Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Sacha Sauda Mess : Badal's Controlled Chaos
Punjab continues to roil for the past two weeks with a controversy over the Sacha Sauda sect and the provocative actions of its leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Singh took it upon himself to dress as the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh and also re-enacted the act of the formation of the Khalsa with the distribution of Amrit or holy water to his disciples. For a person who claims to have respect for all religions, his actions certainly betrayed his words. The outcome was for everyone to see – a virtual siege of the Sacha Sauda deras in Punjab, an edict from Sikhism’s highest body the Akhal Takht against the sect’s head and a demand for an unconditional apology for his actions. The sect has expressed regret over any action that may have hurt the sentiments of Sikhs but stopped short of an unconditional apology. The incident, which seemed to have blown over, was reignited with the Takht throwing out the sects ‘regret’ and pressing on for an unconditional apology. It remains to be seen whether the sect follows the call for an apology, which has now also come from the state chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, or does the confrontation take a turn for the worse. This present controversy has two underlying issues that need to be addressed. One, the manner in which the Sikh protests were organized seemed to indicate a tacit understanding by the ruling dispensation. It also proved that the entire protest was controlled by the chief minister as pay back for the sects leanings towards the Congress party in the state elections in February. This support for the Congress cost the Akalis many seats in the Malwa belt. Second, this incident again highlights the role, often counterproductive, played by religious sects in all religions, which seem bound by no laws, sometimes even acting above the law.

Analysts have warned that the edict by the Akhal Takht will lead be a throwback to the days when Sikhs protested and attacked the Nirankari sects that ultimately strengthened the call for an independent Sikh state – Khalistan. It also threw up radicals like Bindrawala whose actions led to tragic consequences most notably Blue Star followed by the devastating years of terrorism that affected most families – Sikh or otherwise in Punjab. However, to compare the incident of 1978 with what we are witnessing today is inaccurate. Not only have the majority of Sikhs seen the horrors that the fundamentalists in their religion can unleash, 1978 was also a different time and era in Indian politics and civil society in general. The fringe elements that sit in Canada or the US may still be adamant on creating Khalistan, but they remain detached from the realities of Punjab today. It is malls that are being created not Khalistan! At the same time the Sikhs do not feel the political isolation of the 70’s with a Sikh prime minister and the role Sikh leaders and party’s in the politics of the centre. The underlying fact remains that this incident is nothing new for anyone who has followed Akali politics. They are known to extract their revenge from those who they may perceive as threats or their enemies. The purge of civil servants and those close to the past regime was a given once the party took over in February. Sacha Sauda also seemed to be on the “to fix” list of the Badal’s. After having approached the sect for political support in the elections, the Akalis felt betrayed that Ram Rahim Singh chose the Congress over them. What added fuel to the fire was the fact that the support for the Congress ensured that the Akalis lost seats in their otherwise stronghold of Malwa. The Sacha Sauda leader did himself no favors when he went out dressed as the tenth Guru and proved to be an easy target for the Akalis. The Akalis used their Akali-Akal Takht understanding to the hilt and ensured that the state came to a virtual standstill over the issue. In simple terms the controlled chaos one is witnessing today is thanks to the blessing of Badal who is playing with fire and is proving successful for the time being. The veteran of Akali politics must however not get carried away from how things are playing out at the moment. It is likely that the independent minded Akal Takht and its Jathedars would want to show to the world that they are not mere pawns in this Akali-Congress duel, but rather are the one’s who are calling the shots. If the Frankenstein that Badal has awoken goes out of hand, not even the best political maneuvering can save bloodshed or violence in the state. Badal’s tactics seem to getting closer to that dire consequence, with the Akal Takht calling for a Punjab bandh today. Also, the deadline of the Takht to close down all deras by May 27th is fast approaching and Badal must ensure that the issue is resolved well in time before things get out of hand.

