed such methods a Machiavellian manoeuvre to get the nuclear deal passed. And this has only created a situation where there has been a total break in relations between the secular coalition, formed as it was to keep communal elements from getting to power. No prizes for guessing who will benefit from this break: the communal forces represented by the BJP themselves. A four year arrangement which promised to make a break from the governance paradigm led by the BJP, has ended up on such a bitter note that the chances of the BJP coming back to power have indeed brightened.

As one gets to see the spectacle of the Left voting against the government with the rightist forces spelling out their own reasons for opposition, and as one gets to see a handful of self-seekers siding with the government after having been bought off, in a trust vote, one loses any trust that is left of the parliamentary system. Someone said that the democratic polity in India represented the general will of the people. It turns out that what is left is only the general ‘wile’. Time would tell as what impact such disastrous expediency of the ruling UPA coalition would lead to.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mendis again

The Blog article on Ajantha Mendis has been republished in The Post. Link here

Just in case, the link gets diverted after archival, re-carrying contents:

In the late 1990s, when this author used to be a teen, a catchy slogan that was splashed on the television screen was 'Normal is Boring'. Featuring the cartoon character, Fido-Dido, the adage was used to convey that being 'freaky' was not to be scorned but to be encouraged. Watching Ajantha Mendis bowl recently in the Asia Cup cricket tournament reminded one of the slogan immediately. Mendis is the new Fido-Dido of otherwise mechanical and 'playing to the norm' story of cricket.

His 6-13 performance against India in the Asia Cup was, to tell the truth, no surprise for this author. I had watched his debut game on TV against the West Indies and was as much bamboozled with his art as much as the batsmen in the game were. It was only a matter of time that the bewilderment was to be infected by other players facing him, and India was at the brunt of the Mendis attack in the game.

So far, Mendis has not yet played Test cricket. He is expected to make his debut against India in the upcoming Test series. But the relatively small sample of One Day cricket and a single T20 match is enough to whet the appetite of the gluttonous connoisseurs of the 'art of cricket'. An assortment of what spin is all about is what Mendis is all about. He can turn the ball from the off to the leg (the off-spinner); he can deliver the same with the wrist (the googly); he can tweak his off-spinning hand to flick the ball from mid to outside off (the doosra), he can bowl the conventional leg-spinner and most devastating of all, he can make the ball hit the turf and rear up with an extra co-efficient of restitution (the top spinner). He is in essence a catch-all spinner, except not much of him is caught by the batsman facing his onslaught of variety. The greatest attribute he has is the ability to keep his line and length simple, i.e. 'plonk' in the area right in front of the stumps. And all that with his nimble fingers and subtle movements of the wrist, that act in close co-ordination with a courageous mind that takes on all batsmen - accomplished or not - as surefire prey for his spinning hunt.

The off-spinner is more or less conventionally delivered, but the doosra retains nearly the same configuration of fingers and wrist, but is delivered with a flick of the middle finger. The googly brings in the wrist more into action, with the ball shifted to the thumb and index finger for emphasis, while the top spinner follows the same co-ordination principle of the doosra, except that the middle finger is replaced by the index finger for emphasis. The delivery which is flicked by the middle finger to create the discombobulation in flight and on hitting the deck is what has been termed the 'carrom ball'. In essence, the variety is controlled by a co-ordination of fingers, wrist and a nimble mind constantly trying to out-think the willow wielding opponent. Technical aspects apart, the simple sophistication of this newcomer is a whiff of fresh air to the art of cricket, ravaged as it is by the takeover of the brutal and the mechanic, both of which adjectives are the rage of the T20 dominated cricketing hour. No doubt, as Mendis flits about playing his inscrutable art, he will be the object of scrutiny. Recorders, video players and laptops would be dissecting his flavour of delivery and the conventions of mechanics would soon be trying to overcome the mystery of his art. Science therefore would be hitting out at art and deciphering the laws of his difference and batting machines will be tuned to overcoming the gap between comprehension and mystification. That possibility is always there.

But what differentiates Mendis from the rest of the freak-shows of the past (Saqlain Mushtaq discovered the doosra but forgot that he was an off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan's birth defect makes his spinning skill a permanent one-off) is that his freakishness is all encompassing. How much ever batsmen master his top spin, they would still have to contend with trying to find the difference in a split second between his doosra and his off-spin and if they did that, they would still have to handle the variation between his googly and his leg-spin. There is enough hope for Mendis to keep prospering as the examination that he has set for the batsmen with his ability is much tougher than the tests of the past freak-shows. That is his biggest advantage as a prospect for the future: his ability to set a paradigm shift in the art of spin bowling. A little peering into the backpages of cricket history would reveal that there was indeed one other practitioner of the 'carrom ball' art, Australian bowler, Jack Iverson. However, his career was short but at the same time, highly effective. One expects that Mendis' career on the other hand, should be a long and tortuous one for the batsmen facing him.Here is wishing him the best of fortitude and resilience in keeping his art show intact. We need the Fido-Dido of international cricket to continue to resist the tendency to 'normalise' and 'standardise' the sport and keep proving the freakish adage, "Normal is boring" right.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and Sycophancy

It is time to launch a massive campaign not just against the "notorious nuclear deal" as Prakash Karat put it, but against the agencies of disinformation and lying that predominate the corridors of power. Quick Comment.

