Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fishy Tharoor

A blog post cross-posted from

Among the "high profile" candidates in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, much touted and vaunted by the media is the former career diplomat, Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor, a prolific writer of fiction and commentaries, spent nearly three decades in the United Nations; infact his final "claim to fame" vis-a-vis the UN was his bid to become the secretary general of the organisation. He lost the bid to Ban Ki Moon of South Korea.

It is clear that the suave and articulate former diplomat has been fielded by the Congress to present an educated and "modern" representative for the United Democratic Front in an urban constituency -the capital of India's most literate state, Kerala. It is the "modern" part that is going to come under some scrutiny in this blog write-up. Called into question would be some of Shashi Tharoor's own writing - most of which qualifies as "Indo-nostalgic" - a term that I borrowed from good old Wikipedia.

About seven years ago, Tharoor wrote an article in the International Herald Tribune describing his visit to two high profile places in South India - Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore. In the former, Tharoor visits the complex hosted by that godman, "Satya Sai Baba". In the latter, Tharoor pays a visit to the uber-modern campus of Infosys Technologies at Electronics City.

Tharoor is impressed by both visits - about the former, he writes glowingly about the "miracles" conjured by the host baba, who "materialises" a ring from thin air for his guest. About the latter, he is impressed at the swanky structures built in Bangalore by the Infosys proprietors. He goes on to call these "facets of 21st century India", suggesting the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, applauding the baba for his spiritual and material public service and Infosys for its efforts to bring high end technology to India.

Lets delve on the Baba story a bit. Tharoor was rightly upbraided by rationalists for his glowing terms of reference to the charlatan at Puttaparthi. Tharoor's later response was to suggest that he was skeptical about the "conjuring acts" and that goes without saying within the article. I will try to give him the benefit of doubt. But a similar bit of writing elsewhere by him, makes it difficult for me to do so.

Tharoor, in his book, India - from midnight to millennium ( a rather second grade book, if you ask me), writes about the "Ganesha drinking milk" "phenomenon". Diligent recent affairs followers would remember the national frenzy that this "thing" (for want of a better word) created - scores of idols of the Hindu god Ganesh "drinking milk" poured in through teaspoons by devotees. Tharoor was witness to one such "demonstration" in Houston, Texas, right about the same time when the frenzy was being whipped up in India. He notices a terra-cotta statue of Ganesh drinking milk through the capillary way and points at the devotion of those engaged in this exercise. The quotable bit is his conclusions, this: "Ganesh drank willingly from her extended spoon" - lets say he was waxing poetic here and this: "I was prepared to believe a fully rational explanation for the event, but i was equally willing to accept that a miracle might have occured, one not readily susceptible to the demystification of scientists" - uh oh.

In other words, Tharoor is willing to let obscurantism co-exist with rationalism, as hey, 'cos what harm does it do, eh (in Manhattan lingo)? Lets get back to that charlatan bit. Tharoor emphatically says that the baba should not be reduced to a "conjuror", as "he has channeled the hopes and energies of his followers into constructive directions, both spiritual and philanthropic". And then he juxtaposes the charlatan with India's new economy giant, as "emblematic of an India that somehow manages to live in several centuries at once". In other words, Tharoor is willing to accept the legerdemain of the charlatan for his side effects - his "channeling" and thus continues in the same vein as his book - the co-existence of obscurantism and rationalism (surely which brought about the birth of computers, IT and indeed, India's new economy boom).

I need not go into the gobbledygook that the charlatan baba generates. He is a cheap trickster, there is no doubt. But importantly one has to question this nonsensical assertion of the charlatan's piety which is brought out by the gushing praise of the public services "work" of him and his followers. It is true that the followers of the trickster have helped build hospitals and bring in drinking water to parched areas of south India. But isn't it also true that these are services that are essentially to be brought about by the state? Isn't that what Article 37 of the Constitution (the directive principles of State Policy) for e.g. suggests - "The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health."

The Constitution, that affirms in the preamble that India is a "secular" republic is itself an incarnation of modernity which mid-wived through enlightenment overcomes obscurantism and fosters rationalism. But that is not the main point I am driving at. The point is that by channeling the energies of citizens - guileless gullible miracle-worshippers and many guileful folks who seek an instrumental reason in association with other "high and mighty" - through obscurantist techniques and usurping the place of the state in delivering services, the charlatan is only furthering the gullibility of the people and the cause of the "high and mighty" who follow him. He ensures that these citizens who are equal partakers of the state, do not question the laxity of its custodians and consequently reduce the efficacy of its functioning as they are satisfied by the services rendered by a fake miracle-monger and ascribe the benefits of such services to divinity.

