Editorials - 12-05-2021

That the government did not come up with a detailed ‘COVID-19 Emergency’ Budget for the year 2021-22 is telling

“India has begun medically safeguarding not only her own citizens against COVID-19 but also those of 100 or more countries. I have provided Rs. 35,000 crores for Covid-19 vaccine in BE 2021-22...,” was the bombastic claim made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget speech to the nation on February 1, 2021 (https://bit.ly/33yHVAw).

Ms. Sitharaman assured the nation that her government at the Centre was protecting not only Indians but also people of other countries against COVID-19 and that she had provided enough money. She also boasted that the overall Budget for health had been increased substantially and pointed to details in Annexure I of the Budget speech. In Annexure I, a table under ‘Health and Wellbeing – Expenditure’ lists Rs. 35,000 crore for ‘Vaccination’ under ‘CoVID related Special Provisions’.

Zero amount

Logically, when the Finance Minister says that the Budget for ‘Health and Wellbeing’ is being expanded significantly, one would expect to see these details in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s Budget. Page 155 of the 350 page ‘Notes on Demands for Grants’ lists the Health Ministry’s Budget details for the year 2021-22. Item No.19 is clearly titled ‘Covid-19 Emergency Response & Health System Preparedness’, which lists an expenditure of Rs. 11,757 crore that was incurred in the previous year (2020-21) by the Centre in its fight against COVID-19.

But for the current year 2021-22, the amount budgeted for ‘Covid-19 Emergency Response’ is zero. One then ponders, wondering whether for some reason, COVID-related Budget provisions have been made under another expenditure item in the Ministry’s Budget this year.

The answer is ‘No’. It is a matter of alarm that there is no provision in the entire Ministry of Health’s 2021-22 Budget for COVID-19 vaccinations and other related expenditure. Moreover, the Health Ministry’s Budget for this year is lower than the amount spent last year when more money was needed to defeat the novel coronavirus this year. It turns out that Rs. 35,000 crore for COVID-19 vaccination has been allocated as “Loans/Grants to States” in the Budget of the Ministry of Finance.

Does this mean that when Ms. Sitharaman and the government sat down to prepare the Budget earlier this year, they did not think the Centre had any role to play in vaccination? Did they think that COVID-19 would just disappear providentially and that there was no money required this year for health supplies, infrastructure, and other expenses under the Health Ministry’s ‘Covid-19 Emergency Response package’? On what basis then did the Finance Minister say that her government would not only “safeguard” Indians but also the citizens of 100 or more other countries?

After this writer pointed this out first in a tweet, the Finance Ministry gave a long and a bureaucratic response about how even if the vaccination amount is not budgeted under the Health Ministry, the Centre could still use the money to procure vaccines and give it as an ‘in-kind’ grant to the States. This misses the point.

This is not a squabble about the technical details of budgeting for activities under different heads. This is about the intent, thought and actions of the Narendra Modi government in the middle of a national health emergency. Either the government was callous about the nation’s continued fight against COVID-19, or wanted to abdicate responsibility to the States entirely. If not, it would have made a meticulously detailed ‘Covid-19 Emergency’ Budget for the year 2021-22.

More questions

It is also justifiable to say that public health is a State subject, vaccination is the responsibility of the States, and hence, COVID-19 vaccination money should rightfully be given only to the States and not to the Health Ministry at the Centre. In which case, the States should also be given the full rights to decide and implement a COVID-19 health policy.

How is it then that the Centre chose to intervene and dictate an irrational vaccination pricing policy that has a lower price for the Centre and a higher price for the States for the exact same vaccine? If at the time of the Budget, the Finance Minister thought COVID-19 vaccination money was fungible and could be used either by the Centre or the States, then how does it square with the fact that with the same money, the Narendra Modi government would buy vaccines at a lower cost to vaccinate Indians above the age of 45 while the States would buy the same vaccines at a higher price for all others?

