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"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen


31 December, 2013

An unlikely Indian Obama

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Gujarat Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, whom some political opponents uncharitably derided for his humble origin as a tea seller, recently asked, “If Barack Obama could sell ice cream, what’s wrong if I sold tea?”

Modi may not fit the intelligent citizen’s idea of an Indian Obama but he is meticulously copying the first black US president’s successful campaigns in his pursuit of the country’s top post. His main handicap is that he has been faciling allegations of facilitating the Gujarat riots of 2002, by asking the police to give Hindus time to wreak vengeance on Muslims for killing Hindutva volunteers by torching a rail coach.

Taking a leaf out of the Obama campaign designed by Chris Hughes, a member of the Facebook founding team, Modi has mobilised a cyber force with the help of marketing experts for propaganda purposes. The My.BarackObama website which Hughes developed had attracted millions of volunteers who formed more than 35,000 community groups. These groups made a valuable contribution to Obama’s victory by holding about 200,000 events in their localities and making millions upon millions of phone calls to people in their neighbourhood. MyBO products flooded the market.

Obama’s detractors expanded MyBO into Mind Your Own Business but could not limit the impact of the campaign. Narendra Modi’s publicists have found an abbreviation NaMo, which, being close to a word of Hindu prayer, syncs with his Hindutva politics. They are now promoting the brand nationally. NaMo tea stalls have come up in some places and an online NaMo store is offering clothes, stationery and even smartphones with that brand name.

Modi also plans to use Google Hangouts, as Obama did.

As soon as the BJP picked Modi as its prime ministerial face, at the instance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva power house, the party’s largest partner in the National Democratic Alliance, the Janata Dal (United), pulled out citing his alleged complicity in the Gujarat violence. This led to speculation that even if the BJP emerges as the largest single party in the new Lok Sabha, as forecast by pollsters, it may find it to difficult to attract enough outside support to chalk up a majority for a Modi-led government.

There have been suggestions that in such a situation the party will have to ditch Modi and plump for someone more acceptable to other parties like old warhorse Lal Kishen Advani or the younger Sushama Swaraj or Arun Jaitley.

Aware of this prospect, Modi has conceived a project, code-named India272+, with the goal of securing for the BJP more than 272 seats in the 573-member Lok Sabha so that it can form the government on its own. Considering that no party could get an absolute majority in the house in seven successive elections, this is an overambitious enterprise.

Modelled after the Hughes scheme, the India272+ online platform aggregates news and political content of relevance to the Modi campaign on a daily basis to help propagandists with ideas and solutions. It will also serve as a digital platform for grassroot-level effort with the audacious goal of winning every booth. As with the Obama campaign, the ultimate prize for the volunteers is one-to-one communication with the candidate.

An advertising expert was recently quoted as saying, “Brand Modi is a promise and as long as it delivers it will succeed. Even if the sales of NaMo merchandise are not very encouraging, it is the best way to get mileage for the party and create a buzz especially among the youth.”

Those who volunteered before December 25 were given time till today (December 31) to demonstrate their propagandist capabilities by making a visible contribution through interventions in Facebook, Twitter and other spaces. Final selection will depend upon an evaluation of their performance during this period.

Social media made a significant contribution to the Aam Admi Party’s remarkable performance in the Delhi state assembly elections. The AAP is now drawing up plans to replicate the Delhi experience in selected urban constituencies across the country in the parliamentary elections.

The Congress as well as several smaller parties are said to be exploring ways to catch up with the BJP and the AAP in cyber space.

The increased intervention by political parties has been spurred by a study report which claimed that social media could have a big impact in 160 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies. But, then, it also said social media will have low or no impact in as many as 316 constituencies. Obama did not face a digital divide of this size.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 31, 2013.

24 December, 2013

Way out of Indo-US stand-off

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India and the United States are engaged in a game of blinkmanship. The question is who will blink first. At the same time, away from public gaze, officials of the two sides are exploring ways to salvage their relationship, over which the humiliation of an Indian diplomat in New York has cast a shadow.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, a doctor-turned diplomat, posted as Deputy Consul General, was arrested on December 12 on charges of visa fraud and underpaying her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard. She was reportedly handcuffed and subjected to strip-search and cavity-search. She was freed on bail on posting a bond of $250,000.

The State Department said as a consular official she did not enjoy immunity from arrest and standard arrest procedures had been followed. Prosecutor Preet Bharara claimed she was accorded courtesies most Americans would not get. He denied handcuffing but confirmed she was “fully searched”.