A modern secular, rational human being will in no way endorse obscurantism even if it has an instrumental value. In the case of the Baba,this instrumental value - provision of essential services - only furthers ignorance and further obscurantism, as the believers refuse to get out of their ignorance because of the benefits that they receive out of it. A sensitised public who are aware of the "domain of rights" and the "rule of law" in a democracy would assure those services through the aegis of the state and would not be subject to the whimsical bogus miracle-mongering of a con artist.

In essence, Shashi Tharoor's effusive praise of the juxtaposing of obscurantism and rationalism will only be a curse on and an impediment to the eventual filtering of rationality and modernity, two important features that translate into a greater civic consciousness.

Moving on to more Tharoorism. Tharoor is widely acclaimed for his "precocious" work as a diplomat, who became one at a fairly early age and after a quick PhD at Tufts School of Diplomacy. The case for having an accomplished diplomat in parliament is obvious, especially in a context, where diplomatic skills are a premium in these days of attacks of terrorism such as the Mumbai incidents on 26th November, 2008. It is therefore apt to study what our diplomat-candidate had to offer during those days of public discourse on the response to the incidents from India. Lets have a look at what Tharoor wrote in the Haaretz in the aftermath of the incidents. Tharoor uses false equivalence, comparing the attacks on Mumbai by terrorists originating from Pakistan with rocket attacks from the Hamas based in Gaza (note Tharoor never mentions the "beleaguered" Hamas and the "blockaded Gaza). He suggests that the Indian establishment (and I suspect himself) is envious of the abilities of the Isrealis to take punitive action against its adversaries, while it is not able to do so. And in making that argument, Tharoor blissfully ignores the contours of the conflict in Palestine, the history of Israeli aggression, the torment faced by the Palestinians and the continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. In effect, as journalist focusing on West Asia, Marian Houk argues in his blogpost,

"One of Shashi Tharoor’s main flaws is that he never understood what is going on in the Middle East, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he saw it to his advantage, in the interest of his career advancement, to pander to one side, the one with the most power and influence … and that is a classic, though profoundly immoral, way to behave."

How about Tharoor's other credentials? Tharoor, is an advisor to the Coca Cola India Foundation Yatn, a corporate social responsibility project of the Coca Cola company. Yes, the very same Coca Cola company whose plant in Plachimada in Kerala is currently shut down because the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB ) has refused to issue the "Consent to Operate" to the company, owing to the high levels of polluting content (cadmium) in Coca Cola's sludge and in the groundwater in and around the water plant. An argument can be made that Tharoor is not to be blamed for the company itself, as his associations are only to the effect of advising on social responsibility projects by the company. But interestingly, Tharoor responding to critics who questioned this association, went on to whitewash the charges against the Plachimada plant by suggesting that he is "unable to understand the scientific basis for your continued charges against the company, and can only conclude that they are politically-motivated". Funnily, he quotes the reports on Plachimada by KSPCB which has indeed shut down the plant because of its findings. As this rather dubious letter by Tharoor suggests, he is willing to juxtapose corporate pollution of natural resources with corporate generated employment.

We surely don't want a obscurantist who clothes himself in modernity, do we? We surely don't want a diplomat in the legislature who is a careerist pandering to the influential, do we? We don't want an apologist for corporate damage to natural resources, do we?

Shashi Tharoor might see reason in juxtaposing obscurantism with modernity or Israel with India or corporate environmental pillage with corporate generated employment. This writer sees no reason in juxtaposing a former diplomat with mediocre views and a tendency to "pander to the influential", with the image of a member of parliament in India's most literate state.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A significant break

The victory of the left in El Salvador after years of conservative and right wing rule is significant.

The victory of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the recently concluded presidential elections in El Salvador marks an end to an era – of conservative rule, a guerilla war, of direct and “silent” US intervention and years of failures by opposition to an entrenched elite to come to power. For some, the FMLN victory signifies a break from nearly 130 years of dictatorial and elite rule in the tiny central American nation, ravaged by widespread poverty ,endemic crime and unemployment.

FMLN, an erstwhile revolutionary guerilla organisation that took part in the civil war in the country between 1980 and 1992 managed to finally win the presidential elections by pitching Mauricio Funes, an erstwhile journalist as the candidate. Funes who presented a moderate image and belongs to the social democrat section of the party, managed to win despite being vilified by the opponent right wing party, Arena for being an “acolyte” of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who is seen as one of the leading voices against US hegemony in Latin America. The slander campaign against Funes and against the FMLN in general did result in a much closer contest, with Funes winning about 51% of the vote after all along being the favourite in the run-up to the polls. The FMLN's presidential face for the previous elections was the dynamic guerilla leader and Marxist, Schafik Handal who died recently.

