New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel
Supreme Court accepts idea of new Mullaperiyar tunnel
Campaign to save a 125-year-old school and its tree wealth

വായന
സൽമാൻ എന്തിനാണ് ജയിലിൽ കിടക്കുന്നത്
ടെലിവിഷൻ കാലത്തെ മലയാളി ജീവിതം
നമുക്ക് വഴി തെറ്റിയത് എങ്ങനെ, എവിടെ?
ആദിവാസി മേഖലകൾ പട്ടിക പ്രദേശമായി പ്രഖ്യാപിക്കണം
ചതിക്കപ്പെടുന്ന മാധ്യമപ്രവർത്തകർ

30 September, 2014

Climate change warnings

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were conspicuously absent when about 120 world leaders gathered for the climate summit in New York last week at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. All three stayed away as they saw it as an attempt to push the rich countries’ climate agenda.

About 150 countries were represented at the first climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which raised hopes of global action to reduce carbon emissions which are pushing up temperatures. Many have still not signed the agreement reached there and the promises made have been broken. The New York meet was called to secure new concessions from the less developed nations ahead of the 2015 meet in Paris where a legal instrument may come up for approval.

Without mixing words, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said recently that although India is taking steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions they will continue to rise for at least 30 years. It is for the more developed countries to make immediate cuts, he added.

The view he articulated is predicated on the fact that India figures low in the list of industrial polluters and has before it the onerous task of speeding up development to raise millions of people above the poverty level.

A chart prepared by the Global Carbon Project (GCP), a collaborative effort of NGOs devoted to environmental research, shows that India’s per-person emission is only one-tenth that of the US and one-fourth that of China. Incidentally, China’s emission level has risen above Europe’s.

While the developed and the developing quarrel over the issue, emission is continuing at speeds, which should worry both. The GCP has estimated that the world pumped 39.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. This was 778 million tons or 2.3 per cent more than the previous year. If emission continues to grow at this rate the quota of carbon dioxide that can be released without pushing global warming beyond two degrees C will be exhausted within 30 years.

India has taken up plans to double generation of wind and solar energy within a decade. This will help reduce dependence on coal and hold down the emission level. However, it has also on hand plans which will raise emission levels. The Make in India programme which Modi is pushing hard is one such.

Carbon dioxide emissions and related issues of air pollution are a part of the severe environmental problems which India faces. The consequences of large-scale destruction of forests and pollution of water sources pose a big threat too.

In its last years, the Manmohan Singh regime initiated several measures to attract investments and opened up forest areas to mining interests. Some of the projects it approved had to be abandoned later in view of strong opposition from local communities whose traditional modes of livelihood were threatened. The Modi regime is in the process of diluting forest and environmental laws to quicken the pace of development. This is sure to speed up environmental degradation too.

In recent years, some states have been reeling under the impact of severe drought, while some others have been experiencing devastating floods. They are warning signals the country can ignore only at its peril.

Last year, in the sub-Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, swollen mountain streams rushed down the slopes, sweeping away all that they encountered. The government put the toll at around 6,000 dead but non-governmental agencies said as many as 30,000 might have died.

Circle of Blue, a US-based NGO set up by journalists and scientists, attributed the disaster to the massive construction activity in the Himalayan region in pursuance of a Central government decision of 2003 to build 162 big hydro-electric projects by 2025 to generate 50,000 megawatt of power. Thirty-three of the projects are in Uttarakhand.

This month, large tracts in the Kashmir valley, including the city of Srinagar, experienced the worst floods in more than six decades. Early reports said about 280 people died and millions were rendered homeless. Environmental activist Sunita Narain said mismanagement of resources and poor planning were among the causes of severe drought and floods.

The earth can be saved only if each country is ready to save itself. Even as the Indian government fights at the global level for equity on developmental issues it must take steps to check the environmental degradation taking place all across the country from north to south and east to west.

23 September, 2014

False steps in India-China tango

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Was it a coincidence that Indian and Chinese troops were involved in a standoff on the heights of Ladakh when President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were talking?

The appearance of discordant notes, when governmental leaders hold crucial meetings, are not unusual. They are often the result of calculated moves by state or non-state actors to create hurdles.    

According to Indian media reports, the confrontation on the disputed border began when Chinese troops moved forward at three places in Chumar in eastern Ladakh on September 10 just as Xi left on a nine-day tour of Tajikistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. They attributed it to renewed Chinese efforts to establish a presence in Chumar, which had been foiled earlier.

