Editorials - 02-03-2021

Time is running out for the Joe Biden administration, but there is an opportunity for Brussels to take a lead role

Of all the foreign policy challenges facing the Joe Biden administration, none is more critical than salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal) that has been unravelling over the last three years when Donald Trump unilaterally discarded it. It also seems the most straightforward because Mr. Biden has consistently advocated a return to the JCPOA provided Iran returns to full compliance; Iran has always reiterated its commitment to the JCPOA maintaining that the steps it took are reversible as long as the United States lifts the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since 2018. And yet, it is complicated and time is running out as both Iran and the U.S. struggle to overcome the impasse.

U.S. policy reversal

The JCPOA was the result of prolonged negotiations from 2013 and 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, or the EU). It happened, thanks to the back channel talks between the U.S. and Iran, quietly brokered by Oman, in an attempt to repair the accumulated mistrust since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama described the JCPOA as his greatest diplomatic success. Iran was then estimated to be months away from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to produce one nuclear device. The JCPOA obliged Iran to accept constraints on its enrichment programme verified by an intrusive inspection regime in return for a partial lifting of economic sanctions. Faced with a hostile Republican Senate, Mr. Obama was unable to get the nuclear deal ratified but implemented it on the basis of periodic Executive Orders to keep sanction waivers going.

Mr. Trump had never hidden his dislike for the JCPOA calling it a “horrible, one sided deal that should have never, ever been made”. After ranting about it for a year, he finally pulled the plug on it in May 2018 and embarked on a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table. The U.S. decision was criticised by all other parties to the JCPOA (including the European allies) because Iran was in compliance with its obligations, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For the first year after the U.S. withdrawal, Iran’s response was muted as the E-3 (France, Germany, the U.K.) and the EU promised to find ways to mitigate the U.S. decision. But by May 2019, Tehran’s ‘strategic patience’ was wearing out as the anticipated economic relief from the E-3/EU failed to materialise. As the sanctions began to hurt, Tehran shifted to a strategy of ‘maximum resistance’.

The unravelling of the JCPOA

On the nuclear front, beginning in May 2019, Iran began to move away from JCPOA’s constraints incrementally: exceeding the ceilings of 300kg on low-enriched uranium and 130 MT on heavy-water; raising enrichment levels from 3.67% to 4.5%; stepping up research and development on advanced centrifuges; resuming enrichment at Fordow; and violating limits on the number of centrifuges in use. Finally, in January 2020, following the drone strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qasem Soleiman, Tehran announced that it would no longer observe the JCPOA’s restraints, though its cooperation with the IAEA would continue.

Tensions rose as the U.S. pushed ahead with its unilateral sanctions, widening their scope to cover nearly all Iranian banks connected to the global financial system, industries related to metallurgy, energy and shipping, individuals related to the defence, intelligence and nuclear establishments and even senior political leaders including the Supreme Leader and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. By end-2020, the U.S. had imposed nearly 80 rounds of sanctions targeting close to 1,500 individuals and entities.

Events in Iran

This came on top of COVID-19 that affected Iran badly, which had over 1.6 million infections and more than 60,000 deaths. The Iranian economy contracted by 7% in 2019 and another 6% in 2020. In mid-2020, Iran was shaken by a series of unexplained fires and blasts at a number of sensitive sites including one at the Natanz nuclear facility and another at Khojir, a missile fuel fabrication unit. The damage at Natanz, described as ‘sabotage’, was significant, leading Tehran to announce that it would be replaced by a new underground facility.

Last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior nuclear scientist and head of the Research and Innovation Organisation in the Iranian Defence Ministry was killed outside Tehran in a terrorist attack amid rumours of external intelligence agencies’ involvement. Days later, Iranian Parliament, dominated by the conservatives, passed a bill seeking enrichment to be raised to 20%, acceleration of deploying new cascades and suspending implementation of some of the special inspection provisions with the IAEA within two months if sanctions relief was not forthcoming.

No appetite for talks

Clearly, Mr. Trump’s policy may have provided comfort to Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but it failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and only strengthened the hardliners. Iran has suffered and there is no appetite for more negotiations. The E-3’s promised relief Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), created in 2019 to facilitate limited trade with Iran has been a disappointment; its first transaction only took place in March 2020. EU-Iran trade fell from €18 billion in 2018 to less than a third in 2019 and dropped further last year.

