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Political Lessons from Kerala: People’s Response to the Communist Welfare System

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Amid covid-19 fears, the elections to the legislative assemblies of four Indian states- West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry were conducted in the months of April-May 2021. Of these four states, West Bengal and Kerala continue to challenge the ideology of Hindu nationalism and pose serious ideological opposition to BJP.’s right-wing politics. While BJP-led NDA ruled Assam, Tamil Nadu was ruled by AIADMK, a Dravidian party with strong BJP connections.  Puducherry, the Union Territory, was ruled by a Congress-led government in which the DMK, another Dravidian political party, was an ally. Since elections to these major states were significant for the Indian political scenario, election contestations acquired national attention. Therefore, many exit poll surveys were conducted, which showed the lack of anti-incumbency in three states except Tamil Nadu, and the results almost matched the exit polls.  What is common in this election result is that Indian National Congress (INC) and their allies faced setbacks in the five states. Despite the expulsion of the AIADMK and INC-led governments in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, respectively, the parties in Bengal, Assam and Kerala returned to power.

Of these states, election results of Kerala and Bengal have unparalleled potential in national politics, especially with the explosive performance of the LDF government in Kerala and the prospects it will raise in national politics. Moreover, Bengal and Kerala show that the tactics of the BJP, a giant of national politics, have failed miserably in challenging the party in rule. While BJP could sweep almost 75 seats in West Bengal, they lost miserably in Kerala. The loss of Nemam constituency, BJP’s only seat in the state assembly, shows that Kerala is not yet their cup of tea. On the one hand, the LDF coalition, which lost miserably in nineteen of the total twenty seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, has won a landslide victory in the local body elections and assembly elections 2021. The LDF, a coalition of 11 centre-leftists leaning parties, showed a new model of political activism in which its traditional opponents are shattered. Conversely, LDF’s success in the state shows that they succeeded in understanding and responding to the socio-political changes since May 2019.

With this election, the practice of alternating LDF (Left Democratic Front) and UDF (United Democratic Front) every five years has changed in Kerala. We have to admit that anti-government sentiment is entirely non-existent in Kerala and that the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who led it, has succeeded in creating an alternative to the UDF centered politics. Of course, Kerala has well-rooted soil for left ideology as it is home to the first Communist Ministry to come to power through ballot paper after San Marino, a microstate surrounded by Italy. The LDF was active in the electoral field in Kerala since 1957 and the social sphere decades ago. By now, Kerala remains the last bastion of the communists who lost their political sway in other parts of India. However, this time, it is noteworthy that the left front has been able to garner neutral votes along with the traditional left-leaning votes and the Congress BJP votes. This indicates that the Pinarayi model of governance will undoubtedly influence other rulers in India and they may gradually implement such a model. On the other hand, there is no need to be alarmed if Indian politics is gradually shifting towards the Pinarayi model of governance.

The Shift towards New Politics

It is methodologically appropriate to start analyzing Kerala politics with the 2019 Lok Sabha election review. One of the reasons for this is that though left parties lost their electoral prominence in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, they returned to a glittering victory in the 2021 state elections. To understand such a transformation, we need to divide Kerala politics into two sections. While the first phase is between 2016 and 2018, the second phase is between 2019 and 2021. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – led LDF came to power in the 2016 elections with 91 seats in the 140 – member assembly, defeating the Congress – led UDF. For LDF, the beginning was not comfortable as various natural calamities, and the outbreak of pandemics posed severe threats to the government. Cyclone Okhi, which struck Kerala in November-December 2017, claimed the lives of more than 140 fishermen. The outbreak of the Nipah virus in 2018 further dragged the government machinery into new responsibilities. Before the waves of the Nipah outbreak and cyclone Okhi subsided, a flood hit Kerala in 2018, killing and leaving thousands homeless. The floods devastated the economy of Kerala and, to some extent, blame fell on the government, raising allegations that the government failed in curbing the disaster. There were allegations that government systems were not working efficiently and that carelessness in opening the dams caused the floods. In other words, until 2018, the LDF government in Kerala, like many other Indian governments, created the impression that it was just an ordinary government.