The other area of concern remains the actions of the Sacha Sauda itself. It is difficult to believe that the Ram Rahim Singh would not have envisioned the fallout of his actions. He did manage to hurt the sentiments of Sikhs and now seems to have taken a stand of not bowing to the demands of the Akal Takht. If, as he himself professes, by his actions he has caused such pain to the people of Punjab, unwittingly as it may be, for the sake of peace would a public apology not further his message of peace and harmony between different religions? Or does ego hold sway over pointless violence. The other important issue that has not been discussed is the role of some pseudo-religious and pseudo-secular sects that are part of every religion in the country. They enjoy a huge following and most leaders of such sects are considered the reincarnation of gods themselves. Huge amounts of money are transacted through these sects with little accountability. Countless cases of sexual harassment and abuse along with nefarious activities are often attributed to these sects. Our country can be proud to say that all religions are ‘regulated’ by some broad rules and regulations that do ensure sanity in governance of religious bodies. However, there exist many sects that seem to be above the law and their writ runs across all their deras and places of worship. While it would be specious to club all religious sects under the same sweeping generalization, there is no arguing that there do exist many groups that need tighter regulation. Further, its is appalling that such sects would openly flaunt their political credentials and ask disciples to vote for one party or the other. It is high time that leaders in each religion recognize this grey area that exists within their faith and find ways to tackle it before more Sacha Saudas appear on the horizon with potential for harm.

The other curious stand taken is that of the BJP. After having taken 19 seats out of the 25 odd contested, they do not want to be taken as the smaller player in the Akali-BJP combine in the state. They have held the Badal government, of whom they are a part, as being responsible for any violence or loss of life that may come out of the entire episode. The BJP’s calculation is two-fold. One, they do not want to alienate the Hindu vote both in Punjab and Haryana, who form a major chunk of the sects disciples. Second, the party does not want to have blood on its hands if things take a turn for the worse. Politics it seems was inevitable in this passion-fuelled debate. The next few days will remain tense for Punjab, will this controversy put Punjab back to the days of militancy, one doubts it. Does this incident, though, have the potential to take it back to the days of militancy, one fears so.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Elephant Run : The Maya Mix Works

The most important state in Indian politics has a new Chief Minister and one which looks set to run a government for a full term. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati stormed into history with an impressive show at the Hustings and took 206 seats in a house of 403. And with it she decimated her opponents and the pollsters in one swift clinical blow. While it was common knowledge that BSP would figure in some post poll alliance with either the BJP or Congress, an outright majority was unexpected. No government in the state has managed to do so in close to 15 years, and in doing so she will try to provide a government which will not be handicapped by the ‘compulsions’ of coalition politics and also remove any uncertainty and instability that has become inherent in the age of coalitions both at the state and the central level. However, as in past experiences in other states, a coalition government helps in maintaining checks and balances so as to assure that the larger partner does not pursue policies to improve their own party’s standing while also ensuring that a compromise on policies guides governance. Also, an absolute majority in the state does bring with it some inherent disadvantages – that of an unchecked rule by the winning side and of course corruption. However, the Indian voter seems to have put corruption behind the more important caste equations that exist in various states. Whether, the issue of corruption is no longer a priority or whether it is the lack of any candidates that are not untouched by corruption that has led to the issue being a non-issue in most states is debatable.

While all the pundits have hailed Mayawati’s dramatic transformation from the bane in the side of the upper castes to actively wooing them and come to power, this rainbow coalition formed by some deft social engineering does have it pitfalls. Many argue that quite like the Congress, the BSP has managed to bring the Brahmins and the Dalits on a common platform and win a thumping majority, albeit in a situation where the Brahmins and upper castes are playing second fiddle to the Dalits. There in lies the potential for damage for the BSP. Which way will the policies sway – towards Dalit interests or to that of the newly inducted upper caste? While winning the elections on a common social platform of upper and lower castes may have been the easy part of this wider social engineering Mayawati is credited with, managing conflicting interests is something that will truly test her political mettle. Will the upper castes that she has so sincerely wooed accept policies that are specifically in the interest of Dalits? Will the issue of reservations and quotas (though federal subjects) not hurt the upper caste voter? Then again if she does not keep her traditional vote back of Dalits happy, does she not run the risk of alienating them or worse antagonizing them much the same way that Laloo did after 15 years of rule piggybacking the OBC vote in Bihar. These amongst other issues will surely consume much of the BSP think tanks agenda. However, knowing the political acumen of Mayawati, who has managed the task of bringing two socially divergent populations on a single plank, must have given some thought on how to best manage the inherent contradictions that might face her government soon after her coronation. Importantly, if she has not, then this social experimentation maybe a one off and the next cycle of elections may be throwback to fractured mandates.