Chinese reports insinuated that the tension was engineered by India. They accused India of instigating border incidents as it wanted the talks, which are focused on trade and economic cooperation, to cover the border issue also. They recalled that there was a three-week standoff in the western part of the border ahead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India last year.

In the Chumar area, China is laying a track and India is constructing a canal. Each side considers the other’s activity prejudicial to its interests.

Indian media reported that Modi drew Xi’s attention to the border developments at their New Delhi meeting. Xi told him he was sad that they had cast a shadow on his visit and that he had passed on a message to the Chinese army to disengage. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said later that the situation had been “controlled and managed” through immediate and effective communication.

Before leaving India, Xi said the border dispute with India would be resolved early to promote peace and cooperation between the two countries. China had the determination to work with India and settle the boundary question through friendly consultation at an early date, he added.

However, after the Xi visit ended, Chinese soldiers entered the Chumar area again, although in smaller numbers than before.

Apart from being the President, Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Control Commission. That his message for disengagement did not evoke a full response suggests that other players are also active.

The dispute over the 3,380-kilometre long India-China border had precipitated a brief war in 1962. Chinese troops poured down through the Himalayan passes, causing Indian soldiers to scatter in disarray. The Chinese then made a quick, unilateral withdrawal.

The Line of Actual Control, which resulted from the conflict remains undefined. Since 1996, the two sides have been holding talks to resolve the border dispute but all that has come out of the exercise so far is an agreement to maintain peace along the LAC.  

Xi’s commitment to early resolution of the dispute represents a big advance. After his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the BRICS summit at Durban last year, he had said the boundary question was a complex issue left over by history and since solving it won’t be easy the two countries should focus on boosting relations without being held back by it.

Significantly, Global Times, the English-language sister daily of the party organ, the People’s Daily, which published Xi’s statement that China was determined to work with India to settle the boundary issue at an early date, also carried a statement by an unnamed Chinese expert on South Asia that there wasn’t much chance of a settlement under the regimes of Xi and Modi.

Despite the border distractions, the Xi-Modi talks yielded some positive results. The two countries signed a dozen agreements providing for cooperation in a wide range of fields from manufacture of power equipment and automotive parts to joint  audiovisual production.

However, there was disappointment in India that China only committed itself to an investment of $20 billion in the next five years, as against a figure of $100 billion mentioned by one of its diplomats a few days earlier.

In a public speech in New Delhi, Xi reiterated his views on the importance of strategic coordination between India and China, which have a combined population of over 2.5 billion. “If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen, and if we join hands the whole world will pay attention,” he said.

It takes two to tango. Clearly there is still a long way to go before India and China can move in step. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 23, 2014.

16 September, 2014

Battle over liquor

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Constitution-makers had directed the state to work towards prohibition of consumption of alcohol. They did so not on moral or religious grounds, but on the mundane considerations of improving living standards and public health.

Accordingly, many state governments decided to introduce prohibition in stages. By 1964, one-fourth of the country’s population was in areas where liquor was banned. At that stage, most of them started rolling back prohibition rejecting the Central government’s offer of grants to cover half of the loss of revenue resulting from the ban on liquor.

Only Gujarat in the west, Manipur and Nagaland in the tribal northeast and Lakshadweep, a group of Arabian Sea islands, continued with prohibition. Last month Kerala, which boasts of social indices comparable to those of the West, decided to change course and resume the journey towards total prohibition. 

Tipplers in India had relied entirely on locally tapped or brewed drinks until the British introduced foreign liquor in 1837. The high cost of imported liquor limited its use to the affluent. Bengali nationalist leader Keshub Chandra Sen opposed liquor imports but the British were unwilling to give up the fast growing Indian market.

Later on, Gandhi campaigned against all kinds of liquor. The constitutional directive on prohibition was a result of his work.

When Gandhi came on the scene, prohibition was an idea which had wide appeal across the world. It was in force in the USA, Canada, the Soviet Union (where it was introduced in the Czar’s time) and a few European countries like Norway and Iceland. All of them soon abandoned it, declaring it was unworkable.

Today prohibition prevails only in a dozen Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In Pakistan, non-Muslims can obtain permits to buy liquor.