The FMLN's victory was a consolidation of the steady rise of the party at the mayoral and legislative levels; currently the FMLN is the single largest party in the legislature. The victory was achieved despite tremendous odds – the ruling Arena had a huge advantage in resources including the media and the bogey of a “hardline” image that had endured since the civil war years in the polarised nation. The choice of Funes, a former investigative journalist who was popularly known for his work pointing at the systemic failings of the Salvadoran government and bureaucracy, helped in mitigating that “image”. But more importantly, the FMLN agenda had a clear resonance for a nation that has a peculiar economy which depends heavily on remittances from citizens currently working in the US and which has now been affected because of the economic recession in that country. Funes promises that he would attempt to reverse the out-migration by improving living conditions within the country.

The FMLN has promised a greater diversification of the economy, with increased impetus on productive resources within the country and for a more participative approach in solving much of the socio-economic problems. The FMLN also plans to reverse years of rampant privatisation and pandering to big business which has only increased inequality and a skewed utilisation of resources. Having said that, Funes has reiterated that he believes in continuity vis-a-vis relations with the US, especially since the change of regime from the Republican Party's George Bush to the Democrats' Barack Obama.

Much of this emphasis on continuity is very much instrumental – nearly a quarter of El Salvador's population now works in the US. And Funes suggests that there would be no change in foreign policy that would mean a reversal of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) or any direct opposition to US hegemony as entailed by countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba among others. These utterances signify an attempt to mould public opinion on a FLMN regime in the US, but it remains to be seen how Funes would be able to diversify, utilise and nurture productive capacities and resources in El Salvador while continuing to adhere to the CAFTA or without repealing - which the FMLN is committed to - the neoliberal model adopted by the earlier regimes in the country.

The FMLN presidential election victory thus conforms to a “pinker” version of the leftward transition in many of the countries; in order words, Funes is seen to be a moderate resembling the likes of Brazilian president Luis Inacio Silva or Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in outlook and policymaking. Yet, his victory also ensures a closer relationship with other central and Latin American countries in terms of foreign policy, as the Arena party had curtailed relations with nations such as Cuba and Venezuela in the past. The challenge that FMLN faces in achieving a more egalitarian model of governance and economic policy making in El Salvador now remains in the way it utilises its executive power (the presidency) and how it effects a working coalition in the legislature (the party has 35 members in the 84 member assembly).

Draft of the editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Monday, March 16, 2009

Amorphous Alliance

The electoral alliance of regional parties and the Left Front promises no more than a spoiler to the Congress and the BJP's unilateral hopes.

Twelve years after the fall of the United Front government, which was a coalition of regional parties (the Communist Party of India being the only national party in that government), a similar conglomeration of regional and left parties has forged a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pre-electoral seat sharing arrangement before the 15th Lok Sabha elections.

Broadly termed as the “third front” by observers, the common refrain of the parties in this amorphous alliance, is their anti-Congress and anti-BJP stance. While the Left Front constituents, have a decided alternate agenda vis-a-vis socio-economic and foreign policies, the other parties are part of a coalition that only shares a vision of opposing the two largest national parties, owing to their local political equations. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)- avowedly the party of dalit leadership- has been non-committal about its relationship with this “third front” but has also sounded interested in this alternative to the BJP and the Congress.

The Left Front – primarily restricted to its stronghold states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura -- have played a role in the Centre in the near past, punching above their stated weight worth 60 seats in parliament by utilising the expedient circumstances that made the United Progressive Alliance dependent on the Left for survival in the first four years of government. It's understanding is that a clear left and secular alternative to the communal BJP and the neoliberalism friendly Congress, has to be built programmatically and through popular mobilisation.

Effectively, the left as a cohesive ideological force is fighting winnable battles only in West Bengal and Tripura as the Left Front, in Kerala as the Left Democratic Front and in Bihar as the newly constituted and promising United Left Bloc, which includes the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation. In Kerala, factionalism has severely dented the image of the main left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), while in West Bengal, a series of administrative mishaps has seen an erosion of support even among its rural mainstays. The left therefore expects to shore up its parliamentary strength by stitching up electoral alliances with parties such as the Telugu Desam and others in Andhra Pradesh and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) in Tamil Nadu, where the left parties are relevant as a political force.

While the regional parties are now formally opposed to the Congress led United Progressive Alliance and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, there remains the question whether post-elections, the antagonism would continue. Most parties, such as the Telugu Desam, the ADMK and the Janata Dal (secular) have in the near past been part of the NDA. Their electoral strategy now is governed by the fact that any alliance before elections with the increasingly reactionary and communal BJP would fetch them diminishing and negative returns and some of these parties are in direction opposition to the Congress or other parties in the UPA in their respective states. This precise reason has seen the Biju Janata Dal coming out of a 11 year alliance with the BJP and its dalliances with the “third front”. And the BSP's non-committal attitude is evidence that it is keeping options open after elections.Programmatically, little is different between these parties and the Congress and the BJP, even though they have articulated a regional nationalism and a circulation of elites that has seen greater federalisation and decentralisation of power from the all powerful centre. Structurally, these single leader-driven parties are very similar to the Congress as well.

