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Floating On Anti-Politics Discontent: But can AAP deliver?

Within days of making a stunning electoral debut in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party finds itself in a dilemma. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have offered to support AAP if it forms a government with 28 members in the 70-strong Legislative Assembly. Should it accept the offer and assume governmental responsibility? Or, should it, in keeping with its “idealism” and the popular mandate, stay out of power until it wins a majority?

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Typhoon of Protest in The Arab World: Democracy’s new crucible

The whirlwind of popular protests that overthrew Tunisian president Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s long-standing ruler Hosni Mubarak shows no sign of abating. The entire Arab world is in revolt, from Yemen and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to Morocco and Algeria in the Maghreb, and to Sudan and Djibouti in the South. Even the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti regimes are beginning to look vulnerable.

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Twilight of tyranny in Libya?

Col Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruthless ruler since 1969, faces an unprecedented popular revolt and could soon join Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the rogues’ gallery of the Arab world’s deposed rulers. Gaddafi has had strong South Asia connections. A famous stadium in Lahore is named after him—thanks to a big donation. During the Janata regime in India, George Fernandes fervently advocated that India should transfer nuclear technology to Libya. That didn’t happen.

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Unprecedented Upsurge In West Asia: Change is in the air

Fragrance from the Jasmine Revolution, which overthrew Tunisia’s hated President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is spreading, especially to Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, and triggering profound political changes in the West Asia-North Africa region. By the time these lines appear, it’s possible that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive 30-year-long reign would have ended and far-reaching changes would be under way in the neighbourhood.

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A new era in West Asia?

The people of tiny Tunisia (pop. 11 million) could scarcely have imagined that their fight against the despotic rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali would trigger off the Arab world’s first real revolution, based on a mass upsurge—unlike palace coups or top-down regime changes elsewhere. Even less could they have expected it to spark the much greater flame that’s engulfing the Arab world now, especially its largest country, Egypt (pop. 84 million), where millions of people, young and old, men and women, intellectuals and municipal workers, are pouring out into the streets.

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Sorting out the Telangana mess

There’s no reason why India should not have a plural kind of federalism, in which various different regional arrangements are possible. But can the Centre summon up the courage to imagine and implement federalist solutions which reconcile contradictory regional demands and aspirations? That’s hard to say. But it’s clear that the alternative is endless chaos and bloodletting in all of Andhra Pradesh.

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When Corporations Capture The State : How lobbyists poison democracy

Several recent developments, including the release of intercepts of a telephone conversation between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP, a Parliament uproar over the underselling of telecommunications spectrum, and media stories on the growing power of the lobbyist–politician–policymaker nexus, have highlighted a major affliction of the Indian polity which should concern all conscientious citizens. Lobbyists have come to acquire enormous clout, to the point of influencing the choice of Cabinet minister, nominating key bureaucrats, and formulating economic and industrial policies at the nuts-and-bolts level.

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Need-based development in a free, just society: the lasting legacy of Mahatma Gandhi

If one were asked to name “purely” indigenous texts from different cultures and countries which contain original political thought, vision and ideas, the choice in India would logically be narrowed to only two works: Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, written in 1909.

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A caring State

www.hardnewsmedia.com, 25 June 2009

by Praful Bidwai

Unless Left parties acknowledge their blunders and rebuild their links with progressive intellectuals and civil society activists, and involve them as well in changing course, they will face marginalisation and a historic decline.

The 15th Lok Sabha election, widely forecast as a contest without major ideological-political issues, has turned out to be a potential watershed. Five stories are intertwined within the emerging big narrative, which signifies positive change, with some setbacks: the Congress's rejuvenation on a Left-of-Centre platform; defeat and isolation of the BJP; the crisis of caste-based identity politics in the north; a reorientation of Muslim voting preferences; and a big setback to the Left, now reduced to just 24 seats, its lowest-ever Lok Sabha tally.

These changes are tentative and reversible. If the Congress drifts into conservatism, it could forfeit many gains. The Left could again become a vibrant force if it reads the writing on the wall and rethinks its policies and strategies. But the overall trend favours inclusion, pluralist-secularism and redistributive justice.

The Congress has crossed the 200-seat mark for the first time since 1991, with a 28.55 per cent national vote, about 10 percentage-points higher than the BJP's score. With a 90-seat lead over the BJP, this is a hefty margin. The real story lies in the Congress's dramatic performance in UP - as the second largest party with 21 seats and a 18.3 per cent vote - its ability to maintain supremacy in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana, and make gains in Rajasthan and NDA strongholds like Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. No less important were its gains in West Bengal and Kerala. In Gujarat, where Narendra Modi had boasted the BJP would win 20-22 of 26 seats, the Congress held on to 11 of the 12 seats and the BJP gained only one.