Vaccine is public good

It is amply evident that the Finance Minister and her government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is like a deer caught in the headlights. The thought behind the Budget for COVID-19 is at odds with its health policies for COVID-19. A knee-jerk and confused vaccination policy, with varying price structures and quotas for the Centre, States and private hospitals for the same vaccine, has made a royal mess of India’s vaccination efforts. The basic economic principle that a COVID-19 vaccine is an essential public good and not a private good like flight tickets to be priced differently for everyone, seems to have been lost on the government’s policy makers. It has now put the lives of a billion Indians and India’s $3 trillion economy at risk.

Earlier in January this year, it was crystal clear that India would need to vaccinate the vast majority of its people to put an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also well-established then that there were at least two vaccines available in India and more could be imported, as the Finance Minister herself alluded to in the Budget speech. The approximate costs for these vaccines were also known. Presumably, the Finance Minister and her team also knew the size of India’s population, and that they should multiply the costs of the vaccines with the total number of people to calculate the total amount needed for vaccinations.

Then, all that the government needed to do was to explicitly budget for the vaccination amount and other attendant costs in this final battle against the virus. The Health Ministry should have negotiated one standard price for each type of vaccine and procured them directly. After this, the vaccines should have been distributed to the States to set up vaccination camps and vaccinate people. All this was blindingly obvious even in January before the Budget was prepared. Lives and livelihoods were at stake. Instead, the Finance Minister resorted to headline and narrative management using half-truths and misleading claims.

Ineptitude

Is the Narendra Modi government so incompetent and reckless that even after five months, and after lakhs of lives have gone and billions of dollars lost in economic output it is still struggling to come up with a coherent vaccination policy and save Indians from this deadly pandemic? Alas, the answer is a yes. Let us not forget that it is the same Prime Minister and his government who thought that invalidating all currency overnight, in 2016, would magically eliminate black money or locking down the entire nation last year at just four hours notice would defeat the coronavirus as quickly as ‘the Pandavas won the Mahabharata war’.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman, Data Analytics department of the Congress party

The call for reforms today leaves out the stakeholders, which might undermine the very purpose of reforms

This year marks 30 years of the landmark economic reforms that permanently altered the production and distribution structures of the Indian economy. Swayed by the success of the 1991 reforms, albeit, at the macroeconomic level, there has been a growing clamour from economic commentators for some more doses of reforms in 2021. Both 1991 and 2021 have one thing in common: an economy facing a severe growth crisis. This raises two fundamental questions. First, is crisis a prerequisite for reforms? Second, given the magnitude of economic contraction, in 2021, are reforms capable of rejuvenating the economy or will they push the economy towards growth fatigue?

Crises and reforms

It is not very common to depart from initiating incremental policy changes to making fundamental shifts in economic policy. Big-bang policy reforms often face hurdles in terms of rules and routines. Overcoming these requires effort and conviction. Crises provide opportunities for radical changes as they break down the legitimacy of existing policy approaches. Crises thus create a space for new proposals and possibilities, which could have far-reaching consequences for the economy and society. Viewed from a sectoral perspective, during a crisis, the services delivered by some sectors do not meet societal expectations, which in turn sets the stage for institutional reforms to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of those sectors. For the policymaker, crises can generate increased demand for change and that could be the opportunity for which they would have been waiting. However, not all crises create conditions for widespread acceptance of reforms, as they could generate other by-products. Thus, to posit a linear causal relationship between crises and reforms could be erroneous.

Crises cause the breakdown of established structures leading to instability. They create uncertainty as the prevailing behaviour and choices of actors change. This combination of uncertainty and instability sets the stage for a reorientation of policies, packaged and delivered under the banner of reforms. The argument for converting a crisis into an opportunity to reform arises due to three factors. First, during a crisis, group relations and modes of interactions change, which sets a suitable background for change. Second, at times of crises, authority replaces rules, which makes it easier to push the polices in a short time span. Third, during periods of crisis, the legitimacy of prevailing rules and routines diminish, which makes it easier for actors to depart from them.

2021 is not 1991

The character and consequences of the crisis of 1991 and 2021 are different. In 1991, the crisis of the economy was the product of endogenous factors, that is, factors which were operating within the economic system. The crisis of 2021 is different, as it is the product of a pandemic, which is exogenous to the economic system. The cause-and-effect relations are entirely different in the latter, as the cause originates from outside the economic system and the economy is forced to adjust to this external shock. Further, in 1991, the crisis was limited to the Indian economy, while the present calamity has engulfed most global economies with varying intensities. This makes policy responses very challenging. In the former case, we could have India-specific policies, assuming that there would not be drastic changes in the rest of the world, while in the latter case, India-specific policies will have to be tempered with the dynamics of the rest of the world, as all affected economies are formulating policy responses at the same time.