A recent IAEA report has confirmed that 20% enrichment had begun as had production of uranium metal at Isfahan. However, a recent visit by IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi to Tehran enabled a ‘technical understanding’ to postpone Iran’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol (that it had voluntarily accepted in 2015) by three months. Moreover, Iranian elections are due in June and it is likely that President Hassan Rouhani’s successor may not be from the ‘moderate’ camp. Though the nuclear dossier is controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he too had to wait for the moderate Rouhani/Zarif combine to be elected in 2013 for the JCPOA negotiations to commence.

If the U.S. waits for Iran to return to full compliance before lifting sanctions or Iran waits for the U.S. to restore sanctions relief before returning to full compliance, it can only lead to one outcome — the collapse of the JCPOA with Iran going nuclear like North Korea; an outcome that would create major reverberations in the region and beyond. Only good intentions will not be enough to overcome this impasse.

Overcoming the impasse

The Biden administration has made a good start by appointing Robert Malley as the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran but he will need help. Positive steps along multiple tracks are necessary for creating a conducive atmosphere. Release of European and American nationals currently in custody in Iran would help. Clearing Iran’s applications to the International Monetary Fund for COVID-19 relief and for supply of vaccines under the international COVAX facility can be done relatively easily. Oman’s quiet facilitation helped create a positive environment for the JCPOA. After the Al Ula summit, Qatar and Kuwait too are well placed to play a diplomatic role and together, they can urgently explore the possibilities for forward movement in Yemen, with help from the EU and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths.

The E-3/EU need to fast track deals worth several hundred million euros stuck in the INSTEX pipeline, with a visible nod from the U.S.. Not all U.S. sanctions can be lifted instantly, but reversing Mr. Trump’s Executive Order of May 8, 2018 is possible as also removing sanctions on Iranian political leaders; both would send a positive signal. If not with Iran, the U.S. should share with the E-3/EU a 45-60 day time frame for progressive restoration of sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Iran needs to refrain from any further nuclear brinkmanship. The IAEA and the E-3/EU should work on a parallel reversal of steps taken by Iran to ensure full compliance with the JCPOA. Brussels has long wanted to be taken seriously as an independent foreign policy actor; it now has the opportunity to take a lead role.

Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

Political parties are trivialising Vivekananda, Tagore and Bose to win the West Bengal elections

When mainstream politics becomes recklessly instrumental, nothing is spared; even great idols and cultural symbols are trivialised through a process of appropriation in order to manipulate people’s emotions. In the campaign to the Assembly elections in West Bengal, we have been witnessing the competitive game of demonstrating one’s affinity with the icons of Bengal, such as Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. The Bharatiya Janata Party is at pains to demonstrate that it is not a north Indian party; and even if it loves to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’, it understands what the average Bengali bhadralok regards as his ‘cultural capital’. No wonder the leaders of the party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, often express their close ‘attachment’ to Vivekananda, Tagore and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Bhadralok consciousness

This symbolic politics of cultural appropriation cannot be adequately understood without looking at the consciousness of the Bengali bhadralok. Possibly, this consciousness has not yet been able to come out of its attachment to lost glory. The colonial encounter, the birth of the new intelligentsia, the nuanced conversation with the West or its ‘Enlightenment’ philosophies, and the rigorous process of inner churning led to what is generally regarded as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’. In a way, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to Tagore, or from Swami Vivekananda to Sri Aurobindo, Bengal witnessed its cultural fineness in the 19th and early 20th century. Possibly, the likes of Satyajit Ray or Amartya Sen sought to carry this legacy forward in contemporary times.

However, the harsh reality is that because of the trauma of Partition, the division of Bengal, the influx of refugees, economic decline and widespread social unrest, Bengal began to lose much of its cultural aura in independent India. In fact, this fall led to the bhadralok fixation on 19th century Bengal, and associated nostalgia.

Consequences of a fixation

This fixation led to a mechanised process of ritualisation; instead of a living and organic engagement with Vivekananda and Tagore, people reduced them to objects of worship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that average Bengalis often equate spirituality with routine visits to Belur Math or the Dakshineswar Kali temple and buying a couple of pocketbooks containing the messages of Vivekananda. Likewise, the middle class from Kolkata occasionally visits Shantiniketan, reduces it to a tourist spot, and usesRabindrasangeetas some sort of ritualistic mantras.