The Congress's ascendancy, then, was widely distributed. It's only in Bihar, Karnataka and Jharkhand that it didn't make an impact. The Congress overcame its long decline in 2002-04. Now it has recharged itself.

The key to this lies in the Congress's embrace of an inclusive agenda based on the recognition that market-driven economic processes cannot deliver social opportunity or minimum needs to the poor. Imperative is public action through a 'Caring State' and initiatives like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), loan-waiver for farmers, and other social programmes.

Opinion polls and ground-level reports suggest that NREGA pivotally changed the Congress's image. For instance, many poor Dalits and Brahmins in UP shifted from the BSP to the Congress because of NREGA and disillusionment with Mayawati. She has done little for the people, including Dalits, in public service provision, but spent Rs 6,000-10,000 crore on memorials and statues.

The Congress's decision to go solo in UP was a gamble which paid off because Rahul Gandhi invested considerable energy into party-building, candidate selection and canvassing. This doesn't speak less of Rahul's leadership or charisma than of his tenacity and stamina for unglamorous grassroots work - which most Congressmen haven't done for decades. The Congress's spurning of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) helped avert the stigma of association with that deeply criminalised and discredited party whose support-base is eroding. The Congress won back some lost Muslim support.

The Congress's general performance is partly explained by organisational revival and a new crop of young leaders. Also helpful was the perception of the absence of major scandals during the UPA's tenure (except telecom and highways) and Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh's image of having behaved with decorum -- barring on the India-US nuclear deal.

The Congress didn't win on a centrist platform of stability, but on a Left-leaning platform of positive social change. The 'aam aadmi' slogan is yet to be translated into programmes. But unless the Congress succumbs to industry and media lobbies and plumps for neo-liberal policies like privatisation and increased foreign investment in pension funds, insurance and retail, it should be able to sustain this momentum. Even more definitive than the Congress's victory is the BJP's defeat, the second since 2004, despite the absence of an obvious big mistake like 'India Shining'. With a 3.4 per cent drop in national vote-share since 2004 and seven per cent since its 1998 peak (26.5 percent), the BJP is in steady decline. It lost votes in most states and failed to attract first-time voters and many past sympathisers. It was rejected because of its communalism and because it ran a negative, strident and confrontationist campaign bereft of policy issues.

The BJP probably erred in regarding the Lok Sabha election as an aggregate of state-level contests to be fought on local issues. But it also projected LK Advani as a "decisive", strong national leader. It even appealed to crass Hindutva through Varun Gandhi's hate-speeches and fielded Narendra Milosevic Modi as its star campaigner.

This strategy boomeranged. Advani's rhetoric about terrorism, "weakest-ever-Prime-Minister" (Manmohan Singh) and Swiss bank money didn't work. The ugly Arun Jaitley-Rajnath Singh spat dented the Advani-as -"decisive"-leader myth. Varun Gandhi probably cost the BJP a dozen seats in UP.

The BJP's offered no imaginative ideas/agendas. Its canvassing was contrived. Advani's claims about the NDA's superior counter-terrorism record didn't gel with the Kandahar hijack or incidence of terrorism during NDA rule. When Singh retaliated against Advani, he sounded more dignified and convincing.

Yet, none of this explains the BJP's performance as tellingly as its failure to consolidate the "Hindu vote" through communal polarisation. The conditions which allowed the BJP to do so in the 1980s and 1990s no longer exist - the Shah Bano case, which made the "pseudo-secularism" charge stick; the Ramjanambhoomi movement; the Congress's steep decline, which made the BJP an attractive ally; the rise of a small insecure middle class ready to buy its narrative of "Hindu grievance" against "history's wrongs" and of recreating India's past glory desecrated by "invaders".

Social conditions have considerably changed. The burgeoning middle class has come into its own and lost some of its inferiority complex. It isn't swayed by the "getting-even-with-history" narrative or the idea of demolishing mosques to recover Hindu "self-respect". Most Indians look to the future, not the past. Even the marginalised are aware of their rights and believe their lives will improve through struggles for participatory democracy.

A good hypothesis is that the BJP was a product of a very special conjuncture, which has probably passed. It cannot simultaneously continue to be both a social movement and a political party, combine Mandal and Kamandal, and espouse Hindutva and good governance.

The BJP must choose. It can be a hardcore Hindutva party. But that means retreating into a ghetto, and morphing into a version of the Jana Sangh, which had a modest place in India's social life and politics. The Sangh's vote fluctuated between four and eight per cent and its Lok Sabha strength never exceeded 35 -far lower than the Left's.

