Monday, October 26, 2009

Conversation with Journalist Subodh Varma over the "Maoist challenge"

A short conversation with senior journalist Subodh Verma (of the Times of India) on the Maoist situation/challenge in India. The video was taken for the site,

Part I -

Part II -

Vital findings and lessons

Despite an abrupt termination, ISRO claims that the Chandrayaan mission was successful.

India's first deep space mission, Chandrayaan-I ended its operations prematurely, nearly 10 months before its scheduled termination. The loss of radio communication between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)'s base stations and the Chandrayaan spacecraft marked this abrupt termination. ISRO blamed un-anticipated solar radiation resulting in the "baking" of the many electronic devices on the spacecraft as being responsible for the failure of the communication devices.

Despite the premature death of the project, ISRO has claimed tremendous success in achieving what the mission set out to do - chief among which is the indication of the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface by an instrument placed on the spacecraft as a payload by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) - the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). Among other mission objectives, the terrain mapping camera on board the spacecraft was to help in the preparation of a three dimensional map of the lunar surface, while a spectrometry device was to prepare a detailed analysis of the mineralogical components of the lunar surface. ISRO claims that within the short time frame, all these major objectives and a model of international collaboration on space research has been successfully achieved. As regards the failures in simulating the exposure environment for the spacecraft that ultimately resulted in the abrupt ending of the mission, ISRO affirms that these will be valuable lessons to take into consideration during the planning of the next moon mission, Chandrayaan-II.

The indication of the presence of water on the moon by the M3 module on Chandrayaan-I has raised interesting possibilities. It has given a fillip to researchers who have argued that the presence of water on the moon makes it possible for moon to be used as a base for refueling for future spacecrafts. The M3 module provided the most unambiguous information ever found on presence of water molecules on the moon. Lunar samples from other moon probing missions sent by various countries were not able to justifiably prove the presence of water due to various reasons. ISRO is continuing to analyse data from other module on the spacecraft which was fitted to study the possible movement of water molecules into colder polar regions of the moon. This finding would be more relevant for a future "refueling from the moon" mission, as the water currently found by M3does not amount to more a few bucketfuls.

Notwithstanding this finding, it must be said that ISRO was non-transparent about Chandrayaan's functioning and fate. The star sensors on the spacecraft had already failed early into the mission and the spacecraft's orbit was raised significantly to 200 km from the original 100 km in order to prevent the spacecraft from spiralling down on to the moon. ISRO's official reasoning for this move was instead dubious, ostensibly because of the "prestige value" of the entire mission. One of the "spectacular" components of the mission included a nationalist thrust - the Moon Impacter Probe, an apparatus fitted with Indian insignia was dropped on the moon - an event which was received with much fanfare in the media. With such attention accrued to the mission, ISRO thought it better to hide the real reasons for the orbital shift, which ultimately resulted in the termination of the mission.

Chandrayaan-II, now envisaged by ISRO, is touted as a a project that is designed to ultimately help in landing astronauts onto the moon and to achieve purposes such as setting bases for India on the moon - in other words, "lunar land grab". While the engineering feats - the successful launch of a deep space mission, the establishment of complicated telemetry devices to track the same are remarkable and so were some of the scientific objectives of the Chandrayaan-I mission, the purported future objectives of Chandrayaan-II seem too fanciful, costly and therefore unnecessary beyond filling with abstract "nationalist pride" and must be well avoided. These are indeed important lessons to be learnt by ISRO from the startling successes and the abrupt failure both of which are part of the Chandrayaan mission. Transparency and sticking to positive scientific objectives should remain the focus of the space agency.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A tale of failures and their persistence

The Indian Maoists have been described as the greatest security threat to the nation by the Indian government and although there is a great degree of exaggeration involved in the statement, it is also a fact that the Indian Maoists have reached a position of significance that they did not enjoy just a few years ago.Consequent to these descriptions, the Indian government has suggested through feelers that it contemplates a military solution to the "Maoist problem", one that involves special task paramilitary forces that would take on the Maoist Peoples' Liberation Army to frontal combat. This has also been flanked by statements on addressing the socio-economic situation that has given rise to the "Maoist problem" in the first place. The trouble with the government's view is that its emphasis on a military solution would entail a long drawn out "civil war" against a primarily guerilla outfit which has thus far managed hits and runs and and not graduated into a more stronger "liberation army" howmuchsoever the government wants to "escalate" its threat value. Having said that, there has been a definite spurt in Maoist violence across the country in the past few years, notwithstanding setbacks to the Maoist forces.