Not only that. A Bengali child, as I recall from my own experiences, often grows up with a belief that Bose was the ultimate icon of the freedom struggle and both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were not nice to him.

In fact, no political party in Bengal, be it the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Trinamool Congress, is free from this cultural politics. The BJP too seems to have understood this Bengali weakness; it is seeking to demonstrate that it can quote selectively from Vivekananda, appreciate Tagore’s paintings, and glorify Netaji’s heroism.

Amid this ‘invocation’ of Vivekananda and Tagore, we see the manifestations of ugly politics. The language of this politics is toxic; the continual classification of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ votes pollutes the collective psyche; and as everything becomes a utilitarian transaction, nothing is impossible — a politician in the Trinamool yesterday joins the BJP today; or a ‘leftist’ becomes a militant nationalist. While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seems to be becoming angrier and more restless with every passing day, Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah have begun to visit West Bengal quite frequently. Amid all this, there is no creative breakthrough or critical reflection. For the political class, Vivekananda and Tagore are just names; there is no honest engagement with their lives.

Misfits in the world of Hindutva

What is quite absurd is that the proponents of Hindutva — an ideology of hyper-masculine nationalism — are trying to possess Tagore. Imagine Tagore’s sublime prayers inGitanjali, his poetic universalism, his rhythmic engagement with the abundance of nature, and his tender, feminine and spiritually enriched aesthetic sensibilities. Imagine Tagore’s profound reflections on the dangers of hyper-nationalism and the resultant psychology of violence. Imagine some of the characters Tagore created in his novels — Gora with his existential quest and realisation of India as a maternal/inclusive space without walls of separation; Nandini with her feminine grace questioning the gigantic/hyper-masculine machine; and Nikhilesh seeing the dangers of communalisation of politics in the name of nationalism. Imagine Tagore nurturing the art of Nandalal Bose, conversing and debating with Gandhi, and experimenting with a kind of education that expands one’s horizon and nurtures the aesthetics of living. The politics that the proponents of Hindutva practise is the negation of almost everything Tagore stood for.

Likewise, it is important to realise that Swami Vivekananda, despite his saffron and visibly ‘Hindu’ look, cannot be fitted into the discourse of Hindutva. The monk sought to activate the conscience of a defeated nation, pleaded for “muscles of iron, nerves of steel and gigantic will”, celebrated the idea of a resurgent nation with a ‘soul’, and created an organisation of monks for social/spiritual work. But there is hardly any similarity between this project and what the likes of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar sought to create. After all, Vivekananda’s message was that of Upanishadic oneness and ‘practical Vedanta’ — an engaged religiosity that is not indifferent to the plight of the subaltern, or a religiosity that seeks to arouse the potential we all carry. Possibly, a hermeneutic engagement with the radical monk would inspire us to spread the message of love and altruistic action, not hatred and exclusion.

Who will educate our noisy politicians? We are living at a time when lies are transformed into gospels of truth, words have lost their meaning, political speeches have become mere rhetoric, and democracy has been reduced to election mathematics. It is perhaps futile to expect anything higher or nobler from the political class. But then, the question is whether average Bengalis are really ready to have a deep engagement with Vivekananda and Tagore. Or will they continue to reduce these figures into just brands for a false cultural pride?

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi

In Tamil Nadu, politicians seem oblivious to the lack of fiscal space and the opportunity cost of expenditure profligacy

The Government of Tamil Nadu, in early February, announced a waiver for farm loans from cooperative credit societies to the extent of Rs. 12,100 crore. There is now a clamour to include the farmers’ loans from banks as well in this scheme and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has also promised to waive farm loans and jewel loans within certain limits.

The DMK has also announced that it would waive educational loans from banks and loans of self-help groups from cooperative societies if voted to power in May 2021. It could likely be followed by a series of loan waivers for weavers and small traders, interest subvention, subsidised electricity and a host of open ended subsidies in the election manifestos. (A waiver of jewel loans from cooperative societies up to eight grams was also announced, citing novel coronavirus pandemic distress, but given its scale, it does not come under the purview of this article.)

What is of interest is the fiscal capacity of the Tamil Nadu government to implement these schemes and the opportunity costs of such schemes.

There has been special interest in the media to discuss the implications of the speech of the Tamil Nadu Finance Minister, on February 23, introducing the Interim Budget 2021-22 (https://bit.ly/3uHb8W7). The Budget speech is only a statement of intent, as the real Budget is the passage of finance and appropriation bills in the Assembly followed by the assent of the Governor.

