The Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal is a unique specimen in understanding anti-incumbency. Welfare schemes that usually make incumbents popular have added to the anti-incumbency woes of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as the workers of her party made those the easy and only option for rent-seeking. ‘Cut money’, or the cut for TMC local leaders on welfare disbursement, is the most important reason for anti-incumbency in the State. The unaccountable nature of power at the panchayat level after the 2018 elections were rigged by the ruling party, made it into an apparatus of extraction rather than a dispenser of patronage. The balance between patronage and extraction, which sustains political parties, was lost. Second, Ms. Banerjee, sought to compensate for her past alliances with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by an overuse of Muslim symbolism, which has caused a backlash among Hindus and Muslims.
Usually, smart politicians use a crisis to neutralise accumulated resentments and reinforce their popularity. In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan could turn two floods (2018 and 2019), a cyclone and the COVID-19 pandemic as opportunities to demonstrate his governance; in Assam, pandemic relief helped the BJP government quieten any public dissatisfaction and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma became the face of a caring government. In contrast, Ms. Banerjee’s wayward workers made the Amphan cyclone (2020) in the midst of the pandemic a spectacle of corruption and inefficiency. The weakness of the state in West Bengal that the CPI(M)’s organisational capacity could camouflage earlier became more pronounced under the TMC. The key strategist of the party has acknowledged that anti-incumbency is a major factor. In fact, it is the overarching theme.
Ms. Banerjee is trying to control the damage. Welfarism is an important tool in her kit — the TMC is offering a universal basic income for all families, if elected to power for a third term in West Bengal. She also realises that economic promises without emotional appeals are just not good enough. She is appealing to Bengali exceptionalism, and questioning Delhi imperialism, invoking the fear of the outsider, accompanied by a show of her Hindu anchorage.
The existence of strong anti-incumbency is not a question of debate, but its impact is. Who are the new claimants to power? Which one among them has the capacity to harness anti-incumbency in its favour? The Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) alliance and the BJP are relentless in attacking Ms. Banerjee. There are two mobilising issues at play — one is the TMC’s governance and the other is the Hindu-Muslim religious divide.
The Left-Congress campaign focuses on the TMC’s track record; while the BJP is going on a no-holds-barred, double-barrel mobilisation on anti-incumbency and along the religious divide. In fact, the Left-Congress-ISF alliance can be of help to the BJP in two ways — it provides an alternative to those who are tired of the TMC, but would not vote for the BJP; and the emergence of cleric Abbas Siddiqui as a prominent face of the alliance fulfils the fear of the Muslim theme that headlines the BJP campaign.
In certain circumstances, a new claimant can spook voters to an extent that they would rather stay with the detested incumbent.
Cases of Gujarat, Bihar
Two recent examples, of the Congress in Gujarat in 2017, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar in 2020, are instructive. The BJP government in Gujarat after being in power for 20 years; and the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar after 15 years in power faced massive anti-incumbency among their respective core voters. The capacity of the challengers, the Congress in Gujarat and the RJD in Bihar, was limited, significantly due to the strong-arm measures of central agencies.
But the defining turning point in both elections was a reframing of the campaign by the incumbent, from anti-incumbency to the basest instincts and fear of a threshold population. In Bihar, the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes groups would rather stay with the National Democratic Alliance than risk the possibility of Yadav domination under a new RJD government. In Gujarat, where the basest appeal is religion and not caste —the spectre of a Muslim Chief Minister, the BJP’s rhetoric in the last days of the campaign, held back enough flock in the incumbent’s tent.
Ms. Banerjee’s strategy is premised on a belief that Bengalis think as Bengalis first; and they cannot be communally polarised to the extent of Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh. The TMC strategy relies on demography — a fourth of West Bengal’s voters are Muslims — and the assumption of a Bengali exceptionalism that is less permeable to intellectual ingress from the east. While demography is a strong barrier, Bengali exceptionalism could be an exaggeration. Bengal has been a recipient and originator of ideas in its interconnections with territories to the east. Some formative ideas of Hindu nationalism originated in Bengal in the works of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and U.N. Mukherji. In today’s West Bengal, roughly 10% of the population is non-Bengali. The presumption that a latent, universal resentment against the ‘national’ is the leitmotif of Bengal politics is overwrought. In fact, Ms. Banerjee’s emphasis on Bengali identity could backfire on her.
