How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

How Old Is Too Old To Be a Head of State?

Frequent gaffes by the two main contenders for the 47th presidency of the United States has brought the focus sharply on whether age is more than just a number when it comes to politics. Unless something unforeseen happens, the US presidential elections in November this year will be a face-off between the incumbent Democratic US President Joe Biden, who is 81, and his challenger and former Republican President Donald Trump, who is 77.

Both gentlemen have been grabbing the headlines recently with what would seem like instances of memory lapses or cognitive failure. A few weeks back, while delivering a speech, President Biden mistakenly referred to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the leader of Mexico. Earlier this year, Trump confused his main Republican rival Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and former speaker of the US House of Representatives. Ironically, Biden made his confused remarks when he was defending his position after a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents that had referred to his memory as “poor”.

Both Biden and Trump have committed other similar gaffes that point to memory lapses but their aides insist that the two are not mentally infirm and that they do not suffer from age-related mental conditions that could interfere with a job that is arguably one of the most important and impactful in international geopolitics. The US is the most powerful country in the world–economically and politically–and the US President is highly empowered to take decisions that could affect the rest of the world in profound ways. 

How old is too old in politics?

The focus on their age, however, can raise questions about whether age should be a factor determining eligibility for top political jobs. Should there, for instance, be an age limit for those who aspire for top political jobs? Many company boards have retirement ages for their directors who have to step down, say, when they reach 70 or 75. Should governments have similar rules on retirement? 

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, the average age of current national leaders is 62 years. When grouped by decade, the largest share of global leaders today (35%) are in their 60s. Roughly a quarter (22%) are in their 50s, while 18% each are in their 40s or 70s. Measured against those statistics, both Biden and Trump are much older than the average. 

Yet, both of them are younger than many heads of state in the world today. For instance, the oldest currently serving head of state is Paul Biya, who at 91 has been the president of the Central African country of Cameroon since 1982. There are others too who are older than Biden and Trump. Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas is 86; Cuba’s Raoul Castro is 85; and Namibia’s president Hage Geingob served till he died early this month at 82. 

In India, surprisingly, heads of state (and I refer here to Prime Ministers and not Presidents) have been relatively young. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India in 1947 he was 57; Indira Gandhi was 48 when she became Prime Minister; Rajiv Gandhi was 40; and Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, was 63 in 2014 when he began his first term. He’s 73 now. 

India has also had its share of older Prime Ministers, though. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister in 2004, he was 71, the same age at which the late Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. And, in 1977 when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister he was 81. His successor Charan Singh was 76 when he got the top job; and when I.K. Gujral became Prime Minister in 1977, he was 77. 

There aren’t really many instances of cognitive failures or memory lapses by Indian Prime Ministers or other senior ministers–at least, they haven’t been reported in the media (although I once attended an Indian foreign minister’s press conference in 2010 where he repeatedly referred to Russia as the Soviet Union but I guess we can pardon that slip!). 

In fact, some anecdotal accounts of Indian Prime Ministers showing signs of exhaustion or tiredness are lapses that might not have anything to do with age. One of them famously concerns H.D. Deve Gowda, who became Prime Minister quite unexpectedly in 1996 when a short-lived coalition of regional parties won the elections. Deve Gowda was only 63 when he got that job but he soon earned an unenviable reputation for falling asleep during official meetings. His nodding off probably had nothing to do with his age. After all, who doesn’t like to sneak in a cheeky siesta or a power nap?

Lifestyle choices can make a difference

Indian politicians, particularly those who have taken up powerful positions in government often enjoy and edge over others when it comes to health and mental well-being. Many of them follow healthy lifestyle routines that keep them in good stead. At 73, Prime Minister Modi is pretty fit, both physically and mentally. A keen adherent of yoga, he practices the discipline daily and has been doing so for years; he walks regularly; and is a vegetarian who also fasts intermittently. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, now 91, was also known for his spartan eating habits and healthy lifestyle. Neither Modi nor Singh (during his two terms as Prime Minister) has ever shown signs of mental confusion or committed gaffes such as ones by Biden or Trump.

Historically, India’s prime ministers have led disciplined lives that have been healthy and abstemious. Forty-six years ago, when Morari Desai became Prime Minister at 81, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Desai forswears many pleasures of life. Not only is he a teetotaler, he is also a rigorous vegetarian, living on a diet of fruits, nuts and milk and fasting frequently. He renounced sex after he and his wife had five children.”

Zooming back to the two most likely candidates for the US presidential election, the question is whether having an age limit is a guarantee for having someone who is sound of mind to run a country or should it be something else. Earlier this month, in a guest column for the Economist, David Owen, a former British foreign secretary and Member of Parliament, waded into the Biden-Trump age controversy and argued that no one above the age of 70 should be considered for the job of head of state. Lord Owen, who is also a former neurologist, argued that in humans aged 60-70, the brain’s frontal lobe and an area called the hippocampus begins shrinking and this affects how the brain processes information. Because of that memory and cognitive functions can get affected.

Extrapolating from that and with examples from history (examples involving the US President Franklin Roosevelt and his decision to stand for elections in 1944), Lord Owens recommends that Biden should voluntarily step aside in favour of a younger nominee from the Democratic Party during this spring’s national convention of the party.

Lord Owen’s suggestion of an age limit is one point of view. The problem with it is that not everyone ages in the same way. There are enough examples that one can draw from different fields to show that some individuals continues to demonstrate mental acuity well into their eighties and even nineties. The list of notable people who have continued to work well into their senior years is too long to list out here. 

Why not tests instead of an age limit?

Rather than an age limit to ensure that only people with sound minds get to govern countries, would it not be more scientific to test the brain functions of an ageing person, depending on the purpose and the level of cognitive abilities that are needed for a job? There are different ways of assessing the brain function of an aging person, depending on the purpose and the level of detail needed. Some methods that could be adopted are:

Cognitive screening tests: Short, quick tests that check how well your brain is processing thoughts. They involve answering simple questions and performing simple tasks, such as recalling a list of items, spelling words, or drawing a clock. These tests do not diagnose specific diseases, but they can identify a problem with cognition and the need for more in-depth testing.

Brain imaging techniques: These are methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans or electroencephalogram (EEG) that can help detect changes in the brain due to aging, disease, or injury.

Neuropsychological assessment: This is a comprehensive evaluation of the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions of the brain. It involves a series of tests that measure memory, attention, language, reasoning, problem-solving, and other skills. This assessment can help diagnose specific conditions, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or brain injury.

Instead of an age limit, scientific tests and assessments such as those listed above could be a better way of ensuring that an aging candidate retains the mental capabilities that the job of, say, the head of state would require. However, there is a catch. Will such tests be acceptable for politicians, political parties, and the interest groups that they represent? My guess is that they probably won’t. At least not in the foreseeable future. Till then, we will have to amuse ourselves as some senior citizen politicians make their occasional gaffes, suffer memory lapses or just nod off to sleep. 

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No Bharat Ratnas For Farmers

No Bharat Ratnas For Farmers!

At the Shambhu border, one farmer shouts out loud on the microphone: “The wait is over, here it comes. Get it man. Get it.”

Two kites are flying high. One quickly does a rapid gota; in kite-language it means a fast, sharp and swift spiral downwards, which only a rare and expert patangbaaj, trained to fly kites in the gullies and terraces of small towns and village mohallas, would know. The kite dips like a rocket and there is a huge cry of joy: “Got it.”

The drone has been trapped by the kite. Earlier, the drones were dropping tear gas like bombs, a first in Indian history.

This is not a fly-in-the-sky game. This is a virtually a war waged by the Indian State against thousands of peaceful and unarmed farmers protesting for a just Minimum Support Price (MSP), a long-standing demand in a market dominated by capitalist sharks aligned to the ruling regime in Delhi.

Last we heard about drones was in Gaza. Certain journalists, ordinary folks, mothers and kids, they were targeted and murdered by Israeli drones. While India, under this current regime, whose PM has publicly displayed his bonding and bonhomie with Benjamin Netanyahu, is one of the largest importers of arms from Israel, the use of drones against the civilian population is a first in India. Earlier, all US presidents, including Barack Obama, have used drones to target ‘terrorists’ in Afghanistan and the Middle-East, with scores of civilians also murdered as ‘collateral damage’ – a normal war-tactics for the Americans, now done at a mass scale by its close ally, Israel, with American guns and bombs.

