Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Lankan conflict – as is; and the way out

The civil war in Sri Lanka is drawing to a bloody closure, with the rout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) imminent. The LTTE is holed up in a small area on a beachfront adjoining the Indian Ocean. The outfit's leader is still believed to be dissolved among the thousands of residents boxed in the area. A sea of Tamils had just fled the area (called ironically the "No Fire zone") and left to the safety of "internment camps" in Sri Lankan Army (SLA) controlled territory. The LTTE remains defiant despite the impossible odds it faces while the SLA sensing and smelling victory has kept at the effort disregarding the consequences of the final bloodbath. Even as I was writing this, the LTTE declared an unilateral ceasefire, keeping in mind the humanitarian crisis in the area.

Journalists have been kept away from the Vanni and other regions of north Sri Lanka for long now, and one is therefore forced to sift through the coloured reports from the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry releases and the pro-LTTE Tamilnet to get an idea of what is really going on. While the former portrays the sequence of events as if they are engaged in a "liberation" battle, points to nearly every civilian casualty as a result of LTTE hitting the very people it is claiming to represent and using them as human shields, the latter portrays the war as genocide, suggesting that the SLA is targeting the citizenry deliberately and killing them in droves. The truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, its cliched, but that is how it is. 

The truth

Rohini Hensman writes this piece based on a visit to Colombo. She suggests that there is truth in the fact that the LTTE is cynically and rabidly using the Tamil casualties as a prop to pressurise the "international community" to force the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to call a ceasefire. She also writes that the SLA is retaliating at LTTE fire from behind the civilians and shelling at LTTE positions within civilian areas, unmindful of the consequences. In some ways, this was expected. I wrote this editorial when the conflict was taking a turn for the worse, in humanitarian terms. Independent journalist DBS Jeyaraj has been cautioning about the humanitarian catastrophe for some months now. 

What in essence is happening is that the GoSL understands that it has the upper hand not only in the military battle as it has gone on till now, but also in the soft power status across the world because of the changed international reckoning vis-a-vis the "war against terror". And hence the SLA is marching on its way to a military end to the conflict, knowing fully that the "collateral damage" is only expected, and can be managed diplomatically. The LTTE on the other hand, knows that it is militarily over-matched and the only recourse it has is to change the perception of civil war in the international community to "genocide" and no wonder the diaspora and the pro-LTTE media on the internet is desperately trying to proffer this message with tragic imagery of the conflict. The consequences of this portrayal is that ironically, both the sides have only strengthened their resolve to go through the same motions, rather than trying to minimise casualties or work out a work-around. 

The high degree of polarisation of opinion has only strengthened the ethnic differences that already exist. The GoSL apart from the war, is also becoming a illiberal, draconian regime punishing any kind of dissent, attacking the media, and maintaining illicit contractors who do the dirty job of pulverising and muscling any voice of dissidence with the war effort in the capital and beyond. Witness, the murder of prominent journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, who had questioned the war strategies of the GoSL, to get a feel of this. For all the talk of a simultaneous political devolution of powers to the Tamil minority, and thus exploring a political solution to the "ethnic" issue while engaging in the military defeat of the LTTE, the progress on this front is negligible. The GoSL is essentially adopting a good cop, bad cop routine, with the former playing out in the statements and gestures made by president Mahinda Rajapakse such as the offer of talks with the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance leaders for e.g. The bad cop routine is diligently acted out by the president's uncouth brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the defence minister who is tasked with the unpleasant duties of handling any oppositional voice against the war efforts. The GoSL has also successfully co-opted former militants such as ex-LTTE commander, Vinayagamurthy "Karuna" Muralitharan and the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party leader Douglas Devananda, both of whom are now ministers in the cabinet. These leaders might have made the jump from being leaders articulating "Tamil independence" and a "free Eelam" to now asking for a united Sri Lanka that has been rid of "fascists" of the LTTE. But it is anybody's guess, whether they have any legitimate support of the Tamil people. These former militants had done the same despicable things and engaged in the same terror acts that the GoSL has traditionally called the LTTE for. 

