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Indian Elections 2019: Towards New Economic and Political Goals

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The current protracted election campaign has been enduringly characterized, by a lingering overhang of foreign policy and national security considerations, punctuated by constant reminders of India’s rising acclaim on the world stage and resonation for its touchstone issue of epochal significance (counter-terrorism). Indian diplomatic and capacitive footprint would be deployed, to address the sub-continent’s structural socio-economic impediments and physical capacitation concerns, as a substantive antidote to the invariably operating existential security paradox of fragile states and porous borders. The presumably second Modi administration will have to deal with the scenario in Afghanistan, characterized by the engendering conditions for an American troop withdrawal from the country, the formulation of contours for potential rehabilitation of the Taliban within a prospective Afghan political future and the fomenting US-Iran crisis in the Middle East. The Iran dossier presents Indian foreign policy with a cleft-stick specter, wedging dilemmas and straddling angularities. One could not greater underscore the importance of Tehran for New Delhi, not just from the lens of longstanding energy is driven equations, but from the prism of the criticality of its multi-modal access to the far reaches of the Central Asian and Eurasian continental swathe. The second Modi regime would be under scrutiny for how this foundational economic diplomacy is consolidated and elevated into a new orbit, at a time when the government has pledged to catapult the nation to a five-trillion-dollar economy within a decade. The ensuing epoch in Indian foreign policy would be a build-on phase, under the philosophical and operative moorings of a ‘continuum-neighborhood’ concept, which draws on immutable features of India’s geographical physiology and the attributive tenets of its civilizational span, to construe meaningful engagements in its Eastern and Western vectors.

As the world’s most mammoth democratic exercise at the hustings successfully winds down on another electoral cycle and the intuitive feel and considered wisdom posits plain-sailing return to helms hip for the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, the anticipated focus appears to be plausibly shifting, towards decoding the prospective strategic-priorities and attendant policy-parameters, that would constitute and chaperone foreign policy and national security, under a Modi strategic calculus 2.0. (At the time of penning this account, India had not tallied, its federal election results).

The features of the electoral campaign

Unless in the grips of existentialism, national security and foreign policy dimensions rarely figure on the campaign-stump in India, or for that matter across most celebrated and mature democracies. This being said, the current protracted election campaign has been enduringly characterized, by a lingering overhang of foreign policy and national security considerations, punctuated by constant reminders of India’s rising acclaim on the world stage and resonation for its touchstone issue of epochal significance (counter-terrorism). The expected narrative of the ruling coalition trenchantly prosecuting the virtues of continuity versus the pyrrhic costs of change and the medley of opposition parties desperately litigating the need for the electorate to embrace their case for change. The election has been conducted in the shadow of India’s punitive cross-border air-strikes into Pakistan, presenting itself as arguably swift comeuppance for the terror assault in Jammu Kashmir state and evidence of emphatic decisive leadership of the Prime Minister to glower at and not be cowered, by the scourge of terrorism emanating from across its North Western border. The terror attacks in Sri Lanka helped coalesce popular opinion within India on the urgent imperative to choose the establishment, which can confront this metastasizing phenomenon and not favor the one which would equivocate on the issue. Then, the rare occurrence of the United Nations Security Council unite in unanimity, in placing the regional terrorist mastermind Masood Azhar, under global sanctions regime proscription, after Chinese relent over its technical-hold, allowed for the peddling of spin that speaks to visible evidence of persuasive traction for quiet, but purposeful Indian diplomatic manoeuvres, under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. (After all, Indian diplomacy has worked to bring international opinion around this issue, since 2009, but with little success until recent moves). Besides, as elections unfolded, the news of the Prime Minister being feted with highest civilian honors, first from Russia and latest by the UAE, for coveted contribution to the development of bilateral ties, served as effectively oriented the outcome of Indian foreign policy were pursued these past five years. Hence, it was no surprise that throughout the campaign, these accomplishments were used as evolving signposts of a globally practiced foreign policy forged on a wider elemental and dimensional canvass.

India’s engagement in its neighborhood

The neighborhood surrounding India remains a challenged and contested geopolitical area, which would understandably attract the attention of the new government, mirroring the impulse from the onset of the Modi premiership back in May 2014. Consequently, the incoming Prime Minister pulled a diplomatic fast-one, by inviting all South Asian regional leaders, carrying out its strong sense of instructiveness. Such a move encapsulated an interplay of trinity messaging to stakeholders, showing its disproportionately outsized role in consensually shaping the region-on-the-move towards productive beneficence. This Indian diplomatic and capacitive footprint would be deployed, to address the sub-continent’s structural socio-economic impediments and physical capacitation concerns, as a substantive antidote to the invariably operating existential security paradox of fragile states and porous borders. Also, the region and all of its sovereign constituents would be subject to the inviolable redline of scrupulous good neighborliness, that would certainly require reciprocity though not necessarily parity in action, meaning the preclusion of their territories from being leveraged for inimical actions against itself. Through enhancing the profile of Indian engagement of its contiguous and proximate partners, wide assiduous politico-diplomatic engagement, it would be seen in the higher incidence of echelon visits (Modi sojourned to all South Asian countries during his full term in office) and revving-up of institutional mechanisms for bilateral dialogue. The Indian approach in South Asia over the past five years has witnessed a conscious effort to recoup ceded strategic space and to induce centrality back to New Delhi’s.

