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23 December, 2014

Peshawar pain united people

BRP Bhaskar
Guf Today

The terrorist attack on the Peshawar army school which left about 140 persons, mostly school children, dead momentarily united the people of the Indo-Pak subcontinent in grief as no other event has done in eight decades.

The last time so many hearts fluttered in unison on the subcontinent was when an earthquake devastated Bihar in 1934 and Balochistan in 1935. The entire region was under British rule at that time. Since then it has been partitioned into three nations, and patriotic sentiments, restricted by geography and conditioned by religion, have prevented such wide sharing of sentiments.

The Indian government strongly condemned the terrorist attack and Parliament called upon all nations “to fight against all acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

Political and diplomatic considerations probably influenced the official and political response. But the extreme cruelty of the terrorists, who lined up children and shot them and burnt their teachers alive, shook the people. They poured out their heart in the social networks.

The Pakistani Taliban terrorists targeted the school to settle scores with the army, with which they had a cosy relationship at one time but was now out to liquidate them. They viewed the schoolboys, many of them children of military personnel, as likely future army officers. This gave the attack the character of an internal affair of Pakistan.

Terrorists have wrought havoc in India on several occasions and India has repeatedly asked Islamabad to rein them in. While conveying to Pakistan India’s sympathy over the Peshawar attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for joint efforts by the two countries to deal with the common threat of terrorism.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, set up by the India-based Institute for Conflict Management, terrorism-related casualties in India during 1994-2014 stood at 63,896. Of the dead, 24,401 were civilians, 9,533 security personnel and 29,962 terrorists.

It also provides the following figures of Pakistani casualties during 2003-2014: 19,751 civilians, 6,015 security personnel, and 29,750 terrorists, making a total of 55,516 killed in 11 years.

Going by these figures, Pakistan suffers from terrorism to a greater extent than India. Average annual casualties among civilians (India 1,220, Pakistan 1,796), security personnel ( 178 and 574 respectively) and terrorists (1,498 and 2,705 respectively) are significantly higher in that country than in India.   

Within Pakistan, the interests of the civilian government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Army suddenly coincided, leading to some quick, harsh decisions. Reversing an earlier decision to do away with the death penalty for terrorism, the government ordered the execution of some convicts. The army heavily bombarded terrorist hideouts, killing many.

Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and ISI head Gen Rizvan Akhtar flew to Kabul and sought the Afghan government’s help to deal with the terrorists holed up there. Afghan Taliban leaders are known to be operating from Pakistani soil and Pakistan Taliban leaders are known to be hiding in Afghanistan. Obviously neither country can tackle the problem of terrorism effectively without the other’s cooperation.

Pakistan, which has ignored Indian pleas that it act against terrorists operating from its soil, did not respond to Modi’s call for joint action. Indian feelings were exacerbated when a Pakistani court granted bail to Zaki Ur Rehman Lakhvi, whom India has identified as the mastermind behind the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008. Taking note of the Indian outrage, the Pakistan government detained him and said it would appeal against the grant of bail. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 23, 2014.

16 December, 2014

Development vs Hindutva

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

For many years the Bharatiya Janata Party relied solely on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindutva ideology to gather votes. When it first came to power at the Centre in the late 1990s it shelved the Hindutva agenda as it was anathema to most of its National Democratic Alliance partners.

The Hindutva agenda figured in the BJP’s manifesto for this year’s parliamentary elections, too, and Narendra Modi, as a lifelong member of the RSS, is committed to it. However, he steered the party to a spectacular victory without relying on it overly. Instead, he focused on development and attracted many young people with his promise of achche din (good days).

Since becoming the Prime Minister, Modi has coined new slogans like Make in India and Swachh Bharat (Clean India) to keep alive the theme of development. But a host of small, militant outfits under RSS activists appear determined to throw the spanner in the works.

The main items of the Hindutva agenda are enforcement of a uniform civil code, abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status and construction of a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which volunteers recruited and trained by the RSS had pulled down in 1992.

The Constitution enjoins upon the state to work towards a uniform civil code. But successive governments have done nothing in this regard in view of the sensibilities of the Muslims who have been following the Sharia personal law.

Under Article 370, conceived as a temporary measure, laws enacted by Parliament will apply to Jammu and Kashmir only if the President issues an order to that effect. The BJP and its predecessor, Jana Sangh, have been opposed to the provision as it puts J and K on a different footing from the other states.

