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Indian politics: regional polls 2016: Fall of Congress party amid shaky rise of Hindutva BJP

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The long wait for poll outcomes and political trends in 5 Indian states viz Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Pondicherry and West Bengal that went to poll in May recently to elect new assemblies is finally over and results are the most disappointing for the Congress party.

When the counting for all seats in the five states have been ended and results have been announced, the trends indicate that the Indian voters are now more matured than ever before, especially in Tamil Nadu where the ruling AIADMK won the poll again while DMK has also won sufficient number of MLAs to apply pressure on the ruling dispensation. Post poll predictions said Tamil Nadu may have a hung assembly. But the AIADMK won the poll.

To put it straight away, the ruling AIADMK has retained power in Tamil Nadu while the leftists have returned to power in Kerala by defeating the ruling Congress led UDF, while DMK- Congress alliance won in Puducherry, BJP got Assam, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC has comfortably thrashed Congress-CPM alliance in West Bengal. Congress and CPM had ruled the state for decades until TMC replaced it last time and since then both have failed to make their presence felt in the state and now they decided to fight the poll jointly. And again they have failed now.

In the Union Territory of Puducherry, Congress-DMK alliance was ahead in the 30-member assembly closely followed by AINRC headed by Chief Minister and former Congressman N Rangaswamy. J Jayalalithaa has won from RK Nagar constituency in Chennai. .AIADMK won Hosur seat by 22,964 votes, wrests the seat from the Congress that held the seat for three terms.

A major casualty of the just occurred in assembly polls in 5 Indian states, as speculated, is the Indian National Congress party with longest history in the country fairing baldy in most of these states, while Hindutva BJP, though also in a bad shape, is trying to find new spots to expand its Hindu vote bank agenda into new states as part of RSS ideology. And the steady fall of Congress signifies existential crisis for the party as its electoral alliance strategy with Communists has also failed in West Bengali, while it lost power to left parties in Kerala and BJP in Assam and it plays subordinate role to DMK in Pondicherry and also in Tamil Nadu where it made some gains as part of DMK led alliance.

When ruling Congress lost Kerala to Communist parties with which it forged alliance in West Bengal only to lose again, the BJP has stormed the North Eastern state Assam for the first time, unseating the clueless Congress. Even before the polls Assam has been on the road to making history with BJP set to get its first government in the North East by dislodging Congress which has been in power for three consecutive terms.

West Bengal has re-elected Trinamool Congress led by CM Mamata Banerjee in a big way. The Congress could take solace from its projected victory in the tiny Union Territory of Puducherry where it is likely to get power in alliance with the DMK. DMK chief and former CM, Karunanidhi has won by over 60,000 votes over AIADMK’s A N R Paneerselvam in Tiruvarur constituency.

In Kerala the defeat of corrupt and scams ridden Congress led UDF was rather expected but now there is a strong feeling among Congress men that had Oommen Chandy quit CM post and let state Congress chief Sudheeran or Ramesh Chennithala, perhaps UDF would have come back. The Muslim League has made enough success in Muslim dominated districts but cannot be in the new government.

In Kerala, the Left Front dislodged Congress from power in an anti-incumbency wave against the corrupt UDF government keeping up the tradition of voting out the incumbent government. Also, because of the strong effect of anti-incumbency and RSS Hindu vote mobilization strategy, BJP has opened an account for the first time in its political history in Kerala as its candidate and former central railway minister Rajagopal defeated the sitting CPM MLA in Nemom constituency in the capital. This the first ever win of Rajagopal who so far has never won an election in the state though he contested poll after poll in Kerala during his entire political career and this win uplift his image as loser. He was made a Rajya Sabha MP by the Vajpayee government and also inducted into his cabinet as rail minister. PM Modi did not adopt the Vajpayee method and Rajagopal remained jobless. Kerala corporate lords are eager to see a Kerala politician to be made a minister in Modi government but have failed.

CPI (M) veteran V S Achuthanandan won from Malampuzha constituency by a margin of 23,142 votes, defeating C Krishna Kumar of BJP. As it has become clear that her party will retain power, Jayalalithaa has thanked the voters: “I convey my heartiest thanks to voters who have reaffirmed their faith on me and given me another chance. False campaigning by DMK has been defeated. People of Tamil Nadu have rejected family politics carried out by our opponents”.

It argued that there would be change in the attitude and performance of the ruling AIADMK governance and the party faced a serious threat from its arch rival DMK which has got 89 seats against the AIADMK’s 131 seats in the assembly to apply a pressure on the government constantly. Jaya will end liquor culture in a phased manner.

In Kerala outcomes reveal a strong anti-incumbency wave against the ruling Congress led UDF and people voted to oust the corrupt Congress party led government and this explains how BJP also could open an account in the state.

There could be reasons, including the Vijayakanth factor, why Jayalalithaa and her party were elected back to power by the people of Tamil Nadu. We will discuss this in another article.