Moreover, the key to underpin the tectonic pan-South Asian economic transformation and mobility would be the following methods: a conscious coordinated endeavor from the highest reaches in government, a streamline tardy and slothful cross-country infrastructural projects towards expedited completion in winning back eroded credence of commitment, and entrenching the imperative notion of multi-vectored connectivity, along logistical compact, commercial interchange and civilizational affinities. However, it might be hard for New Delhi to diminish South Asian countries’ trade dependence upon China and to shrug-off the increasingly indomitable buccaneering industrial and infrastructural footprint of Beijing across Himalayan and Maritime South Asia, which constitutes the former’s proverbial sphere of influence. This is the reason why, the new administration has to embrace a strategy of counterpoise, blending elements of outright reductionist retaliation in certain coordinates, with the sophisticated and nuanced operation of a qualitatively differentiated paradigm at shaping the region in the piloting of newly minted and revived functional initiatives at regional economic cooperation (BIMSTEC), and models of mini-lateral integration (BBIN), etc., to build greater heft in the vicinity.

The presumably second Modi administration will have to deal with the scenario in Afghanistan, characterized by the engendering conditions for an American troop withdrawal from the country, the formulation of contours for potential rehabilitation of the Taliban within a prospective Afghan political future and the fomenting US-Iran crisis in the Middle East. Furthermore, the new administration will have to manage the American diktat to Iranian oil consumers, such as India, to shutter sourcing which exerts a collateral undermining impact on Indian strategic interests Their outcomes could undercut Indian stakes and valid expectations for exercising its influence in the region. These issues become further critical from an Indian standpoint, as their propitious resolution holds the sluice-gate keys to New Delhi’s tangible profile in engagement of Central Asia for strategic resources and as avenues for markets, both of which are contingent on a democratically benign, secure and stable Afghanistan. Concerning Iran, it is not subject to straitjacketed coercion from its arch-rivals within the region and the US on the extent, that would dis-incentivize its amenable disposition towards initiatives at regionally multi-lateralised economic cooperation and advancing objectives for share the access. These two issues are expected to figure in principal discussions at the impending SCO Summit in Kyrgyzstan, in June. In the meanwhile, since no potential solutions are to be forthcoming, it would put at a premium the Indian quest since 2012 and since Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to all the CARs in 2015 and India’s incorporation into the SCO in 2017, for cultivating cogent and enlightened bilateral exchanges with each of the region’s sovereign constituents.

Regarding Afghanistan, while the US has kept India abreast on the trajectory of its Qatar based backchannel with the Taliban, New Delhi fully sentient of Washington’s longing for terminating its inordinately lingering military involvement, which made it anxious, due to the apparent lack of clarity of Washington’s redlines and the latter’s ambivalence over Taliban’s incorporation into an Afghan government, without eliciting adequate accountability and a sufficing abjuration of violence. As a significant developmental partner for Afghanistan, with the involvement of fisc and material resources across a wide spectrum of capacity building projects, only second to Washington, New Delhi expects to be actively shaping the progression to a democratic, secure and stable Afghanistan. Henceforth, aware of the fluidity of the situation and mindful of the steadily expanding role of Russia and China in exploiting the pristine diplomatic space in Afghanistan, and how it could potentially resurrect Islamabad’s mission ‘strategic-depth’ in Kabul through the backdoor, it has precipitated into an enlightened New Delhi tactical approach, through shedding some of the idealism that has traditionally pervaded Indian strategic thinking in favor of participating in the Russian spearheaded Six-Party Dialogue Framework, even to sit at the Moscow table alongside Taliban interlocutors. In addition, it has worked with the US establishment principals at the State Department and the Pentagon, on calibrating a convergent and harmonizing approach, whilst niftily tiptoeing around the occasional rants of an irascible US President, taking derisive swipes at India’s developmental compact with Afghanistan, and its considered and principled reluctance, to not burden-partake through commissioning of a supplanting military presence in Afghanistan.

