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A peek into India’s 2019 elections: Past trends and portents

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A bird’s-eye view

Some 814 million voters speaking 1,652 languages will vote in 900,000 voting centers across the country over 35 days in 2019. India’s imminent (April 2019) elections will cost parties a flabbergasting Rs. 30,000 crore ($5 billion). That parallels cost of a U.S Presidential election. The difference is that most of the money spent in India will be in the form of untraceable cash. Much of it will have been brought back 

Into the country from tax havens, such as Switzerland, where industrialists and politicians stash their illicit fortunes. Money stashed illegally in Swiss banks comes back into the country through the hawala (unregistered) channels and havens such as Mauritius, Dubai and Caribbean.

Regular elections are raison deter of democracy in Western notion of democracy (Westminster model). The `equal citizens’ exercise their political right to choose representatives to rule them through their vote. India could be proud to hold elections regularly.  But, the way influential people contest or win elections through malpractices leaves nothing to rejoice. Elections are only a formal part of political representation, not its essence. Only the affluent and socially powerful sections of society can make it to the parliament. Is the Indian democracy in name only or in substance also?   

The social conditions in India rule out possibility of free and fair elections. The poor and the marginalised have a bleak chance to contest and win elections. India, the world’s largest democracy, stands divided into two worlds, the affluent and the poor.

India’s Constitution provides for equality of rights to all citizens, regardless of social differences. The golden words in the objectives resolution promise to secure to all the people social, economic and political justice, equal opportunity, and equality of status before the law.  Practically, justice to all has been a far cry. Let us explore some contours of India’s elections that shape India’s democracy.

Let us look at some contours of India’s democracy. India is a democracy only in ‘form’, not in substance. 

Influence of money power in elections

There is a relationship of direct proportionality between electoral win and wealth. Money plays an important part in determining poor voter’s electoral choice. Narendra Modi spent US$115 million to win the Indian election in 2014. In all, the BJP spent Rs714.28 crore ($115 million) on the 2014 general election campaign. Congress spent Rs200 crore ($32 million) less than the BJP’s expenditure during the 2014 polls.

The BJP spent over one third of all the money on one item: media advertising. The biggest individual recipients of this money were two firms, Madison World and chartered aviation provider, Saarthi Airways. Saarthi Airways is promoted by Delhi-based Gulab Singh Tanwar, reportedly a close friend of former BJP’s president and current home minister, Rajnath Singh. The party spent Rs77.83 crore ($12.57 million) on chartering aircrafts for its key campaigners, of which Rs60 crore ($9.7 million) was paid to Saarthi Airways alone.

No place for a pauper

 Political parties mainly nominate those candidates who can raise money for contesting elections.

Elections in India are expensive.  Candidates in the 2014 election spent a total of $5bn (US election in 2012 cost around $6bn). The longer a party stays out of power, the fewer the 

Opportunities to `raise’ money from a variety of sources including large donors, small donors and organizational donations.

The BJP is the richest party followed by Congress party. The Congress has ruled the country for 49 of its 71 years as an independent nation.  It appealed for the first time in its 133-year history for funds, perhaps as a catchy slogan. It had an income of $33m (£24.7m) in 2017! Ruling Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) is the richest with an income of $151.5million.The Congress income in 2017 decrease by $5.3m. The BJP’s income has doubled from what it earned in 2016.

No transparency

Although political parties are required to declare their income, their finances  are far from transparent. The penalties imposed by election commission are slaps on wrist.About 69per cent of parties’ income originates in  unknown sources,  “illicit money” or “black money”. The BJP and its allies are in power in 22 of India’s 29 states. The Congress is now in power in only two big states –  Karnataka and Punjab – and two smaller ones. Individuals and companies can buy electoral bondsto fund political parties anonymously. These bonds come in specified amounts and, at the end of 15 days, must be deposited in to the bank account of any political party that has earned 1% or more of the votes in the last election. Intra-party democracy has withered. Leading parties enjoy the  support of corporate business groups. Regional parties are invariably controlled by families.

Preposterous expenditure ceiling

Individual candidates can spend only Rs 70 lakh ($120,000) on his campaigns. This amount is too little to meet even poster printing costs in important contests. Key candidates spend between Rs 75 – 300 crore ($12-50 million).  Lesser stars spend between Rs 15-50 crore ($2.5-8.25 million) and marginal ones between Rs 1-10 crore ($600, 000K-1.8 million).

Mammoth rallies where half a million people cheer candidates cost upwards of Rs 3 crore ($500,000). Every major party holds at least one major rally or counter-rallies a day.

Add to it the  cost of sending thousands of workers out in cars, trains,  planes, rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts, tractors, camels, horses and boats  to woo voters with speeches, street plays and songs.