In November 2007, the Indian government formed a UPA-Left Committee to look into the aspects of the nuclear deal from a political, strategic and technical perspective. The committee was supposed to discuss the features of the deal before ultimately making the final decision whether or not to operationalise the deal. It was seen as a face saving device between two allies, who had virtually diametric opposite views on the deal. While the Left had not let the government to proceed any further, the government got a valuable concession from the left to allow it to talk to the IAEA to pencil a safeguards agreement. The concession came with the caveat that the negotiated agreement be then brought into committee, before any decision to provide it to the board of governors of the IAEA is made.

First Lie

It turned out that neither was the text brought to the purview of the committee (the government instead presented a summary), nor was the government willing to place the text for discussion, terming that the text was classified. Instead the government tried to play a new tune, 'let us go to the IAEA board of governors, we will bring back the deal to the parliament after the up-down vote in the US Congress at which point the parliament's decision to accept it or not will be considered'. This refrain was confirmed by the prime minister himself in his statements. Clearly this refrain was not just against the grain of the UPA-Left Committee's written agreement, it was a blatant violation. Obviously the government had lied when it said that it wanted the text to be discussed before sending it to the board of governors.

The Text is "classified"?

When pointed out that the text of the IAEA safeguards agreement was not available in the public domain (the features of the safeguards agreement and the necessity to verify it's contents need not detain us in this article; they have been laid out in a statement of the left parties and also by a statement by eminent nuclear scientists circulated in the media), the government mentioned that it was not possible, as one had to "join government" to get to see the text of the agreement. Why is the government making this classification? After all texts/protocol negotiated with the IAEA by other countries (most prominently, the government's guru these days, the US) are available in the public domain and the IAEA itself has gone on record saying that it has not classified the text. Clearly the government has something to hide. Is it the fact that the text has clauses that violate the understanding provided by the prime minister in the house when he provided clear cut assurances about "full civil nuclear cooperation"? We cannot but speculate as the government is not keen at all to provide the text for us to make a reasoned conclusion.

Another lie

The next lie was even more damning. Just the day when the government effectively became a "minority" after the left parties withdrew support, the external affairs minister gave an assurance in public, that the government will not go to the IAEA board of governors before winning a vote of confidence as required once the president formally asks the government to face parliament on this issue. Fair enough, we thought, the government had spine and was willing to the right thing. We were wrong. The government, atleast the external affairs minister, simply lied. It was revealed by the IAEA itself in a press release on the 8th of July that the Indian government has indeed requested the IAEA secretariat to circulate the draft treaty for consideration of its board of governors. Clearly, the Indian government and its representatives in the cabinet had lived upto their lying credentials yet again.

What explains these public displays of bluffing and lying to the nation, in a matter of few days? It is not very difficult to surmise from where they have learnt this habit: from the perpetual liar and head of the US government, George Bush. Just a day before, Manmohan Singh emphatically said that India should stand "head-to-head and shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States". In a prelude to such "standing", Manmohan Singh's government now stands toe-to-toe and heart-to-heart with the biggest liar (ask Center for Public Integrity which documented more than 900 public lies by the George Bush government leading up to the horrible Iraq occupation). It is no secret that the US administration is teaching our dishonored government to just fib off right in the eyes of the public hawks of Indian democratic institutions. It is after all easy to do that. Very few newspapers/ news channels (such as The Hindu) will question these lies by pointing them out. After all, the corporate press is gaga about sending the nuclear deal to the next stage, "written agreement" may go to hell. And what if the IAEA safeguards text is not available in the public domain, eh?, they would not even ask. After all they have already been standing heart-to-heart and toe-to-toe with the American press in the way things are reported.

It is time to launch a massive campaign not just against the "notorious nuclear deal" as Prakash Karat put it, but against the agencies of disinformation and lying that predominate the corridors of power. It is time that democrats, progressives and believers in the spirit of constitutionalism join hands together in this endeavor.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ajantha Mendis -- normal is boring

One of the few ads that always caught my attention was one that featured the Fido-Dido character for Seven up with the tagline, "Normal is Boring". It caught up my imagination so much that I imagined up the character as the logo for my college culturals, "Interface 2000" with the tag line, "And the Freak shall inherit the Earth". And me and my under-grad classmate, Vijay Anand (aka Jinnah, now Dr. "Fuel Cells" Vijay Anand Sethuraman at Berkeley) were always turned on by the Apple Computers' pitch: "Think Different" (sic). Perhaps it was in our character to do so, and perhaps that explains my zany career path. But I digress. The Fido-dido dude's new incarnation is in cricket: the carrom ball deliverer and wicket guzzler, Ajantha Mendis.

His 6-13 performance against India in the Asia Cup was, to tell the truth, no surprise for me. I had watched his debut game on TV against the West Indies and was as much bamboozled with his art as much as the batsmen in the game were. It was only a matter of time that the bewilderment was to be infected by other players facing him, and India were at the brunt of the Mendis attack the day before yesterday.

