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17 July, 2018

Contours of BJP's poll plan

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a bid for a second successive term, the Bharatiya Janata Party has coined a slogan “A New India is Rising”. It is reminiscent of the 2004 slogan “India Shining”, which failed to earn another term for Atal Behari Vajpayee, but it will be facile to imagine history will repeat itself.

The BJP is going into the battle with several favourable factors. For one, Modi is the darling of Big Business and the idol of the rising urban middle class which believes GDP figures and stock market indices are the best measures of economic health. In the committed cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh the BJP has a large force in the field at its command. The opposition parties cannot match it, singly or collectively.

Last week the World Bank announced that India has overtaken France and become the world’s sixth largest economy. If the current growth rate is maintained, it may get past the United Kingdom too and be the fifth largest before the elections.

The Bombay and National stock exchanges established new records and surging share prices enabled the richest Indian, Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance group, to dethrone Jack Ma of China’s Alibaba group and become the richest Asian.

These growth signs have to be set against certain unpleasant ground realities. India still has one-fifth of its population below the poverty line. Suicide by farmers in distress continues. Crimes against women are on the rise across the country. Studies indicate that Modi has not delivered on his promise to create 10 million jobs a year.

BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav in a recent newspaper article, outlined the party’s strategy to overcome the hurdles such issues may pose. Essentially, it envisages a twin approach: highlighting the benefits that have accrued to the aggrieved sections from various schemes of the government and setting new goals to be achieved by 2022, the 75th year of Independence. 

After citing the cases of some women achievers as proof the rise of a New India, he claimed the government had relieved 41 million rural households from the hazards of coal and wood-based cooking by supplying gas cylinders and stoves.

Madhav went on to say a new, confident, well-trained India was rising out of 20 All India Institutes of Medical Science, 22 Indian Institutes of Technology and 20 Indian Institutes of Management that produce thousands of highly skilled people. He, of course, glossed over the fact that the AIIMSes, IITs and IIMs came up under schemes launched by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whom Modi constantly derides saying he did nothing. 

He noted that the government had provided soft loans to over 70 million Dalits and Adivasis under the Mudra Yojana scheme. Over the next three years, it proposed to build 50 million houses for poor families and that would wipe out homelessness completely.

In an attempt to address farm distress ahead of the elections, the Central government sanctioned steep increases in the prices at which paddy, pulses, cotton and other produce are procured. This will bring some cheer to the long-suffering farmers, but economists are worried about the fiscal and inflationary costs involved. They say it will push up the food subsidy bill from Rs 1.70 trillion, mentioned in the budget, to more than Rs 2 trillion.

Madhav’s list of the Modi government’s achievements of the last four years include doubling of the highways network to 120,000 km, building of Metros in 10 cities and laying of one million kilometres of fibre optic network to digitally connect 250,000 villages by next year.

The big projects now on hand include a space mission to the moon this year and one to the sun next year and the building of 101 smart cities.

Last month the Centre quietly drafted 800 Indian Administrative Service officers to visit nearly 65,000 villages, many of them with large Dalit and Adivasi populations, before August 15 to monitor the implementation of various Central schemes by the States.

Modi has described the exercise as part of a new model for implementation of schemes. It appears to be designed to ensure that the beneficiaries are aware that the schemes were initiated by the Centre and will, hopefully, demonstrate their gratitude when they vote. 

Governments certainly are entitled to credit for the good work they do. But welfare schemes cannot cover up acts of omission and commission such as failure to prevent crimes against Dalits, Adivasis and women and extension of political protection to the criminals involved. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 17, 2018

10 July, 2018

Campaign rhetoric and reality
BRP Bhaskar                                                                                                                                     Gulf Today                                                                                                                                              

PrimeMinister Narendra Modi is eternally in election mode. He cannot resist the temptation of attacking the domestic opposition in speeches even when he is travelling abroad.

With the Modi magic, which is given credit for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 success, waning and the next elections only 10 months away, he has raised the campaign pitch and sharpened his barbs.