As currently constituted, the “third front” offers a major electoral impediment to both the UPA and the NDA, as strictly bipolar contests between these two alliances are now restricted to about one third of the total number of states. The “third front” makes it quite difficult for the Congress and the BJP as individual parties to win enough seats so as to dominate a future coalition government. On the other hand, the success of the “third front” in constituting a coalition government on its own is dependent on the both the Congress and the BJP getting much less seats individually than before. While in the years gone by, there indeed has been a drop in the electoral returns of these two parties, it is not expected that the electoral tally of the parties outside the UPA and the NDA would garner more seats than the halfway mark.

Even if the 2009 “third front” experiment does end by an extraordinary set of circumstances in the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP majority/minority government, it would be difficult to expect such a government would base its programmes on a substantial alternative. The experience of the erstwhile and short lived United Front (UF) government in the mid-1990s is enough to suggest this. The UF government, beyond a few noises and moves towards greater federal transfer of power or a more compassionate foreign policy, offered no real change from the neoliberal trajectory of the erstwhile government – it was after all the government, in which the then finance minister P.Chidambaram presented the much discussed neoliberal “dream budget” that contributed so much to a further widening of inequalities.

Indeed, the flux in the polity today as it stands is likely to continue after elections and many of the aforementioned parties can be expected to change their antagonistic pre-electoral positions vis-a-vis the Congress (and the BJP for some parties) if required to construct fresh alliances in government or in opposition. In that sense, the amorphousness of the “third front” precludes the possibility of a strong “third pole”, distinguished and separated from the UPA and the NDA in India's national polity. Unless of course, the alternative is constructed programmatically post-elections or in the long term and gathers critical support for its agenda nationally.

Draft of the Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Monday, March 09, 2009

Oneupmanship versus realism

The Congress party's very nature and arrogance precludes a cohesive United Progressive Alliance before the elections

The upcoming elections to the 15th Lok Sabha promises to yet another fragmented mandate, ensuring that the era of coalitions is intact. The aspect significant about this set of elections is that, the coalitions are no way set in stone. Whether pre-polls or post-polls, the coalitions being formed are still fluid, most of the regional parties that have aligned with one national party or the other or vice versa, have done so only with instrumental reasons and there are others that have kept their final decision (whether to be in the ruling coalition or in opposition) practically in abeyance, even if they have committed to one front or the other for the time being. This is surprising as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress has more or less stayed intact since the withdrawal of support from the left parties in July 2008 over the differences vis-a-vis the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The UPA government survived a trust vote in July 2008 (albeit in an engineered manner) and the alliance was also able to add a new winning partner in the National Conference from Kashmir. The Congress party had nimbly maintained some of the most important cabinet portfolios - finance, home, external affairs, defence, commerce and of course the prime ministerial post for themselves, and had broadly kept the major policy making positions. Most of the hostile criticism, unsurprisingly emanating out of a great degree of difference of opinion on policy making from the left parties during the phase when they were supporting the government, were directed at the Congress controlled ministeries. The Congress had handed over posts that provided a populist edge, coveted by the regional parties - agriculture, railways, transport, heavy industry, telecommunications to their mostly regional allies. Such a disbursal of ministeries was also achieved due to the arithmetic of the seats won by the Congress in comparison to the other parties in the coalition whose seats were confined in specific states.This ensured that the levers of policy making was fairly controlled by the Congress party while the allies were given full rein over ministries which gave them leeway to satisfy their constituents.

Though the UPA rule for five years seems to have demonstrated an understanding by the Congress of working with coalitions explained by a survival instinct, the persistent tendencies of oneupmanship by the party have yet again raised their head. That is visible from the statements of some of its leaders which have suggested that they are loath to ceding ground to coalition partners during seat-sharing or treating them as enduring allies in a post-poll scenario and in their assertions of having a Congress-only manifesto for the elections. Some allies themselves on the other hand, want to go beyond their regionally confined boundaries, as they sense the effectiveness of being in central positions of power and therefore the necessity of having a broader national presence. That explains the greater degree of bargaining for seats and influence beyond their present confines by the Samajwadi Party-SP (primarily based in Uttar Pradesh) and the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar (whose influence is highest in Maharashtra). As a pressure tactic, the two parties have kept their lines of communication with other coalitions -the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the case of the former and the loosely knit "third front" anchored by the Left in the case of the latter. In the same vein, sensing that no option should remain unexplored, other regional parties formally committed to these coalitions or otherwise have also kept their lines of communication with the UPA intact. That explains the sudden "overture" to the Congress by the J.Jayalalithaa led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (formally part of the third front) and the Bahujan Samaj Party's non-commital stance toward any alliance before the elections.

