Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why BJP’s politics of desperation may backfire in Uttarakhand

by Ratnakar Tripathy

After successfully felling the Congress government in Arunachal, the BJP discovered it has another strategy for stretching its area of command – targeting the Congress led states as the low-hanging fruits which are sure to have disgruntled factions raring to unseat their bosses. Poaching on the Congress in the states is a lure too strong to resist these days, is something that goes without saying. Way back it is after all the Congress that fashioned the weapon of president’s rule in states on the slightest pretext. The gains are enormous when compared to efforts that go into a full-fledged assembly election with hundreds of rallies when the PM and other star campaigners descend on the remote constituencies. With five assembly elections in 2016 and another five in 2017, who will have the time for governance? Toppling state governments and taking over seems such a cool shortcut! Given that there is not much traction left in the Congress for an ambitious politician these days, those that stay on must be both admired and pitied for their steadfastness anyway!

Unlike Arunachal however, the over-confident BJP has ended up engineering a mess in Uttarakhand that exceeds all precedents for a constitutional-legal imbroglio. Within days after the dismissal of the Congress government and imposition of president’s rule in Uttarakhand, the dismissed CM Harish Rawat won a case at the High Court on 29th March that gave him a chance to prove his claim to majority on the 31st of this month. In simple words the court’s ruling seemed to challenge the presidential order rather frontally to decide in the favour of a floor test as the ultimate clincher. Thankfully, this judicial ruling got undone soon enough before congealing into a legal dead end as a new bench of the court has now revised the earlier ruling and stayed the floor test till 7th April. With the floor test in abeyance, the new bench has also posted the matter for April 6 for final hearing on a petition challenging imposition of President’s rule in the state by ousted Chief Minister Harish Rawat.

With some time on hand, according to the latest reports, Harish Rawat and his cohorts are busy wooing back the nine Congress dissidents who joined hands with the BJP. But the Congress must decide what it wants more – the return of the renegades to the fold, or an annulment by the court of their right to vote during a floor test. The BJP on its part has spirited away its twenty three MLAs to an out of town site where the Congress cannot reach them. So in the next few days, what we have is a political blur where you cannot tell who is poaching and who is being poached on. The challenge the Congress faces is to win its own members back, not an easy task given that the 9-member breakaway team is headed by Vijay Bahuguna, a former CM who was eased out after the scandalous mismanagement of the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. Bahuguna naturally holds a grudge most of which is directed personally at Harish Rawat.  To update matters further, Uttarakhand Congress president Kishore Upadhyay is reported to be in constant touch with Mr Vijay Bahuguna. The minimum agenda is to ensure that the nine members abstain from voting whenever the floor test takes place, a far-fetched possibility. But Harish Rawat may offer to step down as CM as a conciliatory gesture which sounds like a more concrete gain for the disgruntled former CM Bahuguna.

At any rate the most outstanding fact here is that Uttarakhand is due for its assembly elections in 2017. If the BJP waited patiently till 2017 for the scheduled assembly elections in Uttarakhand, it would have had a good chance of winning. With growing internal dissensions among factions within the Congress in the state, the disgruntled elements led by the former CM Vijay Bahuguna may have joined the BJP as part of a gentler drift, perhaps triggering further defections from the Congress. Instead, the Congress government under Harish Rawat as CM was dissolved without much thought and president’s rule imposed in great haste without giving the incumbent government in Uttarakhand a chance to prove its majority on 28th March, as earlier decided by the governor of the state. One can understand the desperation of Vijay Bahuguna who was made to resign as the Uttarakhand CM after the 2013 floods in the state that were allegedly mismanaged by him. But the unholy haste shown by the BJP is likely to win oodles of sympathy for the Congress, whether deserved or undeserved, from the voter in the 2017 assembly elections. The BJP may have thus succeeded in undoing any anti-incumbency sentiments faced by the Congress government in Uttarakhand. This could be a favour the Congress may be thankful for in the long run. This irrespective of whether Rawat wins the floor test after 6th April, if such a test happens at all. 