The availability of a semi-fixed template for reforms eased the matter in 1991. The template, which had some generic measures for all the economies experiencing external sector imbalances, was a tried and tested one. This gave policymakers some headroom to anticipate the likely consequences in the post-implementation phase.

Two uncertainties

However, in 2021, the challenge is to evolve a country-specific package. Two uncertainties pose serious problems in charting such a set of measures. The first is the uncertainty with regard to the government’s own revenues which would limit the policy space for interventions. Expenditure reduction is not a viable strategy for expanding the scale and scope of policies in a situation of demand contraction due to the pandemic. The second is the unpredictability of global factors, as India’s dependence on the global economy increased manifold after the 1991 reforms. Both these have the potential to jeopardise the effective implementation of strategic changes.

The magnitude and intensity of the crisis of 2021 is manifold compared to that of 1991. There is also a lag effect in the unravelling of the scale and extent of the crisis, which is surfacing slowly. To highlight this point, I use only one piece of empirical data. In its recent research report, Pew Research Center observes that a large section of India’s population would be pushed into poverty as a fallout of the economic crisis driven by the novel coronavirus. To quote: “…. the number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) is estimated to have increased by 75 million because of the COVID-19 recession. This, too, accounts for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty. Perhaps not surprisingly, media reports from India point to a spike in participation in its rural employment programme – originally intended to combat poverty in agricultural areas – as the many who have lost jobs in the reeling economy seek work. The number now participating is setting record highs in the programme’s 14-year history”. The enormity of the crisis is appropriately captured in the research cited above, which throws light on the circumstances of 2021 and its non-suitability as a year for radical reforms.

All crises do not inevitably lead to possibilities for reforms, even though some do create opportunities for fundamental changes. However, to gauge whether a crisis can be turned into an opportunity for reforms requires an in-depth understanding of the factors that led to the crisis. Further, all the three clusters of actors who are crucial agents in the policy process — political leaders, policymakers and implementers, and the relevant stakeholders — need to have a shared vision. In 2021, the call for reforms leaves out the stakeholders, which might undermine the very purpose of reforms itself.

M. Suresh Babu is professor of economics at IIT Madras. Views expressed are personal

A critical assessment of the stand-off offers New Delhi key lessons in managing the strategic competition with China

After over a year, the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh shows no signs of resolution. Disengagement has stalled, China continues to reinforce its troops, and talks have been fruitless.

More broadly, the India-China bilateral relationship has ruptured. Political relations are marked by hostility and distrust. Reversing a long-held policy, New Delhi will no longer overlook the problematic border dispute for the sake of a potentially lucrative wider relationship; now, as India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has made clear, the relationship is conditional on quietude on the border.

Even if — a big if — disengagement continues, the relationship will remain vulnerable to destabilising disruptions. On the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and beyond, India’s military and political leaders will need to learn the right lessons from Ladakh, to ensure they are better postured to meet the challenge of Chinese coercion.

Study and findings

In a recent study published by the Lowy Institute (https://bit.ly/33ApECB) — ‘The crisis after the crisis: how Ladakh will shape India’s competition with China’ — this writer has argued that the Ladakh crisis offers New Delhi three key lessons in managing the intensifying strategic competition with China.

Revamping strategies

First, military strategies based on denial are more useful than strategies based on punishment. The Indian military’s standing doctrine calls for deterring adversaries with the threat of massive punitive retaliation for any aggression, capturing enemy territory as bargaining leverage in post-war talks. But this did not deter China from launching unprecedented incursions in May 2020, and the threat lost credibility when retaliation never materialised.

In contrast, the Indian military’s high-water mark in the crisis was an act of denial — its occupation of the heights on the Kailash Range on its side of the LAC in late August. This action served to deny that key terrain to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and gave the Indian Army a stronger defensive position from which it could credibly defend a larger segment of its front line.