So far, Mendis has not yet played test cricket. But the relatively small sample of one day cricket and a single T-20 match is enough to whet the appetite of the gluttonous connoisseurs of the "art of cricket". An assortment of what spin is all about is what Mendis is all about. He can turn the ball from the off to the leg (the offspinner); he can deliver the same with the wrist (the googly); he can tweak his offspinning hand to flick the ball from mid to outside off (the doosra), he can bowl the conventional leg spinner and most devastating of all, he can make the ball hit the turf and rear up with an extra co-efficient of restitution (the top spinner). He is in essence a catch-all spinner, except not much of him is caught by the batsman facing his onslaught of variety. The greatest attribute he has is the ability to keep his line and length simple, i.e. "plonk" in the area right in front of the stumps. And all that with his nimble fingers and subtle movements of the wrist, that act in close co-ordination with a courageous mind that takes on all batsmen - accomplished or not - as surefire prey for his spinning hunt.

Photo shots from video clip of his first match against the Windies (googly, off spin, doosra- from l to r)

The off spinner is more or less conventionally delivered, but the doosra retains nearly the same configuration of fingers and wrist, but is delivered with a flick of the middle finger. The googly brings in the wrist more into action, with the ball shifted to the thumb and index finger for emphasis, while the top spinner follows the same co-ordination principle of the doosra, except that the middle finger is replaced by the index finger for emphasis. In essence, the variety is controlled by a co-ordination of fingers, wrist and a nimble mind constantly trying to out-think the willow wielding opponent.

Technical aspects apart, the simple sophistication of this newcomer is a whiff of fresh air to the art of cricket, ravaged as it is by the take over of the brutal and the mechanic, both of which adjectives are the rage of the T-20 dominated cricketing hour. No doubt, as Mendis flits about plying his inscrutable art, he will be the object of scrutiny. Recorders, video players and Laptops would be dissecting his flavor of delivery and the conventions of mechanics would soon be trying to overcome the mystery of his art. Science therefore would be hitting out at art and deciphering the laws of his difference and batting machines will be tuned to overcoming the gap between comprehension and mystification. That possibility is always there.

But what differentiates Mendis from rest of the freak shows of the past (Saqlain Mushtaq discovered the doosra but forgot that he was an off spinner, Muthiah Muralitharan's birth defect makes his spinning skill a permanent one-off) is that his freakishness is all encompassing. How much ever, batsmen master his top spin, they would have to still contend with trying to find the difference in a split second between his doosra and his off spin and if they did that, they would still have to handle the variation between his googly and his leg spin. There is enough hope for Mendis to keep prospering as the examination that he has set for the batsmen with his ability is much tougher than the tests of the past freak shows. That is his biggest advantage as a prospect for the future: his ability to set a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the art of spin bowling.

Here is wishing him the best of fortitude and resilience in keeping his art show intact. We need the Fido-Dido of international cricket to continue to resist the tendency to "normalise" and "standardise" the sport and keep proving the freakish adage, "Normal is boring" right.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Nepal Political Diary III

A visit to the Kathmandu valley, the political and cultural centre of Nepal after the constituent assembly elections brings the author in touch with leaders of the major political parties, public intellectuals, and the representatives of commerce and industry. This is the third and final part of the author’s diary of his travels in Nepal during May.

The three team members in front of Darbar Square in the night

As we entered the Kathmandu valley and made our way into the three adjoining cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, it was abundantly evident that we had reached the political and cultural centre of Nepal. We parked ourselves at a hotel near the historic Darbar Square, close to the tourist district of Thamel, as Prashant Jha, consulting editor of Himal, helped fix our political itinerary of meetings with leading lights of the major political parties, public intellectuals and the representatives of commerce and industry.

Madhesi Concerns

The first of our series of meetings was with Upendra Yadav, chairman of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF). He gave us an overview of the “discrimination” faced by the Madhesis owing to “Pahadi racism”, as he put it. Reeling off statistics about Madhesi under-representation in Nepal’s politico-economic-administrative structure, he made a case for a single autonomous state to be carved out of the Terai region and “self rule” that would help address the concerns of the Madhesis. When reminded that the Tharus and other sections of the inner and outer Terai had reservations about a single Madhes state, Yadav was dismissive; according to him, this was part of a “conspiracy to divide Madhes”. It “was in the Tharus’ interest to have a separate Madhes and they were misled by the Maoists during the elections”, he argued.

On the caste question and the question of radical land reform Yadav was evasive, saying that social and economic transformation was secondary to the ushering in of a truly federal structure. Indeed, he did not believe that the Maoist model of economic redistribution was necessary in the Terai; all that was required was the infusion of investment and scientific inputs in agriculture. Yadav scoffed at the allegation that India had a role to play in stoking the Madhesi identity issue, saying that India had always sided with the Nepali ruling classes of pahadi origins.