The case pits the plucky Devyani Khobragade against the equally plucky Bharara, an Indian American, who, since his appointment as prosecutor five years ago, has slapped cases against some top-ranking politicians for corruption and sent to jail 70 persons, including many fellow Indian Americans, for insider trading.

Bharara, known for aggressive prosecutorial methods and unprecedented tactics, used some of them to trap the diplomat. Sangeeta Richard, who went to US in November 2012 to work for Devyani Khobragade, left her last July. Police did not act on the diplomat’s complaint that she was missing and had stolen some money and a phone.

Bharara brought her husband and parents to the US from India, in the name of witness protection. The way they were spirited out of India bears the stamp of a CIA operation, and there is speculation that the US agency was using her to spy on Indian diplomats.

The charges against Devyani Khobragade stem from the statement in Sangeeta Richard’s visa application that she was employed on a wage of $9.75 an hour while she was paid only Rs30,000 a month under a contract made in India.

The police complaint filed in the court says the contracted salary amounts to just $3.31 an hour as against the minimum wage of $7.25 payable in New York. The US law does not take into account the cost of accommodation, food and other benefits the employer provides.

The Indian government, which quietly pocketed insults meted out at US airports to George Fernandes, when he was the Defence Minister, and to former President Abdul Kalam, and made only muted sounds when the extensive US snooping came to light, was ready to take the diplomat’s humiliation also in its stride.

The resentment of Foreign Service officials who realised how vulnerable they are while holding posts in high-wage cities and an open campaign by the diplomat’s father, Uttam Khobragarde, a former civil servant, which attracted media attention, forced the government to respond.

India asked the US to drop the charges against the diplomat and apologise for her mistreatment. It backed up the demand with a few calculated measures, which involved withdrawal of non-reciprocal privileges granted to US diplomats.

No Indian of consequence was ready to meet a visiting US Congressional delegation.  Former Bharatiya Janata Party Minister Yashwant Sinha asked the government to arrest US diplomats’ same-sex partners whom it had granted visas.

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to speak to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Since Khurshid did not take the call he conveyed the State Department’s regret over the way the matter was handled to National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Not satisfied, the government reiterated the demands for apology and dropping of the case. In a bid to boost Devyani Khobragade’s diplomatic immunity, it transferred her to India’s UN mission.

Devyani Khobragade’s pay is about $6,500 a month and to be on the right side of the US law she was required to pay the maid $4,500 a month. The responsibility for her plight lies with the Indian government which allows officers posted abroad to take maids without making adequate financial provisions for them.

The State Department had prior knowledge of the case against Devyani Khobragade and informed India about it last September. However, there was no serious effort from either side to sort out the issue amicably.

Sangeeta Richard is no innocent victim, as overenthusiastic champions of the poor make out. She accepted the job knowing what she would be paid, and she was paid the contracted salary.

Indian opinion on the issue divided on lines of class and caste. Those nursing memories of bad treatment received at Indian missions abroad vent their spleen in cyberspace. Some dwelt on Devyani Khobragde’s Dalit identity and her involvement in a housing scam in Mumbai, as though these entitled the Americans to ill-treat her.

Some foreign commentators showed fair understanding of the issue.

Hussain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador in the US when CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two persons in Lahore, characterised Preet Bharara’s treatment of the diplomat without regard for her status as a representative of a friendly government, as over-exuberance straight out of an episode of the TV series “Law and Order”. He recalled that the US sought diplomatic status for Davis after the daylight murder.

Peter Van Buren, a former US foreign service employee, chronicled instances of abuse of servants by American diplomats. Citing court documents, he said a woman diplomat, on transfer to Japan, tricked an Ethiopian maid into accompanying her. She was paid less than $1 an hour and repeatedly raped by the diplomat’s husband.

No amount of legal and diplomatic brouhaha can raise Devyani Khobragade’s infraction to the level of the criminal acts of Americans whom the State Department has rescued invoking diplomatic immunity.

New York-based Reuters columnist Alison Frankel suggested that grant of retroactive immunity to Devyani Khobragade may be a way out of the impasse. If Khurshid sticks to his guns, Kerry will have to give in.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 24, 2013.

17 December, 2013

Harbinger of new politics

BRP Bhaskar
The Gulf Today

India’s mainstream political parties stand stupefied, not knowing how to cope with the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which made a stunning debut in the recent assembly elections in Delhi state.