Broadly, there has not been much resonance for a federal solution to the conflict (after the military defeat of the LTTE), as the Sinhalese polity is pretty much prey to communalism and a sense of majoritarianism. Very little of progressivism and indeed liberal attitudes vis-a-vis the Tamil minority issue is left in the Sinhala polity, as the opposition United National Party (UNP) is opportunist, the "leftist" Janata Vimukthi Peramuna is plainly Sinhala chauvinist and the communal (Buddhist!) Jathika Hela Urumaya's policies and outlook is rabidly Sinhala supremacist. So, any expectations of a honourable political solution to the long suffering Tamil minority in the country is belied by the state of affairs as it exists now. Even a provincial delimitation of the north and the east in Sri Lanka is turning out to be a difficult proposition considering the positions of the broad Lankan polity.

India & Tamil Nadu

What of the international community? Lets start with India first. Any tremors in the northern part of Sri Lanka have always had mini-tsunami effects in the state of Tamil Nadu. But what about now? The last year or so, since the latest phase of civil war erupted, much grandstanding on Tamil solidarity has taken place in the state involving the various political actors. A supporter of the Eelam cause at one point of time, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) now takes a position that is pretty much the same as the Congress' even though now and then, the chief minister and DMK supremo M.Karunanidhi waxes poetic about his friendship with Vellupillai Prabhakaran (accused No 1 in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case). While the DMK's current position is quite politically correct - they are concerned about the humanitarian tragedy that has engulfed the Sri Lankan Tamil population and they blame the LTTE equally for the travails of the people - how it arrived at such a position is altogether different proposition. That the current positioning is related to the fact that the DMK is dependent on Congress support for the survival of its government is quite understandable considering the trajectory of the DMK's positions on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The main opposition party the AIADMK's positions are even more interesting. The party , a historical baiter of the LTTE or of the "Eelam cause" itself, now wants a separate Eelam! That the change in positions of the both these "Dravidian" parties has got little to do with the ground situation in Lanka but more to do with their perceptions of political expediency is apparent. 

Much of the support base for the LTTE, admittedly "fringe", as S.V.Rajadurai points out in this letter, ( alternately hosted here) is engulfed in the same language of Tamil nationalism as articulated by the Dravidian parties in the 1960s. "Tamil nationalism" is a good slogan to arouse sentiments. The Dravidian parties (the DMK & ADMK) have less use for this now, for they are well integrated in the power set up both in the centre and in the state, their regional bourgeoisie and rural elite base's interests being well helped out by the parties' involvement in power structures at the centre for about 2 decades now. Yet, even in a fast urbanising Tamil Nadu, there are various sections which have grievances that have remained unfulfilled in the "silent revolution" orchestrated by the Dravidian parties. The political forces that represent these sections, such as the party purporting to represent the Vanniyars, the Pattali Makkal Katchi of S. Ramadoss or the one claiming to represent the Dalits, the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi, have taken recourse to that lingua franca of "protecting Tamil" and "Tamil interests". Yet, these two parties are in opposite fronts, for the instrumentality of being relevant in the electoral arena overcomes their unity on the Eelam issue. And there is the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of firebrand speaker Vaiko, who sees his diminishing fortunes as a leader of a fading outfit, having only one crutch to stand on - uncompromising support to the Eelam cause. 

The Left in Tamil Nadu has different positions as well. The CPI has suddenly discovered a rallying point for its fortunes in the state and they were the first to articulate opposition to the war situation in Lanka. They have scrupulously avoided taking a pro-LTTE stance, but that does not mean that they wouldn't rent and share their platforms to LTTE apologist Pazha Nedumaran or the pro-LTTE parties. The CPI(M) has consistently advocated a federal solution to the Lankan issue, have always denounced the LTTE and the military solution, but somewhere among the cacophony of voices and the gaggle of alliance building, the party's position remains unheard. 

All said, the events in the Vanni has indeed evoked a response from the Tamil people in India, but that response has found itself mired in the grotesque polity that is Tamil Nadu's today. The Indian government has reacted to this gaggle of voices from TN's polity in its own measure - keeping away from the affairs of Sri Lanka understandably but providing tacit support to the cause of defeating the LTTE. Then there is also the geopolitical factor that looms over the issue. 

China & India

Much of the arms,ammunition and military hardware that the GoSL has used against its own people and its civil war adversaries have been sourced from China. It need not be reiterated that the foreign policy of the Chinese is driven by its own "pragmatic" calculations, be it its relative silence on the unjust occupation of Iraq, or in its closeness with such regimes as in Myanmar and many others in Africa. It is the same "pragmatic" calculation that drives its policy of helping the GoSL with generous arms supply, and that certainly tilted the military balance in the SLA's favour, no doubt. The Indian reaction has been a mix of "realist" alarm and "realist" angst (check Indian Home Minister P.Chidambaram's statement on the issue).