Regarding the Terai Madhesi Loktantrik Party (TMLP), the other Madhesi outfit that had done quite well in the constituent assembly elections, we were told that the TMLP was dominated by an upper caste leadership in contrast to the backward caste dominated MJF. But clearly, the strong performance of the Madhesi parties had ensured that the issue of identity and representation was going to be high on the agenda of the deliberations in the constituent assembly. The Maoists in particular had a federal model of autonomy that addressed headlong the questions of ethnicity and representation as well as redistribution.

Leading Figure of the CPN(M)

With Dr.Baburam Bhattarai at his residence

In the immediate, what kind of political and economic system did the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(M)] have in mind for the republic of Nepal? A twohour conversation with Baburam Bhattarai, senior standing committee member of the politburo of the party helped clarify what the Maoists had in mind on the political and economic fronts.

We started our conversation with Bhattarai on the Maoist handling of the identity issue. Bhattarai felt that by taking up the cause of the janajatis and the dalits, the Maoists had won their staunch support, in the process empowering them in the course of the political struggle. On being asked as to why the Madhesi parties had halted the sweep of Maoist forces in many parts of the Terai, he mentioned that the people’s war was concentrated in the hills; it will take the Maoists some time to consolidate their presence in the Terai. The Maoists had articulated the issue of representation for the Madhesis along with radical social and agrarian reform and that was why the underprivileged such as the dalits and the landless had voted for them, even in the Terai. The Madhesi parties were particularly strong in one area of the Terai, Bhojpura, contiguous with the Bhojpuri-speaking parts of Bihar in India, but he was confident of “politically addressing the concerns of these people and winning them over”.

The conversation drifted towards larger questions: the “triangular ordering of the three contending class forces in Nepal, that of the monarchy representing feudalism and the comprador bourgeoisie, the parliamentary parties representing the small and weak (national) bourgeois class, and the revolutionary forces, the proletariat, the semi-proletariat and the poor peasantry, represented by the Maoists”. This “triangular class contention turned into a bipolar one after the initiation and development of the people’s war; the parasitic reactionary classes were polarised on one side, and on the other side were the progressive forces – the bourgeois class represented by the parliamentary parties and working people represented by the Maoists”. The Maoists had always emphasised a combination of mass and military approaches keeping in mind the “balance of (aforementioned) class forces”.

The phase of the people’s war, which entailed sacrifice and led to the loss of many lives, was in hindsight justified as it had achieved the abolition of the monarchy and the breaking of the back of feudalism, Bhattarai asserted. It is but obvious that over time the contradictions between the bourgeois forces and the Maoists are bound to lead to open con- flict; the Maoists were however con fident of handling this through the “continued support of the masses”. As for the masses themselves, their “expectations were huge”. This was one of the “two main challenges” of the present, the other being the “reactionary forces ganging up against Maoist rule” or sabotage of the current peace process, something that was already underway, he cautioned. “Crucial” to the writing of a progressive constitution was the “unity of the left forces” in Nepal, he emphasised.

On the question of development, he said that the primary focus in policymaking would remain “industrial capitalism – development of industrial capitalism – oriented towards socialism”. A pro-people and pro-poor government was necessary to transform underdeveloped Nepal and the Maoists were “studying the experiences of left-led governments in India”, Bhattarai said. Dependence on foreign aid routed through non-governmental organisations was a problem as these bodies were not accountable to the people. The Maoists would regulate the inflow of such aid and carefully route it to relevant areas, he said.

Bhattarai dismissed the demands to disband the Young Communist League (YCL) and expressed surprise that even a left party like the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] had made such a demand. He said that the Maoists were willing to work for a radical constitution through the application of consensus, but at the same time, “would not give up basic issues such as land reform, particularly in the Terai”. He expected that the “coalition of reactionary forces allied with imperialism could hinder the process of writing the new constitution”.

Left Unity: Need of the Hour

Our next meeting was with Shyam Shrestha, former chief editor of Mulyankan, a left monthly magazine with a circulation of around 30,000 copies, and an active proponent of broad left unity. “Civil society” had an important role to play in the anti-monarchy protests and the eventual mass opposition to the emergency (the jan andolan II of April 2006), said Shyam Shrestha, when we met him at his home in Kirtipur, a picturesque suburb in the Kathmandu valley. “Kirtipur was the hub of the pro-democracy protests of 1989 and it was no different in 2006”, Shrestha emphatically mentioned. Along with other civil society activists, Shrestha had helped orchestrate the mass protests against the emergency and worked towards getting the mainstream parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the CPN(UML) together with the Maoists in a united struggle against the monarchy. He gave us an overview of the days leading to the lifting of the emergency and the spontaneous protests and blockades conducted by the people in and around Kathmandu, particularly along the Ring Road and in the blue-collar areas, such as Gongabu.

With Prachanda, the CPN(M) General Secretary

A prominent left intellectual, Shrestha was wary about the Maoists’ intention to foster industrial capitalism with foreign investment, worried that they would eventually follow essentially the same economic policies as the other mainstream political parties. On the criticism that the YCL was using strong-arm tactics, he suggested that this only happened in places where the local Maoist leadership was not “mature”. Above all, Shrestha felt that a broad left unity was the need of the hour in Nepal so that a “radical constitution” can be drafted by the constituent assembly.