It is obvious that the vote-on-account, probably for the first two months of the fiscal 2021-22, passed after the presentation of the Interim Budget 2021-22 alone needs to be considered for any practical purpose. That vote-on-account is not in the public domain; however, it is only a simple two-month projection of revenue and expenditure based on the Budget 2020-21 passed in the Assembly last year.

Therefore, any discussion on the Finance Minister’s speech introducing the Interim Budget 2021-22 shall remain an academic exercise and a political discourse to affect the full Budget for 2021-22 that will be presented by the new government after the 16th Legislative Assembly election is held.

No support to PSUs

In this context, delving into the fiscal indicators and finding out the fiscal capacity of the Government of Tamil Nadu to finance subsidies in the ensuing years are apt. The opportunity cost of squeezing the Budget to finance subsidy is the lack of direct budgetary support to public sector undertakings (PSUs) that provide public utilities.

Subsidies increase revenue expenditure, and without corresponding increase in tax and non-tax revenue for the government, the revenue deficit should naturally increase. Though every year the government claims that the revenue deficit ratio and fiscal deficit ratio are within statutory limits, the desirability and sustainability of debt have yet to be examined.

Revenue deficit ratio

The farm loan waiver announced in 2016 has been provided the funds in the subsequent five Budgets. In spite of this, the revenue deficit ratio was around 1.5 in the three-year period, 2017-20. During the same period, the all States’ average revenue deficit ratio was around 0.4, it was a near revenue balance in Karnataka and Telangana, and it was more than 2 in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

The cause for the elevated revenue deficit ratio in Tamil Nadu has been the increasing primary deficit ratio from 0.9 to 1.3. Primary deficit is the revenue deficit net of interest payments and the implication is that the government is unable to contain recurring expenditure such as subsidies and other discretionary expenditures within the limits of recurring non-debt revenue. So, the primary deficit ratio is the leading indicator for the revenue deficit ratio to follow and increasing primary deficit is the surest route to higher revenue deficit and unsustainable debt servicing in future. In the immediate pre-COVID-19 period, the trends in the revenue account summarised in the two deficit ratios show that there is little fiscal room to increase expenditure for new schemes.

Obviously, the next question is this: what is the possibility for increasing the recurring revenue? When we move to a rule-based fiscal policy that includes harmonisation of commodity taxation and restriction of deficit ratios, higher economic growth and tax elasticity alone can help us. But this is a long-term solution and politics suffers from short sight in economic policy visualisation.

Moreover, the trend in Tamil Nadu’s own tax revenue has not been buoyant in recent times and COVID-19 has further reduced tax buoyancy. We have little hope in the central government’s benevolence to support Tamil Nadu, if we believe the Finance Minister’s lament about declining central transfers both in the share in central taxes and grant-in-aid — tied or untied.

Extra-budgetary transactions

What is the opportunity cost of this public benevolence? We need to examine the extra-budgetary transactions for this.

In general, PSUs offer public utilities, which otherwise should be directly provided by the government. It is important that the government provide adequate direct budgetary support to PSUs if they price the public utilities below the unit cost.

The adequacy and quality of public utilities depend on the financial health of these PSUs. But in the absence of direct budgetary support, we can fix the financial sickness of PSUs to be a symptom of a fiscal tumour. For instance, in 2017-18, (the latest year for which we have the data), the total stock of borrowings of PSUs was Rs. 1,67,844 crore, interest payment was Rs. 14,043.03 crore, while incurring a loss of Rs. 17,423.56 crore. A case in point is the example of the Road Transport Corporations, which incurred a loss of Rs. 5,503.36 crore and interest payment of Rs. 1,017.83 crore over the borrowings of Rs. 7,160.91 crore.

Almost all the PSUs should have incurred massive losses and amassed unserviceable debt during the COVID-19 period — and this will accelerate in the couple of years to come.

If we add to this the PSUs borrowings and interest payments to the government’s debt and interest payments, the fiscal situation is unnerving.

The lack of fiscal space and opportunity cost of expenditure profligacy of the State show that politicians only think ‘in the long run we are all dead’ and ‘let us achieve short-run electoral victories by showing the low hanging fruits of subsidies’ modes.