The TN elections witnessed a multi-cornered fight with the AIADMK, DMK, BJP, PMK and the PWF as the major parties. But it is AIADMK chief and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who has emerged triumphant and swept the polls. Jayalalithaa has made history as she is the second chief minister after MGR to be elected for a second consecutive term.

Interestingly, the Hindutva BJP has suffered a complete rout in the assembly poll for the first time in years, though it could send an MLA to Kerala assembly and hopes to replace Congress party there in course as per its ideology to make a India free of and without Congress.

Though BJP has won in Assam, it is also on the decline at national and state levels, albeit at a moderate speed. People who had voted for BJP earlier, thinking they are honest and sincere about people’s causes, have rejected the party in the next poll, because they found the Hindutva parties also a bunch of fakes and a copy of the corrupt and dishonest Congress party.

While the BJP is for all practical purposes out of Tamil Nadu, Congress somehow has managed to stay on in the state thanks to its poll alliance with DMK. BJP says since the major parties refused to agree for an alliance with it, the Hindutva could be crushed by DMK-AIADMK rivalry.

DMK is down but not out. Although Karunanidhi became the chief minister of the state at a reasonably young age of 45 in 1969, his run continued only till 1977, that too with two interruptions. Since then, it was three consecutive terms of MGR until he died in 1987. In fact, Karunanidhi had to wait for more than a year since MGR’s passing. Since he returned to power in 1991, it was never a continuous run. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been taking turns and by past trend and the verdicts of majority of exit polls, he should have been in office this time. But Jayalalithaa has successfully bucked the trend, and five years will be too long a wait for 91-year-old Karunanidhi. This decade-long banishment from power will be bad not just for Karunanidhi, but for his son Stalin and the DMK as well.

Vijayakanth’s DMDK is a classic example. He had allied with AIADMK in 2011 and notched up more than 8 percent vote-share while winning 29 seats. Soon, he fell out with Jaya and exited the AIADMK front and remained a lone ranger. He, however, continued to be very active in politics, fighting Jaya and energizing his support-base. Recognising his vote-share and popularity, the DMK was very eager to have him in its front in 2016 elections, but he refused. The DMK made repeated overtures, but he wouldn’t pay attention reportedly because of his chief ministerial ambition. Instead, he joined the ragtag team of MDMK and VCK called PWF. The man who had 29 MLAs last time couldn’t win a single seat, including his own. And his mythical vote-share fell to a dismal 2.4 percent.

The story is the same with the PMK as well. It’s a victim of the same grand illusion that the state has space for a non-Dravidian alternative. Unlike in the past, it refused to ally with not only the Dravidian parties, but also others, and ended up playing solo scoring nothing except a lone seat. The leader of the party and the man who claimed to be the most suitable to become the chief minister, Anbumani Ramadoss couldn’t even win his seat.

It’s rather strange that both the DMDK and the PMK did not realize about the inevitability of electoral compromises. Both the DMK and AIADMK are strong cadre-based parties and have historically polarized the state. Although it was the DMK which reaped the initial benefits of the Dravidian ideology, there was enough space for MGR, who was also endowed with a cult following, to split this support base.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has tendered his resignation to Governor PB Acharya following Congress’ defeat in the just-concluded Assembly polls. Congress could manage to win only 26 seats while the BJP-led alliance swept to power in the state winning 86 seats in the recently concluded Assembly polls. The three-time Chief Minister did not speak to media persons waiting outside the Raj Bhawan after tendering his resignation.

In West Bengal the victory of incumbent TMC led by Mamata Banerjee is indeed historic as it defeated the formidable alliance of Congress-Communists- both have got disillusioned now.

In Tamil Nadu the ruling AIADMK could win the poll almost all alone and defeated DMK-Congress led airbus alliance. While PMK has got a MLA in the new assembly the PWA, which has given a lot of hopes of the youth, has failed to make it to the assembly. The issue would be debated in public.

Interestingly, Congress has promoted the BJP to blackmail Muslims voters to vote for the Congress party if they want to protect themselves form the Hindutva forces live in the country and used it to target and control Muslims in India but now BJP wants to finish off the Congress party and consume its vote banks.

While Congress has nothing to show to the world as its ‘record’ in the regional polls, the BJP has managed the show in Assam by harping on foreigners’ issue (Bangladeshis). Hindutva parties cannot think of positive politics and one wonders if it can change its communal agenda any time in future for fear of losing Hindu votes

Congress-BJP nexus

There is no doubt that Congress and BJP play, like their product IPL, a joint game in the country’s politics even as they pretend to be fighting one another for power at national and regional levels.

The truth is that the BJP was the creation of the Congress party to target Muslims vote banks so that Muslims fearing the Hindutva crimes simply vote for the Congress party, not knowing the hidden nexus between them. The way both Congress and BJP delay the Supreme Court judgment to get back the Babri mosque for worshipping Allah the almighty, has finally opened the eyes of Indian Muslims – at least many of them if not all – about the hidden anti-Islam agenda of these tow national parties. They have stopped voting both Congress and BJP and that resulted in the fall of Congress and BJP parties in Delhi state where a new party Aam Aadmi party AAP of Arvind Kejriwal swept the polls with a huge mandate. In order avoid the BJP‘s Hindutva agenda, Muslims vote for Congress. While the Congress is helping BJP to get more Hindu votes, Muslims help Congress take away major chunk of Muslim votes.