The strength of the Indian Maoists has increased especially since the merger of the two large insurrectionist Naxalite organisations, the Peoples' War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre in 2004. Since then, the Maoists first tried out a political compromise when they emerged for talks with the Andhra Pradesh government, which eventually fizzled out as the AP government used the interregnum for talks to consolidate their position and weaken the Maoists. They were then militarily defeated in Andhra Pradesh by the concerted actions of the police force- particularly the "elite" Greyhound commando forces[i], which was far better a security tool that approximated the guerilla strategies of the Maoists' People's Liberation Army than just the police and was eventually able to overcome the Maoists in the state, so much so, that the Maoists' leadership had to take refuge in the "Dandakaranya region" adjoining Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. As recently deceased human rights activist, K. Balagopal pointed out in a telling essay some years ago, the Maoists were defeated not just by the brute force of the state's machinery, but also by their own praxis. By shifting their praxis from grievance and alternative politics driven to military based mobilisation, the Maoists eventually lost much support - a must in a guerilla struggle and were forced to retreat from Andhra Pradesh.Lately, even the mass organisations of the Maoists have been marginalised; some Maoist sympathisers have tried to bandwagon with the new political outfit launched by actor Chiranjeevi[ii], which had promised a pro-poor agenda. But those ambitions have been frustrated with the Praja Rajyam Party's defeat as well as by the entry of opportunist "money bag elements" into the party.

The MCC component, which has been commented to be more anarchic in its activities[iii] than the more "organised" PWG component, meanwhile continued its unabated activities in the Jharkhand state, where they have also indulged in extortion activities used to fund their "war chest". The Maoists meanwhile have targetted newer areas where there is severe discontent to work out their political and military praxis. The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh was one such, where the mining contractor - bureaucrat – politician- industrial nexus was intact and which gave reasons for the Maoists to mobilise tribals against this nexus. In retaliation, the state polity brought about the dangerous Salwa Judum programme, which pits tribal against tribal and created a vigilante force against the Maoists and the tribals who support them. The result was severe displacement of tribals from their villages into relief camps and widespread anarchy with tribals caught in the crossfire between the Salwa Judum and the Maoists. The Bastar region remains volatile, as even social service organisations such as the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram have been caught in this crossfire. The state has targetted any social/ civil society outfit as being Maoist sympathisers using draconian laws such as the Public Security Act, while the Maoist actions such as abductions of local level state government officials or wanton disruption of elections has given fillips to a vengeful state to retaliate. The Maoists on the other hand, have also indulged in wanton murder of village headmen, sarpanches; have bent on militarising the tribals and thrown them in the deep well of the violence among themselves[iv].

For years, the Maoists have been steadily building a political movement in other tribal dominated areas severely hampered by under-development and social backwardness, such as in Gadchiroli in south eastern Maharashtra. The recent spurt in violence in the district is a direct consequence of the state trying to get back its "influence" in the area after systematic neglect for years. The Maoists have also been active for a few years in the Kalahandi region of Orissa, which is another zone of poverty, and commercial exploitation of natural resources. Over the past year or so, the Maoists have been trying to expand their influence into the communally sensitive areas of Orissa, such as in the Kandhamal district. By definite accounts, the Maoists were responsible in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Laxmananda Saraswati murder, which triggered a murderous reaction by the Hindu communalists of the Sangh Parivar against Christian tribals and institutions. Kandhamal is still not off the boil, as the Sangh Parivar has simply used the Maoist actions as a ruse to target Christian tribals.

The Maoists have been unsuccessful in trying to work out their praxis in other regions; Karnataka for example. Here, the entire state unit of Karnataka split from the Maoists detailing their dissidence on the basis of their opposition to the anarchic violence and the "incorrect" understanding of the Indian society and polity by the party[v]. The Karnataka wing has now become a "non-violent" political and left organisation.

The pattern of Maoist involvement in many areas in the country is revealing. The Maoists have tactically descended upon the idea of working their praxis not immediately on an all-India level, but in assorted areas where it is difficult for the organs of the state to defeat them militarily and to build their base areas in these locations[vi]. There is a great degree of social discontent and there is very little development in these areas or what transpires for "development" activity is merely a front for commercial exploitation of tribal/rural habitats. The Maoists then enmesh themselves in these areas through opposition and mobilisation against the state and try to work out their political praxis of working out a base area, consolidating their hold by targetting institutions of the state by violent means. These means include disruption of the formal activity of elections, damaging developmental work such as roads, schools and others set up by the state, killing people identified with political outfits that are seen to be antithetical to the Maoists[vii]. Invariably the state retaliates and the very people whom the Maoists show their concern for, are caught in the crossfire. The Maoists then explain these actions to reveal the "naked face of the state"; while the state invariably takes recourse to draconian laws and actions to justify their security based response against the Maoists.