A doctrinal focus on denial will give the Indian military greater capacity to thwart future land grabs across the LAC. By bolstering India’s defensive position, rather than launching an escalatory response, such a strategy is also more likely than punishment to preserve crisis stability. Over time, improved denial capabilities may allow India to reduce the resource drain of the increased militarisation of the LAC.

Political costs

The second key lesson of Ladakh is that China is more likely to be deterred or coerced with the threat of political costs, rather than material costs. Admittedly, the Chinese military’s deployment to the LAC was also large and extremely expensive. But China’s defence budget is three to four times larger than India’s (https://bit.ly/3ydmVgK), and its Western Theatre Command boasts over 200,000 soldiers (https://bit.ly/3bhOWK9). The material burden of the crisis would not disrupt its existing priorities.

In contrast, India successfully raised the risks of the crisis for China through its threat of a political rupture, not military punishment. A permanently hostile India or an accidental escalation to conflict were risks that China, having achieved its tactical goals in the crisis, assessed were an unnecessary additional burden while it was contending with the instability of its territorial disputes and pandemic response.

The corollary lesson is that individual powers, even large powers such as India, will probably struggle to shift Beijing’s calculus alone. To the extent that China adjusted its position in the Ladakh crisis, it did so because it was responding to the cumulative effect of multiple pressure points — most of which were out of India’s control. Against the rising behemoth, only coordinated or collective action is likely to be effective.

Indian Ocean Region is key

The third lesson of Ladakh — and possibly the hardest to address — is that India should consider accepting more risk on the LAC in exchange for long-term leverage and influence in the Indian Ocean Region. From the perspective of long-term strategic competition, the future of the Indian Ocean Region is more consequential and more uncertain than the Himalayan frontier.

At the land border, the difficult terrain and more even balance of military force means that each side could only eke out minor, strategically modest gains at best. In contrast, India has traditionally been the dominant power in the Indian Ocean Region and stands to cede significant political influence and security if it fails to answer the dizzyingly rapid expansion of Chinese military power.

The Ladakh crisis, by prompting an increased militarisation of the LAC, may prompt India to defer long-overdue military modernisation and maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean. To keep its eyes on the prize, New Delhi will have to make tough-minded strategic trade-offs, deliberately prioritising military modernisation and joint force projection over the ground-centric combat arms formations required to defend territory.

This will be a politically formidable task — blood has now been spilled on the LAC, and for domestic political reasons, India cannot be seen to be passive on the border. Rebalancing India’s strategic priorities will require the central government, through the Chief of Defence Staff, to issue firm strategic guidance to the military services. This response will be a test not only of the government’s strategic sense and far-sightedness, but also of the ability of the national security apparatus to overcome entrenched bureaucratic and organisational-cultural biases.

As these three lessons show, the future of the strategic competition is not yet written. Thus far, India has suffered unequal strategic costs from the Ladakh crisis. Chinese troops continue to camp on previously Indian-controlled land, and worse, India may jeopardise its long-term leverage in the more consequential Indian Ocean Region. But if India’s leaders honestly and critically evaluate the crisis, it may yet help to actually brace India’s long-term position against China.

Arzan Tarapore is the South Asia Research Scholar at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research

During a crisis, an outreach programme must warn everyone not to entertain any illegal adoption offers

Profiteering from child trafficking rackets knows no bounds. Today, some people are offering infants for instant adoption by selling sob stories of how the children have lost their parents to the dreaded virus. These unscrupulous people target gullible persons who fall into the trap, little realising that such adoptions are illegal. The lack of inputs for proper procedures for legal adoption and hasty sentimental considerations are exploited for exorbitant sums of money. Tough times call for tough measures. This business of criminal trading of children must be checked with an iron hand.

Protection granted by the law

According to UNICEF, India has over 30 million orphan and abandoned children. Unfortunate parental deaths added unknown numbers of orphans to the list. Many children escaped monitoring by the official machinery due to the breakdown of systems. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) law was enacted in 2015. The Juvenile Justice Rules of 2016 and the Adoption Regulations of 2017 followed to create the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) as a statutory body for the regulation, monitoring and control of all intra-country and inter-country adoptions. Furthermore, CARA became pivotal in granting a ‘no objection’ certificate for all inter-country adoptions, pursuant to India becoming a signatory to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. India is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thus, protections afforded to children became a legal mandate of all authorities and courts. Laws were enacted. Machineries and mechanisms created were put in place.