In fact such are the serendipitous breaks that the Congress badly needs these days. Out of the five states going for assembly elections in 2016 [West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Pondicherry] and five in 2017[Goa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur], the BJP is unable to see a sure win ahead and is increasingly exhibiting symptoms of nervousness in speech and incoherence in its actions.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Commentary: BJP finds soft target in Congress governments in states

First Arunachal and then Uttarakhand! It now appears that the Congress governments in the states are the soft targets for the BJP which has found it easier to topple state governments than to win elections in the states. While states run by local stalwarts like Mamata in Bengal or Pattanaik in Odisha are difficult to ruffle, the Congress in its current state of disarray makes an easier target. Of course, the BJP would like to win maximum seats in the upcoming elections in the states but the recent events in Uttarakhand indicate an alternate strategy.  Of course, in both the cases, Arunachal and Uttarakhand, the BJP indulged in dubious tactics to topple the governments and may apply a similar trick in Manipur, but what remains undeniable is that increasingly, the Congress is finding it difficult to stick together, especially in the outposts far away from Delhi. 

This article probes the three cases of Arunachal, Uttarakhand where the BJP has already proved a success as well as Manipur which may be the next target. The question is will the Congress prove as helpless as BJP assumes it to be or will it take preemptive action to protect its flanks? The Congress has since its crushing defeat in 2014 derived satisfaction entirely from the BJP's disastrous shows in Delhi and Bihar. If it continues with the inertia instead of reacting strongly to predatory attacks from the BJP, it will give further reasons for being given up on.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Withering Europe and Crumbling Western Alliance

(Member states of NATO, image courtesy Wikipedia)

Terrorist attacks in Brussels bring few things more forcefully to the fore:

1. Dysfunctional state of Belgium with it's utter inability to manage it's internal security[1] as well as zero chance of altering it's divisive political culture which nourishes militancy among it's Muslim population.

2. Inability of European administrative and political apparatus to pull together unitedly to address the grave challenges of home grown terrorism, toxic osmosis of Islam misusing terrorists between Europe and Syria, and flow of migrants from Middle East. Failure of Germany and EU in forcing Belgium to get it's ineffective administration into shape only highlights weakness of European politics.

3. Inevitable political exploitation of these attacks by xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic political forces on both sides of Atlantic which will only result in breaking into pieces of EU and Western Alliance.

Meanwhile feeling of 'European nations as free riders' is becoming prevalent while Donald Trump essentially wants to do away with the entire NATO itself. Europe's inability to step up to the challenge of Jihadi Terrorism, unwillingness of European population to spend on security measures and utter lack of political consensus in  nurturing political project of EU; all that is going to make it easy on American side to yank the NATO and alliance of USA with Europe.  

Given this backdrop, there is a dire need of leadership in keeping the unity of EU as well as it's alliance with America. One can get falsely impressed by President Obama's nuance filled foreign policy overall, but it is clear that it is not working when it comes to Europe, Syrian quagmire and Trans-Atlantic Alliance. President Obama clearly needs to spend political capital at home, in fighting Trumpian calls of dismantle NATO and prohibit Muslims entering USA, as well as in Europe in exhorting European political class to get it's act together. It is easy for Americans to throw the towel, say we have nothing to do with European free riders and isolate our selves. That is not going to work. 

As a starter, to assume oceans apart would keep America safe is delusional in today's world when outfits like IS have shown ability to keep sleeper cells around Western World for longer duration, have shown ability to attract disgruntled youths in these Western societies for the cause of Jihad and when one only needs an encrypted message to blow up bodies in far away place to harm innocents. 

Secondly, disintegration of EU is going to pull down already wobbly global economy further as Europe joins China, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Japan, Turkey in substantially weaker global demand. Not only centrifugal political forces which are gathering steam in Britain and continental Europe are bound to make Europeans poorer collectively, it is equally going to have a dramatic impact on American and rest of the global economy.

Thirdly, even a relatively weaker Russia will be able to exploit these European failures to reignite it's century old geo-politics of expansion in Russian periphery. None of such Czarist expansions bring any stability to Russia or to a larger world; those only seed sources of future conflicts to keep the cycle of an unstable Russian periphery feeding into weaker Russia uninterrupted.

