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24 February, 2015

Bleak outlook for the Left

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

 As the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the largest of India’s Left parties, prepares for its triennial national congress, the outlook for the future is bleak as there are no signs of recovery from the setbacks of recent years.

The Communist Party of India was the main opposition in Parliament in the early years of Independence. It stunned the world in 1957 by seizing power in Kerala state through the ballot box. A few years later the party split in the wake of the Sino-Soviet rift, and the breakaway CPI-M, outgrowing the parent body, became the major political force in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.

In West Bengal and Tripura, it enjoyed a long run in power. In Kerala, a coalition led by it alternated in power with a rival front led by the Congress party.

As the Congress was reduced to a minority in Parliament, the CPI-M promoted the formation of non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party governments at the Centre but did not participate directly in them. It was the Left’s image as a progressive force that enabled the party’s general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, to bring together small national and regional parties to form coalition governments.

At one stage these parties wanted West Bengal’s charismatic CPI-M leader Jyoti Basu to be the Prime Minister. The party turned down the suggestion as it did not want to be part of a government in which it did not have a dominant position. Basu later termed the decision a Himalayan blunder.

In 2004, Surjeet’s successor, Prakash Karat, extended Left support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government from outside to keep the BJP out of power. He pulled the plug when the government concluded the civil nuclear agreement with the United States but could not bring the government down. The UPA won a second term in the 2009 elections.

In 2011, the regional Trinamool Congress brought the CPI-M’s unbroken 34-year rule in West Bengal to an end. The Left’s electoral rout was widely attributed to the pro-rich policies the government had adopted and the ruthless manner in which it attempted to seize farmers’ lands for industries.

Dr Ashok Mitra, a former CPI-M Finance Minister and well-known economist, said the party was defeated as its state leaders had deviated from communist policies and principles.

Last year’s Lok Sabha elections revealed shrinkage of the Left’s electoral base. The CPI-M’s vote share dwindled from 5.3% in 2009 to 3.2% and the CPI’s from 1.4% to 0.8%.

The results of two recent by-elections in West Bengal, one to the Lok Sabha and the other to the State Assembly, show that the party’s downward slide is continuing. The Trinamool Congress won both the seats. In the Assembly constituency, the BJP took the second spot pushing the CPI-M down to the third place.

In Kerala, the CPI-M has been debilitated by a feud between party veteran VS Achuthanandan and long-time state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. A new act of the long-running tragi-comedy was played out at the state party conference which has just concluded at Alappuzha.

The small northeastern state of Tripura is the only place where the party is intact. Small pockets of influence which it had elsewhere in the country have been swept away by the rising tide of communal and regional parties.

The state of the Left in Delhi, where Prakash Karat served as the CPI-M’s state secretary before his elevation to the Central Committee in 1985, is illustrative of its sad plight at the national level. Five Left parties jointly put up 15 candidates in the Assembly elections there. Together they polled a paltry 5,405 votes. The state has an electorate of more than 13 million.

Prakash Karat, who became general secretary in 2005, is due to relinquish the post at the party congress scheduled to be held at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, from April 14 to 19. His poor stewardship of the party is generally attributed to his lack of experience in working class movements.

Sitaram Yechury, who is widely tipped to succeed him, shares Karat’s background. Both were student leaders catapulted into the top leadership without field experience.

The party’s West Bengal and Kerala units have powerful state level leaders but have not been able to throw up a single leader of national stature after Jyoti Basu and EMS Namboodiripad. Basu, who was West Bengal’s chief minister continuously from 1977 to 2000, died in 2010 and Namboodiripad, who was Kerala’s chief minister twice, died in 1998-- Gulf Today. Sharjah, February 24, 2015

17 February, 2015

AAP raises hope of game change

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

“The juggernaut has been stopped,” said Yogendra Yadav, the Aam Admi Party’s ideologue, as the Delhi Assembly election results dashed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hope of seizing power in the state.

The BJP had won all but one of the Assembly elections held since Narendra Modi led it to power at the Centre last May. In Haryana and Jharkhand, it had come to power for the first time.

In Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir the BJP had to be content with second place. Even there, it was in a strong position as the Hindu-majority Jammu region gave it enough numbers to bargain for a place in the government.

Modi had personally led the BJP’s victorious campaigns in all the states. As his image grew election after election he appeared to have become unbeatable. When elections were called in Delhi, as usual, he came out to lead the party from the front, with his aide from Gujarat, Amit Shah, who is the party president, by his side. Not impressed with the calibre of the party’s local leaders, he brought in Kiran Bedi, who, as the first woman officer of the Indian Police Service, was known nationally, and proclaimed her its chief ministerial candidate.