Not only drones, as during the great and glorious struggle of the farmers in 2021, through rain, sunshine, freezing cold and a scorching summer, for months, the farmers had braved tear gas, lathi-charges, water cannons, armoured barricades, and huge metallic nails, cement barricades, and multiple blockades during the protracted peaceful struggle against the farm bills. These are the same tactics once again being employed at the Delhi border. Now, they are reportedly using pellets as well, used repeatedly and ruthlessly in Kashmir earlier. Three farmers have lost their vision, according to reports.

The notorious farm bills were widely seen as another brazen ploy by the PM to privatise agriculture and vast tracts of fertile land owned by the farmers into a cash-rich fiefdom for certain crony capitalist buddies, namely from Gujarat. Finally, they lost the battle. The bills were repealed – but the promises were not kept.

Significantly, the farmers are demanding, since long, that the MS Swaminathan Committee report on MSP should be implemented. The ruling regime has continuously back-tracked on this crucial issue which is at the core of the economic well-being of India’s hard working farmers. Why? And why is the PM so afraid to allow the farmers to peacefully protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi – which is their constitutional right?

One lakh crore was lost by the government in year 2021 due to tax concessions and corporate subsidies to industrialists. Ports, mining, forests, airports, etc, apart from huge multi-million projects, are being dished to out to certain favourite industrialists, thousands of crores have been spent on the Ram Mandir, the Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat, a particular stadium named after the PM in Ahmedabad, and the new Parliament building. So, why deny their economic rights to the annadatas, pending for so long?

In a season when it has been raining Bharat Ratnas, agricultural scientist and one of the founders of the botched-up Green Revolution in north India, Swaminathan was given the Bharat Ratna. The move has flopped miserably. His daughter, economist Madhura Swaminathan, has openly come out in support of the farmers proving that not all have sold their soul in ‘totalitarian’ India.

“The farmers of Punjab today are marching to Delhi. I believe, according to newspaper reports, there are jails being prepared for them in Haryana, there are barricades. All kinds of things are being done to prevent them (from entering Delhi). These are farmers; they are not criminals,” she said at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute in an event to mark the Bharat Ratna for her father.

“I request all of you, the leading scientists of India… (we) have to talk to our farmers. We cannot treat them as criminals. They are our annadatas. You have to find some solutions. I request, if you have to honour MS Swaminathan, we have to take the farmers with us with whatever strategy that we are planning for their future,” she said.

ALSO READ: Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again?

Narasimha Rao, former Congress PM, unleashed crony capitalism, liberalization, structural adjustment, and the sell-out to West-dominated global financial agencies like the IMF and WTO, with Manmohan Singh as finance minister. He also played blind and deaf while the Babri Masjid was being demolished by the foot-soldiers of LK Advani, while the current PM, then a RSS pracharak, was at Advani’s side. December 6 was then called a ‘black day’ by an outraged nation and the entire media, even by those who have now been running non-stop eulogies on TV and print media on the grand ‘pran pratishtha’ ceremony at Ayodhya.

Now, even Rao has got the highest official award in the land which is an open admission of his complicity in the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya, while being a lackey of Western-global predator capitalism in India. Unabashed loyalty to billionaire businessmen, and the polarizing Hindutva card unleashed, mixed with a dose of fake ‘social justice’ for the backwards – this is the triple whammy which the ruling regime thinks would result in total victory in the Lok Sabha polls of 2024.

However, even the most cunningly crafted script can turn sour. The award to Chaudhry Charan Singh seemed to have pushed his grandson to suddenly start glorifying the PM, with the possibility of him joining the NDA alliance. The last farmers’ struggle had unified the Muslims and Jat kisans in western UP once again, after they were communally polarized by poisonous social engineering before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Har Har Mahadev and Allah-o-Akbar became united slogans of the farmers during the movement.

The same farmers are holding a mahapanchayat and might join forces at the Shambhu border. The farmer struggle has decisively spilled into Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh – a bad omen for the PM weeks before the parliamentary polls. Western UP was never a Hindutva stronghold. Hence, the award given to Charan Singh to appease the jat farmers seems to have failed its purpose.

Indeed, there have been indications that despite the hype and hyperbole on the Ram Mandir in the Hindi heartland, it’s not really becoming a win-win trump card among a wider audience. More so, the Supreme Court judgment on electoral bonds, has come as a shock to the PM and his party. All the big money names would be soon displayed on the Election Commission website. The freezing and de-freezing of Congress accounts, yet again unprecedented in the history of Indian democracy, was therefore a desperate move to divert attention. It boomeranged.

Clearly, it is not all hunky dory for Modi and his men in the days to come. There have been huge protests against the EVMs in Delhi, largely unreported in mainstream media. With thousands of civil society groups and people’s movements working on the ground, the vengeful ED raids and hounding of Opposition leaders creating widespread discontent and anger, and the stupendous response to Rahul Gandhi’s yatra, the Hindutva kite which was flying high after its victory in three cow-belt states, seems to be losing steam.

However, it is a fact that the poison of hate has spread deep in the social fabric, especially in many parts of north India, while Uttarakhand has become the latest hate lab. As the polls come closer, a tense undercurrent floats in the in the air. Pulwama is remembered yet again. The tragedy is still simmering. The tears in the eyes of the families have not dried up.

As the old jungle saying goes: when it comes to the insatiable lust for power, anything can happen. Indeed, will India remain a secular and pluralist democracy after the 2024 polls? We keep our fingers crossed.

Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again

The Anatomy of an Agitation: Why Are Indian Farmers Protesting Again?

The irony is dark. It has been barely two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Kisan Drone Scheme in India. In the beginning, the scheme, which assists farmers to deploy drones for spraying fertilisers, nutrients and pesticides more efficiently on their farmlands, was launched in 100 places across the country, and later, expanded to more areas. Last week, however, drones were deployed against farmers for an altogether different purpose. They were used to bombard them with tear gas as thousands of farmers converged upon Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in what is seen as a reprisal of the protests in 2020 and 2021 against the government’s policies.

Back then, in what became one of the biggest and longest mass movements in India’s history, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mainly from the agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana, had agitated for around a year against three new farm laws of the government. That movement had coincided with one of the worst phases of Covid that had hit India and it was a period of tumult. In the end, the Modi government had to repeal the three laws and accede to the farmers’ demands.

What then is the fresh wave of agitation all about? To understand that we need some recapitulation.

The farm laws and why they were repealed

The three laws that were passed in 2021 and then repealed after the protests were aimed at first, giving farmers more freedom to sell their produce outside the regulated markets or mandis; second, they enabled contract farming when farmers and buyers could pre-agree on pricing and other terms; and third, they relaxed the restrictions on storage and movement of some farm commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseed, onions, and potatoes.

The laws led to massive agitations and clashes with the government’s security forces and police. Farmer leaders said over 700 people died during the year-long protests but the government did not confirm any deaths. The farmers opposed these laws because they feared that they would lose the protection of the government’s minimum support price (MSP) system, which guarantees a fixed price for certain crops, and that they would be exploited by big corporations. They demanded that the government repeal the laws, withdraw the criminal cases against the protesters, provide compensation to the families of the farmers who died during the protest, and ensure a legal guarantee for MSP. They also had other demands, such as pensions, debt waivers, and stricter regulation of fake seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers.

In December 2021, Prime Minister Modi announced the repeal of the laws after which the farmers temporarily suspended their protests. Why then has the agitation begun afresh and what are the issues this time round?

What do farmers want now?

Last week farmers renewed their protests as hundreds of them, mainly from the two northern states, Punjab and Haryana, marched towards the capital and the NCR. The timing of the protest was significant as it came only a few months before parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held and in which the Modi regime that is completing its second term is keen to win a third.