R. Srinivasan is Professor, Department of Econometrics, University of Madras

There is little exploration of alternative policy approaches, or the longer-term consequences of Australia’s new law

This week, the Australian Parliament passed a world-first law targeting Google and Facebook. The lead up to the bill pitted the government against two of the world’s largest corporations and the discussion reached the world’s top leaders: the U.S. President weighed in and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed it. At the peak of the crisis, Facebook blocked all Australian users from posting or viewing any news on the platform. The law matters because it is likely to be copied by countries around the world, but there are some limitations to what has been agreed in Australia and opportunities for others to try alternative solutions.

Intent of the law

So, what is the law all about? The Mandatory Bargaining Code is an unusual piece of policy. It attempts to address two problems in one hit: how to tax large, multinational technology companies; and how to ensure that Australia maintains a strong, independent media. The code’s solution is to mandate transfer payments from the tech companies to news media organisations. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking: ‘But isn’t Australia a market economy?’ And that’s one of the most perplexing aspects of the new law. What it effectively does is require one industry to pay money to an unrelated industry. This is like forcing computer manufacturers to sustain typewriter manufacturers.

The underlying assumption is that Google and Facebook derive benefit and revenue by helping users access links to news stories. That is true to an extent, but by that logic every single business that receives a referral from a platform should be paid for it. If I searched the menu of a local restaurant, Google would have to pay that restaurant for my action. That model ignores the benefit businesses derive from the referral business, creates odd incentives and is not scalable.

The other unusual feature of the law is that it doesn’t apply to any company. The intention behind the legislation was to use it as a threat rather than to have it actually apply to the companies. In this respect it’s a little like a democratic version of a shakedown. If the companies don’t agree to pay news media outlets enough money in private deals, they face the risk of being designated by the Minister and forced to abide by the code. The code’s mandatory provisions are so onerous that the tech companies are highly incentivised to make generous payments to media companies to avoid the provisions. The payments agreed to in private deals can easily exceed revenue actually generated by the platform from displaying the news links. This is because the amounts they would be forced to pay under the code would likely be far higher, so it is better to overpay outside the scheme than risk falling under it.

As you might suspect, a law that proposes giving news organisations money for doing nothing new was received well among news businesses. Politically, it was an astute way to go after the tech giants because there was not a dissenting voice to be heard in the Australian mainstream media. The downside was that it meant there was little exploration of alternative policy approaches, or some of the longer-term consequences of the code.


Some might say, that might be true, but a strong independent media is the lifeblood of democracy and the tech companies need to pay more tax, so if a clunky policy solution is the price of getting there, I’m okay with that.

There is no doubt that societies around the world need to ensure they can sustain strong, independent news media. There are also lots of reasoned policy discussions on the best way to tax digital service companies. So, what are the alternatives?

A former Australian Prime Minister has mounted the public case that a tax on digital advertising would be a better way to go. This could cover all online advertising or just advertising platforms of a certain size. That would provide a scalable way to tax the platforms without creating the precedent of having one industry subsidising another.

On the issue of supporting news media, the new Australian law has one advantage in that it removes government from the role of deciding which outlets get cash injections. This removes the obvious conflict that government would have to hand out money to the least critical news outlets, defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. But as many governments that fund public broadcasters have learnt through bitter experience, there are effective ways of funding independent journalism at arm’s length.

The law is understandably going to be of great interest to media organisations everywhere, keen to copy their Australian counterparts and fill their coffers with some tech company cash. But it would be a shame if the rush for cash got in the way of a discussion of other approaches that could be explored.

Fergus Hanson is the Director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the author of ‘Internet Wars’

The collegium system has failed to keepexecutive interference at bay

The Supreme Court recently laid to rest the proceedings inquiring into a conspiracy to threaten the independence of the judiciary on the basis of sexual harassment allegations against the former Chief Justice of India (CJI), Ranjan Gogoi. After two years, the proceedings remained inconclusive.

Singular power

This was a missed opportunity, for it failed to recognise that if recent experiences are anything to go by, the threat to judicial independence comes from a source closer to home. This is the singular power of the CJI as the Master of the Roster – i.e., the vesting of exclusive discretion in the Chief Justice to constitute benches and allocate cases. In fact, this power lay at the heart of the controversy surrounding the proceedings the Court has now closed. It enabled Justice Gogoi to institutesuo motuproceedings despite being an accused; label the case as a matter of judicial independence; and preside over it.