The Iranian question

The Iran dossier presents Indian foreign policy with a cleft-stick specter, wedging dilemmas and straddling angularities. One could not greater underscore the importance of Tehran for New Delhi, not just from the lens of longstanding energy is driven equations, but from the prism of the criticality of its multi-modal access to the far reaches of the Central Asian and Eurasian continental swathe. Also, Iran could be the maritime leverage in the Western Indian Ocean, where India manages port infrastructures and logistics arrangements, constituting vital instruments for strategic influence, commercial and mercantilist traction, along strategic sea lanes of communication. If US policy forces principal oil buyers, such as India, to totally blank oil purchases from Iran, (moreover, the chances seem remote as long as Trump helms affairs), then the potential forsaking of Iran from India allows peer competitor China to exploit the situation and trigger an Iranian tilt to its side, in pursuance of Beijing’s tangible offers of Iranian incorporation within the infrastructural ambit of the robustly fording Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Iran portfolio also brings to the fore, the debate about what exactly is strategic autonomy in foreign policy, and how does it pan out. Among the animated dynamic setting of an interconnected and interdependent world, it is most understood and internalized that trade-offs and quid pro quos undergird transactional interchange occur. Under a Modi premiership, Indian foreign policy has managed the enviable reputation for dexterously navigating through regionally adversarial juxtapositions, not through defensive self-preservation or abstinence of the past, but through proactively cultivated productively beneficent relationships, with a Jewish Israel, Shia Iran and the Saudi tutelage the Sunni Gulf States. However, this largesse may just have run its course, hopefully momentarily, as New Delhi might well perceive circumscribed downsides to its downgrading of commercial exchanges with Iran, as hydrocarbons deficits could be bridged through realigning shipments from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Besides riling up a strategically blinded non-countenancing and punitively oriented Washington won’t be desirable.

The second Modi regime and the prospects of new economic diplomacy

Historically, Indian foreign policy trajectory, and strategic orientation, in the post-liberalization period, has suffered from a triumvirate of infirmities, which have rendered its external outreach and engagement hemmed, hobbled and hortative. The advent of the Modi administration in 2014 was refreshing in that, it delineated a new template for Indian internationalism and forged it in the dispensing with staid cartographic imaginations of our neighborhoods in favor of re-imagined carve-ups of conceptions of the near-abroad. In abandoning the self-deprecating sub-continental scale of our economic existence and subsistence in favor of a comprehensive re-envisioning of economic diplomacy, it anchored in the inherent dynamism of rule-based democratic governance and demographics of demand being pitched as an attractive global proposition, building societal affinities and synergies. The second Modi regime would be under scrutiny for how this foundational economic diplomacy is consolidated and elevated into a new orbit, at a time when the government has pledged to catapult the nation to a five-trillion-dollar economy within a decade. Thereby, it made robust international economic interaction and interchange, an indispensable sine qua non for accomplishing such an ambitious strategic objective, amidst global headwinds of recession and the rising tide of protectionism worldwide. Achieving this quantum-leap scale-up, in economic size and profile, would need more than just linear organic progression. During the last five years, India moved from being viewed as a country with the promise to deliver on its potential to a nation on the economic march, witnessed in the hue of tectonic reforms consummated domestically and investment initiatives envisioned and instrumentalized in addressing both hard and soft infrastructural deficits. India transitioned, to being globally acclaimed as the fast-growing emerging economy, besides dimensions of its internal economic and policy transformation finding enthused endorsement in international policy circles. This elevated economic performance and the cogency of politico-executive leadership of the day has allowed Indian diplomacy to turn sure-footed, vigorous and purposeful on the international stage. It also resulted in the participation of Prime Minister’s pitch on the major platform of international relations, such as 2014 G20 in Australia and the annual World Economic Forum conclave in Davos in 2018. Notwithstanding, Indian diplomacy is moving further it by committing to in the global agreement on Climate Change in Paris, and to the India-France co-sponsored International Solar Alliance (ISA) initiative, headquartered in India, which is aimed at promoting expanded use of renewable energy for sustainable development, across the sovereign-comity of the putative ‘Global South.’

The ensuing epoch in Indian foreign policy would be a build-on phase, under the philosophical and operative moorings of a ‘continuum-neighborhood’ concept, which draws on immutable features of India’s geographical physiology and the attributive tenets of its civilizational span, to construe meaningful engagements in its Eastern and Western vectors. With India’s Eastern longitudinal stretch, both seaboard and inland, its position in the North-Eastern section and its obscuring black-hole, starved from rudimentary development, abutting South East Asia with one half of the Indian manufacturing GDP for exports. Besides the civilizational contacts, the process of fostering comprehensively intimating ties with the ASEAN comity of nations, as with other economic titans in East Asia, has been a signature initiative of the Modi government during 2014-2019, with no reason for it to flag or dampen. It ought to intensify across intertwining dimensions of augmented trading exchanges, deepened the development of multi-modal transportation infrastructure, enhanced integration of markets and logistics facilities, and greater investor-led stake-holding by these countries.