Addressing a meeting last weekend, Modi described the Congress, the main opposition party, as an “out-on-bail club”, an allusion to the fact that several of its leaders are on bail in various court cases.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his mother and former party president Sonia Gandhi are on bail in a case relating to alleged irregularities in the transfer of shares of a newspaper company controlled by the family. The case was instituted by Subramanian Swamy, a BJP MP.

Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram is awaiting the court’s decision on his application for anticipatory bail in a case of alleged money laundering. His son, Karti, is already on bail after being arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation last February. Chidambaram told the court that the Modi government was carrying on politically motivated vendetta against him and his son.

Last week former Minister Shashi Tharoor obtained anticipatory bail from a Delhi court after the police charged him with abetting the suicide of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar. She had died under mysterious circumstances four and a half years ago.

There is nothing in Indian parliamentary history to suggest that criminal cases and court proceedings harm a candidate’s electoral prospects. On the contrary, a study conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEP), two civil society groups, in 2013, indicated that candidates with a criminal past are more likely to win.

At the time of the 2014 elections BJP President Amit Shah was out on bail in two alleged fake encounter cases dating back to the time when he was a minister in Modi’s Gujarat Cabinet. Modi’s own name was cleared only two years earlier by the Special Investigation Team which had gone into the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, saying “no offence has been established”.

It was on a petition filed by ADR that the Supreme Court made it mandatory for every candidate to file, along with the nomination papers, a sworn affidavit giving particulars about his assets and criminal cases against him, if any.

After analysing the affidavits filed by those who contested three Lok Sabha elections, ADR reported a rise in the number of MPs with criminal records from 24 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2009 and 34 per cent on 2014. The number of candidates facing serious crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, banditry and crimes against women, went up from 11 per cent in 2004 to 15 per cent in 2009 and 21 per cent in 2014.

Modi was obviously relying on the notoriously short public memory when he alluded to the cases in which Congress leaders are involved. Of the 186 MPs with criminal records elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014, as many as 98 belonged to the BJP. Congress MPs facing criminal charges numbered only eight.

The BJP MPs involved in criminal cases included Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya from Uttar Pradesh. Both resigned later to become the state’s Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively.

An ADR analysis showed that 45 per cent of Adityanath’s Cabinet colleagues were facing criminal cases. One of the Cabinet’s first acts was to withdraw about 20,000 cases, including those against the Chief Minister, the Deputy Chief Minister and the ministers, saying they were politically motivated cases.

The argument about political motivation cannot be dismissed out of hand. State governments routinely slap cases on Opposition leaders in connection with agitations. The worst sufferers of this practice, however, are not those belonging to the mainline parties but social activists spearheading popular agitations.

The case of SP Udayakumar, who was Aam Admi Party’s candidate in Kanyakumari in the 2014 elections is a classic example. Leader of the largely peaceful agitation against the Koodamkulam nuclear project, he topped the list of candidates facing criminal charges with 382 cases, including 19 of attempted murder and 16 of sedition.

However, the political motivation argument cannot cloud the BJP’s links with criminal elements. One of Modi’s ministerial colleagues, Giriraj Singh, visited a Bihar jail last week to commiserate with the accused in a case of communal rioting. Another, Jayant Sinha, was photographed garlanding eight men convicted in a lynching case in Jharkhand, when they visited him after getting bail from the High Court pending a decision on their appeals.   
July 10, 2018

03 July, 2018

Bid to control higher education

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Narendra Modi government has come up with a measure which seeks to strengthen the Centre’s control over institutions of higher education in the name of regulation.

Currently regulatory functions in respect of universities are vested in the University Grants Commission, which has academic and financial powers. It lays down standards of teaching, examination and research, provides for their needs and ensures maintenance of standards.

A draft bill the government has put in the public domain provides for abolition of UGC and creation of a new body called Higher Education Commission of India in its place. The HECI’s powers will be limited to academic matters. It will have no financial powers. The stakeholders, including the academic community, have been given just 10 days to convey their views on the draft bill.

In the remote past there were institutions of higher learning in the subcontinent at Takshashila (near Rawalpindi in Pakistan) and Nalanda and Vikramshila (both in Bihar) which reputedly attracted scholars from far and near.