Unfortunately, in reality, most candidates spend much more than the prescribed limits, and the amount spent by major national and regional parties is anyone’s guess. For instance, in 2013, Gopinath Munde, a well-known parliamentarian and a former minister, admitted that he spent more than 32 times the limit in the last election. Many believe that even this sum is an understatement.

Electoral abuses

Elections are marred by anti-democratic features like violence, en bloc voting, voting along religious and caste lines, so on. Leading parties nurture a number of local toughs on their payrolls. In urban war zones, they often intimidate voters from even venturing out of their homes. In feudal rural areas, upper caste militias threaten lower caste voters. Electing a `wrong’ candidate could lead to punishment like manhandling molestation, and torture.

Often, these vigilantes wields words, shotguns and homemade bombs frighten  local election officials away from poll booths. If rival toughs show up, there are scuffles, fistfights, maybe even a few hand-made bombs hurled.

Even electoral voting machines were no good in stopping abuse of elections. Some voters demand that it should be done away with.  The familiar traditional abuses include buying away competitive candidates, hounding out or abducting candidates before they file a nomination paper. Use of a pre-poll hearty meal or booze, coupled with free air or road travel is un-noticed malpractices. Up to the 1990s, India’s elections results were generally decisive with wide majorities. But recent results have been close with winning coalitions getting wafer-thin majorities. Such narrow margins mean even minor incidents of vote tampering, booth capturing etc. can swing results in 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, ten times the  government’s own majority.

Deleting voters from lists

In remote villages, such problems often go entirely unreported. Both parties accuse one another of the vice.

Paid advertising shown as free reporting

India’s `free’ press, numerous newspapers and TV channels charge local-candidates coverage for a fee.

A plethora of parties

Existence of plethora of parties and candidates results in splitting of votes. Gandhi foresaw this problem.  He ‘wanted Congress to be disbanded after independence. Implementing his advice could have created two parties_ one led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the other by Sardar Patel’. (“Political Parties and Indian Democracy”. Raju Ramachandaran suggested a system of proportional representation to reflect popular will. (Raju Ramachandaran, “Myths of Parliamentary Democracy”, 266-267). Ramachandaran suggested ‘proportional representation’ to reflect popular will more accurately. Speakers at the National seminar on “Indian Democracy: Recent Trends and Issues” inter alia highlighted collapse of political institutions in India (Dr. K. S. Saxena and Anil Gupta (ed.), Indian Democracy: Recent Trends and Issues”, p. ix). Saxena was so pessimistic that he began his paper with an epitaph for India’s democracy _ ‘all hostile elements have conspired to put our democracy to death’. (Dr K. S. Saxena, “Plight of Indian Democracy”, p. 283, 285). Saxena claimed India’s democracy had failed to ensure ‘freedom, justice and social and economic equality’ to all.  Dissenters in India were dubbed as traitors and fascists’. A party securing 33 percent of the votes could occupy three-fourths of the legislatures.

 (Editorial, “Cost of Elections”, The Tribune (Chandigarh), December 1, 1984; cited in Ghani Jaffer (ed.), Elections in India 1984-85, Islamabad Institute of Regional Studies, 1987).

Financial Contributions to Parties and Candidates

Corporate contributions, upto five per cent of a company’s net profits to political parties are legal.  In reality, huge funds are collected from individuals and companies by extortion or as a consideration for past or future favours.

Political corruption has become integral to India’s governance process. The disclosure norms are very feeble and un-enforced. Most expenditure is illegitimate.  It is spent on buying votes, distributing liquor, transporting voters, bribing local power brokers, bribing polling agents, payoffs to police and polling personnel in several places and hiring hoodlums for rigging and booth capturing.

Most major parties no longer attract voluntary party workers motivated by principles and goals, and therefore hire them at great expense during elections. Large mobilisation of poor people for election meetings, spending enormous sums for lorries and bribes to the hired audiences, and ostentatious campaign in the form of large fleets of cars and jeeps, huge cut-outs, banners, posters, tents, loud speakers etc. account for other expenditures.

Caste-Influence and Communalism

Caste influence has always been predominant in secular India.  Khushwant Singh says, ‘Yet, strange enough, Gandhi obliquely supported the Hindu caste system’. Peter Myer points out ‘importance of caste in the election of candidates’ and ‘caste-based factionalism’ is a significant factor in campaigning (Peter Myers, “The year the vote-banks failed: the 1967 general elections and the beginning of the end of Congress Party dominance”, pp. 154-155; cited in Jim Masselos (ed.), India: Creating a Modern Nation (Bangalore, Sterling Publishers Pvt Ltd., 1990), 154, 165-167).

The importance of caste politics has also been highlighted in Selig Harrison’s India: The Most Dangerous Decades. Rasheedudin Khan points out “India’s State structure is democratic but not all aspects of the political system’.  The social structure and equipoise of the traditional polity legitimised ‘the power and control of land-based jatis over a disaggregated and alienated mass of the landless, the bonded labourers, low castes and sudras’ (Rasheedudin Khan, “Impediments to democratic change in India”, 384, ibid).