This time the authorities were more prepared as they barricaded the capital and adjoining areas. Delhi and the urban sprawl that makes up the NCR has an urban population of around 30 million people and the farmers’ march can drastically disrupt the functioning of the area. This time local and central police had ramped up their efforts to stop that from happening by barricading highways, pouring concrete and stacking shipping containers to halt the advancing tractors and masses of protesters.

ALSO READ: Understanding The Mandi System in India

At the core of the provocation for the renewed protests is the farmers’ demand for a guaranteed implementation of the minimum support price (MSP) for all crops so that they get what they consider fair prices and protect them from exploitation by private companies. The repealed farm bills were aimed at increasing market access and competition, but farmers had feared they would weaken existing structures and leave them vulnerable to corporate control.

About 58% of Indians depend on farming for their livelihood and as much as 68.8% of them live in the rural areas. Considering India’s estimated population of 1.4 billion, those translate into huge numbers. Many farmers are burdened by debt and demand loan waivers to alleviate their financial hardships. They also think that rising costs of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs put further pressure on their livelihoods.

Among their list of demands is also a call for repealing the electricity amendment bill, which was enacted in 2022, to change electricity distribution rules. Farmers fear that it will increase their costs and further increase their dependence on private companies. 

Government’s view on farmers’ demands

To begin with, although the three farm laws have been repealed, the Indian government still maintains that they were beneficial for farmers and were needed to modernise the farm sector. The contribution of agriculture in GDP of India is 18.3% as per the second advance estimates of national income for 2022-23. This share has been declining over the years as the economy diversifies and grows.

However, the growth rate of agriculture in India is low. In 2022-23, it was 3.3%, which is lower than the previous two years, which recorded 4.1% and 3.5%, respectively. The growth rate varies depending on the monsoon, crop prices, and other factors.

India’s farm productivity, measured by the gross value added (GVA) per worker, which was Rs. 1,00,000 in 2022-23, is much lower than the global average of Rs. 3,60,000. India’s farm productivity is constrained by factors such as small and fragmented land holdings, lack of irrigation, low use of technology, and poor market linkages. According to the government, many of these problems were sought to be tackled by the laws that the Indian government had proposed in 2021.

After the previous round of protests and the repealing of the farm laws, the government has offered what it considers alternative solutions such as MSP for select crops and increased procurement efforts. It has also held multiple rounds of talks with farmers but has not been able to agree on some of the demands such as MSP for all crops. One of the main constraints is the lack of resources to be able to do that.

The problem is compounded by the fact that with a few exceptions, agricultural income is generally exempt from income tax in India. Under the existing laws, even rich farmers with large holdings can be exempt from tax, and this often creates a loophole for tax evasion and inequality.

Is there a solution to the farmers vs. government impasse?

While farm union leaders are demanding guarantees, backed by law, of greater state support or a minimum purchase price for all crops, the government is unable to acquiesce. The central government announces support prices for more than 20 crops every year. However, agriculture falls under the jurisdiction of individual states and their buying agencies can usually buy only rice and wheat at the support level, which benefits only an estimated 7% of farmers.

The procurement of rice and wheat, the two staple foodgrains, is aimed at building a food bank to supply to a massive food welfare system in India that entitles more than half of India’s population (or 800 million people) to subsidised (essentially, free) rice and wheat through the public distribution system. In 2024-25, this food subsidy bill is estimated at Rs 2.05 lakh crore ($24.7 billion). The government has extended its flagship free food welfare scheme, which was announced during the Covid-19 pandemic, for the next five years.

Given the magnitude of the food subsidy bill, the government will find it difficult to extend the MSP to all crops as the farmers are demanding. That is why it is not able to guarantee by law the state support for procurement as demanded by the farmers. The government had, while repealing the three farm laws in 2021, said that it would form a panel of farmers and government representatives to find viable solutions to the issue. Farmers are now accusing the government of going slow on that assurance.

What to expect in the future?

The renewed protests are smaller than the massive agitations that marked the 2020-21 movement but the farmers remain persistent. The government has said it is willing to engage in dialogue but is hesitant in meeting the core demands of legally guaranteed MSP and loan waivers.

The government stresses that alternative solutions and a focus on long-term reforms are the only way to resolve the impasse but farmers are not convinced. The outcome would depend on the government’s willingness to address core demands and farmers’ ability to sustain the movement.

There is, obviously, also a political aspect to it, which is heightened by the coming elections. Further escalation of protests or a deadlock could impact agricultural production and political stability, both highly undesirable outcomes for the ruling regime that is keenly looking to be re-elected for a third term in May.

Making Sense of Pakistan Current Chaos

Making Sense of Pakistan’s Current Chaos

In Pakistan’s chequered history, a hundred Independents being elected to the National Assembly as happened last week, is not unprecedented. In 1970, in its first and the only free and fair election, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160. The consequences are well known.

Nor, for that matter, is a confrontation between the army chief and the prime minister of the day. Z A Bhutto paid for his worst folly when General Zia ul Haq deposed and jailed him and had him hanged through a controversial court verdict.

One may not wish for dire consequences for the Pakistani people living in more complex times today. But relations between the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the current chief, General Asim Munir, whom he had targeted when in power, could hark back to the Bhutto-Zia era or that of Nawaz Sharif’s third prime ministership and General Pervez Musharraf.

In 1970-71, Pakistan’s military-civil ‘establishment’ then led by the army chief, General Yahya Khan, had calculated that Mujib would not score beyond 60 seats in the then East Pakistan. Perhaps, the Munir-led set-up also never imagined that the jailed cricketer-politician would score “a century without the bat”, the election symbol his party was denied.

All stakeholders underestimated Khan’s support, particularly among the middle class. The results show that the general voter, surviving the Corona-19 pandemic and floods, battered by rising prices of essential commodities and miserable living for long years, is disillusioned by the two dynasties who have ruled by turns – the Sharifs of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) of the Bhutto-Zardaris. Of the two, Nawaz was perceived as the army’s favourite.

Whether Independents who do not constitute a party or a coalition of parties can, or will, be invited to form the new government is doubtful. As it did in 2018 with Imran as the mascot, the ‘establishment’ may facilitate the Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari families to forge a coalition with others. Even if formed within the constitutional norms, such a coalition would lack credibility, if not legitimacy, and ensure continuing political turmoil.

Chances are that Imran may reach a compromise with the military, his mentors-turned-foes. Besides his safety, freedom and political future, too much is at stake for him. Independents loyal to him can form coalition governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Denied power, they could be poached and purchased. Some have already joined Nawaz.

The military must either strike a compromise with Khan or prop up the rivals, for now at least and tackle protests by Khan’s supporters. Such a government would be unstable and perhaps short-lived, leaving the military to do more manipulations.

The election’s outcome is thus both clear and complicated: It is a vote against “electoral engineering”. But the complication is that the army-led elite will still call all the shots. Inherent to this surprise development is that Munir could face dissension from among the top military brass.

Being rebuffed by the general populace and failing in its effort to influence the results using the state institutions, the army is unlikely to stay inactive. Its role in the coming days and weeks is more difficult to predict than even the politicians jockeying for power.

The situation opens possibilities of a significant role for the country’s President Arif Alvi. He is a die-hard Khan loyalist – something he has not concealed while holding the highest constitutional office. He can be expected to play a key role in the coming days. It needs to be mentioned that his term ended last November but he continues in office because the college that elects the president – the National and the provincial assemblies – has been dissolved.

The people voted for Khan, despite his four years of bad governance. Khan had “cancelled out” all others. He defied and even maligned the army once he was pushed out of power through a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly. The military is particularly angry with Khan as his supporters had attacked military installations to protest their leader’s arrest last August.

As of now, Khan is convicted and jailed for the next 24 years. Any about-turn by the establishment would, however, require the country’s judiciary to re-look at Khan’s multiple convictions –just as it did with the Sharifs only a few weeks back — and work to free him. That process could take weeks to gain fruition. Now, Khan and his close associates are being bailed out. The judiciary is known to comply with changing political trends.

Prominent among the losers were top leaders of the two largest Islamist parties, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamiat Ulema Islami (JUI) and Sirajul Haq of the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is unclear if they lost out to the more militant group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which put up more candidates than the mainstream parties. The Islamists are generally pro-establishment and carry more influence socially than electoral clout.