The first modern universities were established by the British at Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) in 1858.  More universities came up later, some, like the Aligarh Muslim University and the Banaras Hindu University, due to private initiative, and some under patronage of rulers of princely states.        

The UGC was created by an Act of Parliament by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in the 1950s on the lines of the recommendations of a commission headed by John Sergeant, who was Educational Adviser to the Government in the closing stages of colonial rule.

Nehru believed science and technology can help better the lot of the poor.  Outside the university system, his government fostered the Indian Institute of Sciences, a brain-child of industry pioneer JN Tata which was brought to fruition by the colonial government in 1909. 

It also established a number of institutions of higher learning like the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The IISc and a couple of older IITs are the only Indian institutions that have found their way into any global or Asian rankings. The great measure of autonomy these institutions enjoy in academic matters has enabled them to function without undue governmental interference and maintain high standards. The regular universities have seen a decline in standards under political control. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh, have not been well-disposed towards the new-generation institutions of higher learning which they view as centres of liberal thought.

Reform of higher education was mentioned in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto. Although it is only now that the Modi government has come up with a legislative measure in this regard, efforts to control institutions of higher learning have been on from the very beginning.

The RSS set the stage for the assault on these institutions with its journal, Organiser, launching an attack on the IITs and the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, dubbing them centres of “anti-India, anti-Hindu” activities.

The RSS’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, fomented trouble in several campuses, including those of JNU in New Delhi, IIT in Chennai and Central University in Hyderabad. It specifically targeted Muslim, Dalit and left-wing student leaders.

Rohit Vemula, a Dalit scholar of the Central University, was driven to suicide.  Sedition charges were slapped on several JNU students. Two students reported missing from the JNU campus still remain untraced.

RSS-affiliated groups were fighting liberal thought at various levels even before the BJP came to power. Five years ago a leading publisher, Penguin Books, bought peace with one group by agreeing to pulp all copies of US Indologist Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”.

More recently another group proposed to the Centre the removal of all foreign languages from the curriculum of institutions of higher education in the national interest. It also wanted stoppage of UGC funding for all research not connected with national requirements.

The move to replace the UGC with the HECI can be seen as the first step in that direction. The Centre’s decision to keep the power to allot grants in its own hands is undesirable for more than one reason.

In the first place, it will leave the HECI with no means to enforce its directives with regard to academic matters other than the extreme step of ordering closure of the institution. More importantly, as the one who pays the piper, the Centre will be in a position to call the tune even in academic matters. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 3, 2018,