From the standpoint of judicial independence, the Master of the Roster power makes the CJI’s office a high stakes one. It makes the CJI the sole point of defence of the Court against executive interference. However, this has a flip side. With the CJI as the sole Master of the Roster, any executive seeking to influence the Supreme Court needs only a pliant CJI. In other words, a pliant Master of the Roster carries the danger of producing a pliant Court.

This power is predicated upon the CJI’s seniority in the top court and the resultant presumption of propriety. However, B.R. Ambedkar had forewarned the Constituent Assembly: “…after all, the Chief Justice is a man with all the failings, all the sentiments and all the prejudices which we as common people have”. Yet, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to dilute this power. InAsok Pande v. Supreme Court of India(2018), a three-judge bench of the Court held that Master of the Roster is the CJI’s exclusive power. Thereafter, a two-judge bench inShanti Bhushan v. Supreme Court of India(2018) rejected the plea that the Master of the Roster should be interpreted as the collegium. Therefore, while the CJI’s other powers such as recommending appointments to constitutional courts are shared with other senior judges, the power of Master of the Roster is enjoyed without scrutiny.

Justice Gogoi finds himself in a unique position of being both a vocal critic of this power and also championing its execution. Despite levelling allegations of favouritism in how CJI Dipak Misra allocated cases, through the judges’ press conference, Justice Gogoi’s tenure as CJI did not prove much different. Apart from hearing many sensitive cases such as Ayodhya and Rafale himself, he also used this power to ignore conflict of interest when he presided over the proceedings on sexual harassment allegations against him.

Judicial reforms

Reforms in the Indian judiciary have been a continuing project, mostly responding to crises of the time. Hence, when Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister ordered punitive transfers of High Court judges and superseded judges to appoint the CJI, the Supreme Court formulated the collegium system in response. However, this system has failed to keep executive interferences at bay from the Supreme Court. This is for two reasons: first, as Justice Gogoi’s case shows, there is an attractive lure of post-retirement jobs; and second, as the privilege of Master of the Roster shows, the CJI’s allocation of cases is an unchecked power. The continuing project of judicial reforms should then address these two issues. A cooling-off period between retirement and a post-retirement appointment has often been suggested as a way to deal with the first problem. For the second, the power of Master of the Roster needs to be diversified beyond the CJI’s exclusive and untrammelled discretion. Whether these should vest with a larger cohort of serving judges is an issue that invites public debate and introspection within the institution of the Supreme Court.

Pranav Verma is an LLM candidate at the University of Cambridge

Pakistan avoided the blacklist,but it should address cross-border terror

To Islamabad’s deep disappointment, the Paris-based 39-member Financial Action Task Force has decided once again to keep Pakistan on its “grey list” of countries under “increased monitoring”, giving it another three months to complete its commitments. After being removed from that list in 2015, Pakistan was put back on it in June 2018, and handed a 27-point action list to fulfil. On Thursday, FATF President Marcus Pleyer announced that although Pakistan has made “significant progress”, it had three remaining points of the 27 that were only partially addressed, notably all in the area of curbing terror financing. The body listed the remaining tasks: demonstrating terror-funding prosecution is accurate, effective and dissuasive, and thoroughly implementing financial sanctions against all terrorists designated by the UN Security Council, which include LeT founder Hafiz Saeed, JeM chief Masood Azhar, other leaders of terror groups in Pakistan, and those belonging to al Qaeda. Pakistan’s former Interior Minister Rehman Malik has protested the decision most vociferously, even suggesting that the FATF should be taken to The Hague, given that other countries that have completed nearly all the points on their task lists have been dropped from the grey list. He also cited a recent report that calculated Pakistan has lost $38 billion because of its time on the grey list (2008-2015 and 2018-the present). It is cold comfort for Islamabad that the FATF chief also ruled out downgrading Pakistan to the “blacklist”, as he said that Pakistan has made progress on its commitments and this is not “the time” to contemplate the extreme step — this would mean enhanced sanctions and restrictions, as Iran and North Korea face at present. Mr. Pleyer advised Pakistan to complete the remaining tasks by June 2021, when the FATF will meet again to vote on the issue.