At the international level, Khan’s victory spells defiance of the United States. Anti-American sentiment is easy to stoke in Pakistan. But this was the first election in which the US became a ‘factor’ in that Khan was convicted for leaking a cypher, an official communication from Pakistan’s then-ambassador in Washington to the Khan-led government. It contained a purported conversation between the envoy and Donald Lu, a senior American State Department official warning Khan of “dire consequences”. Khan publicly accused the US – which the Biden administration denied – of ousting him from office because of his ‘independent’ and “pro-China” policies.

How the Biden administration, preparing for the presidential election, will respond remains to be seen. It is still clueless about its policy in the Af-Pak region — Afghanistan from where the US evacuated in 2021 is inherent to the Pakistan policy. The US needs it to deal with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Islamabad, besides its historic deep-seated military and strategic ties with the US, also needs Washington’s nod for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that it desperately needs to be on the road to economic recovery.

The election results should also worry Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China. It is concerned about the lack of adequate push for the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the ‘flagship’ of its Belt and Road Initiative across the globe that it seeks to extend to Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s political instability also concerns its other benefactors – Saudi Arabia and the UAE, besides Turkey — who have bailed it out during the economic crisis. This instability in a leading Islamic nation confirms the widespread, but debatable, notion that Islam and democracy do not always go together.

Pakistan needs better ‘coordination’ between Allah, the Army and America to rise out of its multifaceted crisis.

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Fighting Delhi’s Pollution is Not a Seasonal Gig

Fighting Delhi’s Pollution is a Full-time Job; Not a Seasonal Gig

Air pollution is now no longer something anyone living in Delhi or the National Capital Region (NCR) is concerned about. Residents are not talking about it anymore. The media don’t care about it either – you won’t find coverage of the issue in any publication, local, regional, or national. Barely three months ago, Delhi was choking. On November 5 last year, the Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of particulate matter in the atmospheric air that we breathe, had touched 382; around the same time in some of the city’s adjoining suburbs, it had crossed 400. On February 10, as I write this, AQI in Delhi was 186 (as per data on the website); and in Gurgaon 177.

No wonder there’s little concern about air pollution now. AQI has sharply declined since January, almost halved by some measures. Yet, this might be the right time for India to ramp up its fight against air pollution. Every year, beginning in the end of October and lasting well into January, air pollution levels in India rise to dangerous levels, hazardous even. Those are the colder months and as we know cold air traps emitted particulate matter and the density of pollutants in the air increases. Then, as it starts to get warmer, the particulate matter disperses and pollution levels decline.

AQI measures the density of five pollutants in the air: ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Tiny particulates are most harmful for the respiratory system as they get embedded in the lungs and can lead to a host of serious health problems from breathing-related ailments to death. An AQI level that is higher than 300 is classified as “Hazardous”, which means that the entire population of a city or a region is at risk of health effects and the only safe bet is to stay indoors, avoid outdoor activities and follow health advisories.

Everybody knows that warnings such as those mean nothing in India. People have to be outdoors. Many have to work outdoors, and life has to go on no matter what. Ironically their lives face increasing levels of risk. Consternation and concern about pollution peaks with the AQI level: the higher the AQI the more the outrage and worry. When the AQI levels fall, those worries disappear. That cyclical variation in concern about pollution is as predictable every year as the cycle that the AQI levels follow.

That cycle has to be broken. Let’s consider today’s aforementioned pollution levels in Delhi and Gurgaon. At 186 and 177, respectively in Delhi and Gurgaon, the AQI levels (at the time that I write this) are considered “Unhealthy”. That is, everyone, including those who are otherwise healthy, may begin to experience health effects; sensitive groups, such as people with existing respiratory conditions, are at significantly higher risks; and the warning is to limit outdoor activities, especially strenuous ones. Well, is anyone in Delhi or the NCR heeding these warnings? Silly question, because after all, “unhealthy” is better than “hazardous”.

GRAP(pling) with the pollution

Yet, the time to tackle air pollution in Delhi and the NCR (as well as in an ever-lengthening list of Indian cities and towns) may be now. Unfortunately, thus far the response to the pollution problem has been short-sighted. In the Delhi & NCR area (as well as in some other Indian cities), there is something called the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). Introduced by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), GRAP triggers specific actions that escalate depending on the level of pollution in a city as measured by the AQI level.

When the level is “Moderate” to “Poor”, GRAP triggers restrictions on construction activities, vehicular emissions, and industrial processes. When it is “Very Poor” to “Severe”, more steps such as banning diesel generators, closing brick kilns, and implementing the odd-even vehicle rule (cars with odd registration numbers are allowed on one day and those with even numbers the next day). If pollution reaches “Emergency” levels, even stricter steps are added such as shutting down schools, restricting outdoor activities, and enforcements are made tougher.

In theory, GRAP seems well-calibrated. In practice, it has failed. GRAP was introduced nearly eight years ago. In eight years, the pollution problem in Indian cities has worsened at an alarming pace. Every year, especially during the colder months, which ought to be called the “pollution season”, peak AQI levels become higher.

GRAP has faced challenges mainly because the various agencies involved are unable to efficiently coordinate their actions. Also, GRAP is triggered only when pollution actually happens. It is a sort of post facto action, a retroactive system that is triggered only after the problem has already occurred.

Getting a long-term solution

To seriously tackle air pollution in Indian cities, particularly in the NCR where it is acute every year, a longer term, sustained plan is required. A plan that is constant and not triggered only when things get truly out of hand.

Many countries have tackled chronic air pollution problems. In developed countries, which are less densely populated and where industrial activity, particularly in heavy industrial sectors that consume more energy and spew more effluents, has already ebbed, the problem of pollution is less acute. Yet some of the energy conservation and recycling measures followed by them could be lessons. More important, though, are the sorts of solutions that cities in China have been able to find. Ít is a combination of these lessons that Indians must adopt to tackle air pollution in its large cities. And they have to be implemented constantly; not episodically.

ALSO READ: Biofuel Push Will Help Farmers, Curb Pollution

In China, sprawling metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai made headlines because of uncontrolled pollution levels less than 10 years ago. Today, things have improved. The Chinese government and authorities have taken significant steps to combat air pollution. They’ve implemented strict emission standards for vehicles and industries. Investments in renewable energy, afforestation, and urban green spaces have also been done to improve air quality.

The key lies in implementation. City states such as Delhi and its burgeoning satellite cities of Gurgaon, Noida, and Faridabad, have not had big success with controlling construction activity. In a developing country with a population as large as that of India’s and one that is constantly urbanising, construction becomes a constant activity as demand for housing grows unabated. Then there is the difficult task of zoning in urban areas. Despite decades of effort, polluting factories and manufacturing facilities merge with residential areas in Indian cities, which often become messy sprawls of residential and commercial activity.

Vehicular traffic in Indian cities continues to grow. The number of vehicles in Delhi and NCR is estimated at more than 15 million by some sources. Despite periodic expansions, the area’s public transport system is overcrowded and as the number of middle-income households increases, the number of personal vehicles such as cars and two-wheelers increases too. Many of these add to the emissions that contribute to air pollution.

Integrating pollution control and development

To tackle pollution, India must integrate environmental concerns into its overall development plans. Rather than treating pollution control as an isolated issue, it should be part of a broader strategy. This would require involving multiple stakeholders including different government agencies, local communities, industries, and NGOs. Collaborative efforts can lead to better policy formulation and implementation.

India will also have to revamp and make its real-time data on pollution more accurate. That could help monitor the results of anti-pollution efforts better. It could also improve public accountability and drive more action on the part of communities and individuals.

Nothing works as well as carrots and sticks, particularly when they are in the form of incentives and penalties. India could introduce special taxes on polluting activities (e.g. emissions, waste disposal) and provide incentives for cleaner practices (e.g. renewable energy adoption). Industries have to be held responsible and accountable for pollution. Penalties for non-compliance should be significant.