27 June, 2018

Lal Singh’s red flag for journalists

Lal Singh’s red flag for journalists
Journalists protest against the J-K government. PTI file
BRP BhaskarThe Tribune
Threats come dime a dozen these days. They make headlines, provoke social media outburst and then, in most cases, die down. But Kashmir has been a trouble-spot since long and appears to be at the beginning of a difficult phase. So BJP leader Chaudhary Lal Singh's warning to journalists in the valley, with an ominous allusion to the murder of Shujaat Bukhari, Editor of Rising Kashmir, merits attention in a wider context.
Lal Singh was one of two BJP ministers who attempted to block the filing of charge-sheet against the men the state police had nabbed in connection with the Kathua rape and murder case. Chief Minister Mehmooda Mufti got the BJP to replace the two ministers but the ministry did not survive long after that.
Journalism in Kashmir was never quite like what it was elsewhere in the country.  
First, there was the Pakistani attempt to grab the state using a hastily mobilised tribal force. If the tribesmen had not tarried on the way to loot and rape, they could have taken Srinagar before the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession and India flew in troops. Then, there was the dismissal and arrest of Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah to foil a suspected unilateral declaration of independence. For 22 years thereafter, India ensured a friendly government in the state by keeping him out of the election arena.
All this created a situation which cast on journalists the onerous responsibility of safeguarding the national interest. By and large, they gave no cause for offence. When they did, they were subtly reminded they were off-course. One journalist sent by a national daily, on returning home from an outing, found the place bare: the furniture and all his belongings were gone. He took the message and went back to Delhi. 
National interest flew into my face when I landed there in 1973, exiled by my news agency. Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim felt I had overlooked national interest in reporting protests in Ladakh, including a hartal in Leh, when he visited the region. A minister from Jammu felt I had overlooked his interest in reporting his son's arrest on a rape complaint filed by a foreigner. "You are the instrumentality through which I am being destroyed," he told me.
When the government moved to Jammu, I stayed back in Srinagar to experience the Kashmir winter. On a visit to Jammu, I called on the CM. He said he was sorry to hear of the burglary in my house. I told him there was no burglary until I left Srinagar.
The burglars came later, after I returned to Srinagar. They waited for me in the unlit house till I got back at night. I heard the sound of intruders moving in the house. I reckoned it was better to face them than risk being waylaid in a deserted street on a winter night.  The bravado earned me head injuries which required 11 stitches. Their brief apparently was to wound, not kill.   
Sheikh Abdullah once asked me: "Foreign correspondents come to meet me. I talk to them. They write a short report. What they write is what I said. Indian correspondents come to see me. I talk to them. They write long reports. What they write is not what I said. Why?" I told him: "I can think of two reasons. One, they don't understand you. Two, they understand you but they believe it is not in the country's interest. The problem is one of professional weakness and the solution is to strengthen professionalism."
A year and a half later, Abdullah was back, as CM. There was a relaxed atmosphere in Kashmir. Pakistan was unhappy. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto called for a hartal in Kashmir the day the Sheikh came to the valley.  The Chief Secretary flew to Srinagar and reminded journalists of their duty to uphold national interest.
Based on official accounts, we reported that Kashmiris had rejected Bhutto's call. But some of us did mention the closure of shops. A local Urdu newspaper provided its own account, with photographs of closed shops and deserted streets. When Pakistan TV got the paper three days later, it displayed it on the screen to convince its viewers that there was indeed a hartal.
Sheikh Abdullah criticised us for not telling the truth. Was Gandhiji's India to be built on falsehood, he asked.
Four months later came the Emergency, the censorship and the crawling.  The valley was quiet and experiencing a level of freedom it had not known before. At the CM’s request, Mrs Gandhi transferred the power of censorship to the state government. 
One morning, his censor told us not to report a speech Awami Action Committee Chairman Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq was to deliver at the Jama Masjid that day. It was a legally untenable order as it was issued without knowing the speech content. The Mirwaiz criticised the Emergency but welcomed the PM's 20-point programme. The Emergency regime's main mouthpiece, All India Radio, picked up my report, omitted the first part and headlined the second.  The censor ignored my defiance of his order.
When we sought his intervention in the case of a Kashmiri journalist whom Haryana CM Bansi Lal had detained, the Sheikh got the detenu shifted to a Kashmir jail and then got him released on parole.  
Abdullah later inducted Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a journalist, as Director of Information, and he became the Chief Censor too. Thanks to his  intimate knowledge of the problems of the reporters, the censorship phase passed uneventfully thereafter.
Militancy set in a few years after I left Kashmir.  From my safe perch, I have been following with interest the work of Kashmiri journalists who are walking the razor's edge. English newspapers and websites have come up in Kashmir during this period, and I have admiration for the skill with which they negotiate the minefield, carrying the burden of the multiple interests they have to be watchful of. 
When Shujaat Bukhari was killed, Mohammad Sayeed Malik wrote: "Over the past about three decades Kashmiris have developed sufficient sense and acquired sufficient 'experience' to make their own intelligent guess about both the hand behind the trigger and the motive of its dastardly act. In nine out of ten cases, their instinctive guess is right though they rarely risk sharing it publicly. Bukhari's case falls into that rare category where the precise determination of the killer as well as the motive can only be guessed vaguely, not determined with certainty."  
Lal Singh's threat, if it is a serious one, adds one more to the interests journalists in Kashmir have to keep in mind while pursuing the profession in this perilous period. -- The Trubune. June 27, 2018.

26 June, 2018

Kashmir on the edge

BRP Bhaskar
Exclusive to The Gulf Today
Jammu and Kashmir has just been through a cataclysmic week. The chain of events began with the Bharatiya Janata Party pulling down the state’s two-year-old coalition government in which it was the Peoples Democratic Party’s junior partner.