Finally, as European and American societies show only weaker 'will' to defend and secure their 'open societies'; demise of Western World as we know since WWII is not far fetched. Sure, that world has been having problems all along; but the universal values of 'freedom of speech, freedom of movement, tolerance to other people, secular polity and liberal economic order'; all that will be perilously close to vanish. President Barack Obama may not be solely responsible for all this decadence, but History will for sure note that he failed to do his part in keeping Europe united, secure; with far reaching consequences all over the world.[2]


[1] - Nabbing the main Paris attack suspect - though after four months and suspects in Brussels attacks; is a good thing. But it also means Belgium could have earlier cleaned up 500 or so Jihadi's residing among it's cities.

[2] - And that means solving the Syrian problem which Obama Administration is unable to make much headway. 

The sacrilege act amendment passed in Punjab will rankle forever

by Ratnakar Tripathy

On 22nd March, the Punjab government passed an amendment bill that will ensure life imprisonment for cases of sacrilege against the book in Sikhism, instead of the maximum of ten year imprisonment followed earlier. This comes in the wake of incidents of tearing of Guru Granth Sahib last year, the fact being that the government has been unable to nab the culprits and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. It is questionable if the government even has the will to do so. The Punjab government hopes that its deficient policing may be compensated by stricter laws although what seems more likely is that the new law will be applied wilfully in undeserving or inappropriate cases and huge punishments will be doled out for minor breaches. In fact the political attitude behind the move indicates that sacrilege is likely to be seen where it may not exist at all. Such laws can be put to deadly use by a repressive government and may further tilt the balance against the citizens in the favour of the state. That the individual and the communities require such rigorous protection is being forgotten by the politicians these days who may end up paying a heavy price for their thoughtlessness.  

 In another comparable instance, the Maharashtra Assembly suspended an MLA Waris Pathan from AIMIM for refusing to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ through a unanimous vote – parties like the Congress and the NCP that claim to be the opposition went entirely along with the BJP to prove their patriotic credentials, although the real motive was to punish the AIMIM for cutting into their Muslim votes. In this case again a dangerous precedent has been set and it may well cause heartaches to the Congress and NCP in the near future when they may be targeted similarly and will have no argument left to defend themselves.   
The Punjab bill is of course to be seen in the context of the desperation of the current Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] to come back to power in Punjab in 2017 in the face of severe unpopularity. Creating a crisis over the construction of the Yamuna-Sutlej canal through the defiance of the Supreme Court directive, thereby refusing to share water with the neighbouring state Haryana was another recent move to rouse the baser sentiments of the Punjabi voter. Both these measures are likely to rip the democratic fabric of the nation on an immediate basis and will certainly have far-reaching consequences if not undone. The likely consequences of the sacrilege act were apparent on day one when in response to the SAD amendment the opposition leader from the Congress Tirlochan Soondh felt that the amendment’s partiality towards the Sikh religion is unjustifiable and other religions like Hinduism and Islam require similar laws. The leader of the opposition in the Punjab assembly Charanjit Singh Channi claimed that in secularism, all religions require similar treatment, implying that the life term should be applicable to all cases of sacrilege, irrespective of religion. Although in India, we often mean somewhat different things by the term ‘secularism’, this is indeed a completely new spin on the word and a disastrous one at that leading to a theocracy like legal situation, thus far characteristic of states like Pakistan rather than India. According to this version of secularism, laws for sacrilege should be universally applicable and must be highly stringent. As we know there is often a thin line between criticism and sacrilege and for the dogmatic believer there is mostly none. What is remarkable is how even members of the Congress instinctively followed the path of competitive piety rather than question the premise on which the new law is based. The least they could have done is to seek a categorical and concrete definition of sacrilege. To begin with what is the difference, for example, between an act of minor or forgivable disregard or omission and serious sacrilege deserving the ultimate punishment? Such questioning can go a long way in bringing out the insuperable difficulties in defining sacrilege in the democratic framework. To give another example will the law focus primarily on the perception of others or on the willfulness of the specific act? By not asking these vital questions, the opposition in Punjab may be losing their moral and political ground, thus admitting subservience to the SAD bulldozer. Is there a political advantage at all in kowtowing to SAD’s desperate move, given its failure to catch the culprits in the past? Apart from the legal precedent, there is also the question of the political-ideological precedent laid out during the assembly debates. One wonders how much all this will impress the Punjab voter in the coming assembly elections in 2017 and one can only hope that the voter would reject the dangerous rhetoric in the favour of real issues. One must however remember that such laws are not easy to undo in the manner of belling the cat – any government in the future that tries to do so will be seen to be allowing or even encouraging sacrilege.

