New on my other blogs

"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


25 June, 2019

Time to focus on quality of justice

BRP Bhaskar

Building of Indian Supreme Court.
India's Supreme Court building. Reuters

In two letters to the Prime Minister, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has proposed a set of measures to address India’s chronic problem of law’s delays.

The measures include increasing the number of Supreme Court judges beyond the current sanctioned strength of 31, raising the retirement age of high court judges from 62 to 65 years, filling all vacancies in high courts and re-appointing retired judges of the superior courts on an ad hoc basis for short periods.

These measures can be implemented speedily if the three limbs of the state, the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature, set their minds to the task.

The Constitution empowers Parliament to fix the number of judges of the Supreme Court by law. The government is in a position to push a bill through both the houses of Parliament without much difficulty. A constitutional amendment is needed to raise the retirement age of high court judges. Marshalling the two-thirds majority needed for the purpose will not pose much of a problem.

However, the issue of retirement age needs to be viewed in a broad context. The rise in life expectancy offers justification for the proposed measure. But, then, members of other services must also get its benefit.

Justice Gogoi has not suggested revision of the retirement age of Supreme Court judges. This too has to be considered. Justice Gogoi’s proposals do not address the issue of delays in the lower courts, where the problem begins. They are designed to reduce delays in the superior courts, where, thanks to steps initiated earlier, the situation is showing signs of improvement.

The National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) puts the number of cases now pending in high courts at more than 4.4 million – 1.9 million civil cases, 1.2 million criminal cases and 1.3 million writ petitions. Last month the arrears dropped slightly with high courts disposing of 104,074 cases against new filings of 96,189.

This is not to suggest that the issue of backlog in the superior courts can be put on the back burner. But the focus must shift to identifying the causes of delays and eliminating them.

More than 30 million cases are pending in trial courts. The high human cost of delays at that level has not received adequate attention.  Two-thirds of those in jails are “undertrial” prisoners. They are mostly poor and languish in jail for long periods.

Callous procedures contribute the most to delays. Judicial officers liberally grant lawyers’ requests for adjournment. Rich and influential accused often raise peripheral issues in higher courts, stalling trial court proceedings for years.

Delays in the lower courts can be reduced by streamlining the procedures. Presiding officers must set a realistic time-frame for the disposal of each case and stick to it. The Supreme Court is now functioning with the sanctioned strength of 31 judges. But high courts, which have a total sanctioned strength of 1,079, have only 680 judges.

At least part of the responsibility for the delay in filling vacancies rests with the Supreme Court which arrogated to itself primacy in judicial appointments, disregarding the wishes of the makers of the Constitution and the established practice of the early decades of Independence.

There is nothing in recent experience to show that the judges-appoint-judges system which the apex court brought into being has led to an improvement in the quality of the judges or of justice. The Supreme Court collegium recently rejected a name proposed for appointment as a judge of the Kerala High Court on the ground that the person’s income was low.

The assumption that a high earner is less likely to be corrupt is questionable. Besides, the income bar may block the advance of persons belonging to the weaker sections of society whose income may be low as their clients are likely to be poor.   

The Supreme Court must re-visit the issue of appointment of judges and clear the way for the creation of a commission comprising respected jurists to recommend suitable candidates. Justice Gogoi recently set an unhealthy example by himself determining the course of a sexual harassment complaint levelled against him by a former court employee.

The Supreme Court damaged its own credibility when it intervened in the case of leading civil society activists, whom the Maharashtra police had arrested from different states, and then withdrew. 

These events underscore the need for increased emphasis on the quality of justice. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 25, 2019. 

18 June, 2019

Modi’s foreign policy challenges mount

BRP Bhaskar

Narendra Modi

At Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inaugural five years ago, heads of governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were the chief guests. At his second inaugural last month, the chief guests were heads of governments of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

The BIMSTEC gambit’s significance lay in that it helped to cover up failure of the SAARC-centred efforts. It also helped to exclude Pakistan, as it is not a BIMSTEC member. The move displayed dexterity, a valuable quality in a quick-changing world.

To reiterate continued interest in the neighbourhood, Modi began his second term with visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Both countries had recently seen changes of government through elections in which, according to media reports, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, took some interest.

Modi entered the global arena with a big handicap. Several countries, including the United States, had treated him as persona non grata and denied him visa to mark their disapproval of the communal riots in Gujarat under his watch.

But no nation can refuse to deal with the head of government of a country of India’s size. Launching a campaign of personal diplomacy, Modi undertook more than 40 trips during which he visited 59 countries in six continents. He made many friends but it is unclear how many he influenced.