Maoist actions in West Bengal

That now takes us to West Bengal. Contradictory to many an assertion by the political opposition in the state, the movement against land acquisition in Nandigram was triggered with more than substantive work by the Maoists. The Maoists have themselves acknowledged this in a number of interviews. One such interesting interview of Koteshwar Rao[viii] suggests that the Maoists were also involved in the Keshpur incidents in the early part of this decade, then pitting themselves against the Trinamul led elements. The Maoists have indulged in "hit and run" work from Jharkhand in west Midnapore for sometime now. Yet, importantly, the Maoist (Naxalite to be precise) presence and influence in West Bengal was significantly reduced[ix] - primarily because of the Left government's earlier successes in land reforms and focussed rural development and strengthening of local democracy.

Having said that, studies (EPW Special Issue, February 2009, “Local Government in Rural West Bengal”), have identified trends that explain the fraying away of the rural "gains" made by the left. While panchayati raj has instituted local democracy and shifted the loci of government to the local village panchayat making it the most powerful institution in the rural areas;long and entrenched rule of the left has developed tendencies of corruption or more protractedly clientalism at the local grassroots levels in parts of the state. Systems of patronage based on political allegiances have been effected in many rural areas that has fed in discontent at some levels[x]. The objective conditions in Lalgarh for example, mirror this story as some reports point out. Malini Bhattacharya's article on Lalgarh points out to an objective assessment that tries to understand the reasons for the discontent while putting into perspective, the Maoists' turf war against the CPI(M) in the area.

A key question remains- what is the end that the Maoists are trying to achieve in West Midnapore or even in West Bengal? Are they thinking that they would keep building a liberated base area in the region, knowing fully well that they would invite sovereign action by the state in the form of security measures to protect state institutions - here, Panchayat samitis, zilla parishads, gram sabhas in the area? Why would any state government remain a mute spectator to a virtual take over of its sovereign actions by extra-legal elements? The Maoists think they are justified in doing so, because it flows from their praxis of creating alternate power structures, but given their failure elsewhere to prevent the hold of electoral democracy or democratic instruments on the electorate and the poor, what makes them think that they would be successful in doing so in a state, where the formal instruments of democracy are even more vibrant and entrenched? That annihilation of anyone having different political allegiances is a way out of winning a so called "class war" is inherently a diabolic, anarchic, authoritarian and in every sense a Pol-Potist discourse. And the Maoists in this case are adopting the methods of annihilation and rampant killing to defeat the Left, tacitly supported by the opportunist right wing forces such as the Trinamul and the Congress, who are looking for a ruse to dismiss the Left Front government in the state.

Surely the Maoists are leading the tribals to a violent abyss by these anarchic actions and they do it realising this very well. The Maoists are trying to foment a revolution - there is no doubt about that. They consider that the bourgeois democracy in India is a facade that hides entrenched class interests and class control over levers of power. They consider that it is not just enough to force the state to bring in welfare measures as they are crumbs to the needy which doesn't hide the structural orientation of the comprador-bureaucratic-bourgeoisie ruled state. But in this endeavour, they consider that it is the "parliamentary Left" that is their primary enemy now as is evidenced by their strategy in West Bengal, which has prefaced their tacit understanding with political parties such as the Trinamul Congress.

Setback to the left movement in the entire country

Any simple reading of the electoral system and polity in India would reveal that there is a derived bipolarity between the Congress and the BJP in the electoral system and large consensus on economic policy among the ruling classes. This consensus is evaded only by the left parties at the national level, which has articulated a break from both neoliberalism and greater integration with “imperialism” at the world level, may it be in the form that the left opposed the implementation of neoliberal policy formulations or in the way the entire nuclear deal issue was played out. Even radical parties such as the CPI(ML)-Liberation acknowledge the loss of the left voice in Parliament as a setback despite their reservations about the praxis of the larger left parties[xi]. And even those who believe in social democracy and in upholding Constitutional values have lamented the loss of the left, may it be in articulating a social agenda for the nation as a whole or in articulating an independent voice in foreign policy. But the Maoists, here have considered the left front as their primary enemy and embark upon a similar praxis as is evident in their work in other states (incidentally none of them is Congress ruled).

The Lalgarh incidents and the rampant killings of CPI(M) party workers might put the CPI(M) led Left Front on the back foot in the state of West Bengal. The Left is now in a state of introspection over the defeat in the recent parliamentary elections. The deliberate mobilisations against the left from a varied coalition of forces from the ultra-right (the Sangh parivar's intrusion in Darjeeling) to the right (the Trinamul and Congress Alliance, which is now using violence to quell the left's hold after elections) to the ultra-left (the Maoists) has only pushed the left movement in the country as a whole further into the backfoot. That is because the actions by the Maoists seem to want to push the balance of support toward rightist forces in the state of West Bengal - in other words, the opportunist Trinamul Congress and the distinctly neoliberal Congress. Any leftist would bristle at this culmination despite reservations with the governance and policies of the long running left front government in the state of late.