Essentially both Congress and BJP, covertly linked to Hindutva RSS, have common roots and Congress indirectly supports BJP as wherever Congress rules or ruled, BJP comes to take over.   BJP has replaced Congress in several Indian states and Indian parliament, and it now rules Goa state with Christian majority. In other words, Congress, seeking to insult and contain, if not undermine importance of, Muslims in the country, makes way for the Hindutva party to replace it.

It appears the era of Congress party is over in India while BJP would enjoy the status of some more time until a national party with sincerity and commitment emerges to save the nation and people.

Corruption ridden Congress thrives and makes a comeback each time after the debacle, due mainly to the fact that Indian politics is not honest enough and bribery and corruption are rampant in the country. No ruling political party, except perhaps the AAP, is above corruption and they are not sincere and committed to people’s concerns.

So far, it is impossible to make it out of existence in Indian politics. Of course, each time an obituary was written about the Congress party, it always made a comeback by cleverly playing on the weaknesses of other parties that are equally corrupt. Anti-incumbency of other parties helps the Congress to win polls.

In fact, there is no political party in the country, at national and state levels, that has pursed honest politics.

Congress Surgery?

Poll outcomes in the high-stakes assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry are shocking for Congress ad not pleasing for the BJP. In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where the incumbent Trinamool Congress and AIADMK respectively were surging ahead right from the initial rounds of counting, and they have drowned their foes and established their hold on to the people.

Congress high command led by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are deeply worried about the unexpected fate of the senior most party in the country. There is a suggestion to make Rahul as the president of the party but Rahul may not be interested in snatching party power from his mother.

The 2016 poll in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal has indeed further strengthened the respective ruling party’s hold over the populations. Kerala has displayed poor account of the Congress party.

The state elections have clearly shown that Indians have clearly disapproved the Congress party as their rulers and also they are not in a mood to trust the BJP either. In West Bengal where the Congress and Communist parties made poll alliance to defeat the CM Mamata Banerjee’s ruling party TMC, the opposition parties have been decimated as minor parties. It is doubtful if CPM and/or Congress can win elections in the state any time in the near future.

The poll debacle of BJP or DMK misfortunes in Tamil Nadu is not as serious fall as of Congress suffered in most of the states that went to poll in May. Similarly, the debacle of the new alliance PWA or PMK in TN is also could be temporary but BJP’s is a serious concern for the BJP leadership because all their campaigns have ended in disaster for the party. But both the PWA and PMK have done their initial work as alternative political parties, though they could not win seats or increased their vote shares against the powerful DMK and AIADMK.

One does not know how would Tamil voters have reacted has the DMK declared MK Stalin as the DMK’s CM candidate. There is a suggestion that people would have seen the development as a positive trend in DMK and even the poll outcomes would have been different. Not very sure!

There have been no changes in the AICC secretariat since the last Lok Sabha polls in which the party had its worst ever performance by securing just 44 seats in the 543-member House.

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has made a pitch for a ‘major surgery’ in the organisation after the party’s poor performance in the assembly polls. With the Congress losing power in Assam and Kerala, party President Sonia Gandhi has said it would introspect over the causes of the debacle and work with ‘greater vigour’ for the services of the people. However, taking to micro-blogging site, AICC General Secretary Digvijaya Singh said, “Today’s results disappointing but not unexpected. We have done enough Introspection shouldn’t we go for a Major Surgery?”

The Congress rejected suggestions that the party Vice President or President Sonia should accept blame for its debacle in four states. Digvijay’s suggestion has come at a time when there is talk of the much-delayed reshuffle in the AICC secretariat likely to be carried out soon and indications are that Rahul Gandhi could be elevated as party chief. He also added that since the party was under the overall leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, they are the ones who have to take steps to rejuvenate the party and build up a regional leadership. Even Congress leader Shashi Tharoor MP said it is now a time for action, not giving any idea about what exact change they want.

Over all confusion in the party about the future of the party is so strong there is no credible solution to make the party look healthy. Rampant corruption, insensitive misrule, promotion of RSS/BJP to blackmail the Muslim voters have created deep rooted crisis in the party which the BJP is taking full advantage in polls.

Is Congress era is over so early?

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India’s multi-alignment: the origins, the past, and the present

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In the initial two decades following India’s independence, India’s foreign policy was heavily determined by the personal predilections of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his protégé VK Krishna Menon, both influenced by British socialism. Nehru himself handled the external affairs portfolio until his death in 1964.