Half of Kerala was dry when a coalition government headed by Communist Party of India-Marxist leader EMS Namboodiripad wound up prohibition to augment the state’s finances. Three types of liquor were available in the state: toddy tapped from coconut palms, locally distilled arrack and what is officially labelled Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL).

Kerala was a poor state at that time, with its per capita income below the national average. Today, it is the country’s richest state, thanks mainly to remittances from the large expatriate population in the Gulf States. Consumption of liquor grew steadily as the state prospered. It now accounts for the heaviest consumption of alcohol, estimated at 8.3 litres per head per year, as against the national average of about 4 litres. 

The state’s stake in the liquor trade rose when it set up the Beverages Corporation in 1984 and granted it monopoly over sale of IMFL. The 1997 ban on sale of arrack boosted IMFL sales. The corporation now contributes more than Rs72 billion a year to the exchequer, which is about a quarter of the state’s total revenue.

The government took the decision to push ahead with prohibition in circumstances that raise doubts about its sincerity.  A court had ordered closure of more than 300 hotel bars working in insanitary conditions. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was inclined to find a way to reopen them but state Congress president VM Sudheeran opposed the move. As Sudheeran’s stand proved popular, the government upstaged him by announcing the new policy.

In terms of the government decision, all bars except those in five-star hotels were to close down last week. But the Supreme Court, acting on a bunch of petitions filed by bar owners, asked the government not to enforce the decision until the end of this month, by which time the High Court will rule on the issues raised by the petitioners.

The bar owners have claimed that their licences allow them to function until the current financial year ends on March 31, 2015. This is true but, then, they were given the licences on the specific understanding that the government has the right to cancel them at any time.

The High Court verdict may not be the last word on the subject since the losing side is certain to go in appeal to the Supreme Court, leading to further delay.

Contrary to the popular impression, the new policy will not result in total prohibition. Wine and beer parlours will continue to exit, and their numbers may well increase.

Many believe that the legal ban on liquor will fail, as happened in the US. However, in the conditions prevailing in Kerala  there is a need to limit availability of liquor, if only to prevent children from taking to drinking. The law stipulates that one must be at least 21 years old to drink but studies have indicated that many start drinking in their early teens.

If Kerala wins the battle against liquor, other states may come under pressure to rethink on prohibition. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, a political party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, has already demanded that the state follow the Kerala example. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 16, 2014.    

09 September, 2014

Education cries for attention

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Development has been on India’s agenda for decades. In this year’s parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi could lead his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory mainly because a significant section of the electorate believed he is more capable of ensuring speedy development than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Development is still Modi’s favourite theme. However, there is nothing to indicate that his government is aware of the need to tone up the educational system, especially its higher levels, to achieve the development goals. Neither he nor his Human Resources Development Minister, Smriti Irani, has given any indication that education is a high priority area.

Last week, on Teacher’s Day, celebrated nationally since the 1950s, Modi addressed school children across the country through radio, television and the web. He spoke of the need for good teachers and for adequate toilet facilities, especially in girls’ school. He did not touch upon the academic challenges before the nation, presumably because it was not the right occasion to bring up the subject.

Soon after she took charge of the HRD ministry, Smriti Irani asked officials to take steps to introduce in school textbooks lessons on ancient India’s contributions in fields such as science, mathematics and philosophy. Most academics viewed it as a move to smuggle the BJP’s Hindutva ideology into the curriculum.

The BJP is of the view that the previous governments neglected study of Indian culture and that the textbooks now in use are the work of Left-oriented academics. On their part, Hindutva academics, relying upon the epic, Mahabharata, are propagating the ridiculous theory that ancient Indians were familiar with stem cell reproduction.

While there are daunting problems at all levels, the higher education scene cries for immediate attention in view of its high relevance to developmental activity. The country now has about 700 degree-awarding institutions with more than 35,000 affiliated colleges under them. They have a total enrolment of 20 million.

There were only 157 engineering colleges in 1980, most of them in the government or aided sector. Today there are about 3,400, most of them private self-financing colleges. The vast expansion has resulted in dilution of quality.

There is no Indian institution among the top 100 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014, released recently. Even in the list of top 100 Asian universities there are only eight from India. Seven of them are Indian Institutes of Technology, autonomous institutions established under a law enacted in the 1950s on the initiative of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Addressing the first convocation of the first IIT, Nehru said these institutions were symbolic of the changes taking place in the country. Five IITs were established in his time. Now there are 16 and a few more are on the way.