The suggestion made by the Congress was defeated through a voice vote and the matter was allowed to rest for the time being. But the amendment bill is likely to continue to smoulder and cause more explosions in the future in other states if not Punjab as a legal precedent. Sacrilege may be difficult to define but a government intent on applying it will find it easy to insist and prosecute since in practice it may be even more difficult to prove non-sacrilege. The level of zeal for extreme measures was apparent in a suggestion made by Bikram Majithia, a SAD leader who thought a death sentence is more appropriate for sacrilege cases. These are indeed times when the moderate elements seem to have lost their voice in the face of rising hysteria over all kinds of matters, including patriotism, nationalism, and various countless marks of sundry loyalties. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Apple Lost?

Is it me only or what, but Obama Fed is playing a hard ball with Tim Cook (all while when Obama is having party of his lifetime in Cuba with his family and friends from Congress). Feds are saying that they do not need Apple to unlock the iPhone. What is more damaging to Apple - to have helped Fed to get on a terrorism case or to get globally advertised that their vaunted 'data locks' in the end are no good?

Obama may be all near and dear to Silicon Valley, but clearly Valley does not seem to match the 'bare knuckle' politics as well as the technological competence what Feds can marshal. Silicon Valley may feel at the center of the technology world. Past luminaries like Andy Grove indeed have made this place as one of the greatest on this planet earth. But alas, humanity at large is still bigger than a single valley; if wanted it can always pool talents all around - that is what the Fed prowess shows in this case. Talent and technical competence are available all over the world. Better for the Valley not to be arrogant there. Generally folks around my home town - astoundingly accomplished and fabulously rich folks of Cupertino & Valley around - are down to the earth and mind their own business. That is one of the most charming and admiring things about this place.

But in this fight against Fed, Apple got caught up in between a hard and rock place. Tim Cook, by his personal life style and by his natural political orientation, inclines towards a libertarian point of view - tending towards giving maximum privacy to users of his company's products. In fact compared to Steve Jobs, Tim Cook has distinctly made Apple to move in that direction. Clearly, that is one area where he has stepped out of the shadows of colossal Jobs. Growing market for products all across the world where privacy is retained, naturally made a business sense too. Besides arguments that Chinese Government would force 'any such back doors' to abuse consumers of Apple products are valid too.

But even after having said all that, in the end Tim Cook needed Apple to bring around helping Feds here. Terrorist acts and threat of terrorism are too big of a concern for Apple to deny Fed's legitimate request of opening the iphone of the attacker of San Bernardino. Courts sided with Feds too, wisely. In the end, even if one single 'life' is saved from a terrorist attack or national security threat; billions of dollars of profits for all powerful Apple do not matter too.

Apple with it's army of smart lawyers would have found a way to co-operate with Feds in this case without opening the gates completely to likes of Xi Jinping. It was an opportunity for this lawyer class to thread the needle. They blew it here, if indeed Fed is able to walk the talk - brake the iphone without Apple. 

What a nightmare for the mightiest company of the world!

Republican Reckoning

Ross Douthat wonders why Republican Establishment (who better proxy for that group than the House Speaker Paul Ryan?) would not respond to Trump rise by:
- either incorporating policy changes like dropping tax cuts for donor class 
- or vehemently and consistently repudiating soft White Ethno-nationalism of Trump.

One part explanation would be ever since Reagan era, Republican politicians have consistently fed their base the policy prescription of tax cuts for rich, adventurism in foreign lands and reduction on welfare spending including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Republican Party has pursued these policies despite evidence showing that these policies do not work. All the cultural wars - it has always worked for the benefit of Republican Establishment as those wars divert attention of American Public to secondary issues leaving Conservatives to continue their agenda uninterrupted.