Meanwhile, the Sabarimala issue erupted, shaking Kerala politics. A Supreme Court ruling in October 2018 lifted the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the Hindu temple of Sabarimala. As the LDF-led state government decided to implement the Supreme Court judgment, various Hindu organizations and the Congress-BJP factions came out against the government. The entry of women in Sabarimala has long been acknowledged by Congress and BJP leaders, but they have used it as a weapon against the government. Anti-left sentiment grew decisive in the state as women were forcibly taken to Sabarimala. Of course, Hindu sentiment was against the government and reflected in the collapse of the leftists in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The shrinking to just one seat and the congress winning nineteen seats in Kerala broke the backbone of the LDF.

Nevertheless, the Sabarimala issue was not the only reason for the Congress’ victory as there was another national issue. This was the Citizenship Amendment Bill enacted by the BJP-NDA government in power at the Centre in December 2019. As the perception that the 2019 CAA was anti-Muslim spread, Muslims had a strong observation that the central government should be replaced. Although the struggles against the CAA were suppressed, the anti-BJP sentiment was strong among Muslims. Naturally, this was the reason why Muslim votes in Kerala went to the congress-led UDF. In other words, there was a strong perception among the minorities that it is better to vote for the Congress, which opposes the BJP at the national level, than to vote for the LDF, which is nothing at the national level. It is noteworthy that after the 2019 elections, the Pinarayi government’s style and the policy towards Sabarimala issue drew criticism from the parties in opposition and the general public.

Meanwhile, in May 2019, the Nipah virus, which Kerala once defeated, was back. However, the government of Kerala succeeded in controlling the disease, and with this, the state government was able to gain national and international attention. The next flood in August 2019 devastated Kerala, again killing many people and devastating the state. From this flood, Kerala society began to notice the changing face of the LDF government. The left parties became closer to the people by setting up a rehabilitation fund and intervening in charitable activities. The government’s image was enhanced because leftist youth organizations such as DYFI and SFI stood with the people in all possible cooperation. The Congress and the BJP, two major political parties with anti-leftist ideologies, were asleep all this time.

In 2020 March, Kerala entered the post-Covid-19 lockdown. During this period, food kits and welfare pensions, which had nurtured the leftist government’s famous face, became more popular. The most significant relief to the large section of the people who lost their jobs and income due to lockdown and covid-19 was the delivery of food items and welfare pensions to  all sections of the people through ration shops every month. The Life Mission project, which started in 2017, has already provided housing to two million homeless families. For the first time in Kerala’s history, the government’s activities have created the impression of a welfare state, and the UDF and the BJP were merely clowns, unable to cope with any of this.

Congress: A Baseless Palace

The fact that the perception of a coalition government is the key to the leftist victory is evident from the local body elections of 2020-2021. However, it should also be noted that instead of understanding the timely changes, even the backbenchers in Congress have adopted blind policies. Congress was in the mood to come to power after five years as a natural process without recognizing what was going on in the country. This laziness is evident in the way they dealt with the Kerala Congress (M), a previous ally of the UDF which joined the LDF camp at a crucial moment.

We have observed that since 2018, Kerala has been going through disasters. While cyclone Okhi, Nipah, 2018 and 2019 floods and Covid-19 were making the life of Kerala miserable, Congress and the BJP machinery failed to stand with the people. The pearly white leaders dressed in khadi were only involved in politics where the clothes were not soiled. It was the policy of the Congress, which had already lost its activists, to sit on ivory towers and enjoy a comfortable life without having to go down with the people during floods and illness. If people are wondering why they should count those who are not with them, they should not be blamed for it. And they have to check for themselves whether they are eligible for the 41 seats won by the Congress. At the same time, it should be noted that Congress does not have an effective organizational structure. While the LDF and BJP were fighting for more electoral success, the Congress was dragging its feet. In short, the strategy of Congress was to spread anti-leftism without trying to understand the will of the people and social reality. Further, Congress has humiliated itself by filing a complaint in court against the state’s food kits and welfare pensions. Such foolish gimmicks were seen as a power-hungry movement that affected the prospects of the Congress. In this situation, it will not be easy for Congress to mobilize organizational and political power. If no alternatives can be found, the Congress, the grand old party, will remain in the memory of Kerala as an erstwhile party.