Most engineering colleges get between Rs100 million and Rs200 million from the Central government by way of grants annually. Each IIT receives between Rs900 million and Rs1,300 million. 

A significant proportion of the early graduates of IITs went to the United States for higher studies and did not return. This led to criticism that they were causing brain drain. In recent years, the trend has changed. Some of those who prospered in the US have made munificent donations to their alma mater.

Another criticism against the IITs is that while students passing out of them land well-paid jobs, many end up in the services sector where the technical knowledge they acquired at great cost to the taxpayer is wasted.

The IITs account for only one per cent of the country’s 1.3 million engineering students. Two per cent of the students go into National Institutes of Technology, which too are autonomous institutions in the government sector and 21% into other government colleges. The remaining 76% enter private colleges. 

Only a few private colleges have a good academic record. Many private college graduates are unemployed.

In Tamil Nadu state, more than 171,000 graduates and about 160,000 post-graduates in engineering are jobless. A newspaper recently quoted former Anna University Vice-Chancellor E Balagurusamy as saying only 20% of the state’s engineering graduates have jobs suited to their qualification. About 70% are unemployed and 10% are employed as police constables, hotel supervisors etc.

PK Sivanandan of the Institute for Societal Advancement, who analysed the performance of students in three engineering colleges of Kerala, found that they have a failure rate of 42%. Noting that the failure rate among Dalits was as high as 62%, he asks, “Can the weaker sections ever join the league as equal partners?” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 9, 2014.

02 September, 2014

Pride in Identity and its Place


Identity image created on wordle.net

Every individual has multiple identities. Some identities, like those of caste, religion, state, nation etc, are determined by circumstances of birth, over which the individual has no control.

Caste is an unchangeable identity. You can’t choose another in place of the one you were born in unless you wage war and carve out a kingdom of your own, in which case you may find priests who are willing to proclaim you a Kshatriya through a ceremony.

Even subdivisions within a caste are insulated from one another by insurmountable barriers. Descendants of Pandits who migrated from the Kashmir Valley centuries ago remain Kashmiri Pandits wherever they are because under caste rules their identity is permanent and unchangeable.

While identities of religion, state and nation can be changed, few people exercise the option. Those who exercise the option often do so on practical considerations dictated by social, economic or political factors. The identity so acquired is then inherited by their progeny.

I am, therefore, amused --- and sometimes perturbed -- when I see the lengths to which people, in their innocence (not to say ignorance), are ready to go to defend an identity which they acquired by sheer chance or force of circumstances. Pride in an identity is not something one is born with. It is a cultivated one. The family as also social, religious and political bodies play a part in the process.


Illustration credit: wikispaces.com

Those born under beneficial conditions quite naturally want to hold on to the blessings which circumstances of birth have conferred on them. Those born under adverse conditions quite naturally want to shake off the curse which circumstances of birth have cast on them. The authors of the caste system used the Karma theory to justify the good luck the iniquitous order bestowed on some and the bad luck it imposed on some others.

When Gandhi visited Vaikom in Kerala in 1925 while the Congress was conducting a satyagraha campaign against the bar on use of the road around a temple by members of the so-called lower castes, he met the head of the Namboodiri family of Indamthuruthi, hoping to persuade him to relent on the issue of discrimination.  Do the Vedas sanction restrictions on the basis of caste, he asked. The Namboodiri said the disabilities of the so-called lower castes were the result of their deeds in previous births.

Since Gandhi was not a Brahmin, the Namboodiri did not let him into his house. He received him in a shamiana in the forecourt of his house. With the collapse of the feudal order, the Indamthuruthi family’s fortunes declined and it had to give up the house from which Gandhi was kept out because he was a Vaisya, and not a Brahmin. That house became the office of a trade union of toddy tappers belonging to a so-called lower caste. So much for Karma.

This is not to decry pride in an identity one is born with. Such pride can serve a useful purpose. It can help one to maintain one’s self-esteem. However, there is a corollary to this. Only those lucky to be born under favourable circumstances can develop such pride. The unlucky ones cannot take pride in their identity. They experience lack of self-esteem, and may even be reduced to a state of self-deprecation. The most pernicious aspect of the caste system is the way the dominant forces consciously undermine the self-esteem of the suppressed. The victors obliterated the history of the vanquished and forged their own in its place. In the process, they boosted their own pride and destroyed that of the vanquished.

