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A Case for Simultaneous Centre-State Polls in India

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The Republic of India is the world’s largest democracy. More than 800 million voters are eligible to exercise their right to elect a government. Democratic decentralization has ensured that every voter has a chance to elect a representative of his choice at a national, state and local level.

The Indian democracy, in spite of large size, is highly stable and there has always been a peaceful transition of power between governments. Aside from Indira Gandhi’s brief flirtation with emergency, the democratic institutions of India have, are and will remain strong. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is an independent institution charged with conducting free and fair elections. One of the most famous Chief Election Commissioner of India, T.N. Seshan is credited with making the ECI free, ruthless and a highly competent body. During elections to the national or a state level, a mode code of conduct (MCC) is enforced in the region. During the MCC, all officers are under the jurisdiction of the ECI and the current dispensation cannot make any declarations or promises to sway the electorate. MCC ensures, a level playing field for all, taking the throne away from the king and forcing him to slug in the mud with his competitors. But on the flipside, during MCC, the entire government machinery is geared towards the successful completion of the elections, at the cost of their core responsibilities i.e. administration and execution of government schemes. Also, constant elections (1 National, 29 State and 2 UTs) ensure that the country is perpetually in a state of election mania and no party, ruling or otherwise can risk to take a stand contradictory to the voting patterns of the state about to go to voting. This has prompted a few leaders and thinkers to propose the need for simultaneous elections in the entire country.

The year 2014 heralded a new chapter in the Indian Politics. An ambitious leader, Narendra Modi supported by able and energetic supporters took the entire country by storm and won the first simple majority in the Indian lower house in over 30 years. It was no mean feat and considering the odds stacked against Narendra Modi, nothing less than a miracle. However, the leader (or more aptly the General) never halted his cavalries after this victory. His army fought battles after battles, for them every battle was a battle of survival. With his guns never stopped blazing, his horses ever on a gallop, his men ever on the move, the General found or had very little time to consolidate his victories. Consequently, very less time was actually devoted to administration and most of the time and energies spent on discussing the battle plans for the next fray. Three years on, with elections due every 6 months, Modi’s army is showing signs of fatigue. His army has bloated in numbers but is fast losing its edge and thus, needs new weapons and some much needed rest. Modi needs to put together newer weapons (programs & schemes for development and implement them on the ground) before his forces are led to another major battle. It thus comes as no surprise that one of the strongest proponents of the simultaneous polls is the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.    

It would be interesting if the polls for the India’s lower house of the Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Indian State Assemblies are help together. The ECI has claimed that it is well equipped to handle simultaneous polls. However, there are a few challenges that need to be solved before such a change can be implemented nationwide. The primary motive of this article is to explore the possible shortcomings of the idea and explore suitable solutions to it.

One of the primary shortcoming of such a system proposed by the detractors of the proposal is the lack of political consensus needed for such an arrangement. Yes, this is true. Barring a few parties, not many parties are keen on this idea. While political consensus on such an issue will be difficult to establish for the proponents of the proposal, the detractors seem to forget that the strongest political party in India, the BJP and its undisputed leader, Narendra Modi is firmly behind the proposal. The deft maneuvering of Narendra Modi and the political compromises made by his team to ensure a speedy passage of the Goods & Service Tax is not only laudable but also a template for how Modi & his team can ensure the passage of any sensitive matter or bill of importance.

Also, if we are to have simultaneous polls for the Centre & the State the terms of the various state assemblies will likely to be shortened or extended in order to accommodate such an arrangement. Possible candidates for start year of such an implementation are either 2019 or 2022. While it is too soon to comment on 2019 (Modi government lacks the critical numbers it needs to push forth various bills in the Indian Upper House), 2022-2023 appears to be a logical choice. Modi government can provide extension to all state assemblies going to polls in 2021 to the year of the poll and shorten the duration of election of the states that went to polls in 2019 or 2020. Also, there would be a need to shorten the duration of the National Lower House by a year or two if we go for this arrangement. While there are constitutional precedents for these type of arrangements, it would be interesting to see how this can be implemented nation-wide. Modi must need to win a simple majority in all the elections upto 2019 to see his dream pass else he would lose the numbers needed to pass for the constitutional amendments. Also, the term of the J&K assembly will have to reduce from 6 years to 5 years to bring it to the same length with the rest of the country.