If the BJP wants to be a normal Rightwing party free of the burden of religious fundamentalism, it must accept India's essentially multi-cultural, multi-religious identity. This can give it a place in politics, much like the long-defunct Swatantra Party.

The election highlights the crisis of caste - or "self-respect" - based identity politics without a progressive agenda of governance and service delivery. The biggest example is Laloo Prasad's RJD, which only had empty rhetoric to offer to the Bihari people - coupled with a law-and-order breakdown, public services collapse and end of culture and community life. Laloo has been humiliated. So has Ram Vilas Paswan, who has carried opportunism to new heights in the name of defending social justice.

Only slightly less severe is the dressing-down of Mayawati, with a six percentage-point vote loss. Many Dalits loyal to her have moved away. The BSP won only two of the 17 reserved SC seats. Mayawati's spectacularly successful Dalit-Brahmin coalition now looks like an artificial contraption, which does little for its constituents, except giving ministerial positions at the apex. Unless Mayawati addresses people's gut-level needs through land reforms and access to food, healthcare and education, she's unlikely to retain her hold on UP.

The ground seems to be slipping from under Mulayam Singh Yadav's feet too. He was so unsure of his base that he begged the Congress for an alliance, and then joined hands with Kalyan Singh. The result was a loss of 13 seats and erosion of cadre support.

All these narrowly caste-based parties are likely to decline, making space for substantive social, economic and political agendas. In contrast, Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) did remarkably well because he practised inclusion, reached out to backward-caste Muslims, the Extremely Backward Classes among OBCs and the Maha-Dalits. Kumar did much to control crime, renovate roads, and empower gram panchayats to recruit primary school teachers, obviating dependence on town-dwellers and reducing teacher absenteeism.

The election has revealed a shift in the voting pattern among Muslims. In UP and Bihar, they rejected community-centric agendas, including appeals by the conservative ulema. Rather than encourage particularist politics, they looked at broader issues of democracy and governance. A good chunk voted for the Congress and other secular forces in many states. This, despite the alienation and anger against the branding of the entire community as 'terrorists' after the blasts, and the Batla House encounter, widely perceived to be fake.

Muslims have moved away significantly from the Left Front in West Bengal. Acutely aware of its deficit in Muslim education and employment, and pained by its conduct in the Rizwanur case (and Nandigram killings), they punished it in 22 of the 42 constituencies where their number matters. The absence of bloc or herd voting and exercise of discriminating judgment signifies a new maturity among Muslims. This means fear and insecurity caused by Hindutva will play a lesser role in the future.

The Left has been badly mauled. The CPM has lost the most number of seats (27) of all parties. The blow was especially grievous in West Bengal. The Left plummeted from 35 to 16 seats even in the absence of factors prevalent in Kerala like the leadership tussle between VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayee Vijayan, vitiated relations between the CPM and smaller partners, and a history of pendulum-like swings between the Left and its Congress-led rival.

Two main reasons explain the Left's debacle. First, it disastrously promoted the Third Front, a rag-tag band of non-Congress-non-BJP opportunists, each of them (barring the Left) sullied by past association with the BJP. This negatively defined combine couldn't have won enough seats to make a convincing bid for power. It lacked the barest minimum of a common programme. Even if it had, optimistically, won 100-120 seats, it couldn't have come to power without Congress support.

Apart from irresponsibly overestimating the Front's integrity and prospects, the Left damaged itself by joining the league of these thoroughly opportunist, venal and corrupt parties with a shameful history of running odious governments with Rightwing policies, such as the Telugu Desam, AIADMK, Janata Dal (S) and BSP.

The Left undermined its moral stature - its greatest political asset - by propping up leaders like Mayawati and HD Deve Gowda, who have ended up supporting Singh's coalition. The Third Front's strong rejection by many Muslims and other secular citizens also affected the Left in many states.

The second reason for the Left's poor showing is related to its industrialisation and land acquisition policies in Kerala and especially in West Bengal, and its many social sector failures. Nandigram and Singur have become synonymous with the shameful pursuit of crony-capitalist policies, coercive land-grabbing and cussedness towards the dispossessed, including violence.

Nandigram and Singur were part of a plan to acquire 1.35 lakh acres and transfer it to industrial projects, including a chemical hub to be built by the Salim group, a front for Indonesia's kleptocratic Suharto family. The Left Front (LF) crafted that plan in line with its view that industrialisation is a historic necessity in West Bengal, and it must take place through the predatory private capital route involving huge subsidies. Thus, it offered Tata Motors a Rs 850-crore subsidy for the Rs 1,500-crore investment Nano plant.