He journeyed to the US and China five times, to Russia, Germany, Nepal and Singapore four times and to France, Japan and Sri Lanka thrice. Now new challenges are awaiting him. In his first term, he made the most investment in the US and travelled quite some distance with it on its Indo-Pacific pivot, aimed at restricting China’s influence. But Washington has created some problems for him.

Last year the US imposed a tariff of 25 per cent on steel and of 10 per cent on aluminium products. India’s exports of steel and aluminium products, worth about $1.5 billion a year, did not attract any levy earlier.

As attempts to resolve the issue through talks failed, India retaliated last week by hiking import duty on 28 US products, including almond, walnut and pulses. It also plans to raise the issue in the World Trade Organisation. Far more serious are the implications of the US sanctions regime which forced India to cut down oil imports from Iran, one of its major suppliers, and threatens to disrupt acquisition of military hardware from Russia, an important source of defence supplies since long.

The deterioration in US-Iran relations endangers Indian plans to access Afghanistan and the Central Asian states through the newly built Chabahar port, bypassing Pakistan. The focus of the conflict in the Middle East appears to be moving closer to home, and this adds to India’s worries.

After US Presidents, Modi had the most direct contacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Early in his first term, he named his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to lead the negotiations with China on the border dispute which had led to a war in the 1960’s. There has been little progress in the talks as China is in no hurry.

In 2017 the Indian army intervened and stopped Chinese construction activity in a disputed area on its border with Bhutan. It could not, however, prevent the Chinese troops from digging in. China is annoyed with India’s refusal to join its Belt and Road Initiative. India is unhappy that some of its neighbours are becoming dependent on China, which has resources it cannot match.

Mutual suspicions inhibit the two countries from exploring the possibility of establishing a synergetic partnership with due regard for each other’s genuine concerns. The growing detente between China and Russia is another factor that must now go into foreign policy formulation, although experts are divided on how real is the threat it poses.

Modi has inducted S. Jayasankar, a career diplomat, who has served as ambassador in both China and the US, as the External Affairs Minister in place of Sushma Swaraj who opted out on health grounds.  Earlier, as Foreign Secretary, Jayasankar had played a part in advancing Modi’s foreign policy ideas.

The chances are that, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Modi will remain his own foreign minister. His big disability in that role is an obsessive preoccupation with Pakistan, a hangover of his domestic politics which foreign exposure has not cured. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 18, 2019.

11 June, 2019

Decline and fall of the Left parties in India

BRP Bhaskar

India CPI
CPI(M) leaders at the 22nd Congress of the CPI(M) in Hyderabad, India.

After the recent Lok Sabha elections, there was much discussion in the media, both in India and abroad, often in hyperbolic terms, on the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the fall of the Congress party. But the dramatic change in the fortunes of the Left received scant attention.

The Communist Party of India, the oldest of the Left parties, now in its 94th year, has just two seats in the new Lok Sabha. The breakaway CPI (Marxist), which outgrew the parent body and became the largest Left party, has three seats.

Their combined tally of five is the lowest in the Left’s parliamentary history.  Four of the five seats — two each of the CPI and the CPI (M) – were from Tamil Nadu, where both piggy-rode on the back of the regional major, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The undivided CPI was the main opposition party in the first Lok Sabha, elected in 1952. It retained that position in the second and third Lok Sabhas too.

The Left’s decline began with the CPI splitting in 1964 following the schism in the world Communist movement resulting from ideological differences between the Soviet and Chinese parties. One of the issues on which the two parties differed was the role of India’s ruling Congress party.

Toeing the Soviet line, the CPI favoured cooperation with the Congress.  A minority in the party’s central committee, which opposed the official line, walked out and formed the CPI (M).

An intense struggle between the two factions to win over the party rank and file followed. The CPI (M), which branded the official group as rightist, earned the support of a majority of members in the party strongholds of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

Vigorous pursuit of their different lines landed the two parties in opposite political camps.  The CPI became a supporter of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. After the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi’s government, the CPI (M) and the BJP joined hands behind Prime Minister VP Singh to keep the Congress out.

Both the parties lost ground nationally during this period. However, the CPI (M) was able to acquire a larger-than-life image due to its strong position in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and the stellar role its General Secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, played in the formation of non-Congress, non-BJP governments at a time of political instability.

After the Emergency, the CPI ended its association with the Congress and became a junior partner of CPI (M)-led alliances in the three Left strongholds.  However, the CPI (M) rebuffed its calls for reunification of the two parties.

The CPI (M)’s days of glory ended when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress ousted it in West Bengal where it was in power continuously for 33 years.