Elections are a biggest celebrations of the human freedom and it is imperative that adequate security be put in place that all voters be at a peace of mind when the voting takes place. There needs to enough companies of paramilitary forces deployed so that voting can take place smoothly and free of violence. While it is true that Indian Paramilitary comprised of several different forces is stretched thin and has its hands full, with proper management and conducting the elections in multiple phases, the Indian Paramilitary forces are sufficient to conduct the elections smoothly. Also, since polling for both state and national assembly would be carried out in the same go, a single deployment of troops can ensure the protection without any hassles. This will also reduce the manpower requirement for the conduct of elections.

Now, a major question which arises is that what if any state assembly or worse, the national parliament are unable to reach a consensus on a new government or an elected government falls midway. In this case, by-polls for the region in question can be conducted and the newly elected government can hold charge for the remainder of the total duration, just like a constituency bypoll, only on a larger scale.

Hence, while it is true that simultaneous polls are a radical idea and its implementation, an uphill task but it nothing other the ordinary and the present dispensation can easily ensure its acceptance. However, if Narendra Modi loses in 2019, this idea will die a silent and quick death.

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South Asia

Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.

The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.

The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.

Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rather than as a religious initiative.

Saudi religious authorities and Islamic scholars have long issued fatwas or religious opinions condemning political violence and extremism and accused jihadists of deviating from the true path of Islam.

The Saudi campaign, the largest public diplomacy effort in history, was, nevertheless, long abetted by opportunistic governments who played politics with religion as well as widespread discontent fuelled by the failure of governments to deliver public goods and services.

The Bangladeshi plan raises multiple questions, including whether the counter-narrative industry can produce results in the absence of effective government policies that address social, economic and political grievances.

It also begs the question whether change in Saudi Arabia has advanced to a stage in which the kingdom can claim that it has put its ultra-conservative and militant roots truly behind it. The answer to both questions is probably no.

In many ways, Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and militancy, violent and non-violent, despite sharing common roots with the kingdom’s long-standing theological thinking and benefitting directly or indirectly from Saudi financial largess, has created a life of its own that no longer looks to the kingdom for guidance and support and is critical of the path on which Prince Mohammed has embarked.

The fallout of the Saudi campaign is evident in Asia not only in the rise of militancy in Bangladesh but also the degree to which concepts of supremacism and intolerance have taken root in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Those concepts are often expressed in discrimination, if not persecution of minorities like Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, and draconic anti-blasphemy measures by authorities, militants and vigilantes.

Bangladesh in past years witnessed a series of brutal killings of bloggers and intellectuals whom jihadists accused of atheism.

Moreover, basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s secular constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. Saudi Arabia withheld recognition of the new state as well as financial support until the amendment was adopted four years after Bangladeshi independence.

In Indonesia, hard-line Islamic groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), earlier this month filed a blasphemy complaint against politician Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. The hardliners accuse Ms. Sukarnoputri of reciting a poem that allegedly insults Islam.

The groups last year accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, Jakarta’s former Christian governor, of blasphemy and spearheaded mass rallies that led to his ouster and jailing, a ruling that many believed was politicized and unjust.

Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy law has created an environment that has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and powerful political forces to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives. The environment is symbolized by graffiti in the corridor of a courthouse In Islamabad that demanded that blasphemers be beheaded.

Pakistan last month designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.

The government has drafted a list of subjects that should be the focus of weekly Friday prayer sermons in a bid to prevent mosques being abused “to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities and promote extremism.” The subjects include women rights; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; and the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty.

However, they do not address legally enshrined discrimination of minorities like Ahmadis, who are viewed as heretics by orthodox Muslims. The list risked reinforcing supremacist and intolerant militancy by including the concept of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed that is often used as a whip to discriminate against minorities.

Raising questions about the degree of moderation that Saudi-funded mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would propagate, Prince Mohammed, in his effort to saw off the rough edges of Saudi ultra-conservatism, has given no indication that he intends to repeal a law that defines atheists as terrorists.

A Saudi court last year condemned a man to death on charges of blasphemy and atheism. Another Saudi was a year earlier sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheist sentiments on social media.

Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations have long lobbied for the criminalization of blasphemy in international law in moves that would legitimize curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia cannot be held directly liable for much of the expression of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, by the same token there is little doubt that Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism frequently contributed to an enabling environment.