Ever since independence, the politicians made no serious effort to reduce influence of caste on elections.  They continued to hoodwink masses with buzzword-subsumed themes of ‘removal of poverty, illiteracy and disease by bridging the gulf between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural, through industrialization, spread of education and building of an egalitarian-cum welfare state’.  The slogans brought no change in condition of scheduled tribes (girijans), scheduled castes (harijans), castes (jatis), religious communities (dharmic sampratya) and language communities (bhashai sampratya).

Noble laureate Amartya Sen,  delivered a lecture on “Democracy and its Critics”, organised by the United Nations Foundation in New Delhi on December 16, 2005.  While discussing success and failure of Indian democracy, he said, “The rise of casteist politics was a failure”. 

Atul Kohli is disgusted at erosion of democratic institutions owing to politicisation of bureaucracy and bypassing of constitution.  He has serious doubts about future of India’s democracy.  He says that ‘personal rule has come to replace party rule’.  Economic development within an elite-dominated framework has thrown up social groups which are demanding share in society’s power and wealth (Atul Kohlie (ed.), Interpreting India’s Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations (Hyderabad, Orient Longman Ltd., 1991), xv, xvi, 1-11).

Corruption

Corruption galore (Bofors, Rafale, etc) in India has become a serious socio-political malady. The society is generally passive and resigned to its fate. Corruption cases filed in courts drag on for years without any results. To quote a few cases: (a) There was no conviction in Bofors gun case (Rs 64 crore) though the case was filed on January 22, 1990 and charge sheet served on October 22, 1999. Among the accused were Rajiv Gandhi, S. K.Bhatnagar, W. N. Chaddha, Octavio, Ardbo and S. K. Bhatnagar. The key players in the scam died during proceedings (b) No recoveries could be made in the HDW submarine case (Rs 32.5 crore). The CBI later recommended closure of this case. (c) Corruption in recruitment of armed forces.

There is popular pressure to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen’s ombudsman Bill), draft anti-corruption bill, drawn up by prominent civil society activists seeking the appointment of a jan lokpal, an independent body that would investigate corruption cases, complete the investigation within a year.  And envisages trial in the in the next one year. The Jan Lokpal Bill, drafted by Justice Santosh Hegde (former Supreme Court Judge and present lokayukta of Karnataka), Prashant Bhushan (Supreme Court Lawyer) and Arvind Kejriwal , envisages a system where a corrupt person found guilty would go to jail within two years of the complaint being made and his ill-gotten wealth being confiscated. It also seeks power to the Jan Lokpal to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without government permission.

In December 2005, by voice vote, Indian parliament expelled 11 parliamentarians. Ten of them belonged to the House of People (lok sabha) and one to the Council of States (rajya sabha).The peoples’ representatives were sacked as they were involved in demanding cash to ask questions of “donors’” interests. Secret cameras caught the MPs while negotiating or taking bribes.  To avoid such ‘stings’ in future, the MPs have now begun to keep detective gadgets.

The un-sacked parliamentarians remained unruffled by expulsion of their colleagues.  This is obvious from the fact that the MPs supported the Rs 8,000 crore development fund to be spent at the discretion of the MPs _ each MP to get Rs two crore. The Statesman, New Delhi, December 24, 2005, observed _ ‘The [cash for queries] sting ‘testifies to the extent of criminality that has permeated the ranks of the elected representatives. Seven MPs were shown accepting or demanding bribes for sanctioning funds ostensibly for local development.

(“Good riddance: Even expulsion is insufficient” (editorial), The Tribune (Chandigarh), December 24, 2005.

Parliamentarians use pocket-sized radio frequency detectors and jammers in the shape of room fresheners or computer to avoid being caught by spy cameras.  It is widely known how warring industrial houses have set up MPs to ask embarrassing questions in the past to embarrass the opponent or deny the rival company a license or a benefit. It has not been uncommon for some ministers to collude with corporates. Some feel that with the end of the licence-quota raj, the problem has become less grave. “In the license-quota raj, some industrialists had to permanently camp in Delhi, and there was a time 50 per cent of the people flying between Delhi and Mumbai were doing so for liaison work.”

observed, ‘Even expulsion is insufficient. In fact, this is the minimum punishment they deserved.The Indian Express commented, ‘Our politicians are brazen in their defence of illegal land use. They are scared of losing money, not votes’.

Another slap in the face of democracy after ‘ Operation duryodhan’ (expose’ of 11 Members of Parliament taking bribes in exchange for raising questions in Parliament), a new sting operation by Star News has MPs asking for commission  for sanctioning funds under the MP Local Area  Development Scheme (MPLADS) scheme. This time, elected representatives of Parliament are caught on camera asking for cuts ranging from 5 per cent to 45 per cent for sanctioning funds under the MPLADS, a kitty of Rs 8,000 crore, to be spent at the discretion of members of both Houses.

