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The Kings who have lost their Kingdom

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As the fiercely fought and the keenly watched Gujarat Elections draw to a close today, another discourse is set to dominate the Indian National Media. No doubt the recent polls in Gujarat have been a battle worth watching with personal attacks, violent barbs and extravagant one-man showmanship that put the entire nation to shame but the results are expected to just as unsettling to the mood of the nation.

In this battle for Gujarat, no quarter was asked and none was given.  The results are expected to come next week and whatever, they may be, they will determine the course of my great nation.

Beneath all this cacophony of the Gujarat Elections, shrill voices of protest and reason (according to the speakers themselves and their supporters) gained volume. These voices called for the scrapping of the polls being held using Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and a return to the era of ballot paper elections. The reason for this is that they believe, the EVMs are being tampered with and results being manipulated in favor of the ruling party. This claim has found much traction in the national media and it is rare to find any newsroom debate where the viability of the EVMs is not being questioned and sad as it may seem, the national Innovation which has made the Indian democracy hassle free & tamper-proof, become a subject of ridicule.

Before going into any nuances of the accusations being made against the EVM, let us first examine the Indian Electoral Process and the role of EVMs in it. India is the world’s largest democracy. Every adult citizen of India has the right to vote and elect a leader. The entire geographical spread of the nation is divided into small units, known as constituencies. Democracy in India is deep rooted and elections are held for the local bodies, the state assembly and the national assembly. This democratic decentralization has ensured that more and more people become the part of the system meant to govern them. Every voter in India is listed in a register prepared by the Election Commission of India (ECI), whose sole job is to ensure a free and fair election. The ECI takes charge of the entire official apparatus in a bid to ensure that every voter is able to go out and vote without any fear. During the Election period, the entire region is under a model code of conduct and the administration keeps a keen eye on those with the potential to violate the sacred sanctity of the electoral process. The Indian Democracy, while the largest in the world since its inception, had never been fool proof. Booth capturing, ballot-stuffing and cash-for-votes were some common problems that dominated the early elections. The ECI gradually managed to weed out most of the peculiarities of the electoral process over time. The introduction of the EVM allowed the ECI to reduce organizational & logistical hassles dramatically. The EVM is a standalone machine with no connection to any wireless or network devices. It is powered by a battery and has no need to rely on local power. The EVM comprises of two pieces, a ballot unit and a control unit. Each EVM has a chip and access to EVM internal circuitry to a select few. More so, the polls and counting are carried out in the presence of ECI observers, neutral observers, party delegates and in the security of Central Armed Police Forces. EVMs completely negated the ballot stuffing and the massive booth-capturing that was part and parcel of elections in the Hindi Heartland.

While allegations of EVM tampering were made ever since their introduction, these allegations gained much traction after the massive scale of BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous and political bellwether). BJP and its allies won over 80% seats in a state which is the world’s most populous sub-division. It won’t be a hyperbole if I call UP the world’s fourth largest democracy. BJP and its allies won a little near 40% votes which translated into a humongous 80% majority in a three-cornered fight. While the sheer scale of victory was unprecedented, it was not entirely unexpected. Moreover, Data from the past election i.e. the 2014 General Elections showed that BJP lost votes and seats. But the Opposition could not comprehend this. For them, it was difficult to recognize that they had woken a sleeping giant and they were babies trying to take it on headlong. The opposition grappled with the possibility of looking weak and acknowledging that they had been out-maneuvered by the BJP and its massive election machinery. They could just very well say the same.But, saying so would have undermined their leader’s standing. A king never blames himself for the loss of his kingdom. He always has a fall guy.Hence, the Opposition looked for a fall guy.  EVMs were a convenient fall guy. EVM tampering, they said. How else can BJP win in a state like UP?