To be sure, India does have fiscal incentives to address pollution and encourage more sustainable practices. These measures aim to make waste generation, energy production, and transportation sectors more environment-friendly. India has proposed incentives worth $12.4 billion to encourage power plants to install emission-curbing equipment and develop infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs). What it needs to work on, however, is to make the penalties stricter for polluters.

Indian industry needs to adopt less polluting, cleaner technologies, which can be a challenge and also expensive in a developing country. And invest in more research and development for sustainable solutions.

Finally, there is the challenge of urban planning. Can Indian cities continue to expand in unlimited ways? Should urban planners and city authorities curb such unfettered urban expansion and instead aim at compact cities that are well-planned urban areas with efficient public transportation, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and green spaces.

Ideally, such cities would encourage waste reduction and recycling and develop efficient waste management systems. They would limit plastic waste through bans, alternatives, and awareness campaigns. And their residents would have access to education about the impact of pollution on health and the environment.

All that sounds like a great utopian dream. Yet, while it is true that achieving development targets hand-in-hand with environmental goals is a balancing task that is fraught with huge challenges, it is not impossible to achieve. In some parts of large cities in India, pedestrian zones, albeit tiny and limited, are being developed; school students have been active in their efforts to spread awareness of the harms of pollution; and there is the beginning of a shift towards alternative energy to fuel growth. Sadly, though, a lot more will have to be done. Tackling air pollution in India’s big cities is a full-time assignment. Not a seasonal job.

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Vietnam The Emerging Asian Tiger

Vietnam – The Emerging Asian Tiger

This is a race not formally announced but in which every south-east Asian country and prominently India in south Asia are keen participants. The competition is about getting as big a slice as possible of manufacturing capacity touching electronics and telephony to engineering products that is gradually being moved from China by MNCs, principally headquartered in the US and Japan to relatively low cost regions, as part of the China plus one policy. Saving in cost is definitely a consideration for paring MNC manufacturing exposure in China.

Consider Vietnam, which because of state focus on education, boasts of a plentiful supply of educated, hardworking and disciplined workers needed by new generation industries. What further draws MNCs to employ Vietnamese workers is their availability at almost half the cost of Chinese peers in their country’s coastal regions. Manufacturing wages in Vietnam remain the lowest in the entire south-east Asia barring the Philippines.

Cost advantage was certainly not at the top of mind of policy makers of countries now in pursuit of decoupling from China wherefrom earlier huge investments were supporting capacity building of many industries, including hi-tech ones in China and in the process becoming too critically dependent on a single supply source. Geopolitical considerations, growing frictions in trade relations leading countries such as the US, EU and India hauling China to WTO (World Trade Organisation) for dumping of a number of products, including steel and aluminium, arbitrary Chinese policies that became palpably evident during Covide19 pandemic management and reservations about the uncommonly strict data privacy law have underpinned the need to promote investment in other Asian countries that will supplement or cut capacity in China.

Over the years supply chains based in Asia have expanded well beyond China to include Vietnam, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. “We are supplying finished products in large volumes to the US and EU. However, for components and parts we continue to remain dependent on China. The much publicised decoupling from the Chinese economy and all the efforts to expand the supply chain beyond the world’s second largest economy may not have hurt China that much till now. Whatever that may be, Vietnam’s reputation is no longer based on as a global supplier of clothing to American and European companies but of products based on very high technology,” a local head of a leading MNC told this reporter on condition of anonymity.

Because of its strategic location sharing terrestrial and maritime borders with China being wooed by both Washington and Beijing and a population of over 100 million with a per capita income of $4,163.5 in 2022 (source World Bank), it is only natural that MNCs, including the ones dealing with pinnacle of technology, will have a growing presence in Vietnam. From FMCG groups Unilever to Nestle to Procter Gamble to IT companies Microsoft to IBM and Samsung among electronics items manufacturers are finding their businesses growing here.

In Apple’s diversification of supply sources from China, the two countries figuring prominently are Vietnam and India. For Cupertino (California) based Apple, makers of iPhone and MacBook, shifting geopolitical tides, triggered by among other issues President Xi Jinping’s instruction to his military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027 and President Biden’s resolve to defend Taiwan in such circumstances, it has become imperative to ensure that iPhone supplies are not disturbed. Therefore, the company with market capitalisation of $2.87 trillion is constrained to hedge its bet on Vietnam and India by supporting suppliers there.

For example, the Tata group, which already owns an iPhone factory in Karnataka acquired from Taiwanese company Wistron will commission a greenfield iPhone assembly plant at Hosur in Tamil Nadu in the next 18 months. Going beyond assembly, the group has started making iPhone enclosures or metal casings.

ALSO READ: Why Singapore Manufacturers Are Moving To India

In the meantime, Taiwan based electronics manufacturing group Foxconn is successfully running an iPhone assembly unit, one of the largest for Apple outside China, at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. Production now at 6 million pieces is to be rapidly expanded. In this context, the Wall Street Journal says in a recent report: “Apple and its suppliers aim to build more than 50 million iPhones in India annually within the next two to three years, with additional tens of millions of units planned after that.”

In India suppliers to Apple, however, have to contend with poor infrastructure, logistical challenges getting slowly resolved and trade union issues. Interestingly, China in spite of staying in command of the communist party is spared labour problems. Whatever the challenges of being here, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s visited India in April last and met prime minister Narendra Modi to convey the company’s commitment to be part of this country’s digital journey. In the meantime, the two flagship Apple stores in Mumbai and Delhi that Cook opened have in a short time proved a roaring success. In Vietnam too, Apple products have caught the imagination of the people, especially the young, following the launch of online Apple store and backup service from the online team.

In terms of range products made for Apple by its suppliers, Vietnam has remained nonpareil in Asia outside China. The bright spot that Vietnam is for Apple in its China decoupling move will very substantially increase capacity to make IPads, Apple watches, MacBooks and AirPods by 2025 considering fresh capacity building investments being proposed by existing and new suppliers. For example, Foxconn is to make growing volumes of iPad and MacBook in Vietnam. As the company is in the process to invest $270 million to build a new factory there, one of its subsidiaries is to exclusively supply made in Vietnam servers for Apple to train and test AI services. A shining example of going up in the production value chain. The Taiwanese Compal Electronics, a major supplier to Apple, is too rapidly expanding capacity in Vietnam.

Not only in IT and electronics, Vietnam, according to CLSA, a bank, received in the first three quarters of 2023 foreign direct investment (FDI), which as a share of GDP was twice as large as in Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand. Whatever that is, neither Hanoi nor New Delhi will not be able to wish away the fact that for many critical components, the two countries continue to remain hopelessly dependent on supplies from China. FDI that propels growth as also supply of technologies fell 16 per cent for India to $70.9 billion in 2022-23 from $84.84 billion in the previous year.

In contrast, a much smaller country Vietnam found FDI rising to $36.6 billion in 2023, a jump of 32.1 per cent year on year. This incidentally happened to be the highest FDI received by Vietnam in the past five years, underlining the destination’s attractiveness to foreign investors, especially the ones keen to reduce their Chinese profile.

The more important considerations that have helped Vietnam to attract FDI from a number of destinations – in 2023, the country received investments from as many as 111 countries – are: adroitness with which the regime continues to handle two antagonists, namely, the US and China; over three and a half decades of opening of the economy and reforms since the end of collectivism; building of human resources to support investment in new generation industries; and incentive package for foreign investors. But now inertia has set in in decision making, specially when it comes to giving approvals to new projects for fear of being hauled up on corruption charges. The inactiveness of politicians and bureaucrats at every level is due to the launch of anticorruption drive some time ago.

Incidentally, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was forced to resign in January 2023 along with some ministers as part of an anti-corruption campaign. No wonder The Economist highlights “big risks to Vietnam’s tigerish emergence. Its geopolitical sweet spot may not last – especially if Donald Trump returns to power and takes exception to the size of America’s bilateral trade deficit with it. The beneficial demography underlying its growth is weakening.” But the most disturbing phenomenon, according to the magazine, is the rulers’ “resistance to political reform.”