The cross-border factor
Ms. Banerjee’s calculation is that Bengali nationalism could blunt the communal appeal of the BJP’s politics, but the way the debate is playing out could further religious polarisation. There is a cross-border Bengali identity that connects the populations of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The BJP too has a cross-border politics that connects Bangladesh and West Bengal as one theatre, but its basic premise is Hindu cultural nationalism. This idea was reinforced in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh recently. In the Hindutva imagination, West Bengal — and India — is a location of the Hindu refuge, while Bangladesh is a place of their persecution. The BJP has promised in West Bengal the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The BJP campaign in West Bengal has portrayed Ms. Banerjee’s Bengali nationalism as illegitimate affinity towards Bangladesh. The BJP said West Bengal would become the next Kashmir under the TMC — suggesting that Bangladesh was also Pakistan until 1971. At this juncture, Bengali identity gets divided, not along the international border between India and Bangladesh and India, but as Hindus and Muslims who live on both sides. In other words, far from catalysing any Bengali renaissance against Hindutva, the invocation of Bengali nationalism may have invoked traumatic memories of communalism, separatism and violence that pulverised the region for decades, thanks to the BJP’s retelling.
While the incumbent’s strategy has evident weaknesses, the challenger’s capacity is not beyond doubt, despite help from central agencies. It has been pointed out that the BJP performs weaker in Assembly elections compared to Lok Sabha elections. The argument goes that if it goes lower than its 2019 performance, the BJP cannot win in West Bengal. But each election has unique factors at play, and history also tells us there is always a first time. The BJP has no baggage of history in West Bengal. However, the party’s organisational capacity is limited in West Bengal, and it has no ground game — so much so that several of its high-profile rallies came a cropper. Comparing one election to another is always fraught with problems, but the situation in West Bengal is broadly comparable to Assam in 2016 — a besieged incumbent, a triangular fight in some regions, and the BJP led by defectors from other parties.
COVID-19 in the last one year has once again reminded us of the growing inequalities in India. A recent Pew Research Report shows that India’s middle class may have shrunk by a third due to the novel coronavirus pandemic while the number of poor people earning less than Rs. 150 per day more than doubled. The Pew report also warned that the situation may actually be worse than estimated because of worsening inequalities. International organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Labour Organization have also warned about rising inequalities in several countries including India due to the pandemic.
Made worse now
Inequalities in India have been high even in the pre-COVID-19 period. The economic shock due to the pandemic has been much more severe for the country for two reasons. First, pre-COVID-19, the economy was already slowing down, compounding existing problems of unemployment, low incomes, rural distress, malnutrition, and widespread inequality. Second, India’s large informal sector is particularly vulnerable. Inequalities were increasing earlier also but the pandemic has widened them further. For example, the share of wages declined as compared to that of profits. The big companies and a large part of the corporate sector could manage the pandemic. The quarterly net profit of the BSE200 companies reached a record high of Rs. 1.67 trillion in the third quarter of FY21 and was up by 57% year-on-year. But the informal sector and workers have suffered a lot with loss of incomes and employment in the last one year. In other words, the recovery is more k-shaped with rising inequalities.
The economy recovered in the third quarter of FY21 with a positive GDP growth of 0.4% as compared to minus 24.4% in the first quarter and minus 7.3% in the second quarter. For the year FY21, the economy would contract by 8%. GDP growth is likely to increase by 10%-11% in FY22. But the levels of GDP show that it will grow only around 1.1% in FY22 as compared to FY20 levels. According to the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy, the employment rate is still 2.5 percentage points lower now as compared to the level before the lockdown last year. Women lost more jobs and many are out of the workforce. Inequalities have increased in health care and education.
A three-step plan
As the British economist Anthony Atkinson says, “much is written about the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. But, if we are serious about reducing income inequality, what can be done?” Reduction in inequalities is important for its own sake and for improving demand which can raise private investment, consumption and exports for higher and sustainable economic growth.
We concentrate here on a three-pronged approach for reducing inequalities. These are: focus on employment and wages; raising human development, and quasi universal basic income and other social safety nets.