A takeoff from Anna Hazare’s campaign for a tough anti-corruption law, the AAP dashed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hope of regaining power and pushed the Congress party, which ruled the state for 15 years, down to the third place.

Its name comes from the Hindi words meaning Common Man. It chose as its election symbol the broom to signify its determination to clean the polluted political arena.

Hazare wasn’t pleased when Arvind Kejriwal, who was by his side when he fasted in Delhi in support of the demand for a Jan Lokpal (people’s ombudsman) decided to enter electoral politics and floated the party a year ago. But Kejriwal went ahead and drew to the party a large number of people, mostly urban youth, ready to devote time and money to advance the cause of clean politics.

Pollsters had said AAP would cut into the votes of the main parties resulting in a fractured verdict. The party did even better than they forecast. It came within striking distance of the leader of the pack, with a tally of 28 seats against the BJP’s 31.

The Congress got eight seats and the remaining three went to the Janata Dal (United), the Shiromani Akali Dal and an independent. The seat distribution blocked the BJP’s chance of mustering the support of five members needed to claim an absolute majority in the house of 70.

Kejriwal, 45, an engineering graduate, had worked as officer in the Income-tax department for 11 years before quitting to become a social activist. He received the Magsaysay award in 2006 for his contribution to the Right to Information campaign. He used the award money to found a body called Public Cause Research Foundation. He played a role in the drafting of the Jan Lokpal Bill which Hazare wants Parliament to pass.

When AAP announced plans to contest the Delhi elections, the Congress and the BJP did not view it as a serious contender. Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, who was to lead the Congress campaign for a fourth term, dismissed it as a bunch of broom-wielders. The BJP dubbed it a vote-cutter party and accused its leaders of being Congress agents.

As the elections approached the BJP realised the AAP had to be taken seriously. It asked Narendra Modi, its biggest crowd-puller, to address six rallies in the state, instead of the scheduled two. It did not help. The BJP’s vote share dropped from 36 per cent in 2008 to 34 per cent.

The AAP’s was no fluke performance. It cut into the votes of all parties to become the second largest party with 30 per cent of the votes polled. The Congress was the worst sufferer. Its vote share fell from 41 per cent to 25 per cent.

The AAP said the decimation of the Congress showed beyond doubt that there was yearning for change. The BJP’s inability to secure a majority showed the voters who wanted change were looking not for a substitute but for alternative politics.

It soon became evident that that there can be no smooth transition to alternative politics. After the BJP admitted to Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung that it lacks the numbers to form the government, he called in Kejriwal, as the leader of the next largest party. The Congress informed the Lt-Governor that it was ready to extend unconditional support to the AAP to form government. The BJP said it would provide constructive support.

Kejriwal, who saw the offers of support as a trap, wrote to the leaders of the two parties asking them to clarify their position on 18 issues. Some of the issues do not relate to Delhi administration, but fall in the realm of the Central government, led by the Congress, or the City Corporation, controlled by the BJP.

The BJP accused the AAP of making fun of democracy and shying away from responsibility.

While Delhi state’s future remains uncertain, enthused by the assembly election results, the AAP, which many view as the harbinger of a new kind of politics, has announced plans to contest the Lok Sabha elections due in less than five months. It remains to be seen whether it can replicate on the national scene its performance in a minuscule state which is almost entirely urban. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 17, 2013.

Congress needs to understand people's yearning for change

By B.R.P.Bhaskar
Special to IANS

The dismal performance of the Congress in the four Hindi-speaking states which went to the polls recently did not surprise anyone, except perhaps its own leaders. Pollsters have been saying for more than a year that it is on the decline. They have said the popular mood is such that the Bharatiya Janata Party will push it down to the second place and emerge as the largest party in the Lok Sabha in next year's elections.

Congress leaders have offered the self-serving explanation that the party lost because it failed to apprise the people of the good work done by its governments at the Centre and in the states. They should ask themselves if the good things that happened under their watch are sufficient to persuade the people to overlook the bad things such as rampant corruption and spiralling prices.

People form judgments continually on the basis of how governments' actions impinge on their lives.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is mired in scams, and its popularity has touched the nadir. Some leaders of the Congress and its allies are fighting graft charges in courts. When acts of malfeasance came to light, the UPA, instead of squarely facing the situation, reflexively went into denial mode and resorted to cover-up.

Corruption has grown enormously in recent years. What's more, it is now an issue high up in people's minds, thanks to Anna Hazare's on-again, off-again Jan Lokpal campaign.