The LF's embrace of Rightwing policies in West Bengal is of a piece with the state's poor performance in education - it has more school dropouts than Bihar -, health, and discrimination against and exclusion of Muslims. Three decades in power has transformed the CPM into an ossified, hierarchical and corrupt party whose cadres take a cut for all contracts and recruitments and run an extortion machine. The CPM's violence against those resisting forced land acquisitions remains a black mark on the Left's record.

It's tempting to argue that the Left deserved to be punished - so that it corrects course-but not so severely. But it's doubtful if anything less than shock therapy would have delivered the right message: namely, the Left will be sent packing unless it sincerely revises its policies, puts people before capital, and cleanses its organisation of criminals, goons and racketeers.

It's not clear if the Left parties can summon the courage to undertake radical self-introspection through a robust, no-holds-barred debate. Their organisational culture isn't conducive to frank debate. Many of their intellectuals, particularly the CPM's, tend to close ranks when criticised even from a sympathetic Left-wing standpoint.

This must change. The Left should encourage open debate and public airing of views. A small beginning has been made with CPI leaders criticising the CPM's "arrogance". The space for debate must expand.

This can only happen if the Left parties rebuild their links with progressive intellectuals and civil society activists, and involve them as well as their own members in systematically and candidly analysing the causes of the defeat. Unless they acknowledge their blunders and change course, they will face marginalisation and a historic decline.

Impressive victory of people's power in Pakistan

The world public must applaud the people of Pakistan for fighting authoritarianism and taking a major step towards real democratisation through an independent judiciary. It is a tribute to the moral strength of the civil society mobilisation for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry that it brought President Asif Ali Zardari to his knees peacefully. The agitation has broken the fear barrier in Pakistan. This is a historic gain.

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Creating history

by Praful Bidwai

May 19 2007

The BSP's spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh bids fair to help transform Indian politics by putting redistributive justice and equity on the agenda.

MAYAWATI has emerged as India's tallest Dalit leader after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. She has secured a prominent place in the history of Indian democracy, which few can even hope to lay claim to.

By leading her Bahujan Samajan Party (BSP) to an unambiguous, clinching victory in Uttar Pradesh, she has broken the State's political impasse of decades - with a fleeting exception in 1991 - namely, a division of votes along caste and community lines owing to the urge of subaltern groups for direct self-representation. This resulted in hung Assemblies and ensured endemic instability. (No Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has completed his/her full term in the past four decades.)

Mayawati's achievement is all the more stupendous given that she is a Dalit and a single woman working against the current in a deeply conservative, caste-ridden and socially and economically backward State like U.P. This is an outstanding accomplishment for Dalits and for women.

Paradigm shift

More important, Mayawati has effected a paradigm shift in Indian politics. She has, for the first time ever, succeeded in building a social coalition that inverts the pyramid of caste/class hierarchy by building a rainbow alliance of social groups, now dominated by that greatest underclass of all, Dalits.

Crudely put, this is a transformed, indeed subverted, subaltern version of the classic Congress-style broad `winning coalition' until the 1970s, which comprised the upper castes and the `core minorities' (Muslims, Dalits and, to an extent, Adivasis). But there are three crucial differences between the two blocs. First, Mayawati's is a coalition or bloc from below, in which the lower, subaltern orders of society dominate. The terms of this alliance are set by Dalits through the BSP transparently and without fuss or pretension.

Second, the Congress' classical formula papered over the distinctive identities of castes and communities. It was sustained by the distribution of patronage and co-option of leaders. By contrast, Mayawati's coalition is based on an explicit recognition of group identities but under the overarching presence of Dalits.

And third, unlike in the Congress coalition, which tended to exclude the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) in the Hindi belt - such as Kewats, Nishads, Dhobis, Bhishtis, and so on - Mayawati's coalition gives them a prominent place.

Although no hard, reliable numbers are available on caste-based voting, it does seem from the better exit polls that the BSP reached out to the MBCs, in addition to Brahmins and Banias, and won significant support from them.

Only such a social coalition could ensure that the BSP would poll 30.5 per cent of the vote and command an absolute majority. Even assuming that nearly 80 per cent of all U.P. Dalits voted for the BSP - as polls by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies suggest - their 21 per cent share in the population could not have produced such a result. Almost half of the BSP's votes clearly came from a broad range of non-Dalit groups.