Similarly, with India’s ordained maritime location, residing astride strategic sea lanes of communication, the Modi government, during its first term, has embarked on a mission to impart situational sense to locational amenability, principally in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), through the commissioning and execution of a slew of path-breaking projects and initiatives, which pioneered under the marquee nomenclature of ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region). With the IOR, it is incumbent upon the new Indian government, to sustain its alacrity and proactivity, by its quest for preserving the primacy of operation, insulation of its sea-borne commercial interests and safeguarding its strategic sphere of influence, even though not exclusionary or prejudicial to any extant entity refuses insubordination or supplication. The Modi government seeks to enhance India’s power profile in the immediate maritime stretch, which would allow it to serve as a covetable stabilizing influence, contributing in its role as a prime ‘swing-power’, maintaining symmetry and equilibrium between competing domineers and helping shape the normative, institutional and capacitive edifice of the wide ocean ‘Indo-Pacific’ space, away from singularized ascent and towards a shared commons.

What about the US, China, and Russia?

The greatest operative determinant to Indian foreign policy, as it seeks to carve-up prominent stock for itself within a rising Asia, is how it handles its coupled equations, with the strategic trifecta impinging on its external orientation with the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. The Indo-US relationship remains the predominant key to India’s national aspirations for autonomous development and accretion in power-profile and attendant power-projection, across Asia and on the world stage. However, there is no gainsaying, that despite the brimming potential of the relationship in bilateral and regional terms, it does intermittently constrain New Delhi’s strategic choices and does inflict collateral damage to Indian strategic interests. Despite the burgeoning levels of political affability, economic interaction and societal interface, US-India engagement finds itself meandering, in aspects of market-access based trade disputes, disagreements over certain technology transfer mechanisms and perceived inadequacy over regimes governing the protection of intellectual property and the interests of the knowledge-based services sector.

Moreover, notwithstanding the significant advances incrementally achieved in the mutual strategic partnership, most notably witnessed in iconic collaborative agreements inked, in high-end civilian, high-tech communication, and sensitive defense-cooperation and military-operability sectors, a mutual wariness permeates ties brought on by a perceptible gap in actual performance, falling short of expectation thresholds. While New Delhi feels let-down, that Washington does not adequately tighten the noose on Pakistan towards extracting substantive remedial action on terrorism spawning from Islamabad, the US reckons that New Delhi does not step-up its game enough to dispose more proactively in countering China across Asia, most notably, across the Indo-Pacific, where intriguingly the two sides are concurred on an ostensible Joint Vision formulation and articulation for the ocean-continuum. It is clear that Prime Minister Modi, in his second term would have his hands full, in continuing to deal with an overtly transactional and short-leashed temperamental US administration, having to keep his side of the grand partnership bargain, whilst not transgressing on inveterately held and well-deliberated red-lines. Even as his government works through the scope of US institutional labyrinth, both congressional and bureaucratic, towards tempering the incumbent President’s pushbacks on matters of bilateral concern.

This segues into an examination of Sino-Indian relations, which seems to have historical baggage and mutual chariness of each other’s strategic intentions, between two simultaneously rising continental powers, in relative proximity and regional contiguity of each other. with the concurrence of politically ascendant trajectories of two leaders with strong personalities and cult-like followings domestically, the relationship during the past five years, marked a roller-coaster ride, commencing with the hyped euphoria of significant Chinese investment-led economic cooperation, descending into a purportedly escalatory slide that verged on potentially miscalculated conflict. During this period, the apogee of the Doklam territorial standoff during 2017 led to mutual good sense and to a commitment to establish ties concerning the indeterminate border. Additionally, it signified an engagement in a candid, but constructive dialogue, to comprehend strategic intentions around broader aspects of the relationship, and how each other’s instrumentalities militate, in each other’s coterminous and overlapping realms of perceived and proven influence. While the informal setting of the Wuhan Summit of 2018 was meant to induce a reset in ties, notwithstanding the bonhomie and geniality that was manifest, it would be risky to consider the bedevilling issues stemming from Chinese imperviousness to strident Indian criticism over the sovereignty contravening China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) component within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese refusal to allow Indian candidature of NSG membership decoupled from that of Pakistan, that is viewed and regarded as deeply and qualitatively odious, by the latter, and the nature and tenor of Chinese investments across South Asia, which has India spooked on dimensions of being predatory through vitiation of the fiscal health of the smaller nations. China harbors have their own set of concerns, stemming from a stepped-up Indo-US compact and an India-US-Japan role for strategic maneuvering across the Indo-Pacific, and the reviving of the QUAD framework, described as a Concert of Democracies quadrant committed to ensuring the plurality of the Indo-Pacific, a veiled reference to work against Beijing. The challenge for both sides would be to ally each other’s concerns credibly and tangibly, which would entail political statesmanship, forthright exchange of views, but some craft in forging project cooperation, that can reduce the trust deficit, which in turn lies at the core of the mutually critical relationship steeped in chariness and hesitation.