Left Unity: Not for Now
With Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN(UML)

But even as Shyam Shrestha strikes a chord for left unity, for a leading light of the CPN(UML), former general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, this seems out of the question. Madhav Nepal is among the senior most communist leaders in the country and had a long tenure as general secretary of the party. In the course of the interview he gave us, he presented an elaborate overview of the left movement in Nepal. The CPN(UML)’s contribution to “people’s multiparty democracy” and their coming to power through the ballot were the party’s major accomplishments, he said. The party’s short-lived government in 1996 had undertaken a series of relief and development measures, enjoying the confidence of the people. However, an unfortunate split in the party had paved the way for the NC to entrench itself in power again; by the time the party reunited, it was too late to capture a majority, he pointed out.

As regards relations with the Maoists, he was committed to left unity in the country, but expressed deep anguish and anger against the activities of the YCL. He emphasised that despite the Maoist leadership’s repeated assurance to control their young cadre, the “cult of violence” unleashed against his party could not be tolerated any more. Support for coordinated action in drafting a new constitution was contingent upon the Maoist leadership containing its YCL cadre and this was the major sticking point in fraternal relations with the CPN(M), he argued. There were differences on the issue of federalism too; the carving of the country into federated regions based on ethnicity alone will not serve any purpose. Socio-political considerations and economic viability should govern any federal restructuring, apart from ethnicity, he said.

As we interacted with the people in the streets, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and others, we found that many who were formerly staunch supporters of the CPN(UML) had gravitated towards the Maoists. Despite positive memories of the short-lived CPN(UML) government in 1996, in the popular imagination, the party seemed to have lost its distinctiveness after having taken a series of vacillating and conciliatory political stands during the course of the people’s war.

Nepali Congress: Next Generation

We also met the spokesperson of the NC, Minendra Rijal. Interestingly, Rijal was critical of the Koirala leadership’s intention to continue in government. Rijal expressed his fears of a communist-led Nepal under the leadership of the Maoists. “We have no intention of letting Nepal become a communist state”, he said. The NC was also opposed to the integration of the People’s Liberation Army with the Nepal army. Rijal’s statements clearly established that sections of the NC, given their inherent antagonism towards the Maoists, were bent on destabilising the consensual peace process.

It was heartening to know that the younger generation of the NC, those who came into prominence during the jan andolan II of April 2006, were staunch republicans. One youth leader of the NC who had helped organise multiple rallies during the April movement and has been a popular campaigner since then was Gagan Thapa. We met him at a restaurant at Darbar Marg. Thapa had been active in student politics before his rise in prominence. He had actively campaigned during the CA elections, but was not given a ticket in the first past the post polls, only to be nominated to the assembly through the proportional representation route.

Gagan Thapa of the Nepali Congress

Thapa analysed the Maoist victory, saying how the areas which were under effective Maoist control during the “people’s war” phase were literally out of bounds for the NC and how the elected representatives from this region had virtually neglected any mass contact with the people. It was no wonder that the Maoists had won over large sections of people who had hitherto voted for the mainstream parties. He was critical of the NC’s senior leaders who vacillated on the demand for a republic by playing “old style conservative politics”. Only a resolution supported by party members who had participated in the 2005 movement could force the leadership to accept the demand for the declaration of a republic as one of the NC’s slogans.

There was a debate within the party whether or not to join the new government. He was frank enough to suggest that many of the old guard in the party were afraid of coming out of government as they were apprehensive that the Maoists would replace them in dispensing “patronage” once they took over the reins of power. The Maoist leadership had the strategic acumen as well as the organisational strength to remain in power for a long time by addressing the precarious living conditions of the people, he felt. He expected the NC to eventually occupy the liberal democratic space in Nepali politics. Gagan Thapa also gave us an insight into the hold of US and Indian diplomats over Nepali polity. He was concerned about international meddling in Nepali affairs during the constitutionmaking phase and asserted that the younger republican members of the NC would strive for a change in leadership and policies in the party. The Nepali Bourgeoisie During our stay, many of the main headlines and first page news in the major national dailies were about meetings between the Maoists and the representatives of commerce and industry. The main refrain was the assurances given by the Maoists about supporting national capital and forging public- private partnerships.

We met Shekhar Golchha, executive director with Golchha organisation, a big private manufacturing and trading company, the largest private employer in Nepal. We asked him about his concerns regarding the coming of a Maoist-led government to power. Golchha said that the end of the people’s war and the return to peace were positive steps. The recent verdict was for peace and he hoped that the Maoists would be able to ensure peace and stability which were necessary for business prosperity. He was under the impression, after talking to a section of the Maoist leadership, that labour-capital relations will be cordial once the Maoists came to power.

He was welcoming of the fact that the focus of the Maoists was to protect “national capital”; he wanted some amount of protection vis-a-vis foreign competition, but was also hoping for foreign investment in select areas, such as power infrastructure. He was also hopeful of expansion of the basket of goods from Nepal enjoying zero customs/import duty status in India. He was not quite appreciative of proposals for free trade and a common market as he was apprehensive of a flooding of the Nepali market with Indian goods, as companies in India had “greater economies of scale”. He also wanted foreign direct investment to be regulated and a preference for joint ventures with the participation of local firms.