India's meddling in the northern parts of Sri Lanka has had a deleterious effect on the conflict, as was played out in the disastrous Indian Peace Keeping Force intervention or in the earlier covert training provided to the various rebel outfits. Since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination by the LTTE, the Indian establishment has understandably taken a hands-off approach vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, which had paid some dividends – good relations with the country and lessening the complications a bit in the conflict. But that doesn't mean that the bad habits of the earlier “Indian supremacy in the sub-continent” endorsers have been wiped off.

Check this from an ex-secret service officer - look at the advocacy (Point No 10 in article) for further mischief in Sri Lanka not because of genuine solidarity to the much suffering Tamil populace, but for the domination of Indian interests in the sub continent. For these elements, the China factor is alarming; it confirms their suspicion that China is engaged in a "string of pearls" strategy to engulf India and their reaction has to be cut from the same "pragmatist/realist" fold.  

International Community

The rest of the international community has took to this issue with more rigour than in the near past. Since the international animus to all forms of terror was substantiated after the 9/11 events, there had been a crackdown of overt and covert material support to the LTTE in the various countries of the world hosting Tamil diaspora. That was the first bugle that sounded the death-knell of the LTTE.

Today, the large turn out of protesters among the Tamil diaspora in New York, London, Ottawa and elsewhere, many of them distraught with the slaughter of their brethren has indeed touch a chord. The UN security council in an informal session condemned the LTTE's actions and asked for the organisation to lay down arms, and in the same breath asked for the GoSL to stop the conflict that has resulted in this humanitarian catastrophe. An informal session of the UN asked for the LTTE to disarm itself and for the Sri Lankan government to address the catastrophe with the highest priority.

The gist of this write up so far is that domestically and internationally, the stress on political expediency or on “pragmatism” and realism has meant that the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni region goes on unabated with the main protagonists – the LTTE and the SLA going about their ways with impunity. Caught in the crossfire, the Tamil people of the Vanni have been either slaughtered or have been rendered limbless, homeless and much traumatised.

What is to be done?

What does this writer think is needed to be done? Domestically, the GoSL must stress an non-military end to the conflict, even if it has the upper hand, simply to avoid a major human bloodbath of remaining citizenry in the area. And the government should stop its nonsensical rhetoric of “war on terror” which has drawn a loose and very visible veil over the real ethnic problem. A very simple question can be asked that will call the Lankan bluff on the issue. Does its Lankan Army have a single Tamil officer of note fighting against the LTTE? The answer is a plain no. And that affirmatively means that this is indeed a civil war involving two ethnicities. And therefore the primary issue of a deepening ethnic divide and a long un-addressed issue of minority rights, federal powers has to be the first basis of concern. Which cannot be addressed right-away if the essence is on a “muzzle the dissent”, “crush the opposition no matter what” approach. A ceasefire and an ordered disarming of the LTTE is still feasible if the government decides to do that when it is still ahead of the military game. This should follow a massive humanitarian operation to provide shelter, medical aid to the traumatised residents of the Vanni and a plan to quickly resettle the inhabitants in their original domiciles following an armistice with the LTTE.

As for the LTTE, its bluff was already called by its many a disastrous course of action. Years of acts of terror orchestrated by its megalomaniac leader, and reliance on methods that do not have any legitimate currency in a world that is tired of “terror” have ensured that the organisation is now irrelevant to the present and the future of the Tamils if it continues to exist as it does today. That doesn't mean that the acres of support that the organisation enjoys among the diaspora who have been still peeved by the injustices of the past will wither away suddenly. The LTTE has to now, utilise that support to first address the humanitarian issue in the Vanni, and next go in for a political solution that involves other Tamil representatives. It can possibly do that, by accepting an armistice and disarming itself rather than keep the quixotic fight and driving more of the Tamil citizenry to starvation and doom. The LTTE's more sinister leaders such as Prabhakaran and intelligence chief Pottu Amman can then be tried under international law for their many actions considering their surrenders sympathetically. The culmination of such a trajectory of actions is possible if the diaspora acts responsibly, in solidarity with their suffering brethren.