The Juvenile Justice Act is a secular law. All persons are free to adopt children under this law. However, persons professing the Hindu religion are free to adopt under the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act of 1956. Rehabilitation of all orphaned, abandoned and surrendered children is regulated by the strict mandatory procedures of the Adoption Regulations. Children of relatives can also be adopted under the Juvenile Justice Act, if desired. Only such children declared legally free for adoption under the Juvenile Justice Act by prescribed procedures can be adopted. Any person or organisation offering or receiving such children for adoption in violation of the Juvenile Justice Act and the Adoption Regulations invites punishment up to three years and a fine of Rs. 1 lakh, or both.

Following procedure

The eligibility of prospective adoptive parents living in India, duly registered on the Child Adoption Resource Information and Guidance System (CARINGS), irrespective of marital status and religion, is adjudged by specialised adoption agencies preparing home study reports. Upon approval, as per seniority in the adoption list, prospective children are offered and pre-adoption foster care follows. The specialised adoption agency then secures court orders approving the adoption. All non-resident persons approach authorised adoption agencies in their foreign country of residence for registration under CARINGS. Their eligibility is adjudged by authorised foreign adoption agencies through home study reports. As per seniority, they are offered profiles of children and child study reports are finalised. CARA then issues a pre-adoption ‘no objection’ certificate for foster care, followed by a court adoption order. A final ‘no objection’ certificate from CARA or a conformity certificate under the adoption convention is mandatory for a passport and visa to leave India.

Not many may know this. CARA must conduct an outreach programme on social media, newspapers and TV, warning everyone not to entertain any illegal adoption offers under any circumstances whatsoever. The legal process of adoption must be adequately publicised. The National and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights must step up their roles as vigilantes, as they are empowered by law to take effective action against those engaging in illegal activities. Social activists, NGOs and enlightened individuals must report all the incidents that come to their notice. Respective State Legal Services Authorities have the infrastructure and machinery to stamp out such unlawful practices brought to their attention. The media must publicise and shame all those involved in this disreputable occupation. Innocent children deprived of the love and care of their natural parents due to tragedies cannot fall prey to traders of human smuggling. At the same time, the police authorities need to be extra vigilant in apprehending criminals. A joint private-public venture must come into motion. Every citizen of the nation has a role to play in eradicating this unhealthy practice.

Anil Malhotra is a lawyer, author, legal analyst and an IAFL fellow. anilmalhotra1960@gmail.com

New variants do not always merit changes in public health response, but keep people alert

The Indian variant, B.1.617 and its family of related coronaviruses have been categorised as a Variant of Concern (VOC) by WHO, a classification which will now prompt greater international scrutiny of those who test positive overseas. While there are several so-called ‘variants of interest’, only three, other than the B.1.617, have been categorised as VOC — the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), the South Africa variant (B.1.351) and the Brazilian variant (P2). Usually, in countries that detect emergent variants, it is the health authorities there who flag them as potential VOC. To qualify as one, the identified variant must be linked to increased transmission or be associated with more severe disease or found to be evading detection by diagnostic tests. Concerns that the B.1.617 may be playing a role in disease spread in India were expressed by scientists by mid-March. The INSACOG, or the Indian SARS-CoV2 Genomic Consortia, had flagged a variant with two concerning mutations, E484Q and L452R, that separately had been found in other variants elsewhere. INSACOG said they now seemed to appear together on a variant that was linked to a large fraction of cases in Maharashtra and began to be called ‘double mutant’ or even ‘triple mutant’ (as it also had another important mutation, P614R).