Failure to understand the limited nature of the usefulness of pride in identity can have deleterious consequences. It can lead to hallucinations of divine favour (of which notable examples are the Jewish belief that they are God’s Chosen People and the Vedic concept that the way to propitiate the gods is to take care of the Brahmins) or racial superiority (of which the best example is Nazi propagation of Aryan superiority).

The different identities of an individual are not packed in the body or mind one on top of another.  It is therefore absurd to say “I am a …. first and all the rest later.” When a person does that it simply means he places a particular identity above all other because he finds it convenient or beneficial for some reason.

A few years ago, a CPI(M) minister of West Bengal, Subhas Chakraborty, proclaimed that he was “a Hindu and a Brahmin first”. Thereby he tacitly acknowledged that being a Hindu and a Brahmin gives him greater self-esteem than being a Marxist and a minister. A week later he called a press conference and announced that he looked at everything on the basis of dialectical materialism and did not believe in religious practices or casteism. When the party waved the stick, he found it prudent (or should I say convenient and beneficial) to revise his position publicly.

Circumstances can force not only individuals but even groups of people to modify their position in this way. We don’t have to look farther than the recent history of the subcontinent to understand how the relative position of various identities is adjusted for personal, social, political or economic reasons.


Illustration credit: franceinlondon.com

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was not a practising Muslim, kept aloof from the founding of the Muslim League and pooh-poohed Chaudhuri Rahmat Ali’s idea of a Muslim homeland in the subcontinent, later became the foremost champion of Pakistan. When the state of Pakistan became a reality he declared that all its citizens will be equal regardless of religion or caste. But it was too late. The forces unleashed by him turned it into a religious state.

Twenty-five years after Muslims of East Bengal became part of Pakistan, upholding the primacy of their religious identity, they revolted under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s leadership. As they put language above religion, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

There are people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who believe Partition was a mistake. This does not mean it should be undone. The final test of nationhood is whether people have the will to live together. Pakistan became a reality because at the given moment a large section of the Muslim minority of the subcontinent lost the will to live together with the majority and inclined towards the idea of a separate homeland, apprehensive of their future in Hindu-dominated India. Bangladesh became a reality because Bengalis of Pakistan lost of the will to live together with the rest of the Pakistanis, apprehensive of their future in Urdu/Punjabi dominated Pakistan.

There may be people who still have dreams of a Reunited Pakistan or a Reunited India. They should ask themselves if they have conducted themselves in such a way as to remove the apprehensions which led to the breakup.

We have around us a host of vested interests who, for their own reasons, want to hold us down at various levels by playing upon particular identities. "Patriotism," George Bernard Shaw said, “is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” This observation is also true of pride in various other identities.

Facebook note dated September 2, 2014 https://www.facebook.com/notes/brp-bhaskar/pride-in-identity-and-its-place/746275582096813

Contours of Modified India

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As the Narendra Modi government completed 100 days in office, there was good news from the economic front, with officials reporting an impressive growth rate of 5.7 per cent during the quarter from April to June against 4.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

The government of the day is entitled to claim credit for the favourable turn in the tide. However, since the quarter was already on its last leg when Modi took over, it has to share the credit with the previous regime. The coming quarters may well see even faster growth and also reveal the cost the poor have to pay for the promised economic miracle. The new government has already diluted several laws enacted to safeguard the interests of the poor and protect the environment to accelerate economic growth.

Both Manmohan Singh and Modi are enthusiastic supporters of globalisation with visions of India as an economic power. The differences in their approach are related not to policy but to the pace of its implementation. The change of government will, therefore, make little difference to the shape of things on the economic front.

Modi has replaced a number of state governors and bureaucrats appointed by the previous regime. The exercise has been undertaken not to tone up the system but to bring in a new set of cronies. A former Telecommunication Regulatory Authority Chairman was appointed the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary after amending the law to overcome the ban on his re-employment. A former Chief Justice of India has been picked for appointment as governor. These moves may offer new temptations to persons holding high offices.

These are but minor aberrations in comparison with the developments on the social front. Ziya us Salam, a senior journalist of the highly regarded daily, The Hindu, summed up the dilemma that the Modi establishment’s majoritarian politics poses to minorities when he wrote, “It is not easy being a Muslim in India, it never has been, especially being a secular one.”