Other Tamil leaders who have been antagonistic to the LTTE can press for the GoSL to go about this humanely and to politically address the federal solution. International pressure can be used to bring about this culmination as well. India should play a lead role in this in dialogue with UNSC P-5. Unlike other nations, Sri Lanka has nary a strategic value for imperialism to play a debilitating role over here. India and China can open a channel of talks and play a more positive role with the already involved set of international actors such as Norway and Japan to bring this possibility of a lasting federal solution. And the position on a federal solution has to be well laid domestically within Tamil Nadu, defeating any irredentist tendency. Fortunately, the bulk of public opinion in Tamil Nadu is still rooted in such a solution, rather than any support for the Eelam cause.

Progressivism in the 21st century has to consider solutions to various complications such as “ethnic divide” and “irredentism” through means that are not arms and weapon-dependent. There remains no currency in struggles that are based exclusively on the demands of the barrel of guns, ostensibly acting for the demands of humanity and terming it battles for “self-determination” or “unity of the nation”. “Liberation through war” and “peace through war” are both oxymorons. It is high time that the LTTE and the GoSL realise this. The LTTE in this respect can learn some lessons from the Nepali Maoists for e.g and the GoSL from the Indian example of federalism as it came out in the 1950s and 60s.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Anarchic Somalia's piracy problem

The anarchic situation in Somalia has resulted in sea piracy seen as a legitimised enterprise among its coastal citizenry

Ever since the collapse of the central government led by Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the nation of Somalia in east Africa has been subjected to lawlessness and anarchy that has ripped the nation and its society apart. The phenomenon of sea piracy in the Gulf of Aden and in coastal regions of the country is related to this breakdown as well as other factors.

The Gulf of Aden is a busy trade route for various international ships, and pirates have seized upon the traffic here to earn money through hijacking and winning ransoms or by looting ships that carry food grains or livestock. The modus operandi for pirates across the Somalian coast involves groups of armed men disembarking from “mother ships” on speed boats and taking hostages of crew members of other ships in the vicinity. Incidences of piracy in 2008 was particularly high, as big tankers such as the Saudi ship Sirius Star, or large arms carriers such as the Ukrainian Faina were hijacked. The pirates have shown increasing sophistication in their actions – through the use of global positioning systems, satellite communications, military hardware and other know-how.

The sudden surge in the incidence of piracy nearby the Somalian coast resulted in an unanimous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution in December 2008 authorising nations to cooperate in their fight against piracy and to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to interdict vessels engaged in piracy. The UNSC authorised the entry by nations' ships into Somalian territorial waters to punish those engaged in piracy activities when needed. Such an express approval for action, saw a relative decline in successful hijackings of vessels in the region, but the dramatic hijacking of an American vessel followed by an US navy rescue operation has brought back focus on the issue.

The basic rationale for the acts of piracy has been pinned down to the lucrative returns from hijacking – an estimate suggests income from piracy is higher than the entire GDP of the autonomous region of Puntland in north-eastern Somalia, where piracy is most rampant. The sophistication and brazen-ness of the actions are seen as possible only because of the lack of a central authority in control over law and order in the Somalian nation. The perennial civil war since 1991 has seen multiple authorities; warlords have controlled the capital at various times, there has been an invasion by Ethiopian armed forces and the internationally recognised transitional federal government in Somalia has been unable to establish any semblance of rule. The absence of any central rule has resulted in a complete deterioration in the economy and in the livelihoods of the already impoverished nation.

The lack of a central authority governing Somalia has also meant that the nation's coast has been used as a dumping ground of toxic waste and a source of uncontrolled fishing by international corporations with impunity. Reports and even the United Nations Environment Programme have pointed out that tonnes of toxic waste have accumulated in the Somalian coast, a process that was exacerbated by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Fishing trawlers operated by European firms have systematically emptied the fishing zones, resulting in resentment among local fishing communities in the region. The pirates were believed to have started their acts on the seas as a means of dissuading international ships – particularly off the coast of Puntland – from being in the vicinity of their shores. And it is no wonder that the pirates' actions have been supported by the local public concerned about the effects of toxic dumping (including nuclear waste) on their shores and about the unauthorised and bulk fishing in their zones. Many of the locals view piracy as acts of self-defense against commercial ships entering sovereign Somalian territory.

In essence, the “piracy problem” in the Somalian coast and in the Gulf of Aden seems more than merely a lucrative enterprise. The continuing use of the Somalian territorial waters for illegal dumping and fishing by international firms– a practice that has legitimised piracy in the eyes of the locals - is a crime that has to be monitored and stopped immediately by the international community.