Some senior leaders of the Congress understand that coalitions are inevitable, and they also want to retain the broad policy making sway without restraint that they have had in the UPA government particularly after the withdrawal of support from the left. This has made them realise that the most preferable post poll situation would be one where they form a majority with other UPA partners without having to rely upon support from the left parties. This has seen the Congress up the ante in West Bengal and Kerala, allying with the recalcitrant Trinamul Congress (TMC) in the former to undercut the Left as much as possible. But again, the Congress "political culture" which thrives upon dynastic succession, sycophancy as also a degree of arrogance and oneupmanship in functioning - all legacies drawn from the days of Indira Gandhi, makes it difficult for them to enact a smooth pre-poll coalition with other UPA allies. Many Congressmen prefer a return of the one party era, with yet another of the Nehru-Gandhi family - Rahul Gandhi is the much touted name- as prime minister. The retention of policy level control does not satisfy them, they need control over ministeries that help them partake in the system of patronage. And this explains the fluidity of coalition building which has characterised the polity before elections. Thus, even if the Congress has demonstrated that it is no less proficient in the art of surviving in power within coalitions- something that the BJP showed that it was adept in, the party's very nature acts as an impediment to a smooth retention of the coalition.

The fragmentation of India's polity over time since independence is a function of the greater inclusion of marginalised sections into ruling classes, federalisation owing to the nature of India's Constitution and most importantly the weakening of the over-centralised Congress party which dominated national politics for decades. The positive aspect of this fragmentation is the presence of a plurality of voices representing a greater number of local (and parochial) interests and which has forced national parties to adopt states-specific strategies. The quicker the Congress party sheds its pretensions of forming an one party government that is a return to its centralised past, the easier it would be to retain a cohesive UPA which presents itself to the electorate on a common platform of policies, promises and ideas. From all indications of the arrogant nature of the party and the very parochial interests of some of its allies such as the TMC and the SP, such a culmination seems to be difficult in the offing.

Draft of the editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Fighting the BJP in the national elections

Article written for the student magazine, "Students' Struggle" on request.

An array of secular forces realise the efficacy of a robust platform against both the Congress and the BJP, therefore to neoliberalism and communalism before the 15
th Lok Sabha elections

As elections to the 15th Lok Sabha are around the corner, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mandate is going to be fragmented. This is no surprise for watchers of Indian politics, who have long seen a gradual but deep federalisation, regionalisation and greater democratisation of India's polity. More than ever, national elections in India are a derivative choice of the aggregation of state related electoral results (Yadav, Palshikar 2009). Consequently, the national parties are having to adopt state specific strategies or tie up with state specific forces across the country.

That has the seen the gradual polarisation of the polity into three poles – the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (the UPA), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Left Front anchored Third Front which includes several regional parties spread across various states; and the Bahujan Samaj Party charting its own independent course, but pledging support and participation to a non-Congress led, non-BJP led formation post the polls. Of the aforementioned, the biggest of the three alliances, the UPA and the NDA have both set off to a rocky start in their ability to form a cohesive union before the elections. While in the case of the UPA, its' the Congress' arrogance and oneupmanship1 that is the greatest hitch, in the latter, its the presence of the huge elephant in the room – Hindutva2.

After its loss in the 2004 parliamentary elections, the BJP has gone back to an aggressive re-orientation to its core ideology, Hindutva. Particularly in states, where they have an organisational presence, the BJP, buttressed by other elements of the Sangh parivar have used the Gujarat model of creating a religious polarisation and to play on majoritarian sentiments -eventually paving the way for electoral success using these means.

The cases in point are the states of Karnataka and Orissa. In the latter, the aggressive attacks against minority Christians, particularly in tribal areas such as Kandhamal has made a mockery of law and order in the state. Aggressive mobilisation of hindutva forces (to the consternation of, and yet inaction by its ruling partner – the Biju Janata Dal) has created havoc in tribal regions, where plunder, pillage and rape has characterised the attacks against minorities.

In Karnataka, buoyed by a victory in the state assembly elections owing to the insipid campaigns and politics of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), the BJP has targeted minority institutions such as churches (and prayer halls), for their bloody attacks. Constant use of communal rhetoric, blatant use of regional chauvinism (particularly vis-a-vis the Cauvery issue, that raised its head due to aggressive demagoguery by the current chief minister B.Yeddyurappa just before the elections) has created a situation where right wing zealots have been given a free run in the state. Be it in the murder and pillage of Christians and their property or in the actions by the psychotic fringe group Ram Sene, the response by the BJP government has been reduced to mere wink-winks and nod-nods. As the incidents of Mangalore involving the Ram Sene or the attacks against prayer halls involving the Sangh parivar across Karnataka suggest, the state government has been more intent in blaming the victims of the attack rather than bringing the guilty – unabashed members of the Sangh parivar outfits such as the Bajrang Dal and the Ram Sene, to book.