The policy of ‘non-alignment’ which the duo initiated in India’s foreign policy gained world-wide attention since early 1950s, which later became a full-fledged movement and forum of discussion in 1961 (NAM) that consisted of developing and newly decolonised nations from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But, the policy never meant isolationism or neutrality; rather it was conceived as a positive and constructive policy in the backdrop of the US-USSR Cold War, enabling freedom of action in foreign and security policies, even though many of the individual NAM member states had a tilt towards the Soviet Union, including India.

However, the lofty Nehruvian idealism of India’s foreign policy in its initial decades was not successful enough in integrating well into India’s security interests and needs, as it lost territories to both China and Pakistan during the period, spanning 1947 to 1964.

However, when Indira Gandhi assumed premiership, realism had strongly gained ground in India’s political, diplomatic and military circles, as evident in India’s successful intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Even at that point of time, India still sticked on to the policy of non-alignment until it was no longer feasible in a changed international system that took shape following the end of the Cold War, which is where the origins of a new orientation in India’s foreign policy decision-making termed as ‘multi-alignment’ lies.

Today, India skilfully manoeuvres between China-led or Russia-led groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with its involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), in which Japan and Australia are also members.

Militarily though, India is still not part of any formal treaty alliance, and is simultaneously part of a diverse network of loose and issue-specific coalitions and regional groupings, led by adversarial powers, with varying founding objectives and strategic imperatives.

Today, non-alignment alone can no longer explain the fact that recently India took part in a US-chaired virtual summit meeting of the Quad in March 2021 and three months later attended a BRICS ministerial meet, where China and Russia were also present.

So, how did India progress from its yesteryear policy of remaining equidistant from both the US-led and Soviet-led military blocs (non-alignment) and how did it begin to align with multiple blocs or centres of power (multi-alignment)? Answer to this question stretches three decades back.

World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities

1992 was a watershed year for Indian diplomacy. A year back, the Soviet Union, a key source of economic and military support for India till then, disappeared in the pages of history, bringing the Cold War to its inevitable end.

This brought a huge vacuum for India’s strategic calculations. Combined with a global oil shock induced by the First Gulf War of 1990 triggered a balance of payment crisis in India, which eventually forced the Indian government to liberalise and open up its economy for foreign investments and face competition.

India elected a pragmatic new prime minister in 1991 – PV Narasimha Rao. The vision he had in mind for India’s standing in the world was quite different from his predecessors. Then finance minister and later PM, Dr Manmohan Singh announced in the Indian Parliament, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

This was during his 1991 budget speech and it marked the beginning of building a new India where excessive control of the state on economic and business affairs seemed no longer a viable option.

At a time when Japan’s economy was experiencing stagnation, China was ‘peacefully rising’, both economically and industrially. The United States remained as the most influential power and security provider in Asia with its far-reaching military alliance network.

As the unipolar world dawned proclaiming the supremacy of the United States, PM Rao steered Indian foreign policy through newer pastures, going beyond traditional friends and partners like Russia.

In another instance, 42 years after India recognised Israel as an independent nation in 1950, both countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Indian diplomats accomplished a task long overdue without affecting the existing amicable ties with Palestine.

In the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is worth noting that India took a more balanced stance at the United Nations, which was different from its previous stances that reflected an open and outright pro-Palestine narrative.

Today, India values its ties with Israel on a higher pedestal, even in areas beyond defence and counter-terrorism, such as agriculture, water conservation, IT and cyber security.

Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas

China is a huge neighbour of India with which its shares a 3,488-km long un-demarcated border. Skirmishes and flare-ups resulting from difference in perception of the border and overlapping patrolling areas are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.

For the first time after the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a daunting defeat for India, diplomatic talks for confidence-building in the India-China border areas were initiated by the Rao government in 1993, resulting in the landmark Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the defacto border between India and China.

The agreement also provided a framework for ensuring security along the LAC between both sides until a final agreement on clear demarcation of the border is reached out. The 1993 agreement created an expert group consisting of diplomats and military personnel to advise the governments on the resolution of differences in perception and alignment of the LAC. The pact was signed in Beijing in September 1993, during PM Rao’s visit to China.

Former top diplomat of India Shivshankar Menon noted in one of his books that the 1993 agreement was “the first of any kind relating specifically to the border between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China … It formalized in an international treaty a bilateral commitment by India and China to maintain the status quo on the border. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.”

The 1993 pact was followed by another one in 1996, the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures. The following two decades saw a number of agreements being signed and new working mechanisms being formalized, even though two major standoffs occurred in the Ladakh sector in 2013 and 2020 respectively and one in between in the Sikkim sector in 2017.

The agreements served as the basis upon which robust economic ties flourished in the 2000s and 2010s, before turning cold as a result of Chinese aggression of 2020 in Ladakh. However, the 1993 agreement still was a landmark deal as we consider the need for peace in today’s increasingly adversarial ties between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture

Before the early 1990s, India’s regional involvements to its east remained limited to its socio-cultural ties, even though the region falls under India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. But, since 1992, when the Look East Policy (LEP) was formulated under the Rao government, India has been venturing into the region to improve its abysmal record of economic and trade ties with countries the region.