The resurgent role of Russia on the world stage and it’s robust inject into hotspots and flashpoints around the globe, allowing for a duality of views about its genuine intentions and how to respond to them, with the Indian establishment being no exception either in being called upon to re-appraise the once bell-weather relationship. Among perceptions about Moscow being a necessary strategic disruptor, contributing to balancing an otherwise US skewed global order, Prime Minister Modi has been pragmatic and principled in letting Indian national interests drive the Indo-Russian exchange, rather than be wedded to preconceived notions. The challenge on the bilateral track of reinventing the relationship beyond defence cooperation and a few lines of commercial interchange, notwithstanding the Modi government’s effort has been to forge new vistas of engagement on strategic dimensions of ramped-up energy cooperation, science and technological intermediation for civilian applications, innovation smitten joint-investments, in addition to the sophisticated and value-added co-development programs in modernised defence platforms, apart from the perfunctory phenomenon of defense hardware transactions. The fact of resilience in India-Russia engagement was tested and showed-up well, in the resoluteness of India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, weathering repeated US prodding, nudges, and implicit threats of collaterally damaging implications.

Similarly, New Delhi’s recent reconsideration of long-held reticence at upgrading the level of the mundanely operating Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral dialogue from Foreign Ministers forum to Summit status, and the actual convening of the RIC. The Modi regime desires to follow the vision enunciated and delineated in the Shangri-la address of the Prime Minister, of an Indo-Pacific narrative, that stands for a free and open Indo-Pacific, through plurality, not prejudice. One can then contextualize the stated indications that an ingenious “Indo-Pacific” dialogue would be a noted feature of overall India-Russia and Sino-Indian bilateral consultations going forward.

One can also see India putting a premium on its ties with Russia, from the standpoint of Moscow emerging, though by no means on parity, but as a critical-mass bulwark to an overbearing Washington, in multiple sub-regional areas, from the AFPAK theatre to the Middle Eastern vector. The Russia-China axis constitutes a significant pillar, alternatively framing and shaping the potential contours of a futuristic Afghanistan, and in concert with Pakistan, which can bring certainly material, if not game-changing influence to bear, on ultimate transpiring. Hence, it’s a no-brainer that Modi’s New Delhi, which has prioritized its Central Asian foray and recognizes Russian facilitation towards its incorporation within the SCO and its indispensability to achieve longitudinal access deep into Eurasia, circumventing all the way to Europe, cannot but keep Moscow cultivated, in the face of deepening ties with Washington. Russia was no less central to ironing out the creases that led to the P5+1 — Iran arrangement of the JCPOA, in that it had a protagonist-cum-superintendence role to dispose of, in the accord’s sequential and qualitative implementation. With current US-Iran tensions on the boil, Russia could once again emerge the “prima donna conduit” to de-escalation, which beholds dividends for India. Similarly, despite not being an OPEC member, Moscow through its strong links with Iran and a blossoming working relationship with Saudi Arabia, it is a not-so-discreet influence, nudging energy politics, if not dynamics, again with implications for India.

Going forward, three quintessential strategic objectives continually permeating Indian foreign policy endeavors and initiatives are the quest for consolidation of its uniquely centripetal role in advancing economic cooperation and functional regionalism goals sub-continent wide, within an increasingly vibrancy sworn South Asia; to substantively and efficaciously integrate adjoining neighbourhoods, both in the East (South East Asia) and to the West (Central and West Asia), through all forms of connectivity accessed mobility, be it hard and/or soft, physical and/or virtual; and to seamlessly integrate within, rather than aggressively impinge upon, the wider global institutions of financial management, regimes at trade facilitation and structures of governance enabling, by clamouring for reforms in architecture and processes, but not quite an upending the order.

First published in our partner RIAC

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More about how democracy should be elected -Interview with Tannisha Avarrsekar

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Tannisha Avarrsekar. Image source: startocure.com

Tannisha Avarrsekar, a political activist who wants to increase equality in the representation of political candidates in India. In this interview, Tannisha discusses more about her journey, political beliefs and her platform Lokatantra.

Why did you start Lokatantra?

I started it because I wanted to make politics more accessible for the youth.

I moved to London for my undergrad when I was 18, so 2019 was the first election that I was able to vote in. But after I came back, I found that gathering information about the registration process, as well as probable candidates took more time and effort than it should.

