Tuesday, January 05, 2016

2016 comes with terrorists at border and smoother traffic in Delhi

by Ratnakar Tripathy
2016 arrived in India with a bang, literally. As someone with a dark sense of humour stated on my Facebook, PM Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan was returned in a hurry by a group of terrorists who broke into the air force base at Pathanakot on January 2. This happened as the media and the wide circle of defence commentators and experts were still busy making sense of Modi’s sudden and unannounced tea stop in Pakistan on his return trip from Kabul in Afghanistan on 25th December. The brief Pakistani sojourn saw much hugging and exchange of syrupy politeness between the two premiers – some saw in it an extreme of stealth diplomacy, while others declared it a diplomatic breakthrough. The leftists and liberals in India were happy to see an otherwise hostile and aggressive BJP leadership converted to the good old tame approach towards Pakistan. Apparently, the terrorist group involved is hostile to the Pakistani regime as well and has been targeted by the Sharif government. Pakistani premier Sharif was also prompt in calling Modi promising serious action against the perpetrator groups.

The so called sanitizing of the air force base in the last few days has proved a costly affair with seven deaths and dozens of injured on the Indian side. There are reports of gunfire on the base even on the morning of 5th January. Currently, the Indian media is debating whether India should continue with secretary level talks with Pakistan or cancel further negotiations till further notice and assurance. Probably the most remarkable thing here is the routine run of events – a positive diplomatic gesture from India however cavalierly made, followed by a rude attack allegedly run by the Pakistani military, to be followed by a noisy and incoherent debate over what next. 

Unlike Nepal, Pakistan is a nuclear power, is geopolitically well placed and has powerful friends in Beijing, Middle-east, Washington and elsewhere. So India is not exactly free to retaliate the way it may want to.  Willy-nilly everyone has to come back to the negotiation table even if it is for the cynical reason to prove to the world that the Indian and the Pakistani regimes intend to chase peace ceaselessly and with infinite patience. And thus continues the India-Pakistan deadlock as the most enduring feature of the subcontinent. The deadlock may be an endless source of news and political rhetoric but really speaking nothing moves since Pakistan has too many centres of power within its political, bureaucratic and military circles. The Indians on the other hand have shown no desire to to introspect boldly. The one thing India could do but has proved incapable of doing is to see to it on a long term basis that the Kashmiris feel no need to respond to overtures from Pakistan or look for political support from across the border.  But that is a tall order requiring a non-militaristic approach with immense patience and humanity that puts the Kashmiri populace at the centre of our concern. It also asks for a consistency of policy not easy to sustain in our blow hot blow cold political atmosphere.  

It may seem satisfying to learn that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday assured his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi that Pakistan will take “prompt and decisive action” against the terrorists responsible for the attack on Pathankot airbase. Whether the Pakistani government is capable of taking serious action is a different matter altogether. The prompt assurance however makes sure the Indo-Pakistan conversation may continue without interruption.

On the other hand, 2016 also came with a pleasant breakthrough not just for the city of Delhi but the entire country because of the so-called ‘odd-even’ formula for vehicular traffic in the Indian capital. So 1st January onwards for the next fifteen days, Delhi will have cars with either odd or even numbers plying on the roads on a given day. Clearly this is not a solution to the city’s pollution problem, the enormity of which has gone beyond such tinkering. But for a number of reasons the Delhi move is a milestone to be respected.

First, the Delhi government under Arvind Kejriwal was able to implement the odd-even formula despite the Himalayan effort on the part of the Indian government to ensure its failure. Incredibly, hours before the New Year, the entire cadre of the central administrative services went on a strike on a flimsy excuse. Kejriwal alleges that this was done at the behest of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi whom he has branded as a pawn of the Centre. That the initial days of the implementation of odd-even formula indicate its acceptance by the Delhi car owners comes as a slap in the face of an obstructionist Centre. This is clearly a victory for the Indian federalism, though this has little to do with pollution control. AAP has been labelled by the shamelessly partisan Indian media for being a trouble maker, the fact being trouble for AAP is being manufactured systematically on a daily basis by the Indian government through its officials including the loud-mouth police chief Bassi. If the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung takes the suave and soft-spoken legalistic approach, B S Bassi is there to do the rough stuff, none of which seems to make an unbending AAP any more pliable. The ‘odd-even’ scheme has been able to batter the ‘institutional’ walls purely on the basis of public support.

Second, even though the Delhi middle class has periodically shown a tremendous surge of civic sense on occasions like the anti-rape demonstrations a year ago, the odd-even scheme has cemented it like never before. After all pollution control is an issue over which the rich and the poor can easily come together. That the usually arrogant car owner community of Delhi is willing to make a sacrifice and mingle with the masses in buses and the metro is something to celebrate by the well-wishers of the Indian democracy. That this is happening in the allegedly urban ‘village’ as Delhi is often aptly labelled by visitors from Mumbai and Bangalore deserves due acknowledgement.

Third, the Delhi government has taken a far from dogmatic approach over its move and the fifteen days are meant to be experimental. This by itself is unusual in a country where close-ended policies are the norm even though they often get modified under political compulsion or in actual practice. Also, the Delhi government plans to fashion its further policies on the basis of advice from experts and lessons from experience in Delhi and other metropolises across the world. Reflexivity in policy formulation and implementation may be the new trend set by the AAP government in Delhi. AAP is providing more and more lessons in governance that the Indian government must learn to appreciate and emulate instead of reacting with naked envy and stubbornness.

So as usual the Indian democracy gives reasons for both gloom and cheer as we get deeper into 2016. To wind up on a half-serious note, I found the social media replete with the praise of the ‘odd-even’ for a very tangential reason – it seems the traffic in Delhi has become much more navigable. The admirers of the formula however seem to forget that this is not the real purpose of the move. Tweets from former critics of the experiment expressed great pleasure at making it to their destinations in record time. It seems the only traffic jams on the roads were caused by the road-blocks placed strategically by the Delhi police. A well-known senior journalist on my Facebook even mentioned that his Metro experience was not bad at all and he may continue to use it more often. Another policy maven cheered the ‘odd-even’ move for how fast he can get around in Delhi from his home in the suburbs to a conference deep inside the city. Not bad if even the unintended consequences of the ‘odd-even’ move turn out to be rather pleasing!

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