Our next meeting was with Sujiv Shakya, a management consultant and president of Tara Management, a managing company handling several diversified businesses in Nepal, including the hydro power sector. Shakya was sceptical of the political processes in place under the leader ship of the Maoists. He was against any form of patronage that was inevitably a feature of Nepali polity. He did not want any form of political interference in any industrial activity and quoted the Indian experience of the last few years (laissez faire economic reforms) to buttress his argument. He particularly wanted labour reforms. The problem of implementation of big industrial projects was precisely due to the fact that it was difficult to underwrite such projects in times of political crisis. When we asked him about his opinion regarding the Maoists’ statements about the “development of industrial capitalism oriented towards socialism”, Shakya was dismissive and said that these moves were only going to encourage “crony capitalism”. We could thus get two views from the “representatives” of capital.

Towards a Vibrant Democracy

A victory poster of the CPN(Maoist)

We now needed to take some time off and so we headed to the landmark places, particularly the Narayanhiti palace occupied by the king and the new venue for the constituent assembly in New Baneswor. We were particularly struck by the proximity of the Narayanhiti palace to the huge compound housing the United States embassy. Every political leader we talked to, every journalist who had inside information about the happenings in diplomatic circles expressed concern about interference by the Americans or the Indians as had happened in the past.

Narayanhiti Palace

We were keen on travelling to the eastern parts too, but due to lack of time as well as a travel blockade in those areas, we had to cut short our visit and return to India. We took an unconventional route to Hethouda on the east-west highway and crossed the border through Birgunj into Bihar.

Red signal to the monarchy

In our 15-day sojourn which ended on May 13, we were witness to history in the making in Nepal. Our meetings with farmers, labourers, guerrillas, industrialists, journalists, politicians, and representatives of the civil society were richly rewarding. Nepal’s transformation into a republic had been facilitated by the coming together of progressives, democrats and communists and because of the peoples’ overwhelming support for such a culmination. It was the collective effort of the long suppressed citizenry that brought the monarchy down.

The talk of diplomatic intrigue and international interference worried us the most. The possibility of sabotage of the process of building a radically new Nepal should not be underestimated as the country is seen by imperialists as a launching pad of destabilisation strategies against its neighbours, even as the latter see Nepal through the lens of competitive geopolitics. There is also the presence of threats from obscurantist forces within Nepal and in India. The historic endeavour of writing a constitution for the federal democratic republic of Nepal and building a self-reliant industrial economy rests on the ability of the polity to maintain the bonhomie and consensus generated in the peace process. The long march to a vibrant democracy in Nepal has just begun.


Series of articles published in Economic and Political Weekly

Darjeeling's New Eruption

The demand for statehood for “Gorkhaland” threatens to snowball into a confrontation between various identities.

The hills in Darjeeling in West Bengal state have been reverberating again with calls for a separate state of “Gorkhaland”. Nearly 20 years after a high pitched demand was raised by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) under the leadership of Subhas Ghisingh, his one-time protege Bimal Gurung is leading a series of agitations with the same demand but with a significant difference. Under Gurung’s leadership, the Gorkha Janamukthi Morcha (GJM) has asked for a “Gorkhaland” which would incorporate areas within the plains in Siliguri and Doars as well. An indefinite strike call was called earlier this month by Gurung and his party, who have refused overtures for talks with the state government, which, in turn, has refused to acknowledge the demand for a separate state. The agitation in the Darjeeling district has created bottlenecks for transport of goods to the landlocked Sikkim. After the central government received a delegation of the GJM and assured them of tripartite talks if required, the bandh has been lifted until early July.

The rise of the GJM has coincided with the isolation of the GNLF and Subhas Ghisingh, the long-time chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Elections to the council have not been held since 2004 and the performance of the council has been questioned. There are allegations of corruption even as there has been no significant improvement in the region’s development or in governance under the GNLF’s rule. The GJM shot into prominence after its opposition to a memorandum of understanding signed by Ghisingh with the state and the central governments to recognise Darjeeling as a tribal territory under the purview of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The proposal, which was in principle accepted by the state government, has been rejected by the GJM which is loath to consider Darjeeling as a tribal territory because of the varied ethnic composition in the region. Since then the Sixth Schedule bill has been dropped.

The move to bring Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule would have provided an assurance on paper that these areas would be self-governed with local laws and with local control over substantive financial and legislative powers. Less than 35 per cent of the hill dwellers are currently recognised as scheduled tribe (ST) members and the move to incorporate Darjeeling as a tribal territory is seen as divisive by the other sections of the hills region.