The FATF decision coincides with the first signs of a thaw between India and Pakistan since 2016. The decision of the Directors General of Military Operations, also on Thursday, to strictly observe the ceasefire agreement at the LoC, and revelations in the media, which have not been contradicted by the government, that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has been in touch with senior officials including the Pakistan Army Chief, are both significant. The joint statement also commits to resolving “core issues” that lead to violence between the two sides, indicating more dialogue between India and Pakistan could be on the cards; there are no political, trade, cultural ties at present. Pakistan’s next steps on the FATF directive to successfully prosecute terrorists and terror financers identified by the grouping are in its own interests. Any proposed New Delhi-Islamabad engagement in the next few months would get a much-needed boost if Pakistan traverses this ‘last mile’ on the FATF grey list, addressing India’s main grievance on cross-border terror that emanates from its soil.

As disenchantment rises, voters will lookfor viable, alternative governance platforms

Assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry will be taking place in changed circumstances. Polls will begin on March 27, with the results on May 2. Politics in these regions is not the same as it was five years ago. The BJP’s unrelenting pursuit of influence has unsettled conventional calculations in all these areas that are outside the core of the party’s traditional catchment area. In 2016, of the 824 seats in the fray, the BJP had won only 64 but it emerged as the ruling party in Assam. It hopes to retain power in Assam and win West Bengal, besides expanding its influence in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 2016, the BJP had won only three seats in West Bengal, but its rise was dramatic in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when it won 18 of the 42 seats and 40.64% of votes. The BJP’s performance in West Bengal will be the most eagerly watched aspect in these elections. The significant strength of Muslim voters in West Bengal is often cited as a demographic barrier for the Hindu nationalist party, but communal politics works best in areas where minorities mobilise in significant proportions. Assam and Kerala too have minority populations that are formidable in elections, and there are plausible combinations that could work to the BJP’s advantage. In Assam, the BJP’s twin agenda of the CAA and the NRC is a double-edged sword, and their electoral potency will be on test. What will matter most is the level of disenchantment with the ruling parties, and the alternative governance platform on offer.

The underperformance of the Congress in the DMK-led alliance contributed to a consecutive victory for the AIADMK in 2016, a rarity in Tamil Nadu. With the passing of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, Dravidian politics is at the crossroads and the BJP is looking for an opening. In Kerala, the LDF is hoping to retain power for a second consecutive term, contingent on a slide of the Congress. Such a scenario would also mean significant gains for the BJP. Across these places, regional parties are in general on the back foot. In Assam, the AGP is reduced to irrelevance and new outfits with a narrow focus have emerged. As the BJP raises its stakes, concerns that the Centre might play a partisan role in these elections are already high. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has termed the phasing out of polls in the State into eight segments a conspiracy to unseat her. The Election Commission must scrupulously play its role as an impartial umpire. There are also disturbing signs that communal polarisation could be higher, particularly in Assam and West Bengal. There could be some defining trends emerging from this round of elections, with long-term implications for politics in the country.

Calcutta, March 1: Further details of last evening’s riot at Howrah Station go to show that all local and main line train services were suspended for over six hours and traffic was disorganised for several hours causing great inconvenience to passengers. After a local passenger left Howrah at five and before she had proceeded half a mile the strikers bombarded the train with brick bats. The European driver and Indian fireman were hit and the train was stopped. Two European ladies and thirty Indian passengers were injured. The mob then attacked the power-house and the various cabin signal-boxes and points connected with the working of Howrah cabins and damaged them considerably. The strikers also set fire to the Ticcapara Railway gate which was practically destroyed. They cut telephone and telegraph wires and tore up part of the line on the Bengal Nagpur Railway. One pilotman who refused to stop work and was badly handled by the rioters is missing. A good many windows, lamps, etc. were broken but no material damage was done to rolling-stock or permanent way or cabins. On arrival of the police force, two hundred Gurkhas and a contingent of the East Indian Railway Volunteer Corps the mob dispersed. Troops are guarding the line between Howrah and Uttarparah while the Howrah Station yard and its approaches are guarded by police and Volunteers. By 9-30, the situation was within hand.

A mahout, who took his baby elephant with him to a booth in the Saidapet constituency in the City [Madras, March 1], was turned back by the police. Urchins in the locality, clustering noisily around the animal, and its keeper distracted voters for a time. The mahout came to the booth and cast his vote after leaving the elephant at a nearby temple.

“Rahu kalam”, the 90-minute period observed as inauspicious by the people, kept queues thin till nine in the morning in some areas of the City.

An 85-year-old woman, who arrived at a City polling station riding piggy back on her grandson, found to her dismay that her age was given in the electoral roll as 38. She was allowed to vote after she had convinced the polling officials that the error was not of her making.