The message is very clear, the BJP intends to replicate its Gujarat model onto many of its states where it is in power. The question to be asked is why is that the BJP has managed to be successful with this divisive strategy in Gujarat and why does it perceive a similar success in the states where such violent attacks are becoming a regular routine? The answer lies in the inadequacy of political opposition by the UPA central government as also the effete responses to communalism by the bourgeois parties such as the Congress in states where the BJP is in rule. A thorough and committed response to communalism would involve greater mobilisation of the common masses against the menace, building solidarity among and across communities and construct the opposition to communalism as a viable cohesive force that has a clear cut pro-people strategy. But more on this later. It is no wonder that the BJP and its cohorts in the Sangh Parivar are reduced to irrelevance in those states where such a powerful alternative to communalism has been constructed.

Owing to the return to the core ideology of Hindutva, allies hitherto committed to the NDA are finding it jittery and uncomfortable to be associated with the BJP. Parties such as the Janata Dal (United) or the BJD see an instrumental reason to be in alliance with the BJP as they consider that their primary rivals in their respective states – the RJD and the Congress – are part of the UPA and the logic of coalitions have forced their hand into tying up with the BJP. But they sense that the stigma of communalism will affect their electoral fortunes and this angst has reflected in the lengthy haggling that these parties have in seat-sharing with the BJP.

Already parties such as the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the recalcitrant Trinamul Congress in West Bengal (all erstwhile allies of the BJP) have decided to hitch their bandwagons to the Third Front and the UPA respectively, cutting away from ties with the BJP. Combining these desertions with the jittery nature of the existing alliances in various states, one notices that the NDA is on a weak footing, primarily due to the divisive and the narrow nature of Hindutva based communalism.

An interesting question is then mooted - why is there not a grand alliance against communalism, something that was in a way articulated through the UPA-Left arrangement the past 4 years before the left withdrew support over the nuclear deal issue? One might ask that if communalism is such a virulent enemy, why isn't there a coming together of all secular forces against this beast? Why is that essentially the avowed secular forces have been represented in two antagonistic fronts? Why isn't secularism as the uniting ideal helping the coming together of these fronts?

The answer is evident - communalism is an enemy that can't be fought through a simple formulaic get together of "secular" forces. A party that claims to be secular cannot merely carry the "secular" card and suggest that it is enough to fight communalism. Hindutva oriented communalism might have an agency in the form of the Sangh Parivar and its several branches, but at the same time, the grounds on which Hindutva thrives, are prepared by structural factors - unemployment, economic crisis, poverty. The foot soldiers of the enterprise of Hindutva utilise the vulnerability of the marginalised, and those under the brunt of an economic system that is socially irresponsible - precisely what neoliberalism is. And neoliberalism is the ideology that governs the economic policy making and mindset of the UPA and its dominant constituent - the Congress as much as the BJP as well. The thinking on matters economic among the BJP and the Congress is practically the same, and owing to this small a distinction, the latter is co-opted to adopt a milder variant of the same communal approach wherever the BJP is strong to try to defeat the party. This is precisely what happened in Gujarat. Concisely, fighting communalism when both the communal and the so called "secular" forces share a common ideological understanding on economic matters is impossible. 3

And that explains that the fight against communalism should be a comprehensive one - based on an approach that privileges an alternative to the dominant neoliberal paradigm, argues for social planning, control and allocation of resources, is people-centric and not subservient to the market (an euphemism for the big bourgeoisie) and adopts a framework that realises the necessity of resisting imperialism and is steadfastly against the same. In essence this is a cohesive progressive agenda that is the only capable one in resisting the march of communalism.

As the nation reels under the impact of a global economic crisis that has pushed metropolitan capital into recession, the opportunity to define an alternative to the dominant neoliberal paradigm over and beyond the "inclusive growth"/"trickle down economics" spiel through solid public support exists. And this opportunity which prioritises the battle for economic ideas and the war against economic inequality, want and hunger, provided it is given a proper generalship by the leadership of the working classes, can overcome the distractions that communalism tries to impose through calls to primordial and religious ideas and the ideology of hate. The manner in which several of the regional parties, with their instrumental understanding of the nuisance value of communalism (the BJP) and their traditional antipathy to the party of the big bourgeoisie (the Congress) are gravitating toward a third front, suggests the resonance of an alternative paradigm based platform - in other words, the third alternative.