Gerrymandering of house districts, concentration of Democrat voters in urban areas and uneven representation in  Senate; all that have given a sense of political security for Republicans. That sense of comfort in sense makes Republican Party reluctant to change its policy prescriptions.

But with Trump, this inherent contradiction - asking votes of white working class people but to adopt policies which suit rich donor class - has come to be a boil. Trump politics will not solve the root problem - providing gainful, sustainable employment to these disfranchised white working class Americans. But what it can do is break Republican Party and bring a painful electoral loss to Conservatives. And all this carnage even before most Americans are waking up to realize havoc Conservative policies do to American people.

Not that Republican Party has not changed policies. Even before Donald Trump shamed Jeb Bush for Bush failures in 'connecting dots before 9/11' or 'hubris of Iraq War'; more and more Republicans are aiming for restrained foreign policy. Ted Cruz still talks 'glowing the sad in night' or messers Lindsay Graham, John McCain still want America to pour thousands of soldiers in far away places; but these views are finding contracting markets within the Republican Party. 

On the issue of cutting Social Security and Medicare - with Romney defeat, the tide has started to turn within the Republican Party. Donald Trump campaigns by saying he will leave those two programs untouched. All in all proposing cuts to those programs is becoming radio active among Republicans.

The similar retrenchment or appraisal need to happen for rich skewed tax cut policies. Until then the day of reckoning in November election looms large for Republicans. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Commentary: Interview T20 style

Badruddin Ajmal is considered to be a perfume baron, a divisive force, a maverick/pragmatic politician, a fundamentalist (select as per your information and inclination). What can’t be denied is, he is an ‘established’ politician in Assam today, leading a considerable regional party.
As the Assam election hots up, interesting interviews start peeking round the pages of the newspapers. Some are run-of-the-mill, some are not so common. This one is peculiar, because it shows Ajmal’s tightrope walking as well as statements with deadpan face.
AIUDF was ‘born to consolidate all forces subscribing to the fundamental values of our constitution’. Sounds strange, but that’s what Ajmal claims.
After dishing out a straight-drive ‘why should we spend time and energy to help the Congress?’, Ajmal hastily issued an invite to Congress to join his ‘grand alliance’. Nice touch. Especially after he blasted Congress as ‘solely responsible’ for the poor conditions of Muslims in Assam.
After making a grave allegation, ‘AGP government had several ministers who were illegal immigrants’, he refuses name them ‘Why should I? The people know’.
He doesn’t spare any ‘heartfelt’ and sympathetic words when describing his opponent, the BJP Chief Ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal. He calls Sonowal ‘a good person caught in an impossible situation’.
Come elections, and you get a plethora of opportunities to exercise your right to entertain yourself. This is one of them; grab it!

From tokenism to blatant callousness – a worrisome spectrum

The state of Maharashtra was supposed to be at the forefront of social and political movements. A host of leaders such as Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Agarkar, Ranade, Gokhale, Tilak, Karve, Savarkar and so on. The list can be elongated further. It can also be edited to make it more ‘liberal’ or ‘patriotic’. But the point is not that.
Now let us look at what is happening today.
In the assembly, an MLA was ‘suspended’ because he refused to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Predictably, Shiv Sena MLAs supported the action, profoundly sad that BJP took it up first and SS had to play second fiddle. So they added a bit of spice by calling for a ‘permanent suspension’. BJP upped its ante and asked for ‘social expulsion’. Remember the scene from ‘The Great Dictator’, when Hynkel and Napaloni sit in height-adjustable chairs and each tries to hoist himself at an upper level?
What is there to worry? It would be worrisome if BJP & SS don’t do such acts. But this time, who supported them? Congress and NCP, the ‘secular’ side.
Cut to – more generalization. Everyone should be ‘patriotic’. How does one define ‘patriotism’? Don’t say anything against the interest of the nation? No, that would be only half the portion. The other half – don’t say anything against the policies of the government.
Who are likely to be the trouble makers? Of course Urdu writers. So simple solution – let us take a declaration from them.
In these times of economic turmoil – the mounting NPAs of banks and looming famine – if there is a systematic effort to shift the entire focus to such ideas, it is really worrisome.