(“Criminality spread, MPLAD scheme should be scrapped”,

Who would take action against India’s corrupt? ).

The media continues, ad infinitum, to point out legislators’ corruption. About one-fourth of the over 540 people elected to Indian Parliament face criminal charges ranging from murder to extortion and even rape. India’s election laws allow politicians facing criminal charges to run for public office, disqualifying them only in case of convictions, which are rare in India’s corrupt judicial system. It is understandable why no Indian parliament has ever passed anti-corruption legislation aimed to bring top public offices within the ambit of accountability.

More than half the members of the Lower House of Parliament have assets of over five million rupees ($109,400), in a country where a quarter of the billion-plus population lives on less than a dollar a day.   The rich legislators enriched themselves further by a salary hike to 12,000 rupees, besides allowances. They enjoy heavily subsidised housing, free air and rail tickets, electricity and water.  Nearly half of all MPs have not repaid loans to public financial institutions. (“Cash-for-query: Netas, babus take sting off spy cameras “Times of India, December 14, 2005),

Non-Representative Parliament

Honest men like even Acharya Narendra (the doyen of Indian socialism) and Acharya Kirplani got rejected at the hustings (G. P. Srivastava, “Curbing booth capturing and election rigging in India”, p.193; cited in Grover and Arora, Indian Government and Politics at the Cross Roads).

The people have now realised that repeated elections are no real test of a democracy. India’s democracy accepts right of cheats and bullies to rule (Satish Saberwal, “Reconstituting Society”; cited in Grover and Arora, The Tribune, Chandigarh, December 24, 2005, in its editorial, “Good riddance”).

Unity in Diversity?

RSS_BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal combine influences elections. India is no longer an epitome of unity in diversity.  It is now a cauldron of ‘religious, communal or caste conflicts in every nook and corner of the country’. The net result of separatist movements by ethnic, religious or ethno-religious minorities is a demand for sovereignty which threatens India’s territorial integrity.  Social unrest is due to the dissonance between the rulers and the ruled.

Breach of public trust

S. G. Sardesai is of the view that voters are disgusted with ‘unprincipled squabbling and mud-slinging between various political parties.  They are losing faith in the democratic elective process itself.  In our given conditions, candidate, the best candidate for playing that role is the RSS-BJP- VHP-Bajrang Dal combine.

(Verinder Grover and Ranjana Arora (ed.), Indian Government and Politics at Crossroads. New Delhi, Deep and Deep Publications, 1995, ix).

Inferences

Being the richest party, the BJP is well placed to form at least a cozy coalition. Electoral abuses caricature shiny face of India’s democracy. There are too many loopholes in the laws.  Authorised ceiling of the election expenses does not take into account ‘expenditure incurred by the political parties, friends and well-wishers in furtherance of the poll prospects of a candidate’. Donations by companies, including public-sector companies, are not subject to audit.  Unless the electoral system is radically revamped, the rituals of elections would continue to throw up unrepresentative governments in India.

“Elections (in India) are being increasingly seen by people as devious means, employed by the rulers to periodically renew their licence to rule_more often to misrule.( S. G. Sardesai, “Election Results: Writing on the Wall”, cited in Grover and Arora (ed.), “India’s democracy accepts right of cheats and bullies to rule”.

Democracies can succeed only if their institutional foundations are strong. The masses who are victims of the caste system lose confidence in democracy. Regrettably, at all levels of government, the upper castes are holding the positions of decision-making.

Persecution of religious minorities and the so-called untouchables (who prefer to call themselves dalits) is endemic to the social and cultural systems that circumscribe the Indian polity — in class terms, abject poverty permeates huge sections of Indian society. A four-year-old girl, named Surjo, was boiled in a tub and then beheaded to please gods as part of a religious sacrifice.  The police said, “In a country where sons are sold for paisa 25 and women are thrown into fire to please sati, goddess of chastity, such events cannot be foreseen or forestalled”. 38.Manoj Joshi, “Indian girl boiled alive and beheaded as a religious custom” (Manoj Joshi, “Indian girl boiled alive and beheaded as a religious custom”, Times of India, August 13, 2000).  

Crimes against women are generally ignored. It is given name of eve teasing as escapism. The cases of rape have grown by 700 per cent since 1953. Last year 20,000 rapes were reported in the country. And India’s rape capital New Delhi has seen average of 10 cases in a month. And these are just the cases that have been reported. The number of unreported cases is far higher. India ranked fourth primarily due to female foeticide, infanticide and human trafficking. (“Dubious record: Four rapes in UP in 24 hours”, Times News Network, July 16, 2011, 03.49am IST. Also see “Shame: Rape is India’s fastest growing crime”, Jatin Gandhi, Hindustan Times (New Delhi), January 14, 2008). 