Corruption, as Indira Gandhi famously observed, is a global phenomenon. A historical analysis will bear out that most countries faced corruption when their economy was growing rapidly. The British parliament had hauled up Clive and Warren Hastings on their return home from India with loot. Japan, South Korea and China, which witnessed economic boom ahead of India, also witnessed high corruption. While they sent functionaries like president, prime minister and party bosses to jail, India has had a poor record in dealing with corruption at the top.

Other parties too are affected by corruption. The BJP was forced to act against its chief minister in Karnataka, B.S.Yeddyurappa, following serious allegations, and he broke away and formed a regional party. Now it is trying to get him back to its side before the parliamentary elections. There were corruption charges against a dozen members of the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh but that did not prevent the party from securing a third term in the Assembly elections.

Clearly, the Congress has an image problem it cannot wish away. Corruption charges stick more easily to it than to others since it has been in power longest and is assumed to have been corrupted to a greater extent than the rest.

It is unfair to throw the blame for the party's present plight entirely on Manmohan Singh, as some Congressmen are doing. After all, he had also presided over UPA I, which did well enough to secure a new mandate for the party.

Some of the Congress's problems do not admit of easy solutions. It is saddled with leaders with a record of mishandling issues of import. Telangana is a classic example of a problem complicated by leaders whom the high command had relied upon to sort out difficulties. Such problems are the price the party has to pay for attaching greater value to servitude than to competence.

The party's shrinking vote base presumably still includes many who view it as the party of Gandhi or Nehru or Indira Gandhi, all of whom had forged emotional links with the ordinary people. Having relied upon nominated leaders after the 1969 split, at the state level it lacks leaders and an apparatus capable of ensuring delivery of its votes. This leaves it in a disadvantageous situation, especially in states where it is pitted against cadre parties.

Where the party apparatus is intact, as in Kerala, it faces difficulty of another kind. The supposedly all-powerful high command has to remain a helpless spectator when a leadership which stands discredited, following disclosures about closeness to cheats and communal elements, drags the party down with it.

There are, of course, issues that can be addressed, not to find quick-fix solutions but to refurbish the party's image before the elections. It may be able to regain some lost ground if it can convey the message that it understands the people's yearning for change, reflected in the Assembly elections, and is willing to reinvent itself.

A new Lok Sabha has to be in position before the term of the present one ends in May 2014. Last time, the deadline was June 2 and the long-drawn-out electoral process began with the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule March 2. This time the announcement may have to be advanced to mid-February.

The moment the schedule is announced, the model code comes into force, and the government will not be able to initiate any new programmes or policies. That means the Congress has just two months for any makeover effort. But the party stands paralyzed, caught between a prime minister who has outlived his utility and a fancied successor who is finding it difficult to get rid of the reluctant groom syndrome.

13 December, 2013

End of the age of heroism

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The glory is departed. Nelson Mandela, the last of the titans, has taken his bow, and the curtain has come down on the Age of Heroism.

As Europeans acquired colonies elsewhere, the seeds of destruction of the new order they were building also began to sprout. The biggest of the empires, which boasted the sun never sets on it, collapsed like a house of cards after World War II, and all the rest fell like ninepins.

The epic struggles against colonialism which Asia and Africa witnessed threw up a host of heroes who were imbued with high ideals and ready to make high sacrifices. Some of them are unknown outside their own lands, like Jose Rizal of the Philippines, the first country to come under foreign rule and also the first to gain freedom. Some of them achieved fame globally, like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of India, whom blacks in South Africa and the United States hailed as a source of inspiration.

Mandela was the most feted of the heroes. In all history no one received as much adulation in his lifetime worldwide as he did. The US gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Soviet Union the Order of Lenin and India its highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), as well as Peace prizes bearing the names of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nobel Peace Prize capped it all.

Since 2009, at the instance of the United Nations, July 18, his birthday is celebrated annually as Nelson Mandela International Day to spread the message that each individual has the power to transform the world and the ability to make an impact.

Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa were on behalf of the country’s small immigrant Indian population. His only contact with the blacks was as the leader of an ambulance corps during the Zulu rebellion. He had offered its services to the regime, but it advised him to work among the tribesmen who badly needed help. When the blacks set up a political forum they named it the African National Congress, after the Indian outfit which Gandhi was to lead on his return home.

Mandela acknowledged Gandhi as his guide but to call him the Mahatma of our time is to belittle both. They were not similarly placed. Each charted his course differently in the light of circumstances.