(The writer was lately in Vietnam)

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BJP is India’s Most Powerful Political Magnet

Under Modi, BJP is Now India’s Most Powerful Political Magnet

It’s a phenomenon that has become so common that it is almost a part of the official protocol. When an incumbent administration has to announce a budget barely months before it seeks reelection, that budget invariably becomes a crowd pleasing one – full of sops, tax rebates, and other carrots that are proffered as enticement to voters. Last week, however, when the finance minister announced India’s interim budget, it was not especially laden with those customary come hither propositions. That’s because Prime Minister Narendra and his regime that is completing its second term and will be seeking a third at the elections, scheduled for April and May this year, expect that they will be a shoo-in for the voters.

In fact, to many it could seem that for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the elections will be a one-horse race. At the national level, opposition to the ruling regime is in shambles; the multi-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which was formed last July, has all but disintegrated; and the BJP’s strength and prominence has grown without any signs of abatement.

The BJP has become so dominant that Modi’s government didn’t have to throw in sops or lollipops for voters in last week’s budget. Yes, it had the routine nods and doffs of the hat aimed at the poorest sections of the population: it has focussed on the rural sector and agriculture by boosting several schemes. Yet, it has also cut food subsidies, a delicate area, and not lowered income tax rates. In fact, it will lean on higher tax collections for the coming financial year.

In an election year, an interim budget lets an incumbent government spend until the new administration takes over. If the ruling regime is reelected it can seek approval for a full budget.

That eventuality looks like a certainty. Few doubt that the Modi regime can be ousted in the coming elections. For one, there seems to be no alternative to challenge it. Potential challengers have mainly self-destructed or become weakened. Some former challengers have crossed over to join the BJP or ally with it. Most recently, Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s longest lasting chief minister (last week he was sworn in for a record ninth time) jumped ship to join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by the BJP. Ironically, Kumar was the main architect of the opposition alliance, I.N.D.I.A., formed with the sole purpose of ousting the Modi regime. Amen!

Kumar isn’t the only renegade in contemporary Indian politics to clamber aboard the BJP’s bandwagon. Politicians of all stripes from various opposition parties have jumped onto it. It may serve us well to remember that the word “bandwagon” was coined by Phineas T. Barnum, also known as P T Barnum, a famous 19th century American circus owner and showman. He created the term to describe the wagons that transported a circus band. The circus metaphor does fit Indian politics rather well.

Among those who have joined the BJP have been many of its erstwhile critics and sworn opponents. But then politics, at least in India, is marked by promiscuity. Some Congressmen who ditched their party to join the BJP have also been rewarded (or was it a quid pro quo?) by ministerial portfolios in Modi’s Cabinet. The current civil aviation minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, 53, was in the Congress party for nearly 20 years before joining the BJP in 2020; and the minister for micro, small and medium enterprises, Narayan Rane, 71, also left the Congress to join the BJP in 2019. Rane is not a shy party-hopper. Before joining the Congress he was with the Shiv Sena. 

There are many other political leaders, who were originally opposed to the BJP, but now members of that party. Jitin Prasad, 50, a longtime member of the Congress party who has also served as minister in the Congress regime, is now part of the BJP and a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government led by BJP’s Yogi Adityanath. In 2017, the veteran Congress leader from Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, once a foreign minister, joined the BJP. Other prominent politicians who have joined the BJP include the Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, 55, who left the Congress in 2014; Mukul Roy, 69, who left the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to join the BJP in 2017. In some states such as Uttar Pradesh, there have been televised events organised where opposition politicians have formally joined the BJP ceremoniously.

What makes the BJP a political lodestone in India? A simple answer to that is power. Politics, purists would say, is a pursuit of a calling rather than a career. In a democracy such as in India, the copybook definition of a politician’s ambition would be the urge to serve the people. However, in reality it is the power that politics can bestow on an individual and burnish his importance and status that drives many politicians. 

The BJP won the elections and formed the government at the Centre in 2014 and has during the past 10 years decimated opposition at the national level. It is without doubt the most powerful political party in the country and one that offers the most potential for ambitious political leaders. In contrast, the Congress, once referred to as India’s Grand Old Party, is a weak shadow of itself. It has repeatedly lost elections at the Centre as well as in the states: in Parliament, the Congress now has 47 of the 543 seats. In 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, it had 414. His son, Rahul, now the party’s most prominent member, is witnessing the Congress’ steady and devastating decline. Of the 28 Indian states, the BJP rules 12 and is part of the ruling alliance in four more. The Congress is part of the ruling alliance in only five states. 

The steady decline of the Congress’ importance and sway in Indian politics is one of the chief reasons why ambitious politicians from that party have been disillusioned and have decided to ditch it and join the Modi bandwagon. It is for the same reason that veteran politicians of regional parties such Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) have chosen to ally with Modi and bury earlier differences with him.

The BJP on its part has welcomed the influx of such renegades. First, many of the new entrants are leaders with considerable influence in their constituencies and can obviously beef up the BJP’s electoral might further. Second, their departure can also serve to weaken their former parties, which is good for the BJP. Some of the younger joinees have good track record as ministers–for instance Scindia or Prasad – and, therefore, can strengthen the BJP’s administrative firepower. They can also help win elections.

Meanwhile, the BJP has been quietly, and a bit invisibly, deepening and strengthening itself. It has become a significant force in Indian politics, and its appeal is multifaceted. While the party has been associated with Hindu nationalism and has been accused of being anti-minorities, it has also been successful in projecting an image of good governance and welfare schemes that appeal to a broad section of the electorate. 

The BJP’s leadership, particularly Prime Minister Modi, is seen as strong and decisive, and the party has been successful in expanding its base and electoral presence. Last December, Modi retained his position as the world’s most popular leader with an approval rating of 76 per cent, as per the data released by US-based consultancy firm ‘Morning Consult’.

Additionally, the BJP’s well-oiled and lethal electoral campaign machine, which leaves nothing to chance, has been a significant factor in its success. The reasons for politicians leaving other parties to join the BJP may include disillusionment with their former party’s internal dynamics, leadership, and electoral prospects, but it is also the appeal of the BJP’s ideology, governance, and electoral success that has drawn them to it. Therefore, the BJP’s appeal is not limited to its association with Hindu nationalism, and it has been successful in projecting an image of good governance and welfare schemes that appeal to a broad section of the electorate.

Some observers feel that the BJP lacks a lineup of successors beyond Modi, 73, and home minister Amit Shah, 59, the two most prominent faces in the government. This may not be true.  The party has a history of grooming and promoting leaders from within its ranks and is far less dynastic than many other India political parties such as the Congress or even regional parties where the route to leadership is often limited to those with family ties and connections. 

Although some BJP leaders have been “sidelined”, including Shivraj Chouhan who was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Sushil Modi, who was deputy chief minister of Bihar, Vasundhara Raje, who was chief minister of Rajasthan for two terms, and Raman Singh, who served as chief minister of Chhattisgarh for 15 years, the BJP does have future leaders that it has been grooming.

Some of the younger leaders who have begun making a mark in the BJP and could be watched in the future include Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has emerged as the party’s point person in the north-east; Manoj Tiwari, 53, who the the Delhi BJP leader and whose influence has been growing; Tejasvi Surya, 33, an MP from Bangalore, known for his articulate speeches and strong conservative views; Poonam Mahajan, 43, another MP who is seen as a rising star in the party; and Sarbananda Sonowal, 61, an MP from Assam and currently a minister in the Modi cabinet. 

These are just a few names of leaders to watch from the BJP. It will be worth the while to watch how these younger breen of party leaders are groomed and given more responsibility in the coming years. Also worth watching is how many more leaders from other parties make a beeline to what has become India’s most powerful political magnet.

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Electoral Engineering Season In Pakistan

Electoral Engineering Season In Pakistan

References to “Allah, the Army and America” sustaining Pakistan are oft-repeated, worn-out cliché. But the three remain omnipresent, with China emerging as the additional factor. Irrespective of their outcome, the February 8 elections may reinforce them.