The independent candidates are handicapped.  They cannot pass off their excess buck to any political party.  India’s Supreme Court ordered that expenditure incurred by a sponsoring political party or candidate’s friends and supporters also should be included in a candidate’s election expense sheet. But, the then Congress government nullified the Supreme Court’s decision through legislation.

India is a democracy only in ‘form’, not in substance.  Hindutva supporters want to convert it into a centralised state for the brahmans only. Poverty and hunger continue to afflict large sections of Indian society. Also, there is a tangible threat that India could become a majoritarian tyranny or even a cultural fascist state. The rise of the BJP from a marginal Hindu nationalist party of the 1980s to the majority party in parliament in 1999 vindicates ascendancy of Hindutva trend.

If the Allahabad High Court had not unseated Indira Gandhi in June 1975 and held her election victory as an MP in 1971 as invalid, the Indians today would well have no fundamental rights.

A democracy subsumes equal political, economic and cultural rights. So is not the case with India. The political class is drawn from the affluent, educated and socially powerful sections of society. The society has been religionalised and religion commodified.  India’s cosmetic progress is most visible in use of cars, aviation, mobile telephony, cable television, outsourcing, and automobiles. Such progress is meaningless when less than 5 per cent of Indians can fly, or own a car.

The then Congress-led UPA government has accepted the late Indrajit Gupta Committee report on the state funding of elections. The state funding for elections required setting aside Rs 6,000 crore to Rs 7,000 in a five-year cycle. The government realises that ‘criminal activity can generate such large sums of money’ easily.  But, the government will have to raise, ‘on an average Rs 1,200 crore to Rs 1,500 crore’ ‘which the state might find it extremely difficult to raise’.

The Indrajit Gupta Committee finalised its report on December 30, 1998. But, it kept lying in cold storage.  Earlier, the Tarkunde Committee had observed 31 years ago that ‘state funding of elections was impracticable under the conditions prevailing in the country’. The Dinesh Goswami Committee (May 1990) also made wide-ranging recommendations. (“Elections and Role of Money Power in India). The state financing of elections was one of the recommendations, made by N. S. Gehlot. (D. L. Seth, Crisis of Representation, p. 179).

The central and state governments in India do not necessarily represent rule by a majority.  Through coalition politics a party with less than fifty per cent votes can form government at the centre or in states. There are several ways to determine majority in an electoral system. In India’s system, whoever gets the largest number of votes is elected.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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Bangladesh’s Vaccine Policy: Cooperation beyond Geopolitical Lens

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photo: UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented devastation to every nook and corner of the world. Not being just a cataclysmic health crisis, the pandemic is subtly but substantially reshaping social norms, economic systems, diplomacy way-outs, as well as global leadership and rivalry. As of now, experts believe that this deadly virus is not going to completely disappear overnight rather will remain as a recurring event like the normal flu virus. However, acquiring herd immunity which insists on mass inoculation is the most acceptable solution to combat the worsening situation.

The world is becoming unable to meet the demands of the massive number of vaccines as only a handful of wealthy nations are producing them. In the wake of the current condition, every country, either rich or poor has its own game to play, rich ones for achieving so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ and the poor ones for maintaining proper channel to procure them. As if conquering the pandemic bears testimony to not only a country’s economy and resources but also its strategy and diplomatic prudence.

By now, it is evident that Coronavirus traits are very complex as unpredictable mutations of it can jump back and forth across the globe. Today’s successful COVID-19 players might be a victim of tomorrow’s worst-hit outbreaks. For instance, the overconfidence emanating from India’s temporary triumph over vaccine manufacture caused sufferings for more than 90 countries. It is understandable why India’s worsening situation led to the failure of delivering 30 million vaccine doses as per a deal with Bangladesh. However, it was unfair not to deliver even a single dose after the sudden halt on vaccine export, for which Bangladesh has paid in advance.

Due to some unavoidable factors, for Bangladesh, Serum was the only feasible and proximate option for vaccines. Firstly, Bangladesh continued consistent efforts to keep all the alternate options simultaneously within the reach. Some of the vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna require extremely cold refrigeration which in terms of both storage capacity and commercial viability is untenable. WHO/GAVI backed initiative COVAX Facility has been proved inadequate to respond to the demand worldwide equally. Secondly, due to long term and consistent G2G liaison between Sheikh Hasina and the Modi Government, Bangladesh ranked the Indian source at the initial ladder. But it didn’t mean Bangladesh subsequently closed other avenues for future exigency. Thirdly, India’s initially successful ‘vaccine diplomacy’ was so overwhelming that it seemed India was just a step behind from becoming a ‘vaccine hegemony’ worldwide.