Mandela and several other African leaders were pitted not against foreign rulers but against white settlers who ran racist regimes. In his own words, he followed the Gandhian strategy as long as he could but there came a point when the brute force of the oppressor could not be countered through passive resistance alone, and a military dimension was added to the struggle.

When the struggle demanded sacrifices, Mandela gave without stint. As he remained behind bars for more than a quarter-century the worldwide anti-apartheid movement kept his memory alive in the public mind. When the crumbling regime freed him, he emerged with a halo which remained till the end.   

Elected president in the first multiracial election in 1994, he donned the mantle of statesman with the same verve he had displayed earlier as a boxer and as commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing. He dismantled the apartheid system and re-wrote the laws which had kept the blacks, who constitute three-fourths of the population, in bondage.

In 1955, the ANC, in its Freedom Charter, had declared that South Africa belongs to “all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” As Nobel Prize winning novelist Nadine Gordimer has observed, suffering made him not vengeful but more human. On assuming power, he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to gather evidence from both victims and perpetrators of past violence as part of a process of restorative justice. Canada has now constituted a similar body. It is an example other countries with a history of violence can follow.

Mandela inherited an economy which had been wrecked by racist policies and was marked by the most unequal distribution of income in the world. He revived it and raised the growth rate to five per cent before stepping down as president after just one term to facilitate smooth democratic transition. The incurable romantic watched from the sidelines, with a new wife, his third, as his colleagues carried on as well as they could.

President Obama was right when he observed we are unlikely to see the likes of Mandela again. Mandela was the answer to the yearning of an age which has ended. When in the fulness of time the inequities of the new order become pronounced, new heroes may be called for and they will in all probability come up. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 13, 2013.

10 December, 2013

Lessons of Assembly elections: Assumptions and reality

B.R.P.Bhaskar                                                                                                                          Special to IANS

The visual media has reduced the massive electoral exercise into a spectator sport. With the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in mind, it billed the recent four-state Assembly elections as the semi-final, giving them the air of a football game. Since it has fallen for the Bharatiya Janata Party's ploy of casting the polls in the form of a presidential contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the final may well turn out to be a mini-screen boxing bout.

Since conditions in the rest of the country differ vastly from those in these four states, it is risky to draw nationally valid conclusions from so-called semi-final.

Yet if one goes beyond the instant analyses provided by the channels, which were generally marked by professional deficiency and political bankruptcy, it is possible to detect changes in the political scenario which hold some lessons beyond what they found.

All the four states have been battlegrounds where the Congress and the BJP were in direct confrontation in successive elections. Delhi was with the Congress for 15 years at a stretch, and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with the BJP for 10 years. Rajasthan regularly changed hands.

This time Delhi abandoned the Congress but did not end up in the BJP's hands as the newly formed Aam Admi Party threw the spanner in the Congress-BJP works. While both MP and Chhattisgarh opted to stay with the BJP for five more years, Rajasthan stuck to the pattern of alternating between the Congress and the BJP.

The change in Rajasthan was brought about by a drop of three percentage points in the Congress's vote share and a 12 percentage point rise in the BJP's. Beating the hyped anti-incumbency factor, the BJP boosted its vote share in MP by eight percentage points. The Congress, too, raised its vote share in the state by about four percentage points, which means the BJP did not gain at its expense. In Chhattisgarh, too, both the BJP and the Congress raised their vote share by two percentage points each.

In Delhi, there was a dramatic change in the Congress party's fortune. It suffered a massive fall of 15 percentage points in its vote share. The BJP too lost votes, its share slipping three percentage points. The AAP, on its debut, claimed an impressive 30 percent of vote share.

In all the states, the vote share of the small players dwindled. The chief sufferer was the Bahujan Samaj Party, which had shown signs of growth in earlier elections. This is a development that strengthens the trend towards a two-party system which was in evidence in the Hindi states where the Congress and the BJP are in direct confrontation.

For the present the AAP has altered the Delhi scenario by upsetting the emergent two-party system involving the Congress and the BJP. It is too early to say whether it will evolve into a multi-party state, like, say Uttar Pradesh, or return to the old pattern.

The AAP's performance is not unprecedented as excited young television anchors tried to project. In the 1980s, in Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party founded by N.T. Rama Rao had made an even more spectacular performance. It not only stormed into power within nine months of its formation but went on to become the main opposition in the Lok Sabha on the strength of its 33 seats from the state.