The state then came under Governor’s rule and the security forces announced withdrawal of its unilateral Ramadan ceasefire.

Thus the stage was set for full-scale ‘cordon and search’ and ‘search and destroy’ operations by the security forces.

Militants did not honour the Ramadan truce but there was a perceptible drop in violence during the holy month. The situation took a turn for the worse with the killing of Shujaat Bukhari, Editor of Rising Kashmir, a highly respected journalist who had been striving to promote peace, by three gunmen in Srinagar on June 14.

A public protest against the murder paralysed the valley. The government responded by placing separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Jeelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Yaseen Malik under detention or house arrest.

The PDP-BJP alliance was one which should not have come about because it was doomed to fail. But the results of the Assembly elections of 2014 left few options. In the 87-member house, the PDP won 28 seats, most of them from the Kashmir valley, and the BJP 25, all from Jammu province.

In the agenda for alliance hammered out by the two parties the BJP, which had been opposing J&K’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, agreed to maintenance of the existing position. Taking into account the PDP’s demand for withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives security personnel impunity, it also agreed to examine the possibility of de-notifying disturbed areas.

Above all, the BJP committed itself to the idea of sustained dialogue with all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat Conference, to build a broad-based consensus on resolution of all outstanding issues.

The agenda was merely a device to facilitate sharing of power. For the BJP it gave the opportunity to be a part of the government in the Muslim-majority state for the first time. No attempt was made to implement it.

There was no immediate cause for the two parties to part ways. When the BJP summoned its ministers to Delhi they thought they were being called to discuss preparations for next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

Ram Madhav, BJP General Secretary in charge of J&K affairs, informed them of the decision to pull out of the government. He told the media that the BJP was withdrawing from the government as terrorism, violence and radicalisation were on the rise and it would be apt to hand over the administration to the Governor.

While there was a spurt in civilian violence in the valley in the recent past, in the form of stone-pelting by youngsters, the overall picture emerging from official statistics was one of casualty figures of security personnel falling and those of militants and civilians rising.

It is disingenuous to blame Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and the state government for any deterioratuion in the security situation since central forces are the main instruments of law and order in the state.

There is much speculation on what prompted the BJP to wreck the alliance at this stage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics believe it was done with an eye to the Lok Sabha elections.

Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP leader and bitter Modi critic, said the party would use the Kashmir issue to accentuate communalism and polarisation ahead of the elections.

An outburst by former BJP minister Lal Singh suggests that the way the state police foiled the concerted effort by the party to save the accused in the case relating to rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua may have also influenced the decision. He accused the Kashmir journalists of creating a wrong narrative and ominously reminded them of the expereince of Shujaat Bukhari.

Security forces gunned down Dawood Ahmed Safali, said to be chief of “Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir”, and three others on Friday at Nowshera in south Kashmir in the first action against militants after the imposition of Governor’s rile. Media reports quoted security establishment sources as saying they had prepared a hit list of 21 “top terrorists”.

Experience does not justify the assumption that a more muscular policy will yield better results. The problem in Kashmir is a political one and a lasting solution can be found only through the political process.

Cynical pursuit of an erroneous course in the hope of short-term political gains can have deleterious consequences in the long run. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 26, 2018. 

19 June, 2018

A strange political struggle

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A colonial building in Delhi has been for more than a week the scene of an unusual power struggle between two constitutional authorities, the government of India and the government of Delhi, which in popular parlance is a state but is actually a union territory. 

It was in this building that the highest colonial officer of Delhi lived before the British Indian government moved  from Kolkata to  New Delhi, built by Edwin Lutyens. It is now Raj Niwas, official residence of Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor, Anil Baijal.

On June 11, Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, went to Raj Niwas with Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Ministers Satyendra Jain and Gopal Rai. Since then they have been camping in a waiting room there in what is described as a sit-in to press for the rights of the people of Delhi. Sisodia and Jain are also on fast. 

Baijal met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has direct responsibility for Delhi affairs, but neither of them has made any move so far to put an end to the sit-in. If the condition of the fasting ministers deteriorates, urgent intervention may become necessary.