This itself was, and could only have been, the result of several processes: a steady erosion of the support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose 3 per cent-plus decline since 2002 in vote share (down to 16.9 per cent) benefitted the BSP more than any other party; the BSP's sustained, rapid and relentless rise as a political force, which enabled it to more than triple its vote share since 1993; growing upper-caste disillusionment with the BJP; and the BSP's extraordinarily energetic grassroots bhaichara and Brahmin jodo campaigns for the past few years.

It bears recalling that the BSP first made conscious overtures to upper-caste groups six years ago. In the 2002 Assembly elections, it fielded as many as 92 upper-caste candidates (including 26 Brahmins). This yielded modest results.

The real breakthrough came recently, when Brahmins deserted the BJP in large numbers - according to one survey, there was a 22 per cent drop in the party's Brahmin support - to join the BSP, which fielded 86 of them (of 139 upper-caste candidates). One of the main reasons for the breakthrough was the BSP's focussed effort to woo Brahmins - a feat of social engineering and concentrated political activism on the part of a self-confident and growing force.

BJP a sinking ship

It is tempting, but not convincing, to argue that Brahmins have gravitated towards the Dalit-dominated BSP because these two groups, both at the extreme ends of the caste spectrum, feel squeezed by the "Forward March of the Backwards" (Other Backward Castes).

But U.P. Brahmins have by no means suffered a serious loss of power in the economy, society and the professions, especially the bureaucracy. Other factors have been at work: the Brahmins' desire for greater political representation, albeit on terms set by Dalits, and an urge to abandon what they regard as a sinking ship.

After all, many perceptive Brahmins could easily recognise that the BJP is a party in steep decline in U.P., whose vote share has almost halved since 1993. It would be a mistake to read a "natural affinity" between the Brahmins and Dalits, as some upwardly mobile individuals from the Dalit elite argue.

There are several other meanings to, and implications of, the BSP's staggering victory. It is a forceful repudiation of a major Hindutva premise that posits a false social unity, and hence political homogeneity, among Hindus qua Hindus.

The BSP's politics seeks to unify people across castes and communities on a secular non-religious basis without denying their essential differences and divergences. The BSP has compromised and shared power with the BJP in the past. But its ideology and politics are secular and deeply hostile to the idea of transforming India into a Hindu-majoritarian entity. Its rejection of Manuwad is not rhetorical.

The U.P. Assembly elections' biggest loser is indisputably the BJP - not just in votes, but also in political-ideological terms. It ran a dirty, divisive, communally toxic campaign but was handed a humiliating defeat.

The BJP and its allies held the Number 1 and Number 2 positions in 238 constituencies in 2002. Now they are down to 124. The BJP's own No. 1 and No. 2 spots have fallen from 197 to 120.

Dynasty did not work

The U.P. results are also a slap in the face for the Congress' `dynasty' approach. The Congress thought it could field Rahul Gandhi in a high-profile campaign and attract votes by appealing to a pan-Indian "Hindustani" identity and `development'. It failed to relate to the social reality of caste and the role of politics as an agency in redressing its iniquities.

The results also set a refreshing precedent by showing that a party of relatively modest means can win an extraordinarily keenly contested election without resorting to filmy glamour, media hype or the patronage of big industry.

This bears a sharp contrast to the Samajwadi Party, which roped in numerous film stars and much Big Business support, as well as the BJP, for which flaunting tawdry but ostentatious symbols of wealth, grabbing media attention, and manufacturing non-existent `waves', have become a crucial election strategy.

The BSP will provide an even more convincing contrast to the S.P./BJP even if it dismantles the gooda raj and cronyism that has flourished in U.P. for the past decade or more, particularly under Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh.

The BSP shows what a tightly knit cadre organisation headed by a far-from-glamorous individual, often reviled by the mainstream media, can achieve when fired by political imagination and a will to liberate a community from 2,000 years of bondage and humiliation.

The BSP's victory advances the issues of equity and redistributive justice towards the top of the agenda - not just in U.P. but in India as a whole.

In U.P. itself, Mayawati can consolidate her social coalition and invest it with a larger purpose only if she pursues a serious agenda of reform and transformative change, including land reform, an administrative clean-up and empowerment of plebeian layers.

During her last term as Chief Minister, she drew up a rudimentary land reform plan, which remained unimplemented.

A well thought out, comprehensive version of land reform will be the best way to move from the politics of self-respect to a truly transformative politics based on redistribution.

BSP's gain in stature

Nationally, the BSP has greatly gained in stature. It will play a major role in the presidential elections. It can influence several agendas and inspire many underprivileged groups.

The party must do so wisely and with the inclusive and universalist perspective that was central to Ambedkar's vision. That would be the best way of carrying forward his legacy and addressing India's many unfinished social agendas.