A widely circulated newspaper had a big role in the TDP's stunning electoral debut. In this respect, a vague parallel can be drawn between the TDP and the AAP. Part of the credit for the AAP's impressive showing belongs to the channels which had boosted Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal movement, which provided Arvind Kejriwal with the momentum to launch the AAP.

In some respects Delhi is a microcosm of India. But it is by no means typical of India. It is almost entirely urban. Only 2.50 percent of the state's population is classified as rural. No state or city, barring perhaps Mumbai, is under as much bombardment by television as Delhi is. Therefore, the chances of replication of the Delhi experiment nationally are not very bright.

There is, however, no denying that the AAP's emergence has created a new situation. Its campaign against corruption has evoked a good response in towns and cities across the country. This poses a problem mainly for the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance, which are facing graft charges, but, as the Delhi voting figures indicate, the BJP too is not immune from its effect.

The media assessment of Narendra Modi's contribution to the BJP's electoral performance deserves a close look. Its vote share gain of 12 percentage points in Rajasthan and eight percentage points in MP are above the normal range of swing in states where the two-party system has emerged. It can, therefore, be attributed to the Modi effect. Inasmuch as it did not manifest itself in Delhi, as evidenced by the drop in the party's vote share in that state, the assumption that Modi has a tremendous appeal among urban youth is open to question.

03 December, 2013

Battle for food security at Bali

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India goes into the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, beginning in the Indonesian island of Bali today (December 3), determined to fight to save its ambitious food security scheme from the subsidy limit imposed by an agreement with that body.

Under the WTO agreement on agriculture India is committed to keep the aggregate support under the food subsidy scheme to 10 per cent.

The Food Security Act, which came into force in September, provides for supply of five kilogrammes of grains a month to about 800 million people, classified as poor. WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who was in India in October, said the measure would result in a breach of the 10 per cent cap and suggested that the issue be sorted out before the Bali meet.

India buys grains from farmers at minimum support prices for distribution to the poor. The developed countries consider this also as a form of subsidy.

India is not the only member which has problems with WTO’s rules relating to measures to help farmers and consumers. A coalition of similarly placed countries, styled as G33, was working together during the past one year to secure changes in the rules. It included China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Venezuela and several more from Africa and the Caribbean.

Intensive negotiations took place at Geneva to sort out the problems and come up with an agreed Bali package. Azevedo said last Tuesday they were very close to fully agreed texts but a final agreement could not be reached as “we stopped making the tough political calls”.

The following day the Least Developed Countries, most of them from Africa and the Caribbean, informed Azevedo that they had reached an agreement with the developed nations with regard to the text of the trade facilitation agreement and urged the other members to resolve the remaining issues which stand in the way of adoption of the Bali package.

The development encouraged Azevedo to declare he had not given up his efforts to secure a package and would continue his efforts to ensure a promising future for the multilateral trading system. However, it is not practical to hold substantive negotiations at the ministerial level as the WTO is a large body with 159 members.

The trade facilitation agreement aims at making world trade easier by simplifying and streamlining procedures. If it materialises, it will be the first major agreement in the WTO’s 19-year-old history. It is estimated to bring in gains worth $1 trillion in world trade.

To secure agreement to the Bali package, the developed world has offered India and other developing countries, as an interim measure, a “peace clause” which will give them four years’ time to comply with the norm of 10 per cent subsidy. Non-government organisations working among the poor and small farmers have asked the government to reject it.

While there are unofficial reports that the government is inclined to accept it, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has asserted that what India is seeking is permanent immunity from farm subsidy breach. According to him, an interim solution is something that must hold good until a permanent solution is put in place.      

Before leaving for Bali, Sharma asserted that what India gives to its poor falls within “our right and that is insulated in its entirety from any multilateral negotiations or WTO negotiations.”

He added, “That is sovereign space and for India it is sacrosanct and non-negotiable.”

The WTO’s approach, determined largely by the developed nations that dominate it, is in conflict with that of the United Nations. In a report to the General Assembly last month UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food Olivier de Schutter praised the efforts of governments across the world to adopt laws, policies and strategies to make access to food a basic right.

The WTO chief has been at pains to remind members that failure at Bali will have grave consequences. “We will fail not only the WTO and multilateralism,” he said. “We will also fail our constituencies at large, the business community and, above all, the most vulnerable among us.”

On their part, the WTO and the business community must recognise that the global order cannot be sustained for long by keeping large sections of the world’s population in poverty. India is home to one-third of the world’s poor and its responsibility to help boost the global economy cannot override its obligation to safeguard its poor. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 3, 2013.