The Raj Niwas developments perhaps have no parallel in the annals of democratic societies. But extra-constitutional activities are not new to India.

What is on is a political battle. Kejriwal is agitating against the Central government’s attitude which hinders his administration from giving effect to some policy decisions it has taken in the interest of the people.  

Delhi is one of seven Union Territories, whose administrations are amenable to Central control through the Lt-Governor, even if they have elected Assemblies. A constitutional amendment of 1991 made certain special provisions for the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, but did not change its status.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party made a clean sweep of all seven seats of NCT. However, in the following year’s Assembly elections, Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party took 67 of the 70 seats, leaving BJP with a paltry three.

Modi has still not forgotten that humiliating experience. Kejriwal had a running battle with Lt-Governor Najeeb Jung, who, he believed, was putting obstacles in his way at the Centre’s instance.

When Najeeb Jung, a former civil servant, hung up his boots Modi picked for the post Baijal, another former bureaucrat who had been associated with the pro-BJP think tank Vivekananda International Foundation since retirement. And the battle between the two constitutional functionaries continued.   

Kejriwal is a civil servant who quit the job to do public service through a non-government organisation. After taking an active part in the anti-corruption movement, he broke away to launch the AAP. Its stunning victory in Delhi raised hopes of its becoming a major national player but they did not materialise.

The AAP government’s work has produced good results in the fields of education and health and won praise nationally and internationally. After a fight with big producers, it drastically reduced electricity tariff. It also extended water supply to several hundred localities where the poor live.

Speaking at the government’s third anniversary in February Kejriwal said the Central Vigilance Commission had reported an 81 per cent reduction in corruption in the NCT in three years. He accused the Centre of using the Lt-Governor to stall his government’s legislative initiatives.

Recently Central investigators raided Kejriwal’s office and questioned him as part of a probe into an alleged assault on Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash while attending a meeting there. The immediate provocation for Kejriwal’s sit-in was  a tiff with Indian Administrative Service officials following that incident. In a letter to Modi, he sought his help to end the ‘strike’ by the officials.

The IAS Officers’ Association denied its members are on strike and released photographs showing them at work in their offices. The Kejriwal protest has become a new issue on which opposition parties can combine against Modi. Almost all opposition parties except the Congress is backing him.

Four Chief Ministers, West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), Andhra Pradesh’s Nara Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam), Karnataka’s HD Kumaraswamy (Janata Dal-Secular) and Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan (Communist Party of India-Marxist), who were in New Delhi  for a meeting called by the Centre planned a solidarity visit to Kejriwal.  Baijal denied them permission to visit Raj Niwas,  Later they conveyed their views  to Modi. He did not respond. 

Modi cannot pretend that the matter does not concern him. .He has to intervene and resolve the issue in the interests of smooth working of the democratic system. --Gulf Tiday, Sharjah, June 19, 2018.

16 June, 2018

Opposition Coming Together in UP Could Be the Game Changer in 2019

Recent by-election results show that even in constituencies where BJP polled more than 50% of the votes in 2014, it may not be in a position to withstand a combined opposition assault.
The most hopeful sign for the opposition as they prepare for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is the maturity and wisdom displayed by Bahujan Samajwadi Party’s Mayawati and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, who were the main rivals for power in Uttar Pradesh until the BJP staged a comeback in the state.

The BSP had won a majority in the state assembly in 2007, leading to Mayawati becoming the chief minister for the fourth time. In 2012, the SP secured a majority and Akhilesh became the chief minister. His father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had held the post thrice earlier. Last year, probably riding what was left of the Modi wave, BJP obtained a majority and after a 15-year gap, Uttar Pradesh has a BJP chief minister in Adityanath.

The state with the most seats in parliament, UP made the biggest contribution to Narendra Modi’s win by giving the BJP 71 of its 80 seats and another two to its ally, Apna Dal. The party benefitted immensely from the SP-BJP rivalry. Its vote share of 42.63% was just a wee bit above the combined poll of SP and BSP, which was 42.13%.

With its 22.36% vote share, SP got five seats. The Congress, which polled 7.53% votes, won two seats – those of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. BSP had a vote share of 19.77% but it did not get any seats. It became the only recognised national party to draw a blank. This experience appears to have prompted Mayawati, who as a rule has stayed out of alliances, to re-think her party’s strategy.