Prince Mohammed is at the beginning of his effort to moderate Saudi Islam and has yet to spell out in detail his vision of religious change. Beyond the issue of defining atheism as terrorism, Saudi Arabia also has yet to put an end to multiple ultra-conservative practices, including the principle of male guardianship that forces women to get the approval of a male relative for major decisions in their life.

Prince Mohammed has so far forced the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment into subservience. That raises the question whether there has been real change in the establishment’s thinking or whether it is kowtowing to an autocratic leader.

In December, King Salman fired a government official for organizing a mixed gender fashion show after ultra-conservatives criticized the event on Twitter. The kingdom this week hosted its first ever Arab Fashion Week, for women only. Designers were obliged to adhere to strict dress codes banning transparent fabrics and the display of cleavages or clothing that bared knees.

In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.

Efforts to moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state that traces its ultra-conservatism to the teachings of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but has long interpreted them more liberally than the kingdom, have proven to be easier said than done.

Saudi King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, positioned himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue and reached out to various groups in society including Shiites and women.

Yet, more than a decade of Saudi efforts to cleanse textbooks used at home and abroad have made significant progress but have yet to completely erase descriptions of alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms or eliminate advise to Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers.

Raising questions about Saudi involvement in the Bangladeshi plan, a Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.”

Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League last year documented hate speech in Qatari mosques that was disseminated in Qatari media despite Qatar’s propagation of religious tolerance and outreach to American Jews as part of its effort to counter a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

In one instance in December, Qatari preacher Muhammed al-Muraikhi described Jews in a sermon in Doha’s Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque as “your deceitful, lying, treacherous, fornicating, intransigent enemy” who have “despoiled, corrupted, ruined, and killed, and will not stop.”

No doubt, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, which much earlier moved away from puritan and literal Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, is sincere in its intention to adopt more tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.

Getting from A to B, however, is a lengthy process. The question remains whether the kingdom has progressed to a degree that it can credibly help countries like Bangladesh deal with their demons even before having successfully put its own house in order.

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South Asia

Is India Fast Becoming a Dysfunctional Democracy?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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When hate invades the human mind, there is no limit to brutal atrocity.  On April 10, a  Guardian story included a video in which there is cheering as an Israeli sniper shoots an unarmed Palestinian a considerable distance away.  Shown on TV in Israel, it has been the subject of some introspective debate.  Then there is news from Kashmir to make anyone, but the perpetrators and their supporters, cringe in horror.

Eight-year old Asifa Bano went in the afternoon to the nearby forest, as she usually did, to bring back the family horses from grazing.  She never returned.  Family and friends searched all-night by flashlights but could not find her.  Five days later her body was found.

“She had been tortured,”  recalls her mother.  “Her legs were broken … Her nails had turned black and there were blue and red marks on her arm and fingers.”

Was this the work of a demented sadist?  No, it turns out.  It was a planned operation intended to terrorize her community of Muslim nomads (Gujjars) to leave this predominantly Hindu area about 45 miles east of Jammu City.

According to investigators, Asifa was taken to a temple where she was held for several days.  The eight-year old was repeatedly “raped for days, tortured and then murdered,” states the charge sheet.  She was strangled to death, then hit twice on the head with a stone.

A retired government officer, Sanji Ram aged 60, calmly planned this horror, aided by police officers Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj, Sunder Verma, and someone called Khajuria.  The outrage over the incident has grown since two ministers from the ruling BJP (Mr. Modi’s party) attended a rally in support of the accused.

Terrorizing Muslims in Kashmir is not new; it has been ongoing for decades.  But terrorizing Muslims, Dalits, Christians and indigenous peoples in India itself has now also mushroomed.

Six Christian churches have been burned since 2015, and a concerted attempt to boycott Christian businesses is underway in the northeast.  The killing of Muslims and Dalits by vigilantes on minor pretexts continues as the country’s democracy turns into a ‘mobocracy’.

It is ‘Democracy a la’ Modi’, a phrase that is the title of a long essay by scholars Sumit Ganguly and Krishna Menon in The National Interest (Jan/Feb 2018) — the title was changed to ‘Making India Great Again?’ in the internet version.  Mr. Modi and his party want to turn India’s “kaleidoscope of languages, religions, castes and cultures” into a culturally Hindu state, even a religious return to Hinduism for they believe that “many Hindus were forcibly converted to, or duped into adopting Islam and Christianity.”  Forget the Islamic injunction against forced conversion or the abundant evidence of tireless Christian missionaries including Mother Teresa.