In March nearly 20% of the cases out of Maharashtra, which has consistently been among the most afflicted States, were being linked to the variant. However, it was in early April that this variant became formally classified as a lineage, B.1.617. It was only after the U.K.’s labelling it as a VOC that it was called so by health authorities in India. In fact, unlike the United States’s CDC or Public Health England, India still does not have a classification criterion for labelling viruses as variants of interest, or concern. Classifying variants is not just a matter of mere academic interest. Based on the prevalence, some variants may go on to become the dominant strain in a region or multiple geographies. It then becomes the responsibility of vaccine companies to check whether their vaccines continue to be effective. Such studies have already begun in India, but while laboratory studies show that vaccines continue to be effective, some of the emerging variants do seem to be better at evading antibodies. Along with monitoring reinfections and cases of breakthrough infections (testing positive after being double inoculated), flagging variants must be seen as a crucial health response. Detecting newer variants does not always merit radical changes in public health response — such as masking up — but they go a long way in reminding people to continue being alert, viewing vaccines as an important defence but not a magic pill, and keeping health authorities on their toes.

Despite Mr. Oli’s loss, Nepal’s Oppositionis still divided over an alternative government

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s loss of a trust vote in Parliament on Monday comes at a particularly crucial time. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has not only ravaged India but has also begun to affect its landlocked neighbour Nepal, leaving citizens reeling under oxygen shortages, spikes in the daily case load, and fatalities. Political instability is the last thing Nepal needs now, but the trust vote did little to resolve the issue of who will take over the role of leading the government. Mr. Oli won just 93 votes in the 271-strong House of Representatives where only 232 turned up to vote, with 124 voting against him and 15 members staying neutral. The leading party in the Opposition, the Nepali Congress (NC) led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, with 61 members voted against Mr. Oli along with the Pushpa Kumar Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) with 49 votes. The Maoists had just recently de-merged from the Nepal Communist Party after a Supreme Court ruling de-recognised its merger with Mr. Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Mr. Oli could not command the full support of his own party as the 28 legislator-strong Madhav Kumar Nepal-Jhalanath Khanal-led faction within the UML decided to remain absent from the House. Mr. Nepal had taken up the cudgels against Mr. Oli in the unified NCP along with Mr. Dahal, and had opposed Mr. Oli’s decision to dissolve Parliament — a move which was also struck down by the Supreme Court.

Even more intriguing was the vertical split in another Opposition party, the Janata Samajwadi Party-Nepal (JSP) — the 15-member Baburam Bhattarai-Upendra Yadav faction voted against Mr. Oli while the 15-member Mahantha Thakur-Rajendra Mahato-led group decided to stay neutral. While Mr. Bhattarai and Mr. Yadav have taken a clear ideological position in line with their stated goal of a federally restructured Nepali state favourable to the plain-dwelling Madhesis — something that Mr. Oli had steadfastly opposed — the other faction is inclined to support Mr. Oli in order to wrest concessions for the Madhesis. The net effect of the trust vote was a loss of face for Prime Minister Oli, and yet it is not clear if an alternative government can be formed by the Opposition as things stand. Mr. Deuba enjoys support from the Maoists and the Bhattarai-Yadav faction of the JSP but it remains to be seen whether the Nepal-Khanal faction will decide to resign from Parliament to enable a victory for the NC. Nepal’s political class has been, more often than not, caught up in political tugs of war with frequent changes in regimes despite the people reposing their faith in democratic institutions through two “jan andolans” — the first removing absolute monarchy, and the second enabling a constitutional republic. At least now, when Nepal faces the onslaught of the novel coronavirus, the polity must rise to the occasion and work towards an alternative stable regime.

The party’s further rise will depend on its politics and the Trinamool’s functioning post-Mamata

The results of the West Bengal Assembly elections can be seen broadly in two ways. It shows the failure of the Modi-Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in defeating the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. Yet, the performance of the BJP is remarkable — it has increased its seat share from three in 2016 to 77 in 2021. In some ways, this increase is reminiscent of the BJP’s electoral journey at the national level from two seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989, accomplished through the Ayodhya movement. In West Bengal, the BJP has accomplished this task mainly through a polarised campaign in religious terms. From 1989 to 2014, it took nearly 25 years for the BJP to win a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha elections; however, that might not be its experience in West Bengal. In the wake of the decimation of the Left and the Congress, the possibility for the BJP to become West Bengal’s ruling party depends on how the Trinamool is going to govern in a bipolar polity. Make no mistake: the BJP is the only national party that enjoys a special advantage and its hunger to expand is far more acute compared to the Congress’s when the latter had an identical or even better national profile.