A closer look at the polling data shows that what happened in UP was entirely predictable. The principle opposition parties of BJP in UP, the SP, BSP and the Congress all targeted a similar vote-bank- the Dalits& Muslims for the BSP and the Yadavs& Muslims for the SP-Congress combine. While formidable on paper, these 3 communities comprise only of 40% of the total electorate and this left the silent 60% open for BJP’s wooing. It is said that to win a war, you should consolidate your army and split that of your opponent and this is what happened in UP. It should not take a PhD in Psephology to realize where the BJP succeeded and where the opposition failed. On closer observation of the crowd making the most noise about EVM tampering, throws up a very interesting insight. The loudest voices against the EVMs are those who were considered to be king-makers and vote banks. Politicians lined up to woo them and doled out massive largess to ensure their support. In the media, those questioning the EVMs have always been anti-BJP and have a history of crying foul over the most trivial of issues (the Rafale “scandal” is their latest talk of the town).

Coming to Gujarat, the BJP’s stronghold and the home state of the current Prime Minister, the ruling party’s campaign appeared to have taken multiple hits (GST, Demonetization, the anti-incumbency of 22 years and the reservation protests) and was fast losing steam. Congress appears to have taken a lesson or two from its past blunders and had modified its campaign accordingly.A community which was aggressively wooed by all “secular” political parties is suffering from political irrelevance in Gujarat and Rahul Gandhi, the recently appointed party president is going on a literal temple run in Gujarat and is busy flaunting his upper caste credentials in a bid to woo the Hindu vote. The situation in Gujarat seems poised to be polarizing against BJP.But why do we forget a basic tenet of science, for every action there is equal and opposite reaction. For every instance of polarization, there is a counter polarization. Congress may have tried to polarize the Patidars on reservation but deep while, it split the OBCs with its reservation talks and there is a severe threat of counter-polarization. Who wins Gujarat remains to be seen but for now, BJP is clearly in the leading seat.

I know that the day when the results come and if they come in the favor of BJP, a shrill cry of EVMs being hacked to ensure the BJP’s victory will start to gain volume. Look closely at them, for you will find will, be none other than those who sit in TV New rooms and flaunt their secular credentials, all the while ignoring the fallacies of their own arguments. In the street, you may find a youth or two crying EVM fraud, blaming the Government for their joblessness while not acknowledging their own shortcoming of education and competency. Religious leaders with hushed voices who will say that they knew this would happen and the EVMs were hacked as no one could save the BJP, not acknowledging their role in mobilizing votes via sermons had come to a cropper and the electorate has become smarter. You will find opposition leaders rumbling and venting out their frustrations on the Election commission, not acknowledging their own shortcomings and weaknesses. Then there will be that odd guy on social media, who has no clue about how the electoral system works but always starts and ends his rants with EVM tampered. Look no further for these are the kings who have lost their kingdom.

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South Asia

Saudi-Chinese Friendship: Should India be Concerned?

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Image source: Xinhua/Xie Huanchi

Saudi Arabia hosted the grand China-Arab summit in December last year and leaders of the two nations deliberated on future trade ties and regional security. The summit happened at a time when USA and Saudi ties are at an all time low. There lies massive uncertainty on global energy markets after the West forced a price cap on Russian oil and Washington is looking guardedly at China’s rising influence in the Middle East.

In Oil trade, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade more than $87 billion in 2021. Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier, making up 18% of China’s total crude oil purchases. The two countries have deals in refineries, power and military & security.

 Africa’s natural resources have long been a Chinese favourite. Every year, China doles out billions in grants and loans to African governments as an inducement to secure raw material deals or to finance the infrastructure projects which are ultimately going to benefit its own companies.

What is India’s position on the China- Arab summit that intends to boost development and cooperation among the two? India would be in a bit of a quandary one may assume as Arabs are their good friends, as they claim; while the Chinese are not. The trio of the China, Arabs and Pakistan (being used as a mere proxy), uniting is bound to be a slight source of worry for India. What is India’s take on this friendship?

From a diplomatic perspective, if their friendship and goodwill is promoted, it’s a good thing but one hopes that this does not undermine Indian interest, as any bilateral relation must not  destabilize a third relation. In general when one talks of the Arab world, one thinks of its gargantuan energy power and energy crisis and its management is a global issue right now. With the Ukraine Russia war hanging around the energy crisis, it could be an ‘Energy Security’ thing they are trying to do bilaterally. If a big country like China enters the domain of energy, food etc it could turn out into a fairly big movement in the markets, in terms of prices and availability. India has to reckon by the fact that China is large and when you take out a large chunk of something that is available, that can create a pressure situation for others.