Over the sudden upside-down flip of India, Bangladesh had to make desperate diplomatic efforts to procure vaccines for which China and Russia nodded positively. Bangladesh inked a non-disclosure deal of 15 million Sinopharm doses with China. Also, Bangladesh received two consignments of 1.1 million of Chinese Sinopharm doses as gift. Up until now, Bangladesh is hopeful of joining to the China-led initiative of vaccine storage facility and collaboration with Russia to produce Sputnik V locally.

In such a pandemic situation when co-operation is urgent rather than competition, geostrategic gambit should not predominate in the South Asian region which is home to around 25% of the global population. As for Bangladesh, being densely populated with a population of more than 170 million, it is highly vulnerable to the risk of COVID-19 expansion and mutation due to acute intra and inter-regional people to people contact, if this particular region remains less inoculated. Currently, Bangladesh only needs 1.6 million AstraZeneca doses to continue the inoculation program that kicked off on February 7, 2021. Also, a burgeoning economy like Bangladesh, can afford to purchase sufficient vaccine doses as well as manufacture them locally. Not only that, Bangladesh should be called for particular attention for a full-fledged vaccine production scheme, as COVID-19 vaccines are considered as ‘global public goods.’

Despite not having a remarkable health policy, so far, Bangladesh has responded much better compared to other countries in South Asia regarding COVID-19 management. However, the condition might flip over uncanny circumstances anytime soon. Therefore, any vaccine procurement initiative should look through the prism of exigency, not preference for their allies, as downpour of misery on one corner is a failure to the entire globe.

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Looming Humanitarian Crisis – Millions May Die in Afghanistan

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A mother and her child in the Haji camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

There is a dire need for massive funds transfer to Afghanistan in present circumstances where banks and businesses have collapsed, the hunger crisis is also rising while the prices of basic commodities like shelter, fuel, and food have increased. There is a clear warning from World Health Organization (WHO) that within one year over 3 million children may suffer from malnutrition. UN World Food Program has also issued multiple warnings of deteriorating food insecurity in Afghanistan. The Winter season will also become too risky for the survival of one million children as the temperature will drop to an extremely low level. 

There are numerous cases of acute shortage of money, where families are compelled to even sell their babies and daughters as child brides. Public hospitals are facing a shortage of medical equipment; the nurses and doctors are not paid prompting them to quit. The majority of Afghans want to move to other countries for life security and a better future. Heavy human traffic from Afghanistan has gathered on borders with Iran and Pakistan. UNHCR has called on authorities of Afghan neighboring countries to cease the forced return of Afghans, noting that many of them may require refugee protection.

The private sector, which works for the progress of the country, has halted due to uncertainty. There is a serious and shocking analysis by UNDP that by July next year 97% of the Afghan population may fall under the poverty line. Millions of people are living hand to mouth and will face harsher economic crises due to troubling economies. 

Even $1.29 billion aid, recently announced from US and EU for Afghanistan & its refugees living in surrounding countries cannot solve the economic crisis permanently. This aid will only be able to postpone the human disaster for some time but it is not a permanent solution.

The world’s best economists are constantly warning that the present economic situation will lead to anarchy and chaos in Afghanistan. Abdallah Al Dardari, UNDP’s Afghanistan head, said, “I’m comparing Afghanistan with Venezuela, Lebanon, and so on; we haven’t seen such an immediate, abrupt drop”.

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the first step by the Biden administration was to freeze the $9.5 billion foreign reserves. Taliban recently called on the US delegation in Doha for the unconditional and immediate unfreezing of Afghanistan’s financial assets.

IMF has also warned that this year Afghan economy will get contracted to 30%. During Ghani’s government, US aid accounted for 75% of the government budget and 45% of the country’s GDP. The majority of sectors of Afghanistan were run by foreign aid including a majority of public-sector jobs in the medical, teaching, policing, and legal sectors.

From the last few months, the life of millions of daily wagers/ working class has become hopeless. They gather in various downtowns for the sake of work but as the construction industry has halted so they get back without getting any work. They are unable to buy food for themselves and their families and live miserable lives. Another fact of the matter is that Afghanistan has long been dependent on imports of basic utensils.

In Ashraf Ghani’s government, the Afghan economy was fragile because of poverty and corruption. Customs, administration, and traffic officers, who have gone unpaid for months, are asking for more bribes. Things have become highly disorganized in all segments of the country.

Taliban have placed withdrawal limits on currency ranging from 200-400$ per week to counter complete currency collapse. Taliban have appealed to fill its billions of dollars vacuum from Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan, and China. Taliban are also pressing the US for the release of its frozen funds and they think that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is increasing as a result of their frozen funds. Afghans are facing a shortage of crucial goods due to trade disruptions and the collapse of financial services which have supplemented traders’ woes that depend on U.S. dollars and bank loans for imports. Issuance of sanctions’ exemption, by the Biden administration at the end of September to ease out the process of aid, is still not enough.