New Delhi began reaching out to the ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1992 and was made a Sectoral Partner of the association in the same year. Thus, India kicked-off the process of its integration into the broader Asian regional architecture.

In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a key platform for talks on issues of security in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India became ASEAN’s summit-level partner in 2002 and a strategic partner in 2012.

A free trade agreement (FTA) was agreed between ASEAN and India in 2010. And in 2014, the erstwhile LEP was upgraded into the Act East Policy (AEP). Today, the ASEAN region remains at the centre of India’s evolving Indo-Pacific policy.

Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States

1998 was an important year, not just for India, but for the world. Until May that year, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possessed nuclear capabilities. That year, ‘Buddha smiled again’ in the deserts of India’s Rajasthan state, as India under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests, declaring itself a nuclear state, 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974 code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’.

The move surprised even the US intelligence agencies, as India managed to go nuclear by bypassing keen US satellite eyes that were overlooking the testing site. Shortly after this, Pakistan also declared itself a nuclear state.

India’s nuclear tests invited severe international condemnation for New Delhi and badly affected its relationship with Washington, resulting in a recalling of its Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions, which was a big blow for India’s newly liberalised economy.

But, a bonhomie was reached between India and the US in a matter of two years and then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, the first presidential visit since 1978. The Indo-US Science and technology Forum was established during this visit and all the sanctions were revoked by following year.

Bharat Karnad, a noted Indian strategic affairs expert, notes in one his books that, “Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US, which resulted in the NSSP”.

The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between the US and India was launched in January 2004 that covered wide ranging areas of cooperation such as nuclear energy, space, defence and trade. This newfound warmth in Indo-US relations was taken to newer heights with the conclusion of the landmark civil nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008.

Today, India is a key defence partner of the United States, having signed all the four key foundational pacts for military-to-military cooperation, the latest being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, signed in October 2020. The two countries are key partners in the Quad grouping and share similar concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to cultivate this special relationship with the United States, reinforced by cooperation in the Quad grouping and also by constantly engaging a 4.8-million strong Indian diaspora in the United States.

The leaders of both countries, from Vajpayee to Modi and from Clinton to Trump have reciprocated bilateral visits to each other’s countries. And, India looks forward to the Biden-Harris administration for new areas of cooperation.

But, a recent military manoeuvre in April, this year, by a US Navy ship (which it calls a FONOP or Freedom of Navigation Operation) in India’s exclusive economic zone, off Lakshadweep coast, casted a shadow over this relations.

The US openly stated in social media that it entered the area without seeking India’s prior consent and asserted its navigational rights. This invited mixed reactions, as it was highly uncalled for. While some analysts consider it humiliating, others think that the incident occurred due to the difference of perceptions about international maritime law in both countries.

Today, along with the US, India skilfully manages its ‘historical and time-tested’ ties with Russia, a strategic foe of the US, and moves forward to purchase Russian-made weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile defence system, even after a threat of sanctions. But, in the past several years, India has been trying to diversify its defence procurements from other countries such as France and Israel and has been also promoting indigenisation of defence production.

A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism

India is a founding member of the BRICS grouping, formalised in 2006, now consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the emerging economies of that time with a potential to drive global economic growth and act as an alternate centre of power along with other groupings of rich countries such as the G-7 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

India always stood for a responsible global multilateral system and rules-based order. Indian leaders have attended all summit-level meetings of BRICS since 2009 unfailingly. Last year, the summit took place in the backdrop of India-China border standoff in Ladakh, under Russia’s chair, a common friend of both countries, where the leaders of India and China came face-to-face for the first time, although in virtual format.

The primary focus of BRICS remains economic in nature, but it also takes independent stances on events occurring in different parts of the world. The grouping also established a bank to offer financial assistance for development projects known as the New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai, China, in 2014, with an Indian as its first elected president.

BRICS also became the first multilateral grouping in the world to endorse the much-needed TRIPS waiver proposal jointly put forward by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on Covid vaccine-making during the duration of the pandemic to provide developing countries that lack adequate technologies with means to battle the virus.

As India gears up to host this year’s upcoming BRICS summit, there is no doubt that being part of the grouping has served the country’s interests well.

Manoeuvring the SCO, along the shores of the Indo-Pacific

The SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a regional organisation consisting of eight Eurasian powers, largest in the world both in terms of land area and population covered. It stands for promoting mutual cooperation and stability, where security issues can be freely discussed and conflicts are attempted to be resolved.

India is not a founding member of the SCO, which was created in 2001. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017. The grouping’s members also include Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, excluding Turkmenistan.

Sharing a common platform with Pakistan and China and the presence of a long-term friend, Russia, has helped India diplomatically in key occasions. Using the SCO platform, the existing differences between member states can be discussed and prevented from escalating into major conflicts.

This was evident most recently visible in 2020 when the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on a plan for the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from the LAC, as a major step in the diffusion of tensions in Ladakh that had erupted since May that year.