First, creation of quality or productive employment is central to the inclusive growth approach. At the macro level, the investment rate which declined from 39% in 2011-12 to 31.7% in 2018-19 has to be improved. Investment in infrastructure including construction can create employment. In the recent Budget, the central government has rightly focused on capital expenditure for infrastructure.
There are seven challenges in employment: creating productive jobs for seven to eight million per year; correcting the mismatch between demand and supply of labour (only 2.3% of India’s workforce has formal skill training as compared to 96% in South Korea, 80% in Japan, and 52% in the United States; Structural change challenge (manufacturing should be the engine of growth. Here, labour-intensive exports are important and manufacturing and services are complementary); focusing on micro, small & medium enterprises and informal sectors including rights of migrants; Getting ready for automation and technology revolution; Social security and decent working conditions for all; raising real wages of rural and urban workers and guaranteeing minimum wages.
The second approach is in creating equality of opportunity by improving human development. Increasing public expenditure on health and education is another form of redistributive measure. COVID-19 has supplied us several lessons on the health sector. Public expenditure on health is only 1.5% of GDP. Apart from spending on vaccines and other related measures, we need to move towards universal health care and spend 2%-3% of GDP on health. Education and health achievements are essential for reducing inequality of opportunities. Much dichotomy exists in both these sectors. In education, there are islands of excellence that can compete internationally even as a vast majority of masses of children are churned out with poor learning achievement. We also have the experience of a digital gap in education during the pandemic. One has to fix this dichotomy in health and education.
The third approach is in providing a quasi-universal basic income and other safety nets. For example, C. Rangarajan and I had suggested three proposals on minimum income for the poor and the vulnerable in the post-pandemic period. These are: cash transfers to all women above the age of 20 years; expanding the number of days provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and a national employment guarantee scheme for urban areas. In all these proposals, there is no problem of identification. A combination of cash transfers and an expanded guarantee scheme would provide income support to the needy.
Apart from the ideas above, increasing farmers’ income especially for small and marginal farmers is needed to reduce inequalities and create demand. Farmer producer organisations should be strengthened. States have to be given a bigger role in agri-marketing reforms. The terms of trade for agriculture have to be improved.
Tax base, budgets
Enhancing tax and non-tax revenues of the government is needed to spend on the above priorities. The tax/GDP ratio has to be raised, with a wider tax base. Richer sections have to pay more taxes. Similarly, the inequalities between the Centre and States in finances should be reduced. State budgets must be strengthened to improve capital expenditures on physical infrastructure and spending on health, education and social safety nets.
Apart from economic factors, non-economic factors such as deepening democracy and decentralisation can help in reducing inequalities. Unequal distribution of development is rooted in the inequalities of political, social and economic power. We have to find opportunities and spaces where the power can be challenged and redistributed. In the post-COVID-19 world, addressing inequality is important for higher and sustainable economic growth and the well-being of the population.
S. Mahendra Dev is Director and
Vice-Chancellor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai
Going into the final lap of the Kerala Assembly election campaign, the million-dollar question is whether the Left Democratic Front (LDF) can buck the four-decade-old trend of the electorate voting out the government in the State. Even as pre-election surveys and opinion polls predict a second term for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the outcome would still depend on many factors, including the polarisation of Christian votes in central Kerala. While pollsters generally tend to take the Christian community as a monolith, or distinguish only between Syrian Christians and Latins, it is important to analyse the historic role played by the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala politics to establish the root cause of this vote shift.
Switching of loyalties
Syrian Christians, or Saint Thomas Christians, are further divided into the Syro-Malabar Church (Catholics), the Jacobite, Orthodox and Mar Thoma factions of the Malankara Rite, apart from the Protestants. The long-standing dispute between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions had been sought to be capitalised on by both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala for a while, but it is the tectonic shift in the political stance of the numerically strong Syro-Malabar Church which jolted the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the preceding local body polls.
The significance of the switching of loyalties of the Syro-Malabar Church needs to be underscored by the fact that it has been a crucial political player in the State right from the 1950s. In fact, the Catholic Church was at the vanguard of the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle) which felled the first E.M.S. Namboodiripad-led Communist Party of India (CPI) government.