Lessons to be drawn

The central government repeated harping on the "greatest internal security threat" that the Maoists provide, is certainly hyperbolic. But the insistence on such a rhetoric is primarily driven by the fact that the Maoists have increasingly concentrated in areas, which are rich in natural resources and are coveted by big companies for commercial purposes. Of late, however, the central government has started to make statements about socio-economic development of the regions currently under some influence of the Maoists. Consequently, the Maoists have responded in attacking the developmental agencies and structures of the state in a manner that has brought in greater repression. In many ways, even if the Maoist actions and the state counter-actions (or vice versa) are not the "greatest internal security" problem, the situation is indeed a great tragic livelihood problem in the tribal dominated areas where the Maoists have a significant presence.

The existing crossfire, be it in the form of battles between vigilante tribal forces and the Maoists in Chhattisgarh or the violent turf war launched by the Maoists against ruling party supporters in West Bengal or the tactic of individual "annihilation" of perceived enemies by the Maoists in Orissa has created a great cesspool of violence and counter-violence. The immanent "massive" paramilitary response, without a concomitant administrative impetus on livelihood issues would only widen this cesspool. The Indian state by embarking upon a wholly militant offensive, would further alienate an already traumatised population if it resorts to a full scale offensive against the guerilla army of the Maoists on the lines of what transpired in Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Having said that, the anarchic use of violence, and the terroristic acts of "annihilation" have drawn such as response, for which the Maoists are completely to blame. In this respect they have much to learn from their Nepali counterparts who have successfully established great bases of support among the Nepali populace through varied tactics of democratic engagement going beyond mere military consolidation. And indeed from the failures of similar anarchic and military oriented Maoist organisations such as the Sendero Luminoso in Peru.

The inability of the Maoists to transform their spark in 1967 into a prairie fire as late as 2009 is indicative of the stupendous failure of the Maoist praxis. And the continuing presence of under-development, poor human development indicators, exploitation and oppression in areas where the Maoists are strong; point toward the failure of formal Indian democracy. There has to be a great substantive basis for Indian democratic institutions objectively and a more wholesome democratic agency that is people-centric to achieve the same. That is the challenge to be addressed by progressive and democratic sections of Indian polity today.


Bannerjee, Sumanta (2006), “Beyond Naxalbari”, Economic and Political Weekly, July 22-28

Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan (2009), “Of Control and Factions: The Changing “Party-society” in West Bengal, Economic and Political Weekly, Febraury 22

Kumar, Arun (2003), Violence and Political Culture - Politics of the Ultra Left in Bihar, Economic and Political Weekly, November 22

Sundar, Nandini (2006), Bastar, Maoism and Salwa Judum, Economic and Political Weekly, July 22-28

[i] This is explained in this article, “Government hits back” by N.Rahul in the Frontline magazine, dated October 8,2005

[ii] A news report that details the entry of ex-Naxalites and also the popular support to the PRP from Naxal ideologues during the course of the formation of the party is available at ;.

[iii] See Kumar (2003). Although this article generically focuses on “ultra left” violence, it specifically mentions the MCC component's tryst with criminalism.

[iv] A very telling study of the Maoists and the situation in Bastar, Chhattisgarh is presented in Sundar (2006).

[v] explains the reasons for the breakaway of the Karnataka unit from the Maoists in great detail

[vi] See Bannerjee (2006). Bannerjee suggests that the Indian Maoists have adopted this from the understanding of the MCC component.

[vii] In this the Indian Maoists are very different from their Nepali counterparts (who have entered the democratic mainstream now), who even during the days of their “Peoples' War”, were insistent on ensuring that their praxis did not become “red terror”. This is evident in the call given by the Nepali Maoists' chairman, Prachanda to his comrades, that “a certain mininum legal method is adhered to” and that, “it should be strictly expressed in both our policy and practice that red terror does not mean anarchy” (Bannerjee 2006)

[viii] Check interview of Maoist leader Koteswar Rao here :

[ix] This is acknowledged even by sympathetic commentators of the Naxalbari movement such as Sumanta Bannerjee (2006)

[x] Bhattacharya (2009) illustrates this with a study of two villages in West Bengal.

[xi] ML Update editorial titled, “Verdict 2009” – Lessons for the Left available at

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The farce continues..

Another short comment on the ongoing happenings in Nepal.