Also the union of China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have certain repercussions on India, as China and India already have problems and those are huge problems, there’s no denying that. Sachin Sawant, Senior leader of the Indian National Congress leader, the country’s main opposition party states that they are already over-exerting their power on India. The Chinese are going on building roads, tunnels and bridges nonstop along the border. India needs to develop stronger guiding principles, when dealing with China and its global intentions are concerned. It is a huge point of worry for India.

India definitely cannot do or say much if two good friends decide to meet, but it does have its  set of concerns. If China forges more business alliances with the Arabs in the energy and other sectors, India foresees instability in the markets which may be against its economic interest. It also is wary of the Chinese and Arabs getting together as this is a powerful alliance and its outcome may have a negative impact on Indian interest.

What could be the intentions of China to promote this friendship further and strengthen their relations with the Arabs. How does India look at this union of two economic superpowers? Every country wants to have good friends. They both have global ambitions and one goes about a decade back or lesser, they had invested heavily in Africa. They went there and tried to get hold of all the mines that were of strategic importance to them. They need nickel, gallium etc which are crucial for smart phone manufacturing. So, yes! They would be eyeing many such opportunities in their bilateral ventures.

China is known for its expansionism and they use their financial strength to arm-twist many countries, especially the economically weaker ones. “They are the Shylock kind of money lenders; they keep on lending money at exorbitant rates and then the poorer countries like Pakistan get into that vicious cycle where China takes hold of all their resources at very cheap rates. India is not at all bothered about their befriending the Arabs, because Chinese intentions are well known to the world,” says a concerned Sawant.

India says it is well aware that the Chinese mean business when they talk of befriending the Arabs. Together the two may explore many more avenues of business which strengthen their respective economies. Would their friendship affect India’s foreign policy in anyway? How affected or concerned is the Indian Government with this strategic partnership of China and the Arab nations?

Both Saudi Arabia and China are also part of G-20, and they must work in some areas of convergence that emerge from this global exercise. India closely follows whatever they are doing in terms of multilateral regional matters which impact the well being of all people, and also other matters that are taken up in G20, like climate change, green development and digital economy. India has sufficiently strong relations with the Arabs and its foreign policy will only be affected if China does something that is out of line of its interest.

Sawant reiterates that it is a matter of concern for India. The leader says that the alliance of China with the Arabs is definitely rooted in more trade and greater geo-political ambition. It can harm India. He says that China has this habit of deliberately targeting India’s neighbours, antagonizing them like it has been doing with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all in a bid to weaken India. It has been their strategy and India should be worried about that. “India needs to revamp its foreign policy in dealing with China. On one hand we ban their apps but then our imports from them are also growing multi-fold, this has to stop. Even on the Bhutan front India needs to be more proactive in protecting the interests of people in that region,” argues Sawant.

If India looks at the China-Arab partnership through the prism of G20 then, it will jointly work on pressing global issues and is confident of a positive outcome. However, it would expect  China to cooperate with it in its G20 endeavours. Does the Indian Government have any certain policy to enhance cooperation and influence in the Mid East Region? Yes, the Middle East is India’s immediate neighbourhood. India has an authentic historical and cultural relationship with them which is now nicely developing into a stronger and closer economic partnership. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is India’s major economic partner; most of its energy comes from there. Also, it has huge Diasporas in the Arab countries who are emerging as investors in India’s growth and infrastructural development.     

“Any foreign policy is good until is serves the interest of the country. Just on the basis of how you are welcomed by foreign countries and how we welcome them cannot help determine foreign policy; this is a holistic issue. The Chinese President comes here and enjoys a resplendent welcome but that doesn’t stop their army from attacking us. What exactly we do in the interest of the country will help shape up strong foreign policy with any country. The Arabs, though our good friends will obviously be happy with the trade agreements with China, but we must be wary that it does not harm us or our economy inadvertently,” says Sawant.

In the end, India must be confident of its faith and friendship with the Middle East. Being a long time economic partner of theirs, they also benefit from the fact that Indians living in the Arab nations are a huge plus point for them. While there seems to be a bit of skepticism about the China- Arab ties, India should be confident that this will not come in the way of their strong relations with the other 7 GCC countries.

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Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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