I began realizing that for citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the dearth of a platform where they could educate themselves and engage with those they were considering electing. And that’s how Lokatantra came along.

Tell us more about Lokatantra.

Lokatantra.in is an online political platform that aims to make the youth more politically aware and socially conscious. It attempts to bridge the gap between voters and politicians by empowering voters with comprehensive information about their candidates and the voting process, after verifying its authenticity and organizing it in a manner that makes it quick and easy to understand. It also does telephone voter registrations for those having trouble with it.

On the flip side, the social enterprise also collects data on citizens’ opinions on key issues through polls and surveys, and then analyses and publishes the results, to aid in the decision-making of leaders. In this way, the platform sheds light on the accomplishments of politicians- especially independents who can’t afford expensive campaigns, as well as the troubles of the common man.

The Lokatantra.in website and mobile application prides itself on its treasury of information about each and every candidate from the Mumbai City district. This extensive material includes details about these candidates’ educational qualifications, past political affiliations, career highlights, controversies, criminal records, and standpoints on critical debates. The platform also allows users to ask candidates questions, as well as rate them so as to help other voters from their constituency make their choice.

What do you think can make journalism more neutral?

More crowdfunded platforms. Limits on investments by big corporations, and complete transparency in the finances of media houses. Also, stricter penalties on misinformation.

Why is equal representation in politics important?

Equal representation in politics is important because it encourages newer political faces and fresh ideas into our country’s governance, which has been largely polarized and dominated by big political parties, with old loyalists and deep pockets. It allows us to choose our leaders based on more than just their party symbol and spending power, and instead take into account their character, ideology and objectives.

How is Lokatantra a unique platform? What do you do differently?

Before an election, Lokatantra interviews all the candidates standing, with a uniform questionnaire to gather their opinions on issues that play a key role in deciding who to vote for and are yet often not a part of mainstream discourse. The answers from these interviews are then fed into an algorithm, which allows voters to answer the very same questions, and then ranks the candidates in their constituency based on how much their political opinions match. What makes this quiz truly extraordinary is the fact that it takes into account the nuances of one’s answers, by letting you weigh how much each issue affects your vote.

We also spend a lot of time answering personal questions and engaging in individual conversations about politics, with members of our community that message us.

Tell us more about your personal political affiliations.

As the face of a politically neutral platform, I’m not permitted to have political affiliations. But I would describe my personal ideology as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

What do you think are the biggest electoral problems India is facing at the moment and what do you think are the solutions?

I think it is the shocking mass disappearances of voter names from electoral lists, which has caused erosion of public faith in the democratic process.

A colleague of mine- Siddhant Kesnur and I, recently wrote a policy memo about the solutions to this, and if I had to pick one that I think would be most effective it would be stopping the misuse of the ECI’s Form 7, which is an application for voter deletion that ridiculously enough can be sent on behalf of any citizen by any citizen. Simply communicating the receipt of this form to those on whose behalf it has come in, would significantly curb its abuse.

What do you think will pose the greatest challenge to India’s growth in the future?

The move from patriotism to nationalism. In May 2018, Kaushik Basu the economist had cautioned Bangladesh saying that “vibrant economies have been derailed by zealotry many times throughout history”. He had given three examples to support his point: (1) the golden era of economic growth in Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad which passed when religious fundamentalism began to spread about a thousand years ago (2) Portugal’s position as a global power in the 15th-16th century, which ended when Christian fanaticism became it’s driving political force, and (3) Pakistan’s economy, which after performing fairly decently started slipping from 2005 onwards because of military rule and Islamic fundamentalism.

It makes me sorry to say that the extremist rhetoric we witness in India these days is an alarming harbinger of this kind of zealotry, which has the potential of not just derailing us economically but also causing lasting damage to the social and cultural fabric of our nation.

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India: Metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

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When European Disinfo Lab exposed India’s disinformation network, India apologized. But, the portents are that India continued spreading disinformation, nay stark lies against Pakistan. India’s usual modus operandi was  to employ dubious  thinktanks and journalists of doubtful credentials to tarnish Pakistan’s image. For instance, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a registered Canadian charity, published a Pakistan-bashing report ‘Khalistan—A project of Pakistan’ which found mention in almost all leading Indian newspapers. Now, Indian government  has told its Supreme Court that farmers’ protest in India are being pro-Pakistan and pro-Khalistan elements. The SC has called upon Indian government to submit an affidavit about its allegation along with corroborative evidence.

Another pro-India “thinktank”, spouting venom against Pakistan is the “International Terrorism Observatory”. It is chaired by Roland Jacquard. Prestigious French newspaper Le Monde (The World) pointed out in 2015; he is the only member “without publications, without a website, without postal address and without any legal existence”. He runs a bookstore stacked with books on “networks of Islamist terrorism’. According to journalists Didier Bigo, Laurent Bonelli and Thomas Deltombe, Roland Jacquard’s claim of being a media expert is questionable.