The two national parties – the Congress and the BJP seem to have diminished to the point of no return in these elections. More than the Congress it is the BJP that will have to introspect on where it stands and what it must do to regain some sort of standing in the states political matrix. The experiment to project a Thakur party president in Rajnath Singh and an OBC as chief ministerial candidate in Kalyan Singh failed to enthuse the voters. The reason for the failure of the BJP strategy are many but the important ones are that firstly, these elections marked the coming together of the Brahmin and the Dalit vote bank to reduce the growing influence of the OBC’s politics in the form of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the like. The projection of another OBC alternative to Yadav just did not gel with that thinking. Secondly, the BJP’s understanding or appearance of having cut a deal with the Samajwadi Party ensured that the voter dumped the BJP for the BSP. The voter did not seem keen to bring in the BJP that could have meant a mere continuation of the SP policies albeit behind the scenes. Thirdly, the national issues raised by the BJP pertaining to the Afzal judgment, lack of internal security etc. along with Hindutva seemed distant and irrelevant to the ordinary voter. The BJP failed to capitalize on the ills that the SP government brought with it. This acute failure on part of the BJP reinforced the tacit-understanding-with-the-SP theory. Either way, after the cheer of Uttrakhand and Punjab, the UP elections are a definite dampener. However, it remains to be seen who will ultimately become the target for this defeat – Rajnath or Kalyan or maybe both. Whatever this impending introspection may lead to, it is important that the BJP moves on from its tried and tested (and sometimes failed) leaders. The days of Kesri Nath Tripathi, Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra and Kalyan Singh seem over. The party needs to rebuild from the ground up and that too within five years.

The Congress remains a bystander in the realipolitik of the state. Having lost its upper caste and Dalit vote to the BSP, it tried to gain some inroads by bringing in their heir apparent Rahul Gandhi into these elections. He too like the BJP managed to raise innate issues like the Babri Masjid and the division of Pakistan, which were non-issues in these elections. Here again, like in the case of the BJP, the voter saw the synergies of policies and vote banks between the BSP and the Congress. The voter decided that instead of voting for the Congress and make them gain a few dozen seats, it would make better sense to vote for Mayawati and get a one party rule. The Congress’ decimation shows that unfortunately even star power in the form of a Gandhi could not save the party’s fortune. The Congress too must change its team in the state. With Salman Khurshid and Pramod Tiwari sharing a frosty relationship, the outcome for the Congress was more or less decided. The Congress must also refrain from feeling elated with having “achieved its aim of ousting the SP” in these elections. For one, they were not the reason for the SP’s defeat, it was the SP itself that spectacularly sealed its own fate, and second even if they take credit for the SP’s defeat, they managed to create a bigger monster while slaying an earlier foe. The BSP has gained on the Congress’ loss, and this sign is not encouraging for the Congress. Their vote bank is now in the kitty of the BSP and the BSP is no mood to share any power with the Congress, whom she must thank for the absolute majority that she enjoys today. Then again, if Mayawati manages to keep her new vote bank intact the Congress can forget about power in a state they virtually ruled for better part of the country’s independence.

The Samajwadi Party never really stood a chance in these elections. However, for all the doomsday predictions, the party has managed to get the principal opposition party status. Mulayam will surely return to the Vidhan Sabha as leader of the opposition, but he will also wonder whether his days of playing a role in the centre and the state are over, at least for the time being. What with a hostile dispensation at the centre and an equally bitter opponent in power in UP the party will have to lay low for some time to come. The time away from power should help the party to introspect into where they stand and how they are perceived in Indian politics. The Mulayam Raj will go down as one of the worst in the state’s history and it is time the party realize that the principles of socialists like Lohia, whom they claim to represent, is mere lip-service to that ideology. Also, the Left, which claims to be a fellow ideologue of the SP, must also answer questions on how they could have supported the party knowing the manner in which business was conducted in the state for the past three years. The criminalization and bollywoodisation of politics is something that the Left is decidedly against, then in supporting Mulayam how can they still claim to have the moral halo around them in Indian politics.

But for the time being it is Mayawati who has managed a feat that most politicians of any stature could not. This victory on its own will ensure that she will go down as one of the stalwarts of the Dalit movement and one wonders whether her next dream is to conquer Delhi. Age and acumen are on her side, important attributes in politics, however, will fate and luck also come calling only time can tell.