Prolonging the farce that the current regime in Nepal is; prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal (who lost two Constituent Assembly constituencies, no less and was nominated to the CA) recently elevated foreign minister and Nepali Congress leader, Sujata Koirala to the post of deputy prime minister - the second person to occupy the post besides Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) leader Bijay Gacchadar. Koirala's only claim for her current status was the fact that she was being propped up to the post by senior NC leader and father Girija Prasad Koirala. Sujatha Koirala also managed to emulate and even worsen her superior Madhav Nepal's (of the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist - UML) performance in the CA elections by losing the elections in her own constituency (Koirala finished a poor third behind MJF and UML candidates in the CA constituency of Sunsari, while Madhav Nepal finished second in both Kathmandu-2 and Rautahat losing to UCPN(Maoist) candidates).

With this dubious elevation, Madhav Nepal has added further disgrace to an already sketchy arrangement - which clearly suggests a reactionary gang up against the legitimate winners of the CA elections - the Nepali Maoists. The elevation was done despite vehement disapproval from Koirala's own partymen - the NC leader senior leadership. Monarchy is said to have been abolished in Nepal, but non-representative dynastic politics is still quite a presence as Koirala's elevation points out. The elevation also means that the reactionary take-over of power in Nepal is now formally complete - Nepali President Ram Baran Yadav (who was never a republican and got his post due to his loyalty towards GP Koirala and also because of NC-MJF machinations), CA losers Madhav Nepal and Sujata Koirala, and a symbol of "corruption and opportunism"- deputy PM Bijay Gachchedar, in key posts of power.

The breaking down of the erstwhile "Constitutional Monarchy" system and the entry of the Maoists within the democratic fray (out of the peoples' war) meant a reorientation of the popular class based support to the various political parties in the country. The support to the monarchy and other anti-democratic sections has obviously accrued to the Nepali Congress (to the detriment of such parties as the Rashtriya Prajantra Party and its offshoots), while also shifting toward the Madhesi parties to some extent (owed to the deterrent value offered by the MJF toward the Maoist plan of structural economic changes in the Terai). This is reminiscent of the shift of royalist and princely sections gradually toward the Congress following independence in India (as well as toward the Jan Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party). The reactionary actions by the Nepali Congress over the period of time following the CA elections pretty much conform to the patterns of change of support base.

Opportunistic moves such as Sujata Koirala's elevation, in the near parliamentary past had discredited the UML leadership of Madhav Nepal and that apparently resulted in his shock defeat (as well as his party's poor third position in the CA polls). Surely these maneuvers in Nepal with a reactionary bloc seizing power were not what the people intended when they voted in the CA polls for change. There has to be a greater mass mobilisation by progressive forces in Nepal to pressurise CA members to end this farce that has been set up in the name of government.

Cross posted at

Friday, October 09, 2009

An undeserved prize

Why the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama is a farcical decision.

In a farcical decision, the Nobel Committee (consisting of Norwegian legislators) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to US president Barack Obama. The reason offered was that Barack Obama's message of "change" and emphasis on various international issues - multilateralism, climate change, diplomacy and non-profileration were in conformity with the Nobel awarding committee's views. That only the message and the appeal of Obama have been considered for the Peace Prize and not the substantive actions (which have consistently belied and defied both Obama's message and his supporters' hope), is what fills one full of angst at the decision.

Consider this - Alfred Nobel, the institutioner of the prize said this in his bequeathing will, the Nobel Peace Prize shall "go the person who shall have done the most or the best work forfraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Barack Obama has surely done nothing in that regard ever since he has got to power. Despite promising an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, he has only ordered a timed withdrawal stretching to 2010 and which includes the proposal of keeping a "reserve force" permanently stationed in the colonised country. He has also shifted and armed forces to Afghanistan dramatically escalating the conflict and inflicting more civilian casualties in his tenure in the country than even what the arch-imperialist George W. Bush allowed under his last year of rule.

His piecemeal gestures toward peace and fraternity have been exactly that - piecemeal. Despite a well regarded speech directed to the "Muslim world", the Obama administration's policies in west Asia are cut from the same imperialist mould of the previous administrations. Barack Obama was deafeningly silent as the President-nominee when Israel pounded Gaza brazenly killing thousands of Palestinians defying every rule in the international book. Apparently the Nobel committee made a nomination cut off date for February 1 (merely a fortnight after Obama assumed power as the president). Obama's silence during the Israeli carnage on Gaza should have been factored into the nomination calls atleast, but surely that was not to be.

Obama later called for halts to fresh settlements by the Israelis in the Gaza strip, only for the Israeli prime minister to ignore the call and proceed with the same, without a stout response by the US president beyond stated positions. He has made pithy remarks about loosening of the blockade by the Israelis on Gaza, but has stopped short of condemning Israeli action or make it responsive to international censure, especially after South African jurist Robert Goldstone submitted an incriminating report against Israel to the United National Human Rights Council, calling for further investigations and possible International Criminal Court proceedings against the country. In other words, Obama has stayed true to the calling card of his presidency - continue rhetoric of change/action, but do nothing palpably actionable about it.