He ran a characteristically vigorous campaign, running down Congress president Sonia Gandhi and son and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, and calling Kejriwal a quitter and an anarchist who should be with the anti-government rebels fighting in the jungles, and not in the government.

Kejriwal, who had served as Chief Minister for 49 days with the support extended by the Congress from outside, began his campaign with an open apology to the people for walking out of the government and pledging to stay put for five years and make Delhi a city they could be proud of. The voters forgave him and backed him to the hilt.

AAP raised its vote share dramatically from 29.7 per cent in 2013 to 54.3 per cent and its strength in the Assembly from 28 to 67. The BJP was decimated: its strength fell from 32 to three. The Congress, which had ruled the state continuously for 15 years until 2013, drew a blank.

While parties generally win elections by appealing to specific caste and religious groups, AAP was propelled to victory by voters who rose above such divisions. When the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid exhorted his followers to vote for AAP, Kejriwal said he did not want the support of any communal group.

AAP’s spectacular comeback cast Kejriwal in the role of a superhero who can stop Modi. Political analysts saw him as the leader around whom a winning combination can emerge at the national level.

Kejriwal made Manish Sisodia deputy chief minister in his new government. Media reports suggested this was done to keep himself free to prepare the party to play a role at the national level. However, addressing the people of Delhi immediately after his swearing-in, he said he would be with them for five years.

AAP’s 2013 performance had generated high hopes about the possibility of rewriting electoral equations. AAP units came up all over the country. Grossly overestimating its prospects, the party fielded 432 candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. It could win only four seats, all from Punjab. Most of its nominees lost their security deposits.

Following the debacle, it called off plans to contest the Assembly elections in Haryana, where it had earlier reckoned it had a chance of coming to power.

Kejriwal, 46, is a leader with much to look forward to. But, wiser by experience, he is now inclined to move cautiously. He owes his present comeback to Delhiites’ fond memory of the efforts he had made during the short previous tenure to check corruption and reduce water and power rates. A good long-term performance will help him take on Modi nationally. But game change calls for much more. 

BJP’s popular base in Delhi declined only marginally – from 33.3 per cent in 2013 to 32.2 per cent. With an even smaller vote share of 30.1 per cent it was able to secure an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha last year. The impressive parliamentary win was the result of fragmentation of non-BJP votes and the dismal Delhi defeat that of consolidation of non-BJP votes behind one party. -- Gulf Today, February 17, 2015.

11 February, 2015

US rebuke evokes divided response

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Public statements by President Barack Obama chiding India for the recent attacks on religious minorities has chilled the officially promoted euphoria over the personal chemistry between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and elicited diverse responses from the Bharatiya Janata Party government and its Hindutva ideologues.

Obama was the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. He and Modi appeared before the media after one-to-one talks to announce elevation of the strategic relationship between the two countries to a new level.

Modi repeatedly referred to Obama by his first name to impress listeners about his personal rapport with him. That did not hold Obama back from telling a home truth. Addressing a rally before leaving New Delhi, he said, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines. Nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India.”

Obama’s remark, coming in the wake of a series of attacks on religious minorities and a spate of conversions in the guise of homecoming by those who had forsaken Hinduism, was interpreted by observers as a parting shot. Modi, his government and the ruling party were not happy but chose not to respond publicly.

Last week, Obama brought up the subject again while addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington attended by political, social and business leaders. He referred to his visit to India, a place “full of magnificent diversity…where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs” and said the acts of intolerance would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi. The government and the Hindutva outfits responded this time.

The first response came from unnamed officials who suggested that Obama’s statements were the result of political compulsions. They suggested that he had criticised India to placate the Christian lobby in the US and to prevent perceptions of closeness between India and the US racing ahead of ground reality. They also insinuated that the remarks were aimed at pressuring India into making concessions on the issues that defied solution during the Delhi talks.

For the first time officials admitted that the Indo-US nuclear, defence and clean energy discussions were marked by hard bargains. The most startling disclosure was that the US had pressured India to commit troops for service in Afghanistan, arguing they could be effective as they knew the region well.