BJP: Picture of a Dead Snake

In Kerala, the BJP is mainly targeting the Hindu population of about 45-50 per cent. The BJP succeeded in winning a seat in the Kerala Legislative Assembly for the first time in 2016, and its vote share was increased in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Local Body elections. However, the BJP has been adversely affected by its failure to reach out to the masses and its continued stigma of being a vote-selling party. The fact that the BJP’s nomination papers were rejected in three constituencies and they lost their only seat shows how pathetic the Kerala BJP leadership is while approaching the elections. Moreover, the election results also show how much the BJP’s Kerala faction has failed to understand the will of the people.

Further, BJP leadership in Kerala is indeed distancing itself from the masses.  For example, consider the case of the BJP state president’s election campaign. BJP State President K. Surendran contested from two places, and a helicopter was hired to cover these two constituencies. While the videos of the helicopter-campaign were circulated on social media, laypeople realized the futility of such filmy approaches.  That is why in Konni, the second constituency where he contested, the State President came third with tens of thousands of votes less than in 2016, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive campaigns. Such irresponsible attitudes from the BJP leadership in Kerala resulted in a humiliating defeat despite the pro-cyber wing and pro-organization structure. The crisis is compounded by the abandonment of the BJP’s so-called Gujarat constituency, Nemam in Trivandrum, and the low turnout of 429834 votes across Kerala.

Are these the only reasons for BJP’s electoral defeat in Kerala? There are many answers to this situation. The commoner, who has to pay Rs 92 for a litre of petrol and Rs 850 for a pinch of gas cylinder, will vote for the left that benefit him, even if he pretends to be a BJP man under the pressure of circumstances. Not many ordinary Hindus of Kerala will vote for the BJP unless Rama Rajya or Sabarimala are the factors that help his daily expense, especially at this time of pandemic. Therefore, Kerala Hindu’s political decision is closely linked to what they experience in life. Along with this, the current perception in Kerala, that the left saves Kerala from various crises, also continues to be a boon for the LDF. Similarly, in Kerala, the BJP has consistently failed to intervene in popular issues and keep the ordinary people together. BJP leaders lead the party from pit to pit, believing that their speechifying in television channels is politics and encroaching on communist martyrdom hall is service to the people.

Why Leftists? : Kerala’s answers

The left government in Kerala has made it clear that coming to power is not a license to do anything for five years but a brief to work hard and to move forward with the people. This victory shows that the leftists have not lost their relevance in Kerala, where various castes and religions are equally strong in political assertions. Kerala’s recent electoral surge also indicates that politicians should be open to local realities and grass-root sentiments.  While the Congress-led UDF in Kerala and the BJP-led NDA were building anti-communist programmes and anti-government allegations, the government and the LDF went out to the people. In the last five years, the opposition has had the opportunity to build anti-leftist politics and has been able to raise them all strongly, but such strategies seemed to have failed before the welfare model approach. The huge drop in the BJP’s vote share and the defeat of even the young faces of the Congress are signs that the soil under their feet is slipping away, even though they do not take it that seriously!

At the national level, the Kerala model of governance may be copied by all the ruling parties and power-hungry politicians. There is no doubt that the experience of LDF in Kerala will further motivate other politicians to formulate more welfare schemes. Earlier, in Kerala, the strategy to come back to power was to accuse the ruling party of corruption and lack of development to build reserves of anti-incumbency. However, the new mantra is the image of a welfare state and reminding the people that the government is always with them and working for them.

Conclusions

The LDF government has returned to power after overthrowing anti-left forces at the national and state levels. Although the welfare activities and projects of the Covid-19 era have created the image of a people’s welfare government, it is a matter of great challenge to the government how long it can go on. Long term progress of the Kerala model also depends on how Pinarayi’s assurance on CAA, Covid-19 vaccination, welfare schemes, pensions, and food kits is kept. In short, the success story of the leftists in Kerala deserves serious scrutiny. The victory of the left is not only that they returned to power in 2021. On the contrary, it is noteworthy that the anti-left climate that existed until 2019 has been eliminated and the precarious conditions, including Covid-19, have been positively used by the left brigade. In India, we believe that democracy ultimately chooses the right leaders. In the next five years, Kerala society will have another opportunity to examine the realities of such a belief.    