Obama even went one step ahead of the Bush administration by establishing new military bases in Colombia to rake up a geopolitical conflict in the Latin American region which is seeing an unprecedented anti-imperialist democratic sweep in positions of power. He did articulate a different response to the expected Bush one, during the Honduran military coup, when he joined other Latin American leaders in condemning it and recognising ousted president Jose Manuel Zelaya as the genuine ruler of the country. But when it came to actionable work on putting pressure against the Honduran coup leaders to drop out of power, the Obama administration pursued his trademark dilly-dallying approach; it refused to term the Honduran coup a "military one" (what else could it be, when an incumbent president is frisked in his pajamas at gunpoint and taken out of the country?). The Obama administration did effect a piecemeal cut in aid to the Honduran government, but also tried to broker a settlement that provided amnesty and continuation in legislature for some of the coup's chief protagonists. Is this what the Nobel Peace Committee expected out of its winner when it awarded him the prize?

Obama's much touted first executive decision was to order a closure of the illegal detention centres perpetrating torture and human right violations in Guantanamo Bay (occupied by the US in Cuba on a dubious lease). But a few months later, it was known that vicious human rights violations and illegal detentions persisted in the centres and because Congress defied an early closure, the centres would remain till early 2010 (without specifying when they will be closed definitely). Yet another case of dilly-dallying by the president who promised decisive hope and was elected by a surge of people expecting the same after years of neoconservative rule that devastated the American economy, triggered a global financial crisis and recession and organised invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama's saving grace has been his genuine rhetoric on actions regarding climate change. Both domestically, where he has attempted to give a boost to renewable and environmental friendly technologies (coupling them with new "green" jobs) and internationally, where he has acknowledged the difficulties in an global response to climate change - Obama's actions have been sincere. But this saving grace does not take away from the many vices that have persisted in his administration's actions and that have threatened to keep the world in a permanent state of danger. And we are not even getting into some of the dubious domestic policy decisions made by the Obama adminstration.

The Nobel Peace Committee's other reasoning is that it wants to encourage Obama to actionise his rhetoric and that this award would help in the same. This writer's guess is that the reasoning is misplaced, for the award would only add to the Obama mystique that thrives high on rhetoric and less on actions. Obama would enthrall the world with another reverberating speech if he accepts the Prize and arrives in Oslo to receive the same in December and thats all there will be to it.

Crossposted from

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Deadlock in Nepal

A stasis has persisted in Nepal ever since the formation of the new government led by unelected-but-nominated (to the constituent assembly) prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). The rather ineffectual government, which hosts - apart from Madhav Nepal - other unworthies such as foreign minister Sujata Koirala (who has aspired to become the Deputy PM after demands by Nepali Congress patriarch (and father) G P Koirala) and discredited Madhesi leader Bijoy Gachchadar as vice premier has been so poor in its governance that there prevails virtual anarchy in various parts of the country. Ethnic clashes, demands, violent actions, strikes and disruption of economic activity has been the order of the day since the formation of the new coalition government whose very raison d'etre for existence has been its anti-Maoist position. The government has not even been to able to introduce the yearly budget - a sign of utter incompetence and inaction. Buttressed by staunch Indian support, the Madhav Nepal government has been unable to firm up a consensus with the Maoist opposition over the latter's demand to discuss the president's unconstitutional action in reinstating (former) army chief Rukmangad Katuwal after his dismissal by elected former Maoist prime minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal, in the Constituent Assembly.

The Maoists, who have privileged this issue as a case of establishing "civilian supremacy" have been unremitting in their efforts to discuss the issue in the CA and rightly so, for there remains no moral argument against such a discussion. The resultant disruption of parliamentary activity by the Maoists has taken quite a toll on the already ineffectual governance, not to mention the rather destabilised process of writing the Constitution - stipulated to be completed by next year. Apparently the government led by the UML and the NC is reluctant to discuss this issue or put it to vote in the CA fearing that the legislators belonging to the UML in particular would be loath to take a pro-President position when push comes to shove. And that would threaten the very legitimacy of the government in itself.

Apart from the political stasis, there has been also been attempts to shift the goalposts from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed by the Maoists and the other major parties, prominent of which are the NC and the UML. Madhav Nepal has already start to sound forked tonguish on the question of integration of the Nepali Army and the Maoists' PLA. In a recent interview with The Hindu, the PM tragi-comically suggested that he was yet "to go deeply" into the agreement (CPA) that he was a signatory of! Apparently it is the reactionary pressure that is telling on this slip-shod approach to a vital issue of the peace process.