Claiming to represent the divine, besides the Islamist parties that stay close to the military-civil ‘establishment’, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a militant group recognised by the Election Commission, has fielded more candidates than the three mainstream parties: Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Bhutto-Zardari family-run Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

This, plus the way Imran is sought to be kept in jail electorally side-lined, and the role reversal of Nawaz, clearly indicate that the army is engaged in engineering the elections.

If these two are active, America cannot be far behind. Indeed, this is Pakistan’s first “foreign policy” election indirectly involving the US. Washington, of course, denies any role.

Imran Khan made the diplomatic blunder of waving at his political rally a ‘cypher’, an official communication received from his ambassador in Washington. Khan interpreted it as America’s ‘conspiracy’ and ‘threat’ to remove him from power for his ‘independent’, “pro-China” policies. Nine days before the election, he was convicted of violating official secrets. After being acquitted twice, a third trial was held in jail to ensure his conviction.

Another conviction came the very next day for misusing Toshakhana, the government depository of gifts received from foreign dignitaries. Among many things, Khan retained, and sold in Dubai, an expensive wristwatch received from the Saudi Crown Prince Salman. But there is no such trial against others, including former President Asif Zardari, who bought a limousine received as a gift at a throwaway price.

Aided by the judiciary, the current army-backed caretaker government is openly working against Khan and is perceived as promoting Nawaz while keeping Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on stand-by. However, the future, if they play their cards well, belongs to Maryam Nawaz, in her late 40s and Bilawal, who is less than half the age of three-time premier Nawaz, 74, whom analysts consider the frontrunner in next month’s election, and Imran, 71.

The popular word, ‘ladla’, makes it easy to understand Pakistan’s political scene. It means the favourite of the military-civil ‘establishment’. He has changed from time to time. He remains in favour till he turns ‘rogue’, when he starts asserting himself. He is then removed by any means. Ladla’s choice and the dynamics of governance, even in Pakistan’s nominal democracy make this clash inevitable.

This is not to question the political acumen of Nawaz, Khan or anyone else. But everyone must fall in line to gain, and stay in, power. That is Pakistan’s unchanging reality.

Before Imran, Nawaz Sharif was the favourite thrice, till each time he asserted his political position. He was pushed out, first through street protests and then with the help of the top judiciary that convicted him on graft charges. The flawed verdicts against him have now been overturned, even as Imran’s convictions grow. There are prospects of a fourth shot at power for Nawaz.

ALSO READ: Pakistan – Hurtling From One Crisis To Another

In his third stint beginning in 2013, Nawaz grew assertive and eased out Army Chief Raheel Sharif. It was Imran’s turn to be promoted from a renowned cricketer to a political leader. With ‘electoral engineering’ conducted in 2018, he cobbled up a coalition with the help of turncoats, many of them from Nawaz’s party. For the next three years, Khan maintained that the army and he were “on the same page” till the army perceived that he was interfering in its internal affairs and playing favourites.

Back in 2018, Imran was portrayed as a ‘change’ candidate, promising to end dynastic politics, ensure accountability of corrupt politicians, reform the judiciary and create jobs for young people as part of a revamped economy.

But under his rule, the economy collapsed, the cost of living soared, many of his political opponents were jailed, media freedoms were curbed and human rights violations and attacks against journalists increased.

Today, Imran’s party, broken into many factions, is contesting without the cricket bat as the election symbol. Yet, there is a groundswell of support for him, especially from the vocal middle classes. Khan remains in the reckoning. Last month, working obviously with an eye on the future, his supporters in America enlisted two lobbyists for “strategic consulting”, to garner support from pro-democracy forces and alleviate domestic pressure.

Some analysts say Khan’s imprisonment and persecution could cause a “sympathy vote”, leading to a ‘hung’ National Assembly. Several candidates still loyal to Khan are contesting as Independents. Of 17,816 candidates, 11,785 are Independents.

That would bring into play another term popular in Pakistan’s political lexicon: Lota, a turncoat who, like a vessel without a base, rolls in unpredictable directions. Not a new phenomenon though, Lota is poised to play a crucial role in this election. The ‘electable’ among them – people with resources and ground-level support, are sought-after. Nawaz had the initial start in wooing Independents. Now Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP co-chairperson, says he would prefer to form “a government with the help of Independents” instead of any coalition with Nawaz or Imran.

But the army remains the prime mover. Dawn newspaper (January 24, 2024) quoted Army Chief, Gen Asim Munir saying that “incompetent people should not be elected, and lawmakers should be held accountable after the elections.” Also, a “five-year constitutional term does not give a license to a political government to misgovern for five years.”

What some analysts call the ‘Gen Asim Munir doctrine’ is no different from what the military felt and said about the political class under former military dictators – Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

While there is no indication that the military seeks to take over, it is apparent that it does not want to give a free hand to civilians either. The distrust of the politicians remains palpable.

The bottom line is that the elections do not guarantee political stability, economic recovery and narrowing of political and social polarization rampant in Pakistan for the last few years.

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The West Is Blind To The Rest

The West Is Blind To The Rest

The global fault-lines, which have been ripped open after the ongoing genocide in Gaza, has been unparalleled in world history, especially in the recent past. For instance, western opinion and active participation consequent to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the order of the International Court of Justice in Hague on Russia, has had no impact on Vladimir Putin.

The mindless war continues with thousands dead across both sides, many of them with shared families, cultures and memories, who fought the Nazis together during and after the Holocaust, and made massive sacrifices. More than 20 million people of Soviet Russia died fighting the fascists. Also, after the Russian invasion, if the heart of America, Britain, France and Germany beats so hard for Ukraine, whatever happened in Gaza?

Remember the ethnic-cleansing and repeated massacres of one community during the civil war in Serbia-Bosnia-Herzegovnia — this too was happening right inside the heart of Europe. It took the entire West months of deadpan detachment to act, before NATO unleashed its jet aircraft and bombs. Slobodan Milosevic, the Butcher of Serbia — was he punished in his lifetime? Many of these butchers were, ironically, former communists in Yugoslavia.

Come to think of it, till the time Adolf Hitler attacked Poland in 1939, America and Europe acted totally blind to the long convoys of trains taking millions of Jews to the gas-death chambers, zigzagging through Europe. They simply chose to look the other way, even while France and Britain pretended to be helpless after the extermination of most of their young men in the first world war, another mindless war where the League of Nations was as impotent, as has been the role of the United Nations during the NATO wars unleashed in Iraq and Syria, the American invasion of tiny Vietnam earlier, while backing dictators of sundry banana republics in Latin America.

Did anyone ever say that George Bush was a war criminal for the tens of thousands of Iraqis dead whereby they did not find one weapon of mass destruction in this insatiable American quest of ‘blood for oil’? And that Bush too should have been hauled up in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Hague like Ratko Miladic, for the mass murders he unleashed in what was former Yugoslavia? Or Hillary Clinton, for unleashing a relentless wave of destruction in Syria and the bestiality unleashed in the murder of Gaddafi in Libya?

Imagine the mass suffering, as a civil war erupted in Iraq, with the war splitting over to Syria unleashed by Clinton and Barack Obama, with entire communities of Yazidi women taken as sex slaves by the ISIS. Who were the patrons of ISIS and where did they get their arms? The American regimes and its allies have their best interests in keeping the pot boiling in the Middle-East till the time oil exists in its vast underground, and till the time Israel can be used as a strategic military force by the US.

ALSO READ: Gaza – Where Tears Have Run Dry

The ICJ did not order Israel to stop its armed assaults – it has asked it to stop its genocidal actions, thereby recognizing that it is a genocide and that the situation in Gaza is catastrophic. While it may take years to give a final judgement, it has largely followed the nine “provisional measures” demanded by South Africa. It is significant that South Africa which suffered an apartheid regime backed by the US and Britain, is now fighting another apartheid regime, backed by the US and Britain!

The 17 judges in Hague ordered that Israel should do everything in its power to avoid killing Palestinians, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, creating unlivable living conditions in, or intentionally preventing Palestinian births, which is a pointer to scores of children being killed due to the bombing of hospitals, the murder of doctors and nurses, and stark absence of medical facilities.