Mamata Banerjee had broken away from the Congress and launched her own party as it was not receptive to her plea to adopt storm-arm tactics to counter the CPI(M)’s violent ways.

Last year the BJP administered the next body blow to the CPI (M) by putting an end to its unbroken reign of 25 years in Tripura.

That left the CPI (M) with a hold on power only in Kerala, where the Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front have been alternating in  power for nearly four decades.

In 2014 the CPI (M) won nine seats in the Lok Sabha — five from Kerala and two each from West Bengal and Tripura. The CPI’s lone Lok Sabha seat from Kerala gave the Left a two-digit figure.

This year the two parties drew a blank in the erstwhile strongholds of West Bengal and Tripura.  In Kerala, the CPI (M) managed to win one seat with a small margin. The UDF took the remaining 19 seats with wide margins.

The CPI (M) central committee, which met during the weekend to review the election performance, failed to provide any rational explanation for its dismal showing.

The party claims a tradition of self-critically examining its work and correcting mistakes. But in practice it has shied away from going into the causes of its continuous decline and confined its efforts to protect what is left of its turf.

In a book published posthumously four years ago, Praful Bidwai, a journalist and political analyst, argued that the Left is indispensable for the health of Indian democracy. But the leadership of neither of the two parties appears to be in a position to make the Left relevant in the present context. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 11, 2019.

04 June, 2019

Congress in existential crisis after poll debacle

BRP Bhaskar

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s resignation in the wake of the debacle in the Lok Sabha elections has landed the grand old party in a deep crisis.

When he offered his resignation at the party working committee’s first meeting after the elections, colleagues saw it merely as a gesture in acknowledgment of moral responsibility and thought he could be persuaded to withdraw it.

But he stood by the decision despite appeals by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is chairperson of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, as also leaders of UPA constituents.

Later, however, he agreed to stay on for a month to give the party time to find a replacement for him.

As putative successor of the Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the freedom movement, the party boasts of a history of 133 years, during which it faced and overcame many crises.

The present crisis assumes an existential character as in the post-Independence period the party was overly dependent upon the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Jawaharlal Nehru was party president for nine of his 17 years as Prime Minister and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, for seven of her 11 years. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was Prime Minister for five years and party president for six and a half years.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the family stayed out of politics for seven years.  His wife, Italian-born Sonia, accepted the post of president in response to insistent appeals by party leaders after it lost its primacy in the 1996 elections and faced the prospect of a split.

She held the post for a record 19 years. During this period the party led two United Progressive Alliance governments with Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister.

Rahul Gandhi entered the Congress leadership as General Secretary in 2007 and was appointed Vice-President in 2013.  He succeeded his mother as president two years ago.

Since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi has repeatedly called for a Congress-free India, viewing that party as the stumbling block in the way of the Bharatiya Janara Party’s goal of a Hindu nation.

Following Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step down, the Congress has been getting a lot of gratuitous advice from friends and foes on how to move forward.

UPA constituents want him to stay and lead the party and the alliance. Non-political do-gooders want the party to use the opportunity to free itself from the family which, they assume, is an albatross around its neck.

They overlook the fact that the family, which had withdrawn from politics after two of its Prime Ministers were assassinated, returned at the party’s request. Today the party needs the family more than the family needs the party.

While Rahul Gandhi, who emerged as Modi’s main challenger at the national level, could not prevent his return to power with an enhanced majority, he cannot be written off as a failure. In areas where the BJP and the Congress are the main contenders in elections, the former was able to maintain its primacy, despite loss of power to the latter in three states a few months earlier.

Significantly, the Congress could maintain its vote share and raise its strength in the Lok Sabha from 44 to 52. The BJP made gains mostly at the expense of other parties.

However, the strategy the Congress adopted under Rahul Gandhi is open to question. His bid to underline his Kashmiri Pandit ancestry and adoption of a soft line in the face of Hindutva violence did not enhance its appeal as a defender of Constitutional values. 

He made a fatal mistake in giving the party’s old guard, which is out of tune with current political realities, a big say in election matters in the crucial northern states.  Also, he did not work hard enough for electoral adjustments with parties which could help make up for the decline in the Congress’s support among Dalits, other backward classes and minorities.

Last week he said the party’s 52 members in the new Lok Sabha are enough to make the BJP jump every day.  But the main battlefield where issues of democracy and secularism will be settled is the larger Indian society, not Parliament.

Rahul Gandhi’s weaknesses and failings notwithstanding, the Congress does not appear to have a leader with better credentials than his to hold it together, build a young and forward-looking team and lead it in the fight to save secular democracy.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 4, 2019.