All that seemed to be a matter of the near past, when some diplomatic parleys between the representatives of the three major parties - the Maoists, the UML and the NC got underway during the Dashain festive season. Encouraging remarks about a break in the deadlock through a joint resolution were being mooted by all representatives. But the central question - allowing a discussion on the president's move and a decisive resolution on civilian supremacy, that saw no acceptable answers. The NC and UML are still distrusting of the Maoists and consider that the question of civilian supremacy is settled.

All this is pushing the Maoists themselves in an insurrectionary direction. Already under pressure from a two-line struggle featuring what could be termed as a battle of ideas between a section of "dogmatists" represented by senior Maoist leaders Mohan Baidya and CP Gajurel and (for want of a better word), the pragmatists, represented by Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist leadership is keen on a different strategy to achieve a Constitution of their liking and which involves their return to power. Deadlock on the question of "civilian supremacy" is only taking the Maoists further to where the dogmatists in their ranks would want them to be - something that can turn nasty with the incumbent government even wanting to use repression. And that would be disastrous for the fledgling republic which is still faced with other social questions that were kept under wraps in an unitary and hierarchical state for long and that have being now raised in the form of various social upsurges - on ethnicity, on caste, on land ownership and what not.

In all this, the Indian role has also been negative. The current ambassador's fishing in troubled waters; nay mudding the waters even further by throwing in new interpretations of the CPA - Rakesh Sood suggested in a recent interview that integration of the PLA tantamounted only to an integration into Nepali society - an absolutely facetious remark considering that the UN recognised the combatants of the PLA at par with the Nepali Army when it brokered the ceasefire which preceded the CPA. Ostensibly, the more independent foreign policy of the erstwhile Maoist led government was not to the liking of the South Block, which saw any maneuver by the Maoist led government to be responsive to a Chinese regime (that was in turn using soft power to cozy up with the government due to its Tibet-related considerations) as being tantamount to a bandwagoning with the northern neighbour (and "competing" power). The Indian actions only gave further grist to the dogmatist mill among the Maoist sections; witness the actions of Maoist cadre and sympathisers against Indian priests in Nepal.

For three years since 2005 and the coming together of the mainstream political outfits and the Maoists against the erstwhile monarchy till the formation of the Nepali republic, things were progressing quite well for a nation with a blighted past. There were indeed more than a few hiccups as was expected between parties representing various class interests and the irreconcilability of those sections' interests playing itself out politically. But the Maoists made most of the important compromises - they gave up their "peoples' war" and agreed to work toward a "21st century system" of democracy; accepting a multi-party system that went against their given dogma. They agreed to work democratically to realise their aims - that of building a "new democratic" Nepal on the long march toward socialism. They even achieved a multi-class alliance of sorts in their efforts to do so, only for reactionaries to put a halt to all these in cahoots with sections of the Indian establishment.

The breaking of the deadlock would herald a return to the peace process inaugurated path, and a political settlement of sorts leading to the building of a visionary Constitution could be achieved. Will Madhav Nepal show the sagacity to achieve this? Will the UML in particular, be willing to act as a leftist party and defy its NGOised inner demons? Will the republican sections of the Nepali Congress realise the futility of giving leeway to the reactionary old guard and change course? And how long would a consensual approach toward achieving political aims be acceptable or indeed be made palatable by a pragmatic Maoist leadership to dogmatic sections of the party? Answers to these questions will determine the rate of change toward progress in Nepal. The leftist in India here is waiting for the right ones.

Cross-posted from

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bold return by President Zelaya

Dithering US action prevents removal of the de facto regime even as president Zelaya returns bravely back to the country.

Ousted Honduras president Jose Manuel Zelaya made a dramatic return to his country on September 21st by taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy in capital Tegucigalpa after secretly travelling and defying the de facto government's ban on his entry. Zelaya was removed in a military coup and sent to exile on June 28th this year, apparently for trying to bring about a referendum on term limits coinciding with scheduled presidential elections in November 2009. Since then, despite outright condemnation and rejection of legitimacy by all Latin American nations through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) - for most of them, coups have been a historical blight - and even by the United States, the European Union and the UN General Assembly, the coup plotters and the "interim government" led by Roberto Micheletti has brazenly refused to re-instate Zelaya.

Jose Manuel Zelaya is a leader of the Liberal Party which is considered to be a moderate party in the Honduran polity. He managed to garner sufficient support from the poor due to welfare measures such as increases in minimum wages to the tune of 60%, free primary schooling and lowered prices for transportation. The Honduran elite - the country was a military dictatorship till as late as 1982 - had perfected a system where the US trained military basically remained a paramount force meddling with the democratic institutions, helped by the fact that democratically elected presidents were given only a single term to rule. Zelaya tried to change this constitutionally and recommended a non-binding referendum for a new constituent assembly coinciding with the November elections to gauge public opinion on the term limits, after the Supreme Court refused to allow a binding referendum through a technicality. This move by Zelaya was offered as an excuse to stage the military coup and a puppet was installed after Zelaya was forced out of the country.