Monday, May 07, 2007

French Elections : Is Sarkozy the right man for the job?
The leader of the conservative UMP party, Nicolas Sarkozy was all but elected the next President of the fifth republic of France and to succeed the incumbent Jacques Chirac to the Elysee Palace. The two weeks prior to the two-candidate run-off saw intense jostling for votes, with both sides wanting to sway the 18% of Centrist voters of erstwhile candidate Francois Bayrou. In the end with a comfortable 53% of the votes, Sarkozy has emerged as the new leader of France. With the 52 year olds elevation to the top of the French political pyramid, France also marks a generational change in politics, as he will be the first French President to be born after the Great War. His succession as it were to the Elysee Palace also marks a deft right turn for French Politics, which had become more accustomed to the welfare-socialist state that it had become, ironically under the right-wing Chirac. The defeat of the runner up Ms. Sergolene Royal also marks a crucial chapter in the political life of the Socialist Party that has faced its third successive defeat in as many elections. How they come out of this will be something that even the party’s top brass themselves must be wondering. And how to move to more centrist policies without losing the French electorate that votes to the Left will continue to take much of the post poll defeat of the party.

The man in the centre of the action though is Nicolas Sarkozy. Having emerged as the favourite very early on in the race and in going on to win one of the most keenly contested elections in French history he has realized his dream of leading his country. For the moribund power that had become France, Sarkozy seems to be the right man for the job. The social welfare policies of the French were slowly bleeding the country, with productivity dropping and lop-sided subsidies providing artificial relief to the crucial agriculture sector of France. In international affairs too the waning of French influence post September 11 and the Iraq war was unfortunate. In standing up to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ Chirac and France invited the wrath of the US and UK who looked to paint the picture of France being inconsequential in world affairs. But France does have a lot to offer to the world both economically and politically. The failure of the US in securing Iraq and a re-emboldened Al-Qaeda has made the US a much-hated figure in most parts of the world. Then again, in the plummeting popularity ratings of the President, George Bush, the Americans have lost out in having a definitive say in world affairs. The world community is gradually less inclined to toe the American line and more pressed to take the opinions of other countries even though they may not be part of the famed coalition of the willing. Increasingly the world community is relying on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel to define how to take the world forward and resolve the Arab-Israel conflict and the larger “War on Terror”. Iran, a privy member of the “Axis of Evil” is now being roped into peace talks in a bid to help stabilize Iraq. The Saudis, who were sidelined by the Bush administration post the September 11 attacks, are now playing a major role in bringing Iraq’s neighbors together to solve the embattled nations sectarian divide. In such a scenario, where many voices are voicing as many opinions, the French have been missing. However, it seems that with Sarkozy in the Elysee palace, that may change. He has openly expressed his desire to mend fences with the US and UK. He has talked about a mini-EU conference where discussions on how to take the talks on the stalled EU constitution can be taken forward and he will definitely want to increase French economic presence in the Middle East and Africa, a traditional trading partner of the two regions.

But much of the change will also be internal. France needs to get competitive, what with fierce competition from India and China, the French cannot sit back and take the good times for granted. France has one of the most sluggish growth rates in Europe. The 35-hour workweek has reduced productivity. The influx of migrants from the former Soviet bloc has taken jobs away from French residents. More importantly the influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East have raised ethnic tensions in France and has led to social unrest. The issue of illegal migration is something that Sarkozy has made his centrepiece for these elections. He wants to tighten the law to make it tough for immigrants to come into the country. That may solve the short-term problem of illegal immigration; it will not sort the long-term problem of the social malaise that has set in French society. It is without a doubt the illegal migrants who are willing to work for longer in jobs that the French won’t do and a price that will be difficult to match. For any industrial house a combination like that is unbeatable and has been followed by every developed nation in a bid to boost productivity while controlling costs. The other mainstay of Sarkozy plans is to provide tax benefits to industry so as to boost productivity. Much on the lines of the Republican policy of a smaller government with only regulatory control over industry, Sarkozy wishes to see the same happening in France. While such a dramatic social change may take years in the making, it will no doubt help boost the French industry in the short term. Then again, trade barriers is another feather that Sarkozy has taken out of the Republican hat and has promised to protect the French farming community with new trade barriers. This will help sustain the French hold over farm and dairy products within the EU, but will be difficult to implement in the new WTO environment where developing countries are asking for the artificial import tariffs to be waived for a more globally competitive environment.

So, while the French electorate has clearly chosen its new leader. A young, energetic and straight talking individual to take their country to its long lost glory, the hope is that he can do so in as inclusive a manner as possible. For the promise of a Right wing conservative candidate in George Bush, saw the US electorate voting Republican in 2000 (an election that is still too close to call) and then again in 2004, but by 2007 they are left disillusioned with their choice for not being bi-partisan and inclusive in his policy formulation. Although, he has made the right conciliatory noises in his victory speech, it will be important to see how he takes his country forward in a united way, if he does have any doubts on how a divided nation can turn its back on a promising leader, he needn’t look beyond his new friend George Bush