The GJM had used the “Gorkha” identity sentiment through agitations against non-Nepali speakers and outsiders, which rocked the Darjeeling district in September last year, to consolidate its support base even as the GNLF was gradually sidelined. By claiming that the Sixth Schedule status was meant to divide the “Gorkha” community in the hills, the GJM has been able to pitchfork the Gorkhaland demand into the limelight again. The politics of identity has been further complicated with groups representing the Bengali-speaking population in the Siliguri area rioting on this issue. Other identity based and separatist parties such as the Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) have also entered the fray by supporting the agitation launched by the GJM. In essence, the issue threatens to snowball into an ethnic quagmire pitting hill dwellers against those living in the the plains as well as giving a fillip to other separatist tendencies in the region.

The incidents in Darjeeling suggest that the logic of development through the means of providing special treatment on the basis of identity, representation and difference has its limits. The state and central governments have underestimated the fissiparous tendencies of using the logic of special treatment methods based on the concept of ethnic difference rather than “disadvantage” in a region that is characterised by multiplicity of identities. At the same time, it is obvious that there must be talks between the hills based groups such as the GJM and the political leadership of the state to prevent the deterioration of the situation into a violent confrontation between the hills dwelling and the plains dwelling people of the district. The GJM has accepted tripartite political talks with the state and central governments. Considering the dangerous portents that the agitation has taken, adopting maximalist positions will not result in any tangible improvement in the situation.

Editorial written for the Economic & Political Weekly

A return to the murky past

In a dramatic fortnight, the parliamentary arithmetic in India has been manipulated in a manner that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by prime minister Manmohan Singh is now able to muster enough support more or less to push through its pet project: the Indo-US nuclear deal. What has changed between now and a fortnight ago is merely one factor- the sudden volte face of the Samajwadi Party which boasts of 39 members of parliament on the issue of the nuclear deal. From having excoriated the government for having betrayed the nation's independent foreign policy on the nuclear deal, today, the SP has come out in support of the deal. What explains this shift?

The Samajwadi Party is led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of the several “socialist” politicians belonging to the erstwhile united Janata Party which came into power in India after the emergency in 1977. Yadav since then, has been the chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and was also a defence minister in the United Front (a coalition of parties apart from the two big units, the Congress and the BJP) which was in power between 1996 and 1998. Yadav has been a consistent opponent of the Congress party as well as the BJP. His party had enjoyed spells of power owing to catering exclusively to the landed backward classes and minority sections in the state and has enjoyed a rather sullied reputation, accused of running a government in UP that encouraged criminalisation of politics. Over the last few years, the SP has tried to play the role of an anchor of a front that is equally opposed to both the Congress and the BJP, called the UNPA (United National Progressive Alliance) which includes other regional parties across the country. The front never took off as they have not been able to manage their internal contradictions and because of the fact that the main national force that opposes both the Congress and the BJP, the Left Front remained an ally of the Congress in the centre to keep the BJP out of power.

The SP has now seen it expedient to support the Congress led UPA because of various reasons. The simplest one to understand is the local dynamics in the UP state. The SP's primary opponent, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has managed to stitch a caste arithmetic and a support base that seems to be a formidable one and which resulted in a thumping victory for the party in the last held assembly elections in the state. Since coming to power, the BSP has only grown in strength and has “bullied” the SP with several moves that have embroiled the SP leaders with corruption cases and other issues. The SP realises that it needs to change its strategy in the state to provide a viable and a strong opposition to the BSP. It sees that the alliance with the Congress could achieve this need of the party.

The SP also enjoys the support of big time monopoly capitalists in the state. The younger sibling of the Ambani family, Anil Ambani was part of a development council conceived by the SP when in power. The SP second-in-command, Amar Singh, who is openly close to various people with corporate affiliations was the head of the now defunct council. The party has also been very closely identified with the Sahara group, which was recently in news over its financial arm being prohibited by the RBI from accepting deposits. The ban on deposits was later relaxed with a new conditionality based on a future date. While announcing the thawing of relations with the Congress, Amar Singh criticised the functioning of, in particular, two ministries in the government, the petroleum and the finance ministry. He criticised the government for not implementing the demand to impose taxes on windfall profits of private companies (read Reliance Petroleum owned by Anil's rival brother Mukesh) which exported petroleum products and even demanded a ban on such export.

It is common knowledge that relations between the two Ambani brothers, who had split the Reliance group inherited from their father are not cordial. The family feud has been reported in the Indian press over various issues, such as the merger with telecommunications group MTN of Anil Ambani's Reliance Communications and the pricing of gas supplied by Reliance India Limited (owned by Mukesh Ambani) to Reliance Energy owned by Anil Ambani. Has Amar Singh's rant against the current petroleum minister (Murli Deora, who is seen to be close to Mukesh Ambani) got to do with the feud? That is the question to be asked, and is being asked in several media quarters.