Vineeth Mathoor teaches at the Research Department of History, N.S.S. Hindu College, Kerala, India. He is an Assistant Editor of South Asia Research published by Sage International.

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Pakistan, Quo Vadis?

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Pakistan’s place in a new world order is anybody’s guess. Recent policy moves suggest options that run the gamut from a state that emphasizes religion above all else to a country that forges a more balanced relationship with China and the United States.

The options need not be mutually exclusive but a populous, nuclear-armed country whose education system is partially anchored in rote learning and memorization of the Qur’an rather than science is likely to raise eyebrows in Washington and Beijing.

Pakistan has long viewed its ties to China as an unassailable friendship and strategic partnership China but has recently been exploring ways of charting a more independent course.

Relations between Islamabad and Beijing were bolstered by an up to US$60 billion Chinese investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a cornerstone of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure, transportation, and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Deeply indebted to China as a result of the Belt and Road that has significantly contributed to electricity supply and transportation infrastructure, Pakistan will have to tread cautiously as it explores the margins of its manoeuvrability.

Nevertheless, suggesting that CPEC may not live up to its promise to significantly boost the country’s position as a key Belt and Road maritime and land transportation hub, Pakistan recently agreed with Saudi Arabia to shy away from building a US$10 billion refinery and petrochemical complex in the port of Gwadar, long viewed as a Belt and Road crown jewel. The two countries are looking at the port city of Karachi as an alternative.

Gwadar port has been troubled for years. Completion of the port has been repeatedly delayed amid mounting resentment among the ethnic Baloch population of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, one of the country’s least developed regions. Work on a fence around the port halted late last year when local residents protested.

Building the refinery in Karachi would dent Chinese hopes of Gwadar emerging as a competitive hub at the top of the Arabian Sea. Doubts about Gwadar’s future are one reason why landlocked Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, are looking at Iranian ports as alternatives.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan initially agreed on building the refinery in Gwadar in 2019 during a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A Saudi-funded feasibility study has since suggested that Gwadar lacks the pipeline and transportation infrastructure to justify a refinery. The refinery would be cut off from Karachi, Pakistan’s oil supply hub.

In a similar vein, Pakistan has been discussing a possible military base in the country from which US forces could support the government in Kabul once the Americans leave Afghanistan in September under an agreement with the Taliban.

Washington and Islamabad appear to be nowhere close to an agreement on the terms that would govern a US military presence in Pakistan but the fact that Pakistan is willing to entertain the notion will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Pakistan borders on China’s troubled province of Xinjiang, home to Turkic Muslims who face a brutal Chinese attempt to squash their religious and ethnic identity.

China fears that Pakistan, one of the few countries to have witnessed protests against the crackdown in the early days of the repression, could be used by Turkic Muslim militants, including fighters that escaped Syria, as a launching pad for attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian country or in Xinjiang itself.

The notion of Pakistan re-emerging as a breeding ground for militants is likely to gain traction in Beijing as well as Washington as Pakistan implements educational reform that would Islamicize syllabi across the board from primary schools to universities. Critics charge that religion would account for up to 30 per cent of the syllabus.

Islamization of Pakistani education rooted in conservative religious concepts contrasts starkly with moves by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to de-emphasize religious education and ensure that it is more pluralistic. The two Gulf states have positioned themselves as proponents of moderate forms of Islam that highlight religious tolerance while supporting autocratic rule.

“Pakistan is an ideological Islamic state and we need religious education. I feel that even now our syllabus is not completely Islamized, and we need to do more Islamization of the syllabus, teaching more religious content for the moral and ideological training of our citizens,” asserted Muhammad Bashir Khan, a member of parliament for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling party.