One part of the officials’ theory was clearly wide of the mark. Far from pleasing the Christian lobby, Obama had invited its wrath by following up a reference to Daesh in his Prayer Breakfast speech with reminders of the terrible deeds committed during the Crusades and the Inquisition. Drawing attention to the treatment of the Blacks, he added, “Slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

As is his wont, Modi maintained silence on Hindu communalism. However, two senior ministers responded to Obama’s criticism.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who dismissed the attacks on minorities as mere aberrations, said, “The best example of India’s tolerance was the Dalai Lama sitting next to Obama.” The Buddhist leader, who has been living in India since he fled Tibet in 1959, was among the guests at the Prayer Breakfast.

“Religious tolerance is inbuilt in our culture,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh. “No one is insecure in the country, no matter to which religion he or she belongs.”

In an apparent attempt to meet the US criticism, he asked the Delhi police to take stern action against those responsible for vandalising churches in the capital. A high official telephoned the Archbishop of Mumbai and apologised for the refusal of visas to two Vatican representatives who were to have attended a meeting of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

While the ministers spoke in measured tones, Surendra Jain of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, called Obama a “stooge of the Church” and said he had not been a good guest. He asked the government to weed out politicians batting for the Church.

By reiterating the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s stand that India is a Hindu nation in a speech on Sunday, its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, made it clear that the Hindutva forces are in no mood to relent. In fact, he sought to widen the social divide by raising a new slogan, “One language, one God, one religion”, which is a total negation of India’s cultural diversity. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 11, 2015

03 February, 2015

Unresolved nuclear dilemma

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In the event of a nuclear disaster, who must bear the cost – manufacturers and suppliers of the faulty equipment that caused it or the unfortunate victims themselves? This, in essence, is the question that has delayed operationalisation of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement.

After the highly hyped talks between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last month, the two leaders announced that the issue had been resolved. However, they revealed no details of the breakthrough. Though they still remain a well-kept secret it is becoming increasingly clear that the nuclear dilemma is unresolved.

The agreement of 2006 ended the nuclear isolation imposed on India by the US following the nuclear tests conducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in 1998. It was negotiated by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, braving the opposition of the BJP as well as the Left parties which were sustaining it in office with outside support.

By 2008 the agreement was ratified and ready for implementation but there was no forward movement as the US government sought the right to inspect use of nuclear material India obtained from that country and US equipment suppliers were worried about the provisions of the Indian Nuclear Liability Act of 2010. At their first meeting last year Modi and Obama agreed on the setting up of an Indo-US group to sort out the matter.

The breakthrough announced during the Obama visit was worked out by the group in secret confabulations. The US dropped the demand for right to track the projects, which are subject to international inspections anyway. Standing beside Obama, Modi declared that the nuclear deal was the centrepiece of the transformed relationship between the two countries. But observers remain sceptical about the future of nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

The main benefit that will accrue to India from the nuclear deal, according to its domestic supporters, is that it will help generate electricity at as low as Rs 2.71 per unit and reduce dependence on coal and oil. It was Homi Bhabha, known as the Father of Indian Nuclear Science, who first held out the hope of cheap nuclear power. Over the past six decades, India has built and operated seven nuclear plants without being able to realise the dream of cheap power.

A study by Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana, two physicists working with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, has shown that power generated at the proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, which is to use US equipment, will cost the consumers as much as Rs 15 per unit.  

India, which relies on thermal power, for about 70 per cent of its energy requirements, needs to tap other sources to meet the fast growing demand. At present, nuclear energy accounts for less than two per cent.

Government plans, drawn up long before Modi came on the scene, envisages raising of the share of nuclear power to 25 per cent by 2050. The question is whether this is the best option after the Bhabha theory has proved wrong and the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have exposed the risk of high human and material costs it involves.

The efforts made so far to increase the use of renewable energy sources have increased the share of wind power to 8.3 per cent. Solar power still accounts for only one per cent of the total. The government’s fatal fascination for nuclear power when the huge potential of safe solar power remains untapped is inexplicable.

The issue is fast assuming the character of a conflict between nuclear power and people’s power. While Modi and Obama were talking, residents of Mithi Virdi, which the Gujarat government has chosen for locating a nuclear power plant, wrote an open letter to remind them that elected councils of four villages which will be most affected by the proposed plant have passed resolutions declaring the region a nuclear-free zone. They asked the two leaders to decide whether they want to channel billions of dollars to nuclear corporations or heed the people’s voice and cancel the unnecessary deals.

There have been protests at all places where work is in progress on nuclear projects. The secret Indo-US agreement is believed to provide for shifting the obligation to compensate nuclear disaster victims from the foreign equipment suppliers to the Indian government and insurance companies. It means the Indian taxpayer will have to pick up the bill. When the secret is out, opposition to the nuclear plants is sure to rise further. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 3, 2015.