But, Russia and China collectively oppose the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, something that surfaced into political discourse with the famous speech delivered by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007 in the Parliament of India, calling for “the confluence of two seas” and hinting at a new maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

It is in this context that the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States gained prominence. The four Quad countries came together to offer humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ambit of the grouping’s co-operation ranges from maritime security to cooperation in Covid vaccine production and distribution.

After a decade since the first joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries took place in 2007, the ASEAN’s Manila summit in 2017 provided a platform for the four countries to connect with each other and enhance consultations to revive the four-nation grouping.

The Quad has been raised to the summit level now with the March 2021 virtual summit, and has also conducted two joint naval exercises so far, one in 2007 and the other in 2020. This loose coalition is widely perceived as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land border with China. At the same time, India is also the only country that is not a formal security ally of the United States, meaning if India quits, the Quad ceases to exist, while the other three countries can still remain as treaty allies. However, setting the US aside, cooperation among the other three Quad partners has also been witnessing a boom since the last year.

India and Japan have expanded co-operation in third countries in India’s neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region and offer an alternative to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is perceived as having implications of a potential debt-trap aimed at fetching strategic gains.

Amid the pandemic, both the countries have joined hands with Australia to launch a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify key supply chains away from China.

However, India doesn’t perceive a free and open Indo-Pacific as an exclusionary strategy targeted at containing some country, rather as an inclusive geographic concept, where co-operation over conflict is possible. This was articulated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

Various additions were made to this view in later stages, as the concept evolved into a coherent form, representing New Delhi’s expanding neighbourhood. This vision aligns well with related initiatives such the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), aimed at improving maritime security, trade, connectivity and management of shared resources.

The future

For India, this is an era of complex multi-alignment, different from the Cold War-era international system, where multiple centres of power exist. At different time periods in the past, India has adapted well to the changing circumstances and power dynamics in the international system.

India’s strategic posture today, despite being aspirational, is to have good relations with all its neighbours, regional players, and the major powers, to promote rules-based order, and in the due process to find its own deserving place in the world.

In July, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India ‘will never be part of an alliance system’, even though a tilt towards the US is increasingly getting visible, taking the China factor into account. Jaishankar also stated that global power shifts are opening up spaces for middle powers like India.

As the world tries to avoid another Cold War, this time between the United States and China, the competing geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime region is poised to add up to New Delhi’s many dilemmas in the coming years.

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The unrecognized demographic situation of West Bengal and consequences yet to occur

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World’s second large demographic nation India’s state West Bengal is now apparently residence of over 91 million population. At the same time, West Bengal is the fourth-most populous state and the fourteenth-large state by area in India. It is also the seventh-most populous country subdivision of the world. To get an insight into the present situation of West Bengal anyone has to look back in 1947 and later consequences. As being a prominent ethnocultural region of India, West Bengal faced political partition in the year 1947 in the wake of the transformation of British India into two separate independent nations India and Pakistan.  Under the process of partition, the then Bengal province was bifurcated into two segments. The predominately Hindu living area named West Bengal, a state of India, and the predominately-Muslim living area turned as East Bengal and after becoming a province of Pakistan that renamed as East Pakistan and later in 1971, the Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh.

In 1971 at the time of partition, the Muslim population of West Bengal counted 12% and the Hindu population of East Bengal remained 30%. While at present, with continuous Muslim immigration, Hindu persecution, conversions, and less production of offspring, West Bengal’s Muslim population has increased to 30% (up to 63% in some districts). While as per the counting report of 2011 Bangladesh’s Hindu population has decreased to 8%. When at the present situation for Hindus in Bangladesh is certainly dire, then life has become increasingly difficult for Hindus in West Bengal, having a Muslim-appeasing government. The governance of the elected government led to the demographic and cultural shifts in West Bengal. Prevailing of the same governance after the 2021 Bidhansabha election leads to the destruction of Hindu’s belonging everywhere in Bengal. The situation stood worse in the outskirts where media coverage is poor, compelling Hindu families to flee in adjacent states or to hide. A sizable number of Bengali Hindu families already preferred to shift to Assam.

Looking back as per a striking report of July 2014 by Times of India fewer children were born in Bengal and the prediction was there will be even fewer in the next generation. The 2011 Census shows a decadal growth of 13.84% in West Bengal, which was significantly below the national growth average of 17.7%, and the decadal growth was lowest ever and beaten only by the aftermath of the infamous Famine of  Bengal,1942.

While the retrospective study of the demography of West Bengal shows that the culturally dominant Hindu population in West Bengal during the first census of 1951 was around 19,462,706 and in the 2011 census it had increased to 64,385,546. While the percentage of the Hindu population in the state decreased from 78.45% in 1951 to 70.54% in the 2011 Census. The data sharply indicates fewer children birth within families of Hindus only while the population of Muslim counterparts tends to grow over time. Once considered a symbol of Indian culture, what has happened in Bengal for the last few decades is the indicator of West Bengal’s demographic future.