By implication, Mr. Khan, the parliamentarian, was suggesting that Pakistan was angling for a conservative leadership role in the Muslim world as various forces, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia compete for religious soft power in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam.

The educational reform boosts Prime Minister Khan’s effort to be the spokesman for Muslim causes. The prime minister has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of peddling Islamophobia and demanded that Facebook ban expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Critics warn that the curriculum will produce anything but a society that is tolerant and pluralistic.

Said education expert Rubina Saigol: “When the state aligns itself with one sect or a singular interpretation of religion, it opens the doors to sectarian conflict, which can turn violent… There is lip service to the ideas of diversity, inclusion and mutuality but, in reality, an SNC that is gender-biased, sectarian and class-based, will sharpen social differences, undermine minority religions and sects, and violate the principles of federalism.” Ms. Saigol was referring to Prime Minister Khan’s Single National Curriculum project by its initials.

Former Senator Farhatullah Babar warned that “The SNC…opens the door for… (religious) seminary teachers to enter mainstream educational institutions… It is well known that a majority of the education of seminary students is grounded in sectarianism. Imagine the consequences of…seminary teachers trained and educated in sectarian education entering the present educational institutions.”

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Why successful mediation efforts could not be employed to resolve the Kashmir conflict?

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Friday prayers in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. © John Isaac

Mediation is a process in which a dispute between two parties is resolved effectively with the help of a third party. It helps to resolve international conflicts peacefully because in mediation the third-party mostly has no direct gains from it and cannot have coercive policies, rather it discusses win-win situation for both parties and helps them resolve the issue. Unfortunately, Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for almost 74 years, and yet all mediation efforts have failed.

Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan in the South Asian region. The issue dates back to 1947 during the partition of the sub-continent when India and Pakistan were formed and were liberated from the British colonialism. At the time of partition, there were more than 500 princely states and they either had to accede to India or Pakistan or choose to stay independent.  Moreover, they had to keep their geographical and religious contiguity in mind before acceding to any of the state. Many states made quick decisions but the Maharajah of Kashmir delayed the decision because he was a Hindu and wanted to join India but the majority of population was Muslim and they wanted to be a part of Pakistan. During his contemplation, the Indian forces entered into the state of Jammu and Kashmir to illegally occupy the state. As a result, tribal groups from Pakistan entered into the state to help their Muslim brothers and Pakistan also backed them actively. Realizing the sensitivity of the matter, India took this issue to the United Nations. The UN helped in establishing a ceasefire line that divided the state into two parts, one controlled by Pakistan called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) while the other is under Indian occupation and is called Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK).

Since then, the UN has passed several different resolutions to resolve the Kashmir conflict for good but India is not willing to accept the propositions of UNSC and other mediators. Kashmir still remains an issue to this day and the people of Kashmir are still waiting to get their right to self-determination and accession to Pakistan. India on the other hand has heavily militarized the territory and is trying to change the demography of Kashmir to reduce the Muslim majority.

Efforts of Mediation in the Kashmir Conflict

United Nations formed a special commission for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict known as the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP). UNCIP and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have passed a number of resolutions after the 1947-48 war for Kashmir, one of the principal resolutions being the one of 21st April, 1948 by the UNSC that stated: “Both India and Pakistan desire that the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite”. This resolution focused on the basic human right of Kashmiri people to choose to live with whoever they want and they have the right to form an independent state.

The UNSC resolutions that came after that also focused on the point of plebiscite and the principles for the conduct of plebiscite. The UNCIP focused on the conduct of free and fair plebiscite for Kashmiri people in both parts of Kashmir and let the people vote for either India or Pakistan. UNCIP also passed some resolutions in this regard. The resolutions passed by UNCIP on 13th August, 1948 and 5th January, 1949 also reinforced the self-determination and plebiscite resolutions of UNSC. In July 1949, India and Pakistan established a ceasefire line through the Karachi agreement that was to be supervised by the military observers. The military adviser had the command of these observers and they all made the main group of United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). 