The National Volunteer Force or RSS in their white shirt, khaki shorts uniform conduct martial drills and “serves as the party’s force multiplier and base”.  It demonizes the other creating the environment for vigilante lynchings of minorities — overwhelmingly Muslim note the authors — to continue with impunity.

“Attacks on minority communities have become common, and academics, students and journalists who highlight the harassment and intimidation are subjected to public calumny, and have occasionally been killed.”

Thus noted Hinduism scholar and University of Chicago divinity professor Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus:  An Alternative History,” which presented a ‘new way of understanding’ Hinduism according to the publisher was banned as vulgar following a Hindutva campaign.  Much worse can happen.  Gauri Lankesh, a prominent woman journalist and critic of Hindu nationalist policies was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore last September.  A list of Indian journalists killed is on Wikipedia.  By the way, no reason has been given by The National Interest as to why the original title of the Ganguly/Menon article has been altered on their website.  Of course the published magazine carries the original title.

It was an RSS man — they claimed he was no longer a member — who assassinated Gandhi for his defense of minorities.  Mr. Modi joined the RSS in 1971 rising to become its National General Secretary.

Such is India today.

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South Asia

How John Bolton as NSA would Impact Pakistan?

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Despite the triumphs Pakistan has had in curbing terrorism, the NSA John Bolton doesn’t believe that Pakistan is internally strong enough to thwart an assumed Islamist takeover of the state.

President Trump on March 23rd announced in a tweet that he was removing H.R. McMaster from his post of National Security Advisor and that John Bolton would take over on April 9, 2018. In any event, President Trump’s arrangements of Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel, to head the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) respectively, aren’t sufficient of an omen, appointing John Bolton as the new National Security Advisor (NSA) solidifies that his foreign policy is going to wind up more forcefully than ever. Bolton will fill in as Trump’s third advisor after Michael Flynn and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.

Moreover, Bolton is one of the supposed ‘many people’ who believe that Pakistan’s security agencies are under Islamists’ influence, a suspicion that then manages the US narrative on Pakistan which resultantly paints Pakistan not as a ‘non-NATO’ ally but rather as an adversary; the main cause behind its failure in Afghanistan.

The Bolton account, as is apparent, fits pleasantly into India’s worldwide pro-terrorist projections of Pakistan. Not only will it add to Pakistan’s long list of issues at the international level, for example, the threat of being blacklisted by FATF, in addition it will be instrumental in tilting the regional balance of power in favor of India.

Moreover, it is clear that John Bolton thinks differently about China-Pak ties, as he believes that the US may end up gifting Pakistan to China if the US keeps on putting excessive pressure on Pakistan to do more. He rather suggests in his article for the Wall Street Journal, that the US should utilize its leverage on China to induce Pakistan to ‘sever ties with terrorists and close their sanctuaries. The Trump administration should make it clear that Beijing will face consequences if it does not realize its massive interests in support of this goal.”

Unmistakably John Bolton, particularly like President Trump, needs to squeeze Pakistan; however, he wouldn’t like to do as such by forcing sanctions on Pakistan or by removing the military aid. Rather, his approach is to take action by utilizing India in its strategy of isolating Pakistan and by pressing its significant partner, China.

And whilst John Bolton doesn’t rely on pushing Pakistan too hard, the reason isn’t that he is understanding of Pakistan’s triumphs and forfeits but since he thinks pushing too hard would actualize Pakistan’s assumed control by the terrorist outfits. In an interview given in August last year, he stated: ‘If you push Pakistan too hard, this government in Pakistan is fragile. It has been since the partition of British India. The military in Pakistan itself is at risk, increasingly, of being infiltrated through the officer ranks by radical Islamists. Many people believe the intelligence services unit already is heavily dominated by Islamists.’

In a nutshell South Asia is in a critical need for a careful approach and policy reevaluation from the US government. Be that as it may, if there is one individual with the ability to keep away from disaster, it is simply the President himself. Regardless of whether President Trump has the will to persuade his new team to take part in diplomacy over war-plotting, yet remains to be seen. It is, in this manner, up to Islamabad to ponder the most significant reaction to the possible outcome. Pakistan may only be able to neutralize Bolton’s hostility by drawing him into tactful diplomacy. Any other plans to the contrary, including reciprocating that animosity, are probably going to backfire.

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