The formation of the Kerala Congress, the Congress breakaway party, in 1964, was the first instance of the Church ditching the Congress in Kerala. But when the Congress split at the national level in 1969 and Youth Congress leaders such as A.K. Antony and Vayalar Ravi assumed leadership of the party with their progressive policies in Kerala, the Church went back to supporting the Kerala Congress. When the Kerala Congress joined the Congress-CPI alliance government led by C. Achutha Menon in 1975 during the Emergency, it backed that government, and its support for Congress has continued since. Even as recently as the tenure of the previous LDF government led by V.S. Achuthanandan, the Church and the CPI(M) were at each other’s throats, with then Education Minister M.A. Baby regularly baiting the Church.
However, some developments during the latter half of the tenure of the Achuthanandan government led to a gradual change in this equation. The Kerala Congress faction led by P.J. Joseph was increasingly getting marginalised in the LDF and the 2008 delimitation exercise saw Malappuram district, the stronghold of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), getting additional seats. The IUML had been politically isolated in Kerala politics until 1967 when the Left gave it political representation. The party made steady progress in extending its clout.
Post the 2008 delimitation exercise, the Syro-Malabar Church took the initiative to broker a truce between the Kerala Congress factions of K.M. Mani and P.J. Joseph leading to their merger in 2010 to try and ensure parity with the IUML in their political representation in the UDF. However, the Congress refused to concede extra seats to the unified Kerala Congress and the merged party ended up contesting much fewer seats than the IUML in the 2011 Assembly polls. In that close election, the UDF prevailed over the LDF. The IUML, which had a good strike rate compared to other parties, demanded a fifth ministerial position, thereby breaking the power equations prevailing in the UDF. Not only did IUML’s flexing of muscles have an impact on the majority community, it also riled the Church which saw the once dominant Kerala Congress, a party it identified with, being reduced to a small player in the UDF. Nevertheless, as the Congress had the advantage of being in power in New Delhi, it managed to keep things in check for the time being.
Following the Congress’s ouster at the Centre and the UDF’s loss in Kerala in 2016, stray cases of Christian girls running away with their partners to join the Islamic State began to occupy the minds of the clergy and the BJP’s high-pitched ‘love jihad’ campaign began to resonate with the Church during this period. This phase also coincided with a steep fall in prices for rubber, a crop synonymous with the Syrian Christian community in central Kerala, and an increase in Gulf remittances and growing affluence among the Muslim community.
Fear of IUML domination
Meanwhile, the Kerala Congress also came out of the UDF and the ball was set rolling for the party’s LDF entry before the next election. With K.M. Mani’s demise, the official faction was led by Jose K. Mani, his son, and joined forces with the LDF. This brought the Church closer to the Communists. For a long time, K.M. Mani was the Church’s pointsman in the UDF. His demise meant that the UDF no longer had a line of communication open with the Church. The Congress’s tactic to bring Oommen Chandy, hailing from the Orthodox faction, to the forefront in the run-up to the Assembly election had absolutely no impact on the Church whatsoever as Mr. Chandy no longer enjoyed the Church’s trust.
The wresting of three extra seats by the IUML in the UDF, up from 24 in 2016 to 27 in 2021, further raised the hackles of the Church even as the P.J Joseph-led Kerala Congress faction had to settle for just 10 seats. Meanwhile, the LDF was magnanimous in allotting more seats to the Jose K. Mani-led Kerala Congress faction, sending a clear signal to the Church that its representative in the LDF would get decent accommodation.
An article by a key IUML leader in the party organ on Hagia Sophia’s re-opening as a mosque in Turkey and the Congress’s confused response on the issue of reservations for economically weaker sections following IUML’s posturing had exacerbated the Church’s schism with the UDF even before the local body polls. The LDF’s win defying all predictions in those polls was clearly aided by the Christian vote shift away from the UDF in Central Travancore, among other factors.
The Church reckons that it is in its interest to back the LDF this time around. Its fear of IUML dominating the UDF is also parroted by the LDF propagating this theory with abandon. The UDF is the ultimate loser here as any polarisation in its Christian vote will upset its plans of coming back to power. The Congress hasn’t also helped its cause by failing to open a channel of communication with the Church following K.M. Mani’s demise. Unless the laity chooses to defy the Church in large numbers, the UDF will end up paying a heavy price for failing to arrest matters following the setback in the local body polls.
Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post
U.S. President Joe Biden has called Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean President Kim Jong-un “thugs”, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” and Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer”. Like individuals, nations too are prone to using epithets, but are vexed when paid back in similar coinage. Therefore, the U.S.-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in March at Alaska was instructive in many respects.
The public is accustomed to read-outs about conversations between international leaders. These often portray a righteous West instructing the world on how to behave by constructing a media narrative for the domestic audience. It cannot be assumed that foreign leaders who receive diatribes from western counterparts listen penitently without response. It is noteworthy that there are few read-outs of conversations between non-western leaders, who do not pontificate and have no global media at their disposal.
Confrontation and competition
Former U.S. President Donald Trump accused China of unfair trade practices and pursued a dual policy of offering deals and threatening sanctions, but China continued to extend its influence and counter American increases in military funding by expanding its own military power. The U.S. and Europe have imposed sanctions against China, Russia and others. The U.S.-sponsored Quad with Japan, India and Australia will prove an uphill effort because even some of the U.S.’s formal allies have re-shaped their foreign and economic relations with China.
Confrontation and competition between the U.S. and China will dominate this century. Mr. Biden has censured China for human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, aggression in the South and East China Seas, intimidation of Taiwan, intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, and cyberattacks, but these homilies are incidental to U.S.-China tension, which is due to China’s rise that is transforming power settings and the U.S.’s attempts to constrict China before it becomes a peer competitor. China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, has established a worldwide network of economic ties and set up multilateral and financial institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to compete with the West-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Preliminaries for the Alaska meeting were not promising: Beijing saw it as the start of a strategic dialogue, while Washington diminished it as a one-off event. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, hoping to seize the initiative, opened the meeting with a charge sheet against China, comprising attacks on values; threats to a rules-based order that maintains global stability; China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan; cyberattacks on the U.S.; and economic coercion against U.S. allies. To this, Chinese Communist Party leader Yang Jiechi countered that China would strongly oppose interference in China’s internal affairs, referred to the U.S.’s struggling democracy and poor treatment of minorities, and criticised U.S. policies as seeking military and financial hegemony to impose extra-territorial jurisdiction and suppress other countries. He concluded that the U.S. abuses definitions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges.
These sharp exchanges were intended for respective domestic audiences. The American media were bewildered about how to portray this accusation of their country’s policies and resorted to calling the Chinese position intemperate. Despite the bombast, the Americans require the Chinese to deal with certain issues, and the meeting ended with anodyne agreement to work together on issues like climate change, COVID-19, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and G-20, health, cyber-security, the Iran nuclear issue, Afghanistan, Korea and Myanmar.
The U.S.-China rhetoric masks the reality that both countries need each other not only for world stability but growth, supply chains, jobs, services, investments and market access. China’s rise generated booms for numerous Asian and Western economies and accelerated the transition of the U.S. towards the lower end of manufacturing.Sanctions used indiscriminately against China are unlikely to engender any change of behaviour, and it is clear that hectoring will not be left unanswered. The U.S. deals for the first time with an economic and military rival it cannot browbeat, and economic interdependence today makes the war of words confined to words. Mr. Putin correctly summed up this situation: “They (the Americans) think that we are like them, but we are different. We have a different genetic, cultural and moral code.” With the prevailing mistrust across regions, every possible solution becomes an insuperable problem.
Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary
It is ironic that it has taken a pandemic to acknowledge the significance of fair and equal access to the Supreme Court, or the lack thereof. While the lockdown limited people’s movements, it opened new vistas for litigants and lawyers across India to approach, through technology, the country’s highest court with relative ease. It is no wonder then that despite demands for a return to physical hearings by the Bar in Delhi, there are calls for virtual access to the Supreme Court to continue.
Even at the time the Constitution was being debated by the Constituent Assembly, geographical access to the Supreme Court was flagged as a concern. The B.R. Ambedkar-led Drafting Committee was nevertheless of the view that the Court must have a specified place of sitting and that litigants should “know where to go and whom to approach”. However, the framers of the Constitution agreed that the volume of litigation from different parts of the country may require the Supreme Court to increase its reach and hold court elsewhere. Accordingly, in recognition of the same, the Constitution empowered the Chief Justice to hold sittings of the Supreme Court through Circuit Benches in places other than Delhi as well. However, despite an increasing caseload and repeated pleas by litigants and governments, successive Chief Justices have refused to invoke this constitutional power for reasons best known to them.