Afghan interim government has to find the best economic team from inside and outside the country which should be able to bring some fruitful strategies and planning to solve this economic crisis. The International community needs to come together to join hands with the Afghan interim government to avoid the worst-case scenario in Afghanistan. The international community should also play its role in bringing “explicit humanitarian exemptions” for the delivery of aid to prevent a “catastrophe”.  Watchdogs like UNSC and the US government should do their utmost to raise the living standards of the Afghan people.

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What ails Modi’s relations with its own people and neighbours?

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on

The veneer of “democracy” cloaks “autocratic and hypocritical” style of Modi’s government. Modi first tried every Machiavellian trick to suppress the farmers’ protest movement against the three farms laws. He tied to sow seeds of discord among them by portraying them as “Khalistani” through a multitude f fake social media accounts.  He then tested the protester’s patience by letting the movement linger on for a years. He allowed police to beat them mercilessly. Tried to turn the Supreme Court hostile to them. And finally a farmer was mowed down under a vehicle (Lakhimpura incident).  About seven hundred farmers including some women lost their lives. But, Modi shrugged off the claim saying their deaths were due to natural causes. He kept insisting that the laws were enacted for farmers’ welfare. And they would repent their repeal. The farmers saw through the ruse and stayed put. The laws were finally withdrawn without any discussion. This gesture strengthened the opposition’s allegation and farmers’ perception that the laws were meant to surreptitiously benefit the crony capitalism (Adanis, Ambanis, et al).

Modi deprived the disputed Jammu and Kashmir of even its nominal statehood without caring a fig for sentiments of the common man or the politicians. He is unwilling to repatriate the Occupied Kashmir widows or wives of so-called militants. Instead of repealing draconian laws, he is killing innocent Kashmiris in fake encounters (Hyderpora encounter being the latest). In 1990s, India’s reign of terror forced large number of Kashmiri natives to cross over into the Azad Kashmir.  India launched operation ‘Sadbhavana’ to lure back the refugees. Some refugees even married the Azad Kashmiri nationals.  Those who returned mostly wives or divorcees had been suffering immeasurably being without nationality documentation. Indian government could have deported them back to Azad Kashmir. But, India flouted its own promise of rehabilitation and international norms by denying them nationality.  Defying restrictions, hundreds of wives protested in Srinagar and held a press conference (November 21, 2021) to highlight their plight. Modi is unwilling to repatriate the widows or wives. Be it observed that Pakistan immediately returns innocent border crossers back to India.

Modi imposed a corrupt friend (Patel) as governor of Lakshadweep (32 square kilometers), a predominantly Muslim archipelago of 36 islands (10 of which are uninhabited). It is sparsely populated with population of 63000, growing at about six per cent against national average of 17 percent.

The governor issued many orders which were perceived as anti-Muslim. For instance, no-one could slaughter a cow without a permit but liquor was allowed in all the islands ostensibly to promote tourism. The government could acquire any piece of land from inhabitants in national interest.  The isles are in COVID grip and the people used to airlift the sick to nearby Kerala. The governor ordered that no sick shall be flown out without the governor’s permission. The people interpreted the governor’s move s as an effort to impair their life style and links with Kerala. He wanted to facilitate the isles link with Mangalore (Karnataka). The islanders are convinced that the Centre is trying to depopulate the island and convert into a naval base. Within framework f QUAD, the Modi government wants to strengthen “Chagos-Lakshadweep-Maldives choke”.

India’s volatile North East

At the time of partition, India was in grip of countless insurgencies and separatist movements (Dravidstan, Khalistan, Bodo, Nagas and Mizos). It is still a simmering cauldron. India’s north east was a porous border. Through deceit, coercion, and financial incentives, India mellowed some of the insurgencies. Ambushes and confrontations still take place in some north eastern states. Indian bowed to insurgents’ demands for the creation of new states. And, insurgency leaders became chief ministers! India forgot yesteryear when they used to burn to ashes copies of the Indian constitution and uproot rail tracks. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland and East Punjab merged into the Union.” India has become synonymous with a thousand insurgencies waged by mysterious outfits, known only by their acronyms. It has become synonymous with grandiose announcements by successive prime ministers of many thousand crore packages that disappear without trace, leaving a handful of political brokers very rich. And in the Indian bureaucracy, a posting in the Northeast is treated on par with incarceration in Siberia” (Swapan Dasgupta, India’s Siberia, Rediff dated October 2004).

Neighbourhoods

Pakistan

Modi‘s “might is right” style is conspicuous from India’s policies towards her neighbours. India’s former foreign secretary Shyam Saran (How India sees the World) thinks none of the disputes with Pakistan are intractable. They were almost solved except for lack of political will to sign the final draft deals. To pander to the galleries, India’s home minister Amit Shah roared in Parliament that “Aksai Chin and POK (Azad Kashmir) are part of India. And we would lay down our lives to get them back”.