 India-sponsored think tank  International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies run by Srivastava Group of India shot into limelight when it paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial far-right delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians to Srinagar on October 30, 2013. The trip was arranged by Indian intelligence surrogate, Madi Sharma, who posed as a self-styled “international business broker”.

India’s metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

It appears India has now realized that its disinformation is losing clout. So, instead of banking on dubious journalists and think tanks, it has begun to churn out lies against Pakistan through its own agencies, including the prestigious India Today.

Almost all media outlets and TV channels disseminated the false report that an ex diplomat  has admitted that India did actually kills 300 men in Balakot  air strike on February 26, 2019. Some channels have retracted the false rreport while others are staying mum.

What did the news agency ANI say?

The statement falsely attributed to diplomat Agha Hilaly was carried by several news organisation, including India Today, and was based on an input by news agency ANI. The News agency ANI quoted Pakistani diplomat Agha Hilaly as saying, “India crossed the international border and did an act of war in which at least 300 were reported dead. Our target was different from theirs. We targeted their high command. That was our legitimate target because they are men of the military. We subconsciously accepted that a surgical strike — a limited action — did not result in any casualty. Now we have subconsciously told them that, whatever they will do, we’ll do only that much and won’t escalate.”

Truth

The video was misattributed and the quote was actually a snippet of a larger quote made by former diplomat Zafar Hilaly in a television debate.The full quote by Zafar Hilaly is as follows:: What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people. Coincidentally, they [Pakistani people] did not die and India bombed a football field. “Hilaly has also said that the viral video is edited and does not represent his full quote. He also shared the full video on his Twitter account. A fact-check by “Alt News” found that the comments were misreported and the ex-diplomat who made the comments was “Zafar Hilaly”.In the debate posted on YouTube by HUM news as part of a program called “Agenda Pakistan”, Hilaly  had said, “What you did, India, was an act of war. India ne jo kiya, international boundary ko cross karke ek act of war. Jisme kam se kam 300 logo ko unhone marna tha. (What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people).”Zafar Hilaly also tweeted a video saying his statement was spliced and edited. Alt News said a version of the video posted on Twitter had an abrupt cut “around 0:7-0:9 seconds” and the word “marna (to kill)” sounds as if Hilaly said “mara (killed)”. The news has since been removed by websites.

Conclusion

A basic principle of disinformation is ‘never lose sight of truth’.  A half-truth or even .005 per cent to 5% untruth, a twisted truth, or sometimes a truth concealed may appeal more to readers or viewers than a stark lie.  Goebels is not alive to tell that he never said ‘the bigger the lie the more it will be believed’. Pathological lying is not the art of disinformation. Psychologists would tell that, even under stress, a mature person would suppress truth rather than tell a lie.

Richard Deacon  says,  ‘Truth twisting…unless it is conducted with caution and great attention to detail, it will inevitably fail, if practiced too often… It is not the deliberate lie which we have to fear (something propaganda), but the half-truth, the embellished truth and the truth dressed up to appear a something quite different’ (The Truth Twisters, London, Macdonald & Company (Publishers) Limited, 1986/1987, p. 8). 

He gives several example of disinformation including sublimininal disinformation by which the truth can be twisted so that the distortion is unconsciously absorbed, something which both television and radio commentators have subtly perfected’. (Ibid. p. 9).

Role of India’s foremost intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in conducting disinformation campaigns has, by and large, remained hidden from the media watch.  It is now being exposed. RAW is burning midnight oils to exploit USA’s sensitivity about certain ticklish subjects like Hawala transactions for funneling funds to “terrorists’, nuclear proliferation, use of missiles to hit aircraft, and development of chemical biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The RAW’s disinformation campaign, often bordering on lying, is well reflected by innocuous-looking news (unsupported by reference to information sources) that appear, from time to time, in Indian media. Hilaly debacle is a case in point.

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South Asia

Casteism inside RSS, and its’ abhorrence

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Dr Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution, believed that ‘RSS is a dangerous association’. The latest to join this belief is Bhanwar Maghwanshi, a former RSS worker and also the author of the book ‘I could not be Hindu’ (2020)

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At the age of 13, Bhanwar Maghwanshi joined RSS. Instead of playing, learning and exploring, he opted to do something ‘bigger’ in his life. But, unfortunately, he was shocked to learn how RSS practices casteism without using the term ‘Dalit’ in its shakhas. He was active with RSS, as a sevak, during the so-called Janmbhoomi movement of Ayodhya in late 1980s. In his panchayat in Rajasthan, he never listened to azan or interacted with any Muslim – in person, but developed strong abhorrence for the Muslims when he was learning ‘skills’ in RSS. His dad was a Congress activist and discouraged him to join RSS (because, for him, RSS would never want ‘brahmin’ sevaks to sacrifice their lives) but BhanwarMeghwanshi – on positive note – entered RSS.