Constitutional amendments are needed to implement the BJP’s poll promise on the two issues. The party and its NDA allies do not command the two-thirds majority needed to push the measures through the two houses of Parliament. It has, therefore, taken the position that there should be discussion on these issues. 

Since the ownership of the site of the demolished mosque is a matter pending before a court, the construction of a temple at Ayodhya must wait. Yet the BJP-appointed governor of UP, Ram Naik, has raked up the issue, saying construction of a temple there is “the wish of every Indian”. According to him, Modi is working on a plan to resolve the mosque-temple controversy during his government’s five-year term.

Meanwhile RSS affiliates led by saffron-robed BJP MPs have initiated activities with potential to divide the nation on religious lines. They want the minorities to convert to Hinduism or at least accept the Hindutva ideology, which the RSS and BJP equate with Indian nationalism.

Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a minister of state in Modi’s government, in a campaign speech in Delhi, where State Assembly elections are due, said with utter lack of civility that there are two kinds of people in the country – ramzaade (children of Ram) and haraamzaade (b******s). When opposition members raised a storm in Parliament, Modi appealed to them to forgive her as she was a Dalit and a first-time MP. At the same time the BJP decided to retain her as star campaigner.

A little known RSS outfit surreptitiously converted to Hinduism 57 Muslim families of Bengali origin, eking out a measly living as rag-pickers at Agra, offering inducements like an identification card which will help them claim benefits under welfare schemes. Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP and head of a Gorakhpur temple trust, announced plans to convert 5,000 Muslims and 1,000 Christians to Hinduism at Aligarh on Christmas Day.

Another BJP MP, Sakshi Maharaj, embarrassed the party by stating in Parliament that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was a patriot. He later apologised for the statement, apparently at Modi’s instance.

Unlike the Sadhvi, who was recently inducted into the party to enhance its appeal to Dalits, Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj are experienced parliamentarians with an unsavoury record of fomenting communal tension.

Modi has not spoken a word against the two men in public. Nor has his lieutenant, Amit Shah, who is the President of the BJP. Their ominous silence suggests that the RSS is in command in both the party and the government.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 16, 2014.

09 December, 2014

Rolling out of reforms

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Pressure is mounting on the Narendra Modi government from domestic and foreign business interests to roll out economic reforms promised by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said last week the Indian economy had shown signs of a turnaround and imbalances had lessened. It forecast that the economy, which registered a growth rate of only 5.3 per cent during the July-September quarter, could go up to 6.6 per cent in 2013-16 and to 6.8 per cent in 2016-17.

These rates are by no means too modest in the context of current global conditions. However, the Indian government is eager to push the rate up to the eight per cent level achieved before the global meltdown of 2008. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament a few days ago that the government was committed to go ahead with reform measures “to take India back to the original potential of eight per cent economic growth”.

The Western economies have a stake in accelerated growth of the Indian economy since it will boost their own recovery plans. On its part, the Indian government is looking forward to infusion of fresh foreign capital to expand economic activity and generate jobs. The rub lies in some local laws which both domestic and foreign investors consider a stumbling block.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report ranked India at 142nd among the 189 countries surveyed. This meant a decline from last year when it was at the 140th place. The Prime Minister has reportedly set for himself a highly ambitious goal of putting the country among the top 50.

An action plan drawn up by the Confederation of Indian Industry, with the help of the consulting firm KPMG, contains a set of proposals to make India the “best place for doing business”. It envisages, among other things, rationalisation of the tax regime, easing of land acquisition process and streamlining of procedures for investment approval and provision of utilities.

Some proposals, like the one regarding e-filing of applications, will certainly help cut red tape, reduce corruption and improve efficiency. Some are couched in euphemistic terms. An example is the proposal for creation of an appropriate labour development ecosystem. It talks of 44 Central laws, many of which are old and outdated and impose a heavy compliance burden, and says there is urgent need to realign them to new economic needs. This is a scarcely disguised plea to scrap laws that protect the workers against exploitation.

The OECD’s prescription for curing the economy’s ills also includes many of the CII-KPMG proposals but it presents them in a wider context giving the impression that it is sensitive to the needs of the workers and other weaker sections of the society. It asks the government to boost manufacturing jobs by simplifying labour laws, improving access to education and improving the business climate. It also proposes increasing female economic participation and improving access to quality healthcare.