Pointing at the crass declarations by politicians, including Israel’s president and defence minister, calling for the elimination of all Palestinians, including children and women, branding the people of Gaza as animals, etc, the court said that Israel should do more to “prevent and punish” public incitement to genocide. The court ordered “immediate and effective measures” to look into the humanitarian catastrophe.

Isreal can disobey the order, but it is morally bound to obey it, even as it its government is totally isolated across the entire globe, while there have been huge protests in Tel Aviv asking Benjamin Netanyahu to quit. Indeed, the Hague ruling is unprecedented because it has created a huge public perception against Israel across the globe, and serious moral dilemma for the US, Britain, Germany and France, who are openly backing the mass murder of children in Gaza, with Joe Biden actually funding the bombings with millions.

Called ‘Genocide Joe’ now, even by his Democrat supporters, especially the millennials, and hitting 80, there have been massive protests in America (300,000 in Washington DC) and in Europe (half-a-million in London) – as well as in other nations. Even the caucus rally in South Carolina by a thoroughly discredited Kamala Harris had Palestinian flags in the audience.

Indeed, Jewish Groups for Peace in America have been the most vociferous against Netanyahu’s brand of Zionism, whereby he is using mythical narratives to unleash the savagery. The role of notorious Jewish lobbies, including among big business and multinationals, have been dissected publicly by activists, academics and journalists, especially that of the shadowy America Israel Pubic Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Not only does this outfit have tremendous power over various American regimes, both Republicans and Democrats, with their huge money resources and powerful connections, they can shape the destiny of the presidential polls in America. There are allegations that they are pumping in huge money to get those candidates defeated who have opposed the regime in Tel Aviv.

It is indeed a bad faith choice for Americans now, between two very old and unprincipled men who have discarded all values of basic humanity and ethics, and who seem untouched by the 10,000 dead children, the daily violation of international laws, the bombing of churches, mosques, schools, university campuses, refugee camps, hospitals, the killings of more than 100 journalists. They stand totally committed to the ultra-orthodox, Rightwing, extremist Israeli regime, and its barbarism in Palestine.

For a capitalist empire with vast inequalities and thousands of homeless on its big city streets in this freezing cold, the collective guilt and anxiety for its relentless mass murders across the globe – from Vietnam to Gaza – is a psychological epidemic. That thousands have consistently protested across its cities, especially women and the young, only shows that a regime which feeds on barbarism has no democratic credibility, and is as inhuman as any other totalitarian or fascist regime.

With all credit to the West and Europe for its resurrection of arts, architecture, classical music, cinema, academics and culture in the post-war scenario, its governments are most often followers of the Hobbesean principle – they are short, nasty, brutish and barbaric. And that they care a damn for democracy, higher civilizational values, and basic human conduct.

Hence, this high moral ground with which the white empire looks down at the Orientals, has been yet again exposed with its total endorsement of the genocide in Gaza. Yet again, it has taken 25,000 human beings to die by Hiroshima-Nagasaki type of bombing, including 10,000 plus children, and infinite suffering and injustice, to show the cracked, blood-stained mirror to these western empires.

Indeed, it is the people of these countries, now on the streets in mourning and in protest for Gaza – they must show the way. It’s time the West and America discovers a radical paradigm shift in its politics, and creates a new counter-culture of humane civilizational evolution, defying the medieval cruelties of the present and the past. Or else, it would continue to be Eyeless in Gaza and other endless stories of stark silence and barbarism!

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Paltu Kumar: The Flip-Flop Man of Indian Politics Strikes Again

Paltu Kumar: The Flip-Flop Man of Indian Politics Strikes Again

When things turn darkly cynical, seek solace in humour. In Indian politics that’s a truism. When early rumours swirled last week that Nitish Kumar, the veteran Bihar politician, chief minister of that state, and the main mover behind the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), last summer’s alliance of more than two dozen Indian opposition parties, was likely to jump ship and ally instead with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once again, a colleague reminded me that many have named him “Paltu” Kumar, which roughly translated could mean “Flip-flop” Kumar, a reference to the series of switches in allegiance that have marked the 72-year-old political career. 

Last Saturday, Kumar, who has been the longest serving chief minister, resigned from the post (he will stay on as caretaker chief minister till a new government is formed) and announced that he was joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the BJP-led alliance, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is in power at the Centre. 

The “Flip-flop” nickname fits Kumar well. In his political career, which he began in the 1970s as a student socialist leader, has changed his political alliances so many times that it can be easy to lose count of those changes. Here’s a recap of his political moves through the years (make of them what you will):

In 1996, Kumar left the Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party with the late George Fernandes, and allied with the BJP-led NDA. In 2003, he merged the Samata Party with the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and continued to be part of the NDA. 

Then, in 2013, he broke away from the NDA over the BJP’s decision to project Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, and joined the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress. But barely four years later, in 2017, he again switched sides and rejoined the NDA, after breaking the Grand Alliance that his party had forged with the Bihar regional party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, over corruption charges against his then deputy, Tejashwi Yadav.

Then, in 2022, Kumar resigned as chief minister and removed his party from the NDA, announcing that his party had rejoined the Grand Alliance, and would form a governing coalition with the RJD and the Congress. And two years later, last weekend, he resigned and joined the NDA once again. Yes, phew!

During all these hop-on, hop-off activities, one thing has remained constant: with the exception of a year, Kumar has remained chief minister of his state for the past nearly 20 years. Kumar has always defended his moves as being motivated by what is good for the people of Bihar and the good of the state. And as well as being known for his frequent changes of political loyalties he is also known for his development-oriented policies and governance in Bihar, which remains among the poorest and most economically backward states of India. And the fact that voters have in election after election, chosen to repose their faith in Kumar is indication of both his popularity and approval as the state’s chief minister.

There is, however, another consequence of Kumar’s latest move to hop aboard the alliance headed by Modi, an erstwhile arch political rival of his. After all, in 2013, when the BJP projected Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, it was the reason why Kumar decided to exit the alliance. And, last summer, Kumar was the main political leader behind the formation of I.N.D.I.A., whose raison d’etre or reason for being was to ensure that Modi and the BJP do not win the 2024 parliamentary elections, which will be held in a few months. 

That possibility, already quite unlikely, will now be dealt another blow as one of I.N.D.I.A.’s most prominent members doesn’t just quit the alliance but joins its main foe. In June 2023, it was Kumar who convened a meeting of 16 opposition parties in Patna, the capital of Bihar, to propose a new political front to challenge the ruling NDA government led by the BJP in the 2024 general elections. The alliance was formally created in July 2023 in Bengaluru, where 10 more parties joined the group and adopted the name I.N.D.I.A. The alliance currently has 26 parties, including two national and 24 regional parties, and accounts for 142 seats in the Lok Sabha and 98 seats in the Rajya Sabha. 

I.N.D.I.A. is led by the Congress party, with that party’s president, Mallikarjun Kharge, as the chairperson but besides the departure of Kumar, the alliance faces other problems. Many of the alliance’s constituents disagree over several issues. Originally, I.N.D.I.A. had hoped to reach a consensus and put up one candidate to fight the BJP or its allies’ nominees in each of India’s parliamentary constituencies. It had also been expected to reach a consensus on fielding a prime ministerial candidate to take on Modi. None of these appears to have happened.

Seat-sharing has been an especially sore point. The Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee recently said that her party would fight the elections independently and not back a consensus candidate; and even before he quit the alliance, Kumar’s supporters have been demanding that he be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Then there have been schisms and rifts elsewhere: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress have been sparring over seat sharing in states such as Punjab, Delhi and Haryana. And in Kerala, the Congress and the CPI(M), traditional adversaries in the state, are unlikely to agree on a common candidates’ list. 

On the other side, Kumar’s crossover to the NDA will strengthen the alliance’s prospects, particularly in Bihar where there are 40 parliamentary seats. As of now, after the 2019 elections, the BJP has 17 of those seats, while Kumar’s JD (U) has 16, the Lok Janshakti Party has 6, the Grand Alliance 1 and the Congress 1. With Kumar aligning with the BJP, the NDA’s increased heft in the state is obvious.

Whatever motivates Mr Flip-Flop to keep switching sides, his latest manoeuvre further bolsters the near certainty of a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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