The security council's insistence on a security/military based solution will not solve the problem in its entirety, as the larger issue of the continuing anarchy in the country would only force the citizenry to adopt desperate measures for their livelihoods. It is untenable that 18 years have passed since a functional national government was in place in the country. Concerted efforts by the United Nations to bring in civil rule and law by engaging the warlords and various groups in talks have gone ahead nowhere, as powers such as the United States, have bedevilled such processes in Somalia driven by their own strategic concerns – for exploiting energy resources in the country or the “war on terror”. In sum, the downward spiral into further anarchy and the piracy problem are to be addressed not just by a security response by the international community, but through a different form of intervention keeping in the mind the plight of the Somalian population.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Friday, April 10, 2009

Shifting Allegiances

Whichever Dravidian party led coalition wins the most in the Lok Sabha elections; they will have a major role to play in the centre 

Yet another round of switching of allegiances, alliance building and seat sharing has taken place, as has been the norm for the past few elections – both state and national – in the state of Tamil Nadu prior to the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The defection of the left parties and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) from the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) which includes the Congress has changed the political “equations” in the state. The opposition Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) has now become the new lynchpin for the “grand alliance” which includes the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) apart from the aforementioned parties. 

What drove the left parties to the ADMK led front was their perception that they had to be part of an oppositional alliance to be with a chance to defeat the Congress – their “national” imperative to form an non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), non-Congress government. As for the PMK- the party purportedly representing Vanniyar caste interests, its propensity to flow with the political wind by shifting allegiances was aided by the uncomfortable relationship it held with the DMK over the past year, despite being part of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the centre. The MDMK had already joined hands with the ADMK before the 2006 elections. Only the more recently formed outfit – the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam led by actor Vijaykanth has decided to go it alone, willing to test the popularity of its leader in all constituencies in the state. 

Tamil Nadu’s case resembles other north Indian states, where the main national parties – the Congress and the BJP – have been bumped by stronger regional parties to junior or insignificant roles. What characterises Tamil Nadu’s polity as being unique is that the major regional parties, the DMK and the ADMK have had no qualms about reaching an alliance with either national party to suit their ends and to add to this mockery of coalitions is the sheer desperation of other outfits in the state to fit in as partners with the more dominant of the two at any particular “election moment”. Thus the DMK as well as the PMK have now achieved a stay in the centre through being part of both the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP as well as the UPA, while the ADMK has been in coalition with both the Congress and the BJP and now, the Left. Such a reliance on the state’s regional parties has given a greater federal hue to the centre’s functioning, but beyond this formalism, hardly much has been attributed to these outfits’ role in the centre apart from widely held views about corruption and high-handedness of their representatives in government. 

The logic of alliance building is intended to win from a simple arithmetic addition of caste/social base support enjoyed by the various parties. To an extent, the intent has indeed delivered in the near past in both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly elections; but social bases over the years are no longer set in stone in the much urbanised and socio-economically changing state. 

The political discourse during campaigning has thrived not so much on performance of the ruling/ oppositional parties as on the ability of the two main parties (and others) to use their money power and patronage networks built during days in power (at the Centre or in the state). The political contestations between the main Dravidian parties are aimed at hitting the other with charges of corruption, nepotism and campaigns against each other are greatly personalised. The ADMK aims its criticism against the DMK leader M.Karunanidhi’s all powerful family, while the DMK does the same pointing its finger toward J.Jayalalithaa’s leadership and familial misgivings. Even issues of development – material necessities of the people of the state, health, education etc – are debated through personalised vitriolic attacks aimed at each other by the leaders of these Dravidian parties and including the MDMK and the PMK. 

What has emerged as an additional issue in this election is the situation in Sri Lanka, where there is a humanitarian crisis in the Vanni region. Partly due to the peoples’ empathy for the plight of the affected people in the region and partly due to mobilisations for “support to the Tamil cause” by both ruling and oppositional sections in the Tamil polity, this issue now sees very engaged grandstanding by most political outfits. Interestingly the strongest voices demanding intervention by the Indian government in Sri Lanka are positioned in oppositional fronts – the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is part of the DMK led alliance, while the pro-Tamil-rebels parties, the PMK and the MDMK are with the ADMK led alliance. 

The political story is even more complicated by the fact that there is no guarantee that pre-poll alliances will hold after elections, with the ADMK for example giving no indications of a steadfast anti-BJP, anti-Congress stance, much to the discomfort of the left parties. In the case of the latter, their lamentable dependence on the two highly personalised and patronage based Dravidian parties every election season raises questions about these parties’ limited praxis in the state.   