Nepal

To topple KP Sharma Oli’s government, Indian embassy in Nepal had been bankrolling corrupt politicians and other members of Nepalese society. Oli was ultimately ousted by Supreme Court of Nepal and appointed the new prime minister until the next elections. Oli

debunked India’s conspiracies during a ceremony to commemorate sixty-ninth anniversary of the Party’s popular leader Madan Bandari. He claimed, `Conspiracies were being plotted against him since the constitutional Nepali map amendment’.  No-one thought that a prime minister would be removed from office for printing a map’.

Be it observed that Nepal amended its map when its objections fell flat on India. India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh, went ahead to inaugurate an 80-kilometer-long road connecting the Lipulekh Pass in Nepal with Darchula in Uttarkhand (India). Indian army chief insinuated that Oli was being prodded by China against India.

After being ousted by the Nepalese Supreme court, Oli continued to criticise India’s machinations. Inaugurating the 10th general convention of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) in Chitwan, Oli claimed if his party comes back to power it will “take back the disputed territories such as Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulek from India through dialogue”. The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani, a disputed border area between Nepal and India. Both India and Nepal claim Kalapani as an integral part of their territory — India as part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district and Nepal as part of Dharchula district. (‘Will ‘take back’ Kalapani, Lipulekh from India, If…’ KP Sharma Oli. One India, November 27, 2021).

Maldives

Indo-Maldivian relations are no longer hunky-dory. They are rather in a state of flux. India reneged on contract to supply a hundred thousand doses of corona virus vaccines to Maldives. So did India despite that fact that it views the current president Solih as pro-India as compared to Yameen the previous president. India withheld supplies thoughMaldives had already paid the cost.  In perhaps a tit-for-tat, Maldives banned all Indian tourists including films stars.

Fluid political situation in Maldives

There is a widespread impression in Maldives that India has subjugated the country’s sovereignty through a host of treaties. The present president Solih is perceived as an Indian stooge. People resent granting immunity to Indian forces in Maldives and allowing construction of military infrastructure. The subsurface resentment led to “India out” social media campaign. The Indian High Commission became terrified of the ferocity of the protests. And, it sent a note verbale to the Maldivian government for protection of its staff.

President Solih is up against opposition from within his party. Through a tweet, Nasheed, the former President and at present Parliament Speaker, has highlighted corruption scandals against President Mohamed Solih9 (‘ventilator-import scam). Nasheed tweeted “I see the government colluded in this… I do not want the MDP to stand by a government that steals,” adding that he would ‘not budge’ against attempts to put a lid over the scandal.  He alluded to the Health Ministry  MVR 34.50 million (US$ 2.2 million) contract to Dubai-based Executors General Trading to procure 75 ventilators. The Auditor General’s office found out that nearly 90 percent of the contracted amount was paid in advance without any ‘performance guarantee.’ It was found that only 15 of the 75 ventilators were received.

The ruling party’s internal rift portends that it may be ousted in next general elections. Mr. Nasheed is likely to put himself as a presidential candidate. Already, the -ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) could not sweep the municipal elections. It  secured 43 percent of all seats, with opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) having won 34.9 percent.

Bangladesh

India is not sincere even with Bangladesh. At India-Bangladesh Business Forum, in Delhi, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina expressed grief (Oct 4, 2019) on the onion crisis in her country. Hasina taunted, `We are facing crisis on the onion issue. I don’t know why you have banned onion export. Maine cook ko bol diya ab se khana mein pyaaz bandh kardo. (Indian Government had banned export of Onions on September 29).

India is the biggest supplier of onions to Bangladesh, which buys a yearly average of more than 350,000 tons. India abruptly slapped a ban on onion exports to Bangladesh. Following the export ban, onion prices in Bangladesh jumped by more than 50 per cent, prompting the government to procure supplies from elsewhere.

In retaliation, Bangladesh’s involved the Chinese in a proposed $300 million project in the downstream of Teesta River.

India claims that Bangladesh is her close strategic and economic friend within its `Look East, neighbour’s-first policy”. But, the history of broken promises indicates that India looks to its own interest. A raft of issues from water disputes to religious tension mask mistrust in the relationship.

India backed out of its agreement (December) with Bangladesh to supply 30 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford University in cooperation with the Pune-based Serum Institute of India. The Institute announced that India had barred Serum from selling doses on the private market until everyone in India had received the vaccine.

Later, Salman F. Rahman, a Cabinet minister and co-founder of the Beximco Group, a Bangladeshi conglomerate, took over the responsibility to distribute three million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Bangladesh.

Concluding remark

Modi government is insincere not only in dealing with its own people but with also its neighours. 

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