A force to reckon with

It is often argued that the BJP was an insignificant force with only two seats in the 1984 parliamentary election. However, what is overlooked is the fact that it received 7.74 % votes in 1984, which is more than the total vote share of the CPI (M) and the CPI in 2004, which was 7.07%. Interestingly, the Left parties had 53 seats in Parliament with that vote share and played a key role in the United Progressive Alliance-1 regime. This means that the BJP was not as insignificant in 1984 as is portrayed in scholarly literature. Moreover, its vote share could have been greater than what it had received if not for the abnormal nature of the 1984 election, held after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Nonetheless, the BJP began to build on this limited social base with great sophistication, often with the active support of leaders such as Ms. Banerjee and Farooq Abdullah as National Democratic Alliance partners.

Election strategist Prashant Kishor remarked that a party can at best secure 50%-55% of the votes through polarisation. One is not certain if this is true of all cases and States. Take Gujarat, for example, where polarisation certainly brought in more than 50% of the votes in one election, making it a paradigmatic case of the politics of polarisation in Indian electoral history. Consequently, that has helped the BJP return to power election after election. According to the 2011 Census, the Muslim population is 27% in West Bengal, but in Assam, it is 34.2%. Yet, the BJP was able to defeat the Congress-led Grand Alliance in Assam. It is another matter that former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma played a crucial role in scripting the Congress’s defeat, which speaks volumes of the kind of Congress leaders who were once building secular India. Therefore, what has worked for the Trinamool in 2021 may not work forever. This leaves vast opportunity structures for the BJP to expand.

Inflection point

In the present Assembly, the gap in seats between the Trinamool and the BJP is 136. This makes the Mamata government immune to the experiments that the BJP conducted in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka to capture power. But the long-term future of the BJP partly also depends on how the Trinamool is going to shape itself in the post-Mamata period. If the Trinamool chooses to remain a populist party and becomes a dynasty party, it will become more vulnerable. It could still remain a contender like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the Samajwadi Party in U.P. But if it chooses to institutionalise and create opportunities for bright leaders like Mahua Moitra, there is a fair chance that the party can have a future beyond Bengal.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University and is the author of the forthcoming book titled, Shikwa- e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims

London, May 9: A serious riot took place in Aldershot last night. Shops windows were smashed and looted by men in uniform who were accompanied by a large party carrying red flags. Two or three police were injured. The outbreak is apparently due to the discontent of reservists being called up in connection with the coal dispute. A later message states all is now quiet in Aldershot. The riot was apparently such as occasionally occurs on Saturday nights where large bodies of troops are gathered. It began by the smashing of omnibus windows. The soldiers concerned wore no badges but were excited by an erroneous report that some of their comrades had been detained in the guard-room. A comparatively small part actually took part in window smashing but a hundred soldiers followed the rioters and many of them treated the matter as a joke, although some remonstrated with the rioters.

Washington, May 11: Mr. M.M. Ahmed, Chief Economic Adviser to President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, admitted here yesterday that the country would be facing serious food shortage after three or four months as the present stock would last only till then. Mr. Ahmed, who is now in the United States seeking additional aid, said the entire Pakistan would need sizeable food assistance for the rest of this year and all of next year because of “civil war” in Pakistan. Mr. Ahmed added, “There is no danger of imminent starvation in East Pakistan, despite the recent civil disturbances there”. He said there were approximately 686,000 tons of wheat and rice in East Pakistan at the end of March. An additional 801,000 tons, including 300,000 tons of rice, was in the aid pipeline, some of which could be transferred to East Pakistan, if needed. Mr. Ahmed conferred for 40 minutes with President Nixon and with Dr. Henry Kissinger, Mr. Nixon’s National Security Adviser. He had also talks with World Bank officials and is expected to see the Secretary of State, Mr. Rogers, before leaving on Friday. Details of his mission were shrouded in secrecy but it was believed that he was seeking further international as well as U.S. economic aid. Aid has been delayed by Washington since the civil war broke out in East Bengal in March last.