As is clear from his words, the problem is not new, but a continuing one. Its origin can be traced to the communal mobilisation that has been challenging the country’s secular traditions for more than a century.

Scholars have pointed out that the census operations, which began in the 19th century, have played a part in the growth of communalism. The census in Britain did not go into the religious affiliation of the people. But the British colonial administration tried to identify the people’s religious background and classified them into five broad divisions and a dozen subdivisions.

In 1909, one UN Mukherji, in a pamphlet, titled “Hindus: A Dying Race”, citing census figures, claimed that the Hindu population was declining. That paved the way for Hindu communal mobilisation, first under the auspices of the Arya Samaj and later under various other organisations espousing the Hindutva ideology enunciated by VD Savarkar. In its wake came Muslim communal mobilisation, which eventually resulted in the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland.

In the first general election of 1951-52, held while the communal tempers raised by the Partition riots still ruled high, the Indian National Congress, which upheld the ideal of secularism, was challenged by three Hindu parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Jana Sangh, predecessor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and Ram Rajya Parishad, an outfit led by ascetics. Together they could get only 10 seats in the 489-member Lok Sabha against the Congress party’s 364.

In the Assembly elections in Punjab, the Congress put up Ghaffar Khan, whose was the only Muslim family in the Ambala constituency after migration by members of the minority community to Pakistan. He won the seat and was re-elected twice before death caught up with him.

Today the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha, which was won on a minority of votes. The Congress has been reduced to a party which is too small to earn recognition as the official opposition in the house.

Many factors contributed to the rout of the Congress. One of them is corruption. Another is its declining appeal as a secular force. While under Jawaharlal Nehru the Congress took communalism head on, later on it moved towards a soft Hindutva line.

Developments on the social front will determine the final shape of Modi’s India. Recently he called for a moratorium on communal violence. It remains to be seen if the Hindutva outfits which have sprung up in different parts of the country will heed the call. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 2, 2014

26 August, 2014

Between rhetoric and reality

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The India-Pakistan peace process, which got a boost when Nawaz Sharif joined other South Asian heads of government at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in last May, has suffered another setback.

The Foreign Secretary-level talks, scheduled for Monday, were cancelled by India in a peevish response to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Kashmiri dissidents.

At the weekend, the two sides were counting the dead and the injured after troops exchanged fire across the border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ups and downs have been a regular feature of India-Pakistan relations since they emerged as free nations 67 years ago. The latest developments have not, therefore, caused any great concern on either side. However, there are some worrying elements.

Pakistan’s envoys had met Kashmiri dissidents even when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power last time without provoking Indian protests. Many, therefore, believe that the Modi administration scuttled the talks for other reasons, and there is intense speculation on what they are.

Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has suggested that Modi has no roadmap for proceeding towards the goal of good neighbourly relations and ducked the bilateral meeting to avoid the danger of exposing his cultivated image of being a visionary. He has also raised the question whether Modi ducked on his own or at the instance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management has ridiculed the cancellation of the meeting, saying the government has acted as though it is ready to tolerate Pakistan shooting Indian soldiers but will not forgive its envoy having tea with secessionists.

More than 50 cases of ceasefire violation have occurred so far this year, a dozen of them in the last fortnight. When encounters take place, each side accuses the other of resorting to unprovoked firing, and patriotic citizens readily accept their government’s version of events.

The current spurt in exchange of fire by forces on the border is attributed to Pakistani forces providing cover for militants to cross over to India. Such infiltrations usually take place ahead of the winter months when cross-border movement is not easy. An Indian corps commander recently said that 150 to 200 militants were waiting to cross over.

In last week’s incidents 22 Indian border outposts and 13 villages came under shelling. Both sides reported two civilian casualties on their side of the border. The Indian side said four militants were also killed. Following the incidents, authorities in Jammu moved the residents of a few villages to safer locations.

The cancellation of talks and the ceasefire violations have come at a time when militancy is at a low level and the Kashmir valley is comparatively peaceful.

According to conventional wisdom tension on the border helps the Pakistan army by strengthening its position vis-à-vis the civilian government in place in that country.

It may now be of help, on this side of the border, to the BJP, whose leadership has reportedly formulated an audacious plan to seize power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in the Assembly elections due later this year.