Starting from the diminishing of the Hindu culture, communal riots against the Hindus have started happening for quite some time and the situation has been that the banning of celebrating the festivals of Hindus has started in the last few years. Added to those the recent genocide of Hindus depicting a recent trend of population.

Back in 2015 the famous American journalist Janet Levy has written an article on Bengal and the revelations that have been made in it state that Bengal will soon become a separate Islamic country. Janet Levy claims in her article that civil war is going to start soon in Bengal after Kashmir. Which almost begun in recent times in the wake of the Bidhansabha Election of West Bengal.   

Ushering the prediction of Janet Levy mass Hindus will be massacred and demanded a separate country.

She cited the facts for his claim back in 2015 that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has recognized more than 10,000 madrassas who were privileged to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and made their degree eligible for a government job, money comes from Saudi and in those madrassas, Wahhabi bigotry is taught.

In the recent past Chief Minister started several Islamic city projects where Islamic people are taught also started a project to establish an Islamic city in West Bengal. It’s evident that Chief Minister has also declared various types of stipends for the Imams of mosques but no such stipends were declared for Hindus primarily. Janet Levy has given many examples around the world where terrorism, religious fanaticism, and crime cases started increasing as the Muslim population increased. With increasing population, a separate Sharia law is demanded at such places, and then finally it reaches the demand of a separate country.

Author and activist Taslima Nasreen once became reason to test the ground reality for West Bengal.

In 1993, Taslima Nasreen wrote a book ‘Lajja’ on the issue of atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh and forcibly making them Muslims.

After writing the book, she had to leave Bangladesh facing the threat of bigotry. The author settled in Kolkata considering that she will be safe there as India is a secular country and the constitution also provided the freedom of expression. Eventually experienced the nightmare that Taslima Nasreen had to face a riot-like situation against her in 2007 in Kolkata. Even in a secular country like India, Muslims banned Taslima Nasreen with hatred. Fatwas issued to cut her throat on the secular land of India.

Upholding the threat the author was also attacked several times in different cities of the country.

But the secular Leftists never supported Taslima, not even the Trinamool government of West Bengal because the Muslims would get angry and the vote bank would face shaking.

That time first attempt was made in which Muslim organizations in West Bengal demanded the Islamic blasphemy (Blasfamie) law. Raising questions on India’s secularism and action of secular parties.

Janet Levy further wrote that for the first time in 2013 some fundamentalist Maulanas of Bengal started demanding a separate ‘Mughalistan’. In the same year riots in Bengal, houses and shops of hundreds of Hindus were looted and many temples were also destroyed by rioters under the safe shelter of government and police.

After the Bidhansava Election 2021 the Hindus of West Bengal facing the same or even worse situation.

Are Hindus boycotted?

Victorious party supremo of West Bengal was afraid that if the Muslims were stopped they would get angry and would not vote and after getting freshly elected her government falls into that vicious circle again.

It is evident from the aftermath of the election result in West Bengal that not only riots but to drive away Hindus, in districts where there are more Muslims, boycotting Hindu businessman. In the Muslim majority districts of Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur, Muslims do not even buy goods from Hindu shops. This is the reason why a large number of Hindus have started migrating from West Bengal like Kashmiri Pandits, here Hindus leaving their homes and businesses and moving to other places. These are the districts where Hindus have become a minority.

Invoking such incidents Janet, stated that the demand for partition of Bengal from India will soon begin from the land of West Bengal. No demographic theorist interpreted the present demographic situation of West Bengal sabotaging Malthusian theory.

In accord with Janet’s analysis, a few recent sources also indicated the number of the Muslim population, in reality, is much higher than the number on record given to the hiding of numbers of children by Muslim parents when a survey takes place. Implementing CAA, NRC could have been way out for West Bengal to check the proper demographic status and to prevent further population explosion to sustain Bengali Hindus. Perceiving the appeasement politics of government for the last 10 years it’s seeming to be unlikely to get any sharp solution. 

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South Asia

Covid-19 has made Feminist Foreign Policy all the more Relevant to India

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Photo: Amit Ranjan/Unsplash

As the impact of the year long COVID19 pandemic continues to be felt across different parts of India—where patriarchy is entrenched in the social code and inequalities against women are being intuitively practised—the repercussions of the health crisis along with the ever deepening gender gaps are being disproportionately and severely borne by women. Yet, most of the discussions revolving around the pandemic have either been gender-blind or gender-neutral, often resulting in the systemic subjugation or marginalisation of women.

In light of these challenges, the thematic debate on gender equality can no longer continue just on papers, it in fact, needs to be converted into actions by the Indian government in order to deal with the short term consequences of the pandemic as well as to develop long-term sustainable peace. The adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) framework is the best way to achieve this dual goal. A FFP could offer a concrete opportunity for India to build a more inclusive policy making set-up; breakaway from the predominant patriarchal notions; and, address pandemic relief strategies—from the viewpoint of women and other vulnerable or under-represented sections of society.