The Honduran economy is atypical of most Latin American countries, with a minimal oligarchy controlling and owning much of it. Zelaya's attempt to address this imbalance by following pro-poor measures, marking a shift to the left despite being elected from a conservative platform turned the oligarchy against him. The coup was initially supported by business circles as well, but international censure and halt in diplomatic ties has hurt businesses - export ones in particular - since the June 28th coup and many businessmen have left the country. The attitude of the US government toward the coup has been the most intriguing. While the Barack Obama presidency has been quick to condemn the coup and to call for Zelaya's return, the administration has been curiously ambivalent about the steps to be taken for the same. The US administration has yet to declare the coup as a "military" one, for if it did so, various levels of aid to the Honduran government would have to be cut. Sections in the US polity and administration are loath to let Honduras become closer to other leftist states in Latin America- Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). These sections prefer a far more pliant and right wing regime in Honduras, as a prop to halt the sweeping left wing consolidation in the continent and as a counterweight to the ALBA project and hence the dilly-dallying by the Obama administration when it comes to outrightly declaring the Honduran coup as a military one.

Considering that the US has for long played an agent provocateur role in many of the coups in Latin America for years now - some of the coup plotters in Honduras have a disreputable background for having played a role in others such as the attempted Venezuelan coup in 2003- the Obama administration's attitude marks some kind of a change. But as a case of old habits dying hard, the US administration refuses to walk the talk and put up palpable pressure on the de facto Micheletti regime. The US administration has taken a middle path - cutting nominal aid to the tune of a few million dollars, but retaining other significant quantities of aid, helping the de facto regime in many ways.

The bold move by Zelaya to return back - reportedly in the trunk of a car after hiking through border passes secretively - to Tegucigalpa and his refuge in the Brazilian embassy is a significant step in the process of restoring the elected president. Apparently he was helped in this endeavour by the ALBA. The presence of the recognised president in the capital is a major blow to the de facto regime's claims of legitimacy, and whose response has been to shut down independent media outlets, and throwing tear gas shells in the embassy complex, threatening to storm it besides continuing the daily repression against coup protesters. More than a 100 casualties have been reported since the coup as the military has clamped down heavily on protestors, only for the new Latin American phenomenon of new social and political movements mobilising even stronger anti-coup protests in Honduras. Zelaya's move to approach the Brazilian embassy is portentous since Brazil is seen as a major Latin American and international player without carrying a baggage of outright hostility toward the US. Lula Da Silva, the Brazilian president has also pooh-poohed the de facto regime's taunts and threats to storm the embassy.

The growing internal discord and unambiguous antipathy among the international community - barring a dithering and calculating US - suggests that there remains only two options for the de facto regime currently; either step down with the protagonists in the coup seeking asylum in some other country or to continue repression while alienating the Honduran population even further. Either ways, it would only strengthen the progressive movement in the country.

Having said that, recent reports indicate that the business elite is ruing its support for the coup, upset particularly by the losses that it has had to incur due to the cutting of diplomatic ties and aid by various nations. The business elite has thus sought a compromise which would essentially bring back Zelaya but with very many reduced powers and retention of the coup plotters in positions of power (Michelleti as a "life long Congressman" is one of the demands). Besides this, the powerful elite also wants to halt any eventuality that would shift the locus of power to the left and for Zelaya to return merely as a figurehead. Another demand by the elite asks for a "peacekeeping force" of about 3000 soldiers from conservative led nations to prevent Zelaya from hurting the status quo. This turn of events toward a figurehead leftist president back in power with the channels of power still remaining in conservative hands surely fits into the US scheme of things for Honduras and the social and political movements of the poor who are orchestrating the return of Zelaya through protests must be cautious not to let such a culmination to pass.

The attention devoted to the natural resources rich region of West Asia and the paradigm of "clash of civilisations" adopted by the erstwhile US administration gave some kind of a break for the Latin American nations in helping the leftist project in these countries. The renewed emphasis by Barack Obama to contain this project by refocussing US energies in this region can emerge as a challenge both to the ALBA as well as the fledgling social and left projects in countries such as Honduras for example. By continuing to articulate an alternate pro-poor vision, and by continuing to emphasise a transformation of the polity into more popular democracies, the social and left movements in various countries in Latin America (and even beyond) can resist conservative takeover through US help.

Portions of this piece also constitute the draft of an editorial written for the EPW