Yadav, Yogendra and Palshikar, Suhas (2009), "Principal State Level Contests and Derivative National Choices: Electoral Trends in 2004-09", Economic and Political Weekly, VOL 44, No. 06, February 07 - February 13.

Note: This article was written before the BJD withdrew from it's alliance with the BJP in Orissa

  1. Explained in an editorial titled, "The Congress party’s enemy" written for the Economic and Political Weekly, dated March 13th 2009

  2. Vidya Subrahmanyam's article, "Ambition and power play in the time of elections" in The Hindu explains the travails of the UPA and NDA eloquently.

  3. Professor Prabhat Patnaik's column in the Frontline ("Breeding ground for communalism",June 20th) expounds this in greater detail.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Charley Rosen on Duncan vs the Dream

Charley Rosen is among my favourite sport writers. He is forthright, doesn't mind calling a spade a spade, is no-frills, appreciates the fact that sport is a "character-building-activity" (of course the definition of character for him is his subjective opinion), is an excellent writer (with a degree in English literature to boot), and is heavily opinionated (after all, thats what you want in an opinion writer, don't you?). Plus, he has had some wacky experiences as a coach in the obscure Continental Basketball Association (including a free-for-all that resulted in a "jailing") and he has written more than a dozen books on basketball. Add some excellent X and O analyses every time he writes about a game in his articles and his bylines are generally a delight. Enough intro'ing.

Rosen answered a question that I posed to him on his column today. He was comparing Tim Duncan (a favourite sportsman of mine) with former Nigerian basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon who played for the Houston Rockets and was nicknamed, "The Dream". Am posting the question and the answer verbatim here:

It is obvious that your promotion of fundamentals and poise as being two essentials of a basketball paragon makes Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan among your favorite big men. Just to delight us young viewers who never had the opportunity to relish the Dream's play but are familiar with Duncan, could you compare these two four-and-a-halfs? Thank you. — Srinivasan R, New Delhi, India

It would be my pleasure to do so.

They were of comparable stature — Olajuwon at 7-0, 255, and TD at 7-0, 260 — but their body types were different. Whereas the former had well-defined musculature, the latter was rounder, less well-muscled, and had a slightly broader butt. This anatomic feature actually helps Duncan establish and maintain better pivotal position that Olajuwon.

Because TD is more of a low-post player, he's also able to induce more fouls.

Hakeem was much quicker and faster, which gave him greater range on defense (making him a better shot-blocker) and enabled him to actively participate in the Rockets' running game. Also give Olajuwon a significant edge in pure athleticism.

Duncan, though, is more fundamentally sound — meaning that his footwork is superior and that he has a more expanded repertoire of moves in the low post. Plus, TD is a more accurate passer and sets more solid screens.

Olajuwon was a slightly better mid-range shooter, with his unstoppable turnaround-fadeaway jumpers being much more reliable than Duncan's bank jobs. And Olajuwon was more efficient at the stripe as well. Although they each managed to drop a trey from time to time, their taking 3-point shots was usually an act of either folly or desperation.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Shocking attacks in Lahore

The attack on the Lankan cricket team members in Lahore must be the most shocking attack on sportspersons since the Munich incidents in 1972 when Israeli sportspersons were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists. What makes this incident even more gruesome is the fact that the brave Lankan team embarked upon the test tour of Pakistan as a replacement for the Indians and atleast this cricket crazy fan liked their decision, driven by the desire to watch Ajantha Mendis bowl in another meaningful test series. Sadly, the dastardly attack has resulted in the tour being cancelled and has put a permanent question mark over test cricket in Pakistan itself.

Samaraweera, the unassuming under-the-radar performer was hurt and hospitalised; Ajantha Mendis, the up and coming spinning maestro was hit by sharpnel; articulate and intelligent Kumar Sangakkara was hurt with sharpnel on his shoulder; and young debutant Tharanga Paranavitana was also hurt. So were some others from the coaching staff, from initial reports. Mahela Jayawardane and his cricket team members' band play the game with the "Surangani" spirit. They are among the most well behaved, level headed cricketers on the circuit today. It is so unfortunate that these solid performers (or for that matter any sportsman) could be targetted at all.

I find it difficult even to try to find a motive behind this. I feel that even a thought about the motives would dignify this act by the crazy bunch of monsters who carried this attack out. No one in frame of mind would want to scare away sportspersons. Such has become the order of the day in Pakistan.