Gendered Impact of COVID19 in India

Within India’s socio-cultural and economic realms—that have historically been marred by inequalities and rigid stereotypes—the gendered effects of the COVID19 pandemic have been both, intersectional and complex.

To begin with, owing to the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 patients, health-care workers in India, particularly the nurses of whom approximately 88.9 per cent are women remain much more vulnerable to contracting the deadly virus. The existing problem of shortage of basic equipment for these healthcare workers further aggravates these concerns.

Second, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on an already shrinking Indian economy resulting in financial cut downs and rising unemployment. Women—either due to the deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes or due to the subconscious bias that arises out of such attitudes—have stood at the forefront of being temporarily or permanently laid-off from their jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, with the commencement of the nationwide lockdown, the rate of unemployment reached 23.5 per cent in March to April 2020 with higher shares of unemployed women. The unemployment rate for women further reached 12.39 per cent as of February 2021.

Third, women in India are now being confronted with a shadow pandemic where forced proximity, isolation, increased substance abuse, lack of access to justice etc. during the on-going health crisis has resulted in an increasing threat of domestic or gender-based violence.  As per a set of data released by the National Commission of Women in April 2020, there was an almost 100 per cent increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.

Nonetheless, these are only some of the immediate effects of the pandemic on women in India. There are other sequential consequences that will emerge in time including, the problems of depletion in savings and assets, pandemic-related widowhood, etc., which would collaboratively make recovery extremely difficult for women.

Evidently, in India, the pandemic is exploiting pre-existing economic and social inequalities along with social norms that give men embedded advantages, and has been posing a real threat to closing gender gaps. In fact, according to the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, India has already slipped down 28 spots to rank 140th among 156 countries in comparison to its 112th position among 153 countries for the year 2019-2020.

But despite bearing a differential impact, women in India have not been included either directly or indirectly in the development of response strategies to deal with COVID19. As such, they remain absent from decision-making tables that involve the shaping of the future of our societies. However, research indicates that the inclusion of women along with other diverse voices makes for better options in policy making and in bringing about comprehensive outcomes that accommodate the needs and concerns of all groupings.

How can a FFP help?

These unfortunate states of affairs demand an adjustment in India’s thinking and strategy, bring about a paradigmatic shift in its traditional policymaking and allow for diverse representation to effectively deal with COVID19 pandemic. The present crisis is therefore, precisely the time to be talking about a FFP in India and for its representatives to make a stronger commitment to mainstream gender at the policy level.

By critically reflecting on the existing international power structures, a FFP framework focuses on protecting the needs of marginalised and female groups and places issues of human security and human rights at the heart of discussions. In doing so, it provides a fundamental shift from the conventional understanding of security to include other arena of foreign policy such as economics, finance, environment, health, trade etc.

With this new perception of health risks and crisis management as a security threat, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, India can potentially explore broadening the humanitarian trade options under its international arrangements to address shortages of medicine and lack of access to personal protective equipment for health workers within its territory— a vast majority of which continue to be women.

The adoption of a FFP could also pave the way for an increased regional cooperation, facilitate regional discussions on myriad issues and enable the development of targeted recovery program designed specifically for the empowerment of women. Such a program would account for the fact that the economic repercussions of crises disproportionately affect women and therefore, help India in securing assistance from its neighbour to address the gendered economic and social effects of the COVID19 pandemic.

Besides, FFP does not only mean considering power structures and managing relations at the global level alone but also evaluating outcomes within the country’s own domestic landscape. In this sense, a FFP could provide India with an important starting point for bringing about an internal shift by focusing more on gender issues, especially in terms of the strictly defined patriarchal gender roles and eliminate barriers that continue to restrict women’s participation in decision-making processes.

An emphasis on women’s participation in India’s leadership positions would in turn catalyse the application a gender lens to the process of domestic policymaking, thereby, achieving comprehensive outcomes that are inclusive of diverse perspectives. Such policies will promote women’s concerns as humanitarian issues, prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and continue to facilitate the provision of information and education, thus making women better equipped to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.


Adding on to these factors, given that the FFP is an all-inclusive approach, its application could also potentially strengthen cooperation between the Indian government and civil society organisations or women’s network at home as well as abroad to manage the pandemic and its deleterious effect on people, especially women. At a time when the government resources are overwhelmed in their fight against the pandemic, greater involvement of civil society organisations can in fact, play a critical role in advocating social justice, women’s rights, social equity, and provide medical and food support, distribution of hygiene kits, spreading awareness about the virus, etc. These efforts could bring about a considerable improvement in women’s vulnerable position under the current Covid19 crisis in India.

Conclusion

As such, the FFP approach offers huge potential to address some the major institutional and organisational injustices against women in India, and the COVID19 pandemic represents a critical juncture in this regards. A FFP is important not only to ensure that the gendered imbalances inflicted by COVID19 do not become permanent but also for the long term economic and social development of the country, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement of national security as well as peace. But whether India will adopt or even consider moving towards a FFP in the near future remains to be seen.

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