The proposals of CII and OECD are not new. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had seriously considered similar proposals but could not go ahead with them because of strong opposition not only from the Left parties but also some of its own partners.

Soon Modi will have before him yet another set of proposals drawn up by a World Bank team, which is now in India. It comprises experts on trade and competitiveness practices and was sent by Bank president Jim Yong Kim at Modi’s request to suggest measures to improve the business environment.

The team was reportedly holding discussions with public and private sector stakeholders in New Delhi and Mumbai on the reform initiatives and discussing various reform options and feasibility of their implementation. Its recommendations are bound to be on the same lines as those of the CII and OECD.

Parliament is now in session, and the government may try to push some reform proposals through it. However, major reforms must wait till the budget session which begins in February.

With a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, the BJP has more elbow room than the Congress had. However, it is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, and needs the support of other parties to push any changes in law. Some of the reform proposals may require changes in the Constitution, for which a two-thirds majority in both houses is necessary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 9, 2014.

04 December, 2014

Time to move forward in S. Asia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic impact by turning his swearing-in ceremony six months ago into an occasion for an informal get-together of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The air of goodwill that it created was missing when the regular Saarc summit was held in Kathmandu last week.

The mood was spoiled not by any specific bilateral or multilateral issue but the frigidity in India-Pakistan relations. Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent the first day studiously avoiding each other. Cameramen waiting to record the customary handshake were disappointed. They circulated pictures which showed Modi walking past Sharif without even a nod.

Officials of the eight-nation group were ready with three draft agreements — on energy cooperation, regulation of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic, and movement by rail. The result of an Indian initiative, the three agreements were to be signed at the summit. But Nawaz Sharif sulked. He argued there had not been sufficient internal preparations to go ahead with them.

On the second day the ice was broken through the efforts of Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. When the leaders came together for their final session, Modi and Sharif shook hands, and the Foreign Ministers signed the agreement on energy cooperation. Koirala said the agreements on road and rail traffic would be signed after Saarc Transport Ministers met and reviewed the draft.

India’s business community, which stands to benefit the most from increased trade among the Saarc countries, was disappointed by the failure to sign the agreements on transportation. The Confederation of Indian Industry said the agreement for regulation of vehicular traffic would lead to seamless movement of cargo, personal vehicles and passengers across land borders. The railways agreement too would harness the region’s economic potential.

The India-Pakistan standoff came in the wake of firing across the international border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir during the past few months and the calling off of scheduled ministerial-level bilateral talks by Modi’s government to show its displeasure over the Pakistani High Commissioner’s talks with separatist leaders of Kashmir.

Border clashes have been occurring regularly since the middle of July, with military and civilian casualties on both sides. Each side routinely accuses the other of firing first. At one stage, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley warned Pakistan that if it did not stop unprovoked firing India would impose an unaffordable cost on it. Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khwaja Asif, responded with a subtle reference to nuclear power.

In 2013, Modi, as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, had repeatedly taunted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for failing to respond effectively to incidents on the borders with China and Pakistan. In a tweet he said, “India is going through a troubled situation. China intrudes our borders, Pakistan kills our soldiers time & again but Centre doesn’t act!”

The Congress is now paying back in the same coin. Last week a Congress party spokesman said more than 400 ceasefire violations had taken place on the Pakistan border this year and 17 civilians had died, “compared to zero casualty last year and also in 2011.” As a party which has been in power for many decades, the Congress must know better than to exploit an issue of this kind for political gains.

India accounts for about 70 per cent of the area and population of the eight Saarc countries. Its prickly relationship with Pakistan, the second largest economy of the region, has been a hurdle in the way of realisation of the Saarc goal of a free trade zone. None of the other member nations has the clout to steer the group out of the India-Pakistan matrix. The leaders of the two countries themselves must, therefore, take the initiative in this regard.

In the six months Modi has been in office he has spent considerable time on foreign affairs, leading to whispers that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been reduced to a dummy. Modi’s invitation to the Saarc leaders for his swearing-in gave rise to the impression that he accords high priority to development of good-neighbourly relations. However, he is yet to come up with any concrete proposals in this regard.

The United Nations having rebuffed Pakistan’s bid to internationalise the Kashmir issue once again, the time is ripe for India to make a fresh bid to carry forward the bilateral process. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 4, 2014.