After the termination of UNCIP, the United Nations Security Council further passed a resolution no. 91 on 30th March, 1951 affirming that the constituent assembly and any action taken by it for the future of Kashmir would not constitute a disposition of the state and that the future would be decided through a plebiscite. It also decided to continue the working of UNMOGIP and continue the supervision of ceasefire in Kashmir. The other functions of the UNMOGIP were to observe the condition of ceasefire and report it to the UNSC. They were also supposed to investigate the complaints of ceasefire violations and give a written report of findings to each party and the Secretary General.

On 24th January, 1957 UNSC passed the resolution no. 122 regarding the determination of future of the part of state. It reaffirmed that the actions taken by constituent assembly would not satisfy its earlier resolutions and again called for a plebiscite. Later during the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, the UNSC asked both states to cease fire and follow the UN resolutions for Kashmir dispute. It maintained that the Kashmir dispute should be resolved by free and fair plebiscite and not to be taken militarily.

All the efforts made by the United Nations in order to resolve the Kashmir conflict have failed because of India’s assertiveness in the state of J&K. India never agreed to taking out her forces from Kashmir and neither to hold a free and fair plebiscite that could help in determining the future of Kashmir. Mediations cannot be forced and both parties need to consent on a given solution by the mediators but India has never agreed upon the stance of the mediating body and keeps adding military in the region.

Some examples of arbitration tried by the United Nations that failed are as follows:

  • The first effort made in March 1949, where UNCIP convinced both parties to withdraw forces and asked for submission of their plans for the withdrawal, Pakistan submitted the plan but India refused.
  • Then in August 1949, another effort was made by President Truman and PM Attlee where they asked both parties to submit to the arbitration of Admiral Nimitz, Pakistan accepted this proposal but India rejected it again.
  • Then in December 1949, the president of UNSC General McNaughton proposed that the withdrawal should be in a such way that it does not impose fear in any party, Pakistan again accepted the Proposal while India rejected it.
  • In July 1950, Sir Owen Dixon’s proposal about the exact sequence of withdrawals from Jammu and Kashmir territory were accepted by Pakistan but India rejected them.
  • In January 1951, the Prime Ministers of common wealth suggested that Indian and Pakistani troops in Kashmir should be replaced by neutral troops from Australia and New Zealand, Pakistan agreed to this; India did not.
  • In December 1952, the security council defined the number and character of the forces on both sides of ceasefire line present in Kashmir before the plebiscite, the rest were to be withdrawn. Pakistan accepted this resolution but India rejected it.
  • In early 1958, the UNSC again deputed Dr. Frank Graham on a mission of mediation between India and Pakistan for the solution of dispute. Frank Graham made five recommendations all of which were accepted by Pakistan and rejected by India.
  • The ceasefire violations by India time to time also show how India does not care about International Law and Human rights and keeps the torture going without holding a plebiscite do decide the future of the state.

The US supported the composite dialogue process between India and Pakistan which came to an end after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and since then every time US hints at mediation, Delhi reacts with hostility. The reason is that Kashmir issue is not merely about a piece of land, rather it is more about nationality and political ideology. The Modi government stands tough on militancy in the Kashmir territory in order to enhance its claim and use it as a tool to instigate the notion of Nationalism in the Indian population to give legitimacy to his actions.

One of the major reasons for the failure of UNSC in bringing a peaceful and permanent solution for the Kashmir conflict is that it views the conflict as a political issue rather than a legal one. The Indian aggression and occupation should be seen as an issue of humanitarian intervention and should be dealt according to the international law in the International Court of Justice rather than an issue of political differences between India and Pakistan. The instrument of accession by India is the core issue which the UNSC consistently failed to point out in its resolutions.

Conclusion:

Many efforts of mediation have been made in the earlier days of the conflict by the United Nations in order to convince both India and Pakistan for a solution of the Kashmir crisis. Although UN has passed several resolutions in order to mediate between India and Pakistan but the drawback of mediation is that it is not coercive, it needs the consent of the parties in conflict upon a certain point. In case of Kashmir, India’s assertiveness and extremist policies is a major reason why mediations have failed in resolving the Kashmir conflict. The international community needs to realize that this is not an issue of political differences rather an issue of violation of the international law.

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

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rouhani-iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture

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

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

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

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

Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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