The state’s constitution provides for a 100-member Assembly. However, the effective strength of the house is only 87 since the remaining seats are earmarked for the areas now under Pakistan’s control.

Of the 87 constituencies where elections are to be held, 46 are in Kashmir, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority, 37 in the Hindu-majority Jammu region and four in Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

So far the largest number of seats the BJP has won in the Assembly is only 11, all from the Jammu region. However, it believes the highly fragmented polity of the Kashmir valley offers it an opportunity to make a bold bid for power. In the event of a sharp communal division, its leadership feels, it can hope to bag most of the seats of Jammu and one or two from Ladakh, making it the largest single party in the house even if it gets no seat from the Kashmir valley.

Separatist leaders usually call for boycott of elections, and in recent years they have been able to evoke a good response in the valley. If this happens again, the BJP leadership reckons, it may be able to pick up a few seats from the valley too with the votes of the Hindu minority.

Such calculations may well impede Modi’s ability to make an early and smooth transition from the rhetoric of the election campaign, in which Pakistan serves as a good foil, to the ground reality that demands good relations in the best interests of both the nations.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 26, 2014.

19 August, 2014

Modi reform on the way

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom critics have accused of continuing with the policies and programmes of the previous administration, announced last week a step towards changing the way the government functions. The Planning Commission, set up by the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, 64 years ago, will be wound up, he said.

Nehru was an admirer of socialist planning since his visit to the Soviet Union in 1927 on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. He established the Commission to draw up perspective plans for economic development.

He envisaged a socialistic pattern of society in which the public sector will occupy the commanding heights of the economy. The Commission’s task was to formulate five-year plans with this end in view. Under successive prime ministers it produced 12 such plans, and the last of them is now in the process of implementation.

Since the Commission was a brainchild of Nehru, some have interpreted Modi’s decision to do away with it as part of the process of burying his legacy, the main political asset of the Congress Party which was in power for most of the years of Independence.

During this year’s parliamentary elections Modi had campaigned for a Congress-free India. His lieutenant, Amit Shah, who was recently elected president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has adopted the same slogan for the upcoming Assembly elections in some states.

The fact is that planning in India predates Nehru’s days as prime minister. As Congress President, Subhas Chandra Bose set up a national planning committee in 1938 to formulate a plan for establishment of industries after the country gained freedom. A group of economists and industrialists made another non-official effort in the same direction in 1944. In the last years of colonial rule, the British established a planning board to rebuild the war-ravaged economy.

From the second plan onwards, the Planning Commission followed an economic model developed by internationally reputed statistician PC Mahalanobis, who laid emphasis on industrialisation with key areas under state control. Market reforms of the era of globalisation rendered that model irrelevant. 

The United Progressive Alliance government, which pushed globalisation during the past 10 years, recognised the need to reform the Commission in the light of new realities. It set up an Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) attached to the Commission to initiate the process. However, there was not much change.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who ran the Commission under Manmohan Singh, made it a laughing stock by fixing the poverty line at the abysmally low level of a monthly consumption of Rs859.60 in urban areas and Rs672.80 in rural areas. He also came under criticism for spending Rs3.5 million on renovation of toilets in the Commission’s headquarters.

Justifying the decision to scrap the Commission and go in for a new institution, Modi said, “Sometimes it costs a lot to repair an old house. It gives us no satisfaction and we have a feeling that it is better to construct a new house.”

The IEO, in a report submitted to Modi in June, immediately after he took office, had recommended abolition of the Commission. It suggested that a think tank be created in its place to advise the states on developmental plans. Modi has not indicated what the shape of the new body will be. Some media reports have suggested that he has in mind something like China’s National Development and Reforms Council.

But China, which started revamping its Planning Commission in 1998, still does not have an institution which its rulers consider satisfactory. The NDRC is a leviathan with 30,000 bureaucrats spread across the country. The new leadership of the Communist Party of China is reportedly planning to clip its wings.

According to some other reports, the think tank will consist of eight members, of whom five will be central ministers or serving or former state chief ministers and the remaining three will be drawn from industry.

The crucial issue is not the size and composition of the body but the procedures it will follow. In all likelihood, the Finance Ministry will take over the task of fixing annual outlays of state plans and providing the requisite funds. This may not be conducive to strengthening of federalism, which Modi has mentioned as a key element of his developmental policy, along with optimum use of the country’s young population and promotion of the public-private partnership.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August19, 2014.