From the multiple bomb attacks on Benazir Bhutto and her eventual assassination to the Marriott attacks, to the growing might of the Taliban-Pakistan-version in the west to the Mumbai attacks to this, the degradation of Pakistan's society has descended into a hastening spiral. I feel for all those liberal and modern voices in Pakistan who would want to break away from their country's shattering and shameful past since independence.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Controversial recommendation

Acknowledgement: Most of the ideas in this editorial were constructed from the links and debates at this excellent blog maintained among others, by V.Venkatesan, the Frontline legal correspondent.

A controversy rages in the Election Commission triggering debate among constitutional experts.

The Election Commission of India (ECI), the one institution that in recent years has more or less managed to maintain its integrity in overseeing an important aspect of the functioning of Indian democracy, finds itself greatly weakened on the eve of the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha.

The suo motu recommendation by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N.Gopalaswami to the president to remove fellow Election Commissioner Navin Chawla from his position has raised a political storm, not to mention created a legal controversy about the Constitutional propriety of such an action.

An interesting aspect of the controversy is is that whether or not there is substance to the allegations that Chawla has acted in a prejudiced and partial manner as a member of the ECI has not been subject to close scrutiny. These allegations and many more had already been levelled against Chawla by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others in the National Democratic Alliance. They followed up a petition to the former president seeking Chawla's removal with a plea filed in the Supreme Court by BJP leader Jaswant Singh pleading for action against Chawla. The BJP later withdrew the petition following an affidavit filed by the CEC affirming that he had the powers to recommend the removal of an election commissioner.

There is no express provision in the Constitution that states that a recommendation by the CEC should be preceded by a referral from an appropriate executive authority. Some commentators, however, assert that Article 324 (5) of the Constitution which says, “any other Election Commissioner or a Regional Commissioner shall not be removed from office except on the recommendation of the Chief Election Commissioner”, implies that the CEC does indeed have the authority to initiate action against an EC.. This logic has been cited by the CEC and others to affirm that he can issue
suo motu recommendations to have a fellow member of the ECI removed from his post. In the Chawla case, the argument that there must be a referral from the political executive prior to any recommendation by the CEC is complicated by the fact that Navin Chawla is accused of bias toward the ruling party.

Yet, the procedural aspects governing the recommendations by the CEC have to pass the test of the course of natural justice. Even if the CEC is empowered to make recommendations (as mentioned in the Constitution), it is surely the case that such a recommendation would have to emanate from investigation of misconduct by someone else apart other than the CEC as the CEC cannot take up both the processes of investigation and recommendation for action by himself.As some insightful commentators have noted, a suo motu recommendation based on the findings of the CEC is indeed problematic since the requirement of a recommendation by the CEC for the removal of an election commissioner from her position is only a Constitutional limit on the powers of the executive vis-a-vis the ECI. It does not automatically translate into a shift of power from the executive to the CEC on the removal of an election commissioner. Thus procedurally speaking, the CEC's decision to issue a suo motu recommendation creates a new precedent that could be misused by future CECs.

The right course of action would have been for the CEC to provide all the material collected on Navin Chawla and hand it over to the president who would provide the same to the council of ministers, who would then constitute an enquiry with the election commissioner given an opportunity to respond.. The adjudicating authority would then be given to the CEC to act upon. While these are issues of precedence that all the institutions of democracy should have grappled with, there is also the case that when it came to it, some of these institutions have been found wanting. As argued elsewhere in these columns, the Supreme Court, in particular, was presented an opportunity to clarify matters. But the Court, which has otherwise shown an unhealthy enthusiasm to interfere in political matters, chose in this very important Constitutional issue to pass the buck.

There is no question that Navin Chawla is unfit to occupy the position he now does, let alone be line to become the CEC. His record as secretary to Delhi's lieutenant governor during the Emergency was appalling, with the JC Shah commission investigating the excesses during the period, holding him responsible and going on to make specific remarks against him ("unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others").. Subsequent evidence that a trust run by him and his spouse was a beneficiary of the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme funds administered by Congress party members of Parliament (before his taking over the post of Election Commissioner) or that he asked for (and received) land for the trust at concessional rates show that the Chawla’s subsequent actions were in conformity with the negative observations of the Shah commission more than three decades ago.

Considering that the ECI is mandated to perform duties of "superintendence, direction and control" of elections it is apparent that call for an extraordinarily high degree of integrity and neutrality, Navin Chawla's record as a public servant and the multitude of allegations against him make his continuation in office a travesty of governance and Constitutional propriety. Can the United Progressive Alliance government, whose reputation is more in tatters than properly clothed, redeem itself at the end of its term with at least the one action of not appointing Navin Chawla to the post of the CEC? The UPA government may find it politically impossible to accept Gopalaswami’s recommendations but it can demonstrate to the electorate that in the end it does care for the integrity of the ECI, even if it has done so much to tear it to shreds.

Draft of the editorial to be published in the forthcoming issues of the Economic & Political Weekly