RSS is a hydra of Hindutva, Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Rashtra. BJP is its outcome. Since 2014, India is witnessing a systemic degradation of free speech, social equity, human development, economy, environment and women safety. The Modi government came to power in 2014 chanting ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ slogan but unfortunately it transformed India into ‘new’ India with the maxims of ‘minimum governance, maximum statism’. One of the oldest, yet contemporary, [social] statism is casteism. It’s 21st century and the elements of caste as a whole continues to haunt the democratic features of India. A recent NCRB data suggests that India is unsafe for Dalit and Adivasi girls. There’s an increase of 300% in hate crimes. The architect of India’s constitution Dr Ambedkar was ‘untouchable’ and had come to conclusions that Hinduism can’t be reformed. He chose Buddhism in October 1956 and found emancipation through the teachings of Buddha. The same is the case with BhanwarMeghwanshi who is an Ambedkarite today, learned a different version of Ambedkar in his RSS years. Even God knows that RSS has appropriated Dr Ambedkar conveniently, for its own political agenda.

Bhanwar’s ethnographic encounter in his book “I could not be Hindi – the story of a Dalit in the RSS” is essential to refute the pseudo-science of RSS or Hindutva trollers on the subjects of Islam, untouchability and other narratives. The book sheds a detailed light on what RSS is, casteism in the RSS, and how RSS makes its ground in the society. Navayana Publishing House mustered the courage to publish the book, unlike other ‘popular’ publishing houses, according to Bhanwar. He dreamt of becoming a ‘pracharak’ but was stopped to become a ‘vistarak’ because of his ‘caste’ and this is where he learned that he is a lesser Hindu than other Hindus in RSS. He left RSS after a very bitter experience. He writes, “We had organised an event of Sangh in my hometown, I was heading the event as I was the most active and passionate worker in my area. I had planned to make food at my home only for the senior guests and the priests who would join the event. My father strongly opposed and said that they would never eat food cooked by us. I did not listen to him. I cooked good Rajasthani food with pure ghee and invited them. They did not come home but said that ‘you just pack the food we will eat it in the next village, as we are running out of time’. I packed the food for them, I later learned that they did not have my food but threw it in a naala (gutter). As the district chief, I got angry with them and asked the reason, but did not get satisfactory answers. I was reminded of my father’s words that ‘people like us did not own any place in the Sangh’, it solely belongs to the upper castes.”

The book smashes the rosy picture of RSS and explains that the Dalits’ role in RSS is mere foot soldiers for the communal polarisation and Hindutva activities. In an interview to Caravan magazine (14th March 2020), Bhanwar Meghwanshi made it clear that “In the eyes of the Sangh, the Hindu Rashtra is a Brahmin nation with the varna system, the four vedas and the Manusmriti. The Sangh wants to run the nation on this very base. I feel that in the Sangh’s Hindu Rashtra, shudras or untouchables will be slaves, and Muslims, heretics or foreigners, will be given a second-class status.”

In this memoir, Bhanwar also writes that in his village, low caste people joined the RSS in large numbers: “Of the fifty or so children who attended the shakha in my village, most were OBCs—Kumhar, Jat, Gurjar, Mali and so on.” They joined because of the Sanskritization processes and because of the games they played in the shakha, but they resided for ideological reasons too as, slowly, they learnt that “hindukhatre main hai” (Hindus are in danger) because of Muslims and Christians. He also recalls that, while in the Sangh, he “heard a lot about weapons being stored in the basements of mosques” and that getting rid of the Babri Masjid was like “a second battle for independence”.

Bhanwar is not new in this race. A sarcastic letter authored by a Dalit activist P.D. Shelare, on 13/1/1934, published in ‘Janata’ divulged about casteism or caste segregation practices in some shakhas of RSS. Shelareratiocinated that RSS was aware of the practices but it did not react. It’s obvious to learn that Hinduism is incomplete without casteism. The caste practices made me leave Hinduism too, on 30th December 2018. I adopted Buddhism, on par with Dr Ambedkar’s teachings. While reading the book, I could resonate my experiences too. In the current landscape, interactions and social relations have changed a lot. Caste dynamics too. To add to the woes, love jihad law will further strengthen more endogamy and discourage intercaste marriages. Dining with Dalits alone would not bring about social changes. The ‘safe space’ for the dissents and Dalits is diminishing, whereas love for hatred is openly normalised. 

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