National elections are still being contested from regional platforms in this state and whatever might be the outcome, it is guaranteed that the winning set of regional parties will have a major role to play in the centre. Whether that role is progressive and addresses real issues that face the people of Tamil Nadu is questionable and that is the discomforting feature about the Lok Sabha elections in the state. 

Draft of the editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

The die is caste

Social engineering” remains the main theme in Bihar's polity as the 15th Lok Sabha elections in the state beckon.

Bihar's elected representatives have had an important part to play in the national legislature for long. True to its recent legacy of “Mandal politics”, the state promises to deliver yet another verdict that is reliant on the correlation of various caste and community based alliances. The main political parties in the state hope to construct a winning alliance of the right combination of caste and community alliances – in other words, “social engineering”.

The performance of the major parties have depended upon their ability to maintain their respective social bases among various castes. Thus, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad is seen as a Yadav and other backward classes dominated party deriving support also from Muslims. The Loktantrik Janata Party (LJP) led by Ram Vilas Paswan has a primary social base that comprises of dalit communities such as the Paswans and the Dhobis. The Janata Dal (United)'s support base is rooted in the Kurmi and Koeri community, and the Bharatiya Janata Party is seen as the party of the upper castes. There has not been much of a shift in the respective social bases of these parties in the state since the last held assembly elections in 2005. The rise of the aforementioned parties in the state has coincided with the historical decline of the catch-all Congress party, which has been reduced to a near irrelevant force now.

To the further detriment of the Congress party, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Bihar unravelled as the RJD and LJP decided to keep the bulk of Lok Sabha constituencies for themselves resulting in the Congress deciding to go it alone. The ruling National Democratic Alliance of the JD(U) and BJP have also finalised a seat sharing arrangement making the elections in the state a battle between between these two alliances even as the parliamentary left parties in the state have come together to form a cohesive United Left Bloc (ULB).

Considering that the LJP fought separately against both the JD(U) and the RJD in the 2005 elections, the coming together of the LJP and the RJD promises to shore up support for the alliance. If the combined vote share (38.9%) of these parties in 2005 is an indicator, the LJP-RJD alliance seems to be on a better footing compared to the ruling NDA (36.9%).

While the JD(U) has harped upon governance and performance of its chief minister, Nitish Kumar as talking points in the elections, the party realises the primal importance of social engineering and has embarked upon it with gusto. The party in government has addressed concerns of some communities such as backward Muslims to garner their support. At the same time, other communities, such as the Koeris and the Brahmins have had causes of resentment with the way Nitish Kumar has ruled – he is seen to be authoritarian and being too reliant on the bureaucracy. The BJP's support base among the upper castes is quite substantial and it has also managed to garner support in the relatively urban pockets of the state. “Social engineering” thus remains the operational strategy for the NDA alliance as it has fielded candidates based on caste equations, even resulting in the dropping of several sitting members of parliament .

The Muslim-Yadav base of the RJD and the dalit base of the LJP is indeed formidable and this factor is seen to favour the RJD-LJP alliance. Lalu Prasad's party might have lost the assembly elections in 2005 after 15 years of rule, but his support base had endured and so is the case before these elections. The alliance was weakened by the exit of the Congress from the seat sharing strategy, but in any case the traditional support base of the Congress, particularly the Muslims (ever since the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992) have gravitated toward the RJD. After the break up of the Congress' alliance with the RJD – the RJD has put up candidates in the seats that it had offered to Congress, ensuring the further marginalisation of the latter. The RJD and the LJP however assure that they are firmly with the UPA and along with the Samajwadi Party have formed a bloc of parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The fledgling alliance between the parliamentary left parties strives to provide a promising alternative to the identity-based mobilisations of the other main parties in the state. The Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the strongest left outfit in the state -the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)- Liberation have finally found common ground and have formed an United Left Bloc, which fancies its chances in some traditional left strongholds in the state.

Unlike other parties, the left Bloc has tried to mobilise people on the basis of issues such as relief to people affected by the Kosi floods, problems faced by public sector employees and other livelihood related issues in the lowly developed state. While the parties in the Bloc play down expectations for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, they are confident of building an issues-based alternative to the mainstream political parties in the state and are keen on positioning themselves well for the next assembly elections. The performance of this left Bloc would ultimately determine the shift from the primordial identity based politics that has dominated the state.

Draft of editorial written in the Economic & Political Weekly . The final version can be read here