In India, given the unified, single-pyramidal structure of the judicial system, all types of cases can potentially make their way to the Supreme Court, irrespective of the place or forum of the original institution. It is the effective exercise of that right, however, that is curtailed by the court assembling exclusively in Delhi. According to a report by the Centre for Policy Research, a disproportionately high number of cases filed in the Supreme Court originated in High Courts closer to Delhi. For instance, cases from States like West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, which collectively account for around a fifth of India’s total population, contribute to less than 10% of the court’s docket. On the other hand, almost 18% of all cases in the Supreme Court originate from Punjab and Haryana, with less than 5% of the total population share.
Geographical constraints have also meant that appearing before the Supreme Court has inescapably become the domain of a select few lawyers in and around Delhi. Such implied exclusivity consequently translates into steep and often prohibitive monetary costs for litigants. Without the option of a local advocate of their choice, litigants are forced to choose from what the Bar in Delhi offers, both in terms of quality and costs.
A Court for everyone
Thus, the pandemic, although for different reasons, has compelled the Supreme Court to attempt to overcome physical constraints in an effort to increase access, albeit virtually. Over the past year, with virtual hearings, what was seen as the exclusive domain of a limited number of lawyers in Delhi has opened up to advocates from all over India, most of whom could only ever have dreamt of addressing the Supreme Court in their lifetimes. Litigants now have the option to engage a local lawyer of their own choice and convenience, including the same lawyer who argued their case before the lower court.
Indeed, virtual hearings may not be the perfect alternative, but such imperfections must be preferred over a denial of the right to access justice itself. It is only when each person in India is provided unhindered access to its corridors can the Supreme Court be said to have fulfilled its constitutional promise. More than one Law Commission and Parliamentary Committee have recommended Circuit Benches of the Supreme Court to be set up around the country. Nonetheless, till the judiciary acts on such proposals, virtual hearings should be allowed to continue, if not as a matter of right, then at least as a matter of just and equitable policy.
Anhad S. Miglani is an alumnus of the National Law School, Bengaluru, and a practising advocate
The States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, along with the Union Territory of Puducherry, are going to the polls today after an extremely competitive campaign. Voting in all 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu and 140 in Kerala is taking place in a single phase. In T.N. and Kerala, the DMK and the Congress respectively, can ill-afford to lose another election. The AIADMK government in T.N. is seeking a third straight mandate while the CPI(M)-led LDF government in Kerala is seeking a second consecutive term. After being out of power for 10 years, the DMK hopes to be back in the saddle in T.N. Meanwhile, there is a search for new alignments in both States. The fragmentation of Dravidian politics, following the passing of Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK and M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, has opened up possibilities. Actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan and film-maker and Tamil nationalist Seeman also fancy their chances as they jostle for space in the changed scenario. Though the BJP is far from gaining a foothold in either State, its looming influence is evident in the resonance of religious appeals in the public sphere. In Kerala, the BJP and the Congress promised to keep the Sabarimala shrine out of bounds for women of menstruating age citing tradition while the LDF quietened its stance fearing a Hindu backlash. A constituent of the LDF said ‘love jihad’ was a matter of concern; in T.N., the DMK sought to give itself a makeover as a party not antithetical to customs and traditions.
In the rivalry between the Dravidian camps in T.N., the Congress used to be the swing power. Whether it retains that role is to be seen. With Rahul Gandhi’s personal fortunes too at stake, the ripples of its performance in Kerala will be felt for the Congress across the country. The campaigns in T.N. and Kerala were thankfully not centred around communalism, but misogynistic statements by representatives of progressive parties were unfortunate. Parties and the people must put a cost on leaders who make offensive statements. All parties in both States appeared to support welfarism through various modes, but less attention was paid to discussing economic and development issues. Unless the focus is on growth, the incoming governments in both T.N. and Kerala may find the present welfarism unsustainable. The role of the central agencies during the campaign was controversial for several reasons. True, it is their duty to investigate illegal activities, but if they do so in a manner that seemingly helps the ruling party at the Centre and constrains its political opponents during the campaign, the election gets vitiated. The Election Commission of India must take note of this increasing unhealthy trend, and do what is essential to ensure a level-playing field in elections.