BJP and its ally won 20 seats with less than 40% of the votes polled and 37 with between 40-50% of the votes. Several of the 16 seats it won with more than 50% 0f the votes were those of star candidates like Modi, Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi and actor Hema Malini. Some others were from places in and around Muzaffarnagar where there was organised violence aimed at communal polarisation.

The opposition’s by-election successes in Gorakhpur and Kairana, which were among these 16, show that even in constituencies where BJP polled more than 50% of the votes in 2014, it may not be in a position to withstand a combined opposition assault.

Opposition unity in the by-elections was easy to achieve as BSP, which did not enter the contest, extended support to SP in Gorakhpur and Phulpur and to Rashtriya Lok Dal in Kairana.

From the time BSP was formed, it began putting up candidates on a large scale all over the country. In the initial phase, it was able to make a mark in a few northern seats. Later its influence shrank to UP, but it continued fielding candidates across the country. Although the bulk of its candidates forfeited their deposits, it gained recognition as a national party in terms of the norms prescribed by the Election Commission.

Apart from some symbolic acts, there has so far been no concrete step to forge opposition unity ahead of the 2019 elections. Some regional parties have been talking of a Federal Front. The Congress is said to have already come to an understanding with the Janata Dal (Secular), its coalition partner in Karnataka. A lot of work remains to be done at national and state levels to put in place a united opposition capable of taking on BJP and its allies.

Mayawati. Credit: PTI
Seat sharing will not become a problem if the parties approach the issue rationally. A rule of thumb could be to treat the 2014 vote share as the basis for allocation of seats. If the subsequent by-election or assembly election results indicate a significant improvement in the strength of a party, it can seek a change in the formula and the matter can be settled through negotiations.

In UP, SP was ahead of BSP in the Lok Sabha elections. But in the assembly poll, BSP, with 22.23% votes, was slightly better placed than SP, with only 21.82% votes. Whichever way one looks at it, they are equal forces with a common interest – keeping the BJP at bay, whose ideology is inimical to the interests of the social and economic groups who constitute their support base.

As parties which grew in opposition to the Congress, SP and BSP have a long anti-Congress tradition. However, at the moment, there is a concurrence of interests since all three agree that the constitutional principles of democracy and secularism are under threat and they must safeguard them at any cost.
The significance of the Congress outreach to Mayawati cannot be underestimated for a united opposition to take on the saffron party in 2019. Credit: PTI
The significance of the Congress outreach to Mayawati cannot be underestimated for a united opposition to take on the saffron party in 2019. Credit: PTI
A fair formula for seat-sharing in UP will be for the opposition parties to keep those that they hold in the present house and to allot the other seats to the parties which were runners-up in the last elections.

Under the first part of this formula, SP will get the seven seats it now holds (including two won in by-elections), the Congress the two it won last time and the Rashtriya Lok Dal the one it snatched from BJP in a recent by-election. Under the second part, BSP will get 33 seats in which it was BJP’s closest rival, SP 30, Congress six and RLD one. Thus BSP gets 33, SP 37, Congress eight and RLD two

File photo of Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: Reuters
This is not suggested as an inflexible formula. It can be seen as a basic framework which can be modified suitably through negotiations.

The Congress may seek a larger share of seats this time. Both BSP and SP are parties which have been trying to make a mark in other states. It may not be a bad idea for them to accommodate the Congress’s wishes in UP in exchange for its support for their candidates in other states.

Mayawati’s alliance with H.D. Kumaraswamy’s JD(S) in the Karnataka elections enabled BSP to get its first MLA in a southern state, one who is a minister in the state’s coalition government. This is a breakthrough for the BSP and should encourage Mayawati to look for more such opportunities elsewhere.

SP, BSP, Congress and RLD had a combined vote share of more than 50% in both the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2017 assembly elections. It will be possible to severely restrict BJP’s strength in the new Lok Sabha and optimise their own position if BSP and SP can settle for 33 or 34 seats each and accommodate Congress and RLD in the rest. (June 16, 2018)