The SP's sudden volte face on the nuclear deal is being explained by the party's spokespersons (Amar Singh in particular) as being driven by clarifications issued by the prime minister's office and because of advice given by former president and missile scientist Abdul Kalam. This is a spurious reasoning, as the assurances and clarifications do not answer how the Hyde Act will impinge upon the nuclear energy partnership between India and the US, as has been argued by the left parties and was put forth as the main reason for opposing the nuclear deal by the SP itself. Only last year, at the peak of the crisis over the nuclear deal, a conference was called to discuss India's independent foreign policy in light of the nuclear deal. Addressed by nuclear scientists, energy specialists, former members of the judiciary, the conference also featured political parties like the CPI(M), the CPI, the Telugu Desam party apart from the SP. The SP's representative Ram Gopal Yadav clearly mentioned the pernicious influence of the Hyde Act over the Indo-US nuclear deal to be the main reason for opposing the deal. The PMO's (primer minister's office) recent remark that the 123 Agreement overrides the Hyde Act is not shared by the Americans who continue to insist that clauses in the act which desist India from having energy relationships with Iran would come to play if India proceeds with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline implementation. From US ambassador David Mulford to a host of US Congressmen, this position has been clearly laid out. That the SP has suddenly decided that the PMO's word is now gospel surely cannot be justified by the ostensible reasons that the party has offered.

Added to these sectional (in non-euphemistic terms- crony capitalism) and regional factors in play, there is this murky role of the US itself, which has constantly engaged in pressurising the Indian polity in going ahead with the deal. Only a week ago, Gary Ackerman, the chairman of the US Congressional Caucus on India had convened a conference which tried to find ways to operationalise the 123 Agreement, in Washington. Among the discussed aspects was the ways to manipulate the “political arithmetic” to get the deal to be passed through in the country. That this sudden shift by the regional party has changed exactly the arithmetic of political equations vis-a-vis the nuclear deal raises even more eyebrows and uncomfortable questions about the murky manner in which a staunch opponent of the deal has turned a supporter.

The Samajwadi Party might well believe that a partnership with the Congress is what that suits political interests now and it would also believe that the 123 Agreement with the US is not such a major matter that would change public opinion in electoral matters. They may even justify their support to the 123 Agreement divorcing it from their understanding about the strategic and military partnership between India and the US- the real reason for the US dangling the nuclear deal. But the fact remains that the next step in operationalisation of the nuclear deal, if it is achieved, would have been done in a highly suspicious and murky manner owing to the efforts of an unelected prime minister who is intent on pushing the deal through, no matter what is the cost.

The prime minister and his party have no qualms about breaking a written agreement with the left parties which clearly states that the next step in the operationalisation of the nuclear deal would only commence after the UPA-Left committee on the deal comes out with its decisions on the IAEA safeguards agreement. So far no decision was made on this regard, as even the safeguards agreement was hidden from the purview of the committee. As if one break in moral protocol was not enough, the Congress now builds a relationship based on shady terms with a former foe.

Till the past few days, the functioning of the UPA government was governed by a programmatic approach framed out in a common minimum programme between the UPA allies and the left parties who supported them from outside. This was a major break from the wheeling-dealing, power and patronage distribution terms that decided coalition building in the country over the last decade. The Congress' kowtowing to its prime minister's demand to throw the device of virtue away in order to push an agenda decided by the dubious George Bush administration brings back the murky details of immoral politics into government functioning in the country.

Article written for The Post

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Media Hoax and Gullible Hacks

Three cheers to www.penpricks.blogspot.com for exposing the Indian media through a circulated hoax. Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu pointed out the foolishness of sections of the press who went about their hack jobs with elan forgetting the cardinal rule of journalism: VERIFY. This hoax incident (termed Nazi-gate by penpricks) clearly establishes how the hacks of the Indian press (in this case, The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The New Indian Express, The Deccan Herald, The Herald, The Asian Age, and others in the Goan and Maharashtran local media) go about their jobs privileging sensationalism over truth and journalistic principles. Shame on the reporters who did these shoddy jobs and their editors who went about nonchalantly putting up these spurious reports.

Their "regression" test of the Indian media was the need of the hour. A 100% hoax was gleaned up as a major breaking news event and gulped up by unsuspecting hacks of the great Indian press (with honourable exceptions of course) to be put up as main page news (for example in the Indian Express as the above picture highlights).

We always knew that the Indian media thrived on sensationalism and cared two hoots about and tenets. But showing them up in the manner the penpricks folks have done is akin to what is called a "double exposure" in the movie Mahapurush directed by Satyajit Ray. It shows up both the newspapers at their worst as much as us also, the readers of these hack press newspapers.

Siddharth Varadarajan has an even more sombre thing to say: such hack jobs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Indian media. The hack media picks up even the lousiest of hints thrown up by investigative agencies and puts them up as gospels of information with a devil-may-care attitude.

And this is not the gutter press we are talking about. We are here talking about the self appointed pontificates of public opinion in the country today. These are people like Shekhar Gupta (he of the Walk the Talk and America is India's saviour attitude), Rudrangshu Mukherjee (heck ..he is an academic to boot), Olga Tellis (who replaced MJ Akbar in the Asian Age) and others who are the creme de la creme of the Indian newspaper industry.

Penpricks has this sober forecast and the hope that now verification and checking will be part of every press member's daily routine, now that they have been shown up. This writer believes that it is an optimism that only will probably be realised. Most of the corporate press is worried only about their margins and not what goes in between them. Nazigate or not, gullible hacks are here to stay.