The deaths of over 20 paramilitary personnel in an encounter with the Maoists in the Tarrem area near Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district once again puts the spotlight on the long-running conflict in this remote tribal region. Reports indicate a Maoist ambush of the paramilitary personnel from different units – the Special Task Force, the District Reserve Guard of the Chhattisgarh police besides the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)’s elite COBRA unit — who had proceeded to perform combing operations in Maoist strongholds. The units had embarked upon their combing exercise at a time when Maoists were trying to disrupt the construction of a road near Silger-Jagargunda. The lack of road and telecommunications infrastructure in these remote areas has been one of the reasons for the Maoists being able to use the terrain to their advantage. Questions will be asked as to how such a large force failed to anticipate the ambush and were attacked by insurgents reportedly belonging to the Maoists’ “1st Battalion” led by a tribal, Hidma. The encounter has raised the number of security forces killed in Bastar to more than 175 since the killing of 76 CRPF personnel in the Chintalnar attack in April 2010. It is now quite clear that despite facing losses to its cadre and leadership across central and east India and being hemmed into possibly its only remaining stronghold of south Chhattisgarh, the Maoists are still a formidable military threat.
The Maoist insurrection which began first as the Naxalite movement in the 1970s and then intensified since 2004, following the merger of two prominent insurgent groups, remains a mindless guerrilla-driven militant movement that has failed to gain adherents beyond those living in remote tribal areas either untouched by welfare or are discontents due to state repression. The Maoists are now considerably weaker than a decade ago, with several senior leaders either dead or incarcerated, but their core insurgent force in south Bastar remains intact. The recourse to violence is now little more than a ploy to invite state repression which furthers their aim of gaining new adherents. While the Indian state has long since realised that there cannot only be a military end to the conflict, the Chhattisgarh government’s inability to reach out to those living in the Maoist strongholds remains a major hurdle, which has resulted in a protracted but violent stalemate in the area. The Tarrem attacks came in the wake of a recent peace march held by civil society activists who had urged a dialogue between the Maoists and the Chhattisgarh government to end the violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2000 alone, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. While a military response and recriminations will inevitably follow the ambush, the civil society plea must not be ignored if a long-lasting solution to the conflict is to be achieved.
Allahabad, April 3: A Home correspondent sends to the “Pioneer” the following details of the expedition to Mount Everest. The party would consist of Colonel Howard Buryp in command, Mr. Harold Raeburn, the mountaineering expert, Mr. T. Linch of the Alpine Club, and Dr. Wollastan, who, besides being in medical charge, will also take charge of the Botanic and other scientific parts of the expedition. They will be leaving London towards the end of March and will be joined in India by Mr. Morshead and Mr. Wheeler Len and by the Indian Survey Department and Dr. Kollas, the celebrated Himalayan Mountaineer. The start for Mount Everest will be made from Darjeeling at about the middle of May and the country over which the expedition will move in its journey to the northern slopes of the mountain is virtually unexplored. It is hardly expected to accomplish the ascent of the mountain this year as a good deal of exploration work has first to be done in and around the unexplored valleys north of the mountain and it is anticipated from this exploration work that the best way to ascend the mountain will be ascertained.
Krishnagar, April 5: The famous Hardinge Bridge over Padma river in Kushtia district is quite safe and sound, though bombed by the West Pakistani army, according to an eye-witness report. A PTI correspondent, who visited Kushtia town, 120 km from here yesterday, found the liberation forces heavily guarding the bridge with an anti-aircraft gun and a contingent of 60 men on each side of it. The correspondent who reached Kushtia via Shikarpur and Pragpur also witnessed heavy bullet marks on several buildings in the town, including those of the police lines, zilla school, wireless centre and dak bungalow. Returning via Varamara, he came by roads blocked by felled trees and static goods wagons at the railway crossing. Meanwhile, Mr. Jaharul Haque Raja Miah, Awami League member of the East Bengal Provincial Assembly from Varamara, told the correspondent that the district was under the full control of the League. He said the League authorities of the district had issued an order to all government employees of the area to resume their duties by April 5, failing which they would be severely penalised to the extent of termination of service or even capital punishment.